Last Sunday I looked at the topic of homosexuality and tried to speak clearly and lovingly to the issue. One thing I didn't do is provide specific help for those who struggle with same-sex attraction. This post is a small attempt to do that. Most of it comes from Michael R. Emlet, who wrote a 2014 article on the topic ("Five Ministry Priorities for Those Struggling with Same-Sex Attraction," Journal of Biblical Counseling 28:3).
Emlet opens his article by saying that a common reaction to this topic is to treat it like the name "Voldemort" in the Harry Potter series. That is, same-sex attraction can easily become "The-Struggle-That-Must-Not-Be-Named" (15). There are a lot of reasons for that, but because the Bible gives us such clear ways of thinking about it, let's assume you can talk about it like we would any other sin category—lying, cheating, adultery, idolatry, or gluttony.
Once it's established the topic in general can be talked about, what should someone do who struggles in this area?
First, let someone know you're struggling.
Like any personal and serious sin, you don't tell the world. But you do tell someone with spiritual maturity who you feel could truly help you. In our church this could be a home group leader or one of the pastors. It could also be a trusted friend who has proven able to handle the mess of your life well. Sin hates the light and temptations thrive in secret. So, tell someone.
Second, "emphasize identity in Christ over sexual identity." (18).
This is a great point Emlet makes. There's a lot of talk in our culture about how you "self-identify." Do you identify as X or Y? Based on what Emlet says, we need first and foremost to self-identify as a Christian. Our struggle or sexuality shouldn't define who we are. It is certainly a piece of what you are, but in no way is it the defining category. The goal here is to ground your identity in things like being
- God's child (Rom 8:16)
- Declared righteous or justified (Rom 5:1)
- Cleansed of all sins (1 Cor 1:2)
- Entrusted with the great commission (Matt 28:18-20)
- Anticipating a complete glorification (Rom 8:30)
- Empowered with the Spirit to put sin to death (Gal 5:16, 22-23), and so much more...
Let these truths define you, not your behaviors or your desires. A part of being a Christian is knowing we are sinners (Gal 5:17-21), but it's only part of the picture. See the whole thing: If you are a Christian you can emphatically say, "I am someone struggling with an area of sin, but who is at the same time loved from eternity by God, adopted by God, created by God, destined to spend eternity with God, and who will one day be glorified by that same God."
Third, don't forget that temptation is not sin, even though it can quickly lead to sin.
The three categories we need here are (1) temptation, (2) sins of the heart/mind, and (3) sins of the body. With same-sex attraction these categories are vital to keep straight. A stray thought might be simply a temptation. It's what you do with that temptation which is critical. Will you give in or fight back?
Jesus was tempted but never sinned (Heb 4:15), so we know it's possible to be tempted and yet not sin. But what is temptation exactly, if it's not sin or the lust for sin? John Owen's Temptation and Sin includes a helpful definition:
Temptation, then, in general, is any thing, state, way, or condition that, upon any account whatever, hath a force or efficacy to seduce, to draw the mind and heart of a man from its obedience, which God requires of him, into any sin, in any degree of it whatever (The Works of John Owen, VI:96).
This speaks to both external and internal temptations. Externally, you might be confronted by a situation or person or image or website that has a kind of power to draw you into sinful desires or actions. This can also happen internally. We need to allow, too, for certain involuntary thoughts or images that can pass into our minds without a clear source: It could be the devil or our own fallen nature. We can't always control where thoughts come from—from within, from without, from the devil, from my smartphone. But the key is to see that once the idea is lodged in your mind, the clock is ticking. If you don't fight back soon, you'll be in trouble. At this early stage you can fight back against the temptation and it stays at this lower level.
But if you prove too weak in the moment, then you might commit a sin of the heart/mind or of the body. A sin of the heart/mind is often called "lust," as when Jesus said, "Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matt 5:28). With "lustful intent" means you go from fighting the temptation to willingly but only mentally committing the sin. It might only involve your mind, but it's still different than temptation.
When we don't fight against "lustful intent" then your sin might go from being only in your mind and become a sin with your body. The apostle Paul spoke of this progression in Romans 1:24 where "lust of their hearts" lead to "impurity" and then "the dishonoring of their bodies."
Fighting back is no easy matter, especially for sins which are truly tempting for us. This is where we can sympathize with Paul's words in Galatians 5:17, "The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do." There's a war of competing desires going on inside of us. But in this battle, it's important to know the difference between temptations and sins of the heart/mind and sins of the body.
This is why Michael Emlet says "it's appropriate to seek change at the level of our desires, affections, and motivations" (24). If we're going to achieve real victory, we need a change at the level of our desires. When our desires to be holy and experience the good fruit that comes with it are greater than our desires for sin and the destruction that comes with it, we'll know freedom from the sins that weigh us down (Heb 12:1).
At this point Emlet offers some good tips on battling temptation (28):
- Literally turn away physically from the person who caught your eye.
- Call out to God in prayer.
- Rebuke the devil.
- Consider what good work God is calling you to do right now.
- At the end of the day, ask, "Am I fighting this desire or fueling it?"
Fourth, have realistic, biblical expectations for change.
This is wise counsel. As much as we might want (or want to want!) immediate change, for most of us it comes gradually. For certain sins that have a real hold on us, this is typically how it works. That means, "expect to see change on a continuum" (29). Emlet also recommends that we see this sin as similar to other sins and thus repentance here will mirror repentance elsewhere. Sins come in all shapes and sizes. Some require a thorough look at a lot of different factors—environmental, biological, medical, relational, etc.—before we experience much victory over them. Others die through basic practices like the spiritual disciplines and confession. If the sin is same-sex attraction, keep these same possibilities in mind.
Fifth, don't walk your journey alone.
In his fifth point, Emlet points people to the church. Lord willing, the church—our church!—can be a place where celibate singles and married couples can live out their Christian lives as brothers and sisters in Christ. Singles can uniquely walk as those "anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit" (1 Cor 7:34), and married couples can live generous and hospitable lives that will regularly involve the singles of the church. Together we can "bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal 6:2). Though it takes work and humily and love on all sides, one of the great benefits of the church is not struggling alone. Whatever your particular battles are, there is grace when you choose to live out true commitment to a local church.
There is so much more to say on the topic, but these ideas offer at least some food for thought. Two books to consider on this topic are Kevin DeYoung's book on homosexuality and Andrew Walker's God and the Transgender Debate.
As God's people, we want to be those who can have biblical convictions, draw clear lines about right and wrong, but also help people who truly want to change. In these ways we will be like our Savior who was called a "friend of sinners" (Matt 11:19).
If reading this you're still confused and have no idea where to start, email one of the pastors and ask to talk. We would be eager to help you find grace in the midst of your struggle.