A Difficult Curriculum
Discerning God’s voice in the midst of the struggle
by Tim Otto
“But the serpent said to the woman. ‘You will not die; for the God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’”
“…we seek a truth system with which to defend ourselves as those who possess it, rather than being claimed by a Lord who calls us to join him in his condescension.”
– John Howard Yoder in To Hear the Word
I am a gay man and a deeply committed follower of Jesus and member of his church. The debate and division in the church over homosexuality is very personal to me. I feel that the whole debate—not just one side of it—has taken a very wrong turn.
I remember sitting at a restaurant table on an evening I had hoped to enjoy, being angrily lectured by a young woman whose goal was to help students at her seminary become more sensitive to gays and lesbians. I had made the mistake of admitting to her that I, a gay man, after years of study on the issue, was still sympathetic to both sides. that wasn’t acceptable. Those who held the traditional view of homosexuality were [fill in a few epithets], oppressors, on the wrong side of the defining civil rights struggle of our time. And on she went, as I began to wonder whether I should say something rude to get her to stop.
And she really thought she was sensitive to gay people.
I remember sitting in a classroom hearing a pastor tell the story, told in a tone of heroic martyrdom, of how he had split his church over the issue. When the question came up among his parishioners, he had “preached the Scripture,” dividing the church down the middle. After some drama he’d resigned and started a new church just blocks away—at which 300 members of his former congregation “just showed up.” “That is the cost you must sometimes pay when you preach the gospel,” he said. I sat there staring at him, wondering where in all this was the call to love the LGBT community as Christ loves them.
And he really thought he loved Christ’s church.
Something is wrong.
For me the debate over homosexuality was not an abstract debate but a live question about how I was going to live my life.
In 1988, at the age of 23, I made my way to San Francisco, where my mentor Jack Bernard lived, with knots in my stomach. For me the debate over homosexuality was not an abstract debate but a live question about how I was going to live my life. I had told few people about being gay, and I was on the verge of giving up my faith. Still, I had a slim hope: Jack.
Jack was the ace of all trades. He had been a pilot, a race-car driver, an accomplished climber, skier, biker, and woodworker. When he became a Christian, he set out to “ace” Christianity as well: He went to seminary and then became a missionary.
But he quickly realized that, in spite of his discipline and talents, he wasn’t acing Christianity. He would repeatedly set out with great resolve to “become a good Christian” but then would quickly stall out due to distraction with small things. This happened so often that he began to despair. He despaired not so much of God but of himself.
And it was despairing of himself that most transformed him. He began to see all his frantic efforts at achievement—at “getting it right,” at “making the grade”—as his own pathetic efforts at being God and at creating his own salvation. And so Jack determined that he would learn the way of faith. He became clear that God would be the one to save him, and not his own discipline, doings, or doctrines.
Although Jack was an area director for the conservative Baptist Home Mission Society, I was never sure, given his radical faith, how he would respond to any particular dilemma. I had never told Jack about being gay, and all I knew was that from Jack I could expect the unexpected. Since I had last seen him, Jack and his wife had moved into a little Christian community that was trying to live out God’s love in the Mission District of San Francisco. I had arranged to live with the community for a time, in order to sort out my life.
At one of the first community meetings I attended, I gathered my courage and said, “I’m Christian, and I’m gay, and I have no idea how those two things might go together. If possible I’d like to try to figure that out with you all.”
After the meeting Jack took me aside. “I don’t know what all to think about homosexuality,” he told me, “but I am convinced that it is God’s gift to you, and you are God’s gift to us.”
At that crucial point in my life, Jack instinctively took on the lens of faith and asked the question “What is God doing in you and in us?” Confident that God’s first concern was not that we “get it right” but that we trust, Jack was able to believe that God was at work even in this.
I suspect that the church at large is at a similar crucial point. Our first instinct is to sort out what God thinks about homosexuality in an attempt to be good and get it right. It is understandable that our first question or declaration will have to do with whether gay acts are “right or wrong.”
Our first instinct is to sort out what God thinks about homosexuality in an attempt to be good and get it right.
On the traditional side there is the concern that, in the words of 1 Corinthians 6:9, “sodomites” will “not inherit the kingdom of God.” To those on the traditional side, it seems obvious that those who affirm gay unions are ignoring the plain sense of Scripture and endangering their own salvation as well as that of others.
On the affirming side there is the concern that, like the Pharisees of the 1st century, the traditionalists are reading Scripture in literalist ways that don’t apply to people who have a natural and normal variation on human sexuality. In the words of Matthew 23:4, “they tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”
For both sides the “right or wrong” question seems like the essential question, and any other approach is a cowardly and harmful evasion.
But, to borrow a metaphor from Oliver O’ Donovan, the “right or wrong” question may, like a breach birth, put the whole matter at the wrong angle. We may need to turn the question before any helpful answer is delivered.
At present it seems to me that the church is bloodied and worn out from the internal war over this issue, that gays and lesbians on both the conservative and liberal sides of the church have experienced little “good news,” and that our witness to the world is in terrible disarray.
It is time to try a different approach.
I propose that, following Jack’s example, a better first question might be: “given that the church has members who are gay, and given the controversy in the church related to homosexuality, how might God be working for the good?”
Given that the church has members who are gay, and given the controversy in the church related to homosexuality, how might God be working for the good?
I think there are at least three good reasons for doing this. The first reason is that it puts faith first. The most fundamental marker of God’s people is that we are a people who live by faith, not that we have everything figured out. As genesis 3:4 suggests, Adam and Eve’s sin was not primarily that they chose evil in place of good. (In some sense, they did not yet know good from evil.) It was that they didn’t trust God. They believed that somehow God was holding out on them. In part, it was their desire to define good and evil for themselves that led them away from God. It led them away from a childlike trust in God’s goodness to a desire to be little gods themselves—defining good from evil.
I suggest that we begin by admitting that we are fallen—that we are not God and that our best reasoning about Scripture, tradition, and good and evil is human and fallible. But we trust that God is with us—especially in the most difficult of times—and that God is working for the good even in something like the struggle the church is facing regarding homosexuality.
Secondly, the question “How might God be working for the good?” helps us toward a more complete picture of God’s will than just asking the “right or wrong” question does. Single pieces of knowledge like “It’s wrong to cross the street on red” or “It’s okay to cross on green” are useful as far as they go. They may help us avoid terrible accidents. But if you don’t know where you are going, obeying all the rules won’t get you home. Asking “How is God working for the good?” Is a way of asking “Which way is home, and what would it look like if we got there?” It helps us pay attention to direction and obstacles and all sorts of things we might miss if we are only focused on the rule.
Thirdly, the question “How might God be working for the good?” helps us pay attention to actual people. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote The Cost of Discipleship and was killed by the Nazis for his opposition to Hitler, wrote in his Ethics: “Christ did not, like a moralist, love a theory of good, but he loved the real man. He was not, like a philosopher, interested in the ‘universally valid,’ but rather in that which is of help to the real and concrete human being.”
Hopefully my proposal means that we may, like Christ, be more willing to enter into the midst of struggle with our brothers and sisters rather than simply make moral pronouncements on them.
Early in my own experience I told an older Christian woman about my attraction to guys. She sat me down and carefully explained the dangers of rebellion. She pointed out the Scripture verses that condemn homosexuality. At the time I believed that she was probably right; yet I was surprised by how much I disliked her instant diagnosis of me as rebellious because I was gay, and how much I disliked her dispensing of verses like pills.
How unlike my experience with Jack. When I told Jack of my struggle, his eyes sparkled with a curiosity that seemed to say, “I wonder what God is up to in Tim!” In that vulnerable moment, when I opened up to Jack and the community, Jack acknowledged the difficult ethical problem, but he didn’t see me as the ethical problem. As Jack and the community struggled to listen to me, think with me, walk with me (and on occasion say very difficult things to me), I felt I was encountering the love and care of Jesus. At that crucial moment an opening appeared in my life, an opening that has allowed me to walk forward into faith.
To begin by seeing with the eyes of faith means believing that even in this difficult struggle we might learn something, and that as we struggle with it in faith, it may yield a blessing. If, as Luther said, even the devil is God’s devil, then perhaps God is using our Christian brothers and sisters who disagree with us to teach us something.
To begin by seeing with the eyes of faith means believing that even in this difficult
struggle we might learn something, and that as we struggle with it in faith, it may yield
a blessing. Perhaps God is using our Christian brothers and sisters who disagree with
us to teach us something.
Eugene Rodgers has said that a charitable view of the traditional side is that it is concerned for righteousness. A charitable view of the affirming side is that it is concerned for justice.
Interestingly, justice and righteousness are both possible translations for the same Hebrew and Greek words. As I’ve struggled with both sides for decades, I’ve come to believe that both sides need each other for all of us to get closer to God’s truth.
I have both conservative and liberal Christian friends and have seen something of what they have to offer each other. The fact that conservative Christians often feel closer to politically conservative non-Christians than to liberal sisters and brothers in Christ, and vice versa, makes me think that we’re all more immersed in worldly ways of reasoning than in the Christian story. I hope that by putting aside the question of “right and wrong” for a brief moment we can get closer to a Christian account of sexuality, and therefore closer to a truly Christian conversation on the topic.
After hundreds, maybe thousands of hours of reading, prayer, and conversation, I’ve come to believe that central arguments of both the left and right are based on the faulty story of the enlightenment rather than the Christian story. I’ve also realized that coming to a final “answer” as to the morality of homosexual practice is far more difficult than most of us imagine.
But I do think that the faith question will lead us into truth. Truth which, surprisingly enough, may be bigger than the “right or wrong” question. Truth that will require not simply the ease of “right” judgments but costly changes in how we all live. Flannery O’Connor said, “You shall know the truth and the truth will make you odd.”
Specifically, I think that if Christians are going to make any kind of intelligible case one way or the other, it will mean forming faith communities that demand far more of all Christians—communities that make us odd, generous blessings to the world.
Mostly, though, I want to see you deal with the actual individuals God brings into your life. Maybe you are a youth minister who knows that one of your kids is gay or lesbian. Even if you are fairly confident that you know the answer to whether God approves of or condemns same-sex relationships, I hope you will first ask, “What is God doing in this kid’s life, and how do I cooperate with that?” Maybe you are in a denomination that is debating the ordination of openly gay or lesbian pastors. Perhaps you are firmly convinced of one side or the other. Still, I would urge you to ask, “What is God doing in giving us this struggle?” Maybe you are gay or lesbian. I hope that you are asking, “What is God doing in giving this gift to me?”
One way I’ve experienced homosexuality as a gift is that it has helped me see my need for God. A conservative perspective might agree with St. Thérèse of Lisieux who said, “Take a list of all your good traits and bad. Attribute the good traits to Christ. Keep all the bad traits as your treasures. They are the very source of God’s mercy in your life.”
Perhaps some of you think you already know what God is doing.
The traditionalist might say, “God is asking that we be holy and respect Scripture!” The affirming person might respond, “God has always been on the side of the oppressed; God wants us to do justice!” While there may be something to both of these perspectives, those quick answers are a way of conducting the same old argument by other means. It makes the “right or wrong” question primary, and then bases the answer to “What might God be doing?” on that.
Faith isn’t only about debating truth. Faith is also about believing that God is with us—right in the middle of all the difficulty and uncertainty. Faith is about trying to discern what God might be doing in the midst of us.
But faith isn’t only about debating truth. Faith is also about believing that God is with us—right in the middle of all the difficulty and uncertainty. Faith is about trying to discern what God might be doing in the midst of us. My friend Eric gave me a good example of this. Eric is bipolar and told me about a manic episode he had. He hardly slept for weeks, bought hundreds of CDs, stalked a girl he was interested in, and alienated his pastor. Reflecting on all this, Eric realized his need for community and structure. He concluded his story by telling me, “God has given me a difficult curriculum.” Eric chose to believe that God had not abandoned him but rather was using the difficulty of a manic episode to accomplish his purposes in Eric’s life.
I suspect that in each of our lives there is a “difficult curriculum” which can either harden and embitter us or, if we choose the eyes of faith, can grow us into the people God intends us to be. I’ve experienced homosexuality as a difficult curriculum. But as “curriculum” implies, I’ve come to see homosexuality as a gift that has grown me, matured me, and helped me see truth that I otherwise would have missed.
I think the church is in the same position. This can be another sad chapter in church history of fighting and factionalism. Or we can realize that we have a tremendous opportunity ahead of us and, by exercising faith, grow even in this situation because of our God’s goodness and grace.
Tim Otto is a pastor at the Church of the Sojourners in San Francisco. As a registered nurse, Tim worked on the country’s first AIDS ward for 14 years. You can read a review of his latest book, Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict over Gay Relationships, right here. He was also one of the first participants in ESA’s Oriented to Love dialogues.