I Thought Christians Were Stupid Bigots

Editor’s Note: This is an interview between Rachel Jones, the co-author of Finding More: Real Life Stories Worth Telling and one of the subjects (Rachel Gibson) contained in the book.

Rachel asks to meet in a fried chicken restaurant. “It’s basically my favorite food ever.” She has long brown hair, thick glasses, and a slightly offbeat sense of humor that makes her fun to be around; as she looks at the menu she makes a joke about ordering chicken breasts, which she later decides is too trashy to include in this write-up.

The joke works, it turns out, because it was Rachel’s sexuality that was one of the reasons she became totally opposed to Christianity as a teenager. “I didn’t grow up in a Christian home at all,” she explains. “So I guess I started life neutral towards Christianity, and then, as I moved into my high school years, I became more opposed to it. The main reason was that I saw it as being for stupid people. Then, as I was about 16, I started to understand my sexuality more. I’d already had some sexual relationships with men—well, high-school boys, really. But as I started to be attracted to women and then act on those attractions, I was like, ‘Oh, this is where my heart is. The reason stuff with boys felt out of place was because it’s not my place.’ I gradually started to own that identity more and more. I knew from the culture that Christianity was against homosexuality. So by the time I was 18, I had concluded that Christians were both stupid and bigots.”

Rachel continues, “At college, I became curious about the existence of God… but at the same time I was ashamed about that curiosity. So I would secretly look up things about faith and Christianity on my computer. What I read about Jesus online was much more compelling than what I’d expected. So I was drawn in by this different Jesus—but at the same time, my sexuality was a big barrier. I knew that I wanted to marry a woman someday, and I knew that Christianity wasn’t OK with that.”

But somehow, Rachel couldn’t shake off her interest in Jesus. One day, she was in the room of a college friend and noticed a book on her shelf with an intriguing title: Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, the university-professor-cum-children’s-author who wrote the Chronicles of Narnia stories. “The title grabbed me, but there was no way I was going to admit that I was interested in Christianity by asking to borrow it. So I stole it.” As she read it, she had a dawning realization which she describes as: “Oh my goodness—God is real, and I am in a lot of trouble. Because not only is he real; he is perfect, and I am incredibly imperfect.” But there was an element of hope there too, she says: “I understood for the first time that Jesus had come to place himself as a kind of wall between God’s wrath—his right and fair anger at my sin—and me. I knew that if I trusted in Jesus, I was going to be saved. Now, did I understand the full implications of that? Certainly not. But I knew that I could be somehow be connected to Jesus and saved from God’s anger.

“I remember thinking, ‘Well, I like to drink a lot, I like the excessive parts of my lifestyle, I like to sleep with women—and all those things will have to go out the window. But it is stupid to pretend like what the Bible is saying isn’t true just because it’s inconvenient. I need to take this deal because I’m never going to get a deal like this again.’ I had a sense that I needed to pray, and so I just talked to God right then.”

A couple of days later, Rachel ran into the Christian student group on campus. “I had a ton of questions, obviously. I didn’t know anything! They were very good in giving me a Bible, showing me how to pray, taking me to church. The female friends who drew around me became very close to me, helping me fight through the sexual temptation and sexual failure that came. It became pretty clear to me after a little while that my attractions toward women hadn’t just gone when I became a Christian. Those first few years were littered with bad decisions. I was committed to Christ, but then I would choose a sexual relationship and get stuck in these cycles… But my friends would lovingly keep calling me back to what I believed in.”

As I sit eating fried chicken, listening to her story, I’m left with a question: how could you just give up such an important part of your identity, something that had been so fundamental to your sense of self for so long? “Well,” Rachel says slowly, “it would definitely be tragic to give up something that valuable for something that is less valuable. And it would also be tragic to pretend like this real part of my life, my sexuality, is less than it is. But Jesus is more precious than even that very deep part of me, because of his great love. And…” she pauses for a moment with a smile, “that sounds really weird if you’re not a Christian, right? But the Bible talks about a Christian’s relationship with Christ being something we should be able to die for because it’s so precious. And celibacy and singleness are not death,” she says frankly. “Not having sex or not experiencing a romantic relationship is a severe thing, but I’d be willing to give up even more than that. In fact, giving up things is a very normal part of the Christian life. There are lots of people who give up sex, who give up their bodies, who give up their money. And you don’t really do it out of obligation—you do it out of love. You’re captured by Christ’s love, and it drives you to do things that you never thought possible before because Jesus gives you this sense of security and purpose and an ultimate destination.”

Rachel concludes, “The reason that most people aren’t Christians is either because they think that Jesus isn’t really real or that he isn’t really worth it. But Jesus is both—really real and really worth it. Yes, I gave up some major things and some significant sexual relationships—but God has heaped upon me beautiful and good things in their place.”

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The Promise God Doesn’t Make

So, how long do you think I’m going to be here?” I asked the physical therapists who were evaluating me. The night before, I’d been admitted to the rehabilitation facility after spending eight days in the hospital with a rare autoimmune condition called transverse myelitis.

The two young women, both about my age, looked at each other, slightly startled, then back at me. “Most people don’t ask,” one of them said.

 “Well, I need something to go on. Nobody’s given me any idea.” At one point in my hospitalization, I had been completely paralyzed from the neck down, due to swelling in my spine. I arrived at rehab having regained the use of my arms but not my legs. Not only had no one told me how long I would be hospitalized; I wasn’t even sure if I would walk again.

“You really want to know?” the other therapist asked.

I nodded.

“Well, to be honest, you have only trace movement in your legs. I think you may be here about eight weeks …”

“I put ‘12,’” the first one interjected.

“And even then, I think there’s a good chance you’ll be going home in a wheelchair,” the other concluded.

Tears welled up in my eyes. I swallowed over and over, trying to get the lump in my throat to go away. “Well, thanks for being honest,” I said, wiping a tear from my cheek and taking a deep breath.

“Nothing is for certain,” the first therapist offered. “We don’t know much about what happened to you, but things could change. That’s just what we’re expecting at this point.”

An hour or two later, my dad came for his regular evening visit. I told him about the assessment, including the realization that I might spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair. “You know, if the Lord wants me to walk, I’ll be able to get up and walk tomorrow,” I said. “But if He doesn’t, no amount of wanting will ever change anything.”

But remarkably, the next day I did begin to walk. It wasn’t a “pick up your mat and walk” kind of miracle. But first a little wiggling in my toes, followed by movement in my ankles and knees, followed by standing and using a walker. I went home a few days later and trudged through pain and physical therapy for months. After a lot of hard work and prayer, God restored me.

“Don’t let my hope rest in a good outcome,” I’ve often prayed to the Lord while waiting for the phone call, “unless You promise a good outcome every time.”

But not because I had prayed for a miracle. In fact, I never remember asking the Lord to let me walk again. What I prayed for most was greater faith. I knew I couldn’t deal with the difficulties of a hospital stay and recovery unless the Lord gave me faith to match the needs of the day. That’s what I prayed for. And that’s what I asked others to pray for as well.

Since then, I’ve been restored many times when I didn’t ask to be: three more occasions of paralysis from what became recurrent transverse myelitis, and later from multiple battles with stage four cancer. In each case, I longed for complete healing, and I let the Lord know that in prayer. But I was hesitant to ask for it, because physical restoration—a wonderful and welcome blessing—is at best temporary. No amount of past healing and recovery can avert injury, illness, aging, or death.

I’ve often wondered about the people Jesus raised from the dead. The widow’s son, Jairus’s daughter, Lazarus—how long was it until they died a second time? And how many of those days did they spend worrying about what that death would be like?

As a four-time cancer survivor, I’m regularly tested for signs of a recurrence. Thankfully, test results from the last dozen or so of my three-month checkups have all come back negative. The long stretch of good health doesn’t make waiting for those reports much easier, though. I worry about what the next battle will be. But I also fear that good health now will give me false reassurance for the future. “Don’t let my hope rest in a good outcome,” I’ve often prayed to the Lord while waiting for the phone call, “unless You promise a good outcome every time.”

Jesus isn’t going to make that promise, however. Instead, as we face the uncertainty of rising and falling and rising again, He offers us something better: “I will be with you.”

This is our ultimate restoration: God’s presence. It’s a promise we can count on for eternity.

Life in the Body of Christ

The Chosen Servant

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations   (Isaiah 42:1, NIV).

This is the portrait of the gospel prophet concerning Christ, the Servant-Messiah. In sharp contrast with the accepted expectations of a regal Messiah accompanied by all the pomp and trappings of royalty, Christ came to earth in the form of a humble servant (see Philippians 2:6, 8). Even the disciples found the Servant-Messiah concept difficult to grasp. No messianic title is so intricately interwoven into the fabric of the incarnation of Christ as this one. Isaiah’s Servant-Messiah prophecies point to the fulfillment of God’s transcendent purpose in the plan of redemption.

God selected Jesus as the only qualified being in the universe to fill the Servant-Messiah role, Jesus condescended to come to earth as a bond servant in human form and die to redeem fallen humanity. By voluntarily leaving the splendor of heaven to suffer as a servant, Christ ensured the redemption of all who believe (see Philippians 2:8-10). He came as the Father’s representative to demonstrate the true meaning of servanthood. The chief servant once declared that He “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28, NIV). The principle of self-sacrifice was demonstrated at the Last Supper by the institution of the basin and the towel (see John 13:5-12). It was exemplified in His selfless ministry of service and finally in His death on the cross.

Of Christ’s servanthood, Ellen White wrote: “He left the royal courts and condescended to clothe His divinity with humanity, that by His condescension and His example of self-sacrifice He might teach us how we may become elevated to the position of sons and daughters of the royal family, children of the heavenly King.”–Testimonies for the Church, vol. 3, p. 566.

My Prayer: Lord, while I may not fully comprehend the depth of Christ’s servanthood, help me to be more like Him. Amen.

Life in Christ

How Did I Get Here?

Reading: Psalm 120

Reflection: Today’s Psalm gives a reflection of life when we choose the course of our lives unwisely. The Psalmist speaks about the pain of living with those who choose war instead of peace, and the consequences of being deceitful. The two geographical locations the Psalmist mentions, Meshech and Kedar, are intended to convey that the Psalmist is far from home, and has strayed, or been driven, into a territory far from the temple where the presence of God was believed to dwell. Perhaps the Psalmist choose a way that led to this barren, unsafe place, or perhaps it was the choices of other people that had brought the Psalmist to this place. Either way, the choice to live in ways that opposed God’s love and grace had brought the Psalmist great pain and suffering.

This Psalm is classified as a Song of Ascent. These were Psalms that were used by pilgrims to Jerusalem as they ascended the mountain to the temple. As they drew nearer to God, these pilgrims would sing songs like this to remember the pain of being far from God’s presence, and to appreciate again the ways of God that lead to intimacy and union with God. 

Of course, God’s presence is with us always and everywhere. But sometimes the choices we make and the way we live robs us of our awareness of God’s presence. When have you felt like this Psalmist – in a distant and painful place far from God? How have you found God’s grace and presence even in those times? Can you let God’s presence lead you back into wise choices, and the way of life?

Practice for Today: Repentance is the practice of being honest about where we have made unwise or destructive choices, and then choosing to make different choices in the future. We all have times when repentance is a necessary practice, without which we cannot find life and wholeness. Is repentance what you need today?

Prayer for Today: When I choose unwisely to stray from your path of life, O God, I turn back to you.

Communion with Christ

Morning Prayer

He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. Isaiah 40:29–31, NIV

Lord our God, our loving Father, we thank you for all that our hearts and spirits are allowed to receive from you. We thank you for the community you give us, strengthening us to face life even through toil, struggle, and privation. Grant that your powers flow out to give us strength and courage. May we see and recognize you in your deeds ever more clearly. Do not let us faint or grow weary, no matter what we have to suffer. Grant that your Spirit may penetrate us ever more deeply to bring peace to us and those around us, and finally to bring blessing for all peoples of the earth. Amen.

Innocent Man on Death Row Shares How God Used His False Conviction to Share the Good News

For many of us, the very thought of only seeing the sun for an hour a day for 30 years has never crossed our minds – in fact, it would horrify most of us if this actually happened to us.

It had never crossed Anthony Ray Hinton’s mind either, who as a young 29-year-old man had only known living life as a sheltered and marginalized black man, having grown up in the sunbelt of a little small Alabama town outside of Montgomery.

Hinton served 30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit. He only saw the sun for an hour a day and never knew or even at times believed that he would see the sun as a free man again.

Hinton tells of his story in his best-selling book “The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row.”

The best-selling author shared in his book that when his mom came to visit him, she would ask him if his prison cell had windows so that he could see the sun rise and fall. To comfort her, Hinton would tell his mom that it did, while in reality, it did not.

In an interview with Christian Headlines, Hinton details his life on death row and what he learned about God and mankind during his 30-year prison sentence.

He came to realize that although he didn’t deserve to be on death row, he knew that God had called him there to minister to others.

Hinton came to believe that even though he was sentenced to death row for a crime that he didn’t commit, he still had freedom in God behind bars and with his life hanging in the balance. Hinton believes that the 30 years that he served for murder wasn’t wasted. The now free man said his time behind bars made him a better man and noted that he now knows that God called him to be in that prison to share the gospel.

Maina Mwaura

Christ in Our Culture

Stalked by Jesus

A few months ago I stumbled on an old friend’s Facebook profile. We used to be pastoral leaders at a large suburban church. Now he’s an atheist employed as a “secular humanist chaplain” who seems to make much of his “unconversion” from Christianity.

The Bible has a word for the course of my friend’s life—shipwreck, as in Paul’s sober assessment of two Christian leaders who “suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith” (1 Tim. 1:19). But after my initial shock, I found that I couldn’t judge him. Instead, looking at his shiny, confident “evangelistic” atheist posts caused me to think about my own life. I wondered why and how my faith is still intact and seaworthy. Honestly, over the past 40 years of following Christ, there have been times when I’ve considered steering my little boat into some rocks and walking away. Unlike my friend, I find atheism untenable, but I’ve flirted with my own version of shipwreck—a kind of cozy, comfortable, less demanding “God, I won’t bother You too much if You don’t bother me too much” approach to faith.

I have my compelling reasons: intellectual doubts, my own rebel heart that wants what it wants, and the behavior of unchristian Christians, to name a few. But here’s the biggest reason: Following Jesus is ridiculously hard. Loving the church, walking with the poor, pursuing sexual integrity, practicing spiritual disciplines, living generously with my hard-earned money—most of this Jesus stuff is starkly and painfully counterintuitive and counter-me. As the 20th-century atheist Bertrand Russell once quipped about Jesus’ command to love our enemies, “There is nothing to be said against it except that it is too difficult for most of us to practice sincerely.”

So, yeah, sometimes I feel like quitting, hitting the unsubscribe button, or at least slacking off so I can coast and do my thing. About six years ago I was standing in the cracker aisle of Trader Joe’s on Christmas Eve, considering if I should attend church or just opt out. After two decades of having to show up for church services, this time I didn’t have to go because I wasn’t a pastor anymore and had moved halfway across the country. Nobody expected me to be there. I could just grab some chips and salsa and stay home. Come to think of it, I could just drop out of Sunday mornings for good, sleep in, read The New York Times, and eat bagels and cream cheese like all my sophisticated secular friends. I had my out, and it looked pretty good.

So in light of my friend’s “unconversion” and my seemingly good excuses to shipwreck my faith, I wondered why I remain a Christian. What prevents me from ditching or at least diluting major parts of it? I can summarize it in one word: Jesus. I just can’t get away from Him. He’s just too loving, demanding, compelling, surprising, and downright unrelenting.

The secular writer John Jeremiah Sullivan sheepishly admits that he still can’t get over what he calls his “Jesus phase.” In high school, Sullivan cracked open the door of his life to Jesus, and now he can’t quite shake Him. “[My problem] is not that I feel a sucker for having bought it all,” Sullivan wrote. “It’s that I love Jesus Christ … Why should He vex me? Why is His ghost not friendlier?”

I can relate to Sullivan’s frustration. Only, Jesus doesn’t just vex me. He draws me in. He seeks and finds me. And despite all my doubts and attempts to escape, I can’t get away. And over the years I’ve learned that whenever Jesus shows up, He comes only as Lord, not as my servant. In other words, I don’t just get Him; I get everything and everyone that’s associated with Jesus. I get life on His terms, not mine.

It starts like this. Sometimes when I feel lured to leave, I back up to a small scene in the Gospels: Jesus walking on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, telling a handful of fishermen, “Follow Me.” I ask myself, Do I believe that happened? Sure, it’s a quiet, unspectacular story about first-century fishermen tending their nets after a hard day’s work. They weren’t crazy mystics or fanatics. They’re like diesel mechanics cleaning up after overhauling an engine or surgical nurses washing their hands after an appendectomy. But then I have to ask, What kind of person could rip four fishermen away from their family business, permanently changing their life’s trajectory? How did He transform uneducated men into bold, brilliant leaders of a new multiethnic spiritual revolution, who were willing to die for their Lord and Savior? And Jesus did all that in two words—“Follow Me.” How does He pull that off?

As I ponder the story (or a hundred other gospel narratives that have the same effect), once again, just as He did over 40 years ago, He starts knocking at the door of my heart. But when Jesus, being so Jesus-like, shows up in your life, He never comes alone.

When I was a teenager and a new Christian, I enjoyed reading a booklet called My Heart—Christ’s Home. It’s a sweet parable about how Jesus knocks on the front door and then proceeds to walk through the various “rooms” (the kitchen, the study, the dining room, the hall closet, etc.) in the man’s heart-home. The book still moves me, but it seems to endorse one theological error: Jesus comes alone to my heart. It’s just Jesus and me hanging out.

The Bible presents a very different picture. It’s more like practicing African hospitality. My friend from Rwanda likes to remind me that when you invite an African friend over for dinner, he may arrive with five or 10 more guests. You open the door and—surprise!—you find the equivalent of an entire soccer team lined up behind your one invited guest, smiling and confidently expecting you to wave all of them in for dinner … and maybe a week of hospitality.

That’s a better comparison to explain how Jesus works. Sure, there’s Jesus, always showing up as Himself, talking and acting in His unique style. He’s oozing with love and tenderness, but He also stands firm on everything He’s ever said about sin and repentance, heaven and hell, lust and anger, greed and treasure, death and resurrection, global missions and good deeds, and His own authority and power.

But then there’s also a long row of other guests, smiling and waiting to burst into your home for a nice long stay. Who are they? Well, there’s Abraham, Moses, Rahab, Ruth, David, Isaiah, and the entire Old Testament, the story stretching from Genesis to the Law and the Psalms and Prophets, with its cast of thousands. Jesus clearly loved this wild, heartrending, hope-teeming, and sometimes weird story of God’s crazy love affair with the Jewish people, the rest of humanity, and even all of creation. It was always on His lips and in His heart, and Jesus took it with Him everywhere.

And look, there’s the church—the apostles, the entire New Testament, and that whole ragged and sometimes wacky mob of saints and sinners (but mostly just sinning saints). Yet it’s not just the people and spiritual leaders from your church; it’s all the followers of Christ spread throughout the globe “from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues,” scattered throughout 2,000 years of church history (Revelation 7:9). At times, they’ll drive you nuts and can even break your heart. But they always come with Jesus, and you get to love and learn from them.

Standing right behind Jesus are the poor and the lost, the people in your life who need a Savior—the powerful and the marginalized, the arrogant and the brokenhearted, the religiously self-righteous and the smug secularists. There’s the undocumented Guatemalan woman who works 12-hour days at your favorite restaurant. And there’s your dentist, Dr. Ted, the friendly but spiritually asleep agnostic. Everyone in the world doesn’t show up with Jesus at your door, just the people you can touch with your little life.

So there they are—Jesus and His way of life, Jesus and His loves—standing at your door.

But before you get overwhelmed, remember that Jesus is there, too, front and center, His head tipped back in laughter. So if you’re wondering how you’re going to love and enjoy this motley band, He’s there to help you do what’s utterly counterintuitive.

What prevents me from ditching or at least diluting major parts of it? I can summarize it in one word: Jesus. I just can’t get away from Him.

Pastor and author Tim Keller compares the Lordship of Jesus Christ to a “life quake.” Think of a big truck going over a little bridge, Keller says. The whole bridge shakes in the presence of the truck. It’s a bridge quake. Or think of a huge man stepping onto the thin ice you’re standing on, making the ice crack and tremble. It’s an ice quake. Now think of Jesus coming into your life. If He’s just another big-name historical figure, a run-of-the-mill Messiah-revolutionary, or even the preeminent teacher of love and tolerance, He can fit neatly into one little life. But if He is “the Lord,” then whenever He steps into your home or mine, there will be a life quake. And with that, Keller writes, “Everything is reordered … Any view, any conviction, any idea, any behavior, any relationship. He may change it, He may not change it, but at the beginning of the relationship you have to say, ‘In everything He must have the supremacy.’” (See Col. 1:18 NIV.)

Ultimately this life quake isn’t grim or sad, because Jesus also shows up with something else—exuberant, outlandish, prodigal promises. Promises like, The gentle will inherit the earth, the mourners will be comforted, the hungry and thirsty will be satisfied, and the merciful will receive mercy (Matt. 5:3-11). Or promises like, Everyone who has left houses or relatives or friends for Jesus’ sake will receive a hundred times as much—and eternal life to boot (Matt. 19:29). Or, The kingdom of heaven is like finding a treasure in a field or the pearl of great price (Matt. 13:44-46). No wonder Peter, when faced with the profound cost of Jesus’ Lordship, could still proclaim, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69).

Thankfully, I left Trader Joe’s that Christmas Eve and went to church. It wasn’t always easy, but I went back every Sunday, too. I’m glad I did. And as for Jesus and His posse, yes, they’re still around—still causing holy trouble and creating much joy.

Matt Woodley

Life in the Body of Christ