March 26, 2017

Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality by Wesley Hill (Zondervan, 2010). Hill has given permission for this digest.  Much has been omitted from this digest and it is recommended that his book be purchased.  You can purchase the book here.

  1. Introduction: This books is neither about how to live faithfully as a practicing homosexual person nor about how to live faithfully as a fully healed or former homosexual man or woman…This book is about what it means…how practically, a non-practicing but still-desiring homosexual Christian can “prove, live out, and celebrate” the grace of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit in homosexual terms.  This book is written mainly for those gay Christians who are already convinced that their discipleship to Jesus necessarily commits them to the demanding, costly obedience of choosing not to nurture their homosexual desires, whether through private fantasies or physical relationships with other gay or lesbian people….”There are probably nearly as many Christians with homosexual feelings who do not believe that homosexual sex is right for Christians as there are those who are advocating its acceptance.”…The Christian’s struggle with homosexuality is unique in many ways, but not completely so.  The dynamics of human sinfulness and divine mercy and grace are the same for all of us, regardless of the particular temptations or weaknesses we face.  In my experience the effort to live faithfully as a gay Christian has involved me in three main battles.  The first has been the struggle to understand what exactly the gospel demands of homosexual Christians;  Why it seems to require that I not act on my homosexual desires – and how the gospel enables me to actually fulfill this demand…Second, for me, being a Christian who experiences intense homoerotic desires has meant loneliness, feelings of isolation, fears that I will be alone all my life with my brokenness, that no one will be there for the long haul to walk this road with me….Finally, in my life and in the lives of many others, shame has been a constant struggle in the effort to live out the life of Christ and his Spirit in homosexual terms.  Guilt over homosexual sin, a nagging unshakable feeling of being “damaged goods,” a sense of being broken beyond repair – and therefore of being regularly, unavoidably displeasing to God….I’ve tried to avoid…referring to someone as “a homosexual.”  I’ve taken care to always make “gay” or “homosexual” the adjective and never the noun….I am a Christian before I am anything else.  My homosexuality is a part of my makeup, a facet of my personality.  One day, I believe, whether in this life or in the resurrection, it will fade away.  But my identity as a Christian – someone incorporated into Christ’s body by his Spirit – will remain.
  2. Prelude – Washed and Waiting: “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (I Corinthians 6:11)…There was nothing, it felt, chosen or intentional about my being gay. It seemed more like noticing the blueness of my eyes than deciding I would take up skiing.  There was never an option – “Do you want to be gay?”  “Yes , I do, please.”…In my reading I also discovered that by far the majority of Christians – on the basis of their reading of several key passages from the Bible, together with the weight of Christian tradition, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant – agreed that homosexual practice was sinful.  Having gay sex was off-limits.  Christians talked regularly, I found, of God’s original intention for creation and that, indeed, God, strictly speaking didn’t make anyone homosexual.  Rather, homosexuality was one of the myriad tragic consequences of living in a fallen world stalked by the specters of sin and death…Somehow, in some way, I would have to be faithful to this Christian conviction – that homosexual lust, fantasies, and practice, whether self-stimulated or in partnership with another person, gay or straight, were not God’s will for my life….realizing those words were meant for me.  Ignoring is not the path to redeeming….I have since learned that many gay Christians wrestle with feelings of isolation, shame and guilt that lead them to question God’s love for them or simply feel cold and calloused to it….It has taken years for me to learn, bit by bit, this spiritual practice of meditating on the love of God and to understand that it is central to my struggle with homosexuality….I would discover how crucial nonerotic friendships with peers of the same sex are in my pilgrimage toward wholeness…. I made an appointment to meet with one of the pastors…I had tasted something of what it meant to walk in the light, and I wanted more.  I wanted more than anything to see the church be the church and to know what it can mean to feel  the freedom of openness and the consolations of community….I said I just wanted Christian friends – including friends my age, peers – who would be there for me, who would help me figure out how to live with a tension and confusion that at times seemed overwhelming….I began to learn to wrestle with my homosexuality in community over many late-night cups of coffee and in tear soaked, face-on-the-floor times of prayer with members of my church….No longer was I simply struggling;  I was learning to struggle well, with others, in the presence of God…And so I cling to this image – washed, I am washed, sanctified, justified through the work of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.  Whenever I look back on my baptism, I can remember that God has cleansed the stains of homosexual sin from the crevasses of my mind, heart, and body and included me in his family the church, where I can find support, comfort, and provocation toward Christian maturity.  The second image that describes my struggle comes from Romans 8:23-25.  Along with the fallen inanimate creation, “we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”…Taped onto my desk where I write is a small sheet of paper with a quote from German poet Rainer Maria Rilke:  “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart.”…Washed and waiting.  That is my life – my identity as one who is forgiven and spiritually cleansed and my struggle as one who perseveres with a frustrating thorn in the flesh, looking forward to what God has promised to do.
    1. Chapter 1 A storyshaped Life:…in recent years, while considering what we now know of some persons having a virtually unchangeable “homosexual orientation,” most of the church- Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant – has continued to claim that homosexual practice is out of step with God’s will.  Acting on homosexual feelings and desires is contrary to God’s design for human flourishing…The Christian church has consistently and repeatedly said no to homosexual practice…At times, though, for me and many others, the weight of the biblical witness and the church’s traditional teaching against homosexual practice can seem rather unpersuasive….In fact, not only are they not compelling, these biblical texts and Christian pronouncements appear out-dated, perhaps slightly cruel, and in any case, not really workable or attainable….There are other reasons the church’s traditional no to homosexual practice doesn’t seem compelling.  One is that it simply seems out of character with the Christian message of love, grace and abundant life.  Occasionally it strikes me again how strange it is to talk about the gospel – Christianity’s “good news” – demanding anything that would squelch my happiness, much less demanding abstinence from homosexual partnership and homoerotic passions and activities….How could the gospel be opposed to love?…On the surface, the Bible and the church’s demand for homosexuals not to act on their desires can seem old fashioned, life taking, oppressive.  But could it be that if I place that demand into a larger story, then perhaps – just perhaps – it won’t seem as irrational, harsh and unattainable as it otherwise might?  Could the Christian story of what God did for the world in Christ be the framework that makes the rules – “don’t go to bed with a partner of the same sex,”  “Don’t seek to cultivate and nurture desires and fantasies of going to bed with a partner of the same sex” – make sense?…Like a piece from a jigsaw puzzle finally locked into its rightful place, the Bible and the church’s no to homosexual behavior make sense to me – it has the ring of truth, as J.B. Phillips once said of the New Testament – when I look at it as one piece within the larger Christian narrative, I abstain from homosexual behavior because of the power of the scriptural story….Christianity’s good news provides – amply so  for the forgiveness of sins and the wiping away of guilt and the removal of any and all divine wrath through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ form the dead.  Seen in this light, the demand that we say no to our homosexual impulses need not seem impossible.  If we have failed in the past, we can receive grace – a clean slate, a fresh start.  If we fail today or tomorrow in our struggle to be faithful to God’s commands, that, too, may be forgiven….There is a second way the Christian story provides a context…The message of what God has done through Christ reminds me that all Christians, whatever their sexual orientation, to one degree or another experience the same frustration I do as God challenges, threatens, endangers, and transforms all of our natural desires and affections. Theologian Robert Jenson observes:  After all is said and done, Scripture is brutally clear about homoerotic practice:  it is a moral disaster for anyone, just as adultery is a crime for anyone…Of course, every mandate of the law is harder on some, with their predilections, than on others with theirs.  To the fallen world, that is always true of law, divine or human.  Does God’s law then mandate frustration for those unattracted or repelled by the opposite sex?  I fear it does, just as, given the fall, each of us with his or her predilections, will be blocked by God’s law in some painful – perhaps deeply painful – way….Far from being a tolerant grandfather rocking in his chair somewhere far away in the sky, God most often seems dangerous, demanding, and ruthless as he makes clear that he is taking our homoerotic feelings and actions with the utmost seriousness.  Like Cain, we sometimes squirm as we relate to God. We experience him both as an unwanted presence reminding us that our thoughts, emotions and choices have lasting consequences, as well as a radiant light transforming us gradually, painfully into the creatures he wants us to be….When we engage with God in Christ and take seriously the commands for purity that flow from the gospel, we always find our sinful dreams and desires challenged and confronted.  When we homosexual Christians bring our sexuality before God, we begin or continue a long costly process of having it transformed.  From God’s perspective, our homoerotic inclinations are like “the craving for salt of a person who is dying of thirst” (to borrow Frederick Buechner’s fine phrase).  Yet when God begins to try to change the craving and give us the living water that will ultimately quench our thirst, we scream in pain protesting that we were made for salt.  The change hurts.  “Are homosexuals to be excluded from the community of faith?” asked one gay Christian in a letter to a friend.  “Certainly not,” he concluded. “But anyone who joins such a community should know that it  is a place of transformation, of discipline, of learning, and not merely a place to be comforted or indulged.” Engaging with God and entering the transformative life of the church does not mean we get a kind of “free pass,” an unconditional love that leaves us where we are.  Instead we get a fiercely demanding love, a divine love that will never let us escape from its purifying, renovating and ultimately healing grip.  And this means that our pain – the pain of having our deeply ingrained inclinations and desires blocked and confronted by God’s demand for purity in the gospel – far from  being a sign of our failure to live the life God wants, may actually be the mark of our faithfulness….The gospel proclaims that we belong to God twice over – first because he created us, and second because he has redeemed us through the work of his Son…we are the Lord’s….God reserves all rights for himself.  And this extends even to the realm of our sexuality – what we humans do with our bodies.  “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord,”….Richard Hays writes:  Through baptism, Christians have entered a corporate whole whose health is at stake in the conduct of all its members.  Sin is like an infection in the body;  thus, moral action is not merely a matter of individual freedom and preference…The New Testament never considers sexual conduct a matter of purely private concern between consenting adults.  According to Paul, everything that we do as Christians, including our sexual practices, affects the whole body of Christ….One of the hardest-to-swallow, most countercultural, counterintuitive implications of the gospel is that bearing up under a difficult burden with patient perseverance is a good thing….While those in the grip of Christ’s love will never experience ultimate defeat, there is a profound sense in which we must face our struggles now knowing there may be no real relief this side of God’s new creation.  We may wrestle with a particular weakness all our lives.  But the call remains:  Go into battle….it is a message about God’s strange working in and through that pain – God’s “alchemy of redemption” as Philip Yancey calls it.  “My power is made perfect “ – not in the absence of but in the midst of – “weakness,”…(2 Corinthians 12:9)…The Christian story proclaims that all the demands of Scripture are ultimately summons, calls, invitations – beckoning us to experience true, beautiful, and good humanness….We accept the New Testament’s teaching that Jesus Christ is the measure of true humanity.  “Behold the man!”…as Karl Barth declared, “This man is man.”…Walter Moberly writes, “The Gospels portray a compelling and attractive person, who engages seriously with people and is good company at a party.  Yet all the evidence is that he lived as a sexual celibate”  It may come as a surprise in our age of personal gratification that Jesus never married and never had sex – with a woman or a man….And yet he was the truest, fullest human being who has ever lived.  Indeed, precisely because he never sinned, he was truly, fully human.  From the Bible’s perspective, sin mars and stains humanity.  But Jesus never felt that stain.  Does that mean that everyone who wants to share the true humanity of Jesus must be single and celibate? No. It does, however, shift the terms of our modern thinking about sexuality. It dislodges our assumption that having sex is necessary to be truly, fully alive….Moberly asks, “Are we willing to find our identity in Christ and our appropriate lifestyle in faithfulness to him, rather than in the fashions of contemporary gay movements?…Your struggle isn’t a mindless, unobserved string of random disappointments….And Faithfulness is never a gamble.  It will be worth it. The joy then will be worth the struggle now.  In the end, I think that is how I am learning to live faithfully as a homosexual Christian.
      1. Part two Interlude The Beautiful Incision: …I discovered that Henri Nouwen had been a celibate homosexual, and as a result, had wrestled intensely with loneliness, persistent cravings for affection and attention, immobilizing fear of rejection and a restless desire to find a home where he could feel safe and cared for….”He had a deep need for love and acceptance that no relationship seemed to satisfy…[He] even [feared] that friends would forget him or just disappear from his life.”…Loneliness, as I will try to describe more fully in the next chapter, has been a defining struggle of my life…. Nearly two thousand years ago, Good Friday gave way to Easter Sunday, and at the end of history, when Jesus appears, death will give way to resurrection on a cosmic scale and the old creation will be freed from its bondage to decay as the new is ushered in.  On that day there will be no more loneliness.  The wounds will be healed.  I expect to stand with Henri Nouwen at the resurrection and marvel that neither of us is homosexual anymore, that we both – together with every other homosexual Christian – are whole and complete in the fellowship of the redeemed, finally at home with the Father.
      2. Chapter 2 The End of Loneliness: “There are days when the knowledge that there will never be a place which I can call home, that there will never be a person with whom I shall be one flesh, seems more than I can bear, and if it wasn’t for you, and a few – how few – like you, I don’t think I could.”  H. Auden, on his life as a homosexual Christian in a letter to Elizabeth Mayer, 1943.  It was late and way past dark when I left my friends’ house.  How strange is it, I thought as I backed out of their driveway, that I just spent the whole day with people – some of whom I would count among my best friends in the world – at two Easter dinner parties and a Bible study, and I still feel so desperately, utterly, helplessly lonely….Another option open to homosexual Christians who remain committed to the gospel is celibacy. Those of us who live day in and day out with the disordered desires of a broken sexuality can opt to live as single people, fleeing from lust and fighting for purity of mind and body in the power of God’s Spirit. But with this option…the lack of…a relationship of mutual desire – is even more searing….”Grace, for the Christian believer…is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way;  as significant, as wanted….I often wonder if coming to understand and believe that God does, indeed, desire us and that we are invited to return his desire might be the “remedy,” in some ultimate sense, for the loneliness and craving for love that I and other homosexual Christian experience on a regular basis….Through the Old Testament prophets, God portrays his love for Israel with the imagery of desire…The New Testament too, depicts God’s longing for his people – now clearly including Gentiles in addition to errant Israel. …In some profound sense, this love of God – expressed in his yearning and blessing and experienced in our hearts – must spell the end of longing and loneliness for the homosexual Christian.  If there is a “remedy” for loneliness, surely this must be it. In the solitude of our celibacy, God’s desiring us, God’s wanting us, is enough. The love of God is more valuable than any human relationship.  And yet we ache. The desire of God sufficient to heal the ache, but still we pine, and wonder….One of the most surprising discoveries I made…is that the New Testament view the church- rather than marriage – as the primary place where human love is best expressed and experienced….” the answer to loneliness is not marriage, but, rather the new-creational community that God is calling into being in Christ, the church marked by mutual love, as it is led by the Spirit of Christ….” We must call into question any notion that the supreme expression of human love is found in marriage”…According to Jesus there is no greater love than the sacrificial love of one friend for another (John 15:1)…The remedy for loneliness – if there is such a thing this side of God’s future – is to learn, over and over again, to do this; to feel God’s keeping presence embodied in the human members of the community of faith, the church. “What if the church were full of people who were loving and safe, willing to walk alongside people who struggle?  What if there were people in the church who kept confidences, who took the time to be Jesus to those who struggle with homosexuality? What if the church were what God intended it to be?”…Does God’s keeping presence experienced through the human faces of the church ultimately spell the end of loneliness? Yes, I believe so, in some eventual sense. But on this side of the fullness of God’s new creation, the ache remains.
      3. Part Three Postlude “Thou Art Lightning and Love”: …I found Manley Hopkins. Hopkins (1844-1889) was an English convert to Roman Catholicism…he became a Jesuit priest…wrestled for decades with what today would be called homoerotic inclinations or same-sex attraction…I keep coming back to Hopkins because in the midst of his struggle, he saw God and came to know the comfort of Christ and the Holy Spirit – and he wrote about this vision of God and experience of Christ in a way that continually refreshes, strengthens, and emboldens me for the journey toward wholeness.  Hopkins knew better than many that God isn’t tame or safe. True, he is merciful, but his mercy has sharp edges…. One of the most moving stanzas Hopkins ever penned was an unconventional hymn of praise to the triune God who is fiery and shocking like a bolt of lightning in a stormy sky but who is also – at the same time – tender and nurturing like an infatuated lover.  Paradoxically, it is precisely in the fierce lightning – in his “dark descending” that God’s loving mercy is best seen: “Be adored among men, God, three-numbered form; Wring they rebel, dogged in den.  Man’s malice, with wrecking and storm. Beyond saying sweet, past telling of tongue. Thou art lightening and love, I found it, a winter and warm; Father and fondler of heart thou has wrung; Hast they dark descending and most art merciful then.” …Hopkins moved to a point of confidence that God was indeed merciful in the very moments when he seemed most ruthless.  Hopkins, “frantic to avoid thee and flee,” as he says to God at one point, discerned a divine purpose behind his struggle…. To engage with God as a homosexual Christian, as Hopkins did, is to find God in Christ to be ever-present, always watching, with ruthless, relentless, transforming grace. And one day, beyond all hopes, that grace will accomplish the ultimate transformation – changing human being with broken sexualities and a thousand other afflictions into shining, everlastingly alive, children of the resurrection.
      4. Chapter 3 The Divine Accolade:  “To please God…to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness…to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son – it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain.  But so it is.”  S. Lewis “The weight of Glory”…”Sometimes I feel that no matter what I do, I am displeasing to God…Even after a good day of battling for purity of mind and body, there is still the feeling, when I put my head down on the pillow at night to go to sleep, that something is seriously wrong with me, that something’s askew….married heterosexuals are, of course, able to identify moments when God’s gift gets stained, marred by lust – sexual desire that is fixed on a man or woman other than their spouse.  And singles, too, experience lust by entertaining erotic thoughts and feelings for potential partners or spouses.  Dallas Willard helpfully defines lust as “looking to desire” – looking at someone other than a spouse in order to indulge in sexual fantasies.  “That is, we desire to desire.  We indulge and cultivate desiring because we enjoy fantasizing about sex with the one seen…This purposeful looking – the “second glance” – is different, Willard says, from “looking and desiring.”  Looking to desire is intentional, willful.  Looking and desiring is natural, reflexive, part of the experience of a God-designed and God-given desire for intimacy with someone of the opposite sex; it could happen at any time, in any place…but temptation also is not wrong, though it should not be willfully entertained…. For me and other gay people, even when we’re not willfully cultivating desire, we know that when attraction does come – most of the time, it could be as unlooked for and unwanted as it was for me that day on the dance floor at my friends’ wedding reception – it will be attraction to someone of the same sex.  And in those moments it feels as though there is no desire that isn’t lust, no attraction that isn’t illicit. I never have the moment Dallas Willard describes as “looking and desiring” when I can thank God he made me to be attracted to women.  I have only a looking and desiring that causes me to grown: “God, help!  I would love to say thanks for my sexuality, but I don’t feel like I can.  Every attraction I experience, before I ever get to intentional, willful, indulgent desire, seems bent, broken, misshapen….For many homosexual Christians, this kind of shame is part of our daily lives…homosexual attraction is a “grievous affliction” for those who experience it, and part of the grief is in the feeling that we are perpetually, hopelessly, unsatisfying to God…. According to Lewis, the promise of a future accolade from God means we can be satisfied with our work – our lives, our imperfect efforts to sere and love God – now…. However,…the ladder of spiritual growth is one of paradox; the higher we climb toward heaven, the lower we see ourselves sinking into the much and mire of our shortcomings…what if I had a conception of God-glorifying faith, holiness and righteousness that included within it a profound element of struggle and stumbling?  What if I were to view my homosexual orientation, temptations, and occasional failures not as damning disqualifications for living a Christian life but rather as part and parcel of what it means to live by faith in a world that is fallen and scarred by sin and death?…Not only does our homosexuality give us a unique ministry within the church; it provides us with a greater sense of our woundedness and therefore of our dependence on God.  It forces us day by day, to rely not so much on total moral transformation now but rather on our forgiveness, the erasure of our guilt through Christ’s death on the cross.  Our homosexuality…draws us closer to God.