Some of you might need a drink…
When a celebrity couple splits up, or their lives go awry in some spectacular way, we aren’t surprised.
Very few of those folks espouse any moral sense about divorce, or any reverence for building an inter-generational clan; they are just brownian particles floating on to the next coupling. They never claimed to care very much about “family values,” and there were never any rules to their game, so no one really expects winners or losers.
When a Christian family, or ministry, however, fails in a big way, there’s something tragic, and awkwardly intimate, about the spectacle. It’s something like seeing a wholesome teenage girl–the one who had a habit of talking too much about her purity ring–turn crimson when you see a pair of fishnet stockings underneath the frozen peas in her shopping cart. Those who have a big spiritual dream for their lives, and talk about it, can suffer the most when they fail.
I’m old enough to have seen this a lot, too much, both among friends and as an observer of big, national ministries. By “this,” I mean the dismantling of the family or the ministry due to either some big public sin, or just a shoulder-shrug at a standard they no longer felt obliged to pursue. A lot of my own identity is wrapped up in family and I find the spectacle humbling. We tend to think, “there but for the grace of God, go I.” After all, most of us may be little more than a few bad arguments from a horrible rift. There may be some little ripple of dissatisfaction in our spouse’s heart turning into a storm, and — boom — an entire life gets turned upside down.
I’ve seen so many families go through this: One year, the wife is wearing a head scarf and talking about family devotionals. The next year, she’s got custody of the kids and she’s applying for a cocktail waitress job in Reno. Another family, with seven years of Gothardite moral instruction under their belts, finds dad flying off to Kansas with a 23 year old girlfriend and mom blaming it all on his disinterest in prophecy conferences. One day, you’re listening to a dispensational Baptist on the radio lamenting “believers with cocktail bars in the home,” and the next day, his show is abruptly canceled and you’re getting the scoop on his affair with the church secretary. The big home school family you thought was rock solid hit a snag in their romance, and instead of Facebook postings about piano recitals, mom is posting her workout routine at LA Fitness and Dad just posted his revenge wedding on Instagram. Oh, and that girl with the purity ring and the fishnet stockings in her grocery cart? She’s on her 4th violent live-in boyfriend and her 2nd out of wedlock child.
There are as many different reasons for divorce, and moral failing, as there are people, so if the theory I’m about to articulate doesn’t apply to you, so be it. I know many people who really are the victim of a bad spouse, and there are biblical reasons for divorce. I’m not talking about the people who really had to struggle with a run-away partner.
I’m talking about the people who got tuckered out trying to “out-holy” God. They were involved in very baroque courtship procedures for their daughters with such high standards that some of the girls were still hanging around the house at age 32. They had modesty standards that would leave the mother superior feeling over-dressed. They made a commitment never to touch a member of the opposite sex until they held hands at the altar. For them, when Mary was worried about the refreshments at the wedding, they are very sure Jesus turned the water into Welch’s Grape juice. (How could He have done anything else? You think He brewed wine to make our hearts glad or something?)
Culturally, in order to avoid the Hollywood slime-fest, a lot of these families limited themselves to well-meaning but poorly produced faith films, where there’s an altar call in the 3rd act and bad writing and performance in the first two. Kids know when the movie they are watching isn’t the real thing, and, more importantly, they begin to resent having to praise artistic falsehood. Eventually, even the parents understand their own effort to provide something wholesome just feels false, and, and when the whole family begins to chafe at their own restrictions, they can explode in a big way. Pretty soon, mom’s considering a tramp stamp and Dad’s buying a burger at Hooters. (That’s a little extreme in general, but I’ve seen specific cases that are a tad more dramatic.)
In an age full of easy believe-ism and abused grace, we know where this comes from: many of us in the Evangelical world were rightly bothered by pastors who had no authority in their own homes, by preaching that was free of scripture, and church discipline that didn’t exist.
But pretty soon, you can be counting your one hundred steps on the Sabbath and widening the phylacteries on your forehead. You can begin demonizing Christmas and Easter and consigning your wife to head scarves, butt-length hair, and shapeless denim dresses. You can start taking secret pride in your Passover seders and your argument-stopping declaration of an Old Testament text in Hebrew. You can go, in other words, the way of the Galatians, or a few Baptists, or some of the neo-pietist Homeschool separatists. You can conclude the grace deal really was too good to be true, and there just has to be a way to earn your way to heaven.
It’s an easy trap to fall into, just like the opposite end of the spectrum: a headlong rush into hedonism, American style.
We are told to “stand fast” in the “liberty wherewith Christ has set us free.”
It’s a little hard to believe, isn’t it? This notion that the law is not what saves us? This notion, in fact, that we are saved from the law? How do we balance this truth with the concurrent reality — we are not free to sin that “grace may abound.” How do we feel freedom from the law and still nurture our God given desire to obey it?
Here are a few ideas:
- Don’t substitute your own sense of the law for God’s actual law. If someone has a problem with a young woman wearing a sun dress, most of that trouble will be due to their own generally horny nature, not any prohibition in scripture.
- Remember that God’s law is actually pretty simple: Love HIM with all your might–and love your neighbor as you love yourself. That means you will not murder, not commit adultery, not steal, lie, or covet. Simple stuff!
- If you aren’t prone to abuse the gift, have a glass of wine at your next fellowship. It will make you more amiable. It will also make the annoying people in your fellowship more amiable, or at least make them seem more amiable. I’m pretty sure if that Baptist radio pastor allowed himself a glass of wine in the evening, he wouldn’t have attempted the Bathsheba thing with his secretary.
- Have really great sex with your spouse. This will make adultery and coveting much easier to beat. In fact, have a lot of great sex with your spouse, and raise a big passel of children. As they get older, they will keep you company, and take care of you.
- Be honest about your struggles. If you are the leader of the young men in your fellowship, and you see a beautiful, buxom woman walk by on the street, there are a thousand humorous ways you can let the young men know this is a divine, and somewhat pleasant, part of the divine challenge. Once the young lady is out of ear shot, you could say, for example, “God is good, isn’t He?” They will know EXACTLY what you mean.
- Say something insulting and dismissive when you are dealing with really difficult, God-hating people. If you think Jesus didn’t talk that way, when required, you are not reading His word. People are so desperate for honest Christians, you will set the tone for an honest fellowship.
- Love really does cover a multitude of sins. Test everything you do against this standard: “am I speaking this difficult truth because I love someone, or because I’m making myself feel better?”
- Read the scriptures daily. It is the best defense against hare-brained heresies and legalists of every sort.
- Celebrate. Read Novels. Write in your journal. Argue with your friends. Talk politics. Buy a loom and weave a blanket. Be a tent-maker. Buy a banjo. Have a skill. Compose a joke to tell at dinner. Have something real you can talk about with other believers. People who get all foggy and distant in their holiness probably aren’t.
- Father Abraham made it to heaven. Jesus told us so. Study his life. It’s pretty gritty and real. You might be shocked. His big virtue wasn’t wearing a thin tie and drinking green punch and standing quietly, reverently in the corner. His big virtue was simple: FAITH.
Jesus told us His burden was light, and he also told the Pharisees that they had a bad habit:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.”
Finish the race, folks, but stop trying so hard…