Coming out. It’s a scary expression for most parents. It is a far too common experience today for a parent to discover their child is identifying as gay. Teens and young adult children suddenly coming out as transgender is also a growing occurrence in Christian families.
News like this is a very difficult thing for parents to navigate when they hold to biblical convictions of sex, sexuality, and gender. It is hard to know what to do when you are thinking of how to love your child while moving them towards walking in the truth of the gospel. At this point, most parents want to do just about anything to keep their kid on the right path after hearing this news. Their approach to their child can swing in wildly opposite directions.
On one end, parents may try to argue with their child to no end about their decision to come out, seeking to convince them of how misguided they are, and use everything in their power to change them. On the other end, parents may seek to keep things light and superficial in hopes to not ruffle feathers or push them away and hurt the relationship. They refrain from bringing this issue up altogether. Wherever you find yourself on this spectrum, this is a very hard journey to walk.
Wanting your child to turn back from what they are considering is what your heart and emotions scream for, but as it stands now, you have some important work to do—work that is smack in the middle of these two opposite poles.
And the work you need to do… should be directed toward keeping your relationship open with your child. That’s the only way you will still have a voice in their life.
And the work you need to do—as much as it depends on you, as Romans 12:18 says—should be directed toward keeping your relationship open with your child. That’s the only way you will still have a voice in their life. And working to stay connected is still the way to show them how much you love and care for them.
So, I want to give you five things you can do that will help this situation. Five things that won’t guarantee your child will change, but that can be used by God to stir up his or her heart.
Get to know your child
Here’s the first one. Whether your child is 14 years old or 24 years old, you need to get to know your child’s unique life experience and what has led to their decision to identify this way. When someone first comes out as gay or transgender, they most likely have been wrestling with these thoughts for years. There was an interior life that you were not part of, and now one of the most significant ways you can know and show love to your child is by listening to their story.
Here are some sample questions you can use to help you get this important (and yes, scary!) conversation started:
- When did these feelings of (same-sex attraction) begin? Or, when did you start to feel that you were a boy (or girl)? What made you feel that way? (As much as possible, move toward getting specific here, but don’t push too hard at the beginning—this will be a difficult conversation for both of you.)
- What was it like to grow up in our Christian home and struggle with these thoughts and desires?
- How did you feel sitting in our church and struggling all this time in isolation? What were you thinking when you were feeling so alone?
- Why did you feel like you could not come to us when you knew you felt attracted to people of the same sex (or feeling like you were in the wrong body?) Why? What was one thing that kept you silent?
- How do you envision yourself living out your sexuality (or gender) from here on? What do you want your life to look like?
- How do you see this decision to come out and identify as gay or transgender as being OK for a Christian?
- How do you want our relationship to be now that this is in the open?
These questions are by no means meant for interrogation (although that may be a temptation). I encourage you to sincerely desire to know your son or daughter’s experience, not as a means to “fix” them, but out of a desire to love and know them more fully. It’s never too late to have these conversations, even if you are farther out from their initial disclosure.
This discussion (or series of talks) may be an opportunity to strengthen your relationship by talking about past relational hurts or experiences that have impacted your child. It may also present opportunities for you to speak truth to them in a way that they can be open to receive it. You might just be surprised by what they share.
You can catch Chris talking some more about this on his video, Coming Out: Five Things Parents Must Do—Part 1. These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
16 Dec 2015
“I know in my head what Scripture says about homosexuality, but in my heart I sometimes struggle with that because I see students who are quite happy being gay. How do I reconcile these two?”
At the end of talking to 140 ministry interns, that’s the question someone asked me. It was June, in hot Atlanta, where the Student Outreach of Harvest USA spoke to Reformed University Fellowship interns about how to help college students with sexual struggles. They had all participated in RUF ministry while they were students and were now working with RUF as graduate interns. Ahead of them was a ministry with a student population in the thousands. These kinds of questions were the ones they needed to know how to answer.
The struggle this intern had is the same that many in the church face today, especially among our youth. Our society has normalized same-sex relationships, and it’s becoming easier to accept it and go with the flow. The biblical position on sexuality is now the one that looks out of place. RUF is a solid, evangelical student ministry organization, and yet as we travel to speak to lots of student ministers we see how they are wrestling with the impact of today’s swiftly-changing sexual mores. Their struggle shows how much they care about trying to connect the power of the gospel to the lives of those who are embracing our post-Christian culture.
The entire day was designed to address big questions like the one I got. Here’s another one: Why do we, as Christians, struggle with sexuality so much? Aren’t Christians supposed to be different?
Good question. The answer is that sexual struggles and sin don’t just happen by themselves; they’re connected to something deeper. We must look to the underlying factors that drive our behavior—the hidden motives of the heart. Even Christians struggle with a multitude of idols, good things we want in life that become things we feel we cannot live without. At some level we begin to believe God cannot meet the desires of our heart, and we turn to find life outside of God. We all need to know our own idols in order to effectively turn from them.
Another question these student interns will face: How can I help a student who keeps falling into sexual sin? Here we advised the interns to move towards sexual strugglers with empathy and compassion, in the same way that Jesus moves toward us. Good accountability relationships will be important for the struggler but ought to be grounded in grace and not legalism. Real change is not just about behavior, working hard to live differently; it’s finding life in Christ, where turning from sin is a response to God’s amazing grace to sinners.
Here’s the final question the RUF interns must answer today: What’s wrong with sexual behavior that is consensual and doesn’t hurt anyone? This is the post-modern justification for any and all sexual behavior (and is, frankly, what causes the struggle the student intern was talking to me about).
Here we tried to help the interns understand the worldviews that drive this postmodern understanding of sex, where truth is found only in your own personal life experience, and your sexual desires define the core of your identity. In contrast, the Christian worldview is that personal experience is not objective truth, but God’s Word is, and that Word tells us about our broken condition and of our desperate need for God. God has designed our sexuality for purposes greater than our own appetites, and love, without a moral standard, is too easily twisted into self-centeredness, even when two people want the same thing. Mutual self-centeredness as a core principle is brokenness, not health. But God’s love, when lived out in a marriage relationship between a husband and wife, displays a growing other-centered love that finds life in giving, as Christ demonstrated for us on the cross.
Cooper, my Student Outreach colleague, and I walked away from our time with RUF with a deepened sense of how today’s students are bombarded with an anything-goes sexuality that looks appealing but does not bring about the life God has for his creation. This necessity of our mission to equip churches to proclaim the goodness of Christ and his design for sexuality to emerging generations was only strengthened during our time with them.
26 Nov 2015
Ryan and Jen’s kids have always been active in church and school, involved in extracurricular activities, and have great friends. Their parents have modeled godly living to their children from a very early age. Like most parents, they hope to see their kids finish school, start a career, and raise a family. They don’t expect anything out of the ordinary since the children have never given them cause for worry.
Their son, Bobby, just finished his junior year of high school. He has always been a quiet kid but performed well academically and is naturally obedient. One day, when Jen asked to use her son’s phone, she discovered that Bobby was visiting gay porn sites. When Jen asked Bobby about the porn, Bobby became very withdrawn. After more questions, he finally confessed, “Mom, I’m gay . . .” Jen was in disbelief.
Jen wondered how her son could possibly be sure that he was gay. She thought he must simply be a confused teenager. The truth is that Bobby has wrestled with these feelings since middle school. He tried to ignore these desires but always found himself longing to be in a relationship with another guy. Ryan and Jen hadn’t the slightest clue that their son struggled in this way.
Living in the middle is place filled with tension. Parents want to help their child, but often the message they hear is that they must affirm their child’s decision.
Many Christian parents share Ryan and Jen’s experience of a child self-identifying as gay. Cultural messages about sexuality are influencing young people to define their sense of self and identity with their feelings and emotions. When a child embraces the identity as a life direction, in contrast to Scripture’s view of sexuality designed by God, parents and family members are thrown into crisis. They feel caught in the middle between their love for their child and their convictions to stand firm in what God says. Living in the middle is a place filled with tension. Parents want to help their child, but often the message they hear is that they must affirm their child’s decision. Anything short of that feels like a crushing rejection to their child.
It’s a difficult path for parents to walk, and they will need understanding and support, especially from their church community, to help them. Here are some ways pastors, church leaders, and friends can do so.
Where to begin?
Parents in this situation struggle to know how to make sense of what they are feeling, much less what to do. Helping them to identify some common initial reactions and know how to guide them will help them move forward.
Many parent’s first reaction is shock, which is often followed by anger. Why is this happening? Why are you doing this to us? Questions and strong emotions like these are understandable. Helping them to channel them well is critical.
The first thing is to encourage them not to direct anger at their child. It took a lot of courage to say what he or she said, and while it hurts, it’s still better to know than to be kept in the dark. Healthy relationships require honesty. Help them to acknowledge their child’s courage. If they have already expressed anger at their child, encourage them to go to their child and ask forgiveness, modeling humility and repentance. The relationship will need this healing.
Then help them deal with what might be anger toward God. Why are you letting this happen to us, God? Haven’t we been faithful in raising our children? Encourage them to express such troubling questions to God, as their own relationship with him requires honesty also. Suggest that they read the Psalms, which can provide them with a God-given language to voice their powerful and tumultuous emotions in a way that still directs faith back to him. This will be a safeguard against bitterness taking root. God is strong and loving enough to hear our words of pain, and even to identify with them.
Parents will grieve over the fear they have of losing the life they anticipated for their child. They will grieve the loss of the son they thought they knew, along with the hopes and dreams they attached to him. Because the child’s revelation feels like a deathblow to the family’s future, give them space to grieve unreservedly and without judgment. Weep with them (Romans 12:15). Validate the pain and loss they feel. Having the support of friends in their moments of grief will help them to move toward their child, learning to love him as he is, in this new reality, but with new eyes of faith. Adjusting to this new reality will be difficult to do. Help them to see that continuing to love their child, just as always, will be an important connection to God that can give hope for the future.
Guilt and Shame
Almost every parent will think that they have failed in some way, asking where they went wrong. Ryan and Jen began to believe that maybe they could have done something, if only they had known how Bobby felt when all of this began – but they didn’t realize what was going on, and now they feel like terrible parents for missing it. The feeling of guilt may be consuming. It will be helpful here to listen to their anguished questions, and point out that such questions, though legitimate, may have no answer, nor could they have known what was kept secret. To get stuck here will only hurt them further. What counts now is to live in the present and release these questions to the One who does know all the answers.
Because parents fear others’ opinions and judgement of their parenting, shame will often accompany guilt. There is a feature to sin and suffering where shame attaches not only to the individual, but also to those who are associated with him. It is not uncommon that parents will feel marked by their child’s decision or actions. Invite them to speak their emotions and not feel ashamed for wrestling with such thoughts and feelings. Shame pushes us to hide in the shadows and stay away from others. But isolating from others is spiritually dangerous, so help them to remain connected to their church community. Sadly, families that keep silent and isolate themselves over this situation are more likely to resolve the tension they live in by changing their view of Scripture and affirming their child’s gay identity. Staying in the middle is very hard to do, and faithful friends are critical in helping them find a measure of peace in the midst of that tension.
Fear and Despair
A child’s coming out takes parents’ normal fears to another level. Ryan and Jen fear what their son’s declaration means for his future and how people will treat him. They fear that their son has fallen away from God, or never truly knew God. Fear loses sight of God’s sovereignty, and can give way to despair. Parents of gay children struggle to see a sovereign and righteous God on the throne when the “wisdom” of the world’s view of sexuality infiltrates their homes. They need an anchor, so keep pointing them to images that describe God the way David saw him, as one whose “way is perfect,” whose “word…proves true,” and who is “a shield for all those who take refuge in him” (Psalm 18:30). God remains on the throne even when everything in life feels out of control. God is still at work in this situation. Their child is not beyond the reach of God’s arm, as Isaiah proclaimed to rebellious Israel (Isaiah 59:1). Remind them that the timing of God’s work is perfect. So, encourage them to acknowledge to God all that they fear, and to patiently hear God speak to them through his word and his people.
In all these ways, patiently listening to how they process this experience will give them a lifeboat in a tossing sea. Their responses may not be pretty. Especially in the early stages, remain unruffled at the parents’ raw, emotional responses, leaving gracious room for what they are experiencing. Consider the Psalms as you ponder your response to them. God does not rebuke his children for expressing the breadth of their suffering to him, so neither should we chastise parents in their anger, grief, guilt, shame, fear, and despair. Rather, it is much wiser and more profitable to help them explore what they are feeling, and learn to see how God is cultivating their faith in the midst of their turmoil.
Once the initial storm subsides, parents need help navigating questions about how to love to their child while standing true to biblical convictions.
It will be difficult for parents to know how to have conversations with their son or daughter. Typically, parents will either want to make this the primary topic of conversation with them, or they may ignore the issue altogether, hoping their child’s struggle will quietly disappear. Parents in the first category can unknowingly slip into relating to their child solely on the basis of this issue. Parents panic and want to change their child because they realize the seriousness of sinful sexual behavior. Just as parents mistakenly fear that they caused their child to become gay, they can also erroneously believe they can somehow change their child, which becomes their chief focus. But they need to be reminded that the work of sanctification belongs to the Lord. We do influence our children’s lives, and we want them to live faithfully before God, but our faith must acknowledge that God is the one who is sovereign over our child’s life. God is not just after a child’s behavior; he is after his or her heart.
Those who fall into the second category believe that “keeping the peace” and not talking about it is better than speaking the truth in love. This may be out of fear to keep a close relationship with their child at all costs. Speaking into their child’s life, or keeping quiet, will be a tough balancing act. Help the parents to move beyond their fears to seek wisdom and wait for opportunities to speak, even if it may be upsetting. But remind them that to make this issue the primary focus will seriously hurt the relationship. Let God lead the way in this.
Most importantly, remind parents of their child’s greatest need: the gospel. A child’s sexual orientation/behavior can consume a parent’s vision, but parents need to remember that their child’s fundamental need is to see their need of God’s love and redemption in Christ. The goal for our children is not heterosexual happiness, but grasping an identity in Christ that becomes their chief focus in life. Looking at the situation from this perspective helps the parents see that what their child needs is no different than what everyone needs: to live by faith in Christ and learn how to follow him in obedience, glorifying him even in the brokenness of life (see Philippians 2:12).
Finally, we can remind them to continue in the assurance and hope of Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” This may not be the best passage to give when parents are really hurting at the beginning of all this, but over time this glorious truth will resonate with them. In the midst of our confusion, God is faithful to draw us closer to himself, make us more dependent on him, humble us in our need for grace, and strengthen us in our faith that he does care for our families. When we embrace this reality we have eyes to see that God works his redemptive purposes most powerfully in the midst of brokenness and suffering. Waiting on God and praying for a child is no guarantee that God will cause him to turn away from a gay identity, but it does guarantee the cultivation and deepening of patience, faith, and love in the parents’ hearts and lives—and isn’t that how God reaches the world, displaying his love through the transformed lives of his people?
If you want to connect with Chris, you can reach him at email@example.com. Or you can make a comment at the end of this post.
For a deeper examination of these issues, a few of our popular mini books give further insightful and practical help for parents, pastors, church leaders, and friends. Go to www.harvest-usa-store.com for these resources:
Can You Change if You’re Gay?
Your Gay Child Says, ‘I Gay’
Your Gay Child Says ‘I Do’
Homosexuality and the Bible: Outdated Advice or Words of Life?