Oh No – A Sinner!
by Casey Hobbs
"You make loving others sound so easy," a middle-aged woman shouted angrily from the back of the room. "But how am I supposed to love my brother after they caught him with pornography at his church office?"
The question came less than one minute from the end of a Sunday school class I was teaching at my new church. I suspected from her tone that she had timed her question to allow no time for a response. I wish she had stayed around to chat, but she darted off, having expressed her indignation, exposed her brother, and used her pain like the point of a dagger.
If she had stuck around, I might have been able to share with her the deep and beautiful stories about my friends who have faced the same weaknesses she saw in her brother. I would have told her about folks who have found redemption and restoration in a gospel-centered community. I would have liked to tell her of the freedom they'd tasted from the depths her brother now knew. But she had already made up her mind—her brother had wandered too far from his Father's house, and she was justified in writing him off. He would now serve as an exception to Jesus' simple command to love our neighbor. This particular sinner was unlovable. I wish I could say that this woman's reaction is unusual in the church, but her response to finding her brother mired in sexual sin is all too typical. Judgments are delivered and sexual sinners are far too often cast out.
Another way is possible
Over the past five years, I have had the distinct privilege of living out the gospel alongside men and women who have been found out in sexual sin. I've worked in a gospel-centered recovery community made up of very "respectable" people—medical professionals, housewives, pastors, graduate students. More important even than their respectability is the fact that they are made in the image of God. They are men and women who have lived with a broken, distorted sexuality. They are men and women with a story. They are men and women like you and me.
None of us can claim innocence, but we see time and again that the one sinning sexually will be cast out of the community.
As we confess Christ, we begin by agreeing with him when he says in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:28) that each of us who has lusted is guilty of adultery. Jesus begins his ministry placing us all under the status of "lawbreaker."
There is no hiding our inner brokenness from the God who judges the heart. Whether our story includes divorce, pornography, adultery, affairs, pre-marital sex, or occasional thoughts that distort the intention of sex to represent God's union with his people, none of us can claim innocence. But in spite of all we have in common in the body of Christ, we see time and again that the one sinning sexually will be cast out of the community. Whether we have seen a trusted friend, a brother or sister, or a church leader fall and be cast to the side, we learn our lesson. Sexual sin is unacceptable in the body of Christ.
We start to hide. We point out the sins of others and pray that nobody will ask us a direct question before those in our small group have gone their separate ways.
In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that "sin wants to remain unknown." We are convinced that there are sins too deep, too dark to confess. We treat men and women who are struggling sexually as if their particular brand of sin is more sinful, darker, and more harmful than our common (and highly tolerated) sins of pride, scorn, gluttony, and gossip. Sin is rebellion against God, period. Can there be a particular activity that is more or less rebellious, as if a panel of Olympic judges is ranking the sinfulness of each one, so that gluttony gets a 6.1 and pornography use gets a 9.9? We may never admit to that out loud, but that is how we treat sin, ranking from mildest to strongest. Note that we almost always rank our own personal sins toward the bottom. My tendency to curse world leaders without a second thought is probably not a good thing, we might say, but at least I'm not really sinful like that guy who can't stop sleeping around.
With a system like this in place, what kind of fool would come forth and confess sexual sin? Would confession not automatically lead to rejection? Fearing (for good reason) social suicide, we keep our sin hidden, where it of course festers and strengthens its grip on our lives. We find ourselves without real community at a time when community is what we more than ever need. Does this sound familiar?
Leveling the playing field
Hi, my name is Casey, and I am a foul sinner. I've broken every law God has set down from the time of Adam and Eve. I have lied. I have stolen. I have desired things and people who were not mine to have. I have overindulged in food and alcohol. I have made idols. I have not kept the Sabbath holy. I have set myself up as judge over my neighbor. I have turned a blind eye to the poor, the needy, the sick, and the hungry.
Oh, and one more thing—I have lusted.
You, too? I see.
Do you notice the weight that lifts from our shoulders when we decide to publicize our absolute need for Jesus?
Pastors, could you imagine making that a routine of your preaching? Could you imagine letting your friends, your congregants, your supporters, your spouse, and your family in on this type of news? This is the type of freedom Martin Luther talked about when he said, "Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly." Our hope is not in our own holiness but in the holiness of Jesus, the God-Man who lived perfectly for us and died an atoning death for our sins. Our hope is that he is praying for us even now before the Father, guaranteeing our perfection in the presence of the divine. Our hope is that he will redeem our bodies and souls, to live with him forever.
Living as a community of sinner-saints
How does a community of sinner-saints love each other enough to be safe for one another? We all have a story and a wake of disaster in our path of rebellion against God, so how do we respond when the ugly news of a brother's or sister's rebellion comes out into the light? What is our response to the music minister who is spotted coming out of a notorious nightclub? What do we say to the elder whose wife, unwilling to endure another affair, files for divorce? How do we reach out to the pastor whose addiction to pornography has been discovered?
Two responses seem appropriate: We weep, and we rejoice.
First, we weep. Our sister or brother has made choices that affect every person in her/his life. We weep because we know that this is not the way it is supposed to be. Wives are not meant to cheat on their husbands. Husbands are not supposed to drag their wives into the dark world of porn, pressuring them to perform as the porn performers do. Children are not meant to be victims of their parents' broken sexuality. Something is wrong with us, evil is in our midst, and we weep for the suffering that is pulled down on our loved ones, on ourselves, and on the whole community. We weep because we are powerless to fix our loved one's problems.
But we also rejoice, because there is hope. Sin, death, hell, and Satan have been defeated. Sin will not have the last word in our world, nor does it need to have the last word in our lives in the here and now. And we rejoice because although exposure is painful, light has now entered the picture, and light means healing is possible. When sin is no longer secret, crouching alone in the dark, our loved one now has a fighting chance. We rejoice that the long, difficult process of recovery and restoration can begin. We commit to hoping and praying on our loved one's behalf.
But it can't be that easy, can it?
And so, back in my new church, I have the opportunity to share what I have learned about sexual sin and Christ's severe mercy and restorative grace. I am learning the value of the 12-step programs and of good, solid counseling. But most of all, I am learning to "weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice" (Rom. 12:15).
This is what love does. It commits to standing by our neighbors when they are in need. Love compels us to hope on behalf of the hopeless.
Distorted sexuality in the church has had more than enough of a free reign. We must stop shaming one another when we find sinners in our midst. We must instead become people of the cross who are willing to bear the sin of others for the gospel's sake. Love is never easy, and at times the way seems unclear, but it is always our call.
Casey Hobbs is a graduate of Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala., and a resident of Seattle, Wash. In his work in sexual addiction ministry, he has led groups and explored the gospel together with men in their process of recovery. A freelance writer who blogs at CaseyHobbs.com, he is the author of Trembling Love: Fear, Freedom, and the God Who Is for Us (Wipf & Stock, 2013).