Last week I wrote a short post on the subject of homosexuality, and included a link to my sermon on the topic. An issue came up in the comments that I feel merits its own post: Is it possible for a person who self-identifies as homosexual to change not only his behavior, but also his desires?
The idea that sexual desires can be controlled or even redirected and transformed is an extremely unpopular one. In fact, one Christian counselor in the U.K. recently lost her accreditation when she was fooled by a journalist into believing that he was a Christian who wanted help overcoming homosexuality. After she accommodated his request, he reported her to the British Association for Counseling and Psychotherapy, at which point she was stripped of her senior accreditation.
I think the question of whether homosexual men and women can change their desires is at once too broad and too narrow.
It's too broad because I wouldn't even expect most non-Christians to want any sort of change in their sexual desires of practices. Yes, some seek change because of the external consequences of their sin, but I wouldn't expect them to seek the same sort of spiritual transformation sought by Christians. For that reason, I don't think it's the Christian's job to go out into the world and eradicate homosexuality. The Christian's work is primarily to present the Gospel and to lead people toward the Savior who can forgive all sin and provide true change and renewed life.
So when my sermon discussed the possibility of change for those struggling with homosexuality, it was indeed an inside discussion of sorts. I was speaking to a group of Christian college students. Time and time again, I'm approached by Christian college students seeking to view their sexuality from a biblical perspective, and many of them really want to overcome homosexuality. Dealing with sexual sin is one aspect of a person's walk with Christ. I know that it's not the sum total of a person's relationship with Jesus, and I've never claimed that it is. In fact, my primary advice to those struggling with sexual sin is to draw nearer to Jesus and to allow His Spirit to convict and to change behavior.
The question of change (as phrased above) is also too broad because it assumes that homosexual sin is somehow different from any other sexual sin. There's a deep irony here. Those who insist that Christians shouldn't be exhorted to overcome homosexuality often say, "It's no different from any other sin, so it shouldn't be singled out." But out of the other side of their mouth they insist that homosexuality cannot be overcome because it's such a strong desire and so tied up with a person's identity. You simply can't have it both ways. Either homosexuality is on par with other sexual sins -- in which case one's desires can be controlled and yes, even changed -- or it's the worst and toughest possible struggle, one that simply cannot be overcome. Both can't be true at the same time.
Romans 12:1-2 and 2 Corinthians 3:18, among many other passages, talk about the possibility of true mental and spiritual transformation for the Christian. In fact, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 specifically mentions that some of the believers Paul was addressing were homosexuals, but that changed when they came to know Him and to walk with Him.
"But the statistics simply don't bear out that homosexuals can change." I was an engineering major in college, so I know just enough about statistics to give my opinion. They measure probabilities and correlations, not possibilities. I would expect the statistics to tell me that homosexuality (and other sexual sins, for that matter) are incredibly difficult to overcome. That's because we're talking about supernatural transformation, not about what's possible in the normal course of affairs through a stern talking-to and a skilled psychologist.
The other deep irony here is that those who insist that homosexual sin cannot be overcome will point to the statistics but will completely disregard the testimonies of men and women who have experienced victory in this area of their lives. Such people are generally dismissed -- "Well, that person wasn't a real homosexual or he wouldn't have really changed." That's not exactly scientific reasoning, friends. It's insulting to those who are telling us that God has truly changed their lives.
So what am I saying, in a nutshell? I absolutely agree that changing one's sexual desires is not possible apart from a supernatural transformation of the Holy Spirit. Changing external behavior, perhaps, but not internal desires and orientations. However, as a Christian pastor, I simply can't acquiesce and say that one's desires cannot change. If that were true, discipleship would have little purpose. The ultimate point of discipleship is that a person is transformed, inside and out, to reflect the character of Jesus. That means I'll learn to desire prayer, something I don't naturally desire. It means I'll learn to desire love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I don't naturally desire those things, but through the Spirit's power my mind and heart can be retrained. Is that an easy or quick process? Of course not. But it is possible because we serve an all-powerful God.
Again, I'm not suggesting at all that discipleship is pursued first and foremost as sin management. However, in the broader context of discipleship, addressing sexual identity and purity is often necessary. And if I can't offer hope that the Spirit can overcome any sin or struggle, then I can't really offer any hope at all to anybody.
OK, I want to hear your responses. (But please keep them respectful and appropriate. I do welcome disagreement here, but I will delete comments that resort to name-calling, vulgarities, or character assassination.) What do you think about the possibility of true change in the area of sexuality for those who follow Jesus Christ?
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The topic of homosexuality has been in the news quite a lot lately. First, a national anti-bullying expert was accused of being a bit of bully himself when he deliberately offended a group of Christian students and called them names. In the context of his talk, he ridiculed the Bible's statements about homosexuality, pointing out that the Bible also prohibits things like eating shellfish and commands the death penalty for premarital sex.
Second, of course, we've seen a very public debate on the issue of gay marriage, since President Obama publicly expressed his support for it.
One of the questions that frequently comes up when talking about homosexuality, with both Christians and non-Christians, is, "What about all of the commands in the Bible that we simply ignore?" Dan Savage, the anti-bullying expert mentioned above, brought up the issue of eating shrimp, which is clearly prohibited in Leviticus 11:9-12. Others have mentioned the command to keep the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8; 35:2) -- many people, Christians included, ignore that law without consequence.
If we ignore all of these other laws, then why insist upon the prohibition against homosexuality? Good question. There are seemingly innumerable questions about how homosexuality relates to a Christian worldview.
I've spent some time thinking about a blog post on this topic, but ultimately decided that the topic itself is too large to fit into such a small format. For that reason, I'm going to direct you to a sermon I gave on the topic about two years ago. The sermon answers some of these questions:
- Does the Bible really prohibit homosexuality? If so, why?
- Are the commands against homosexuality equivalent to those about eating shellfish or wearing clothes of different types of thread?
- Is homosexuality somehow worse than other sins? Are groups like Westboro Baptist Church justified in focusing almost exclusively on this issue?
- Is homosexuality a choice? (And is there a distinction between homosexual attraction, identity, and behavior)?
- If you are a Christian who struggles personally with homosexuality, what should you do?
- If you are a Christian who doesn't struggle with homosexuality, but who wants to love and care for your friends and relatives who do, what are the best ways to help and encourage them?
Obviously this sermon doesn't address all of these questions comprehensively, but it's a start. It's about 40 minutes long, but I hope you'll take the time to listen and consider it. You might disagree with some of my conclusions, and if so feel free to let me know in the comments. I'd love to dialogue with my readers on this topic, and figured this would be a good way to start the conversation.
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I'm reading a fascinating book called Souls in Transition by Christian Smith. The book is filled with research about the religious lives of young adults, particularly as they transition from high school to college and the young adult years.
Smith divides the religious affiliations of young adults into several categories: Jewish, Catholic, Mainline Protestant (e.g. Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian), Conservative Protestant (e.g. Bible church, fundamentalist or Southern Baptist, independent Evangelical), LDS (i.e. Mormon), and others. Most of my readers would probably identify themselves as Conservative Protestants.
Here are a few statistics about conservative Protestant young adults (and a few others) as they make the transition out of high school:
- 28% of conservative Protestants aged 18-23 attend church services once a week, compared with 59% of conservative Protestant teenagers (ages 13-17). That's a drop of 31% between high school and young adulthood.
- Only 10% of conservative Protestant young adults read the Bible daily. 31% never read the Bible alone.
- 57% of conservative Protestant young adults view their faith as "very or extremely important" in their daily lives. That's down from 70% of those aged 13-17.
- The most religiously devoted group of young adults are those in the LDS church (based on frequency of church attendance, daily prayer, evangelism, frequency of reading Scripture, and other religious practices).
Thoughts? Do these numbers seem to stack up to reality? Why do you think there is a decline in religious participation among young evangelical adults?
When I began college, I honestly didn't know the difference between a Calvinist and an Arminian. Or an Armenian, for that matter. I did have a fairly good grasp of basic biblical content, since I grew up in a Bible church and had read the Bible a couple of times. What I had not done up to that point was make any attempt to understand theological categories or positions.
Strangely, though, I'm finding that today's college student seems to have the opposite problem. Many students have settled on their theological positions, but they have not read or studied the biblical text. They simply know that they are Calvinists or dispensationalists or Arminians, but can't defend their positions from the Scripture itself.
I suspect that a couple of factors contribute to this phenomenon. First, reading the Bible takes time and concentration. Studying it requires even more of both. Few of us really take the time to read a Grisham novel these days, much less a book as difficult and lengthy as the Bible. Second, there are so many sermon podcasts, short theological books, and blogs available that we have the illusion that deep understanding can be gained quickly and easily. It can't. You can create the appearance of wisdom by mimicking the words of others, but true wisdom requires humility and years of prayer and hard work to acquire. I'm not suggesting that we tune out every theologian or teacher and simply read the Bible in isolation. Instead, I'm suggesting that we listen closely to our teachers and leaders while constantly holding up their words to the light of The Word.
The good news is that the secret of wisdom and theological understanding is not really a secret at all. Pray for it (James 1:5). Read God's Word repeatedly and carefully (Psalm 19:7). Listen to wise people and hear what they have to say (Proverbs 4). God promises wisdom (which includes theological understanding) to the person who seeks it diligently.
Of course the bad news is that, although the path to wisdom is simple, it's far from easy. You can't be a skilled theologian by patching together soundbites from your favorite authors or preachers. You can't do it through simply adopting the theological positions of your peer group. It requires two things: The grace of God and the dedication to learn what He wants to teach us.
So here's a challenge for you: For every 30 minutes that you spend listening to a podcast or reading a blog, spend another hour reading and studying the Bible. Write down your observations and the questions you can't answer. Seek out godly people to help you understand the Scripture better -- people you actually know in real life. Long before you construct a theological system (or adopt somebody else's), make sure you know the content of the Bible. Resign yourself to the fact that wisdom and understanding take time and effort. According to God's Word, though, the reward is more than worth the effort it costs to attain it (Proverbs 16:16).
If you are interested in any resources to help you understand God's Word better, look at the free Bible studies on Grace's website: http://www.grace-bible.org/downloads/BibleStudies.aspx.
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Most Christians rightly condemn the gospel of prosperity, taught by many prominent preachers these days. Nobody who reads the New Testament carefully can seriously believe that Christians will avoid poverty and suffering simply through positive thinking or persistent prayer or faithful giving.
In response to the prosperity gospel (and perhaps in response to the generally materialistic culture in which we live), some have suggested that all Christians should live in poverty. Most who argue for this position lean heavily on passages like Mark 10:17-27, in which Jesus commands a rich young man to sell all of his possessions and give them to the poor. In the same context, He talks about how difficult it is for the rich to enter God's kingdom. The natural conclusion, then, is that it's better from a spiritual standpoint to be rich than poor -- so we should all give everything away, right?
Not so fast. I don't think Jesus is insisting that entrance into his kingdom requires a person to give up his possessions, at least not in every case. Here are a few reasons why we need to think a bit more carefully about what the New Testament tells us about money:
1. The early church didn't apply Mark 10 literally in every case. There are definitely instances in which believers sold their possessions and gave them to the poor (Acts 2:45; 4:34-35). However, there were other instances in which people held onto their possessions and used them for the ministry of the church. For example, there were wealthy women who financially supported Jesus from their own private means (Luke 8:1-3). Philemon appears to have maintained possession of his own house, one that was large enough to host the local church (Philemon 2). The same was true of Priscilla and Aquila, as well (Romans 16:5).
2. Jesus and the apostles focused on one's attitude toward wealth much more than one's actual net worth. Many have pointed out that 1 Timothy 6:10 doesn't condemn money; it condemns the love of money. This appears to be the issue surrounding Jesus's conversation with the rich young rule in Mark 10. The man asks Jesus how he can have eternal life, and Jesus reminds him of the Ten Commandments. The man insists that he's kept them all from a young age. Jesus then adds one requirement: sell everything and give it to the poor.
But if giving away everything is a universal requirement for salvation, why doesn't Jesus answer everybody who seeks eternal life in the same way? For example, the lawyer in Luke 10 (who also asks how he can have eternal life) isn't told to sell everything -- he's told to take care of his neighbor. Throughout the book of John, Jesus repeatedly states that belief in Him is all that is necessary for eternal life -- not giving away all of your money and stuff.
Jesus isn't telling the rich young ruler that giving away his wealth is a means of meriting salvation. That's not only an incorrect interpretation, it's heresy. Instead, Jesus is pinpointing the problem with the man's heart -- he values the kingdom of earth (and the money required to buy it) more than he values the kingdom of heaven. When given a choice between entering Jesus's kingdom or staying at home and enjoying His money, the man chooses the money. Jesus exposes the man's greed for what it really was: unbelief. The rich young ruler didn't believe that what Jesus was offering (i.e. eternal life) was better than what he already had. And that's what makes it hard for rich people to enter the kingdom of heaven -- it's not that wealth is inherently evil. It's that wealth can blind us to our own need for something much better than what we possess. But Jesus says it is possible for a wealthy person to overcome that unbelief and to enter the kingdom through faith in Him. It just takes a miracle. And by the way, God happens to be in the miracle business.
3. I don't think voluntary poverty is a genuine possibility. Voluntary simplicity, yes. I can give away my possessions and live very simply, but I can never completely identify with the desperately poor. Why not? Because my "poverty" will always be a lifestyle choice rather than a necessity. True poverty isn't choosing to wear sandals from Target instead of Guccis. It's not deciding to eat spaghetti rather than caviar. True poverty is an economic condition in which a person struggles desperately to simply have enough. It's not something you can just choose to jump in and out of at will. The truly poor don't wear inexpensive clothes to alleviate their guilt or because it's fashionable. They do so because they have no other options.
That's not to say that voluntary simplicity is a bad thing -- in fact, we should live simple lives in order to allocate our resources to the work of God's kingdom. But we shouldn't ever mistake our simplicity for true poverty and decide that we're morally superior to somebody who chooses to drive a nicer car. At best, that sort of attitude is naive. At worst, it's disingenuous and insulting to the truly poor among us. Often we serve the poor better by admitting that we are wealthy, and using our wealth to alleviate the hardship of others. There are times when giving everything away would be counterproductive to that purpose.
So how should Christians think about money in general? Books have been written on the subject, but here's the answer in a nutshell: We should think of money as a resource that God provides so that we can do His work on earth. We use it to buy the things we need in order to stay alive and energetic enough to serve Him. We use it to give to the spread of the Gospel around the world. We use it to increase the economic possibilities of those around us, so that we can show others that God's kingdom won't include poverty. Money is a tool, just like our time or our bodies or our talents, that God intends us to use for His glory.
How do you maintain a healthy, biblical attitude toward your money? Do you consistently view it as a resource provided by God to further His purposes in the world?
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Here in College Station we're finishing up the school year and beginning the Summer schedule. That means fewer students, fewer activities, planning for next year, and a bit of time for rest and refreshment for the staff.
I'm going to be away from the office a bit, and I'll also be engaged in preparation for the upcoming year.
So...I'm going to be scaling back on my blogging to about once a week, maybe twice a week, until the Fall semester. I look forward to continuing to dialogue with you through this blog, just not quite as many times each week. My hope is to pick up a more frequent schedule again when the new semester hits.