The following blog is written by Pieter Valk. Pieter is a part of The Center's collaborative team and the director of EQUIP, which is a Nashville-based organization that helps churches become places where gay people can thrive according to a traditional sexual ethic.
I was watching a college football game with my family over Christmas break. We were cheering on my brother’s alma mater and enjoying a couple of drinks before we went out to celebrate his birthday. I disinterestedly rotated between watching commercials (now novel for me thanks to Netflix), checking my phone, and keeping track of the score. Then it hit me. That feeling I’ve felt far too often over the past twenty-seven years. Shame. I noticed an attractive player on one of the teams, and then a painful void opened up in my gut.
I didn’t lust over this man. I didn’t entertain the attraction in any ways. I didn’t do anything more than notice that he was a good-looking guy. But for the first twenty years of my life, I believed that being gay—merely experiencing same-sex attraction—was bad.1 I believed that I should feel shame and embarrassment each time I find myself attracted to another man. Because I believed those things for twenty years, my automatic reaction to finding the football player attractive was shame.
A quick note about shame versus guilt. Clinical mental health counselors like me make a point to distinguish between these two words. Guilt is feeling bad because we did something wrong. Shame is believing that we are totally, completely, beyond-redemption bad to our core. Guilt is a just response to disobeying God. Shame is an emotion stoked by Satan that convinces us to disregard the imago dei in each of us. When I noticed the football player was attractive, I did not sin and did not feel guilt. But, Satan has spent a lifetime conspiring against me, often through the words of other Christians, to teach me that because I am gay, I am totally, completely, beyond-redemption bad. And so I felt shame.
So I did what my therapist and I have practiced before. I texted a safe person. Shared with her everything I was feeling, trying to shake the shame. She responded with what I’ve heard a hundred times: “There’s nothing you need to feel ashamed about. Nothing you need to be embarrassed about. You’re just as normal as the rest of us.”
I know she’s right intellectually, but I don’t think my automatic reactions to my attractions will ever be anything but shame. I don’t believe her words on an emotional level. Then as I sat on the couch trying not to look overwhelmed, shame turned to sadness. My heart looked to the future and anticipated a lifetime of feeling shame for something I did not choose and could not change.
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This part of my experience is one of the hardest things formany straight people to understand, and they’ll have a hard time loving me well without that understanding.Under the homophobia many gay people still experience, a Church that still doesn’t know how to help people like me, the baggage I've worked through in counseling, and the loneliness I feel as a celibate without meaningful family—underneath all of that, this shame continues to persist despite my efforts to care for myself. Every time I notice an attractive person, my automatic reaction is to believe that I am less worthy of the love of God and my friends. My automatic reaction is to assume there is something I need to fix, because I am not good enough.
Empathy with this will go a long way for the pastor who wants to care for gay people well. Despite what I sometimes hear from married pastors, our attractions aren’t the same. They say, “Our circumstances aren’t really that different. There are seven billion people in the world you can’t have sex with. There are seven billion people minus one that I can’t have sex with.” But our experiences of our desires are different. My attractions cause me shame and insecurity in ways the attractions of the average straight person probably won’t. Those pastors didn’t grow up hearing that they were disgusting and dirty for the attractions that came naturally to them.
Even worse, there has been a resurgence of Christian leaders teaching that merely experiencing same-sex attraction is a sin. That I should feel guilty about my involuntary attractions. That every day I should feel guilt for something I did not choose and cannot change. And that I should not rest from trying to eliminate these attractions through various forms of sexual orientation change efforts. Don’t get me wrong. I continue to believe that experiencing same-sex attraction is a result of the Fall, a brokenness—it is not how God first imagined me to be. But I do not sin by being tempted with same-sex attraction. I only sin when I say “yes” in word, volitional thought, or deed to the invitation to lust. Plus, there is no proven combination of prayer and counseling and weekend retreats for changing a person’s attractions. The false theology that merely experiencing same-sex attraction is a sin must stop.
I am already assaulted daily by Satan with the lie that I am less worthy of God’s love and the love of others because of something I did not choose and cannot change. My heart cannot bear Christian leaders heaping shame on top of that by continuing to promote false theology. So if you love gay people and want to help protect people like me from the destructive results of Satan’s lies and misguided Christian leaders’ shame, join me in condemning that false theology.
Then go find the gay people in your life. Tell them that God loves them just the way they are. That God isn’t surprised or disgusted by their attractions. That they have nothing to be ashamed of. That they are just as worthy of God’s love. Tell them that their attractions don’t have to change to be a faithful full-member of God’s family. And then hold them as they cry.
1 I use the word “gay” here and throughout the post as a general, catch-all term for people who are attracted to people of the same sex, whether they be gay, lesbian, or bisexual. I don’t mean to communicate anything about their theological beliefs or what kind of relationships they are seeking by using that word. It only means “boys who like boys” or “girls who like girls.” Wise Christians disagree about what words Christians should use to describe their sexuality. To explore that topic more, read this dialogue between Greg Coles and Rachel Gilson on the topic.