In our chat around the coffee machine the other morning, Karen told me about her reading of The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce by Judith Wallenstein.
I read the story of someone whose name was Karen, as it happens,said Karen, although that probably wasn’t her real name. Anyway, after her parents’ marriage fell apart, her mother basically just collapsed. And Karen was forced into the role of looking after everyone. She basically became mum, and looked after all her siblings and ran the house. Eventually she became a teacher specializing in kids with learning difficulties. It was natural to her. And then of course she married this guy who was completely dependent on her. Apparently this is quite a common pattern among children of divorce.
I’m just wondering, said Karen. With someone like Karen, does it do her any good to come to church and hear a sermon about sacrifice, and laying down your life for others? Doesn’t it just reinforce a behaviour pattern that for her has become unhealthy?
The answer, of course, is that a lacerating sermon on commitment and sacrifice is probably not what Karen (the italicized one, I mean) needs to hear. She’s lacerated enough already. She’s more in need of a reminder about justification by faith—that Jesus has already done all the sacrificing that is necessary. We can’t sacrifice our way into God’s favour. When we rest—as we need to—we are adding our own passive exclamation mark to what Jesus has already achieved.
And I would probably also want the over-committed, self-immolating Karen to be taught about God’s sovereignty. He can do everything; we cannot. In view of his sovereignty, when we have done all that we can reasonably do, we should remove our supposedly indispensable selves to the lounge and take a chill pill (as my teenage daughter puts it).
But what if Karen’s church doesn’t preach much on these things? She should find a church that does—a church, in other words, that works its way through the Bible, allowing the full light of the Bible’s teaching, in all its facets, to shine into the nooks and crannies of our lives.
The wonderful thing about the Bible is that it addresses reality—in both its simplicity and complexity. Its moral demand on us is, in one sense, simple and universal: love God and love your neighbour. No-one is exempt from this, and no-one has a higher obligation than anyone else. It’s a truth that addresses every one of us identically. And yet the landscape in which we live out this singular command is complex and varied, and as individuals we are complex and varied. To speak the language of ethics, the moral field that confronts us is pluriform.
The Bible recognizes this. It speaks pastorally to different circumstances—giving a rocket to the lukewarm in one passage, and sweet assurance to the tender conscience in another; requiring us to stand out as godly beacons of difference in one instance, and to give way in all-things-to-all-men flexibility in another; condemning the futility of works-based righteousness in one place, and the foolish presumption of faith-without-works in another.
This is why we must read all of the Bible, and preach all of the Bible. It is also why preachers must work hard in their application of each text, showing how its truth applies to different circumstances, personalities and spiritual conditions. I suspect some of our evangelical forebears—notably the Puritans—were rather better at this than we are today.
First published in The Briefing #343 April 2007.