One of the most frequently asked questions when I’m invited to speak at churches and conferences on the subject of same-sex temptations is this: “Is it sinful for someone simply to be attracted to a person of the same-sex?” Trying to give an answer that is both true to scripture and practically helpful in just a few sentences is always something of a challenge, so this article is written in part to provide a more comprehensive and thought-through response to which I can refer people in future.
Attractions are many and varied
It’s important to consider, first, exactly what we understand by the words “attractions” and “attracted”, because these terms can have various different meanings, both according to the context in which they’re spoken (or written) and the person who uses them.
So on a personal level, I can experience a whole variety of attractions to people of the same-sex. I might be attracted to someone simply because they’re a genuinely warm and friendly person that I enjoy spending time with or because there’s a certain aspect to their character and personality that really appeals to me. Or I can be attracted to someone because they love the Lord Jesus and have a beautiful, Christlike character. Sometimes I’m attracted by a particular skill, gift or talent that someone displays, particularly if I’m not gifted in the same way. Or I may be drawn to someone’s appearance and find that person physically attractive either in general terms, or in a very specific way (e.g. attracted to their smile, eyes, complexion, or body shape etc.)
Attractions are not intrinsically sinful
I struggle to find good, biblical evidence that leads me to conclude that any of the above-mentioned attractions are, in and of themselves, fundamentally sinful. God has created us with an inbuilt ability to recognize and appreciate good things and physical beauty. True, any attraction can certainly become sinful. So I might allow my appreciation of someone’s character, personality, Christian faith or abilities to become obsessive or unhealthy and make an idol of that person. Or I might dwell so much on an individual’s physical attributes that I begin to look at them with lustful intent, which according to Jesus is to commit sexual immorality in my heart (Matthew 5:28).
I am convinced, though, that merely to find someone – of either sex – attractive is not intrinsically sinful. If it were, then I suspect the vast majority of Christians would be going about our daily business in a perpetual state of sin. Because most of us regularly cross paths with people that we involuntarily find attractive, whether those attractions are kindled by a person’s personality, character, faith, gifts or physique. So a number of Christian men have admitted to me privately that they can recognize other men as good-looking and attractive, even though they don’t experience even a hint of same-sex sexual desire for them or actual physical attraction to them.
Attractions can give rise to sinful desires
Clearly, though, our attractions – if left unchecked – can easily give rise to sinful desires. This is precisely what happened back in the Garden of Eden, of course. In a perfect creation, before sin had entered into the world, Eve “saw that the tree [of the knowledge of good and evil] was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise …” (Genesis 3:6). So the perfect woman found the tree attractive, and the Lord God had clearly made it that way – it was good, a delight to the eyes, to be desired. But instead of remembering God’s command not to eat of that particular tree, “she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.”
There’s no indication in the Genesis account that Adam and Eve sinned merely by finding the tree attractive. Rather, their sin was in allowing that attraction to give rise to a sinful desire to “be like God” (Genesis 3:5), which they then failed to resist. And in the same way, if I fail to keep my attractions towards someone of the same sex in check, they too will inevitably give rise to sinful desires. A sinful desire to idolize that person, for example, or to look at him lustfully, or to engage in a sexually immoral act or relationship with him. At this stage, of course, I still have an opportunity, by God’s grace, to bring these sinful desires under the control of the Holy Spirit, who dwells within me and whose fruit is self-control. But I’m already walking a dangerous path.
Sinful desires lead to temptations
If we fail to exercise self-control over our sinful desires, then we’re heading for trouble. James provides some very helpful insight into the heart process that leads us along the road from desire through temptation and on into sin and ultimately to death:
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (James 1:13-15)
So left to our own devices, the human predicament is completely hopeless. As we saw from Genesis 3, If we fail to keep our attractions (to anyone or anything) under control, they will inevitably give rise to sinful desires. And James teaches that these desires will lure and entice us into temptations, which if not resisted will give birth to sin, which if not forgiven will bring forth death! No wonder the Apostle Paul exclaims elsewhere, reflecting on his struggle with sin, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24)
Jesus sympathizes and helps us to control our attractions
Praise God that, in Christ, we are not left to our own devices. We have one who can and will deliver us from our body of death and bring us securely into his glorious, eternal kingdom. One who has already paid the death penalty on our behalf and thereby fully satisfied God’s wrath for each and every time that you or I have allowed evil desires to conceive and give birth to sin. The writer of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus, because of his humanity, is able to offer sympathy and practical help as we struggle to keep our attractions under control and to resist temptation:
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)
Matthew reveals in his gospel that various attractions were laid out before Jesus when the Spirit led him out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1-11). This included the temptation to avoid the cross altogether by bowing down and worshiping Satan. Did Jesus find this an attractive proposition? Well, Matthew doesn’t tell us, but Luke records Jesus as praying later on the Mount of Olives, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). This suggests that Jesus in his humanity found the prospect of avoiding the cross very attractive indeed.
What we do know for sure is that Jesus was “in every respect…tempted as we are, yet without sin.” We must conclude from this that to be tempted to do something sinful cannot itself actually be sinful. So I may be tempted to idolize someone of the same sex that I find attractive (on any number of levels), or tempted to lust over someone that I find physically attractive. But if, by God’s grace, I resist those temptations then I do not sin and do not need to feel guilty simply for experiencing attractions to people of the same sex.
And the great news is that I can resist those temptations. But only by approaching God’s throne of grace with confidence, through Jesus Christ, and by pleading for his mercy and grace to help me in my time of need.