A recent article entitled “Sexual Freelancing in the Gig Economy”  appeared in the New York Times. Its premise is this: economics influences dating. The fact that we prefer a Netflix binge nowadays to the Leave-It-To-Beaver date night means that our economic situation has, yet again, shaped us.

And here’s where things get interesting: the article argues that dating simply “applies the logic of capitalism to courtship. On the dating market, everyone competes for him or herself.” Hold on. Is this really the way we view dating? Honestly, I think we have to own it: We do, in fact, tend to treat people as objects instead of people. But is this the way it should be?

What’s more, the article goes on to state,

The generation of Americans that came of age around the time of the 2008 financial crisis has been told constantly that we must be ‘flexible’ and ‘adaptable.’ Is it so surprising that we have turned into sexual freelancers? Many of us treat relationships like unpaid internships: We cannot expect them to lead to anything long-term, so we use them to get experience. If we look sharp, we might get a free lunch.

If the article is right, in spite of the fact that humanity has always thought of people as objects to be used, students might be growing up in a world that intensifies this attitude. But we shouldn’t be surprised. Think about the porn epidemic. Think about the hookup culture. Our own use of Instagram might even reflect this mindset of consumeristic relationships!

But this isn’t simply an issue with dating. We tend to treat everyone in this manner. So, as ministers of God’s children, we need to confront a worldly attitude that promotes using other people, and that includes taking each other seriously.

Take Each Other Seriously

We must help ourselves and our students to take each other seriously. People are not commodities to be used or bought for our pleasure. They are not to be invested in for the simple return they may yield to us. As always, C.S. Lewis says it well at the end of his sermon, The Weight of Glory:

There are no ordinary people . . . it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love. . .

Do you see what he’s getting at? We Snapchat with immortals. Every friend on Facebook will one day be everlastingly transformed into glorious or horrendous beings. And this means that, even in the dating realm, we are to take each other seriously. And part of what it means to take each other seriously is to actually love one another instead of using and exploiting each other for our own profit.

Jesus’ words are hard to hear: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25); “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13); and “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14).

In the topsy-turvy ethic of the Kingdom, true life on this planet looks more like losing an investment than gaining a profit. Love looks more like the cross than the crown. Meaningful relationships look more like the servant who washes feet rather than the master whose feet get washed.

In other words . . .

Meaningful Relationships Are Costly

We need to teach our students that meaningful relationships cost time. In an age of instant gratification and constant stimulation, simply finding the time to talk meaningfully about life is rare; it’s commonplace to see couples at restaurants perusing their Facebook and Twitter feeds. But a meaningful relationship will cost an hour here and there, or thirty minutes when you feel you need to be doing something else. And it must cost a social media-less dinner.

Meaningful relationships also cost the facade. The thing about the freelance mentality of relationships in our culture is that this constant shopping around helps us avoid the true vulnerability that comes with meaningful relationships where we are both known and loved, not simply for our accomplishments but for our failures as well. In fact, social media plays to the maintenance of our facades, but meaningful relationships will cost them.

Meaningful relationships demand the vulnerability and honesty that come from living out of the security of our identity in Christ. In Christ, we are free to demolish our facades. We don’t have to pretend to be someone we’re not. The safety that Christ brings allows us to say “I’m not okay” to our neighbor. This vulnerability is crucial for human flourishing, because vulnerability pushes us toward the Kingdom. It helps us to lean into Jesus and into the identity we have been provided in Him. It also causes us to link arms with our neighbor and say, “Me too. Let’s walk this road together”.

Of course, then, meaningful relationships cost ourselves. I’m not saying that we should give ourselves away to every Jack and Jill on the street, but maybe sooner, rather than later, we ought to be thinking, How can I intentionally sacrifice for and serve this other person? How can I serve others in the lunchroom, on the football field, in the school hallway, on social media?

Let’s reorient ourselves and our students around the ethic of the Kingdom. We seek the good of others because He gave Himself away for us (1 John 4:10-11). We give ourselves away in love and service because we get Christ (Philippians 3:8-11) — because we ultimately already have Christ.

Model it for Students

How do we, then, teach and model the concept of taking each other seriously for our students? A couple of things come to mind. . .

Ask students tough questions. Ask them how life really is. Ask them about their doubts and worries. Ask them about their functional view of God, themselves, and others. Ask them to explain further when they talk about life’s hardships or how happy they are. Ultimately, ask them questions to let them know that you take both them and God seriously.

Put away the phone. When meeting up with students, let’s ditch our phones. Turn them on vibrate and don’t answer them unless it’s our spouse. Let’s not ever check social media when we are engaging with students. Let’s be present. Let’s be with them.

Be vulnerable. When talking about how things really are, while still being wise about how much we share, let’s open up about our own doubts, fears, and failures. Let’s let them know that we are no more a super-Christian than they are.

Taking each other seriously means that we really listen to, learn from, sacrifice for, ask the hard questions of, and pray for the students that come into our paths. It is to truly and thoughtfully help each other towards Jesus.

What is the prevalent view of people we are passing on to students? Does it look more like the gig-relationship mindset that pervades our culture? Or does it look more like Jesus, who takes us and our lives seriously from the outset, who served us that we might be washed, and who sacrificed Himself that we might have life in Him?

This post assumes a working knowledge of the Student Outreach’s views on masturbation (found HERE and HERE).

This student is stuck. You’ve made progress in helping him with his struggle. You’ve uncovered things within him that can be reoriented and repented of: misplaced desires, sinful beliefs, and the like. Together, you’ve talked through ways he can avoid it and flee to Jesus. But, yet again, this student looks up at you and says, “I just don’t understand it. Why can’t I stop masturbating?”

What can you see in their eyes? Helplessness? Desperation? Despair?

Across from you is sitting a weak, wounded Christian, one who has fallen asleep and failed to watch and pray…again. What can you say? Where can you go?

Drawing Near

Perhaps one of the most natural responses to a student’s recurring sin is frustration. Godly frustration at sin is good, but our frustration is mixed at best.

Why can’t they just stop this?
Seriously? They’ve messed up again?

Believers can get stuck. As student ministers, we have been stuck in sin. So, perhaps we first need to counteract our tendencies towards frustration and exacerbation. How about we start here: Let’s draw near to students to help, empathize, and re-commit to walking with them.

Here are two ways we can draw near to them:

Draw Near In Understanding

Let’s draw near in understanding. Let’s remember what it feels like to fight sin, time and again, with little or no “success”. Let’s remember how persistent our own sin is. Let’s remember what despair feels like. And then, let’s speak.

Sin is crafty, friend. It comes back time and time again. It’s the same in my life.
I have felt trapped and hopeless before. What does it feel like for you?

In the confusion and frustration that sexual sin tends to produce, we can help students see that we relate to and understand the struggle they walk in.

We can also re-acquaint ourselves with the life of our student. Perhaps there have been some new pressures at school. Maybe some new experiences or feelings have emerged in recent weeks.

Draw Near In Advocacy

After drawing near in understanding, let’s draw near in advocacy. Of course, Jesus is our primary Advocate: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). Christ remains an ever-present, patient, and persistent advocate on our behalf in the presence of the Father.

John clearly pushes his readers to keep the commandments of God (v. 3-4), but the first thing he tells those who find themselves in sin is that they have an Advocate in the person of Jesus Christ.

Though Christ is the primary Advocate of His people, we, as His followers, are advocates of our students as well! We need to let our students know both that Jesus is committed to them and that we, in His name, are committed to helping them through their sexual sin as well. Let’s spend our time praying and pleading for our students’ holiness in this area, making it a point to express our commitment to them.

Do the students who sit across from us know that they have an advocate in Jesus? And do they know they have an advocate with us?

Let me say to you, even though this is hard, we are going to walk through this together.
Christ is, right now, interceding for you and is a helper for you.
Let’s just stop and pray together and ask Him for help.

When fighting a sin that has taken hold of a student’s life for so long in such a private manner, I want to always question my gut reaction to frustration. Oftentimes, students already feel alone, defeated, and perhaps abandoned.

Let’s draw near to students instead of pulling away, and in that moment, come back to the common ground we have. Together, let’s approach our Advocate, who suffered, died, and rose that we might find the strength to fight all sins, including the sin of masturbation.

This is the first in a series of blog posts titled Masturbation: When Students Are Stuck.
Check out Part 2 HERE.”Do the students who sit across from us know that they have an advocate in Jesus?”

Choosing a good student ministry curriculum on sexuality is tricky business, simply because moralism is the most popular way of teaching students about sexuality. It sounds like this: “Just run away like Joseph! Pop your wrist with a rubber band to keep the bad thoughts away. Be holy in your sexuality because it’s good to be holy! Bounce those eyes.”

But simple morality never saved anyone.

The curriculum that we ought to use, however, needs to speak as the Scriptures do. The Scriptures primarily motivate believers to godliness through the saving and gracious work of God in behalf of sinners and the resultant identity they have in Jesus. This is an example of the imperative/indicative framework from the last post.

What are some other things we need to be aware of when choosing a curriculum?

Beware of Need Theology

A disturbing strand of “need” theology, imported largely from pop psychology, has leaked into mainstream Christian literature. “Need” theology is couched in language like, “Let’s discover how to fulfill and meet our sexual needs in a good, godly way.” The culture loudly proclaims that a life without sex is no life at all. The issue is this: the Bible rarely speaks this way. And when it does speak of needs, those needs do not include sexual things.

Take, for instance, Matthew 6:25-33. Jesus tells us not to be anxious about our lives: what we will drink or eat, our bodies, or our clothing (6:25, 31). He then says, “For the Gentiles seek after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all” (v. 32). Here, needs are related to physical life.

But that’s not the whole picture: humans possess a life that is more than physical. Our lives are spiritual as well. Therefore, because we are all naturally spiritually dead (Ephesians 1:1-3) we also need the gifts of God to bring us alive spiritually (Ephesians 2:1-10).

But sexual needs do not exist in Scripture! Sex is not like food or clothing. Contrary to the culture, we can actually live without it. Psychology can be extremely beneficial, but we need to filter pop psychology through a Biblical lens, keeping the good and Scriptural while discarding the harmful. Biblically, some perceived “needs” are better repented of than fulfilled. After all, seeing ourselves as need machines tends to reduce people to objects, rather than people to be loved and served.

Look for Bible Language

The Bible is overwhelmingly unified in how it speaks about sexual matters; it does so in terms of sin, repentance, faith, and union with Christ. Post-fall, our sexuality is naturally broken. If sin, repentance, and faith are not mentioned repeatedly in a curriculum, that’s a problem.

But we can also use our sexuality for the glory of God! Only through Jesus, however, can this happen. So, curricula need to speak about how students are united to Christ, about how, through the empowering of the Spirit and their dependence upon Jesus and His work in them, they can actually follow Him.

Notice the flow of Colossians 3:1-3: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

If students are believers, they have died to sin in Christ and have been raised with Him in newness of life. In light of this drastic break with their old life, students are to fix their eyes on heavenly things every day. It’s the imperative/indicative again!

Beware of the “Practical”

In studies for youth on sexuality, it is commonplace to emphasize the “practical” over the theological. There seems to be a stream of thought out there which perceives theological truths as irrelevant to sexual issues. This is a false dichotomy masquerading as wisdom.

We can never divorce the “practical” from the theological because the “practical” is always packed with theology, good or bad. In fact, “practical” suggestions tend to be nothing more than rehashed moralism. Only good, “practical” suggestions grounded in rich, theological truths avoid moralism.

Look for the [Distinctly] Christian

Here’s the bottom line: if a Muslim or Buddhist could walk through the curriculum and accept it wholesale, then something is wrong. I was reviewing a “Christian” small group study the other day, and in its entire four sessions of teaching, Jesus was mentioned one time. That’s a serious problem. It seems that many studies for youth fear that theology is just too abstract, so they will rely heavily on “practical” suggestions.

Talking about Christ and His work, the “theological”, only remains abstract when it isn’t connected to the details of students’ lives. But to jettison the theological, thinking that in doing so we are being helpful, is to actually give students an un-Christian way of life, a life divorced from the truths which can sustain them day in and day out.

We should be picky about our curriculum because we should be picky about what we’re feeding and teaching our students. Happy hunting for that great curriculum! Here’s one we enjoy: True Love Project: How the Gospel Defines Your Purity. Check it out here!

I’ve been on staff with Harvest USA for over ten years, and almost all of the adults I’ve spoken with have said that their parents didn’t talk to them about sex. Yet many of these same adults say that they try to keep sex and sexuality on the table for discussion all the time with their kids.

What is the best way to do this with teens? In earlier posts, we talked about the grammar stage with children 8 and under and about the logic stage with tweens. For teens, the key component is rhetoric, and that means dialogue — building on what they already know. We will only exasperate our teens if we try to give them basic, informational “birds and bees” lectures.

Dialogue and Persuasion

The rhetoric stage of mental development is when a teen, who is a young adult in the making, becomes able to make arguments to persuade others of their convictions on how life works and what they want to get out of life. In their tweens, ages 9 to 12, most kids can tell you what their parents believe. Teens, however, can tell you what they believe and can offer reasons why they differ with their parents about style, economics, ethics, politics, religion, and, of course, sexuality.

Can you remember being lectured by your parents when you were a teenager? Lecture, in the form of concise, kind-hearted, logical and biblical teaching, is needed in the tween years. In the teen years though, we have to engage our teens in dialogue and discussion. This is most effective when we parents do so calmly, respectfully, reasonably, and without yelling or pinching their heads off.

Prepare and Practice

Some teens love to press our buttons to make us mad. Other teens avoid any and all substantive conversation with their parents. A great way to fruitfully dialogue with your teen is to prepare: read, think, and practice ahead of time.

Especially when we’re tired and driving in traffic with our kids, none of us want to get ambushed by our teen asking the question, “What could be wrong with two gay people who love each other?” So, a word to the wise: prepare by figuring out the biblical truth to the sexual issues and topics your kids face, and practice by dialoguing with your believing spouse or a trusted mentor at church about those topics. Our blogs and Harvest USA mini books are great resources for preparation.

Springboard Off the Media

The media offers us powerful insight into understanding what the world is teaching our kids and what they are likely beginning to believe about sex and sexuality. These sexual ideas, values, and narratives from TV, movies, music, and news are often unbiblical. But, nonetheless, they offer us an inroad to converse with our teenagers about the implications of Christ on sex and sexuality.

AXIS.org offers free weekly updates, and Walt Meuller’s CPYU.org and our own StudentOutreach.org offer monthly updates on the latest tidbits and trends within youth culture. These email updates allow you to both know what’s going on in pop-culture and provide a springboard to converse with your teens.

The big point here is not to simply point out all the wrong and sinful stuff going on in their culture. The point here is to engage your teens in conversation and ask questions that let them reveal what they have come to believe about God, other people, and their own selves. Then you will know better how to pray for their hearts, desires, and beliefs.

It would be great if we could simply correct their fallen beliefs and desires by dialoguing with them. But for persuasion to be deep and fruitful, the Holy Spirit must be the One who does the persuading. Sure, our part is to be winsome, authentic, and share the love and truths of Christ. We sow gospel seeds and pray fervently because only God makes them grow.

Wisely and Kindly Investigating Their Reality

Dialoguing with teens is about getting them to think about their opinions and convictions. And asking good questions that leave them thinking is helpful. Here are some questions for wisely and kindly (your manner and tone are important) investigating their reality.

When your teen says he believes something about sex that is unbiblical, here are a few questions that can help you get at his heart and help him to consider otherwise:

  1. Could you clarify what they mean by that? (Perhaps you are misunderstanding them or perhaps they don’t really know. This is loving dialogue, not a hostile lawyer’s cross-examination.)
  2. Would you explain the reasons for your view? (This question is asking them to unpack their reasoning for why their opinion seems true.)
  3. Where did you get your information? (This drills deeper to ascertain what facts, truths, or authorities uphold their reasoning.)
  4. Do you see any legitimate alternatives to this view? (This invites them to consider the consequences to their position if they got their reasoning or facts wrong.)

A natural question flowing out of the fourth question is, “How does this square with the gospel?” It gets to ultimate matters — the big picture, since Jesus Christ is relevant to every issue.

Wrap all this in prayer, asking that God would graciously use your questions to turn your teen’s heart toward the grace, worth, and glory of the Lord.

When I worked in student ministry, I constantly had questions regarding the best curriculum to use with my students. And, having sifted through many a small group study for The Student Outreach, I thought I would toss out some trends I’ve seen in curricula that desire to teach students about biblical sexuality.

There are numerous studies out there; some are good, and some are not so good. But at the end of this two-post series, I do want to offer you some resources that we have found profitable.

Some of us in youth ministry will even be lone-rangering it and putting together our own curriculum! So, whether you’re looking for a curriculum or about to create your own, let’s navigate some things we should be aware of and things we should look for when teaching our students about sex and sexuality.

Beware of Joseph-izing

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the Joseph/Mrs. Potiphar story rehashed to give students a simple, moral template for avoiding sexual sin. And hope dies within me every time I hear that story treated as such. Running from sexual sin is just not that easy. And running from sin also isn’t enough. It never has been. Furthermore, the Bible is not foremost a giant character study–Be like Joseph! Don’t be adulterer like David! It is primarily a road map to Jesus.

Any curriculum that gives simple answers like, “Run away. Pop your wrist with a rubber band. Just bounce those eyes,” and calls it a day is dangerous. Plain and simple. Running is fine, but if our students aren’t running to Jesus by faith and repentance, they are running right into the arms of another idol and sin, be it sexual or not. In other words, simple morality is never the end game. If you see curriculums whose sole method is to moralize biblical stories, beware and run away (like Joseph)!

I’m not saying that character studies have no place in the Christian life. But character studies divorced from the power of Christ’s person and work for us will render students incapacitated, as students are left without the strength, motivation, and hope to use their sexuality in godly ways.

Look for the Imperative/Indicative Framework

Rather than moralizing, we should look for a curriculum that mirrors the Scriptural model of grounding obedience in the salvation and good news of our God. The giving of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 provides the framework for how the Scriptures primarily talk about the do’s of the Christian life. The commandments themselves are not simply thrown out there for the people to latch onto; they are grounded in the saving work of God: “‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me…” (Exodus 20:2-3).

Our curriculums, then, should primarily ground the “you should do’s” (imperative) in “this is who you are in Christ because of His work for you” (indicative). There are times for secondary motivations such as coming judgment or because not sleeping around will actually yield an STD-free life, but a nuanced curriculum will mirror the primary motivations of Scripture, namely God’s saving work for His people and the resulting identity His people have in Him.

Here are some further Scriptural examples of this model:

For freedom Christ has set us free [indicative]; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery [imperative].
Galatians 5:1

Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth [imperative]. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God [indicative].
Colossians 3:2-3

This might seem so elemental, but most curricula I’ve seen for students on sexuality fall into the method of “do this” because it’s good and it’s God’s desire for us, never mentioning the strongest motivation to use our sexuality in God-honoring ways: the truth of Jesus Christ and our union with Him. In finding a sustainable motivation for actually using our sexuality in God-honoring ways, our lives must find in Him the life, encouragement, hope, and strength we need to run from our sin and ultimately run to our God.

Are there times when the Scriptures tell us to copy an example of a saint or even God Himself? Yes! But the major, primary motivations in the Word for pursuing holiness have to do with God’s saving activity and the resulting identity we have in Him.

We’ve started here with moralism because it’s so prevalent, but in the next post, I want to offer some more things to be on the lookout for when choosing or writing a curriculum. Choosing a study that will strengthen and aid our students in the fight to use their sexuality in God-honoring ways is an important task. May God guide us as we seek out such a curriculum!

Dirty and defiled. Outsider. All eyes on you.

These words are the collective experience of a student’s life in shame’s prison. It’s the pointing and laughing during elementary school. It’s the piercing, judgmental gazes of junior high and high school students. Shame is the prison of other people’s glances.

Years ago, as I sat petrified in my sin, a trusted mentor looked at me and offered some words that changed me. He said, “You know that Jesus didn’t just die for your sins. He died for your shame as well.” I sat in silence as I pieced together just what he was saying to me. What did Jesus have to do with my feelings of being an outsider, of being exposed, of being defiled?

In student ministry, shame permeates everything, especially for students who have struggled and sinned sexually. As students navigate the unstable, judgmental halls of junior high and high school, shame is the vernacular of their experience, and sexual sin brings a wholly different aspect of shame to the lives of those who have felt its grasp.

For students who can’t believe they just sent that inappropriate picture over the phone, they might desperately wonder, who knows what I just did? Who knows but isn’t saying anything? How can I ever show my face again? Or what about the student who’s been sexually sinned against by another: I’m damaged goods. Who knows about what happened to me? Who will find out?

The good news is that God has not left us or our students alone in our shame. Some wonderful passages in the Scriptures let us into this concept of Christ being shamed on our behalf, and these can help both lift the darkness and extinguish the spotlight that hangs over our students’ heads.

I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting

Isaiah 50:6

He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces. He was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities

Isaiah 53:3-4

And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head.

Matthew 27:28-30

Jesus endured the undignifying gazes, the scorn, and the reproach of His fellow man that students might be freed from shame’s paralyzing prison. And, over time, even the most shame-ridden student can find solace and comfort in the One who knows the bitterness of shame and can find in His triumphant victory the power, identity, and freedom to live openly and unashamedly.

Because of Christ’s work, students need not fear the shame that sin brings. Shame no longer clings to them like filthy robes. Right now, students who place their hope in Jesus are clothed in His righteousness, in all of its beauty and splendor (2 Corinthians 5:21). We can join our students in proclaiming these simple truths: We are washed. We are children. We are saints.

If students listen to the voice of shame, they give into the voice of a lie that whispers, “You are other. You are an outsider. You don’t belong.” But our Father gives students the truth: “You do belong. You are mine.”

Shame would rip away from students the dignity bestowed upon them in the name of Christ. But for students who have trusted in Jesus, their dignity is preserved in Him as they themselves bear His name and righteousness and, one day, will fully bear His glory in purity and holiness. No matter if students sin or are sinned against sexually, their Saviour would have them live in community and light, not in isolation and darkness.

When ministering to students, sin and repentance tend to be my guiding principles. I forget, though, that shame wields much power over both us and our students.

If students come to you in desperation because they are gripped by things like pornography, confusion about their gender, or same-sex attraction, or if they reveal a sexual experience that happened to them, know that shame has probably closed its prison bars around them.

Let’s make an effort this week to connect the dots for a student or two – or perhaps for the whole student ministry!—between the shaming of Christ on their behalf and the beautiful truth that students need no longer hide for fear of shame. It might be just as simple as saying the words that were said to me: “Students, you know that Jesus didn’t just die for your sins. He died for your shame as well.”

Amen and amen.

We can all relate to the blockbuster action hero Jason Bourne. In his first movie, The Bourne Identity, our hero wakes up plagued with a mean case of amnesia. He then spends all of his subsequent adventures trying to piece together an answer to a simple question: Who is Jason Bourne?

Like Bourne, one of the most basic questions our students are asking is, Who am I? The teenage years of life are, above all, years of questioning and discovering who we are and who we will be for the rest of our lives. And, simply put, our culture, our sin, and the Enemy want us to believe that our identity is determined by our sins and struggles. Thief. Murderer. Adulterer. Sex addict. Identities abound.

From the battle with pornography to sexting and masturbation, our students can be desperately confused. Some love Jesus and want to follow Him, but strong, unrelenting sin tendencies within them cause them to question the very core of who they are.

How do we help students think about sin, particularly sexual sin, in relationship to their identity?

Identity Crises

For the believer, perhaps the most confusing of these struggles is that of same-sex attraction. Our culture says, “If you experience same-sex attraction, you’re gay. It’s okay! Accept it. Embrace it. Love it! It’s who you are.” But, on the other hand, the Church has oftentimes said, “You’re not born this way. You can choose differently.”

But the truth is much more complex than a churchy one-liner. In fact, none of us lined up at the cosmic Burger King to “have it our way” and choose our particular struggles. A lot of our students who wrestle with SSA want to change! Many times they are stuck between the two competing messages of the church (“just stop it”) and the world (“just embrace it”), in a grey area where their identities hang in the balance.

Students, like all of us, wonder:

Who am I? Am I defined by my intense, fallen desires? Am I defined by the temptations that keep assaulting me?

Because of the pervasive nature of sexual temptation, students can begin to feel like these struggles define them. Their temptations can feel like an unwelcome, hyper-sexed house-guest that will never leave. Put simply, sexual sin always tempts us to believe in a false identity.

What Does the Bible Say?

Check this out: “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). In other words, those who accept and embrace their sins and struggles as their identity have no stake in the glorious future of the Kingdom.  That’s a warning both to our students and to ourselves.

But Paul goes on: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (v. 11, emphasis added). For those who have trusted in Jesus, their identity is washed, sanctified, and justified, all in the name of Christ and because of His Spirit’s work.

Homosexuals and adulterers are both on the Paul’s list. All of us fit into one of those two categories, because all of us are sexually broken in some way. We might not imagine ourselves as adulterers, but we all have used our sexuality against our God in ways that completely reject him. Ultimately, Paul writes to us all who claim the name of Jesus. He tells us that our sins and fallen tendencies no longer define us; Jesus does.

The warnings and exhortations are clear: We should not embrace our struggles, our temptations, or our sins as our identity. We’ve got something better in Jesus.

Identity in Student Ministry

Students are desperately searching for their identities.  Because we all wrestle with the persistent nature of our sin, we should be diligent to remind each other, “We are not defined by our sins and temptations. We are washed, sanctified, and justified. We are children of the living God in the name of Jesus Christ.” That’s who we are. Now. Forever.

Though we continue to be plagued by that unwelcome, hyper-sexed houseguest, God loves us, defines us, keeps us, and is committed to bringing us into glory with Himself. Our identity in Him is secure: we are beloved, we are children, we are saved.

If students buy into and adopt identities not given to them by their Father in Christ, they cheapen the true identity they actually have in Him, thus depriving themselves of a strong motivation to continue in the fight against sin: if they are trusting in Jesus, they are more secure than their temptations would have them to believe. They are His, and no struggle can change that.

A student and I were recently talking about his sexual issues. As we talked, his face lit up while the tension lifted from his shoulders. I asked him what he was thinking, and he continued to smile as he said, “It’s just good news that God doesn’t define me by my sin.” Amen. We are not what we struggle with or what we feel. We are who God says we are. It’s just that simple, and it’s such good news.

Most likely, there are students in your ministry struggling with same-sex attraction right now. Most likely, those students have been silent for a long time, fearing judgment and shame. While same-sex attraction might not be as common of a struggle as pornography, more students struggle with it than we think.

Unfortunately, our “accepting” culture offers same-sex attracted students a refuge that oftentimes looks more inviting than what they have found in the Church. More often than not, we in the Church have lobbed easy fixisms and one-and-done Bible verses in the general direction of students. But, in the process, we have discouraged every student who has struggled with any sexual sin.

Oftentimes, however, instead of our Bible-verse grenades and “just stop it” attitude towards sin, we are simply silent on the issue. And as student ministers, our silence perpetuates our students’ silence, confusion, and desperation.

But I do think many of us want to do ministry differently! So how do we begin to have a ministry that can effectively minister to students struggling with same-sex attraction? Perhaps the first thing that needs to happen is for us to recognize that we are all more alike than we think. We are standing on common ground when ministering to students who struggle with same-sex attraction (check out our blog on this HERE). And here are some other things for us to keep in mind:

Talk about it. Whether our students hear it listed as a legitimate struggle in our messages, or we encourage our small group leaders to discuss it, let’s publicly talk about same-sex attraction and build it into our ministry vocabulary.

Let’s also bring it up in conversation with students. Maybe we can ask them if they’ve ever struggled with it. Maybe we could ask our groups what it would mean if a friend came out to them or confessed same-sex attraction. And then, let’s encourage students to come and talk to us! From the front of our meeting rooms, let’s make regular pleas to students to come to us if they wrestle with any sexual struggle. Let’s tell our students that we want to listen and pray with them, that we love them. And let’s tell them that Jesus loves them too.

Validate their suffering. Same-sex attracted students have heard so many times from the Church that homosexuality is “disgusting” and simply wrong. But rarely have we acknowledged the suffering of the same-sex attracted student. This means a couple of things. Firstly, Christian suffering is a part of the Christian life, and many students might have to struggle with same-sex attraction for the rest of their lives. Secondly, suffering means hardship. We must validate the real battle that comes with being tempted in this way. Students who experience same-sex attraction can contend with intense loneliness, confusion, fear, and even despair as they wrestle with something that seems as if it’s an essential part of who they are. We must acknowledge and enter into their pain and experience while simultaneously helping them to repent and follow Jesus.

Never say that same-sex attraction is a simple choice. Let’s stop making it seem like students can flip a sexual light switch and change everything. None of us chose the temptations and struggles that we would be stuck with for this journey. Reducing students’ sexuality to a simple choice brushes aside their stories and their complexity as people.

Cut out the gay jokes. Same-sex attracted students have heard these jokes so many times, and these jokes have forced them into hiding. Who wants to be open about a real temptation when it is treated flippantly or the term “gay” is used in a mocking manner? If we hear students crack “gay” jokes, we need to lovingly and firmly correct them and lead them into truth. Same-sex attracted students need to know that they have an advocate in us.

Put an end to gender stereotypes. Not all guys love football. Not all girls love dresses. Let’s show students what real men and women look like, constantly teaching against masculine and feminine stereotypes. Let’s teach our students what true men and women look like in the kingdom of God. Real men and women leave everything, denying even themselves, to follow after Jesus.

We must also be ready to affirm and help students use their God-given gifts for His glory instead of pushing our students into culturally-conditioned gender molds. When ministering to or hanging out with guys, we need to offer more than simply a pickup football game or a camping trip. For girls, we need to offer more than simply craft time or coffee talk. Our ministry to students must be varied and rich, recognizing and validating our students’ gifts and how each individual mirrors our God in unique ways.

Keep the main thing the main thing. Students need to hear that the opposite of homosexuality is not heterosexuality but the holiness that flows from trusting and loving Jesus. Yes, God’s design and intention for mankind is heterosexuality, but heterosexuality doesn’t solve the problem of sin. Heterosexuality didn’t bleed out on a cross for God’s people. And because of our sin, even our heterosexuality is distorted and used to rebel against God. We are after one thing in ministering to our students: Christ-likeness.

Our students, regardless of their struggles, need to know that they can be and are now a functioning part of the body of Christ. The Church has something to offer them that our culture can’t: the life-giving Savior and His Body. Hopefully by moving towards each other, we can help to provide the thriving, honest, and life-giving community that Christ has provided for all of us in Himself.

It’s easy to go on idol hunts. Do you know what I mean? A student might be sitting in front of me, talking about how hard life has been for him, how sexual sin just keeps dominating him, and I’m on the prowl! I’m hanging on to every word, thinking, That smells like worship! Is that an idol!?

To be an idol-maker is to be a sinner. And for many of us, the sinner category is the only category out of which we operate when we minister to students. I’ll confess: I tend to love both quick fixes and to be the “fixer” of people. And when I’m operating from the sinner category, it’s easy to call students to repentance and expect quick change.

But simply emphasizing this category results in conversations like these:

“Dude, repent.You just need to stop this. It’s destroying you.”

It often results in impatience and frustration inside of me and the same in the student I’m trying to help. But, like all emphases, the category of “sinner” doesn’t give us the total picture. God gives us another category, one that nuances and deepens our ministry to students.

Sufferers. Not Just Sinners.

The Bible tells us that our students are not simply sinners; they are sufferers as well. In fact, the Scriptures make suffering a stipulation for sharing in the coming glory of Christ: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, their heirs—fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him,” (Romans 8:16-17).

Paul says, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake…” (Phil. 1:29). Doesn’t a large part of our suffering as believers have to do with the “passions of the flesh” that “wage war” against our souls (1 Peter 2:11)?

All of us are walking battlegrounds, hosts to the war between flesh and spirit. As new creations in Christ, we bear the scars. The very presence of the “old man” waging war against our new selves means that we are sufferers.

What are some sufferings that students might face? For a student who struggles with same-sex attraction, her gifts and personality might not match up to the particular cultural group in which she lives. Feelings of isolation, shame, and being out of place might result from not matching up to a particular ideal of what it means to be a woman.

She didn’t choose her gifts! And she didn’t choose to have a peer or parent say, “What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you like to do X like the other girls?” Her gifts not matching up to cultural norms or those comments made by peers or parents are not sins on her part; they are her sufferings.

For a student who struggles with pornography, his home life might be an absolute mess. His mom and dad might constantly fight. Perhaps he perceives porn as his only escape and refuge from life’s storms. He didn’t choose his home life! It is a part of his sufferings.

What Does This Category Do?

While students who struggle sexually need to hear the call to repentance that comes from the sinner category, they also need the compassion, empathy, patience, and oftentimes silence that come from the sufferer category.

The way we talk to a robber and the way we talk to someone who has been robbed differ drastically. We would usually be stern with the robber. But how would we speak to the one who has been robbed? We would be gentle. We would be compassionate and empathetic. We would be patient as they work through feelings of insecurity and fear. We might simply be quiet, letting our presence do the talking. As sexual sin rears its head, students, many of whom are new creations in Christ, are simultaneously the ones robbing themselves and the ones being robbed of the joy that Christ brings.

Sometimes we need a firm hand to guide us. Other times we need a gentle hand to sustain us. Sometimes we need to hear about our need to rest in our identity in Christ. Other times we need to be told to pick up our tools and start working. The truths we give to students shift depending on the situation.

The category of sufferer provides our students with the truth that, though they sin, they are not defined by their sins. They can cry out to the Lord for help in the moment as one who is being assaulted by sin and temptation. This category also helps students draw near to the Lord who knows what it is like to suffer. He willingly suffered in their place and is with them now in the valley.

We might not operate out of it every time, but when students are so beaten down and broken over their sexual sin that they can’t find the strength to move, this can be a useful tool. This category will help students find the helping hand of Christ who is God With Us and will give us, as ministers, God-like and nuanced patience, compassion, empathy, and love for the students under our care.

This week, we want to highlight an article from our friends over at Rooted: “How Do I Talk to My Kids About Homosexuality”. Check it out! Rooted exists to transform student ministry by fostering grace-driven and cross-centered leaders through rich theological and contextual engagement.