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Desires in Conflict: Hope and Healing for Individuals Struggling with Same-Sex Attraction

Practical tips for those who find themselves in a position to help people struggling with same-sex attraction

By Melody D. Palm

Few topics evoke more emotion and debate within today’s church than that of homosexuality or same-sex attraction. Numerous celebrities have announced their gay identity and newfound sense of true self. Gay-friendly films, music, and comedy grow in popularity in the world of entertainment. In recent years, well-known evangelical Christians have come out, endorsed committed same-sex unions, and called for a more enlightened interpretation of Scriptures related to homosexuality. In the midst of this storm, the question begs to be answered, “How is the church to respond to this controversial and divisive issue?”

Extensive research and debate exist to substantiate opposing views regarding homosexuality. Educated religious people disagree on the interpretation of biblical passages related to homosexuality. This article focuses on effective people helping rather than the efficacy of frequently debated Scripture passages by opposing camps — whether conservative and liberal Christians, believers and nonbelievers, or the traditionalist church and the emergent church. The goal of this article is to provide practical tips for those who find themselves in a position to help people struggling with same-sex attraction.

Terminology

According to the Assemblies of God Position Paper on Homosexuality, we frequently use the term homosexuality to describe both orientation and behavior. We understand “homosexual orientation to mean sexual attraction to other members of the same sex.” We understand “homosexual behaviorto mean participation in same-sex genital acts. Homosexual orientation may pose temptations to lustful thinking and behavior, like heterosexual temptations, that a person may not necessarily act on and may resist and overcome these temptations in the power of the Holy Spirit.” We believe only homosexual lust and homosexual behaviors are sinful.1

People often use the terms sexual identity and sexual orientation interchangeably. Sexual orientation describes the direction and focus of sexual and emotional attractions experienced by a person. Sexual identity relates to individual expression of these feelings, whether heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. Sexual identity is different from gender identity. Gender identity refers to a person’s sense of being male or female, resulting from a combination of genetic and environmental influences.2 Gender identity disorder is not the same as homosexuality.

Gender identity disorder involves a conflict between a person’s anatomically assigned gender and the gender with which he or she identifies. For example, a person anatomically identified as a boy may feel and act like a girl. Individuals with this struggle frequently tell how they feel trapped in the wrong physical body. Gender identity issues manifest in various ways. For example, some people with normal genitalia and sexual characteristics of one gender (such as breasts) privately identify more with the other gender. Some people cross-dress, and some seek sex-change surgery. Others are born with ambiguous genitalia, which can raise identity issues. These complex emotional, psychological, physical, and spiritual dilemmas warrant compassionate and respectful attention.

Conflicts of this magnitude deserve careful consideration, compassion, and may require professional help. Sexuality and spirituality constitute important aspects of personality. Dilemmas regarding sexual and religious identity present some of the most difficult challenges faced by individuals in our society.3 Therefore, accurate information is essential when examining long-held opinions that may have originated in untruth.

Five Common Myths

Many myths surrounding homosexuality exist and we need to correct them. Perhaps most destructive is the belief that homosexuals are child molesters. Adult males perpetrate the majority of child sexual abuse toward female children. Can a homosexual abuse a child? Yes. Can a heterosexual person be a child molester? Yes. However, equating those struggling with same-sex attraction with child molesters reveals uninformed conclusions.

A second commonly held belief portrays homosexuals as promiscuous and incapable of long-term committed monogamous relationships. This gross generalization demonstrates judgment without knowledge and understanding of this particular population. Individuals of all sexual orientations share the capacity for long-term committed relationships as well as meaningless, sexual experiences.

Unfounded fear fuels another myth alleging homosexuality is contagious and will rub off on others. People cannot contract homosexuality and spending time with someone of a different sexual orientation does not increase the likelihood of becoming homosexual.

Many point to unhealthy parent/child relationships as the cause of homosexuality. A domineering mother coupled with an ineffectual father or a possessive mother paired with a hostile father are not determinants of homosexuality. After a half century of research, “there is no proven known parental or psychological influence on sexual orientation. Sexual orientation appears not to be influenced by social example, overprotective mothering, distant fathering, being raised by gay parents or sexual abuse.”4 (Myers). No concrete evidence exists indicating that a male with an absent father is more likely to become homosexual. If that were true, rates of homosexuality would be more in line with the population of children who grow up without a father, instead of just 2-3 percent of the population. There is no evidence that a faulty relationship with a parent causes homosexuality.5

Another common claim suggests homosexuals experienced childhood sexual abuse — molestation, seduction, or sexual victimization by an adult homosexual. No evidence supports the assumption that children who have been sexually molested are more likely to be gay. Current statistics assert one out of every three girls and one in every four to five boys will be sexually abused or violated by the age of 18. If there were a direct correlation between sexual abuse and homosexuality, we would see female homosexuality rates closer to 33 percent instead of 2-3 percent and male homosexuality rates closer to 20-25 percent.

Perhaps the most hurtful myth assumes homosexuality is a choice or decision. This belief invalidates the very real struggles that accompany the daily life of the homosexual. While homosexuals, heterosexuals, and bisexuals may decide to engage in homosexual activities for a variety of reasons (ex. prison population) — the majority of individuals who struggle with same-sex issues do not recall choosing to be homosexual. Most people desire to be normal and do not willingly choose a life of discrimination, loneliness, shame, and ostracization. People do not elect to be gay anymore than heterosexuals choose to be straight.

Five Things To Avoid

First, do not take over the job of the Holy Spirit. Effective helpers do not assume the position of judge. Well-meaning people often employ guilt to force conviction. Let the Holy Spirit convict. Nor is it helpful to implement a behavior modification program. Overcoming same-sex attraction is not about modifying or changing behavior. It is an issue of identity. Avoid the temptation to separate persons from their homosexuality. God is the only One who can separate a person from sin. Regardless of a person’s sexual orientation, the critical issue is to embrace a true sense of identity in Christ through a personal relationship with the Redeemer. This miraculous experience can only transpire by and through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Second, avoid preaching or launching into Scripture recitation. When people approach pastors for help with a homosexual struggle, it is important to realize homosexuals come in a state of turmoil and angst wrestling to reconcile their sexuality with their faith. If there were no internal struggle with their faith, they would not be coming to see you. They usually do not need to be told their struggle is sinful — most are acutely aware of the incongruence and sin in their lives. They live with a daily, awkwardly painful tension between their sexuality and Scripture. Let the Holy Spirit introduce Scripture and guide the timing of the healing process.

Next, do not invalidate a person’s experience. It is never helpful to tell people how they feel. Your assumptions may decrease your credibility with those who turn to you for counsel. When someone states he has been gay all of his life, disagreeing with the statement disrespects his personal experience and reality. Many people report knowing they were different early in childhood. While many believe sexual identity is fluid and continues to evolve until early adulthood, invalidating an individual’s perception will only result in persons distancing themselves from help and feeling misunderstood and unheard.

Fourth, do not encourage marriage as a remedy for a person struggling with same-sex attraction. After a recommendation and blessing from their pastors, many proceed with marriage plans despite their sexual identity issues. Unfortunately, they enter marriage believing the union will alleviate their struggle. When individuals with same-sex issues have not adequately addressed their issues, marriage can result in disaster for both parties. Often individuals believe God will honor their faith and heal them. Walking down the aisle, taking a vow, and trying harder do not change an individual’s sexual orientation. In fact, marriage can exacerbate the struggle leading to depression, guilt, and debilitating hopelessness.

Finally, do not break confidentiality. Intimate sexual issues are a difficult topic for most people to discuss. When a person shares her confusion about sexuality, it is a sacred invitation into the innermost part of her being — to be treated with dignity, humility, respect, and confidentiality. We all desire privacy and confidentiality when we share our most intimate battles; this is particularly true for those who struggle with sexual identity issues.

Five Recommendations

First, create a safe, nonjudgmental place where an individual can share his or her painful experiences and ask questions without fear of reprimand, judgment, or shame. One cannot measure the value of a grace-based presence. Jesus has called us to be His hand extended — in essence, “Jesus with skin on.” In the presence of another empathic, deeply caring, nonjudgmental person, one can find deep comfort and strength to face another day. Provide a sanctuary of safety and let the Holy Spirit use you as a conduit for His grace and healing.

Second, knowledge is powerful. The more you educate yourself regarding the issues surrounding homosexuality, the better prepared you will be to assist those who come to you for help. Educate yourself on the Scriptures regarding homosexuality and differing views of biblical interpretation. Be informed and current about research relating to a biological basis, neurological studies, and prenatal hormonal predisposition to same-sex attraction. Be willing to discuss and grapple with the individual’s questions, anger, and confusion.

Next, instill hope. All of us need hope based in God’s power and love. Scripture affirms God is able to do above and beyond what we could ever imagine. The same God who created the world out of nothing can heal a damaged identity. He can change what a person submits to Him, aligning it with His perfect will for his life. God can redirect sexual orientation. God also extends His faithfulness and grace to those who do not experience change and choose a life of celibacy. God’s never-ending love pursues men and women who continue to grapple with their sexual identity and wrestle with related Scripture. No matter the stage of healing, God’s grace is sufficient. We can hold out hope that God can and does change people, His mercies are new every day, and He is committed to the process of helping all of us be conformed to His image. He who began a good work in us will complete it. God does not give up on us, no matter how hard or long the struggle.

Another critical key to helping an individual with a sexual identity crisis is to help her find true identity in Christ Jesus. While sexuality is a vital aspect of everyone’s identity, it is only one part of a complex structure of social, familial, biological, and religious constructs. For those struggling with issues of sexuality, desiring resolution or acceptance of the struggle can become their sole focus. They may believe finding their true sexual identity is the ultimate goal and will bring peace and fulfillment. In reality, a true sense of value and identity only comes from establishing identity in Christ Jesus. Identity based on sexuality, profession, ethnicity, religion, or anything other than Christ will never satisfy the search for wholeness and acceptance. Our search for meaning, significance, security, and hope begins and ends in Christ alone.

Finally, support the person in her journey to wholeness and holiness. One who struggles with sexual identity issues can benefit from a same-sex mentor or friend whose own sexual and gender identity is secure and healthy. A person who can model safe and appropriate same-sex friendship and intimacy can be healing. Find men and women in your church who are willing to walk with people through this difficult, rewarding, challenging, and life-changing process.

Conclusion

Due to the intrinsic and intertwined nature of sexuality and sense of self, the struggle with sexual identity can be exhausting. Experiencing life as part of a very small minority often results in severe loneliness. Trying to live a celibate life in a sexualized culture can challenge the most committed Christian. Sitting in church with couples and families can exacerbate the sense of a broken sexuality and isolation. A dreadful and deep ache continually accompanies the painful question, Does the God I love find me repulsive and abominable? Uncertainty whether transformation will ever come to this personal struggle can be demoralizing. Relapses can be devastating. Men and woman who struggle with sexual identity issues desperately need safe, nonjudgmental sojourners to walk with them, hold out hope, and support them as they work out their salvation and grapple with their sexuality.

Sexuality does not merely constitute a behavior or an act, but is an intricate part of a person’s identity. Sexual identity goes to the core of who we are, how we experience self, and our ability to experience healthy relationships. When a well-meaning person says, “I accept you but not your homosexuality,” to a person with a homosexual orientation, it registers as conditional acceptance at best. For those who struggle with homosexuality, their sexual orientation is not simply a behavior or lifestyle, but rather an intricate part of who they are as persons. They cannot separate themselves from their sexual identity because it is part of the fiber of their being. Pastors and helpers cannot separate those who struggle from their sin or identity. Only God can separate us from a false sense of self and create in us an identity that is anchored in truth and reality.

In closing, it is important to remind ourselves that sin has damaged and broken everyone’s sexuality — not just those who struggle with same-sex attraction or a disordered sexual identity. The sin of Adam and Eve affects every aspect of our creation and existence. No one escapes the effects of the Fall. No part of the human existence remains untouched. Our physical bodies experience illness. Our spirits need redemption. The Fall damaged our emotions and psychological functioning and distorted our sexuality. The sexuality of the married heterosexual, the transgendered individual in the process of sexual reassignment, the homosexual, and the individual committed to celibacy — all are marred by sin.

Therefore, let us be mindful that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and all are in need of His saving grace and mercy. When defending our scriptural stance and interpretation regarding serious issues, let us be careful to not further damage the hurting and broken seekers and instead offer the good news of Jesus Christ with compassion and love. The Word of God is sharper than a two-edged sword, but it was never meant to slice or wound people. Let us be careful in our attempts to uphold the Word of God not to damage those He came to heal and to save.

MELODY D. PALM, Psy.D., LCP, is director of the counseling and psychology department at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary. She is a licensed minister and founder and executive director, Still Waters Counseling Center, Springfield, Missouri.

Notes

1. Homosexuality, Assemblies of God Position Paper. http://ag.org/top/Beliefs/Position_Papers/pp_downloads/pp_4181_homosexuality.pdf.

2. The American Heritage® Stedman’s Medical Dictionary (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002).

3. Dan O. Via and Robert A.J. Gagnon, Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003), 18,19

4. David Myers, “Accepting What Cannot Be Changed,” in Perspectives, June/July 1999):5.

5. Ibid.

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