I Am Not My Sin
Becky had become a born-again Christian only months before, at an emotionally charged youth rally. She sat at my dining room table and poured out her past. Gay bars, her “butch” persona, her last relationship that she broke off. Now, like Lot’s wife, she was looking back longingly to that past, because she wasn’t finding emotional fulfillment and support in the church’s fellowship.
Paul was popular, a fraternity leader, a seminarian. He was found with another young man in his dorm room. He poured out his heart as the college’s administration met to decide what to do with him. He felt his life was over; he was contemplating suicide.
William was a leader in the youth group. He and another young man in the youth group were discovered in bed together at a retreat. As the associate pastor in charge of youth, I chaired the meeting with the parents and their kids to discuss the issue.
I hired Joe as a drywall helper and we quickly became best friends. He began to confide in me about his past of horrific sexual abuse by his adoptive family, and his life in Hollywood as a male prostitute for drug money. I eventually baptized him in my former Protestant church. Three years later he died of a drug overdose.
These are a few stories from homosexuals I have counseled over the past 35 years, first as a Protestant Christian and now as an Orthodox Christian. The Orthodox Church’s spirituality both affirmed and challenged my thinking about homosexuality over the years. This article is based on these experiences. As part of my exploration of how Orthodoxy has actually affected the lives of people living with same-sex attraction issues, several converts to Orthodoxy agreed to participate anonymously in interviews about their struggles with same-sex attraction (SSA) for this article.
What’s in a Name?
When I met Joe, his very first words to me were, “I hate Jesus Christ and I hate Christians.” After learning what he had endured in the minister’s family that adopted him, I could not blame him. After becoming a Christian, he wrestled with his identity in Christ. He said he had a hard time with the Christian attitude that, “If you have sex with several people of the opposite sex you simply sinned, but if you give oral sex to one man you are a fag forever.” He never escaped the label, even in Christ, and I believe he died a “fag” in his own mind.
What do we call people who are attracted to the same sex? What we call ourselves or someone else can define the human being in a way that denies basic Christian dogma about our personhood. Carol succinctly summed up the Orthodox view in our interview: “I am not my sin.”
The Christian faith teaches us that we are all created in the image of God. The Fathers teach that the image may be marred, corroded, covered, but it is never lost. While those in the world may lay claim to their sin as a label or a badge, those who are Christians are not labeled with their sin, but are merely Christians: in the image of Christ. We either bear the name of Christ, or we bear the name of our sins. St. Paul says no “fornicators, idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God, and such were some of you but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-11).
When we enter the arena of the Church and the struggle against sin, we are no longer labeled with our sin. This is true of heterosexual sin, homosexual sin, or any other sin. We are not defined by the gender of the person for whom we have a sexual desire, but by Christ. The Church is only concerned with who you are becoming in Christ through the practice of the virtues, regardless of your besetting sin.
Almost all the people interviewed commented that this revelation was one of the most comforting aspects of the Orthodox faith. Their struggle is against sin, not against their humanity. Andrew said, “Being gay is not a ‘struggle’. It’s a struggle to see yourself as worthy of love and respect; from yourself, from other people, and especially from the church. And it’s a struggle to decide how to live your life. My struggles arise from this — how to appropriately express, or not express, my sexuality.” He said these are the same “struggles” all people have, no matter what their sexual orientation, and in this sense being “gay” or “straight” makes no difference.
Many Orthodox Christians prefer to call the issue “same-sex attraction” (SSA), which defines the temptation and not the person.
The Origins of SSA
Joe was sexually abused by foster parents, then by his adoptive mother, his brothers, his cousins, and physically abused by his adoptive father. Carol was physically abused from infancy, then repeatedly raped from age seven. Gregory’s father traveled a lot on business. He was raised by his mother, who let him dress in women’s clothes and collect Barbie dolls, which upset his father. Gregory’s mother was raised by a father who she discovered was homosexual when she was about forty years old; her mother had died as an alcoholic. The pieces of her own family dysfunctions fell into place long after she had realized Gregory was “gay.” Michael’s family was a “normal” Christian family, but he knew there were several members of his extended family who were gay.
These stories are classic scenarios for producing people with SSA issues. However, research has shown that no childhood events are infallible predictors of SSA. Because of this, some propose that SSA is a genetic predisposition or irresistible trait. All of the respondents to my survey were aware of their SSA early in life, but there was not unanimity among them regarding the “nature/nurture” question. Some believe it is nature, some nurture, some think it is a little of both.
The Christian faith does not give us a definitive answer in the “nature/nurture” debate on any human frailty. Genetically caused disabilities are as much a trait of the fallen world as weaknesses visited upon us by lack of nurture and love. The issue for the Christian is the fact that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). What is the “glory of God”? It is living in perfect love and communion with God and other human beings.
But we don’t live in perfect love; we are born into corruption, futility, and death. We are conceived by fallen flesh and born into a fallen world. We are dealt a set of fallen DNA from conception. The moment we leave the womb, we are placed in the arms of a broken person, then taken home to a place where broken people are working out their salvation with fear and trembling at best, or with no fear of God at worst. From our first interactions, we are mishandled, neglected, and broken in ways we did not choose and often cannot consciously identify. The sins of the fathers are visited upon the following generations, not as punishment but as inevitable consequence. We are all broken.
What does this mean in terms of SSA? We all grow up fractured and broken. We grow up with a warfare within us that we did not choose, but which was given to us. We do not get to choose our parents and their limitations. We do not choose our physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual broken places any more than we get to choose being born with a big nose, an aptitude for math, a susceptibility to heart disease, or a gross deformity. We don’t get to pick a lot of our struggles. Ultimately, we work out our salvation with and through our unique array of genetic traits, attributes, and emotionally and spiritually damaged humanity.
What Do You Want Me to Do for You?
“What do you want Me to do for you?” Jesus asked blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:51). This is a simple question: What do we want from relationships? Joe learned to equate sex with connection or “communion” with other human beings. Gregory is attracted to strong men. He knows he is filling his father’s void in his heart. Carol was abused by men and just says, “Is it any wonder I find emotional and physical connections with women more comfortable?”
People with SSA are seeking the same thing every human being is desperate for: intimacy, unconditional acceptance, to love and be loved. This is not only about SSA. The loneliness and despair of the rejected, ugly, shy, socially inept, and sick are as hellish as the loneliness of the person with SSA. The more introspective people I’ve talked to about SSA say it is not about the sex; it is about emotional attachment, the feeling of being connected intimately to another human being. I’ve heard the same thing from heterosexual people who have committed adultery and fornication. The intense emotions of a relationship are like drugs. They are powerfully addicting. Relationships often become obsessions, and people will sacrifice everything they have for them. As important as the emotional aspects are, sex always enters the relationship. Why do potentially intimate and godly friendships between any genders often get sexualized?
First, we must remember that sex in and of itself is not evil. While it is a God-given, powerful, and unitive act between two human beings, it is neither necessary for human wholeness and intimate relationships, nor is it a “God-given right.” Our sexuality is natural to our human bodies, like eating and drinking. What is not natural is for us to use gratification of our fleshly desires to try to fill a spiritual void. Indeed, people can degenerate into a sexual life that is at the level of the animal passions, where human beings become mere objects of lust. Fasting teaches us we are not ruled by our bellies. Abstinence teaches us we are not ruled by our genitals, in spite of what our culture says.
Obsession with sex is the signpost for our culture’s existential descent into loneliness, isolation, and despair. We settle for pleasure over joy, emotion over intimacy, feelings over love, and copulation over union. The delusion is powerful. To paraphrase a Woody Allen quip, “Sex without love is an empty and hollow experience, but as empty, hollow experiences go, it’s one of the best.”
When damaged human beings are incapable of godly intimacy and joy with another human being, we often resort to sexual pleasure with another at best, or at the expense of another at worst, as a way to connect. As a former therapist we used to say about damaging relationships, “Bad breath is better than no breath at all.” The issue for the Christian is that we exchange our personhood, as defined by the image of God who is Love, for an identity as a biological creature, defined by whom we have an orgasm with in order to feel good. It is “exchanging the truth of God for the lie, and worshipping and serving the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25).
To Change or Not to Change
When I asked, “Do you think homosexuals can change?” all but one of the people interviewed said, “No.” The sole dissenter said, “I don’t know, God knows.” This was not the response I was anticipating.
All of these people related having problems with how SSA was approached in their former traditions, whether it was “God made you this way, so it is OK, just go with it”; or “all fags are going to hell”; or “homosexuals need to change into heterosexuals.” There was a wholesale rejection of their former traditions and current Protestant approaches.
Regarding the Christian organizations that promote “change therapies,” Michael said the Protestant group he was in was “counterproductive, actually. For the promise was to ‘change,’ which didn’t happen — not even close, which only added to the general hopelessness.” He said that the “drop-dead gorgeous” leader of the group eventually ran off with one of the members and is now living an openly gay lifestyle, a danger Carol noted about “support groups.”
Andrew vehemently stated, “Those organizations are dangerous. . . . Anyone who would send their children to those people should be ashamed of themselves, churches included. They should have the millstones put around their necks and be thrown into the sea.”
One might think this notion of inability to change is a sign of hopelessness and resignation. To the contrary, it was unanimously a comfort and hope to all the people I interviewed, because it placed the battle where it really belongs: against the sin, and not against themselves. And the warfare against sin is indeed a battle. Joseph said, “The discipline of Orthodoxy is essential. In time, old patterns of behavior fade, and new patterns become normative. But then you run into an old temptation face-to-face and the struggle seems as fresh as ever.”
George, an 80-year-old man who has not had a relationship in over 50 years, still has thoughts and desires that assault him. Andrew mentioned an icon of St. Anthony that said, “Expect temptation until your last breath.” As with all sin, constant vigilance is needed to escape falling.
The Beauty of Virginity
I was talking with a young man one day about SSA and the Orthodox view of celibacy and virginity. He said, “So what you are saying is, if I become Orthodox I am doomed to celibacy.” Of course the answer is yes, but the “yes” is not a bitter pill if we understand the nature of the medicine.
First, love does not REQUIRE sex. As godly as it is, sex and sexuality are not the foundations for any relationship. There is a higher union between human beings than mutual orgasms. Sex may fulfill and enhance a particular relationship, but it is not ESSENTIAL for any relationship. Personhood ultimately revolves around who we are in godly union with another human being of any gender. The joy of Trinitarian intimacy comes when we struggle against sin in order to define ourselves in Christ rather than in another human being’s arms, no matter how comfortable and affirming the experience feels to our deluded and shattered hearts.
Second, “doomed” is a strong word. It implies a living hell, torment and despair. As flippant as this may sound, living without sex is not doom. People with SSA are not the only people in the world “doomed” to abstinence as a lifestyle against their choice and desires. Having the possibility of a committed monogamous relationship because one is heterosexual is not a guarantee that one will actually have such a relationship. And having a heterosexual monogamous relationship is not a guaranteed wall against temptation, lust, and overt sin. Choices still exist, ungodly desires still run rampant, and one can wither away in loneliness and despair even in the context of a God-ordained heterosexual marriage.
Third, neither is celibacy hell. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 7 it is set forth as the “Cadillac” of vehicles to virtue and service to God. In Protestant churches, the singles ministries attest to the prevailing attitude that there is something “wrong” with a Christian who embraces the single life. But biblically, celibacy does not imply living without deep friendships, intimacy, and love. In fact, it implies learning to be intimate and to love as Christ Himself loved — as a celibate human being. It may not be a spiritual discipline we would have chosen from the cosmic menu if given the choice, but it is indeed one that all Christians may, at one time or another or even permanently, have to embrace for the sake of the Kingdom.
Carol observed that even married people are called to self-control. Andrew stated that living without sex may be difficult to accept, hard to do, a bleak prospect, an unfulfilled desire, but it is possible and it is far from “doom.” Monasticism is an option all have considered, but they know that it is not a “cure” for SSA any more than for any other sin.
The Role of the Clergy
Gregory said he would never confess to a priest he heard using the pulpit to “rant” about homosexuals. Andrew does confession with his parish priest, but not about his SSA issues. He sees a nun for that. He said if his priest asked, he would admit it, but he is not going to volunteer it. In spite of the discomfort and fears, all of the people I interviewed had a trusted spiritual director. Some were parish priests, some nuns, some lay spiritual directors. Establishing this relationship is a risky step for the person with SSA, and one that is understandably fearful.
It is clear that all priests are not created equal, and some may not be able to deal with SSA issues due to their own weaknesses. Clergy must assume that if someone with SSA issues is attending their parish, they are there to be saved; otherwise they would be going somewhere else. As Andrew said, “I don’t plan to march around church waving rainbow banners or anything. I’m not here to make political statements or change social policy. I just want to be a respected member of the parish.” The person with SSA is wary and discerning, and clergy who assume a pastoral stance regarding SSA in private conversations and sermons are trusted. None of the people interviewed cared whether their spiritual director had SSA or not. The only thing that mattered was their acceptance of them as persons and their spiritual advice.
I asked if anyone felt it necessary to “come out” to their church. No one I interviewed felt the need to or saw any wisdom in “coming out” to their entire parish, and in fact saw that as unwise and ill-advised. On the other hand, when I asked if they feared being “outed,” none of them were concerned about it.
I asked, “How can the church help people with SSA?” because ultimately the burden for healing SSA does not fall only on the clergy, but on the whole church. Andrew stated, “I really haven’t thought about how the parish could ‘help’ a gay person. I’d just want my fellow parishioners to not think any differently of me. Treat me the same as when you thought I was straight. They have known me for ten years. I am active in serving my parish. What could they say to me at this point?”
Gregory issued this challenge: “In our pre-communion prayers we all confess that we are ‘the chief of sinners.’ No one should look at another person as if they stand on moral high ground.”
I believe the message is clear. We need to adopt the attitude that we all stand at the foot of the cross in need of mercy. The Church is the Body of Christ and should be the place where the pure love of God that knows no respect of persons is found. No matter what passion someone is struggling with, we need to be the Church, the hospital for sinners, the place where we can be healed, find acceptance and relationships that draw us closer to God through love and compassion.
When all is said and done, the basic human issue we all face is loneliness and alienation. Loneliness is not a function of sexuality, but of sin. The cure for our alienation is in Christ, in His Body, the Church. The Church needs to be the Church: the place where humble love embraces the sick, the suffering, the emotionally, spiritually, and physically deformed, the outcast, the least, the lost and the lonely. In this embrace it teaches the meaning of God’s love, which transcends and heals all the ravages of sin visited on the human being, including same-sex attraction.
Welcome to this edition of Steve the Builder. It has been four months since my original podcast on Same Sex Attraction. A lot has been going on since then, partly a surge of construction work which has kept us out of foreclosure and bankruptcy so far, partly our Mission Church, partly working on my book called “Orthographs” and my new Curmudgeophan the Recluse cartoon strip from my blog called “Pithless Thoughts”, and partly avoiding this second installment because of the sensitivity of the follow up. But, I finally compiled and edited months of email exchanges since the last podcast, and this is what I’ve come up with. This is not intended to be THE last word on the issue, but it will probably be MY last words on it. So without further introduction, I’ll just jump into the questions and answers.
Q: SSA: Sounds like a “Syndrome”, can we discuss the topic without labeling people?
A: After talking with the people who participated in the creation of the original they preferred SSA to “homosexual” or “gay” or “lesbian”. SSA defines the condition, not the person like the other labels do. It is not a pejorative nor a “label”, it is merely a way to describe what people are struggling with without stigmatizing the person. For the sake of communication it had to be called something, and this was the “label of choice” that we landed on for the article.
Q: Steve, clearly you have a heart for those struggling with homosexuality, but I fear you are clinging to theological notions of homosexuality that are inconsistent with reality. In effect, you are requiring 100% of gay men to do something that fewer than 1% of heterosexual men are able to do successfully: live a celibate life. That is a recipe for failure for gay men everywhere, who are doomed by your very precept to fail. “You are not your sin” is not a comfort to those of us who know that our sexuality is indeed an integral part of our humanity, just as it is with heterosexuals. The Church may be authoritative in matters of faith, but matters of science, psychology, and diagnoses are not her bailiwick. As a gay man who has cried and prayed and struggled for half my life, I know that I will not change. And I finally have come to accept myself, whether the church does or not.
A: I can’t presume to say I can live inside your pain, but I can say I know suffering related to sexuality pretty well both personally and through my years of counseling. That said, I feel I must take issue with several of your theological and propositional statements, in all kindness and compassion for your personal struggles.
First, it is not only 1% of heterosexual men that are called to or able to live celibate lives. I don’t have statistics but I’d guess at least 30% or more of heterosexual men are unmarried. All of them are called to celibacy by God. Whether or not they or a homosexual IS or CAN be celibate is another issue entirely. Theological notions are often inconsistent with our “personal realities”, but the point of theology is to define reality not accommodate everyone’s individual issues with it.
The “recipe for failure” is the same for hetero and homosexuals if you are assuming that because you have a biological desire it therefore demands or therefore is a right to fulfillment. Theologically the reality is that all “diagnoses, psychologies and sciences” are of the fallen order: all of them merely define or identify ways in which we fail. However, because the DSM-IV does not identify something as a disorder does not necessarily make it so. The Church is indeed involved in diagnosis of human issues because that is what the Eastern spirituality is about: the healing of the human being in the image of God. The issue as I see it is that sexuality is indeed PART of our humanity but not the overarching definition of it under which all other aspects of our being function. Sexuality is subsumed to the created human image of Trintarian love which trancends sex. The Agape of the Trinity is what heals the human being, not mutual orgasms, no matter how pleasant or powerful they might be to our psyche.
So, dogma is not merely propositional theology or a concept that can be tweaked according to “what is true for you according to your personal issues”, it is ultimately an objective definition of the human being created in the image of God. And therefore, dogma defines the possibility of the return of the human being to the life of Love in the image of the Trinitarian God. All psychology does is diagnose the ways we fall short of that glory, but only the Church offers the true and final cure. It is not a matter of the Church “accepting you”... the Church does accept you because Christ accepts ALL fallen human beings no matter what they are attracted to that damages them. As I said in the first podcast, we ALL live with some consequence of the fall, whether it is premature baldness, a fat butt, a predisposition to alcohol, heroin or men. We all work out our salvation within our specific spiritual arenas. For God to ask someone to struggle against a self destructive tendency in order to attain a higher spiritual state is not “rejection”, it is a prescription for healing. It is destructive to “accept ourselves” if by that we mean we redefine our humanity so that the tail wags the dog… by this I mean that we cannot let our attractions and desires rule our emotions and define our self worth rather than our “true worth” in the image of God defining and limiting what desires and feelings we act on and define ourselves by. There are many parts of my own personal being that I know will “never change”, believe me. But I do not look at them as “gifts of God” or something to be celebrated or a license to “be what I am”. If I did that God knows what a bigger wake of destruction I would leave behind me than I already have.
At the risk of sounding cold, years of tears are not the permission for us to redefine our humanity in order to stop crying. If anything they are an existential and spiritual badge that you are indeed human because you are struggling. Only human beings have the capacity to self examine and assess and weep over a self definition. And many of us will spend a lifetime as a human being that weeps over facing personal limitations and issues we did not ask for, things that we cannot control or change, and whose consequences we must confront and deal with whether we feel like it or not.
All that said, I hope no one thinks I’m saying any of this flippantly or lightly. This is indeed “the arena” and the struggle is great, and there is no platitude that will make it go way or lighten it for any of us who choose to enter the fight.
Q: The Church condones marriage by declaring it a sacrament—something that helps individuals journey closer to God. So it is OK for a man and a woman to be sexually intimate within the bounds of that marriage and sexual intimacy outside of those bounds is not a good thing. Now take a same-sex couple who are just as devoted to one another as a committed opposite-sex couple. Why is it OK for the OS couple to have sex and it’s not OK for the SS couple to have sex?
A: Let me try to unpack some of my thoughts, hopefully in an orderly manner. Your question regarding marriage and “committed relationships” is a fundamental issue when discussing this topic. There are several facets to this issue in my mind. Here’s my thinking in no particular order of importance.
I think the Western Christian world has corrupted marriage in the sense that since the 60’s sexual revolution (and probably way before actually), marriage is seen as a Church issued “license to have sex”. Cloak it any way you like, but the gist of the arguments regarding “committed relationships” is about the religious or civil legitimacy of the ability to have orgasms with someone of your choice. Yes, it is “OK” for heterosexual couples to have sex within marriage, but even that does not guarantee that once you are married you WILL always have the ability or circumstance to actually have sex. The issue in my mind is not how many people can or cannot have sex with whom and how often, but it is even more basic than that: what is the legitimate place of genital contact within the theological definition of a “committed loving relationship”.
The arguments FOR sex within ANY committed relationship I think views sex as a “right” and sexual attraction as a desire that, if left unfulfilled somehow leaves a facet of our humanity wanting. What I am saying is that the desire to have sex (with anyone) is human. The fulfillment of that desire (with anyone) is not a “right” that can be fulfilled willy nilly or in just any context I decide is right for me simply because I desire it and think it is what I must have to be fulfilled as a human being. Sexual fulfillment is neither a “right” nor is it central to the definition of the human being. It is gender defines the created human being, not sexuality. Millions of people have lived and do live without sex and the definition of them as complete human beings is not compromised. The fact that SOME people can fulfill sexual desires within a certain theological framework of marriage and the definition of the human person does not legitimize sexual intimacy for all people in any circumstance.
But not all committed intimacy boils down to sexual intimacy, and I would submit that the Church legitimizes ALL committed relationships. A monastery is a group of same sex people who live in committed relationship. They do not have sex with the Church’s blessing, but they live in an intimacy with one another that rivals that of a marriage. Intimacy is what the human being is created for. Sexuality is subsumed to that and CAN be an aspect of intimacy and yes, it feels good and makes us feel close, but it does not define intimacy, and in fact often is a barrier to true intimacy even within heterosexual relationships. That fact is well documented within psychological research of marital and psycho-sexual issues. We are ALL looking for “love” and often settle for sex. And as Woody Allen once said, “Sex without love is an empty hollow experience, but as far as empty hollow experiences go, it’s one of the best.”
Q: But as far as relationships go, heterosexuals at least have the opportunity to have a loving partner in life. I believe that the sexual aspect is the culmination of a deep intimate relationship. It is the ultimate expression of love in intimacy. The scripture speaks of celibacy as gift, but it is not for all. Again the scripture reminds us “it is not good for man to be alone”. The homosexual person is left no alternative.
A: It is always with great fear that I address “intimacy/sex” issues because they come off sounding callous, uncompassionate and patronizing, especially because I am married and heterosexual and of course anything I say can be dismissed because well, “that’s easy for ME to say…” That said, I think both homosexuals and heterosexuals are victims of our Western romanticized and sexualized culture. While sex CAN be AN expression of intimacy, I will have to differ with you… it is not the highest or deepest or best. I think everyone would agree that the highest expression of love and intimacy was Christ on the Cross in His self sacrifice for the human race. Sex or even physical contact is not a necessity for intimacy, though I’ll be honest, personally I’d rather have intimacy with sex than intimacy without it.
That said, the opportunity and desire for marriage to heterosexuals does not guarantee an intimate sexual partner to anyone. I can say I have counseled as many heterosexual men who wept because they could not find wives as homosexual men who had to forgo “lovers” for the sake of their faith. The pain of loneliness and unfulfilled desires is the same for both.
So, just because sex in marriage for heterosexuals is “biblically legitimate” does not make the struggle any less intense for someone who cannot fulfill a desire for marriage and sex because of some physical issue, psychological problem or genetic defect. It was news to a homosexual man I was having a discussion with that heterosexuals incapable of having a “legitimate heterosexual relationship” feel just as strongly and have to fight just as hard against lust, fornication and passions as a homosexual. Involuntary or voluntary celibacy is a curse to anyone who cannot do what their biology is screaming for because of their “religion”. It is not only the homosexual that MUST chose to be “a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom” in spite of not feeling like they have the “gift of celibacy The Scriptures teach that all have the same calling, regardless of orientation, regardless of reasons for inability to have sex within a heterosexual marriage: celibacy. As with ANY besetting sin, orientation, inclination and habit, the promise by God is the same: The thorn may never be removed but His grace is sufficient. Forgive me if I have sounded uncaring, that is the furthest thing from the truth. The fact is that none of us can live in another person’s skin totally, so we all usually assume our existential pain is greater than the next person’s, but that is ultimately narcissism, the plague of us all when it comes to our own peculiar faults and fallenness.
Q: Gee, just what I needed to hear: “Eunuch”. This is why I struggle and have doubts in regards to the whole - Homosexual=bad, Heterosexual=good - thing. I know that I am simplifying things but in reality, that’s what it is. I hear one side debate scriptural interpretation and context, then the other side is always reminding homosexuals that they will not inherit the kingdom if they act on their feelings. But what it comes down for me is this: If I have to deny what feels natural for me it means more then a life without sex. It means a life without a very important type of intimacy, more than a good friend or buddy. It means not having a partner to share and walk through life with. It means no dates. It limits my life and leaves me feeling less than human. When I hear Eunuch, I envision someone whose manhood has been denied by force or by choice. I know for me, that it is not something that I have been given a gift for. For me to deny my personhood is for me a curse. The question that always comes to mind for me, is why? It is not like we are choosing to lie or be disobedient, we’re just a person, seeking companionship and Love. As we grow older, friends are more fleeting, people have families and lives to lead. The person that doesn’t have these things is not left with a lot.
A: I don’t think in Orthodoxy it is “Homosexual=bad, Hetero=good”. Perhaps in some Christian circles that is preached. In the grand scheme of the Orthodox view of salvation, ANYONE who “acts on their feelings” risks not inheriting the kingdom. Our feelings are not the guide for life and godliness. What “feels natural” or even brings us comfort or happiness may in fact be ungodly and in fact ultimately a denial of our true personhood. No where in Scripture or the teachings of the Church are we commanded to deny friendship, intimacy, love, or deep commitment to another human being. In fact, those are what make us human. The challenge for both the heterosexual and homosexual is how to do that in a godly way that does not involve the flesh, passions and violate our own and others’ bodies. “Eunuch” in the context of the Gospel is not an involuntary castration, but a voluntary walk for the sake of the “beauty of virginity” which is a phrase one NEVER hears in our modern culture. We are not asked to deny our personhood, but our flesh. We are not asked to deny the image of God in which we are created, we are told to deny our passions. This is not just for homosexuals, it is for all people regardless of how natural or passionately they feel about any relationship. Homosexuals are not singled out in the sin of fornication or adultery. Any sexual sin by any person is a violation of an aspect of our true personhood. Marriage is prescribed by God as ONE path to salvation. Marriage is one, virginity is another. Both have their benefits and problems. Heterosexual marriage is more than just sexual intimacy, and anyone who has been married for any length of time will tell you, sex is the first thing to go when spiritual and emotional intimacy is lost or violated. The grass is not greener with a “license to have sex” if that is what marriage is seen as. As I mentioned earlier, marriage may appear on the outside to be “God’s license to have sex”, but even within marriage that aspect can and often does become through no fault of the partners due to sickness, handicaps or mental illness, unavailable or impossible. I know several people who are married and cannot have sexual relations. What then? Marriage does not survive on sex, nor is sex necessary for marriage and all of its “non-physical” intimacies to thrive and deepen. As I’ve mentioned before, homosexuals are not the only class of human beings who are denied the “right to sex” by the Christian faith. Sexual intimacy is not a human right. While the culture might guarantee us the “pursuit of sexual happiness” the Gospel does not. The Gospel guarantees us the pursuit of full personhood and gives us the prescription for it. As strong an instinct and feeling it may be in the human being, sexual intimacy is not a necessity to the realization of personhood nor is it necessary for the attainment of deep communion and intimacy with another human being, male or female regardless of orientations.
That said, I hear the loneliness and despair in your voice. Homosexuals are not the only people on earth who are alone, wanting friendship, intimacy and connection. The world is full of desperate and lonely people who do not know how to connect with another human being, to have intimacy that is not defined by sexuality and physicality. I meet them every day. In that sense we are victims of our culture that force feeds us “sex-as-intimacy” and fulfillment as a human being through sex and romance. We have bought a false definition and then despair that our lives will never look like that definition. But again, this is all easy to talk about on the internet. It is desperately hard to come to terms with in the middle of the night when we have no one to share a bed with and every cell in our body wants a warm body next to us no matter what our orientation is. That is the struggle. And no pontification on theology will make it easy. Forgive me if I have sounded like I have minimized your pain. That is the furthest thing from my intention.
Q: We are more than monastics and ascetics. We are people who need Love and crave relationships and human touch. We also need families and adult relationships. “It is not good for man to be alone”…
A: I need to speak to your statement that: “we are more than monastics and ascetics” because it implies a juxtaposition of the ascetical life with “wholeness, intimacy, family, relationships, etc.”. The word “asceticism” in Orthodox terms applies to everyone, it is not only for monks, the radically committed or goofy zealots. It is the definition of the painful and long process of the healing of the soul of the human being ravaged by corruption, death and the futility of this fallen order. To the degree that someone engages the process is the degree to which one will experience the healing of the soul. In that sense everyone is called to ascesis, the denial of the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the vainglory of life. These are manifest in manifold ways and every person has predispositions, issues and inclinations brought on through genetics, nature and nurture. The reality is that asceticism properly understood in the context of an Orthodox anthropology encompasses and enhances the possibility of relationships being MORE authentic to our human nature. Wholeness, intimacy and deep relationships are in fact the GOAL of asceticism, not only in the arena of SSA, but in every aspect of our lives no matter what our sexual orientations are.
The definition of “wholeness” is not the “permission” to live according to our passions or feelings or perceived needs. Fulfillment of desires is not necessarily fulfillment of our personhood. No asceticism is pleasant or easy. The outcomes and goals of self denial are usually not apprehended while we are engaged in the combat. The spiritual disciplines of an ascetical life in an Orthodox framework encompasses the entirety of human existence, not just sexual orientation. In the final analysis, the roots of human despair and lack of intimacy and authentic relationships all boil down to a core of issues that are manifested in a multitude of human failure and weaknesses, and SSA is merely one of those issues. That is why the Orthodox Church does not make homosexuality the unforgivable sin or demonize it, OR hold out false promises of healing and change. The glutton, the womanizer, the egoist, the narcissist, the miserly, the wrathful, the disobedient, the lazy, etc. etc. ALL face the same hard path to shedding their besetting weaknesses and finding healing and wholeness through arduous and prolonged struggle.
So, I am not minimizing the anguish of homosexuals, I am informing them that they are not alone in the difficult and gut wrenching struggles they face. It is in that sense that I believe that homosexuals, like all human beings who are suffering, often are narcissistic in their insistence that they experience despondency and despair to a greater depth than other people, and that no one except other homosexuals can understand their feelings.
I recall a gay man telling me that I HAD to watch “Brokeback Mountain” because it defined the gay experience. I told him I watched “Brokeback Mountain” and to me it was just a gay “Bridges of Madison County”. He eventually responded, “I see what you mean”. Homosexuals are not the only people on earth who struggle with relationships, sexual desires and are broken deeply because of them. Perhaps it is because of my intense involvement in broken people’s lives that I see everyone is in a great battle and no one’s struggle is truly greater than another’s.
So nothing in this podcast is intended to minimize the truth of anyone’s struggles, but to level the field of what it means to wrestle with ourselves and God. The reality is, all human beings are diseased, all are afflicted and all who choose to enter the arena are engaged in a desperate spiritual warfare. And the cure for all is the ascetical path of self denial within the context of a community of love and intimacy.
As a final note, one of the things I’ve consciously avoided in the podcast is giving specific spiritual counsel and advice. I’ve had several long email exchanges with people who are having difficulty with their spiritual director’s advice and disciplines. As I said in the previous podcast, all spiritual fathers are not created equal and it is not a sin to not confess or take spiritual direction from someone you believe is not equipped to work with your issues. The only advice I can give in a podcast is that both finding and leaving a spiritual director should be undertaken extremely carefully and soberly.
And I as I said in the introduction, these podcasts are not the final word or even the “Church’s word” on same sex attraction. These are my thoughts and those of a few who have agreed to participate in a discussion of the issue in the context of living the Christian life in the context of the Orthodox faith. I pray that these podcasts have been helpful and I beg the forgiveness of any whom I have offended and marginalized inadvertently.