A few days ago I ran across an article discussing how some evangelicals are beginning to question the ways in which we talk about sexual purity in the church. For some, the problem is that Christianity insists on any sexual boundaries at all.
For others, though, the issue is methodology. Do our youth conferences and purity pledges send the message that virgins are inherently better than those with sexual experience? Isn't it demeaning and unkind to tell people that a "piece of their heart" is ripped out every time they have sex? When we talk about the "irreversible damage" caused by premarital sex, are we denying or undermining the grace of God and His ability to heal past wounds?
As an evangelical, of course, I disagree with those who think we ought to drop the biblical standards of sexual purity. The Scripture is clear that marriage is the only acceptable context for sexual activity. For the sake of Christian singles, then, we have an obligation to talk about chastity, especially when we live in such a sexually charged cultural context.
I do think, however, that we need to be cautious in the way we talk about sex in Christian circles. Let me suggest a few principles to guide us as we approach the issue of sexuality in the context of Christian instruction:
1. Sexual purity, while important, is only one aspect of Christian character. It troubles me that non-Christians often identify Christians primarily with our views regarding sexuality. Don't get me wrong -- I talk about biblical sexuality on a regular basis with my own children and with the college students at my church. However, I don't define a mature disciple solely as somebody who abstains from premarital sex or pornography. I know people who are sexually pure, but they demonstrate immaturity in many other areas -- they are prideful, unkind, greedy, or selfish. On the other hand, I know mature Christians who still struggle mightily with sexual purity. When we communicate to singles that premarital sex is the worst offense we can commit against God, we're doing them a disservice. Why? Because Christian discipleship is the process of being conformed to the character of Jesus in every way. Jesus was sexually pure, but the Bible mostly talks about His love, grace, truthfulness, and wisdom. Let's begin discussing sexual purity in the broader context of what it means to imitate Jesus Christ, rather than as a set of legalistic commands.
2. Sexual purity is not binary. In other words, the pursuit of sexual purity is not simply a matter of whether you have or haven't crossed The Big Line. Often "purity talks" consist of 59 minutes of shame, concluded by a 1 minute statement about God's forgiveness. I think we inadvertently leave singles with the impression that 99% of those in the room are totally pure, while the dirty 1% really need forgiveness. In reality, the pure 99% is a myth. All of us are impure. Whether we've crossed The Big Line or merely fantasized about it, we all need God's forgiveness. Purity is a lifelong pursuit, not one that ends on our wedding day, or even on the day we make The Big Mistake. (I've known students who have reacted to this binary mode of thinking in some interesting ways. Some of them cross every line short of The Big Line, but proclaim themselves to be "technically pure." Wouldn't it be better to talk about purity as a matter of one's heart and mind and spirit, rather than simply a matter of one's body?).
3. Large scale instruction is efficient, but not always effective. There is a place for youth conferences and huge events centered around the topic of sexual purity. However, I think it's often best to approach the issue in smaller and more personalized settings. The best way for young people to learn about biblical sexuality, of course, is through their Christian parents. Many students, though, come from non-Christian homes, or they have parents who dump the task of discipleship onto youth pastors and church leaders. So I think those of us who minister to young people need to prepared to teach on this topic. We need to provide instruction about sexuality in the context of a pastoral relationship. Here's what I mean: Josh McDowell may be a more dynamic speaker than I am, but he doesn't personally know the students in my group. If I take my students to a large conference, I need to be prepared to follow up in a more personal setting.
4. Junior high is too late to begin the discussion. Critics of the "purity pledge" concept like to point out that only a small percentage of those who sign purity pledges actually honor them. One problem is that by junior high or high school, most students have already decided whether to commit to sexual purity or not. I heard a Christian counselor state that most young people have formed their basic views about sexuality by the time they're around eight or nine years old. They have basic belief systems about their bodies, their own significance, and their relationship to God. Those belief systems form the basis of their sexual decision-making processes for years to come. Am I suggesting that children's pastors need to start hosting sexuality seminars for third graders? For the record, I'm not. I am suggesting, however, that pastors ought to equip parents to talk about these issues with their kids, well before junior high. By that age, all we can really do is reinforce the concepts that are already implanted, and perhaps challenge those with unbiblical views to reconsider them.
This is such an important topic, because the stakes are high and most people struggle with purity. I'd love your input: How can pastors and Christian parents approach this topic in a way that is practical, gracious, and Spirit-directed?
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Nearly every week, I'm contacted by young men looking for freedom from pornography. Based upon my own ministry experience and my discussions with other college pastors, I would guess that the majority of college-aged men -- and a good number of the women-- struggle with porn to one degree or another. Pornography has become an epidemic, both in the world and in the church.
Because pornography is such a devastating spiritual cancer, I've noticed that nearly every men's event, retreat, book, or seminar includes some discussion of the issue. We pull all the men together and start talking about knowing Christ, but the conversation quickly turns into a discussion of how to defeat lust. We provide practical tips, suggest accountability groups, and even tell people to destroy their wireless network adapters. We hand out books on the topic and direct men to online resources geared toward defeating pornography.
I'm grateful that the Church has brought this issue into the light. Sin can't thrive well in the dark. For many people, discussing it openly is the first step toward lasting change.
However, I'm also concerned that overemphasizing the problem of pornography has unintended spiritual consequences. When we begin to believe that successful spirituality consists of overcoming a particular benchmark sin, we run the risk of falling into legalism. We start to view sin management as the primary goal of the spiritual life, when in fact the primary goal is to know and represent Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:7-11). This means that victory over sin has to flow out of my relationship with Jesus, and not the other way around.
Simply giving up our bad habits, while admirable, will never develop us into mature disciples of Jesus Christ. Tips and suggestions for overcoming pornography aren't bad. They're simply insufficient. Although I do refer young men to books and online resources, I've started emphasizing a more holistic approach when addressing the challenges of lust. It can be tough to approach the subject this way, because it's not always simple or clean: I can't provide a magical ten-step solution to defeating porn.
On the other hand, much of what I want to emphasize is stunningly simple, because it's a back-to-the-basics approach to discipleship. Here are a few of the questions I ask when somebody is struggling with pornography:
- Tell me about your daily relationship with Christ. Are you spending time in the Scripture? Do you pray?
- Are you actively connected to the body of Christ through a local church? Are you isolated from other believers?
- What situations and feelings seem to bring your struggle with lust to the forefront of your mind? In other words, are there certain "triggers" that you can learn to manage with the Spirit's assistance? (Interestingly, most people have never paused to consider the emotional, situational, and psychological patterns that contribute to sin struggles.)
- Do you eat a lot of junk food? Do you exercise? Do you manage your discretionary time well, or do you waste it? (Often a lack of discipline in one area of life spills over into other areas).
- What thoughts and images do you allow your mind to dwell upon during the day? Are they pleasing to God or prone to invite temptation later in the day (Phil 4:8)?
That's just a short list, but you can see that these questions require thoughtful answers. Although it might be necessary to tear out one's wireless adapter, it's not going to address the issues at the heart of a person's struggle with lust. Although accountability and confession are critical parts of the maturity process, they won't produce lasting change if they are merely used as a way of easing one's temporary guilt over sin. Sin that is deeply rooted in the heart cannot be destroyed through external behavioral change. In addressing sin, we must begin to dig deeper, even though it's inefficient and time-consuming.
What I'm arguing, in a nutshell, is that true change only takes place when we draw closer and closer to Jesus. We do so in the power of the Holy Spirit, who can transform us into His image. It's usually not an easy or quick process. There are no shortcuts or sure-fire methods to overcoming pornography or any other sin. There is, however, the promise of maturity for those who will steadily and patiently submit themselves to God and allow Him to perform the slow and often painful work of transformation (Hebrews 6:1-2).
I'd like to hear your thoughts. Do you think the way the Church handles the issue of pornography is healthy? What do you think about the holistic approach I'm recommending?
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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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I've been a college pastor for eight years now, so I've seen several generations of students come and go. One of the most intriguing aspects of college ministry is watching the process of discipleship happen in a compressed time frame. While an adult might leave a legacy at his church over the course of several decades, a student only has four or five years, at most, to make a mark.
I've learned, though, that most of us have more influence on others than we think we do. Even though they're only around for a few years, many students impact the feeling and direction of our ministry for years to come. Students who lead with integrity and faithfulness often leave behind an army of like-minded student leaders. On the other hand, students who are immature, lazy, or unkind can create a toxic environment that takes a long time to overcome.
Most of us don't think we have very much influence. We've been conditioned to believe that the real influencers in our culture are celebrities, business moguls, and politicians. Those people certainly have an influence, but to be honest it's more of a wide-spectrum influence than a deep one. Think about the people who have really changed your life, and chances are they aren't famous. They're ordinary people: your parents, close friends, teachers, pastors, boyfriends/girlfriends, and roommates.
When Paul told Timothy to teach the truth of Christ to faithful men, who would teach it to faithful men (2 Timothy 2:2), he understood that real cultural change happens one life at a time, as one person influences another, who influences another, and so on. That's the process of discipleship.
Although we tend to think of discipleship in strictly Christian terms, it actually works the opposite direction as well. If I use my influence to hurt others or to insult them or to feed my own ego, I'm going to produce others who act in the same ways. On the other hand, if I use my influence to draw others toward Christ and to share with them His kindness and love, I'm going to leave an entirely different sort of legacy.
So here's a challenge for you this morning: Think about the people you influence. Make a list of your friends, family, classmates, roommates, professors, and anybody else who could be impacted by your words and actions. Then ask yourself, "What sort of legacy am I leaving?" It might be that you need to make some adjustments. Whether you think about it often or not, you are making a difference. The question is simply, "What sort of difference are you making?"
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I'd really love to get input from college students on this one:
Last week I was in a cell phone store looking at options, since my current service contract expires in a week or two. I got into a conversation with the salesman -- a senior in college -- about texting. I do use text messages on a regular basis, but am not considered a heavy user by any means. I probably send 200-400 messages each month.
The salesman mentioned off-handedly that last month he sent 10,000 text messages.
10,000! Assuming a person is awake roughly 16 hours each day, this equals around 20 texts an hour. One every 3 minutes.
When I mentioned this to a friend, he told me a story of a student who recently sent 20,000 texts over the course of a single month.
At the risk of sounding like an old man, what's going on here? Has texting replaced ordinary face-to-face conversation for many students? I know some people are insanely fast with the texts, but it's still hard for me to imagine sustaining any real discussions with people if I'm pausing every 1-3 minutes to send a text. (Not to mention the time I'm on Facebook, Twitter, email, and surfing the web aimlessly).
I'm really not anti-texting -- like I said, I use them relatively frequently and they're a convenient way to send information when a phone call or face-to-face conversation just isn't possible. Texting isn't evil in itself.
However, I do wonder if the high volume of texting has replaced meaningful conversations for many students. If so, I would be concerned for a couple of reasons.
First, spiritual growth and discipleship require time and intentional relationships. It's hard to imagine Jesus effectively training His disciples to walk with God via text messaging ("ILU discs! FRT! Pray hard!") It's tough to imagine the Sermon on the Mount with multiple interruptions -- "Hold on, I need to get this." Discipleship is a slow process that requires real conversations and physical presence.
Second (and this relates to the first issue closely), profound thoughts are not expressed in just a few characters. There are funny texts, informative texts, and even "I love you" texts. But I've never heard anybody say, "That text really got me thinking about my life today." I realize that texts aren't made for the purpose of deep thought -- I just wonder if the proliferation of texting has crowded out other forms of communication. If so, then there simply isn't time and energy leftover for real discussion -- as the phone salesman said to me, "Texting is pretty much how I talk to people."
So here's my question for you guys: Do you find that texting is your primary means of communication with others? If so, do you think that affects your ability to sustain deeper conversations? Why or why not?
As a bonus question of sorts, do you think too much texting contributes to spiritual and relational shallowness?