16 Aug 2012
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.
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.
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.
How many of us have responded to trials by figuratively shaking our fists at God and saying, “This isn’t fair!” Or, maybe just tearfully crying out to him, “No, Lord, I don’t want this…I can’t handle it…it’s too much.” I have, on more than a few occasions, done both. Contentment and trust in the Lord are like the waves that crash in from the ocean.
They wash over me as I fix my faith upon him, and then, as the waves slowly recede, I look away from him and get ‘caught’ in the “snare of the compare.”
At The Gospel Coalition’s Women’s Conference in June 2012, Carolyn Mahaney gave a great talk on this subject of comparing ourselves with what God brings into the lives of others. She spoke on John 21, focusing on the dialogue between Jesus and Peter on the beach. After being told of the painful death he would one day endure, Peter’s response to Jesus echoes what so many of us would say: “But Lord…what about this man (referring to John)?” (v. 21). Jesus’ response was the most loving and caring thing he could have said: “What is that to you? You follow me!” (v.22).
I’ve heard so many relationally and sexually broken women express this same kind of struggle: “Lord, why does this temptation of being attracted to other women persist? Why won’t you just remove it completely? Father, why didn’t you allow me to learn of my husband’s porn struggles before we got married? Why do my friends all seem to have happy, sexually whole marriages—and I don’t?
While we live on this earth, we may receive some of the answers to the questions that arise from our hurting and confused hearts. Other questions, however, will remain unanswered. This may feel unendurable in our information-saturated culture, where we seek for and demand quick answers. Yet the most loving, helpful counsel isn’t to have every nitty-gritty detail made available, but rather to hear and reflect on what Jesus said to Peter: “You follow me.”
Yes, to follow hard after Jesus, to be fixed upon him and to let him lead, instruct, teach, and counsel us (Psalm 32:8) through our valleys, temptations, heartaches, and pain. When we are faced with circumstances we don’t want and which are out of our control, Jesus calls us to trust of him. This is faith, expressed in love (Galatians 5:6), and it will look different from woman to woman. Living with unanswered questions is one way the Lord draws us to trust in his heart for us.
What would be some ways to live this out?
• Resolving daily to follow Jesus, and to receive the losses which will come from having to refuse influences which tempt you towards emotional and sexual lust
• Letting go of or allowing significant space between you and a friend in a relationship that has become life-consuming for you
• Courageously and humbly seeking help from others for your marriage when the pain from your husband’s sexual sin is so overwhelming
• Confessing to a sister in Christ or a spiritual leader that you are ensnared in sexual sin and that you can’t battle it on your own anymore—you need help!
What Peter couldn’t understand when Jesus commanded him to follow him at all costs was that soon the Spirit of Jesus would be sent into his soul. It is the Spirit, living within us, that gives us constant communion with Christ, enabling his grace to do its work within us, to follow and obey.
Will you say this to him now? “Yes, Jesus, I will follow you today, and not look behind, or to my right or left, or seek to compare myself to others in their walk with you. I will allow you to do your unique work within me, as I make my home in you.”
Even worse, have you suffered with uncontrollable thoughts? You try to restrain where your mind wanders, but it keeps straying back against your will to certain memories, individuals, or fantasies. Thoughts break in constantly, causing distraction. You’ve prayed, fasted, memorized Scripture—but nothing seems to work for very long. The thoughts, desires, and attractions come back, leaving you feeling defeated and hopeless. You lose hope that victory over your thoughts is even possible.
Since you’ve been trying to change for years without success, you just expect you’ll be at it again eventually.
How has your struggle with sexual sin—in your desires and behavior—impacted your life? It appears so innocuous at first: Masturbation may be a “guilty pleasure,” but it seems relatively harmless. Using porn or fantasy to fuel your behavior then becomes an obvious necessity. But there is always a steady progression. What starts with provocative ads or romance novels turns into soft porn and explicit stories. Then you want to experience more and more. Eventually, still pictures aren’t enough, and the Internet has made video downloads so easy. What began as a pleasant escape from the humdrum routine or pressures of life becomes an obsession. Some people begin spending hours every day surfing the Internet for new porn. Others pursue connection through chat rooms or phone sex. Many end up doing what they previously thought impossible—seeking out sexual encounters.
This increasing escalation has a price tag. We all have a very finite life. The time, energy, and money invested in pursuing sexual sin is stealing from your family, future security, career aspirations, ability to serve God and others, etc. Every day men and women are sacrificing things of infinite value to pursue their sexual desires. Even our health becomes a casualty. HIV and other STDs abound. The strain of living a secret, “double life” results in depression, ulcers, and anxiety.
In Psalm 32:3-4, David describes the cost of hidden sin: “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer” (ESV). We willingly sacrifice everything most dear to us—spouse, children, career, financial success, even faith (described as “more precious than gold” in 1 Peter 1:7)—on the altar of our sexual desires. It is crucial to reckon with this reality.
What has your sin cost you?
Even if your struggle hasn’t escalated as just described, have you noticed that the desires are taking up more space in your head and heart? Maybe you are able to manage your behavior on a day-to-day basis, but do you invest time carefully planning your next opportunity? Or savoring the memories of your last exploit? How do you respond to others when your carefully orchestrated plan is thwarted? Maybe your behavior looks okay on the outside, but inwardly you’re enslaved.
There is something incredibly important you need to know: You are not alone in this battle against sin. Too many in the church either aren’t being honest or are blind to this reality, but every Christian who wants to grow in holiness needs to face the fact that there are places in life where he or she is still enslaved by sin. So Paul writes,
“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Romans 7:15-25).
Paul poignantly describes the experience of every Christian battling against sin. There is a profound sense of slavery and frustration in our inability to overcome particular struggles. You can almost see Paul beating his head against the wall in utter exasperation. And the battle is on two fronts: We both continue in sin we hate, and at the same time we woefully neglect God’s calling to love him and others in specific ways. Your situation is not unique. It was experienced by the most prolific writer of the NT, the eminent apostle who fearlessly took the message of Christ to Rome, the place of ultimate power and opposition to Jesus in the 1st century. And it has been the experience of every other leader in the church since and every man in the pew. All of us continue to struggle significantly with sin as Christians and sexual sin in particular reduces us to slavery. But in the midst of his seeming despair, Paul clings to the hope of our Deliverer. The goal of this book is for you to see the heart of the gospel. Jesus came to deliver you from the kingdom of darkness now!
Regardless of where you are in your struggle with sexual sin, prayerfully consider the following questions, and know that despite where you’ve been, Jesus is offering you a transformed life!
What have you sacrificed on the altar of sexual sin: money, time, relationships, etc.? Are you honestly assessing what it is costing you in your life, your relationships, your walk with God?
What encouragement can you gain from Paul’s struggle with sin in Romans 7?