Monday, January 23, 2012

a curious vow ...
Sometimes an idea can have the compelling or admirable motivation on its face. yet still end up with the stupidest result, a result that is paradoxically born out of the motivation.  The stupidity of the result casts a curious backward light on the exact nature of the motivation that spawned the problematic thing.  Thus we get to this.

"... and my grandchildren will worship the same god as me because my children will worship the same god as me."

And here I thought Mark Driscoll actually read Ecclesiastes 5.

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong.
   Do not be quick with your mouth,
   do not be hasty in your heart
   to utter anything before God.
   God is in heaven
   and you are on earth,
   so let your words be few.
   A dream comes when there are many cares,
   and many words mark the speech of a fool.

When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfill it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it.  Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. And do not protest to the temple messenger, “My vow was a mistake.” Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands?  Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore fear God.

Notice something there? Don't delay in fulfilling your vow.  How and when will you know your grandchildren worship the same God as you? How do you know you'll have grandchildren?  Not even paedobaptists are that confident! If you make a vow that cannot be fulfilled unless your grandchildren worship the same God as you does that sound like a smart vow to make when as yet you don't even have grandchildren?  Does it sound like a vow about which you can say you did not delay to fulfill it?

Now the Scriptures do say to teach your children and your descendents and all that. But there's no guarantees.  You can do your best and your son or daughter could end up an atheist.  You can do your best and you could have a grandchild who renounces the faith. You might have a grandchild renounce the faith precisely because of the kind of Christian you are.  You can't control for these things. 

In the early days of Mars Hill I read some people seriously convincing themselves that Samson's parents dropped the ball and THAT was the reason Samson was a stupid, faithless horndog so much of the time.  Really?  Didn't we get told in the book of Judges the husband wanted to hear what the man told his wife and he got told, "Listen to what I told your wife?"  If anything Samson's parents were precisely as dutiful and attentive to the will of the Lord as Samson was not.  Yet at least one or two guys I came across in the early days at Mars Hill had put together some silly magic formula that said Samson was raised badly.  That was not his problem.

By contrast, considering the miserable end of Saul the Benjaminite, the first king of Israel, and given how he disregarded the Lord you might think he'd raise terrible kids who didn't have regard for the Lord or were bad people.  Yet Jonathan turned out pretty well and did not display his father's lesser traits. 

In the last few weeks I ended up having some back and forth and some misunderstanding with Matthew over at City of God.  It happens and some of it came from points I think could have been clearer on Matthew's and some of it has to do with my realizing I have a few visual handicapts. Fortunately things got talked through.

I'm glad the discussion happened because along the way the topic was about what kinds of promises a man leading a family can reasonably be expected to keep.  Matthew brought up a series of passages that, it turns out, ever so conveniently dovetail with things I've been reading in the last week or so.  So, here's another passage about people taking stupid oaths, this time from Leviticus 5.

 ... if anyone thoughtlessly takes an oath to do anything, whether good or evil (in any matter one might carelessly swear about) even though they are unaware of it, but then they learn of it and realize their guilt— when anyone becomes aware that they are guilty in any of these matters, they must confess in what way they have sinned. As a penalty for the sin they have committed, they must bring to the LORD a female lamb or goat from the flock as a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for them for their sin.

There are some oaths that are so impossible to fulfill there's no value in making them.

The my-me-my-me-my-me-my-me-my-me-my-me juggernaut in this vow gets tedious.  Not only is this relentless use of the passive voice something that doesn't seem to fit a manly man, it is doubly passive.  At two different levels this is foolish. The first is that the passive voice is passive, which is weak writing, but it is what the passive voice points to that is more profound and terrible. 

But the second is worse in that each subject in the vow is the passive recipient of what the oath-taker determines will happen. The passive voice indicates that the church will be served by this oath-taker. How?  Who gets to decide that?  The wife will be loved, served, and prayed over.  Who determines that?  How does a person know the goal has been reached?  The wife will speak up (unless she's supposed to be a submissive and respectful type, depending on how the husband may choose to define that in some circles (sarcasm warning there).  There is at least some wiggle room for negotiation here.

But as for the child and grandchild who "will" worship the same God.  Why?  Because the oath-taker says so.  Notice, however, that in no circumstance can the oath-taker establish that his (and it's always going to be a "he" here folks) will love and serve in such a way that it will necessarily be construed as such by the recipient of the action.  This vow sounds wonderful and inspiring to people who will then participate in a group hug or whatever, it sounds pretty to someone who says the words but we're all fallible and "true to you" frequently ends up being "true to you as I understand truth."

As Proverbs puts it the heart knows its own sorrow and no other shares its grief.  The heart is also deceitful above all things and beyond knowing.  This means you don't know how your self-assessed obedience and faithfulness to God will be perceived either by those you vow to serve or by God.  It's fine to vow in the active voice to love and serve your wife.  The passive voice is all wrong at every level. You don't know whether the things you say or do that you are most proud of or anxious about are things that actually don't matter so much to your spouse.

When I read my blogging friend Wendy's recent post about overcoming the burden of a silly and impossible wifely requirement she'd put on herself she said that her husband had to explain to her "Honey, I don't NEED that!"  She found that what she was worrying she had failed to do was not even something her husband was worried about. Some oath-taking man who resolves to love and serve his wife will not necessarily love and serve her in a way that will be perceived or received as being loved and served. 

Let's rewrite the whole fiasco:

I will serve my church
I will love and serve my wife and family
I will instruct my family in the ways of the Lord
I will seek to live by Word of God and model the love of Christ
And pray that by God's mercies they may testify to His greatness to future generations
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be forever.

See?  You can make a promise like this and not even necessarily make it a vow but a discipline of the heart. That's finally in a form that I could consider.  There's nothing about the form of the original I can condone because the passive voice takes on theological implications all by itself that are terrible even if I pretended the last line about grandchildren wasn't in there. 

The passive voice for every construction means little more than that, having satisfied yourself that you have kept your vow, you have kept it when it is actually your wife, your child, your church that have some say in the matter. To make a vow in the passive voice sense laid out a la the Real Marriage poster is to make a vow that is impossible to keep.  No one in their right mind should even make it.  You can vow to instruct your family in the ways of the Lord but you cannot, I repeat, cannot control the outcome. 

If you've made some insipid passive-voiced self-congratulatory vow like the one referred to above with it's "My X will be Y by me" then repent.  At least reformulate the vow in the active voice with the understanding that your best is not necessarily ever what's going to lead your children to Christ.  Your children may become Christians despite your flaws and they may reject Christ precisely because of your most concerted efforts to win them to Christ.

And here's the thing, Samson's parents were faithful.  They did as the Lord's man instructed them. They prayed and were obedient and Samson was still a seflish and violent thug.  David was a man after God's own heart and consider how Amnon turned out?  What about Absalom?  What about Adonijah?  Even Solomon, the better of the lot, how did he turn out? David's love and regard for the Lord did not prevent Absalom being killed by Joab, did it?  If we want to insist that David dropped the ball as a parent let's consider that the reality is that despite doing your best you can still fail.  Parenting, as with any enterprise in life, will go better with wisdom but comes with no guarantees and with no refunds.  Did Adonijah or Solomon turn out okay? How did Tamar's life end after she'd been raped by one of her siblings? 

When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, a man cannot discover anything about his future. This must inform our understanding of what kinds of vows we should and should not make. A vow to your husband or wife is understandable. A vow about a child? Not so much. A vow about a grandchild?  Dude, wait until you HAVE grandchildren before you consider vows that involve them.  Nobody knows the future, especially when they are confidenta bout it. I thought I had a lifetime job lined up at a respectable non-profit and here I am in month 27 of the job hunt.  I thought I had a sure thing.  I was wrong and now I'm here blogging about it. 

When Jesus said to make no vows He was saying to not break your word and to be truthful.  Having to swear an oath comes from the evil one if you're so inclined to not keep your word you have to vow something.  Let your "yes" be yes and your "no" be no.  In other words, you don't have to make some vow that says that people WILL passively be the recipients of whatever awesome things you plan to do and be; when asked if you will love and serve people and if you promise to do these things you could use those two words that somehow pop up in marriage ceremonies, "I do."  Then you go do those things, however hard or easy they may be.

I just don't get how a guy can publish a vow like this vow having ripped on William Young over The Shack. A vow that says a guy's grandchildren will worship the same God is just off the reservation. I would advise anyone wanting to make such a vow to rethink the entire wording of the thing and think through why he would take such a vow.  Peer pressure and conformity are not good reasons.  Guilt over how you have treated your wife or children are not necessarily good reasons.  King Saul was great at confession yet terrible at repentence. Saul, for that matter, made a stupid vow that would have called for the death os his son Jonathan.

There is a form of piety that is terrible in its deception and I would ask any married guys to think twice and thrice about taking any kind of vow just because some megachurch pastor (who says he gets visions of people being molested in real time, and belittles entire nations of believers as cowardly) would encourage you to buy his book to improve your marriage and urge you to make a vow.  The vow may be made with the best intentions as best you understand yours but the heart is still deceitful above all things.

If you're married, you know what?  You made that vow already and now you just need to seek the Lord and work at keeping it.  The simplest reason I would discourage anyone from taking some new vow is that this new vow you might be thinking of, it's just a slipshod reworking of the natural implications of the wedding vow you took when you married. Now if you feel guilty that you haven't kept your vow as you should it's good  to feel remorse and regret for that. Don't, however, make some new vow out of that guilt, especially not a vow that, as worded on some poster, is impossible to keep. Pray the Lord can help you keep the vow you already made and get help from as many fellow believers as may be available.  If the road to Hell is paved with good intentions some of the signposts are pious vows made along the way. Don't be hasty to utter anything before God.

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