‘Not Knowing the Half of It’:
confessions of a wandering Jew
An expanded version of the Keynote address delivered
at Evangelicals Concerned, Inc.’s Western ‘connECtions’ conference
in San Diego on July 31, 2003.
I’d like to begin with a short story about a young boy named Tommy. Little Tommy was doing very badly in math. His parents had tried everything: tutors, flash cards, special learning centers. In a last-ditch effort they enrolled him in the local Catholic school. After the first day he came home with a very serious look on his face and went straight to his room and began studying. His mother was amazed. After dinner he went right back to his room and began hitting the books again. This went on for weeks while his mother tried to understand what made all the difference.
Finally he brought home his report card and his mom was shocked to discover that he got an A in math. She wanted to know, what was it? The books? The discipline? The structure? What made the difference? He said: Well, on the first day of school when I saw that guy nailed to the plus sign, I knew they weren’t fooling around!
Sadly, for far too many Christians, their experience with the ‘guy nailed to the plus sign’ is not much more extensive than little Tommy’s.
The road I’ve traveled as a Christian has been a diverse and a colorful one. There have been times when the felt presence of God was more real to me than the platform I’m standing on; when the Word of God ricocheted like lightening through every corner of my soul. And there have been other times when the Word of God was as stale as old bread; when the fire in my belly just flickered and died; when I preferred cheap slivers of glass to the pearl of great price. If you can relate to any of these experiences, you may appreciate some of my story.
I grew up in a typical Reform Jewish household in New York City. I went to Hebrew school and celebrated my Bar-Mitzvah at the age of 13. But during those early years being Jewish had little, if any, meaning for me.
As I grew older, I began to question the existence of God. I was never a confirmed atheist but thought if God did exist He was just out there in the ionosphere somewhere and one just had to believe in blind faith He was there. But I didn’t see any evidence of Him. And I assumed that people who did believe in God were just weak and needed a crutch to lean on or were simply incapable of taking personal responsibility for their own lives.
At the age of 12 I became sexually active when I started to fool around with other adolescent boys. And when my boyhood friends began to discover their sexuality and move on to girls, I discovered mine and moved on to other boys.
Like many young people I embarked on a relentless search for truth, meaning and purpose in my life. Also like many, I experimented with drugs. But what began as an occasional pastime eventually grew into a daily affair. At one point I began selling marijuana to help defray the cost of my own habit.
There was a great deal of pain and confusion going on inside of me and without a healthier way to deal with it I found getting high to be a seemingly effective way to numb the pain. I didn’t like myself much and having a low self-image, believed that if I allowed anyone to get close they’d be able to see that I was ‘worthless.’ So I learned to keep people at a safe distance by erecting massive internal walls that no one was permitted to penetrate. This resulted in many anonymous sexual encounters. And by my early 20s these anonymous sexual encounters evolved into a dangerously promiscuous lifestyle. And though the internal walls I erected may have on some level prevented further hurt from getting in, they also prevented anything else from getting in.
In my late 20s while working as a waiter to pay for my return to college, I became friendly with a coworker named Kevin. Kevin was straight. But he and I built a friendship essentially over a shared love of marijuana. And so Kevin and I would go out after our shifts and get high together. And despite our many differences we developed a valued friendship.
One day while hanging out together after work Kevin told me that his whole family was born again, which, as you might imagine, didn’t get much of a rise out of me. But then Kevin told me that he too was a Christian and that really blew me away because in my mind I had a whole pre-conceived idea of what being a Christian was about and I wanted no part of that.
But Kevin was a very intelligent guy. Despite his passion for marijuana Kevin had a keen mind and was someone I had grown to have a good deal of respect for. So I was taken aback at how someone of such intelligence could buy into what I considered to be such foolishness [1 Cor. 2:14]. It was one thing for ignorant or weak people to buy into such nonsense, but not someone like Kevin.
But being the argumentative person I too often can be, I said: Oh yeah? You can be a Christian and get high like this? This is okay with God? And Kevin looked me right in the eye and said: No, it’s not okay. Kevin was not only bright; he was also a forthright and humble man who never once in the time I knew him ever attempted to justify or rationalize his sin.
And Kevin began to share more and more over the coming weeks about what it meant for him to be a Christian. Eventually he told me that one of his older brothers taught a weekly Bible study in Manhattan on Thursday evenings and asked if I would consider attending with him some time.
The notion of attending a Bible study at that time in my life had to be about as appealing to me as sticking needles in my eye. But since I had always prided myself on being an open-minded person and since I thought I owed it to Kevin in the interest of the friendship we were building, I reluctantly agreed to go.
And so one Thursday evening several weeks later, I found myself in the midst of a room full of some genuine, card-carrying, bible-toting Christian people. And I remember thinking that if these bible-toters had any idea who Kevin had just brought into their sparkly-clean study they’d probably have coronaries right on the spot.
And if simply having to be there wasn’t bad enough, some had the audacity to actually share their faith with me. So I did what I thought any self-respecting Jewish guy would do: I told them I was Jewish figuring this would get them off my back. I thought everyone knows Jews don’t believe in Jesus! But instead getting me off the hook, this seemed to only further fan their eagerness to talk about it. And Kevin’s brother, the leader of the study, asked me if I knew that Jesus Christ was the promised Messiah of Israel and that it was possible to have a personal relationship with a living Jesus Christ today.
I knew that my life was no bowl of cherries but I thought these people were living on the good ship lollipop. But not knowing much about the Bible at the time I was not in a good position to argue with him. But I got angry. I thought where does this guy get off telling me that my people have been unaware of this for 2,000 years, but he has the answer??!! Nonetheless I mustered up all the graciousness I could and politely remained for the duration of the study. But by the time I left his apartment that evening I was convinced that these were among the weirdest people I had ever met and it was unlikely they’d ever see the likes of me again.
But angry over the claims that Kevin’s brother made about Judaism and Jesus, of all people, being the Messiah, I started to read the Bible not because I believed a word of it, but because I was determined to come up with enough ammunition to show him just how wrong he was. So I proceeded for the first time in my life to actually read and study the Bible. And in the course of my studying I began to look at the Old Testament prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah because that’s where I figured I would find the greatest weight of evidence to ultimately show this guy just how out to lunch he really was.
But this was not an objective study I had embarked on. Though I would not have admitted it at the time, I was not looking for truth. Nor was I open to it. I had already made up my mind. He was wrong. I was right. And I was looking only for information that would support the conclusions I had already come to. [Ironically, this is a very similar attitude to that taken by many fundamentalist Christians when it comes to what they think the Bible says about homosexuality and homosexual relationships.]
But I studied. And I also continued to dialog with Kevin. But the more I studied the Bible and the prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah, the more my own arguments slowly seemed to crumble under the increasing weight of evidence materializing before me. But even with evidence seeming to point to the possibility that they might be right, there was still no way I was willing to buy into this for it would have gone against everything I had ever been taught.
One evening during this time, Kevin and I went to his brother’s apartment again and just spent an informal evening hanging out and talking. And during the course of the evening, and after some discussion on matters of faith, Kevin’s brother asked if he could pray with me to receive Christ.
The very thought of such a phrase still made me want to puke. But I had also by this time seen and read enough to know I couldn’t dismiss their claims quite as easily as I would have liked to. But still not ready to drink the ‘Kool Aid,’ as it were, and being the smug and argumentative soul I was, said: Well, if I let you pray with me will I get to see lightning bolts or something like that fly around the room? And Kevin’s brother completely unfettered by my arrogance and without skipping a beat said: I can’t promise you that will happen. But he said: I’m willing to take the chance if you are. Then he leaned over, looked me straight in the eye and said: Look Alex, if you’re right and I’m wrong, then you walk out of here tonight and you haven’t lost a thing. But if I’m right and you’re wrong look what you stand to gain before you leave this apartment tonight.
And that appealed to my sense of logic and I thought what do I have to lose? And so still nowhere near convinced and with more than a little reluctance I agreed to pray with Him. But when I prayed I said: Lord, if this stuff is true; if Jesus really is the Messiah, then I want to know about it. But if it’s true you’re going to have to show me it’s true. And you’re going to have to show me it’s true beyond a shadow of a doubt. That was my prayer. Not exactly the most reverent utterance that ever came out of my mouth. But it was honest, it was heart-felt and it was genuine.
So I prayed with him and nothing happened absolutely nothing. And I can still remember walking out of his apartment that evening fully convinced I had just stooped to the lowest level of foolishness I had ever known. And I swore to myself that I would never tell another living soul what I had just done. That was Tuesday evening.
But four days later, that Saturday [God waited until the Sabbath for some reason I’ll probably never understand on this side of heaven] I experienced something that far surpassed anything I had ever encountered in my life. I was driving to the beach with a friend of mine and the events of the previous Tuesday evening were the last thing on my mind.
But as I was driving, I started to become acutely aware of this sensation of a light shining down on me. At first I paid no attention to it. But I couldn’t shake this sensation. I began to look up and around trying to figure out what this was. At first I thought maybe the sun was reflecting off of a building or something of the like. But it wasn’t a physical light that I could see, yet I could not shake this overwhelming sensation.
Eventually we arrived at the beach and all day long that day, no matter what I did and where I went this light continued to shine down on me. And it colored everything I saw. The beach, the ocean, the sky everything around me was being seen in a light and in a manner that I had never experienced before.
And I knew what was happening. I knew that I was standing in the presence of God; and I knew He was answering the prayer I had offered up to him four days earlier and was revealing Himself ‘beyond a shadow of a doubt,’ just as I had prayed.
I also knew nothing I had seen or experienced in life, drug induced or not, could hold a candle to what I was experiencing right there. And I said: Lord, I don’t know what I have to do to get this presence to stick around, but whatever it is, you’ve got me. And that was the day I decided to serve God. I had heard and read a lot about God during the course my life. But up until that day, I didn’t know the half of it.
As you might imagine, that was a turning point for me and from that day my life began to change radically. The fact that I was gay was initially put on the back burner because as a new Christian I was just filled to overflowing with the awesomeness of God. I fell in love with Jesus and had an insatiable hunger to know him better.
I understood on a profound level that I had been called into a personal relationship with the creator of the universe and He gave me the most incredible ‘honeymoon’ period any new believer could ever hope for.
One of the most immediate changes was a day-to-day sense of peace and joy that exceeded anything I had ever known. In fact, when I would arrive at work in the mornings my coworkers would remove my sunglasses and examine my eyes because they couldn’t believe I could be feeling as good as I did without being under the influence of some drug. And when I’d try to explain what had happened to me, they would just shake their heads and say: Alex, I could believe this coming from anybody else, but not from you!
And the people God placed in my life were wonderful. Kevin and his entire family enveloped me with the love of Christ and did everything they could to help me get firmly planted in Him. And I, like a sponge, soaked up everything I could from them. And since they were loving and God-seeking people they taught me wonderful things about God and his Word. But they also told me something that ultimately proved more costly to me than any of us could have imagined at the time: They told me that one could not be both gay and Christian. They didn’t ‘clobber’ me with Lev 18:22 or the few other passages often used to endorse antigay theology. They were loving people. But they shared with me what they had been taught about these passages from those who taught them Christianity. And since the statements seemed clear enough on the surface neither of us had reason at the time to question them further or to better understand the historical context or situations and circumstances to which they were written.
And perhaps even more damaging, they assured me that my being gay was not going to be a problem because God’s plan and intent was to change me if I would simply turn my life over to Him. And you can color me crazy, but as a new believer I didn’t see any problem with that. And as it was, I wanted nothing more than to turn my life over to Him.
Immersed in his Word
So hungry to know Him better, I immersed myself in his Word. As a Jewish new believer, the reality of Christ as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy resonated through every corner of my soul.
Christ was the Jewish Messiah. Everything about Him was Jewish. And I discovered that the New Testament, though reputed to be an anti-Semitic book, was in fact written by Jews, for Jews and about Jews. And the continuous theme that weaved its way like a scarlet thread throughout the Hebrew Scriptures was that of a Messiah, a special redeemer, who would one day set foot onto the stage of human history. And the more I read and studied the Bible, the more fascinated I became at this extraordinary plan of God’s.
During the course of human history, there have been many great men. Some, like Washington and Lincoln, have their birthdays remembered because those days have become national holidays. None, however, have both their birth and their death remembered none that is except for Jesus Christ. At Christmas millions of people the world over remember his birth. And at Easter the same multitudes reflect on his death. All men are born to live. Jesus, however, was born to die. And it is his unique birth that gives inexhaustible meaning and infinite worth to his death.
Why in the world would God become incarnate? Philip Yancey, one of my favorite Christian authors, gives a stunning illustration of learning about incarnation while he kept a salt-water aquarium:
Yancey says: Management of a marine aquarium was no easy task. I had to run a portable chemical laboratory to monitor the nitrate levels and the ammonia content. I pumped in vitamins, antibiotics, sulfa drugs and enough enzymes to make rocks grow. I filtered the water through glass fibers and charcoal, and exposed it to ultraviolet light.
You would think in light of all the energy I expended on their behalf, my fish would at least be grateful. Not so. Every time my shadow loomed above the tank they dove for cover into the nearest shell. They showed me one ‘emotion’ only: fear. Although I opened the lid and dropped in food three times a day, they responded to each visit as a sure sign of my designs to torture them.
To Yancey’s fish, he was deity. He was too large for them and his actions too incomprehensible. His acts of mercy they saw as cruelty and his attempts at healing they viewed as destruction. To change their perceptions, he began to see, would require a form of incarnation. Yancey realized the only way his fish would truly be able to see, and on a profound level understand his love for them, would be if he became a fish, and spoke to them in language they could understand. And in a similar manner, God knew the only way we would truly be able to see, and on a profound level understand his love for us, would be if He became like us and spoke to us in language that we could understand. And that is precisely what happened at Bethlehem. The God who created matter took shape within it, as an artist might become a spot on one of his paintings, or a playwright a character within his own play.
The birth of Christ was no accident: It was not the result of unforeseen or uncontrollable events. The Creator and sustainer of all things is never caught off-guard. God does not respond to human events, He superintends them. And nowhere is this more clearly seen or profoundly delineated than in the birth of Christ.
The eternal God, through the prophets of Israel, gave clear and detailed prophecies concerning the promised Seed who would one day set foot onto the stage of human history.
And not just a few isolated references: The Messiahship of Jesus is not based on a few isolated or general references. God provided more than 300 prophecies that are spread throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.
And it wasn’t just a few people who came together to formulate such an intricate and detailed plan: The Hebrew Scriptures were written over a 1,000 year span and by more than 30 different authors. This eliminates any possibility of editorial manipulation because the prophecies were written by different people who lived in different places and at different times in history yet each pointing to the same one individual. And these prophecies encompass a wealth of identifying characteristics about him.
There were prophecies of his pre-existence: As strange as it may sound, Christ lived before He was born. From the past eternity He was the Son of God long before He ever became the Son of Mary.
There were prophecies of his ancestry: The Jews were meticulous about keeping records of succeeding generations and placed tremendous importance on them. In fact, Nehemiah tells us that priests who could not trace their ancestry were removed from office [Nehemiah 7:64]. The ancestry of Jesus, however, could be traced through the seed of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, thru the tribe of Judah, the seed of Jesse, David, and so on.
There were prophecies of his birth: The portrait of fulfilled prophecy is perhaps most evident in connection with the birth of Jesus. The astounding miracle surrounding these predictions proves that the inspiration for this portrait came from the ‘heavenly gallery’ and not from the studio of any earthly artist. Nothing but Divine insight could have foreseen it, and nothing but Divine power could have accomplished it.
There were prophecies concerning the time of his appearance: Perhaps the most startling of all Old Testament prophecies is the passage referred to as the ‘Seventy Weeks of Daniel’ [Daniel 9:2427], which, remarkably, pinpoints the exact time Messiah is to appear. This is the one prophecy that undeniably demonstrates that the Messiah has already come and had to appear before the destruction of the temple in 70 AD when, not only the temple, but also all ancestral records were destroyed.
There were prophecies of his character: Character, it has been said, is what a man is in the dark and the life of Jesus, privately as well as publicly, was without blemish. He lived as God’s perfect man, and as man’s perfect God. And in the New Testament we see how the traits of character Jesus manifested fit in with the prophetic description of the Messiah as outlined in the Hebrew Scriptures.
There were prophecies of his ministry: The sacred and sublime task of the Christ of prophecy when He became the Christ of history was to become the Christ of redemption. When one examines the credentials corresponding to those predicted by the prophets we see how Jesus proved through his ministry that He was the Son of God who came into the world to bear the iniquity of all.
There were prophecies of his dual nature: Something that is as mysterious as it is marvelous, and as incomprehensible as it is inspiring, is that of the Messiah’s dual nature. The Hebrew Scriptures foretold that the Messiah would be both God AND man. That man should be made in God’s image is a wonder, but that God should be made in man’s image is a greater wonder. This too was prophesied hundreds of years before it came to pass.
There were prophecies of his death: The heart of Christianity is the Bible. And the heart of the Bible is the cross of Christ making provision for the salvation of a lost world. There are multiple lines of prophecy which point to Calvary’s Cross and the death of Christ who came ‘to give his life as a ransom for many’ [Matthew 20:28].
And there were prophecies of his resurrection: Christ was identified as the Messiah in that his resurrection was an accomplishment of Old Testament prophecy. Paul, who wrote, ‘if Christ has not been raised our preaching is useless and so is your faith’ [1 Corinthians 15:14] rested his entire case on the bodily resurrection of Christ. In the Bible we discover the forecasts as well as the fulfillments of the Messiah’s power over death.
These identification characteristics were clear, uninfringeable and each was fulfilled uniquely and specifically by Jesus Christ and they establish a solid confirmation of his credentials as Messiah.
There is no greater evidence of the faithfulness of God to his Word than how He orchestrated the events of the centuries to bring his Son onto the stage of human history exactly as he had promised. Author and Jewish believer Marv Rosenthal once said:
‘To suggest that mere men maneuvered and manipulated to make the myriad of events surrounding the birth of Christ fit the Old Testament pattern is ludicrous. Far easier would it be to disassemble a complex watch, throw the dismembered parts into a running clothes dryer and believe that in due course, given enough time, the watch would be whole, running on time, to the very second.’
How could the Jews have missed it?
If all of these things were recorded how then could the Jews have missed it? There are a number of reasons. First there is a certain element of obscurity that characterizes biblical prediction. Even those to who prophetic visions were granted often did not know what they meant [Daniel 12:9]. It is also true that the people who first heard the biblical predictions were mystified by them. Isaiah tells us that the prophecies were like the words of a sealed book to his generation [Isaiah 29:11]. Only in the last days would the people fully understand the predictions that God brought forth through his Word. And notably, these predictions are clearer and more intelligible to us today than they ever were to the original recipients.
Even those who witnessed their fulfillment did not always comprehend what was taking place. After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus. They had to be instructed regarding the significance of Jesus’ death in the light of prophecy [Luke 24:2527]. The apostle John also declares the lack of the perception on the part of the disciples regarding the significance of the triumphal entry [John12:16]. But unlike those who prophesied about the Messiah and those who witnessed the fulfillment we here on the other side of the incarnation have the complete revelation of God right at our fingertips. To us it has been granted to know what many of them did not.
Another contributing factor toward the Jews not recognizing the Messiahship of Jesus has to do with the Jewish expectation of the Messiah. Judaism has always focused its hopes and dreams on a future Messiah. But during the period between the First and Second Testaments, the Jews really began to fervently hope that God would send his Messiah to deliver them from their constant bondage to conquering kingdoms. By the time Jesus began his ministry, hope for the Messiah was strong and increasing. All devout Jews were looking for that One who would conquer Rome and once again make Israel a powerful nation.
We see they were clearly looking for the Messiah when John the Baptist began preaching his message of repentance [Luke 3:15]. We see also that John the Baptist himself was looking for the Messiah. When John heard in prison what Christ was doing he sent his disciples and asked: Are you the expected One, or should we look for another. [Matthew 11:23]. Jesus replied: ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor’ [Matthew 11:45]. Jesus was declaring himself to be the Messiah in that he was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.
The disciples also knew to expect him [John 1:41]. And so too did the Samaritan woman at the well who told Jesus ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ [John 4:25]. So the Jews knew that the Messiah was coming and they were looking for Him. But something else happened around the time of Jesus. Their idea of what the Messiah was to be and what he was going to do became greatly politicized. Clearly they were expecting the Messiah, but they were expecting Him to come and deliver them from the tyranny of Rome. And although the Hebrew Scriptures spoke of both the sufferings and the victories of the Messiah, it was the victorious aspect that had become uppermost in the hearts and minds of the people because of the Roman domination.
So they came to expect a military leader; a powerful warrior who would deliver them from the Roman persecution. So when a poor, lowly and humble ‘schlep’ by the name of Jesus arrived from out of Galilee, they stumbled. And even their stumbling was prophesied [Isaiah 8:1314]. The stumbling prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures was beautifully put to words in the lyrics of ‘El Shaddai,’ sung today in many churches. El Shaddai means the all-sufficient one or the God who is more than enough and the lyrics proclaim:
Through the years you made it clear
That the time of Christ was near
But the people failed to see
What Messiah had to be
Though your Word contained the plan
They just could not understand
Your most awesome work was done
Through the frailty of your Son.
Even after the resurrection the apostles believed that the Messiah would lead Israel to victory over her enemies and establish his kingdom forever [Acts 1:6].
And so despite the fact that the Hebrew Scriptures gave numerous clear and detailed prophesies concerning the Messiah who would one day set foot onto the stage of human history, and even though the hope and expectancy of the Messiah was great at the time of Christ, this hope of a political rather than a spiritual Messiah has been a major factor in the Jews’ stumbling and in their rejection of Jesus as the Messiah.
So here I was learning all of these awesome things about God and his Word. But as exciting and as wonderful as it all was, I also was discovering that the matter of my sexuality was not something that could simply be ignored and it surely wasn’t going away. On the contrary, it became a big problem. But about a year into my new walk of faith I encountered what I thought was the greatest gift any gay man or woman seeking Christ could ever hope to find an ‘ex-gay’ ministry! I just thought I died and went to heaven. And they shared all kinds of wonderful stories about their deliverance and healing from homosexuality. It was not until years later, however, that I learned the truth about their doctrine.
Every ‘ex-gay’ ministry has there own approach to dealing with homosexuality. L.I.F.E. ministry in New York where I became involved focused primarily on healing prayer, counseling, Bible study, and scripture memorization. L.I.F.E. was an acronym for ‘Living in Freedom Eternally’ as what they claimed to be living in freedom from was homosexuality. And although L.I.F.E. ministry in New York never formally came under the Exodus Ministries umbrella, we had something that no other ‘ex-gay’ ministry had a traveling witness team.
The L.I.F.E. ministry witness team was made up of anywhere between ten and twenty rotating members and we would travel from church to church and sometimes from city to city proclaiming our freedom from homosexuality in testimony, song, drama and scripture memorization. We had an elaborate program and it was quite powerful. We’d begin by marching in together singing: ‘In the name of Jesus, in the name of Jesus, we have the victory.’ And of course the victory we were proclaiming was our freedom from homosexuality. Then with our big smiling victorious faces we’d one by one introduce ourselves, share one of our favorite scriptures and elaborate on what that particular passage meant to us in terms of our freedom from homosexuality. And some of us between other elements of the program would share extended testimonies of how God had set us free from homosexuality. You see, for many ‘ex-gays’ simply labeling oneself as heterosexual constitutes progress in the right direction whether one’s sexual orientation has actually changed or not.
And the churches went wild over us. We were all the ‘evidence’ these churches and other venues believed they would ever need to refute the claims of any who would say that sexuality is not mutable. And we had all the appropriate proof-text passages to support our claims. And I don’t suppose I need to tell you that the L.I.F.E. Ministry witness team had more bookings than Bruce Springsteen and saw more performances than the Rolling Stones.
And I grew not only to know the men and women I served with in L.I.F.E. ministry, I grew to love them. For we not only ministered with one another, we traveled with one another, we ate with one another, we prayed with one another, we laughed and sometimes even cried with one another. It was a community of caring and sincere people who were seeking after God with honest and genuine hearts. I know that because I was one of them.
The 700 Club
During my tenure at L.I.F.E. Ministry I also had the opportunity to share my testimony on The 700 Club. Not only did the churches clamor to hear our testimonies of healing and deliverance, the Christian media hopped on the ‘ex-gay’ bandwagon also. Every month or so The 700 Club would fly someone into Virginia Beach and broadcast another testimony of someone claiming healing or deliverance from homosexuality. A number of these 700 Club testimonies came from L.I.F.E. Ministry in New York.
And I welcomed the opportunity to talk about the great things God had done in my life. Where I was misguided, however, was in equating any of the wonderful things God had done with becoming or pursuing heterosexuality. But ‘ex-gay’ doctrine is predicated on the notion that to have a ‘right’ relationship with God a person must choose to pursue a heterosexual orientation.
And today more than 15 years after I gave my testimony on The 700 Club, despite all the evidence that’s now come to the fore to refute the claim that sexual orientation is changeable, despite the dismal success rate of the ‘ex-gay’ movement, despite scores of testimonies from the many who have been involved with these ministries and have come out on the other side to say they’re not effective, and despite the countless high profile and embarrassing scandals the movement has been enmeshed in, The 700 Club still continues to broadcast these stories regularly.
Life after L.I.F.E.
So what happened to all the people I knew at L.I.F.E. Ministry? Very few of them still proclaim they aren’t gay. But what’s most tragic is that most of them have long since left the Church altogether. It has been my experience that either Christian people who are gay learn to integrate a theologically conservative, committed Christian faith with their sexuality or one of the following three scenarios will generally occur:
1. Repression and denial
With the first scenario they continue to repress or suppress their sexuality. Instead of learning to lead honest and authentic lives they succumb to the pressure of conformity and denial. In doing so, what they’re often really saying is: I’m now more acceptable to myself and to the people around me. Unfortunately, they don’t usually feel that way in the long run. Even increasing numbers of Christian counselors now readily admit that ‘ex-gay’ ministries are trying to force people into a mold that doesn’t really fit and the results often lead to depression, addiction and sometimes even suicide. Says Terry Norman, a D Min and professional Christian counselor: ‘When people repress their orientation, in order to make all that work, they [often] hide under layers and layers of incredibly destructive behavior.’ He concluded by saying: ‘Ultimately, it kills.’ And if it doesn’t physically kill you, it will slowly eat away at your soul. I know because that’s what began to happen to me.
2. Leave the Church
With the second scenario in the wake of discovering that the promise of change is a false promise they throw out the baby with the bath water. They conclude that if the Bible doesn’t say exactly what they were told it says then any and all turning to Jesus isn’t worth anything at all. And unable to separate the two, in hurt, in anger or in disappointment, they tragically end up leaving the Church and their rich faith altogether, trading off the Kingdom of God for a life of God knows what.
3. Adopt liberal ‘anything goes’ theology
With the third scenario they seek a group to give them comfort and find too often that only the theologically liberal are willing to take the ‘outcasts’ in. I call this adopting an ‘anything goes’ theology. The formerly orthodox believer then, although slowly and reluctantly at first, begins to adopt the beliefs of the group that is willing to accept him or her. The old ideas and beliefs are so closely associated with the group that inflicted the rejection that they avoid them at all costs. And the rich gospel they once joyfully embraced becomes so watered down one couldn’t find it with a magnifying glass.
These are the scenarios that have befallen most of the Christian gay people I’ve known over the past 20+ years. They didn’t survive the war. They didn’t know the half of it.
So when and how did I begin to integrate? I didn’t for a long time. I became a leader at L.I.F.E. Ministry and though I ultimately left the ministry sometime after I began to feel like an ‘ex-gay’ poster child, I continued to ascribe to and promote ‘ex-gay’ or antigay theology for another ten plus years. I became more active in my church and involved in other areas of Christian ministry. But though unaware of this at the time, a critical part of my soul was slowly withering away. A vital, vibrant and fundamental part of the ‘Alex’ God created and breathed life into was slowly dying.
A bump in the road
This was also around the time HIV hit the scene. Although HIV had spread to at least five continents by 1980, it wasn’t until 1985 that a commercial blood test became available. And so in the late 80s I went to find out my HIV status and was shocked to discover I tested positive. And fully convinced this had to be a mistake, I went for a second test and tested positive again.
Devastated would be a gross understatement to describe how I felt. I had no idea how to reconcile the death sentence I thought I just received with the gracious and merciful God I had come to know. And it was a death sentence back then for this was years before any effective HIV medication was even available.
And since the medication that was available was quite toxic and primitive at best I decided not to subject myself to these toxic and experimental drugs. You see, for years I had been a relatively health-conscious person, mindful of taking care of my body and eating healthy food, etc. So I decided if I had to put all that toxic stuff into my body just to stay alive then I would prefer to die because it went that much against some of my more fervent values.
So having given the matter a great deal of thought and prayer I decided I would instead just go along in God’s grace and do as well as I could for as long as I could. And I continued to pray that when my time came God would just take me quickly and spare me from having to spend weeks or even months going in and out of hospitals with one opportunistic infection after another.
In wrestling with how best to deal with all of this as a Christian, for a season I bought into the ‘health and wealth’ doctrine. As some of you know, there are sincere believers who will try to tell you that all mature and spiritual Christians should be living lives of total success, health and wealth. And as with every other wind of doctrine they too have their proof-text passages to support it.
Surely God does cause his people to prosper. But what did prosperity mean to the ancient people of the Bible? If they had enough food for dinner and a roof over their heads, they affirmed that God had prospered them. For many of us today prosperity means two color TVs, a VCR, DVD-player, an SUV and an electric coffee pot that automatically turns itself on at 7:00 AM. Not that any of these things are bad or wrong in and of themselves. But they’re not the biblical model of prosperity.
And what about divine healing: Surely Jesus never met a disease he could not cure. But I had to learn that the matter was not nearly as one-dimensional as those in the ‘faith’ movement would have its followers believe. In his book ‘Why Doesn’t God Do Things Perfectly,’ Dr. Morris Boyd makes a profound comparison between real faith and religion and counterfeit faith and religion.
Religion true and false
Boyd says: What are we to make of the stories of Daniel and his companions, who because of their faithfulness to God and unwillingness to bow down to King Nebuchadnezzar were thrown into a burning fiery furnace and den of lions? The flames did not scorch them, the lions did not bite, and the faithful young men escaped with life and limb.
We consider these stories fit for infants and the stuff of childhood fantasy but think it silly to believe there’s anything in them we can count on. ‘Trust God and He will rescue you’ is Daniel’s moral. And his stories of deliverance from death and danger are unforgettable examples of it. But experience is against them. For that’s not how such affairs always turn out. We are certain of this because we know many good people who trusted and were not delivered.
But oddly enough, so did Daniel. The fact is many who heard his stories were being thrust into the fire, and thrown to the lions, even as they listened. Daniel told his tales at a time when the troops of Antiochus Epiphanes, a madman who could have held his own with Hitler, Stalin, and the other thugs of history, were on a rampage. And they seared, devoured, and slaughtered the faithful ones of Israel, who were not rescued, but massacred. And what did Daniel have to say about that?
What Daniel had to say about it is what Daniel already said: Trust God and he will rescue you. But now their deliverance meant something it had never meant before. Now they would be saved from death, not by avoiding it but by being brought through it. For the first time in Israel’s faith, Daniel declared the reality, the substance and the consolation of immortal hope:
Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever. [Daniel 12:23]
One English poet who watched soldiers die during the First World War put Daniel’s promise into words of great beauty:
Safe though all safety’s lost;
Safe where men fall
And if these poor limbs die,
Safest of all.
(’Safety’ by Rupert Brooke)
John McMurray once expressed the difference between false religion and true by saying the motto of false religion is: Fear not! Trust in God and He will see that none of the things you fear will happen to you. The motto of real religion on the other hand, tells us: Fear not! The things you are afraid of are quite likely to happen to you, but they are nothing to be afraid of.
As for me, the things I feared the most did indeed occur: I went periodically for blood tests over the next several years and watched as my T-cell count gradually declined. I watched them go down to 600, then 500, 400, 300, and so on. Doctors pleaded with me to go on medication. But though I listened to what they had to say nothing they said convinced me to change my mind.
And lo and behold the fateful day of reckoning ultimately arrived. The feces struck the air conditioner, as it were, and I came down with PCP pneumonia. I didn’t know it was pneumonia at the time. But I knew I was really sick. And within a couple of days I was having difficulty breathing and could barely get from my bed to the bathroom. But I didn’t want to go to the hospital and have this nightmare drag on any longer than it had to.
So I began to more fervently pray that God would just take me so we could get this over with already. At one point during this ordeal a friend came over, took one look at me and said: We are going to the hospital! He helped me dress, got me into a taxi and off we went. My friend made a lot of phone calls that day and a number of wonderful people hurried down to the hospital when the doctors told them they weren’t sure if I would make it through the night.
And though I did make it through the night, over the course of the next several weeks I fought my way through two hospitalizations and a collection of opportunistic infections including PCP pneumonia, CMV and atypical TB, one almost right on the heels of the other.
So much for my prayer that God would just take me. And to make a long story short, in the midst of all this, God provided a wonderful doctor who turned out to be one of the top HIV men in the country. And knowing my position on medication, he encouraged me to give him a chance to work with me. And so I decided to give him a shot though I dare say not being able to get any air into your lungs when you inhale can be a fairly strong motivator. And in four weeks my T-cell count went from 0 to 95; then from 95 to 150; then from 150 to 283. And I started feeling better physically than I had in years.
But shortly after the time I recovered from this ordeal I became more unsettled than ever with the conflict between my faith and sexuality. I knew seasons when it had been troubling but this time it haunted me with a vengeance and I was facing the irrefutable fact that after almost 17 years of walking with Christ I was not one iota more heterosexual than I was the day God revealed Himself to me.
And I concluded that one of two things was going on: either God wasn’t doing his job or I wasn’t doing mine. And being a reasonably mature Christian it was relatively easy for me to let God off the hook, because I knew God is always doing his job.
But I also knew I had done anything and everything that could possibly be done; no stone was left unturned. I had given my life to God; spent almost 17 years studying his Word; prayed unceasingly over this; sought counseling; shed tears; sought healing prayer from others; underwent deliverance; got involved in ‘ex-gay’ ministry; became an ‘ex-gay’ ministry leader; taught Bible classes; mentored new and young believers; had been selected and elected for all kinds of ministerial and church leadership positions; eventually I was elected to the board of my church; then elected chairman of the board. There was no other job left but the pastor’s and frankly I didn’t want that one! Yet despite all this and more there was the indisputable fact that I was no more heterosexual than I was the day I began my Christian walk.
The other half
On one hand when I look back at those ‘ex-gay’ years now I wonder what rock was I living under? But there’s a significant parallel between my being a Jewish man who accepted Christ as the Jewish Messiah and my integration of faith and sexuality.
When I came to faith 21 years ago my eyes were opened. The fact that Christ is the promised Messiah became as clear as mineral water to me. I didn’t know the half of it before. But now I knew. I understood that Christianity is to Judaism as flower is to seed; that the New Testament completes the Hebrew Scriptures in such a way that the Old testament without the New is like a house without a roof. And the New Testament without the Old, like the second story of a house without the first.
And having come to understand this, I thought all I need to do is sit down with my Jewish family, my Jewish friends and my Jewish community and explain it to them and surely they too would see and embrace this truth just as I did. But you know what? They didn’t want to hear it. For this went against everything they had ever been taught. And so my Jewish family was appalled, my Jewish friends were appalled, and my Jewish community was appalled.
And I learned a very important lesson: truth is never determined by a majority vote.
And in a similar manner when my eyes were opened again some 17 years later and I came to understand that the few passages used over and over not just to clobber gay people with, but which often had the end result of destroying their lives or souls; and that the passages had nothing to do with homosexuals or homosexuality as we know it today, but were addressing pagan idolatry, temple prostitution and reckless self-indulgence it too became as clear as mineral water to me.
And once again I thought all I need to do is sit down with my church leaders and my Christian community and explain it to them; go over the relevant passages together and surely they too would then be able to see. But you know what? They didn’t want to hear it either. Most of them weren’t even willing to dialog about it. Once again it went against everything they had ever been taught. And the same number of people appalled when I came to faith in Christ, were appalled when I applied some basic hermeneutical principles to the passages and saw them in their proper context.
What I learned
So in conclusion, what did I learn? What are some of the things that enabled me to see that not everything I had been taught was true? Far too many to mention, but I’ll leave you with a few:
(A) ‘Ex-gay’ ministries
- Certainly there are plenty of people who can testify to the damage the futile quest for ‘healing’ through such groups has caused them.
- Many come into these ministries with all kinds of baggage and with very legitimate needs for all kinds of healing. And they rightly recognize that Jesus is the healer. But where they’re misguided is in equating their legitimate need for healing with becoming or pursuing heterosexuality.
- Many have found freedom in these ministries: freedom perhaps from despair, from loneliness, from addictive behaviors but not from the imprinting of being attracted to people of the same sex.
(B) Interpretation of Scripture
- I learned that Christian hostility towards homosexuality and homosexual relationships rests entirely on an interpretation of the Bible that in many respects is open to question.
- And while some are quick to say the Bible is clear on the matter, the fact is we Christians learn together what the Bible is clear about. The intuitive interpretive clarity one experiences where the Bible is concerned has been conditioned by the church culture that taught us Christianity and I learned sometimes that can lead us into trouble, rather than truth.
- As best-selling author and former Professor of Biblical Exegesis F. F. Bruce put it: ‘It is not enough to say: ‘The Bible says’ ... without at the same time considering to whom the Bible says it, and in what circumstances.’
(C) Old Testament
- Jesus provided a very important hermeneutic tool to help his followers negotiate their way through moral debates about Old Testament law. He identified one Levitical command as the key to understanding the rationale behind all the others. Quoting Lev 19:18 He said: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
- This suggests that, when trying to determine why an Old Testament law was given and what its relevance is to a modern Christian, two vital questions must be asked:
- ‘What harm to neighbor was this command intended to prevent?’
- ‘What good to neighbor was this command intended to promote?’
- And though Lev 19:18 was not all that popular in the days of the Old Testament, it is the verse from the Torah, or first five books of the Bible, that is the most frequently cited in the NT. It’s a summary and a fulfilling of the Law that was repeatedly referred to by Jesus, Paul and James.
(D) New Testament
- Though most antigay Christians like to use Romans 1 as their biggest weapon, a closer look at the text reveals a number of significant details:
- There’s a very wide spectrum of human experience between the extreme situation Paul describes depicting those who’ve turned their backs on God and resort to a depraved lifestyle, and those at the other end of the spectrum, who have turned to God and seek after Him with all their heart.
- Those Paul speaks of had refused to acknowledge and worship God and for this reason were abandoned by God to their lustful depravity. The gay people I know have not rejected God at all; they love God and thank him for his grace and his gifts. How then could they have been abandoned to homosexuality as a punishment for refusing to acknowledge God?
- Those Paul speaks of were constantly lusting after each other and in their actions were only following their lusts. The gay people I know don’t lust after each other any more than heterosexual people lust after each other. They seek abiding personal companionship, enduring love, shared intimacy and complete trust from each other just as heterosexual people, at their best, do.
(E) Wooden/Literalistic applications of Scripture
- Jesus never applied any law in a wooden or literalistic way. He looked at and spoke about the original purpose of it. The radical consequences which resulted from Jesus looking at the Sabbath, for example, in this way are clear in all the gospels. He blatantly disregarded the onerous rabbinical interpretations of what Sabbath observance required on the grounds that the institution was intended to be a blessing and not a burden [Mark 2:27]. The application of those same interpretive principles to the few passages many Christians use for their antigay theology would similarly lead to more compassionate conclusions regarding homosexuality.
(F) The Bible and modern science
- Modern science has thrown new light on the ‘nature’ of many things that were not properly understood in ancient times. One illustration of this is demon possession. Ancient culture clearly had the wrong idea about mental illness, yet the Bible does not attempt to correct it. And while not totally dismissing what the Bible says about the subject, we must also not assume that it provides us with an accurate explanation of mental disorder. In the same way, we now understand the phenomenon of homosexuality much better than we used to and this new psychological knowledge must inform our interpretation and application of the biblical text.
The point in all of this is that as Christians we’re all called to take responsibility for difficult decisions that arise when we try to apply the Bible sensibly to a contemporary world that is very different from the one Moses and Jesus lived.
The Apostle Paul said: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up but love builds up [1 Corinthians 8:1]. Paul is saying that knowledge is important. And we need to search the Scriptures. But what’s even more important than searching the scriptures and gaining knowledge is knowing how to apply that knowledge in love. Because knowledge in and of itself will only make us arrogant. But love will build up the body. And without love, we won’t know the half of it.
© Alex Raiken