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“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 that?” 

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 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 kind 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 are not surprised at 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 ground the relationship 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.

 

Interested in getting Dan and Cooper and the Student Outreach staff to speak to your student leaders or parents?  They can do that.  Email [email protected].              

To see what the Student Outreach is up to, click here for their webpage

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’s 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 what to do with them will help them move forward.

Anger

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, as well. 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.

Grief

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 a 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” (Ps 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.

Ongoing Care

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 our child’s behavior; he is after their 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, and glorify 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 protected]. 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?

This is the third of a multi-part blog that chronicles Allan Edward’s journey from discovering his same-sex attraction to how he responded, and what his faith in Christ meant for him all along the way. Check out Allan’s interview on NPR, which was a catalyst for this series of blog posts: http://www.npr.org/2015/01/04/374857829/a-pastor-moves-past-his-attraction-to-men-and-so-does-his-wife)

When I’ve talked to older guys about their struggles with pornography, they often tell me that it was different, harder, in the old days to get a hold of pornography. I came of age in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and the Internet was brand new. Getting online meant surfing through chat rooms within AOL. But it wasn’t long before I was able to start finding pictures of guys in bathing suits, wrestlers, and the like. But it was the early days of the Internet, and covering my tracks hadn’t occurred to me.

I remember sitting down with my parents on the good furniture, in the nice living room, one afternoon when I was in tenth grade or so. Apparently my little brother had found some awkward (read: inappropriate) pictures on the computer, and they wanted to ask me about it. I broke down right then and there. My attempt to hide my secret pleasure from my parents was over. After two years of keeping this secret, I’d been found out, and the image I’d worked to create and maintain collapsed. I’d lost my parents trust, which—more importantly, to me at the time—meant that I’d lost my free pass to pornography.

It wasn’t until years later that I began to synthesize the pain of this experience. At the time the crushing weight of shame seemed unbearable. But the more I reflect back on this experience, I’m so thankful for it. Living life in the shadows and constantly hiding how you feel is a psychological weight that I now realize I couldn’t have borne much longer. But at the time, having to sit there and talk with my parents about sexual attraction was possibly the worst experience my seventeen-year-old self could imagine.

Today, when I think about that moment, it makes me think of peroxide. I have no idea what parents do to treat kid’s wounds today, but whenever I fell off my bike and skinned my knee as a kid, the pain of the fall was a shadow of the pain I would feel later when my mom or dad would open up a bottle of peroxide and pour the disinfecting stream onto my bloody knee. While it certainly hurt, I knew the pain was for a purpose: the bubbling, stinging peroxide would keep my scrape from becoming an infected and festering wound.

That’s how honesty is, even when it comes to issues of sexuality. When the truth comes out, you might lose something, the way I lost some access to my secret pleasures. But you gain something too; you gain authenticity.

When I had this conversation with my parents, it felt like finally being known after living a long time in the shadows. Sadly, many youth who struggle with same-sex attraction come to believe that it means that they have a particular identity—that they are gay, bisexual, or queer. So, when they have this kind of “coming out” conversation with family, they are declaring an identity. I think coming out conversations are really hard for Christian families. For me and my parents, I wasn’t coming out in the sense that I was declaring a new identity; I was coming out of hiding and asking for help.

If you or someone you know struggles with same-sex attraction, and believes that embracing a gay identity is not an option for their life, then know that it can be just as hard for them to talk about it as for someone who comes out and declares a gay identity. But, on the other hand, if your child or a friend comes out to you, declaring a gay identity, I’d urge you to react to that news with patience, grace, and understanding. Even and especially if you hold to orthodox Christian beliefs about sexuality.

My parents, as confused and probably hurt as they were, showed me kindness and patience. It was probably easier for them to do so, as I wasn’t taking on a new identity. But parents who have children who do declare themselves LGBT need to have even more grace and patience as they walk with their child through this, and, along the way, lovingly point them to the truth of God’s word.

This is the second of a multi-part blog that chronicles Allan Edward’s journey from discovering his same-sex attraction to how he responded, and what his faith in Christ meant for him all along the way.

“So, how do you identify yourself?” That’s the question I’ve tried to answer to friends, in-laws, and even a reporter from National Public Radio. (To listen to an interview with Allan and his wife, click here: http://www.npr.org/2015/01/04/374857829/a-pastor-moves-past-his-attraction-to-men-and-so-does-his-wife)

As a Christian kid, having erotic fantasies about other guys on an almost daily basis shocked and surprised me. I went from not completely understanding what was going on in my heart and mind, to understanding that what I was doing was wrong. And when the guilt and shame set in, the identity crisis began.

Let me be clear about the source of my guilt and shame. Although I was raised in an evangelical home, there weren’t thundering sermons in my church attacking the “gay agenda.” There weren’t a lot of jokes at our family gatherings about effeminate men. Honestly, there was very little talk about sexuality at all.

A lot of people who experience same-sex attraction and grow up in a Christian context do experience shame when their community is full of harsh language about homosexuals. Homosexual behavior is certainly sin, and homosexual attraction is not God’s design for human sexuality, but the fact that homosexuality has been lifted up as the ultimate sin by many in the Christian community has not helped Christians who struggle with same-sex attraction find grace and repentance. Making one sin the sin hasn’t represented the gospel well to the watching world.

Pointing to one sin pattern as the cause of all societal ills isn’t in line with the gospel of God’s grace. As Paul reminded the legalistic Christians in Rome, God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance (Rom. 2:4). Such kindness has been missing in the words and actions of the Church, however. Instead, hateful words and ignorant speech have enveloped many people who experience same-sex attraction in shame and have even contributed to destructive decisions.

My own experience with shame wasn’t birthed from such an environment. I was the son of two loving parents, and an older brother to two awesome younger brothers. I grew up in a church that preached God’s grace as the only hope for all people, not just one kind of sinner or another. My home, my family, and my church didn’t teach me to hate or fear homosexuality. I believe I felt guilt and shame because I was keeping a secret. I was a performance-oriented kid who loved to please my teachers and parents. But now, I was harboring a secret, and I was convinced that if I told anyone, I would have to stop.

Honestly, I liked how it felt to fantasize and please myself. It wasn’t long before I knew that what I was doing was morally wrong. But more important to me than doing what was right was feeling good.

You see, I’d always been a sneaky kid. I’d sneak cookies and candy. I’d sneak downstairs to watch television. And now, I was sneakily making myself feel good by objectifying my classmates.

The thing about a sneak is this: If he’s good at it, he’ll still look good to everyone around him. I was a sneaky kid, and I felt guilt and shame because I knew I was living a lie. On the outside I was a good kid, but on the inside I was nurturing a habit that turned people into objects for my pleasure.

Lies tend to be found out—and mine was no exception. Soon my fantasy life turned to a secret obsession with pornography, and that obsession would be discovered by my parents, forcing me to have a frank conversation with them. You’d think they’d naturally become a new source of shame for me. While they were certainly confused, my parents showed love, not hate; care, not condemnation. Sin brings shame, but a loving parent can turn shame into hopeful resolve.

This is the first of a multi-part blog that chronicles Allan Edward’s journey from discovering his same-sex attraction to how he responded, and what his faith in Christ meant for him all along the way.

“So, how do you identify yourself?” That’s the question I’ve tried to answer to friends, in-laws, and even a reporter from National Public Radio. (To listen to an interview with Allan and his wife, click here: http://www.npr.org/2015/01/04/374857829/a-pastor-moves-past-his-attraction-to-men-and-so-does-his-wife)

The problem with talking about identity is that we seem to want simple phrases. “I’m gay.” “I’m straight.” “I’m a celibate gay Christian.” “I’m ex-gay.” I guess my story begins with this central issue:

Allan & Leeanne Edwards

Allan and Leeanne

as a Christian who began experiencing same-sex attraction in adolescence, I didn’t understand my identity. I still struggle to talk about my identity in relatable terms today. Here’s what is most clear to me: my identity is in Christ. Like Paul says in Galatians 2, I’ve been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.

I grew up in a “becoming” Christian family, by which I mean that my parents came to really believe and understand the gospel when I was between the ages of four and six. From that time on, I was raised in Bible-believing evangelical churches that emphasized the grace of God in saving sinners and bringing them into a personal relationship with Him through Jesus.

I came to believe this message at a pretty young age. I was six or seven when the old Randy Travis song, “Have a Little Talk with Jesus,” played on the radio, and I remember telling my mom I needed a relationship with Jesus. My faith matured as I did and I remember in my early adolescent years praying to “give all of my life” to Jesus at summer camp.

But it was about this time, around 13 years old, that I began to see I was really different from other boys my age. I’d always been picked on for my weight or for not liking the right sports or music, but as I went through junior high a new taunt popped off the lips of school bullies: “gay.” To be honest, I didn’t understand what the word really meant. The kid who sat behind me in chorus said I was gay because I paid attention and sang in chorus class. If I’d remembered the fact that he, too, was in chorus class maybe I wouldn’t have taken the taunt so seriously.

Having not sat in the back of the bus, I suppose I came late to the world of understanding sexual activities, jokes, and lingo. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that my interest in arts and academics and my lack of typical alpha male characteristics meant I was “gay.”

It wasn’t long after those junior high years that I started to have my own sexual awakening. As a straight-laced “good” kid, I was ashamed and kind of shocked at my first experiences with masturbation. It was a short leap from fantasies about girls to fantasies about guys. I knew it was wrong, but honestly I don’t think I really knew what it was yet.

It took almost a year for me to put words to the experience: I was having “gay fantasies.” I was a youth group kid, a follower of Jesus, a Christian. I was the kid who brought his pastor in for career day, who never saw a Christian T-shirt he didn’t like… and I was having gay fantasies. The language of “identity” hadn’t yet entered my vocabulary, but I began having an identity crisis, and I knew there was no one I could talk to about it.


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