This week I read Wesley Hill’s poignant memoir Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality. Hill, like many homosexual Christians who find that they can’t not be gay, has chosen the difficult path of celibacy.
Along with the Bible and the weight of two millennia of Christian reflection on the subject, I commend celibacy to all unmarried Christians, with the understanding that Christian marriage is between one man and one woman. As I’ve said before, this puts me at odds with many of my fellow United Methodist clergy, and is deeply counter-cultural.
Hill’s book only reinforces my convictions. Like me, Hill is unpersuaded by creative exegesis that reinterprets what the Bible otherwise says clearly on the subject. But for both Hill and me, the conviction is deeper than proof-texting a few verses and saying the-Bible-tells-me-so. Against the autonomy that many Christians feel they should have over their sex lives, Hill writes:
From the gospel’s point of view, then, there is no absolute right or unconditional guarantee of sexual fulfillment for Christian believers. And this is one more reason the Bible and the church’s prohibitions of homoeroticism have seemed less and less surprising or arbitrary or unfair the more I’ve thought about them within the context of the gospel. If all Christians must surrender their bodies to God in Christ whenever they enter the fellowship of Christ’s body, then it should come as no great shock that God might actually make demands of those Christians and their bodies—demands proving that God, and God alone, has authority over us.
I’m pleased that Hill “agrees” with much of what I’ve written on the subject. Unlike me, however, Hill has paid for the privilege of his convictions.
Having said that, I need to offer an apology. I see now that much of what I’ve said on the topic recently—or at least the way I’ve said it—has been way too glib. I’m sorry. I failed to appreciate how all-consuming this struggle is for gay Christians who are trying their best to be faithful to the Lord. Moreover, I’ve been nursing my own bruised feelings from arguments I’ve had with clergy friends on the subject, and my tone has reflected that pain.
Whatever else Hill’s book is, it is the opposite of glib—as even Hill’s critics would surely concede. Hill describes an unrelenting struggle against something that is at the core of his being. I kept waiting for life to get easier for him. I kept waiting for a happy ending that never quite came.
For me, the most devastating passage in the book took place toward the end, long after Hill came out as a gay, celibate Christian, long after he’d found love and acceptance among Christian friends, long after—silly me—I imagined his struggle should have gotten easier. He describes going to a friend’s wedding reception. All his friends were dancing. They eventually talked him into joining them. They introduced him to a dance partner, a beautiful young woman named Karis. Reluctantly, Hill asked her to dance. (I assume she knew Hill was gay.)
As Hill set the scene, I became aware that I was rooting for Hill to feel an attraction for her. And Hill was apparently rooting for himself to feel something, too.
A couple of days later I explained to my friend Chris over breakfast what had happened. We danced, I said. I was with this beautiful girl. I was holding her hand and touching her back. Her dress was thin and showed every curve on her body, I said. I could feel her sweating through the dress, and, inches from her face, I could see every exquisite feature she had. “And, Chris,” I said. “I felt nothing. No attraction. No awakening or arousal of any kind. No sexual desire whatsoever.”
Chris nodded. He knows my situation backward and forward and wasn’t fazed by what I was telling him.
“The worst of it,” I continued, “is that while I wasn’t attracted at all to this stunningly beautiful person who was my dance partner, I couldn’t stop looking at the guy dancing several feet away from me. I did notice him. I noticed his body, his moves. Chris,” I said, “I was attracted to this guy. All I could see and desire was another guy across the room while I’m dancing with this girl. This is so frustrating. This is what it means to be gay, and I would give anything to change it!”
What do you say to that? How do you tie up this experience with a bow and make it all better? Where’s the consolation?
Consolation does come for Hill, but, unlike my words on the subject, it never comes neatly or easily.
All of us who struggle with sin, whether we’re gay or straight, should be able relate to Hill’s beautiful reflections on God’s grace. I’ll leave you with this:
Christianity’s good news provides—amply so—for the forgiveness of sins and the wiping away of guilt and the removal of any and all divine wrath through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Seen in this light, the demand that we say no to our homosexual impulses need not seem impossible. If we have failed in the past, we can receive grace—a clean slate, a fresh start. If we fail today or tomorrow in our struggle to be faithful to God’s commands, that, too, may be forgiven. Feeling that the guilt of past homosexual sins or present homosexual failures is beyond the scope of God’s grace should never be a barrier preventing anyone from embracing the demands of the gospel. God has already anticipated our objection and extravagantly answered it with the mercy of the cross.