Caught in the Middle between Family and Faith
Ryan and Jen’s kids have always been active in church and school, involved in extracurricular activities, and have great friends. Their parents have modeled godly living to their children from a very early age. Like most parents, they hope to see their kids finish school, start a career, and raise a family. They don’t expect anything out of the ordinary since the children have never given them cause for worry.
Their son, Bobby, just finished his junior year of high school. He has always been a quiet kid but performed well academically and is naturally obedient. One day, when Jen asked to use her son’s phone, she discovered that Bobby was visiting gay porn sites. When Jen asked Bobby about the porn, Bobby became very withdrawn. After more questions, he finally confessed, “Mom, I’m gay . . .” Jen was in disbelief.
Jen wondered how her son could possibly be sure that he was gay. She thought he must simply be a confused teenager. The truth is that Bobby has wrestled with these feelings since middle school. He tried to ignore these desires but always found himself longing to be in a relationship with another guy. Ryan and Jen hadn’t the slightest clue that their son struggled in this way.
Living in the middle is place filled with tension. Parents want to help their child, but often the message they hear is that they must affirm their child’s decision.
Many Christian parents share Ryan and Jen’s experience of a child self-identifying as gay. Cultural messages about sexuality are influencing young people to define their sense of self and identity with their feelings and emotions. When a child embraces the identity as a life direction, in contrast to Scripture’s view of sexuality designed by God, parents and family members are thrown into crisis. They feel caught in the middle between their love for their child and their convictions to stand firm in what God says. Living in the middle is a place filled with tension. Parents want to help their child, but often the message they hear is that they must affirm their child’s decision. Anything short of that feels like a crushing rejection to their child.
It’s a difficult path for parents to walk, and they will need understanding and support, especially from their church community, to help them. Here’s some ways pastors, church leaders and friends can do so.
Where to begin?
Parents in this situation struggle to know how to make sense of what they are feeling, much less what to do. Helping them to identify some common initial reactions and know what to do with them will help them move forward.
Many parent’s first reaction is shock, which is often followed by anger. Why is this happening? Why are you doing this to us? Questions and strong emotions like these are understandable. Helping them to channel them well is critical.
The first thing is to encourage them not to direct anger at their child. It took a lot of courage to say what he or she said, and while it hurts, it’s still better to know than to be kept in the dark. Healthy relationships require honesty. Help them to acknowledge their child’s courage. If they have already expressed anger at their child, encourage them to go to their child and ask forgiveness, modeling humility and repentance. The relationship will need this healing.
Then help them deal with what might be anger toward God. Why are you letting this happen to us, God? Haven’t we been faithful in raising our children? Encourage them to express such troubling questions to God, as their own relationship with him requires honesty, as well. Suggest that they read the Psalms, which can provide them with a God-given language to voice their powerful and tumultuous emotions in a way that still directs faith back to him. This will be a safeguard against bitterness taking root. God is strong and loving enough to hear our words of pain, and even to identify with them.
Parents will grieve over the fear they have of losing the life they anticipated for their child. They will grieve the loss of the son they thought they knew, along with the hopes and dreams they attached to him. Because the child’s revelation feels like a deathblow to the family’s future, give them space to grieve unreservedly and without judgment. Weep with them (Romans 12:15). Validate the pain and loss they feel. Having the support of friends in their moments of grief will help them to move toward their child, learning to love him as he is, in this new reality, but with new eyes of faith. Adjusting to this new reality will be difficult to do. Help them to see that continuing to love their child, just as always, will be an important connection to God that can give hope for the future.
Guilt and Shame
Almost every parent will think that they have failed in some way, asking where they went wrong. Ryan and Jen began to believe that maybe they could have done something, if only they had known how Bobby felt when all of this began – but they didn’t realize what was going on, and now they feel like terrible parents for missing it. The feeling of guilt may be consuming. It will be helpful here to listen to their anguished questions, and point out that such questions, though legitimate, may have no answer, nor could they have known what was kept secret. To get stuck here will only hurt them further. What counts now is to live in the present and release these questions to the One who does know all the answers.
Because parents fear others’ opinions and judgement of their parenting, shame will often accompany guilt. There is a feature to sin and suffering where shame attaches not only to the individual, but also to those who are associated with him. It is not uncommon that parents will feel marked by their child’s decision or actions. Invite them to speak their emotions and not feel ashamed for wrestling with such thoughts and feelings. Shame pushes us to hide in the shadows and stay away from others. But isolating from others is spiritually dangerous, so help them to remain connected to their church community. Sadly, families that keep silent and isolate themselves over this situation are more likely to resolve the tension they live in by changing their view of Scripture and affirming their child’s gay identity. Staying in the middle is very hard to do, and faithful friends are critical in helping them find a measure of peace in the midst of that tension.
Fear and Despair
A child’s coming out takes a parents’ normal fears to another level. Ryan and Jen fear what their son’s declaration means for his future and how people will treat him. They fear that their son has fallen away from God, or never truly knew God. Fear loses sight of God’s sovereignty, and can give way to despair. Parents of gay children struggle to see a sovereign and righteous God on the throne when the “wisdom” of the world’s view of sexuality infiltrates their homes. They need an anchor, so keep pointing them to images that describe God the way David saw him, as one whose “way is perfect,” whose “word…proves true,” and who is “a shield for all those who take refuge in him” (Ps 18:30). God remains on the throne even when everything in life feels out of control. God is still at work in this situation. Their child is not beyond the reach of God’s arm, as Isaiah proclaimed to rebellious Israel (Isaiah 59:1). Remind them that the timing of God’s work is perfect. So, encourage them to acknowledge to God all that they fear, and to patiently hear God speak to them through his word and his people.
In all these ways, patiently listening to how they process this experience will give them a lifeboat in a tossing sea. Their responses may not be pretty. Especially in the early stages, remain unruffled at the parents’ raw emotional responses, leaving gracious room for what they are experiencing. Consider the Psalms as you ponder your response to them. God does not rebuke his children for expressing the breadth of their suffering to him, so neither should we chastise parents in their anger, grief, guilt, shame, fear, and despair. Rather, it is much wiser and more profitable to help them explore what they are feeling, and learn to see how God is cultivating their faith in the midst of their turmoil.
Once the initial storm subsides, parents need help navigating questions about how to love to their child while standing true to biblical convictions.
It will be difficult for parents to know how to have conversations with their son or daughter. Typically, parents will either want to make this the primary topic of conversation with them, or they may ignore the issue altogether, hoping their child’s struggle will quietly disappear. Parents in the first category can unknowingly slip into relating to their child solely on the basis of this issue. Parents panic and want to change their child because they realize the seriousness of sinful sexual behavior. Just as parents mistakenly fear that they caused their child to become gay, they can also erroneously believe they can somehow change their child, which becomes their chief focus. But they need to be reminded that the work of sanctification belongs to the Lord. We do influence our children’s lives, and we want them to live faithfully before God, but our faith must acknowledge that God is the one who is sovereign over our child’s life. God is not just after our child’s behavior; he is after their heart.
Those who fall into the second category believe that “keeping the peace” and not talking about it is better than speaking the truth in love. This may be out of fear to keep a close relationship with their child at all costs. Speaking into their child’s life, or keeping quiet, will be a tough balancing act. Help the parents to move beyond their fears to seek wisdom and wait for opportunities to speak, even if it may be upsetting. But remind them that to make this issue the primary focus will seriously hurt the relationship. Let God lead the way in this.
Most importantly, remind parents of their child’s greatest need: the gospel. A child’s sexual orientation/behavior can consume a parent’s vision, but parents need to remember that their child’s fundamental need is to see their need of God’s love and redemption in Christ. The goal for our children is not heterosexual happiness, but grasping an identity in Christ that becomes their chief focus in life. Looking at the situation from this perspective helps the parents see that what their child needs is no different than what everyone needs: to live by faith in Christ and learn how to follow him in obedience, and glorify him even in the brokenness of life (see Philippians 2:12).
Finally, we can remind them to continue in the assurance and hope of Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” This may not be the best passage to give when parents are really hurting at the beginning of all this, but over time this glorious truth will resonate with them. In the midst of our confusion, God is faithful to draw us closer to himself, make us more dependent on him, humble us in our need for grace, and strengthen us in our faith that he does care for our families. When we embrace this reality we have eyes to see that God works his redemptive purposes most powerfully in the midst of brokenness and suffering. Waiting on God and praying for a child is no guarantee that God will cause him to turn away from a gay identity, but it does guarantee the cultivation and deepening of patience, faith, and love in the parents’ hearts and lives—and isn’t that how God reaches the world, displaying his love through the transformed lives of his people?
If you want to connect with Chris, you can reach him at [email protected]. Or you can make a comment at the end of this post.
For a deeper examination of these issues, a few of our popular mini books give further insightful and practical help for parents, pastors, church leaders and friends. Go to www.harvest-usa-store.com for these resources:
Can You Change if You’re Gay?
Your Gay Child Says, ‘I Gay’
Your Gay Child Says ‘I Do’
Homosexuality and the Bible: Outdated Advice or Words of Life?