I wrote a post about celibacy recently, where I shared some of the ways God has surprised me in the middle of this awkward celibate gay path. I said I hesitate to talk about celibacy because I’ve heard many gay people feel the traditional sexual ethic is burdensome—that the call to celibacy feels like a death sentence to them. Since the last thing I want to do is contribute to shame in vulnerable people, it can be difficult for me to discuss it. But I write about it because I want people to know some of us are experiencing a robust life in our quest to align with the church’s teaching on sexual ethics. I want them to know this awkward path that’s often framed as impossible can be the place where we experience the richest intimacy with Christ.
Some of my closest friends are gay affirming in belief and practice. I love these friends and these friends love Jesus. We see this point differently, and we have endless discussions about the Bible and God’s intention for sexual expression, but we love each other and we all love Jesus. We’ve walked together as we’ve prayed, cried, struggled and strived to discern how to honor God with our sexuality. Because I love my friends, I’ve got to share with you a common thread that runs through their stories and tears me up.
Most of them come from conservative families and churches. Most of their families and churches believe God only blesses sexual expression in a heterosexual marriage, and their loved ones wish my friends were living into the celibate gay adventure I described. As my friends’ paths have gone a different direction (filled with tears and sleepless nights of searching), they’ve experienced tremendous rejection from their loved ones. It tears me up when I hear their stories because I love them, God loves them, and I want nothing more than for them to have you in this process with them. Loving them involves radical acceptance of who they are as people in a process, even when that process doesn’t look like you wish it looked.
My friends tell me their loved ones hold up stories like mine to say: “See! There are people living this celibacy thing out. Why won’t you just commit to doing it like Julie, or Wesley Hill (or whoever else they’ve recently read)?” In other words: why won’t you just try harder? This makes me uncomfortable on so many levels, but more than that: it makes me sad for my friends that they’re hearing (once again) a message of just try harder. Here’s the truth about my experience: I haven’t walked this thing out because I’ve tried really hard; I’m only living into the vibrant life I described because I’ve experienced the grace of God through His people. So when it comes to what my friends need most, I know straight people telling them to just try harder isn’t the answer. And here’s why it’s not the answer: Christians usually aren’t walking it out alongside them.
Most straight people in churches have (what appears to us) the Christian American Dream. Please forgive me for the countless misconceptions probably pouring through my words, but at least receive them in a way that allows you to better understand what we see when we look at your lives. From the outside looking in, we see people falling in love with their best friend, launching a lifelong excursion together, serving in churches, loving on munchkins, and feeling the warmth of someone next to them when they crawl into bed at the end of a discouraging day. Even single people can experience the excitement of potential romance, the joy of a crush, or at least the appearance of “normalcy” since straight is the norm in most churches. We realize you face tremendous difficulties, and that being gay isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person, but it often appears to us like you’re telling us to walk out costly obedience in a way that you don’t quite understand—on a level that’s beyond your comprehension. And then my friends hear you telling them to try harder. I know that’s not your intention; I know you’re trying to be compassionate; I know it’s born out of a place of deep love in your heart. But there’s a disconnect when it’s divorced from intimate relationships, so I’d like to propose another way forward (in faith that many of you are already doing this, and that the rest of you are striving to do it better):
1.) Join them in living out costly obedience. The Bible places serious demands on the lives of every believer—demands that should inconvenience all of us as we give ourselves away like Christ gave Himself for us. I encourage you to look at your life and ask questions of how exactly you’re denying yourself, taking up your cross, and following Jesus—how you’re “losing your life to find it” as you encourage your gay loved ones to do the same. That’s the call of the Gospel, a call I hope to live into more fully. I urge you to live this out in radical ways if you’re going to ask your loved ones to do the same. Live it out in crazy, Acts 2, early church father kinds of ways. As it stands, it often seems like you’re asking gay people to do something you’re not doing yourselves, and then leaving them out to dry when they make the legitimate choice to share their lives with someone they love.
2.) Enter into their stories and bear the burden with them. Find out exactly what they need from you, and seek ways to share your life with them. Be challenged by them, changed by them, blessed by them as you merge your life with theirs in weirdly intimate ways. Share your own struggles and heartaches in the vulnerable way they’ve shared with you. You’re asking them to choose a life that involves never having that special someone to come home to, so let them find a home in your house. Even when you have the best of intentions, it feels cold and inhumane when you send them links to articles (with added commentary on costly obedience) and then leave them to go it alone. Walk it out with them and be changed by the process.
I’ve shared what a vibrant life I experience, and written at length about the rich relationships that have enabled me to thrive. It’s because I’ve experienced such rich relationships, and because I enjoy such a robust life, that I’m compelled to advocate for my brothers and sisters who are shamed and left out in the cold. I’m not living into this celibate gay adventure because I’ve tried really hard; I’ve actually sucked at this process and stumbled into supportive arms at every turn. My community has given me space to be in a process, even when that process hasn’t looked like they wished. My community has lived out costly obedience around me; they’ve shared their lives with me as we’ve walked side by side toward Christ in a manner that inconveniences all of us in that counterintuitively beautiful way. My prayer is that my friends will find that community and compassion in you.