Washed and Waiting
This is my review of Wesley Hill's amazing little book. It is terrific on its direct topic: how to best live as a Christian with a strong homosexual orientation. And as he makes his case, he is very helpful on a range of other topics-- the Church and singles, the importance of friendship (his second book), the limits of marriage, and so on.
The book's title comes from two passages: 1.) "Washed" from the crucial past/present tense in the beautiful, identity-changing I Cor 6:9-11's "You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our Lord." And 2.) "Waiting" from Rom 8:23-25's "groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies...we wait for it with patience."
Hill reports that he "had been drawn, even as a child, to other males in some vaguely confusing way, and after puberty, I had come to realize that I had a steady, strong, unremitting, exclusive sexual attraction to persons of the same sex." (13) Hill says that he does not present any of the frequent correlated (causal?) family variables. Moreover, "No amount of spiritual growth seemed to have any effect on my sexual preference." (29)
His formal intellectual exploration of the topic began in his freshman year of college, when he wrote a paper on it, giving him "the excuse I had been looking for to read" widely (32). And along his journey, he seems to have had many counselors who were wise, patient, and exhorting, encouraging transparency, wrestling, and ultimately, growth. "Be spiritually adventuresome...step out in faith...[don't be] fearful of joining in the adventure the Holy Spirit prepares for you." (38).
Why write the book? Hill: "I have never found a book I could resonate with that tries to put into words some of the confusion and sorrow and triumph and grief and joy of the struggle to live faithfully before God, in Christ, with others, as a gay person." (14) He describes going into a Christian bookstore and finding books on a "cure" and into Barnes and Noble to look through the Self-Help section. "In neither case did I find anyone writing as if they knew about the paradoxical, pain-filled journey I was on." (123-124)
Sure, there are plenty of books that deny any legitimate homosexual inclinations or see getting people "healed" as the only option. (Hill is open to being "healed", but doesn't think it will happen for him.) Many other books assume that living out a homosexual identity is fine. But Hill believes that living out the identity would be sinful AND that he is called to live with the inclinations but without indulging them (14-15). Or in his words, "how, practically, a non-practicing but still desiring homosexual Christian can 'prove, live out, and celebrate' the grace of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit in homosexual terms." (16; his italics) This will require "the demanding, costly obedience of choosing not to nurture their homosexual desires." (16)
Related to the "why" is the "for whom" (the book is written). Certainly Hill intends to reach those in the same ballpark. But he also writes for people who are close to those struggling in this arena-- as well as those who might "overhear", from within similar struggles and find grace in the similarities. "The Christian's struggle with homosexuality is unique in many ways, but not completely so." (19) It's not something he emphasizes, but I think the book has a ton of value in this-- over and above its direct goals.
He also addresses terminology and semantics in his introduction. I like what he says at the end of that discussion: Back to identity and self-identifying, "I've taken care to make 'gay' or 'homosexual' the adjective, and never the noun...being gay isn't the most important thing about my or any other person's identity. I am a Christian before I am anything else. My homosexuality is part of my make-up, a facet of my personality." (22; his italics)
Terminology and semantics are an important consideration-- an over-arching focus of Brian Patrick Mitchell in his Touchstone review of Eve Tushnet's recent book (which seems to be a first cousin on Hill's effort). Mitchell notes the problems of the term "gay Christian" since it elevates another aspect of one's identity to equal footing with one's most important identity, as a Christian. Or perhaps it's easier just to try some other adjectives for self-identification purposes-- straight Christian, African-American Christian, young Christian, etc.-- to see why any adjective is troubling.
Hill's book is an easy read: three chapters with a mini-biography as an introduction to each. (The bios are his own and those of two Catholic priests, Henri Nouwen and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Nouwen was a renowned writer; Hopkins, a poet. Hill seems to be following in their literary footsteps.)
Chapter 1: What is demanded?
His biblical approach to this question is far more complex and nuanced than the usual. (For example, Christians sometimes start with Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19, which turns out to shed little if any light on the topic; and many apologists for same-sex sexual activity seem content to make read passages in Leviticus like a fundamentalist.)
In part, this was driven by dissatisfaction with simpler approaches. "At times, though, for me and many others, the weight of the biblical witness and the church's traditional teaching on homosexual practice can seem rather unpersuasive." (54) "In the end, what keeps me on the path I've chosen is not so much individual proof texts from Scripture or the sheer weight of the church's traditional teaching against homosexual practice. Instead, it is, I think, those texts and traditions and teachings as I see them from within the true story of what God has done in Jesus Christ..." (61)
What does Hill have in mind-- in addition to the more direct evidences? (He does not include the angle of many other, more-sophisticated cases-- to discuss the arc of Scripture with respect to marriage.) First, "the Christian story promises the forgiveness of sins-- including homosexual acts...right on the heels of the passages that condemn homosexual activity, there are, without exception, resounding affirmations of God's extravagant mercy..." (62)
Second, "the God of the Gospel is known by his threat to our going on with business as usual...God most often seems dangerous, demanding, and ruthless as he makes clear that he is taking our homoerotic feelings and actions with the utmost seriousness." (67) Or quoting another writer: "Are homosexuals to be excluded from the community of faith? Certainly not. But anyone who joins such a community should know that it is a place of transformation, of discipline, of learning, and not merely a place to be comforted or indulged." (67-68) Hill concludes that God's demand for purity-- "far from being a sign of our failure to live the life God wants, may actually be the mark of our faithfulness." (68)
Third, the Gospel is "opposed to our popular notions of personal autonomy and democratic independence...there is no absolute right or unconditional guarantee of sexual fulfillment...no great shock that God might actually make demands of those Christians and their bodies." As a result, the prohibitions "have seemed less and less surprising or arbitrary or unfair the more I've thought about them." (70) This is a common critique of the standard position. Hill ultimately finds it subjective, incoherent, and unpersuasive.
Tushnet puts it this way (h/t: Francesca Aran Murphy's review in First Things): "The sacrifice God wants isn't always the sacrifice you wanted to make." Of course, this approach begs the question-- but the question must be asked, rather than its answer assumed facilely by either "side" of the debate.
Fourth, "the Christian story commends long-suffering endurance as a participation in the sufferings of Christ". As a result, thinking it's "too difficult doesn't seem as strong or compelling as it once did," (70) Again, imagine the analogies: if long-suffering endurance is never fair, then all sorts of inappropriate behaviors find their way to the rationalization table.
From there, how then shall he live? Toward the top of Hill's list: take responsibility. "Whatever the complex origins of my own homosexuality are, there have been conscious choices I've made to indulge-- and therefore to intensify, probably-- my homoerotic inclinations." (49) Following in discipleship with Jesus must mean to limit those choices.
A conversation with a wise friend wraps up Chapter 1. Starting with the premise that our souls precede our lives-- and that God would talk with us about our forthcoming lives-- the friend imagines a conversation (paraphrased): "Wes, I'm going to send you to earth for a few years. You'll have this thorn in the flesh and it will be difficult. But I'll be with you, supplying you with grace for your daily needs, and celebrating the victories when we see each other again." His friend asks whether he would do that. And Wes says yes. The friend's point: You have had that conversation, since you know that God is the author of your life. Hill's conclusion: "Your struggle isn't a mindless, unobserved string of random disappointments...faithfulness is never a gamble. It will be worth it." (78-79)
All of this broadens nicely to other areas of sexual morality-- or more generally, other categories of morality. (Far too often, conservative Christians reduce morality to a small subset of sins.) "All Christians, whatever their sexual orientation, to one degree or another, experience the same frustration I do as God challenges, threatens, endangers, and transforms all of our natural desires and affections." (64-65; his italics) Then he quotes Robert Jensen: "Every mandate of the law is harder on some, with their predilections, than on others with theirs. In this fallen world, that is always true of law, divine or human...Given the Fall, each of us, with his or her predilections, will be blocked by God's law in some painful-- perhaps deeply painful-- way." (65)
At times, Hill seems to glorify marriage too much, thinking like a single who has idealized marriage. In a sense, this is an easy and reasonable mistake for a never-married person to make. (Hey, married folk can do it too!) But Hill also notes the likelihood of suffering within marriage, including the idea of "feeling trapped" (72). Hill also uses Wendell Berry's literary example of Jayber Crow with Mattie Keith and her husband (73-74).
In a word, it's not wise-- on this issue or any other-- to miss what should be obvious points: we all sin; we all have our sinful proclivities and tendencies; and we're called to avoid those-- for our own good and the good of others, through the power of the Spirit, the Word, Christian community, and so on. Homosexuality in particular and sexual morality in general are only a small part of Christian morality. Sadly, those in more conservative parts of the Church often have a disproportionate response to homosexuality vs. sex outside of marriage, divorce and remarriage, etc.
Chapter 2: Loneliness / Friendship
Hill describes "how crucial non-erotic friendships with peers of the same sex are in my pilgrimage toward wholeness." (45)
In contrast, he relates a question asked by a friend: "Do you find yourself holding other males at arm's length for fear that if you come to know them deeply and intimately, it will somehow be inappropriate or dangerous or uncomfortable?" (46) Of course, this holds for heterosexual friendships between men and women. (I remember moving from a singles' Sunday School class at church where things were generally comfortable-- to a newly-married class where things were really awkward.)
What does Hill need/want in terms of individual relationships? "The love of God is better than any human love...[but] I am wired for human love. I want to be married. And the longing isn't mainly for sex...it is mainly for the day-to-day, small kind of intimacy...share each other's small joys and heartaches..." (105)
More broadly, the challenge to deeper friendship (vs. mere acquaintances and small talk) holds in the Church and otherwise. Hill addresses this to some extent-- and I think his next writing project is on friendship. How can the Church foster friendship? In large part, this is a function of healthy disciple-making. If we follow the Great Commission and make disciples who can make disciples, then (true) friendship inevitably follows.
Hill makes an important theological point along the way: "The NT views the church-- rather than marriage-- as the primary place where human love is best expressed and experienced. In the OT, marriage was viewed as the solution to loneliness." (111) Then he quotes a friend who writes: "We must call into question any notion that the supreme expression of human love is found in marriage." (112) He cites II Sam 1:26's love between men, sacrificial love for each other (Jn 15:13), I Cor 13 in the context of spiritual gifts in the church, not marriage; Eph 5's sacrificial love as the model for marital love vs. vice versa; and that marriage will be done away with in Heaven.
Likewise, people often miss that the first Biblical institution is "work" not marriage (in Gen 2). For many people, marriage (and family) will be an important piece of the work to which we are called. But the larger issue is the work, not marriage per se (Eph 2:8-10).
Along with true friendships, "intentional Christian community" would seem to be a vital part of the equation, especially for the many who are called to be celibate in their contexts. "Throughout much of Christian history, whenever Christians took on vocations of celibacy, they did so most often in community-- in monastic orders, for example...sustained by the rhythms of corporate worship and the mundane tasks of providing for one another's daily needs" (103b). Monasteries are an extreme form of what needs to be fostered in more moderate forms.
Unfortunately, the Church's positive view of singlehood is usually withered or undeveloped. C.S. Lewis referred to this as the destruction of friendship by "coupledom" (h/t: FAM in FT). The challenge: how do we celebrate and support both marriage and singlehood?
Chapter 3: Shame vs. Pleasing God
Hill opens with an epigraph from Lewis: "To please God...to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness...to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son-- it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is." (131)
Both Nouwen and Hill ask: "Can we who remain homosexually inclined actually please God?" (135) The easy answer should be: "Sure, why not?!" Whether from internal guilt or external social pressures, the answer seems harder to grasp than it should-- and so, the wrestling continues.
On the implications of this for life here and now: God's "being pleased with us, means that we may be pleased with ourselves in the here and now as we live our daily lives; or, more precisely, we may be pleased that we are pleasing to God." (141) Thus, "what many of us need is a new conception of our perseverance in faith...what it means to live by faith in a world that is fallen and scarred by sin and death..." (144-145)
Hill quotes Hopko (145) who encourages those with same-sex attractions to "accept their homosexual desires as their cross-- as a providential part of their struggle to glorify God...[as] a crucial part of their God-given path to sanctity...both for themselves and potential sexual partners. And they will see their refusal to act out their feelings sexually as an extraordinary opportunity for imitating Christ and participating in his saving Passion." (145)
And then Hill, again: "My homosexuality, my exclusive attraction to other men, my grief over it and my repentance, my halting efforts to live fittingly in the grace of Christ and the power of the Spirit-- gradually I am learning not to view all of these things as confirmations of my rank corruption...[instead] as what it looks like for the Holy Spirit to be transforming me on the basis of Christ's cross and his Easter morning triumph over death," (145)
Part of this is for Hill to lead the way on how to live out this journey within the Church. As such, Hill quotes Martin Hallett, someone on a very similar path: "our homosexuality is part of our value and giftedness to the church, but homosexual sex is a sin." (17)
Hill concludes the book by comparing his journey to that of the Hobbits in Lord of the Rings (146-148)-- adventurous, something he didn't and couldn't want, but still an amazing opportunity, something of a "grand tale" that's potentially epic. Or maybe it's more mundane than that: "Unlike Sam and Frodo's, my story and the depths of my struggle may never be observed or known by any human watcher. But I can still endure...so long as I have the assurance that my life matters to God".
Let me wrap this up with a blog post from awhile back. Prompted by this set of thoughts as I went through Hill's book, I posted this on FB and got a few responses.
With respect to X (something of significant/profound value), is it more challenging to:
a.) not have had X; to know something of X and its value-- but knows they will not have X.
b.) not have had X; to know something of X and its value-- and have hope for X but be routinely disappointed about X.
c.) have had X and to have lost it.
d.) have had X and now to have a (far) weaker version of it.
Does it depend on what X is-- e.g., power, freedom, money, sex/marriage, quality of life, etc.?
In my mind, A is the easiest. B is more difficult than A and speaks to a state of mind in how we handle our circumstances. C receives sympathy at least for awhile. Those in D deserve a lot more sympathy.
Perhaps my testimony is of some use: As a celibate single until my marriage at age 30, the challenges in the realm of sexuality have been far greater now than when I was single. And I'd guess that they have become far greater than they would have been had I remained single. But then again, who knows? The mystery of all of this calls for humility, empathy, deep friendship, transparency, a desire for obedience, a dependence on the Spirit, and a belief in a benevolent God who will meet us where we are, even in our sacrifices and suffering.