What is God’s perfect will about choosing a life partner?

Q. What is God’s standard and perfect will about choosing a life partner?

Thank you for your question. It is one that I was asked many times, in one form or another, during my 25 years as a pastor. Let me share some of the insights that crystallized over those years.

First, we cannot automatically assume that God has a life partner for us. The New Testament is clear that for followers of Jesus, advancing the kingdom of God is primary, and everything else, including marriage, is secondary. So God will have a life partner for you if you will be able advance the kingdom better if married, but not if you can advance the kingdom better if single.

As Paul put it to the Corinthians after describing how being single gave him advantages for his own work for the kingdom, “I wish everyone were single, just as I am. Yet each person has a special gift from God, of one kind or another” (meaning either singleness or marriage). In other words, marriage is not the default, and singleness the exception, as some communities implicitly suggest, nor is singleness (celibacy) a higher state that more spiritual people should aspire to, as other communities seem to believe. Rather, both marriage and singleness are “special gifts” that God gives to each person as He sovereignly chooses.

The Greek word is actually charisma, “spiritual gift.” So our first task in seeking God’s perfect will is to become yielded and willing to live either as married or as single, as God should decide. God promises blessings to people in both states: “Whoever finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord”; “I want you to be free from worry; a man who is not married is busy with the Lord’s work, he is trying to please the Lord.”

Now it may be that, all things considered, you feel that God would want you to be married. As far as you can tell, you would be able to advance the kingdom of God better that way. In that case, I would still advise you not to go looking for someone to marry. Instead, work on becoming the kind of person that the kind of person you would want to marry would want to marry. And then trust God to bring the right life partner along in His own time and in His own way. It’s not up to you to find them. It’s up to you to be ready when God brings them into your life. You want them to be able to recognize you as the right life partner for them!

I have heard of cases where people felt they had spent sufficient time “becoming” like this and it was now time for God to bring a partner into their life. These people felt led into extraordinary seasons of prayer, sometimes with fasting. And in unexpected ways, many of them were connected with people who did become excellent life partners. So if you eventually feel that you have reached this point, then rely on prayer (perhaps with fasting) as your essential means of seeking God in the matter.

But another thing I’d say is that we need to be open to the unexpected. I’ve known people who very much wanted to be married, but no partner ever came into their lives, and over time they accepted the disappointment and bravely began to explore how they could serve God effectively as a single person. On the other hand, I have known people who were quite content being single and who felt that they had an effective ministry for God that way. But unexpectedly God brought someone into their life who they recognized would be an excellent life partner and give them an even greater ministry, in ways they couldn’t have thought of themselves. We have to leave it up to God to decide, and we need to trust that God knows best.

One clear standard in the New Testament is, “Only in the Lord.” (While these words are spoken specifically to widows about the question of remarriage, in the wider context of the New Testament they certainly apply to all believers.) In other words, anyone a follower of Jesus marries must also be a committed follower of Jesus. No one who is not a follower of Jesus can help you have a greater ministry for the kingdom of God than you would have without them.

In trying to recognize whether a person who has come into our lives is indeed the life partner God intends, we can rely, for one thing, on what is often described as “ordinary guidance.” That means the convergence of factors such as the teaching of Scripture, the advice of trusted counselors, the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, what the circumstances permit, the God-given desires of our hearts, etc. I personally have found that our parents (if they are still living, or otherwise people who have become like parents to us in their stead) are given special insight into whether a given person would be a good life partner for us. My late wife and I had each resolved, before we became serious about one another, that we would not marry anyone without our parents’ blessing. I feel that this resolution served us very well. (Obviously we did receive the blessing of both sets of parents, or we wouldn’t have gotten married!) I also have to say that unfortunately I have seen people marry against their parents’ wishes and suffer greatly for it afterwards.

But beyond this “ordinary” guidance, I have noticed over the years that very many times people receive “extraordinary” guidance about who to marry. That form of guidance is a direct communication from God, so that you just know, perhaps without knowing how you know. I have seen this happen so frequently, in fact, that I have come to believe that God will often give such guidance precisely because the decision about who to marry is so important and has such a great impact on our entire life and future.

I hope these reflections are helpful to you. And may God direct you into His perfect will in this matter for your life.

Why does Jesus sometimes seem to give certain disciples special treatment?

Q. Jesus has Peter, James, and John join Him to observe the Transfiguration. Why only these three? And, elsewhere Jesus seems to choose only certain disciples to reveal truth to and not others. So, how can we understand this? Obviously, it’s not favoritism, but maybe cliques are not all bad?

You’re right that Jesus allowed Peter, James, and John to see some parts of his ministry firsthand that the other disciples didn’t get to see. According to Mark, for example, Jesus brought only the three of them with him not just to the mountain of the Transfiguration, but also to the home of Jairus, whose daughter he raised from the dead, and apart with him in the Garden of Gethsemane. Mark also specifies that it was Peter, James, and John who asked Jesus what he meant about the temple being destroyed, prompting what is known as the Olivet Discourse (Jesus’ long teaching about the signs of the end).

You’re also right that different disciples seems to be singled out at other times for teaching and attention. According to John, for example, before Jesus fed the five thousand, he asked Philip where they could get bread to feed the large crowd. John explains that Jesus “asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.” We should understand the word “test” in the sense of “challenge”; it wasn’t the case that Philip had to give a good answer or he couldn’t be a disciple any more! Rather, Jesus saw a “teachable moment” and made use of it for Philip’s advantage.

I also agree with you that this isn’t favoritism. Rather, Jesus chose to make an effective and strategic investment in specific disciples at specific times for their development as his followers and as future leaders. It’s generally accepted that someone can only have a deep influence on two or three other people at a given time. But they can have a strong influence on about a further dozen people. We see this illustrated and perhaps modeled for us in the example of Jesus.

I’m not sure I’d use the word clique, since that word tends to have a negative connotation. People in a clique are more opposed to including others than they should be. Let’s just say that Jesus shows us how to be intentional in our discipleship of others by recognizing where and how we can invest most effectively.

How do you “honor father and mother” in a toxic and abusive family?

Q. How does one “honor their father and mother” in a toxic and abusive family? I’ve been abused and suffered much damage from my parents. I  feel so unsafe around them that I’ve had to put up boundaries such as never being alone with them. Neither of my parents are repentant or acknowledge that they have done anything wrong. Instead, my mother uses Jesus as a means to manipulate others and shame them for being bad Christians if they don’t do what she wants them to. How do I “honor father and mother” in this situation? It doesn’t matter to me any more that my parents won’t acknowledge their wrongdoings. I just want to love Jesus and love others. But I’m not sure what that looks like in this context.

Thank you very much for your question. During my years a pastor, I unfortunately encountered similar situations. However, out of those situations, I can offer you great encouragement. I have seen Christian women and men escape from the cycle of abuse, heal from the damage they suffered, become free from bitterness, and ultimately exhibit a gracious and loving spirit, honoring their parents from a safe distance in appropriate and healthy ways as a way of honoring God. I already hear something of that gracious spirit in your question, so I think you are on your way there yourself. Let me offer some further thoughts to help you along your way.

First, you are very wise to establish boundaries with your parents. You are not honoring them if you make yourself available to them to allow them to continue acting in a way so contrary to God’s intentions. Honoring them means recognizing who God created them to be and relating to them as those people—even if this means, for now, simply taking away an opportunity for them not to act like those people.

I hope you are getting some good counsel or reading some good books about establishing healthy interpersonal boundaries. This was not modeled for you in your family, so you will need to learn it as a new skill. I should warn you that in any unhealthy system (such as a toxic family), the person who points out that there’s a problem is considered to be the problem. So your boundary-setting resolve will likely be misunderstood and resisted, and you will be falsely accused of having other motives. But stick to it. Create a healthy space for yourself in life.

Second, you will need to forgive your parents. This will be good for your own soul and your relationship with God, since Jesus told us, “Forgive as you have been forgiven.” It will also be good for your health and peace of mind, since bitterness is a toxin that insidiously poisons anyone who hangs on to it. But this will also be good for your parents, too. When we forgive someone, we “let go” of what they’ve done to us. This actually frees them from being frozen in our minds and wills as the people who did that, and I believe it makes grace available to them to change. This is a further way of honoring your father and mother by helping them become the people God created them to be.

In terms of the practicalities of forgiveness, I invite you to read this post, which I wrote in response to a question that was similar to yours. Please consider the main points I make there: (1) Forgiving someone doesn’t mean letting them hurt you all over again; (2) Forgiveness is an act of the will that must be completed by emotional work; (3) Forgiveness is not a substitute for establishing personal boundaries; (4) Forgiveness takes one, reconciliation takes two.

Third, I hope that you have found (or can find) a loving and supporting community in which you can heal and grow into the person God created you to be. I encourage you to get counsel or read books about family systems and about abuse—including spiritual abuse, which seems to be your mother’s preferred means of control and manipulation. Recognize the people in your life who are able to see you as God sees you, and come to see yourself through their eyes. Believe what they are telling you about yourself. This is a means that the Holy Spirit will use to erase the negative voices and accusations in your head and replace them with gracious, life-giving truths.

Finally, under safe conditions, when you are ready, look for the ways God might show you in which you can “honor” your parents through practical means. It’s interesting that the only application Jesus ever made in his teaching of the commandment to honor father and mother was to care and provide for one’s parents in their old age. I have seen Christian men and women who were healed, freed from bitterness, and safely established behind healthy boundaries re-engage abusive parents in this way—putting on a 50th-anniversary celebration, for example, or seeing that repairs and maintenance were needed in the family home and arranging for this and helping to pay for it. These things were done not because of guilt and manipulation on the parents’ part, but because adult children wanted to honor their parents as a way of honoring the Lord.

I trust that these same things will be seen in your life as you come to understand more and more about your Heavenly Father’s love for you, find healing and freedom in that love, and so come to have compassion on your earthly father and mother.

Should Christians today pay tithes?

Q. Should Christians today pay tithes?

My response to this question would be similar to the one I gave to an earlier question about whether Christians today should keep the Sabbath. In that post I said, in part:

– – – – –

The obligations of the Old Covenant are transformed into opportunities under the New Covenant. Tithing provides a good example of this. Under the Old Covenant, the people were required to give a tithe (that is, 10%) of their crops and other income to the Lord. But the New Testament never speaks of tithing as a requirement. Rather, it says things such as, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (Another way to put this is, “Don’t give if you wish you could keep it; don’t give if you feel you have to. God loves those who give because they want to give.”)

So the emphasis in giving is on the desire of the heart to honor and obey God. This doesn’t mean, however, that Christians shouldn’t tithe. Tithing is actually a very good spiritual discipline for us to adopt. A spiritual discipline is a structure that we build into our lives to make sure that we actually do what we want to do in our hearts. So by keeping track of our giving, and making sure that it’s at least 10%, we structure our lives in such a way that our good intentions are actually fulfilled. (After all, those who give because they want to can reasonably be expected to give at least as much as those who gave because it was a requirement.)

When we do carry out the desire of our heart to express our devotion to God in tangible ways, then we take advantage of an opportunity to do good. In the conclusion to the passage about the “cheerful giver,” Paul explains, “This service that you perform [i.e., your giving] is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people, it is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God.”

– – – – –

So, at least as I see it, while Christians today are not required to give 10% of their income, setting 10% as a goal and using that for personal accountability is a good way to ensure that we do fulfill the desire of our hearts to be part of God’s work through generous giving. And in that sense, Christians today indeed “should” tithe.

Why do some churches grow and others die?

Q. I have been pondering a question. I will put into a story which is in fact a real situation. There were 2 churches. Both were made up of people who loved our Lord Jesus. They built buildings about the same time right across the street from each other, within the last 20 years. Over time one congregation grew and added more services. I will call that  church A.  

The other congregation, I will call B, lost members as people went to be with the Lord.  Now church B realized that they needed to bring new people into their flock and continued to love the Lord and love people.  They prayed and prayed and decided to hire a new pastor who could help them.  The new pastor loved Jesus and served Him. He tried many many ways to increase the church including community outreach and summer camps for kids and so on, but nothing worked.  

After years of faithfulness and trying church B got down to about 5 families whereas church A continued to grow and their parking was filled to capacity every Sunday. Church B could no longer carry on so they let the pastor go and closed the doors.

Now here is the question I have been troubled by: Why did this happen? I am sure there are many reasons that we could cite  from a human perspective, and I know there are hundreds of books written and seminars given on how to build churches and attract people in this current age. That said, while all of these human efforts and plans that “increase numbers” using business models seem to work, it troubles me that the love and desire for Jesus isn’t enough.

When I read Scripture it tells me that if we ask, it will be given to us. I don’t see anywhere that God says that if you ask and use this business model, better worship band, or higher quantity treats and coffee, then I will give you what you ask by increasing your numbers.

So, bottom line, both congregations had pastors and church members who loved the Lord, prayed, and wanted to share Jesus with others.  Why wasn’t that enough? Again I know there many earthly reasons that we could rationalize, but I am more interested in why God let this happen when apparently all parties put their trust in Him.

I really appreciate your question, because two of the churches I served as a pastor  closed their doors—one while I was there, and the other some years after my pastorate. So as you can imagine, I’ve thought about this a lot over the years. Here are some of my reflections.

An individual congregation is two things at once. It is, on the one hand, a local expression of the universal body of Christ, and as such it has all the resources of faith, prayer, and supernatural power at its disposal. But it is also, on the other hand, an earthly institution, and as such it is subject to all the vicissitudes of life here on earth.

Paul makes an interesting statement in his second letter to the Corinthians: “When I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, I found that the Lord had opened a door for me. But I still had no peace, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye to them and went on to Macedonia.” Presumably if Paul had stayed on in Troas and ministered, God would have accomplished remarkable things as he preached the gospel with that opening. But relationships still took priority. Paul needed to find Titus not just because he was a valuable ministry partner, but also to learn how things were going in their efforts to pursue reconciliation with the community of believers in Corinth.

We live in two worlds at once. Jesus himself warned us not to neglect the responsibilities of our relationships in this present age under the guise of promoting spiritual activity. If you have money that is needed to support your elderly parents, he admonished, don’t give it to the temple.

A woman joined one of the churches I served as pastor after moving to town to help her parents. She contributed a great deal to our ministry. But that also meant that her contributions were lost to the church she had attended in her previous city. We ourselves lost a member to another church in town when he started dating a woman who attended there. Eventually they got married and to this day they have an effective ministry partnership, much greater than either could have alone. But that came at the price of our church losing a valuable member. This kind of thing is inevitable as the church operates in our world of change and uncertainty. At one point we even had a wave of relocations as several young families had to move to find other work. This practically wiped out our Sunday school, through no fault of our own.

Beyond inevitable and unavoidable occurrences such as these, there are things that a church needs to do “right” if it wants to flourish. You can’t go out and make a lot of mistakes and then wonder why God hasn’t answered your prayers. For example, a church needs to “speak the language” of the people it wants to reach. Paul wrote to the Corinthians in his first letter, “There are  many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning. But if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.” Don’t start an English-language service in a place where nobody speaks English if you expect anybody to come.

But this applies not just literally, but also figuratively in the sense of culture. You also have to make sure that the style, the music, the decor, and yes even the refreshments are welcoming and inviting to the people you want to reach. These aren’t a magic formula for church growth; I’ll take prayer over brand-name coffee any day. But it is nevertheless a biblical principle that we need to “speak a language” that will make the people we want to reach feel at home if we want them to make our church their home.

All of this said—and I think most people already recognize these things—the fact remains that local churches, as earthly institutions, are “mortal.” They have a life cycle. They are born, grow, and die. The average lifespan of a church is 125 years. Churches are started by people in their 20s and 30s who, by the time they reach their 40s and 50s, have gotten things just the way they want them. They don’t appreciate other people in their 20s and 30s coming in and telling them they should be doing things differently. So those younger people go elsewhere (they may start churches of their own), and the founders continue along until the church is ultimately closed down by their children in their elderly years. There are exceptions; some churches have had vibrant and faithful ministries for centuries. But if you study those churches, you discover that over and over again, somebody has effectively planted a new church right in the midst of the old one.

One rule for ministry within churches is, “New programs for new people.” Don’t try to plug a newcomer into a Bible study whose members have been together for fifteen years. Rather, start a new Bible study for them and several other newcomers. Analogously, people who look at the big picture are telling us we need “new churches for new people.” It has been estimated that the United States needs 350,000 new churches to reach all the people who would be interested but who wouldn’t feel that they fit in existing churches.

And even with that said, we need to acknowledge that 80% of new church plants don’t survive more than five years. (The average lifespan of a church is actually 125 years only if it makes it through the first five!) Even if the pastors and people who start these churches are being sincerely obedient to the leading of the Lord, those are the facts on the ground. So if you’ve been in that 80% (as I have), don’t feel that you’ve failed. You’ve been faithful. Because even if the local church doesn’t survive, its ministry endures.

A friend of mine was part of a new church plant. He just loved it. The experience of being part of it was very meaningful to him and he talks about it to this day. Nevertheless, when the people of this church ultimately faced the fact that they just couldn’t sustain operations, he was one of the members who voted to close it down. (Everyone else voted the same way, except the pastor. I totally understand that.) But my friend still talks about the quality of life and relationships in this church as a model he aspires to continue. He also talks about the sermons and all he learned from them. The ministry endures.

Relationships endure as well. The church I served whose Sunday school got wiped out eventually closed its doors some years after I was there. But many of the women who were members, even though they now attend a number of different churches all over town, still get together at regular intervals for fellowship. They formed a community that survives even though the church has ceased operations.

So this is the paradox of the local church. It is an earthly institution that is animated by the spiritual life of its identity as an expression of the universal body of Christ. These two dynamics are in constant interplay. Paul wrote to the Romans, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who lives in you.” I think we see that in the local church when things are at their best: The Spirit of Christ is giving life to the mortal institution.

Prayer is a necessary condition for this to happen, but it is not a sufficient condition. Rather, as the Bible also teaches us, “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.” In the end, on this earth, even when people of sincere faith and good will pray and obey and take due care to “speak the language,” a church may die rather than grow simply because time and chance happen to it. But as I have said, the ministry will endure, the fellowship will endure, and all who gave their efforts will hear as they stand before their Lord, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Is it right to eat meat?

Q. I recently saw some videos of livestock being slaughtered for food, which left me feeling very upset, especially seeing how animals, like pigs, helplessly tremble with fear, crying desperately on their march to death. The videos were shared by people who are trying to make a point for why we should just eat vegetables or be vegans. As an animal lover, a dog owner and as someone who eats meat, I am feeling confused and guilty. I would like to know why God allows humans to consume animals. Or is it right to do so? As Christians, how should we view this issue?

Thank you for your heartfelt question, In light of it, it’s interesting to note that according to Genesis, humans were originally given “every green plant for food.” It was only after the flood that God said to Noah, “Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.” It’s also interesting to note how the Bible says that in the future, animals will not be carnivorous any more:

The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
    and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.

Finally, we may also observe that humans are able to get all the nutrients they need, including proteins, by eating just plant-based foods.

And so it seems that, according to the Bible, people originally ate just plants, but for some reason (interpreters have different theories about why; the Bible doesn’t say specifically) people were also given animals as food after the flood. But things will change back to plant-based foods at some time in the future.

So I would say that if you wanted to abstain from eating meat as a matter of personal and Christian religious conviction, you would have a biblical basis to do that. Whatever you decided about that issue, you could certainly also advocate for the most humane treatment possible of animals that are used for food. Thank you again for your concern and compassion.

 

Why haven’t I received a spiritual gift like tongues or prophecy?

Q. I have been a believer for some time, and to the best of my ability I love our Lord with all of my heart, soul, and mind. I have prayed for years that the Holy Spirit would manifest in me and I would receive the gift of speaking in tongues, prophecy, or some other sign, but to date nothing like that has happened. Should I interpret this to mean that for some reason God hasn’t found favor with me, or that the Holy Spirit isn’t living in me? Or even, heaven forbid, that I am not saved? I desire to know God to the fullest, and I desire the deepest relationship with him possible.

Actually, I’m certain that you already have received a spiritual gift that evidences God’s favor upon you, the Holy Spirit’s presence in your life, and your salvation. This gift probably just isn’t manifesting itself in a public, declaratory way like prophecy or tongues (which, as I explain in this post, is the gift of speaking a language one has not formally acquired).

The reason I’m certain about this is that Scripture tells us clearly that “to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” Or, as another translation puts it, “A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other.” In other words, every single believer in Jesus is given a spiritual gift that they can use to build up the community of his followers. But because the needs are so great and varied, and because people have such diverse personalities, interests, concerns, and passions, the Holy Spirit distributes a wide range of gifts throughout the community, and these gifts don’t all look alike.

The statement I just quoted is from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. When he first says this, he illustrates it by listing several high-profile gifts such as you’re asking about—prophecy, tongues, miracles, healing, discernment of spirits, words of wisdom and knowledge, etc. These are most likely the kinds of gifts that the Corinthians valued and wanted to have. But Paul then proceeds to explain how the whole point of the gifts is to build up the body, and that a wide range of gifts is needed for this, so everyone shouldn’t want just this one kind of gift; they should seek to discover and welcome whatever gift God actually has given them.

In fact, as Paul concludes this discussion, he offers another list of gifts, and while it includes some of the ones he named earlier, such as prophecy, miracles, and healing, he now also mentions things like teaching, helping, and administration. In Romans, after explaining similarly that “we have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us,” Paul mentions further gifts such as serving, encouraging, giving, and showing mercy. These are quiet, background gifts, but they are just as essential to bringing blessing throughout the community of Jesus’ followers and to people who are not yet part of that community.

Indeed, I once heard someone say, perfectly seriously, that the person with the gift of prophecy stands up and says, “Thus says the Lord, I have set before you an open door that will lead to a great expansion of this ministry,” and the person with the gift of administration responds, “In that case, we’d better buy another filing cabinet”—and both are just as spiritual.

So I would encourage you to consider in what ways God has already been using you to bless and help others, and to recognize what gifts God must have given you to make this possible. As you consider this, one gift may stand out, or you may discern a cluster of related gifts. In any event, I hope you will recognize that this indeed means that you are saved, the Holy Spirit is living in you, and God has shown you his favor. These are all good things, and I commend you for desiring to be reassured about them, in the context of knowing God to the fullest and having the deepest possible relationship with him, by identifying a spiritual gift you have received.

But beyond this, please recognize that the essential purpose of God giving us spiritual gifts is “for the common good” or “so we can help each other.” So with your new assurance of God’s love and favor, and your new recognition of the gifts God has given you, put those gifts to use to build up the body of Christ and spread the good news about Jesus. As another version translates Paul’s words in Romans, “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.”