When I read Romans 1-3, I see one of our greatest hopes for mission and relating in the Bible. I see many remedies for how the church interacts with the LGBT community. But let’s not be under any illusions. The church has used this very passage as fodder for all manner of unbiblical treatment. We distance ourselves. We treat homosexuality with awkward silence. We shame it relative to ourselves. We mock it. We lose patience. We become disgusted. There are many things I could say about how the church handles homosexuality, but I want to focus on our direct conversations with gay friends and neighbors. I want to focus on Romans 1-4 to unfold themes that naturally come out of the text, and I want to apply it to how we live at 1:32pm this afternoon. And five minutes after that as well.
In the church at large, we have handled this passage of scripture pitifully, fitting it to preconceived arguments rather than humbly asking: God, where are you going with this? Why are you saying what you’re saying? We read Romans 1, and we (1) forget Paul’s introduction and (2) stop short of the rest of the book. We stop short of Romans 2:1, which, believe it or not, is one of our greatest missional helps in the Bible. The point of the title, and the point of this article, is to show you that you relate to your neighbor, no matter their situation, because you share profound experiences with them. In this shared experience, you have a profound message to share with them.
This article applies to any lost friend and any sin. Please replace “gay” with anything you stiff-arm with feelings of inadequacy, distance, disgust, or superiority. Yet, I do find particular joy in applying this through homosexuality, that polarizing issue seemingly laced with C4, ready to explode into feelings of shame, disgust, abandonment, or distance. As you’re reading this, no matter what your background, I want you to join me in humbly asking: God, please just show me what you’re saying, and help me ditch the baggage I’m holding on to.
Romans 1-2 is not primarily about our sins, our blindness, our immorality, gay people, or the judgment we’ve all earned. Frankly, Roman 1 isn’t primarily about us in any capacity. Paul is desperately pleading to real group of people, and his opening and closing words make his purpose very clear. This letter in its entirety is primarily about one thing: God being seen in all the Earth. Romans 1-2, like all of Romans, is about God being shown off in the gospel message. God being seen is Paul’s great concern, and it is what is most at stake. We can’t go anywhere without remembering that the entire letter and every part in it eventually feeds into this one single point. If you interpret Romans 1-2 forgetting this, then the interpretation is off target. You might have some right aspects, but you’ve missed the whole point if it doesn’t come back to God being shown off in the gospel message to the entire world.
So before we go into the missional application of this section of Romans, let’s trek through what it actually says. It’s important that you see that this article is coming out of Romans 1-4, not reading into it. Also, my goal isn’t just to tell you what it says, but to help you read it for yourself so that you don’t have to take my word for it. It’s important that you be convinced that this is what God is saying, and the only way for me to do that is to hold the Word with an open hand and take my time with it. The application is worth it, so please stay with me.
Trekking through Romans 1-4
God must be seen
“Paul: slave and messenger, singled out to bring God’s good message.” If you were to read a letter that begins this way, the only thing on your mind would be, “OK, so what’s the message?” That’s exactly what Paul is leading you to ask. This message is the center of everything Paul writes in Romans, which is why he wastes no time, skipping his usual greeting to immediately get into it. It’s a message God promised long ago through other messengers and was passed down by written word. It is about Jesus Christ, King David’s descendent, who was powerfully declared to be God’s Son as He was raised from death to life. This message has a purpose. The whole point of Paul and Jesus’s other messengers being made messengers in the first place is “to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of [God’s] name among all the nations. ”
In short, this is all to spread God’s name among the nations. God being seen: that’s what’s at stake. And just in case we forgot over the course of the letter, Paul reminds us at the end . He reminds us by example by appealing to God’s ability to strengthen them and by singling God out as the one who should esteemed and praised above all else. He reminds us more directly by calling this message a mystery that “has been made known to all nations […] to bring about the obedience of faith.” Paul’s primary concern, as you’ll see later in Romans 1, is about God being seen through the gospel.
Paul continues his letter, thanking God that their faith is known far and wide. Note that he’s not only thankful that the Romans believe the gospel, though this is an incredible thing. The emphasis of Paul’s thankfulness is that their faith is made known, that it has spread! Paul then describes just how much he longs to see them. He’s eager to preach the gospel, and there’s a very good reason for it.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed. (Rom. 1:16-17)
He’s bold and unashamed for two reasons: (1) the gospel itself is God’s power to save, and (2) it reveals God’s righteousness, His justice. Paul is excited about God being revealed through the gospel message.
When God is removed
Paul begins Romans 1:18 with the word “for.” What that means here is that Paul’s coming words are going to support what he just said. Paul said he was eager to preach the gospel because it’s God’s’ power to save and because it reveals His righteousness. The next sections are filling in the details of that, and they begin with detailing exactly what happened when mankind suppressed God, when mankind turned from Him. This section is about God’s wrath against “all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men,” so it is about all people. Romans 3 makes it clear that it is about each and every one of us, and not just humanity “in general.”
First, I want you to make a mental note of how Paul starts this section off with a conspicuous use of the third person (“they,” “them,” and “their”). The typical mode of letter writing in the Bible is “y’all.” The authors usually talk directly to the church as a group. But here, Paul’s talking about “those people.” I’m going to borrow this as I talk about it because it’s important. Moving on, this section is about how God has revealed His just punishment against mankind because they have ignored and suppressed Him. He made His nature obvious to them through creation, but then they chose not to honor Him or thank Him. It turns out that when you remove God from the equation, a host of consequences follow. You unleash an avalanche.
First, “they became futile in their thinking.” All of their proudest, deepest thoughts are brought to absolutely nothing, and the sole reason is that the only eternal being is removed from them. Next, “their foolish hearts were darkened.” Three of the five times “darkened” is used in the New Testament, it’s describing the sun being eclipsed. Their darkness is a direct consequence of their godlessness. God is blocked from view. Finally, in their darkness, they were so blind, they boasted about their wisdom, having no clue they were actually fools. With God removed, they lost everything. They even lost the ability to know they lost everything. And now the damage really begins.
The grave exchange
They “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” Remember, as far as their perception goes, God is nowhere to be seen anymore. So, they exchange Him for the only thing they can see: creation. They pretend that God’s creation – that tiny drop that spilled from His power and beauty, existing solely to point to Him – is better than He Himself is. The thing is, God will deal out some punishment, a clearly just punishment, in the coming verses. But please realize that this is already punishment. To not see God is to suffer.
God Himself is the most beautiful, just, powerful, compassionate, unbending, embracing, pursuing person who has ever existed. He is perfection itself. The sole reason we even have any notion of “good” or “perfect” at all is that God defined it before He made us. The punishment has already been dealt out: His absence. He cut them off from Himself. He gave them what they wanted and eclipsed them from Himself because they didn’t want Him. And now they’re stuck with half-truths, distorted goods, and marred beauty. Everything to come stems from this.
God gave “them” up
“Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.” When Paul says, “God gave them up,” this is like a prisoner being handed over to a captor. They’re trapped, and they will never get out.
The reality is that God is a Trinity. That means He’s three distinct people and yet also One. The Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ, the Father – they are all people. But they are bound together in perfect unity. They praise each other, honor each other, submit to each other, agree fully with each other, and enjoy each other incredibly. This, friend, is intimacy! We have a notion of community and intimacy solely because of who God is. He is intimacy. He is community. Now, with the only light of true intimacy snatched away from their view, they grasp for a sick and broken intimacy. They grasp for ugly views of sex. Rather than unifying, sex is now used to bolster their pride, steal identity from another, fill in gaps in their hearts, fixate on their own pleasure, and even hurt others. They are given over to it. They are captive.
"For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions.” Here, Paul discusses homosexuality. Bear with me if you’re sensitive about homosexuality being bullied. I will not do that here because Paul is not doing it either. I’ll fill things out later, I promise. But he does have a purpose in bringing it up. He says it for a reason. Paul says they exchanged natural relations with unnatural ones. The key word here is “natural.” Paul’s not talking about what feels natural, but he’s talking about the biological function of sex. It isn’t how it’s supposed to be. They were created to be intimate with God, together with Him. With that intimacy now eclipsed, their new intimacy, the one they exchanged God for, isn’t as it’s supposed to be. This worship exchange, this captivity – it is not how it is supposed to be. It is unnatural. Not just homosexuality, but all sin lives in the unnatural context of being absent from God.
You are “them”
Something happens with human nature when talking about “those people.” It isn’t personal. It’s detached, and it feels safe. We humans are much bolder over anonymous text and anonymous phone calls. We abuse telemarketers, and we scream at other cars. A big reason for this is that we feel safe, and then human nature runs its course. The same things happens when Paul talks about “those people.” He’s luring us in our pride to join and say, “Yeah, they do deserve what they get. What’s wrong with them? How could they do that?” And on the other side of those thoughts lies a hidden “I wouldn’t do that. I’m different.” Paul’s counting on this. He’s roping you in, proud Christian, and me as well. Perhaps that’s another reason why he chose a relatively fringe sin issue like homosexuality. I doubt that many more people (percentage wise) had dominantly same-sex attractions in their society than we do in ours today. Paul is choosing an issue that most people will point at from a distance and judge. He’s luring the reader in.
But then, awkward things begin to happen. Paul continues his argument of how “they” deserve everything they get for defaming and rejecting God, of how they are captive and cannot get out. Continuing, Paul talks about how “they” are filled with greed and hurtfulness. Wait a minute. That stings. Paul continues saying, “they” are envious. Ouch. They are contentious, they lie, and the gossip. Whew. “They’re” arrogant, and they boast about themselves. “They” disobey their parents. Honestly, at this point, even the most self-deluded reader is cringing, realizing that they aren’t as different from “them” as they had hoped. Finally, “they” are untrustworthy, unloving, and unmerciful. That’s the nail in the coffin. Yes, Paul’s talking about me now. He has finally exposed my mercilessness in my judgments that I was expressing just a second ago.
In case the reader still isn’t catching the hints, Paul switches from his safe, comfortable “they” to an alarming, and exposing, “you, O man!” It stands out like bold letters. You! Not your spouse, not your child, not your coworker, not your boss, not your roommate. You! You have no excuse. Because of what? Because you “practice the very same things.” Every last thing for which you judge another person, inherently lifting up yourself as better by comparison, you are guilty of it all because you, at your core, are no different than them. Suddenly, I realize that Romans 1, like all of Romans, isn’t about “them” at all. It isn’t about gay people. It isn’t about sex addicts or “Pharisees.” It’s about me! Every bit of it is talking about how I’m given over as a captive, how I am unnatural, and how I have exchanged God for anything and everything else. Romans 1-3 describes the devastation we all share in common.
God gave Jesus up to set us free
But that isn’t all Paul describes, and that isn’t all that we share in common. For everyone who believes, Paul at last declares in Romans 3:21-26 that God has unveiled a “right-ness” that we do not earn, a righteousness meant for helpless, unnatural, guilty rebels like me. It is now a gift, not a paycheck. It’s given freely and received solely by trusting Jesus. Jesus accomplished this by paying our punishment with His own life as a ransom to set us free from captivity to sin. My favorite way Paul describes this comes later near the end of Romans 4, when he say that Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”
That word “delivered up” is the exact same word used earlier in Romans 1 when Paul says, “God gave them up.” And no, I don’t think this was an accident. We were given over as helpless captives to sin, entirely unable to escape, stuck as desperate addicts for eternity without hope. But, at the right time, just as we were handed over as captives to sin, Jesus Himself was “handed over” in the place of everyone who would believe in Him. He was given over in our place so that we would never again be captives. Jesus freed addicts like you and me from every nation on Earth, freeing us to finally see God. He made us God’s very children, and He knit us into a real family. He gave us immeasurable treasures of intimacy with God and new hearts that long for Him above all else. He gave us life, and He forever broke the curse of Romans 1 for us. Let that soak in for a while.
Romans 1:18-32 is about all of us
The driving idea of this article is simple: “in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” The purpose of this is to correct the prideful reader and to pull them back into the same group with everyone they judge. It also means that you inherently understand the person you judge as well. It means you can relate to them in incredible ways you might have thought impossible. The humility bred by the confrontation of Romans 2 is absolutely necessary to reach others with the gospel message rather than social manipulation. Your scolding and praise will never change another person. The gospel that reveals a sacrificial, just, and powerful God, however, will move mountains.
It may not be gay people, but who is the person you shake your head at and say, “What’s wrong with you? How could you do that?” Is it a poor person? A greedy person? An overweight person? A Mormon? A lukewarm person? The truth is, friend, you know exactly what’s wrong with them because it’s the same thing that’s wrong with you. You know exactly how they could do what they do. After all, you do it yourself every single day. I know I probably haven’t convinced you quite yet. This still seems detached at this point. So let’s bring it closer to home.
In Romans 1, the first thing we read is that we didn’t honor or thank God. In other words, we forgot Him. He became absent, and our preoccupation and desires stretched elsewhere. This state is called “godlessness,” and honestly, this is where all the devastation originates. God’s absence is what most defines the curse of Romans 1, and it is the only context in which sinful desires grow. It also tends to be our default.
Christians tend to equate living as if God didn’t exist with atheism. Well, to be fair, those are functionally the same, but that doesn’t mean Christians don’t do this. We do it all the time. When you have that tough problem at work, and you spin anxiously in your mind for an hour, where is God in your thoughts? When your spouse ticks you off, and you start pulling up what they’ve done wrong in mock arguments, where is God? When you’re preoccupied with how people would view you at the get together tonight, where is God? When you daydream about finally paying of the mortgage so that you can breathe financially, where is God?
The first and biggest sign of being in the flesh is a conspicuous absence of God from our thoughts, daydreams, and desires. We all experience this. The mark of a rich Christian life is frequent, quick, deep repentance from godlessness. It’s recognizing it and running to Jesus immediately. But we do experience godlessness. It isn’t just something we vaguely remember from a past life. It is made vivid by present temptations now. You relate to atheists. You relate to those who feel like God isn’t relevant or is detached from real life. You and I relate because we experience the same disease. Though Jesus has rescued us from the penalty of sin and has put down sin’s dominance, we still feel sin’s pull, and this gives us rich power to relate. Though He has rescued you and continues still to rescue, your desperate need for Him never changes. If anything, it only grows! So, you do relate to another’s need for Jesus’s rescue, even while being rescued yourself.
If you have a conversation with your gay friend and neighbor, when they tell you they can’t change, they aren’t making it up. More than likely, they don’t want to either. But before you loose your tongue in frustration, take a moment and examine yourself. Did you want to change before you knew Jesus? Nevermind even that, do you truly want to change even now when you’re walking in the flesh? No, of course you don’t. Honesty is a good remedy for pride. When you’re in the flesh and struggling with anger because your greatest desire is to protect your name and reputation from your spouse or coworker, do you really want to change in that moment? No, you’ve callously developed tunnel vision and lost sight of all else but your now singular desire: vindication. The desire for it has usurped and even eclipsed your awareness of God. You’ve turned into a madman. You’ve gone insane until the Holy Spirit so kindly wakes you up to remind you of God and the free grace He gives in Jesus.
The point is, friend, that you understand addiction in the here and now. You do. You know what it’s like to get trapped in desires and have no way out. You knew this continually before Jesus, and you know it intermittently still now as you walk in the flesh. You’re only still saved because of the same grace of God that saved you in the first place. You coming out of the flesh is no less profound than your initial justification before God by Jesus’s blood. We are trapped in sinful desires because simply we want what we want, and none of us has that power to escape our wants. We need external intervention. The saved get it daily, so let that serve to increase your thankfulness to God for all He does for you! Your gay friend isn’t lying to you when they say they can’t change. They truly can’t, and you fully understand that. They need the same Jesus you need every moment of the day. Don’t chastise their honesty. Relate to it! Join them, and let them see your weakness so that they can see God’s strength. You are truly no different than them.
A big hurdle for most people having their first conversation with a gay neighbor is usually conquering their sinful detachment from same-sex romantic and sexual intimacy. The typical Christian scoffs and dismisses the desires and struggles of a gay neighbor (rather than engaging them in a meaningful and relating way) because it isn’t God’s prescribed intimacy for us. I’m not arguing that it isn’t sinful. I’m arguing that our reaction is a double standard and isn’t mirroring how God approaches us. I’ll first start with the fact that you and I suffer from broken intimacy just as severely as a gay person.
Marriages between a man and a women quite often display just as broken an intimacy as gay unions do. If the church really wants to “protect marriage,” then we had better stop pretending gay marriage is the greatest threat. Sin is the greatest threat to marriage, and the church itself has done far more damage to God’s name than the LGBT community. When a spouse acts selfishly, they mar the image of the trinity. When a spouse uses sex to take what they lack, to bolster their own affirmation, to ensure their own pleasure, or to focus on self in any way, God’s image is severely marred. When a friend slanders and gossips against another, God’s image is marred. When people take pleasure in seeding contention and arguments, God’s image is marred. Anything short of the perfect Trinity of mutual submitting, glorifying, honoring, pleasing, sending, and delighting is slandering the God of the universe.
We all forget God when we’re in the flesh, and we all can relate to slandering the image of intimacy. Don’t judge your gay neighbor as worse than yourself. Repent in front of them for how seriously you have marred God’s image. Invite them to see Jesus’s sweet grace that ransomed you from your own addiction to broken intimacy and rescued you from the wrath you deserve for it. Show them by example their danger by exposing your own. This inherently means you need to probe the depth to which you are marring God’s light of intimacy in your marriage and friendships. It also means you need to probe and articulate how His gospel is rescuing you each time you slip into the flesh so you can preach the gospel of His present power over sin.
Your gay neighbor did not choose his or her desires for those of the same sex. They want it, certainly, but they did not choose to want that over wanting other things. They chose sin, but they didn’t choose the flavor of it. Was it predisposed by genetics? Was it reinforced by circumstances? Did their choices interact with it and shape it? I personally think all three of these are involved in shaping all of our desires. But they didn’t choose it outright. Frankly, neither did you. You didn’t steer yourself to opposite-sex desires or toward self-preoccupation or toward envy or toward anxieties. You just found yourself trapped in those desires, trapped in desiring them more than God. It was the most natural thing in the world for you. The same is true for your gay neighbor. So don’t “correct” them. They’re telling the truth, a truth you can fully understand. Join them, and then describe God’s kindness and power.
We all fell into a whole spectrum of sinful patterns, and those sinful patterns are incredibly natural for us. And just because they were natural doesn’t mean they were good. It’s natural to want money more than God, to want reputation more than God, and to want comfort more than God. Don’t spurn your gay neighbor because same-sex romantic and sexual relationships are completely natural to them. Don’t be naïve. Your godless bent is just as against nature (God’s intent for creation) as their bent toward the same-sex. Likewise, wanting God Himself more than anything is just as unnatural for you as it is for them. Sin is the most natural thing in the world when you’re in the flesh, and there’s no way out until Jesus being “given over” on your behalf rescues you from the flesh and puts you into the Spirit. Only then does longing for God more than anything become natural for you. Join your gay neighbor by relating to them in this, and show them what it looks like for Jesus to rip you out of your own trapping sinful desires. Their rescue is no different from yours.
Though I’ve assumed this, I do feel the need to say it explicitly. Please, please, please do not try to convert a gay person to the opposite sex. Conversion therapy is way off-target, and often, the means used in conversion therapy are grossly unbiblical. The opposite sex is no salvation for anyone, much less a gay person. God never promised you that you’d desire one particular worldly thing over another. If they want an opposite-sex spouse, more often than not, this is more a sign that they idolize acceptance or comfort, not that they desire God Himself. They get true acceptance from Jesus alone, just like you do. What God promised is that He will rescue His children from worldly desires and bring us to Himself. What He promised is that our desires will change toward Him and that we will by no means live in unfulfilled desires. We will live rich and satisfied with Him.
Friend, if you want to reorient someone, then reorient them to God. Opposite-sex lust will kill you just as quickly as same-sex lust. Anything lifted higher than God in our desires is poisonous. Please, do not pretend they need a spouse. That may not be what God has planned for them. By the same token, God very well might give them love and desire for an opposite-sex spouse, and don’t pretend that that’s off the table either. Celibacy is no salvation either. Don’t push them toward another sexual orientation, and don’t push them toward celibacy. Draw them toward Jesus, leading the way by example and genuine testimony.
Shame permeates the issue of same-sex attraction from every side. If there were one word I could think of that most alienates the LGBT community from the church, it would be shame. I don’t think this is right. You and I are just as unnatural, broken, and repulsive as anyone else. Why, then, should the LGBT community feel uncomfortable walking into the church? I’m not talking about gay-affirming churches that mock the words of God, apologizing for and erasing His loving and wise commands for us. And let’s not even judge gay-affirming churches as worse than ourselves either, because there are many places in our own lives that we, by our actions and attitudes, mock the word of God and erase His wise and loving commands. But when we see God defamed, by ourselves or by others, as saved people, we long to correct the situation and see Him shown off as He truly is.
But for churches that are striving well to love the Word, the LGBT community should feel welcomed. The fact is: sin is shameful, and it should be. But that shame shouldn’t be because of the views and opinions of other people. It shouldn’t be because of how we are relative to other people. It should be because of the incredible injustice of distrusting and disobeying a God who delights in giving His people only good things. He deserves the deepest worship of every last person on Earth, and instead, He gets dismissal, slander, and mockery. This is flat out shameful, and we all ought to be deeply ashamed for this. Even in that, Jesus still came to Earth to absorb that shame for us, as if He were the one dismissing, slandering, and mocking God. We are rescued from a shame we rightly deserve!
What right, then, do any of us have in shaming another by comparing them to ourselves? We should be exposing our own shame, not hiding it to point out someone else’s. Seriously, why is same-sex attraction more shameful than anger? The fact is, though, that they should feel ashamed, but only for the right reasons. If they’re ashamed because of what other people think, this only reveals that they love what other people think. But if they’re ashamed because they’ve dishonored a beautiful God, this reveals that they see God and that they love Him. So, friend, expose how you are ashamed for how you’ve slandered God and why it means so much to you. Then, tell them how deeply moved you are at how Jesus has become shame on your behalf! Show them the beauty of God as it contrasts and overwhelms your darkness. It is God whom then need to see, and that will only happen when you are vulnerable and transparent about His work in your own shameful struggles.
Now, I concede that church can be an uncomfortable place for any unbeliever, even if the church is exposing their own shame. The fact is that the gospel is offensive to all of us. If it has stopped being offensive to you, then you either don’t understand yourself anymore, or you don’t understand the gospel. It is deep and invasive. Your gay friend might feel uncomfortable due to this. But my exhortation is that you let it be only this. Let their discomfort be due to the Holy Spirit’s revelation of God, not due to their standing relative to you. Join them. Fight for their welcome by helping them see, as is appropriate to the situation, how they are no different from you.
Notice what happens to the idols we’re given over to in Romans 1. We first exchanged God for something more like ourselves: creation. Then, we’re given over to desires for something even more like ourselves: other humans. Finally, we’re given over to those who are even more like ourselves: those of the same sex.
There’s a direction in that passage, and it’s pointing to self. It’s saying, in short, that we are self-absorbed people and that God, in His anger, gave us over that. In pride, we lift ourselves up to be seen. In shame, we fixate on our reputation. To forget self and simply behold the beauty of God is the most unnatural thing we can think of. Yet it is our only true good.
Every lost person you meet, and everyone who’s in the flesh that moment, is addicted to themselves. Our thoughts, desires, and plans are pulled toward self like a giant magnet. Thoughts of God and especially the gospel are awkward and repulsive when we’re in that state. If you meet someone who seems extremely self-absorbed, it’s a chance to remember your own bent. It’s a chance to show how much you yourself can be the same way, and it’s a chance to describe how amazing it is to gaze on God by comparison. It’s an opportunity to paint the picture of what it looks like for you to change from self-fixation to Godward fascination and the rest and beauty that comes with that.
The missional hope of Romans 2
You can relate where it matters most
One thing I don’t want to say here is that you fully understand everyone. That can be very belittling to someone who has experienced significant abuse or addiction. I also don’t mean to say that we should do most of the talking. What I do mean to say is that we can relate where it matters the most. On the deepest, fundamental level, we can understand what another person is going through by looking to our own propensities and stories. We all understand trapping desires and an inability to escape, though we haven’t all felt the pull of heroin addiction. We all understand pain in situations we can’t explain, though we haven’t all lost children. We all know what it’s like to distrust God. We all share a common humanity and a common nature. We also share the same cure: we need to see Jesus as He truly is.
If “I totally know what you mean; here’s where I’m in the same boat” isn’t a natural and authentic part of your vocabulary when speaking with people who are very different from you, then I fear you don’t understand yourself or your Savior very well. You see only dimly your own state and need, and the unspeakable grace of Jesus is likewise faded out. Mission is a powerful litmus test for the depth of your own devotional life and the clarity with which you see Jesus. It is also a great tool for refining those things as well. Instead of kneejerk reactions to others’ situations and words, we need to examine ourselves and realize how we’re just like them. If we don’t, we kneecap our testimonies and become unable to expose the grace of God that changes us in our deep needs. The depth to which you truly see your own desperate condition and depraved nature determines not only the depth to which you see the brilliance of God’s grace but also the depth to which you relate to others.
The power of confession
When you realize that you really are just like the lost person you’re serving, then confessing how you relate to their current state gives you a natural room to just be honest about what being saved has been like for you. Confessing our sin and depravity and truthfully exposing how we are just like others gives us a natural progression to be equally honest with them about how different we are when we’re in the Spirit and how kind, patient, and powerful God has been to us.
Confession is an incredible missional tool, especially in the U.S., where the church is seen by most as being a hypocritical group of people out to judge everyone as worse than ourselves. Why don’t we start with affirming their judgments of us? “You’re completely right. I am a hypocrite, but that’s only the beginning. When left to myself, I don’t love others for their own good. I think about myself constantly. I’m trapped in self-centered anxieties, and I’m addicted to entertainment because I need to escape a world I just can’t cope with.”
This gives the perfect opportunity to continue on to God’s incredible grace. “But when I saw who God really is – a person who crushed the one he loves most and punished him for everything I’ve ever done wrong or will do wrong, solely to serve someone as ugly as me – when I saw Him, everything changed. He drew my eyes out of myself finally, and I no longer had to defend myself. I no longer felt trapped and dead, but now I feel alive when I remember how incredible He is, and I enjoy obeying Him. And even now, when I turn back into that old person, He wakes me up and reminds me who He is and brings me back to life over and over.” You can’t lift up a saving God if you didn’t need saving. And to the extent you realize you need saving, God will become that much bigger to yourself and the friend you’re serving with the gospel message.
Thus, it’s extremely important to know your own need, your own propensities, and just how much God has done for you. Knowing yourself and knowing the God who saves you is your greatest missional help. Your factual arguments aren’t going to change someone’s heart. Them seeing the gospel through your testimony in a genuine way will, though.
Usually, when you feel you cannot relate to others, it reveals that you don’t know yourself or your situation all that well. It reveals blindness. In the flesh, you are just as godless, just as self-centered, just as blind, and just as stuck as they are. You have access to this state at any time still. In fact, I believe God turns our times in the flesh into good by helping us remember the desperation of our condition, the greatness of His power, and our perpetual need for Him. We can leverage this to relate to the lost.
If they say, “I just don’t buy the whole ‘God’ thing. It seems like a child’s story. It seems ridiculous.” You can truthfully say, “I know exactly what you mean. I felt that way this morning, in fact. I woke up to the baby screaming, and I thought, sarcastically, ‘Well this is just a wonderful start to the day, isn’t it. Just great.’ And my heart in that moment didn’t buy into the whole ‘God’ thing at all. I basically forgot He existed, and even if He did, I felt like He wasn’t interested in me or good. But then I realized what I was believing and how I was living, and I remembered that He said He crushed His son for me while I was at my worst. I can’t explain why, but each time I remember that, everything changes for me. I become a completely different person. I believe in Him because something changed, and I know I need Him. The gospel just suddenly became beautiful to me. Let me tell you my favorite part…” Knowing the depravity of your flesh, and using real, recent examples of being rescued from flesh to Spirit is so helpful.
Homosexuality clarifies the gospel
I love using homosexuality as an example because in that issue, it’s so blatantly clear that your deepest, fundamental desires must change. If you’re intimidated by that concept or feel like you can’t relate to it, then the problem is that you don’t understand your salvation well enough. If you don’t understand the inability to change, then you don’t understand your own plight or the extent to which Jesus has gone to rescue you. You might be living out a salvation that is mostly just you trying harder to earn God’s favor. You might have missed the salvation where you are so utterly infatuated with God that you now long to enjoy and obey Him more than you long for sin. That salvation, friend, is out of your reach. Only God can do that.
With homosexuality, it’s blatantly clear how natural sin is to us and how unnatural righteousness is. If you think for a second that righteousness comes naturally to you while you’re in the flesh, then you don’t understand righteousness. And if you think that sin isn’t natural while in the flesh, then you don’t understand sin. The problem could be that you’re living a nominal life that still freely indulges sin but only makes it look prettier because you care mostly about what others think. It could be that God Himself isn’t your greatest longing. Your version of righteousness might be church attendance, the soup kitchen, a Bible plan, and self-atonement. You might have missed the righteousness that says that anything you want more than God in any way is poisonous to its root. That righteousness is not natural to the flesh. So you should be able to relate.
I think the issue of homosexuality can clarify the gospel in profound ways that we might have missed if we didn’t look more closely. We all relate to the issues homosexuals face because those issues are really just the same idolatry issues that plague us all. This is, of course, true of any sin struggle. Each will highlight things about the gospel. Usually, the most intimidating part of our sin struggle becomes the aspect of the gospel that we see the clearest. In my battles with anger, I see all the more clearly the beauty of forgiveness. In my battles with lust, I see all the more clearly the wealth of pleasures that I have in Jesus. In my battles with addiction, I see all the more clearly God’s power to change even my deepest desires. God uses our sin struggles to clarify Himself. He is wise in ways we will never understand.
When you know yourself, and you’re authentically living life in God’s grace, you see certain aspects of the gospel like nobody else does. These are your missional tools. These are the nuts and bolts of spreading God’s fame for you. These are what you use to highlight Him to those who don’t see Him. You relate to others, and you use your unique struggles to show God off in unique ways. And God is merging the unique highlights we each have to offer into an incredible work of art that reaches the world in an incredibly diverse and expansive way. Friend, expose your shame! Expose your unique struggles! If you don’t, you’re working against the beautiful work of art that God is putting together through His church. You are unique, and your view of God is beautiful. People need to see Him through you. Don’t get out of the way. Get in the way, worship God when nobody’s looking, and let your authentic enjoyment of Him bleed out in unique ways.
Missional warning signs
When you have no real passion or expression for the power of God at work against your previous captivity to sin, it is usually a reflection of redemption in your life. It is a reflection of your own spiritual health. A person who dwells intimately with God often throughout the day doesn’t stumble in their emotions and isn’t confused when conveying to the lost person why they’re different now. Their words might stumble, but they know precisely what it feels and looks like. And trust me, that knowledge will make its way out powerfully. It might feel and look awkward, but my experience is that awkward is often when God moves the strongest. If you don’t long to see God lifted up to the lost, this is a warning that your heart is growing blind and dull. You need to see and enjoy Him again!
The power of deep infatuation
You can’t fake authenticity if you live in real community. Both the saved and the lost who live with you on a daily basis will see through a façade. People can sense realness, and they can tell when you’re head over heels in love with God for real reasons. They might call you an idiot, but if they know you, they’ll have a hard time calling you a liar. To be deeply infatuated with God is a spring that gushes out. Raw desires and longings take shape in ways you can’t foresee, and they make an impact on the lost and saved alike.
Where I’m going with this is that there is no substitute for long, frequent times of enjoying God in daily life. There’s no way to fake infatuation. You can live separate from community and only see others intermittently, but when you live near them often, they will know what you love. Deep infatuation with God is certainly awkward to the lost, but they can spot it a mile away. It leads to conversations you’d never otherwise have, and it breeds moments in which the Spirit moves. Awkwardness is a context in which I’ve seen amazing things happen, and there’s nothing normal about someone who is genuinely moved by God. It sticks out.
As you're relating to the troubles, sins, attitudes, and desires of others, your greatest tool is your own unquenchable enjoyment of God Himself. Let it come out, and let it take shape in unique ways. Don’t script things out. Don’t memorize arguments. Just cultivate the joy and depth of satisfaction in God. It will speak for itself.