Jesus brings the Sermon on the Mount to a close with this illustration:
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. Matthew 7:24-27
Jesus lays out what’s of vital importance for His followers to understand: What you build your life upon matters, and what you do matters. The foundation upon which we’re built will shape our convictions and values, which determine what kinds of people we become. When I think about the foundation a person is built upon, I often think about identity. An identity is what internally sets someone apart from others—what defines a person—and it often says something about their values and convictions. It’s how we say to ourselves and others: “this is who I am,” and Jesus seems to be saying that if “who we are” is rooted in anything other than Him and His teaching, then (like the foolish man) we’re building our lives on sand.
Toward the end of my time speaking with Exodus, I started publicly saying I was “gay”. I didn’t plan on using that label to describe my experience, but it came out because I was honestly sharing my heart, and honestly sharing about my experience involved saying I have a really gay orientation. It made sense to use the label most commonly used for ongoing, persistent same-sex attractions to describe my ongoing, persistent same-sex attractions: gay. I would discuss how I previously focused on my sexuality to the neglect of focusing on Christ in two ways: 1.) by finding my identity in my sexuality and re-imagining Scripture in a way that affirmed gay sexual expression, and 2.) by placing my hope in becoming heterosexual with the prosperity-Gospel-leaning “healing” message so I could one day live into the romance narrative that is less about Christ and more about the removal of uncomfortable tension here on earth. I shared about being a celibate gay Christian with an identity in Christ, who’s built upon the foundation of Christ, entirely rooted in the way of Christ, with my hope in the fullness of redemption that will culminate with Christ’s return.
I was surprised to find that, suddenly, I started getting push back from many Christians. Many have latched onto the “gay” part when I use that adjective to describe my same-sex attractions, and they’ve been concerned that I (or others like me) am claiming a gay identity. They’ve expressed concern that I’m “defining myself by my sin”. I always listen closely when people approach me about it because the thing that defines us (the foundation upon which we build our sense of self) is going to be the driving force of countless other choices we make. It’s where we’ll find our sense of meaning, value, and purpose, so I want to be corrected if I ever begin to define myself by my sexuality.
What I always come back to is this: there’s a distinction between an identity and a label that’s helpful in describing my experience. We use words to communicate our experiences so we’re more fully known and more intimately connected, and “celibate gay Christian” has sometimes been helpful for me. It communicates that I don’t experience heterosexual attractions, so I don’t feel like I’m lying by omission since people otherwise assume I’m straight. It also clarifies that orientation change hasn’t been my experience and it isn’t the goal of a Christian—Christ-likeness is the goal. And I find one of the most valuable reasons to use the term is this: young people in the church who find themselves attracted to the same sex typically think to themselves “I’m gay”. I want them to know being gay doesn’t have to entail a departure from Scripture and church teaching on this topic. I want them to know there are others who are also “gay” who have submitted their sexuality to Christ as they follow Him on the path of discipleship.
None of those things are related to a gay identity though, and I want to be clear about that because I think it’s dangerous for Christians to place our identity in anything other than Christ. The entirety of who I am is built upon what Christ has done (or at least that’s my aim and prayer). The redemptive narrative that runs throughout Scripture is where I find hope, value, and meaning, and my identity is one of an adopted child who was rescued by Jesus. Every term I use to communicate some aspect of my experience—introvert, laid back, sister, writer, runner, gay—is simply a term used to describe part of my experience as a child of God situated in a specific way in the world.
The question of identity seems important not just for gay Christians to consider, but for all Christians to seriously consider on an ongoing basis. I know many Christians who are not being confronted about where they find their identity—what they’re building their life upon—because they’re straight, well-behaved, well-adjusted men and women. But in a competitive, image-driven culture, it can be easy for someone to find their identity in their work, in their accomplishments, in their appearance, in the success of their children. Without realizing it and without using a label, we can slowly start to find our value and purpose in countless things other than Christ. We begin to forget why we’re here—to know God and glorify Him—and we’re swallowed up in approval-seeking, people-pleasing, never-ending cycles to prove that we matter. And great will be the fall of that house.
The language we use to describe our experience matters in the sense that language does shape the way we think about ourselves, and if we don’t know what we’re doing with words then words can do something with us. But the language we use to describe our experience is less important than moment-by-moment worship of God, placing Him at the center of all our thoughts and affections. I’ve come to be grateful that I’m so often questioned about my identity because it causes me to continually reflect on whether or not I really am building my life upon Christ and Christ alone. It helps me keep everything else in check, and to be prayerful about whether or not my affections are properly ordered.
It would, however, be helpful for all of us (gay or straight) to regularly reflect on what we point to internally for a sense of meaning and purpose and identity. If we find that we’re crushed by someone else’s low opinion of us, or we’re in knots over whether or not we receive recognition for our work, or we’re exhausted in our efforts to fit the image of attractive and successful in our culture, then we’re missing it in a way that breaks the heart of God and it will eventually break us. We’re missing it regardless of what words we use to describe that experience. But if, by the Spirit of God, we’re careful to build our lives upon Him and we see that demonstrated through a life of doing what He says, then we can be confident that our Father in Heaven is glorified in us and that He’ll be faithful to display His beauty through us.
Julie Rodgers shares life with inner city youth in West Dallas. She also writes and speaks about faith and sexuality, so check out her blog or find her on Twitter: @Julie_rodgers.
This is such an excellent article! I’ve already shared it on fb. You do such a beautiful job of articulating the difference between identity and words simply used to describe someone’s experience. I love how you write that the goal for all of us is becoming like Christ. You are also writing on one of my husband’s favorite themes: who we are in Christ. In almost every sermon he preaches, he weaves this theme in because you are right: we live in a culture that tries to shape our identity by its version of success, beauty, etc. Seeing our ultimate identity as being in Christ – His sons and His daughters – frees us in so many ways. Julie, you are an absolutely precious sister in Christ! I have come to appreciate your posts very much. We are not all that far away from you. We live down here in Corpus Christi. I look forward to hopefully meeting you one day. Your heart for God comes through your writings and is always such an encouragement to me. Blessings to you!
What an encouraging note! Thank you for sharing, Kristin. I’m always excited to hear when pastors and their families are reading blogs like Spiritual Friendship to grow in understanding on all of this. You have so much influence and such an opportunity to set the tone for a church culture that lives this out. It’s also great to hear he’s sharing a similar message week in and week out. Shoot me an email if you’re ever in Dallas, for sure!
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Good discussion Julie! I am right with you on this. I think the challenge is how to address younger side B folk who are beginning to use gay more as an identity now. It would be interesting to have a post exploring the distinctions based on how these other side B people are using language and the rationale behind it. And potential impact on their lives.
I would love for that conversation to be occurring as well, Karen. There do seem to be quite a few Side B folks who seem to claim it more as an identity, and I think part of that is because this is such an unclear path for so many. Wise people like you bring so much to the conversation and I think you can speak to a lot of the problems that arise with that really well.
As a young Christian, I struggled with self confidence. The more I grew in the Lord, I was to overcome most of that.
I’ve been in so many conversations and read so much from people who use the term gay simply as an adjective that I had forgotten how controversial the term can be. I recently had a conversation with a coworker who got really heated with me and told me I was using unchristian leftist rhetoric when I used the term “gay Christian.” He’s known me for three years, so I would have thought he knew where I was coming from. Apparently not.
Mike! Yeah, I always wonder why I’m re-surprised by conversations like you described when I find myself in them. They happen so frequently, yet every time I still find myself thinking, “Oh wow, is this still a big deal to people?!” It’s encouraging to watch people slowly grow in grace and understanding when they’re willing to really listen though.
Julie, thanks for making this point. I use same sex attracted, gay or sexual minority as a description not a defining aspect of my Christian beliefs.
As Mike said above sometimes using those words cause knee jerk reactions in people or assumptions. It can be terribly difficult to have conversations without having to clarify first what we mean by the words we use. I liken it to the assumptions people make when they meet someone from a different culture or ethnicity and assume things about them.
As a Christian I try to be open to all my brothers and sisters of the faith rather than being fearful and closed off because of their sexuality or denominational beliefs or politics. I think when we approach each other with openness the opportunity is there for Christ to be present and active in our fellowship with each other, as we encourage and exhort one another (and learn from each other)
I think you’re spot on with the need for humility in all of this. It’s a difficult process for anyone to figure out how to live this out in a way that’s honest and honoring to the Lord, and I think we do well when we give a lot of space for folks along the way. I also know how much it means to me personally when others extend the benefit of the doubt, so I hope to be the kind of person who extends that to others as well.
I’m constantly discussing this with my parents and a few friends that I’m out to…thanks for the timely words here!
Thank you for this, Julie. As I’ve incorporated the word “gay” into my vocabulary to describe my experience, I’ve definitely found a struggle to find balance. Or as you point out, to elevate Christ above all other facets of my being. Last year I really struggled not to view my sexual orientation as my ticket to attention and love that I didn’t have in my youth (being vulnerable is essential for developing meaningful relationships, but it can also bring pain and rejection too, so it’s not always been as great as I hoped). My coming out experience is still very much an evolutionary process. I’m thankful for grace as I’m stumbling in the dark to do this right. So yes. Great post. 🙂
Absolutely, there’s grace for the process! It’s a difficult path to navigate, and I think we all go through a bunch of “adventures in being slightly off in focus” along the way. We’ll never arrive, where we have all the right motivations with the properly ordered affections, and I think that’s part of the beauty of how God meets us in the process and makes us more like Him along the way. The intentions and posture of the heart seem to be most important, which is why I enjoy reading what you have to say.
Julie—I appreciate you putting things out there for discussion and to provoke thought. Yet, I am a bit confused. You seem to be saying you identify as gay, but your identity is in Christ. This seems contradictory. Even defining who we are in Christ and what that looks like can be difficult. Still, if we are created in God’s image, then we are his image. With that, the complement of man and woman being one are the fullness or whole picture of God. Our identity is his image.
I can say that, my wounds, the fallenness of this world, plus the enemies lies and temptations have impacted my attractions. However, I would not agree that those attraction even impact how I label myself. To me even the label is also a lie as it does not represent God’s perfect Eden image of His design.
Even so, I do not know your story. I apologize for not knowing you better to make my comments more succinct. I will look deeper into your blog to see if your testimony is there somewhere. Saying that, I would add that even if there are no developmental markers or abuse(s) to see their influence on attractions, our fallenness coupled with the enemy’s desire to kill, steal, and destroy are enough for me. He hates us simply because we are the image of God.
Hi Jenellel, I understand why you don’t want to use a gay label, and I think there are good reasons for both using it or not using it. I wasn’t advocating here for all people to use it, but was trying to explain how one could use it as an adjective (because we’re constantly using words to describe our experiences to others) and not give it identity-shaping status. Since the word “gay” is understood to mean “attracted to the same sex,” I often use that to communicate to others that I’m attracted to the same sex, and that’s all I intend to communicate it by it.
I’m curious to better understand what you mean when you say the label is a lie because it doesn’t represent the picture we see in the creation story? I agree that a gay orientation is one area where we see things are not as they were intended to be (as a result of the Fall), but it doesn’t seem like a lie to honestly and explicitly say HOW they’re not as they should be. It would seem more like a lie (to me) if I were to act like my life is Eden-esque when, in fact, it’s not. Sharing the particularities of how it’s not Eden-esque is (to me) a way of telling the truth about my situation living in a fallen world, and it opens the door to also talk about the redemption we’re looking forward to as we honestly walk through the process of sanctification in community.
Julie – Thanks for your reply. And again, a lot of the confusion between us here is that we don’t really know each other. I say that because it makes it hard to understand the heart of comments when one writes in a forum like this. Even so…
I understand what you say about describing how one lives in a fallen world. Authenticity is one of my favorite qualities of myself and others. My comments were based on understanding spiritual warfare and how it impacts our thinking and beliefs about ourselves, our identity. In addition, I don’t think I was saying that I don’t tell people about my ssa. In fact, I’m a very transparent person when it comes to my fallenness and do not wear a mask or pretend to be Eden-esque as it was put, nor do I ‘claim healing’ or pretend my ssa has disappeared miraculously.
The problem I see with using the world’s definitions is that they mean something different to everyone. With that, some may walk away from a conversation with a definition that was not intended. Yet, I can also see how using ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ may allow one to converse with people who may not otherwise talk or it may keep others from defaulting to preconceived judgment about the other person in the conversation. Even then, I can think of many different ways to build rapport with people that do not include using terms that may merely be allowing one to ‘fit in’ or be ‘understood.’
In addition, I have learned that when I set my sights on God’s intended purpose for his image in me, I find His value (Psalm 139) and set my purposes for something higher. For me, considering myself as gay because of my attractions keeps me in an ambivalence that just keeps cycling without moving to a place that I never before thought I could have reached.
All that said, it is important also to know that I do not think everyone should or will think the way I do. As I’ve said many times, I appreciate your writings and simply wanted to express a differently way of looking at things.
Jenellel, I can’t hit “reply” directly underneath your comment, so hopefully this falls there anyway. It sounds like you’ve found a way of sharing that’s really fruitful for you! I really appreciate you expressing a different approach here, and hope that comes through in my comments.
I’ve known many SSA people who also find it more helpful to describe their experience in those terms, and I think that’s great if that’s what works for them, or for you if it helps remind you that you’re an image-bearer of Christ. I publicly described my experience that way for a long time, mainly because of the problem you pointed out of people having different definitions for the term “gay”. I found that people also came to different conclusions about what I meant by “SSA”, and it came with a different set of problems. What’s important seems to be what you’re saying about being honest and transparent, and unpacking what we mean by whatever labels we use. Thanks for taking the time to share some of your thoughts here and for being gracious toward those who might approach it a little differently!