Several weeks ago, a good friend messaged me.
“Your writing puzzles me,” she said. “Because Stephen the Writer seems to feel far more secure and certain of God’s love than Stephen the friend. Stephen the friend struggles daily with knowing that Jesus loves him. Stephen the Writer speaks confidently about the security of God’s love. I know it is terrifying to be more honest, but I think you should be.”
She’s right, of course. I told her that when I talk about God’s eternal, unchanging, unconditional love, I am preaching to myself as much as to others. I want to believe that God loves me no matter what and, sometimes, I do believe it. But it’s much harder to be honest about the reality than it is to talk about the ideal. It’s much harder to speak about me, in the middle of the journey, than it is to speak about where I am going.
When I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that there is no greater struggle in my life than accepting God’s grace for me. More than any addiction or despair, I have struggled with knowing that Jesus loves me with an impossible love, right now, right here, no caveats, no exceptions.
I have patterns engraved in my psyche – patterns so deep that they have carved me out like the Grand Canyon. They are the patterns of shame, hiding, and fear. I’m a yoga teacher, and the Sanskrit term for these patterns is samskara – scars left on the human psyche, body, and spirit through years of repitition. A samskara can be positive or negative, but above all it is formed by habit. A drug addiction is a samskara. Practicing piano every day creates samskara. Keeping secrets from those you love most creates samskara. Samskara takes practice to form, and I practiced my self-loathing, my shame, and my hiding for years. From a very young age I loathed and feared myself for my same sex attractions, but the more I hid and the more I ran the more deeply I hated myself; the more I feared that I was absolutely unacceptable to God. I recently read through some old writing of mine and stumbled across a phrase that vividly describes how I felt for years through much of highschool and college: “I feel like a survived abortion.”
Now that I am out of the closet and trying to live my life with honesty and integrity, I feel like I am in physical therapy for my psyche. Every day, I take on the monumental task of choosing to believe that God loves me. Some days I believe more fully than others. Sometimes I crash, and I’m convinced that he can’t, he won’t. Sometimes I even still lie in bed and wonder if I am going to hell because I have walked away from the traditional ethic, because I self-identify as gay, because I have momentary slipups as I am trying to learn what it means to be a healthy sexual being for the first time at the age of 25.
I recently finished watching the show American Horror Story: Coven with my friend Nathan. There was one scene in the show that got to me: one of the most redemptive, lovely characters gets trapped in hell and caught in an infinite loop of her most nightmarish experience. That scene haunted me, and I would lie in bed as it played over and over in my head. It was nothing more than a cinematic display of the samskara I had created for years: the fear of God rejecting me, the fear that, despite my best efforts, I was still going to hell because of my sexuality.
It’s difficult. It hurts. Sometimes I call up my friends, desperate for some kind of affirmation. Sometimes I am able to believe, sometimes not. But I have chosen always to walk towards the cross. I have decided, with gritted teeth and cold determination, to believe that when Christ died on the cross, he died for me, too.
I don’t just struggle with God’s love in the context of a lifetime of learned patterns. I also struggle with his love in the context of recent wounds, bruises, and doubts. I struggle with the shame of walking away from the traditional ethic on homosexuality, even as that choice probably saved my life. The struggle to live the traditional ethic consumed five years of my life – five years of endlessly fighting for a “life affirming sexual ethic”, five years of nurturing spiritual disciplines, five years of fighting to live in community as a celibate being. Five years is not a long time, and yet I would rather receive a lethal injection than go back. The pain was too much, despite all the things I tried to do right. And let me be clear – it wasn’t the universal call to chastity that broke me, and it wasn’t the possibility of never having sex. It was the requirement of lifelong celibacy that crushed me – the fact that, for me, monogamy, or marriage, or committed, faithful love with the person I love would only ever be sin. Friendship and spiritual disciplines were not enough to save me from being crushed. The mandate of required celibacy crushed me, even while I believed – and still believe – that the vocation of celibacy is beautiful and vital for the life of the church.
There is talk in the non-affirming gay community of all the ways to make gay celibacy sustainable, but no, I’m done. After five years of trying, and trying, and trying, I have discovered that it is too dangerous for me.
That was the truly horrid part of it all: if fulfillment could be found in the life of gay celibacy then it should be pursued, but if it could not be found then there was simply nothing to be done. If you are one of the unlucky ones for whom mandatory lifelong celibacy is a white-hot brand on your soul, you simply have to endure it, forever. It was a definite bonus if you found relief and joy, but if you didn’t, you simply had to keep walking. Pain, in those circumstances, did not matter – at least not enough to walk away and find help. That’s what “carrying your cross” means: It means pain, and it means pain that will very likely kill you. Carrying a cross isn’t about being whole or happy, it’s about suffering to the very end. Someone’s pain doesn’t matter enough to put that cross down – even if it is pain so ferocious that it results in a putting a bullet through their skull. The sacrifice is all that matters.
This raises a disturbing question: at what point does the concept of “carrying a cross” become a safegaurd against an individual ever making necessary healthy life choices? At what point does It become a shield against someone ever seeing their own self abuse that hides under the guise of religious obedience?
In the traditional ethic, even my screams felt invalidated, because this was my cross, and I was to take it to my grave. When I went limping and whimpering to others in the church like a wounded animal, the response was always the same:”we are sorry you are hurting. You can rest with us for a time. But just keep going. This pain is part of it.” And even when I wept and said, “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.” The answer was still the same: “This is what it means to carry your cross. Just keep going.” When my body became a crisscross tapestry of scars, the answer remained the same. When I would lie in bed awake for hours, replaying the fantasy of killing myself over and over and over again in my head, the answer remained the same. When I started failing all my classes, the answer remained the same. It was the most terrible game of chicken ever imaginable: hold yourself over the flame for as long as you can. If you withdraw, you do so at the cost of your soul. If fulfillment and happiness finds you, that’s nice and a definite bonus. But if not, you just have to keep burning. This is your cross.
After finally cracking and walking away, self-hatred and shame are inevitable. There is shame for putting down that old rugged cross that they all said was supposed to kill me, and choosing to find a better life. There is self hatred for having the audacity to believe that, perhaps, God would rather have a living son who loves him than a dead son who died a martyr on the hill of his sexual orientation. The voices still keep me awake sometimes, and sometimes the voices sound an awful lot like God, speaking His disapproval that I walked away instead of choosing the long, slow, roasting.
Does Jesus really love me? At the end of the day, I come to this: His love is all I have. And no matter how horrible the journey sometimes becomes, I find that I love Him, too. I see a Jesus who was perplexing, demanding, and tender, and I love Him. I see a Jesus whose heart burst for the brokenhearted, the poor, the rejected, and I love Him. I see a Jesus who mends the broken hearted, who releases the captives, who heals the blind, and I love Him. I see a Jesus who invites us to carry a terrible cross with Him, but who also says “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”, and I love Him. I see a Jesus who is the way, the truth, and the life, and I love Him.
If I believe God is good, if I believe He is love, then I also have to believe that He is merciful when we suffer, when we are wrong theologically, when we try our very best. I have to believe that His love is bigger than all our suffering, our valiant attempts at right living, or our capacity to be right or wrong. And I hope that, some day, I will be able to believe that more fully.