Are struggles with same-sex attraction uniquely different from other struggles?

Wesley Hill begs this question by what he writes in his book, Washed and Waiting. Hill is an evangelical believer who has chosen celibacy as the biblically faithful response of someone struggling with same-sex attraction. His reflections bring God’s Word to bear on his own situation, and they provide us with ways to think about the issue by faith.

So is his sexual struggle different from the sexual struggle of a person with opposite sex attractions? I think there are two ways of answering the question.

Yes—culturally speaking.

The church has been slow to address the issue of believers who are seeking to be faithful to Christ but feel attracted to the same sex. Instead, the church has often spoken judgmentally about homosexuality in a way that drives these believers underground. So those who are tempted in this way feel alone in their struggles and dare not come to the church community for support, prayer, and intimacy. Even in churches that have been more open about helping those who struggle, strugglers fear being stigmatized or labeled, causing them to avoid relationship with others. Also, if someone comes forward for help, church members really aren’t sure what their response should be. The church can be a lonely place for the person who struggles with same-sex attraction, so the temptation to withdraw from fellowship is high, which only moves them closer to acting on their temptations. The unprepared church provides no hope for change or healing for the struggler.

No—biblically speaking.

The Bible speaks about homosexuality in the same way that it talks about adultery, thievery, abuse of alcohol, greed, and slander:

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, ESV).

All sin can be forgiven in Jesus Christ. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). All sinful temptations can be addressed by the gospel. Most of us struggle with some particularly strong temptation all of our lives, often leading to hopelessness. The temptations do not have to be sexual. But for many, sexual temptation is a powerful reality, and it can drive someone into an experience of enslavement. The process that leads us into sinful behavior—of which we may not be aware initially—is the same for all sin according to James. “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:13-15).

Our desires drive us to believe that the sin will provide something advantageous for us—maybe in a way we don’t believe God can. The solution to change is also the same for all sin. As we develop a deeper relationship with Christ, our desires are transformed, moving from sinful desire to the godly desire of knowing Christ and living by his Spirit (Romans 8:1-6). These desires can always be fulfilled. So temptation can diminish and lose its controlling power as we move toward Christ in community with other believers.

Hill reflects on the uniqueness of same-sex attraction for a believer in the church, while calling us back to the answer for all sin struggles. Is it harder for the struggler with same-sex attraction? Yes and no.

Part 1., Part 2., Part 3.

Updated 5.5.2017

The loneliness of the celibate life

Remaining faithful to Christ while experiencing same-sex attraction can produce a profound loneliness resulting from a celibate life. This is a theme that runs throughout Washed and Waiting by Wesley Hill. Since he sees little hope that his attractions will change and views heterosexual marriage as the only biblically faithful marriage, he is destined to a life of singleness. Isn’t this the worst kind of loneliness?

The book’s conclusion makes a very strong case that the celibate person does not need to be hopeless or lonely. But I have heard the hopelessness contained in the above hypothesis before. Isn’t the Christian with same-sex attraction condemned to a life of loneliness in a way the Christian with heterosexual desires is not? Aren’t they trapped with little or no prospect for future intimacy? Won’t they always be frustrated in relationships, especially when they feel that their ‘natural’ sexual attraction is forbidden by faith?

We all can empathize with Hill in his book. All of us, at some point in our lives, have been lonely, even profoundly lonely. Most single men have at least thought or believed, on some level, that the lack of a sexual relationship has been partly to blame for loneliness, especially when sexual desires are strong. ‘If I were only in a position to have an exclusive sexually active relationship, I would be less lonely.’

Many Christians with opposite-sex desires remain celibate until they are thirty, forty, or even until they die. Most of them wanted to get married but for various reasons, never attained it. If they are faithful to Christ, they also have no option for a sexually intimate relationship. Are they condemned to a life of loneliness as well?

Single people are often naïve about how marriage will solve their loneliness issues. Many married couples are tragically lonely even though they are sexually active. All imperfect marriages (read: all marriages) have their lonely moments. One could even argue this loneliness in marriage is the most tragic loneliness of all, because the potential for so much intimacy was promised in the vows of marriage. Loneliness as the consequence of divorce has its own tragic uniqueness, especially when the other party was unfaithful.

So what conclusions can we draw?

  1. Sexual activity, even monogamous sexual activity, cannot bear the weight of ending loneliness. It can encourage an already-intimate married couple, but it can also, at worst, exacerbate loneliness or , at best, temporarily mask it.
  2. The solution for loneliness for all people must take a different direction than sex. Hill suggests that loneliness actually promotes hunger for intimacy with Christ and with members of the church. For the believer, this is the positive side of loneliness. We were made for relationship with Christ foremost, and this relationship puts all other yearnings and relationships in their proper place.
  3. Marriage, at its best, is a powerful subset of Christian community and subordinate to our relationship with Christ. Deep, powerful, intimate community can, by God’s grace, exist outside of marriage and apart from sexualization, because it exists within the community of faith, Christ’s body. Though most of us desire to experience sexual intimacy in our lives, the door from loneliness to fulfilling, intimate relationships is open to the celibate with unfulfilled same-sex or heterosexual attractions.

Part 1., Part 2., Part 4.

Updated 5.5.2017

Sex, intimacy, and community 

We all yearn to be deeply known, and to be affirmed by the one who deeply knows us. In his book, Washed and Waiting, Wesley Hill explains why intimacy seemed so unattainable for him. As a believer in Jesus with same-sex attraction, celibacy is the choice of faithfulness to God,. Hill found himself holding male relationships at bay for fear that they would be come sexualized, thus already compounding the loneliness he felt.

Does a life without sex mean a life without intimacy? In our culture, we often cheapen sex so that two strangers can casually use each other for their own sexual satisfaction. But we also idolize sex to the point where a deep relationship without sex—heterosexual or homosexual—is considered to limit intimacy. Must intimacy include sex to be complete? If so, intimacy is unattainable for any person committed to celibacy.  Such a person must be destined for loneliness.

Building on some of Hill’s observations, we reject this. First, the Bible describes our relationship with the Father as “one” (John 17), the apex of intimacy. God commends us, “For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends” (2 Corinthians 10:18, ESV); he praises us, “But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God” (Romans 2:29): and he loves us sacrificially, “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:9-10). There is nothing sexual here, and yet we are deeply known, affirmed, and delighted in by our heavenly Father.

Second, some of the most intimate relationships described within the Bible were not sexual relationships. They weren’t marriages, but rather relationships within the community of believers: Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, John and Jesus, etc.

Hill takes us a step further. Under the guidance of a mentor, he realizes that humanity, as beings of flesh and spirit, requires intimacy of the flesh and spirit. Certainly Jesus meets every need. But he does that partly through providing a flesh-and-spirit community of believers– brothers and sisters with whom we can weep and rejoice. We confess sin to them, receive assurance of forgiveness through them, sustain loving mutual correction among them, and are loved for our good. This is incredibly intimate, unlimited, and not sexualized at all. So there is fulfilling intimacy in the gospel, even for the one who chooses a celibate life!

Part 1., Part 3., Part 4.

Updated 5.5.2017

Washed and Waiting is a series of Christian theological and personal reflections written by a doctoral student who struggles with same-sex attraction. Wesley Hill begins his story as a secret, frightened believer with forbidden yearnings in the church. He ends his biography as an open, integrated member of Christian community who has chosen celibacy as a lifestyle of faithfulness for Christ. The book is almost devotional at points, exploring the spiritual nuances of the gospel as they apply to his struggle. Even if he weren’t addressing same-sex yearnings, he provides us with a model of what growing discipleship looks like as we live in a broken world.

This is not a “success” story. There is little movement away from his same-sex attractions during the course of his story, and Hill says he cannot even imagine what the absence of these desires might look like in his life. But we do see personal transformation in how he increasingly understands and welcomes his celibate struggle as an impetus and means to deepen his relationship with Christ. After all, intimacy and union with Christ are the ultimate goals for all believers.

In the introduction, Hill explains his terminology. He calls himself a “gay Christian” and, more frequently, a “homosexual Christian.” Since we hear this term from those who want to legitimize homosexual relations as a “Christian” alternative, it feels uncomfortable—probably both to those who want to legitimize homosexual practice and to those who reject it. At Harvest USA, we feel that using a sexual orientation qualifier for Christians lessens one’s full and primary identity in Christ (see this blog for an excellent discussion on this topic).

But Hill is absolutely on target in reminding us that there is, and always has been, a slice of the Christian church who have struggled, usually silently, with same-sex attraction while remaining faithful to Christ in their lifestyle. Hill provides a number of well-known names as representatives; there are more than we realize. God calls us in the church to understand, empathize, and support them. Like all of us, whatever our sexual attractions, they are broken people, and Christ walks with them in their suffering.

You can’t take this journey of celibacy without accepting that sin causes basic human brokenness. Same-sex attraction is, like all forms of brokenness, a result of the human race’s fall in Adam. And like all effects of the Fall in our lives, we struggle to attain the goal of personal holiness for which Christ calls all of us to strive as we wait for the coming glory when sexuality will no longer be an issue, and intimacy will be complete in Christ. Those who have a small vision of the coming glory—when the coming of Christ will usher in a restored humanity and world—who see sexual intimacy as a right, and who refuse suffering as part of the spiritual journey, will struggle with Hill’s book. But those who long for deep intimacy with Christ, understand the relational power of Christian community, and find Christian waiting profitable in the long run, will find this book encouraging and full of hope.

Part 2., Part 3., Part 4.

Updated 5.5.2017

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