Marriage and the dark side of “Jesus is enough” theology

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It was a refrain I heard from just about everyone as I came of age as a Christian.

I first remember listening to sermons by John Piper proclaiming that God is most glorified when I am most satisfied in him. Later, Timothy Keller would speak of how putting our ultimate hope and identity in a romantic relationship will ultimate fail us and lead us to despair, showing that it’s only through finding complete love and acceptance in God through Jesus that we gain the spiritual buoyancy to weather the inevitable disappointments of our spouse.

Indeed, just about every article about singleness and marriage that I read on Christian blogs, websites, and magazines, it seemed, warned against putting too much stock in the hope of fulfillment from a potential spouse that gets stirred up with the exhilarating experience of falling in love. Whether married or single, these voices said, you already have all of that in Jesus. Just delight in him and stay rooted in the perfect love and complete acceptance that he has given you through the cross.

At the same time, I also read both secular and Christian books that critiqued our modern image- and material-obsessed culture. They exposed how, absent a robust faith in God and given the prevalence of pop culture’s Hollywood endings, the modern person is taught to long for ideals of physical beauty and happily-ever-after in a romantic partner that will never satisfy us. Literature is replete with examples of men and women torn apart and ultimately crushed by the failure of their lover. Even my favorite music artist, Jon Foreman, sang of trying to drown his existential pain with a friend who’s “got a pretty face with her wedding lace.”

But in the end, he laments, “I’m still waking up with myself.”

The great danger, it seemed clear to me, was idolizing a romantic partner. Don’t make your spouse (or a prospective spouse) your savior: first, because they can’t be, and second, because you already have one.

To be clear, I take no issue with the greater truth of these exhortations, only with how I followed them. With my guard firmly up against romantic idolatry, I embarked on a relationship with the woman who is now my wife. I fell for her hard. She was beautiful, exuberant, friendly, free-spirited, and full of God’s life and love in a way that I’d seen in few other people. She was the kind of woman that a lot of guys would find instantly attractive, and I didn’t want to be the latest addition to a list of desperate suitors. I quickly grew to love her and desired to be with her, but I didn’t want to become so attached that I wouldn’t have the emotional and spiritual capacity to walk away from the relationship if that’s what was best for both of us.

The result of my wariness was a painful cycle driven by my projected sense of cool detachment covered with a spiritual veneer. She would become fearful and threaten to break off the relationship, and I would calmly reply that while I really liked her and wanted to stay together, she was free to end things if she really wanted to.

And if she did, I added, I would be okay. Privately I rationalized that I had my relationship with God to fall back on, and while it would obviously hurt to break off our relationship, she wasn’t the ultimate thing in my life and eventually I would recover and move on. I could marry her and it would be great, I told her, but if that wasn’t what she wanted, then ultimately I didn’t want it either.

To her, this came across as a take-it-or-leave it attitude, and it stoked a deep-seated feeling in her that I didn’t really care about her or our relationship all that much. “I could leave,” she would tell me at various times, “and you’d be totally fine.” Worse, my fear of falling into idolatry led me unknowingly to maintain a certain emotional distance from her. I don’t want to idolize her, I thought, so I’d best work out my deepest hurts and fears between myself and God. Better that than letting her into the pain I would feel if our relationship ended.

The problem was that I didn’t let my care for her show in a way that was vulnerable—that was woundable—because I had subtly conflated the sin of idolatry with the experience of being deeply hurt by losing someone I desired. I failed to grasp that a relationship with God, truly experienced and understood, leads not to detachment from the world but into a deeper love for the world and for the people made in God’s image. More than that, I failed to understand that satisfying one’s deepest needs for love, purpose, and belonging in Jesus does not inoculate us against the wounds and sorrows of world—least of all those caused by one’s significant other. In fact it does just the opposite.

It took several more cycles of my projected detachment during the early months of our marriage for me to start opening my heart and showing my wife through confession and tears that the prospect of losing her would cause me more pain and grief than anything I’d ever experienced. I had to learn to show her that she affected me not only in positive ways like being fun and encouraging me to follow Jesus, but that she also had the capacity to deeply hurt me. She needed to see me make myself vulnerable to know that I cared for her.

Is this not, after all, how God shares his heart for us? Is this not the song of the prophets, whose words ache with the grief God feels when his people leave him to chase after other gods? Is this not the experience of Jesus, who not only wept over the death of Lazarus but ultimately suffered the death of a perfect relationship with his Father for our sake?

God does not have a desperate or needy love for us, I understood that well enough, but his love for us is reckless and deep and woundable. Our romantic relationships, while no substitute for God himself, should look the same.

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Dyin’ to Live: Smallpools’ millenial anthem

A good friend of mine once remarked that our generation is the first that isn’t willing to die for anything. I think he was on to something – not to say that we don’t care about anything (quite the contrary), but rather that confidence and conviction in something outside of self is hard to come by these days.

If Fun.’s “Some Nights” is the anthem of my generation, unsure of what we stand for, then the band Smallpools has written something of a secondary anthem with their new song “Dyin’ to Live.” It probably won’t make the same cultural waves, but it captures the digital ethos of the new millennium. Consider the opening verse:

I wonder, Have I lost my mind?

I was having a meltdown, but I don’t know why

‘Cause I sleep alright, and I eat just fine

I’m not scared of being a lonely man, or even dying, just missing out

That’s a remarkable statement. It is weighty with a sense of its own irony. Who isn’t afraid of loneliness or death? Those are the quintessential human fears. But it is pithy in substance. In the modern age, all of our immediate material needs have been met. We sleep safe and sound with a roof over our heads; we can afford to eat healthy. And so “FOMO” – Fear of Missing Out – is the not-so-deep and dark terror that haunts us. What could be worse than missing out – blowing a chance for greatness or love, not being there with your friends in the most “epic” moments, lingering in your own unfulfilled potential while everyone else goes out and lives awesome lives?

Image from WikipediaWhen you consider the current human condition in the broader perspective of history, it’s not hard to see that FOMO is trite. It is caught up in the present era, decidedly narcissistic, and arises from a skewed view of our friends and acquaintances. But trite or not, the lyric is still an accurate diagnosis. If you were to somehow chart my mind’s activity, a fear of missing out would come up much more frequently than a fear of loneliness or death. And I suspect I’m the rule among my peers, not the exception.

So what is the answer? The song issues no grand aspirations to heroism, honor, or immortality; instead it cries out for an elusive, simple contentment:

It’s not much to ask for

We’re only trying to just feel alright

We’re only trying just to find that steady love

We’re only trying just to buy some time

We’re all just dyin’, we’re all just dyin’ to live

What an anthem. I can imagine this one in a live concert, all of the kids belting it out, voices raised in a unified cry. We wonder why we’re so sad, and feel a rush of fleeting camaraderie with the strangers around us. We think of the love we’re still looking for, and feel just a little more optimistic. We remember the times we wish we could have back and consider the ever-shrinking future. The very act of expressing the longing washes us in a wave of catharsis, which reaches its peak in the bridge:

I know there’s something better

I cannot fight what’s falling apart

I’ll get myself together, together, together

My shield of rusted metal can’t keep this world from falling apart

So let’s tear this down together, together, together

It’s not much to ask for

It’s easy to dismiss the young person’s angst in the midst of raging emotions and a life with hardly any meaningful responsibility. But as C.S. Lewis might suggest, this guttural sense that the life we have right now isn’t good enough is a clue about the deeper appetites of the soul. It’s pretty self-evident, after all, that the world is falling apart. We also know that our lives could be better. And we fear (rightly so) that there’s nothing we can do to stop it or fix it. We don’t think we want much, just to feel alright and find that steady love and not feel pressed for time.

Time, love, and a clear conscience, however, are a tall order. Should we really expect life to deliver them?

The older voices in our lives tell us to suppress these questions. They tell us to suck it up and realize the world doesn’t revolve around us. There’s a lot of practical wisdom in this. Most of us won’t amount to something “special” – whatever “special” means. We may find a surprising amount of satisfaction in casting aside some of our insatiable ambitions, making a decision, and sticking to it even if it doesn’t fulfill all our expectations. Planting ourselves in one place with a steady job, a spouse and a family may feel like settling, but there’s a lot to be said for stability – and for choosing contentment (which is a choice, after all). Here in the routine of selflessly sustaining others, perhaps, is something of that steady love. Maybe by letting go of our obsession over all the things that we potentially could be doing with our time, and enjoying on the present moment, we can buy a little more time.

Maybe. There’s a scene near the end of the film Boyhood where the main character Mason’s mother is about to send him off to college. At this point we’ve spent about two hours watching him grow from grade school nearly to adulthood. He decides not take a certain picture of himself to college. Why would he want to take a piece of his past with him like that, he reasons. His mother sees it, and for some reason the act of leaving the past behind, forgotten, triggers an existential breakdown. She begins to weep.

“You know what I’m realizing? My life is just going to go. Like that. This series of milestones. Getting married. Having kids. Getting divorced. The time that we thought you were dyslexic. When I taught you how to ride a bike. Getting divorced… again. Getting my master’s degree. Finally getting the job I wanted. Sending Samantha off to college. Sending you off to college. You know what’s next? Huh? It’s my f***ing funeral!”

I haven’t been through the generational process of marriage and children, but that scene scares me. It sounds like even the more traditional steady life, pursued as an end in itself, will leave us like Saito in the film Inception: lost in unreality, “filled with regret, waiting to die alone.”

Where, then, can you go for the life Smallpools is singing about here? I think they’re asking the right questions. They’re right to feel dissatisfied. Most nights we don’t know what we stand for, but we’re pretty darn sure it’s something better than what we’ve got right now. We’re all just dyin’ to live.

A Silent Film on the Absurdity of Relationships

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One of my favorite songs right now is Let Them Feel Your Heartbeat by the alt-rock band A Silent Film. I remember when I first listened to it a couple weeks ago – it seemed like a nice jam with a pleasant melody, until I heard the second verse:

The Heart is deceitful above all things

So desperately wicked, and who can really know it? Are you listening?

And if you know what I’m talking about

Let me feel your heartbeat, let me feel your heartbeat beat beat

The first two lines are almost an exact quote of Jeremiah 17:9, the classic proof-text in the Bible about the depravity of man. They seemed out of place because the song then launched into a call for intimacy in the chorus:

When it’s closing time and the night is young, do you need a friend to help you on?

You can lean on me and I’ll carry our bones home

As the stars explode in the sky above and the pieces fall back down to earth

If you lean on me then I’ll let you feel my heartbeat, let you feel my heartbeat

I love these lines because they confront the absurdity of relationships head on. Theoretically friendship of any kind should not work. Assuming that the human heart is in fact deceitful above all things, desperately wicked, and unsearchable, then it would intuitively follow that any sort of meaningful relationship – romance, friendship, father, daughter, etc. – is a lose-lose proposition. I mean, let’s take the fundamental problem here, a wicked human heart, and put two or more of them right next to each other so that they can feel each other beat.

How could that ever work? When two self-centered entities come together, they tend not to dissolve into harmony. They clash and oppose one another; they take from the other to enrich themselves; they render judgment upon the other so that they can puff themselves up; they impose discomfort on the other so that they can have pleasure.

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It sure gives me pause, sometimes, about opening up, especially when under the hood of my generally nice-looking life you find a heart that is often distressed and insecure and looking down on others and consumed with its own well-being. It really isn’t all that attractive. It’s easy for me to feel justified in this fear because I will inevitably hurt the people I bring closest to me.

Living on the surface is much easier. The superficial feels safer, except that it’s just that – fake. You can’t sustain a lie indefinitely. You can’t keep all the pressures bottled up and out of sight and out of mind. It’s not good to be alone. Many suicides and overdoses and anonymous forums testify to this. People seem just fine and happy to the outside world, while on the inside sorrow destroys them. Come to think of it, I’m not sure if there’s anything worse than not being known – not being understood.

Experience, then, teaches us that isolation is no way to live. There’s nothing for it but to move into that dangerous space around people, accepting the risk. C.S. Lewis confronts the paradox in this much-quoted passage from The Four Loves:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

Wrung and possibly broken. Possibly may be an understatement. The song acknowledges this in the opening lines:

The devil puts words in my mouth when we’re close

And you’re like the snow in spring, ever receding

Here we have the confession. When we start getting that heart-on-heart contact, I screw up. I say evil, hurtful things. I break you. And you understandably pull back from his. You try to shut yourself away so you can’t get hurt. But like that snow in spring, it leaves you melting into nothingness.

There is no greater asset in this world than the friend who sticks closer than a brother. As the ancient sage says in Ecclesiastes:

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him – a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

If you know what I’m talking about, let them feel your heartbeat.

“After-Birth” Abortion?

Like many people, I reacted with horror and disgust when I first read in The Weekly Standard about this recent article in the Journal of Medical Ethics. It is by two ethicists in Australia, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, and argues for the ethical legitimacy of what they call “after-birth abortion.” It’s a fascinating read, but it comes to a chilling conclusion: it is ethically permissible to kill an unwanted baby even right after it is born. The same reasons which justify abortion, they say, should also justify the killing of the potential person when it is at the stage of a newborn. This is because a newborn baby is not yet a “person” in the proper sense of the word. It can take a few days or weeks for an infant to develop a sense of self, purpose, and aims. If the child is going to cause undue stress to the mother or her family, or if the child’s life will not be worth living because of some debilitating disease, the best thing to do is end its life.

I come from the pro-life camp, and I’ve no doubt that a lot of pro-lifers will probably jump on this article and claim that it is the inevitable result of the pro-choice position and that all abortion advocates implicitly promote infanticide. I don’t want to go that far (at least not quite yet), but I do think that it demands some hard questions of abortion proponents.

Given the assumptions that justify abortion, their reasoning that extends this to newborns sure seems pretty valid to me, but I’d be curious to hear it from any pro-abortion folks out there: what makes killing a newborn different from aborting a fetus? If there is no line before birth, why should birth itself be a line? And if we want to delve more into the philosophy of it, what gives us the right to decide when a fetus becomes a person?

For William Saletan, writing for Slate, the big question for pro-choicers is this:

How do they answer the argument, advanced by Giubilini and Minerva, that any maternal interest, such as the burden of raising a gravely defective newborn, trumps the value of that freshly delivered nonperson? What value does the newborn have? At what point did it acquire that value? And why should the law step in to protect that value against the judgment of a woman and her doctor?

Or to follow another line of thought: why shouldn’t the mother’s best interests, particularly her psychological and economic well-being, take precedence over the destruction of human life—even if that life is still potential? It is, after all, on an inevitable course to personhood, which brings us back to the basic abortion debate. I’m not asking these questions to back anyone into a corner. I’m genuinely curious.

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Edwards Scissorhands and Suburbia

Again, another long drought in posts. But don’t worry, I refuse to let this die. Here goes:

I was excited to open my spring break by watching “Edward Scissorhands“, a film that has always intrigued me even though I knew very little about it.

I mean, just look at the poster. Who wouldn’t wonder what some creepy pale guy with wild hair and scissors for hands is all about? I understand it left quite a mark on the film scene, and it stands out among Tim Burton films as one of his masterpieces. No doubt many great film analysts have waxed eloquent on the nature of the isolated Edward character (Johnny Depp) or Burton’s brilliant ability to walk a fine line of crazed creativity. But even above these, something else about the film drew me in and rankled my heart with a righteous indignation. The inciting incident comes when Edward leaves the castle where he was created to go to the suburbs.

And the cast of suburbanites that Edward falls in with in his new life, well, I despise them.

(SPOILER ALERT: I’m not filtering my writing for spoilers at all, so I may say some things that give away the plot. You have been warned.)

Apparently Burton did not intend for his portrayal of suburban American to be so harsh. He said he wanted to depict suburbia as “not a bad place. It’s a weird place. I tried to walk the fine line of making it funny and strange without it being judgmental. It’s a place where there’s a lot of integrity.”

I do not want to condemn suburban America either, because it isn’t a bad place, per se. I grew up in a decent suburban neighborhood in Bakersfield, California–same home for 21 years and counting. My upbringing was about as stable as they come, and I’m very thankful for it.

That said, Burton may not have wanted to be judgmental, but “Edward Scissorhands” judges the suburbs, and it judges them pretty accurately. As someone who has spent most of the past four years in Santa Clarita, the city that Burton allegedly patterned the suburbs after, I saw a world in Edward Scissorhands eerily reminiscent of my own. Continue reading →

Purpose, Hope, Vanity and Death

Disclaimer: I mean no disrespect to my grandmother in all of this. I am, after all, indebted to her for my own life, which has been quite good thus far, and for that I am deeply grateful. She was a great blessing and joy to me at times, and for that I am also grateful. There is much I can learn from her life, but not all of it is positive. That is why I am writing this post.

My grandmother passed away just more than a month ago–the day before Thanksgiving. Her health had been in sharp decline the past several years, so it did not come as a huge shock, but it was difficult nonetheless. It was not so much the loss of the relationship that devastated me as much as the harsh reality of death, of a life ceasing to exist in this world, and knowing that we all are destined to the same fate. I spent some time meditating on it, and as I looked through the Bible, I soon found my way to the book of Ecclesiastes. Chapter 7 in particular caught my attention. It opens as follows:

A good name is better than precious ointment,
and the day of death than the day of birth.
It is better to go to the house of mourning
than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind,
and the living will lay it to heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter,
for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.

Better is the end of a thing than its beginning.

(Ecclesiastes 7:1-4, 8a ESV)

When the funeral was held a week later, I was thoroughly depressed. And I had every right to be, for one thing about the whole situation continually impressed itself on my mind–there was nothing in which to rejoice. Nothing about it merited one bit of goodness, happiness, joy or peace.

If that seems overly bleak, yes, I know that death is part of the course of life. From dust we came and to dust we shall return. As a Christian, I believe that for those who know God, death is even precious in His sight, but I had no clear indicators about my grandmother’s spiritual condition, and the prospect of divine justice left little room for hope.

Furthermore, on an even deeper level, I believe death is a horribly unnatural phenomena. It is the great unknown, the void that we must continually face but can never experience. The absurdity of it drove existentialists mad. The terror of it has driven many more to a similar desperate insanity.

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A Gender “Storm”

I remember hearing on Wednesday about the Canadian couple who have decided to keep the gender of their newborn child a secret. Only the midwives and immediate family members know the sex of baby Storm. Since then, I’ve read Al Mohler’s take on it, an article in the Globe and Mail, an article at God Discussion, and Storm’s mother Kathy Witterick’s  extensive response to the whole business in the Vancouver Sun. Here’s the original story at ParentCentral.ca.

My reaction to the whole thing was at first detached and curious, even though everyone in the newsroom who heard about it at the time reacted with an understandable disgust and disdain. I figured that I was operating as a journalist at the time, which means trying to look at stories even as crazy as that with a cool, careful, objectivity.

I’ve wondered over the past several days, though, why I was able to do this so easily. My beliefs scream that everything about it is wrong, and I do believe that Storm’s parents deserve most of the harsh criticism they’ve taken.

The main thing that gave me pause at first, I think, was this: I couldn’t–off the top of my head–come up with a good reason within the system of secular thought that they shouldn’t do it. My knee-jerk reaction was based almost entirely on my understanding of gender as part of God’s creation and in relation to imaging God’s character as originally reflected in creation. All I had was “God doesn’t like that, it goes against his will.” Without that Christian view (or some sort of theism that sees social institutions as instigated by God), well, I don’t see what’s to keep any sort of family unit, including gender roles, from disintegrating.

Now that I’ve thought on it a little more, though, I think there are three general problems with the line of thinking in the parents’ decision to keep Storm’s gender private.

ONE, they assume that we have the freedom to choose who we are and become. Witterick asks: “When will we live in a world where people can make choices to be whoever they are?”

The answer, I’m afraid, is “never.”

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