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

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.

If you are just picking up this post now, click here and here for parts one and two.

Paul’s plea to the Thessalonians is that they not live sexually as though they are free to do whatever they want. As he said in another letter: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6: 19-20).

And his point in verses 4-5 is this: If you are not serving God by living for him, learning to control your body’s powerful sexual desires, you will be a slave to desires you will be unable to control. And if that is what is happening in your life, if you are living sexually anyway you want, what you think is sexual freedom is, in God’s economy, slavery.

You will be living as if God doesn’t matter to you at all.

Here is what we need to know about desires and wants and how they are closely connected to our sexuality. Our sexuality is fed by desires that often are not sexual at all, like loneliness, fear, anxiety, depression, inadequacy, power, control, wanting to be loved, known or valued, fear of missing out, peer pressure—there are an unlimited number of wants and desires that become excessive desires and rule over us. They become things we think we absolutely need in life; they become ultimate things; they become idols that we live for—to have or to avoid.

And if we use our sexuality to erase our loneliness, combat our anxiety or fears, or to convince ourselves that somebody now loves and wants us, then we will keep doing so in order that life gives us what we think we need.

But what these desires give us is an illusion of control when in fact they give us slavery; they control us.

And when we find ourselves at that place in life, Paul’s description of non-believers becomes true even for believers: We become like “the Gentiles who do not know God.” When our hearts are given over to something or someone else, Jesus is pushed aside. He simply is not enough for us to give us what we need in life. So, we begin worshiping a false god of our own making.

Our sexuality reveals our spirituality; it reveals the allegiance of our hearts.

Today, pornography is a clear example of how sexual freedom is really sexual slavery.

Let me show you four ways our struggles with sexuality brings slavery—and how it hurts us and others.

One, it brings crippling self-doubt about salvation

Many Christians live defeated lives of fear and self-loathing. Their struggles with sex drives them away from God. They hide from him and from others. When they look to God all they see is a judge, not a Savior who came to rescue them from the very slavery that binds them.

A man from a support group wrote this for one of our newsletters: “When does the healing from a lifetime of viewing porn begin? How do I measure victory over a sin that has dogged my footsteps for decades? These are questions I struggled with for years. . . 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.”

People like my friend here think, “If I struggle here, I must not be a Christian.”

Two, sexual strugglers live double lives

I’m talking here about compartmentalizing, about splitting your life into separate parts. I can be a Christian at church and be someone else at school, at my workplace, etc. Sexual strugglers live double lives. Our organization’s founder, John Freeman, just published a book called Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God about Sex. He uses the phrase “game-players” about sexual strugglers. They put their game face on when they are in public with other believers, but underneath the mask there is tremendous fear and shame and guilt.

Compartmentalizing, however, slowly bleeds into every area of your life. Another man in my support group said he’s been a liar all his life. Now in his 50s, his early encounter with porn as a child led him for decades to hide his sexual addiction, first from his parents and then from his wife and children.

He got so used to lying to cover up his porn addiction. He soon didn’t realize that he unconsciously lied to cover up all his behavior, no matter what it was. He could never relax and just be himself. His constant fear was being found out.

Three, the slavery Paul talks about leads to hopelessness

Crippling doubt about salvation and living a fear-driven double life ultimately brings hopelessness about ever being free. Many men and women give up. They either give up outwardly and leave the church or they give up silently and just go through the motions of living their Christian faith. But they distance themselves from church, from family relationships, and from those closest to them who sense that something is amiss, but they can’t put their finger on it.

Slavery gives you the feeling that the gospel has no power. It is utterly useless to help you with the problems and struggles you face once you leave church on Sunday. And if you feel God himself can’t help you, you are indeed hopeless.

Four, slavery to our desires leads us to harm others

In verse 6 Paul slips this in: “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.”

Paul is referring to the relational damage of sexual sin. He connects it with sexuality: “in this matter.”

Here’s the point: Sexual sin is not a private matter. It is not a harmless, private activity. When our desires control us, we become intensely self-centered. Sex was designed by God as a means to bless our spouse. But when our focus is only on ourselves and what we can get out of it, we hurt people and relationships.

A husband who looks at pornography hurts his wife, as he prefers a fantasy life over his real one. At best, his wife becomes merely an object of his own pleasure like all the women he sees on the screen. He uses people.

Someone who engages in porn contributes to the sexual exploitation of the performers and the widespread damage to the minds and hearts of others who are in slavery to this. Increasingly the evidence is growing that sex trafficking is embedded in this porn epidemic.

And then there is sexual abuse. Child porn, and the awful tragedy of church leaders abusing men and women under their pastoral care, is the extreme display of all this sexual slavery.

Lust is not something that is easily contained. There is a reason Jesus said, in exaggerated language, in order to make a point: “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out” (Matthew 5:30).

When we feed our lusts, they will control us and consume us.

Can you hear Paul’s plea? “Don’t live by your desires, now that you know something of what this slavery looks like!”

But if that warning is not enough, Paul gives a stronger one: “the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.”

(Looking ahead: Is there a way forward through all this, a way for us individually, and for us as a church, to live our lives in sexual integrity before God?)

Link to Part 4.

This article first appeared, in edited form, in Haven Today’s web blog, www.haventoday.org.

UPDATE: 

In the summer of 2013, a Supreme Court decision regarding same-sex marriage moved the historic, orthodox Christian view of traditional marriage further to the sidelines. Then, in June 2015, that view was completely taken off the field. Marriage was redefined in our country. Two years ago John Freeman wrote the following, and what he said then remains highly relevant today. Then, as now, we remain firm in our belief that our Sovereign Lord will still use what feels like (and is) a defeat for his glory, as he continues to draw all peoples to himself. 

As the Supreme Court struck down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act and the referendum of Proposition 8 in California, it certainly seemed that the tide of our culture would continue to steadily move in the direction of the acceptance of gay marriage. So, what now? How are followers of Jesus Christ, and the church, to think about and respond to the recent decision by the Supreme Court? It is crucial that the church as an institution and individual believers respond well. John Freeman, Founder of Harvest USA, thinks that the best response of the church now is to do the following six things:

1. We should not lash out in anger or be afraid

A fight-or-flight response is normal when overwhelming events occur. But both of these instinctual responses are unhelpful and unproductive. My wife has often told me, “John, when you speak or react out of fear or anger . . . bad things come out of your mouth.” She is usually right. Admittedly, we may legitimately fear where this decision will next take our nation; and we may legitimately be angry over how God’s design for the institution and function of marriage as it has historically benefited society is being hijacked. But we need to keep this in mind: As believers, our true citizenship is in heaven. We must think and act like those whose world has been impacted but not devastated.

I think a more productive response would be that of grief. We need to be grieved at what happened, grieved at the state of the culture, and grieved at how blind people are to the truth of God’s Word and its continuing relevancy for all of human society. We see in the New Testament two ways in which God responds to those who resolutely turn away from his Word. We see Jesus weeping over Jerusalem and her refusal to turn to him as their shepherd (Matthew 23:37-39), and we see in Romans 1 that God, at times, “gives over” (allows) people and society to do what they want to do. Both these pictures are poignant displays of what is wrong with the world: that mankind has torn itself away from God’s shepherding hand and rebelliously set out on its own path. The prodigal son is in all of us.

But just grieve? Doesn’t seem very productive or helpful. It feels so powerless! Yes, it can feel that way, but we need to remind ourselves that the “weakness” of the church is how the power of God is best displayed. It is in that weakness, the weakness of grieving over those who refuse to be shepherded by Christ, that compassion is worked out in our hearts, leading us to love the shepherd-less and for the world to see that we love them.

One way we do this is by not lashing out at the LGBT community. They are not our enemy. The tendency is to see significant political and legal changes such as this as coming from a monolithic force bent on overturning everything. The reality is a bit more complicated. The LGBT community is wide and diverse, and includes those who are secular and those who are religious (even those who claim to be evangelical). It is when the church fails to see this complexity that it has responded to change in terrible and hurtful ways, from when Jerry Falwell twisted Ellen Degeneres’ name to when the church mischaracterizes the gay community in order to have a recognizable “target” to oppose.

For the church to live out the gospel, for it to be the witness to the truth and mercy of Christ, we must not see “them” as the enemy, but rather as men and women who, while throwing off God’s law and calling it freedom, nevertheless are made in God’s image and need to know the real freedom of submitting to God’s will. We need to recognize that there are names and faces attached to this issue, real people, many of them our neighbors or colleagues. An “us” vs. “them” mentality is fear-based; it does violence to the gospel and to us, and it refuses to recognize the humanity that must shape this issue. When we think like this, we fail to recognize that, at one time, we, too, were “them,” people who did not follow the gospel, living for self and following the ways of the world (take note of Ephesians 2).

But we were shown mercy, not because there was anything intrinsically good inside of us, but because God in Christ loved us and showed us mercy.

Another reason not to be angry or afraid is because. . .

2. We need to remind ourselves that God is still on the throne . . . neither slumbering nor sleeping

Although decided in the private chambers of the Supreme Court, this has not happened out of God’s sight. He is the God who knows all and sees all. This is beyond our rational understanding, but by faith we believe that God remains in control over all things, even over the decisions made by man and society that veer away from his wisdom. To respond with anger or abject fear is to forget this.

Why God has allowed the societal acceptance of homosexuality and the (increasing) legalization of same-sex marriage to be so prominent today will remain a mystery at some level. Why he has allowed it to split churches, denominations, and families must also be trusted to his providence. We only know what Scripture does tell us: that this is a broken world, a world where his image-bearers are in rebellion against him and his intentional design for creation. So, in one sense, we should not be surprised. There is nothing new under the sun here. Has there ever been a human society outside of the garden that has not trended in this direction?

We must, as his followers, trust in him at all times, especially when it seems that ungodliness has the upper hand in our society. The courage of faith is when we trust him, especially so in turbulent and darkened times. To continue to follow God when the world thinks we are foolish and it would just be easier to capitulate is to ask God for more faith! He will give it. Remember that faith, even as small as that of a mustard seed, can withstand much adversity and be a force for change (see Luke 17:5-6, in the context of vs. 3-4).

It is by that courage, a courage rooted in God still being a control, and faith that refuses to bend to the latest worldly trends, which moves us to. . .

3. Boldly and gently proclaim the ultimate destructiveness of ungodly actions

While many will celebrate this decision as the advancement of an enlightened society and a triumph of inclusiveness and tolerance, the reality is that actions made in opposition to God’s design carry with them significant consequences. Several years ago noted pastor, teacher, and author James Boice said, “It’s God’s world, not our world. Although we may want to rewrite the rules, we can’t, because it’s God’s world. And sin is destructive, whether or not we admit or agree, it’s still destructive.” In other words, behavior has consequences, even if we don’t fully know now what that will look like.
By removing the definition of marriage from its historical and God-designed nature as being between one man and one woman, how long will it be before other forms of “marriage” will become acceptable and even legal? Many groups deride such speculation as being a consequence of this decision, but history has shown time and again how boundaries are burst open once critical lines have been crossed. And what about the impact on children as we move into social territory that is completely new to human society? To say that there will be no negative consequences when the most stabilizing force for society continues to be upended—that of an intact family of a husband and wife and children—is naïve.

These are important matters that society must wrestle with as it moves further in this uncharted direction. Christians must not shrink from engaging these issues. But we, as Christians, must be careful how we talk about these things. It is one thing to say that actions and behavior that move away from God’s design for human flourishing are ultimately destructive; it is another thing to say that every action and every behavior apart from God’s design will end poorly. We have seen this in the liberalization of divorce laws over the past few decades and in the rise of children born out of wedlock. These two social happenings are tearing families apart. We are learning more and more about the widespread destructiveness to society and to children of such broken family structures. But that does not translate into every single-parent family being an ongoing catastrophe. Many children have grown up with only one parent and have grown up well. But overall, society has suffered when people tear themselves away from the anchor of God’s wise counsel.

What this means is this: We have already—and this will rapidly continue as same-sex marriage is increasingly accepted—embarked on something that is historically very new to human society: children being raised in same-sex families as an acceptable norm. We do not know the cumulative effects of such a new family design. We must wait for evidence of its effect on society and children. But we must also avoid simplistic and sweeping generalizations that erroneously paint distorted and false pictures. We will continue to insist that gender matters in families, that God intended marriage to be between a man and a woman, and in that context a child grows up and learns what it means to be male or female, a man or a woman, a husband or a wife, a father or a mother; but saying this does not mean that good parenting is exclusively the domain of heterosexuals. The fact that God is the one who created marriage and defined it as the establishment of a new family structure (Genesis 2:24) where mothers and fathers are fully engaged in the raising of the next generation is not something to simply discard and say that the gender of a particular parent is irrelevant.

In short, the issues we raise—both within the church and in the marketplace of society—and the ways we speak about them, based on our belief that God’s design for marriage and family is best for society, must be intelligent and complex. We must not be afraid to see the evidence unfold as marriage morphs into newer forms or wrestle with that evidence as we continue to argue for the ways of God over the ways of man.

We live in a broken world, but it still remains a world that God so loved that he sent his only Son, so . . .

4. We must not avoid our calling: to engage the culture and all people with the truth and mercy of the gospel

Even as culture goes off the rails, and we seem powerless to stop it, we’re not off the hook from engaging the culture and actively loving people. Although we may want to retreat and go into self-protective mode, we must not. The church did not do so as the Roman culture descended into greater ungodliness and injustice. The downward spiral of our society and the increasing celebration of what is explicitly forbidden in God’s word make our sharing the gospel more important than ever! The gospel is the only hope for a broken world and fallen hearts. As I already noted, for this reason the church must not attack and demean gays and lesbians because of this issue. The gospel is a message of hope for everyone; not a platform for condemnation and ridicule. The gospel will only be heard through the words and deeds of his people. People are loved into faith and belief, not argued into it.

This will translate into major challenges for the church as society legalizes same-sex marriage. Church leadership must now begin to think through what would be wise and practical ministry to people who, for example, come into the church as a same-sex couple with children. What are the ways the church needs to welcome them while maintaining biblical fidelity? And what if a couple comes to faith and begins to wrestle with what Scripture says about their relationship? In what direction does the church counsel them—and their children? Divorce? Splitting the family apart? Or something else that tries to maintain the integrity of God’s Word while practical gospel ministry unfolds with the family? The truth and mercy of the gospel—a tension that must always be held in dynamic balance—will need to be fleshed out in these types of situations, and we will be undoubtedly stretched. But we need to start thinking about this now.

We must also begin discussing a subject about which we have been much too silent on. . .

5. We must begin relevant and effective preaching and teaching about why God’s design for sexuality is best

The silence of the church on many issues has contributed to the emergence of movements that have been detrimental to mankind. It can be argued that the church’s failure to preach and teach about why God’s design for sexuality is good, relevant, and functional (even in a broken world) has created a vacuum for the acceptance of same-sex relationships. The church has said “No!” for too long as its main message on sexuality and now needs to say “Here’s how,” or “Here’s how God’s design for sexuality remains the best venue for people and society to flourish.”

The church also needs to get honest. Honest about its people who struggle with their sexuality. For the sake of appearances, or because of the fear of not knowing what to do, churches have ignored those in her midst that are falling deeper and deeper into the morass of sexual sin. The church can no longer condemn sexual sin “out there” while at the same time not admitting or helping those who are struggling believers. After all, aren’t redeemed lives the best testimony of the power and love of God—redeemed lives that are honest about continuing struggles but display a relentless gospel grace to follow Christ where ever he leads?

God is always at work, always, so. . .

6. “Keep calm and carry on” as God’s people and his church

During the bombings of World War II, people in Britain felt that the world was falling apart. “Keep calm and carry on” became a common phrase on billboards and posters as a way to encourage the British people. We need to follow this advice as well. How do we “keep calm and carry on” when we see everything around us in a downward spiral and decay? We lean on and trust in the Rock of our salvation, who is still with his people while we continue to carry out his kingdom work.

We must not let these things have more power over us than they really do. And, thankfully, we still live in a country that gives us the freedom to speak and make our concerns known. We must not be cowed into silence in speaking about further societal consequences and about the future of religious liberty, two major issues embedded in this controversy. But, again, we should not place our faith in any human political or legal structure as our ultimate protector or savior. Jesus said that his kingdom was “not of this world”—neither is ours. The mission of the church continues. The church cannot be either dismissed or destroyed. It remains God’s vehicle of redemption, worked out through his people. That mission will endure until he returns. So let’s keep calm and keep carrying on with the mission and the message that remains the hope for every person in the world.

To hear more about how to think pastorally in communicating the gospel with gays and lesbians, John has a chapter, “A Missional Response to Homosexual Strugglers in the Church and the Gay Community,” in Reformed Means Missional: Following Jesus into the World, published by New Growth Press. Go to www.harvest-usa-store.com for a copy.

Updated 4.11.2017

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

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.

In my first post on this amazing passage by Paul, I pointed out how God places a high value on how we live before him in these bodies we have. You can read that first post here.

Again, Paul’s intent in this passage is to make it very clear that those who name themselves as followers of Christ could not engage in whatever sexual behavior they wish like the behavior that the surrounding culture promoted and permitted. But he also understood the struggle they were having in reining in attractions, desires, and behaviors which were socially OK for them.

So, after he tells them that what we do with our bodies matters to God, he gives them another compelling reason for fighting sexual sin:

How we deal with our sexuality will lead us to freedom or slavery

There are two powerful cultural forces in play regarding sexuality in our world today.

The first one is that we no longer agree on what is right and wrong. The old rules and boundaries regarding sexual behavior are now considered repressive, confining, antiquated. What matters is love, however it is expressed. As long as there is agreement between consenting adults and no one gets hurt, everything is OK.

The second cultural force is that since there is no standard of truth, we all make our own truth. Personal stories are how we discover “truth” today. The individual—me—is the primary point of meaning and fulfillment. We won’t look outside of ourselves to God or some sort of external standard to find truth or meaning. We look inside, to our own feelings and experiences. I discover truth; this is “my truth.” No one has the right to say that my truth is wrong. My story, the way I experience life, validates what is true.

The combination of these two cultural forces—that there is no right or wrong other than what I say is right or wrong—is reshaping sexuality today. Sexual expression, sexual attraction, sexual desires, sexual identity, sexual rights—it’s an “anything goes” sexuality culture. This is what is called sexual freedom.

But Paul—and indeed the entire Bible—calls this kind of life, not freedom, but slavery.

Look at verses 4 and 5, where Paul says, “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.”

What is Paul saying here? He is making clear that believers must not live lives of uncontrolled sexuality the way unbelievers do. Now, Paul is making a worldview statement here. He is not saying that all unbelievers live licentious sexual lives. Rather, he is saying that the world outside of God’s influence promotes living according to one’s passions.

He is saying to the young believers in this new church community, that though this is the world you came out of, and though you may still struggle with your sexuality, don’t give in to those desires as if it doesn’t matter what you do with your bodies.

Because it does matter.

Why? Because when you give your body over to your desires, you will find out what slavery is.

Now where do we see this? It’s understanding the key word that Paul uses: “lust.” Verse 5 reads, “Not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.”

Lust is an interesting word. It’s typically a word used in a sexual context, but it’s not limited to that. The Greek word that we translate lust, epithumia, simply means “over-desire” or “strong desire.” The general meaning in the NT when it is used in a sexual context is that of a “ruling desire” or an “inordinate desire.” A “controlling desire.” A desire that enslaves.

In other words, our desires, which arise from what entices us and what we ourselves want, eventually come to enslave us. And Paul is pleading: Don’t go there! Don’t give in to those over-desires. Don’t let yourself be a slave, controlled by something that brings destruction to your life. Don’t live as if God doesn’t matter to you.

We see this idea of behavior and slavery in another passage, James 1:13-15, which says, “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. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”

Now what is James saying here?

James is answering the question, “What causes us to sin?” His answer is that everyone is tempted from within—“by his own desire”—and that our desires, when we cultivate them and focus on them, they eventually give birth to sin.

The word that is translated as desire is the same word Paul uses, epithumia. And James is clearly using this word in a sexual context, also. In fact, James uses a sexual term that is translated as “lured and enticed.”

Now what does this all mean?

It means that we want what we desire—all behavior is based on my free will. I choose it. But at the same time, our desires rule us. The NIV translates this passage in a vivid way: “But each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed” (v. 14).

Do you see? Behavior always has this ongoing dynamic of being my free choice while, at the same time, I’m being dragged toward it or controlled by it. A modern interpretation of this was penned best by Bob Dylan: “You’ve got to serve somebody. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’ve got to serve somebody.”

You are free to do what you want—but you will be serving somebody. And if you are not serving God, living for him, you will be a slave to desires you will not be able to control. And if that is what is happening in your life, if you are living sexually any way you want, what you think is sexual freedom is, in God’s economy, slavery.

You will be living as if God doesn’t matter to you at all.

(Looking ahead: What effect does living in slavery to my ruling desires have on me and others?)

Link to Part 3

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

She came into our first Sexual Sanity for Women (SSFW) gathering at our church, crushed, broken, and afraid. I welcomed her in, but felt like the smallest wrong word from me could send her quickly away. Her name was Becca (name has been changed), and she sat on the far edge of the couch, close to the door. It was obvious that if everything became too hard for her, she needed a quick escape.

I began the group by sharing my own painful testimony as a way to connect with the other women. I kept glancing over at Becca, continually praying for her, that God would give her courage to simply stay, for she was right where God wanted her to be. And she did. She stayed.

The second meeting was tougher. As the group members arrived, I could sense each woman laboring under the weight of her struggle. I began to feel my insecurity rise. Had I learned enough from my online group at Harvest USA to really think I could do this? Then I looked again, and I didn’t see Becca. I immediately thought her absence was due to something I said last week. I prayed, “Lord, please bring her back.” As I was praying, someone in the group who knew Becca well called her. “I am coming to pick you up. You need to be here as much as I do. You are not alone. We can walk this journey together, okay?” She wouldn’t take no for an answer, and she went and brought Becca in.

As we ended the lesson, everyone filed out the door except for Becca. She sat there, wanting to talk, but not sure where to start. I quietly sat down beside her and reminded her that this was a safe, confidential place where she could experience grace and healing rather than judgment. Her eyes leveled on me as she decided if she could trust me. She took a deep breath, and then it all rushed out—her story of abuse and heartache, of sin and poor decisions, of guilt and shame, loneliness and despair. As her tears flowed, so did the words that she had trapped inside for so long. Words that she had been afraid to share for fear of judgment.

She felt that no one could understand a story like hers, and if her story ever got out, she would be looked down upon, ostracized. But the story had to come out. She was disappearing inside of herself as she fiercely closed off this part of her life. As she spoke I could see her visibly lighten as she threw off the weight of her silence.

As she ended, her eyes searched mine for some sort of response. Through my own tears, I thanked her for being courageous enough to open up. I told her that, yes, her story was one of sin and sorrow, but it was also one of redemption and change, and that God was already touching her heart, helping her to lay down her experiences at the foot of the cross. I also planted the seed that maybe, just maybe, God would bring her to a place where, one day, she could share with other women struggling in the darkness of their hidden shame.

Little did I know that God would open up that opportunity so soon.

A few days later I got a call. A woman in a small group with whom I had been meeting for over a year had something to tell me. The group was stagnant, meeting more out of obligation than out of a desire to grow together. But something unexpected happened that breathed new life into the group. Becca, the quietest one there, told the group, men and women, that she felt she should share something with all of them. She felt moved to open up to them about portions of her past and present struggles in life.

Becca’s courage to speak ignited an atmosphere of trust and safety in the group. It would never be the same. Over time, every person in the group opened up about their own struggles. And just like that, the group was transformed from a purposeless group of individuals to a close-knit body of believers, joined together to glorify God in the midst of their struggles.

Of course, there is still much healing to be accomplished in Becca’s life. But she is an inspiration to us about the power of God to redeem and change broken people, which is all of us, if only we would be courageous enough to be honest with God and others.

This testimony came from one of Ellen Dykas’ participants in our online training for mentor and group leader classes. For information on what these training classes offer, contact Brooke Delaney at [email protected].

Updated 5.23.2017

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

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