"A Real Valentine Verse"
February 11, 1996 message
What a scripture text for the Sunday before Valentine's Day! I daresay you won't find those words printed on any Hallmark card. They bring to mind a public confession one of our previous Presidents once made. Do you remember when Jimmy Carter openly admitted that he "lusted in his heart?" The press had a real field day with that one, either making fun of his naivete in an age of sexual freedom, or being aghast that something so private was being brought out into the open. However, before Carter was a President, he was a Sunday School teacher. In fact he still is. Such a confession makes perfect sense for someone who is immersed in the scriptures.
Speaking of the scriptures, I was reading some to brother Carl Stephen in the hospital the other day. When you feel helpless, where else do you turn? Because of the struggle in not being able to communcate with a ventilator tube down his throat, one of the scriptures I chose to read was Psalm 139. Let me share how it begins (vs.1-6): "O LORD, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it."
Those words are appropriate for this morning, for we have listened to some pretty lofty teachings of Jesus that should, if we are truly honest with ourselves and God, seem pretty unattainable. They are disturbing. With a few simple strokes, our Lord "hems us in, behind and before." Let me boil them down and serve them up again in a brief paraphrase: "The law says do not murder. I say anger and enmity convict you of murder in God's eyes. The law says do not commit adultery. I say do not lust, and if your body cannot avoid it, amputate as needed. The law says if you want a divorce, do the paperwork. I say if you divorce, you make adulterers of everyone involved." (J. Marshall Jenkins, "Christian Century", 1/31/96, p. 103)
Who does not get angry, my friends? Is there anyone for whom lust has never been a problem? Show me the person who has never been tempted to retreat from a covenanted relationship when the going gets rough? Even truly "spiritual" people struggle with such sins. These failings do not belong to our life "before" Christ, as if being "born from above" suddenly takes away any wrongful compulsions. Actually, as we become in tune with God's Spirit, we become more sensitive to all the disharmony in our own lives. That's how we need to listen to these teachings of Jesus. They disturb our pretentions. In the light of these impossible possibilities we see how far short we fall. All of us.
Actions are connected to motivations, our Lord informs us. A hateful word is linked to the thought, the feeling from which it arose. Infidelity is bound together with the wandering eye. A covenant can be broken in the minds of a couple long before they actually separate, and the internal and external debris remains for a lifetime.
Now, as a child I was taught to separate my actions from my motivations. That is, don't act on your impulses, I was told. Think of the consequences. It's okay to have a negative thought, just don't allow it to dominate your mind and then become a reality. This is good psychology, wise teaching that needs to be heeded. I don't believe Jesus would disagree. However, he pushes us back to the motivations themselves, the inner workings of our spirit, and forces us to confront who we really are.
That verse from Ps. 139 applies so well (vs. 5): "You hem me in" (NRSV, NIV), "you beset me behind and before." (KJV) "You encompass me on all sides." (RSV) This phrase can be understood as both a comfort and somewhat of a threat, though some translations (NEB, CEV) seem to focus solely upon the positive, and ignore the negative. Yes, there is serenity in knowing that God's knowledge of us goes very deep, deeper even than our own conscious thoughts. As the apostle Paul in Romans 8 writes, God's Spirit searches our own, and can speak for us to God even when we cannot even think of a word to say (vv. 26-27). Such a reflection is pleasing. It's also disturbing, wouldn't you say? Just like these teachings of Christ.
One might say that these words from the "Sermon on the Mount" force us back upon the mercy of God. After all, when it comes to motivations, none of us stack up. We all are compelled to trust in the One who knows us better than we know ourselves. This means that we cannot use these texts to "beat up" on somebody else. "Blessed are the poor in spirit," he said, those who face their own sins and realize their own shortcomings before God and turn to his mercy, "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:3)
I put it this way, because there is a real danger of what we might call "works righteousness" in these teachings, that is, our relationship with God is okay just so long as we obey these principles. The point is precisely the opposite. There is no way we, of our own ability, can fully follow them. They are impossible possibilities. Who among us can surgically remove faulty motivations? It's one thing to speak of tearing out the sinful eye, cutting off the sinful hand, but I wouldn't recommend doing it. That's not what Jesus was calling for. He was exaggerating for the sake of making connections. In many ways, we are what we think. But our thoughts, our feelings are not the whole picture.
We believe it's okay to to think negative thoughts just so long as we don't act on them, but the reality is that deep down these thoughts continue to work their damage. I may not yell at my wife out of respect, but my anger can still seethe within me and work at destroying my marriage. (I'm not, by the way, claiming to never yell at my wife.) Likewise, I can remain faithful to her by not messing around outside our marriage, but I can still do it damage by allowing my inner desires to turn elsewhere. More specifically, I can make my wife, and all women for that matter, an object rather than a person. That's no way to operate in a relationship. I can believe that because I'm doing alright on the surface, I've satisfied my responsibility. There's always so much more going on underneath.
This morning, I don't want to get into all the issues involved in the topic of divorce. We could be here a long time. Let me share, though, just a view observations. Anyone who has been through a divorce knows that a marriage is never fully over. I have a feeling that this scripture makes more sense to a divorced person. As much as we may try to create easy split-ups, they are never easy. Issues that were not worked through in a first marriage remain. A first spouse can figuratively sleep in the bed of a second marriage. Sooner or later, we have to face into our own failings. Some persons in our society bounce from marriage to marriage trying to escape from themselves. I ran across a new name for this trend recently, though it had me baffled at first: "serial monogamy." Being faithful to one person at a time.
Now, in an age when we are conscious of abusive relationships, we need to tread carefully over this territory. There are walking wounded all around us. I believe that's why God "hates" divorce. Not so much because it makes us unholy, which it does. Nor because any break in a covenant affects our convenant with God, which is even more true. But, I believe, God "hates" divorce because it leaves so many casualties. In many cases, though, the wounds are there before the legal document is signed. In fact, most marriages end long before they are offically "over." One of the frustrations in being a counselor is that often when people finally come for help they pretty much have already have made up their minds. I have not, however, given up on the power of God to restore what is broken. This One who "hems us in, beside and before," is a big part of the larger picture Jesus sought to paint with these teachings.
This is the real Valentine card I wish to give you today. You won't find it, I don't think, in a Hallmark store. God is the third person in every relationship. Without the mercy of God, how can we know how to be merciful to one another when we do (in thought or action) that which works to destroy a marriage or a friendship? Without trusting in the comforting (as well as disturbing) presence of God's Spirit with us, how can we ask for forgiveness, for such an act involves a great deal of trust? Without the faithfulness of God ever before us, how can we be faithful to one another, especially in the deeper aspects of fidelity - where motivations and actions are one? Without God's over-reaching promises, his before-the-fact Covenant with us, how can our marriages - our covenant relationships with each other - survive? The answer is, they don't.
Now, tell me, how can all that be put into a Valentine's Day card? Maybe that's why I always have such a hard time finding one that expresses what I really think and feel. When it comes down to it, it's not the thought that counts. It's the God who stands beside and before it. As the apostle Paul once rhetorically asked: "Who can separate us from the love Christ?" (Rom. 8:35) Now there's a real Valentine verse.
©1996Peter L. Haynes
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