I never imagined I would become a celibate. I grew up in the Primitive Baptist faith, and we didn’t talk about singleness that much. We gossiped plenty about relationships though, and most of my acquaintances in our tiny denomination married early. Like other denominations, we esteemed marriage as the place where life naturally transitioned and progressed. Singleness was just a temporary season of life preparing young Christians for the challenges of matrimony. If we ever mentioned celibacy, it was to joke at its strangeness; normal people didn’t remain single.
But I’m not a normal guy.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve wanted normalcy. I have moments pumping iron in the gym or worshipping alone in the back row of church wondering how this all happened to me. How does a boy baptized at age six, homeschooled in a good Christian family, become a gay man? It sounds ridiculous.
Sometimes life feels like a game of poker, and I was bitter for the hand of cards God gave me.
Gratitude doesn’t come easily for me. I’m like one of the rebellious Israelites in the wilderness—complaining and untrusting of God’s goodness and provision. I’ve seen my sexual orientation as a curse, blaming it for all my issues. If I were straight, I would be a strong man—confident, attractive, and eloquent. But I’m not that man; I’m a boy, scared and awkward. “Be thankful in all things?” Seriously?
I recently read Ann Voskamp’s book One Thousand Gifts. Voskamp celebrates thanksgiving, or eucharisteo, the Greek word she uses throughout the book. It all starts with a simple Greek study. The Greek word for joy is chara and it’s found right in the middle of eucharisteo; joy literally within thanksgiving.
“So then as long as thanks is possible … I think this through. As long as thanks is possible, then joy is always possible. Joy is always possible. Whenever, meaning—now; wherever, meaning—here. The holy grail of joy is not in some exotic location or some emotional mountain peak experience. The joy wonder could be here! Here, in the messy, piercing ache of now, joy might be—unbelievably—possible! The only place we need see before we die is this place of seeing God, here and now.”1
Can I find joy in a sex-saturated culture as a celibate gay man? What about joy in a marriage-worshipping church? Voskamp’s message reveals a liberating truth: Yes. There’s joy to be found here if you’ll only look. Joy is not reserved for the heterosexual, but remains available as long as I choose to give thanks.
But an internal change of attitude isn’t enough. I could choose to remain an unknown and invisible seat-filler in church, all the while telling myself I’m thankful and content. But that’s not contentment, it’s complacency. Thanksgiving doesn’t force me to accept things I have the power to change in my life. That’s fear. God compels me to take risks to live anything but a safe life. As I learn to count my blessings I should begin looking outward towards others. Voskamp writes that we “become the blessing,”
“Eucharisteo is giving thanks for grace. But in the breaking and giving of bread, in the washing of feet, Jesus makes it clear that eucharisteo is, yes, more: it is giving grace away. Eucharisteo is the hand that opens to receive grace, then, with thanks, breaks the bread; that moves out into the larger circle of life and washes the feet of the world with that grace. Without the breaking and giving, without the washing of feet, eucharisteo isn’t complete. The Communion service is only complete in service. Communion, by necessity, always leads us into community.”2
A simple Christian sacrament reveals how we live in the church and God’s kingdom. In the Primitive Baptist denomination, we include foot washing in our communion services. It can feel pretty awkward to literally humble yourself before another Christian to wash his or her feet, but there’s something moving about the gesture too. It represents how I want to live out my faith. This posture of grace and humility inspires courage to be a blessing to others. Grace calls me participate in the work of redemption and I cannot remain silent to God’s work and the cries of the oppressed. I can say with Jeremiah,
“There is in my heart as it were a burning fire
shut up in my bones,
and I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot (Jeremiah 20:9).”
Eve Tushnet , “You can’t have a vocation of No.” It’s not enough for the conservative church to tell gay Christians that marriage is defined as one man and one woman. It’s not even enough for the church to exhort its congregants to “be nice to the gays out there in the world.” Many of us queer folks who hold the same traditional convictions on sexuality aren’t going to make your life comfortable by entering heterosexual marriage and pretending we’re just like you. …And many in mixed-orientation marriages are speaking up too. As a demographic of the church, we have unique spiritual and emotional needs. The church shouldn’t cultivate a thriving environment for the majority to the detriment of its outliers. The church has a responsibility to know the heartbeat of the congregation, to know if life-giving blood is circulating to all members of the body. The church needs to creatively find ways to make the church a home for all its members. There’s plenty of work to be done; there’s prejudices, privileges, and sins to be mortified and surrendered to God as a corporate body. Matt Jones , “Unless a community is seriously modeling a commitment to hospitality and grace for all stages of life, its sexual ethic, no matter how ‘orthodox’ it may sound, will never seem viable or good in any meaningful way. This imaginative failure is also a moral failure, with churches leaving their gay members with little to no ability to actually live–or God forbid thrive– within the rich tradition of church teaching.” Thanksgiving partly fills the gap between how things are and what we hope the church will become. Community requires grace, or charis, the root word for eucharisteo. Sexual minorities need to exhibit forgiveness, mercy, and patience with straight Christians. The church as a whole needs to learn the ability to listen with humility and empathy.
It’s here, within my experience as a gay man and my convictions as a traditional evangelical Christian, where I find the most difficulty expressing gratitude. This path means no spouse and no awesome, hot sex (not gonna lie, that’s a bummer). The traditional sexual ethic is costly, an aspect of Christianity we’ve forgotten in Western Civilization. Historically, Christians have suffered great sacrifices for their faith and convictions, some choosing even to die rather than to renounce their relationship with Jesus. And sometimes I can feel bitter. Why do I have play super-Christian, while other evangelicals analyze my faith and determine if I have a right to sit at the table? Why do I have to hurt this deeply and this much? When I apply Voskamp’s model of eucharisteo to my situation as gay and evangelical, I find another perspective.
“The act of sacrificing thank offerings to God—even for the bread and cup of cost, for cancer and crucifixion—this prepares the way for God to show us His fullest salvation from bitter, angry, resentful lives and from all sin that estranges us from Him. At the Eucharist, Christ breaks His heart to heal ours—Christ, the complete accomplishment of our salvation. And the miracle of eucharisteo never ends: thanksgiving—giving thanks in everything—is what prepares the way for salvation’s whole restoration. Our salvation in Christ is real, yet the completeness of that salvation is not fully realized in a life until the life realizes the need to give thanks.”3
I can’t speak for other Christian sexual minorities, just for myself. Ingratitude closes off my ability to connect to my Heavenly Father. My bitterness closes off possibilities to experience abundant life and the good gifts God gives His children. I have experienced legitimate grief through the process of accepting the traditional sexual ethic. It’s led to the death of hopes and dreams of a husband and family I wanted. It was a grief I couldn’t ignore and couldn’t suppress. While I’m always open to God’s Spirit and where the truth leads, I’m learning to find a place here in the evangelical church. At some point you have to move on, at some point you have to heal. I’m back where I began, but from a completely different perspective.
The gospel radically shifts how we approach sexuality, whether we affirm gay relationships or not. God calls us to kill lust and self-centeredness that characterizes sexual desire. God’s message of sexuality is countercultural—it’s not about me, it’s about the love I give to another. Celibacy extends that belief. Rather than an abandonment of love, celibacy is a lifetime, a calling to love. I’m learning to give myself in intimate friendships to diverse people: Christians and nonchristians, the gay relationship affirming and the traditional, non-affirming. I’m a firm believer that God will provide for my emotional needs as long as I have the bravery to reach out.
Celibacy feels like an experiment, but one I can’t really fail. My life’s purpose is to know Christ. Regardless of marriage or singleness, no one can exclude me from that pursuit. “What makes the gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out but who it lets in,” Rachel Held Evans at this year’s Gay Christian Network Conference. The gospel reaches all kinds of people with all kinds of convictions. Conservatives and liberals, Caucasians and ethnic minorities, Side A and Side B. It even lets in quiet, awkward gay guys like me.
If you asked me to choose one book the most radically shifted my perspective this year, I would point you to Ann Voskamp. She challenged me to live fully right where I currently find myself. I’m challenged not to live in complacency, but in thanksgiving and joy for the opportunities and relationships I currently have. I’m not waiting for my life to begin—it’s happening right here, right now.
And it’s glorious.
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- Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010, 33.
- Ibid, 192-193.
- Ibid, 40.
Featured photo courtesy of Jeremy Binns at CreationSwap.