BCC Staff Note: This blog was first posted at the Association of Biblical Counselor’s blog site. You can also read it there.
Imagine struggling with an incessant issue whose history is filled with harsh stigmas and bigotry. Imagine suffering under this daily condition feeling as though you were a shameful, less than human, unlovable outcast. To make things worse, the place where you go to worship God regularly spouts condemning slogans against the very struggle with which you are wrestling. Words such as evil and abomination become a part of your psychological identity because anyone who suffers from your issue is given these labels. Your daily emotional companions are shame, self-condemnation, depression, and confusion.
Then imagine you stumble upon a respected ministry that touts they have the answer for what ails you. Simply go through their program and your shameful tendencies will be eliminated. You hear testimonies of others who once identified as gay that now live “straight” lives—some even marrying a person of the opposite sex and developing a seemingly fulfilling relationship.
Hundreds of men and women have traveled down a very similar path as the above vignette. Unfortunately, the destination of their journey fell far short of their expectations. Upon completion of the program they maintained an emotional high that continued to motivate them for a time, but eventually, the relentless nature of their hearts seeped through their religious fantasy and ultimately they had to come to grips with the fact that their same-sex attractions were still alive and well. Back to the closet of secrecy they were confined. Somehow they failed because the feelings were still present. Now married with no physical attraction to their spouse, what seemed a promising dream has become a dismal nightmare.
Sadness for All
Today, I am sad for two groups of people. For one, my heart breaks for a ministry that was no doubt founded on principled hopes and aspirations for the many Christians who are faced with homosexual attraction. While I do not know all the details surrounding the closing of the ministry Exodus International, I can’t help but believe that their ultimate motivation over almost four decades was to help the hurting and disillusioned.
Secondly, I am saddened for the many people who were sold a program that promised far more than Scripture when it comes to our fallen natures. I can only imagine how many people have turned their hearts from God because the “pill” they were given failed to cure their “disease.” Having believed something to which the Bible does not allude, their faith has suffered. To all who find themselves here, I only pray that the grace of Jesus Christ will abound in your hearts.
What Went Wrong?
Since I am not a part of Exodus International I do not want to presume I know the details surrounding their recent closure. I know nothing about this issue first hand and therefore will not comment on it here. What I want to consider, however, is the assumption offered by Reparative Therapy that one can eliminate his or her homosexual attraction via therapeutic intervention. Is this idea promoted in the Bible or has the Christian therapeutic community overstepped its boundary by even suggesting this possible outcome?
I know very respected and godly researchers who are far more expert than I as it regards Reparative Therapy, and in no way am I slandering their work or their names. If there is an intervention that could resolve, for many, what is a tormenting issue, then thanks be to God if it is ever discovered! Yet, I think the Bible offers something far more hopeful to people wrestling with homosexuality than the eradication of symptoms (i.e., same-sex attraction).
Would we ever tell a married man who struggles with lust that we are going to take him through a therapeutic intervention where he will become solely attracted to his wife? Would we raise his hopes that upon completing therapy he will not wrestle with attraction towards other women ever again—that his lust for others will be eradicated from his heart? I certainly would make no such promises, and the Bible doesn’t either! Such reasoning would be akin to telling a counselee that because he has counseled with me he will never experience depression, sadness, anxiety or fear again. This logic completely denies the brokenness in our hearts caused by depravity.
As counselors, when our efforts are primarily aimed at symptom relief or perfect or right conduct then we are completely missing the mark, and likely hurting those we serve. We inadvertently create a system of redemption that is centered in experiential management of sin rather than the full and complete work of Jesus Christ. It is here I believe the promises offered by Exodus International went awry.
The Hope of the Gospel
The Gospel and Christian Life are about God: When I counsel those struggling with homosexual attraction, one of the first things I want them to do is trust God. Now when I use the word struggle, I am referring to a person who has not accepted homosexuality as being morally right, but who daily fights against these desires wishing they didn’t exist in the first place. By the time such individuals reach my office, they have promised themselves 100s of times that they will never lust after a man again or look at homosexual pornography again or engage in other homosexual activities again. Such promises are always broken, leaving them in a cycle of shame and condemnation. Since they are unable to completely eliminate their sin, they often turn from God. It is not unusual for me to tell such a person, “Look to God’s faithfulness not your own.” Jesus knows the burden of sexual temptation and He has profound sympathy for anyone whose hearts are captured by this issue (Heb. 2:17-18; 4:14-15). He is also committed to saving and transforming His own into children of glory (Rom. 8:28-29; 1 Thess. 4:3).
Does this mean that He has promised to remove all sexual affections or any sexual affection completely? No. As a matter of fact, the Bible tells us that there is a war raging in our hearts that will not rest until we see Him face to face (Gal. 5:16-17). What God promises is His presence and faithfulness (Heb. 13:5). His presence to hold you through this stormy life until the day of resurrection (John 6:37-40). His presence as your Helper to walk wisely and resist sin (John 14:16-17). His presence to give you self-control (Gal. 5:22). His faithfulness to not allow anything to separate you from His love (Rom. 8:37-39). His faithfulness to complete His work of redemption in your life (Phil. 1:6). Very often it is in the presence, not the absence, of our sinful struggles that magnifies the beauty and value of God’s presence and faithfulness in our lives. The struggle is often an occasion for rich abiding worship!
The Work of the Gospel Enables You to Hear and Obey God: When Paul is addressing the Corinthians regarding sexual sin he doesn’t tell them that if they just believe, God will remove all their ungodly sexual temptation. Instead, he assumes the possible presence of such temptations and writes things like, “Flee sexual immorality” (1 Cor. 6:18a) and “…for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:20).
When the author of Proverbs is counseling his son, he doesn’t treat him as though he will not wrestle with sexual temptation, but offers wisdom when such imminent temptation arises. Concerning the adulteress, he warns, “Keep your way far from her, and do not go near the door of her house…” (Prov. 5:8), “Do not desire her beauty in your heart, and do not let her capture you with her eyelashes…”(Prov. 6:25), “Let not your heart turn aside to her ways; do not stray onto her paths…” (Prov. 7:25).
The inference of both Paul and the author of Proverbs is that sexual temptation is a possibility, and the way to combat such longings are fleeing, resisting, and living to the glory of God! The ability to walk by faith comes through the hearing of the Gospel (Rom. 10:17) and the supernatural awaking of our hearts to want God and His ways (Eph. 2:4-8). Upon such awaking, Jesus works in us (over a lifetime) to create hearts that are zealous to do what is good and holy (Titus 2:11-14). He saves us then progressively enables us to glorify him in our lives and bodies through obedience. Healing may not be universally characterized as the complete elimination of sexual temptation from the human heart, but by hearts that are transformed and empowered by His grace to obey (from the New Self) when sexual temptation seeks to grip us (from remnants of the Old Self).
Hope in Symptom Eradication Minimizes the Pervasive Reality of Sin and our Desperate Need for Jesus: Some people hold to the idea that homosexual or heterosexual temptations are only sins if they are acted upon. If the attraction is there, but you resist acting upon it, then you’re good to go. I think this conceptualization minimizes our Gospel need and refutes the teachings of Jesus who said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” [emphasis added] (Matt. 5:27-28).
Jesus was speaking to people who had developed elaborate systems of holiness that gauged their sense of goodness and righteousness. Many of them likely exuded a great deal of pride considering themselves good men because they had never given their bodies over to the act of adultery. Jesus obliterated their paradigm here! He knew that every man standing in front of Him was guilty of this sin. In some ways, it seems as though he was setting up the despair of their situation, thereby ushering in the only hope for their dilemma—Himself. If sin was not just a behavioral issue, but also an issue of the heart, they were all doomed (Matt. 15:17-20). That is, unless their righteousness could be found elsewhere. As Christians who wrestle with either heterosexual or homosexual lusts we must hate such sins, but not be threatened by their presence. If my hope resides in the absence of sinful thoughts and desires, then I am going to have to resign myself to a life of hopelessness. But, if my hope resides in the righteousness of Another when such lusts present themselves in my heart, then there is genuine hope to be had. I can rest in the wonderful words of the author of Hebrews as the basis to fight my sins:
“But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, ‘This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,’ then he adds, ‘I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.’ Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin” (Heb. 10:12-18).
In the end, my situation is far worse than I realize. Even if therapy helps remove sexual temptation, I am still doomed—that is unless this single sacrifice for all my sins was indeed offered. Our sins remind us of our existential desperation and propel us towards a God of infinite love, faithfulness, and mercy. May we not shrink our hopes as counselors to temporal removal of sin, but may our hopes rejoice in the eternal removal of all our sins (past, present, and future) because of a God who loves us more than our minds can fathom!