16 Oct 2019
“How do I know whether I’ve crossed the line in my mind between temptation and sin?”
This is a frequent question I get asked at our Harvest USA groups. While there could be mixed motivations for asking such a question, I believe the most common reason Christians ask this stems from a very legitimate desire to please their heavenly Father. At the core of our identity as adopted sons and daughters of God in Christ, we have been given hearts that long to hear our Father say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
We know that sin displeases our Father. So how does God look upon us, when we wrestle daily, and frequently throughout the day, with desires, thoughts, and temptations that we know are not pure, good, or pleasing to God? Is God, at all times, frustrated and dishonored by our lives?
This is an extremely important question for the believer who wants to repent well of ongoing patterns of sin. Believing that God is pleased with our repentance is a powerful motivation to continue repenting.
Believing that God is pleased with our repentance is a powerful motivation to continue repenting.
But if we think that all of our sincere efforts are only met with perpetual disappointment from our Father, then it will only be a matter of time before despair sets in. And eventually, we give up.
This is an especially significant question for men and women wrestling with same-sex attraction. They can struggle with great discouragement if every experience of same-sex attraction is classified as sin. But no matter what form temptation presents itself, these deep questions concern everyone.
We all know the pain of never measuring up to someone’s standards. It may be a child whose parents aren’t pleased with any grade below an A+, or an employee whose boss never gives them a compliment, or someone who never experiences their spouse’s delight in them. This hurts, and over time, it can be a crushing experience. So too, brothers and sisters wrestling with ongoing temptation want to know that God is pleased by their sincere efforts.
In light of these good desires to please God, how should we understand the nature of temptation and sin? This is the topic of much current discussion. My purpose here is not to throw my two cents into the conversation, since I believe a historic, reformed anthropology adequately reflects the biblical teaching on sin and temptation. My concern is more with the pastoral implications of this anthropology.
So, I will briefly summarize my understanding of sin and temptation, and then explain how this does not lead to despair in the Christian’s life, but hope!
It’s helpful to consider three categories when conceptualizing sin and temptation. This is our starting point to get to the place in answering the question I raised.
Temptation from without
This is temptation to sin that comes at you that has no genesis in sinful desires. Adam and Eve were tempted from without by the serpent. Jesus was tempted from without by the devil. When someone entices you to engage in sinful activity, this is temptation from without. It does not come from your heart but is seeking to tempt your heart to sin.
Temptation from within (indwelling sin)
This is temptation that arises from corrupt desires in your heart. James says that “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14). How are we to understand the moral quality of these desires? Are they neutral?
I don’t believe the Bible allows that interpretation. These desires are sinful desires, arising from the fallen, corrupted, sinful nature that we have all inherited from Adam. Another term for temptation from within is “indwelling sin.” A very important feature of indwelling sin is that it is not something consciously chosen or something that we willfully summon. And yet, it is still sin.
Voluntary (willful) sin
If temptation from within is not something we consciously choose, then voluntary sin is what we willingly engage in. This is what most people think of when they think of sin. They think of something that is willfully chosen. And indeed, much sin is of this variety.
We are presented an opportunity to sin that our hearts desire. Now we are left with a choice. Will we turn to Christ, or give in to our sinful desires? This is what James means when he says, “Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin” (James 1:15). James is not saying the desire itself was not sin, but that sinful desires, often unbidden, give birth to willful sin.
At first, this might sound crushing to someone wrestling with sinful desires on a daily basis. Indeed, it should sober us to think of the overwhelming weight and pervasiveness of our sin. That sin is not just something we occasionally do, but sin impacts every willing act in our lives. Consider the call of Christ to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). I don’t believe there is a single moment of my life where I can say this was perfectly true of me. Pride and selfishness always infect even the purest motivations of my heart.
Sin is not just something we occasionally do, but sin impacts every willing act in our lives.
This must mean God is constantly disappointed in you, right? Wrong! It is for these very reasons that Christ came not only to die in my place for the sins that I continue to commit, but also to live the perfect life that I never could. We can never merit favor with God by our own righteousness—our own good intentions or efforts. This is why Christ’s active and passive obedience are required to earn our full salvation. Because no one will be accepted into God’s presence unless they have a record of proven, perfect righteousness. Christ alone has accomplished this, and by Spirit-wrought faith we are united to Christ in all of his benefits, including his justification becoming our own.
So, instead of crushing the believer’s heart, it should first of all greatly deepen our appreciation of the gospel—the good news of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for us! The more we come to grips with how bad the bad news really is, the more we come to worship, delight in, and love our Savior.
This understanding of Jesus-for-us is the answer to our concern that we can never please God even though we are saved, because indwelling sin stains everything we do. But the Bible gives us so many declarations that God delights in his people and is pleased by their obedience (Romans 12:1-2, Galatians 1:10, 1 Thessalonians 2:4). Is it perfect, sinless obedience, worthy of salvation? No. But every Christian can and does obey in ways that delight our heavenly Father.
The Westminster Confession of Faith explains this possibility of pleasing God so well in section 16.6:
Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in Him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but that He, looking upon them in His Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.
This is so crucial to understand! How are our sincere efforts to please God acceptable in his sight if they are not perfect? They are accepted by God “through Christ,” as God looks upon our imperfect works “in His Son.”
Here’s the answer, then, to the question: How do I know if I’ve crossed the line between temptation and sin? We are always crossing over the line between temptation and sin because we are fallen. We don’t just need the gospel to save us from God’s wrath, we need the gospel in order to do anything that pleases the Father.
This means, when you are wrestling with indwelling sin, temptations from within, you have the opportunity to please God! When you turn from corrupt desires that rise up from within your own heart, and you make war with your flesh, and submit to the Spirit leading you into the throne room of grace, you are met there by your high priest with sympathy and with delight!
Every Christian will battle with indwelling sin until they see Jesus face to face. This will be a daily, moment by moment battle. God’s not disappointed in you because you are fighting against indwelling sin. The very opposite: He calls you to never give up fighting sin. The ones who meet God and hear the words “well done, good and faithful servant,” are those who endured to the end. Who didn’t make peace with their sin, but continued to take up their weapons of warfare that we see so beautifully outlined in Ephesians 6.
God’s not disappointed in you because you are fighting against indwelling sin. The very opposite: He calls you to never give up fighting sin.
Brothers and sisters, you aren’t laboring in vain. Not only are your sincere, Spirit-dependent efforts accepted and rewarded in Christ, but they are also sowing seeds into greater and greater righteousness. You don’t “box as one beating the air” (1 Corinthians 9:26), but instead, you are being transformed into the image of Jesus Christ, from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18).
To learn more, watch Mark Sanders’ accompanying video, Can I Please God When I’m Not Perfect?
09 Oct 2019
One of the loneliest seasons of my life was when I was a college student living in a little apartment in Philadelphia. In the midst of a near-constant crowd, I was deeply hurting but no one knew or would’ve had the capacity to help. Being surrounded by people all the time while feeling “unknown” made everything worse.
Now, despite the ever-present opportunity to connect through social media, loneliness seems to be a growing epidemic. Loneliness is an excruciating experience because, as image-bearers, we are designed for relationship with one another, reflecting our relational, triune God.
This is underscored in the creation account in Genesis 2. After the repeated refrain throughout Genesis 1, in which we hear that “God saw that it was good,” the Creator now looks at his handiwork and makes a jarring assessment, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (v. 18, emphasis added). God’s solution to Adam’s aloneness was Eve.
This may be encouraging if you’re married, but where does this leave singles? Not to mention those languishing in difficult marriages. Some say there is no lonelier place than a bad marriage!
Although marriage and child-rearing are the Old Testament norm for humanity, a dramatic shift occurs in the New Testament. When Jesus is questioned about the practice of divorce, he brings his listeners back to God’s original intent at creation. But he concludes his teaching about the permanence of marriage with a profound declaration: “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it” (Matthew 19:11–12).
Instead of insisting on the importance of marriage and children to fulfill the creation mandate, Jesus proclaims that some will choose singleness for the sake of God’s kingdom. This is the first time in the Bible that singleness is depicted as a desirable and even exalted state!
Paul takes Jesus’s exhortation further, encouraging believers at Corinth to seriously consider lifelong singleness. What’s the reason? Because spouses are divided in their loyalties, wanting to serve the kingdom but also wanting to bless their spouse (1 Corinthians 7:6–9, 25–40). Do you see what he’s saying? In view of the radical reorienting call to serve in Jesus’s kingdom, Scripture understands that mission is so worthy, it ought to be prioritized over the creational calling to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Paul’s concern is for believers to maintain “undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:35). To this end, he encourages lifelong celibacy, although he freely acknowledges that it is not sinful to marry.
How can Jesus and Paul pull off this switcheroo against the previously prescribed remedy for humanity’s loneliness? What has changed? The Church.
Singleness is a viable, perhaps even preferable, option because now there is a new-creation antidote for humanity’s loneliness. Or to put it another way, we now have access to the true community God intended for his people.
In 1 Corinthians 12:12–31, Paul describes the church as a body with all the parts inextricably linked together. Note the “one-flesh” language of Genesis as Paul explains our interconnectedness as Christians! The social and communal reality of the church’s common life in Christ is the reason Paul encourages singleness for the sake of Christ’s kingdom. God’s people do not have to marry because there should be no lonely Christian in the Body of Christ. The church is called to be salt and light, reflecting genuine community in our increasingly fractured society.
There should be no lonely Christian in the Body of Christ.
And this includes married people. The fact they are “one flesh” should not be understood to mean that any couple is self-sufficient apart from the church. As one flesh, married people are corporately a single body part and still need the rest of Christ’s body. Marriage is an exclusive, covenantal relationship, but it can’t be your only relationship. As it is not good for any individual to be alone, it is also not healthy for any specific relationship to be alone, in isolation from the wider network of relationships God has designed to shape our lives in the body of Christ.
So, what steps need to be taken to enfold singles into their rightful place in the body? Ephesians 4:15–16 tells us that the body only reaches maturity as “each part is working properly.” This means if singles are not fully engaged and exercising their gifts in the church, the maturity of the entire body is significantly hindered.
If singles are not fully engaged and exercising their gifts in the church, the maturity of the entire body is significantly hindered.
Where does your own church need to grow in this area? There are two equally important aspects to consider: first, making sure there are no lonely people in the body. Second, don’t see singles as only lonely, needy people. They are gifted, equipped, and necessary for the health of your church! Married people need singles as much as singles need married people.
If you are lonely, whether single or struggling in a hard marriage, even if the church is loving well, know there are places where only Jesus can meet you. Know that the ultimate Bridegroom does not leave you alone; he gives you his name. He wants to possess you as his very own. That’s why Jesus came—to win his bride. The Spirit within you means Jesus is as close as he could possibly be—far closer than a spouse. He shares every thought and experiences every emotion. This is partly why the Spirit’s intercession for us is referred to as “groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). Especially as a single, it is crucial to embrace the truth of his presence with you and find ways to open yourself to this reality.
Editor’s Note: This blog is adapted from David White’s new book, God, You, & Sex: A Profound Mystery, which is available now. When you buy God, You, & Sex from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry
27 Sep 2019
Most books on sexuality miss a critical piece: a biblical perspective on the goodness of created and redeemed sexuality and how Scripture invites us to know Jesus as the ultimate Bridegroom, whether married or single. Unless we understand sexuality is ultimately about God and our relationship with him, we will not have a complete picture of the God we worship.
The content of this video is based on David White’s new book, God, You, & Sex: A Profound Mystery, which is available now. When you buy God, You, & Sex from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.
19 Sep 2019
I remember the intoxication of my early sexual sin. Porn and sexual release provided a technicolor rush against the drab backdrop of middle school reality. And that was looking at magazines. Not surprising, the internet’s heightened experience leads many to addiction. Like all the blessings of this life, sex is a good gift from God. (That’s why the Bible is overwhelmingly positive about sexuality expressed according to God’s design.)
The problem arises from our propensity to worship the gift instead of the Giver. In all beauty and pleasure, we catch a glimpse of transcendence in the Creator’s handiwork. But this can lead us to confuse the signpost for the ultimate destination. Sexuality is a realm of human experience where this is particularly true.
Specifically, God designed the delights of sexuality to point to the wonder of his heart for us. So, in teaching about marriage, Paul writes, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31,32). This means sexuality is ultimately about God.
Sexual expression consummates lifelong, covenant promises because it points to the glory that our relationship is rooted in God’s covenantal promises to us. Further, he created us to experience the thrill of romance so that we’d glimpse Jesus’s heart and delight in us. Consider this incredible declaration from Isaiah 62:5, “…as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you”! The exhilarating thrill of falling in love, the wonderful bliss of sexual experience, the joy and delight of romantic love that has inspired poets and artists over the millennia, are all a dim reflection of an infinitely greater reality: God’s heart for you and Jesus’s great anticipation, as the ultimate Bridegroom, of sitting down with us at the wedding feast at the beginning of the world to come (see Revelation 19:6-9).
The most beautiful experiences of romance in this world are a drop in the Pacific Ocean compared to God’s heart for you. Because of the deep theological truths behind romance and sexuality, God has imbued these experiences with great delight. But the downside is that this particular signpost can become incredibly enslaving when people worship the gift rather than the Giver.
And this is a problem for all of us. Because the Fall has infiltrated every aspect of our personhood, broken sexuality affects every individual and community on the globe. It’s important to underscore that sexual sin is a gender-neutral pathogen of the soul. This is a universal human condition, impacting men and women. All of us need sexual redemption. This includes every Christian—Jesus doesn’t wave a wand over anyone when they come to faith. All of us need sanctification in this area of our lives.
It’s important to underscore that sexual sin is a gender-neutral pathogen of the soul. This is a universal human condition, impacting men and women. All of us need sexual redemption.
But things are not so broken that they do not recall their original goodness or so marred that they can’t be repaired by God’s grace.
How to Move Forward
Realize the theological significance of sex. The passages warning against sexual immorality make clear that sex reveals the allegiance of your heart. Sexual immorality is what pagans do; Christians are to be ruled by the Spirit and so steward their sexuality in holiness and honor (see 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8). 1 Corinthians 6:13 goes further, “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” Spiritual life and physical reality are inextricably linked together. Being a Christian means acknowledging Jesus is Lord over all.
The aforementioned passages are in the New Testament (along with several others) because Christians struggle with sex. There’s good news here: you’re not the only one. But, do others really know what that struggle means for you? The gospel gains traction in our lives through humble vulnerability. Honest confession of our struggles reflects a confidence in Christ’s atoning work and commitment to be purified as his bride.
Sanctification in this area of life is just like any other. You need the strength of the Body of Christ. Ephesians 4 describes how we reach maturity only as we are inextricably linked to one another and “each part is working properly” (v. 16). If you want to grow in this area, you can’t do it alone. (For this reason, our workbooks, Sexual Sanity for Men and Sexual Sanity for Women, were designed for small groups!)
Because sex is about God, regardless of your experience and life situation, Jesus invites you to a deeper place of relationship with him through these desires. In his teaching on marriage and divorce, Jesus was clear: there is no marriage in the new heavens and earth. It is a “this world” experience that points beyond itself to the greatest union yet to be. Your desires are a small window into Jesus’s longing for the coming wedding feast. Even unsatisfied, they provide an opportunity to know him and worship him. Jesus meets us in the pain of unsatisfied desires, reorienting them toward himself, because this is what all of life, including sex, is ultimately about.
Editor’s Note: This blog is adapted from David White’s new book, God, You, & Sex: A Profound Mystery, which is available now. When you buy God, You, & Sex from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.
05 Sep 2019
In looking back and celebrating the work God has done through Harvest USA for the past 35 years, we thought it would be good to share a testimony from the early years. The following testimony from Steve DeVries appeared in the Fall 1989 issue of Harvest News, which was followed by John Freeman’s recollection, “In Memoriam,” in the Fall 1992 issue.
I was brought up in a typical middle-class home on Long Island, NY. It was at about age 13 that I had my first gay sexual experience. Although at that time it seemed an innocent and isolated occurrence, little did I know the devastating effect it would have on my life.
Those early experiences led to 15 years of guilt and confusion. A move to the West Coast to attend college brought new freedoms that were damaging. The move enabled me to seek out gay bars and begin involvement in the gay life. This was something the small farming community from which I had come had not afforded me.
Never willing to face the loneliness of my life for very long, I found temporary peace in new surroundings. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, South Florida, and a year in Europe only enabled me to keep running away. I thought that I could find happiness in a constant stream of new people, new places, and new things. Although I was getting more involved in the gay life, I was still conscious of enough confusion to seek out psychiatrists. I found out that the psychiatrists often needed psychiatrists.
During this time, I also tried to push myself into heterosexual relationships, at times getting serious enough to come through with promises and diamond rings. I never could go through with it. Those years were characterized by guilt and misery.
By the age of 28, I just gave in. I rationalized and made the necessary excuses. I said, “Well, this is the way God made me and wants me. I’m gay, and I’ll have to live with that for the rest of my life.” So I dove into that for the next 15 years. Along the way I learned that alcohol dulled the pain (and hidden guilt). Alcohol enabled me to not feel, and a continual stream of brief relationships that meant nothing gave temporary relief.
Still looking for that ultimate “pain killer” at age 40, I got into crack, one of the most deadly drugs on the market. I don’t know how, but I did find success in business and money. I had all the material trappings of a successful yuppie. I was making a ton of money.
Alcohol enabled me to not feel, and a continual stream of brief relationships that meant nothing gave temporary relief.
Then the bottom fell out. I was arrested for coke possession, spent one night in jail, and was released in the morning. Within a month I was arrested for possession of crack again. This time it hit the headlines of the newspaper in the small South Florida town in which I lived and worked. I was fired from my job and began a prison term.
I remember sitting in prison, contemplating and even planning my suicide. I began to pray for the first time in a long time. I prayed that God would do something. I had lost everything. I got involved in AA and various drug programs and became substance-free. But I knew that still was not enough.
As part of my parole, I landed a job in the Philadelphia area. I began to frequent gay bars again, but something wasn’t the same. I didn’t drink, but I would just sit there and look at all those lonely people. Only, somehow, I now couldn’t relate. Now I felt completely lost. I kept thinking, this is the only thing I’ve known. What am I going to do now? It was about this time that I read an ad in the newspaper for Harvest USA, which said there was help and hope for people like me!
Thank the Lord I found that ad. I called the number and went in and talked with John Freeman. He listened for a long time and then told me about Christ and how Jesus really cared about me and my problems. During that first appointment, I accepted Christ into my life.
It’s hard for me to understand and explain, but after that, my life changed dramatically. I began reading the Bible, praying, and developing a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I had always known deep down that there must be some purpose to my life. Now I knew! Perhaps the biggest change has been that the loneliness and insecurity that plagued my life are gone. I’m a new man in Christ, and the Lord is my personal friend. It’s really unbelievable. No crack or cocaine can come near it.
Now I felt completely lost. I kept thinking, this is the only thing I’ve known. What am I going to do now? It was about this time that I read an ad in the newspaper for HARVEST USA, which said there was help and hope for people like me!
In January 1989, about six months after giving my life to Christ, I faced a new problem. That month I went to the dermatologist to check out a patch of skin on my face. It turned out to be Kaposi’s sarcoma. I have AIDS. I have since begun the AZT treatment and the whole medication thing.
The Lord may heal me or he may not. That’s not in my control. The important thing is that the Lord is enabling me to deal with this. Even my own family has been extremely supportive. On a recent trip back home, my parents, though not Christians, perhaps summed it up best when they told me, “Steve, it really doesn’t matter if the Lord heals you or not. The crucial thing is that you’re healed in your heart!”
Steve DeVries, a brother in the Lord who left an impact on everyone he touched, died on September 2, 1992, with his family at his bedside. He was mourned by everyone at Harvest USA.
I first met Steve in October of 1987 when he responded to an ad Harvest USA had placed in the newspaper seeking to reach those who wanted out of the gay life. Steve saw the ad and came in for an initial interview. I remember especially how humble Steve was during that interview. He was particularly aware of how he had been trying to gain some sense of wholeness and meaning through gay encounters—only now it was not working anymore.
During that initial meeting, I sensed that the Lord had his hand on Steve in many ways—too many to go into in this short space. He began asking all the “right” questions about his need for something deeper and more foundational in his life. As I shared the gospel with Steve and explained what the life and death of Jesus Christ had to do with his problems, I could sense a light going on inside his head. Steve ended up asking the Lord to come into his life that very day!
The next two years for Steve were filled with growth and fellowship. He had attached himself to a local church and was involved in the life of the church. Yes, he still struggled, but he was intent on walking a life of obedience; he had given the Lord the position of “boss” in his life. For all intents and purposes, he had chosen to get his needs met through the Lord and his relationships with other believers, not through living a gay life.
I remember the day, almost two years after our first meeting, that Steve dropped into the office for a surprise visit. Within a few minutes of sitting down with another staff member and me, Steve burst into tears. You would have to have known him to know that this was not like Steve. A successful businessman at the age of 42, he had a confidence and sense of security about himself combined with an inner sense of control that didn’t leave much room for displays of emotions. A warm and sensitive man, yet outwardly always quite controlled, this outburst signaled that something was drastically wrong.
Steve went on to tell us that, having not felt well for several weeks, he had been to a clinic to get a test to see if he might be carrying the HIV virus. The test was positive. The three of us wept. Yet even then, Steve managed to vocalize his awareness that God was with him in this and would not abandon him. God had brought him this far and would not let him go.
As the men in the group observed his tenacity in handling his disease process in a way that both maintained his dignity and yet was rooted in his relationship with Christ, they slowly warmed to him.
As time passed and Steve became more symptomatic, he turned to a local ministry that assisted AIDS patients. He began to face the realities of this deadly disease. In a mature and methodical way, he began to tie up the loose ends of his life in the Philadelphia area and prepared to move back to his parents’ home in upstate New York. With a sense of sadness that he would no longer be in the area, we said goodbye, knowing that Steve had come to occupy a special place in our hearts.
Back in his hometown and still in relatively good health, he made the necessary medical contacts that would increasingly become a part of his life. He told me about an initial visit with a physician. Sensing the need to talk about Christ with this doctor, Steve explained to him just how he had come to know the Lord and how Christ had given him the power to break from his gay life. The doctor was taken aback by Steve’s testimony and expressed his own sorrow that now that Steve had AIDS, Steve was now feeling guilty and seeking change. The doctor implied that Steve’s faith was a reaction to getting AIDS and had little to do with him leaving the gay life. Steve corrected the doctor by explaining that his encounter with the Lord and his changed life had happened several years prior to the HIV diagnosis.
Steve also wasted no time in getting involved in a local AIDS support group with the idea of not just getting support for himself, but with a focus on how the Lord might use him to touch others with the same grace he now knew personally. Within a few minutes of the first meeting, Steve saw that most of the people in the group were gay men with HIV. During the sharing time, as men went around and shared how they were coping with the disease, Steve shared how he was coping, where he had come from, and what God was doing in his own life.
The results were predictable. Hostility, anger, and contempt were immediate reactions. Several men told Steve not to come back to the group and that they did not need his kind of “preaching.” But Steve did go back, withstanding the mistrust and unpopularity his initial introduction to the group had caused. He just kept going back again and again.
As the men in the group observed his tenacity in handling his disease process in a way that both maintained his dignity and yet was rooted in his relationship with Christ, they slowly warmed to him. On one occasion, Steve phoned me from his home on a Sunday afternoon to ask me to pray. He was in the middle of a cookout, and 20 men from his support group were there! Although still resistant as a group to their need for redemption and grace, one by one, many of the men had sought Steve out privately to spend time with him. During these times, he tried not only to be a friend but to minister the gospel in word and deed.
Just because he was a Christian did not mean that Steve escaped the pain and suffering associated with HIV and AIDS. He simply had a supernatural way to deal with it. One entry in his diary contained the following solace which came to comfort his soul on many occasions: “When I feel pain, I think about the Lord, and the pain goes away. When I’m frightened, I think about the Lord, and I’m not scared anymore. When I am lonely, I think about the Lord, and the loneliness goes away.”
Just because he was a Christian did not mean that Steve escaped the pain and suffering associated with HIV and AIDS. He simply had a supernatural way to deal with it.
During the last two years of his life, some of our staff had continued contact with Steve. He wrote and called us regularly. He gave his testimony in 1990 to a room of 250 people. He joked about my having told him to keep his talk to 10 minutes, but since he had driven seven hours to get there, surely I would not mind if he took longer! That was Steve! He was always hard to contain when it came to his talking about the Lord.
I also recall spending time with Steve at a lodge two summers prior to his death. With particular fondness, I recall sitting out in the darkness around the campfire. The cool night air and total darkness around us stood in stark contrast to the millions of bright stars upon which our eyes were fixed. Steve spoke of his own growing intimacy with the Lord and how the Lord had taken care of his every need. It was there that I realized I was a bit envious of his constant recognition of God’s faithfulness and grace. His own dying process and coming to terms with the end of his life only seemed to expand his reflection on and appreciation of the sovereignty and grace of God. My own day-to-day awareness of these truths seemed dull in comparison.
It is my hope that you will remember Steve and think about his trust in the love and compassion of Christ. I hope you will be challenged to tell others about your own walk with the Lord and speak about his mighty deeds everywhere you go. Most of all, I hope you see the “what if” possibilities in the people around you who do not know Christ. Envision what that person could be if he or she knew the love and grace of the Savior, like Steve.
This article also appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of harvestusa magazine. You can read the entire issue in digital form here.
John Freeman shares additional insight in the accompanying video: Remembering Steve DeVries. These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
05 Sep 2019
In this video, John Freeman remembers Steve DeVries, a Harvest USA ministry recipient, who is now with the Lord. You can also read the accompanying blog, “Healed in the Heart,” which includes a testimony written by Steve in 1989 as well as reflections from John that were written in 1992 after Steve’s death.
In 1987 I was serving as minister of a Presbyterian church in Dunblane, Scotland. The country had been my home since 1972. One evening the news reported the emergence of a new and fatal disease in the United States that was affecting primarily gay men. Accompanying the reportage was a clip from a televised sermon in which the preacher affirmed that this illness was a judgment from God on gays. The manner of delivery was harsh and hateful, and I remember thinking this was not necessarily the best response of the Evangelical Church to an emerging problem.
Sometime later, while reading the Scriptures, the words “you will work with AIDS patients” came to mind. The impression was so strong and overwhelming, I actually said aloud, “No!” What followed was a remarkable series of coordinated events that made it abundantly clear that the words I heard in my mind were a call from God.
Sometime after the strong sense of call I experienced to work with AIDS patients, I was at a minister’s conference in London. In the course of a conversation with another pastor, he suddenly said that I should be working with AIDS patients. Another man who had just come back from America said he had recently worshiped at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, and at the morning service, an announcement was made about a collection being taken to start an outreach in the city to minister to those with AIDS. Shortly after this, I was invited to the Shetland Islands to address a medical conference on the subject of terminal care. As part of my research connected to this talk, I wrote to Tenth Presbyterian Church to find out what they were doing regarding the AIDS crisis. Sometime later, John Freeman answered and told me about the project. That began the process which ended in an invitation to return to the United States.
Harvest USA, in conjunction with Tenth, had gathered enough money to begin an outreach to people with AIDS in the Philadelphia area. There was funding for one year, but still it was unimaginably difficult to take my wife and family away from all that was dear to us in Scotland.
The beginning of what became known as Hope was extremely difficult. The gay community did not welcome the involvement of Christians in what was regarded as their issue, and we had to endure a measure of protest and hateful behaviors that were distressing and discouraging.
Everyone we served knew us as a Christian ministry, but the point of contact was not evangelism or Bible study; it was the illness.
At the time Hope began its work, the gay community was deeply committed to serving its dying members. When word of Hope’s existence spread, there was concern regarding the presence of Christians in this field. On one occasion a protest was staged outside the offices of Tenth Presbyterian Church. I was not present at that time, and the situation was defused by a pastoral staff person. But angry activists continued spreading the word to beware of anyone from Hope visiting sick patients. Occasionally our paths would cross in hospital rooms of individuals who had asked me to visit, and it was difficult to endure snide remarks and hostile looks. Eventually, however, through our relationship with a patient from Tenth, the secular AIDS agencies were told about the good work being done, and the hostility evaporated.
From then on, for the next fourteen years, with no advertising or programmatic plans, Hope ministered to a wide variety of men, women, and children affected by a disease that at that time killed most of them. Everyone we served knew us as a Christian ministry, but the point of contact was not evangelism or Bible study; it was the illness. The initial question we asked was, “What would you like us to do for you in this situation?” In retrospect, we saw over and over that what most wanted was companionship shaped by the changing circumstances of their lives.
And that is what we did, particularly with those who were dying. Each individual case was different. Some needed nursing care, especially at night. Others wanted a listening ear or someone to coordinate with other AIDS agencies. In essence, we were a ministry which offered friendship to those who wanted it. The degree of intimacy and demands of these friendships varied widely but, in some cases, carried us right to our friends’ deathbeds, gravesides, and beyond.
Not a few of our patients came from Christian homes and experience, and sometimes AIDS proved to be God’s way of bringing them back to the faith of their youth.
To form relationships with the dying is both intense and emotionally stressful. With AIDS, it was particularly difficult at the beginning. Concerns about casual transmission meant visiting patients in the hospital wearing protective clothing, which added to the fear and anxiety. Eventually, though, as the disease became better understood, the difficulties for staff and volunteers centered on the distress associated with walking patients through the dying process.
And staying with the dying until the very end was never easy. Sometimes at the end, it was only immediate family members and Hope workers who were there to deal with the messiness of dying and all that follows. Given that some of our patients were from difficult and impoverished backgrounds, it was only the strongest of our volunteers who remained after working with someone who died. Looking back, I see that only God’s grace allowed us to do what we did for fourteen years. But the lessons learned, and occasionally the intimacy of relationship allowed with some individuals, were precious gifts for which we will always be grateful.
What did we learn during those fourteen excruciatingly difficult years? First, that the Church and Christian ministries can and must serve their own, even when sinful choices and destructive behaviors have left them bereft and needy. Not a few of our patients came from Christian homes and experience, and sometimes AIDS proved to be God’s way of bringing them back to the faith of their youth.
Secondly, Christians need never be afraid of engaging creatively with non-Christians in their time of trouble. Our volunteers, staff, and I often had access to situations and places where normally no Christians were welcome, nor our message believed. But as Ambassadors of Christ, we were allowed the privilege of representing him as best we could.
Did we help? Did we have an impact? We are never the best judges of the effectiveness or ultimate meaning of our service. We must simply follow where God leads, through good report and bad, trusting him to use what He chooses for His glory. As one of our volunteers said after the death of a particularly difficult and angry patient, “Even changing diapers is a sacred act.”
And that was Hope. When it became clear at the beginning of the 21st century that AIDS was now a chronic and manageable illness, I realized the reason God called me to work with AIDS patients was over. We closed our doors in 2002. Often we feel Christian work in which we are heavily invested must perpetuate itself, but the Lord may well have other plans. Now, many years later, I look back on Hope’s ministry with gratitude. All but a few of the Christians and non-Christians we served are gone, but their faces, stories, and the lessons learned are ineradicable. The world in which AIDS was the crisis of the moment has changed dramatically, and new issues have taken over the headlines. But the needs of sinful men and women are the same, the Gospel has not lost its ancient power, and Jesus still tells His people to go into that world as His ambassadors.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of harvestusa magazine. You can read the entire issue in digital form here.
15 Aug 2019
The date: Friday, October 24, 1997. It was a sunny, mild day in Philadelphia. I remember staring at my telephone, holding the church bulletin in my hand. My pulse raced. My breathing was quick and shallow. I knew what I had to do—but so many times before, I got to this point and rationalized why I shouldn’t go through with it. I needed to call Harvest USA. I needed to tell someone, for the first time in my life, that I struggled with same-sex attraction. I didn’t want to live life as a gay man.
The call was answered personally (as they are today) and an appointment with a staff member was set for the next business day (though today, the wait for an appointment might be a bit longer). When I saw him, he challenged me with this observation: “Your biggest problem isn’t homosexuality. It’s idolatry.” So began a journey of faith, growth, and repentance that continues to this day.
Only one staff member from 1997 is still around today. So much has changed in the last twenty-two years! Our location (two moves since then), our staff (more than doubled), our budget (quadrupled), and our logo (changed and colorized). About 90% of the people we ministered to in 1997 were men; today, it’s closer to 70%. Back then, nearly all our time went toward helping people in our office (what we call Direct Ministry). Over the intervening years, we’ve also discerned the call to equip the Church to minister to people affected by sexual brokenness. We’ve become a national organization.
In 2018, we reached more people than ever before: we helped 894 individuals and families in our offices through our Direct Ministry programs (a 3% increase over the prior year). And, we engaged over 63,000 people last year through our educational and equipping ministry. We estimate that to be a 15% increase over 2017.
Though much has changed at Harvest USA, a lot has stayed the same. We remain committed to discipleship as our sole ministry objective. When someone comes to us for help with a sexual or gender-related struggle, we don’t focus on behavior change. Just as I was challenged two decades ago that idolatry (the Bible’s term to explain out of control desires of the heart) was my most significant issue, so we challenge men and women today. Walking in faith and repentance (those two realities can’t be separated) depends on growing in love with the Lord Jesus Christ. As our hearts warm toward him and his covenant love, his Spirit is the One who gives us grace to live differently.
The culture has certainly changed since 1997. Many today view the Bible as outdated, irrelevant, and unsophisticated regarding sex, sexuality, and gender. So much of the current philosophies that underlie how our culture views human sexuality are borne of selfishness and out of a materialistic worldview. Many see sex as nothing more than a biological urge for pleasure. The new understanding of gender says that gender is malleable, that we are all on a gender spectrum, and it is up to the individual to decide their own gender, based on their feelings.
I needed to tell someone, for the first time in my life, that I struggled with same-sex attraction. I didn’t want to live life as a gay man.
Sadly, more and more people in the Church are adopting these worldly philosophies about issues that Scripture addresses clearly. Many Christians who favor these worldviews are under the age of forty. Statistically, Millennials as a group see nothing unbiblical about LGBTQ+ identity and behavior. And our youngest generation, Generation Z (young people up through college age) has the highest levels of acceptance of these secular values.
We see this in the requests for help we constantly receive. Youth leaders asking for help because a member of their youth group has declared themselves to be transgender or someone has self-identified as gay. The challenge for these youth leaders is how to respond in ways that speak the truth in love to their younger brothers and sisters in the faith.
That’s one of the key questions Harvest USA is answering now, and it’s one of the critical areas where our ministry will grow in the months and years to come.
Where do we believe the Lord is leading Harvest USA? What do we anticipate ministry in 2020 and beyond will look like?
- We’ll remain firmly grounded in Scripture. While the broader Christian culture may tinker with Scripture to make it fit its agenda, Harvest USA will remain firmly committed to the unchanging, inerrant authority of Scripture and what it says about God’s design for sex, sexuality, and gender.
- We’ll be ministering to more people. The number of people we minister to in our offices will stay about the same as last year. But through using technology to do direct ministry (adding online biblical support groups as an adjunct to our live, in-person groups), and growing the number of our Partner Ministries in churches, we anticipate a 15% increase in the number of people helped each year for the next five years. By 2024, we want to be helping 2,000 people annually both through Direct Ministry in our offices and our Partner Ministries in local churches.
- We’ll be teaching more people to understand and live out biblical concepts of sex, sexuality, and gender. We don’t plan to do more teaching events in the coming years, but we do expect to equip more people. You can read about Harvest USA’s Sexually Faithful Church Initiative that explains this more here. We want to see 50 churches become sexually faithful churches by the end of 2020, and then add another 50 per year in 2021 and beyond. Sexually faithful churches will talk with their members at all age levels about biblical concepts of sex, sexuality, and gender. Through discipleship, proactive accountability, and transparency in community—equipping tools we’ll help churches develop and grow—these churches will help their members better resist sexual temptation and sin, grow in their delight to follow Christ in this area of life, and steer clear of the type of temptations that turn into life-dominating sin patterns.
Partner Ministries help gender and sexual strugglers to walk in increasing faith and repentance. But they also help family members learn how to maintain an ongoing relationship with their loved ones who struggle without compromising truth.
- We’ll be equipping more churches to help those affected by sexual and gender-related struggle and sin. We want sexually faithful churches to provide ministry to their members who are affected by different types of sexual and gender-related sin. This includes those who struggle, as well as family members (parents and spouses) impacted by those struggles. Part of our commitment to equip churches to do that is producing a new line of curricula to help in those discipleship relationships. We’ll be self-publishing curricula for men, women, wives, and parents. These resources are ideal for a one-on-one discipleship relationship or a small group setting.
- We’ll help more churches start Partner Ministries. Partner Ministries are ministries run by local churches, which Harvest USA helps them start, and we support them as they do their work. Partner Ministries help gender and sexual strugglers to walk in increasing faith and repentance. But they also help family members learn how to maintain an ongoing relationship with their loved ones who struggle without compromising truth. Since 2010, we’ve been slowly growing a network of Partner Ministries around the country. We want to add three new Partner Ministries each year, and this year we’ll be implementing new ways to support the leaders of those ministries.
- We’ll produce more resources for the Church and individuals. We plan to publish more print, video, and electronic resources that God’s people can access to learn more about specific issues and how to help people struggling with them. That means more articles, blog posts, and short videos like you’re used to seeing in our harvestusa magazine and on harvestusa.org. And, we’ll create many more resources to be accessed through our website.
- We’re committed to expanding our use of technology-based learning. Almost since its inception, Harvest USA’s equipping ministry has consisted mostly of live, in-person equipping events in churches and other venues. While we’re not ending this part of our equipping ministry, we’ve found that sometimes the travel, cost, and staff time for live teaching events isn’t the wisest or most effective way to equip people and churches. In 2018, we began to transfer some of our presentations to either recorded video or webinar-based formats. We believe that using technology will allow us to equip more people around the world and do so at a lower cost.
- We’ll become an international ministry. Through the use of technology to conduct our equipping ministry and disseminate our resources, we anticipate that more people not only in the United States but around the world will benefit from the ministry work we do.
I’m excited about the ministry of Harvest USA in the years to come. Please pray that the Lord would keep us faithful to Scripture and that he would use the ongoing and growing ministry of Harvest USA to equip his Church to disciple his people biblically, powerfully, and compassionately. We want to help make the Church the increasingly holy, faithful witness she is meant to be in a world that needs to hear—and see—the Gospel at work.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of harvestusa magazine. You can read the entire issue in digital form here.
01 Aug 2019
Harvest USA is committed to helping churches disciple men and women dealing with life-dominating sexual struggles and sin. Theo and Brittany, who now run a ministry out of their church, one that Harvest USA helped start, give testimony to the power of the Body of Christ in shaping faith and lives.
Theo: It started in college during freshman orientation. Brittany and I met during a pivotal season in our lives. Brittany’s mom had passed away that fall, and I was facing the reality that I struggled with same-sex attraction. When we met, we sensed that there was a connection, but thought we would just be friends forever—nothing more. We clung to each other that first semester, becoming fast friends—sharing our backgrounds, secrets, wishes, and dreams. Brittany provided comfort to me in a time I needed it.
Brittany: Throughout most of college, Theo and I went our separate ways. I buried myself in my schoolwork. I was an art major, and it was demanding enough to justify escaping from my grief. Losing my mom was something I ran from, and college came at the perfect time. Theo dove head first into the athlete world—morning weights, long practices, and parties all week.
Theo: When we graduated, we both moved to Charlotte, NC. Over the next year, we both hit rock bottom. Brittany was in a godless relationship, making poor decisions, and planning a future that didn’t fit with what she believed. I was drowning myself in the party scene, looking for validation, acceptance, and whatever made me feel “masculine.” I was desperate to escape my developing attraction to other men, sporadically giving into these desires.
Brittany: I just signed a lease with my boyfriend to move into an apartment the following weekend. My mom’s best friend lived in Charlotte and was like a second mother to me. She got wind of my plans and confronted me in a way no one else could. She spoke as a mother, a friend, and a believer in Christ. Her boldness gave me the courage to take my first step in trusting the Lord, deciding to not live with my boyfriend. Throughout the next year, with the help of my new small group leaders at church, I felt convicted to walk away from this relationship. I saw the contrast in who God was asking me to be and who I had become.
I didn’t know a soul at the church, but within a year, some of these guys became my first genuine, healthy male friendships.
Theo: The Lord intervened in my life by watching Brittany and her involvement in church. I saw her trusting the Lord. I felt a pull to the church—like it could be an answer to my struggle with sexual sin. The only Christian I knew in Charlotte was Brittany, so I reached out to her to ask about finding a small group.
She pointed me to a men’s group. I didn’t know a soul at the church, but within a year, some of these guys became my first genuine, healthy male friendships. Later that year, we went on a retreat. A friend asked some hard questions that enabled me to share my struggles with same-sex attraction, as well as my patterns of pornography and hook-ups associated with these sinful desires. That weekend, I felt the Holy Spirit push me to tell the other guys on the retreat. This was my first act of obedience and was the start of my healing.
Following the retreat, the guys in the group pursued me, asking questions and praying for me. It was the first time that I truly felt like I had a church family who was not afraid to enter the mess of my life and help me out of it, pointing me to Christ. The pastor of our community regularly met with me—he never made me feel ashamed but encouraged me and prayed for me. Coming into the light was critical for my walk with God to grow.
It was the first time that I truly felt like I had a church family who was not afraid to enter the mess of my life and help me out of it, pointing me to Christ.
Brittany: My friendship with Theo grew stronger and more intimate. We shared our discovery of God and our excitement for the church. People told us frequently that we would be good together, but we were just friends. Best friends. I heard the expression once, “As you run the race toward heaven and continue to pursue holiness in the Lord, look to your left and right and see who is running beside of you.” We were always beside each other, finding new ways to get involved, to serve, to gather our community. Eventually, Theo started to see as more than friends, but I was oblivious. Yet my love for him was growing.
Theo: When I realized I wanted to pursue Brittany as more than a friend, I was terrified of her rejection. After all, what woman would marry a man who admits to having an attraction to other men? It felt like a disease—and I wasn’t “healed” yet. I finally told her about the work God had been doing in my life. I confessed my sexual sin to her. Brittany told me later that this was the moment she fell in love with me. Six months later, we started dating, and soon after, we would be two of the grass-root leaders of the Set Free Ministry at our church, dedicated to walking alongside men and women who come out of the shadows of sexual sin in search of the healing power of the Gospel.
Set Free Ministry was launched with the help of Harvest USA in 2015 as a ministry of Christ Covenant Church in Charlotte, NC. The leadership team consists of ten leaders who shepherd men, women, wives, and parents of those who are struggling. Were it not for the men, women, and pastors who pursued us, two young wanderers, we may have never found the church, the Lord, or each other. Our God orchestrates his timing over everything, and it’s always perfect. Praise the Lord for his handiwork and the, sometimes messy, pursuit of his children!
This article first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of harvestusa magazine. You can read the entire issue in digital form here.