09 Jun 2016
It’s easy to go on idol hunts. Do you know what I mean? A student might be sitting in front of me, talking about how hard life has been for him, how sexual sin just keeps dominating him—and I’m on the prowl! I’m hanging on to every word, thinking, That smells like worship! Is that an idol!?
To be an idol-maker is to be a sinner. And for many of us, the sinner category is the only category out of which we operate when we minister to students. I’ll confess: I tend to love both quick fixes and be the “fixer” of people. And when I’m operating from the sinner category, it’s easy to call students to simple repentance and demand quick change.
But simply emphasizing this category results in conversations like these:
“Dude, repent. You just need to stop this. It’s destroying you.”
These conversations often result in impatience and frustration for both me and the student I’m trying to help. But, like all emphases, the category of “sinner” doesn’t give us the total picture. God gives us another category, one that nuances and deepens our ministry to students.
Sufferers. Not Just Sinners.
The Bible tells us that our students are not simply sinners; they are sufferers as well. In fact, the Scriptures make suffering a stipulation for sharing in the coming glory of Christ: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, their heirs—fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:16-17).
Paul says, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake…” (Philippians 1:29). Doesn’t a large part of our suffering as believers have to do with the “passions of the flesh” that “wage war” against our souls (1 Peter 2:11)?
All of us are walking battlegrounds, hosts to the war between flesh and spirit. As new creations in Christ, we bear the scars. The very presence of the “old man” waging war against our new selves means that we are sufferers.
What are some sufferings that students might face? For a student who struggles with same-sex attraction, her gifts and personality might not match up to the particular cultural group in which she lives. Feelings of isolation, shame, and being out of place might result from not living up to a certain societal ideal of what it means to be a woman.
She didn’t choose her gifts! And she didn’t choose to have a peer or parent say, “What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you like to do X like the other girls?” Her gifts that don’t correspond to cultural norms or those comments made by peers or parents are not sins on her part; they are her sufferings.
For a student who struggles with pornography, his home life might be an absolute mess. His mom and dad might constantly fight. Perhaps he perceives porn as his only escape and refuge from life’s storms. But he didn’t choose his home life! It is a part of his sufferings.
What Difference Does This Make?
While students who struggle sexually need to hear the call to repentance that comes from the sinner category, they also need the compassion, empathy, patience, and oftentimes listening ear that come from the sufferer category.
The way we talk to a robber and the way we talk to someone who has been robbed differ drastically. We would usually be stern with the robber. But how would we speak to the one who has been robbed? We would be gentle. We would be compassionate and empathetic. We would be patient as they work through feelings of insecurity and fear. We might simply be quiet, letting our presence do the talking. As sexual sin rears its head, students, many of whom are new creations in Christ, are simultaneously the ones robbing themselves and the ones being robbed of the joy that Christ brings.
Sometimes we need a firm hand to guide us. Other times we need a gentle hand to sustain us. Sometimes we need to hear about our need to rest in our identity in Christ. Other times we need to be told to pick up our tools and start working. The truths we give to students shift depending on the situation.
The category of sufferer provides our students with the truth that, though they sin, they are not defined by their sins. They can cry out to the Lord for help in the very moment that they are being assaulted by sin and temptation. This category also helps students draw near to the Lord who knows what it is like to suffer. He willingly suffered in their place and is with them now in the valley.
We might not operate out of the “sufferer” category every time, but when students are so beaten down and broken over their sexual sin that they can’t find the strength to move, this can be a useful tool. This category will help students find the helping hand of Christ who is God With Us and gives us, as ministers, godly and nuanced patience, compassion, empathy, and love for the students under our care.
She wants to meet with you. She’s part of the youth group, but she’s been more of a marginal participant. Quiet, a bit aloof, definitely reserved. You’re eager to finally get a chance to know more about her. But when you finally get together, and after some awkward and hesitant initial talk, she says it: “I think I’m gay. I’m attracted to girls.”
If you’re like most youth leaders today, your first impulse is to wonder what to say that would be helpful. You don’t want to negate her sense of self, because that’s what she experiences, but nor do you want to confirm it, as if the matter is settled. The problem you have, and what is making you uncomfortable, is that you are not like that; that is, you are not attracted to people of the same sex like she is. Her experience is so unlike yours. What can you say? Your inclination is to retreat because you don’t think you can relate to her in any way that might be helpful.
But wait a minute. You have a lot more in common than you think. You are more equipped to help than you give yourself credit for. Or give God credit.
Start with 1 Corinthians 10:12-13, a familiar passage: “Therefore let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man” (ESV). Now look at the context of that passage. Paul is describing the desert journeys of Israel after they left Egypt. Israel stumbled, desired evil things (v.6), worshiped idols (v.7), and engaged in sexual immorality (v. 8). They put God to the test (v. 9), and constantly grumbled against him (v. 10) because they didn’t like how life was turning out for them. What’s the lesson Paul is teaching the young church in Corinth? This: Be careful! Though you as a Christian have been chosen and loved by God, just like the Israelites, you also live in a broken world, and life will not go smoothly nor be what you hope it will be. You, too, are tempted to grumble against God and be tempted by many things to fill your empty hearts (even if they are different temptations), so don’t think more highly of yourself than anyone else, nor think that someone else’s struggles or sin is so strange and different that neither you nor the gospel can connect with them.
Paul asserts that no temptation has seized us but what is common to humanity. No temptation. There is not a temptation under the sun that is not common to fallen humanity. While you might not struggle or sin in this particular way, you have everything in common with someone who has same-sex attraction. This student is not “other” than you. She is no stranger. She is a fellow sufferer who lives in the same fallen world that you do, and that is the world that Christ came to rescue.
What about James 1:14-15? James writes, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” Beneath her attraction for those of the same sex, this girl has other intense desires within her. Desires that are similar to yours: desires for companionship, meaning, purpose, identity, salvation, etc. It is these desires, usually unaddressed and hidden in the heart, that the fallen human heart twists into misshapen idols that we live for and worship. Good things that become idols that lead to actions and behaviors that feel right and that give meaning and significance to a void that she (and all of us, too!) becomes desperate to fill. Her heart tempts her to attach these desires to things that cannot give life, nor glorify God—but so does your own heart!
Can you relate to someone who wants to be loved? Can you relate to someone who feels that their identity needs to be defined by someone or something other than Jesus? Can you relate to someone who wrestles and struggles with his or her particular besetting sin? Can you relate to those who want to follow Christ but find strong, competing, sinful tendencies within themselves moving them in wrong directions? This girl is not radically different than you. Her longings and struggles, of which one of them is same-sex attraction, may be different than yours, but the seed is the same. We all come from the same parents. There are sinful and broken tendencies within all of us that are experienced by each and every one of us. Christianity levels the playing field, and connects every one of us to each other.
Without seeing the common ground between us and someone else, we erroneously separate and distance ourselves from others. We either think less of them because we would never do those things, or we think less of ourselves in terms of our ability to help. Hebrews 4:15-16 levels the ground, closes the distance, because God himself came close to us, in his humanity, so that we might intimately know how much Christ is for 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. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in times of need.” One of the wonders of the Incarnation is that Jesus lived a real, human life, and experienced all the desires, temptations, and sufferings that we experience. He knows what life is like; he is able to help us; he understands us; and he loves us in the midst of our struggles in a way that transforms us. We can trust him. We can rest in him.
We reflect the help, understanding, and love that Jesus gives to us by moving towards our students, not away from them. The issue I raised at the beginning is a bit misleading: it really isn’t a question about finding common ground. It’s about recognizing the common ground that we already have when we walk alongside someone who experiences same-sex attraction. We both share the same fallen, human condition, and we both have access to the same, divine help: a help that comes close to us in love and power.