Guest Post: When I Suck At Celibacy

Today’s post is from guest blogger and friend Seth, who writes at Building Bridges in War Zones, where this post was originally published. I found it a beautiful articulation of struggling with sexual purity as a gay Christian, and wanted to share it with my readers.

Seth brings a unique perspective to the issue of homosexuality and faith. His theological views are still developing, while choosing to not take a “side” and remaining committed to celibacy. As many who read my work know, I am not committed to celibacy (though I am committed to chastity and abstinence before marriage), and I am also affirming of gay marriage, but Seth articulates struggles that transcend the debate.

Be sure to visit Seth’s blog and read his other excellent articles.

~~~

I spend a lot of time trying to stress in my writing that sexual orientation is more than sex. I like the word gay because it doesn’t contain the word “sex” to describe itself (like homoSEXual or same-SEX attracted, or even SEXUAL minority). “Gay” does a better job of expressing a vocation apart from sex, at least I think so

I compartmentalize the discussion of sexual orientation so much that I tend to avoid talking about sex itself. I can almost make myself sound asexual or a spectator in the discussion. In actuality, this conversation affects my life just as much as the lives of the Christian LGBTs I write about.

So why hide the fact that I’m just as much a sexual being as any other gay man, or for that matter, pretty much any other human being? It’s safe, I guess. I don’t like to admit that I struggle maintaining my purity. I don’t like to admit that I’m occasionally a screw up.

Good Christians just don’t talk about that.

Secrets fetter us. A gay friend once told me that Satan holds power over the things we keep in the dark. It’s only when we bring our secrets to the light that we find freedom in Christ. …But it’s still frightening. When I admit I struggle with lust, pornography, and hooking up, I’m saying I don’t always do a good job of living out what I believe.

I’m saying I’m a hypocrite.

And sometimes I’m ashamed to talk about sexuality because it reveals some of my ugly insecurities. I’m not attractive enough. I need a man to affirm that I am handsome and valuable and loveable. Sometimes I wonder if I’m more comfortable with celibacy because I have an excuse to be “just the friend.” I can beat rejection to the punch. And that’s a really lame excuse for such a rigorous and beautiful vocation.

Confession is hard. We want people to think we have it all together. We don’t want others to see the dysfunction and the messiness. We want love and respect. Choosing vulnerability can strip us of the friendships we treasure. …But if they’ll stick with you, you will find a way of living that’s abundant, life-sustaining, and healing.

~~~

To state the obvious, lust feels great. Our brains reward us with all these lovely feel-good neurotransmitters that keep us coming back again and again. It doesn’t matter that we have our nice, organized biblical sexual ethics. Or that we know nothing good will likely come from another eight minutes of stupidity. Lust is a drug and a darn addictive one at that.

Sometimes we don’t want to be accountable because we’re not quite ready to give up the high. We’re hesitant to say no to instant gratification.

One of my favorite books on Christian sexuality continues to be Lauren Winner’s Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity. Winner had difficulty embracing the biblical sexual ethic of chastity until marriage after she converted to the Christian faith.

There’s this quote I love as Winner describes her progression of thought about scripture and sexuality. She writes about a confessional with an Episcopalian priest:

I was there to confess a long litany of sins, not just sexual sins—lies I’d told, ways I’d screwed up friendships, a whole host of mistakes and missteps. Somewhere in the middle of confession I came to the sexual sin, and my confessor said, gently but firmly (which are the two adverbs I believe should apply to Christian rebuke),

“Well, Lauren, that’s sin.”¹

Sin’s not one of my favorite vocabulary words. It makes me uncomfortable. And that’s the point—it’s a word that reveals I’m not perfect. It reveals my dependency on Christ to make things right. It’s God’s grace working in me to will and do of His good pleasure. I’m not really interested in becoming a Bible Thumper. And maybe that’s my issue with this three letter s-word. I’m accustomed to hearing the harsh judgmentalism from the pulpit. I expect prejudiced, gossipy, and unmerciful remarks from Christians. Sin sounds like a word they would say. It’s Aramaic or Hebrew translation seems foreign on Jesus’s lips.

But when I read Winner’s view of confronting sin, I see something a bit different. After all, it was Jesus who said not only to forsake adultery, but also lust. Jesus came to the world to reconcile us to God and emancipate us from the slavery of evil. Sin is a serious problem with the world; it’s a serious problem in my own heart. It’s definitely not a light issue. This freedom that the Messiah purchased for us leads to the restoration of the original creation, and that starts in me as I battle my selfishness with God’s aid. And yes, sometimes we need gentle but firm reminders from good Christian friends when our ways are out of alignment with God’s awesome design for His kingdom.

So what is this design that God has crafted for our sexuality? Stephen Long recently published a post that included one of my favorite quotes from James Brownson’s book Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships. It offers amazing insight into this discussion.

We cannot say with our bodies what we will not say with the rest of our lives. Bodies are not indifferent, and what we do with our bodies is not indifferent. Sexual union is deeply metaphorical, and when we strip sexual union of the wider metaphorical kinship meaning intended by Genesis 2:24, we cease to live in the ‘real world’ governed by God’s purposes and decrees.²

Scripturally, marriage is the only place where God blesses sexual intercourse, though we may differ on how to define marriage. Brownson writes from a perspective that affirms same-sex marriage and critiques gay culture through the lens of scripture. There just isn’t a theological case for promiscuity, and Brownson believes that’s an area that needs to be sanctified through marriage. As gay believers, we can’t just accept everything that gay men do and tack on the label “Christian” to justify our behavior. God’s Word must take preeminence.

But if premarital sex is consensual, why does scripture condemn it? Brownson points out that our bodies manifest striking symbolism. Sex is a sacred act—an act of culmination that symbolizes the joining of two separate people as one unit in the work of God’s kingdom.

The Apostle Paul writes,

“…Do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:16-20 ESV)

As a single Christian man, my body belongs to God. The Spirit dwells in my body as an instrument of grace to minister to others; to be Christ in flesh to my brothers and sisters and continue the work of the incarnation. But when I’m hooking up with some random dude, more stuff is going on than just sex itself. Obviously I can’t minister to this guy when I’m sexually objectifying him and using him for my own pleasure (and vice versa). You can’t seriously and explicitly share the good news of the gospel in a promiscuous lifestyle. And you can’t implicitly live out the gospel either, which is more often my style for sharing Christ.

Rather than advancing shalom in the world, I’m resisting it, particularly in my own sanctification. Love is giving and transformative. Lust is destructive and selfish. In both marriage and celibacy we learn to kill our selfish desires and put others before ourselves. Promiscuity promotes destructive self-love that characterizes many marriages in our culture, even in our own churches. You must please me, rather than I am called to serve you. Which sounds like a better way to glorify God with our bodies?

~~~

So I suck at this celibacy thing. But it remains my personal conviction for how I should navigate this journey of faith and sexuality. I have friends (gay and straight) who feel the biblical prohibitions against premarital sex are antiquated—and I still love and respect them. I have gay friends who are trying to live out Brownson’s vision of chastity until marriage. They seem to do an impressive job without some or all the support that straight Christians have available. Ultimately I’m not the final judge; that’s between the individual and God. I’ve long given up determining my view on Hell. It joined a long list of other theological subjects that if asked I will politely respond “I don’t know.” I know my calling to love God and my neighbor and that’s hard enough.

Christians tend to fuss about Hell more than the emphasis of scripture itself. Sure, you can find plenty of passages about it, I won’t deny that, but sometimes we make it sound like the whole point of Christianity is the avoidance of eternal punishment. We make a big deal about when we got “saved.” But saved to what? Surely there’s a bigger story in the Bible than an escape plan from Hell.

There’s one book that I think should be mandatory reading for every Christian. You must read N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. It’s one of the best articulations of the kingdom of God. And it’s one of the best motivations to go to battle with lust day in and day out. Our personal salvation and sanctification is a piece of a greater puzzle. By choosing chastity, I’m choosing life and affirming true love. I’m creating shalom. That’s partly how we make God’s will done on Earth as it is in Heaven.

~~~

When I screw up, grace and redemption restores me. Gentle but firm people walk alongside me and encourage me to try again. And courage says to speak when I’d rather hide in my shame.

Come everyone who thirsts

Come to the waters

and he who has no money

Come buy wine and milk

Without money and without price.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread

and your labor for that which does not satisfy?

Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good

and delight yourselves in rich food.

Isaiah 55:1-2

Come, love. There is healing here. Your Father is making all things new. You can always begin again.

1. Lauren Winner, Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2005, 13.

2. James V. Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013, 102.

Of Gay Parenting and Anal Sex: A Response to the Gospel Coalition, Part II

Earlier this week, I answered some questions from the Gospel Coalition for Christians who believe that the Bible affirms Same Sex Marriage. I thought the questions were significant, reflecting wider confusion in the Christian world regarding homosexuality, so I thought I would offer my answers. As I already said in my post last week, though, I am not a theologian, scholar, or pastor. I have no formal education in theology or the Bible. Instead, my answers come from my own journey of struggling and studying as a Gay Christian.

If you haven’t already, be sure to read Part One.

Question Number Three: Are you Prepared to Say Moms and Dads are interchangeable?

The simple answer: absolutely not.

Kevin DeYoung further asks,

It is a safe assumption that those in favor of gay marriage are likely to support gay and lesbian couples adopting children or giving birth to children through artificial insemination. What is sanctioned, therefore, is a family unit where children grow up de facto without one birth parent. This means not simply that some children, through the unfortunate circumstances of life, may grow up without a mom and dad, but that the church will positively bless and encourage the family type that will deprive children of either a mother or a father. So are mothers indispensable? Is another dad the same as a mom? No matter how many decent, capable homosexual couples we may know, are we confident that as a general rule there is nothing significant to be gained by growing up with a mother and a father?

At this point, I need to acknowledge my bias: I have never been a father, and because of that, I speak from a level of ignorance. I do hope to someday have children, though, and I have thought a great deal about the implications of being a gay father, raising a child with another man. I relate to Kevin DeYoung’s concern for children raised by same-sex parents – I have had it myself.

I do not believe that gender is insignificant, and I do not believe that men and women are the same. Consequently, I do not believe that mothers and fathers are the same. I absolutely believe that children need both male and female mentors and caring influences in their lives.

As I have struggled through my own questions regarding this issue, here is what I have, for now, concluded: there is simply no evidence that shows that children who are raised in healthy gay homes are any different from children raised in healthy heterosexual homes. The largest study that tries to refute that claim (The Rengarus study) was highly questionable in its methods and has been debunked.

The truth is, the notion of the nuclear family – a mother and a father both being in the home, caring for their children – is a product of modern prosperity. Historically speaking, it’s five seconds old. The vast majority of the human race (and Western Civilization) knew no such model. Many mothers died in child birth. Most children worked, or were apprenticed, or, in the upper classes, were mostly raised by people other than their parents. Nor is the nuclear family prescribed in Scripture. Western Civilization has known many models and configurations of raising family throughout the centuries. The notion that mothers and fathers must be in the home, caring for their children, is just the latest and newest of many. Having both a father and a mother raising their children is wonderful and beautiful, but I see no evidence that it is the only model that ensures children’s health and well being.

It takes far more than simply parents to raise a healthy child. There need to be mentors, teachers, coaches, pastors, grandmothers, and grandfathers as well. I believe the healthiest children are those raised not just by their parents, but by a community. This notion has largely been lost in our churches and wider American culture, and I believe that we have suffered tremendously because of that. In some ways, gay parenting inherently encourages reverting to older and healthier notions of raising a child – the parent alone is not enough. They will need outside mentors. That’s the way it should be. If I have children, I will ensure that the child has close male and female mentors, because just my spouse (regardless of his or her sex) and I are not enough to raise another human being.

Also, even if we believe that gay parenting is “less ideal” than heterosexual parenting, are we truly going to say it’s worse than the foster care system? Are we truly going to say that being raised by abusive, neglectful, straight parents is better than being raised by two loving, supportive and nurturing gay parents? Are we really going to say that being an orphan is better than having two dads or two moms? There are many, many children in this world who have no fathers or mothers – who need a home, who need to be fed, who need to be held and cared for. Are we really going to block two fathers, or two mothers, from caring for those children, because it is somehow less ideal? Am I truly not allowed to care with another man for a child in need because that is somehow so broken it is worse than that child having no parents at all?

What does hurt children in gay families is when the society at large does not allow the support and recognition that creates sustainable families. What hurts the children of gay people is the lack of support for such families.

Question Number Four: What Will You Say About Anal Sex?

Kevin DeYoung goes on,

The answer is probably “nothing.” But if you feel strongly about the dangers of tobacco or fuss over the negative affects of carbs, cholesterol, gmo’s, sugar, gluten, trans fats, and hydrogenated soybean oil may have on your health, how can you not speak out about the serious risks associated with male-male intercourse. How is it loving to celebrate what we know to be a singularly unhealthy lifestyle? According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, the risk of anal cancer increases 4000 percent among those who engage in anal intercourse. Anal sex increases the risk of a long list of health problems, including “rectal prolapse, perforation that can go septic, chlamydia, cyrptosporidosis, giardiasis, genital herpes, genital warts, isosporiasis, microsporidiosis, gonorrhea, viral hepatitis B and C, and syphilis” (quoted in Reilly, 55). And this is to say nothing of the higher rates of HIV and other health concerns with disproportionate effects on the homosexual community.

Actually, I would be delighted to talk about anal sex, and I am glad that Kevin asked this question. It’s a question that hovers in the minds of many straight Christians, but one that is too touchy for them to ever verbalize. It’s a complicated issue, and I want to address it in much greater depth later on this blog, but we can at least begin the discussion here.

In response to this questions, there are a few points I would like to make.

The study Kevin quotes is woefully flawed. As Graeham Codrington puts it in his own response to DeYoung’s questions,

With regard to the specific points that Kevin makes about health and safety concerns, he references a much quoted study by J. R. Daling et.al, “Correlates of Homosexual Behavior and the Incidence of Anal Cancer,” which appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association 247, no.14, 9 April 1982. This study is quoted in many conservative statements on this issue, especially the statistic of a 4000% increase in likelihood to contract anal cancer. The original study is available here (http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=370939), and it is interesting to note that it is based on the study of just 47 men in western Washington between 1974 and 1979. Not entirely normative. I think this study has entered the realms of urban legend, to be honest. More recent research has conclusively linked anal cancer to HPV (human papillomavirus – see for example http://www.uptodate.com/contents/classification-and-epidemiology-of-anal-cancer and http://f1000.com/prime/reports/m/2/85/). People who are unhygienic are at higher risk of HPV, and anal intercourse that is done without due hygiene or care is a higher risk factor (but between 20% and 50% higher, not the ridiculous 4000% quoted by Kevin and many others). These issues are fairly well known in the homosexual community, and can easily be taught, and damage prevented.

I know many gay couples who have been married for decades, and have regularly practiced anal sex safely, hygienically and lovingly, and they have had no adverse health effects, even as they enter their 50′s and 60′s. Being clean, being safe, being gentle, respecting your partner’s boundaries – those are what protect people from harm, and that is true as much in gay relationships as it is in straight relationships, which leads me to my next point.

Sexually Transmitted Diseases Are Primarily a Promiscuity Problem, Not a Gay Problem or an Anal Sex Problem. DeYoung mentions a host of sexually transmitted diseases in his question. While it is true that anal sex does pose a greater risk of contracting an STD, that is only true if one is recklessly having sex, or having sex with people who are carrying that STD. If two men are monogamous, gentle, and clean in having anal sex, there is very little threat of contracting an STD. (And, as I mentioned in my previous post, gay couples are just as capable of being monogamous as straight couples.)

While this is not directly brought up in DeYoung’s article, I will go ahead and address it: many people object to anal sex because they believe it is damaging to the body. Anal sex is only damaging to the body if it is done roughly or without care. The key is to be gentle and kind in the expression of our bodies. Anal sex requires a bit more care, but that is precisely what can make it such an intimate act: I can think of no other action that is quite as physically vulnerable for a man than to be penetrated. Either that can be abused and can be an instrument of great harm, or it can become the context for the expression of great love, tenderness, and care between both partners. But this requires us to raise another necessary point:

Not all gay men have anal sex, nor is it the defining aspect of male homosexuality.

Allow Stephen Fry (a gay icon who has, by his own admission, never had anal sex) elucidate with his savage wit in his book “Moab is my Washpot”:

‘But have you any idea what these people actually do?’

      Self-righteous members of the House of Commons loved standing to ask that question during our last parliamentary debate on the age of homosexual consent.

      ‘Shit-stickers, that’s what they are. Let’s be clear about that. We’re talking about sodomy here.’

      Oh no you aren’t. You think you are, but you aren’t, you know.

      Buggery is far less prevalent in the gay world than people suppose. Anal sex is probably not much more common in homosexual encounters than it is in heterosexual.

      Buggery is not at the end of the yellow brick road somewhere over the homosexual rainbow, it is not the prize, the purpose, the goal or the fulfilment of homosexuality. Buggery is not the achievement which sees homosexuality move from becoming into being; buggery is not homosexuality’s realisation or destiny. Buggery is as much a necessary condition of homosexuality as the ownership of a Volvo estate car is a necessary condition of middle-class family life, linked irretrievably only in the minds of the witless and the cheap. The performance of buggery is no more inevitable a part of homosexuality than an orange syllabub is an inevitable part of a dinner: some may clamour for it and instantly demand a second helping, some are not interested, some decide they will try it once and then instantly vomit.

Stephen Fry goes on to clarify that the real heart of the homosexual experience has to do with love: love in it’s most debased and most heavenly forms. (I would, however, be more careful than he is with the term “gay-hater.” I don’t believe DeYoung is a gay-hater or a bigot until he is proven otherwise.)

      There are plenty of other things to be got up to in the homosexual world outside the orbit of the anal ring, but the concept that really gets the goat of the gay-hater, the idea that really spins their melon and sickens their stomach is that most terrible and terrifying of all human notions, love.

      That one can love another of the same gender, that is what the homophobe really cannot stand. Love in all eight tones and all five semitones of the word’s full octave. Love as agape, Eros and philos; love as romance, friendship and adoration; love as infatuation, obsession and lust; love as torture, euphoria, ecstasy and oblivion (this is beginning to read like a Calvin Klein perfume catalogue); love as need, passion and desire.

Fry concludes with an important point about the prevalence of anal sex in the straight world, dispelling the notion that anal play is somehow the exclusive domain of homosexuality. It is a human activity, not an exclusively homosexual activity.

     

All the rest of it, parking your dick up an arse, slurping at a helmet, whipping, frotting, peeing, pooing, squatting like a dog, dressing up in plastic and leather – all these go on in the world of boy and girl too: and let’s be clear about this, they go on more – the numbers make it so. Go into a sex shop, skim through some pornography, browse the Internet for a time, talk to someone in the sex industry. You think homosexuality is disgusting? Then, it follows, it follows as the night the day, that you find sex disgusting, for there is nothing done between two men or two women that is, by any objective standard, different from that which is done between a man and a woman.

(And of course, you don’t just need to talk to people in the sex industry to see the prevalence of anal play in the “world of boy and girl”, you can ask many straight, Christian, married couples. I personally know many who’ve admitted to me that they enjoy some kind of anal play.)

Let me take a moment to speak from my own experience here. Among all the homosexual encounters I’ve had in the gay hookup scene, (which, for the record, I believe were, at worst, very sinful and, at best, utterly unideal, and I have repented of them) the vast majority of them did not involve anal sex. I personally don’t always enjoy it, and I honestly don’t know if it will be a regular part of my married life, or even a part at all. I think I would be content if it wasn’t. I know gay men who love it, and I know gay men who tried it and hated it.

Anal sex does not define my experience of homosexuality, love does. Anal sex is not the height or greatest expression of homosexuality. Being gay is not a sex act: it is the capacity to be drawn holistically and uniquely and erotically towards the same sex, and sexuality makes up only a part of that equation.

Is it possible that anal sex works because God designed it to work? I know this is a bold question, but let’s really think about this for a moment. If we believe the human body is fearfully and wonderfully made by God, (though as a yoga therapist, I would like to have a word with Him about his design of the knee and spine), then we have to confront the fact that God designed the anus and prostate to be sexual organs. The prostate is, after all, the male G-spot, and is immensely, sometimes mind-blowingly pleasurable when stimulated – often far more so than mere external stimulation of the penis. God put those nerves there, and God made them uniquely sexually sensitive to stimuli. That was His idea, not the degenerate gay’s idea. Furthermore, he could have buried the prostate anywhere in the body, but he didn’t. He put it right where another gay man can access it. Conversely, God could have put the clitoris anywhere in the body, but he didn’t. He put it right where another woman can stimulate it.

I am not saying that this therefore means that gay sex is okay. It simply means that it may complicate our notion of what is “natural” and “unnatural.” It is natural that the prostate is wired to respond erotically when stimulated. And who’s the grand orchestrator of Nature? God. Is it possible that God therefore designed our bodies to accommodate homosexuality and anal sex? I don’t know – I generally try to avoid simplistic interpretations of what nature, in her infinite variety, is telling us – but it is certainly something to ponder.

All sex is dangerous. To condemn anal sex solely on the grounds of it being dangerous is to condemn the human experience of sexuality. A “do no harm” approach to sexuality is necessary, noble, and good, but it is also the result of modern innovation. More than any war or plague, heterosexual sex may have the greatest body count in human history through death in childbirth and infant mortality. The only reason we perceive straight sex as safe is because we have unnaturally made it so through the miracle of modern medicine.

It would be easy (in our culture of tribalistic, post-modern, black and white thinking) if we could cast sex in a simple role of either, “good” or “bad”, of “safe” or “unsafe”, but nature and our own humanity don’t allow us that luxury. Throughout history, sex has always been an expression of our deepest natures: it’s capacity to create life and beauty is inextricably connected to its capacity to brutally kill and destroy. Its ability to foster intimacy and a one flesh bond is inextricably tied to its power to contort, control, and break our wills. Sex shows humanity’s true nature as fallen beings prone to violence and destruction who are also made in God’s image, capable of union, intimacy, and mysterious creativity. And as many gay people can say, homosexual sex is no different. All the heaven and the hell that can be communicated in heterosexual sex – that is just as present in gay sex as well.

Of Polygamy and Chastity: A Response to the Gospel Coalition (Part I)

Last week, Kevin DeYoung over at the Gospel Coalition wrote “Five Questions for Christians who Believe that the Bible Supports Gay marriage.” I found his questions relevant, as they are probably questions that the wider Christian culture is asking, so I thought I would oblige and give my answers.

Before I do, though, let me clarify my credentials: I am a yoga teacher finishing up a degree in classical vocal performance (read: I am not a pastor, scholar, or theologian, and I have no formal education in theology.) These answers do not come from any formal credentials, but instead from my life as a gay man struggling to understand his faith. I am in process, still struggling to form my beliefs and navigate my theological world. As such, my responses are more a conversation and less an answer.

Question # 1: On What Basis do you insist that marriage must be monogamous?

DeYoung goes on to ask,

Presumably, you do not see any normative significance in God creating the first human pair male and female (Gen. 2:23-25; Matt. 19:4-6). Paul’s language about each man having his own wife and each woman her own husband cannot be taken too literally without falling back into the exclusivity of heterosexual marriage (1 Cor. 7:2). The two coming together as one so they might produce godly offspring doesn’t work with gay marriage either (Mal. 2:15). So why monogamy? Jesus never spoke explicitly against polygamy. The New Testament writers only knew of exploitative polygamy, the kind tied to conquest, greed, and subjugation. If they had known of voluntary, committed, loving polyamorous relationships, who’s to think they wouldn’t have approved?

These aren’t merely rhetorical questions. The issue is legitimate: if 3 or 13 or 30 people really love each other, why shouldn’t they have a right to be married? And for that matter, why not a brother and a sister, or two sisters, or a mother and son, or father and son, or any other combination of two or more persons who love each other. Once we’ve accepted the logic that for love to be validated it must be expressed sexually and that those engaged in consensual sexual activity cannot be denied the “right” of marriage, we have opened a Pandora’s box of marital permutations that cannot be shut.

I sympathize with this question, and it was one that caused me some discomfort when I held the traditional view. If I’m honest, I am still sorting out this question, and I think that I am not alone in my theological questioning (not to mention the fact that I am trying to square my conviction that monogamy is ideal with the fact that polygamy is practiced and never condemned in Scripture.) I think the modern church is only just now beginning to ask this question, so whatever theological answers we have at present will be incomplete.

While I may not be able to give a totally clear answer on this question, I can perhaps offer a few observations.

First, dismissing something because of what it might lead to is a logical fallacy. If something is right or wrong, determine that to be so based upon its own merits, not upon what may (or may not) happen afterward. A slippery slope fallacy means that we don’t ultimately judge the morality of the thing in question (homosexuality), leading us to judge the morality of the bigger, scarier thing down the “slope” (polygamy.) The end result is that we have not truly engaged with the deeper questions raised by homosexuality – we were too busy asking questions about incest, polygamy, a “pandora’s box of marital permutations” – the things that frighten us. While I believe that homosexuality, polygamy and incest are tied together by the common theme of human relationship and sexuality, I also believe that they are ultimately different scenarios with different implications for people’s lives. Tying them to each other in a slippery slope ultimately muddies the issue, and has inhibited the Church’s ability to look clearly at the issue of homosexuality itself.

When we ask people to abstain from polygamy, we are not asking them to forego a marital one-flesh bond for the rest of their lives. When we ask someone to forego incest, we are not also asking them to give up marriage entirely. But that is precisely what we are asking of most gay people when we tell them that they must never experience a same sex love.

This is a subtle but monumental difference. Mandatory gay celibacy takes the question of homosexuality out of the realm of preference and into the much more fundamental, elemental territory of the human need for kinship, partnership, one-flesh union, and family. To say that a man cannot marry one woman because she is his sister is not the same as declaring that he may not marry any woman at all. Sexual union and family are available to people even after we have forbidden polygamy and incest. It is not available to most gay people for a myriad of complex reasons after we have forbidden same sex relationships. This distinction requires us to ask a different set of theological questions about the implications in people’s lives. Conflating the acceptance of polygamy or incest with the acceptance of homosexuality is misguided, then, because they are completely separate pastoral issues with very different implications for the lives of individuals.

As I have said numerous times throughout this blog, I believe that a celibacy mandate for all gay people is absolutely deadly, and is an urgent pastoral issue. I believe that forbidding people from making meaningful, monogamous, family units together creates a culture of disease, abuse and promiscuity because sexuality is such a ferocious force of nature that when it is practiced outside of marriage-like bonds it destroys us. I believe that this is precisely what has happened in the gay community. When we prohibit a significant percentage of the human race from marriage, the entire population suffers. Prohibiting polygamy or incest does not have such dire pastoral implications.

Several months ago I asked James Brownson (author of Bible, Gender, Sexuality) about polygamy, incest and pedophilia in relation to homosexuality. I would encourage everyone to read the full interview (and to read his book), but here are his thoughts about polygamy:

Polygamy enters the argument in a somewhat different way.  Among the many possible forms of this argument, let’s explore this one:  If marriage is not exclusively between a man and a woman, but can exist between any two people who desire to be together, what is to prohibit polyamorous relationships, say, between two men and three women?  If they all want it, and accept the implications of the commitment, who is to say no?  At the root of this complaint is the worry that the approval of same-sex relationships represents a capitulation in our culture to the idolization of personal preference, and the loss of any objective standards against which those preferences are to be measured.  I’m somewhat sympathetic to this concern, but I think it needs to be expressed more clearly.  I don’t think that the church should consider accepting same-sex relationships simply because “people should be able to do what they want, as long as everyone agrees and no one is harmed.”  Rather, the question is whether for gay and lesbian people, as for straight people, erotic love can be drawn into sacrificial relationships of devoted love and concern for the other that reflect divine love.  If these same dynamics can work in same-sex relationships, then these relationships can be sanctified and drawn into divine love.  I’m not convinced that polyamorous relationships can reflect divine love in quite the same way, though that, of course, is a rather long discussion in its own right!

Question # 2:  Will you maintain the same biblical sexual ethic in the church now that you think the church should solemnize gay marriages?

The short answer is that yes, I will.

Deyoung further asks:

After assailing the conservative church for ignoring the issue of divorce, will you exercise church discipline when gay marriages fall apart? Will you preach abstinence before marriage for all single persons, no matter their orientation? If nothing has really changed except that you now understand the Bible to be approving of same-sex intercourse in committed lifelong relationships,we should expect loud voices in the near future denouncing the infidelity rampant in homosexual relationships. Surely, those who support gay marriage out of “evangelical” principles, will be quick to find fault with the notion that the male-male marriages most likely to survive are those with a flexible understanding that other partners may come and go. According to one study researched and written by two homosexual authors, of 156 homosexual couples studied, only seven had maintained sexual fidelity, and of the hundred that had been together for more than five years, none had remained faithful (cited by Satinover, 55). In the rush to support committed, lifelong, monogamous same-sex relationships, it’s worth asking whether those supporters–especially the Christians among them–will, in fact, insist on a lifelong, monogamous commitment.

Really, my morals have not shifted much since becoming affirming. I still believe that we are all – gay, straight, married, single and celibate – called to practice chastity. I believe that chastity means abstinence before marriage, and fidelity in marriage. That is what I strive to practice, and that is what I preach to others. It’s been difficult for me and a refining cross to carry, as I’ve struggled to integrate my faith and sexuality, but it is a cross for everyone.

Just because I believe God may bless gay marriage does not mean I believe sexuality is suddenly meaningless, or without power. Affirming gay marriage does not strip sex of its gravitas. Chastity is necessary precisely because sexuality is significant and can make or break lives. In my experience, many gay people experience such promiscuity because we have been told that our sexuality is meaningless, broken, and can never be a channel of grace. Why, then, should we be careful in the use of our bodies? There is a deep, unverbalized, intuitive question in many gay people I have met: if I cannot be sexually united to another in a pure, sanctified way, then what is the meaning of my sexuality? How can any expression of my sexuality be good, even celibacy, since healthy celibacy requires a healthy relationship with one’s sexuality?

In my own journey, I struggle deeply to integrate a sexual ethic into my life that makes sense and is not rooted in fear. As a gay Christian, I have received little from the church beyond, “don’t be sexual”, “be straight, or at the very least act straight,” and “be very afraid.” I knew that my promiscuity was wrong, but I could not truly articulate how or why, especially when it seemed so helpful for me and felt so good. (only in the moment. Afterwards I felt used up, beat up, and discarded.) I started to find some direction when I finally read Dr. Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality, in which he says,

We cannot say with our bodies what we will not say with the rest of our lives. Bodies are not indifferent, and what we do with our bodies is not indifferent. Sexual union is deeply metaphorical, and when we strip sexual union of the wider metaphorical kinship meaning intended by Genesis 2:24, we cease to live in the “real world” governed by God’s purposes and decrees (…) sexual unions are thus a sort of bodily language in which meaning is enacted and conveyed.

In other words, I must not say with my body what I cannot say with the rest of my life, precisely because my sexuality is significant, is bestowed with meaning, and can be a vessel for grace. It has a language and I must not misuse that language: it is not meaningless gibberish.

I found further guidance in Rowan Williams’s The Body’s Grace, in which he states,

Any genuine experience of desire leaves me in this position: I cannot of myself satisfy my wants without distorting or trivializing them. But in this experience we have a particularly intense case of the helplessness of the ego alone. For my body to be the cause of joy, the end of homecoming, for me, it must be there for someone else, must be perceived, accepted, nurtured. And that means being given over to the creation of joy in that other, because only as directed to the enjoyment, the happiness, of the other does it become unreservedly lovable. To desire my joy is to desire the joy of the one I desire: my search for enjoyment through the bodily presence of another is a longing to be enjoyed in my body. As Blake put it, sexual partners “admire” in each other “the lineaments of gratified desire.” We are pleased because we are pleasing.

I am still exploring and developing my sexual ethic, but I maintain traditional sexual ethics for both gay and straight people because I believe that both gay and straight sexuality is significant and powerful, touched by sin but also capable of redemption and sanctification through Christ’s great grace. I still believe that sex is deeply metaphorical, and creates a one flesh bond.

Before I conclude the discussion of this question, one last thought: it is true that there is a great deal of promiscuity in gay culture, and I will personally attest to the truth that it is hard to be chaste in certain parts of gay culture. However, I have come to believe that this is a cultural problem, not a gay problem. In my experience, gay people are just as capable of fidelity as straight people; infidelity is not so much a gay problem as it is a human problem. The rampant promiscuity in the gay community is the result of the cultural values of an extremely secular community, not of homosexuality itself. Certainly, gay people will struggle with chastity and fidelity as much as the rest of the human race, but I know many gay couples who have been monogamous throughout their relationships. When a couple pursues discipleship, shared values, and faithfulness, I have watched the promiscuity of the gay culture fall away.

(To be continued…)

Tolerance vs. Hospitality

In her excellent new book, Generous Spaciousness: Responding to Gay Christians in the Church, Wendy VanderWal-Gritter explores a crucial distinction between hospitality and tolerance that I believe would do us all a great deal of good to meditate on. After years of living in the extreme dissonance of working with gay people and the church, she has a lot of wisdom to share with the rest of the church about spirituality and how we relate to one another.

Tolerance often means a somewhat superficial acceptance of everyone’s ideas, beliefs, values, and practice. Differences aren’t really discussed. There can be a sense of coercion with the concept of tolerance, the feeling that it is being externally imposed. I encounter this when I hear the bitterness in people’s voices from within the Christian community whose experience of tolerance has been feeling forced to accept a certain political correctness and being part of systems that suppress expressions of true belief and opinion. Granted, some opinions ought not be publically expressed because of the damage and hurt they would inflict on others. Nonetheless, resentment simmers when this kind of tolerance stifles the expression of deep convictions.

Hospitality, however, creates a very different environment. Hospitality welcomes the other, the stranger, the one who is different. But inherent in this welcome is the acknowledgement of difference. Instead of difference being superficially expunged, differences can be explored. Hospitality enhances our humanity as individuals and as those called into relationship with one another. Tolerance can flatten our humanity with its expectation of enforced acceptance. But such acceptance will rarely lead to embrace.

Such hospitality is challenging for all of us – it is intrinsic to our species to lack such humility. We all struggle with such hospitality, and resting in it can feel like the mental equivilent of resting in a particularly painful yoga posture. Such places of mental stretching and challenge, though, is where our minds, like our bodies, begin to transform and grow the most.

I am curious to know what such hospitality would look like in the Church and the gay community. I believe that we must all enter the uncomfortable place of letting go of tolerating one another, and learning to be hospitable to each other (myself included.) Tolerance has not gotten any of us very far in the debate over homosexuality. It might be time to find a harder, scarier, more humbling posture.

Of Learning Disabilities, Homosexuality, and the Power of Ownership

When I was young, I was tested by public school psychologists for mental disabilities and intelligence levels, and after the testing was done the psychologists gave my parents this withering verdict: “He is just one notch above retarded. Take him home and love him, because it is all he will be good for.”

Well, clearly I’m not developmentally disabled. What I actually am is enormously dyslexic with massive amounts of sensitivity and anxiety. Consequently, just about everything involving school, math, counting, or filling out paperwork has been the bane of my existence and can cause me to shrink away in terror. Through school, I learned in a million different ways that the world could not accommodate me. I learned to view the school system as a monstrous and inhuman regime where every day I felt discarded and dehumanized, instead of a place meant to encourage growth, learning, and empowerment.

My one lifeline was my father. A severe dyslexic himself, he grew up in an academic world far more ruthless towards the learning disabled than I did, yet built a life as an author, teacher, and pastor. At the moments in my schooling career when I had given up completely, his words gave me enough shadow of hope to keep moving forward. “You’re not broken, Stephen. This is a huge gift, and you have to see it as a gift. The school system is what’s wrong, not you. It’s stupid and unfair and wrong, and they test you and judge you by your weaknesses, not your strengths. And the rest of the world will simply have no concept of how hard it is for you, or how frustrating it is to know you are brilliant and yet not be able to do things that other kids do with ease. It’s a stupid, broken system, but you have to get through it so you can finally do your own thing. It isn’t fair, but you have to get through it.”

My parents went to war for me, and as a family we fought like Spartans in what felt like the most unappreciated battle of the century. (Seriously, any kind of disabled people, be it physically or mentally, and their families are the unsung heroes of our age.) And it was indeed an ugly battle. I barely got through high school, with a GPA that reflected my gifts and intelligence about as much as a puddle of mud can reflect my face.

Despite the ferocity of my struggle with school, my parents taught me something that would go on to shape me and perhaps even save my life. It was a beautifully simple message: embrace what you cannot change.

Dyslexia was and is an unchangeable part of my life. Running from it would only cripple me further. Denying it would kill me. Curing it would be a useless and potentially harmful endeavor. Any abstract talk about whether or not dyslexia is a result of brokenness or the fall, or a divine accident is totally theoretical and useless in real life. I knew that being ashamed of my struggles and difference, or not acknowledging them, would lead to a life of misery and failure.

The only option left was to embrace the dyslexia. Embrace it, celebrate it, enjoy it, explore it, work with it, count it as one of the million things that has shaped me into the unique being I am today. Thank God for how it has strengthened me, and how it gives me a unique lens through which I can enjoy the world. In a word: own it.

Ownership of my dyslexia and all the other little quirks that make me who I am was and is the only way I survive as a dyslexic person. It is ownership of my dyslexia that enabled me to learn how to write and read in my own unique way instead of remaining crippled, even though it took me several years longer than most children to learn these skills. I have learned how to use tools like yoga to keep my mind clear. Inevitably, working with something means not being ashamed of that thing. Misguided Christians suggested that I was normalizing fallen  conditions, and that I should pray for healing instead of embracing dyslexia as an unchangeable part of my life, but that started to seem too simple a solution for a complex reality. Somewhere along the journey, with my parents’ help, dyslexia was transformed from a curse to a strange, beautiful, and aggravating gift. I realized that being ashamed of my “learning disability” was as useless and silly as being ashamed of my skin. If I wanted to be myself, I was going to have to be dyslexic as well. I learned an important lesson as a teenager that I have since come to strive for in every corner of my life: if something is to be part of my life, it will be there with grace, ownership, and beauty, even if it is unconventional.

In high school, I started to come face to face with another “disorder”, something far more terrifying and sinister than dyslexia: homosexuality. As with dyslexia, I spent many years trying to ignore my homosexuality because the shame attached to it was acute and pervasive. If dyslexia made me feel like an intellectual and academic failure, homosexuality made me feel like a sexual, masculine, and spiritual failure.

And then, when it didn’t go away, I tried to heal it. I got involved in ex-gay programs, believing with certainty that, if I prayed the right prayers, made the right kind of friendships, and set my life in pursuit of God, he would heal me. For three years – from when I was 17 to 19, I was immersed in ex-gay communities. It all fell apart for me, as I realized that not only was I not changing, but no one else in my community was, either.  I realized that I was living an absurd and exhausting existence, living every day in the hope that God would “heal me.” My life was built upon that promise. It was like living my life with the assumption that I would one day win the lottery, or become a rock star. I finally could not handle another day of it, so, when I was 20, I came out of the closet and walked away.

I was thus left with an impossible question: what am I supposed to do with my homosexuality if it cannot be cured? It seemed, back then, that the only possible road forward was to be eternally divided against myself. Many misguided heterosexuals draw comparisons between the struggles of being gay and struggles with lust, but that is woefully off. If my orientation couldn’t change, and my orientation was sinful, that meant that my very sexuality was itself evil. It wasn’t just my capacity to lust and promiscuity that was sinful, it was also my capacity for monogamy, and marriage, and faithfulness that was sinful, too.

The consequences of believing that a whole part of my being was fundamentally broken, less-than, and distorted led me into deep caverns of torture. It was as though my life was a modern retelling of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – sharing my innermost being with a piece of myself that was utterly incapable of goodness, beauty, or transformation. It was as though the lens through which I viewed the world – the lens of homosexuality that drew me persistently to other men – was broken and could never be fixed. I had to tell myself, over and over, that what I felt were to be beautiful, honorable dreams of being with a man in fidelity and love were actually hallucinations – that my most natural and intuitive sense of what was love, and goodness, and beauty was irreparably broken. I mostly spent my college years wanting to kill myself, and failing numerous classes, because of how it all consumed me. The simple answer was that, through the process of sanctification, God would remove my internal Mr. Hyde as I grew closer to Him, but He didn’t – not for me, and not for anyone I knew.

Finally, in 2012, I reached a crossroads. The cycles of denial, despair, self-injury and self loathing had become so fierce that I knew I had to do something about it. I knew that the only way for me to stop hurting myself – and hurting others close to me – was to embrace my sexuality. I had to own it.

For the first time in my life, I decided to stop being afraid of the label “gay”, and tried it on for size. (I had tried it on several times before, of course, but the experience had always been so terrifying for me that I usually went back into denial immediately after trying the word.) This time, I let the word and my psyche get used to each other. I went to a local gay pride event. I went to a Christian retreat for celibate gay people. As with my learning disability, I decided to stop being afraid of my differences. I chose to embrace them, knowing that as long as I fought them, I would exist in torture.

The relief I felt at finally just letting myself be who I am cannot be expressed in words. It was the most blissful collapse from exhaustion, the most exquisite letting go. Maybe a gay orientation is imperfect, maybe it is fallen, maybe it was a distortion of the way God had intended the human race to function, but it was also who I was, and no amount of fighting could change that. I had to work with it, instead of perpetually fight against it. I understood that vitality and strength would come, not from denying and fighting myself, but from working with and acknowledging myself. My illness had become an identity, and that identity gave me ownership and the only relief from my psychic pain. For the first time, the persistent agony I had lived with for years began to recede.

We have imperfect and shallow words to describe our sexual identities: gay, straight, bi. There are problems with these words, and they have created an unofficial moral caste system in our society: a moral and chaste gay man is seen as degenerate next to a sexually deviant straight man in our churches. But these words also give people the power of ownership over their internal experiences.

Gay, Bi, straight, and all the other terms in the sexual identity rainbow may be imperfect and some a bit silly, but they are the tools people use to live bearable, integrated lives. The words are vital, and when we in the church rob people of the words, when we strip them of the capacity to use identifiers because it somehow clashes with their identity in Christ, we are robbing them of the tools of ownership. And it is ownership and mindfulness of our differences, not denial, aggression towards, or fear and hatred of our differences, that leads to vitality.

I am gay. Maybe it’s a tragic result of humanity’s rebellion against God – a curse akin to the thorns that aggravate Adam’s work in the field and the pain Eve has in childbearing – and it is something to be endured and sanctified through; Paul’s thorn in the side. Or maybe it is just another part of the vast diversity of God’s creation, another facet of His magnificent and beautiful imagination. Honestly, the more I gaze into the seemingly infinite complexity of the universe, my own assumptions about what is normal in the natural world are thwarted. Beyond sins, disease, and death, I don’t believe any longer that I can objectively say what is and is not “part of the original created order” in the universe, and I don’t know if I am supposed to.

What I can say is this: as long as I fight against this unchanging part of who I am, I will forever be unstable. The word gay has been a gift to me, and as long as the church bars people from using it, we will be hurting people, not helping them.

Finding Balance

Over the past 2 years, I have been on a long, complicated journey in regards to how I respond to people and their ideas.

Over a year ago, when I was still traditional in my beliefs regarding homosexuality and was committed to a life of celibacy, I believed that the heart was of utmost importance. I was less concerned with what people believed, and more concerned with why and how people believed it. My posture was one of empathy and hospitality. I chose to see the dignity and intention behind what people believed, even if they disagreed with me on the subject of homosexuality and were partnered or open to partnership.

While this was noble, hospitable, and kind, the consequences of ideas – and sometimes even the ideas themselves – were lost on me. In my hospitality, I lived in an increasingly pluralistic, relativistic mindset where ideas had fewer and fewer consequences, and therefore had little meaning. I was so focused on hospitality and empathy and seeing other people’s perspectives that they all became a multi-colored wash of ideas that had little significance. While I was absolutely convinced that homosexuality was not God’s best and that I would be sinning if I had a partnership, that conviction never extended beyond my own personal life and into how I saw other people’s lives and their choices. My commitment to empathy and hospitality was so all consuming that I had become a relativist in regards to sexual morality.

And then, something happened. After an enormously difficult relationship, my celibate boyfriend and I separated. In the months after losing my boyfriend, I had a massive change of heart – I could see more clearly and hear more truly. Over time, I came to see that ideas have consequences, that some of those consequences are absolutely deadly, and that I had a moral obligation to challenge ideas that I believed to be destructive.

I came to believe – and I still believe – that the traditional ethic on homosexuality is a force for extraordinary destruction. I believe that an ideology that requires a huge population of people to be celibate or never to experience safe, stable, and legally recognized marital bonds inevitably creates a culture of promiscuity, disease, abuse, and rebellion. Certainly, a few individuals will thrive, but the community as a whole will suffer tremendously, and I believe that is exactly what has happened. I believe that telling young people that they must, for a lifetime, die to the hope of having a family, children, a spouse or any kind of sexual intimacy can and does cause despair and destruction. HIV/AIDS and Syphilis are both on the rise in my age group among gay men again, and I have become convinced that the only way we can begin to make a dent in the prevalence of these diseases is to tell gay teenagers, “you can get married. Your body and your sexuality can be precious and beautiful and a channel of grace for another human being in this lifetime. Your body has significance beyond you and your own wants and needs – it will matter to someone else. And you have an obligation to be loving and kind in the expression of your body. Having a meaningful, monogamous bond that will be recognized by society and the law is an option for you.” I believe that as long as that message is barred from reaching our young people, we will continue to create a community of promiscuity, disease, and abuse (and the church will go on pointing to such disfunction in the gay community as proof that homosexuality is intrinsically disordered.) Our ideas have consequences, and I have a moral obligation to oppose the ideas that I believe to be intrinsically destructive to God’s children.

But, there was a problem. I believed all this to the neglect of seeing people’s hearts. I lost sight of the principles of hospitality, compassion, and empathy that I had valued so deeply. In my heart, I became another brand of the fundamentalist that I so adamantly opposed.  I dehumanized people, judging them on the basis of what I perceived to be the consequences of their beliefs, instead of the integrity, kindness, and compassion of their hearts.

Now I am struggling to find the complicated balance between honoring what’s in people’s hearts and recognizing that some ideas have destructive consequences, however well-intended they may be. There are many things about the traditional ethic on homosexuality that deeply concern me and should be addressed. But I also see now that the integrity, compassion, and intellectual rigor of my non-affirming friends is good, redemptive, and admirable. I understand that they believe what they believe because, given their circumstances, their worldview, the evidence they have observed, they can believe nothing else. To do otherwise would be to compromise their moral integrity. I see now that we live in extraordinary moral complexity in our relationships: that complicated, well-intentioned people can with integrity hold complicated ideas that may have both enormous goodness and beauty but also extraordinarily destructive potential. I see now that we are all better off if we are students of those we disagree with, instead of simply enemies.

Three Assumptions People Make About Affirming Gay Christians

As I’ve struggled through questions of faith and homosexuality and arrived at a more affirming position, I have found myself on the receiving end of some persistent and annoying assumptions. Granted, some of these might be stereotypes of affirming gay people for a reason, but I feel that these assumptions become blocks, disengaging people from the uncomfortable and redeeming act of listening to each other.

While I can’t even begin to address all of the assumptions people make about gay people, I will go ahead and list the ones I most frequently run into here.

1. I believe marriage is easy.

I cannot count the times I’ve heard variations of this particular narrative; and I even used it myself when I was non-affirming. It goes something like this: “look, I know you are in pain. I know perpetual singleness is hard, and that you struggle every day with loneliness. But you think that marriage will somehow make that better. You think that (as one friend of mine said to my face) marriage is a silver bullet for all your loneliness and sexual frustration.”

Here’s what I actually believe about marriage and loneliness: that nothing in all this world will ever fully cure us of loneliness, not even someone sharing your life, your bed, your body and your soul. Nothing will ever take away that cold, dark pit of loneliness we feel as we fall asleep at night. It may fluctuate, it may grow or shrink with the seasons of our life, and there may be whole seasons or even years when we don’t notice it at all. But it will never be cured. Saying marriage (or any other relationship) cures the human condition of loneliness is like saying sweet tea cures cancer. Only God can meet us in our deepest loneliness – if marriage, parenthood, or friendship could, then we would be worshiping each other, not God.

I don’t believe that marriage is easy, or a way out. Sometimes, marriage means a commitment to anguish, frustration, sacrifice, and very little fulfillment – and that is just as true for gay people as it is for straight people. I’ve seen too many marriages to believe that marriage is easy or pretty. It is not, and never has been a way out.

What I do believe about marriage: that it is sacramental, and maybe even a sacrament. That it is absolutely, gloriously beautiful. That it is sacred. That it is worth it. That, even though it is not easy and does not satisfy our loneliness, some people will shrivel up and die without it. That, for some people, the anguish of marriage is somehow better and healthier and holier than the pain and anguish of being single or celibate. That this does not make them weak, or spiritually immature, just beautifully human.

I believe that our need for marriage and friendship reflects the mystery of Adam in the garden: Adam lived in perfect intimacy with God and creation, but such perfection and intimacy could not fulfill his need for a partner and community. God did not respond to his loneliness as so many modern Christians do by saying, “you just need to develop a better prayer life.” Instead, God gave him Eve. In the perfection of Eden, God created Adam with a need that had to be fulfilled in a tangible, physical way by someone other than God, but someone who could only be provided by God. I believe that it’s complicated – wonderfully, unfathomably, beautifully complicated.

2. I believe that celibacy means loneliness (AKA, I don’t value friendship enough.)

I heard this one bounced around all the time when I was in non-affirming gay communities commited to celibacy. The reasoning goes: “most people place all their hope for love and fulfillment into marriage, and believe that being committed to celibacy means having no one who is a soul-mate, a Jonathan to your King David, a Roland to your Oliver. That it means living a life deprived of intimacy, family, community, love, and relational fulfillment.”

It may be true that many people believe this, but I don’t. I never have. I believe that a life without intimate, spiritual friendship is a life of deep poverty. I would rather have many great friends who knew my soul like their own than have a spouse but live in relational isolation.

While I may be single, I am not lonely. I have friends whom I call “beloved” and “soul-mate” without shame, without any marital, erotic or romantic implications. But none of this displaces my deep, soul-level need for a partner with whom I can share not just my soul but also my body. One does not fulfill the other.

Human love is infinitely complex, and I wonder, at times, if it is like an ecosystem. There are different species of love, and they simply cannot replace each other. Love is not a single entity, but a vast diversity. Saying that friendship should satisfy my need for marital love is like saying friendship should fulfill my need for the love of a father, or a mother, or that loving a best friend should take the place of loving my own child – or that food should satisfy my thirst, or water my hunger. The loves are different, and most people will not be able to substitute one for the other. Those who can substitute one for the other might have the remarkable gift of sustainable celibacy. But I certainly couldn’t, and now that I am no longer closed to the possibility of romantic love, I find that I am capable of loving my friends more fully.

3. I didn’t do celibacy “the right way”

At the end of the day, many people assume that I walked away from a commitment to lifelong celibacy and opened myself to the possibility of a monogomous partnership because I did celibacy wrong. They assume that I had the wrong attitude, that I didn’t pray the right prayers, that I over valued romance and marriage and undervalued community and friendship, that I didn’t practice sufficient spiritual disciplines. Some have even assumed that I didn’t submit to God in the “right way,” and I did He would finally step in and empower me to be celibate in a way that didn’t involve excessive amounts of self-loathing, cutting, or suicidal ideation.

Of all the assumptions out there, this one might hurt the most. After fighting to the death to do celibacy in a sustainable way, there was nothing harder or more terrifying than choosing to walk away and open myself to the possibility of marriage. It felt like treason, like betrayal, like heresy. I also knew that my life of celibacy wasn’t much good to God if I ended up dead. That wasn’t the hill I wanted to die on.

And let me be clear: it was not the pain of chastity or singleness that broke me. Do not confuse the pain of mandatory lifelong celibacy with the universal, necessary, and redemptive struggles of chastity and singleness, as so many well-intentioned Christians do. After nearly dying on the hill of mandatory celibacy, the pain of chastity feels like the breath of life: it is sustainable, and there is redemption, purpose and hope in the pain when it does become a cross to carry (which, for me is often.) I still believe what I used to about sex: that all are called to chastity, both within marriage and outside of marriage, and that sex is only appropriate in a marriage covenant bond. While that used to crush me, it now brings me life.

At the end of the day, I did try. But it didn’t work. I knew all the answers, knew all the prayers, but they couldn’t save me. That might be because I did it wrong, or it might be because “it is better for a man to marry than to burn with passion.” I could not find a way to live a celibate life without internalized shame and suppressing my sexuality to a dangerous degree. Please accept that, and don’t make assumptions about how I didn’t measure up. If I did fail, if I did have shortcomings, acknowledge them not because of assumptions you’ve made about my journey, but because you have taken the time to engage with my unique story.

Most importantly, let’s try to engage with each others’ true narratives instead of the ones we imagine – the imaginary stories that make more sense, that make us more comfortable, that make our own excuses for our own lives more sensible. Our assumptions are ultimately made at the expense of our brothers and sisters.