“It’s hard enough to find the right person without ruling out half of the people just based on gender,” one student shared with me over sushi. “I think God wants me to be happy.”
The hope we offer isn’t (primarily) in wise choices but in a good God who invites them into personal relationship.
It’s always hard, in the moment, to find the right words to say when students have big questions. And harder yet when they center around emotionally-charged and culturally-heated topics like sexuality and dating. Our students are swimming in a culture in which sexual brokenness is not only pervasive but celebrated.
How do we as the church combat the opposing messages about sexuality that our students are flooded with, especially when what the world tells them is what they want to hear? Somehow I needed to show this middle schooler that what Jesus offers, limits and all, far exceeds the happiness promised by the pleasures of love and sex.
A better story
A generation ago, the primary message taught in many churches (and Christian dating books) was something along the lines of: “Save sex for marriage, and you’ll have a better sex life, a better marriage, no unwanted pregnancies and no STDs.” While the message isn’t bad—and different generations deal with and address different cultural issues—it increasingly rings hollow to students today. First, those are outcomes that we can’t promise (Joshua Harris’s own marriage ended). But more importantly, those outcomes aren’t the best we have to offer.
By chasing the cravings of the flesh, our students are selling what is eternally better for a fleeting, temporary pleasure that will leave them hungry when it’s done.
When we teach today’s students about sexuality, we need to give them something bigger than “save sex for marriage” and “God’s design for marriage is one man and one woman.” These students are inundated with sexual fluidity from the time they’re kids. They see marriages fall apart all around them. They hear friends (and TV and music) brag about the freedom of expressing your sexuality however you want. The hope we offer isn’t (primarily) in wise choices but in a good God who invites them into personal relationship and a love deeper than anything the world offers.
In Hebrews, Esau’s decision to sell his birthright for a bowl of stew is compared to choosing sexual immorality over Jesus:
“See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. Even though he sought the blessing with tears, he could not change what he had done.” (Heb 12:16-17)
In other words, by chasing the cravings of the flesh, our students are selling what is eternally better for a fleeting, temporary pleasure that will leave them hungry when it’s done. The problem wasn’t that the stew wasn’t tasty—it was. It was a problem of misplaced love.
Similarly, when sin first entered the world, it was because Eve looked at the fruit and saw that it was “good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom” (Gen 3:6). What’s interesting is that God never said it wasn’t. In fact, when He looked at everything He’d made, including that tree, He called it good.
Jackie Hill Perry, in her book, Gay Girl Good God, writes:
“The tree was indeed good for food and pleasant to the sight; God had made it that way (Gen 2:9). The deception was in believing that the tree was more satisfying to the body and more pleasurable to the sight than God” (p. 18).
Let’s tell them sex is beautiful, but nothing compared to the beauty of Jesus.
Eve’s primary sin, like ours, is unbelief, which leads to a disordering of our loves and a belief that “what has been withheld by [God] can be satisfied without Him” (p. 74).
Like the bowl of stew or the fruit on that tree, sexual “freedom” promises pleasure, and it frequently delivers. But it’s temporary pleasure, and it leads to death. On the other hand, Jesus offers a cross, which may be a lifetime of unfulfilled sexual desires, a marriage that falls apart in spite of all you do, a body that is bound to disease or brokenness. But if you take up that cross and follow Him, you get Jesus. And Jesus is better by far.
So let’s not settle for telling students that sex outside of marriage is “bad.” Let’s tell them a bigger story. Let’s show them how male and female is part of God’s good design from the beginning, but not shy away from the ways our bodies and our culture are full of brokenness as it relates to our gender. Let’s show them the grand design of marriage, a picture of Christ and His ultimate love for His Bride, but not leave out the part about His Bride being unfaithful and His love costing His life.
Let’s hold out the truth of God’s Word as it relates to homosexuality but with the humble reminder that the good news of the gospel is for the homosexual as much as it is for the violent, greedy or self-righteous. Let’s remind them they can’t earn Jesus’ love by their righteous deeds, but every choice they face is a battleground for worship. With every decision, their hearts decide who will sit on the throne, and it can’t be both Jesus and sex. Let’s tell them sex—and God’s wise boundaries for it—is beautiful, but nothing compared to the beauty of Jesus.
A better hope
Sadly many—maybe even most—of the students in our lives have already experienced brokenness in sexuality. Our students need to be reminded and shown that God’s redemptive power is stronger than their past and their pain. Jesus brings wholeness to brokenness, joy to pain and freedom to shame. Jesus invites all of us to experience the healing that can only be found in His lavish love. And He promises His grace is sufficient for any thorns He does not remove.
Let’s make sure the hope we hold out to our students is one we can guarantee and one worth any sacrifice of surrender that may be required.
The hope for someone who struggles with same-sex attraction isn’t heterosexuality but Jesus. The hope for the lonely isn’t marriage but Jesus. The reality is that, whatever the struggle, Jesus may choose to heal it. But often He chooses not to remove the thorn and simply to remind us His grace is sufficient, even for this.
We want to help our students develop the faith of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who knew that God could rescue them from the fire but were committed to following Him even if He did not because they saw God Himself as a better prize (Dan 3:17-18). Or the faith of Paul, who learned to boast gladly in his weakness because it caused him to know Christ’s strength in a greater way (2 Cor 12:7-10).
The call of Jesus is to life abundant and joy evermore, but it’s also a call to come and die. Self-denial, suffering and patient endurance are part of walking with Jesus in a broken world and a body that still battles sin. But eternity awaits.
As youth workers, parents and leaders, let’s teach a robust theology of worship and suffering alongside our theology of sexuality. Let’s make sure the hope we hold out to our students is one we can guarantee and one worth any sacrifice of surrender that may be required. Let’s give them Jesus.