Category Archives: Theology

Towards a better understanding of sexual coercion in marriage and how Christians can respond

A week or so ago, I wrote an initial piece on sexual coercion in marriage, looking at what it is, whether it is actually a problem and how we should deal with it as Christians. You can read it here:

Sexual coercion: what is it, does it happen in marriage, is it justifiable and what do we do with this information?

Since then, I have also taken part in a live Facebook question-and-answer session. We ran over time because there were so many questions but hopefully we helped start a conversation.

We talked through 1 Corinthians 7:1-7 and what some critical terms mean – like “marital duty” and “authority over the body” mean. These can be particularly difficult terms for us to wrangle with and have been the source of much damage and distress in the past.

We explain what sexual coercion is with far more depth and nuance – including things like context, intentions versus reception, whether it is a repeated pattern of behaviour and so on.

We tackle tricky questions like “Is it all abuse?” and “Should we submit anyway?”

We talk about how it is damaging to women and to men and to marriages and in what ways.

We start to look how we can continue a collaborative conversation about this – seeking a positive and godly way forward that is biblical and supportive of our bodies, mental health, motions and ability to give joyfully and voluntarily (spoiler alert – its not an easy fix, but its possible if we have a language, have courage to communicate and have humility under He who gave us the picture of what marital intimacy should look like).

I hope you can engage, ask questions, take the conversation to your churches and ministers.

The Q&A session can be accessed here from the Facebook page:

Sexual Coercion in Marriage with GuruNow with Ruth Baker

If you have any questions, thoughts, comments, concerns please feel free to contact me. the work on this will continue so the more input the better. Send me your stories, your observations – anything!

If you feel you are in need of help, please speak to a trusted friend, pastor or professional.

GuruNow is the platform by the way – check them out on Facebook because the cover all manner of subjects from worry and anxiety, to bullying in the church, to Christian leadership and beyond.

 

It’s not the ends of the banner that are important – it’s what it says in between (Mark 8:1-13)

We always want a sign. Sometimes its because we need to know where we fit in a world that feels big and chaotic. Sometimes its because at times of great uncertainty, we need the comfort of a signpost that shows us where we are going and what the plan is.

This is a completely normal and natural anxiety and yearning for order. It’s why horoscopes are so popular. And it’s not a new problem. Throughout the Old Testament, God warns the Israelites not to engage with spiritualists and diviners. It displays a lack of faith in God. It means they weren’t trusting in God’s promises or his faithfulness. They took things into their own hands. Without any apparent signs from God, they went to find their own signs. And, if they were anything like us, kept looking for signs until they found the one they liked.

I stopped reading my horoscope when I became a Christian (it seemed fairly pointless after you know where you’re going) but I remember when I did read them, that if one was a bit generic (funny that, eh?) then I google another horoscope. And if that one didn’t sound that good, I’d look for another one.

The thing is, the Israelites did have signs. They had God actually with them. So did the people gathered around Jesus. God was actually with them. He was performing sings and wonders all over the place. It was pretty hard to miss. And yet they did.

The place we’ve reached in our Bible studies takes us to a story that seems awfully familiar. In Mark 8:1-13, Jesus feeds the four thousand. In Mark 6:30-44, Jesus had fed the five thousand. Is this truth or literary device to make a point? Both would seem likely.

As a truth, what does it tell us?

During those days another large crowd gathered. Since they had nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way, because some of them have come a long distance.”

His disciples answered, “But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?”

“How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked.

“Seven,” they replied.

He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. When he had taken the seven loaves and given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people, and they did so. They had a few small fish as well; he gave thanks for them also and told the disciples to distribute them. The people ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. About four thousand were present.” (Mark 8:1-9)

It’s a miracle. It points to the fact that Jesus is something more than human. It’s reminiscent of God feeding the Israelites in the wilderness after the exodus – as they followed and grumbled and complained and God had compassion on them. In Jesus’ compassion, he gave in such abundance that there was seven basketfuls left over.

As a literary device, what does it say? The story and wording is very similar to narrative in Mark 6. This device is like bookends – to draw attention to to what sits between. And what sits between the feeding of the 5,000 and the feeding of the 4,000?

  • The feeding of the 5,000
    1. Jesus walks on water and calms the storm even though the disciples hearts are hard
    2. Jesus teaches against shallow observance of surface religion and a focus on cleanliness of the heart – re-teaching the intention of God’s commands and away from human rules
    3. Jesus heals the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter and teaches the order of salvation, and making it clear that the gospel will be for the Gentiles also
    4. Jesus heals the deaf and mute man
  • The feeding of the 4,000

The feeding stories are the two ends of the banner. What the stories in between tell us is the important part. It tells us that he has the same power as God (point 1), he has the authority to speak for God and interpret God’s communication (point 2), he also has the power and authority to communicate God’s plan (point 3) and his healing activities are foretold by the great prophets (point 4, as foretold by Isaiah).

Taken on their own, the feeding stories are marvelous but people could have interpreted Jesus’ role as a new Moses, who was God’s representative in the wilderness during the provision of manna, quail and water. The stories between the two ends show that Jesus’ role cannot be misinterpreted (for those who have ears to hear that is).

And yet, people do misinterpret. In verse 11-13, after the feeding of the 5,000 and 4,000 and all the signs in between, the Pharisees come to Jesus and ask him for a sign. He tells them there will be no sign. Not because he will not give them any, but because he has given them many but their hard hearts stop them from seeing them. They will accept no sign even though there are signs all around them and God is right in front of them.

I wonder reading this, what signs do I miss? I am a believer and (with God’s help) a growing disciple. But still, where is my hearty hardened? What do I miss? Do I get so wrapped up in my anxieties and worries that I fail to see where God has moved powerfully in my life?

Sometimes, I think we need to strip things back and re-remember who Jesus is. I need to remember how powerful and how present God is in my life. I can get so worried about not knowing whats going to happen or where I fit in that I can try to take things into my own hands. I organise and manage and change the routine and work things so I feel in control of where things are going. Obviously I need to make sure my kids are well and happy and healthy and everyone gets to where they need to be and all that. But outside of that, anything that crosses the line into taking power away from God (as if I could!) shows where I am not trusting Him. As difficult as that is, I need to stop doing that.

How? I need to develop my God-vision. I need to see the signs. I need to be observant and see the hundred little things every day that show me how God is there.

So everyday, take a moment. Think about the day. See where God moved in your life. Remember Him. Remember the cross. Remember God’s promises. Remember His faithfulness.

 

This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here.

Sexual coercion: what is it, does it happen in marriage, is it justifiable and what do we do with this information?

I tinkered with lots of clever and pithy titles for this blog, but in the end, I decided to go with the basic rule of advertising – “It does exactly what it says on the tin”. It’s obvious, but it’s clear. The reason for that is that this is something we don’t talk about much except in high profile cases. When it comes to sexual coercion in marriage, it’s something we don’t really talk about it at all. I wanted the title to be clear so people could engage with it straight away. Because sexual coercion is real, it happens in marriage all the time and it’s horrifically damaging. Which means we have work to do.

But here’s the thing. We have work to do together – men and women together. Sexual coercion is generally an issue that is visited upon women, but women can not solve this problem alone. This is not a women’s issue. This is an everybody issue. So please, let’s engage in this together.

Before we get into it, it’s important for us to be on the level. I know that sexual coercion happens. I have spoken to so many women who struggle with this. Most think it’s something they just have to put up with. Others know it’s wrong, but don’t feel they can do anything about it. Some don’t even know it’s wrong and have suffered for years without realising it was not OK.

How can this be? Well, for starters here’s a conundrum. I’ve heard Christian sexologist Patricia Weerakoon speaking once about how women are like slow cookers – you turn them on and they need to warm up. Men are like toasters – generally you turn them on and they pop up almost immediately. This being the case, if a woman isn’t “in the mood” when her husband is, does that mean we are heading for sexual coercion? Not at all, or at least not necessarily. Getting in the mood is part of the intimate experience. How people do that is very individual. The problem arises when “encouragement” becomes coercion.

I think some men may not realise that they’re doing it. And that’s a problem of awareness and communication.

Some men may realise they are adding pressure, but may not realise it’s wrong. This is a problem of awareness and accountability.

Some men, at the more extreme end, know it’s wrong but feel justified, and that’s just a problem.

But because this isn’t talked about, neither men nor women are equipped to communicate about it – with each other, or with other trusted Christians and pastors. Women can’t raise awareness that the behaviour is not OK, which means they can’t communicate how they feel to their husbands. Men can’t keep each other accountable, or talk honestly about what is appropriate behaviour in marriage, and where the line is.

It’s time to address that. So let’s start with being clear about what sexual coercion is.

What is it?

The U.S. Office on Women’s Health says sexual coercion is unwanted sexual activity that happens after being pressured in nonphysical ways that include:

  • Being worn down by someone who repeatedly asks for sex
  • Being lied to or being promised things that weren’t true to trick you into having sex
  • Having someone threaten to end a relationship or spread rumors about you if you don’t have sex with them
  • Having an authority figure, like a boss, property manager, loan officer, or professor, use their influence or authority to pressure you into having sex.*

The Australian national group 1800Respect includes sexual coercion under sexual assault and violence and describes it as “when someone pressures or tricks you into doing sexual things when you don’t want to. It involves behaviour that may not always be criminal, but is usually abusive in some way. Sexual coercion can include someone:

  • Saying they’ll leave you or have sex with someone else if you don’t have sex with them
  • Trying to get you to drink more than you want to so you’ll agree to sex
  • Making you feel guilty for not having sex when they want
  • Telling you it’s your duty to have sex with them
  • Saying that you owe them
  • Making you feel scared to refuse because of what they might do. This might be a fear of physical violence, but can also include fears of them saying bad things about you to others, sharing private or damaging information about you on the internet, or taking away support, money, children or pets.
  • Saying they will get you out of debt, provide you with drugs, let you stay at their house, or help you with a problem if you have sex with them
  • Holding you down, yelling at you or trying to scare you into having sex**

Some of these seem more overtly “abusive” than others and so the less apparently “abusive” behaviours could be down played.

They shouldn’t be.

Firstly, because individually these behaviours are wrong. Secondly, when taken over many occurrences over weeks, months or even years, the damage this causes to a woman cannot be overstated.

The damage to the relationship can be irrevocable. There is loss of trust and loss of love that can erode a marriage or make it implode.

The damage to the woman can last a lifetime. Once is bad enough. The real problem is if there is a pattern and especially if this becomes the “normal” approach to intimacy in a relationship.

There is trauma. And with trauma comes nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, fear, hyper-vigilance, panic attacks, a deadening of any interest in intimacy (which can then exacerbate the issue), a problem being touched at all….it is akin to having a major car smash where every bone in the body is broken and which then requires intense medical intervention, healing, time and rehabilitation. Untreated, the woman is just such a car smash victim but has never had any medical intervention or healing and the injuries continue to be inflicted. She exists. Broken.

Perhaps this is part of the issue facing men and women. Given that men and women treat and experience sexual intimacy differently (generally speaking, of course), it is next to impossible for a man to understand the effect of broken sexual intimacy on a woman. Again this is highly individual, but there is enough research to show the effect on women as being highly damaging emotionally and psychologically and traumatic.

It hurts women. It breaks women.

I realise there are impacts to men too. Facing unwillingness to engage in intimacy can feel like rejection. It can feel hurtful. It can be disappointing, frustrating, and, given the right emotional environment, can feel damaging to a man too. And I am not talking here about withholding sex as a deliberate leverage of power over a man which is totally wrong on so many levels. That can be deeply damaging to a man.

I think the difference we need to focus on though is this:

Men don’t need sex. It might feel like they do, but not having is not going to kill them, like the removal of air or food and water will. Yet the importance placed on it can be disproportionate. However, there are deeply felt and real emotional needs and these need to be brought into the light and taken seriously. But there is an opportunity to communicate about these, and that’s as it should be.

Women, when having sex without wanting to, feel violated. That is not a feeling that goes away. Ever.

Is it really a problem?

Unfortunately, yes.

A recent study of 122,000 women found that over a third had been in abusive relationships. But of those 65% of remaining women who said they hadn’t been in an abusive relationship, almost two thirds had experienced problematic, harsh and potentially abusive treatment from a partner.***

A study as far back as 1997 found that over a third of married women had been sexually coerced by their husbands.****

A survey undertaken in 2018 revealed some scary results including:

  • Almost 20 per cent are not aware that non-consensual sex in marriage is illegal (just in case there is any doubt – it is!)
  • 1 in 7 believe non-consensual sex is justified if the woman initiates intimacy (so if a woman tries to get in the mood so her husband can have sex, but then cannot go through with it, 1 in 7 people believe the man would be justified in forcing her to go through it it)
  • 1 in 5 Australians believe domestic violence is a normal reaction to stress, and that sometimes a woman can make a man so angry he hits her without meaning to
  • 1 in 8 believe that if a woman is raped while she is drunk or affected by drugs she is at least partly responsible.*****

What this shows is an alarming number of people who do not see or understand that sexual coercion is wrong, damaging and traumatic. This being the case, it is easy for a husband not to know where the line is if culture largely remains silent on this. Equally, it is easy for women to never know they are being abused even though they feel all the feelings and responses of an abused person.

Let me be clear here. I’m not advocating for creating abuse where there is none. What I’m saying is that the abuse is happening already, we just don’t know to speak into it. Just because the abuse is not understood, does not make it not abusive behaviour. It’s still not OK.

A woman can feel traumatised and damaged, experience panic attacks and irrational fears – and think that it’s her own fault. If we speak into this issue, we can free women from this added burden and actually be clearer about what is appropriate behaviour.

We can equip both men and women.

So what do we do?

First, let’s approach this issue together. Remember, this is not a women’s issue, this is an everybody issue.

Second, we need to bring this issue into the light. There is a lot of fear and anger on all sides, anticipating blame and confrontation. So there can be a tendency to want to ignore the issue because perhaps women have just decided to raise it now. We need to be clear that women have never been OK with this, and it has never been acceptable behaviour – we just haven’t been able to talk about it before. It can also be driven by an assumption (coming from a place of hurt) that the woman is withholding, not because she is feeling damaged, but because she is making a power play. These kinds of assumptions are especially dangerous. So all assumptions need to be put to one side.

At the same time, this should not be an excuse for man-bashing. The only way to deal with this is to tackle it together. Many men have no idea that this is not OK and we need to equip men to understand the effect of certain behaviours. In fact, we need men desperately in this endeavour. We need men to be talking about it with each other, exploring it, even weeping over it. We need them to feel empowered to grow in gentleness. Biblically speaking, such gentleness is having enormous power, but using it for the care and protection of others. We need our men to grow in this Christ-likeness. To explore and mature in biblical gentleness is critical to this.

We also need to recognise and acknowledge that this is not a blanket issue. Not being in the mood can most of the time, become being in the mood, as part of the honest, trusting and loving intimate experience. What we are talking about here is the genuine cross over into coercion where one party (usually the woman) has sex without wanting to because they feel pressured into it – once, or as a repeated pattern.

So, men and women, start with reading the definitions of sexual coercion. Understand what it is, and what it isn’t.

Recognise and accept that it is what it is, and there is a chance that you could be experiencing it, or perpetrating it.

Here is where we need our God, and our Christian brothers and sisters. We need humility to recognise there may be some things to repent of. We need the courage to speak with our trusted Christian friends. We need to call each other out, gently and lovingly if we see behaviour or hear words that raise red flags. We need to be able to talk about this issue in the light – understand it, change it.

And we need to support and enable husbands and wives to talk to each other about this. Do a temperature check in your relationship. This may not be an issue for most of you, but talking about it cannot be a bad thing – it is a deeply intimate but profound issue of trust to be discussed. It may help you as a couple to support another couple for whom it might be an issue.

We need to not dismiss each other’s feelings or experience. This is an area that is extremely difficult and what will make it worse is being confrontational. We need to approach this as far as is possible in the most collaborative and positive way possible.

That said, if this is an issue in your marriage, and it is in any way repetitive, seemingly justified or escalating, please seek help. Immediately. It is not OK and you must be safe. At least seek the guidance of a professional and trusted Christian pastor or friend.

Most importantly, we must lean on God. This is where we need him most. Intimacy can be so broken. Experiencing it is traumatic. Recognising it can be equally traumatic. Seeking to rectify it can be challenging. It is us humans at our most vulnerable.

We need Him. Through and in Him we can seek the best – which is a bringing this issue into the light, talking about it openly and honestly, facing our issues humbly, supporting each other and keeping each other accountable.

Dealing with brokenness. Together. In Him.

* https://www.womenshealth.gov/relationships-and-safety/other-types/sexual-coercion#7

** https://www.1800respect.org.au/violence-and-abuse/sexual-assault-and-violence/

*** https://www.businessinsider.com.au/two-thirds-of-women-dont-realise-they-experience-abusive-behaviour-2018-5?r=US&IR=T

**** https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/12477095/ and https://truthout.org/articles/its-time-to-confront-sexual-harassment-within-marriage/

***** https://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/hack/violence-against-women-survey-shows-concerning-attitudes/10568638?smid=Page:%20ABC%20News-Facebook_Organic&WT.tsrc=Facebook_Organic&sf203239950=1

Loved, saved, freed and given a voice (Mark 7:31-37)

One of the things I have struggled with in the past is feeling that I have no voice. In an era where there are so many platforms and outlets to speak your piece and express your opinion, I have felt that my voice was actually stifled and ignored. It’s a horrible feeling when that happens. It means your views, opinions, concerns, fears and emotions become nothing.

And maybe that’s been you too. Maybe you’re in a job where your boss or colleague dismisses your opinion constantly, making you feel invisible. Maybe you’re in a relationship where, if you express your emotions you’re met with an eye roll and a shake of the head and a turned back. Maybe you’re in a friendship group where you fear expressing yourself honestly in case the others turn on you.

Or maybe in your church there are things you want to talk about, or ask questions about, but you worry you are a lone voice and everyone will think you’re crazy.

Or maybe you have things you need to talk about because things are damaging you – and you don’t feel that you can, or don’t feel like you will be cared for or believed, or that there might be repercussions that you just can’t face.

And so that leaves us heart sore, feeling the physical pain of not being able to be honest, not being able to speak the truth. Feeling the frustration, the sadness, the loneliness.

It’s amazing how much of our identity is bound up with our ability to express ourselves – our ability to be heard.

Jesus talks about this a lot. He says several times that hearing is as much a spiritual thing as it is a physical thing (see Mark 4:9 and 4:23). We want to be heard because it is a mark of our personal expression. Jesus wants to be heard because it is a matter of salvation.

But in today’s passage, the two needs are met in one.

Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him.

After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means “Be opened!”). At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.

Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” Mark 7:31-37

For such a short passage, there’s a lot in here. The man was deaf and so lived in silence. He couldn’t hear his friends or loved ones. He couldn’t hear the sound of lazy insects buzzing on a summer day, or the sound of a baby’s first laugh, or hear the water lapping on the shores, or singing or music. And without hearing, his voice was impaired. Whatever he wanted to say, couldn’t be said. What he felt couldn’t be adequately communicated. And he was stuck like that. Forever. Never hearing, never having a voice. Never being able to express himself. Never being heard.

Jesus takes the man to one side. The privacy makes the moment more intimate. Jesus is not a performing monkey. This is a moment of intense power and compassion between just two people. The compassion we see in Jesus’ physical touch – especially for this man who cannot hear what Jesus is saying.

Why the spit? It’s not like Jesus needs anything to perform his miracles. Spit was often seen in the ancient world as having magical or medicinal powers apparently. In Roman writings we see people relating that the spit of a famous or important person had special powers. I’m not sure that is what Jesus is communicating, but I think it sends a message that it’s something that he did. Jesus didn’t have to do anything but then would people have believed it was him? At least this way, as with other actions we have seen when he healed others, the people see Jesus definitely did something and there was a definite result – the mans’ hearing is returned and his voice is restored.

The words that Mark uses here are reminiscent of Isaiah and there is a deliberate reference to Isaiah 35:5-6 “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.” The new age has come. Jesus is God’s own son, come to usher in God’s kingdom. We had been told this in Mark 1:15 “the time has come, the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!

This encounter with the living God, is a sign that God’s kingdom is truly here. For the man though, it is an encounter that changed his whole life. Jesus had compassion and healed him, loved him, saved him – restored him before God – and gave him a voice.

Our voice is one of the most significant things we possess. With it, we can proclaim the good news and praise God. We can build people up – and we can tear each other down. Our God is a speaking God, so it should be no surprise that our voices can be disproportionately powerful.

It also means that without our voice, we are diminished disproportionately also. And we feel it. We feel small and irrelevant.

God gave us ears to hear and gave us our voices, just as he did the man in today’s passage. We must use them. And we must allow and empower others to use theirs.

We must never be afraid to speak God’s truth. We must not be afraid to explore how God’s truth is applied in our lives and in our world. That means we listen, we explore, we respect. We must never make others feel as though their voice has no place or no value. In all our interactions, we should be caring and respectful.

And if you are reading this and feel like you are in a position where your voice is stifled or taken from you – know this: God gave you ears to hear and a voice to speak. Please seek out people in God’s community. Seek outlets and platforms that will allow you to express yourself and ask questions and speak and continue to learn and grow in him.

Even if some people around you would rather have a diminished form of you, God wants all of you. Do not see yourself as those people see you. See yourself as God sees you – beautiful, whole, loved.

This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here.

Ever felt like a nobody? (Mark 7:24-30)

I have. I’ve felt like a nobody. Have you? Many people have, I think. Life is really hard. You work away and you carry this enormous load and your emotions are stretched like a taut piece of elastic – any tiny hit is jarring. You run on fumes. It feels like it’s just you. Only you to carry these terrible burdens. And you run out. You just run out. You’ve got nothing left. Nothing. No capacity to take any more knocks, even small ones. No resilience left.

Nothing.

At those times in my life I have despaired. I feel like I have nothing left. I have felt like I am nothing. I’m nobody. The world goes on and I just slog away alone. And there’s no end in sight. No solutions. No end. Just me.

In Mark 7:24-30 we see a woman who is at the end of her tether. How do we know that? Because of what she does and what she says.

Jesus has headed up to the area of Tyre and Sidon. These areas were synonymous with pagan worship. In fact the notorious Jezebel was a princess of Sidon and daughter of the king of Tyre. She was married to King Ahab (check out 1 Kings 16) and introduced pagan worship to the Israelites and wanted to have the prophet Elijah killed.

Now we have a woman from the same area, but approaching Jesus in faith. Like Rahab in Joshua 2 being the only one who has faith, so the SyroPhoenician woman comes in faith. Her act of faith is driven by desperation. Her daughter in possessed by an unclean spirit. I have two little boys and I would do anything to keep them safe and well. I would endure any punishment and humiliation I had to, to save them.

This woman tracks Jesus down, who has gone there wanting it to be kept secret. But this woman finds him and essentially breaks in to approach him. And she, a Gentile, throws herself at his feet and begs. Desperate, humiliated, hopeful.

And Jesus says something odd. “First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” (Mark 7:27)

The gospel (the bread) is for the Israelites (the children), not for Gentiles (the dogs).

Children in Jewish culture are the rightful heirs. They are honoured. Dogs are dirty. In fact in Matthew 6:7, Jesus says not to give to dogs what is holy. Jesus is calling this woman a dog? Not so much. This is a teaching moment.

The Israelites have always been God’s chosen people. They are his children. But Jesus had said “first”. Israel first, others later. This continues the trajectory of the narrative arc of the whole Bible that shows that all the nations are God’s plan. Right from the first promises to Abraham when God had said that “All nations will be blessed through you” (Gen. 22:18), to Rahab being the brought into the chosen people, to Ruth the Moabite who is honoured in the line of David and Jesus, to the prophecies of Isaiah where the suffering servant will be “a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth,” (Isaiah 49:6)

This is that moment.

Jesus is also not as harsh as it might first sound also. The word for “dog” he uses is kunarion which is a pup, or a little dog, or a house dog. Not a wild dog but a more affectionately termed animal. A dog that is around the house, that is familiar.

The woman seizes on the imagery and the hope contained in that word “first”. She says “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Verse 28).

She addresses him as Lord. She identifies herself as the dog. And she asks only for crumbs. She has faith and humility. And Jesus grants her request.

That woman must have felt like a nobody. She throws herself at the feet of the one person left in the world who may be able to help her. She literally begs on her knees. I’m a dog, she says. I’m nothing.

No, says Jesus. There’s a plan. Salvation for all. God’s grace extends to all. And there’s an order. But Jesus himself is the turning point. While later Paul’s mission is to the Gentiles, the promise has been there from the beginning and it is Jesus himself who begins the inclusion of the non-Israelites. We see him with Legion in the Gentile region of the Gerasenes of Mark 5, he heals the Roman centurions servant in Luke 7:1-10, he saves the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. And because of the response of this woman, he casts the demon out of her daughter.

Salvation for all. Mercy for all. We are not nobodys. We are somebody. We are somebody to God. We were outsiders. Just like these other people were. But we are not outsiders any more. That was promised right from Abraham – the very first promise included all of us. And if we are not outsiders, we are now his children.

His children. We are not nobody’s. We are his. Even though life is so hard, and we can feel so alone and burdens can feel impossible. We are his. Hold onto that one truth. We are his.

This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here.

Carrying the guilt when you’ve already repented

Here’s a conundrum. You sin. You know it. You mull over it. You obsess over it. You feel the shame. You lay it before God. You pray. You weep. You repent. It’s done.

Except it’s not.

The guilt is still there. It dogs you. It jumps up out of nowhere when you weren’t even thinking about it. It bites – takes a sudden chunk out of your throat when you see something that triggers a memory. It’s there in the darkness when’re trying to sleep.  It makes your heart twitch and your stomach churn. It makes you feel queasy with shame.

We think we’re supposed to be fine, right? We’ve given it to God, and we know that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)

So why do we still feel the tentacles of shame gripping our throat? Does it mean I didn’t really lay it before God? Does it mean he hasn’t actually forgiven us?

Then, on top of feeling the guilt, the worry starts. And this is where the devil gets us – we see this on memes and inspirational instagrams. The devil makes us carry the guilt in order to interfere with our relationship with God. The devil gives us fear to stop us enjoying life to the full, the way God intended. Is that true? It’s possible. But the danger there is that it removes any responsibility from ourselves to rectify it. If it’s the devil’s fault, there’s nothing we can do. We are powerless.

Well, that’s just not true.

For starters, there’s two problems with how we think this should work. First, we try and do it on our own. Secondly, we think we should be unburdened immediately. 1 John 5:16 says “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” Confess to each other.  Pray for each other. This is something we do with our support networks. Our Christian friends or our Bible study groups, or our trusted pastors. Not something we do on our own. This is burden we share

And we will be healed. Not miraculously better. With those we trust and who share our burden, we pray for each other – which means its a process, its not instantaneous. So expect this to take a while. But expect it to gradually get better.

Where we do let the devil in, is when we think that we laid it before God, but we weren’t worthy of forgiveness. And when I say “let the devil in” I mean sinful. We may think we are being self-deprecating, but what we’re really doing (unintentionally) is rejecting God’s gift of his son. We are so worthy of forgiveness that God sacrificed his child for us. Let us not forget that.

So what do we do? Because I don’t say all this to make us feel worse about ourselves. We can look to King David, who had done one of the worst things a human could possibly do. He saw Bathsheba (actually spied on her while she was taking a bath – see 2 Samuel 11:2) who was married to Uriah the Hittite. He slept with her/raped her (you can’t really tell from the text) and she falls pregnant. David tried to trick Uriah so that he will think the baby is his but Uriah is an honorable man and doesn’t walk into David’s trap. So David has Uriah sent to the most dangerous part of the war so he’ll be killed – which he was (2 Samuel 11:15). Then David marries Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:27).

The whole thing is despicable. In Psalm 51 we see David’s repentance. In this psalm, he pours out his heart to God. “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.” (v3) he says. This feels familiar. His sin is always before him – its there when he sleeps, when he is thinking about something else, when a memory is triggered. 

What does he ask God? “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean.” (v7) Hyssop looks a bit like lavender and has been used in traditional herbal medicine for millennia. It’s also mentioned several times in Leviticus and Numbers in relation to cleansing from impurity – both the body and the house. It is also key in covenant making. In Hebrews 9:19-22, it says that Moses dipped hyssop branches in blood and sprinkled the scrolls and the people. “In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”

It perhaps should not be a surprise to us then, that we see hyssop mentioned at the cross. In John 19:29, John says Jesus was thirsty  and “a jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips.” There’s a great irony here. A ceremonial plant used for cleansing is used in an act of humiliation of the living God. The cross. Where everyone is sprinkled with the blood of the lamb in our new covenant. Where everyone is cleansed with his blood.

In our guilt and shame, we need to remember to go back to him. David asked for cleansing with hyssop which was a ceremonial tool available to him. We must ask for cleansing by Jesus. We have been saved. Now we need to be cleansed.

Even as David said in Psalm 51, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (v10) This is a prayer we can share. This is a prayer we can speak. This is a prayer that our trusted friends can speak for us as they share our burden. And with his help and strength, we can renew our steadfast spirit – renew. This happens repeatedly. We cannot be perfect. Remember we must renew every day.

So when you find the guilt crushing you, remember: Take it to God. Absolutely take it to God. Repent. But don’t expect to not feel the twinges from an old injury. Take it to trusted friends. Let them share the burden. Pray for cleansing. Go back to the cross. Allow Jesus to remind you that you were sprinkled with his blood of the new covenant. Look to Jesus and pray “create in me a pure heart, God! Renew a steadfast spirit within me.” Let this be the circuit breaker when you lie in turmoil in the darkness.

 

In the mess of the world, how can I feel clean (Mark 7:1-23)

Sometimes this world can feel so dirty and so grubby that it’s impossible to feel clean. It’s not just the shady politics and the media corruption. It’s the hypocrisy in the people around us, the anger, the envy, the shallowness, the greed, the shameless self-promotion, the arrogance, the lack of empathy, the selfishness. It’s all around us, it invades us, it takes up real estate in our brains. It infects us, it sticks to us and it’s so pervasive that it’s impossible to see or feel anything pure.

This is not a new phenomena. Would you be surprised to know that Jesus raised against this very thing? In today’s passage (Mark 7:1-23) the Pharisees yet again accuse Jesus of blasphemous behaviour. This time it’s allowing his disciples to eat with unclean hands. We’ve covered this ground before in a previous blog (you can read it here when we looked at nor Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious). But this time it’s different.

This time Jesus hits back in the most personal way possible. He quotes the very scriptures they use to inflate themselves. “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites,” Jesus says. Isaiah. The great prophet. The mouthpiece of God, Jesus said prophesied about these Pharisees (and people like them). He prophesied their faithlessness. Their failure was so insidious, it was foretold.

These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.”

This is Jesus quoting Isaiah 29:13. What does Isaiah say after this? Verse 14 says “Therefore once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder; the wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.”

This is quite a signal to the Pharisees, and when Jesus was speaking these words, those hearing him would have known exactly what he meant when he quoted these scriptures. Jesus explains further though. He gives an example of how inherently arrogant and hypocritical they have become.

You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God) – then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.

Corban? Corban is from the Hebrew qorban and relates to setting aside a portion of ones possessions for God. In real terms this meant that in the surface one could be “obedient” in giving (or at least virtue signalling the intention to give). Then, having annexed that money, you could keep it away from the parents, and potentially keep it away from the temple and just keep it for yourself.

This is the epitome of hypocrisy and arrogance and selfishness. It’s using God’s own laws to work the system in favour of avarice and greed and breaking God’s laws.

This is where the world has come to. It’s dirty, grubby and grimy – down to the very core of society. It’s a dirt that won’t wash away.

When Jesus then focuses on food and cleanliness in his parables, he gets to the heart of the issueit’s the heart.

Eating without ritually washed hands does not make them unclean. What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.”

Focus on the outside and the heart suffers. Focus on the heart and everything on the outside improves – starting with ourselves.

The rest of the world will still be dirty and grubby. But we will be improved.

As prophesied in Isaiah, God has astounded us with wonder upon wonder. Jesus. His own son. God in the flesh. Perfect. Pure. Clean. The only place we can feel cleansed and purified is at the feet of Jesus.

Because of him, our hearts can be changed. Because of him we can change our world for the better, starting with us. And if world around us still stinks, we can go back to him to feel that sense of cleanness. We can re-calibrate and rest in his purity.

This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here.

Inspirational memes I hate: “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle”

Memes can be helpful – quick bites and pick me ups as we scroll through social media, reminders of biblical truths particularly can point us to where our attention should be as we rush though the day.

Some memes sound helpful, but are most definitely not.

One of the inspirational memes I hate is this one:

You may even have seen it like this, as though God himself were speaking to you.

It sounds great doesn’t it? So comforting. So loving. We lean on this when times are tough. When we need to believe we’re going to be OK. When we are desperate to know that things are going to get better.

Except God didn’t say this. This is a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 10:12-14:

So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

What this doesn’t say is that God will not give us anything that we cannot handle. What it does say is that God is present in our temptation. The context of the passage is warnings from the Israelites history and their fall into idolatry, sexual immorality and revelry (ie drunken partying). This is not a passage about God generally making life OK.

So this is the first reason I hate this meme – because it says something that the Bible doesn’t say. It gives us a false Bible knowledge. It’s certainly the kind of thing that God might say. God our Father is all-loving and all-merciful. But he didn’t actually say this. If this is something God didn’t say, we can’t extrapolate (poorly) from things he did say.

Throwing this meme around is well-meaning, but it promises things God didn’t promise. It implies God will make everything alright. It implies God will raise us out of our problems. It implies he will never let us break.

And that is demonstrably not true.

So this leads to the second reason I hate this meme. It implies things that aren’t true. Recently, American church pastor and mental health advocate Jarrid Wilson took his own life. This article by Ed Stetzer is beautiful and well worth a read. Jarrid Wilson broke. We all know other people who break. It is tragic and terrible – and true.

Our world breaks people. Things happen to people that they cannot handle. If on one hand we are telling each other that God will never give us things we can’t handle and then see people breaking, what does that say about God? Does it say he wasn’t there? Does it say people’s weakness is stronger than God’s power? Does it say God left them?

What does that do to our confidence in him? If our faith is informed by these memes, then our faith is also eroded by these memes. We need to be more discerning than that. Our faith needs to be in the right thing.

This then leads to the third thing I hate. Because if our faith is informed by these memes, and yet we see people breaking, we must believe less of those people – because we cannot think less of God! People around us are dying inside. People we know are crumbling. We cannot be a people who thinks they just aren’t coping like it’s some kind of weakness. If we believe God doesn’t give people anything they can’t handle, and then people aren’t coping, surely it must be their fault. They aren’t strong enough. They don’t have enough faith. There must be something wrong with them.

And that’s how we end up in little huddles in church talking in hushed tones about people.

So then here is the last thing I hate about this meme. We begin to believe these things about ourselves. We believe we must be not strong enough. We believe that our faith is not big enough. We believe that God must have left us. We believe that God is trying to help us but we just aren’t doing things right. We shouldn’t be bending. We shouldn’t be breaking. We shouldn’t be in the jagged pieces that we are.

Here is something that is true – People bend. People break.

In 2 Corinthians 1:8 Paul says “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters,  about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.

Paul was crumbling. He nearly broke. And yes, he relied on God, which makes it sound easy, like a self-help moment. But we cannot forget before he got to that, he despaired of life itself. And despair doesn’t just disappear. Even when we resolve to (weakly and brokenly) rely on God, there is healing, there is loneliness, there is fear, there is even trauma to overcome.

In Psalm 34:18 it says God stays close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. This is a promise we can hold in our brokenness. He doesn’t promise to un-break our hearts. He promises to stay close. And he promises save us when we are crushed in spirit. Save us – not make all the bad things disappear, not take away the anxiety or depression or the trauma. He doesn’t even promise to take away the suicidal thoughts or change the abusive husband, or stop the redundancy. He promises he will be with us, and save us.

What we must also notice in this is that God knows when we are broken and crushed. There’s no holy huddle and talk in hushed tones. He knows and he proclaims his promises to us in a voice loud enough for us to hear. This is where we anchor our faith.

We should all pray for wisdom and discernment. Our faith is impacted by these memes so we need to exercise our discernment to know when they are true and helpful and when they are poor paraphrases, when they are not true.

We all know people who are breaking. If we have God’s wisdom, we will have God’s heart for them. We can be a people of true love and compassion, upholding people who are bent so far their backs are breaking. We can hold people’s hands even when they are shattering into jagged pieces. We can walk with them when they are too weak to walk by themselves. We can pray for deliverance and pray for healing and pray for miracles. And we should pray earnestly, hungrily, expectantly. God can do anything. Anything is possible for him. But we don’t know that bit of the plan. All we know is the surety if he promised. That he is there and will save us.

And if you are reading this and you feel you are breaking, hear God’s true promises. He is with you and he will save you. He is with you in the darkness. Don’t believe what the meme tells you. He knows what you are going through and he knows you cannot handle what is happening to you. What is happening to you is real. It is so real it could break you. But he is with you. And he is just as real as the things you are facing. But he is mightier and louder so even though you might not feel like it, he is there.

He is with us. And we must rely on him. Because when we have nothing else, not even our own confidence or mental strength or emotional clarity, he is the only thing we have. When we can’t see anything of hope, when we believe we have no support, when we think we are completely alone, when we can almost feel our spirit cracking under the pressure of our burdens, he is there.

Hear his promises and never let him go.