When Christians Create Safe Space for the Hurting

Man praying and comforting a friend

I wonder sometimes what kind of Christian I would have been if I wasn’t gay. Would I still be a hardcore Calvinist? Would I still be politically conservative? Would I even care about the LGBTQ community?

 

How safe would I have been?

 

Now, safety or sensitivity isn’t a priority in many churches. Pastors sometimes feel a need to channel their inner Mark Driscoll in the pulpit and Christians can recite scriptural clichés like “speaking the truth in love” to justify all kinds of douchebag behavior. Christians occasionally criticize the church for being too feminine, and yet she is led by a lot of white men who preach tough love and evoke war-like imagery. Not too touchy-feely if you ask me.

 

“Always be ready to give an answer,” I was told growing up in Christian subculture. I understood that scriptural exhortation as more than giving my testimony, but also having unshakable apologetics. It felt like my responsibility to find every opportunity to call out sin. If people got angry or walked away, I could pat myself on the back for doing my Christian duty and pray that I had planted some seeds of truth.

 

I can’t say I listened all that well as a young Christian. Other people’s stories didn’t matter a lot to me, except where I could prove them wrong. I didn’t make much of an effort to understand the other person’s worldview, to imagine what it must be like going through a day from their perspective, to simply empathize.

 

I was a hypocrite, hiding my own secret I feared no one could accept.

 

The process of identifying as gay meant deconstructing how I perceived the world. Black and white certainty faded away and I found myself saying “I don’t know” a lot more. I really started listening to LGBTQ people and other marginalized voices as a new reality dawned for me: “Hey, I think I might be one of you.”

 

Fast-forward a few years: I had basically settled on a celibate vocation, I still had gay friends in same-sex relationships or pursuing them, and I wasn’t sure what purpose God had for all this complicated theological/relational… stuff. What was my role when one of my guy friends told me about a new boyfriend? Or when I’d developed a mentoring relationship with a younger sexual minority who just couldn’t envision a future of celibacy or mixed-orientation marriage?

 

Am I a bad Christian for sitting in the tension? For believing God’s still working in this amazingly complex, beautiful, wounded, and resilient human being? That I could possibly learn something incredible from a same-sex couple?

 

The only approach that makes any sense for me is emotional hospitality. I don’t have answers to every question, and often people aren’t asking for them. People just want to know if they can drop their guard and be real with me. They want to know if they can speak without being interrupted or contradicted or misunderstood. People are drawn to safe listeners who can validate their humanity.

 

I believe all kinds of folks can be safe people. Liberals tend to do a great job of withholding condemnation and extending grace, but I’ve also learned that Progressive Christians can be just as judgmental and harsh if you don’t believe the right things. And yes, conservatives can live up to the stereotypes: cruel, afraid of anything different, cold. It’s human nature to embrace the people who fit our beliefs and political ideology. As a celibate gay Christian I don’t know if I can ever belong in either or both camps. I don’t fit in conservative circles because I identify as gay and care deeply for the LGBTQ community, or among liberals because I feel called to live out a celibate vocation to find personal congruence between my faith and sexuality. There’s not a definite place in this world for people like me, and I don’t really know what to do with that.

 

There are major risks self-disclosing piece after piece of my life and identity. I am not conservative or liberal enough to likely satisfy anyone. But it’s the safe people, traditional and progressive, who get me through each week—who let me be myself. They know where I’m coming from, they don’t bite my head off, and they don’t become cold, closed-off and judgmental. We don’t agree on everything and we’re cool with that. We give each other safe space because we value humility and grace.

 

When I think about the friends who know my deepest and darkest secrets, most of them are psychology people. True, it’s what I’ve studied in college, so it correlates with the people I’ve gotten to know over the years. Yet there’s something about the way we’re trained to look at the world. We learn all kinds of beautiful concepts from Carl Rogers’ humanistic theory of counseling: unconditional positive regard (the therapist doesn’t place judgment on emotions), empathy (“entering the private perceptual world of the other and becoming thoroughly at home in it”1), and compassion (“to resonate with [another person’s] suffering”2). We’re also taught to value kindness, respect, humility, curiosity, and confidentiality. Man, the church needs more of those qualities.

 

Providing safe space to hurting people doesn’t mean compromising your own convictions or pretending like values or truth are meaningless. Suffering people don’t need answers so much as they need to know they aren’t alone in an indifferent universe. They might not need theories of God’s compassion and grace as much as they need you to live out and tangibly express God’s love in the present moment. Real friendships allow both parties to be authentic about beliefs and opinions, but there’s a right time and place to discuss differences and those conversations should always be spoken with complete respect and kindness. And then please, PLEASE let it go and leave the disagreement between your friend and God to work out. You’re just tagging along for the journey.

 

Processing my sexual orientation and faith over the years have taught me many things and revealed how little I actually know. I probably would have been a very different person if life had given me a different hand of cards and more privileges, but it didn’t, and I’m thankful for that. I’ve tasted suffering and experienced marginalization and I’m a better human because of all of it. I can hear people’s stories and begin to see them as who they truly are: beloved in the eyes of their Heavenly Father.

 

Safe and wanted, not condemned because of Christ’s rich grace.

 

~         ~         ~

 

  1. Clara Hill, Helping Skills: Facilitating Exploration, Insight, and Action. Washington, D.C.: The American Psychological Association, 2014, 114.
  2. Ibid.

When We Come Out of Our Closets

Man standing in the sunshine

Image Credit

“Everyone has a closet,” Jamal Lyons croons in the television show Empire as he contemplates whether to reveal his sexual orientation to the world or remain silent to appease his homophobic father who funds his comfortable life. But Jamal’s right; we have our own closets, LGBTQ or straight. We hold our secrets close fearing we’d lose the people who matter most if we told the truth.

 

It’s been a year since I “officially” came out to the world on my blog for National Coming Out Day. Finding the courage to be transparent and vulnerable took a 10-year process of repeated self-disclosures with family and trusted friends as I learned to trust people. There are few things more liberating than sharing pieces of your identity you’ve repressed and buried, discovering you don’t have to hide to avoid hurt and rejection. The only way you’ll truly connect and belong is to take off the mask and risk everything because you are determined to believe there’s grace and redemption for you too in God’s story.

 

I think we should be cautious of appropriating language, imagery, and other unique features of a specific culture. Some Christians take coming out language from the LGBTQ community without thinking of the significance, suggesting that a disclosure of faith in certain situations is just as anxiety-producing and difficult as the teenager harboring shame and fearing that her parents might kick her out of the house if they find out the truth. Unless you’re talking about Christians under real threats like ISIS, we might roll our eyes at you, just sayin’.

 

And yet, we humans have unifying themes that resonate person to person. In a broken world, we all have secrets. We all have a sin nature constantly at war with God’s redeeming work in our lives. If we’re self-aware, we have places in our heart we don’t want to take anyone. Yes, we all have a closet, to borrow that image from the LGBTQ community. We fester and we hurt and we wonder if we’re truly worthy of love and grace.

 

Have you ever had to see a doctor for something that embarrassed you? You put it off, hoping it would go away on its own, but eventually you had to schedule the appointment and let your doctor look at the issue. You brought the distressing matter to the light so you could be healed.

 

God made us for community. Secrets cause us to hold back, to avoid fully participating in our lives with the people who matter. Our secrets disconnect us from each other. We feel ashamed, assuming there’s no way people would still accept us if they knew the conflicts in our stories. But closets have a way of opening whether we’re ready or not—God’s too merciful to let us suffer alone forever. Light finds its way into the darkness.

 

Healing can’t come until you acknowledge or become aware of the problem. Once you’ve identified your demon, you need a community of safe people to journey with you into the darkness. I like how Rachel Held Evans contrasts healing with curing in Searching for Sunday. There probably isn’t a cure for the things that distress us about ourselves, but there is healing. As I’ve walked through same-sex attraction with the people I care about, I’ve seen God sanctify and redeem parts of my sexuality. I’ve moved past shame and fear to embrace life as a Christian who also happens to be gay. This part of my identity that some might call ashes has been transformed into beauty for God’s glory.

 

Not everyone needs to tell their secrets to the world. Honestly, it’s best to keep some things to trusted confidants. But it takes courage to make that first step and come out to someone. Maybe your secrets aren’t as weighty as my same-sex attraction, maybe they are far more broken. Regardless, freedom comes in speaking the truth so others can join you in God’s work of restoration. I can’t promise everyone will respond well, or that your transparency will make life easier—in fact, I promise you the opposite. But I believe God calls you his beloved and he will ensure at least one person in this world will stand by you as you see seek redemption and wholeness. No one is outside God’s grace and there will be people who joyfully reflect his love into your life.

 

So no more hiding. Come out and bask in the warmth of the sun, my friend.