On this edition of Truth in Love, Dr. Lambert talks with Dr. Denny Burk about same sex attraction. Dr. Burk offers biblical guidance and encouragement toward holiness for those who struggle with same sex attraction.
Lambert: In our contemporary culture the problem of homosexuality is one that the church has been forced to address in unprecedented ways. Currently, one of the issues that the church is addressing is not just the problem of same-sex behavior, but the attractions and desires that lead to that behavior. Our guest to help us think through the issue of same-sex attraction is Dr. Denny Burk. Dr. Burk is the professor of Biblical Studies at Southern Seminary and their undergraduate institution, Boyce College. He’s also the author of the book, What is the Meaning of Sex as well as the forthcoming book, Transforming Homosexuality: Living Faithfully with Same Sex Attraction. I am glad Denny is here with us today to talk with us about this important issue of attraction and desire that precipitates same-sex behavior. Dr. Burk, what is same-sex attraction and why is it sinful?
Burk: Same-Sex attraction is just what it sounds like; it is sexual attraction to persons of the same sex. If you listen to the medical authorities they will define sexuality as one of three things: a person can experience attraction to the opposite sex, the same sex, or both sexes. Many people experience exclusive attractions to the same sex, while some people experience attractions to both sexes. The issue for us as Christians is to know what the Scripture teaches us about our attractions and if the Bible teaches us how to think about them. The answer to that is yes. The answer is that our attractions have a moral component to them and Jesus Himself is perhaps the one who spoke the most clearly about this in Matthew 5:27-28 when speaking of the ten commandments. In particular, he referenced the seventh commandment when He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” What Jesus was teaching us is that it is not just the doing of the sin that’s a problem, it’s the desiring of it that is sinful. So, if you find yourself in any condition of desiring immorality or any kind of sinful sex, then that would be an occasion for repentance. So when you think about same-sex attraction, what same sex attraction is, is a persistent kind of desiring of sexual contact with people of the same sex. This of course is prohibited in Scripture, so biblically speaking, same-sex attraction itself becomes an occasion for repentance.
Lambert: This is a conversation that a lot of different Christians are having in evangelicalism right now, and there is not complete agreement between evangelicals on the sinfulness of same-sex attraction. Help us understand why it’s so important to be having this conversation right now.
Burk: Well there is some disagreement about this. Some people who are Christians and who otherwise would be very close to us confessionally, in terms of what they believe in their evangelical faith, are having disagreements about this. There is a sector within evangelicalism of folks who, whereas we all agree that same-sex sexual behavior would be sinful, would argue that same-sex attraction itself is not. You may have certain kinds of attractions but those aren’t necessarily sinful; they are not necessarily something you need to repent from. There are some within the movement who are saying that same sex attraction can be used for good purposes, such as to achieve better emotional connectedness and relatedness to people of the same sex even though you may be living a celibate lifestyle. They sort of use same-sex attraction as a pivot to holy ends, yet I would argue that biblically that is not a very helpful way to think about the issue. Same-sex attraction doesn’t enable and enhance holy friendships, it is an impediment to them. Yes, we can have holy same-sex friendships and even people who struggle with same-sex attraction can have holy same-sex friendships. That is able to happen because they are repenting and setting themselves aside from sexual attractions that are unholy. I just want to be careful that we don’t communicate to people that somehow unholy sexual attractions can be used for holy ends.
Lambert: Some people who are listening in on this conversation that Christians are having feel a little overwhelmed. They are saying, “Ok, I feel drawn sexually to members of the same sex; yet that is just a temptation. I don’t think it’s right for you to say my temptations are sinful since we all face temptations and we are not always guilty of sin when the temptation comes.” Help us think through the distinction between a temptation and sinful same-sex attraction.
Burk: We would certainly want to affirm that not all temptation is sin. The Bible teaches in Hebrews 4:15 that Jesus was tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. So, He faced challenges that contained in them enticements to sin. When you think about what a temptation is, that’s essentially it; some kind of test or a trial that contains with it an enticement to sin. Jesus met those temptations (like he faced in the wilderness) coming to Him as trials that were enticements to sin, but He never gave in to those temptations. So we know that it is possible to be tempted and yet not sin. The issue is – and this is one of the things that distinguishes Jesus’ experience from ours – is that Jesus was sinless; that’s what Hebrews 4:15 says, He was “…without sin.” This doesn’t characterize our experience because the Bible says that we have been brought forth in iniquity and conceived in sin. We have a sinful nature. James 1 teaches us that oftentimes our temptations emerge from within and that we have temptations that emerge from our own evil desires. James 1:14 says, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (emphasis added). We face temptations arising from our own lusts which Jesus never faced. So, what does that mean? It means that sometimes there are dispositions, attractions, desires, which emerge from our own heart that are themselves sinful because we are sinners by nature. Jesus never faced those kinds of temptations so we find ourselves having to repent of our own desires that sometimes come quite naturally to us as sinners. It is very important to understand the difference that sometimes our temptations are not amoral. Sometimes there is a moral component to them which we need to be able to discern, then turn from sin when it happens. When we talk this way, we don’t want to single out same-sex attracted people as if this is their exclusive experience; this is the experience of every sinner. I am not same-sex attracted but I struggle with sins that emerge rather naturally from my nature. When they occur and I am aware of them and I have to repent. We are all in the same boat.
Lambert: I have made reference to the conversation that Christians and evangelicals are having about this issue but for so many people this is not a conversation that people are having. This is a struggle that they deal with every day and have dealt with as long as they can remember. They feel tormented by this same-sex draw. As a Bible scholar and local church pastor, what would you say to someone who came to you and said, “I am struggling, I know these desires and behaviors which I am tempted to are sinful. I want to honor Jesus with my life, both in heart and in behavior, but I feel overwhelmed. This has been with me as long as I can remember. What do I do?”
Burk: The first thing I would say is the very fact that you are willing to engage the struggle is evidence that the Spirit is alive and at work in you. Just the willingness to show up to the struggle is the evidence that God is at work. The Bible says that we are suppose to work out our salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who is at work in you, both to act and to will -meaning to desire – according to His good pleasure. I just want to affirm them that the desire to engage the struggle because you love Jesus is an evidence of grace and that’s a wonderful thing and you should be encouraged by that! I would also want to tell them that same-sex attraction is a particularly difficult struggle, but they are not in this alone. There are people who want to come and help strengthen their hands to fight the good fight and be faithful in following Jesus. There are some people who struggle with this who are able to be married and enter into a heterosexual marriage, yet for some that doesn’t seem to be within the realm of possibility considering the attractions they experience. As a result, they feel like they are facing a lifetime of loneliness and isolation. I want to say to those folks, that’s not really what the Scripture teaches. Yes, sometimes Jesus requires taking up a cross which requires difficulty and struggle; but that’s what Jesus told us Christianity would be. It’s not just that way for them, it’s that way for everybody and you are not consigned to a lifetime of loneliness if you are a part of the family of God. “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 lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life’” (Mark 10:29-30). Jesus said there would be persecutions and suffering in this life, but you also get a new family. There is a vital connectedness to the family of God that happens for every single believer and so same-sex attracted persons should not view this as a sentence of loneliness if they are pursuing celibacy in their life. There is a family for them to be a part of that has its arms wide open to them.