I’ve been reading the book “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” over the last few days. It’s very different than the movie made of it — which I love — but it follows the same basic premise.
There’s a kid named Craig Gilner, and he’s depressed and anxious because, well, he’s a teenager and there’s a lot going on in his life. Written in first person, “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” begins with these words:
“It’s so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself. That’s above and beyond everything else, and it’s not a mental complaint — it’s a physical thing, like it’s physically hard to open your mouth and make the words come out. They don’t come out smooth and in conjunction with your brain the way normal people’s words do; they come out in chunks as if from a crushed-ice dispenser; you stumble on them as they gather behind your lower lip. So you just keep quiet.”
I’ve found in my life that my depression makes me quiet. Not just because I can’t quite get the words out, but because I don’t want the words to come out at all. I don’t want to scare my wife or my family. I don’t want people to question my commitment to x, y and z. I don’t want to talk about it.
But when the words do come out, they’re not very positive, to say the least. I tell my wife that she deserves someone better, someone who has it all together. I tell myself that it would be easier to walk away, to just disappear into nothingness. I tell myself, “Hey, heaven’s already going to be better than this — why not get there sooner?”
I’ve never made a suicide plan. But I’ve thought about it. I’ve thought about it as I’m driving on a highway and prepare to cross a bridge, wondering if my car could make it through the bridge’s edges if I drove fast enough. I’ve thought about it as stand in my kitchen, looking at the knives stashed in the block on the counter. I’ve thought about it while standing at the top of stairwells, thinking it would probably hurt and would hurt worse if it didn’t work.
I’ve done all this — had these thoughts, spoken these words, held back those comments — while professing Jesus Christ as my Savior. Because it’s not un-Christian to want to kill yourself.
This evening, before heading out to the local county fair, I scrolled through my Twitter and was devastated.
News broke that Jarrid Wilson, a pastor and author, had committed suicide at the age of 30. He was an associate pastor at Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California, and a co-founder of the mental health nonprofit Anthem of Hope. I followed Wilson on social media for a long time, and remember when Anthem of Hope started. I even offered to write for the site when they asked for regular bloggers.
This was a guy who, the day before his suicide was reported, wrote on Twitter, “Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure suicidal thoughts. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure depression. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure PTSD. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure anxiety. But that doesn’t mean Jesus doesn’t offer us companionship and comfort. He ALWAYS does that.”
He was so, so, so, so right. And he lived that message! He was the guy who more-or-less singlehandedly, just through his presence on social media, helped me believe that it was OK to be a Christian who had depression and anxiety, that my mental illnesses did not disqualify me from being loved by God and loved by Jesus.
This makes two people this year who have had singular and significant influences on my life and faith, two people that have died. Author Rachel Held Evans passed away in May.
I usually know how to write a lot, and I started this blog post planning to write a long thing, but as I get into this, I’m losing words. So if this doesn’t come out right, I’m sorry.
I never met Jarrid or Rachel. I listened to podcast interviews, followed them on Twitter, devoured their wisdom. But they’re both gone.
Rachel died of a medical condition, but it was still shocking. Jarrid’s was shocking and unsurprising at the same time.
If you’ve ever considered suicide, you know that sometimes the feeling comes suddenly. I don’t know exactly what happened with Jarrid, and I may never know. But the desire to end it all, to kill yourself, to remove yourself from the world, can build up over weeks and weeks or just occur in an instant, and you’re in a place to make it happen.
Why, oh why, would this happen to a Christian?
Because Christians are people too. We are not superhumans, and we should never strive to be. We shouldn’t consider ourselves or other Christians above the fray from things like suicide, depression and anxiety. If we think that being a Christian means we’re immune, we don’t understand Christianity.
It’s my firm belief that wanting to kill yourself is not anti-Christian or anti-God. Both Elijah and Job, in their desperation, wished they had never been born (1 Kings 19:4 and Job 3:1, respectively), which I think is very similar if not the exact same desire. Even godly men, praised by God Himself in various ways, wished they had never existed.
Committing suicide does not condemn you to hell if you are a Christian. It does not exclude you from God’s love. It does not, I repeat, DOES NOT mean you are a coward.
Many Christians do not understand mental health. They do not understand the depths of it. They don’t understand. They just don’t get it.
Over the next few days, I will be posting some writing I did a while back on mental health and being a Christian. I wrote them a few months ago, not even sure what I was going to do with them, but Jarrid’s passing seems like a good time to share these things. Written in better times, those posts will do a lot better helping explain where I am than what I’m writing right now.
“Sometimes you can just be in a funk creatively or, you know, as a person, and it’s like there’s a fog around you and you can’t see out of it, but that’s part of the journey.” – Andy Mineo, “Clarity”
“Faith isn’t certainty, it’s adventure, something you’re going to come back from dusty and bruised, having seen and done things you never would have even considered before.” – Pete Holmes, Comedy Sex God
I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of something being “clear” or “transparent.”
In journalism, clarity and transparency are very important. Without those two things, we can’t really do our job right. If the truth isn’t clear, it’s our responsibility to dig and ask questions and figure out what is true. Transparency is vital, and it’s one of our main goals as reporters to be both transparent ourselves and to hold others to the same standard.
For most of my life, the faith journey as a Christian has been about gaining understanding and clarity, about trying to see God as transparently as possible and know what He says and what He wants. But the older I’ve gotten, the more I learn, it seems, that things aren’t as clear as I thought they were — with the Bible, with the world, what it means to be a Christian — and life seems to be more about the journey, about working through the fog instead of getting out of it.
These are my mediations on that thought.
Growing up, the message I got on the Bible was pretty clear: it’s God’s Word, it’s all true and it’s all applicable to us today.
In fact, the Bible was God speaking to us, a love letter, a manual, “basic instructions before leaving earth,” as it were. It was direct communication from God to me, with directions for how to live as a Christian. And I spent most of my life living that and believing that.
But in the last year or so, as I’ve dealt with more of real life and grown as a person and a reader, I’ve seen that the Bible, to my understanding, was never meant to be that. I’m choosing not to get into here what exactly led me to that, but I’m left with this uncertainty.
So when someone says something is “biblical” now, I’m left asking questions because, and I’ll throw you this bone here, the Bible is a very complex, complicated, ancient and diverse book. Its sections were written over thousands of years to several different groups of people by several different authors with varying motives, some of them clear and some of them unclear.
For example, near the end of his Gospel, John writes that “these [words] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). But not every book of the Bible is that transparent in its meaning and purpose, so we’re left making well-educated, and often well-intentioned, guesses.
What are the psalms for? In some cases, it seems to be David’s personal journal, pouring out his heart before God — and for a choir director to put to music. In other cases, it’s a recounting of who God is and what He’s done. In other cases, it’s asking God to put enemies to death and provide victory on the battlefield.
For us to look at the Psalms as a whole and say it’s all trying to say one thing would be a bit silly, wouldn’t it? A bit intellectually dishonest? Ignorant of proper literary criticism?
Why should we not apply that method to the whole Bible? Yes, there are central themes — God, His relationship with Israel, the coming Messiah — but the whole Bible put together is not ultimately about one thing. 3 John covers hospitality and calling out one dude in the church that Gaius, the letter’s recipient, is running. Obadiah covers a prophecy from God about the land of Edom and Israel’s final triumph. The books of Esther and Song of Solomon don’t even say the word “God” in them. For us to claim the whole Bible is an instruction manual/“for us”/a love letter is at best a stretch and at most an improper appreciation for what it is.
It’s diverse. It tells different stories of different peoples at different times from us — or at least, my general perception of “us,” mostly-white America in the 21st century. The original recipients of the Bible’s sections looked nothing like us, spoke nothing like us and had a very different culture than we have. And since we didn’t live like them or experience that culture, how can we say for certain what specific things mean?
That’s not to say there’s nothing for us. There are timeless truths and indelible wisdom throughout the Bible that we can apply to our circumstances, our lives and our situations today. The book of Proverbs is chock full of wisdom both practical and spiritual. The life of Jesus and His characteristics as shown in the Gospels are perfect and worth trying to emulate in our own context, and we can learn object lessons from the stories in Exodus, 1 Samuel and the Kings, among others. And, most importantly, we can learn how to be in relationship with a perfect and loving God and be forgiven of our sins.
But I think it’s crucial for me, at least, and for all of us to take into consideration that the Bible isn’t quite clear on everything. There are contradictions, and there are instances of historical context that undergird everything we read. We need to take that into account when we read the Bible and give ourselves and it space and time to understand and be understood.
Stephen Covey’s seven habits for highly-successful people are well-known, and one particular one sticks out to me as I meditate on this: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Before we go and try to put our spin on the Bible, it’s vital that we take the time to really understand what’s happening in the historical background of its pages before we go making pronouncements of our opinions on it. Where that might lead us — to the disappointment of many, including me — is uncertainty and murkiness.
And that’s so opposite what we’re taught as Christians. We are the bastions of absolute truth, of what’s real, of what’s clear. But in reality, if we take the term “biblical” at its most literal, which we should, there aren’t a lot of things that are really “biblical.” There are things that are “godly” — like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) — and things we can and should “think on” — like truth, honor, justice, purity, pleasure, commendation, excellence and worthiness (Philippians 4:8) — but to apply statements to the Bible as a whole, I think, is missing the point. It’s not always “clear” or “transparent.”
In sixth grade, I started going to school dances, at which I’d hear the popular music of the day while standing against the wall and, every once in a while, getting a cute girl to dance with me. She wouldn’t look at me much while we were dancing, something I always thought was weird, but now I see that as “I’m just trying to be nice to you, but I’d rather be slow-dancing with somebody else.”
Sorry, this isn’t supposed to be about me re-living past trauma.
I entered sixth grade in 2004, so some of the songs I heard included great songs like “The Reason” by Hoobastank (No. 6 on the Billboard Year-End chart), “She Will Be Loved” by Maroon 5 (No. 35) and “Sorry 2004” by Reuben Studdard (No. 53). Some of the other songs were a little less innocent: “Yeah!” by Usher with Lil Jon and Ludacris (No. 1), “Lean Back” by Terror Squad (No. 10) and “Get Low” by Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz with the Ying Yang Twins (No. 70).
That last one is particularly, well, explicit in its exploration of the artists’, well, appreciation for the female form while dancing. The popular line in the chorus — “to the window, to the wall” — would ring through my ears throughout the ride back home in my parents’ car.
I remember one time after a dance saying that I liked the music, the instrumental background, but some of the lyrics were nasty. I still think some of them are. For real, just ugly and disturbing.
There’s two reflections I have on this. First, I think it says more about Americans as music consumers than the artists as composers that songs like “Get Low” was that popular. It was No. 11 on the year-end Billboard chart in 2003, behind the classics “Ignition (Remix)” by the now appropriately-shamed R. Kelly (No. 2) and “Right Thurr” by Chingy (No. 7).
I could slide in references to these songs all day, but the second reflection I have on this time was a subtle lesson I learned: the world can’t be trusted. The world has it all wrong. They’re focused on the wrong things.
My perspective started to shift when I saw a tweet from then-Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson. He wrote about how bad pornography is for a relationship and how it harms you.
My mind was blown. This guy, who was an arrogant guy from all appearances, was saying something good and positive. Johnson has certainly had his off-the-field (and on-the-field, for that matter) issues before and after that tweet, but the message still stands.
Perhaps it was my misunderstanding what the church was trying to teach me about the world in the first place, but my mind was changed. The world wasn’t all bad.
In modern Christian culture, we often use “the world” as shorthand for non-Christians, usually in a context like, “The world does this, but you shouldn’t do that. You should do this. You should be different.” That was the general reasoning given for avoiding things from R-rated movies to alcohol to cigarettes to cursing. There were other reasons, but that was the underlying motivation. Having that mindset led to me having a judgmental attitude toward friends in high school or college that would watch and love R-rated movies (particularly ones with sex in them), cuss, do physical stuff with their girlfriends and more.
But as I got older, I learned more about why people did what they did, and I found it wasn’t so clear and obvious like I was taught. Sometimes people drink for more reasons than sin — it can be fun, and just like playing a board game or a round of golf, bonding can happen over a beer. R-rated movies can be good entertainment and even teach us lessons about life that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.
Basically, I learned that not being a Christian didn’t mean you couldn’t be a good person, that you couldn’t make a difference, that you weren’t worth listening to and understanding and appreciating. Non-Christians shifted from a salvation project to people and friends. Not being a Christian slipped from my list of judgment-worthy qualities. To be fair, it’s a list I probably shouldn’t have developed in the first place.
It’s not clear that the world is all bad, or that it’s just something we should “be in, but not of.” I think Paul argued this point: “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22). His example is stunning, as is Jesus’ as he spent time with sinners and tax collectors (many times, but particularly in Matthew 9:10). In a society where the “righteous” Jews didn’t associate with outsiders and pariahs, not only did Jesus speak to them — see the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 — He ate with them and went to their houses — like Zacchaeus in Luke 19.
The examples are endless. Jesus and Paul not only observed the world and knew about, they engaged it because they knew it wasn’t as clear as “bad.” It was usually a little more complex and complicated.
BEING A CHRISTIAN
Similar to the Bible, I had what I thought was a pretty clear picture of what it meant “to be a Christian” when I was growing up, and one of the major stipulations was no cursing.
One time after church, I wrote a Facebook status about how Christians who cussed were bad Christians or missed the point or something like that. A school classmate of mine commented and said something about how that’s not necessarily true, and she was offended that I had said that. I wrote something back about Proverbs 4:24 — “Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips” (NIV).
Looking back now, I feel like I was misguided about a couple things. First of all, I don’t know if the writer of Proverbs was talking about those four-letter words that start with certain letters. Second, where in the Bible does it say that Christians aren’t supposed to use those words? Third, I wasn’t going to win that classmate to my side with a snide Facebook comment lobbing Scripture — however wise it is — at them from the other side of a phone screen.
That story is an example of where I let the culture around me tell me what it meant to be a Christian when the reality is much different.
Because the Bible isn’t a clear, monolithic book, to me at least, there is no one version of “Christian” today. There’s the Southern Baptist Christian, the Methodist Christian, the Episcopal Christian, the Democratic Christian, the Republican Christian, the male Christian, the female Christian. Our faith and the wisdom of the Bible affects all of us differently and leads each of us in different ways that are not necessarily bad. They might contradict at times, but that shows even more that while the Bible may be “clear” about something to one person, it’s “clear” in a different way for somebody else.
To my knowledge, the Bible only gives one or two “clear” instructions for what it means to be a Christian: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, ‘Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame’” (Romans 10:9-11). Man, Romans is so good.
So what it objectively means to “be a Christian” is in one sense clear and obvious and in another a little muddier. There seems to be clear instruction for how to become a Christian, but after that, some of the practicals are up in the air.
Baptists believe in baptism after salvation. Methodists believe in infant baptism. The PCA and PCUSA, while both “Presbyterians” by denominational title, have several differences of opinion. But who am I to say that one is a Christian and the other isn’t? If they choose to follow Jesus, who am I to disqualify them for differing beliefs?
THE FREEDOM OF CHRIST
For a long time, I didn’t quite understand the idea of freedom in Christ. After all, if we’re Christians, aren’t we supposed to be restrained from doing certain things because what it means to be a Christian is quite specific?
Speaking about the “freedom” for which “Christ has set us free,” Paul writes in Galatians, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Galatians 5:1,6).
Circumcision is a a topic in several of Paul’s letters. The Jewish Christian crowd was using it as a sign of faithfulness. Paul rebukes that idea in Romans 3:29-30 — “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of the Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.” Here in Galatians, Paul argues, in Christ neither being circumcised nor uncircumcision means anything. The only thing that counts, he says, is faith working through love.
Being a Christian, he argues to the Galatians, is not about doing certain things or acting a certain way. It’s about faith. The Greek for working is energeó, and properly means, according to HELPS Word-studies, “working in a solution which brings it from one stage (point) to the next.” Love, Paul argues, is energizing faith. Love brings faith from one point to the next.
Whether that’s love of God or love of others, Paul does not specify in Galatians. But as Jesus says, the two greatest commands are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37,39). The Greek root for “love” in those verses and Galatians 5:6 is the same — agapaó, “to love.”
I think this gives us a snapshot of a framework by which we can look at the Bible and look at life. Faith, being increased and improved by love, is the guiding light. From there, we can determine what it means for us to be a Christian. Of course, we should take into account loving God and loving others; this is not a free-for-all where we define it for ourselves. The Bible shows us helpful wisdom and guidance.
But trying to define what a Christian should act like on our own terms, without taking into account love and true wisdom, is a dangerous mission. I think it’s a lot more gray than we’d like it to be.
That means this, even as I write this to you, is an exercise for me. I have to give you space to live the Christian life you choose just as I ask you to give me space for me. They may be different – heck, in some ways, they may be completely contradictory. But as long as it’s not sinful — the Bible and the Holy Spirit can help us understand that — it’s usually A-OK.
DOES CLARITY EXIST?
So here’s the real question: does true and clear and black-and-white clarity exist? No. And yes.
There are some things that seem to be pretty clear. Gravity. Man as sinful — theologian Reinhold Neibuhr (the same guy that composed the “Serenity Prayer”) wrote that the doctrine of original sin was “the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” Salvation by grace through faith.
But there are a lot of things that aren’t clear. It’s dangerous, therefore, for us to paint with a broad brush, especially when we jump into conversations with other Christians. Cussing isn’t universally accepted as sinful. Voting for a Democrat who supports abortion rights isn’t universally accepted as sinful. Supporting the maintenance of Confederate monuments isn’t universally accepted as sinful.
So it’s good for us, in light of this, to carefully enter conversations and define terms. Because clarity doesn’t exist as much as we might think.
NOTE: All Bible verses quoted come from the New Revised Standard Version, except where otherwise noted.
I don’t do this very often, but this is a special circumstance.
I’m working on a new personal project. I’m not sure if it’s going to be a book or a series of blog posts or a podcast…maybe even a documentary, who knows. But I’m surveying people.
It’s not a scientific survey, it’s more on the anecdotal side. There are a couple yes or no questions, but mainly, it’s about hearing about experiences and thoughts about growing up in church. Here’s what I wrote on Google Forms:
“Hello! I’m working on a personal project about being in high school and being a Christian. As part of the project, I want to get some input from teenagers and former teenagers about their experiences as Christians in high school. This won’t be a scientific survey, but simply one getting some other stories and input.
IMPORTANT NOTE: The results of this survey will be used in one way or another for a future public project. I haven’t decided exactly what that will look like. You can remain anonymous if you wish, or you can give your name, or initials, so on.
This survey will ask questions about how your church/youth group approached topics like sex & relationships, social media, media consumption, politics & government and more, as well as what you learned about them from your time in church as a teenager. The idea is to get a picture of what these groups are teaching about these topics ‘from a Christian worldview.’
It’s a decently lengthy survey, so give yourself some time if you’re willing to answer. Don’t worry about writing too much. The more, the better.
I’d prefer to hear from people who are 13-29, current teens and people who were teenagers in the ‘social media age,’ as it were, who grew up in church or became a Christian during their high school years. If you have any questions, let me know — firstname.lastname@example.org.”
We journalists like studies. They help us put stories and topics in context.
So a study released in 2018 exploring the association between importance of religion and suicide ideation is obviously going to interest me.
If you’ve followed my writing for any length of time, or you’re a friend of mine, you know that religion and mental health are two of my favorite topics. So of course, I wanted to learn about this study. Unfortunately, it’s $4 to access, but thankfully there was a news article about it from Reuters titled “Religious faith linked to suicidal behavior in LGBQ adults.”
If you’ve followed news somewhat closely, you’ve got to be aware of the stories of LGBTQ individuals, teens in particular, that take their own lives with motivations strongly related to their sexuality. According to The Trevor Project, a nonprofit that provides mental health support to LGBTQ youth, gay/lesbian teens “seriously contemplate suicide” nearly three times more than straight youth and are five times as likely to attempt suicide.
So this study, reported in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, can’t be that surprising. Analyzing data from the multiple surveys on mental health of college students, the numbers were startling. While 3.7 percent of heterosexual young adults reported recent thoughts of suicide, the numbers increased for those questioning their sexuality (16.4 percent), living bisexual (11.4 percent) or identifying as gay or lesbian (6.5 percent).
The numbers jump when it comes to attempting suicide: 5 percent for heterosexual youth, 20 percent for bisexual, 17 percent for questioning and 14 percent for gay or lesbian.
The heartbreaking statistic came here:
“For bisexual youth, the importance of religion was not associated with suicidal behavior, while religiosity was protective against thoughts of suicide and suicidal attempts in the heterosexual youth. But lesbians and gays who reported that religion was important to them were 38 percent more likely to have had recent suicidal thoughts. For lesbians only, religion was associated with a 52 percent increased likelihood of suicidal thinking.
Questioning individuals were almost three times as likely to have attempted suicide recently if they reported that religion was very important to them.”
One of the study’s authors, John R. Blosnich of West Virginia’s Injury Control Research Center, told the Huffington Post that studies for years have said considering religion important has limited the number of people considering suicide. But this study, as well as other surveys and data, indicates that things are different when it comes to sexual minorities.
So what do we do?
What Role Did the Church Play?
Before we get going: this is not an evaluation of whether or not homosexuality is a sin. That’s not the point of this piece.
Anyway, most scientists of any stripe — social, physical, organic, chemistry, etc. — will tell you that correlation does not equal causation, and I agree. But this study begs a question:
Has the Christian church played a role in this?
The HuffPo article says, accurately, that “some of America’s largest religious denominations still hold non-affirming views of queer sexuality,” including the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention and the United Methodist Church *(see note at the bottom of this article)*. HuffPo quotes Amelia Markham, described as a “queer Christian activist” with The Reformation Project, an LBTQ-affirming Christian group, saying more needs to be done in helping Christians have “a more nuanced view of queer sexuality.”
“There are some serious questions we have to begin asking ourselves if maintaining one interpretation of our sacred text is demonstrably linked to bodily harm and spiritual devastation for an entire group of people,” Markham said. “That is something I hope religious folks across the board would begin to think and pray more critically through.”
Markham’s call is serious, and based on the numbers, I think it would be dishonest if the Christian church, particularly the evangelical wing, didn’t ask itself if it played a role in these numbers, these realities.
Again, correlation doesn’t equal causation, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it did in this case. I’ve lived my whole life in a church culture that severely stigmatizes LGBTQ people, intentionally or not. The Christian evangelical community for many years has said flat-out that homosexuality is a sin, with some churches creating little to no space for LGBTQ people in churches, sometimes to negative consequences.
Countless stories have been told of teens or youth that have come out to their families and been rejected, sometimes kicked out. I listened to a podcast recently featuring Trey Pearson, former lead singer of the Christian band Everyday Sunday, who said he experienced severe trauma and pain due to fighting his sexual feelings for years because of his church upbringing. Countless Christian authors and speakers, including Rachel Held Evans and Jen Hatmaker, were more or less banished from evangelical circles due to their belief that homosexuality is not a sin.
Very often, evangelical Christians defend their actions and beliefs with the statement that they’re just sticking to the Bible, defending God’s Word and loving people to tell them they’re sinners. “Hate the sin, love the sinner,” they say. And while I’m sure there are many that are properly loving their LGBTQ family and friends and reflecting Christ in doing it, there are many LGBTQ people who have left the church and left God at least in part due to how they were treated by so-called Christians.
What Did Jesus Do?
Again, this is not a conversation about the sinfulness or non-sinfulness of homosexuality. This is a conversation about the effect the church’s position and attitude and approach to same-sex attraction and homosexuality has had on real people and real lives.
The culture hasn’t always done well with it, first of all. In 1998, gay college student Matthew Shepard was murdered in Wyoming, an event that became a lynchpin for hate crimes due to looming suspicion the attack was motivated by Shepard’s sexuality. In 2010, 18-year-old Rutgers student Tyler Clementi committed suicide after his roommate recorded Clementi’s intimate encounter with another male.
These events have caused a societal push for LGBTQ acceptance and understanding and further discussion about mental health and suicide. That’s all awesome, in my opinion. And while some Christian congregations are actively addressing these issues in the right way, it’s my opinion that the church at large is falling behind on both counts.
How often are Christian blog posts written about helping people that identify as LGBTQ that doesn’t involve telling them they’re sinful? How often are sermons given where we’re encouraged to learn from and understand our gay and lesbian neighbors, friends and family members? I’m sure those things happen, but not enough. We’re often more concerned with being “right” than being “a good neighbor.”
What did Paul do, and what did Jesus do, more importantly? The people that were considered outside the “religious crowd,” how did he handle them?
He loved them. And no, I’m not talking about loving people by “telling them the truth.” Yes, that is a form of love, but anything LGBTQ person that’s been around an evangelical Christian has more likely than not already received that kind of love.
What Jesus did is eat. Matthew 9:10-13 —
“And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard it, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’”
Eating was a very intimate thing to do in those times. You’d sit at a table and take your shoes off, recline and spend time. There were no cell phones, no menus, no TVs nearby. Just the food and the people.
Jesus ate with people labeled “sinners,” both in this passage and other times. In this particular passage, both Matthew and the Pharisees refer to Jesus’ dinner guests as “sinners.” Everyone at the time sinned, so the distinction made here is about identity. These people were identified by their sin — not their profession, not their father or family, but their sin. They were outcasts, pariahs, weirdos. But Jesus loved them the same.
In the current evangelical Christian culture, members of the LGBTQ community are among today’s “sinners.” They’re outcasts, pariahs, weirdos, different. Far too often, the church today is known for shunning those “sinners” instead of eating with them, loving them, appreciating them as people created in the image of God.
The Concept Falls Short
This is where “hate the sin, love the sinner” falls short on so many levels. I get the concept: love the people, hate what they do. But in practice, it fails far too often.
What happens when someone drinks too much alcohol? We may say, “Hey, he/she is drunk.” That person becomes defined by their actions. We do it with so many things: profession, interests, religion, etc.
Members of the LGBTQ community often take pride in their sexuality and make that a primary identifier, something the evangelical church picks up on. Because the “sin” begins to identify the “sinner” in our minds, they become interchangeable, and we begin to hate the sinner.
Most of this happens subconsciously and unintentionally, I believe, but we begin to treat people the way the biblical culture treated “sinners,” making them outsiders and pariahs. We spend more time trying to change them than love them.
And then we go in on how bad the LGBTQ culture is. It’s all about how they need to change and how the “militant gay agenda” is ruining America and allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with is dangerous for our children. Again, not everyone is like that, but it’s said way too often.
First of all, imagine if Christians had been treated like members of the LGBTQ community have been treated over most of the last 40-50 years. Wouldn’t we be frustrated with the persecution? For a long time, sexual orientation and gender identity weren’t protected classes in discrimination laws. Imagine if religion was in the same place.
Second, to group the entire LGBTQ community, as some do, with the “militant gay agenda” is dishonest. Most, I believe, just want to live their lives and be treated fairly. To see extremists who call themselves “born again” compare LGBTQ people to the Ku Klux Klan would make anybody mad.
It’s insulting. It’s humiliating. It’s discriminatory. No wonder they don’t like us.
But some of them like Jesus. I wonder why.
Maybe it was because He never spoke about the “militant pantheistic agenda” of the Roman Empire. Maybe it was because He hung out with the pariahs. He listened, loved and taught. He was condemning of the religious people, those who were gleeful in telling people why they were wrong. He encouraged all to repent while turning water to wine and five loaves and two fish into an overwhelming feast.
As Jesus said in Matthew 9, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” His ultimate desire was for people to love one another. Yes, His message was one of repentance and of turning from sin, but how did He go about His ministry? Where do we see His efforts? In the good news of salvation, in the dying on the cross for our sins to be forgiven. “Follow me,” he told the disciples, “and I will make you fishers of men.” He says to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” He started with mercy and love and following Him.
Maybe we should try to look more like him. Be listeners. Ask questions. Learn. Sympathize. Be compassionate. Treat people the way you would wish to be treated.
That’s the Golden Rule, right?
I’ll end with a quote from a guy named Jeff Johnston with Focus on the Family. He wrote an incredibly powerful and helpful piece on “9 Ways to Reach Out to a Gay-Identified Friend,” which you should really check out. Here’s a bit:
“Imagine attending a gay pride parade and hearing insults shouted by church people standing on the sidelines. Would you want to follow a God like the one they’re displaying? Or imagine attending church and hearing derogatory language from the pulpit. Would you want to develop relationships with those people?”
When I was growing up, even into high school and college, I would read psalms and other passages of Scripture and not be able to relate to when there were references to “enemies.”
I never had enemies. There was a guy that I didn’t really get along with for most of high school — God sent him to the same college as me to work that out — but other than that I didn’t have anyone that I hated and he/she hated me, or that there was tension between.
So I’d read things like this — “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28) — I wouldn’t get it. It wouldn’t make sense.
That’s changed in the last year.
About one year ago, I did a series of stories on a hot topic in Lee County — I work for a North Carolina newspaper, for those of you that don’t know me. Everything was factual, accurate, well-researched and documented. I was proud of the work I did.
Almost instantly, for the first time in my life, I received an outpouring of backlash that’s continued to this day. People started giving me affectionate nicknames, like #FakeNewsZach or #NoFactZach, saying my reporting was #FakeNewsbyZacharyHorner. I had people who used to love me and praise me begin to fuss at me, call me a liar. I would say hello to people and they’d ignore me. They attacked my family. They spread lies about me and my family.
That’s about as much detail as I’ll go into here.
It really refreshed my view of verses like Psalm 5:8 — “Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me.”
When we’re attacked, when our enemies go after us, when we get maligned and lied about, it’s a chance for us to grow in righteousness. David, the writer of Psalm 5, pleads for God to lead him in righteousness because of his enemies. When we’re attacked, we have the opportunity to show others what a life filled with Christ looks like — integrity, honesty, steadfastness.
It’s not an opportunity for us to bite back, to criticize, to hold hateful attitudes. I admit freely that my heart has not always been in the right place, that I’ve said and thought rude and mean-spirited things about my “enemies.” It’s a tough thing.
But it’s my desire daily to try to kill those thoughts, those feelings. I’m trying. And that’s where Psalm 5:8 challenges me. I hope it challenges you too.
You guys ever been in that situation when you’re with someone and you’re just completely uncomfortable?
I think of the scenarios where icebreakers were used to get to know people. First of all, I HATE icebreakers. I was an RA for a year in college and I acted like I liked them, but I couldn’t stand them. Second, I’m SUPER uncomfortable around new people. Today at work, I had to go up to random people on the street and ask them a question for tomorrow’s paper. So awkward for me.
In those situations, I don’t feel like letting my guard down with people. I have a hard time being myself. I wouldn’t sit on a sofa and prop my feet up, even if I was at my own home. The comfort level’s not there.
Jesus was never that way, and He still isn’t. Just look at the dinner table.
Carried to the Table
A good example of what “being at the table” with someone is seen in 2 Samuel 9. It’s the inspiration for the worship band Leeland’s fantastic song “Carried to the Table.”
David was king. He desired to “show…kindness” to anyone left from the “house of Saul” for “Jonathan’s sake” (v. 1). The only person left was Mephibosheth, one of Jonathan’s sons. David called for him, and Mephibosheth came before him and fell to the ground in homage. We’ll pick up the story in v. 7-10 and 13:
And David said to him, “Do not fear, for I will show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan, and I will restore to you all the land of Saul your father, and you shall eat at my table always.” And (Mephibosheth) paid homage and said, “What is your servant, that you should show regard for a dead dog such as I?”
Then the king called Ziba, Saul’s servant, and said to him, “All that belonged to Saul and to all his house I have given to your master’s grandson. And you and your sons and your servants shall till the land for him and shall bring in the produce, that your master’s grandson may have bread to eat. But Mephibosheth your master’s grandson shall always eat at my table…
So Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem, for he ate always at the king’s table. Now he was lame in both feet.
David showed incredible mercy to the grandson of his enemy Saul, the man who had sworn to kill him, because of Mephibosheth’s relationship to Jonathan. Instead of clearing house for fear of being overthrown, David sought to be good to people, to “show the kindness of God” to them (v. 3).
And in came Mephibosheth, a crippled man, unable to move on his own. David not only welcomed him in, but allowed him to eat from his table and be part of the “family,” as it were.
Reclining by the Table
Matthew 9 shows off one of my favorite stories in Scripture. Jesus has just called Matthew, a tax collector, the worst of the worst for Jews, to be one of his disciples. Immediately after this, Jesus “reclined at table in the house” with “many tax collectors and sinners.” They “came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples” (v. 10).
Much has been written about the position of tax collectors in Israel. They were often Israelites who were working for the Roman government, collecting taxes, sometimes grossly unfairly. You need only look at the story of Zaccheus in Luke 19 to see how these tax collectors would often take advantage of the conquered Israelites.
Not only that, but there were “sinners” in the house as well. To be with tax collectors and sinners was a no-no, and the Pharisees let him know it. They asked the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (v. 11). Jesus heard what they said and responded. Verses 12-13:
But when (Jesus) heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.
First of all, mic drop.
Secondly, we see Jesus’ purpose for coming to earth. He didn’t come down, God in the form of man, to hang out with all the “righteous” people, those who thought they had it all together. He came down to be with those who needed Him most. The Great Physician went to be with the sickest patients.
Safe at the Table
Both of these stories have two things in common: being at a table and mercy being shown to those in need.
Eating at a table with friends and family is one of the most intimate things we can do — as long as cell phones are put away. We’re sharing food, stories, memories, laughs and more. We’re being together.
What Jesus did with the tax collectors and sinners, both of them stated as “reclining” at the table, was unheard of. It was a prophet, a man claiming to be God, not only eating with sinners but letting His guard down with them. Relaxing. The same thing with David and Mephibosheth. The new king of Israel, letting a lame man eat at his table and blessing him with a house and land and servants. For no reason other than mercy.
And that’s the second point. Neither Mephibosheth nor the sinners and tax collectors earned their way to reclining at the table, fellowshipping with kings. If anything, they were the opposite of worthy of that privilege. It was given to them because of mercy and grace.
In the same way, we are safe at the table. Jesus sees us and says, no matter our weaknesses, injuries and illnesses, whether literal or physical or mental or emotional or figurative or spiritual, “I will recline with you. You are safe here. I came for you.”
We’re safe there. Just as Mephibosheth was safe from being destitute and poor because of his illness and his relationship to David’s former enemy, just as the tax collectors and sinners were safe from judgement as Jesus’ hand for their unrighteousness, we are just as safe despite our sinfulness because of Jesus’ grace and mercy.
NOTE: This is the second preview excerpt of my book In The Midst of Madness: A Christian’s Experience with Anxiety and Finding Relief. The book will be available on Jan. 12, 2018.
Our Anxiety Is for Our Good
You might not believe me. And I wouldn’t blame you for doing so. If you suffer with the amount of anxiety that I do, I totally get it.
It sucks! It’s one of the worst things that you encounter on a regular basis. Sometimes it keeps you in bed. Sometimes it keeps you from interacting with those you love. Sometimes it keeps you from prayer, study of God’s Word, resting in His promises. But if we are to believe that Word and those promises, we have to accept and believe that our anxiety is for our good. Romans 8:28 says:
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Those who love God and are called according to His purpose, that’s Christians. We who are Christians love God, and He’s called us to do all things for His glory, His purpose for our lives. So that’s us. And the Bible says that all things work together for good. Our good. Our best.
One of the ways in which He works all things together for our good is how He brings us salvation. He took our sinfulness, something we can’t get rid of on our own, and forgave us for it by sending Jesus to die on the cross and come back to life on the third day.
But it’s not just in how He deals with our sin nature. He works all things together for our good. ALL THINGS. I can’t emphasize this enough. ALL THINGS. Every single thing in our life works together for our good.
This is kind of hard to comprehend. Especially when it comes to dealing with our anxiety. That doesn’t seem like something that can be used for our good. But here are three reasons why:
1) It shows us our weaknesses.
We as a human race don’t like to look at or acknowledge our weaknesses. We don’t like to think about how much we suck at things. We don’t want people to point out our flaws, our scars, our inabilities. We don’t desire for others to know our deficiencies, our blemishes.
Sometimes that leads us to spending so much time trying to remind ourselves of our strengths that we forget that we are weak. And it is absolutely vital that we realize just how much we are weak, just how much we screw things up. Anxiety is a weakness, unfortunately. Sometimes we have no control over when it comes, but it’s a weakness nonetheless. And when we’re reminded of it, we’re reminded of the soft spots on our skin, the chinks in our armor.
2) Our weakness shows us that we need God.
We won’t make it on our own in this life. We need God. Our weakness shows us that we need God. God is the only one that can help us through those weaknesses, that can bring us through the hard times with the direction and purpose that we so desperately need.
He shows us that it’s OK to be weak, that it’s OK that we suck, because He’s there to pick us up, to carry us when we can’t carry ourselves, to provide the strength when we don’t have it. He does it by working through His Holy Spirit, by encouragement and challenge from His Word, by the people He surrounds us with.
3) God grows us through our anxiety.
When we deal with anxiety on a regular basis, we can learn how to deal with fear, how to fight against lies we tell ourselves, how to share our issues with others in moments of lack.
Through the rest of this book, we’ll discuss how we grow through our anxiety in different situations of life. We’ll talk about anxiety in school, relationships and other circumstances we find ourselves in that bring about panic. We’ll also dive into what it means to beat fear, one of the most central ingredients of anxiety. And then we’ll talk about the hope that exists even in the midst of anxiety.
I’ll share a lot of how I’ve grown through dealing with my anxiety in each of these areas. This is a very personal area of life for me. Because I’ve dealt with it so much, I’ve been itching to share my experiences with others in a book. It would be a waste for me to go through this and not try in some way to help at least one person with the anxiety they’re experiencing.
So as we move forward, just know that I’ve got you on my mind. I’m praying for you. And I hope that what I’ve learned, what I’ve experienced, can help you as well.
I hate movies where a romantic commitment is violated.
For example, The Wedding Planner. It stars Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Lopez in your typical romcom. It’s a perfectly fine romcom except McConaughey’s character starts pursuing Lopez’s character while he’s engaged to someone else. It takes McConaughey’s character to get to his wedding day before he confesses to his fiancée.
I know there are tons of movies like this. The man/woman who leaves someone else is excused because the existing relationship is bad and it’s “true love” they’re seeking after. It’s just not right.
Not that I’m perfect in this area. I can think of a couple times in my life where I accidentally (maybe?) led a girl on and wasn’t forthcoming with her. Perhaps it’s my experience in the pain of that which makes me abhor movies that glorify that.
It’s painful to someone when you’re committed to them and then you abandon them for someone else. However, in the grand scheme of our walks with Christ, there’s a situation where not only is that OK, but it’s desirable, joyful and freeing.
Romans 7:4-6 says —
Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.
There’s a switch in spouses here that’s beautiful. The prior few verses talk about how a woman is adulterous if she is with another man while her husband is still alive, but if her husband dies, she is not adulterous if she marries another man.
It’s the same way when we come to Christ. Prior to our salvation, we were married to the law, committed to following its ways. Because of that, we would always fall short because we can’t meet the strict requirements of the law.
But when we were saved, we were released from that commitment and to a new commitment to Jesus, to God, to grace. It’s a marriage to a new master, and it’s a healthy, vibrant and live-saving one.
So in this case, ditching a relationship as quick as you can for a new one is perfectly OK. In fact, if you haven’t already, I strongly encourage you to do it as soon as possible.
My wife’s been reading through Hebrews and using a commentary by J. Vernon McGee. I bought the commentary when I was reading through the book myself.
Yesterday, she brought to me the words discussing Hebrews 12:6-8, which read:
“For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.”
She then explained to me that McGee listed seven reasons why Christians suffer. I thought they were quite accurate, so I decided to share them in a blog post, along with some personal thoughts. I also adapted the list because some points seemed to repeat themselves.
So here are four reasons Christians suffer (with a hat tip to J. Vernon McGee):
ONE: Practical Consequences of Our Own Stupidity and Sin
“The first reason that we suffer as God’s children (and even as his mature sons) is because of our own stupidity and our own sin…The fourth reason we suffer is for our past sins.” – JVM
This affects Christians at every level of maturity. We are always going to be sinful people and will always struggle.
My favorite song right now is called “In the Blood” by John Mayer. Mayer asks about all these things in his life — the influence of his parents, his insecurities, his weaknesses — and wonders if they’ll be “washed out in the water” or “always in the blood.”
The answer to that is yes. When we become Christians, our sins are forgiven, and they’re no longer on our permanent record. But we will still feel the effects of those sins because we’re human.
And that’s not just sins we’ve committed in the immediate past. McGee tells the story of a famous evangelist who used to be a drunkard. While visiting a restaurant for milkshakes and sodas after a service, the evangelist simply got a glass of soda water.
“The others began to kid him about it,” McGee writes, “and he made this statement, ‘When the Lord gave me a new heart, He didn’t give me a new stomach.’ Liquor had ruined his stomach, and he was still suffering because of that.”
TWO: Standing for Christ in a Secular World
“I can guarantee that if you take a stand for truth and righteousness, you are going to suffer. How many men and women could testify to that?…Many people deliberately take a stand for God, and they have suffered for it.” – JVM
Jesus straight up told us that we would suffer for defending His name. Many around the world suffer as the disciples did, facing criminal prosecution, imprisonment and even execution. I hope I never cease from being amazed by those who willingly go through such lengths in the name of Christ.
In America, our suffering is more emotional and social. We might get made fun of or ignored for being Christians and not being afraid to speak the name of Jesus at our school or workplace. That’s OK, that’s part of being a believer.
An interesting note that McGee makes is that sometimes we can go overboard in our “standing for Christ” and feel like we’re suffering, but it’s unnecessary.
“One man came to me and told me that where he worked everybody was his enemy because he had stood up for God,” McGee wrote. “Well, another Christian man who was an official in that same concern told me that this man was trying to lecture everybody — even during work hours! He was making an absolute nuisance of himself by attempting to witness to people while they were busy on their jobs.”
THREE: Some Purpose of God We Don’t Know
“Job suffered because he was demonstrating to Satan and the demon world and to the angels of heaven that he was not a timeserver, that every man does not have his price and that he loved God for Himself alone. I hope I never have to suffer as Job did.” – JVM
This is one where there isn’t a whole lot of explanation. There’s some part of the will of God where suffering is meant for some kind of purpose that we don’t understand and probably won’t fully get until the other side of heaven. This kind of suffering could include an unexpected and seemingly-unwarranted loss of a job, the sudden death of a close friend or family member or a huge house repair or car expense that puts you in financial trouble.
In my experience, it usually leads to spiritual growth and increasing faith in Christ, but there might be something else it’s designed for that we won’t know until later.
FOUR: The Lord’s Discipline
“A judge punishes, but a father chastens and he does it in love. God uses chastening to demonstrate His love for us. And the writer makes it very clear that you are an illegitimate child if you are not chastened by the Lord, my friend.” – JVM
God makes sure we’re in line. When we start wandering away, He might do things or allow things to happen to discipline us. This ties back into the words from Hebrews 12:6-8.
I think sometimes this is another example where God allows us to suffer and we’re not entirely sure why. We feel the chastening of God but may not know that’s what it is. We may know we’ve been disobedient. But that discipline still comes because God loves us and wants what’s best for us.
The commentary my wife’s been reading is from the “Thru the Bible Commentary Series” by J. Vernon McGee, which you can find on Amazon or Christian bookstores.
So I don’t like writing the words “suck” or “sucks.”
It has a lot of negative connotations, especially for the older crowd. And I get it. There’s a sexual meaning behind the work that leads to some people viewing it as a bad word in situations where it doesn’t involve a vacuum or a straw.
But when I say that laziness and idleness suck, I really mean it. I’m not just saying it casually.
A few minutes ago, as I was processing what I was going to write in this blog post, I did say it kind of casually. But as I thought about it more, I realized “suck” was the right word in more ways than one.
I’ve been looking for a job for a couple months now, and as such I’ve had a lot of time at home trying to fill up the hours. At first, it was fine because my wife was there and we had things to do to get our apartment set up or figure other things out as a newly-married couple. But now that she’s back working, I’ve been spending a lot more time at home by myself and it’s draining.
You’d think that having nothing to do would be the opposite of draining. Well, not entirely. I’ve been sitting around a lot, watching Netflix, reading and writing, sometimes doing something resembling exercise, some other stuff. I have been looking for a job, I promise, I’m not being completely useless. Sometimes I even see it as “rest” from the last year of working, wedding planning, getting married, all that.
But my days have been marked by idleness and laziness. And I don’t think I need to go too deep into how bad laziness. I’ll just share Proverbs 13:4 –“The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied.”
Pretty straightforward. Laziness is basically ignoring what needs to be done and instead sitting around. Idleness is a little different. It means to do nothing that is beneficial.
Lazy people can still do things. Lazy people can do meaningless things and still be lazy. But idle people do nothing. I’ve found myself being awful idle for much of these last few weeks.
And today, I realized how it sucks.
Idleness sucks because it’s wasting time.
This usage of the word “sucks” is more of the “this isn’t good” connotation.
Ephesians 5:15-16 say, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise, but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” The Bible warns us, encourages us to make the best use of our time. When we’re idle, we’re not utilizing our time the best way we could.
I’m not saying we have to be using all our spare time in serious prayer and Bible reading and meditation. Those things are at the very least definitely good and beneficial time fillers and at the very most absolutely crucial and essential to living life as a believer the right way.
But we need to think, well, I need to think about how to use my time so much better than I have been until I get a job. Until God provides employment for me, I need to be doing things that benefit my mind, heart, body and soul.
Idleness sucks focus and purpose from your life.
This is what idleness does to me. When I’m not putting my mind to good use, it leads to me losing focus on what is important. Temptation to sin becomes stronger, particularly sexual sin.
When the mind wanders, as it what often happens when you’re idle, it will attach to whatever seems most appealing at a base level. Unfortunately, men’s brains are more wired to think about sex. So we as men must be extremely careful to watch our minds, be careful where they wander. We just might end up in a place we don’t want to be.
Christians are called to be people of purpose and direction. And laziness sucks that very purpose and direction from us.
Rest is good. Idleness is not. Find the difference. Choose rest, then get back in the game. Choose purpose.