The great evangelical preacher Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said, “You can be so interested in great theological and intellectual and philosophical problems that you tend to forget that you are going to die.” At the heart of this admonition is, I think, a reminder that ideas and issues and controversies are only relevant as they relate to people, human beings with real lives and real souls.
Nowhere is this reminder more needed in our day than within the Christian conversation regarding same-sex attraction and homosexuality. It is so easy to discuss the “issue” of homosexuality in our culture while forgetting that gay people aren’t simply an “issue” to be sorted out. Furthermore, when we quarantine the conversation to the theoretical realm divorced from the lived experience of folks with SSA, the conversation inevitably becomes blurry, ambiguous, lacking in clarity. This is no knock on philosophy or theory; these things are needed and helpful. But pushing our musings from the realm of hypothetical reflection toward concrete examples of everyday life tends to blow away the haze and bring the fuzzy corners into focus.
Therefore, I want to take many of the ideas often discussed here at Spiritual Friendship and apply them to a real person: me. In doing so, I am not claiming that I have everything figured out or especially that I am representing the views of everyone who writes for Spiritual Friendship. I simply know my own experience best, and my hope is that this exercise will help clear up a lot of what I am and am not saying about SSA.
For this example, I will use a composite of many of my real friendships and combine them into one specific story. That story is about my friendship with Rick (fake name, real experiences).
Rick and I met at a gathering hosted by my church back in college. I remember seeing him for the first time and feeling a pronounced physical attraction toward him. Now what do I mean by “attraction”? I mean the pre-cognitive physical reaction that makes us take particular notice of certain people. This is what my pastor, John Piper, has described to me as “noticing with pleasure.” I saw Rick, I got “the butterflies”, and it was nice.
It is at this point that a clear distinction must be made. This initial attraction toward Rick was not a desire for sex. Indeed, an attraction is not a desire for anything. It is simply a physical experience that happens in the brain based on chemicals and stimuli. Instead, it is important to note that attractions lead to desires. I was attracted to Rick, which led to the feeling, “I want to (blank).” The “I want to…” is the desire, not the initial noticing with pleasure.
Also, notice that I said attraction leads to desires, plural. As I noticed Rick with pleasure, the attraction produced all sorts of “I want…” desires in me. One of those desires was a sexual desire. No, I wasn’t immediately imagining what it would be like to be in bed with him, but the seed was present. However, I also experienced many heightened desires toward Rick that had nothing to do with sex. I desired to go talk to him, shake his hand, get to know him, laugh with him, and serve him by bringing him a glass of punch. In other words, not only were the seeds of sexual desire present, but the seeds of desires for friendship, hospitality, emotional intimacy, sacrificial service, and love were there as well. All different desires, all colored by the same initial attraction.
It is this experience of persistent attractions toward other men leading to multiple heightened desires that constitutes my definition of SSA, experiencing a homosexual orientation, or “being gay”. The whole experience, not merely the sexual parts.
Now, some may question why I include the desires for friendship, hospitality, service, and love within SSA. After all, can’t a straight man experience these non-sexual desires toward guys as well? It is a fair question.
Simply put, the reason I believe these non-sexual desires are part of a sexual orientation is that these desires are often closely tied to physical attraction, as was the case with Rick. In other words, I felt the good desires for friendship and service and love for Rick to a degree that I did not toward the guy on the other side of the room that I wasn’t attracted to or the beautiful girl standing next to me for whom I felt nothing.
And I italicized the word degree on purpose. It isn’t that I don’t experience non-sexual desires toward men apart from physical attractions. I do. But not on the same level. These desires do not necessarily find their origin in the attraction, but they are heightened by it.
Therefore, since my exclusive attractions toward men and not women constitute my sexual orientation, then every desire that is affected by these attractions is a part of my orientation. So again, my definition of SSA or homosexual orientation or “being gay” is this: persistent attractions toward the same sex that lead to multiple desires, including sexual desires and heightened non-sexual desires.
This naturally raises the question of, “Now what?” I experienced an attraction toward Rick that led to sexual and non-sexual desires. What should I do with these desires? Some would argue that all of the desires wakened by this type of attraction should be fought altogether and indiscriminately. However, speaking from my ground level experience, I find this approach to be impossible, unhealthy, and unwarranted. Rather, I contend that each desire should be evaluated and dealt with separately, which I will attempt to do below.
First, the sexual desires. There have been some fascinating discussions here at Spiritual Friendship about how to deal with same-sex sexual desire, reflecting on the nature of Eros and the sublimation of sexual desire toward God-glorifying ends. For me, however, the way I am most comfortable talking about illicit sexual desire is as a passion of the flesh that needs to be put to death (Gal. 5:24). I know some will not much appreciate that way of talking, but when it comes to forbidden desire the only answer that I see in scripture is to wage all out war by turning from the desire to the superior promises of pleasure found in Christ by the power of the Spirit (Gal. 5:16-18).
However, what of the non-sexual desires for things like friendship, hospitality, relational intimacy, and sacrificial love? In my view, it is impossible to put all of these desires to death and have any semblance of consistent friendship. For example, what if I experience an attraction toward a friend to whom I have previously been unattracted, but now suddenly find attractive? (This has happened to me many times). If I were to put to death all non-sexual desires tied to this attraction, it would be practically impossible to maintain a healthy, intimate friendship with him. This seems to put all same-sex friendships in a constant state of uncertainty and flux for the SSA Christian, depending on whether physical attraction is present or not at the moment.
Is this the necessary way forward? I do not believe that it is. The reason is that these non-sexual desires are not sinful. One of the main ways that we determine if a desire is sinful or not is by examining its telos, or end. For example, the telos of a sexual desire is sex, which would make a sexual desire outside of marriage sinful (by sinful, I do not mean the same as sinning. Rather, sinful means that it exists as a product of the fall and its end is volitional sinning). However, the telos of a desire for friendship is friendship, and the telos of a desire for sacrificial love is sacrificial love. These desires are good things that can lead to God-glorifying ends by the help of the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, my contention is that the sexual desires which flow from an attraction should be fought with blood earnestness, while the heightened non-sexual desires flowing from the same attraction can be prayerfully and wisely pursued in community toward God-glorifying friendship, intimacy, and love.
This is exactly what has happened in my friendship with Rick. I still find him very physically attractive. However, every time I have experienced a sexual desire toward him, I have tried to kill it as fast as possible. Sometimes I’ve experienced victory, sometimes failure. But the trajectory has always been one of war against illicit sexual desire, and by God’s grace this has led not only to a marked increase in victory but also a marked decrease in the instances of sexual desire toward him. Furthermore, I have consistently pursued the heightened desires for friendship, hospitality, and sacrificial love so closely tied to my attraction, and by God’s grace this has led to an intimate, life-giving, God-glorifying friendship that is defined by putting each others needs first, emotional intimacy, and pure Jonathan-David like love.
Also, notice one more thing. Like most of my good friends, Rick is straight, and yet he experiences legitimate and strong desires for friendship and love toward me. I hope this makes it clear that I am not saying that I have a greater capacity for same-sex friendship than he does because I’m gay. I’m not arguing that gay people have a “special gift” for friendship. Nor am I describing a special type of “gay friendship” that pushes the line toward dating or romance. Not at all. All I am saying is that for gay people, the desire for same-sex friendship and love is often connected with their sexuality in ways it is not for straight people. This needs to be acknowledged as a challenge we face and have to navigate around. But it should not be seen as something that disqualifies us from pursuing deep, intimate friendships, either.
I praise God for my friendship with Rick as well as the many friendships that this story represents. One of the practical upshots of examining real life examples is that it helps us to avoid unhelpful extremes. The reality is that my sexuality is not totally broken. Yes, all of us—gay and straight—are marred by the fall, prone to wander in our own ways, susceptible to our own sexual temptations. But all of us—gay and straight—are not so broken as to be beyond God’s ability to use our weaknesses, our own thorns, in order to display his power in and through them (2 Cor. 12:9). May it be ever increasingly so in you and me.
Nick Roen is currently pursuing a M.Div. with an emphasis in worship at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He previously graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Lacrosse, receiving a bachelors degree in Music Theory and Composition. He can be found on Twitter @roenaboat.