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Terminology and Shame

Someone wrote the word "gay" with their finger on the dusty spoiler of my car.

I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not "gay." Neither am I "homosexual." I am a "same-sex attracted" man.

Why do I make such a big deal about the use of words like “gay,” “homosexual,” and “same-sex attracted?”

For two reasons:

First, I’ve always loved precision. I’m the kind of jerk who will correct people online about their improper word choice and grammar. More than that, I'm the kind of jerk who will correct them in person.

Second, and more importantly, I’m concerned about the use of these words having a much deeper impact on those who use them and on those who hear them.

My friend today said this, and I believe it is right on target. "The conflation of terms is at the root of most deceptions today."

These words describe people who are persistently, exclusively, and deeply attracted to the same-sex. The attractions are not just sexual. They go deeper than that. I can talk to you more about that and what it means another time.

Right now I want to talk about the words that are being used. I said they were words to describe people, but that’s not entirely true for all of them. The words "gay" and "homosexual" are words that are used in a more fundamental way. These words are used to identify people.

This is a conflation of the terms.

Identifying people based on their attractions seems very odd. We identify people based on their citizenship (I’m a Virginian and I’m an American), we identify people based on their religion (I’m a Christian), and we identify people based on their relationships (single, son, nephew, cousin, friend, etc.). I don’t know of any other identity words which are used based on desires (I’m not identified by my affinity for the color green, or based on my attraction to the aesthetic beauty of New Zealand).

So why do we identify people based on their attractions toward different sexes?

Why do we identify people as "straight," "lesbian," "gay," and "bisexual?" Why do people identify themselves this way? Perhaps it could have been said at one time that these were only short-hand ways to describe attractions, but in the culture we live in these words are used as different classifications of humanity.

One of the most distressing things on this topic is the incredibly high rate of suicides by people, especially teens, who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. These young men and women are made in the image and likeness of God, and are despairing to the point that they end their own lives. We must respond and work to save these people.

What is it that is driving people to such despair?

Shame. Shame is a huge concern I have for people with same-sex attraction.

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a youth pastor. He was eager to get my thoughts about how he ought to respond if a student comes to him admitting that they are "gay." How can he respond in a way that will protect them from shame, he wanted to know. It's a very important question. Contributing to a sense of shame can have devastating impact.

There are different types of shame.

The shame that the youth pastor and I are concerned about is not a shame felt for wrong things that people have done. This shame is far more sinister and goes far deeper. These feelings of shame are based not on any behavior, but on an identity. This is a shame based on belief about who the person is.

Ontology is "the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature and relations of being." (Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary 1965). Who are we? What is our nature? The answers to these questions have profound ramifications.

Shame is one of those ramifications. If I identify myself with an ontological category that is based on sexual desires, then shame is a very real possibility. If my ontology is "gay" because I experience same-sex attraction, then my "nature" and my "being" are found in same-sex attraction.

What are the consequences of such an ontological category? Really there are only two outcomes from that starting point:

On the one side, I could reject the idea that homosexuality is wrong. This is a common response today. How could homosexuality be wrong if people exist as this ontological category? If it is part of my being, can it be condemned?

On the other side, I could remain steadfast in my understanding that homosexuality is sin, and thus conclude that I am "sin" myself. This would quickly lead to intense shame and despair.

Neither of those options are valid responses in the Christian worldview. We cannot call something good that God clearly calls evil. So we cannot say that homosexuality is not wrong. On the other hand, we cannot call "sin" something that God clearly calls loved. God loves all people, and he doesn't love sin.

If my ontology is found in same-sex attraction, I don't see a good option for moving forward. What is the answer?

The answer is to change the starting point. I am not "sin." I am not "homosexual." I am not "gay." I am a male image bearer of the Holy God. My ontology is male image bearer of the Holy God. The distortion of original sin does not go to the ontological level. The disordered desires I have are not who I am. I am beloved.

The answer is to hate my sin without hating myself.

If I were that youth pastor, I would respond to the young person who confessed that they are "gay" with a firm, "No you're not. You are a male image bearer of the Holy God. Made and formed in his image, you are fearfully and wonderfully made. The fact that you experience sinful and disordered desires does not change your nature. Temporary afflictions do not define you. God defines you. And he declares that you are worth dying for."

The answer to shame and despair is found in understanding who we are.

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