There’s an article circulating on Facebook titled “The Top Regrets of the Dying,” written by a nurse named Bronnie Ware, who for many years worked in palliative care. Ware writes about her experiences working with people in the last three to twelve weeks of their lives and of their sharing with her the most pressing regrets of their life. The number one voiced regret of her patients was:
“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
Living a life true to oneself is something we all grapple with at one time or another. But for those who happen to be both Christian and gay, the struggle to live authentically can be an all encompassing one and a life-long endeavor. The following sentiment from one Christian gay man I mentored is fairly indicative of what many gay believers experience before they come to terms with being gay and ultimately integrate their rich Christian faith with their sexuality:
“My life had been a long and strenuous process of self-denial, a long and ultimately unrewarding pattern of placating my way through life, of going through the motions, of following somebody else’s chart to someone else’s destination, and of forgetting almost completely, or repressing the memory of, such validating life experiences as would have helped me identify myself and rejoice in my own identity. It led me up the road to what appeared to be success — because my chosen way of fighting what I felt to be my illegitimacy was to create a life of measurable legitimacy — but what actually was a lifelong charade up to that point. I recognized myself as a triumphantly successful, soul-sick wretch, the proverbial empty shell. I was trying my utmost to live a life that was never mine to live to begin with.”
GROWING UP GAY
The story of how a young man who happens to be gay becomes a mature and responsible adult male is often not like other boy-to-man stories. Our society most often aborts or derails the gay man’s development early, either directly by oppression and ostracism, or indirectly through self-hatred and self-limitation that constant oppression and ostracism so successfully incubate and nurture. Not all gay men even begin the journey; some live whole lives in hiding, either from themselves, from the church, from the larger society or all three. Still others turn to suicide.
In many cases the emergence of the “different” self, is followed so closely, so immediately and so diligently by the campaign of voluntary and involuntary concealment that the identity of gay men in our society is almost by its own nature cloaked in disguises from the very beginning. From the earliest of the closeted gay man’s experiences, his mechanisms for concealment become paramount in his arsenal for growth.
He begins by concealing parts of himself from himself. The duplicity eventually rewards him with lowered self-esteem for his deceit. He becomes depressed because of his low self-esteem. The depression intensifies the need for concealment, since he associates his self-esteem with the hidden truth about himself. Further concealment continues the cycle.
TRYING TO CHANGE
We now know that efforts to change one’s sexual orientation fail. People who have experimented with homosexual behavior (as many heterosexual people do) can turn away from it. Homosexuals, like heterosexuals, can become celibate. Or they can marry against their desires and have children. But research on efforts to help people do a 180 degree U-turn with their sexual orientation — their feelings and fantasies — reveals that no such treatment is effective. Many a person has tried hoping upon hope to escape their culture’s contempt without succeeding.
Christian ex-gay organizations have had a go at this too offering support to those seeking to leave their orientation. But many — including more than thirteen such organizations affiliated with Exodus International — have been abandoned by their ex ex-gay founders. Countless former ex-gay ministry leaders, including myself, confess that they counseled hundreds of people who tried to change their sexual orientation and none of them changed. The bottom line is it doesn’t work.
Many gay and lesbian Christians have felt “called” to heterosexuality, but after years of effort, prayer, laying on of hands, Christian counseling, and searing guilt, have found only misery and in many cases lost faith. While there is no scientific evidence that reparative or conversion therapy is effective in changing a person’s sexual orientation, there is much evidence that this type of therapy can be destructive.
What happens to gay Christians who continue to repress and suppress their orientation? Many join the ranks of those who lament: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
One leader of an international Christian ministry received a touching letter from an 85 year old professor emeritus of a well-known evangelical college telling him how very much he would like to have a mate after all these years of sublimating and denying his homosexuality. But he wrote that he knew that would now be impossible. He wished he’d had the courage to live a life true to himself, not the life others expected of him.
Another story involves a conversation with another older man who decided early on, based on what he had been taught by other Christians, that homosexuality was out of the question. He consequently suppressed and denied his sexuality, got married, and fathered and raised two children. He did everything he thought society and the Church expected of him. His children are now grown, living lives of their own, and he has since retired. But he recently sat down with a colleague and poured his heart out in remorse explaining that now in his senior years his homosexuality has come back to haunt him with a vengeance, and he deeply regrets that he spent his life denying and suppressing it. He considers it the most costly mistake of his life. Sadly these stories are not unique of the many who continue to repress and suppress their orientation.
You don’t have to wait until you’re on your death bed to appreciate that aging is God’s way of telling you that you don’t have time to waste. It’s an opportunity to ask: What am I tethered to that’s not good for me? What can I move past and move forward into? Growing old is a privilege, for not everyone gets to do it. Aging then is a gift. I am now, probably for the first time in my life, the person I have always wanted to be — though I am sometimes taken aback by that older person that lives in my mirror (who looks like my dad!).
Jesus himself taught: “I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Yet philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once remarked, “Christ turned water into wine, but the church has succeeded in doing something even more difficult: it has turned wine into water.” He meant it, of course, as a critique of the church of his day for diminishing, trivializing and otherwise squandering the extraordinary gift that had been given it and pinching God into a straightjacket of exclusionary judgmentalisms. It may be applicable as well to churches that have driven from its doors literally millions of gay men and women who would have accepted Christ.
But then, the same critique might be made of individual Christian lives as well. Isn’t abundant life a wondrous miracle? And don’t you think it’s out there all of the time, everywhere if we only had the eyes to see it? I think Shakespeare got it right when he said: “To thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” The reverse is also true: Be false to yourself and you will be false to everyone. “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me” need not be among the regrets you grieve over toward the end of the life God has given you. As Mark Twain rightly said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did.” And those twenty years will pass by awfully fast.