As a man who loves Jesus, is in a heterosexual marriage, and still experiences some same-sex attraction that is lingering from my previous gay life, I spend a lot of time talking to Christian men about what life as a same-sex attracted (SSA) Christian man should look like. Much of the conversation centers on behavior. “How do I go the rest of my life without acting on these desires which seem so innate and natural?” they ask many times.
It is an important conversation. Denying oneself for the sake of the Gospel is essential to our Gospel witness, the flourishing of our faith, and the wellbeing of our soul. Denying what our flesh so strongly craves is difficult, painful, and can’t be done without the sustainment of the Holy Spirit working in our lives. However, I believe that there is an even more important conversation to be had with these men: what do they do with their attractions?
I went through many years of my 20s “white-knuckling” it. Fighting hard. My desires for men was so strong, but I was determined to fight for purity for the glory of Christ. It was a fight which I fought under much of my own power, and it was leaving me exhausted. It wasn’t until I went to seminary and started to better understand the human heart, the idols they serve, and the true hope we have in Christ that I started to see that God wanted something better for me. He helped me see that He not only helps us control our behavior, but also works to untangle what our hearts have twisted. I have heard it said many times that “same-sex attraction is not sin, only acting on it is.” But is that always true? Are desires for what is sinful at all sinful? Is it okay to feel desire for something God forbids? The answer to that question was something deep down, my soul didn’t want to hear. Because for years, in my own pridefulness, I thought I had arrived. I thought my heart and my life were pleasing to God, because I had taken the steps of leaving my LGBTQ life behind and was denying myself daily. But finally, in His grace, God brought me to my knees to confront a difficult truth: God not only wanted to transform my behavior, He wanted to transform my heart. And that included my same-sex attraction.
Can Attraction Be Sinful?
It is said repeatedly that “temptation is not sinful. After all, Jesus was tempted and yet he never sinned.” It is prudent to ask though, is our temptation the same as that of Jesus experienced? Many know the story of Jesus being tempted, as told in Mathew 4. Jesus went to the wilderness and the Devil came to tempt and entice him. The results are clear: Jesus never gave into temptation. But, was his temptation the same as the temptation which is manifested in same-sex attraction? The temptation which Jesus experienced was that of an outside force: The Devil. The Devil came and tried to entice Jesus to sinful behavior. And certainly, every believer experiences this type of temptation. We have an enemy who is out to “steal and deceive and destroy.” (John 10:10). However, scripture also speaks of a different type of temptation. James 1:14 states, “each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.” This passage speaks of temptation that is the result of our own evil desire. Now that is a type of temptation which Jesus never experienced. Whereas Jesus only experienced temptation by outside forces, people experience temptation that is a result of the evil in their own hearts. We know that Jesus never experienced such temptation, because there was no evil in his heart.
Shifting from the Old Testament law to the Law of Christ in the New Testament, scripture repeatedly raises the bar for what is expected from God’s people. Whereas the Old Testament says, “Do not murder,” and “do not commit adultery,” (Exodus 20:13), the expectations for people who know Christ are “do not hate,” and “do not lust in your heart.” (Matt 5:28). Jesus shifted the focus from external behavior, to internal, heart-level desire. Under the Law of Christ, it is no longer good enough to merely not act on our desire for what is evil. Jesus commands that we repent of our desire to do so.
It can be hard to tell the difference between temptation and lust. The question many men seem to ask (with any form of sexual desire) is “how far can I go?” I think a much better question to ask is “how Holy can I be?”
Romans 1: It All Starts With a Lie
The first chapter of Romans is one of the infamous passages in scripture which speaks of homosexuality. Throughout the chapter, we see a progression:
1) They became futile, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Romans 1:21)
2) They traded God’s truth for a lie. (Romans 1:25)
3) They worshiped created things, instead of the Creator. (Romans 1:25)
4) They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man. (Romans 1:23)
5) They developed sinful desire for sexual impurity in their hearts for one another. (Romans 1:24)
6) They acted on their desire, resulting in men having sex with men and women having sex with women. (Romans 1:26-27)
We see this pattern in all areas of sin in our lives: Our foolish hearts are darkened. We trade truth for a lie. We worship creation. We develop sinful lust for God’s creation. We act on that desire.
Through God’s grace, He desires to take us down the reverse course: Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we gain control over our behavior. But it doesn’t have to stop with behavior change! Through the lifelong process of sanctification, God allows us to untwist what our darkened hearts had twisted. He trades the lies which we had believed for his truth. The lies that had led us to lustful desires are exposed and replaced with the truth of scripture. And in doing so, He frees us from the desires which once enslaved us!
Freedom In Christ
Although my romantic and sexual feelings towards other men have so greatly dwindled, occasionally a man catches my eyes and my heart in a way which another man shouldn’t. I instantly know that there is idolatry happening in my heart. My heart is looking for redemption and wholeness…and it foolishly thinks it can find it in another man. My brokenness tells me that I can acquire what my heart thinks I am missing (usually in the categories of personality traits, talents and abilities, and physical characteristics) from an emotional or sexual connection with another man. In the moment, it feels so natural and normal. However, there is freedom in repentance. Instead of letting the desire for this man grow in my heart, I can repent of trying to acquire from him what is not mine (the sin of coveting). I can go to the Lord and find my wholeness in Him, instead of trying to acquire it from another person. And when I do so, He frees me from the attraction that previously gripped my heart so deeply. In the 13 years since I surrendered my life to the Lord, the process of identifying the idolatry behind my attraction towards a man and finding my wholeness in Christ has gone from months, to a matter of hours, minutes, or even seconds. As the Lord has continued to peel back layers of my heart and reveal lies which had led to this evil in my heart, He gives me the grace to repent and see Him untwist what my heart had twisted. That is the promise He gives us in sanctification. It is not completed on this side of the cross, but we can all be “confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6) This sanctification is such a sweet gift from our precious Savior.