I once attended a talk on the early Christian church by a professor of history. I don’t recall many details; however, one bit has stuck with me. It was after the presentation that I sidled up to the professor with a question. I had noticed that the historic church throughout the ages often had a specific aspect of culture that they were interacting with or an issue that they were attempting to solve. For example, in Paul’s day, the puzzle was how to have a unified movement that was composed of both Gentiles and Jews. Other issues that the church dealt with were slavery, child exposure, and poverty. So, I asked the speaker, “What is our issue of the hour?” He looked me in the eyes and replied, “sexuality.” This is likely a claim that most of us would readily agree to. Perhaps pride parades come to mind or yet another celebrity who has “come out,” maybe the words of a fundamentalist pastor warning of the LGTBQ+ movement as a scheme to destroy families and God’s plan for marriage, or of sweet-looking pastors speaking words of acceptance and love to all people, no matter their sexual orientation. The point is, there’s a lot going on and many different positions being taken. What is a good way to engage this “issue of the hour?” How should the church bring truth and life in this time of sexual ambiguity and animosity? How can we stand for the truth in love? There are many parts of this issue, but I would like to focus specifically on homosexuality. In order to bring life, healing, and truth to those in the homosexual community, we must figure out what the path to wholeness is and how God desires to transform them.
This article operates off of the assumption that homosexual activity is wrong, both because of the explicit teachings of Paul and the model of “one man and one woman” presented in the creation story of Genesis, which was reaffirmed by Jesus. However, this is not the end of the matter. This is an issue, not only of actions, but also of desires. Assuming that homosexual activity is wrong, what is to be said of same-sex attraction? Is it God’s will that all would be cleansed from these “unnatural affections?” Or are there times when God allows same-sex attraction to be part of a Christian’s experience? To state my position plainly, I have come to believe that same-sex attraction—in the sense of one’s default attraction being oriented towards the same gender—while disordered, is not inherently sinful in itself. There are times when God allows for same-sex attraction to remain—perhaps for the same reason that he allows any brokenness or “thorn in the flesh” to remain in his children. This conclusion has been a result of the experiences of a friend, stories and perspectives encountered in books and podcasts, and my own wrestling of what it means to desire God and be fulfilled in Him. I acknowledge that there are many facets to this conversation and one of the most important is understanding what the Bible teaches about same-sex attraction. However, in order to begin the conversation and to serve as an invitation to re-immerse yourself into the Word of God, this article will focus specifically on the experiences and stories of those who experience same-sex attraction and how their experience with same-sex attraction has led them to Christ.
About a year ago, I was privileged enough to become friends with someone who experienced same-sex attraction, and this was my first introduction to the reality of what it was like. I am not entirely sure what I had thought about same-sex attraction before, but I had the impression that it was probably something the person chose and was definitely something that was healed when they became a Christian. But here I was, looking into the eyes of someone who had tried to “pray the gay away” and found that God didn’t remove it. Although it is impossible to know the depths of another’s soul, it seems as if my friend and others who claim to be dedicated Christians and who still experience same-sex attraction demonstrate that it doesn’t always just leave because you want it to and pray that it will. This friendship was the beginning of my journey of learning about and struggling with the idea of same-sex attraction and its complications, but also, through this friendship, I realized that it wasn’t just an idea. There are actual living and breathing people who experience it, and therefore we cannot afford to deal with the issue coldly and unemotionally or we will further isolate those who already feel isolated.
This friendship led me to put real and empathetic thought into the issue, and resulted in me listening to an audiobook that both inspired and made me very uncomfortable. It was last summer as my brother and I renovated a house that I finally decided to listen to the book that had been on my Audible shelf for quite a while titled Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity. It is an autobiography of sorts written by Gregory Coles and, as he introduces the story in the book:
I promise to tell you my story. The whole story. I’ll tell you about a boy in love with Jesus who, at the fateful onset of puberty, realized his sexual attractions were persistently and exclusively for other guys. I’ll tell you how I lay on my bed in the middle of the night and whispered to myself the words I’ve whispered a thousand times since: “I’m gay.”1
I’ll be honest, it was unsettling. I recall the sweltering, southern-summer heat, and the smell of wet pavement as I pressure-washed our dingy garage. I recall the mental turmoil as I wrestled with the grayness that Greg’s honesty uncovered, like the strips of gray left behind by the sweeps of my pressure washer. Sometimes, is the gay meant to stay like those stains in the pavement that no amount of pressure washing would erase? Greg’s honesty insisted that I empathize, and I found my own heart bound up in his struggle with his sexuality, feeling despair right along with him as he tried again and again to conjure normal, heterosexual attraction with no luck whatsoever. What do we tell someone like Greg? Tough luck? You’re too complicated and too gray? In the end, Greg found himself in love with Jesus, unable to explain away the teachings in the Bible about same-sex marriage, and with a persistent attraction to other guys, so he found himself Single, Gay, and Christian:
The calling of gay celibacy is a calling to longing. It’s an admission that our deepest sexual desires can wait for another world, for another life, for another kind of fulfillment. But a life of longing isn’t a life without happiness.2
Frankly, I disagreed with Greg sometimes and was very uncomfortable and cautious almost always. I came away with many more questions than answers, but I understood so much more. Through this friendship and Greg’s book, I first encountered the idea of “gay celibacy” and its “calling to longing.”
The discussion of same-sex attraction is one of desire and longing. One characteristic of mankind that is obvious is our discontentment, which is demonstrated by the rabid way that we scrabble for possessions and recognition. Most creatures eat, mate, and are content, but we search for something beyond just survival because we are looking for God. Blaise Pascal puts it well when he says, in his characteristically systematic way,
What is it then that this desire and this inability proclaim to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present? But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself.3
In essence, he claims that our desires for something more are but expressions and manifestations of our deep and fundamental desire for God. This has very important implications on how we view same-sex attraction. Often, the “solution” to same-sex attraction is believed to be the end of attraction to the same sex and the gaining of the natural attraction between men and women. However, is this truly the goal? In the same way that those who struggle with heterosexual lust cannot merely look to marriage as the fulfillment and end of their brokenness, those who experience homosexual attraction cannot look to heterosexual attraction as the mark of wholeness. The mark of healing and wholeness is a desire for God that overshadows and outburns any lesser desire, and is, in fact, the ultimate fulfillment of our deepest desires.
I’ll admit, sometimes, when I am listening to the stories of those who experience same-sex attraction and have to say “no” to their longings for intimacy, I feel thankfulness welling up in me that I am “normal.” I am grateful for the security of the idea that I can ask a girl out if I fall in love, and that I don’t need to live a lonely, single life. I’m relieved at the recollection that this is not my issue—not my trial, but this relief is a cop-out. The testimonies of those who experience same-sex attraction have taught me that the desire for intimacy with God is all important, and yet in the face of their wrestling to know God, I comfort myself in my heterosexuality. It is as if I awoke to see Jacob wrestling with God and was relieved that I could roll over and go back to sleep. Those who experience same-sex attraction are pressed by emptiness and longing to fulfill their hunger for intimacy in God. Where else can they find the words of life? We, on the other hand, can distract ourselves with our dreams of a “good Christian lifestyle.” Who’s better off?
Same-sex attraction is a weakness. It is brokenness, but, in the words of Jesus, “my strength is made perfect in weakness.” In the emptiness and loneliness of desires that can never be fulfilled, Christ’s strength is revealed. It is trite to tell someone who is struggling with same-sex attraction that God wants to heal them and give them normal, heterosexual desires. The truth is, God wants to heal them and give them Himself. To be sure, there are many people who have experienced a shift in their sexual orientation, and glory be to God. However, there are many, like Greg Coles, who testify that they have not experienced this shift but rather are called to walk the path of longing that leads to the arms of Christ, and glory be to God. The mark of wholeness is not the lack of weakness. It is not a stalwart human who never even encounters a temptation, rather it is the person who runs up against their limits and brokenness often, but takes every temptation as a path to God and a reminder that they desire him the most. I believe that wholeness and holiness can be realized in a person with same-sex attractions who finds in their brokenness the grace to desire God above all else and even uses their unmet longings and desires as avenues to lead them to God daily.
Perhaps you still have concerns. This is good. Wrestle with your questions. However, there are some lines of objections that can be unhelpful and hurtful. Some compare same-sex attraction with pedophilia and ask the question: Do you think it is OK for a someone to be attracted sexually to kids? In one sense, the question is understandable and has some basis, however, it is also a harmful comparison because it seems to imply that same-sex attraction is something dangerous and predatory. The comparison is fitting in that it tries to ensure consistency in how we understand what it means to be transformed and healed, but it is totally wrong to imply any likeness between the predatory threat of pedophiles and someone who is attracted to adults of the same sex. While same-sex attraction and pedophilia are both examples of sexual brokeness, there is a lot of stigma surrounding pedophilia because of its danger to children that must not be equated with same-sex attraction. It is an argument with powerful shock value, but little else.
Also, a rampant misconception is the idea that same-sex attraction is the equivalent to lust. It is assumed that if someone cannot be rid of their same-sex attraction it must mean that they are continually imagining and longing for things that are against God’s design. However, an inclination or attraction is not equal to an active lust. I see no reason why a person with same-sex attraction, called to a life of celibacy, couldn’t live in victory and purity just like a heterosexual Christian called to singlehood. Again, the strength and purity of an individual is not dependent on their natural inclinations, but rather on where they turn in their moments of weakness.
So what effect does this idea have on how we interact with our culture and the gay community? Some could say that accepting the fact that some people may retain their same-sex attraction weakens the church’s stance against homosexual marriage. I don’t believe this is the case. The strongest stand against the sin of homosexual marriage is the proper emphasis of the importance of Christ. The counterpart to the sin of homosexual marriage is not heterosexual marriage and God’s order of one man and one woman, rather it is finding the fundamental fulfillment of our longings in Christ. Once we realize how Christ fulfills our fundamental desires, we can make sense of all our desires as branches from this root. The strongest stand against the errant path of homosexual marriage is the lifting up of Christ who is the way, the truth, and the life. Christ is not a means to heal someone of their homosexual attractions;, rather, he is an end in himself. We look forward to the day when Christ will return because he will set all things right and make all things new, and often, our areas of brokenness and weakness are avenues that lead us to an even deeper hunger for Christ’s return. So often, we beg God to heal us and make us whole so we can live a complete and joyful life, but those who don’t feel lack and hunger often forget God. Rather than merely praying for immediate healing and wholeness, we should pray for Christ and for his return and the day when we will find complete joy and personhood in the presence of Christ.
Finally, We would do well to address the deep and fundamental desires of the LGTBQ+ community, and through this to lead them to Jesus. It is not about being attracted to the opposite sex, rather it is about being attracted to Jesus, following him and his commandments whole heartedly, and allowing him to shape you in the ways he sees best.