The worst loneliness is not to be comfortable with yourself. ~ Mark Twain
Acceptance of one’s life has nothing to do with resignation; it does not mean running away from the struggle. On the contrary, it means accepting it as it comes, with all the handicaps of heredity, of suffering, of psychological complexes and injustices. ~ Paul Tournier
These years in silence and reflection made me stronger and reminded me that acceptance has to come from within and that this kind of truth gives me the power to conquer emotions I didn’t even know existed. ~ Ricky Martin
We had an email inquiry yesterday that got me writing about acceptance. Wes, my colleague, asked if I’d written anything for the blog on that theme – and while it has come up here and there – I couldn’t think of a post with that emphasis. Now for many of our readers who are out and comfortable with their identity some of the following may seem like it is from an age-gone-by.
The reality is that we continue to regularly get emails from Christians who experience same-sex attraction who are full of anguish and self-loathing. So it is my hope that this post will somehow find their way to them and that it will provide them some encouragement so that they can take a step towards courageous self-acceptance.
In the interest of disclosure, this idea of acceptance is something I’ve been working on personally for the last couple of years. Without going into too much detail, there has been a long-standing reality in my life that has caused me much grief, disappointment, and frustration. No matter what I tried to bring about change in this area, it continued to be pretty much the same. I prayed. I read. I pleaded and bargained and begged. I engaged. I backed off. I stood on my head naked (ok, well not really). But essentially, I did everything I knew to do to try to break patterns and cycles that were causing me so much pain. But, nothing I did helped in a sustainable way. Sometimes there would be little glimmers of hope or little signs of transformation, and each time that would spur me on to engage even more and try even harder. After many years of this, I began to feel emotionally and spiritually burnt out. I’m not an expert in this area, but it seems to me that the human heart can only take so much disappointment and despair. The writer of Proverbs says it this way, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.”
Over the years, I’d invited a lot of different people into my life to try to help me understand and learn how to navigate my reality more effectively. Pastors. Spiritual directors. Professors. Counselors. Prayer warriors. Inner healing practitioners. Wise friends. Many of these people did their best to encourage me to continue persevering, to offer their insight and input, and to simply care for me in my pain. But none of them had any real guidance that would change the situation I was dealing with on a daily basis.
A few years ago, feeling again at the end of my rope, I started to connect with a new therapist. And she began to talk to me about acceptance. And, truth be told, I didn’t want to hear it. After so many years of engaging and trying and working at it, the idea of acceptance felt like resignation, like giving up. And if I was anything, I was not a quitter. Giving up was not in my vocabulary. I would continue to work away – even through pain and discouragement and burn out.
Over time, however, we would continue to come back to this idea of acceptance. We worked at understanding what it was, and what it wasn’t. And my therapist helped me to make the connection of acceptance with things that were out of my control. We have probably all heard the serenity prayer in one of its versions, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” Sometimes, however, for those of us who take initiative, hold to high ideals, and work for change, it can be hard to see what is beyond our influence to affect. We think somehow that if we just try hard enough that eventually we’ll experience the transformation we long for. But that’s why the prayer asks for wisdom – because sometimes wisdom calls us to let go and accept.
With my therapist’s help, I began to better understand the things that I could not change about my reality. I began to realize that accepting those things wasn’t the same as quitting or giving up. But as I began to accept this reality, different and difficult questions arose. If it is true that these things are beyond my capacity to influence, then how do I need to learn to let go of the ways they bring such disappointment, frustration and pain into my life. How can I find life-giving boundaries so that I am able to live the fullest life God has prepared for me? What fears do I need to release so that I can let go? What losses do I need to grieve? How can I live beyond my worries about what other people will think or what judgments they might hold against me? These questions lead to other challenges in acceptance. How can I accept that some people will never understand why I’ve made the decisions I believe I need to make? How can I accept that some people will judge me anyway, no matter how hard I try to explain the journey, with God, I’ve been on to get to this point?
People contact us at New Direction from all across the spectrum of understanding and accepting the reality of same-sex attraction. Some people contact us in a very difficult and painful place of struggle. These are such sad emails to receive. As I read through the anguished description of all the different things they are trying to escape the reality of experiencing same-sex attraction, something deep within my heart breaks. Even though the reality in my life was not same-sex attraction, I do know what it is like to be on that treadmill. I know what it is like to be so afraid of accepting something. I know what it is like to dread God’s disapproval or disappointment. I know what it is like to feel the fear that taking any other path is going to lead to rejection and judgment from people we care about and who are important to us. I know what it is like to feel so terribly trapped, so overwhelmingly exhausted, and so full of despair that you wonder if you’ll be able to keep holding on.
One of the things that I have been very blessed by in the last decade of walking with gay Christians is to so often witness a tenacious and resilient spirit that believes God loves them for all of who they are. You can quickly see the difference in a gay Christian who accepts the reality of their sexuality and a same-sex attracted Christian who is in great conflict and striving to somehow overcome their attractions. There is a peace and calm about those who have accepted that their same-sex attraction does not disqualify them from God’s love. But there can often be an anxiousness in those who feel that their experience of same-sex attraction is something God is waiting for them to deal with.
Regardless of whether a gay Christian believes they should be celibate or is open to experiencing love and family in a covenanted relationship, self-acceptance makes all the difference. This is also the case with those who may find themselves in a mixed orientation marriage. Being honest and self-accepting of the reality of experiencing same-sex attraction does not diminish your love or commitment to your opposite gender spouse or your children. For most people, experiencing same-sex attraction simply “is what it is”. It is a reality that was not chosen, perhaps isn’t particularly desired, but for the most part is persistent and resistant to change. We really don’t know what causes someone to experience same-sex attraction. It is a complex matter and there is likely no simplistic determinative factor. Rather, current research suggests to us that it is a complex combination of both essential (nature) factors and constructionist (nurture) factors that influence different people to different degrees. What we do know is that people do not choose to experience same-sex attraction. In this sense, the experience of same-sex attraction is morally neutral – the individual is not culpable for experiencing them.
Many Christian denominations differentiate between the experience of same-sex attraction and the decision to engage in same-sex sexual activity. Many Christians would not consider the experience of same-sex attraction to be sinful or inherently problematic. It can be very freeing and very healthy to simply accept that this is a reality that you experience. It isn’t necessarily good or bad – it just is. Living with serenity means, we refuse to feel shame or enter into striving or allow others’ opinions or judgments impede our ability to receive God’s unconditional love, and to love ourselves, with confident, strong faith and trust.
Not only that, but acceptance can really help us in some areas that we do have some capacity to change and influence for the better. For those who spend a lot of energy trying to fight against experiencing same-sex attraction, their lack of acceptance might actually make their struggle worse. You see, the more you fight against it – the more you think about it – the more vulnerable you may be to struggle with temptation or lust. Self-acceptance will actually help you not be so preoccupied with your sexual attractions. If for example, a same-sex attracted guy sees a good looking man and finds they are drawn to him or attracted to him, they can simply acknowledge that that is their same-sex attraction. It doesn’t have to automatically be a reason to beat themselves up or feel guilty. What they have simply done is acknowledge that they feel drawn, accept it for what it is, and then choose to get on with what they were doing. But if they right away start to focus on how bad they feel about having experienced that attraction, and start to focus on feeling guilty, the more power the attractions have in their life. They become a much bigger deal. This is true whether the sexual attraction someone feels is for the same or the opposite gender. Sexual attraction is a normal part of life. Lust is a different ballgame. As we know from the book of James, there is a progression from thought to temptation to lust to sin. Simply recognizing an attraction is an innocent reality that you can simply accept as “it is what it is”. One way to help such thoughts from becoming lustful temptations is to acknowledge the goodness of God’s creation in that person. “Wow God, you made a beautiful, attractive person.” You can admire and appreciate without becoming lustful. And you don’t need to be afraid of admiring or appreciating. There can be a level of innocent acceptance that this is who you are drawn to – without it becoming an issue of objectification or lust. This self-acceptance will free you from obsessing about these matters.
It may be, in your life circumstances that this acceptance is something internal within yourself – and that may be sufficient for you to live an honest life free from guilt and self-loathing. But, you may find that it is even more freeing to be able to honestly share this reality with another person you trust who you are close to – or perhaps a small group of people. This is entirely up to you. Only you can judge whether there are people in your life who could receive this disclosure without judgment and who could extend acceptance and care to you. But, if you have people like that in your life – then it could be very helpful to not live with the weight of secrecy. Honestly disclosing this reality to trusted confidantes doesn’t mean you are going to go do something crazy – (for example, if you are in a mixed orientation marriage, it doesn’t mean your commitments to your spouse or family have changed) – it simply means you don’t have to live with a secret anymore – and that you are free to simply be yourself.
Our sexual attractions don’t define us – but they are also an expression of our personhood. And so to be able to be more fully known is a gift – and a great protection against our desires gaining power over us in a way that we don’t want. Afterall, every human being seeking to honour God and steward their sexuality appropriately needs to learn to manage their thought life to align with their beliefs and values. Everyone has to learn how to maturely deal with temptation. Part of that is recognizing that temptation grows really well in the dark and secret place. But it has a harder time gaining speed in the light of honesty and authenticity.
No matter what your convictions about same-sex sexual activity may be, self-acceptance of the reality you experience is important for you to be able to live a life of peace and serenity. Refusing to accept your reality is not a sign of your commitment to Christ, it is a sign that the fear, shame, and expectations of others have impeded your capacity to truly believe, in the core of your being, that God loves you no matter what. Not only that but the refusal to honestly accept your reality may be a barrier to the very life of discipleship that you so deeply want to express.