The Freedom to Love

Cross-posted from Spiritual Friendship

When many of my friends moved toward a theology that affirms gay sexual relationships, they did so because they grew weary of saying “no” to love. Several of them described an experience where they were fully committed to the church’s traditional teaching on sexual ethics when they grew to deeply love someone of the same sex. They remained chaste for a season and prayed for direction, then eventually sensed the Lord saying: You’re free to love.

While many Christians considered their shift an act of rebellion—a plunge into sin—they saw it as the only path to love and intimacy. They recognized that “It’s not good for man to be alone,” and they longed to serve the one they love, share their lives with the one they love, and mutually draw energy from that love to better serve those around them. Many felt like the traditional ethic required them to cut off fundamental aspects of being human in order to be chaste: they felt saying “no” to sexual relationships meant saying “no” to love, and that saying “no” to love meant saying “no” to any intimacy, and that saying “no” to intimacy meant saying “no” to feelings altogether, which eventually led to detachment and isolation. The burden felt unbearable.

To be honest, I sympathize with this response and feel it in my soul. I believe church teaching to be true, but the practical application of the theology often creates a division between the head and the heart that we intuitively know not to be good. It seems the problem is less related to theology than with the way it’s applied to gay people in many Christian communities. We tend to be fearful that if people open their hearts to love then they’re inevitably going to have sex. I know when I’ve had feelings of affection for other women, Christians have often bolted me with questions about those affections: Were they appropriate feelings? Did I have inappropriate thoughts about her? Was it the result of a deficiency in me that I was using her to fill? Was it actually enmeshment masking itself as love? What boundaries had we put in place? Were we watching how much time we spent together? Were we spending time together primarily in groups? Were we open to accountability to ensure we remained free from stumbling?

The underlying message was that if I didn’t place myself and the relationship under a microscope, inviting others to peer through with a critical eye, then there was a good chance it was a broken sort of love that would naturally end in sex. Gay sex. Lots of gay sex. While I appreciate the accountability and want to be encouraged to love well, it often comes off as more fear-based rather than helpful. Eventually many feel they’re better off avoiding love and intimacy altogether rather than risking the sex and the microscope. Many then shut down. Many lock their love away. Many manage to be chaste by managing not to love at all.

Christian theology values love, friendship and intimate connection in a way that probably pushes the boundaries of what many are comfortable with in our modern context (think David and Jonathan). When my friends have heard they’re free to love, I believe it was because they’re truly free to love. The question is whether or not love = sex, and unfortunately we live in a society where deeply sharing life with another person primarily occurs within a union that points toward marriage. So when many decide they’re free to love, they believe the path of love to be a sexual relationship or one that leads to gay marriage.

However, that doesn’t seem like the only response one can have to the realization that we’re free to love. Jesus told us to love our neighbors, but I can’t imagine He meant to have sex with our neighbors. He told us to love our enemies, but obviously didn’t mean to have sex with our enemies. 1 John says we’ll be known by our love for one another, and we realize that doesn’t mean we’ll be known by our sexing with one another. It’s not unreasonable, though, for Christians to feel like love and intimacy naturally progress into sexual expression when the primary place we see love celebrated in the church is through romantic relationships that lead to marriage.

In many ways we’ve affirmed the idea that love = sex by freaking out about sex when one opens up to love. Rather than freaking out about sex, we could begin to elevate the myriad manifestations of love that we’ve often devalued in our modern context. We could explore what it looks like to press into intimacy, affection, and self-giving love in a way that recognizes the risks of isolation are greater than the risks of relationship. This would offer gay people the freedom to love and allow the church to be a greater witness to the surrounding culture: that we are, indeed, a people rooted and built upon love, and that we affirm the expression of rich intimacy through non-sexual relationships just as much as we value marriage. Then when gay Christians feel deep love for someone of the same sex, it won’t be an occasion for shame and despair that potentially leads to a departure from orthodoxy; rather, an occasion for celebration.

I believe Christians who express concern about the nature of a gay person’s affections are well-intentioned and often wise. You want to encourage us in our quest to be chaste. But I long for Christians to acknowledge that just like love does not equal sex, chastity does not equal a rejection of love and intimacy. We need room to discern how chastity and intimacy hold hands. If gay Christians continue to feel like Christian theology requires a denial of love and suppression of affection, then many will continue to depart from orthodoxy when the isolation becomes unbearable. Thankfully, the denial of love is the result of application rather than theology, so we can prayerfully explore what it looks like to recover a robust expression of love between two people.

Living with Love and Conviction

When there’s an explosion in the culture war, I tend to encourage people to remember those they’re talking about are real human beings with stories, passions, dreams, and good intentions. The culture wars take a toll on us gay Christians. Controversial news will break, and my friends and I see the hurricane gaining momentum way out in the ocean. We know what’s coming and there’s nothing we can do about it. We know we’ll hear countless cold, calloused, heartless statements from those we consider family, and we’ll feel misplaced and misunderstood no matter where we land in the gay debate. We’ll call each other and occasionally joke about it for respite, but we know we’ll lose sleep the next few nights while we wonder if we belong. We all feel it: I feel it as a celibate gay Christian, and my friends who believe God blesses same sex relationships feel it the same.

I didn’t write that post this time though. Instead, I said I was uneasy about World Vision’s decision and that I’m concerned about the growing number of churches who are shifting on their beliefs about marriage. While my heart weighed a hundred pounds as I heard how betrayed my gay friends felt, and my face burned when I read reactions from many Christians, and I did that thing I never do where I was laughing at a joke and then burst into tears—I wrote about marriage.

World Vision’s decision and reversal was not about gay people—it was about gay marriage. Richard Stearns says in this interview that World Vision doesn’t discriminate based on orientation and that he’s aware there are probably a number of people on staff with gay orientations. They are (and have been)  happy to have gay people on staff as long as they seek to live in accordance with Scripture and church teaching—just like straight people. While the nature of the response from many conservative Christians was unjustifiable, I don’t believe the reasonable ones were expressing disdain for gay people. I think it was concern about marriage and sexual ethics. It seems important to acknowledge that World Vision is not rejecting gay people or deeming us unworthy to serve the poor; they are calling all Christians (regardless of orientation) to live in accordance with Scripture and church teaching when it comes to choices and behavior. It seems that distinction was lost in much of the conversation, and it’s an important distinction.

But the decision about marriage turned into a debate about people as well, and many were hurt or misunderstood in the process. It was painful to read harsh words from some Christians and I was sad that anyone saw any of the events this week as a “win”. No one won this week. Reconciliation and relationship are at the heart of the Gospel, so if we’re screaming and fighting and literally tearing one another apart then we all lose. However, many (though not all) Christians who were concerned about WV’s decision weren’t rejecting gay people. They weren’t saying gay people (married or single) are unworthy to serve the poor. They weren’t relegating gay people to second class status and they weren’t using impoverished children as pawns in a power play. Many soft-hearted, compassionate Christians—who care deeply about gay people all over the spectrum—recognize Christian teaching about marriage is important.

photo-2I’m concerned that those who align with church teaching and express those convictions are often seen as harsh and unloving even when they gush grace and compassion. They’re often seen as hateful bigots because they believe God has shown us how to live and that aligning with His way brings about His glory and our ultimate good. I know they receive push back for simply believing as they do because I’m often maligned for holding that view and it comes at a high price for me personally. I don’t hold these convictions because I want gay people to settle for less; I am a gay person and know full well what it means. But the standard set in place by the church (and in this case World Vision) don’t discriminate against gay people. They set forth the guidelines that we can choose to follow on the path of discipleship or we can choose not to follow, in which case it seems we remove ourselves from the community, not the other way around.

Having said that: Christian community, you need to know this sometimes feels impossible. You need to know there are days when the weight of saying no to a special someone to come home to feels suffocating for some. We’ve got longings for love and intimacy just like you, and the idea of submitting our sexuality to God day in and day out for the rest of our lives can feel weighty as we wonder if the church will pull through to offer intimate community to us. We won’t walk this path perfectly. Some might decide they can’t do it at all. All of us will go through seasons when we run off the rails. We need you to consider the lived reality of this experience. Every single one of my close gay Christian friends have lost countless nights of sleep as they’ve sought God’s face with tears, and I hope you will enter in and bear that burden alongside them in tangible ways for the long haul. I’m glad Christians are concerned about theology, and I’m grateful the church cares about marriage, but I hope your heart breaks over the pain gay people felt this week as well. Christian doctrine can’t be divorced from practice, and the doctrine demands more than speaking the truth in love; it demands us to love with our lives.

 

World Vision: The Decision, Reactions, and Implications

World Vision announced yesterday in an interview with Christianity Today that they’ve made a policy change that will allow gay people in legal same-sex marriages to be employed in the U.S. office. Richard Stearns, World Vision’s U.S. president, said it’s not an endorsement of same-sex marriage; rather, it’s a move toward unity. CT summed it up this way:

In short, World Vision hopes to dodge the division currently “tearing churches apart” over same-sex relationships by solidifying its long-held philosophy as a parachurch organization: to defer to churches and denominations on theological issues, so that it can focus on uniting Christians around serving the poor.

If you’ve read many of the reactions to the decision, you probably sense that World Vision hasn’t “dodged the division” currently tearing Christians apart: it’s placed them on center stage of the culture war. I won’t quote and link to various articles because I’m not interested in singling anyone out, but I can’t help feeling uneasy about the decision, the reactions, and the implications.

The decision: we need to recognize this is a complicated situation. While it does seem like World Vision is taking a stance rather than remaining neutral, I realize it must be difficult to maintain a code of conduct that excludes men and women in a same-sex marriages from employment when both the state and many churches recognize it as right and good. It’s hard to say the “Christian position” is one that forbids same-sex marriage when entire denominations affirm it.

I’m grieved by that. I’m not grieved by World Vision’s decision as much as I’m grieved by the number of churches and denominations who are shifting so quickly on their beliefs about marriage. Stearns likens the debate about gay marriage to theological debates about evolution, women in leadership, and whether or not one was “dunked or sprinkled”. Unfortunately he’s only likening it to those because a large portion of the church has led the way. Scripture speaks much more severely about sexual sin than about the exact manner in which we baptize believers, and I’m grieved to see many churches rapidly shifting on foundational Christian beliefs as if they’re peripheral issues. Marriage and sexual sin are not peripheral issues.

World Vision’s situation is complicated because the church is in a bind. We need to pray for the church, pray for the leaders of various denominations, and encourage pastors to address these questions thoughtfully, with humility, and with a practical plan to provide pastoral care to the gay (or same sex attracted) people in their congregation. We don’t need more churches rapidly shifting theological positions on this topic; we need more churches slowly considering theology in our modern context and rapidly moving to action to provide pastoral care where there’s been marginalization.

The Reactions: I’m concerned by the way Christians on both sides have reduced the decision to whether or not others do or don’t care about the Bible, and do or don’t care about starving children. Many conservatives have reacted as if World Vision is throwing out truth altogether and caving to the culture. I don’t think this decision implies that World Vision is disregarding the Bible altogether, even if they do seem to be disregarding some fundamental points about marriage and sexual ethics. They are continuing to build their ministry on the Great Commission and the Great Commandment—they’re clearly concerned with some of the central points in Scripture.

I’ve been equally concerned by many progressive Christians who want to say those who disagree with World Vision’s decision do not care about starving children around the world. The church has affirmed marriage between a man and a woman since Jesus walked the earth, so it’s understandable that many Christians would be very concerned about redefining marriage. That’s a question about marriage and sexual sin; it’s not a question of whether or not concerned Christians care about the poor. Even if Christians have pulled funding from World Vision over this decision, they will likely choose to fund another Christian organization (whose policies align with their doctrine) in order to care for the poor. It’s disconcerting to see how quickly a Christian position that affirms marriage between a man and a woman is suddenly turned into a position that’s perceived as hateful toward gay people and dismissive of starving children.

WorldVision-LogoThe Implications: I’m concerned that other organizations will follow World Vision’s lead. The CT article ends with Stearns saying he hopes the decision will “inspire unity” among other organizations, which (in my mind) means “inspire a shift on this position”. I don’t think unity moving forward means supporting same-sex marriage while Scripture, tradition, and the global church do not support that shift. The reactions to the decision alone show that “unity” has not occurred; a shift in who supports them has occurred.

The polarization we see in reaction to decisions like this demonstrate that, perhaps, total unity can’t entirely exist among those who disagree on some of these fundamental principles. Beliefs about marriage, the Bible, and sexual ethics are too central to Christian doctrine for those who disagree to hold hands and serve side by side as if they’re minor, peripheral issues. If they were peripheral issues then we wouldn’t be in this predicament. At the same time, deeply valuing and respecting those we disagree with is essential moving forward, and many of the responses I’ve read have not shown kindness or respect. All of us, regardless of which side we come down on, need to humble ourselves, seek to understand where others are coming from, and demonstrate love toward one another. Not only is it necessary since there will be deeper divisions and disagreements in the future, but it’s important because the people one disagrees with are deeply loved by God.

 

On Holidays from Discipleship

Based on what you read here on the blog, you might assume my biggest struggles are related to my sexuality. You might think they’re tied to growing up gay in conservative churches that didn’t always discuss homosexuality in the most gracious terms. Those have been enormous struggles in my life, and I won’t downplay the fears, insecurities, and complications that arise in stumbling toward a life of submitting my sexuality to God. But most of the struggles surrounding my sexuality are just a manifestation of my biggest struggle. Since I only write about my own life to the extent that I think it’s relevant to others’ lives, and to the extent that it creates an opportunity to discuss more important things, I thought I’d write about the big struggle behind everything else—one that many of you likely share.

In his absolutely delightful memoir, A Severe Mercy (a book that balances beauty and tragedy so perfectly you can’t help but feel it’s actually honest), Sheldon Vanauken nails it:

“…though I wouldn’t have admitted it, even to myself, I didn’t want God aboard. He was too heavy. I wanted Him approving from a considerable distance. I didn’t want to be thinking of Him. I wanted to be free—like Gypsy. I wanted life itself, the color and fire and loveliness of life. And Christ now and then, like a loved poem I could read when I wanted to. I didn’t want us to be swallowed up in God. I wanted holidays from the school of Christ.”

Holidays from the way of Christ, free like a gypsy, a god I could craft in my own image—approving of whatever I wanted from a considerable distance—that’s the God I wanted. I wanted the prayer and songs and warm fuzzy Holy Spirit moments without the weight of the commands and the call to costly obedience. This has been true with regard to my sexuality, of course, but it’s also been true when it comes to how I spend my time, how I spend my money, obedience in the small things, and the overall posture of my heart. My life has been one giant struggle of slow submission to a God who’s The Ultimate Big—the Lord of my life—and not someone I put in my pocket for the times I feel like pulling Him out to play.

Sometimes it surfaces when I want to date, flirt, and feel normal for a little bit. I’ll find myself thinking, “God, why do I have to struggle with something that I’m constantly reminded of by simply existing in a world where couples always look so adorable? How am I supposed to sublimate This Feeling Right Now when it seems totally counterintuitive and impossible?” But it usually surfaces in small situations. We’re called to a life of humbling ourselves, considering others more significant than ourselves. We’re here to worship and serve with every area of our lives, not to be worshipped and to be served, and that’s a real buzz kill in a culture that says our lives are all about personal happiness, self-fulfillment, making money, receiving recognition, and accidentally looking super sexy all the time.

Disciple Making Church-backgroundIt was a real buzz kill to find the call to discipleship comes on God’s terms, not mine. In Scripture it came with messages like: “Come and die” and “Leave everything and follow me” and “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” Sometimes it came in small practical ways like, “Stay up and pray with me,” when disciples wanted to sleep. Sometimes it came in seemingly absurd ways like, “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor,” a reminder to give up That Thing one holds dearest so Christ can take that place. There’s no way around it: following Christ is an ongoing submission to an authority that places demands on our lives. At first glance, that seems burdensome, like something I couldn’t live into without a begrudging spirit.

But the reason I’m living into this slow submission—the reason I say no to the “holidays” that sound so alluring—is because I found the authority who places demands on my life is actually a loving Father. I’ve learned He’s out for our good more than we are, that He knows how we’ll flourish more than we do. He adopted us into His family, He came to earth to be with us, He looked at us in the middle of our mess and essentially said: “I want you right now, just the way you are.” It’s God’s kindness that leads to repentance. It’s His love that constrains us. And when I consider His kindness, when I think of His love, I no longer want Him approving at a considerable distance and I don’t want the holidays from His way: I want to lose my life and find it in Him. I want more of Him, to know Him, to experience intimacy with Him no matter the cost. It’s much easier to submit to His ways (even when it doesn’t make sense to me in the moment) when I truly believe He sees from a perspective that I don’t, and that He’s for redemption and restoration more than I am.

Obviously this an ongoing struggle, but the longer I live into it, the more I’ve acquired a sort of redemptive memory. I can reflect on ways God’s proven Himself to be faithful when I was conflicted and almost positive I knew best. I look back and see the hand of a loving Father guiding me, protecting me, being worthy of my trust even when it seemed like trusting was sure death. And it becomes a joy to submit, to trust, to make Him the Lord of my life when I know He’s the kind of Lord who gave His life for mine.

Reflections on Foundations (or identities)

Cross-posted from Spiritual Friendship

Jesus brings the Sermon on the Mount to a close with this illustration:

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. Matthew 7:24-27

Jesus lays out what’s of vital importance for His followers to understand: What you build your life upon matters, and what you do matters. The foundation upon which we’re built will shape our convictions and values, which determine what kinds of people we become. When I think about the foundation a person is built upon, I often think about identity. An identity is what internally sets someone apart from others—what defines a person—and it often says something about their values and convictions. It’s how we say to ourselves and others: “this is who I am,” and Jesus seems to be saying that if “who we are” is rooted in anything other than Him and His teaching, then (like the foolish man) we’re building our lives on sand.

Toward the end of my time speaking with Exodus, I started publicly saying I was “gay”. I didn’t plan on using that label to describe my experience, but it came out because I was honestly sharing my heart, and honestly sharing about my experience involved saying I have a really gay orientation. It made sense to use the label most commonly used for ongoing, persistent same-sex attractions to describe my ongoing, persistent same-sex attractions: gay. I would discuss how I previously focused on my sexuality to the neglect of focusing on Christ in two ways: 1.) by finding my identity in my sexuality and re-imagining Scripture in a way that affirmed gay sexual expression, and 2.) by placing my hope in becoming heterosexual with the prosperity-Gospel-leaning “healing” message so I could one day live into the romance narrative that is less about Christ and more about the removal of uncomfortable tension here on earth. I shared about being a celibate gay Christian with an identity in Christ, who’s built upon the foundation of Christ, entirely rooted in the way of Christ, with my hope in the fullness of redemption that will culminate with Christ’s return.

I was surprised to find that, suddenly, I started getting push back from many Christians. Many have latched onto the “gay” part when I use that adjective to describe my same-sex attractions, and they’ve been concerned that I (or others like me) am claiming a gay identity. They’ve expressed concern that I’m “defining myself by my sin”. I always listen closely when people approach me about it because the thing that defines us (the foundation upon which we build our sense of self) is going to be the driving force of countless other choices we make. It’s where we’ll find our sense of meaning, value, and purpose, so I want to be corrected if I ever begin to define myself by my sexuality.

What I always come back to is this: there’s a distinction between an identity and a label that’s helpful in describing my experience. We use words to communicate our experiences so we’re more fully known and more intimately connected, and “celibate gay Christian” has sometimes been helpful for me. It communicates that I don’t experience heterosexual attractions, so I don’t feel like I’m lying by omission since people otherwise assume I’m straight. It also clarifies that orientation change hasn’t been my experience and it isn’t the goal of a Christian—Christ-likeness is the goal. And I find one of the most valuable reasons to use the term is this: young people in the church who find themselves attracted to the same sex typically think to themselves “I’m gay”. I want them to know being gay doesn’t have to entail a departure from Scripture and church teaching on this topic. I want them to know there are others who are also “gay” who have submitted their sexuality to Christ as they follow Him on the path of discipleship.

None of those things are related to a gay identity though, and I want to be clear about that because I think it’s dangerous for Christians to place our identity in anything other than Christ. The entirety of who I am is built upon what Christ has done (or at least that’s my aim and prayer). The redemptive narrative that runs throughout Scripture is where I find hope, value, and meaning, and my identity is one of an adopted child who was rescued by Jesus. Every term I use to communicate some aspect of my experience—introvert, laid back, sister, writer, runner, gay—is simply a term used to describe part of my experience as a child of God situated in a specific way in the world.

The question of identity seems important not just for gay Christians to consider, but for all Christians to seriously consider on an ongoing basis. I know many Christians who are not being confronted about where they find their identity—what they’re building their life upon—because they’re straight, well-behaved, well-adjusted men and women. But in a competitive, image-driven culture, it can be easy for someone to find their identity in their work, in their accomplishments, in their appearance, in the success of their children. Without realizing it and without using a label, we can slowly start to find our value and purpose in countless things other than Christ. We begin to forget why we’re here—to know God and glorify Him—and we’re swallowed up in approval-seeking, people-pleasing, never-ending cycles to prove that we matter. And great will be the fall of that house. 

The language we use to describe our experience matters in the sense that language does shape the way we think about ourselves, and if we don’t know what we’re doing with words then words can do something with us. But the language we use to describe our experience is less important than moment-by-moment worship of God, placing Him at the center of all our thoughts and affections. I’ve come to be grateful that I’m so often questioned about my identity because it causes me to continually reflect on whether or not I really am building my life upon Christ and Christ alone. It helps me keep everything else in check, and to be prayerful about whether or not my affections are properly ordered.

It would, however, be helpful for all of us  (gay or straight) to regularly reflect on what we point to internally for a sense of meaning and purpose and identity. If we find that we’re crushed by someone else’s low opinion of us, or we’re in knots over whether or not we receive recognition for our work, or we’re exhausted in our efforts to fit the image of attractive and successful in our culture, then we’re missing it in a way that breaks the heart of God and it will eventually break us. We’re missing it regardless of what words we use to describe that experience. But if, by the Spirit of God, we’re careful to build our lives upon Him and we see that demonstrated through a life of doing what He says, then we can be confident that our Father in Heaven is glorified in us and that He’ll be faithful to display His beauty through us.

Experiencing Theories of Causation

Yoweri Museveni recently based his decision to sign the bill outlawing homosexual expression in Uganda on the fact that he understood homosexuality to be largely influenced by environmental factors. If homosexuality could be proven to be genetic, then he said he would consider not signing the bill. But if research pointed to the environment, then he believed they could make changes in the environment to suppress homosexuality.  I personally don’t understand how proof that it’s caused by environmental factors would mean it can be eradicated, as it seems clear that people don’t choose their orientation either way, and that homosexual desires have been present among some people in most cultures throughout history, but aside from that: the research doesn’t seem nearly as clear as he concluded.

That got me thinking about how this idea—that homosexuality is the result of childhood wounds or societal influence—is predominate in many Christian circles as well, and it often leads to different problems. I’m not an expert here, but scientists who have devoted their lives to these questions say the research indicates that a gay orientation is likely caused by a number of factors. Both biology and the developmental process likely influence a person’s sexual orientation, and the extent to which one is more influential than the other probably differs from person to person, as sexuality is so layered and complex.

I’m not too concerned with where it comes from, but I am concerned about what people often do with the assumption that it’s strictly caused by one source or the other. For instance, many want to say that if we can prove it’s the result of biology, then we will have no choice but to affirm gay sexual relationships. That doesn’t ring true to me because we’re all born with desires that are (in some way) to be redirected toward a proper end. The Fall affects every area of our lives—including biology—and we all experience the world in a manner that reflects the fracture. Etiology doesn’t speak to ethics here, and questions of how to express our sexuality should be separate from questions of causation.

At the same time, perhaps partially as a reaction to the claim that if it’s genetic then affirmation of gay sexual expression is the only reasonable response, many Christians rely heavily on developmental theories. It’s common for folks to attribute gay attractions to a complicated childhood relationship with the same sex parent, or to sexual abuse, or to a culture that celebrates unrestrained sexual liberty. Those kinds of experiences influence the way any person experiences the world, no doubt, but many straight people were sexually abused and many gay people were not. Many straight people had verbally abusive same sex parents and many gay people felt warm attachments to both parents.

I think it’s helpful for everyone to examine childhood experiences to consider ways they affect us now, but problems arise when people assume that if a gay orientation was caused by childhood wounds, then we can work through the “root causes” and experience a straight outcome. My experience actually fits rather neatly into the developmental theory. I was filled with hope when I first heard it because I concluded that if my orientation was caused by these wounds then I could work through them, find healing, and experience a diminishment in my attraction to women. I dove into an inner healing curriculum and returned for three rounds of it, spent seven years in various support groups and five years in therapy. I’ve examined, journaled, processed, and prayed through my childhood wounds enough to have earned a doctorate degree in My Childhood Wounds—and I still like women.

I’m grateful for the years of examination because I’m more well-adjusted and my relationships are significantly healthier, but my orientation is still directed toward women. Many of my straight girl friends had stories similar to mine growing up, and after years of examining their issues, they’re more well-adjusted and have healthier relationships, but their orientation is still directed toward men. When we bring baggage into adolescence or adulthood, it’s good to work through that baggage, but we run into serious problems—false promises followed by dashed hopes—when we assume a shift in orientation will follow healing. We also run into serious problems when we impose a theory on a gay person who didn’t experience the assumed root causes. I can’t tell you how many incredible dads have been strangled by shame when they were led to believe they caused their son to be gay.

12019676-question-mark-chalkboard-blackboard-questions-and-question-marks-written-half-erased-on-green-chalkWhat’s important to understand is this: regardless of where it comes from, a gay orientation isn’t chosen and it’s likely not going to change. If there has been dysfunction in a family system, it’s good to seek reconciliation and greater intimacy with other family members. This will lead to deeper bonds within the family and greater health and well-being for the gay person, but they’ll probably still be attracted to the same sex. This doesn’t need to lead to hopelessness, however, because the Christian hope was never about heterosexual attraction; the hope is to be renewed from the inside out and bring glory to God in all our endeavors.

I’m grateful scholars study questions of etiology, but I think the church would do well to focus more on the question: How should we play the hand we’ve been dealt? Regardless of how we got here, we have choices about the nature of our relationships, the way we allow our minds to wander, and what aspects of our experiences we choose to form our identities around. While we might not be able to choose who we’re attracted to, we can choose how we’re going to express it. Gay and straight people alike are on level ground when it comes to misdirected desires and choices of how to honor God with our sexuality, and it’s been helpful for me to move past the idea of “fixing” the gay so I can focus more on flourishing in friendship and finding a family in the church.

If you or those you love are sifting through all the information about causation and you find developmental theories helpful in highlighting areas you might need to further explore, I think good things can come out of that journey. Like I said: I’m grateful for many of the things I learned during the process because I have experienced tremendous healing—that healing just looks different than I anticipated. If you’re a father or son with a strained relationship, then I hope the revelations will encourage you to work through issues and grow in intimacy with one another. I hope you’ll approach it with an open mind, however, doing it for the sake of love and intimacy with one another instead of an assumption that it will lead to a shift in orientation. Maybe you will experience some degree of shift in attraction, but I hesitate to say that because it’s rather rare and it seems to surprise those who experience it rather than being achieved as an expected outcome. A little humility about what we do and don’t know, and a sense of openness to what will or won’t happen, will hopefully minimize the potential for shame and disappointment among those on the journey.

To Consider the Story of A Ugandan

Imagine you’re a young boy with a future filled with potential. Every morning you open your eyes, stare at your siblings, then spring out of bed for the routine race to see who can get dressed the fastest. After finishing a few chores, you gather your books and head out the door to the schoolhouse that feels like a second home. Along the way, you run into your best friends and the little pack of you argue about who won the soccer match yesterday (and who was disqualified for cheating).

You file into school, slip into your desk, and take to learning math, reading, and writing. You look forward to art after lunch because you can break rules and use colors, creating a finished piece that makes you proud—a piece that says “I love you” when you hand it to mom after school. You dream of living into a story like the ones you read in novels; you dream of becoming a hero. You dream of using your gifts to help your family financially, to serve a stranger in crisis, to bring freedom and peace to those who feel lost and alone.

Somewhere around middle school you find yourself enjoying soccer games in new ways. You find yourself keenly aware of the moments when you’re untangling with other boys after a rough tackle. Hoping the affection can last a little longer, you slowly arise, feeling a rush of excitement when another boy offers his hand to pull you up. You spring forward when he pulls, just to fall into his chest as you balance. When boys begin commenting about girls’ bodies, you find yourself unimpressed, wondering what they see that you don’t.

Somewhere in the next few years, you find yourself sexually aroused as you lie in bed remembering moments of laughter with your best buddy that day. You panic and pray to God to make it go away. You pray that prayer day in and day out, week in and week out, until your prayer shifts from “make it go away” to “don’t let them find out”. Suddenly your feelings on the soccer field make more sense. You’re different. You’ve always been different. And eventually you learn that the thing that makes you different is a thing that needs to be hidden. It needs to be hidden, covered up, lied about and denied for fear that someone will discover your secret.

After years of faking attraction you didn’t feel for girls, years of fearing boys are suspicious—years of isolation, loneliness, and prayers that felt pointless—you meet another man who speaks your language. You meet a guy who holds eye contact in a way others don’t, a guy who shares your interests and (it seems) desires. The moment of honesty arises and—for the first time in your life—you feel known. The two of you share a story that you were previously positive you alone were living into, and the shared language leads to behavior (perhaps rather innocent behavior) that strengthens the bond you feel with one another. It’s intoxicating. It confirms your fears yet brings hope that you’re not that different after all; you’re not alone.

UgandaAfter a few years of maturity and an introduction to the real world, you encounter others with similar stories. Hundreds of men have that thing that made them feel different, yet when you all come together you sense you belong. Still questioning, still confused, still unsure of what it means for your future: you seek to live an honest life, where you’re safe and known and loved.

Then the government signs a bill that can put you in prison for the rest of your life if you’re caught in a sexual act with another man. You face imprisonment if you’re caught simply touching another man with the intent of something more unfolding. Not only are you facing possible imprisonment for touching another man, but those who know about you are liable if they’ve supported you in expressing your sexuality in a manner the officials deem criminal. Perhaps you’re even pursuing chastity, but very few people have gone their entire lives without ever touching another person in a semi-sexual way (even a simple slip-up).

Your only option is to hide in fear because (if they discover your secret) they’ll watch you with your friends, watch you when you hug, watch you enter homes and note how long you linger. You’ll feel they’re coming after you because they are coming after you, and no one can be your advocate because they’ll be liable as well. The most you can hope for is to become invisible, to never be seen, to never be known. Human beings made in the image of God—seen and loved by God—likely longing to be erased from the universe.

Christians: Use your voice for the men and women who are persecuted. We’re to be set apart as a community that cares for the vulnerable—to seek justice and to love mercy. May we pray fervently for those who are unjustly oppressed and support those who spend their lives there in service. There was an uproar over Chick-Fil-A and Duck Dynasty; may there be an uproar about Uganda.