Why Desire Is a Bad Word

In Christian circles, you’ll often find people who don’t understand how one could be “gay” or “same-sex attracted” without sinning.  In their minds, being “attracted” implies “desiring”, and desiring is an act of the will.  Just as it is simple enough not to desire my friend’s fancy car, it is simple enough not to desire other people of the same sex.  On this view, then, all same-sex attraction is volitional.

Now I think this view is entirely false, but it is false in a very interesting and instructive way.  The problem is with the sentence “Desiring is an act of the will.”  In English, this CAN be true.  When I desire God, for example, it is certainly something that vitally involves my will.  Indeed, I don’t think it is imaginable to desire God passively.  (This would be something like a woman saying she desires her husband, even though all she does is lie in bed waiting to be “acted upon”.  That’s not desire; it’s more like “being willing”, which is not the same thing.)

But desiring, in English, is not only an act of the will.  It’s also something that can be experienced completely passively.  When I smell coffee, I desire it, even though I am not disposed to DO anything about that desire — for various unfortunate reasons that I won’t go into here.

The problem is simple: the English language sucks.  In English we cannot distinguish between passive and active desire in any meaningful way, without using tons of other words.  Greek is much better, in this respect.  When you read the New Testament in the Greek, the Greek is always 100% clear about whether the relevant desiring is active or passive.  In the New Testament, it is possible to passively be disposed to the good, but actively will evil (this happens in Romans 7).  Or it is possible to passively undergo evil, but actively will good.  And so on.

It would be SO helpful for our discussions of sexuality if we understood these distinctions.  The passive experience of desire is not something a person chooses, in any sense of the word “choose”.  My desire for men is nothing like the average person’s desire for money.  It is not something that I “plan” on or “decide” to will.  It is perfectly passive.

Indeed, this is the point of the Incarnation.  God became passive so that man might become active; which is to say, “God became man so that men might become gods”.  And this is precisely the message of Jesus Christ to gay people: “The devil has chosen you to submit to your passions, but I am empowering you to transcend your passions and choose me instead!”

Note how different this is from the message some Christians send: “You have are allowing yourself to desire these things, and you need to stop doing so.”  This message has a grain of truth, because the sinner does – in practice – participate in his own captivity.  But that is not how sin begins.  Sin begins passively.  The word “tempt” in the New Testament is the Greek word “peiro”, the same root that we find in the English word “experience”.  The word means “to be tested” or “to undergo”.  No word in the Greek language is more evocative of passivity – indeed, the only word that approaches it is the word “pascho”, which is the word from which we derive the notion of Christ’s passion.  When Christ is tempted in the wilderness, Christ becomes passive, so that he might – by passing the test – become active.  When Christ contemplates his crucifixion in the Garden, he is fully passive in the face of his emotions, so that he might – by undergoing that experience with patience – actively choose the loving action of sacrificing himself for us.

When anyone experiences sexual temptation, in the same way, he or she becomes passive.  This is not unfortunate, for it is precisely the occasion of the choice to actively accept the will of God, to become active like God Himself is active.  Through resisting temptation, we become like God our Father, for God is pure activity, and nothing can be passive in him.

None of this means that passions are bad, as such.  Passions that tend toward good are good, passions that tend toward evil are bad.  We pray that God spare us the test, but we do not pray that God spare us any emotion whatsoever.  Passive emotions like affection and disgust have their place in motivating virtuous behavior.  Nevertheless, one day they will no longer be needed in order to motivate us toward goodness, and in that day we will be active like God himself is active.

I am reminded of that beautiful hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”: Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father / There is no shadow of turning with Thee / Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not / As Thou has been Thou forever will be.

Passion – passive desire – is precisely this: a shadow of turning.  Active desire is turning, whether turning toward sin or turning toward the living God.

When we make the mistake of thinking passive desire is active desire, we run the risk of condemning others (or ourselves) unjustly.  But we can make the opposite mistake, by thinking that active desire (i.e. lust) is passive desire, and thereby excuse our sins under the mistaken belief that they are involuntary.  Both these mistakes are relics of a very unhelpful English word: desire.

Or rather, perhaps the causal connection goes the other way.  Perhaps we forgot the distinction between passivity and activity first, and then our language got confused later.

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Desire of the Everlasting Hills

The following is a beautiful movie that tells a story about men who long for other men, and women who long for other women — but above all, about men and women who long for something more.  As C.S. Lewis said, “If we find in ourselves desires that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most sensible conclusion is that we were not made for this world.”

On Discourse About Being Gay and Christian

There are three views I commonly run into on the internets, about Christianity and homosexuality.  They are these:

View #1: “God made me gay.  If I fall in love with another guy, so be it.  You can’t love me without loving the way God made me to love.”

View #2: “Homosexuality is a sin that must be overcome by prayer/fasting/psychotherapy/electroshock-therapy/what-have-you, and a person with same-sex attraction isn’t submitting to the will of God unless he or she is undergoing therapy.”

View #3: “There’s something deeply right about my being gay, but something deeply wrong with me having gay sex.”

I think all three views are profoundly incorrect.  If you want to try to develop a “fourth way” (hat tip to the “Third Way” video), I think you’ll like this blog.

I won’t be commenting at length on all these views right now, but I will run through some generalized objections.  The dynamic between Views #2 and #3 is instructive.  People holding View #2 sometimes (but not always) understand that being attracted to people of the same sex isn’t sinful, but they usually don’t understand the social reality that our society defines people by their sexual attractions.  We cannot simply “opt out” of the way the culture defines us, no more than I can decide that I am not an American by saying so.  “Being American” is a social construct, but it is not a social construct I myself have the ability to manipulate.

So people who hold View #2 get up in arms when a person with same-sex attraction calls themselves “gay” or “bisexual”.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I certainly think the terms “gay” and “bisexual” are problematic.  But they are problematic in roughly the same way that the term “redneck” is problematic.  A person might grow up and discover that he is a redneck — this is an objective fact, since the term redneck has objective linguistic boundaries formed by the way people use words.  But it is almost certainly a bad thing that the category “redneck” exists, since it’s hard to imagine what positive use the term has (aside from making for funny jokes).

The word “gay” is like this.  A person can discover he is gay — this is merely a discovery of the term people in the culture would almost universally apply to him.  And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him, then, calling himself “gay”.  But there may be something wrong with a culture where we think “gayness” is somehow important, or where we think that there are really non-trivial characteristics that all and only gay people have in common.  (And, by extension, there may be a problem with the individual gay person thinking that being gay is of any real importance).

People holding View #3, however, think that being gay is of some importance.  Their view is often quite inspiring to the person like myself, who always thought that this whole “gay thing” was just a terrible and shameful thing, and who is relieved to find people talking about how many of my good traits are there “because I’m gay”.  “Aha!” I think. “It’s a good thing I think Matt Damon is pretty hot shirtless, because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be so good at playing guitar!”

[Image of Matt Damon shirtless removed by censors].

[Image of me playing guitar removed by censors].

The problem with View #3, though, is that it is so subtle as to be incomprehensible.  Even if it is the case that all gay people share some positive, non-sexual traits, these traits have nothing to do with sexual attraction.  Unless we can find some way that the sexual attraction itself is good, we have not proven that it’s good to be gay.  But people who hold to View #3 think, at the very least, that acting on the sexual attraction is not good.  So any good traits of gay people, apparently, have nothing to do with sex.  The logical conclusion, it would seem, then, is that we should have all these good traits that gay people have, but we should be happy to lose the sexual attractions.

Now “being happy to lose the sexual attractions” doesn’t make them go away.  And I don’t think disordered sexual attractions are anything to panic about — most people have them.  But if a person holding to View #3 tries to say that the sexual attractions themselves are good, despite it being wrong to indulge them, I literally don’t understand what they’re saying.  There are words coming out of their mouths, but the words are so subtle and sublime that I need a seer to interpret them.

(This is what it’s like when you hear a Calvinist defend double predestination: VERY intelligent words come out of their mouths, and you get dizzy, but nothing they say really addresses the glaring problem with their view.)

As for View #1, it is simply so very contrary to the historical deposit of faith that I am much more inclined to become an atheist than to accept it.  If God left Christians to marginalize gay people for 2000 years, only to say “just kidding, let’s party!”, God is not worth my time.

Thus ends a post where I should have managed to offend pretty much anyone who holds any view whatsoever on homosexuality and Christianity.  Later this week I’ll post some suggestions on a fourth way.