What Does Matthew 5:28 Say about Sexual Orientation?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes how a legalistic interpretation of the law of Moses actually misses the sinfulness of common attitudes of the heart. Matthew 5:27-28 is just one example of this theme. In the ESV, this passage reads, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

The Sermon on the Mount Carl Bloch, 1890

I have often seen this passage used to argue that “same-sex attraction” or a “homosexual orientation” or something similar is a sin. Sometimes the further argument is that we shouldn’t identify with our sin by using words like “gay.”

The thing is, there are major issues with the way I usually see this argument being made. After all, the immediate context of the passage is heterosexual: a man looking at a woman lustfully. So how do people usually understand its application to heterosexual forms of sexual attraction?

Most evangelicals I’ve talked to say that there is some kind of distinction between “sexual attraction” and the “lustful intent” described in this passage. For example, they see a man’s attraction to another man’s wife as a form of temptation that may or may not cross the line into sin depending on how he handles it.

For someone who takes this kind of approach to heterosexual attraction, the passage provides no reason to take homosexual attraction any differently. It’s thus not a reason to see homosexual attraction itself as a form of sin (though like heterosexual attraction, it can lead to sinful sexual activity or lust in the heart).

On the other hand, there are some people in Reformed circles who see sexual attraction towards the wrong person as always a sin, even in a heterosexual context. From this perspective, it is straightforward to see homosexual attraction itself as a sin.

But even in this case, the way it’s used to argue that homosexual attraction is a sin doesn’t make a lot of sense. Specifically, most folks making the argument make a huge deal about homosexual desire, and see the acceptance of it as temptation rather than sin as a crisis. However, they say almost nothing about the common interpretation of adulterous heterosexual attraction as only temptation and not sin.

If viewing homosexual attraction as merely a temptation is a crisis, why is the same view of adulterous heterosexual attraction not an even larger crisis? Alternatively, if it’s good enough to find common ground because the focus is on how to resist temptation, why can the same not be said about efforts like Spiritual Friendship and Revoice? Continue reading

Benedict XVI and the Natural Law

Several friends have asked me questions about Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s recent essay on “The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse,” which has led to a few conversations about various aspects of the document. Since these issues may be of interest to others, I have decided to share some of what I said more widely.

Benedict XVI

Some of these questions—which I will address in future posts—concern controversial issues that I want to research and polish more carefully before sharing. The first, however, which I will address in this post, concerns a relatively non-controversial question about what Benedict said about the natural law: “Until the Second Vatican Council, Catholic moral theology was largely founded on natural law, while Sacred Scripture was only cited for background or substantiation.”

A friend commented:

I agree that, in a sense, Greek philosophy provided a foundation for Catholic moral theology, but Benedict seems to be suggesting that Scripture just played a secondary role of providing a sort of support if things went sideways or if Greek philosophy needed further justification, as if Catholic moral theology is synonymous with non-Scriptural “natural law.” Or am I misunderstanding?

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About Revoice’s “Queer Treasure”

One of the most controversial workshops at last year’s Revoice conference — in the weeks leading up the conference, conservative Christian bloggers and podcasters criticized it mercilessly for what they felt certain it would argue — was titled “Redeeming Queer Culture,” and you can now watch it here on YouTube.

When the workshop began in a small chapel at the church where the conference was held, every seat was taken. (I made sure to get there early so I could sit near the front.) The presenter — a young evangelical named Grant Hartley who talked about the challenges of growing up gay in the rural Midwest — gave a potted history of gay life in America from the 1950s through the plague years. He insisted that traditionalist Christians shouldn’t give up their belief that gay sex is morally forbidden by Scripture, but he was equally certain that gay history and culture was about much more than sex and unbridled lust. Kicked out of homes and churches, gay people created alternative communities and took care of one another, he said, describing institutions like the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in New York and The Body Politic, an alternative newspaper. Whatever else marked gay life in the mid-twentieth century, Grant contended that solidarity in the face of bigotry and mistreatment lay near its heart.

Using the theological category of “common grace,” the general benevolence that God bestows on all peoples and cultures, regardless of whether they are Christian, Grant asked his audience what signposts and foretastes of a yet-unknown saving grace might be present already within queer communities — foretastes which might allow for fruitful dialogue and friendship between LGBTQ folks and those Christians who remain alienated from them. The notion of “chosen family” — long prized by LGBTQ people who have lost, sometimes forcibly, ties with their own biological kin — is, Grant suggested, one such signpost or foretaste. Citing Jesus’ own countercultural redefinition of family (“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother”), Grant asked, “What could happen if we learned from LGBT people about the intricacies and practicalities of chosen family?” And, vice versa, what might happen if LGBT people could see that this most beautiful aspect of their own lives could find elevation and transformation, rather than simple erasure, through Jesus Christ?

Listening to this proposal, I was struck by just how far removed it is from what Revoice’s critics took it to be about. Owen Strachan, director of the Center for Public Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, decried Grant’s workshop (before it even occurred!) with characteristic bluntness: “We cannot now try to sanctify what Scripture presents as ungodly. We cannot marry paganism and Christianity. We cannot think that our fallenness, our depraved condition, is in any way good and praiseworthy.” But that’s a far cry from what Grant was up to in his workshop. Gay sexual sin, like any other sin, will be banished, not salvaged, in God’s eschatological future. But the glimmers of longing for the good, the true, and the beautiful — implanted by God in queer communities, as in every other culture — can be lures that God uses to beckon his wayward children home. Sin can’t be redeemed, but the lives and loves of sinners certainly can be.

After Grant’s session (my favorite I attended at Revoice), I found myself recalling the time from my own evangelical upbringing when my parents read aloud to my siblings and me the now-classic missionary biography Peace Child by Don Richardson. The book tells the story of the Richardson family’s arrival in Dutch New Guinea in 1962 and their subsequent efforts to preach the gospel among the Sawi tribe. While Richardson made progress in learning the tribe’s language and began to try to communicate the Christian message to the Sawi with little initial fruit to show for it, the tribe itself was locked in bitter conflict with neighboring villages, to the point of bloodshed. What eventually led to a truce was a revival of the practice of these tribes’ exchanging children with one another. The gift of a child, quite literally, enacted reconciliation. For Richardson, this represented a breakthrough, a point of contact (as missiologists call it) between an unevangelized culture and the gospel. “The principle we discerned,” writes Richardson, “was that God had already provided for the evangelization of these people by means of redemptive analogies in their own culture,” adding that these analogies served as “stepping-stones, the secret entryway by which the gospel came into the Sawi culture.”

Don Richardson’s evangelism perhaps illumines the significance of Grant’s session at Revoice as much as anything. Paralleling Richardson’s life among the Sawi tribe, Revoice attendees like Grant have come to love queer culture and communities. LGBTQ people are “our people,” we feel. Although our renunciation of gay sex may seem strange to most LGBTQ people today, we aren’t thereby deterred from wanting to go on knowing these friends, learning from them, and loving them — and having them love us back. Our goal isn’t somehow to baptize sexual acts we believe to be sinful; on this we submit to what Nate Collins, the founder of Revoice, calls “the Great Tradition.” What we want, instead, is to talk about how the longing for intimacy that every queer person experiences is fulfilled, not simply overcome, when we put our faith in the One who called himself our “friend” (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34; John 15:15). Paradoxically, His love may make us more peculiar — more queer — rather than less.

Notes for Calvin College Talk

Ron Justin

I will be speaking this evening at Calvin College, in dialogue with my friend Justin Lee, about same-sex marriage in the Church.

Because of the limits of the format, we had to talk about Christian teaching about homosexuality in broad brush strokes, giving the overall picture, but not addressing a lot of details. However, I have written a lot about these topics over the years, and this post will help point interested readers in the right direction.

Back in 2003, Justin invited me to write an essay defending the traditional view that marriage is only between a man and a woman, and he wrote a companion essay arguing that same-sex unions are compatible with Christian belief. They were published online together as The Great Debate.

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Call for Participants

issiThe Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity (Dr. Mark Yarhouse’s research group) is conducting a new study on mixed orientation marriages. If you are in a mixed orientation marriage (that is, a marriage in which one spouse experiences same-sex attraction and the other spouse is attracted to the opposite sex), we would love for you to participate and also pass this survey on if you know others who are in mixed orientation marriages.

We are welcoming responses from both the sexual minority spouse and the heterosexual spouse, so once you’re finished, forward the survey on to your spouse, if you think they would be willing to participate. (Note that it is not necessary for both spouses to participate, but we welcome responses from either or both spouses.)

The survey should take 15-45 minutes to complete. At the end of the survey, you will be given the option to provide your contact information for a more in-depth phone interview.

Here is the link below.

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/PWRSTQD

Again, please feel free to share with others who are also in mixed orientation marriages.

Translating “Disinterested Friendship”

If you search for the phrase “disinterested friendship” online, many of the articles you will find are attempts to explain paragraph 2359 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which lists “disinterested friendship” as one of the sources of support for homosexual persons seeking to live chaste lives.

mont st michele

The main difficulty is that, in English, the term “disinterested” can have two meanings. Most often, it means, “not interested, indifferent.” In a friendship that was “disinterested” (in this sense), friends wouldn’t care much for each other or for the friendship. But the older—and now rarer meaning—is “unbiased by personal interest or advantage; not influenced by selfish motives.” A few scans of 19th Century texts turn up in the search results, using the phrase “disinterested friendship” in this older, more positive sense.

The Catechism uses this older meaning of “disinterested,” as I showed in an older post that examined other uses of the word  in the Catechism. I concluded, based on the way the word was used in other paragraphs, that:

There is no reason that disinterested friendship should not delight in praising a friend. Disinterested friendship can be reciprocal and generous. There is no reason it should not be tender, forgiving, respectful, faithful, like a parent’s love for her child, or a child’s care for a dying parent. It is disinterested friendship because it has no selfish agenda. In the context of 2359, this would particularly forbid any sexual agenda. But to interpret this as calling for friends who are distant, uninterested, not concerned, or indifferent would do violence to the meaning of the word found in other contexts in the Catechism, and make no sense in the context of paragraph 2359. How would friends who are uninterested or indifferent provide the kind of support 2359 envisions?

Since the English phrase “disinterested friendship” seemed so ill-suited for communicating its intended meaning, I decided to explore the connotation of the corresponding phrase, “amitié désintéressée” in French, the language in which the Catechism was originally drafted. I thought this would help to understand what the drafters of the Catechism had in mind, and add to the analysis in my previous post.

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Gay Boys and Their Evangelical Parents

While in Arkansas this past weekend for a belated Thanksgiving, I went with my parents to see Boy Erased, the film version of Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same name about surviving a stint in a now-shuttered ex-gay treatment program in Memphis, Tennessee called Love in Action.

Conley’s story is in some ways discomfitingly similar to mine. He was the son of a Baptist preacher in Arkansas and realized he was gay sometime during his teenage years. I was the son of the most devout lay Baptists you could imagine, and, also from Arkansas, I knew I was gay from about the age of 13. My own brush with so-called “conversion therapy” was negligible compared to Conley’s, but I did imbibe a lot of its ideas over the radio waves during my adolescence. As I would later write when I was in my mid-twenties:

I remember listening to James Dobson’s Focus on the Family radio broadcast occasionally with my mother as we rode somewhere in the car together. My ears would perk up when the subject of homosexuality came up, which it did often, since this was the mid-’90s, and the “gay rights” movement was gaining steam. Dobson talked a lot about the “causes” of homosexuality — childhood sexual abuse, an emotionally distant father, the absence of affectionate male role models. I remember scrutinizing my past and present experiences. Did I fit these categories? I had never been sexually abused by anyone, let alone my parents. Was I close enough to my dad? I could think of one time I tried to initiate a weekly time of reading Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline with him and praying together, but it flopped. Plus, I never learned to play golf with him, nor did I want to take up deer hunting, as he seemed to hope I would sometimes. Did that mean I was suffering from a lack of paternal intimacy?

Dobson was one of the biggest promoters of the kind of therapeutic approaches depicted harrowingly and powerfully in Boy Erased. He advocated a popularized, lightly Christianized version of the Freudian origin story for same-sex desire. If homosexuality in boys is traceable to the toxic cocktail of an overbearing mother and a distant father, then it stood to reason that it could be treated — or even prevented. (Dobson viewed this as a compassionate, pastoral approach compared to the one that said to gay people, “You’re choosing to be gay, so, just stop it.”)

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Weariness

We don’t attach other modifiers to our Christian faith when the modifier in question originates with sin or natures that are the product of the fall. We should no more endorse “gay Christianity” or “gay identity” than we should alcoholic Christianity, racist Christianity, or slanderous Christianity. We ought not modify our Christian walk with attributes born of fallen desires.

That’s from Andrew Walker’s review of David Bennett’s new book A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus. I can’t tell y’all how weary I am of hearing that criticism from my fellow traditionalist Christians.

In the first place, it takes no account of the way we “Side B” folks have qualified — again and again and again and… — what “gay” means to us. David himself qualifies it carefully in his book:

The word gay does not necessarily refer to sexual behavior; it can just as easily refer to one’s sexual preference or orientation and say nothing, one way or the other, about how one is choosing to express that orientation. So, whereas “stealing Christian” describes a believer who actively steals as an acted behavior, “gay Christian” may simply refer to one’s orientation and nothing more. This is why I rarely, if ever, use the phrase gay Christian without adding the adjective celibate, meaning committed to a life of chasteness in Christ. To call myself a celibate gay Christian specifies both my sexual orientation and the way I’m choosing to live it out.

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Herald of the Good News

Over a lunch last summer, a new friend and I discovered that we had a mutual friend in David Bennett, a current doctoral student at Oxford and a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. I have known David for a few years as a thoughtful writer and a delightfully larger-than-life personality. He has written powerfully about his conversion from atheism — he worked as a non-religious gay activist in his native Australia before migrating to the UK — to Christianity. And, as someone who accepts the historic Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality, David has also written movingly about his calling to a life of celibacy and the way he tries to live out that calling in community.

As we swapped anecdotes about David, my new friend paused and said, “At heart, David is an evangelist.” I immediately nodded. Although David is many things (a catholic reader, a charismatic “prayer warrior,” an enthusiastic host and friend-maker), he is, above all, someone who loves those who don’t (yet) love Jesus. He is, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, a herald of the good news. He wants you to know that Jesus has invaded his life — and can transform yours too.

His conversion memoir, A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus, releases today, and I hope you’ll consider reading it. Here is what I wrote for the back cover:

Imagine a gay comedian like Stephen Fry writing a conversion memoir like C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy or Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy, and you’ll have some idea of the laughter and the tears that await you in these exuberant, aching, Jesus-obsessed pages. David Bennett has found that, far from eliminating his love for men, Christ’s call to take up his cross and follow the path of celibacy has led him deeper into love. David’s story of embracing that call is disarming, captivating, and — most of all — hope-giving.

I mean that endorsement, and I hope it might entice you to pick up the book.

And congratulations to you, David, on your pub day!

Loneliness and the Celibate Gay Christian

Solitary TreeThis is a guest post by Julia Sadusky, a doctoral candidate in the Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology at Regent University, where she previously served as the Research Assistant for the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity and completed clinical rotations in the Sexual and Gender Identity Clinic. Julia recently defended her dissertation, which was a qualitative study of loneliness among celibate gay Christians.


My dissertation, “Loneliness and the Celibate, Gay Christian,” delved into the lives of individuals navigating the intersection of faith and same-sex sexuality, in order to understand their experience of celibacy, loneliness, and coping. I hope to share some of the findings, which may have relevance to some of the Spiritual Friendship readership.

Purpose & Methods:

The aim was to understand the experience of loneliness for Christian sexual minorities who are not involved in sexual relationships. All participants were adult Christians experiencing same-sex sexuality who made a commitment to celibacy five or more years ago. After asking participants open-ended questions, each case was analyzed individually, by constructing themes based on the consensus of a team including the principal investigator, multiple coders, and an external auditor, according to an analysis process called Consensual Qualitative Research (CQR.) Due to the limited research in this area, open-ended prompts allowed participants to describe their experience more vividly.

Research Questions:

Within the study, four research questions were asked: 1) What factors contribute to the decision to choose celibacy for those who do so? 2) Do celibate, gay Christians who commit to celibacy experience loneliness as a result of their decision to forego same-sex sexual relationships? 3) What are the impacts of loneliness for those who report it? 4) What coping skills have celibate, gay Christians used in coping with loneliness and which of these have they found helpful?

Who we interviewed:

We interviewed fourteen participants between the ages of 18 and 60+. There was an even split with regard to gender and denomination (Roman Catholic and Protestant participants). When it came to the use of labels, participants varied. Two did not use any sexual identity label (gay, same-sex attracted, lesbian), although they reported same-sex sexuality. Some individuals privately labeled themselves as “gay” to describe their enduring same-sex attractions, but publicly identified as same-sex attracted or allowed others to assume heterosexuality.  Some individuals previously identified as gay, but at the time of the study no longer used that label.

Relevant Factors in Pursuit of Celibacy:

The most commonly reported factors that impacted the pursuit of celibacy were personal faith, one’s view of celibacy, social influences, and interpretation of scripture around marriage and sexuality. For personal faith, one participant said, “I am abstinent because I know that God loves me.  That is who I am, and I do not have to change anything for God to love me… And my way to love God, you know, my reaction of being loved is in loving God back, and in doing so, I would like to follow his teachings.  And these Christian teachings say that same-sex attraction is okay but the action, using your sexual/genitals, is not the way that God intended it to be.”

When it came to view of celibacy, most participants felt celibacy was a choice they made. For one female participant, “…obviously it’s a requirement for a Christian to live sexually as is prescribed in scripture which is in marriage between a man and a woman…  It’s still my choice whether or not to do it.  I mean I can choose any number of things that are outside of a biblical way of living and this is just one more of those that I have chosen to live without.” Others perceived celibacy as a calling or a spiritual discipline, much like fasting, or the only viable option in light of enduring experiences of same-sex attraction. When it came to social influences, the primary source of this was one’s faith community. Less common supports, although they were integral for those who reported them, included mentors, spiritual directors, ministry groups, and role-models.

Attributions about Experience of Loneliness:

The next research question asked whether or not participants attributed their experiences of loneliness to their state in life as celibate, single Christians. Research describes loneliness as a universal experience, although celibate Christian sexual minorities could be more at risk for loneliness since intimate partners serve as a buffer against loneliness. All but one of the participants attributed their experiences of loneliness to celibacy. The lack of intimate relationships, and the lack of companionship and lack of sexual intimacy that are part of those intimate relationships resulted in loneliness. Another common theme was that, being celibate made forming community much more difficult, in that there is a lack of societal structure for celibacy. They were often not well-accompanied by the church because of their status as single people, as sexual minorities, and as celibate people. One participant said, “…we have got the theological reasoning down pat, in terms of the fact that gay people shouldn’t be getting married and having sex. But the church, we the church have failed because we don’t have the intermediate structures institutionally to make that a plausible, livable, life choice and option for a lot of people.”

At the same time, participants made other attributions for their experience of loneliness, indicating it as a universal experience (“…Loneliness is just a very human feeling.  Everyone will feel [it] in their lifetime in many times.  I think it is a signal or indicator that you desire to be connected to something meaningful,”) as a result of low social support, or as a consequence of marginalization that would exist whether they were celibate or not (“I am no more lonely as a celibate person as I was when I was sexually active.”)

Aspects of Life Impacted By Loneliness:

When identifying aspects of life impacted by loneliness, participants noted: universal impacts, social impacts, psychological impacts, spiritual impacts, and physical impacts (exhaustion, difficulty sleeping). Social impacts included isolation from others, dissatisfaction with friendships or community they do have, a perceived lack of belonging (“…I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere… I wasn’t straight, I wasn’t gay, I wasn’t married, I wasn’t…wasn’t…wasn’t”) and, conversely, perceived closeness with others, in the event that loneliness drove them to reach out for support.

Psychological effects were both cognitive and emotional. When lonely, individuals might reconsider celibacy, be hyperaware of singleness and ruminate on this, and negatively self-evaluate as a result of their feelings of loneliness. Participants described a range of negative affective experiences, such as sadness, feelings of powerlessness, self-pity, hopelessness, lack of motivation, depressed mood, and suicidal thoughts. Conversely, some reported increased motivation to mitigate loneliness through reaching out to God or others, despite the negative state they were in.

When it came to spiritual impacts, some participants spoke of distance from God (“…it’s feeling that you are not capable of facing your problems.  And then, it can sort of spiral so that you also feel really distant from God and that is really painful and distressing.  Because kind of obviously, if you aren’t capable of handling your problems, God is, but if God also feels super far away, then it is hard to know who you can turn to,”) and others reported increased intimacy with God (“… I don’t think that I would have the intimacy with God that I have now. I can definitely see his guiding hand in bringing these difficulties into my life and this difficulty in particular, because it has really pressed me toward him…”) For one person, loneliness led to an acute longing for heaven (“…stuff in this world is not the way it is supposed to be.  And we are yearning forward to a goal that has not yet been completed or achieved, um.  I think I have a more acute longing for heaven than other people I know and encounter, um, because there is something pretty substantial in my life that I don’t have that many other people do have.  And so I do look toward that in that way…”)

Coping with Loneliness:

The final research question explored helpful and unhelpful coping skills to manage loneliness. When it came to helpful coping skills, there were general coping strategies (engaging in enjoyable activities, reading, occupation, volunteering/service, physical activity/exercise, projects/chores, travel, Netflix, and creative expression through art, journaling, and poetry reading), cognitive coping strategies (reframing circumstances, using gratitude to call to mind what they  appreciate about life, focusing on the present moment, focusing on the needs of those around them and serving others, and gaining insight into triggers of loneliness), social coping strategies (investing in friendships or pursuing new friendships, group involvement through ministry groups or, as one person put it, “…find(ing) your people…I interact with people who are also gay/lesbian/transgender/nonbinary and share their struggles…I try to make multiple communities, in different things that I identify myself with. This helps a lot with loneliness.  I don’t really feel lonely.  I have people who care about me.”)

Other strategies included religious/spiritual coping strategies (religious practices, whether communally through worship, prayer and sacraments, or individual through prayer and spiritual readings, faith community involvement, Christian friendships and spiritual direction, experiences of intimacy with God in prayer by way of identifying with Christ’s suffering or seeing their relationship with God as spousal), and coping through self-disclosure of sexual identity: (“the greatest defense against loneliness is giving people the chance to know you…when I feel known, I feel less lonely…it always is really cathartic and really meaningful,”) and psychological interventions, such as therapy and medication.

When it came to unhelpful coping, the most common were compulsive behaviors (overeating, pornography, masturbation, excessive shopping, substance abuse), isolation, and unhelpful thoughts (rumination, negative self-talk). Others included lashing out at others and self-harm behaviors. These are labeled unhelpful in that they ended up, in the long-term, increasing the loneliness participants felt, even if they relieved loneliness temporarily.

Where do we go from here?

The results of the study show that many of the participants lacked a support system where they felt that they belonged fully. Without a nuclear family as they got older, there were fears of the sustainability of singleness, especially in bouts of loneliness. Participants highlighted that, even more than the lack of a romantic partner, it was the lack of access to supports that many married people have, such as avenues for intimacy, companionship, healthy models of celibacy, and a vision for a future they could thrive in, that made celibacy challenging. Participants showed that loneliness often leads to negative thoughts of self and affective experiences that make engaging in meaningful relationships difficult. Participants described this as a domino effect, where their focus on self led to negative beliefs about themselves and negative expectations of their future.  The positive impacts of loneliness included the opportunity for personal growth through painful moments, increased closeness with God and others, and increased motivation to mitigate loneliness.  When it comes to coping, social coping offered the sense that a person uniquely belonged. For Christian sexual minorities, though, there are barriers to social coping, such as the fact that, in Christian circles, there is more emphasis on the value of romantic relationships over singleness and building community hinges on having nuclear family. While self-disclosure facilitates intimacy with community, many participants did not engage in this, for fear of rejection from others.

Addressing Mental Health

It seems that few participants looked to therapy as a means of coping with loneliness. Therapy could be an excellent space to begin to address compulsive behaviors which exacerbate loneliness, incorporate principles such as gratitude and reframing circumstances to challenge negative thoughts that can come with loneliness, identify triggers of loneliness (such as attending weddings), developing a plan for engaging in meaningful connections when lonely, and considering religious practices that are personal and/or communal to engage in.

A Need for Discipleship

Christian churches can play an essential role in helping celibate Christians navigate loneliness, but there is much work to be done in this regard. Pastoral care ought to attend to the whole person, considering both short-term and long-term negative and far-reaching impacts of loneliness, making referrals to mental health professionals when necessary.  It is important to be attentive to the way loneliness can hurt one’s sense of closeness with God and others in their community, making the very strategies that help manage loneliness difficult to access.

It is clear that celibate sexual minorities are hesitant to share their experience of loneliness, for fear of disclosing their sexual orientation to their church family. Few turn to means such as mentoring, spiritual direction, or Christian friendships as they cope with loneliness. Many fear burdening others or expect negative reactions if they share about their same-sex sexuality, and thus suffer their loneliness in isolation. It would be beneficial for sexual minorities to experience faith communities where there is openness to dialogue that normalizes loneliness as a universal experience, without negating the unique challenges they face.  Participants often felt so unique that they could not be offered discipleship, as if they were the only ones struggling to feel like they belong, perpetuating the loneliness they already feel.

Drawing from distinctively Christian themes

There are valuable Christian themes that helped individuals make meaning out of loneliness and cope with it without a loss of faith or purpose. Meaning-making buffered against negative thinking patterns such as “I am defective” or “I will always be alone.” In the face of loneliness, seeing one’s relationship with God as spousal, and identifying with Christ’s own suffering were unifying experiences that helped lessen the effects of loneliness. It was also helpful to normalize the moments of perceived distance from God. This validated that individuals were not deficient or lacking faith when they felt lonely or far from God in their suffering. Some participants found solace in historical Christian reflections on the redemptive value of suffering, even when suffering is unwanted and does not seem to have an expiration date on this side of eternity. Rediscovering the value of celibacy and singleness, seeing these states in life as opportunities to serve Christ and others, and inviting the church to embody a “family” are other essential steps in making celibacy a sustainable and life-giving reality for those who pursue it. Without these, Christian sexual minorities are left to wonder how they could live out the life they believe God has called them to, and thrive within that call.

Limitations:

Limitations of this study include, convenience sampling, which puts constraints on the generalizeability to individuals who do have access to the supports of the ministry organizations. Further, the sample was mostly homogenous in terms of race and educational level. Biases also limit the findings, such as the fact that the data relies on self-report about the experience of loneliness. Much is left to be understood about how to come alongside those integrating their faith and sexuality in this way, and the hope is that future research will help us in this endeavor.