Special Study Articles
Scripture and Sexuality
We are dealing with a very sensitive subject here. I realize that, and will try to do my best to speak truth with clarity, but also with the understanding that this is not the most pleasant matter. In fact, there are matters about which we cannot be too specific, for the Scripture says, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret” (Ephesians 5:11-12).* We want to expose error while being careful not to speak too specifically about what is shameful.
Our world is obsessed with all things sexual. From books to movies, billboards to commercials, rampant pornography, and much in the news, we are bombarded with a message telling us that sexual expression and freedom is one of our great rights. Yet the message is also selective. The freedom of sexual expression is absolute as long as it does not involve going against someone else’s will. “Do what you feel,” we are told, “but don’t do anything against someone else’s consent.” The ethic of culture, then, is that as long as consent is there, we are free to do what we want. (That is, unless it involves an adult with an underage person. Yet if two underage people consent with each other, then culture encourages it. Suddenly they are adult enough to make such a major decision. We are looked down if we suggest that people ought to wait until marriage, or to suggest that living together prior to marriage is wrong. Culture encourages the kind of entertainment that, if acted upon in real life, would lead to all matter of evils. We are indeed a bag of mixed messages, and we are paying the price for it.)
One of the most significant issues to hit our culture, both politically and religiously, is that of the practice and acceptance of homosexual behavior (we can add transgenderism to the growing list). We need to understand that whatever is happening in culture will soon be something we are dealing with within churches. Indeed, these issues have made so much headway in the last fifteen or so years that many churches now defend these as morally acceptable.
In an article from 2007, Luke Timothy Johnson, a known theological writer, coming out in acceptance of same-sex unions, admitted that such a position demands "intellectual honesty.” He also said, for himself, that he has "little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties." With this we can agree. He then wrote:
“I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us. By so doing, we explicitly reject as well the premises of the scriptural statements condemning homosexuality—namely, that it is a vice freely chosen, a symptom of human corruption, and disobedience to God’s created order.” (Homosexuality and the Church, https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/homosexuality-church-0)
He is honest about flatly rejecting the authority of Scripture and, instead, finding authority “in our own experience.” Once the authority of Scripture is rejected, where else can we go? Yet if “our experience” becomes authoritative, where will it end? Many things condemned in Scripture are “in our experience” that even the unbeliever would think is wrong (e.g., murder, outbursts of anger, other immoralities). “Our experience” simply cannot cut it as an authority for moral behavior, and this is really just another form of “society does” relativism.
I believe that one of the reasons more people seem to be trying these things out is that our culture has bought into an experimentation mentality that plays on our curiosities and lulls us into the feelings that lead us to want to try new things. The online world, movies and shows, music, art, and other avenues of expression make it look cool, exciting, and enticing. We are told that all of this is available to us and that there should never be any judgment. Just go ahead and enjoy it if it feels good. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s wrong.
From others who claim to be disciples of Jesus and still accept the cultural trends, this is all part of the bigger “the Bible doesn’t specifically say we can’t so we can” type of mentality that we are more and more seeing. For example, this is from an article written by a professed Christian arguing that premarital sex is not a sin (from 2013):
“The Bible does not forbid premarital sex. There is no passage of the Bible that references premarital sex as a sin against God. The association between sin and premarital sex is a new Christian idea.” He then argues that the term “fornication” is mistranslated and does not forbid consensual premarital sex. As long as people are loving, it’s all good. (http://www. thechristianleftblog. org/blog-home/premarital-sex-is-it-a-sin-or-not)
I realize that this seems a bit fringe, but it illustrates what can happen when this door is opened. We know that Scripture condemns all fornication as a work of the flesh that will keep us out of God’s kingdom (1 Cor 6:9-11; Gal 5:19-21). That doesn’t stop some from saying that the Bible doesn’t forbid premarital sex, for they just redefine fornication and argue that pre-marital sex is not included in that definition. This highlights, of course, one of the great problems we face in dealing with these issues: redefinitions are common. Fornication is redefined. Terms indicating homosexual practice are redefined. Love is redefined. Marriage is redefined. When we redefine terms, we can pretty much justify and accept anything that is in line with how we feel. We simply become our own authorities.
This stresses for us where the real struggle is: Will we accept the authority of Scripture as coming from God, or will we reject the authority of Scripture in favor or our own experiences and feelings as the standard? Recall that Jesus indicated that there are only two sources of authority: heaven or men (Matt 21:23-27). Rejecting what Scripture says in favor of human feeling and experience makes obvious the source of authority, and it’s not God.
The deeper debate is whether accepting the Lordship of Jesus also entails accepting the authority of Scripture. I submit that given Jesus' own attitude toward Scripture, accepting His Lordship does, in fact, entail accepting that same attitude toward Scripture. “It is written” was an authoritative statement for Jesus as a reference to Scripture, especially as Jesus faced temptations (Matt 4). “Have you not read?” (Matt 19:4) was an important question coming from Jesus. Read the Gospels and see the respect Jesus pays to Scripture. If we give that respect up, how do we legitimately argue that we follow Jesus as Lord and example?
Contrast that with what the devil wanted from the beginning. Jesus said that the devil was a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44). The basic temptation is always the same (Gen 3:1-6): doesn’t this look good? Don’t you want it? Isn’t God just trying to keep you from being able to do what you want? Give in. Affirm your desires. We need to realize that the devil does not really want us to enjoy; he wants to murder us. We are reminded: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8). What looks and feels good at first may well be the vehicle for our destruction.
As we think further about these matters, I want to make a few points for clarity:
This is not about politics. Though these are issues in political debate, they are first and foremost biblical and moral questions. This is fundamental in nature, reaching to the core of who we are as God's creation. This is not about making political statements. This is about what God’s word teaches and how we can draw closer to Him.
The issue of homosexual practice and its moral implications can only make sense within the theistic worldview. That may sound strange, and this could be elaborated upon more, but hear me out. Naturalistic Darwinism cannot make much sense of something like homosexual practice because the practice would have no survival value.
Darwinism requires reproduction and favorable mutation, and same-sex relationships cannot even begin to fit into this paradigm. Further, Darwinists have often argued that free will is illusory, as is morality. Yet if morality is a product of Darwinian evolution because it helps us survive, what accounts for immorality? What accounts for actions that cannot possibly have or create any survival value?
It may seem ironic, but all immorality makes sense within a biblical worldview because 1) this means there is a standard of right and wrong to which we are amenable, and 2) God gives us the ability to make free will moral choices. If homosexual practice is a moral issue, then there must be a standard to which we may appeal, and it must be something that is chosen. On the other hand, if the opposition to homosexual practice is universally immoral (i.e., it is always wrong everywhere to oppose homosexual practice as modern culture seems to be supporting), then there must be a standard to which those who support the practice may appeal to show that those who oppose it are wrong. What would that standard be? If it is not a moral issue at all, and if there is no standard at all, then opposing or not opposing the practice would be neither here nor there. It would be a matter of one’s personal preference, in which case neither side should condemn the other (e.g., opposing it should not bring charges of bigotry because it would be a personal preference). If there is a standard, as we fully believe, then we need to know what that standard says and seek to abide by it.
We must approach this with a sense of compassion. People need the gospel, grace, and forgiveness. We could just condemn and shake our heads in disbelief, but that won't be fruitful, especially for those who find this to be such a strong temptation. We want the gospel of God's grace to shine through in order to deal with the sin and offer a solution. Sin is the same for all of us in terms of condemnation, but the gospel is available for all no matter the sin or temptation. Our goal is the salvation of souls. To that end, we need to be people of compassion. That does not mean that sin gets a pass. It just means that we need to recognize that the struggles are real, and we should not minimize the difficulty that many will have in this area. If someone is truly struggling, then we need to be people to whom they can come and find help and encouragement in the Lord. Bear in mind that while one person may not be tempted by a particular sin, another will tempt him. We all need to help to overcome and we need to be encouraging one another to help us all deal with whatever temptations and struggles we may face.
We need to understand our moral foundations. We don't simply want to say, “It's wrong” without a better understanding of our foundations for why this is the case. We want to seek understanding from God's word about the nature of the sexual ethics given by God. Consequently, this lesson is much bigger than simply asking whether or not homosexual practice is a sin. It is sinful according to Scripture, but so are many other sexual actions. This includes pre and extra marital sexual relations. It includes adultery and sexual immorality of all kinds. We must be careful that we are not smug in pointing our fingers at certain sins while feeling comfortable in other sins that are equally condemned. We need to seek consistency.
Let us, then, delve further into understanding the nature of this issue:
1. The foundation of the male/female sexual ethic is rooted in creation.
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-28)
So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. (Genesis 2:21-24)
Jesus said, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6)
Male and female were created to be complementary for one another, and both together represent the full picture of God’s intentions. This is the foundation for procreation and for the marriage relationship. There is no provision for anything but the male/female foundation for family and sexual relations within the boundaries of marriage, in which God has joined the two.
2. The male/female relationship within marriage mirrors God's relationship with His people.
Marriage was intended to mirror God’s covenant relationship with His people based upon being created in His image and founded upon the prerequisite male/female natural ability to bear fruit together. This can be seen in several passages. Bear in mind that God designed marriage for male and female in the beginning (Gen 2:24-26). Yet also note: “Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God" (Rom 7:4).
Read the few verses before where marriage is explicitly discussed as an analogy to being in covenant with God. The only way for the phrase “that we might bear fruit for God” makes sense is against the backdrop of God’s establishment of the male/female one flesh covenant relationship. The only relationship that has the potential to “be fruitful and multiply” is between a male and female. God's establishment of this relationship was not arbitrary, but a purposeful symbol of being made in His image, becoming one in covenant, and bearing fruit (representing the creative nature of God and making something in one’s image).
Then, in Ephesians 5:22-33, Paul describes marriage. The woman is to submit to the husband, and the husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church (which is also a form of submission, v. 22). Paul says that what he is really talking about is Christ and the church, and always described in male/female terms. This emphasizes that when a man loves his wife the way he ought to, then he is mirroring Christ’s love for His body. When the woman submits (a term that carries much cultural baggage), she is acting as the church ought to be toward Christ. There is deliberate mirroring in this set against the backdrop of the creation of male and female in marriage.
3. Marriage is the only relationship in which sexual relations are sanctioned by God to take place.
“Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous” (Heb 13:4).
Biblically, same-sex unions do not qualify for lawful marriage because they do not meet the foundational male/female prerequisite. Only the male/female relationship properly mirrors God's purposes and gives marriage full meaning. Only the male/female relationship can potentially bring forth children (even if a particular couple cannot). Only the male/female relationship is sanctioned and joined by God. While some will try to argue that same-sex unions can also be okay, biblically speaking, this is not tenable. There is no passage that speaks positively in any way of same-sex practice, and many that condemn it (note again Johnson’s quote above). If marriage is the only union in which sexual relationships may rightfully occur, and if godly marriage has, foundationally, a male/female prerequisite, then this should be enough to see the point.
Biblical passages do speak about same-sex behavior, but never in positive terms. Bear in mind that in these passages we are talking about actual behavior, not just a passing temptation. In the midst of other sexual sins, we find this in the Law: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (Leviticus 18:22; cf. Leviticus 20:13).
“Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” (Romans 1:24-32; note particularly vv. 26-28)
Ben Witherington notes about this: “Vv. 26-27 are about as clear a condemnation of homosexual and lesbian behavior as exists in the NT. Paul speaks of actions, not inclinations, attitudes, or genetics. He says quite literally that those who practice such behavior have exchanged the natural function of intercourse for that which is against nature. (Paul's Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., p. 69)
“…just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7; see Genesis 18-19).
“Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted” (1 Timothy 1:8-11).
“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
Here I want to emphasize the phrase “such were some of you.” Whatever they did before, they changed. They were no longer doing what they were doing. Actions can change. Hearts can be redirected when we trust God. Forgiveness is available, and this grace needs to be in the forefront of any discussion and efforts to help people.
Sexual activity is right when God joins two together, but it is not “a right” in and of itself. If we bring an entitlement mentality to sexual activity, then we will surely pervert what is beautiful and godly. It is this very attitude of entitlement that underlies sins like sexual harassment, for a man who would inappropriately ogle, touch, or expect sexual favors is acting as if it is his right. It is not. Even here, society rightly recognizes that such action is evil and there is full expectation that a man who has such feelings or desires needs to control them in and act properly toward others. He is not excused for acting out his feelings and desires, and everyone knows this. This issue alone shows that people generally know there are boundaries not to be crossed and that self-control is both expected and possible.
Sexual activity is the blessing of the man and woman who covenant themselves to each other according to God’s will. Marriage is not about what culture wants or accepts. Marriage is about honoring God and the dignity of being human, and being human means being made in the image of Him who, in the beginning, made them male and female and joined them together as husband and wife. In this union only will sexual activity be what God desires. In this union it is to be encouraged, cherished, and protected.
4. Distinguish between feelings and objective reality.
We don’t deny the power of feelings, but do feelings determine objective truth? Consider the way we are being taught to think today. On what basis does one declare to be transgender? On the basis of what that person feels, and the rest of us are supposed to accept it. On what basis does one declare himself or herself homosexual? On the basis of feeling. On what basis are we told to accept any and every form of self-defined love (e.g., “love is love”)? On the basis of feeling. We feel a certain way, therefore that is what we are. Society is told that this must be accepted or we are bigots and homophobes (a quite inappropriate term as the position here is not about irrational fear). Of course, this feeling-based approach doesn’t work for everything. What if one feels like a sexual harasser? A pedophile? A rapist? A murderer? No, these are not to be accepted, though those who claim such do so on the very same basis of feelings. What one feels is not the standard of objective reality, and we know it. Yet culture wants to make that be the case, but only selectively. We cannot have it both ways.
We all know that feelings can deceive, accept wrong information, and lead us in directions we know we ought not go. Feelings, to be sure, are very strong, and they often do overwhelm and win the day. Yet that does not make the feelings line up with what is actually real and true. We sin because our feelings and desires get the better of us (see James 1:13-15). That struggle between feeling the desire to do one thing and knowing that such an action is wrong are the crossroads of all our inner struggles and temptations and how we handle that is critical. This is why self-control is one of the great virtues of the one who seeks to grow and bear the fruit of the Spirit (2 Pet 1:6; Gal 5:23).
5. Distinguish between feelings and action.
I realize that the idea of homosexual practice being freely chosen runs against the grain of our cultural narrative, as those who practice it claim to be “born that way.” However, notice carefully that we are purposefully saying “homosexual practice” in order to highlight a very important distinction. It is one thing for a person to feel an attraction or inclination toward someone (whether the same or different sex); it is another to act on it. By speaking of homosexual practice, we are not just talking about what one might feel or struggle with internally. We are talking about what a person does and practices, and this is certainly chosen (if it is not, then the sexual harasser would be excused, too). In fact, part of what it means to be a child of God is that we recognize that the feelings we have, those desires of the flesh, are to be overcome by what we choose to do and how we go about purposefully changing our thinking—or better, how we go about submitting to the way that God would renew our minds (Rom 12:1-2).
Are we always morally permitted to do whatever we feel? If I feel angry and desire to lash out or hurt someone, am I justified in acting on this way? Are there limits to the actions we may morally take even though our feelings push us in a certain direction? Do inclinations make actions right? Should we always act on what we are attracted to? If so, then morality as a whole would be a farce, for all immoral action begins with those same inner feelings and desires. What should then be excluded? Anything and everything would go. Yet we often must act contrary to our feelings, else the person who feels like killing another will have no options but to act on the evil feelings and would then be justified in doing so. The man who desires to touch a woman he has not right to touch would have no option but to touch her. I don’t think anyone wants to bear the consequences of such a position.
If we are going to be consistent, then we cannot claim feelings as the basis for our own truth on the one hand and deny the same to another simply because we disagree with what they feel. One might respond, “But we should not act in a way that hurts another person.” This is true, but by thinking this, you would necessarily be recognizing that people are, in fact, amenable to an universal standard higher than themselves and are capable of refraining from doing what they feel. What exactly is that standard? If we can refrain from doing what we feel, then one can refrain from sexual immorality, whether with the same or opposite sex. Feelings alone do not give us an adequate basis for acting. I am convinced that people know this at some level, yet this is still the basis on which people base their perceived reality.
We can recognize the beginnings of certain sexual desires, but can also resolve to act appropriately and determine to glorify God by how we respond. While we need to work on our desires and feelings internally, since sin begins in the heart (Matt 15:17-20), we must distinguish the feelings from the overt act itself (see James 1:14-15). One thing at a time here. Again, this is one reason why self-control is such an important feature of our spiritual lives.
Further, we need to distinguish levels of feelings and what we do with those feelings. There is a difference between attraction as a form of appreciation and the attraction that we allow to turn into lustful desires. We can appreciate others of the same or opposite sex in what is appropriate without having such devolve into lustful desires that will lead to further sinful actions. The difference here is in what we allow ourselves to dwell on, think about, and internalize on a deeper level. I can recognize that someone is attractive in appearance and nice to be around, but to take that into a lustful spiral is another matter, and once again we need to exercise self-control in our thoughts before we act. This is true of all temptation.
6. Is Love defined objectively or subjectively?
Do we get to determine what love means, or is there a standard of love to help us understand what it means? This ties to the last point because our culture typically will connect love to a feeling rather than an action. If love is a feeling, and if our feelings get to determine reality, then whatever we feel to be love must be right. Where this fundamentally errs is in the fact that love is more of an action than a feeling. Love must be chosen, and it must be chosen as an action even when contrary to feelings (as may be the case in a loving rebuke). We are told to love and pray for our enemies (Matt 5:44-45). This is not feelings-based, but action-based grounded in recognizing that all are made in God’s image. Paul wrote, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” and “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom 13:8, 10). This is action-based, a choice made to act right and treat others with respect even when we must deal with unpleasant matters like sin. Love is not to be redefined by our whims and desires. Rather, love is to be demonstrated by action, which is sometimes contrary to our whims and desires. This is because God Himself is the standard of love, and He shows us what love in action looks like through Christ. Christians of all people should understand this, and it should affect the way that we deal with any sin in both ourselves and in society. We will seek only to help, and never to do harm.
7. Where is our true identity found?
Even though same-sex action was common in the ancient world, nowhere does Scripture speak in terms of “being gay” or “being homosexual” a state of being, and perhaps when we speak of it this way we only aid in the cultural confusion. Sexual preference is not an identity, but a desire in the mind. People commit both heterosexual and homosexual acts of fornication, and both are equally sinful. Our identity, however, is not tied up in our sexual desires, and thinking that way only serves to objectify us sexually (e.g., “I am what I desire”). Our identity is first human, and the dignity of humans is found in being made in God’s image, both male or female. To honor that dignity, and to manifest the purity of God, we are to avoid sexual sins, whether those sins are committed with the same or opposite gender. This means we must make choices about the actions in which we choose to engage. If, due to our particular situation, celibacy is necessary (and it is for all people at some stage of life, and should be for the unmarried), then that difficult decision must be made (cf. Matt 19:10-12). However, God made this provision: “But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband” (1 Cor 7:2). Once again, the male/female prerequisite is seen.
The concept of sexual preference as an identity is not biblical. Sexually, we can identify as male and female, but that’s biological reality. Self-identity based on feelings, however, is unsustainable and inconsistent. At what point do we say, "That self-identity is going too far?" Yet, if based on feelings, then on what basis do we allow for one kind of feeling but not another? Feeling an inner temptation or inclination does not mean we may make an identity of it.
What, then, is our identity? As Christians, we gain a new identity that is found in Jesus Christ, as Paul indicates in Colossians 3:1-4: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”
If our lives are hidden with Christ in God, then on what basis do we try to self-identify as something else? Further, Paul writes in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
We are crucified with Christ, and our lives are bound up completely in Him. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15: “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”
Identity and purpose are found in Christ. Whatever we were before, whatever we did, however we may have previously identified in accordance with worldly standards, we have died to live for Christ; our lives are hidden with Him, crucified with Him, and we find true peace and personal joy in Him. We no longer see matters according to the flesh, but with an entirely new perspective (2 Cor 5:16). Herein is the answer. Here is the beauty of the gospel. Here is forgiveness and a new creation. Again, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11).
8. Do we Self-Affirm or Self-Deny?
Much of what we have talked about shows that the choice we have before us is between affirming self, as our culture would have us to do, or denying self, as our Lord would have us do. We go back to the familiar passage in Luke 9:23-25:
“And he said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?’”
Everyone has desires that need to be reigned in and controlled. All have temptations that need to be dealt with. When we face desires that we know would lead to wrong action, we have two options:
1. Give in, affirm our desires, and do what we feel, or
2. Deny ourselves, humble ourselves and do the Lord’s will.
We know what the Lord desires. Some may see this as too simplistic for a complicated issue, but the truth is still here. We either do what we want or we do what God wants (like choosing between life and death in Deuteronomy 30:15-20; cf. Josh 24:15). This is our choice. No one said denying self would be easy; it is a cross. If we respect what Jesus did on the cross for us, then we do not live for ourselves. Our life is hidden with Christ.
9. The Example of Jesus
This brings us to Jesus Christ Himself, not only as our great sacrifice for our sins, but also as our great example to follow in His steps (1 Pet 2:21-25). We are to strive to act as He did, especially in denying self. Specifically, as touches upon our present concern, consider the example of Jesus:
In self-denial. Jesus is the supreme example of denying self for the sake of God’s will and others. He emptied Himself, taking on the form of the suffering servant, and dying to save others. He is the example by which Paul tells Christians to do nothing from selfish ambition or empty conceit, but to consider others as more important. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (see Philippians 2:3-8).
In taking on human identity as the suffering Servant even though He is God. Jesus, God Himself, took on human flesh “that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb 2:14-15). Jesus took on the identity of the suffering servant in order to give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:44-45). If anyone knows what it is like to deny self for the sake of God’s will, Jesus does. Remember, “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb 2:18).
In dealing with feelings of not wanting to go to the pain of the cross. Jesus despised the cross and all that it stood for, but He did it “for the joy set before Him” (Heb 12:1-3). In the garden, He was clear in communicating with the Father, even though He would have rather found another way (Luke 22:42): “not my will, but yours, be done.” Self-denial often means something painful, but by taking the long view of the situation, one may persevere. It is quite doubtful that any of us, no matter how strong the feeling or the temptation, have undergone the level of stress and temptation of that of our Lord going to the cross. In assessing our own self-denial, our own feelings, sexual or otherwise, are we willing to endure difficulties in order to take the long view and look to future joy?
Some will feel and argue that they did not choose to “be gay.” However, they can certainly make choices about how to act, what they will seek, to whom they will listen, and to whose will they will submit. We can all choose to follow Jesus, deny self, take on His identity, and submit ourselves to the will of God.
10. Cultivating Feelings for God
How, then, do we begin to process our feelings? Feelings are strange. We don’t usually pick our feelings consciously. We just feel a certain way, then need to decide how we will deal with those feelings. When something needs to be done, we might think, “I don’t feel like it,” and instead think, “I feel like doing that.” Then there are the deep-seated feelings that we may have developed over time—feelings that culminate in lust, outbursts, and other actions that are contrary to what we know is good and right. These are feelings that, if not brought under control, will destroy us.
One problem may be that we have not given enough time to cultivating how we feel. We might just chalk our feelings up to the way we are, but this is a mistake, for the way we are can be directed, focused, and changed for the good. This is not easy, though, so how do we begin to make these permanent changes in our thinking patterns?
Target what you think about (Philippians 4:8). You can decide to think on things that are true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, excellent, and worthy of praise. Don’t accept from yourself the idea that you can’t help thinking a certain way. Decide you will target your thoughts toward the higher ideals. Do not allow yourself to settle for thinking that will take you down a path you do not need to go.
Deliberately set your mind on things above (Colossians 3:1-2). Think about the resurrection of Jesus. Then think about what He has done for you. If you have been raised with Him, then you have every reason to set your mind on things above. This takes discipline, but by constantly focusing on this, you can change your attitude.
Read regularly and with purpose (Psalm 1). The blessed man learns to read God’s word regularly, meditating on it, focused on it. He learns to take delight in God’s will. Since faith comes by hearing God’s word (Rom 10:17), regularly reading and hearing it will increase faith, change attitudes, and help us direct our feelings.
Surround yourself with people who lift you up to higher thoughts rather than help embed worldly ideas (Hebrews 10:23-25). Your brethren are there to encourage and strengthen. If you will surround yourself with those who will do this, your own spirit will be lifted, and you can also encourage them. Discuss God’s word with them. Confess your failures. Help each other grow in His grace and knowledge. We need each other.
Seek to develop the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:3-8). This is the culmination of all these points. Notice in the context of Philippians 2 that developing the mind of Christ is very much tied to focusing on the needs of others (vv. 3-4). The more selfish we are, the more we will not feel disposed toward doing what is right. The more we can think of the needs of others, the more we will think like Christ, who died for us that we might live for Him.
Tie all of this together with continual prayer (Philippians 4:6-7). Without regular communication with God, we will surely falter.
Like anything else worthwhile, we must commit ourselves to the time, effort, and discipline necessary to change our thinking, habits, feelings, and actions. May God help us to so commit.
In the end, we either accept or reject what Scripture teaches about this. Whether or not we like it is another matter, but we are called upon to deny self and seek to glorify God in all that we do, in body and spirit. If we are Christians already, we have been bought with a price, redeemed and are now servants of God, not self.
Again, this is not just about condemnation; this is finally about the fact that God gives us a new identity in Christ. If you are tired of the world’s categories, tired of the world’s issues and fights, then we have our answer in Jesus Christ and His gospel message. There is good news and forgiveness. There is grace and mercy. We can be washed, cleansed, and make the old way of life something of the past.
If you find yourself struggling with any of this, having feelings of temptation, then please talk with us. Don’t give up and don’t give in. We want to help you deal with the temptations, whatever they may be. We want you here. We want to be open with each other, help each other through, encourage one another in holiness and love. We are all in the same boat here. We all have our struggles and temptations, though they may differ in specifics. Yet we all share in the same desire to glorify God and one day to be with Him eternally. God has given us one another to help.
Yet we are still expected to respond to the will of God, to resolve to walk with Him in all that we do. So we encourage all to do just that. “Be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20).
“And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11).
*Scripture quotations are intended to come from the ESV unless otherwise noted.