One of the arguments advanced ahead of, and during, the Church of England General Synod debate yesterday on homosexuality was that to call homosexual acts sinful, and call people to repent of them, causes severe psychological distress, even mental illness, to gay and lesbian people. Therefore, for the Church to preach this is to drive people into misery, self-harm and even suicide. The implication is that orthodox Christian churches are particularly guilty of this; the only way to avoid it (as the C of E now looks certain to try to do) is to alleviate this distress by ceasing to call such acts and relationships sinful, no longer call for people to repent of them, and accept their fundamental goodness.
The problem with this argument is this: its fundamental premise, if accepted, cuts too deep. If this axe is a valid one to wield, it is too sharp. For it cuts not through an unwelcome creeper clinging to the bark of the Christian tree; it severs the entire trunk at the roots. This critique cannot be levelled at Christianity without, if it be valid, destroying Christianity itself.
Let us follow the argument. There are people – many people – who find in themselves sexual desires directed towards people of their own sex. The Christian church, however, tells them that to fulfil these desires would be sinful, and they are rather to repent of them and abstain from carrying them out. This call to deny their deeply-rooted desires, and live in a way contrary to them, causes such anguish and distress that it leads to (in the words of the report produced by the Oasis Foundation last week) ‘spiritual, mental and physical harm, and in the worst cases to people taking the decision to take their own life’ (p2).
Let us suppose for a moment that this argument is valid; that calling people to deny their deep-seated desires does cause such distress that they are emotionally and maybe physically harmed by it. The problem is that in the Christian gospel this is not limited – not remotely limited – to the question of homosexuality. Rather, this is the central call of Jesus to every human being. His first word of command recorded in the gospels is the word, ‘repent’.
For to call us to repent is to call us to recognise that our own desires are deeply flawed. That our internal inclinations are no guide to right behaviour; rather, they are the very opposite. Ever since the fall, the heart of man has inclined to evil. And that inclination to evil is our central problem. It is this, and the resulting wrath of God, that the Son of God became man, suffered, died and rose again to deliver us from. Jesus came, he said, not for the healthy but for the sick.
Now this includes our sexual desires, but is certainly not limited to them. Pride, selfishness, greed, covetousness are equally embedded in our hearts. Which particular sinful desires dominate, and the form they take, varies in each human being. But Jesus’ call to repent of following them, to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him, and in him find redemption from the power of our sinful desires and forgiveness for the guilt of them is a universal one. This is not a creeper on the trunk of Christianity; it is not even the bark or some of the branches. It is in every single ring of the trunk, right down to its core. It is central to all the teaching of Jesus. It runs through every part of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.
And so if calling people to deny the fulfilment of homosexual desires is profoundly mentally damaging, then so must be the call to deny the fulfilment of all other distorted sexual desires, including those we might bracket as ‘heterosexual’. And so must the call to deny the fulfilment of our non-sexual desires: to dishonour our parents, to exact revenge on those who anger us, to advance ourselves at the expense of others, to bear false witness, to own what God has not given us. And fundamentally our desire to displace the love of God with any and all sorts of loves for false gods of any sort. That desire runs so deep in our hearts that every thought, word and deed of every human being is affected by it. And it is that desire that, fundamentally, Jesus has come to rescue us from.
In other words, every part of Jesus Christ’s call to be his disciples involves exactly the same call to repent. So if a call to repent is so irreparably damaging, it is not the church’s attitude to homosexuality that is the problem. It is the Christian gospel itself which needs, on the basis of this argument, to be discarded.
What, then, of the distress and mental health of those in the LGBT community? The Christian church has nothing but compassion for the many whose anguish is real. But its causes are not to be located here. Christ’s call to repent of our sins is not the cause of illness but, ultimately, the only thing that can bring its healing. For all distress and all illness, mental and otherwise, is part of the catastrophic results on humanity of our heeding of the words of the snake that who urged, rather as this argument does, that to obey God’s commands will damage us. Now, the way that mental illness, like all other illness, is connected to our sin is far more complex than can usually be traced. But in this case it cannot but have been exacerbated by the central move in LGBT thinking since its inception: that our identity is rightly defined by our sexual desires. That homosexual desires are, not just desires, but identity-defining realities, expressed by the words ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’ ‘bisexual’. The move was of course intended to be one that brought liberation; but, like all the lies of the snake, it brings slavery instead. For as God’s images we cannot shake the conviction of our conscience that our sins are, in fact, sinful. We can only suppress them, as the Apostle Paul says in Romans 1. And if I have come to believe that my identity lies in something which, inescapably, no matter how much I deny it, I know is contrary to my created nature, how can that belief not damage me in some way?
The Christian gospel confronts this in exactly the same way as it confronts all sins: by Jesus’ call both to repent and to believe the good news. The good news is that (contrary to the language of LGBT identity, unquestioningly adopted by so many – though thankfully not all – in this debate) our desires do not define us. Christ does not see Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people as categories apart from the rest of humanity. He sees all human beings as images of God sadly ravaged by sin and because of that living without excuse in rebellion against him. And to not one of those spoiled images of God does Jesus say that the solution to the anguish caused by of our sinful nature is to grant us a green light to follow where it leads us. That way offers temporary comfort, but it delivers enslavement, dehumanisation and ultimate destruction.
Rather, Jesus offers rescue. Rescue from the idea that we are defined by our desires, corrupted and spoiled as they are; rescue from the slavery under which they hold us; from which we have no power to free ourselves; rescue from the guilt with which they have stained us before the eyes of the holy and true God. It is a rescue which, in this life, is begun and marked by repentance; surrendering the pursuit of self, refusing to follow our desires, because we have learned to love and trust in a saviour who is more wonderful, more glorious, and more loving than to leave us in them. It is a rescue the benefits of which we taste only partially in this life. But even the foretaste we have now is infinitely better than the deceitful and ultimately insipid pleasures of simply fulfilling our desires, sexual or otherwise. For at its heart is peace with God; peace in the knowledge that our sins are forgiven; that our sinful desires do not define us; that God has adopted us as his own children; that in the Spirit we call out Abba, Father, and as our Father he hears us. Jesus’ call to repent does not drive us to despair, illness, or suicide. In the mouth of the Prince of Peace it is, rather, the doorway into life – life in all its fullness.