on finding joy and hope in dating, marriage and divorce: 1 Cor 7 (and 6:13-20)

1 Cor. 6:15-7:40.  If you’re perfect, please don’t read this post.  It will tempt you to judge the rest of us.  But if you fall into the category of people who mess up relationships … take heart.

The first good news is that every marriage is over at “I do.”  The fat lady sings at every wedding.  Why?  Because two selfish people are agreeing to think of the other person first.  They’ll always fail.  So why is that good news?  Because we all have the same problem, and lots of marriages work, so there IS an answer.  So let’s look at some of the solutions for human frailty.  Ready?  Hold onto your hat (or chastity belt) because this chapter (and the end of the one before it) hits on EVERYTHING.

First, apparently there’s something especially hurtful about prostitution.  1 Cor. 6:13-20.   Paul invokes the language of marriage to say what happens when you sleep with a prostitute.  He’s implying that ALL sex involves an intimacy far deeper than most of us realize.  He implies that to sleep with someone you’re not married to is a kind of marriage.  So doing it actually rips our identities apart.  We’re supposed to honor God with our bodies.

What if we haven’t?  What if we don’t think we ever can?

The biblical answer to prostitution is to just stop.  Run.  Flee.  But the key here is to not HATE ourselves.  That’s probably what leads us down the wrong path in the first place.  We’re supposed to believe God forgives.  Pride can’t ask for help.  So we need to swallow our pride.  We can go out and learn how to have healthy relationships.

What about two people who are in love and can’t keep their hands off each other?  Paul says they should get married.  (“because of the temptation to impurity and to avoid immorality, let each man have his own wife and let each woman have her own husband.”  1 Cor. 7:2).  Paul thinks being single is a fabulous thing, and can give us space to serve God and get to know Him better.  But Paul recognizes that most of us get lonely.   For anyone who’s been in the dating scene long enough, and has yet to experience that urban myth of The One Night Stand that Became a Marriage, the idea of living in an 18th century world where men call women up, ask them out in advance, discuss their dreams, reveal their characters, demonstrate their communication skills, and prove that they’re willing to work with us so we can learn how to love each other better — and then drop to one knee and promise undying love, sounds awfully refreshing.

If we can’t seem to find the right person to marry, we should never give up.  If we’re a woman, we can take care of ourselves, look and act the best we can, get out there, and believe that if a man doesn’t want us, he’s not the right one.  If we’re a man, we can keep asking women out.  God is a matchmaker.  He made Eve for Adam.  He found Rebecca for Isaac.  He gave Boaz to Ruth.  Jesus turned water into wine for a WEDDING.  But we have to have hope.  Otherwise we’ll cling to the wrong relationships and try to MAKE them work.  All we’ll do is make ourselves miserable.  We need to let the wrong doors gently close, and trust God to open the right ones.

So what if we’re dating someone and we just don’t want to marry them?  What if we went into dating them with the best of intentions, but we find a disquietude in our hearts?  Paul says don’t tie the knot.  He says if you WANT to marry them, go ahead.  But if you don’t, you can break it off.  God gives us room to change our minds.  1 Cor. 7:36.  Dating is just dating.  We shouldn’t guilt ourselves into committing to someone.  God calls us to peace.  If we don’t have peace about something, we can’t do it.

Paul’s sex advice to the married is simple: have it.  He says it’s actually wrong to withhold sex from your spouse.  I can’t tell you the number of married people I hear complain to the world at large that their spouse won’t sleep with them. They announce it at parties, lunches, in crowded rooms, and at dinners.  Why do they expose their spouse like that? It’s because deep down they KNOW they’re being wronged.  They have an existential despair that won’t stay quiet.

So WHY do married people withhold sex from each other?  It’s generally not because of a low sex drive, but for a whole host of other reasons including: addictions; porn; obsession (with work, art, self, free time, children or any other thing we humans make idols of); rage; anxiety; depression; perfectionism; medications; blame; guilt; childhood abuse; a failure to separate from parents; hurt feelings that haven’t been discussed, apologized for and forgiven; an inability to know or articulate our needs; passivity; aggression; anger at parents; soul wounds; bitterness; holding grudges; being quick to take offense; a lack of empathy; a stubborn inability to consider another person’s viewpoint; and inappropriate boundaries with other people, male or female.

The world is full of hurting people.  And hurting people hurt people.

Jesus, the master of economy, sums up the problems in marriage with one phrase.  He said that Moses allowed divorce “because your hearts are hard.”  We humans get hard hearts toward each other, and it causes us to feel like we don’t “love” them.  It causes us to cut them off, sexually and emotionally.

So what’s the solution?  How do we prop up our marriages?  How do we similarly  strengthen intimacy and communication in all our relationships?

The first thing to recognize is that we can never MAKE someone love us.  We can’t make them be well.  We can’t control anyone else.

If we’re dating them and they don’t want to be with us, we let them go.  We don’t stalk.  We don’t harangue.  We don’t beg, plead, or devise schemes of walking past their desk or front door.  We don’t become best friends with their mothers.  We leave them alone and trust God to bring us someone better.

If we’re married to someone who doesn’t seem to love us, we can ask God to help us.  We ask him to help us keep loving them.  We can pray for them and trust God to bring good out of even the worst situations.  We can ask Him to give us a soft heart, even to someone who has a hard heart to us.

It’s in this spirit of not being able to control other people, I think, that Paul says here if our non-believing spouse wants to leave, we let them go.  If they want to stay, wonderful.  God will help us.  But if they want to go, there’s NOTHING we can do about it.  We let them go and cling to Jesus instead.   We’re to pour out our heart instead to God.  He is the Truth.  He will show us if we’ve been abandoned.  Denial is a useful short term coping mechanism, but God wants us to open our eyes.  If our spouse is outta there — even if he or she is a coward and lies and says they’re there for us, baby — we’re free.  And when we hear other people are getting divorced, we’re supposed to hug them, never condemn.

Having said that, if we’re the one with the hard heart toward our spouse — if we’re the ones who are dying to be alone or wish we could marry someone else —  there’s a cure.  There’s a heart softener.   If we hate the person we’re married to; if the very sight of them makes our skin crawl; if they put on their finest clothes and all we can think is that they’re ugly; it’s not over.  God knows how to make the unwanted wanted.  He’s in the business of softening hearts.  He can show us what we’re REALLY mad at, and I can promise you it has nothing to do with our spouse’s haircut.  It’s perhaps that they’ve hurt our feelings, legitimately or not, and we or they haven’t acknowledged it.  We haven’t felt listened to in a way that feels loving.  They’ve hurt us, and so we want to hurt them back.  One of the ways we humans do that is by despising the other person in our heart.

So if every other man/woman on the planet looks more attractive than our spouse, it doesn’t mean we need a divorce.  It’s just a clue.  It’s a sign to get going.  We can sign up for that couples counseling.  We can crack open our bibles.  We can watch the movie FIREPROOF.  We can read THE LOVE DARE.  We can watch Joyce Meyer every day on TV.  We can read Emerson Eggerich’s LOVE AND RESPECT.  We can ask our spouse out, and act as if we’re on a first date.  We can ask ourselves how we would talk to our spouse if we just met them, and do it.  We can remember our manners.   We can always say please and thank you.  We can focus on the good.  We can assume the best about their actions, every time.  We can ask why they do certain things, without rancor, and listen to their answers.  We can do all those chores they asked us to do.  We can stop stonewalling them.  We don’t wait for them to change first.  We take responsibility for the part WE can control.  As it says in the LOVE DARE, why do we think God gives us such incredible insights into our spouse’s faults?  It’s NOT so we can crunch them under our stilettos.  It’s so we can PRAY for them.  We can trust that God is the God of miracles.  He may or may not change our spouse.  But if we get on our knees and beg God to help us love our spouse again – watch out.  The heart he changes will be our own.

When I have relationship problems, I don’t ask my single friends for advice.  I’m worried they’ll say: CUT HIM LOOSE!!!  Instead, I ask my friends who have made their marriages work over 20+ years.  They always say the same thing, no matter which one I ask.  They tell me to be patient.  They empathize — with me AND the man I’m dating.  They remind me men can have trouble expressing their emotions.  They say that you get through the daily bumps by focusing on what you’re building together.  And they say again, be patient.  I sigh.  I know they’re right.  But I’m not so good at patient.

Which brings me to my last point.  For those of us who’ve messed up every single one of these helpful boundaries and guidelines provided for male female relationships, there’s the best news of all:

The cross.

There was one perfect person in human history.  He was God.  And He died because He KNOWS we mess up.  He just wants us to say we’re sorry and turn to His open arms.  God is the lover who never disappoints, no matter how often we do.  And if we let Him start to help us, we can celebrate our lives no matter what’s going on.  God always rejoices in our progress – even if it’s the smallest of baby steps.  Like sighing right now and asking for His help.

with love from Caroline, a fellow sinner who is as adored by God as you are.

how to win by losing: 1 Corinthians 6

IMG_3278

Thank you, President Putin.  We the American people appreciate that you’ve reminded us to follow the rule of law.   We agree that sometimes governments in power can set up their opposition.  We value your reminder to use diplomacy first.  We agree that the shedding of innocent blood must be avoided at all costs.  We look forward to working together to try to help the Syrian people resolve their own internal conflict.  We say Amen to your admonition that God created us all equal.  Finally, we’re so glad that you recognize the positive power of freedom of the press, a freedom that enabled you to write a letter to us in today’s New York Times.   “A Plea for Caution from Russia,” by Vladimir V. Putin

President Putin’s letter to the American people reeks so strongly of hypocrisy that I nearly gagged from the fumes seeping in under my apartment door when I woke up this morning.  And yet the above is how I imagine Dale Carnegie might recommend responding to President Putin.  Why?  Because Carnegie knows that responding with humility accomplishes far more than lashing back in pride.  He knows the value of losing a battle in order win the war.

BBC World News posed the question this morning: do the American people WANT the Russian President telling us what to do?  It’s the wrong question.  Why?  Because in the battle of good against evil, we need to keep our eye on the prize.

In today’s Scripture, Saint Paul makes the stunning claim that it is better to be cheated than for a Christian to sue a fellow believer in a civil matter.  Read 1 Cor. 6.  It’s the kind of claim that sends shivers up our litigious American spines.  Seriously?  You mean if a Christian sister steals your money, you’re not supposed to sue her in a secular court?  Yes, that’s exactly what Saint Paul says.  He’s not against all legal action.  In Acts 22 and 25 he appealed to the Roman courts for his rights.  So why this advice here?  His reasoning is that when Jesus comes back, the Christians will judge even the angels.  So Paul asks: is there not even one Christian person who can fairly judge between Christians?  Why would a Christian assert their rights before someone who doesn’t respect or submit to the laws of God?  Paul says Christians should try to work these matters out amongst themselves, and to find an honest Christian arbiter, and if that’s not possible, it’s better to be cheated. God is the ultimate judge of wrongdoers, and Paul provides a long broad list of behaviors God rejects unless they’re covered by the cross.

If we look at the Sermon on the Mount, we find Jesus making the same kind of stunning claims as Saint Paul.  Turn the other cheek.  If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also.  Give to anyone who asks.  When things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back.  Luke 6:27-30.  These claims come bang up against our pride.  But our pride is based on the lie of our perfection. As Paul says, the reason we should let things drop if we have to, is that we’ve cheated other people, too.  The truth is that we’ve all hurt other people and taken things from them unjustly.  Sometimes we take their boyfriends and girlfriends, or even their spouses.  Sometimes we take their reputations.  Sometimes we take their belongings.  Sometimes we take their self-esteem.  We rob them of their dreams, dash their hopes and yell at them for being too sensitive when they protest.  When we realize we’ve done these things, we fling ourselves on God’s favor, mercy and goodness to release us from guilt.  We rely on the cross alone.  If we’re honest, we can never rely on our perfection.  And so we, in turn, would be fools not to offer that kind of forgiveness to others.  Who wants to live in a world of pure justice?  None of us would survive.  We need a world of grace.

Grace leads us even deeper into the heart of the matter.  The reason we can follow this off-putting advice about allowing ourselves to be cheated in certain circumstances, is that God’s grace proves to us we can trust God.  We grow to trust God more and more, the more we take in how kind He is.   We start to rely on God to rescue us.  And if God says we’re not to sue a fellow believer, and that we’re instead to try to get a Christian to judge between us, we’re to trust Him to bring good out of that situation.

Which brings us back to President Putin.  What’s our goal in Syria?   Is it a zero sum game, where either the Russians or the Americans win?  Or is the goal truly to help minimize evil in the world by using our influence to persuade governments to not kill their own citizens, and especially to never use chemical weapons?  If so, the kind of forgiving nature God calls us to counsels that we get off our high horse in the interest of achieving the greater good.  In this conflict the Russians have to date stymied our ability to work within the UN Security Council.  The fact that President Obama’s red line in the sand means there now seems room to maneuver within the diplomatic channels means that the most powerful thing President Obama can do right now is agree with the Russians.  Of course, everything Putin says is pure hypocrisy, but who cares?  “What a GREAT idea!” our President can say to the Russian President.  “I’m so glad you appealed to God and the law.”  And together, they can try to wipe out chemical weapons from the face of the planet, as difficult as that may be in practical terms.

Why do we Americans want to help the world?  Here is where we get to the worst thing President Putin said.  Putin is right to say that all are equal before God.  But he’s wrong to say that therefore none can claim to be exceptional.  It’s the other way around.  God sees us each as exceptional.  As Paul says, our body is as exceptional as God’s body.  We are all exceptionally loved by God.  How do we know?  Because God loved us so much, that even though we weren’t obeying His laws, God chose to be unjustly tortured and killed to set us free from the consequences of our sins.

That’s why the letter God wants us to worry about isn’t a letter written by any human hands.  We should pay no heed to those letters that point fingers and tell us what we’ve done wrong.  God wants us to tear up those letters of the law.  Instead, God asks us to look at His hands.  His liberating love for each of us is engraved there. His love letter to us is the one our hearts cry out for every day, in every way, in every hurt, injustice, crime and poison.  It’s the only letter worth reading, and if we keep our eyes fixed on the message of love there, we will find ourselves responding with humility instead of pride because our hearts have been melted down into rivers flowing with tears of repentance and gratitude.

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day, my blog on Scripture, literature, life and love… and sometimes war