Churches should expect that their care for those who are same-sex attracted will come under scrutiny in the months ahead. This raises the question: how can we ensure that our care is beneficial for people? In a previous post we looked at the beginning of a pastoral conversation that involved good listening and reassurance. Where might it go from there?
Suffering, temptation and blessings
As people ask me to describe same-sex attraction, ‘suffering and temptation’ is the couplet that I often use – and others I know would say the same. Of course, that may not be true for all (ask good questions!) but in my own life, the people who have helped me most are those who have realised that both of these categories need to be recognised in pastoral conversation.
There may be suffering. There will be the initial discovery of sexuality struggles, possibly in teenage years, and the turmoil that can ensue. For those who are not able to marry, weddings may be difficult times. Loneliness can be a real source of agony. Same-sex friendships will be vital, but they can become confusing and painful. All of that is hard. At times, the care I have needed most has been having one who weeps with those who weep. And I’ve generally only been willing to receive input into temptation issues from those who have shown they understand the elements of suffering involved.
I’ve generally only been willing to receive input into temptation issues from those who have shown they understand the elements of suffering involved.
But here is where good theology helps. All people suffer in different ways. Frequently in the New Testament, God does not remove the immediate cause of suffering (2 Corinthians 12:9) but rather he enables people to see that suffering is neither meaningless nor permanent. It is what the Lord uses to develop perseverance, humility, reliance on him, and an ability to comfort others. Even the worst of suffering is light and momentary compared with eternal glory (2 Corinthians 4:17).
That’s why good pastoral care won’t assume that God will change the underlying issues of attraction, for it may be that he is using it for good purposes in people’s lives – to bless them in unexpected ways. For myself, I am convinced that if I have been able to live a flourishing life it is because I have been helped to say, ‘This is painful, but I can see the ways God is at work through it.’ Gently helping individuals to see this can be a real benefit to them.
Alongside suffering, the experience of same-sex attraction is a temptation to engage in thoughts and activity that aren’t pleasing to the Lord. We believe sex is for marriage between a man and a woman as a picture of the glorious union between Christ and the Church. Anything else falls short of that.
So, one aspect of pastoral care will involve exploring the particular temptations the individual faces and how to fight those. That will include alleviating false guilt, given that temptation is common to all of us as fallen humans. We’ll want to listen well rather than making assumptions about sources of temptation. For many, loneliness will be a bigger source of temptation than close same-sex friendships. We want to help people to prioritise living for the Lord because that is how blessing comes.
Jesus and the Spirit
One of the aims of pastoral conversation will be to bring Jesus from the back of somebody’s mind to the front. A useful question in pastoral care can be this: ‘What do you think Jesus thinks of you at the moment?’ It may well be that somebody sees Jesus as distant or remote from their struggles or, worse, somewhat appalled by them. The good news is that Jesus is a sympathetic high priest (Hebrews 4:15). Indeed, interestingly, Hebrews 2:18 will combine suffering and temptation within the experience of Jesus.
As we care for people, we want them to be able to grasp this. Here is a helpful line: ‘Whenever you face temptation, I want you to think of Jesus as sympathetic at that very moment.’ That will empower somebody to face temptation much more than having a Jesus who is distant and disapproving.
Whenever you face temptation, I want you to think of Jesus as sympathetic at that very moment.
More than that, we have the power of the Spirit. The Father and the Son have set up home within our hearts (John 14:23). That can be energising for somebody who has a sense of defeatism. The very power of God lives within us.
All of the above is about trying to assure somebody that they are seeking to live for the Lord from a place of strength. They have the love of God the Father, the sympathy of God the Son and the presence of God the Spirit. One of the goals of good pastoral care is to bring the wonderful work of God to the forefront of our hearts and minds.
But how we should pray for people and provide ongoing support? We’ll consider that in my next post.