Among its other vices, our society loves to find people with unpopular views (the more unpopular, the better) and hold them up for public scorn. Self-righteousness is apparently very pleasant to the American palate. Amazingly enough, some reporter recently succeeded in finding someone who did not believe that Bill Cosby deserved to be in prison.
An ancient actress named Carroll Baker gave an interview in which she expressed her belief that Cosby was innocent. Instead, it was his victims were at fault. Baker’s claims are fantastic and easily dismissed, as they were meant to be. However, in her semi-coherent rambling, she did say one thing that struck me. “My heart is broken for Bill Cosby,” she said.
Our hearts ought to be broken for Bill Cosby, not because he is not a malevolent sexual predator, but because he is a malevolent sexual predator. Baker to the contrary, there is no doubt that he drugged and raped dozens of women, doing unimaginable harm. However, among his victims, we must number Cosby himself.
Like all of us, God gave him an immortal soul. He also was blessed with great gifts such as few of us possess. Through these gifts, he accumulated great wealth, reputation, and fame.
Tragically, he also listened to the whispers of the devil. In pursuit of selfish pleasure, he did great evil, and this evil corrupted everything else he had done.
His wealth was expended in lawsuits and payouts to victims, his reputation was shattered, and his fame was transmuted to infamy. Today, although he is a free man, he is every bit as miserable and ruined as the women he exploited. This is to say nothing of the horrible damage he has done to his soul and the horrible fate that likely will befall him on the day of judgment.
What a tragedy! What a waste! Even the predator is the prey of the evil one, who has betrayed him as he always betrays his followers. The true villain here is Satan. While we long for justice, we also must regard the evildoer with compassion.
If we’re not willing to do that, we must ask ourselves where we draw the line. What is the difference between the sinner who is worthy of pity and the sinner who isn’t? Is it, perhaps, that we are moved by our own plight and the plight of those who sin like we do, while we shower contempt on those who sin differently? It was not so for Jesus. Though He did not sin, He pitied even those whom He knew never would listen.
In particular, we must learn to see the tragedy in those who sin against us. “Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing!” Jesus cried on the cross. Well, yes, they did know! They were unjustly killing a genuine prophet who told them He was the Son of God, and they did it for the sake of their position and power.
However, they acted in ignorance too, ignorance of the damage they were doing themselves, ignorance of the doom they were bringing on their nation, and ignorance of the eternal destruction they were storing up for their souls. Jesus saw that they were deceived, and He appealed for their forgiveness.
Our hearts ought to be broken for Bill Cosby. They ought to be broken for all those who trouble us. Mourning is as appropriate a response to sin as anger is, and they ought to be combined in us as they are in God. In a world so marred in every way by sin, we need not fear an excess of compassion.
As I contemplate my future, one of the most unpleasant prospects is that of developing frontotemporal dementia. In my family, FTD and ALS are genetically linked. My mother had both. I do not know whether I will be spared.
However, as awful as FTD is, my trust is in the One whose power is greater than any illness. As of now, there is no medication that will slow its inexorable march, but I am confident that any victory that it wins over me will be temporary only. For me, as for any Christian afflicted with Alzheimer’s or dementia, I know these things to be true:
In Christ I will not lose my memories. Jesus knew His friends and loved ones after His resurrection, and I will be raised like Him.
In Christ I will not lose my personality. He who is able to restore the martyrs from scattered ashes will be able to restore it too.
In Christ I will not lose my relationships. Heaven is a place of greater fellowship, not lesser.
In Christ I will not lose my mind. I know I will have it because it is impossible to love God fully without it.
In Christ I will not lose my joy. At His right hand there are pleasures forever.
In Christ I will not lose my salvation. He will not hold me accountable for the foolish and hurtful actions that I am no longer able to control.
In Christ I will not lose my life. It is hidden in Him.
I first encountered the classical statement of the problem of human suffering in a religious-studies class in college. The professor wrote on the board, “If God could stop suffering and chooses not to, He is not perfectly good. If God wants to stop suffering and can’t, He is not perfectly powerful. If God is both perfectly good and perfectly powerful, why does suffering exist?”
Though skeptics are fond of the problem of suffering, there are several problems with it. To me, one of the most significant is its assumption that our understanding of the good is the same as God’s understanding. A toddler cannot comprehend why their mother does not feed them candy for every meal and let them stick their fingers into electrical sockets. Is it the mother’s conception of the good that is flawed, or the toddler’s?
God knows more than we do, has a far better grasp of the consequences of suffering, is far more concerned with the eternal than the earthly, and doesn’t think like us to begin with. The Bible presents Him as a God who is perfectly good, yet whose actions are not subject to human reason. It calls us to trust even when, and especially when, we don’t understand.
All of this, though, is the sort of thing that is discussed in collegiate lecture halls and Wednesday-night Bible classes. It doesn’t have much to do with the actual lived experience of suffering. When you are the one who has lost a child, when you are the one who is grappling with a terminal diagnosis, you are much more concerned with the consequences of God’s existence/nonexistence than you are with proofs to establish either.
If God is and is a rewarder of those who seek Him, suffering and indeed life itself are meaningful. I suffer, yes, but I suffer with hope. My efforts to glorify God are significant and give others the opportunity to make consequential changes in their own life. In the end, I will be blessed with such joy that all my suffering will seem to me as nothing more than momentary, light affliction.
If there is no God, then none of the above applies. Neither my suffering nor my life have meaning. It is impossible for them to be meaningful. I am nothing more than the victim of malignant chance, as everyone will be sooner or later. My efforts to lift others up are pointless. In the end, I will die and be forgotten, with no more significance than the pattern left on the sand by the last wave to wash up on the beach.
If that’s all there is to life, why live? Why go on? Why bother wrestling with the monstrous? The counsel of atheism to the sufferer is the counsel of despair, and it never can be anything else.
Yes, this is an emotional argument, but our reactions to the “rational” arguments about the existence of God are emotionally driven too. Anybody who thinks they can dispassionately reason to fundamental truths about the nature of existence without being powerfully influenced by their desires and fears is a fool. We make such decisions with the Biblical heart, the Eastern mind-and-heart, not the Western mind.
Indeed, the belief that we can rely on the latter is one of the great illusions of Western civilization. The product of such self-deceptive “reasoning” might stand up in the classroom, but suffering forces us to confront the truth. Either we choose to trust in the God whose ways are not our ways, or we reject Him. The former choice is not pleasant, but the latter is unbearable.
In 2010 and 2011, I became the father of two extremely inquisitive children. In 2019, I also became the owner of a firearm. Naturally, I gave some thought to how these two areas of my life should interact. Should I keep my gun locked away from my kids and forbid them to have anything to do with it?
I chose a different course. In our household, we have basically two firearm rules. First, our children aren’t allowed to touch them at all if an adult isn’t present. However, if they would like to see one of my guns, all they have to do is ask, and I will go get it and let them look at it, play with it, dry-fire it, etc. While they do this, I’m around to make sure they’re not doing anything foolish and to drill them on the rules of firearm safety (“Rule 1: Always treat a firearm as if it is. . . ?”).
I know there are risks associated with gun ownership, but I prefer to train my children on how to deal with those risks rather than shielding them from them. After all, if I don’t train them, then they won’t know what to do if they encounter a firearm when I’m not around.
Of course, I do not speak with reference to guns. I think firearm ownership is morally neutral, but parents are presented with the shield-or-train in many areas of great moral significance. Sex is one. Philosophical naturalism and the theory of evolution is another. Humanist critiques of the Bible are a third.
Many Christian parents, especially those who homeschool their children, choose the “shield” approach. They don’t talk about sex with their kids. Sometimes, they’re so afraid of evolution that they flat don’t teach them anything about science. Certainly, they don’t expose them to the arguments that the Bible is a lie.
Admittedly, the quality of my parenting has yet to be established, but I think that’s a mistake. In fact, I think it’s more of a mistake to shield children from those things than it is to shield them from firearms. It’s entirely possible to go through life without ever touching a gun, but in our society, sex, evolution, and humanism are unavoidable.
We can keep our children in bubble wrap for a time (maybe), but sooner or later, they will encounter these ideas. They will hear about sex from a boyfriend or girlfriend, atheism from Richard Dawkins on TV, and Biblical criticism from Bart Ehrman on YouTube. When that time comes, either we have prepared them for the encounter, or we haven’t.
For the well-equipped Christian, I don’t think there is anything to fear from that encounter. I’ve found nothing in any of those ideas to turn me away from God. Instead, problems arise when a child’s initial exposure to an idea comes from an opponent of truth. They will assume that there is no Christian rebuttal to these things because no one ever taught them the Christian rebuttal, and they may well lose their souls as a result.
Today’s parents, then, need to master the art of the difficult conversation. We need to be our children’s guides to the strongest challenges to our faith. We can’t keep the devil from bringing them to our children’s attention. All we can do is make sure he doesn’t get there first.
Last February, Mark Roberts sent me a blog post by a Canadian Baptist pastor entitled “If I Were Starting a Denomination from Scratch”, which can be found here. I found the article intriguing, but even more so were the posts to which the author linked inside it. They explained why he was at the point of starting a new denomination in the first place.
In 2017, the pastor learned that one of the other churches in his denomination had passed a resolution allowing LGTB people to become congregational leaders. A few years later, a pastor in another congregation came out as transgender. The author attempted to rally opposition against such things during denominational conferences, but he lost the power struggle. Now, he and other like-minded Canadian Baptists are leaving their conference in search of an organization that still affirms traditional views of sexuality.
As the saying goes, where the Baptists are now is where the churches of Christ will be 20 years from now. Indeed, I don’t think it will take that long. Some progressive voices in our brotherhood already are appealing for a more inclusive approach. It is probably true that within 10 years, the controversy will take center stage, along with the controversies about women as church leaders, the instrument, and the necessity of baptism for forgiveness of sins.
It's probably also true that the more institutional entanglements a congregation has, the harder resisting this pressure will prove to be. As the Canadian pastor found, the organizations you support financially have a way of exerting influence back on you. The result of being unequally yoked is typically either that you cease to be yoked or that you cease to be unequal.
Congregations without these entanglements will have an easier time withstanding outside influences. When we follow the pattern of the early church, we inherit the strengths of that pattern, and one of them is resistance to worldly coercion. The first-century church thrived despite extreme coercive pressure in the form of persecution. To a truly autonomous congregation, the disapproval of somebody else somewhere else doesn’t matter very much.
Instead, our trial will come from our own members. I know several young people who left the church in part because they objected to its condemnation of the practice of homosexuality. In years to come, as other members are emboldened by an increasingly permissive culture, they will feel free to express those objections and expect to be heard.
As much as brethren like hearing about doctrine that separates them from the world, they dislike hearing about doctrine that separates them from one another. If LGBT issues become too sensitive to discuss, soon we will stop insisting on the Genesis 2:24 model for sexuality altogether.
This is going to be a problem for the Lord’s church in the 21st century, and we must prepare for it by turning to the Scriptures and embracing their teaching about sexual morality. To the worldly, sexuality is a matter of identity, but in God’s word, it is a matter of behavior. Just as the Bible defines a thief as a thief because they have stolen something, it defines a homosexual as a homosexual because they have practiced same-sex intimacy.
The adoption of God’s definitions in these matters accomplishes two important goals. First, it sidesteps the tedious debate about why someone experiences same-sex attraction. In Biblical terms, the answer to the question (whatever it might be) doesn’t matter. It’s not a sin to be tempted. It’s only a sin to give in, so the motivations behind any temptation, including this one, are of no spiritual consequence.
Second, it gives hope to those who struggle with these desires. “Such were some of you” in 1 Corinthians 6:11 does not mean that any of those people were released from temptation once they obeyed the gospel. Instead, the adulterer was still tempted to cheat on his wife, the reviler was still tempted to shoot his mouth off, and so on. They became ex-adulterers and ex-revilers because, even though they continued to feel those temptations, they ceased to be controlled by them.
The same is true for the godly ex-homosexual. He has not changed his sexual inclinations. He has not prayed the gay away. Instead, he has determined to devote his body to Christ instead of sin. If he spends the rest of his life fighting off temptation, that does not make him a spiritual failure. It makes him a success.
To the world, this is the most awful fate imaginable because it violates the preeminent worldly value of sexual autonomy. Here too, we must reject fleshly thinking. Sexual satisfaction is not the Christian’s preeminent value. Holiness is.
Just as Christ calls the unscripturally divorced to celibacy, so too He calls to celibacy those whose know only same-sex attraction. This is a burden, but it is not a spiritual death sentence. There are thousands of Christians who live celibately according to His will but find joy in His service regardless. Blessed are those who join them!
This Biblically faithful approach bears meaningful fruit in two ways. First, it allows us to defeat accusations of bigotry. No longer do LGBT people occupy their own special, disfavored category, in which they stand condemned because of the desires they feel. Instead, they are held accountable to the same standard as the rest of us.
Second, it allows us to reach out compassionately to sinners. I shudder to think how many people have been driven away from Christ not because of their sins, but because of their temptations. Jesus will receive such if they sincerely seek Him, and so should we.
Some of the challenges that will face the 21st-century church remain hidden from us, but the looming problems with issues of alternative sexuality are obvious. However, the gospel prevailed in these areas 2000 years ago, and it will prevail tomorrow too. If we are true to it, it will not fail us.
This article originally appeared in the April issue of Pressing On.