Making Commitments & Breaking Commitments

Commitment has become less common, but it hasn't become less essential to the Christian faith.

Our annual Youth Confirmation Sunday is coming up.  With several hours of catching up on correcting homework for Youth Confirmation classes yesterday, it gave me the chance to think more about the issue of commitment for Christians and commitment (or the lack thereof) that we see in our world today in general.  Commitment is an important part of the Christian faith and is gradually becoming a less important value in our world, and the widening gap would seemingly only hurt Christianity.  So it’s probably worthwhile for us to understand it better and figure out how to deal with it. 

Let’s start with an obvious application question: is 14 years old too young for someone to make a committed faith statement about what they believe in life and are dedicated to?  Well, think about this: what are the other “major decisions” of life and what general ages do we expect them to occur.   Typically, the two other main choices you’ll make in life are 1) what do I want to do for a living?, and 2) who do I want to marry?

The average age for both of those decisions has noticeably risen in the past 50 years in our country.  College students today, on average, change their major at least three times.  In addition, significantly more students are getting graduate degrees than ever before.  All of this delays the age at which people technically have to be committed to a specific profession.  And even that doesn’t ensure that someone will stick with a single job, as most statistics seem to indicate that many are still inclined to switch careers in their life (on average, 3 or 4 times). 

Likewise, when it comes to marriage, in 1960, the median age for a man was 23 years old and the median age for a woman was 20 years old.  As of 2007, the average age for a person to first say “I do” was 27.5 for a man and 25.5 for a woman, with consistent rises every decade.  The fact that Americans so closely are influenced by the life timeline trends of one another should probably indicate to us that marriage doesn’t appear to be as much “I’ve finally found ‘the one'” as it is simply “when I want to.”  And even though a vastly increasing number of these couples now live together before marriage, where they think it’ll help them get a better determination of compatibility, an even greater percentage of those who live together before marriage actually get divorced when they finally get married than those who don’t live together prior to marriage.  The logic is fairly simple: the type of person who, on the basis of their own personal morals, is willing to openly have a sexual relationship with someone prior to marriage and announce that to the world, is consistently the same type of person whose morals allow them to be more “okay” with the idea of getting a divorce. 

Bottom line in all of this is that it’s all an issue of WHO or WHAT we’re willing to commit to in life.  Americans are becoming more and more noncommittal.  What impact do you think that has on the Christian faith?  What impact does that have on Christian practices like Christian Confirmation? 

Let’s start with the “WHY” of poor commitment practices:

1) information overload

One complicating factor in commitment today is that we’ve never had more options in life.  Information is being thrown at us at unprecedented rates as the 20th century spawned the information era.  Did you know that sociologists suggest that if you went back 50 or more years, the world’s knowledge base (that’s the average amount of information that a normal person has in their brain at one time) doubled every 50 years or so.  Nowadays, the world’s knowledge base supposedly doubles less than every 2 years.  We have tons of information to sort through in our heads and in our lives, unlike any time in the history of the world. 

All this info leads us to feeling like we can never really become confident in decisions because we’re aware that there is so much information out there and we never know if we have enough good info to make a wise choice.  We’d like to trust “experts” but everyone claims to be an expert.  10 different s experts with PhDs in nutrition can tell you 10 different ways to lose weight.  10 different experts certified in finance may tell you 10 different tips to become a millionaire.  We don’t know who or what to trust, so it takes us much longer to make the “right” decision. 

2) openness to immorality

In the post “Sex & the City” world in which we live, young women are too easy, plain and simple.  That might not sound like a fair statement, but statistics indicate clearly that the price it takes to have sex with the average woman has dropped measurably over the years.  You can blame it on the sexual revolution or the women’s liberation movement or whatever else, but it’s a reality.  Women in our country have more leadership in more workplaces and more organizations than ever before, but some negative fallout from the pursuit to empowerment and taking over the “man’s world” is that many women have adopted some traditionally male moral weaknesses, almost as though it merely comes with the territory.  Does this let guys off the hook?  No way.  I’ll be one of the first on the “men need to repent and ‘man up’ for leadership” band wagon.  But men have been consistently poor in this particular area of morality historically.  Women are the ones who have taken the step backwards, who have been willing to compromise their once-sacred purity. 

Now granted, there’s a number of other factors as well.  Hi-speed digital pornography has cheapened sex so much that many men opt for it as an easier alternative to trying to invest themselves in a real relationship that requires feelings and sacrifice and energy.  Many would argue that birth control perhaps cheapens the concept of what sex is.  And that all may very well be true.  The reality, however, is this: If women, who historically (fairly or unfairly) have been better at playing defense here would simply choose to hold their ground, even if it does mean seeing several jerks walk away, those average ages for marriage would immediately drop.  The later ages for marriage today aren’t about “finding the right person” or “planning the perfect wedding” or “waiting till we’re financially set” or anything else as much as it’s about what designed-for-marriage, God-given gift they’ve  been willing to give away free of charge. 

Maybe you remember your grandmother saying something to you regarding “no one’s going to buy the cow when they can get the milk for free.”  Alright, so as awful and distastefully objectifying as grandma’s analogy was on a variety of levels, she knew what she was talking about.  Our increased immorality has killed our sense of commitment.  (For more on this, check out Sex is Cheap)

3) fear of responsibility and failure

As mentioned, men are just as much (or more) to blame as women when it comes to America’s commitment phobia.  Part of the reason is that we’re terrified to fail in front of everyone.  Our egos are incredibly fragile.  The thought process works like this: If I don’t ever sign up, if I don’t ever get in the game, then I can’t ever fail.  Whereas women are wired for relationship, men are wired for accomplishment.  I see this all the time when I ask someone about their life.  Women will tell you about their family.  Men will start talking about their work.  It isn’t right or wrong inherently, mostly just a product of God’s designed gender variation.

For many men, choosing a marriage partner or a profession or committing to anything in life is like locking in to a case on Deal Or No Deal…”What if the next case has 10,000 more dollars in it?!”  They refuse to connect to something for fear that something better might come along and in doing so, many young men refuse to grow up.  Part of the reason why we’re sometimes such bad husbands, boyfriends, fathers, workers, teammates, and spiritual leaders is that we’re so self-involved and pride hungry, that if we don’t see something as generating immediate respect that massages our fragile egos, we don’t deem it as “worth it.”  Spiritual guidance, serving others, and patience just won’t bring us the trophies and notoriety and respect that make us look good in the eyes of others.  So in a world that puts a premium on SportsCenter highlights, “doing the right thing” or “a job well done” simply isn’t going to appeal much to most men.   

Sometimes this is labeled as “laziness” in men.  While that’s partially true, the reality is that most men are willing to work incredibly hard if they think that the work they put in will directly result in the respect that they crave.  If this world doesn’t highly respect faithfulness, commitment, and spiritual leadership, don’t expect droves of men to get in line. 

In summary, some of the reasons that people today are afraid to commit are because 1) we aren’t very confident that we can make right decisions, 2) the world lets us get away without committing (while still receiving the pleasure we desire), and 3) we don’t want a commitment we make to turn into hard work that doesn’t earn respect from people. 

What does God say about commitment? 

Jesus was very clear concerning commitment, he said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40).  Jesus made it simple.  Your greatest commitment in life is to God.  Many people say they are committed to God.  Talk is very cheap though.  If you aren’t willing to get out of bed for God, let alone give up your life, you’re probably not that committed.  If you’re not willing to regularly give an offering to further proclaim the gospel message, let alone give up all your wealth to follow Jesus (cf. Matt. 19:16-24), you’re probably not that committed.  If you’re not willing to alter your lifestyle, let alone have difficult conversations that might jeopardize your relationships, you’re probably not that committed.  Saying you believe in God and committing yourself to that God in your relationship to his Son Jesus by following his teachings are two very different and distant concepts. 

Your second greatest commitment in life is to others.  The usual way the Bible highlights the flow of human relationships is to family, then to faith community, then to others in the world.  But often we Christians don’t seem to be better at selflessly cultivating these relationships any more than anyone else in life.  It’s clear that God desires for us to make and keep thoughtful commitments to him and to others, but how do we get better at it?

If possible, sometime soon read the short Old Testament book of Ruth.  Read Ruth and become like Ruth.  The book of Ruth records God’s providential hand over a widowed Moabite woman whose faith in God and extraordinary character caused a guy named Boaz to fall in love with her and redeem her life so that Jesus the Redeemer could be born through them.

Ruth had lost her Jewish husband in the country of Moab.  Her mother-in-law, Naomi, told her to go find another husband.  Yet Ruth had become so enamored with the Jewish God (the true God in the Old Testament), that she didn’t want to do anything that might forfeit that relationship (i.e. relationship with God was priority #1).  In addition, she had grown attached to Naomi, loved her more than she loved herself, and knew that Naomi needed care provided for her as well (i.e. relationship to other loved family and believers was priority #2).  So, Ruth travelled with Naomi to a foreign land where she knew almost no one.  She was committed to her God first and to another second.  She put her own pleasure and comfort after those priorities.  How did God bless that?  He had a wealthy man named Boaz pursue her and go to fairly significant lengths to marry her.   And this couple became descendants of the Savior. 

Jesus also came from his home of comfort to a foreign place, one of fear and discomfort and sin.  Why would he do that?  It was all so that he could , like Boaz, buy us back.  But the price he would pay was his own blood.  He was that committed to us.  In fact, God made a commitment back in the Garden of Eden that he would destroy the devil’s work.  He went through hell to keep that commitment.  And his commitment nullified the harsh consequences of a very fearful, immoral, prideful, and noncommittal people.  We learn from him.

Christians make commitments and they keep commitments in life.  They do this because commitment is right in step with other godly virtues like faithfulness, generosity, responsibility, accountability, etc.  They’re all in the recipe of godly people.  Christians make commitments to God and to one another confidently, because they understand it’s in line with God’s will, that God blesses his will, and that they have a God who is eternally committed to them who will see them through their commitments.

What Most Christians Don’t Know About “Church” and How It’s Hurting Us Right Now – Part IV – The Message of the Church

There were a number of directions I thought about going for the final part in this series.  We could certainly talk more about the history of the Christian sermon or the history of Christian music or Church finances or varied approaches to Christian education.  But with one week left, I’d like to address what I think is a bigger and more fundamental issue in the Christian world at large – our approach to reading, understanding, and using Scripture.

As Jesus was entering into his public ministry he began by going through a 40-day testing period out in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13).  Satan did everything he could to get our Savior to crack, but Jesus wouldn’t succumb.  Interestingly, one of the ways that Satan, the great deceiver, tried to lure Jesus into sinning was by ripping none other than God’s own words out of their original context, using them to promote his own agenda.  This is called “proof-texting” (and has nothing to do with what young people do on their cell phones :)).

In this particular instance, Satan took Jesus to the highest point of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and told Jesus to throw himself off of it, since after all, God did say in Psalm 91:11-12 “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”  In other words, Satan is suggesting that since God has promised that he’s going to watch over you, you have nothing to worry about and you can live your life as carelessly and haphazardly as you’d like.  Wisely, Jesus, used Scripture that coincided with its original context to refute Satan’s challenge.  He said, “It (the Bible) says: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”  (Deuteronomy 6:16).

Proof-texting is still an issue today, often presented by churches to promote their mentality or theology.  Here’s just one example:  In the mid-1800s, a guy by the name of John Nelson Darby promoted teachings that are called dispensationalism and pretribulational rapture that are tenets of modern millenialist beliefs.  To arrive at such teachings, he used the method of proof-texting.  Millenialism is ultimately based on one section of difficult apocalyptic literature.  In Revelation chapter 20:1-10, John writes about an angel coming from heaven and binding Satan for 1000 years.  There is NOTHING in the rest of Scripture that suggests a literal thousand-year reign of Christ on earth to usher in the end of the world.  And no one is ready to take all of the rest of the numbers of Revelation literalistically (e.g. the 144,000 believers in heaven).  Nonetheless, this teaching, formed by ripping one section of Scripture out of its context and divorcing it from the rest of what the Bible has to say, is the basis for how approximately half of American Christians believe the end of the world is going to look.  Do you doubt the power of proof-texting?  The Left Behind series, written by Tim LaHaye, which is a fictional tale promoting this millenialist doctrine has sold more than 65 million copies, making it one of the most successful Christian books/series of all time.

So much corruption can come from not understanding the Bible in terms of the context in which it was originally written.  And to be honest, we don’t always make it easy for good-intentioned Christians to understand what their Bibles are saying.  Let me explain.

Most conservative Christians understand that their Bibles are inspired by God.  We call this “Verbal Inspiration” (2 Peter 1:21; 2 Tim 3:16).  But did you know that there is nothing technically inspired about the order of the books of Scripture?

The Apostle Paul wrote about two-thirds of the New Testament, 13 letters over the course of about twenty-years.  Any idea how they are ordered in your Bible?  Most Christians wouldn’t be able to come up with the correct answer: length.  Nobody orders the books in their home this way.  Typically we do so alphabetically.  We’d also probably assume that since the New Testament is a bigger narrative, the books would probably be arranged chronologically.  Not the case.  Starting with Romans and ending with Philemon, Paul’s New Testament letters are arranged from longest to shortest, the way ancient Greco-Roman literature was usually ordered.  According to the best available scholarship, the New Testament should probably rather be ordered  Galatians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Romans, Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 Timothy, Titus, 2 Timothy.

Now maybe you’re saying, “What’s the big deal?”  Well, it’s only a big deal if it’s clouding the originally intended message from God.  If we don’t know the circumstances surrounding Paul’s letters (or any book of the Bible for that matter) – who they were written to, what those individuals were struggling with, what occasioned it’s writing, we might not grasp what the Holy Spirit (through the writer) is seeking to communicate.  Worse yet, we might make some false assumptions that aren’t entirely accurate or are downright misleading.

How many times haven’t we heard people reference Matthew 7 and it’s “don’t judge” message as reasoning for tolerating someone else’s sinful lifestyle, when Matthew 7 is not at all promoting permissiveness towards sin.  How many times haven’t we heard Philippians 4:13 and it’s “I can do all things through him who gives me strength” message used as encouragement for worldly success when in reality Paul is talking about contentment despite at times a lack of worldly success.  Passages like John 10:10 and its “full life” message have been used by prosperity theologians in recent years to support their appealing teaching that God is going to make you wealthier and more prosperous on the basis of how strong your faith is.  I mentioned last week how Ephesians 4:11 often gets used to defend the modern “offices” of pastor and teacher as mandated by God.   I’ve heard passages about “bringing tithes” misused to encourage offerings or “building a temple to the Lord” misused to encourage project fundraising.  We could go on and on like this.  Proof-texting is very, very easy to do.  We’ve all, at some point, under the temptation of Satan, used some isolated knowledge of God’s Word to rationalize behavior that supports our own agenda.  Jesus certainly forgives us for this.  But it’s our goal to grow beyond this dangerous approach to the message of Scripture.

Proof-texting is made easier, again, by the way the Bible is set up by man.  In all honesty, I’m very thankful that the Bible is set up according to chapters and verses.  It makes it that much easier to reference, like addresses giving us directions so that we can all get on the same page.  However, there’s nothing inspired about the referencing system.  Chapters of the Bible came about when Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury in the early 13th century and professor at the University of Paris, added chapter numbers to all of the books in 1227AD.  They’ve stuck ever since.  In 1551AD, a printer by the name of Robert Stephanus, added verses to the text of the New Testament within the chapter divisions as he was riding on horseback from Paris to Lyons.  He didn’t follow any consistent or particular method in this process and even his own son suggested that his versification was a disservice to readers and unnatural division to the text.  Still, the verses stuck.

The benefit of the Bible’s chapters and verses is that they make it measurably more navigable.  The potential danger, as mentioned, is the temptation to rip these little divisions from their context in order to support our preconceived arguments, and in the process, depersonalize a very personal gospel in hopes of creating a very systemized set of beliefs.

If you want to understand the massively splintered Protestant world in which we live today (i.e. why there are literally hundreds of different Christian churches in the U.S. alone right now), you have to understand the danger of proof-texting.  The end result is that you have many Christians who act as though quoting a random decontextualized verse from Scripture in support of their argument ends all discussion on any issue and can’t understand how others don’t see their viewpoint.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with quoting Scripture.  I personally do it all the time.  Jesus himself as well as many faithful in the New Testament did it frequently.  There are over 300 quotes from and 4000 allusions to the Old Testament recorded in the New Testament.  Under the direction of the Holy Spirit, however, these writers always understood the passages they were referencing in their original context.  To quote Scripture properly, and just as importantly, to grow in our understanding of God’s message to us, we’ll want to do everything we can to develop a full understanding of the context of God’s Word.

I personally have to be very careful of this when I’m teaching our adult instruction class to prospective members.  I don’t want to merely say “this is what we teach at our church” and then roll out a couple passages that seem to support it.  I want to thoroughly investigate portions of Scripture with others who are seeking the truth and then let students come to their own Holy Spirit-guided conclusions about what God’s Word really says.  I think, by and large, that our church and church body do a really exceptional job of this.

It’s at this point that I’d say why I’m a pastor in the church body that I’m in – the Wisconsin Ev. Lutheran Synod (WELS).  Every Christian church’s doctrine can be mapped on the basis of the role they feel that the Bible, Tradition, Reason, and Personal Experience should play into the formation of doctrine.  For instance, Roman Catholicism elevates Tradition (and leadership of the church) to a higher level of emphasis than other churches do.  This affects their doctrine.  Pentecostal and Charismatic churches elevate Personal Experience to a higher level of emphasis than other churches do.  This affects their doctrine.  Churches that follow a Calvinist theology (e.g. many Reformed churches in America), elevate Human Reason to a higher level of emphasis than other churches do.  This affects their doctrine.  I think our church has the right perspective on all of this.

I hope I’m not a pastor in our church body because I grew up in this church body and it was convenient.  That’d be a fairly hypocritical and weak reason for being in a profession that promotes a specific belief system, i.e. because it was spoon-fed to you.  No.  I’m in the church body that I’m in because I believe we have the purest way I’ve seen to form doctrine – let Scripture speak for itself and let Tradition, Reason, and Personal Experience (which are all great things when used properly) be subjected to the truth of the Bible.

Finally, this is really one of the reasons I wanted to write this series.  I believe we have a rock solid approach to biblical interpretation and doctrinal formation in our Confessional Lutheran church body.  It’s absolutely beautiful.  In all of the comparative denominational study I’ve done, I sincerely believe we avoid the dangers of proof-texting as well as any church body.  I would hate to see that pure message and saving gospel at all limited in exposure due to a potential misunderstanding of other issues (like those detailed in the three previous parts to this series – namely, according to the New Testament, what being part of a church means, what worship really is and is not, and who should be playing what roles in the church).

So I ask you to continue to pray with me that we as a local church, national church body, and part of Christendom in general would continue to grow in our understanding of what “The Church” really is, the truth God desires us to proclaim, and the assembly, relationship, and body that God desires us to be.

Thanks so much for reading :).  I’ve received loads of questions in emails on this series, which is great.  As always, if you find anything helpful or enjoyable, please consider sharing with friends.  I always appreciate it.  As we near Holy Week, my schedule only gets tighter, so I’ll see you next after Easter.  Wherever you are, I pray that the victory we share in Jesus, our Risen Savior, gives you more peace and happiness than you can handle.

For further reading: The Canon of Scripture (F.F. Bruce) and particularly enjoyable for directing your Bible Reading, The Untold Story of the New Testament (Frank Viola).