Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Making (and Sticking to) Spiritual Goals

Holly's latest blog entry on Today's Christian Woman magazine's website is now up:

Spiritual Resolutions
Do you stick to your spiritual goals?

To ponder:
1) What are some mistakes you’ve made in setting goals for spiritual growth?

2) What are some specific goals you have?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Q&A: Why are Christians fired up about gay marriage, but not divorce?

A reader writes:
I understand that many Christians find the whole concept of gay marriage to be against God's design and plan for marriage. These Christians say that because marriage is designed to be a long-term (indeed, forever), intimate (sexual) relationship, the state should not allow anyone except one man and one woman to be married.

I see where these Christians are coming from. However, I wonder if they are consistent with this same concept when it comes to divorce.

The Bible, as I understand it, is strongly against divorce. To get divorced is to break the bond that God established, and only under certain circumstances (such as adultery) is it allowed. However, let's say that hypothetically, "Adam" decides he doesn't want to be married to "Eve" any longer because he doesn't like her nagging, so he gets a divorce, and then gets married to "Elizabeth." Adam thus has a long-term sexual relationship with Elizabeth, contrary to God's law, when he should have remained true with Eve. The question is: If Christians consider a homosexual marriage to be wrong—and on this basis declare that it should be ILLEGAL—then why shouldn't Adam's divorce and remarriage be ALSO wrong—AND ILLEGAL? Both are falling short of the ideal family unit, aren't they?

If Christians are so strongly against gay marriage and so convinced that we must "protect the family unit," why aren't these Christians—WITH EQUAL VIGOR AND INTENSITY—declaring that divorce and remarriage are wrong and SHOULD NOT be allowed? Aren't divorced and remarried heterosexual people "living in sexual sin" (and thereby offending God) just as much as gay couples are, according to the Bible? And the state is blessing the union of these divorced people! Aren't Christians being extremely inconsistent here? Because obviously, there are no Christians in the entire United States who are on a crusade to outlaw remarriages after divorces.

I personally am not necessarily advocating that remarriage should be illegal, or that gay marriage should be legal. I am just making a point about consistency. And I also believe that if Christians were REALLY concerned about "protecting the family unit," they would do everything in their power to focus on bringing down the extremely high divorce rate among heterosexual couples (even among Christians!) rather than going to extreme lengths to oppose the unions of homosexual couples that love each other.

Holly sez:
You said, “I understand that many Christians find the whole concept of gay marriage to be against God’s design and plan for marriage. … I wonder if they are consistent with this same concept when it comes to divorce.”

It's true that the church as a whole isn’t consistent. The divorce rate is the same among Christians and non-Christians, with evangelicals having a nominally lower rate of divorce (perhaps a percent less—certainly nothing to brag about). And Scripture is clear on the issue of divorce between two believers:

Matthew 5:32
But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.

Matthew 19:9
I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.

Here’s the thing: There are lots of folks who label themselves as “Christian” yet make no effort to act as Christ-followers. There’s a good reason that the church is seen as a place full of hypocrisy. I’d submit that few who call themselves Christians see themselves as sinful. C.S. Lewis talks about pride as “the great sin,” and I’d speculate that prideful people are particularly drawn to the church because they see church membership as proof of their goodness/superiority. And part of the problem is that church leaders often focus on the message of God’s love—which makes sense because there are tons of broken and hurting people in the church—but this hurts the church as a whole when we neglect to discuss how depraved, ugly and corrupt humans really are. I don’t think most Christians understand exactly how desperate the human situation is, and how every one of us would be doomed if we didn’t have a Savior in Jesus.

Those problems aside, I’d argue that many churches and Christian institutions do take a very strong stand on divorce. On the application for Biola University, prospective students must indicate if they’ve been divorced or if their spouse has divorced. Those who have divorced (or have a divorced spouse) must then write an essay on their view on divorce and how their own divorce might affect their future ministry. When I applied for a job at Christianity Today International, I wasn’t directly asked whether I’d ever been divorced (I think it’s probably illegal to ask about marital status), but the company definitely insisted on full disclosure among staff members. I knew very intimate details about my fellow staffers lives, and there was a high level of accountability in the best of ways. We were continually reminded that we were representing Jesus Christ (as opposed to merely being representatives of the magazines).

You might say it makes sense that Christian organizations would have internal policies on divorce—but why aren’t churches more vocal on divorce among churchgoers? For starters, I’d say the church doesn’t have a leg to stand on since so many Christian couples have divorced. In contrast, most pastors won’t perform gay unions, so same-sex marriage is a relatively “hands clean” issue for the church. That might sound hypocritical, but let’s face facts: It’s easier to take a stand on something when you don’t have to add, “Do as a say, not as I do” at the end of your statement. So while both divorce and same-sex marriage can be justified biblically as immoral, one is a lot easier for the church to be vocal about.

I have to point out that when we Christians take a critical look at the church, we tend to condemn the sin we aren’t participating in. For example, I have some Christian friends who are environmental and social activists, and they often ask, “Why doesn’t the church pay more attention to the poor and sick? Why don’t more churches do simple acts like recycling?” It makes sense that these activists are the ones speaking up about these issues: A person who drives an SUV probably won’t be the one to say, “Christians need to do better at taking care of the planet God entrusted to us.”

So I think your argument illustrates how it’s easier to take a stand on a “hands clean” issue: Since you love your wife and care about your marriage, it’s easier (and appropriate) for you to pose this question about divorce. It’s very difficult for someone like my pastor. After my pastor found out he was unable to have children, his first wife had an affair, got pregnant (which was her intention), and left him. Despite his attempts to reconcile, she divorced him. While he was clearly “hands clean” from a biblical perspective, nearly 20 years later it’s still difficult for him to counsel people about divorce because they reply, “Well, Pastor, you got a divorce!”

But there’s a far more important, practical reason that keeps Christians from taking a stand against divorce: There’s no public discourse on the topic right now. It’s very difficult for someone to take a strong position on something that isn’t in the public mind. In comparison, same-sex marriage is discussed on TV, in Washington, and it’s been up for the vote in several states.

Here’s an example: Say I wanted to take a stand against adultery. The majority of the public would probably agree with me that adultery is a bad thing. Yet I probably wouldn’t get very far in my campaign because adultery isn’t an issue on the public mind right now.

But say a study came out this month that showed the financial toll that broken marriages take on the economy. And say in this study, it’s shown that the most litigious, expensive divorces occur due to adultery. When this study is announced on the evening news, that’s my cue to get vocal. At that point, I could post on the web, send letters to Congress, write editorials, and get a petition going to put a proposition on the ballot—and people would probably listen to me. It’s like how reporters have to focus on certain stories and pass on others because of the public’s interest (or lack thereof).

This is not to say that Christians take every opportunity to discuss divorce. I think a huge one was missed during the presidential election: marriage/divorce among the presidential candidates. There were little murmurs about it, but someone who deeply cared about divorce rates could have jumped on that one.

Another problem is that folks in the church don’t talk about their sins. I’ve found that many Christians are extremely secretive about their lives because they’re afraid of being judged by other Christians. With good reason: There are jerks in the church who do judge and condemn. This goes back to the masses of folks who join churches so they can feel superior to others—and they don’t want any “sinners” ruining their holy clubs.

Meanwhile, other Christians are terrified of sounding judgmental because they know the church is seen as hypocritical. So they keep mum on topics like divorce.

And lest I sound like I’m just listing excuses for why Christians don’t discuss divorce—I’d add that my personal writing and discussion about same-sex marriage has consistently included the topic of divorce. I took a hard line on divorce in the church last June:

“The gay community is blameless for the current state of marriage. Heterosexuals—including us evangelical Christians—are solely responsible for damaging God’s holy union. We must admit our guilt, and our selfishness at the root of divorce and infidelity. If we Christians really want to restore God’s plan for marriage, we need to channel some of the energy that’s gone into fighting same-sex marriages into working on our own marriages.”

As for my own stance on same-sex marriage … perhaps six or seven years ago, I watched a documentary on the topic (it was pro-same-sex marriage). To be honest, my thoughts as I watched it were, “Why not let gay couples marry and have equal rights? What difference does it make to me if they get married?”

And then something deeply troubling was said on the documentary by one of the primary gay-rights activists. He said that what the gay community really wanted wasn’t marriage, but rather the right to divorce—gay couples needed a way to have their interests protected when they divorced, he said. I’ve since read similar statements on gay-rights websites, albeit not quite as blunt. This motivated me to start digging into the movement for same-sex marriage. What I found was a lack of interest in commitment and a focus on social status.

Marriage has taken a beating from divorce. Those who believe marriage is a vow made before God to enter into a life-long commitment should be sickened that the term has deteriorated into meaning “relational legitimacy.” It’s like one step above “going steady.” Relational legitimacy is really what the gay community is fighting for in California, because it’s clearly not a rights issue. Couples who register as domestic partners have the same rights/benefits/responsibilities as couples who marry. California’s Prop. 8 was a fight over a word that means a lot to people on both sides of the issue.

Let me circle back a minute. Why do heterosexual Christian couples enter into marriage if they don’t intend to keep their vow to God? Probably for the same reason folks call themselves Christians without ever intending to follow Christ. People want the status that gives them a feeling of superiority. Gay couples want the status they feel is conveyed by the label “marriage.” People are very interested in getting the rights and benefits of both Christianity and marriage. But many don’t want the responsibilities that go along with the commitment.

For now, I’d submit that the majority of Americans define marriage as a life-long vow made before God between a man and a woman. Every law is a moral value judgment of human beings, and every American has the right to weigh in on what the law should be. I seized the opportunity to weigh in on same-sex marriage. If I get such an opportunity to weigh in on divorce, you can bet I’ll do so.

I hope you’ll keep asking this question to a lot of Christians. Puts it on their radar. It reminded me that I need to always discuss divorce—and acknowledge the failings of Christians—whenever I’m writing or talking about same-sex marriage.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Tossing Church Loyalty Aside Like Toilet Paper?

"Protestant churchgoers are no more loyal to their church denomination than they are to brands of toothpaste or bathroom tissue."

—From an Ellison Research press release announcing its most recent survey, which found that 7 out of 10 regular churchgoers would be at least somewhat open to switching denominations if they could no longer attend their current church.

Holly sez:
It bugs me that Ellison sent out a press release implying that churchgoers lack loyalty. And I find it insulting that church loyalty is compared to single-use items like toothpaste and toilet paper: things we spit out and that have, ahem, the lowest value.

I can hear the Ellison PR rep now, "Holly, that's not what we're saying! We simply publicized our survey by using colorful language—surely you understand that we needed a punchy comparison to get our study noticed."

Well, you got me, Ellison Research, I read your press release. And I was baffled as to why your organization included this unrelated quote from organizational psychologist Rensis Likert on the webpage with the press release: "The greater the loyalty of a group toward the group, the greater is the motivation among the members to achieve the goals of the group, and the greater the probability that the group will achieve its goals." Huh? I thought this question was on the hypothetical: If I couldn't attend my current church, would I go somewhere else? How does that question measure my loyalty to "the group" (AKA my current church)?

And is it truly disloyal to attend a Baptist church if one was raised Lutheran? Here's the reality: Protestant denominations have the same core values (Jesus, the Trinity, the resurrection, universal sinfulness), with trifling differences (e.g. Should our church have a band, an organist, or just vocalists? Should we meet on Saturday or Sunday? Are church members allowed to play card games?).

The "group," in my opinion, shouldn't be a denomination, but rather the church at large. AKA the body of Christ. If I couldn't attend my current church, I'd be willing to attend just about anywhere where parishioners recognize Jesus as the Son of God.

My loyalty is first to God. I believe I can obey God wherever I happen to attend.

I think the more important question to ask about church loyalty is: Are you willing to stick with your current church through thick and thin? Are you committed to building community there, even when it hurts?

It can be difficult and painful to attend the same church week after week because churches are filled with flawed, broken people. And, let's face it: Flawed, broken people can be incredibly irritating to be around.

Further, as we get closer to our church families, others see our flaws and brokenness. There are many weeks when I long to be unknown—to sit in the back row of a church where I'm an anonymous visitor who can slip out unnoticed. Why? Because if I was an unknown, there wouldn't be anyone calling me to be accountable. There wouldn't be anyone pushing me to grow spiritually. There wouldn't be anyone pointing out my flaws, telling me that God wants me to surrender my anger, impatience, and selfishness.

The closer we get to other Christians, the more we see the ugliness in ourselves. And that's a good thing.

The study I'd like to see is: How long have folks attended their current churches? Why did they leave their last church? How much church hopping is really going on? Similarly, I'd like to see one on: How much emphasis do churches put on membership? Are church leaders discussing the importance of being in community? Are we supporting the frustrated folks who want to leave?

To ponder:
1) How loyal are you to your church?

2) Do you sometimes want to leave your church, or go somewhere else for a while? What are your reasons for this? What are your reasons for staying?

3) Do you think it's important to stick with a church? Why or why not?

Sunday, January 04, 2009

H-n-T Celebrates Three Years of Blogging

Happy Blog-iversary, H-n-T!

Here's a look at another great year for

H-n-T turns 3 on January 8, 2009.

H-n-T had 52 posts in 2008.

According to Site Meter, there were 8,157 visits to the blog in 2008. (This blows my mind: Site Meter recorded 3,363 visits in 2007, and 1,373 visits in 2006. Thanks, readers, for coming back and telling a friend!)

November 2008 posted a record high, with 860 visits.

Holly chose “Questioning God” as her favorite post of 2008. What was your favorite post this year? Post your comments here, or e-mail Holly at

Hugest thanks to all who read, pondered, commented, and forwarded posts on H-n-T in 2008!

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Offering My Best: H-n-T’s Pick of 2008

Below this post is my pick-of-the-year from 2008, “Questioning God.” It originally appeared on my blog for Today's Christian Woman. Here's a bit about why I chose it as H-n-T's Pick of 2008.

I had a tough time picking the post of the year for 2008. Should I offer up the most controversial posts (on Prop. 8 and, amusingly to me, on wearing Christian t-shirts) as the best of my best? Or the one that I thought represented my most colorful writing (“Mystery Grab Bag”)? How about the one that got responses that were meaningful to me (“‘Be’ Like Jesus? How Do I ‘Do’ That?”)? Or should I repost a piece about The Secret, which is still getting response a year and a half after I first wrote on the topic?

I decided to offer the post that reveals my greatest struggle: Why does God allow suffering? In 2008, I took a class on this topic and did two research projects on it. I was starting to think I understood it a bit when a friend was struck by a car as she was crossing the street on Christmas. She’s still in ICU, and hasn’t regained feeling in her legs.

Once again I asked, “Why, God?” I couldn’t find any words to encourage my friend. Amazingly, she encouraged me: She greeted me with a bright smile when I entered her hospital room, and she spoke of God’s goodness and grace. Instead of being sorrowful about her condition, she joyfully praised God for sparing her life. She wasn’t even angry with the driver, who’d fled from the scene. Rather, she was grateful that another driver found her on the side of the road—and thankful that God had sent this person her way on Christmas evening, when there were few cars on the road.

I’m glad my friend is finding God’s comfort and love in the midst of her suffering. Her reflections are especially meaningful to me right now, as I go in for further tests on my left eye. Many of you will remember I temporarily lost part of my vision two years ago, and a recent test showed more scarring in my eye. It’s a scary thing to think I might lose my eyesight again. I’m trying to focus on how God provided in the past, and to remember he’s always given me enough grace each day. And I return to this prayer, for both me and my friend in the hospital, that I wrote in “Questioning God”:

God, I have no idea why you’re allowing suffering. Frankly, I don’t trust your plan right now, and I don’t see any good coming from this pain. But I do recognize you’re God: You fully understand the purpose of human suffering. I’m glad I can unload my frustration and confusion on you. Please use these events to teach me and others.

To ponder:
1) When you are going through hardship, do you find it more difficult or more easy to talk to God?

2) Which is a bigger challenge to your faith: when you suffer, or when you see someone else suffering?

3) Write an honest prayer to God with your feelings and questions about suffering.

H-n-T's Pick of 2008: "Questioning God"

Maria Sue Chapman, the five-year-old daughter of veteran Christian singer Steven Curtis Chapman and his wife, Mary Beth, was accidentally struck and killed by a car last week. As I read the news of Maria’s death, I asked God my most oft-repeated question: Why?

On learning the details, I shifted to a more accusatory question: How could you allow this, God? Some of the Chapman children witnessed the accident in the family’s driveway. The driver who accidentally hit Maria was her 17-year-old brother. And their mother, Mary Beth, has long struggled with depression. From my perspective, the loss was too much for the Chapman family. From my perspective, God should have stopped the car.

Throughout my youth, I thought questioning life events—including suffering—was wrong because, some Christians told me, God has a purpose and plan for everything. A Christian naturally responds with absolute faith, they said, because “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). Some people even cited the story of Job and told me, “Job never questioned God.” So I feigned faith. I did my best to express the trust and peace I thought all Christians possessed.

Yet when, as an adult, I read the book of Job, I saw he indeed questioned God. Early in his suffering, Job wishes he’d never been born. This desire is surely a question about God’s will and plan, since God gave Job life. Job becomes increasingly accusatory: “Why does God let me live when life is miserable and so bitter?” (Job 3:20, CEV); “God has made my days drag on and my nights miserable” (7:3). Job even asks questions similar to mine: “Why is life so hard? Why do we suffer?” (7:1).

Two years ago, my friend Rosie asked those very questions when she lost her 39-year-old husband, Gordon, to cancer. Because Rosie had prayed and believed God would restore her husband’s health, she was spiritually devastated at Gordon’s death.

I was, too, because I’d believed God would offer some meaning for Gordon’s horrific physical suffering. At the least, I’d thought God would give family members and friends total peace, assuring them Gordon was in heaven. We had much peace, but we also had much pain—and many questions: Why did God allow this cancer? Why did he take Gordon away from his kids, a toddler and a teenager?

The Bible outlines several reasons for suffering: It can develop character and spiritual maturity; it can provide opportunities to share faith; it can correct sin; it can prepare for comforting others; and it can bring glory to God. Yet, such knowledge may be meaningless to the sufferer. Knowledge doesn’t always soothe. Quoting Romans 8:28 repeatedly hasn’t removed my questions. I haven’t found any pat answers or fast fixes for the problem of suffering. More often, the only meaningful prayer for me and suffering friends is, “Why, God?”

Too many Christians expect faith to come easily. Effortlessly. I used to think, I’ll never understand why suffering exists, so I just need to have faith—as if I were born with deep, mature faith! But perfect faith isn’t innate, nor does it come with salvation. Rather, faith has grown gradually in me. It seems to grow when I suffer or share others’ suffering, when I’m so overwhelmed that I run to God in prayer.

And in that desperation, my prayers are often anxious, furious, or miserable. I certainly don’t approach God with trust and peace. But faith doesn’t grow if I try to fake it. Instead, those moments of emotional rawness are the times I’m most receptive to hearing God out.

Perhaps God wanted me to struggle with the concept of suffering while witnessing Gordon’s illness, and now while reading about the Chapmans. I need to pray honestly: “God, I have no idea why you’re allowing suffering. Frankly, I don’t trust your plan right now, and I don’t see any good coming from this pain. But I do recognize you’re God: You fully understand the purpose of human suffering. I’m glad I can unload my frustration and confusion on you. Please use these events to teach me and others.”

When I pray honestly, I rarely receive my desired answers. God’s never shown me suffering’s ultimate purpose. He simply allows me to wrestle with the “Why?” question to expose my hurt and mistrust. And I’m starting to realize that to get to real faith, I need to start with real doubt.

Ways to Give Charitably, Without Spending a Dime

Holly's latest blog entry on Today's Christian Woman magazine's website is now up:

In rough economic times, are we cutting back on the wrong things?

At the end of "Scrooge Syndrome," check out the list of ways to be charitable that won't cost you a penny. If you know of other free ways to be charitable, please post them here on H-n-T.