Sacred Singleness (1 Corinthians 7)

Most times, when we talk about families in the church, it's easy to forget that not everybody fits into the same situation that we're in. Because I'm married, and because I have young children, it's natural for me to think about issues that married people with young children face. It's almost possible to believe that everybody is in the same situation that I'm in.

The same thing happens with cars. I find when I get interested in a certain model of car, all of a sudden those models are everywhere. The reality is that they've always been there, but I haven't noticed them. You've heard of selective hearing. I believe that we're also guilty sometimes of selective seeing. We don't always see what is actually around us.

When it comes to church, I've found that there's a group that's significant and growing, and yet many times we don't see this group. The ironic part is that all of us have spent time in this group, and yet I've found personally that those days are easily forgotten. Sometimes, without even knowing it, we make this group feel ignored or second-class. The language we use - talking about family picnics and family get-togethers - and the actions that we take can sometimes make this group of people feel like we don't even see them. Truthfully, sometimes we don't. But it's not because they're not there, and it's not because this group isn't large, and growing. Sometimes we begin to think that everyone is part of a two-parent family, even though when we look around, that's not at all the case.

I'm talking about singles - the group of people who have never married, or who have married and find themselves single again. This is a huge group of people - 40% of the population and growing. Right now, there are four and a half million Canadians who live either alone or with people who aren't part of their family.

And yet as I thought about it this past week, I don't think I've ever heard or preached a sermon on singleness. There are a lot of times that we forget that they're around, and even worse, that we're insensitive to them. I know that I've done this. It's easy for those of us who aren't single to be insensitive to singles, and to try to make them fit into our world. Sometimes we make the opposite mistake, and we create a singles ministry that is almost a separate part of the church. They at least feel noticed, but then we separate them from the mainstream of the church. There's nothing wrong with a singles ministry, but it is wrong to compartmentalize such an important part of our population.

As I prepared this message, I realized that I've seldom thought about church from a single's perspective, and I don't think I've ever asked a single adult what it feels like to be part of our church. It's easy to ignore singles or to patronize them without even realizing it.

There used to be a time that singleness was identified as a temporary period that young adults faced before they got married. Some people still define singleness that way. My older brother didn't marry into his thirties, and it was amazing to see some of the comments that were directed at him. People wouldn't leave him alone because he was still single. People were continually matching him up with girls - sometimes a good thing, sometimes a bad thing. It all depended on how well they got along.

The underlying message, though, seemed to be that he was incomplete, or that his life hadn't really begun. Sometimes, even singles feel this way. Some of the markers that take place in married people's lives weren't as visible - the mortgage, the first child, the first child going to school, and so on. Sometimes we communicate subtle messages that say to a single person, "You haven't really lived and you can't be fulfilled because you're not married." They're made to feel almost like half a person. But that's not God's view at all.

I really have two goals today. If you are married, I want to challenge you to open your eyes and your lives to others here who aren't part of your family. I dream about becoming a church where deep connections are taking place, not just between married people and married people, but between married and single, young and old, across the barriers that divide us. If nothing else, I'd like us to open our eyes to see that we need to open our ministries to those who aren't in our situation, and to open our lives as well - to look beyond our marital status to see what we have in common.

But I also want to speak to singles today. I don't speak with authority on the subject, but I do want to look at what the Bible has to say about singleness. I'm not sure that I've always had a proper understanding of what the Bible teaches about being single, so I want to look at a passage that teaches us some important lessons on singleness. I've also asked some single adults for their advice on what I should say on this topic, so part of what you're going to hear comes from them.

Today I thought it would be valuable for all of us to look at what the Bible says about singleness, and to examine some of the attitudes we carry about singleness that we may have, without even knowing it.

I'd like to look at a passage of Scripture today that teaches about singleness and marriage. If you have a Bible, open it to 1 Corinthians 7. It's on page 1289 of your pew Bibles.

The author of this book, Paul, is writing to a church, and in chapter 7, he's answering a question that they asked him. We don't really know what the question was, but some scholars think it may have been something like this: "Paul, is it good to be married?" That's a pretty good question, and one that's relevant to us today. It appears that some in the church were probably going around quoting Genesis 2:18, "It is not good for the man to be alone," and driving all the single people crazy. They were probably asking questions like, "When are you going to settle down?" "Why don't you go on a date with my nephew? He's really cute." The Jewish religion at that time taught that marriage was the "unqualified duty for a man." Celibacy was viewed as being abnormal. Some people in the Corinthian church were placing a lot of pressure on the singles to get married.

On the other hand, some people in that church were saying that it was better to stay single. There seemed to be this belief that celibacy was good, even if you're married, and singleness is even better. So there was this big debate going on about whether or not it was okay to remain unmarried, or whether everybody had to marry.

The moral situation in Corinth wasn't too different from our situation. They lived in a sex-crazed culture, much like we do today. It also looked like the Christians in the church were about to enter a period of persecution.

Let's look at what Paul said to the question, "Should everyone get married?" The first lesson we learn from this passage is found in verse 1:

1. SINGLENESS IS AN OPTION

1 Corinthians 7:1 says, "Now about the questions you asked in your letter. Yes, it is good to live a celibate life." Here, Paul answers the question of whether everyone should get married or not. Later on, he says that you can get married if you want, but here, Paul says that singleness is an option. Singleness is not just the state that you're in while you wait to be married. Singleness is a valid choice. It doesn't make you incomplete or second-class. The implication for us is that we shouldn't expect everyone to get married, because singleness is a valid option.

We don't really know what was going on in Corinth, but there were some extenuating circumstances that made the single life more desirable than being married. Paul says in verse 26, "Because of the present crisis, I think it is best to remain just as you are." Most guess that there was a time of persecution coming, and having a family would allow greater freedom, and it would reduce the amount of suffering that would take place. In the present circumstance, Paul thought that singleness might make sense. Depending on your circumstances, singleness may or may not be the best opti on for your life.

It's easy for married people to think that marriage is better than singleness. Part of the problem for those of us who are married is that we begin to see marriage as the only way in which relational intimacy takes place. It's an important way - but it's not the only way. We can have rich relationships outside of marriage. Sometimes those of us who are married make the mistake of turning inward as families and excluding others - both married and single - from our lives. You don't have to be married to be fulfilled, and you can have rich relationships even if you are a single person.

The reality is that marriage is not forever, and will not be part of the way we relate to each other in heaven. Jesus said, "Marriage is for people here on earth. But that is not the way it will be in the age to come. For those worthy of being raised from the dead won't be married then" (Luke 20:34-35). We will experience rich relationships in heaven - but they won't be marriage relationships. Deep relationships with others are possible to everyone, even apart from marriage.

You can choose singleness, and still have rich relationships and a fulfilled life. A great example of this is Jesus. He was single, and yet nobody would ever say that he was incomplete or unfulfilled. He stayed in close touch with his family and his friends. He offered love to others, and he received it back from them. He felt free to express love and care through human touch. He was comfortable having one of his closest friends lean on him. He even knew how to lovingly caress - in a non-sexual way - a woman who was known to be a sinner. He also knew how to be alone. He experienced both the joys and the frustrations of being single, and yet he was completely fulfilled. The fact that Jesus was a single adult should change our attitudes about singleness. It's not second class. It's the way that God chose to live when he came to earth.

Listen to what Jesus said. One day he was teaching in a house, and somebody told him, "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you." Mark 3:33-34 says: "Jesus replied, 'Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?' Then he looked at those around him and said, 'These are my mother and brothers. Anyone who does God's will is my brother and sister and mother.'" Jesus was probably referring to his disciples - the twelve men that he had chosen; his band of brothers. They responded to his call to follow him. The ties that he had with them were stronger than the blood ties he had with his own family. You don't have to be married to experience true community, and relationships that go deeper than blood. We can enter into a relationship with the only person who could ever complete us and make us whole, whether we're married or we're single - Jesus Christ.

Singleness is an option. That means that we may have to work harder at acknowledging the needs and even the presence of single adults. It may mean changing some of our attitudes. It may mean opening up our lives to the richness of relationships outside of our own families. If you're a single adult, it may mean honoring your single status - a status that was held by our Savior. Paul teaches that singleness is an option. You can find the deepest fulfillment, the deepest unity of heart and soul, without being married.

I've learned that I need to change my attitudes. Being married isn't necessarily better, and neither is being single. Both are gifts from God. Singles aren't just people waiting to get married. Jesus Christ himself was single. Singleness is an option.

Paul continues to answer the question. 1 Corinthians 7:2 says, "But because there is so much sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband." It sounds like Paul is contradicting himself. He's just said it's good to be single and celibate; now he's saying it's good if you're married not to be celibate. The point Paul is making is this:

2. SINGLENESS IS A GIFT

Paul says in verse 7, "I wish everyone could get along without marrying, just as I do. But we are not all the same. God gives some the gift of marriage, and to others he gives the gift of singleness." Paul's just outlined some of the drawbacks of being single. One of the drawbacks is that some people just can't cope with sexual temptation outside of marriage. It looks like some back then really wanted to get married, and were in danger of losing their moral purity out of a false desire to stay single. Paul said to them, "It's okay - go ahead and get married. You obviously don't have the gift of singleness."

This wasn't a new teaching. Jesus said in Matthew 19:12, "Some choose not to marry for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven." A single person can focus their energies on the work of God more than a married person could. Singleness is more than just an option; it's a gift from God. It's a calling for some people.

This isn't to diminish marriage in any way. The apostle Paul had a very high view of marriage. He compares the union of a man and woman to the union that Christ has for the church. But Paul didn't diminish singleness either. Sometimes we concentrate so much on the positive aspects of marriage, that we totally miss the other side. If you're single, that could be a gift from God for you - a gift of grace. If you are single and want to remain single, that's not a deficiency. That's a gift. It provides you with opportunities that married people will never have.

The single life is not second-best. You can be fulfilled and fully honoring God's call in your life whether you're married or not, whether you're a parent or not. One of the challenges we have as a church is to filter out the signals that our culture communicates - messages like "You're nobody until somebody loves you" - and to replace them with the Biblical message that God gave some the grace-filled gift of singleness. Somebody has written, "We do people a disservice when we fail to proclaim the single life as a Christian option. Marriage is not for everyone, and we should say so" (Richard Foster).

One of the greatest gifts I've received is to watch a single adult firsthand raise four of her children. She didn't choose singleness - yet as I look back, I can see how God used her singleness. It's taken a toll on her. Yet I believe it's also provided her with opportunities and growing experiences that she would never have experienced if her marriage had stayed intact. What happened to her was a tragedy - and yet God uses tragedies. She's taught me firsthand that singleness isn't second-class. It's been a gift that God has used in many people's lives.

One of the strongest indicators of which gift you have is your desire - your inclination. If you have the gift of singleness, it's probable that God has also given you a desire to remain single. If you have the gift of marriage, God will probably also give you the desire to get married. Both are gifts from God. Both are valid. Both are to be honored.

Some are called to be single. But there may be others who find themselves single, without ever really feeling called to singleness. They may be divorced or widowed. It's a biological reality that there are more women than men out there, and a commitment to marry only an individual who loves the Lord can greatly narrow the options. We need to be sensitive to those who are single who would never have chosen that singleness for themselves. God can give grace and hope to those in this situation. We can be honest with God. We can be open with each other. We can pray that God will give his grace to meet our needs.

It turns out that both groups were wrong in the Corinthian church. The group that said marriage was mandatory was wrong. Marriage is an option, but it's never mandatory. But the other group was wrong as well. The group that taught that singleness was mandatory was also wrong. What's important is to understand God's unique calling on your life. You may be called to marriage; you may be called to singleness. One is not better than the other. Both are gifts from God.

I want to close with a final instruction that applies to all of us, regardless of our marital status. The third lesson we learn about singleness - about marriage as well - is found in verse 17. Here's the lesson:

3. CONTENTMENT IS THE KEY

Verse 17 says, "You must accept whatever situation the Lord has put you in, and continue on as you were when God first called you. This is my rule for all the churches." Paul's instructions were consistent to all the groups - stay as you are, if you can help it. Some people were ready to make wholesale changes without thinking about how it would affect them. In a situation in which there were people from all different races and social levels and family situations, Paul said, "You can please God just where you are. You don't have to change your job, and you don't have to get married or divorced or whatever to serve Jesus Christ. Be content in your situation. You may be just where God wants you to be."

This doesn't come easily. It just hit me this week that one of the Ten Commandments talks about contentment with our marital status. I'd never really thought about it before in this context, but the tenth commandment says, "Do not covet your neighbor's wife" (Exodus 20:17). It's possible to be married and to still want what somebody else has. There are married people who want to be single and single people who want to be married and married people who want to be married to someone else. We're called to be content, right where we are, with what we have right now.

The hardest thing in the world is to be content with our current situation right where we are. Paul is teaching that we should willingly accept whatever situation God has placed us in and be content to serve him there. Paul gave example after example in this passage to illustrate this principle, but it's just plain hard. Paul's not saying we should deny our desires, or be dishonest about how we feel. He did say that it's possible to be content no matter what situation we find ourselves in. Paul said in Philippians 4:12-13, "I have learned the secret of living in every situation…For I can do everything with the help of Christ who gives me the strength I need."

It's not our own resources that give us this contentment. It's not that all of our needs are being met, or that all our desires are fulfilled. The only way that we can have contentment in whatever situation we're in is with the help of Christ, who gives us all the strength we need for whatever situation we find ourselves in. God is ultimately the one who gives us the fulfillment, the contentment, the peace that we're all looking for. We can never look to another person to give us what ultimately is only God's to give.

Marriage has its struggles. There's no doubt that anyone who is married will struggle sometimes with the cost of marriage. I'm grateful that we're in a church in which we can say, "We're struggling. We don't have it all together. I need help in this area."

Singleness also has its challenges. I want to be a church that we can be open about some of the struggles of singleness - that there are challenges, just as there are advantages.

Maybe it's naïve, but I'd love to be a church in which we saw past our marital status, and we acknowledged the significance and the value of every person in Jesus Christ. I'd love to see us develop deep and significant relationships beyond those who are just like us. I'd love to be a church in which singles didn't feel second-class, because the greatest person who ever walked this earth was himself single. I want to be the kind of church that affirms people both in marriage and in singleness - a church that recognizes the value of sacred singleness.

Let's pray.

Father, I pray for those here today who are called to singleness. Forgive us for sometimes being insensitive to that calling. I pray that we would be a church that highly values that calling for your glory.

I pray that we would be a church in which deep relationships are formed - in which singles mix with married people and married people become deeply involved in the lives of those who aren't married. Father, open our eyes to those around us who aren't in our situation, and help us to love and to serve each other.

I pray that no matter what our situation, that you would give us your strength and peace and contentment. We pray all these things in the name of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sacred Parenting (Ephesians 6:4)

One of the greatest privileges that many of us will ever have in life is the challenge of parenting. If you're a parent, you still remember the day that you held your new baby in your arms. We probably didn't realize it all that day, but life is never the same again. We get the privilege of shaping this brand new individual, of being the greatest influence in their lives for the most critical phase of their lives. I remember the sense of awe that I had both times I experienced becoming a father. Of course, that sense of awe was soon replaced by feelings of exhaustion, but every once in a while it's good to be reminded of the privilege that is ours to be parents of children. Bill Cosby remarked that being a parent is the "most beautifully irrational act that two people in love can commit," and he was right.

Parenting isn't just a privilege; it's also a challenge. Somebody once said, "Before I got married, I had six theories on raising kids. Now I have six kids and no theories" (Lord Rochester, 1675). The stakes are high in parenting, and the answers aren't always easy. James Dobson once wrote a book called Parenting Isn't for Cowards, and he was right. The problem with being a parent is by the time you have it all figured out, your kids are all grown and you're out of a job. Parenting is tough. It's rewarding, but it's also a challenge to know how to love and discipline and shape our children as they grow, until they're released as adults, and most of the time, as parents themselves.

One of the challenges that we have in parenting is that we tend to parent our children the way that we were parented. That can be a very good thing if your parents were good parents, but it can also be a very bad thing to replicate the mistakes that our parents made in raising us. I personally am fathering without ever really having had a positive role model from my father. Some of you are in the same situation. I can't afford to make the same mistakes with my children that my father made with me. How do I learn how to be a father?

I want to look at a passage of Scripture that talks about the responsibility we have as parents. It's found in Ephesians 6, which is found on page 1321 of your pew Bibles. Paul addresses both children and fathers in this passage. The word that he uses for father could actually be translated parent. This passage speaks directly to some of the issues of parenting, and I want to look at it today to see what the Bible says about how we can fulfill our responsibilities as parents according to God's instructions.

I'm still learning about parenting myself, and I thought it might be a little presumptuous for me to share these principles as if I have it all together. So I've asked some veteran parents in our congregation to share what they've learned as parents, now that their children are grown. I've collected some of their insights, and I will share them as we go.

I was also amazed to realize that many of the parenting dilemmas we face are addressed in Ephesians 6. I've found myself skimming over this passage, but today I want to take a bit longer to reflect on what Paul says about how to effectively parent according to God's instructions. The instructions we're about to read were part of something called house codes. They were common in that day in various religions and settings. They basically described how the family was to operate. Before we read this passage, you need to understand the context of how families operated back then, and then we can look at how Paul's teachings apply to us today.

Back when Paul wrote this passage, families were different from today. Back in that day, fathers had almost unlimited rights. We looked at how this related to marriage the other week. Husbands could look at their wives and say "I divorce you" three times, and the divorce was official. Wives couldn't divorce their husbands, but husbands could divorce their wives very easily.

The same sort of relationship took place between a father and his children. Back in those days, there was something called the right of a father. When a child was born, the father had the right to determine whether that child should live or not. Fathers could and did sell their children into slavery. They could punish them as harshly as they wanted to; they could work them at any age as hard as they wanted; they could even put their children to death. Many parents, of course, did have very good relationships with their children, but abuses were also common. It's in that kind of context that Paul writes his instructions on parenting.

The underlying principle of all relationships in Jesus Christ is found in Ephesians 5. Read with me what verse 21 says: "And further, you will submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." Everything that we're going to read is an application of this verse. When we come to Jesus Christ, he doesn't just change us as individuals. He also changes our relationships. This applies to all that we do - our marriages, our work relationships, our friendships, the relationships that we have with our children. The idea of submission is not that we become doormats. The idea is that we put the interests of other people ahead of our own interests. It means that we stop being self-absorbed and that we start putting the interests of others ahead of ourselves. How does this apply to parenting?

Ephesians 6:4 says, "And now a word to you fathers. Don't make your children angry by the way you treat them. Rather, bring them up with the discipline and instruction approved by the Lord." The word that Paul used for fathers is one that could mean just fathers, but it could also be a generic term referring to both parents. We're not sure. In any case, what he's about to say applies equally to both fathers and mothers today.

But before we look at what Paul says, you need to know that it was amazing that Paul even addressed parents at all. In a day in which parents could do almost anything they wanted with their children, Paul all of a sudden stops parents and says, "Your relationship with Jesus Christ has just placed obligations on you as parents." Parents are no longer free to do as they please with their children. No other house code ever instructed fathers on how they were supposed to treat their children. But the fact that you're a believer in Jesus Christ means that now you have new obligations in your role as a parent. You are now called upon to parent in such a way that you parent "in the Lord," in such a way that you put the rights and interests of your children ahead of your own interests. We're called to treat our kids the way that God treats his kids - to treat them the same way that God treats us.

Before we go on, I just want to think about that for a minute. The amazing thing about being a parent is that we get the opportunity to treat our children the same way that God treats his children. In other words, any parenting that we do as Christians is an imitation of God. If you're a Christian father, guess who your role model is? God. The same for mothers. That significantly raises the bar of what we're doing as parents. Our model is no longer how our parents treated us. Our model as parents is now much higher. Our model is how God is treating us.

It goes even further. Our kids aren't really even our kids. They live at our house, they eat all of our food, they take all of our money. But our children, in a sense, aren't our children. They're God's children. A child, in a sense, is always adopted. The God of this universe is crazy about them. We get to be their father or their mother, but we always have to remember that their real Father is God.

How can we raise our children as God's children? How can we treat our kids the same way that God treats his? Four ways:

1. GRACE THEM

Okay, I had to use a noun as a verb, but it's the closest I can get to what Paul says in Ephesians 6:4. It's consistent with the way that God treats us. In an age in which fathers were allowed to treat their children as harshly as they liked, Paul said, "And now a word to you fathers. Don't make your children angry by the way you treat them." Colossians 3:21 tells us why. It says, "If you do [provoke or exasperate them], they will become discouraged and quit trying."

There are some parents who push their children pretty hard. I know firsthand what an exasperated child looks like, because I've exasperated mine on more than one occasion. We have all kinds of ways we can exasperate them. It's possible to blame them more than praise them; to set standards so high that nobody could ever keep them; to push them in an unreasonable way academically or athletically or musically. I find that one of the ways that I sometimes exasperate my children is to rush them. I can get in such a hurry that I get them all flustered because they're not moving as fast as I would like. Paul tells us not to do that, because if we do - if we place unhealthy expectations on them, constantly criticize and blame them, or even worse, attempt to live through them - then they will get discouraged and give up.

One of the best gifts that we can give our kids is to extend the same grace to them that God extends to us. In a time when parents had the right to treat their children any way that they wanted, Paul told the parents to think about what would encourage the kids; what would grace them. Some of the parents I talked to said the same thing this week. They said things like, "Don't sweat the small stuff. If you are always nagging about something, then when it is important you don't get the impact." Another said, "Focusing too much on producing kids who perform well can get in the way of producing kids who are giving and compassionate." Another gave advice to the next generation of parents by saying, "Affirm, even when mistakes are made. Love and support them, regardless of their mistakes and the choices they make. Oh how I wish I could have been that kind of parent!"

When you think about it, the best example of that kind of parent is the father of the prodigal son. He had every right to treat his son harshly, and to reject him. But he didn't treat his son as he deserved. The father of the prodigal son is a picture of God, and the way that he treats us. Psalm 103:10 says, "The LORD is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him."

We're going to see in a few minutes that there may be some parents here who never have a problem with pushing your kids too hard. You may have the opposite tendency of not pushing them all. But there may be parents here whose standards for their children are so impossibly high that your children are always frustrated. They never measure up. You find it easier to criticize your children than to praise them. Your children may have let you down, and you haven't forgiven them. You may even be in a situation in which you need to humble yourself and apologize to one of your own children.

There may be parents here who are sometimes too harsh with their children - who make rules without explaining them, are sometimes unreasonable or inconsistent with boundaries, who ignore their children's wishes without explanation.

The solution, your obligation as a Christian parent, is to do the opposite: to grace them, to treat them the same way that God treats his kids. He extends grace, encouragement, and forgiveness. It's like what was said of Jesus: "He will not crush those who are weak, or quench the smallest hope" (Matthew 12:20).

Grace them, and then Paul says:

2. NOURISH THEM

Ephesians 6:4 continues, "Don't make your children angry by the way you treat them. Rather, bring them up with the discipline and instruction approved by the Lord." The word for "bring them up" literally means to nourish them. The idea is about providing for physical needs - but it's much more than that. It's about treating them with tenderness. It's about fondly cherishing the gift of your children. Paul used the same word in Ephesians 5:29 to refer to the way that husbands were to treat their wives: "No one hates his own body but lovingly cares for it, just as Christ cares for his body, which is the church." We're called on to lovingly care for our kids - to nourish them, to provide for them emotionally as well as spiritually.

This changes as kids get older. Right now I'm at a stage when it's still relatively easy to nourish my kids emotionally. Both my kids will still kiss me in front of strangers. They don't mind snuggling up to me. The main barrier to nourishment is my schedule. I constantly have to remind myself that my kids are more important than staying an extra half an hour to tie things up at the office. The time will come when my kids will be too busy for me. The tragedy is that my kids aren't right now, but many parents are too busy for their children.

One parent said she wishes she could have changed three things about the way that she parented. "I wish I had left the dishes and cleaning, to read stories, play, and spend time with my children. I wish that I had listened with all my attention. I wish that I had been at home more."

As kids grow into teenagers, that nourishing takes a different form. It involves being available for those moments that come when your kids are open to talking with you. It involves becoming a student of their personalities so that you know what their emotional needs are - what their spirits are craving from you.

If you're like me, the greatest change that you will have to make to nourish your kids is to adjust your schedule. One man said it's about learning to cheat. You're going to cheat someone, he said, because you just don't have enough time to be everything to everyone. You'll never cross every item off your list, and have enough time to be everything to everyone. He said that for himself, he was learning to cheat his to-do list and even his career rather than your children. You will have to ask what it will take to nourish your kids - to give them the priority they deserve in their lives. It's a call to do more than to chauffer them and to drop them off at gymnastics or hockey and to cook them dinner. We have an obligation to get to know them at the soul level - to nourish their spirits at the deepest levels of who they are. One parent said, "Be there for your kids, and be as involved as you can be in their lives."

As parents, we have the primary responsibility of nourishing our children's spirits - to lovingly care for them, to give them the place of priority in our lives. Paul calls us to grace our kids, and to nourish them, and then, Paul says:

3. DISCIPLINE THEM

Ephesians 6:4 says, "Bring them up with the discipline and instruction approved by the Lord." The word for discipline in this verse wasn't used lightly. It refers to a very strict discipline. The Bible is clear about the need for parents to discipline their children - not by abusing their authority and being to harsh, but by setting firm and consistent boundaries. Proverbs 13:24 says, "If you refuse to discipline your children, it proves you don't love them; if you love your children, you will be prompt to discipline them." Proverbs 19:18 says, "Discipline your children while there is hope. If you don't, you will ruin their lives."

Our society has shifted in the past twenty or thirty years. People have reacted so strongly against harsh parenting that many have thrown the idea of disciplining out with it. Many parents now treat their kids as their friends - even as equals. They reason with them; they give them choices; they do everything but discipline them. They may even threaten discipline, but they don't consistently follow through. But the Bible says that we must discipline our children, and that if we don't discipline them, it shows we don't love them, because we're ruining their lives.

One parent I talked to this week said, "Disciple firmly and fairly. Stick to what you say. If you say you're going to do discipline them, it's a big mistake to not do it." She went on to encourage husbands and wives to support each other in the discipline - that if you disagree with how the other is disciplining the kids, to resolve that privately rather than in front of the children. Another mother said, "Don't be afraid to make rules, they make a child feel secure. Don't be afraid to discipline, a child will not stop loving you."

If you find that you're inconsistent with the discipline of your kids, I would encourage you to get help. Talk to some veteran parents that you respect and ask them how they handled discipline. There are lots of good books out there on how to discipline children. The first few verses of this chapter talk about what happens when children do honor and obey parents - that it's actually a source of blessing in their lives. We're robbing our kids if we don't discipline them firmly and consistently. Discipline them so they know where the boundaries are. Stay consistent with the boundaries so that we can provide our kids with security. And don't be manipulated by all the mind games that kids know how to play to get us to move those boundaries. Paul says to grace them, nourish them, discipline them, and finally:

4. TEACH THEM

One of the greatest privileges that we enjoy as parents is the privilege of teaching our children about the Lord. Ephesians 6:4 says, "Rather, bring them up with the discipline and instruction approved by the Lord." Deuteronomy 6:6-7 says:

And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are away on a journey, when you are lying down and when you are getting up again.

My wife learned a lot from her parents spiritually. One of her strongest memories is watching her dad read his Bible every morning, and praying. She saw that his walk with God was genuine. It's something that's always stayed with her. We can instruct our kids, not just with our words, but by our example.

Listen to what some of the parents said that I talked to this week. "Take every opportunity to teach the children about the Lord - both by your life, and by your teaching. Show your family that their parents love God, each other, and their children." Another said, "Set a godly example, and instill godly values." Set an example for your children by your life, but do more than that. Teach them about Jesus Christ. Teach them that he loves them and wants to be their friends forever. Show them what it means to have a relationship with Jesus Christ.

There's so much more that we could cover. There are other insights I could have shared from some of the parents, like these: "My dad was right about more things than I thought," or this: "I've learned that it costs a lot to send a kid to university."

But what I want you today is to pick one of these four areas that may be weak in your own life as a parent and to work on it this week. It could be by getting a book from the library, or talking to another parent, or talking to your own spouse about steps that you can take to improve in this one area. It may mean changing your schedule. Which of these four actions do you need to work on as a parent? Do you need to grace them more? Do you need to nourish them more? Do you need to discipline them more consistently, more firmly? Do you need to teach them more, by your life and by your words, about Jesus Christ? Write it down. I'm then going to give you a minute to write down what steps you're going to take this week to begin to actually address this area - to come up with an action plan for how you're going to love your kids more in that particular area.

[PAUSE]

I want to close with what one parent said to me. She said this:

I always thought I would make a great parent because I loved children and I was a fun-loving, people person. When God gave us an independent, headstrong, child, I wasn't prepared to look at a side of myself I didn't know existed and I didn't particularly like. I discovered that I wasn't such a great parent in my own strength. Only by submitting to the Holy Spirit many times during the day could I accomplish the huge task God had entrusted to me.

You can't parent God's way without God's help. Another parent said, "Pray. It's the most important part of being a parent. It's too big a job to do alone."

One parent said, "When the kids were little I thought I was in control. When the kids got older I thought I'd lost control. When I was listening to God I realized he was in control all the time, and my attempt to control was one of the big problems."

I want to close today by praying for you who are parents, and committing the very important job that you have to the one who is your own heavenly Father, who can give you all the strength that you need.

[PRAYER]

Today, if you would like to come into relationship with the God who wants to be your parent, and how can help you treat your kids the way that he treats his kids, you can do so. He is the Father who never lets his kids down - who graces them, who nourishes them, who gives them everything they need; who disciplines them with his strong and tender love; who forgives them and who leads them. I invite you to pray through the name of Jesus Christ, who died for your sins, to invite God to lead your life from this point on and to forgive your sins.

I want you to pray for God's help in your role as a parent. Thank him for the privilege of parenting, and ask for his help in the one area that you've identified. Commit the action that you want to take this week to him, and ask him for his help.

Father, thank you for the privilege we have of being parents. Thank you that you entrust these little ones to us, and you allow us to shape their lives, to help build their characters, so that they will grow to know that they are loved, that they are valuable, and that they can best live their lives in submission to you and in a relationship with you.

I pray that you would strengthen every parent here today for the task that they have. Help us to treat our kids the same way that you treat your kids. I pray this in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In his name I pray, Amen.

Sacred Marriage (Ephesians 5:21-33)

Good morning! We're in a series called Family - God's Way. We're looking at what the Bible says about our families. We're looking at gender, marriage, singleness, parenting - what the Bible says about having relationships with those closest with us in a way that's closest to what he designed for us. Today we're looking at marriage. If you have your Bibles with you, please open them to Ephesians 5.

Today I want us to look at what Ephesians 5 says about marriage. But I wanted to begin by acknowledging that if you are married, your marriage is probably the most challenging relationship that you will ever have. It's rewarding; it's satisfying. But it's also tough. Marriage is both the hardest and potentially the most satisfying relationship that you will ever have. In fact, only about 1 in 20 - five percent - claim to have happy marriages. If you're one of the 19 out of 20 who isn't in a happy marriage, the good news is that it's possible to change that, and the passage we're going to examine today will help us learn how. This is graduate level Christianity. Somebody has said that the toughest job that you will ever have in this life is to stay happily married, and the good news is that if you can make it in marriage, you'll probably do all right in the other areas of your life.

I'm still learning in this area. I don't have a perfect marriage - mainly because no marriage with me in it will ever come close to perfect. We have difficulties and challenges. We even have fights. It's hard work - but it's worth it. I wouldn't change it for the world.

A couple of weeks ago we looked at gender differences - that God created us male and female. Our gender is a central part of who we are. We also looked at the fact that the relationship between the sexes mirrors, in some way, the relationship that God has with himself in the Trinity. We looked at Genesis to discover that God created us to be a source of joy and longing to the other sex, but because of the Fall, our relationships have become sources of conflict and tension.

Somebody has written, "We must never be naïve enough to think of marriage as a safe harbor from the Fall…The deepest struggles of life will occur in the most primary relationship affected by the Fall: marriage" (Dan Allender and Tremper Longman III). One of the tragedies of the Fall is the way that it's affected our relationships. We will never experience what God designed marriage to be. As good as your marriage is, it will never be everything that God intended it to be, because our relationships have been damaged by our sin. When sin entered the world, it destroyed the potential of our marriages to be everything that they could be. Whatever we will experience now falls short of what our marriage could be.

If you've studied the Bible, you know that Jesus came to undo the effects of the Fall. He did this for us personally - he dealt with our sin problem by dying for our sins so that we could be forgiven and have eternal life. One of the consequences of sin is that we were born into sin, that we have this thing called a sin nature that not only leads us to do wrong, but has separated us from God and condemned us to hell. But Jesus came to undo that damage - to forgive us, to give us new life, to give us peace with God. His free gift is available to everyone.

Jesus didn't just come to change us as individuals. Jesus also changes our relationships. Ephesians 5 describes how living by the Spirit's power changes our marriages. It moves us in three directions that will help return our marriages to what God originally intended for them.

What we're about to read is called a household code. It's a description of our duties within our households as families. It isn't unique to the Bible - the Jewish and pagan religions of that day also had their household codes that described the relationships that they wanted people to have in their families. But what is unique is what the Christian household code says. The Gospel places our relationships on a revolutionary new footing.

The basis of our relationships as Christians is found in Ephesians 5:21: "And further, you will submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." The basis of all our relationships becomes reciprocal submission - to subordinate our rights to the rights of others. We're called to reject self-centeredness and to work for the good of others. It involves deciding about the worth of others - that others are worth so much that we must put their rights ahead of our own rights. It goes completely against the way that we would naturally act. It's only possible by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Then Paul begins to spell out what this means in marriage. Subordinating our rights to each other will move us in three directions - each of which was revolutionary when this passage was first written, and I believe is still revolutionary today. The basis of our relationships as Christians is reciprocal submission - to subordinate or rights to the rights of others. The Gospel moves our marriages in three directions::

1. FROM INEQUALITY TO EQUALITY

Ephesians 5:22-24 says:

You wives will submit to your husbands as you do to the Lord. For a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of his body, the church; he gave his life to be her Savior. As the church submits to Christ, so you wives must submit to your husbands in everything.

This is probably one of the most abused and misunderstood passages in the Bible. When we read this passage, it smacks of hierarchy and male chauvinism. People have misinterpreted this passage to say that women should always be subservient, and that husbands should always make the decisions. Misinterpretations of this passage have led to demeaning attitudes toward women, and sometimes even to abuse. We've placed so much emphasis on the male as the head that we've missed the main point of this passage. What does this passage actually say about the relationship between men and women, between husbands and wives?

When Paul wrote these words, women were viewed very poorly. Attitudes toward women were absolutely awful. One writer said that women were the worst plague Zeus ever made. Another said, "The two best days in a woman's life are when someone marries her and when he carries her dead body to the grave." In the Jewish religion, women were not counted in the quorum needed for the synagogue. One Jewish rabbi said, "Do not talk much with a woman." Another rabbi added, "Not even with one's wife."

Women in that day were viewed as inferior, and were given very little freedom. They could not act as witnesses in court, could not adopt children or make a contract, and could not own property or inherit. The philosopher Aristotle and the historian Josephus both said that women were, in all respects, inferior to a man. They were seen as less intelligent, less moral, the source of sin, and a continual temptation.

It's in that context that the apostle Paul wrote in Galatians 3:28, "There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. For you are all Christians-you are one in Christ Jesus." To say such a thing was scandalous at the time. Jesus has destroyed the inequality between the sexes. In a day in which women had few rights, Paul taught that women had freedom of religion - that they didn't have to automatically take their husband's religion (1 Corinthians 7:15). He gave them equality in the sexual area of their relationships in 1 Corinthians 7:3-4:

The husband should not deprive his wife of sexual intimacy, which is her right as a married woman, nor should the wife deprive her husband. The wife gives authority over her body to her husband, and the husband also gives authority over his body to his wife.

That women were allowed to meet together in a house for worship and share the Lord's Supper, and to have men give up their rights to their wives, would have been seen as revolutionary, even scandalous in that day.

There are a few reasons I think that this pass age is teaching equality between husbands and wives. The first is the underlying principle of this passage - that we are to "submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Ephesians 5:21). You can't understand this passage until you understand that both husbands and wives are to submit to each other. Marriage is about a wife giving up her rights to her husband, and putting his rights ahead of hers - but it's equally about a husband submitting to his wife, and putting her needs and interests ahead of his. It's a relationship of mutual or equal submission.

Another reason is because what Paul wrote in this household code was completely different from what you would read in any other household code of the time. What is shocking to us today is that Paul calls the women to do - to submit. For the original readers, what would have been shocking is what Paul said to men. It would have been seen as radical and strange. He does call women to submit, but he doesn't call men to lead or to rule, but to love. Paul pushes the boundaries for men by not just focusing on the responsibilities of the wives, as other codes did, but on the responsibilities of husbands. This was unheard of.

We live in a day in which women have many more rights than back then. But it may be that some of us still carry attitudes and behaviors that see the man as superior and the woman as subservient in a marriage. Jesus calls us away from inequality and into a relationship of equality in our marriages. That doesn't mean that men and women are identical in a marriage - they aren't. Men and women are wonderfully different. But they're equal. One isn't more privileged or authoritative than the other. Jesus calls us to see each other - both men and women - as different and yet completely equal, and to submit to each other out of reverence to Christ. The gender wars began at the Fall, but they end at the cross of Jesus Christ.

The Gospel moves our marriages in a second direction:

2. FROM EQUALITY TO SUBMISSION

Jesus moves us from inequality to equality, but he doesn't leave us there. He moves us even further away from equality to something even better. He moves us to submission. Our society emphasizes equality, but mutual submission is a much stronger idea. With equality, you still have a battle of rights. You can have equality without love. But Christ calls us to something more - to a relationship of mutual submission, in which we give up our rights and love the other person. Mutual submission is love in action.

Ephesians 5:22 says, "You wives will submit to your husbands as you do to the Lord." Many of us know this verse so well that we miss what it says. It doesn't say that wives must obey their husbands. It doesn't say that wives must serve their husbands. It doesn't say that men have a right to demand submission from their wives. It does say that women are called to submit to their husbands, because submission is the basis of all Christian relationships.

Verses 23-24 say, "For a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of his body, the church; he gave his life to be her Savior. As the church submits to Christ, so you wives must submit to your husbands in everything." There's been a lot of debate over what it means for the husband to be the head of his wife, but Paul gives us an important clue. He doesn't define headship as authority. It doesn't call men to be the boss. In fact, boss isn't even a Christian term.

Headship isn't about being boss; it's about self-giving love. It's about helping our wives to become the very best women that they can be. It's about loving our wives the same way that Jesus loves the church. How does Jesus act as the head of the church? By providing for its needs. By dying for it. By giving up his rights for the good of the church. That's what husbands are called to - not to being a boss, but to be a servant.

Verse 25 says, "And you husbands must love your wives with the same love Christ showed the church." Paul didn't ask the husbands to rule or to lead their wives. He asked them to love their wives. We take the concept of love for granted today, but back then, this would have been radical. Husbands were expected to provide food and shelter for their wives, and nothing else. They were free to do as they pleased. But Paul changes the picture. He tells them that instead of being guided by their self-interests, he is to place the well-being of his wife first, and to give himself to caring for her. It elevates our love to the highest standard of love possible - to the love that Jesus Christ has for the church.

In essence, men are being asked to switch from a position of privilege which they enjoyed in that society, to a position of submission to their wives. They're being asked to move even beyond the radical idea of equality to the idea of subordination - that a husband puts his wife's rights and welfare before his own. Men are called to express to their wives the love of God that's been expressed to the church. Verse 28 goes even further. In a society in which women were seen as property, Paul says, "In the same way, husbands ought to love their wives as they love their own bodies. For a man is actually loving himself when he loves his wife." So intimate is the relationship between a man and a woman that it's like they become a single entity. For a man to love his wife is to love himself. She's an extension of him - part of himself. He's called to love her and to give up his rights for her.

Ephesians 5:33 concludes, "So again I say, each man must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband." I happened to marry somebody very different from myself. I don't think any marriage is completely easy, but some are easier than others. Because we are so different, and because people are naturally self-centered, it's a constant battle to put this into practice. I don't want to submit. I don't want to put her welfare above my own.

But that's the beauty of marriage. It continually pulls me away from making myself the center of my universe. It calls me out of the shallowness of my ego into the depths of relationship. It reminds me that I am most myself when I lose myself in service to another. Marriage, like God, abhors self-centeredness, and calls me to something deeper, richer, more satisfying. I will be held accountable one day for how much I've given up for my wife so that I could love her, and bring out the best in her. Jesus calls me from thinking I'm superior to seeing my wife as an equal, and then he calls me from seeing her as an equal to seeing myself as her servant; to loving her as Jesus loves the church.

The Gospel moves us in a third direction. It moves us:

3. FROM INTERPERSONAL TO DIVINE

Your marriage is not just a relationship between you and another person. Our marriages are a reflection of God's love. We act the way we do in our relationships "out of reverence to Christ…as you do to the Lord…with the same love Christ showed the church" (Ephesians 5:22-25). Our marriage relationship is a reflection of the relationship that God has with himself in the Trinity. It's a reflection of the love that Jesus Christ has for the church. Marriage isn't just a relationship with two people; it's a reflection of the divine.

Somebody has said, "No other relationship so mirrors God's relation with us and his purpose for us. The marriage relation is the most revealing of who we really are, and for those who are married, it is the primary relationship for discipleship [Christian growth]" (Klyne Snodgrass). God has a deeper purpose for your marriage than your happiness, and that is your holiness. "Our marriages are the testing ground for God to win us to himself. Our marriages are basic training for the one Marriage that will not disappoint" (Dan Allender and Tremper Longman III).

Ephesians 5:31-32 says, "As the Scriptures say, 'A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.' This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one." If you're married, you have the privilege of mirroring the tremendous and profound relationship that Jesus has with the church. The love of Christ changes everything, including your marriage. You've been called to the highest form of relationship possible - an imitation of the divine love. You've been called to a sacred marriage.

Years ago, a man who lived from 580 to 662 with the name Maximus the Confessor said that the love we have for God and the love we have for others are not two distinct loves, but "two aspects of a single total love." Maximus was right. The great thing is that we get to practice this love no matter what our spouse is like - whether they choose to cooperate or not.

I don't know anybody who lives up to what this passage says. I know that I don't. But I do know it's not too late. I do know that for those of us who are married, we get to wake up every day and live up to the high calling of the deepest, most intimate human relationship that we will ever experience. We get to wake up every day and forgive our spouses and submit to them and to love them as Christ loved the church. It's not easy -but it's worth it.

As we close today, I want to address those of us who are married, who know what their marriages could and should be, but you've fallen short. It's not what it could be. I don't know all the reasons, but you realize that despite your spouse's flaws, you haven't lived up to your end. You want to make changes today - to move from inequality to equality, from equality to submission. You want to mirror the divine relationship that Jesus has with the church.

Some practical steps you can take: First, say sorry. When my wife gets home tonight, I've got some apologizing to do. In getting ready for today, I kept on realizing that I had let her down - that I haven't been close to the husband that she deserves.

The other week we had a disagreement. I'm not even sure whose fault it was completely. I think both of us were to blame. But in the middle of the disagreement, she broke down, and I could tell that she was feeling a hurt that went much deeper than the disagreement we were having that moment. As she expressed something that I tend to do that hurts her, I realized that she was right. It may be that we have to go home today and profoundly apologize for letting our wives down, for letting our husbands down. One of the healthiest things you can do is to apologize - not to focus on what they've done wrong, but to acknowledge the ways that you've hurt the relationship.

Second, ask for help. Sometimes we act as if marriage is supposed to be easy. It's not. Even in the best marriage, you will still occasionally look at your spouse after many, many years of marriage and see a stranger - sometimes a complete stranger. Even the best marriage partner will occasionally vacillate between separateness and involvement. Marriage is rigorous and demanding. As I said earlier, the toughest job you will ever have in your life is to stay happily married. It's not supposed to be easy. If you find it easy, you are extraordinarily blessed, because the rest of us have to work at it.

What I'm trying to say is this: there's no shame in admitting that you don't have it all together. There's no shame in getting help for a marriage that's wobbly. I want to be part of a church in which we can admit to our struggles - that we don't have it all together. I want to be able to admit that I continually mess up my marriage, that sometimes I need help. We need to be honest with ourselves and with others about our struggles. If you need help, we can refer you to a Christian counselor. If the cost is an issue, we can even help there. You can fill out the communication card and just write down, "I need counseling in this area." There's no shame in asking for help.

The last thing I would like to do today is to pray for your marriages. I'd invite everyone to participate in one of two ways. I'm going to pray for a few different areas. As I pray, if you would like me to pray for you in that area, I'd invite you to stand to say, "Yes, I'd like prayer in that area." I'd also invite you to join me in praying for those around you.

"So again I say, each man must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband." (Ephesians 5:33)

Father, there is no relationship on earth with the potential for good than our marriages, but there is also no relationship on earth that can drastically miss what you intend it to be. Today, Father, we want to elevate our marriages - to recognize that they're a union of two equals, that we have the privilege of submitting to each other, that we have the privilege of mirroring your Son's love for the church. Thank you for the privilege of this mysterious, intense, demanding relationship that has so much potential for good or for evil.

I want you to join me in praying for those who have messed up. There may be people here with deep regrets over mistakes they've made in their marriages. It may even be that there are some here whose marriages are only a shell of what they could be. They may have to go home and make things right, even to go for help. Would you pray for strength for them this morning - that they would do what God wants them to do.

There may be some today who have been deeply wounded by their husband, by their wife. There may be some here who have experienced the pain of an affair, of abuse, of some deep wound in their marriage, from the pain of divorce. Would you pray for God's comfort for them today.

For those who are newly married, or for those who are about to get married, would you pray for them, that their marriage would have God's blessing, that they would follow God's will for their marriages.

Father, none of this is possible without the saving work of your Son. Thank you that he came to earth to undo the effects of sin - to not only forgive our sins, but to transform our relationships. Thank you that you are the leader, the forgiver, the re-creator of our lives.

In the name of the one who died for our sins, who is ready to forgive and to give eternal life, who is able to transform broken relationships and to heal broken hearts, in the name of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.