Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg has received a lot of publicity of late for his comments about being a gay man in a Christian context. Though he is clearly on the other side of any struggles he may have had, the residue of past anguish about the conflict between these apparently contradictory aspects of his identity can still be perceived.
And he is not the only one who has wrestled with this inner turmoil. More than one gay friend of mine has said something to the effect that, if they could have taken a pill to get rid of their same-sex attraction they would have. And it isn’t just those who struggle with same-sex attraction. Many of us have found ourselves drowning in the darkness of shame and regret, wondering why it is that we cannot seem to live up to the standards which have been foisted upon us by our God, our church, or our own conscience.
Let’s Be Honest: The Troubling Nature of the Problem and It’s Even More Troubling Aftermath
Let’s be very clear about what we are saying. We sing worship songs all the time that promise us, “There is power in the name of Jesus . . . to break every chain.” But for too many of us, the gospel seems impotent in the face of our sin. Psychological trauma, social conditioning, and biological encoding place limits upon us that no amount of prayer, Bible study, fasting, or other disciplines are able to break.
And if there is no power to overcome the sin in our lives, we are left with a grab bag of unsavory choices. Perhaps God really doesn’t care if we do whatever it is that people are telling us we shouldn’t do. (That is the choice that Buttigieg seems to have made.) Perhaps God is powerless to help us overcome our sin, or perhaps God simply doesn’t care about us enough to help us. Or perhaps God simply doesn’t exist.
Faced with such unsavory choices, it is not surprising that many of us give up. In the darkness of our fears and our doubts, we just cannot go on living the way that we have been living. The pain is just too great. We want to be loved for who we are, not for who we are supposed to be.
Recalibrating Our Expectations: Discipleship Is a Process
I know that of which I speak. I have wrestled alone in the darkness, not knowing whether my adversary was God, the devil, or myself. I have pleaded with God to break the chains that I perceived to be around my heart, only to rise from prayer burdened with the same impulses, the same self-loathing, and the same pain. I have questioned whether God even exists and whether I can legitimately call myself His child.
As I have worked to face these “dark nights of the soul” honestly and faithfully, I have learned some things that have helped me come to terms with both God’s unrelenting demands for obedience and my own intractable will. I hope that what I have learned will help you, too, though I want to warn you from the outset that I do not have any easy answers. Indeed, you may not like what I have to say, and you will almost certainly still have questions.
I am convinced that many of us in the American church have thoroughly misunderstood the nature, methods, and goals of discipleship. We know—or at least some of us know—that we are supposed to be learning from Jesus how to live in the Kingdom of God, and some of us even recognize that the pattern of thinking and conduct modeled by Jesus is, at least in part, the very content of the life that Jesus promises to us. Nevertheless, we have somehow picked up the idea that discipleship is a moral life improvement project that will, at some point in the near future, come to a satisfactory conclusion.
True discipleship, however, is nothing like that. It is a process, and, contrary to the teachings of some, it is a process that will not end in the present life. Obviously, this is because there are so many issues that we need to work through, but it is also because some of the individual tasks that God will give us to do will take an entire lifetime to complete.
What I am trying, somewhat inarticulately, to say is this. Many of us allow the high standards of the gospel to feed the perfectionism that we inherited from our family of origin or that is innate to our personality. We become disillusioned when all the walls do not fall as soon as we encounter them, and we either blame ourselves or we blame God. Sometimes, we need to do some serious soul-searching about whether we are committed to the task of being Jesus’ disciple, but sometimes we simply need to acknowledge the challenge that stands before us and recognize that overcoming it will take patience, perseverance, and time.
Recalibrating Our Expectations: Discipleship Is About Dying
What makes the discipleship process so excruciating is that it is a process of dying. Notice what Jesus says in Mark 8:34b (compare also with parallels in Matthew and Luke); “If someone wants to come behind me, let him or her deny themself, take up his or her cross, and follow me.” Mark’s redundancy reinforces the point that we have already made (that discipleship is a process), and Jesus could not be any more clear about what that kind of life entails.
Being Jesus’ “disciple” (that is how the NIV renders the phrase I translated “come behind”) is about self-negation, not self-esteem. It is a process of self-denial that is rooted in a very particular understanding of the human self and in a very particular understanding of the human problem (cf. Genesis 1:26-28; 2:4-3:18). Yes, every human being is created in the image of God, but every human being is also broken. We must reject our tendency towards self-preservation and embrace the instrument of our own execution. And then we must follow Jesus in self-sacrificial obedience.
Paul, too, talks about this process of dying. In Galatians 2:19b-20, he presents it as an artifact of his own experience. “I have been crucified with Christ. I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loves me and gave himself for me.” The venerable Apostle applies the principle to the Christian experience in general in Romans 6:1-3. “What, then, shall we say? Shall we keep on sinning so that grace may about? Certainly not! We are those who died to sin. How can we live in it again? Don’t you know that, whoever of you have been baptized into Christ Jesus, you were baptized into his death?”
Here is the problem with dying. It usually hurts. Moreover, it is often shrouded in darkness and uncertainty. Death is the ultimate negation of all that has gone before it. In the physical realm, no amount of wealth or power can prevent it or undo it. Its permanence renders a verdict of futility on all that has gone before it.
Nevertheless, we are urged to embrace death—not the death of the body, but an even more frightening death. We are invited to embrace the death of all that we were and all that we valued before Christ. There are at least three reasons why we must embrace such a death. First of all, it is exactly what Christ did. He had no sin for which he must die, and yet he set aside his own claims of innocence and his own prerogatives as God’s Son so that he could obey His Father.
Second, it is only by dying to ourselves that we can die to sin. That is the point that Paul makes in the rest of Romans 6. Paul is not ignorant about the challenges of removing sin from our lives. He describes sin as an enslaving power, anticipating much of what we now know about the addictive power of things like sex, mood altering substances, and material possessions. Ridding ourselves of those chains will require radical surgery—so radical, in fact, that it results in the death of the patient.
Third, we have to remember that Christ embarked on his own journey towards death for one reason. He did it because he loves us. And it is safe to assume that he calls us to a similar journey for the same reason. But how can we say with a straight face that the process of Christian discipleship is a loving endeavor when we have already admitted that it involves excruciating pain and ends in death for what we often think are the most important parts of us (our dreams, our values, our desires, etc.)? We can say this because the process does not end in death. It ends in life—life that is more abundant than we can imagine and life that never ends (cf. John 10:10) But the only way to access that life is through Jesus (cf. John 14:6), and participation in Christ means participation in his death (cf. Romans 6:5; Philippians 3:10-11).
Recalibrating Our Expectations: Discipleship Requires Faith
If we are going to take upon ourselves such a radical approach to discipleship, we are going to need a lot of faith. Indeed, I am convinced that, while the discipleship process is designed to help us grow in holiness, righteousness, and virtue, it is also designed to help us grow in our faith.
Specifically, I think that we have to learn to trust God in at least two areas. First, we have to grow in our faith that God’s way is best. That does not mean that it is best for us in the short run. As anyone who has struggled with an enslaving sin will tell you, breaking free—even with significant divine help—is extraordinarily difficult, and this is especially true if we are having to sacrifice some significant aspect of who we are to do it. The challenge for us is to believe that God’s way is best even in the midst of all of the pain that we endure. It is to believe that it is best for God’s Kingdom, for society, for our family, and (perhaps) even for us.
Second, we need to grow in our faith that God can and will forgive us when we fail. I cannot tell you how many times I have thought to myself, “Well, buster, that was just one too many times. God isn’t going to forgive you this time, and He shouldn’t forgive you. He is going to throw you on the ash heap of history” We need to resist the temptation to despair, and we need to resist the temptation to surmise that what we are doing must not be a sin since it is so deeply engrained in who we are. Our task is to walk the narrow road between these two options, acknowledging our brokenness but also acknowledging the patience and forgiveness of our God.
Judgement Is not the Point
It is easy to condemn others for the approach that they take to their spiritual journey—especially when they are running for political office or hurling invectives at their theological opponents. That is not my intent here, in part because Jesus prohibits his disciples from issuing such condemnations (Matthew 7:1-5) but also because those who are worthy of receiving a stern rebuke rarely ever listen to one no matter how carefully it is crafted. Rather, it is to offer help to those who are desperate for God’s intervention in their lives and who are on the brink of despair because they have not yet received it.
Following Jesus is hard. There may be people around you who think you are a fool for trying to do it. There may be people around you who would disown you if they knew the specific nature of your struggles. There may be people around you who would see your life as conclusive evidence that God does not exist and Christians are misanthropic bigots.
Don’t listen to those people, and don’t give up. God does exist, and Jesus does love you. I am not saying you won’t walk through some deep, dark valleys. Along the way, you’ll probably run across me in one of them, exhausted and afraid. I still have questions. If the power that raised Christ from the dead is still at work in me, why is it so hard for me to make progress in holiness? Why does it always seem that I am at war with myself (for the source of this imagery, see Galatians 5:16-26)?
But here is what I am saying. The valleys are part of the process of becoming more like Jesus. That process is not meant to destroy us, even though it inevitably results in our death. It is meant to remake us. It is meant to heal us. It is meant to set us free.