Can a human being change? I mean, is it possible to observe, empirically and existentially, an utter transformation of one’s essential personhood?
I submit that this question, and its answer, is a potentially powerful and life-changing dynamic. A mutual understanding of constructs can clear the cluttered cultural log-jam within evangelical Christianity over the issue of same-sex attraction (SSA is the acronym of choice; it is well-known in semiotics and morphology that assigning abbreviations normalizes otherwise controversial terms; defenders of SSA deny this motive, and say the acronym, like any other, merely abbreviates a long-tailed-phrase). Let us grant, for instance, that same-sex attraction is an “innocent” temptation (I qualify the word innocent with an apostrophe, for, I suppose, most evangelicals would agree that all temptations are dangerous and that God is not the author of temptation). SSA, in this assumed proposition, is an existential reality as evident and as morally neutral as the air we breathe.
In this assumption, SSA cannot be a sinful predisposition (not part of Augustine’s construct, Pre-fallen man, posse peccare posse non peccare [possible to sin or not]; Unregenerate Man, non posse non pecarre [impossible to not sin]; to Redeemed Man, posse non-peccare; [possible not to sin] and Glorified Man, non posse pecarre]). After all, heterosexuals are, by definition, attracted to the opposite sex (for the sake of consistency, let us normalize or, if you prefer, merely abbreviate, that predisposition, as well, and call it “OSA:” “Opposite Sex Attraction”). OSA men, in particular, have been known to be hit by a bus as they strain to catch a view of a pretty girl.
Is that a sin (not getting hit by the bus, but straining to get a view of a pretty girl)? Well, it may be. Such a scenario is often the humorous scenario for a film or book. Surely, skirt-chasing and girl-watching are just natural impulses for OSA men. Right? Maybe. Maybe not. Undoubtedly, if lust is growing from within to mentally “possess” the girl, the object of our OSA, then, yes, it is a sin.
As an OSA man, I would appreciate any available instruction from another man as to when that gaze is “admiring God’s creation” or “lusting in my heart.” I don’t know. Someone once instructed me “If you look a second time, it is a sin.” But I can cleverly overcome that legalistic construction (and constriction) by merely gazing upon “God’s creation” for a single, long, long time. “Problem solved. Sin avoided. Right? Right?” Ridiculous. What I am saying is that the human soul is infinitely deceptive and notoriously weak (and the male soul, perhaps, even more). Therefore, the question comes to, e.g., heterosexual men: “Can you change your behavior? Can you stop “skirt peeping” (recently a surprising matter of legislative debate in British Parliament)? The OSA man responds, “I don’t know. ‘Gazing upon God’s creation’ is a part of my nature.” “Well,” an indignant lady might justifiably respond, “Do you realize that such gazing is, in actuality, ‘leering’ and such behavior is not only insulting but reducing your female counterparts to an insufferable indignity?” The man replies, “I didn’t mean to do that. But, you see, it is part of my nature. And we can’t change our natures, now can we?” Why the British Parliament took up this matter is beyond me. “We can’t change!” Or can we?
Wait. That is the issue. I state the question again, “Can human beings change?” The answer from homosexual lobbies, including an apparent majority in the psychiatric and psychological community, is “No. Human beings cannot change their nature (we assume the position that SSA is part of one’s nature) any more than a “leopard can change his spots.” And now, even in my conservative, evangelical denomination (I am honorably retired and also credentialed in another evangelical Presbyterian community), we witness the establishment of a special conference to help SSA individuals find normalcy within our churches. The conference has created no small uproar, as many of us know. The sides are intractably positioned for ongoing polemical combat. Some say that we, who are OSA, must show Christian hospitality to the SSA “culture” so that this “community,” (we must decide to consider other words; everything is now a “community”) those self-identifying as SSA, can thrive alongside the rest of us in the Church.
I grant the case, not willingly, but somewhat out of necessity for dialogue (another overused word that needs evaluation). So, if people are destined to remain as they were when they were born, then, we, as Christian clergy and parish ministries, must only provide a sort of “palliative care” for the unchangeable. In other words, the cura animarum (“Cure of Souls”) is a compassionate work of pastoral care for hospice-housed souls who suffer beneath the power of a mysterious determinism. In this case, the “cure of souls” is not curative at all. In such a scenario, we do not need preachers of “repent and believe” and “you must be born again.” We are better off with non-proselytizing chaplains who mutter, “It’s alright. I am here with you until the end comes.” Chaplains are provided to “care-take” the unchangeable natures until death. In Christian theology sinners are saved by grace, to walk in the grace of God, and to be glorified by the Lord Jesus at the time of death.. Thus, if our predispositions are morally neutral, what shall we be, then? Is there any reason to be glorified completely? That is another matter of ethereal and eschatological interest, and I won’t consider it here.
If we are destined to remain what we are, I can imagine nothing more humane than a conference to “celebrate” our captivity. We must establish a convention not only for SSA folk but also for OSA “communities.” If we are destined to our predispositions, inescapably determined by fate, however potentially dangerous to our souls, then let us multiply the conferences like rabbits. Nothing could be more compassionate. Let us celebrate our captivity, make the best of it, and ask others to accept us the way we are. What else is there?
If we are destined to remain what we are, I can imagine nothing more humane than a conference to “celebrate” our captivity.
Now, enough “granting” of a position. In fact, the exercise is likely futile. An SSA advocate can surely shoot holes through my attempted logic. He or she saw through the pretense for argument’s sake in the first sentence. “He is playing to the grandstands, singing to the choir.” I wanted to speak to you, to reflect your voice in some way. But I am sure my biases got in the way. I understand if you read no more. So be it. I have, indeed, tried to assume a position not my own. So, I will reveal my personal opinion, not on a conference, but on the underlying necessary spiritual assumptions that would drive such a gathering. I don’t believe that anyone has lobbied to have my views aired on anything, but I feel constrained to speak. I don’t care to make pronouncements about every controversy. There are others more competent to do so without my voice. Indeed, I am confident that there are more careful thinkers who can address this matter as well. Be that as it may, I do speak, if not for my children and grandchildren, then for the flock of Christ who has been in my pastoral care and the theological students under my charge. Here is what I want to say on the matter of human change. It might surprise you, but I do not believe human beings can change. Indeed, I reckon such an idea as ludicrous as stating that I can alter the orbit of the earth around the sun. I have no innate or acquired power to change myself or others. Such a feat is existentially impossible and such a proposition experientially indefensible. Nothing in the record supports it. No. We cannot change.
But what if we were changed? This interrogative statement is an altogether different presentation of the matter. Speaking grammatically, which can at times be helpful, the word, “we,” in the sentence, forms the object of the predicate rather than the subject. Let me break that out a bit. What if there is an “alien” power (Martin Luther) so capable of transforming the human nature (and even the orbit of the earth) that this Power brings us all to a veritable “new birth?” And what if, in this new birth, there is a reconstitution of “self” and a radically new life trajectory that is outside of our predispositions? What if that Power can overwhelm the soul (“Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” John Donne, c. 1609) so that the human spirit is, in a word, “changed?”
ALMIGHTY God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
I am sure that all sides of the debate can agree: Jesus Christ changes the human soul. The SSA advocates are right when they say that we cannot change. But anyone is wrong if they advocate that we cannot be changed. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is about God’s mission to accomplish comprehensive renovation on a fallen universe. God has declared that He will transform the morally and physically collapsed condition of the cosmos, including the individual, from a “Paradise Lost” to a “Paradise Regained” (John Milton, 1667 and 1671 respectively). The Virgin Birth of our Lord Jesus is the essential definition of change. Our Lord was tempted and did not sin (either physically or metaphysically). The Cross of Jesus Christ is a dramatic other-worldly demonstration of change. For at the cross, the symbol of shame and defeat, God made this strange object, the Cross, the sign of infinite glory and incalculable victory. The resurrection of our God and Savior Jesus Christ is not only a transformation of life and death but also the antecedent of a chain-reaction of miraculous metamorphosis. God changed Jesus’ body from a decaying corpse to a brilliant, new body fit for a New Heaven and a New Earth. God transforms those who repent and believe in Jesus as the resurrected and reigning Anointed One: from a declaration of guilt to uncontested acquittal, from inevitable Adamic-decay to Christ-redeemed growth, and from an unavoidable destination of eternal punishment to a place in which we who believe have already passed from judgment. We cannot change ourselves. But we can be changed. We must be the recipients of a power to give us a new nature. This is not a passive matter. This is urgent activity: “wrestle, fight, pray” and “leave no unguarded place.” God calls for us to seek His face, to call upon Him, and to be persistent and fervent in our prayer for His transforming power to renew us.
I believe that this divinely-revealed state of things is the central and ruling motif for the Christian life. The promise of God’s alien righteousness and His atonement for our sins through faith in Jesus the Christ (our righteousness and our atonement) is a confident hope in a well-supplied arsenal of Biblical pledges that exist to fulfill God’s mission in the world today. “Palliative care” of the unredeemable is not necessary or humane if a change “from without” is available. If this Gospel is true, then we can be—we shall be if we cry out to Him—changed by the power of the risen Christ. In this salvific framework, our ministerial work must begin and conclude by trusting in and proclaiming the resurrected Savior, through the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Biblical means of grace—Word, Sacrament, and Prayer—to conduct wholesale and retail change throughout the cosmos.
I hope we can have many conferences for SSA and OSA alike; gatherings that announce, “Christ is risen. And everything has changed.”
When I was a boy in my little rural, unincorporated spot in the woods, we called such conferences, “revival meetings.” Teachers did not give homework during that special week. Sports activities shut down. Stores closed. For night after night, a guest preacher would stand before the overflowing sanctuary, the largest church seating, maybe, 200, and announce that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” The evangelist, usually a retired pastor, would demand that we turn from ourselves and turn to God. I smell the sawdust still today, even at this moment. For the powerful events seared my senses at that moment into my consciousness. The scene is now irrevocably part of my long-term memory. Before I knew that it was possible for a church to celebrate who we are, I saw many of my neighbors and friends become what they had never been. One day even I was changed.
The Church is not about celebrating who we are but rather who we must be. The Gospel we are commissioned to preach calls for us to repent of who we are and to trust in Christ who will make us what we never dreamed we could be. This glorious undertaking initiated by a holy God only works when we proclaim Christ and Christ alone, not ourselves.
I am what I am. But I am not who I used to be. And I am not what I shall be. Thus, Paul says:
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV).
“O GOD, whose never-failing providence ordereth all things both in heaven and earth; We humbly beseech Thee to put away from us all hurtful things, and to give us those things which be profitable for us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” (the Collect from the Eighth Sunday after Trinity, Book of Common Prayer, 1662).