December 17, 2017

When All The Answers Weren’t In The Lecture

Some of you may not know that I moderate and contribute at Boarsheadtavern.com, one of the longest running group blogs in the blogosphere. Often, we will have a question addressed to the group as a “Question of the Day.” Yesterday, one of the “fellows” asked a question about how a Christian married couple could resolve what seemed to be an irreconcilable difference regarding how many children they should have.

It’s not a question I’ve ever experienced, but I’ve faced similar issues in counseling, so I jumped in with some comments, as did several other contributors, but upon reflection later, I posted again. Here’s that post.

In the cause of honesty, let’s go back to that original question.

What is the Christian response/attitude/healthy plan of action when spouses earnestly disagree about the number of children they should have/can care for adequately?

I should be more forthcoming. I don’t think there is a “Christian answer” or a “Biblical answer.” I don’t believe the Bible addresses this level of life questions in authoritative terms. Magic book and all that.

I think you have Christians, following Jesus as Lord and teacher, answering tough questions. It’s like when the Doctor looked at me and said we were going to lifeflight my dying mom to UK for all these measures I knew my mom didn’t want. I had my relationship with mom, my relationship with God, and what I believed was right at the time. I’m sure plenty of Christians would have condemned me for saying No to that Lifeflight and asking for a doctor that would sign off on no treatment. I’m sure there are long essays, complete with verses, justifying why my mom should be blind, ravaged by a stroke and on various machines right now. I took the road less traveled, at least in my case.

I’m living in Christ and trying to work things out. I don’t know the answers for my marriage. I just know this ongoing journey of learning to love my wife. I don’t have the answers for a family crisis we faced several weeks ago. I just have Jesus and my desire to follow him and love my children. I don’™t have the answers for all kinds of things that other Christians have answers to.

All I could do is seek a place where two people who love one another, Jesus and their children could keep on doing that. I’d probably err for the other person, because I haven’t found a way to experience grace and always get my way.

Just being honest. I don’t have answers and that’s the essence of the advice I’d share.

One of the aspects of “popular” Christianity that I really struggle with is the belief that the Bible has an authoritative pronouncement on everything. I simply do not believe that. In fact, the pursuit of that assumption has, in my opinion, some particularly bad consequences.

I don’t blame anyone for asking older, wiser, more experienced Christians for their input on such a difficult question, but I do have problems with a posse of grinning, Bible-waving, know it alls constructing a house-of-verses answer to every question, and then defending their answer as if it were a recording of Jesus accompanied by a signed note from God.

I’ve written elsewhere that the belief the Bible is a collection of verses to be raided, rearranged and republished to answer every question is a misuse of the Bible.

That’s not to say the Bible doesn’t answer questions or that good answers can’t be derived from the Bible, but it’s important to say this: every one of the Bible’s specific answers to our questions must be preceded, surrounded and supported by the Bible’s most important messages: the Gospel, grace, the love of God and so forth. A book like Proverbs doesn’t provide answers for the Christian until Jesus takes us back into the Proverbs and every statement is seen in the light of God’s “final Word” in his Son. The Bible isn’t a grocery store full of whatever we need at the moment, but it is more of a recipe, whose many different parts give us one message: Jesus.

What discourages me most is the way those who believe the Bible answers every question then approach the Christian life. They really believe the Bible removes all the questions and all the uncertainty. With the Bible — and their interpretations, of course — you can calmly endure and experience anything with complete certainty that the answers you find in the Bible are the complete and final answers. The resulting arrogance in approach and manner is one of the most difficult obstacles to being part of evangelicalism.

I believe the Bible gives us complete and final answers, but I believe those answers are not designed to remove the experiences of grief, faith, doubt, risk, questioning or uncertainty, but to give us the ultimate answers from God to our entire dilemma.

Years ago, two boys drowned in a community where I was on church staff. It was an unspeakable tragedy, and no one knew what to say. The minister at the funeral sought to comfort the family with his discovery that “God needed two angels, and he chose these boys.”

Such an answer can be faulted many different ways, but what interests me the most is that the minister believed he MUST say something certain, so he came up with this piece of popular mythology.

In fact, such tragedies are horrible features of a fallen world. They are part of our creaturely dilemma. Accidents happen because of many things that come together, most of them out of our control. We can rail at God for not stopping things, but we could just as easily rail at God for not making us all fish or for giving us lungs or for causing us to feel love.

Our “answer” is the Bible’s message of the human dilemma, the cross and resurrection, and the promise of the Gospel that God is restoring and resurrecting this world as a new heaven and a new earth where death is defeated.

In the meantime, we weep, grieve and lament. Not like those with no hope in Christ, but as those who do.

My BHT post was picked up at another blog, where the author made some good comments:

I think the examples in the post I cited are good examples of places where people can get legitimately stuck because the Bible doesn’t really give us a list, right? There’s a difference between a feeding tube and a ventilator or a heart machine; there’s a difference between despising children and having a few rather than many. And in those cracks it might be a little reasonable to be a little less certain about what we think we know.

Shouldn’t it? If not, what’s it mean to be “teachable”?…

There are hard pastoral questions which we all have to answer, but I think the first one turns out to be, “what if the answer is that it is actually up to God and not me?” That is, what if I can do only so much and God will have to do what He does sovereignty and perfectly?

Indeed.

Luther taught that God has two books. The first is the book of his secret will, his sovereignty over all things. We know this book exists, but we do not have it, and if the last chapters of Job are any indication, we wouldn’t do so hot if we did.

The other book is the book of what is revealed in the Bible. Not every question. Not every answer. Not every situation. But the answers, truths and situations we need for life and faith.

We can read the Bible and speculate. We can construct arguments. But we should do it with humility and the realization that we are, always, learners. As the commenter above said, there is much that is up to God and not up to us at all. I’d add that there are other things that God’s way of dealing with it is to allow us to make our own choices with less than perfect information, but with the goal of complete trust.

The best teachers aren’t always lecturers dispensing answers. Some great teachers teach, but also let the students think for themselves and answer for themselves. A less than perfect answer doesn’t demolish what that teacher is doing, but provides a new opportunity to teach.

Comments

  1. Shouldn’t the mantra be “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials liberty; in all things, charity”?

    I find that as an evangelical pastor the more I try to come up with pat answers the less satisfying they are. Yes it takes faith to continue to trust God when grieving or when things don’t make sense. It is harder to continue to work toward understanding and compromise when there are no hard and fast answers. The Bible, though, is not an encyclopedia or a fact book. It is God’s Word but not Him. We use it to know Him, not as a recipe for living devoid of Him.

    Good post as always. Keep up the thoughtful writing.

  2. if everything was contained in scripture we wouldnt really need to talk to god eh? wed have all his scripted answers to everything and bothering to take the time to know him would be something we prolly reserve for public display on a certain day of the week.

    er..

  3. I feel this approach to the Bible is what gives us AIG and other such theologies.

    “Such an answer can be faulted many different ways, but what interests me the most is that the minister believed he MUST say something certain, so he came up with this piece of popular mythology.”

    I also feel this approach to the Bible runs side by side with “Isn’t God good/great/whatever” when good things happen but no comments are made when the result isn’t what we want. But bringing this topic up in most evangelical churches outside of a small circle of friends I know typically causes the same reaction putting up a poster in the lobby of the church advocating opening an abortion on demand center during the week in the unused classrooms.

  4. For those who don’t read Russian, Google thinks he said:

    “It was interesting to read, thanks”

  5. I regret having listened to some of the know-it-alls. But God sometimes has a way of throwing us a curve called “life.”

  6. The three hardest words for any pastor to learn is, “I don’t know.” How slow we are to admit that all our years of schooling and studying have left us just shy of omniscience. When my understanding of life and God runs short — and that happens on a daily basis — I like to remember Deut. 29:29. “The LORD our God has secrets know to no one. We are not accountable for them, but we and our children are accountable forever for all that he has revealed to us, so that we may obey all the terms of these instructions” (NLT).

  7. Responding directly to the question at hand, I have to say I am really admiring the Catholic statement on this issue. Morever, I am really surprised that I do. But the idea that we have some say in the matter over whether or not we will have 2.1 or 3.2 children is slightly ridiculous. Try as you might. If you believe that God grants grace in giving life, why not have him give you your children, instead of planning it all out ourselves? I find this idea much more faithful than the American version of ‘divine right’ where we plan it all out. Our plans aren’t God’s plan.

  8. Also responding directly to the question at hand. The Bible talks about self-sacrifice, mutual submission, etc. If we put our spouse’s desires over and above our own, does this really become an issue?

  9. MB
    So how does mutual submission work in this situation?

  10. This is one of your best, iMonk, an instant classic, and linkworthy. Thanks for saying it so well; this cocksurety that some evangelicals feel they must display in every instance is very frustrating. But for us pastors, it’s surely a wretched temptation to feel that we must cover God’s back on every circumstance in life. Novel idea: let’s let God be God and work in His time, in His way, whether we can explain it or not.

    “God needed two more angels”. Sheesh.

  11. dac

    My responsibility is to be self-sacrificial towards my wife. That means being willing to put her own desires above my own. She may reciprocate in kind, she may not, but that should not motivate how I act. I do find however that the more that I put her desires ahead of my own, the more that she does the same for me.

    So in this case I would say something like this: “You want X, I want Y. I am willing to go with X, but I want you to understand my reason for Y.” Being willing to go with her preference, makes her much more willing to consider mine. Sometimes we will end up with her preference, sometimes we will end up with mine.

    By the way, neither of us wanted three kids, but accidents happen, and that is what we ended up with. Now, we can’t possibly imagine having anything but three kids, and wouldn’t want it any other way. All of our kids have been a tremendous blessing to us.

  12. Memphis Aggie says:

    When you get married in the Catholic Church you take a vow to be “open to children”. So there it is right up front, but many Catholics (myself included) struggle with the issue in practice. Today our practice is in line with the Church but each couples circumstances are so different that what works for us my be no help to another couple. Once we started trying we had trouble having children so we had an entirely different set of issues/temptations than a younger more fertile couple.

    I can easily see why a Pastor feels pressure to provide some kind of definitive answer, even if there is no clear cut answer. The Catholic teaching is summed up in the Theology of the Body by JP II but this is an especially complex subtle work dealing with the sacred bond of love in marriage as well as our participation and cooperation with Gods creation of new life. It gives guidelines and boundaries but not scripted instruction.

  13. The way we resolved this issue in my family was that my wife convinced me that we could use prayer for birth control for a season. She got pregnant. I asked her how she could possibly get pregnant, and she said that she was praying to _have_ another baby. After that, with 4 children, we both agreed that I should get a vasectomy. Neither of us have any regrets.

  14. IMonk, above you wrote “but I do have problems with a posse of grinning, Bible-waiving, know it alls constructing a house-of-verses answer to every question, and then defending their answer as if it were a recording of Jesus accompanied by a signed note from God.”

    I don’t know whether you meant to write “bible-waving,” but by using “bible-waiving” to describe this posse you were marvelously on point. People who use the Word in this way have indeed relinquished the opportunity to use it intelligently.

  15. Lazarus says:

    “the minister believed he MUST say something certain”

    I think many ministers fall prey to this statement as they attempt to comfort in a time of grief. The reality is that there are many times in life when there are no words that cover or comfort in a tragedy. Forcing a response is painfully insufficient in helping others deal with loss.

    As I try to reflect on the difficulties in my life and that of my associates I find the greatest comfort is in the companionship-not the words. And perhaps that is why God has me in the wilderness-so I may focus on His companionship and not rely on His signs. What I know though is as much as I can read Scripture it does not hold the answers or all the comfort-it comes to the Grace of God.

  16. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    One of the aspects of “popular” Christianity that I really struggle with is the belief that the Bible has an authoritative pronouncement on everything. I simply do not believe that. In fact, the pursuit of that assumption has, in my opinion, some particularly bad consequences.

    At the very least, it makes Christians look like buffoons, with a glib quote for every occasion like Seinfeld’s ironic quips.

    (Flashback to a Sixties cartoon called Go Go Gophers; one character, a “Colonel Kit Coyote”, responded to any & every situation by pulling out a Book of Army Regulations and quoting it chapter-and-verse in a Theodore Roosevelt voice. Normally against the advice of his experienced noncom sidekick. He always got his head handed to him by the end of the cartoon.)

    And in a much more grim analogy, it makes Christians look like comic-opera Communists duckspeaking The Party Line, Comrades. Increase Political Consciousness and Purge the Counterrevolutionaries.

    When you’re hurting, the LAST thing you need is The Party Line, Comrade, doubleplusduckspeaked by someone who obviously has never been hurt himself. Or if he has, won’t ever admit to it.

  17. This is a great conversation and comments. If these topics were taken on with this amount of candor in our churches, I think there would be far fewer leaving via the backdoor. These are real-life questions, messy and without clear answers.

    Can God be sovereign without being a micro-manager? I think so. Take verses like this from Luke 12:

    “ 4″I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. 5But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. 6Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies[a]? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. 7Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

    You have to “tweak” them to make them say that God decides which hair (or in my case, hairs) falls out today or that God controls exactly which worm the sparrow eats and at what time.

    A wise old man once told me (and I was offended by this at the time) the following regarding Christian decision making; “It’s when you quickly decide what you want to do, for a variety of reasons, and then spend a huge amount of energy twisting verses, counsel and finding signs to support the decisions that you’ve already made in your heart.

    When I was 20, I could quickly decide that I wanted to go to a Christian conference (that cost a lot of money, which I didn’t have) because there was a hot Christian chick going and I wanted to get to know her better. Then I would spend a week or two proving that it was “What God wanted,” by finding a sign in a quiet time Bible verse. I just wish I could have been honest about it at the time.

  18. I thought I would come back and address the specific question, which was raised on BHT. I know others have done the same.

    My wife and I faced the same dilemma a number of years ago. The way that we resolved it wasn’t pretty . . . and would not make any James Dobson book (except maybe as a bad example), but I think it was realistic.

    We had been through seven pregnancies in ten years with five healthy children (including one with ADD). I was the sole bread winner and working hard, plus I was trying to take the kids off my wife’s hands as soon as I got home form work each night (she was working very hard at home including home schooling the older kids and our ADD son was driving her crazy). I personally felt like I was near total exhaustion and I wanted to take a “break” from having children.

    My wife was really into a Christian author Mary (somebody?) who advocated only allowing “God to close the womb.” (BTW, this author also advocated the “missionary position” as the only God-ordained one and a dirty house, one with flies, allows Satan’s stronghold over a family, etc.).

    In the weeks after my last child was born, my wife and I had many long discussions but were at an impasse. She refused all birth control methods (save abstinence) because she believed this is what God wanted. I felt like I was near a mental breakdown and I felt very strongly that I needed a break.

    So how did we resolve it? I eventually went out and had myself neutered (or was it spayed . . . I always forget) against her will.

    So, if you presented our case to a group of hard-core (precise answer for everything) Evangelicals, they could deconstruct our situation several ways. A) I wasn’t loving. B) My wife was not submissive, C) I did not trust God, D) My wife wasn’t loving to me. Pay your money and take your choice. Maybe it is “All the above.”

    But my point is that life doesn’t always work itself out in neat little solutions that would make it as Hallmark movie of the week.

    I’ve had some regrets. I mean if we could have found some temporary measure, I was ready to have kids again after about 3-4 years. I even considered being de-neutered (or was it de-spayed?) Our marriage survived fine, but this was one of the top 5 difficulties that we have ever faced.

  19. Michael, I agree with everything you wrote.

    As to the direct question, my husband and I disagreed about our desired number of kids. He deferred to me (and we both believed strongly in God being the one in control, ultimately). We had one more (bringing our total to three). I wanted more and probably would have pushed for it, but God allowed a health crisis in my life that has now prevented me from bearing more children. Clearly, God agreed with my husband. 🙂 So, you just never know how these things are going to turn out.

  20. j. Michael Jones,

    My apologies, your response makes my answer sound kind of trite.

  21. “If these topics were taken on with this amount of candor in our churches, I think there would be far fewer leaving via the backdoor.”

    But many might start leaving via the front door. In my church challenges of the last few years my small group has discovered that many folks want an answer to every question. And they gravitate to churches and pastors that are willing to give them certainty to almost all or even all questions. It basically ran a group of us out of a church as we didn’t agree and the strife level we were causing grew too extreme.

    Just one small example. High school kids are taught that you should approach all non Christians with NT bible verses. Period. My daughter argued the point for a while then just shut up. Should she interact with non Christians and have them as friends or treat them as people needed NT lectures?

    It goes on and on.

  22. The situation you start with (husband/wife unable to agree on whether to have more kids) was the situation of a couple who led a Bible study I was in ages ago. They sought counsel on the matter, and told the counselor that they were praying and praying for God to reveal His will to them, but so far, nada. Their counselor bluntly told them not to bother praying any more: their dilemma would be resolved whenever one of them sacrificed his or her own desire and submitted to the desire of his or her spouse.

    That story always made me laugh. Praying for the special revelation of God’s will sounds so spiritual, doesn’t it? Turns out that living a life that pleases God is less about finding the answers and more about actually following Christ.

  23. My friends and I have often talked about the (seemingly) widespread belief that pastors should have an answer for everything. What an awful burden to live under. Sometimes you’ve just got to be able to say, “I don’t know.”

    As for the issue of having children: It bothers me that more Christians don’t seriously consider adoption as an early option.

    The whole be fruitful and multiply, chidren are a sign of God’s favor (and other such thinking), is so Old Covenant. Isn’t it? (And I’m NOT implying children aren’t a blessing.)

    Israel had to keep populating from within. Israelites having Israelites. But the Church (spiritual Israel) is to grow from without — through evangelization. In fact, adoption is kind of a theme in parts of the New Testament. Strangers become family — the unrelated become relatives. We’re told that following Christ might cause our biological families to reject us.

    What if the near worship, among Christians, of having children is part of the problem in American Christendom? Too often a family seems to become such an insulated unit that it can too easily replace the sense of family that we are supposed to share with other believers. Perhaps more adoption would change some of that.

  24. If this was an issue when the bible was written it may have been addressed, but for the first 1900 plus years of our common history everyone already new the answer. Separating sexual union and life has brought fourth the ridiculous in a culture gone sex crazed, disorder begets disorder, a tree is known buy it’s fruit. First the prevention of life in the womb, then the destruction of life in the womb. I think are perception of human sexuality is so fragmented that we have lost the ability to discern good and evil. What other systems in our body do we destroy when they a perfectly healthy?

  25. If I may weigh in on the meta topic:

    Early in his senior year, my then 17 (now 18) year old son had a friend, best friend, who was fatally stabbed in a fight with a first cousin. This death occurred on the Saturday before a long planned, and much needed, actual family vacation. There was no question as to whether he was coming back from vacation for the funeral. However, several things that I shared with him:

    1. There will be well meaning people who posit that all this happened for a reason. However, there is no reason, we live in a fallen world and as much as we might like God to step in and remedy the injustices, He doesn’t on a regular basis. That is not to say that some good (and it has) come out of the situation, and that God might use that for His kingdom purposes, but there is no reason.

    2. I shared with him that I was honestly praying that the funeral might get delayed past the time of our vacation (with a homicide, I was hoping the investigation might linger enough.) As a father, I desired from the bottom of my soul for nothing to interfere with the little time I had to spend with my kids that was not interrupted by school, and dinner, and TV, and xBox, etc. However, the bottom line was he would be flying back early from the funeral, but that I wanted him to know that I was praying my own selfishness, not that I really thought that God would intervene and set the funeral date later, but that it was the only thing I could honestly offer in prayer (besides Grace and comforting for the family, b/c this was a boy who spent lots of time in our home).

    Interestingly, I found, that at least with a teenager, the thing they crave the most is sincerity, and I had nothing but sincerity to offer: I don’t know why bad things happen, but I hope it doesn’t interfere with my plans.

    Of course, the funeral was set for the Thursday of the week we planned to be gone, and I put him a plane to go back.