A few months ago, the Desiring God blog featured an article written by a student at the Bethlehem Institute named Nick Roen about the subject of same-sex attraction (SSA). Specifically, Roen suggests that “while homosexual practice is active sinning, the experience of same-sex attraction need not involve active sinning.” The crux of Roen’s case centers on the basic difference in meaning between a “disordered desire” and an “act of sinning.” The actual experience of a sexual attraction towards an individual of one’s own sex is a case of the former, but not the latter. He then describes what happens when he (as a Christian man with SSA) experiences a homosexual attraction:
When I look at another male and experience the butterflies of attraction, I must lay the desire for inappropriate activity with him at the feet of Jesus, and turn toward the superior promises of reward found in pursuing righteousness. If I do this, even though I have experienced the disordered groan of a broken creation, I have not sinned.
A fair analysis of Roen’s argument here must acknowledge that he does call same-sex attraction sinful, i.e. in the sense that it stems from the fall and is an aspect (for some) of living in a creation where things are “not the way it’s supposed to be” (to cite the title of an amazing book about sin that is extremely relevant to this discussion). And yet he goes on to put a finer point on the issue, saying that “experiencing SSA is not the same as sinning. Rather, same-sex attractions should be treated like any temptation to sin.”
Besides this very helpful distinction, and I’ll spend more time explaining this below, some of Roen’s discussion at least partially illustrates the kind of breakdown in meaning that sometimes happens when Christians create a euphemism like “same-sex attraction” as an alternative to something as complex and multi-faceted as sexual orientation.
Fast forward to this past week… Dr. Denny Burk, associate professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College, the undergraduate arm of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote an article for Canon & Culture (an online news and cultural commentary outlet of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the quasi-political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention) entitled “Is Homosexual Orientation Sinful?” (phew… brb, #needadrink). Burk’s argument hinges almost entirely on his decision to virtually equate sexual orientation (together with the term “attraction”) with the biblical term desire: “orientation involves a person’s enduring sexual attractions and… sexual attraction is a virtual synonym for sexual desire.”
Of course, the concept of “desire” is a common biblical category for describing the inner thought life of mankind, which is something we Christians are clearly interested in understanding. Thankfully, Burk gives us a great summary of various New Testament passages that address this moral component of our desires. He also discusses the Greek word-group most often translated as “desire” in our English translations (epithumia, in its noun form, as well as the verbal form epithumeō), which can refer to both good and bad inclinations. He points out that we have to look at the object of the desire to determine whether or not the desire itself is moral or immoral. Burk provides the following summary of the conclusion he draws from this reasoning in a follow-up article on his own blog:
homosexual orientation describes one who experiences an enduring sexual attraction to persons of the same-sex. Because the Bible teaches that it is sinful to have a desire for illicit sex, homosexual orientation is by definition sinful. So yes, homosexual orientation is a sin.
So there’s the debate.
Rather than interact with either Roen or Burk extensively, I thought I would do something a little different. I think much of the confusion in these types of discussions exists because we sometimes throw terms around without making the kinds of distinctions that promote clarity. So, for your viewing pleasure, please find the following brief comments about some of those distinctions that would be helpful to acknowledge in this particular discussion.
Lust vs. Same-sex Sexual Temptation
I thought I would start with the easiest one. All lust is obviously sin(ful), no matter its object. First Peter 2:11 says “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul.” The Greek word translated here as “lust” is the same one I just mentioned above (epithumia) whose basic meaning is “desire.” Peter doesn’t mention any specific illicit objects of desire in this verse, but he describes the desires themselves as “fleshly” in order to communicate their essentially immoral character.
Since we know that lust is sin(ful), let’s take a look at another verse to see where it comes from. James 1:14–15 says that “each one is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (ESV). Again, let’s note that the word translated “desire” here is the same word mentioned above. Also, it’s interesting to note that desires themselves are not equated with the term “sin” in this verse. Sin comes from temptation, and temptation comes from being “lured and enticed” by desire.
At the same time, Roen very wisely points out that the line between temptation and lust can be very difficult, if not possible to determine:
How long can I experience the desire before I fight it, and still be blameless? Two seconds? Ten seconds? Half a second? Because Jesus is God, he never crossed the line between temptation and sin — though he knew the agony. But because I am finite and fallen, I cannot definitively discern this line.
So how does this relate to the kinds of desires that people with a homosexual orientation can have? To answer this question, let’s take a look at a few more distinctions that can help us understand the experience of those with same-sex attractions.
Orientation vs. Desire
First, let’s take a look at the words orientation and desire. For the sake of reference, here are a few definitions from the website of the American Psychological Association:
- The APA definition guide says that sexual orientation “refers to the sex of those to whom one is sexually and romantically attracted.”
- An “Answers to Your Questions” pamphlet about sexual orientation and homosexuality describes sexual orientation as “an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to men, women, or both sexes. Sexual orientation also refers to a person’s sense of identity based on those attractions, related behaviors, and membership in a community of others who share those attractions.
The same “Answers to Your Questions” pamphlet goes on to state that
sexual orientation is closely tied to the intimate personal relationships that meet deeply felt needs for love, attachment, and intimacy. In addition to sexual behaviors, these bonds include nonsexual physical affection between partners, shared goals and values, mutual support, and ongoing commitment.
These quotes give us enough reason to be careful about drawing too straight a line between the modern-day understanding of a homosexual orientation and the biblical category of desire, and especially desire construed in a purely negative (i.e. sinful) manner. First of all, the definitions refer to “attractions” which cannot simply be equated with “desires” (more on this below). Second, the extended quote above shows that orientation is about much more than a carnal desire for sex. Are relationships among gay people unique in the way they value “mutual support,” “ongoing commitment,” “shared goals and values,” and “nonsexual physical affection”? Certainly not, I would hope. Besides the marriage relationship between a husband and wife, the same words would (hopefully) characterize the sweetest fellowship between Christian friends.
This last point highlights something very, very important that Christians need to understand about people who experience same-sex attraction. In his book “Galatians for You,” author and pastor Tim Keller explores the nature of desire (epithumia) itself, and finds that underneath every sin is an “over-desire” for something good (p. 133). In other words, our deep-seated dedication to find ways to satisfy our God-given longings on our own fuels our conscious decisions to rebell against our Creator. And homosexual desire is no different. Through many years of ministry to individuals affected by same-sex attraction, I’ve become firmly convinced that the holy, God-given desire beneath sinful, homoerotic lusts is a longing for truly intimate communion with another same-gender image-bearer.
Desire vs. Attractions
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines attraction as “the act, process, or power of attracting,” or “the action or power of drawing forth a response.” To attract, according to the same dictionary, is “to draw by appeal to natural or excited interest, emotion, or aesthetic sense.” A desire, on the other hand is “conscious impulse toward something that promises enjoyment or satisfaction in its attainment.” Attractions often appeal to desire (I’m attracted to food more when I’m hungry), but they are not desires themselves. If desire is a “conscious impulse,” then attractions are pre-conscious.
The reason this is an important distinction to make is because a Christian who struggles with same-sex attraction may or may not also struggle with a desire for illicit sexual behavior. Christians who have a homosexual orientation ought to submit whatever desires they have for illicit sexual behavior to the Lordship of Christ not only as a matter of Christian obedience, but also so that these desires don’t provide fertile ground for their abiding same-sex attractions.
Attractions vs. Lust
So finally, if it makes sense to distinguish between same-sex desires and same-sex attractions, then where does lust fit into the picture? Are attractions inherently lustful (and therefore sin), or can we follow Roen in making a biblical distinction between active desires that are sin(ful) and the kind of pre-conscious attractions that accompany a homosexual orientation?
The difficulty here is that scripture doesn’t seem to directly address the issue of homosexual attractions themselves. For instance, 1 Cor. 6:9–10 states that “men who practice homosexuality” will not inherit the Kingdom of God, using terms that specifically refer to the sexual behaviors themselves. Roen acknowledges that the phrase “dishonorable passions” in Rom. 1:26 quite clearly refers to something in addition to behavior, however, so it might seem tempting to claim, as Burk does, that these verses refer to the kinds of feelings and desires that are intrinsic to homosexuality. Burk even points to the use of the word “desire” in the NASB version of verse 27, and suggests that these verses demonstrate the sinfulness of a homosexual orientation simply on the grounds that the desires in verse 27 are directed towards an illicit object.
This seems, however, to be unwarranted conclusion to draw from these verses. If we maintain a clear distinction between sexual desire and attraction, it becomes clear that the latter cannot be primarily in view in Rom. 1:26–27. Instead, the phrases Paul uses quite clearly suggest that he is condemning both active lust and the behavior that stems from this lust, not the underlying attractions themselves. In v. 26, he says that women who exchanged the “natural function” for something unnatural had been given over to “dishonorable passions.” Likewise, Paul says in v. 27 that men “were consumed with passion for one another” (ESV). This phrase in v. 27 in especially important to note because the Greek word here is not the standard word for “desire” that we discussed above (epithumia), as one might expect if one were reading the NASB translation (men “burned in their desire” toward one another). Instead, Paul uses a completely different word that clearly refers to active sexual lust, and simply cannot be construed as an abstract reference to homosexual attractions.
A Word about Biblical Categories
Part of the reason discussions like these can become so strenuous is because Christians who want to be faithful to a biblical worldview when it comes to current moral issues think it’s important to have an explicit biblical category for every modern-day phenomenon. I believe this is actually what’s going on behind the move to equate a homosexual orientation with the biblical category of “desire.” I wholeheartedly support the desire to think biblically about same-sex attraction, even though Christians might end up disagreeing with what this looks like on a case-by-case basis.
So if the biblical term “desire” isn’t the best category for understanding a homosexual orientation, what is? This might come as a shock to some, but I believe that one term scripture gives us for understanding homosexuality that is not often mentioned is the concept of suffering. Whether or not it is primarily a natural evil, those whose sexuality is characterized by same-sex attractions are fundamentally in need of restoration, and not merely forgiveness. In his article, Roen refers to a very helpful section of a sermon by John Piper entitled “Let Marriage Be Held In Honor” that comments on the relationship between fallen desires and sin:
It would be right to say that same-sex desires are sinful in the sense that they are disordered by sin and exist contrary to God’s revealed will. But to be caused by sin and rooted in sin does not make a sinful desire equal to sinning. Sinning is what happens when rebellion against God expresses itself through our disorders.
This is consistent with what we see in Rom. 5–6, where sin and death are portrayed as cosmic forces that reign over all humanity on account of their culpability for the sin they inherit from Adam. In ch. 5, Paul says that the reign of sin through Adam results in the blanket condemnation of humanity, while in ch. 6 he urges Christians, who are no longer condemned by the reign of sin, not to submit to this reign because they live under the rule and power of grace. So, in terms of what we’ve been talking about here, Christians with a homosexual orientation must wage war against the broken aspects of their same-sex desires because they are rooted in the indwelling power of sin that continues to animate their flesh. They may need to repent from a particular desire if it crosses from the realm of temptation into the category of lust. They won’t, however, need to repent from the initial attraction that appealed to the desire in the first place, because Christians are no longer condemned for their fallen condition. Indeed, it’s not at all clear what it would even mean to “repent from an attraction.”
Why does it matter?
Discussions like the one we’ve been having here can easily get bogged down in abstract arguments if we don’t keep practical concerns in mind (something which both Roen and Burk are careful to do in their discussions). For gay people, the experience of same-sex attraction is an intensely personal aspect of their sexuality. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is because many gay people experience a significant degree of internalized shame stemming from their sexual orientation. Because of this, I’d like to end with a few pastoral observations about how our discussion here relates to this experience of shame.
- As Christians, we believe that shame characterizes the fallen experience of anybody apart from the covering of grace provided by Christ’s sacrificial and atoning death on the cross, including those whose sexuality is characterized by same-sex attractions.
- At the same time, we ought to recognize how this biblical shame to which unbelieving gay people are subject can be exponentially magnified by external factors which the Bible does not place on them. Cultural stigmas about homosexuality, expressed by some Christians who like to make light of the sexuality of gay people, can be a crushing burden for gay people to overcome simply in order to live an average, “normal” life.
- Furthermore, we also ought to recognize that Christ removes the guilt of our fallen condition the moment we place our faith in his shed blood. Our fallen condition ceases to be something for which we are morally culpable, which frees us to despise the shame associated with it (Heb. 12:2), so that it can then become the staging ground from which we crucify our fleshly desires. If we aren’t careful with the biblical categories we use to describe an individual’s struggle against ongoing same-sex attraction, we may unintentionally be pointing them back to the shame of their fallen condition, as though it were somehow beyond the reach of the liberating power of the cross.