by Brian Carpenter
Last week we went back to Genesis and to the Lord’s words in Matthew in order to discover the concept of absolute good and relative good as it relates to both marriage and singleness. Both marriage and singleness are relative goods; that is, they are good for certain people in certain circumstances, but not good for all people in all circumstances. God has called some people to singleness, and for them that is their good. God has called some people to marriage, and for them, that is their good.
The only relationship that is an absolute or unqualified good is the saving relationship with God wrought through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Whate’er my God ordains is right:
His holy will abideth;
I will be still whate’er He doth;
And follow where He guideth;
He is my God; though dark my road,
He holds me that I shall not fall:
Wherefore to Him I leave it all.
Now, the concept of relative and absolute goods leads us to a principle which is not widely understood in our day, and is frequently rejected by many. That principle is hierarchy. Because we Christians live in the midst of and breathe the atmosphere of the world’s system, we are prone to faulty understandings of reality that must be corrected by immersing ourselves in the scriptures until they form our conscious and unconscious beliefs, the center within ourselves from which we authentically act. Hierarchy is an extremely counter-cultural idea, but it is crucial to an accurate understanding of God and what He has created.
C.S. Lewis wrote a very profound little essay that was my first real introduction to the importance of this concept. We find it in the book, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. It is entitled “Some Thoughts.” He begins by noting that a neutral observer encountering Christianity for the first time will notice a paradox about it that most Christians don’t notice. He will first observe that Christianity is very concerned with this world and doing good in it, and proclaims the basic goodness of creation and of things like family and sex and wine and food and wealth and pleasing, productive labor. So on the one hand it seems that Christianity is what we might classify as a “world affirming religion,” similar to Confucianism or one of the ancient agriculturally-based religions.
On the other hand, he might notice that the central image of Christianity is a man slowly being tortured to death on a cross, and that the same man promised his disciples that their lives under his rule would have very cross-like aspects to them, that we were a people marked by fasting, and that we were commanded to meditate often on not only our own mortality, but of the mortality of the whole created order, and that a certain “contemptus mundi” (contempt of the world, or a disdain for the natural order) was sometimes commended to us as a Christian virtue. Therefore, it would also seem that Christianity can be categorized with the various world-denying religions, like Buddhism. But he would probably find it very bewildering to try and put the two things together. The thoughtful Christian, however, understands implicitly why this is so:
To Christians the explanation of this blessedly two-edged character in their faith seems obvious. They live in a graded, or hierarchical universe where there is a place for everything, and everything should be kept in its right place. The Supernatural is higher than the Natural, but each has its place; just as a man is higher than a dog, but a dog has its place…. Hence, in all true Christian asceticism, that respect for the thing rejected which, I think, we never find in pagan asceticism. Marriage is good, though it is not for me; wine is good, but I must not drink it; feasts are good, though for today we fast…. Polytheism is always, in the long run, nature worship. Pantheism is always, in the long run, hostility to nature. None of these beliefs really leaves you free both to enjoy your breakfast and to mortify your inordinate appetites—much less to mortify appetites recognized as innocent at present lest they should become inordinate. (Lewis, pp. 148-149)The closing sentence of the essay is purest gospel truth: “Because we love something else more than this world we love this world even better than those who know no other.”
St. Augustine’s special contribution to the history of the theology is to locate the origins of sin and evil in just this principle of hierarchy. Everything was created to occupy a certain niche. It has things that are higher than it, and things that are lower than it. As long as it remains in its designated niche, it is good. When it leaves its niche and either ascends higher than it ought, or descends lower than it ought, sin and evil result.
Think on the fall of Lucifer, as traditionally understood. He was an angel, the highest of the angels, the most beautiful and most powerful. His position was an exalted one. But there was One who was higher. Lucifer was not content to occupy his God-ordained position. He wanted to be higher than he was made to be. He wanted God’s throne for himself. The result is sin, and a dreadful fall into the worst kind of destructive wickedness a sentient being can know.
And what were his words to Eve? He seduced her with the lie that she could leave her created place and become more than she was; she could be “as God.” Adam, we are told, was not deceived by the words of the Serpent (1 Tim 2:14) and yet he remained silent when he should have spoken. He failed to try and persuade his wife not to eat the fruit. He was designed to be her spiritual head and protector. In that moment he became less than he was created to be, an irresponsible weakling. Then when she had fallen, and her eyes were opened, he realized that he had lost her; that she was already dying and already dead. Rather than lose her, he chose to join her. Life with God and without her was no longer desirable. Better to choose a hell with her than a paradise without her. She, who was by definition good, and his good, when he kept her in her proper place in his heart and affections, became the occasion for all the sin and evil we see in the world when he elevated her to the place of importance which only God must have. Adam committed idolatry. Eve was his false goddess.
The same principle is in operation when a woman comes to me and asks me if she should quit attending church because her unconverted husband doesn’t want her to go. She owes him respect and obedience to a point, but when he tries to usurp the place of God in her life, when he forbids what God has commanded, or commands what God has forbidden, then he must be resisted and let the chips fall where they may. This is true of any human being. Those in lawful authority over us must be resisted when they attempt to usurp the place of God in our lives, even if that resistance endangers our lives, as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego so eloquently state (Daniel 3:16-18).
Relative goods must also be compared to each other, so that the higher can be kept in its place and the lower in its place. We see this principle and its violation everywhere. We say of a man who pursues his hobbies and neglects his family, “His priorities are in the wrong place.” In other words, both family and hobby are relative goods when considered abstractly. But this man has lowered his family in his affections and elevated his hobby in his affections. His family now occupies a place which is inappropriately low, and his hobby now occupies a place which is inappropriately high. His hobby has become his sin. When he skips public worship and profanes the Lord’s Day to pursue his hobby, it has become one of the greatest sins. It has become his idol. He has elevated it above his obedience to God. Let every Christian golfer, hunter, and fisherman beware. I am not kidding. You may deceive yourself, but God is not deceived. And it won’t be long before you aren’t deceived anymore either. But it will be too late to do much about it by then. You will just have to accept the consequences of your actions, whatever God determines those should be.
If you want to see how upside down our society has gotten in this respect, just watch an episode or two of “The Dog Whisperer.” Dogs are good. They have a place (though I’m less certain about cats.) Many a “problem dog” is a problem because the owners have let it think that it is the highest power in the household, the “Alpha Dog.” The dog runs the home, and the people serve the dog. Fixing the situation usually involves having the owners assert authority and control over the dog, thus returning it to its proper position. A man has made a living for himself going from place to place telling dog owners these sorts of things. Yes, we have actually become that confused.We see then that any good thing can become an occasion for sin, and yet no created thing is purely evil when considered by itself in its proper position. Even drugs, like heroin, are not evil. They have a purpose, and a legitimate use. They become sinful and destructive (and illegal) when they are used for a purpose other than their intended and beneficial purpose.
Next week, God willing, we will tie all of this up together and attempt to answer the question originally put to us. Namely, “Is there some sense in which men and women do complete each other?”
Brian Carpenter is the pastor of Foothills Community Church (PCA) in Sturgis, South Dakota. He and his wife Laura have two lovely daughters, Evelyn and Jordan, ages 2 and 3. His interests include automotive and motorcycle repair and rebuilding, welding and metal fabrication, economics and monetary theory, philosophy, classical education, church history, and really expensive Scotch whisky. Brian blogs at TheHappyTR and AFiresideChat. His sermons are available online at SermonAudio.com.
Recommended further reading:
Philip Lancaster: Family Man, Family Leader
J.R. Miller: Homemaking
John Piper & Wayne Grudem (Eds.): Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood
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