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What Do You See?

Same-Sex Attraction and a Biblical Approach to Looking

Many churches have affirmed the sin of homosexual activity, yet have struggled with understanding same-sex attraction.

Feb 16, 2015

Nick Roen has a very stimulating piece up at the Spiritual Friendship blog where he describes the experience of same-sex attraction. He does this in the very personal terms of looking at another man.

It got me thinking about what we see when we look at something. This is a significant issue because the Bible teaches that we have two sets of eyes. We have eyes in our head and eyes in our heart (Matthew 13:13-16).

One of the most important things about you is what you see when you look at something. It is crucial for us to look at things rightly and see them as they are, but this is impossible because of our sin. Sin gives us faulty vision. Our eyes are broken because our hearts are messed up. We do not see as we should because we do not worship as we should.

Jesus came to live, die, and rise for sinners to correct the vision in our hearts. God gave us the Bible to instruct us in how we should view life according to his focus.

One meaningful way to summarize the contents of the Bible is that it describes to us what we should see when we look at things. The Bible teaches us that when we look at a meal we are not allowed to see mere food, but the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). When we look at our relationships we are not allowed to see only our interests, but the interests of other as well (Philippians 2:4). When someone comes to us for help God would have us look beyond a mere needy person and see Christ (Matthew 25:34-40).

You get the point. The Bible teaches how to see all things as God would have us to see them.

A Look at Same-Sex Attraction

What we see is a huge issue as the church thinks through the issue of homosexuality. Faithful churches of Jesus Christ have continued to affirm the sinfulness of homosexual behavior. The church has struggled a bit more, however, with the issue of same-sex attraction. True Christians know what faithfulness requires concerning behavior. We have been less sure about what to say concerning our brothers and sisters who want to be celibate but struggle against same-sex attraction. What does holiness look like for these dear Christians locked in a serious battle for holiness? I have argued previously that there is no biblical requirement for heterosexual desires and behavior. That only addresses part of the problem, however. What are people to do with their attractions as they interact in their daily relationships? What should men and women see when they look at members of the same sex and are tempted to sin?

Roen tries to answer this question by walking through his experience of attraction when he sees a person of the same sex.

 A Look at “Rick”

Roen describes what happened when he saw a man named Rick. He breaks the experience into two categories.

The first category is what Roen calls attraction. For Roen, attraction is a “pre-cognitive physical reaction that makes us take particular notice of certain people.” It is “noticing with pleasure.” He insists that this attraction was not a desire for anything, including sex, but that it led to desires. Of his attraction to Rick, Roen said, “I saw Rick, I got ‘the butterflies’, and it was nice.”

The second category is the experience of desires, which follow attraction. Roen breaks desire into two categories of desire: sexual and non-sexual. In the sexual category, Roen says that he had physical desire for Rick. In the non-sexual category he places the desire for friendship, hospitality, emotional intimacy, sacrificial service, and love.

Roen wants to help those struggling with same-sex attraction be able to isolate sinful desires of the flesh. He does not want Christians to see sin where there is none. In this way he wants to avoid laying an undue burden on people who are striving towards faithfulness. Roen concludes that the sinful part of his experience is the sexual desire that followed attraction. The other elements of attraction and non-sexual desire are, for Roen, not sinful and indeed are legitimate aspects of being “gay.”

I’m grateful for this description of same-sex attraction. We must listen well to the experiences of other people. It is dangerous to begin speaking into the situation of another person before understanding what is happening in his life.

A Look at the Bible?

As much as I appreciate Roen’s candor I have doubts that he is helping the church to be faithful in this area. Roen tells us what he sees when he looks at Rick. That is not the same thing as telling us what God thinks he should see. I kept waiting for Roen to get to an evaluation of his experience that was based in Scripture. I was disappointed that such an evaluation never happened. This is problematic because, as I noted above, the eyes in our head don’t work until the eyes in our heart are corrected by the grace of Jesus and the Word of God. If the church is going to get this crucial issue right we have to rely more on texts of Scripture than was evidenced in Roen’s piece.

When we measure what Roen sees up against what God would have him to see in the Bible we find some problems with his understanding of attraction.

A Look at Attraction

Roen insists that there is nothing wrong with the attraction he felt toward Rick, and that it is something distinct from any desire that followed. I really wonder about that. Roen will not admit to any moral inflection in his attraction to Rick. For him, it is a physical impulse, disconnected from desire. But look at how Roen expands on his experience of seeing and being attracted to this man.

I felt the good desires for friendship and service and love for Rick to a degree that I did not toward the guy on the other side of the room that I wasn’t attracted to or the beautiful girl standing next to me for whom I felt nothing.

Roen describes seeing three people. Rick, a man he was not attracted to, and a beautiful woman for whom he felt nothing. As I indicated previously, Roen says his attraction for Rick was only “noticing with pleasure.” But his words here make it hard for me to know how this is possible. There are two other people in the room that he saw including a woman he describes as beautiful. What is the difference between noticing Rick with pleasure, and identifying the woman as beautiful but not noticing her with pleasure? If we take Roen’s words at face value, something happened when he looked at Rick that didn’t happen when he noticed the two other people.

Something more is going on with the attraction he felt for Rick, and I don’t think it is responsible to conclude, up front and without investigation, that it is free of any moral baggage. Roen does not want to use the language of desire here, but I doubt that there is as much distinction between attraction and desire as he says. When he noticed Rick with pleasure he felt some kind of draw that he did not feel with others that he also noticed. His attraction to Rick was linked with some desire for more. Roen seems to know this because he equates it with “the butterflies” that “felt nice.”

We have all felt the same draw and the same butterflies when we have seen someone we are attracted to. It doesn’t matter whether that attraction was to a man or a woman. He has described an experience common to every one of us. As someone who has felt that attraction many times I find the euphemism “noticing with pleasure” to be unhelpful in describing what we are talking about. We notice nice furniture, cute kids, beautiful sunsets, and kind parents with pleasure. By the time we’re feeling butterflies we’re beyond mere noticing with pleasure. When we feel tingly there is a moral cast to this attraction that must be evaluated differently than a pleasurable notice. There is some desire for more.

But how do we evaluate it?

A Look at Three Passages

The hard work in all of this is evaluating what we see up against what God would have us to see. We could say many things about this, but here, I will restrict myself to a brief evaluation of what we should see when we look at another person as that relates to the kind of issues of sexuality that Roen has placed on the table.

The Bible mandates a kind of opposite-gender sexuality that is between one man and one woman. Because that is the case, when it discusses these matters it does so in opposite-gender ways while teaching principles that will have application to the kind of same-gender struggles that our brother Nick is experiencing.

Think of three passages.

One is Proverbs 5:18-19:

Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love.

In the Bible sexual desires and behavior are limited to marriage. Click To Tweet

Scripture instructs us to have strong sexual desires for our opposite sex partner in marriage. This is not an injunction to heterosexual attractions in general, but a call to have sexual desire for our spouse in marriage. This passage is similar to other passages we might highlight. In the Bible sexual desires and behavior are limited to marriage.

The second passage is 1 Timothy 5:2, “Treat younger women as sisters in all purity.”

I think this passage is telling us what we should see when we look at those to whom we are not married. When we look at a person who is not our spouse our seeing is to be motivated by purity. When we look at our spouse we can and should have appropriate sexual motivations. When we look at a sibling the only appropriate motives are ones completely devoid of any sexuality.

The final passage is the tenth commandment in Exodus 17:17, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

You are guilty of coveting when you desire more than what you have received. God notes that you can covet anything that is your neighbor’s, though he provides six concrete examples. Jesus takes one of those examples and ties it to the seventh commandment in his teaching on lust and adultery (Matthew 5:27-32). But there are more ways to covet your neighbor’s wife than by desiring sex with her. It is also not necessary to have the presence of sexual desire in order to be guilty of coveting. Coveting is when you want something more than what God has given to you.

Attraction, Purity, and Coveting

These passages help us as we evaluate that yearning for connection that Roen describes as attraction. It can be God’s gift when it is focused on leading us into a marriage that is strong and honoring to Christ. When a single man has this sense of attraction for another single woman it is God’s gift to lead him to take the first, faltering steps to move to a closer relationship that may lead toward marriage. When a married man has this sense of attraction for his spouse it is God’s gift leading him to show the kind of tender care in marriage appropriate only for a husband.

The biblical teaching on sexuality and covetousness urges us to war against these kinds of attractions when they are experienced in a context or directed toward any other end than marriage. A man experiencing this attraction for another man, a married man experiencing this attraction for a woman not his wife, or a man experiencing this attraction for a woman he intends to treat dishonorably are all experiencing a sinful manifestation of this attraction. They want more than God has provided them.

This attraction, when sinful—as in any of the categories above, will render as illicit any of the desires flowing out of it. Sexual desires will obviously be illicit, as Roen grants, but for different reasons. Even non-sexual desires will be illicit when they flow out of this motivation. The Bible never urges us to behave with loving care for others out of the overflow of a covetous spirit or a disordered sexuality (whether of the homosexual or heterosexual variety). The biblical call to love is grounded in God’s love for us, not our sinful dispositions (see Ephesians 5:1ff).

I don’t think this reality means anything substantially different for me than it does for Nick Roen. I am a married man, biblically permitted to have this kind of attraction for only one woman. When I look at another woman I am not permitted to see an object of attraction. I am not allowed to get butterflies and call them nice. I have to start fighting at the moment of the experience. If I don’t, what follows will hurt me, will hurt my wife and kids, and will dishonor Jesus. This is a fight I have to be ready to engage every day, all day long, with any person but my wife.

I am thankful for my brother, Nick. I am grateful for his desire for biblical faithfulness in a world that would celebrate his embrace of immorality. I admire him. That is why I feel compelled to respond. I do not think that his way of thinking through his temptations will tend to help him fight for faithfulness. I do not think it will help those of us who also must fight for purity to know the kinds of victory that Christ wants us to have. I think it will rather tend to lead us to make peace with sinful inclinations at their earliest points when they are easiest to defeat.

A Look at the Grace of Jesus

I know Roen writes with a compassionate motivation. It can create a sense of weariness when it feels like you’re constantly fighting sin. You’re eager to look for a break. On my reading, however, the Bible never gives us that break by telling us that we are less sinful than we had previously come to believe. The Bible always paints the picture as way worse than we would ever think on our own. We are sinful to the core (Jeremiah 17:9). We don’t even have the power to want the things we ought to want (Romans 7:13-23). When we evaluate how sinful we are we should conclude that we are foul and wretched (Romans 7:24). We should feel desperate for help in the midst of overwhelming sin. Then, right before we despair, we should look to Christ who alone delivers us from this body of death (Romans 7:25).

Like my brother Nick Roen, I feel attractions every day that I should not feel. But I don’t think there is any hope, or joy, or victory for either one of us in minimizing the sinful distortions of our hearts. I think the only path to hope, and joy, and victory is to admit that we are far worse than we think. Our attractions are motivated by sin at a level of depth that is profoundly discouraging. The good news of the gospel, however, is that Jesus changes us.

That means when we look at our sin, we need to see Jesus who loves us and purchases us for himself in spite of it all. It is Jesus who will give us the grace to look at people and see them as we should.