I have a friend (we’ll call him Mark) who can quote more Scripture than many pastors and rarely misses a worship service at his church. And he’s no passive participant, either. He often peppers his Facebook page with testimonials about the “Spirit’s work” during Sunday services. But on Monday mornings, back at work, Mark sports another testimony. With equal passion, Mark will plainly tell you he’s gay.
On most days when we worked together, Mark wore a Cheshire cat grin, looked in my direction, and made crude references to his private life. For months, I didn’t bite. Some might call my refusal to engage him cowardice, but snarky one-line comments were the only things that came to mind. Besides, I didn’t see the point in talking to someone who was so closed.
Though Mark had never taken the time to talk with me about anything not work-related, he knew I didn’t approve of his homosexuality. He saw me as the epitome of self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and bigotry. And in his eyes, my obvious but unspoken condemnation made me pathetic, bankrupt of “true” Christian love, the quintessential closed mind filled with hate. No point in talking with her.
Our standoff didn’t seem right, but I didn’t know what else to do but pray.
A number of things about Mark impressed me almost as much as the obvious offended me. A gifted medical clinician, he was front and center handling emergencies, relieving suffering, and restoring health. I frequently caught him holding a hand and singing a hymn to quell a patient’s anxiety. I struggled to reconcile the person I’d grown to admire and like with the wounded soul hidden inside. As I continued to pray for Mark, my concern for him grew, as did my patience for his goading me.
One day, as several of us sat in the break room together, the television news blared out a story about a hate crime. The victim, a gay man, had been brutally beaten and murdered. Mark glanced around the room, then looked down and shook his head.
At that moment, a vague unease about my normal no-comment stance prompted me to pray, Lord, if you want me to speak, make it perfectly clear what I’m supposed to say. Amen.
One millisecond later, another co-worker, Emily pointed to the television and asked, What do you make of that, Gaye? Is that a hate crime?
Mark’s grin had vanished.
Emily pressed me for an answer.
Surprising Sermon Application
What rolled off my tongue wasn’t something I formulated in my head before speaking: Every human being has intrinsic value, because God made people in his image. Harming any human being, gay or otherwise, is always wrong. Always.
Mark looked stunned but grateful. He smiled, touched me on the shoulder, then returned to work. No sarcasm. No crass commentary. His emotional vulnerability helped me glance beyond his sin. Underneath all the crude jokes was a human being I’d failed to see before now.
Mark, too, began to view me in a different light. My response to the news didn’t square with his idea of a hate-filled closed mind. Instead he saw a person capable of caring for someone she didn’t agree with.
Normally I’m the sort of person who thinks of just the right thing to say immediately after the window of opportunity closes. But this time part of a sermon I’d heard on Sunday came out of my mouth on Tuesday. My pastor had made frequent references to the importance of seeing men and women as image bearers. Until that moment at lunch, though, I hadn’t fully grasped how that theology applied to my current circumstances. J. I. Packer writes:
We still bear the image of God formally—we still have in us the abilities, that if rightly harnessed, would achieve a fully righteous, Godlike life—and so the unique dignity of each human being must still be recognized and respected (Gen. 9:6; James 3:9), as a gesture of honor to our Maker.
What I’d offered Mark in the break room wasn’t false assurance. Several follow-up conversations revealed he remained keenly aware we didn’t agree on the subject of homosexuality. But from that moment on he seemed to grasp that, even in our disagreement, he was loved as an image bearer. He could see I cared for him. Important groundrules in our relating to one another, then, had been proposed and approved. We could now have a safe conversation.
The Real Obstacle
When we find our identity in something apart from Christ, an attack on that idol feels like an assault on all that we are. Mark believed his in-your-face admissions about his behavior made him “real, authentic, and genuine.” Yet what he finally placed his trust in wasn’t the finished work of Christ but his emotional preferences and cherished identity as a gay man. So Mark’s deepest obstacle wasn’t his homosexuality; it was his unbelief. He had exchanged the truth for a lie—even believing the lie to be a virtue. No wonder having a frank conversation felt like I’d been asked to defuse a bomb.
But Mark wasn’t the only one with a blind spot. Without realizing it, I had looked at him through the lens of his sexual sin. And in so doing, I had failed to point him to Christ the Savior. Mark’s sin loomed in front of me and clouded my sight of the gospel. But it also clouded my sight of a person. He’d been an unmovable viewpoint, a thorn in my flesh, an enemy, but not an infinitely valuable human being. That’s why I had opted for silence.
When we encounter anyone—Christian or not—we needn’t be intimidated or overwhelmed by their faults. We’re filled with them too. What we need is God’s grace to see sinners as far more than their sins.