I spend a lot of time trying to stress in my writing that sexual orientation is more than sex. I like the word gay because it doesn’t contain the word “sex” to describe itself (like homoSEXual or same-SEX attracted, or even SEXUAL minority). “Gay” does a better job of expressing a vocation apart from sex, at least I think so.
I compartmentalize the discussion of sexual orientation so much that I tend to avoid talking about sex itself. I can almost make myself sound asexual or a spectator in the discussion. In actuality, this conversation affects my life just as much as the lives of the Christian LGBTs I write about.
So why hide the fact that I’m just as much a sexual being as any other gay man, or for that matter, pretty much any other human being? It’s safe, I guess. I don’t like to admit that I struggle maintaining my purity. I don’t like to admit that I’m occasionally a screw up.
Good Christians just don’t talk about that.
Secrets fetter us. A gay friend once told me that Satan holds power over the things we keep in the dark. It’s only when we bring our secrets to the light that we find freedom in Christ. …But it’s still frightening. When I admit I struggle with lust, pornography, and hooking up, I’m saying I don’t always do a good job of living out what I believe.
I’m saying I’m a hypocrite.
And sometimes I’m ashamed to talk about sexuality because it reveals some of my ugly insecurities. I’m not attractive enough. I need a man to affirm that I am handsome and valuable and loveable. Sometimes I wonder if I’m more comfortable with celibacy because I have an excuse to be “just the friend.” I can beat rejection to the punch. And that’s a really lame excuse for such a rigorous and beautiful vocation.
Confession is hard. We want people to think we have it all together. We don’t want others to see the dysfunction and the messiness. We want love and respect. Choosing vulnerability can strip us of the friendships we treasure. …But if they’ll stick with you, you will find a way of living that’s abundant, life-sustaining, and healing.
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To state the obvious, lust feels great. Our brains reward us with all these lovely feel-good neurotransmitters that keep us coming back again and again. It doesn’t matter that we have our nice, organized biblical sexual ethics. Or that we know nothing good will likely come from another eight minutes of stupidity. Lust is a drug and a darn addictive one at that.
Sometimes we don’t want to be accountable because we’re not quite ready to give up the high. We’re hesitant to say no to instant gratification.
One of my favorite books on Christian sexuality continues to be Lauren Winner’s Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity. Winner had difficulty embracing the biblical sexual ethic of chastity until marriage after she converted to the Christian faith.
There’s this quote I love as Winner describes her progression of thought about scripture and sexuality. She writes about a confessional with an Episcopalian priest:
I was there to confess a long litany of sins, not just sexual sins—lies I’d told, ways I’d screwed up friendships, a whole host of mistakes and missteps. Somewhere in the middle of confession I came to the sexual sin, and my confessor said, gently but firmly (which are the two adverbs I believe should apply to Christian rebuke),
“Well, Lauren, that’s sin.”¹
Sin’s not one of my favorite vocabulary words. It makes me uncomfortable. And that’s the point—it’s a word that reveals I’m not perfect. It reveals my dependency on Christ to make things right. It’s God’s grace working in me to will and do of His good pleasure. I’m not really interested in becoming a Bible Thumper. And maybe that’s my issue with this three letter s-word. I’m accustomed to hearing the harsh judgmentalism from the pulpit. I expect prejudiced, gossipy, and unmerciful remarks from Christians. Sin sounds like a word they would say. It’s Aramaic or Hebrew translation seems foreign on Jesus’s lips.
But when I read Winner’s view of confronting sin, I see something a bit different. After all, it was Jesus who said not only to forsake adultery, but also lust. Jesus came to the world to reconcile us to God and emancipate us from the slavery of evil. Sin is a serious problem with the world; it’s a serious problem in my own heart. It’s definitely not a light issue. This freedom that the Messiah purchased for us leads to the restoration of the original creation, and that starts in me as I battle my selfishness with God’s aid. And yes, sometimes we need gentle but firm reminders from good Christian friends when our ways are out of alignment with God’s awesome design for His kingdom.
So what is this design that God has crafted for our sexuality? Stephen Long recently published a post that included one of my favorite quotes from James Brownson’s book Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships. It offers amazing insight into this discussion.
We cannot say with our bodies what we will not say with the rest of our lives. Bodies are not indifferent, and what we do with our bodies is not indifferent. Sexual union is deeply metaphorical, and when we strip sexual union of the wider metaphorical kinship meaning intended by Genesis 2:24, we cease to live in the ‘real world’ governed by God’s purposes and decrees.²
Scripturally, marriage is the only place where God blesses sexual intercourse, though we may differ on how to define marriage. Brownson writes from a perspective that affirms same-sex marriage and critiques gay culture through the lens of scripture. There just isn’t a theological case for promiscuity, and Brownson believes that’s an area that needs to be sanctified through marriage. As gay believers, we can’t just accept everything that gay men do and tack on the label “Christian” to justify our behavior. God’s Word must take preeminence.
But if premarital sex is consensual, why does scripture condemn it? Brownson points out that our bodies manifest striking symbolism. Sex is a sacred act—an act of culmination that symbolizes the joining of two separate people as one unit in the work of God’s kingdom.
The Apostle Paul writes,
“…Do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:16-20 ESV)
As a single Christian man, my body belongs to God. The Spirit dwells in my body as an instrument of grace to minister to others; to be Christ in flesh to my brothers and sisters and continue the work of the incarnation. But when I’m hooking up with some random dude, more stuff is going on than just sex itself. Obviously I can’t minister to this guy when I’m sexually objectifying him and using him for my own pleasure (and vice versa). You can’t seriously and explicitly share the good news of the gospel in a promiscuous lifestyle. And you can’t implicitly live out the gospel either, which is more often my style for sharing Christ.
Rather than advancing shalom in the world, I’m resisting it, particularly in my own sanctification. Love is giving and transformative. Lust is destructive and selfish. In both marriage and celibacy we learn to kill our selfish desires and put others before ourselves. Promiscuity promotes destructive self-love that characterizes many marriages in our culture, even in our own churches. You must please me, rather than I am called to serve you. Which sounds like a better way to glorify God with our bodies?
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photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user Vincepal
So I suck at this celibacy thing. But it remains my personal conviction for how I should navigate this journey of faith and sexuality. I have friends (gay and straight) who feel the biblical prohibitions against premarital sex are antiquated—and I still love and respect them. I have gay friends who are trying to live out Brownson’s vision of chastity until marriage. They seem to do an impressive job without some or all the support that straight Christians have available. Ultimately I’m not the final judge; that’s between the individual and God. I’ve long given up determining my view on Hell. It joined a long list of other theological subjects that if asked I will politely respond “I don’t know.” I know my calling to love God and my neighbor and that’s hard enough.
Christians tend to fuss about Hell more than the emphasis of scripture itself. Sure, you can find plenty of passages about it, I won’t deny that, but sometimes we make it sound like the whole point of Christianity is the avoidance of eternal punishment. We make a big deal about when we got “saved.” But saved to what? Surely there’s a bigger story in the Bible than an escape plan from Hell.
There’s one book that I think should be mandatory reading for every Christian. You must read N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. It’s one of the best articulations of the kingdom of God. And it’s one of the best motivations to go to battle with lust day in and day out. Our personal salvation and sanctification is a piece of a greater puzzle. By choosing chastity, I’m choosing life and affirming true love. I’m creating shalom. That’s partly how we make God’s will done on Earth as it is in Heaven.
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When I screw up, grace and redemption restores me. Gentle but firm people walk alongside me and encourage me to try again. And courage says to speak when I’d rather hide in my shame.
Come everyone who thirsts
Come to the waters
and he who has no money
Come buy wine and milk
Without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Come, love. There is healing here. Your Father is making all things new. You can always begin again.
Featured photo by Laura Merchant at Creationswap
1. Lauren Winner, Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2005, 13.
2. James V. Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013, 102.