‘Washed and Waiting,’ by Wesley Hill, book review

With the recent controversy over Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathey’s non-remarks about gay marriage, followed by a threatened boycott, then a day of support, then a suggested Kiss-In, public discourse, like water, quickly ran to the lowest point. One of my friends, himself no stranger to stirring the pot, finally was compelled to write on Facebook:

To my conservative friends, please stop posting these stupid e-cards about Chick filA, God hating gays and protests. No wonder people won’t visit church anymore. To my liberal friends, quit whining like Dan Cathy attacked a small child or something. Who cares what he thinks. The chicken is delicious. Eat it or don’t eat, but for god’s sake, everyone please focus on the real problems in this world.

Then, an ongoing conversation with an openly gay friend who I have known since he was a child turned my thoughts to the ways we as followers of Christ have, perhaps, misunderstood the plight, feelings, and concerns of those around us with same-sex attraction.

This context, as well as the trials of another friend last week, made me open to a recommendation to read Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality, by Durham University PhD student, Wesley Hill. I am very thankful for the recommendation, as this is one of the most moving books I have ever read, and perhaps one of the most important.

Wesley Hill (Image credit)

Hill, raised in a fundamentalist Christian home in the United States, has lived his life since puberty as a celibate homosexual. My experience in reading of “gay Christians” has been of those who claim Jesus, yet reject the Bible’s teachings on sexuality. In other words “Christian” is less of a modifier of their lives than “gay.” As a result the sexual mores of Scripture are ignored while some of the morality (helping the poor and being a good neighbor, for example) are held fast.

Where Hill differs is that he refuses to capitulate to the current cultural doctrine regarding homosexual activity. He firmly holds to the Bible, though his own desires rail against what he knows to be right. The book was written to encourage

those gay Christians who are already convinced that their discipleship to Jesus necessarily commits them to the demanding, costly obedience of choosing not to nurture their homosexual desires, whether through private fantasies or physical relationships with other gay or lesbian people. (pg. 16)

Hill’s description of growing up confused and filled with shame over his same-sex attraction is heart rending. His thoughtful descriptions of thinking about males rather than females, of a fleeting moment of possible sexual desire toward a woman that he read about in a book, and dancing with a beautiful girl but feeling nothing…until an attractive man went by Hill on the dance floor as he grooved with his own wife, are gripping and touching.

This is one heterosexual dude who has no point of reference for those kinds of thoughts and feelings.

What Washed and Waiting revealed to me, though, was the intensity with which some people are attracted toward people of the same sex. I cannot identify with Wesley Hill except in this way: if he, his entire life, has only known attraction to males the way that I, for my entire life, have known attraction to only females, then to accuse him of making a choice in the matter certainly does not seem very well informed. (This is not to say that some people do not make choices with regard to sexual preference; they obviously do.)

This places Hill and others who have chosen celibacy in response to their same-sex attraction in the position of never being able to experience sex righteously with someone toward whom they actually feel attraction and love. However, he notes

[f]rom the gospel’s point of view, then, there is no absolute right or unconditional guarantee of sexual fulfillment for Christian believers. And this is one more reason the Bible and the church’s prohibitions of homoeroticism have seemed less and less surprising or arbitrary or unfair the more I’ve thought about them with the context of the gospel. If all Christians must surrender their bodies to God in Christ whenever they enter the fellowship of Christ’s body, then it should come as no great shock that God might actually make demands of those Christians and their bodies–demands proving that God, and God alone, has authority over us.

It is from this framework that Hill makes what I think is a crucially important contribution to the swirling arguments around homosexualtiy: there is a difference between same-sex attraction and same-sex activity, just as there is a difference between hetero-sexual attraction and sex outside of wedlock.

Theologian Henri Nouwen (Image credit)

Perhaps the most moving sections of the book are the chronicles of Hill’s intense feelings of loneliness. Drawing parallels with other celibate homosexuals like Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, each of whom experienced deep struggles with loneliness, Hill takes us on a journey through what I can only call moments of emotional despair resulting from loneliness. While such feelings are not limited to celibate homosexuals, it does help understand his struggle.

Where many people with same-sex attraction and others who actively practice gay sex will disagree vehemently with Hill is his assertion that same-sex attraction is a result of the brokenness in the world brought on by sin. Those who insist that homosexual desires, passions and practices are “normal” or even “God given” will find themselves lovingly reproved by Hill who categorizes the first two as thorns in the flesh and the last as sin.

The most powerful part of Washed and Waiting is the final chapter which applies to all followers of Christ, not just those who have same-sex attraction. The chapter entitled “The Divine Accolade” taken from a C.S. Lewis notation on Jesus’ famous words of hope, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Rather than being caught up in our past sinfulness or current temptation, both Lewis and Hill rightfully encourage focus on how God views us rather than how we are tempted to view ourselves. We should not succumb to the condemnation of our heart, since God is greater than our heart and knows every single thing about us and still, because we are in Christ, refuses to condemn us. Said Lewis,

It is written that we shall ‘stand before’ him, shall appear, shall be inspected. The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God. To please God…to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness…to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son–it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is. (The Weight of Glory)

I cannot recommend Washed and Waiting highly enough if you want to get inside the mind of what it means to only have ever experienced same-sex attraction. Whether you have given yourself over to same-sex activity, have a family member who has come out of the closet and you are not sure what to do, or want to get an idea of what it will take to push the conversation on gay marriage (or gay rights) past the shouting, finger pointing, boycotting, condemning stage, this book will provoke your thinking in a biblically centered direction.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

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  • Phelim McIntyre

    I disagree with this book being helpful for a simple reason – it ignores the power of the Holy Spirit to transform, as spoken of in 1 Corinthians 6 verse 11. Hill and others like him, find their identity as much in their homosexuality as they do in their relationship with Christ. We would not commend an alcoholic, thief, adulterer or anyone else who saw themselves as an alcoholic Christian, a thieving Christian, an adulterous Christian so why do so with someone who, even though they do not practice gay sex, see’s themself as a “homosexual Christian”? Our identity must always be in Christ first and then we must be honest about our brokenness but our brokenness must never be the source of our identity as it is with Hill. As someone who has overcome homosexual feelings, and works with those who still struggle with same-sex attractions, I know how difficult this is – but I also know that by allowing the homosexuality to become our identity we take our eyes of Christ and what he can do in our lives and focus on the pit.

    • Guglielmo Marinaro

      Several problems with this, Phelim.

      1. Being homosexual (like being heterosexual) is neither an addiction like alcoholism nor an immoral practice like thieving or adultery. Thus your analogy breaks down.

      2. A homosexual orientation is no more a form of “brokenness” than a heterosexual orientation is.

      3. I have never heard of anyone objecting to a heterosexual Christian regarding his/her sexuality as a healthy and positive PART of his/her identity, so I see no valid reason for objecting to a homosexual Christian doing likewise, which is all that is implied by the self-description “homosexual Christian”.

      All that said, I agree that this book is unlikely to be helpful. I have to admit that I have not read it, but from all the favourable reviews of it and comments on it that I have read, it seems to be a chronicle of psychological and spiritual self-abuse by a man who is trying to reject his God-given sexuality. Definitely not something to be recommended to gay Christians (or indeed non-Christians) who are still in the process of coming to terms with their natural, unbroken sexuality and whose need for loving sexual relationships is as real and as legitimate as that of their heterosexual brothers and sisters.

  • Guglielmo Marinaro

    Well, Phelim, you seem to have expended quite a lot of time and energy replying to arguments which I have not used. I never mentioned the meaning of the word arsenokoitēs; I prefer to leave such matters to competent biblical Greek scholars (of which I am not one any more than you are). I think you will find, however, that the actual word does not occur in the Septuagint and that Paul did indeed invent it; it seems plausible that he did so on the basis of the two separate words arsen and koitē, which occur in the Septuagint translation of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, although this is not certain. But even if Paul meant the word arsenokoitai to mean simply “men who have sex with men” and regarded all homosexual sex under all circumstances as immoral behaviour, we are allowed to disagree with him. I did not use the “pais” argument either; I am familiar with it, but I regard it as pretty thin, and I am rather surprised that anyone still bothers with it. Nor have I appealed to the David and Jonathan story. Although I don’t doubt that there have always been homosexuals (as we understand the term), I don’t think that you’ll find any in the Bible, any more than you’ll find them in Shakespeare’s or Molière’s plays, in Verdi’s operas, or in Charles Dickens’s novels. I don’t see that we need a biblical model to justify our sexuality or our sexual relationships.

    You say that “Science does not allow for homosexuality to be a God given sexuality.” Well, I don’t think that I can dissent from that. Science does not allow for heterosexuality to be a God-given sexuality either. Some scientists believe in God and some don’t, but science qua science doesn’t “do God”; religious beliefs are outside its purview. I don’t know where you got Simon LeVay’s alleged statement from, but if you look at his website you will find a synopsis of his latest book, “Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why”. His conclusion is: “The biological studies reviewed in this book support the idea that sexual orientation is an aspect of gender that emerges from the prenatal sexual differentiation of the brain. Whether a person ends up gay or straight depends in large part on how this process of biological differentiation goes forward, with the lead actors being genes, sex hormones, and the brain systems that are influenced by them.”

    The Human Genome Project has not declared that there is no gay gene. But it is certainly true that no gay gene has been discovered, and it is now regarded as highly unlikely that it ever will be. It is now generally agreed that if there are any genetic factors in sexual orientation, they will almost certainly not be traceable to a single gene. The Human Genome Project has not discovered any straight gene either. Do not misunderstand me. I am not claiming to know how people’s sexual orientation is determined. Different people have different theories, some of which, in the present state of our knowledge, seem more strongly supported by evidence than others, but none have been conclusively proved. As the American psychiatrist Jack Drescher rightly said, the truth of the matter is that nobody actually KNOWS and anyone who claims that they do know is lying to you.

    Your argument about “looking to nature” is badly misconceived. The first problem with it is that it implies that, whereas animals are part of nature, humans are not – a false antithesis. The second and more serious problem is that it implies that human sexuality NEEDS to conform to that of animals in order to be “natural”, a quite unjustified assumption. In no other department of life would we seriously think of looking to what animals do (or don’t do) and/or to the reasons why they do it (or don’t do it) as a pattern to which we have any duty to conform, and there is no reason why we should do so in the field of sexuality. If same-sex sexual behaviour in animals occurs, when it does occur, only for certain reasons, that does not demonstrate that homosexual behaviour in humans for completely different reasons must be wrong or “unnatural”. No such conclusion logically follows. I know that some gay activists have tried to argue from animal behaviour, but their argument is invalid for the same reason as yours is. Neither gay sex in humans nor our reasons for it can be justified by what animals do, but no such justification is needed in the first place.

    The undoubtedly higher incidence of certain problems among gays does not prove that homosexuality in itself is not “natural or healthy”, any more than the higher incidence of certain problems in some ethnic groups proves that being in those groups is not “natural or healthy”. The vast majority of gays over the age of 30, and even many below that age, have had to grow up contending with incessant messages that their sexuality is “unacceptable” and makes them unworthy of respect, and sadly these messages have often come from their families. The city where I live is comparatively gay-friendly, but even here, in these enlightened times, I have two friends in their twenties who have both been disowned by their families because they are gay. We really don’t have the knowledge necessary to set a ceiling on the amount of damage that can be caused by this kind of psychological abuse.

    You may not regard deliberately and permanently depriving oneself of a sexual relationship (as opposed to simply preferring not to have one) as self-abuse. I do. Some people do not regard wearing hair-shirts or spiked bracelets and chains that lacerate the skin as self-abuse. I do.