My family and I spent a very casual and relaxed Christmas dinner with my sister and her family, and somewhere in the mealtime conversation she asked me, “So what are you going to write about next?”
I said something like, “I don’t really know. Something other than suffering, for a change.” Granted, for us it’s been a year that has had a lot of suffering in it, and unlike the inimitable 17th century theologian/writer John Owen who was able to endure the death of ten children and hardly pen a public word about it, I’ve hardly been able to think or write about anything else. It’s probably getting old to hear the same thing over and over. So it’s time for a change.
The Bible speaks of a couple of things that are really good, but so insanely powerful that, if used incorrectly, are as destructive as the proverbial tornado in the trailer park. God has placed very clear and powerful restrictions concerning their use, not because He’s an old fuddy-duddy or a killjoy, but because he doesn’t want us kids smoking in the back room of the fireworks store and blowing ourselves to smithereens.
The two things that come to mind are anger and sex. A third might be authority, but the biblical restrictions there actually seem a bit looser, which, considering crazy evil people in authority like Hitler and Stalin, means anger and sex are pretty crazy powerful and dangerous. Anyway, here goes.
God is angry at sin. And sometimes we should be too. Not always; sometimes we should cover sin in love. But even good anger is too powerful for anyperson to maintain for any length of time without it devolving into something destructive and wicked. So even though anger isn’t evil per se, we are warned to steer clear of the angry man:
Make no friendship with a man given to anger,
nor go with a wrathful man,
lest you learn his ways
and entangle yourself in a snare.
Live angry and one day you’ll be running from the problems you’ve created, only to end up hanging upside down from one of those little rope-attached-to-the-bent-tree traps. Silly you, you set the thing up, then walked right into it. The problems you created will catch up to you and beat the living daylights out of you while you’re doing some defenseless dangling. So take a chill pill, man, and save yourself some needless pain.
We should be really hesitant to get angry, “for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” This is as true for Christians as anyone; I’ve observed a lot of self-described “defenders of the faith” on social media unwittingly but infallibly prove this point on a daily basis. They’re certainly trying and claiming to produce righteousness, their busy little righteousness factories with the tall brick chimneys belching out clouds of angry smoke, but I’ll be hanged if there’s even a thimbleful of righteousness available for purchase in the gift shop, even after years of production.
It’s not that anger is itself bad. It’s a really good thing; it’s even a godly thing. If a person never gets good and angry from time to time, that’s a real problem, because we live in a world that should make one angry. If the production of child porn or slaughter of babies and beating of wives doesn’t make you want to punch somebody in the nose at least once in a while, you need to see a doctor to see if something valuable may be damaged or missing.
But, Paul says, don’t sin when you’re angry. And don’t go to bed angry, because, interestingly enough, that opens up “opportunity” for the devil. That’s the fence: Be angry, without sinning, and not for very long. Less than a day, in fact. That doesn’t leave a big window for Mr. Potato-head to be wearing the angry eyes. But if you wander outside the fence, you’ll be doing the devil’s work. Count on it. Anger is just too powerful to leave unrestricted. Anger narrows one’s vision so tightly it’s impossible to see, after less than a single day, if you’re doing God’s work or the devil’s. So you can start out doing God’s work in anger, and that’s great, but the devil is looking for angry people, because he can co-opt rage and you’ll never notice, even if you still insist you’re doing God’s work angry. Sorry buddy, the timer expired, the sun went down. While you were in your rage carrying the ball to the endzone, triumphantly running over and through anyone who tried to stop you, you failed to see that you got turned around, now you’re headed for the wrong endzone, and you’re stiff-arming your own team. Take a knee man, catch your breath. Don’t let Satan make a fool of you that way. And, don’t think God underestimated your capacity for holy anger. You won’t make a fool of Him, that’s for sure. Be angry tomorrow if you must, but sleep happy, ditch the devil, get realigned, and start over.
Someone, probably those Twitter ragers, will (and do) say Jesus Himself was angry. Indeed He was. A couple of times. Not for very long. And nobody could accuse Jesus of being an angry person. Or needlessly angry.
I hardly need speak of the blatant misuse of anger and the damage it causes: angry drunks slugging it out, angry parents raging at their children, angry spouses screaming at each other, angry mobs with no clear goal save to destroy something. It’s almost impossible, in this world, to find good, clean, productive anger. So generally, steer clear of it. But at the right time, for the right reasons, briefly, anger is a good gift from God. Use it sparingly, quickly, and put it away before you wreck something, including yourself and those you love. Think of anger like a bazooka. It’s great to have handy when you hear something go bump in the night. But if you’re firing that baby every time your over-easy eggs get done over-medium, nobody’s going to want to have breakfast with you.
Read through the book of Genesis sometime and make a note of everything sexual in nature. It’s a lot. Adam and Eve were naked. And that was a good thing; it was an enviable condition, really. There’s a reason people fantasize about being on a desert island with a beautiful person of the opposite sex, right? Sin’s first visible consequence, interestingly enough, was clothing. “We ate the fruit, so we’d better quit being naked.” Where’s the logic in that? God instilled shame in Adam and Eve, which left them clothed and to some degree, tempered human sexuality. Not entirely of course; it’s too powerful. Even the Amish get pregnant, and good for them, too. As the book goes on, Adam “knew” Eve, and Cain was born. Noah, the kindly old man with the cool boat, the world’s original zookeeper, got hammered and naked. Abraham had sex with his wife’s servant (bad plan), the men of Sodom were struck blind trying to rape angels (worse plan), then while blind wore themselves out trying to find Lot’s door because they still wanted to rape the angels (idiotic plan, if you can call it a plan – but sex makes stupid sometimes, no?). On consecutive nights Lot’s two daughters got him drunk and had sex with him (incredibly ill-conceived [pun somewhat intended] plan), Jacob married sisters (a certifiably insane plan for a number of reasons), the less-loved one (didn’t see that coming) traded mandrakes for a night with her husband (okay…), Judah slept with a prostitute (never advisable) who turned out to be his daughter-in-law (sex is sometimes accompanied by bad surprises), and in a vivid combination of sex and anger gone wrong, after their sister was raped, Simeon & Levi talked a town’s worth of grown men into getting circumcised (ouch) and slaughtered them while they were recovering (a brilliant plan, if mass murder is your deal). And that’s not by any means all of Genesis, just a sampling.
God made sex, and he made it awesome. And he made it insanely powerful. Sex causes two people to become “one flesh,” which, according Nancy Pearcey in her excellent book Love Thy Body includes very real and powerful chemical bonding between two people that long outlasts the act of sex itself. But like the bazooka of anger, sex done wrong can powerfully destructive. Sexual acts perpetrated upon children can ruin them for a lifetime; seventy years can go by and the devastating effects are not erased. Sex ruins marriages, destroys friendships. Sex can kill. I was taking a pontoon boat ride with the kids and Alice last winter down in Florida, and “Captain Nick” who was driving us around pointed out a drawbridge, and told me, “Last year a doctor was trying to get his girlfriend back home before her husband returned from work, and the bridge started going up. He tried to jump his car across like in the movies. The car smashed into the other side of the bridge and they both died.” That’s not really a surprising or uncommon story, I suppose. Sad, but not shocking.
Still, sex is a good thing. In marriage. Between one man and one woman. Exclusively. For life. Those are God’s boundaries, not mine. They’re not meaningless, and they’re not arbitrary. Sex with the wrong gender is going to hurt somebody, believe God. God is not anti-love, God is anti-hurting yourself and others, and since he made you he knows how we are designed to work and not work. God made boundaries for sex because it’s impossible to take it outside of those boundaries and not harm something or someone. Sex is almost too hot to handle. If taken outside the fences God put around it, it will wreck stuff.
It occurred to me once that really rich people often use their riches to enjoy the greatest pleasures in the world; luxurious houses, food, and pleasurable vacations. But it also occurred to me that the richest people in the world often risk their riches, houses, and fame to get sex. See King David, Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, Eliot Spitzer, or Anthony Weiner, to name just a few rather public examples, to demonstrate that sex outside of marriage can destroy a rich and famous person’s life and leave them with nothing.
Keep your way far from her,
and do not go near the door of her house,
lest you give your honor to others
and your years to the merciless,
lest strangers take their fill of your strength,
and your labors go to the house of a foreigner,
and at the end of your life you groan,
when your flesh and body are consumed,
and you say, “How I hated discipline,
and my heart despised reproof!”
Wanna wreck your life? Easy; have sex with someone not your spouse.
Rich, powerful people risking everything to have sex tells me that either a) they’re stupid, or b) sex just might be the most pleasurable experience in the world. After all, they are the ones who can afford every pleasure, have tried them all, and are willing to risk all the other ones for that one.
I have no doubt God designed sex to be that pleasurable. In marriage, which is the only place for non-destructive sex, the poorest man and woman in the world can experience the same pleasures the richest in the world long to have, which I think is pretty cool. You don’t have to be rich to enjoy the best in life, you just need to keep sex within the bounds of marriage so it doesn’t destroy you and others, and then you can enjoy it like crazy.
I suppose I should say something for the single people. First, sex is not the only pleasure in the world. Second, some single people are just happy without it. That’s great, and many people envy you. Third, giving in to the temptation to have sex outside of marriage will cause you far more problems than it will fix, which is basically zero. So fourth, keep in mind that sex is so powerful the Apostle Paul once wrote concerning single people, “if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1Cor. 7:9). Better to get married and have sex, than pine for sex all day, because that’s going to land you in a world of hurt. Good heavens people, get married and have sex if that’s what you need. But don’t for a moment think you can have sex outside of God’s definition of marriage (one man, one woman) and not ruin your relationship with God or other people. The sexually immoral are left outside heaven with the murderers, God-replacers, and habitual liars (Rev. 22:15). That is to say, they are numbered with those who hurt other people and hate God.
Despite God’s warnings and restrictions, there’s a lot of anger and a lot of sex happening outside of God’s fences, and the crowd watching from the bleachers is going wild. “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them” (Rom. 1:32). Instead, our society has come up with its own “too hot to handle” stuff. I just want to address one.
Pain is what is too hot to handle in this culture. We live in a world that has no basis for morality remaining save this: pain is evil, pleasure is good. You can see this in the swift destruction of anyone who inflicts even the pain of an insult; God forbid anyone say something insensitive and hurtful, especially toward a vulnerable or marginalized someone!
This hatred of pain is seen in the medical field. No pain is the goal. Noble enough, no doubt. I remember sitting beside my wife in the hospital just after a procedure, and though she felt no pain, she had to turn down repeated attempts to give her pain meds. Another day, same hospital, I was so proud when my son, in preparation for getting three screws put into his leg, turned down some “bonus” pain meds. “We’ll numb the bejeebers out of you, everybody does it.” Take a little pain son, it’s good for you. He took the pain, and with a proud smile. Well done.
We try to escape pain far too quickly, I think. A painless life is a good life, right? When certain kids get annoyingly active and cause parental headaches, there’s drugs to slow the monsters down and make the parental pain go away. When the pain of life is too great to bear, there’s a bottle at the bar that can make it go away, for a while. When a loved one dies, we get about the business of making the pain go away. Comfort. Lots of comfort. The less tears shed, the better we’re doing.
Pain is evil, says the spirit of the age, which then immediately and vindictively inflicts pain on anyone or anything it deems evil. Evil people, by the way, are those who cause pain to the good people. The good people are the marginalized, the oppressed, the minority, and everyone who uncritically sympathizes with them. That’s really the only qualification to be a good person anymore. In other words, good people aren’t biblically moral people anymore, good people are moral because they’re victims of pain, they’ve fought the evils of pain, and have prevailed.
The church is no doubt far more influenced by culture than any of us would care to admit, since, after all, we are the church. The church is increasingly tolerant of anger and sex outside God’s fences, and it’s correspondingly hostile to pain.
But pain isn’t one of God’s “too hot to handle” things. I was reminded of this while reading the Christmas letter of Wang Yi and Jiang Rong, a Chinese brother and his wife, written this December 9, twelve days before Wang Yi was arrested and imprisoned. They wrote,
For us, this year has been a very long one. The Lord has led us to realize what it means by “as your days, so shall your strength be”. This year has also been a very fierce one. Four times Wang Yi was taken to the police station, especially the first one when he was taken together with Jiang Rong to the police station, where they were detained for twelve hours. Everything we had was taken away, including our wedding rings, and we were stripped naked for body exams
This proved two things to us:
First, we shall leave everything behind to follow the Lord. If necessary, we shall even leave marriage out of the Holy of Holies, where we will face the living God alone and be faithful to the Lord. Second, we deserve all the shame and be treated as sinners; yet we have been saved by Jesus and delivered from the coming, eternal shame. He has endured all these and much more than we have. With such, we have been led by the Lord into deeper faith and joy this year.
What we are most grateful for is that the Lord has led us through this year together with the church. We spent most days in persecution or rumors of persecution. Besides his published works, Wang Yi has also written other documents, including his testament and will. We two spent many evenings talking about the possibility of arrest and preparing for every situation. Even in the midst of our busy ministry in the church, we found time for just the two of us go on more dates than usual. These evenings and dates have led to our deeper union and sweeter love in the Lord…
If by the end of the year, God still has not allowed the government to take more severe action toward Wang Yi and Early Rain Covenant Church, Wang Yi will take two months of sabbatical after the congregational meeting in January 2019 and then a third month off in the second half of the year. This plan has been postponed for two years. If God is willing to put Wang Yi in prison for a prolonged sabbatical, we will also receive it as abundant grace.
Chinese prison as a “prolonged sabbatical” and “abundant grace”? Who talks like that?
There was a time when Christians understood that following Jesus was almost suicide, that “take up your cross and follow” might be a literal reality, and for the Apostle Peter, it was. There was a time when we knew that we should “count the cost” because on this side of our own funeral, following Jesus might be more loss than profit.
The idea of the evil of pain enters into the church roughly this way: God is good, so God hates pain, and wants to make it go away. God came to save us from evil (pain) so He is itching to rescue anyone who is suffering pain for any reason. If you are suffering pain, it’s probably your fault, not God’s, because God doesn’t do evil (thus pain). Much of our prayer time is consumed with asking God to make painful things go away. Heal, God! Fix, God! Safety, God! Money, God!
We’ve advertised to the world a God who makes all the pain go away, while anyone with eyeballs can see the real God is letting us endure plenty of it; as much and sometimes more than non-Christians. What kind of power over evil does God have if he doesn’t keep us from pain? But that’s like saying, “Why doesn’t God protect us from the smell of blue?” It’s a nonsensical question.
The night Alice died, Pastor Bob, with all the love and sympathy of a man speaking for God, said to my family and me something like, “If I could make the pain go away, I wouldn’t. You need to feel it. To embrace it.” Who talks like that? A man who recognizes the value of pain, who knows a God who uses pain. Who knows that pain felt is an expression of the value of a thing lost. Pain is not evil. Pain reminds us that evil exists, and bad things still happen. Pain tells us in vivid but unspoken language that this isn’t heaven. Pain sharpens our value systems: what will you suffer to get, and what isn’t worth the pain? Pain strengthens our resolve: this is worth the pain. Pain glorifies God: He’s worth suffering for. He’s worth following even if it ends with me on my own cross. When we come to terms with the value of pain, then maybe we too might see being hauled off to Chinese prison as “abundant grace” and a “prolonged sabbatical.” I’d like to get there.
Not all pain is good, I get that. And heaven will be gloriously pain-free, I’m glad of that. But let’s also not forget,
when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.
(1 Peter 2:20)
Sometimes pain issues from kindlier sources:
Faithful are the wounds of a friend;
profuse are the kisses of an enemy (Prov. 27:6).
And to the most faithful Friend, we can say,
I know, O Lord, that your rules are righteous,
and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me. (Ps. 119:75)
Because this most faithful friend has told us,
This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor 4:17-18)
Bring on the eternal weight of glory. Even if it comes at a painful price.
Fence off anger and sex to keep them within biblical boundaries, so they don’t cause needless damage; tear down the cultural fence limiting pain, so it can do some good. Some things are (almost) too hot to handle and we should be far more careful with them; some things aren’t maybe as hot as we think, and we should be more open to them.