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Polluting the Spring of Friendship

A number of my male friends dancing at a wedding.

Have I “polluted the spring water of friendship with the filth of concupiscence?”

That's borrowing language from Saint Augustine of Hippo.

I didn't know what the word "concupiscence" meant until I looked it up recently. The idea of concupiscence is central in a debate being waged around the Revoice Conference. I wrote briefly about this conference before. So What is Concupiscence?

According to a quick search for a dictionary definition, concupiscence is lust. Especially sexual lust.

That's why Augustine is talking about polluting friendship with the filth of concupiscence. He was struck by the sinfulness of his own lusts, and wrote about the consequences of his concupiscence upon relationships.

Having experienced opposite-sex desires, Augustine must have been experiencing the consequences of concupiscence with his relationships with women.

Christ states that to "look at a woman with lustful intent" is of the same moral consequence as committing adultery with her. (Matthew 5:28) The Catholic church has taught that there is no sin without a conscious act of the will, so the "intent" is the important point they focus on from that scripture.

I believe that the concupiscence is itself sinful, without any contribution from my will. It does not require an act by me in order for the concupiscence to be sin.

In the Garden of Eden there was no concupiscence. Concupiscence - lust - is a result of the fall. It is sin, and has been present in our world ever since the serpent in the Garden deceived Eve. The sin that now "crouches outside of my door" often feels much closer than that. (Genesis 4:7) It is in my own deceitful and wicked heart. (Jeremiah 17:9) My own experience with concupiscence is not the same as that experienced by St. Augustine. He lusted for women. I lust for men.

Polluting Spring Water

Augustine talks about the "spring water of friendship." That language describing friendship is so powerful.

Friendship is clean and refreshing. Water is necessary for life, and so is friendship.

I've said before that it is not possible to live well without intimacy. I can also say that it is not possible to live well without friendship. Just like it's not possible to live without water.

So if concupiscence "pollutes" the spring water of friendship, how can you have the friendship?

It is a question that Christians have been asking and coming to different answers about for a long time. It's a tough question.

Billy Graham famously (or infamously according to some) adopted the "Billy Graham rule" as part of his answer. He would never be alone with any woman except his wife. This was an effective way to "guard his heart" from sin, and he lived an exemplary life of faithfulness to his wife and ministry. Yet it did limit the nature of the friendships he could have with women.

We don't see close opposite sex friendships very often. When we do see such friendships, they are often entirely public and open. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late Justice Antonin Scalia had a famous friendship that involved both of their families spending a great deal of time together. Working together with seven other Justices and numerous clerks, the two were often together but rarely alone. Work is often the place where you see these close opposite sex friendships.

My dad has a very close female friend whom he works with. They spend a great deal of time together at work, and his friend will often come over to our house for a visit; or she might join my dad and mom for community events such as concerts or theatrical performances. Their friendship doesn't demand exclusive time together.

It's not like my mom's same sex friendship with another woman. That friendship is most often manifested by time spent together having deep conversations about important issues in their lives. This friend was there with my mom to help her process through the ramifications of my revealing to her that I am attracted to the same sex.

My mom doesn't talk about that topic (or any other deep topic) alone with a male friend. It's the same with my dad. He has male friends to talk to in private about these deeper questions.

Friendships between members of the same sex look different from friendships between members of the opposite sex.

When concupiscence pollutes the spring water of the friendship with the opposite sex, that friendship doesn't have to die. It can be maintained as a social friendship where concupiscence does not have the same influence.

Is the same true of same sex friendships that are polluted by concupiscence? Can those friendships survive?

My Polluted Friendships

That's what the debate around the Revoice Conference seems to be focused on. How can people attracted to the same sex be friends with people who are attractive to them? As a man who is sexually and romantically attracted to other men, and determined to mortify the flesh, take up my cross, and follow Christ, I got emotional reading this debate. It is a very hard thing to talk about. It is much harder to actually do.

I'm going to write about some of my general experiences with same-sex friendship below. It is a very sensitive thing to share.

For most of my life, my friendships with other men have been tinged with romantic longings and sexual desires. These feelings persist in my friendships even after I shut them down time and time again. I long for romance, remind myself of the truth, and then face the same longing again.

Apart from friendships during my childhood and temporary respites when I enjoy friendship without any of these desires manifesting, this is a constant struggle.

I often find myself longing for a romantic commitment from a male friend. I long for us to devote ourselves to one another for life. When my close friends go away for family vacations, I find myself longing to go with them and to be introduced to their families as a significant friend. At weddings especially I find myself wanting the individual attention displayed on the dance floor - not only by the groom to his bride, but by all the married couples dancing together celebrating the long years of their commitments. The last time I was at a wedding I nearly had to leave the room because everywhere I looked I saw a man pursuing someone intently and passionately, and I wanted them to look at me that way.

That's the romantic longing I often face in my male friendships. Then there are the sexual desires.

These sexual desires are persistent. I have been driving with friends on long road trips and had strong sexual desires well up within me. I had to reject those desires over and over again as the miles flew by and my friend sat next to me unaware of my internal struggle. Once I was playing board games with a group of friends, laughing, and sharing a light moment after a heavy week. I was dealing the cards one minute and having unsolicited sexual thoughts about them the next.

Concupiscence is nearly perpetual in my relationships with male friends. These desires are present in nearly all times and places, and even when I'm simply thinking about my friends. The desires sometimes debilitate me. I'll hang my head down and stop looking at friends. I'll ask them if we can finish the conversation, and lunch, another time. I'll awkwardly excuse myself from the room and go splash cold water in my face and cry as I beg God to relieve me of the fantasies.

It's not easy being friends with men I'm deeply attracted to. I love them as friends and brothers-in-Christ. I love them with "philia" love. Brotherly love. It is a good thing.

This brotherly love battles against the disordered desires I simultaneously feel toward men. The romantic longings and the sexual desires are part of "eros" love. Erotic love. Eros misdirected ceases to be "love" at all, and becomes only lust.

How Should we Then Love?

Eros must be properly directed in order to be love at all. Concupiscence is the desire of a fallen man. It is what comes naturally because of the sin nature inherited through Adam. I must bring every thought captive and submit it to Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:5)

That's why it's important to know whether concupiscence is sinful immediately, or whether it requires an act of the will to become sin. If it is sinful from its inception, it must be killed at its inception. If it is sinful only after being acted on, then we don't need to bring concupiscence into submission, but only our reactions are to be "brought into captivity." (2 Corinthians 10:5 again.)

Revoice adherents appear to want to treat concupiscence carefully, focusing not on the inception of the lust, but only on the response thereto. Workshops address questions of "unrequited love" and "find[ing] the goodness in loving someone even if those feelings are, at some point, romantic."

These topics are predicated on the idea that the erotic desires - the romantic desires - are still "love" and not lust. It is premised on the idea that at some level the desires are not disordered, but have some value in themselves.

Stronger voices call for the total mortification of concupiscence - giving no quarter or respite to the enemy of what is true.

I side with those who have called for total warfare against concupiscence. I did not choose it, but it has polluted my friendships for quite long enough. I will not coddle it or come to terms with it. I will give it no beachhead in my life to start an invasion of my friendship with a brother-in-Christ. I will do battle.

I will pursue godliness.


Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.


Post Script: I was asked by an anonymous female friend to clarify that this post does not implicate the relationships I have with my many female friends. It was written to address only my friendships with males.

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