For Catholics, sexuality does not start with sexuality. In a fallen world, it starts with the cross—and almost everyone harbors stereotypes when it comes to the cross. Some worry I’m about to get wildly conservative. Others are afraid I’ll be too liberal. Some would like it if I said we were going to find a healthy balance between unhealthy extremes. That’s not what we’re going to do. At the foot of the cross, balance is a big mistake, even when it comes to LGBTQ.
[Note: this essay was first published by Crisis Magazine and is reprinted with permission.]
– L –
On a freezing cold January afternoon, I was sitting in the middle of a crowded bar sipping espresso with my friend Pip. We were surrounded by gay people. Pip says he’s always been gay. His parents kicked him out of the house when he was sixteen. We were talking about if God had a plan for Pip’s life. In the middle of that conversation, Pip lowered the tiny cup of espresso from his lips, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Tyler, I believe God made me this way. I believe it’s a good thing I’m gay.”
An interesting statement. Here was a guy in the heart of the gay community with almost no Christian friends, a guy who hadn’t seen much of love from the Christians surrounding him, from his parents, from the churches he’s visited. A guy who by all outward appearances did not have much hope of changing his lot in life. Yet he wantedto believe that God made him gay. In other words, Pip wanted to believe that God loveshim, and that his being alive is a good thing. To me, this was nothing less than the work of the Holy Spirit.
“Pip, are you telling me you think God loves you?” I asked.
Happily he replied, “Exactly! You understand!”
“So you believe God loves you even though you’re gay?”
As I looked at his bright, slender face, I was struck by the earnestness of his voice. “Why not?” he asked. Then he went back to sipping his espresso.
I’ll never forget those two words.
Then I leaned in and said, “Pip, I know God loves you.”
He thought for a moment and then responded. “To hear you say that, it just feels … good.”
What I remember about that conversation with Pip is that he was not only hopeful enough to think that God could love someone so many Christians could not, but that he was confident that his being alive was an inherently good thing.
So “L” is for love.
The hope Pip has for his life is the same hope that Jesus identified for each of our lives. God loves us. It’s a good thing we are alive. Regardless of what kind of sexual attraction we experience, what kind of salary we make, what kind of education we have, God loves us. “L” is for love.
– G –
Pip and I didn’t talk about everything else Christianity teaches about God that day. It seemed appropriate just to revel in the fact that God loves us. We just let that sink in.
At the same time, however, I have been concerned about a dangerous vagueness regarding the next step. We know that God loves us. But an all-important question remains: How does God show us that love?
God’s love is more than a feeling in his tummy. He doesn’t just wish us well. God loved the world so much that he sent his only Son to die a gruesome death on the cross so that we who were dead in our sins might become alive in God. The cross is how God loves Pip.
Not many people get offended by the message that God loves them. They might find it quaint or naïve, but usually not offensive. Almost everyone, however, is offended by the message of Christ crucified. The cross is an offense because it implies we are all sinners. Regardless of what kind of sexual attraction we experience, what kind of salary we make, what kind of education we have, the cross says we are all sinners who need a Savior.
By dying on the cross, God makes the way he loves us crystal clear: Jesus invites us to join him in spending the rest of our lives obeying and glorifying the one true God of Israel by living lives of faith, hope, and love in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
To be a Christian, then, is not merely to respect, but also to reflect the reality of Christ crucified. You either die with Christ, or you don’t. You either follow and obey, or you don’t. In the end, you are either raised with Christ, or you are not. We must put death the old self so that we might be raised to our new self, which is nothing less than the person of Jesus. Think of these verses in Romans as they apply to sexuality:
- We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life (6:4).
- For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin (6:6).
- Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him (6:8).
When it comes to sexuality, the Bible proclaims nothing less than Christ crucified. For Catholics, then, the only place to talk about anything LGBTQ is at the foot of the cross. Though broken by sin, God’s purposes for male-and-female creation are healed in the cross. This is why biblical sexuality is good news for everyone. Even people who experience same-sex attraction. Everyone. No exceptions.
So “L” is for love, but “G” is for God—the triune God known in the person and work of Jesus Christ on the cross. God loves Pip way more than you or I do. His compassion is so much bigger than our idea of compassion. His justice is so much better than those self-righteous feelings of social justice that sweep over us from time to time. Who are we kidding? If the world looked to you or me for salvation, it would never be saved.
So “G” is also for God’s grace. I want to be used by God to give Pip what God has given me: grace, grace, and more grace. It’s the grace to be in a covenant relationship with the God of Israel.
The best gift God can give us is himself.
So why would I want to give Pip anything less?
– B –
Let me tell you about another friend of mine, Caleb, who also experiences same-sex attraction. Caleb is one of the most faithful, joyful Catholic men I know. He is a self-proclaimed missionary. “You’re not a Christian,” he tells me, “unless you live the Great Commission.”
Caleb does not want to be called “gay.” When someone says they’re gay, usually their sexual preference is one of the foundational ways they see themselves, and Caleb does not believe the same-sex attractions he experiences are the foundation of his identity. I once asked him to explain.
“My sexual feelings are not who I am, Tyler,” he said. “I am so much more than sexual attraction.”
“But sexuality is such a big part of life,” I said. “How can the fact that you are attracted to men not be a big deal?”
“We live in a culture that says your identity is your desires,” Caleb continued. “But I am not my desires. I am a sinner who has been born again, made new. At my most fundamental core, I am Christ.”
“So what do you do?” I asked.
He looked at me like I should already know.
“I do exactly what Jesus calls anyone to do. I repent and believe. ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,’” he said, quoting Mark 8:34. “It’s the same for all of us, Tyler.”
Caleb is right, of course, although I have been slow to admit it. Everyone is called to deny himself, to take up his cross, to follow Jesus. This doesn’t mean making itty bitty changes here and there. It means saying “No!” to your deepest sense of personhood because you are no longer yours. You belong to Jesus. He made you. And on the bloody cross he re-made you.
But still—and I am not proud to admit this—I felt sorry for Caleb. I felt like his cross was harder to carry than mine.
“I feel … bad for you,” I said.
“I hope you don’t think the gospel must be harder for me than it is for you,” Caleb said, mildly offended. “Jesus demands everything from everyone who follows him. If you think for a moment that you don’t have to deny yourself as much as I do, you’re dead wrong.”
I blinked, not sure what to say.
“The cost is the same for all of us,” Caleb said. “But so are the blessings. God made me for himself. So I don’t want to live a life apart from him and for myself.”
In theory I agreed with him, but on the ground this was a hard thing to accept.
“I just feel like you’re doomed to a life of loneliness,” I said. “I mean, a promiscuous gay lifestyle of one-night stands is one thing, but it’s hard to accept that a faithful, committed relationship is wrong just because it’s not heterosexual.”
Caleb looked at me and then looked out the window. At first, he didn’t say anything. When he finally spoke his voice was quieter.
“It’s not about whether a couple loves each other. That is not the issue. Whether a relationship is committed and faithful is besides the point,” he said. “The whole idea of sin is that we love the wrong things, are committed to the wrong things, and are faithful to the wrong things. It’s possible to be committed to the wrong thing in the right way, or to be committed to the right thing in the wrong way. You can love a bad thing well, and you can love a good thing badly.”
“It just doesn’t seem fair that you have to live your whole life alone,” I said.
“Don’t feel sorry for me because I’m a Christian and so I can’t have a same-sex romantic relationship. I am a Christian, Tyler. In Jesus, I have everything.”
“—Except a partner,” I said, unconvinced.
“I have Christ!” Caleb said, visibly shocked at how I tip the scales.
It has been an enormous privilege to have Caleb for a friend. He is vulnerable and courageous and much wiser than me. Caleb has taught me to ask a tough question: Why do we try to approach sex and marriage on our terms, not God’s?
So “B” is for breaking idols and the stories we tell ourselves, for bringing our desires and pain to the cross. It’s for realizing that our beautiful pictures of what sex could be and our grandiose plans of how to live it are not going to work. It’s for admitting that we are not God.
Stop imagining what could work.
Find out for real.
“B” is also for you were born for this. You were born to enjoy God and to bring him glory forever. “B” is for bowing before the God who loves us and laying everything—every part of us, even our longing and loneliness—at his feet. It’s for saying, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). “Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker” (Ps. 95:6).
– T –
Caleb is not an “unusual” Catholic because he experiences same-sex attraction. Jesus carries Caleb’s burdens just like he carries mine. Jesus loves him, heals him, makes him whole, and unites him to himself for eternity just like he loves me. And you. All of us.
So where does homosexuality fit into the Bible’s big picture for male-and-female creation?
A number of scholars have attempted to find out what the Bible says about homosexuality by ignoring the big picture and looking only at the key Bible verses that describe homosexual activity as sinful (Gen. 19:4-5; Lev. 18:22; 20:13; Rom. 1:18-32; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; 1 Tim. 1:8-10; Jude 7). They assume that if they can show that these isolated verses are not really saying that homosexuality is sinful, then homosexuality must not be a sin.
A large and increasingly sophisticated edifice of scholarly reconstruction has been erected on this assumption. But it does not account for the big picture.
When I was a kid, my mom asked me to clean my room. I did not. When she threatened to punish me I pointed out to her that she never specified when I had to clean my room. I would get to it eventually, some day. Without delay she said, “Tyler, clean your roomnow.” I knew that she wanted me to clean my room right away because I knew that, in this house, we were supposed to obey cheerfully, immediately, and completely. In general, I knew that our rooms were supposed to be clean. I knew the big picture. But I also knew how to weasel my way around the detail.
Now, we could dig into the key Bible verses that describe homosexual activity as sinful. We could even do impressive exegetical gymnastics to make them say homosexual activity is not a sin. But even if we did this, it would not account for the big picture. And we do not want to have a narrow or limited outlook on our situation in salvation history.
The big picture tells us a story about what male-and-female creation is for. From creation to consummation, God says: “Do this! I made you this way for this purpose!” And God wants us to obey cheerfully, immediately, and completely.
For a number of us, it can be shocking how utterly hetero (other) biblical sexuality is. It’s because Adam and Eve are different that they have such a profound unity—“one flesh.” The perfect “fit” between man and woman is the foundation for all marriages (Gen. 2:24). Sexual polarity is why we have marriage in the first place. Marriage would not exist if men and women were identical. We are male and female: “for this reason a man will leave…” (Gen. 19:5).
Sexuality is not a mere human idea.
Sexuality is God’s idea.
Jesus says marriages are something God joins together (Matt. 19:3-6). And Jesus is clear that sex is meant for a lifelong, monogamous, male-and-female marriage (Mark 7:20-23; cf. 1 Cor. 6:9-10). God is opposed to any kind of sexual activity outside of conjugal marriage—not because he makes random rules, but because he made us for something glorious.
The fruitful one-flesh union of marriage is how men and women can fulfill God’s commandment to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). Even more, human sexuality, typified in marriage, is meant to reflect the profound mystery of Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:31-32). And the marriage between Christ and his Church is complementary. We are not Christ, and Christ is not us. Because Christ is other, he is able to draw us to himself in the ultimate one flesh union of heaven and earth. Human marriage (and therefore all human sexuality) is a living, breathing parable of the heavenly marriage between the Lamb and his bride (Rev. 21:9).
A man and a man, or a woman and a woman, or any sexual relationship outside of wedlock, cannot reflect the union of Christ and the Church. To be faithful to the way God made us as male and female, to obey his command to be fruitful and multiply, and to reflect the supreme marriage of Christ and the church, our marriages (and therefore our sexuality) must be between one man and one woman, open to life in the bonds of holy matrimony.
Now, it is true that the constant Bible teaching is very clear that homosexual activity is a serious sin (Gen. 19:4-5; Lev. 18:22; 20:13). Given what the Bible says about God’s mission for sex and marriage and all creation this should not surprise us. Paul even breaks all twenty-first century rules and says homosexuality is “unnatural” (Rom. 1:18-32). Homosexuality is a sign of God’s judgment (Rom. 1:19; 2:5). Those who practice these desires “will not inherit the kingdom” (1 Cor. 6:9-10).
But homosexuality is not a unique sin. In the same list of sins Paul says will render us unable to inherit the kingdom are also sexual immorality and adultery and drunkenness and theft. This does not make it less of a sin, but it reminds us that homosexual behavior is in the category of adultery or pornography or any other sins that might be heterosexual. It’s just one of the many sins of our fallen nature in the fallen Adam that we must put behind us as we work out our salvation with fear and trembling.
Paul goes on to say about homosexuals and adulterers and thieves, “and that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor. 6:11). Homosexual behavior is not appropriate for Christians because it is not who they are anymore. Clearly some of the Christians in Corinth were once active homosexuals. But not anymore. They have been washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of Jesus and by the Spirit of God.
Whether or not you think you were born this way, you were not re-born this way. You have a new identity in Christ. You have been made new. Attractions and feelings may still persist. But in Christ we are no longer our old selves. What defines every baptized Christian is no longer our feelings or attractions. God is who defines us now. Only “in Christ” is anyone righteous in God’s eyes (2 Cor. 5:2). “In Christ” we are presented holy and blameless (Col. 1:22). All of us are weak! But Christ is strong! If this were not true, the Gospel would be one big sham.
So “T” is for transformation.
You have been given a new identity, a new self (Eph. 4:24). In Christ, you are a new creation (2 Cor. 4:17). At the bedrock of your personhood you have been “born again” (John 3:3). “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Rom. 12:2).
But we still wait for the “redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). Temptations very well may linger on this side of the new creation. This is because you are not at the final goal yet. You’re still in a process of transformation. But as the baptized faithful, all of us, all broken and in need of the Savior, are “being transformed … from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18).
– Q –
When it comes to the biblical sexuality, we have a lot of questions about where people with same-sex attraction fit into the big picture. It can be hard for us to see thegoodness of the Good News when it means some people cannot lawfully have the sexual or emotional intimacy others lawfully can. Didn’t Jesus abolish the law? Aren’t we free in Christ? If for you “Q” means questions like these, I want to suggest to you that the Bible has answers.
Caleb is right when he says that if he has Christ he has everything. For the baptized faithful, Jesus really is our “all in all” (Col. 3:11). “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
We are on a mission.
Whether you are married or single, a monk or a mother, you are on a mission, the Great Commission.
So “Q” is for quest.
In my book, Mud & Poetry: Love, Sex, and the Sacred, I put it this way: “When participating in the activity of God there are only two paths toward Christ: celibacy or Christian marriage.” As the bride of Christ, you are on a quest to bring glory to the Father through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. And when it comes to your sexuality, there are only two God-designed ways you can do this: marriage or celibacy.
Jesus says that the only godly alternative to marriage is celibacy. This was a hard teaching even for the disciples. This is what Jesus says to them:
Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it (Matt. 19:11-12).
“Eunuchs” were the celibates of that day. Jesus says they might be celibate because of how they were born, or because of human intervention, or because they volunteered to stay single. This is the high and holy alternative to marriage. There is not a third option.
We have two paths: marriage or celibacy. When Jesus talks about Godly alternatives to marriage, he does not mention “fooling around,” cohabitation, or faithful and loving same-sex partnerships. He mentions celibacy, “eunuchs.” Celibacy is not a curse, but a blessing. This kind of singleness is not simply “not marriage.” Celibacy is a beautiful, nourishing, holy, satisfying “gift” from God (1 Cor. 7:7). Celibacy is not “less human” than married life. Jesus was single, and he was fully human. Marriage is awesome for bringing glory to God, but it is not more awesome than celibacy. In fact, Paul wasthankful to be single (1 Cor. 7:28). He says a single person is less divided in their mission for God’s glory (1 Cor. 7:32-35). The goal of our lives should be to enjoy Jesus above all else. Marriage or celibacy is meant to help you do that.
So “Q” is for quest. It’s for the long and arduous journey of being transformed into the image and likeness of God. It’s for the adventurous search to know and share the glory of the Trinity. It’s for living in the love of God. Everyone needs to repent. All of us must take up our cross. Jesus says to you and me and Pip: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). In a world of uncertainty, pain, and struggle we must join the apostolic cry: “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). What other option do we have?
As Catholics, how ought we to love people who identify with another gender other than their biological one, or people for whom there is biological ambiguity? How do we love people who feel they are “trapped” in the wrong body? The only truly loving response is to share the gospel of Jesus. No matter how sympathetic, empathetic, understanding or caring you are, if you do not offer people Jesus you are anything but kind. Bighearted people share the big heart of God, and God loves “queer” people a lot more than you do. And he wants them to find their deepest identity in him.
He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end, the A and the Z.
The triune God is bigger than all the letters in between.
– In Rainbows –
The rainbow is a symbol of God’s covenant faithfulness in the face of human pride. The downward spiral of sin after the fall, from Cain’s murder to the Tower of Babel, culminates in God’s final assessment: “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight” (Gen. 6:11). As God created the heavens and the earth from the chaos of the waters, so God began a work of re-creation through the waters of the flood. Even though people cannot keep up their end of the deal, God makes a covenant with Noah with the sign of the rainbow after the flood. Because of pride, we deserve death. But because of God’s grace, he will never destroy the whole earth with water again (Gen. 9:13-15).
As God blessed Adam, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (1:28), so God blesses Noah, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (9:1, 7). Tragically, God’s work of re-creation is met with human rebellion once more. As Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden, Noah sins in the garden of his vineyard (9:20-21). So the rainbow is a reminder that we should never be proud. “No one can boast” (Eph. 2:9). Sin is in our bones. We have nothing to be proud about—except the love of God spread across the sky in rainbows and shed abroad in our hearts. “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14).
Have you come to know the bottomless love of Jesus? Or are you struggling to understand your brokenness and how past and present mistakes can be forgiven? Are you afraid you will not be accepted because you’re not perfect? Dear reader, wherever you are, I have good news for you.
God knows your pain. God knows your fear. God knows the challenges, wrong turns, and painful circumstances we all experience. And God is not looking for perfect people. He’s looking for people who need his grace, people who will abandon themselves to the love and mercy of Jesus. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).
The baptized faithful who are so often categorized as LGBTQ by the world are not a broken branch on God’s family tree. They are not on the outside looking in. God forgives, restores, and re-makes all who repent and follow him. He wants to showcase his mercy and love through you. And he wants you to share this hidden treasure with others.
Dare to believe it, dear friend, and dare to repent. Jesus loves weary, wounded you. When you find a way to open your bruised heart and welcome him into your darkness, you will find a love beyond anything you have every known. Yesterday’s broken pieces just cannot compare to the wholeness that comes in Christ.
So. What are you trusting in other than Jesus? Where do you really experience security, or find purpose, or discover your identity? All of us—not just people who experience same-sex attraction—have invented identities apart from Christ. We have written scripts and come up with personal narratives to explain who we are and why. Christ knocks down those walls, and when he does it doesn’t feel good. Or safe. Not at all. But intimacy with Jesus does not happen any other way.
People do not need to be convinced, cajoled, persuaded, or manipulated into thinking homosexuality is wrong. They need to know God loves them, and that God’s love is the cross of Jesus Christ. Our job is only to proclaim Christ in love. Let God do the heavy lifting.
Jesus does not save us despite the way he made us as male and female and sexual, butthrough it. He became incarnate as a male human being so that he could be the new Adam and the Church could be the new Eve. Sexual differentiation is part of how Jesus proclaims the Gospel. Human sexuality is meant to tell the story of salvation history, the story of Jesus.
So Caleb encouraged me to talk with Pip about Jesus and the church. And that’s what I’ve been doing. I try to make God and homosexuality easy to talk about. I thank Pip for being so open with me. I assure him all the time that I will never reject him. I listen. I pray. And I tell Pip about Jesus. I’ve not only been telling him that God loves him. I’ve been telling him how God loves him, and I’ve been trying to live it too. In word and deed, I’ve been trying to share with Pip the wonderful cross: if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (2 Corinthians 4:17).
Read it in Crisis Magazine.