39. Gender Issues

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 39. Gender Issues

Gen 1:27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

 Gen 2:24,25 a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.

Painting the background: There are a number of other issues that arise in modern life in the West (but not necessarily so across the rest of the world) but let’s go to the heart of one of the biggest issues that is rising up and challenging our thinking, that of gender issues. (Stay with me for these following studies, they are very important in the life of the Church in today’s world and really do need redeeming). Above we have God’s mandate for a perfect world, how it was in the beginning, what I referred to in a previous study as what is ‘normal’ for God, what was normal before the Fall, and what will be normal when He recreates a new heaven and a new earth. But yesterday we considered the reality of this ‘fallen world’, a world where often things are no longer ‘normal’ in the sense I used above, a world where sometimes this imperfection, this brokenness reveals itself in genetic changes.

Definitions: Let’s do some defining. I am going to briefly quote from ‘Understanding Gender Dysphoria’ by Mark A. Yarhouse, who clearly knows considerably more about this subject than most of us and may thus help us clarifying our thinking.

  • Primary Sex characteristics: Features of the body that are directly part of the reproductive system.
  • Gender: The psychological, social and cultural aspects of being male or female.
  • Gender identity: How you experience yourself (or think of yourself) as male or female, including how masculine or feminine a person feels.
  • Gender role: Adoptions of cultural expectations for maleness and femaleness.

Wikipedia notes, “Sexual orientation describes an individual’s enduring physical, romantic, emotional, or spiritual attraction to another person, while gender identity is one’s personal sense of being a man or a woman.”

The Transgender Conundrum: We may not like this subject and feel it is simply an aberration of the fallen world ‘out there’ (beyond the church), but if that means we exclude certain people from the possibility of ‘salvation’, and from church, we have surely moved far from the heart of God. Now without doubt, this has been forced onto our consciousness – and I don’t know whether it is an enemy strategy or whether it is simply a sign of how ‘fallen’ the world is getting – and so we need to understand something of this and not produce knee-jerk, hostile reactions, that alienate us from people Jesus may want to save. These may be people in our own families. How tragic if, because of our ignorance and fear, we act so hostilely towards those closest to us that they flee from us. To quote Yarhouse, “To discuss being transgender is to discuss one’s experience of gender identity, one’s sense of oneself as male or female, and how that psychological and emotional experience is not aligning with one’s birth sex.”

Excuse me on my island: Now I suspect that most of my readers will be ‘straight Christians’ and if your instinctive reaction is now to go elsewhere, may I appeal to you to stick with me, learn, understand and empathize, and see the redemptive possibilities. My experience, and that of my family has been ‘straight’ but I increasingly come across those who either fit one of the transgender definitions or have family members who do. Why the increase? I don’t know, but I do want to remind you what I said several studies back about ‘islands’. My island may be different from yours or, to put it the other way around, yours may be different from mine, but I am not here to attack your island, but understand it, and if you are not happy with your island find out why. If you don’t want to read something as solid as Yarhouse’s book, see if you can get the January 2017 special-issue back copy of National Geographic magazine titled ‘Gender Revolution’ which acts as an excellent primer to this subject. I do not intend here to lay out all the many definitions found within this subject but simply to ask some pertinent questions to help us in it.

An unclear world: A distinction was made above between attraction to another and ‘gender identity’. That suggests therefore, that a person may be sexually male but feel female but not necessarily attracted to either males or females. It also suggests that someone may identify themselves as male but nevertheless be attracted to other males. We are, in reality, talking about an area of life that is more like a kaleidoscope with lots of different colours and shapes, and which often change. Now within all this, and this occurs more within the ‘attraction’ area, we might be wise to observe two things. First, a person’s ‘spiritual orientation’ and, second, a person’s sexual control, if I may put it like that. What I am about to suggest is that as far as your acceptance of individuals is concerned, these two things may be more important to you if you will think about it, than whether they are not ‘straight’ in your eyes.

Spiritual Orientation:  Those of us who come from an ‘evangelical’ background are usually more concerned to know where a person stands with God and Jesus, have they made a profession of faith or not, say. It may surprise us that a person struggling with gender issues can have as strong a heart after God as you might profess to have, and that their struggles with their gender issues form as much a content of their prayers as maybe yours about your temper, say. They may read their Bible as avidly as you, and ‘attend church’ and worship as vigorously as you. You may struggle with your temper, unkind thoughts, feelings of guilt or inadequacy, or many other such common grace-struggles. They may not be struggling with such things.

The point I am making? We may all of us, empathize with the apostle Paul in his struggles in Romans 7, wanting to be one thing but being something else, but if we are struggling with something that has genetic origins (and we’ll look at this in another study more fully) we cannot call that ‘sin’. Wow! A difficult theological and philosophical problem, but what I wonder is the truth about that? Don’t jump to conclusions too quickly. (We will definitely look at Rom 1 soon).

Sexual Control: Now the western world has abandoned the word ‘control’ when it comes to sexual behaviour and for decades now American TV (and more latterly other Western nations’ TV) have been pumping out TV that says sex is OK with whoever you want to do it with, and whenever you want. Almost surprisingly, TV ‘soaps’ are incredibly good at showing that infidelity and unfaithfulness in terms of relationships are recipes for hurt, anguish and upset where feelings of rejection and betrayal are abundant. And this hasn’t gone anywhere near the transgender or sexual orientation areas, this has just been the rampant abandonment of tradition Judeo-Christian values in relationships, so that cohabitation is frequently more common than formal marriage. Unfortunately statistics prove that when you are cohabiting, whatever your intentions, you are far more likely to split up than if you are married.

But uninhibited, unrestricted, sexual expression is what the media have been showing us for decades so, may I suggest, any comments we may make from our ‘island’ should be equally concerned whether it is in respect of heterosexual sex or say homosexual sex. The Biblical Christian standpoint says, one partner of the opposite sex, for life, after marriage. The water in the West has now become very muddied, but if you are wishing to advise or wishing to criticize in respect of this area of non-heterosexual behaviour, surely the same criteria needs to be applied and maybe some difficult questions asked: Do you have to ‘have sex’? Do you have to have many sexual partners? Does that leave you feeling fulfilled or are you chasing newer and more exciting experiences and, like drug taking, the buzz of the next experience seems to be less than the previous one? Please, these are not seeking to be condemnatory questions but simply honest questions from my island to yours. Can you be honest about them?

Integrity and compassion: Before we stop today, we should note that it is so easy to lack integrity and compassion in discussions, debates, arguments, call them what you will, about this subject. Integrity says sin in sin so if we want to challenge one area, why that area and not the bigger pool? Let’s question all sexual behaviour outside the Biblical norms. Whatever we may think about the outlooks that different people have, on their individual islands, as followers of Jesus, can we be caring and compassionate, understanding and empathetic? In this area where, scientifically all is not black and white, can we restrain ourselves and not repeat the errors of the church in history that often condemned without knowledge and was shown to be foolish?

Integrity suggests we need to determine the truth and to find that we may need to ask difficult questions, and while so doing, can we always hold on to love, care, concern and compassion. God, we have been studying for weeks, desires to redeem. Remember, a while back we noted how we can be agents that hinder that process. In ten years’ time, the philosophical and spiritual outlook may be very different from today and hopefully much clearer and much stronger, but to reach such a time will clearly need a move of God as well as open hearts in us today. May we be agents that help redemption and not hinder it.

16. Idols?

Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.16.  Idols? You have to be joking!

Isa 40:18    With whom, then, will you compare God? To what image will you liken him?

The subject of idols crops up again and again in the Old Testament. They make us realise that superstition is there lurking in the background of humanity. Solomon wrote of God, He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart,” (Eccles 3:11) yet in a fallen world, that inner searching for something more gets twisted into superstition which was seen again and again in the false religions of the nations that surrounded Israel, and then which found its way into their consciousness and lives. Thus, near the beginning of the book, Isaiah declared, “Their land is full of idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their fingers have made.” (Isa 2:8) Idols (or images) were the tangible expression of idolatry – the worship of idols. The word ‘idols’ occurs 20 times in Isaiah and ‘idol’ 28 times. Now we have moved into this more positive phase of the book, it is used in a derisory manner as the prophet exalts the Lord.

The purpose of verses 18 to 20 might be summarized as ‘don’t compare Him to idols’ and then verses 21 & 22 exalt the Lord, showing how He is so different.

Verse 18: No Comparison! “With whom, then, will you compare God? To what image will you liken him?”  Hey people, Isaiah challenges the people, stop and think about this. Stop and think about what you know about God, and then look at these idols you have around you. Come on now, look at these idols you have, think about how they are made and then stop and think about the Lord. Really, there is no comparison is there!

Verse 19: Idol manufacture: “As for an idol, a metalworker casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and fashions silver chains for it.”  Be honest, you know how an idol is made. You only have to go along to a goldsmith’s workshop and you see how an idol, either wood or cast in metal is made and then overlaid with gold and has silver chains attached to it. Were such chains used to help it down in place in the home, so it couldn’t be easily removed? We don’t know, but the point is that this idol is made by other people.

Verse 20: The process: “A person too poor to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot; they look for a skilled worker to set up an idol that will not topple.”  Look, he continues, even the very poor who may not be able to afford an image covered in gold or silver, has an idol. Their idol is very basic. They look around for some hardwood that will last and they find someone who can work with wood to shape it and create a basic image for them, something that will last, be stable and not keep falling over. They actually put effort into all these considerations, but they are still very obvious objects, things you can see and things you know exactly how they came about.

This is what Isaiah is pressing in on, the ordinariness of these objects, objects that are man-made and which, therefore, have no life, no power, or ability to change circumstances, change the world. We would never believe such foolish things and yet there are things in twenty-first Western life that may not have the same appearance but to which we give the same credibility. What are the things that we rely upon, what are the things that the world uses as a substitute for God, things we believe can help us survive, things we must hold on to and view as precious, not to be let go of?

A point to ponder. Of what in our lives do we give greater importance than the Lord? Comfort? Pleasure? Success? Appearance? Modern technology? Work? Leisure? These are the modern ‘idols’ that many place first in their lives. These deceive us because there appears no similarity to the things we see ‘pagan peoples’ worship, and we consider ourselves so much more sophisticated, but they are still things that modern Western man puts in front of God. They can be very simple, for even just a person we can exalt and put before God. If we honour and exalt such a figure that they blank out God, they become an idol. I won’t bother to dignify some more scientific atheists by naming them, but they are idols in the minds of some in their ‘followers’.

The worship of ‘self’ or of ‘me’ is an idol, something that replaces God and which we esteem above anything else. Watch the way some journalistic columnists write, above contradiction, claiming the high ground, beyond question, elevating themselves to the position of little gods. Listen to some politicians and you find the same thing.

Now do the same comparison exercise that Isaiah has just done. Does it make sense to make appearance or personal success or pleasure & leisure – or people – the  governing feature of our lives when there is the Lord, the almighty One, standing there with open arms calling us into real relationship? A last thought. You could easily take one of the idols that Isaiah has been talking about and destroy it. What effect would it have had? None, except in the mind of the superstitious idol-worshipper. Now to do a modern comparison, it is probably easier to imagine you are separated off from these possible ‘idols’ we have been thinking about.  Imagine you contract a fatal illness. Suddenly all these things we have listed above become worthless. Success becomes meaningless. Materialism becomes meaningless. Pleasure becomes meaningless. Celebrities and atheistic scientists and politicians become meaningless. The only thing of meaning before you, is life. The threat of its removal suddenly puts everything else in perspective. No our idols may not sit on a shelf, but they are just as insidious if they become substitutes for God – until our life is seriously under threat and then we start thinking sensibly.

Application for further thought and prayer: Lord, please forgive me if I put things or people before you. Please draw my heart. I purpose to make you first before all else.

 

29. Image of the Invisible God

Meditations in Colossians: 29. Image of the Invisible God

Col 1:15   He is the image of the invisible God.

There are those who say that all religions are the same. They are the unwise, the unread and the casual. They have clearly not read the New Testament. Here we move more fully into a paragraph of revelation about Jesus Christ that places him far above any other person or religion. You either deny the truth of these verses as being simply made up wishful thinking  or you accept them as the divine revelation from heaven. For a whole variety of well thought out reasons, we accept the latter.

We saw in the previous study (and these are studies based on the combined testimony of the whole of the New Testament) that Jesus is the administrator of his Father’s kingdom, seated at his Father’s right hand, having been given all authority to rule until the day he winds all things up. As we said then, for starters there is no other human being of whom that has ever been said.

But now we come to this dynamic little sentence: “He is the image of the invisible God.”  Let’s ask, first of all, what it says, and then go on to ask, is this the only such reference about Jesus, is this a one-off thought from the apostle Paul? This verse first of all reminds us that God is invisible. Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, “God is spirit,” (Jn 4:24) and of course you cannot see ‘spirit’. Another way of putting this might be to remind ourselves that the Bible shows God inhabiting heaven, an existence beyond our eyes, and we only encounter Him by the presence of His Holy Spirit (spirit again.) In passing we might also note the definite article, ‘the’ invisible God. We almost take it for granted that there is only one God. But then there is the word ‘image’ which means expression or reflection. So Paul is saying that Jesus is the expression of the one and only invisible God who is spirit, flesh revealing spirit.

So let’s go on to consider, is this just a one-off suggestion as to the reality of who Jesus was and is? The answer has to be, by no means!!!! John has to be the greatest source of all things ‘Son of God’. His Gospel famously starts out, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” (Jn 1:1,2) That lifts Jesus higher than any pale reflection of God to being equal with God, somehow an expression of God. ‘The Word’ was clearly Jesus for John later declares, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (Jn 1:14) This ‘Word’ who he has previously said, “was God” has now appeared to us, has “become flesh”.

A few verses on he comes closer to our verse here in Colossians, when he says, “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” (Jn 1:18) You cannot accuse John of being unclear about what he thought of Jesus. Describing Jesus at the Father’s side he called him “God the One and Only.” Yes, he is speaking of Jesus there.

Intriguingly earlier in his Gospel, he remembers an encounter that Jesus had with the Jews where again and again he spoke of himself as the bread that has come down from heaven (see Jn 6:41 etc., etc.) It does not so much equate him with the Father but it certainly reveals Jesus as one who existed previously in heaven with the Father. A little later on Jesus declared, “I and the Father are one.” (Jn 10:30) and “know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.” (Jn 10:38). No wonder the legalistic Jews were upset.

Later on in his Gospel, John recounts a conversation between Jesus and his disciple, Philip: “Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, `Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?” (Jn 14:9,10) The message is quite clear!

When we come to the book of Revelation we find even more revelation received by John. For example, “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty,” is found in the opening lines (Rev 1:8) and yet a chapter later Jesus says of himself, “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.” (Rev 2:8). Alpha and Omega is simply the same way of saying, the first and the last.

A few verses on, though, in this letter to the Colossians, he says of Jesus, “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him.” (Col 1:19). Later in this same letter he says, “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” (Col 2:9)  Paul also used this same ‘image’ language when writing to the Corinthians: “they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (2 Cor 4:4).

The writer to the Hebrews declared of Jesus, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.” (Heb 1:3) Wow! You can’t get much clearer than that. Another way of speaking of God’s ‘image’ being Jesus, is that he is the exact representation of God.

So, no, this is not a one-off obscure comment from the apostle Paul; it is a teaching found in numerous places in the New Testament.  Again we would ask, of who else in all history have these claims been made? Let’s not have any of this thoughtless talk of “all religions being the same”. Whatever else we may say about the religions of the world, they are not all the same!

37. Like Animals

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 37 :  Like Animals

Eccles 3:18,19 I also thought, “As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless.

When you lose contact with God, you lose contact with reality and when you lose contact with reality it means you lose contact with the truth. You may still retain partial truth, but away from God you are prey to negative thoughts, half truths and utter deception. Three dangerous little words: “I also thought.” How different from the strong words of the prophets who were able to say, “God said…. and God showed me….” It is a sad thing to watch an elderly person lose their grip on reality. Solomon was never a prophet but he was known to be the wisest man in the world – while he stuck with God, but once the deception of idolatry entered the royal palace it was a downward slope, and he’s left thinking his own thoughts, not God’s thoughts!

We have to be careful here for indeed all Scripture is inspired (see 2 Tim 3:16) but sometimes that means God inspired or nudged the writer to write, not that what they wrote was absolute truth. We see this in the arguing of Job; some of it is distinctly off the rails – but it is still useful to teach us! What Solomon says in these verses is basically true, but the sense of it is negative and it is only half truth. Let’s explain.

As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. In ONE sense this is true. In many others it is false. It is the one sense that Solomon is focusing upon. So what is he saying? He is saying that when pride takes a turn and we think we are so great, we need to see that we are just on the same level as all animals. Why? Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. There is it; we are on the same level as the animals in that both we and they are all going to die. That is a common feature of every living creature.

See how he continues: “All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” (v.20,21) There he moves in the same thinking – we’re all going to die and what is worse, we don’t know what is going to happen then, so like the animals we don’t know our eternal future.  Well of course this was Solomon speaking without the revelation that we now have in the New Testament. Don’t join in Solomon’s ‘Doubt Club’ for that is not where we are today. The New Testament is quite clear that when we receive the Lord Jesus Christ into our life we receive eternal life and that means a life that goes on after death, a life in heaven with God.

But look at the negativity that Solomon is left with: “So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?” (v.22)  Just try and get some enjoyment out of your work today because you don’t know what will happen when you leave this earth. That indeed is what many people are left with – godless people, unbelievers. Try to get the most out your work; that all you can hope for. Well fortunately there is much more we can hope for.

In the beginning we are told that God made us in his own image (see Gen 1:26.27). Now what does that mean? What characteristics or abilities do we see in us that makes us anything like God and which differentiates us from the animals?  We have the abilities to communicate, think, reason, invent, create, write, work, order, purpose and plan. Put another way, He has given us self-consciousness, imagination and conscience, and ability to grow and develop. Go back over these things and catch the wonder of who He has made us to be.  So this doesn’t just leave us with mundane work; this opens up a panorama of possibilities of doing things for pleasure and to please others that means far more than struggling for survival.

We are fortunate to live in a part of history where these things are beginning to come to fullness and we have opportunities to do far more than only work. Meaning in life comes with a sense of fulfilment as we allow God to lead us to become the people He’s designed us to be. Yet there does need to be a warning. We can do all these creative things and yet still not find meaning for that only comes when we are in harmony with God. That IS how He’s designed us to work best and anything less than that means we struggle for meaning just as Solomon did in his latter days. Let’s ensure we avoid the ‘aged-Solomon syndrome’!