“God is love.”
This is one of those things everybody’s heard. Sometimes you feel like it’s the most profound thing in the world; sometimes you feel like it’s a stale marshmallow, sweet at first but then dissolving on your tongue into bland nothingness. But as I’ve gotten to know LGBT people who were raised in Christian families, I’ve started to see how this incredibly common sentiment can damage people’s hearts and lives — because they were taught that the God of love couldn’t acknowledge them.
If you’re an LGBT person who was raised Christian, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve never heard a leader in your church welcome LGBT people, trusting that people like you were in the pews and encouraging their faith. You’ve had to try to understand both your sexuality and your faith in the midst of misinformation and deadly silence.
I’m coming to all this as a lesbian convert to Catholicism. I didn’t grow up in the Church; I was introduced to God and to faith by people who genuinely did not act as though my sexual orientation separated me from God. I do my best to accept Catholic teaching, including in the area of sexuality. I’ve found unexpected peace, joy, and pathways of love within celibacy. But I hope what I write here will be relevant to you no matter what your relationship to faith and to the Catholic Church. I hope I can suggest some new questions, which may provoke a deeper self-acceptance based on a new relationship with a God who is so much more tender than you were taught.
Because again and again, I’ve found that gay people do have a special struggle with one temptation — but it isn’t sexual temptation. It’s the temptation to despair. When people grow up with a distorted notion of who God is, they also get a distorted idea of what love is. And because love is the foundation of identity and we’re created in the image of God, they also get a distorted picture of who they are.
The first step in renewing your relationship with God is honesty about the ways in which the people who introduced you to faith — and who may have loved you well in many ways — distorted your understanding of God’s love. What were you taught about gay people? What did you learn in school, in Sunday school, around the dinner table, or in the confessional that shaped your understanding of what God’s love really meant for you?
Whether you were explicitly told that gay people were enemies of the Church, or whether you were “just” left to flail around in confusion and terrible silence, returning to these memories may open deep wells of pain and anger. Here’s a truth that strikes to the heart of everything we know about God: God can and will meet you in that suffering.
In your anger, confusion, and doubt, God is with you. God is working in you and calling you through all of your experiences, including your experience of being gay. Even in the worst times, when you act wrongly, when you harm yourself or others, God is able to regard you with more tenderness than you can offer yourself.
Where do you still hear voices of rejection, judgment, and condemnation in your own head? If you could trust that God loves you unconditionally, cherishes you, wants you, what do you think God would say to you?
What would you say to God, if you trusted that God’s love was truly unconditional? What would you ask? What would you yell?
Even to ask these questions can be a profound form of prayer. “A conscious acceptance of God’s love” might even be one definition of prayer.
There are other ways you can experience God’s cherishing love for you. You may not be interested in hearing from the Bible, given that it’s been used to justify rejection and abuse of LGBT people. But no one can boil Scripture down to morality before they account for foundational passages that reveal God’s identity — and God’s identity is love.
In the Book of Wisdom we hear,
You love all things that are
and loathe nothing that you have made;
for you would not fashion what you hate.
How could a thing remain, unless you willed it;
or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you?
But you spare all things, because they are yours,
O Ruler and Lover of souls,
for your imperishable spirit is in all things! (Wis 11:24 – 12:1)
You are here not by accident, or as some kind of joke. You are here because God loves you. God not only chose to create you, but God chooses every day to sustain you — because of love and by means of love. God wants you here.
Father James Martin, SJ, has been a strong ally in building a bridge between the Church and gay people, and he points to a different Bible passage that also refers to God’s love for each of us, no matter who we are. Psalm 139 includes a passage that “in my experience has proven to be the most helpful for LGBT people and their family and friends,” he writes. This passage tells us that God knows every aspect of our lives. God is with us wherever we go, and there’s nowhere too dark for God’s light to shine:
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. (Psalm 139:13-14)
Father Martin suggests that we pray by asking questions: “Think about what it means for you to be ‘wonderfully made.’ Can you praise God, as the psalmist does? What would your praise look like? … The psalmist admits that God’s ways are beyond the human capacity to understand, and yet the psalmist is ‘still with’ God. What do you think gives the psalmist that kind of faith?”
Regardless of your current relationship with God, or with the Catholic Church, you are probably dealing with more internalized homophobia than you’d like to admit. I’m sorry — it’s awful, but you don’t have to be ashamed when you discover more of this sticky, foul residue in your heart. Consider finding a way to remind yourself of God’s love for you: tape that psalm to your bathroom mirror, carry that bit from Wisdom in your wallet, do whatever makes sense for you.
Here’s one more option — one more passage from the Bible that reveals the deepest truth of who God is and how God loves us. It’s from the prophet Isaiah:
Can a mother forget her infant,
be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget,
I will never forget you. (Isaiah 49:15-16)
God knows that some people are rejected by those who should love them the most. Some are harmed even by people who loved them, receiving a confusing mixture of care and unintentional rejection. But Scripture promises that God will not reject, forget, or abandon you. As Isaiah heard God tell him, “See, upon the palms of my hands I have engraved you.”
To read more from Eve, check out her new book, Tenderness: A Gay Christian’s Guide to Unlearning Rejection and Experiencing God’s Extravagant Love.