Tag Archives: #salvation

Where is God in the hopelessness of Groundhog Day?

OK, trick question. We know that God is there always, even in the time of global pandemic lock-down. But I pose it because recently I had about two weeks where I felt completely without motivation. Obviously at the moment this is coronavirus related, but this can happen any time.

Everything was the same. Every day. Wake up. Do parenting. Start working from home. Do more parenting. Go to bed. Repeat. I felt myself slide into some kind of stupor. Like I was running on auto-pilot. I didn’t even have any highs or lows of emotion – it was like I was just existing and wafting between days that all looked the same.

It wasn’t until someone recognised it as “Groundhog Day” that I understood what was affecting me. Groundhog Day (if you don’t know it) was a movie from 1993 and involved a rather unpleasant character who, in the course of his working day as a weatherman, is forced to live the same day over and over again. Eventually, he becomes a fine upstanding character and gets the girl (it’s Hollywood after all) but the fascinating stretch of the film is the emotional waves he goes through. Someone has worked out that he lives the same day for 8 years, 8 months and 16 days. The same day.

He goes through waves of investigation, trying to escape, acceptance, bravado and arrogance, grief, energetic thriving, careless wickedness, depression and many others.

It was the depression part that struck me when my friend said the words “Groundhog Day”. I wasn’t feeling depressed but I realised I had that sense of purposelessness. No goal. No change. No point.

And that is a problem. When you feel like there is no point because nothing is, or will, change, then we are losing hope.

I wasn’t losing hope, but I could see I was on the road to that kind of thinking. But how do you get yourself out of it? When you can feel yourself in an emotional stupor, how can you get out? It’s like being in a hole without a ladder. How do you force yourself to have motivation when you have none?

We know that God is there – we know it in our heads. In fact that can make us feel worse. Here’s me without motivation and with hope oozing away through the cracks in my purposeless day, and he is watching me. And I am doing nothing. Now a sense of shame compounds a sense of purposelessness and the immobilization gets worse.

In the Bible it tells us things like “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (1 Cor. 3:23) and “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4:13) and other famous passages that we use for inspirational cat posters.

So even though we know these to be true, these also make us feel even worse. Its a reminder of all the things I am not doing.

The thing is with Groundhog Day is that its a rut. And while we feel shame, its also a very comfortable rut. The motivation it can take to get out of the rut can seem insurmountable. I know I should work heartily for God but I don’t want to. I know I can do all things through God, but I don’t want to. I can, but I can’t.

How do you break the cycle?

I’d recommend not looking to “inspirational biblical memes”. They are true, but not necessarily helpful in your current state. But, the Bible has lots to say about things which are helpful.

For example, look at what the Bible has to say about:

  • God’s quiet uplifting presence. Isaiah 40 is a wonderful passage. This is spoken at a time when God’s people are going to be coming out of exile in Babylon. They have been in exile for 70 years and God is going to bring them home. The passage is gentle and loving. It is a reminder of how small and temporary humans are but at the same time how big and wondrous God is – and how he tenderly holds us and protects us. Critically, in v29 is the reminder that while we grow weary – God never grows weary and our hope and strength will be renewed in him.
  • Patience. Romans 8:18-39 is a great passage to reflect on the patience we need to endure before we meet God in heaven – and how to conduct ourselves while we wait. This is not a “should do” passage but powerful words that inspire enough to compel a shift in mind-set.
  • Hope and faith. Hebrews 11:1-12:3 gives us a picture of those who have gone before us who remind us of our hope and lift us up in our difficulties. All those people – just like you and me, living their lives imperfectly – witnessing to us and fighting for us. It reminds us that we are not alone.

Reading the words God gave us will shift our hearts. And when our hearts are shifted, we can pray more honestly, and more frequently. And it can spur us to change some things that will get us out of that rut. Even if its just doing one new thing a day. It can spur us to sit in a different place, call someone, go for a walk in the sun – anything that begins the process of lifting us further out of the sense of hopelessness. And God will be with us every step of the way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Isaiah 55:10-11)

I wonder how Jesus felt about someone else carrying his cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We must be a life-line for those in self-isolation

Whether you’re in Australia, the US, Italy, China, Singapore or Timbuktu, we are all facing the realities of the COVID-19, or corona virus, pandemic. I’m not going to go into the panic buying (although that is shocking) and I’m not going to post prayers as I hope that’s a feature of all our responses as Christians.

What I want to talk about is how we support people in isolation. At the moment that might not be so many, but the number may increase, and potentially quite dramatically.

Parents with kids may look on this with a heavy heart. Some who will be working from home might initially jump at the idea. Some introverts might even look forward to the idea of being able to catch up on all that reading.

But there’s a hidden risk in self-isolation that may only become apparent when we’re in it – and that is an impact to our emotional health and mental well-being.

There are four aspects of this:

  1. We need interaction. Humans are social creatures. Even for us introverts and ambiverts, we need contact and communication. For extroverts, who are energised by being around other people, being stuck in the home can be especially difficult. We can go about our daily routine, work-from-homers can hold our meetings and so on via connective technology, but we’re missing the communication that we get in church, at the play group or at the office that is of vital importance to emotional health and mental well-being. We miss the water-cooler talk, the chats over lunch, the side comments after something funny or annoying happens, the coffee runs, the post-weekend catch ups. In other words, the day-to-day nothingness that enriches our day in community with others. Without it for prolonged periods of time, this can become a slow track into adverse mental health. It provides fertile ground for people being in their own heads too much – unproductive and circular negative thinking – which can lead downwards into depression.
  2. We need a pressure valve. We work in industries and live lives that can involve high pressure situations, whether that means deadlines and aggressive project timeframes, or relentless energy being poured into aging parents or multiple children. One of our coping mechanisms can be the interaction with others in the same situation. It helps us to talk and laugh and blow off steam. Being in isolation can mean that coping mechanism is removed.
  3. People are experiencing fear on top of fear. There have been a lot of scary things happening in the last few months. There’s been the Amazonian and Australian bushfires, floods in Australia and the UK – and now this. These are real life events that we’re used to seeing in disaster movies. Except this is not Hollywood. This is real. This can cause very real feelings of fear and uncertainty. When people are dealing with this on top of their day-to-day real life, this can very quickly become hopelessness. And when people feel hopeless and helpless, they can begin to despair.
  4. The home may represent additional pressure. People’s home lives can come with extra stresses on a normal day, and more so if working/existing in isolation. There could be elderly parents to take care of and kids that becomes extra pressured if fixed within four walls. The home situation might not even be a safe one for them. The world outside the home could be the place that they go to every day that represents safety and security and fellowship. These people could be facing compounded pressures at home during this time that reduces their coping mechanisms. In a time of additional stress and pressure, it could even be a potentially more dangerous place for them.

This sounds very dramatic, but even a fraction of what I’m talking about can mean that we have people working and living in isolation in a way that can have long reaching effects.

As Christians, I would hope that we have a better handle on this supporting people even under normal conditions, let alone a crazy scary time like this. But even we might have to get more creative as we have to limit personal contact and practice social distancing.

What can we do? We need to check in with each other for no reason – create opportunities for that water-cooler talk. Think about doing that over facetime or Skype so you can have a cuppa and see each others faces.

Host a watch party so you can gather as people for something fun and people don’t feel alone. (Even, as a worker from home, host a watch party with you work team of a TED talk or something).

Go back to Old School days and send cards in the mail. Leave notes or flowers or small gifts at people’s doors. Call and pray with people over the phone. Maybe even link everyone in via Skype to have a Bible study – the point is to not just stay connected personally but to stay connected spiritually. When we are under pressure, when there is fear and uncertainty, our faith can take a battering. Remember in the Garden – “Did God really say….?”. All it takes is a shadow of doubt and our faith can fade into the noise of panic. Let God’s light shine in the darkness, even when we are hard pressed on all sides – and help each other to do it. Lets get creative in our care.

There are a lot of ways we can stay connected even when we are far apart. As a community of believers, this is an area we can excel. We are called to have mercy and compassion. Lets get creative with our application so in these uncertain times, we can glorify God and express His character through our outstanding and visible kindness and thoughtfulness.

How are Christians to make sense of gender equity in the workplace?

The gender debate is everywhere these days and there are great discussions about many issues facing women. As Christians, many seem obvious to us in how we deal with them as the Bible provides us at least some guidance. Other areas are less clear though. What about gender equity in the workplace? Once we get outside of church and family, the Bible does not provide clear guidance, so how are we to apply godly wisdom here?

First, in the interests of full disclosure, I am a complementarian. That means I believe that men and women were created with equal value and dignity. Their complementarity is found in their functional difference – we complement each other. I believe this functional difference is expressed in male leadership and authority – but I do not believe that functional difference in any way diminishes woman. We are equal and different. I believe this functional difference is seen in the Trinity – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are equal and ontologically the same (ie they are the same in their being) and yet have a functional difference.

I acknowledge that there are other views of the man-woman relationship and my declaration of complementarianism is in no way a slight to my egalitarian sisters. Because we are sisters in Christ and we will all be worshiping together in heaven.

As a complementarian though, believing in male leadership, how do we view the gender pay gap? How do we view female leadership in the workplace? Does that mean we can’t be project manager, team leaders, senior managers and CEOs?

Lets go first to the gender pay gap. The pay gap exists for a number of reasons and so is not easily explained or swept away. But lets take some of the reasons:

  1. If a woman is paid less than a man for doing the same work, that is not an expression of submission, it is an expression of outright sexism and is not just wrong, it is illegal under gender discrimination law. Women are called to submit to their husbands – not all men. There’s a lot in the submission issue alone and you can read more on it here in a previous blog.
  2. Women tend to drop back or out of the workforce after having children. Partially that’s by choice as our priorities change, but partially that’s because flexible working conditions don’t exist for many. Without the ability to work part time or work from home, women are left with lesser paying jobs. Again, while I fully support women’s changing priorities in support of the family (I’ve done it myself!), I find many workplace responses discriminatory – which is not biblical. Women tend to “submit” in this scenario because they have no choice.
  3. Women still carry the bulk of domestic work and primary care of the children even when working equal days to the partner. Again, this may be a choice and I fully support that. I also know many women who wanted to re-join the workforce after having their kids and found that their male colleagues could freely move around for work because they had wives to take care of the domestic scene. Women don’t have this fall-back, and so become restricted in their ability to contribute.

There are many other reasons for the gender pay gap but what I think can be seen is that it exists because women are functionally and biologically different (we have children) and because we are emotionally and mentally different (even without children, we make different choices, have different values and respond emotionally differently to things).

That said, those differences should not result in a lesser financial value of the female workforce. And this goes for the secular workforce as well as in churches and Christian institutions. Paying women less, financially, in fringe benefits, opportunities or resources, de-values her work and de-values her person. It says she is not as valuable as her male colleagues. It says that her work is not as important. And this is not a biblical picture.

It does not overturn God’s created relationships if we seek equal pay and seek to close the gender pay gap. Equal pay is about equality of being, not her function. In fact, if we see this kind of discrimination, we should stand up for those women. This shows clearly that they are of equal creation, value and dignity.

How about women leading teams and being in management positions? Because this speaks more to function, this would seem less clear. The Bible only shows two categories for male-female relationships – father/daughter and husband/wife. There is no category for women and men in the workplace. However, in Carrie Sandom’s Different by Design, she helpfully reviews biblical wisdom that can be applied in the workplace. We are going to be lawyers and doctors and vice-principals and cafe owners and project managers. We are going to be team leaders and managers with men under our authority. We should not feel compelled to remove ourselves from these situations. However, how we conduct ourselves is key. We can apply the servant leadership that we see in Jesus. We can approach leadership with missional motherhood. We can interact with people with gentleness and humility that means we can fulfill our work obligations (and excel) but is supportive to God’s designed creation.

There are many ways I think we can apply this in the workplace. It takes some thought on our part to think through how it would apply in our context. It takes prayer and intentionality. We think often about how we are building God’s house in our homes. How are you building God’s house at your workplace?

This takes wisdom, humility and great strength on our part. But Jesus never promised that following him would be easy. At the same time, Jesus also never said we should be meek women without voices.

Many things occur because we think they might upset our biblical responsibilities. Many things occur because we have been told that they will. But this is where we need to be clear about what is biblical, and what is just discrimination.

Biblical wisdom and humility must be our baseline. God must be our guide. Supporting gender equity in the workplace does not subvert His created order. If we apply our godly obedience in the workplace, we can even amplify His created order. Because we will look different to the world. People will see Him in how we conduct ourselves.

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.

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

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

Image result for joseph and his amazing technicolour dreamcoat

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

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

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

So lets trace Joseph’s story very quickly:

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

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

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

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

Ancient Cistern

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does the Bible oppress women or not?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. A while back I wrote a blog on sexual coercion in marriage  followed by a live Q&A on the same subject with GuruNow  (you can watch it here). There were a lot of questions and a lot of discussion afterwards – it touched a nerve for a lot of women. What was apparent was many feelings of frustration, feelings of being treated differently – not in the “equal and different” sense but in the “equal but inferior” sense. What it brought up for me, was a tangle of doctrine and culture that had apparently become intertwined over the centuries and that desperately needed to be untangled.

Over the years, the church has been accused of oppressing women and allowing abuse to happen. There has been an equal push of denial from the other side. The result is each camp has been pushed to opposite extremes with one side pushed into an (apparently) increasingly conservative corner and the other pushed into feeling they actually have to fight for their corner. The result is women feeling further ignored, frustrated and oppressed. The result is also the church feeling under attack from within. Neither of these is a good outcome.

To find equal ground we have to strip away centuries of cultural barnacles and try and get to the truth. When I say “truth” I mean the truth as communicated to us by God Himself. What did God say? What did Jesus communicate? Are we equal and different? Or equal and inferior?

Much is made of Genesis 2:18 in which God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” For a long time, the assumption has been that as man was created first, he is more important. Women were created second and are merely helpers. What this ignores though is the ontological equality – that is, as image bearers, men and women are equal in being. One is not inferior to the other.

What it also ignores is the nature of the term “suitable helper”. The Hebrew word that has been translated as “helper” is ezer and it is used elsewhere in the Bible in a context that challenges our understanding. In Psalm 89:17 “For you [God] are their [the Israelites] glory and strength.” The last word here has been translated as “strength” but is ezer. God is Israel’s ezer.

John McKinley* notes that “the issue in ezer is neither equality nor subordination, but distinction and relatedness. She is to be for the man as an ally to benefit him in the work they were given to do. Just as ezer tells of God’s relatedness to Israel as the necessary support for survival and military perils, the woman is ally to the man, without which he cannot succeed or survive.”

For me, as a woman, that’s pretty huge. I am to man what God is to the Israelites. Someone without whom the other party can’t do what they need to do. So our function is ezer. How that is expressed in our lives is as unique and varied as our individual contexts (and there is is a lot to be said about this – perhaps a blog for another time!)

We are meant to be different so that what man is missing is supplied by woman, and vice versa. This is not oppressive. That feels liberating to me.

BUT – it also seems clear to me that this has become part of a cultural attitude to women that feeds the idea of inferiority. Even by Jesus’ time there was a large cultural divide between men and women. Some of this is (in every culture) based on our obvious differences – we are physically different, we (generally speaking) think differently, communicate differently, approach issues differently, respond differently (remember I said generally speaking!).

For the Jews, a biological difference (menstruation) created a ceremonial difference. A time of menstruation was niddah where a woman was considered un-clean and was not “clean” until menstruation was over and a ritual cleansing had occurred. What is important here is that “clean” and “unclean” have no moral judgement attached to them. It is not “good” or “evil”, it is solely a diagnostic for a person’s state and ability to be in the presence of God. Many things could cause a state of uncleanness and Leviticus is chockers full of how a person becomes clean again. What is key though is that, since people in a state of uncleanness couldn’t stand before God, and menstruation occurs regularly but in changeable cycles, the chances of being in a state of uncleanness regularly and unknowingly was too high. This meant that women could not take ceremonial roles in the tabernacle. By the time we get to temple, a biological difference has become entrenched in the cultural consciousness.

Of course there are many other factors at play but the entanglement of religion and culture is what can make things problematic. When we strip this away, what does God say? The story of the bleeding woman in Mark 5 gives us a clear window (there is a Bible study on this here). This woman had been ceremonially unclean for years. Jesus shouldn’t have gone near her let alone engage with her. What Jesus’ simple action does is remove the barriers of clean and unclean for women – women became liberated to be disciples in whatever physiological and biological state they were in at the time. By his actions, Jesus affirmed functional difference in a variety of settings, he freed them to follow him.**

So we are to men what God was to the Israelites. We are ontologically equal and functionally given a specific and different role as ally, but without which men cannot succeed. And Jesus up-ended any ceremonial barriers – while recognising biological difference, we are freed to be disciples and engage in religious and faith matters.

So lets turn to Paul’s letters which have caused much controversy and pain over the years. Firstly, he talks about women submitting to their husbands. This is uncomfortable and feels wrong. But again, we forget the context:

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.” (Ephesians 5:21-28)

There is whole books written on this subject (and rightly so) but here’s some takeaways:

  • Submission is mutual – we submit to each other. The emphasis is not on the woman alone.
  • Submission is voluntary – we submit to God willingly and voluntarily. Submission cannot be forced or coerced in any way. If it is, it is NOT submission and husbands cannot expect or demand it. God does not expect or demand it. Husbands must be the kind of person to whom submission is willing and voluntary.
  •  Submission is a response – The onus is actually on the husband. He must love his wife as he loves his own body and as Christ loved the church (Christ died for the church). Our submission to God is a response to this great truth. So it must be for women. Our submission can be faked to break an impasse, but the onus is not on us to forever be submitting to make things right. It should be a response to the love and sacrifice of the husband.

But sadly culture has not used this passage that way. It have been taken out of context and used by people who will use whatever tool will get them what they want, or feel they deserve. This is a gross misuse of scriptural truth.

We see this particularly in 1 Corinthians 7 – another passage that has become misused and even weaponized.

“The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” (1 Corinthians 7:3-5)

Firstly, what is this “marital duty”? It sounds old fashioned, like we’re supposed to “lie back and think of England”. The original Greek that “duty” is translated from is opheilo. This word is usually used to translate a commercial debt and the only place it is used in a non-monetary sense is in Romans 13:8:

“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.”

This “duty” is love! The husband owes a debt of love to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. This is different to how we imagine it to be – and how it has unfortunately been used in the past.

What about bodily autonomy? In the women’s movement this has been such a key issue. As physically weaker (generally speaking) and culturally subordinated, there has been centuries of our bodies being used and abused without our consent or permission. Culture in fact, has perpetuated it. In Australia, marital rape was not made illegal until 1981 (and not in all States and Territories until 1992). As recently as 2018 in the UK, a study found that “more than a third of over-65s” do not consider forced marital sex rape, along with 16% of people aged 16 to 24. Overall, one in four Britons believed that non-consensual sex within marriage did not constitute rape.”***

In 1 Corinthians 7, it looks as though the Bible is saying that our husbands have authority over our bodies in just this kind of fashion. Except it doesn’t say that. Look again:

“The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.”

Neither person has authority over their own body but choose to yield it to each other in an act of mutual giving. It doesn’t say that the woman doesn’t have authority but her husband does. No. It says she doesn’t but yields it. So who does have authority? If we don’t, and the husband doesn’t – who does?

Just prior to our passage, in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, Paul says “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.”

God has authority over our bodies.

This obviously will be hard teaching for some, especially because bodily autonomy is such a key pillar of the women’s movement. And I understand why. Issues of permission and consent are so profoundly significant for anyone, particularly women who, culturally, have been subordinated for so long. But Christianity has always been counter cultural and the comfort that I (or rather the Bible) gives, is that God deserves this authority because we were created as His image bearers, and He cares so deeply for us (body and soul) that He sacrificed His only son for us. What is also important – and so central to the reason for the fight for bodily autonomy – is the man/husband doesn’t have authority over it. And if they claim it, this is also a gross misuse of scripture.

Of course, Paul in various texts talks in ways that seems to diminish women. I’m not going to explain that away or pretend it doesn’t mean what we think it means. In various places, we are told to wear head coverings (1 Corinthians 11:2-6), we are told to be silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34) and should be silent and not teach (1 Timothy 2:12). This is not the place to exegete all these passages, but what I will say is that these letters are responses to pastoral issues. These letters are the pastoral outworking of Jesus’ teaching in the context of what is. This teaching is descriptive, not prescriptive. That doesn’t mean that we should disregard it as being only relevant to Paul’s time, there are still biblical truths to abide by. So no, we don’t cover our hair, but there is still teaching on humility that is relevant.

Where does this leave us?

Well, there is an awful lot to unpack in here, but I hope this is a neat summary of some of the issues I think have been misused by our culture over centuries. The Bible places equal dignity and importance on men and women. It also shows that we have some key differences, and crucially a functional difference. But that functional difference does not diminish us. The Trinity shows the ontological equality of the godhead, and yet they can have functional differences that in no way makes one superior or inferior to the other.

Further, I hope we, as women, can have confidence in our standing before God. When scripture has, or is, used against women (and sadly even weaponized against women sometimes) it is a gross misuse. There is a reason for it (pride, greed, arrogance) but no excuse.

Culture has twisted what is God’s good creation. In a broken world, women have been treated as “equal” (in a theoretical sense) and inferior (in the practical sense). This is not what I see in scripture. What I see is a massive gap between what God intended for us, and what we have made. That will always be the case with everything until the last day. Until then, know that scripture, when stripped of culture and its use for personal gain, is pure and clear and beautiful. Until then, embrace that we have a God-made functional difference with a specific purpose – we are to men, what God is to the Israelites.

But because of our cultural advance, so many cultural icons and views are embedded to such a degree that there is still a subconscious bias, sometimes even a conscious decision, to view women as inferior. It’s not just the views on marital rape. Until the 1980s in Australia, a woman couldn’t get a passport without her husbands permission. In the last 40 years, a woman was still sacked if she got married and/or got pregnant – and it was an expectation. To fight it as unfairness got you a soft smack on the butt and a wink at best. In 1997 in the UK, new Labour leader Tony Blair presided over a new government that included over 100 female politicians. They were called for a group photo and the headline was “Blair’s Babes”. If that wasn’t patronizing enough, in 2014, new Conservative leader David Cameron was photographed with his 80 female politicians and they were tagged “Cameron’s cuties”. And that’s just in first world countries. Our culture is so far behind treating women as equal.

Of course, in response, we can run the risk of swinging the pendulum too far the other way. This is understandable from a group of people who feel they have been silenced for hundreds of years. We must be guided by scripture though – not what our gut says. Our gut will send us into freeze, flight or fight. We need to train our instincts to send us to God’s word.

So, until the last day, know that God did not create you to be, nor does he see you as “someone’s babe”. Until then, know that if you see a misuse of scripture, or an injustice in the name of scripture, have confidence to use your voice. Speak to your pastor. Speak to a Christian friend. Speak up. Don’t be guided by hurt, be guided by scripture. If we hold fast to that, we will avoid pushing the pendulum too far the other way in reaction and will hopefully, under God, find the truth again expressed in our culture.

The gospel is not the issue. Sadly, as with everything, people are. Let us equip ourselves with the truth and build our confidence and our identity in that.

 

* John McKinley, “Necessary Allies: God as Ezer, Woman as Ezer,” lecture, HIlton Atlanta, November 17, 2015, mp3 download, 38:35, http://www.wordmp3.com/details.aspx?id=20759 quoted in Aimee Byrd, No Little Women, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2016, p25-26

** Ben Witherington III, Women in the Ministry of Jesus, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p117

***https://www.theweek.co.uk/98330/when-did-marital-rape-become-a-crime