I’ve recently been invited to share my perspective on sexual ethics through the patheos.com channel of The Marin Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on building bridges between the LGBTQ community and conservative religious communities. I’ve known about and shared some connections with these folks for the past few years since I returned to Chicago, where their offices are based. The vision of The Marin Foundation is “to theologically, socially and politically see divided communities reconciled with each other through a faith in God and each other,” and that is definitely a cause that matters to me.
My first offering is a series on the dignity of sexual identity from an explicitly evangelical, Christian perspective. I’ve noticed that a lot of discussion about sexual ethics skirts this matter, and I don’t really see a way forward in the absence of better treatment. The first post in this series was distributed yesterday; it looks at the critical difference between sexual identity and lifestyle choice. Here’s an excerpt:
I have spent most of my adult life as a member of an evangelical church in the United States. For the past four years, I have served as the associate pastor of First Free Church in Chicago, which is affiliated with the Evangelical Free Church of America. I’m so grateful that God blessed me with the chance to share close relationships with numerous people of varying sexual orientations who spoke honestly about their lives for as long as I can remember. Still, I cannot recall a single, intentional, public engagement by evangelical church leadership on the topic of sexual identity as such until I personally engaged in conversation with others a month or so ago during National Coming Out Day.
I won’t rehearse the details since the territory will be pretty familiar to anyone who has observed the event in the past. My LGBT buddies shared personal vignettes about their respective journeys. A few friends both queer and straight came out for the first time to several of their friends. And while the majority of conversation was enlightening and civil, barbed discussion arose on occasion when people maintaining a mainstream evangelical sexual ethic joined the dialog. As a result, I was reminded of a subtle yet severely detrimental feature of mainstream, evangelical Christianity when it comes to the way we understand and talk about the phenomenon of sexual identity. Namely, we don’t want to think about its existence at all.
As a result, many evangelical Christians are woefully inept at loving gay folks well. Predictably, we don’t love ourselves much better—even when our sexual orientation and behavior lines up perfectly with the best-case scenario recommendation of our sexual ethic since we developed that ethic in the absence of a robust concept of sexual identity. Why do we do keep doing this and what’s at stake? What might change for the better if evangelical Christians took a solid crack at exploring sexual identity directly rather than avoiding the matter or reverting to clichés and subcritical, scriptural misapplications? Here’s the first of a series of posts on this topic and why it makes such a huge difference for our lives and those we have been guided by God to love.
I’ve discovered that one of the things that motivates me to write swiftly and, evidently, pretty decently is when I encounter pointed questions from people about whom I deeply care. (Also, when topics arise that just happen to weirdly pique my interest.) So, I’ve decided to launch a new Q&A series addressing stuff like this as it organically arises in my conversation with folks. For this first installment, we’ll take a look at an example of one whole category of questions that I hear with greater frequency than anything else from people who are earnestly trying to follow Jesus. Enjoy!
Q. How does one truly, totally trust God? What part do my desires and sense of “need” play in the process? For years, I’ve heard that the Creator of the universe doesn’t need my help–God already knows how every series of events is going to play out in the end, including all my decisions. So, do I restrain my own wishes and just go with the flow as life progresses? Or do I take action when some particular set of conditions come into play? In either case, what does it mean to trust God amidst all this?
Trying to resolve this question has always been really tough for me. I have repeatedly tried to “be in God’s will” with all that I am and all that I do. And I have also been told that being “in God’s will” means that I would be happy and at peace. When I was younger, I was also told by a lot of people possessing some sort of spiritual authority precisely what God’s will was–basically, I was told that my own wishes and desires didn’t matter. As I look back on everything I’ve been through over the years, I can honestly say that I have experienced a lot of happy times in my life; however, I cannot say that I am happy and “at peace.” And so now, I have a really hard time believing that I will ever get what I really want–leaving it to God alone to work out supernaturally or something–and so I am compelled to try and help Him get the ball rolling!
What part do my desires play in living in a God-honoring way? This conflict of desires and disconnect between what I have been told about how my life in God should look for feel can cause a lot of stress.
What a great question! The standard, from-the-hip Bible verse people often bust out on this topic of Proverbs 3:5-6 is actually pretty instructive: Trusting in God with all your heart means NOT merely taking your own counsel alone, acknowledging God in every dimension of your life, and walking the path towards which God directs you when that actually happens. Conflicting desires are just a process challenge, meaning they present no fundamental barrier to moving towards some goal that God finds satisfying while you trust God.
Sure, there are times where we want something that is not in our best interests to pursue, in which case you could say that our desires truly conflict with God’s will–I find that cases like these are usually the really obvious ones where we are morally obligated to do or not do something, e.g. steal, lie, cheat, dodge legitimate responsibility, appropriately love our neighbor, etc. On the other hand, it’s possible for God to be totally okay with multiple different outcomes in the case of morally permissible activity, e.g. which godly spouse do I marry, which pair of shoes do I wear today, which healthy faith community do I join, which decent job do I work / carrier path do I embark upon, etc. In cases like these, it’s possible to encounter conflicting desires where no particular course of action once chosen would conflict with God’s will because all courses of action under consideration are morally permissible. In my experience, this is the majority of life; in fact, we can actually expect to encounter more situations like this as we grow in strength and encounter more possible options.
In the event that we don’t know how to reconcile conflicting desires where all of those desires are basically ethical, trusting God at least in part means picking an option (even if that option is rejecting all courses of immediate action to gain more clarity, wisdom, etc. before making a move) while believing that God will remain with us and continue to love us moment by moment even in that place of ambiguity of future outcome. This is one reason why an oppositional state of affairs to trusting God is worrying, and that’s why Jesus instructs his followers to eschew worrying specifically by trusting God, e.g. Matthew 6:24-34:
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
That said, the sort of peace that scripture promises us when we rightly pursue God, eschew worry, and embrace a posture of trust does not refer to a total cessation of all tension in our lives. Rather, it refers to a state of harmony or complementarity between the trajectory of our lives and God’s purposes. Think of it like this: Right now, I am “at peace” with the President of the United States because my activity as a citizen of the United States harmonizes with the overall trajectory of that President and our humanly instituted government. Nevertheless, I still encounter points of tension in my life–and this would be true even if the President were perfect like God and the United States government was absolutely just and loving, like the Kingdom of God as it breaks into our world. Why is that? Because life! On this side of history before Christ’s triumphal return, we may find wholeness and strength and unity with God and with each other, but we will not find a total cessation of all tension–a wiping away of every tear with “no more death or mourning or crying or pain” described by passages of scripture like Revelation 21:4–because these are all aspects of a future state of affairs depending on God’s institution of total justice on the far side of Jesus’s second coming.
As a result, we can certainly expect happiness and joy as we seek after the Lord while making all sorts of decisions in the day to day, but we should absolutely not expect to find an unbroken chain of bliss while the world remains a broken place that God is in the process of redeeming. This calls for courage. That’s why in trying to encourage the relatively young and inexperienced leader, Timothy, we find the older and more experienced leader, Paul, saying that “God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7). Courage only bears content in the face of something that is scary; we need power and love and self-discipline specifically in the face of things that are difficult, that tend to provoke hateful wrath, that threaten to erode our perseverance. Yes, we can expect times of joy and happiness as we seek after Jesus, but we can also expect times of difficulty–even and perhaps especially when we are on the right track. As Christ himself said to his followers according to Mark 10:29 and following, “Truly I tell you…no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.”
So to cap off this caveat, really trusting in God while making decisions about conflicting desires as we follow after Jesus means dealing squarely with the fact that we will encounter a mixture of good times and bad, happy times and sad. Moreover, we should remember that this is a normal thing, an outcome we should expect versus an indication that something has gone wildly off kilter. I’ve found that when I approach things this way, any anxiety about whether I am on the right track or how I should approach resolving this or that conflicting sets of desires tends to diminish.
Basically, we’re talking about a posture that is active in the face of dynamic, real world conditions rather than passively waiting around for God to magically work out everything with no effort on our part. At the same time, we’re talking about a posture that drinks deeply and thankfully of those times of happiness and joy without being thrown to terror in the face of sadness or difficulty, a posture that bases its ultimate hope and ultimate confidence in the supernaturally durable love of God transcending all things and bringing all things to ultimate reconciliation beyond anything we can do or even conceptualize. To see an example of all these different points pulled together in one statement, consider one of the last things Jesus communicated to his followers before he was crucified according to John 16:33, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
Note: For a pretty decent, longer read on how to make God-honoring decisions in general, check out Gary Friesen’s Decision Making and the Will of God. Love you lots–you rock! (P.s. For pure fun, maybe also listen to this song “Call My Name” by Tove Stryke, about which I am currently obsessed.)
Unless you’re not an American or have been living under a rock, you’re probably flush with exposure to pointed discussion about George Zimmerman being found not guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin. I have strong and yet also mixed feelings on this matter, and I’ve perused a good portion of others’ perspectives over the past couple days. On the one hand, I cannot argue that the jury exercised a lapse in judgment given the specific charges Zimmerman faced and the relative strength of the prosecution and defense. On the other hand, I cannot say that justice has been served with any definitive sense of closure based on the simple fact that a grown man wielding a handgun whist serving as a volunteer neighborhood watch shot to death a teenager wielding a bag of skittles with no legal repercussion to date–even after that man was instructed by a 911 dispatcher to avoid engaging that teenager in the first place with subsequent state investigation concluding that Zimmerman had racially profiled Martin despite Martin “not being involved in any criminal activity at the time of the encounter.”
To share some personal context, I do not ascribe to the overt, anti-gun camp’s philosophy. And while I earnestly try to embrace a life of peacemaking and non-violence, I cannot ascribe to all out pacifism. If it truly was the case that Martin attacked Zimmerman, then Zimmerman had the right to defend himself. But did Zimmerman provoke Martin first? Did Zimmerman exercise asymmetric force in responding to Martin even if it is true that Martin attacked him? Questions like these remain frustratingly outstanding. At the very least, Zimmerman’s case does bring to light problems with the invoked “stand your ground” legislation that became so critical to his criminal defense. While I don’t pretend to have completely analyzed the ways that race and class played a key, deleterious role in the events that took place in Sanford, Florida on February 26, 2012, I sure am glad that I do not live in a state that will acquit a man like George Zimmerman while finding guilty a woman like Marissa Alexander. In case her name sounds unfamiliar, Alexander is a young, African American woman sentenced to a twenty year prison term for firing warning shots against her allegedly abusive husband, i.e. without actually shooting him. Why a black mother cannot successful cite “stand your ground” legislation in her legal defense after firing warning shots at a fully grown assailant in her own home while a Hispanic, volunteer security guard can successfully cite that same legislation after shooting to death a teenager on the street in the rain is utterly beyond me. I don’t know exactly what is going on here, but it’s not justice.
On that point, while I expected a divergence of opinion about whether justice had been ultimately served in Zimmerman’s trial regardless of my views on the matter, I have been surprised at the complete apathy many people have espoused about the story in general. For a lot of folks, Florida v. Zimmerman was evidently little more than a ponderous cloud of datum clogging their evening news and afternoon twitter feed, a grand distraction hyped to the heights of public opinion by media cashing in on the story–no matter what the actual ramifications of that story might be for America in general or the families of Martin and Zimmerman in particular. Given this, I thought I’d share some reflection communicated by my friend and former Princeton Theological Seminary colleague, Trajan McGill. Since this is some of the best, most concise analysis I’ve seen so far, I’ll let Trajan’s words and a parting note from the biblical book of Amos speak for themselves in conclusion:
So I don’t think the jury here had much choice. It isn’t about whether they think he’s almost certainly guilty. If it is possible to hold a reasonable doubt, then they have to go with not guilty. And if you think our court system is unfair toward blacks today, just imagine where it would be if you started lowering the standard of proof below “beyond a reasonable doubt” down to “we think he did it.” But here’s the thing: if you are feeling actually celebratory about this outcome, you need to just be quiet and meditate on that for a while. Because what is proven beyond a reasonable doubt is that some damn fool with a wannabe hero complex, carrying a holster full of bullets and prejudice decided some black kid walking to his dad’s house was not only automatically worth calling 911 about, but needed to be followed and harassed. He then created a totally unnecessary confrontation that resulted in the death of a teenager. That much is proven even if George Zimmerman’s version of the story is true. So don’t call him a hero, and don’t call this justice. This is, at best, a case where there is no way to carry out actual justice but where nevertheless somebody out of his own idiocy triggered a tragedy that cost a life.
Another thing that I think needs to be said here: there is a certain kind of man who becomes a bigger man when he’s carrying a gun. That kind of man should never carry a gun. If being armed affects the size of your sense of self and the degree of confidence you have in your manhood…if you walk differently when you have a gun on you–and I mean more self-assuredly rather than more carefully…if it makes you more likely to casually walk right into a confrontation rather than more cautious about bringing something that can kill into the midst of a situation…if you are a bigger man when you are carrying a gun, then you need to put it away and lock it up, go take some time and find yourself, and wait until you’ve grown into a full man in your own right. Only once it doesn’t change who you are to hold a tool like that will you be ready to do so.
“This is what the Lord says to Israel: ‘Seek me and live…There are those who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground… Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts… Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!’” ~ Amos 5:4, 7, 15, 24.
This is not an anti-Valentines Day post. Yes, the holiday has been ridiculously commercialized. Yes, it can be a total downer if you are single. Yes, it can exert a ton of pressure if you are not single and you feel you need to come up with some grand scheme to communicate your affections or else completely disappoint the person you’re with. Yes, our current observance of the holiday bears little resemblance to Victorian Era bliss when people quoted Chaucer at whim and wrote their own cards with beautiful penmanship, when men were truly men and women were truly women and everybody knew how to dance and court and woo like Pride and Prejudice.
But here’s the thing: Valentines Day was originally a commemoration for martyrs, people butchered for their unyielding commitment to sharing God’s love no matter what. So can we all agree to shuffle our various decks of expectation and get out there to kick some butt for love’s sake? Feel free to consult your favorite encyclopedia or History.com or something if you doubt me, but the celebration of Valentines Day is ancient–as in practiced informally nearly two thousand years ago and formally established somewhere around 496 CE ancient. Its purpose was to memorialize several different people with “Valentine” or “Valentinus” somewhere in their names who were all slaughtered for their active, counter-cultural faith in Jesus by a powerful Roman Empire. For example, one of the dudes whose death the holiday recalled, Valentine of Terni, served as the bishop of Terni, Italy until his death around 197 CE. His reputation as an evangelist, miracle worker, and healer was so great that he was not only imprisoned, tortured, and beheaded to halt his ministry during the persecution ordered by Marcus Aurelius, he was executed at night in secret so that the people of Terni would not break out into riots to avenge him because of their adoration for the guy.
When a pagan government has to kill you in secret because they’re scared of their own pagan citizenry flipping out, you are doing it right. And that is why Valentines Day should ultimately be a call to arms, a call to compassionately and assertively embrace others–risking blood and thunder if necessary, with quiet and sustained and painstakingly humble means if that is what gets the job done best, with a heart so committed to responding to God’s overwhelming love for us that it can no sooner be dissuaded from inhabiting and sharing that love than it can stop beating and survive.
Some Christian holidays were derived from preexisting celebrations of other cultures, such as the explicit attempt by the Roman Catholic Church to co-opt and borrow elements from Dies Natalis Solis Invicti through its formalized celebration of Christmas. And while there were multiple different festivals from multiple different people groups around the same season as our contemporary celebration of Valentines Day in its formative context of Late Antiquity, there was virtually no carryover whatsoever into the original celebration of Valentines Day. Moreover, there was no romantic overtone to the holiday at all until Geoffrey Chaucer took a whack at it around a thousand years after it had been formally established. All the “love” celebrated in Valentines Day for the first millennium or so of its existence referred to the selfless compassion of people who literally laid down their lives to share the love of God with others.
This is not to say that romance has absolutely no place in the “proper” observance of Valentines Day or that other forms of love, like friendship or affection, are patently base. What’s at stake here is a matter of perspective and priority. In The Weight of Glory, the Christian essayist and former Oxford don, C.S. Lewis, launches into a diatribe against the popular notion that proper faith in God should merely blunt our passions:
“If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
No matter what your station, you have the opportunity to live the dream this Valentines Day of tasting and passing along a dose of the infinite joy that God’s very self has offered us. Don’t hate on all the lovebirds. Don’t turtle up in your shell of forever alone-ness. Don’t get so absorbed in your significant other or latest crush or going-on-thirty-years-of-marriage-spouse-of-consummate-awesomeness that you miss the deeper and even more awesome opportunity to get out there and kick butt for love in the way that those long-dead martyrs once knew. And just in case you’re totally devoid of ideas about how to do that, here are a few that I came up with for your consideration:
- “Like” on facebook as well as donate to The Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, which is building a global community free from all forms of sexual exploitation, including sexual assault and the commercial sex trade.
- If your grandmother is still alive, call her. Just do it.
- Remember that whole martyrdom thing? Visit Voice of the Martyrs homepage to learn about the millions of people suffering intense persecution for their faith in Jesus right now and donate to support their ministry.
- I read an email from a good buddy of mine who’s a dude fifteen minutes after midnight of February 14 that concluded with an all-caps “HAPPY VALENTINES DAY!!!” This inspired me to duplicate the matter for all the messages I will send today. Hey, why not join us and take things up a notch by linking the salutation to this article to inspire others, like this:
Just wanted to check on those TPS reports. How’s it coming?
- Buy a dozen flowers and distribute them to the oldest, most homely, or most needy people you encounter, looking them right in the eye as you wish them a Happy Valentines Day. By the way, just because some random person gives you a flower today does not mean that you are ugly :D
- Scope out this article listing fourteen different charitable options for Valentines Day compiled by the Case Foundation, spanning everything from fair-trade cards to ways of volunteering to methods for expressing compassion for those who could really use some, like nursing home residents.
- Still need some ideas about how to celebrate the holiday with that special someone or total lack thereof? Check out this article by USA Weekend listing twenty-three ways to do so whether you’re spoken for, single, chilling with kids, hanging out with friends, or all by yourself. But, seriously, don’t spend today all by yourself; there are plenty of people who would enjoy your company.
- Remember God’s love for you and take advantage of the precious opportunity you have to share that love with others. If you just need to hear it, this reading of 1 John by the award-winning Max McLean is a pretty good option.
Note: This post is dedicated to four women who have recently, unexpectedly, and graciously brought a dose of joy into my life. To Kay Spreitzer for definitively introducing me to the swing dancing community at Fizz, to Rachel Durchslag for teaching me about the amazing work of CAASE, to Katie Fretland for her dedication to The Howard Brown Health Center with well wishes for her new journalism gig in Oklahoma City, and to my sister and favorite valentine, Adriel Harris, for sharing the masters and demos for her forthcoming musical releases to which I wrote this piece. (Holy Moses, get ready, world…)