Pastors are impotent shepherds because they believe their message is impotent. Nowhere is this seen so clearly as in our reaction to same sex attraction. The message that we give to those who struggle with SSA is that you can never overcome this attraction and temptation. The only thing you can do is hope to keep from acting on your desires. It is strange that Christians who talk so much about idols of the heart and having the right desires would not call someone tempted by homosexual sins to kill that desire in their hearts. But we don’t. Instead we say the goal is gay celibacy. The goal is not the reshaping of desires, but simply making sure we do not sin with our bodies. But we don’t do this in other areas of the Christian. Here are some scenarios that I hope will make my point about how we approach same sex attraction.
A married man enters the pastor’s office and says, “I am struggling with the secretary at work. She is attractive and flirtatious. She has come on to me several times. I have not given in yet, but I find myself wanting to. I really desire that woman and at times fantasize about her.” What should the pastor say? Well he should probably begin by encouraging the man in his resistance to temptation. He has sinned in his heart, but not with his body…yet. He should tell the man to get another job or move to another part of the office. But if he was a faithful pastor he would not stop there. He would remind the man that the problem is not the woman. The problem is his heart. He would encourage the man to memorize verses. He would help the man start examining the why. Why do I not find satisfaction in my wife? Why do I think this woman would be better than my wife? This man is not just struggling with temptation to adultery. He also is sinning with his discontent, his lack of self-control, his witness to Christ, etc. A faithful pastor will use the Scriptures to dig deep into the man’s heart. Keeping the man from committing adultery is a goal, but certainly not the only one or even the primary one. The goal is rooting out those sinful desires that make that other woman attractive. And yes, even those desires need to be repented of.
A mom of three young children enters the pastor’s office and says, “I am struggling with my children. I hate them at times. I have not hit them yet or hurt them, but I want to. There are times where I have to leave the house so I do not strike them with my fist or throw something at them.” What should the pastor say? Again he begins by encouraging her that she has not yet acted on her anger though no doubt it has affected her home. But he does not stop there. Why is she angry? What about her situation makes her want to hurt her children? She has a heart problem. She needs the Scriptures to reshape her desires. She also needs practical advice, such as getting a break, memorizing Scripture, getting adequate rest, etc. But that is certainly not all she needs. To give her the tools to cope without ever addressing the desires that produce the sinful attitude is to heal the wound lightly. And again, even the desire to harm the children is sinful and must be repented of.
A young man enters the pastor’s office and says, “I am struggling with homosexual attraction. I do not find myself attracted to women. I find myself physically attracted to men. I have not acted on that yet, but I want to.” What should the pastor say? Why would the pastor say anything different than what was said above? Why would he not encourage the young man in his resistance so far, but then start using Scripture to address his desires? Why would he not tell the young man that those desires that drive him to want to have sex with men are sinful and need repenting of? Why would a pastor fail to use the gospel to address the heart as well as the hands? Why on earth would he say, “As long as you don’t have sex with a man you are fine?”
None of this is meant to minimize the difficulty of dealing with our sinful desires. It is a long, slow process that all of us are going through. Nor is it to equate temptation with the act itself. For a married man to look at a woman other than his wife is not to commit adultery. To be tempted to sex with a man is not to actually have sex with a man. Yet even that desire is sinful and it must be seen as such if we are ever going to kill sin. I will also admit that the line between temptation and lust is gray. If I see a woman in a bikini and look for a second and then quickly glance away have I lusted or was I just tempted to lust? The answer is not easy. But we all know that in a perfect world this would not be a problem. Therefore even in that gray area we are weak sinners.
Of course, a Christian man tempted to homosexuality should not act on those desires. But this is not celibacy. Just as a single man refusing to sleep with a prostitute is not celibacy. It is a rejection of sinful acts. A man tempted to homosexuality may be called to a life of celibacy. But he is not called to be a gay, but celibate Christian just as the woman above is not called to be an angry, but not physically abusive Christian and the man is not called to be a lusting, but not committing adultery Christian. A Christian man tempted to homosexuality, but who refuses to give in is simply a Christian fighting the good fight. Nothing more and nothing less. His sin is not in a different category on the pastoral level than other sins.
Homosexual desires are sinful. For some reason we are scared to say this. Is it because we believe Jesus cannot reach those desires? Is it because we want to sound compassionate? Is it because we have let psychology determine truth instead of Scripture? Or maybe we don’t think a man wanting to have sex with another man is a sin. Whatever the reason, we are wrong. We are called by Christ to bring our actions, our desires, our thoughts, and our words under his Lordship (II Cor. 10:5). The gospel is able to reshape our desires and not just our actions. Jesus died to make us new creatures outside and inside. If we do not preach that Jesus can change our deepest desires then are we preaching the real Jesus? If we do not preach the real Jesus, the Jesus who calls us to repent of and kill the sin in our hearts, we are not really loving homosexuals. To say that same sex attraction is something a Christian can live with is to deny the power of Christ to truly change us.
Pastors like Sam Allberry or seminary professors like Wesley Hill and Christopher Yuan have all admitted they still struggle with same sex attraction to this day though they are regenerated and firmly committed to Scripture's teaching on sexuality and marrriage. How would you respond to these men, Christian leaders no less, who have admitted that they are still same sex attracted and feel that this desire is a thorn, not unlike Paul's, that God hasn't (or won't) remove?
Seth, thanks for commenting! I have read Allberry's book and I liked it, but I think these men are unclear in this area. I do not think you can compare SSA to Paul's thorn. That is illegitimate. Paul's thorn was given to him because he saw visions from heaven. It was there to keep him humble. There is no indication that it was a sinful desire like homosexuality. To compare the two is unbiblical and muddies the waters. Homosexual desire is like all other sinful desires.
If all these men are saying is that “I struggle with SSA and I am fighting it day and night. I am trying to bring my desires into conformity with Christ and some days I do and other days I don't. I will be fighting this until I die.” I am fine with that. I struggle with anger. I will probably struggle with anger until I die. Our sins die very hard, especially the ones on the inside. But that changes nothing. Ungodly anger is a sin. Homosexual desires are sin. I cannot say, “Anger is my thorn in the flesh.” No. Anger is sin. It is my job to fight it all the way down. Will I ever gain complete victory in this life? No, probably not. But can I see advance? Certainly. Can I see growth? Absolutely. Can I see more growth than I think I can? Yes, I believe we can.
But if they are saying I lust for men and cannot do anything about it then that is a problem. I have not read Hill or Yuan, but I do not think Allberry would say that. However, he needs to be clearer (maybe he has and I missed it) for the sake of his listeners.
I do not want to read too much into your last line either, but it is not our job to sit back and passively wait for God to take our sinful desires away. We are supposed to fight (Romans 6:11-12). Spirit filled people go to war against fleshly desires.
With Much Love,
Thanks for your clarification. I don't think any of these men would say, “I'm attracted to men and that's fine. I just don't have sex with them because that's wrong.” I believe that they would all say, as you said, that they struggle with SSA and fight it daily but haven't seen the desire cease. Yet we know they can and they do with people like Jackie Hill and Rosaria Butterfield. I just want to be cautious because we need to differentiate. Telling someone who isn't warring against their desires that they are in no danger is damaging. Simultaneously, telling someone who is struggling and warring and fighting that they are sinning and need to fight and try harder is equally damaging. It's a delicate pastoral issue. I saw an incredible pastoral side of Pastor Wilson in his answer to Matt Vines on this issue. In his answers, I think he was getting at what you and I are getting at.
Thankful for you!
Seth, I agree that the two groups require two different approaches. I still think comparing SSA to a thorn in the flesh is a bad move.
I am not sure what to make of this, but the two you mentioned who have had the desires cease were women, while the three mentioned in the previous comment were men. Not sure what to make of that, but it is interesting. Might men have a more difficult time getting totally rid of their sinful desires in this areas because of the nature of sodomy and the fact they are men? I am not sure about that, but food for thought.
I have thought about the male/female correlation as well. I believe it could be that it's just that sexual sin is harder to kill in men given how God has wired us.