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Friday, February 19, 2021

Some words of hope and encouragement for LGBTQ friends who have regrets or questions about their choices

We had grown up together as young men in a Christian school and then attended the same Christian college together for a year. Now, many years later, my friend was a transgendered atheist with a body that had been extensively and expensively transformed by chemicals and surgery. At a breakfast together one morning my friend said (I don't remember the context), "If I would repent, I would then be in the category of a eunuch."

So I thought of that friend (and others in the LGBTQ community) when I read the following passage in Isaiah this morning for my time with the Lord: "Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, 'The Lord will surely separate me from His people.' Nor let the eunuch say, 'Behold, I am a dry tree.' For thus says the Lord, 'To the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths, and choose what pleases Me, and hold fast My covenant, to them I will give in My house and within My walls a memorial, and a name better than that of sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name which will not be cut off" (Isaiah 56:3-5).

Not only is such a person as my friend in the biblical category of a eunuch (someone who is not able to live out their natural gender sexually), but in a way so are many gay men and women, because if they would choose not to live out their same-sex desires, they would have to live celibately, at least for a certain period of time. I do believe it's possible for sexual "orientation" to change (there are many real-life examples, easily accessed online) but it doesn't usually happen quickly and sometimes not at all, of course. So for a time, at least, or for the rest of their lives in some cases, people with same-sex attraction who choose to live according to biblical morality will be those who "make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven," as Jesus said in Matthew 19:12. And people like my friend who have surgically altered their sexual organs are those "who were made eunuchs by men" (same verse)--the "men" being themselves and the doctors who assisted them.

So the hope and encouragement offered to eunuchs in Isaiah 56 is directly applicable to any LGBTQ friends who have regrets or questions about their lifestyle choices. (And I know there are many who do, even when they have loudly proclaimed the opposite, because I've talked to some and read the stories of many others online.) God promises, if you choose to follow his ways, you will not be a "dry tree." That's one of your fears, right? That if you repent of your desire to have a same-sex partner (or multiple ones) and don't act on it, you will be unhappy and unfulfilled the rest of your life. You can't imagine living without something that is so important to you right now. But realize, like every true Christian has, that our desires and priorities can change over time (and sometimes even quickly) when we turn away from being our own god and master and turn to Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord. I myself have strong propensities toward certain sins, as a result of both heredity and environment, but now looking back on my life I am so glad for when I have said no to them and so regretful for when I indulged them. My perspective has changed significantly and so have my desires. That's not to say those wrong desires don't ever rear their ugly heads and even win the day sometimes, but I am truly happy that I concluded that they were wrong and decided to fight them rather than let them define my identity and lifestyle. And I have seen God replace them with much better fruit, so I have emphatically not become a "dry tree" because I chose not to live according to my sinful orientation. No, I have seen the truth of some other words of Jesus, when he says, "Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake, he is the one who will save it" (Luke 9:24).

God also promises, "To the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths, and choose what pleases Me, and hold fast My covenant, to them I will give in My house and within My walls a memorial, and a name better than that of sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name which will not be cut off." The idea of a "name" in Scripture is tied to the issue of identity, which I know is another significant reason why many LGBTQ friends hesitate to even consider a commitment to biblical morality. Giving up the practice of your preferred sexuality or gender would seem to be giving up who you are, and everyone always tells us that being who we are is the most important thing in life and the best path toward happiness and success. But the Bible tells us that we were made in the image of God and the best thing for us is to recover that image (marred because of sin) by finding our identity in Jesus Christ, taking his name upon us, and allowing him making us more like him (because he is the only perfect person who has ever lived in this broken world).

That's what the "covenant" Isaiah mentions is all about, by the way. "I will be your God," he says, "and you will be my people." God promises to forgive all our sins and adopt us into his family so we can have an identity as his sons and daughters (and heirs) that will last forever--one that we will never regret or question. As a part of his covenant people, we also receive the blessing of many brothers and sisters that we didn't have before--a new community of mutual love and acceptance that transcends different backgrounds because we are all one in Christ. I know you may not be able to imagine that happening, because Satan and his system (called "the world" in the Bible) work overtime to make you think Christians are all bigots and backstabbers, but if you can't see it in your mind, you'll just have to believe it because God said it's true. And his Word is far more trustworthy than the opinions and theories of very limited and finite humans.

That issue of faith is alluded to in Isaiah's reference to "keeping the Sabbaths," because that practice was a way for people in the Old Testament to show that they trusted God's promises even though they couldn't see all the evidence ahead of time. They had to be willing to stop work for one day each week and believe that God would provide what they needed when the time came. In the same way, we must "rest from our works" spiritually by not trying to make ourselves good enough to earn God's favor and not trying to figure out everything by ourselves. Instead we should say to God, "I will rely on Jesus' death to take away my sins and his resurrection to give me a new life, and I will trust in what you say to know what's really best for me."

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

What is love? (the meaning of agape in the Bible)

I was recently editing a book by a long-time pastor I respect and noticed that he defined agape love in the Bible as "self-sacrificial action on behalf of others," or something like that. I wrote a version of the following comments on the manuscript and he ended up changing his definition to what I suggested, so I must be on to something! :)

I would suggest that agape love itself (narrowly defined) is not an action, but a desire of the heart that produces actions. And it is not merely self-sacrifice, because then non-Christians could have it without any reference to God, as long as they are sacrificing for someone else. In 1 Corinthians 13:3 Paul says, “If I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.” The person described there has self-sacrificial actions, but according to Paul does not actually have love. That and other passages like Romans 5:5 seem to indicate that love itself is actually something in the heart, which is then manifested in actions. Plus, because it can only be produced by the Spirit and is directed toward God, it must include spiritual purposes (to set it apart from merely human self-sacrificial love). So my working definition of agape is “a Spirit-created desire of the heart for the spiritual good of others, which produces self-sacrificial actions on their behalf.”

In other words, I don’t think agape = action for the reasons stated above (e.g. “God so loved the world that he gave…” His love was the reason for His action of giving). And I also think “spiritual” needs to be added before “good” to accurately capture the biblical meaning of the word (same example).

Agape = action is problematic because we can do sacrificial action for our wives (or whomever) without actually loving them in our hearts (like “this people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are from me”). And even if it is heart-driven action, it might come from wrong motives in the heart, like selfish ones.

Emphasizing the goal of spiritual good helps because otherwise unbelievers could practice agape love, and the Bible says it’s a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 3:24) that is shed abroad in our hearts by the Spirit (Rom. 5:5). That part of my definition is what sets the use of agape in the NT apart from its infrequent use in the ancient world (and the other Greek words for love, of course). My belief after studying it is that Jesus “coined the term” (or at least co-opted and changed it) in order to communicate these ideas.

I illustrated the importance and implications of our definition of love in a recent Facebook post, which elicited some interesting responses:

What do you think about this? I'm wondering if one of the reasons why the younger generation of Christians are so open to unbiblical ideas about sexual morality is because we have failed to draw a clear distinction between the world's definition of love and the Bible's. "Love is love," they say. But the primary New Testament Greek word for love (agape) means something so different from the way we usually use the word in our culture. Here's what "love" means in the Bible: "A Holy Spirit-created desire in the heart for the spiritual good of others, which issues in self-sacrificial action on their behalf." This kind of love can only happen by the power of God transforming us from the inside out (Rom. 5:5, 1 Cor. 13:3), like God's love it is focused on and acts for spiritual and eternal goals (John 3:16, Gal. 6:1-2), and it is clearly not based on feelings or the attractiveness of the object (Matt. 5:44, Rom. 5:10). Since this is so different from the way "love" is used in our culture, I wonder if we should use different words for one or the other, and if so what should we call them?

Maybe we should start using the term "agape love" when we're talking about the kind of love that God has and we should have as well (as long as we understand it correctly, of course:).