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This article first appeared in our 2015 magazine newsletter under the title, “Real Life Conversations: Ministry Becoming More Challenging as Men and Women in Our Churches Come Out.” It is being posted here for online reading and for those who may perhaps wish to comment on what it says.

I was just clearing my desk, getting ready to lock up the office, when the phone rang. I almost let it go to voicemail, but I decided to answer it.

It was a pastor of a reformed, evangelical church on the phone. Frantically, he shared his predicament. There was to be a receiving of new members into the church on Sunday. However, one situation now threatened to dampen the whole event and possibly cause confusion, disbelief, anger, and hurt feelings all around.

He had, just an hour before, received a call from “Kevin,” one of the men becoming a member. After talking for about fifteen minutes about how happy he was to be joining the church, he dropped the news on the pastor. “I’m gay, you know. I’m a gay Christian.”

The pastor’s questions now came at me fast and furious. What was he going to do now, in the time between this phone call and Sunday? Why hadn’t Kevin told him this before? How could he have answered all the questions for membership in the affirmative? What about those in the church who had become Kevin’s friends? “You don’t understand, John,” the pastor told me, “This man is deeply cared for by many in the congregation. Active in the life of the church, he’s at every event—among the most faithful in serving. Everyone loves him. I thought we knew him. “

I offered the first thoughts that came to mind. “Looks like, between now and Sunday, you’re going to need to have a long conversation with Kevin to better understand what he means.” The pastor seemed confused, “What do you mean? What kinds of things should I ask him?”

I told him that he should, right up front, admit to Kevin that this news shocked him, but still to encourage him that he really wanted to hear his story. Then he could ask some follow-up questions like: Why had he hidden this part of himself? Just what did he mean by saying he was gay? Was this merely a description of his sexual attractions, or was it a behavioral matter, or both? Were these things he wrestled with—or was it a firm identity that he embraced? How did he see the Word of God governing his life in regard to this? Did he have any problem with what Scripture says about homosexuality? How and where did the cross, the work of Christ, and his union with Christ enter into Kevin’s life regarding his sexuality? Was he open to the admonitions and instruction of Scripture, and to pastoral support and care, to help him from living in ways that Scripture says aren’t appropriate for followers of Jesus?

In other words, the objective of these questions was to get to the ruling passions of Kevin’s heart and see where his view of Scriptural authority was in his life. The pastor had to discern whether Kevin understood what walking in repentance and faith looked like for him, as a same-sex attracted man. It’s one thing to have this man active and involved in the church. We want our churches to have open doors to people hearing the gospel and coming to faith. But it’s another thing to join the community of Christ’s body yet then live in any way one wishes. Is Kevin willing to enter the community of faith as all must enter, denying himself, taking up his cross to follow Christ, no matter how uncomfortable, disturbing and disruptive that might be? Getting these answers and deciding what to do next, for this pastor, would be would be quite an undertaking!

Situations like this will only become more common in the future. Actually, the future is now! The gay Christian movement is growing. It’s the new “third way,” promoted by advocates like Matthew Vines, Justin Lee, Rachel Held Evans, and others. Many are being persuaded by their false Scriptural arguments and emotional stories, made more powerful by an increasing lack of biblical knowledge and understanding on the part of our people.

How those holding to an historic interpretation of Scripture will ultimately respond to all this is still very much on the table. The pressure to conform to and embrace this new rendering of Christianity in the church and in families is huge. For those who stand firm on God’s Word, they will face the derision of those who label us as out of touch, mean-spirited, and irrelevant. Yet the compassion of Christ is found in his understanding of and grace for all of our struggles, while he continues to call us to a holiness that reflects God’s character. Truth and mercy did not compromise at the Cross: they met—in the One whose life, death and resurrection continues to transform any who come to him.

Voices That Confuse: Reclaiming Biblical Truth from Interpretative Distortions

This article appeared in our 2015 magazine newsletter. It is being posted here for those who prefer to read it online and may perhaps wish to comment on what it says.

The church is in confusion today. The voices advocating for the inclusion of same-sex relationships in the church have been loud enough to sow confusion even among ordinary church members in solid evangelical churches. The typical layperson’s grasp of Scripture on the issue of homosexuality is weakening. Studying the Scriptures on the matter doesn’t seem to help anymore. Why? Because these passages are increasingly undermined by strong, cultural worldviews that are driving alternative interpretations of Scripture.

Do you know what they are? These “background doctrines” are influencing how Scripture is being read today. Living our lives before God, aligning our wills with his, is the central objective of our Christian faith. It matters how we live and on what basis we claim God’s approval.

Here are just three of the worldviews we need to see operating in the background, along with ways we can respond to them with biblical faithfulness.

One, personal stories drive biblical interpretation.

In our culture, personal stories are how we discover “truth” today. The individual—me—is the primary point of meaning and fulfillment. We don’t look outside of ourselves, to God, to find truth or meaning. We look inside, to our own experience.

We see this when we look at behavior. There are no longer any agreed-upon moral standards to determine what is right or wrong. I discover truth; this is “my truth.” And no one has the right to say my truth is wrong. My story, the way I experience life, validates what is true.

Do not think this is merely a secular way of thinking. It is making headway into the church in subtle, but powerful ways.

For example, a video made several years ago, For the Bible Tells Me So, presents emotionally powerful stories of kids who grew up in the church and who took their own lives because of the discrimination, abuse, depression, and isolation they felt growing up gay. These are powerful stories and they should move us. But the objective behind telling these stories is to cause us to question why we should hold on to the traditional view of homosexuality in light of how painful—even life-threatening, as the argument goes—that position is for people who live with same-sex attraction. The message? Holding on to the orthodox view hurts people. It’s dangerous.

This illustrates how we decide what is right or wrong—how does it impact others; how does it impact me? Divine revelation, which is God’s story, becomes secondary to my personal autobiography.

How do we respond to this cultural worldview, that our personal stories interpret God’s will for us?

1. We do need to listen to people’s stories. There are things we need to learn in all these stories of those living with same-sex attraction. Our hearts should be moved to compassion by stories of isolation, loneliness, abuse, rejection, fear. But subjective experience can never be the basis for arriving at objective truth. Personal stories illuminate; they challenge us; they help us apply the truth of Scripture to our lives. But they must be viewed in the light of what Scripture teaches about life and God. We need an objective word outside us to fully understand ourselves.

        Personal stories illuminate, challenge us, help us apply the truth of Scripture to our lives.  But they must be viewed in light of what Scripture teaches about life and God.

2. We need to recognize that all our stories are broken. There is a hidden message inserted into these stories when they are presented in these ways, and it’s not immediately evident. It’s this: my sexuality, no matter how it presents itself, is essentially good. The reason I struggle here is because the traditional view of Scripture doesn’t acknowledge the truth of my own experience. I am not in need of rescue or redemption from myself—what I need is freedom to be what I believe I should be.

But the biblical view is that everything about us is broken by the Fall. When Jesus pursued society’s outcasts (a major theme of pro-gay apologetics), he meet them where they were—but he didn’t leave them there. He healed the lepers, and he forgave the “sinners and prostitutes.” When we truly meet Jesus, we are not affirmed in the direction we want in life—our lives are turned upside down and redirected.

3. We need to give true compassion. Ultimately, to allow these stories to reshape God’s word to approve what it does not, is to offer a false compassion. Our compassion must be God’s compassion and not the world’s. God’s compassion comes to us in and through our suffering—and we recognize that sometimes God does not remove our “thorns in the flesh.” We dare not think we can be more merciful than God by encouraging someone to live in ways that are incompatible with his calling.

Two, modern culture is superior to ancient culture

This worldview doctrine goes like this: We moderns know more than people who lived long ago. They were ignorant. We’re not. They didn’t have the knowledge and data that we have today.

Now, this worldview centers on two arguments.

The first one is that sexual orientation is genetic and fixed. Same-sex attraction is part of God’s design for sexuality and is therefore natural and good. We know this from science.

The second one is that the Bible’s negative view on same-sex relationships was because the biblical writers did not observe, in their culture, positive, monogamous same-sex relationships like we see today. They were concerned with promiscuity, exploitative sex like prostitution, and deviant sexual practices centered on cultic worship. So the Scriptures that prohibit homosexual behavior do not apply to loving, faithful same-sex relationships. It’s time to bring the ancient Bible into our time now.

So, how do we respond to this cultural worldview, that modern trumps ancient?

1. Regarding the argument that being gay is genetic, and that orientation is immutable, we respectfully say that it has not been proved. Saying it is, is only a bare assertion. Right now the dominant evidence points not to nature, but to nurture—and maybe some sort of combination. But, let’s be careful and wise here. We should be open to whatever medical research is discovering. We should not close our minds to the possibility that homosexuality might have some genetic or biological component. The Fall has affected everything about us, even down to the smallest level of our biology. But the Bible’s claim to be our guide to faith and life—in other words, how we ought to live—is not altered or threatened by this. Ultimately, science cannot make a moral judgement.

2. About same-sex relationships, when Paul wrote Romans, same-sex relationships, even long-term ones, were not uncommon. Paul traveled widely in the Greco-Roman world, he was a highly educated man, and it is safe to say that he would have been familiar with the varied sexuality embedded in Greco-Roman culture, just as anyone is today who has studied the classics. Paul is clearly saying that all homosexual behavior—not just promiscuous sexual behavior or sex connected with idolatry—is in need of redemption by the atonement of Jesus Christ.

3. We can agree that the Bible is not a science or medical textbook. But let’s be clear on what it is: a book that is authoritative on the human condition. It makes that claim—it says what is wrong with humanity and how God is redeeming it. 2 Timothy 3:16 is one of a number of passages that assert the Bible’s authority over how we ought to live.

One more thing: If Scripture is subordinate to whatever cultural perspective is current, then how can we believe anything God says? We will always throw out portions we don’t agree with, if we see the Bible as merely being man’s ancient attempt to understand God. Faith, then, will always default to what I want in life. As Tim Keller often says, if the Bible is an eternal word from God, then we should not be surprised that every generation and culture will be offended by something in Scripture. God’s ways are not our ways.

Finally, doctrine is bad; love is good. 

Doctrine kills the human spirit. Religious rules and propositions place burdens on people, robbing them of freedom. The Bible is about love, and that’s what matters. Whatever is loving among people is to be celebrated, especially when it includes those who have been religiously excluded or mistreated. So, any passages that appear unloving to any group of people are reinterpreted or dismissed as not being authentically from God (or Jesus). This argument is being made forcefully today: How can loving relationships, regardless of sexual orientation, be wrong? That is a powerful argument. A powerful emotional argument.

Do we have a response here?

1. The biggest problem with this argument is that love needs an objective definition. Love is more than a desire that pulls me or a feeling that overwhelms. If the strength of my love for someone makes it right, then anything goes. I can love whomever I want, in whatever way I want. The logical end of this worldview is a definition of love expressed by Woody Allen when he married his adopted step-daughter:  “The heart wants what the heart wants.”

But love without definition or boundaries is not harmless. The Fall has corrupted all good things.  Without a moral standard, love is easily twisted into self-centered pleasure, vulnerable to abuse and power. That’s not love. God’s design for sex—and marriage— was originally good, and it remains so even today, in spite of our continual failing to faithfully live within its life-affirming boundaries. The transcendent meaning of sex and marriage is a vision we need to grasp anew.

Love needs definition—and it is found in the One who is Love himself. The foundation for loving others is first to love God and obey his commandments (1 John 5:1-3).

2. It is significant to note that Jesus always appealed to Scripture when addressing controversial issues. When he discussed sexual behavior with the Pharisees, in the context of marriage and divorce (Matthew 19:3-6), he referred to God’s creational order of male and female as affirming the only permissible boundaries for sexual expression. The so-called “silence” of Jesus on the issue of homosexuality is clearly dismissed by his recognition of God-ordained sexual boundaries.

3. There is another hidden message in this post-modern doctrine—that love requires sex. Intimacy is not possible without it. But intimacy is much richer and more varied than sexual expression. Intimate relationships—where vulnerability, transparency, companionship, selflessness, and a sharing of mutual interests and life-goals are lived out—happen in friendships, too. God cares deeply about our relationships. He knows that some will not marry or cannot marry, and that can be a significant loss to live with. He knows that. But he has placed us in a community of his body, and deep, loving friendships should be the norm. We have lost that perspective today. C.S. Lewis said, in The Four Loves, “To the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.”

Finally, how we live regarding all issues of life ultimately reveals our hearts toward God. “Thy will be done”—or my will be done—describes everyone’s relationship with God. To possess a reliable compass to see if we are living for him or for our own desires, requires that we submit everything to God. Unless we work hard to discern our own personal or cultural “background” agendas, the temptation to merge God’s will with our own will always remain deceptively strong.

Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: Part One

“Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you” (ESV).

What Paul is saying here is not terribly popular today. Not in the culture we live in, and increasingly not even in the church. We live in an age that many describe as one of sexual freedom and self-discovery (my sexuality reveals my true identity), and we hear that the Bible is a sexually repressive book, stuck in its ancient cultural time-period, so we need to just move on.

But what Paul says here is not only counter-cultural to us; it was also counter-cultural to those who heard him 2000 years ago. It wasn’t very popular then either! Biblical sexuality has never been something people are naturally or instinctually drawn to—but throughout the Scriptures, God’s message to us has been consistently clear:

What we do with our bodies matters. Our sexuality matters to God.

I’m struck by two things in this passage.

One, the force of Paul’s argument for why it matters that we live in accordance to God’s will for our lives sexually. Notice how many times and ways that Paul speaks about obeying the will of God regarding how to live with our sexuality.

V2: “you know what instructions we gave you through the the Lord Jesus.”

V3: For “this is the will of God, your sanctification . . . that you abstain from sexual immorality”

V4: “that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness”

V5: that you not live like those outside of Christ (“not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles”)

V6: “that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things…”

V 7: “For God has called us…to holiness”

V8: “whoever disregards this, disregards God”

Seven times Paul says that God places a high value on how we live with our sexuality. Seven times he says, in essence, that our sexual behavior reveals our spirituality—that how we live in our body is a barometer of our faith.

We live in a culture that proclaims that sex equals life. We hear that a life lived without sex is a tragedy, and our self-identities are increasingly defined by our sexual preferences or attractions. We are bombarded 24/7 with images, media, and cultural expressions that say that the meaning of life is about sex. No wonder this passage is being dismissed as out-of-sync with what is current.

But, two, I’m also struck by something else in this compact passage: that, in the face of cultural opposition (and probably even the opposition from and struggles of those who were new to the faith), Paul doesn’t water down the gospel on this matter. He doesn’t flinch in saying how important this is.

What Paul says here is difficult to follow, given the culture we live in, and taking into account how powerful our sexuality is.

Would it encourage you if I said that it was difficult for first-century Christians, also?

God knows that this is difficult for his people

Do you notice how Paul hints at this in verse 1? He mentions, first of all, that he was clear in his instruction on how to live as redeemed people: “that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing”—and then he adds, “and that you do so more and more.”

In other words, the Christians at Thessaloniki knew what to do, and they seemed to be moving in the right direction, but it appears they also struggled doing so. They didn’t have it down pat; they hadn’t mastered the subject, or else Paul would not have said, “. . . we ask and urge you. . . in the Lord Jesus” that they continue in that direction. I think this double appeal speaks volumes about their struggles here.

What’s happening in the church at Thessaloniki mirrors what we read in the letter of 1 Corinthians.

Almost the entire letter is a question and answer session between Paul and the church on all the problems the church had. Let me list them:

  • There were divisions and factions fighting over leadership.
  • Paul had to defend his apostolic ministry, because many thought Paul was an inferior apostle—there were better preachers out there than Paul.
  • They had relational and business conflicts, and they were taking each other to court.
  • They had marriage problems, divorces, struggles by those who were single.
  • They had fights over worship, the Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts, etc.
  • They had people in the church who questioned whether Jesus really rose from the dead.

And, you will notice this thread throughout the entire letter—they really struggled with sex and sexuality. Big time. Paul addressed matters of incest, prostitution, sex outside of marriage, distorted views of sex within marriage, and homosexuality. Sexuality was a big topic and a big problem in the church at Corinth. In fact, throughout all the new churches!

It looks like the first century church looks a lot like ours, doesn’t it? Is that discouraging to you? Does it make you wonder if anybody really follows Jesus, if obedience to Christ is even possible, especially in this area of life?

It shouldn’t. Remember the kind of person Jesus is; remember how he was described. In Luke 15:2, he was derisively referred to as the man who receives sinners. And eats with them, too! That’s us!

There is no ideal, pure church. As long as the church is following Christ, it will remain messy, because God saves messy people.

A healthy church is not one without problems, it’s one where problems are addressed with grace and truth (that’s the gospel—the good news of how God has rescued us). And if the gospel of grace and truth is being taught, then we will see people changing, but it’s God who does the changing in us. He knows that change—and the speed and quality of it—is unique to each person.

Today, the ever-present sexual struggles in the church are evidence by some that we need to rethink what the Bible says about sex. But what is unpopular now was unpopular then. In spite of the struggles of the early church, the message never wavered.

God is still calling his people to live with their sexuality in holiness, according to his design. And we are to do so even when we struggle. Especially as we struggle.

Christian spirituality has everything to do with our bodies. And that is why, after six times mentioning how important this is, on the seventh time Paul nails home the final point: Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.

Our sexuality reveals our spirituality. How we live with our sexuality reveals the allegiance of our hearts. As Paul also wrote: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6: 19-20).

(Looking ahead: more reasons Paul gives on following God faithfully with our sexuality and how to do it. )

Click here to read Part 2.

Updated 5.12.2017

The call came from a PCA pastor’s wife. “John, an elder’s wife asked me a question recently which I thought I knew how to answer. However, the more we talked the more I realized, as did Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, that ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore.’ I soon realized it was more complicated than I thought at first.”

The elder’s wife had asked, “Now that gay marriage is legal in our state, if a gay couple begins to attend our church and if one or both of them claimed faith in Christ, would we encourage them to separate? How can we stand against something which is now legal?” She went on to say, “And we certainly wouldn’t encourage them to separate if there were children involved, would we? I mean, would we want their children’s experience of Christianity to be: ‘My mom became a Christian, and it destroyed our family’”?

I heard a similar dilemma in another pastor’s phone call. In his church’s membership class, the issue of homosexuality came up, and several people who desired to join the church expressed support both of homosexuality and gay marriage. While they themselves were not gay, they nevertheless supported and agreed with those who were.

These situations are happening in conservative churches right now. How do we think about these things? First, we need to remember that people coming into our churches today come out of a culture inundated with post-modern, totally secularistic beliefs. And while we all bring our faulty and fallen thinking into our relationship with Christ, it must be our job, as leaders in the church, to offer venues to openly discuss these things and offer sound biblical teaching.

As I result, I encourage all pastors and church leadership to begin addressing these issues in membership classes (and other venues as well). It is naïve of us to believe our people are on the same page in how they think about sex and sexuality. Please consider spending an hour or so in membership classes talking about God’s intention for sex and sexuality and why God intended marriage to be between a man and a woman. If God’s very first words to man and woman were about sex (Genesis 1:28), why are we so afraid to talk about it?

One PCA church recently contacted us because several people in the congregation had come out in one year. As the Session moved to enter into these situations with gospel mercy and truth, several families ended up leaving the church, having felt victim to a “bait and switch” framework. In other words, the church prided itself in being known as a church of love and mercy, yet when members found out that the church saw homosexuality as sin, they felt betrayed. A lot of turmoil resulted which, now several years down the line, is still being felt in the church. Much of this could have been avoided had the leadership spoken directly about biblical sexuality. Our church community is always impacted by the culture more than we realize regarding these issues. Even those with a more solid grasp of the Scriptures are being impacted.

Much of the turmoil and hard feelings could have been avoided had the leadership addressed these issues in some of the “entry points” in the church, like small groups, membership classes, etc.

Harvest USA is here to help your church leadership in this area. Please contact us if we can be of help. We’d love to talk with your church staff and elder boards/leadership teams about this. If you’re within a few hours of the Philadelphia or Pittsburgh area, we can do this in person. If you’re farther away, we can do this with a Skype or WebEx meeting. We’re here to serve God’s church and leaders.

Updated 5.25.2017

When my car breaks down, I take it to the mechanic. When my computer has a virus, I take it to the computer people. Problems. Turn on any news station and you will see and hear an endless stream of news stories of problems that need fixing and multiple opinions on what needs to be done to fix them.

If we’re not careful in our ministry, we can start looking at the people we serve as problems to be fixed. But people are not problems. Those you serve in ministry are more than merely the problems and issues they present.

It’s quite easy to slip into this mindset when doing ministry with high-maintenance teens or young adults.(Confession: I, too, was a high-maintenance kid!) There are a number for reasons for doing this. Here are just three of them. Do you see yourself here?

  1. I like fixing things. Men are really good at this. We think we know what someone needs, and we are really good at telling them what to do. We love to give advice all the time.
  2. I hate chaos and disorder. I need to fix it—fast. Get control quickly.
  3. I feel pressure from parents, pastors/leaders, etc. to fix things. I need to show them that I know what I’m doing and can do it well. Otherwise, it’s curtains for me.

Ministry leaders can especially find themselves here when the problems that a particular student has involves sexual issues. What if John comes to you and says, “I’ve been struggling with looking at porn,” or Sue opens up and says, “I struggle with lust”? Sexual issues can be complicated, hard to talk about, and unpredictable. They can dominate a person’s life (and oftentimes they do!). And, what’s more, they don’t tend to be fixed quickly or easily. So, after a while, we let their issues become the “face” we see rather than the whole person whom we are trying to help.

How might this play out in our ministry? Here are five litmus tests to see if we view students as problems to be fixed rather than people to love and walk alongside of, showing them how Christ is their helper.

  1. We get involved when an issue arises, but once we feel they have “conquered” their sin, we then move on to others with their new problems.
  2. We think of students only in terms of their sin. “That” becomes their identity and how we think of them all the time.
  3. We don’t recognize the good and godly things that are also going on in their lives.
  4. All we ask students about are their particular struggles and sins when we talk with them.
  5. We focus on their behavior, and fail to see that their struggles spring from so many other desires, beliefs, and fears within them.

Please don’t misread me. The problems and sins we face are serious things. They should be addressed, and God is clearly interested in addressing our sin—look at practically the entire letter of 1 Corinthians as an example.

But to miss the person because we are centrally focused on the problem is to miss really knowing them as the Lord knows them. This is the beauty of relational ministry.

One of the most relational passages of the Scriptures is Psalm 139. The entire Psalm is an exploration of the ways in which the Lord intimately knows David—you know, the guy who led Israel, whom God anointed as the archetypal leader of his people and the foreshadow of Christ, and the one who committed adultery and murder, as well.

“O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.” (Psalm 139: 1-6, ESV)

Our God is a personal God. He delights to know us intimately, through and through, and David is equally enraptured by being known this way (“such knowledge is too wonderful for me”). It’s obvious that God would know all these things about David. He’s God. He knows these things about all of us!

But the main point is this: He doesn’t relate to us solely on the basis of our issues and problems. No! He really loves his people (Psalm 149:4: “For the Lord takes pleasure in his people”), and as the prophet Zephaniah exclaims, “The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zephaniah 3:17).

The LORD rejoices over his people? The LORD sings as he delights in us? YES! Our God doesn’t simply see us as problems; he sees us as people to be known and loved. He has loved us with a greater love than we could hope for, having purchased us and adopted us into his family. This isn’t simply about fixing us. This is about family.

How are you doing at reflecting this quality of God to the students you serve? Do you desire to know and love your students as children of the living God? Do you rejoice over the good fruit that is also there in their life? Do you desire to plumb the depths of their hearts, to know their fears, beliefs, and hopes instead of just responding to the issues you see on the surface? Do you desire to know them for who they are?

Here are five ways, mirroring the five litmus tests above, that help us relate more in-depth to the students we minister to:

  1. Pray that the Lord would help you to see students as unique individuals and not as problems you need to fix. Prayer for the Lord to reshape your vision is the first step to take.
  2. See your students not simply in terms of their struggles and sin, but as a mixture of sin, beliefs, desires, fears, hopes, dreams—the light and the dark of their lives. Recognize that they live in a messed up world, and, coupled with their youth and immaturity, let that guide your approach to them.
  3. Rejoice in the good you see in your students’ lives. Rejoice with them in their successes, and let them know that you praise God for the work you see.
  4. Ask students about the good things that are happening in their lives. Be intentional here, and in doing so, help them to give thanks to God for his goodness in their life.
  5. Recognize that you are more like your students than you realize. You don’t have it all together, either. As you cry out to God in your own weakness and struggles and sin, and as you embrace Christ’s grace and forgiveness, and as you then walk forward in faith after you have stumbled and fallen—this is the same life you want to model for them as well.

It’s an astonishing thing that the Lord takes our problems and sins seriously while simultaneously treating us as the sons and daughters in whom he delights. The Lord help us to mirror this in our relationships with our students.

Updated 4.13.17

She wants to meet with you. She’s part of the youth group, but she’s been more of a marginal participant. Quiet, a bit aloof, definitely reserved. You’re eager to finally get a chance to know more about her. But when you finally get together, and after some awkward and hesitant initial talk, she says it: “I think I’m gay. I’m attracted to girls.”

If you’re like most youth leaders today, your first impulse is to wonder what to say that would be helpful. You don’t want to negate her sense of self, because that’s what she experiences, but nor do you want to confirm it, as if the matter is settled. The problem you have, and what is making you uncomfortable, is that you are not like that; that is, you are not attracted to people of the same sex like she is. Her experience is so unlike yours. What can you say? Your inclination is to retreat because you don’t think you can relate to her in any way that might be helpful.

But wait a minute. You have a lot more in common than you think. You are more equipped to help than you give yourself credit for. Or give God credit.

Start with 1 Corinthians 10:12-13, a familiar passage: “Therefore let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man” (ESV). Now look at the context of that passage. Paul is describing the desert journeys of Israel after they left Egypt. Israel stumbled, desired evil things (v.6), worshiped idols (v.7), and engaged in sexual immorality (v. 8). They put God to the test (v. 9), and constantly grumbled against him (v. 10) because they didn’t like how life was turning out for them. What’s the lesson Paul is teaching the young church in Corinth? This: Be careful! Though you as a Christian have been chosen and loved by God, just like the Israelites, you also live in a broken world, and life will not go smoothly nor be what you hope it will be. You, too, are tempted to grumble against God and be tempted by many things to fill your empty hearts (even if they are different temptations), so don’t think more highly of yourself than anyone else, nor think that someone else’s struggles or sin is so strange and different that neither you nor the gospel can connect with them.

Paul asserts that no temptation has seized us but what is common to humanity. No temptation. There is not a temptation under the sun that is not common to fallen humanity. While you might not struggle or sin in this particular way, you have everything in common with someone who has same-sex attraction. This student is not “other” than you. She is no stranger. She is a fellow sufferer who lives in the same fallen world that you do, and that is the world that Christ came to rescue.

What about James 1:14-15? James writes, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” Beneath her attraction for those of the same sex, this girl has other intense desires within her. Desires that are similar to yours: desires for companionship, meaning, purpose, identity, salvation, etc. It is these desires, usually unaddressed and hidden in the heart, that the fallen human heart twists into misshapen idols that we live for and worship. Good things that become idols that lead to actions and behaviors that feel right and that give meaning and significance to a void that she (and all of us, too!) becomes desperate to fill. Her heart tempts her to attach these desires to things that cannot give life, nor glorify God—but so does your own heart!

Can you relate to someone who wants to be loved? Can you relate to someone who feels that their identity needs to be defined by someone or something other than Jesus? Can you relate to someone who wrestles and struggles with his or her particular besetting sin? Can you relate to those who want to follow Christ but find strong, competing, sinful tendencies within themselves moving them in wrong directions? This girl is not radically different than you. Her longings and struggles, of which one of them is same-sex attraction, may be different than yours, but the seed is the same. We all come from the same parents. There are sinful and broken tendencies within all of us that are experienced by each and every one of us. Christianity levels the playing field, and connects every one of us to each other.

Without seeing the common ground between us and someone else, we erroneously separate and distance ourselves from others. We either think less of them because we would never do those things, or we think less of ourselves in terms of our ability to help. Hebrews 4:15-16 levels the ground, closes the distance, because God himself came close to us, in his humanity, so that we might intimately know how much Christ is for us. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in times of need.” One of the wonders of the Incarnation is that Jesus lived a real, human life, and experienced all the desires, temptations, and sufferings that we experience. He knows what life is like; he is able to help us; he understands us; and he loves us in the midst of our struggles in a way that transforms us. We can trust him. We can rest in him.

We reflect the help, understanding, and love that Jesus gives to us by moving towards our students, not away from them. The issue I raised at the beginning is a bit misleading: it really isn’t a question about finding common ground. It’s about recognizing the common ground that we already have when we walk alongside someone who experiences same-sex attraction. We both share the same fallen, human condition, and we both have access to the same, divine help: a help that comes close to us in love and power.

Updated 4.13.17

Below is a brief excerpt from John Freeman’s book, Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God about Sex, from New Growth Press.

Men struggling with sexual sin are, at deeper levels in their lives, God-haters and idol-makers. A third element that goes on under the surface in the men who come into our office is that they are accomplished game–players, juggling all the seen and unseen parts of their lives. I see this game-player category in virtually everyone who struggles with sexual sin, but more so with believers. Why? Because in the church, struggles are kept secret from others as the pressure of appearances takes over. You are accepted if you have it all together, but you are viewed differently if you admit you have problems or difficulties. This is especially so when the struggle involves sex, with its attendant shame and guilt. In other words, Christians believe they should not have these problems. The church should not be this way, but oftentimes the “culture” of a church creates this relational dysfunction.

This was made clear to me a number of years ago when our ministry placed carefully-worded ads in local newspapers and magazines, aimed at those who might be questioning what was going in their lives. The short ads would say something like, “Porn Struggle? Help Is Available” or . . . “Does Porn Have a Grip on You? There’s Hope for You.” When we ran those ads, we could get up to forty calls a day.

As I talked with people who responded to these ads, I noticed something: A good number who called were non-Christians, but the ad spoke to them with some kind of clarity and hope anyway. One of the verses that has always been foundation for our outreach is Proverbs 14:13, “Even in laughter the heart may ache.” No matter how much people’s lives look put together as they bask in their sexual freedom, there can still be a lot of pain and hurt underneath—even in an unbeliever!

I realized something else about those who initially came to us as unbelievers. If men came into our ministry, joined one of our Bible study/support groups, and then eventually came to a first-time, saving knowledge and faith in Christ, they often had a much better prognosis for dealing with their sexual sin biblically and sincerely. They had a healthier journey of growing in Christ and “putting off” their sexual sin than did believers who came to us after living disjointed, compartmentalized lives for many years.

How could that be? First, you’ve got to realize that, if you are a believer dealing with struggles. . . no one may know about your hidden struggles because you’ve designed it that way! Maybe no one even suspects the deep waters of your heart in this area and the efforts you make to keep it all working. People can go on for years with these heart-crushing, life-devastating behaviors. No one in your life may ever catch on, and you’re worse off because of it. If you are ever going to deal with your heart with integrity, you will have to unlearn all the coping mechanisms you’ve developed to function in both worlds—your sin-oriented, secret world as well as your “Christian” world.

We have a wonderful man named Bob Heywood on staff in our national office in Philadelphia. He disciples men and works with some of our small groups. His is an amazing story of how the Lord broke into his heart over a dozen years ago, as he lived one of these game-playing, compartmentalized lives. Bob talks about the way his half-hearted Christian life was able to co-exist for so long with his sexual addiction. Bob was an active elder at his church. . . But he had hidden problems that were compounded by the fact that he was able to get away with living a double life. Bob says, “As I began giving in to this temptation, I realized I was getting in way over my head. I felt like I couldn’t stop. I’ll never forget when I came to what I now consider the worst soul-deadening conclusion ever in my life. And that was, ‘Maybe I can do both. Maybe I can be a leader in the church and look at porn at the same time.’”

When Bob teaches and shares his testimony now, he often uses Proverbs 7:13-18 to describe his experience. In that passage, Solomon describes the way a prostitute seduces a young man.

She seizes him and kisses him,
and with bold face she says to him,
“I had to offer sacrifices,
and today I have paid my vows;
so now I have come out to meet you,
to seek you eagerly, and I have found you.
I have spread my couch with coverings,
colored linens from Egyptian linen;
I have perfumed my bed with myrrh,
aloes and cinnamon.
Come, let us take our fill of love till morning;
let us delight ourselves with love.”

Bob uses this vivid picture to say that he was more like the prostitute than the seemingly innocent victim of someone’s charms and seduction. Bob will tell you that for years he did what the prostitute did—he “offered sacrifices and paid vows,” thinking this would take care of his spiritual problem and relieve him of guilt and shame. In other words, he did all the Christian stuff—went to church, read his Bible, prayed, put money in the offering basket, etc.—just as the woman in the passage carried out her religious activities. At the same time, he spent twenty years viewing adult videos. Bob’s Christian life had become a works-oriented, graceless world where doing was more important than being. His carefully crafted façade allowed him to function in two worlds and fool everyone because he looked really good—at least, on the outside.

When it comes to sexual sin. . . men can live for years without anyone knowing how they’re misusing sex. The secret nature of sexual sin allows it to go on for years without anyone ever knowing. Therein lies its deepest power to do soul and heart damage. It can lead to dozens of years of being a game-player, even as a Christian man. How does it happen? Easy. We learn to compartmentalize, that is, to wall off many parts of our lives early on. . . We can be this person over here, that person over there. And the person, even as a Christian, who learns to do that at age fifteen is soon the person doing that at twenty-five, thirty-five, forty-five, or fifty-five. . .

Being a game-player can be exhausting. But one of the most deadly consequences of learning how to live with a pornified heart is the inevitable corrosion that takes place in our hearts over years. The problem, though, is that you won’t know that your own heart is decaying! You may be the last to know. . .

The real effects of a corroded heart

Our sexual sins not only cause our hearts to go dead, but they also keep us from being who and what we should be as men, husbands, and fathers. Due to years of sexual temptations and unforsaken sins, our neglected hearts will rob everyone in our lives of something! There are at least three ways that this happens.

First, a continued history of failures, a commitment to playing games with these issues and with the Lord, and a commitment to silence will rob you of your effectiveness as a man of God, as a husband, and as a father. It will rob you of the gospel words you’re called to speak on a regular basis to your own heart and to the hearts of those closest to you. You can no longer preach the gospel to yourself with authority. It falls on deaf ears. You cease to believe it for yourself, even though you may go through the motions of acting like you believe it. This can be true even if you are in ministry.

Think about it. You lose your bout with Internet porn on a regular basis. You’re filled with guilt and shame most of the time, with the harsh realization that you’re living in defeat all the time. Now, are you going to be engaged emotionally and practically the way you should be with your wife? Are you going to be proactive in speaking into her life and your children’s lives the way you know Gods wants? Probably not. You know the reality of your record, and it’s zapped your relational strength, vitality, and integrity. You’ve come to see yourself as a fake, a phony, a sham. . .

Second, this heart-neglect robs men of their confidence in, love for, and excitement about things of God, especially about the gospel. How could it not? When you know deep down what’s going on in your heart, how you’ve been taken captive by your own untamed desires—and when you know your own record of defeat—it robs you of the love for the gospel you once had.

Third, our unaddressed struggles, our sexual idols and compulsions also rob God! How do they do that? . . . The counterfeit sexual idols we bow to vie for a deep place in our hearts, a place where only God was meant to dwell.

So, does your continual inaction, resignation, and inattention to your heart rob God? You bet. Do they rob you and those around you? Absolutely. They keep you from being fully available to God and others. They rob the body of Christ in a very real way. Your secret sexual idolatries, your addictions, and your compulsions keep you from being who you were called to be. In our addictions, our hearts seek attachments that cripple our image-bearing capabilities and the exercise of our gifts to bless others. This is one of the saddest, most damaging consequences of our hidden sin—everyone loses out. . .

Real change isn’t measured just by what we stop doing. It’s always measured in character change; whereas your former preoccupation with yourself robbed others, now you begin to be more interested in others than yourself. You see yourself wanting to bless others, desiring their good and not just your own. You no longer hide what you are doing; instead, you are increasingly open with others about your struggles and faults. As one man said to me about his decades of hidden sexual struggles: “I’ve been a liar all my life.” But now, he is learning how to be a truth-teller, to his wife and to everyone he knows. Character grows when we live for God and serve others. One of the ways God starts to change us is to move us to start dealing with our sexual idols.

What does it take to want to start walking in repentance and find the help you know you desperately need? How do you get there? What is the path to freedom? How do you start to live with sexual integrity when you know you don’t have the human resources to do so? You have to be willing for God to do something new and to begin to see yourself as you’ve never done before.

John’s intent in this chapter is to give hope to sexual strugglers who feel the pain and pressure of their hiding (from God and others), yet feel either hopeless to do anything about it or falsely believe that they can battle it on their own. The book lays out a way to go forward into freedom from sexual sin. Check out the testimony that follows for one man’s story of hope and change.

You can take a look at John’s book by clicking the following link: http://stores.newgrowthpress.com/hide-or-seek-when-men-get-real-with-god-about-sex/

FOOTNOTE:

Stepping into the Light after a Lifetime of Shadow Living: One man’s testimony of transformation

When does the healing from a life time of viewing porn begin? How do I measure victory over a sin that has dogged my footsteps for decades? How many days must I make it without giving in yet again to temptation? These are questions I struggled with for years before finding any answers.

At ten I found a hidden stash of pornographic magazines that proved irresistible to my young mind. I began a life long journey of living life in the shadows, one foot in the world of my family, church, and jobs; the other foot hiding in the darkness of fantasy and sin and increasing despair.

The first thirty years I was successful in hiding my sin from everyone, but like most men enslaved to pornography, I got caught. More than just my sin was exposed; my whole life crumbled. My wife discovered not only that I looked at porn, but also that I was not the man, husband, and father I pretended to be. For the next twenty years, I struggled to be the man I was supposed to be while wresting with the man I actually was.

Years of disappointing and isolated self-effort got me nowhere. I would go for as long as six months before falling. Then the hiding cycle, with its lies and deception, began all over again. Even when I had some success from engaging with porn, my heart and mind remained trapped in the lies I was living. The biggest lie I believed was that no one could possibly love me if they really knew me. That drove me to believe that I had to fight this battle on my own. I could stop doing this, and no one had to know the real me, especially the ugly parts that I carefully kept hidden.

But this also meant that I was cutting God out of all this. You see, if God was a part of my change, I knew things would be really messy. While I had prayed for decades for God to rescue me from my sin, I also was dimly aware that I was terrified he would answer that prayer. Did I want to be clean? Yes! But I knew God wanted more of me than just being a man of sexual integrity. He wanted all of me, not just that part of me that needed fixing. I have spent most of my life in fear of being discovered. This sin warped and twisted all my relationships, from God, to my wife, to my children, to my friendships. With God in the mix, I would be completely exposed for who I was, and in my mind I was unlovable.

Did I want to test the limits of everyone’s love? No! I’m not a stupid guy. I’d rather remain hidden. But to change, that would mean no more hiding. I would need to live fully in the open. No more lies, half-lies, rationalizations, excuses; I would need to confess, admit failure, acknowledge how I hurt people, be a truth-teller, and learn to live fully in the present without escaping into my fantasy world.

Only the last few years has that elusive healing finally begun. What happened?

I joined a community of men who also struggled.

When I started to meet with other men I found out I was not alone. I was pushed to examine my life in a safe environment. There is no judgment on Monday nights when we meet. I found I could confess my lies and struggles, while also helping other men who also struggled. In this group I learned to trust Jesus. I learned that I was not unlovable, but loved beyond anything I could imagine. I knew all along that Jesus died for my sin, but I didn’t know it deep in my bones, deep in my heart. The reality of Jesus and his love for me is now being woven into the tapestry of my life; it is becoming a part of who I am.

I discovered that I cannot learn, much less know, of the love of Jesus by myself. I need men, sinners like myself, to remind me of Jesus and how his costly love pursued and embraced me. Do we hold each other accountable for our sin? Absolutely, but even more important we hold each other accountable for seeing Jesus at work in our lives. The question we ask over and over of each other is this: Is Jesus enough for us?

For far too many years the answer was no. Fleeing to porn to escape was my instinctive reaction to pain and difficulties. Now when asked that question, I stop and think and step out in faith, knowing that he is. When I attend a service in my church and look around the sanctuary and see those men whom I meet with, I am reminded of Jesus, because these men know the real me and love me anyway. When I come home now, it is not in fear, but in relief, knowing that my long-suffering wife knows who I am and like Jesus loves me anyway.

Is Jesus enough for you?

Updated 4.13.17

Temptation is suffering

“Bob” sat in my office with tears welling up in his eyes. “It’s so hard to live for God and I am so tired! Will this ever stop?!” Bob has been wrestling with the guilt and shame that has come from his addiction to viewing pornography. Caught last year by his wife, he initially had a period of freedom from his compulsions. He thought he was past the struggle. He had set up boundaries with his computer and resolved not to view pornography again. It was hard going, but it worked.

Then it all failed. One weekend he slipped, and the compulsions to furtively look at porn assaulted him all over again. He found himself slipping again into a pattern of secretly looking at porn on his computer whenever he thought it was safe to do so. Eventually his wife discovered his viewing habits again, and under threat of separation or worse, he came to my office.

“Kyle” was another person I saw that day. In his late forties, he has been struggling against same-sex attraction for decades. Although Kyle never had a sexual encounter with another man, is vigilant against the perils of the Internet, and battles the uninvited thoughts regularly intruding on his mind, he has never found the “freedom” he hoped for. Life is a daily choice to deny his sexual desires. It is a painful existence to battle against cravings he never asked for and desperately wants to disappear, but they obstinately persist nonetheless. This is true regardless of the nature of your struggle with sexual sin. Whether your temptation is toward the same-sex, pornography, emotionally enmeshed relationships, etc., to battle those temptations is suffering! Do you know what it is like to live with intrusive thoughts or compulsive behaviors while longing to be free?

In a culture where sexual fulfillment is one of life’s highest aims, denying sexual satisfaction is tantamount to adopting a life of misery and emptiness. For the world, desire is supreme and must be obeyed. Particularly for those who struggle against same-sex attraction, the mere fact that the desire is so relentless is the world’s “proof” it is inborn and unchangeable. It is not something to be fought, but surrendered to. Such struggles with temptation are painful.

Our culture also provides a false definition of freedom. Freedom is not the absence of temptation; it is the increasing ability to choose holiness out of love for Christ, despite the relentlessness of temptation. To live in freedom from sexual sin usually means ongoing temptations and the suffering they bring, but be encouraged: Your struggle against sexual sin matters to God! The daily decision to die to yourself and to lay your sexual desires on his altar is a precious sacrifice of obedience that is a delight to the Lover of your soul! (See 1 Samuel 15:22 and Romans 12:1.)

What do we mean by temptation? Put simply, temptation is the desire to turn to a false god. This desire is fed by three culprits: the world, our flesh and the devil. For many of us, our desires bend toward sexual sin. Being tempted is not the same as sin–I’m sure any spouse would agree that to desire another partner is not the same as the act of adultery. Nevertheless, temptation tugs at our hearts only because of the sinful desires already residing there. Temptation is tempting because we are ever-ready to turn from God to indulge our pleasure.  James teaches, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.  But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:13-14, ESV).

God never tempts us. Temptations–whether originating from the world, our flesh or the devil–only have power because our hearts are always ready to run astray. We are the ones responsible for our sins. But do you know what is amazing? Although never their Creator, God uses temptations mightily for our good and his glory! When we begin to see another way of looking at temptations, we begin to understand that willpower and self-effort alone are a sure way of losing the battle. Fighting temptation head-on with willpower is doomed to failure.  But fighting temptation with effort infused with a biblical perspective on temptation is an arsenal of great power.

God’s goodness in temptation
There are at least three ways that God’s goodness can be found even in times of temptation. Use these three perspectives to help you the next time you find yourself under the assault of temptation.

1. Temptation is a battle that draws us closer to God
First, temptation is an opportunity to know God better! The lusts of our hearts are masquerading as God. They lure and entice, promising joy, comfort, security, etc. Our sin offers us what only God can deliver. In the midst of our struggles with sin, we are invited to see the God whom sin mimics poorly for a fleeting moment. Sexual temptation is paramount in this parody. Why? Sex is a temporary, present phenomenon that is intense, glorious and pleasurable because it is intended to point beyond itself. Sex is ultimately about God. It points to the glorious pleasure, intimacy–the ecstasy!–experienced within the Trinity. Further, it points toward his relationship to us. Ephesians 5 teaches that the whole point of marriage is to give us a tiny glimpse of the love God has for us. Sex will be replaced in the New Heavens and Earth by the infinitely greater pleasure of God’s presence, which he tells us we can’t even begin to imagine! Rather than being weighed down in despair, temptations are an invitation to meditate on something far better: the wonder of the world to come and the pleasures of God we can’t even begin to fathom. Temptation can lead to worship!

2. Temptation is a battle that leads to spiritual growth
Second, temptation builds spiritual muscle.  The Christian life is a fight.  We are in the midst of a cosmic war – there is a reason we are exhorted to put on the whole armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-20).   Temptation trains us in obedience.  The seventeenth-century Scottish theologian, Samuel Rutherford, wrote, “Grace withers without adversity.  The devil is but God’s master fencer, to teach us to handle our weapons.”  There is no growth in holiness without a fight.  If we long to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” we need to battle the temptations that war against our souls!  We will only arrive in heaven sweaty, caked with blood and dust, with the sword still in our hand.

It is hard to get our finite minds around this, but God’s ultimate purpose is to fit us for eternity. He does this particularly through trials.  Scripture repeatedly urges us to see that hardships in life are not proof of his absence, but demonstrations of his presence. He promises, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (1 Corinthians 4:17-18). Trials come to test the genuineness of our faith, which is more precious than gold (1 Peter 1:6-7). 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 describes a final judgment for all believers. You need to see that the “gold, silver and precious stones” built on the “foundation” of Jesus include the places where you chose to suffer for him! The Father rejoices in and rewards what is done in secret (Matthew 6:4-6, 18). He knows your sacrifice of obedience and rejoices in it! He knows when you are denying yourself out of love for Christ, and he promises to reward those who earnestly seek him (Hebrews 11:6). Our sovereign God gives you ample opportunity for reward in the life to come– moment by moment you are invited to demonstrate your allegiance to him in a way that will be celebrated forever. In what may seem like mundane moments, your suffering against temptation literally has eternal value!

Another way to think about this is to remember that your life is finite. Your days have already been numbered. Perhaps you’re experiencing how rapidly time flies. There is encouragement here: Temptation is finite. There are a fixed number of occasions left that you need to resist, no more will be added. Every incident of self-denial, each victory, is yours forever. There is one less temptation before God wipes away your every tear and the blood and sweat from your brow.

3. Temptation is a battle that shows us the love God has for us 
Third, God meets us in temptation and as a result we learn to love him more. One of the glorious promises given to us is 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” One struggler I know commented that he discovered Jesus is the Way of escape. He found increasing freedom by embracing Christ in the midst of temptation, clinging to his promises, and trusting that obedience is better.

This is not abstract theology  Jesus is the Way of escape because he knows your pain specifically!  “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18). How was he tempted? Lest you think his experience was different, Hebrews tells us, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Listen to that hope! He has suffered the same temptations you experience. Therefore, right in the midst of your battle with temptation, his help is real and substantial. Knowing that Jesus suffered like you, but did so victoriously, is a deep source of strength and comfort. He alone knows exactly what you need, because he alone knows exactly what it takes, having endured the same temptations, but without ever failing.

Temptation is actually a blessing because it draws us closer to God like nothing else. Confrontation with our weakness is an invitation to experience his strength–to deepen our relationship with him! This was Paul’s lesson in the midst of trial, when he was desperate for reprieve: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).  Jesus is after our hearts. He wants a genuine relationship with us and, if you’re like me, you are most open to that when you are humbled and brought to your knees.  That’s why, for those who walk this road, there is great joy, even in the midst of battle!

There is a beautiful picture of the Christian life in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Return of the King. The Riders of Rohan traveled through the night along secret paths to rescue the city of Minas Tirith, burning and besieged in a sea of innumerable foes. As the riders charge into battle, facing almost certain doom, Tolkien writes, “They sang as they slew for the joy of battle was on them!” This is God’s invitation: We are in a battle, but there is reason for joy and song because, in the intensity of the fight, Jesus is with us and through the struggle gives us more of himself!

The hope of making it to the end
To live with unsatisfied desire is suffering. We regularly hear of prominent Christians, who struggled silently against same-sex attraction for years, but ultimately surrender to their desires. We hear of prominent Christians who are caught in adultery, or who are discovered to be visiting prostitutes. Their personal lives and their ministries collapse all around them.

The world mocks and jeers the faithful, touting, “It’s only a matter of time! When will you come to your senses and just give up!” Secular thought wonders why Christians struggle so much about sex; they look on amused as we fight a battle to uphold biblical sexuality and purity while they merely give in to their feelings and urges. What’s the big deal, they say?

Keep fighting the battle! Know that like the prophets of old, you are numbered among those “of whom the world was not worthy” (Hebrews 11:38). Please know that the Lover of your soul rejoices in your obedience; he promises an eternal reward beyond your ability to imagine and he will meet you here and now–spiritually and through his people–to give you the grace to overcome. (See Revelation 2-3 for the wonderful promises to “overcomers!”)

“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 24-25)

Updated 4.13.17

This post was written by a guest writer, Marion Clark, Assistant Pastor of Lake Oconee Presbyterian Church.

The following material is a response to a talk given by Matthew Vines, a student at Harvard, in which he challenged the traditional interpretations of Scripture regarding homosexuality. The video can be found at http://www.upworthy.com/every-biblical-argument-against-being-gay-debunked-biblically?g=4.

Here are the key Scripture passages that Matthew addresses.

Genesis 2:18-25

I am pleased that Matthew begins with this passage and honestly tries to address the primary contention of traditional interpretation–namely, that heterosexual marriage is the divine plan for sexual relations. It is a straightforward passage:

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,

“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. (ESV)

Matthew rightly represents the traditional contention that because this institution of marriage takes place before the Fall, the passage presents what God intends to be “natural.” That is a critical understanding. Once the Fall takes place and sin enters into the human condition, what may seem natural to man does not necessarily equate with what God intends to be right.

Matthew is a bit disingenuous in his claim that the “helper (or help-meet) for him” happens to be a female in this case. He says the helper could be another male for another person. He approaches a clear, straightforward passage like a lawyer looking for loopholes. “Well, it didn’t say you couldn’t have a marriage partner of the same sex.”

But the plain teaching of this passage to scholar and lay person alike, throughout two thousand years of history of Christianity (until the late emergence of pro-gay theology), is that the union between man and woman is presented as the divine institution of marriage. There is and will be no passage throughout the rest of Scripture that will present an alternative pairing of man and man or woman and woman. All references to marriage in both the OT and the NT is of a heterosexual pairing, many of which will refer specifically back to this passage in Genesis.

So the question for pro-gay adherents is this: Why would God have this passage placed at the beginning of Scripture, where it presents a heterosexual marriage as instituted at the time of creation, never have homosexual marriage even mentioned, and yet intend for homosexual marriage to be right and good?

Genesis 19:1-9

Matthew then examines another passage in Genesis.

But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house. And they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.” Lot went out to the men at the entrance, shut the door after him, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Behold, I have two daughters who have not known any man. Let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please. Only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” But they said, “Stand back!” And they said, “This fellow came to sojourn, and he has become the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and drew near to break the door down.

Matthew’s argument here is that the situation is obviously that of gang homosexual rape. Furthermore, the real sin depicted is that of in hospitality. Ezekiel refers to the sin of Sodom as pride, indulging in luxury, and exhibiting a lack of care for the poor. All this is true, but the context of the Ezekiel passage (chapter 16) is that of depicting Jerusalem and Samaria in terms of prostitutes. In Ezekiel 16:50, God says, “They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.” That abomination was, of course, the gang rape.

Rape, and gang rape, of course are obvious, disgusting sins. And Sodom is held up in the rest of the Scriptures as exhibiting the height of sinfulness. That is why Ezekiel is accusing Jerusalem and Samaria of being like and even worse than Sodom. He is telling them how low they have fallen. That is the same point Jesus makes when he tells Capernaum that it will go easier for the inhabitants of Sodom than for them (Matthew 11:20-24). In other words, chose the worse example to get your point across.

How low did Sodom go? The inhabitants are not merely inhospitable; they will even go as low as homosexual rape, even rejecting the alternative to rape women. Having said all this, I would agree that Genesis 19 is not a passage to make a strong case against homosexuality. I think one can point to it as another Scriptural disapproval, but it does not stand alone by itself against homosexuality.

Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13                                                                                  

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination (18:22).

If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them (20:13).

Matthew’s primary assertion here is that the book of Leviticus is concerned with cultic law. He is correct in pointing out that scholars differentiate OT laws, categorizing them as moral, civil, and cultic, the last of which applies to the religious life of the Jewish people and which distinguishes them from other nations. He then notes that while cultic laws could also be moral laws, the way one knows that they have moral application is that they appear in other parts of the Jewish canon. When cultic laws are violated, they are described as abominations, along with moral laws. So, the mere use of the term “abomination” does not signify the violation of a moral law. Finally, when we come to the NT, there we have a clear declaration that the cultic laws—concerned about what is clean and unclean—are now removed.

Thus, as Matthew’s argument proceeds, one should understand these two verses in Leviticus as falling under cultic laws, which in this case identifies what is considered ceremonially clean and unclean. There is no further condemnation of homosexual acts in other OT Scripture; if there were, that would have moved such acts into the moral realm (because of his assertion that cultic laws are applicable in the moral realm if they appear elsewhere in Scripture).

Again, I appreciate Matthew’s respectful handling of Scripture. But I see two clear difficulties with his conclusion about these two verses. One, though the NT does, in fact, remove the OT restrictions about what may be ritually clean and unclean, it nevertheless continues to uphold the OT prohibitions on sexual relations. There is no indication that any sexual activity prohibited by the OT is now permitted in the NT. If anything, one could easily make the case that the permissible boundaries of sexual behavior are tightened rather than loosened. Two, there is no indication that OT law restricts sexual activity to mere ritual cleanness. Matthew is correct that homosexual behavior is not proscribed elsewhere in the OT, but such an argument as this reaches too far. Neither are sexual relations between father and daughter mentioned beyond Leviticus, nor is anyone advocating for that to be acceptable. The real question is how OT law views sexual relations.

Matthew makes another argument to limit the implications of these verses in Leviticus. He asserts that the Levitical law applied only to the Jewish nation up until the time of Christ. Taking his statement at face value, he must then accept that God–who not only regards same-sex relations as morally acceptable but also created individuals to have such attractions–nevertheless denied to his own covenant people the right to engage in an activity that is good in his eyes. In other words, he was willing to subject his people, who experience same-sex attraction (SSA), to lives of futile aspirations. Matthew eloquently describes the heartache of being denied expression of his sexual orientation. By his own argument, though, he concedes that this is what God did to his own covenant people. It is one thing to not be able to wear clothing of mixed material or be denied bacon. If I understand Matthew correctly, it is hellish to be denied the opportunity to fulfill one’s same-sex attractions.

Yet to accept Matthew’s argument, we are to understand that God subjected his people to such a prohibition only because he thought it was a good ritual for them to observe, in order to distinguish his people from others. We are to further understand that God intended for his covenant people–both the Jewish nation and the Christian church–to have understood all along that homosexuality is good apart from any explicit endorsement from his Scriptures.

Romans 1:18-32

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

Matthew’s two main points in his examination of this passage in Romans are that “nature” refers to what is accepted custom, and that the violation spoken of by Paul is that of heterosexuals engaging in homosexual behavior. Verses 26 and 27 speak of exchanging and giving up one type of relationship for another.

If we follow his logic and keep in context with the passage, we must also conclude that each violator first started off with a true knowledge of God (21), determined not to honor him (21), and then began worshipping idols of animals (23). God then gave each of them up to impure lusts (24), followed by the exchange of natural to unnatural relations (26-27). But it doesn’t end there. These same individuals go on to be filled with the whole list of sins in verses 29-31.

Matthew’s argument fails here. It is clear that Paul is not presenting the biography of each sinner but rather he is describing mankind in general. His argument, beginning with this passage and running through 3:20, is that everyone stands under the wrath of God. This passage, Romans 1:18-31, presents the status of the Gentile world and demonstrates that it has only spiraled downward over the centuries. Going further, in chapter 2 and the first half of chapter 3, Paul will then address the Jewish people who consider themselves morally superior to the Gentiles. By connecting Romans 1:18-31 with the rest of his argument that stretches into chapter 3, the passage is put into its proper context.

In addition, Matthew’s argument that the sexual relations described in verses 26 and 27 are behaviors that went against one’s own natural affections, we need to note that the men and women described are, in fact, giving in to their passions. They are not forcing themselves to engage in conduct that seems unnatural to them, nor are they described as forcing themselves upon others. They are “consumed with passion for one another.” This is hardly the description of heterosexuals forcing themselves to go against their nature or of a two-party relationship in which one partner is being forced to go against his or her true nature.

Matthew is right that the term translated “nature” is also used of what could be considered customary, and he rightly describes its use in 1 Corinthians 11 where it speaks of hair length for men and women. But, as Matthew makes clear, we must look at context. Just as “nature” in the English language can have different connotations depending on context, it’s the same for the Greek. It is a far stretch to take this Romans passage description of the downward spiral of mankind (or even each individual) and believe that the real horror is that of men and women forsaking the customs of their times.

1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and 1 Timothy 1:8-11

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted. (1 Timothy 1:8-11)

Matthew, if I recall correctly, takes the same view that other non-traditionalists have taken with these passages–namely, that the type of homosexual behavior described here is that of prostitution. Indeed, this argument goes on to say that all NT references of homosexuality are about abuses. Supposedly, the Apostle Paul did not know of loving homosexual relationships, of the kind that is being promoted today.

And yet, in the Roman-Greco world of Paul’s time, homosexuality flourished openly, perhaps more so than our own post-Christian culture. For until the spread of Christianity, the culture did not have a strong sexually moral code. Historical work in the last fifty years has demonstrated its widespread practice in all its variations. That Paul, who was regarded as a highly educated man of his time apart from his Jewish education, who was raised in the Gentile environment of Tarsus, and who carried out his ministry throughout the Roman Empire, would not have known of “acceptable” same-sex relations begs disbelief.

At minimum, one can easily make the case that malakoi is used in 1 Corinthians 6:9 to describe men who serve as the feminine partners and arsenokoitai in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 to describe men who serve as the masculine partner. The only question is whether Paul intended to apply the terms across the board to all homosexual activity (rather than, as the non-traditionalists like Matthew do, apply Paul’s references to homosexuality to a more limited context, that of cultic prostitution).

What do you think, given what is known about Paul? Think of what Paul has to say about any sexual activity outside of marriage, regardless of whether the relations are “loving” or not. Do you think Paul thought of marriage as anything but between a man and woman, given that his moral code would be that of an orthodox Jew? Think of what he wrote in the Romans passage.

Consider a further point. Christians have always understood, historically, that the writings of the New Testament were under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as were those of the Old Testament. To hold to a non-traditionalist position forces us to confront the same conundrum we encountered in Matthew’s argument from Leviticus. We have to believe that a practice which is blessed of God, who himself gave SSA as a gift to be enjoyed, nevertheless gives no explicit or implicit blessing in the New Testament. The apostle who wrote that love is the greatest of all and that to love one’s neighbor is to fulfill the law, cannot seem to understand that love could exist within homosexuality; or if he did, he keeps it to himself. To push things further on the grounds of Matthew’s argument, the Holy Spirit cannot figure out a way to get some kind of message across that would lead to its acceptance.

Of course, Matthew and others would say that the message is the one about love. I understand that. Then why doesn’t the New Testament come out and state it? Was Paul afraid? Was Jesus afraid? According to Matthew (correctly, by the way), the NT presents the OT laws on ritual purity to be nullified. Then why, as it does with diet and rituals, not give a single teaching about homosexual relations? Was it not deemed important? Was it considered an obvious acceptable practice? What was God thinking that he would leave his written Word silent on the subject, i.e. silent about its acceptability? The silence is deafening.

The place of the Fall 

Matthew makes reference to traditional teaching about the place of the Fall, but he does not (understandably) take time to consider it at any depth. But understanding the Fall is key to the whole subject of human behavior and what is considered acceptable.

From the Fall onward, Scripture chronicles the disease of sin that has set itself in the nature of man. Regarding sins of a sexual nature, there is no longer a natural sense of monogamy. Polygamy becomes a common and acceptable expression of marriage. Even in marriage, a man is expected to keep concubines and sleep with prostitutes (see the example of Judah in Genesis 38). Chastity, though it remains an ideal to honor, is no longer considered a realistic way of life for a man. While chastity before marriage has never been considered natural for a man outside of the Judaic-Christian heritage, in our post-Christian society, it is not considered natural for male or female. This is the result of the Fall. Sex became separated from marriage–marriage between one man and one woman–as taught in Genesis 2.

How does human society handle sin? It can seek to restrain sin with laws, or it can seek to accommodate sin by normalizing it. The societies of biblical times outside of the Judaic-Christian culture have always normalized sin, as does our post-Christian society today. Thus, one who is not sexually active is considered abnormal, especially when he or she will not participate in loving sexual relations. It is normal and healthy to engage in sex that is loving in whatever sense it is described. And it does not make sense to non-Christians to see Christians struggle to remain chaste. Why, they wonder, would it be considered wrong to do something that, at worse, brings a moment of enjoyment and fulfillment? Why deny what is a natural feeling and need?

This is what the Fall has done. Once man and woman began to hide themselves from God; once God evicted them from his presence and they went on their own way, their descendants moved further and further away from true knowledge of God and reversed the perception of what is natural. Or to put in another way, instead of examining and judging the rightness of their own feelings, they merely gave approval to their feelings, regarding them as natural, i.e. good in the eyes of God (in whatever way they regard him).

All societies and individuals still retain a sense of a moral code. In the best of societies, especially those that have been influenced by the Christian faith, that code is generally a version of Jesus’ own teaching that the greatest commandment is to love God and to love one’s neighbor. As you know, he also taught the golden rule–do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is to this code where advocates for homosexuality appeal.

I think it is indeed their strongest argument. It certainly disarms the arguments that equate SSA with aggressive sins such as murder, lying, and violent sex. How can loving relationships, regardless of sexual orientation, be wrong? That is a powerful argument–too powerful actually, at least for the Christian.

For it is the same argument that polygamists make. It is the same argument that the unmarried make. It is the same argument that those caught in a loveless marriage make (which they are trapped in) when they find a love outside of marriage. It is the same argument that incest advocates make. (Did you know that consensual incest between adults is legal in China, France, Israel, the Ivory Coast, the Netherlands, Russia, Spain, and Turkey?) Without divine injunctions as to what is and what is not morally acceptable, one can only conclude that “love” trumps all restrictions because those restrictions are merely seen as cultural taboos.

Every argument that Matthew makes, as every other pro-gay advocate has argued, as to why homosexuality should now be acceptable by the church; and every attempt to explain a biblical text that labels homosexual behavior as unacceptable and should not be applied to loving same-sex relations is the same argument that can be used to remove most biblical sexual restraints. The reason Scripture gives laws as to what is and what is not acceptable sexual activity, and the reason we need Scripture for guidance is that what seems natural and good to us does not always equate with what is natural and good in God’s sight. That is what the Fall is all about.

We cannot trust our instinct. We cannot determine from our feelings what was natural before the Fall. Consider why it is that it is only in an increasingly post-Christian world that Christians and Jews are reconstructing how to interpret what the Scriptures have to say. This is not like the Reformation in which Christians reclaimed what had grown dormant in the church. What is taking place today is that the non-Christian world (which grows increasingly pagan) is forcing Christians like Matthew (and you) to accept desires and behaviors that Scripture gives no warrant to deem as good.

On the one hand, Matthew keeps emphasizing the point of reading scripture in context. But with the other hand, he then deconstructs context, isolating each passage to be viewed alone without acknowledging the context of Scripture as a whole. Why? Because he has given in to the fallen world’s worldview as to what is true, good and acceptable. That is the result of the Fall, and even regenerate Christians continue to yield to the ways of the world.

In studying the subject of common grace, I see how something which is so good can still be used in a post-Fall world for deception. How so? Common grace teaches that God gives blessings indiscriminately to the believer and unbeliever alike. Love is a common grace gift, which includes the blessings of loving relationships, even relationships outside of God’s intended design. The reason that living together before and outside of marriage is so popular is that it is pleasant. The non-Christian reasons that the biblical prohibition of sex outside of traditional marriage must be wrong, because they see people are happy for engaging in it. How then can it be wrong?

In the same way, the pro-gay argument comes down to one foundation: that of experience. See how same-sex couples can be happy? See how they can love? How can such love be wrong?

For the Christian, the answer never lies only in experience–how one feels or what happens to a person–but rather on what God’s Word teaches. And by the way, Scripture reveals, as does experience, that those who do not love can also feel happy and receive good things. For the Christian, then, love–important as it is–does not cover the whole story. Love–right love–also is concerned with holiness, with purity, with being right before the Lord. The expression and experience of that kind of love is not identified by human feelings but by what God reveals in his Word.

The place of the Cross

It is to the cross that we must come whenever we are deliberating on what is acceptable behavior. Matthew is resentful of heterosexuals telling him that he must bear his cross of denying to himself what they may freely enjoy. That is understandable. I would feel the same way.

But anyone identifying himself as a follower of Jesus Christ must look at his own life in sight of the cross that Jesus bore for us. After all, Christianity is not about a system of rules and doctrines. It is about good news, about the gospel, which tells us of the sacrifice made by God to win us to himself.

God the Son died on a cross. “Though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).

What do we do with that, with what our Lord had to do to become our Savior? Do we determine what crosses we will and will not bear?

But this is not about duty. It is everything about love. Do we love Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who died for us? Do we? Do we measure how meaningful or happy our life is according to what temporal blessings we may find or according to the costly mercy shown to us on the cross? This is not about guilt–Jesus died for me and now I will feel guilty if I don’t bear my own cross. This is about thanksgiving, about joy and peace that comes from knowing that I am forgiven, that I am accepted without strings as a child of my Father. It is about realizing that nothing compares to these riches.

Matthew sees two alternatives for himself–fulfill his SSA desires to allow him to have the homosexual version of a family and thus be happy, or deny his desires and live a lonely life. I want to look at those alternatives on two levels.

First, are those really the options for Christians–whether one has heterosexual attractions or same-sex attractions? Is fulfilling the desire for a family through marriage and having children the key to happiness, and not to have it is to live a lonely life? What then am I to tell the heterosexual singles who come to me for counsel, expressing the same sorrow as Matthew? Do I just comfort them with the acknowledgement that theirs is a lonely life? That they must simply look at it as a cross to bear, maybe for the rest of their life if they never marry?

Or should I lead them to the love that they may claim which is infinitely more superior than that of sexual love? Because, after all, it does boil down to sex. Why should a single person not become part of a family? We have a friend who is a single woman who adopted a son. She also has biological family, as well as friends who are closer than family. (There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother, Proverbs 18:24). I don’t think she considers her life a cross to bear. I think that she has taken the love of Christ shown to her and let it flow out so that her life is enriching both to herself and to others.

That is what happens for a Christian who looks to the cross. She doesn’t focus on what she doesn’t have. She is moved to see the glorious blessings she does possess and then focuses on how she will honor the one who died for her. She wanted a family. No one proposed. So she made a family in a godly way. The only thing that she has denies herself is sex. For, again, that is the only thing that differentiates romantic love and companion love–sexual passion. What every married couple knows is that what takes over a marriage through the years is companionship. Sexual satisfaction is an aspect, but only an aspect–not the core of the marital relationship.

The cross to bear for the single Christian, whatever their sexual attractions may be, is not denial of family or companionship, but sex. It is a hard cross to bear, no doubt. But don’t take it beyond what it is. It is the world, not God, that has turned sex into the all-important fulfillment of life.

Now go back to the cross–the very real cross that bore our Savior. See what our Savior bore for us–not a cross, but our guilt; not a denial of pleasure but the just wrath of God. Why would he do so? Because God loves us (John 3:16; Romans 5:8; 1 John 4:10). The Father gave his Son; the Son gave his life. How then can we resent giving up whatever his gracious hand brings into our life?

Second, Matthew makes the assumption that nothing can be done about SSA. It is fruitless to seek fulfilling relationships, either with the same-sex because of temptation or with the opposite sex because of lack of attraction. Is that true? I am not suggesting that all homosexuals can reorient to heterosexual attraction, but it is fatalistic to assume nothing can change. I just put down a book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, the story of a lesbian who chaired the department of feminist studies at Syracuse University. This woman, who never struggled about her sexuality, quite content as a lesbian, nevertheless ended up happily married to a man. Is she someone who had really suppressed her true heterosexual nature and finally it came out? Or is she someone who, after coming to a knowledge of the gospel of Christ, found her understanding changed about what is good before God, and as she learned she gave herself over to a progression of change in her attractions and feelings?

I know Christian’s with SSA who have remained single, and some who have married opposite-sex partners. Whether single or married, they have found fulfilling relationships either with friends or spouses. I don’t mean to make the whole matter simplistic, but I do question the fatalistic assumptions made by Matthew and those in his camp. There are many testimonies of individuals who feared committing themselves to Christ because they did not believe they could control whatever their desires might be, only to find Christ’s Spirit doing the change in them.

The strongest argument made by same-sex proponents is that homosexuals can possess as strong a self-giving love as heterosexuals. And the argument is reinforced by Christians with SSA by their willingness to be bound by the same biblical restrictions as heterosexuals; that is, committed, monogamous marriage. The only difference is in who they are sexually attracted to, something which they do not control. That is a strong argument, and no doubt that is what drives sincere Christians to re-interpret otherwise clear scriptural teaching.

So, what of the argument? For me, the argument has a foundational error: It is an argument that is selective in application. Polygamists and incest practitioners make the same argument. Couples who choose to live together make the same argument. Individuals trapped in loveless and abusive marriages make the same argument in explaining their affairs. They have fallen in love, and their love is self-giving, enriching, life-affirming and mutually beneficial. What could be wrong with that?

Christians, however, must concede that Scripture sets up laws and boundaries that do not take into account the natural love-feelings of individuals. It does so, not because it does not recognize love but, again, because the Fall blinds us to what love really involves. Love does fulfill the law, but it is the law that reveals what love involves. And because we have inherited the consequences of the Fall, what feels like love and what is love do not go hand in hand.

Does not the divorce rate, the prevalence of physical and emotional abuse, and the many more loveless marriages that once began with deep-felt love in heterosexual marriages demonstrate how little we humans understand true love? To simply say that in cases where homosexuals really love one another, then it must be good–how strong is such an argument to make us doubt the teaching of Scripture?

In the end, let the cross be your focal point for understanding true love–the love that God has for you; the love of Christ marked by real sacrifice; the love that calls for sacrifice from us; the love that makes any sacrifice seem as nothing before the love of God.

Updated 5.29.2017

Laura, a Harvest USA intern, has a compelling story about God’s relentless grace that rescued her from sexual brokenness. Like all real stories, it’s still not finished, and there are broken paths along the way.

You can also read it in our blog, Sex, Lies, and God’s Design,” if you want to give Laura a comment or two. You can find our blog link on the front page of our website.

I’ve been learning the imperative nature of two words in the Bible. Without these two words, we are so dead and odorous in our sins, much like Lazarus was when Christ raised him from the dead. In fact, the fate of all humanity hinges on these words: “But God…”

Paul wrote in Ephesians, “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins…carrying out the inclinations of your flesh and thoughts and by nature were children under wrath…But God who is abundant in mercy, because of his great love that he had for us, made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. By grace you are saved!” (Ephesians 2:1, ESV).

My story involves a long stretch of spiritual death—my wandering as a child under God’s displeasure. It’s a journey that involved a series of unholy sexual relationships with women and a long stretch of hopelessness that felt like my only companion. But God (!) was not content to leave me there. He used his earthly kingdom, the body of Christ, to bring me to a knowledge of himself and of the love he has for me—a love that would allow the death of his Son to reverse the death I was living.

I was a part of a large family by today’s standards. I was the second oldest of six children (one boy and five girls). It was just me and my brother for the first eight years of my life. I grew up a tomboy. My parents then had a string of four more daughters to make up for my own lack of girliness. The six of us vied for my parents’ attention and stretched them to the limits to provide for us. Materially, we always had enough, but emotionally it often felt as though the fount had run dry. Mom and Dad loved me, but there were often disconnects in the ways they showed it and the ways in which I could understand it.

My parents expressed their love for me in many ways. They were the first to step up and defend me, when there were outside threats—school bullies, teacher bullies, friend issues. But the internal threats went unnoticed—particularly my sense of their lack of affection and my misguided attempts to seek out that affection from other women. I found myself on the receiving end of derogatory words and expressions (“faggot”) that would be tossed around to gauge my reaction on the issue of same-sex attraction. Instead of coming to me with intentional questions to get a read on where my heart was—a move which would have been most invited if done in love!—my parents drove me away with malicious words and cold distance. It ultimately made me feel worthless instead of valuable.

I wanted so much to be loved for who I was. I was delighted to see my parents show up for my violin and ballet recitals, but how much more it would have meant for them to support me in the things I loved: writing, soccer, softball, and mountains. Their failure to show up in these areas—and the way they were critical of my interest in them—really widened a chasm in our relationship which over the years I would fill with anger and bitterness.

After being homeschooled, I entered a private Christian school in the sixth grade. My experience in that school was like watching the movie Saved (the 2004 flick starring Mandy Moore and Macaulay Culkin), except that I was actually in the movie. It was difficult to spend the next six years in an environment of legalism. The legalistic environment affirmed my frenzied attempts to keep up the appearance of what Christianity should look like by today’s standards, at the expense of searching out my own heart.

There was particularly no grace to be observed in the area of same-sex struggle. A good friend of mine was kicked out after a letter she wrote to another girl that expressed her affection for her was discovered. I could have easily been in her shoes—expelled for writing a similar letter that wasn’t confiscated by a teacher. At the end of my senior year of high school, while serving as class chaplain, captain of our soccer team, and juggling all the science courses that would make me a first-class applicant for pre-med programs, I was also actively engaged in my very first same-sex sexual relationship with another student from my school. But no one found out, because God had other plans. If I had been expelled, I most likely would not have ended up at the small Christian college where my life began to unravel and then turn around.

By the end of high school, I had become so tired of doing all the right things, making all of the right choices and the good grades, and never feeling like I was getting anywhere in terms of my relationship with my parents, whose affections I could not seem to buy for any price. I also felt my school slighted me for every honor imaginable. I felt that both my parents and my school offered nothing but derision in communicating with me at my deepest area of need. I decided that if all Christianity had to offer was back-breaking, law-keeping labor without any pay-off (or even a little bit of a break in the area of temptation and struggle every now and then), then what was the point? I could never be good enough.

Of course I was right in thinking like this! But I had no idea of the implications of what I was thinking, and I had no idea how what I was feeling would actually impact my relationship with Christ. I did not even know that my relationship with him could be a real relationship—I just took that for Christian jargon. Through all the struggles, God had intentionally primed me for my college experience. I was about to experience grace for the first time. I was going to know it when I saw it because it would be so drastically different from everything else I had experienced.

Grove City College is located roughly thirteen hours from where I grew up. This was good news for me in many ways, but particularly, it meant a geographical severing of the same-sex relationship I had begun in my last year of high school. The environment of grace at this school began turning the tide of doubt in my mind. I saw grace in action there from the faculty and staff. Of course, there was a rule book. It was called The Crimson. Included inside were visitation rules, the plagiarism policy, and alcohol abstinence regulations. It also laid out procedures for punishing the breaking of all of these rules. My expectations of how a Christian institution operated remained unchallenged.

However, in my first few months as a Grover, the lessons of grace I saw would shake the ground of all my “Christian” assumptions. One of my dearest friends was caught drinking on campus. I knew that this was an offense punishable by expulsion. I grieved the inevitable loss of one of the healthy female relationships God had blessed me with in my freshman year, but I grieved prematurely. She came back after her talk with an administrator of the school and told me a story that seemed unfathomable at the time. She said that after sharing the story of her family’s difficult situation on top of her own emotional turbulence adjusting to a new school and environment, she had been granted a second chance. I rejoiced with her but I did not really understand what was happening. I certainly did not see this as the first step in the revolutionizing of my own understanding of grace. Little did I know that what was revolutionary to me as an observer of grace would become painfully glorious as I had the opportunity to experience it firsthand.

My RA found me in violation of a rule that met the requirements for “grounds for expulsion” as stated in The Crimson. My mind again prematurely raced to thoughts of what will I tell my friends? My parents? Where will I apply to school? How will I ever live down the shame? But after running the gamut of the entire chain of command, the dean of students granted me what at the time felt like nothing less than a stay of execution. As I sat in her office, she started asking me questions. It seemed like she was trying to get to know me. “What is this about?” My mind again raced toward what I saw as the inevitable conclusion. “Just hurry up and dismiss me. Stop making this more painful,” I kept thinking. But about five minutes into our chat, I started wondering whether my dismissal was actually the intended end-point of the conversation. We continued talking and the conversation concluded with me agreeing to see the school’s counselor and her agreeing to let me stay. I was dumbfounded. They knew all the details of my situation, but I still felt like I had somehow pulled the wool over the school’s eyes, like if they really really knew me they would do the wise thing: pack my bags and ship me out. That would be Christian protocol, right? What do you do with a messy life? Deal out discipline, get rid of the leprosy; whatever it takes to clean the sin infection. As long as you don’t get dirty taking care of the problem, you’re okay. But that is not what this woman did. She rolled up her sleeves and intentionally dug into the mess of my life. In that moment, I experienced palpable grace for the first time in my life, and I was undone.

Following that experience of grace, of being set free from a judgment and punishment that I deserved, I was primed to hear it from the pulpit. But before that time would come, I would have other impactful encounters in the church.

There were two situations within my home church growing up that shook my identity and, along with my family and school experiences, loomed like a large cloud of doom over my concept of Christianity. When I was a teenager, a young man in our church who was gifted musically and could dress better than the majority of the males in his class was consistently picked on and labeled “gay” by his peers. I do not know all of the influences surrounding his decision to embrace a “gay” identity. I do know that after doing so, he and his family were excommunicated from the church. Another young man had confessed to having homosexual desires (I don’t know to what extent they had been expressed), and his family’s solution, after prayerful consideration with church members, was to send him to live with family members in another state. This young man never returned home and eventually died of AIDS.

What this communicated to me, regardless of the realities that I did not hear or see, was that 1) the church is not safe, and it can be threatening (and thus I concluded that I would never share my struggle); 2) my sin is unforgivable. If people are being cut off and sent away over the same sins I struggled with, then apparently it is incurable and unforgivable; and 3) this led to the final conclusion that my temptation in and of itself is unforgivable. Because the line between sin and temptation was indistinguishable for me at that point, the temptation in and of itself was condemnable. This compounded the feeling already beginning to form within my mind, that I was a victim in this whole mess. I never asked for this struggle; I never wanted to be like this! It also went a long way in cementing same-sex attraction as my identity.

Healing within the church body began after I transferred from Grove City College to attend the school where I thought I would eventually go to medical school. I began attending Reformed University Fellowship. The pastor there, David, was engaging and personal. He wanted to hang out one-on-one with all the new students who showed up for large group, so I thought I would give it a shot, tell him my story. The worst that could happen would be the end of a relationship that hadn’t really even begun. I wasn’t attached to the ministry, so I figured it would be no skin off my nose. We sat down. I told him my story, and he listened. He was the first man, and really only the second person, I had told my story to, and as I sat there, at times almost provoking him in order to get him to show disgust or the vacant I-don’t-know- what-to-do- with-this-information stare, he listened. Just listened.

This interaction opened the door for future discussions with the pastor of the church I was attending at the time. In comparison to my voluntary, albeit provocative, confession to David, I was more coerced into speaking with John. I signed up for a trip to China with Mission to the World. Their application includes a twenty-something page packet that basically lists every sin known to man and then requests you to fill out your degree of struggle in each area. My response to the question inquiring about struggles with homosexuality was, understandably, cause for a follow-up.

They requested that I get in touch with my pastor to talk with him about a potentially dangerous relationship with another woman in the church that I was attempting to navigate. We talked for over an hour, but the thing that stands out to me most about that conversation was when he told me, “Laura, I’ve never seen such a beautiful picture of the way the body of Christ is supposed to work. This is what the church is supposed to look like. I’m so proud of you.” Much more was said, but as I left there was a tangible feeling surrounding me that can best be described as safe. I could not have asked for a sweeter outcome. It was the security I had longed for all my life and I found it in the place I least expected it, in the church, in my new home.

In later conversations, I told John how terrified I was at the thought of becoming a member of the church. The Christianity I knew growing up was always about rigid rule-keeping. Everything I had heard of and seen second-hand concerning church discipline told me that if I did become a member, the inevitable outcome would be my excommunication. If I struggled again, I would be gone. If, God forbid, I got into another same-sex relationship, I might even be sent off to another state. I expressed these concerns and got this response, “If you were to run away and commit yourself to a relationship with another woman, I would come after you. But not to hunt you down, not to crucify you —to bring you back where you belong, back with your family who dearly loves you.” I was rendered speechless by grace yet again.

David and John, along with other men and women in the church whom I eventually started opening up to, hugely impacted my life by laying out the truths of Scripture—what it really looks like to pursue the “least of these” as Jesus did and then actually inviting me, the leper, into their midst. A true test of the gospel mettle for my community came in the form of my fall back into sexual sin two nights after presenting my testimony to my congregation (take note on the reality of spiritual warfare so obviously at play here!). I was on the phone the next morning, first with my mentors in the church, then elders and my pastor. They were immediately there to drive me back into the fold with both stern warnings and assurance of pardon.

As I continue to receive grace in big and small ways from my Christian brothers and sisters, my relationships continually transform into the way they will eventually look when the whole earth is made new. This is true for my family relationships and my friendships as well as those relationships in which I feel my same-sex struggles creep in. Both the gracious healing and the nagging pains in these relationships point me to my future hope – and keep me longing for it. Therefore, I do not lose hope. Even as I struggle day by day against sin and suffering, I know my true hope is secured for me by Christ—through his death—and in Christ—through my relationship with him. That relationship transforms every other relationship I have. It motivates me to live a life that pleases Christ so that I may move ever closer to him. I’m so thankful to know he is my hope! I’m also thankful for the people God put in my life to point me to that truth.

In an article that John and I worked on awhile back, he wrote, “I think it is important to say that nothing I have learned about ministering to my friend who struggles with same-sex attraction is new or innovative. All I had to do was decide to reach out, to love and minister to this unique person created in the image of God, who struggles with sin just like I do and who struggles to live in a posture of repentance and faith in Jesus just like I do.”

It is this understanding of the Christian obligation to love that reaps the eternal reward of souls won to the kingdom. The more embedded I become in the local church and in the body of Christ in every sphere, the more confident I become that getting personal in the mess of people’s lives is a Christian mandate. This was the heart of Christ’s ministry; see John 4 for the account of Jesus’ radical approach to the woman at the well, or Matthew 8 for accounts of multiple “getting personal” stories, including the healing of lepers and getting rid of demons. It is inevitable that it should be the heart of ours as well.

It does not take perfect people to transform hearts and lives. It takes hearts and minds that understand the depth of their own unworthiness, their own shared status among “the least of these,” going out and sharing the good news of the transforming power of a relationship with Christ. Remember that you are a suffering sinner dependent on the turn of a phrase, “But God!” Now, go share the good news!

Updated 4.14.17

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