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.
14 Jan 2014
Your heart is racing. You’re not sure what to think. You feel a little uneasy, maybe a lot. Your roommate has just revealed what you already thought; maybe you had no idea at all.
You are no longer wondering what’s up with your roommate, but now you’re wondering how you are going to deal with his or her homosexuality. Time seems to stand still for just a moment as you look into each others eyes, both wondering what your reactions will be.
It could just as easily be your office mate. Maybe instead of, “I’m gay,” this person with whom you spend so much time in such close quarters has said instead, “I’m bisexual.” Maybe someone else had already told you; maybe everybody else seems to have known already. Maybe you’re thinking about what this means for your relationship or for your reputation. But right now you have someone before you who’s revealed something so personal and important that you must respond. What do you say? What do you do?
If something is difficult for one roommate, that difficulty is likely to affect the other. Your roommate may have a keen interest in how you handle this disclosure. What you think and feel about your roommate matters. Like yourself, your roommate is a precious person made in the image of God. Like you, this person is a sinner, prone to doing the wrong thing and to taking things the wrong way. Like yourself, your roommate doesn’t know what is going to happen next and may be a little ill at ease waiting to see your reaction.
You may feel a tension between standing up for what you think is right and living out what you believe. Standing for the truth and acting in love can seem almost completely at odds with each other. This is a kind of pressure Christians feel all the time, but homosexuality is such an emotional issue it can heighten the tension. Sharing a common space with someone usually involves conflict, and living or working together everyday creates a lot of opportunities for friction. If you are a Christian, these conflicts are also opportunities to extend the grace of the gospel.
What not to do!
Before considering what positive things you can do to extend this grace to your roommate, you might want to take the time to make sure you avoid some common mistakes that may interfere with showing God’s love. Things you will want to be sure not to do include the following:
Yes, it is of course appropriate and even necessary at times to communicate clearly to people what God says is true about their conduct, even or especially when what they are doing is sinful and destructive (Ezekiel 3:17-21). Nevertheless, believers frequently give in to the temptation to feel better about themselves and their situation by communicating God’s truth in a condescending, self-righteous, impatient, and/or indignant manner. What’s the difference between speaking boldly and simply scolding? Your heart. Let’s face it: You, like every human being, are prone to sin with your speech, and to be proud in your heart, and to be irritable at having to deal with something you’d rather not deal with at all, especially when it involves conflict. You need to take a long look (and maybe a second or third look) at your own heart and motives before you pronounce God’s judgment in God’s name on your roommate’s homosexuality (James 1:26).
Alternatively, you don’t want to just concede convictions that are based on God’s truth, but it can be very tempting to abandon what seems to be an impractical set of beliefs in favor of values that make it easier to get along with folks. If your roommate is nice or emotionally fragile, misunderstood or mistreated by others, it doesn’t help anyone for you to give ground to falsehood for the sake of convenience (Proverbs 25:26).
Sometimes we are tempted, not so much to say “no” to God’s truth and “yes” to falsehood, but rather to say “maybe” to both. To put the truth up for grabs only makes things more confusing (Proverbs 24:10-12). If you are really not sure what God thinks about same-sex attraction, or if you are not sure you really care all that much what God thinks, it is important to be honest about your doubts. However, if you are sure about what’s true, don’t hide behind the fact that other people hold differing opinions in order to avoid a conflict about your own.
You may be tempted to quietly smolder in resentment, thinking your roommate has mistreated you by putting you in this situation. Every little thing—even things that haven’t the remotest connection with your roommate’s sexual preference or practice—can become an aggravation because of a largely unresolved conflict that remains unaddressed. Better you should have a conflict over something important than about who left a dish out on the counter or who left the window open when it rained (1 Corinthians 13:5).
The disclosure of sensitive and potentially damaging information by one person to another is an occasion for caution, not for chit chat. Someone may or may not care a great deal about what you say about them or to whom you say it. Either way, you may find yourself itching to talk with someone about your roommate’s disclosure, not to help you sort out what to do, but rather to satisfy a delicious hunger to tell others something personal and private about someone else. Address the desire in your heart to gossip. To help you process the information, perhaps you can identify one trustworthy person whose insight you think might be helpful to you and who will keep the information confidential. Talking with one good confidante is fine; choose well and stop there (Proverbs 11:13; 25:9-10; 26:20).
Especially if the person telling you he or she is gay appears hostile, defiant, or overly assertive, you may be tempted to fight fire with fire by being similarly hostile, defiant, or assertive. Even if the person with whom you are speaking is mild-mannered and polite, just the potential for conflict can provoke you to want to forcefully destroy what contributes to your tension, even if that something is another person. Fighting only gives your roommate good reason to dismiss everything else you might say or do (Proverbs 15:1-4; 20:3).
In avoiding a fight, you may be tempted to take little jabs here and there at your roommate, moving from holding a grudge to spiteful, indirect conflict to effectively mistreating a person because he or she has told you they are gay. You may find yourself wanting to get back at your roommate in little ways, only to find you are reinforcing what he or she may have already taken for granted C Christians hate gays (Proverbs 24:28-29).
Finally, in an attempt to avoid both conflict and mistakes, you may be tempted to retreat from the situation altogether. You may look to minimize your contact with this person, restrict your conversation to “safe” topics, and avoid situations where you are likely to have to deal with anything related to your disagreement. You may even consider having your room assignment changed. What this may communicate (though perhaps not your intention) is that the other person’s sexuality is not something you can or want to deal with (Proverbs 25:19, 28:1).
What you can do
So what can you do to respond as a Christian to your roommate in these circumstances?
Before you do anything, before you say anything to anybody else, pray. If you are not sure what to do or say, you can ask God for wisdom and know he will give it to you (Nehemiah 2:4, James 1:5).
Sometimes the person making this disclosure may not want to talk with you anymore about it, but that would be unusual. If your roommate thinks you are someone with whom he or she can be open, that’s a good sign that they might want to continue the conversation. First off, you can ask questions like, “Is this something you’ve talked with a lot of people about?” “Were you concerned about telling me?” “How long have you been aware that you felt this way?” “How has that been for you to grow into this understanding of yourself?” When in doubt, ask and listen (Proverbs 15:28, 18:13).
You can volunteer your own thoughts too, being careful not to insist that the other person agree with you. For example, you can say things like, “That’s different for me. I’m not used to folks telling me that,” or, “Thanks for telling me. I appreciate you being honest with me that way.” If you are asked something like, “Well, what do you think?” you might respond along the lines of, “Well, I’m not sure—I feel a little confused and at a loss,” or, “Actually, I have religious beliefs about homosexuality, and I’m kind of concerned about how you might react.” This then puts the other person in a position either to leave things where they are for a bit, or to go a little deeper with you knowing you are sensitive to how delicate a conversation it may be (Proverbs 15:18, 17:14, 20:3).
Know your options
Sometimes people can feel trapped by a roommate’s disclosure of homosexuality. One way not to feel like your options are taken away is to know what those options are. For example, there are circumstances in which you could understandably request a room reassignment. You may not necessarily want to change your living situation, but knowing whether and how can make you feel a little more like you could if you had to. At the same time, roommates are often very insensitive to how they use their common space, and there are some concerns that, while not unique to having a gay roommate, may make a move advisable. If your roommate is participating in activity in your room that bothers you (e.g., using sexually explicit language or material, hosting late night visits or parties, sexual activity, etc.), it would be appropriate for you to bring up your concerns directly with your roommate. If for whatever reason this discussion doesn’t resolve your concerns, you should plan to discuss them with your resident adviser after inviting your roommate to come participate in that discussion with you. Your RA can help you sort out your options in a peacemaking role. These may not be concerns related specifically to same-sex attraction, just average roommate problems. Knowing your options can help you feel less trapped by your circumstances.
Showing compassion may be the hardest part of dealing with your roommate. On the one hand, you may not feel a lot of compassion, so that being motivated to be compassionate can seem impossible. At the same time, you may not meet with a warm reception in your attempts at compassion, so that you may feel rebuffed or just a failure if you don’t have “success” in your efforts. However, if you focus on your responsibility to show compassion rather than on your feelings or on the other person’s reception, you will find it a lot easier (James 3:17-18).
Compassion involves caring about those aspects of your roommate’s life where and when you can—caring about what they care about, sorrowing where you can and rejoicing where you can. Obviously, as with all people, your roommate may rejoice in sin or despair under conviction, and you may not find it appropriate to rejoice or sorrow with them in all instances. Still, there is likely a lot more to your roommate’s life than rejoicing in sin, and these are circumstances and instances in which you can care about a fellow human being without requiring ideological agreement. Jesus did not wait for us to agree with him that we are sinners before he showed us compassion. On the contrary, “This is how God demonstrates his love toward us: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Sometimes if your religious convictions are known to others, folks will have (understandable) assumptions about what you think, feel, or believe. Often the relative importance or particular place that same-sex attraction holds in your own world view may not be immediately apparent, and the more you talk about it, the more likely it will appear to others that it is a colossally big deal in comparison with other issues in your mind. Without trying to prove that you are right, you can try to help your roommate understand why you are uncomfortable, why other issues make you uncomfortable, etc. At the same time, you might want to go out of your way to demonstrate clearly how you don’t fit an evangelical or fundamentalist stereotype of hatred, hypocrisy, etc. Where you do fit such a stereotype, you can model repentance and humility, putting your own sin in a perspective your roommate, by God’s grace, can understand.
Include in your life
If you are uncomfortable with your roommate, without realizing it you may be withdrawing yourself from that person in such a way that he or she may feel excluded. While this may not be your intention, what you communicate to someone when you are reacting unconsciously out of personal interest is that such people are to be avoided. They may notice you don’t talk with them about the same things you do with others, that you act differently, do different things. You can go a long way towards relieving tension and living out the gospel just by deliberately including your roommate in all kinds of things in your life. Talking with your roommate about your relationships, your fears, your goals, and your questions can show that God’s people can welcome him or her into their lives without being contaminated (Luke 15, 1 Corinthians 5:9-10).
What you can’t do
Even as you think about what you can do, and try to avoid things you shouldn’t do, it may be helpful to be clear in your own mind what you can’t do.
Because you are a Christian and your roommate is gay is no excuse for your sins. Indeed, if you think you can sin openly with impunity is to communicate that hypocrisy is okay, but same-sex attraction is not. Show your roommate what confession, repentance, asking for forgiveness, and restitution look like. Maybe he or she will catch on.
Make everything okay
Life is not easy, neat, or okay, and neither are people. There is an understandable impulse to change conflict and tension into peace and order. All you can hope for between two sinners is either (a) honest humility amidst sin in our hearts and conduct, or (b) superficial conflict avoidance amidst sin in our hearts and conduct. Take your pick: One’s messy now, one’s a lot messier later—and later may be too late to show the gospel to someone in need.
Make anyone different
Think about your own sin. Is it in your own power alone to change your whole heart and life to be what it should be? No! What makes you think you can change somebody else, or talk them into doing what you can’t even do yourself? What you can do is ask God to help you change, and then ask him to work that same kind of change in your roommate’s life.
Make God do what you want
God doesn’t always do what we want him to do or on our time table. Often people will get very resentful towards God for not relieving their tensions the way they want when they want. God is wiser and more patient than we are, and he knows best how to work in your circumstances. You can tell God what he’s promised you; you can tell him thank you in advance for keeping his promises, but you can’t tell him how to do what he knows best—deal mercifully with sinners like ourselves.
What you must do
“…So, what do you think?”
God has called us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Galatians 5:14). How would you want anyone to react to you when you were celebrating something that was wrong? Can you imagine the disappointment you might feel to learn someone close to you objected to something that in your mind was foundational to who you are as a person? On the other hand, can you imagine how distrustful you might feel toward someone you learned had been less than honest with you about something so important? Whatever you do, you must be honest. “An honest answer is like a kiss on the lips” (Proverbs 24:26). Be yourself, be real, and trust God to work in your circumstances for his glory through your weaknesses and failings, for his glory and for the good of all who will heed him.
“How did this happen?” asked the woman sitting across from me in my office.
“Our relationship started out as one of the best friendships I’ve ever had. I feel like I have waited for years to have a close friend, someone who lights up when she sees me. I guess she got tired of me because now she won’t even talk to me. I feel like someone has punched me in the stomach. I wake every morning and wonder if she will ever call me again.”
Another woman spoke with me on the phone and said, “Neither of us has ever been involved with another woman before. In fact, I’ve never had sexual feelings for women, but somehow we’ve gotten physically involved with each other. I know this is wrong, but I don’t know how to salvage our relationship. I’m afraid you will tell me I need to give her up. Is there any way to fix our relationship and still be friends?”
A third woman asked me, “Is it normal to want to be with one friend all the time? My husband works long hours and he isn’t around much. My friend is available, and she understands how I feel… even before I tell her. I think we are too close though; my husband seems jealous of her. He thinks we’re too dependent on one another.”
“My last female friend and I became so enmeshed that I couldn’t make decisions without talking it over with her first. When she moved away, I thought it would kill me,” said another woman. “Our relationship was unbalanced, but I couldn’t see it until we were apart. How do you know when your friendship is too close in an unhealthy way?”
These are questions often asked by women who are questioning the health of their friendships. In addition, women who have turned away from a homosexual life often express concern about becoming involved with women in an unhealthy way. They want to know how to develop new friendships that will reflect their growth and refusal to connect with others improperly. In this article, we will explore why and how friendships go wrong and how to repair the damage between women who have an unhealthy relationship.
Designed with his image
Women are relational beings. It is a fact that few would argue. Even our play from childhood reflects how we feel about relationships. It has been said that little boys play “side by side” while little girls play “face to face.” I see the truth of this desire for relationship as I watch my daughters and their friends play. Tears and frustrations surface often for them. If one feels left out or ignored by someone they want to be connected to, they react strongly. While these eruptions in their friendships eventually calm down and they return to playing and enjoying one another, their passion for wanting to be loved and included remains very important to them.
God has built within us all a desire to connect. God himself experiences ongoing intimacy within the Trinity. In turn, he has fashioned us to experience some of the connection he enjoys by giving us other humans to know and love. These friendships enrich our lives, giving meaning and purpose in ways that living in isolation will not.
Sometimes, however, we take the beauty of friendship with another human and expect it to fill us in ways only God is meant to do. When does friendship enhance life properly and when does it become unbalanced? Let’s look briefly at how unhealthy relationships develop for some women.
The desire for connection gone wrong
1. An unhealthy relationship starts with relational disappointment carried over from childhood.
None of us had the perfect parents. None of us will parent perfectly. All of us have scars and wounds left over from the effects of interacting with parents, siblings, extended family, teachers, and other figures we thought should love us, but frequently failed to do so well. All too often these relationships included sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of the worst kind. Some women grow up and find a way to integrate their past and move on to live life with a balanced understanding for relationship in their lives. Still other women reach adulthood vigilantly searching for the significant figure that will love them in some fashion so as to erase the memory of the pain they have endured.
No woman vows this consciously, saying in her heart, “Since my trust has been betrayed in my childhood relationships, I will look for and find someone to fix this hole in my heart.” However, we all, by trial and error, find what works for a season to fill us relationally. Our self-focused goal is primarily to minimize discomfort and maximize the experience of acceptance and love. If our lives are motivated by avoiding abandonment or looking for acceptance and approval, we relate in ways that flow from an empty heart mainly concerned with itself, not with God or others. Once we engage in a relationship that we think will satisfy us continually, we begin to find ways to manage the relationship so that we don’t experience the sting of loneliness again.
2. An unhealthy relationship continues for the purpose of satisfying a nagging sense of emptiness.
As some women search for someone to love them unfailingly they often attach themselves to another woman who appears to offer the nurturing they long for. Like “hand in glove,” these relational dynamics seem to fit—temporarily.
For example, there are some women whose stories compel them to be the “rescuer”; for others, their stories compel them to be the “rescuee.” When these relationship designs match, an intense connection can begin to fill up a hole in each that gives a temporary sense of satisfaction. However, requiring another person to “fix” our empty broken hearts is a tall order and can quickly become a burden. Such was the case of Anna (fictitious name) who called my office for help.
Alone and rejected from a failed seven-year marriage, she poured her heart out in a women’s prayer meeting at her church. Her vulnerability touched something deep in Carol (name has been changed), and she invited Anna out for coffee. As Anna talked about her life, Carol felt herself drawn towards Anna’s pain and sorrow. Carol knew all too well the pain of divorce, having experienced it just four years prior herself. Carol also felt a familiar pull to take care of Anna, but she had always thought it was a sign of compassion for others.
Carol kept checking on Anna over the next few days and surprised her with a homemade dinner for her and her kids. It felt so good to have someone help with the household chores. Another adult pair of hands lightened her load, so Anna gratefully received the help offered. Anna also enjoyed the companionship of another woman who seemed to understand what she felt. Within weeks, it seemed, Anna and Carol were inseparable, and Anna’s children began to think of Carol as a permanent appendage to their mom.
Carol also enjoyed a burst of zeal for this new friendship. Anna’s children played a unique role in her life since she was childless herself. It felt so good to lighten the burden of her friend, and she thought often of ways to brighten her day. It was not unusual for Carol to invent reasons to either see Anna or at least talk to her daily.
Eventually, though, the children grew to hate the talks between the women that often robbed them of their mom’s attention. They grew tired of Carol’s presence and resented going everywhere with their mom’s friend. Because Anna felt the children’s remarks were ungrateful and demanding, she dismissed their complaints to the notion that they expected to always have their mom all to themselves. She found herself frequently defending her relationship with Carol to her own children.
It wasn’t unusual for the women to hug when they saw each other, but late one night after a particularly long, intense talk, their hug seemed to last too long. That hug stirred something in Anna that kept her up all night wondering what was happening to their relationship. She felt something was wrong, but wasn’t sure what. Hugging Carol seemed inappropriate, but what could be wrong with a hug? She finally decided it was best to put some distance in their relationship until she could sort out what was bothering her.
The next morning, the two women talked about how close they were becoming. It surprised Carol when Anna suggested that they might need to include others in their relationship or spread out how often they saw each other. Fearing Anna might be forsaking the relationship, Carol became upset and moped through the rest of their breakfast. The sulking made Anna realize that to pull away would result in disapproval and resistance from Carol. Not wanting to disappoint the woman who had done so much for her, Anna scrambled to reassure Carol that everything would be fine. But Anna began to feel fearful that her friendship may not be so healthy after all.
3. Unhealthy relationships remain exclusive, unusually intense, and resist attempts to manage the frequency or intensity of the relationship.
As we saw in Anna and Carol’s relationship, friendships that are earmarked over “matching” pasts often sprout up over short periods of time and become intensely intimate. These friendships can be like a seed that finds soil in the cracks of pavement and germinates, sometimes even blooming flowers. But the roots of these tiny plants can’t grow deep, and the plant itself is not in the right place.
So it is with unhealthy friendships. Perhaps the friendship started out well, but the intensity and exclusivity of the relationship has resulted in strong feelings of protective loyalty and impenetrable cohesiveness. As a result, it is often very difficult to objectively evaluate the dynamics of the relationship.
Sometimes when the intensity builds, a desire grows to express the closeness and intimacy being enjoyed—in a physical way. When this happens and appropriate boundaries are crossed, the friendship can become sexualized. No one is more shocked and confused when these sexual feelings begin than women who have never thought of themselves as homosexual in orientation. The process of sorting out a relationship that is unhealthy is difficult and often painful, but it can be done.
Hope for healthy relationships: steps to freedom
When involved in a friendship that has turned into something unhealthy, you may wonder if you can ever break free. If you have a history of these kinds of friendships, you may even question if you are fatally flawed and are destined to forever develop unhealthy relationships with women. You may have even determined to keep everyone at arm’s length from your heart, erroneously thinking this will keep yourself and others “safe.”
However confused you may be about your ability to relate in healthy ways, God’s promise to forgive and make you new reaches the deepest of relational problems. We often don’t turn to God for help until our relationships make us miserable or fall apart. Such was the pattern for the nation of Israel.
In the book of Isaiah, we find God using his prophet Isaiah to caution Israel from trusting the strength of their foreign neighbors’ armies to rescue them. In chapters 30 and 31, Isaiah warns them not to depend on alliances with Egypt or to trust in their swift horses and chariots. He wants them to turn their wandering hearts back to him as their God. His plan is to protect them and deliver them on his terms. Israel experienced disappointment, misery, and literal torment when they disobeyed God. Similarly, unhealthy alliances with other women often result in some type of agony, as we see from the examples of real conversations I have recorded at the beginning of this article.
Finally, God speaks to Israel through his servant Isaiah again in 50:10-11 about the consequences of finding solace in anyone other than him.
“Who among you fears the Lord
and obeys the voice of his servant?
Let him who walks in darkness
and has no light
trust in the name of the Lord
and rely on his God.
Behold, all you who kindle a fire
who equip yourselves with burning torches!
Walk by the light of your fire
and by the torches you have kindled!
This you have from my hand:
you shall lie down in torment.” (ESV)
Like Israel, his love for us is demonstrated in how he will not permit us to depend more on his creatures than we depend on him. In fact, God will lovingly allow our worlds to collapse so we will experience the torment of our persistent pursuit of any torch we depend on to light our path and find our way in this dark world. He knows our hearts will build an idol out of anything, and he will keep exposing the inability of our idols to save or satisfy our hearts built for him. However, he never intends us to live a lonely, unattached life.
Admitting the truth
Facing the truth that your friendship is not healthy for you or the woman with whom you are in relationship is a brave step towards freedom. It is crucial to find the time to be alone and to reflect on what has made this relationship unhealthy. Creating space to reflect, apart from this woman, allows you to think and feel for yourself without the complications of handling her thoughts and feelings. Developing your own sense of self is not only a good place to start, but is also foundational to building healthy relationships.
Also, facing our God-given design for companionship and connection is an important step to health. Nevertheless, only the bold can admit they want to be loved but may have gone to wrong sources to get it. Fundamentally, these kinds of relationships are taking a God-given longing and squeezing people to fit a hole in our hearts that only God can satisfy.
Inviting others to help you
The next step will be important. It is vital to name out loud to others the conclusions to which you have come about your relationship. It would be easy to get confused if you are isolated from others who could give you a much needed perspective. It is also easy to waver from your convictions if your decision is being challenged by the woman with whom you are involved. Mature and committed friends are necessary to help you disengage from the relationship in question.
Inviting a few women, perhaps from church or from a Bible study group, into your life will ensure accountability and give you objective evaluations about your relationships. If your relationship has crossed sexual lines, be sure to confess this to God and your support system. Crossing lines sexually doesn’t mean you are a worse sinner than most. It only means you must avail yourself of helpful support and accountability to continue walking the path of relational integrity. Exposing your relationship to mature women who will help you grow will put to death the desire to keep the relationship exclusive or “secret.”
The significance of grieving
Learning how to live as a separate woman apart from the woman with whom you had a relationship will be difficult at first, especially if you had daily phone contact or visits. There will likely be a time of loneliness and grieving as you begin to live your life without the influence and affection of someone who was so vital and important to you. This would be a good time for you to draw near to God, spending a significant amount of time talking and reflecting with him about what you are experiencing as you separate from the other woman.
As you grieve the loss of relationship, you might find yourself sorrowing over the damage you feel from the unhealthiness of your friendship. This kind of inventory is important for your growth as a new woman, open to new friendships. You may begin to see how being exclusive warped your openness to others and how you may have allowed this woman to be important to you in a way that inhibited your development as an individual. You may also see how your friendship may have damaged others who tried to offer you friendship, or how you may have used this person to escape pain or loneliness by the intensity of the relationship. This grieving is an important part of the process of repentance that, over time, will give you a new perspective and help you make the necessary changes to love others from a new heart.
Setting new boundaries
The next step is to develop and begin to practice certain relational limits in all your relationships for your own health and growth. As you reflect on how to set limits you can begin to identify some of the dynamics of unhealthy relating patterns. Asking God to help you uncover a relational agenda of trying to fill yourself inappropriately will be helpful as you begin this journey. Pay attention to what he shows you as you investigate what you want from others. Begin to talk openly with your support system about how to get these needs met safely and appropriately. Allow yourself to watch how other women relate to one another and begin to label what makes their friendships healthy. Ask the women in your support system to help you by offering you feedback when they sense you doing something that feels uncomfortable to them.
Some examples of relational sins may be how you always appear needy and dependent so that others feel pulled to take care of you. Perhaps your style is to always rise to the occasion of taking care of others, making them feel indebted and obligated while making yourself feel competent and superior. Maybe you relate to others by keeping the relationship intense all the time or being emotionally erratic in disruptive ways to manipulate or control the behavior of another. Asking a few trusted and mature friends to honestly tell you how they see you in relationships will be invaluable to your development as you learn how to keep personal boundaries.
Risking and choosing to love again
Finally, there is no fail-safe code to personal relationships. Even if you watch carefully and try your hardest, you can be sure you will slip up and find yourself looking for someone to fill your empty heart in a way that keeps you from needing God. Our hearts are endlessly creative in looking for some way to avoid needing a God who won’t be managed or behave predictably. The Israelites are an example of how easily we replace God with something or someone we think might do a better job of satisfying our hearts.
No sooner had the Israelites experienced a miraculous exodus from the slavery of Egypt and a miraculous rescue from their enemies, than they became restless. When their tangible leader, Moses, disappeared from their sight while camped on the foothills of Mt. Sinai, they begged Aaron to fashion a god for them that they could see, touch, and ultimately control. One thing led to another, and they soon found themselves rationalizing their “needs” so they could indulge in immorality.
You would think they would have already learned their lesson to depend on God alone, but they had to learn this important lesson again. While traveling in the wilderness, they tried to save enough manna to free themselves from the trouble of going out the next day and dependently receiving from God the daily supply of food he provided. Imagine their surprise the next morning when, after sleeping in, they found maggots in their manna. God intended for the Israelites (and us!) to find him to be the “Living Bread.” His desire for Israel and for us is to remain dependent on his daily provision for our hearts and our souls, as well as our stomachs.
Part of learning this dependency is the practice of inviting God to reveal to us which idols he wants us to destroy with his help. It is not work for the faint of heart. A deep look at our sin must involve the necessary trip to the foot of the cross to be cleansed and made new. However, a woman who develops the habit of returning to her Creator again and again will find the cherishing she longs for as she hears her Father remind her of his Calvary love. In his presence, she will receive the courage to love others in new and healthy ways that will continually bless their life here on earth.
As women we can enjoy relationship as God intends. The experience of knowing another’s soul is a privilege that gives us a glimpse of the intimacy we were designed for, as well as point us to the eternal enjoyment of God and his people that awaits our souls. God will reward us with meaningful relationships with other believers as we daily invite him to fill us. Let us enjoy him by uniting our hearts with his. Then we can in turn offer the source of our satisfied hearts to others.
14 Jan 2014
Fifteen years ago, there were only a few books for Christians dealing with sexual brokenness issues: overcoming pornography, navigating the deep wounds caused by affairs, handling one’s same-sex attractions, and keeping oneself pure. Today, a multitude of such resources exist...
Solutions for dealing with sexual purity issues abound today. By the way, I don’t really like the word “purity” for several reasons: 1) it’s overused; 2) no one really knows what that word means anymore; 3) it’s definitely not most people’s track record or experience; and, 4) it seems unattainable, which invites despair. I much rather prefer the words “godliness” or “holiness,” because either word offers much more hope, as they imply that God is so invariably involved in the whole process.
The advice on how to deal with sin and temptation, along with the resulting guilt and shame from failure and sin, comes from varied sources today—mostly with lots of advice about what to do and not to do. One professional says to snap your wrist with a rubber band when tempted. Another says to have multiple accountability partners and call them at the first sign of temptation. We are told we need to deal with issues arising from our family of origin, work the steps, and journal our feelings/temptation cycles. Still others talk about how we need multiple Internet filters, reporting systems, and barriers in place 24/7. Just trying to get free and stay free can be a full-time job!
Now don’t get me wrong. All these things are good tips and can be very helpful tools. But they just don’t identify the core problem we all face. They don’t deal with the larger issue of why we find ourselves so trapped and enslaved by our struggles and sin. While it’s helpful to be aware of our family origins and the environmental triggers that lead us into trouble, sometimes I think we just make purity—or “godliness”—all too complex. No wonder we throw up our hands in frustration and agony, wrestling with a miserable record of trying to deal with this stuff. We try. We fail. We try again. We fail again.
However, when we begin to understand who we are “in Christ” and start to take hold of and live out our intimate and inseparable union with him in his life and death—when we grasp that, nothing, including our sins and repeated failures, can separate us from the love of Christ. When we wonderfully give up and see that we can’t do one thing to add to what Christ has done for us; and when we rejoice in the knowledge that, as Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “God is our Heavenly Father who always delights to see us coming to him (at our time of deepest need), to receive us, that he is looking upon us with favor, smiling upon us, always ready to bless”—well, that changes everything (Romans: Assurance, Exposition of Chapter 5, Banner of Truth, 38-39).
It changes everything, because it changes us. It transforms us! We no longer are orphans, living out a weary existence by our own wits, but we are loved sons and daughters of a king. We are royalty! We serve a king who gives himself to us intensely, relentlessly, and completely. There’s no short cut to understanding this, no fast-track or multiple-step program to spiritual health. This is a journey of a lifetime, one that is filled increasingly with what every one of us longs for: love, peace, meaning, and a never-ending future. To effectively deal with the barrage of temptations we face—the idols, sexual and otherwise—that are always vying for a place in our hearts, Jesus must “become more precious to us than those vile lusts have been,” as a Valley of Vision prayer says.
Pastor Scotty Smith says this about realizing who we are and what we have in Christ: “The more precious he becomes to us, the more we watch our guilt and shame melt away. The more we see him for what he really is, the more we see all other precious currencies as the fool’s gold they really are. The more we come to him, the more we realize that it’s him who is always coming to us first” (Everyday Prayers, February 3).
14 Jan 2014
Modern psychology tells us—and indeed, our entire culture seeks to convince us—that it’s not good to repress or deny our sexual urges and desires. They’re seen by many as simple biological needs that demand expression; it’s seen as unhealthy not to seek that expression. Now that might be true, were it not for the fact that sex is never really about ‘us.” It’s about the other person.
Ideally, it’s about bringing all of who we are male or female to bless someone else. As archaic as it may seem, the Bible tells us that sex most aptly blesses others and reflects God in the context of marriage between one man and one woman.
Where does this leave the unmarried? Well, it leaves them dependent on God to meet the desires they might otherwise seek to fulfill through sex. This is also the case for married couples who deal with corrupt desires.
This is tough stuff. It runs contrary to the culture. It runs smack up against the messages about sex we get from advertising, TV, and the movies, that our drives and urges must be met at all costs. Resisting where our sexual desires might take us is not for the faint-hearted. It’s hard work. It’s a form of suffering, made more extraordinary because it is entirely voluntary.
But there’s an unseen benefit to resisting instead of repressing. C.S. Lewis, the Oxford University professor who wrote more than 40 books, including The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian, had something of value to say about this. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity,
“People often misunderstand what psychology teaches about ‘repressions.’ It teaches that ‘repressed’ sex is dangerous’…. On the contrary, those who are seriously attempting chastity are more conscious, and soon know a great deal more about their own sexuality than anyone else. They come to know their desires… as a rat-catcher knows rats or a plumber knows about leaky pipes. Virtue—even attempted virtue—brings light; indulgence brings fog.”
Lewis is saying that it’s in the active mode of resisting our desires that we come to know more of what fuels our hearts and emotions—that we come to be more aware of our true selves.
In a world that offers numerous ways to dull our emotions and anesthetize our anxieties, fears, and uncertainties, often through sex, knowing one’s self is an amazing thing. It opens us up to knowing God in the depth of our desires in ways we’ve never imagined.
Of course there’s a hint of the supernatural in all of this. It’s not ordinary to resist the pulls of the heart. It can be done only with the power God gives as we seek to worship him and put him first in our lives, by committing our unmet desires to God for him to satisfy in his own way—in his own time.
This is not repression; it’s honestly admitting our desires, yet yielding them to God.
Jesus demonstrated this by putting aside his own desires, drives, and needs and yielding them to his Father. He did this so we could know his forgiveness and love in spite of the weakness of our own flesh and our history of failures.
This article is a reprint of a column published in the Philadelphia Daily News.
The following is an excerpt from Ellen Dykas’ workbook for women, Sexual Sanity for Women: Healing from Sexual & Relational Brokenness. Published by New Growth Press. Copyright © 2013 by Harvest USA. This Harvest USA resource can be used in a one-on-one discipling relationship or in a small group. You can obtain this resource at our bookstore, www.harvest-usa-store.com
What does it mean to be relationally and/or sexually broken? The Bible clearly states that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). The impact of sin has had a devastating effect on all of creation. One aspect of this utter ruin is that nothing functions in the way our Creator originally intended. Our world is broken. Relational and sexual brokenness thus refers to the sin struggles and temptations that women and men battle against while they live on this earth. Relationships become a prime ground for our idols to be nurtured and developed, as we seek people to be what only Christ can be. Sex becomes a way to medicate the pain within our hearts—or to feel anything at all. Our gender and sexual identity become confused, blurred, and even frightening. All things may have been created through Jesus and for Jesus (Colossians 1:16), but no one experiences life entirely according to his good design. Our lives are broken—but the gospel of healing, restoration, and forgiveness has broken into our brokenness!
Women are sexual beings just as much as men are. However, they often experience an even “louder silence” regarding their sexual sin and temptation. The Christian community has taken slow steps in recent years to address issues of sexuality, including addictions of a sexual nature. However, the opportunities for women to have the gospel specifically applied to their areas of relational and sexual brokenness have been few and far between. It’s our hope that Sexual Sanity for Women will provide opportunities for women to gather together and receive encouragement and teaching that will help them to, “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let [them] run with endurance the race that is set before [them], looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2, ESV).
A few thoughts as you begin to work through this study: Although an individual could journey through it herself, this material is meant to be used in a group setting. There is power in people coming together to walk in the light with one another, confessing weakness and sin, praying for one other, and urging each other on in the calling to put on the Lord Jesus Christ and to make no provision for fleshly desires (Romans 13:14). This process of throwing off sinful patterns of life is just that—a process! This material will assist women to begin that process of freedom and change and gives strugglers a place to start in addressing these deeply held and usually carefully guarded issues.
Many women who wrestle with their sexuality in sinful ways—including promiscuity, pornography, fantasy life, masturbation, and homosexuality—have other heart struggles as well. The Bible is clear that we all live out of our hearts, and yet our hearts have been impacted by living in a sinful world, where people sin against one another in traumatic ways. This study is not meant to provide in-depth counseling for the pain brought on by trauma and abuse. Professional counseling and/or pastoral counseling by wise, mature Christians is highly recommended as part of this process of opening up one’s personal history and struggles. Ultimately, healing and change is the work of our Savior Jesus Christ, who came to heal the brokenhearted and to set the captive free—including female captives and daughters of God who are brokenhearted!
Sexual addictions among women are rarely talked about. Women strugglers often feel loaded down with a heavy sense of shame. They feel they are somehow “extra-abnormal” because sexual sin is typically addressed only as a man’s problem. When we consider female homosexuality and same-sex attraction, there is confusion in the way it is discussed and understood. We hear many explanations about why individuals are attracted to the same gender. There has been a major push in the media to say that homosexuality is something that’s inborn and unchangeable, as in, “I was born this way.” Even within many faith communities, there has been growing acceptance of homosexuality as a God-blessed identity—“I’m a gay Christian.”
How does a biblical view inform not only the question, “Is being gay OK?”, but “what is homosexuality?” And does the Bible really address seemingly “private” sexual activities such as viewing and reading pornography or masturbation? And if I truly love and am committed to someone, what’s the big deal in expressing myself sexually with that person outside marriage? Finally, does God really have helpful advice about addictions in our lives, especially those of a sexual or emotional nature?
What we’ll learn (in the sessions that follow) will give us hope and confidence that God’s Word does speak into all these sensitive areas. Through the person of Jesus, God has given us more than a set of rules to follow or a series of steps to complete. He loves us and is actually after so much more than behavioral change. He is able to transform our hearts and minds and grow us into Christlike women!
The gospel of Jesus Christ speaks to every struggler—woman or man, younger or older. And whether the sinful pattern takes the shape of sexual promiscuity with men, women, (or both), homosexuality, emotionally enmeshed dependencies, or habitual sexual patterns (such as masturbation, pornography, or an obsessive fantasy life), God’s Word has hope for real change. This study will explore how these patterns develop and how, through faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to the truths of the gospel, new Christlike patterns can grow and flourish in the life of any woman.
In Matthew 12: 33-34, we read, “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”
Jesus consistently describes behavior as coming out of the heart of a person. He puts it this way: “The tree is known by its fruit” (Matthew 12:33, Luke 6:43–45). He also says that it’s not what we put into our mouths that corrupt us, but what comes out of our mouths (our words) that corrupt us. He says the mouth speaks from out of the heart (Matthew 12:34). What Jesus seems to be saying is that the inner issues are what really drive us, and what we say or do reveals our hearts. Jesus consistently focuses on what’s inside a person, not just on outward manifestations of behavior. He compared the behavior of religious leaders to cups that were clean on the outside but dirty on the inside (Matthew 23:25). Jesus was very compassionate to individuals struggling with sexual sin. He showed great love and compassion to women who are sexual strugglers (Luke 7:36−48; John 4:7–26; and 8:1–11). If you were to encounter Jesus today, you could have confidence that he would not condemn you but would show you love and mercy. You could also be confident to know that he would not focus exclusively on your outward behaviors and sins, but rather on the deeper motivational issues that arise from the core of who you are in your heart. Beginning to deal with your sexual behaviors, relational struggles, and emotional attractions can be very scary and difficult. The purpose of this group is to provide a setting where you can deal with some painful and troubling issues within a caring and supportive group setting.
This study will guide you through a model for understanding behavior called the Tree Model. It’s based on what Jesus said about being able to tell a tree by its fruit. This model will become critical to your understanding of why you do what you do. Remember, God is seeking much more than outward change through transformed behaviors! He is seeking heart change—which means that the deeper, inner issues in your life will be addressed and then “redressed” with the grace and truth of Jesus. True change and healing is possible, as we set our focus on Jesus Christ who has come to heal the brokenhearted and set the captives free!”
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording, or otherwise
In another excellent article, “God Gives the Best Sex,” Dan Wilson explains that God’s grace for the unmarried is the key to true joy as well as living out a godly sexuality. Because the idea of sexuality is often equated with sexual activity, those of us who are unmarried often miss the rich blessings God can pour out upon us as sons and daughters and as sexual beings. Godly unmarried sexuality is more than a call to abstain from sexual activity. Christ offers treasures to all who seek to live in a way that is pleasing to God as image bearers who are also sexual beings, including the unmarried.
Let us consider godly unmarried sexuality with three questions: What is it? How do we live it out? Why would we want to live it out?
WHAT is godly unmarried sexuality?
When it comes to discussions of sexuality, singles (from the never-married teen, to the senior-something single-again, and all those in-between) are often counseled in these sorts of ways: “Don’t! Be pure! Wait! Hands off!” “Guard your heart!” “It’s really not that great anyway!” “It’s great, but it’s not for you, unless you’re ‘burning’…then get married!”
To a degree, these words ring true. The unmarried are to strive to be sexually pure and chaste—but then so are married folks. Chastity is sexually lived out in a pure way; it is a commitment to keep sex in its proper place. Author Lauren Winner explains in Real Sex that, “…chastity is the free choice to live one’s sexual life in accord with Christian values—therefore everyone is called to live chastely” (p. 134). For the unmarried person, this means a life of purity through abstinence. For the married person, it means a life of purity through faithfulness. All who live in God’s world belong to him (Psalm 24:1, 2) and are designed and called to live a life of purity.
However, there is a profound reality of what godly unmarried sexuality is not. It is not merely about what we are doing or not doing with our genitals! Sadly, sexuality is often reduced to a definition along these lines, but it is crucial to have a fuller understanding of it while also being honest that we are embodied souls. To be an embodied soul means we are image bearers that live on earth in bodies which are created with the capacity for sexual expression. Sexuality involves our whole being—body and soul—and refers to how we experience and express ourselves as sexual beings.
Godly sexuality is something that is pleasing to God, acknowledging the value of God as the giver of sex, while keeping Christ central. While there is much overlap between married and unmarried sexuality, singles’ sexuality has unique features. Here are five basic principles that govern godly sexuality and which we will apply to the unmarried person:
1. It is Jesus-centric and Jesus exalting. In God’s world, Jesus is central to all aspects of life. Life is about valuing God at all times and in all ways. This means that the way we live out our sexuality as unmarried persons will find power and joy as Jesus is the focus of our deepest desires and affections. This does not mean we deny that we have sexual desires or that we struggle to be chaste; nor does it mean that we are condemned if we fall. The core blessings of the gospel are Jesus himself and the cross. As we run to him and cling to him in a radical way for enabling power to live purely and for forgiveness and cleansing when we fail, we are living as godly, unmarried sexual beings!
2. Godly sexuality loves my neighbor as I put others before myself. The second of Jesus’ two great commands—“Love your neighbor as yourself”—is core to godly sexuality inside and outside of marriage. This leads us to not sin against others through participating in sexual sin. This includes our thought lives, our affections, and seemingly “private” sins such as solo sex and pornography. No sin is truly private; others areas are always impacted. I never have the right to honor, esteem, and love myself more than my neighbor, and this includes the how and why of expressing my sexuality. This other-centeredness in sexuality can only be faithfully lived out though radical, self-sacrificing dependence upon Christ! (2 Corinthians 5:14, 15; Romans 14:7, 8)
3. Godly sexuality is concerned not only with physical relationships, but also mental and emotional attachments. As image bearers we are created for relationship. Holy relationships happen as the vertical (God and us) connects with the horizontal (people loving each other). Our relational connecting and attaching with one another was never designed by God to push him aside, but rather to deepen our love for him as we make much of him together. This means that our relationships are not to be all about striving to make each other feel good, but are to focus on pointing one another to Christ. This “shared love” encourages our hearts and spills out into loving others as well. When a person or relationship becomes the basis of our life, the Creator is pushed aside, and a worship disorder is taking place. This is ungodliness in our express of our sexuality.
4. Godly sexuality involves worship through discipline. In Real Sex, Lauren Winner brings out the rarely discussed concept of chastity as a spiritual discipline meant to align our wills with God’s (p. 124). Here, too, there is an overlap between godly unmarried and married sexuality. Faithfulness to one’s spouse (in thoughts, affections and actions) is not easy! Married or not, walking in holiness requires radical dependence upon Christ. It is a battle! It means a fight against the flesh which Paul explained was always “right there” in him, around him, and beside him (Romans 7:21). As singles seek to express their sexuality without physically engaging in sexual activity, there will be a battle that feels intense on some days, easy on others, perhaps pointless on many. Regardless, in God’s world, godly unmarried sexuality is good!
5. Godly sexuality is not only possible, but good in God’s design. Godly unmarried sexuality is not “Plan B.” It is not an elementary level of sexuality that is graduated from into advanced married sexuality. If that were the case, then Jesus himself was lacking, since he never attained a married level of sexuality. The expression of our sexuality may differ if we become married, but that does not mean that it is somehow “better.” Singles embody their particular gender, and sexuality in godly ways just as married individuals do. Single sexuality is not a deficient sexuality. If God has commanded the unmarried to be sexually abstinent, we can know that without a doubt that this abstinence is good and possible.
HOW is godly unmarried sexuality lived out?
Biblical wisdom is practical, but unfortunately teaching singles regarding sexuality is often given in sterile, bullet-point lists that focus on the externals of what to do and not do. Singles are normally just given boundary lines of what is not permissible or told what types of relationships are not acceptable. Yet there are many unanswered questions because many activities can be shifted into “gray areas” not addressed by this type of behavior-oriented teaching. For example:
- Do we label it dating, courting, or ‘hanging out’?
- What about the types of physical contact that are considered “sex?” Most people know genital sexual intercourse is off-limits for the unmarried, but what about solo sex, mutual stimulation, or oral sex?
- And how does this relate to relationships with our same gender? Is it permissible for two women to snuggle up while sharing a bed, experiencing sexual arousal from the physical affection, but not going any further? And what of two men who have no genital contact, but sexually arouse one another? There is no intercourse going on, but how can we tell if these kinds of things are permissible for the unmarried person?
To address these thoughts, we need to go back to what godly unmarried sexuality is: Godly unmarried sexuality exalts Jesus, puts others before self, is good, and reveals Christ to others.
To discern biblical wisdom regarding any of the above questions, the key issues become: “Is Jesus and worship of him central or is the self-ruling? Is Christ and love for him ruling, or am I more concerned with how far I can go? Is this action or thought leading me to love this person as a daughter or son of God, or is it a means to feel good?”
In Christ’s world, God gives the best sex. Sexual intercourse is meant to be experienced only within the context of a one-man, one-woman married union. Any actions or thoughts that lead toward sexual arousal (which God intended to be fulfilled through sexual intercourse) are not to be participated in outside the context of marriage. Does that mean a hands-off, no-touch guideline unless you are married? For singles it may mean exactly that! Radical devotion to Christ requires radical obedience because we want Christ and not our sexual pleasures to be exalted most of all.
Singles might say, “But we don’t have a ‘legal outlet’ for our sexual desires or for the powers that rage in these human bodies! What are we to do?!” This is an excellent question and needs to be addressed with biblical wisdom that is Christ-centric and shared with a compassionate tone of heart. It is true that those of us who are unmarried embodied souls still have sexual desires.
A gospel-drenched, Christ-centric view of our sexuality, however, gives great enabling hope on this point! We are not held captive to our bodies or to our sexual desires. Godly unmarried chastity, like many spiritual disciplines of abstinence, involves something normal and natural being abstained from. Chastity for the unmarried person is a kind of fast, and it may be a very looong fast. Winner’s thoughts here are encouraging: “…the unmarried Christian who practices chastity refrains from sex to remember that God desires your person, your body, more than any man or woman ever will. With all aspects of ascetic living, one does not avoid or refrain from something for the sake of rejecting it, but for the sake of something else. In this case, one refrains from sex with someone other than one’s spouse for the sake of union with Christ’s body. That union is the fruit of chastity” (Real Sex, p. 129).
What of our emotional desires? Do singles need to also be wise about the emotional intimacy they extend and pursue with others? Yes, but again this is an area where the married also need to practice wisdom and caution in their relationships (including some gender ones!) with those who are not their spouse. What I am not saying is that we shy away from revealing ourselves emotionally to each other. What I am saying is that the way we reveal, express, and share our emotional selves is also to be guarded. Ask if the goal of the particular relationship is oriented toward the self or love of God and others. I have found that a top “Jesus replacement” in my life is emotional comfort and feeling good about myself. This aspect of my own heart’s being prone to wander has led to some very unholy, emotional attachments with women and a few men, too.
It is actually good news that what God commands and says is good is possible through the blessings of the gospel. Godly unmarried sexuality is “Plan A” for those of us who do not have a spouse.
More on the “HOW”: Sober promises and specific wisdom
Galatians 6:7-8 speaks of God’s harvest principle: We inevitably reap what we sow. Despite this, God’s grace and mercy often give us harvests of blessing that we do not deserve. It would be an abuse of his grace, however, to not heed Scripture’s many sober promises. Consider two in light of godly unmarried sexuality:
- To pursue sexual expression outside of God’s design will lead to sorrow! (Psalm 16:4)
- Blessings will be missed and grace will be forfeited when we seek to trust in ourselves and our own strategies for dealing with our sexuality. (Jeremiah 17:5-9, Jonah 2:8)
God’s Word teaches that when we live life outside of his guidelines, including our sexuality, there is a harvest that we reap. Sexual desires, once stoked and given into, will be much easier to be given into again. Our thought lives record experiences, and it is not easy to forget past sins—especially if they were pleasurable. Regaining the mind for Christ is a battle. It is a winnable battle for sure, but the renewing process requires a radical approach. Living a chaste life sexually diminishes the negative harvest of sin. Does this sound like a tactic to “scare you” into unmarried chastity? It is not meant to be, but it is a sober warning! It is what God’s Word teaches us will happen when we put on SELF to the neglect of putting on Christ.
As a former co-worker used to say, Christ our Savior is a specific Savior! He enters into our journey as unmarried sexual beings with very specific help and wisdom. To live a pure life, we need him to be our specific Savior for our specific struggles. Consider what he offers us as we seek to live a godly life sexually. As you read this list and ponder these verses, honestly bring your specific points of temptation or consistent sexual struggle before him.
- Gives you himself (John 14:18).
- Knows and loves you in your temptation (Matthew 26:34, 35).
- Names you: mine, loved, forgiven, one who receives new beginnings from my hand.
- Enables and empowers you with an escape to resist temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13).
- Gives wisdom and discernment (Colossians 2:3).
- Gives you brothers and sisters to help and shepherd you. These brothers and sisters are his kingdom community for you on earth that he gives to teach, counsel, comfort, guide, and love you (Hebrews 3:12, 13; 10:24, 25).
- Gives you a kingdom calling to be lived out this side of heaven that will bear much fruit for his glory. This has everything to do with living in godly unmarried sexuality! We abstain from certain things, but also fully participate in others—like his holy work in this world (Ephesians 2:10; 1 Peter 2:9-10; John 15:5).
Actually, point number one above summarizes the entire list: Jesus gives us himself, and he is the path and provision for us to live godly lives.
How can we respond to Jesus with wisdom? We each need to have a specific battle plan. Again, as you ponder the following list, bring your specific areas of struggle, temptation and/or consistent areas of entangling sexual sin before him.
You need to be:
- Growing in a love for God and others that abounds in knowledge and insight (Philippians 1:9-11).
- Learning how to starve the flesh and feed the Spirit as you seek to understand what a “radical approach” will look like in your circumstances. For example, analyze the kinds of music, movies, and TV shows you engage in, taking note of their influence on you (Galatians 6:7-8).
- Aware of your body, since we are embodied souls. For example: Women, you need to know your hormonal cycle and be aware of what times of the month you may be more prone toward sexual desires being stirred up. Men, you need to know as well how your bodies react to certain visual, tactile, and audio stimuli. Reflect on how God is calling you to love him through the use of your body.
- Willing to NOT PLAY GAMES with sexual temptation and call it “grace.” This is an abuse of grace, and it is not worth it.
- Giving others “meddling rights” into your life. Invite friends to ask you the tough questions (James 5:16; Ephesians 4:15).
- Studying, savoring and praying God’s Word (Ephesians 6:18).
WHY would we want to live it?
Godly unmarried sexuality is lived out as a person seeks to live life fully given over to Jesus and his kingdom purposes, while also living a chaste lifestyle as a female or male image bearer. Through this beautiful calling, the unmarried person reveals Jesus and draws others to Jesus. At the most practical level, the sexuality of an unmarried person should be expressed in such a way that it is a signpost to Jesus. While godly married sexuality is a unique signpost to Jesus and his relationship with the church, the unmarried person also has a unique opportunity to reveal Jesus’ power and purity and to draw others to him.
The unmarried person is called to depend upon Christ, not enjoying the sexual pleasures of marriage, but finding pleasure in abstaining that aligns his or her will with that of God. This 24/7 fast draws attention to the enabling grace of Jesus to live a godly life as a single person. It involves resisting and refusing the loud voices of the flesh and our culture that screams, “Make much of me and run full force toward whatever feels good!” The unmarried person seeks to proclaim Jesus by living a life that is radically other-centered and committed to his kingdom purposes. This kind of obedience can only be faithfully lived out through radical self-sacrificing, dependence upon Christ—as such it is a life lived solely by grace!
14 Jan 2014
A positive theology of sex
Harvest USA articles usually deal with the negative realities of sexual sin, and many people think evangelical Christians, when it comes to discussions of sex, are negative, nit-picking prudes who do not have enough fun and who believe God is anti-pleasure and only says “No!” Harvest USA, in its work with people who struggle with sexual brokenness and sin, speaks seriously about these issues, but serious does not mean negative.
We are about an incredibly positive message; we are about real joy, restoration, and redemption that flow from God’s grace, mercy, and love. This applies to matters of sex!
Scripture says God makes and gives to his creation the best pleasures. Psalm 16 says, “At your right hand are pleasures forevermore!” (ESV). Sex, with all its emotional and physical components of pleasure, came from the mind of God. It was not something man invented in opposition to God’s plan. Scripture declares that God designed us to please him and live a life full of lasting pleasures and joys.
This is good news. Even though sin has corrupted all good things, much of the goodness of God’s work of creation remains and God’s work of redemption extends hope to bring joy from despair. We are called to live within the good and right parameters of God’s design. In the area of sex, it is imperative to grasp the positive theology of sexuality that God designed. Doing so will help us live lives that are glorifying to God, enjoy his creation more and avoid the entanglements of sexual idolatry and sin.
Consider the following seven truths about God’s great gift of sex.
1. God made us male and female–the crowning masterpieces of his creation
The good news about God’s gift of sex and sexuality begins with God the almighty, all wise and all loving Creator. God declared the world was good and that man and woman were very good. Our maleness and masculinity or our femaleness and femininity are great and astounding works of divine creativity. Every man and woman is a crowning masterpiece of the Creator.
What are we masterpieces here for? Our culture says life is for sex, and sex is the reason for life. Our culture teaches us to radically devalue our masculinity or femininity unless we are sexually active. Unmarried Christians are tempted to believe their single years are a waste if they cannot have sex and tend to make marriage an idol in their hearts. This “life is for sex” view is far too one-dimensional. If by “sex” we only think about acts of sex—the acts that lead to orgasm—then our definition is extremely narrow and artificial. It is easy to “miss the forest for the trees.” If we think only about the sex act, we miss a grand forest of God-made sexuality and sexual identity.
While it is true that God designed us to have the capacity for sex, we are really created for relationships. We are not a masterpiece to hang alone in an art gallery, nor are we made only for sex. In Psalm 8, King David praised God that we were made “a little lower than the angels” (v. 7, NIV). As male and female, we each have astounding dignity—even glory—to bear his image and have a personal relationship with him. God also enabled us to enjoy a kaleidoscope of relationships because he lovingly gave each of us our gender identity. Maleness or femaleness is the context not only for being husbands and wives, but also fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, male friends and female friends, etc. We best experience this dignity and glory that God graciously intends for us as we love God and our neighbors as ourselves.
2. God’s gift of sexuality reveals his own nature and glory
Art reflects the character of the artist, and a novel yields insights into the mind of the author. In a mysterious way, the fact of two genders capable of sexual intimacy reflects the nature of God. Even before time began, God the Father loved God the Son. The Father, Son, and Spirit shared a communion that was complete and perfect. It is the perfect relationship and reflects absolute transparency and intimacy. The Bible specifically teaches that each person of the Trinity has total awareness of the others (Luke 10:20; Romans 8:27; 1 Corinthians 2:11, etc.). The intimacy of the Trinity—the three in one—is the source of and reason we are humanly capable of cultivating intimacy. The ability to build trust, closeness, and knowledge of another is itself a love-gift from our Triune God who delights, for example, when two of his children “become one flesh” in marriage.
Scripture also shows the nature of God’s love for his people through metaphors relating to marriage. Ezekiel 16, Hosea 2, and Song of Solomon in various ways point to God as a faithful husband who redemptively loves his undeserving bride. Paul specifically states that marriage reflects the love Christ has for his church (Ephesians 5:32). When married couples have sex they can reflect a glimmer of God’s passion for his church, and the reality of perfect intimacy in Heaven—our state after the marriage of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9).
Through faithfulness, chastity, and modesty, unmarried people can enjoy many levels and types of intimacy (other than engaging in sex) in the context of their God-given gender identity. Marriage is not the only venue for a deep and abiding relationship. Singles can and ought to involve themselves in close, long-lasting friendships. These, too, are relationships that reflect the intimate connections of community that the Trinity displays. Unmarried individuals also can reflect the sacrificial love of Christ for the church. Single men can sacrifice themselves for others by doing things that seemingly come naturally to men—manual labor, repairing things, etc.—yet which require them to act relationally towards others. Single women can sacrifice themselves for others by doing things that reflect a woman’s natural affinities. Women often seem more alert to an individual’s needs, both physical and emotional. We each function out of our sexual identity even if we are not engaging in sex.
3. God’s gift of sexuality is for all of us, whether we are single or married
God made each man and woman able to live righteously and have an abundant life regardless of his or her age or marital status. Both the married and unmarried state can be joy-filled and God-honoring, yet many Christian singles are not feeling the glory of being single. The gift of celibacy sounds like a hard sell. “If only…” riddles and even cripples their joy in life, especially as they strive in good faith to live pure against the backdrop of our orgasmically-obsessed secular culture.
Single Christians wonder, “Will I miss out on something fundamental to life if I never have a full sex-life merely because I don’t have a spouse?” Are the pleasures of sex in marriage better than the pleasures of godly unmarried sexuality? If we say, “yes,” we fall into a two-class view of Christianity that is both un-biblical and destructive. This is just as erroneous as saying that having children is essential to the Christian life and that childless couples are somehow second-class Christians.
The core blessings of the gospel are for everyone who believes, whether married or not. The diverse benefits of the gospel, however, are not equally distributed to all believers at all seasons of life. Remember Jesus? He was unmarried, sinless, and lived without the pleasures of sexual intercourse. Remember Paul? He said that he would rather remain unmarried. Remember Daniel and numerous other singles in the Bible?
The pleasures of sex in marriage are not better than the joys God provides unmarried believers. In the same way that chocolate chip cookies are great and strawberry shortcake is super, these pleasures are not better or worse; they are simply different. An apple pie lover would be foolish to say rhubarb pie is bad simply because he or she had never tasted it.
So is the married state to be preferred to the unmarried state? Not necessarily. While Paul does say that it is better to marry “than to burn” in lust, he also advocates the gift of celibacy over marriage for the sake of service to the Kingdom, especially during times of persecution (I Corinthians 7:9, 28-29). Here is a reality check: Many unmarried Christians experience more intimacy through godly friendships and fulfillment through unhindered service for the Kingdom than others in poor marriages. Singles and married people can be miserable or content. It is all a matter of God’s grace, which good gift God chooses to give his children, and what we do as stewards of these gifts. Some are called to celibacy—not a season but a lifetime of singleness—and so God gives special grace, special opportunities, and especially significant service.
In a season of singleness, God’s powerful and diverse grace is the real key to joy and brings significance to times of challenge. Singles are not the only ones asking, “What am I to do with all my sexual desires?” Single chastity is not easy, but married people will tell you that maintaining purity and growing in intimacy is not a cake walk either.
The fact that purity is hard cannot be a rationalization for compromise. Acting out sexually is not synonymous with intimacy. Masturbation is a prime example. It can give fleeting pleasure, but it is often addictive, always selfish, and cannot deliver intimacy or lasting relational joy.
God our Father is not surprised or outwitted by the sexual temptations we all face. Our Heavenly Father wired us to have desires, and he gives strength to draw near to him and avoid sexual or any other sin. He does not tempt us to sin, but he affords us opportunities to seek and find what is far better, himself, rather than fleeting bodily pleasures. Unmarried men and women can channel their sexual energies toward non-sexual but very fulfilling relationships, noble accomplishments, and adventures in service and ministry. The biggest hazard of singleness is not missing out on sexual release—it is being isolated and alone. Isolation is choice, but it is not God’s will for Christian singles to live without the grace of Christian friends and spiritual family. Life is too short to not have and be family. God provides his body, the church, as a functional family for both time and eternity.
4. God designed sex with marriage to bless, protect, and empower us
Some fear the power of sex, but God gave sexual intimacy the sacred power to bond a husband and wife together—body and soul—in a covenant of loyalty and love. “Becoming one flesh” within marriage is more satisfying that anything the world offers as a sexually attractive substitute. Like a fire inside a fireplace, it provides light and warmth, but outside the right context, sex can destroy like an un-extinguished cigarette can burn down a huge forest. Sex is not the purpose of marriage or a good enough reason to get married. Sex is not the goal. It is a means to an end. The Lord gave sexual intimacy, as a natural part of married-life, to be an intense, joy-giving way to celebrate and reaffirm covenant love. Rest assured God is very pleased when godly couples enjoy it.
Marriage protects sex from promiscuity and exploitation, and sex is to protect marriage by giving comfort and relieving temptation. That is why Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7:1-5, commands husbands and wives not to defraud each other sexually but to lovingly fulfill their marital duty to one another. A church that neglected to celebrate Christmas and Easter would be spiritually malnourished. A marriage without sexual intimacy is likewise emotionally impoverished. Godly, other-centered sex protects married couples from temptation and helps keep marriages together. Proper sexual expression in marriage is a celebration that renews commitment and love.
Genesis 1:26-28 reveals that God designed sex within marriage to empower us. God never rescinded his plan for us “to have dominion … be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.” Dominion may sound like an archaic and politically incorrect concept. Yet, God gave sex within marriage for not only joy, intimacy, mutual comfort and support, but also procreation of children! Without moms and dads, where would we be? One divine purpose of sex in marriage is to provide a context to bear and then empower children who will grow up to fulfill a Kingdom purpose—to spread God’s justice, wisdom, and love to the entire world.
5. God gave our sexuality so we could know Christ better and love others as Christ loves us
The world teaches that whatever one person can do to get another “consenting adult” to please him or her sexually is permissible. God gave us a sex drive not to make us sin but to love well. It takes knowing Christ better to realize that sex is not a toy and we are not consumers of sexual experiences. It takes loving Christ better to see our sexuality as a platform for self-controlled and self-giving love.
When we are tempted to trust sex to heal our emotional needs or save us from emptiness, we become convinced that our pain is worse than sin. We defend our sexual compromise. It takes knowing Jesus better to believe sin is worse than our pain. It takes loving Christ better to sincerely want freedom from sin rather than freedom to sin. This moral challenge does not surprise God. He allows these tensions and tests as opportunities to turn to him for grace and power in our times of need.
The joys and trials of marriage in general and sex within marriage are given to make us holy more than to make us happy. In seasons when a marriage becomes strained, hard, or painful, the desires accompanying sexual intimacy can turn a maturing Christian’s heart toward Christ. Christ provides wisdom and strength to love an imperfect and even unlovely spouse with sexual faithfulness and perseverance, even when one’s flesh wants to run or rage. We can learn, “The better I love Christ, the better I will love my spouse. The better I love my spouse, the better I will love Christ.”
All these sexual tensions, temptations, and emotional desires offer singles and those married opportunities to grow finding paths to joy as God faithfully provides our true needs. When we find him faithful and follow him with trust and integrity, we honor him. Our sincere hearts shine through our good deeds of self-sacrificing love and sexual integrity. This is one way our sexuality gives God glory.
6. Sexuality points to Christ and the church—we need the church to shepherd the story of our sexuality
The world really cannot find a grand story for human sexuality. Secular people want life to be a comedy where being sexually active brings happiness. They find monogamy as boring as re-runs and the sexless narrative of chastity or celibacy a pointless tragedy. In Scripture, on the other hand, God places our sexuality into the grand story of redemption. Our sexuality points towards the grand divine drama—the true story of the High King who builds a Kingdom of people redeemed by a blood covenant through his Son, Christ Jesus.
The gospel story of God making and keeping the covenant of redemption is the grand context within which we should express our sexuality. Our story and Christ’s story are forever united. This union is compared to the connection of the head to the body. As the body of the crucified and risen King, we extend his truth, life, and redemption against all sin, death, and evil. All sexual matters are placed into the epic struggle of good and evil—the Kingdom versus the evil empire.
Since God made sex to be powerful, Christ commissioned the church to function as a shepherd and guide in this area as well as in all other areas of life. The church—the people of God—is a gracious gift to each Christian. It is in the community of Christ that we give and receive guidance, encouragement, correction, and company. Other Christians are crucial to assist us when we are struggling with sexual issues and to keep our eyes on Jesus. Our sexuality is not just our story; it really is part of the family story, and the church family has a say and stake in how we live out our sexuality. Our sexuality is so big no Christian can handle it alone. Christ gave the church as the “family of God” (1 Timothy 3:15) because when sexual brokenness and sin enters our lives, we need a healing community to affirm the forgiveness we receive from Jesus. The church is the spiritually functional family that accepts and guides us in repentance and into the joys of restoration.
7. God gave sex to point us to heaven—sex is not for forever
In Matthew 22, Jesus stated there will be no marriage and therefore no sexual intimacy in Heaven. How can something as intensely good as sexual intimacy be left out of heaven? God will not leave sex out of Heaven because it is inherently sinful. God declared all things good on Day Six after He told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply—a task that required sexual activity. If sex is good for time, why is it not good enough for eternity?
It is because there is something better. It is because sex, in the fullness of its meaning, points to greater realities in the way a road sign points to a great city. The sign of sex will be obsolete in Heaven because the reality it points to will be replaced by the greater reality itself. It is the same way with Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In Heaven, both sacraments will cease since they have their fulfillment there. The Lord’s Supper—a meal remembering Christ’s death and signifying our union with him—will be replaced by the great Wedding Feast. We will be the Bride and he the Groom! Baptism, which is a sign that we belong to Christ, will be replaced in Heaven because we will be face to face with Christ.
The intimacy we will have with Christ throughout eternity will be so great that sexual intimacy will pale in comparison. The ecstatic pleasure of even the best orgasmic 15 seconds shared in a godly marriage will be like tasting the plainest food compared to the everlasting joy and intimacy we will share with Christ at his banquet table.
If sex can be this good now, even in a world tainted by sin, think how much better sinless and perfect intimacy with our Creator will be! It will be the coming home into the embrace of the One who has loved us before the foundations of the world. It will be so glorious not one of us will regret “missing sex.” Instead, we will wonder how we were ever so preoccupied with it. Nothing can compare to entering into the presence of the glorious radiance of God Almighty.
God gives the best sex
God gives the best sex. He gives sex and sexuality for our joy and, ultimately, for his glory. Our Father does not deprive us from pleasures, nor does he condemn us for our failures. God faithfully provides forgiveness and empowering grace so that the trials and joys related to our sexuality work together to prepare us for eternal intimacy with Jesus Christ. Our sexuality offers a tremendous opportunity to live a life of faith and love. As we live with his gift by means of his grace and together with his grace-giving people, we live out the hope of the gospel and are a light to the world.