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According to Christian theology, God created humanity in his image as both male and female. And so humans live and marry according to these sexes: males marry females. The first marriage recorded in Scripture narrates such a relationship: Adam marries Eve. They cleaved together.
Yet some people romantically desire those of their same sex. And the reality is that many Christians today have experienced same-sex attraction, do experience it, or will experience it in the future. For this reason, believers should seek to understand those who experience same-sex attraction. That way, we can gain understanding in order to increase our ability to love and to support others.
By looking at Scripture and history, we can start to understand same-sex attraction through the biblical concept of desire. Scripture defines desire as a neutral organ that can either tend to vice or to virtue. The theologian Maximos (580–662) understood desires similarly and provides conceptual clarity on the matter of desire.
The New Testament uses the word desire (epithumia) 38 times and the word passion (pathos) 3 times. The latter word appears in contexts with the word desire. Their meaning overlaps. Desire can be positive as when Jesus desires to eat the Passover with his disciples (Luke 22:15). But more often than not (35 out of the 38 uses), the word desire means fleshly, sinful, or evil desire (e.g., Col 3:5).
If the heart represents the inner person in the Bible (e.g., Mark 7:20–23), then desire or epithumia represents the organ of desire within the inner-person. As an organ of desire, epithumia functions as a tool through which both virtue and vice come.
Knowing how the New Testament speaks about desire provides the vital framework that we need to rightly speak about what it means for someone to desire a romantic relationship with the same sex.
Desire as Vice
Demons and the devil use desire for evil purposes. So Jesus claims that unbelieving Jewish leaders do the desires of the devil (John 8:44). Through the fear of death, the devil enslaves people via their fear so that they continue to sin (Heb 2:14–15). In context, fear means something like the desire to avoid pain and death.
Sin and law use desire to entice people to sin. For example, in Romans 6:12, sin rules over human bodies through imposing its desires upon people.
Elsewhere, we learn that the law tells Paul “what to desire” through its command, “you shall not desire/covet” (Rom 7:7) In this case, the object of desire is forbidden or sinful. Paul further relates that sin used the command (“do not desire”) to produce covetous “desires.” And according to Paul, apart from the law, sin is dead because there are no “desires” (Rom 7:8).
Fleshly desires belong to human nature. As an example, Jude 16 says that people sinfully follow their own desires. So while entities like the devil and powers like sin and law influence desire, desire itself also belongs to humanity. And our own desires tilt towards evil, which seems rooted in ignorance of God (1 Pet 1:14; cf. 4:2).
The flesh (sarx) has an intimate link to desire, which makes desire a vice. In Romans 13:14, Paul says to put on Jesus to make no room for the desires of the flesh. And we should walk by the Spirit and not gratify the desires of the flesh (Gal 5:15). Further, those in Christ crucify the flesh with its passions and desires (Gal 5:24). And all people have (at one time) walked in the desires of the flesh and do the will of the flesh (Eph 2:3).
The fleshly nature of humans became corrupt through desire. According to Paul, the old man (which we put off) became corrupt according to deceitful desires (Eph 4:22). This seems fairly obvious when we remember that Adam and Eve desired to eat from the tree instead of obeying the will of God. Through the organ of desire, they fall into sin and we inherited their nature.
Peter concurs. He writes that by sharing in the divine nature, we escape the corruption in the world that comes by desire (2 Pet 1:4). Desire is an instrument for corruption in the world. Divine nature lets us escape the corruption that comes through desire.
Desire as Virtue
While the Bible typically speaks of desire as an instrument for vice, in a few cases it shows how desire can be turned towards virtue. For example, in Philippians 1:12, Paul finds himself torn between two decisions, but he desires to be with Christ, which he calls the better of two decisions. And in a simpler case, Paul says that he greatly desires to see the Thessalonians (1 Thess 2:17).
In other words, desire can be turned to virtue by desiring Christ or desiring to see people. Perhaps it is better to say: by loving God and neighbour.
And Paul elsewhere confirms that desire becomes virtuous through the desire for God and the things of God. For instance, in Colossians 3:5, Paul commands the church to kill what is earthly and this includes “ passion” and “evil desire.” He specifies evil desire here since desires are themselves neutral. And he specifies these are earthly desires.
In contrast, Godly desires would be those that are above in heaven. Just a few verses before, Paul tells believers to “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col 3:1–2). In contrast, the things on earth are passions and evil desires (Col 3:5).
So desire should point upward (love of God) and outward (love of others) rather than down-ward to earth and on evil desires.
So desire in the New Testament forms the organ of desire through which either virtue or vice comes. It is a neutral organ that belongs to human nature. But this organ of desire can easily fall under the influence of Satan, sin, and the law. Likewise, by knowing the will of God and through a rejuvenated nature, people can use desire for virtuous ends. In this sense, Christians can and should mortify the desires of the flesh.
Desire in Maximos
With that survey complete, we can properly appreciate Maximos’ contribution to understanding human desire. And through his meditation on Scripture, we can more clearly conceive of what it means for someone to desire romantical relationships with the same-sex.
Maximos defines desire as an instrument that either pursues pleasure or avoids pain. Without God’s grace, these pursuits turn into hedonism or cowardice. They make life about gluttony or simply avoiding discomfort.
So desire, as a human organ, always tilts towards sin. And this all came about through the original sin of Adam which introduced sin and death to the world.
Yet by God’s grace, desire can be transformed. It can be turned into an organ that works towards pursuing God and virtue. Although he associates desire with sin (as does the New Testament), Maximos has a place for the good use of desire (as does the New Testament).
For Maximos, however, the better sort of desire is an intellectual pursuit—one that goes beyond earthly matters (see Col 3:5) and mediates on what is above (see Col 3:1–2). By intellect, Maximos means immaterial or non-earthly. The word means something different today, generally the reasoning portion of the brain.
Probably Maximos makes Paul’s injunction in Colossians 3:2 mean more than it should. After all, God created us in the flesh. Hence, some desires for things on earth (like gifts of God) can be quite good and serve to worship God in heaven. In other words, we can be thankful for gifts from heaven on earth and affirm their relative goodness (e.g., “bodily exercise profits a little” (1 Tim 4:8).
In the end, Maximos follows Paul’s instructions to set our minds on things above not on earth (Col 3:2). But he seems to overly generalize Paul’s statement, making things on earth less important than they are.
Nevertheless, Maximos’ meditation on human desire helps us to conceptualize the Bible’s teaching on desire and help us to answer the question about same-sex desire.
Desire for the Same-Sex
Sam Allberry recently admitted that he has only had romantic attraction for people of the same sex. Yet Allberry denies that sexuality is an identity for him. Rather, he finds his identity in Jesus Christ. And he denies his desires for romantic and sexual fulfillment. Instead, he follows Jesus Christ who never married or had sex.
Is he right?
Some tools to answer this question have been given to us by the above discussion. Desire, we know, is a neutral organ that tilts towards sin because of the Fall of mankind. Yet by rejecting the influence of sin, Satan, and evil, desire can be used for good.
And beyond the desire for the things of this earth (like the pleasure of food or the avoidance of pain from an injury), we can set our minds on the things that are above. There, we place our treasure. And there, we find our heart.
So it is possible that attraction to physical beauty can tilt towards a vice or a virtue. Many men recognize that bodybuilders have symmetrical and strong bodies. In the abstract, we recognize the beauty of the male form. And yet no sexual fantasy follows. Likewise, when a same-sex attracted man sees another man, he may recognize the human form as beautiful but not sexually fantasize about that other man.
The things of this earth (male beauty) may, however, tempt one to use the desire for beauty in ways contrary to the will of God (See 1 John 2:16). But these temporary pleasures only become sin through a birthed desire.
James explains: “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:14–15). One’s own desire is a neutral instrument that lures people to sin. But it may only be recognized as sin when that desire gives birth to sinful acts.
The same is true when it comes to hate. Jesus says when we hate a brother in heart, that we have committed murder (Matt 5:22). Obviously, hate itself is neutral as a passion. But when we hate some good thing we do evil. Yet when we hate some evil thing we do good. This is why Jesus the true human was frequently angry. For example, he said to have “looked around at [the religious leaders] with anger” (Mark 3:5).
So anger can turn to murder (vice) or to righteous indignation (virtue). It is neutral just as the recognition of bodily forms is. What matters is whether this trigger for beauty turns into lust (vice) or into something virtuous.
And lastly, as a desire, sin and the devil can use same-sex attraction for their ends or the Spirit-filled person can transform that desire into something eternal, permenant—a love of God and neighbour (cf. 1 Cor 6:11).
Bodily desire, whether through sex or through food or through anything, does not define us. We are not first Canadians or Americans. But we are first Christians, an eternal identity found in Christ. And this is the news that Sam Allberry and I find so freeing. Our identity is found in Christ alone and in no other thing.
On my blog, I often write to think outward. This is true here. I welcome discussion, correction, or anything in between. Please take the argument above to be just what it is: an initial reflection.
Addendum (March 30, 2019): sexual desire for anyone who is not your spouse qualifies as a sinful desire. But the Spirit can transform our organ of desire by the renewing of our mind (Rom 12:2). As this article explored how desire works as an essential property of human nature, the phrase “neutral desire” signifies just that. In practice, desires are either virtuous or vicious. See my follow-up article where I clarify certain matters here.