When The Loneliness Keeps You Up at Night

Person in hoodie at night

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I couldn’t sleep last night. Anxiety pulsed through my body, and for hours I couldn’t determine the cause. I stayed up past midnight reading P. D. James’ take on Jane Austen and binge watching Empire while wondering what was bothering me and keeping me up way past my bedtime. By 2 a.m. I was exhausted but refused to call it a night. A strange question popped in mind. Are you afraid of dying, Seth? No, I didn’t think so. A simple statement followed: You are afraid of aging alone. BAM. My eyes welled up with tears.

 

Celibacy never felt all that costly for me. I moved back in with my family after college and pressed pause on life for five years. I have four younger siblings, so there was always someone at home, always someone to remind me I’m not alone.

 

In childhood psychology, we learn that children go through developmental forms of play. One stage is called parallel play, where children play in the same space, but don’t really interact with each other. I joke sometimes that my introverted family is a little like that. But there’s comfort in living in communal space, knowing you’re free to interact when you have something to share.

 

But now I live in Virginia with my roommate from church. He travels a lot for his job, and there have been a few weeks where I’m on my own. I joked about his absence on Facebook earlier in the evening last night, but it didn’t hit me how much this empty house impacts me emotionally. Coming home for the evening to the emptiness chips away at something in my soul; it feeds a paranoia which tells me this is all I can expect for the future.

 

So I avoid sleep to hold onto one more day that included friends and laughter and happiness. The next day doesn’t guarantee any of those things. In fact, I may blink and grad school could be over. What happens then?

 

I reread a chapter Philip Yancey wrote about Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and prolific writer who experienced same-sex attraction. Nouwen’s deep insecurities and craving for meaningful connection always resonates with me. Yancey describes Nouwen’s conflicted life:

 

“He would give inspiring addresses about the spiritual life then collapse into an irritable funk. He would speak of the strength he gained from living in community, then drive to a friend’s house, wake him up at two in the morning, and, sobbing, ask to be held. His phone bills usually exceeded his rent as he called around the world, disregarding time zones, in desperate need of companionship.”¹

 

My two o’clock breakdown didn’t involve driving to any of my cohort’s or church friends’ homes, because I would never want to impose my emotional mess on anyone else. Honestly, my breakdowns are usually over as soon as they begin: I’ll laugh at how silly I’m being and repress my deepest emotions. I’m fine. I got this. How are you?

 

Sarah Bessey wrote a must-read this week on the traumas we gloss over and refuse to process called “The Sanitized Stories We Tell.” I think she provides a brilliant analysis of our human inclination to cover up our hurts:

 

“It makes me wonder how much pressure we feel to sanitize our stories so that they don’t make people uncomfortable, how we anecdote our experience with the lightness or the healing or birth or new life alone in order to make it acceptable. We simplify and sanitize and so we miss the healing we could have if we only spoke the whole truth.”

 

I would love to tell you I eventually experienced some profound sense of peace or realized some comforting insight about my celibate vocation or God’s goodness, but nothing came in the silence of the night. Celibacy has its sucky moments. A lot of the time God doesn’t feel present in my suffering. That’s probably not what the church wants to hear, but that’s the truth. Nothing about obeying my convictions is easy. Sometimes I’m just a mess like Nouwen, going through an existential crisis and desperately wanting to know I’m not journeying through life alone. And sometimes I just need to sleep, hoping my neurochemistry will reset in the morning.

 

Yancey wrote more on Henri Nouwen’s thoughts about loneliness:

 

“He once described the wound of loneliness as resembling the Grand Canyon: a deep incision in the surface of existence that has become an inexhaustible source of beauty and self-understanding. That insight typifies Nouwen’s approach to ministry. He did not promise a way out of loneliness, for himself or for anyone else. Rather, he held out the promise of redemption through it.”²

 

Faith tells me there’s redemptive hope, even in a lonely, late night. My suffering connects me to my Savior, with humanity, and the creation. Together we yearn for God’s restoration of all things. Faith promises God will provide the friendships I need for my entire life.

 

But for now, I think I’ll take a nap.

 

  1. Philip Yancey, Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church. New York, New York: Doubleday, 2001, 301.
  2. Ibid, 303.

When Friendship Feels Like a Fairytale

depressed man

 

I don’t really believe in friendship.

 

Those were the words echoing in my mind as I wrote draft after draft responding to Wesley Hill’s new book Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian. Don’t get me wrong, Wesley’s written a beautiful, brilliant book. The church needs to read it. But parts of Wesley’s book felt too good to be true, more fairytale than reality. Maybe the best thing we can hope for in our busy lives is just friendly acquaintances—moments of connection to get us by. Maybe we should just take the advice of a song in The Phantom of the Opera: learn to be lonely.

 

I tell myself I’m good with the solitude. I’m not a great communicator; sometimes when I’m around people I feel clingy, awkward, unwanted. Whatever. I’ve lived most of my life emotionally alone. I generally accept complacency and apathy over risk and disappointment. Who cares anyway?

 

Apparently I did.

 

After college I developed a bad habit of flirting with guys to feel wanted and seen. I craved being the center of someone’s attention, even if I knew it wouldn’t last for more than a few days. Over the years I’ve tried to make social media and long distance “text-pals” replace the adventures and face-to-face conversations I was missing in real life, often because I avoided vulnerability with the people I knew locally. I’ve sent out too many texts and Facebook messages at existential low points and received far too many I’m sorry, buddy and Praying for you responses to last me a lifetime. They did little to assuage the hurt.

 

This is not enough.

 

I’ve had some great friends over the years (and still keep up with many of them), but as a gay celibate, there never seems to be anything permanent and immutable about friendship. Friends move on to new priorities and new rhythms of life; they marry and have kids, they move up social ladders, and they move away. Nothing stays the same. Can I really bear the losses again and again? Is life just a cycle of inevitable abandonment?

 

Perhaps it depends on the relationship.

 

Wesley discusses two kinds of relationships from Catholic writer Maggie Gallagher in Spiritual Friendship.1 “You’re mine because I love you” and, “I love you because you’re mine.” The first doesn’t include any serious attachments or commitments; convenience and feelings of endearment are all that bind the relationship together. Either person could walk away when the friendship is no longer easy, comfortable, or uncomplicated. But Wesley elaborates on the more hopeful alternative:

 

“In this latter type of friendship, my love for you isn’t the basis of our connection. It’s the other way around: we are bound to each other, and therefore I love you. You may still bore me or wound me or otherwise become unattractive to me, but that doesn’t mean I’ll walk away. You’re not mine because I love you; I love you because you’re—already, and always—mine. We’ve made promises to each other; we’ve committed to each other, in the sight of our families and our churches, and in the strength of those vows, I will, God willing, go on loving you.”2

 

Christians expect this level of commitment from husbands and wives, but Wesley offers a compelling question: what if friendships could contain some level of this fidelity and structure? What would that look like?

 

Maybe we’d see more nontraditional homes—families practicing communal living with other families or with singles like me. Maybe we would be more intentional about extending hospitality and creating regular routines to hang out. Maybe we wouldn’t be so quick to shrug our shoulders and put old friendships in the rearview mirror when people move away; maybe we would make more sacrifices to keep investing in the people who matter.

 

Yet it’s these same sentiments that feel so unrealistic and hollow. Of course it sounds great, but right now I find myself caught somewhere between neediness and reticence—never able to find a happy balance. It hurts too much to hope for more.

 

See, I can embrace a life of service to others, that’s not a problem. It’s not hard for me to show kindness to everyone while keeping them at arm’s length. But accepting another person’s love? That’s terrifying; the risks are so great. It’s easier to remain closed off to everyone around me. True, no one can hurt me, but to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, a life without love is just a living Hell. Christ came so we could experience abundant life—including the ability to experience intimacy and belong to a spiritual family. Unfortunately, the abundant life doesn’t liberate us from the crosses we must bear to walk with Jesus. In order to thrive, we’re going to suffer like Jesus did. No prosperity gospel can shield us from a broken world. Maybe loneliness is my thorn in the flesh I will bear to the end of my days. Perhaps God is teaching me to see his power made perfect in my weakness, in my emotional pain. Maybe an insecure guy like me can find strength to persevere another day, knowing it isn’t only me, but Christ working in me to will and do of his good pleasure. My Heavenly Father promises his grace is somehow sufficient. I freely confess I don’t know what that means, but I have to believe I’m going to be ok.

 

~         ~         ~

 

I flipped through Spiritual Friendship again and discovered Wesley had already anticipated a response like mine. He knew his words would come across hollow to those who had not tasted the richness of intimate companionship or those who had lost close friendships. But I think Wesley had people like me in mind too, people with beautiful friendships that occasionally dig deeper into the things that matter, yet people who still feel the sting of dissatisfaction. The sting feels especially potent when the best form of connection some of us can attain most days is through texting, email, or social media. But at friendship’s best, even marriage’s best, there’s no way to escape the pain of loneliness. No one will ever feel fully understood or like they completely belong. I love this quote from Wesley:

 

“Friendship … doesn’t solve the problem of loneliness so much as it shifts its coordinates. Just as marriage isn’t a magic bullet for the pain of loneliness, neither is friendship. It does, we hope, pull us out of ourselves, orienting our vision to our neighbors. But no, … it’s not enough. It’s never enough.”3

 

This is where the Gospel steps in to redeem our stories. Yes, the fall severed the perfect unity we experienced in Eden with each other and God, but Christ came to restore all things, and that includes our relationships. We still face conflict and misunderstandings, we get busy and neglect the people God has entrusted us to love and nurture, but God is still redeeming his people and still building his kingdom. One day the work will end, all will be made right, and all our suffering will cease—including our loneliness.

 

In the meantime we need faith—faith God will accomplish all he has promised and will provide for our emotional needs. Faith supplies the motivation to risk disappointment and heartbreak to develop and maintain intimate friendships in order to thrive as social beings. It takes a lot of faith not to become cynical when attempt after attempt has only resulted in rejection. And it takes faith to keep digging with patience when those attempts have only led to superficial acquaintances—while trying not to stifle the potential friendship.

 

Friendship requires a delicate balance. As the Christian boy band Plus One sang, “If you need love / Take the time and be love / Breathe it out create love / See how things can turn.” Sometimes we need to be more intentional about loving others and proactively pursuing their friendships. But sometimes we have to realize we’ve done all we can do; love can’t be one-sided. We have to step away and give people space believing some will return. And believe me, I know how scary that is when you’re convinced people will forget your existence if you don’t consistently remind them. God help my unbelief, I guess.

 

I don’t pretend to have this all figured out, nor do I present myself as some poster child for celibate gay Christians. Celibacy sucks, but I think there’s beauty in the pain, any form of pain, when our suffering drives us to each other and to our Savior. There’s something so powerful when we can say, “Hey, me too.” Rachel Held Evans says church should look more like an A. A. meeting than a country club, and I think we’d be far healthier and more joyful if we’d all take more risks and show more vulnerability rather than trying to impress others and pretending like we have our you-know-what together. I feel a sense of connection when Rachel Held Evans talks about her doubts on her blog, when my friend Addie Zierman writes about the darkness of her depression, or when several of my local friends share their struggle to hold onto God’s goodness in their infertility. The loneliness doesn’t hurt so badly when we hurt together.

 

Most days friendship feels like a fairytale. But you know what? I still choose to embrace Wesley’s vision of friendship in faith. I still believe it’s a model the church needs to rediscover for the benefit of the entire Body. Jesus said not to be anxious about the future, and for me that means not worrying if I’ll end up old and alone because I chose celibacy to reconcile my faith and sexuality. God will provide. Life will never be perfect, but God will never stop offering little reminders to smile and remember how much he loves me. Those reminders often come from the people in my life. Yes, I am scared of disappointment and rejection, but I will continue pursuing friendships until my last day because I intend to thrive.

 

 

  1. Wesley Hill, Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2015, 41-42.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid, 98.

Letter to a Bitter Celibate

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You’ve never been here before. Celibacy. You dabbled with the idea, but it never really stuck. A life without a spouse seemed hollow, frightening, and desolate. Kinda like living in tomb separate from the land of the living. Celibacy felt like death and you desperately wanted to live.

 

But here you are at the end of all your exploring. You’ve arrived at where you started, and as T. S. Eliot wrote, you know the place for the first time. “Not known, because not looked for.” But now your eyes are open. You have bitten into forbidden fruit and now there’s no longer room for you in the garden.

 

You wanted this transition to be easy, effortless. No more panic attacks. No more rejections from the men you wanted to love. No more secrets. You pictured God with a frown when you prayed, mostly wondering if He even listened anymore.

 

Are you happy, God?

 

You’re attending more weddings as the years pass. Tears tend to well up in your eyes, but they aren’t tears of happiness for the bride and groom. The tears are for all your dreams crumbling before your eyes.

 

Church used to feel like a family. Everything felt right, every ritual routine. Hymns, prayers, a sermon, and a potluck lunch every Sunday. But now you’re sneaking in late, sitting in the back. You stare at the back of people’s heads and feel overwhelmed by the gulf between them and you. You’ve become a stranger and the awkwardness hangs thick in the air. You internally argue with the pastor; his every criticism feels aimed at you. You want church to work again, but you don’t know how.

 

You’re fairly convinced God is a tyrant and you’re like his battered wife. You love your husband when he’s gentle, but you never know when he’ll slap you across the face and strangle your neck until there’s no air to breathe. You resent him, but you stay. That’s another thing about abused wives. They can’t seem to visualize any other options. That’s what celibacy feels like. And that’s how twisted your reformed theology has become.

 

“Sometimes it is hard not to say ‘God forgive God,’” C. S. Lewis’ audacious declaration rings true to your tired, bitter heart. Some days you’re almost waiting for an apology from your Heavenly Father. But there’s only silence.

 

You don’t talk to people because they won’t get it. They’ll try to fix you because your pain makes them uncomfortable. They’ll probably tell you to get over it, repent, move on. Words. But words don’t help much. Lewis said it well, “Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”

 

You’ve done what God and the church required. On one hand, you breathe a little easier without the guilt weighing you down. But that doesn’t make living any easier. You’ve traded anxiety for bitterness. You’ve submitted to what you believe is right, but you fear you’ve sacrificed any hope of a life worth living. But here you are, willingly choosing to embrace the pain like a man needing surgery without any available anesthesia. This will either heal or kill you; you can’t be certain of which yet.

 

You take your Bible off the shelf for the first time in a long time. Only one thing seems to take your mind off the chronic ache of your soul: the pain of others. You see suffering everywhere in scripture, in every character. You see it so strikingly in Christ until it sinks in. God seems so distant, so angry, so disappointed with you. But in Christ you feel his heart. The God of the universe humbled himself and became a suffering servant to reclaim you, to woo you, to make right what life had made so wrong. He knows misunderstanding, rejection, and isolation.

 

He gets you.

 

When you were a senior at Bryan College you wrote a thesis on C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed. You examined Lewis’ grief and anger over losing his wife and compared his agony to the process you perceived gay individuals suffer when they lose their sexual identity to become Christians. True, you were still a bit ex-gay back then and didn’t quite understand the complexity of the issue or the complexity of your own sexuality. But you learned something valuable from Lewis that would matter immensely years later when you cycled between depression, anger, and apathy.

 

This is a process of grief.

 

“I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history, and if I don’t stop writing that history at some quite arbitrary point, there’s no reason why I should ever stop. There is something new to be chronicled every day. Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.”

 

People respond differently to grief; several of your gay friends gave up on celibacy while you were in the process of finding it. It wasn’t a matter of who had the stronger faith or who was the truer Christian. There’s no telling what really made the difference. But you’ve never thought less of your friends. You had your own path to take and your own convictions to uphold. The daily, costly act of obedience required more than you thought you could give, and you came with plenty of hesitation and doubt. You slowly began cleaning up your disheveled theology, gradually embracing celibacy not as an avoidance of Hell but an affirmation of God’s calling for your life. Slowly the bitterness diminished; the melancholia couldn’t last forever. You genuinely laughed again.

 

You are loved well. If you have a little grace and patience, people will begin to come around. They will slowly cease offering unsolicited, unhelpful advice and platitudes. They’ll probably never fully understand, but gradually they will listen. And when they listen well, they provide much better feedback and suggestions.

 

But here at the beginning of this long, winding valley of sorrow, I know no words will help. Words won’t assuage the pain. Yes, time will heal the ache, but it’s the agony of waiting for every second to pass. So I’m going to sit here with you. We don’t have to speak. You can cry or swear, break things or sit still. I won’t walk away or judge.

 

I’m here.

 

~         ~         ~

 

Related Blog Posts:

When I Fear God is Not Good

Giving Thanks for Celibacy?

Little Lion Man: A Bryan College Story

young man standing leaning against a ledge on a city rooftop

 

LGBTQ Christians have a variety of reasons why they ended up at Christian universities. Some were forced by controlling, concerned parents. Others burned with zeal to take part in the shifting evangelical landscape. Some craved an authentic community with open-minded Christians. However, those weren’t my reasons. I needed to survive, clinging to the shattered, irreparable pieces of my worldview. I didn’t want to be gay.

 

My parents expected I would transfer to a cheaper state school. That wasn’t happening. Atheist professors would probably brainwash me and I’d likely make dumb decisions with hot guys. That would be it. I’d be gay. No sir, we had to nip this in the bud. As a teenager, I had discovered the ex-gay movement as Mom daily listened to Focus on the Family. Finally someone was talking about my situation from a Christian perspective. I dug deeper and found The National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) and Exodus International. They told me change was possible. Change. What an intoxicating thought. I could be normal and ordinary. I can fix this. I laid out my case for a Christian college to my parents, bought a thick book published by The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, and then examined the possibilities. Bryan seemed like a good choice; it was conservative, close to home, and as I browsed through the chapels recordings, I discovered had recently invited an ex-gay speaker. Heck yes. This was it.

 

While waiting to transfer, I spent six months working with Adam, my therapist. I wanted every gay part of me expunged and forgotten. But therapy didn’t feel all that ex-gay (reconnecting with Adam this summer revealed I was right, thankfully). Adam kept coming back to my anxiety and the negative mental script playing on repeat in my head. Obviously he was missing the point. If I could just like girls then I wouldn’t hate myself. Somehow every flaw would fade away with the gay. Same-sex attraction, I assumed, barred me from living the life I wanted.

 

August eventually arrived. My heart pounded driving up to Tennessee. Could I keep my secret? Would I find a wife? How was I going to adjust away from home after home schooling and community college?

 

I latched onto my core friend group within my first week. Kyle, one of my roommates, Patrick, a guy in my orientation group, and Nathan, Patrick’s roommate. They became my people when I didn’t have the emotional strength to branch out to others. Much of my free time was spent alone in my dorm room, my place of security after all the day’s awkward failures and social growing pains. My friends often interfered with those attempts to hide; they drew me out, made me talk. They convinced me to do silly things like create dance-off videos and play hours of scum, a card game that probably wasn’t great for our self-esteem. On the weekends we often gathered late at night and worshipped in the chapel foyer; the building echoed with the strums of Patrick’s guitar and the sound of our voices.

 

Bryan was a tiny school; I’m sure many people knew of me, but I didn’t allow many people to know me. I didn’t think most people would take the truth well, so I kept my distance. It didn’t matter anyway, I told myself. My purpose was to learn everything psychology and theology could teach me about homosexuality and maybe, just maybe, I’d find the answer. I’d be straight–then I could fit in and belong. But my emotional longing to connect would often get the better of my defensive mechanisms. I couldn’t help blurting out the truth if someone told me about a gay family member or asked why I was so interested in gay people. I gave presentations, wrote research papers and short stories that often related to homosexuality. Let’s face it, for a guy trying to hide a secret, I was doing pretty lousy job.

 

And then there were the girls. As a male psychology major, I was a minority in a sea of women. Growing up, my friendships had always been with guys. My friends talked about the girls they liked and SEC Football, but they also peer-pressured me into reading and liking Jane Austen. I kinda had it good for a gay boy. In our tiny marriage-happy denomination, talking to girls implied things and we tended to segregate to our own sex, so I stuck with the guys. It was fine with me, I liked being a guy. But at Bryan it surprised me how easily I could talk to women. I would find myself sitting more and more often with them and feel completely comfortable, sometimes even animated in ways I wouldn’t be around men. That bothered me. How does this look to other people? If a particular friendship with a girl got a little too close, I’d start to panic. What if she gets the wrong impression? Sure, I eventually wanted a relationship and a wife… But. Not. Freaking. Right. Now.

 

The ex-gay narrative began to unravel my last year at Bryan. After years of pushing myself, I realized I was no more attracted to women than when I started. The research didn’t back it, and Christian psychologists couldn’t even guarantee absolute cessation of same-sex attraction for everyone who tried. All the anecdotal stories of “change” began to be outweighed by stories of failure and trauma, while Christians rebuked the latter for being too emotionally weak or just flat-out bad Christians. I felt like Linus in the pumpkin patch on Halloween, believing and awaiting the arrival of The Great Pumpkin year after year, only to be disappointed again. Just you wait, Charlie Brown. Just wait ‘til next year. But I was tired of waiting, tired of fighting a force that wouldn’t budge. I took a mock assessment in my abnormal psychology class that measured personality and psychopathology; my professor picked up on the depression and suicidal ideation that had resurfaced from my inner struggle. He encouraged me to see the college counselor. Everything seemed to be telling me to move on. But to what? I didn’t believe in same-sex marriage. And celibacy? Who the heck does that?

 

My last semester at Bryan I asked a girl if I could pursue her, being the I Kissed Dating Goodbye kinda guy I was at the time. I liked her. I didn’t feel infatuated, but I was happy around her. She always took the opportunity to affirm my existence. She was beautiful, ridiculously talented, and funny. I felt comfortable around her. Maybe it could work; maybe it was enough. So one day we talked and I told her what was on my heart (minus the same-sex attraction part, I figured we could get to that eventually). Thankfully, she turned me down (but with grace and compassion). It crushed me, even without the butterflies. I had never found the courage to ask a girl to consider a relationship, and what if I never found it again? What would happen to me then? I apologized for putting her in an awkward situation. “It doesn’t have to be awkward” she replied kindly as we continued walking. I avoided her afterwards, too mortified to keep pursuing her friendship. It’s one of those moments I wish could be redone. Rather than asking to court her, I could have shared a moment of authentic connection—an open door to an awesome friendship. But it is what it is, I guess.

 

But I did find rare moments of courage to open up. The first time I came out at Bryan was in my psychology advisor’s office. I was adjusting to the increased difficulty of my classes and failing the first half of his physiological psychology class. He intimidated me at the time, but for some reason I didn’t care that day. I broke down and told him why I wanted a future as a psychologist and my fear that I had made a terrible mistake. My advisor responded with kindness and openness, encouraging me to keep going and to work harder. Eventually I opened up to my other professor in the psychology program. While I hid from most of the campus, I spent hours in my professors’ offices talking about theology, psychology, and sexuality. They became my second fathers away from home, mentoring and challenging me to become the man God was calling me to be. My senior year, I finally found the courage to share the missing piece of my story with Kyle, Patrick, and Nathan. Each initial disclosure was like jumping off a cliff blindfolded–exhilarating and terrifying–no telling what would result once I landed. I have many defensive mechanisms to help me bear the loneliness and isolation, but even today I haven’t found a healthy way to cope with rejection. Well, other than time. To my relief, none of my close friends abandoned me. Some people have become distant through my emotional and spiritual growth (which may have nothing to do with my sexual orientation), but my buddies stuck with me through the years, no matter how many miles apart.

 

My story began with a falsehood. I can change my sexual orientation if I work hard enough. The ex-gay movement reduced the gospel into a pursuit of straightness. I wasn’t accepted unless I had a wife or was at least working towards that outcome. As I learned to let go, some Christians chastised me for giving up. Keep praying; homosexuality isn’t God’s intent for your life. But what kind of life is that? There’s kingdom work to be done, other people who need the love and grace of Christ. The ex-gay approach is terribly self-centered. Healing comes from without, out in the light and out in the open. Trying to change our sexual orientation shames us from embracing intimate, authentic community as we currently find ourselves. We desperately need the redemptive love of the church to touch our lives, but many gay Christians choose to suffocate in isolation because they can’t meet the unfair and callous demands of the evangelical church. The church needs to be clear: life is happening now, and abundant life is available to all who seek it. Life doesn’t wait for marriage, and isn’t limited to the heterosexual.

 

When I realized nothing was going to change, I thought mixed orientation was my only option, a marriage lacking sexual attraction. Gay men and women who hold a traditional sexual ethic can be happy and thrive in mixed-orientation marriages if transparency, honesty, and sacrificial love characterize the relationship. But when I became honest with myself I realized the truth: I just didn’t want it. Since I have a choice in the matter, I’d rather just have a woman’s friendship. I don’t think I’m a better or worse Christian for that. It took a couple of years vacillating between affirming theology and the traditional perspective, but celibacy is how I eventually and personally reconciled my convictions with the circumstances I found myself in.

 

My sexual orientation remains a part of me, a part I didn’t choose or even want. It’s kinda funny, I became the man I worked so hard not to become. I’m gay, and I’ve gained a broader perspective of what that means beyond sexual behavior and lust. I wish the old Seth could see the freedom it offers. My focus isn’t on my works, my ability to make myself straight. It’s not even a life waiting around for God to zap me with straightness so He and the church can accept me. I am acceptable as I am, covered in the blood of Christ. I am beloved because of my Heavenly Father’s unmerited favor and generous, steadfast love. No ignorant Christian can take away the rest and peace of the gospel from me.

 

/ / /

 

Bryan College has had more than its fair share of conflicts since I graduated. The controversial clarification statement on man’s origins and evolution has torn a community of students, faculty, administration, and alumni. I can imagine Bryan currently feels like a scary, uncertain place for its sexual minority students. When Christians tighten the leash on orthodoxy, the marginalized and misunderstood often feel the impact. People forget to acknowledge our humanity and reduce us to political issues. It’s isolating and dehumanizing. For all sexual minorities on Christian campuses, I’m so sorry you bear that burden on top of all the normal stresses of college. When I was a student at Bryan I thought I was alone, the only one like me. Blogging has revealed that wasn’t the case. I’ve connected with old acquaintances and found shared experiences and struggles. I suspect you aren’t the only one either. I also believe you’ll find safe allies among your fellow students and faculty. Allies who will gladly journey with you through your frustrations, sorrows, and loneliness. You aren’t meant to carry this alone, brothers and sisters, so please don’t.

 

Bryan was a crucial part of my spiritual growth. I’m not happy with many of the decisions my alma mater has made recently, but I’m thankful for the people who touched my life and continue to encourage me. Some of my closest friendships have developed after graduation when I reconnected and opened up. This blog has also helped me reestablish ties to many of my former acquaintances, and while I regret the opportunities lost, I’m thankful for the chance to build relationships from where we find ourselves now. We serve a God of second chances, a God who redeems our stories.

depressed man

Learning to Pick Ourselves Up

This isn’t the post I wanted to write.

 

We love testimonials of individuals who overcome adversity. But sometimes we don’t overcome. Sometimes we take a leap of faith and we don’t catch the next ledge.

 

Sometimes we fall.

 

I spent the last four years after college avoiding the GRE. The exam slowly became something bigger than my hatred of algebra and geometry. It transformed into an obstacle that I suspected I’d never get over. Maybe the challenge would require more than I could give.

 

It was like time stopped during those four years. Nothing really happened; I slept a lot and worked various jobs. I took random college classes like Shakespeare, Chemistry, and Exercise Physiology trying to find a new career path that didn’t involve LGBTQ issues or anything that might be considered too controversial (English professor, doctor, physical therapist, personal trainer…). I just wanted God to make life clear; to help me find my purpose. At least a purpose that fit snuggly in my comfort zone. But really I was just delaying the tough questions; I avoided conflict; I closed myself off from others, trying to figure out this gay thing alone.

 

My life shifted after reading an insight from Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Cain went to law school and began a successful career as a lawyer on Wall Street. And yet she found herself unsatisfied. She discovered her envy indicated the life she actually yearned to live. Cain didn’t crave opportunities to argue cases before the Supreme Court like some of her colleagues. She discovered she envied two groups of friends: those who had become writers and those who had become psychologists.1 Whoa, me too, Susan…

 

I envied my psychology friends pursuing clinical psychology degrees, becoming instruments of shalom, binding emotional wounds—speaking words of hope and redemption. I envied Gay Christian bloggers ministering to the marginalized through words of vulnerability, building connection and community for the spiritually isolated and outcast. I fell in love with the spiritual memoir genre; I wanted to weave words and universal themes that transcended the topic of sexual orientation—creating words of art from the mundane and ordinary. I envied some of those people too. I wanted to be a combination of all those things.

 

Nearly every Fall I’d tell people I was going to apply to graduate school. And every Fall the GRE represented what I believed I couldn’t do. I’m not smart enough to make a good score. Even if I made a good score, I’d have to make the difficult transition into adulthood. I’d have to speak up, and one excuse led to another. I’m too awkward. I don’t know what to say. I’m a terrible communicator.

 

But something changed this year. Time hadn’t stopped during those years of aimlessness. I was ready to commit to something and give it everything I had, risk everything, and participate in God’s redemptive story. So the idea of this blog came to life. The time had come to open up and find opportunities to manifest courage amid my fears.

 

I’ve learned a lot about failure through that process. This has been a crazy year. I’ve said a lot of stupid things. I’ve struggled too hard for attention. I’ve defined success far too narrowly. I’ve been anxious and depressed. I’ve wanted to give up and never publish another word again.

 

But what then?

 

I come alive when I write. I come alive when people tell me their stories. My passions reveal a deeper design crafted by my Heavenly Father. How can I walk away from that?

 

I’ve spent four years fearing I would fail the GRE. And my fear came true last week. But so what? I’m still alive, still just as beloved by my Savior and Creator. I’m still loved by friends and family.

 

I can try again.

 

Through failure I learn. It strengthens my resolve to fight for my life. I’m not going to give up on my passions and my calling. If mathematics is the obstacle standing in my way, then so be it. I’ll work harder this next month. And now that I’ve taken the real thing, it’s not so intimidating. The GRE is nothing more than a test. There’s no wizard behind the curtain, no monster underneath the bed. I’m not afraid.

 

“Why do we fall?” Thomas Wayne asks a young Bruce. It’s a question that recurs throughout Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. Alfred later echoes the question as everything burns around them. The conclusion remains the same.

 

So we can learn to pick ourselves up.

 

And with God’s grace, we can.

 

/ / /

 

Photo courtesy of Doug Shelton at Creationswap

 

  1. Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. New York: Crown Publishers, 2012, 218-219.
depressed woman

When I Fear God Is Not Good

God sometimes feels something like Sid from Toy Story.

 

A sadistic kid with evil plots for his toys.

 

I grew up in a denomination that emphasized God’s sovereignty over history and our salvation. God chose some through predestination to Heaven, while abandoning others to their fate in Hell.

 

We had proof texts like

 

“For his dominion is an everlasting dominion,

and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;

all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,

and he does according to his will among the host of heaven

and among the inhabitants of the earth;

and none can stay his hand

or say to him, ‘What have you done?’”

Daniel 4:34-35 ESV.

 

I believed in God’s absolute sovereignty without question like any good Reformed Christian. I believed scripture was black and white. God is good because He promises I can trust Him.

 

But there came a day when I didn’t trust God. I realized at Bryan College I was never going to become straight and I didn’t have a clue what that meant for my life. It scared me. Celibacy scared me. The idea of marrying a guy scared me.

 

I had invested all my hope in healing my sexuality. I am not gay. I cannot be gay. I AM NOT GAY. I just had to figure out God’s secret plan to make myself straight. I felt at home among conservative, straight Christians because I believed eventually I was going to be one of them. Beautiful wife. A couple kids. The American dream.

 

I woke up.

 

What now? The church hadn’t prepared me for this reality. I didn’t feel like God had prepared me to be gay in the church. Suddenly the safe, familiar home amid conservative, straight Christians felt foreign and threatening. Everything I believed was called into question.

 

Who are you, God?

 

C. S. Lewis wrote amid the grief of losing his wife “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’”¹

 

After college I developed friendships with other gay men. I didn’t want to freak anyone out, so I kept my new friends a secret from my family and church. Secrets kill the soul and damage relationships. I made a lot of mistakes and got hurt multiple times. But over those years I made a few friends and acquaintances I still care about. Out of a lot of men driven by lust I found a few who loved Jesus or at least had the maturity to value friendship.

 

I found myself in a tension of old beliefs and new ideas I wanted to believe. The God I had known was one who loved the elect, not every single human being. I didn’t want to get on His bad side. How could I reconcile this image with the Jesus who came in grace and truth and hung out with sinners? But I also felt like a man looking into two storefront windows. One, the conservative Christian church; the other, the lives of my gay friends. Some of my gay friends were very dear to me. One pastor had told me that not only were gay Christians going to Hell, but they had an even worst place in Hell prepared for them because they knew the truth and used Jesus to cover their sins. That really helped my anxieties.

 

Could I be more righteous than God for loving those He refused to love?

 

Suddenly my faith fell apart. I felt that in order to be a Christian, I needed to give up my compassion. It made sense why so many evangelicals stick to their own. They have certainty that the people they love will be with them in Heaven. You don’t have to be stressed out, anxious, depressed, and angry all the time. You can coldly tell someone, you’re a sinner. Repent or get the hell out of my life.

 

I was mad at God. I could totally relate to Lewis when he wrote, “Sometimes it is hard not to say ‘God forgive God.’”² Scripture told me not to be anxious, but how can you surrender your anxiety to God when you can’t trust your Heavenly Father?

 

I was mad at Christians. Their ignorance and lack of concern for the marginalized infuriated me. I ranted on Facebook. A lot. My friend count dropped as I offended my evangelical acquaintances. I drifted away from church. I didn’t go most Sundays, and if I did, it was only out of obligation.

 

God felt silent. I could only read scripture through the paradigm of my denomination and it hurt. I had questions and the answers Christians gave me were hallow. The answers closed off my spirit. If I wasn’t working or in a class, you would likely find me in bed. That’s all I had energy for those days. When awake, my mind would go back to the same questions. They repeated over and over. I preferred sleep over the migraines I gave myself worrying about others. Worrying what this all meant for my life.

 

“Go to Him when your need is desperate,” Lewis wrote, “when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.”³

 

It’s one thing if you’re conservative and believe in complete free will. Maybe you can convince a loved one to change. But if you’re convinced that God predestines all things, then you’re powerless. If everything is preordained, why pray? God’s made His choice. Why feel? I might get attached to a Hell-bound sinner. Maybe I had chosen to be a Christian because I feared Hell more than I loved Jesus. Maybe that’s what God wanted—my fear rather than my love. I finally assumed this must be what it means to be a reprobate; incapable of accepting the harsh reality of God’s nature. I was a bad Christian. Bad, Seth. Bad.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

So here I am today. I’m still a Christian. I’m still in love with God. And many of my questions still remain.

 

I met a new acquaintance earlier this year. He said something in a coffee shop that shifted my perspective. Maybe when God leaves a question unanswered, the problem is that we’re asking the wrong question.

 

C. S. Lewis came to agree with this concept.

 

“When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace child; you don’t understand.’

 

Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask—half our great theological and metaphysical problems—are like that.”4

 

I lost sight of grace. I’d been drenched in Calvinism for so long, I had forgotten what grace feels like.

 

I believe salvation is all of God. It’s not what I do, believe, say, think, or feel. It’s what Christ accomplished and finished on the cross. It’s not of works. It doesn’t demand perfection, because I can’t meet that standard.

 

I don’t know exactly how grace works. Where does God’s regenerating work end and man’s freedom of will begin? I don’t know.

 

“He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” John 1:11-13 ESV. Awesome. That clears up everything.

 

I know many Christians want to have their I’s dotted and their T’s crossed, but I’ve realized if I want to have a thriving relationship with God I don’t need to have perfect doctrine. I need Jesus. I need His relationship. I need to discover Him in scripture, prayer, and community to shape me into His image. I don’t have to know everything.

 

There will always be a tension between passages like John 3:16 and Romans 9. You can choose either side and use one to interpret the other. We can get lost in debates over which perspective best glorifies God. And it’s a major issue for some Christians. It’s all scripture though. And maybe we’re supposed to wrestle with these questions. It’s nothing new for me as a gay Christian—spiritual wrestling and questions.

 

The Bible is more than systematic theology. Scripture is a narrative of how God redeemed us from our depravity and brokenness. We don’t want the Bible to be a story. We want to know the basics. Tell us the rules. Give us a life manual. How do we avoid Hell? But the Bible is so much more. It’s His love letter. It’s our history. It’s our vision for the future. If we strip it down to doctrinal points, we lose the hope of the gospel. We lose the opportunity to know God.

 

Lewis continued from the quotation above and wrote, “And now that I come to think of it, there’s no practical problem before me at all. I know the two great commandments, and I’d better get on with them.”5

 

My compassion is not weakness. I need it to live out God’s overarching commands. I fell in love with the people the church ostracized; the ones who may never come to the “right” conclusions. That’s real agape love. I don’t love people with an agenda. I don’t have a timetable for you to conform to my beliefs by a certain length of time. I just love people. And I love Jesus.

 

I’ve found comfort from a passage of scripture as I’ve returned to God:

 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 4:43-48.

 

I’m thankful for this passage. If God calls me to love my enemies, what does this say of His heart? Would God call me to a higher standard than He can meet? God is the standard. I am to love my enemies because He loved His enemies. When I fear God is not good, I turn to one act, God’s substitutionary death on the cross, and it reveals something of God’s character. Rather than Sid, an immature, evil brat, I see Aslan. Fierce, dangerous, and holy. But most definitely good.

 

I don’t really have a position on homosexuality. I’m not “Side A” or “Side B.” I’m a man who wants to walk alongside the church and LGBTs and get my hands dirty with love and grace. I’m not positive what God thinks on the subject. I’m not God. But as I’ve encountered my Father apart from hardcore Calvinism, I’ve found a God of mercy and compassion. He’s not so much wrathful as He is concerned with justice in a corrupt world. I have held my gay friends tightly in my fists. I had to solve the questions for them. And I finally trust God enough to let go. They’re in good hands. Whatever eternity reveals, I know my responsibility in this life. Love God. Love my neighbor.

 

I’d better get on with that.

 

photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user Yuliya Libkina

 

1. C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: HarperOne, 1961), 18.

2. Ibid, 40.

3. Ibid, 18.

4. Ibid, 81-82

5. Ibid, 82.