The Long Defeat and the Long Loneliness

One of the primary ways I’ve thought about my own life as a gay, celibate believer and also about my larger project of trying to make the church more of a nurturing haven for other gay/SSA/queer believers is in terms of what J. R. R. Tolkien called “the long defeat.” His regal character Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings, surveying the long years of her immortality and all the seasons of mingled loss and triumph she’s witnessed, says, “Through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.” And Tolkien himself identifies with her: “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”

Alan Jacobs comments:

It seems to me that this philosophy of history, if we may call it that, is the ideal one for anyone who has exceptionally difficult, frustrating, even agonizing, but nevertheless vitally important work to do. For such people, the expectation of victory can be a terrible thing — it can raise hopes in (relatively) good times only to shatter them when the inevitable downturn comes. Conversely, the one who fights the long defeat can be all the more thankful for victories, even small ones, precisely because (as St. Augustine said about ecstatic religious experiences) he or she does not expect them and is prepared to live without them.

This perspective on history and on the individual Christian pilgrimage has meant a lot to me. As someone who hasn’t received one iota of the promised “change” in my sexual orientation that some Christians have held out to me, and as someone who also hasn’t been able to embrace a more progressive understanding of same-sex marriage, I’ve often felt like I’m fighting a kind of long defeat: I’m gay but not seeking a same-sex partner, and I’m still gay and so also not seeking an opposite-sex spouse, and what that feels like is… well, it often feels like the way St. Paul describes his rather stark view of the Christian life in Romans 8: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”

I was helped to embrace this viewpoint in my early twenties when I read The Moral Vision of the New Testament by Richard Hays. Facing squarely the much-debated question of whether celibacy is “mandated” for all gay Christians in a way that is qualitatively different than the call to chastity for straight Christians (“Never in church history until the past 50 years has celibacy been mandated for any group [such as LGBT people] regardless of calling,” says Matthew Vines, for instance), Hays writes:

While Paul regarded celibacy as a charisma, he did not therefore suppose that those lacking the charisma were free to indulge their sexual desires outside marriage. Heterosexually oriented persons are also called to abstinence from sex unless they marry (1 Cor 7:8-9). The only difference — admittedly a salient one — in the case of homosexually oriented persons is that they do not have the option of homosexual “marriage” [in traditional churches, we must now add]. So where does that leave them? It leaves them in precisely the same situation as the heterosexual who would like to marry but cannot find an appropriate partner (and there are many such): summoned to a difficult, costly obedience, while “groaning” for the “redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). Anyone who does not recognize this as a description of authentic Christian existence has never struggled seriously with the imperatives of the gospel, which challenge and frustrate our “natural” impulses in countless ways. (Italics added)

That passage in Hays’ book has been a lodestar for me over the past few years. And I think it goes a long way toward explaining the way I and many of my fellow celibate gay friends view our discipleship: we’re fighting a long defeat, not necessarily expecting to find a satisfying substitute in this life for the marital happiness we’re choosing to live without and instead pinning our hopes for spousal union on the future marriage Supper of the Lamb. We’re groaning and waiting, often without much natural “fulfillment,” and counting on a future weight of glory that will far surpass our present groans. As one gay friend of mine once wrote,

My hopes for making the Church a place where gay people can truly be welcome may be faint glimmerings that I dare not cling to, but that provides no excuse for dropping the project. It simply means that I must continue to fight the fight, while expecting the long defeat. My hope is not in this life, but in the life to come.

I’ve been thinking about all this again recently because I just finished reading The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day for the first time. Much of what Day — the legendary founder, with Peter Maurin, of the Catholic Worker movement and whose cause for sainthood is now being considered — is concerned to stress in her book, a memoir of her conversion and her activism for social justice, seems to me to dovetail with what Tolkien calls “the long defeat.” For example, she spends a lot of time describing how her conversion to Catholicism forced her to grapple with the implications of submitting to the Church’s teaching about sex and marriage. (She is very forthright about the Catholic Church’s sexual ethics in her book, demonstrating clearly that one can be “conservative” in this arena while at the same time not surrendering one ounce of agitation for social justice — a combination so many of us today find truly baffling.) Day was in a common law marriage to a man named Forster who wanted nothing to do with her newfound faith, and she recognizes that choosing the Church over Forster may well mean that she forfeits — for good — a great deal of earthly happiness. She writes:

God always gives us a chance to show our preference for Him. With Abraham it was to sacrifice his only son. With me it was to give up my married life with Forster. You do these things blindly, not because it is your natural inclination — you are going against nature when you do them — but because you wish to live in conformity with the will of God.

When I read that paragraph in the book, I found myself wondering how many of us today really share that vision of the Christian life. Are we — am I — prepared to countenance the fact that the Christian God may indeed be just this kind of God? — the kind of God who might ask me to say no to my most deeply felt “natural” (= in the fallen sense) inclinations for sex and marriage in order to show my preference for Him?

In another passage, Day describes having to “let go” of her natural love for her daughter and place her consciously in God’s care.

When I left Tamar that afternoon and went back to Montreal, I never was so unhappy, never felt so great a sense of loneliness. She was growing up, she was growing up to be married. It did not seem possible. I was always having to be parted from her. No matter how many times I gave up mother, father, husband, brother, daughter, for His sake, I had to do it over again.

Notice Day’s allusion to Mark chapter 10, in which Jesus observes how so many of His followers have given up exactly those closest ties that Day names: homes and siblings and parents and even children in order to become His disciples. Are we prepared to imagine that Christ might actually call us, still, to that deep level of surrender? That it might be best described as one long, repeated act of placing our greatest loves before Him?

Perhaps many of our debates about “mandatory gay celibacy” in the church involve, at the end of the day, differing understandings of the character of God: is God in Christ the sort of God who would ask His children to embrace a lifelong loneliness, a long defeat? I don’t want to be misunderstood here: I know many so-called “progressive” or “liberal” Christians whose picture of same-sex marriage is precisely about lifelong self-sacrifice, and there are many stories of gay partners standing by one another in sickness and in health alike to prove it. And yet can some of our disagreement about whether gay sex is morally appropriate for Christians still be traced back to differing beliefs about whether God might just be the kind of God who asks what feels well-nigh impossible: who asks us to give up the one thing that our “natural” selves most want, which seems for all the world like what we’re most suited for? It’s a question I’d like to explore with my progressive friends, to see what kind of common ground, and also what kind of lack of agreement, we might find…

It’s significant, I think, that Day closes her book — and here I think she probably improves on Tolkien’s vision of the “long defeat” — by stressing that when we surrender to God in this way, when we give up hope of “natural” fulfillment, we find (paradoxically?) that the long loneliness of the Christian life is not a life without human love: “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.” No doubt she had read the rest of chapter 10 in the Gospel of Mark:

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age — houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions — and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

The long defeat, and the long loneliness, are lived in good company, with other guests who are bound for the same Wedding Supper that’s to come.

36 thoughts on “The Long Defeat and the Long Loneliness

  1. This is the best thing I’ve ever read on the subject. I may disagree with you on same sex attraction being a part of a person’s identity (heck, I don’t consider my own heterosexuality to be a part of my identity- I choose it specifically to fulfill a vocation, that of Fatherhood). But what you come to in the end is close to what I believe. We are asked to convert to God, we should not be asking God to convert to us.

    • Hello Theodore:

      I have a question about your statement “I don’t consider my own heterosexuality to be a part of my identity- I choose it specifically to fulfill a vocation.” Are you possibly mixing the ideas of behaviors with inclinations and desires? Are you sexually and romantically drawn to men vs women and just choosing to be romantically connected to a woman so you can have children, and that your actually desire is for intimacy not primarily directed towards women?

      These are of course highly personally questions that I don’t expect you to answer in a public blog, but I think what Wesley is getting at is that our sexuality exist apart from our behaviors. If a person never marries and never engages in sexual activity their entire lifetime are they neither gay nor straight? Many people I encounter (perhaps most) have a desire for a person of a certain gender when they think about the possibility of an intimate life partner. Regardless if we adhere to a faith based worldview or not many are primarily drawn to a certain gender. There are of course those that experience sexual drawing to either gender, but that’s not everyone.

      In my experience people who experience sexuality in line with traditional biblical boundaries never have to think about their sexuality as part of their identity sort of how a fish probably doesn’t think of itself as wet. Understanding the concept of sexual identity comes in part from not just looking at the world from my own eyes but attempting, with help from others to see the world through the eyes of people not like myself.

      • I am saying I choose who I am attracted to, and I do not let “inclinations” rule my life. Besides, as we now know from research on porn induced erectile dysfunction, sexual attraction is environment, not innate. Nurture, not nature. Your brain is trained into sexual desire, and it is not immutable.

        I consider sexiual orientation and sexual identity to be largely mythical and not real at all.

        I do not desire to possess persons, and love is a choice, not an emotion for me.

        The concept of sexual identity was invented by psychoanalysts in the 1800s for the sole purpose of enhancing their couch time fees.

  2. Wes- this really touched me.. I’m “straight” but the call from Christ to this level of discipleship is the call we must all embrace. I am deeply moved by the Spirit after reading this to begin to pray even more earnestly that I would embrace His crucified life. I’m a faithful reader of all posts here at SF, but this one goes to the top of my favorite list. Thank you for being a God-called voice to *all* of us… gay or straight.

  3. Thanks for this beautiful piece. Your paragraph on our differing understandings of the character of God puts me in mind of Charles Taylor—one of the key challenges for religion in modernity, he thinks, is that modern people are dubious (to say the least) about the reality or value of goods beyond this life, especially if they involve sacrificing something of our sense of flourishing *now.* Taylor doesn’t think that those who have doubts about such claims are compromising the faith—they are responding quite reasonably to the pressures of modernity. It may be that these dilemmas, while they have always been painful, are especially close to the heart of our faith in modernity. So that ought to be a point of commonality between traditionalists and progressives, at the very least.

  4. This morning I was meditating on Psalm 94:18-19, “When I said, ‘My foot is slipping,’ your unfailing love, Lord, supported me. When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy.” As a celibate gay Christian, there are many times when I feel my foot slipping, and when I allow it to slip further than the last time. Longterm celibacy doesn’t diminish the power of my natural inclinations to pull me off the pathway. My life is – and will continue to be – characterized by a long defeat and a long loneliness, but hopefully, as Eugene Peterson puts it, “a long obedience in the same direction”. Thank you, Wes, for your encouragement today. We’re walking this narrow road together.

  5. Thanks for this very relevant post. Just a born and raised layman Christian (and yes, gay celibate) reader here – not formally trained in theology or exegesis or ancient languages or anything of that sort. But I’ve been following the SF blog closely for quite some time now, and I don’t think any resource out there has had a deeper impact on my understanding of Biblical doctrine on sexuality, or has been a greater comfort in this long, long loneliness with hardly a glimpse of final victory. So thank you so much for that.

    I’m so sorry to bring up the obvious counterpoint, which has been raised over and over and remains the central tension driving this whole debate to begin with. Still it needs to be said. I understand that there are no forthcoming answers, and there never will be. But to put it simply – what does this all mean in practical terms, for us ordinary folk who will never know the safety of having a normal, nuclear family (save the ones that have estranged us), let alone an inclusive, affirming Christian community? It was once said in this blog that “our calling cannot be all about abstention and refraining and fleeing and turning away” – yet very often the reality is that our lives are reduced to just that. There are moments of joy and relief, especially when we act in service of the Church, but without the love of a partner, without the prospect of family – and yes, without the comfort of committed sexual intimacy – the less resilient of us are doomed to languish before the spiritual fruits of costly Christian discipleship are ever realized in us. The heart is a muscle that atrophies. Is this the one instance where God desires sacrifice over mercy?

    I don’t mean to sound defeatist, and I believe in SF’s vision of friendship and community wholeheartedly, but this is just to put things in perspective. Many of the writers and readers here at SF speak of the Church in rather US-centric terms, where the Christian landscape is wonderfully diverse and there’s room enough for a Side A and a Side B and an X and Y to boot, all the baggage of the SOCE movement aside. There is real debate and thus a real chance for transformation, a real hope that LGBT Christians might finally come home. But there are faithful gay Christians living in places where they are a persecuted religious minority, where same-sex acts are officially punishable by law and violence, where heterosexist, homophobic conservatism permeates every facet of social life – the church no exception. All over Africa, Asia and South America. I live in such a place. It’s bigotry all the way through, with no end or change in sight within the frame of my lifetime. There are no liberal, progressive or affirming churches here. There is no Side A or B or any kind of nuance in religious discourse. I have never been to America or even formally heard of such a thing as “gay Christian” had I not logged onto the Internet and found you. There is a budding LGBT community here among people of faith, but we have such a long way to go. And though I remain celibate, I can see why others choose to form the bonds and relationships they do just to reach a level of psychological soundness sufficient for doing God’s difficult work, for ploughing through this long defeat.

    It’s something to think about, especially in theological terms. Maybe there is a scriptural basis for accepting that there are different callings for different gay Christians in different circumstances, celibacy being only one of them. We are all called to a lifelong sacrifice and our own kind of loneliness, but perhaps not exactly the same one. I don’t know if there’s any good Biblical reason to believe this, and of course we are at no liberty to change the truth. But there is a tremendous burden of proof on the non-affirming side of the debate given all the ways that loneliness compromises the expression of even the most basic spiritual gifts. I can’t help but wonder.

    Much love to all of you, in Christ.

    • I’m heartened that you found this community despite the lack of community in your context. As someone who lives in Kenya, I understand the church elsewhere in the world being very closed. But I am wondering – maybe that is an opportunity for us to start talking? Depending on the circumstances that may not be realistic… I’m just trying to figure out how to do that myself.

  6. “Is God in Christ the sort of God who would ask His children to embrace a lifelong loneliness, a long defeat?” I ask myself this regularly, though for slightly different reasons than you do. Usually, it’s a discouraging question to myself, but today, it is encouraging. Thank you.

  7. Matthew Vines is “waiting for marriage” but he never makes it clear if he is dong that from the perspective of somebody who believes that sex outside of marriage is sinful (but a Christian can marry somebody of the same sex) or it s simply his personal choice within a moral framework based on autonomy and consent (the sexual ethic of the wider gay community). If it is the first reason, then he stands to alienate a big chunk of his audience as most LGBT people don’t like to have their relationship choices restricted to “no sex outside of marriage”. The first reason would certainly appear to be more Christian but it allows for only one “mandated” option in much the same way that side B does.

    • Well, most straight people don’t like to have their relationship choices restricted to no sex outside of marriage. In that sense, I don’t see LGBT people as being any different from what one would see at any fraternity or sorority house on a Saturday night.

      • Maybe so. I’m not expecting non-Christians to care about a Christian sexual ethic. Nor am I surprised when Christians don’t practice what they preach. I’m more unsettled when somebody claims a Christian identity and conforms to a non-Christian moral framework. It isn’t obvious which one Vines is endorsing – “no sex outside of marriage” as a mandate (even if almost everyone fails to follow the rule) or “wait for marriage” as a personal goal/option (leaving others free to adopt any other arrangement that suits them). because I think Vines knows that he stands to lose a lot of support from non-Christian LGBT allies if he publicly endorses the first option (that “mandates” celibacy for single people).

  8. I so needed this right now. It gave me words to share my struggle with someone close to me and I think it will bear good fruit, even if it does lead to deeper loneliness. I’m a celibate heterosexual woman who has been single a very long time and find that this path is hard to explain to those who are married or who think that celibacy is negotiable.

  9. I’d point out to Mr. Vines that it is only in the past, say, 150 years that the idea has existed of a category of person (the “homosexual”) for whom saying “don’t have gay sex” is seen by them as the equivalent of “mandating celibacy.”

    Gays are as free to marry (ie, a member of the opposite sex) as straights are. If it doesn’t fulfill in every way the particular contours of their psyche, that’s no different than saying we “mandate” celibacy for the frigid or contentious or the aesthetically picky.

    The idea of a Subject for whom anything other than a permission to a particular sort of pairing is essentially equivalent to mandating celibacy, for whom nothing but homosexual expression is “true” sexual expression…is a very very recent construct as well.

    Of the two, I’m more inclined to question this vision of how sexuality is psychologically constituted vis a vis morality, than to question the traditional morality in which subjective emotional disposition had nothing to do with the question at all.

    Mr. Vines apparently doesn’t see questioning Gay Essentialism as itself an option (and, indeed, pretty inherent to the traditional morality) or apparently thinks for some reason that we must bow to historical contingencies in the construction of subjectivity, rather than submitting (and even re-forming) the construction of our modes of subjectivity and identity to something less contingent.

    Christianity is indeed a bitter pill to swallow, especially for moderns, because it tells us quite clearly: Who You Are Is Wrong. Not merely what you do, that’s really just a symptom. No, we are to believe as Christians that each and every one of us is *wrongly constituted as a subject,* and that we are worthy of being discarded forever in the cosmic furnace of God’s undying wrath unless we are transformed. There is no room here for self affirmation, the Self is nailed to a cross.

    • Like a lot of upper-middle class progressives who attended an elite university, Vines is a cry-bully. When there is an opportunity to shame his opponents, he is a strict moralist telling everyone what they SHOULD think/say/do. But when he is on the back foot in a debate and has to deflect valid criticisms, he flips to “poor me, you don’t understand who much pain this causes me” melodramatics. I’ve never seen interact with his critics in any context where he can’t fully control either what is said and how it is said.

      • Assuming that your averment is true, how does that distinguish him from his chief critics? Everything you’ve said about him could just as easily be said about evangelical luminaries like Al Mohler, Denny Burk, Owen Strachan, Tim Bayly, etc.

      • This article is a follow up to #faithfullyLGBT Twitter Q&A where Vines, typically, misrepresented side B views (because ethical “mandates” sound so much more oppressive to modern liberty inclined individuals). His critics don’t put as much moral emphasis on avoiding harm and maximising liberty as progressives do. Those moral factors are important from a traditionalist perspective but not exclusively so.

    • mradeknal

      Traditional marriage didn’t involve emotional disposition because original marriage was a contract between two men – the husband and the father of the bride. Prior to modern medicine, death was an all-to-common outcome of marriage, thus a man marrying a woman was making an investment in an incubator for an heir. The modern traditional idea of marriage as one man and one woman joined in love to support the birthing of children is also a modern construct, invented with the progress of medicine and the reduction in risk a husband was taking on when adopting an incubator (e.g. a wife) to birth him heirs from another man. One can find writings from those eras of men differentiating their wives from those they loved with passion (concubines).

      You have also redefined marriage.

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  16. Wesley, thank you for writing this! You have a way of putting to words everything I have been wrestling with and mulling over in my mind. Your work is so very needed and important for all believers and I just want to thank you for your faithfulness and perseverance. The longer I live, the more I think this life is so much a preparation for the next in heaven where there will be no loneliness or suffering. When in the midst of severe struggle, it helps me not lose hope in God’s love and goodness.

  17. “I pass the test,” she said. “I will diminish and go into the west, and remain Galadriel.”

    That evokes so much of John the Baptist’s “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
    (John 3:22-36, with its unworldly insistence – and its insistence that an unworldly stance is just sanity – is such a loved portion of scripture.)

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  20. Wesley
    Thank you for your bold and thoughtful words regarding the unique journeys of people that are not heterosexual. I pray for your continued strength and boldness to proclaim something that seems to baffle so many yet is so simple for those who experience it.

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