Sanctification is usually not “orientation change,” but it’s still real.

One of the distinctives of the approach taken by Spiritual Friendship and others (including those typically referred to as “side B”) is a rejection of the ex-gay movement’s pursuit of change in sexual orientation. And indeed, even from the earliest days of Spiritual Friendship, we’ve warned about change in sexual orientation as often a false hope.

One of the most common objections to this viewpoint I see, especially in Reformed circles, is a claim that it is a denial of the doctrine of sanctification. In particular, they think we see “bondage to sin” as something from which there is no movement towards “freedom.”

Part of this argument comes from a belief that sexual attraction to someone of the same sex is itself sin, rather than mere temptation. Even between different members of the community of Spiritual Friendship contributors or the “side B” world, this is an area of disagreement. But I believe that we should expect sanctification whether or not we agree with this position, as we already should for heterosexual Christians. Christian sanctification involves our wills and desires approaching those ordained by Christ, however slowly and incompletely, as we practice obedience and as the Holy Spirit works inside of us.

Is this a contradiction? Wouldn’t sanctification in the area of sexual desire be a movement away from “same-sex attraction” or “being gay,” whichever language is used? Isn’t this orientation change, even if slow and incomplete?

No, it actually is not. One of the major problems in this discussion is that people are not taking the time to understand the experience of people with same-sex attraction, in order to understand how theological categories apply. In particular, I see differing understandings of phrases like “same-sex attraction” as well as what “orientation” and “sanctification” really are. And without this understanding, it cannot be clear what sanctification does look like for a person with same-sex attraction. The result can be unrealistic expectations on one end, or a lack of pursuit of real sanctification on the other.

In this post, I will describe some of the terminology and phenomena I am discussing. This will culminate in a discussion of what sanctification can and does look like. I will be primarily discussing things from my own personal perspective, but I hope it is helpful to those thinking through broader implications for others.

Same-Sex Attraction

The term “same-sex attraction” itself is actually taken to mean different things by different people. A lot of people boil it down to something along the lines of “wanting to have gay sex.” For example, the Ad Interim Committee Report on Human Sexuality from the Presbyterian Church in America failed to provide a definition for the term, but came close to a working definition in these sentences: “The desire for an illicit end—whether in sexual desire for a person of the same sex or in sexual desire disconnected from the context of Biblical marriage—is itself an illicit desire. Therefore, the experience of same-sex attraction is not morally neutral; the attraction is an expression of original or indwelling sin that must be repented of and put to death.”

The problem is that this is not how most people who experience “same-sex attraction” would define or understand the term. The earliest cases of what I now call “same-sex attraction” that I can recall were not obviously connected to sexual behavior. I just saw some particular guy and felt like there was something really appealing about him, and that I just wanted to enjoy his presence. As I went through puberty, I found that a lot of the ways my friends talked about increasing feelings for girls (and often the way I myself noticed increasing feelings for girls) also applied to feelings I was developing for other males. Not necessarily “I see that guy and I want to have sex with him” so much as “he’s really nice to look at,” or “it would be nice to get to know him and be his friend.” And it has always been intermingled with healthy desires for male friendship in complicated ways; it’s common for there to be an element of this attraction towards a new friend at the beginning of the friendship.

Furthermore, as I’ve written a bit about before, one thing I discovered in the past is that deep friendships can feel like a fulfillment of my feelings without any sexual or exclusive romantic element being involved. I personally find that, as these kind of friendships develop, desire for sex usually diminishes, rather than increases. I often find that it seems like sex is a less natural telos for my feelings than emotional forms of connection.

Now this attraction is certainly connected with a desire for illicit forms of sex. It didn’t take too long to figure out that my desires for other guys included sexual desires. Though interestingly, there’s a contrast with my sexual desires for women, where there’s an obvious physical act that I desire. The connection between heterosexual desire and procreative union is obvious. Towards men, it is more a vague desire for sexual union without a clear picture of what that would look like. So it’s clear to me the desire is not fundamentally a desire for a specific act. I would imagine things may look different for a guy with sexual experience or who has used pornography, neither of which is true of me.

To be clear, I am not arguing that my experience was clean and sinless. I’m also not saying that on the whole same-sex attraction is really a positive thing to celebrate. However, the experience we refer to as “same-sex attraction” is not precisely the same thing as a desire for illicit sex. And as such, sanctification generally has more to do with how I experience same-sex attraction, and how that experience relates to further desires, than whether or how often I experience it.

Orientation

The concept of “orientation” is not directly found in Scripture or in historic Christian creeds or confessions. And there is criticism of attempting to apply it at all, with a common argument that talking about “orientation” is finding an identity in desires for sin.

Like with “same-sex attraction,” we sometimes see confusing definitions. For example, in a recent post on the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals blog, Calvin Goligher defines the term as “an allegedly innate, unchangeable trait that makes it natural and normal for someone to engage in certain sexual practices.” Goligher does not, however, describe what this trait could possibly be. Rather, he simply makes claims about its alleged philosophical impact on sexual practices, and then makes arguments from these philosophical claims that it must be entirely in the category of “sinfulness” and thus subject to change.

Many of us, however, find the phrase useful for talking about one of the phenomenological realities of the world as it is, without making the sort of philosophical claims Goligher attributes to the term.

Much of what I wrote above about what “same-sex attraction” actually is applies here. For example, if I say that my orientation is “bisexual,” I’m referring to the fact that I often notice both attractive women and attractive men, and that this reality has not substantially changed since I was a teenager. In fact I’d go further and say that the balance of noticing men and noticing women hasn’t appreciably changed, which is what I would say is “fixed” about my orientation. I’m not saying that I’m constantly having sexual fantasies about the people around me, or that  I’d “naturally and normally” have sex with people of both sexes. I just mean that I see attractive people and feel something, and that if I let my mind and heart explore it, sexual desire is at least proximate. But as I’ll describe next, the relationship between this feeling and an actual “desire for illicit ends” (as the PCA committee report put it) is not something I see as nearly so fixed or constant.

Sanctification and “Change in Desires”

With that understanding of what is meant by terms like “same-sex attraction” and “orientation,” we are ready to discuss what sanctification does look like, in contrast to “orientation change” approaches that focus on diminishing same-sex attraction. By saying that my orientation is unlikely to change, I am not making peace with a heart that desires sin.

A necessary piece of context, I think, is what many of us who have pursued “orientation change” were after. I went through a significant time in my life when I was focused on trying to change my orientation. But this wasn’t just about “I desire to do things that God considers sin, and I want my heart to line up with his.” It was as much or more about, “I’m different from my peers, and I’m ashamed of that reality.” My goal was largely to become normal, and not to be associated with those people (gay people) that so many of my peers and fellow churgoers looked down on.

Ultimately, this focus led to disappointment, as I realized my overall pattern of initial attraction really wasn’t changing at all. But a change in focus has led to more real sanctification, including at the level of desire.

For example, it used to be that I was fairly begrudging about avoiding gay relationships and gay sex. I sort of longed to be able to have such a relationship, despite believing that I shouldn’t. Having these desires I couldn’t fulfill was at times frustrating. But over time, I’ve become more content with following God’s plan, whether in the long term that ends up meaning singleness or marriage to a woman.

This has also translated to a change in how I feel about what I’d want to do with the attractions I feel towards specific people. When it’s some random guy in public I don’t have a natural chance to get to know, it’s easier than it used to be to just ignore it and move on with life. When it’s someone I am naturally going to be spending time with or where there is a natural opportunity for friendship, I’m actually quite happy with the idea that I’ll get the chance to know him without it being some sort of exclusive commitment, and without it being a sexual relationship.

In other words, there’s a significant sense where I’ll still notice an attractive guy as I always have, but the actual desire to do something illicit with him sexually is meaningfully smaller. I would not call this “orientation change,” and I don’t think in the terminology used by our broader secular culture this makes me less “bi.” But it does mean that God is working on my heart, and that there is real change and sanctification.

I’m also coming at this conversation from the perspective of a virgin who has never used pornography. I’ve talked to enough other men (and not just same-sex attracted ones) to know that past sexual activity and pornography use both significantly influence further sexual impulses. There are kinds of sanctification that my friends who have used pornography have needed that I haven’t in the same way. And certainly many of the same dynamics apply in the case of those who have used gay pornography or had homosexual experiences, which is a further area of sanctification worth exploring and discussing.

I think one of the larger dangers in this conversation is to set up the wrong expectations for what “sanctification” looks like. I think it does genuinely lead people to believe that sanctification isn’t going to happen, which makes it easier to just accept a sinful state of the heart and desires. Whereas if we were to focus instead upon  how sanctification tends to look in the lives of people who experience same-sex attraction, we could provide hope and encouragement to pursue faithfulness instead of promoting despair.

I don’t think this is all that different from the sanctification that heterosexual people experience. At least most of the men I talk to about this sort of thing still experience attraction to women other than their wives, but as they learn to be content in their marriages, the actual desire for adultery is meaningfully smaller. No one accuses them of denying the doctrine of sanctification for expecting attraction to remain, but people would rightly object if they thought this meant they just had to remain “in bondage” to adulterous desires and had no expectation of sanctification. In short, what we are arguing is simply that Christians with same-sex attraction can and should pursue sanctification that looks similar to what everyone else experiences. Expecting sanctification to look different, and take the form of a change in sexual orientation, is unwarranted. I hope my reflection has helped to clarify what sanctification does look like. Let’s all fight the good fight.

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