Leave it to Jack E. Jett, a Dallas comedian and cable TV talk-show host who has a love/hate relationship with Bible Girl (the love part: he keeps reading it), to cut right to the heart of the matter. "Just to get things clear," he wrote last week in the wake of the Ted Haggard scandal, "do you believe that a person can pray the gay away?"
Jack, ahem, I do see the trap. But to a simplistic question I will give a simplistic answer: yes.
I know I already have multiple groups of readers squirming, not least of all many of my fellow evangelicals, who prefer to engage in hand-wringing rather than take a firm stand, especially when it's an issue that's cost us much popularity, that makes us seem so atavistic and weird.
So let me answer that question again, just so we're clear: yes.
The question, though, is hugely simplistic. Homosexuality is a sin condition, according to the Word of God. Whether it's spiritual, genetic, learned or some combination thereof, what's indisputably clear from Scripture is that it is not God's ideal. Sin can be defined as anything that misses the mark of God's intended purposes.
Oh, I know that makes us all guilty of sins piled upon sins piled upon sins. That's why we need God's grace to get us out of our predicament. That's why anyone who's guilty of treating gays with hatred or contempt has committed a sin as serious as any he'd purport to expose in another's life.
The Scriptures establish a starting point for any sin condition: Repent. That means much more than offering lame apologies to the Creator; it means to turn away from sin. It is an act of the will, and it is generally only a beginning, particularly when the sin condition, such as homosexuality, involves so many complicating factors: a lifelong identity. Sexual habits. A means of meeting deeply felt emotional needs.
The problem of homosexuality is a daunting one for evangelicals. We know it's wrong in God's eyes, but how many of us can point to a "hard case," a person, unlike myself, who's never felt any attraction to the opposite sex yet was utterly transformed by Jesus' saving power? Not many of us. That's why we see evangelicals responding to Ted Haggard's fall from the pinnacle of ministry—he admitted he was guilty of "sexual immorality," presumably with the male prostitute who exposed his dalliances—in two primary ways.
One camp simply says "Repent." When they get no results, they chalk it up to the homosexual's unwillingness to make the right "choice."
The other camp continues to wring its hands. "Oooh...ahhh...now that's a tough one..." (Wring, wring.) "We must show compassion..." (Wring, wring.) "On the other hand, the Bible says it's a sin..." (Wring, wring.) "Maybe it is genetic. If it's genetic, does that mean it's really a sin?" (Wring, wring.) "You know, I think we're putting too much emphasis on this issue. If we just talk about sin all the time, I'll alienate my friends." (Wring, wring.) "Hey, we should probably just leave this to the experts. I don't really feel comfortable around gays anyway."
(If that's you, I want to pray with you today for your miracle...It's coming...It's coming...Yes...Yes...There it is!...There it is!...I can feel your spine straightening...Hallelooooojah!)
U.S. Catholic bishops came up with a third response on Tuesday (here's Rod Dreher's take). But it's a theological zigzag, full of jukes, cuts and slippery verbiage. If I'm getting this right, they're saying if you're gay and Catholic, just deal with it by living a celibate life. I know of some Catholics--and evangelicals, too—who, in their abhorrence for sin, have steeled themselves to suffering and taken up this approach. For this they have my respect, because "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge." But I can't accept it as a satisfying answer. If God made us, surely he knows how to align us with his intended purposes. So Jack E. Jett's question still rings in my ears. As he put it another way, "Do you in your heart think that someone can change their sexual attraction to that of another sex?"
The answer again: yes.
I have to say, my answer is based on my faith in the Word of God, not personal experience—either in my life, or in lives I've observed closely. Jesus promises that we will become "new creatures" when we are reborn in him. It is our responsibility to purify ourselves by putting off the trappings of our old, sinful nature, and for this he gives us "sufficient" grace and power. As one person wrote to me last week:
"God has the last say, not human beings. It doesn't matter how we feel about an issue or if our son/daughter/mother/father/spouse etc. is doing what is contrary to the Word of God. What matters is that if God says NO, then there is a way to the YES. He is not cruel. He is not unjust. He is holy, loving and right. There is freedom, deliverance, help and hope for all who will start from the point that the Bible is the inspired Word of God."
So from that point I will launch, brushing aside my fellow evangelicals who've wrung the Word of its power. Instead of crying out to God to help them in their unbelief, they shrink in faith. Meanwhile, the world smells their fear.
I turned to Francis MacNutt, a Charismatic Catholic and a pioneer in the healing ministry, for answers that come from the realm of experience as well as doctrine. I have tremendous respect for MacNutt, who's 81 and unable to travel as much as he used to but is still standing for the truth of Jesus' transforming power in his soft-spoken, compassionate and keenly intellectual way. (The Harvard-educated MacNutt, a former priest, was one of the Roman Catholic Church's premier authorities on homiletics. Late in life, he left the priesthood to marry—a woman, smartypants—and was promptly excommunicated. Since then he has traveled the world teaching and writing about the ministry of healing. He and his wife, Judith, a psychotherapist, have set up a base near Jacksonville, Florida, called Christian Healing Ministries. MacNutt's relationship with the Catholic Church has healed too—the Vatican has invited him to minister next year at a leaders' conference on Charismatic Renewal.) I saw MacNutt speak once in the Dallas area about 10 years ago, and I've seldom seen a minister radiating the power of the Holy Spirit as he does. That's coming from a Pentecostal, mind you. Us holy rollers love to talk about the anointing of God, but there are few people I've encountered who can even touch the stuff MacNutt operates in. There's absolutely no hype about the man. He's never tried to push his way onto a national stage, and he employs no gimmicks when he preaches and ministers. He doesn't exaggerate, either; one of the things he emphasized in our conversation is that "not everyone we pray for gets healed." Francis MacNutt is from the earlier generation of Charismatics, and he's all substance.
(All right, self-disclosure here: After MacNutt and his wife spoke on healing, they invited people up for prayer. I went up; can't recall why. When I got near them the palpable presence of the Holy Spirit was so strong I instantly crumpled to the ground. Yeah, I was "slain in the Spirit." And no one pushed me, slapped me or even touched me. Got that, my brother and sister Pent-y-costals?)
"By this we mean that someone whose sexual orientation is directed to the same sex, can become a heterosexual through Jesus' saving power when we pray. We believe this, not only theoretically but we have seen it happen over a period of many years."
Well, how many times? MacNutt told me that praying for gays is only a very small part of their ministry, but his wife had 20 gay and lesbian clients in her psychotherapy practice, in which she combined traditional methodologies with Holy Spirit-directed healing prayer. Her success rate? 100 percent, MacNutt says. He writes:
"To us, healing prayer seems to be the only viable option for those Christians who believe that living a homosexual lifestyle is wrong. Without a real belief in healing, a Christian traditionalist can only offer homosexuals a command to repent, which will lead the homosexual to respond in anger or despair. Our belief and experience leads us to proclaim that healing does take place when we pray for inner healing and, occasionally, deliverance..."
By inner healing, MacNutt means to guide the person through a process of uncovering the deep wounds of the past--then asking the Holy Spirit to step in and heal. In many but not all instances with gay men and women, the MacNutts have found a deficit or a breach in the relationship with the same-sex parent that occurred early in childhood, well before one's sexual identity had fully formed. In the case of many lesbians, he says, it was denial of a mother's love, sometimes in infancy and for reasons as simple and blameless as a lengthy illness. By "deliverance," he means freeing an individual from the oppression of demonic spirits, such as lust. (Think that's MacNutty? Talk to an African Christian sometime. Many of them believe Americans are incredibly ignorant of the realities of the spiritual world.)
All of those who got healed through his and his wife's ministry, of course, wanted to get healed. But a desire for change is only the beginning. The most important ingredient in the healing process, he says, is love--from a competent, caring and patient minister who doesn't reflexively shy away from expressing it toward a member of the same sex (in a non-sexual way, of course). MacNutt concludes:
"The one caution, and it is a big one, is that this usually takes time. Rarely have we seen a homosexual healed with only one prayer or one session; the ordinary process takes perhaps six months, with an hour's session once a week. The basic issue does not usually stay in the physical, sexual level but goes much deeper. For example, the male homosexual may not have received the love he needed from his father, and his homosexual activities are an attempt to fill up that void in his life...
Where do we find mature Christians who understand how to pray for inner healing and are willing to spend the time to pray the homosexual into the fullness of life?"
Umm...yeah. Where do you find those people? Let's see: Some of my evangelical brethren expend much energy devising theological explanations for why the power of God is so seldom evident in people's lives, and the phrase "inner healing" just gives them the heebie-jeebies.
Need a miraculous transformation by the grace of God? Better knock on someone else's door.
Then you've got my Pentecostal brothers and sisters, God's ADD children. They'll slap you on the forehead and proclaim you healed, then usher you back to your seat to the beat of a thumping gospel tune. Funny, hardly anyone ever asks anymore if your healing has actually manifested. They don't ask, because they don't want to know.
Now back in the day, folks would "tarry" before the altar, night after night, if need be, until they got results. Men and women were trained as altar workers to kneel beside you, discern what's going on in the Spirit and encourage you in genuine seeking and prayer. One thing they always exposed was fake repentance--you know, a quick slobber on the altar in the hopes that God will wave his magic wand and fix everything painlessly, no obedience required. No, they didn't accept any of that.
Today, all we offer is take-out prayer. That's because we're so very busy. And we're satisfied with semi-fictional testimonies, because we don't want to go through the painful self-examination that comes when we ask God why things didn't turn out the way we hoped they would.
But someone, somewhere still believes. You'll find them here and there, always taking care to maintain their confidence that God is not only able but willing to heal, and heal completely. --Julie Lyons
Next week in Bible Girl: I could only scratch the surface with Francis MacNutt this week. Next Wednesday--Bible Girl will be posted early, because of Thanksgiving--I'll excerpt from my interview with MacNutt as well as address some of the burning questions this column is likely to provoke. Then, folks, it's high time we moved on to other subjects. Thanks for reading. As always, if you want a weekly Bible Girl alert, drop me a line.
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