The Dangerous Expectations of Reparative Therapy
Expectations. We all have them, whether we acknowledge them outright or hide them in our hearts. We are hope-based creatures; we need to have hope in order to live. Yet there is danger in hope; it will crush you if you put your trust in something that can’t deliver.
I think about the destructiveness of false hope whenever reparative therapy pops up in the news. Every few months another state or city government proposes legislation to outlaw reparative therapy. All over the web are stories of gays and lesbians who were harmed by attempts from therapists or Christian ministries to change their sexual orientation. The faith of many broke over those unbiblical expectations.
Putting one’s faith in anything outside of what God has explicitly promised is courting disaster. I remember sitting with a church leader, pouring out my fears about the impending birth of my third child. Three years earlier our second child was born severely disabled. We had a 25% chance of the same birth defect occurring with other children. We decided not to have any more. God decided differently. It was a pregnancy full of fear for us.
In that meeting, what I heard from him deeply unsettled me: “Don’t worry. God isn’t going to give you another disabled child.” How did he know that? He didn’t, but he said he couldn’t fathom that God would do that, again, to us.
I left that meeting confused but already determined to reject that advice. I knew that no page of Scripture promises specific things we want in life. I had been painfully learning for the past three years, in raising my disabled son, to let God be God. While I didn’t understand what God’s purposes were for giving us such a child, I had, unexpectedly, come to trust him more. My relationship with God was no longer based on what I expected him to do for me. (Isn’t that much of the way we relate to God in our hearts?)
I had come to see that my prior expectations of what God would do in my life were but projections of my own hoped-for future. False expectations. God had mercifully smashed them. And in doing so, I came to grasp that his death on my behalf was a sufficient display of his love for me. I could live on that.
So, we are asked from time to time whether HARVEST USA does reparative therapy. Can we promise the kind of change many have desperately hoped for? And our answer is a compassionate, biblical “No.”
The essence of reparative therapy is that homosexuality can be changed into heterosexuality through following its counseling practices. Some of those practices were immoral and unethical (past practices included aversion therapy, “cuddling,” using pornography to encourage heterosexual desire, etc.). But the expectation of change—that was what deeply pulled on the hearts of those who wanted to live without same-sex desire.
A significant part of HARVEST USA’s ministry work is with those who live with unwanted same-sex attraction and who reach out to us for help. Many of these men and women grew up in the church, and many of them want the kind of “guarantee” reparative therapy falsely offers. So, we are asked from time to time whether HARVEST USA does reparative therapy. Can we promise the kind of change many have desperately hoped for?
And our answer is a compassionate, biblical “No.” HARVEST USA has never used, nor approved of, reparative therapy. We believe it to be thoroughly unbiblical and unhelpful because it attempts to correct a spiritual issue with behavioral modification. Reparative therapy is a product of our culture’s obsession with all things therapeutic. Tragically, the evangelical community jumped on the therapeutic bandwagon and found themselves wed to a psychological methodology that was never biblical to begin with.
The church is now, thankfully, repenting of proclaiming this kind of unbiblical hope. Not because there is no hope; rather it is not the hope Scripture gives to sexual strugglers.
Homosexual behavior is a sin that needs repentance. Like all sin, it comes out of our fallen hearts. All sin rises, as Luther said, from the “inherent bentness of our hearts” toward idolatry, and away from God. That’s the message of Romans 1. Paul is not singling out gays and lesbians as being the worst of sinners; he is pointing the finger at every single human being because all of us possess a disordered heart. A heart whose inclinations and desires, whether chosen or discovered, insist and demand to live life on its own terms. Following Christ, however, is about always submitting our heart’s desires to his kingly rule over every part of our life.
Therefore, we call everyone to a different kind of change, an inner heart change. HARVEST USA is not in the “sexual re-orientation” business, but rather seeks to help men and women grow into radical Christ-orientation in all areas of life, including our desires and attractions. Our core ministry is to help sexual strugglers of all kinds know and learn from Jesus (Matthew 11:29), who promises to meet us in our struggles and give us new life, daily. In our teaching, we acknowledge and address the complex life experiences that each person brings through our doors. Our work is about applying the power of the gospel to inform all the external and internal factors that shape a person’s life while calling and helping everyone to live a life of sexual integrity according to the Scriptures. That kind of life is supernatural, and it does lead to surprising joy.
Authentic submission to Christ is allowing God to direct our lives and our future in ways that exceed our expectations—even when the reality might be that one continues to live with same-sex attraction and on-going temptation.
In our culture, living a life of sexual integrity that the gospel calls us to is an especially hard journey. Now both secular society and proponents within the wider church say that same-sex behavior is an acceptable life to God. Tragically, leaders in the church are now proclaiming this kind of false hope also.
What about change then? We believe that people are changed when they grasp ahold of the gospel. But we don’t say what that change will exactly be. We don’t create unbiblical and unrealistic expectations of how God is going to work in every person’s life (for a fuller discussion read our mini book, Can You Change if You’re Gay, available at harvest-usa-store.com). Jesus promises to make his followers into his image, expressing his character, steadily growing in outward obedience to his will. This is not behavioral modification. Authentic submission to Christ is allowing God to direct our lives and our future in ways that exceed our expectations—even when the reality might be that one continues to live with same-sex attraction and on-going temptation.
One quick point about the legal issues surrounding reparative therapy; the push for legislation does raise legitimate concerns about religious liberty. Would the way HARVEST USA helps people with same-sex attraction—to follow Christ faithfully and live according to God’s design for sexuality—be viewed as being no different from reparative therapy? Will it one day be illegal to even speak of the Christian position on sexuality to a young person in the church who wonders about his or her sexuality? This is a significant matter and one that we must defend. For that reason, we must also be clear about the lines we draw in how we help people, and not go beyond Scripture.
I still wonder as I think about all this, if I had put my trust in the well-meaning words of that church leader, where my faith in Christ would be now, because my third child was born with the same genetic disease, and his short life ended six months later. Thankfully, I had learned to put my hope in God and his glorious cross—and not my hoped-for expectations of what I needed him to do in my life. That made all the difference in my life and for my faith, and it has led to surprising joy.