Sometimes I find myself looking back at my little seven-year-old self “giving my life” to Jesus at the altar and wondering if I knew then what I know now—if I knew all that God would require of me—would I still be as eager to give my life to Jesus? In many ways my life with Jesus has been so much more painful, so much more costly than I could ever have imagined.
The thing that I wasn’t told in the churches I grew up in was that my life wasn’t my own to begin with. It wasn’t something I could give to anyone. It already belonged to the triune God who had created me, who had redeemed me in Jesus, and who was mysteriously at work in me through the power of the Holy Spirit. I couldn’t give my life to God. I could only acknowledge—or refuse to acknowledge—this reality.
Paul asks the Corinthians, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” As one who has been claimed by Jesus, united to his death and resurrection in the waters of baptism, my life is hidden with Christ in God. I am not my own. God demands of us nothing less than our lives—our full, radical, and complete obedience. Life with the triune God of grace is totalizing. And that is the offense of the gospel. That is the radical danger of the gospel. But it is also the radical grace and promise of the gospel. It may seem that God is our enemy and our judge, but God is also the Judge who has been judged in our place, to borrow a phrase from Karl Barth. In other words, God purges and kills and destroys us so that he can tenderly piece us back together in Jesus.
As those claimed by God in Christ each of us are called to take up our cross, to lay down our lives completely for God and for our neighbor. We are called to participate in the sufferings of Jesus. I am not special or different or unique in that way. And yet, we each bear crosses that are appropriate to us and our unique life with God.
One of the crosses that I bear—and the reason I write this post—is this confession: for as long as I can remember I have been exclusively attracted to members of the same sex. I am a gay celibate Christian.
I have been—and continue to be—committed to living a chaste and celibate life. I affirm, and submit to, the Church’s traditional teachings on sexual ethics. I do this in accordance with the witness of Scripture, the weight of the tradition of Church teaching, and the larger story of God’s creating, redeeming, and sanctifying work.
I have known since I was thirteen that I was different. While the other boys in school were discovering their sexual attraction to girls, I was confused at my attraction to my guy friends and then not only confused but horrified. Growing up in a rural town, in a conservative evangelical church—while I was loved deeply and taught of the great love of Jesus—I knew that there were not many things worse than being gay. I thought that it might be something that would go away with time and so I hoped and I prayed. I thought it would be something that God could heal me of, so I hoped and I prayed. I thought that if I just found the right girl I would fall in love and never have to tell anyone and so I hoped and I prayed and I tried.
Why do I say this now? Deep spiritual friendship can be an arena in which the Holy Spirit sanctifies us as we come to be known by another and our sins are exposed, called into the light, and God’s grace is spoken into our brokenness. I have been privileged to have a few friendships of this kind. I have watched my closest friends seek to live with integrity and honesty, to not remain hidden behind masks. As I have walked with them they have helped me to see that my hiddenness is a false mask that I use to protect, project, and control how I am seen by others. My friends have taught me what it looks like to live a more integrated life before God, before others, and with myself.
Part of our sanctification—the work of being made more and more into the image of Christ through the Holy Spirit—is coming out of hiding, being honest before God, others, and with ourselves. Because of sin and fear we prefer to walk in the darkness, but if we are in Christ we are called to walk in the light (1 John 1:6-7). I want the light of Christ to shine on all parts of my being so that all of who I am is able to experience the grace of the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification.
I write today to walk in the light. I write today to be honest. If we are not honest with God, we are not honest with ourselves. If we are not honest with others, we are not honest with ourselves. To walk in the light, to come out of hiding, to expose ourselves to the terrible judgment and grace of God, is not easy. We are called to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” To experience healing and reconciliation in Christ is hard and often painful as God purges us of sins, as we are laid bare before God, before others, and before ourselves.
I was—and still am—afraid. Afraid of what it meant, and means, for my relationships with family and friends; afraid of what it meant for me as a seminary student and now as a pastor. Along with being afraid I didn’t want to be defined by my sexuality, either. It’s cliché but true: our culture is obsessed with sex and it has become one of the primary ways we define ourselves. By staying closeted I wanted to live counter-culturally and not have my sexuality become the core of my identity. I wanted people to know that I am a friend and brother, an uncle and a son, a baker, a lazy reader of books, a wannabe writer and theologian, a pastor, a cyclist and swimmer. I wanted people to know me and not just who I am attracted to.
Alongside the desire to walk in the light, alongside the fear and desire to be known for who I am, I also have been wrestling with God for a long time, resisting what I have felt as a calling from God to give myself—and my embodied witness—to the Church’s current debates about human sexuality.
Life with God is not always clear. Faithfulness, at times, is not like traveling the well-lit highway but more like groping in the dark. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes: “What remains for us is only the very narrow path, sometimes barely discernible, of taking each day as if it were the last and yet living it faithfully and responsibly as if there were yet to be a great future.”1 When the path before us lacks clarity, we must act in faith, and pray that if we have taken the wrong path God would lead us back home again. I do not pretend to hold all the right answers. I do not believe that by taking this path I am right and all others are wrong. I only submit my life to God in humility, offering it as a witness to the Church, holding it up for the encouragement of others, and for correcting and reproof if I am in error.
There is a beautiful passage near the beginning of one of Augustine’s great works, De Trinitate, in which Augustine writes: “Dear reader, whenever you are as certain about something as I am go forward with me; whenever you hesitate, seek with me; whenever you discover that you have gone wrong come back to me; or if I have gone wrong, call me back to you. In this way we will travel along the street of love together as we make our way toward him of whom it is said, ‘Seek his face always.’”
I could continue to live with these desires in secret. For some that would be a honest way to live their life before God and others, a true way to bear the cross of Christ. Many before me have felt called to live their life in that particular way. But I feel called to offer my life to the Church in the hope that my embodied witness might give glory to God. And so I invite you to walk along the street of love with me. I would love to walk along with you, if you’d have me. And let us together seek the face of God.