A reader writes:
My understanding has been that same sex attraction that is not acted upon is not sin. Is a Christian who struggles with same sex attraction, yet in living for the Lord, doesn’t act on these desires, sinning? Is being tempted, yet resisting temptation, still evil?
I thought it would be correct to tell a friend wrestling with SSA that the feelings themselves weren’t evil, but what they did with those feelings could be. I can see that indulging in fantasy and savoring scenarios would be sin, but is the desire unacted upon evil?
Does this then transfer to attractions for the other gender that are unwanted and not acted upon or indulged? It seems to me there is a difference in acknowledging to ourselves that we experience these attractions and don’t act upon them, and actually coveting and wanting for ourselves something that truly isn’t ours.
Here is how I see it pastorally and theologically. All our desires have a moral direction. God gave us sexual desire, which is a great thing, but it is now all out of whack in us. It is important to recognize that sexual desire, or sexual attraction, for someone who is not my spouse, is wrong. I don’t have to have it just to be a man and, were I entirely righteous, I would not have it. As the woman in Song of Solomon repeatedly says, “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, that you not stir up or awaken love until it pleases” (Song of Solomon 2:7, 3:5, 8:4). That is, they shouldn’t awaken desires in the wrong direction (or, e.g., Proverbs 19:2).
Sexual passion is very important in a marriage. The steamier the better. And it is very wrong outside of marriage. Likewise with same-sex desires, as they do not support intergendered Image-bearing. Their direction does not build a marriage. (I am not talking about strong friendship feelings for someone of the same gender, which the world could use more of—I am just separating out sexual desire).
There are certainly degrees of sin in acting on our desires, as you point out, but the process starts with the wrong desire itself. One might think it gentle and merciful to tell people that their attractions are neutral and it is only what they do with them that is wrong or right. But it is not, in the end, real mercy.
Why is the wrongness of the desire important to affirm? For two reasons.
First, to affirm the rightness of God’s intention for us. Whenever we do not want what He wants for us, it is an expression of our indwelling sin. To appreciate the beauty of our neighbor’s house is good. To rejoice that our neighbor gets to have it is also good. To want it for ourselves, instead of rejoicing that our neighbor gets to enjoy it, is sin. It is called coveting. The desire itself is sin, you see?
The second reason to affirm the wrongness of non-marriage-supporting desires is to enable strugglers to do just what you advise them to do: to not act on those desires. It is important to name the desires as wrong to allow someone to achieve that goal. The Christian must be able to separate himself from desires to turn from them. We must be able to say, “These are not me. I experience them but they are not my identity. They are alien to my new nature in Christ.” That is why adopting a label that identifies you with your unwanted sexual desires is so disastrous. You are finished even before you start.
So, in feeling wrong-direction desires but not acting on them, are we sinning? It all depends on our attitude toward the desires when they occur, (which amounts to perhaps a similar thing to your saying, “what we do with them”). Do you view them as alien to the life of Christ in you–and therefore resist them? Or do you view them as only neutral or natural to who you are? If the latter, then good luck in resisting them. Maybe you can for a time, if you are a person of will, but eventually they will get the upper hand.
For a Christian, aberrant desires must be crucified (Galatians 5:24). As anyone who makes it to the other side can tell you, it is a bloody business. But there is true freedom in Christ. Christ really does save us from having to obey desires that go in the wrong direction, that go against God’s good intentions for us (Romans 6:17-18).
And, for those of us with unwanted untoward desires, that is very Good News.