‘Every comely man...was aimed at my life like a loaded pistol.’ 1
So wrote the American author John Cheever in his journal. In its pages he chronicled his sexual experiences and attraction to both women and men with startling honesty. Promiscuous with both throughout his life, he increasingly embraced same-sex sexual relationships using the above words to describe his feelings as a young man when he was much more wary.
They powerfully resonate with me as a man who believes same-sex sexual relationships and fantasies to be wrong – and yet, is often confronted by men who I find attractive, or beautiful. Every ‘comely’ man, whether on the TV, in a magazine, or in real life, can indeed feel ‘like a loaded pistol’ aimed at me.
Why? Well, because my desire for them has the potential to damage me: to knock me off course in my desire to be faithful to Christ in my thoughts and behaviour, and, if I give into the temptation to consume them sexually, to paralyse with me guilt and shame. As a disciple of Jesus, I want to avoid sexual immorality (1 Thessalonians 4:3), so, I’ve literally lived in fear of beautiful men – as you would fear a loaded pistol pointed straight at you.
That has made my life difficult at times. There are many beautiful men on TV, in magazines and, every so often, they step into real life too. And so, I have sat in a church meeting feeling like a sitting target because of the attractive man sitting straight ahead of me. My instinctive attraction to his beauty has produced such horrific fear of falling into sin that it can begin to feel as if the gun has already gone off. And next week we will both be back on the firing range – how am I to avoid being shot at again and again? Do I stop going to my church to avoid the temptation?
I somehow need to stop living with this dangerous fear. I need to stop seeing male beauty as a loaded pistol aimed destructively at me and instead as something that can point me positively elsewhere. Fleeing the temptation might not always mean running away from the situation but instead involve training my heart and mind to respond to it better (Romans 12:2). And to do that I think I need to understand how beauty in general has been designed to work.
I need to stop seeing male beauty as a loaded pistol aimed destructively at me and instead as something that can point me positively elsewhere.
So, just think for a moment of how we as human beings instinctively respond to beauty in a sunset over the sea, or in a solo at a concert, or in a masterpiece at a gallery. C.S. Lewis (as so often) captures the experience for us:
‘We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.’ 2
Why does beauty have such a powerful hold on us, so often blowing us away? The American pastor and theologian Jonathan Edwards helps us makes sense of these incredible experiences from a Christian worldview:
‘For as God is infinitely the greatest being, so he is allowed to be infinitely the most beautiful and excellent: and all the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation, is but the reflection of diffused beams of that Being who hath an infinite fullness of brightness and glory.’ 3
When we are transfixed, overwhelmed, by an experience of beauty, it's because in the mirror of that sunset, music, artwork, human being, we have begun to see the source of all true beauty - him.
This should lead us to regard all the beauty in creation as a homing device that is meant to return us creatures to the beauty of the Creator. It has been designed to transfix, to overwhelm us, and point us back to him. This should be no surprise to those who have heard the Psalmist sing: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands' (Psalm 19:1). Created beauty is there to advertise the true source of it all.
All the beauty in creation is a homing device that is meant to return us creatures to the beauty of our Creator.
How could all of this help me the next time I see a beautiful man? I could let my instinctive attraction to his beauty fill my heart with guilt and shame. I could let him become the object of some sinful sexual fantasy in my mind. I could run away and wrongly pretend I hadn’t recognised his God-given beauty (often a beauty that anyone else would rightly see too). Those are the damaging directions my experiences of male beauty have too often led me in the past and that I clearly need to repent of.
But there is, I think, another way: I could acknowledge that all true beauty in creation – including physical beauty in other human beings – is a God-given gift. And I could seek to thank him for the beauty I see, and let it point me to the greater beauty of God himself. To let the experience be an occasion of praise and worship of God - rather than shame or sin that drives me away from him. What I have been instinctively attracted to is just an image (Genesis 1:28) of the real thing - so why not use the moment to thank God for his greater beauty rather than let it take me anywhere else?
The Scottish pastor Thomas Chalmers famously wrote:
‘...the most effective way of withdrawing the mind from one object is not by turning it away upon desolate and unpeopled vacancy, but by presenting to its regards another object still more alluring.’ 4
That is what I’m doing when I respond to male beauty in this far more positive way – moving me on from the passing human image in front of me to the lasting divine reality I was created to enjoy.
As a result, a good-looking man walking into my life no longer has to be a spiritual disaster equivalent to a loaded gun going off. Instead, he provides the chance to practice a spiritual exercise that is good for me: to praise God for the beauty he has scattered throughout creation and to allow me to ponder his beauty that far transcends it all.
- John Cheever, Journals (Vintage Classics, 2009), p.219.
- C.S. Lewis, ‘The Weight of Glory’ in The C.S. Lewis Essay Collection: Faith, Christianity and the Church, (HarperCollins, 2002), p.104
- Jonathan Edwards, ‘The Nature of True Virtue’ in A Jonathan Edwards Reader (edited by James E Smith et al), (Yale University Press, 2003), p.252.
- Thomas Chalmers, The Expulsive Power of a New Affection, p.3.