GRACE IN THE STRUGGLE

As Christians we know that we cannot earn our salvation. Resisting sin does not, in and of itself, make you righteous. But I think we are called to resist sin and deny ourselves because in the process of doing so (even when we fail) we truly learn and receive the grace and forgiveness and joy that God offers us in Jesus Christ. There is wonderful grace in admitting that we are sinful and broken.

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Homosexuality & the Bible #4.

Matthew 9:10-13; 1 John 1:7-10; Matthew 16:24-25; 1 Corinthians 10:13

I want to take a look at the bigger picture here: Christian living and the struggle against personal sin.

I think there are two big errors in Christianity right now concerning homosexuality, and they reflect the larger issue concerning how we approach sin in the life of a Christian. The first error, widely reported by the news media, is that many Christians single out homosexual acts as the most terrible of sins, and they focus on this, while ignoring “lesser” sins like greed, lying or gossiping. Such Christians make anyone in church who struggles with homosexual temptations feel condemned and unwelcome and beyond redemption. Some Christians in this category say hurtful, even evil things, like “God hates gay people.” People who do this come across as hateful, legalistic and hypocritical. I will not defend such behavior.

There is a second error that many other Christians commit. People in this group either ignore what the bible says about homosexual behavior, or they try to justify it in ways that undermine the bible entirely. The result is that what the bible calls sin, they call “not sin,” and by doing so, they deny gay folks the opportunity to be forgiven and redeemed in their particular struggle. It’s like coming up to a child with a fever and saying, “Don’t worry, some people just feel lightheaded and strange and cold. You don’t need a doctor or medicine. Enjoy it – you are fine just as you are!”

Jesus said something that should be considered one of the scariest statements he ever made:

10 While He was reclining at the table in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came as guests to eat with Jesus and His disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked His disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners? ” 12 But when He heard this, He said, “Those who are well don’t need a doctor, but the sick do. 13 Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice. For I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:10-13)

These words cut to the heart of both errors. We get caught up in the fact that the Pharisees were religious and the tax collectors were not. But that isn’t the point at all. The point is that the Pharisees believed that they were well, not sick; they believed that they did not need the grace and forgiveness offered by Jesus Christ.

If you are not gay, or if you believe homosexual behavior is sinful, you still personally need the forgiveness and grace found only in Jesus Christ. Your sins separate you from God just as much as any sin committed by a gay person. Don’t be a Pharisee: understand that you are among those who are sick, and who need the Great Physician, Jesus Christ. You must admit your need to receive it.

If you are gay, you must understand exactly the same thing. Your particular struggle with temptation is no more or less than that of other Jesus followers. You need the forgiveness and grace found only in Jesus Christ, and it is totally available to you if you will only admit your need and receive it.

One of the chief dangers on both sides of the issue is to suggest that sin of a homosexual nature are somehow different than others. On the one hand are people who say they are especially bad; on the other we have people saying they are not sins at all. According to the bible, both are wrong.

I will say once more: being gay is not a sin. Having those desires and temptations is not the same thing as indulging them and acting on them either through fantasy or reality. Now, according to the bible, acting on those impulses is a sin, but it is not an unforgiveable sin, and there is grace and redemption in Jesus Christ for anyone who will receive it.

However, if someone says, “I will not call this a sin. I will not seek forgiveness for this,” he is declaring his own actions righteous, in spite of what the bible says. Such people are acting like the Pharisees, saying, “We don’t need Jesus here. We aren’t sick, we are righteous.”

This is one of the main reasons I am preaching on this subject. Think of the same scenario only with a different sin. Imagine a movement of alcoholics saying: “Stop calling drunkenness a sin. We are alcoholics by disposition and we can’t help it. We promise we don’t drink and drive, so we aren’t hurting anyone. Stop judging us. We don’t want to stop drinking and we don’t want anyone to tell us it is wrong. We struggle enough with shame as it is, and so we want our public drunkenness to be welcomed and accepted by the church.”

There are several places where drunkenness is clearly listed as a sin (among other sins). If we endorsed drunkenness, no matter what the rest of society thought about it, we would be giving alcoholics the idea that they did not need to be forgiven by God when they get drunk. Also, if there was a movement of Christians who wanted to declare drunkenness righteous according to the bible, it would be natural to expect a counter-reaction of Christians explaining why it should still be considered sinful.

All Christians must struggle against sin. To deny this is to deny a large portion of both the Old and New Testaments. The apostle John writes this:

7 But if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say, “We don’t have any sin,” we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.

I don’t know how to be more clear about the problem than that. The one who says “homosexual behavior is not a sin,” is calling God a liar. So is the one who says, “drunkenness is not a big deal,” or the one who says “it isn’t wrong for a Christian to pursue wealth,” or “it’s OK to be dishonest if it doesn’t hurt anyone.”

However, when we accept what the bible says about our own sins, we are in a position to receive grace and forgiveness and wholeness through Jesus Christ. Sometimes it may help to hear a real life example. I don’t want to share things that have been told me in confidence, so I will give you a window into my own struggle with sin. I am not eager to do this, but perhaps it may help someone.

For many, many years, I have had a great struggle with (heterosexual) lust. I don’t believe it is wrong for me to be attracted to women. I don’t believe I have a choice when it comes to that “first look” – noticing women who are attractive to me. But the problem comes in after that. My particular sin is to look again, even after I have a conscious choice to not do so. Then I indulge my imagination and fantasize about what it would be like to be with that person. That is what the bible calls lust, and it is a sin.

For years, no, decades, I felt almost helpless to resist the temptation to lust. If I encountered temptation, I knew I was going to fail, nine times out of ten. In fact, I felt like that was simply who I was – a lustful man. I don’t know for sure, but for years I have believed that I might have a higher “sex drive” than many people. It felt almost impossible to separate Tom from lust. I was very deeply ashamed about this (and even now, I am tempted to feel ashamed as I share this), but no matter how guilty I felt, I did not regularly overcome the temptations.

I certainly did not choose to be this way. I never wanted the temptation and struggle I endured. I tried to change, but even with the help of Jesus, for decades, I could not. Change did not appear to be an option for me. Failure was an option, and I took that option all the time. But two other things were not optional. I never believed I had the right to disagree with what the bible says about lust and sexual immorality. And also, I never believed I had the option to give up on my struggle against sin.

I knew I was forgiven, of course. But at times, it felt kind of shallow. I felt like maybe God was looking at me with disapproval saying, “All right, I’ll let you off the hook one more time, but watch yourself, Buddy. You are not my star pupil. You are skating along on very thin ice; you are barely making it.”

However, at last, two things began to happen. First, I admitted that I was broken. For reasons I still do not understand completely, there was something deep inside me that wasn’t right, and led me back to this sin over and over again. I began to admit my brokenness not only to God, but to a few trusted Christian friends also. It was humbling and difficult for me.

Second, the Lord was finally able to show me how completely and truly he loved me, and how thoroughly he had saved me through the cross. I began to believe that there was nothing I could do that would prevent him from loving and forgiving me – not just “giving me a pass,” but really delighting in me. I knew at last that Jesus had truly and thoroughly already made me holy in my spirit, the place where it mattered most. Because of Jesus, I really am “OK,” even right now. I finally understood that the power and extent of the holiness that Jesus imparted to me through the cross was infinitely greater than my deepest, most depraved sin, imagination or temptation. The Holy Spirit made it clear through the scriptures that the part of me that he has made holy is greater and more enduring than my sinful flesh.

When I finally began to believe and receive all this, I found that temptation began to lose its power. I was still tempted. Even today, I still experience temptation. Sometimes I still fail, but not nearly like I used to. The love of Jesus, and what he has done for me, is much more powerful in my life than those temptations.

Let me make this clear: I struggled for decades with a sin that felt like it was so deeply entrenched it was simply part of who I was. But because I continued to accept that it was a sin, the Lord was able to use that struggle to show me His love and grace in much deeper and more wonderful ways than I had ever known, and eventually, that love and grace began to overcome the sin in my life.

Suppose someone had come to me in the middle in my struggles, and said, “Tom, you were born this way,” (and for all I know, I really was). “God doesn’t want you to be unhappy. You aren’t broken, this is just who you are. It’s time you stopped calling this a sin, and stopped tormenting yourself about it, and just express who you really are.” If I had been given such advice, and taken it, I would never know the grace and joy and love of Jesus the way I do today. God’s word, calling my sin “sin,” is the same word that overcame sin in me. The only way for me to experience grace in my struggle was to first agree with God that I was sinning.

Now, you might argue that I have not struggled as deeply as a gay person. I personally have no way of knowing one way or the other, and frankly, neither do you, nor does anyone else on earth. But I do know this: it never did me any good at all to think that my own struggle was worse or harder than that of others. I don’t know why it would help anyone, gay or straight, to think so.

The fact is, ALL Christians are called to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Jesus.

24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25)

Denying ourselves the permission to do whatever we want, and certainly denying sin, are part of what that means. I don’t know what it feels like to be gay and a follower of Jesus. But I do know that Jesus asks all of his followers to be willing even to die for His sake. Truthfully, I think all Christians, if they are really Jesus-followers, eventually find that following Him involves real, deep self-denial. I think it is pointless and even counter-productive to dwell upon whether your self-denial is harder than someone else’s, and I believe it arrogant to think you can even know. I understand any given person may feel their struggle is different, but it is not worse (or better). 1 Corinthians 10:12-13 says:

13 No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to humanity. God is faithful, and He will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation He will also provide a way of escape so that you are able to bear it.

No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to humanity. Clear enough for you?

One aspect of the self-denial that the Lord asks of gay people particularly, is lifelong celibacy. But he does not ask that of only gay people. In fact, millions upon millions of Christians throughout the ages, both men and women, have been led by Jesus to make the commitment to lifelong singleness with lifelong celibacy, including some of the greatest Christian writers and thinkers in history. Some of them may have been gay, but undoubtedly a great number of them were heterosexual. Singleness and celibacy are not the worst possible fate a person could have. The apostle Paul himself was led to that lifestyle by Jesus, and though at times he was undoubtedly lonely, he also considered it a great gift. He said that he wished all people could have the gift of singleness/celibacy as he did (1 Corinthians 7:1 & 7:7).

As Christians we know that we cannot earn our salvation. Resisting sin does not, in and of itself, make you righteous. But I think we are called to resist sin and deny ourselves because in the process of doing so (even when we fail) we truly learn and receive the grace and forgiveness and joy that God offers us in Jesus Christ. There is wonderful grace in admitting that we are sinful and broken. There is wonderful grace even in the struggle of trying to avoid sin, and yet failing.

Let’s not deny another person that grace by telling them that they should not have to struggle or say “no” to some of their desires or temptations. Instead, let us receive that grace in our struggles, together with all our brothers and sisters in Christ.

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2 thoughts on “GRACE IN THE STRUGGLE

  1. Thank you, Tricia. It was a hard decision to do it, since things are so controversial. I hope we all hear both the holiness and the love and grace of God through it all.

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