How do I tell you about my conversion to Christ without making it sound like an alien abduction or a train wreck? The truth be told, it felt like a little of both. The language normally used to describe this odd miracle simply does not work for me. I did not read one of those tacky self-help books with a thin coating of Christian themes, examine my life against the tenants of the Bible—the way one might hold up one car insurance policy against all others—and cleanly and logically make a decision for Christ. While I did make choices along the path of this journey, they never felt logical, risk-free, or even sane. Neither did I feel like some victim of an emotional earthquake and collapse gracefully into the arms of my Savior like some holy and sanctified Scarlett O’Hara—that’s not my style.
Having been claimed by Christ’s irresistible grace—heretical as it might seem—Christ and Christianity seemed imminently resistible. My Christian life unfolded as I was just living my normal life. In the normal course of my life, questions emerged that simply exceeded my secular feminist worldview. Those questions sat dormant until I met a most unlikely friend, a Christian pastor. Had this Christian pastor not both shared, but also lived out, the gospel as my neighbor and my friend for years and years, over and over again—not in some used car salesman way, but in an organic, spontaneous, and compassionate way—those questions might still be lodged in the crevices of my mind and I might, at least not as yet, have met the most unlikely of friends, Jesus Christ Himself.
I had a normal childhood. Somehow when I’m going to talk to a bunch of counselors about homosexuality, I just have to start there. There’s nothing in the backstory.
I was raised in the Catholic faith and am named after the rosary. I attended predominantly liberal Catholic schools. My liberal, Catholic, all-girl high school discipled me in the life skills that I use today. I learned there to read deeply and well, to diagram a sentence before I even dared to interpret it, and to look out for the unloved and the unlovely and draw them in.
I also had what I believe was a heterosexual adolescence. In college, I met my first boyfriend and it was a very heady experience. At the same time, an undercurrent of longing inserted itself into my intense friendships with women; I just didn’t make much of this at first. From the age of 22 until the age of 28, I continued to date men and, at the same time, experience a sense of longing and connection that just toppled over the edges for my women friends. It actually took almost a decade of this for me to realize that I actually kept falling in love with women. This repetitious sensibility rooted and grew. I simply preferred the company of women. Then finally in my late 20s, enhanced in part by feminist philosophy and LGBT political advocacy, my homosocial preference morphed into homosexuality. That shift was subtle, not startling.
My lesbian identity and my love for my LGBT community developed in sync with my lesbian sexual practice, and life finally came together for me and made sense. Once I met my first lesbian lover, I was hooked. I studied Freud. I cheered that the DSM had long since removed homosexuality from its list of disorders, thus rendering homosexuality normal in the eyes of the world and the academy. With no prohibitions or constraints, I left the Buckeye state with my first lesbian partner by the time I had graduated from Ohio State with my PhD in English literature and critical theory. We moved to New York for me to begin a tenure-track position in the English Department at Syracuse University.
My life as a lesbian seemed normal. I considered it an enlightened, chosen path. Lesbian sexuality seemed like a cleaner and a more moral sexual practice. Always preferring symmetry to asymmetry, I was sure I’d found my real self. What happened to my Catholic training? I believed now that it was anti-intellectual and superstitious. The name Jesus, which had rolled off my tongue in a little girl’s prayer and then rolled off my back in college, now made me recoil in anger. As a professor of English and women’s studies, I tired of students who believed that knowing Jesus meant knowing little else.
Christians seemed like bad readers to me, which I thought was ironic given that they believed that Bible was the true truth. Christians used the Bible in the way that Marxists call “vulgar”: to end a conversation rather than to deepen it. But the most frustrating thing to me about Christians was that they simply would not leave consenting adults alone.
I cared about morality and justice and compassion. As a 19th century scholar fervent for the worldviews of Freud, Hegel, Marx, and Darwin, I strove to stand with the disempowered. My life at this time was happy, meaningful, and full. My next lesbian partner and I shared many vital interests: AIDS activism, children’s health and literacy, golden retriever rescue, our Unitarian Universalist Church, and others. It was hard to argue that she and I were anything but good citizens and caregivers. My friends and I simply never had a gay agenda, and when Christians accused me of this, I would say that my gay agenda involved really scary things like feeding the poor, housing the homeless, and teaching reading to the illiterate. The LGBT community values hospitality and applies it with skill, sacrifice, and integrity. Indeed, I honed in my queer community the hospitality gifts that I use today as a pastor’s wife.
After my tenure book was written, I began writing another book because I’m compulsive in that way. This one was on the religious right and their politics of hatred against people like me. To do this, I began reading the Bible while looking out for some Bible scholar to help me wade through this complex book. I took note that the Bible was an engaging literary display of almost every genre, trope, and type. It had edgy poetry, deep and complex philosophy, and compelling narrative stories. It also embodied a worldview that I hated: sin, repentance, and Sodom and Gomorrah. I thought that was absurd.
At this time, the Promise Keepers came to town and parked their little circus at the University. I was on this war against stupid, and so I wrote and published an article in the local newspaper. It was 1997. The article generated many rejoinders, so many that I kept a Xerox box on each side of my desk, one for hate mail and one for fan mail. I could still do that today except that it all comes via email.
One letter that I received simply defiled my filing system. It was from Ken Smith, the pastor of the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church. It was a kind and inquiring letter. Ken did not argue with my article; rather, he gently invited me to examine the presuppositions that undergirded it. In his letter, he shared his love for the Bible, his concern that college students were not reading the Bible as part of our literature curriculum, and described Jesus as someone who entered into history, not someone who emerged from it.
I thought that was insane. I believed that people proceed from history and are shaped for good or for ill by the culture that molds them. I didn’t know what to do with his letter. So I threw it away. I mean in the recycling bin, of course. Later that night, I found myself on my hands and knees fishing it out of the department’s recycling bin and putting it back on my desk where it stared at me for a week, confronting me with the worldview divide that demanded a response—especially if I was going to write a book on this subject.
As a post-modern intellectual, I operated from a historical materialist worldview, but Christianity is a supernatural one. If I was going to understand how this book (the Bible) got so many people off track, and how this man (Jesus) persuaded so many people to follow him, Ken’s letter showed me that I needed to understand Christianity as a supernatural idea. At this point in my life, the category of the supernatural was simply reserved for Stephen King novels, and he was a big donor to the English Department at Syracuse. In the English Department we were taught never to bite the hand that feeds us, and so whenever it was possible to tuck one of those juicy Stephen King novels into your 19th-century curriculum, you had to do it.
At this time, I was also deeply suspicious of both the motives and the worldview that Christians espoused. I had seen plenty of Bible verses on placards at gay pride marches. That Christians who protested against me and mocked me at gay pride day were happy that I and everyone I loved were going to hell is as clear as the sky is blue. But, you see, Ken’s letter did not mock; it actually engaged. From his letter, Ken really seemed to me to be palpably different from those Christians who hid behind placards at gay pride day. As a result, when he invited me to dinner at his house to discuss these matters more fully, I accepted. My motives at the time were perfectly clear: Surely, this would be good for my research.
But something else actually happened. Ken, his wife Floy, and I became friends. They entered my world. They met my friends. We did book exchanges. We talked openly about sexuality and politics and they did not act as if such conversations were polluting them. They did not treat me like a blank slate. When we ate together, Ken prayed in a way that I had never heard before. His prayers were intimate and vulnerable. He repented of his sin in front of me. He thanked God for all things. Ken’s God was holy and firm, yet full of mercy. At my first meal at their home, Ken and Floy omitted two important steps in the rule book of how Christians should deal with a heathen like me. Everybody knows the rule book; I knew the rule book and I wondered if I was chopped liver.
Number one: They did not share the gospel with me. Imagine that. They took the risk that I was going to get back in my little truck and drive a mile home, and I wasn’t going to get hit by a train and die. They took that risk, people.
Number two: They did not invite me to church. Because of these omissions to the Christian rule book as I had come to understand it, I felt that when Ken extended his hand to me in friendship, it was safe for me to close mine in his. I wasn’t Ken’s project. I was Ken’s neighbor. This was not friendship evangelism. This was friendship.
That letter that Ken wrote to me initiated two years of bringing the church to me from Ken and Floy’s dining room table. I started meeting with Ken and Floy regularly, reading the Bible in earnest with pen in hand and notebook in lap. At this time, I met a man at the Smith’s house who had a long history in sexual sin, but who had become a follower of this God-man Jesus. This man encouraged me to dig deeply into the Bible. I was not raised in an evangelical situation, and so I really just did not know how to read the Bible. I didn’t know that you’re supposed to just open it up and put your finger down and play roulette with the verses and find a verse and make it a mantra. I mean, I was ignorant. I actually started to read the Bible the way I was trained to read a book. That’s what I did, read it like a book. Crazy!
Along with reading it many times through, I examined its textual authority, its authorship, its canonicity, and its internal hermeneutics. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. Research professors read about five hours a day, equivalent to hundreds of pages. It’s just part of what research professors do. The Lord used that. I was a heathen reading the Bible, but that’s a lot of time to spend with the Bible. I read the way a glutton devours.
Slowly and over time, the Bible started to take on a life and a meaning that startled me. Some of my well-worn paradigms no longer stuck, and I had to at least ponder the hermeneutical claim that this book was different from all the others because it was inspired by a holy God and inherently true and trustworthy.
This led me to go through the presuppositional truth claims. Marxists are presuppositionalists too, so I had a bit of a paradigm for this. I went through the presuppositional truth claims, just to check the math of the meaning here. The logic claims go like this:
1. If this book was written by men who were inspired by the Holy Spirit, then its admonitions about sin were not what I had thought them to be: applied cultural phobia.
Prior to reading the Bible for myself, I believed that culturally the category of sin was applied cultural phobia: the way a culture applies its phobia and fear and attaches it to language categories in order to keep certain people apart from the center of the culture and on the margins and allow the elevation of others. But, if God is good, then His goodness is unrestrained by time, and it anticipates and guards against the ill treatment of people. I noticed something about reading the Bible that I never noticed at a gay pride march with the placards. I noticed that as I read the Bible, its admonitions about sin were almost always offered with offers of grace. This struck me as odd: you mean the God of the Bible deals differently with people when people deal differently with Him? That was perplexing to me.
2. If God is the Creator of all things and if the Bible has His seal of truth and power, then the Bible actually had the right to interrogate me, my life, and my culture, and not the other way around.
Even as a post-modern reader, I understood the idea that authority can depend only on that which is higher than itself. I was a professor after all. If your paper was due on Thursday and you gave it to me the following Monday, it was not going to go well for you. “Who is higher than God?” I wondered.
My friends knew that I was reading the Bible. First, the dean of the chapel took me out to lunch and shared his belief that the Old Testament was dispensable and with it any prohibitions about sexuality and immorality. But I had been reading and studying the three different narratives of the Old Testament (the ceremonial law, the judicial law, and the moral law) and it seemed to me that you actually could not dispense with the entire Old Testament without violating a rule about canonicity: no creating cannons within cannons. In fact, I had just gone over this rule in my graduate seminar in queer theory because some rules about hermeneutics are somewhat universal. So it really made me wonder if the chapel dean ought not to sit in on my graduate class in queer theory so that he could get his hermeneutics figured out. I don’t know. It was just a question.
The chapel dean’s position is what we call a “hermeneutic of convenience” (where you can form the text to fit your experience) and not a “hermeneutic of integrity” (where the text gets a chance to fulfill its mission). Even a reader response critic knows that each text has a kind of internal mission, and that’s true whether you’re reading Shakespeare or Frankenstein. Each text has an internal mission and everybody knows that the internal mission of the Bible is to transform the nature of humanity. That is why even unbelievers know that it’s a dangerous text. Everybody knows that. It’s not even an open secret. I was truly puzzled that the chapel dean seemed to have such little academic understanding of the book that he had studied longer than I.
The next thing that happened was more impactful for me because it was a dear friend. Next, at a dinner gathering that my partner and I were hosting, my transgendered friend— I’ll call her Jill—cornered me in the kitchen. She put her large hand over mine and she said, “Rosaria, this Bible reading is changing you.” I felt exposed. She was right and she always was one of my wisest and dearest friends.
“But what if it’s true?” I asked. “What if Jesus is a real and risen Lord? What if we are all in trouble?” I think maybe sometimes people don’t know that gay rights activists talk about these topics in the kitchen, because they do. Everybody does because we have souls that will last forever. Jill sat down and exhaled deeply. Her eyes looked wise, they always did. She said, “Rosaria, I was a Presbyterian minister for 15 years. I prayed that God would heal me, but He didn’t. If you want, I will pray for you.”
This encounter gave me a kind of secret, tacit permission to keep reading the Bible. I mean after all, my dear friend Jill had also read it cover to cover many times and had routed around in its deep crevices for purpose and help. But the bomb she dropped also enraged me. “Who is this Jesus who heals some but not others?” No peace and social justice activist wants some unequal opportunity God. At the same time, something deep inside me recoiled at the word “heal.” I did not need healing. I believed that gay is good. Even the Bible didn’t say that I needed healing; the Bible said I needed to repent of sin. Quite frankly, I didn’t like either of these terms, so I rejected both the idea that I needed healing and the idea that I needed saving from my sin.
The next day when I returned home from work, I found two large milk crates spilling over with theological books—Jill’s books. She was giving them to me. In Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion was a warning in Jill’s handwriting: “Watch Romans 1.” Let’s open up to Romans 1.
It’s interesting that Ken Smith didn’t hit me over the head with Romans 1, but notes in a margin from a friend.
I found in Romans 1:21-26 the verb clauses and their order here to be particularly arresting:
- did not honor God
- did not give thanks
- engaged in futile speculations
- became fools
- exchanged the incorruptible for the corruptible
- God gives us over to our lusts
- when we look at the world through our lusts, we dishonor our bodies and we worship the world
These verses seem to provide a haunting literary echo to Genesis 3, where Eve’s desire to live independently of God’s authority made perfect sense to me. If I were Eve, I would have done the same thing. At the same time, the seemingly innocent sin intriguingly attributed to Adam because of headship served as the leverage for the whole world to come tumbling down, fierce and fast, bloody and brilliance. The two biblical frames—one in Genesis and one in Romans—stood out as bookends of my life, but not just my life. That’s the rub. If the Bible is an eternal frame relevant for and responding to the needs of all of humanity as its internal testimony purports, then Genesis 3 and Romans 1 stood out as the table of contents of what ails the world.
Indeed Romans 1 does not end by highlighting homosexuality as a discrete and separate matter in the way that we discuss it today. Instead, this passage finds its crescendo in how one sin—homosexuality in this case—seems to morph into other sins and finds its impetus in original sin. Read on with me, please. Romans 1:29-32 says: “…being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.”
That last line grabbed me by the throat: “give hearty approval to those who practice them.” It told me that if we cannot receive a blessing from God, we will demand it from men. As the faculty advisor to many LGBT groups on campus, this got my attention. I also took note of the theological diagnosis. Homosexuality in the Bible is actually not the endpoint of the problem for God or for the world. Homosexuality is not the unpardonable sin, but it is presented here as one step in the journey away from God’s protection and blessing. Homosexuality then seemed consequential, not causal.
Indeed, according to Romans 1, homosexuality from God’s point of view is an identity-rooted ethical outworking of this original sin. Therefore, it seems solidly biblical to say indeed that we are born this way because—truth be told—we are all born distorted by original sin in one way or another. But by failing to rigorously relinquish my identity to God’s story and failing to understand that the fall rendered even my deepest and most primal feelings untrustworthy and untrue, I had actually added to my ledger of original sin by creating for myself a category of personhood that God did not. God has one category of personhood. We are male and female, image bearers of a holy God, and we have souls that will last forever. I had taught, studied, read, and lived a very different notion of homosexuality. For the first time in my life, I wondered if I was wrong.
This stopped me in my tracks. Somehow it was easier to hate the Bible but keep reading it when it just squared off against me; but now that it was getting under my skin, it became a foe of a different and a more menacing kind. I did the only responsible thing and tried to toss the Bible and its teachings in the trash. My life was on the line. I really tried.
But Ken, at this point, had become my friend. He encouraged me to keep reading. Only because I trusted him did I do that. As I read and reread the Bible, I kept catching my wings in its daily embrace. I was fighting the idea that the Bible is inspired and inerrant—that its meaning and purpose has a holy and supernatural authority that has protected it over the years of its canonicity and that it is the repository of truth.
How could a smart cookie like me embrace such things? I didn’t even believe in truth. I was a postmodernist. I believed in truth claims. I believed the reader constructed the text and that a text’s meaning found its power only in the reader’s interpretation of it. “Without the reader, a book is just paper and glue,” I told my students over and over again. How dare this one book lay claim to a birthright and progeny totally different to all the others. That this book was supernatural was becoming more and more evident to me, and my hermeneutical bag of tricks had no system of containment for it.
As I was reading and discussing these things with Ken, he pointed out to me that Jesus is the Word made flesh and that knowing Jesus demands embracing the Jesus of the whole Bible, not the Jesus of my imagination. The whole Bible included even those places that took my life captive. After years and years of this, having read the Bible through about seven times at this point, something happened. The Bible got to be bigger inside me than I. It overflowed into my world. I fought against it with all my might. Then one Sunday morning, two years after I first met Ken and Floy and two years after I thought that I was reading the Bible for my research, I left the bed that I shared with my lesbian lover and an hour later I sat in a pew at the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church. I say this not to be lurid, but to remind us that we simply never know the treacherous path that some people take to arrive in the pew that we share on Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day. Conspicuous of my appearance, I reminded myself that I came there to meet God, not to fit in.
The first sermon that I heard Ken preach was intended for children. Ken started to talk about the narrow gate and the wide gate. Immediately, my mind started to drift away and I don’t remember hearing much more of the sermon. My mind was drifting to last year’s gay pride march, wide as it was with people like me. I’ve never felt more uncomfortable in my life than I did the first day sitting in that church. Everybody looked so weird to me, everybody dressed so bizarrely to me, and I longed to be with my people. I missed my people.
As my mind was wandering to last year’s gay pride march, I realized that those people made me feel safe and loved. I longed to be with the people who I valued as family, but that did make me wonder, “Why couldn’t I pay attention to the sermon?” Just a question. “Why did my mind keep traveling to the wide path?”
I kept going back to church to hear more sermons. I had made friendships with people in the church by this time, and I appreciated the way that they talked about the sermons throughout the week, about how the Word of God dwelt in them, and about how they referenced it in the details of their days. English professors by training love cross-referencing. We will do almost anything to hear anybody quote an original text; it just feels so good. I muddled over this in my mind. Cross-referencing the Bible with your life places you inside God’s story. It places you inside God’s ontology. Is this safe? Is this deadly? I sure knew that it would be deadly for me, and I thought “What are these people doing?” I pondered these matters.
Ken was preaching through the gospel of Matthew at the time with its bewildering cast of characters and problems: unsuspecting folks separated unto the gospel; seeds choked by the world; and feeding thousands with some poor and nameless kid’s bread and fish (I always felt so sorry for that guy; I know that he ate, but still). Then, Jesus’s cutting question to impetuous Peter: “Do you still lack understanding?”
One Lord’s Day, Pastor Ken just stopped there, turned his steel blue eyes on the congregation, and held us in this long pause—like the kind that makes you wonder if he’s having a heart attack since he’s old. He stepped out in front of the pulpit, left his notes, and he said this: “Congregation, did Christ ever say this to you? Do you still lack understanding?”
This startled me because this was my question. I knew there was something I wasn’t getting and I’m a pretty sharp cookie. I wasn’t getting it. I realized that that question was for me: Do I still lack understanding? Then I wondered, “Who is speaking here? That old man behind the pulpit or the God-man before the foundations of the world?”
There was something about the hermeneutic of preaching that completely disarmed me, and truth be told, it still does. Like waves crashing in a raging sea, the image of me and everyone I loved suffering in hell—not because we called ourselves gay, but because we were proud—vomited into my consciousness and gripped me in its teeth. We wanted to be autonomous. We rejected the Bible’s interpretive authority over our sexuality, our sexual identity, and our sexual practice. It was our hearts and our minds first, and our bodies and identities followed. I got it. I heard it finally. I counted the costs and I ran in the other direction because I still did not like the terms of this.
You see, this was and is my crucible: if the Bible is true, I was dead; if the Bible is false, you’re staring at the biggest fool on earth.
But God’s promises rolled in like another round of waves into my world. One Lord’s day Ken was preaching on John 7:17: “If anyone wills to do God’s will, he shall know concerning the doctrine” (NKJV). This verse exposed the quicksand in which my feet were stuck. I was a thinker. I was paid to read books, write about them, and tell you what to think of them. I expected that in all areas of my life understanding came before obedience, not the other way around. I wanted God to show me on my terms why homosexuality was a sin. I wanted to be the judge, not the one being judged. Perhaps I thought like Eve in the garden and wanted to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil so that I could become and replace God.
Then I wondered, “Hadn’t I already done this? Hadn’t we all?” If my consciousness fell in Adam’s sin as the Bible purports, no wonder I couldn’t think my way out of this quandary. This wasn’t a game of thinking and the matching of wits. The question was: Could my heart echo God’s call for obedience? Could I will to do God’s will just this once? The stakes were so very high because they always are. But this verse (John 7:17) promised understanding after obedience. I wrestled with the question, “Did I really want to understand homosexuality from God’s point of view or did I just want to argue with Him?”
I prayed that night that God would give me the willingness to obey before I understood. Starting with my sexuality was too scary and too impossible, so I started with Jesus. I prayed that God would be pleased to reveal His Son in me. I prayed that I would be a vessel of Jesus. Then I moved to gender. I don’t know why, but I had a driving, somewhat oxymoronic desire to make biblical sense of my place in this world as a woman defined and covered by God. In response, I prayed that night that God would make me a godly woman and then I laughed out loud in my unbelief at the insanity of this prayer because it was really insane. I prayed that God would give me the faith to repent of my sin at its root. What is the root of my sin? I did not then and I don’t now think that my sexual lust for women was actually the root of my sin. According to the Bible, homosexuality is a fruit of a much larger issue. It’s an ethical outworking of a state of mind and a practical outworking of original sin.
I left my first night of prayer just simply pondering these questions:
- Could original sin be for real? I’ve been studying and teaching creation myths my whole life, but you’re telling me this is true? Could it really distort me like this?
- Is my sexual desire for women a reflection of the real me—which is what I had thought—or a distortion of it through original sin?
- How in the world does one repent of a sin that doesn’t feel like a sin at all, but rather a normal, not-bothering-another-soul kind of life?
- How had I come to this place?
- What is the root of the sin of sexual identity? Is it the sex, the identity, or both?
I was a jumble of emotions, but I continued to pray that the Lord would just help me to see my life from His point of view. The next morning when I looked in the mirror, I looked exactly the same. But when I looked in the mirror of the Bible, I wondered the following questions:
- Am I a lesbian?
- Am I an atheist?
- Am I the master of my own destiny?
- Am I exempt from blame because what I do in bed is self-contained and does not affect anyone but my lover, or has this all been a case of mistaken identity?
- If Jesus could split the world asunder, divide the soul and the spirit, and judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart, could He make my true identity prevail?
- Who am I? Who will God have me to be? I still felt like a lesbian in my body and in my heart; that is, I felt my real identity. But what is my true identity?
The Bible makes clear that the real and the true have a troubled relationship this side of eternity. For many people in the Bible, their true identity and calling comes only after a long struggle with God, with wilderness, and with dreams, hopes, and plans being dashed and destroyed. The Bible makes clear that my future and my calling will always echo an attribute of God and that obedience constrains and mirrors suffering as every selection implies a sacrifice. So what is bigger, my lesbian identity or God’s authority over me and His holy sovereignty over the world?
- Who is this Jesus, anyway? Did I know Him? Did I still lack understanding? Could I trust Him?
Then one ordinary day, I came to Jesus. There are no altar calls in a Reformed Presbyterian church, so there’s no fanfare or manipulation. The guy whose head I stared at from behind who got a haircut every six weeks had no idea that the heavens had just moved mountains right behind him. We were singing from Psalm 119, line 56. “This is mine, because forever all thy precepts I preserve.” After I sang these words, I checked them in the Bible just to make sure the psalter didn’t have some wacky misprint in it. The Bible made things worse for me; it used a helping verb. Yes, that’s right. If Rosaria ever wrote an evangelistic treatise, it would be How Helping Verbs in the Bible Can Bring You to Christ.
The Bible used a helping verb. It noted the verse like this: “This has become mine.” There was something about that helping verb that made something shift in me. Two weight-bearing walls just collapsed at once in me. That first wall came crashing down because I had actually just sung condemnation unto myself, and I was actually in tune enough with the Holy Spirit to feel His convicting rebuke. This Bible was not mine. I had read it plenty of times, but I had scorned it, cursed it, despised it, and taught thousands of college students to do the same.
But I had been reading and re-reading this book and that use of that helping verb “has” (“has become”) really troubled me. Two years of laborious reading embodies the helping verb “has.” It shows process, journey, pilgrimage and danger. But I was not “in Christ,” and therefore could not possibly keep these precepts—God’s law—not in word or heart change or deed.
Now I’ll tell you about the shattering of the second wall. I had read the Bible many times through. I saw for myself that it has a holy author. I saw for myself that it was a canonized collection of 66 books with a unified biblical revelation. I heard for myself that when the phrase “this is mine” came out of my mouth in congregational singing, I was attesting to this one simple truth: that the line of communication that God ordained for His people required this wrestling with Scripture, and that I truly wanted to both hear God’s voice breathed into my life and I wanted God to hear my prayers. The fog burned away. The whole Bible, each jot and each tittle, was my open highway to a holy God.
My hands let go of the wheel of self-invention. I came to Jesus alone, open-handed, and naked. I had no dignity upon which to stand. As an advocate for peace and social justice, I had thought that I was on the side of kindness, integrity, and care. It was thus a crushing revelation to discover that it was Jesus that I had been persecuting the whole time—not just some historical figure named Jesus, but my Jesus, my Prophet, my Priest, my King, My Savior, My Redeemer, my friend, that Jesus.
Of course, there’s only one thing to do when you meet the living God, you must fall on your face and repent of your sins. I could only touch one sin at this point: pride. My life was filled with pride. I repented of my pride that led me to believe that I could invent my own rules for faith, life, and sexual autonomy, that said that I was entitled to live separately from God, that led me to believe that self-worth was self-invented. Repentance is bittersweet business. Repentance is not just some conversion exercise; it is the posture of a Christian. Repentance is our daily fruit, our hourly washing, our minute-by-minute wake-up call, and our reminder of God’s creation, Jesus’ blood, and the Holy Spirit’s comfort. Repentance is the only no-shame solution to a renewed Christian conscience because it proves only the obvious: that God was right all along.
Conversion was a train wreck. I did not want to lose everything that I had in order to gain Christ, but I simply had to. Softly the voice of God sang a sanguine love song into the rubble of my world, and I weakly believed that if Jesus could conquer death, then He could make right my world. I drank from the means of grace that God provides: Bible reading, prayers, Psalm singing, fellowship of the saints, and then later church membership and the Lord’s Supper. I took respite in private peace and then in Christian community.
God radically changes people from the heart and the proof of conversion is a heart changed by Jesus. We do not look to ourselves to see if we measure up. We do not use our personal feelings as proof of gospel life. We do not look to ourselves because we don’t measure up; Jesus measures up for us and that’s the point.
So what about homosexuality? Did I ever get some special telegram from the Holy Spirit as to why it’s a sin? Did I ever feel that unnaturalness that Romans 1 outlines? Or as a friend put it to me once, “Rosaria, when did the yuck factor about your homosexual sex finally hit you upside the head?” If you ask me those kinds of questions, you end up in a book. I just don’t get out much, so I have to work with the material that comes my way.
That’s actually not what happened. The sinfulness of my sexual sin unfolded for me in the authority of the Bible alone, in the growing sweetness of my union with Christ, and in the sanctification that this very slowly births. At a certain point in my life, I knew that I had to turn the wheel over to God. I was a little bit like an Alzheimer’s patient who, in a flashing moment of mental lucidity, signs over his right to his able-minded caregiver. In that same way, a believer signs over his rights of interpretation to the God of the Bible. I learned in that crucible that I was not to love or cherish anything that God calls sin, even if my flesh craves it.
Psalm 66:18 puts it this way: “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (ESV). The verb to note is “cherished.” When we cherish sin, we are separated from a holy God. When you defend your right to a particular sin, you are cherishing it.
Isaiah 59:1-2 declares this: “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God…” (ESV) When we cherish sin, we build a wall between us and our Maker. We are deceived to believe that our sin is not our sin. We call God a liar and we use our personal feelings as proof. All our personal feelings prove is that original sin and the deceptiveness of sin are inseparable. As 1 John 1:10 puts it: “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”
Indeed, homosexuality is a sin. But so too, I believe, is homophobia. Homophobia is the fear and loathing of people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered and the wholesale writing off of their souls. But that still leaves the question unanswered: What is the sin of homosexuality? Is it the feeling or the practice?
For me, the root of my lesbianism was pride. I did not want any man to have any authority over me or my body and that I came to learn is a sin. For others, the root may be lust or sexual addiction. Some sins are harder to battle than others. For God, when we call sin as sin and repent of it, we honor God’s authority. Getting to a posture of repentance, though, is often its own battle as the flesh cries out for the forbidden object while the heart and mind owned by Jesus beg for deliverance. Christ is in us and He is for us in this battle because repentance is actually the threshold to God.
Now for those who struggle with homosexual desires, this is a hard and a heavy cross to bear. I get it. I also know that if you are in Christ, Jesus will carry the heavier part of this burden. Crosses are not curses.
To the Christians who do not struggle with gay or lesbian temptations, please do not add unbearable weight to this burden by thinking that the sin of homosexual practice is different from all the other sins in the world or that its solution is heterosexuality. The solution to all sin is Christ’s atoning blood. In Christ, we are new creatures. In Christ, we have a new will, heart, and affections for God’s Word and His will. We are redeemed men and women who have been buried with Christ through baptism into death and we are no longer slaves to the sin that once defined us, although it likely still knows our names and addresses.
Much of my struggle with the indwelling sin of homosexuality was in figuring out its expanse and in deciding whether I was going to agree with God’s vocabulary and God’s dictionary or argue instead for my own. Was my lesbian desire a reflection of who I am or a distortion of who I am? Was original sin for real? If my lesbian feelings never went away, did that mean that God did not hear my prayer or love me? Is the covenant of grace a bad deal for people who have gay or lesbian desires?
This was not an easy or a linear process. At a certain point in my journey, I realized that the promises of sexual fulfillment on my own terms were actually the antithesis of what I had once fervently believed. Instead of liberty, my sexual sin was enslavement. Then one day, I saw my lesbian desires and sensibilities starkly. Seeing my sexual sin from God’s point of view—and I’m talking now about all of my sexual sin, heterosexual and homosexual—it was a little bit like what I imagine waking up in my own vomit would be like.
Today, I stand in a long line of godly women—that would be the Mary Magdalene line. The gospel came with grace, but it demanded irreconcilable war. Somewhere on this bloody battlefield, my fledgling desire to become a godly woman covered by God and hedged in by His Word and will bled into another desire: to become, if the Lord willed, the godly wife of a godly husband.
Then I noticed it: union with the risen Christ meant that everything else was nailed to the cross. I couldn’t get my former life back if I wanted it. At first I felt like a vampire, looking in the mirror with nothing coming back. It was terrifying. I also felt a little like I imagine an amputee feels. But when I peered deep into the abyss of this terror, I found only one thing: peace. With peace, I discovered that the gospel is always ahead of you; home is always forward.
What does a person like me do with her past? The last I checked, I have not been lobotomized. I’ve not forgotten the flowing contours of my life. Body memories know my name. Details intrude into my world unpredictably, such as when I’m home schooling my children going over the order of operations in home school math or even kneading the communion bread that I make every week. I take each ancient token to the cross for prayer for more repentance and for thanksgiving that God is simply always right about matters of sin and grace. My personal feelings don’t arbitrate that.
I think about what it means to live within the story of the Bible and how repentance is a fruit of my new life in Christ. Paul’s question in Romans 6:21 is one I asked myself almost daily: “What fruit did you have then from the things of which you are now ashamed?” (MEV) The layers of my life in Christ always unfold in a double directional way: forward and backward; one step forward, two steps back. I have come to understand that this is part of what it means to live on this side of the New Jerusalem. It makes me long for my eternal home.
Bigger than this, I have not forgotten the blood that Jesus surrendered for this life where gospel faith paves the path of my yearning, my questions, my doubts, and my fears, and where all aspects of my life—even the afflictions, trials, and tragedies—have meaning, purpose, and grace. Jesus gives us joy as the strongholds of sin are torn down when we live in the grace of obedience. In Jesus, suffering is redemptive. This includes the suffering that occurs when Christ gives us the faith to choose Him over ourselves. In Jesus, joy in the Lord resides in Jesus. We start to spread our new creature wings in Jesus. No matter what the sin of our past is, if we confess and repent of it, calling sin what God calls sin—a transgression against Him, an attack against His character and law—we stand in the risen Christ, hidden with God forever. As daughters and sons of God wrapped in robes of righteousness, even though we may struggle with many temptations and indwelling sin patterns over the course of this long journey, we live as a Galatians 2:20 people: a crucified people. When we do this, we hear God’s voice saying this to us: “This is my beloved daughter in whom I am well-pleased.” Nothing affords me robes of righteousness. It is grace alone by faith alone.
After the 2015 Supreme Court decision making gay marriage a constitutional right, here are the questions that I am repeatedly asked: Why in the world did I have to give up my girlfriend for Christ? Didn’t I just get the equation wrong over a decade ago? Why couldn’t I have both? I mean after all, five unelected Supreme Court judges think that’s okay. Who am I to argue with that? After all, can’t someone believe in Jesus and be gay? Let’s unpack this.
1. Can someone struggle with homosexual desire and be a faithful believer and follower of Christ? Yes. You can struggle in the right way with anything.
2. Can someone unrelentingly embrace homosexual lust, deny that it’s a sin, allow it to root and flourish as either a personal identity (“I am gay”) or a sexual practice (“This is who I’m sleeping with”) and then add Jesus to this equation and call it Christian? No way.
Because the God who made you and takes care of you sets the terms of what selfhood means. Submitting to the God who made me required a radically different understanding of both the nature of man and the nature of sin. According to the Bible, we find our identity either in Adam or Christ. That is why Romans 8:13 says, “For if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (NASB1995).
Puritan John Owen put it this way: “Grace changes the nature of man, but nothing can change the nature of sin.” Nothing can change the nature of sin and that is why it must be mortified. Sin is not only an enemy. Enemies can and often are reconciled. Sin is enmity and enmity against God cannot be reconciled. It is for this reason that God calls us to die to self. Galatians 2:20 says: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (NASB1995).
The Bible offers a completely different definition of personhood than that reflected by our culture, which is embedded in the recent Supreme Court decision and reflected by all of those Planned Parent videos. So the question is: Who is right, the world’s wisdom or the Bible’s? I bet my life on the God of the Bible and the matchless name of Jesus in whom all things consist. We only do this by God’s grace alone.
Sometimes the choice that we have to make feels like a kind of death because it is. It’s the death of an identity that I once loved and cherished.
The depth of our sin always exceeds the merit of our confession. We never confess deep enough, big enough, or long enough. But the gospel is always and still is for us. It is for all of us who bend the knee to Christ. It is for those of us who struggle with homosexual desires and for those of us who struggle with other matters. God’s grace for us in Christ is sufficient for all of our various struggles and sins.
Some might be wondering if the terms of this life of faith and the gift of eternal life in Christ are fair. After all, aren’t Christians who struggle with homosexual desires the big losers in this game of friendship, community, intimacy, and connection? After all, isn’t there a cheap gospel for singles and a plentiful gospel for those who are married?
The terms of this covenant are important to think through. They give us spiritual things and they give us practical things. The terms of this covenant give us union with Christ, which is a dynamic friendship that is:
- imminent, according to Ephesians 1:4 “from before the foundations of the world;”
- transient, according to Romans 6:3-11 as it joins the believer to Christ’s death and resurrection and the shaping of identity that emerges from this; and
- applicatory, living with the kind company of the indwelling Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.
It is union with Christ that fuels our daily battle against the original sin that distorts us, the actual sin that distracts us, and the indwelling sin that manipulates us. Make no mistake, this is war. This is spiritual war and in this war we learn that our identity cannot be rooted in something that God calls sin, even if we love it and have known it as our earliest identity language. Identity can only be rooted in what God has done and what God is doing.
In addition to all of the spiritual gifts given to the believer, the believer is also promised a new family in the church. Please turn with me to Mark 10:28-30. Peter is speaking to Jesus here.
“Peter began to say to Him, ‘Behold, we have left everything and followed You.’ Jesus said, ‘Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come eternal life'” (NASB1995).
Please note what Jesus is saying here about how to love our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered friends who respond to the gospel in faith and obedience or anyone else who must lose everything in order to gain the kingdom’s promises. Jesus says that He expects that we will lose partners, children, and houses in the process. He expects that. He says that your new brothers and sisters in Christ will be your family and you will receive one hundredfold from them what you put on the altar in obedience.
Are you perhaps part of the problem? Have you only been sharing half the gospel? Are you willing to share the gospel and offer with it a house key? Are you ready to open your homes and your hearts to your brothers and sisters who have left a family in the LGBT community for the gospel’s sake? If not, why not?
From whom will this blessing of a new family come? Where does this hundredfold come from, if not from the church? If you know that the gospel costs everything, but you believe with every fiber in your body that it’s worth it, then God intends this blessing to come from you.
We all need more grace, but you simply cannot bypass repentance to get to grace. Repentance is the threshold to God. As Puritan Thomas Watson says, “Repentance makes way for solid comfort so that those who sow in tears will reap in joy,” as Psalm 126:5 says. In my journey, I learned that gender and sexuality are neither social constructs as I had believed nor are they exclusively New Testament inventions. A holy God established them 6,000 years ago before the world’s foundations when He created Adam and Eve, male and female, and gave them souls that will last forever. That simple truth that I learned is the root of identity, of humanity, of personhood, and of purpose. By God’s grace, even when I was a complete mess He gave me a new family in the church and that made all the difference.