It so happens that I am drafting this second part en route to speaking about sexuality issues in London. I am looking forward to it, for as I argued in the first part, it is not really possible to speak biblically about sexuality without speaking of the message of Jesus. Here are some remaining thoughts on how we should address the issue of sexuality in 21st century:
3. Address it in the context of discipleship
Most of the times I talk about the issue of sex is in specific meetings and events set apart for that reason. But the New Testament is different. Sexuality issues just come up in the normal realm of discipleship. Take Colossians 3 as an example. Paul commands the believers to put sexual immortality to death at the same time as he talks about lying and slander. That has all sorts of implications.
So- when we talk about the pattern of carrying a cross- that includes dying to the right to have a sexual relationship with whoever I want.
When I talk about enduring through suffering and knowing the Lord’s comfort in the midst of that I will include the suffering of unwanted singleness, a difficult sexuality or a painful marriage.
When I seek to encourage gratitude I will include giving thanks for gifts such as friendship, marriage and sex.
If I am speaking about the real humanity of Jesus and his sympathy as a high priest I will talk about the implications of that for those who are battling with sexual temptation. It is much easier to battle that with a smiling rather than a frowning Jesus.
And I’ll teach the pattern of the Christian life. Where people are struggling with sexual sin we very often respond with practical advice and techniques. But that can fall into the trap of worldly wisdom that is effectively useless according to the end of Colossians 2. We need to point out people’s fundamental identity- hidden with Christ in God! We will instruct people that this needs to be at the forefront of their thinking and emotions as they set their heart and minds on things above. And, then, as they are lifted up to heaven, we will say with Paul that we must put to death whatever belongs to our earthly nature, including sexual sin. You see that is a pathway to victory.
Those who have helped me most in the challenges of living with my sexuality haven’t primarily focused on accountability questions and the like. Instead we have talked temptation, suffering and how Jesus speaks into those. In other words sexuality has been part of discipleship.
4. Aim for causes not symptoms
Can I be blunt? Christians have spent way too much time arguing with non-Christians about sexual morality. The logic of Romans 1 here is important. Human beings have rejected their Creator. As a consequence God has handed us over- effectively to live without His benign influence. In that context same sex desire takes place.
In other words, same sex marriage (and other deviations from a biblical norm) is not the problem itself but rather a symptom of a prior rejection of God. I don’t primarily disagree with a non-Christian about the nature of marriage. I disagree about the nature of the universe. Frankly that’s why I have never spent any time campaigning on the marriage issue in the public arena, even as I argue strongly for the church to remain true to a biblical ethic. The world will only change its mind if you go to the source of the problem- humanity’s rejection of God and need for Jesus.
5. Tell stories
Here is the challenge. The battle between a secular approach to sexuality and an orthodox Christian one is often played out between a brilliantly filmed, emotionally manipulative TV drama with soaring music and a preacher with three propositional truths all beginning with the same letter. Given that it is easy to feel defeated and think it inevitable that a younger generation in particular will depart from a Christian lifestyle.
But I want to say that it is possible to use emotionally engaging ways of teaching a Christian lifestyle. We need to tell stories.
Imagine Neil for a moment. He got married to Anne, a fellow Christian, when he was young and their first year of marriage was very happy. But sadly Anne wasn’t able to have children. This led to her having a deep depression. Neil and Anne’s relationship became more difficult as he increasingly had to care for her. The sexual side to their marriage dried up. Neil’s friends could see how hard it was for him. One or two suggested that he should move on and this became increasingly tempting when a colleague at work showed sympathy and an interest in him- more than Anne had done for years. But he was still going to church- he still knew that Jesus had died for him and so out of dedication to Him, he stayed with Anne. And he kept caring. And he knew he was not alone- the Lord was with him. The time came when he died. Immediately he was there in heaven and he met Jesus, who said to him “I saw what you did. Well done good and faithful servant. Come and enjoy your crown.” And at that moment Neil thought to himself- “I am so glad that I stayed faithful to Anne.”
Or imagine Sarah. During her teenage years, Sarah became a Christian. She was clear in her mind: she wanted to live for Jesus. During the sixth form and her days as a student she was aware that most of her friends were pairing off with guys but she was clear: she would only go out with a Christian. The problem is that there didn’t seem to be many Christian guys around and those she was attracted seemed to go off with others. She started to attend lots of weddings of friends- and she was pleased for them yet there was always a pain there. The same mixture of emotions became even more acute when they started to have children. One tearful night she faced a decision- a non-Christian colleague from work had texted her suggesting they get together. She chose to be faithful to Jesus. She began to open up to her homegroup about how lonely life had become and they apologised for not having noticed and began to include her in family life. She threw herself more into church and, though the pain didn’t disappear fully, she did find a joy in being able to serve others. The time came for her to die. As she arrived in heaven, she realised that everything was laid out for a wedding. And she wasn’t simply a guest this time. She was part of the bride. And suddenly at that moment she realised that all the longings she had for years were about to be fulfilled for ever and ever. And indeed she did live happily ever after.
6. Use broken hearted boldness
I need to be honest- there are times when I have heard Christians and non-Christians argue about sexual ethics and I’ve found myself having much more sympathy with the non-Christian. There are ways of talking stridently about sexuality where a Christian gives the impression that they have never had any personal struggles and can’t really understand why this might be a painful issue for some. Such speakers have ended up discouraging me from living for Jesus.
What is striking is how different this is from Jesus. It is noticeable how tender he is with those who are aware of sexual guilt and brokenness in the Gospel accounts and how quick he is to reassure of the forgiveness of sins. Truly, a bruised reed he won’t break and a smouldering wick he won’t snuff out.
One of the privileges I have in talking on this subject is that I am normally asked to speak because people know I have desires that are broken. It helps me to adopt the right tone. I am somebody with a broken sexuality seeking to encourage others with broken sexualities (which is all of us) to find fulfilment in Jesus and live from there. It is a useful way for all of us to speak.
But alongside a sense of brokenness I also want us to be confident. There is a fundamental choice on offer. A “Me and my desires” centred way to do sexuality and a “God and His glory” centred way to do sexuality. It shouldn’t be hard for us to pose the question: are the ups and downs of how I feel really the best guide as to how I should live? Perhaps the Creator might know better? As we are convinced of that then we’ll be willing to speak on sexuality issues even in the 21st century.