Sexual orientation and sinful desires: an important distinction

I often hear in conservative Christian circles, especially those that frown upon the label “gay” or even “same-sex attracted,” that sexual desires for the same sex should be treated just like any other sinful desires that are an occasion of temptation. As such, the story goes, we should not encourage people to identity with their “sinful tendencies” to same-sex activity any more than we should encourage people to identify with their “sinful temptations” to lust, steal, etc.

 

I think there are deep problems with putting same-sex desires in the same category as sinful desires more generally. At the most fundamental level, I think it elides a very important distinction between moral character and weakness/infirmity. Let’s take lust as our control case. Lust can be a part of one’s character (the complex of desires and emotions which comprise who we are), a voluntary choice, or both. Insofar as someone is lustful in character or lustful in behavior, he or she is blameworthy, precisely because, with God’s grace, it is possible to alter both one’s behavior and one’s character.

But sexual attraction itself–whether gay or straight–is an involuntary phenomenon that is typically unalterable by any act of the will. While it is true that traditional Christian ethics commits us to saying that having a gay orientation is “not the way God intended us to be,” or something along those lines, it does not follow that gay orientation is a fault of moral character, something that is alterable via moral effort. And this is where the analogy to sins like lust breaks down. Lustful character (and behavior) is something we can change. Same-sex orientation is not.

Without this distinction in hand, it becomes very easy to judge those who still have same-sex desires as lacking holiness or faithfulness. Frank discussion of enduring and exclusive same-sex desires becomes “identifying with sinful desires” or “identifying with temptation to sin,” when in reality it is just an honest description of the gay experience. It’s true that same-sex desires can be a source of temptation, like anything else, including our most natural desires. But it makes far more sense to speak of gay orientation as a weakness or infirmity rather than as a fault of character. There is an irreducibly non-moral component to being gay that is missed by many conservative Christians, and it causes them to put same-sex desires in the same category of lustful desires, which surely is a conflation of the categories of character and weakness, a conflation not without harmful consequences.

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2 Responses to Sexual orientation and sinful desires: an important distinction

  1. Mike says:

    Your argument rests solely on “Lustful character (and behavior) is something we can change. Same-sex orientation is not.” But earlier in the paragraph you said that it is “TYPICALLY unalterable by any act of the will.” So some people can change by an act of will, but not others.

    Also, Christianity is not, and never will be, about morality.

    • Kyle says:

      Hey Mike,

      A few things.

      First, the best science we have tells us that sexual orientation, once fixed, is extremely durable, especially in men. Even reputable Christian psychologists who hold to a conservative/traditional position on homosexuality report this result (c.f. the work of Warren Throckmorton). This holds true even for those who seek religiously motivated change in orientation (c.f. the work of Jones and Yarhouse). Change in orientation (in any degree) is quite rare. As much as traditional Christians would like it to be otherwise, this is something they simply must face and incorporate into their approach to gay issues.

      Second, I spoke unguardedly when I spoke of the possibility of *voluntary* change. While I do not doubt that some people experience shifts in the direction of their sexual desires, the best evidence we have is that such shifts are both rare and fairly *in*-voluntary (though female sexuality tends to be more fluid).

      Finally and most importantly, the distinction between sexual orientation and the “sinful nature” (or sinful desires/the “flesh”) does not depend solely on the possibility or impossibility of change. Rather, it is simply a confusion of categories to speak of sexual orientation itself in moral terms like we would desires towards lust, stealing, and the like. Sexual orientation is a psycho-physical given. However orientation is fixed, it is fixed non-morally, and it continues to exist despite moral efforts. It is not a feature of moral character, and is thus not the kind of thing that can be changed via moral effort under the empowerment of sanctifying grace (except insofar as sexual desires in general can be curbed by abstinence and increased by indulgence). If orientation were to change, it would be because of a physical miracle on God’s part, and like physical miracles in general, this is going to be pretty rare. It would not be a matter of sanctification. The right way to characterize gay desires on the traditional view, then, is not as being “fleshly,” but rather as being a “thorn in the flesh.” We have to get this right, lest we wrongly view the persistence of a non-heterosexual orientation as a moral flaw for which gay people can be blamed.

      As for your final comment, I agree that Christianity is about *more* than morality. But certainly Christianity has a moral component, and thus we need to employ careful thinking along those lines when we think theologically.

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