This weekend I had the chance to read Wesley Hill’s new book, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality. Wesley is an old acquaintance of mine from grad school days, and a gifted writer and brilliant thinker (he is currently doing his Ph.D in New Testament at Durham in the UK). Previously Wesley had penned a brief, powerful essay exploring his own personal experience of exclusive same-sex desires, reflecting in it on his own anguished struggle of learning to relate his sexuality to the Christian gospel in a meaningful and consistent way.
In my view, neither the world nor the church has done a good job in recent decades in thinking through the complicated issue of homosexuality, or in responding both graciously and truthfully to those who identify as gay or lesbian. This sad state of affairs makes Wesley’s book all the more crucial and poignant. Here I provide a basic overview of the book (160pp), but above all else I hope that many of you will make it a point to pick up a copy of it and work through it yourselves. Whether you find yourself agreeing or disagreeing with Wesley’s own settled perspective, I think it unlikely you can remain unmoved as the author recounts his own story in often gut-wrenching detail, and you will certainly come to respect his authenticity and ruthless honesty throughout.
Washed and Waiting takes its title and cue from two biblical passages. I Corinthians 6:9-11 refers to the “washed” spiritual status of Christians, while Romans 8:23-25 reminds us that we are “waiting” and groaning for the future consummation of our redemption. This is the famous “already/not yet” schema (as dry academics like to put it) that pervades the New Testament, and Wesley rightly sees that it is essential to narrating one’s own life well as a Christian. If only one side or the other of the contrast is taken up and accepted, either insanity or moral compromise will result. Within these two distinctly Christian images, Wesley has slowly learned to recognize the presence of Christ in his life through–not in spite of–his faltering yet faithful struggles with homosexuality.
As one who has experienced his homosexual orientation pre-consciously (it wasn’t chosen), exclusively (he has never felt sexual attraction to women), and unremittingly (he has never experienced “healing” or transformation of his sexuality), Wesley is nonetheless forthright that his homosexuality is not the most defining characteristic of his life. He writes in the introduction:
“I’ve taken care always to make ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ the adjective, and never the noun, in a longer phrase, such as ‘gay Christian’ or ‘homosexual person.’ In this way, I hope to send a subtle linguistic signal that being gay isn’t the most important thing about my or any other gay person’s identity. I am a Christian before I am anything else. My homosexuality is a part of my makeup, a facet of my personality. One day, I believe, whether in this life or in the resurrection, it will fade away. But my identity as a Christian–someone incorporated into Christ’s body by his Spirit–will remain.” (p. 22)
Wesley unapologetically makes clear from the beginning that he is convinced–as difficult and as costly as the conviction is for him on a personal level–that the only legitimate Christian response to homosexual desires is to remain celibate. Engaging in same-sex romantic relationships is out of bounds in the kingdom of God–as, of course, are quite a few other things. In this he will not be popular with many, though I think his voice needs to be heard in a culture that is increasingly allowing only one side of an important conversation to be heard.
After a lengthy, captivating introduction in which he shares his own biographical experience of being a gay Christian, Wesley moves on in chapter 1 (“A Story-Shaped Life”) to give a brief defense of why he remains convinced that as a Christian he must say no to his sexual desires. To back up his own endorsement in this chapter, I also would highly recommend that any thoughtful Christians who are interested in exploring this issue further read Richard Hay’s chapter on homosexuality in his magnificent book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation. Also, I found especially insightful Wesley’s dawning realization that it is within the story of the gospel–creation, fall, redemption, consummation–that his own experience with homosexuality makes the most sense in the most all-encompassing way: the shame and the joy, the ugly and the beautiful, the depression and the anticipation fit within the story of the cross and resurrection.
In chapter 2 (“The End of Lonlieness”), Wesley relentlessly opens up about the darkest layers of his life as a celibate gay Christian–namely, his longing for relationships of mutual desire and his fear that he will never know or be known in the way that his entire being aches for. In my own quite limited experience of knowing homosexual Christians with some level of intimacy, I have found Wesley’s interpretation of his own experience to be the norm. At the same time, this perpetual feeling of profound loneliness is where I feel most “outside” my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who share this burden. So I am thankful for Wesley in humbly allowing me to gain a glimpse of what such a sacrifice has entailed (and continues to entail) for him in taking up his cross to follow Jesus as Lord. His ruminations in this chapter on God’s design for the church–the community of believers who allow their lives to be shaped by the gospel–is powerful stuff. God’s presence is meant to be mediated to us mainly through other followers of Jesus whom He likewise indwells through His Spirit. We need each other. What a glorious vision. What a heartbreaking tragedy that so much of the contempoary church is light years away from this calling, lost in games and trivality and obsession with self. Lord, have mercy on us.
Chapter 3 (“The Divine Accolade”) focuses on Wesley’s life-long suspicion that he is shamefully and utterly displeasing to God on account of his sexual orientation and desires. While this still clearly remains a daily battle for Wesley, he lets the audience in on his hope: that in Jesus, sinners can become loved and beautiful before God. Indeed, one day we will receive praise from God Himself when the Lord–in Augustine’s wondrous phrase–crowns His own gifts of grace in our lives, glorifying both Himself and us in the process. Relying on C. S. Lewis’ classic essay “The Weight of Glory“, Wesley points to the Christian hope of one day entering fully into a relationship–both with God in Christ and with other redeemed sinners–of desiring and being desired without shame or guilt, of giving and receiving without hesitation or reserve. We will be “a real ingredient in the divine happiness.” In light of this tremendous weight of glory and satisfaction which is coming, our present sufferings are not worthy to be compared. Yet at the same time, in light of this still-outstanding promise which often appears to us as a faint specter on the horizon, we groan as we wait for it. By faith.
Finally, I should mention that in several “interludes” Wesley includes helpful and touching accounts of two well-known gay Christians who also, like the author, came to the painful conclusion that God’s purposes for their lives included celibacy: Henri Nouwen and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Yet being dead, they still speak. As does Wesley Hill, and I hope you will take the time to listen to his story.