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We Can Relate, Part 2

If I am “them” in Romans 1, there are many implications. Here, we look at how we fully relate to “them” in desperate plight. My neighbor’s bitter slavery is my bitter slavery. This reality meets us in our reactions of intimidation and hesitance when we meet a neighbor who is in especially overwhelming circumstances. Intimidation is a reaction common to us all, but what it expresses from the heart can be a wide range of gospel-defaming beliefs:There is nothing to offer them. They are too far gone. I can’t relate at all to this. I’m not equipped for this. The gospel is not equipped for this. God is too abstract to affect this tangible trial, especially because I have not directly been through this trial. My words seem empty. I want to challenge this. A person who knows themselves and knows the gospel, knows others quite deeply as well! My deepest problem is also their deepest problem. My deepest need is also their deepest need. This is true regardless of circumstances. Your ability to relate to your neighbor’s deepest need really boils down to how vividly and deeply you understand your own need, and I would say, how often you meditate on your own need as well.

Our shared Romans 1 desperation

Romans 1 is a masterful painting that captures each of us in vivid detail. I want to focus on five words that capture the range of Romans 1: (1) absence, (2) slavery, (3) intimacy, (4) selfish and (5) unnatural.


Notice how it all begins absence from God. Not only did we start with “not God,” but our plight in its entirety sounds like a broken record of “not God.” We begin by not acknowledging, not thanking, not desiring, not honoring or loving. It is as if He is divorced altogether from our minds and our longings. In your day-to-day, is God largely absent from your thoughts? Do you engage Him or forget Him? Then yes, we share the same plight! But notice how our deteriorated condition in Romans 1 is so clearly a direct result of our chosen absence from God. We are “futile in our thinking,” meaning our thoughts are vain, amounting to nothing because the only eternal God is not in them. “Our foolish hearts are darkened” because the light of God’s glory has been eclipsed by our desire for self-glory, spiraling our desires into depravity. “Claiming to be wise, we became fools,” because we are divorced from the only wise God and so blind apart from His light we cannot even glimpse just how foolish we really are. Literally every aspect of our desperate condition finds its roots in separation from God, who alone is the eternal light of glory intended to awe us with pleasure.


Before Christ’s rescue, we are “under sin” (Rom 3:9), and this is explained in vivid detail three times in Romans 1 as God “gives us up.” This verb means to be handed over to the control of another. Here, it denotes slavery to sin. It’s the same word used redemptively in Romans 4 when Paul says: “He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.” This is an active and fitting judgment of God to give us exactly what we wanted anyway: everything but Himself. “He gave them up” is our judgment, our death sentence, that we worked hard to earn. It is captivity. It is slavery. This explains our “stuckness” before Christ came in and rescued. It explains why we neededrescue. Do you see sin’s reign before Christ and its continued influence though put down now as bitter? Do you see it as the attempted slavery that it is? And how does sin enslave us? It does so by our own desires as we read “God gave them up in the lusts of their heartsto impurity.” Apart from Christ, I want sin, and that is precisely why I could not escape it! It is precisely why Christ’s compassionate covering of my sin must have come counter to what I wanted and where I was going. If He did not interject and impose on me, I would be dead because I would continue to desire death. Our sinful desires are the very chains of our slavery to sin, and those chains must be severed.


What is the first sin to be handpicked by Paul when talking about our worship exchange: that is, us worshipping all that is not God rather than worshipping God? Broken intimacy is the first place Paul goes. We dishonor one anothers’ bodies in this pornographic world of taking and self-glorying that tries to pass itself off as sex. Severed from intimacy with God, we deform intimacy in the horizontal, cry out for it, and watch it slip through our hands like sand. It isn’t only sex though. We emotionally attach to people who have no business filling a void intended for God. We placate our lack of intimacy with hardening, hour-long bouts of reading, television, work, and exercise. We reel from living apart from the joyful union with God and others we were intended for, and we lash out in anger, suspicion, and bitterness. We live disconnected lives with technology that supposedly connects, piddling ever in the shallows with others. Marriage becomes a partnership and a roommate situation where the anger of distrust and bitterness has settled into a wasteland of complacent cohabitation, which we pass of as “peace.” We all suffer broken intimacy. We all sin in broken intimacy.


Paul arrives at another handpicked sin to describe the desperation of our common, captive worship exchange, and that is homosexuality. I believe this has two implications in Paul’s use of it, and here I want to ask you: What happened to the idol we exchanged God for? It starts off as that which is not God, meaning that which is worldly and like us. Then it moves to other peoples’ bodies, our worship has latched onto other humans, those who are much more like us. Finally, it moves to other people of the same sex, those who share our image and are much, much more like we are. Where’s the target? My worship apart from Christ’s rescue has an overwhelming emphasis on me, on self. I think of my interests first, my vindication first, my comfort first, my pleasure first. I fixate on the mirror, and all that I interpret sifts through a grid of self and revolves around the star of self. It’s as if our eyes are glued inward and cannot seem to detach. We fixate within, seemingly blind to all else. This is not a homosexuality issue, this is a human issue we share in common. My greatest glory, apart from rescue, is myself, and I pass off self-esteem as something healthy, when in reality it is suffocating me to death by depriving me of the only esteem I was made for: to esteem Christ in depth and joy above all things.


This twice repeated word tied in with Paul’s focus on homosexuality is not referring to familiarity. Paul is referring to function. An alternative translation reads: “their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural.” We’re talking physiology and function here, not uncomfort or distaste. What this is telling us about our worship exchange is that, in our broken intimacy divorced from a God for whom we were made, we are not at all living as we were intended to. Nobody has to tell you things aren’t right in the world. Depression medications would not be such a lucrative industry if we thought this world was right as it is, if we thought we were right as we are. How we are living is most unnatural for how we were created, because we were created for deep intimacy with God Himself. I say this because it is quite natural for a homosexual man to long for the body of another man, for a homosexual woman to long romantically for other women. It’s just as natural as it is for the greedy business person to long for more money at the expense of his or her family. It’s just as natural as it is for a straight man to long for women who are not his wife, or for a woman with an eating disorder to have every thought be relative to food in some way. For all of us, in our desires for sin that enslave us, sin comes naturally, but we know our state is most unnatural apart from deep intimacy with God.

We all need rescued desires

We need our desires to change, or our slavery, which began and perpetuates in God’s absence, will never lift. Since this is not in our power to do, we need a rescuer to come in, take out our hearts of stone, and give us hearts of flesh that love Him. We need rescue, and this rescue is so powerful that it indeed changes our very desires, something most in America claim isn’t even possible. This post sits on the saved directly as much as it does our relation to the unsaved because I suspect we live out our lives still nurturing sinful desires, leading to the heavy burden of conflict that seems perpetually within us. Have you honestly pursued and lived in a genuine desire for and enjoyment Christ above all things? Or do you live most of your day-to-day in that conflicting limbo where you nurture desires for sin and feel the heaviness of not “being able to” sin apart from God’s presence and apart from genuine longing for Him above all?

Are you pursuing the death of sinful desires and the  thriving of Godly desires, or are your efforts mostly confined to the realm of behavior? Christ promised us a light burden in the midst of very heavy suffering; and this seeming paradox only makes sense when we share His heart, which genuinely desired and delighted in the Father above all things. The burden of giving cannot be light unless we desire Christ more than money. The burden of purity cannot be light unless we desire Christ more than sex and pride. The burden of reconciliation cannot be light unless we desire Christ more than protecting our name. The burden of leadership cannot be light unless we desire Christ more than ease and smooth sailing.

We have the same need: that our very desires be uprooted and replaced by ones for God, that stand in joyful awe of Him and long above all to be with Him in full intimacy. Your neighbor, no matter what they are going through, have the same most fundamental need. No matter what circumstances we encounter in another’s life, however severe or dire, what is going on at the root of things is that sin is eating them alive from the inside. The poor need rescue from sin. The abused need rescue from sin. The addicted need rescue from sin. The rich and self-assured need rescue from sin. Knowing this, really knowing it, gives us a lot to leverage as we invade one anothers’ lives at Legacy and as we invade the lives of Knoxville as Christ invaded our own.

Posted by Matt Norman with

We Can Relate, Part 1

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This post begins a rabbit trail of posts, but I think it’s an important one. We need to dive deep in this topic, I cannot do it in one post, and I want to continue to be sensitive to the time you have available. So this will be split into four posts. These posts continues to encourage you that you really are able, by God’s power, to counsel (and be counseled by) others with power and great effect. But, I want to attack head on the question: “Can I relate to anyone?” Let’s take this in four parts: (1) I am in the same boat as my neighbor, (2) I can relate to my neighbor’s need, (3) I can relate to my neighbor’s rescue, and (4) I can powerfully leverage the gospel and my testimony for my neighbor. My hope is that these posts will apply the gospel to our sinful reactions of (1) pride and distance, (2) intimidation and hesitance, (3) fear and hopelessness, and (4) inaction and shame. These are reactions we all, if we’re honest, struggle with to some extent when someone comes to us with a heavy life situation. I want us to proclaim boldly with the Apostle Paul, “I am not ashamed of the gospel!”, as we enter our neighbors’ gray and difficult lives (not unlike our own). Nearly all of these posts will come from Romans 1-3, so it would be best if you went ahead and read that, really asking Paul what he’s wanting to tell you in the text. Also, taking cues from Paul, the driving issue here will be homosexuality.

Many of us, as we read Romans 1, we leave with a sense that homosexuality is really bad. But I fear that for many of us, our eyes glaze over. We don’t ask Paul why he highlighted it, nor do we let the passage flow and speak for itself as to the grand message it wants to communicate. For sure, Paul dwells on homosexuality, and we’ll get to why later, but for now, I want to set our eyes on the trap laid for us at the end of Romans 1. Here, we see a plethora of “they” language: “those out there, how could they?” Not unlike Jesus did on a number of occasions, though, Paul is pulling the prideful reader into a false sense of security. Paul lures the prideful reader to jump on board, thinking the likes of, “Yes, they do deserve it!” The traffic crashes to a halt at Romans 2:1, though, where we read, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself.” Paul moved instantly from a safe, judge them from the sidelines, “those people over there” to an isolating and confrontational “you, O man, yes you!” I, the reader, am singled out. Not my spouse. Not my boss. Not my coworkers. Not my children. Not the person who snapped at me. Me, and me alone before the God I have defamed in my fleshly desires, desperately needing rescue, and joyfully treasuring the rescue that saves me from the flesh.

This is a hard word, I know, and I really don’t want to soften it because it bears good fruit, even joy because of the cross. We need to understand the reality that nothing separates us from the most flagrant sinners and tyrants in history except the gracious hand of God. In fact, this reality serves to further lift up His mercy and power in His rescue of us! Our rescue by Christ came counter to what we previously wanted, knew, or deserved. Our sin nature does not get any better, in fact. It only gets dead. In Christ, sin is conquered and embarrassed by new desires for God Himself above all things. This is what Paul is doing in Romans 2:1, when he brings us to realize that those we judge are, in fact, no different at all than ourselves in the flesh. This is wild implications for our counsel, but in this post, I want to fight our reactions of pride and distance. We’re moving from “What they do is stupid, hideous, beneath me, and foolish” to “God, apart from You, it is me who is foolish, blind, disgusting, and trivial. Thank you for such incredible grace!”

When you read in Romans 1 that homosexuals received in themselves the penalty due their error, that they acted unnaturally, or that they were given over, is your first reaction to distance yourself from them, as if it only applied to them and not to you and me? For sure, very few of us are so flagrant in our flesh as to hold up “God hates fags” signs, but we so often harbor thoughts like, “Whew, God sure had an easier time saving me!” Perhaps it’s not homosexuality, but do you do this to Mormons? Do you joke and say things that amount to: “How could they fall for that nonsense?” Do you do this to people who whine incessantly? To gossips? To dishonest brokers? To false teachers? Does your heart bash Rob Bell and Joel Olsteen without first remembering your own equal propensity to defame God apart from Christ’s rescue? Do you do this to unjust officers? To lazy people? To the excuse maker? To the homeless one who’s lost their mind? To the child abuser? To the woman who had an abortion? We are all the culprits here. I don’t think any of us really escape this. It’s tough to catch. Sin looks down, it judges, and this will not change. It will only be put to death by a heart enamored with God Himself.

There is no depravity outside our reach when we walk in sinful desires. The person we judge, that person is us apart from Christ, and we owe our rescue by Christ solely to His unfathomable wisdom, compassion, and power. Now, this is not at all to lighten the weightiness of sin since we all share it in common. Rather, this is to deepen our grieving over sin’s destruction and to further lift up God’s incredible grace that came counter to our sinful natures. It shows His grace all the more brightly!

I write this because as we counsel, I guarantee there will be times we want to give up on someone. There will be times we want to say, “Get your act together and stop being stupid.” There will be times we want to say, “What’s wrong with you? Why is this taking so long with you?” There will be times we will say like the Pharisee, “God, thank you that I am not like this tax collector.” When the truth is that I am the tax collector and worse. When we distance ourselves from the weakest among us, we lie. When we pretend our flesh smells better than another person’s, we forget. We will dive more into how deeply we relate to our neighbors, but part of this relating certainly means we are no better in and of ourselves. It leads us to see God’s grace afresh and to thank Him with renewed awe for His rescue of us. It leads us to be like Him in His faithfulness, His steadfastness, and His dirt-under-the-fingernails invasiveness. It keeps us from associating with the lofty. It reminds us that Christ came low and helped the lowly. It helps our counsel because we will not lift up ourselves to our neighbor since we are just like them in and of ourselves. Instead, we long all the more to lift up to them the God who rescues us and them. It leads to deeper God-centeredness.

Over the next couple of weeks, ask God what your specific issues are where you feel you are different and distant from “them.” Who do you look down on? What are the thoughts that come with that? This is not a condemnation for you because there is none left for believers (Christ became condemnation on our behalf), but it is actually a springboard to see far better the depths to which God went to save you, just how deeply He loves you in Christ. How does this affect your approach to them, your steadfastness with them, and your willingness to be uncomfortable and awkward with them? Take real, specific cues to what Christ did with you, and consider what that looks like toward the neighbor, brother, or sister you typically judge. Most of all, my prayer is that this helps you see God more clearly, especially His rescue in light of your desperation. Let’s place our own confidence for a changed heart in the One who has already rescued us, and let’s fix our eyes on His nature all the more securely.

Posted by Matt Norman with