21 Mar 2019
“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).
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…
14 Feb 2019
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.
07 Feb 2019
The first time I skydived, I was terrified and excited to be thrown out of my comfort zone. I could see the cloudy sky and minute details of the ground below—very far below. The instructor, to whom I was attached in tandem, yelled out as the wind rushed in the open door as my comfort zone slowly slipped away, “Are you ready?!” My heart raced as I said yes and before I knew it, we were falling out of the plane into the open air. After an exhilarating free fall, the parachute cord was pulled and down we gracefully floated to the ground. As I look back, I realized that I could have missed the rush of that experience had I not taken that initial step out of the comfort zone of the plane.
Years ago, when God began a life-transforming process in my life, I struggled to “step out of the plane.” I mean, I did want to follow Jesus, and I did want to do whatever it took. But not always. As the real-deal of what it was going to look like to be free from unhealthy relationships and sinful patterns in my life, I tried everything I could to delay being obedient to what God had set before me.
What I was trying to do—stay within my comfort zone by not stepping into the freefall of obeying God, which was terrifying—is what many sexual strugglers do.
Obedience begins with a willingness to submit oneself to the will of God. John 14:15 sums it up, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Notice in this verse that love precedes the command. It is from an overflow of our love for God that makes us willing to be obedient. What often isn’t expressed in this discussion is how easy it is to waste time dancing around obedience all while trying to justify your delays.
Determine to walk in honesty and intentionality with a community of believers. It could also be referred to as living intentionally intrusive lives with one another.
In Psalm 119:60, David says, “I hasten and do not delay to keep your commandments.” To hasten is “to move or act quickly.” David is reminding us that out of our love for God, we are not called to just keep his commandments, we should strive to be quick to obey.
Being quick to obey can be difficult for many reasons. Decisions are usually accompanied by a host of emotions, feelings that toss you to and fro, often times confusing the matter by fogging what’s otherwise seemingly black and white. Most would agree, obedience usually costs us something. But often times, the most profound spiritual growth comes as we make commitments to walk in obedience regardless of how we feel. Lived out, we pray for Christ-enabling power to make changes, then it requires us to make up our mind to love God by just doing it, or in some cases, stop doing it.
Romans 13:14 says, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” What it looks like to “put on” and make no provision for worldly desires will look different for each of us. There is no formula, but here are four examples of ways to hasten obedience and not delay in order to break free from sinful patterns.
- Pursue Jesus every day
Here’s the amazing truth for all of us: we don’t walk alone! Far better than being attached to a professional skydiver, we are united with Jesus. Our first obedience is to abide in his love and Word and to deepen our understanding of our identity of being in Christ. We show our love for God through our obedience, but this is never about us mustering up the courage or strength to do it. As Paul said in Phil. 2:13, “its God who is at work” in us to change our desires and give us a willingness to obey him.
- Develop Accountability in Relationships
Determine to walk in honesty and intentionality with a community of believers. It could also be referred to as living intentionally intrusive lives with one another. While it is ideal to have others take the initiative to ask questions, make a commitment to confess your sins whether asked or not.
- Avoid relational connections that tempt you towards sin
It is important to disconnect from people that have been a part of your past sinful decisions. This is painful to acknowledge, but your past selfish choices could lead to hard consequences that hurt people you love. Staying in this type of relationship isn’t really loving if it doesn’t lead to obeying God. Although a choice like this can easily be misconstrued, it is actually an act of love and helps avoid being mired in long-term messy situations. For people on both sides of this type of obedience, God can be trusted with whatever consequences may come.
- Implement Technology Restrictions
Make modifications to any form of technology that grips or controls your emotional state, especially social media. These types of limitations expose what you allow in your life and how that positively or negatively affects what comes out in thought, word and behavior. This may seem minimal, but give it a try for a week or two and see for yourself.
Maybe for you all these steps look overwhelming. The good news (because there is Good news!), is God doesn’t expect us to be perfect. His command, his calls to quick obedience, are doable things God wants to help us with. The ground may look very far below, but it is God’s promise to get us there safely.
Here’s the bottom line in learning to obey God quickly: Christ is with you. You are not jumping out of any plane without him.
So what could this look like in your life? Maybe it looks like being quick to fight against focusing on the negative but rather fight for a thankful heart (Philippians 4:6-7). Or maybe this looks like being quick to break the cycle of selfish inward thinking (2 Corinthians 10:5). Or maybe this looks like being quick to have honest conversations with God through prayer in the day in and day out battle of life.
Here’s the bottom line in learning to obey God quickly: Christ is with you. You are not jumping out of any plane without him.
He is the ultimate Instructor who is tender and compassionate towards us as we learn how to walk in ways of new life in new light. He will bind up our broken hearts, lift our drooping heads, and provide peace that surpasses understanding. All while blessing our obedience and delighting in our efforts on this long road no matter how many times we fail to hasten.
Shalee talks more about this issue in the accompanying video: Why Is Delayed Obedience So Dangerous? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
07 Feb 2019
It’s hard to obey God when it costs something of us. It’s even harder to quickly obey, to obey without hesitation. But the more we linger or delay, the things that trouble us grow in power and strength over us. In this video, Shalee shares four dangers of delayed obedience.
To learn more, read Shalee’s accompanying blog: “Quick to Obey on the Long Road of Obedience.”
13 Dec 2018
With the culture rapidly changing, more children are describing themselves along the lines of the LGBTQ+ acronym. While there are lots of reasons for why this is happening, Christian parents need to help their children understand sexual and gender identity from a biblical perspective, as well as help them communicate to their peers a Christian worldview of sexuality and gender. Read more about this in Tim’s blog, How to Talk with Your Kids about LGBTQ+ Identity.
There are many other resources on our website that will help you explain LGBTQ+ identity to your child. One additional resources is Tim’s minibook, Explaining LGBTQ+ Identity to Your Child: Biblical Guidance and Wisdom. This resource is available for purchase in three formats: eBook, Kindle, and Minibook 5-pack.
13 Dec 2018
One of the questions we receive most frequently at Harvest USA goes something like this: “My daughter just found out that she has a transgender classmate. How do I help her to respond?”
Or, “We just found out that my husband’s brother is gay. We’re not sure how to explain this to our 12-year-old son.”
These situations, and others like them, are confronting more and more families. The number of adults self-identifying as LGBTQ+ has grown to 4.3% of the adult population, which is almost double what it was 18 years ago.
And among Generation Z (that’s kids 18 and under), the percentage is higher. Roughly 8 percent of high school students report being lesbian, gay, or bisexual. And, studies show that 2.7 percent of teens are unsure of their gender identity.
So even if your child doesn’t experience same-sex attraction or gender struggles, they probably know at least one other person who does.
One goal, then, is for parents to help their children understand some basic information about LGBTQ identity. But there is another important goal—discipling children to speak the truth in love and compassion to those around them who identify as nonstraight and gender nonconforming.
Help your child to think: What does the Bible say about gender?
Scripture tells us that God created all of his image-bearers as either male or female (Genesis 1:27). There is nothing in the Bible that leads one to conclude that gender is distinct from birth sex, or that gender is on a continuum from male to female, or that gender evolves over time.
Rather, in Psalm 139:13–16, we see a tender and intimate rendering of the fact that God “knitted [us] together” in our mothers’ wombs, and that he wrote in his book every one of our days before one of them came to be. Gender is not something that develops as a psychological process. It is ordained by God from beyond eternity. Babies born boys in Scripture are called boys from birth and grow up to be men. Babies born girls grow up to be women. Birth sex and gender, according to Scripture, are one and the same concept.
Help your child to think: What does the Bible say about sexual orientation?
Scripture does not have a category of sexual orientation; that some people are straight and some nonstraight. From Genesis to Revelation, Scripture affirms that sexual desire and behavior is rightly ordered between a man and a woman as husband and wife. In every place where sexual lust and behavior are outside of marriage (all homosexual lust and behavior, as well as heterosexual lust and behavior), Scripture condemns it.
Help your child to think: The primary purpose of our sexuality
I say all this to point toward the primary use (or orientation) of sexuality in Scripture, and while this is not intuitive, it’s very much worth helping your children understand.
Sexuality is supposed to be oriented toward God, in obedient and self-sacrificial stewardship (1 Corinthians 6:15-20). When we misuse sexual desire and sexual expression, we sin primarily against God. Why? Because sex, among other things, is meant to be a kind of signpost, pointing us to the union we have with God through Jesus Christ.
While we temporarily become “one flesh” with another human being in sexual expression (6:16), we are continually “one spirit” with God through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in believers (6:17-20). Sex, within the covenant context of marriage, is meant to be a dim earthly picture looking forward to the far more glorious and long-lasting union the believer has with God through Christ.
Help your child to respond: Ten strategies to talk with your child about LGBTQ+ identity
We honor Christ most in this context by speaking the truth about God and his design for sex and gender—but by doing so in love. Speaking the truth in love generally occurs within the context of relationship—one friend humbly and graciously asking the other to reconsider his or her views and actions. Are we willing to truly love our LGBTQ+ neighbors, and to engage them as friends?
Here are ten ways to begin that process with your child.
- Adopt a zero-tolerance policy on bullying and cyberbullying.
Bullying has no place among God’s people. Teach your child to prayerfully take a stand to defend his or her LGBTQ+ friend or loved one from acts of injustice.
- Teach your child how to pray for his or her LGBTQ+ friend or loved one, and pray together as a family.
Pray first and foremost that the friend or loved one would know Christ, and from a relationship with him, would grow to love and trust Jesus as Savior. Pray that he or she would understand God’s goodness in the way he designed sex and gender, and to walk in repentance.
- Speak with your child in age-specific ways about God’s design for sex and gender.
Even young children can begin to grasp the goodness and design of sexuality and gender that God created. Children can comprehend some of the emotional and spiritual struggles that a child their age experiences when they feel different from their peers with regard to sexuality and gender nonconformity. Children can learn how to befriend and stand up for others, without accepting the untruth that their peers believe.
- Talk about the immutability of gender—that people don’t change from one gender to another as they grow.
Who they are as a gendered being today is who they will be for the rest of their life. Children—particularly young children—often learn about gender and their particular roles in social groups through play. Don’t discourage children from play-acting as members of the opposite gender. But, remind them of the difference between play and reality. There is inherent goodness in embracing one’s God-given gender.
- Discuss gender roles with your child.
Explain that just because a boy likes to engage in activities that might be culturally classified as “feminine,” like baking, crafting, or taking care of children, that doesn’t mean he’s any less of a boy. The same goes for girls who enjoy activities that might be culturally “masculine.”
- Help your child resist the temptation to be judgmental toward others.
Even though it is sinful to self-identify as transgender, remind your child that he or she is a sinner, too, in need of the same grace to be saved and to repent as his or her peer! This can be a way to encourage your child to begin to understand his or her own need of Christ.
- Make sure that you show respect for your child’s peer in your attitude, words, and actions.
Don’t mock or exclude the other child. Invite him or her into your home. Treat him or her as you would any other of your child’s peers. Your child will model his or her own attitudes after your own.
- Ask your child if he or she has ever been confused about sex, sexuality, or gender.
Invite them to share those questions with you. Encourage them that feelings never equal identity. Identity comes only from God, the Creator.
- Invite your child to dialogue with you about friends, classmates, or family members who have adopted an LGBTQ+ identity.
Ask them what they think about their friends or loved ones living in alternate lifestyles. If they think it’s OK, you’ll need to do more teaching to show them what Scripture affirms. Be patient in explaining. The culture is daily sending out persuasive worldviews.
- Brainstorm with your child ways in which he or she could respectfully speak the truth in love to their LGBTQ+-identifying friend or family member.
Let’s be honest here: it’s difficult to speak biblical truth—and by that, I mean a Christian worldview of life, including sexuality and gender—to those who are not living it. This is hard even for adults to do; harder still for kids who are more prone to peer pressure and peer conformity. Brainstorm with them how they might be able to talk (in their own words) about these issues with them in timely and respectful ways. The goal here is to help them not to be afraid to talk about what they believe. It’s not about convincing their friends that they are wrong, but about helping their friends (who most likely don’t know what a Christian worldview is) discover there is another way to think and live. And we who believe that God can take the smallest of seeds and grow something large out of them, will trust the Holy Spirit to use even the words of our children to bring others, in his time, to faith.
There are many resources on our website that will help you explain LGBTQ+ identity to your child. One additional resource is my minibook, Explaining LGBTQ+ Identity to Your Child: Biblical Guidance and Wisdom. This resource is available for purchase in three formats: eBook, Kindle, and Minibook 5-pack.
Tim talks more about this issue in the accompanying video: How Do I Explain LGBTQ+ Issues to My Children? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
04 Oct 2018
Women involved in friendships and ministry (discipleship, caregiving, counseling, etc.) sometimes become ensnared in messy, emotional, codependent attachments with each other. These codependent relationships easily take on a romantic feel and can become sexualized. Breaking free can be excruciating! However, rest assured that messy relationships are a “common to man” temptation and sin struggle. Consider Beth and Anna.
“Ellen, we never saw ourselves as gay, but we have never been in love with another person in this way.”
This was how Beth¹ a woman in her forties, described her affair with Anna, a young grad student who began coming to her church. They connected easily, and a warm friendship and casual mentoring relationship developed quickly.
Beth described her marriage to her husband, a pastor, as “living under the same roof but being physically and emotionally divorced.” With Anna, however, she experienced the deeply satisfying emotional oneness she had always craved. Their physical affection slowly pushed past appropriate boundaries. Before long, these two Christian sisters were involved in a sexual relationship. No one questioned the intense, consuming nature of the relationship. “Everyone just thought we were the best of friends and even envied our connection,” Beth told me.
When these messy relational dynamics happen in Christian mentoring relationships, the spiritual component adds tremendous confusion and fuels the agonizing question, “How can this be wrong when it feels so good?”
Diagnosing a Messy Relationship
Here are five indicators of an unhealthy attachment.
- Fused lives, schedules, and relational spheres.
- Exclusivity and possessiveness. Other people feel like intruders, as a threat to your closeness.
- The relationship needs regular clarification of each person’s role in it. Generally, one woman has a needy/take-care-of-me role and the other a needy-to-be-needed/caregiver role. Fear, insecurity, and jealousy are triggered when one steps out of her role.
- Maintaining consistent emotional connection is vital. Texts, emails, calls and time spent together grow and intensify to typically become life-dominating.
- Romanticized affection through words and physical touch, and of course any sexual involvement.
When these messy relational dynamics happen in Christian mentoring relationships, the spiritual component adds tremendous confusion and fuels the agonizing question, “How can this be wrong when it feels so good?”
The Mess of Relational Idolatry
Our desires for unfailing love and being deeply known are beautiful aspects of being image bearers of God. He loves us perfectly, knows us completely, and exists in a holy relational Trinity. However, every detail of our image bearing capability is distorted by sin.
The Bible is clear that no one and no thing is to be exalted in our lives over obedience and love for God. As God’s redeemed and no-longer-belonging-to-ourselves people, we are created by, through, and for Christ as Colossians 1:16 beautifully declares. This means that all of our relationships, and the place we give people in our lives, are to be submitted under the loving Lordship of Christ. No friend or woman we may be mentoring should ever become a god or Jesus-replacement in our life!
The Bible is clear that no one and no thing is to be exalted in our lives over obedience and love for God… Relational idolatry happens when we look to people to give us only what Jesus can.
The truth is that messy relationships can still feel beautiful and loving. But even our desires are disordered and need the radical Christward orientation that only the clarity of Scripture gives. Desires can be corrupt and sinful (2 Peter 1:4), or they can be “of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:17), which bears out in the sweet, holy good fruit of the Spirit. Though created for wholeness and holiness, all of us struggle in one way or another in our desires and relationships.
Relational idolatry happens when we look to people to give us only what Jesus can. Sister, if you are involved in a relationship similar to Anna and Beth’s, know that idolatry is a common struggle to all of us.
The Bible and Idolatry
My journey of faith, relationships, and sin has included the worship of people, including women I’ve mentored. Though Scripture does not use the phrase “relational idolatry,” it’s in there.
Consider these passages.
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Ex. 20:2-3)
God does not command us to be exclusive in our devotion to him because he is insecure or narcissistic! Instead, God loves us and knows that when we worship him alone, we glorify him, and people will be in their proper place in our lives as godly friends rather than Jesus-replacements.
“For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and dug out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jer. 2:13)
God’s people had committed a variety of rebellious acts, yet he sums up their sin with two statements that apply to us today: a) we turn away from him and b) seek other sources as our living water. What do you value in your relationships?
- Is it to fix someone’s life?
- Is it to have someone put your life back together when you feel broken?
- Is your heart empty and you want someone to make it whole?
You know the name for this: codependency. But it’s deeper than that: it’s co-idolatry as two women look to each other for their value, identity, and security, something only God is able to give to us.
Steps of Repentance if You’re in a Relational Mess
God is committed to rescuing us, and keeping himself as our ultimate source of life, joy, and identity. Wholeness in our relationships comes from holiness in our relationships, which is a fruit of worship and trust of God alone. Here are steps of faith and repentance to take.
1. Admit your relational sin and flee into the loving arms of Jesus. Fleeing to Jesus means letting go of this relationship by turning towards him. Which means you must leave where you are, throw off sin and hindrances. He is faithful to hear, forgive, and love all who come to him (Heb. 4:16).
If you don’t know where to begin, try praying Psalm 139:23-24. Here’s my expanded version.
“Lord, search and examine me…explore all the crevices of my heart and mind…all my anxious thoughts. See if there are any sinful paths I’m walking in, if there are patterns of painful idolatry in me. Reveal the true nature of my heart Lord and give me spiritual guidance in your good, holy pathways.”
2. Expect a season of pain and grief that can lead you to God’s deep comfort. Letting go will be anguishing; it will get more painful before it gets better. But the pain which comes from costly obedience is healing rather than enslaving pain. Soul surgery requires you to allow the gospel to touch, cut, and heal the deeper issues of your heart (unbelief, fear, insecurity, anger, trauma, pain, etc.).
3. Separate and allow space to happen between you and this woman. Colossians 3:5 is a hard word, but one that leads to true life. “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” If you’ve been sexually involved, you must sever ties completely. Indefinitely. This is how you will put to death the messy attachment that has formed between you.
God is committed to rescuing us, and keeping himself as our ultimate source of life, joy, and identity. Wholeness in our relationships comes from holiness in our relationships
On this point, I usually get pushback. But Ellen, we love each other as friends! We encouraged each other so much in Christ before things got sexual…can’t we just go back to what was good?!
If you are in this situation, I wish I could see your face now and talk to you tenderly, yet directly. Sister, you must flee temptation and sin at all costs! 1 Corinthians 10:14 says you are to flee from sin…not try to manage it, heal it, or contain it. Put to death, flee, repent (or turn a relational 180). These are the words that God’s word uses in considering our relationship to sin. When sexual sin enters a non-marital relationship, obedience means turning from that person and relationship so that your heart can become set fully on Christ, your true life, once more (Colossians 3:1-4).
Consider this a season of intentional fasting from any contact with this person. No social media stalking. Do not muse over texts, emails, etc. Let go and the comfort of God will be a bottomless well of comfort if you stay the course.
New gospel life WILL come from this death. “For I will restore health to you, and your wounds I will heal, declares the Lord…” (Jer. 30:17).
4. Pursue biblical discipleship regarding:
How to cultivate an intimate relationship with Christ. It’s possible to be busy for the Lord, without loving and abiding in him. A wise Puritan pastor said, “The soul is so constituted that it craves fulfillment from things outside itself and will embrace earthly joys for satisfaction when it cannot reach spiritual ones. The believer is in spiritual danger if he allows himself to go for any length of time without tasting the love of Christ and savoring the felt comforts of a Savior’s presence. When Christ ceases to fill the heart with satisfaction, our souls will go in silent search of other lovers.”²
The underlying heart issues you need to address. Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free!” (John 8:32). What made you vulnerable to this messy relationship? What is off kilter in your beliefs?
God’s design for healthy relationships. What does it mean to have the kind of wise love that Paul prayed for in Philippians 1:9-11? Christ is eager to teach you what it looks like to have himself in his rightful place in your life so that people will be in theirs.
5. Seek accountability for your relationships. I’ve learned that I must have people who have meddling rights in my life! Trusted, spiritually mature friends who love and encourage me to cultivate godly relationships and will help me discern if I’m blind to a potential relational mess.
6. Cry out to Jesus your Deliverer day after day. He is our precious Savior… and our faithful Bridegroom, the One to whom we are married to for all of eternity. He will help, love, and comfort us while we live during this short earthly time. He will grow “into us” the testimony of David:
“He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me, because he delighted in me.” (Psalm 18:19)
God loves his daughters so much that he faithfully calls us to himself away from idols, including messy relationships. Hear this promise today as you ponder what your next steps of faith are:
“Now to him who is able to Keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 1:24-25)
This blog first appeared on Revive Our Hearts under the title: “Untangle Twisted Relationships: When Women’s Friendships Become Unhealthy.”
² John Flavel, “The Method of Grace,” The Whole Works of John Flavel (London: Baynes, 1820), vol. 2, p. 438.
Ellen talks more on this subject in the accompanying video: When Do Friendships Between Women Become Codependent? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
Good friendships in the Body of Christ are vital and necessary. And those friendships should be rich and deep. But sometimes there’s a danger lurking there: when one or both friends look to each other for what only Jesus can give us, then relational idolatry happens. Listen to Ellen talk about how to get yourself out of that unhealthy friendship and move toward Christ.
There’s more to learn after this video! Read Ellen’s accompanying blog: Codependent Struggles in Women’s Friendships. You can also go to Ellen’s 3-part blog and video series on emotional affairs. Click here for “Emotional Affairs: When Closeness Becomes Destructive – Part I”.
19 Sep 2018
Much was said about Revoice before the first talk took place in St. Louis on July 27-29, 2018. And much has been said since. As one who attended the conference and engaged with the speakers and attendees, here’s my perspective.
First, let me answer the question some people asked me: why would you attend this conference? Simple; given what I knew about it, I was concerned. Concerned, because the stated purpose of Revoice is provocative: it exists to “support, encourage, and empower gay, lesbian, same-sex-attracted, and other LGBT Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.” Concerned, because Revoice has the potential to influence many in the Church, leading Christians to rethink their understanding of sex, sexuality, gender, and sin.
As a seminary professor cautioned me many years ago, “Whenever someone comes up with a new understanding of Scripture, it needs to be examined very carefully. You can’t assume that 2,000 years of Spirit-led biblical interpretation has been wrong.” That’s wise counsel in any instance, but particularly in this one. From my perspective, Revoice is calling the Church to reconsider historic, orthodox understandings of personal identity and sin.
That’s serious, and it is a discussion that we must enter into with much prayer and discernment.
The workshops and plenary sessions presented a wide diversity of views from an array of presenters. Overall, the content seemed more an attempt to gather people together under a common banner than to advance one specific idea or concept. While some teaching was commendable, others were not so.
Here is what I found positive. Every speaker I heard stated that acting on same-sex attraction was sinful. This is consistent with the traditional, orthodox understanding of God’s design for sex and sexuality. A second positive message was that marriage is between one man and one woman, for life. Again, an affirmation of the biblical paradigm for marriage.
I also appreciated that many of the speakers asked good questions; questions about how the Church could better care for same-sex attracted Christians. These are questions the Church has not been asking, much less answering.
What are the options for relational and emotional fulfillment for followers of Christ who do not, and may never, consider marriage? How can the Church become a real, vital family for them, encouraging these brothers and sisters to likewise live 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.
Now, here were the issues that concerned me. I’ll categorize them under three headings: identity, the Body of Christ, and the nature of change.
Identity. There was a theme throughout the conference calling for those who experience same-sex attraction to self-identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. A great deal has been written about what this means and doesn’t mean, and this post will not have the length to explain the nuanced positions (on both sides). So I will briefly mention two things that struck me about this contentious issue.
First, while Revoice says 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.
The speakers at Revoice would say that using the term is, at best, descriptive; it merely describes an enduring pattern of same-sex attraction. But the concern I cannot shake is that using self-identifying terminology such as this confuses, and in doing so 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.
But, secondly, using these terms is more than merely descriptive. The historic, orthodox understanding of sexual desires that are outside of God’s design is sin. The speakers at Revoice are nuancing that perspective, calling same-sex attraction a way of looking at and experiencing the world and is only sinful when it is acted upon sexually. This is a significant theological change.
As I heard from my seminary professor, there is 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 see Harvest USA’s position on same-sex attraction here.) Again, the length of my remarks here about my time at Revoice cannot adequately discuss these arguments.
Nevertheless, it is this issue where the biggest battles are going to be fought. And, as believers, and especially as church leaders and pastors, we need to study this carefully, adhering to Scripture and not human experience.
I’ve discussed some of this issue in my blog post Gay + Christian. My main point was that it is inappropriate for a Christian to self-identify according to any pattern of sin or struggle. Paul proclaims this astonishing news: “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). 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.
Revoice must realize that advocating for the use of such terms is not an insignificant thing. It is one 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, or long for, the broken and sinful characteristics associated with those labels.
The Body of Christ. Developing a separate queer culture within the Church undermines the unity of the Church. The seriousness of this issue cannot be overstated.
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 division or another category of believers within the Church through advocating for a separate subculture (queer or otherwise) detracts from that course.
One of the terms used repeatedly throughout the Revoice conference was “sexual minorities.” Here we find another term being promoted that is embedded in the language of our culture: “minorities,” people being described by their marginal status within the larger power structures of the majority.
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 for some of Revoice’s use of this term.
And it’s this: Brothers and sisters who experience same-sex attraction or struggle with their sense of gender have often been misunderstood, and at times mistreated, by the Church. The Church has often not been a place of hope and healing for men and women affected by sexual and relational brokenness.
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 wounded by the Church.
We must do better in this regard, for the glory of Christ. 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. No more, no less.
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 change in desire or attraction always happens. Many Christians have been hurt by that belief. But such change might 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.
We live in a day when more people than ever before (particularly those under 40) self-identify as LGBTQ+. According to a 2016 Gallup survey, 7.3% of millennials self-identify as non-heterosexual.[i] That’s a marked increase over prior surveys and a much higher self-identification rate than other age groups in the U.S. adult population.
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.[ii] However, most 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 aligning 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. Over time, it should include this perspective: that to embrace a gay or transgender identity, and the enticements that come with it, is counter 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 love of authentic friendship, wherein brothers and sisters compassionately confront each other’s sinful attitudes and acts, as well as assist one another towards obedience as they faithfully follow Christ in their struggles. Through engaging in this process, Paul tells us we not only build ourselves up but we also “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…” (Ephesians 4:15).
This means that we must be willing to engage each other through authentic friendship. We must labor in love to understand every struggler and their personal history and take the time to prayerfully and thoughtfully help each one understand why they struggle in the ways they do. It means helping them grow in their comprehension of how the Person and Work of Jesus Christ is actually what they need more than anything else.
Responding to Revoice isn’t a single action. It isn’t a blog post, or a sermon, or a pastoral counseling session. It involves the often difficult and time-consuming work of getting to know the stories, the experiences, the joys and fears of Christians who wrestle with same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria. 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.
The Harvest USA website is full of resources you can use to grow in your understanding of how to engage Christians wrestling with all kinds of issues related to sex, sexuality, and gender. Our mission is partly to help the Church become a safe place for those dealing with sexual sin to walk in increasing faith and repentance. Contact us, and ask us how.
You can learn more about same-sex attraction and homosexuality by purchasing our 15-session video series, God’s Design for Sexuality in a Changing Culture, which is perfect for Sunday school and small group settings.
16 Aug 2018
You cannot change your child when your child says “I’m gay.” No matter how badly you might want to see change, no matter how much you pray, no matter how convincing your argument, you won’t be able to convince your child to change. Your child’s issue ultimately isn’t with you; it’s with God.
Only a transforming relationship with Jesus Christ will lead to the heart change that is needed before behavioral change will occur. God wants to do business with your child’s heart. Your child has adopted a gay identity because, at some level, he has believed lies about God, himself, and others. Romans 1: 21–25 is a clear and sobering description of human behavior in a broken and fallen world. Paul lays out an argument about how the knowledge and pursuit of God is suppressed and twisted in favor of believing lies about God and turning to idols to find life:
“For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.” (Romans 1: 21-25)
This is not a passage to hammer your child with about their same-sex attractions! Romans 1 isn’t targeted merely to homosexuals. Paul is talking to all of us! He is saying that everyone in the world has been so impacted by the Fall (Genesis 3) that we all are guilty of serious idolatry, and only a real, transforming relationship with Jesus Christ will enable us to live in increasing wholeness and godliness before God.
Use this passage to remind yourself that, while you can work toward being an agent of change in your child’s life, you can’t expect that you will be able to convince your child to change or make him change. It’s only the Lord who does the changing in our lives. Such change is likely to come about over time, within the context of Christian community—through your relationship with your son or daughter and through his or her relationship with other mature, compassionate Christians who are willing to walk with those who struggle with same-sex attraction and not abandon them through this journey.
Your Child Doesn’t Need to Become Straight
Your child’s deepest need is not to become straight. Your child’s deepest need is the same as every person in this world—a life of faith and repentance in Christ. Having heterosexual sex will not solve your child’s problem. There is more to this issue than sexuality. The ethical opposite of homosexuality is not “becoming straight.” Godly sexuality is about holiness. It is about living out one’s sexuality by increasingly being willing to conform and live within God’s design for sex. Godly sexuality is not merely about being heterosexual; it is not merely about being married and having two kids and living in the suburbs.
Godly sexuality also includes being single and celibate, refusing to be controlled by one’s sexual desires because one chooses to follow a higher value in one’s life—to follow God even when it’s not easy or popular (particularly in the area of sexuality today). Rich relationships and friendships are possible and achievable for singles. Again, the world will have us believe that a life without sex is tragic and not “true to yourself,” but Jesus and the witness of the New Testament is evidence against that false worldview.
Being celibate today is not an easy road. If your son or daughter chooses to follow God’s design for sexuality by remaining celibate, they will need to find people who will support that decision and help them live a godly life. But celibacy may not be the only path that is open before them. There are some men and women who, in turning away from a gay-identified life have found a fulfilling marriage relationship with the opposite sex. Over time, many have found a lessening of same-sex attracted desires and some have even found growth in heterosexual desires (most often not in a general sense, but toward a specific person with whom they have grown to love).
In other words, it is important to bring multiple stories of transformation and change to the discussion. You do not know what the Lord has in store for your child’s future. Marriage may be out of the question—for now and possibly for the future. Waiting upon the Lord and seeking his will and wisdom is what is needed, and that will be the faith journey your child will have to walk.