[This is Part 1 of a 2 part series explaining my personal journey of discovering that I was, in fact, more Reformed than I ever realized, more sinful than I ever feared, and more loved than I ever dreamed. Part 2 will be released soon.]
I have a confession. It was less than a year ago that I learned how to pronounce the word concupiscence. Before that, if I spoke the word at all, you would have heard me mumble something like CON-kyoo-PI-shuntz.
I have another confession. Despite growing up in the Reformed tradition, being catechized with the Westminster Confession, working on staff with a PCA ministry, and graduating with an MDiv from Covenant Seminary, it was only a little over 2 years ago1 that I even learned the word at all. It was early 2018, the 1st annual Revoice Conference was on the horizon, and in the Reformed Presbyterian world that I’ve always called home…concupiscence was suddenly a hot topic.
My understanding and acceptance of the Reformed doctrine of concupiscence2 is admittedly quite new, but one particular application of this doctrine has been on my radar for quite some time—even if I didn’t have a name or theological category for it. I’ve been having the discussion for a number of years now, both publicly and privately, about whether or not it’s sinful for me to be attracted to someone of the same sex, or just sinful to act on those attractions—whether by lust or sexual activity.
And a few years ago, it seemed pretty straightforward to me. Of course it wasn’t sinful if I was simply attracted to a guy, as long as I didn’t let the attraction turn into lust. I couldn’t change or control who I was attracted to—who I noticed, whose beauty I seemed to appreciate more than others. This seemed self-evident, based both on my experience as well as my reading of James 1:15.
I was surprised to learn that this was even controversial. In a private message to one PCA teaching elder that I corresponded with back in 2014, mere months after coming out publicly, I wrote “I believe my same-sex attractions are broken, but I do not believe they are sinful. It is not a sin for me to be attracted to another man, in the same way it is not sinful for you to be attracted to a woman.” I was a bit taken aback when he asserted that it was, in fact, a sin for me to be attracted to other men, but not a sin for him to be attracted to women. I was a bit frustrated when he outright dismissed any assertion I made that involved how I felt. And I was a bit disillusioned when, over the course of the next couple years, he repeatedly used this quote in various online forums attempting to discredit me.
Surely this belief that it’s a sin for me to experience attraction to other men had to be wrong, I thought—born more of fear and xenophobia than actual biblical understanding. Otherwise, what would my options be?
I was well aware of the doctrines of original sin and total depravity—both of which I believed. But how was I supposed to live if I was expected to repent every time I experienced attraction to another guy? How could I ever answer a call to vocational ministry if I was committing sexual sin every time I noticed an attractive man? I had read Every Young Man’s Battle, and I had tried “bouncing my eyes”3 (to limited effect), but if my attractions themselves were sinful, I didn’t even stand a chance. My eyes had betrayed me before I’d even had the chance to bounce them, and I was sunk.
It didn’t help that I wasn’t even entirely sure where appreciation stopped and attraction started when it came to a man’s appearance. What if I noticed and appreciated his hairstyle, or the way his face looks when he laughs? What if I liked his fashion style? Would that count as attraction? If not, where was the line? I had straight male friends who also noticed and appreciated these things in other men. But they never seemed to dissect these impulses quite to the same degree that I would need to in order to keep myself pure. The prospect seemed utterly exhausting.
Beyond the practicalities of how I was expected to live a holy life if my attractions themselves were sinful (especially after so-called reparative therapy had been largely discredited), there was the question of shame.
I had grown up experiencing enormous boat loads of shame surrounding my attractions to other guys. Shame that I hadn’t been able to share with anyone until after I’d turned 20. Shame that I suspected might not be covered by the grace that I heard promised to my male friends who were lusting after girls.
Reaching the conclusion (around age 24) that the attractions themselves were not sinful—that it was only sin if I lusted or acted upon them—was like an epiphany. The clouds rolled back. The shame lifted from my shoulders. For the first time, I felt free. Free to worship. Free to come boldly before the throne of grace. Free to live for Christ without fear. Free to take off my carefully-crafted mask and breathe the fresh air of God’s love and mercy. Any different conclusion felt like a retreat back into shame and fear, away from the love of Christ and into the loathing of self.
My motivation in claiming that my attractions were not sinful had always been a simple matter of both practicality and self-preservation. If my attractions were sinful, I didn’t think I’d know how to live…and I wasn’t sure that I’d want to. I didn’t even think I was being subversive. Even after growing up and being shaped theologically in the Reformed tradition, I never fully realized that my position was actually in violation of the Confession that I claimed to affirm.
Fast-forward to age 29.
I had been hired as Sexual Minority Ministry Coordinator by a local ministry here in St. Louis that’s deeply connected with Missouri Presbytery (PCA). I was in the process of writing a Statement of Beliefs for our “Sexual Minority Fellowship” group, and I had met the chairman of our board for coffee to discuss and refine my draft. He was a very well-respected pastor in our presbytery with a long track record of faithful ministry to men and women who experience same-sex attraction. I respected him as our board chairman, but I also respected him as a godly man of wisdom, grace, and love…and I trusted him.
In my draft, I had stated explicitly that it is not a sin to be attracted to the same sex. Quite to my surprise, he pushed back on this assertion. I was—to be honest—utterly flabbergasted.
I couldn’t believe that this pastor who I so greatly respected and trusted would suggest that it was, in fact, sinful for me just to be attracted to another guy. Was he no different than the pastor I’d interacted with years earlier—who so clearly didn’t understand and didn’t even care to understand my experience? Was he no different than all the folks on Twitter who added burden upon burden without lifting a finger to help or even empathize with those of us who were same-sex attracted?
As it turns out….he was very different.
Stay tuned for Part 2…
- Upon further reflection, I think I first saw the word approximately 5 years ago, shortly after I started blogging and sharing my story publicly, when an ex-PCA discernment blogger sent me an email accusing me of it. Considering the source and the fact that I’d never seen the word before, despite my familiarity with Reformed theology, I didn’t think it merited much investigation at the time.
- For a helpful explanation of this doctrine, I recommend the essay “Confessional Foundations Regarding the Nature of Temptation, Sin, and Repentance,” which begins on p. 14 of the PCA’s Ad Interim Committee on Human Sexuality report: https://pcaga.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/AIC-Report-to-48th-GA-5-28-20-1.pdf
- This approach is summarized here: https://newlife.com/emb/bounce-your-eyes/