Category Archives: Theology

Tackling the hard questions about being a Christian woman

I’m a bit of a Goldilocks when it comes to a lot of things. I don’t like Summer because its too hot. I don’t like Winter because it’s too cold. I like Spring because it’s juuuust right. I’m like this with films and books too. It’s a classic but it’s too long. It’s entertaining but it’s too fluffy.

Well, I read a lot of books about women, about Christianity and about christian women. I struggle sometimes because they are too academic, or they are written by someone who is well meaning and learned, but not with an eye to the realities of some of the chaos of life, or the reality of being a woman that is less than Utopian. But I also wince when they are too light-weight and not biblically grounded enough. It’s hard to find books that are just right.

I am always on the hunt for books about being a Christian woman in the real world that help me wrangle with how to be a Christian mum, how to process issues of the day, how to be a Christian (and a complementarian) in a secular workplace and how to exercise complementarianism as a single mum.

If you haven’t had to grapple with the complementarian and egalitarian issues as yet, here’s a quick overview: These are the two primary positions on male-female relationships. Egalitarians say that men and women are equal in value and equal in function. We are the same in every way, holding and exercising equal authority and with no barrier to any activity, including preaching. Complementarians say that men and women are equal in value and different in function. This stance says that men are tasked with primary authority and that we are made for, and (should) exercise, different functions. And while there are degrees within this position, this includes a restriction on some things, most notably holding positions of authority over men.

That’s a very thumbnail sketch but we’re talking the gist of things here.

Personally, I am a complementarian. In all my Bible and commentary reading, it still seems to me to be the most biblically correct position. This is different to my egalitarian sisters and I would just say that this difference of opinion does not define my relationship with them, as there is far more fundamentals that we agree on than issues that we don’t. There are many areas we can respectfully disagree and still rejoice in Christ together.

Where my complementarian belief leaves me personally though, is working through what is the biblical application in my real and (very) messy life.

I have read a lot of books that have been helpful. Notably Hannah Anderson’s Made for More, Courtney Reissig’s Accidental Feminist, Carrie Sandom’s Different by Design and Claire Smith’s God’s Good Design.

Kathleen Nielson’s book Women of God however, is an absolute cracker.

The tag line of the book is “Hard questions. Beautiful truth.” and it certainly lives up to this. Throughout the book, Nielson raises, and tackles, questions that have been in the forefront of my mind, and those of some of my Christian sisters, for a long time. Her style is to pose a question, answer it from the Bible, but then keep asking “But what about….”

This is the great encouragement in this book. She recognises that shallow or trite answers might be true, but as women’s lived experience is deeper, so must be the answers. So she keeps asking until she bottoms out each issue.

Sometimes they are not necessarily easy truths. For example, there is an order of creation and that can be a difficult truth to reconcile and live out when our inclinations might strain against it. But what Nielson does is help to put the question into context and, because she keeps asking questions, she can help us to understand the nuance and beauty of the truth as it is meant to be – not what we might immediately assume it to be.

As an example, she tackles the order of creation and how historically, church elders have assumed that meant that women were in some way inferior to men, or “limited in the way they bear the image of God – in comparison to the way men do.” What she then shows is that God’s creation of women revealed man’s great need (man’s alone-ness is the only thing in creation that is “not good”) and then reveals woman as God’s great gift to complete creation so that it was good.

But then she keeps going – how woman’s role as “helper” is in no way demeaning; how it is wrong to apply order of creation theology to a secular workplace, to which this Scripture does not speak; how the intentionality of order of creation places a burden on man as the teacher and leader – not because woman is incapable, but because that is what God has tasked man to do. “This makes sense:” says Nielson “to lead means to go out before, so that others follow. Eve cannot bear that leadership responsibility because she wasn’t there before.” That might seem like an accident of circumstance, but with God, there are no accidents – so we must look into what this order of creation means.

She notes strongly that man is cursed because he failed to perform his primary responsibility to lead. This doesn’t cancel out Eve’s sin, but Adam’s sin is equally bad. Her sin is giving in to temptation. His sin was that, as the first created, he was to obey God and lead his wife (which includes leading her in the one law of Eden about the tree, which was given to him before Eve was created). He failed. And he was cursed.

This starts putting things into perspective. Order is not about inferiority. Its actually much bigger. Its about God’s plan for all of creation. This is hard for us because we can’t conceptualise that big. And “we often live in a way that assigns value according to roles” and God didn’t ascribe value to each role – our value is completely equal. It is us who ascribes value to the different roles of men and women and that’s what we strain against.

That is not to say that our differing roles haven’t resulted in terrible realities for some women and Nielson acknowledges this terrible sinfulness in our clumsy and sometimes wicked application of Scripture. But her aim is to get back to what God intended. She does this in an engaging and accessible way and at the same time really excavating through layers of questions that we all have about difficult passages of the Bible in the Old and New Testaments, and how they are applied.

This is a great book for avid readers and newcomers to the subject alike. It is a great read and by the time I got to the end, I felt so much more informed about what complementarianism means in practical application – in real life. I would also say it is a worthwhile read whatever your position is as there is helpful biblical wisdom in here. Most of all though, this book left me feeling so much more informed on reading and applying biblical wisdom from God’s revelation on women and so much more confident about the person God created me to be.

When everything seemed chaotic and directionless, we see God working in the details

I love the book of Ruth. OK, we have the same name but that’s not the reason. The reason is because most of the Old Testament involves grand sweeping stories of whole nations – and one nation in particular. The scene from the reader’s point of view seems panoramic. Like those opening scenes of a big Hollywood blockbuster – except that’s where it stays. And sometimes the view is just too wide to see everything. It stops us engaging on a personal level with the characters a lot of the time.

Except for the odd short book or story that takes us right into the heart of one family or one person. The book of Ruth is one of those. It hones right into the lives of three principle characters – Naomi, Ruth and Boaz.

It’s a beautiful story of loss and love and faith and hope. It shows us God’s sovereignty. We know this because from these humble beginnings, the very last verses in Ruth 4 tell us:

This, then, is the family line of Perez: Perez was the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, Salmon the father of Boaz, Boaz the father of Obed, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David. (Ruth 4:18-22)

Ruth and Boaz are King David’s great-grandparents.

But there’s another lens we need to see this story through. And this comes from the very first verse of Ruth:

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. (Ruth 1:1)

The book of Judges is the backdrop against which the book of Ruth is set. So what is happening in the book of Judges? Judges, on the surface, looks like a simple list of judges who rule the Israelites after Joshua dies. It’s not that simple but now’s not the time to get into that (although perhaps we will sometime soon because it’s one of my favourite books in the whole Bible). Even with a list of some quite good judges, most of them are pretty shoddy. God raises them up, but they end up doing things so wrong, there’s peace for a bit and then things get worse before God raises up another judge.

The whole book is really a litany of disappointments, wars, competing interests, paganism and apostasy. This goes on for about 400 years from Joshua to the last judge before Saul. That’s a looooong time for things to go badly. That’s the difference between now the end of the reign of Elizabeth I, the rise of the Puritans and the landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock.

The book of Judges says twice “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.” (Judges 17:6 and 21:25). It’s the last verse in the book in fact, just to make the point. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes. The law of Moses was forgotten (or ignored) and everyone just did their own thing. We see this clearly in the actions of the judges. Some good, some bad – but none of them great. And while God is present throughout the book, His people are not obedient and pay more attention to, and take more authority from, the pagan Canaanite peoples around and among them – exactly the opposite of what God had been telling them for hundreds of years.

It’s against this backdrop that we read the book of Ruth – against 400 years of strife and conflict. And that is why it is so startling. While the book of Judges plays out, God is working intricately in the lives of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz to bring about his purposes. He lifts the famine that brings Naomi back, He blesses her with Ruth who’s fierce loyalty makes her leave her own people and country to follow her mother-in-law, He brings Ruth to Boaz’s field, and so on and so on. God’s work saturates the pages of Ruth. And while on a societal level He is ignored, in these pages, God is the focus of all the activity.

His presence is in the fine detail, and yet the purpose is long lasting – eternal even. He works to bring Ruth and Boaz together who will birth the line of David. The first real king of Israel and the one whom is promised to return in some form. David is the seat of prophecy for Jesus. Matthew 1:1 provides “The record of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” But David is also the first “type” of this kingly persona that Jesus will supersede. Just as Jesus fulfills and supersedes Adam as God’s first-fruits (1 Corinthians 15:45), and Moses as prophet, so Jesus is the messianic return of David – the true king.

I think of all those people like us living in the time of the judges – ordinary people trying to live their lives the best they know how. Tilling their fields, tending their herds, arguing with their husbands, counting their money, paying their taxes, shouting at their kids, laughing at silly jokes, fearing the unknown, worrying about the future – just like us. 400 years of people just like us in a time which, when you look back was chaotic and directionless, but at the time must have just been their “normal”. And in that 400 years, God is working things for His purposes – the present purposes of bringing Ruth and Boaz together, the intermediate purposes of bringing the line of David into being and long purposes of laying the foundations for the coming of His one and only Son, Jesus Christ.

That, to me, is stunning. God is so powerful and sovereign over the whole thing, and yet He is so present in the details. In fact, when we recognise His presence in the details, His power over all is amplified.

Just remember the next time you are in the book of Judges. While this is playing out, while the judges are scrapping and fighting and failing, while the people were searching for a leader, God was working in the lives of just three people in a tiny town to bring into effect His ultimate saving plans for Israel and all the nations – for all of us.

It makes me wonder, what is He doing today? He is present in all of our lives and all of our details. We won’t know of course until we walk with Him in paradise and understand the full intricacy of His plans. But it is worth remembering – not only is He there, but he is working. Things may feel chaotic and directionless to us, but God’s plans are happening.

As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

(Isaiah 55:10-11)

I wonder how Jesus felt about someone else carrying his cross

The cross is where we see Jesus at his most human and most divine. It is heart breaking to read about his anguish, even though we know the triumph to come. This in itself is something Jesus understood – when his friend Lazarus has died (John 11:38-44), Jesus wept even though he knew that in a moment he would raise him to life again.

I feel this emotional pain when I read the account of Jesus‘ arrest and crucifixion. My heart breaks for him when he struggles with God’s will and yet accepts it. Even when an angel appears and strengthens him, Jesus is still in anguish and “he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” (Luke 22:42-44).

And this is because of me, I think. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. This is what the cross means. This is what Jesus’ suffering means. His anguish, his pain, his fear, his sorrow – it was mine. It was my fault.

Even though I know what it means. Even though I know what happened next, is still feel the sting of shame that it was my sin that put him there.

And yet even this shame of someone else carrying our punishment is something that Jesus felt. In Luke 23:26 we see that “as they led him away, they seized Simon of Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus.

As I was reading in my quiet time, this stood out starkly to me as I contemplated my shame. Jesus, on the road to his own crucifixion, having accepted the will of God, even though bodily broken, was forced to accept the suffering of another on his account.

The crossbar of the cross is estimated to have weighed around 32-42 kilograms (or 70-90 pounds) and the whole cross in the order of 136 kilograms (or 300 pounds). Even carrying the crossbar would have been a struggle for Simon on a long journey through jeering crowds along hot dusty roads to the crucifixion site – the whole cross so much more. And Simon must have tripped and strained and stumbled his way behind Jesus. And Jesus, walking in front, knew he was there. And knew he must have been suffering.

If I was Jesus, I would have felt shame. Shame for the pain of Simon, picked out of the crowd at random and forced to suffer because of me.

But this is where again we remember that Jesus was fully human. He felt what I feel when I contemplate the cross. He knows and understands us and our emotions so well – because he felt them.

And this is where I remember not to stay in my shame. You see, shame is a spur to correct behaviour. It’s a trigger to change the heart. It’s not a place we should stay. Because I am aware of my sin, I feel shame. That shame is a spur for me to breathe life into my faith with deeds – deeds of gratitude and obedience to the one who saved me, the one who gave everything for me.

The shame leads me to a gratitude deeper than an ocean. He did this for me – for all of us – while we were still sinners. While we didn’t know him, while we ignored him, while we held him on the cross with our sins. The expanse of God’s mercy is breathtaking.

And Jesus, our saviour, our shepherd, our treasure. So human. So divine. It’s unfathomable. And yet we can see these little glimpses in the gospels of the state of his heart, which in turn helps us to understand the glory of his divinity.

Read the gospels again. Read the crucifixion accounts. Hear his words. Feel his pain. And remember his glory. Because God’s actions are about the glory, not about the shame. Let your shame take you to gratitude, and as we celebrate this Easter, let us bow down and worship at his feet, because he deserves everything we have.

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34

The prayer which gives an instant diagnostic on the health of my faith

We’ve all had those dark times. The relationship that fails. The job opportunity that disappears. The medical results that will blow your reality apart. The financial hits that keep coming.

When I had that time in my life, I leaned on God like I had never leaned on him before – not because I was an amazing disciple, but because it was instinct, and it was because he was all I had. I absolutely had nothing else to lean on.

I would pray every day for things to get better. They didn’t for a long time and for a while got worse. On one hand it felt like he was stripping things away from me. On the other it felt like he was preparing me for something. But, I remember thinking at the time, is that what we tell ourselves when things are not going as we had hoped? Is that the comfort we give ourselves? Like we are some kind of walking inspirational meme?

But we can’t think like that, because its by faith that we lean on God and trust that in his sovereignty he is working things for his own plans and purposes. If we discount that as false self-comfort, we are discounting faith. Believing in God’s sovereignty and providence is an entirely biblical premise.

Paul in Romans 8 talks about his present sufferings being nothing compared to the glory to come. And he talks about the Spirit helping us and interceding for us when we don’t even have the words to say.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:26-28)

I remember not knowing what to pray for and starting to pray the Lord’s prayer. I felt so helpless, I didn’t even have my own words.

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one. (Matthew 6:9-13)

When I got to the bit about “your will be done” I couldn’t go on. Everything is his will – what if he was stripping things away from me? What if he was pushing me somewhere I didn’t want to go? What if he was pushing me towards something I didn’t want to do? What if the worst possible situation that I could imagine was his will?

Here’s the thing though. I was scared of God’s will because it was not my will. My will was about things getting easier as quickly as possible. His will for my life could be anything.

I didn’t know what God’s will for me was, but I knew it was more intricate and applied with infinite knowledge and wisdom. And I knew it is for my good.

That didn’t make it any easier but it started to help my mental processes and my spiritual strength. It meant I could pray for God’s will to be done, but ask for it to come with the kindness of strangers, or for it to play out with some help and guidance. I realised its OK to ask for things like that. Because the main thing is in praying for God’s will to be done and to believe it will be done.

And thats when I realised that this was revealing something quite amazing about the health of my faith. I was scared of praying for God’s will because I believe that it will be done.

That realisation gave be a feeling of enormous spiritual strength. I believe. Among the darkness and chaos and uncertainty, my faith was so strong that I truly believed God’s will would be done in my life. I believed it so much I was scared to pray it because I knew it would happen and that there was a possibility it wouldn’t align with my will for my life.

The confidence it gave me was huge. The strength it gave me was massive. I could pray to God for his will to be done, knowing my faith was strong and that he would eventually work all things for my good because I love him.

Now, with my life far more settled, I don’t know if what I’m living at the moment is God’s ultimate will or what comes next will be – who knows? But I have seen his divine providence over the years and I believe that he has, and is, working for my good.

From time to time now I pray the Lord’s Prayer – its a good thing to do, but it also gives me an instant diagnostic about how my faith is. Do I still feel scared to pray that his will be done in my life? If it is, I know I am close to him. If it isn’t, or isn’t as strong, I know I might be slipping into spiritual laziness.

Not that I want to be scared of God’s will as a punitive or disciplinary thing – merely that to be fearful of God’s will means being open to God pushing me outside of my comfort zone. It means knowing that God’s will for my life (which could be anything) takes precedence over my will for my life (which involves a lot more comfort and security). And that, to me, is scary.

So, if I feel my fear of the Lord slipping into complacency, I go back to scripture. I go to Exodus, I go to Psalms, I go to the cross. Anything that drives me back to God’s infinite power, sovereignty, love and grace.

That’s where I see his love for me. That’s where I draw my comfort – not in his ability to give me a comfy life, but in his salvation of the whole world, and the intricate working of his activity in our day to day lives.

1 plant, 12 mentions and the astonishing truth it reveals

We read the Bible for study and we read the Bible for familiarity. The former is good and necessary and brings us together with others. The latter is also necessary because it increases our theological muscle memory. And why is that important? Apart from keeping us close to God and anchoring us in His way, it helps us see things we never saw before.

You know how it works. You’re reading the Bible one day and something pulls you up short. I don’t remember reading that before, you think. What is that? What does that mean? Sometimes just reading the Bible for familiarity reveals little things that take us closer to Him. And it drives you deeper.

I was reading Psalm 51. This is David’s psalm confessing his guilt after his association (coughs awkwardly) with Bathsheba and murder of her husband. He begs God for mercy and says “I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.” (v3). Then he says in verse 7:

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
    wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.

Cleanse me with what? I must have glossed over that before – there’s a whole bunch of things you read without really thinking about it that are random ancient near east bits and bobs – ephods, seahs, ephahs…..whatever.

Hyssop is a plant that looks a bit like lavender.

Image result for hyssop

(Source: https://www.herbrally.com/monographs/hyssop)

It is mentioned only 12 times in the whole Bible:

  • 5 times in Leviticus and 2 times in Numbers in relation to rites for cleansing
  • 1 time in 1 Kings 4 in a list of things Solomon spoke of in his wisdom
  • 1 time in Hebrews 9:19 in a description of Moses in a rite of cleansing the people
  • 1 time in Psalms 51 as we saw above
  • 1 time in Exodus 12
  • 1 time in John 19.

Its these last two mentions that are absolutely startling.

In Exodus 12:22 God tells Moses to instruct the people to “Take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. None of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning.

This is the first mention of hyssop in the Bible and it is tied to one of the most momentous occasions in the whole narrative. The Passover was the night of the last plague of Egypt. It was the night that God would take the first born from every family, unless the sign of blood was made across the doorposts. In this case, God’s angel would pass over that house and the inhabitants would be safe. As part of this night, each family was to prepare their Passover lamb – slaughtered, cooked and consumed in a manner set out by God in a sign of obedience. And with the sign painted across the door with hyssop, the Israelites would be safe, before God leads them out of Egypt to the promised land.

The only other place that that hyssop is mentioned in the Bible is in John 19:28-30 – “After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth.  When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

The mention of this little plant at this scene is striking. It’s out of place. It jars. Hyssop of course was used by the Romans as an antiseptic and as a plant it grew all over the place out of walls. It’s not that that makes it’s presence odd. It’s use is odd because it’s quite a stumpy plant without much of a stalk to hold a sponge on, let alone one weighed down with wine. The other reason it’s odd is that in a relatively short narrative of the crucifixion, the details recalled are those that have a real point to make. For example, John recalls the soldiers casting lots for his clothes (which was foretold in Psalm 22) and declaring his thirst (which takes us to Psalm 69) among others. So the mention of hyssop is profound. What is it saying? What is it pointing us to look at?

Its previous use had been forgiveness (Psalm 51) and cleansing (Psalm 1 as well as Leviticus and Numbers) and salvation (Exodus).

Forgiveness, cleansing from sin and salvation. Three things which are encapsulated in the cross.

Furthermore, it links the cross directly with the Passover. He is our Passover lamb whose blood averts the death that we deserve before God leads us to His promised land.

This is not allegory and its not code. Its a deliberate and specific reference recalled by John to allow us to see the deeper meaning in the surface events occurring at a point in time. But instead of a single occurrence of a man executed on the cross, we see the single point in time where the whole universe is joined together. Everything leads to, and leads from, the cross. That little plant draws us from the cross, to the Passover and the Exodus and back to the cross and to what God’s ultimate plans are.

We have been forgiven. We have been cleansed, and we have been saved.

That little plant reminds us of so much. And it points to so much depth in that terrible torturous but glorious event.

As you read your Bible, look out for these little mentions. Read and read your Bible and read it again. Only proximity to God’s word will highlight these moments – but it’s in these moments that the depth of God’s work is seen in all its intricate, beautiful and wondrous detail.

An open letter from a happy single person on Valentine’s Day

It’s the week before Valentine’s Day. It must be because I’ve started seeing articles and memes about being kind to, and thoughtful of, all the lonely miserable single people. And no doubt that is a thing. Valentine’s Day for many is a reminder of all the things you don’t have. That can be excruciating. Especially when everything everywhere is geared towards rubbing it in your face – 2 for 1 deals for you and that special someone, people forever asking “What are you doing for Valentine’s Day” and even worse, posting their romantic excesses on Facebook. It triggers an extra loneliness because every other day of the year you might feel alone, but on this particular day, you feel super lonely.

We absolutely need to be sensitive to people’s needs around this time.

But lets not assume that every single person is lonely and miserable. I’m single-again (divorced) and decided from the get-go that I would not be in another relationship. So if I was not going to be in a relationship, that means a deliberate choice for single and celibate.

But I am generally a very content alone person. I am happy to be on my own and have a community of Christian brothers and sisters who I can spend time with if I choose. I suppose I miss companionship from time to time – someone to tell about your day, someone to watch TV with, someone to cook with. I guess I feel it the most when times are hard. There’s nobody to fall back on, no one to support you. You have only your own mental and emotional resources and it can be exhausting.

But that doesn’t happen that often in the grand scheme of things and on the whole, I’m very content in my life choice.

How do you “get” that kind of satisfaction? It could be age. Or experience perhaps. It helps that I’m generally very satisfied in my own company. But I have something else. I am content with Jesus.

I can almost hear everybody’s eyes rolling at this point.

I’m not saying “Jesus is my boyfriend” and I’m not saying he is my imaginary friend. I’m saying that an overall happiness in the knowledge of God seeps into a more general state of peace and contentment.

I am also not saying its a silver bullet – an easy fix to “the problem of singleness”. Because it definitely isn’t. Like I said above, some weeks are really hard.

What I am saying is that I don’t see my singleness as a problem. It was my personal choice on theological grounds, but I didn’t (and don’t) see it as a self-flagellating abstinence for the sake of the kingdom.

I see my singleness for what it is – a personal choice, guided by scripture, as to how to live my life.

This seems counter cultural. Our lives are generally focussed on pairing up. It’s a societal norm and cultural expectation. Not being married is to be lacking in something. To not want to be married is something that’s a bit weird.

But Jesus was single.

It’s interesting that in the early church, it was actually celibacy that was exalted to rock-star status. By the time of Martin Luther (and ever since), the pendulum has swung the other way, with the exaltation of marriage. This is problematic in many ways as our churches can be places of great community for families, but much less so for singles, who are seen as “in waiting” til they have spouses of their own.

I’m not waiting. I’m happily single and celibate for the sake of the gospel. I read a lot and I get to know Jesus a little bit more every day, and it is vastly and peacefully satisfying.

I’m not living in a cloister though. I’m living in the world with two kids and a full time job, so how I live out my singleness is just as haphazard and chaotic as anyone else living out their situation.

I live my singleness much the same way that anyone else lives their family situation. It’s not better or worse, its just my life. And I am quite content in it.

So come this Valentine’s Day, if you’d like to know what I’ll be doing – I’m going to see a movie with a mate. It’s an early show because one of my favourite things is also going to bed early, drinking tea and watching TV or reading a book. (Side note: as a younger adult I loved that I could go to bed whenever I wanted. Back then it meant 2 or 3 in the morning. Now it means 9pm).

But, if you need a pick me up, I can highly recommend 7 Myths about Singleness by Sam Alberry. It is solid, biblical, wise and insightful and really should be read by singles and non-singles, because as Alberry points out, everyone will be single again at some point.

The pitfalls of “Oh so relatable”

It’s nice when people say they like my stuff. I write about things because they are issues that I wrangle with, or because its bits of the Bible I like, or sometimes just because I’m a chronic over-sharer. But when people say “oh, she’s so relatable” I feel a little worried and I have to assess what I’m saying and how I’m saying it. Not because I don’t want to be relatable, but because “relatable” has taken on a meaning of its own these days.

To relate to someone used to simply mean, to empathise or make a connection with someone. “To relate” was a verb – a doing word. These days, to be relatable means showing characteristics, attitudes and behaviours that are considered “the norm”, or that are thought to be the position of the most people. Saying someone is relatable means they represent that majority. It’s a noun – something we ascribe to someone.

The trouble is that terms like “relatable” have become woven into our modern fabric of what is considered to be what normal and reasonable people think and feel. And that’s a judgement call based on what side of a particular issue you’re on.

No more so than in Christian circles. We are called to be growing disciples of Jesus who gather in His name and are a priesthood of believers, displaying His glory to the ends of the earth.

How we do that has been a matter of great conjecture throughout history.

On one end of the spectrum, you might have Humanity – by that I mean all compassion, all about the feels and the person. At the other end you have Theology – and by that I mean dry and lifeless and highly academic. On that spectrum then the application might end up as Relatable on the one side and Sanctimonious on the other. See my diagram below (and if you follow me regularly, you’ll know I do all my own graphics).

83843427_181862563068972_4746728453162663936_n

If we are all about the Humanity, we can fall into the trap of thinking God just wants us to be happy, or that God is all about love (but forget the judgement for sin part). It can even make us so indistinguishable from the world – so relatable in fact – that we don’t look Christian at all.

On the other hand, if we all about the theology, we can forget that our churches are made of real life people who live in the real world with difficult jobs, and fractured relationships, and high anxiety and eating disorders and abuse and debt and all the things that go along with being a human. We can be so academic in our theology that we forget to care. We become sanctimonious, dolling out judgement from our ivory tower – forgetting that we are called to love as well as to teach and correct.

We need both Theology and Humanity. I don’t mean that we go half way and sit on the fence without going one way or the other. No, we are Christian and we will boast in Jesus Christ and that precludes fence sitting. It calls for boldness and it calls us to be active participants in the gospel.

How do we do that with Theology and Humanity? We need to know our scriptures so we can be discerning and wise in our own lives, and true and honest Christian brothers and sisters to each other. We need enough theology that we know when to correct each other and hold each other accountable, but we need enough Humanity so we can support each other in love and understand the context we are all coming from.

If I am a sanctimonious ass, I will not be able to talk to drug addicts or porn addicts or prisoners or people who are bonking outside of marriage, or divorcees, or transvestites, or people who have fallen away or drunkards or people who have been abused or gay people – or anyone who is outside what I think is proper.

If I am a relatable flake, my theology might be cherry picked to fit what will make people happy, or make them like me more. I might even not have a good grounding in the Bible, either because my focus is on the people rather than the scripture, or because I read it, but don’t study it theologically.

So I want to be relatable – but as a Christian would understand it. I want to re-define this term for Christians. We should be relatable in that we acknowledge our failings and flaws. We empathise with each other and seek to understand where we are coming from. We walk with people who are not the perfect model (which is about 100% of us!). This is what Jesus did – he walked with people. He sought out the people who were the opposite of the perfect model. He hung out with criminals and outsiders and foreigners. He talked to them. He loved them. He brought them along with him.

But he pulled no punches in his teaching. He corrected them. He rebuked them. He told them the truth.

Jesus was relatable (he was fully man as well as fully God). Jesus had humanity – he understood people and treated them with love and compassion. Jesus had the ultimate wisdom of theology – he taught clearly and explicitly what following meant, both in terms of our eternal salvation, as well as the cost to us in this life.

Our theology needs to be applied in real life contexts. That doesn’t mean we bend the theology to fit. But it does mean that we lift our theology off the page and apply it unique and individual situations – just like Jesus did.

So hopefully I am relatable in that I am a single mum of two boys, holding down a full time job, studying theology part time and writing instead of doing any housework. But hopefully I also apply what I am learning through Christ in wise and discerning ways – imperfectly, but trying.

To help us all do that, I can highly recommend some kind of formal study. There are heaps you can do online – and from any country:

There are others you can do on campus or by evenings/intensives (I’ve been doing a Bachelor of Theology by this method for the last 6 years at Sydney Missionary and Bible College):

And if you think that’s not for you – maybe think again. The last time I was at uni, we hand wrote our essays and laughed at why we would need this new-fangled thing called the “world wide web” when we had a library just over there!! That’s how fast the world has moved since the 90s. I’m just saying maybe you could do this, individually or with your study group.

But, in the meantime, if you want to do some more reading to supplement your Bible study, these authors are a good source (some are more nerdy than others, but its good to have a range, right?):

You can also keep up to date with conferences – my readers in other countries – please leave comments on good conferences where you are (although they also have online resources at some of these below)! In Australia:

So lets be real people, people. But let’s know our theology and lets live it, with obedience and wisdom and reverent awe, faith and joy – and with our eyes on him.

And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

 

Comfort in pain and the reality of Joseph’s experience (Genesis 37-50)

Joseph is a cracker of a story isn’t it? He’s young and exciting, he has dreams, he’s God’s chosen – he even has a fancy coat and a musical. So even in popular cultural people know bits and bobs about him.

Image result for joseph and his amazing technicolour dreamcoat

As Christians, we might know a bit more. We might understand the context of his story in the broader arc of the whole Bible. We also tend to zero in on Genesis 50:20: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.

This is the pinnacle of the whole story. Focus too far in and you would miss what God is doing. Joseph had the ability to step back and see the broader picture of what had been happening.

However, keep the focus too far out and we might miss the beauty in the detail. The beauty is in the picture of two men – father and son – and their deeply emotional expressions. In seeing their raw and honest emotions, there is profound teaching for all of us.

So lets trace Joseph’s story very quickly:

  • We meet Joseph aged 17 in Genesis 37:2 and he has 10 older brothers. He’s precocious and kind of a jerk – he brings his father Jacob a bad report about his brothers and when he has dreams suggesting that his brothers will all bow down to him, he tells them (which is the worst thing a younger brother can do!). Jacob doesn’t help and shows his favoritism by getting him a fancy coat.
  • At this age, or some time after, the brothers decide to kill him (37:20) but his brother Reuben intercedes. They are going to throw him in a cistern but decide at the last minute to sell him as a slave.
  • Joseph is sold as a slave to Egyptian official Potipher and the Lord was with him (39:2). But Potipher’s wife fancies him. When he refuses her, she accuses him of attacking her and Joseph is thrown in jail.
  • In jail, God is with him again (39:21). While there, he interprets 2 people’s dreams and his predictions come to pass, but it is another 2 years before he gets out and goes into the service of the Pharoah after correctly interpreting his dreams.
  • Genesis 41:46 says Joseph is 30 years old when he enters Pharoahs service and after this, there are 7 years of abundance. Two years into the 7 years of famine, Joseph’s brothers and Jacob intersect with him again – so as the story comes full circle, Joseph is 39 years old.

So Joseph suffers for 13 years before he is released from prison, and 22 years before he is reconciled with his family. We tend to think abut Joseph’s suffering in terms of the “God was with him” bit. I don’t know about you, but when I have been in a difficult place, it is has been possible to see that God is with me, and it is a comfort, but it doesn’t make the circumstances easier to bear in the immediacy and logistics of the situation. If we have a death in the family, or loss of a job, a serious medical issue or a crumbling relationship, we know that God is there and it comforts us – but we still worry and we still mourn and we still feel the pain or the situation.

So lets re-think this a little because there are several clues in the text as to what Joseph really thought and how he felt.

In his late teens, Joseph is facing his own brothers who are going to kill him, or throw him into a cistern in the middle of the desert. Cisterns were wells for capturing water. They were usually dug out of rock and were about 15-20 feet deep.

Ancient Cistern

Ancient cistern. Source: https://www.bible-history.com/biblestudy/cisterns.html

This prospect alone would be terrifying and in 42:21 we see what happened that night. When Joseph, as Pharoah’s administrator, toys with his brothers (who don’t recognise him), the brothers say to one another “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us.”

How distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life. Its a chilling picture. Joseph was terrified. He was just a scared boy.

The same night he is ripped from his family and sold into slavery. We have seen enough photos from around the world of people torn from their homes to begin to understand what he must have been feeling – confusion, fear, panic, loss. Deep down, he may just have wanted his mum.

But he survives. And he loses his young precociousness. In the house of Potipher, it turns out he, with God’s gifts, is a great manager and administrator. But then he is pursued and falsely accused. The injustice must have been a horrific burden. And then again, the fear of not knowing what will happen – rape was punishable by death or castration in ancient Egypt. But he is imprisoned.

Even though God was with him in prison, Joseph was still a prisoner in what must have been dark, crowded and disgusting surroundings. And he was there around 10 years. He endured for 10 years. It’s interesting that when it says “the Lord was with him” it doesn’t say that Joseph bore up well, or that he was content in heart. He was apparently steadfast and trustworthy enough to have been put in charge by the prison warden. But we don’t know how his heart was affected by his experiences there.

Then when Joseph comes face to face with his brothers, his emotions overcome him. He is the most important man in all of Egypt. He is a father and husband. He has saved countless lives through his management of the abundant and famine years. But when he first sees them, he engineers things so that one brother remains and is put in prison (42:19), just as he had been. Then he plants silver in their bags so they must live with the fear of false accusation – just as he had been (42:25-28). They are also to bring the last brother back to him, as what? As a slave? Possibly. But here we see Joseph in a tumble of ragged emotions and knee jerk responses. All the while, dealing with deep and bitter anger and frustration and who knows what else that had been building up in him for over a decade:

  • He (Joseph) turned away from them and began to weep (42:24)
  • Deeply moved at the sight of his brother, Joseph hurried out and looked for a place to weep. He went into his private room and wept there (43:30)
  • Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it. (45:1-2)

This is where his life of anguish ends as he is reconciled with his family – but the anguish never leaves. We know this from our own bitter experience unfortunately. We may overcome. We may even triumph. But the experience shapes us. What we can say is that God was and is with us, and when the grief subsides, we can see the broadest arc of what He was doing in our lives.

And how about Jacob? My son will not go down there with you; his brother is dead and he is the only one left.” (42:38) This single line holds such passionate despair and fear. But what is Benjamin the only one of? The only other son of Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife. Benjamin was the last piece of her that he had.

Both sons had been favoured by Jacob because he loved her so much. Jacob had been tricked by his father in law into marrying Leah and allowed himself to be enslaved and abused for the sake of marrying Rachel, such was his love for her (Genesis 29:18). She died in childbirth with Benjamin and so after the loss Joseph, Benjamin was Jacob’s only link with his departed wife. As hard as that must have been for his other children, we can understand the depth of his longing.

All these years he had grieved and now here Joseph was. Yes, a triumph. Yes, God’s plan. But there is such tragic beauty in the detail. We see strong men expressing their deepest emotions. God did not erase their pain, but He was with them.

The emotions are clear and honest. These emotions are God-given. And this story of Joseph is not the only place that we see God helping and guiding us in them. We see in Psalms, God gives us words to speak to Him in our anguish – we should use them. All of us will face circumstances that we think could break us. It is part of our human experience. But God did not leave us empty handed. We see in Joseph’s story a man remaining steadfast while experiencing all the most natural, honest and raw emotions. And Psalms shows us what we can say when the pain is so deep there are no words. We should not shy away from these.

Women can be good at this but this helps us to have shape to our emotional processing.

Men have not had a history or a culture of being able to do this. So for men, this might be liberating.

Don’t forget, if you find the rawness of these circumstances and emotions scary, let us remember that Jesus showed us the same. He showed us anger (Matthew 16:21-23), he showed us sadness (John 11:32-35), he showed us fear (Mark 14:35-36).

Look to Jesus and the humanity he displayed in all its realness. Take heart from Joseph and Jacob. Read the story. Read them as real people, just like you are. Read Psalm 69 or 86 – see how God helps us to cry out the words to Him when we might not even have them ourselves.

There is beauty in the detail when it is pointed God-ward. We don’t revel in in our negative feelings, but we can embrace the emotions that God gave us to process the pain. Only then can we step backwards and see the greater arc in what God is doing in our lives.