Almost 2,000 years ago, the Apostle Paul wrote letters to the church gathered in Corinth, a city where he had lived and worked for eighteen months. So he knew the people of that church and writes to admonish them about a variety of sins, including factions in the church, sexual immorality and lawsuits between believers. In this context, Paul reminds them of the kind of people they used to be — and how God changed their lives:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (I Corinthians 6: 9-12, ESV)
Paul knew that people who continue in sin aren't part of and won’t be part of God’s kingdom. The good news is that even the most morally bankrupt of us may turn and follow Jesus. God’s kingdom is open to all who choose to live with Jesus — washed clean and becoming like Him. Paul knew people in Corinth whose lives were changed.
Just as Paul wrote about the changed lives of those he had known in Corinth — including those who had stopped practicing homosexuality — there are people today who have had their lives changed by God’s power — including those who have left homosexuality.
As these men and women tell their stories, there has been much discussion about what “change” means. Does it mean that someone who has experienced same-sex attractions never has these feelings or temptations again? Does change just mean that a person only changes his or her behavior? Does change mean that a person shifts from same-sex attractions to opposite-sex attractions? Or are those who claim to have changed simply suppressing these feelings and living in self-denial? And how does one measure change?
This article attempts to articulate some answers to these important questions — both for those who struggle with same-sex attractions and for those who want to know more about the very real transformation that God can bring into a person’s life. It will focus on the issue of male homosexuality, recognizing that men and women are very different and that lesbianism differs from male homosexuality in significant ways, including how the change process often transpires. The insights offered come from the combination of my own experience with change from homosexuality and many years of ministry experience helping others who seek to steward their sexuality in accordance with their ethical and moral values.
Male homosexuality is much like other sexual sins or temptations people struggle with, in that God works with us as individuals; there is no “formula” for the change process, nor is there typically "instant freedom" (although that has happened, for some). Not surprisingly, each person’s path to liberty will be different.
Moreover, same-sex attractions do not change by direct action against them. In other words, they don’t go away just because a person “tries really hard” not to have them or “prays really hard” that they’ll go away. This is because same-sex attractions are almost invariably rooted in deeper factors — developing over time as a person grows up and including profound aspects of the person’s body, mind, spirit and heart. Because humans are complex beings — and human sexuality is complex — dealing with same-sex attraction is usually not a simple or easy undertaking.
The good news is homosexual attractions and temptations do change, dissipate and even disappear for many — as they cooperate with God in the process of becoming more like Jesus. However, there are a number of aspects to this process of change, and it will look different for everybody, with no guarantee that one’s homosexual attractions will completely transform into exclusive heterosexual attractions. This reality should not be surprising to Christians given that Scripture teaches that all believers, those in the process of becoming more like Jesus, will continue to experience some struggles and temptations throughout the course of their lives — the ongoing battle between the sin nature described as the “old man” (old patterns of thought, feeling and behavior apart from God) and the “new man” that we are in Christ (our ongoing life as we connect with God through His Spirit).
Having said this, here are some areas where change has happened for many:
Change in Behavior
For many men, this is of paramount concern, and change in behavior is very important. Some homosexual "strugglers" have struggled with fantasy, looking at pornography, masturbation and/or sexual activity with others for years. Each time a person behaves in these ways, he rehearses thoughts, feelings and actions in his body and in the brain. And these thoughts, feelings, and actions become more ingrained, more habitual. An individual might have dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of these experiences. Changing behavior is never easy — and requires time, effort, motivation, support from friends and family, and the empowerment of God’s Holy Spirit. It also takes replacing old habits with new ones. Recall that the Apostle Paul repeatedly calls us to “put off” the old and “put on” the new. While some pro-gay activists scoff at behavior change, men seeking to follow Christ know that these efforts — though difficult — can be real and significant.(1)
Change in Motivation
It takes strong motivation to change. Many men are initially motivated to seek change from homosexuality by fear, shame or guilt. Some fear the health risks associated with homosexual behavior. Others are motivated by the desire for marriage and family, the desire to follow what the Bible says about God’s design for us, or the desire to follow the Church’s teaching. Some are motivated by dissatisfaction with their gay relationships and experiences. Others are motivated by love for truth or love for God. While conviction about sin is good, self-loathing and immobilizing shame are not. Shifting to positive, productive motivations is a big change for many men. The stronger the motivation and the deeper the commitment, the more likely that change will take place. God is powerful enough to change our sinful and self-centered desires, to give us the motivation to change and to empower our wills to stay committed to Him. Over time, and especially as we learn to receive God’s grace, many men notice a significant change in their motivations — from initial fear and shame to a love for God and desire to follow Him.(2)
Change in Identity
Many people believe they were “born gay” and that being gay is the essence of who they are. This is what is known as the “essentialist” view of the origins of same-sex attractions. In contrast to this worldly view on sexuality, the Bible says that we humans are made male and female in the image of God — reflecting a heterosexual intent in our design — and that homosexual temptations do not define anyone. Thus informed by Scripture, the man who wants to change will start thinking about himself differently — as part of fallen humanity, as a sinner in need of a Savior, as a redeemed child of God, as a man. He will ask God to change his self-image, from the world’s view to a biblical view. Homosexual strugglers are not a separate class nor essence of humanity, and the man who seeks change will stop thinking of himself as essentially different from other men. He must embrace healthy, God-given and God-ordained sexual identity and masculinity.
Homosexuals Anonymous (HA) is a Christ-centered 14-step program that illustrates this shift in identity that must take place. It is different from many other “step” programs in that the struggler does not identify himself by his sin. Here’s how HA articulates change in identity in steps five and six: “We came to perceive that we had accepted a lie about ourselves, an illusion that had trapped us in a false identity. We learned to claim our true reality that as humankind, we are part of God’s heterosexual creation and that God calls us to rediscover that identity in Him through Jesus Christ, as our faith perceives Him.” Many men who come out of homosexuality do not think of themselves as “gay” or even “ex-gay” any more. They are sons, fathers, friends, husbands — men.
Change in Attitude
Men who struggle with homosexual behavior often feel victimized and rejected. This may have been true. But the Gospel calls us to forgive and to release others from our judgment. The struggler often needs to feel the pain and hurt of wounds from the past, and then learn to give that pain and wounding to Jesus, who bore our grief and wounds on the cross. We either let Christ carry our grief and wounding, or we continue to carry them ourselves. Here, God also empowers us to live with a positive attitude: Not complaining, but giving thanks; not bitter, but loving; not angry, but forgiving; not grumbling, but praising. Cultivating these attitudes takes time, confession, prayer, effort, help from God, and help from others — including pastoral or professional counseling. While this healing process can be very challenging to walk through, the end result can be joy, growth, and new life.(3)
Change in Relationships With Men And Women
Anyone who struggles with same-sex attractions will have to examine his relationships. This kind of thoughtful moral inventory will often involve confession and the willingness to grow, mature and cultivate new actions. Here are a few of the relational sins — often connected with the homosexual struggle — where God will empower change:
Lust: Desiring to use another man for one’s own pleasure and fulfillment;
Envy: Wanting to own another’s masculinity, wanting to possess another person’s attributes;
Contempt: Looking down on “straight” men or women, despising men who are unattractive, old, or effeminate, or fearing and hating women;
Control: Wanting to control another’s behavior, affections, time, or thoughts; and,
Lying: Not telling the truth about what one thinks or feels in order to maintain a relationship, not being honest about thoughts, feelings, behaviors or attitudes.
A man wrestling with homosexuality must also begin to develop healthy, non-sexual relationships with other men in the Body of Christ — learning to be a man among men. Specifically, learning to navigate uncomfortable or challenging situations in relationships is significant. And developing healthy relationships and good relational skills will often help same-sex attractions dissipate or lessen their impact and control over a person. God uses relationships in the Church to bring transformation, growth and healing.
Change in Relationship With God
God longs to be in a deep relationship with each of us. But many of us view God as distant, angry, uninvolved or uncaring. We often don’t know how to connect with Him or how to hear the leading of His voice. Part of the Christian journey involves learning how to strip away the barriers to connecting with God. False beliefs about God must be identified and confessed, and we must be open to experiencing His love and grace. Men struggling with same-sex attractions often have deep hurts and wounds. Coming to God as a loving Father allows Him to begin to bring healing to those hurts and wounds — in His time and in His way.
Change in Homosexual Attractions
For many, same-sex attractions do change dramatically, and attractions for women develop. In his book, Desires in Conflict, Joe Dallas describes the reasonable expectations that many have experienced:
* Change in behavior;
* Change in frequency of homosexual attractions;
* Change in intensity of homosexual attractions; and,
* Change in perspective – homosexuality is no longer a life-consuming or dominating issue.
He goes on to write that many men also move into healthy other-sex relating. (4) Although not everyone experiences the development of opposite-sex attractions, it doesn’t mean that it cannot happen or hasn’t happened for many. There are myriad testimonies of men who have moved out of homosexual behavior and into healthy God-honoring heterosexual relationships.
Many men — myself included — have struggled with same-sex attractions and, through relationship with Jesus Christ, have found release and freedom from these attractions. Paul writes to the Corinthians to remind them that some of them used to be caught in homosexual behavior, but that they have been washed — cleansed and forgiven of past sins; sanctified — cooperating with God in the transformation process; and justified — no longer under condemnation for sin (I Cor. 6:9-11 ESV). And just as the men of Corinth found freedom from homosexuality, so, too, are many men today finding freedom and lasting change in their lives.
Living in line with God’s standards is not necessarily easy. But it is immensely fulfilling and brings great rewards. Frederica Matthewes-Green, author and commentator, reminds the church to intercede on behalf of those struggling with same-sex attractions. She writes:
Those who struggle with such passions need our prayers. For some, persistence and prayer will lead to reorientation, while for others, there will be the difficult lifelong discipline of celibacy. As tough as this sounds, it’s not impossible, and it’s not unusual. Christianity has always required celibacy of unmarried heterosexual believers, which all of us were at some point and many of us may be again. This isn’t something we demand of homosexuals without being willing to shoulder the burden ourselves. On the path of celibacy homosexuals will find a crowd of heterosexuals going back two thousand years: never-married Christians, those widowed or divorced, those caring for seriously ill spouses. We know it’s tough, and we know where to find help: sixteen hundred years ago St. John Chrysostom wrote, “Even if lust makes imperious demands, if you occupy its territory with the fear of God, you have stayed its frenzy.” (5)
(1)See, for example, Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart, NavPress, 2002, and Dr. Jeffrey Satinover, Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth, Baker Books, 1996.
(2) See Joe Dallas, Desires in Conflict, Harvest House, 2003, ch. 2.
(3) See, for example, Leanne Payne, The Broken Image, Baker Book House, 1981, and Restoring the Christian Soul, Baker Book House, 1991.
(4) Dallas, op cit., ch. 2.
(5) “Facing the Homosexual Void,” Touchstone, July/August, 1998, http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=11-04-029-f