I noted last week some of the developments on the issue of same sex marriage and associated issues in the last year. For those wanting help to hold to an orthodox position the publication of Ed Shaw’s book The Plausibility Problem earlier this year was a particular encouragement. It is excellent- a combination of theological wisdom, pastoral insight and deeply honest reflection from Ed’s own experience.
His contention is that the church has got its understanding of the Christian life wrong which has made it seem implausible to many for those who are same sex attracted not to live out their desires. I think he is right- I wrote last year about some of the theological problems facing those calling for a revision in church teaching. By contrast with this Ed portrays the possibility of a flourishing existence for those in his and my situation- which includes suffering but also contains meaning, purpose and satisfying friendships. One of the commendations of the book points out that in many ways it is not just about same sex attraction but has broader implications for discipleship across a range of issues. That has been my conviction as well as I’ve reflected on same sex attraction issues in the past year. In the next couple of posts I want to discuss a couple of themes- identity and meaning- that I have had to work through because of my own struggles in this area which I have begun to realise have broader implications.
The question of identity is central to all human beings. All of us find some way of answering the question- “Who am I?”. For the young person from a Christian background who begins to experience same sex attraction this becomes an absolutely critical question. I enjoyed reading Mark Yarhouse’s book Homosexuality and the Christian this year. Yarhouse is a Christian psychologist with significant experience in dealing with these questions. He argues that one of the determining factors in how somebody will live is what script the person experiencing same sex attraction operates from. A gay script would call for a person experiencing same sex attraction to adopt this as their identity- I am gay. The danger is that somebody’s Christian commitment then gets subsumed under this overarching identity leading either to abandoning the faith or to attempts to make Scripture support same sex partnerships. The alternative script puts Christian commitment as central to identity and then acknowledges same sex attraction as a significant part of what one experiences but not as the essence of who one is. Same sex attraction becomes something one handles under the overarching identity of belonging to Christ.
In the interview that I did last year I mentioned one occasion that helped me with this back in my student days. I was listening to a sermon on Ephesians 1 preached at on OICCU meeting by David MacInnes. David made an application that was fairly unusual in the 1990s. He told us that a police commander had recently identified himself as gay observing that this was a brave thing for him to have done. David went on to comment that there may be those at the meeting who experienced similar attractions but he wanted us to know that our chief identity was as those who are “in Christ.” The key thing is that we are joined to Him. Perhaps that’s where my obsession with the doctrine of union with Christ came from?
It is the key doctrine, though, when it comes to sexuality issues. When dealing with sexual immortality, including homosexual practice, in 1 Corinthians 6, Paul says to the Corinthian church- “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself?…Whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in Spirit.” (v.15,17). Who am I? I am somebody who is in union with Christ- He is in me and I am in Him. So much comes from deep reflection on that truth- a definition of identity, power to fight temptation and the removal of the sharp edge of loneliness.
The issue of identity is relevant for a whole heap of other issues though. I remember being struck by that when talking on singleness to a group earlier in the year. I know that this is a massive issues with potential for great emotional pain. However, I do want to say that when our singleness becomes the chief thing about us we are invariably heading for problems. The driving agenda for our life will become finding a partner- which can lead to unwise decisions or the effective postponement of life until the man or woman is found. It is much better to identify as somebody united with Christ who is single. That leads us to prioritise serving Him and others. It may be that we find a partner as we do so, which is great, but life is not on hold until that happens. The same could apply to other forms of suffering. I know that suffering can be intensely painful and it is very easy for that to become the core of who we are. But that way bitterness lies. Much better to be one who is joined to Jesus who is going through a period of real difficulty.
Of course, it is not just hardships or sexuality that can define us. Career or family relationships can have that sort of impact on us. Who am I? A father? A mother? A pastor? At one level we are. And where those responsibilities take up a huge proportion of our time, it is very easy to be defined by them. But I do want to argue that it is healthy to resist that. I know that it is supremely unhealthy for me to define myself as a pastor. When I do that, I end up obsessed about whether my latest sermon (or blog!) was any use, I start fishing for compliments, I end up weary and burdened and with very few resources to be an effective pastor. Much better to identify myself as one who is united with Christ who lives that out in a variety of ways, including as a pastor.
However, that is not always easy. It seems to me that saying that I am defined by my union with Christ rather than my sexuality or something else is an ongoing battle rather than simply a one off decision. I need to press into who I am in Christ rather than allow that to be a concept that drifts to the back of my mind. Each day is one where I am to ask the question- “What are Jesus and I going to do together today?” because we are not going to do it apart. Only as we ask that sort of question will we keep our true identity central.
In my final post in this series I want to reflect on how the Lord can use even painful temptations for good in our lives. For now, I am simply thankful that having been forced to face sexuality issues, the Lord has used that to open up the whole issue of identity in a way that has wider implications for the whole of life.