Reflections on 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: Part One
“Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you” (ESV).
What Paul is saying here is not terribly popular today. Not in the culture we live in, and increasingly not even in the church. We live in an age that many describe as one of sexual freedom and self-discovery (my sexuality reveals my true identity), and we hear that the Bible is a sexually repressive book, stuck in its ancient cultural time-period, so we need to just move on.
But what Paul says here is not only counter-cultural to us; it was also counter-cultural to those who heard him 2000 years ago. It wasn’t very popular then either! Biblical sexuality has never been something people are naturally or instinctually drawn to—but throughout the Scriptures, God’s message to us has been consistently clear:
What we do with our bodies matters. Our sexuality matters to God.
I’m struck by two things in this passage.
One, the force of Paul’s argument for why it matters that we live in accordance to God’s will for our lives sexually. Notice how many times and ways that Paul speaks about obeying the will of God regarding how to live with our sexuality.
V2: “you know what instructions we gave you through the the Lord Jesus.”
V3: For “this is the will of God, your sanctification . . . that you abstain from sexual immorality”
V4: “that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness”
V5: that you not live like those outside of Christ (“not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles”)
V6: “that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things…”
V 7: “For God has called us…to holiness”
V8: “whoever disregards this, disregards God”
Seven times Paul says that God places a high value on how we live with our sexuality. Seven times he says, in essence, that our sexual behavior reveals our spirituality—that how we live in our body is a barometer of our faith.
We live in a culture that proclaims that sex equals life. We hear that a life lived without sex is a tragedy, and our self-identities are increasingly defined by our sexual preferences or attractions. We are bombarded 24/7 with images, media, and cultural expressions that say that the meaning of life is about sex. No wonder this passage is being dismissed as out-of-sync with what is current.
But, two, I’m also struck by something else in this compact passage: that, in the face of cultural opposition (and probably even the opposition from and struggles of those who were new to the faith), Paul doesn’t water down the gospel on this matter. He doesn’t flinch in saying how important this is.
What Paul says here is difficult to follow, given the culture we live in, and taking into account how powerful our sexuality is.
Would it encourage you if I said that it was difficult for first-century Christians, also?
God knows that this is difficult for his people
Do you notice how Paul hints at this in verse 1? He mentions, first of all, that he was clear in his instruction on how to live as redeemed people: “that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing”—and then he adds, “and that you do so more and more.”
In other words, the Christians at Thessaloniki knew what to do, and they seemed to be moving in the right direction, but it appears they also struggled doing so. They didn’t have it down pat; they hadn’t mastered the subject, or else Paul would not have said, “. . . we ask and urge you. . . in the Lord Jesus” that they continue in that direction. I think this double appeal speaks volumes about their struggles here.
What’s happening in the church at Thessaloniki mirrors what we read in the letter of 1 Corinthians.
Almost the entire letter is a question and answer session between Paul and the church on all the problems the church had. Let me list them:
- There were divisions and factions fighting over leadership.
- Paul had to defend his apostolic ministry, because many thought Paul was an inferior apostle—there were better preachers out there than Paul.
- They had relational and business conflicts, and they were taking each other to court.
- They had marriage problems, divorces, struggles by those who were single.
- They had fights over worship, the Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts, etc.
- They had people in the church who questioned whether Jesus really rose from the dead.
And, you will notice this thread throughout the entire letter—they really struggled with sex and sexuality. Big time. Paul addressed matters of incest, prostitution, sex outside of marriage, distorted views of sex within marriage, and homosexuality. Sexuality was a big topic and a big problem in the church at Corinth. In fact, throughout all the new churches!
It looks like the first century church looks a lot like ours, doesn’t it? Is that discouraging to you? Does it make you wonder if anybody really follows Jesus, if obedience to Christ is even possible, especially in this area of life?
It shouldn’t. Remember the kind of person Jesus is; remember how he was described. In Luke 15:2, he was derisively referred to as the man who receives sinners. And eats with them, too! That’s us!
There is no ideal, pure church. As long as the church is following Christ, it will remain messy, because God saves messy people.
A healthy church is not one without problems, it’s one where problems are addressed with grace and truth (that’s the gospel—the good news of how God has rescued us). And if the gospel of grace and truth is being taught, then we will see people changing, but it’s God who does the changing in us. He knows that change—and the speed and quality of it—is unique to each person.
Today, the ever-present sexual struggles in the church are evidence by some that we need to rethink what the Bible says about sex. But what is unpopular now was unpopular then. In spite of the struggles of the early church, the message never wavered.
God is still calling his people to live with their sexuality in holiness, according to his design. And we are to do so even when we struggle. Especially as we struggle.
Christian spirituality has everything to do with our bodies. And that is why, after six times mentioning how important this is, on the seventh time Paul nails home the final point: Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.
Our sexuality reveals our spirituality. How we live with our sexuality reveals the allegiance of our hearts. As Paul also wrote: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6: 19-20).
(Looking ahead: more reasons Paul gives on following God faithfully with our sexuality and how to do it. )
Updated 5.12.2017, 5.31.2018
18 May 2015
This was Ron’s (name has been changed) conclusion after the second week of the men’s Biblical Support Group at our office. “I look around the room, and all these guys are wearing wedding bands, and their problem is about porn. But they still get to have sex. How am I going to live without it?”
In his late 20s, Ron is a babe in Christ, coming to faith just six months ago. Although he was raised in a Christian home, he’s lived a wildly promiscuous gay life for the last decade. Beginning in his first semester in college, his last ten years are a blur of parties and sexual decadence. Now he is here after a startling encounter with God.
Ron was deeply moved when I shared my conversion story the first week of the group, describing God’s amazing condescension to me– opening my eyes to his reality while I was tripping out on LSD. Despite our differences, Ron’s conversion experience was similar to mine in its strangeness, so he felt comfortable opening up to me about feeling so disconnected from the other men and their struggles.
Ron is battling with the reality that there is no way for him to engage sexually the way he craves. Life without sex seems unbearable. I acknowledged that, yes, it is hard to remain celibate when your mind and body want sexual release. But it has been made even more difficult for young men like Ron because the culture in which they have been raised proclaims that a life without sex is a tragedy. Sex is now seen as a human right, of sorts, and to live without engaging in it is considered ridiculous—and impossible. Why would anyone want to do that? How stupid!
I shared with him my own “single again” experience following my wife’s sudden death years ago. For more than two years, I had “knock-down/drag-out” conversations with God: What am I to do with my sexual feelings and desires? At times it felt almost tortuous to dismiss my sexual longings and to not give in to sexual fantasy and masturbation for relief. I recall saying to God once, “I really hope it matters to you that I’m not masturbating right now!”
And the Holy Spirit’s response to me seemed to say, “Yes, it does matter to me; I want to be your comfort and refuge! In your present reality, which to you is hard and painful, I want you to live in the present and not escape to a fantasy world of false pleasures, a fantasy world that is incapable of giving you real life.”
Ron and I talked further. We discussed that we have no idea what God has in store for us in our futures, but that he promises it is going to be good! In obeying him, we are drawn ever closer to his heart. He calls us to obey today, entrusting the future to his nail-scarred hands. Please pray for Ron, as his entire life has been uprooted since his conversion.
For a brief look at how to successfully engage sexual temptation, click the link here on my blog post, “Suffering with Temptation.“
“But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14, ESV).
This verse gives us two clear and connected steps to take in finding growth and change from debilitating sexual struggles. The first step is to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Having acknowledged your sin before God and a trusted person (see previous blog post), now Jesus commands and enables you to “stand up and walk” by faith. What does it mean to “put on Christ?” It means three things:
- Seek consistent fellowship with God through his word and in prayer. This seems so basic that often we overlook it. Nothing, however, can replace cultivating our relationship with Jesus. When sexual sin has been a secret, shame-provoking part of a person’s life, often the heart has been dulled in devotion to Christ. Living water and fresh nourishment must be feasted upon regularly to fill and satisfy a hungry heart.
- Cultivate authentic relationships with Christians. Have you noticed that a good part of the Bible’s commands cannot be obeyed unless we are in relationship with other Christians? (See 1 John 1:7, which connects one’s walk with God to one’s walk with other believers.) God has designed our faith to be personal and intimate with him, but not apart from rich involvement in the life of other believers in the church. Do you have at least two people in your life with whom you can allow yourself to be fully known and prayed for? To be encouraged and discipled by? If you don’t, begin asking the Lord for such friends as these. It’s that important!
- Seek opportunities to love and serve others. There is grace, comfort, and joy to be poured into us and through us. We were not designed by God to be receptacles but conduits of his love and mercy. Look for opportunities to reach out to someone and show them love and care. For this you were made:“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).
Did you notice that I’ve said nothing regarding sexual sin in the advice I’ve given? That’s intentional! Most women who have struggled sexually have spent so much time focusing on “sin management” or battling against temptation, that they have neglected cultivating their relationships—with Jesus and with other sisters in the Lord.
Jesus, not the sin itself, must be the one upon whom you fix your gaze as you seek to walk away from sin!
The second step is to “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” While cultivating and building up relationships is crucial, especially as a first step, you still need to know how to fight the battle! Overcoming sin patterns, including sexual sin, is never something we “happen upon” or coast into. No, sin must be intentionally fought as we flee temptations and deal directly with the heart issues from which they are triggered.
- Identify and then avoid and flee triggers and temptations. What are the situations, influences, people, and emotions which seem to weaken your resolve to obey God? Is it being alone? Watching certain types of entertainment? Anger, hunger, loneliness, boredom, and fear can push us to crumble in the face of temptation. 1 Corinthians 10:13-14 instructs believers to flee temptation as we receive the escape path he provides. To run on that path of escape increasingly means we must learn to discern when we are creeping near to sin. Ask yourself, “What helps me to sin, and how can I avoid these influences?”
- Fast from good gifts which are not good for you. One common struggle we all have is taking good things from God and then worshipping them—allowing them to mean more to your heart than God himself. Are there things that you use or have that, while either enjoyable or useful, are increasingly pulling you into temptation and sin? Your smartphone? Your laptop? Places you are visiting or people you are hanging around with? Will fasting from these things be difficult or inconvenient? Sure. I challenge you to try this. Hard as it might be, this may be a necessary step in order to focus your time and attention on Christ and recapture your thought life.
- Refuse to isolate or hide. It’s been said that the power of secret sin is in the secret. To “walk in the light” (1 John 1: 1-9) and to “renounce secret and shameful ways” (2 Corinthians 4:1-6) will mean sharing your life and struggles with others. This path of obedience (and grace!) flows from what I said above about cultivating authentic relationships.
These initial steps, walked out day by day, little by little, over a lifetime, will lead you increasingly into the spacious freedom which is ours through Jesus Christ. All of this is waiting for you. May you find in Jesus the humility to run to him—or be carried to him by others who know you—in order to discover the life you really want.
A story from the second chapter of Mark gives a wonderful description of the challenge and glory of how women stuck in the mire of sexual sin can connect with Jesus for the help they need.
And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!” (Mark 2:1-12, ESV)
Many women are like this paralyzed man: desperate for help, but seemingly unable to draw near to Jesus. They are bound up in sin of a sexual nature and are “paralyzed,” unable to move or take action. Stuck in place and helpless. They are hurting, isolated, and terrified to consider talking to anyone in their churches about what is going on in their lives.
Chris came to Harvest USA for help, having recently left her partner of 23 years. She shared that, over the years when she would feel conviction over her homosexuality, she had sought help from pastors and other Christian leaders. Chris shared that most of the time, these leaders would respond to her confession with something like, “You do know, right, that this is a sin? That God is NOT pleased with this?” She said, “I would say back to them, ‘Yes, I do know it’s a sin. . . but do you have any words to help me? To lead me out?’” No one had been able to “pick her up and carry her to Jesus” for the discipleship she needed.
Sadly, overcoming sin of a sexual nature and understanding God’s good design for sexuality are not consistent topics of discussion, much less discipleship, in the church. Many women, like Chris, feel they are just outside the reach of Jesus and unable to draw near to him regarding their private struggles and sin. Some of these women may be ministry leaders themselves, but in terms of personal struggles with pornography, sexual fantasy, and sexual behavior with men and/or other women, they are clueless about how the gospel can help them move in the direction of sexual integrity and freedom.
How can women move from their patterns of sexual sin and the paralysis of faith that accompanies hidden struggles into the healing, forgiveness, and power of the love of Christ?
If you’re stuck on a mat . . .
Here are three initial steps of faith to take if you find yourself stuck and unable to connect the gospel to your sexual struggle.
First, acknowledge that you need help from outside of yourself. Proverbs 28:13 says, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” There is mercy for you, sister, as you turn to God in humility and ask him for help, which means reaching out to a person you can trust to share your struggle with.
Sharing your sexual sin struggle is key, as there is healing and freedom that comes in “naming” it before the Lord in the presence of someone else. The paralyzed man’s need was visible and obvious; yours is most likely secret, unknown to even your closest friends and coworkers. In confessing and asking for help, you are receiving the Lord’s help as you allow friends to carry you to Jesus.
Second, believe the words of God given to Christians: You are forgiven! Stand up! Hebrews 11:6 tells us that without faith, it is impossible to please God. Will you believe in his gracious, loving words to you regarding even these areas of sin in your life? He welcomes you, always, at the throne of grace!
Third, pick up your mat and go home! In other words, now walk forward in faith and repentance. Keep fighting! Don’t give up! This is a lifelong aspect of following Jesus: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts” (Romans 13:14).
My next blog post will unpack what that means. In the meantime, have you been paralyzed like Chris? Have any of these three steps of faith been helpful to you? Let me know.
11 Jun 2014
What I have been asked to share with you is not so much my story of how and why I came to Harvest USA, but rather what has happened to me since then. I will not pretend to have answers to many questions. This is a story of a ‘work in progress’ and how God ceaselessly and actively works in my life.
I came to Harvest USA because I was convicted that there was something very wrong in what I wanted from people and women in particular. I remember the night I finally began to see the subtle differences in what was good and bad in my friendships. It was a New Year’s Eve party to which a certain few had been invited. As I sat there, I was aware of, as if for the first time, the lingering, meaningful gazes, the exclusive conversations and private jokes, the hand resting too long on a shoulder. I had the sensation of being sucked into something that was no longer alluring. Everything worked in this group by hints and insinuation; nothing was ever said openly; so nothing could be defined. I remember it being a long, long night.
The next morning, I spoke to someone who shared with me her New Year’s Eve. She talked about how she and her friends had come together and prepared a meal. Then during that meal they renewed their friendships and prayed for the coming year and what it would bring. I walked away from her, into another room–and cried. The openness and honesty of the events of her evening contrasted sharply with the complete lack on anything meaningful in mine, and this cut me to the bone.
The Silent Sisterhood to which I belonged required secrecy, and for maintaining the secret my reward was an aching hollowness that gnawed deeper and deeper into my soul. I was a living, breathing lie. I had spent a lifetime building a pleasant, inoffensive façade keeping all but a tiny few out. Now this façade was so thick that it seemed impossible to break through. This is testimony that God can pulverize even the thickest walls around our hearts.
If God says, “No, this not the lifestyle to which I call you,” then to what does he call me? There has to be more to living than just not being gay anymore. For me Harvest USA is not just about walking alongside men and women coming out of the homosexual and lesbian lifestyle. It is a mistake to think that when someone stops acting out the gay lifestyle that it ends there. In most cases all you’ve got is a celibate homosexual or lesbian who lives in an androgynous twilight world of simply knowing what they shouldn’t do. Having been there, I found it’s a cold, comfortless place to be. Those who stop there find little to rejoice about; their hearts are rarely open or warm, their anger something to be avoided.
So, as I came to know what I shouldn’t do, my heart cried out to God to know what he was calling me to be! There had to be more, my heart yearned too much for these deep changes to stop there. What was it? What was it I was tasting, glimpsing, that drew me to the cliff edge of choices, and to the realization that I had choices. It was in this place I first began to understand what it was to be a child of God–the child of a loving father.
Though it sounds simple, to move from seeing myself as a child of God to being his daughter was a momentous step. I could easily have held on to the idea of being a child, seeing myself simply as a child–not even as a little girl, for the rest of my life and effectively never grown up.
But God calls me to be his daughter, his beloved daughter, to grow into womanhood, capable of seeing and experiencing him, people, and life in a totally unique way through my femininity. He teaches me in Word and leads me to women in church, in groups, and in friendships who, as in the words of Proverbs 31, are clothed in strength and dignity, who do not fear the future because of him and who speak with wisdom and faithful instruction. These women move freely and enjoy the respect and confidence of others and shatter my old notions of strength, independence, and freedom. These women are interdependent, they do not see themselves as separate, and they are connected closely to others and enjoy it! The connection is neither smothering nor exclusive as I found in lesbianism, but springs from being present to one another even in the hard, raw times that God uses to shape his daughters.
I am at that point of my journey where I have begun to explore my femininity, this intrinsic part of me–and it is not without fear. I am often frightened by the newness of everything. In a world in which I have heard femininity described as a ragbag of discarded female values to be passed over in search of something better, allowing my life to be shaped by God through his gift of femininity is also frightening. But to expose myself to the refining fire of my Father, to feel the sharpness of his knife as he cuts deep into the shadowy corners of my soul is also to expose that fear for his attention so that he may deal with it.
And I also know this: God sets me on a high cliff, and there I feel the breath of God; it can burn like fire, searing through me and separating sinew from bone. And all the while as I come apart he reshapes me for his purpose, and all the while the protection of his love holds my feet firm in that place. Only God protects and gives safety as I look in things long buried and discarded and am willing to pick up and own as part of me.
From the safety of his protection I face the temptations to go back, to strive at being strong and independent, and consequently to being untouchable in the core of myself. For these temptations are still there. But in God’s love I no longer welcome them as old friends, but see them as the soul destroyers they are.
My femininity, my sexuality, my place as a daughter: These are all gems for the taking from my Father’s hands. How I will wear such precious gifts is something that only time can reveal. But as I look on these well-cut stones, their facets catch and reflect the light of my Father’s love. The luster of his promises never fades, they are promises more enduring than the hardest diamond. Promises worth dying for; and Christ died so that I might receive these gifts.
To receive is something that was impossible for me not so long ago. There is beauty in this that I know I am just beginning to understand. God has lifted the curtain and I have glimpsed something wonderful–that promises more. I want to know, see and be more of what he is calling me to be. As he reveals more, I know this process will not end in this lifetime, but this a journey I want to make; I want to make it hoping and trusting always in him, my loving Father.
11 Jun 2014
My life in the past few years has included a variety of changes that I once could never imagine taking place.
My problem with homosexuality began approximately forty years ago, when I was a teenager. Life was very difficult for me even then. My formative years were those of confusion, loneliness, and parental psychological abuse. It seems that I could never measure up to my father’s expectations. There was an estrangement between the two of us that lasted all his earthly life. Anger, pain, and bitterness grew inside of me, and I carried them silently wherever I went. My view of masculinity became distorted. I longed for friendship with other men, but deep down I always felt unable to relate with them in a normal sense.
What followed next were many years of lying, covering up, and doing whatever I had to do to persist in this sin. It became very addictive, and I couldn’t seem to live without it.
There was a void in me that never seemed to be filled. As a result, I seemed to be always “looking for love in all the wrong places.” My life became a nightmare. I was constantly and frantically searching for something that I seemed never quite able to find.
I thought it was all hopeless and eventually got to the point where I really dreaded waking up in the morning, knowing that all I was going to face that day was emptiness in my soul. At that time I didn’t fully realize that it was my separation from God that was the real source of most of my misery.
It was as I began to think about my relationship with God, that he did a wonderful thing for me. Several years ago as I thumbed through the pages of Philadelphia Magazine, I came across an advertisement for Harvest USA. A few weeks later, I called the number. Little did I know how this discovery and subsequent interaction was going to deeply affect my life. When I called, I was immediately struck by the friendliness of a caring and seemingly understanding voice on the other end. I knew that I had to visit the office and find out more.
Through attendance at weekly meetings I began to draw on a strength that I never knew was available. The source of the strength is well explained in Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” That verse has been ringing true for me ever since. My view of myself and my masculinity began to change.
Through subsequent involvement with Harvest USA, my relationship with the Lord has flourished and grown. I began to get involved with other Christian groups and get Christian counseling, which I needed. At long last my struggle was over, and the simplicity of it all astounds me.
But my life today is not easy by a long shot. Nor do I really expect it to be. There are still problems, and I continue to live with enormous pressures. But there is a very discernible difference! I do not bear these things alone anymore, and I also realize that God will not allow me to be tempted beyond what I am able to bear. Living, no matter how difficult, makes so much more sense now that there is a clear direction to follow and wonderful goals to be achieved.
Jesus Christ is my focus and my salvation. Even though I once thought of myself as the lowest form of human life, I realize now that I am quite valuable. I can make choices based on the fact that I have as much to offer as any other man. I am accepted and loved in the truest sense. I am no longer separated from God, and he does not condemn me. This truth is actually simple but genuinely liberating to a person who has had to struggle with homosexuality nearly his whole life.
I thank God every day for the wonderful work of Harvest USA and for making me a part of it. The fellowship, true caring and friendship along with the steady leading of God, have certainly opened my eyes so that nothing seems hopeless anymore. I am one person who has conquered this battle and lives in constant wonder at the healing power of Jesus Christ. I highly recommend him for everyone!
14 Jan 2014
Temptation is suffering
“Bob” sat in my office with tears welling up in his eyes. “It’s so hard to live for God and I am so tired! Will this ever stop?!” Bob has been wrestling with the guilt and shame that has come from his addiction to viewing pornography. Caught last year by his wife, he initially had a period of freedom from his compulsions. He thought he was past the struggle. He had set up boundaries with his computer and resolved not to view pornography again. It was hard going, but it worked.
Then it all failed. One weekend he slipped, and the compulsions to furtively look at porn assaulted him all over again. He found himself slipping again into a pattern of secretly looking at porn on his computer whenever he thought it was safe to do so. Eventually his wife discovered his viewing habits again, and under threat of separation or worse, he came to my office.
“Kyle” was another person I saw that day. In his late forties, he has been struggling against same-sex attraction for decades. Although Kyle never had a sexual encounter with another man, is vigilant against the perils of the Internet, and battles the uninvited thoughts regularly intruding on his mind, he has never found the “freedom” he hoped for. Life is a daily choice to deny his sexual desires. It is a painful existence to battle against cravings he never asked for and desperately wants to disappear, but they obstinately persist nonetheless. This is true regardless of the nature of your struggle with sexual sin. Whether your temptation is toward the same-sex, pornography, emotionally enmeshed relationships, etc., to battle those temptations is suffering! Do you know what it is like to live with intrusive thoughts or compulsive behaviors while longing to be free?
In a culture where sexual fulfillment is one of life’s highest aims, denying sexual satisfaction is tantamount to adopting a life of misery and emptiness. For the world, desire is supreme and must be obeyed. Particularly for those who struggle against same-sex attraction, the mere fact that the desire is so relentless is the world’s “proof” it is inborn and unchangeable. It is not something to be fought, but surrendered to. Such struggles with temptation are painful.
Our culture also provides a false definition of freedom. Freedom is not the absence of temptation; it is the increasing ability to choose holiness out of love for Christ, despite the relentlessness of temptation. To live in freedom from sexual sin usually means ongoing temptations and the suffering they bring, but be encouraged: Your struggle against sexual sin matters to God! The daily decision to die to yourself and to lay your sexual desires on his altar is a precious sacrifice of obedience that is a delight to the Lover of your soul! (See 1 Samuel 15:22 and Romans 12:1.)
What do we mean by temptation? Put simply, temptation is the desire to turn to a false god. This desire is fed by three culprits: the world, our flesh and the devil. For many of us, our desires bend toward sexual sin. Being tempted is not the same as sin–I’m sure any spouse would agree that to desire another partner is not the same as the act of adultery. Nevertheless, temptation tugs at our hearts only because of the sinful desires already residing there. Temptation is tempting because we are ever-ready to turn from God to indulge our pleasure. James teaches, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:13-14, ESV).
God never tempts us. Temptations–whether originating from the world, our flesh or the devil–only have power because our hearts are always ready to run astray. We are the ones responsible for our sins. But do you know what is amazing? Although never their Creator, God uses temptations mightily for our good and his glory! When we begin to see another way of looking at temptations, we begin to understand that willpower and self-effort alone are a sure way of losing the battle. Fighting temptation head-on with willpower is doomed to failure. But fighting temptation with effort infused with a biblical perspective on temptation is an arsenal of great power.
God’s goodness in temptation
There are at least three ways that God’s goodness can be found even in times of temptation. Use these three perspectives to help you the next time you find yourself under the assault of temptation.
1. Temptation is a battle that draws us closer to God
First, temptation is an opportunity to know God better! The lusts of our hearts are masquerading as God. They lure and entice, promising joy, comfort, security, etc. Our sin offers us what only God can deliver. In the midst of our struggles with sin, we are invited to see the God whom sin mimics poorly for a fleeting moment. Sexual temptation is paramount in this parody. Why? Sex is a temporary, present phenomenon that is intense, glorious and pleasurable because it is intended to point beyond itself. Sex is ultimately about God. It points to the glorious pleasure, intimacy–the ecstasy!–experienced within the Trinity. Further, it points toward his relationship to us. Ephesians 5 teaches that the whole point of marriage is to give us a tiny glimpse of the love God has for us. Sex will be replaced in the New Heavens and Earth by the infinitely greater pleasure of God’s presence, which he tells us we can’t even begin to imagine! Rather than being weighed down in despair, temptations are an invitation to meditate on something far better: the wonder of the world to come and the pleasures of God we can’t even begin to fathom. Temptation can lead to worship!
2. Temptation is a battle that leads to spiritual growth
Second, temptation builds spiritual muscle. The Christian life is a fight. We are in the midst of a cosmic war – there is a reason we are exhorted to put on the whole armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-20). Temptation trains us in obedience. The seventeenth-century Scottish theologian, Samuel Rutherford, wrote, “Grace withers without adversity. The devil is but God’s master fencer, to teach us to handle our weapons.” There is no growth in holiness without a fight. If we long to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” we need to battle the temptations that war against our souls! We will only arrive in heaven sweaty, caked with blood and dust, with the sword still in our hand.
It is hard to get our finite minds around this, but God’s ultimate purpose is to fit us for eternity. He does this particularly through trials. Scripture repeatedly urges us to see that hardships in life are not proof of his absence, but demonstrations of his presence. He promises, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (1 Corinthians 4:17-18). Trials come to test the genuineness of our faith, which is more precious than gold (1 Peter 1:6-7). 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 describes a final judgment for all believers. You need to see that the “gold, silver and precious stones” built on the “foundation” of Jesus include the places where you chose to suffer for him! The Father rejoices in and rewards what is done in secret (Matthew 6:4-6, 18). He knows your sacrifice of obedience and rejoices in it! He knows when you are denying yourself out of love for Christ, and he promises to reward those who earnestly seek him (Hebrews 11:6). Our sovereign God gives you ample opportunity for reward in the life to come– moment by moment you are invited to demonstrate your allegiance to him in a way that will be celebrated forever. In what may seem like mundane moments, your suffering against temptation literally has eternal value!
Another way to think about this is to remember that your life is finite. Your days have already been numbered. Perhaps you’re experiencing how rapidly time flies. There is encouragement here: Temptation is finite. There are a fixed number of occasions left that you need to resist, no more will be added. Every incident of self-denial, each victory, is yours forever. There is one less temptation before God wipes away your every tear and the blood and sweat from your brow.
3. Temptation is a battle that shows us the love God has for us
Third, God meets us in temptation and as a result we learn to love him more. One of the glorious promises given to us is 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” One struggler I know commented that he discovered Jesus is the Way of escape. He found increasing freedom by embracing Christ in the midst of temptation, clinging to his promises, and trusting that obedience is better.
This is not abstract theology Jesus is the Way of escape because he knows your pain specifically! “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18). How was he tempted? Lest you think his experience was different, Hebrews tells us, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Listen to that hope! He has suffered the same temptations you experience. Therefore, right in the midst of your battle with temptation, his help is real and substantial. Knowing that Jesus suffered like you, but did so victoriously, is a deep source of strength and comfort. He alone knows exactly what you need, because he alone knows exactly what it takes, having endured the same temptations, but without ever failing.
Temptation is actually a blessing because it draws us closer to God like nothing else. Confrontation with our weakness is an invitation to experience his strength–to deepen our relationship with him! This was Paul’s lesson in the midst of trial, when he was desperate for reprieve: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). Jesus is after our hearts. He wants a genuine relationship with us and, if you’re like me, you are most open to that when you are humbled and brought to your knees. That’s why, for those who walk this road, there is great joy, even in the midst of battle!
There is a beautiful picture of the Christian life in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Return of the King. The Riders of Rohan traveled through the night along secret paths to rescue the city of Minas Tirith, burning and besieged in a sea of innumerable foes. As the riders charge into battle, facing almost certain doom, Tolkien writes, “They sang as they slew for the joy of battle was on them!” This is God’s invitation: We are in a battle, but there is reason for joy and song because, in the intensity of the fight, Jesus is with us and through the struggle gives us more of himself!
The hope of making it to the end
To live with unsatisfied desire is suffering. We regularly hear of prominent Christians, who struggled silently against same-sex attraction for years, but ultimately surrender to their desires. We hear of prominent Christians who are caught in adultery, or who are discovered to be visiting prostitutes. Their personal lives and their ministries collapse all around them.
The world mocks and jeers the faithful, touting, “It’s only a matter of time! When will you come to your senses and just give up!” Secular thought wonders why Christians struggle so much about sex; they look on amused as we fight a battle to uphold biblical sexuality and purity while they merely give in to their feelings and urges. What’s the big deal, they say?
Keep fighting the battle! Know that like the prophets of old, you are numbered among those “of whom the world was not worthy” (Hebrews 11:38). Please know that the Lover of your soul rejoices in your obedience; he promises an eternal reward beyond your ability to imagine and he will meet you here and now–spiritually and through his people–to give you the grace to overcome. (See Revelation 2-3 for the wonderful promises to “overcomers!”)
“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 24-25)
It can be hard as a Christian to know what to do if you are invited to attend a same-sex wedding for a gay friend, co-worker, or a relative. These relationships are not on the same level as someone from your own immediate family, but they are still important. Decisions will need to be made, and you want to convey that you both care for them and that your Christian faith is very important to you as well.
Obviously, you need to put some earnest and thoughtful time and prayer into making your decision. Keep in mind that many Christians, even among those who are more conservative and see the Scriptures as wholly authoritative in their lives, approach this decision differently. Here are some key questions to ask yourself to help you make a decision.
1. What is your current relationship with the person getting married?
Are they a casual co-worker, friend, or distant relative, or someone with whom you have a closer, more intimate relationship? Has the invitation been given to everyone in your office, department, or family? Or has it been given to you because you have a closer relationship? These factors can help you determine how best to respond. For example, if the person is someone with whom you have a good friendship, then you will most likely speak directly to him or her about the issue of attending. If your friend knows you are a Christian, then this becomes another opportunity to share and discuss together what your faith positions are and what you think is best for you to do.
2. What would you be trying to convey by your attendance?
Some people have made the distinction between supporting the event, of which they don’t approve, and supporting the person getting married, whom they do love and care about. This distinction may depend on how vocal you have been about your Christian faith. What kinds of key conversations have you had with them? Do they know you are a Christian? Do they know your views about homosexuality? If so, your presence could actually “stun” them or really mess up the categories they may have about people like you. Christians, living intentionally by the gospel, can sometimes be confusing and provocative to people, causing them to rethink their positions. That’s a good thing.
If you feel that attending would advance and actually lend weight and credibility to your Christian witness, then you might decide in that direction. The nature of mercy is that it always discerns; it is not something sloppy or casual, but intentional. Mercy also “disrupts” in order to try to guide someone’s life path towards a newer and bigger eternal direction. So, in attending, you do not want your presence to convey a message that you are culturally “with it,” or that you are sophisticated enough to have no problem with people who embrace same-sex marriage. Rather, your attendance would be a calculated step, carefully chosen, that would be in line with your desire to pursue a relationship with this person because you care for them, enough to keep sharing the gospel with them.
3. What are you concerned about?
Are you afraid that your attendance would communicate your approval (like probably 99% of the people there)? Or are you afraid of having to explain why you feel you cannot attend? Are you afraid you would not know how to act or how to talk with other guests, most of whom might be gay or, at the least, pro-gay? There can be lots of fear issues involved in having to make this decision. Ask the Lord to guide you regarding these issues to your attending, or to your fears about repercussions from not attending. Fear or anxiety about disappointing someone is never a good motivator. A better question is this: What response of mine might cause further openness to the gospel?
4. Could you substitute something else, other than attending the event?
If, in good conscience, you reach the conclusion that you cannot attend the service, you might consider an alternative response, one that would not violate your faith positions or convey a wrong message, but would still affirm your love and care for the person. For instance, you might consider a card or gift. This would still show your care for them and acknowledge to them that this was an important day for them (it was, but you don’t necessarily have to join in on the celebration). You could say something like this in the card: “Sorry that I was unable to make it (note: if you are not close to them, they do not necessarily have to know why), but I know it was a special day for you, and here is a little token of my appreciation and care for you.”
If you are close to the person or couple but still conclude in good conscience that you cannot attend the wedding, then consider taking them out to lunch or dinner later on. Of course, this may be a tense or uncomfortable get-together, especially if the person who invited you felt hurt by your absence. But a quick follow-up may go a long way toward bringing understanding and another opportunity for you to share both the truth and mercy of the gospel.
5. Do one or both parties claim to be Christians?
Someone once said, “We shouldn’t expect regenerate behavior from unregenerate people.” In other words, we should not be surprised when unbelievers act like unbelievers. If the person or persons getting married are unbelievers, this doesn’t mean you have a green light to attend—but if someone claims to be a Christian and yet is in rebellion to God’s design and intention for how his people should live, and is celebrating it and inviting others to join in, then that is another matter. Some people have come to the conclusion that, if the persons are unbelievers, there is more decision room for the argument to attend the wedding. But others would argue that even if one of the parties is a confessing Christian, attending would be entering into their delusion that the marriage union is fine with God and is sanctioned by him.
As you can see, these are difficult issues to consider! Your decision must be surrounded with prayer and discussed with some close friends or family members. But know this: Yaour wrestling with this question of whether or not it would be appropriate to attend is itself evidence of your heart wanting to do the right thing to honor Christ and to open doors for the gospel. Realize that there is no one answer to this! You may face other challenges and questions from co-workers, friends, or relatives, regardless of the course you choose. This situation is much like the one the early church faced, when believers were confronted about behavior that some felt was permitted and others did not (eating of meat, setting apart special days, etc.). Romans 14 is a chapter that you would do well to read and reflect on as you wrestle with these issues. There will always be a tension between the freedom we have in Christ to do what we have prayerfully considered is permissible and the need to respect the different opinions of others on the same matter, especially when our behavior may deeply impact another believer.
One thing you can count on: Like Jesus, you’ll probably be misunderstood regarding the implications of any choice you make. So, when you make your decision, know that you have made it on the basis of what will honor God; be at peace on that basis.
Post-script: What about a baptism or baby shower?
Although slightly different, some of the above questions and criteria could be applied toward the invitation to attend a baby shower, a christening, or a baptism service, when same-sex couples invite you to attend after the birth or adoption of a child. This situation is a bit further removed from a wedding service, when the issue of same-sex marriage is outside of God’s design; but with a child it can be a bit more complicated, as the child is not responsible for the circumstances in which he participates in such events.
It seems that homosexuality has embraced our culture, and the culture has embraced homosexuality. It is a part of the fallen nature of things that man has always been an expert at creating ingenuous ways to celebrate his brokenness. So, men and women in the gay life have no corner on this.
Apart from faith in Christ and submission to the authority of Scripture, we are all experts at rationalizing and justifying what we want to do. The more we live, in any way, outside of God’s design, the more we convince ourselves that what we are doing is OK. This happens on both an individual level and a corporate, cultural level. Homosexuality is not the only thing that was once considered unacceptable or immoral but later is embraced by the culture (consider abortion and sex outside of marriage).
Scripture says we’re all a mess and that we all need forgiveness and cleansing. Biblically speaking, we’re all in the same boat. We all need the same medicine of the gospel to free us from whatever attachments or idols we cling to—from whatever we have decided gives us life apart from Christ. This realization about ourselves should bring to us a growing compassion for others. Believers in Christ should be the first ones to acknowledge that we still pursue our own personal idols, and it is only by the persistent work of the Holy Spirit in our lives that we become aware of our own sin and the need to repent of it.
Homosexuality is one of those topics that draws intense and passionate reactions. Complex issues of the heart usually do. Christians are in a sort of no-man’s-land here today. Suggesting to those who have embraced the current cultural position that homosexuality is sinful and not part of God’s design for sexuality appears as uneducated, homophobic and ridiculous. On the other hand, though, suggesting to fellow evangelical believers that God loves and forgives sinners who struggle with homosexuality and that we should do the same may appear compromising and wishy-washy.
While we can oppose the advancement of a social movement that would encourage everyone to embrace this cultural shift by vocalizing our concerns and participating in the political process, for Christians a far deeper response to homosexuality and the gay community is needed. When believers proclaim the gospel of Christ both to gays and to the culture at large in a loving, redemptive manner, punctuated with grace and truth, this sets us apart and truly reflects the person of Christ. In such a heated and increasingly emotionalized debate, Christians have a responsibility to represent Christ to a fallen world in four ways.
“Let every person be quick to hear” (James 1:9, ESV). This doesn’t mean looking for loopholes in a debate or seeking a chance to criticize and find fault as you talk about this issue. We must listen in order to understand the heart of what a person is saying. This is hard work, a relational skill to be learned. It’s not natural. It takes practice. Listen to what moves other people. Listen for their passions, what they value, what their experience has been, especially with other Christians, and what they fear.
The more you understand a person’s point of view, the more you can profit from it. Why do they think the way they do? What events have led to their adopting of their worldview? What’s been their experience of Christianity—of other Christians or the church in general? What wounds from their family of origin and from other people lie festering in the background? As adults, we’re a composite of all these things—upbringing, personal wounds, cultural norms, and our own heart-generated responses to these powerful, shaping influences. Get to know the persons to whom you are talking so that you truly know who they are. Otherwise, we tend to conveniently lump them into a group, label them on the basis of what we read in the news, and think this is “knowing” them.
“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans? . . . No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5). Only a redeemed sinner, knowing he stands condemned apart from Christ’s death on the cross, can reach a sinner who doesn’t know he needs redeeming. What’s your motivation when you engage someone with the gospel? Is it to reach lost people with the enduring love that has found you out—a love that has exposed you as a cutthroat and depraved sinner and yet has embraced you with fatherly love? Is it your own awareness that, at heart, you’re a sham, a misfit, a counterfeit, a phony and that there is nothing good inside you to warrant God’s love, yet he still died in your place to make you whole? Do you really care about people who struggle with same-sex attraction as men and women who need the love of Christ, or do you only want them to shut up and disappear? Remember that Jesus said, “He who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:47). If you have no love for those who claim a gay identity, then you have not understood the forgiving love of Jesus in your own life.
Patiently listening and personally repenting also means loving those who are different, who believe differently. The gay community has long been demonized by Christians, held up as the example of the worst kind of people. This is grossly unfair and unloving, not to mention unbiblical. No single group of people corners the market on sinful behavior outside of God’s design. There is simply no place for believers to verbally demean or physically abuse the same-sex attracted. If your neighbor or colleague proclaimed to you that he didn’t believe in God, would you go around mocking him?
“The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone . . . correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Timothy 2:22-25). How do you talk to people who don’t believe what you do? An argumentative, win-at-all-costs approach does not conform to what Paul wrote to Timothy. You need to ask the Holy Spirit to instruct your own heart as you instruct others. Engaging someone “with gentleness” does not mean being weak or vacillating in your argument; it means treating everyone with respect and dignity even when they persistently disagree. An unloving and impatient heart is a hindrance to the gospel message. The Lord’s command to us through the words of Paul teaches us here “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:2).
“Gently instruct” also means that your words must be grounded in the truth of Scripture, not your own opinion. The real issue regarding what Scripture says about homosexuality is not about whether the key passages are culturally relevant anymore, but whether Scripture in its entirety still has authority over all of life. It should always be the truths of Scripture, and not our demeanor or presentation of it, that people reject.
Do you really care about homosexuals—or do you only want them to shut up and disappear?
Talking to those who are blind to the reality of their hearts but who live in a world that applauds their sin is both a privilege and a challenge. They are victims of their own sin and the lies and sin of others. Therefore, they’re caught. But they’re also accountable before a holy God for their continued choice to live life on their own terms and not submit their lives to the lordship of Christ. We must represent both aspects of the truth as we share Christ.
Mercifully pursue and then engage the heart
“Have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire, hating even the garment stained by the flesh” (Jude 22-23). God calls us to be neither reclusive nor rude but to move boldly into confusing, high-stakes situations with the gospel of God’s mercy.
We bring the gospel where it is most needed: to the vocally anti-Christian pro-gay activist, to the mild-mannered clergy who says the love of Jesus means affirming homosexuality as God’s gift, to the confused and scared teenager who fears he’s gay and there’s no other option. Showing mercy means practically caring for people. It means being patiently and persistently available to help those who live in a fallen world. It means lovingly holding our ground against those who say that our beliefs are hateful.
We must not wilt from the irrational heat of those who say that we are hateful bigots merely on the basis that we do not agree with their beliefs.
As we do this, we’re able to move into other people’s worlds. Engaging people by asking good questions, respectfully, is an important part of this. I once approached a man who was marching in a gay rally. Subsequently, I had a two-hour conversation that ended with this man shaking my hand and thanking me for stopping him—in spite of the fact that I shared the gospel with him! I had listened to him, heard his concerns, and engaged his heart with matters important to him. Didn’t Jesus do the same?
My approach appealed to his heart. Listening, asking questions, and engaging people with respect, even if we have fundamental differences, invites people to share their stories more quickly than anything else. When we take time to get people into their stories, they become more open to us and to the gospel.
Jesus, of course, was the master of all that I’ve just described. We should be, too. His methods are the most under-utilized and missed aspects of evangelism. They also make the deepest and most heart-felt impact, often leaving people wanting more!
This article originally appeared in the May 2010 edition of Tabletalk magazine, but has been edited and expanded for this publication.