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!”

In Memoriam

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.

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.

The Church needs to acknowledge that all Christians struggle sexually in some way. But it must also recognize, and attend to, those in its midst who struggle with same-sex attraction. While the biblical worldview of sex and sexuality does not embrace gay relationships, that does not mean the Church ignores or mistreats those who try to live faithful lives with a struggle they did not choose.

Tim Geiger gives five ways you can walk alongside someone who struggles with same-sex attraction, communicating along the way that he or she is a fellow believer who is loved and valued⁠—by God and by you! You can learn more by reading Tim’s blog, “Loving Our LGBTQ+ Struggling Brothers and Sisters,” and our recent harvestusa magazine where this article first appeared.

A sexually faithful church must take seriously its role to love, embrace, disciple, and include those who struggle with attractions and desires that conflict with Scripture.

Those who live with an enduring pattern of same-sex attraction, and those who feel that their sense of gender is in conflict with their body, struggle deeply with feeling different. In a church culture where marriage and family are placed on a high pedestal, where relationships that move from dating to courtship to engagement to wedding are celebrated, those with same-sex attraction wrestle with loneliness, isolation, and discouragement. They know and have heard repeatedly that God is opposed to same-sex marriage. They see a future that feels cut off for them.

Upon hearing this, some in the Church who do not struggle with same-sex or gender issues may feel tempted toward impatience with their brothers and sisters who do. But I encourage you to resist that temptation, as well as its close relative, the temptation to offer quick solutions.

Feelings of painful loneliness and isolation aren’t temporary feelings of distress for those who experience same-sex attraction or gender struggle. They are a present and future reality. They can’t be easily dismissed or replaced with positive thinking. These are deep heart-wounds that the Lord calls the Church to help dress, treat, and heal, over a lifetime.

But what does this look like? What are the options for relational and emotional fulfillment for followers of Christ who do not, and may never, experience the joy of a relationship that leads to marriage? How can the Church become to these brothers and sisters a home, a place of security and comfort where they feel connected to others in the Body of Christ, where their genuine sense of being different will be fully met by the love of Christ, the embrace of brothers and sisters, and a rich life of living for others in the Body?

These questions, and how we answer them, are not inconsequential. They are difficult ones. They are not issues of accommodation or political correctness. They are about what it means to truly be the Body of Christ for every follower of Christ.

How can the Church become to these brothers and sisters a home, a place of security and comfort where they feel connected to others in the Body of Christ, where their genuine sense of being different will be fully met by the love of Christ, the embrace of brothers and sisters, and a rich life of living for others in the Body?

I am thankful that in the last several years these questions are being wrestled with by the evangelical church. But while I have been encouraged by this new-found desire for the Church to reach out to and include same-sex attracted and gender-struggling men and women who desire to follow God’s design for sexuality, I have also seen three ways these questions are being answered in ways that are not encouraging.

Here are the issues that concern me. I’ll categorize them under three headings: Identity, The Body of Christ, and The Nature of Change.

Identity

There is a significant push to accept a gay identity for those who experience same-sex attraction. A great deal has been written about what this means and doesn’t mean, and this article will not have the length to explain the nuanced positions (on both sides). So, I will briefly mention two things that concern me about this contentious issue.

First, while those who advocate for this position insist that using identity language is not saying that sexual orientation is the core part of one’s personhood, it nevertheless is a position that echoes the noise from our culture. Our post-Christian culture says that one’s sexual identity is the deepest core of personhood, hence the multiplicity of words and letters to describe oneself.

On the one side, the argument is that using the term is, at best, descriptive; it merely describes an enduring pattern of same-sex attraction. But on the other side, the concern I cannot shake is that using self-identifying terminology is confusing, and it inevitably gets embedded in the culture’s understanding of gay or the LGBTQ+ acronym. Again, as used culturally, the language proclaims that one’s sexuality is a major, if not the predominant, understanding of human personhood. It is not unreasonable to assume that what is said now as merely descriptive will soon be only understood as a major category of being a Christian (see my comments on the Body of Christ below). That would be a significant error.

Secondly, the historic, orthodox understanding of sexual desires that are outside of God’s design is sin. But some are reshaping this understanding in this direction: Same-sex attraction, acted upon, remains sinful, but as a condition of one’s being or identity, it is benign and can be a beneficial way of looking at and experiencing the world.

In this view, the experience of having same-sex attraction enhances one’s life, particularly in the realm of non-sexual friendships and community. Instead of being a remnant of indwelling sin, which must in Christ be mastered and overcome, same-sex attraction is like a personality trait to be nurtured and enjoyed.

I’ve discussed this in my blog post “Gay + Christian?” My main point there is that it is inappropriate for a Christian to self-identify according to any pattern of sin or struggle. Paul proclaims this astonishing news: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV). The compelling and controlling power of corrupted characteristics, desires, drives, and compulsions (sin) that used to characterize us begin to fall away in our union with Christ. No prior life, or identity, should redefine who we are in Christ, as Christians.

No prior life, or identity, should redefine who we are in Christ, as Christians.

Those who advocate for such terminology need to realize that doing so is not harmless. It is an endeavor charged with meaning, ripe for being continually misunderstood, and one which will encourage those who call themselves “gay” or “queer Christians” to further identify with the broken and sinful characteristics associated with those labels.

As I heard from my seminary professor, there is a good reason to trust two millennia of biblical interpretation on this. Currently, there are passionate debates on whether same-sex attraction apart from same-sex sexual behavior is sin or not. (You can read Harvest USA’s position on same-sex attraction here.)

This is the issue where the biggest battles are being fought. As believers, and especially as church leaders and pastors, we need to study this carefully, adhering to what Scripture says and not human experience.

The Body of Christ

Identity labeling leads to separation at some level. It distinguishes something foundational or characteristic about the person and others who share that identity form and develop a separate culture.

There is nothing new about doing this. We resonate and connect with others who share histories, events, places from which we’ve come, struggles, etc. Shared experiences bring us together and overcome our isolation and loneliness.

But it matters a great deal what those shared experiences are and the meaning that is attached to them.

Another term I am hearing is “sexual minorities.” Here we find another term being promoted that is embedded in the language of our culture: “minorities,” people described by their marginal status within the larger power structures of the majority.

Developing a separate subculture within the Church undermines the unity of the Church.

One of Christ’s chief desires for his Church is that we would be dynamically united to him and one another. We are to be “members [of the Body] one of another” (Ephesians 4:25), joined together by and through the power of Christ, so that we might build up the entire Body to become increasingly like Christ, for the glory of God (4:15-16). Creating a category of believers within the Church through advocating for a separate subculture (queer or otherwise) detracts from that course.

What value is there to a Christian identifying as a sexual minority? How does that help him or her? How does it enhance the integrity and unity of the Church? How does it honor Christ? How does it help Christians who struggle with sexual or gender-related sin to walk in repentance? I can’t see the benefit, though I do understand the rationale.

And it’s this: Brothers and sisters who experience same-sex attraction or struggle with their sense of gender have often been misunderstood and mistreated by the Church. The Church has often not been a place of hope and healing for them.

But the answer is not to create a separate queer culture within the Church, where Christians who identify as LGBTQ+ can flourish. If the Church is called to unity, then this is an opportunity for the Church to repent and be increasingly sensitive and compassionate to those wounded by the power and effects of sin—and even hurt by the Church.

Churches must find ways to cultivate and provide appropriate, godly relational intimacy for people who might never be married. We must find ways to value singleness as a calling (as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 7), and include unmarried Christians in the full life of the Church. And, we must resist the longstanding temptation to name same-sex and gender-related sin patterns as worse than other patterns of sin. Our same-sex and gender-struggling brothers and sisters are sinners in need of the same grace as anyone else.

The Nature of Change

One side effect is that such labels tend to stick. It is a lie of the world to believe that same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria is innate and unchangeable. I am not for a moment stating that complete change in desires or attraction always happens. That belief has hurt many. But change can happen. It’s a process completely under the sovereign purview of God.

Through taking on a “gay Christian” identity and retreating into a queer subculture, one is immersed in an environment where such change in affections might be discounted or rejected altogether. The camaraderie and connectedness that occurs within the isolation of the subculture can become life-giving. The pursuit of holiness and repentance can be abandoned in favor of relational comfort and companionship.

Loving fellow brothers and sisters who live with same-sex attraction and gender struggles will mean taking the time to hear their stories, their experiences, and the fears they have as they navigate a church culture that has not always embraced them.

Now, the experience and feelings of same-sex attraction and gender-dysphoria are not unusual, particularly among adolescents and young adults. For example, one study shows that as many as 10.7% of adolescents are unsure of their sexual orientation.1 However, most2 of these individuals have not adopted a gay or lesbian identity upon entry into adulthood. The reason? They realized as they exited their teen years that they were not primarily sexually attracted to others of their own gender. In other words, they concluded that their experiences of such desires were not determinative.

Here’s the problem in using such labels: The Church will find itself aligned with the culture’s mantra that personal experiences and desires are identifying and determinative (core identities), even when experienced when one is young and still in the process of forming one’s identity and view of life. What hope will we give to young Christians who experience non-heteronormative feelings and desires? They will logically conclude that “this is how God made me, and if God made me this way, then there is no connection between same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria and sin.”

There’s no need for redemption, no need for change, no need for repentance.

The Church must always hold out the possibility of change for all people wrestling with all sorts of sin patterns. One can’t encounter the living God without being transformed. The transformation begins in the heart and will inevitably lead to behavioral change. It may not be everything a struggling believer may hope for, but it will be a level of change that increasingly glorifies God and shapes that person into who God calls him to be.

For each Christian wrestling with same-sex attraction or gender struggles, that transformation will look different. At a minimum, it will include this perspective: that to embrace a gay or transgender identity, and the enticements that come with it, is antithetical to the new creation that person has become in Christ. If the Church communicates that there is not a need for sanctification in every aspect of the believer’s life, then it mishandles God’s Word and misleads God’s people.

Where do we go from here? The Church must commit to redemptively engage Christians who self-identify as LGBTQ+. The biblical paradigm for such engagement is speaking the truth in love. This is the process that Paul describes in Ephesians 4:11-16, a process in which various members of the Church play a role. It is a gracious process, rooted in the strength of authentic friendship, where loving assistance goes side-by-side with loving confrontation. This is how we “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ. . . ” (Ephesians 4:15).

Loving fellow brothers and sisters who live with same-sex attraction and gender struggles will mean taking the time to hear their stories, their experiences, and the fears they have as they navigate a church culture that has not always embraced them. It involves the Church becoming a place of true refuge and help for them, as they grow (alongside the rest of us) into the places the Lord has made for them in his Body.

This article was first published in the Spring 2019 issue of harvestusa magazine. You can read the entire issue here.

1 Remafedi, G., Resnick, M., Blum, R. and Harris, L., Demography of Sexual Orientation in Adolescents. Pediatrics, 89 (4), 714-721 (1992).

2 The term “most” applies to Generation X. In contrast to the Millennial generation, of whom 7.3% self-identify as non-heterosexual, that number is significantly lower (2.4%) for prior generations (year of birth 1980 and before).


Tim shares additional insight in the accompanying video: How Can the Church Love Those Who Struggle With Same-Sex Attractions? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.

To say that ministry is incredibly challenging is an understatement. It’s a joy to see God work in those you minister to, but it’s really hard when God begins to expose your struggles, sins, and limits. In this video, Shalee explains that God works in us by undoing things that aren’t of him. The undoing process is often uncomfortable and painful, but if it is of God, it is worth it. You can read more about what Shalee learned in her year-long internship at Harvest USA in her blog, “Jumping in the Deep End of Ministry.”

I sat, listening to women in my discipleship group share personal stories about pain and heartbreak in their lives. My emotions began to unravel. The group ended, and I felt undone. I was not sure how to process what I’d heard. Tears of empathy and anger tumbled out of me.

I had moved across the country to intern with Harvest USA’s Women’s Ministry, but I didn’t realize how deep was the end of the pool I had agreed to jump into. I saw God work powerfully in the women’s lives I worked with, but what I didn’t expect was the different places in my own life where God would be doing and undoing, affecting my spiritual walk every step of the way.

My previous life revolved around athletics as both a player and a coach, so doing ministry was an entirely different transition. Maybe you’re like me, and you’ve been considering ministry to sexual strugglers, but you know that this work can be incredibly challenging and humbling.

Let me share one big takeaway that I’ve learned: ministry can be tough, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. Here are four ways God did his work of doing and undoing in my life as I served this past year.

1. Wresting with Insecurity

Emotions. Life is full of them. Entering into ministry provoked new levels of fear and anxiety in me. I feared the impact on my reputation. Throughout life, I rode the coattails of my athletic success, and unbeknownst to me, I developed a deep-rooted pride in the reputation I had built. As I experienced strong reactions from people about my new life path, I was gripped with fear, fear of what people thought of me and if my beliefs would cost me relationships along the way.

I also experienced insecurity and doubts as I quickly learned how inadequate I am to help people.

I realized how easy it is to impose your experience onto someone else’s journey.

I questioned what I had to offer and what would I possibly say to someone who is suffering? Lack of confidence rapidly overtook areas of my life, making me wonder if there were people more qualified for this type of work and whether I was cut out for this.

2. Facing the Real in Life (AKA Reality)

I realized I had spent much of my life naive to the realities around me. It is far easier to live naively and deliberately choose to see what you want rather than face the reality of the pain and darkness so many followers of Jesus have been carrying alone. God put me in a situation of not only facing these hard realities, but he also invited me into them.

As God brought my head out of the sand of denial, I was overwhelmed. I was gripped by the sadness of seeing the brokenness and suffering people go through. I was met head-on with the hard reality that sin causes devastation and leaves behind unimaginable wreckage in people’s lives. As many of you already know, facing reality is necessary, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel.

3. Everyone Journeys at Their Own Pace

I realized how easy it is to impose your experience onto someone else’s journey. In the battle against sin, rich biblical truths that God uses in our own journey may be applied differently. In my own life, I saw there were so many things I needed to be quick to obey and follow through on and just do it (see my blog, “Quick to Obey…”)

I tried this with a woman who was walking a similar road as me. I thought these things worked for me, so surely they will work for her, too. As I shared details about what specific obedience looked like for me, before I knew it, I had put demands, expectations, and time frames on her to make the same choices.

As time passed, it was becoming clear she wasn’t heeding my advice. As I look back, I sacrificed patience by demanding she hurry up and obey. I sacrificed humility by failing to speak the truth in love.

But there is something special about having a front row seat to God’s work of bringing transformation into the hurting and broken parts of people’s lives.

I painfully learned that imposing my faith walk on someone else was unwise and unloving. When we do this, we risk boxing others within our walls of experience, potentially blocking truths in Scripture that lead to other faithful avenues for the other person. Thankfully, God is bigger than my failed attempts to love. I’m thankful for James 4:6: “But he gives more grace.”

4. Ministry is About Faithfulness, Not Success

I learned that God doesn’t measure spiritual growth through my worldly definition of success. My athletic background wired me for a relentless pursuit of success. That distracted me from the ultimate goal of ministry—faithfulness to the glory of God.

Success is often rooted in a desire to receive glory for our own efforts while faithfulness is rooted in a desire to glorify God through your efforts. This contrast creates a tension between competing goals. I had to learn that the end goal isn’t to win the day but rather to do all to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Ministry at street level can be overwhelming and feel like we are in over our head. But there is something special about having a front row seat to God’s work of bringing transformation into the hurting and broken parts of people’s lives. As someone who suffered in silence and secrecy for years, it is easy to believe we are alone in this fight, but our loving Father is with us, and he has raised up people who are not afraid to enter into these painful places with us as well.

My experience at Harvest USA has shown me what a privilege it is to come alongside women needing help in their journey of faith and repentance. Because I’ve seen the power of this kind of ministry, I’ve recently decided to join the full-time staff as part of the women’s ministry team.

Do I still feel in over my head? Yes! But I have seen that I have everything I need, and you do too. All ministry, not just to those who battle patterns of sexual sin, is over our heads! When we follow Jesus into hard places, we’re going into the deep end of humanity’s worst struggle: sin. Thanks be to God that our Savior gives us everything we need to point people to him, the ultimate Lifeline we all need.


Shalee shares additional insight in the accompanying video: What Is God Undoing in My Life—and Yours?  These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.

For men and women coming out of sexual addiction, they must pass through the post-sexual addiction wilderness (for a fuller explanation of what this wilderness is like, see my previous blog).

The post-sexual addiction wilderness is a particularly treacherous and painful section of the larger wilderness of the Christian life. The author of Hebrews sees the entire Christian life as a trek through the wilderness. In Christ, we have been delivered from slavery to sin, but until Jesus returns, we are called to strive to enter into His rest. The Promised Land is coming for all who endure to the end.

The greatest danger you will face in the post-sexual addiction wilderness is the temptation to give up your journey toward freedom and wholeness. The wilderness can be long.

You could be suffering with the consequences of your sin. You might have lost everything in your pursuit of pleasure. Your wilderness might be a litany of sufferings that you sought to escape through sex. But without that numbing agent, the pain is back, and it could feel unbearable.

Or you might be in the wilderness of idolatry. Sex was a means for you to experience the satisfaction of your deepest longings: to be loved, comforted, affirmed, safe, connected.  Without sex, the idolatrous desires you have lived for are still crying out for satisfaction, and you don’t have any quick solutions to silence them. In this wilderness, you feel disappointed, scared, and frustrated.

The greatest danger you will face in the post-sexual addiction wilderness is the temptation to give up your journey toward freedom and wholeness. The wilderness can be long.

Here is a hard truth: There is no turning back! You either enter into God’s rest, or you die in the wilderness. Those are your only options.

But here’s the good news! The wilderness is not endless. There is a destination you’re moving towards. That destination is perfect Shalom with God and His people in a perfected world. But that perfect existence often doesn’t seem worth it, because, at this moment, you feel like you’re about to die in this wilderness.

God is with you and for you in the wilderness. The wilderness is not merely something to endure; it is your testing and training ground. As the author of Hebrews writes, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).

Let me offer three encouragements for those who are struggling in the post-sexual addiction wilderness.

Learn to Wait in the Wilderness

Like any addiction, sexual sin’s biggest enticement is the instant gratification it offers. The biggest lie sexual temptation tells you is that if you don’t give in now, it’s only a matter of time before you do, so why continue to suffer when you can feel better now? But God wants to use the wilderness to train you to think differently. He wants you to give control of your life back to him, and wait for his hand to feed you.

God’s delay in your relief always has good purposes. He wants to train you to trust Him, to abide in His presence in the midst of your suffering. He wants to conform you to the pattern of 1 Peter 5:6, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you.”

This is the pattern of our Savior Jesus Christ. Jesus humbled himself, even to the point of death, until the proper time when the Father exalted him in his resurrection and ascension. Waiting on the Lord requires a humble acknowledgment of his good purposes in your suffering. We worship and follow a Savior who trusted his Father even when he became the object of his Father’s wrath.  Christ was alone on the cross, but we are never alone in the wilderness.

Let the Wilderness Shape Your Priorities

When life is easy, we give little concern to the basic necessities. I don’t wake up concerned about food, water, or shelter. My attention goes to many things that are not necessities in sustaining my life. But if you’re stranded on a desert island, every day you are consumed with survival. Your priorities are all connected to avoiding death.

God is with you and for you in the wilderness. The wilderness is not merely something to endure; it is your testing and training ground.

The post-sexual addiction wilderness is an opportunity to reprioritize your life. I have been amazed to see the lengths men will go to save their marriages from the destruction of their sexual betrayal. Time, money, and energy are poured into their marriage in ways that for most people would seem excessive. But that’s what you do when your marriage is collapsing. You don’t count the cost, because anything is worth saving it. Just imagine how healthy our marriages would be if we invested in them in times of stability, and not only in moments of crisis.

The same is true for your relationship with God. We don’t prioritize prayer and his Word because we don’t feel our need of him. But in the wilderness you can taste your desperation. You know you can’t go one day without Jesus. I’ve seen men who are on the brink of losing everything, they’ve been kicked out of their house, and they turn to God.  That lonely, dreary hotel room is transformed into holy ground. Their suffering brought them to their knees, but this is where God meets them, on their knees.  And over time, it’s His love and presence that keeps them on their knees.

Lastly, the wilderness should reshape your priorities for fellowship. We so often live isolated lives because we believe we can do the Christian life on our own. We don’t feel our need for accountability or true discipleship. But in the post-sexual addiction wilderness, you know you’re in a battle for your life, and you must prioritize finding others who will fight alongside you.  You’ve seen the dangers of isolation; you see how predators love to pick off ones who have strayed from the pack. So now you’re not just looking for a few friends to hang out with, you’re looking for comrades in war who will fight for you!

Jesus Went Through the Wilderness for You¹

Hebrews 6:19-20 tells us that Jesus is our forerunner, who has gone on ahead of us into the Holy of Holies as our high priest. Jesus intercedes for us now in the wilderness because he first made it through the wilderness himself. Jesus was on the brink of physical starvation, and Satan tempted him to abandon trust in his heavenly Father by turning a stone into bread. Then in a greater way, this same temptation to abandon the Father’s mission came on the cross, when he was given the opportunity to come down and save himself. Jesus survived the wilderness without a single misstep. He received the victor’s crown and has entered into His Father’s rest.

This is important for your wilderness wanderings for two reasons. First, Jesus succeeded where we all have failed. None of us make it through the wilderness perfectly.  We all have moments of turning stones into bread. The only reason we have any hope of making it through the wilderness is because we are united to the only One who did.  Our acceptance and standing with God is solely based on what Jesus accomplished in the wilderness on our behalf.

Secondly, because we are united to our forerunner, we can have every confidence that he will lead us safely home. We must make it through the wilderness, but we are also given amazing promises that we will make it because he will bring us through it. He has already blazed the trail for us.  And by his indwelling Spirit, we can walk in step with him (Gal. 5:25), day by day, until we finally enter into our eternal Sabbath rest.

 

¹This section, and the application that Jesus went through the wilderness on our behalf, and succeeded where Adam, Israel, and we have failed, is taught by Dr. Lane Tipton in his lecture, “Covenant History and the Tale of Three Sons.” Listen to this lecture here: https://reformedforum.org/rf14_03/

“This feels so compulsive!” he complained. Tom feels like he is always fighting sin. He fights against a tendency to desire and pursue sexual pleasure from men. He believes in Jesus and has seen significant changes in the direction of his life. But his same-sex attraction did not magically go away when he trusted in Christ. His faith is in crisis, “Maybe they’re right; this is just who I am.”

What do we have to offer someone like Tom? Does the gospel have an answer to this crisis, the crisis of continually fighting sin? Yes. And a vital part of that gospel answer is what theologians call indwelling sin. Why would I bring up sin to someone in a faith crisis, especially one involving same-sex attraction?  Because the Bible’s teaching on indwelling sin connects the gospel to our deepest struggles.

The Universality of Sin

Scripture teaches that we are all sinners; all who share in the human nature represented in Adam share in the corruption of sin (Romans 5:12; Ecclesiastes 7:20). But more than that, each of us is sinful in every part of us (Rom. 3:10-19; 8:7). We are whole people, with bodies, minds, wills, and affections, and it is as whole people that we are corrupted by sin. At the deepest level, what the Bible calls the heart, we recognize in ourselves a tendency towards sin (Matthew 15:19; Jeremiah 17:19).

This tendency has a corrupting influence on our thinking, our emotions, and even our physiology. This sinful leaning (what theologians call original sin) is behind whatever sin acts we commit (what theologians call actual sin). The result: sin feels natural to us.

And this is rather unconscious and spontaneous in real life. We fall into the same kinds of behavior over and over despite a desire to stop. A mature Christian faith comes to the humble self-appraisal that behind all our actions, mixed in with all our feelings, appetites, and urges, is a continual tendency towards sin.

Here’s Tom’s dilemma and ours: this sinful tendency doesn’t disappear when we become Christians. How are we to understand this? What does it mean for Tom, and us, when we were taught that faith in Christ gives us victory over sin?

Here we turn to the teaching of Paul in Romans 7, from which the term, indwelling sin, originates. But first we need a view of the context in which he brings this idea up.

Good News about the Universe and You

In the chapters leading up to Romans 7, Paul lays out a tale of two humanities, the first being “in Adam,” and the second being “in Christ.” In Adam describes our natural state, corrupted by sin, condemned by the law, bound for death. Paul often uses the shorthand, “the flesh” to refer to this.

A mature Christian faith comes to the humble self-appraisal that behind all our actions, mixed in with all our feelings, appetites, and urges, is a continual tendency towards sin.

But who Christ is, and what he did, changes everything—literally, everything—all of reality, including human nature. Christ takes upon himself the flesh of Adam, and in that flesh he dies. Though without sin or sinful tendency, Jesus fulfills the sentence of death that is on sinful humanity. Then, he is raised from the dead. And here is the key—it is not just that Jesus came back to life. Rather, he is resurrected with a new kind of life, an immortal, eternal, powerful life. He is declared to be righteous and therefore given the eternal life that from the beginning was promised to righteous humanity.

And this resurrection life which Christ was given is nothing less than the first installment of God’s plan to re-create the whole universe into a glorious and unspeakably beautiful new reality! Paul’s main point? We, who by faith are united to Christ, have our true identity in that new reality. Paul’s way of saying this is that we have died with Christ and were raised with Christ (Rom 6:1-11).

A Startling Implication

Next, Paul takes this new reality in Christ idea into our real-life struggles. In the early portion of Romans 7 (vs. 7-12), he is explaining that the law of God must be considered good, even though it produces death in us. It’s not the law’s fault, but ours; it is our persistent tendency to break the law that forces the law to prescribe death.

Then, in verse 17, he relates our tendency to break the law to our new identity in Christ in a startling way, “…now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.”

How in the world can he say such a thing? What does he mean? The answer is not that he is arguing for some sort of psychological dissociation. It is not anything in our psychology that accounts for this new “me.”

What Paul is asserting is that there is something new now; there is a new “me” even while the experience of the sinful tendency remains. In other words, something has happened that has redefined the Christian’s true identity separate from the sinful tendency he experiences.

It is the new reality, the new humanity every Christian has that has objectively come into existence with the resurrection of Jesus Christ and which defines us if we are united to him. That is why the conclusion of Paul’s argument is, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1).

So What

Why does this matter to Tom who remains troubled by his persistent tendency to pursue intimacy with men?

Why does it matter to the Christian husband troubled by his persistent tendency to use his eyes and mind to sexually enjoy women other than his wife; to the church elder dogged by his tendency to feel self-righteous contempt for others; to the teenage son battling his tendency to resist and oppose parental love and wisdom?  And the list goes on.

What Paul is asserting is that there is something new now; there is a new “me” even while the experience of the sinful tendency remains.

Here is why it matters. Who doesn’t struggle with the troubling resiliency of sinful feelings?  Who doesn’t get discouraged at the unrelenting battle against our tendency to sin?

The answer is not that you can, by your own effort and with the right therapy, remove your tendency towards sin; this will lead you to despair. The answer is not that you should come to peace with your tendency towards sin, call it a part of you, and identify with it; this leaves you without hope and without God. The answer is not to say that true Christians no longer experience the pull of a sinful human nature; this is unbiblical and contrary to your experience and leaves you confused and desperate.

The answer is this: Jesus has borne our sin and our tendency to sin, died with and for it, and has been resurrected, inaugurating a whole new reality which shapes our hope for the future and defines us in the present. The continued experience of the tendency to sin is to be expected in this life. But that experience, for the believer, is only the “sin living in me”; it is not a part of who I am for all eternity.  Who I am is defined by the resurrection life of Christ.  This is not a small thing.  It is the gospel. It is everything.

The gospel answer of union with Christ is the only answer that doesn’t disappoint! This is your new identity!

And as it turns out, living out of your new identity in Christ is the only way to make progress against sin.  But that’s for another post…

There are legitimate reasons why people find themselves ensnared in a sexual addiction. It is a mistake to overlook the suffering in an addict’s life and only focus on their moral failings. Pleasures that spiral into a sexual addiction usually find their fuel from a desire to escape pain. Whether it’s the pain of loneliness, broken relationships, physical suffering, trauma, or the daily stressors of life, a downward descent into habitual sin patterns is often accompanied by a decreased ability to handle life apart from the numbing power of sinful relief.

Unfiltered life becomes too difficult to bear. Whatever that suffering is, it is something that an addict cannot face or put up with, and life feels more manageable with a sinful numbing agent.

The men and women who struggle over and over with sexual sin may get to a point where they are ready to seek help. They have grown disillusioned with the empty promises that sin offers. Like the prodigal son, God in his mercy brings them to their senses, so that they can taste and smell the foulness of their behavior. They see the chains they have willingly shackled themselves with, and they finally desire a life of freedom.

The men I work with at Harvest USA are desperately longing for freedom. When they think about a life free from the destructive behaviors they are engaged in, they are filled with hope and anticipation. This hope for a new life is evidence of the Holy Spirit’s power beginning to renew their minds.

But since addictions are usually a means of escaping or numbing painful experiences, what happens when the numbing agent is removed?

This is the post-sexual addiction wilderness.

When God rescued Israel out of slavery from Egypt, they weren’t teleported to the Promised Land. They had to pass through the wilderness first. God’s people were terrified of the wilderness. They were unsatisfied in the wilderness. They longed to go back to Egypt, back into slavery, because it offered a predictable life and more food than manna. They pined for false security rather than exercise faith in their true security, Jehovah Jireh!

Pleasures that spiral into a sexual addiction usually find their fuel from a desire to escape pain.

Israel had a say in how long their wilderness wanderings lasted. 40 years was not the original course for Israel. Their extended stay was a result of their own unbelief. The same is true for those coming out of sexual addictions. It will not be a simple re-entry into reality. Everyone must pass through the wilderness.

But the choices we make in that wilderness impact the length and quality of our stay there.

I want to talk about three different kinds of wilderness experiences for people coming out of sexual addiction.

The wilderness of consequences

Sinful behavior has cost some of you deeply. You may have lost family, homes, jobs, and your circle of friends, almost everything you hold dear. It is these tragedies that have finally brought you to your senses. Even the thought of going back gives you nightmares because of how real the consequences are now. This is a wilderness where God does amazing heart transformation and literally brings life into dry bones.

The wilderness of consequences was God’s severe mercy for you, losing so much. You needed this wake-up call. But now, you find yourself in a barren wasteland of your own making. In this wilderness, you are wrestling with intense feelings of regret, sorrow, loneliness, and hopelessness for your future. You know you dare not go back to your sin, but you also don’t know what moving forward looks like.

This is the wilderness described in Psalm 6, where David cries out, “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eye wastes away because of grief.”

The wilderness of suffering

For others, the wilderness of post-sexual addiction is not the direct consequence for their sin, but the wilderness they sought to initially escape through their sin. Fleeing sexual sin and turning to the Lord does not mean the circumstances people sought to numb through sin have gone away. God calls us to face and experience this kind of suffering, too. In this wilderness, there are two very real struggles simultaneously happening.

But the biggest temptation in this wilderness is to swap a sexual-numbing agent for something else to kill the pain.

On the one hand, you have the painful struggle of sexual withdrawal. Your body is used to getting sexual satisfaction, and denying yourself will be accompanied by a sense of real anguish. But along with that pain, you are now also experiencing the unfiltered pain of whatever circumstance you were using sex to escape from.

But the biggest temptation in this wilderness is to swap a sexual-numbing agent for something else to kill the pain. It could be alcohol or drugs, but it could also be more socially acceptable things, like binge-watching TV shows or over-eating. This seems harmless by comparison, but it can be a dangerous, insidious temptation. Why? Because it is easy to fool yourself into thinking you have made deep heart progress, while you have only swapped one addiction for another. The goal in the wilderness of this suffering is to seek God in such a way where you are acknowledging that he must become your deepest source of comfort. For God to truly comfort you as the God of all comfort, you must by faith wait on him, and resist the temptation to quickly numb your pain through false means which usually deadens your desire to go to God with your suffering.

The wilderness of idolatry

The last wilderness is similar to the wilderness of suffering but with one key difference. Both are places of pain and suffering, but in the wilderness of suffering, your suffering is not the result of your sin. For example, God is not calling you to repent of your physical suffering or trauma that you experienced. But in this last wilderness, the wilderness of idolatry, you suffer because there is an idol in your heart that is not being satisfied.

For example, often pornography is a false means of feeling affirmed by others. In a fantasy world, everyone affirms you. This is what many people live for. If a false means of affirmation is taken away, the idolatrous desire in your heart will still cry out for satisfaction. This can result in feeling miserable and depressed. You weren’t happy in your addiction, but now you feel God isn’t coming through for you now that you’ve cut out that sinful behavior.

If this is where you are, you haven’t grasped the depths that your repentance needs to reach. This is often the wilderness that is most difficult to endure. Not because the suffering in this wilderness is more painful than the others, but because it’s only white-knuckling behavior modification. You haven’t yet forsaken the idols that still remain in your heart.

If you believe that life is found in the satisfaction of your idolatrous desires, then you will only hold out in repentance for so long until you turn back to the only source that you know to give you that sense of life, which means turning yet again to your addiction.

Post-sexual addiction living is not a simple, smooth transition from slavery to freedom. It’s a journey that often leads people into a wilderness. But this journey is all part of God’s loving transformative purposes. It is in the wilderness where God abides with his people, where they learn to trust him, and where they experience his provision of life!

There probably isn’t a more controversial passage in the New Testament than Romans 1. Pro-gay advocates refer to this passage, and five other passages in the Bible, as “Clobber Passages.” Those who advocate for gay marriage in the Church explain away Paul’s argument condemning homosexual behavior, while traditionalists lean in on it with a glaring spotlight.

But I would argue that both sides are not seeing clearly here.

I want to sound a note of caution about how we use Romans 1.  Romans 1, particularly verses 26 and 27, is rightly recognized as an important text in the church’s discussion of homosexuality. So what’s the problem?

It’s this: it is dangerously easy for the effect toward which orthodox or traditionalists use this passage to be the opposite of what God intends. Even we can use the passage wrongly.

When we read Romans, we hear it in solidarity with the original audience. It is a letter to Christians about the gospel.  After his greetings and other introductory matters, the Apostle Paul sets the trajectory and agenda for the remainder of the letter in verses 16 and 17—the apparently foolish gospel which is the power of God to salvation, salvation offered to both the Jews and the Greeks the same way: by faith. This is ultimately what he is arguing in the whole letter. It forms the broadest context.

To begin his argument, Paul broadens his view. He starts in verse 18 by talking about “all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” He’s talking about the world here. Paul’s scope here is much wider than the church—wide enough to include Fox News, CNN, Ellen, Jimmy Fallon, China, the E.U., North Korea, New York, Venezuela, Planet Fitness, Lady Gaga, Snapchat, Walmart, and on and on. This is our culture, the world’s culture, the diverse mass of humanity descended from Adam.

That’s the point—fallen views make sense in a world with no divine reference.

What does Paul have to say about this broadest category of people and culture? He says that the judgment of God upon them is visible; he uses the word “revealed” (1:18).  In other words, it’s on display. How so? In three ways.

First, God’s existence and humanity’s accountability to him is obvious to everyone who can perceive anything (1:19-20).  Second, everyone—the great mass of humanity and culture—has decided to deny God’s existence and make created things ultimate (1:21-23). Third, God lets fallen humanity develop and live out the worldview that flows logically and inevitably from that fundamentally flawed starting point—(1:24ff).

This is where Paul brings in homosexuality. Why? The reason is in the answer to this question, “What sort of conclusions flow logically and inevitably from a worldview in which all of nature is disassociated from God?” The answer: ironically, all sorts of “unnatural” conclusions.

Ironically, but inevitably, when humans make nature merely “Mother Nature” and not any kind of creation, they redefine and manipulate “nature” according to their desires, resulting in conclusions that are patently un-natural. Remember, Paul is speaking about, but not to, the broader world here. He is not speaking to that broader world where these unnatural conclusions are held forth as truth; of course, they would not agree that their views are patently unnatural.

That’s the point—fallen views make sense in a world with no divine reference. But to those who have been called out of atheistic or agnostic darkness into light the unnaturalness is clear. And to those to whom it is clear, Paul’s point is this: isn’t all this exactly what one would expect in a world opposed to God? God lets denial of his existence play out to its obvious consequences. Of course! No wonder Paul shines a spotlight on the “unnaturalness” of homosexuality. (Cue the traditionalists at this point saying “Amen!”)

Oh, but wait.

Paul continues his list of the consequences of a God-less worldview. As his list continues, we begin to hear some things that are a little less obviously “unnatural.”  We still hear “Amens” now and then, but they are more subdued, less confident. We still see some easy consequences to condemn: “evil,” “murder,” “haters of God,” “heartless,” “ruthless.” But mixed in are, “covetousness,” “strife,” “deceit,” “gossips,” “boasters,” “disobedient to parents.”

Yikes! The thought that ought to be whispering in the minds of Paul’s Christian audience—in our minds—is, “Uh… if these are the outworkings of a God-denying worldview, and their existence is a sign of God’s judgment, then how do I account for these things in my life in spite of my claim to know God?”

That is exactly what Paul intends you to think.  It should be troubling. It should be jarring.

If we, as Christians, are smug as we approach the end of Romans 1, we are missing the point.  And if we are really committed to missing the point, we stop at the end of chapter 1.

But Paul didn’t put any chapter break here.  In fact, the first word in what we call “chapter 2” is, “Therefore….”  Here is the conclusion of his argument: “…you, oh man, have no excuse.”

If we, as Christians, are smug as we approach the end of Romans 1, we are missing the point. 

No excuse. Bam! We are brought full circle back to verse 20 of chapter 1, where it was said of the God-denying world, “they are without excuse.” At least when they do these things it is a logical consequence of their worldview. But if we do them—and we do—it proves something that should stop us in our tracks and terrify us. It proves that what is wrong with us is so bad that we too continue to rebel against God while claiming to acknowledge him.

What, we should ask ourselves, is worse—to live in godless ways consistent with an atheistic worldview, or to live in godless ways in betrayal of a professed acknowledgement of God?

What is the application here?  How should this affect us?  It should bring a deep humility that precludes judgmentalism.

I am not saying that Romans 1:26-27 means anything different than we’ve always thought. My caution is this: if reading Romans 1 leaves you feeling anything but uncomfortable, humbled, and convicted—in short, in desperate need of mercy—you are not reading it correctly.

And if all of us do not hear Paul’s message correctly, we are ill-prepared to understand the gospel and to help others do so as well.


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