I hear it all the time: this protective need for some of my fellow Christians to “speak the truth in love” to their gay friends and family. In other words, while they say that they should “love and accept” those who are gay, they still feel a need to state that they think homosexuality is inherently sinful, and that gay people must commit themselves to chastity, denying homosexual sin.
I want to caution all Christians from doing this, because it has the potential to break vulnerable LGBT people.
That might sound dramatic, overly policing, and hand-wringingly protective. After all, as one prominent religious pedant likes to say, “facts don’t care about your feelings.” If you believe that homosexuality is a sin, isn’t it your duty to let the world know? Regardless of how this “fact” makes others feel?
If you value the conversation and friendship of LGBT people you love; if you desire their best and want to see them flourish, unsolicited “speaking the truth in love” is dangerous.
I speak from my experience. When I was in college, the Truth in Love from my fellow Christians did indeed break me.
In practice, gay people are more broken, more outside, more excluded, because Christian theology makes it so.
To understand this, you must understand everything going on beneath the surface – everything weighing down on an LGBT person coming to terms with their lived experience. Here’s everything that was burdening me when I was in a small Christian college, and it certainly isn’t an exhaustive list:
Almost every song, movie, and cultural reference deals with heterosexual experience in some way: sex, romance, marriage, hooking up, dating, etc. From my earlier memories I could never relate to any of the romantic narratives in our culture, good or bad, positive or negative. This enforced a deep, subtle current of feeling completely alien in this world. It reinforced the deep intuition that I was some kind of freak.
More than that, my religion spoke in exclusively heterosexual terms. Adam and Eve, the image of man and woman as the union between Christ and the church. Straight people might be able to relate to all that, but I couldn’t. I therefore felt like an outsider to my beloved religion.
The pressure to not have sex is already crushing for young people in the church. For gay people, it is doubly so. The hormonal rage to hookup and experiment made me feel like I was caught between two crushing walls – one being my sex drive, the other being the possibility that if I do have sex, I will be committing a grave, abominable sin that reflects the deep brokenness of our world.
And if you retort that, “we are all equally broken, gay or straight,” it’s likely that the gay person in your life won’t buy it. I didn’t. In practice, gay people are more broken, more outside, more excluded, because the theology makes it so. When the Bible and Christian traditions speak to your orientation only in terms of sin and disorder (unlike heterosexuality), the claim that “all are equally sinful” becomes a sort of gaslighting. Straight people have an out, gay people do not.
When you are a young twenty-something, the prospect that you have three choices in life, each one depressing or damning, becomes a constant source of anxiety.
1. You can live a celibate life, which, when you are twenty, can be a terrifying thing to commit yourself to. This has less to do with sex, and more to do with the world of partnered intimacy sex is attached to. Looking into a life without partnered intimacy can be absolutely debilitating.
2. You can get married to someone of the opposite sex, which can frankly feel unfair to your partner, impossible, or miserable. Or,
3. You can be sexually active, in which case you must live with the cognitive dissonance that you are not living the way God desires you to live. That is incredibly debilitating for a young mind.
When struggling with with one’s sexual or gender identity, your loving community and family can suddenly feel deeply unsafe. If you come to the “wrong” conclusion, does that mean they will reject you? If you have a sexual encounter and they find out will they berate you, sermonize you, tell you how sinful you are, or disapprove? And maybe you aren’t sure you have the emotional resources to be able to handle that rejection when it comes. This can also create a crippling anxiety for LGBT people.
The destruction all the above anxieties have on other areas of life can create a downward spiral of more despair and anxiety. When I was in college I failed six classes and it took me 8 years to finally graduate. I just didn’t have the bandwidth to succeed, to get a job, to be productive and healthy. Every moment of the day was spent trying to resolve my sexual orientation. This left me feeling helpless, afraid for my future, and like a total fuckup.
Add on top of this a friend saying that, while they love you, they still think you are sinning and need to repent. For me, it was just too much to carry.
And yes, I did want to kill myself. I went to sleep every night fantasizing about shooting myself in the college chapel. When friends would try to lovingly tell me that they think homosexuality is sinful, I would cut myself horribly. My arms are still a latticework of scars. This wasn’t because I was unreasonably fragile, but because I was carrying so many invisible things already, and my friends, pastors, and mentors not giving me the margin to question and journey simply broke me.
The friends who saved my life were the ones who gave me space: who withheld their own opinions, except when asked, and chose to walk with me through the dark places. They told me again and again that God has the grace and space for me to question and work this all out for as long as I need to. They told me that no matter what conclusion I come to I am still loved by them and by God, that they respect the journey I’m on, and that they still see me as part of the Kingdom of God. These friends were the ones who sustained me, and might be the reason I’m still alive.
Please, withhold your truth. Give space to those who are struggling, and understand that Job’s friends were helpful only when they said nothing. We need spacious love, not claustrophobic condemnation.