09 Jun 2022
The Gospel According to Sex: Belonging
“Day after day, year after year, the message of shame filled my ears and heart. I ached to be loved, wanted, cherished, and desired, but instead I was learning to define myself by the way my husband treated me. Unwanted.”¹
This wife’s ache is a gospel cry. It’s a cry of loss in her marriage—a profound loss, a loss measured by the greatness of the gospel truth it was meant to picture. She is mourning the loss of the experience of exclusive belonging.
What is the foundation for the long-term sexual union of marriage? Our culture makes attraction the sole basis of the relationship, rather than one feature of it. But, as my previous post explains, God’s gracious act of setting us apart goes against this grain—and he intends us to be his image-bearers.
If human sexuality was merely animal, we could see sexuality as a simple stimulus-response based on attraction. But as image-bearers of God, our sexuality is to be a picture of the gospel. Delight grows in the security of having been graciously set apart for exclusive belonging.
Belonging, Security, and Delight
The passion and delight of a husband and wife is suggested in the idea of belonging. Belonging is not a mere legal category, as if we are chattel. You should hear it in the repeated refrain of the lover, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song of Solomon 2:16; 6:3; 7:10). Christ’s setting us apart to belong to him is full of warm and intimate affection.
There is so much hope in the unchanging security of our union with Christ! Our belonging to God is not transient or changeable, but eternally fixed. Your beloved Savior chose you from eternity past—his abundant love cannot change because he cannot change.
Does this challenge how you believe God thinks of you? Do you assume he’s disgusted, impatient, disappointed, and angry? You need to know that he loves his bride, the Church, with the ardor and emotion of a lover! He has set us apart to belong to him as his bride. We are our Beloved’s, and he is ours!
The Ache of Being Unwanted
When people who are not set apart to belong to each other engage in sexual activity, not only does it serve mostly selfish purposes but it’s anti-gospel in nature. Personal pleasure at someone else’s expense, a sense of conquest, and a craving to feel wanted do not reflect Christ’s relationship with his bride.
The message of sex as we’ve learned it from our culture is, “For the moment, I want what you have” and “You seem to please me more than the other options in the room.” There’s no grace in this, no gospel. It’s based on an evaluation: What turns me on now? What meets my felt needs now?
Momentary, self-focused sexual activity lacks the fullness, security, and joy of belonging. Although it temporarily mimics the warmth of true belonging, it’s filled with inevitable uncertainty. Tomorrow, he may be with someone else, and she will be aching again, wondering if she will ever be lovable.
Consider how a husband’s porn use affects his wife. When a wife discovers her husband has been looking at porn, the sense of mutual belonging based on his setting her apart in an exclusive category is destroyed. She is immediately reduced to the level of every flaunted body online. She’s no different than every woman walking or driving by.
All the gospel-like benefits of security, value, and safety she enjoyed when her husband set her apart as his own are shown to be an illusion. What is communicated to her is that it’s really always been about competing to fulfill this man’s desire—a competition she knows she can never win. She is, using the word of the wife at the top of this post, “unwanted.” This is devastating.
Eternal Belonging in Christ
Where do we go with this? Wherever we fit into this story—a sinning husband, a hurting wife, a sinning wife, a single person afraid of not belonging to anyone—we can only go to the gospel first. Jesus is the only one who is truly faithful, and his faithfulness counts for us. We belong to him first.
It’s good news that the truth of the gospel, which our sexuality was meant to reveal, is not diminished by our failure and loss. Nothing we do or don’t do can change the eternal security of our union with Christ. We can learn to define ourselves by the way our Savior—our Husband!—treats us: set apart as his own. We are his, and our Beloved is ours, forever.
¹This quotation is from our soon-to-be-released resource, Jesus and Your Unwanted Journey: Wives Finding Comfort After Sexual Betrayal. Look for it on our resource page in July, 2022.
12 May 2022
The Gospel According to Sex: Holiness
As designed by God, both sex and the gospel are bounded by exclusivity. The biblical concept through which we can understand what is meant by this is sanctification, or holiness. We often associate these terms with the process of growing in holiness as we turn from sin and act righteously. This is true.
But, more basically, holiness carries the idea of being set apart. Ultimately, God himself is most holy because he is set apart from us in the perfections of his being and righteousness.
God’s People Are Set Apart
The Bible speaks of God setting apart his people, the church, to belong to him. God does this by making distinctions to separate his people from all other peoples. In explaining the Passover event, through which God separated out his people from Egypt, he said, “But not a dog shall growl against any of the people of Israel, either man or beast, that you may know that the LORD makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel” (Ex. 11:7). King Solomon later says, “For you separated them from among all the peoples of the earth to be your heritage, as you declared through Moses your servant, when you brought our fathers out of Egypt, O Lord God” (1 Kings 8:53).
The rules of Leviticus enforce this call of being set apart to belong in a unique way to God: “I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore separate the clean beast from the unclean, and the unclean bird from the clean. …You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Lev. 20:24–26). “Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the LORD your God. …I am the LORD who sanctifies you” (Lev. 20:7–8). The people’s commitment to holiness was simply a fitting response to God’s gracious separation of Israel from all others as belonging to him—his precious, chosen possession.
This is a gospel pattern. God graciously makes distinctions to put the church into a category different from the rest of humanity. He sets us apart as his bride. We then respond as those who belong to him. It’s a picture of faithful, exclusive devotion.
Marriage as Setting Apart
God’s divine purpose is for marriage and sex to share this pattern of exclusive devotion. In Ephesians 5:25–32, this aspect of making holy or sanctifying is especially emphasized with respect to a husband’s love for his wife. How does he do this? A husband does not remove his wife’s sin. But he does set her apart by distinguishing her from all other women. His sexual union with her is at the core of that distinction. He puts her in a different category than any other person; she alone belongs to him in the union of marriage. So, because sex is designed to uniquely express that union, in all things sexual he gives himself exclusively to her. Fittingly, she responds with the same exclusive commitment to him.
Setting Apart as the Gracious Initiative of Christ
This leads us to ask why Christ takes the initiative to set apart the church for himself? God says that he did not choose Israel because of a quality he saw in them—the size of the nation, their power, or their influence (Deut. 7:7). He chose them simply because he decided to love them.
In Ephesians 5, it’s clear that the church is set apart and presented in splendor and without blemish because Jesus gave himself for her, not the other way around. We have not earned the right to be set apart. God was not attracted to us as better than anyone else in any way. God does not look for the most beautiful people and set them apart to belong to him. No, he places his love on the people of his choosing and makes them beautiful by setting them apart.
Practical Implications for a Set-Apart People
What difference does this make to your daily Christian life?
- You are saved by grace. It was not your goodness that convinced God to save you or that keeps him loving you. He is not waiting for you to mess up one too many times so he can dump you for other, holier people. You are holy because Christ made you holy. What a great comfort!
- How should this affect your relationship to and love for Christ? Your love for Christ is your response to his loving you. You can rest and rejoice with gratitude in the security that comes from knowing that this is all his initiative, not his response to your deserving anything.
- Your fight with sin is empowered by gratitude, not by any need to earn or stay in God’s love. Firm in your gratitude for his setting you apart as his own, you want to grow in acting as one who belongs to him.
What difference does this make to your sexuality?
- God wants this gospel dynamic to shape our sexuality. Therefore, the long-term sexual union of marriage must be founded on a choice to love, not mere attraction that easily fades or wanders. This is not to say we should feel no attraction to our spouses—indeed, the mutual passion and delight of a husband and wife is also designed by God to show us the gospel! But in accordance with the gospel pattern, your spouse should not have to earn your delight. Rather, enjoyment of each other grows as a fruit of mutually setting each other apart in love.
- How does this work? Setting apart your spouse in love means you commit to make distinctions between your wife or husband and all others. This means, at least, that anything and everything pertaining to sex and romance is reserved exclusively for your spouse—every advance, every flirtation, every glance, every imagination, every intention is focused on the one whom you have set apart. In this context, enjoyment and delight grow over time.
- If you are single, use your time as a single to grow in your faith, confidence, and joy in being part of Christ’s set apart Bride. Learn to bask in the benefits of this gospel truth. Then commit to reflect it in your sexuality. If you remain single, you set yourself apart to belong only to Christ. If you will marry, handle your sexuality now as something which you will give exclusively to your future spouse—setting that person apart even today.
The gospel pattern of the exclusive love of God for his chosen people is our hope and our motivation for fighting sin. We’ve been undeservedly set apart to enjoy God forever—he set his love upon us when we were unlovely. May we grow in holiness as Christ’s exclusive love warms our hearts, reminding us of the eternal belonging he won for us within the set-apart people of God.
A recent discussion in my home centered around a television episode in which the “happy ending” consisted of the hero and heroine deciding to move in together but not get married. I suspect most readers of this post do not believe that that is truly a happy ending. But why? Is it just because God says so? Well, that would be enough, but there is more to say about it—God has given us more.
First, we must understand that sex, in its true form, is inseparable from marriage. This is more than just saying that marriage is the only proper context for sexual expression. It means that the very essence of sex, as its Creator designed it, includes it being an expression of the marital union. You can see this if you do a study of the passages in Scripture that use the phrase “the two shall become one flesh.” This phrase refers most literally to sex itself, but it also refers to the whole marriage union, of which sex is the physical expression. C.S. Lewis explained it this way:
The Christian idea of marriage is based on Christ’s words that a man and wife are to be regarded as a single organism—for that is what the words “one flesh” would be in modern English.… The inventor of the human machine was telling us that its two halves, the male and the female, were made to be combined together in pairs, not simply on the sexual level, but totally combined. The monstrosity of sexual intercourse outside marriage is that those who indulge in it are trying to isolate one kind of union (the sexual) from all the other kinds of union which were intended to go along with it and make up the total union. The Christian attitude does not mean that there is anything wrong about sexual pleasure, any more than about the pleasure of eating. It means that you must not isolate that pleasure and try to get it by itself, any more than you ought to try to get the pleasures of taste without swallowing and digesting, by chewing things and spitting them out again.¹
Sex as a physical union has its meaning only in the context of the relational, emotional, legal union that is the whole marriage. So while Paul speaks of sex with a prostitute as “becoming one flesh” (1 Corinthians 6:16), he does so only to point out how horribly such sex fails in its God-intended meaning. That meaning is only properly expressed when sex is an expression of the marriage union. Just like a word out of context can actually carry a different meaning, so, too, sexual activity outside of the context of marriage carries a meaning different than that for which God designed it.
And that God-intended meaning is nothing less than the gospel itself. In both 1 Corinthians 6:12–20 and Ephesians 5:25–32, the union termed as “the two shall become one flesh” is described as pointing to our union with Christ. And because sex is inseparable from marriage, it is not just marriage as a one-flesh union, but also sex as the physical expression of that union that is meant to picture the union of Christ and his Bride, the Church. Sex as an expression of marital union speaks the gospel; sex independent of marriage speaks anti-gospel.
What is one specific way this applies to our “happily” cohabitating television heroes? Let’s consider how the lifelong permanence of the marriage union affects the meaning of sex. Jesus speaks to the permanence of the marriage relationship in Matthew 19:3–6. The Pharisees asked him whether one can divorce his wife for any cause. Jesus answers by going back to the beginning, quoting, “The two shall become one flesh.” His conclusion is that the intent from the beginning was that marriage be permanent. For the time in which marriage exists—this life—it extends from now until the end—“until death do we part.” This covenantal commitment is largely what constitutes “getting married,” and this permanence is part of the implication of becoming one flesh. This has profound implications for how sex is to be expressed and experienced.
In 1 Corinthians 6:12–20, the idea of permanence is a part of how Paul relates sex to the gospel, specifically, how sexual immorality is incongruent with the gospel. Paul begins by quoting the mindset he will refute. It is the mindset that approaches sex and sexuality from a merely biological perspective, as an appetite to be fulfilled: “’Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’—and God will destroy both one and the other” (verse 13). This view sees sexuality as simply identifying the urges of our bodies and acting accordingly. This view also emphasizes the present; the future is irrelevant. In contrast to this, Paul gives a perspective that is not biological but theological: “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (verse 13). He is placing the question of sexual morality into the greater context of the gospel, to which sexuality is merely a pointer. Then Paul says, “Do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” (verse 16–17). He is not just saying something like, “It’s not nice to be joined to both a prostitute and the Lord!” Rather, the idea is that sexual union is supposed to be a signpost to spiritual union with Christ, but if that union is outside of marriage, with a prostitute, it displays a “union” which is a tragic distortion of the union we have with Christ. One way in which it is a distortion is that it is void of any connection to permanence. This is why Paul counters the live-for-the-moment motto, “God will destroy both one and the other,” with, “God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power” (verse 14). Rather than being merely the source of animal impulses and appetites to be followed in the moment, our bodies have eternal significance in our union with Christ; because we are united to a risen Christ, our bodies will also be raised, not destroyed. Paul is saying that our present experience of union with Christ is shaped by the certainty of our future resurrection with him. That makes a tremendous difference to us today. If sex is to point to this vital gospel truth, it too must be grounded in permanence rather than the instability of momentary passions.
One way to get at this is to ask, “How would our understanding and experience of the gospel change if it was not based on an eternal promise—if the benefits of union with Christ were only a present possession, with no guarantee or commitment from Jesus concerning the future?” In other words, what if the relationship of Christ to his Church was merely a cohabitation, not a marriage? For instance, if we did not have God’s promise that he would surely complete what he had begun in us, what would be the effect? We would conclude that we had to perfect ourselves, to prove to him that we were worth his sticking with us—and we would have no confidence in our relationship when we failed in any way. We would be insecure, fearful, needy, and miserable. You see where this is going: This is exactly the way sex, disconnected from the permanence of marriage, affects us and our relationships.
What are some ways in which our culture’s views and experiences of sex are not grounded in permanence? It is all about what we can experience right now. Hook-up culture tries to pretend it is a non-relational transaction. Pornography encourages the fantasy of sexual enjoyment without any relationship to another person at all. How does this negatively impact our experiences of sexuality? What fears, sorrows, or hurts result? If we are honest, sex—and the desire for it—is often dominated by fear, disappointment, and grief. Instead of security, we get insecurity. Instead of the confidence and freedom of knowing we are loved and accepted in spite of our failures or shortcomings or imperfections, we are constantly made aware of our need to impress or please or perform perfectly. We want affection but are terrified of not measuring up to expectations. We have to compete to become desirable or to stay desirable to those whose attention we crave. We are afraid of rejection. We think we have found joy, only to be jilted and thrown out like used trash. We turn to fantasy and porn to escape the huge risk and crushing disappointment of misunderstanding and rejection that come with broken sexuality. Sex without permanence, like a gospel without permanence, provides no safety at all, only a miserable striving after what cannot be grasped.
This is why the TV couple moving in together was not a happy ending. It is just another seductive counterfeit of true sexuality. Without the joy and security of the marital permanence, it utterly fails in its purpose to point to the joy and security of the gospel.
¹Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity, (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), 104–105.
24 Feb 2022
Can You Re-Wire Your Brain?
In a recent post, I briefly mentioned the physiological power that sexual experiences have on the brain. This idea then raised a question: “If porn use or other sexual sin ‘wires’ our brains to that experience, is it possible to ‘re-wire’ our brains—and if so, how?” This is an incredibly practical and important question. If we know that our history of sin has left a biological imprint on our brains, should that fact encourage or discourage us?
Let me start by saying that I am not a neuroscientist. I am a theologian and a pastor. But the principles involved here are virtually mainstream. They have been a common pop-science topic for at least the last decade. Searching for any terms related to addiction, habit formation, or habit change produces dozens of posts, videos, TED Talks, etc., that describe the neuroscience in terms that ordinary people can understand. Why is this the case? People have always been interested in self-help. People are desperate to change. They want to believe that destructive habits are defeatable, and they want to know how to do it.
What is the consistent message you will find if you browse these pop science articles and videos? The message is this: “Change is not easy but is definitely possible.” One of my favorite words that comes up in this regard is neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the fact that the brain is not “hard-wired” and static but really does change, even in the matter of habit and addiction. In fact, things like habit and addiction exist because of neuroplasticity. Many describe the “habit cycle”—a loop of trigger, behavior, reward, and repetition, which results in the brain constructing a strong set of neural connections that makes it easy, “natural,” and even compulsive for us to go back to a certain behavior. A common image is of a very well-worn path in our brains that therefore is the regular and easiest way to deal with the challenges, disappointment, stress, weariness, or boredom of daily life. Neuroplasticity describes the fact that your brain develops such a well-worn path, but it also describes the possibility of changing that path, of developing new and better paths and abandoning the old path until it is grown over and obscure again.
So, what do I make of this as a theologian? Let me give a few short ideas.
- We should be more encouraged. Every site, video, or article I have read on change and neuroplasticity is presented from a materialistic, evolutionary worldview. There is ultimately no concept of moral right and wrong and no influence or reality other than the “scientific,” “biological,” or “psychological.” There is no God and no gospel; it is purely self-help. But the biology they describe is real. So, if the non-believing world sees hope for change, we who know God and the gospel should even more. Our fight against the physiological momentum of our sin is empowered by the Spirit of God himself and anchored in an eternal hope and identity in Christ.
- Many of the applications, tips, and suggestions you will find in posts about neuroplasticity and changing bad habits look a lot like aspects of healthy, biblical, gospel life. For instance, here are a few…
- Awareness. Most writers assume, but some explicitly mention, that the first step to “rewire” a habit is to consciously identify it.1 So, too, we begin by honest confession of sin. The difference, of course, is that we don’t believe we are dealing simply with an unwanted habit, but a violation of the will of our Creator and Lord. So our identification of our “habits” is not merely an internal exercise of self-awareness; it is a humbling of ourselves before our holy and merciful God.
- A big goal. Amber Murphy says, “Find Purpose.”2 Emily Blatchford says, “Be Mindful of the Goal.”3 The idea is that a clear vision and goal is essential to motivating and guiding your efforts to change. Again, consider what we have in the gospel. Rather than a self-chosen goal, limited by our sense of personal ability and always uncertain because of the contingencies of life, we have the firm assurance that we are united to Christ, secure in his righteousness and destined for resurrection and glory. This is our current and future identity. Throughout the New Testament, this certain goal motivates and shapes our change efforts as we “set our minds on things above” (Colossians 3).
- Attention to deeper motivations. One writer gives an example I think many of us can relate to: “For instance, in college, biking past a Krispy Kreme was one trigger in a chain of triggers that led me to buy a bunch of donuts and eat them all. Yes, seeing the Krispy Kreme was a physical trigger. But, when I dig deeper and trace it back further, I recognize that I felt triggered going past the Krispy Kreme because of a deeper, unmet emotional need. I was particularly depressed in college, with no coping mechanisms or support.”4 We could put this in the category of the Bible’s teaching about the heart as the inner source of our patterns of thought and behavior. Much of the Tree Model that we use at Harvest USA is aimed at helping us uncover and apply the gospel to those deeper levels of our sin. (For a description of our Tree Model, click here.)
- Examine rewards. The idea here is to “disillusion the brain”5 by honestly facing the negative consequences of the behavior. The Bible repeatedly warns us that we reap what we sow. This principle is true even after we are united to Christ by faith. The book of Proverbs is full of helpful applications of this principle.
- Don’t do it alone. Amber Murphy’s final point is, “Be with the right people.”6 We are not islands; we are social beings. The encouragement and accountability of friends is built into the way we are created; it is also part of our redemption. When we are united to Christ, we are united to the church community, which the Bible calls Christ’s Body. God’s intent is that we would serve each other, enabling each of us to make progress against sin—even the sins that we find so difficult because of physiological momentum. This is why we encourage groups in local churches for mutual encouragement and targeting of certain sins. (For suggested group curricula, go here.)
These are just a few of the ways that popular advice on “rewiring” the brain recognizes truths that we have even more powerfully in the gospel. This should encourage us all the more to pursue the means of grace given to us. God has created us as a body-soul unit. It should not surprise us that the corruption of sin affects our bodies. Neither should it surprise us that the spiritual transformation of the gospel can reach even our bodies. This is not to say that we can expect to be completely rid of all of the corruption of our nature in this life. We will continue to be tempted both from outside influences and from our own hearts. At the least, we will always know by experience the “taste” of sin as a memory that the tempter can seize upon. But there is great hope that through the means given us in the gospel, we can “rewire” our brains from destructive and enslaving habits.
1 Blatchford, Emily. “Identifying them and labelling them is the first step.” https://www.huffpost.com/archive/au/entry/how-neuroplasticity-can-help-you-get-rid-of-your-bad-habits_a_23283591
4 Sheikh, Alyssia. https://mindovermunch.com/food-freedom/habit-loop-neuroplasticity/
25 Nov 2021
It Isn’t Really About Sex
Harvest USA is a ministry focused on issues of sexuality and gender. It’s not surprising, then, that people often ask us for advice on how to respond to our current culture. How do I get beyond complaints and diatribes about non-Christian ideas in the world around us? Should I engage in political action? What must I do when my neighbors and colleagues push non-Christian views? How do I raise kids in this environment? How do we keep the Church from capitulating in the area of sexuality?
These are urgent and complicated questions. I believe the beginning of an answer to them is one of perspective: It’s not really about sex.
How we address those outside the Church
Throughout the Bible, concern for sexual morality is directed inward, to God’s people, not outward to the world. It is most often associated with expressing holiness, by which is meant being set apart to belong to the LORD. It is always assumed that the people and cultures of the world will be sexually immoral, and, even when that fact is mentioned, it is usually in the context of calling Christians to self-consciously differentiate themselves in that respect. So, for instance, the lists of sexuality rules in Leviticus are framed by, “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes” (Leviticus 18:3). Sexuality was one significant area of application of the principal of having been set apart to belong to God: “You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Leviticus 20:26).
This is exactly the way sexual morality is framed in the New Testament as well, but with the added expectation that even while our beliefs and practices will be radically different from those outside the Church, we will be living and working in close association with them every day. Paul writes, “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world…since then you would need to go out of the world” (1 Corinthians 5:9, 10). Peter also says, “For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry” (1 Peter 4:3). Significantly, the Church is not told to go out and scold the world, or even to try to reform their practices. Instead, we are to focus on being distinctly different.
One implication of this is that we need to be soberly realistic about the sexual practices and views of the non-Christian world we live in. I suspect that we have spent too much time and emotional energy processing shock and disappointment at every major step of cultural decline into sexual license, but this should never surprise us. In fact, in the Scriptures, the reaction of surprise is expected from the other direction: “With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you” (1 Peter 4:4). It is the world that should be shocked at what we don’t do! If moral decline in the culture around us seems like our biggest concern, we need to ask ourselves what it is we are really hoping for—a world outside the Church that approximates godliness just enough that we can comfortably and respectably partake in its benefits? That is never promised to us by our Lord; it is a counterfeit gospel.
Am I suggesting that God’s rules for sex don’t apply to unbelievers? Of course not. But God has not given us the job of being his morality enforcers. “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside” (1 Corinthians 5:12). And listen to how Peter continues: “…but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (1 Peter 4:5). Notice to whom they are to give account—“to him,” to Christ. They are not accountable to us, nor are we their judges.
However, we do have some responsibility to those who are outside the Church. How does Peter express this? He concludes, “For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead…” (1 Peter 4:6). What is our role when they are shocked at our views on sexuality? We are to proclaim the gospel. When it comes to sexuality, our focus is primarily inward; when it comes to evangelism, our focus is primarily outward. This has the potential to give great freedom in how we respond to developments in our culture. In our interactions, our priority is not how we can inform or convince them that their sexual views and practices are wrong. Our priority is to show and tell them about the plan and promise of God to give eternal life and joy in Jesus.
How we address those inside the Church
If, in speaking to the world, we can err by focusing on sexuality rather than the gospel, there is a similar error we can make in speaking to our own—and I’m thinking especially here of our young. Whether we like it or not, our children are hearing persuasive messages from our culture about sex every day. We absolutely must counter those sexual messages. However, just as it is true that our response toward the world is not really focused on sex, but the gospel, so also in our counter-persuasion toward our kids our main point is not about sex, but the gospel.
Why is this? Because we need to make clear to our kids that the real issues are infinitely bigger than sex. In biblical Christianity, sex is a picture of the gospel, but it is not the gospel; in the unbelieving world, sex is salvation. So, the question to answer in refuting the world’s messages about sex is not, “What is sex?,” but “What is salvation?” Where do we turn to find that which is of highest value? What provides goodness and life to the fullest extent? What brings ultimate joy and human flourishing? The world’s answer is, “Sex, unhindered by any outside inhibition and guided by individual internal impulse.” Notice here that our message to our children cannot merely compare and contrast the world’s and God’s rules for sex. The equation is not, “The world says that X, Y, and Z are okay when it comes to sex, but the Church says that only A, B, and C are okay when it comes to sex.” That framing of the question may involve true statements of the Christian do’s and don’ts, but it misses the main point. We ought to frame it this way: “The world says that the highest life is attained by your expressing yourself—especially your sex and gender—according to your impulses and desires, but the Church says that true, abundant, and eternal life is only found by trusting and loving Jesus.” Do you see the difference? That answer does not even mention sex, and it also answers the fundamental error of the world’s messages about sex.
One thing that is implicated here is the temptation to try to convince our young people to choose Christian sexual rules based on an experiential comparison with the world’s prodigality. This is the message that, “Christian sex is the best sex. If you will only keep yourself pure until marriage and then commit to sexuality confined to marriage, your sex life—and you—will be happier.” Granted, there may be some truths contained in that sentiment that are worth saying. Many of the promises that the world makes of the unlimited pleasure and personal fulfillment to be found in freeform sexual expression are, at best, exaggerations and, at worst, outright lies. There are experiential benefits in a lifelong, faithfully monogamous marriage that are impossible in a less committed relationship. Nevertheless, if this is our only or most important argument, it will be largely unconvincing. It will be unconvincing because it concedes the terms of the discussion to the world. In the world’s framing of the discussion, the question of sexuality is a cost-benefit equation limited to the time between birth and death. On these terms, Christian sexuality is a hard sell. Sure, we can name a few benefits, but, if we are honest, we must admit the significant costs of repeated self-denial, deferred hopes, a radical restriction of options, and, for some, lifelong loss and loneliness. Put bluntly, in a world without resurrection, Christian sexual morality is nonsense. “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19).
That is exactly why we cannot accept the world’s terms of discussion. This issue is not as small as this current life; it is infinitely bigger. Why in the world would we make such restrictive—in the world’s view, repressive—commitments in regard to sexuality? Because we have found something of infinitely greater value. We have found Jesus, the Creator himself become one of us, the source and giver of all that is good, giving us intimacy with God and the promise of an indestructible, unending, glorious life in a recreated universe. Everything good in this life is but a dim hint of the eternal joy promised to us in Christ. And sex? Sex is just one of those dim hints of the life to come. What about the standards that define our sexuality? They are not mere restrictions, mere arbitrary deprivations to enforce an other-worldly mindedness. They are meant to cause sexuality to mirror and display our Savior’s faithful, covenantal, lavish, and costly love for us. Do we simplistically give our kids an alternate set of rules about sex we hope they will choose over the world’s views? Or do we show and tell them about something and someone who is worth every ounce of our love and allegiance?
So, whichever direction we face—outward to the world or inward toward our own—it isn’t really about sex. It’s about the gospel.
21 Oct 2021
Why Is Sexual Immorality Such a Big Deal?
The temptation to single out one type of sin or one category of sinner as uniquely worthy of condemnation is common. It often springs from and feeds the self-righteous hypocrisy of our hearts, which seeks to find a point of comparison by which we can stand over another as morally inferior to us. This temptation is especially strong when the sin to which another person is tempted is one to which we feel no attraction whatsoever or which we find safely unattractive. Because we are confident that we would never do that, we find it easier to treat the person who would as particularly depraved. It is useful to our proud hearts precisely because we are sure that we are not personally susceptible to this depravity.
And yet it would be wrong for us to react to this possibility of self-righteous judgment by taking a ho-hum, cavalier attitude toward sexual sin and temptations. In the Bible, sexual immorality is a big deal. Most who are familiar with Scripture sense this. The subject of sexual immorality comes up often and is treated with heightened seriousness.
So here is our challenge: How do we understand and heed the seriousness of the Bible’s concern over sexual immorality while not giving space to our impulse to look down on others? I suggest three perspectives to help us maintain a proper biblical concern for sexual immorality without being self-righteous:
- Have a biblically high view of sexuality.
In 1 Corinthians 6:12–20, Paul explains to his readers why sexual immorality is so serious: It’s because sex is so precious. Paul opens his discussion by quoting a typical cultural understanding of sex—that it is just an appetite, a biological drive to be fulfilled: “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food” (6:13). Paul contradicts this directly with, “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” His point? This is not a mere issue of appetite, a biological need for the flourishing of the human animal. Human sexuality is not primarily biological; it is theological.
This assertion alone is in radical conflict with almost all that our culture believes and teaches about sexuality. But the further we go into this truth, the more incredible it becomes. For Paul goes on to describe the content of the theology of sex, which is nothing less than union with Christ: “For, as it is written, ‘The two shall become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” (6:16–17). He says the same thing to the Ephesians, “’…and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (5:31–32). We have only begun to plumb the riches of biblical teaching on the ways that sex as God designed it displays to us the wonder of the salvation given to us in union with Christ. His lavish love and delight in his Bride, the intimacy and affirmation of his setting apart his Bride as belonging to him exclusively, the safety of his commitment to never leave or forsake her—these are a few of the enormous gospel realities which true marital sexuality was designed to picture. Sexual immorality, in all its forms, destroys this picture.
David White says it this way:
“Sexual sin damages the self in a way that is unique, unlike any other sins. Why? Paul points to the profound mystery, reminding that sexuality is a reflection of the ultimate union with Jesus. Sexual sin dilutes the greatest wonder in the universe. The glorious hope of the world to come is living in a face-to-face relationship with Jesus—of which marriage and sexuality is the closest terrestrial analogy.”¹
In summary, sexual immorality is so serious because it corrupts and deprives us of something so good.
- Respect the personal and relational power God has given to sexuality.
No one needs to be convinced that sex offers powerful pleasure. The ubiquity and endless variety of options in sexual immorality reflect the pursuit of this pleasure. But lingering beneath our fascination with sexual pleasure, there remains a sense that something more profound is involved, something deeply personal and enduring. The Bible teaches that sex cements the bond of a husband and wife in a lifelong union (Mark 10:8–9). In some mysterious way, this bonding aspect is still present even when we rip sex out from its lifelong, marital context, as Paul explains, “Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For as it is written, ‘The two shall become one flesh’” (1 Corinthians 6:16). We can try to take sex out of the marriage bond, but we can never completely take the marriage bond out of sex. It’s just the way God made it.
As it turns out, there is even a biological component to this bonding. The pleasure of sex corresponds to the powerful release of certain chemicals that have the effect of forming a strong social bond.² On the one hand, this is a wonderful reality that should fill us with gratitude and praise. “Our bodies are the splendid interweaving of the physical and the spiritual. God’s design of our physiology should generate deep awe and worship.”³ But the dark side of this is that all forms of sexual immorality unleash this bonding power in destructive ways. As Paul says, “He who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her.” Or, as William Struthers warns concerning the use of pornography, “Unfortunately, with repeated sexual acting out in the absence of a partner, a man will be bound and attached to the image and not a person.”⁴ Imagine how this damages a future or present marriage. This biological bonding effect is also part of the reason people can speak of sexual addiction. Everything you do sexually contributes to a physiological momentum that builds toward a bondage not easily broken.
Sex is powerful. God made it so. This makes misuse of sex especially dangerous personally and relationally.
- Know that all humanity, yourself included, falls short in God’s design for sexuality.
Notice that my first two points do not apply to just one type of sexual sin. They are based on what sex truly is, the meaning God designed it to communicate, and the relational power God gave it. Every departure from the original design defaces the picture and abuses the power. Isn’t this Jesus’ point when he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart?” (Matthew 5:27–28). Jesus did not say it leads to adultery; it is adultery in the heart. It is an act of the heart that misuses sexual pleasure and violates its gospel-shaped design. Who of us is qualified to throw a first stone (John 8:7)? It is spiritually dangerous to focus moral concern on one kind of sexual sin without recognizing the commonality with our own transgressions.
If we have the Bible’s high view of sex as a picture of the Church’s union with Christ and a respect for the power God has given it, we will not only take sexual sin very seriously, but we will also examine ourselves, confess the many ways we have failed to desire and fulfill God’s perfect design, and cast ourselves again and again at the mercy of the gospel. Yes, sexual immorality is a big deal, so let’s keep pointing each other to our only faithful Bridegroom.
¹ See David White, God, You, & Sex (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2019), 148.
² See William M. Struthers, Wired for Intimacy (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009), 105.
³ God, You, & Sex, 82.
⁴ Wired for Intimacy, 105.
The following blog is an article from our 2021 Harvest USA Magazine entitled Standing Firm for His Glory. To read more articles from this issue, simply click here or visit www.harvestusa.org/magazines/.
“But isn’t it just a lust problem?” Mike asked. I was explaining to Mike the Harvest USA Tree Model, the core content of our ministry to both individuals and churches. Mike wanted to believe what I was saying about the deeper aspects of his sin. It gave him hope that there was a path to victory in his fight against the porn habit he’d been losing for years, because willpower certainly hadn’t worked. His objection revealed a problem that most of us encounter when thinking about our sin.
Mike’s question forces us to seek a more complete understanding of sin. We tend to think of sin in simple ways that only scratch the surface: I’m tempted; I fall; I repeat. But a biblical view of sin goes much deeper. This is what our Harvest USA Tree Model illustrates.
Jesus describes sin as having a source deep within us, in the heart, the epicenter of where our intellect, will, and affections all converge. In Matthew 15:18–19, Jesus said, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” Thinking of our hearts as part of a tree originates from Jesus’ words in Luke 6:43–45: “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his heart produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” Building upon these verses, our Tree Model pictures the heart as the source of a tree, the seed.
The Seed: Our Hearts
The most basic characteristic of the seed, or heart, is that it is fallen. The word “autonomy” summarizes the sinful inclination of our hearts. We desire self-rule rather than being ruled by the authority and care of God. Our desire for autonomous independence from God affects every aspect of our lives. It shapes our reactions to our circumstances and experiences; it skews our deepest desires; it taints our functional worldviews. These are the inner workings of sin that bear fruit in what we do. The following three make up the other elements of the tree: the soil, the roots, and the trunk.
The Soil: Our Circumstances and Experiences
The soil is the context for the seed. The parents to whom we were born, our families, and our peers are all part of the soil. It is all the things those people do to us or for us—or neglect to do. It is everything that happens to us, good or bad. We are praised, abused, affirmed, attacked, protected, or wounded. We experience trauma and suffering, or we live in shelter and safety. Together, these experiences comprise the context in which our fallen hearts are active.
It is important to note that the soil is influential but not determinative. The influence of experience and context can be profound and must be taken into account if we want to understand and turn from entrenched sin patterns, but our circumstances do not determine our actions. Our fallen hearts are always interacting with the soil, interpreting and responding to both positive and negative experiences.
The Roots: Our Deepest Desires
One of the ways in which our hearts interact with our contexts is by desire. We were created to receive certain blessings and gifts from the gracious hand of our Creator. As his image bearers, God gave us desires for security, significance, glory, affirmation, love, purpose, and order. Marriage, fellowship, friendship, and other social connections were intended to be conduits of love, affirmation, affection, and intimacy as we became “fruitful and multiplied,” according to God’s blessing.
We still want all of these blessings that were given or promised to us, but now our hearts want them autonomously. We don’t want to receive God’s blessings in his way, in his time, according to his authority or design; we want them on our terms. Second, the soil itself is cursed, and the world and the relationships in it are broken. This combination means that our desires are problematic for us. Separated from God, the true source of every blessing we could rightly desire, we tend to substitute counterfeits to suit our fallen hearts. These counterfeits become our idols. When we speak of idols of the heart, we are referring to desires that have become so important to us that they have replaced God in our hearts. They control us, so we sometimes refer to these as controlling desires.
The Trunk: Our Functional Worldviews
Our idolatrous desires both shape and are shaped by our thinking. We develop patterns of thought that form the grid for our interactions with our world. We sometimes call these “shoots” because they arise out of our hearts’ interaction with the soil, but, because they continue to grow until they are strong and fixed, we can also call this the trunk. Both terms refer to our functional worldviews—our unspoken and largely unconscious set of beliefs about God, the world, ourselves, and other people, which form the basis for our daily lives. These are not the doctrinal affirmations you would likely recite if asked to describe what you officially believe. Instead, this set of beliefs is reflected in the ways that you actually live.
The Gospel: New Hearts, New Trees
The Tree Model illustrates that our behaviors—the fruit—are but a symptom of how the tree is functioning. When you hope in Christ, he renews your heart, and your entire tree is renewed. The Bible promises us a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26–27) and describes and our new life as being “in Christ” (Romans 8:1), “hidden with Christ” (Colossians 3:3), and—using a tree metaphor—“grafted into” the tree of salvation (Romans 11:17). The new heart and new life that Christ gives is the beginning of an entirely new tree. In the gospel, our true and eternal identity is in Christ, even though we still battle with the patterns and baggage of our old ways. Rather than simple self-discipline and willpower, though, the real source of change is new faith and affections in our hearts, redeemed desires, and transformed worldviews—all given to us in Christ.
Back to Mike
So how did this help Mike, the questioning struggler with whom I was speaking? By examining his soil, Mike identified a few influential experiences: His dad abandoned the family when he was nine, and his mom became an alcoholic, leaving Mike to care for three younger siblings. By outward appearances, he succeeded admirably in this role, proving himself capable and receiving praise from others, but Mike’s heart became controlled by a fear of chaos and a strong desire for both control and affirmation—his roots. He developed the unspoken belief that, on one hand, people were a threat to him; on the other hand, their adoration of him was essential to his worth. He believed he must control people and things at all costs. Pornography was the fruit. In it, he fantasized about the adoration he craved while holding complete control and avoiding the chaos and threat of relationships. Now, no longer autonomous but armed with faith that his heart and identity were new in Christ, Mike brought all the truths and promises of the gospel to his experiences (soil), his desires (roots), and his thoughts (trunk).
Of course, this is a simplified and condensed version of Mike’s story. In reality, change happens over a lifetime of discipleship, in relationship with others in the Body of Christ. This is why we want leaders and individuals in churches to have this tool. We use our Tree Model to train people in a biblical view of sin and the gospel.
02 Sep 2021
Are Sins “Contrary to Nature” the Worst Sins?
Perhaps you have heard it said, or felt it clearly implied, that homosexuality is the worst possible sin. Perhaps your testimony includes some kind of personal experience of homosexuality or same-sex attraction, and you have felt—whether they meant to communicate this or not—that others considered you the worst kind of sinner. When this opinion is openly expressed, it is not uncommon to hear Romans 1 referenced, especially the point about homosexuality being contrary to nature.
Is this correct? Does Romans teach that homosexuality, being contrary to nature, is therefore the worst sin?
To begin, let’s admit that not conforming to nature does have a bearing on sin. In Romans 1, this concept is connected to rejection of the Creator. Those who exchange the truth of God (that he made everything and rules over its design) for a lie (that we are autonomous beings who may choose to live how we wish) worship and serve the created—for which the Greek word is ktisei—over and against the Creator—para ton ktisanta (1:25). That is, we might say, to make up a word from the Greek, they make themselves “para-creational.” These creation-worshippers, then, are the very ones who, for that same reason, also exchange the natural—physiken—use of the body for the unnatural use—para physin—or “para-natural” (1:26). Paul is arguing that the willingness to ignore the normativity of created design and intent for the body is a manifestation of the willful rejection of the Creator.
So, in discussions of whether homosexuality is sin, the issue of created design is plainly relevant. You can also see why the Westminster Larger Catechism would list “against the light of nature” (Q151.3) as one of the many contextual considerations that aggravate the seriousness of any particular sin. All sin, of course, is a manifestation of our rejection of the Creator and logically flows from that rebellion. All sin is, in this sense, against the Creator’s design. But in Romans 1, Paul rhetorically seizes on the obviousness to his readers of this particular rejection of natural design. This obvious contradiction of natural design makes especially clear the connection that all sin has to rejecting the Creator of nature.
Nevertheless, the language of Romans 1 does not mean that any sin that is “contrary to nature” is for that reason the most heinous sin, or even that it is automatically worse than any other sin. As I explained in a previous post, “Are Some Sins Worse Than Others?,” determining the relative heinousness of any sin act is complicated and context-specific. The catechism, for example, lists many factors to consider, of which being “against the light of nature” is only one. The effect of this list is not to automatically put any one whole class of sins in a worse category than other classes of sins, but to urge church leadership to wisely shepherd individual cases before them according to the unique situational context. But even in the text of Romans, it is clear that Paul did not intend to single out sins contrary to nature as the pinnacle of wickedness.
First, in the immediate context, one of Paul’s main concerns is to encourage unity in the gospel, especially between the main demographic division of Jew and Gentile. His concern is that each individual in the church, whether they be Jew or Gentile, would have no basis on which to look down upon or judge the other. In the flow of Romans 1 and 2, he does this by progressing from the “unnatural” sins of the Gentiles that would seem so obvious to his Jewish-background readers to the more common and less obviously unnatural but equally debased (1:28) sins like covetousness, strife, deceit, haughtiness, boastfulness, disobedience to parents, and the like (1:29,30). The mere inclusion of some of these sins in this list should be enough to curb the temptation to feel morally superior (see my post on Romans 1). But, significantly, Paul ends this list by adding, “Though they know God’s righteous decree” about such things, they do them anyway (1:32)—a point that the Larger Catechism would describe as another factor increasing the heinousness of a sin that it is committed by a person “of greater experience or grace” (Q151.1). The rhetorical effect is clearly to humble the readers who, because of their greater biblical training and theological heritage, would be tempted to judge their Gentile brothers and sisters (even though his original audience, of course, would not have had the catechism’s language!). Thus, he culminates this section with the rebuke, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges” (2:1).
But, some may ask, doesn’t the very idea of “contrary to nature” carry a certain pejorative power, conveying an emotional intuition against what clearly ought not be? That is to say, doesn’t it capture what some have described as the “yuck” factor? Well, the point that I have been trying to show is that that kind of understanding is not consistent with Paul’s concern in Romans 1–2 for humility and unity in the gospel. I would also suggest that his other use of this phrase supports this point. The Greek phrase translated “contrary to nature” (para physin) shows up twice in the book of Romans: First, here in chapters 1 and 2, at the beginning of Paul’s argument, where he is mainly urging Jewish Christians to a humble gospel disposition toward the Gentiles. The other time this phrase shows up is in chapter 11, at the end of Paul’s argument, when he flips the coin to make a similar plea to the Gentile Christians: “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles… For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree” (11:13, 24, emphasis added). Ironically, Paul’s first use of the phrase is as a description of the sin that comes from rejection of God, but his second use of the phrase is to illustrate the unexpected grace of the gospel! Both times, the phrase occurs in the context of encouraging Christians to a humble, gospel-based love for those who are otherwise very different from themselves.
What can we conclude from this? If we listen carefully to the apostle Paul, we will never use the category of “contrary to nature” to favorably compare ourselves to any other sinner or class of sinners. Rather, we will in humility seek out, and point others to, “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe,” acknowledging that there is really “no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (3:22–23).
17 Jun 2021
On Fellowship, Authenticity, and Identity
His response surprised even me. He had asked how many were in the group. “Six?!” he exclaimed, his eyes wide with shock and dismay. I was inviting him to join a group of men who met regularly to share fellowship in the gospel and encouragement in the same lifelong sexual sin struggle as he. I had been the first person with whom he had ever been so honest. But a group was, for now, still too much. He was not yet ready for even a few more to know him that well.
By inviting him to express himself with open humility before a larger number of men, I was gently coaxing him into fellowship in the light with God and others (1 John 1:5–7). Without such fellowship, there is no gospel joy, no gospel transformation; fear and shame are both jail and jailor—especially for those who struggle with sexual sins and temptations. Far too often, the message they have received is that they will be rejected if they let anyone know that they even struggle with such things. Many know this through cruel experience. So they remain in hiding and isolation. Sin and darkness reign and grow in that place.
This is why Harvest USA strives to create an environment that encourages people to come into the light, to speak the hardest truth about themselves, to speak in community about the temptations and sins that have dominated their lives. And we believe that many churches still need to be encouraged to grow in this. We urge community in which both truth and mercy are undiminished. I see many churches making progress in this direction.
And yet, we do not view this simplistically as a pendulum that needs to swing to the other side. Yes, the Church must continue to grow in being a place where sin struggles of all kinds can be discussed and met with gospel mercy, gospel challenge, and gospel hope, not disgust, disdain, and condemnation. But as we make this progress, we need to be alert to some pitfalls along the way. I will describe two.
- The pitfall of God-less authenticity
We live in a culture that prizes a sort of brazen authenticity that is only occasionally corralled by, “TMI!” Our culture’s love for authenticity is not exactly the same thing as the fellowship we aspire to. In fact, it is quite different. Put simply, in our culture’s practice of authenticity, God is not in the audience. Our culture presupposes the non-existence of God. In this context, authenticity flows from the individual’s need to create meaning from within herself. Without a transcendent standard, without God, authenticity is unmoored from accountability. There is no aspect of confession, no sin, only honesty and freedom of expression.
We must resist this God-less authenticity. First, because its presupposition is false; God does exist, and we are accountable to him. But also, because the gospel—the good news—is that our accountability to God need not lead to condemnation. There is grace, redemption, and hope in Christ. It is largely because our world either does not know or does not believe this that it seeks an authenticity based on denying God’s existence.
- The pitfalls of “identifying”
In our culture, “identification” has become a common tool in the service of authenticity. So, for example, someone might “identify” as gay or some other subset of LGBTQ+. The idea is tricky to describe and evaluate, but some precision and clarity is necessary. Here is the relevant dictionary definition¹:
identify as: Assign (a particular characteristic or categorization) to oneself; describe oneself as belonging to (a particular category or group)
As defined here, especially in the first sense of assigning a characteristic to oneself, this is fairly common. Grammatically, it involves connecting a predicate adjective or a predicate nominative to ourselves—“I am blonde,” “I am a conservative,” “I am male.” But not every instance of saying something about self is “identifying as.” The second part of the definition adds the sense of placing ourselves in a category, class, or group. The idea of “identification” comes with pitfalls in two directions—one to the left and the other to the right, we might say.
Pitfall #1: Communicating the unstated assumptions of identity politics
It is the second part of the definition, placing oneself in a category or group, that has come to be used in what some call “identity politics.” Used in this way, identifying with a particular group generally implies a whole set of other unstated assertions about that group. Let me suggest a few of the unstated connections that often are implied in such identification:
a. This use of identity is generally claimed on the basis of a trait that is assumed to be indelible.
b. The connection of the group is not merely by commonness of trait but, rather, forms a distinct community with mutual belonging and purpose.
c. The group or class identified by that trait is assumed to have been subject to systematic persecution or oppression.
d. Therefore, as a corrective of c., both the trait and the community identified by it are to be affirmed and celebrated.
e. Lastly, a point which seems to go with the cumulative combining of the previous four: When identification is done in this “identity politics” way, it often represents a level of personal meaning and significance that places it at the core of the sense of self.
Perhaps you can already see how some of these, or perhaps all of them, would be a problem for a Christian if the trait that was the basis of the identification was a sinful condition. Viewing the trait as indelible conflicts with the gospel promise of ultimate glorification and current progressive transformation. A sense of mutual belonging and purpose with a distinct community might, if carefully defined and limited, be seen as a mission-field connection. But it is just as easy to imagine it becoming an alternative and competitor to the Church. As to points c. and d., while godly compassion will always seek to come near to suffering with healing and justice, it cannot do so by affirming or celebrating sin. Finally, no identification with any trait or with any category or group should compete with the gospel reality of what we are in Christ, variously described in the Scriptures.
These unstated implications of identification, as used in identity politics, are the reason why we at Harvest USA have preferred the term “same-sex attraction (SSA)” over terms like “gay” or “lesbian.” You’ll notice that there is no “S” in “LGBTQIA+.” The goal is not to have a different way to say the same thing; it is to avoid the pitfall of communicating those problematic assumptions listed above while encouraging unhindered openness and fellowship in the Lord.
However, this brings us back to the concern I started with, and the other pitfall…
Pitfall #2: Reacting against any language that sounds like identification in such a way that people are driven back into silence and isolation
Focusing so strongly on the issue of identification can inadvertently communicate that honest description of sin struggles is unsafe. Rather than the mercy of the gospel gently inviting self-disclosure and confession, a culture of shame and stigma encourages everyone to “play the game,” look good, and make sure nobody finds out what the real battle is in our hearts and minds. In order to love those who are struggling to come into the light, we may need to be less concerned with the terms used and more concerned with their hearts. That may require us to forego a discussion of terms of identity and the wisdom of using particular language, and instead prioritize discipleship in the gospel truths that counter all of the false implications that may be attached to their current vocabulary.
Also, we should keep in mind that outside of the world of identity politics, it is quite normal to “identify as,”—to assign a particular categorization to oneself or describe oneself as belonging to a certain category or group—while neither intending nor being heard to mean any of the unstated assertions listed above. It is even possible, if wisely subsumed in a gospel context, to do this with a sinful category. For instance, Paul can write, “The saying is trustworthy, and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15). He is displaying an extraordinary humility of self-expression, identifying not merely as “sinner” but, in the older versions, “chief of sinners.” And he encourages others to do the same. But Paul communicates none of the erroneous implications listed above. His freedom to identify as a sinner is firmly set in the context of redemption. His identification as chief of sinners does not share the same place in either his argument or his sense of self as does his identification as “an apostle of Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 1:1). No one reading Paul in context would think otherwise. His use of identity language here is subsumed under and serves the gospel: “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost [of sinners], Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:16). Paul carefully and wisely uses language in a way that does not encourage people to remain in sin and darkness, but draws them from it to the mercy of Christ. Indeed, it would seem healthy for all of us to stand before the Lord and declare who we are apart from him, that he may declare to us who we are now in him.
Let us pray and strive for wisdom and humility as we call people out of darkness into fellowship in the light and into an identity in Christ which is eternal.
¹“identify.” Oxford’s Lexico.com. 2021. https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/identify (8 June 2021).
06 May 2021
Who Are You?
Our world today is obsessed with self-concept and “identity.” We have never been more encouraged to form thoughts about ourselves and to shape our lives by those thoughts. But what our culture lacks is an objective truth beyond ourselves by which our self-assessments might be shown to be false and harmful.
The Bible is full of stories of people just like us—people who are blind to who they really are and blind to their own blindness! Since Adam and Eve, we humans have tried to understand ourselves under the guidance of our autonomous hearts. The result is that we alternate between thinking too highly of ourselves and thinking too lowly of ourselves. We are either building ourselves up in pride, arrogance, and entitlement or descending into self-defeating despair and depression. The lies we believe about ourselves have contributed to the power of sin over us.
Consider some of the characters whom we know from Scripture. Let’s try to straightforwardly state the things they believed about themselves.
- First, Adam and Eve thought, “I am like God.” Then, “I am more able to discern good and evil than God.” And finally, “I am a doomed rebel. My only hope is to flee God.”
- How about Lamech, Cain’s descendant who thunders menacingly at his wives, “…listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:23–24). How does Lamech define himself? “I am powerful; I am entitled to fear and respect.” Or, could it be, “I am unsafe and vulnerable, and I must protect myself by controlling others with violence and fear?”
- How about the son in Jesus’ parable who has come to be known as the “prodigal” (Luke 15:11–13)? What does he believe about himself as he asks for “what is coming to me” and then goes off to squander it in “reckless living?” “I am entitled to ease and prosperity. I flourish because I am true to myself.” And, after he came to his senses, returning with his rehearsed speech to his father, perhaps he thought, “I am an unlovable failure.”
- How about Saul, after having been anointed by Samuel as God’s choice to be king, cowering and hiding among the baggage (1 Samuel 10:20–22)? “I am doomed to failure.” “I must rely on my own resources and strength to succeed.” “I am a fraud; if people ever saw me truly, they would reject me.”
Do you recognize any of those thoughts in yourself? Do you cling to self-thoughts that are both exaggeratedly autonomous, independent, and selfish, as well as fearful, condemning, and self-loathing? Are you the one whom David describes, “Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart; there is no fear of God before his eyes. For he flatters himself in his own eyes that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated” (Psalm 36:1–2)? Or does your heart speak with the voice of Psalm 22:6, “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people?” Those with sexual sin in their past and present know both sides of these thoughts about self, often simultaneously.
What can be done? How does one find freedom from such destructive thoughts?
The answer lies outside of yourself. The supreme lie of our current world may be the ever-present message that you must define yourself, that you find your identity within, whether in your experience or in your heart (defined in the Disney way). That is the oldest lie humans were ever told. But the truth is that you do not have the authority to define yourself. None of us do. So who does?
If we do look outside of ourselves, our first tendency is to look to other people. Their praise or their abuse weighs heavily in our self-identification. Of course, the psalmist thinks he is “a worm and not a man,” for he is “scorned by mankind and despised by the people.” If you have been bullied or abused, you may find it easy to think of yourself as “as a worm and not a man.” Also, many of our relational and sexual choices have the aim of surrounding ourselves with the society of those who (we think) will rescue our broken sense of self or reinforce our chosen identity. But other people do not have authority to define you.
The authority to define you lies outside of yourself, not merely in the sense of being outside of your individuality. It is outside of your nature. Only your Creator defines you. And if you have spent your lifetime defining yourself, the identity your Creator gives you will surprise you. Remember that prodigal son? Even when he returned to his father’s house, he only brought with him his self-plausible ideas about who and what he was. The father completely surprised him with love, life, and glory that he could not have anticipated. It turned out he was not a worm, not a failure, not a slave—neither a slave to his own desires and choices nor a slave to his father’s anger and justice. He was a beloved son. What a surprise.
Will you stop defining yourself and let God begin to surprise you?