Why Do People Fall Back into Homosexuality?
By John Freeman
One question that is often asked here at Harvest USA is also commonly asked in our culture. “Why do people, Christians even, go back to a gay life after they have come for help?” It’s a legitimate question.
For Christians who believe the historic word, the Scriptures, and believe that faith in Christ makes one a “new creation,” the issue may seem confusing, but the answer must be honest and biblically-grounded. Let me give you six reasons to explain what might be happening here, as we have seen some common denominators over the years in our ministry work.
1. It’s just too painful
Pain is a major motivator for all of us. We seek to avoid pain, and if we are in pain, we seek to get out of it. Even if the pain we are experiencing is something we need to go through in order to reach a better place, the experience of the pain itself can motive us to go back to our original state.
Whenever we cultivate sinful behavior or thought patterns, there is always a “death” that goes along with putting off and abandoning that behavior or thought pattern. There is a void in the place of the person you need to leave or the addictive habit you need to stop. What once filled your heart, even though it was ungodly to do so, leaves a pain-filled emptiness inside. However, this is an important part of the healing process! It must happen! Repentance is more than just saying “I’m sorry;” it involves a change of mind and heart and necessitates a different action—turning around and going in the other direction.
There is pain involved in denying ourselves what we wish for in the depths of our heart. It’s true of the drug addict coming clean, of the single person saying “no” to continuing to have sex outside of marriage, and of the person struggling with same-sex attraction or behavior. Sometimes it just hurts to see that you can’t go back to that old place that was so familiar, so second nature.
“Wait a minute,” you might say. “How could someone hunger for one’ old life when he or she has the presence and promises of God?”
It happens. Why? Because it is our nature! The Bible talks about how the Israelites were led out of captivity in a powerful way by the miraculous power and presence of God. Yet, when hard times came, they hungered for their past bondage, believing that what they had was better than what God was giving to them (see Exodus 14:1-12). It’s in all of our natures!
Some people who begin journeying out of homosexuality know they must cut off associations, friendships, and those with whom they have been sexually involved. That’s a kind of “death,” albeit a death that will lead to life. Sometimes people who begin such a journey don’t want to endure it any longer when they encounter that pain, and they despair of Christ ever giving them a feeling of peace and enjoyment that characterized their old life at times. So, they go back.
A second way to avoid pain can come when we see the muck and mire of our own hearts. Most people wrongly think that their first need is to be pain free. We know biblically, however, that our first, greatest, and ongoing need is to be forgiven. Only when we see our hearts as they really are do we begin to grasp our deep need of Christ. Yet so often we will go to any length to avoid seeing the true condition of our hearts.
I call this the “Tupperware Syndrome.” Sometimes I’ll go to the refrigerator, hungry for a snack. Because my wife is a Tuppeware adherent, I must discover through extensive investigation what leftover lurks beneath the lids of all those containers. Occasionally, I’ll lift the lid and before I even see what’s inside, I can smell it: the odor of something that’s been in the refrigerator way too long. It’s gone bad. What’s my reaction? I press down the lid and slide it back in the fridge. I’m going to let someone else deal with it. Well, that is often the first response when we see the ugliness of what is in our heart.
Even when we begin to follow Jesus earnestly, we must deal with the scars on our hearts, scars caused by our own actions and the actions of others against us. The truth is that Jesus changes us through a process of growth, but the pain of our past and the ramifications of our sinful choices and behaviors may remain. Although God gives us a new future, he doesn’t rewrite our past. The past may leave a dark blot and an open wound in our hearts. Into that pain, the struggler must believe that God really does give us a new beginning, a clean record (from our past sins), and a new way to interpret life, heal from our wounds, and live in a way that brings glory to God. Pain is not an enemy in this new journey; it is what opens us up to who we are and who God is, so that we might see a new path forward.
2. The cost of obeying Christ seems too high a price to pay
For many people, the call to obey Christ and live within the boundaries of sexuality designed by God is just too hard, and its benefits too intangible and not immediate enough. Unfortunately, this is the kind of society in which we now live. If anything seems too difficult or doesn’t produce immediate results, then it’s not worth the time and effort. The downside of life in a technologically-based society is the false utopian ideal that everything should work or should be fixable now! Growth that can only take place over time, and the very idea of struggle itself, is dismissed as unnatural.
I remember something Gail Barker, our first secretary at Harvest USA, said to me one day more than two decades ago. Gail was telling me that while she was growing up in the 1940’s, life was difficult, and everyone just accepted the idea of struggle as a part of life. She went on to say that was why people enjoyed times of respite from struggle. There was an awareness that life was not easy, and therefore one came to appreciate the times when life was not so hard. But those moments were brief, which made them so much more valuable. This is especially important for those who desire to come out of a homosexual life to realize.
God calls us all to obedience to his will, to what he knows is best for his creation, and that entails turning away from those things which seem to offer life, but in reality lead to the death of the soul. Those who have embraced homosexuality have opened a Pandora’s Box and have found false comfort and counterfeit life in a mistaken attempt to make sense of a broken and fallen world. That’s true for anything anyone embraces outside of God’s design, not just for this issue. Sometimes, then, God’s call to all of us to live a life of holiness (that is, a life live according to God’s call, separated and apart from the innumerable ways the world encourages us to live) seems not worth the price to pay. Like I mentioned in point number one, that price is nothing less than a “death;” the death that comes from leaving behind those things that once gripped your heart and felt good and affirming.
There is suffering involved in self-denial. The book of Hebrews reminds us that it is costly to walk in self-denial in order to live fully engaged in a life with God. In Hebrews 11:24-26, we read, “Moses refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.” To deny oneself immediate pleasure and gratification is only possible when you look ahead to a greater future, one that is only realized by immersing oneself in God and in the people of God.
Of course, to speak of a road of self-denial and suffering seems like an unattractive option to most people. That is understandable, as many who come to Harvest USA say that they can’t imagine a future life without sexual involvement with a person of the same-sex. Yet it will be the path, at least most strongly in the beginning, for those journeying out of a homosexual life.
But there is an answer here. Unless that person comes to see Jesus as the one who takes center stage in his or her heart, displacing all others and the idols that draw us away from following him, then there will be an overwhelming and unending ache over what has been left behind and what is being denied. Seeking to end that ache makes going back into sin that much easier and attractive. Jesus has to be seen as more attractive, worth much more than the denial of the flesh. Self-denial is not displaced by nothing; it is replaced, slowly, over time, by a growing relationship with Jesus, and it is in that relationship that the grace and power to live a whole new life comes. It is a life that has its own joys and pleasures, made all the richer in the knowledge that such a life pleases the One who redeemed you by his death for you. We have learned at Harvest USA that unless people grasp that there is a greater reward that comes with obedience, then they don’t make it.
3. A failure to develop a prayer and devotional life
By developing a prayer and devotional life, I’m not talking about the kind of desperate praying that one does by begging God, “Please change me!” I understand why some pray such prayers and are exhausted by the years of such praying. Many of the people who come to Harvest USA have already been here for far too long. Their early connections with or interest in the gospel really had to do with finding relief from an intolerable situation. Once someone really comes to God on his terms, this kind of immature prayer fades away. After all, it is a prayer that is wholly focused on self, wishing (demanding?) that God alter his life by divine fiat so that no further effort or struggle need occur. It’s an understandable prayer, and we feel for those whose cries speak it.
Replacing this kind of prayer must be the kind of prayer life that realizes that it’s only in communion with God where I can come to my senses about my heart, my struggles, and the world around me. This is the kind of prayer life that doesn’t look to God to make me feel better about my struggles but has, as its focus, a growing desire to know the living Lord in the depths of the chaos and unbelief that swirl though my soul.
Psalm 88 is a classic study of a heart given to prayer even where there seems to be no resolution to the struggle. This is not a feel-good psalm! It is one of the few psalms where the psalmist doesn’t experience any obvious joyful breakthroughs. In fact, it’s filled with unbelievable sarcasm. The end of the psalm is as distressing as the beginning. That is, until you look carefully at some of the words.
The one common refrain throughout the psalm is, “I cried out to you.” It’s repeated three times. This is a key to understanding the psalm and the one who wrote it. The suffering psalmist realizes that coming before the Lord is the important thing—not necessarily to gain relief, but to know that the God of the universe is aware of his suffering. Upon closer observation, one realizes that the process of this prayer offers resolution.
This reminds me of a line from the movie, Shadowlands, which is the story of C.S. Lewis and his wife, Joy. In the movie, he was once congratulated on his wife’s remission from cancer. One of his college friends tells Lewis that his prayers seem to be changing things. Lewis’ response is remarkable. He says, “Oh, I don’t pray to change things. Prayer changes me.” Whether or not Lewis actually said those words in real life, it is still a profound and true statement.
Bringing our hurting, unbelieving, struggling hearts before the Lord in true honesty (as honest and true as the psalmist of Psalm 88, whose words are scathingly honest!) is crucial for any believer and especially so for someone who is struggling with homosexuality. Prayer must turn from attention to self to attention to the One who loves us, no matter our sin or struggle. He does care; he does pay attention. But he wants, first and foremost, for our hearts to be dependent on him and not on getting his gifts (changed circumstances) so that we can go on and live our life as we please.
This is a very subtle thing, but it is something significant that begins to characterize the heart of the struggler. How does demandingness show up? In a variety of ways.
The most common way is demanding that feelings and attractions change, usually on the person’s own timetable. Sometimes months or years later, a man will complain to us that he still feels strongly attracted to men, or a woman is still attracted to women. Our response is, “Why does that surprise you?” It would surprise us if they didn’t.
You see, if you spend years cultivating desires and acting on attractions and feeding temptations, it is perfectly understandable that your heart is still stirred by what has characterized your life. If a man or a woman has spent years looking at others in a way that diminishes the image of God in them, reducing others to what he or she can get from others, then that will be the first place one’s heart will turn to until he or she learns over time to love others biblically. This is an important lesson to learn; otherwise, you will be surprised at the ferocity of the desires of the “old man” or “old woman.” It is within this context that a struggler can demand for God to stop those attractional pulls and desires instantaneously, but they need to understand that there can be many reasons these feelings will still occur.
What else is going on here? One, there is a false idea of what healing means, as well as a lack of understanding of what it means to have the old (sinful) nature and the new (redeemed) nature war within you. This ignorance leaves one vulnerably exposed to the wiles and schemes of the evil one, and that can lay a foundation of demandingness in the heart.
As for what healing is, there is confusion about, and sometimes a demand, that God remove feelings and attractions for the same sex, while at the same time, cause feelings and attractions for the opposite sex. It has been our experience that God doesn’t bring one out of a general lust for the same sex and into a general lust for the opposite sex. Rather, as one begins to have an understanding, acceptance, and appreciation of who one is in their true sexual identity, they can begin to experience a lessening of same-sex attraction over time. What may also occur is an attraction for someone of the opposite sex (not generalized but specific toward one person with whom they are in relationship). But it is important to note that the ability to walk in obedience and experience a sense of wholeness in Christ can occur whether or not one ever develops sexual attraction for the opposite sex.
At times during their initial interviews, when someone is asked why they came to Harvest USA, we’ll get this response: “I want to be like everyone else. I want to be married and have a traditional family.” We tell them that, while that is a noble and good goal to have, it cannot be the reason for their coming to Harvest. Why not? Because, invariably, when feelings don’t change and these expectations don’t materialize in the person’s timetable, they will grow disillusioned and want to give up. Often underneath this is the demand, “God, you better come through for me! Look how much I have given up for you!”
5. Disappointment with God
Demandingness and disappointment go hand in hand. Disappointment with God is a natural consequence of demands not met. Proverbs 13:12 says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” How true this is. That is why it is very important to know why we are following Christ.
Too many people come into Christianity because of what they want God to do for them. On the one hand, it is important to realize that there are things only God can do for us. Only he can make our hearts come alive to him (what the theologians call regeneration); only he can forgive and cancel the debt of sin we have incurred; only he can shape us to conform to his image and give us a changed character and a new direction for our lives; only he promises us to never to leave nor forsake us; only he can raise us from the dead and give us life everlasting.
On the other hand, we must realize that some of the deepest desires of our hearts may never be fulfilled. A deep disappointment with God can occur when we place those desires (however unaware we may be of doing so) in a place of prominence in our lives. We are mistaken when we think that it is only bad desires that are sinful in our lives; sometimes even good desires can become so large and important in our lives that they take a place of centeredness in our hearts, and then we find ourselves living for them rather than for God. James 1:14 says, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” James is using a Greek word, epithumia, which basically means “over-desire,” or “very strong desire.” These desires can be good, but they can also be destructive if they are out of balance in one’s life (“I must have this in my life!”) or out of bounds (outside of God’s design).
Too often, even without realizing it, God can be viewed as a kind of spiritual Santa Claus. All of us have a wishlist miles long. One must be sure of what the “desire fulfilled,” like in the Proverbs passage, is for them. To think with a biblical worldview of life, we need to acknowledge that we may not get everything we desire while on this earth. We are left to live with longings and desires, many of which will not be fulfilled this side of the new heavens and the new earth.
There is nothing that exposes the real foundations of our faith as when we realize that we are deeply disappointed with what God has allowed to be, or not allowed to be, in our lives. It is one thing to submit to God in his withholding, grieving those things that we have wished for while trusting in his goodness for his specific plan in our lives; it is another thing altogether to develop a deep disappointment with God, which will inevitably produce a cold and demanding heart.
It is easy to look at our disappointments in life and question whether or not God is really good; whether or not he knows what is best for us. If we do not answer that question affirmatively, then we can find ourselves slipping into disobedience where, with our actions, we will make sure we will not be disappointed again. Watch out for demandingness and deep disappointment! They go together, and they mark the path of impending spiritual disaster.
6. Living in dishonesty
People don’t just “jump” back into disobedience. What usually happens is that they walk back step by step, and both they and those around them are typically unaware of what is happening. In every case at Harvest USA, where someone has come for help and then gone back into the gay life, this has been the case. When some have come back later, and we ask them when they first began to experience strong and overwhelming struggles to the point of giving in, they will point back to a specific period in time long before they fell.
Yet, they never opened up to anyone about the struggle! Instead, they chose to pursue bondage again to sin—totally in secret. When questioned about why they didn’t come and share their heart with anyone about their struggles, virtually the same answer is given: “I knew you would tell me it was wrong.”
In each case, when the heart begins to do what it wants to do, the idea of honesty with those closest and best able to help was intentionally not pursued. Often, the person will be open with those in the gay life—or even with those in a gay-affirming church—during their time of secrecy with you. Why? Because when they decided to slip back, the thought of hearing what you would say would cause them even more distress! Already struggling, they wanted to get out of the struggle (see the point on demandingness), and hearing truth, even truth spoken with love and mercy, was something to which they had already closed their ears.
Those who begin to walk in this kind of dishonesty are sometimes beyond help at this point. They see their new change of heart as a new kind of “freedom” because it eliminates (even if only temporarily) the distress they are in.
Fear and shame enter into this kind of dishonesty. We have seen it in those who have come to us after spending time in Christian counseling, having never really opened up about the real issue of their same-sex attraction or behavior. Instead, they talked about loneliness, depression, and the like, issues that skirted around and shrouded the truth of their struggles.
It’s been our experience that no one gets better; no one grows, unless they “lay the cards on the table.” All the time! Both with God and with other people. People dealing with homosexuality, as with other sexual sins, must be ruthlessly honest with themselves and a few, selected other people they are willing to trust. Sexual struggles and sin move people into lives of denial, secrecy, and silence. These self-protective mechanisms are simply deadly. It is only in a community of mercy and truth (what should characterize the church) that fear and shame can be overcome and honesty becomes as regular as breathing. If only the church were truly like this, would we see men and women less likely to flee into sexual sin and into communities that support such behavior? When the church, even imperfectly, loves sexual strugglers with mercy and truth, then the struggler is in a better position to see and respond to Christ’s love even when their hearts are divided. God understands our divided hearts, our doubts, and our deep pockets of unbelief.
These situations are painful for all concerned. It is especially painful to see those you love, with whom you’ve spent much time, and in whose lives you have built a growing relationship with seem to desert all that they once held so strongly. No one escapes this tragedy.
These six factors are the big ones that move people to revert back to sinful behavior. I must point out that these reasons are not unique to people with same-sex attraction. I have seen men and women in the church who have deserted the faith or left their marriage vows, and their reasons for doing so can be the same ones I highlighted here. The heart of the person dealing with homosexuality is not unlike the heart of any other sinner. Every one of us is prone to follow his own course in life. It’s only the Lord’s grace and goodness that keeps anyone pursuing the truth and living life on God’s terms rather than his own.