One of the things that we are REALLY good at doing in our culture, unfortunately, is being polarized on one side or another of an issue without much nuance. As Josh Harris, author of 90’s bestseller, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” is in the news for renouncing both his book and his faith, it’s easy to slam “purity culture” and all it stands for.
I would like to slam “purity culture” too, in a lot of ways. But I want to do it with nuance, not with a broad brush. I recently got married at age 42, and while I do think purity culture had a very negative influence on my life in a variety of ways, I am not at all unhappy that I went to my wedding as a, yes, 42-year-old virgin.
I wish I had been younger — getting married, that is. I’ve written elsewhere about the damage done by purity culture and an apathetic church culture on extending, or at least not helping, with the plight of singles getting older without marriage (for those who desire marriage) here and here.
But one thing I actually WORRY about in the current climate of a no-holds-barred bashing of purity culture is that singles are losing the ground upon which prospective mates will respect a desire to remain celibate until marriage. While this applies to all singles broadly, women more specifically often get pressured by men to have sex before marriage, and the more that progressive christians specifically start to label saving sex for marriage as a detrimental outcome of “purity culture”, the more sex becomes EXPECTED without any commitment from the party expecting it. (Or demanded, as in, “I understand that’s your conviction, but I need to move on to someone who will have sex with me before we get married.” ) This is a situation where what gets promoted as “sex-positive” actually demotes it into something which can be demanded, or else, singles lose even more opportunities to find people to date them.
That said, here are a few things I do believe purity culture gets wrong about sex:
Bad teaching #1. If you’ve had sex before marriage, you’re ruining your ability to have a healthy marriage.
This is a false teaching of the purity movement. How do I know it’s not true? Because even in the purity movement, no one has any issue or concerns with widows or widowers remarrying. If sex before a marriage permanently destroyed one’s ability to have a healthy marital sex life or healthy marital bond with anyone from that point forward, widows and widowers should be writing books about how they overcame the memories of their wonderful sexual histories with their prior deceased spouses to go on to have a good relationship with their present spouse. I know of no such books.
Now I’m sure that people do have a huge transition to go through in going from their life with one spouse to another spouse after the first one dies, I’m not discounting that there must be all sorts of emotional and human issues that go on with that, from adjusting to a new person’s eating habits to how they roll the toothpaste to yes, even to having sex with a new love. But while adjustments to new seasons and new circumstances are to be expected, no one expects that a widow or widower is going to have too much “sexual baggage” to be able to enjoy intercourse with their new spouse.
In fact, adulterers and adulteresses don’t seem to have much trouble bonding with a new person despite having sex with their legitimate spouses first before being unfaithful. I’d hate to use this as an example, but it does make a point: humans seem to be actually very flexible with being able to go from one partner to the next. This isn’t ideal, for a whole lot of reasons, nor do I encourage it: but I’m just saying, I think the purity movement gets this one completely wrong.
What the REAL result of this teaching in fact ends up being is that thousands of Christians who slipped up and had sex with someone before being married, end up getting a complex over it where once they finally find themselves in a fulfilling marital relationship, they yet believe that they somehow always carry part of the person or persons they had sex with before marriage with them into their marital bed. This is somewhat a uniquely Christian problem, in my experience — reports from nonbelievers I know who view having serial sexual partners before marriage as part of normal dating life often do not develop a hang-up on feeling unable to shake feelings or memories of previous sexual partners during love-making with their spouses. Sadly, this is a sometimes self-fulfilling prophecy unfortunately where believing something is going to have a certain effect on you, can actually cause that effect.
The exception to this of course is if someone had a great experience with someone sexually and later goes on to marry someone who isn’t communicating well in bed and isn’t fulfilling someone’s sexual fantasies/needs/desires, but that is a slightly different problem, which is covered below.
Bad teaching #2: If you save sex for marriage, you’ll have a fantastic sex life once you are married.
If you save sex for marriage, you are almost guaranteed to have a totally lousy sex life when you first start having sex. Why? Sex is a learned skill, and virgins by definition have had virtually no chance to learn it.
Will your sex life eventually be turned into something awesome with, er, practice? That is entirely up to the couple — how well they love each other, how well they communicate with each other, how well they identify any issues that might get in the way (and this extends even to medical issues for which medical help might be warranted.). Saving sex for marriage doesn’t mean that two people will be kind to each other, or communicate well with each other, or be patient with each other, or experimental with each other, or any of the whole host of other things that make for both good relationships, and good sexual chemistry and sexual troubleshooting.
When it comes to sex, no one can give anyone any guarantees – whether two people refrain from sex before marriage or not. But, sex is something that is meant, I believe, to be *developed* between two people, so having sex ahead of time to figure out if one is “compatible” I personally think is also a bad strategy. But that’s just me. I think, perhaps erroneously, that one is marrying another person’s entire personality and character, and those things carry over to what one can expect in the bedroom.
I think in both these wrong teachings of the purity movement, the error is in trying to EXPLAIN why saving sex for marriage makes good emotional sense and will result in a good relationship. But sexual abstinence does not need to be justified; it is enough to value one’s deepest physical intimacy and one’s body as something to be shared with another person only when the other person shows themselves worthy of such a sharing, by honoring the giver with a lifelong commitment before God and others, which is then also reciprocated. And even if that were too much of a justification, even if there were no reason whatsoever that waiting until marriage for sex made sense, one who believes that God desires the intimate sharing of sex to be only unleashed inside of a marriage covenant should not need to justify their belief as anything other than to simply to obey God.
So a word to those who bash the purity movement: I hear you, and in many ways I agree with you. But please be careful not to run roughshod over those who either because of spiritual conviction or personal desire, wish to be celibate until marriage. I am that person, and I am very happy with my decision.
I suffered from infertility for a long time. It was an infertility that the church most easily ignores; an infertility that comes with very little sympathy from others and yet is one of the most common forms of infertility suffered by women in body of Christ in the West. My infertility had nothing to do with anything wrong with my womb or my body or anything medical; it was the infertility of being a woman who was being a “good girl” and obeying the Christian edict to wait to get married to have sexual intercourse, and yet, who was unable to find a suitable Christian husband.
For years and years, I would be in churches or get togethers and see couples share that they were struggling to conceive a child; and they would be invited to come forward and have hands laid on them and get prayer while the church shared in their grief and struggle; while I and many other women who were single past their prime were invited to do nothing but go home and cry on our pillows at night, alone. Married infertility is seen and recognized, but singles facing impending lifelong infertility are considered unworthy of corporate support.
I and my fellow single sisters have had difficult decisions to make. A friend of mine recently asked her parents to help her financially with the very expensive process of freezing eggs; her Christian parents told her they wouldn’t help her because, “If God wanted you to have children, He would have brought you a spouse already.” Not only did this comment make my friend angry at God as to why He supposedly had assigned her this unique grief, misplacing the problem off of a messed up dating culture and the unwillingness of the body of Christ to help singles find matches in the same way other groups (such as Orthodox Jews) take very seriously the need to preserve their legacy by helping singles find spouses, but by blaming people’s deepest griefs on Divine Providence, we alienate people from God.
During my singlehood journey, I struggled with the idea of getting sperm donation and having artificial insemination. Single parenthood seemed too scary to me, I didn’t have a support network where I could even count on having a babysitter, I wanted to be able to breast-feed a child and wouldn’t be able to take off work to do so in a country that offers little to no maternal leave, and I couldn’t shake the stigma that I knew evangelicals would have towards me for bringing a “fatherless child” into the world. Yet I thought often about how the God of the Old Testament seemed to want to make sure that a woman who was left single and childless because her husband had died still had a chance at becoming a mother through the whole kinsmen-redeemer thing. It seemed that God had more concern over people being left without children than my evangelical subculture would allow for.
If I shared all this with others, I had to suffer through person after person telling me that “You don’t have to get married and have children to be a complete woman.” They seemed to believe that I had bought into some cultural lie that feminism would deliver me from. The problem was, I was already a feminist — I knew that I didn’t have to have children to fulfill some “womanhood” edict. But that wasn’t why I wanted children — it had nothing whatsoever to do with being a “woman” as much as the existential human desire to pass on what and who one is to survive into future generations through reproduction. I wanted a child maybe on some level because God spoke into all humanity the words, “Be fruitful and multiply,” because it just was something intrinsic to the deepest parts of my soul with a strength of divine edict, and while I have no problem with people who feel this isn’t for them, to the depths of my heart I knew this was something I couldn’t live without doing. Rachel’s cry, “Give me children lest I die”, was my unbidden heart cry, and no platitudes about being complete whether or not I have children could satisfy that yearning.
The painful thing too that most singles in my shoes have dealt with is that most of the people who give us platitudes and share comments with us that ultimately are basically micro-aggressions towards our grief about singlehood and its associated infertility, are usually people who themselves are married and who have their own flesh and blood children as well. These are also the people holding up adoption as the highest ideal, most often people who have never adopted children press on singles and even childless couples that they ought to adopt, even criticizing us for trying to have children by other means because, “there are so many children out there that nobody wants.” I don’t know why people with natural children think there is a moral obligation for those struggling with infertility to find and adopt the world’s unwanted children, while those who have children easily and without trouble often seem to feel excused from having any need to do so, but this is probably the greatest microagression that singles and infertile couples face from other believers on a regular basis.
Adoption is a beautiful choice, but it is only one of many choices that people ought to respect and admire. Those holding up adoption often don’t understand how difficult it is to adopt (one middle class couple in my church has been trying to adopt for years and years, and are consistently overlooked by birth parents choosing wealthier or younger parents, or have children placed with them for adoption only to have birth parents change their mind before the adoption is finalized. The experience has been nothing short of traumatic.).
Adoption is expensive, difficult, and in my husband’s case (that’s right, I’m married now, and I’ll discuss that and the next step of our journey with singlehood infertility in my next posting) he has already adopted a child only to have experienced corruption in the adoption industry that resulted in him raising a severely special-needs child that he loves dearly and would never trade for any other child, but is emblematic of the type of issues that even adoptive parents face.
And, to be honest, for single people even adoption is stigmatized still in the church. My friend Julia Duin has a blog site dedicated to promoting adoption among singles, because even that can be frowned upon by Christians.
At any rate, for years and years I asked my friends and church to help me find a husband. I was on every dating site I could afford. I went places, met people, and shared my story. Christians seem to despise people who seem “desperate” to meet a spouse. I was told over and over, well into my thirties, that “Sarah had a baby in her 90s so don’t worry,” as if Sarah’s story trumps all birth statistics and that I could count on God to make my fertile years an exception to the norm. One pastor, I was close to, in a weird twist on the whole “Jesus is your boyfriend” stuff, told me to “embrace Jesus as your son.” I was kicked out of a Facebook group for house churches for starting a thread in the group asking who in the group was single and looking for spouses — and told that in no way, shape or form was this group about something as lowly as “finding a mate.” I’ve seen leaders that I respect, chewing apart “Christian Mingle” advertisements as if the desire of single people to get married and have the family and kids that they happily enjoyed themselves was something to be despised when pitched to singles.
I’m going to begin a series of posts about experiencing God’s voice, and this is a HUGE subject that honestly could and probably should be a book, not a blog post. Many have in fact written books on the topic, and some of them are pretty good, and some are not. I wade into the topic with a fresh perspective — I have been through countless teachings and books on experiencing the Spirit and the voice of God and most of them didn’t seem to help me very much when I was trying to learn how to find Him in this way. So in this series some of what I’ll do is look at the pitfalls of the various approaches that are commonly taught as “the way” to do this, as well as bring my own perspective into play of what I’ve learned along the way of bumped knees and concussions in trying to go on pilgrimage to this place.
The subject is so vast, and it will be hard to do it justice. I’m very aware of my own lack of knowledge on this topic, and yet, I do know I have a small deposit of something worth sharing. If you want to follow along, please pray for me as I write that I’ll be able to organize what I ought to say in some coherent fashion and that, as one stepping into some role as a under-shepherd of God’s people in trying to nurture my readers along, that I won’t leave anything out that needs to be said for the sake of safety and edification.
Safety — it’s an interesting word on this topic. Realistically if you treat into these waters looking to stay safe, I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong River. Yet there are disasters that we can hope to avoid, even so.
Some of those disasters involve what happens when you put “hearing God” into the context of community. Ironically, many people would point to community as the place of safety in learning to hear God, the idea being that community will keep experiments along these lines from going too far afield. The problem is that often those surrounding us in community aren’t real good at hearing God either — they either quickly shut down things the Lord would want to do because it doesn’t line up with their expectations of Him, or, they themselves are the ones saying they are hearing from God and in the process abusing and manipulating others with what they say God is saying. Hearing God is dangerous — hearing God in community is even more dangerous. And yet, the folks that say we need community for safety are paradoxically also right — community really is the best place to tread into these waters, as Jesus and His Word dwell among us corporately. As much as community can wound and trouble us on our journey, it’s still better to suffer those wounds and troubles than the ones we will end up with going it alone.
At any rate, I hope to do justice to all these pitfalls, and make a clear and balanced presentation of both the singular experience of experiencing God’s voice and the corporate dynamics of the gifts of prophecy and word of knowledge and wisdom and so forth. I might never get done this series.
But let’s begin — why did I entitle this “Experiencing God’s Voice” instead of “Hearing God’s Voice?” This begins my “fresh perspective” I hope to bring into this conversation. When I first wanted to hear God, I wanted most specifically to be “led by the Spirit.” I initially didn’t even realize that the way the Spirit “leads” us is by speaking to us! But I had no idea what avenue, or channel, or sense, or experience would actually constitute being “led.”
When people talk about “hearing” God, folks new to the experience can often assume we are talking about “hearing voices” or at least, a Voice. And, we are. But the fact is that God’s voice is not really all experienced auditory. The auditory experience of His voice is a real one, and one I’ll be discussing as we go forward, but realistically the Lord Himself is not simply transmitting in audio, although he can definitely be found on the audio frequencies. But if we think we are only meant to “hear” His voice, then figuratively speaking we start to search for Him on the AM/FM dials, hoping to pick up only some sort of “sound,” and while He can be found there, searching for Him only as audio not only blocks out the fulness of His “signal” but also ironically leaves us more open to confusion and deception in trying to hear Him. Realistically, the Lord is like super-broadband, transmitting on so many wavelengths all at once — He’s like a star in the Cosmos that you can view in infrared, radio, UV radiation, and visible light, and gravity waves all at once, or a broadcast station transmitting internet, HDTV, FM audio, and cellphone signal all at once. Likewise, He is not just speaking audio, but He speaks thought-to-thought, He speaks in visions, He speaks forth a sharing of the sense of His emotions, He speaks forth dreams, He sings, He laughs, He gives forth His fragrance and extends His love and peace and anger and pleasure and displeasure and His glory and strength and healing and power; He expresses Himself with various extensions of His spirit and personhood to us.
God’s utterance, is, in fact, Himself. His voice is the going forth of who He is, and as He is Spirit, we can only know Him Spirit to spirit. (I’m aware and tracking with you when saying such a thing creates a problem for us when we don’t even know what or where our own spirit is within ourselves.) But His voice isn’t just “voice.” After all, does a Spirit have a mouth or vocal cords? But just like our Sun has an outer atmosphere which is part of it, yet there are deeper layers still, experiencing the Voice of the Almighty has layers. He is extended to us at all times with a constant stream of His Spirit, pouring forth from His being, but there are experiences one might have with a solar flare which would be altogether different from touching the plasma surface of His burning, and different yet again from experiencing the substance of His core, even though His core drives forward and is one substance with all we might experience at any part of Himself.
Yet God is not an unfeeling, inanimate object like a star (no offense meant to any stars out there.). Analogies have their limitations. All of which to say — God is transmitting on too many wavelengths to merely talk about “hearing” His voice as if it would all be auditory or even all words, even though, “hearing” is what all of his communication, whether verbal or nonverbal, can be spoken of in a certain broad sense.
There is a stream that comes out from the throne of God. It never stops, and even though for many of us an experience from God is a rare and isolated event, unpredicated by anything we know how to control, the stream coming from the throne is nonstop, and God is “speaking” to us constantly. This is the same stream that Jesus spoke of being within believers when he said, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. Whoever believes in Me, as the Scripture has said: ‘Streams of living water will flow from within him.’”
We just need to learn how to drink from the stream more consistently and consciously, instead of rarely and accidentally. It is a stream of living water; throughout the Bible, both “life” and “water” are motifs associated with God’s words. Put together, “living water” refers also to the Holy Spirit, who is made of the same substance of the God who is Living Word, but the Holy Spirit is unique in being the part of God that extends to us and abides within us, and thus carries the rest of God — all that He is, His Words and His thoughts and emotions and voice and personhood to us. Thus Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would “take from what is mine and make it known to you.”
In some words I think of the Holy Spirit as being like the “carrier wave” of a radio station; in radio, the “sound” of the station is wrapped up and embedded in the transmitted carrier wave and when the wave arrives at your receiver, the “sound” is part of but can also be decoded out of the wave. The Holy Spirit is the extension of Heaven from God’s throne to the innermost part of us, and He abides within us individually and among us collectively when we are gathered together in tune with Jesus and His Father and each other.
God can be felt (which is a problem if you’ve always been taught to be wary of “feelings” and “impressions” and “sensations.”). And yet, in wanting to be open to feeling Him, we must also be aware the balance is that most feelings are not Him. And God can be heard, and yet most voices are not His. God can give visions and dreams, and yet not all dreams or visions are from Him. And He can be manifested in miracles, appearances, experiences, and all sorts of things from flashes of inspiration to creativity to peace to joy to overwhelming love to heat to shakings to too many things to list. All of it, when legitimate, is an experience of His Voice. The stream is broad, and so is God’s wavelengths of speech towards us; the stream is powerful, and so is the effect of His Voice where it is made known and received; and the stream is deep; taking us to deeper and deeper experiences of communion with His person.
But all of this we will delve into. Why do some people get prayed for at the altar and while everyone else is falling down shaking, nothing ever happens to them? Why can some people hear God easily and others are left with their own thoughts? Why does music seem to bring some people easily into God’s presence and others can’t stand singing? Why do we talk about God’s presence as something you can experience when the Holy Spirit is in everyone who knows Jesus regardless of feelings? And how do you know if someone’s prophesying is real or not? Is it just a matter of “comparing what they said to the Bible” when the Bible doesn’t say anything at all about that person’s word they gave you that you need to drink orange juice every day for the next week? And what about “signs” and “confirmations?” And while we’re talking about the Holy Spirit and our spirit, and angels and demons and the like, what is “a spirit” anyway?
I’m going to wade through all of it. Here’s hoping you are with me on the journey. And please pray especially the Lord grants Himself to me as I write, as it is after all, all about Him and that is the real journey.
*********************Please let me know any topics you want me to explore in all this as we go forward, below. Or just make a general comment. 🙂
From a mathematical and practical standpoint, it seems that randomness and probabilities undergird the foundations of our universe. (See here for an intro. ). Even for those things which are not TRULY random (like the outcome of a flip of the coin, which is really determined by a whole set of variables), the amount of complexity involved in seemingly random occurrences (such as the chance of a thunderstorm on a specific place and date a decade from now) is so overwhelming that these things are best described in terms of chaos theory and its probabilities and fractals. (Our inability to exactly calculate Pi even after finding trillions of digits is an example of this complexity.)
RANDOMNESS and PRAYER
As a believer in Christ, one of the things I noticed when I was younger and just beginning to really pray about things was that most often, answers to prayer just seemed like a string of really good “luck.” Most of the time when we pray, nothing occurs that actually seems to break any natural laws (like limbs growing out, or objects materializing out of thin air.). Most of the time, it just ends up seeming like things went better than we could have expected them to go, with a line-up of freak coincidences and really impossible-to-conjecture happy occurrences just line up in.a way that leaves us in awe and praising God for how our prayers were heard.
Sometimes the string of “good luck” borders on the edge of ridiculous. I’ll never forget the time in my teens that I decided I wanted to SEE an angel and locked myself in my room for hours doing nothing but tarrying in prayer over this, holding to Jesus’s promise that if we asked for ANYTHING in His name, it would be done for us. While praying for so long, I had my eyes open and was staring into my aquarium as something to absent-mindedly look at while praying. Hours into this prayer marathon, with not a soul in the world including my family having any idea what I was focused on that day and no previous discussions about it with anyone, my mom who had been gone all day long while I was doing this, uncharacteristically had a random thought to go to the pet store and buy me two new fish — angel fish — for my aquarium.
It interrupted my prayers when she got home so I took a break to help her unload groceries and then put the bag floating in my tank to let the fish acclimate to the tank water, and ultimately shut my door and resumed my prayer, staring once again into my fish tank absently, until about 10 minutes in I realized I was looking right at “angels” that hadn’t been there when I started praying. Ok, well, I certainly wasn’t expecting ANGELfish, while begging the Lord to let me see an angel. Honestly, I was amused and angry at the same time, as I realized that for whatever reason, the joke was on me, as God demonstrated that He heard my prayer AND pretty much played with the semantics of my request to pull a joke on me which I was shocked to find out He might do.
Again, when prayer seems to result in a ridiculous string of “good luck” – another time much later on, my husband went for a couple weeks without work and our finances were stretched, and for various reasons we also couldn’t use our kitchen so we were having to eat out. While we prayed for the Lord to please bring him calls for work to provide for our bills, during that week our seeming “good luck” left us rejoicing in awe of the Lord’s kindness in the “ether” of the universe — a malfunctioning coupon code at one restaurant gave us our entire meal for free; at another restaurant, they mistakingly put mustard on something we asked for no mustard on, so they decided to fix the order AND give us 50% our entire meal. And on and on, until it was literally ridiculous and happy.
These are the types of occurrences that could never be used in an apologetics debate to prove God to someone who doesn’t believe, but for those who already believe, the seeming “good fortune” that occurs when praying about stuff can be pretty amazing. And yet accusations of “confirmation bias” might rightly be applied; which really only further underscores the point I wish to make – that overall, much of the time, God’s observed interactions with the physical universe are so subtle that they really look no different at all than the general randomness in the midst of overwhelming complexity that surrounds our existences. And yet, answered prayer seems to put us on the “good luck” side of that incalculable, immeasurable, randomness.
It should be mentioned that Curses, spiritual opposition, and general spiritual negativity seem to work like that too, though. For instance, people are often aware that when they try to step out in some direction in life for the purpose of bringing freedom to people long held in some sort of oppressive bondage, that often they experience a string of “bad luck” and everything going wrong — as if some invisible force was pushing back at them for trying to see others get set free from things.
The apostle Paul said in 1 Thess 2:17-18:
“Brothers, although we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in heart), our desire to see you face to face was even more intense. For we wanted to come to you—indeed I, Paul, tried again and again—but Satan obstructed us….”
This of course leaves open all sorts of room for interpretation — while one person might see a string of negative occurrences as “satan obstructing them” from a course of action, another person might see the same type of circumstance as God trying to show them to make a different decision about what they are doing. (The whole, “Open doors you want me to go through, God, and shut the ones you don’t,” sort of prayers that people sometimes pray, usually mean those people will take resistance not as a sign that satan is resisting them, but that God has “shut a door.” I personally usually don’t lean towards assuming everything that happens is from God.)
How can one know what is truly going on, whether general “flack” kicking up from the universe is just truly random, or perhaps a warning from God, or even a sign that one is headed in a right direction that evil forces don’t like? That’s a long discussion for a different blog post — one about divine guidance, discernment of spirits, and hearing God. But the short answer is that in my opinion, one can never make a decision based on circumstances alone; but must listen to the Holy Spirit to get His perspective, as different spirits (both God or evil spirits) can be responsible for things going on around us. We can learn though that we are supposed to have some role though in making such decisions from the apostle Paul who confidently asked other believers to join with him to “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful, as you pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word [notice no prayers here for closed doors], so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may declare it clearly, as I should.…” (Colossians 4:3)
THE UNIVERSE ON AUTOMATIC
All that aside, what about the kid who gets cancer, or the family killed in a freak car accident? What about when prayer doesn’t “work” at all, and instead of a string of good luck, everything goes terribly wrong, or nothing much happens at all? Is God (or satan) always to blame for the effects of seeming randomness?
As I learned about probability and chaos theory and brought some of those ideas into my faith, one time I felt God was inviting me to go to a casino with Him. (I seldom go to casinos but all things are permissible — in moderation. 😃 ). From that experience and multiple other “experiments” with randomness and probability, my opinion at the moment is this:
BUT — It seems as if randomness is a place that God can hide yet emerge, when He wants to exert His influence, yet in a seemingly inconspicuous way. Most often, God’s exertion of His power is in conjunction with prayer, as God generally acts in conjunction with His human representatives, His kingdom of “kings and priests” on the Earth. Those of us who are in the midst of developing intimacy and friendship with Him can ask and watch for these emergings, and participate with Him in seeing them happen as we dialogue with Him about His will and desires. But most of the time even when God does do something unusual, He cloaks Himself with plausible deniability, so that only those with “eyes to see” really know that He has done something, and those whose eyes are still closed to Him can go on dismissing Him.
Why He does that, I don’t know if anyone can be sure; we all would love every moment to be like Elijiah before the prophets of Baal, putting God on full display with fire falling from Heaven in impossible ways, in plain view of those who don’t believe so that their coming to believe would be easy. But God doesn’t usually go for the full out, “breaking the laws of nature” power display….
(Although, sometimes, sometimes, He cracks right through the fabric of our mundane random reality with something completely out of this world, and undeniably freakish stuff happens. Or does He? Maybe in those cases He just operates within really, really, really good probabilities, so good that trillions of particles in the probability of quantum physics just “happen” to line up with creating a new organ or something…But whether it breaks the laws of physics or is just freakishly quantumly normal, this is really rare compared to what we’d often want it to be.).
My sense of this is just that God is Spirit, and He desires people to know Him in Spirit, so He hides Himself much of the time so that the only way He can truly be perceived is Spirit to Spirit. Because even if someone comes to believe in Him because of experiencing something material of Him directly with the eyes of their flesh, somehow then they still have a hurdle of getting past what they experienced in outward terms to really still apprehending Him with the gaze of their inner Spirit. (2 Corinthians 5:16)
RANDOMNESS AND THEISTIC EVOLUTION
There are considerations involving these topics when it comes to God using the randomness inherent to evolution to create all life on Earth. While evolution is not completely truly random but is a stochastic process operating under many filters and constraints, nevertheless there is enough randomness for one to refer to it as relying on probability and chance and be fairly correct. Often young-earth creationists will take this as a basis to object to a belief in evolutionary creation/theistic evolution, which because of randomness is in their mind being synonymous with a view that “God isn’t a Creator” or that miracles don’t happen.
But, as discussed above, God lives inside randomness and probability, and it is one of His favorite means of interacting with the material realm. If we are happy with answers to prayer that seem like nothing more than “good luck” while we indeed perceive that the “good luck” came from Heaven, while is it so unthinkable to concede that the mechanism of God’s direct action as Creator might involve Him breathing on probabilities and chances, even creating the fabric of probability and randomness itself?
When we speak of God “sending the rain” upon a place in response to prayer, do we think the rain came deliberately through some supernatural storehouse of precipitation, or can we speak of God sending precipitation knowing that He uses the same general random and chaotic occurrences that direct the weather on any other given day? I’d like to submit that the well-known “butterfly effect” — that a butterfly flapping its wings one day one one continent could be the tiny variable that when mixed with all the others ends up producing a hurricane in some other place — could just as easily be seen any tiny intervention from God, resulting in Homo sapiens and all other life on Earth.
God working from the hidden places of randomness is no less an act of creation than anything construed from a literal historical reading of Genesis 1 and 2; and in fact serves only to demonstrate His indescribable wisdom and power in being able to use incredibly complex and long-running processes towards His desired ends. For this, we praise the God of all life and all Creation, of all rain and all snow, and Creator of all the beautiful fractal patterns and outliers of this universe with all its probabilities and randomness.
I’ve been tossing around a different reading of 1 Peter 3:7. Traditionally 1 Peter 3:7 gets read something as if it says something along the lines as this: “Don’t be a jerk, husbands, or God won’t listen to your prayers.”
Here’s the text:
Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.
While I kinda like the idea of husbands getting warned that unkind or dishonoring behavior towards their wives will result in….something….my guess is that most husbands who would treat their wives in an unkind way are also not thinking too much about whether or not God is going to hear their prayers later. (Heck, maybe I’m wrong on that.) But it has occurred to me that there is another way to read this, which I’ve found particularly elegant if it turns out to be true, and because it appeals to me so much, I thought I would blog it:
This verse prefaces the concept of “your prayers not being hindered” with a concept of equality — “heirs with you of the grace of life.” Yes, I know this verse seems to strike against any such equality by calling women “weaker,” but, at least when it comes to spiritual and eternal things it puts women on equal footing with men, as co-heirs of the grace of eternal life.
So could it be possible that the apostle is not warning that failing to live with one’s wife in an “understanding way” will result in a hindering of the HUSBAND’S prayers, but rather a hindering of the prayers of them both, together, as a team of co-heirs? After all, two people praying in unity together is preferable to one person’s prayers alone, and marital disharmony could definitely result in a breakdown of unified prayer between the two spouses.
I can think of reasons it’s probably not the most likely reading of this text…but I still like it. The “your” in “your prayers not being hindered” is plural in the Greek, which could be due to the fact that the apostle is addressing plural husbands, but at least it’s not an “each of you” singular “your” which would rule my interpretation out.
At any rate, even if it is just referring to the husband’s prayers not being hindered, perhaps it is not simply some mystical hindering where God no longer listens to the man, but again, the hindering of not having his coheir helping him with his prayer life. Just an experimental thought for the day.
Catchy title, no? I thought about various things I could call this blog post when I started writing it — things like, “The Dark Hole of House Church” and “the Dangers of Housechurch” and the “Slough of Housechurch Despondency.” I finally settled on “The Housechurch Movement ruined my life” because, there’s enough truth in that to be worth titling this post that, and, I bet it will make you curious — and rightfully so.
First, let me talk about what I mean by “the Housechurch Movement.” In recent years, regular institutional-style churches have taken to calling midweek meetings that go on in homes a whole host of names, anything from “life groups” to “cell groups” but occasionally “house church” or “home church.” At any rate, these things are generally healthy and that’s not the house church movement I am talking about.
The House Church movement is a movement about leaving behind the trappings of institutional churches — such as sermons, preaching, pastors, church buildings, and everything that goes with all that, to have simple gatherings of friends in homes meeting on a very grassroots level to discuss their journey in Jesus, teach and pray with and for one another, and be a family together. Different “streams” of the house church movement do things similarly or differently and have different viewpoints on how meetings of believers function, but, in general, the main distinctions of the movement are no formal leadership, open participatory meetings, and no church buildings.
Now in and of itself, I don’t actually think any of that is wrong. If this is new to you, you might be intrigued or you might have a knee-jerk negative reaction and have a lot of objections in mind, and some are pretty common objections that I’d probably disagree with, because in many ways I am still a house church person at heart. Vast stretches of blogs on the internet are devoted to justifying and explaining the Biblical basis for doing things this way, and fending off critics that would raise an alarm at lack of leadership and/or structure. However, I’m not going to do either of those things as they are abundantly out there to read, except to say — I still have a huge love for grassroots meetings. In fact, I am a participant in a house church even at this point in my life, and it has been a wonderful blessing in my and my husband’s life.
Ok, so, have I confused you yet? (She says she has no issue with the concept of house church, and she is part of one, yet she is writing a blog about how the house church movement sucks?) Yep, even though I am part of a house church, there are so many ditches and pitfalls in the house church movement that this blog post really still needs to be written.
The good part about house church is that if you are in a terrible, blood-sucking, depressing institutional church situation, the house church movement is one place in Christendom that will tell you God still loves you and you’re not sinning if you stop going to church. It tells you that you don’t even need to go to church at all, that church is wherever two or three are gathered, so if you have a friend or two you can fellowship with, you are just fine. Short-term, this is freeing and life-giving to many people who need to know they are free from religious obligations to defunct church systems and are going somewhere they hate going thinking that God requires them to attend something. Short term, it is good to have the freedom to walk away from things that aren’t working and not be buffeted by soft-spoken condemnations such as “but you should stay and make this horrible church better” when you are totally not in a position to do so.
But long-term, and by that I mean longer than the [half year to two years or so] time it takes to clear one’s head and recover from a bad church experience, it’s not good to dig in one’s heals about not going to church, because we’re all made for community with others and after a while spiritual isolation becomes really traumatic all by itself. This is even more true if you are a single person hoping to find a Christian spouse, or, if you are a parent hoping to raise children excited about being followers of Jesus. Hundreds if not thousands of people out there on the internet pride themselves in “being the church” instead of “going to church” and while the freedom not to be imprisoned in some religious system of things is meaningful, the tendency is to end up feeling really doctrinally correct but oh so isolated.
Many of those thousands of out-of-church people in the house church movement, including me under the influence of house church dogma, desperately WANT fellowship, but are encouraged to hold out with occasional fellowship with a few friends while waiting for the utopian dream of a real, bonafide, healthy house church in their area — or moving to another area of the country to find one.
You wouldn’t have known how isolated I felt — or others feel — by the way we defend our out-of-church circumstance to well-meaning Christians (by whom I considered myself “attacked”) who naively seem bewildered by a brother or sister who refuses to participate in a regular church. When years roll on being alone and fellowshipping only online or occasionally with the two or three friends in an 100 mile radius one has that echo their own viewpoint becomes one’s entire experience of life in the body of Christ, it can be very bad for one’s spiritual progression. This slowly becomes as toxic and damaging both emotionally, socially, and spiritually as any bad situation one may have left behind.
And here’s the rub — I know too many people, myself having been one for too much of my life — who were so critical of how church should or shouldn’t Biblically function that we ended up in the wilderness for years on end, suffering needlessly in isolation while we convinced ourselves that we were loving the body of Christ while holding out for this ideal way of meeting with believers, and refusing to become involved with any group of Christians that weren’t doing it right. I didn’t realize it but this had become a false robe of righteousness for me, my “right” ideas about how the church should function — and I was encouraged by others in the movement that I was suffering for being on the right path. This was such a lie, and I wasted years of my life believing it… I left one negative system to end up in a psychological nightmare worse as bad as any system out there.
(And as a single person, it may have been the single most important factor in delaying me getting married until my forties, something that some people might choose willingly but with my hopes of having children, I did not.)
TOO FOCUSED ON A TWO HOUR MEETING
Church is minimally two hours a week – yet the house church movement makes things seem like what happens in this two hour block of time is the be-all of God’s concern for His people – the “ultimate intention” he has for His bride on Earth. When I bought into that idea, I found a great house church that did everything right — for those two hours. We had amazing meetings under the headship of Christ, open participation and all. But I need up scratching my head at how we could have such great meetings and yet, almost no community during the other 166 hours of the week. I stayed way too long in a soul-killing situation, because I believed what really mattered was how great this church was at having a good meeting.
I finally realized that it doesn’t matter how great or how lousy the church structure is — what really ends up mattering is the fabric of community the rest of the week. Since then, I’ve also scratched my head at institutional churches I visited with that were horribly restrictive and exercises in sheer boredom for two hours, yet during the rest of the week people were spending time with each other, praying with each other, helping each other with life, being real friends and community. I’ve marveled at God’s humor at juxtaposing these two situations in my life, almost to get me to ponder which is better or worse in His sight, until I realized that I was too busy trying to figure out what kind of church God approved of, and that this was a pretty legalistic way to think when the reality is that the best church is the one where I was growing the most with God and with others.
Yet, the House Church movement was all about Christ being the Head of His people but I started to realize — the Holy Spirit moves more among a group of folks who meet in a church building every week but know how to be family all week long, than a bunch of religiously prideful house churchers who have the perfect meeting for two hours on Sunday but never see each other otherwise. Christ is interested in being the head of His people for all 168 hours of the week, not just a two hour meeting.
The obsession on meetings and getting them right doesn’t just detract from what goes on during the rest of the week, but it also keeps housechurches from meaningfully getting off the ground to begin with. The internet is full of people trying to start their own housechurch that are begging someone to come teach them “how to have a meeting” with no one leading (except Christ, of course.) This gets really paradoxical, with the ideal being to start something, but of course it can’t be you that starts something, it has to be Christ, so you constantly have to make sure you aren’t doing anything while partnering with Christ to do something, but of course that happens through you (and through others who have to make sure they aren’t doing anything either — ESPECIALLY not leading anything.). It turns out to be a lot of work to make sure you aren’t doing anything while doing things yet not you but Christ in you. A lot of work indeed, to the point of being confusing, which is why you might need an expert who also isn’t doing anything but is somehow also an expert at teaching you to not do anything except to let Christ do things, to come help you learn how to be better at not doing anything while doing something — yet not you, nor them.
I still see people in house church discussion groups asking “how to have a meeting without having anyone lead it” and “how do people with a teaching gift get an opportunity to use their gift without taking over the meeting” and I am realizing this movement ties people in knots, telling them to pull off paradoxical things because of being so afraid that anything a human does might replace Christ being the head of a gathering. Christ is most fully the head of a gathering when everyone is raised up to be who they fully are — pastors, prophets, teachers, worship leaders, poem readers, intercessors, evangelists, artists… and we’re too busy crucifying each other’s gifts in the name of Christ than to really see what it means to have all the parts of the body truly functioning in Him and He in them. Some of the teaching in the movement is so anti “doing” in the name of not being works oriented and learning to sit at Jesus’s feet that it was completely disorienting to me as a young adult trying to figure out what to “do” with my life. Only now in my 40s am I starting to recover and too much time was wasted.
People who have written books and lead conferences will volunteer to come and teach your group how have a meeting with no one leading, but often the “model” of how to do housechurch often is restrictive and strangles things that would bring life to the group. One model is intensely performance oriented — you join for a year and either spawn another group in that year, or you are kicked out. Another model replaces all the songs sung in your housechurch TO Jesus with songs that emphasize who you collectively are as the bride of Christ together, so that musical worship time no longer really focuses on Christ as much as on us, who are the bride of Christ. (I personally found this hard to get into very much — it was just too distracting for me from the One I wanted to worship.)
Also, there are some house church experts who ban musicial instruments during singing because anyone playing a guitar would be “too much of a leader” in a fiercely leaderless movement. As a result, singing worship songs often loses something that only an instrument can provide, and its not a small thing that gets lost. I understand that the opposite excess is often true in the institutional church — music becomes flashy, pre-packaged, overly hyped, etc. But when humble people with instruments play worship music from their hearts, and do so in a way that is sensitive and open to non-instrumentalists offering words and prayers, I’ve seen an amazingly beautiful thing. Yet many house churches are so afraid of someone leading they never experience how the Holy Spirit can move among people in that type of musical setting. And while a very common way that people learn how to tune into the voice of the Spirit is through experiences they have during musical worship and prayer, this process doesn’t occur as easily in house churches that are afraid of musical instruments.
The irony is that while I was full of house church dogma, I still listened to recorded worship music with instruments on CD or live streaming. I was afraid to be part of “the system” yet the music of “the system” I was drawn to in my private worship. God would touch me deeply through the voices of my brothers and sisters singing to Him in institutional churches and institutional church conferences, yet I squelched my desire to be part of that whole scene (and my talents and desire to make music and lead others in worship) because my doctrine didn’t allow for it, even though it edified me both to play for others and to be in environments where others were playing. I understand that there is hype, and bad music, and annoying shows, and yes, I understand that “worship is what you do with your life, it’s not music…” which people in the movement are so fond of saying, but the fact is something very edifying happens when people make music together to God, and the institutional church has led the way in this. But some of the house church models out there actively shut people out from this.
When I was young, I planted a garden and refused to stake the tomatoes because I wanted them to be natural. Most of them rotted into the earth they were laying on. I think this is a good analogy for my experience in the movement. Organic things often work hand in hand with non-organic things and a tomato stake does not take away from the organic growth of a tomato; it only enhances it. Some structures that people invent for church life as they gather are not harmful, they only enhance the ability of people to function together — but in the house church mindset I was infected with could only condemn those things. I do think people need to be set free from narrow-minded leaders who want to micromanage things and don’t know how to make room for the Spirit to flow and people to function as a body. But in my time in the movement, I believed all structure of any sort was wrong, and this kept me from being part of structures that would have been healthy and helpful to me and others.
The house church movement emphasizes listening to the Holy Spirit and being led by the Lord, but one time I had a dream where the Lord was talking to me about gatherings and boomed the word “STRUCTURE” all through me to where I still felt it burning as I woke up, but I was so blinded by my Housechurch dogma at the time that I could barely accept this. I wish I had accepted it sooner.
Hierloom tomatoes are good, but hybrid tomatoes have a lot of benefits, and the same is true in my experience of organic church life. These days I am still part of a housechurch, but it’s a group that doesn’t fit most of the desciptions I have shared above. It’s a very alive, happening group but there are two main leaders who drive it forward. They’re not afraid to be leaders and I haven’t gone to war against them being leaders as I might have in the past when I was a house church purist. In my experience over 20 years of house churching, the healthiest groups I have seen that didn’t fizzle out in a few months to a couple years, and that didn’t seem to grow stagnant, were groups that were hybrids between organic church and institutional church. They were groups that didn’t shut themselves off from the institutional church — they either had healthy relationships with other churches, even institutional ones — or they were an institutional church that decided to transition into being an organic open housechurch. All of the groups I have seen thrive over time had people in them with strong leading personalities; and they used their personalities to build up others to also be leaders and teachers in the group. I’ve even been to house churches where our entire group together would visit an institutional church, to keep the lines of communication flowing, and to receive of whatever importation of the Lord was in their midst. Last week, an institutional church we have a relationship with sent us a photo of their entire congregation praying for our little group.
House church claims to champion the priesthood of all believers and a passion for us all being part of the body of Christ, with Him alone as the head. But what I got sucked into was an elitist, divisive movement that was full of pride, and I drank the full cup of that. Instead of it helping me honor the body of Christ more, it cut me off from the body of Christ and took years of my life where I spun in circles trying to get some sense of how to connect in more meaningful ways than internet groups to others in the body. It stole my chances to find a mate while young. When the Lord spoke to me about doing missions work, it took at least a decade longer than it probably needed to be for me to do anything with that because I was disconnected from a support base and people who would have championed my way forward. (In fact, many in the housechurch movement actively dissuaded and even condemned me for my interest in overseas missions as being something too religious and unnecessary in their point of view.) It took a long time to realize that I need the body of Christ and people around me who love the same Lord I love, whether they are in an institution or not, and that the institution is not all bad.
When I think back on it, the things that catapulted my growth in the Lord the most were the times I went against my own house church convictions and sat momentarily under the teaching of some pastor or leader or institutional conference speaker and had the Lord give me some revelation or insight that yes, He could have given me directly because I also have the Holy Spirit, but for some reason, didn’t. He seems to appreciate using the gift of teaching for whatever reason, and one of the reasons is probably to make us depend on each other, priesthood of believers notwithstanding. Even so, I was so afraid of the institutional church for so long (and not because it had harmed me, but because my dogma said it was foul and unclean) that I stayed away too long from something that may very well have been a good place to plant my garden, and a good way to stake my tomatoes and bring forth a bounty of fruit in my life to the Lord. I hope that others who read this will read it not to condemn the house church movement, but to not be sucked down by it’s blind dogma into a pit of isolation and pride that has the potential to steal meaningful years of co-laboring and fellowship from one’s life in the body of Christ.
Christians generally recognize an idea that says they are commanded by God to forgive everyone who wrongs them, without any exceptions. I believe this creates a lot of theological gymnastics on ground level, where people end up with three choices of how to walk this out in difficult situations.
Let’s say Jenny’s husband Matt has brutally beaten her, and lied to everyone making Jenny look like the bad one, and Jenny had to get a restraining order and ultimately divorced him. This is unfortunately not as rare of a situation one might hope it to be…and thousands of other similarly horrendous situations (or even worse situations) which could be used as an example. Jenny now has a restraining order against her now ex-husband, for good reason, as he has often threatened her safety. But Jenny reads in her Bible that Jesus said if you don’t forgive others, God won’t forgive you.
There are actually three ways this could play out:
1) Take Jesus at face value of how He is usually interpreted as demanding forgiveness at all times, regardless of any extenuating circumstance, and completely forgive, no questions ask. (In this case, Jenny and her husband immediately make up and get back together.)
2) Pretend to take Jesus at face value, by changing the definition of forgiveness, and forgive only by using an altered, safer version of forgiveness which is completely inward, but has no practical effect on restoration of relationship with the person committing the crime, thus making one believe they have forgiven when actually they really haven’t. (In this case, Jenny says she has forgiven Matt but keeps her restraining order against him.)
3) Just simply refuse to forgive.
Christians may often be annoyed at the suggestion that they are doing option #2, or offended that anyone would say it is fake forgiveness, but be really horrified that anyone would suggest #3. I would propose however that option #3, “refusing to forgive”, is ACTUALLY the most honest, and also the most Biblically coherent option in many situations, even if most Christians squirm at the suggestion.
Just as James could say, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I’ll show you my faith BY my deeds,” forgiveness is one of those things we can also talk about as a merely inward, abstract thing (like faith) or something that has outward, immediate, solid ramifications.
The model of what forgiveness is or isn’t should be God. Whenever in the Bible someone was forgiven by God, they were immediately brought into a place of restored, or potentially restored, relationship with Him. We don’t ever see an example of God saying, “I forgive you, but we’re not going to have a relationship anymore.”
Forgiveness is restorative — it is the dropping of all walls in one’s heart in a way that is actually made visible and practical for the other person. Forgiveness is not about the person DOING the forgiving, it is about the person who is BEING forgiven. It is a gift to the person who is given a chance to be in a relationship they don’t deserve to be in, because they have formerly done damage to the other person — and yet, the debt is canceled, the offense is forgotten, and the way is clear again for the relationship to be restored.
In our very individualistic, self-focused society, we have instead concocted a version of forgiveness that is not about extending an opportunity of restoration to another person, but is a matter of restoring oneself after being wounded. Over and over people will talk about how forgiveness is about letting go of inner turmoil (bitterness, obsessive rehashing of wrongs, etc) so that they themselves can move on to inner healing. While letting go of bitterness is a really great thing to do for oneself, this in and of itself does not constitute Biblical forgiveness. It IS indeed a great step towards inner healing, but it is a mistake I believe to call it forgiveness. Forgiveness is not just about what goes on in one person, but it extends to the other person as well. To tell another person, “I forgive you, but stay away from me” is to malign what true forgiveness is and to misrepresent the forgiveness that God showed us in Christ.
It is non-sensical and illogical to say, “I cancel your debt (forgiveness) but if you ever show up here again I’ll have you arrested (because of what you’ve done to me you still can’t be around me.) We’re speaking out two sides of our mouth to say “I release what you’ve done wrong to me, but you still can’t have a relationship with me because of what you’ve done to me.” When God forgave us our sins, he forgot what they were. He didn’t say, “I forgive you but you can’t be with me in my Kingdom ever again.”
It might make us feel better about ourselves to say we’ve forgiven but won’t restore a relationship, and in some religious way make us feel religiously righteous and make us believe we’ve obeyed the command to “forgive”, but it falls short of what true forgiveness is. Unfortunately, entire “inner healing” scripts in the christian community continue to reinforce that this version of forgiveness is true forgiveness. (Jewish definitions of forgiveness would not agree, however — as Jewish understanding are much more holistic.)
No, because there is option #3…Jenny can wisely choose to simply not forgive her ex-husband, while if it helps her heal, also doing the work of letting go of bitterness (which is a side issue and not really related to the subject of whether or not she has forgiven him.) This is actually Biblical. But it is important to call it what it truly is and to keep our definitions coherent.
It is always dangerous to make an entire doctrine out of one verse, removed from all context of other verses on the same subject in the Bible. While Jesus did say that if you don’t forgive others, your Father in Heaven will not forgive you, this is not the only time Jesus spoke on the matter. It’s also not the only thing that the Bible demonstrates overall on the matter.
For instance, there is the example of 70×7 — where Jesus told Peter that if his brother ASKS for his forgiveness 490 times, he should give it to him. Notice that Jesus didn’t say to Peter, “Your brother shouldn’t even have to ask forgiveness, Peter, you should forgive Him before he even asks.” No, Jesus made it clear that the “asking” was part of the key to forgiving the brother.
Should Jenny forgive her abusive, manipulative, ex-husband simply because he asks? Caution should be taken here. Part of the Christian inclination towards forgiveness is that no one should ever take the stance that no matter what, someone’s sins are so great that under no circumstance whatsoever would I ever be willing to forgive them. There should always be a willingness that somehow there is some way this person might one day be forgiven, if they have truly repented and changed.
However, Jesus also said we are to be wise as serpents, and I believe it is important to let that “serpent-wisdom” fit the crime that has been committed. Letting the wisdom fit the crime might not sound Biblical but there is an idea all over scripture of using “true weights and measurements.” We see this in the book of Genesis in how Joseph walked through the situation of forgiving his brothers, who had sold him into slavery with murder in their hearts towards him. He weighed them according to the measure of their wrong, and put them through a test that was appropriate to their crime (the cup placed in their sacks having them arrested) and waited until the Holy Spirit revealed that they were indeed truly repentant (when they gave him the reaction he was looking for.) Joseph wasn’t in a rush to judge them either way, he took his time, made them jump through his hoops (which is the right of the party being asked to forgive) and only when he was fully satisfied that their hearts were changed, did he forgive them.
Jenny, likewise, might require Matt to do some sort of treatment program. She might say something like, “You hurt me and broke my trust very badly, and if you ever want a chance to be back in a relationship with me again, you need to make restitution by taking steps to show me you understand the gravity of what you have done, the fact that you need serious help, and that you are laying down your pride and doing X, Y and Z programs for the next 3 years, twice, to show me you are doing everything you need to do to make good on all the harm you have caused. And then, and only then, will we talk about possibly trying to restore this marriage.”
When someone truly apologizes, they are saying they own what they have done wrong. Part of apologizing when one’s crimes have been particularly damaging is owning one’s responsibility for one’s actions truthfully. Matt’s apology in this case may need to be a whole lot of steps demonstrating he is bearing the weight of his own wrong. In a huge number of cases, people who have committed huge abusive sins against others will not be willing to truly own their responsibilities and thus make true (not fluffy, merely manipulative) apologies.
So what about the person who is not ready to own their wrongs? Jesus makes allowance to NOT always forgive:
When He had said this, He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.” John 20:22-23 Berean Study Bible
He did not give us authority as the church to “retain” sins for no reason, as if this power was never to be used (because after all, if we are to forgive everyone, all the time, what’s the point of this authority?) But we are given this power to be used with discernment of men’s hearts. It also makes no sense to apply the verse, “If you don’t forgive, your Father won’t forgive you” to every situation, otherwise it wouldn’t make any sense that Jesus gave the authority to the church to NOT forgive sins.
Yes, we should always be WILLING to forgive others — I hope my words are never used as an excuse to be hard-hearted people who refuse to restore relationships no matter how contrite and how much restitution the other party is willing to give. And yes, it doesn’t do us any good to walk around with bitterness in our souls, and we should always pray for our enemies partially as a discipline in order to keep ourselves free from bitterness, but also because we truly want to see God help our enemies, despite whatever things we still hold to their account! But forgiveness is not a mere release from our own inner turmoil as it if it is just a self-help therapy; forgiveness has teeth on it and is the power to extend true restoration, forgiveness turns enemies into friends.
We need to start being honest about what step in the process we are on, with no condemnation and all the freedom given to us in Christ to exercise our own discernment in these matters, owning it for what it is. It is part of wisdom, and getting real, that we keep our definitions coherent.
For further reading, please see this excellent article HERE about forgiveness as well.
Also, for a commentary on the therapeutic culture that says healing requires someone to let go of bitterness, read here.