Through the years, I’ve noticed that when churches offer meetings, Bible classes, and seminars on marriage, they tend to be a species unto themselves. Much of the time, the presenter will offer a few passages at the beginning as “cover” and proceed to spend the rest of his time working through the advice of various marriage gurus under the guise of “application”.
This is not necessarily bad. In Ecclesiastes 12:9-11, the Preacher commends the study and examination even of human wisdom. God is the Author of wisdom, and nothing that is truly wise can be very far from Him. However, there is still a vast difference between the words of men and the word of God. Presentations on marriage that are 5 percent Bible and 95 percent human application put an awfully long tail on an awfully small kite!
In addition to not being ideal, this kind of analysis is not necessary. For some reason, brethren seem to think that only New-Testament texts that contain the words “husband” and “wife” are about marriage. The underlying logic, I suppose, must be that marriage is so different from the other areas of our lives that only passages that explicitly mention marriage are applicable to it.
I think this is exactly wrong. In order to be true disciples of Christ, we must be disciples first in every relationship of our lives: as brethren, as workers, as parents, and, yes, as spouses. In marriages where both spouses are Christians, marriage problems are always discipleship problems. Always. Conversely, if I want to be the best husband I can be, I first must strive to be the best disciple I can be.
Take, for instance, the husband’s role as head of the family. Certainly, that role is defined by the texts in 1 Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5 that specifically address it, but it also is defined by everything that the Bible has to say about leadership. The husband’s role is much more like the role of the father, the employer, and the elder than it is different. If this were not so, how could the Scriptures hold up Christ, an unmarried man, as the perfect example for every man who is married? Every godly leader, husbands included, first must learn servant-leadership from Him.
I would never in a million years criticize a congregation for studying Ephesians 5:22-33. However, that study ought to begin at least with Ephesians 5:18. Contextually, loving our wives and submitting to our husbands are every bit as much expressions of being filled with the Spirit as singing praises to God is.
Love and submission don’t instantaneously spring up in our marriages like mushrooms in a flowerbed. Instead, they must originate from a heart that we have diligently filled with God. Cheap fixes don’t work. If we want our marriages to improve, we have to do the hard work of seeking God first.
However, Ephesians 5:18 is no place to stop. We ought to consider the first part of Ephesians 5 and ask how godly speech and walking in the light should appear in our marriages. Now there’s an application worth making!
We ought to go back to Ephesians 4 and forward to Ephesians 6. Is the new self that we have put on evident in our marriages? Do we employ the whole armor of God in warding off the devil’s assaults on our marriages? For that matter, how does Paul’s great account of the grace of God in Ephesians 1-3 shape our understanding of our responsibilities in marriage? Those who have been forgiven so much ought to be ready to forgive, for one thing!
Indeed, every spiritual principle and precept in the New Testament can be applied usefully to our marriages. There are many wonderful lessons here that we too often overlook because the Bible passage doesn’t say “marriage” and that book on the shelf over there does.
There’s little harm in The Five Love Languages or any other such book, nor do I think brethren should shun marriage seminars and marriage counselors. However, if we’re getting more of our instruction on marriage from them than from the word of God, we’re making a grave mistake.
At the end of 2018, The Atlantic ran an article (I’m not going to link to it; it’s pretty salty stuff) proclaiming a surprising fact. In modern America, people are having less sex than they have for decades. Porn use, along with everything that goes with it, is booming. Actual sex, not so much.
Since then, I’ve read several articles bemoaning this trend. After all, if our nation stands for anything these days, it stands for sexual autonomy. It stands for the notion that people should be able to do whatever they want with whomever they want. We are willing to legalize and support abortion, even, to remove the consequences from sex. And yet, it all seems to be having the opposite effect. We have stepped on the accelerator, but the car has slowed down.
To the worldly, this is baffling. To the spiritually minded, though, it makes a bleak kind of sense. Sex was created by God. Like all of His other creations, though it can be perverted and abused, sex is inherently good. It is creative and connective. It unites us with our spouses in any number of dimensions, and it connects us to the future through the children we conceive. As is characteristic of the designs of God, sex in marriage elegantly achieves many positive ends.
Now, imagine for a moment that you’re the devil, and you see this beautiful thing that God has ordained for husbands and wives to share in. What are you going to do?
First, you’re going to lie about it. You’re going to use human desires to persuade the foolish that the marriage bed truly is not the best place to satisfy those desires.
“Why wait until you’re married?” “Why confine your sexual interests to your spouse?” Sexual immorality is evil because it frustrates the good design of God.
Second, you’re going to make it about pleasure rather than connection and creation. In our hookup culture, sex is intimacy only in a physical sense. It does not unite souls. It does not join hearts. It does not express and deepen a marital relationship.
Similarly, you will want to remove sex from procreation as far as possible. Abortion does this, as does homosexual sex. Thus, rather than being about somebody else, sex becomes about the self.
Once you’ve gotten things that far, the final step is to abolish sex. After all, Satan always wants to destroy the works of God. If sex is about pleasure, you can find that pleasure by yourself. You don’t need anybody else.
Besides, relationships are hard. You don’t get whatever you want whenever you want it. You have to be nice to somebody else, live with them in an understanding way, and work through difficulties and struggles. Why go through all that trouble when you can get your satisfaction with no strings attached?
Thus, the effect of sexual license is ultimately to do away with sex. As always with sin, once people get what they want, they find out that they don’t want it after all. The end result of selfish pleasure-seeking is not happiness but loneliness, misery, and despair. Porn never made anybody’s life better. The passing pleasures of sin are no substitute for the enduring joys of godliness.
By contrast, if we want sexual fulfillment (and indeed life fulfillment), the recipe is simple. Be holy. Find one person of the opposite sex. Marry them. Stay married until one of you is dead. Love and serve them wholeheartedly. Hate sin in your marriage and in your hearts. Stamp it out.
If we will do this, we will discover the sexual blessings that God has prepared for us. If we will not, though, we will encounter not the goodness of God but the malice of the devil. As the sex recession reveals, this is precisely what our poor deluded sex-worshiping society is learning.
At all times I will bless the Lord,
His goodness to proclaim;
Oh, magnify the Lord with me;
Let us exalt His name!
I sought the Lord; He answered me
And kept me from despair.
Where those who look to Him are found,
His angel guards them there.
Oh, taste and see that He is good,
And find in Him your rest;
While others faint, His holy ones
Shall prosper and be blessed.
Come near, o children, hear my words,
And learn to fear the Lord:
Depart from evil, seek His peace,
And see His full reward.
His eyes and ears are toward the just;
His face, against the vile,
And when the righteous cry for help,
He rescues them from trial.
The righteous soul, the Lord will bless;
The hateful heart, condemn,
And He is sure to save the life
Of all who hide in Him.
Ecclesiastes 11 opens with advice about how to deal with an uncertain future. Prepare for success by using several different strategies that may pay off down the road. Recognize that nothing can be done about disasters that already have occurred. At the same time, don’t be so paralyzed by fear of disaster that you do nothing. Don’t expect to understand what God has purposed. Instead, control what you can control by working hard. The chapter concludes with an encouragement to enjoy life while remembering that hard times, death, and judgment are coming.
Ecclesiastes 12 considers the inevitable end of life. The first 8 verses describe the effects of aging and death in various poetic ways. Because all of these things are inevitable, we should remember God now. The final part of the chapter, and indeed of the book, describes the work of the Preacher. He commends proverbs and wisdom while warning against excessive devotion to other kinds of study. The summation of all wisdom is to fear God, obey Him, and remember His judgment.
Psalm 32 contrasts the experience of sinfulness and forgiveness. It describes the forgiven man as blessed, then reverts to David’s personal experience. When he refused to acknowledge his sin, he suffered, but God blessed him when he repented. Because of that experience, he urges everyone to seek God so that He will protect them like He protects David. Vs. 8-9 are spoken from God’s perspective, and they explain the necessity of His corrective discipline. The final verses present the conclusion that the wicked will suffer, but the righteous will rejoice in God’s protection.
Psalm 33 praises God for His wonderful works. It opens by calling His people to praise Him in song because of His righteous word and works. Everyone should fear and honor Him because He is the Creator. Even now, His work continues. He defeats the plans of the enemies of Israel while prospering His people. Against His will, no human strength or ability can be effective. He always remembers those who serve Him, and He protects them. Thus, we should hope in Him.
Psalm 34 expresses David’s rejoicing at escaping Abimelech. Its first verses express David’s determination to praise God and call others to join him. He wants to praise God because God rescued him, as God always rescues His people. Even when young lions go hungry, God makes sure that the righteous want for nothing. Anybody who wants to enjoy the blessings of the Lord must turn from evil and seek good. He listens to their prayers while destroying the wicked. Even when things don’t seem to be going well for them, God will still deliver and protect them. Their enemies will be defeated, while everyone who trusts God will be justified.
At the end of this year’s new-hymn class at Jackson Heights, we went through and recorded a dozen of the songs we’d learned through the quarter. I’ve spent the past couple of days listening to the CD in the car, not only from a worshiper’s perspective, but from a hymnist’s perspective.
Over the past decade, I’ve slowly learned that there are some things you can’t tell about a hymn or spiritual song until you sing it. For one, there are some arrangements that look fine on the page but prove to be a booger to sing. Most importantly, though, you can’t tell whether a hymn will generate buy-in from brethren until you hear them sing it. There is a difference in sound between singers going through the motions and singers pouring out their hearts in worship.
Buy-in is the single most important attribute of a spiritual song. It determines whether it will be used congregationally or not. If a hymn does not have buy-in, it’s like faith without works. It doesn’t matter how skillfully written or intellectually profound the hymn is. If people don’t want to sing it, it’s dead.
As I was listening to the CD, then, I was listening for the telltale evidence of buy-in. I heard it, among several other places, in the Clint Rhodes song “Break My Heart”. “Break My Heart” is written in a style I don’t use. If I had been invited to edit it, I would have had some technical critiques to offer.
However, if a sacred song draws Christians into worship, it’s doing its job, and “Break My Heart” manifestly does that. I think it works, and I think it works for two reasons:
Accessible Content. “Break My Heart” is a song about the Christian’s struggle with sin. Particularly, it’s about the times when we don’t want to do good, but we want to want to. It’s a plea to God to overcome the stubborn resistance within us so that we can devote ourselves to Him.
Every Christian with an ounce of self-awareness will identify with this struggle. All of us will wrestle with sin for as long as we live, and that conflict exists because our flesh wants to sin. We need God’s help, we know we need God’s help, and so we want to sing a song that is about asking God for help.
Use of Counter-Melody. Recently, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the difference between songs written for a praise band and songs written for the congregation. There are a lot of things that praise bands can do that congregations can’t. Most notably, they can have a more extreme vocal range and use more complicated rhythms. G5 in the melody will murder congregations on Sunday mornings. So too will those dotted-eighth/sixteenth rhythms that mimic the vocal stylings of a lead singer.
However, there are things that congregations do well that praise bands really don’t. First on my list is the employment of counter-melody. Typically, the lead singer of a praise band is The Lead. They don’t want to step back and let somebody else in the band take over for a little bit.
However, congregations enjoy passing the melody back and forth or singing two melodies simultaneously with different rhythms. Many of the most prominent songs that come from a-cappella traditions reflect this. Think “Our God, He Is Alive”, for instance. The same is true of “Break My Heart”. The song really comes alive once you get to the chorus and the alto/tenor counter-melody. They make it musically satisfying.
Fundamentally, I’m a pragmatist. What ought to be is all well and good, but you have to pay attention to what works. “Break My Heart” works, at least in a group that can pull off a tenor counter-melody. Both song leaders and writers ought to pay attention.