17 Jun 2021
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 share 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:
- This use of identity is generally claimed on the basis of a trait that is assumed to be indelible.
- The connection of the group is not merely by commonness of trait but, rather, forms a distinct community with mutual belonging and purpose.
- The group or class identified by that trait is assumed to have been subject to systematic persecution or oppression.
- Therefore, as a corrective of c., both the trait and the community identified by it are to be affirmed and celebrated.
- 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.
¹“identify.” Oxford’s Lexico.com. 2021. https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/identify (8 June 2021).
In this new video, John Freeman shares a ministry update and an invitation to partner with us. As we approach the June 30 deadline of our fiscal year-end campaign, we need your help to meet our $250,000 goal. Would you prayerfully consider supporting Harvest USA with a gift of $100 or more today?
03 Jun 2021
Name: Mark Sanders
Position: Director of Discipleship
Hometown: Willow Grove, Pennsylvania
Describe your work at Harvest USA.
As the Director of Discipleship at our main office in Dresher, PA, I oversee the Men’s, Women’s, and Parents and Family Ministries, but the majority of my work is focused on the Men’s Ministry. I am in charge of shaping and directing what we offer to men who come to us for help with a variety sexual struggles. I also recruit, train, and provide support for interns and volunteers who serve in our biblical support groups. While I provide a large amount of oversight, I spend a fair amount of time doing individual discipleship and facilitating our in-house biblical support groups each week. Alongside of my responsibilities in our direct ministry, I am also a part of our equipping team at Harvest USA. In seeking to equip the Church to faithfully disciple her members in matters of sexuality, I am involved in resource development, teaching and training events, and writing articles for our blogs and magazines. Lastly, I also film, edit, and produce the majority of our video content at Harvest USA, including our 15-lesson Sunday school DVD series, God’s Design for Sexually in a Changing Culture.
How did you get to Harvest?
Like most people involved in ministries like Harvest USA, my heart longs to see men experience deep repentance, transformation, healing, and change in the area of sexual brokenness because this is my own story. My generation was the first to grow up with entire adult bookstores readily available within the confines of your own bedroom. I spent many years, first as a Christian adolescent and then as a young adult, fighting and wrestling to break free of the chains of sexual sin. Through the ordinary means of grace that God provides for his people, the Holy Spirit did a decisive and powerful work of redemption in my life, and, as I considered potential vocational ministry, Harvest USA was always in the back of my mind as one way that God could turn for good what Satan and my own heart meant for evil. While going through my counseling degree at Westminster Theological Seminary, I had the privilege of volunteering and interning with both Harvest USA and CCEF (Christian Counseling and Education Foundation). My internship with Harvest was both challenging and rewarding, and it eventually led to me joining the staff in June of 2015.
What is your favorite Scripture?
As my colleague, Jim, has said, different seasons tend to highlight different Scriptures. Right now, I continue to come back to Colossians 3:1–4 for a few reasons.
First, my counseling degree at Westminster Theological Seminary whetted my appetite to go further into the insights of my school’s theological forerunners. In particular, the writings of Geerhardus Vos as expounded on by Richard Gaffin have deeply shaped me. Gaffin’s work on union with Christ and his explanation of the centrality of the resurrection in the writings of Paul have greatly enriched my understanding of the gospel and salvation. Colossians 3 and Romans 6 have become so important to me when I think about the practical implications of being presently raised with Christ.
Second, this passage has given me great comfort as I watch my mother’s decline with late-stage Alzheimer’s disease. Apart from occasional smiles, precious-but-momentary eye contact, and squeezing my hand, my mother has lost virtually all of her ability to communicate with us. I have so many difficult questions about her experience, with few answers, but what God has made clear to me is that my mother’s life is “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). This idea of hiding has so many precious implications for my mom. First, who she truly is in Christ is hidden from us right now. We don’t yet see her in her glorified state, but, in Christ, she has already been raised with and united to the firstfruits of one resurrection harvest. Second, being hidden with Christ means that she is safe in his arms. Nothing, not even Alzheimer’s disease can steal her away from her permanent home in the heavenly places. Third, Christ hides what is most precious to him. There is not one second of my mother’s suffering when Christ is not actively caring for her and providing for all of her needs.
To end this brief reflection, verse 4 is incredibly hope-giving. Right now, my mother is not who she once was. She used to be strong, filled with life and vigor. Her laugh lit up a room. Now, looking at her, it is impossible to escape the ravages of the curse that mark her present experience. But as this disease slowly steals every earthly thing from her, even her life one day, I am reminded that, ultimately, Christ is her life. In almost every chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus says that he is our life. My mom’s entire life is wrapped up in Christ. Her hope is fully tethered to him and him alone. One day, not only will I see her as she was before Alzheimer’s, but I will also see her as she will be when Christ appears in glory. It will be the extreme opposite of her current state. She will be radiant, glorious, and fully fit for eternal communion with our triune God.
What is your favorite thing about living in Philadelphia?
For anyone who is local, it’s important that I clarify that I don’t live in Philadelphia proper, but in Montgomery County, which is part of the greater metropolitan area. It’s hard to have an objective perspective because I’ve spent the majority of my life here. Philly is home. Most people I know and love live here. And while I must admit I’d rather live in a state with more natural wonder and beauty, I think this is wonderful area to live in. There is so much diversity in Philadelphia, and, as a self-proclaimed foodie, I have much of the best cuisine from around the world within driving distance of my home. Lastly, growing up in Philly afforded me the privilege of not having to move away in order to attend seminary.
What is an interesting fact about yourself?
I lived in South Korea from 2007–2012. It was in Korea where God did some deep spiritual work in my heart, and he gave me a wealth of opportunities to share the gospel. I met my wife there and still have my in-laws and many friends there whom we love going to visit on a biennial basis. Before working at Harvest USA, I had a vision in seminary of doing similar work in South Korea. South Korea is like my second home, and my wife and I are fairly content not seeing much of the world as long as we can make frequent trips back to Korea! I’ve grown to feel strangely comforted every time we get on a plane and hear the captain speaking in Korean. It’s like I’m going back home. While the Lord clearly has called us to Philadelphia for this season, I wouldn’t be surprised if we eventually flew a U-Haul back to Korea one day.
13 May 2021
Join Ellen and Shalee as they discuss Ellen’s new 31-day devotional, Toxic Relationships: Taking Refuge in Christ.
Ellen unpacks the phrase “toxic relationship”, defines the term “codependency”, explains how you can identify a broken relationship, and shares her hopes for this new resource.
If you find yourself in a toxic relationship, take heart. There is hope for change. Transformation and healing is possible through the person of Jesus Christ.
When you purchase Toxic Relationships from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase supports our ministry.
06 May 2021
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?
15 Apr 2021
This blog, along with the sampling of questions, is an excerpt from Lesson 4 of Sexual Faithfulness: Gospel-Infused, Practical Discipleship for Women, our new small group curriculum. Sexual Faithfulness is available as a free digital download in our online store.
Nobody wants to suffer, right? We know from experience how this broken world overwhelms us, and we know the suffering that our sinful choices bring. Yet the Bible is clear that followers of Christ are called to participate in his sufferings (1 Peter 4:13), along with the pain that accompanies “working out our salvation” (Philippians 2:12–13). Though we all experience trials and sufferings differently, the pain, heartache, and struggle on this side of heaven can feel wearisome and lead us to question God.
When we hear the word “suffering,” we think of things like broken relationships, chronic illness, cancer, or the loss of a loved one, but have you ever thought about struggling with temptations and sexual sin as a form of suffering? Many of us tend to dismiss our own experiences and minimize our suffering as we look at others who have what we perceive to be real suffering.
Sexual sin is one of the primary ways we seek comfort or escape in response to suffering. We give way to beliefs influenced by mistaken expectations of the Christian life. But to choose false comforts is to miss out on what delights God.
It doesn’t take more than a quick glance at our culture to realize that we love and crave comfort! Products, social media, and ads offer a life of ease, free of pain, with fulfilling romantic match-ups, financial security, appliances, and technology that do all the things we don’t want to do. Goods and services are daily marketed to us with the promise of relieving our suffering: Apps that allow you to filter your selfies, hook-up sites, online videos, streaming entertainment that consumes you for hours, day spas, plastic surgery, magic cures, and the latest, most successful dating site or marriage therapy technique all vie for our attention as we continually seek ease, comfort, and escape from suffering. The reality is that we can pursue these things for many reasons, but wanting to escape from the pain of life is frequently a significant driving force.
Sadly, the Christian life is too often presented as consistent with and affirming of this kind of comfortable lifestyle, but this understanding of the Christian life did not come from the Bible! Rather, the Bible is clear that living out our union with Christ means glory in the next life and suffering in this one. However, whether we suffer from life circumstances, persecution, or the costly battle against sin itself, we are promised great meaning, hope, and comfort, both in this life and in the one to come, in transforming into Christlikeness.
Of course, there is a sense in which it is natural and good to want to avoid suffering. It’s healthy to avoid someone’s betrayal, an illness, or living in the anguish of depression day after day. The Bible, though, never says that we are to attempt a pain-free life! In contrast, the world shouts loudly and persuasively that if we have the money, beauty, power, and will, we can escape suffering.
The world around us and our own sinful nature seek to dissuade us from this life of faith. In response to just about any suffering, sin offers an immediate, though deceptive, alternative to communion with Christ. Because of its drug-like pleasure and easy availability, sexual sin is one of the most powerful alternatives to gospel faith and comfort. Relational sin, which often accompanies sexual sin, also gives emotional highs and endorphin rushes that feel good now.
But faith in Christ and faith in sin are mutually exclusive; growth in one weakens the other. Just as habitually returning to sex to escape present suffering makes it harder for us to grasp the joy and hope of the gospel, so too will growing in love for Christ and in confidence in his promises give us strength and comfort to endure suffering for his sake
Romans 8:16–17, 2 Corinthians 1:5, Philippians 3:10, Colossians 1:24, 2 Timothy 1:8, and 1 Peter 4:13—Scripture abounds with statements that suffering is a basic component of the Christian life. Through these verses, God teaches us about proper expectations for the Christian life. Further, we often think of comfort as an absence of suffering, but one of God’s purposes of Christians experiencing suffering is that we would receive direct, personal comfort from God and, in turn, be able to use that experience to minister God’s comfort to others (2 Corinthians 1:4).
The comforts of this life can be both addictive and deceptive. They tend to give us easy, immediate relief. What effect do you think sexual fantasy, sexual hookups, pornography, and other escapes have on your faith and hope in the gospel promises of resurrection and glory?
There are sweet blessings for God’s daughters as we courageously resist the temptation to rush towards the supposed comforts of sin. For example, Galatians 6:7–8 and Romans 8:5–8 spell out the benefits for “sowing to the Spirit” and the promises of God that can impact our lives in the present.
Although we would not choose to endure suffering, nothing is wasted in God’s economy; he uses our suffering to produce endurance, character, and hope, which transform us into being more like Christ. As believers, we have a strong assurance of hope.
Questions for Reflection, Discussion, and Application
- What do you think is the most common way in which you suffer?
- How do you typically respond to pain and suffering? Why do you think you choose those specific escapes? How well do those escapes, sexual or otherwise, offer relief to you in both the short run and the long run?
08 Apr 2021
On April 9, 2021, Ellen Mary Dykas will be speaking at The Gospel Coalition Women’s Conference (TGCW21) in Indianapolis, IN. To access her recommended resource lists and speaker’s notes for the following breakout sessions, see the hyperlinks below with attached PDFs.
Breakout Session Round 1: Sexual Issues Women Face
When: April 9 at 1:00 PM
Description: When was the last time you attended a women’s brunch addressing sexual issues? Most likely, you haven’t! This breakout will address a variety of struggles that women face when it comes to sexuality. We’ll discuss sexual temptations and the pursuit of sin, and the trauma of being sinned against sexually. Come listen in as our panel shares honestly about these tough topics, keeping our focus on Jesus and the hope we have in him for transformation.
Breakout Session Round 2: Compassionate Care in a #MeToo World
When: April 9 at 2:30 PM
Description: The #Metoo movement has exposed widespread sexual harassment and brought accountability to those who have misused power and authority. This breakout will provide guidance on how to love our friends as they share with us about past (or current) sexual abuse. We’ll explore how to create redemptive communities where women can share their stories of abuse and trauma, and be compassionately helped in the process of healing and transformation available through Christ.
18 Mar 2021
“What will I do if they make me sign something that goes against my biblical beliefs?”
“How will I feed my family if I lose my job?”
“If we lose federal funding by staying faithful to our convictions, how will our organization survive?”
No doubt many of you have already been asking these very questions in light of bills like the Equality Act, which pose genuine threats to expressions of religious freedom in the United States. To be clear, very real injustices, violence, and hatred of people claiming an LGBTQ+ identity should be abhorrent to all Christians who honor God. Harvest USA is passionate that all people are made in the image of God and deserve to be cared for, respected, and treated with honor and dignity. But Christians are right to be concerned about the government forcing individual Christians or Christian organizations to do things that would go against their beliefs.
While the Equality Act may or may not dramatically change the limits of religious freedom in America, it is hard to deny the general direction that our country is headed in. The Church must face the reality that it is no longer advantageous to be a Christian in the larger culture. For a long time, it was considered a boost to your job resume to attend church regularly, and, to this day, it still seems a prerequisite for the highest public offices in our nation.
But, more and more, we are feeling and experiencing the liabilities that come with faithfully identifying with Jesus Christ. The cross is not only foolish to our culture; it is increasingly seen as dangerous. Faithfully holding to a biblical sexual ethic in the years to come will become even more costly for the church of Jesus Christ. So I ask you, as I need to ask myself, “Have you counted the cost of following Christ?”
Jesus told a great crowd in Luke 14:26–27, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”
This passage, and many others like it, shares words that the Church in America has always needed to hear. But often, to our spiritual detriment, these warnings have felt largely inapplicable in our lives. Our expectations for life in America have often shown a blatant denial of Paul’s words that, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12).
But every believer, every church, every Christian organization in America is being called at this moment to do some spiritual accounting and boldly face the real cost of following Jesus. While I know that I still have much to pray through and many fears that need to be continually submitted to my high priest, I thank the Lord that he has already given me countless examples of men and women at Harvest USA who are showing me what it means to count that cost!
What do I mean by this?
Much of the work we do with men and women seeking out help for sexual struggles revolves around one central question: “Is Jesus worthy of your trust and complete submission?” One of the biggest reasons we often go back to our sins of choice is that we don’t believe that God will take care of us. As Isaiah described it, instead of trusting God to be our light in the darkness, we light our own torches, which results in torment (Isaiah 50:10–11).
The husband who is unwilling to confess his sexual sin to his wife doesn’t believe that God will bring him through the relational pain that would inevitably follow. And so he continues to play the role of the perfect husband, all the while sinking deeper into hidden shame and misery.
The single woman who desperately wants to be known, loved, cherished, and cared for seems to have found what she’s looking for in another woman. She is faced with the gut-wrenching choice of being offered two antithetical paths, wishing she could hold onto Christ while also pursuing what she feels would make her happy.
The young man who, from an early age, has struggled to fit in with his peers finds himself more drawn to his mother than his father, his sisters than his brothers, and even female clothing and makeup. Now he feels the daily pressure from the wider culture to embrace the narrative that he is actually a woman trapped in a man’s body and that to deny this reality would be to live a lie.
The wife whose husband has gravely sinned against her in committing adultery is now faced with the excruciating call to forgive her husband, and pray for him, while her own world is collapsing all around her.
The parents whose child tells them that she is transgender threatens to cut off all relational connection with them if they do not embrace her choice to transition. They desperately want to maintain relationship with their child, but they feel stuck about how to do that.
Each of these men and women are, in their own ways, being forced to count the cost of following Christ. For most of them, this cost is not financial, but relational. It is a sobering reality to sit with a man and call him to do something that may change his life forever. It is heart-wrenching to have to tell him that his obedience may not result in the outcome that he wants. I’ve felt my body shake as I imagine the very real possibility of a future wrought with loneliness, rejection, and difficult consequences as a result of his obedience.
But there are few moments in my life as precious as seeing these men and women count that cost and do so with genuine hope and joy. When someone decides to follow Jesus into the valley of the shadow of death, I’ve never seen them do so despairingly. Without exception, I always see a measure of hope, peace, and even joy as they follow their good Shepherd. If only we could see what is happening spiritually when the Holy Spirit brings that conviction and hope. I firmly believe that I have witnessed miracles in our office that exceed the wonder of walking on water. I have seen brothers and sisters boldly and courageously step out into the storm with their eyes fixed upon Christ! I have seen young men struggling with same-sex attraction, never knowing if God will grant them a spouse, boldly testify that God is their portion, both in this life and in the next. I have seen husbands resolve to confess their sin of adultery to their wives, knowing that it may lead to the end of their marriages. I have seen wives graciously extend costly forgiveness to their husbands, even when their churches and their own families were opposed it.
We get regular front-row seats into the stories of fellow saints carrying heavy crosses. But here’s the key: They don’t carry them alone. None of them do this in their own strength. They do so through abiding in Christ and through genuine fellowship with his Body. The Church in America will not survive if our relationships with one another only stay on the surface. We will not bear up under the pressure if Jesus is not our life and deepest satisfaction.
You may be reading this and asking yourself, “Will I have the strength to lose anything in order to follow Christ?” If you’re concerned with your response, ask yourself these four vital questions:
- Have I learned the secret of having plenty, and being full, through Christ who strengthens me? If you haven’t learned Christian contentment in seasons of plenty, you won’t be ready for a season of hunger and want.
- Have I been getting through life as a functional lone ranger, or do I have brothers and sisters who truly know me? In times of peace and ease, our sense of need for one another can go numb. But when the true cost of following Christ is put before you, you shouldn’t expect to make the right decision on your own.
- Is Jesus my portion in this life and the next? God describes himself in Scripture as a generous Father who knows not only how to provide for his children’s needs but who also loves to give us an abundance of good gifts that show his lavish character. But more than the gifts he gives, God wants us to ultimately rejoice in him, the greatest gift to his people. If you don’t love Jesus more than anything right now, you won’t be ready to lose whatever is required of you for his sake and the gospel.
- Am I seeking first his Kingdom and righteousness? Jesus knows that we are prone to anxiety about our earthly needs, and, as our good Shepherd, he doesn’t merely chastise us for our concerns. Instead, he shows us how to live a life of genuine peace and hope. To paraphrase Matthew 6:33, Jesus basically says to his people, “Focus your energy on the Kingdom, and I’ll take care of the rest.”
Working at Harvest USA has shown me that it is possible to hate even my own life as a faithful disciple of Christ. I’ve seen so many men and women do so in our offices to the glory of God. And our Lord’s promise to us is that, if we lose our life for his sake and the gospel’s, then we will save it (Mark 8:35).
Our Direct Ministry Team—which encompasses our Women’s, Men’s, and Parents and Family Ministries—delights to receive questions about the how, why, and what of our discipleship. Over many years, we have met with women and men from all over the United States and many countries. It has been our joy to share the hope of Christ with people from all backgrounds and many ethnicities, which brings me to a question that was sent to us recently.
“How are you equipping your staff to help people of color (non-whites) who struggle with sexual issues?”
Let me say that I love that someone asked us this! Harvest USA is committed to remaining firmly planted in a biblical view of a) people, b) sexual struggles, and c) the gospel’s hope for real transformation, which is extravagantly and indiscriminately available for all people. Let me answer our reader with two foundational commitments that our staff team lives out and to which we hold each other accountable.
We listen to our ministry recipients and seek to understand their stories
Our team anchors our discipleship ministry in asking questions and engaged listening. We equip ourselves through learning from the men and women who come to us for help. We sit at their feet, if you will, even as they have reached out due to personal pain and addictions. We ask many questions to understand their stories, backgrounds, cultural messages to which they have ascribed, and how the specifics of unbiblical values became accepted as they grew up.
Our ministry team of staff and interns represents a variety of ethnicities, but we are mostly white. The individuals who come to us, however, truly span the beautiful array of God’s image bearers. As I shared earlier, my discipleship to women has included those who are African-American, Latina, Asian, S. Asian, and white sisters who come from so many backgrounds. The same is true for the staff in our Men’s and Parents and Family Ministries. I’ve had my cultural blind spots exposed by asking questions, inviting feedback, asking more clarifying questions, and—can I mention it one more time?—listening.
If Christ came to heal the brokenhearted and to set the captives free (Isaiah 61:1–3 and Luke 4:18–20), then it’s crucial for our staff team to know how people have been uniquely bruised, broken, and wounded because of their histories. Cultural and racial influences can shape our thinking to be anti-biblical at worst and confusing at best.
Below are a few of the stories that trained me, opening my understanding to how culturally-specific experiences of pain can shape a person. The insights I’ve gained from women’s stories have helped me grow in knowing how to apply the gospel in specific ways for women of color.
- One woman grew up in a community where it was just expected and understood that married men have mistresses. What this hurting woman needed was the same message that most of the wives who reach out need, but understanding the cultural message from her upbringing guided me in delving into her beliefs about marriage and sex, which included a lot of distortion.
- A dear sister shared that, in her church, homosexuality was named publicly as “the most disgusting” sin, yet other expressions of sexual sin, which were definitely happening in that church, were not condemned. Tragically, many majority-white churches operate in the same way, but, in this woman’s cultural world, it was completely unacceptable to wrestle with same-sex temptations. She came to our women’s ministry carrying the burden of so much shame due to her attractions towards women. She needed grace, mercy, and truth to soothe and reorient her heart back to Jesus—just like all of us do. Knowing her cultural lens and how she had been shaped by growing up in her particular religious environment helped me know how to understand the shame and fear that burdened her.
- Finally, a young single woman fearfully confided in me about her secret struggle with pornography and masturbation. She could barely lift her eyes as she slowly let these words come out of her heart and mouth for the first time. She was a non-English speaker, so another Christian woman needed to translate this conversation…can you imagine what this was like for her?! I had previously learned, thankfully, how shame shackled many sexual strugglers in this culture, keeping them in isolation and fear. So, I didn’t go deep with questions about her sexual struggle in that first conversation. I listened, sought to pour hope and mercy over her, and sorrowed with her as she shared about a painful, lonely life. That first conversation opened the door for her to engage with other Christians about her sin.
Our staff team stands on Scripture not only to understand the stories we hear from people of color but also to show us how we ought to love, disciple, and come alongside them, as well as white people. Believe me: I’ve been trained by my mistakes and cultural blunders too many times to count, but, by God’s kindness, I am growing! As 2 Corinthians 5:14–15 says, “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”
We anchor our understanding of people and sexuality in the Bible
Over the fourteen years that I’ve served with Harvest USA, a highlight has been five international trips to Asia and South America. As a former missionary, something in my ministry DNA comes alive in cross-cultural situations. My international teaching travels, as well as discipleship calls from all over the globe, have given me many opportunities to have honest, real conversations with sexual strugglers from many parts of the world.
My interactions in Asia, South America, and Latin America, along with women from the U.S. who are Latina, African American, and Asian-American, have proven to me what the Bible says: We are all more alike than different! People were created in the image of God, yet we all experience the brokenness of sin and the need of forgiveness, healing, and transformation. We each have unique experiences regarding cultural values, family histories, peer and religious influences, and more that have exerted powerful shaping influence on our hearts. However, the Bible is clear on several points.
“…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come”
(2 Corinthians 5:17).
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Galatians 5:16–17).
These three biblical touchpoints teach us that all people need the radical intervention of God through new life in Christ and the power of the Spirit. We all need the Spirit’s help to turn away from sinful thoughts, actions, and desires, including pornography, sexual fantasy, adultery, promiscuity, and any sexual struggle. The Bible does not discriminate in its bold and clear proclamation that we all need our Lord Jesus’ salvation, grace, and mercy to live faithfully in regards to our sexuality.
I could share many more details, but these two commitments lay the foundation upon which we seek to love and care for the men and women of color who reach out for help. Our staff listens to learn about each person’s unique story and beliefs, and we read, study, and meditate on the Bible’s teaching about people and sexual struggles, which keeps us anchored to a biblical worldview.
Jesus sent his people out to make disciples of all the nations (Matthew 28:18–20), a commission which Harvest USA takes to heart! Please continue to send any questions you have about the how, why, what, and when of our commitment to live this out.
Many Christian parents of an LGBTQ+-identified child feel at a loss for what God is up to in their families. One of the most common questions you may find yourself asking again and again is, “God, what are you doing!?” When you contemplate your child’s situation—from the devastation and deep hurt you have felt to the haunting question of your son or daughter’s relationship with the Lord—you will undoubtedly search anywhere and everywhere to discover where God is working.
More often than not, you may feel that these questions are left unanswered, but you can be assured that God is at work, and you can pray for his purposes to prevail. God may use these difficult circumstances to draw your child closer to himself and to bring conviction of the truth deep into your child’s heart, dislodging the false beliefs they have adopted and the negative influences that surround them. The God of Joseph, who used what was meant for evil to bring about good (Genesis 50:20), is the same God in whom you can place your hope and trust as you consider where your child’s journey may lead.
Out of all the ways in which God could possibly work, there is one purpose that you can be sure he is accomplishing through these difficult circumstances. This particular work of God may not be as obvious to you, but rest assured that it is there. This is the purpose that God is actively working on your heart. Consider these words from the Apostle Paul:
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:28–29).
This familiar passage in Romans may not be the most comforting words at first glance—this is not my “go to” passage for a parent first discovering their child’s chosen identity—but opening your heart to this promise of God is sure to bring clarity and hope as you see God’s tangible work unfold in your life.
The Lord, in his sovereign providence, has placed you on the difficult road on which you find yourself. If you are in the love of God, he is at work using these circumstances to make you more like his Son, Jesus Christ. Certainly, the Lord desires to comfort you in your pain, guide you in relating to your child, and soften your child’s heart. But there is more that God desires to do through the suffering and trials you are experiencing; he wants nothing less than to remake you into the image of his Son.
Practically speaking, what might this look like?
Embracing this purpose of God’s refining begins by taking your eyes off of your child and putting them on yourself. The purpose is for you to pause and consider, “Where do I see God at work in me?” More specifically, ask yourself the following questions.
- How do I see God teaching me to trust in him with my whole heart and not lean on my own understanding?
- In which area(s) is God prompting me to relinquish control of my child’s life?
- What does this trial show regarding what my heart truly believes about God and who he claims to be?
- How is God challenging me to stand firm in his Word and its promises?
- How am I handling this differently now compared to when I first discovered that my child was identifying in this way?
- Where else have I seen God work in my heart through this hardship?
Questions like these will help you see evidence of God’s purposes at work in you and challenge you to embrace his sovereign will all the more.
Below are some of the things you may discover and enjoy as you walk in this purpose of God.
- God will show you more clearly your own broken condition and need for him.
- He will teach you how to love messy sinners in the same way he has loved you.
- He will give you the desire for him to be glorified through your family situation above everything else.
- He will open the door for you to comfort other hurting people with the comfort that you have received from God.
God has promised to use your son or daughter’s situation to bring about his good purposes in your life. I encourage you to invite God to work in you, in accordance with his will, that you might more clearly see his sovereign and good plan unfolding as he cares for you.