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The Single Life: A Season of Suffering — October 15, 2009

The Single Life: A Season of Suffering

Suffering is a strong word, isn’t it?  Where do I get off describing the single life as “a season of suffering”?  Isn’t suffering something for an underground church pastor in a foreign country who gets his arms and legs broken for preaching the gospel?  Or perhaps for a woman whose husband leaves her because he can’t handle the stress of her terminal cancer?

Well, yes it is, obviously.  Nevertheless, I think we can all agree that there are degrees of suffering.  The suffering some people have to face goes beyond what language can describe, even language at its most poetic.  However, I want to broaden our understanding of what suffering is—not to water it down, but to convince you of the love of God.  He has provided his Word to help you in every difficulty you may face, no matter how minor.  And suffering is simply hardship that challenges our faith.  In his book Desiring God, John Piper offers these words:

All experiences of suffering in the path of Christian obedience, whether from persecution or sickness or accident, have this in common: They all threaten our faith in the goodness of God and tempt us to leave the path of obedience. Therefore, every triumph of faith and all perseverance in obedience are testimonies to the goodness of God and the preciousness of Christ—whether the enemy is sickness, Satan, sin, or sabotage.

Therefore, all suffering, of every kind, that we endure in the path of our Christian calling is a suffering “with Christ” and “for Christ.” With Him in the sense that the suffering comes to us as we are walking with Him by faith and in the sense that it is endured in the strength He supplies through His sympathizing high-priestly ministry (Hebrews 4:15). For Him in the sense that the suffering tests and proves our allegiance to His goodness and power and in the sense that it reveals His worth as an all-sufficient compensation and prize.  (p. 257)

We cannot dodge suffering forever.  We can try to medicate or entertain it away, but even in the Disneyland of Western culture, it finds us.  Following the above quotation, Piper adds that suffering is “intended by Satan for the destruction of our faith and governed by God for the purifying of our faith.”  Wherever on earth we go, Satan will try to destroy us, but God will be there to restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish us (1 Peter 5:8–11).

Now, here’s what I find so wonderful about this understanding of suffering.  God’s Word helps us here!  In the Psalms, which deal extensively with suffering, we learn how to come to God with whatever pain we are experiencing, whether physical or emotional.  We see in Jesus and in his followers—especially the apostle Paul—the joy that suffering can bring.  We begin to realize that there is no sorrowful or melancholy thought that the Holy Spirit cannot console through the Word, and that we truly can rejoice in any circumstance.

Melancholy bridesmaidWhen it comes to being single, there is suffering.  There must be.  A thread of suffering runs through every stage of life.  If you are single, you will suffer.  If you are married, you will suffer.  If you are a child, you will suffer.  If you are an adult, you will suffer.  If you are a man, you will suffer.  If you are a woman, you will suffer.  In each situation, there is a different quality to the suffering.  In this post, I want to focus particularly on the suffering that a single person faces, because in doing so, you and I can then turn to God’s Word and learn how to respond to this thread of suffering in our lives or in the lives of others.

Perhaps you are single, and as you consider your life, you do not sense any sort of suffering in the way that I am about to describe.  Wonderful!  Perhaps this is an indication that you are spiritually gifted to remain single, faithfully serving the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:7–8).  However, not all people suffer to the same degree; some have a strong desire for marriage, and this desire is not wrong (at least, not unless it becomes one’s identity, a consuming need for marriage which is nothing short of idolatry).  Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that there is something wrong with you if you want to be married.  After all, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord” (Proverbs 18:22).  Yet many with this desire only experience a “hope deferred”; they know what that sickness of heart feels like (Proverbs 13:12).  It may not be a consuming pain, but the suffering is still there.  I can think of at least six ways in which the single life may bring suffering, ranging from the almost absurdly minor to the more difficult and painful:

  • Awkwardness.  You are often questioned about your relationship status.  Well-meaning people try to set you up with someone you’re not interested in.  You have to take great care how friendly you are toward single people of the opposite sex so as not to arouse unwanted interest.
  • Loneliness.  There is no one to go home to, no one to climb into bed with, no one to hold, no one to rejoice in as you share a life as “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).
  • Rejection.  A person whom you have been dating for over a year ends the relationship.  A young woman turns you down when you ask her out.  You go for years without any interest from the young men you know.  You really like someone and long for him or her to return your affection, but he or she shows no interest in you.
  • Alienation.  In many churches, you are treated as not-quite-an-adult.  When your good friends marry, they withdraw from you because they’re convinced you can’t understand their new life together.  The pastor’s sermons always seem to be addressed toward marriage and family life and never to your struggles.  (Thankfully, none of these are the case at my church!)
  • Despair.  Weeks turn to months turn to years.  And still, there is no one.  Nor does there seem to be any chance that things will change.  Once again, “hope deferred makes the heart sick.”
  • Unfulfilled sexual desire.  Martin Luther once observed, “To bear and to overcome [sexual desires] until the age of forty is truly a grievous and great burden.”  For you, these words ring true—sexual temptation is absolutely relentless.  Pornography is unbelievably easy to access; immodest dress is the norm among friends, classmates, and coworkers; and your mind eagerly rushes toward sexual fantasy.

Whether rejection or despair or unfulfilled sexual desire, perhaps you find yourself asking, “How long, O LORD?” (Psalm 13:1).  What good could possibly come from suffering?

Here’s the good news:  this suffering is not futile.  There is a purpose to it, and this purpose—to glorify God—is found in the Word of God.  The apostle Paul offers at least three ways in which you can glorify God through suffering:

  1. Sanctification.  In Romans, Paul writes, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (5:3–5).  Suffering is a means by which God makes you more holy, conforming you to the image of his Son, Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29).  Paul (and James, 1:2–3) is saying to the single person, “Take joy in this hardship you face!  It is refining your character and making you into the humble, persevering servant that can demonstrate the supreme character of Christ.”
  2. Integrity.  A proper response to suffering validates our integrity as his messengers.  The world offers ways to cope with or fix these sufferings.  Whether it’s lowering your standards and marrying an ungodly person, turning to pornography or masturbation as a sexual release, or always needing to have a boyfriend or girlfriend, there are ways of (temporary and ultimately destructive) escape.  If you persevere through suffering and seek the will of God, even if it means self-denial, your willingness to undergo pain for the sake of Christ will stand out to others (1 Corinthians 5:9).  When they see your commitment to your Lord, this will draw their attention from you to him.  Though you are weak and weary, they will see in you the treasure of the gospel, and they will know that the surpassing power that keeps you on your feet belongs to God and not to you (2 Corinthians 4:7), and that his power is made perfect in your weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).  Paul is saying to you, “Your suffering advances the gospel and proves the sufficiency of your Savior.  So take joy in it!  Don’t try to hide it but rather boast in your weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).”
  3. Consolation.  Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1:3–4, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” Paul and Timothy view their suffering as a means by which the Corinthians can be comforted.  As God their Father has comforted them when they suffer, now they can turn and comfort the Corinthians as well.  Perhaps there is a unique element to this because of Paul’s role as an apostle.  However, when you go through suffering, you too are able to comfort others because your experiences give you an understanding of suffering and of the comfort available in Christ.  Paul is saying to you, “Your suffering is the means by which others will be comforted when they suffer.  So take joy in it, because it is a tool for loving ministry that God has placed in your hand!”

If you are single and suffering, I encourage you to consider how your suffering can be a source of joy rather than gloominess, self-pity, and depression.  I know it’s hard; I’ve been on more emotional roller-coasters than I’d care to admit!  For the single Christian, it may be difficult to understand why God is allowing this suffering.  But it is also a great opportunity to honor, glorify, and please God.  Don’t try to bury the pain or hide it from others, but be willing to share it with a small group of trustworthy believers who can support you with prayer and encouragement.  (Please note that I said small and trustworthy.)

If you are married, I encourage you to carefully consider this perspective of the single life as a form of suffering.  Do you envy single people for their freedom?  This freedom often comes at a price!  Do you view them as miserable and pitiable?  They are not, because they too have “treasure in jars of clay” (2 Corinthians 4:7).  Do you view them solely as “projects” to be fixed—either by finding them a spouse on the one hand or by berating them for their desire for marriage on the other?  Please don’t do that!  They will withdraw from you and hide their suffering from you, and you will lose the opportunity to minister to them.  True love leads with compassion, seeking to understand and encourage before offering advice.

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“Be killing sin, or it will be killing you” — November 25, 2007

“Be killing sin, or it will be killing you”

Those words from John Owen are the brutal truth—if we make no effort to put to death sin in our lives, then we will be overcome by it. If only this defeat were a sudden, quick end! Rather, sin usually kills a person gradually, slowly bringing about compromise and hardening of the heart until it does not care for the truth of God. “Every rise of lust, might it have its course, would come to the height of villainy”—Owen was right about this, too.

I just got off the phone with an old friend who is slowly hardening his heart to the truth of God’s Word. As months and years wore on, he was caring less and less about God. These last few weeks, I’d been urging him to return to studying the Word, to pursuing God, but he responded only with self-pity, and tonight, with anger. I didn’t do a perfect job counseling him, but it was clear that no matter how wonderful and clever my words were, I could not change his heart—only the Spirit of God could do that. So now, all I can do is pray for the Holy Spirit to break his heart of stone.

What is most terrifying is that I know—I know—what he’s feeling. I feel the same undercurrent of complacency in my own heart; I feel the same lack of concern for the glory of God; I feel the same self-pity. And I know that if I let sin run its course and fail to kill it every day, I will be killed instead. Not quickly, but slowly and painlessly—like a man suffocating.

By the grace of God, may it never be.

But you — October 10, 2007

But you

2 Timothy 3:10-11, 14; 4:5
3:10 You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, 11 my persecutions and sufferings….
14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed….
4:5 As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

While glancing over this passage in Greek (as part of my seminary workload), I noticed that each of these verses begin with the phrase su de—literally, “but you” (italicized above). In each, Paul has just finished describing how people will degenerate and run after their own passions, surrounding themselves with false teachers. In these verses, Paul commends Timothy for his faithfulness to the gospel, encourages him to continue in it, and charges him with the responsibilities of his call to ministry.

While people around us — even those who claim to be believers — run after the world’s desires, we are called to set ourselves apart. “But you” — you follow Christ, grounded in the Word and anchored to the Rock.

A Response to “Spirit, Soul, and Body” by Andrew Wommack — October 9, 2007

A Response to “Spirit, Soul, and Body” by Andrew Wommack

Andrew Wommack believes that man is made up of three parts: the body (material), the soul (immaterial), and the spirit (immaterial). This view is known as trichotomy; however, Wommack doesn’t stop there. He claims that when a person is saved, his spirit is made completely perfect. However, his soul and body are not. His soul is described as “a valve on a faucet” which “controls the rate and volume of the flow of the spirit into your body,” leading to sanctification, joy, health, wealth, and prosperity. In terms of sanctification, this is a sort of Keswick trichotomy-seeing faith as giving us access to the hidden “blessings” locked up in our spirit. (This is a viewpoint which, according to J. I. Packer in his book Keep in Step with the Spirit, “sounds more like an adaptation of yoga than like biblical Christianity” [p. 26].)

In response, I will question whether trichotomy is a doctrine that is clearly taught in the Bible. Then, I will argue that even if trichotomy is true, Wommack’s view of our “spirit” is false. Much of this response comes from Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, pp. 472-482.

Part 1: Trichotomy

Wommack bases his trichotomy on 1 Thessalonians 5:23: “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” However, this is not a slam-dunk case for trichotomy—as Grudem points out, “Paul could simply be piling up synonymns for emphasis,” as Jesus does in Matt. 23:37 and Mark 12:30. If we extend Wommack’s line of reasoning to those passages, then we also need to say that man is made up of six parts: body, soul, spirit, mind, heart, and strength. There are very few other passages that can be used to establish trichotomy (and these can be addressed in a similar fashion). It is a dangerous thing to establish an entire doctrinal system on the questionable interpretation of a few scattered verses.

In fact, trichotomy is, to say the least, a questionable doctrine. This is for the following reasons:

  1. Scripture uses “soul” and “spirit” interchangeably. See John 12:27 and 13:21; Luke 1:46-47 (Hebrew poetry uses parallel lines to repeat the same statement using different words).
  2. Man is often said to be composed of “body and soul” or “body and spirit.” See Matt. 10:28, 1 Cor. 5:5, 1 Cor. 7:34, and 2 Cor. 7:1. Also note Rom. 8:10, 1 Cor. 5:3, Col. 2:5. Descriptions of man as being dichotomous-composed of a body and a soul/spirit-far outnumber apparent references to trichotomy.
  3. Everything that the soul is said to do, the spirit is also said to do; and everything that the spirit is said to do, the soul is also said to do. For example, both can experience emotions (Acts 17:16, John 13:21, Prov. 17:22 with Ps. 42:1-2, 35:9, 119:20). Also, our spirits can know, perceive, and think just as our souls can (Mark 2:8, Rom. 8:16, 1 Cor. 2:11). The spirit and soul are indistinguishable in function.

Wommack says that we need to understand trichotomy in order to “tap into” the spiritual realm: “You simply cannot contact your spirit through your five senses or through your mind, will, or emotions.” (Note that this is unbiblical and false given point 3 above.) He quotes John 3:6: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” It’s not clear exactly how he thinks this supports his point. In fact, Wommack rips this verse entirely out of context; the passage is referring to the fact that we are not children of God by human descent (i.e. because we are Jews or Gentiles) but by the work of the Holy Spirit (see also John 1:9-13). The passage has nothing whatsoever to do with the inaccessibility of the spirit. This is a serious misuse of scripture; Wommack clearly came to this passage with an agenda; his lack of integrity here and his misuse of other scripture should serve as a warning against his teaching.

In conclusion, it’s small wonder that “even Strong’s Concordance fails to distinguish” between soul and spirit (as Wommack himself notes). The biblical authors did not use soul and spirit as technical terms but rather as similar words for the same thing (also mind and heart). Trichotomy is on shaky scriptural grounds; thus, it should not be used to build systems of doctrine and living, as Andrew Wommack has done.

Part 2: Perfection of the spirit

Wommack believes that our spirits were made morally perfect when we were saved. This is contradicted by 2 Cor. 7:1: “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” Even in a believer, the spirit can be defiled. In order for our holiness to be brought to completion (sanctification), we need to “cleanse ourselves” from the defilement of both body and spirit. This is the biblical picture of sanctification: the change of our character, being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 1:5-11, Rom. 8:29). This is both the work of God (Phil. 2:13, 2 Pet. 1:3-4) and the work of man (Phil. 2:12, 2 Pet. 1:5-11) in cooperation. (Whereas justification is 100% God’s work and 0% man’s work, sanctification involves both.)

Wommack disagrees, quoting 2 Cor. 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” However, this does not support his conclusions, for two reasons. One, if this is referring to moral perfection, then why limit it to just the spirit? Doesn’t this mean that our soul and body are made perfect, too? In fact, Wommack himself quotes the KJV, which says all things are made new”—not just the spirit! Two, he makes a leap of logic, claiming that “the new has come” implies sinlessness. He is reading this into the text; it is nowhere implied. Rather, this simply refers to the fact that we have been regenerated-that God “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” as Paul had just remarked in 2 Cor. 4:6 (and again in 5:16!). We are now able to see and discern the things of God, but we are not morally perfect in body or spirit.

Conclusion

Trichotomy is a questionable and probably false doctrine. Even if it be true, it has no impact on sanctification because our spirits have not been made morally perfect. Rather, sanctification involves the transformation of our whole being. Each of us should say, along with the apostle Paul, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim. 1:15) Praise God that our sinfulness displays the perfect patience of Christ as he transforms us into his image “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18).

Team sanctification — September 29, 2007

Team sanctification

Colossians 1:28-2:4
28 Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. 2:1 For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, 2 that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. 4 I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments.

Sanctification is a group effort.  It takes a lot of work, and the energy for this work comes from Jesus Christ (1:29).  Without the wisdom, strength, love, and understanding of Christ, it’s a lost cause.  But with these, we can work to build up the church by our involvement in one another’s lives.  Just as Paul and the apostles warned (admonished) and taught the churches through the proclamation of the gospel (1:28), so our church leaders admonish and teach us.  We are called to “be knit together in love” (2:2) so that we may be encouraged to understand and know Christ, our priceless treasure.  We need to watch one another’s doctrine closely so that no one is deluded “with plausible arguments” (2:4).  False teaching rarely announces its presence; rather, it is much more subtle.  It requires discernment to pick out.  This is one of many reasons why we need the church—to call each other out on our wayward doctrine that will lead us to an unfruitful life.

I’m grateful for the many times in which pastors and friends have corrected my wrong patterns of thinking.  Our theology drives our delight in God and our attitude toward life.  I know I have a long way to go, but I’m thankful that even now, God is using me to help others just as he has used others in my own life.

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