Marshall Segal

Does Technology Help or Hurt Dating?

“I haven’t met anyone in a while, and I haven’t been on a date in a couple of years. I’ve thought about trying a dating site — what do you think?”

Having ministered among college and post-college men and women for more than a decade, I’ve heard some version of this question again and again. Each time, it’s clearer to me that Christians today are increasingly dating in a different world from the one I did (and I’ve been married only since 2015). Many experts have already observed the obvious: dating (like so much of life) is changing rapidly because technology is regularly revolutionizing everyday life. And dating websites aren’t the only flashpoint.

“A guy from church started texting me. What should I do?”
“She hasn’t texted me back in a week. What does that mean?”
“He liked a couple of my old posts on Instagram. Does that mean he’s interested?”
“She started following me yesterday. Should I ask her out?”
“She still uses Facebook. Should I be worried?”
“My friend found someone on an app. Should I try that?”

You’ve likely heard other questions (or asked them yourself). If you had to ask all the questions in one, you might ask, Does technology help or hurt Christian dating?

Blessings of Technology

As we ask about the potential benefits and dangers of technology in dating, I need to say up front that technology was a massive blessing in my wife’s and my story. We met at a wedding and dated long-distance for two whole years. Some 95 percent or more of our interactions before our wedding were made possible by technology. Our honeymoon was the longest stretch we’d ever spent in the same city.

Three days after we met in Los Angeles, I flew 1,911 miles away to Minneapolis. Why didn’t the relationship end right there? Because she had acquiesced and given me a special nine-digit code (a much longer story), which I could then type into a small plastic box and immediately hear her voice anytime anywhere, even from faraway snow-covered hills. Fifty years ago, every phone was attached to a wall. One hundred fifty years ago, you couldn’t make a phone call. And that’s to say nothing of the opportunities of social media and instant messaging (or cars and planes, for that matter!). Imagine dating in a world where you could talk only face to face with people nearby or else write long letters (which might take weeks or months to be delivered).

Were it not for planes, phones, and Wi-Fi, my wife and I probably wouldn’t be married. And with technology, long-distance dating wasn’t only possible, but came with its own advantages and benefits. So I thank God for technology, and specifically for how technology can serve dating and marriage.

Hurdles of Technology

Now, someone might read about our story and conclude technology is all blessing and no curse when it comes to dating. The reality, however, is that the blessings (which are real) come with equally real dangers and consequences — and all the more so in the pursuit of marriage.

“We were made to know and be known in real time and shared space.”

While technology makes many aspects of relationships easier (or even possible!), it can make other aspects more challenging. Probably the highest hurdle of technology is achieving and maintaining meaningful levels of relationship. We were made to know and be known in real time and shared space, to experience the kind of love and joy that’s possible only through physical presence (2 John 12; Romans 1:11–12). Technology can effectively (and even beautifully) complement that kind of togetherness, but it can’t replace it. We’re learning this again and again and again (for evidence, revisit the heartaches and challenges of the last three years).

For sure, technology allows us to have and keep many more relationships (or, in this case, allows us to “meet” many more men or women whom we might date), but technology struggles to create meaningful relationships where there wasn’t one already. Even how we talk about technology confirms its less-than-ideal role in our relationships: “I’ve tried everything else and come up empty, so I’m thinking about trying a website.” Technology connects more dots over larger distances, but the dots are unavoidably fuzzier (no matter how high-definition our cameras become). We simply can’t get to know people virtually the way we can in person (I mean, we call them virtual interactions). I would argue, then, that technology is weakest in what dating relationships need most: clarity and depth.

People pursuing marriage want to get to know each other well enough to decide whether to make an exclusive, lifelong, for-better-or-worse vow. So how well is technology helping us make that decision? Well, it depends on how we use it.

Two Kinds of Technology

I recently stumbled onto a new way to see both the benefits and the hurdles of technology in the pursuit of marriage. In his book The Life We’re Looking For, Andy Crouch helpfully differentiates between two kinds of technology: devices and instruments.

Devices, he says, are kinds of technology that discourage human effort and eventually replace human labor altogether (the furnace, the phonograph, the Roomba). Instruments, on the other hand, encourage and extend human effort and ingenuity (the bicycle, the piano, the telescope). Here’s how Crouch describes instruments:

There is a kind of technology that is easily distinguished from magic — a kind that involves us more and more deeply as persons rather than diminishing and sidelining us. This kind of technology elevates and dignifies human work, rather than reducing human beings to drones that do only the work the robots have not yet automated. It does not give us effortless power but instead gives us room to exert ourselves in deeper and more rewarding ways. (134)

As he goes on to observe (and this is where the distinction becomes hyper-relevant for dating), our phones can be devices or instruments, depending on how we use them. “With the right software it can become the ultimate instrument for any number of exercises of personal heart, soul, mind, and strength. Or, of course, it can serve as the ultimate device” (146). Our phones can encourage and extend our effort and ingenuity, or they can discourage and replace them. And perhaps never more so than in how we woo and date one another.

Two Kinds of Men

One question we could ask about technology and dating, then, would be, Is the way we’re using technology — phone calls, text messaging, social media, dating websites and apps — encouraging and extending the right kind of effort? Or is it rewarding (or at least compensating for) laziness? And while this question can go both directions, I have men particularly in mind, because I believe God wants men to bear a greater responsibility for leadership and initiative in marriage, beginning with dating. In the hands of the right kind of men, technology can strengthen and multiply blessings in a relationship. In the wrong hands, however, it can become a relational curse.

So when does technology help in Christian dating? When it helps us (again, men in particular) rise to meet the demands of love, rather than helping us avoid them. Technology helps when it draws the right kind of risk-taking initiative out of a man. And it helps when it serves what happens when we’re face to face (like we’re meant to be in relationships). Technology hurts when it replaces initiative and displaces presence.

The kind of man who uses technology well in dating wears the selflessness of Philippians 2:3–4, even when he’s online: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” He wears the intentionality of 1 Corinthians 10:31: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” He wears the humility of 1 Peter 5:5: “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another.” Above all, he puts on love (Colossians 3:14), even when shielded by a keyboard.

Dating Devices or Instruments?

Let’s try to apply these principles to some real technology today. For single women, how do the men pursuing you use their phones?

Take social media, for example. Do they use social media to flirt and signal interest in order to avoid the possibility of rejection (device)? Or are their interactions with you marked by honest and intentional initiative (instrument)? Is their general presence online the typical exhibition of impulsiveness, laziness, and self-gratification (what social media companies prey on)? Or is it refreshingly selfless, considerate, self-controlled, and valuable to others (instrument)? I’m not encouraging you to over-analyze every post or like, but on the whole, what patterns do you see?

Or what about dating apps or websites? Do their profiles exaggerate their better qualities and hide their weaknesses (device)? Or are their profiles refreshingly honest, modest, and Godward (instrument)? When they call, are most of your conversations meaningful and beneficial (instrument)? Or are they shallow, meandering, and self-indulgent (device)? Are their texts consistently thoughtful and caring (instrument) — or listless and cavalier (device)? Do they text in ways they wouldn’t speak to you face to face (device)?

We could ask dozens of more questions. In short, are phones drawing the right kind of effort and intentionality out of the men interested in you? Men, you can ask some of the same questions of women you’re interested in, but over time men will inevitably (and rightly) set the tone in relationships. Technology can help relationships, and technology can hurt them. Unfortunately, many naively assume the former, while living the latter.

What Do You Want from Dating?

Another good way to assess technology’s role in your dating might be to ask, What do you really want from dating? For what it’s worth, this question is a good one for how we use technology in every area of life. Far too often we assume technology is helping us achieve what’s important to us. Often technology promises to help us, and convinces us it’s helping, but only ends up distracting and undermining us.

“Technology can facilitate clarity or impede it; it can accelerate clarity or slow it.”

When it comes to dating, then, what do you want to accomplish? Have you even thought of dating in those terms? As I’ve said elsewhere, the great prize in marriage is Christ-centered intimacy; the great prize in dating is Christ-centered clarity. Technology can be a wonderful vehicle to that kind of clarity (I know, because airplanes and phones helped bring my wife and me together). Technology can also be an obscurer, hiding concerns and dangers we would easily spot face to face. Technology can facilitate clarity or impede it; it can accelerate clarity or slow it. So, are the ways you use technology in dating helping you see each other more clearly? Over time, are your calls and texts and posts and video chats helping you each decide whether you want to marry?

If you want the short-lived, adrenaline-filled pleasure of thin, low-commitment romance, technology has very effectively reproduced those relationships by the millions. Billion-dollar companies are wholly devoted to this kind of “love.” You’re just a few quick swipes from your next fling. If, however, you’re looking for a deeper, safer, more durable, more satisfying, more Christ-exalting love — for the kind of holy intimacy and security only a covenant in Christ can provide — if you want to live out the mystery of the gospel in a lifelong union (Ephesians 5:32), if you want to see and enjoy more of God in the harrowing and thrilling trenches of marriage, then technology may still help you, but only when it complements and encourages what can happen face to face.

Forgive Me and Help Me Forgive: The Lord’s Prayer for Daily Sin

If you were teaching the Lord’s Prayer to someone for the first time — a child, a neighbor, a co-worker, or friend — which line would you feel the most need to explain?

Our Father in heaven,hallowed be your name.Your kingdom come,your will be done,     on earth as it is in heaven.Give us this day 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 evil. (Matthew 6:9–13)

As you rehearse those familiar lines, which one begs for more explanation? Maybe it’s the first, Why do we call the God of the universe “Father”? Or perhaps the second, What does it mean to “hallow” something, much less a name? What about the will of God — what is it and how would we recognize it on earth? Or that haunting last line, What kind of evil is surrounding and threatening us?

However we might answer, we have Jesus’s answer to the question. He chooses to say more about just one line, and it’s not the one many of us might think.

Do You Pray for Your Sin?

When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he started with the kingdom of God, the will of God, and the glory of God — you can almost hear the replies, Amen! Amen! Amen! And then, as suddenly as he entered the manger, he climbed down into the nitty-gritty of our earthly lives: “Give us this day our daily bread . . .” Give us all we need for today. Who could refuse such provision?

The next line, however, may have been more jarring:

. . . and forgive us our debts,     as we also have forgiven our debtors.

When you pray, Jesus says, remember how you have offended God. Remember how you’ve failed him again today, how far short you have fallen of his kingdom, his will, his glory — and then ask him for forgiveness.

Whatever else you pray, he teaches, make sure you pray for this. Each day that you wake up, you will need to eat and you will need to be forgiven. Your stomach will rumble and your soul will rebel. So pray and live accordingly.

Hunger Pangs of the Heart

Most Christians pray daily for bread (if not for God to provide it before it comes, then to thank him once it’s on the table). How many of us, however, pray as persistently for our sin as we do for our meals? Why might that be?

Well, for one, because we viscerally sense our need for food. We ache. We may be able to skip meals here and there, but not many and not for long. And when we do, our bodies let us hear about it. We take it for granted, but there’s a magic tying our brains to our intestines, telling us when we need to eat. We don’t have to constantly record what we eat to survive; our bodies push notifications when it’s time for lunch or a snack or a drink of water. We’re less likely to forget food because our hunger eventually shouts over everything else.

For various reasons, though, we often have a harder time hearing the rumblings of our sinful hearts. The heart has its own voice, but it doesn’t physically overwhelm us like hunger can. The pangs of the heart reveal as much or more as hunger, but we learn to live with them. Restlessness. Anxiety. Irritability. Sluggishness. Impatience. Grumbling. If we notice them at all, we learn to excuse them instead of addressing them.

The symptoms of remaining sin are saying what Jesus clearly taught: We need to be forgiven — and far more often than we want to acknowledge. The prayer, “Forgive us our sins,” is an honest, gracious, and daily reminder of a constant need.

Isn’t Forgiveness Finished?

We also might not pray more often for forgiveness, though, because we assume we’ve already been forgiven. If our debt is already paid in full, why would we need to keep asking God to forgive us? When Jesus died on the cross, he announced that his atoning work was complete: “It is finished” (John 19:30). So why would he teach us to pray as if forgiveness was somehow an ongoing need?

Justification — full acceptance with God, through faith alone — is not a new need each day, like our need for daily bread. If you’re justified by grace through faith today, you do not need to be re-justified tomorrow. “Since we have been justified by faith,” Romans 5:1, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Since we have been justified, we have peace with God — and that peace isn’t undone by today’s or tomorrow’s sins. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Eternal condemnation isn’t a weed that creeps back into the garden overnight. For those truly in Christ, it’s dead and gone for good.

“By regularly asking for forgiveness, we draw the finished work of Christ into today’s temptations and failures.”

Still Jesus teaches us to pray (and keep praying), “Forgive us our debts.” Why? Because justified sinners are still sinners, and sin still disrupts our communion with God. Sin cannot damn the truly justified — their debt has been canceled, their curse lifted, their wrath removed. That doesn’t mean sin isn’t offensive or damaging to relationships, including with God. By regularly asking for forgiveness, we draw the finished work of Christ into today’s temptations and failures — and we renew and sweeten the fellowship we enjoy with him because of that finished work.

We see this dynamic when James exhorts us, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). These believers have already been justified, but they’re still sinning and still feeling the awful consequences of sin, which leads them to pray, confess, and ask for forgiveness. And as they pray, they push back the painful havoc sin causes. In this case, they’re healed.

How Not to Be Forgiven

We still haven’t heard Jesus explain this line in the prayer, though. After he finishes the prayer, he specifically returns to the petition for forgiveness:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:14–15)

He doesn’t dig further into God’s will or shed light on the dangers of evil; no, he impresses on them how spiritually urgent it is that they forgive. He warns them that their prayers — all their prayers for everything else — will fall on deaf ears if they harbor bitterness and withhold forgiveness. The warning’s baked directly into the prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” The prayer for God to forgive presumes we’ve already done forgiving ourselves — so have we?

At least as often as we’ll need to eat, we’ll need to be forgiven. And almost as often as we’ll need to be forgiven, we’ll need to forgive. And we won’t be forgiven if we don’t go and do likewise. So who do you need to forgive? We cannot pray the rest of the Lord’s Prayer in any meaningful way if we refuse to forgive like he does.

Forgiveness Makes Prayer Possible

Jesus’s simple prayer reminds us that our sin problem is a daily problem. Every day, we do what we shouldn’t and don’t do what we should. We say what we shouldn’t and don’t say what we should. We think what we shouldn’t and don’t think what we should. The Lord’s Prayer exposes the rotten leftovers of our mutiny against God. And it reminds us, as often as we pray, that God still forgives — even today, even you, if you’ll humble yourself and ask him to.

“Even before Jesus received the nails, the thorns, the beams, he was teaching his friends how to receive the cross.”

Jesus didn’t say, “Remember your sin and wallow in shame and guilt.” No, he taught them to bring their sin and expect forgiveness in return. And why could they presume to be forgiven? Because, he knew his wounds would soon make this kind of prayer possible. He didn’t just teach them how to pray; he would die to give their prayers life and power before the throne. Even before he received the nails, the thorns, the beams, he was teaching his friends how to receive the cross.

So, when you pray, plead boldly for forgiveness in the name of Jesus. And before you pray, forgive like God so gladly forgives you.

The Pleasure of God in Ordinary Work

The God of the universe genuinely enjoys the universe he’s made — the one we get to live and work in every day, the one he designed as a gift for his Son (Hebrews 1:2). He rejoices to see what normal humans can do in a day — and all the more so when that work rises from a heart set on him. Even when everyone else seems to completely overlook what we’ve done, he sees and he smiles, because he sees the dim, but brilliant reflection of his own work.

I wonder how many people in his day knew the apostle Paul as a guy who made and fixed tents. Surely many did. When he went to Corinth, he went to see Aquila and Priscilla, “and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade” (Acts 18:3). He had been doing this for a while. He was well-acquainted with goat’s hair. He could probably tie his favorite knots without looking. He knew all the ways holes were made and how to mend them. I imagine, as it is with most trades, that some days he wished he could choose another one.
I wonder how many knew the apostle Peter as a guy who caught fish. Surely many did. Even after Jesus died and rose and appeared to his disciples, where did he go to find his friend? Where Peter had spent so many long days and longer nights, where Jesus had first found him years before — fishing (John 21:3). He knew what each kind of fish smelled like (and if he forgot, his clothes could remind him). He had been through serious storms. He knew the best place to drop an anchor and the best times to cast the nets — and he knew what it was like to lift an empty one (like that night the risen Jesus suddenly appeared).
I wonder how many knew Jesus as a guy who built tables and chairs. We know some did. When he returned to his hometown to preach, his former neighbors asked, “What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” (Mark 6:2–3). They were surprised by his words because they had grown so used to seeing him with saws and hammers and nails. He came not only in flesh and blood, but in sweat and toil. A man of splinters and acquainted with setbacks.
Each of them altered history with their ministry (and none more than the God-man). Each of them also spent much of their life doing ordinary, even tedious work (perhaps even more ordinary than what lies before you). And each of them knew that work like theirs, done well, is anything but ordinary.
Man Goes Out to Work
We would do our work differently next year, wouldn’t we, if we could see even our ordinary work through the wider eyes of God. So where could we go to see what God sees in our work? I love the glimpses we get in the wild and wondrous world of Psalm 104.
The psalm, like so many psalms, is meant to awaken awe and joy in our souls. It opens, verse 1, “Bless the Lord, O my soul!” But this psalm takes a less-traveled road to worship. When the psalmist sees the disconnect between what he believes about God and how he feels about God, he lets his mind wander over hills and through valleys (verse 8). He walks along springs and wades into oceans (verses 10, 25). He watches for badgers and listens for birds (verses 12, 18). Creation was his chosen hymnal, with all its familiar melodies and surprising key changes.
Read More
Related Posts:

You Can Understand the Bible

Some of us fall out of Bible reading because we fail to make time for it. Busyness crowds out the minutes we might otherwise give to sitting and hearing from God. There’s always something that didn’t get done yesterday or something relatively urgent that’s come up today. It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it, just how many things in our little worlds seem to trump listening to the one who made them all?

For others, it’s not busyness that gets the best of us, but a subtle cynicism about reading the Bible. How am I ever going to understand this? It’s hard to keep getting up extra early and setting aside precious minutes when you’re not convinced you’ll be able to make sense of what you see, when you might finish and strangely feel further from God, when you’re chasing a full heart morning after morning and yet often walk away just scratching your head.

If you’ve felt that way before, you’re not alone. In fact, even the men who wrote the Bible know something of what you feel. The apostle Peter says of the letters Paul wrote, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). Think about that: Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote books in the Bible, and yet even he struggled to read Romans or Thessalonians (or whatever particular letter he had in mind). If he could write on behalf of God and have a hard time understanding Scripture, we shouldn’t be surprised if we do too.

And I, for one, definitely do. I’ve battled to get through the census records in Numbers. I’ve labored through the kidneys, livers, and “entrails” of the Levitical laws. I’ve grown weary of the repetitive failures of Israel in 1–2 Kings. I’ve sometimes struggled to see what Hebrews sees in the Old Testament. Much of the imagery of Revelation is still a mystery to me. And so, I regularly find these clear and accessible words from Paul all the more meaningful and encouraging:

Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. (2 Timothy 2:7)

Understanding Is Possible

This is an amazing acknowledgment from Paul to Timothy. He says, in essence, “I know some of what I am writing won’t make sense to you immediately, and you’ll be tempted to think you cannot understand it — but you can. So, don’t give up too easily. Don’t assume this is above you. Assume that God can make his words clear to you.”

Those apart from Christ cannot understand the things of God. They flip through the Bible’s majesty and wisdom in vain. “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). But not you. If you’re in Christ, you can see things that they can’t. You can understand things that they can’t. Where they see foolishness and irrelevance, you see unspeakable beauty, a radiant window into reality. Not because you’re smarter or more educated or merely a better reader, but because you’re not a natural person anymore; you’re a supernatural you, with a supernatural mind and heart and eyes.

“Because you’re someone new, you can understand more of the Bible than you might think.”

Or as Paul says elsewhere of natural people, “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Ephesians 4:18). But not you. You’re not alienated from God anymore. Through the cross, he’s brought you near, and in bringing you near, he’s softened your heart and unlocked your mind. The God who flooded all creation with light “has shone in [your] heart to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). That’s who you are when you open the Bible.

And because you’re someone new, you can understand more of the Bible than you might think.

In Everything

Not only can you understand more than you think, but the apostle goes even further: “ . . . the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” If God lives in you, nothing in the Bible is above you — not the genealogies of Numbers, or the sacrificial laws of Leviticus, or the prophetic visions of Ezekiel, or the apocalyptic imagery of Revelation. With God, all are within your reach.

Lest we think Paul’s talking only about the verses immediately before this one, he comes back to the same reality in the very next chapter: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17). As much of the Bible that has been breathed out by God — all of it! — that much is now profitable for you. Even on the most obscure, most confusing pages, God means to teach you, to exhort you, to correct you, to train you, to equip you — he means to speak to you.

“Even on the most obscure, most confusing pages, God means to teach you.”

Before any of that can happen, however, we first have to understand what God is saying — which is exactly where God promises to help us: “The Lord will give you understanding in everything.”

Varied Means of Understanding

None of this means we just sit alone with our Bibles until we understand everything. No, God gives the gift of understanding in a hundred different ways. Remember, most Christians in the history of the world didn’t own a Bible (much less carry it with them everywhere in their pockets). They depended on the regular reading and reciting of Scripture in community. From the first church to today, believers have depended on faithful teachers to rehearse, explain, and model the words of God for them.

And God has multiplied pathways to understanding in our day — first and foremost through our local churches, but then through messages, articles, books, study Bibles, online courses, commentaries, podcasts, and more. So understanding may come in any number of ways. The point here, however, is that you really can understand what’s in this book — everything that’s in this book, Paul says.

Now, to say that we can understand everything in the Bible is not to suggest that we will understand everything immediately and fully. We won’t — and certainly not the first (or second or even tenth) time through. God can give us understanding in every passage without giving us understanding of every part of a passage. He also often chooses to give understanding, not immediately, but over years or even decades. As we keep reading (and living), familiar verses will emerge with new or deeper meaning and relevance. Some questions will be answered slowly. So don’t expect to understand everything now, but expect to understand something now — and then more tomorrow.

Ask God

Up until now, we’ve seen only that we can understand more than we may assume. You should be asking how. What makes this kind of supernatural reading possible? How do the lights come on?

Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.

On our own, we can’t understand the Bible. If God leaves us alone with this book, it wouldn’t be worth getting up early, pouring more hours in, and pressing through difficult verses and chapters. We would search and ask and wrestle in vain. But if it’s God who makes things clear, then he can overcome our limitations and blind spots. You can understand the Bible because God will give you understanding. When you read, he’s not just over your shoulder; he’s inside of you — in your eyes, your mind, your heart — showing you what you’d never see on your own.

The one who reveals himself in the Bible wants to make himself clear. He’s not content to have divinely inspired words on the page; he wants them written on our hearts. He wants to see understanding, and satisfaction, and transformation — and so he won’t leave you alone with your Bible. This may be why Paul ends the letter the way he does: “The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you” (2 Timothy 4:22). We need the present, spiritual help of God in all we do all the time, and especially in understanding his word.

Think Hard

This understanding, however, doesn’t float down from the clouds and land softly on our heads. No, God gives the gift of understanding through the hard work of reading well. This verse demands almost as much as it promises: “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” This won’t come easily, Timothy. Yes, God is the one who gives understanding, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have to work for it.

Isn’t it strange that some of us hear that God sovereignly gives understanding, and we assume that means we need to do less? Satan teaches this kind of calculus all year round (and not just in Bible reading).

No, 2 Timothy 2:7 is far more like God’s words to Joshua before Israel entered the promised land:

This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. . . . Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:8–9)

“I will be with you” didn’t mean “You won’t have to fight.” Along with his promise of help and protection, God gave Joshua a charge: “Be strong and courageous.” Fight all the harder because you know I’ll fight with you and for you.

So, when you open your Bible, be strong and courageous. God will be with you wherever you read. Don’t be discouraged or intimidated. Think harder and longer because you know the Lord loves to give you understanding.

The Pleasure of God in Ordinary Work

I wonder how many people in his day knew the apostle Paul as a guy who made and fixed tents. Surely many did. When he went to Corinth, he went to see Aquila and Priscilla, “and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade” (Acts 18:3). He had been doing this for a while. He was well-acquainted with goat’s hair. He could probably tie his favorite knots without looking. He knew all the ways holes were made and how to mend them. I imagine, as it is with most trades, that some days he wished he could choose another one.

I wonder how many knew the apostle Peter as a guy who caught fish. Surely many did. Even after Jesus died and rose and appeared to his disciples, where did he go to find his friend? Where Peter had spent so many long days and longer nights, where Jesus had first found him years before — fishing (John 21:3). He knew what each kind of fish smelled like (and if he forgot, his clothes could remind him). He had been through serious storms. He knew the best place to drop an anchor and the best times to cast the nets — and he knew what it was like to lift an empty one (like that night the risen Jesus suddenly appeared).

I wonder how many knew Jesus as a guy who built tables and chairs. We know some did. When he returned to his hometown to preach, his former neighbors asked, “What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” (Mark 6:2–3). They were surprised by his words because they had grown so used to seeing him with saws and hammers and nails. He came not only in flesh and blood, but in sweat and toil. A man of splinters and acquainted with setbacks.

Each of them altered history with their ministry (and none more than the God-man). Each of them also spent much of their life doing ordinary, even tedious work (perhaps even more ordinary than what lies before you). And each of them knew that work like theirs, done well, is anything but ordinary.

Man Goes Out to Work

We would do our work differently next year, wouldn’t we, if we could see even our ordinary work through the wider eyes of God. So where could we go to see what God sees in our work? I love the glimpses we get in the wild and wondrous world of Psalm 104.

The psalm, like so many psalms, is meant to awaken awe and joy in our souls. It opens, verse 1, “Bless the Lord, O my soul!” But this psalm takes a less-traveled road to worship. When the psalmist sees the disconnect between what he believes about God and how he feels about God, he lets his mind wander over hills and through valleys (verse 8). He walks along springs and wades into oceans (verses 10, 25). He watches for badgers and listens for birds (verses 12, 18). Creation was his chosen hymnal, with all its familiar melodies and surprising key changes.

But we were talking about ordinary work — and the psalmist gets there. Watch how man enters the scene: “The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,” verse 16. “The high mountains are for the wild goats,” verse 18. “He made the moon to mark the seasons,” verse 19, “the sun knows its time for setting.” Verses 21–23,

The young lions roar for their prey,     seeking their food from God.When the sun rises, they steal away     and lie down in their dens.Man goes out to his work     and to his labor until the evening.

Man goes out to his work, and puts in a full day. It feels a little anticlimactic, right? The trees climb into the heavens, the mountains shake with wildlife, the lions roar their hunger for all to hear, the moon ushers in fall and winter and spring, the sun chooses when the sky goes from blue to red to purple to dark. . . . and Paul walks across town to mend another torn tent. Peter loads his boat for another day at sea.

The psalmist sees something in man’s work, even the dullest, most wearying work, that we so often fail to see and experience in ours.

Manifold Work of God

Notice, the man of verse 23 wasn’t headed to a corner office with a nice desk and big windows. He wasn’t writing code for some revolutionary technology. He wasn’t overseeing warehouses on multiple continents. He was in a field, doing physical labor — no phone, no email, no sophisticated equipment. Just a man and his hands against the thorns and thistles. His ordinary work would make most of ours today (even the most physical) look pretty extraordinary.

“Man goes out to his work and to his labor until the evening.” Very next verse, listen to this: “O Lord, how manifold are your works!” — trees and mountains and lions and the work that man can do — “In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.” The ordinary work of man is one of the manifold works of God. Your work is one of the manifold works of God. No other creature on the planet can do what you do. What you can do in an hour or 2 or 8 with your mind and hands and gifts says as much or more about God as a sunset or a canyon or thunderstorm. Do you believe that? Do you work like it’s true?

“Only God could conceive of a creature capable of doing the work you’re called to do.”

Only God could conceive of a creature capable of doing the work you’re called to do. Every working human you meet (white collar or blue collar; paid or unpaid; student, employee, manager, or stay-at-home mother) is a living canvas covered in the wisdom and creativity of God — whether they believe in him or not, whether they see the glory in their work or not. That they can do what they do, whatever they do and however well they do it, reminds us of just how much more God can do.

God’s Pleasure in Your Work

We haven’t seen enough in Psalm 104 yet, though. Not only is our ordinary work one of the manifold works of God; our ordinary work is one of the satisfying pleasures of God. After traveling over mountains with the wild goats and through caves with the rock badgers and over seas with sea monsters and into fields for a normal workday, the psalmist sings,

May the glory of the Lord endure forever;     may the Lord rejoice in his works,who looks on the earth and it trembles,     who touches the mountains and they smoke! (Psalm 104:31–32)

“The God of the universe genuinely enjoys the universe he’s made — the one we get to live and work in every day.”

Not, may we rejoice in his works. No, may he rejoice in his works. God’s not just putting on a show that a few nature-loving people might enjoy. No, he loves high mountains and winding valleys; he loves full moons and brilliant sunsets; he loves badgers, storks, and wild donkeys — and the everyday work we do week after week. He rejoices in what we’ve done, because it’s another glimpse of all he’s done.

The God of the universe genuinely enjoys the universe he’s made — the one we get to live and work in every day, the one he designed as a gift for his Son (Hebrews 1:2). He rejoices to see what normal humans can do in a day — and all the more so when that work rises from a heart set on him. Even when everyone else seems to completely overlook what we’ve done, he sees and he smiles, because he sees the dim, but brilliant reflection of his own work.

So, as you prepare for another year of work — perhaps hard, perhaps thankless, perhaps “ordinary” — ask God to help you see the work through his eyes. Ask him for some of the pleasure he takes in what you do.

You Can Be Forgiven: What Christmas Says to Our Sins

I imagine the tears really came once he could finally get the words out.

How many times had he and his wife sat and cried together in silence? How many times had they had the same aching conversations? How many times had they talked about names? How many times had they held someone else’s newborn? How many times had they thought she might be pregnant? How many times had they asked for a child?

And here he was, buried in their arms. The dream they had stopped dreaming. The son they thought they’d never meet.

Like many first-time fathers (myself included), the man couldn’t find the words. In this case, however, he literally couldn’t speak. When Zechariah finally met his son, he could only ask for something to write on. He didn’t get to taste the boy’s name on his lips for eight whole days. I vividly remember meeting our firstborn. I can’t imagine feeling all I felt those days in silence. It might have killed me to try.

So why had God held Zechariah’s tongue? When the angel Gabriel came to tell Zechariah what God was about to do, the old man couldn’t bring himself to believe it. “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (Luke 1:18). The angel didn’t take kindly to his lack of faith.

I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time. (Luke 1:19–20)

Zechariah held his long-awaited son in silence because he had sinned against the God who had opened his wife’s womb. He — a priest — had dismissed what God had plainly said. And so, God gave him nine quiet, painful months in front of the mirror. Every time he tried to speak, he was reminded of how he had failed. His speechlessness said what no one else could hear: “I have sinned.”

And then, as easily as he had shut Zechariah’s mouth, God opened it again.

Taste of Forgiveness

If a man has been silent for nearly a year, when he finally does speak, everyone leans in to listen. So, when his prodigal tongue returned, what did Zechariah say? This is where the tears must have flowed.

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,     for he has visited and redeemed his peopleand has raised up a horn of salvation for us     in the house of his servant David. (Luke 1:68–69)

And then, a few verses later, he says directly to his son,

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;     for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,to give knowledge of salvation to his people     in the forgiveness of their sins,because of the tender mercy of our God. (Luke 1:76–78)

Had God’s mercy ever felt more tender, more real to Zechariah than when, holding his answered prayer, he could finally form words again? God forgives, son. God really forgives. He forgives sinners like me. He really is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. Go and tell them forgiveness is possible, because God has come.

Could it be any more fitting that the boy was named John — “graced by God”? And so Zechariah was. And so we are.

Who Can Forgive Sins?

Not long after, John’s long-awaited cousin was born. An even more miraculous child. Forgiveness incarnate.

As Jesus began his ministry, he drove a stake in the ground that he had come to declare and achieve forgiveness. As he was teaching and healing one day, a crowd gathered — a crowd so thick that a group of men couldn’t get close enough with their paralyzed friend. Determined, the men opened a hole in the roof and lowered their friend to where Jesus was. Of all the things Jesus could have said, notice how he responded: “When he saw their faith, he said, ‘Man, your sins are forgiven you’” (Luke 5:20).

The scribes and Pharisees who heard him were furious: “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Luke 5:21). They asked the right question, but drew the wrong conclusion. Jesus corrected them, and in an unforgettable way.

“Why do you question in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” — he said to the man who was paralyzed — “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.” (Luke 5:22–24)

And the paralyzed man did what he had not done in who knows how long: “Immediately he rose up before them and picked up what he had been lying on and went home, glorifying God” (Luke 5:25). His words were beautiful, but he didn’t need to say a thing. His legs said it all. This man healed my failing body. Far more than that, he forgave my wayward soul. He forgives. God really forgives.

Forgive Us Our Sins

This forgiveness wasn’t held out to a few especially defiant sinners. This was the deep and daily need of every human soul. When his disciples asked him how to pray, Jesus’s response was strikingly brief, simple, and to the point. “When you pray,” Jesus told them, say this:

Father, hallowed be your name.Your kingdom come.Give us each day our daily bread,and forgive us our sins,     for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.And lead us not into temptation. (Luke 11:2)

Notice, Jesus prayed a lot, but he never had to pray that part of the prayer. No, he simply knew what everyone else needed most every day. Like him, they needed food for the day and protection from temptation; unlike him, they needed forgiveness for when they fell short. And fall we would, again and again (1 John 1:8). We were, each one of us, brought forth in iniquity and conceived in sin (Psalm 51:5). And while that old man died when we believed, we still have to face him every day.

Jesus never sinned, but he knew just how seductive sin could be (Hebrews 4:15). He knew how much sin would cost him. He came to cancel sin, and so he taught us to plead for forgiveness.

Forgiveness in Flesh and Blood

Until Good Friday, forgiveness had been a promise — real, but unseen. As the nails went in and the beams rose high, however, forgiveness broke into sight, painted in red for all to see. They seized him without warrant, tried him without justice, and beat him without mercy. And yet, even as they showered him with hostility, he prayed for them. And what did he pray? “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

And then, from the weakness and humiliation of the cross, with barely enough oxygen to breathe, he spoke that forgiveness into another longing soul. One of the criminals beside him said, “We are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong. . . . Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:41–42). Forgive me my sins. And with one of his very last breaths, Jesus replied, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Has the possibility of forgiveness ever been clearer? Has the wonder of forgiveness ever been more blinding? From the just nails of torture to the just reward of paradise in just one sentence — forgiveness.

“God had always been forgiving people through faith; now he had the blood to prove it.”

And in the next moments, he finishes paying for that unthinkable pardon. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46). Dying didn’t give him the authority to forgive — he had that before the world began. No, dying justified what had been happening since the garden (Romans 3:25). God had always been forgiving people through faith; now he had the blood to prove it.

Through This Man

After Jesus rose from the grave, he appeared to his disciples and ate with them. As they talked, he gave them a tour through Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms to show them how every part pointed to him. And then he summed up the lesson, saying, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46–47). Forgiveness promised. Forgiveness purchased. And now, forgiveness preached far and wide throughout the world.

And that’s exactly what the church did. When wind and fire came down from heaven at Pentecost, what did the apostle Peter say? “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 2:38). Remember, Peter had tasted the riches of God’s mercy firsthand — “I do not know him. . . . I do not know him. . . . I do not know him.” And when, later, God sent him to the centurion to finally and fully welcome the nations into the church, what did he say then? “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43). And when Paul boldly stood in the synagogue in Antioch, telling Jews to repent and turn to Christ, what did he say? “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” (Acts 13:38). The whole city gathered the next week to hear more. Could this forgiveness be true?

“In a world entrenched in sin and shame, the church became a lighthouse of forgiveness.”

In a world entrenched in sin and shame, the church became a lighthouse of forgiveness. Thousands traded the burden of guilt for the joy of rest. Countless millions have joined them since. Like Zechariah, they’ve been confronted with the horror of their sins against God. They’ve tasted its bitter consequences. And they’ve found forgiveness — lying in a manger, laboring in Nazareth, lifted on a cross, leaving the grave, and now Lord over all.

When he was born, forgiveness. When he died, forgiveness. When he rose, forgiveness. When he ascended into heaven, forgiveness. And in his wide and wondrous wake, forgiveness. Do you still wonder, this Christmas, if you could be forgiven?

Can Christians Date Nonbelievers?

Of all the Christians who start dating a nonbeliever, how many of them planned to do so?

I suspect few Christians set out to intentionally date (much less marry) a nonbeliever. The question really isn’t all that controversial in theory. Would anyone who genuinely loves Jesus sincerely prefer to marry someone who doesn’t? No, but when the question comes, it’s not theoretical anymore. By the time he or she is asking about dating “a nonbeliever,” the nonbeliever already has a name, a story, often an attractive face and a good sense of humor.

When we set out to marry, of course we want to marry another believer. We want to read the Bible together, pray together, go to church together, serve together. But for a variety of reasons, believers often struggle to find the right man or woman. For one, people are getting married later, which means many are having to look harder or wait longer. Combine that with apps and websites that multiply the competition hundreds of times over, and people are pickier and slower to settle down. Also, some Christians have already had bad experiences dating Christians.

Considering this, it really shouldn’t surprise us that some believers entertain the idea of dating outside the church. There’s more to choose from, and you can still have some things in common. In fact, it may seem at first like you have more in common with the non-Christians online or in your class than you do with the single people you see each Sunday.

“Would anyone who genuinely loves Jesus sincerely prefer to marry someone who doesn’t?”

But this isn’t what you wanted, is it? This wasn’t Plan A, or B, or even C. You’re here because you’ve run out of good plans. I’m writing to encourage you to press on and not settle for a bad one.

Only in the Lord

When it comes to dating nonbelievers, the verse that often immediately comes to mind is 2 Corinthians 6:14: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers.” It’s certainly relevant to our question (and we’ll come back to it in a moment), but the verse isn’t narrowly about marriage. No, probably the clearest one-verse answer is more often over-looked, 1 Corinthians 7:39:

A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.

The verse might seem obscure at first, but it wasn’t for the apostle Paul. After addressing various circumstances in which followers of Jesus might marry (or not), he lands with a smaller, but precious group in the church: women who have lost a husband. It would be careless to assume, however, that what he says in verse 39 only applies to widows (as if the not-yet-married were free to marry outside the Lord). No, if a Christian decides to marry, he or she is free to marry whom he or she wishes, but only in the Lord.

That phrase tucked into the end of Paul’s counsel to single believers is written in large capital letters across his letters. To begin this letter, he writes, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus. . . .” (1 Corinthians 1:2). And he ends the letter on the same all-important note: “My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen” (1 Corinthians 16:24).
In his second letter to the same church, he writes, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

More than twenty times in 1 Corinthians alone, he uses the phrase “in the Lord” or “in Christ.” This phrase, for the apostle, was not merely a spiritual tag onto his counsel about marrying wisely; it was his whole world. In his mind, we do everything we do — especially our major commitments and callings — in the Lord. For a Christian, there’s simply no other place to be, much less marry.

What Should a Marriage Say?

The phrase “in the Lord” was filled with meaning in another way, though. First, a Christian does everything he or she does in Christ — how much more so marriage? But then second, marriage is uniquely designed to unveil what it means to live in Christ. This love, of all human loves, was patterned after the love between him and the church.

“A man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:31–32)

Most marriages in the world lie about Christ and the church. Husbands don’t sacrifice for their wives (Ephesians 5:25). They don’t read the words of God themselves, much less wash their marriages in them (verse 26). They don’t pursue holiness or encourage it in her (verse 27). They don’t delight in her like Jesus delights in us (verse 33). And many wives will not submit to the husbands God has given them (verse 22). They don’t respect their groom or support his callings (verse 33). And so their marriages slander the story they’re meant to tell. Their love warps and mangles God’s masterpiece.

When Paul says, “Marry in the Lord,” he’s saying, “Tell the truth about Christ and the church.” Say with your marriage what marriage was meant to say. Marry in a way that sheds light on God and his glory, sin and grace, the cross and tomb, heaven and hell — rather than clouding them like so many do.

Are We Unequally Yoked?

Now let’s look at the (somewhat strange) text that often immediately comes to mind first when we talk about dating or marrying nonbelievers:

Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God. (2 Corinthians 6:14–16)

I say “strange,” because these verses don’t say anything explicit about romance or marriage. A yoke was a harness placed over two animals pulling the same cart. If the animals were mismatched (say an ox and a donkey, Deuteronomy 22:10), the one will be led astray by the other. So it is with a soul, Paul says. He’s warning the church about dangerous relationships and alliances. In this case, those dangerous alliances were forming within the church against his message and ministry. It’s still a good verse for discouraging someone from marrying a nonbeliever, but perhaps not in the way we expect.

So why do we come here to talk about marriage? Because no yoke is weightier or more influential — for better or worse — than marriage.

Marriage Could Cost Everything

Who you marry will likely shape who you become more than any other human relationship. If your husband runs from Jesus, you won’t be able to avoid the undertow of his lovelessness. If your wife runs from Jesus, you will live in the crossfire of her unrepentant sin. You may survive an unbelieving spouse, but only as through fire. Marriage under God would become a long and devastating war.

And, God warns us, you might lose your soul while fighting that war. That’s the clear warning in 2 Corinthians 6: Being yoked with the wrong kind of heart could cost you yours. We should be careful who we align ourselves with in the church, Paul says. How much more so in the bedroom, in the budget and schedule, in parenting and suffering, in the demanding trenches of everyday life? The wrong marriage really might ruin you. Therefore, Paul says a few verses later, “Let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1).

When you read a verse like this (in context), you realize we might be asking the wrong questions in dating. Instead of asking whether we can date a nonbeliever, we might start asking, how might I bring holiness to completion in the pursuit of marriage? What will help me run my race well? Who would the fear of God lead me to love? Could holiness thrive in a relationship like this?

Marriage Without God

To some degree, people date and marry nonbelievers because of a lack of imagination. It’s not really all that hard to imagine dating a nonbeliever (coffee shops, bike rides, nice meals out, movies together), being engaged to a nonbeliever (finding a menu, planning a big meal, looking at homes, lots of presents), putting on a wedding with a nonbeliever (dressing up, seeing friends and family, eating well, maybe dancing), even enjoying a honeymoon with a nonbeliever (coffee shops, bike rides, nice meals out, but you get to have sex too).

“To some degree, Christians date and marry nonbelievers because of a lack of imagination.”

Imagine, for a moment, though, life after all that. Real married life, the ups and downs, starts and stops, joys and agonies, is unusually hard for a single person to conceive, but I want you to try.

Imagine that seven years in, you suddenly get very sick and end up in the hospital. The worst-case scenarios are now real scenarios. Your spouse walks into your hospital room, grabs a chair, pulls it close, holds your hand — and you can’t pray together. You just sit and stare and worry. Eventually he says, “Everything’s going to be alright.”

Imagine meeting with God in his word one morning, being overwhelmed by his majesty and mercy — you’re brought to tears — and then going to share that with your spouse and their face is blank. They’re kind and happy to listen, but they can’t see or feel what you see and feel. They never share that kind of moment with you.

Imagine getting in a big fight with your wife. Not a “I didn’t like how you said that” fight, but a “I don’t want to stay with you anymore” fight — and you don’t have the gospel between you. She doesn’t believe God joined you together. She doesn’t believe she made promises before God. She doesn’t believe there are consequences beyond this life.

Imagine trying to teach your children about Jesus — reading the Bible with them, praying with them, singing with them — and he always sits in the other room. He only goes to church for Christmas and maybe Easter. Imagine your kids seeing, day in and day out, that dad doesn’t believe what mom keeps telling us. Imagine how disorienting that would be.

Imagine having to make another impossible decision about a home, or a loan, or your child’s education, or a crisis in the extended family — and you don’t have a single shared verse to lean on. You can’t hear from God together, because she doesn’t believe God speaks. The Bible’s just another good book on a shelf with lots of other good books.

Those are a few of a hundred scenarios where faith in God changes everything for a marriage — where “in the Lord” suddenly really matters. I suspect sincere Christians entertain the idea of marrying a nonbeliever because they cannot yet imagine what marriage will really be like. For the believer, a marriage without God would be a lifetime without sunshine, a sail without wind, a love without true love.

You Will be Breathtaking

Discovering all that we are and will be in Christ may be one key to escaping the cold cells of man-centeredness. Because anything glorious we discover about ourselves — and we will be glorious — is a mere reflection of him. We don’t receive any glory that does not whisper his glory and therefore glorify him all the more. We are “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:9–11).

It might be hard to imagine that a phrase like soli Deo gloria could be misunderstood or misapplied. To God alone be the glory. What could be unclear or mistaken in those six simple words?
Fortunately, the main burden of the phrase is wonderfully and profoundly clear. Our generation (and, to be fair, every generation before us and after us) desperately needs to be confronted with such God-centered, God-entranced clarity. The clarion anthem of the Reformation has been the antidote to what ails sinners from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. We fall short of the glory of God by preferring anything besides the glory of God above the glory of God. That’s what sin is.
We want the credit, the appreciation, the praise for any good we’ve done (and pity and understanding for whatever we’ve done wrong). We were made to make much of him, but we demand instead that he make much of us. That is, if we think much of God at all. John Piper has been waving the red flag for decades.
It is a cosmic outrage billions of times over that God is ignored, treated as negligible, questioned, criticized, treated as virtually nothing, and given less thought than the carpet in people’s houses. (“I Am Who I Am”)
God’s glory gets less attention than the fibers under our feet — and we wonder why life feels so confusing and hard. Five hundred years ago, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and other reformers recovered the priceless medicine: soli Deo gloria. “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory” (Psalm 115:1).
To Us be the Glory
The Reformers were living in a spiritual pandemic of compromise and confusion. As they walked through the darkness and corruption, they stumbled into the holy pharmacies of Scripture. And what did they find in those vials? They found, above all else, the glory of God. And that startling light became the North Star of all their resistance. They would not settle for any religion that robbed God of what was his and his alone.
Justification — what makes us right before God — had been distorted and vandalized in ways that uplifted our work, our self-determination, our glory. God’s justifying act was no longer found by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, but in significant measure, muddied by our efforts. And that emphasis on what we do in salvation siphoned off glory from the gospel. To us, O Lord, and to our name, be some of the glory.
The stubborn word of God would not surrender glory so easily, though. “I am the Lord,” the Reformers read; “that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols” (Isaiah 42:8). “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (Isaiah 43:25). Then four more times in just three short verses:
For my name’s sake I defer my anger;for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you,that I may not cut you off. . . .For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it,for how should my name be profaned?My glory I will not give to another. (Isaiah 48:9–11)
The only God who saves is a God rightly, beautifully jealous for glory. He plans and works all things, especially salvation, “to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14). Our only hope in life and death is that God will do whatever most reveals the worth and character and beauty of God.
Read More
Related Posts:

How to Fail a Wife: Learning Marriage from a Bad Husband

We might dismiss the first marriage as too extraordinary to be practically helpful. How could any ordinary sinful husband or wife today relate to those truly innocent newlyweds, with their perfect home in a flawless paradise? They enjoyed a fullness of peace and security and intimacy that’s now alien to the earth we’ve known.

Even for Adam and Eve, however, the honeymoon phase didn’t last long (at least when measured in verses). And we learn as much (or more) from their later failures as we do from their early obedience. As a young, often-failing husband, I find my imagination captured by the only sinless husband in history laying all he had on the altar of sin and compromise. His failures are foils of my callings, strange and dark inroads into what my marriage was meant to be — into what I was meant to be. His failures press our vague and comfortable ideas of what it means to be a husband into higher, less comfortable definition.

The more years I’m married, the more easily I can put myself in Adam’s fig leaves. His sins are unique for being the first, but they’re not all that different in kind or consequence. As it turns out, it’s a lot easier to be a bad husband than a faithful one, even in paradise. So what might we learn from that first bad husband? We’ll study their marital collapse in three stages.

When Temptation Came

The first verses in the single-most tragic chapter in Scripture don’t even mention the man. As a result, we might be led to think Adam was simply a supporting actor (perhaps even a victim) in this awful story. The reality, however, is that his seeming absence was his first great failure.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1)

Satan knew how to attack a marriage. He knew that the surest way to undo the man, the marriage, and their brilliant mural of God and his people was to target the wife and seek to reverse the order of their callings. He undermines their matrimony by encouraging her to be the assertive head and him the yielding helper. So he goes after the bride. And where was Adam?

As we continue reading, we realize the husband was not, in fact, absent, but stood by quietly. In the same moment of temptation, he commits two of the most common sins of men: he fails to do what needs to be done (passivity), and he does what ought never be done (compromise). Notice how he finally enters the scene:

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. (Genesis 3:6)


Adam was not off gathering food or herding lions while Satan snuck in to deceive Eve; he was there with her. His wife didn’t grab some fruit and run off to find him; she simply turned and held out her hand. He didn’t need her to relay all that was said; he likely heard every word. And yet he let her listen, and take, and eat. His home fell by a poisonous passivity. While it was Eve who listened (1 Timothy 2:14), who took what was not hers, and who prepared the forbidden meal, Adam stood by and let it all happen.

Just a few verses earlier, in Genesis 2:15, “The Lord God took the man” — the man, not the couple — “and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” — to guard it, preserve it, protect it. Jason DeRouchie unpacks this keeping: “[The husband] is to supply spiritual and physical food, and to ward off any spiritual or physical obstacles to the glory-filled global mission to which God called his family.” But when temptation came to his home, Adam failed to keep what God had entrusted to him. Instead of intervening, he tolerated and made room for him.

What kept Adam from stepping in and speaking up? We’re not told. I assume, however, that his temptations weren’t so different from the ones husbands like me face today. Perhaps it was pride. That’s certainly the weakness Satan aimed for: “You will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). Perhaps it was fear, wondering what Eve might feel or say if he refused the fruit. Perhaps it was sloth, simply lacking the strength and resolve to resist and fight back. Perhaps it was a lust for power, longing to taste that one forbidden pleasure. Passivity grows in any number of soils, but as we see again and again, it always bears the same bitter fruit.


Adam wasn’t entirely passive, though. The three most haunting words, at least for husbands, might be these: “. . . she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.”

The husband not only watched as his wife made war on God, but he grabbed a sword of his own. He knew full well what God had said. Again, just a few verses earlier, we read, “The Lord God commanded the man” — the man, not the couple — “saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’” (Genesis 2:16–17). And yet he ate. The deceitfulness of sin made him deaf to the voice that had brought him from dust and breathed life into his lungs. Is anything more destructive and painful to a home than when a husband, who manifestly knows better, dives headlong into sin?

“The surest way for a man to protect the home around him is for him to guard the heart within him.”

And how many homes have crumbled because husbands failed to see temptation for what it is and call sin what it is? The surest way for a man to protect the home around him is for him to guard the heart within him. As husbands, we follow in the footsteps of the Bridegroom, who met Satan and his temptations in the wilderness after forty lonely, hungry days and yet would not bite. Not when the devil tried the same old line, “Did God actually say . . . ?” Not when he was hungry. Not for the glory of a hundred nations.

Our homes and churches need husbands and fathers who refuse to abandon God’s word, even if their wives, children, and friends come to lead them away.

After Sin Happened

After Adam and Eve ate from the tree and fell into sin and shame, the Lord came calling, and when he did, he came first, as we should expect, for the husband.

And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:8–9)

When God asks him what happened, Adam shifts the blame everywhere but himself, even casting accusations back at God. “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (Genesis 3:12). She gave me the fruit, and you gave her to me, so who could blame me?

I imagine any man who’s been married for long can relate to the seduction of self-pity — wanting to preserve our name and honor while the house is on fire. How deceitful is sin if we can be convinced to blame God for sin? And yet Adam does. And we do, in our own ways. We feel bad for ourselves about this or that and begin to make excuses for our failures.

The point was not that Eve should take no blame (to her credit, she owns her part, verse 13); the point was that Adam should take the first and greater blame. He, not she, was called to keep. Faithful husbands step up and take responsibility in crisis and defeat. They don’t go looking for excuses or scapegoats. They know that judgment always begins with the head of the home. So they first remove whatever they can find in their own eyes (Matthew 7:5), and then they do all in their power to correct, restore, and protect the family. When sin happens in the home, the husband takes responsibility — not meaning he accepts all blame, but that he accepts his part of the blame and then, more importantly, owns how the family responds to it.

If Satan can convince a husband that his marital problems are all rooted in her sins, he’s removed the walls of their home and opened them to all manner of spiritual attack. Yes, the woman, not the man, was deceived, but Scripture says sin entered the world through the man, not the woman (Romans 5:12).

Before Temptation Came?

We can’t say much about the space and time between the last verse of Genesis 2 — “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” — and the first verses of Genesis 3 — “Now the serpent . . . said to the woman” (Genesis 3:1–2). Had Adam already failed by letting Satan in at all? We don’t know how the devil invaded the garden or how he got an audience with its queen. We do know that God had charged the king to keep — to forbid and withstand all threats.

However Satan slipped in, we know that keeping a marriage and home in a world like ours, corrupted by sin and brimming with temptation, begins well before temptation comes. We know that many temptations can be avoided altogether because Jesus teaches us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation” (Matthew 6:13) — not just lead us through temptation, but keep us from it altogether. Don’t let his awful lies touch our ears. Husbands and fathers are one great means to this kind of protection. We make sacrifices to stand on the spiritual walls of our homes, monitoring the unique threats and needs that emerge in our marriages and parenting, and then taking decisive, costly action when they do.

“Being a husband means standing guard before serpents come.”

How many husbands today, like Adam, have lowered our guards and let temptation invade and live freely in our homes? How often have we let Satan’s lies go unchallenged — or worse, undetected? Being a husband means standing guard before serpents come.

Proactive Protection

This keeping, however, means not only keeping evil out of the home, but kindling and cultivating good within it. Spiritual protection always involves teaching and encouragement.

Guardians of the home don’t just stand on the wall, scanning the horizon for shadows; they also fill the walls with light. They know that a family’s best defense is a deepening and expanding joy in God, that some of the best keeping happens through consistently reading, sharing, praying, marveling, serving, and singing. After all, Adam and Eve didn’t eat because they got hungry, but because their eyes had grown dim toward God. John Piper says,

Swallowing forbidden fruit is bad. But it is not the essence of what happened here. The moral outrage — the horror — of what happened here was that Adam and Eve desired this fruit more than they desired God. They delighted more in what the fruit could be for them than in what God could be for them. Eating was not the essence of the evil because, before they ate, they had already lost their taste for God. He was no longer their all-supplying life and joy. They preferred something else. That is the ultimate essence of evil. (“The Ultimate Essence of Evil”)

Part of a husband’s charge to guard the home, then, is to do what he can to foster the kind of delight in God that gladly rejects whatever Satan offers. Joy guards our wives and children from temptation and delivers them from evil.

Husbands, we have a high and weighty calling — and with it, a higher and stronger God to help in time of need. Like Adam, we’ll inevitably fail as husbands. Unlike Adam, we now know where to find forgiveness for our failures and the daily strength to love our wives and families faithfully. So when temptation comes, we step in and defy Satan head on, taking as much of his fire as we can. After sin happens, we take responsibility before God and lead the family in sorrow, confession, and repentance. And before temptation comes, we keep a big, satisfying vision of God before our families — through family worship, through informal conversations, and perhaps most of all, through our own contagious joy in him.

Why Don’t We Have Good Friends?

How many close friends do you have in your life today? Take a minute and count them. Do you have more or less than you did ten years ago?

One recent study confirms what you might already suspect: many more of us have fewer good friends than we once did. In 1990, just 3% of respondents reported having no close friends. Thirty years later, that number has quadrupled to 12%. In 1990, one third said they had ten or more close friends. That number has now shrunk to just over ten percent. Nearly 90% cannot name a friend for each of their fingers. It’s not the only study to come to the same unsettling conclusion: Despite the tidal wave of new ways to connect and communicate with one another, we’re getting lonelier.

And that loneliness stifles human life. “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” (Ecclesiastes 4:9–10). If we try to live and work alone, we’ll stumble and fall alone. And when we fall alone, we won’t have the encouragement, correction, and support we need to get back up and press through our failures, sorrows, and trials.

No matter how many years it’s been, no matter how busy you feel, no matter how few your options are, no matter how much it costs you, you still need good friends — yes, even you.

So why do so many of us have so few of them?

Three Great Walls to Climb

It’s never been easier to make new friends and connect with old ones, so what’s hindering and disrupting these relationships? Drew Hunter, author of Made for Friendship, wisely puts his finger on three major obstacles we face today:

Three aspects of modern culture create unique barriers to deep relationships: busyness, technology, and mobility. . . . These unique barriers can weave together in a very isolating way for us. They encircle us like a rope barrier and keep true friendship out of reach. We may overpower one or two of these strands, but as the saying goes, a cord of three strands is not quickly broken. (30)

What keeps us from meaningful friendships? Busyness, because we fill our schedules so full that friendship feels like a luxury we just can’t afford. Technology, because while it allows for a lot more moments of “connection,” the crumbs it offers leads us to pretend we’re more meaningfully connected than we really are (and leave us starving for more). Mobility, because it’s harder to build real, lasting friendships in places where people are frequently moving away and moving on.

Those three emerging barriers to friendship certainly resonate with my experience over the last thirty years, and accurately explain some of the challenges we face in pursuing friendship in the twenty-first century. So how might followers of Christ overcome the hurdles and find some good friends?

1. Cadence: Live at the pace of friendship.

When did we become too busy for friends? At a cultural level, it’s difficult to trace the many factors (work from home, instant messaging and social media, on-demand delivery and entertainment, explosion of youth activities, and more). At a personal level, the disruption often happens somewhere between college graduation and our first child’s newborn diapers. The adult demands of work and family swiftly swell and crowd out the margin we used to have. The time with friends that used to cost us next to nothing now seems far too expensive.

Rather than assuming friendship is simply a casualty of higher callings, what if we assumed that friendship was still vital to those higher callings? Because it is. “Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13). Of course, if you’re married, your spouse is one valuable voice, but he or she can’t be the only voice. Whether married or single, we need others from outside the home to sing (or shout) reality into our hearts and homes. In other words, we need friends.

“To experience friendship with fellow humans, we need to live at a pace that is human.”

And to experience friendship with fellow humans, we need to live at a pace that is human (which, ironically, may increasingly put us out of step with society). Instead of constantly scrolling by one another, what if we slowed down enough to see and hear and focus on the person in front of us? What if we practiced hospitality, not just with our kitchens and living rooms, but with our time and attention?

How different our lives might be if they were marked by something like the togetherness of the early church:

All who believed were together and had all things in common. . . . And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. (Acts 2:44–47)

Their lives were beautifully full, but not with the tasks, emails, and apps that dominate our days. No, their lives were full with people — with one another. Life was slower in many ways, and yet far more productive for being slow: “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).

2. Presence: Find time and space to share.

Technology is not necessarily an enemy of friendship. It can be an unprecedented blessing when employed wisely. Imagine just how much previous generations would have given to be able to talk in real-time, even once, with a far-away loved one (much less actually see them on a screen). The problems emerge when we lean too much on technology — when it becomes a substitute for, rather than supplement to, physical presence. Every human needs food, water, shelter, and regular time with other humans.

The apostle Paul used the technology available in his day to communicate with his brothers and sisters in the faith, but he knew that writing was no replacement for eye contact: “I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you — that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (Romans 1:11–12). He knew there were graces that ink and paper couldn’t carry. There was a whole class of encouragement reserved for living rooms and dining tables. He knew that something critical and intangible happens when two or more are gathered in the name of Jesus in the same space.

This doesn’t mean friends boycott technology. It does mean we acknowledge the weaknesses and limitations of technology (even the best technology), and love one another accordingly. A good place to start might be to quickly audit your current friendships and ask roughly what percentage of your interactions are physical or digital. The results will vary for people with different personalities in different circumstances and stages of life, but for every stage, circumstance, and temperament there should be some consistent, meaningful presence. It is worth fighting for more regular time to be face to face with at least a few good friends.

3. Permanence: Rediscover the value of staying.

Lastly, perhaps the largest hurdle of the three: mobility. It’s never been easier to pick up and move, which means it’s often much, much harder to find and keep long-term friendships. Just think for a minute about how many of your friendships in just the last two years have been disrupted by some major life change and the accompanying move. We’re the goodbye generation.

The depth of friendships our souls need won’t happen overnight. These gardens of trust require years, maybe decades, of patient attention and tending. So how do we make and keep friends in a day of so many goodbyes? The first thing to say may be hard for many of us to hear: rediscover the value of staying put.

How many people do you know in your circles who would forgo a better-paying, more-satisfying job in a more appealing city for the sake of Christian friendships and community? Building the kind of friendships that really matter and bear fruit requires the kind of sacrifices fewer today are willing to make. In the early church, and for most of history, this kind of permanence was simply a given. Picking up and moving was too costly. Today, permanence is becoming a discipline and a virtue. We might wonder, How many who are uprooting and leaving now will eventually come to realize what they lost and wish they had chosen church and friendships over convenience and job opportunities?

Some friendships, however, will survive moves and time zones, through some serious creativity and persistence, but very few will thrive. A few of my best friends today were once down-the-road friends (or even share-a-bathroom-and-a-kitchen friends), but are now several-states-over friends. We’re not as close as we once were, but we do what we can to stay in touch. The apostle Paul, for one, was a faithful long-distance friend, though it seems he was always planning a visit. He writes to those he knows well, loves more, and yet can’t walk over and see anymore:

“For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:8).
“[Timothy] has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you” (1 Thessalonians 3:6).
“As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy.” (2 Timothy 1:4).

“However faithful our faraway friends are, we all need down-the-road friends.”

Long-distance friendships are possible, and can be precious, but they are a little like walking uphill, requiring extra effort with every step (like writing twenty-eight chapters to the church in Corinth). They can’t be our only close friendships. However faithful our faraway friends are, we need down-the-road friends. And hopefully a few of them are down the road for the long haul.

4. Substance: Brave the depths of conversation.

Busyness, technology, mobility — those are three real and developing hurdles to friendship. We should all be aware of them and make some plan for clearing them. As I wrestled with each of them, though, I couldn’t help seeing a fourth major barrier, one that is by no means modern: triviality.

How many of our potential friendships — real, meaningful, durable friendships — have died on the rocks of sports, shows, or headline news? How many conversations began and ended on the paper thin surface of life? How often was God left out completely? The greatest challenge to friendship today may not be our schedules, phones, or moving trucks, but just how easy it is to peacefully float along above the rich depths of real friendship.

Social media can certainly aggravate the issue, but this temptation isn’t new. Satan has always been seducing us into the shallows of superficiality and distracting us from the depths of friendship. So how do we wade deeper? Through courageous, Christ-exalting intentionality: “Let us consider” — really consider — “how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24–25).

If we commit to this kind of reflection, this kind of commitment, this kind of encouragement and correction, this kind of love, real friendship will emerge and endure. But we will need to be brave enough to go there, to spend more of our conversations in the deep end.

So, if you find yourself among the overwhelming majority of people without enough good friends, slow down enough to find some, make some regular time to be in the same room, fight harder to stick together longer, and then consistently press through the trivial to the more meaningful and spiritual. Pursue and keep the kinds of friends who stir your heart and life to better know and enjoy Jesus Christ.

Scroll to top