“It’s just a choice,” the respected pastor said to me confidently when I told him that God had led me to minister to people struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction.
While I was surprised and saddened to hear this from an experienced pastor, it also reminded me of the great need among our churches to be informed about ways to minister effectively and redemptively to those who struggle with an attraction they neither chose nor understand.
“It’s just a choice.” Few statements are more frustrating and painful for those who live with the reality of unwanted same-sex attraction. Many of them sit in our pews every Sunday. Some long to be able to talk about their struggle, but remarks such as this make them reluctant to open up.
The comments can be damaging to their friends and family members, as well. They may hear this from a trusted leader, assume it is true, and pass it on to the struggler. They also are more inclined to keep their own pain private because they now believe their loved one has simply “chosen” to disregard their advice.
There are also few things that can more negatively affect our credibility with a watching world than these words.
Some readers may be irritated at this point. You may be thinking “Well, it is a choice. No one is forcing them to live that way.” And therein lies the confusion.
While sin is always a choice, our temptations are not.
I’ve never been seriously tempted by alcohol — even as a student in my pre-Christian days — and I’ve always been extremely grateful for that.
On the other hand, I can remember struggling with anger from my early years. I did not choose this particular battle. After becoming a Christian I occasionally talked to people I respected about it. The advice I got often amounted to, “The Bible says you shouldn’t get angry.”
Which made me angry.
Far too often, people who struggle with same-sex attraction have been given that kind of simplistic advice by well-meaning family and friends. As with me and my anger, they were never aware of how or why the attraction started.
Many of the same-sex strugglers I’ve met through the years were sexually abused as children. Early on, their view of sexuality as a precious gift from God was marred. Confusion, guilt or outright threats often kept them from telling anyone.
One man told of being molested as a young boy by leaders in the church where his father was pastor. He said he thought maybe there was a sign on him saying “molest me.” Threats and fear kept him from telling anyone.
I’ve talked to women who were sexually abused by trusted family members. Again, shame and guilt often kept them from going to their parents. Sadly, some did go to adults who either didn’t believe them or chose simply to ignore the situation.
Others have been victims of physical and verbal abuse. Young women who saw their mothers abused came to two conclusions: 1) It isn’t safe to be a woman, so femininity must be rejected, and, 2) men aren’t safe and can’t be trusted in an intimate relationship.
In one support group I led, there was a man who did not fit into any of these categories. He was a slender young man who was much more interested in the arts than he was in sports. Other students began to harass him and call him gay. He didn’t think of himself that way and had never had homosexual temptations. But he began to wonder if his abusers were right. Eventually he decided to seek friendship in a gay bar. At the time I met him, he was a committed follower of Christ who still struggled to overcome the doubts brought on by his childhood antagonists.
Many who go through childhood traumas will at some point be tempted to justify or explain wrong attitudes or actions because of those traumas. But over and over again, I’ve heard men and women say, “I didn’t choose this struggle, but I did choose to act on the temptation.” They are well aware that freedom requires them to honestly face their own guilt. But too often they first have to sort through the confusion brought about by well-meaning people who have told them, “It’s a choice.”
These courageous people deserve more from us than “It’s just a choice.”
They need and deserve understanding, conveyed by both words and body language. They need and deserve to experience the love of Jesus Christ through people who honestly face our own struggles in areas of temptation we did not choose. They need and deserve encouragement to look to and trust in Jesus, just like every Christ-follower.
Think about the thing that tempts you most. Did you make a conscious decision to be tempted by it? If you confided this temptation to someone, I don’t imagine you’d appreciate it if you were confidently dismissed with “It’s just a choice.”
It’s more complicated than that, isn’t it?