“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable….” Luke 18:9
Jesus told a story specifically for the self-righteous, the ones who confused purity with pompous piety. It was a very short story about two men with differing views of God and sin and self. My story, the one that I believe forever changed my approach to educating kids on the sex, is a little longer and kind of sad, and honestly embarrassing to see in black and white.
This story begins with a girl named Jenny. I will always remember her as a beautiful brown skinned girl, with wide innocent dark eyes and a shy smile.
Her nose was dotted with perfect little freckles. My husband and I volunteered with the junior high ministry at a Baptist church tucked into a lower-income area in Spokane. Jenny came to youth group sometimes. Often, she didn’t have a ride, so we would pick her up. Her family’s home was a bit run-down, overrun with kids and Jenny landed somewhere in the middle of the bunch. They weren’t churchgoing people, but Jenny liked coming to youth group and we liked having her. I don’t know much about her backstory. I know she came from a broken home, her own father didn’t live with them, her mom worked two jobs.
Jenny was thirteen when she got pregnant.
Her boyfriend was much older. I never met him. I wasn’t shocked that she got pregnant, just shocked that it happened so young. She was barely more than a child.
Jenny was humiliated and scared, of course, but she decided, along with her mom, to keep the baby.
That meant that a pregnant seventh grader came to our youth group.
This seemed to present a problem to our pastor. A conservative gathering of Regular Baptists didn’t often have pregnant children running about.
We met with him, behind closed doors and told him we felt that being part of the youth group would be good for her, and for the other kids. We felt she understood that having sex before marriage caused this complicated situation, but that life is a gift from God and should be treated as such. We expressed the truth that she didn’t have much positive, normalcy in her day-to-day life and that we believed that this was a great opportunity for us, God’s people, to extend His grace and love to her and her family.
Our pastor told us that she could return to youth group meetings, but not social events, upon the condition that she agree to admit her sin alongside his pastoral leading in front of the youth group as well as on the following Sunday, in front of the congregation.
He would lead her through the proper questions and answers because he said it was our job, as Christian leaders, to make sure that she not become an item of fascination or popularity because of her condition, lest other kids get an idea that the consequences of sin might yield satisfying attention.
We were speechless.
But he was our pastor and he explained his position as leader of the church demanded that he make these kinds of decisions. So, he called Jenny and her mom and a few days later, we all gathered in a pool of awkward in the church basement room where the youth room was located and he led the evening’s confrontation by asking Jenny a series of questions that she sheepishly and shyly answered. Of course, he used Matthew 18 as his guide for confronting the sinful youth.
My face burned and heart pounded as red flags flew across my mind’s eye, but I bowed as we prayed as a group and then, our pastor left the room. My husband (a new Christ-follower) and I navigated the remainder of the evening with a dozen or so middle-schoolers and a shamed, pregnant child.
It should go without saying that Jenny failed to show up the following Sunday for the repeat performance of public shaming before the church congregation. Our pastor found us after Sunday morning service and said, “I could have predicted that she wouldn’t come to church, but it demonstrated that her heart was not repentant for the sin that she’d committed. Perhaps she’ll stay away all together. We wouldn’t want the other kids to get any ideas from her, would we?”
I will always feel sick over Jenny.
We were impotent to influence the course of God’s grace in her life or the response of the only church she knew. We stood dumbly by, trying to love her, trying to offer grace, although our pipeline had been squeezed off right tight by a the do-good, be-fundamental legalism that permeated our church. A belief system framed by legalism cannot forgive sin but instead builds gallows for the sinners. We acted as spiritual executioners but without the benefit of masks to conceal our identity. Our faces will always be, in Jenny’s memory, connected to her shame.
And I’ve always known that the guilt of sabotaging her young faith was equal to anything Jenny did with her boyfriend. And that guilt was upon me as much as anyone else in that church.
“There is no difference,” Paul wrote in Romans 3:22-24, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
But honestly, I’ve had to wrestle though self-forgiveness. I’ve had years to take apart that season of spiritual abuse and look at the broken pieces that remained. I know our inability to really love Jenny and help her was, in part, due to the fact we had been spiritually manipulated and controlled by a leader who was clearly functioning outside of the Holy Spirit’s leading. He effectively ruined a thriving church and we were just a part of the collateral damage left bewildered and nearly spiritually dead. In the years that followed our leaving that church and finding healing through the true exposition of God’s word and the slow and tender love of the Holy Spirit, I’ve found that no reaction to sin equals that of the response of true grace.
I know now that our pastor’s actions, although cloaked in something that seemed like grace and framed in a litany of scripture, was not Jesus-grace.
His response was first of all fear, then pride, then the decision that he was the best person for the job of judge and jury, then a need to externally control others to do his will, then a need to execute the plan and finally a need to say, with a mild grin – see, I told you it’s best to trust me.
Jenny had her baby, but during her pregnancy, guilt was allowed to gestate into shame. I myself bore the swelling weight of shame and it birthed, eventually, into a crippled, misshapen view of myself, of the greater church, and a dark distrust of leadership.
But Jenny and I shared another characteristic: we were broken-hearted. This bleeding of the soul protected us both from the callousness of self-righteousness and eventually, God tenderly led us each, over many years’ time, into a place of clearer vision of his grace. (Jenny’s story is eventually one of redemption. I’ve seen her, a grown and beautiful woman, a loving mom, still a somewhat stumbling seeker of Jesus many years later. We had a moment where I could apologize and then I happily listened to her chatter about her kids and her life. Although she didn’t keep going to our little youth group, a couple of us kept in touch with her for a while and a friend of mine helped her from time to time during those first couple of years as a young, teenaged mom.) I know that Paul’s statement in Romans 3 roped us all into the story: there is no difference. All have sinned.
You see, friends, I’ve always thought that Jesus leveled the playing field, made it possible for anyone and everyone to come to God and his glorious grace, but the playing field was, in fact, leveled by sin. Its full sweep across humanity cut us all down to the same height: short of the glory of God. How then, can anyone justify standing on one’s tiptoes declaring himself closer to righteousness than the next?
Wasn’t Jesus the one to initiate a contrasting posture: he laid down his life for us? (John 10:11)
Jesus-grace follows a humble path, but a courageous one. Jesus pioneered grace. His life forged the way and he initiated the posture of humble leadership.
As a leader, Jesus walked through the temptation first (Luke 4). He walked through the persecution first (Luke 4:28-29). He walked through the rejection and terror of a trial that ended in a death sentence, first (Luke 22:52-23:24). He died first, he rose again, first (Luke 23:44-24:12).
He went first. He went further.
So now, my approach to talking about sex and purity with my children cannot be reduced to practical steps on “how to protect their virginity until their marriage night”. We don’t talk about sexual purity.
I pray for soft and pliable spirits, like yielding soil in the spring.
I pray for them to see the desperation for affection and acceptance that so defines their peers through eyes that are blurred with compassion’s tears.
Jesus-eyes. Eyes that will lead them to find humble and courageous paths and ears that will hear: this is the way, walk in it… and bring the others along, too.
We don’t talk about the invisible lines a guys’ hands should never cross, we don’t talk about masturbation. We don’t talk about how-far-is-too-far. We talk about real sin and victorious, expensive grace because
I want them to know as well as they can truly know anything, that there is no difference. We are all raped, pregnant, heavy with the weight of our sin, limping, hurting, angry and utterly hopeless apart from Jesus. And he is there, always, waiting to draw us in to his arms of crazy love, because he cut in line and laid down his life and suffered first, and once and for all, for all of us.
And that’s how we talk about it – in those terms that are raw and honest and a little too descriptive. I am admittedly a TMI (too much information) mom, and I am not above flagrantly undressing the scandalous grace of Christ in my life before their watchful eyes.