Thursday, December 22, 2011

On Guard! On Intimacy & the Guarding of the Heart

Liz Edrington is a Youth Minister at Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, VA.

To guard, or not to guard… that is the question.  Or is it?

How has the idea of ‘guarding our hearts’ evolved?  We see the phrase used in Proverbs (4:23), but everyone has their own idea of what it means and how to use it.  From Joshua Harris’ ‘I Kissed Dating Goodbye’ to Elisabeth Elliot’s ‘Passion and Purity,’ there seems to be a pretty well developed idea that attempting to intentionally protect or withhold some part of yourself from another when seeking God with someone in a more romantic context is important.  However, the concept is often either hyper-spiritualized or made into law, and what may have been good wisdom becomes a confusing and abstract shackle.  

We don’t offer all of ourselves to someone who we have not committed to (and who has not committed to us) in marriage.  That’s just not a good idea.  And we see the painful and broken consequences of that all the time.  One person offers the other everything they know of themselves in an effort to draw another person unto them, or to get the other to stay in a relationship.  Deep intimacies are shared (be they emotional, physical, or spiritual) that are meant just for marriage, and the classic fire-in-the-fireplace metaphor spews uncontrollable flames which burn instead of warm and delight.

Recap: the fire-in-the-fireplace metaphor offers us a glimpse of God’s design for intimacy 
within marriage.  It is most often used to talk about sex; however, sex is just one of the potential damaging intimacies that can be shared outside of marriage.  And the sin that is in our hearts and minds (not simply our actions) runs much deeper than just having shared in that one act, so we must not neglect the other dynamics going on in romantic relationships which may be broken.

So, the idea with the metaphor is that a fire in a fireplace is a good thing.  It keeps you warm, you can enjoy it, it can cook food, etc.  It’s protected, it’s in its right place, and it is contained safely.  Similarly, sexual intimacy has been designed to be good, to be between husband and wife within the commitment of marriage.   Outside of marriage, the flames leap and burn, uncontained and damaging.  People are burned, scars are left.

However, this metaphor fails to recognize that sex within marriage can be a broken thing as well, and that marriage cannot protect both parties from burns.  It also fails to recognize that we believe in a God who can raise the dead, heal the worst of wounds, and redeem from ashes.  Marriage simply is the best place for sex, clearly, but we are not without vulnerability to sin even there.  We need Jesus in each place.

The same must be said for these other intimacies that are shared between people in romantic relationships.  They can be harmful, and scars can be deep.  But there is the greatest of hopes in the Living God who is moving and working all things together for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28).  There is a place for repentance when sin is discovered.  And there is much need for forgiveness- from the Lord who always offers it to us in Jesus, and from one another.  And there is wisdom to be gleaned from learning about the way sin looks in romantic relationships for you individually.   
‘Guarding your heart’ should not mean refraining from sharing honestly and vulnerably with one another.  It should not mean simply ‘not touching’ at any point of your relationship (as if that would protect us from sin).  It must entail a seeking of the Holy Spirit’s leading in each of your lives, and asking to be shown the places of weakness or brokenness which may become damaging. It might involve sharing in those places together, or it might not. The only thing I am 100% sure it should include is time spent by yourself and in community asking for God to reveal, lead, and help in these things.   He does give us some pretty great insight in Scripture.  Shared sexual intimacy is no joke- and we need to be walking with our kids in their questions.  

It is crazy to presume that our own experiences with these sorts of issues can provide a general recipe or roadmap for everyone else- which we must be incredibly cautious of as youth ministers.  Yes, we can learn from one another’s mistakes and God’s work there (and we should!), but we cannot provide a black and white rule book for engaging these sorts of things.   We get to provide a safe space, a relationship, for our kids to consider their questions and experiences and to seek the Word of God who is ever showing and reminding us of His good design for this world.  He uses it all to point us to Himself and to His Kingdom; so here’s to sharing in the hope of goodness, forgiveness, redemption, and celebration in God’s work- even in romantic relationships.

Monday, December 19, 2011

(Almost) Everyone's Doing It

A must-read from Relevant Magazine, this article examines the high rate of Christian singles having sex and digs deep into why our abstinence campaigns aren't working.  Also check out CNN's take on the issue here.

Considering the staggering statistics that are cited (80% of single Christian evangelicals between 18-29 have had sex), Joanna Hyatt says, "You cannot talk about sex within the Christian community without also [mentioning] God's grace.  If we're serious about people growing in their faith, we have to help them see this issue will stand in the way of their relationship with God, but it doesn't have to keep them from God."

Carissa Woodwyk argues that in order for chastity to stand a chance, we must "go back to the beginning": "Our image of God and His heart for men and women and couples needs to be revisited and corrected.  God didn't create this beautiful and sacred and amazing act called 'sex' to tempt us with = it and then make it a bad thing," Woodwyk says.  "Could it be that if God is in everything good, that God reveals Himself through the profoundly breathtaking act of sex, too--that God reveals Himself specifically through men and specifically through women?"

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Sin: Jesus Always Dealt With the Heart - Why Shouldn't We?

As we wrap up our Theology of Sex series, we welcome new blog contributor Ryan Viner, the Sr. High Youth Pastor at Independent Presbyterian in Memphis, TN. The following letter is written by Ryan to a person who had asked for his help in encouraging a teenager struggling with sexual sin.

Dear Rob,

To encourage [the teenager], help him realize that purity is a process.  Tell him to be patient knowing that God is glorified through his desire to be pure and that He will be steadfast and patient with His son. Key thing here is that God has already made him pure through the blood of His son.  Now what we must encourage Him to do is RESPOND to the truth that God has spoken over his life that he is no longer a slave to sin but now a slave to righteousness.  So we have a picture of God actively working in his life to help him fall more in love with God and less in love with sin so that one day he can truly say like David that "God's love is better than life itself.”

I get pumped about all of this, so I am going to share some insight from the Word and from God's wisdom.

1. Understand your personal sinfulness

This is a great place to start because it will help him understand his depravity and need for a Savior. It is important for him to learn that God hates sin and that this particular sin he is coming to you about is not his only sin. If you only deal with sexual impurity then you will only be treating the petals of the flower while the root system is sick. For example, in my past, sexual sin comes from a lack of trust in God to provide a way for me to express myself sexually, coupled with my desire to be my own god and live to please myself. There are many more things that are inherently broken about me, and I desire for God to put all of it back together for His glory. I do not want to see God just release him from porn, masturbation, and lust, but redemption from sin - my old way of life. Let us pray that God brings your friend to that point. In closing, ask him to search himself and to pray that God will help him understand what part of his sinful-self causes him to run towards sexual impurity. A good question to ask here is what is his sinful motivation that brings him to act out in the sin of sexual immorality – make your friend deal with his sinful roots and ask him to pray for God to heal those places of hurt and confusion.

Scripture: Romans 3:10 and Ecclesiastes 7:20

2. Know what God says about sexual sin in particular

It was extremely helpful for me to see what God has to say on this subject. As you know I really feel the church doesn’t teach on this topic enough so your friend will be served well to see what the Father teaches his children about sexual sin.

Scripture: I Thess. 4: 2-5, I Cor. 6:18, Proverbs 6: 20-29

3. Look for the grace of God all the time

And not only that, but also see the power of Jesus and the work he has done to free you from this sin - this is crucial because we must know how God has made us a new creation so we can learn to live like a new creation.  Encourage him to know that he was not bought with gold, silver, or coins but with the blood of Christ, the lamb without blemish or defect.  Knowing this helps us to be holy because He is holy and He is living in us.  This to me is the best part, which makes "Christianity" beautiful and its message true. The God of the universe doesn't leave you to figure things out and get clean, He personally cleanses you by turning the gun on himself and then He goes one step further - he takes up a home in us and dwells within each of his children. We need to always encourage brothers in Christ that God hates this sin more than we ever could and that He fights this sin in you everyday because He sent a Spirit to live in us that is envious and jealous for our affections. God will not stop until we are forsaking our kingdoms for His kingdom and desires (I Titus 2:11-15).

Scripture: Colossians 1 (the whole chapter), Colossians 3:1-10, I Cor. 6:9-11 (here, notice the last part)

*** It is important to take Satan and this sin seriously and it is also important to know God's victory and authority over sin, death, and Satan. If he attributes too much power to this sin then he essentially worships it as a god in his life; encourage him to worship the God who "treads our sins underfoot" (Micah 7:18-20). These sins are big- but not bigger than the God who frees us from them.

4. Learn the art of confessing your sins to both man and God - James 5
and Hebrews 4:14-16

It is huge that your friend knows God always wants him to come into His presence even when your friend feels unworthy. Satan wants us and your friend to feel unworthy and therefore retreat from God's presence because we are not "clean or right" and once we take ourselves away from God's presence the propensity to sin grows greater and greater. Help him to remember that the sacrifices God desires are a broken and contrite heart; our Father is pleased when His children come to Him upset over their sinfulness and looking to Christ as our worthiness and source of cleanliness.

5. Expect to be called into repentance by man and by the Spirit

This connects with the previous point (2 cor. 7:8-13); here, Paul has initiated a process of repentance.  An example of one of the Holy Spirit's roles about convicting us and leading us into repentance can be found in John 16:8.

6. Don’t ever be discouraged in such a way that you are spiritually depressed - Romans 8:38-39

There is much in the Bible about perseverance and a steadfast, workman-type faith. We are encouraged to be diligent in our love for God. If we do believe that our God sanctifies His redeemed people we must encourage our brothers struggling in sin to be steadfast in seeking purity – we must also help them to understand that it is a process and that they will “fail” on the way to “winning” because Jesus always wins. If we expect perfection then our brothers who are struggling will be strangled by an inability to perform, they must see that Jesus performs for them and that when they fall down into this sin that they can get back up because Jesus lives forever and intercedes for them everyday – this is how we are saved completely (Hebrews 7:25).

In closing, the more you know Christ the more you know your sinfulness and need for Him, and the more you see the power of Christ to free you from your sins. I pray that your friend begins to put God's word in His heart and meditate on it and that he falls in love with the Father.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Gospel That Sticks

Sticky Faith, a ministry of the Fuller Youth Institute, recently released a new video in which a student minister sees the harmful effects behavior-based youth ministry had on her students who messed up in a big way.  Watch the video here.

How many students (or adults) do we know who have distanced themselves from the church because they feel God and the church will no longer accept them after they "mess up" sexually?  When thinking about how we teach students about the Theology of Sex, Lord help us combat this lie with all our might.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

The Goodness of Sexuality

A few years back, a recently married friend of mine was sharing with me some of the struggles that had come in the early stages of marriage.  In regards to the sexual dimension of marriage, my friend shared the following, “I waited for marriage to have sex.  Before I met my future spouse and all through our courtship, we were told and believed that sex was to be avoided at all cost.  Everyone said that if you wait, sex will be so much better.  But I found that during the first six months of sex in marriage, I was plagued with deep guilt.  I had spent a long time convincing myself that sex was wrong and I had to disarm my sexuality.  And when I was finally free to have sex with my spouse, it was greatly intertwined with a sense that God looked upon us with displeasure and disgust.”  

Unfortunately, the church has a long history of unintentionally demonizing good things, sex being one of the foremost.  In an effort to counteract the sexual ethos of our times, we often end up applying black and white rules to try to hold at bay the desires of youth.  A satirical example of this is Ignatius the Ultimate Youth Pastor’s stark delineation to his students, “Sex is a beautiful gift from God, that is designed to take place within the confines of marriage.  So for you guys, sex is wrong.  But for me and my smoking hot wife, it is so right” (5:45).  Anytime I have taught about sex, the question invariably comes up, “How far is too far?”  It is in our nature to want to give cut and dry rules, but what is truly necessary is a much more robust exploration of sexuality in relation to God.  Tim Keller notes that for those ‘not awash in the love and acceptance of God through Jesus Christ,” often aspects of our vibrant faith are reduced to religious morality.  Keller expounds,
“In religion the purpose of obeying the law is to assure you that you’re all right with God.  As a result, when it comes to the law, what you’re most concerned about is detail.  You want to know exactly what you’ve got to do… You won’t gravitate toward seeking out the intent of the law; rather, you’ll tend to write into the law all sorts of details of observance so you can assure yourself that you’re obeying it.  But in the life of Christians the law of God – though still binding on them – functions in a completely different way.  It shows you the life of love you want to live before God who has done so much for you.   God’s law takes you out of yourself… “
It is so easy for our teachings on sexuality to become focused on sin management, rather than digging deeper to explain the God-made desires at the root of the fracture.  Sexuality has deep theological roots that must be explored before we can prescribe guidelines for healing.  We must set the bone before we put on the cast.  Yet, I still often find myself teaching more on the ‘do’s and don’ts’ in the arena of sex in a fallen world rather than focusing on the glory and purpose of God’s intention for the gift of sex. At the core of Christianity is the theological truth that all things are created good, including sex.  Therefore, the core of our message must be that sex is good.  And because sex is God’s good creation, he knows the most about it because he created it.  Therefore, Scripture’s wisdom regarding sex is not an arbitrary rule that God made to test if we ‘really love Him,’ but his wisdom about sex is the way it ‘really is.’  It is only when we explore the goodness and original purposes of sex that students can understand why they have the desires they do.  

Dallas Willard makes an acute yet vital distinction that I have found is very helpful when talking to young people about sex,
“…We must be careful to recognize that sexual desire is not wrong as a natural, uncultivated response, any more than anger is, or pain.  Moreover, when we only think of sex with someone we see, or simply find him or her attractive, that is not wrong, and certainly is not what Jesus calls ‘adultery in the heart’… Merely to be tempted sexually requires that we think of sex with someone… usually someone we see.  But temptation also is not wrong, though it should not be willfully entered.  Therefore those translations of Matthew 5:28 that say, “Everyone who looks at a woman and desires her” or “everyone who looks at a woman with desire” are terribly mistaken.  They do much harm, especially to young people.  The wording (in Matt 5:28) refers to looking at a woman with the purpose of desiring her.  That's it, we desire to desire.”
When teaching students around the fire at one of our guy events, I made this distinction between lusting after a girl and being attracted to a girl.  The former is not using the gift as God intended, but rather as a means to self-focused indulgence; but the latter is a natural part of the way God has made us as sexual beings.  I could hear as the guys in the group all breathed a sigh of relief to be assured that their sexuality, in and of itself, is not bad.  In fact, their sexuality is a good gift created to be enjoyed without shame for the glory of the great Giver.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

A Response to "The Poison of Law and Shame"

Tal Prince, one of the leading experts on the Gospel and sexual addiction, responds to Rooted Conference chairman Cameron Cole’s article, "The Poison of Law and Shame".
The one thing that is missing [in your article] is pain. We run to sex, booze, drugs, performance - you name it - to medicate the pain of our own experience with the fall. This is why grace is the answer; no law has ever healed pain. Ever. The focus on the law, very often, causes us to question our justification. That freaks us out, brings more shame, and down we go. This is why I heavily rely on these two historical questions:

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?

A. That I am not my own,1 but belong—body and soul, in life and in death2—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.3 He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,4 and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.5 He also watches over me in such a way6 that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven;7 in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.8 Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life9 and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.10
11 Cor. 6:19-20; 
2 Rom. 14:7-9; 
3 1 Cor. 3:23; Titus 2:14; 
4 1 Pet. 1:18-19; 1 John 1:7-9; 2:2; 5 John 8:34-36; Heb. 2:14-15; 1 John 3:1-11; 
6 John 6:39-40; 10:27-30; 2 Thess. 3:3; 1 Pet. 1:5; 7 Matt. 10:29-31; Luke 21:16-18; 
8 Rom. 8:28; 
9 Rom. 8:15-16; 2 Cor. 1:21-22; 5:5; Eph. 1:13-14; 
10 Rom. 8:1-17

Q. How are you righteous before God?

A. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ.1

Even though my conscience accuses me of having grievously sinned against all God's commandments, of never having kept any of them,2 and of still being inclined toward all evil,3 nevertheless, without any merit of my own,4 out of sheer grace,5 God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ,6 as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, and as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me.7 All I need to do is accept this gift with a believing heart.8

1 Rom. 3:21-28; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8-9; Phil 3:8-11; 
2 Rom. 3:9-10; 
3 Rom. 7:23; 
4 Titus 3:4-5; 
5 Rom. 3:24; Eph. 2:8; 
6 Rom. 4:3-5 (Gen. 15:6); 2 Cor. 5:17-19; 1 John 2:1-2; 
7 Rom. 4:24-25; 2 Cor. 5:21; 
8John 3:18; Acts 16:30-31

[The above questions], combined with my love of Luther and his views of grace, are the backbones of my approach. It is the kindness of the Father that leads us to repentance.
They are medicating pain, and until we understand that, we'll just try to hand them a different bottle of medicine that is still not the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. It may be cleaner - it may seem less sinful - but it is powerless nonetheless.

I leave you with these words of Martin Luther: "It is my sincere request and admonition that you join our group and associate with us who are real, great, and hard-boiled sinners."

Monday, December 05, 2011

Never Stop Preaching the Gospel

Joel Brooks of Redeemer Community Church in Birmingham, AL writes an excellent article on how ‘Itchy Ears Want Works.’ Check out the article here.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

The Poison of Law and Shame: Merciful Responses to Teens and Sexual Sin

Several years ago, I participated in an online forum with a network of youth ministers who had pursued seminary studies. During this time, one youth pastor asked for help and direction in dealing with a teen who had come to him with struggles related to pornography. I became aghast and saddened by this one response, which I saved. The individual wrote:

In working with teenage guys in this area I have also tried to point them to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew where Jesus says, " But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. if your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. (Matt 5:28-9). I think that this helps guys understand the gravity of their sin and the seriousness of the sin in God's eyes.

The other thing that I have found helpful with guys is to memorize certain passages of scripture that deal directly with this issue (1 Thess 4, 1 Cor 6, etc). Having God's word in our heart helps us to kill the sin before it becomes an issue.

The youth pastor, who certainly desires to see kids struggling with sexual sin walk in repentance, offers one of the more damaging responses to teens struggling with sexual sin- especially porn. He/she suggests that the problem underlying sexual sin is a lack of awareness of its severity and an absence of God’s word in our heart.

If I have heard anything from sexual addiction expert, Tal Prince, it is that below sexual sin is usually mounds of shame, heaps of pressure to perform, and plenty of self-hatred. I am an advocate of a balance of law and grace, but in the arena of helping students bonded in sexual sin, I advocate an approach leaning heavily- almost exclusively- on grace and mercy.

I promise you that the problem with sexual sin amongst teens is not a lack of education. The boy or girl who accesses porn often and masturbates routinely feels like a shameful freak deep down inside. The girl who “goes too far” usually views herself as a whore, and the boy who sleeps around most often feels empty and hollow in his sober moments.
Sexual sin, especially for young people, naturally carries so much shame that offenders walk away hating themselves more than they hate the sin. Appealing to law (performance, fear, and guilt) only inflames the situation and probably increases the likelihood that students will fall deeper into sin.  It heightens fear (which weakens their ability to resist) and elicits a performance-driven lifestyle (which led them down this road in the first place).

Responding with grace makes that critical delineation between hating the sin but loving and accepting one's self through Christ. Perhaps more than in any other of ministry, kids need to hear that God “does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10).  God hates sin, but He LOVES sinners. He adores porn addicts and masturbaters and guys with wandering eyes and girls with compromised standards. The message for kids: hate and run from your sexual sin but love and embrace the God who erases your sins through the Cross and regards them no more, the God who makes you lovable and delightful.