The Wedding Night
When Alicia and I got married, we spent our first night, post-wedding, in the fancy, brand-new Gaylord Hotel. Getting out of our car, we couldn’t help but feel a little awkward. Some of my groomsmen had drawn risqué pictures all over my windows, and somehow, they managed to fit condoms over my rearview mirrors. People were giving us winks and nods as we checked in – they all knew what was about to go down. Unfortunately, this knowledge did not translate to lightning-quick service. It took them SIXTY EXCRUCIATING MINUTES to finally escort us to our room. It’s a miracle we managed to keep our clothes on in the lobby. Alicia and I had waited a year-and-a-half for this moment, but that lone hour felt like an eternity by comparison.
This was the first of the Gaylord Hotels’ mishaps that day. The second was a bell boy knocking on our door, and instead of walking away, lowering his shoulder like a BATTERING RAM to break through the latch. Fortunately, he saw nothing. But after 15 years and 4 meddlesome children, I still live in fear that NO LOCK IS STRONG ENOUGH TO KEEP PEOPLE OUT.
I literally want to build a moat around my bedroom.
Today we’re going to talk about sex. And while I joke about building a moat, the reality is that sexual intimacy in marriage must be carefully guarded. More than invading bellboys and children and everyday stresses of life, what we especially have to guard against is a cultural understanding of sex that on one hand diminishes it into no big deal, or on the other hand, glorifies it as a veritable god.
Every god that’s not named Jesus will eat you alive if you center your life upon it. How many people have destroyed their lives, their marriages, and their children by making sex a god? As Christians, we have to avoid this extreme, but we also have to avoid the extreme of diminishing sex, like it’s no big deal. How can we enjoy the fullness of sexual intimacy if we don’t cherish it for the beautiful, transcendent, sacred communion that it is?
Sex is not everything, but it’s also not nothing. Only a friendship with God can help us avoid both extremes and enjoy sexual intimacy as the gift He created it to be.
Before we begin, I have one disclaimer. Today’s message is not going to be some magic bullet that cures all sex-related-issues. I fully recognize that there’s a lot of pain related to sexual intimacy. Medical issues, relational issues, physical abuse, and emotional trauma all affect our sexual satisfaction. There’s no way I can address all this in a single sermon, and that’s why we’re always talking about church as a community, where full healing and restoration can occur. Despite the limitations, I do believe today’s message can provide the framework you need for building a metaphorical moat around your love life, so it can thrive.
With that said, let’s begin with Song of Songs 4. This is King Solomon and now Queen Shulamith’s wedding night. Let’s begin with the first seven verses:
Behold, you are beautiful, my love, behold, you are beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats leaping down the slopes of Gilead. 2 Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes that have come up from the washing, all of which bear twins, and not one among them has lost its young. 3 Your lips are like a scarlet thread, and your mouth is lovely.
Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil. 4 Your neck is like the tower of David, built in rows of stone; on it hang a thousand shields, all of them shields of warriors. 5 Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that graze among the lilies. 6 Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, I will go away to the mountain of myrrh and the hill of frankincense. 7 You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you.
One thing you’ll hear me repeat today is that sex is not just a sharing of bodies; it’s a sharing of our total being. I’ll say it again because it’s our main point: sex is not just a sharing of bodies; it’s a sharing of our total being. Today, I’ll show you four ways in which that’s true. Those four, are: Sex is total praise, sex is total passion, sex is total pleasure, and sex is total promise.
Sex is Total Praise
So let’s begin with “Sex is total praise.” It might be strange for some of us to think of sex as “praise,” but the words of praise that precede their lovemaking are meant to communicate exactly that. To make love to someone is to symbolically demonstrate, through our bodies, that we embrace that person completely—their body, their character, and their future with us. What could be a greater way to express delight in another human being than to embrace that person completely?
There’s no higher form of praise than “embrace.”
Some of Solomon’s praises for his wife’s beauty are, of course, really weird to us. If I told my wife she had goat hair, there would be no lovemaking after that. But maybe just a few comments will help us understand why this would’ve been so romantic at that time.
First of all, this was the normal language for a love song from the Ancient Near East. We’re 3000 years removed from Solomon’s culture. If Solomon was to hear John Mayer singing about his lover’s tongue being made of bubble gum, he’d be scratching his head too.
And perhaps, also, wanting to sample some bubble gum.
Second, Solomon is intentionally using metaphors she can relate to. Remember, Shulamith was a farm girl. To say her hair was like a flock of goats and that her teeth were like sheep was to use language she connected with. Shulamith would have understood it as a special compliment that her hair flowed and bounced, and that—in a day that preceded orthodontically perfected smiles—her teeth were as clean as the whitest thing she could imagine: freshly washed sheep.
By the time Solomon works through all the metaphors, he praises seven of her body parts – the number of completion – as if to say, “Your appearance is absolutely perfect.” Then he adds, “There is no flaw in you”, which has double-meaning. It refers not only to one’s appearance, but to one’s character. Solomon is moved by her flawless body, but also by her blameless heart.
One good piece of advice here, for people who want to be married: never marry someone you hope to change. Eyes of love can always say, “There is no flaw in you.” Not because there are literally no flaws. Remember chapter 1—Shulamith has the leathery skin of a peasant girl. But when you truly love somebody, you love them as they ARE, not as you WISH THEY WERE. I’m reminded of the #1 hit by John Legend, “All of me”:
“All of me / Loves all of you / All your curves and all your edges / all your perfect imperfections.”
When you truly love someone, even their imperfections are perfect… to you. Like a child who loves his one-eyed teddy more than a brand-new fancy one, love sees flaws as beauty marks. If you find yourself no longer attracted to your spouse, this is usually not a physical problem, but a relational problem. Just ask Tiger Woods, who married a gorgeous Supermodel, but still needed 1000 more. If you don’t have love, no amount of sex or good looks will ever be enough. The true secret to great lovemaking is not perfect bodies, despite what our world would say. The true secret to great lovemaking is… love. Solomon is so in love that he can’t help but praise her with words and embrace. Sex is not just a sharing of bodies; it’s a sharing of our total being. Sex is total praise.
Sex is Total Passion
Second, Sex is Total Passion. When I say that sex is total passion, I’m not suggesting that it is constant emotional euphoria. In reality, every single time one makes love – whether it’s agreeing on a timing, or fulfilling a partners’ needs and desires – sex is just as much an act of service as it is a euphoric experience. What I intend to say by “sex is total passion” is that it’s not just physical; it’s emotional – a sharing of our total being.
Now, let’s read verses 8-10: 8 Come with me from Lebanon, my bride; come with me from Lebanon. Depart[b] from the peak of Amana, from the peak of Senir and Hermon, from the dens of lions, from the mountains of leopards. 9 You have captivated my heart, my sister, my bride; you have captivated my heart with one glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace. 10 How beautiful is your love, my sister, my bride! How much better is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your oils than any spice!
In verse 8, Solomon appeals for Shulamith to come out from her place of fear and insecurity, which is represented by the mention of a foreign territory (Lebanon), threatening mountains, and dangerous creatures. Why she feels anxious, we’re not told—perhaps it’s the flaws in her skin or her former life as a farm girl or the sheer fact that it’s her first time—regardless of the reason, one thing it shows us is that sex is not just physical, it’s emotional.
I remember being in the 8th grade, telling my friend Kenny that when I got married, I was going to have sex five times a day. A few days after telling him that, he invited me to a Rangers game because his mom’s company reserved a huge block for their employees and friends. When I showed up at the game, one of the moms—a stranger I had never met—turned around and said in a loud voice from three rows down, “Are you the one who’s going to have sex with your wife five times a day?” An entire section of the Ballpark erupted in laughter.
Needless to say, I came into marriage with some pretty high expectations.
What I didn’t anticipate were the way emotional factors affect everyone’s love life: working through conflicts, traumas, stress, changes in our body, our partner, our relationship. If emotional intimacy suffers, sexual intimacy suffers too. The world tells us that great sex is about great technique, but it’s really about great trust. Because trust is the bridge that our hearts can cross over.
Now, back to the passage: After gushing his own heart (“you have captivated my heart”), he gushes over her gushing heart (“how beautiful is your love”). It’s not just her appearance or character, but her love that moves his heart to love. Sex is physical, but it’s also emotional.
Bodies and Hearts
There’s a strange idea in our culture that you can give your body away without giving your heart. But where do we get this?
A sad and little-known fact would appear to contradict this: 2/3 of men who visit prostitutes are repeat customers, and ¼ of them have over 100 encounters with the same woman. If sex was just about “parts” but not “hearts” why wouldn’t men seek the greatest variety?
The answer is: Oxytocin.
A few weeks ago, I talked about Dopamine—the Pleasure Hormone, that’s released when you’re falling in love (and also, making love). Oxytocin is often called, the “Love” or “Bonding” Hormone. It’s released in massive quantities during intercourse, creating emotional bonds. It’s not that we can’t cognitively resist this, but we’re working against nature when we do, allowing just a little part of our heart to die. On the flip side, men who revisit the same prostitute show by their behavior that—in their attempt to connect physically with a woman—they inadvertently connected emotionally also.
You can’t give away your body without also giving away your heart.
Outside of marriage, this should lead to great caution: who wants to give their heart away to a stranger or acquaintance? Within marriage it should lead to great lovemaking: who better to give your heart to than someone who’s given their heart, body, and future to you? Sex is total passion. It’s not just a sharing of bodies; it’s a sharing of our total being.
Sex is Total Pleasure
Now, let’s move to number three: Sex is Total Pleasure. To see this, let’s continue reading from verse 11, through the first verse of chapter 1.
Your lips drip nectar, my bride; honey and milk are under your tongue; the fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon. 12 A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a spring locked, a fountain sealed. 13 Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates with all choicest fruits, henna with nard, 14 nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes, with all choice spices—15 a garden fountain, a well of living water, and flowing streams from Lebanon. 16 Awake, O north wind, and come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden, let its spices flow. Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits. 1I came to my garden, my sister, my bride, I gathered my myrrh with my spice, I ate my honeycomb with my honey, I drank my wine with my milk. Eat friends, drink, and be drunk with love.”
First of all, let’s talk about what’s happening. When Solomon says she’s a garden locked up and a fountain sealed, he’s talking about her virginity. When she says, “Awake O north and south winds, blow on my garden,” she’s referring back to the verses that said, “Do not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.” Now is the time that love pleases. She invites her lover to drink deeply of love and taste its choicest fruit. And not only that. When we get to 5:1, we notice that it’s not just her speaking. It’s someone else: “Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love.”
Who in the world would be present while Solomon and Shulamith made love for the first time? Were her friends a bunch of creepers? Was there a gallery in the balcony above, cheering them on? Of course not. This is the only time in the song where God speaks. And what is He saying? “Indulge yourself.” God intends sex to be not just for procreation, but for total pleasure.
Now, let’s zoom in on verse 11: “Milk and honey are under your tongue”. How do you think Solomon discovered what was under his bride’s tongue? I used to joke with the teenagers when I gave a sex-ed talk that before there was ever French Kissing, there was Hebrew Kissing! When Solomon says “milk and honey are under your tongue,” it’s a biblical allusion to Israel’s Promised Land, which is frequently characterized as a land flowing with milk and honey.
John Mayer says your body is a Wonder Land, but Solomon says your tongue is a Promised Land. Sex is total pleasure.
Sex is Total Promise
Now for the last one: Sex is total promise. Sex is total promise.
Before this moment, the word “garden” is not once used in the song, but suddenly, in the exact moment that lovemaking commences, “garden” is used five times in six verses. Why? It’s another biblical allusion. This time, not to Israel’s Promised Land paradise, but to Adam and Eve’s garden paradise. There, the first marriage covenant was formed through sexual union, in those words you hear at every wedding: “Man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”
Marriage is our garden paradise, and sex is how we taste the fruits therein.
Healthy marriages need more than communication; they need communion. A tasting of the fruit, an experience of the other, a nearly out-of-body experience that, ironically, employs most intimately the use of our bodies. Sex is a beyond-words experience that no words can fully capture. Every act of married sex is like a private wedding ceremony, a re-enactment of wedding vows, a re-sealing of the promises once made before God and man. Sex is total promise.
But why? Why did God make sex “the act” that seals and re-seals the promise? Just think of the symbolism. Right after the verse you hear at every wedding comes the verse you hear at no weddings: “They were both naked and unashamed.” This means that Adam and Eve were completely vulnerable before each other—not just physically, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. In the act of sex, the removal of clothes is a removal of every wall and barrier, where we are totally vulnerable, and yet because of our lifelong covenant, it’s a safe vulnerability. Not that of exposure, leading to shame, but that of disclosure, leading to intimacy. Through physical embrace, we privately cement the bond that was once made in public. In sharing our bodies, we share our total being.
This is the beauty of sex as God designed it, within the shelter of a lifelong promise.
Sex is designed by God to be a return to that original garden paradise, where they were naked and unashamed, where there was full disclosure, and full embracing. Sex is paradise in the midst of our pain. It’s a garden in the midst of our wilderness. It’s the Promised Land that answers our Exile.
Isn’t that 1000 times more beautiful than “sex is nothing,” or “sex is god”? Sex is neither nothing, nor everything. It is a gift from God—beautiful, transcendent, and sacred.
A Warning and an Encouragement
Without a doubt, the most common question I’ve received throughout this series is about King Solomon. Solomon seems an unlikely character to be telling us about pure married love and sex. After beginning his life with a pious and passionate love for God, he literally left God for sex with 1000 women. How can we possibly receive counsel from such a delinquent?
The message we receive depends upon the timing in which this Book was written. Since we don’t know the timing, it’s worthy to consider both messages: one, a warning; the other, an encouragement.
If Solomon and Shulamith’s love story occurred at the beginning of his life, then it serves as a warning that the most pure and beautiful of loves can be destroyed if we turn sex into a god or diminish it into just another activity. If their love story occurred at the end of his life, Solomon spares us the details of how this played out for his other wives. But even then, there’s an encouragement: no matter how broken you are sexually, maritally, or spiritually, God’s grace is TOTAL.
And I mean, TOTAL.
So total, that when you and I chased “paradise” in the arms of 1000 different lovers, Jesus left paradise to chase after us. On the Cross, He gave us His body in total nakedness. Total vulnerability. In pouring out His blood, He gave us His heart—spilled forth generously for the forgiveness of sins.
Three days later, He rose again and He gave us the promise that one day He will return for us, His bride, He’ll wipe away every tear, and He’ll renew this world to become a total paradise. Until then, He offers the same vow I offered to my bride on our wedding day: Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.
What can we offer in return for such total grace?
Our highest form of praise is total embrace.
The Nature Of Love
The Nature of love
This Valentine’s Day, about 250 million roses will exchange hands. Not every nation celebrates Valentine’s Day on the exact same day or in the exact same way, but despite our differences, every single culture has this one thing in common: flowers are the symbol for love.
Why do you think that is? Why do Bachelors and Bachelorettes hand a rose to their “choice” rather than a house plant, or a coffee maker, or a ball-in-chain?
Traditions don’t form without reason, especially across cultures. There’s something about the nature of a flower that closely resembles the nature of love. And this is of utmost importance for us to understand, because—hear this—nature always determines nurture. For example, the nature of a baby requires you to care for it in a way that’s different than the way you care for a Pit-Bull. The nature of a backyard shrub requires you to care for it in a way that’s different than a Bonzai Tree. Love and flowers are like that too. Both of them share the same nature, and both must be nurtured in much the same way. My hope today is to help you understand, from the Scripture, the nature of romantic love, so that you can nurture it in a way that not only lasts, but also, thrives—like a flower in rich soil.
We’re in the second week of a series called, “Head Over Heels,” a study in the Song of Songs, a book of the Bible entirely dedicated to sex and romantic love. Last week, we talked about the “magic” of love. This week is, “Love’s New Light,” – that is, the light of new possibilities if we nurture love in accordance with its nature. Next week is “Lovesick,” where we’ll look at working through conflict in such a way that we are sick without each other—rather than being sick of each other. In the last week, we will talk about lovemaking.
Song of Songs 2
So let’s get started. We’ll pick up the passage in Song of Songs 2, verse 6. For context, King Solomon and his Hebrew Cinderella have fallen head over heels in love. As we read, I want you to especially pay attention to verse 7, because this is where Shulamith, the woman, teaches us about the nature of love. Now let’s begin with verse 6, where she longs for intimacy.
6 His left hand is under my head, and his right hand embraces me! 7 I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, (that is, “Swear to me…”) by the gazelles or the does of the field, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases. (Now the scene shifts to Solomon – after being away for a season, probably with kingly duties, he returns to invite his lover to enjoy the Spring countryside…) 8 The voice of my beloved! Behold, he comes, leaping over the mountains, bounding over the hills. 9 My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Behold, there he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, looking through the lattice. 10 My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away, 11 for behold, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone. 12 The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing[d] has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. 13 The fig tree ripens its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away.14 O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the crannies of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely. 15 Catch the foxes[e] for us, the little foxes that spoil the vineyards, for our vineyards are in blossom.” 16 My beloved is mine, and I am his; he grazes[f] among the lilies. 17 Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle or a young stag on cleft mountains
A Life of its Own
We’ve been saying that the nature always determines nurture. So what is the nature of love? That’s what Shulamith tells us in verse 7, when she says, “do not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.” What she means by this is that, just like this rose, love has a life of its own. It blooms whenever it “pleases”, and it doesn’t ask permission. This is exactly what we see in verse 8, when King Solomon is leaping over the hills like a gazelle. Love was “pleased” to come alive in his heart, and suddenly the dignified king doesn’t look so dignified. There’s a bounce in his step and a sparkle in his eye. Love has a life of its own. You can’t force it to bloom, but when it blooms—like this rose—you come alive to love’s new light.
Beautiful, Delicate, and Precious
The idea of “not forcing” love also appears in verse 7 when she says, “Swear to me by the gazelles and the does of the field…” Notice how she doesn’t say, “Swear to me by the lions and bears…” Yes, love is powerful like lions and bears. But does and gazelles more perfectly communicate the nature of love. Just like does and gazelles, and just like this rose—the nature of love is beautiful, delicate, and precious. These qualities should guide the way we treat loving relationships: not by smothering or neglecting, but by nurturing.
This all reminds me of an old friend who fell head over heels for a girl who was 10 miles out of his league. Gorgeous, great personality, she loved Jesus, and she loved my friend. Everyone thought they were going to get married. But one day she confessed to him about some past “indiscretions” from before they were together. It rattled him. He felt like she wasn’t the same person he fell in love with. He tried not to be judgmental, but condemnation doesn’t have to be stated to be communicated. She felt the change in his demeanor, and she broke it off. By the time my friend realized he was being judgmental, the rose had already been crushed.
Love has a life of its own. You can’t control when it blooms, but you can smother it. Love is beautiful, delicate, and precious. It must be handled with care, like this rose. Nature determines nurture. So how do we nurture love, without smothering or neglecting it? Three ways stand out in this passage, which we’ll address, each in turn: be patient, be sensitive, and be protective.
Let’s start with “be patient.” I could go a lot of directions with this. Singles must be patient for the flower of their love to bloom, or else they’ll try to force something that’s not there. Married people must be patient through Winters of Love or else they’ll bail out early when Springtime is around the corner. Nurturing love is all about patience and timing.
In the immediate context of verse 7, however, the focus is not so much on the aforementioned expressions of patience, as it is about patiently waiting on the right timing for sexual intimacy. In verse 6, she expresses a longing for that intimacy, and then in verse 7, she counsels herself and others to wait patiently, lest they crush the rose of a beautiful, delicate, and precious love.
If you’re interested in researching the science, you can discover the truth for yourself, but publications such as the Economist and the Journal of Family Psychology report that people who don’t have sex outside of marriage ultimately have better sex and longer lasting relationships. Research also shows that people who cohabit before getting married are more likely to divorce. The world says, “Try before you buy,” and although it seems logical, it doesn’t actually work. Patience is how you nurture a love that’s beautiful, delicate, and precious.
Now, let’s come back to Shulamith’s pledge in verse 7. We’ve already seen that she doesn’t say, “Swear to me by the lions and bears.” Now notice what else she doesn’t say. She doesn’t say, “Swear to me by Almighty God,” which would’ve been a typical vow in her culture. Rather than appealing on the basis of morality or spirituality, she appeals on the basis of love’s nature—which is beautiful, delicate, and precious, just like gazelles and does. If we act on sexual urges—in dating, in engagement, or beyond our marriage bed—we threaten to crush the rose of love.
This is highly relevant for us today. Over the last few years, I’ve been noticing across social media and in blogs-gone-viral a backlash against what’s called “Purity Culture.” This refers to certain evangelical church programs from the 1990’s that emphasized to teenagers—through public commitments, ceremonies, and promise rings—the need to remain abstinent until marriage. There were certainly times in which this was done with grace, and without the sexist emphasis on female purity over male purity. But oftentimes it wasn’t. Two decades later, thirty-five-year-old moms are blogging about the way they were shamed into public promises with dire warnings about STD’s and a God who was ready to smite their misdeeds. Rather than being taught that sex was a beautiful thing, they were taught that sex is terrible and dirty, until of course you’re married, at which point it’s wonderful and amazing. Unable to flip the switch, these women now struggle to not feel dirty making love to their own husbands.
It matters how we talk to our kids about sex. I’m not suggesting there’s something wrong with appealing to morality and spirituality as reasons for abstinence. But if we don’t appeal also to the beauty of love, we might undermine what we’re actually trying to achieve. The goal is not merely “no sex outside of marriage.” The goal is for our children to one day know how beautiful, delicate, and precious love is—including its most sacred expression of lovemaking. The power of sex can easily crush the rose of precious love if we don’t display the tender patience that love deserves. I wish we could spend more time explaining what is so sacred and beautiful about sex, but you’ll have to be patient!—we’ll discuss it in two weeks.
Okay, now let’s move to the next one. How do we nurture romantic love, rather than smothering it or neglecting it? First, be patient. Second, be sensitive. Be sensitive.
This is the other side of “do not stir up nor awaken love.” On one hand, we need to NOT stir up love before the right time. On the other hand, at the right time, we must stir up and awaken love! This does not just mean sexually, but also, romantically. Just like gazelles and does are sensitive to their surroundings, and just like flowers are sensitive to sunlight, we must be sensitive the seasons of love.
This is what we see in verses 8-13 when Solomon shows a sensitivity to the Springtime they’re entering into. The fact that they are entering a Springtime suggests that prior to this, they experienced a Winter. This is probably alluded to by the fact that he’s coming “over the mountains”—that is, obstacles in their relationship. Commentators say that most likely their obstacle was situational. Solomon had kingly duties to tend to, and because they weren’t married and living together, this meant he’d be away for a time.
Winters of Hardship, Springs of Newness
Every romantic relationship requires a sensitivity to the season. I experienced this recently in my marriage. 2019 was a Winter for us. As with Solomon and Shulamith, our Winter was situational. Alicia got a paying job for the first time in 12 years, and it was a massive adjustment to schedules, to the balance of chores, to everything. If it was only the at-home adjustment, that would’ve been enough, but of course she had workplace stresses to add into the mix. More stress meant it was easier to be short with one another, to crush the rose of our love. Sensitivity to the season required Alicia and I to show each other extra grace. Thankfully, we made our adjustments, and as it happens—our Winter has given way to Spring.
Winters are typically situational—they are tied to a hardship that one or both of you are enduring. This could be a breach of trust, a health crisis, a difficult teen, or even just an insane schedule. If you don’t want to get stuck in a perpetual Winter, you have to be sensitive to that season. If you are, Spring will come naturally, right at the conclusion of one of these obstacles.
Once Spring arrives, however, you can’t just take “good times” for granted—there’s another kind of sensitivity required in Spring, which we see in verse 14: “O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the crannies of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.” When he says, “Come out from the clefts of the rock,” he means, “Your heart is still hidden. Come out and trust me. Let’s get to know each other.”
Enduring the Winter will mean that, rather than being short and angry, we show each other some extra grace. Making the most of Springtime means that, rather than being hidden and hesitant, we make ourselves physically and emotionally available. This is exactly what we see in this song. As soon as Solomon’s schedule allows, he doesn’t double-down on work or hobbies; he makes time for Shulamith. More than that, asks her to to come out of emotional hiding, to trust him. If you’re in a romantic relationship, you have to fight to be physically and emotionally present. This is true in every season of course. But in those post-Winter seasons when hardships pass away and schedules open up, you have an opportunity to fall in love all over again, if you strike while the iron is hot. In contrast, if you stay in the clefts of secrecy and hiddenness, the rose of your love will die of neglect—in the very season when it should be most fruitful. Without the proper sensitivity to love’s seasons and lovers’ hearts, love can grow cold. Next week we’ll talk about how to overcome once that’s already happened.
Now let’s return one more time to the passage, to verse 15, for our final point: 15 Catch the foxes[e] for us, the little foxes that spoil the vineyards, for our vineyards are in blossom.”
Here Solomon asks his future bride to pledge with him, that they might protect the love they’ve enjoyed. Just like a rose cannot be placed in the mouth of a dog or near the hand of a toddler, love is too beautiful, delicate, and precious to not be protected. Our last point is: be protective.
Protect Love From Little Problems
There are a couple of dimensions of this protection I want you to notice. First, we must protect primarily from the little problems – the little foxes. Foxes are small, but they’re also stealthy. Given enough time, they can slowly ruin an entire vineyard—and decades of love. Little foxes are the little problems that creep into a romance. If you see the collapse of a marriage, it might look like Redwood Tree tumbling mightily to the ground, but in reality, it was death by a thousand papercuts. Big vineyards die not because of big bad wolves, but because of little foxes. Before the big act of divorce is demanded, there are little moments, little choices, little facial expressions and tones, and little rejections where love is smothered or neglected. This is not to suggest that working hard at a romance always means it will work. You might do all the right things, but it takes more than just you. Which brings us to next observation about protection.
Protect Love by Mutual Devotion
The second thing I want you to notice is that it takes a mutual devotion to catch those little foxes. A marriage is too much for one person to do all the fox-catching. He asks her to swear to him that they might catch these together. A successful romance is not, “You have a problem, so fix it,” but—especially in marriage—“We have a problem, so let’s fix it.” The more serious a relationship becomes, the more life is shared. Sharing life means more than sharing affection or living space; it means sharing burdens. Such an approach will protect your love from little foxes.
Now, let’s summarize everything that’s been said, and then I’ll close with a story. We began by discussing the nature of love: just like this rose, it has a life of it’s own. That life is beautiful, delicate, and precious. In order to nurture love in accordance with its nature, we must be patient, sensitive, and protective.
Are you treating love as it deserves to be treated? Are you smothering it with force and anger and judgments? Are you neglecting it to the slow-working will of little foxes? Or are you nurturing romantic love so that it not only lasts, but thrives, as a flower in rich soil?
The story I want to finish with comes from a viral clip of a Pastor named Matt Chandler from a few years ago. In it, he tells the story of a 26-year-old single mom who was in an adulterous affair and knew nothing about Jesus, besides what Matt and his friends had been telling her. They’d been trying to convince her of God’s grace and redemption, and an opportunity arose for inviting her to a church service where one of Matt’s friends was leading worship.
She responded to the invitation, and the worship was great. Then the preacher stood up and said, “Today, we’re going to talk about sex.” And then he took a red rose, smelled it, showed how pretty it was, and then he handed it to one of the thousand people in the audience, and he said, “While I speak, I want you to pass this around to everyone in the room—I want you to smell it, to touch it, to feel it’s texture.” While the rose went around, the sermon began, and in the words of Chandler, it was “fear-mongering at its best.” It was threats of STD’s and the filth of fornication, and the shame of sexual abominations. At the end of his sermon, the preacher gathered the rose back up, and predictably, it was broken and mangled. His big crescendo was to hold up the rose as an illustration of someone who’s committed such abominations. With great emotion he said, “Now look at this—who in the world would want this rose?!”
Matt says, “I remember feeling anger, like real legitimate, I want to hurt him anger, and it was all I could to not scream out, JESUS WANTS THE ROSE!! THAT’S THE POINT OF THE GOSPEL!!”
The Bible is full of helpful advice, and we’re wise to apply it to our lives. But at the end of the day, all of us have smothered or neglected the rose of love for God, love for our significant other, and love for our neighbor. The Gospel is not, “You’d better be holy or no one can love you,” but rather, “Jesus wants the rose.”
Jesus wants you!
He wants you in all of your brokenness and all of your shame. And He wants you so much that He came and died on a Cross to forgive you for all our rose-crushing sins. Three days later, He rose again to call you out of the rocks of brokenness and shame, to be made new, and to enjoy an eternal Springtime of Divine Love. Like Solomon, the risen Jesus calls to each of us: “Arise, my love, my beautiful One, and come away.”
The Magic of Love
The Death of Marriage?
A few years ago one of my High School friends finally decided to marry his High School sweetheart after nearly two decades of dating. He asked if I wanted to perform the ceremony, to which I replied, “Are you sure she’s the one?”
Marriage used to be something people rushed into, but nowadays, they seem to be rushing away from it and out of it. People say that “Happily ever after” is an antiquated delusion. Since 1960, the divorce rate has doubled, and now, 40% of Americans believe marriage is obsolete.
On the surface, these statistics might confirm the death of marriage. But reality isn’t what it seems. The numbers are skewed. If, for example, someone has just a basic education and income, waits till marriage to have a baby, and goes to church, the divorce rate is remarkably low. Not only that, but 62% of married people are “very happy” in marriage. The ones who aren’t—if they just don’t divorce—2/3 of them will be happily married within 5 years.
So here’s my question: why is there such a disparity between the truth about marriage and reality? Why do so many people think marriage is miserable and obsolete, when married people are both very happy, and usually also, more stable in their happiness?
Today, we’re going to answer these questions from the Scripture. My hope is to help you understand God’s vision for romantic love, and how to keep that vision from becoming jaded.
“Head Over Heels”
Today’s message is the first in a series called “Head Over Heels,” where we’ll study love, sex, and romance from a Book of the Bible dedicated to all three—the Song of Songs. As you can see, we have an exciting next few weeks: This week is “The Magic of Love,”; next week is, “Love’s New Light,” and the next two weeks we’ll cover lovesickness and lovemaking.
A couple of disclaimers before we get started: first, this series does not suggest that single people are “less-than”. To do so would be to say that Jesus was “less-than”, which is blasphemy. I only want to extol God’s vision for love in such a way that people who want that can experience it, and people who choose singleness do so, not because of a jaded view of love, but because of a desire to serve God with single-minded devotion.
And now for a second disclaimer: For the bulk of church history, the church has interpreted this book allegorically because it’s just too racy to really be from heaven. Or so it was thought. But there’s only so much creativity for symbolic interpretations of breasts, french kissing, and weekend sexual escapades. In reality, this book is a love story between a King named Solomon and a Hebrew Cinderella named Shulamith. As the people of God, we should certainly not be obsessed with sex, but neither should we be embarrassed. Sex doesn’t belong to the devil, but to God. He gave it as a gift, and like all of His gifts, He gave it to be enjoyed.
Song of Songs 1:1-4
Now let’s begin by reading the first four-and-a-half verses of chapter 1: The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s. 2 Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine; 3 your anointing oils are fragrant; your name is oil poured out; therefore virgins (or, in the words of Beyonce, “all the single ladies”) love you. 4 Draw me after you; let us run. The king has brought me into his chambers.
Love is Magical
These first four verses are meant to introduce us to the magic of love. Notice how quickly it begins. The first verse says, “I can’t wait to make out with King Solomon!” And by the fourth verse, she’s saying, “I want to consummate a marriage to King Solomon!” Just like love, this song goes from 0-60 before you can say, “Wow.”
There’s a reason we refer to love’s magic with such phrases as, “falling in love,” and “drunk with love,” and “head over heels.” Love is magical. Twice in these verses, wine is mentioned, because falling in love is an intoxicating experience. In fact, both drinking wine and falling in love flood our brains with the same neurotransmitter: dopamine. Falling in love is as intoxicating as wine and as magical as Cupid’s arrow. This should offer hope to those of us who want to be in a relationship but don’t see any likely prospect within a hundred square miles.
That’s how it was for me and Alicia. I was 21 years old at the University of Texas, and I’d concluded that I wouldn’t find love before I graduated. My church had just a few “prospects”, but I didn’t feel the “magic” with any of them. And where else was I going to meet a godly young woman, besides church?
That summer, I studied abroad at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland. There were 22 students going with me, from the UT Business School, and Alicia was one of them. At first, there was no magic. That came later, when—back in Austin—Alicia asked me to join her to a “formal” for her organization, “Texas Spirits.” Normally people wore tuxedos and prom dresses for this event, but Alicia and her friend Molly wanted to do something crazy—they wanted to dress up in 1800’s Southern Belle attire. She thought, “Who do I know that’s willing to be crazy?” I’m proud to say, I’m the first person that came to mind.
This is a picture of Alicia, Molly, me, and my friend Clay, all dressed up. Yes, that’s a monocle and fake mustache. This was the night we fell in love. We literally didn’t break from our country accent the whole night. I jokingly called her my Sugar Daisy, and I was her Country Stallion.
Within a short period of time, we were official. A few months after that, I told my parents I was ready to buy a ring. They didn’t even know I was seriously dating. Not because I hid it, but because it happened that fast. And also, because I was a non-communicative male.
It’s the magic of love. You can be minding your own business, you can be doing your own thing, you can dismiss all possibility, and then BAM—you’re “twitterpated.” To those in the room who’ve written off the possibility of love, I would remind you: love is every bit as magical as cupid’s arrow. It can happen like that.
Which leads us to our next point: love is magical, but not automatic. Love is magical, but not automatic.
Love is Magical, but not Automatic
We tend to equate “magic” and “automatic” because we reason that God has a soulmate stored in heaven’s goody bag, and we are helpless until He opens the bag. That’s not the way it works, though. There are obstacles to overcome. Let’s return to the passage.
The second half of verse 4 introduces us to Shulamith’s peers: “We will exult and rejoice in you; we will extol your love more than wine; rightly do they love you.” Apparently, it’s not just Shulamith who’s in love with Solomon. It’s “all the single ladies”! We learn from this verse and the surrounding context that Shulamith’s fantasy about falling in love is really just that—a fantasy. She’s just another one of Solomon’s fangirls. To say she wants to marry him is like a teenager saying she wants to marry Brad Pitt. Shulamith’s competition is the first obstacle her love will face. Now let’s read verses 5 for another: 5 I am very dark, but lovely, O daughters of Jerusalem, like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon.
Not only does Shualmith have competition, but she has what ancient Hebrews considered to be a “flaw.” She says, “I am dark.” This had nothing to do with race—they were all Jewish—it was an indicator of social status. To be “dark” meant you were a peasant, a day-laborer, and not part of the aristocracy. When she says her skin is like the “tents of Kedar,” ladies, just ask yourself: would you ever want your skin to be described as a leathery sun-baked teepee?
Then in verse 6, we see that not only does she have competition and physical flaws, but her competition is cruel. She feels their harsh glares and compares them to the beating sun: 6 Do not gaze at me because I am dark, because the sun has looked upon me. Next, she offers an explanation for her flaws: My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept!
Her flawed leathery skin is the result of injustice and loss. Her brothers had been caring for her, which in her culture meant that her father had died or had left. Unfortunately, her brothers’ idea of “caring for little sister,” meant, “making her slave away in our fields.” Before there was ever a fatherless Cinderella and her evil step-sisters, there was the fatherless Shulamith and her evil brothers. Any ancient Jew would naturally ask at this point, “How in the world will this flawed and fatherless peasant ever find love at all—much less, from the King of Israel?”
Love is magical, but not automatic. There are obstacles to love before it even blossoms. Shulamith has suffered the loss of a father, the injustice of her brothers, the injury to her beauty, and contempt of her peers. Some of us have suffered too, and if we’re not careful, it will jade us. This is what’s happening in our culture. People are writing off marriage because it didn’t work in their broken home, and now they assume, it won’t work for them. Others have convinced themselves that they have too much baggage, too many scars, and too many flaws to be truly loved. Before love can blossom, they convince themselves they’re damaged goods.
Has this happened to you?
It almost happened to me, before I fell in love with Alicia. There’s a reason the magic didn’t spark right away, when Alicia and I met in Scotland.
Right before we hopped on the plane, I found out that my ex-girlfriend of two years was enrolling at the University of Texas. We’d broken up because I didn’t want to do the long-distance thing anymore. It took me a while to “get over her,” and as soon as I did, I received this phone call and questioned everything.
When Alicia met me, she thought I was completely disinterested and almost gave up on the possibility of something happening between us entirely. Then she had friends chirping in her ear that I wasn’t into her. If I was going to experience love, it wasn’t going to be automatic. I had to overcome the obstacles in my own heart. And in the wisdom of God, this makes perfect sense. Because if we don’t deal with our baggage before we meet someone, we bring it with us into the next relationship. God wants us to be healthy so that we can experience healthy romance.
So how do we overcome those obstacles within our own heart? How do we keep from becoming jaded, and experience the magic of love—for the first time, or the hundredth time? I’ll offer three ways.
The first one is: talk yourself into love, not out of it. Talk yourself into love, not out of it.
I’m directing this specifically at those who are single and would like to be in a romantic relationship. This is what we see Shulamith doing, when she has so many obstacles, so many reasons to feel jaded. But she doesn’t let her mind go there. When people criticize her skin for being dark, she says in verse 5, “Yes, it’s dark—but lovely.” When people criticize her skin for being like a nomad’s tent, she says, “I prefer to say it’s like the curtains of Solomon’s palace.”
Don’t let the haters and doubters tell you it can’t happen. Don’t give your inner critic the loudest voice; give God and His love the loudest voice. The only ones who fall in love are those who don’t talk themselves out of it. Talk yourself into love, not out of it.
Second, put yourself out there. Put yourself out there. Let’s read verses 7: 7 Tell me, you whom my soul loves, where you pasture your flock, where you make it lie down at noon; for why should I be like one who veils herself beside the flocks of your companions?
Despite her obstacles, Shulamith puts herself out there. When she tells Solomon she wants to know where his flocks graze, she’s not suggesting that Solomon—a king—is also a literal shepherd. She’s using metaphor to say, “I want to know you, not just as a powerful celebrity, but as an ordinary guy.” When she adds that she doesn’t want to be like a veiled woman—to be a veiled woman was to be a prostitute. She didn’t want to just know him as a fangirl having a sexual rendezvous (Solomon had a reputation—more on that next week); she wanted a real friendship with the real Solomon. This was a bold request. Shulamith puts herself out there.
One interesting fact about the Song of Songs is that it’s just as often—if not more often—the female who puts herself out there. Even after they’re married in chapter 4, the woman is often the one who initiates sexually. “Putting yourself out there,” never really stops. Even in marriage, when one partner never initiates—romantically or sexually—the other one begins to feel like his/her advances are unwanted. Rejection settles in. The magic of love becomes jaded.
Another issue I want to address on this subject is the modern phenomenon of online dating. I often meet people who met online, and it’s like they’re embarrassed to tell me. As your pastor, I am hereby declaring that online dating does not come with a stigma. In the old days, people met in the town square. In the Saved By the Bell Days, they met at the Max. But where do they meet today? 40% of couples meet online. You shouldn’t feel confined to finding love at work or church. Love is magical but it’s not automatic—you still have to put yourself out there.
Now for the last one: consistently praise your partner. Consistently praise your partner.
We’re going to skip forward a little bit. To fill you in on the content we’re passing over: Solomon affirms his affection in verse 9. Then the two lovers enter into a “dance of praise”, almost outdoing each other in compliments. Now let’s pick it up in 2:1, with Shulamith.
2 I am a rose[a] of Sharon, a lily of the valleys. [Now he speaks] 2 As a lily among brambles, so is my love among the young women. [She has just claimed to be a beautiful flower—so she’s continuing to talk herself into love—but she doesn’t yet feel unique. She’s one among many lilies in the valley. Solomon won’t stand for it. He says, “No, you make every other so-called flower look like a thorn bush by comparison.” Now she responds by pointing out Solomon’s uniqueness to her:] 3 As an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
One of the greatest themes of the Song of Songs is that the lovers consistently praise each other. This is God’s way of teaching us what a magical love looks like. Nobody ever tires of receiving praise, but the longer we’re together, the more we tire of giving it. Instead of compliments, we give criticisms. Instead of loving our partner as he/she is, we make our love contingent upon change, and we see ourselves as the primary agent for bringing that change.
By the way, married folks: how’s that going? Has nagging and griping changed your partner yet?
What I want you to see next is the transformation that takes place in Shulamith as a result of Solomon’s consistent praise. Once Solomon convinces her she’s unique to him, she claims to find shade—a reference back to the burning heat she once felt. No longer does she feel the burning sun that marked her as a hopeless peasant; no longer does she feel the burning anger of her brothers that enslaved her; no longer does she feel the burning criticisms of her sneering competition. Instead she feels the shade of Solomon’s love, expressed through praise.
That’s what you call “the magic of love.” Not just the intoxication of puppy love, but the satisfaction of secure love; not chemicals in our brains, but shade from the beating sun. Not just dopamine, but mutual devotion, expressed and enjoyed through praise.
Write Love Letters!
When Alicia and I started dating, we praised each other all the time, and I hate to admit, but in 15 years of marriage, we haven’t kept pace. This journal right here, we jokingly called, “The Journal O’ Love,” but that’s really what it is. We used to exchange love letters to one another and then leave it for the other. Given what we’ve said today about the power of praise, I’d like to issue a challenge to anyone in a romantic relationship: this very day, start a Journal O’ Love. And throughout this series, I’m asking you to commit to at least one love letter per week.
There’s power in your words. Love is not automatic. But praise is the “abracadabra” that sparks the magic of love. Now, I want to show you just one last picture. [Show picture]
A Picture of Magical Love
This is the 103-year-old DW Williams and his 100-year-old wife, Willie. They just celebrated their 82nd year of marriage. Together they’ve survived the Great Depression, World War II, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, and 9/11. After all they’ve been through, they still consider each other best friends.
Doesn’t that picture just move your heart? What would you say is more magical: the world’s vision for hopping from lover to lover and home to home, or 8 decades of being each others’ best friend and only lover?
The reason this picture is so “magical” is because—like every love story—it points to the most magical love story of them all. That love story goes like this: Before we had anything to bring to the table, despite our flaws and scars and baggage, Jesus loved us. And He loved us so much that He left His heavenly home to be united to His bride, His people. This was not just dopamine, but devotion. Not just chemicals, but covenant – sealed in His precious blood – so that we might rest in the shade of the tree He died on. Three days later Jesus rose again so that we might live happily ever after with Him.
Every love story points the world to that one, so that they might live happily ever also.
The Pain of Growth
The Pain of Growth
Last week, my seven-year-old boy William started asking if he could buy some “Robucks” for an iPad game called, “Roblox.” After DAYS of begging, finally it appeared as though his dream would come true on Wednesday night. All we had to do was make it through dinner.
Unfortunately for William, we didn’t exactly make it through dinner. I had set out plates and asked him tell siblings that dinner is ready. He didn’t do it. I told him again, with a slight reprimand. Still not responding, I gave him a strong reprimand. Five minutes later, I found him sitting around like I hadn’t asked him to do a thing. So I laid the hammer down: no allowance tonight. I waited for the sobs. Instead, he calmly informed me that he was okay with that.
Just a little word of advice to kids: if your parents try to punish you, at least pretend it hurts.
Of course, I took William’s response as a challenge to my authority. So I detonated my Weapon of Mass Destruction: “Okay, William. We’re not going to buy you any Robucks tonight.”
That’s when I got the response I was looking for—wailing and screaming—but he also gave me more than I bargained for. Briefly looking up from a puddle of tears, he shouted, “You did this because you HATE me with your WHOLE HEART, and I’m NEVER taking those words back.”
Have you ever noticed how growth is always painful? It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about the growth of a child’s character, growth of a business, growth in the gym, or the growth of God’s children. Growing pains are really a thing. We know this from observation. But no matter how much we “know” it, we tend to “un-know” it… when we suffer.
We’re in a series right now called, “Uncharted,” because we believe God has spoken over Wellspring this year that our church, as well as many individuals within this church, will be entering into uncharted territories, a new frontier. Throughout this series, we’ve been gradually revealing the steps it takes to realize our life purpose. First, discover your purpose. Then, take a risk to bring it to pass. Once you do, this leads inevitably to a spiritual battle, a fight. This week, our fourth step is “Grow.” Step 4 is where we learn the tools we’ll need—not just to be successful, but to be enduringly successful. Not just in the world’s eyes, but in God’s.
Today, we’ll be in the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 8. The Book of Deuteronomy was the last book of the Bible written by Moses, and it’s basically a really long sermon about everything Israel has experienced—from the Exodus to their wilderness wanderings. The wilderness was Israel’s season of growth, as we’ll see. We’ll start by reading the first 10 verses. Here, Moses warns Israel about what it will take to enter the “Promised Land”—and stay there.
8 “The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the Lord swore to give to your fathers. 2 And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. 3 And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word[a] that comes from the mouth of the Lord. 4 Your clothing did not wear out on you and your foot did not swell these forty years. 5 Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you. 6 So you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God by walking in his ways and by fearing him. 7 For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, 8 a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, 9 a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. 10 And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.
The Pain of Preparation…. The Preparation of Pain
The first point I want to make this morning is: God uses the Wilderness to Prepare us for the Promised Land.
The reason I say “us” is that Israel’s experience with a literal wilderness of scarcity and a literal land of promised abundance corresponds with a pattern lived out by God’s people: Joseph experienced a “wilderness” before he became a prince; David experienced a “wilderness” before he became a king; Jesus experienced a wilderness before beginning His ministry, and so did the Apostle Paul. God uses the Wilderness to prepare us for the Promised Land. He uses seasons of scarcity to prepare us for seasons of abundance. God ALWAYS blesses us abundantly, but only sometimes does He bless us with abundance.
You say, “Why in the world would we NEED scarcity to prepare us for abundance?”
Israel’s Calling – a light to all nations
To answer this, we first have to understand Israel’s calling. Israel was not just called to BE a nation; she was called to be a LIGHT to other nations. This goes back to Israel’s formation, when God told Abraham, “I will BLESS you, and then THROUGH you, all the NATIONS of the earth will be blessed.” At the core of Israel’s calling is that she was blessed to be a blessing. Thus, entering the Promised Land wasn’t just a matter of receiving blessing; it was a matter of stewarding it, for the benefit of the whole world.
Israel’s God – our Father in Heaven
That’s why Deuteronomy 8 reads the way it does. God compares himself to a father in verse 5. Fathers care for their children by providing for their needs, just as God provided food and clothing and protection from swelling feet. But good fathers don’t just care for their children’s present needs; they prepare their children for a productive future. And this is where discipline comes in. God wanted His son, Israel, to be a good citizen, a humble and generous steward of His blessings. Otherwise, she’d become just another Empire vying for position in the world and consuming itself in immorality. Imperialistic empires are just the national expression of a spoiled brat that uses his strength to beat up all the other kids on the playground. God didn’t want that for Israel, so He gave her a dose of fatherly discipline. God let them wander in a dangerous and hungry wilderness, not because God was cruel and delighted to see them suffer. Quite the opposite. God was doing to Israel what I was doing to William. He wasn’t just caring for Israel’s present needs, He was preparing Israel her future calling.
And just like William, Israel wined and shouted the ancient equivalent of, “You did this because you HATE me with your whole heart!” The Scripture says that God disciplines those He loves, but discipline never feels like love, it feels like hate. Are you struggling to believe God’s goodness in your wilderness? Do you feel like God hates you or has forgotten you?
The Benefits of God’s Discipline
Two hours after my episode with Will, I was tucking him in, but he was still non-communicative. I asked him if he still loved me, and I probably shouldn’t ask questions I don’t want the answer to, but he told me matter-of-factly he did not. So I turned it into another lesson. I said, “William, I always try to deal with my anger before I fall asleep, because the Bible says in Ephesians 4 (paraphrase for kids!) that our hearts become a little bit darker if we don’t.”
For the first time that evening, he engaged me in conversation. He said, “What do you mean that our heart gets darker?” I said, “It gets a little less loving and a little more hateful, and it stops caring as much about God.” He said, “But I’m too ANGRY to not be angry anymore.” I said, “This would be a perfect time to ask for God’s help.”
So he asked me to pray for him, which I did.
After a long pause—I could see the wheels turning—he gave me a hug, and he said, “When you do your morning prayers, will you wake me up at 6:45 to pray with you?”
We don’t usually get to see the results of discipline till they get older, but it was like God gave me an early glimpse. Imagine with me the power of William learning this lesson now: what difference might it make in his future marriage, if he continues to live by the rule of not letting the sun go down on anger, of reconciling with people he loves, and of ordering his day around seeking God first? What difference might it make for his future children, and their children after them, and all the lives that those generations touch?
These are the things God has in mind when He shows us love, not only by generously caring for our present needs, but painfully preparing us for our future calling. Like Israel, you were blessed to be a blessing. The Promised Land is not just about experiencing abundance, but stewarding it for the good of many. God uses the Wilderness to prepare us for the Promised Land.
Now, let’s come back to the passage, and I’d like to read a few more verses:
11 “Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, 12 lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
Now here’s my second point: If we don’t let the Wilderness prepare us for the Promised Land, the Promised Land will prepare us for another Wilderness.
The Danger of Scarcity and Abundance
On either side of the Promised Land, there’s Pain. On either side of abundance, there is scarcity. The wilderness is meant to humble our hearts to be ready for the Promised Land, but if we forget the lessons we learned there, we go into exile, like Israel did. We go back into the wilderness, where we can once again be humbled, so that we can once again bear God’s abundance as wise stewards who use their abundance to bless others, not just themselves.
In this sense, both abundance and scarcity are dangerous. The danger of scarcity is that we think God forgot us. The danger of abundance is that we forget God. Verses 10 and 11 say, “Once you eat and are full… take care, lest you forget God…” We need God just as much in the Promised Land as in the Wilderness. But when we’re living in the Promised Land, we forget.
Remember the LORD
That’s why the central commandment of Deuteronomy 8, expressed negatively in verse 11, is “Don’t forget the LORD.” Expressed positively in verse 2, it says, “Remember the LORD.” To our Western ears, remembering God simply speaks of calling Him to mind intellectually. But to a Hebrew mind, remembering meant so much more. Verse 11 says, “don’t forget the LORD by not keeping His commandments.” To “remember” involves more than our intellect; it involves our hearts, our souls, and our bodies, acting in unison to obey God… to show God how meaningful He is to us in the present because of what He’s done for us in the past.
Practically speaking, what does it look like for you to remember God—so that you can grow in your wilderness, move on to your Promised Land, and then stay there? I’ll offer two ways.
Remember God Through Stewardship
The first way to remember God is stewardship. I’ve been using this word, but what exactly is it? The English Standard Version of the Bible translates “steward” as “manager.” The idea is that you and I don’t actually own a single thing. Our money and our talents don’t belong to us. Everything we have, down to our very life, is a loan from God. One day we’ll give an accounting for our accounting: Did you hoard your blessings, or did you use them to bless others? Did you use your gifts to point people to God’s worth, or your own? If Jesus managed your budget, how different would it look? God blessed us to bless others. He saved us to be stewards.
On a personal level, that’s why I’ve invested the last 15 months in learning to speak Spanish. God gave me a gift for learning languages, and even though I didn’t see a use for it in the moment, I trusted that God didn’t give me the gift for no reason. Now, after 15 months, I can see God opening doors. In the past two weeks, I’ve spent several hours on the phone, mentoring our Cuban missionary Norlen Perez in Spanish. This is the same Cuban missionary who was literally on his way to baptize 300 people, and who three months prior, baptized 300 more. In a small way, I feel like I got to be part of that. And so is everyone in this room who’s made financial contributions to the work in Cuba.
Stewards share God’s blessings, but in sharing God’s blessings, we find ourselves the ones blessed. You were blessed to be a blessing, but also, blessing others blesses you. If you want to get off the wilderness cycle, get on the stewardship cycle. Bless others, and you’ll be blessed, so that you have more blessing to bless others with. It’s a wonderful cycle.
Remember God Through Sacrament
Now, for a final way to remember God: the Sacraments. Specifically, in this case, Communion.
There’s a sense in which we can move from scarcity to abundance, from Wilderness to Promised Land, throughout this life. But there’s a sense in which this entire life is a “wilderness” as we await entry into our “Promised Land”—that is, our eternal place of rest and abundance.
Just like Israel was given bread from heaven to eat and water from the rock to drink during their wilderness wanderings, the Apostle Paul says that these miraculous provisions were a “type,” a foreshadowing, of Communion. Just as Israel was sustained by God’s provision in the wilderness, we are sustained by grace, literally deposited into our person, through the power of Jesus’ life death and resurrection, as we eat and drink the elements of communion by faith. Communion sustains us in the wilderness of this world until Jesus returns and transforms it into our eternal Promised Land.
I saved communion for the last point because everything we do for God is ultimately rooted in what God did for us, through Jesus. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s original promise to Abraham, that through Israel, God would bless all nations. If you read Israel’s history, they were not faithful in the wilderness, nor were they faithful in the Promised Land. It seemed as though God’s promise to Abraham would never come to pass—as though Israel’s unfaithfulness would somehow undo God’s faithfulness. Rather than being a steward of God’s blessings, Israel hoarded those blessings and even used them to worship other gods. They didn’t learn the lesson of the wilderness, and consequently, they went back to it.
The good news of the Gospel is that man’s unfaithfulness cannot undo God’s faithfulness. Where Israel failed the test for 40 years in the wilderness, Jesus passed the test for His symbolic 40 days of fasting. Jesus is our representative Israel. He stewarded the blessings of God perfectly, so that through His life, death, and resurrection, God fulfilled His promise that through Abraham’s offspring—Jesus was Abraham’s offspring—through Him, all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Through faith, you and I are Abraham’s seed, and through us, the light of God’s promise continues to shine. Man’s darkness cannot put out God’s light. Man’s unfaithfulness cannot undo God’s faithfulness.
God LOVES the world with His whole heart, and He’s never taking it back.
“The Kingdom of God has come near you” (Lk. 10:9, 11).
Jesus’ central message was not, “the good news about going to heaven,” but “the good news about heaven coming to earth.”
This is the message He placed on His disciples’ lips. It’s the summary of His every sermon (Mt. 4:17; Mk. 1:15). And it’s the world-famous prayer He taught us to pray: “May your Kingdom come (not may we go there), and Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10).
Despite such robust clarity, we’ve gone on preaching a “gospel” that looks entirely different.
Most of us were taught a gospel that went something like this: God has a wonderful plan for your life. We humans sinned and messed that plan up. Jesus died on the Cross to forgive our sin. If we trust in Him, we’ll go to heaven when we die.
In other words, the entire goal of the Gospel becomes, “Go to heaven when you die.”
But that’s NOT the goal of the ACTUAL Gospel. I’m not saying it’s untrue; it just misses the point. It’s like you’re going on a road trip to Disney World, and you sell the trip to your kids by saying, “Guess what kids, we’re going to stay in a really nice hotel on the way to Disney World!”
Heaven is not the end-game; it’s a really nice hotel on the way there. It’s the Ritz Carlton for departed spirits, but as fancy as it is, nobody wants to stay in a hotel forever. God’s end-game—His ultimate destination for redeemed humanity—is “the new heavens and new earth.” It’s Creation, Part 2. God’s Vision is for heaven and earth to become one, just as it was in the Garden of Eden, when God and people lived in perfect friendship in a MATERIAL world, and where man achieved the purpose for which he was created, which was to rule over the earth—that is, to build, plant, multiply, and create—in such a way that the entire earth (not just the Garden of Eden) looked like heaven.
Now this gives us insight into what Jesus’ central message actually means.
When Jesus and His disciples come preaching, “The Kingdom of God has come near you,” they’re not saying that there’s a castle in the sky with pearly gates and dead grandparents. No, they’re inaugurating God’s “end-game” in the here-and-now. They’re launching a global revolution. They’re essentially saying, “This Planet is Under New Management.” The long-held Jewish hope was that God would come to reign on this planet, NOT that our spirits would fly away to heaven and leave the earth like a dumpster fire.
So how does this all fit in with the big picture of the Bible?
God created Adam and Eve, gave them authority over the earth, and commissioned them to make the whole world look like heaven. Instead, they surrendered to temptation, handing Satan their authority over the earth. Now Satan is called, “the ruler of this world” (Jn. 12:31) and “the god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4). The Fall of Man was not just about eating a fruit; it was about who’s in charge of the earth. Satan stole man’s authority, given by God to make this earth look like heaven. And he’s been using it ever since, to achieve the exact opposite of God’s design—making this earth look more like hell.
But God didn’t give up on His planet, His people, or His purpose. Rather than just rescuing us, Jesus redeemed all three through His life, death, and resurrection.
Jesus’ ministry was the beginning of Satan’s terrible demise, but unfortunately for him, it was not the end. At the Cross, Jesus crushed the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:15), He disarmed the powers of darkness (Col. 2:15), and He judged the ruler of this world (Jn. 12:31). Three days later, Jesus rose again. There, instead of taking us away from the earth, He redeemed those “Three P’s”:
He recommissioned His PEOPLE
to fulfill their original PURPOSE
of making this PLANET
look less like hell and more like heaven
…until Jesus returns,
…until heaven and earth become one,
…and until God’s end-game becomes a new beginning for the entire universe.
Franny’s Last Ride
7 Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun. 8 So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.[b] 9 Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.10 Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain[c] from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.
Here, the theme shifts from uncertainty about life (11:1-6) to certainty about death (11:7-10). The point: certainty of death makes us want to live fully.
When he talks about “light being sweet”, he’s not just telling us to get some Vitamin D; he’s using light as a metaphor for life. He’s saying, “Even though there’s lots of pain and darkness, on the whole, life is good—so enjoy it while you can.” Twice, he uses the positive command, “Rejoice”—because the lives of Christians should be marked more by joy than sadness. Sure, we will have seasons of sorrow, but like the Apostle said, “we are sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10). In verse 10, Solomon presents the other side of the coin using a negative expression that communicates the same thing: “Remove vexation from your heart…” In other words, “Don’t let worry and depression and the pressures of life steal your youth away.”
Three times, Solomon uses that word “youth” (and again in 12:1) – not because old people can’t live with purpose, but because old people don’t need to be reminded of death’s certainty. “The days of darkness will be many” – that is, the older you get, the more your mind and body decline as they downshift on their way to the grave. Older folks are reminded of death’s certainty every time the weather changes and their bones ache.
I’ve been told all my life by older, wiser people: “The days are long, but the years are short—enjoy today. You’ll blink and then it’s gone.” I never believed them.
I never believed them till my precious daughter Anna began her transformation, still underway, into a beautiful woman. I look at her today, and I hear my dad’s voice, like an ever-present life-narrator, “I told you son, blink and then it’s gone.”
Young people act like they’ll live forever, so they don’t live fully. Old people know they won’t live forever, but by the time they realize it, it’s too often too late. Certainty of death makes us want to live fully.
Franny’s Last Ride
All of this reminds me of the story of Mike DeStefano—he was a finalist in the show, “Last Comic Standing.” One of his famous lines was, “I am a stand-up comic. Before that, I was a drug counselor. Before that, I was a drug addict. Before that, I was 12.”
In one of his routines, he gets serious, telling the story of his “last ride with Franny.” Franny was the woman he fell in love with in rehab while they were in their youth—their 20’s. One day, he took her to the doctor because she had a fever, and they found out she had AIDS. With the prospect of death so certain, he added to everyone’s shock: he decided to marry her.
Within a short time, Frannie was in hospice, and Mike rolled up on his brand-new Harley, hoping to distract her mind from constant thoughts of immanent death. He said, “You want to see my motorcycle?” She shuffled to the bike and sat up on it, IV pole and morphine drip in hand. “I want to ride it.” What could he say? Slowly they began riding through the parking lot, with the sound of a dragging IV pole and Harley Davidson engine. The combination of sounds brought scores of hospice staff and dying patients to their front doors. And everyone started cheering.
Suddenly Mike heard a loud bang. He said, “I thought I was going to have to explain to her family, Frannie almost died of AIDS but I killed her on a motorcycle.” It was actually just the sound of her IV pole dropping to the asphalt—she unhooked it. She started rubbing his chest and said, “Can we get on the highway?”
He thought of all the suffering and pain, and said, “Yea we can do that.” So they get up to 80, hospital gown and morphine bag flapping, tears falling. Frannie’s on the back with days to live, screaming with childish delight—like she has her whole life ahead of her.
The line I’ve never forgotten is when Mike DeStefano, describing that scene, says, “For ten minutes, we were normal, and that wind in our face just blew all the death off of us.”
Do you see how death’s certainty makes us want to live fully? Unless there’s some special diagnosis, as there was in this case, young people tend to live as though death is too distant to matter. But you’ll never maximize your life unless you’re thinking often about how short it is.
Jesus Came to Make Your Life Full
God isn’t asking you to give up your pursuit of the full life. Jesus came “to give you life, and give it to the full” (Jn. 10:10). He was so serious about this mission that when He looked down from heaven and saw us chasing a million vain dreams under the sun—rather than feeling anger, He felt compassion. We chased the wind and turned up empty-handed, but Jesus chased us to the Cross and got a handful of nails. There, Jesus was emptied so that we could be full, and so that Solomon’s word—“judgment”—rather than filling us with dread, might fill us with longing, to finally see His face.
Jesus bore on His shoulders the judgment we deserved, and three days later He rose again so that – just like the wind in Franny’s face – He could blow all the death off of us.
Not for ten minutes, but for all eternity.
How Do I Discover My Purpose?
“Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days. 2 Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth. 3 If the clouds are full of rain, they empty themselves on the earth, and if a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie. 4 He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap. 5 As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb[a] of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything.
6 In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good” (Ecc. 11:1-6).
The main idea of this section is: uncertainty about God’s work should change the way we work.
Notice the repeated theme of uncertainty: in verse 2, we don’t know when disaster will strike. In verse 5, we don’t know the work of God that causes everything. In verse 6, we don’t know whether our efforts will succeed or fail. All of these examples are meant to point to the fact that we are uncertain about what God will do in our future. This uncertainty naturally leads to one of two human responses. One is wise and the other is foolish.
The foolish response is in verses 3 and 4, where he talks about the activity of clouds and falling trees and wind. The point he’s making is: don’t get caught up in paralysis by analysis. If you sit around staring at the weather or worrying about whether a tree’s going to fall, you’ll never get anything done. If you’re waiting for perfect conditions, you’ll never get started.
Three years ago, I was preaching about this same basic topic, and I told the church I felt called to be a writer, but that I didn’t have the time. Maybe one day when the kids were grown and the church was tired of me, I’d retire and write all the books that’ve been in my head for decades. But then one day I was praying about it, and I heard the Holy Spirit say, “Just work with what you have.” I thought about it and realized, “I’m already writing a weekly sermon. Why not manuscript it out? Then one day, maybe I can turn them into books?!” Well guess what? Three years of manuscripting sermons later, and I’m expecting my first book to be published in 2020.
If you want to discover your purpose, don’t wait for perfect conditions. Don’t get caught up in paralysis by analysis. People say that the enemy of “great” is “good,” but I say that the enemy of “good” is “great.” You don’t have to be perfect! Work with what you have and just do something. Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.
Which sets us up for the wise response to uncertainty. The wise response to uncertainty is not paralysis by analysis, but diverse and decisive action.
The first verse—“cast your bread on the waters and it will come back to you”—probably speaks of maritime trade. Of sending your “bread”, aka, your investment, across the sea and out of sight because one day you’ll see it come back to you. The second verse expands on that by saying, “Don’t just invest in one thing; invest in seven or eight.” And then verse 6 takes it further: “Don’t just work during the day; work day and night!” All of this to say, take diverse action (do lots of different things) and take decisive action (do them immediately). Why? Because you don’t know the work of God – what He’ll cause to succeed, and what He won’t – so just get out there and do something, lots of things, and eventually you’ll discover your thing.
Also, don’t wait around for some “special revelation” about what your purpose in life is. How often do we find ourselves complaining to God, “I’ll do whatever you want, just make it clear what You want me to do!!” We’re waiting on God, but sometimes God is waiting on us. According to this passage, you can’t know where God is working till you yourself get to work. Discovering your purpose guesswork. It’s less about revelation than it is about observation. Sow your seed, morning and night, and see what God’s blessing.
On this note, I think that one of the great ideals of American culture is taken to an extreme and sometimes hampers us. What I’m talking about is, “If at first you don’t succeed…. Try, try again.” It’s a wonderful antidote, but I would modify it slightly:
“If at first you don’t succeed, try again; if at last you don’t succeed, try something different.”
Some of us give up too easily, but others don’t give up easily enough. If you’re 4-foot-7 and blind in one eye, it’s time to give up on the NBA dream. Some things fail—not because you’re not trying hard enough, but because God isn’t in them. If you’ve been working at some line of work for years with no fruit, no promotion, no evidence that God is working with you, start exploring other things. That doesn’t mean quit your job today—verse 6 says find something else to do in the evenings. What can you do on the side? What hobby or interest or opportunity can you explore?
Do something, do lots of things, and eventually you’ll find your thing.
Seize The Day
Seize the Day!
“Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment” (Ecc. 11:9).
I love how permissive this statement is. It’s Solomon’s equivalent of God’s statement in the Garden of Eden: “You can eat the fruit of ANY tree in the entire garden! Millions of opportunities! Just don’t eat that one.”
The verse is especially fascinating in light of Solomon’s experience in chapters 1 and 2. There, he goes nuts trying to find satisfaction in every corner of the earth—through women, drink, pleasure, philosophy, possessions, achievements. He plants, builds, dreams and creates, following his eyes and his heart wherever they lead. In the end, he says, “It was all a vapor.”
Before the Rolling Stones ever sang, “I can’t get no satisfaction,” and before Bono ever sang, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for,” Solomon was already humming that tune.
And that’s what makes this verse so fascinating – because it’s like Solomon is reversing course on the vanity of these activities. It’s like he’s saying, “Do everything I did— Achieve, Enjoy, Learn, Grow, Build, Plant, Do Good, Do Lots, and do these things Night and Day!”—BUT—know that if you’re leaving God out of the picture, there’s nothing in it.
It’s like the old poem says:
Only one life
‘Twill soon be past
Only what’s done for Christ will last.
That’s what the last part about judgment is really about. It’s not merely about curbing our excesses; it’s about infusing our lives with meaning. The point is: If an eternal God judges what we do, then what we do matters eternally. Christians may do many of the same things “under the sun” that everyone else does. But our life has meaning because even though it’s done under the sun, it’s done FOR the One who holds it.
So go out into the world and Carpe Diem—seize the day! Plant, build, dream and create. Just as Jesus set His eyes on us, we set ours on Him, and then through Him—like a lens through which we see—upon the rest of the world He’s given us.
If your heart and your eyes are set on Jesus, they won’t lead you astray.
In seizing the day, you will seize eternity.
Seeking God’s Will
“And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. So passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them” (Acts 16:6-10).
Fatalistic or Fantastical?
Some people are fatalistic about seeking God’s will. They ask God for guidance but never listen for it. Instead, they trust that God answers their requests by simply directing them along the right path. “My steps are ordered by the Lord,” they say, quoting Proverbs 16.
In contrast to the fatalists, many others are fantastical about receiving God’s secret guidance. These people won’t take a step until it’s revealed clearly from above. In the rare occasion that Heaven’s livestream “goes dark,” these saints wait… and wait… and wait… while perhaps God is waiting for them to stop waiting.
Neither of these extremes agrees with the story of Paul and his friends.
Rather than just fatalistically assuming that their path was God’s best path, Paul and his friends actually listen for God’s advance communication about that best path.
Rather than fantastically assuming that every single next step will be illuminated BEFORE THEY GO, Paul and his friends operate under the assumption that the steps will be illuminated AS THEY GO.
The Right Way to Seek God’s Will
If you’re seeking God’s will, know that God is guiding you by His sovereign hand, but don’t neglect the fact that He’ll often show you in advance the next steps to take. Be willing to wait for God.
On the flip side, don’t JUST wait. Work while you wait. Join God’s mission of making disciples—in your family, in your church, in your world. You’re far more likely to hear God speak if you’re laboring beside Him.
And don’t look for a livestream from heaven. God’s revelation comes by process, not by download. Paul and his team are never shown the full picture, all at once. Instead, God slams two doors in their face before flinging open door #3.
Look for God to speak to you through a process of closed doors that give way to open ones. And even when God opens a door, don’t charge through like a desert-wanderer who discovers an oasis. Paul invites his closest friends into the process of seeking God’s guidance, and we should do the same.
Sometimes I wish God didn’t speak by process. I’d love for God to download everything to me, like Neo on the Matrix. But it’s through the process of listening for advance guidance, sometimes not receiving it, moving forward with the mission of God nonetheless, getting doors slammed in my face, and seeking God’s will together with dear friends that God draws me closer to Him, slowly building my trust in Him.
“Trust” is what this process is really about.
Every relationship you have is built on trust. The way we build a friendship with an Invisible Being is by trusting His invisible guidance. So let’s not turn this process into the desperate shaking of a Cosmic Magic 8 Ball that tells us “yes,” “no,” or “Concentrate and ask again.”
The process of seeking God’s will is far less about knowing the right path than it is about knowing the One who paved it.
Talking to your kids about sex
“My son, be attentive to my wisdom; incline your ear to understanding… for the lips of a forbidden woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil, but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword…” (Pr. 5:1-4).
Parents, not peers, should be the first to teach kids about sex.
Unfortunately, this is not true in many Christian households. Some of us feel uncomfortable discussing the topic with our own spouse… How much more with our children! Others feel disqualified because of our own mistakes. Still others deal with sexual shame due to abuse, and talking about sex makes us relive our horror.
The Scriptures speak significantly about sex, but they don’t often speak about speaking about sex. Below are some guidelines that I’ve learned through Scriptural principle, parenting, counseling, and answering the questions of curious teenagers while I was a Youth Pastor.
When Do We Say Something?
1) Start the conversation early
Many parents put all their stakes in “the conversation”, but they don’t teach anything about sex prior to that conversation. This approach can be emotionally traumatic to a child who’s suddenly expected to go from zero to 60 without warning. Below are some simple talking points for early conversations:
- Body parts – As soon as children can understand English (and even before!) they’re ready to begin “the conversation”. My counselor recommended long ago that we call our children’s sexual organs by their real names: not “wee-wee” or “va-va”, but penis and vagina. Why? Because euphemisms subtly communicate that we’re ashamed of certain body parts. Translated into adulthood, you can imagine the ramifications.
- Sexual boundaries – Besides “penis” and “vagina”, we also refer to them as “privates” to teach our kids boundaries. Things that are “private” are not meant to be “public”. Curious kids will naturally try to stare at and touch others’ privates, especially during bath time, so this becomes a recurring lesson. The lesson of boundaries is reinforced by parents who respect kids’ privacy as they get older, and who don’t let kids see them naked once they’re old enough to be clearly aware of the physical sexual differences between mom and dad. These early distinctions between “private” and “public” boundaries set you up for a more explicit teenage conversation: sleeping around makes our private parts public (Pr. 5:16-17), demeaning our self-worth while expressing its lack.
- How babies are made, part 1: Even my four-year-old knows that babies aren’t delivered by storks. They are created when, “Mommy and Daddy have a very special ‘married kiss’.” Part of this ‘married kiss’ involves a ‘seed’ moving from Daddy’s body into Mommy’s body, and going into an egg (we don’t mention the penis and vagina at this stage). Nobody even bats an eye. Our goal here is not merely to teach basic biology, but to lay a foundation for understanding sex as marital intimacy.
- How babies are made, part 2: This is the what most people think of as “the conversation”, and it’s a lot less intimidating for both child and parent now that you’ve laid the groundwork. At this point, all you do is bring definition clarity to sexual intercourse. We’ve already had this conversation with my easily embarrassed ten-year-old daughter, and the conversation was no big deal to her because she was ready.
Just as conversations about sexuality begin before “the conversation,” conversations about sexuality continue after “the conversation.” As kids get older, you will discuss pornography, masturbation, fooling around sexually, fornication, and more.
2) Follow the guideposts
Most parents don’t discuss sex enough, but it’s also possible to err on the other side – delving out too much information, too quickly. How do you know when to say what? Unique factors play into every situation. Here are some guideposts to follow:
- Is the child in public school, private school, or home schooled?
- Does the child have older siblings?
- Is the child curious? (i.e., pay attention to what questions they are asking)
- What is the child’s ‘emotional’ age? (there’s a difference between emotional and chronological age).
There are also universal factors to heed: our children are growing up faster than ever before. At the turn of the 20th century, the average girl had her first period at 16 or 17; today the average age is less than 13.  With the advent of cell phones, internet, and social media, kids are receiving sexts, viewing porn, and finding out about sex earlier than ever.
What Do We Say?
3) Teach biblical standards.
There’s been a common refrain in the church in recent years: “1st century sexual norms don’t work in 21st century.” The 40% of children who are born outside of wedlock might disagree. Parents need to know and teach biblical standards at appropriate ages. Do you know what the Bible says about fornication? Masturbation? Fooling around sexually? Homosexual behavior? Pornography? This makes me think I need another blog on the subject… maybe? We’ll see…
4) Don’t just teach what, teach why
Soon after God gives the Ten Commandments, he teaches the Israelites to show their children the WHY behind the WHAT (Deut. 6:20-25). If we give our children rules without reasons, we train them to be legalistic robots instead of friends of God. Here are a few reasons why God created sex. Conveniently, they all begin with P because I’m a Preacher, and I do that 😉
- Procreation (Gen. 1:28 – did you ever notice that the first command in the Bible is, ‘Have sex’? I’m pretty sure God’s not embarrassed about this topic!)
- Promise (Gen. 2:24 – the covenant of marriage is sealed by sex)
- Pleasure (Pr. 5:18-19; Song of Songs 5:1 – in both passages, God tells married lovers to be intoxicated with sexual pleasure)
- Passion (Song of Songs 4:9-10 – the first ‘bedroom scene’ of the song portrays lovemaking as a profound expression of romantic passion)
- Protection (1 Cor. 7:5 – married sex protects us from sexual temptation)
- Proclamation (Eph. 5:32 – married sex proclaims the Gospel by pointing to the mystical union between Christ and the church)
5) Discuss the beauty of sex, not the dirtiness of it. Pornographers and Puritans have the same core message: sex is dirty. The former embraces the ‘dirtiness’ of sex, and the other shuns it. Both are wrong. Too often the church has shamed teenagers – and mostly, they’ve singled out teenage girls – into the otherwise noble goal of being pure for their future husbands. They do this by using fear tactics, characterizing sexual sin as the worst of all sins. If the young lady ‘stumbles’, she is a filthy sinner. If she ‘keeps herself pure’ for her husband, it’s nearly impossible to flip a switch when she gets married and suddenly believe that sex with her husband is beautiful. As believers in Christ, we must major in Gospel-motivations that emphasize beauty and grace, not shame-based motivations that emphasize filth and fear.
Dealing With Our Own Shame
6) Don’t let your own mistakes hinder you. Solomon had one thousand sex partners, and he died in sexual rebellion against God. Yet this didn’t stop him in the Scripture above from warning his son about the dangers of illicit sex. This is not an excuse for us to break our own standards; it’s a reminder that we can’t let our failures hold us back. When the children are old enough, I would even advise sharing about your failures with them. If mom and dad slept with each other before marriage, tell them. If there have been struggles along the way, share those too. Don’t forget to share why you regretted it later – this is a powerful teaching tool. It also shows your teens that you’ll have grace for them when they fall short.
7) Walk in the light. Sin not only make us feel guilt; it also makes us feel shame. Guilt says, “I made a mistake,” and shame says, “I am a mistake.” Our natural reaction to shame is to go into hiding because we feel like damaged goods (Gen. 3:7-8). As long as I remain in hiding, my shame remains – even if I’m the only one who knows. “But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). In other words, if we come out of hiding and into the light of friendship with God, sharing our failures in “fellowship with one another” – perhaps a best friend or a pastor or both – then the power of Jesus’ blood manifests to cleanse us from shame. If that wasn’t spectacular enough, Jesus’ blood is still more powerful. Not only does He cleanse us from the shame we feel over our own sins; He cleanses us from the shame we feel over those who’ve sinned against us. In the age of Harvey Weinstein, Larry Nasser, and the whole #metoo movement, how refreshing it is to know that Jesus’ blood has the power to set us free from the shame of sexual abuse.
The Most Important Step
“Walking in the light” is the most important step for anyone to understand when it comes to teaching our kids about sex. If a parent is ashamed of sex, that parent will be sexually unhealthy (usually manifesting as either being asexual or promiscuous), and the parent’s shame will be imparted to the child in the way sex is either discussed or not discussed.
Grace-based parents are not afraid to talk about sex, and their kids are not afraid to talk to them about sex. Grace emboldens everyone, empowers everyone, and emancipates everyone from shackles of shame.
Grace-based parents are the best parents because only they can raise grace-based kids.
 Facing Codependence, Pia Mellody, pg. 167. Mellody is one of the preeminent voices on shame, boundaries, and codependence in America. She suggests that children should not see their parents naked after about age 4 or 5.