Response to David Fitch on Mission-Shaped Sanctification

Background

This post is in response to the latest installment in an ongoing series from David Fitch on the mission-shaped church and the LGBT communities: “Being Missional” and the GLBTQ #2: Mission and the Nature of Desire. This particular post is on sanctification, and how desire and identity relate to it in three different views within the emerging/Emergent/missional movements: welcoming and affirming people of LGBT orientations (typically the post-evangelical consensus), welcoming and not affirming (Neo-Reformed), and welcoming and transforming (Neo-Anabaptist missional). For links to previous posts in the series, see the paragraph near the end of this post: “On Being Missional” with the Gay/Lesbian Peoples Among Us.

In my view, what we do with all kinds of desires (not just sexuality) is core to discipleship. When we commit to following Jesus Christ, nothing is off limits to Him in forming Christlikeness in us. If we protect our treasured desires and identities, have those not become idols? So, maturing is not about comfort or happiness, but about perseverance to be transformed through all life experiences including suffering, leading to hope and joy. I’ve had to chip away at malformation of my gender identity and sexuality for a long time, so I am not immune from the sanctification issues David speaks of. Also, having interacted over the years with many marginalized people – most from specific identity subcultures – I’ve had the set-up to reflect on the formation and meaning of social identity groups. So, here are some thoughts on identity, with perhaps more to post later, if/when time and energy allow. [UPDATE: I’ve added a section at the end, on “Facilitating Transformation.”] Meanwhile, I hope these are helpful …

Response to David Fitch on Mission-Shaped Sanctification: Setting our Identity Gauge

Identity may seem to be a fluid, moving thing, perhaps like a buoy that bobs around on the surface of the ocean. But somewhere, down deep, our identity is anchored solidly enough and with enough rope attached to keep our identity buoy intact while allowing some give-and-take to flow in the currents.

What is our surface identity, and where is our anchor?

The Essence of Being Human …

I believe we find clues to a deeper, more whole identity if we function from the assumption that the Bible – even Genesis – is God’s intended revelation to us for understanding and interpreting life, and the Bible is our basis for faith and practice. Here’s how the events unfold in Genesis, along with related concepts/theology:

God created us to be HUMAN first of all, and the very first opportunities for expressing our humanity were in relating with our Creator and in naming the animals. So, at our core, we were made to be SPIRITUAL and CREATIVE. And from the first human, Adam, he brought forth and formed Eve, so the next deepest aspect of being human is GENDER. God declared this as good, endorsing the PARITY (equality of value) of both man and woman, and He ceased from His work. That very first “Sabbath” demonstrates the importance of CELEBRATION, by us also declaring the increments of our work done as being good, and CESSATION, by engaging in leisure for refreshment, restoration, and readiness for the work and week ahead.

We were designed for COMPLEMENTARITY, where the POLARITY of our distinct differences are made to complete one another (HT to “Jerry McGuire”), not compete with one another. The original couple expressed the intangible complementarity of masculine and feminine through their tangible, physical SEXUAL connection as male and female.

Through their disobedience of listening to the serpent instead of to God, that first couple willfully chose to respond to EVIL instead of resist it, and they went their own way. Thus, they introduced SIN and SUFFERING into human life. In their need for RESTORATION of relationship with God and each other, and God responded with symbols of REDEMPTION.

From this union of this first couple’s sexuality came children, and with them, the first next-GENERATIONS were born and a FAMILY was formed. As everyone AGED and as the cycles of reproduction repeated, extended families turned into TRIBES, related by physical ties of bloodlines. After the flood, all bloodlines diversified from the four families which survived, and that became a source of RACE. After the Tower of Babel, the attempted unification of all people was splintered, and tribes became related by virtual ties of LANGUAGE. (Ironic that “constructed” varieties of cultures resulted from the destruction of idolatrous attempts at a unified culture.) Through the dispersal and migration that followed, NATIONS became established.

Implications for Sanctification and/in Community

It’s my practice to explore every “what” of conceptual analysis for its “so what” significance and “now what” actions. So, here are some initial implications for us as individuals and as communities who seek to follow Christ:

1. We tend to latch on to one of these many different aspects of being human as our anchor for identity, and that can be a source of strength or destruction. Depending on our epistemology – our core way of processing information – then the desire we most strongly [[pick the verb that best expresses your process: think about // imagine // feel // reflect on // choose // value]] for our life-integration point gets lived out as our identity. For some of us, it’s our racial roots or national origin. For others (like myself), it’s about wrestling with God to find restoration of gender identity and sexuality. For others, it’s about battling evil people and structures to bring about social transformation.

Many of these aspects of being human potentially have goodness to them – after all, they are part of God’s providential designs – but not all of them end up as wholesome. We can create excesses that turn into idolatry, and/or experience temptations from within to sin, and attacks from the Evil One – Satan – without, and seduction from the world surrounding us to conform to its standards. What will we do with the constructive and destructive possibilities in our desires and identities?

2. For almost any feature we choose to integrate, there is something deeper, more fully and holistically human, that awaits us. As the unfolding from Genesis shows, we can attach ourselves to all kinds of surface or in-between concepts and activities to give meaning and seeming stability to life. Typically, these manifest themselves in a broken or twisted way, because that is the broken side of being human. Our counterfeit anchor can be anything from pride of nation and language, to racial or tribal superiority, to a generation’s ability to exert power over others, to arrogance based in family heritage and genealogy, to obsession with fighting against social corruption, to male or female superiority resulting is misogyny or misandry, to recreation addiction and partying, to hyperspirituality, to the supposed freedom of absolutely unfettererd creativity. Spiritual transformation that restores the marred image of God in us is the only process that can untangle those warped versions of humanness.

3. When a Christian, a church, a denomination, or a movement overfocuses on any issue other than the deepest real needs of being human and being in right relationship with God and others, eventually we become inhumane in our treatment of “the social other.” In fact, unfortunately, being too “pro-” on one thing usually means we are “anti-” in harmful ways that ups the ante in the poker game of power where the evil one seeks to win us over or else win over us. [Translation: We treat those who are different from us like crap.]

I suspect we’ve all experienced some kinds of imbalanced Christians, and it hasn’t been pleasant. For instance, I’ve experienced Christians who are so over-the-top pro-family that they have been stridently anti-people toward those who disagree with them. I’ve experienced rabid theological conservatives who are angry that I believe we should accept people exactly where they are at instead of where we wish they were, AND rabid theological liberals who are angry that I believe we should challenge people to go beyond where they are at because their current status reflects the brokenness of sin.

But it’s also fair to turn the tables and ask, “How have I, myself, messed over other people by my own off-kilter emphasis?” (P.S. And I have … most definitely …)

This sad truth applies, whether we find ourselves on the “pro” or “anti” side of something. And in our times, the Church has often scapegoated the LGBT communities. And I believe David Fitch is right on when he suggests this is because we haven’t come to biblical terms with our own messed up issues of past sexual wounding, our present perverse sexual practices, and our Cartesian dualism that splits mind from body.

4. What are key implications for the mission-shaped church and sanctification? As a community, we need to consistently help one another as disciples to “sublimate” our desires and identities – regardless of whether these are superficial, under the surface, and/or sinful – in order for each and all of us to go deeper into redeemed and restored humanity and to anchor at the deepest place of rest – on The Rock … Jesus Christ.

Not all superficial things are sinful, and not all sinful desires are superficial. But we are mandated to put ALL things under submission to Christ … hence, sublimation of the more vaporous aspects of ourselves to the deepest reality of Jesus Christ being solidly formed in us. Or, as David Fitch has stated it in his post on sanctification, “the basis for entering into this Kingdom transformation is the subordination of our entire selves into the cross and resurrection.”

No one’s humanity rope on their identity buoy is long enough or strong enough to withstand the wind storms and not lift and shift with the rip tides. And we are not designed to fix these deficiencies all on our own. And sublimation is not about attempting to extinguish desire or temptation, or entrusting our spiritual development to some overlord who dictates all the steps we need to do. It’s about acknowledging the presence of the problem and by-passing its spiritual potholes. It’s about finding human and humane help to meet the challenges of our brokenness by discerning the Holy Spirit’s leading on what issues to address when, and by developing Christlike character through “denying your self,” “putting to death the deeds of the body,” “fleeing youthful lusts,” “resisting the evil one,” and finding our self “in Christ Jesus.”

This may sound really negative. However, in one of those paradoxical twists that reflects the infinite wisdom (and perhaps humor!) of the Triune God, it is through putting off the old, broken self, which is being corrupted daily, and putting on the new self being remade in Christ, that we find true liberty and freedom. This is far too much to do on our own; we were not even made to attempt this alone, even though we can only decide for ourselves how we will live. Every one of us has gaps and excesses in our humanity, gender identity, sexuality, etc. Every one of us has settled into forms of brokenness and our means of comfort and coping with those. The pervasive nature of our brokenness is why we need the relational resources of a faithful faith community. The positive nature of our redemption is why we each have something relationally to contribute in community.

May God grant us the vulnerability and receptivity to receive from others and to give, so all might be transformed into being more fully human … more fully like Jesus Christ.

Facilitating Transformation

Here is another important statement from David Fitch in his post on sanctification, about two-thirds of the way through it. He notes:

It seems that the alternative two post evangelical streams [Neo-Reformed and Post-evangelical Consensus] have little to offer those caught in the darkside of sexual desire – deep patterns of behavioral abuse, patterns of objectifying or being objectified, pedophilia, pornography. This is not heterosexual, G,L,B.T or Q. The reality is “THIS IS US.”

Not, “That is them; they’re messed up but we’re okay.”

So-o-o-o true! We are not all that different from those outside the church or outside our culture. We are – all of us – messed up to some degree in our gender and sexuality. Therefore, as I’ve suggested before, grace is not something we, the Church, can horde and dispense; it is God’s gift that we ourselves need and can share.

So, I’d like to share two riffs on this crucial identification with all people and the gender and sexual issues WE face.

1. The Deeper Issues. In 1989-1991, I was part of a Christian men’s group. It was facilitated by a licensed therapist, but was more a support and accountability group, not group therapy. Every man in the group was dealing with deep and difficult issues, but wanted to submit those to Christ. We called ourselves IMPACT – Involved Men Pursuing A Courageous Testimony. The group varied from about 12 to 18 members over those years, always a combination of single men and married men, but our group consistently ran nearly the entire gamut of broken gender identity, sexuality issues, and toxic relational power issues: non-gendered, transgendered, transsexual, transvestism, heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, pedophilia, pederasty, pornography, voyeurism, exhibitionism, prostitution, fetishes, partialisms, objectification, misogyny, misandry, narcissism, borderline personality, emotional dependency, overcoming sexual abuse or incest, etc.

So … what kind of approach do you use when there’s all of that “stuff” which the men are attempting to deal with openly?! Especially since this was a pioneering effort … and there was no curriculum available for most of the men’s issues we were seeing embodied in IMPACT. Those were definitely the days before Promise Keepers or internet resources. Also, the “mens’ section” at the local Christian bookstore was perhaps half a shelf total, with a few books each on finances, marriage, sex, parenting, and perhaps a book or two on addressing … Shhhh! … addiction to porn! And just maybe, you’d uncover a booklet or two about dealing with unwanted same-sex attraction, or, more likely, a really horrific tract on gays goin’ to hell in a handbasket.

So, rather than address a “perversity of the week,” we focused on an underlying issue we all had in common as men: What is godly masculinity and what does it mean to be a Christlike man? And how does Jesus Christ shape us in this endeavor? In effect, we moved down the “chain of humanity issues” from broken expressions of sex and gender to healthier humanity – including healthy expressions of masculine gender, normalized relationships between men and women, and self discipline in our sexuality. As I watched over time, it was my observation that, as we each and all focused on the underlying issues of Christlike masculinity and moving out of our main problem of passivity, our acting out levels decreased – regardless of what those behaviors were. Amazing! But it also makes sense because we were both stretching ourselves to work on “our stuff” individually AND creating a safe place of vulnerability and accountability where we could share, listen, give feedback, hold accountable, confront. All this together made an impact.

2. Helping Those Who Want To Consider or Experience Transformation in Their Gender/Sexuality. And I do see a similar principle in terms of conversations I’ve had with people dealing with sexual orientation or patterns or (trans)gender identity. There is always the possibility of “moving down a level” on the chain of human issues when we hit an issue of disconnect. For instance, if someone isn’t open yet to processing about homosexual orientation as being a broken manifestation of intimacy, then perhaps they are open to talking about what it means to be masculine or feminine. If they aren’t open to processing about their gender, then perhaps they are open to talking about common human issues and interests – surviving abuse and neglect, formative experiences, addictions and recovery, spirituality, etc.

But, is there really that much difference between this kind of conversation and other kinds of cultural contextualization? I don’t think so. It’s just a shift in the issues of focus, and moving from groups to individuals. But if we don’t know how to contextualize the gospel in making it relevant to an individual person, however do we expect to be mission-shaped in contextualizing the gospel for an entire people group or culture? (And by “relevant,” I mean it resonates with where they have a pro-biblical concept in their personal or corporate culture, plus it resists melding with anti-biblical concepts in their personal or corporate culture.)

Here is a practical suggestion in coming alongside someone who wants to experience transformation: We need to keep in mind that our agenda for the order of issues someone needs to address in their healing/transformation process probably doesn’t match God’s order. For instance, I’ve known sincere Christians who try to push a recovering sexual addict to stop his behaviors, when they had no understanding of what was driving those behaviors. And it wasn’t really about sexual desire, it was about desire for acceptance. When this particular man dealt with his even deeper issue of a fragile concept of self and his unworthiness to be loved, he stopped getting involved with anyone who did a bait-and-switch by showing him attention and then using him for their own perverse sexual purposes. Eventually this man achieved sobriety and abstinence from the sexual behaviors – but not until he had seen substantive change by anchoring his worth and identity in Christ.

I see similar things happen with some Christians who have difficulties relating with men and women who come from a background of homosexual activity. These Christians find homosexual behaviors so repugnant that they want the homosexual person to cease and desist from all that, in order to make themselves feel more comfortable … not because they have discerned that it is God’s agenda for the person. (Sidenote: I wonder when we’ll all find any sexual activity that God declares not in His design as repugnant.)

All that to say, there ain’t no fix-it formula for each surface issue, but there are many personal and communal principles that can help. People arrive at the same overt sexual (and other) behaviors from very different paths, so they need a contextualized process for the path out of their pathologies. We need to learn to listen, reflect, and help in customized ways that are constructive and not formulaic, that seek the best of the person who wants to be transformed and not for our own comfortability. (Sidenote: What seminary or church offers training and mentoring in the ministry skill of listening to people as a spiritual discipline that every disciple should exercise? Just askin’ …)

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