Neither Presumption nor Despair

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.

I’ll let the remarkable, and recently much lamented, Vaclav Havel speak for me:

[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 HillWesley 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.

10 thoughts on “Neither Presumption nor Despair

  1. I really appreciate these wise words and your willingness to engage and share your thoughts, rooted as they are in both Biblical truth and the reality of life. Thank you, Wes.

  2. Hope, to be real, has to be rooted in truth. That goes for supernatural hope, which we need for our Christian walk, as well as human hope, which we need to accomplish our goals. This is the most frustrating thing to me about trying to discuss reparative therapy. The untruths that seem to perpetually surround it. I am not in this therapy, although I am considering it. To be specific, Dr Joseph Nicolosi’s brand of it. And I see in Dr Nicolosi’s books and videos many admissions of perhaps mistakes in past versions of this therapy that his critics seem to simply close their eyes to while they continue to repeat over and over their objections to a therapy which has long since changed out of the objectionable version. He recognizes that shame and self-acceptance are essential to be overcome/achieved. He recognizes that 100% complete change is not the norm. He says, over and over, that this therapy is not some way to browbeat people out of being homosexual. But it doesn’t seem to matter. The criticism of his work continues to be a criticism of something that is not his work, but perhaps a precursor of it which went out decades ago. Perhaps there are still some therapists out there who are practicing the type of therapy you seem to have a problem with. I have never encountered one, but if there are, they need to update their practices. Because these criticisms have largely been addressed by the reparative therapy community. It is a difficult process, no doubt about that and it takes a lot of courage. No one should be forced into it, no doubt about that either and no argument. Realistic expectations should be set at the outset, again true enough and no argument there. So, as such, the same tired criticism that I keep hearing of it seems a waste of time to engage, since the critics seem unable to listen and to update their criticisms to match reality. I think the problem is on the side of critics: a deep terror of any attempt at change, a sort of automatic feeling of obligation as soon as any possibility of change is admitted, and an inability to accept they don’t HAVE to try, but they don’t have a right to stop others from trying by what amounts to lying about the process they’re afraid of. That part is my opinion. Be that as it may, Wes, I hope that your hope, and that of your friends, is or will be rooted in truth, not fiction or paranoia or “heterophobia”, which I really do think is more prevalent than homophobia among us homosexuals. It’s not an easy process, I think it’s probably harder than most people realize. But as Christians there is no reason to fear that process if it is undertaken in the light of truth and courage. So we should keep that in mind too and with that in mind I hope my comments here are not too harsh or judgmental. Thanks for your postings. They are interesting although I seldom agree.

  3. Wes, I like your thoughts on hope here. I guess I am reluctant to even use the word “hope” or “healing” in this context at all because the words have been misused so much. I don’t know how many times I have heard well-meaning folk say, “Don’t give up hope yet” (hope of change in orientation). I have seen this hope of change in orientation lead to depression in so many people when it doesn’t come and a complete inability to actually move on with life and embrace life fully as God has given it–the God who chooses not to change many people’s sexual orientation. So, I guess I am leery of using “hope” and “healing” because they have very definite meanings when it comes to sexual orientation and the church. I don’t want to use terms that will in any way perpetuate, subtly, their misuse. Can the terms be reclaimed? I don’t know. I prefer using the phrase “living life with an open palm”–that is accepting what God has placed in that hand or taken from that hand. An open palm does not try to predict the future nor is it closed tightly against whatever God desires. Its an acceptance of God’s will and acceptance of reality at this moment.

    William–I am not sure what criticism you are denouncing. I am sure you are right on many accounts. However, I have heard enough of Nicolosi’s absolutist statements to be leery. I have found Janelle Hallman who works with women to be much more realistic and qualified in her understanding of change in sexual orientation. I certainly don’t begrudge people if they want to try that. I just know when people put their hope in that and it doesn’t transpire that it has frequently led to loss of faith or complete acceptance of homosexuality. Anyone who tries it should make sure they go in with their eyes wide open, so to speak.

  4. “living life with an open palm” . . . I really like that expression and the meaning you attribute to it, Karen. It’s a superior expression to what I’ve called lived life with indeterminacy.

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