It’s been a long, painful and perilous journey from a life of suffocating fear and self-loathing toward a life of fearlessness and love. I spent most of my teenage and adult years trapped in the impenetrable coffin of my self-loathing, absolutely convinced that I was unlovable to God. As a young boy growing up in the evangelical world, I somehow absorbed the message that being gay makes a person loathsome and subhuman. When I started to discover that I was gay myself, I became the victim of my own undying disgust and hatred. Like a supernova, my being collapsed upon itself, the object of its own unquenchable disgust.
I was trapped in that deadly pattern for years, and it was a pattern of immense self-destruction, volatile relationships, and crushing loneliness. What I want to talk about now is how that started to change, how letting go of self-loathing began a pilgrimage from shame toward learning to accept God’s love for me.
The year it all started to shift – my 22nd year – was a dark one. Not only were the demands of my music degree beginning to crush my spirit, I had also just gone through a bloody breakup with my girlfriend of nine months.
I had tried desperately to make our relationship work. I had convinced myself that my sexuality was, at best, an unpleasant memory from my past and at worst an annoyance that needed occasional maintenance. I was in deep denial about how much I looked at guys, how much I fantasized about them, and how much I was emotionally and physically attracted to them. Even when I almost cheated on my girlfriend with another guy from my college, I was still in denial about my sexuality.
By the time our relationship fell apart, I couldn’t live in denial anymore. I had to confront that I found men painfully beautiful and that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with a man. And, in my attempts to deny that part of myself, I had very profoundly hurt an incredible young woman who had been my best friend. Despite how much I loved her, I didn’t want to touch her, hug her, kiss her. I didn’t want to hold her hand or be physically close to her. While I enjoyed her friendship and conversation, I couldn’t celebrate her beauty or femininity the way a man should, and she was left feeling broken, insufficient, wondering what she had done wrong.
I walked away from that relationship having realized two horribly painful things about myself: first, that my orientation was not going to go away, and that I had exhausted all attempts at knowing how to fix it. Second, I could never, ever put another woman through that experience ever again. It would take God writing it in fire in the sky for me to ever enter a relationship with a woman again.
I entered a very dark place. I again contemplated killing myself because, in my mind, anything was better than being gay. Every treatment had failed. I felt like I had completely exhausted all my options and there was nothing left for me to do but die. Even though I had left the ex-gay world 3 years before, I didn’t want to be gay – I was terrified of being gay. I was terrified of what that meant for me as a Christian, terrified that I was going to hell. Most of all, I didn’t want to hate myself anymore.
And then I met someone I’ll call Drew. Drew was another music student – handsome, intelligent, kind – and I dropped into the free fall of a very intense crush. For two months I was under the influence of intoxicating romance. We went on a few dates and enjoyed each other’s company.
Internally, I was ripped to pieces. Everything I wish I had felt for my girlfriend I was now feeling for another man. For the first time in my life I was experiencing my orientation in relation to another gay man, but I felt like I had to sacrifice my soul, faith and belief in God to do so. I didn’t know if it was right or wrong, but I was afraid of even allowing myself to admit that, for fear of being expelled from the presence of God.
In my desperate search for answers, I found a little Catholic parish hidden away in a mountain valley. I started going to the parish because no one there knew me and no one would talk to me. No one would have to know about my relationship with Drew, my sexuality, or my questions. If someone started to ask questions, I could leave, because I feared that it was only a matter of time before someone would find me out and ask me to leave.
One Sunday morning, when I was at the end of my rope, I was on my knees during mass crying out to God for an answer. And then something happened.
I don’t know how, but I suddenly knew that God was there with me. I knew that His holiness was wrapped all around me, gathering about me like heavy smoke. In the midst of that holiness, I didn’t feel judged, I didn’t feel cast away – I felt safe. Safe for the first time in years.
And then, in the midst of this sense of very profound holiness, a voice deep within me said, Stephen, do you remember that time when you were in high school, and your father came into your room? Do you remember how he wrapped his arms around you, held you to his chest and whispered in your ear, “Stephen, you are my son, and I will never kick you out of my house. My home will always be your home, because I am a good father, and a good father doesn’t kick out his son. You are my son, and I love you.” The voice deep within me continued, I am like your biological father in that way, Stephen. I’m not going to kick you out over this. My home will always be your home, because I am a good Father, and a good father doesn’t kick out his son.
That was the safest I had felt in years. I suddenly knew that, no matter how I failed or succeeded, no matter how right or wrong my theology, no matter how many mistakes I made in my pursuit after Him, it was ok. I was still His son. For the first time, I realized what it meant to trust God with my sexuality.
In that moment, I realized something for the first time in my life: God doesn’t ask us to be perfect. God doesn’t ask us to have perfect theology. All He asks of us is to love Him, and to try.
Try to find the answers. Try to live a holy life. Try because we are already accepted by Him through His son Jesus.
That might mean asking scary questions. That might mean falling in love. That might mean being theologically wrong. That might mean having to re-evaluate what you believe for the thousandth time. That might mean getting heart broken. That might mean struggling with loneliness. That might mean finding the love of your life. That might mean being called to celibacy. God’s love is big enough. And in that love, there is space to question, to journey, to be confused. Jesus isn’t threatened by questions, we are.
The only reason I am alive is because, three years ago in a tiny mountain Catholic parish, I started to learn how to trust, and to cling to the Cross. I learned to trust that God is bigger than my shortcomings, my questions, my capacity for rightness and wrongness. I started to trust that God has tempered justice with mercy, and that mercy covers me even when my best attempts fail in both action and understanding.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s been a hard journey since that day in Mass. There have been trials and struggles and despair and heartbreak, but I don’t think I would have survived any of that if I hadn’t first learned that God is perfect and that I am not.
For too many people, the struggle with sexuality take place in a claustrophobic and fearful place. I believe that, through His love, God offers us space. He offers us space to journey, to question, and to cling to Him. He offers us the space to experience struggle as refinement and questions as worship.
Because he is a good Father, and a good father doesn’t kick out his children.
A previous version of this article was published on my blog in 2013