Alone

According to Wikipedia St. Valentine’s Day was first associated with romantic love around the time of Geoffrey Chaucer, in the early fourteenth century. I was planning on making some cynical comments about what it’s become since then, but that’s not the purpose of this message. If you have a partner, and if you want to share romantic moments with your loved one today, go for it, and God bless you.

But my thoughts today are for people like me, who are alone, and who don’t like it. I’m alone. Often it gets me down. Sometimes it’s hard to bear.

Some people, and I’m thinking particularly of Christians, will tell you it’s all right to be alone. They might even say that it’s good, because you don’t have to dedicate time to your partner and your family, so you can dedicate even more time to God. For some, that’s true, I’m sure.

And some people will extend that argument and tell you how great it is that without the shackles of a relationship you are free to do good works for God and for people. You can devote yourself to mission work and great Kingdom causes. For some, that’s true too.

Some people will tell you not to obsess over finding ‘the one’, not to turn that search into your mission, and not to turn the object of your search into an idol. Wise words, certainly.

You will often be told that ‘relationship’ is not just about the romance that leads to marriage, that you should treasure your family and friends, your church family and wider community. You will be told that these relationships are where you can offer, and experience, real love. Yes, yes, we know that love has many forms of expression, and yes, we want to love our neighbours, and our enemies, of course we do.

And then comes the killer blow: “Isn’t Jesus enough for you?”

Wow. Just wow.

Don’t get me wrong, singleness is right for some people. And there will most likely be seasons of life when it’s right for each of us. Paul, a single man, has a lot to say about singleness (and marriage) in 1 Corinthians 7, and he touches on several of the arguments I’ve just listed. But he isn’t entirely dogmatic about it. Indeed he says in verse 7, “I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.”

If, like me, you don’t believe your singleness is a gift from God, then it can be difficult to hear some of the (usually) well-meaning platitudes like those mentioned above. I want to reassure you that you’re not the only one who feels like this. And I have responses to those statements.

First, is it good to be alone? God doesn’t think so.

The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’ (Genesis 2:18)

It’s the first time in the story of creation that something is not good. Don’t be fooled by the word ‘helper’ and think that somehow God just wants people to help each other out, to be friends, and somehow this will make things good. No, Genesis continues to describe the union between Adam and Eve, the first marriage, referred to by Jesus in Matthew 19, and thus held up as an example by church leaders ever since. If singleness suits you, good for you, but if it doesn’t then know that God understands your pain.

What about the work you can do for God as a single person? Yes, you can do much, but consider Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. He talks about the qualifications and character of those who lead the church, and a faithful marriage is mentioned several times, not as an instruction that elders and deacons must be married, but certainly confirming that marriage is no bar to such a position. And there is no pattern anywhere in the Bible to suggest that God’s work was done better, or more often, by single men and women. Couples can certainly do mission together, and the support they can offer each other will be invaluable. If they are blessed with children, then their priorities will change, but raising children is precious work in itself.

Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.
They are a garland to grace your head and a chain to adorn your neck. (Proverbs 1:8-9)

To make an idol of anything, including the search for a partner, is clearly a big mistake. I would never argue otherwise. I would just say this – to honestly desire something that is good is not to idolise it. So don’t unquestioningly accept such an assertion from others, especially others who have that one thing that you lack, and who don’t necessarily understand, or remember, what that lack feels like. Instead, guard your heart (Proverbs 4), bringing your needs to God and trusting Him through the hard times. You can find a helpful article about guarding your heart here

Your life will be richer if you can enjoy all kinds of relationships. That’s undeniable. Friends, family, colleagues, neighbours, fellow believers, they all have something great to offer, and you have something great to offer them too. But equally undeniable is that there is another kind of relationship, one that Paul describes as a kind of reflection of that between Christ and His church in Ephesians 5. Think about it. What would the church be without Christ? Doesn’t that tell you something about the power and the value of this most intimate of relationships?

But isn’t Jesus enough? Isn’t that actually a God-shaped hole that you’re trying to fill?

Go back again to Genesis, when the man was alone. This was the time when, as described in Genesis 3, the Lord would walk in the Garden in the cool of the day. Whether or not you take Genesis literally, it’s clear that in God’s eyes, even His own immediate presence is not enough to satisfy our desires in this world. Complete intimacy with another human being, “bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh,” is a basic human need, like food and shelter. If you are without food or shelter do you just ignore that want? Do you tell yourself that your cold and hunger aren’t important because Jesus is enough? No! You trust in the Lord to provide, but you also do your part to make it happen.

Some people might say there’s a difference, that human intimacy doesn’t have the same immediate priority as protecting your physical well-being. But we are starting to understand the weakness of that argument. We are starting to see that emotional well-being is just as important, and its deprivation can be just as deadly as physical damage.

And if you have any doubt about how important the church considers intimate relationships, just think of the amount of time and energy it spends arguing with society and within itself about the rights and wrongs of all aspects of marriage and sexuality.

So this is my message to you, if you’re alone, and like me, you’re not ok with that. My message is that it’s ok to not be ok with that. I pray that you’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit, and that you will be able to patiently endure the loneliness while you trust for God’s provision.

If you feel blessed to be single, then you are, and that’s wonderful. But if you don’t, then don’t feel guilty for desiring, and seeking, a partner. And take comfort in the knowledge that, in one respect at least, you are not alone.

Who Do You Blame For The Fall?

…so the reason is first the fall, and then free will… why we live in a broken world…

I bit my tongue. First, because it may have been an unintended slip. Second, because it wasn’t the main point of the conversation and I didn’t want to go off on a tangent. Third, and if I’m honest, most pressing, I prefer to avoid conflict. It’s a bit nonsensical sometimes, like on this occasion, when a minor disagreement or correction would hardly lead to world war three, but there it is – I know I need to work on my assertiveness. But the statement gnawed away at me, and so I’ll take this opportunity discuss some of the thoughts I have on the subject.

The first point, which I hope is uncontroversial, is that free will came first. That’s just simple logic. If we didn’t have free will then more or less sixty four and a half books of the Bible would not have been written, and you would have looked at the title of this post and wondered “what fall?”

But that’s not how the world worked out, and so we’re left to contemplate the cause and effects of the fall. And this is where my problems start, because of statements like the following one, which is from the Wikipedia entry on “original sin” but reflects quite a broad understanding:

Original sin, also called ancestral sin, is a Christian belief of the state of sin in which humanity exists since the fall of man, stemming from Adam and Eve’s rebellion in Eden, namely the sin of disobedience in consuming the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The key phrase is “…stemming from Adam and Eve’s rebellion…” It’s just too easy for us to unthinkingly blame Adam and/or Eve for the fall, and hence for every aspect of this broken world. Genesis 3:16-19 seems to provide scriptural support for that view. But let’s be honest about this. If it wasn’t Adam and Eve in the Garden, if it was you, or me, or your favourite preacher or worship leader, whoever was there would have fallen. And if we’re overly generous to ourselves and believe that we would have been smart or strong enough to resist the serpent’s first temptation, we would have fallen for the second, or the third…

Because, lest we forget, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) And we should also remember that the blaming of Eve for the initial transgression has led to untold (and ridiculous) misogyny in the church and the wider world over the millennia.

No, we should not blame Adam, or Eve, but instead reflect on the fact that this is who we are: fallen, and falling, and as Christians we spend our lives trying to gradually fall less often and less far.

This is what I’ve thought for a long time, but I would always find myself troubled when I thought about Romans 5:12-21, where Adam and sin are juxtaposed with Christ and righteousness. I’ve now found peace in this passage, which I can try to explain to you here, but bear in mind that this – like much of Paul’s writing – is packed with meaning, and I’m only scratching at the surface for the purpose of this post. By the way, I’m looking at the NIV. Translations matter when it comes to examining individual words, but for now, until I become a scholar of Biblical Greek, I’ll trust that the NIV gives a fairly sound representation of Paul’s argument.

In verse 12, we are told “…sin entered the world through one man…” At first I thought this contradicted my understanding, until I focused on the word “through” – not “because of” but “through”. As I said above, sin would have inevitably entered the world, sooner rather than later, unless God had chosen to create robots rather than human beings. But no, by His grace we were given free will, and not only did that throw up options of obedience or disobedience, it also made possible all those other wonderful gifts, like surprise, and joy, and love. And yes, the other things too, but they have their place. As one of my favourite sayings goes, “Lands that know only sunshine and no rain become deserts. Life too is like that.”

As I said, there’s plenty to get our teeth into throughout this passage, but I’ll skip ahead to verse 19, where a potential theological hurdle is expressed very clearly. “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.”

I have convinced myself that because sin only came “through” the disobedience of Adam, we can’t blame him for our own sin, it’s just a consequence of how we were created. But then how do I reconcile this with righteousness coming “through” the obedience of Jesus Christ? Doesn’t that suggest that we can’t praise or thank Jesus for righteousness? If it didn’t come through Him then would it have come anyway as another consequence of creation?

No, because the man that righteousness came “through” was the “fully human” Jesus, but it came “by” the grace of the “fully divine” Jesus. See verse 15, as well as Hebrews 2:14-18 and Colossians 1:15-20.

So who do you blame for the fall? Who should you blame? The devil, in the form of the serpent? Loathe as I am to let him off the hook, he was also permitted to act as he did, just as he was in the book of Job. So if you want to point the finger somewhere, you might look at versus such as John 1:3 and Isaiah 45:7, and point towards God.  In fact, personally, I think the question of who or what to blame is the wrong one. I think the purpose of Genesis 3, one of its purposes at least, is to hold a mirror up to ourselves and remind us of many things: who we are, what freedom means and what are its consequences, Who sustains and covers us, who deceives us. It’s a deep, rich picture of where we belong in God’s universe, and a reminder of Who we belong to – a humbling and beautiful picture.