Washed and Waiting (Book Review)

washed-waitingIt was only a short time ago when Exodus International revamped its ministry, announcing it would no longer seek to treat men and women who struggle with same-sex attraction with “conversion therapy.” After years of serving people using that model, they determined they would instead concentrate on discipleship. In effect, they admitted that folks who struggle with homosexuality should not be sold a promise that with the right amount of therapeutic counsel, they could expect to the cured from their unwanted homosexual orientation. Some have found their sexual desires change to be heterosexual. Others have not found change, despite never “choosing” the feels that have always come naturally to them. Wesley Hill, author of the bestselling memoir Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality, is one of the others. Because he knows that believing and living as a repentant, faithful Christian entails (for everyone equally) celibacy or heterosexual monogamy, and has chosen the path of denying himself, taking up his cross, and following Jesus, his story is one of loneliness, longing, and hope.

After years of thinking about the problem of homosexuality and the Church, I find myself wishing that I met someone like Wesley Hill a long time ago. His acceptance of the biblical view of homosexuality, situated in the grand story of the Bible (Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Re-creation), and his striving to shape his story by the Bible’s vision of life, would have kept me from many faulty thoughts, ignorant comments, and compassionless relations with my fellow image-bearers who fight the battle of sexual fidelity from a position of homosexual desires. I think Hill is a beautiful human being, and a winsome brother in the Lord who has taught me a ton about what the struggle to live the Christian life looks and feels like from a fallen sexual nature that is bent toward homosexual desires.

Unlike other books by evangelical Christians who fight same-sex attraction, Hill focuses on a narrative style that reflects on theological topics as he has encountered them in his Christian walk. This is not a book with essays on the Bible’s doctrine of homosexuality and marriage. It is also not a polemic book arguing with people inside and outside the church about what the Bible requires of people living the gay or lesbian lifestyle. The author does not speak from a position of having arrived at his destination, or even from a place of experiencing victory. Rather he has comes to terms with the thorn in his flesh which the Lord has assigned to him. He has accepted that unless his orientation changes so that he might honestly love a woman as her husband, his battle will be lifelong. Yet he expects to be victorious in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, and looks forward to the day when his washing in the cleansing blood of Jesus will feel completely true and match his experience. Until that day, he will wait patiently for the redemption of his broken body and sexuality. To him every Christian ought to be able to say a hearty Amen! We’re all broken, fallen, and sinful, which is what unifies us in experience. It is our particular experience of our individual and unique fallenness that makes each person different.

The story format of Hill’s book has proven quite attractive to the postmodern generation. The table of contents reads:

Prelude: Washed and Waiting
1. A Story-Shaped Life
Interlude: The Beautiful Incision
2. The End of Loneliness
Postlude: “Thou Art Lightning and Love”
3. The Divine Accolade

As Hill narrates his coming of age and self-discovery at an evangelical Christian college, he brings us along and disciples us. That is what struck me most about the book. I initially decided to read it to familiarize myself with the plight of celibate “gay” and “lesbian” Christians—those who don’t act out their desires by living the homosexual lifestyle out of a conviction that doing so would be sin. Hill gave me what I was looking for, and more. The unexpected blessing I received was a new-found appreciation for the unusual difficulty in fighting sin that homosexuals face every single day. The vigilance and single-minded devotion in fighting temptation that Hill portrays as his daily reality is worthy of emulation for any Christian. Sometimes I tend to forget that this world is a spiritual battleground, and I can let down my guard. But Hill’s story reminds me that following Christ is a radical denial of self, and those who are called to deny themselves with such costly sacrifice are heroes of the faith. Hill invites us into not only his own inner life, but the inner lives of Christians from the past who privately struggles with same-sex attraction. Many of their stories were known by only a small circle of trusted friends, and have only been shared for the benefit of the Church and the world since their release from this body of death into the glories of heaven. Hill shows us that we are enriched by knowing the stories of Christians from various communions such as Henri Nouwen, Martin Hallett, Gerald Manley Hopkins, and others.

One of Hill’s expressed goals of the book is to carefully avoid language that labels men and women who struggle with same-sex attraction with terms that define their identity.  I think he falls short of that goal a few times, particularly when he addresses them as “gay” or “lesbian” or “homosexual” Christians.  I want to be extremely careful here because I don’t want to pontificate about how people choose to describe themselves.  After all, Christians of various stripes call themselves either saints or sinners, usually emphasizing one or the other.  Both of them are true of the Christian in the already/not yet state we live in (after conversion but before final sanctification in heaven)–think Luther’s term “simultaneous saint and sinner” as the identity of all those justified in this life.  Yes I think that Hill sometimes writes in such a manner that excuses Christians who struggle with same-sex attraction to view their sexual orientation as their secondary identity, while their primary identity being a forgiven sinner and child of God.  Does this give too much influence to our sexuality?  I suggest it might.

Another item I disagreed with was Hill’s reluctance to carry the importance of marriage to human relationships and society from the Old Testament era over to the New Testament era in which we live today.  According to Hill, the nuclear traditional family was the God-ordained institution for faith-relationships under the old covenant.  But under the new covenant, the primary institution is the church.  If I understand him correctly, Hill seems to say that one’s brothers and sisters in the OT are one’s siblings, whereas in the NT they are one’s fellow Christians in the church.  I empathize with this reasoning, considering how Jesus described who his family is (disciples were his mother and brothers; Mt 12:46-50).  And I can see why a single person, especially one who sees it unlikely he will ever marry and have children, would be attracted to the nuclear family fading behind the spiritual family.  But I think Hill presses this point too far with an “over-realized” eschatology.  In other words, because we live in the overlap of the ages, the nuclear family is still the foundational God-ordained institution for solving the problem of loneliness, love, friendship, and childbearing.  Until the general resurrection when marriage is no more, the institution of family will remain prominent.  Abraham Kuyper was on to something with his idea of “sphere sovereignty” (family, church, state).  However, this must not become discouraging news for celibate folks.  Families and churches are redeemed institutions that must never remained closed to inviting the lonely, the unattached, and the overlooked (including homosexual strugglers) into their lives.  Surely we can do better with creative ways to love our fellow believers who may be starving for relationship.  But these two quibbles do not significantly detract from my great appreciation for the message of this book.

Wesley Hill, thank you for opening your heart, exposing yourself to prejudice and hate in Christian circles, and helping us fellow sinners to begin to love our friends who suffer from same-sex attraction. We are all the richer for your labor of love. May God richly bless you as you live life before the face of God, washed and waiting, like the rest of us.

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