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A Regrettable Future

Imagine a terrible situation.  Imagine yourself off at some point in the future, and that you have ruined your family or friendships; you’ve brought great pain and misery to those who trusted you.  Imagine yourself in a moment where it hits you:  how much you’ve done, how much you’ve lost, how deeply you’ve hurt people – imagine how hard you’d cry; imagine the heart-ripping regret you’d feel, how you’d do anything and give anything to go back to this time in your life, this very day, this very moment, before any of that horror happens so that you can keep far from the path which led to that destruction.  Such joyful thoughts!  In a way, they are.  Here's how.

Right now, you are not living that horrible hypothetical future.  If you’re thinking about it, though, then you’re probably also thinking about the particular sin, or kind of sin, which would likely lead to it.  Perhaps even as you read this you’ve been contemplating something you never thought you’d even imagine – or, you’re spending time thinking in idle moments about that kind of compromise, edging closer to the edge of the cliff while the ground crumbles beneath you.  Right now, you have the opportunity to turn back and walk, run if necessary, hard in the opposite direction.

Scripture continually sets our eyes on the future (Psalm 96, 1 Peter 1:13, John 3:1-3), and continually reminds us of the history of God’s people (Psalm 78, 1 Corinthians 10, Hebrews 11) to call us to faith, life, repentance and freedom right now, this moment – right now as you’re reading this.  “Today,” the Scriptures say, “If you hear his voice do not harden your hearts (Hebrews 3:15, 4:7).  One of Scripture’s most powerful provocations toward faithful obedience in the present, and the passage behind the thoughts on this blog, is Proverbs 5.

Proverbs 5 is the pleading of a father for his sons to turn away from adultery, from even going near the door of the adulteress’s house.  In verses 9-14 contain the horrible hypothetical, the future the father wants his son to imagine, one so horrific that they stay far, far away from the sin which in the present promises strength, a sense of belonging and being wanted, and maybe even love - but which in reality is the means of weakness, a redoubled loneliness.  Instead of selfless, freeing love, the sexual greed which is at the heart of adultery and which wears the false face of legitimate longings is guilty of, as C.S. Lewis puts it in _The Four Loves, _“mercilessly chaining together two mutual tormentors, each raw all over with the poison of hate-in-love.” C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York:  Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc. 1960), p.10.

The warnings we receive here against adultery apply to each of us because adultery so often throughout Scripture, is seen as the very essence of sin, and so the Holy Spirit so often uses adultery to describe all kinds of particular sins.  The book of Hosea is perhaps the most pained, vivid expression of this theme in God’s Word.  Adultery, at its heart, is betrayal, the breaking of a promise.  And that strikes our covenant making, and covenant keeping God to the heart.  And it is precisely our God’s faithfulness to us in Christ which is meant to be known, experienced, walked-in and lived out in the covenant community of God’s people – a place, a people, of affectionate accountability who will spur one another on toward good works, and who will warn one another away from the path that leads to death.

The bitter lament in verses 12-14 is all the more acrid because of the adulterer’s failure to listen to his teachers within the church.  He was warned, apparently over and over again, but just did not listen.  At some point, even if (though it’s highly doubtful) this reading is the only example, each of us, at some point in our Christian lives, has been warned away from sin in similar ways.  At the same time, though, Proverbs 5 is also an implicit but powerful warning to the ones doing the warning.

In our day especially, all Christians in general but in particular we who are ordained ministers of the gospel need to remember that it’s not enough to merely instruct and warn.  In some situations it’s all we can do and what we must do.  Like yelling from our car as we see a pedestrian whose face is planted in his cellphone walking oblivious into the zooming traffic on the other side of the street, “Hey!  Pay attention!  You’re gonna get killed!”  Our good deed done, we drive away when the light goes green (shaking our heads as in the rearview we see offense and irritation on the face of the person whose texting we just interrupted but whose life we saved.)

Drive-by shouts are necessary, especially in situations of immediate urgency, and when sin has already broken out beyond the contemplation stage.  But there is so much prior to the emergencies be done in gentle warning,  in the lives of those whom we love, coming warm-heartedly and non-threateningly and in-person and for more than just a few minutes on Lord’s Days.  There is so much more room we must make in our lives to be with one another, yes to warn, but just to be positively and givingly in one another’s company, beyond the relatively brief drive-by encounters we have with our Christian family at church.  Paul says to the Thessalonians, “we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God, but also our own selves.” (1 Thessalonians 2:8).  The particular sin in view of Proverbs 5 accentuates this need for more together time.

Some of us are so lonely, so desperate for loving companionship, that we’ll take its cheap, body-and-soul withering substitute from someone who doesn’t care for us at all.  We let ourselves be used so we won’t feel useless.  Or, we let ourselves believe the lie that the person really does love us, though viewed in the mirror of God’s law, the relationship looks nothing like true love.  Granted, together- time with our Christian family doesn’t satisfy the deep longings which lead to the contemplation of sexual sin.  But in that atmosphere of affectionate accountability, we are called away, implicitly and explicitly, from resorting to sin as a means of fleshing out those cravings; we’re called off the path that, though it may feel right or at least eminently justifiable, wanders and walks us down into death (Verse 5), into the horrible hypothetical future away from which God’s loving word warns us.

How many hurting hearts have walked out of the church doors, having been welcomed, surely – hopefully! – but not enfolded?  And how many of them have walked out and onto a path of self-destruction?  I understand, empathetically, the challenges of a stretched-too-thin-already ministry and of congregations struggling just to stay alive and above water, and how hard it is when you’re drowning to keep your eyes open for others in the depths.  You can understand why the Lord tells us to pray earnestly that the Lord of the harvest would send forth workers into his vineyard, and why all of us, regardless of ordination status, are called urgently to love one another not only in word, but in deed and truth, in a fleshed-out, tangible way.  So this is not to induce guilt among those already struggling to do ministry faithfully.  It is a call for all of us to reevaluate our practical priorities and especially time spent in conversation on line vs. face to face.  The former can be true and meaningful (but let’s face it, often isn’t and is sometimes just living fiction instead of reality), but the latter has got to be the priority.  Good facetime can happen online, but as a sometimes necessary substitute that can reminds us how deeply we miss the real thing.  Still with eyes toward kingdom ministry beyond us, perhaps we need to give greater attention than we are toward living locally, and in the present.  Doing so faithfully can’t help but help us all avoid a horrible, hypothetical future.

We need to have our hearts and our homes open for one another.  We never know what loneliness another may be carrying, and so in the church, we should make sure that everyone is covered in the collective love and hospitality that ought to emanate from a community with the living Christ as its heart, Christ who welcomes home to his Father all who seek him in faith.  In a transient, psychotically fast-paced time, in the era of the lonely self, it is all the more vital for us to step away from “the tyranny of the urgent”, from the play things with which we occupy endless hours, and spend more of them face to face with the people whom God has put into our lives, for as long as God means them to be there.

Proverbs 5 ends, as does each of God’s warnings as they play out in Scripture, with an encouragement to pursue the freedom and life and vitality that by God’s grace faithfulness to him brings.  With the Lord, it’s never just “Hey knock it off and get away from there!” It’s always, “Stop doing what kills you and walk in this life-giving path instead.”  In the context of marriage, it’s a call to sanctified tunnel vision upon the spouse. Exclusivity is vital to intimacy, and where trust and intimacy are present, growing passion and even elation in one another’s company can follow.  The end of Proverbs 5 is pure sanctified suggestiveness.  As you’re reading it, you might ask – “Wait, is this a metaphor for that?!” and you’re probably right!  God’s heart is for the good and the deep body and soul pleasure and satisfaction of his children in the ways fitting for all their relationships, glimpses from lots of different angles of the ultimate joy and pleasure found in knowing the true and living, triune God as our God, and ourselves as his people (Psalm 16), of knowing that we are our beloved’s, and our beloved is ours (Song of Solomon, Ephesians 5).

Maybe you desire that intimate delight in marriage, but things are troubled.  Or if you are single and tempted toward sin to satiate natural desires, or if the need is simply, but profoundly, simply for a friend – please remember what sin really is and where sin really leads, despite its promises and assurances of safety.  And if you’ve come to the place where you’re willing to get burned just to feel some heat, please reconsider.  Remember that the longings you have for companionship are good, and turning away from your first love can only redouble the loneliness of God’s children.  Please have the courage to seek the companionship of your brothers and sisters, who could really be blessed by your company in their own struggles against sin in an age of separations, fragmentations and deep aloneness.  Together, we can walk a path away from horrible hypotheticals and toward a future strong and radiant with the grace of the living Christ, a future far beyond our best imaginations.  This is the future Christ promises to those who follow him in faith. It’s not a fiction, and there’s nothing hypothetical about it.  It’s trustworthy and true and draws closer every moment (Revelation 21).

Until then, in the age of the lonely self, let’s walk together, loving one another toward and in the name of Immanuel, who is God with us.

Rut Etheridge III

Rut Etheridge III

Husband to Evelyn; father to Isaiah, Callie, Calvin, Josiah, Sylvia. Pastor and Bible Prof. Loves the risen Christ, family, writing, the ocean, martial arts, Boston sports, coffee, and more coffee.

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