Tag Archives: #grace

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.

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 choice that affects your life here and your eternity. I know what I choose. (Mark 8:27-9:1)

There comes a crossroads in all stories. In real life, they happen all the time – points where we make decisions that change the course of the rest of our lives. This could be a new job, a new relationship, a new house or a new course of study. It could even be a new mind set or making a resolution to do things differently.

Each choice is a change. Some are small. Some are seismic.

The point we reach in Mark 8:27-9:1 is earth shattering. Up to now, Jesus’ identity has been a key theme. Who is he? And what is his mission? Here, is where Jesus begins to reveal the full weight of both those questions.

He asks Peter, “Who do people say I am?” It’s clear there are a variety of opinions. Jesus is only interested in one. “Who do you say I am?” Peter does not hesitate. “You are the Christ” he says. The answer seems to satisfy Jesus – for the moment.

Because it’s only half the story. But half the story is all they can cope with for now. The “Christ” or “Messiah” means merely “anointed”. The people were expecting someone who was anointed by God to come and do his work and save his people. They weren’t expecting the Messiah to also be God’s son, to be God himself. And they weren’t expecting what he had come to do.

So understanding that he was the Christ was a start. But it was not all. So Jesus now begins to teach them that he is here to die. And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. (Mark 8:31)

Here is the hinge moment. Jesus has not yet divulged this to his disciples. But now they know he is Christ, it is time to begin to teach them the rest. He is Christ and Lord – and lamb.

This simple death prediction takes us to Isaiah 52:13-53:12 which, for the people at the time, was truly earth shattering. Never before, had the Messiah, the new king David, been associated with the suffering servant. This would take some time to digest. What does it mean? How is this person – this Jesus – to take the iniquities of all? There must have been so many questions. How is this supposed to work?

Which is why Jesus “began” to teach them and predicts his death another two times in this gospel. This is such big information, it will take time for it to sink in, and not be fully understood until after the fact.

But Jesus’ pending death isn’t the only death. It’s us too.

When Jesus rebukes Peter he calls him Satan “because you are not thinking about God’s concerns but about merely human ones!” (Mark 8:33) What are these human concerns? We should know. They preoccupy us even now. For clarity, let’s look at the next bit:

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (8:34-38)

Everything in this speech is anchored in change. We must change our direction. We must change our mind. We must change the way we think. We must change how we look at things.

Our human concerns are:

  • Not denying ourselves (wanting what we want without hinderance)
  • Gaining the world (money, things, holidays…..)
  • Shame of the gospel (of standing out for something unpopular)
  • “Adultery” (ie not being faithful to God but faithful to ourselves and what we want)
  • Sinful (insert your personal sins here…..)

This is not just following a groovy teacher. This is following our Lord. This is treasuring what he says so deeply that we would change our lives. That we would consider God first in all things before we make choices based on our own will.

I like to think I’m an OK Christian, but I look at that list and I know I still think of myself first before Him. It’s my default position.

So I need to look again at what Jesus is teaching me. We slip into Christian laziness so quickly and so easily. I need to practice my focus on God first. It’s not easy, but I need to practice – because with practice we always get better at things.

And the reward! Even though Jesus makes clear that there is a cost to following him, the reward is glory in heaven. Even though we must choose death of our sins (our most comfortable and pleasant idolatries) we gain the world. We gain him.

He says himself that those who are ashamed of him in this world, he will be ashamed of as we stand before the throne. The opposite must also hold true – those who love and exalt him in this world, he will love and exalt before God as we stand before the throne.

I know which one I choose.

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: Studies in the Gospel of Mark

I am the most unlikely Christian. But aren’t we all? Mark 8:22-26)

I became a Christian 12 years ago. I was completely fine at the time. By that I mean I had no need of religion. I had a great life and a great job with lots of prospects. I had no real responsibilities, I didn’t have to worry too much what the price tags said, I could go on holiday whenever I wanted and spent most weekends out for brunch, lunch and dinner.

When I met Jesus though, it was like someone had switched a light on and I didn’t realise until that moment that I’d been stumbling about in the dark.

For me, it was a two-stage conversion. A friend of mine who had a similar experience says that she was “a Christian before she became a Christian”. I became a Christian in my head first and about a year later, in my heart as well.

I became a believer because the more I learned, the more I realised it was more probably true than not. When I learned the evidence around the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I became a Christian. The evidence was too compelling for it to not be true. And if that was true, well….the only thing you can do is give your life to Jesus.

About a year later, I was at a large conference and with hundreds of women’s voices raised in song, I suddenly got it. What had happened in my head the year before, suddenly happened in my heart too. I got it. I suddenly understood the very depth of my sin and therefore the extent of gratitude I owed to God.

Both stages were life changing. Both stages felt like a progressive healing of what had been complete blindness.

There is a man in Mark 8:22-26 who’s experience resonates deeply with me. It’s a short story, but profound.

They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”

He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”

Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t even go into the village.”

In the first stage, he begins to see – there’s light and colour and shape but it’s still indistinct. With the second stage, he sees clearly. And his life is changed.

But there is more to be said here that resonates with me. I am blessed with full sight, but I can imagine that someone with impaired vision would need to trust someone deeply to allow them to lead them, especially as far away as somewhere outside the village. Jesus was someone to be trusted. And he must have proved his trustworthiness in how he led the man – gently but sure footed, reaching their destination safely.

This is something I remember. Becoming a Christian and not knowing what on earth I was supposed to do, but just trusting Jesus and allowing him to lead me as though I was a child. And that sense of seeing, but seeing things indistinctly until things started coming into focus.

I look back now and wonder that I ever became a Christian. I had no history with the church. I didn’t grow up knowing anyone who went to church. And like I said, as a grown up, life was peachy. I was the most unlikely person to become a Christian.

But really, aren’t we all? Only an encounter with Jesus brings us to the truth. Without him none of us would be Christians.

And look how far we’ve come. I look back sometimes and my only regret is that I didn’t become a Christian sooner. But just like the blind man, the stage was set for an encounter with Jesus and it happened when it was supposed to happen. So the timing cannot be regretted.

Look back at your own story. We have so much further to go – growing in Christlikeness is a life long pursuit for us. And even if you think you’re not “nailing it” right now and that your life is messy, that’s ok. Because life is always messy. But look back and see how far you’ve come. And look forward with a renewed sense of hope because we will make more progress in the months and years to come.

Just remember that we were blind, but now we see. And Jesus leads us tenderly, gently. He changed our lives. He has changed our eternity. And while we are still here on earth, we will grow in him. Because all of us are unlikely Christians, and none of us are able to do this without him.

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: Studies in the Gospel of Mark

Sometimes the disciples remind me of my kids when they’re being really annoying (Mark 8:11-21)

As a mum, there are several things that can get really annoying.

The first is when me and my kids have had a great day filled with lots of treats – a breaky out, ice cream at the park and a trip to the cinema. And then, after lavishing my hard earned dollars on having a really special day, there begins the incessant whining about the one thing that they don’t have. A gum ball or a pack of stickers or a $700 gaming console – it doesn’t matter what it is, and it doesn’t seem to matter about all the other amazing things we just did and had – now we want that thing.

The second thing is when they start arguing with each other in that “I’m not touching you, I’m not touching you!!” kind of way. It grates in the nerves. It’s like nails down a blackboard. You know you’re going to have to step in like the UN to make peace and there’ll be no “peace keeping” other than separating them and making them be quiet.

The third thing is when they ask you a question, you answer them and they say “yes, but how do you know” a million times as you keep explaining the same thing. For example, “Mummy, do dinosaurs still live on earth.” “No honey, the dinosaurs died out a long time ago.” “How do you know.” “Because I do.” “Yes, but how do you know?” “Because scientists have found their bones and they are millions of years old and nobody has seen a dinosaur since.” “Yes but how can you be sure.” Etc etc until you feel like you could literally die of the whole conversation.

WELL, this passage in Mark (8:11-21) reminds of all three of these.

In our previous passage (you can read it here), Jesus had performed yet another miracle. And yet here we are, again, with the Pharisees asking for a sign.

To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.”

This feels just like the dinosaur scenario. “Are you the Messiah?” “Yes” “But how do you know?” “Because I know who I am and I’ve been doing miracles for a while now.” “Yes but can you show us another one so we can be double triple sure?”

What they want is authentication. This is more than a miracle, they want some kind of sign of divine intervention since even false prophets can do miracles (see for example Deuteronomy 13:1-2). However, God isn’t a performing monkey and while sometimes he grants the request, generally people asking for that kind of sign get a pretty big slap down (like the devil when Jesus was tempted in the desert).

Why? Wouldn’t it be easier to just show people? I think there are several reasons. But one of them is that at some point, you just have to display faith. Faith is built intellectually on various proofs but the final step is allowing yourself to fall and trusting that a God will catch you. A relationship with God cannot be built on forever providing authentication – it would never end. And that, I think is the other reason. These people have seen Jesus’ signs and wonders. They have heard his teaching. They have experienced him face to face. They know the prophecies. And yet they do not or will not believe. If they will not believe on the basis of what they’ve already seen, will there be anything that convinces them? In Luke 16:31 Jesus says If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.

In this way, Jesus isn’t just the son of God, God incarnate, he is a also a prophet and watchman – he has told them what is happening. He has warned them. He has shown them that the kingdom is near and they must repent. Now they must believe the good news and accept the salvation that is being offered.

The disciples are not much better at this point frankly. They are in the boat after the feeding of the 4,000 and only brought one loaf. They start arguing.

Jesus, never one to miss a teaching opportunity, says Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod (Mark 8:15). Very deep. Very profound. He is warning them. Yeast is the thing that makes the whole dough rise. A very little bit effects the whole batch. It doesn’t take much to be contaminated. They need to beware.

And what do the disciples say? Thank you, Lord? Good pick up, saviour? Cheers for the tip, Messiah? No. They argue about not having bread.

Not just totally ignoring him, but also arguing about the most trivial thing. This is so reminiscent of being grabby after a day of treats and the “I’m not touching you” arguments! Jesus has done this amazing thing and has tried to impart his wisdom, and all they can do is squabble because they’re hungry-angry.

Jesus asks them if their hearts are hard. Have they seen but not seen? Do they have ears but are not hearing? They are just like the Pharisees.

Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? (Mark 8:17-18)

Jesus reminds them what he just did and then says “Do you not yet understand?” (Verse 21).

This ends the scene. We don’t know what their reaction is – if any.

It could be that the disciples were like my kids. In the face of a question like that, my kids just look at me. They would exchange glances like “just say yes so we won’t get into trouble” – “Yes Mum, of course we understand” even though they blatantly don’t. They’ll just say anything to make the conversation stop.

It could be another great literary device that Mark is using. When he ends the conversation here, he is inviting the reader to answer the question for them. At this point, the reader – whether now or 1900 years ago – is screaming at the book “Oh come on!!! How much evidence do you need??? How are you squabbling when he is right there!!!”

And that is the point of this whole gospel. Mark wants his readers to read themselves into this narrative. He is telling a story faithfully, but he’s doing it in a way that draws the reader in, engages them in the story, compels them to feel the frustration, but also feel confident in the truth that the Pharisees and the disciples should be seeing so clearly.

This gospel was written for us. It transcends the ages. Jesus spoke words of truth. He performed mighty signs. He demonstrated his knowledge of God’s plans and purposes – and then he died for us. And when he rose from the dead (with enough evidence around the event to allow us intellectually to believe it is probable rather than possible) we can fall, knowing he is there. We can trust. We can take that step of faith.

We are the Pharisees sometimes. And when times are tough, which they are and will be again, we will ask for signs and authentication that God is there. We will seek worldly certainty when we should just seek Him. Because we can be certain in Him.

We are all the disciples sometimes too. We have ears and eyes but we don’t see or hear properly. We get distracted. We get the spiritual version of hungry-angry. We need to be corrected. We need Jesus to remind us again – do we not yet understand?

Being the Pharisees and the disciples is kind of like us being like my kids, except to God. We squabble. We fight. We keep asking and asking and asking – without stopping to simply have faith.

Remember. Understand. Be certain in Him. Let yourself fall again – because he is there to catch you.

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: Studies in the Gospel of Mark

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.