By / Feb 16

Books on practicing the Spiritual disciplines typically have about a dozen topics. For instance, Donald Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life lists ten: (1) Bible intake (in two parts), (2) prayer, (3) worship, (4) evangelism, (5) serving, (6) stewardship, (7) fasting, (8) silence and solitude, (9) journaling, and (10) learning. Likewise, Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline enumerates twelve disciplines under three orientations: inward disciplines include (1) meditation, (2) prayer, (3) fasting, and (4) study; outward disciplines involve (5) simplicity, (6) solitude, (7) submission, and (8) service; and corporate disciplines consist of (9) confession, (10) worship, (11) guidance, and (12) celebration.

Because Scripture does not publish an authorized list of disciplines, an exhaustive list cannot be produced. Even a cursory reading these two lists invites comment on the best way to think about practicing the habits Jesus commanded. Is worship only corporate? How is solitude outward? Does solitude have to be silent? Whitney and Foster discuss these questions in their books with different emphases based on their different theological and ecclesial backgrounds.

But what makes both of these books the same is their challenge to individuals to grow in personal godliness. Indeed, both books highlight the personal model of Jesus, a man who undeniably practiced the spiritual disciplines and taught his followers to do the same.

In short, personal spiritual disciplines are part and parcel of faith in the Lord. That said, personal disciplines are not private disciplines. As Foster rightly identifies there is both an outward and corporate aspect to the Christian’s spiritual life. Understanding this interpersonal dynamic, Donald Whitney wrote a companion volume, Spiritual Disciplines within the Church to correct any hyper-individualism fostered by an unbalanced concern for personal, spiritual disciplines.

A Third Horizon in Spiritual Formation

Still, I wonder if there is something more that ought to be stressed in the spiritual formation of a believer? Is it possible that those who attend regularly to Bible intake, prayer, worship, evangelism, and even fasting may be incomplete in their spiritual development? Could it be that there is a third horizon—the first two being the individual in relationship with God (worship) and the individual being in relationship with the church (fellowship)—that must be developed in order for a man or woman to walk worthy of the gospel?

I suspect there is. And I would suggest the third horizon is the formation of Christian love as he or she engages the world. In other words, as the personal disciplines supply the spiritual sap on which the soul feeds and grows, the public disciplines—for lack of a better term—develop spiritual strength in a believer who is learning to counteract the gale force winds of the world.

To use the imagery of Isaiah 61:3, “oaks of righteousness” are only formed when personal and public disciplines work together. Only as individual believers feed on the Lord in their personal disciplines and exercise their faith publicly will they grow to be spiritually mature. To neglect the former will result in spiritual dryness; to neglect the latter will create saplings always in need of an external brace.

The relationship between personal and public disciplines is symbiotic. On the one hand, God keeps his children through the spiritual habits of Bible reading, prayer, worship, etc. Only as they practice these disciplines will they have clarity and conviction to stand up for truth. On the other, as Christians take their faith into the marketplace is the genuineness of their faith proven true. Only as they love their enemies, pray for those who persecute them, speak up for the defenseless, care for the needy, and proclaim the truth of the gospel will their well-nourished soul grow rugged and strong—like a well-aged oak, strengthened through seventy years of stress and storm.

Therefore, it is through the personal and public disciplines that disciples in Christ are matured and oaks of righteousness are made. But what are the public disciplines?

The Public Disciplines

It is possible that the term “public discipline” is infelicitous. It may be better to call them Christian virtues, acts of love and justice, generosity and rescue that reveal the genuine character of our faith. As James 2: says, Faith without deeds is dead, and thus public disciplines are a way of categorizing and encouraging those “deeds.” And because there are times when spiritual life doesn’t result in public action, these “disciplines” should be stressed to help Christians work out their faith in love (Gal 5:6; cf. 1 John 3:18).

Genuine faith leads to a fruitful life—speech and actions, initiatives and projects that serve the needs of others. As Paul says in Ephesians 2:10, those who are in Christ Jesus (i.e., those who have been saved by grace through faith, 2:8–9) are created in Christ Jesus for good works. Surely, these good works are manifold and beyond enumeration (cf. John 14:12), but I would suggest that Scripture gives us insight into what kinds of works they may include. Just as Scripture teaches us personal disciplines to practice, it also gives us public disciplines to pursue.

So without any other preface, here are ten public disciplines to cultivate. I don’t consider this an exhaustive list, but it is a start.

Sanctity of Marriage and the Marriage Bed — the vocal defense of biblical marriage, coupled with a lifestyle that puts to death sexual sin and helps others to do the same.
Sanctity of Human Life — the active protection of the unborn, the mental disabled, and the aged.
Care for Orphans and Widows — while we have a special care for those in the church, we should also look for ways to adopt and care for the most vulnerable outside the church.
Productivity in Vocation — the daily use of skills, knowledge, and resources to create ‘products’ that serve the needs of others. Through various occupations, Christians fulfill Jesus command to love their neighbor.
Generosity to the Poor — aside from giving first-fruits to the church, we must care for the poor who reside near us. We should look for ways to care for the impoverished, hungry, and homeless, even as we stand against industries that prey upon them.
Engagement in Politics — praying for, honoring, drafting policies, and working with leaders for the improvement of the world. This should never replace our first priority to Christ and his kingdom, but as national citizens we are called to be salt and light. (This is especially true in America, where every citizen plays a part in government).
Improvement of the Neighborhood — taking an active role to improve the neighborhood that God has placed you. “Neighboring” displays the love of God and facilitates ways to speak gospel truth.
Passion for Racial Reconciliation and International Missions — sharing God’s burden for the nations, we must reach across cultural and racial boundaries to make peace and share the Gospel with those who do not know the Gospel.
Commitment to the Imagination— esteeming and/or creating art, literature, poetry, song, and education that extols God and reflect his beauty.
Care of Creation — stewarding all creation in such a way that the earth, the animals, and the bodies God has given to us are best utilized to honor him.

Again, these “public disciplines” may be bettered termed “virtues.” However, since they are found in Scripture as commandments, they are more than just the cultivation of spontaneous virtue. As with the personal disciplines, they take Spirit-empowered effort and attention. Because godliness is never produced without discipline (1 Timothy 4:8), they are not by-products, but strategic operations, tangible applications of the Cultural Mandate and Great Commandment. They should not be set over or against the Great Commission, but as a part of the way Christian disciples honor God with the spheres of creation they have been given to subdue and rule.

A Call for Public Spiritual Disciplines 

By enumerating these public disciplines, I am highlighting a needed area of development in Christian discipleship and spiritual formation. As Nancy Pearcy has observed,

Most Christian students [and non-students] simply don’t know how to express their faith perspective in language suitable for the public square. Like immigrants who have not yet mastered the grammar of their new country, they are self-conscious. In private, they speak to one another in the mother tongue of their religion, but in [public] they are uncertain how to express their religious perspective in the accents of the . . . world.[1]

Therefore, public disciplines ought to be pursued for more than just personal, spiritual enhancement. These public actions are for the good of our neighbors and the testimony of Christ’s bride. Without them, the church will not be the “city on a hill” that brings glory to Jesus (Matt 5:13–16). Only as his disciples take their faith into public will the love of God be seen. Only as the church loves its neighbors through orphan care, racial reconciliation, and public works, will its neighbors begin to see the difference Christ makes. For centuries the church has done that, and it must continue to do so today.

Public disciplines are not actions devoid of the gospel—they are motivated by the saving work of Christ; they desire to see their actions lead to gospel conversations. In this way, they are pre-evangelistic (meaning, they prepare the way for Christians to proclaim the gospel) and “pre-millennial” (in that, they foreshadow life in the coming kingdom). They are disciplines predicated on the dichotomy of love and hate—where believers grow in love for neighbor, even as we grow to hate evil, injustice, and the deadly effects of Satanic lies.

In fact, it is this pursuit of love (loving the good) and hate (hating evil) that best stretches and strengthens young believers. Evidence of Christianity’s weakness today is its single-sided “love wins” mentality. What a focus of the public disciplines does is to take well-fed but quiescent Christians and (by God’s grace) turn them into royal priests who stand boldly for Christ and his kingdom. Thus, maturity comes not just when we learn how to have a quiet time, but when our time in the Bible and prayer leads us to care for orphans and widows, fast for reconciliation, go to jail for speaking the truth in love about same sex marriage, and gladly suffer for the sake of the elect.

This is the kind of Christianity that is needed today.It begins with a thriving relationship with Jesus sustained and strengthened by personal spiritual disciplines. But private devotions must lead to public actions. It’s here that talking about “public spiritual disciplines” and teaching how to pursue them will be helpful and necessary if the church is going to be a strong witness for Christ.

May God help us to abide in him and stand firm in the public square, so that together the church in America might become a forest of righteous oaks.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

[1] Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 68.

By / Oct 29

Obscenities and Harsh Words in Our Common Life

Obscenities, insults, slurs, and other harsh words are a bitter part of our common life together. Unfortunately, we cannot escape them. They are everywhere. We hear them on television, in movies, at grocery stores and restaurants, and at kids’ activities. They are expressed by politicians and other public figures, by friends and strangers, by coworkers and gas station attendants.

The significance of written and spoken words has recently been a focus of public attention. College football fans were disgusted by obscene words uttered publicly by Jameis Winston, a star athlete. Not only were the words obscene, but they also conveyed a profound disrespect for women. For weeks after this student-athlete uttered his words, which were retweeted by observers and disseminated widely through social media and the Internet, his behavior remained a matter of public discussion. That his words were an obscene Internet meme only underscores the problem with our language today.

Many strong moral judgments were expressed by members of the public and the media. For some, the student-athlete’s statement reflected immaturity and poor judgment. For others, it was the public nature of the statement (i.e., it was made in front of women) that made his words wrong. And still others thought that the statement was wrong because it would make others feel bad or would be offensive to those who heard it.

With these three assessments, the statement itself is not condemned for being morally wrong. Rather, it was the speaker’s situational insensitivity or poor judgment regarding time and place that was morally problematic. Those who offered these assessments essentially suggested that the athlete should have shown more maturity and exercised better judgment regarding context and audience and thus that he should have reserved his statement for a nonpublic setting when he was among “brothers” in the locker room.

For others, the demeaning and disrespectful nature of the statement as to women made it morally wrong. According to this assessment, the statement treated women as objects rather than persons, as means rather than ends, and failed to respect their dignity. The attitude toward women reflected in his statement represented a threat to women and held the potential of making them victims of sexual aggression.

In addition to Jameis Winston’s obscene statement, I have recently been reminded both at work and at home about the significance of our words. As a law professor, I am tasked with helping to prepare students for professional careers in the law. In their professional lives, they will communicate with judges, lawyers, clients, the media, and the public. At times, they will become frustrated and be tempted to use harsh words. In those situations, they will be called upon to exercise restraint and good judgment. Consequently, the communication habits and practices they learn in law school, the self-discipline they develop, and their training in exercising good judgment will carry over into their careers, determine their effectiveness, and shape their professional reputations.

Like sponges, our school-aged children absorb attitudes and hear harsh words from peers, media, and other sources in their lives. Before long, they try out these harsh words in their own communications with siblings and playmates. My wife and I labor to instruct our children, address their attitudes and words, and help them learn to exercise good judgment, and we strive to ensure that our own attitudes and words model the sort of the behavior we desire them to exhibit.

Biblical Teachings on Obscenities and Harsh Words

For Christians, the Bible’s teachings about obscenities and harsh words are fairly clear. First, those who utter obscenities and harsh words fail in their duty to love their neighbors as themselves. Matt. 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27. They fail by not respecting their neighbors’ right to live free of such obscenities and by not treating their neighbors as individuals of equal dignity who were created in the image of God and worthy of honor and respect. Gen. 1:26-27. Second, obscenities are corrupt and unwholesome communication, and oftentimes harsh words are too. For Christians, “obscenity, foolish talk[, and] coarse joking” are “out of place.” Eph. 5:4 (NIV). Additionally, Christians are not to “let any unwholesome talk come out of [their] mouths.” Eph. 4:29 (NIV). Third, obscenities and harsh words are not helpful to others—rather, they are harmful. The talk coming out of the mouths of Christians should “only [be] what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Eph. 4:29 (NIV). Fourth, obscenities and harsh words do not lead to peace, and Christians are to “make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.” Rom. 14:19 (NIV).

Likewise, the Apostle James issued a strong warning about the untamable tongue: “[T]he tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” James 3:5-6 (NIV). In addition to the destructive effects of the tongue, James observed that the same tongue is used to praise God and “curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.” James 3:9 (NIV). For Christians, “this should not be.” James 3:10 (NIV).

Approaches to Providing Moral Analysis of Obscenities and Harsh Words in Public Engagement

For those who do not embrace the Christian faith, acknowledge the authority of the Bible, or defer to the norms given in the Christian Scriptures, moral analysis of obscenities and harsh words may pose some challenges. For non-Christians, how is the morality of obscenities and harsh words to be judged? If moral rightness or wrongness is relative and if right and wrong are determined contextually based upon shifting circumstances, how can we know when obscenities and harsh words cross the line? If moral rightness and wrongness are judged based upon consequences or some utility balancing, when is it that we can call obscenities and harsh words immoral? Furthermore, if morality is merely a social convention, how can we declare wrongful obscenities and harsh words that may just be a bit ahead of their time?

Christians are able, I believe, to engage in thoughtful public discourse, contribute to the effort to promote justice in society, pursue excellence in cultural undertakings, and provide insightful moral analysis regarding obscenities and harsh words without appealing directly to the Bible. They can do this by evaluating actions under well-known criteria for evaluating good and bad actions, by directing analysis to the character and virtue of moral agents, and by appealing to universal standards that bind all people.

Different approaches have been proposed for determining whether actions are good or bad and what a person should or should not do. One approach (consequentialism) focuses on the ends or consequences of actions so that actions are judged to be morally good or bad based upon results (i.e., whether actions produce more advantages or good consequences than disadvantages or bad or harmful consequences). Under one common formulation of consequentialism (utilitarianism), the good or right action is the one that brings about the greatest good for the greatest number. A second approach (deontologism) focuses on duties or rules so that actions are judged to be morally good or bad based upon whether actors meet their obligations or duties and observe the rules. A third approach (intuitionism) focuses on the moral intuition of actors so that actions are judged to be morally good or bad based upon whether actors conform their actions to what they sense or apprehend to be right and wrong. Each of these approaches offers insight into the rightness and wrongness of particular actions (such as the uttering of obscenities and harsh words), but each approach also has inadequacies.

Another approach to analyzing the morality of obscenities and harsh words is to focus, not on conduct or actions, but rather upon the actor’s character (virtue theory). This approach is oriented to the moral agent’s inner disposition, and it emphasizes the cultivation of character traits or moral virtues such as wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Other virtues may be added to the list, such as faith, hope, and love. Under this approach, it is believed that those who have a right inner disposition will tend to act in right ways and be better equipped to make judgments regarding what is right in particular situations. A focus upon character and virtue invites us to think about the kind of people we want to be, the effect our choices have on who we are becoming, and the need to check our behavior against the aspirations we have for ourselves as individuals and as a polity. In thinking about our words, a virtue orientation will prompt us to reflect upon what our words say about who we are and what our character is, and it can challenge us to turn inward to the work each of us needs to undertake to become the people we want to be.

Insight from Natural-Law Thinking

The natural law tradition may also provide some tools that can help us analyze our words, actions, and decisions. The natural law tradition has a rich history that extends back millennia to both biblical and Greek sources in the ancient world. In the Christian tradition, such eminent thinkers as Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin have participated in this tradition. According to the Christian understanding of the natural law, God’s creation is an ordered creation that reflects his purposes and ends. He has written his moral law into the very nature of human existence, inscribing that law on the human heart. Consequently, all human beings know the basic requirements of the moral law through conscience, and this moral knowledge provides a universally accessible standard that governs all people across all times and in all places. All humans know this law, and they can use this knowledge to justly order relationships and society. Among the basic, universally-known principles of the natural law are the requirements to seek the good, avoid evil, give to each person his or her due, and love one’s neighbor.

Nearly two thousand years ago, in his letter to the churches in Rome, the Apostle Paul conveyed a similar understanding. He wrote: “when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.” Rom. 2:14-15 (NIV). Thus, according to Paul, human beings, even as fallen creatures in a fallen world, have moral knowledge of right and wrong that is accessible through their consciences. Later in the same letter, he discussed civil government (i.e., secular authorities). He recognized that civil authorities are capable of understanding what is good and evil, what is right and wrong, for he observed that civil government is “God’s servant for [our] good,” holds terror for and brings punishment on those who do wrong, and commends citizens for doing what is right. Rom. 13:3-4 (NIV).

In the context of his teaching on civil government, Paul identified some of the requirements of the moral law that are written on the heart. His discussion of punishment for wrongdoing and commendation for doing what is right and good suggests that there are corresponding duties to do good and avoid evil. Additionally, Paul exhorted his reader to “[g]ive to everyone what [they] own them,” including respect and honor; to “love one another” and their neighbors as themselves; not to commit adultery, murder, steal, or covet; and to do no harm to your neighbor. Rom. 13:7-10 (NIV).

In addition to reflection on consequences, duties, intuitions, and virtues, these universal moral principles can be used to analyze our words. These principles will focus moral analysis on questions such as whether speakers are seeking the good (including the good of their neighbors), whether speakers are giving individuals their due, and whether speakers are exhibiting neighborly love. These principles will lead to additional questions for moral reflection, such as whether words are doing good or causing harm and whether words will promote the good of human flourishing. Thus, in our public reflection on obscenities and harsh words, these principles can guide moral analysis of both the conduct and the character of the actor.

Conclusion 

No complex moral analysis of Jameis Winston’s obscene utterance is necessary to conclude that what he did was wrong. He failed to seek the good of women and those in his presence. He caused harm and offense by his disrespectful treatment of women as objects, as means to his ends, and not as persons of equal dignity and worth. He did not give them their due or love them as he loves himself. Although moral analysis in his case is fairly straightforward, the range of analytical tools discussed here may be useful in other cases as Christians analyze more complex issues, offer arguments as a part of their public engagement, and work to persuade their non-Christian neighbors regarding the rightness and wrongness of particular actions and decisions.

Winston’s obscene utterance has also reminded me of the importance of moral formation. Good character, the discipline of self-control, and the ability to make good decisions are neither innate nor developed by accident. Rather, careful cultivation, wise instruction, intentional training, and consistent correction are required over many years. For parents, teachers, and pastors, moral formation is a high calling that must be taken serious. But the place to begin is with ourselves—the place for me to begin is with myself, my character, my attitudes, my words, and my conduct. As each of us attends to the nurturing of our own character and the character of those in our spheres of influence, perhaps we can start to chip away at the regrettable reality of obscenity and harsh words in our common life and take small steps toward constructing communities in which love of neighbor is more commonly and more consistently practiced.

By / Sep 19

A few months ago, I attended a conference where the speaker shared about his counsel to those battling sexual sin. Paraphrasing, he said, “Imagine every impure action as another thrust of the spear into the side of Jesus.” Woe! What a sobering and sickening image! Can you say that? Should you think that, really?

Never before had I heard someone speak so graphically about the need for the use of imagination in our fight against temptation. However, as I have reflected on his point, I am increasingly convinced he is exactly right.

Imagination, when rightly used, is one of the most powerful tools God gives us to put off the old nature and to walk in the new. After all, Jesus himself said to those battling lust, “gouge out your eye” and “cut off your hand” (Matt 5:29–30). But it is not just for lust. In every area of life, we need to train and retool our imagination for the purpose of sanctification and greater gospel service.

Imagination in the Bible

The Bible is filled with imagery. From the Spirit brooding over the waters (Genesis 1) to John’s vision of a glorious city, dressed like a virgin bride (Revelation 21), the Bible drips with word pictures like the Matrix rains green code. Jesus regularly employs parables to capture the imagination of his disciples. The prophets of old spoke of Israel as a harlot, while Paul speaks of the church as a radiant bride.

The question is, do you see it? In a way that most fast-paced Americans don’t appreciate, Scripture begs to be pondered s . . l . . o . . w . . l . . y.

When Psalm 32:8-9 says, “Be not like a horse or a mule, . . . which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you,” it moves us to stop and reflect: What is it about these animals that must be avoided? Is it the same thing for each beast? Or are these they expressing two opposite errors—e.g., the error of running ahead of God like a wild horse and the error of lagging behind God like a stubborn mule?  The imagery fires the imagination and impresses upon us the need to walk humbly with our God.

Moreover, Scripture calls us to discipline our imaginations. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10:5 that we are to “take captive every thought to Christ.” Because Satan wages war with words of deception, Jesus’ disciples “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” by means of ‘thought-control.’ Only this mental exercise is not some metaphysical séance. Rather, it is meditation on the propositions and poetry of God’s Word.

To wield the Sword well—another image, I might add—takes not only a right doctrine but a sanctified imagination. Such an imagination begins with learning the gospel and God’s view of the world (Rom 12:1–2), but soon this renewed mind must and will generate new thoughts that serve the needs of those around us. While some believers may be more creative than others, imagining acts of kindness for others is not limited to creative-types. It is a universal calling for everyone purchased by God to do good works. We all must employ our minds to imagine that which is excellent and praiseworthy (Phil 4:8).

Three Places Where Imagination is Key:
Sincere Sympathy, Holy Outrage, and Practical Service

Let’s get more specific. Instead of talking in the abstract about imagining concrete ways of doing gospel-empowered good, let’s consider three ways imagination serves as the link between good intentions and good works.

First, a sanctified imagination creates sincere sympathy. Think about the last time you heard sad news. How did you feel? Chances are if you have experienced a similar pain, you were quick to empathize. But if the mourner experienced something foreign to you, you may have been slower to weep with the one who was weeping. What to do? The answer, of course, is to pray that God would comfort that person. But is that all? I don’t think so.

Using our imagination, we can conceive of what a widow goes through on the anniversary of her husband’s death, even if we’ve never been married. By means of a sanctified mind we can consider what a son misses when he grows up without a father, or what a father of four worries about when he loses his job. In short, we don’t need to have shared the same experience to minister comfort, but we do need is an imagination that makes up the difference.

Second, a sanctified imagination fuels holy outrage. In Ephesians 4:26 Paul quotes Psalm 4:4, saying, “Be angry and do not sin.” For most of us, we need to guard against undue anger. However, in a world where moral outrage is dulled by a diet of sitcoms and emotionless news reporting, many Christians need to learn how to “be angry.” Here again, “pondering”—not visceral experience—is key (see Psalm 4:4–5).

For instance, how should we feel about sex trafficking or late term abortion? To begin with, we must let the truth of God’s word inform our thinking. But after that, what? Is it enough to have cognitive data? Can statistics alone form our moral conscience? I think not.

Before, during, and after we encounter these travesties in print or in person, we must use our minds to aid our hearts feel the effect of men stealing girls from their homes or babies being mutilated in their mother’s wombs. Of course, this kind of deliberate rumination is unpleasant and painful; some might unnecessary or even wrong-headed. But honestly, how else will we learn to hate the horrors of sex trafficking and abortion, unless we feel with the victims, and with the Lord, the heinousness of the crimes?

The same goes for any other form of brutality, abuse, or ethical injustice. Personal narratives are needed to grow our moral conscience. And when personal experiences are lacking—either because of distance or present circumstance—biblically-informed contemplation of our neighbors need is what we need to prepare our hearts for the day when we do meet those suffering from injustice.

In truth, we cannot personally tackle every moral dilemma in the world, but we can and must cultivate a moral conscience that abhors every kind of injustice. A sanctified imagination does that by creating in us a holy outrage at sin and a deepening love for Christ who alone can make all things new.

Third, a sanctified imagination quickens practical service. The golden rule demands a sanctified imagination, for without it we would regularly bless others in the very same way we want to be blessed. In other words, when we love another, we need to think about who they are, what they need, and how they will receive our love. This requires imagining the living conditions of another and prayerfully considering what would serve this person. Husbands desperately need to think this way, but so do social workers and car manufacturers.

In the home, husbands love their wives best when they imagine new ways to serve them—according to what delights the wife, not the husband. In the workplace, engineers show love by thinking about how the products they are making will improve life for the people who buy their cars. Social workers show love by dreaming up an elaborate birthday party for the child who has never received a present.

On it goes. In every arena of life, imagination will help you be a better servant and a better lover. Indeed, without such imagination, you will grow tired in your compassion. Likewise, without a creative imagination the person who rejects your offer of the gospel will probably not hear it again from you. Yet, with a Spirit-led, gospel-driven imagination, there are countless ways to insert the gospel into the natural rhythms of life and conversation. After all, Jesus is the Maker of all things, and all things point back to him (Eph 1:10).

Creativity is for All New Creations in Christ

Of course, genuine service can happen with little creativity. Jesus said that a simple cup of cold water given in his name would be rewarded (Matt 10:42; cf. 25:35–40). Yet, in some instances the only way to deliver a cup of water involves the ingenuity of international travel and the problem-solving of purifying dirty water.

All the same, if we desire to be salt and light in the world and to share the gospel with the poor and needy, a sanctified imagination will be necessary. Especially among those people who are hard to love or hard to reach, a sanctified imagination is not optional but essential. It is part of the bridge system that moves vertical faith to horizontal love. It flows from a mind renewed by the gospel of Jesus Christ, and it has an endless array of applications.

Give it a shot this week. As you read the Scripture, pay attention to the imagery. Ask God to awaken your imagination. Instead of filling your mind with the endless images of television and YouTube, let the Word of God prompt your creativity. Begin to imagine what you can do to serve others and to share the message of Christ’s cross and resurrection, the only message that sanctifies the mind and brings peace and justice to the world.

By / Sep 3

In a few months, my wife and I will celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary. With this milestone approaching, I have found myself thinking more and more about the benefits of participating in the institution of marriage. While there certainly are many benefits to marriage that can be experienced by believers and unbelievers alike, I have found my mind occupied with the benefits of Christian marriage. More specifically, I have been meditating on certain spiritual benefits related to the revelation of God’s character and mission that can be learned within marriage.

The idea that sanctifying knowledge of the Lord may be gained through participating in the institution of marriage is both an experiential and a logical conclusion. While the Lord employs various analogies in the Bible to reveal himself and to communicate his mission to the world, there is none more prevalent in Scripture than the husband/wife marriage analogy. This can be seen in the Old Testament use of the marital relationship to depict the God/Israel relationship and the New Testament employment of the husband/wife union to describe the Christ/church union, as well as the many passages in both the Old and New Testaments that invoke the language of sexual sin to describe a breach in the spiritual relationship that exists between God and his people.

One specific aspect of the relational dynamics of the God/believer union that may be learned through the institution of marriage is the concept of God as the husband of his people. Scripture often uses this image in describing the relationship between the Lord and his followers. For example, when addressing God’s people, the prophet Isaiah writes, “For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name” (Isa. 54:5), and elsewhere, when pleading with his bride, God himself declares, “Return, O backsliding children . . . for I am married to you” (Jer. 3:14). While this revelation is available to any reader of the biblical text, it is only through participating in the institution of marriage that man can fully understand the depth of this teaching. To elaborate, within the institution of marriage, when a man feels the natural burden of being a husband (literally a “house-band”—one who holds a family together), which includes leading, protecting, and providing for his wife, it is then that he can truly appreciate the picture of God as the husband of his people. In other words, it is uniquely from within the institution of marriage that the biblical truth of God as husband can be practically realized and appreciated.

Self-Sacrifice

The relational dynamics of the God/believer union become even more evident when in the midst of marital difficulties—thankfully, a rarity for my wife and me—a husband embraces the biblical teaching that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). It is during times of difficulty that passages which call for a husband to display Christ-like love for his wife can have full impact. For example, when the prophet Hosea’s wife went astray, God commanded him, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by a lover and is committing adultery, just like the love of the Lord for the children of Israel” (Hos. 3:1). Later, perhaps with the Lord’s instructions to Hosea in mind, the apostle Paul wrote, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her” (Eph. 5:25). Recognition of the self-sacrifice needed in order to show love for a sinning wife—the same kind of love a sinning husband would desire to receive—can be incredibly revelatory in understanding the depth of Christ’s love for his bride, the church.

While trying circumstances are not pleasant and should not be actively sought, quite possibly it is those who experience marital difficulties who have the greatest opportunity to grasp the full truth of God as the husband of his people. Indeed, just as the only way for a husband to purify a sinning wife is through self-sacrificial love and washing with the Word of God, so the way in which Christ made possible the purification of his church was through his self-sacrifice on the cross (cf. Eph. 5:25–28). It is one thing to possess this knowledge in theory; it is quite another to gain it through the trials that are incumbent to marriage in a fallen world.

Servant Leadership

A complement to the relational dynamic of God as husband is the picture of the church as his bride. While this is not a truth about God per se, it is a corollary to the revelation of God as husband, and it informs the church how to interact properly with God. Throughout the New Testament the church is referred to as the bride of Christ, sometimes even being called the body of Christ. Moreover, as the bride, whose body is not her own, the church is frequently described as being under the authority of Christ, who is her head.

As with the doctrine of God as the husband of his people, the notion that the church is the bride of Christ is a truth accessible to any reader of Scripture. Yet, within the institution of marriage, a wife has a unique opportunity both to understand and to embrace the fullness of this teaching as she submits herself to her husband’s servant leadership. Furthermore, this aspect of the relational dynamics that exist between God and his people is available not only to wives through submission, but also to husbands who witness and benefit from such conduct. Indeed, as Peter notes, somewhat remarkably, the actions of a submissive wife may be so revelatory in regard to the character and mission of God that an unregenerate husband is won to Christ “without a word” (1 Pet. 3:1; cf. 1 Cor. 7:16).

Godly Jealousy

A final aspect of the revelation of God as husband that can be learned through the institution of marriage is the reality of divine jealousy. The Bible repeatedly communicates the fact that God is jealous for both his name and his glory. Scripture even records Moses’ command to “worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exod. 34:14). While the Lord is willing to share and give nearly all of his resources to his people, including the sacrifice of his Son, the one thing that God will not share is his glory. The prophet Isaiah reports the Lord’s declaration, “I am the Lord . . . My glory I will not give to another” (Isa. 42:8), and Jesus instructed his followers, “Pray then like this: Our Father in Heaven, let your name be kept holy. . . . For yours is the . . . glory forever” (Matt. 6:9, 13).

Given the primacy of God’s glory and name, it stands to reason that the Lord would be jealous for his people, for they are created in order to glorify his name. Indeed, this is what Scripture records as in reference to his people God proclaims, “I am jealous for Zion with great jealousy” (Zech. 8:2). Additionally, a host of passages demonstrate the truth that when the Lord’s people begin to glorify other gods, it is then that his jealousy is most clearly aroused.

Within the institution of marriage, spouses have the unique opportunity to experience relational jealousy, thereby enabling them to understand the truth of God’s husband-love for his people, as well as the intensity of divine jealousy. In fact, the potential for jealousy in marriage is so great that the Old Testament civil law contains procedures for regulating a husband’s jealousy toward his wife (cf. Num. 5:11–31).

Of course, it is possible to feel and to express relational jealousy outside the bonds of marriage, as well as to experience unrighteous jealousy within marriage. Yet, knowledge of the righteous relational jealousy described in Scripture between God and his people can best be gained through participating in the institution of marriage. Indeed, when marriage partners desire to be with their beloved and to protect the purity of their marital relationship there is great opportunity to learn about the depth of the Lord’s love for his people. Viewed from the perspective of marriage, then, passages that detail God’s righteous jealousy for his bride can potentially take on new meaning. This is all made possible through the sanctifying revelation of God that has been incorporated into the divine institution of marriage.

In conclusion, then, through being a husband—indeed, a Christian husband—for nearly two decades, my knowledge and understanding of God’s role as husband to the bride of Christ has deepened. The self-sacrifice, servant leadership, and godly jealousy I have experienced within the institution of marriage are benefits for which I am grateful. May those of us who have been called to and blessed with Christian marriages reap the benefits of this divinely designed institution, and display our individual marriages to the watching world in such a way that the marriage of the Divine Bridegroom to his people is properly revealed.

By / Jan 9

Justin Taylor, Crossway, talks to Phillip Bethancourt, ERLC, about how becoming more Christ-like and growing in ethics happen together.