A few days ago on Twitter, my friend Mollie Hemingway linked to a piece written by a pastor friend of hers, Todd Peperkorn, on depression—or, more specifically, on lessons he’s learned from a decade of surviving depression. I resonated with it very much and found myself almost immediately making connections between Pastor Peperkorn’s experience and my experience of same-sex desire.
Before I go any further, though, I have a caveat or two. I’m wary of Christian portrayals of same-sex attracted folks as “special cases” who are always prone to depression or excessive lust (or whatever). I worry about the power dynamic in play when straight Christians view gay Christians as charity projects. When Christian leaders write sentences like this, “At the heart of the homosexual condition is a deep loneliness, the natural human hunger for mutual love, a search for identity, and a longing for completeness,” I’m not really satisfied unless they turn around and say the same thing about fallen-heterosexuality-as-we-know-it. We’re all prone to weakness, temptation, and sin, and any Christian talk that implies otherwise needs to relearn the gospel.
Furthermore, I think there are crucial differences between the experience of depression and the experience of same-sex sexual desire. The former is something that tends to isolate the sufferer and hinder engagement with others, whereas the latter—misdirected though traditional Christianity understands it to be—is fundamentally about the longing for love, about the desire to give oneself to another human being made in God’s image.
Caveats aside, though, there are genuine connections for me between my same-sex sexual desire and other Christians’ experiences of various forms of suffering. If there is, as Chris Roberts likes to say, “solidarity amongst the many ways of patiently cultivating chastity,” there is also the more fundamental solidarity of sharing in the same fallen condition. Insofar as my sexual orientation directs me away from the kind of sex God intended to be experienced in marriage, I experience it as a “trial.” And in that way, I feel a real kinship with Pastor Peperkorn and his experience of depression. We’re both trying to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12-13) while contending with what Francis Schaeffer once called our own peculiar mix of the fall.
Here are Pastor Peperkorn’s lessons—and my appropriations of them:
“First, my story is not unusual.”
Amen to this one. When I speak to various audiences on gay Christian whatnot, I often say that the first gift I received from the first Christian I ever came out to was the gift of his lack of surprise. “Bible-believing Christians should never have the reaction designated by the term shocked,” Francis Schaeffer said. Although from the perspective of creation and redemption, being gay may be compared to a disability, nevertheless, from the perspective of creation-as-fallen, it is entirely to be expected that believers would find themselves experiencing same-sex attraction. It should occasion no alarm or astonishment in our churches. And, thankfully, as I’ve shared my story with my fellow believers, I’ve found over and over that it has connected me with many others who are walking the same road. I’ve discovered that I’m far from alone.
“Second, one can never be too grateful for the people around you.”
Amen to this one too. In many ways, this is the main theme of this blog. As we gay believers go on walking this pilgrim road, we find ourselves in company with others, and that’s how we’re able to persevere with joy and a sense of purpose.
“Third, recognizing our common humanity can serve as the beginning of healing.”
One of the things I’ve often puzzled over in Aelred of Rievaulx’s writings is why he so often insists, at multiple points in his dialogues on friendship, that sharing secrets is so much at the heart of true friendship. “We call friends only those to whom we have no qualm about entrusting our heart and all its contents,” he writes. Maybe part of the answer is that our secrets are so often the source of our shame, and by sharing them with a trusted spiritual friend, we realize more and more that our shame doesn’t define us and is, most likely, already experienced by our friend as well. As Brené Brown has taught us all, “Empathy’s the antidote to shame. The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: me too.”
“Fourth, healing never really stops.”
For many of us, our exposure to so-called “ex-gay” ministries led to a conception of “healing” as a condition we might attain one day. “Healing” so often seems to imply “becoming attracted to the opposite sex,” for example, and it’s a far-off point on the horizon where we haven’t arrived. And yet, in Scripture and the Christian tradition, words like “healing” are about the whole of the Christian life. John Calvin, for example, famously rejected the idea that “repentance” or “renewal of life” was the work of a moment. Rather, he said, our
renewal, indeed, is not accomplished in a moment, a day, or a year, but by uninterrupted, sometimes even by slow progress God abolishes the remains of carnal corruption in his elect, cleanses them from pollution, and consecrates them as his temples, restoring all their inclinations to real purity, so that during their whole lives they may practice repentance, and know that death is the only termination to this warfare. (Institutes, III.3.ix)
Our “healing,” then, isn’t something we can “activate” or “achieve” and then be done with.
And for most of us, probably, our healing will be found in and through our living chastely with ongoing same-sex attraction. “[P]eople with same-sex attractions who profess Christian faith … will accept their homosexual desires as their cross—as a providential part of their struggle to glorify God and save their lives in a sinful world,” wrote Fr. Thomas Hopko. And here’s how Ron Belgau has put the same point:
To live celibacy well requires in some ways a deeper healing, and a more dramatic inner transformation than opposite sex marriage would require. Although our pursuit of chastity—whether in marriage or in single life—begins with difficult self-denial, and often involves ongoing seasons of deep struggle, we shouldn’t think of celibacy primarily as a “booby prize”: the consolation given to the losers whose prayers for “healing” (understood solely in terms of orientation change) go unanswered. Nor should we view the sometimes gradual but resolute approach to Christian perfection in the life of those whose orientation has not changed as evidence that God has not healed. To do so involves a radical misunderstanding of vocation and of the work of the Holy Spirit.
In short, if our “healing” doesn’t come in the form we might have hoped, that doesn’t mean it’s not happening at all.
“Finally, it is the Lord’s Supper that continues to give life.”
“[T]he cure for alienation is in kneeling at the altar rail,” says Eve Tushnet about her own experience as a gay Catholic, and I think she’s right—even when it doesn’t always (or even often) feel that way. “Kneeling before the altar (or the communion rail—bring these back!), I know that I’m in my place, or as close to it as I’ve ever been.” This is because, as Pastor Peperkorn puts it, “He gives Himself in the Eucharist, and in doing so, is with me to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:20). That rock, that certainty beyond all doubt, is what sustains me when everything else seems to go dark.”
Maybe the last thing to say is that these are the kind of lessons that could easily be multiplied. If you have ones to add in the comment section, please feel free. I’d love to read them.