Sexual healing

A few weeks ago I preached on lust from the sermon on the mount. One point I made was that any sexual activity outside the marriage covenant is ultimately taking without fully giving. In pre-marital or extra-marital sex, we are in essence taking physically without giving of our whole selves, refusing to covenantally bind ourselves to each other. Lust is the fullest expression of taking without giving, as you are only taking and not giving any of yourself: physically, emotionally, spiritually. Much of this I borrowed from Tim Keller’s sermon on the same passage.

While in the 1980’s, Foreigner posed a great thought, “I want to know what love is,” I think an appropriate thought today would be, “I want to know what lust is…..” And should you follow through with the same request of that song (“I want you to show me…”), I will do my best to show you and point you to the only one who can do something about it.

Since lust is basically a form of stealing (that’s why I think Jesus says to cut off your hand if it causes you to sin in reference to lust). Gary Yagel describes men to a tee. “Men want the physical pleasure of sex without the hard emotional work of intimacy.” The same could probably be said of women, particularly with the popularity of a Magic Mike.

The remedy for lust, which is taking without giving, is to come to the One who truly gives without taking.  While Jesus elevates the sexual ethic to a level where no one can attain, he ironically hangs around with sexually broken people. Often. Prostitutes hang out with someone who condemns even lust as a form of adultery? 

The beauty of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount lies in the fact that he exposes the depth of a law which we could never uphold, only to point us to Him who fulfilled all parts of the Law. The sexually broken, who have been all about take, take, take, and thus have seen that they have really been taken, taken, taken, regularly come to the one who gives, gives, gives. 

Does it not amaze you that the sexually broken do not run from Jesus but rather flock to him, as a true sophomore Lloyd Christmas once said, “like the Salmon of Capistrano?” This seeming paradox produces worship and obviously attracted people to him. Russ Douthat in his Bad Religion writes:

He’s a celibate ascetic who enjoys dining with publicans and changing water into wine….he consorts with prostitutes while denouncing even lustful thoughts…

They didn’t feel judged but rather loved by him. And that loving presence then led to repentance. Does that not make you think? And worship? And repent?

One cannot say, “Once such folks repented, then they felt welcomed by him.” Well such an example clearly happens in Luke 7:36-50. But several adulterous ladies didn’t repent before they met him as seen in the Samaritan woman in John 4, or the woman caught in adultery in John 8. In fact most of the time, it is only after folks encounter the presence of Jesus, that they seek forgiveness and desire any change. Sometimes that change happens immediately while for others (Nicodemus, Jesus’ brother James) it takes some time. 
The same thing should be true today. The only way anyone has any hope of forgiveness or even desire to abandon certain lifestyles is if Jesus comes to them FIRST. So we should not expect any healing in this area to happen unless they feel un-judged when spending time with Jesus’ people.  

It’s kind of like that old adage (which technically true but kind of inaccurate) “Guns don’t kill people, people do.” Huh….? Well law without gospel kills and when people wield the law before the gospel, it can have the same relational effect.

Grace is what folks need to in order to (very imperfectly I might add) begin slowly following the law which leads us to freedom. The law points us to life not death, but when folks don’t see Jesus the fulfiller of the Law, there is no motivation to repent.

If Jesus held such a high sexual ethic, and the women in his presence felt loved, then that should let remind evangelical Christians now that we don’t need to lower the sexual ethic. Jesus’ followers can hold a high sexual ethic without the world always feeling we are judging them. He did it, why can’t we?

Provided our high sexual ethic makes us think even higher of Jesus than our own blemished record (remember lust?), we do have something that much of the world does not know: One who gives without taking. When folks know the One who gives without taking, that affects all of their lives, including, but especially our sexuality. We then become people who give to whole selves to our spouses instead of images of the “perfect” guy or gal. That is true sexual healing. 

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This UK pastor is OK: Struggle with same sex attraction

Yesterdays sermon on Ephesians 5 took us deep into the challenging world of sexuality. It’s probably the most offensive topic, whether it be a neighbor sleeping with his girlfriend, a capitulating “non-struggle” with pornography, or whether homosexuality is “cool” with God. If you question these ideas, you will most likely get dealt the “don”t judge me” card.

But there is a difference between struggling/wrestling or admitting struggles in such areas AND “Let’s not go there.” The latter is a non-Christian response. But there are is also a difference betwixt struggling/wrestling with sexual sin and actually admitting/confessing sin. The former demonstrates that Christ is working in you. If there’s no struggle, then you’ve arrived at Heaven. And I’m not sure folks in Heaven are reading this blog-though I can’t prove that. And it would be pretty cool if they were. But that’s a bit tangential.

I think the latter, actually admitting/confessing takes belief one step further.

Most Christians-and I’m in that category-tend to limit sin struggles to very generic terms like “pride” or “lust.” Duh….thanks for letting me in; tell me something I don’t know!

The specifics are hard. When those specifics comprise sexual sin, they are much harder. When those specifics involve same sex attraction, that is REALLY hard. When one is a pastor, that is REALLY, REALLY hard.

Vaughn Roberts, and I are close. If by close you mean I met his sister at the National Outreach Conference in San Diego back in 2008, and I have one of his books God’s Big Picture, yes we are close. Recently he agreed to an interview about his struggles with same-sex attraction.

Do yourself and those around you a favor. No I’m not talking about wearing deodarant or flossing your teeth: read this interview.  Here’s a snippet:

Julian: Evangelical Anglicans are widely reported as saying there shouldn’t be gay clergy. What does that mean for you?

Vaughan: The press is often very misleading here. There is no objection to people being church leaders because of a homosexual orientation. The focus of the argument is over teaching and practice. Evangelicals say that clergy should uphold the Bible’s teaching that sex is only for heterosexual marriage in teaching and lifestyle, both of which I do.

Julian: You might not be meaning to say anything fundamental about your identity by acknowledging that homosexuality is a personal issue for you, but there are many who will hear you in that way and are likely to label you accordingly. Would it not have been better to have kept silent?

Vaughan: I have been very grateful for the friendship and wisdom of my Advisory Group (Peter Comont, Jonathan Lamb, Will Stileman and Pete Wilkinson), who keep me accountable and provide much needed counsel. They, along with close family and friends, have known for a considerable time that I experience same-sex attraction. We have thought through these issues together and, although the words in the preface are very low key, I didn’t take the decision to write them lightly.

In fact, I included some personal references when I first wrote the chapter on homosexuality six years ago, but I removed them before it was published because we were all conscious of the potential dangers of unhelpful labelling and of the pressure for me to engage increasingly in a single issue ministry — something I’m very keen to avoid. I felt it right to include the new preface, however, with their support, because of an increasing conviction that there does need to be more openness in this area among evangelical Christians, given the rapidly changing culture we live in — and the resulting increased pressure on believers who face this battle…….

Julian: What advice would you give to those who have not felt able to share their experience of same-sex attraction with other Christians?

Vaughan: I would strongly urge them to take a first step and think of at least one mature believer they could trust and be open with. We haven’t been called to live as isolated Christians, but rather as members of God’s family in local churches. Churches are imperfect, just as we all are as individuals, but they are the context in which God means us to grow together as disciples. Many of us have found that honesty about our struggles with trusted brothers and sisters has not only been an encouragement to us, but has also made it easier for others to open up to us about their own battles. Parachurch organisations can also be a useful resource. The True Freedom Trust (http://www.truefreedomtrust.co.uk), for example, has been a great help to many.

I’m glad Vaughan chose NOT to take this particular struggle out of his book since the title of the book IS Battles Christians Face. Christians do face this battle. To admit such a struggle takes serious some serious spiritual cojones (I know that’s crass but “gusto” just doesn’t do this act justice). It takes some serious belief in the gospel. Remember, you can confess and admit struggles if you believe that you are ALREADY clothed in the righteousness of Christ. You can admit your struggle with depression, same-sex attraction, pornography, eating disorders, or whatever other struggles are taboo for church folks.

Thankful for the gospel centric honesty from Vaughan. Probably a fantastic pastor.

Magic Mike, 50 Shades, and actually asking real questions

Perhaps a week or so ago, I came across an intriguing (the Jesuits taught us never to use the word “interesting,” but never suggested any alternatives!) article reflecting on the general issue of “Mommy Porn” in its specific expression through Magic Mike and 50 Shades of Grey
I commend the article to you, as a thoughtful and gracious resource to help women (though I think its helpful for men too) wrestle with in applying the gospel. Since God’s grace teaches us to say no to ungodliness (Titus 2:11-12), then we should not be surprised that the gospel, which gives real freedom, enables us to say no to certain books or movies. I was reading in Thessalonians 4 today and reminded him of God’s call to purity and abstaining from sexual immorality. Paul even reminds this group that “Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.”
It is no undocumented struggle that many men in the church struggle with pornography addictions. But to limit the struggle only to men looking at naked women is looking more and more foolish. Guys and gals don’t have to be naked in order to be objects of lust. For instance, one could look at a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue and not technically be looking at pornography. But the goal of looking lustfully on another woman not your wife is what is happening. 
When I was a youth director, I walked in the pastor’s office on two young gals looking at “hot guys” on the computer. They were fully clothed (both the gals and the “hot guys” that is). But what was the point? I can’t speak to what was going on in their heart, but I can speak to the tendencies of the human heart. I can ask the question, and I think I did-its been 12 years or so-how is that different than me looking at “hot babes” on-line? Whether an object of lust is wearing skinny jeans, jean shorts, no shorts, tankini, bikini, or no kini, the real issue is not what he/she is wearing but the heart of the observer.
Below are some of real questions that I think are overlooked in what we should/shouldn’t watch or how, or how much we should watch what we watch.
  • Are you going to that person/image to simply feel pleasure, meaning, purpose, release from a hard day? How much more so when that object feeds your lustful appetite? That is called an idol, and anyway you slice it-fellas or ladies-that is not good, because that is not God.
  •  “Why am I watching this?” Is it to look at “hot guys” and drool over them? Is it to be sexually stimulated by someone other than your spouse? I don’t see Jesus being OK with that. Do we really need a bible verse here?
If you can say that you are reading books, going to websites, staring at guys and girls and NOT doing so for sexual arousal and/or intimacy you should be getting from a relationship with Christ, your spouse, your church community, you may be OK (doesn’t mean it is wise though).
Clothes, no clothes (as in Magic Mike) are not the issue. The issue is you and what God’s will for you is: your sanctification (I Thess 4:3)
Now to apply the gospel, we have to get specific, don’t we? That always opens you up to the charge of being legalistic or pharisaical. But there are times when you need to stand up and say, “These are the issues, and to partake in such a movie/book/activity is nearly impossible to live consistently with the gospel you claim to believe.” I do believe this is such a time and am thankful for this bold young lass’s assessment.
There are also other times when things may not be as clear but the issue is still the same: why are you watching it, and does watching it move you to sin? This is a slightly different scenario where you can’t tell so and so not to watch something (pharisaical), but for you to watch something it would be sin (personal conviction).
For instance, I intentionally didn’t watch a popular show because of a certain lead actress (she just happens to be from WV). My friends could watch the same show and be OK, but I couldn’t. So I didn’t. I don’t say this as a pat on the back, but simply to show the fact that the problem is sometimes in the viewer.

Here’s a more recent example. I recently received the “Body Issue” of ESPN the magazine. I did open it up and saw a naked Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski holding a football over his ______. I almost vomited. But the pictures of women would have put quite different thoughts into my head. Amy suggested I throw it away and how could I not agree? You don’t have to throw away your “Body Issue,” but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to pose the question.

The scariest thing to me in the church as a whole right now is our relaxed sexual ethic. I’m not talking about being able to talk about sex, struggle through issues on premarital sex, bad sex, same sex attraction, etc…I’m talking about the fact that we have limboed our sexual standards so low that it seems we are competing with non-Christians. 
I wonder how often Christians actually ask the question: should I watch this (as opposed to “can” I watch this)? I’m more concerned about the question then the answers. If people honestly asked such questions, and allowed the gospel to shed light on the issues, we would be in a lot better shape. Challenging people to really ask the hard and heart questions will keep Christians moving toward holiness and away from both licentiousness and legalism.

Young Adults, Sex with "strings," and later marriage: Part II

This is another response to the article from my last post on Christian young adults not connecting sex with marriage, and living no differently than their non-Christian peers. 
The article, as previously mentioned, close with some questions: 
So what should a Christian parent or youth pastor do? How do they convince more young Christians to wait until marriage, or should they stop even trying?
First of all I do like these questions. I especially like the order of parents, and then youth pastors. I look back on my youth ministry days (and I’m still obviously involved in it now), and it does seem that one of the common denominators with those youth who walk with Jesus when they are young adults (and I’ve seen PLENTY who aren’t walking with Jesus now), is that they had Christians parents investing in them. They didn’t “farm” out the discipleship to the youth pastor. Instead they partnered together as a team.
And in this case, I think parents have a great opportunity to help shape a biblical sexuality. More than they think. So talking with kids about sex and sexuality is a good thing. A thing that shouldn’t be abdicated. Even the parents on the show Parenthood try do it, even though the daughter is reticent.
Pastors and other leaders in the church have a part to play as well. Last year we went through a book in a series of Little Black Books called Sex. It was well written, “down with the times,” Reformed, and helpful to produce some discussion in our 9th-12th graders. I think parents could go through such a book as well. It’s important that neither the church nor the parents run away from this issue. Silence and assumption don’t produce mature disciples. Neither does giving youth and young adults “Nike” messages: JUST DO IT! Jesus, and our laboring relentlessly with His energy produces mature disciples (Col 1:28-29). Particularly in this area.
Should we try to convince young adults to wait or stop trying? I think its a fair question to ask. Some things youth do are not necessarily sinful. Instead those things aren’t helpful. Texting 24-7 might be one of those things. But instead of saying NO, we might try to redirect, or instruct, or limit, or whatever you as a parent feel convicted. It does have an affect on their relationships, but its not something that we necessarily need to draw a line in the sand over.
But sex outside marriage is clearly outside God’s design. So we should make a go at “convincing,” them to wait. Here are some thoughts.
1.) If the marrying age is increasing now, then should it be that much of a stretch to think that the “acceptable” dating age should probably also increase? Again, dating ages are ultimately parents decisions. But instead of taking cues from culture, why not consider delaying dating since marriage is being delayed? Many folks, even those in their church, date vicariously though their kids. Obviously parents have to nip this in the bud. If that’s the case, then I think the goal of delaying dating a bit, is certainly feasible.
2.) Earlier marriage? Some have made a move towards getting married younger so that they don’t “burn with passion” (I Cor 7). I guess the jury is still out on whether or not these marriages will really make it. Paul said it was better to marry than burn with passion, but I’m not sure that he was trying to nudge us to necessarily marry early. I wouldn’t want to have put Amy through my prolonged serious depression years (she still got to experience some-she’s a real trooper), so age 26 seemed to be good for us. However, if couples are ready to actually leave and cleave, then go for it. But on the flip side, while it is better to marry then burn with passion, it is worse to marry and then divorce.
3.) Is later marriage a good thing? While it benefited us to marry at 26 (almost 27), I think our general delaying of marriage as a culture does fuel the pre-marital sex epidemic. Getting married in college, or before, may not be ideal. But waiting until everyone is financially independent, and then waiting to have kids once you are financially ready, is a recipe for disaster. Watch the movie Idiocracy for a possible result to that!
 
4.) Pre-marital sex does leave scars that you will deal with in your marriage. People will compare experiences. People will bring past physical and emotional experiences into their marriage beds. Youth need to learn this stuff NOW if they will escape this alarming trend when they are young adults. There are consequences to pre-marital sex which go far beyond STD’s that will bring harm into your marriage. Christ’s righteousness means that we have a Christ covered slate, not just a blank slate. But Christ’s righteousness does not level all consequences. God’s grace can curb the consequences of sexual infidelity, and redeem sexually broken folks (which is really all of us if you want to be honest), but there is reason why He says “Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live…(Deut 30:19).” Sin is death.
5.) Church is a place of sexual brokenness. If you mess up sexually, even though you may experience consequences, you can experience grace. If the church expresses grace to sexually active Christians, then there is hope for change. If sexually active young adults don’t feel the church is a place for those struggling sexually, then they won’t be showing up on Sunday. And then there will be no hope for them. They need to hear Jesus preached and applied each week and surround themselves with fellowship. Even if young folks are not broken by their sin, if they are connected to the means of grace (word, prayer, fellowship, sacraments), brokenness is possible. But if they sense a “if you screw up, you’re out,” then those will be the last words we hear.
6.) Sexual infidelity is not THE sin. It’s bad. It’s highlighted here as being a sin against our body (I Cor 6:18). Yet just before it is also counted among swindling, idolatry, greed, drunkenness, and stealing as precluding Kingdom inheritance (I Cor 6:10). Of course Paul is writing to people who are struggling with these sins. He is telling them that their lives WERE dominated by such slavery. Now they are washed free and waiting. And struggling. So we should be frustrated at the sins of others. But we must not elevate or ignore other sins in ourselves and other folks.
7.) Only grace will produce sexual healing and fidelity. Steve Brown includes a great illustration in his book Scandalous Freedom of Abraham Lincoln redeeming a slave. The slave girls says, “I’m free to leave?” Lincoln tells her, “Yes you are.” In the end, the slave wants to go with Lincoln. Experiencing grace makes you want to follow Jesus. Grace motivates and empowers you to follow God’s commands in all areas of life.

These are just some thoughts which I hope will help us think through, instead of run from, or give up, on this important issue.

Young adults, sex with "strings," and later marriage

Here is a fairly disturbing article explaining that fewer Christians are actually saving sex for marriage. In some cases, it looks like evangelical Christians and those who don’t profess Jesus at all, often have a similar sexual ethic. And it is reminiscent of the Nike command: “Just do it.”

Several reasons are given for the numbers of young adults engaging in pre-marital sex nowadays. From the “everyone else is doing it,” to the oversexualized culture we live in. However the article concludes with one major reason.

Scot McKnight, author of “The Jesus Creed,” and “One.Faith: Jesus Calls, We Follow,” acknowledges that young, single Christians face temptations that their counterparts in the biblical age didn’t face. He  tells Relevant: Sociologically speaking, the one big difference – and it’s monstrous – between the biblical teaching and our culture is the arranged marriages of very young people. If you get married when you’re 13, you don’t have 15 years of temptation.

Is that point relevant? Does it matter that the scriptures were given to a culture when in actuality, it wasn’t AS hard to follow? I mean, I can remember being a 13 year old, and I can’t say that my temptation for pre-marital sex was even on my top 5 sins radar list. I’d have rather gone fishing than have a girlfriend. At 16, I actually had a girlfriend, but still, I can’t say that it was as hard as when I was 25 years old.

So how should we think of the now increasing marrying age discrepancy?

We need definitely don’t need a simple answer if we’re going to apply the gospel to a very serious, and hard problem. So here are some of my thoughts.

First of all, Jesus actually raises the bar when it comes to sexual fidelity. He says that if we look lustfully upon a lad or lass, that we are actually committing adultery in the heart. His standards are incredibly high. Even lusting is off limits. Wow.

As a result we need Jesus more than we think we do. Fortunately Jesus didn’t remove himself from female company, yet he walked without lusting among them-even though, he was fully human. He would have done the same for our culture today where women shower, shave, and smell better, and tend to dress a little more, shall we say, “progressively.” He did this for us, and now he empowers us to live as citizens of heaven while here on Earth. While the culture says, “Just do it” in relation to sex; the church can’t say, (and its primarily those who are married saying it-which sometimes makes it harder to hear) “Just do it,” in relation to remaining faithful until marriage.
In order to be faithful to the scriptures AND gracious with those dealing with this struggle, we do need to lay all cards on the table and be honest with some new difficulties present in our world.

The article ends with a few questions and no answers.

So what should a Christian parent or youth pastor do? How do they convince more young Christians to wait until marriage, or should they stop even trying?

Let me simply continue the discussion-not attempting to “solve” the problem (that won’t happen till Jesus returns) but try to honestly reflect on this difficult trend.

Honesty with the difficulty, without being quixotic

People do get married later these days. It is true. Therefore that can present some problems. Obviously. I think we need to recognize and be honest that the struggle is going to be hard. Will it be harder than in previous times? I think in some ways, yes. Simple math tells us that. 13-15 is different than 26.

Nevertheless, if you say, “well people got married earlier then,” it doesn’t change the situation. Sex did not ever come with “no strings attached” but within the confines of the committed covenantal relationship. No matter what age it is regularly experienced, sex always comes with “strings.” For Christians, those “strings” are called a covenant.

But do 13-15 year olds really want to get married? Are they ready for jobs, to be responsible for family? They can’t even drive yet. We can lament the age difference, but even with hormones raging, do guys and gals really want to get married in their teens? 

Still, you can argue the command to wait until marriage may in some ways be more difficult today, but that doesn’t nullify the command-or the reason for the command. And, some commands were probably harder then than they are now. Whether you like Obama or not, he’s a lot easier to honor than Nero, or Trajan, or any other awful emperor that Romans 13 refers to.

There wasn’t some golden age to live in, where sexuality was something easy to live out. It certainly wasn’t that way with the bible. We need to recognize that it may be harder in some ways to live chastely before marriage now, but in some ways it could have been just as hard then.

Is our Culture worse?

The culture of Jesus’ times was no less sexualized than today. I’ve seen the artwork on pottery when on foreign study in Italy; it’s literally pornographic. I saw a mural in Pompeii where a lad was weighing his oversized penis. Seriously. Sex was all around them, just as it is all around us.

Biblical commands have always been counter-cultural. They continue to be today. We still have to affirm God’s good design for sexuality. And we still have to affirm God’s sufficient grace for our forgiveness (when we fail or have failed) and for our sanctification. I’ll try to get to some more thoughts on the latter later.