Many of you have thought much more deeply and carefully about sexual orientation change efforts than I have, and none of what I say here is meant to minimize the complexity of that discussion. But I just wanted to note that my understanding of the character of hope leads me to approach that discussion from a particular angle.
[H]ope… [is] a state of mind, not of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation…. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons…. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper the hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.
Lately I’ve been involved in some email exchanges with same-sex attracted Christians who are trying to find that elusive place between despair and presumption when it comes to their expectation of “healing.” As I’ve talked with these friends, I’ve realized that the way I’ve approached this issue in my own life has everything to do with what I think Christian hope amounts to. I agree with Havel: it’s not prognostication. This is what bothers me about what I hear from certain kinds of reparative therapies: offering hope to gay people seems to amount to a prediction of orientation change (assuming the correct regimen is followed). And whenever a Christian expresses doubt about the surety of that prediction, the response can often take the form of, “Well, you just don’t have enough faith.” (Or as a licensed professional counselor, a Christian with a certain angle on reparative therapy, once said to me, “That sounds like depression.”)
But what if hope is rather “an ability to work for something because it is good” and “the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out”? What if “healing” can be measured not just in terms of the strength of a burgeoning opposite-sex attraction but—much more powerfully—in terms of the beauty and persistence of love, service, and joy in celibacy (or in a mixed-orientation marriage)? As I wrote recently in an email to a friend,
It seems to me that we could help people stay on the path of discipleship with Jesus if we emphasize that “healing” can take many forms. The celibate person who finds community in the church where before she knew only loneliness; the celibate person who renounces promiscuity and achieves newfound sexual purity; the celibate who is able to gradually surrender self-pity and look for ways to love and bless others; the same-sex-attracted married person who loves her husband despite the daunting setbacks—surely these postures and habits are evidence of profound “healing,” although none of them may have much or any effect on one’s “sexual orientation”?
And I think it’s much easier to view these forms of life as evidences of healing and grace if you’ve already adopted a definition of Christian hope that’s similar to Havel’s.
Wesley Hill is an assistant professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Zondervan, 2010). He can be followed on Twitter: @WesleyHill.