A Review of God and The Gay Christian

I got the chance to spend some quality time with Matthew Vines earlier this year at a conference, and it was clear through both our interactions and his writing that Matthew is a sincere man who engages this conversation with grace. Matthew takes Scripture seriously, and he argues for affirmation of same-sex marriage because he truly believes that is the redemptive vision of Scripture and the most loving posture the church can have toward gay people. I want to say from the outset of my review of his book, God and the Gay Christian, that it’s obvious Matthew has been deeply troubled by the way the church has mistreated the gay community, and he feels it can’t reflect God’s heart toward men and women made in His image. I believe he’s correct in that analysis, and while I disagree with his answers to the problem, I believe the church would do well to listen to the concerns he raises because they’re concerns that need to be taken seriously if we’re going to demonstrate love and compassion toward this group of men and women loved by God.

Here is a summary of his main points. He acknowledges these are not new arguments; rather they are previously stated Revisionist arguments that he seeks to make more accessible to a popular audience: Matthew says we now have a more advanced understanding of sexual orientation than they had when the Bible was written. Because we now believe a gay orientation is fixed and unchosen, and the biblical authors were writing to a culture that only understood homosexual behavior in the context of their patriarchal society that viewed gay sex as excessive lust, we have to acknowledge the gap between Scripture’s context and ours, admitting Scripture doesn’t speak to the idea of loving, monogamous same sex relationships. Biblical condemnation of homosexual behavior is primarily related to gender hierarchy in a patriarchal context (rather than gender complementarity), and since we no longer live in such a context then we should reconsider the commands that were written to that specific culture for that specific culture. By imposing the same commands in our current context, the church is mandating celibacy for all gay Christians and forbidding an avenue for them to sanctify their sexuality in the context of a Christian marriage, causing tremendous damage that results in the “bad fruit” of isolation and self-hatred for gay men and women made in the image of God.

With regard to sexual orientation: Matthew is correct that we now tend to categorize individuals as gay or straight and see sexual behavior to be the overflow of their orientation. He says in biblical times homosexual sex typically occurred in addition to one’s heterosexual marriage, that gay sex was an expression of excessive lust, and there was no such thing as an entire group of people with a gay orientation. Rather than running with his assumption that we’ve made progress in our understanding of sexuality, however, I think we should question whether or not we ought to consider sexuality with such rigid categories now. He says the idea of lifelong celibacy sounds like a death sentence to gay people because they have an unchosen orientation that cannot change (and he points to the failure of the ex-gay movement as “evidence” of this), but I’m not sure our modern construct is necessarily correct. Perhaps the story of sexual orientation, were it told to us in different terms that shaped us in different ways, would create space for more of a spectrum and erase the idea of “mandated celibacy for an entire group of people” altogether. Perhaps then, all celibate people would feel a sense of solidarity in pursuing chastity in light of our circumstances as opposed to gay Christians perceiving it as a mandate imposed upon a particular class of people.

Having said that: it is the context we’re in, and we do now think in terms of rigid categories when it comes to sexuality, which does intensify one’s sense of an enduring, unchosen sexual orientation, and can lead one to feel like they’re doomed to a life of failure if they’re never permitted to express it because they belong to a distinct class of people. Matthew raises a good point when he says: “For gay Christians to be celibate in an attempt to expunge even their desires for romantic love requires them to live in permanent fear of sexual intimacy and love. That is a wholly different kind of self-denial than the chastening of lustful desires the church expects of all believers. It requires gay Christians to build walls around their emotional lives so high that many find it increasingly difficult to form meaningful human connections of all kinds” (pg 19). The church has yet to offer a compelling answer to this criticism, and even if our modern way of thinking has caused some of the problem, it is a problem that gay Christians should not be forced to face alone. I don’t believe the challenge of celibacy in light of our context permits a re-imagination of Scripture’s teaching on sexual expression, as the difficulty of obedience (whatever the reason) has never been an occasion to question the command itself, but we need to honestly wrestle with a way forward if gay Christians are going to flourish as sexual and relational beings.

Matthew goes on to claim that condemnation of homosexual behavior in Scripture is related to a patriarchal context that devalued women. Because women were inferior to men, it was degrading for a man to be treated like a woman, which is what occurred in the act of gay sex. He believes Scripture’s condemnation of gay sex is rooted in that rather than considering gay sex sinful because homosexual behavior fails to align with God’s design for sexual expression based on gender complementarity. As I worked through his book, however, I found myself wishing he would interact a little more with the idea that gender complementarity really could be the basis of Scripture’s condemnation of gay sex. He dismisses that notion and says an assumption that Scripture’s commands are rooted in gender complementarity is “speculative”, but he does not substantiate that claim and it seems Matthew’s assumptions are speculative. To say Scripture’s condemnation of homosexual behavior is primarily related to the patriarchal context, and that Paul’s primary concern was excessive lust as opposed to the actual act of gay sex, is conjectural as well—and far-fetched at that. He reiterates time again that the Bible does not explicitly refer to anatomical complementarity in its discussion of sexual expression, but it seems complementarity could be so obvious that the writers of Scripture might not have seen the need to reiterate it every time they discussed sexual ethics. I personally would need more than the hypothetical assertion Matthew makes in order to re-imagine the meaning behind Scripture’s condemnation of gay sex.

matthew-vines_0Because he believes a gay orientation is rather fixed, and because he believes Scripture is not referring to a monogamous loving gay relationship in its condemnation of gay sex, Matthew believes the church is placing an unbearable burden on the backs of gay people by telling them faithful discipleship requires a life of celibacy. He suggests that a Christian marriage is not marked by gender difference, but by a one flesh union, and that gay Christians should not be excluded from this covenantal bond. He makes some emotionally charged arguments that say our choice not to offer the hope of marriage to gay Christians can lead to self-destruction and even suicide, implying that if we care at all about gay Christians living healthy, whole, integrated lives then we have no choice but to broaden our understanding of a Christian marriage.

As a gay Christian who affirms the church’s historical teaching on marriage, I do not agree that changing our understanding of marriage is the way forward for the church. I do agree with Matthew that we need a new way forward, however, because I’ve seen much of the despair he describes firsthand. Matthew supports his claim by sharing some heart-breaking stories of gay Christians who crumbled under the weight of the call to celibacy, and I grieve that some dismiss those stories as irrelevant to the conversation at hand. They are not irrelevant. They’re my friends and they’re people the church has failed. Perhaps the stories are not reasons to shift on theology (as Vines proposes), but the stories do demand us to make tremendous changes when it comes to pastoral care. The few stories he references represent thousands of others who have walked in their shoes, and to the extent that Matthew is seeking to offer hope to those hurting people, I applaud him.

There have been a number of conservative Christians who have refuted Revisionist theology (and are refuting Vines’ work already). I value their theological contribution immensely and believe we need thoughtful people addressing these questions in our current context. But no small number of these individuals dedicate their rebuttals to their wives and children, tearing down Revisionist arguments without adequately addressing the despair of the gay Christians who will never have a family of their own. Addressing Revisionist arguments without acknowledging the despair the arguments are seeking to alleviate leaves gay Christians feeling personally dismissed as quickly as the arguments. Those stories shouldn’t be dismissed.

Gay Christians, Matthew says, “pursue same-sex unions for the same reasons straight Christians pursue opposite-sex unions. They desire intimacy, companionship, and long-term commitment” (pg 109). We gay Christians desire—and need—each of those in order to flourish. Matthew seems to think a sexual relationship is the primary context in which those needs should be met, and I disagree with him on that point. I hope the church will recognize the problems with assuming a shift in theological interpretation that affirms gay sexual relationships is the answer to the concerns Matthew raises. I also hope the church won’t stop there, though, and will listen closely to the claim he’s making that gay Christians feel the need to enter into sexual relationships because they don’t have a place for those needs to be met within the structures we currently have in place in the church. We cannot refuse to meet those needs for intimacy and then chastise gay Christians for seeking to express their love elsewhere. The concerns Matthew raises warrant more than a critical analysis of his claims. I hope the church will listen closely to his concerns and offer a compelling alternative for human flourishing that aligns with the church’s traditional understanding of marriage.

The Human Story is a Sad Story: Reflections on Good Friday

Yesterday morning I read an article where Mark Phelps shared about his experience growing up with an angry and abusive father: Fred Phelps, the founder of Westboro Baptist Church. He said his father “made a practice of abusing his wife and children horribly,” and he reflected on the destruction caused by the hostility. I spent much of the morning trying to imagine his experience as the recipient of hatred in such formative years, and I was grieved for all the children who are (right now) victims of violence from the ones intended to love and nurture them most, and my half understanding heart broke for them.

Later I read that Derek Webb and Sandra McCracken are filing for divorce. It was a simple, humble announcement that marked the end of their 13 year marriage, but I considered the pain packed into that statement. I don’t know their situation, nor do I know what it’s like to be in a marriage that ends, but I thought about the tears, battles, betrayal, and pleas for reconciliation that inevitably cycle for years before they culminate in a final separation. I don’t know the loneliness of passing sleepless nights vowing not to roll to the middle of the bed because your skin might touch the stranger you once swore you’d love forever.

I thought about Kay Warren’s recent interview on grieving the death of her son who took his life a little over a year ago. “Trauma changes you,” she said. “I can’t go back to who I was.” I thought about those who experience (or have loved ones who experience) severe mental illness that is absolutely crippling. I wondered what it must be like to feel misunderstood and alienated from the very ones who are desperately trying to understand and share in the pain. All of it reminded me of the poignant words I read in another piece about grief and mental illness: “No one brings you dinner when your daughter is an addict.” It’s true, too; a family can crumble to pieces because of a condition that no one chose and wounds no one intentionally inflicted. Meanwhile, the outside world bustles through the streets with delight while inside the house hearts shatter. No one knows about the suicide attempts, the blame, the fear, the sense of guilt, the “what could we have done differently?” that occurs behind closed doors.

reflections on Christ - crucifixionThe human story is a sad story. I try to wrap my mind around these stories wrought with heartache, but I can’t fully empathize with their despair. I don’t know what it was like to be in their unique situations, experiencing the particularities of their pain. I know what my own encounters with tragedy have felt like, but I know that empathizing with another person can only go so far. As much as others cared about my pain, and as comforting as it was when they sat beside me, I know others didn’t fully understand the depth of my heartbreak and I don’t fully understand theirs. The human story can be a lonely story, because as rich as community can be and as healing as relationships most definitely are, we close our eyes when we lie down at night knowing there are limitations to being known and understood by someone outside our skin.

The human story is a sad story, but the Christian story is a triumphant story that redeems and transforms the grief in the most unfathomably glorious way. We have a Savior who set aside equality with God in order to take on human flesh and shine hope into our suffering. That doesn’t gloss over the grief but it speaks directly into the grief and says: “This, too, can be mended.” Christ’s triumph over death doesn’t mean we act like life’s a carnival when our hearts are torn to shreds, but it says resurrection happens and hope is a reality that transcends the suffering whether we feel it’s true or not. I can’t fully empathize with Mark Phelps’ experience, but Jesus Christ can, and Jesus has transformed Mark into a gracious man with a soft heart and a powerful testimony of Christ’s rescue. I don’t know the loneliness of a broken marriage—much less the judgment one must feel under the magnifying glass of unforgiving outsiders—but Jesus knows. He knows the heartbreak and the loneliness amidst the ones who vowed to have his back. He came to share in our sufferings and refused to escape the pain because He sees, He knows, and He loves.

There’s no way around it: each of us grieves. On this Good Friday, however, we’re reminded that we don’t grieve alone. We don’t grieve as those who are without hope. Because Jesus came to dwell among us and died the death we all deserved, we have hope in the middle of the darkest night. The human story is a sad story, but the Christian story is a triumphant story that says there’s hope for you wherever you are, and restoration is in motion no matter the depth of your despair.

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.