In preparation for a seminar at the Revoice20 conference, my friend Bekah Mason asked her gay friends, ‘What was your experience growing up in a church? What do you wish church leaders had said or done?’ One nineteen-year-old answered, ‘I didn’t feel safe being out at church, only at school.’ Another responded, ‘I felt like I was one step up from a leper. Someone to be pitied, but not someone you want to sit next to.’ Another chimed in, ‘I wish leaders talked about LGBT people in a positive way.’
The comments continued. ‘Does God know about me? Does he love me?’ ‘It was terrifying for me to grow up in a church.’ ‘I’m still in the closet because I’m not sure my church is equipped to deal with me.’ ‘I knew I could never talk to any church leader or family member.’ ‘I wished someone would acknowledge it’s real.’ ‘I wanted someone to take time to know me as a unique individual and not as a project.’ ‘I wanted someone to say God loves me. I wished my pastor had said it.’ Yet another respondent commented, ‘I wish they would create an aroma of acceptance before I come out.’ (I write about this in my book Still Time to Care).
They were looking for an emotionally safe and supportive environment in which they were told that God sees them all the way down and still wants to be in relationship with them.
In her seminar, Mason summarized her findings, speaking of ‘a wake of trauma’ in every non-straight believer. But notice what no one was asking for. No respondent was asking for a different sexual ethic. Rather they were looking for an emotionally safe and supportive environment in which they were told that God sees them all the way down and still wants to be in relationship with them. They were looking for grace.
Grace is needed because gay shame can be powerfully destructive.
The velvet rage
How can churches address the pastoral reality of what Alan Downs calls this ‘velvet rage’ of shame and self-loathing?1 Gay men, in particular, decorate our lives in a constant attempt to cover our shame. Gay men are at the top of every field in an effort to accomplish enough, climb high enough, or earn enough to make ourselves lovable. The shame behind our body issues leaves many gay men spending too many hours in the gym trying to build a body to make ourselves lovable. It leaves us having to have the most amazing condo or flat, the most over-the-top cocktail party, the most youthful appearance, and the most fashionable wardrobe. There’s a reason they say a gay man’s 40 is a straight man’s 27. We’re driven by our shame and just want to become lovable.
Even when we throw off the confines of traditional morality and declare that there’s nothing wrong with our sexuality – a secular culture’s solution to gay shame – the reality is that the shame is still strongly present. If it were not so powerfully driving us, we wouldn’t still be trying to make ourselves lovable.
Many of us once thought that the feeling of shame came from homophobia. That's certainly a factor, but it’s deeper than that. In cultures that now celebrate all things queer, the shame is still there. Even when not felt, the unrelenting drive to become lovable undermines our attempts at real closeness, health, and intimacy. The suicide rate hasn’t evened out.
Downs speculates that gay shame flows from the internal sense of being different that many of us have experienced since childhood, long before puberty. As a child, I certainly had my little porcelain teapot with which to serve my stuffed animals their afternoon tea.2 But Christianity proposes an answer still deeper than that. It’s the shame that flows from being damaged by the Fall.
My experience of Christianity has been that it has released me from shame and filled me instead with a counterintuitive joy.
Shame is different from guilt. Guilt says I did something bad. Shame says I am a defective person.
It's at this point that Christianity's modern detractors pounce. ‘You are shaming people for something they never chose. Kids are committing suicide because your sexual ethic is inherently shaming of queer kids.’ And where churches are shaming kids for their sexuality, there may be some truth in such critique. But I grew up atheist. The shame was there before I ever picked up a Bible. In fact, my experience of Christianity has been that it has released me from shame and filled me instead with a counterintuitive joy.
The human propensity to f*** things up
Gay shame is as old as humanity and has few rivals as shame goes. Early in the first century AD, Phaedrus, the great Roman fabulist – that's a fable writer – explained why. It seems the mythological Prometheus had worked all day long fashioning male and female genitalia. Prometheus then headed out to a dinner party and found himself smashed.
Stumbling home, too drunk to know what he was doing, he accidentally slapped some male genitalia onto some females and some female genitalia onto some males.
It was an honest mistake, if costly for some of us. The children of Prometheus’s blunder would have their sexual orientation mismatched to their biological sex. For the rest of history, they would carry about the shame of their defective sexuality. They would never fit in, never be acceptable. They would have to hide, forever trying to make themselves lovable in an unceasing drive to be free of the crippling weight of toxic shame.
Gay people have always been shamed for being different.
The beauty of Christianity is that it doesn't give straight people a pass.
Christianity says we're all defective. As Francis Spufford writes, it’s ‘the human propensity to f*** things up’ that best points to the fact that Christianity still makes profound emotional sense.3 While Phaedrus thought gay people were defective, Jesus tells us that all humans are defective. All sexual orientations are fallen. ‘There is none righteous, not even one’ (Romans 3:10). We ‘all … fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). The world is no longer as it was intended in the beginning. We are all so much less than the best of humanity.
My shame tells me I need to make myself lovable. Jesus tells me I don’t need to become lovable. I need to be loved.
It’s at just this point that Jesus speaks into our gay shame in a profoundly counterintuitive way. Where religion's answer is to hide my shame, and the secular world's answer is to deny my shame, Jesus offers a third way. What he offers is the only thing that can speak deeply and powerfully into our shame.
My shame tells me I need to make myself lovable.
But Jesus tells me I don’t need to become lovable. I need to be loved.
Being loved is so much better than being lovable. Jesus sees you all the way down and embraces you with tears of joy. When that captures your heart, it changes you. There is an emotional space that only the gospel of Jesus creates.
The difference between forgiveness and righteousness
St. Paul writes, ‘Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you’ (Romans 15:7). In the good news of Jesus, I see a God who clothes my shame in the righteousness of his son so that I might be ‘found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ’ (Philippians 3:9). That’s a lot better than just forgiveness. Forgiveness alone cannot heal me of the deep well of shame that makes me constantly try to make myself lovable.
Imagine I’ve defaulted on my mortgage. All my credit cards are maxed out, and I’ve defaulted on three other loans. I’m in debt up to my eyeballs. I have nothing in my bank account; it’s a negative balance. I have no savings, half a dozen cheques overdrawn. And then, I’ve got all these fees on top of that. So, I walk into Barclays, and I go up to the bank teller. The teller points me over to this desk in a dark cubicle in the corner. As he looks at his computer screen, the gentleman says, ‘Okay, Mr. Johnson ... ahem, Reverend Johnson. I see you’ve made rather a mess of this. But we’re going to forgive you all of these debts and cancel everything out. Don’t worry about the loans and fees. We’ll zero those out for you and take care of those overdrafts as well.’
Now, you’re probably thinking that’s really good service for Barclays. Yet, as I’m walking out the door of the bank, two things are true about me.
First, I am bankrupt.
Second, Barclays doesn’t ever want to see my face again.
Is that forgiveness? Yes. All my debt was forgiven. A lot of people like me know we’re forgiven, but we’re stuck there. We think we’re bankrupt and that God doesn’t ever want to see our face again. But the gospel tells me I am more than forgiven. I have been declared righteous because Jesus' own righteousness became my own when, by faith, I was united to him.
Righteousness is something altogether different.
Righteousness is when I look up and see the CEO of Barclays waving her arms and rushing up to me. She’s grabbing me and pulling me back inside, saying, ‘I’m so, so sorry, Dr Johnson. He’s new here and didn’t understand. He made a terrible mistake.’ The CEO ushers me up the elevator to her back-corner office with the windows and oil paintings and the stately, walnut desk. She motions me into the chair behind her desk. The bank's solicitor stands to attention with a big stack of papers. The CEO explains, ‘I’m so sorry, it was all a mistake. We’re just going to sign over the bank and all its assets to you now. If you don’t mind initialing, we have an artist down in the lobby who is waiting with some oil paints and a canvas so we can capture your framed likeness for the boardroom.’
A gospel culture for gay shame
God has not left us naked. The Bible says he has clothed us in Christ’s righteousness.
Forgiveness says, ‘You can go.’ Righteousness says, ‘You can come.’ Forgiveness speaks to our guilt. But being clothed in the righteousness of Christ speaks to our shame.
A Reformation slogan was Simul justus et peccator. Simultaneously defective sinners and righteous in the eyes of our heavenly Father. Again, this means Jesus’ résumé is now yours in him. It’s as if you fed the 5,000, you raised Lazarus from the dead, you always did what pleased the Father. You are reckoned as one who has measured up and is therefore pleasing to God. There is nothing you can do to embellish that résumé.
I am not lovable. I am loved. That is better than being lovable.
Only the gospel creates a space – a gospel culture – in which it’s safe to be a damaged sinner loved by Jesus. It’s the limitless validation of radical grace that grows in my heart a reciprocal love and loyalty to my Saviour. My heavenly Father isn’t an angry ogre shaking a stick at me. He’s my Dad. He delights over me with song.
I am not lovable. I am loved. That is better than being lovable.
As the Heidelberg Disputation thesis 28 articulates, ‘The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it.’
Once the Church becomes a safe place to be a sinner loved by Jesus, the shame begins to lift, and we can all stop living undercover.
The sixteenth-century Protestant reformer Martin Luther cried out, ‘May a merciful God preserve me from a Christian Church in which everyone is ‘good’. I want to be in a church of the faint-hearted, the failed, the feeble and the ailing...who believe in the forgiveness of sins.’4
Portions of this article taken from Greg Johnson, Still Time to Care: What We Can Learn from the Church's Failed Attempt to Cure Homosexuality (Zondervan, September 2021). Used by permission.
- Alan Downs, The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man's World (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2012).
- You can find more of my story in Greg Johnson, ‘I Used to Hide My Shame. Now I Find Shelter Under the Gospel’, Christianity Today.
- Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (HarperOne, 2013).
- Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol.22 (Concordia Publishing, 1957), p.55.