Love in the Mirror
More than being about the love of someone of the same sex, homosexuality often seems to be the sexualized love of oneself, projected on to another.
“I’m not gay, but I struggle with homosexual desires.”
“I feel like I’m addicted to having sex with other men.”
These are just a few of the things I’ve heard over the years from young men who profess to be, and mean to be, Christians. Sometimes, I’ve been the first person they’ve ever shared these thoughts with. In other cases, they’ve come to me because no one else was able to help and they’ve felt their pastor is their last chance before passing a point of no return. Whatever the reason for seeking me out, they’ve all had a few things in common: they don’t want to be where they are, they’re afraid that I’ll reject them, and they don’t see much hope for change.
As they stare forlornly at the prospect of either abandoning their faith or resigning themselves to a frustrated and conflicted life of celibacy, it’s easy to understand their feelings of hopelessness.
I’m not an expert on homosexuality. What I am is a pastor who’s dealt with a number of different men over the past two decades who have struggled in one way or another with homosexual temptation, desires, and behavior. And if you’re someone who fits that category, I want to talk to you in this article.
You may wonder if I can understand your struggle if I haven’t experienced it myself. In fact, though my struggles may look different from yours, it’s my conviction that we have more in common than you think.
First, I want to assure you that you’re not alone. Many men in the church are struggling in this area, even if they don’t talk about it. In fact, one self-identified gay friend confided in me once that the church is one of the safest places for a gay man to be. He said this because of how cruel he found the gay community to be. But I know it’s true not just because Christians are “nice” but because of the reality of the forgiving, transforming grace of God.
That leads me to my second assurance for you. Despite the hopeless feelings you may have, I’m convinced there’s hope for you in the gospel of Jesus Christ. But perhaps not in the way that you think.
There’s a lot of discussion these days about the causes of same-sex attraction (SSA). Some claim it’s genetic — you’re born straight or gay. Others say you develop SSA in response to external factors and personal choices. I have no intention of settling that debate here. Personally, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it turns out to be a highly complex combination of nature and nurture, internal and external factors. After all, sexual desire and the behavior it engenders are some of the most profoundly powerful and mysterious characteristics of human beings.
In this article, I want to do something more modest than try to explain the causes of same-sex attraction. I want to make a single observation about this complex issue, particularly as I’ve observed it in the lives of men. Over the years, I’ve noticed that at least some homosexual desires and behavior seem to share a common focus — the self. More than being about the love of someone of the same sex, homosexuality often seems to be the sexualized love of oneself, projected on to another.
I first began to think about this when I started talking to men about who they were attracted to. And what I discovered surprised me. The straight community wrongly thinks that gay men are attracted to all men in general. But as I began to ask questions I discovered pretty quickly that most of the men I knew had a well-developed “type” or narrow range of “types” they found physically attractive. Just as some straight men prefer blondes, and some brunettes, these men had preferences as well. That wasn’t the surprise.
What surprised me was that again and again, the type of man that was described looked a lot like an improved or even idealized version of the man in front of me. One man was self-conscious about his skinny legs, and so was attracted to men that basically had his build and coloring, but with powerful calves. Another man was anxious about his upper torso strength, and so was turned on by images of men with strong chests and thick wavy hair just like his own. You see the pattern.
I want to be clear that not every homosexual male is attracted to an improved version of himself. What I am saying is that these men, and so many others I’ve talked with, were staring in the mirror as they stared at their lover. Like Narcissus captured by the image of his own reflection, the homosexual desire of these men was in large part a projection onto someone else of their own self-love. And like the pool into which Narcissus gazed, their self-centered desire had become a trap.
As we’ll see, even if your pattern of desire is different than what I’ve described, self-worship is likely your problem as well.
The self-centered focus of homosexuality doesn’t stop with desire, however, nor does it end with sexuality. Many have commented on the “me-centric worldview” of the contemporary homosexual movement — from the idea of sex as mere “encounter” to a vision of marriage disconnected from the purpose and responsibilities of reproduction. Much of the “gay rights” movement has found its organizing and motivational rationale in the pursuit of personal sexual — and now by extension, relational — liberty.
But my observations as a pastor aren’t of a movement. They are of individuals. And when I talk with a man struggling with homosexuality, I find that I am often talking with a man who struggles with selfishness in almost every corner of his life. From the way he schedules his time, to the way he spends his money, to the nature of his volunteer activities, the satisfaction and pleasure of the self determines the decisions he makes.
My point is not that only homosexuals are selfish, or that homosexuals are more selfish than others. My point is to get you thinking about your struggles with homosexuality from a different, more productive vantage point — the vantage point of your heart, not your behavior, and not even your sexual desires.
Jesus said, “From within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean'” (Mark 7:21-23). Most of the things in Jesus’ list are things we do or say. These are the things we tend to focus on — our sexual behavior, the people and images we look at lustfully, the fantasies we indulge. But Jesus looks past all of those things to their source and finds that source in our heart.
In Luke 6, Jesus makes the same point, this time using the metaphor of a tree. If the tree is good, it produces good fruit; if the tree is bad, it produces bad fruit. You don’t get good fruit from a tree with bad roots. His point is clear: You’ve got to change the tree, roots and all, if you’re going to change the fruit.
The human heart, the source of what we worship and who we serve, is the root from which the fruit of our lives is produced — “for out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). What this means is that if we want to get to the root of our sexual behavior, and even our sexual desires, we need to examine ourselves at a level even more fundamental than our sexuality. We need to look at what our hearts are worshipping. And for many of us, what our hearts are worshipping is ourselves — our pleasure, our desire for control, our emotional security, our self-image.
Our circumstances continually frustrate this self-worship. We are never as secure, as in control, as stimulated, as satisfied as we want to be. While we are all tempted to fulfill the desire for self-worship in different ways, it’s at this point, for whatever reason, that some men are tempted by homosexual fantasy and behavior. With its narcissistic projection of the self onto another, this sexualized self-love promises to deliver what we crave. But it always fails to keep its promise.
So how does this insight — at the root of homosexuality lies self-worship — help the guy who’s struggling with homosexual pornography or anonymous hook-ups or gay fantasies, just to name some of the fruit on the tree?
To begin with, it means that the solution is not to re-orient your desires from men to women. Even if you could manufacture that sexual reorientation, if the root of self-worship hasn’t changed, you’ll just bring your selfish desires to bear on women now instead of men, leading to a different, but similar, harvest of bad fruit. In fact, at this level we can recognize that all sexual sin, of whatever variety, is selfish sin. Period. The successful 50 year-old man who leaves his wife for a 20-something bombshell is acting just as selfishly as the gay man who picks up guys at a local bar.
No, both the gay and the straight sexual sinner need a very different kind of re-orientation. The re-orientation you need is from yourself to God, from worshipping yourself to worshipping Him, from finding your satisfaction in an idealized vision of yourself to finding your satisfaction in the One who gave Himself for you.
Jesus Christ died for narcissists. He died for homosexuals. He died for selfish, self-worshipping people like you and me. On the cross He paid the penalty that our sins deserved and He forgives everyone who repents of their sin and puts their faith in Him.
But He did not die for those sins so that we could remain in them. No He died for them so that we might be reconciled to God and worship Him rather than the idols of our hearts.
This radical reorientation from self-worship to God worship is what Jesus was talking about when He said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Mat. 16:24-25). This isn’t a call to martyrdom; it’s a radical call to die to yourself because Jesus has already died for you. The gospel transforms us from self-worshippers to God-worshippers, and the fruit of such a life is the selfless love of God and neighbor. Bottom-line: Spend less time obsessing about your sexual orientation and take a closer look at your heart orientation.
There’s another way that this insight about the heart-source of homosexuality can help. John Owen, the famous Puritan pastor, once commented that you cannot put to death a specific sin “unless you are seeking to obey the Lord from the heart in all areas!” His point is as simple as it is profound. We tend to be highly selective in the sins we want to be rid of. We are troubled by our homosexual desires, and so we try to pull them out, like weeds from the garden. And then we grow discouraged because, like weeds, they keep coming back. In the mean time, we aren’t troubled at all by our selfish use of money, or time, or other non-sexual relationships. And so not only do we let those weeds grow unchecked, we leave the root of self-love entirely undisturbed. So it’s no wonder that the shoots and fruit of homosexual desire and behavior keep coming back.
If we would deal with the sin of homosexuality in our lives, we’ve got to deal with it at the root — our self-centered, self-oriented approach to all of life.
And far from being overwhelmed by this global approach, many men I’ve worked with have found this incredibly liberating. For some it’s meant the realization, “It’s not that I’m gay, it’s that I’m selfish, which looks one way in my sex life and another way altogether at work.” It also means that whenever and wherever we repent of selfishness and self-love, we’re putting to death the root that gives rise to our homosexual desires.
So giving up your own plans for the weekend in order to help an elderly couple in your church clean their gutters is one way to attack the root that drives your pornography habit. Giving away your money for the spread of the gospel is a means of putting to death the root that compels you to give your body away to strangers. Changing your exercise routine so that you can spend time with God in the mornings is a means of starving the root that sends you to the gay chat room looking for intimacy.
I’m not saying that you don’t have to pay attention anymore to the specific times, places and mechanisms of sexual temptation. You still need to get rid of the internet in your bedroom, stop going to the gay bar, change the group you hang out with. What I am saying is that if that’s all you do, you won’t find much success.
Instead, you need to view this as a world war against sin in which homosexual desire is just one small front. It’s time to start engaging the enemy on every front and in multiple theatres of conflict. That’s the war the Holy Spirit is engaged in, and He is more than able to equip you for the battle (Rom. 8:13-14).
Bottom-line: If you want to put to death homosexual sin, you can’t just focus on the sex. You’ve got to get at the root.
I want to be clear that I don’t think this small insight is the silver bullet that will quickly and easily free you from the entanglement of homosexual desire and behavior. I also don’t think this explains everything about homosexuality, or every person’s experience. But I do think that for many, recognizing the connection between the fruit of homosexual behavior and the root of narcissistic self-love is helpful.
It certainly has been for many of the men I referenced at the beginning of this article. In their lives, I’ve seen God at work, changing their hearts from a selfish orientation to one of faithful, self-sacrificing love toward God, and toward their wives and girlfriends.
Recognizing this root is helpful because it moves the sin from a stigmatized, special category of hard cases to something quite ordinary that everyone deals with. It’s helpful because it moves us from focusing on something that’s pretty mysterious and hard to grasp (innate desires) to something that’s pretty straightforward and easy to recognize and understand (selfishness and self-centeredness). It’s helpful because it reminds us that the battle against homosexual sin is really no different than any other battle against sin, fought by the power of the Spirit through daily repentance and faith.
But most of all, it’s helpful because it reminds us that the answer to our sexual struggle isn’t sexual, it’s spiritual, as the gospel re-orients us from worshipping what we see in the mirror to worshipping the One whom we were created to reflect.
For more information about recovery from same-sex attraction, contact a Focus on the Family counselor at 1-855-771-HELP (4357)
Copyright 2009 Michael Lawrence. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Michael Lawrence began his ministry at Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, Ore., in September 2010. He came to Portland from Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington D.C., after serving there as Associate Pastor for over eight years. He also served as a Campus Staff Minister with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship at UNC-Chapel Hill.
He earned a B.A. from Duke University in 1988, an M.Div. from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in 1997 and holds a Ph.D. in British History from Cambridge University (2002). Michael is the author of Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church, co-author with Mark Dever of It is Well: Sermons on the Atonement, and has contributed to many publications, including Church History Magazine, Preaching, and 9Marks EJournal.
Michael is married to Adrienne and has five children, ages 15 to 3 years.