As a Christian, one of the key things for me is realizing that identity as Christians is not something that we discover in ourselves, nor is it something we create. It’s something we receive and are given by the only person who can know our actual identity, which is the God who made us. So my identity as a Christian comes from the fact that I’ve been created by God and redeemed by him through the saving work of Jesus.
So this is where I need to have a different understanding than our culture. Our culture says, “You are your sexuality,” that the sexual feelings that you have are the most you — that is, the real you. For me, that’s just not the case. I want to use language that can describe an aspect of what is going on in my life, but which doesn’t imply that that is what defines me, or what is the center and heart of who I am.
The language of “same-sex attraction” perhaps is less familiar to people outside of Christian circles. It’s a bit more clunky. But I think it’s less prone to being misunderstood. I use it because I don’t want to imply that a particular set of sexual temptations is where I see who I am. It’s not the lens through which I understand myself. That’s why I tend to use the language of being same-sex attracted.
One potential downside of that is people can think I’m saying there is a neutrality to those attractions. I’m certainly not saying that. I’m not saying it’s the equivalent of being left-handed or having blond hair or something like that. All I’m saying is the particular form of sexual temptation I experience is this particular kind.
All of us are fallen in this area of life. All of us experience disordered desires that affect our sexual desires as well. So all of us are sexual sinners. Same-sex attraction is a particular way in which that fallenness works its way out in my life. So I tend to use that language.
I think no language is perfect on this issue. Whatever language you use is going to be misunderstood by someone. But I found this has been helpful for me.
Goal of Language
Now let’s transition to the question over whether homosexual desires are merely temptations, or whether same-sex attraction itself, as an orientation, is sinful. I think it’s rather easy to agree that a heterosexual man who commits adultery with a woman has sinned — they both have. We get that. A homosexual man, acting on that impulse with another man, has sinned — they both have.
Moving back one step, to the level of desire, a heterosexual man desiring to commit adultery with a particular woman is sinning. A homosexual man desiring sex with one particular man is sinning. Okay.
But then when you work this back one more level, to what is commonly called “orientation,” then the heterosexual man who is attracted to women generally is not sinning, but a homosexual man attracted to men generally remains in a state of sin. Or does he? That’s the debate among Christians. How do you process this debate at orientation level?
Reaching Our Limit
It’s a tricky issue because people often use certain terms in slightly different ways. So the question “Is same-sex attraction itself sinful?” is tricky because it depends exactly what we’re meaning by “same-sex attraction.” Are we talking about the actual acts of desire, or are we talking about the capacity for that desire?
I’m not sure the language of orientation always serves us well. It’s a very secular concept. I think it’s limited. It implies a fixity that I’m not sure is always the case with our sexual feelings. Just calling it an orientation implies that it’s the vantage point from which you see the world. There it is again. It’s implying it’s central to who you are.
Where the Battle Begins
However, we do need some kind of language to describe the general shape of our feelings and our temptations. So it’s good to have some way of describing that.
There are two things we need to distinguish between. I think often when people talk about acting on desires, they often are meaning physically acting on those desires. As you’ve just alluded to, Jesus makes it very clear that it’s our hearts and our attitudes as much as our actual physical behavior that we need to think through.
You don’t have to act on something physically for it to be sinful. So that tells me that sexual sin needs to be fought in our hearts and minds. It’s not enough to be not physically acting on it if we’re mentally acting on it. In fact, we’re not going to be likely to physically resist a sin if we’ve been mentally rehearsing for it.
People often say, “It’s okay provided you don’t act on it.” I want to say, “Yes, kind of, as long as we’re including mental acts in our language of ‘acting on it.’”
Temptation Versus Sin
The other thing we need to remember is there is a distinction between temptation and sin. We see that in the Bible in the Lord’s prayer. We need to be delivered from our temptations, but we need to be forgiven for our sins.
James reminds us that temptation gives birth to sin (James 1:15). It’s not itself sin. So the two are not the same thing. When we’re tempted, we need to flee temptation and to stand faithfully underneath it. I take it that it’s possible, therefore, to be tempted without sinning.
We’re not told that as we grow as Christians temptations will just disappear from life. We are promised that God will enable us to stand under temptation. I want to say that the presence of temptation is not itself a sin.
James tells me that when I experience temptation, I shouldn’t blame God. I shouldn’t say, “Well that’s God’s fault that I’m tempted in this way.” I need to recognize the ways in which my own temptations are a reflection my fallen nature. They come from my own desires.
But I don’t think it’s right to say that having the capacity to be tempted is itself a sin. It’s a sign of our fallenness, but I want to repent of the ways I sinfully respond to temptation. I want to flee temptation itself. Otherwise, you’re saying to somebody, “Even if you’re not sinning, you’re still sinning, just because you’ve got the capacity to be tempted in a certain way.”
I think it’s right to suggest that there’s not an exact symmetry between same-sex temptation and opposite-sex feelings because there are godly ways of expressing heterosexual sexual desires. There are not godly ways of expressing homosexual sexual desires. So in that sense, there’s a distinction between the two.
But at the same time, I wouldn’t want us to lose sight of the way that there’s much in common between the two. I don’t want people who are experiencing same-sex temptation to feel as though they must be complete monsters compared to people who are wrestling with heterosexual temptation. We know that all of us are fallen in this area of life. All of us need to put sinful desires to death. All of us need to flee temptation. And actually, all of us need encouragement and help to do that.
Sam Allberry is an apologist and writer for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, and a consulting editor for The Gospel Coalition, and is based in Maidenhead, UK. He is the author of Is God Anti-Gay? He is also a founding editor of Living Out, a resource to help the church faithfully navigate issues of human sexuality.
A version of this article previously appeared on the Desiring God website under the headline, “The Christian Debate over Sexual Identity”
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