Is It Wrong to Desire Marriage?

Last week I sat with a group of college men as they were talking about relationships, personal purity, and marriage. In the context of the discussion, one young man asked, “Is it wrong for me to desire marriage? Is it alright that I think about marriage and hope to get married one day?”

I found the question itself to be illuminating. Is it possible that we Christians, in our zeal for purity, have communicated that all sexual and relational desires are somehow wrong? If so, that’s tragic, because the absence of desire is not a Christian concept. It’s true that certain passages in the New Testament tell us that for some people in some contexts, it’s better to remain single (1 Corinthians 7:24-35). However, the Bible simply never says that a desire for marriage is wrong. The Scripture speaks highly of marriage as a gift from God (Gen 2:18-25; Prov 18:22; 19:14).

What is wrong, of course, is misdirected desire.  When we desire marriage (including its emotional, spiritual, and physical components) as an opportunity to display Christ’s love (Ephesians 5:21-33), it’s perfectly legitimate. God made us with a desire for intimate relationships with others; we see that desire displayed from the very beginning with Adam and Eve. However, when we begin to seek marriage — or any other relationship — for strictly selfish reasons, we have a problem.

In other words, if I’m seeking marriage solely as a means to satisfy my sexual cravings, or to fill an emotional void in my heart, then I’m not looking at it as God intends. But the desire for sex or love or emotional intimacy, in a relationship that is centered on reflecting Christ’s love, is perfectly legitimate.

Desire turns into sin when we seek the fulfillment of the desire for our own purposes, rather than for God’s purposes. That principle holds true whether we’re talking about money, sex, physical health, success on the job, or anything else.

Often, our problem is that we believe that the fulfillment of a particular desire will satisfy us in a way that only God can satisfy. We seek earthly treasures for their own sake, rather than seeing them as mere reflections of the much greater treasures promised to those who know God (Matthew 6:19-21). C.S. Lewis put it well (see The Weight of Glory, pp. 3-4):

If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord fins our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is really meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Far too easily pleased, indeed.

Do you struggle with the concept of desire? Where does legitimate desire turn into sin, and how do you avoid going down that path in your own life?  

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What Must You Believe to Be Saved?

What is the “minimum” content that a person must believe in order to receive eternal life? I’m asked that question fairly often, and it’s a tough one to answer.

For example, if a person believes that Jesus died for his sin and rose from the dead, yet does not understand or affirm Christ’s deity, does that person possess saving faith? At what point does a failure to accept certain widely held tenets of Christianity disqualify a person from being considered a Christian?

Just a few thoughts:

First, it’s nearly impossible to know another person’s spiritual condition with certainty. We can listen carefully to somebody’s expressed beliefs and attempt to make a judgment, but it’s rarely (if ever) an easy judgment to make. Only God knows for sure if a person’s name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life (Rev 21:27).

Second, there is a distinction between ignorance regarding a particular doctrine and rejection of that doctrine. I think it’s possible for a person to be a Christian without understanding the Trinity. It’s a complex and difficult subject. It’s a doctrine that many, if not most, Christians misunderstand. On the other hand, if a person rejects the doctrine of the Trinity and believes that one member of the Godhead is not God, or that Jesus is something less than God in the flesh, then that person is placing himself outside the stream of Christian orthodoxy. That’s why I don’t consider Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses to be members of “Christian” denominations. Again, I don’t know any individual’s spiritual condition, but if a person actively rejects key tenets of Christianity, I’m going to operate under the assumption that he is not a Christian. However, it’s quite possible for a genuine believer to be confused or uninformed.

Third, the Scripture gives us some key aspects of the Gospel that leads to eternal life. When I present the Gospel, I always make sure to include three main points: First, we are sinners in need of saving (Romans 3:9-20; 23). Apart from God’s intervention and grace, we are destined for an eternity in hell. Second, Jesus provided a way for us to be reconciled to God and to receive eternal life. He died in our place and rose from the dead, proving that God had accepted His sacrifice (1 Corinthians 15:1-8; 1 Peter 2:24; Acts 2:24). Third, God offers eternal life to those who will trust in what Jesus has done on their behalf (John 3:16; Romans 3:21-26; Eph 2:8-9). Although there are many other valuable points to be made about Jesus, these key points seem to be at the heart of the Gospel presented in the New Testament.

Fourth, our ultimate goal is not simply to present the “minimum” possible content, but to make lifelong disciples of Jesus. For that reason, our task does not end after we present the basics of the Gospel message. With our children, for example, we begin with simple concepts and words, but our ultimate goal is for them to have a rich and deep understanding of God’s Word. One danger of focusing too intently on the question of who is “in” and who is “out” is that we fail to consider the years of discipleship that ought to follow one’s initial profession of faith. That’s not to imply that the question of one’s eternal destiny is unimportant — it’s hard to think of a more important topic. However, we are called to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20) and to “press on to maturity” in our Christian faith (Hebrews 6:1-3). Only God really knows when a person moves from spiritual death into life, but we do know that that moment is only the beginning of a person’s relationship to Jesus. For that reason, we ought consistently present the Gospel to everybody and consistently encourage people to move forward in their spiritual life.

(On a tangential but related topic, this is why I present the basic message of the Gospel in every sermon. First, I don’t know the spiritual condition of everybody present. Second, for those who are believers, the reminder of Christ’s death and resurrection is always necessary. However, each sermon ought to also present the implications of Christ’s work for the maturing believer, and should do so from the biblical text at hand).

What are your thoughts and questions on this critical but difficult subject? 

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There is No Such Thing as “Just a Book”

Whenever I review popular books on this blog, I receive a few comments from people who feel that I shouldn’t attempt to read theological or philosophical concepts into works of fiction. They generally argue that books like The Hunger Games or Twilight are simply stories, meant for entertainment purposes.

There is no such thing as a book devoid of the author’s worldview, though. Every book, big or small, well-crafted or terrible, contains elements of the writer’s beliefs. Even if the author does not consciously intend to communicate philosophical ideas, such concepts have a way of creeping into the story nonetheless. Every book is written by a human being with particular ideas about the world, humanity, and God. Nobody is capable of writing “just a book” without including in it his personality and understanding of the world.

It’s possible, of course, that my understanding of a particular book is incorrect. It’s also possible that the author communicated poorly and left the wrong impression of his or her worldview. It is not possible, however, that the book is merely a story. As readers, we need to practice critical thinking. Those who argue that a book is “just a book” are no less influenced by the book’s worldview than anybody else. In fact, they’re more susceptible to being shaped by the worldview of the book, because they’re unaware that it’s there.

The Hunger Games trilogy is an interesting example of the point I’m making. The author, Suzanne Collins, has explicitly stated in interviews that her books are intended to make certain statements about war, violence, and government. Again, she may or may not have effectively accomplished that purpose, but there is no doubt that she intended to write more than mere entertainment.

Even books that appear on the surface to contain mere entertainment value contain more than that. For example, the astute reader of a John Grisham novel can pick up on Grisham’s personal beliefs about justice, poverty, and religion.

Past generations understood this concept better than we do, because they were accustomed to reading and evaluating books. Nobody truly believed that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was “just a story,” for example. In fact, Abraham Lincoln is said to have called Harriet Beecher Stowe “the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Books and words have power. Denying that power does not diminish it, but in fact increases it. Only by conscious awareness of what we are reading can we determine if the worldview of a book (or television show or website, for that matter) is consistent with Scripture.

That’s why I periodically discuss the relationship between popular literature and Christianity. As a Christian, I believe that every aspect of life ought to be subjected to the Lordship of Jesus. My thoughts about war, government, wealth, relationships, and everything else need to be viewed in light of God’s Word. The books I read and the media I consume will generally contain elements that either support or contradict God’s values. At the very least, we can be aware of those elements and make an attempt to frame our lives in light of those concepts that are consistent with Scripture.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you think I’m being overly analytical when it comes to literature? Is there such a thing as “just a story” or does every story present elements of the author’s worldview? 

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The World’s Worst Marriage Proposal?

A friend alerted me to a recent story about a young man who faked his own death as part of a disturbing marriage proposal to his girlfriend. I’ve heard of bizarre proposals, but this one tops the list.

Men, don’t try this at home. If you are so insecure in her love for you that you need to fake your own death, your marriage is starting off on the wrong foot. What could you possibly do to reassure yourself the next time you wonder if she really loves you? After all, pretending to die only works once.

Ladies, if a man ever does this to you, run the other way. I mean that quite literally. Don’t stop to say, “Why did you that?” Don’t try to convince him it was a bad idea. Turn around, run to your car, and just drive in the opposite direction. You will never fill up his needy soul, so there is no real point in trying. Marriage is challenging enough without a spouse who fakes injury and death to make sure you’re still interested.

What is the strangest marriage proposal story you have ever heard? Do you think men should shoot for the biggest and most elaborate proposal possible, or should they just ask nicely?

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How to Stay Awake During Sermons

I used to take it personally when people fell asleep during my sermons. Like many preachers, I spend a large portion of my week preparing, and it’s demoralizing to see nodding heads and heavy eyelids. At times, I’m tempted to thump people on the head, or to set up the “cot of shame” at the front of the auditorium. Anybody who drifts off would publicly walk to the cot of shame and sleep in full view of those present. (I would never do this, but the thought has crossed my mind more than once.)

Although the problem might be on my side of the pulpit — and I certainly strive each week to improve my content and delivery — my perspective changed a few years ago when I noticed people sleeping while trying to listen to one of the most gifted and exciting preachers I know. The sight was both comforting and horrifying. If people could not stay awake during his message, the problem isn’t simply poor preaching.

Most of us struggle at times to listen to sermons, even when they are compelling and well-prepared. Yet few disciplines are more important than hearing and responding to God’s Word. The blessing of God begins when we “look intently” into the perfect Law and apply it to our lives (James 1:22-25). We can’t do that if we’re asleep.

So how can we listen to God’s Word more effectively and stay awake on Sunday morning? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Become a reader. Those who regularly read books are in the habit of concentrating on sustained intellectual arguments. When you read, you learn to think in a linear fashion, so a 45-minute exposition of Romans 3 is no longer such a mental strain. If the longest content you read is 140 characters, you will have a hard time paying attention to a sermon, because you are not accustomed to critical thinking.

2. Prepare ahead of time. Ask your pastor to tell you what he will be speaking about for the next four or five weeks. (If he doesn’t know, then part of the reason you can’t pay attention is because his messages are poorly prepared). Look up the relevant passages on Saturday night. Pray that God will help you understand them. Read them and make observations. Show up prepared with questions, and listen to discern whether your pastor answers them. If he doesn’t, talk to him after the message is over. This exercise will help you to truly engage with the sermon.

3. Get some sleep! Particularly for college students, the habit of staying up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning on Saturday night fatally damages your ability to listen well on Sunday. If you have not slept on Saturday night, you will certainly sleep on Sunday morning. If you find that you cannot go to bed early on Saturday, consider attending an evening service on Sunday. That will allow you to sleep in on Sunday morning and be alert when you arrive at church.

4. Take notes. Bring a pen and some paper. Jot down the pastor’s key points. Can you identify the main point of his sermon? How does he develop his argument? What are the stories and illustrations he uses to convey his ideas? Actively writing will often help you to listen.

5. Pray that God will help you understand His Word. I am listing this last, but it should probably be the first item on your list. Understanding the Scripture is a supernatural activity, guided by the Holy Spirit (John 16:13). When you wake up on Sunday morning, ask God to speak to you that day through your pastor as He explains God’s Word.

I’m curious to hear from you. Do you find it difficult to listen while your pastor preaches? Why or why not? What do you think we pastors can do to help the situation? (Be nice to your pastor in the comments — please don’t throw anybody under the bus).

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