03 Jun 2015
David White spoke for the second time at Cru’s Regional Conference in Washington, D.C., on December 29, 2014, where he gave a workshop entitled, “Homosexuality and Christian Faith.”
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.
“How do you respond to all the kids who injure or even kill themselves because of this type of teaching?”
Having just finished my presentation, I invited the sea of college students to ask questions or make comments, and immediately his hand shot up. Though asked respectfully, the question clearly had an edge. I responded as gently as possible, knowing that someone who is personally struggling with same-sex attraction (SSA), or who has a close friend or family member who is, usually asks this question. It’s not an easy answer to give in a few sentences.
I acknowledged that the church has sometimes sent condemning messages—bereft of the hope of the gospel—to SSA strugglers that lead to self-loathing and despair. Sadly, it’s been communicated that people with SSA are “broken” sexually, but the rest of us are fine. (As if “straight” people don’t have problems with sex!) I spoke about how SSA is just another manifestation of fallen sexuality—a reality that affects all of us and is something Jesus went to the cross to redeem. And now he is bringing healing and renewal to everything affected by the curse, especially in the area of our sexuality. Speaking to this issue with empathy is critical, but it is also imperative to speak the truth.
I went on to say that because this is God’s world and life only works well his way, telling anyone to live outside his bounds is not loving them or enabling them to flourish, but only ends in emptiness and death. I mentioned Proverbs 14:12-13, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. Even in laughter the heart may ache, and the end of joy may be grief” (ESV). The world tells us we find meaning through pursuing our desires (especially our sexual ones) and that we can do this with impunity. But Scripture makes clear that this is folly. Living for self and following our desires actually leads to discontentment and even greater bondage.
There were many other questions—mostly seeking to understand and not challenge. One young woman asked a crucial clarifying question: In my talk I rejected the idea of being a “gay Christian,” so did that mean people with SSA temptations aren’t saved? Sadly, she didn’t get what I had been saying. Central to my talk was the idea that all Christians are in the midst of overcoming various struggles with the flesh, but that God is faithful to complete the work he’s begun, remaking us into new creatures while still living in a broken world. Jesus is now our core identity, and any self-identity label that qualifies who we are in Christ is not just inaccurate; it distorts that identity.
The inevitable “change” question arose, and I talked about how a biblical definition of change is really focused on our hearts and submission to God, not becoming heterosexual for the person with SSA. (For a fuller discussion on this critical topic, check out our mini book, Can You Change if You’re Gay? Available from New Growth Press at newgrowthpress.com.)
Students also wanted to know how to navigate their relationships with their LGBTQ friends and family without compromising their faith. We wrestled with some of the challenges confronting the American Church: If you welcome a gay couple to church and they come to faith, what do you do next? Do you force a “married” couple to divorce? What if there are kids involved? How do you handle church membership and the sacraments if they believe the gospel and understand their need for Christ, but haven’t yet come to the place of seeing homosexual behavior as sinful? These are all difficult and complicated questions in our post-Christian society.
With two minutes left, I took a final question. Swallowing hard, I pointed to a young woman in the back. The hair, the clothes, the piercings. . . what was I thinking?! I was exhausted from the talk and the questions, and the last thing I needed was another complex issue to sort through.
I had no idea what to expect, but as soon as she started speaking, it was clear the choice was Spirit-led. A fairly new Christian, she had come to faith within the last year after living as a lesbian throughout her youth. She talked about the heartache of her experience and her lack of peace and joy. She described how God surrounded her with Christian friends whose lives looked so different. They had the contentment and shalom her life sorely lacked. Resonating with what I taught about God’s design, she concluded with a profound point about our sexuality: Because God is the life-giver, homosexual activity can’t fit his plan because it will never produce life. I couldn’t have come up with a more powerful conclusion! She underscored that inviting people to embrace something as “good” that God calls sin is cheering them on to destruction. She talked about the important role of Christian community and humble witness in her conversion. And she wondrously articulated the difference that Jesus makes in her life. It was a beautiful demonstration of how I was describing “change”—it’s not about becoming “straight,” but about loving God and submitting all of myself to his care.
I drove home praising God for his ability to end “my” talk perfectly! Please pray for this young woman as she continues to grow in her new-found faith, and for us—indeed, all believers in Christ—as we proclaim his Word in our increasingly broken and hostile culture.
24 Dec 2014
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?
- 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.
- I hate chaos and disorder. I need to fix it—fast. Get control quickly.
- 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.
- 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.
- We think of students only in terms of their sin. “That” becomes their identity and how we think of them all the time.
- We don’t recognize the good and godly things that are also going on in their lives.
- All we ask students about are their particular struggles and sins when we talk with them.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
18 Nov 2014
Atlantic Monthly has a distressing but highly informative article on teen sexting, “Why Kids Sext:” http://m.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/11/why-kids-sext/380798/
It’s a great read. But, be prepared to be distressed and a bit unnerved.
It’s not just distressing because teens are taking naked photos of themselves and sending them to others (usually boyfriends), but what appears to be a “so what” attitude about doing this by these same kids. While the majority of teens who sext do so consensually, there are still terrible unintended consequences that can occur, and the article points out several. More disturbing are those situations where some teen girls cave in to relentless pressure to send photos to boys. That’s not only manipulative; it can turn criminal when the naked photo of a minor is distributed online.
But in spite of attitudes changing about this activity, one thing also remains: the double-standard of girls losing out and being shamed, while boys are seemingly immune from consequences. In the ongoing descent into sexual chaos which our culture pushes, some things never change.
It’s an article worth reading by every parent. But what should a parent do once they’ve read it? Let me suggest four ways to respond.
One, I suggest you don’t react in fear and grab your child’s cell phone and demand to look at what’s in it (though you might very much want to do that!). And, don’t rush to punish your teen if he or she has done something like this. You won’t win your child’s heart by over reacting, and that’s the key here. Behavior is important (because behavior has real-world consequences), but character is paramount, and helping your child understand her heart is what will ultimately help her to shape her behavior to do what is right (and honor God in the process).
Two, don’t shut down access to technology, either. Taking away the cellphone or restricting Internet use won’t really work in the long run. Technology is too embedded in our kids’ lives (and ours), and trying to shut down what is ubiquitous, and what society is increasingly relying on, will only drive your teen underground. Trying to control our kids’ lives will only train them to be deceptive. It’s not control you want over your child’s life; it’s involvement in their life.
Three, parents need to wisely interact with their teens regarding their use of technology. Yes, they need monitoring. They need supervision and guidance. Think long and hard before giving your young child a smartphone. They are fun, informative, fascinating—and potentially dangerous They can be portals to some of the darkest corners of life. Are your children using smartphones, tablets, laptops, video game devices? Unless you oversee their usage and know where they are going on the web, they WILL access bad sites and maybe engage with people who can seriously harm them. And you won’t know about any of this, because web browsers are now almost universally private when it comes to concealing the history of accessed websites. Effective filters and accountability software should be as mandatory in homes as smoke-detectors. Seriously.
Four, start talking to your children about sex and their sexuality. The silence of parents is driving our kids to the most broken places on the planet to learn about sex: from the Internet, and increasingly they are emulating the practices and standards of pornography as being normative for sex. But God’s message on sex is that it is a gift to be given in a committed, covenantal union between a husband and wife, and that protecting it until such time comes is not only ideal, but it is also realistic. Not easy in today’s over-sexualized culture, but not unattainable, either. Honoring God with our sexuality is worth pursuing—for ourselves, and for our children.
We can help our children navigate this journey. But they need us to speak up. They need us to be involved, helping them to see and understand what God has said about using his gift of sex, and how their hearts need continual direction to align their sexuality with sound, wise, life-affirming biblical practices.
The benefits and blessings of managing their sexuality are life-long. When you show them the way, you’ll be learning how to live with this awesome gift, too.
To learn more how to talk to your kids about sex and how to oversee their use of technology, go to http://harvest-usa-store.com/ and check out Harvest USA’s mini books, like iSnooping on your Kid: Parenting in an Internet Age and What’s Wrong with a Little Porn when You’re Single?
It can be hard as a Christian to know what to do if you are invited to attend a same-sex wedding for a gay friend, co-worker, or a relative. These relationships are not on the same level as someone from your own immediate family, but they are still important. Decisions will need to be made, and you want to convey that you both care for them and that your Christian faith is very important to you as well.
Obviously, you need to put some earnest and thoughtful time and prayer into making your decision. Keep in mind that many Christians, even among those who are more conservative and see the Scriptures as wholly authoritative in their lives, approach this decision differently. Here are some key questions to ask yourself to help you make a decision.
1. What is your current relationship with the person getting married?
Are they a casual co-worker, friend, or distant relative, or someone with whom you have a closer, more intimate relationship? Has the invitation been given to everyone in your office, department, or family? Or has it been given to you because you have a closer relationship? These factors can help you determine how best to respond. For example, if the person is someone with whom you have a good friendship, then you will most likely speak directly to him or her about the issue of attending. If your friend knows you are a Christian, then this becomes another opportunity to share and discuss together what your faith positions are and what you think is best for you to do.
2. What would you be trying to convey by your attendance?
Some people have made the distinction between supporting the event, of which they don’t approve, and supporting the person getting married, whom they do love and care about. This distinction may depend on how vocal you have been about your Christian faith. What kinds of key conversations have you had with them? Do they know you are a Christian? Do they know your views about homosexuality? If so, your presence could actually “stun” them or really mess up the categories they may have about people like you. Christians, living intentionally by the gospel, can sometimes be confusing and provocative to people, causing them to rethink their positions. That’s a good thing.
If you feel that attending would advance and actually lend weight and credibility to your Christian witness, then you might decide in that direction. The nature of mercy is that it always discerns; it is not something sloppy or casual, but intentional. Mercy also “disrupts” in order to try to guide someone’s life path towards a newer and bigger eternal direction. So, in attending, you do not want your presence to convey a message that you are culturally “with it,” or that you are sophisticated enough to have no problem with people who embrace same-sex marriage. Rather, your attendance would be a calculated step, carefully chosen, that would be in line with your desire to pursue a relationship with this person because you care for them, enough to keep sharing the gospel with them.
3. What are you concerned about?
Are you afraid that your attendance would communicate your approval (like probably 99% of the people there)? Or are you afraid of having to explain why you feel you cannot attend? Are you afraid you would not know how to act or how to talk with other guests, most of whom might be gay or, at the least, pro-gay? There can be lots of fear issues involved in having to make this decision. Ask the Lord to guide you regarding these issues to your attending, or to your fears about repercussions from not attending. Fear or anxiety about disappointing someone is never a good motivator. A better question is this: What response of mine might cause further openness to the gospel?
4. Could you substitute something else, other than attending the event?
If, in good conscience, you reach the conclusion that you cannot attend the service, you might consider an alternative response, one that would not violate your faith positions or convey a wrong message, but would still affirm your love and care for the person. For instance, you might consider a card or gift. This would still show your care for them and acknowledge to them that this was an important day for them (it was, but you don’t necessarily have to join in on the celebration). You could say something like this in the card: “Sorry that I was unable to make it (note: if you are not close to them, they do not necessarily have to know why), but I know it was a special day for you, and here is a little token of my appreciation and care for you.”
If you are close to the person or couple but still conclude in good conscience that you cannot attend the wedding, then consider taking them out to lunch or dinner later on. Of course, this may be a tense or uncomfortable get-together, especially if the person who invited you felt hurt by your absence. But a quick follow-up may go a long way toward bringing understanding and another opportunity for you to share both the truth and mercy of the gospel.
5. Do one or both parties claim to be Christians?
Someone once said, “We shouldn’t expect regenerate behavior from unregenerate people.” In other words, we should not be surprised when unbelievers act like unbelievers. If the person or persons getting married are unbelievers, this doesn’t mean you have a green light to attend—but if someone claims to be a Christian and yet is in rebellion to God’s design and intention for how his people should live, and is celebrating it and inviting others to join in, then that is another matter. Some people have come to the conclusion that, if the persons are unbelievers, there is more decision room for the argument to attend the wedding. But others would argue that even if one of the parties is a confessing Christian, attending would be entering into their delusion that the marriage union is fine with God and is sanctioned by him.
As you can see, these are difficult issues to consider! Your decision must be surrounded with prayer and discussed with some close friends or family members. But know this: Yaour wrestling with this question of whether or not it would be appropriate to attend is itself evidence of your heart wanting to do the right thing to honor Christ and to open doors for the gospel. Realize that there is no one answer to this! You may face other challenges and questions from co-workers, friends, or relatives, regardless of the course you choose. This situation is much like the one the early church faced, when believers were confronted about behavior that some felt was permitted and others did not (eating of meat, setting apart special days, etc.). Romans 14 is a chapter that you would do well to read and reflect on as you wrestle with these issues. There will always be a tension between the freedom we have in Christ to do what we have prayerfully considered is permissible and the need to respect the different opinions of others on the same matter, especially when our behavior may deeply impact another believer.
One thing you can count on: Like Jesus, you’ll probably be misunderstood regarding the implications of any choice you make. So, when you make your decision, know that you have made it on the basis of what will honor God; be at peace on that basis.
Post-script: What about a baptism or baby shower?
Although slightly different, some of the above questions and criteria could be applied toward the invitation to attend a baby shower, a christening, or a baptism service, when same-sex couples invite you to attend after the birth or adoption of a child. This situation is a bit further removed from a wedding service, when the issue of same-sex marriage is outside of God’s design; but with a child it can be a bit more complicated, as the child is not responsible for the circumstances in which he participates in such events.
It seems that homosexuality has embraced our culture, and the culture has embraced homosexuality. It is a part of the fallen nature of things that man has always been an expert at creating ingenuous ways to celebrate his brokenness. So, men and women in the gay life have no corner on this.
Apart from faith in Christ and submission to the authority of Scripture, we are all experts at rationalizing and justifying what we want to do. The more we live, in any way, outside of God’s design, the more we convince ourselves that what we are doing is OK. This happens on both an individual level and a corporate, cultural level. Homosexuality is not the only thing that was once considered unacceptable or immoral but later is embraced by the culture (consider abortion and sex outside of marriage).
Scripture says we’re all a mess and that we all need forgiveness and cleansing. Biblically speaking, we’re all in the same boat. We all need the same medicine of the gospel to free us from whatever attachments or idols we cling to—from whatever we have decided gives us life apart from Christ. This realization about ourselves should bring to us a growing compassion for others. Believers in Christ should be the first ones to acknowledge that we still pursue our own personal idols, and it is only by the persistent work of the Holy Spirit in our lives that we become aware of our own sin and the need to repent of it.
Homosexuality is one of those topics that draws intense and passionate reactions. Complex issues of the heart usually do. Christians are in a sort of no-man’s-land here today. Suggesting to those who have embraced the current cultural position that homosexuality is sinful and not part of God’s design for sexuality appears as uneducated, homophobic and ridiculous. On the other hand, though, suggesting to fellow evangelical believers that God loves and forgives sinners who struggle with homosexuality and that we should do the same may appear compromising and wishy-washy.
While we can oppose the advancement of a social movement that would encourage everyone to embrace this cultural shift by vocalizing our concerns and participating in the political process, for Christians a far deeper response to homosexuality and the gay community is needed. When believers proclaim the gospel of Christ both to gays and to the culture at large in a loving, redemptive manner, punctuated with grace and truth, this sets us apart and truly reflects the person of Christ. In such a heated and increasingly emotionalized debate, Christians have a responsibility to represent Christ to a fallen world in four ways.
“Let every person be quick to hear” (James 1:9, ESV). This doesn’t mean looking for loopholes in a debate or seeking a chance to criticize and find fault as you talk about this issue. We must listen in order to understand the heart of what a person is saying. This is hard work, a relational skill to be learned. It’s not natural. It takes practice. Listen to what moves other people. Listen for their passions, what they value, what their experience has been, especially with other Christians, and what they fear.
The more you understand a person’s point of view, the more you can profit from it. Why do they think the way they do? What events have led to their adopting of their worldview? What’s been their experience of Christianity—of other Christians or the church in general? What wounds from their family of origin and from other people lie festering in the background? As adults, we’re a composite of all these things—upbringing, personal wounds, cultural norms, and our own heart-generated responses to these powerful, shaping influences. Get to know the persons to whom you are talking so that you truly know who they are. Otherwise, we tend to conveniently lump them into a group, label them on the basis of what we read in the news, and think this is “knowing” them.
“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans? . . . No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5). Only a redeemed sinner, knowing he stands condemned apart from Christ’s death on the cross, can reach a sinner who doesn’t know he needs redeeming. What’s your motivation when you engage someone with the gospel? Is it to reach lost people with the enduring love that has found you out—a love that has exposed you as a cutthroat and depraved sinner and yet has embraced you with fatherly love? Is it your own awareness that, at heart, you’re a sham, a misfit, a counterfeit, a phony and that there is nothing good inside you to warrant God’s love, yet he still died in your place to make you whole? Do you really care about people who struggle with same-sex attraction as men and women who need the love of Christ, or do you only want them to shut up and disappear? Remember that Jesus said, “He who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:47). If you have no love for those who claim a gay identity, then you have not understood the forgiving love of Jesus in your own life.
Patiently listening and personally repenting also means loving those who are different, who believe differently. The gay community has long been demonized by Christians, held up as the example of the worst kind of people. This is grossly unfair and unloving, not to mention unbiblical. No single group of people corners the market on sinful behavior outside of God’s design. There is simply no place for believers to verbally demean or physically abuse the same-sex attracted. If your neighbor or colleague proclaimed to you that he didn’t believe in God, would you go around mocking him?
“The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone . . . correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Timothy 2:22-25). How do you talk to people who don’t believe what you do? An argumentative, win-at-all-costs approach does not conform to what Paul wrote to Timothy. You need to ask the Holy Spirit to instruct your own heart as you instruct others. Engaging someone “with gentleness” does not mean being weak or vacillating in your argument; it means treating everyone with respect and dignity even when they persistently disagree. An unloving and impatient heart is a hindrance to the gospel message. The Lord’s command to us through the words of Paul teaches us here “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:2).
“Gently instruct” also means that your words must be grounded in the truth of Scripture, not your own opinion. The real issue regarding what Scripture says about homosexuality is not about whether the key passages are culturally relevant anymore, but whether Scripture in its entirety still has authority over all of life. It should always be the truths of Scripture, and not our demeanor or presentation of it, that people reject.
Do you really care about homosexuals—or do you only want them to shut up and disappear?
Talking to those who are blind to the reality of their hearts but who live in a world that applauds their sin is both a privilege and a challenge. They are victims of their own sin and the lies and sin of others. Therefore, they’re caught. But they’re also accountable before a holy God for their continued choice to live life on their own terms and not submit their lives to the lordship of Christ. We must represent both aspects of the truth as we share Christ.
Mercifully pursue and then engage the heart
“Have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire, hating even the garment stained by the flesh” (Jude 22-23). God calls us to be neither reclusive nor rude but to move boldly into confusing, high-stakes situations with the gospel of God’s mercy.
We bring the gospel where it is most needed: to the vocally anti-Christian pro-gay activist, to the mild-mannered clergy who says the love of Jesus means affirming homosexuality as God’s gift, to the confused and scared teenager who fears he’s gay and there’s no other option. Showing mercy means practically caring for people. It means being patiently and persistently available to help those who live in a fallen world. It means lovingly holding our ground against those who say that our beliefs are hateful.
We must not wilt from the irrational heat of those who say that we are hateful bigots merely on the basis that we do not agree with their beliefs.
As we do this, we’re able to move into other people’s worlds. Engaging people by asking good questions, respectfully, is an important part of this. I once approached a man who was marching in a gay rally. Subsequently, I had a two-hour conversation that ended with this man shaking my hand and thanking me for stopping him—in spite of the fact that I shared the gospel with him! I had listened to him, heard his concerns, and engaged his heart with matters important to him. Didn’t Jesus do the same?
My approach appealed to his heart. Listening, asking questions, and engaging people with respect, even if we have fundamental differences, invites people to share their stories more quickly than anything else. When we take time to get people into their stories, they become more open to us and to the gospel.
Jesus, of course, was the master of all that I’ve just described. We should be, too. His methods are the most under-utilized and missed aspects of evangelism. They also make the deepest and most heart-felt impact, often leaving people wanting more!
This article originally appeared in the May 2010 edition of Tabletalk magazine, but has been edited and expanded for this publication.
Weeping with those who weep
Receiving painful phone calls is never easy. I am regularly contacted by individuals—often in tears—because someone in their life has made the decision to forsake their covenant, their faith—their real hope—in order to chase an empty lie.
I hear tragic stories like that of a husband with a history of pornography, caught again after a period of supposed victory, or the spouse whose entire life is shattered by the revelation of affairs spanning decades, or the wife whose enmeshed relationship with a girlfriend turned sexual. Although such scenarios are expected from our post-Christian culture, increasingly they are happening in the local church. Sexual sin is not something “out there”; it is reaching epidemic proportions in your church!
But here’s the rub: The church does not handle sexuality very well, even on a good day! This wondrous gift given to God’s people is rarely talked about positively. Even among those who should revel in sex as a demonstration of God’s joy in delighting his children and in the glorious theological truths revealed by a robust, biblical understanding of sexuality, it is surrounded by shame. In most churches, if sex is addressed at all, our teens are sternly warned, “Don’t do it until you’re married!” I have interacted with countless individuals raised in Christian homes where sexuality was never discussed. It is astounding that such a significant aspect of life—with sweeping spiritual ramifications—is so thoroughly neglected. Given the church’s failures regarding sexuality, the revelation of sexual sin is usually not handled in a balanced and redemptive manner.
There are often two polar responses when sexual sin is disclosed. If the sin is quiet, keep it that way! Do not expose it to the light of day and keep as many people in ignorance as possible. However, if it is too late and the sin has become public knowledge, the only answer is church discipline—swift and severe. Historically, the Church has struggled with “shooting the wounded,” dealing heavy handedly with sexual sin without a view to restoration and healing. There needs to be a redemptive solution, one that embraces the gospel of grace and the living Redeemer who enters into situations and relationships wracked with sin to bring reconciliation and healing. This is the work of his kingdom—“He’s come to make his blessings flow as far as the curse is found!” Do we believe Jesus is big enough to handle sexual sin? Do we invite sin-sick people to come into the light, or do we encourage them to continue cowering in the shadows?
Seeking a redemption solution
1 John 1:7 speaks powerfully to what is needed in the body of Christ. Contrasting believers with those who walk in the darkness of their sin, John writes, “But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” This passage echoes John’s Gospel that men love the darkness and will avoid the light because their deeds are evil (John 3:19-21). Do we encourage people to come out of darkness? John makes plain that deep, meaningful fellowship in the body of Christ— genuine intimacy—will only happen as we come into the light. Further, deliberately coming into the light has a direct connection to purging sin from our life. Steve Gallagher of Pure Life Ministries writes, “If you want to stay stuck in your sin, confess it only to God. If you want to overcome it, confess it to someone else!”
We may respond that public confession is unnecessary since we have direct access to God. The Bible clearly teaches, “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” However, I argue this reflects a greater fear of man than fear of God. If I truly care what God thinks—filled with awe by his power, grandeur, love, etc.—I don’t care what you think about me! In fact, I will want to talk to you about my sin struggles because I want to be transformed and become his beautiful, long-anticipated Bride. Proverbs says, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (28:12). Keeping our sin secret, guarantees continued slavery. Narcotics Anonymous uses a great slogan—“We are only as sick as our secrets!”
Every individual who comes to Harvest USA is different. The histories, life experiences, specifics of their sin and temptation, etc., are widely divergent and require particular attention. In short, there are not many universals—healing comes in specific ways, as diverse as our personal brokenness. In six years at the ministry, there is only one thing that clearly is universal: Those committed to ruthless honesty consistently overcome their sin and make great strides in holiness. In stark contrast, I have never encountered an individual who overcame sexual struggles if they were unwilling to bring the sin fully into the light with an ever-increasing number of individuals. Those who refuse this path of ruthless honesty stay stuck in their sin or return to it after a short period of “white-knuckled” abstinence.
This is all part of God’s design. James exhorts us “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). Spiritual healing and transformation occurs in the context of community. Even the world has found this to be true, hence the explosion of Twelve Step groups for every imaginable, errant behavior. Scripture uses the body metaphor to powerfully illustrate that every individual within the church is inextricably linked with all the others (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-26). Ephesians 4:17 makes this even more explicit, exhorting that the body reaches maturity only “when each part is working properly.” Jesus intends his church to be radically interdependent. This is a significant challenge that rails against our innate desire to be free and independent. There are important implications to this reality: When sexual sin arises in the local church, if we fail to deal with it in a way that honors Christ, we harm the individuals involved and impact the entire congregation!
What about the redemptive use of Church Discipline? Discipline is a crucial mark of the true church, but are we careful to enforce its biblical intention? When reading Matthew 18 that the impenitent should be treated as a “Gentile and tax collector,” too often my mind is filled with the image of kicking that dirty sinner to the church’s curb. I was struck recently reading Eugene Peterson’s rendering of this passage in The Message. He writes, “If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for
repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.” A paraphrase for sure, but the tone impacted me strongly. What do you do with a tax collector and sinner? Offer them the hope of the gospel! This is an important insight we should always keep in mind. There are times when sin requires extreme action by the church. But at every point, we must be mindful that the intent of discipline, even in its most extreme form, is to restore the offender (see 1 Corinthians 5:1-5). The goal is to reflect the overwhelming love of Christ to men and women, desperately lost in their sin and folly. Even when obedience to Christ requires “casting out” the individual, he or she must be made aware that the Church’s door is always open, if only he or she will be humbled in repentance and commit to leaving the darkness for his glorious light!
A redemptive approach to dealing with sexual sin in the local church requires risk. It is a messy process that moves everyone outside their comfort zone. It requires actively pursuing those impacted by the sin at every level and bringing the situation into the light, with an eye toward God’s restoration. It is crucial that attention is given to the various relationships impacted by the ripple effect of sexual sin. However, given the constraints of this article, the focus will center on the struggler with very brief considerations for the wider circle of impact within the church as a whole.
Processing the initial disclosure
When sexual sin is exposed, it has usually existed undetected for years, sometimes decades. Sin patterns so deeply entrenched will not peel off like a dirty sock! Radical intervention is required. First, consider how the situation was revealed. Was the individual “caught,” or did he or she come forward of his or her own volition seeking help? Most men coming to Harvest USA fall in the former category. Be very wary in this circumstance. Often God uses getting caught to eventually bring someone to a place of repentance, but it usually does not start there! Pay attention to the confession. Is the person confessing only what he or she has already been caught doing, or is the person freely disclosing the full extent of the behavior? Genuine repentance means turning away from sin. Bringing hidden things into the light is the first step in that process. People engaged in sexual sin are deeply deceitful, and these patterns have been in place for a long time. Be deeply skeptical. Assume that there is always more to be revealed.
In our sin, we both deceive others and are profoundly self-deceived. This means the struggler is tempted to keep you in the dark regarding the extent of the behavior and is personally blind to the depth of the enslavement, similar to the drug addict who will continue to maintain that everything is fine while in the process of literally committing suicide. Employ the rich scriptural imagery of light and darkness in your conversation. Repeatedly hold forth the stark contrast between he who is Truth-incarnate, the King of light, over against the father of lies and his kingdom of darkness. Pray for the activity of the Spirit, who alone can bring the individual to repentance.
There is reason for concern if someone is unwilling to confess to his or her spouse specific sins already confessed to you. By God’s design, no one should know someone better than his or her spouse. There should be no secrets between a husband and wife and we need to be careful that we do not continue nurturing the unholy relational patterns already established. Change will be affected as the couple begins to address the “hidden things” openly and honestly.
Spouses do need full disclosure! This does not mean the nitty-gritty details of every sexual encounter, specific websites, etc. But they need to be fully aware of the extent of the sin: how many incidents of infidelity over how long a period and with whom; the duration and frequency of Internet porn activity, unholy “chatting,” and masturbation, the amount of money squandered, etc. Spouses need counsel because their propensity is to demand too much information—certain details will do more harm than good.
Anyone who claims to be “cured” should be met with skepticism. God rarely brings ultimate deliverance from struggles with sin. The flesh remains a constant barb—but this can be redemptive! It forces us to look to him and to remember our desperate need. God will never answer the prayer that says (in effect), “Bring me to the place where I don’t need to keep crying out to you everyday!” He loves us too much! This does not diminish the reality that Jesus enables us to overcome our struggles with sin, but there is a difference between victory over sin and deliverance from all temptation! Freedom is not gauged by the absence of temptation or the exchange of heterosexual for homosexual desire. Victory is when the individual consistently chooses obedience out of love for Jesus, in the face of contrary desires!
For anyone who struggles with sexual sin, rigorous accountability is a must. Most individuals need a minimum of two people in their lives who regularly ask them probing questions about their personal life—at least once per week. Avoid exhaustive, tedious questionnaires covering every conceivable sexual sin for two reasons: 1) The flesh will always find a loophole or invent some new vehicle for sin; and 2) Deep, intimate relationships are crucial for overcoming our struggles with sin (regardless of its manifestation). Hearing “no” 100 times does not enable you to know the individual on any deeper level – even if you go over that list for weeks!
A short list of five or six pertinent, open-ended, questions that require reflection, i.e. more than a simple yes or no answer, will make your investment far more fruitful. For example, if you know the daily commute has been a problem, rather than asking, “Did you or were you tempted to stop at _____ while driving to work this week,” it is better to ask, “How did you respond when you were driving by _____? What was going on inside of you?” One question allows an easy “No,” the other forces you to engage the individual’s heart. You begin getting to know aspects of his or her person, and things carefully hidden in the past. The questions need to be tailored to the individual, responding to the specifics of the personal struggle.
Accountability needs to identify the “sin behind the sin.” Sexual sin is not primarily about lust. Lust is a component and the self-focused desire to reduce other image-bearers to commodities needs to be addressed. Sexual sin always violates the Second Great Commandment, exploiting another to satisfy self, but it is first and foremost a violation of the First Great Commandment, an idol that replaces the Creator. This means in the face of frustration, loneliness, anxiety, stress, etc. the individual runs to a false god. Rather than collapsing on Christ, pouring out his or her heart, and receiving his peace, the individual takes matters into his or her own hands.
There are times when temptation is like an ambush on a beautiful, sunny day when everything is fine, but often there are predictable patterns of behavior—sinful responses to the challenges of life in a fallen world. One man who recently came to the office was amazed by this reality after having struggled with sexual sin for decades. After paying attention to his patterns of temptation, he realized that his struggle with masturbation was far more a response to anxiety and stress, ratherthan the result of mere lust. Identifying and developing accountability for the “sin behind the sin” will enable him to run to Christ sooner and address the idols even more deeply entrenched than his struggle with sexual sin!
Accountability needs to go beyond restraining sinful behavior. God never intends us to stop in the vacuous place of “absent sin.” The call of the gospel is radical allegiance to the King. We are called to be like him in righteousness and holiness. Thus, good accountability will always balance “putting off” and “putting on” questions. Ephesians 4:20-32 and Colossians 3:5-17 powerfully demonstrate how this exchange is to take place in our lives.
Sexual sin—even with the illusion it is a private offense—is always relationally destructive. Because it is a violation of the command to love God and others, there should be specific, reflective questions that address the individual’s relationship with God and others. Is he or she engaged in spiritual disciplines personally and corporately? Is love for God evidenced by decisions of obedience? How is the person developing intimacy in primary relationships? Is he or she changing the way he or she responds to frustrating circumstances or disagreements with others? Are there specific examples of selflessness in places where he or she was formerly self-consumed? Is the person serving the community and church or seeking to be served?
“Putting on” requires patient “baby steps.” It is tremendous growth for an estranged couple to even sit down and discuss personal issues for 10 minutes at a time, 3 days a week! If the individual is single, part of the accountability plan must include a strategy for intentionally developing significant, vital relationships within the body and finding specific areas of service. It is beneficial for singles to live with a family or other singles in community, learning to selflessly serve on a day-to-day basis. Further, because there are specific ways all of us have mammoth strides yet to make in these categories, accountability is never a one-way street. Remember, a sovereign God has placed you in this circumstance. Given the interdependent reality of life in Christ, you need the struggler in your life as much as they need you!
Widening the circle
Finally, the call to live in the light means laying aside false pretenses. Great wisdom is required, but the reality of the sin and the challenges facing the family needs to be revealed to others in the church. Jesus promises that those who trust in him will never be put to shame. He invites us to be exposed, promising to clothe us in his righteousness. Will we trust him? Do we invite others to trust his promise or communicate by our secrecy that some sins should be kept quiet? Bringing strugglers into the light is a tangible demonstration of the gospel. It invites strugglers to abandon the “sandy foundations” of reputation, image, self-esteem, etc., building their entire identity on the Rock. Conversely, urging secrecy encourages strugglers to see their sin as worse than that of others.
Widening the circle does not mean public confession on Sunday morning! Rather, it means fostering gut-level, honest intimacy in the obvious relationships. Church leadership should know—including those who minister to the children of the individuals involved. People in the individuals’ home fellowship need to be aware of the sin struggle. After all, these groups should exist to minister to one another in specifically these types of circumstances! The church is called to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Sexual sin is a profound burden that requires the full support of the body. It demonstrates the necessity of the “priesthood of all believers.”
Jesus is big enough to deal with all the problems in His Church. He is deeply committed to purifying and beautifying his Bride and, he invites us to join him in this work because his heart’s desire is for us to grow more deeply in love with him. The entire goal of the Christian life—the very essence of eternal life—is knowing him! His purposes to this end are powerfully at work in sexual brokenness that we may “grow up in every way into him who is the Head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15). Will you join him?
14 Jan 2014
A positive theology of sex
Harvest USA articles usually deal with the negative realities of sexual sin, and many people think evangelical Christians, when it comes to discussions of sex, are negative, nit-picking prudes who do not have enough fun and who believe God is anti-pleasure and only says “No!” Harvest USA, in its work with people who struggle with sexual brokenness and sin, speaks seriously about these issues, but serious does not mean negative.
We are about an incredibly positive message; we are about real joy, restoration, and redemption that flow from God’s grace, mercy, and love. This applies to matters of sex!
Scripture says God makes and gives to his creation the best pleasures. Psalm 16 says, “At your right hand are pleasures forevermore!” (ESV). Sex, with all its emotional and physical components of pleasure, came from the mind of God. It was not something man invented in opposition to God’s plan. Scripture declares that God designed us to please him and live a life full of lasting pleasures and joys.
This is good news. Even though sin has corrupted all good things, much of the goodness of God’s work of creation remains and God’s work of redemption extends hope to bring joy from despair. We are called to live within the good and right parameters of God’s design. In the area of sex, it is imperative to grasp the positive theology of sexuality that God designed. Doing so will help us live lives that are glorifying to God, enjoy his creation more and avoid the entanglements of sexual idolatry and sin.
Consider the following seven truths about God’s great gift of sex.
1. God made us male and female–the crowning masterpieces of his creation
The good news about God’s gift of sex and sexuality begins with God the almighty, all wise and all loving Creator. God declared the world was good and that man and woman were very good. Our maleness and masculinity or our femaleness and femininity are great and astounding works of divine creativity. Every man and woman is a crowning masterpiece of the Creator.
What are we masterpieces here for? Our culture says life is for sex, and sex is the reason for life. Our culture teaches us to radically devalue our masculinity or femininity unless we are sexually active. Unmarried Christians are tempted to believe their single years are a waste if they cannot have sex and tend to make marriage an idol in their hearts. This “life is for sex” view is far too one-dimensional. If by “sex” we only think about acts of sex—the acts that lead to orgasm—then our definition is extremely narrow and artificial. It is easy to “miss the forest for the trees.” If we think only about the sex act, we miss a grand forest of God-made sexuality and sexual identity.
While it is true that God designed us to have the capacity for sex, we are really created for relationships. We are not a masterpiece to hang alone in an art gallery, nor are we made only for sex. In Psalm 8, King David praised God that we were made “a little lower than the angels” (v. 7, NIV). As male and female, we each have astounding dignity—even glory—to bear his image and have a personal relationship with him. God also enabled us to enjoy a kaleidoscope of relationships because he lovingly gave each of us our gender identity. Maleness or femaleness is the context not only for being husbands and wives, but also fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, male friends and female friends, etc. We best experience this dignity and glory that God graciously intends for us as we love God and our neighbors as ourselves.
2. God’s gift of sexuality reveals his own nature and glory
Art reflects the character of the artist, and a novel yields insights into the mind of the author. In a mysterious way, the fact of two genders capable of sexual intimacy reflects the nature of God. Even before time began, God the Father loved God the Son. The Father, Son, and Spirit shared a communion that was complete and perfect. It is the perfect relationship and reflects absolute transparency and intimacy. The Bible specifically teaches that each person of the Trinity has total awareness of the others (Luke 10:20; Romans 8:27; 1 Corinthians 2:11, etc.). The intimacy of the Trinity—the three in one—is the source of and reason we are humanly capable of cultivating intimacy. The ability to build trust, closeness, and knowledge of another is itself a love-gift from our Triune God who delights, for example, when two of his children “become one flesh” in marriage.
Scripture also shows the nature of God’s love for his people through metaphors relating to marriage. Ezekiel 16, Hosea 2, and Song of Solomon in various ways point to God as a faithful husband who redemptively loves his undeserving bride. Paul specifically states that marriage reflects the love Christ has for his church (Ephesians 5:32). When married couples have sex they can reflect a glimmer of God’s passion for his church, and the reality of perfect intimacy in Heaven—our state after the marriage of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9).
Through faithfulness, chastity, and modesty, unmarried people can enjoy many levels and types of intimacy (other than engaging in sex) in the context of their God-given gender identity. Marriage is not the only venue for a deep and abiding relationship. Singles can and ought to involve themselves in close, long-lasting friendships. These, too, are relationships that reflect the intimate connections of community that the Trinity displays. Unmarried individuals also can reflect the sacrificial love of Christ for the church. Single men can sacrifice themselves for others by doing things that seemingly come naturally to men—manual labor, repairing things, etc.—yet which require them to act relationally towards others. Single women can sacrifice themselves for others by doing things that reflect a woman’s natural affinities. Women often seem more alert to an individual’s needs, both physical and emotional. We each function out of our sexual identity even if we are not engaging in sex.
3. God’s gift of sexuality is for all of us, whether we are single or married
God made each man and woman able to live righteously and have an abundant life regardless of his or her age or marital status. Both the married and unmarried state can be joy-filled and God-honoring, yet many Christian singles are not feeling the glory of being single. The gift of celibacy sounds like a hard sell. “If only…” riddles and even cripples their joy in life, especially as they strive in good faith to live pure against the backdrop of our orgasmically-obsessed secular culture.
Single Christians wonder, “Will I miss out on something fundamental to life if I never have a full sex-life merely because I don’t have a spouse?” Are the pleasures of sex in marriage better than the pleasures of godly unmarried sexuality? If we say, “yes,” we fall into a two-class view of Christianity that is both un-biblical and destructive. This is just as erroneous as saying that having children is essential to the Christian life and that childless couples are somehow second-class Christians.
The core blessings of the gospel are for everyone who believes, whether married or not. The diverse benefits of the gospel, however, are not equally distributed to all believers at all seasons of life. Remember Jesus? He was unmarried, sinless, and lived without the pleasures of sexual intercourse. Remember Paul? He said that he would rather remain unmarried. Remember Daniel and numerous other singles in the Bible?
The pleasures of sex in marriage are not better than the joys God provides unmarried believers. In the same way that chocolate chip cookies are great and strawberry shortcake is super, these pleasures are not better or worse; they are simply different. An apple pie lover would be foolish to say rhubarb pie is bad simply because he or she had never tasted it.
So is the married state to be preferred to the unmarried state? Not necessarily. While Paul does say that it is better to marry “than to burn” in lust, he also advocates the gift of celibacy over marriage for the sake of service to the Kingdom, especially during times of persecution (I Corinthians 7:9, 28-29). Here is a reality check: Many unmarried Christians experience more intimacy through godly friendships and fulfillment through unhindered service for the Kingdom than others in poor marriages. Singles and married people can be miserable or content. It is all a matter of God’s grace, which good gift God chooses to give his children, and what we do as stewards of these gifts. Some are called to celibacy—not a season but a lifetime of singleness—and so God gives special grace, special opportunities, and especially significant service.
In a season of singleness, God’s powerful and diverse grace is the real key to joy and brings significance to times of challenge. Singles are not the only ones asking, “What am I to do with all my sexual desires?” Single chastity is not easy, but married people will tell you that maintaining purity and growing in intimacy is not a cake walk either.
The fact that purity is hard cannot be a rationalization for compromise. Acting out sexually is not synonymous with intimacy. Masturbation is a prime example. It can give fleeting pleasure, but it is often addictive, always selfish, and cannot deliver intimacy or lasting relational joy.
God our Father is not surprised or outwitted by the sexual temptations we all face. Our Heavenly Father wired us to have desires, and he gives strength to draw near to him and avoid sexual or any other sin. He does not tempt us to sin, but he affords us opportunities to seek and find what is far better, himself, rather than fleeting bodily pleasures. Unmarried men and women can channel their sexual energies toward non-sexual but very fulfilling relationships, noble accomplishments, and adventures in service and ministry. The biggest hazard of singleness is not missing out on sexual release—it is being isolated and alone. Isolation is choice, but it is not God’s will for Christian singles to live without the grace of Christian friends and spiritual family. Life is too short to not have and be family. God provides his body, the church, as a functional family for both time and eternity.
4. God designed sex with marriage to bless, protect, and empower us
Some fear the power of sex, but God gave sexual intimacy the sacred power to bond a husband and wife together—body and soul—in a covenant of loyalty and love. “Becoming one flesh” within marriage is more satisfying that anything the world offers as a sexually attractive substitute. Like a fire inside a fireplace, it provides light and warmth, but outside the right context, sex can destroy like an un-extinguished cigarette can burn down a huge forest. Sex is not the purpose of marriage or a good enough reason to get married. Sex is not the goal. It is a means to an end. The Lord gave sexual intimacy, as a natural part of married-life, to be an intense, joy-giving way to celebrate and reaffirm covenant love. Rest assured God is very pleased when godly couples enjoy it.
Marriage protects sex from promiscuity and exploitation, and sex is to protect marriage by giving comfort and relieving temptation. That is why Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7:1-5, commands husbands and wives not to defraud each other sexually but to lovingly fulfill their marital duty to one another. A church that neglected to celebrate Christmas and Easter would be spiritually malnourished. A marriage without sexual intimacy is likewise emotionally impoverished. Godly, other-centered sex protects married couples from temptation and helps keep marriages together. Proper sexual expression in marriage is a celebration that renews commitment and love.
Genesis 1:26-28 reveals that God designed sex within marriage to empower us. God never rescinded his plan for us “to have dominion … be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.” Dominion may sound like an archaic and politically incorrect concept. Yet, God gave sex within marriage for not only joy, intimacy, mutual comfort and support, but also procreation of children! Without moms and dads, where would we be? One divine purpose of sex in marriage is to provide a context to bear and then empower children who will grow up to fulfill a Kingdom purpose—to spread God’s justice, wisdom, and love to the entire world.
5. God gave our sexuality so we could know Christ better and love others as Christ loves us
The world teaches that whatever one person can do to get another “consenting adult” to please him or her sexually is permissible. God gave us a sex drive not to make us sin but to love well. It takes knowing Christ better to realize that sex is not a toy and we are not consumers of sexual experiences. It takes loving Christ better to see our sexuality as a platform for self-controlled and self-giving love.
When we are tempted to trust sex to heal our emotional needs or save us from emptiness, we become convinced that our pain is worse than sin. We defend our sexual compromise. It takes knowing Jesus better to believe sin is worse than our pain. It takes loving Christ better to sincerely want freedom from sin rather than freedom to sin. This moral challenge does not surprise God. He allows these tensions and tests as opportunities to turn to him for grace and power in our times of need.
The joys and trials of marriage in general and sex within marriage are given to make us holy more than to make us happy. In seasons when a marriage becomes strained, hard, or painful, the desires accompanying sexual intimacy can turn a maturing Christian’s heart toward Christ. Christ provides wisdom and strength to love an imperfect and even unlovely spouse with sexual faithfulness and perseverance, even when one’s flesh wants to run or rage. We can learn, “The better I love Christ, the better I will love my spouse. The better I love my spouse, the better I will love Christ.”
All these sexual tensions, temptations, and emotional desires offer singles and those married opportunities to grow finding paths to joy as God faithfully provides our true needs. When we find him faithful and follow him with trust and integrity, we honor him. Our sincere hearts shine through our good deeds of self-sacrificing love and sexual integrity. This is one way our sexuality gives God glory.
6. Sexuality points to Christ and the church—we need the church to shepherd the story of our sexuality
The world really cannot find a grand story for human sexuality. Secular people want life to be a comedy where being sexually active brings happiness. They find monogamy as boring as re-runs and the sexless narrative of chastity or celibacy a pointless tragedy. In Scripture, on the other hand, God places our sexuality into the grand story of redemption. Our sexuality points towards the grand divine drama—the true story of the High King who builds a Kingdom of people redeemed by a blood covenant through his Son, Christ Jesus.
The gospel story of God making and keeping the covenant of redemption is the grand context within which we should express our sexuality. Our story and Christ’s story are forever united. This union is compared to the connection of the head to the body. As the body of the crucified and risen King, we extend his truth, life, and redemption against all sin, death, and evil. All sexual matters are placed into the epic struggle of good and evil—the Kingdom versus the evil empire.
Since God made sex to be powerful, Christ commissioned the church to function as a shepherd and guide in this area as well as in all other areas of life. The church—the people of God—is a gracious gift to each Christian. It is in the community of Christ that we give and receive guidance, encouragement, correction, and company. Other Christians are crucial to assist us when we are struggling with sexual issues and to keep our eyes on Jesus. Our sexuality is not just our story; it really is part of the family story, and the church family has a say and stake in how we live out our sexuality. Our sexuality is so big no Christian can handle it alone. Christ gave the church as the “family of God” (1 Timothy 3:15) because when sexual brokenness and sin enters our lives, we need a healing community to affirm the forgiveness we receive from Jesus. The church is the spiritually functional family that accepts and guides us in repentance and into the joys of restoration.
7. God gave sex to point us to heaven—sex is not for forever
In Matthew 22, Jesus stated there will be no marriage and therefore no sexual intimacy in Heaven. How can something as intensely good as sexual intimacy be left out of heaven? God will not leave sex out of Heaven because it is inherently sinful. God declared all things good on Day Six after He told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply—a task that required sexual activity. If sex is good for time, why is it not good enough for eternity?
It is because there is something better. It is because sex, in the fullness of its meaning, points to greater realities in the way a road sign points to a great city. The sign of sex will be obsolete in Heaven because the reality it points to will be replaced by the greater reality itself. It is the same way with Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In Heaven, both sacraments will cease since they have their fulfillment there. The Lord’s Supper—a meal remembering Christ’s death and signifying our union with him—will be replaced by the great Wedding Feast. We will be the Bride and he the Groom! Baptism, which is a sign that we belong to Christ, will be replaced in Heaven because we will be face to face with Christ.
The intimacy we will have with Christ throughout eternity will be so great that sexual intimacy will pale in comparison. The ecstatic pleasure of even the best orgasmic 15 seconds shared in a godly marriage will be like tasting the plainest food compared to the everlasting joy and intimacy we will share with Christ at his banquet table.
If sex can be this good now, even in a world tainted by sin, think how much better sinless and perfect intimacy with our Creator will be! It will be the coming home into the embrace of the One who has loved us before the foundations of the world. It will be so glorious not one of us will regret “missing sex.” Instead, we will wonder how we were ever so preoccupied with it. Nothing can compare to entering into the presence of the glorious radiance of God Almighty.
God gives the best sex
God gives the best sex. He gives sex and sexuality for our joy and, ultimately, for his glory. Our Father does not deprive us from pleasures, nor does he condemn us for our failures. God faithfully provides forgiveness and empowering grace so that the trials and joys related to our sexuality work together to prepare us for eternal intimacy with Jesus Christ. Our sexuality offers a tremendous opportunity to live a life of faith and love. As we live with his gift by means of his grace and together with his grace-giving people, we live out the hope of the gospel and are a light to the world.
14 Jan 2014
When sexual sin within marriage is exposed in the local church, often the spouse is lost in the shuffle. This is a grave oversight in light of the pain he or she is bearing. Often no one comes alongside to help them process their pain. David White shares ways the church family can approach and help someone in this situation.
One Sunday all was fine. The next Sunday the pastor suddenly resigned with no explanation. The following Sunday both the pastor and the church organist were gone, and the pastor’s wife sat alone in the second pew. There she sat for months listening to the sermons of fill-in preachers, and then her attendance became sporadic and finally she too was gone. Years later one of the members of the congregation was shocked to look through a denominational directory and see a picture of the former pastor and his new “wife”—the church organist. He and she made a life for themselves, but what happened to the first wife? No one seemed to know what happened to the first wife—her pain had been great and she had kept up a strong, silent front for several months before disappearing. Did anyone in the church help her process her pain? Did anyone help her financially? The answers to those questions go unknown, but it is probably safe to assume that she lived under a veil of secrecy and endured crushing pain.
Understanding the pain
The opening illustration is a true story related by one of the Harvest USA staff. He grew up in the church and saw all this happen, but as a teen did not process it until years later. What could have been done? This article focuses on ministering to spouses whose marriage is impacted by sexual sin. The spouse is grievously impacted, as sexual sin is a desecration of the marriage covenant and strikes at the vitals of marital intimacy.
First, it must be stressed that “spouse” does not mean wife! The church is reluctant to face the reality of sexual sin in her midst and, even when willing, often sees sexual sin as a man’s problem. This could not be further from the truth! A recent statistic suggested that 34% of church-going women have intentionally visited porn websites. Currently, women age 35 and under have the same rate of infidelity in marriage as their male peers. This represents a significant and historic moral shift as men—even cross-culturally—have always had higher rates of infidelity than women. Sadly, the sexual revolution has finally balanced the inconsistencies existing between the outward depravity of the sexes. The church must be intentional about addressing this reality because the default response for couples whose marriages are scarred by sexual sin is silence—this is particularly the case when the wife is the offending party.
When sexual sin within marriage is exposed in the local church, often the spouse is lost in the shuffle. This is a grave oversight in light of the pain he or she is bearing. The spouse has thought he or she was going crazy—sometimes for years. The struggler is committed to keeping the sin hidden and making every excuse for erratic behavior, peevish silence, absent finances, etc. The spouse’s questions are casually dismissed, scorned as paranoia, met with rage, or flatly ignored. The spouse is entirely responsible for keeping the relationship together. Marriages impacted by sexual sin enter into a ‘dance’ —certain topics are off limits, behaviors and responses that would be challenged in a healthy marriage are accepted.
Couples learn to make life “work” around the sin. The spouse learns how to “manage” the struggler, careful not to step on toes and striving to keep the struggler happy. In many relationships this means satisfying the unholy desire for sex on demand—a radical twisting of God’s design of selfless service—and any number of other stipulations, from the mundane to the horrific. Spouses, terrified of losing the relationship, are willing to submit. The spouse is forced to compensate within the family for the struggler’s sin, bearing alone many responsibilities in parenting and household management that should be shared in marriage. Worse, the spouse is blamed for all the problems in the relationship. The struggler argues that the lack of intimacy is the spouse’s fault. All along the spouse knows that something is desperately wrong with the marriage, but the struggler maintains that everything is fine.
In short, the struggler holds all the “power” in the relationship because his or her behavior, mood, etc., sets the tone for the marriage. Conversely, the spouse is left with all the “responsibility” in the relationship; he or she must strive to satisfy the struggler and keep him or her in the home. Neither the spouse nor the struggler is innocent in this dynamic. There is willfulness and fear on both sides that must be wisely addressed.
The challenges of rebuilding the marriage grow in proportion to the duration of the sin. Trust is obliterated. Messages have been sent that the problem would not exist if only the spouse were prettier, in better shape, more exciting, more emotionally engaged, more masculine, more successful, etc. Every spouse dealing with sexual sin in their marriage believes it is his or her fault on some level. The struggler fuels the spouse’s insecurity with sinful accusations and cruel criticism. In one particularly painful situation, a wife shared how her husband referred to her as “plain vanilla.” She obviously needed comfort! Spouses are as desperately in need of the Gospel as the struggler.
Facing the pain to remain
The first decision facing the spouse is the future of the relationship. In the first part of Living in the Light, we discussed the importance of full disclosure within marriage, and another word should be added: The full revelation should be made as quickly as possible. The spouse is not in a position to commit to the marriage until he or she has a complete understanding of the nature of the offenses. Further, once the spouse has committed and begins to work on rebuilding, new revelations of past offenses severely undermine reconciliation. Each new disclosure essentially sends the couple back to the beginning of the process when trust is again obliterated, doubt and fear creep back. “Is this really the end, or am I going to learn something new next week? Is there no end to the deceit?” Dragging out the revelations is essentially a decision to postpone the rebuilding process.
A word of caution: Be wary of the “quick divorce” response. Sexual sin is the ultimate “get out of a bad marriage free” card. Obviously, sexual sin is deeply damaging to marital intimacy as it erodes trust and destroys the ability to be vulnerable and draw near to another. Therefore, the spouse has been living in a bad, possibly miserable, marriage, sometimes for decades. The Bible clearly offers divorce as an option in the face of sexual infidelity, but careful counsel is required. God “hates divorce” (Malachi 2:16), and yet the divorce rate among professing evangelicals is actually slightly higher than the general population! By rigidly interpreting Matthew 5:28 that a lustful look is tantamount to adultery, many spouses view pornography use as the “out” they have been waiting for. There are times when repeated, unrepentant use of pornography can clearly be grounds for having abandoned Christ and the marital covenant (see 1 Corinthians 7:12-16). However, even in the face of blatant adultery, our desire should be for healing and reconciliation, seeking divorce only after prolonged separation in which it is clear that the struggler is committed to pursuing sin, not Jesus.
Further, a “quick divorce” decision, without taking time to process the disclosure and the ramifications of divorce often leads to regret. Once the court date has passed, the “what if” questions begin. This is true regardless of the time invested in the decision, but careful deliberation, bathed in prayer and the counsel of others, will provide peace, whereas a “knee jerk” decision may bear fruit of regret for a lifetime.
Entering into the pain
So what does it look like to offer practical ministry to the spouse?
First, spouses need to be assured that they are not crazy! Given the dynamic described above, the worst thing you can do is begin by questioning the spouse’s experience in the marriage. It is crucial to listen carefully to their description of what is happening in the home and affirm that you will be with them through this process. Many spouses do not receive the support they need because church leadership is convinced that the situation is not as bad as they think.
Church leaders need to be especially wary with couples for whom they have a natural affinity. A pastor may be more prone to disbelieve the wife of his church golf buddy than he would a member with whom the relationship is more distant. Assume that the person in the “one-flesh” relationship has some idea about what is going on in the marriage! It is better to err in the direction of supporting the spouse and defending him or her. Spouses desperately need to be heard and have their concerns taken seriously. Remember, the struggler is typically committed to deceit. Do not be surprised if you are pitted between a spouse pleading for you to believe there is a problem, while the struggler insists that the spouse is crazy or inflating the situation. Believe the spouse and hear the serpent’s hiss in the struggler’s casual dismissal!
Second, you need to enter into the spouse’s pain and experience. The disclosure of adultery, in particular, is brutal. In fact, when sexual sin is disclosed, spouses often begin to exhibit symptoms similar to people experiencing Post-traumatic Stress Disorder! The spouse is confronted with the stark reality that his or her perception of the marriage was an illusion. In light of the revelation, life as he or she has known it ceases to exist. The spouse grieves as if experiencing the death of a loved one. The spouse’s sense of identity is deeply shaken. Those ministering to spouses must be compassionate experts in listening and encouraging. They must be ready to deal with the whole mess of emotions that accompany the disclosure of sexual sin in marriage. Emotions swing dramatically. Decisions about the future dart between polar extremes, sometimes within minutes of each other!
The spouse’s faith is often shaken to the core. “Where was God when all this was happening? How can he really be good when the world is so broken?” Ministry people must be ready to handle these tough questions without dismissing them, condemning the wrestling, or compromising the truth.
The Psalms are crammed with similar, gut-level wrestling and provide a treasure trove of hope and peace for people who live in the realness of this fallen world, but cling to the great and precious promises of God. From Genesis to Revelation, the Biblical narrative makes manifest that God orchestrates all of human history to his glory. Mind-bogglingly, this includes even sin. Behind the boasting of Joseph, subsequent betrayal by his brothers, and the injustice with Potiphar’s wife, God’s guiding hand was preserving his seed (Genesis 50:20). Out of David’s lust, adultery, and murder, the promised Deliverer descended through Solomon. Christ’s great work of atonement is the result of human rebellion and yet orchestrated by the Father. Peter makes this explicit at Pentecost, saying, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23).
The spouse’s pain is real. The wrestling must be allowed, but through it all, we must gently and compassionately point to the Bridegroom whose name is “Faithful and True.” He is even now ruling over the universe for his church (Ephesians 1:22). In his economy, no pain will be wasted. Scripture repeatedly promises that even the trials of this life will result in blessing, but before speaking, you must weep with those who weep!
If your default mode is to immediately proclaim these great theological truths, you will run roughshod over the hurting spouse. Job’s friends are a great example of the danger of spouting off truisms in the face of tragedy. At the end of the story, God’s anger burns against them and sacrifice is necessary (Job 42:7-9). Yet, despite their failures, even they had the compassion to sit with him in the dust for seven days weeping and wailing before they addressed any of the issues in his life (Job 2:11-13). You dare not speak until spouses know that you love them, grieve with them and are prepared to walk through this trial at their side.
Redeeming the pain
After you have listened well and entered into the mess with the couple, it is necessary to begin taking action steps. If the spouse has decided to stay in the marriage, structures must be in place to protect the spouse and help bear his or her burden. Part 1 of this article discussed accountability from the vantage point of ministering to the struggler, but accountability is also necessary for the good of the spouse. Accountability both safeguards the struggler’s behavior, but it also provides the spouse with a safe environment. As described above, the spouse has been suffering alone and “in the dark” for years. Spouses desperately need brothers and sisters from the body of Christ to come alongside and support them.
The spouse should never be the struggler’s primary accountability person. It is hard to imagine a more unbiblical model of marriage than “cop and robber.” A crucial aspect of accountability is that the spouse has the assurance of knowing others are asking the struggler all the hard questions. The accountability plan must include that if any sin is exposed, the spouse will be made aware within 24 hours. This takes pressure off the spouse and the marriage as a whole and begins to balance responsibility and power in the relationship. The couple is able to invest their time together focusing on rebuilding intimacy, rather than reenacting the Inquisition. Further, because a key component of accountability is creating safety for the spouse, he or she needs to have a role in crafting the specific questions that will be asked of the struggler. The spouse must approve the individuals who will be involved in the accountability.
Harvest USA recommends developing an official “accountability agreement” that details specific questions, the participating individuals, the number of contacts the struggler is expected to make each week, the steps to spousal disclosure if the struggler falls, and the responsibility of the struggler to call a meeting of all involved if the plan is not working. The agreement is then signed by all parties. The formality of the agreement underscores the importance of this support and makes the expectations and responsibilities clear to everyone involved.
Formal accountability is only one aspect of the role of the body of Christ in rebuilding a marriage. The couple needs godly brothers and sisters who will be involved in their daily lives. Although couples may appear highly competent from outside observation—successful careers, active in church, etc.—know that sexual sin does not occur in a marriage that is otherwise healthy. It is indicative of deeper, systemic problems that need to be addressed.
Most marriages plagued with sexual sin resembles a business partnership at best—often it looks more like a war zone. It is crucial for godly, mature couples to come alongside in order for the marriage to be rebuilt in a way that will honor Christ. Couples need to learn how to communicate effectively, fight fairly, risk vulnerability, and develop intimacy. The struggler has lived for years satisfying selfish desires—breaking this pattern and learning to consider others is a process that takes great intentionality and increasing dependence on Christ. It is crucial to spend time with the couple together, observing their interactions, attitudes, and family dynamics. No marriage can be transformed without the involvement of the body. This is God’s design for the sanctification of his people. The community of faith is essential for growth in holiness.
Because recovery from sexual sin is an extremely draining and time consuming process, it is wise for the spouse to have a Christian counselor. A counselor will provide the spouse with regularly interaction, helping to process the intensity of his or her emotions without “using up” friends and family who are in the midst of their own struggle to sort out the situation. Further, a counselor is able to be more objective than loved ones who are closer to the pain and may struggle to lead the spouse in wise and godly decision-making.
Finally, the spouse needs to be challenged about who he or she is going to be in the situation. As discussed above, the spouse must be urged to see God’s hand in his or her life and be challenged to make decisions for holiness. This is crucial because, as Paul Tripp has articulated well, “Sinners tend to sin when sinned against!” This is probably true in marriage more than any other relationship. Given the grievousness of the offense, spouses will be angry and struggle to get beyond it, even if the struggler’s repentance is deeply genuine. The spouse must be given time but continually challenged with the exhortation, “Be angry and do not sin,” (Ephesians 4:26).
Spouses need to be encouraged to express the depth of their pain without fearing the struggler’s response—this is an important step in giving “power” back to the spouse—but they need to find holy ways to communicate what they are experiencing. Further, although the call to forgive is certainly not the first topic of conversation, it does need to enter the discourse in time. This is for the spouse’s benefit as much as the struggler. As Anne Lamott poignantly stated, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison, and then waiting for the rat to die!” When there is clear evidence of the struggler’s repentance, demonstrated by concrete steps of obedience away from sin and toward holiness for an extended period of time, the spouse will begin to undermine the healing process if he or she refuses to forgive, constantly holding the struggler’s sin over his or her head. Even in situations where the struggler is unrepentant, the spouse needs to relinquish the demand for justice, being like Jesus, who “continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). The spouse needs to be careful that “no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled” (Hebrews 12:15).
Not alone in the pain
The great hope of the Christian faith is “God with us.” By his Spirit, Jesus is united to his people, promising that through his power we will bear fruit (John 15:1-11). Jesus warned of the hard reality of this fallen world saying, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Spouses need the encouragement that God has purposes in their suffering. He identifies with their pain as he deals with his own adulterous Bride. Through this trial, the spouse is entering into the sufferings of Christ in a unique way and has the opportunity to encounter him and the power of his grace afresh. May God give us the grace to serve with compassion, tangibly demonstrating love as members of his body and faithfully pointing to the head, “from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God” (Colossians 2:19).
This article originally appeared as “Living in The Light: Part 2 — Redemptive Ministry to Spouses” in the Harvest NEWS in 2006.