Between Presumption and Despair

Yesterday, after speaking at Asbury University the day before, I crossed the street and preached the following sermon in a chapel service at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky:

At Trinity where I’m a faculty member, I recently taught a course on the Gospel of Mark, so I’ve been thinking again about some of Mark’s final scenes. In particular, I’ve been powerfully struck all over again by the so-called “cry of dereliction”—Jesus’ last words from the cross in Mark, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

For so many modern Christians, of course, these words are at the heart of any post-Holocaust theology worth its salt. If we don’t have a God who shares in our agony and misery, then we don’t have a God we can believe in. This is the verse that Jürgen Moltmann put at the heart of his classic book The Crucified God, and it’s probably what prompted Dietrich Bonhoeffer to say, “Only the suffering God can help.” As I told my students, many modern Christians, myself included, are drawn to the way Mark doesn’t prettify or whitewash the horror of the crucifixion. He lets us see the full depths of human suffering, and he shows us Jesus right in the middle of that suffering.

But not all the Gospels follow Mark on this score. Luke chooses not to make the cry of dereliction the final words of Jesus from the cross. Instead, here’s what Luke says: “Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.” In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus seems to die in trust and confidence that God has not forsaken him. He entrusts his spirit to God, and he calls God his “Father.”

And increasingly it seems to me that we modern Christians would do well to continue to cling to Mark’s Gospel but also to anchor ourselves to Luke’s as well. The Dominican theologian Thomas Joseph White has recently argued that what we see in Christ’s final hours of agony is his hope in his resurrection on Easter morning and his hope in our salvation. The thing about hope, as White says, is that it’s a virtue that flourishes in “an incomplete state in which both loving desire and painful deprivation can be simultaneously present.” Christ on the cross expects salvation from God, in the form of resurrection and vindication, but he doesn’t yet see it. Hope, as White goes on to say, “is a complex virtue… precisely because within it expectation and desire can and do co-exist with the non-possession of that which is hoped for. This means that in hope, the states of desire, sadness, deprivation, and agony can and often do coexist.” So, the fact that Christ can cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and also, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” in Mark and Luke is a window into the true complexity of hope.

Or, as Paul puts it in Romans, “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” This is what Christ, our forerunner, shows us in his cries from the cross. He entrusts himself to his Father, in hope. But he doesn’t yet see the vindication he knows his coming, and so he experiences real human agony.

This place of tension, this place of confident trust and painful deprivation, is where we believers live our lives too. Paul says we are those who “wait in patience,” but this patience, as Paul also shows us, is a complex thing: “we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” We have—present tense—the indwelling Spirit. We have the confidence that our bodies will be raised from the dead. But until we actually reach that day of resurrection, we groan like a woman in labor. We often experience the agony of hungering for a feast we haven’t yet consumed. We cry out like Christ, trusting our Father but also often groaning in pain and fear. We are like that phrase that St. Paul uses to describe his life as an apostle: “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”

And I’ve found, in my life as a Christian who has experienced nearly exclusive same-sex desire since my teenage years, that this way of thinking about hope has helped me tremendously.

My story is a story that doesn’t fit neatly into the way some Christians think about homosexuality or being gay. I grew up going to church and trusting in Jesus from before I learned how to talk. I was raised in a pretty sheltered, Southern town, and it was only after I moved away to go to college that I realized I had actually known another gay person (he had been closeted during our teenage years). No one really talked about gay people, unless it was conservative Christians in my church shaking their heads about the annual “gay day” at Disney World. I didn’t sleep around in high school, didn’t go to gay bars or march in any parades or take part in any activism. And I couldn’t pinpoint any obvious reason that I was gay. It certainly wasn’t a conscious choice, and my relationships with my parents and peers were about as “normal” as any of my friends’ with theirs, it seemed to me. I seemed about as ordinary—or about as nerdy and strange, whichever you prefer—as any of my other friends.

For a while, I went to see several Christian counselors to talk about whether I could do anything to make my same-sex attractions diminish. I wondered if it were possible for me to get married to a woman. I certainly didn’t want to come out and wave any rainbow flags. But as I’ve grown older, I would say that, if anything, my being gay has become a clearer and stronger reality in my life. I haven’t experienced any of the “change” or “healing” that certain Christians promised me I could have. And I’ve made more gay friends and begun to see ways that being gay has been a gift in my life: it’s made me more sensitive to those on the edges of the church, it’s made me seek out friendships I might never have sought otherwise, and it’s made me desperate for God. I feel confident that if I weren’t gay, I wouldn’t have invested so much in my friendships and I wouldn’t be nearly as attuned to how much brokenness and prejudice and loneliness there is in our world.

And yet, on the other hand, I’m also more and more convinced, the more I study Scripture and the Christian tradition, that same-sex marriage and same-sex sexual expression are not God’s will for those of us who are gay. In the story I believe Scripture tells, sex is intended for something specific: The book of Genesis pictures sexual intimacy as bound up with the exclusive bond of a man who leaves his father and mother and holds fast to his wife and lives into the blessing of procreation. Sex, in other words, is ordered in a particular way by God. It’s meant to bind husband and wife together in love and turn them both outside of themselves toward one another, first, and also toward the blessing of children, when God wills.

And the New Testament makes clear that this physical bonding is a sign and witness to Christ’s love for the church. The relationship between man and woman, as Hans Urs von Balthasar has put it, is in the epistle to the Ephesians and elsewhere “related over and above itself to an eternal, holy, and spotless standing before God, in the love of the incarnate Christ for his bride, which is the Church.”

And, for that reason, when the apostle Paul discusses same-sex sexual activity, he views it primarily as a breakdown in God’s good ordering of the world. If true sexual coupling—the kind the Creator originally intended—is found in marriage, then any sexual expression outside of marriage, including same-sex sexual expression, is a kind of “missing the mark” of God’s design. If man and woman coming together in marriage are meant to depict Christ’s love for his Bride, the church, then same-sex coupling depicts a kind of turning away from difference to sameness. This is why, I think, Paul in Romans 1 connects same-sex sexual behavior to humanity’s overall idolatry. Instead of turning to the transcendent Creator, the capital-o Other, humanity prefers to worship images of ourselves. As Simon Gathercole has said, following Paul, “Humanity should be oriented toward God but turns in on itself (Rom. 1.25). Woman should be oriented toward man, but turns in on itself (Rom. 1.26). Man should be oriented toward woman, but turns in on itself (Rom. 1.27).”

Reading Scripture this way, I’ve felt compelled to try to live my life as a sexually abstinent gay man. I’m still very much a same-sex attracted person. But the usual script that I hear from so many people in our surrounding culture, that I ought to try to find a husband and avoid sexual repression, isn’t a script I feel that I can perform in good conscience. So here I am, planted in a kind of middle ground: still gay, but also celibate, and seeking to follow Christ.

It’s a very complex place to try to inhabit. Certainly there’s often a lot of joy involved. As I’ve learned more about what it means to practice sexual abstinence, what it means to be celibate, I’ve learned that it is definitely not about saying “no” to deep, committed love. Christians have never understood celibacy as only about refraining from sexual intimacy; they’ve always underscored that it’s also about giving yourself, in commitment and in service and hospitality, to a community to which you belong. As the Catholic priest James Martin once wrote, “Those who opt for celibacy… choose it as a manner of loving many people deeply, in a way that they would be unable to if they were in a single relationship.” In my own life, I genuinely do experience this. I have a number of devoted friends—one of whom is here with me today, whose daughter is my goddaughter—whom I feel deeply, intimately connected to. I’m able to express love for these friends, to try to unlearn some of my selfishness, and I’m able also to receive love from them. I can honestly say that singleness doesn’t equal isolation or aloneness for me.

But there is also pain. I can’t deny that I sometimes look longingly at my married friends, at the way they never have to think about whom to go on vacation with or whose name to put down as an emergency contact or whom they ought to tell about that funny thing that happened at the grocery store that afternoon. And loneliness is a regular, intense experience for me and has been since at least my college years. I remember when I was younger I stumbled across a letter that a gay Christian man, the poet W. H. Auden, once wrote to a friend of his, where he said this: “There are days when the knowledge that there will never be a place which I can call home, that there will never be a person with whom I shall be one flesh, seems more than I can bear.” I often resonate with those lines very much. I often feel that no matter how close I get to my friends, I’m still never “first” in their lives, nor can they be “first” in mine, in the way that spouses get to be for each other.

But the more I dwell on those Scriptural texts I read a few moments ago—texts in which Jesus screams out in agony and also prays in hopeful trust, texts in which St. Paul says that we’re indwelt by the Spirit and also groaning as if we’re all in labor—the more I realize this complex experience of joy and grief is not at all abnormal for Christians. We are, all of us, people who live in what theologians call “the eschatological tension.” It’s as though we’re strung like a taut wire between two poles. We live in the in-between; we live knowing that Christ has been raised from the dead, and we’ve been united to him in baptism; and we live knowing that Christ hasn’t yet come back again, that we haven’t yet been bodily raised from the dead and we don’t yet see Christ face to face. We live in hope, in other words. And hope, as Thomas Joseph White reminds us, is a complex thing. Hope is this “incomplete state in which both loving desire and painful deprivation can be simultaneously present.”

The Catholic theologian Josef Pieper, building on the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, has described our practice of this virtue of hope as a life of wayfaring. We are wayfarers, those who are “on the way,” pilgrims to the city of God:

The concept of the status viatoris is one of the basic concepts of every Christian rule of life. To be a ‘viator’ means ‘one on the way.’ The status viatoris is, then, the ‘condition or state of being on the way.’ Its proper antonym is status comprehensoris. One who has comprehended, encompassed, arrived, is no longer a viator, but a comprehensor.

Pieper says that those who are on the way are poised between presumption and despair. Presumption rejects the state of being on the way by pretending to have already arrived. If we presume that we have already reached our destination, we give up our identity as wayfarers. On the other hand, despair rejects the state of being on the way by assuming the end has already come (and it is bleak). If we despair of ever reaching our heavenly home, we also give up our identity as wayfarers. But if we hold on to hope, if we recognize that we’ve been rescued by Christ and are waiting for him to come again, then we can recognize that this strange, paradoxical life of mingled joy and sorrow is in fact the normal state of Christian discipleship.

Listen to Paul’s words once again:

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. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

This is what it means to be a Christian. Whether you’re gay or bisexual or straight or whether your particular challenge is to do with something else entirely, to be a Christian means to hope; to embrace your status as a wayfarer, as a pilgrim; to wait for your adoption, to groan as Christ did on the cross, and also to pray as Christ did, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

Would you pray with me now:

Heavenly Lord,
you long for the world’s salvation:
stir us from apathy,
restrain us from excess
and revive in us new hope
that all creation will one day be healed
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

7 thoughts on “Between Presumption and Despair

  1. Thank you for your honest and challenging words. As a celibate heterosexual woman who has walked in singleness for many years now, I need the continual encouragement to love deeply in the relationships that I do have while also mourning that I am not anyone’s first priority. That is the hardest part of extended celibacy for me. Sexual abstinence is hard, but the loneliness of not belonging to one person is particularly difficult as I near 40. Please continue to speak out on behalf of those of us who live in the body of Christ and are not part of a couple or family unit. It is easy for us to be overlooked or misunderstood.

  2. I unite myself to your prayer:
    Heavenly Lord,
    you long for the world’s salvation:
    stir us from apathy,
    restrain us from excess
    and revive in us new hope
    that all creation will one day be healed
    in Jesus Christ our Lord.

    Amen.

  3. “I often feel that no matter how close I get to my friends, I’m still never “first” in their lives, nor can they be “first” in mine, in the way that spouses get to be for each other.”

    As a gay, celibate Christian, this has been a feeling I have struggled with so often, and I am very happy that I am not the only one who felt that way. My closest friend is very busy and knows a lot of people. It was hard enough when I felt like I ranked lower than he did on my “list”, but even harder when life circumstances change. One of the feelings I had when he started dating for the first time was, “well, I guess that is one more person who is more important to him than me.” I love what you wrote and am always encouraged that my story isn’t so different from other people’s, so thank you for your writing.

  4. Pingback: Permission to Lament | Spiritual Friendship

  5. I think this unpleasant state of aloneness and its accompanying emotion of loneliness can be seen differently. I was single for decades and have been married for two decades. If I lose perspective I become quite alone and lonely even in marriage.
    If I glimpse a sunset I can explain to my wife who is with me what I see. She can try to understand what I see. But no matter how hard I try with words she won’t really completely get it. How could she? She sees differently. It can be a very lonely experience. But, there is one who sees through my eyes, has access to the deep recesses of my soul, and knows exactly how that sunset affects me. It is why Jesus says in John 16:32 “you will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone for my Father is with me”. Similarly for us we are NOT alone. We can be as John was on that island of Patmos “in the Spirit” such that aloneness is banished in that moment of sweet communion with Jesus, our Father, and Spirit. It is all perspective and understanding this reality for us redeemed of God.

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