by Marsha Inman, Friends & Family Director
A recurring question that we are asked here at Living Hope is “How do I show love to my child or loved one when I cannot affirm their gay or transgender identity?” The friends and family members who search out Living Hope are committed to their child or loved one, and they want to do the best job they can of loving them well, if only they knew how. A good place to start might be to realize that “love” and “affirmation” are completely different concepts. Those two words have been redefined by the culture, causing great confusion. To clear up the confusion, it would be helpful to review the definitions of these words to make sure we are using them accurately. Our culture, with the help of most media, has done a powerful job of portraying love as that warm feeling we get when we feel a romantic attraction toward someone or feel drawn to something adorable like a puppy. Is that what love is?
Love is used to describe everything from liking something to being obsessed with an object. As Christians, the Greek word agape would be a better base for understanding love, since that is the type of love that Jesus modeled. Some of the definitions of agape include “a pure, willful, sacrificial love that intentionally desires another’s highest good,” and a “deliberate and unconditional love that is the result of choices and behaviors rather than feelings and emotions.” A Christian expression of love would be choosing to act towards a person in a way that promotes their highest good, even if doing so involved sacrifice on your part. A person who was acting in love would not affirm untruths or point a person in a direction that they feel would harm them. Christians must base their assessment of what would be harmful according to what is revealed in God’s Word. It is loving to be honest with someone even when they aren’t going to like what you say.
Affirming is a completely different and unrelated concept to love. Its meanings are listed as to “declare one’s support for; uphold; defend,” to “accept or confirm the validity of; ratify” and to “offer emotional support or encouragement.” In order to affirm someone, you would need to agree with them and offer them support and encouragement in their decision. It has nothing to do with seeking their highest good but has everything to do with supportive feelings and voicing agreement.
Does the Bible have any examples of loving someone well without affirming them? There are many examples, but the account of Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well in John 4:7-39 is one that is particularly helpful. Jesus surprised this woman, an outcast in her own community, by making Himself available to her. This was highly countercultural. There was every reason for Jesus to avoid contact with her – their differences in religious belief, ethnicity, culture, gender, and life choices – yet He intentionally reached out to engage her in conversation. Jesus began their interaction by asking her for a favor, but during the course of their conversation, He offered her something she wanted; a way to avoid facing judgment from others when she came to get water. As He continued their interaction, Jesus also spoke the truth to her. While inviting her to know Him better, He spoke of her life choices in an uncondemning yet matter-of-fact way. She knew her life was not as it should be. Jesus spoke kindly yet truthfully to her, loving her well without affirming her life choices.
Another passage that sheds light on what love looks like can be found in the familiar verses of 1 Corinthians 13. If we are acting in love toward someone, we will be patient, kind, humble, not seek our own benefit, not get provoked to anger, not keep a record of how we have been wronged, refuse to affirm unrighteousness but rejoice in the truth. If we act in love, we will continue to hope and endure whatever the situation brings. There is nothing on that list that implies that it will be easy. There is no need to be patient and refrain from anger when things are going our way. We can only exhibit that kind of love with the Lord’s empowerment.
Practically, what does it look like for the friends and family of loved ones who insist that we affirm them and abandon our scripturally based beliefs? We can explain to them that we love them unconditionally – we are not basing our love for them on how they identify, feel, or even behave. It might be helpful to explain to them that this means we are not insisting that they change in order to interact with us. We can also tell them the distinction we make between love and affirmation – that we can absolutely love someone without agreeing with all the choices they make. It is crucial to affirm the things about them that we can – character traits that we admire, talents where they shine, ways in which they excel in school, at their job, or in other aspects of their lives. It is very likely that initially, our loved one will not accept these explanations or receive them well. They may decide to distance themselves from you, hoping to make you change your stance. If that is the case, continue to show love to them in whatever ways are open to you. Continue to reach out to them in positive ways, by phone, text, social media, or even old-fashioned snail mail. Include them in invitations to family gatherings. Even if they continue to ignore or reject these overtures, do not get discouraged. Over time, as you continue to reach out to them in love, they will realize that you sincerely do want a relationship with them. I can’t tell you how long this might take because it is different in every case, but I have seen this happen in my own family and in the families of others who have been involved with Living Hope.
Your friend or family member may not be open to hearing about Jesus and His love for them at this time in their lives, but as you model His type of agape love to them, He will speak to them through your actions. Consistent, heartfelt love can break down many barriers. As you pray for God to help you display this kind of love, they will be seeing Jesus without words having to be used. We are aware that this is difficult. Living Hope is here to encourage and walk beside you on this journey, so please let us know how we can help you if you have concerns or questions.
Friends and Family Director
Our Living Hope website has many resources available to you. Here are some articles that touch on the suggestions mentioned above.
We have online support forums that are available 24/7. There you can find a community of Christ-followers who understand what you are feeling, will pray for you, and encourage you to seek God’s answers to whatever struggle you are experiencing. To join the forums, fill out this application, and you will be sent an email request for the information we need to get you started.
Living Hope also has support groups that meet weekly, either in-person at one of our physical locations or by Zoom for those who are unable to meet with us locally. Contact us to set up an intake interview or to ask any questions that you might have about these support groups.