Work, Pray, Love

Long ago I learned that C. S. Lewis’ personal motto was “laborare est orare,” or “to work is to pray.” Recently I learned his motto’s source. The original is from St. Benedict, who said, "Orare est laborare, laborare est orare" ("To pray is to work, to work is to pray"). Before I knew the first half of the original quote, I thought of Lewis’ motto only in terms of work being like prayer. Now I understand the connection is much deeper.

For the Christian who thinks of them properly, work and prayer are not merely alike; they are one and the same.

When faced with work I do not want to do, it helps to remember the first work ever, which was Creation itself. It helps to remember the first work given us in the Garden of Eden, and Paul’s admonition to Colossian slaves to work for their earthly masters even when their masters were not watching and would not know. "Work," said Paul, “with all your heart, as if working for the Lord, not for men.” It helps to remember the (all too rare) moments of communion when I have sensed God's pleasure with my meager efforts. In the midst of these memories, I realize why Benedict and Lewis placed such emphasis on this idea, and although work is often difficult, although that difficulty was God’s curse for the first sin, I remain deeply grateful work was still allowed.

Even in a fallen world, work and prayer are one if done with God in mind. Work connects my spirit with the Lord’s. In work I sometimes give my best reflection of God’s image and likeness as Creator. In the beginning, work was creation. It remains so today. Creation is a gift, a flowing outward, the opposite of consumption. Pagan gods devour the earth; Jesus Christ sustains it with the perpetual gift of Himself, constantly creating everything. God's work is never done, and so may it always be with me.

Unlike prayerful petitions for my own sake or for others, unlike even prayers of thanks, when I work for God’s sake (although the work might be most menial) I return something of myself to my Maker. This is why the Lord commanded work in Eden, and why He let us take it to our exile. Because "God is love," work in imitation of His image, work for His sake, is not just a form of prayer; it is also love.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 6:34 PM 2 comments  

This Is the Air I Breathe

The view from my window these last few days has been ugly. I live directly in the smoke plume of one of the wildfires ravaging Southern California. Ash falls from the sky day and night; the rising sun is a dim red ball I can stare straight at without blinking; my eyes water and my nose burns as the air conspires to choke me, and the mid-day light has a sickly yellow cast that makes me feel like I’m on another planet, maybe Mars. But as much as I wish this wasn’t my home, it is.

Yesterday I went searching for a gas mask. Seriously. And as I searched, I kept thinking about that popular song by Michael W. Smith. Maybe you know it. The first lines go like this:

This is the air I breathe
This is the air I breathe
Your holy presence living in me

I realized the ugly air I had been breathing for the last few days was much like the social and spiritual atmosphere we inhale all the time. Drugs. Adultery. Poverty. Greed. Waste. War. Pornography. Divorce. Sexual confusion. Aborted babies. Pedophiles. Rapists. Racism. Misogyny. Materialism. Hedonism. Cancer. AIDS. Apathy. Terror. Pollution. Lies in the press. Lies in the street. Lies from the pulpit. Lies everywhere. This is the air we have been breathing for so long we hardly even notice anymore, even as it chokes us.

Searching for a gas mask, I thought about the last few posts here on this blog, and the concern expressed by a few people who contacted me to say, “Athol, we need to work on this a different way. We need to clean the air one heart at a time. The solution isn’t laws or politics; it’s Jesus and Jesus alone.”

I understand why they say this. For many, it’s a reaction to the mistakes of the last two decades, when Christians pursued political solutions with all the fervor of an old time revival preacher who has forgotten the point of his sermon in his zealousness to convince the crowd. Since Christians turned to politics in the late 1970’s the air quality has gotten only worse. We set out to be a light on a hill, and ended up looking like just another wildfire. But there is terrible irony in this reaction to that mistake. More than a quarter century ago, after helping to inspire Jerry Falwell and others to found the Moral Majority, Francis Schaeffer wrote these words in A Christian Manifesto:

“The old revivals are spoken about so warmly by the evangelical leadership. Yet they seem to have forgotten what those revivals were. Yes, the old revivals…in this country did call, without any question and with tremendous clarity, for personal salvation. But they also called for a resulting social action.”

Did you catch the irony? Some of us today, reacting to the ugly air in spite of decades of Christian political action, want to forget politics and focus only on revival. But the largely ineffective Christian political action they’re reacting against was itself inspired by revivals that also failed to clear the air. It seems our mistakes are self-perpetuated.

Human beings have an unfortunate tendency to see things as “this,” or “that,” but seldom both. We are pendulums doomed to swing back and forth between partial solutions, never stopping at a balanced middle place. The apostle James wrote, “Faith without works is dead,” and Jesus was talking about mutually supportive principles when he said, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.” Faith…and works. Love…and obey. In these areas, the proper Christian life is not an either/or proposition. God’s holy Presence dwells in the balanced middle place that includes them both. There, and there alone, the air is clear.

Our nation desperately needs a new political direction. Our neighbors desperately need faith in Jesus Christ. It is not one or the other; it is one, because of the other. “Faith without works is dead,” might just as truthfully been written “Works without faith is dead.” To argue one over the other makes no more sense than fighting wildfires without gas masks.

So this time, let us rise up at the primaries to ensure a godly choice for president in 2008, and let us also rise up in our pulpits, streets, schools, homes and offices to boldly preach the undiluted Gospel. Seriously. Pray for the right president, and pray for the right preachers. After swinging back and forth too often, this time let it be the balanced middle place. Let it be revolution and revival, by the grace and power of the mighty God we serve.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 6:29 PM 5 comments  

What Terri Wrote

Terri Blackstock does not blog, but recently I saw a copy of an important email she sent to several friends, and asked if she would offer something similar here. To my delight, she graciously agreed. Terri is always doing something gracious. For example, although we had never met, soon after the publication of my first novel she took time out of a busy book tour schedule to have dinner with my wife and me, along with my mother who was a big fan. I will never forget the encouragement Terri offered me as a writer that night, the amazing humility she displayed by treating me, then a one-novel author, as if I was a peer, and the powerful sense of God’s guiding hand I felt as she spoke of her recent decision to risk a well established writing career for the (then) very risky proposition of Christian fiction. Writing for houses such as HarperCollins, Harlequin, and Silhouette, thirty-two Terri Blackstock titles had been published and 3.5 million books in print when she decided to switch to Christian fiction. At that time the Christian fiction market was untested, and the quality of the novels available was mostly very poor. It was a huge risk for her career, a true leap of faith. But Terri felt a calling and obeyed. Since making that decision, she has sold 2 million novels and over thirty titles that explore faith in Jesus Christ, many of which have been number one best-sellers. Her latest book, True Light, reached number one on the Top 50 of all Christian books the first full month it was in stores, and Night Light was the winner of the 2007 Retailer’s Choice Award for General Fiction. You can learn more about Terri’s journey by reading her testimony on her website. But first, here’s what Terri wrote

* * *

I’m not a political spokesperson, and have never blogged about politics before. But it’s no secret that I’m a conservative. As we approach the next presidential election, I feel I have to speak out, since I’m concerned about conservatives allowing the media to determine who our candidates should be. How many times have we heard lately that Giuliani is going to be our nominee? I want to remind you that we are in a primary season, and we get to decide who our candidate will be. Yes, the media would love to choose our candidate. They'd love to choose someone who doesn't share our values. Then they'd have a win/win. But if we choose someone who doesn't share our values just to beat Hillary, what have we won? But if we have a Pro-Choice president in the White House--one who hasn't been able to keep his promises even to his wife--how can we be sure that he'll do what he says and appoint constructionist judges?

I'm currently teaching a Bible study course on some of the kings and prophets in the Old Testament. The northern kingdom of Israel allowed leaders to come and go and lead them into sins so serious that they were throwing their children into fire to sacrifice to the god of Molech. (To me, abortion is the same kind of offense to God.) God gave them chance after chance to repent, yet they followed their leaders into worse and worse sin. Eventually, the people paid the consequences, when their men were slaughtered and they were marched out of Samaria--losing everything they owned-- and moved to an Assyrian area. God said, "Ephraim is no longer a people." But in the southern kingdom of Judah, they were able to buy some time when Hezekiah began to reign. He led the people into righteousness and destroyed all their altars to false gods, knocked down the Asherah poles and the high places, and made the priests consecrate themselves and the temple so they could worship again.

We need to pray that God will raise up a Hezekiah for us, and we need to pray it like we believe it, not just roll over and accept the candidate the media is salivating over. I, for one, am about to donate money to the Huckabee campaign, because he is a godly man who will not lead our country into more sin. I like what he believes and what he stands for, and I like the fact that he has the judgment to at least hold the line on abortion in this country by appointing Pro-Life judges. Of all the candidates, he's the only one I've seen so far who has the moral fortitude to do that. I’m also very impressed with his performance in the debates, and think he has what it takes to win.

I'm looking at the character of the man. Has he kept other covenants in his life, for instance with his wife? Then maybe he'll keep his campaign promises. Is he Pro-Life as a political stance, or does he believe deeply in his heart that killing babies is wrong and has to be stopped? If he does, then maybe he can make an impact on that. Does he truly and honestly worship Jesus Christ, or does he just say he does because it's politically expedient right now? And if he does truly worship God, then maybe he'll look to Him for guidance for our country.

Some would say that I’m a one-issue voter. I’m not. There are several issues that are extremely important to me. The abortion issue is not one of those issues. It’s the foundation on which any candidate I consider must stand. You must understand, if a man or woman believes that it’s okay to kill babies, that tells me that their judgment is severely impaired. They are not fit to run our country.

I'm not giving up in the primary season. We can choose whatever candidate we want. There were enough of us Christians to elect George Bush in the last two elections. We can elect Huckabee or any Hezekiah God raises up between now and the primaries. We can win again if we stand up for our issues. We have an incredibly strong voice, and we've proven that it can be louder than that of the media. Some of you say we have to pick a candidate who can win against Hillary. We did pick a candidate who won against Al Gore and John Kerry. We got to choose because there were enough of us! If we had a candidate who represented our values, why couldn't we do it again, even if the media said it was impossible? They thought it was impossible last time. What have we won if we get a man with the same basic values as Hillary? So what if he's a strong leader, if he leads us further into the pit?

I love America and the Church, and I don't want to see us follow the path of some European countries in which Christianity has all but died, because they let the world have its way in their elections. America has been set apart, protected, blessed ... but if the Bible is a warning to us, and we can learn anything about God's nature by his dealings with Israel in the Old Testament, we will pay severe consequences for our country's moral decline. I refuse to roll over.

Unless something changes drastically before my state’s primary election, I’m voting for Mike Huckabee.


Posted byAthol Dickson at 3:36 PM 12 comments  

Mystery Guest

Guess who is going to post on What Athol Wrote tomorrow? Here are a few hints:

> One of the top selling authors of Christian fiction in the world.
> Does not have a blog.
> Does not want a blog.
> Does not like to blog.
> Has decided to "come out of hiding" just this once, to speak out about the 2008 Presidential elections.

Think you know who this is? If so, feel free to post your guess in the comments, and then tune in tomorrow to see if you were right. And just to make things more interesting, let me say right here in print that there will be a prize awarded tomorrow to someone somewhere for some reason. :)

In the meantime, here are links to a few quick excerpts from various interviews and debates, for those who haven't had a chance to see Mike Huckabee in action. Check them out, and see if, like me, you don't find yourself feeling like you're watching a remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Here's a man who truly believes, as that movie's script says, "The only causes worth fighting for are the lost causes." Except as the movie also teaches, when we truly believe that, those causes are not really lost at all....

The most pressing moral issue.
On evolution.
On poverty.
On being "Communicator in Chief"
Don't ask, don't tell.
Illegal immigration.
On the ecology.
Attaining energy independance.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 11:27 AM 7 comments  

Should We Give Up?

In next year’s elections, it looks more and more like we will be presented with a presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Rudolph Giuliani, both of whom are “pro-choice.” Any third party option virtually guarantees the Democrat will win. Think about that. Then think about the fact that two Supreme Court justices will likely be replaced by our next president. We were so close to overturning Roe v. Wade. Now it looks like that hope might be lost for another generation. With a growing sense of desperation, my wife and I have been begging the Lord to raise up someone to lead this country. We will never cast our votes for a politician who thinks killing unborn children is a basic human right. That means we may not in good conscience be able to vote in the next presidential election.

Over a quarter of a century ago in A Christian Manifesto, Francis Schaeffer said when there are no true ideological differences between candidates, democracy is dead. I fear that day is very near.

But the last seven years have taught me I cannot be a one-issue voter, not when there are so many other looming disasters. The rise of Muslim terrorism, a radically polarized and impotent legislature, ill will in nearly every nation on the planet, bitter divisions among Americans themselves, the vast gap between the rich and poor growing quickly wider just as millions of Baby Boomer Americans are entering their retirement years with no savings and no health insurance, spreading challenges to the fundamental right of every child to be raised by both a mother and a father, rampant fiscal irresponsibility at both the governmental and personal levels, an ongoing suicidal dependence on oil, religious freedom in this country on the ropes…the list goes on and on and on.

Fortunately, in these desperate times I think the man we need is right under our noses. Please, please, please, go to Mike Huckabee’s site, and read every word of his positions on these issues. Read about Huckabee’s experience in two terms as the Republican governor of a state with a Democrat controlled legislature. Compare Huckabee’s straightforward and clear statements about what he plans to do, to the vague position statements you will see on Mitt Romney’s site. You probably won’t agree with Huckabee’s ideas on everything (I don’t), but you will find that Romney’s position on the issues reads like public relations, while Huckabee’s position statement reads like an action plan.

As you read, also consider this: the evangelical kingmakers in this country have already decided Mike Huckabee is unelectable against Hillary Clinton. The Southern Baptists’ Richard Land has said it. James Dobson has said it. Mark DeMoss (former Jerry Falwell consultant) has said it. Yet they also say they wish they could support the man. Their reason for this paradox? As this article puts it: “They can’t support him because no one is supporting him.” In other words, in spite of the fact that evangelicals are the largest cohesive voting block in this nation, they have already given up on the idea that one of us can be elected.

I would like to send a message to the kingmakers that they are wrong, that we should not give up, that we should have some faith for crying out loud, that democracy is not yet dead and there can still be a real choice in 2008. Do you believe that’s possible? If you do, I strongly suggest that you get busy right now. Talk about Mike Huckabee on your blogs. Often. Talk about him at your churches. Send his campaign as much money as you can. (Even $20 says “I’m with you.”) Call and email Richard Land, James Dobson and every other evangelical leader you can think of to say, “Let’s support our own.”

It’s either that, or like them, we have already given up.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 8:25 AM 18 comments  

Agape, Even If By Force

It was uncomfortable, but I read Francis Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto yesterday.

If you have not read this book, I strongly recommend that you get a copy and do so right away. We’re talking about a pillar of the Christian intellectual community, who wrote statements like this:

“…since tyranny is satanic, not to resist it is to resist God.”

And this:

“…at a certain point there is not only the right, but the duty, to disobey the state.”

These are startling words from a conservative evangelical, although as Schaeffer points out, we of all people have inherited a mantle of revolutionary responsibility directly from the founding fathers. And as one reads Schaeffer’s words, they take on more impact when it becomes apparent that here was a true prophet. He predicts the continued rise of courts that overstep from neutral judicial interpretation of existing law into the realm of making law, by actually commanding the legislative branch (!) to create new laws in conformance with court opinion, and in defiance of the will of the majority of the people. (Consider the recent Massachusetts court decision recasting the basic definition of “marriage,” and then demanding that the legislature create a law to support its ruling.) He predicts the rise of science as a form of religion, with its own dogma that brooks no contradiction. (Think of the plight of those who dare to question global warming science, and are publicly compared to Holocaust deniers.) He predicts a blurring of the lines between “conservative” and “liberal,” until there seems to be little difference and therefore little true democratic opportunity for change. (One thinks of “conservatives” who are supposed to be fiscally responsible, yet cannot be trusted to control government spending, and “liberals” who are supposed to advocate the rights of the weak and underprivileged, yet openly support the very same forms of American eugenics that led directly to the real Holocaust.)

Remarkably, Schaeffer predicted all of this over a quarter century ago.

Way back then he also warned that the Moral Majority movement would probably fail. He offered a scathing indictment of evangelical leadership’s inept responses to a rising tide of secular humanism in the century prior to the Moral Majority’s founding, and gives little hope of a change now without a change in tactics.

Fortunately, from beyond the grave Schaeffer offers clear guidance on what to do next. He calls for the Christian use of force to resist the evil consuming our freedoms. That’s right, he calls for force. But he draws a distinction between force and violence. In that regard (and in many others) he sounds very much like Rev. Martin Luther King, as quoted in the wonderful compilation of sermons, A Knock at Midnight:

“We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail. We will go into those jails and transform them from dungeons of shame to havens of freedom and human dignity.” (Martin Luther King, sermon, “The American Dream,” delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, July 4, 1965.)

One thing that struck me again and again in A Christian Manifesto, is the power that comes from Schaeffer’s calm voice in combination with his absolute refusal to compromise the truth. This is such a contrast with the strident tones and rampant non-constructive hyperbole so commonly adopted by some evangelical leaders, and the wishy-washy responses to humanism offered by others. Here was a man who knew how to project the love of Christ while simultaneously speaking the truth boldly, an ability I fear we Christians have nearly lost. Think about our many pitiful attempts to be “relevant” as you watch this excellent video, and if you’re wise, after you’re done laughing you might cry a little.

Dr. King was taken from us in 1968, and Dr. Schaeffer’s book was published in 1981. It’s long past midnight now, and they're done knocking. Is it too late?

I think brother Martin and brother Francis would say that depends on you and me.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 12:29 PM 4 comments  

Words of War

Love poetry, hate war? Then you should visit Gary Brown's newest blog, The Heart of War. Be warned: this is not easy reading. But what Gary has written is important, I think, because the juxtaposition of such lyrical language with the horrors of the subject matter lends a desperately needed freshness to the message. In our jaded culture, when the distance afforded by the Internet and the evening news makes war too easily watched and too easily ignored, Gary's work may remind you of the outrage lost along with innocence. That's a good thing, even if it hurts a little. Here's a sample, used by permission:


Destined to be someone’s three-limbed

poster child for peace,

for war,

for nothing and

much more,

they made me their

one man parade,

a lifetime limping billboard for

the strangers who

will never know

my name;

who’ve now moved on,

forgotten the cause which prompted them

so many years ago

to plant a mine

along my path

to school.

Without a foot,

without a leg,

without a way to class again,

I began

another education

where pain and sorrow

taught me long,

other people, too.

Sweaty years of stumbling as

the object of sad eyes,

the target of a taunt,

the last in line

have roughly led me to a place

where God’s embrace

of fierce gentility has gripped me so

I can’t let go;

for I am not the first child He has

rescued from the

public cross

of someone seeking

private justice.

Copyright (c) 2007 Gary Brown. All rights reserved.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 4:42 PM 0 comments  

The Importance of Imagination

While discussing that certain yearning, which makes us want to write, the novelist Jim Bell just turned me on to a little essay by John Piper called, "God is Not Boring." There is simply nothing I can add to Piper's words, except, "Wow."

I strongly suggest that you go read what Piper has to say, but do more than simply read it. Study it. Apply it to your life, no matter how you spend your days.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 9:16 AM 3 comments  

Weaving In Jesus

Blame this on Mark Bertrand. I try not to spend too much time writing about writing in these posts, because I hope people of all walks of life will be interested in the site. Also, I was going to spend the afternoon working on a novel. But then I read Mark's post on the state of Christian fiction today in which he linked to an interview I did, and I had to comment. One thing led to another, and the comment grew too long to post on Mark's site (it is his site, after all) so here it is instead. If you are a Christian writer or artist, what follows may be of particular interest. But even if that's not your line of work, it shouldn't take much imagination to apply some of these thoughts to your corner of Christian life.

So whether you're a writer or an artist or not, you might want to go read what Mark wrote, and perhaps the comments of his readers there, then come back to consider this:

All five of the points in Mark's blog strike me as important, and well made. I had not thought about the issue raised in number five, but it does ring true. Even the Christian authors I know often hesitate to admit a preference of one author over another for fear of causing offense. This is probably a function of good Christian charity to some extent, and to that extent it should be valued, although Mark's right to imply it sometimes gets in the way of constructive criticism. As the genre continues to mature, I suspect it will sort itself out.

It seems to me the elephant in the room is what a Christian novelist ought to do about Jesus, whether the author is published by a Christian or a secular house. And as Christian authors, we have to rigidly separate two concerns when it comes to “steering” stories toward our worldview. First there is the question of whether we should steer stories toward Him at all, and if so, then we have the question of how it should be done.

Regarding the first question, all great music, dance, painting, sculpture, poetry, motion pictures and novels communicate something fundamental yet ineffable about life as the author understands it. Some artists do that more transparently than others, but once the basics of craftsmanship have been learned, the communication of ineffable truth is precisely what separates great and timeless art from the merely entertaining or the decorative. Since life is short and every artist will produce a limited number of works in his career, it seems to me self-evident that the truth communicated should be the most important one the artist knows. If the artist is a Christian, yet he does not speak the truth of Christ somehow, he is like a doctor who has discovered the cure for cancer yet chosen to limit himself to cosmetic surgery. I will never understand how any Christian artist could paint or sculpt or dance or compose or film or write with anything but the gracious love of Jesus Christ as his underlying theme.

So, it seems to me the next question applies: not if a Christian author ought to point his readers toward the gospel, but rather, how?

Regarding this I think we should first of all remember Paul’s words: “The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor.” This means one novel might prepare the human heart to receive the gospel, and another might explain it. Some people (glossing too much onto the oft-quoted Mystery and Manners, I think) seem to believe a novel should serve only the former purpose, and it is somehow bad art to attempt the latter. This is nonsense. Consider The Last Supper. Consider the Sistine Chapel. It may require an artist who is a consummate master of his form to get an unbeliever to accept it, but the gospel can and should be spoken via every kind of art, including novels.

Also, Mark makes an excellent point on this score when he writes, “We have unique visions and we seek to implement them in various ways.” While God is one, every Christian knows Jesus in a unique way. It makes sense that every Christian author will write about Jesus uniquely. Some will bury Him deep; others will place him front and center. Who are we to say one approach is superior to the other, so long as good craftsmanship is there? It’s certainly na├»ve (or perhaps supercilious) to suggest a Christian novel is inferior to the secular variety because the underlying Christian message is not altogether underlying. Consider Robert B. Parker for example, whose serial protagonists, Spencer and Stone, almost never fail to moralize on feminism or on psychiatry, which Parker sometimes seems to treat like a religion. I disagree with Parker on both subjects, yet like millions of others, I thoroughly enjoy his work and read it anyway. If Parker (and dozens of other ABA authors I could mention) can get away with overt presentations of their belief systems, why can’t a Christian who is writing at the same level of skill do the same? I believe the Bible, so I believe the answer is, because “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” Yet Paul often preached the gospel plainly, and so should any novelist who feels the call to do so.

None of this should be interpreted to mean Christian novelists are exempt from good craftsmanship. Christians of all people must attend to quality, because slip-shod work reflects directly on Jesus’ reputation among unbelievers. As with any theme in any novel, if the gospel is there it must be essential to the story, woven in from the outset as the very heart of the thing. This is the true message of Mystery and Manners, and it is not a Christian fiction issue in particular. It is Creative Writing 101.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 4:50 PM 6 comments  

...Let Man Not Separate

If only it was true. Christianity Today published an article this month entitled “What God Has Joined,” which blesses divorce on the basis of “emotional neglect,” among other things. I wish I could agree with it, because I am a divorced person who remarried. Unfortunately, the author’s scholarship is flawed, which should come as no surprise since he disagrees with two thousand years of generally accepted church doctrine.

You might want to read the article before continuing here, but when you get to the reference to Exodus 21:10-11, remember to suspend belief for a few minutes, until you come back to read this letter I just sent to the editors of CT:

To the Editors:

According to
The Barna Group, Christians abandon marriage in the United States at a rate equaling or exceeding that of unbelievers. David Instone-Brewer seeks scriptural support for this in Exodus 21:10, stating, “Exodus says that everyone…had three rights within marriage…food, clothing, and love.” He equates a lack of love with the “emotional neglect” so commonly cited as a basis for divorce today. But the Hebrew word he creatively interprets as “love” in that verse is not translated that way in any well-known English translation. Nor is it rendered as “love” elsewhere in the Bible. In fact, according to The Englishman’s Hebrew Concordance, the Hebrew word does not even occur in this same form elsewhere in the Bible. That alone should warn us not to base such a far-reaching application upon the verse, but there’s more. Instone-Brewer applies Exodus 21:10-11 to “everyone,” but the woman in the contemplated relationship is a concubine—essentially a slave—who was sold to her “husband” without any choice in the matter and thus cannot be accurately compared to a modern person who freely chooses marriage. Also, with the words “if he marries another woman” the Exodus passage specifically addresses polygamy in particular, and takes pains to exclude monogamous relationships. Although his entire argument is built upon these verses, Instone-Brewer fails to mention any of this.

Sadly, in divorce and many other difficulties millions of North American Christians base choices on the amount of pleasure or pain involved in a decision. As a divorced person myself, I sincerely wish it was that easy. Jesus warned us there would be crosses to bear if we follow Him, and even Paul had a “thorn in the flesh” the Lord would not remove. The hard reality of Jesus’ teaching on divorce is evident in the disciples’ stunned reaction: “…it is better not to marry.” Along with every other sin, our God of mercy will forgive divorce of course, but divorce is still sin in most cases and it is always caused by sin. Rather than joining the Pharisees who sought an easy way around the Bible’s teaching, we should focus on the plain sense meaning of our Lord’s teaching in
Matthew 19:3-11, and seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance and strength to do the hard work of healing our marriages.

Athol Dickson

I need to add a postscript, which was not part of the letter since it was already running long.

Nothing I have written here should be interpreted as a suggestion that Christian women should cohabit with physically abusive husbands. Far from it. If you are in that situation, my advice is simple: get away from him! But whenever someone treats a Christian like an enemy, it seems to me the commands Jesus gave will apply to the relationship. We must love them, which is to say, we must forgive them, which is to say, we must remain engaged with them. “Turn the other cheek” should not be taken literally in a physically abusive situation, but the metaphor does carry meaning that extends beyond the lips and into actions.

In short: a physically abused wife must keep her distance, but physical separation is not divorce. And short of adultery or an unbelieving spouse’s abandonment, if we don’t stay in a spouse’s life, if we cut ourselves off from all possible reconciliation with a divorce, then “I forgive you” becomes just an empty story told to make ourselves feel better, instead of the extension of Christ’s sacrificial love on earth it ought to be.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 12:58 PM 9 comments