What Constitutes Marriage? Is Marriage for Everyone? What are the Grounds for Annulment, Separation and Divorce? How Should the Church Respond?
The Modern Western World is Complex.
The United States is a representative democracy that in the past few decades has been somewhat cut loose from its historical moorings to Classical and medieval Western civilization, and the result is that a lot of things are up for grabs in the minds of many people, one of which is what constitutes marriage.
Authoritative answers about morality were once easier to come by, because Christianity radically influenced the way that civil authorities went about initiating and enforcing the law.* However, in the modern State, separated as it is de jure from the Church, especially within the realm of the civil laws of the various states of the United States, generally two things are necessary for a legal marriage: a legally binding contract and the consummation of that contract. While questions of intention may weigh heavily on pastors as they seek to relieve human suffering and help people out of the messes into which they get themselves as they impulsively careen through life, such things are probably largely irrelevant in a court of law.
These two criteria, the lawful contract and its consummation, are ensconced within Western jurisprudence, and they meet the muster of the most ancient roots of humankind’s understanding of what constitutes marriage. Yet the modern State has sometimes distanced itself from these two ancient requirements for lawful marriage. For example, in Louisiana, marriage is defined in Article 86 of our Civil Code as “a legal relationship between a man and a woman that is created by civil contract. The relationship and the contract are subject to special rules prescribed by law”
In the 1987 Revision, we read: “Physical consummation is not necessary” In other words, instead of being absolutely essential, consummation is rather seen as a piece of corroborating evidence of “the free consent of the parties to take each other as husband and wife, expressed at the ceremony”
What Constitutes a Legal Marriage According to the Bible?
While this may be a merciful provision for people who choose legally to cohabit, but who cannot, for one reason or another, commit the “Act of Marriage,” it is, nevertheless, an inversion of the ancient standard that is reflected in the biblical data, where the physical act of sexual intercourse is the fundamental thing and the public covenant is the legitimizing, corroborating ritual.
Sexual intercourse does not create the marriage bond; without a wedding ceremony where promises are made in the presence of witnesses, sexual intercourse is merely fornication. But sexual intercourse is the “Act of Marriage,” not the ceremony. For example, Saint Paul refers to the sexual act as a kind of de facto, vis-a-vis a de jure, accomplishing of the marriage bond:
‘Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For “the two,” He says, “shall become one flesh” But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him” (1 Corinthians 6:16-17).
But this does not mean that people are actually married to everyone with whom they have sex. John 4:17, 18, where the Lord Jesus speaks with the woman at the well, is very helpful in this regard:
‘The woman answered and said, “I have no husband”
‘Jesus said to her, “You have well said, ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; in that you spoke truly”’
In this passage our Lord informs the woman that he knows that she has had at least six sexual partners, that she has been married to five of them, divorced from at least four of them and that she is not married to her current paramour, that they are simply “shacking” While the Lord Jesus does not give his approval to all of the circumstances surrounding these multiple divorces and remarriages, he does recognize their reality. And he teaches us that not all sexual cohabitation constitutes marriage when he tells her that she is not married to her current partner.
This passage is very helpful to people who have destroyed their marriages, gone through unbiblical divorces and are now remarried. What should they do? Should they divorce their current spouses and attempt to return to their former ones? No, their new marriages, even were they begun in adultery, nevertheless constitute binding marriages, and people must begin to follow the Lord where they are, not where they might like to be had they not sinned. No situation puts us in a situation where it is impossible to begin to obey God and seek his blessing on our lives.
The Marriage Contract Is a Public Covenant Between a Man and a Woman.
Let us consider then in more depth, these two essential elements of marriage. First, there was the marriage treaty or covenant, the understanding of which was well established within the ancient communities of the Near East in the third and second millennia before the coming of Christ. In the presence of witnesses, comprised of their families and friends, a man and a woman affirmed that they were going to live together in the married state, according to a divinely ordained covenant, and they did so. In some cultures a third party, such as a priest, officiated, in others, the two people simply did this themselves.
An example of the latter is seen in the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca. Isaac, in taking Rebecca as his wife, did not sneak her into his late mother’s tent for a sexual tête-à-tête. (Genesis 24:67). All this was done with the full knowledge, consent and blessing of both Rebecca’s family and Isaac’s. Isaac’s marriage was a public thing, the cutting of a covenant, where ancient sexual rituals are embedded within the biblical narrative, as, for example, Abraham’s requiring his servant to swear by placing his hand under his genitalia (Genesis 24:2).**
The Cutting of the Covenant Involves the Consummation of the Marriage.
Secondly, within Hebrew tradition the verb that was used to describe the making of a covenant was a word that means “to cut” Among other reasons, this verb was used because treaties in the ancient Near East usually involved the shedding of blood. In ancient marriage this cutting of the covenant involved the consummation of the oral or written contract in an act where blood normally was shed. This took place after the many celebrations of the covenant that began with the betrothal contract and climaxed in the wedding supper, after which the bride and groom retired for the night. Much was made of this act of shedding the blood of the covenant, where the groom broke the bride’s maidenhead, the membrane that occludes the vagina of a virgin. Before that bloody event, strict guidelines were to have been followed, the father and mother of the bride having prepared the bridal chamber so as to preserve on cloth the evidence of the blood of the covenant having been shed.
Insights into the deadly importance of this covenant ritual are found in Deuteronomy 22:13-21:
‘If a man marries a woman, has sexual intercourse with her and then, turning against her, taxes her with misconduct and publicly defames her by saying, “I married this woman and when I had sexual intercourse with her I did not find evidence of her virginity,” the girl’s father and mother must take the evidence of her virginity and produce it before the elders of the town, at the gate. To the elders, the girl’s father will say, “I gave this man my daughter for a wife and he has turned against her, and now he taxes her with misconduct, saying, I have found no evidence of virginity in your daughter. Here is the evidence of my daughter’s virginity!” They must then display the cloth to the elders of the town. The elders of the town in question will have the man arrested and flogged, and fine him a hundred silver shekels for publicly defaming a virgin of Israel, and give this money to the girl’s father. She will remain his wife; as long as he lives, he may not divorce her.
‘But if the accusation that the girl cannot show evidence of virginity is substantiated, she must be taken out, and at the door of her father’s house her fellow-citizens must stone her to death for having committed an infamy in Israel by bringing disgrace on her father’s family. You must banish this evil from among you.’
In bringing out the necessity of bloodshed in the marriage covenant of a virgin, I do not mean to imply that without the bloodshed of the breaking of the maidenhead a marriage is not valid. After all, widows and the lawfully divorced were permitted to remarry, and there would, of course, never be bloodshed on their wedding nights (Deuteronomy 24:1-4; 25:5-10; Ezekiel 44:22). My point is simply to underscore that the public covenanting must be followed by the physical act of sexual intercourse in order for a marriage to take place.
However, the marriage of someone who is no longer a virgin was not the ideal, even when that person has been lawfully divorced or widowed. Our Lord Jesus Christ takes us back to the very beginning, when God himself instituted marriage in Genesis 2:24, and states: “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matthew 19:4-6). The ideal of Genesis 2:24, rooted as it is in the time of human innocence before sin and death, not only rules out divorce, it rules out widower and widowhood as well.
This ideal of virginity at the time of marriage is underscored in the higher standard set for the high priest as over against that set for regular priests. If one were to contrast the limitations regarding whom ordinary priests could marry with those for the high priest, he would note that the high priest could not even marry the widow of a priest, only a virgin: “The high priest . . . the woman he marries must be a virgin. He must not marry a widow, a divorced woman, or a woman defiled by prostitution, but only a virgin from his own people, so he will not defile his offspring among his people. I am the LORD, who makes him holy” (Leviticus 21: 10, 13-15). And so the cutting of the marriage covenant of the high priest would always be preserved in the bloody sheet entrusted to the care of the virgin bride’s father.
Whereas, the lower order of priests enjoyed a broader spectrum of potential partners: “Priests . . . must not marry women defiled by prostitution or divorced from their husbands, because priests are holy to their God” “They must not marry widows or divorced women; they may marry only virgins of Israelite descent or widows of priests” (Leviticus 21:5, 7; Ezekiel 44:22). Thus, this bloody evidence may or may not be there for a regular priest, and ordinary Israelites could marry anyone, including any widow or divorcee.
If one looks at the these classes of people in light of communion with God that was symbolically depicted within the Tabernacle/Temple system, a clear picture of God’s ideal is there. Gentiles could only come so far, not as far as the children of Israel; men could approach the presence of God more intimately than women, but the priests could come even closer. However, only the High Priest could actually come into the presence of God, and he but twice, once a year, on the Day of Atonement. (Leviticus 16).
There Are Covenant Relationships that Do not Involve Marriage.
are many covenant relationships that people may enter into for any
number of reasons. Denominations and congregation have sometimes entered
into covenants, particularly those who historically have practiced close
communion such as many Southern Baptist congregations and members of the
Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America. During the English Civil
War, the British Parliament covenanted with the leaders of Scotland and
signed the Solemn League and Covenant on September 25, 1643.
if any man thinks he is behaving improperly toward his virgin, if she is
past the flower of youth, and thus it must be, let him do what he
wishes. He does not sin; let them marry. Nevertheless he who stands
steadfast in his heart, having no necessity, but has power over his own
will, and has so determined in his heart that he will keep his virgin,
does well. So then he who gives her in marriage does well, but he who
does not give her in marriage does better”
A biblical marriage, then, is not God’s ideal for everyone, because those who have the gift of a single life are able to serve the Lord and others much more freely than those who are married:
“I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:32-35).
But all of us need to be in some form of covenant relationship with other people because of a basic human need, a need that was within us before our first parents ever sinned: ‘The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him”’ (Genesis 2:18). All of us need to belong to a larger group with whom we share the bond of accountability and love. The God who created us knows our needs: “Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).
Such intimacy and covenant connectedness can be found outside of marriage in a closer bond within the extended family, but God has given us the Church, not the family, as his fundamental institution in this age. Every believer needs truly to belong to a church, because it is the primary institution in which God wants us to experience fundamental accountability and loyalty, even though that loyalty and accountability do not cancel out what we owe to other institutions, either the state or especially, the family. Indeed, we are warned: “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8) So the Church does not eliminate these other institutions, but God’s ideal would be Christian families united within Christian churches that enjoyed the blessing of states that self-consciously reflected a biblical sense of justice within their legal systems.
Some State Sanctioned Marriages Are not Identical to Biblical Marriages.
modern world, people may choose to enter into a covenant relationship
for lots of reasons and have that relationship sanctioned by the State.
When the State recognizes this covenant relationship under the title of
“marriage,” there are many legal ramifications, including insurance and
survivor benefits, things utterly unknown in the ancient world. In
Louisiana, inasmuch as “physical consummation is not necessary” for a
marriage to be legal, it would be lawful for a man and woman to stand
before a state authorized official, make vows according to established
ceremony and be pronounced “husband and wife” But such a relationship,
while perhaps exemplified in 1 Corinthians 7:36-38, falls short of being
a biblical marriage, because it will never be consummated through the
“Act of Marriage,” sexual intercourse.
What Are the Grounds for Annulment?
These two things have come down to us, not only within Christian tradition, but from the time before humans kept written records: marriage is the cutting of a covenant and involves both the verbal contract and the physical consummation of that contract in sexual intercourse (which involved the shedding of blood in the case of virgins). Without both, a marriage is less than biblical. With both, whether the ceremony takes place in a church building and is regarded as a sacrament by that church or not, regardless of whatever mental reservations the parties may have had at the time and regardless of their ignorance of all that is entailed in marriage; notwithstanding, if the contract was entered into without a legal impediment (such as a person still being married to someone else at the time) and the parties of the contract freely consented, they are under the obligations of the covenant and liable for the sanctions imposed on those who break it.
As regards annulment, if these two criteria have been met, there is no place for condoning such, where Canon Law can turn the legitimate children of people who have received the sacrament of marriage, de jure ecclesiae, into bastards by ecclesiastical fiat, often because of some technicality, such as the Canon lawyer’s stating that the proper intention to receive the grace of this sacrament was not present at the time of the marriage. On the contrary, if the two conditions have been met: a contract having lawfully been entered into, followed by consummation, then there can be no annulment.
However, if either part is missing, then there is no marriage, and the Church and the State in annulling the marriage are simply recognizing what is actually the case: there never was a true marriage to start with. These authorities do not make it so by this declaration; they are simply giving official recognition of the reality that no marriage has taken place.
Thank God that he has broken down the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles, and ripped the veil from top to bottom (Ephesians 2:11-22; Matthew 27:51; Hebrews 10:16-22), so that now: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:28). And thank God for the blood of Jesus that protects his bride from curse and death far better than the bloody sheet kept by a virgin’s father.
But we live in a fallen world, and the church must deal with funerals and divorces. “A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39).
How Should the Church Respond to Modern Grounds for Divorce?
What about divorce? As with a civil court, a decision by a church court sets a precedent to which others will appeal. Not to be overly Kantian, but we must be keenly aware that our actions may become a universal standard, especially in terms of relaxing the standards of the past. When I was a child back in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, I knew of only one child whose parents were divorced, and I went to school from kindergarten through the twelfth grade there. There were probably others besides this one person’s parents who had divorced, but the social stigma kept it in the closet. Such is not the case today.
However, the Church, in standing against the quick and easy divorce of the modern Western world, must be careful to state what the biblical criteria are that legitimize such a divorce and not err on the left hand or the right, because it is very easy to blur those standards and end up justifying almost anything under the aegis of one partner having “broken the stipulations of the marriage contract” For example, in the marriage covenant both partners agree to something such as the following:
“Wilt thou love her/him, comfort her/him, honor, and keep her/him in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, keep thee only unto her/him, so long as ye both shall live?”
What are the stipulations spelled out here? Why don’t we look at the first part of the promise and go to three passages, one of which I normally read at a wedding, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7; Ephesians 5:18-31; Philippians 2:5-11?
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her . .” (Ephesians 5:25).
“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a slave, and coming in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:5-7).
Well, guess what? I have broken my marriage vows. Why? Because the Lord Jesus loved his Bride to the point of the Cross. The King of kings left the glory of heaven and, without ceasing to be God in any sense whatsoever, became a real human being, just like you and me save for original sin, subject to all of the trials and agony of human existence in a fallen world. Tempted in everyway that the rest of humankind is, he never sinned, not even in the theater of his mind. Without ceasing to testify to the truth, he made himself a doormat for the sake of his Bride.
The Lord Jesus’ life and death raises the benchmark above the Moral Law and sets the standard of love as a life of self-abdication. His life of self-denial, exhibited supremely in the surrender of his dignity and prerogatives, is the goal to which every husband must aspire. Sadly, I have never reached that goal. Do I love my wife? She is my best friend on earth, and I have great affection for her. I still desire her. I have sacrificed a lot of things to make her life easier. We have raised five children and gone through so many dreadful things together, but judged by the standard of the Cross—I am a dismal failure. Not only have I broken the first of the stipulations of the contract, I have never actually lived up to the first term for a single day!
There Are Guidelines About the Biblical Grounds for Divorce in the Civil Code of Ancient Israel.
But not everything that is a breach of the marriage covenant is actual adultery and, therefore, grounds for divorce. In a biblical divorce the innocent party may remarry as if the offending partner were dead: “and, after the divorce, to marry another, as if the offending party were dead” (This understanding of biblical teaching is found in the Westminster Confession of Faith,, XXIV, v). We need to be guided, then, by the principles derived from the penalties of the civil code of Israel:
“To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require” (Ibid., IX, iv).
Applying the general equity of the judicial laws, we may see that the our understanding of sexual sin that gives biblical grounds for divorce should be both narrow enough and broad enough to encompass whatever sexual sins were capital crimes in the Old Testament. These would include not only heterosexual adultery, but homosexual and bestial copulation as well.
Leviticus 20:10-15: “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death. If a man sleeps with his father’s wife, he has dishonored his father. Both the man and the woman must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads. If a man sleeps with his daughter-in-law, both of them must be put to death. What they have done is a perversion; their blood will be on their own heads. If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads. If a man marries both a woman and her mother, it is wicked. Both he and they must be burned in the fire, so that no wickedness will be among you. If a man has sexual relations with an animal, he must be put to death, and you must kill the animal”
What I have cited in Deuteronomy 22:20-24, should be contrasted with Deuteronomy 22:28, 29, where simple fornication was never a capital crime: “If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the girl, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives”
In other words, a person’s learning about pre-marital fornication, per se, is not a basis for divorce; it is only where it takes place during the time of engagement, the biblical covenant of the intention to marry.
Neither are mental adultery and pornography actual adultery, nor should detection of a nocturnal emission lead to an interrogation, the resulting confession, in turn, giving grounds for a lawful divorce. I have had to counsel somebody over an accusation of lustful thoughts as the basis of divorce on more than one occasion. One evening a family in my congregation was watching television, and the star of “Little House on the Prairie,” Melissa Gilbert, now an adult, was appearing in some drama. The husband was lost in thought, not even paying attention to what was on TV, but was nevertheless staring at the set. Suddenly, he snapped out of his trance when his wife snarled at him in front of their daughter: “You’re lusting for her. I can see it. You’re an adulterer, just like Jesus said” As the evening wore on, she told him she was going to see a lawyer and sue him for divorce, and she was in deadly earnest. He came to see me most distraught the next day. In the mercy of God, his wife dropped the issue.
If entertaining a sinful fantasy were biblical grounds for divorce, then my wife could have sued me many times. While I have seen great progress with my thought life over the past almost thirty-five years of marriage, I still haven’t completely mastered this area, even though I am devoted to Job’s practice: “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl” (Job 31:1).
Also, I have listened to a dirty joke on more than one occasion, and, sadly, told a few in my time. This, too, is a violation of the Seventh Commandment, but it is not grounds for divorce. Furthermore, we need to remember the primary, though not exclusive, use of the Law is to show us our need of a Savior, not a means to justify ourselves, while attacking others and destroying families in the process: “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster” (Galatians 3:25, 26). Whenever I slowly ponder the true meaning of the Law of God, I am driven to the foot of the Cross in the brokenness of repentance. The right understanding of the Law means that only a fool would confess that he is justified in any other way but by grace alone, received through faith alone, in Christ alone.
What Is a Pastoral Response?
First, it is all too easy for ministers to become jaded by the modern world. My observation is that a woman can generally manipulate a minister or a session into justifying her desire to divorce her husband for lots of reasons that would have never been considered legitimate for the past two millennia of Christian civilization—it’s that protective male instinct to rescue the “damsel in distress” I do a lot of counseling, but I never meet with a woman without my wife present. Often, I have been taken in by specious excuses, but Sandy sees through them.
That is why Christians of an earlier era wisely spelled out the biblical criteria for a lawful divorce, without giving all sorts of hypothetical Gemara there:
“Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage: yet, nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage: wherein, a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed; and the persons concerned in it not left to their own wills, and discretion, in their own case” (Westminster Confession of Faith , XXIV, vi).
Secondly, in dealing with marriage problems, the Church must resist the spirit of our age, which is to give a quick and painless solution to everybody’s problems. Life is tough, very tough, and the pain of many people is overwhelming. But we do not serve others by offering unbiblical solutions—people who would never recommend that somebody turn to what is in one of Jack Daniel’s bottles, think nothing of prescribing a bottle of Prosac or Paxel to numb out life’s pain and anxiety. I recommend people slowly sip from Thomas Watson’s Divine Cordial instead. Furthermore, we do not help people by short-circuiting what God is doing through his good Providence. While we don’t want to be guilty of Saint James indictment,* we must reject the notion of the modern American Zeitgeist that if we can remove all social ills and simply make people feel better about themselves they will be happy and fulfilled.
God’s people are not left disarmed and alone, as poor Bertrand Russell thought: “The world seems to me quite dreadful; the unhappiness of many people is very great, and I often wonder how they endure it. To know people well is to know their tragedy; it is usually the central thing about which their lives are built. And I suppose if they did not live most of the time in the things of the moment, they would not be able to go on”
On the contrary, we do not live in a universe where simply anything can happen. “This is my Father’s world, O let me ne’er forget that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the Ruler yet” (Maltbie D. Babcock). We live in a world where not even a sparrow can fall to the ground apart from him. (Matthew 10:29-31). As Ursinus and Olevianus wrote regarding our only comfort:
“That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with his precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live unto him” (The Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 1).
Thirdly, while we believe in the absolute sovereignty of God, that does not mean that we recommend to others a life of stoical resignation in the face of a severe Providence but joyful, believing prayer. We are the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, and we are the titleholders to all the promises of God. (Hebrews 11:1; 2 Corinthians 1:20). We want to encourage people to rely on the Lord and his promises, not only to get through life, but also to overcome it overwhelmingly. Our Lord confronted Satan’s temptations by quoting Deuteronomy: “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4). We need to encourage those in “impossible situations,” such as the myriad of difficulties brought about by a bad choice in ones life’s partner, to make their needs known to the Father—after all, he has promised:
“No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
“For the scepter of wickedness shall not rest on the land allotted to the righteous, lest the righteous reach out their hands to iniquity” (Psalm 125:3).
“. . . I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13).
“And my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19).
God’s promises are as valid and pragmatically useful today as they were before the closing of the canon of Scripture.
About fifteen years ago, my transmission went out in our only vehicle; it was going to cost $900, and I simply did not have the money. I told no one about it, but cried out to God on my knees, and several days later I found an envelope that had been pushed under my door. Inside were nine, one hundred dollar bills. I certainly praised the Lord, but it was years later that I came to understood just how special this gift was. When I received the anonymous gift, I had assumed that some brother had learned about my transmission from the mechanic and had chosen to bless me in this way. However, some years later a young man came to see me. He was a Baptist from another parish (county) and hardly knew me. He asked me, “Several years ago did you find an envelope with nine, one hundred dollar bills in it?”
“Yes,” I replied. Then he told me that he had been praying, and the Lord had told him to go to Alexandria and give this amount of money to me. Needless to say, I was stunned at such an example of one of God’s providentia extraordinaria.
I could go on and on about the strange and wonderful ways that God answers prayer, from couples conceiving children after having failed at fertility clinics to people on occasion being instantly healed of diseases, but I will add only one more:
On September 15, 1996, as I put a check in the morning offering for $110, God quickened me with what had happened to Isaac in Genesis 26:12. By faith—I had never been able to do this before, nor have I ever had the liberty to pray this way since—I prayed for a hundredfold blessing—we were really hurting financially at the time. I continued to press this home to my Father for weeks on end, and then, on November 16, 1996, out of the blue, I received 200 shares of Wachovia Bank stock from a relative on the East Coast. I got on the Internet and discovered that the stock had closed at $55.00 per share. Do the math; it comes out to the penny. Through God hearing our prayers, instead of living in a church owned parsonage, we now have a beautiful home of our own, on top of a hill overlooking a lake, and have been able to give away many thousands of dollars.
When I counsel others, I encourage them to view their lives as totally under the eternal, immutable, and most of all, benevolent, decree of our heavenly Father, who has given us an absolute standard of truth only in the Holy Scriptures and who promises: “Many are the afflictions of the righteous: but the Lord delivers him out of them ALL” (Psalm 34:19).
Lastly, while holding firmly
to biblical absolutes without wavering, the Church of Jesus Christ must
welcome all who repent of their sins and look to him for forgiveness,
healing and the power to change. Because of sin, people get themselves
into the devil’s own snarls, and sometimes it is very difficult, and
even impossible, to unravel the twisted entanglements into which they
have worked themselves—children from several previous marriages blended
together and then having to deal with bitter former spouses and their
angry, new partners who resent every minute or penny spent on their
step-children and who go out of their way to sabotage these
relationships to the great destruction of God’s little ones. But the
grace of the Cross cuts the Gordian knot that Satan has manipulated them
into weaving. Thank God that Jesus not only bore the guilt but also the
consequences of all our sins with the result that we are never under
condemnation or outside the good Providence of God who turns everything
ultimately into a blessing.
* Within the Roman Empire from the time of Constantine I on, the State in the East was profoundly guided by the teachings of the Church, even though the State was over the Church, and this remained the case even after Constantine XI was killed by Osama bin Laden’s predecessors, the Ottoman Turks, in A.D. 1453. In the western part of the old Roman empire, the Church came significantly to function in the role of the State after the implosion of Roman civil authority near the end of the fifth century, and the Holy See began to function not unlike the Secretary General of the modern United Nations, mediating the grievances of petty kingdoms under the aegis of Christian Tradition.
** “It is no ordinary request that Abraham is making, so he couches it with some delicacy. By putting his hand under Abraham’s thigh, the servant was touching his genitals and thus giving the oath a special solemnity. In the ancient Orient, solemn oaths could be taken holding some sacred object in one’s hand, as it is still customary to take an oath on the Bible before giving evidence in court. Since the OT particularly associates God with life (see the symbolism of the sacrificial law) and Abraham had been circumcised as a mark of the covenant, placing his hand under Abraham’s thigh made an intimate association with some fundamental religious ideas. An oath by the seat of procreation is particularly apt in this instance, when it concerns the finding of a wife for Isaac” (Gordon J. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 16-50 (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998) in loc).