why gay is not choice: we are biological beings

I am furious.

As he posted on our Twitter account, my brother Jordan was told by a counseling pastor to his face (and to his mother) that he chose to be gay and that he might not be saved. Are you kidding me? Are you serious? For starters, if you knew Jordan in person, you would know that questioning his salvation is just foolish; he gives ample evidence of the fruit of the Spirit. It is clear that he is saved.

I have difficulty taking seriously individuals that hold to beliefs like this. I question their theology, and I even question their intellectual capabilities. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that these individuals have been taught a heavy anti-psychology bias. Every mental issue becomes spiritualized. Feel depressed? You must not be seeking the joy of the Lord. Anxious? You clearly aren’t casting your fears unto the Lord. Paranoid? You must not trust God.

To assume that people have “willful” control of every emotion they experience, of every impulse they feel, of every thought that crosses their mind is flat out heresy.

It’s heresy because it denies that our conscious experiences —- our thoughts and emotions —- do not have biological components. It denies that we have bodies, that we are physical beings. Everything that we do involves neurons firing in our brain. If I activated certain neurons in an individual’s brain, I could make them feel certain emotions, even make them move certain body parts. If you drink a bunch of alcohol, you will exhibit certain behaviors, regardless if you want to or not. If I give you a sedative, you will feel more relaxed and act more subdued. If I kept you awake for several days, you would be unable to sustain attention.

The reality is that all of our brains have been wired in particular ways. They’ve developed that way due to the genetic code that we have inherited, the chemicals exposed to that genetic code, and even how our cultural environment has interacted with us. Some people’s brains become wired in ways that make it easier for them to exhibit acceptable behaviors. Others don’t. Would we expect people who are mentally challenged to be able to grasp complicated concepts? No. Would we expect a child on the autism spectrum to always act socially appropriate? No. Would we expect someone who has no brain area for producing speech to suddenly talk? No.

So then, tell me, why do some churches/Christians expect some people who are consistently depressed, or have a high level of anxiety, or who experience same-sex attraction to suddenly have volitional control over these areas?

Some of you, same-sex attracted or not, have been spiritually abused and manipulated when it comes to whatever mental calamity or deficiency that your suffer from. You’ve been told that you’re not trusting God enough, not turning to Him, that you simply need to pray more for whatever you’re experiencing to go away.

Sometimes our struggles are the result of our failure to turn to God. But sometimes, no matter how many times we pray, our brain cells are going to stay that way and things aren’t going to change. And this isn’t because you’re doing something wrong; it’s because you live in a world that has gone wrong.

I’m not trying to be a pessimist. I’m not trying to say there isn’t relief for people who suffer from mental anguish. But to assume that people are only experiencing brokenness because they haven’t prayed in the “proper” way is dangerously tinted with shades of a triumphalism that does not do justice to the confusing depth of human suffering. To assume that every conscious experience of ours is spiritual (or within our control) is naïve, it’s bad theology, and to be blunt, it’s stupid.

When it comes to being gay, we have a part of our brain that is devoted to sexual arousal (the hypothalamic region). If I’m correct, all mammals have sexual arousal response systems in this part of the brain. In humans, it is a less “advanced” part of our brain, meaning we have less control over it. It isn’t part of our outer cortex. So it should not be hard to believe or come as a surprise, that there are males who have wiring that causes them to be sexually aroused by other males and that there are females who have wiring that causes them to be aroused by other females. Biologically, this could easily develop. There is sexual arousal in other parts of the brain too that is more plastic (changeable), and maybe this is why some people’s homosexuality is more malleable and flexible.

My point is that believing that people could be attracted to the same-sex isn’t a complicated concept. It’s not rocket science. Forgive me, I know I’m coming across as arrogant, but I’m so frustrated that there are people who refuse to believe this, especially those in some churches. It just makes Christians look dumb.

Now practically, no matter what we face in our lives, we are still called to turn to God — to trust that He is control of our lives, to trust that our God is bigger than anything we face, to trust that He can still use us despite any mental deficiency that we may face. And believe it or not, focusing on God’s love for an individual could help rewire a depressed person’s brain (thoughts have power to change connections and chemicals released). And focusing on how God is in control of our lives, could relieve some anxiety. But it may not bring complete relief. Some people’s brains are fairly hardwired, especially in regions that are less influenced by thought. They may always have a level of anxiety or perhaps a level of depression or perhaps a reduced ability to control their emotions.

But even with whatever affliction we face in our lives — whether it’s in our brains or pain in our joints or nausea in our stomachs — God is still God over our lives. He still loves us. He still uses us. And He will still set everything right someday.

I just wish that some Christians and some churches would stop denying the influence of our biology over our feelings, emotions, thoughts, and yes, even sexual attractions.

-Tony

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18 thoughts on “why gay is not choice: we are biological beings

  1. I’m deeply shocked and sadden to have read about what happened to Jordan.

    I often think that Christ must shed many tears about the Church as it functions today. We just can’t to get things right, least of all, loving a each other, let alone the world!

    I guess that’s my courage fails me when I think about coming out. I know that my church and family would respond to me in a similar way.

    While I don’t have any easy answers, please do know thaou are in my prayers. And I do not say that lightly, I really do mean it! I know what its like to be isolated by the church. Especially if its the church you’ve grown up in, and given your life to in service.

    Please don’t let this get you down or deter you in what you are doing here. The church needs you (even though it often refuses to acknowledge that fact!)

    Praying for you, you amazing men of God!

  2. I read Jordan’s little tweet about this other day, and I am so sorry. I am praying for you both. It is never any fun to come face to face with such things. As a Catholic Christian, who also happens to be gay, much of what you wrote resonated with me since it reflects much of what the Church teaches. As a Melkite Catholic, the line about living in a world that has gone wrong pretty much sums up our approach to “original sin” and its consequences. Thank you for sharing these thoughts.

    I admire so much how you are choosing to remain faithful in the midst of all this. It can be difficult, but I am so glad you are. You both are a great example and witness to all Christians, but especially ones who happen to be gay, of what fidelity in the face of adversity looks like. Thank you for your living witness, and may God bless you both.

  3. Prayers for Jordan, and for you. I appreciate your honesty; I believe it’s the only way Christians’ attitude and false beliefs can be corrected. And I’ve run into this myself on a number of things, the belief that if we suffer it must be because we’ve done something wrong. Funny, if you think about it, to believe that we have that kind of power.

  4. That really is infuriating. As a Catholic with SSA, I see clearly that there are certainly a lot of misinformed people out there who believe that I can choose my sexuality – I tried to convince myself of it for a number of years. I loved what this blog had to say about it: http://sexualauthenticity.blogspot.com/2012/07/forbidden-fruit-hidden-lies_2908.html It really brought me some hope and understanding during a difficult time. Thank you for your witness and your courage!

  5. Thanks for the kind words, Tony.

    I’ll be writing more about the experience soon (I have a bunch of plane rides tomorrow), but I just wanted to stop in and say: you all are fantastic, thank you for the support, and that I am doing very well, really, and am not too discouraged. Looking forward to explaining things in more detail.

    Peace!

    Jordan

  6. I am praying for you Jordan!

    This was seriously the position of the church that I grew up in. I’ve been reflecting on how psychological differences are so easy to brush off as long as you’re not the one suffering from them. It’s so easy to assume that everyone’s brain works the way yours does. That person with ADHD? Clearly he just lack the willpower to concentrate. The depressed person? Clearly he just has the wrong outlook on life.

    And then they mix it with Christianity and say that you’re a bad Christian because *gasp* your brain is fallen like the rest of your body.

  7. I’ve been reading these conversations now all summer thank’s to Jordan’s encouragement. And I respect and value the quality and thoughtfulness of everything that is expressed. Thanks for keeping the door open so folks like me can sign up.

    I’ve been thinking about Tony’s July 31 post for some time. I completely understand why he is furious. Exchanges like the one he records are unhelpful and harmful.

    But there are a couple points we ought to talk about candidly.

    (1) Psychology has not proven that sexual orientation is entirely biological. We are complex beings and most results with this subject and any number of others point to a combination of biological and environmental causes (nature + nurture) that contribute. Yes we are physical, natural beings in whom biology is important. But it isn’t always determinative. Which is what makes us human (imago dei anyone?) and capable of lifting ourselves above our impulses.

    (2) Theology would not take kindly to an argument that says: Well, I was born this way (I’m thinking of any condition, impulse, or feeling here) and therefore its pursuit is justified. Biological determinism does not validate behavior or else we would have to “justify” some who has addictive or violent tendencies (and there are biological markers for these as well). Moral responsibility attends to behavior that is shaped by nature as well as by nurture. The moral standard is found us; not determined by what is us.

    (3) Psychology is also realistic that one need not point to biology to find determined behavior. Because environmental causes can be just as determinative as anything found in biology. Take the child who is abused violently. This will put in play reflexes and attitudes that are unseemly and quite beyond the child’s control.

    All of this is to say: we obtain behavioral tendencies from all sorts of places. And sin (oops, I’m a theologian) has a comprehensive way of comprehensively corrupting us from top to bottom. But there is no appeal to my behavior having been determined to let me off the hook. I still need to wrestle thoughtfully with all behavior no matter its source.

    I’m glad that Tony expressed himself as he did. Because he has placed on the table (a) legitimate feelings of utter frustration and (b) a topic that needs real examination.

    Hope you don’t mind my posting something.

    gb

    • gb,

      We actually (mostly) agree (I think). If I added a lot of clarification and nuance to the language in my post, then you would see that we are in agreement. The problem is that I can’t do this with every post, so I have to use previous posts to clarify what I mean in current posts. So that’s probably why things seem overly simplified in this post (which they are).

      I’ll go through each of your points and respond to them:

      1. First, let me explain what I mean by biology — I mean the combination of molecules that are affecting a person at any given time. When someone’s body has a sexual response/appeal to another individual, there are cells that are causing this. The nature + nurture debate does not mean “is it a biological cause or a environmental cause for the current behavior?” Quite the contrary. The debate is asking this question: “did a person’s genetic code program for their biology to develop a certain way OR did a person’s environment cause their biology to develop a certain way.” Biology is always assumed to be a part of behavior, whether or not it developed that way because of genetics (nature) or the environment (nurture). Psychology would 100% say that some (if not most) homosexuality has some nurture/environmental causes. But these environmental causes cannot necessarily be “undone” — once a person’s brain becomes wired a certain way, it could always stay that way, especially if it is in a deeper/more primitive part of the brain such as the hypothalamus. I do think that there are some types of same-sex attraction that could undergo healing because the environmental influence did not permanently set the biology in stone to be gay.

      Now, of course, we come to the issue of human agency, which is why we must distinguish between the urges to do something versus actually doing something. I can’t control my same-sex attraction, but I can control what I do with it. A consistently depressed person may not be able to control their sadness, but they could control how they respond to their sadness. However, my response to an “impulse” could actually make the impulse more ingrained or less ingrained. If I consistently think lustful thoughts about other men, engage in numerous gay sex, and look at gay porn, I can guarantee that my gay attractions will be increasingly heightened and likely more intense — so I guess you could say that then this increased attraction would be my responsibility (but we could then not say that I am choosing at the moment to have heightened SSA but rather it was a choice in the past that caused this). If a depressed person responds to their depression by cutting off their friends, locking themselves in their room, and watching TV all day, I can almost guarantee they are going to stay depressed (the choice will reinforce biology that causes depressive feelings). But if instead they choose to seek out Christian community, meditate on God’s purpose and love for them, and make a commitment to go out at least once a day, their depression will probably decrease (but perhaps never fully).

      And finally, there are some elements of our bodies that we simply do not have control over. I do not have control over whether or not I feel thirsty or hungry or my body’s response to raise my temperature when I’m sick. What’s interesting, these biological responses are largely controlled by the hypothalamus, the same region where sexual arousal/attraction is located. So for some people, their attraction to the same-sex is just as automatic as feeling thirsty or hungry. Does this mean they need to have sex then? No. We could choose to not eat if we’re hungry, so we can also choose to not have sex when given the urge. (although obviously we have to eat at some point to survive)

      Just to clarify extra, I do think there is some homosexuality that is not rooted in the hypothalamus but rather in higher parts of the brain that influence sexual arousal. And I think these regions may be more malleable, which is why we see some level of “healing” for these individuals.

      2. I have talked about this before. If you read “my gay theology,” I state that just because someone is a certain way, this doesn’t give license to act certain ways, which is exactly why distinguishing between gay sexual behavior and gay attraction is crucial. I don’t understand why many Christians fear a genetic cause for homosexuality — our genetics are fallen just like everything else, so why would people be shocked to discover that they could cause a gay orientation?

      3. What I wrote in response to #1 relates to how I respond to #3. I would say that the child’s abuse (environmental cause) influences their biology to be a certain way that causes the child to act certain ways. The hope is that a new environmental cause (such as therapy or spiritual counseling) would influence the biology to be a different way, which causes a different response. In this child’s case, some relief will hopefully be possible. With reorientation therapy, the idea is the same (minus the abuse not necessarily being the cause), but it is being found that these therapies do not necessarily bring much change in attraction (which is not surprising to me because IF the homosexuality is rooted in the hypothalamus, it is going to take a miracle to change the sexual response).

      Thank you for the comment and support.

      Tony

  8. Tony/Jordan,

    This is my first time reading your blog. Can you help me understand one thing from this post: are you saying that homosexual desires come from living in a fallen world? Do they have their origin–even if biological–in the fall? This was the line that made me think that is what you were saying:

    “But sometimes, no matter how many times we pray, our brain cells are going to stay that way and things aren’t going to change. And this isn’t because you’re doing something wrong; it’s because you live in a world that has gone wrong.”

    Thanks guys,

    Jesse

  9. One more question: in reading other posts, it seems like you are arguing for a moral neutrality to ssa’s. Is that right? Granting that those attractions are biologically based, is that the reason for seeing them as morally neutral?

    • I cannot speak for Tony or Jordan, but I would argue that SSA is not morally neutral, per se, but it definitely is not a sin just as OSA isn’t. I find this so because of the story of David and Bathsheba and the difference between temptation and sin. The story of David and Bathsheba begins in 2 Samuel 11. Verse 2 (NIV) reads “One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful.” Has David sinned? I would argue that he has not. He has seen an attractive woman, and he probably is attracted to her. James 1:13-15 reads “When tempted, no one should say “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has concieved, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”
      David is clearly being tempted when he sees Bathsheba in verse 2. However, he hasn’t sinned until verse 3 when he takes action to follow that temptation, when he acts on his attraction to her. I think it is analogous for those of us who struggle with SSA. We see the beauty in other members of the same sex. We are attracted to that beauty in a way that OSA people are attracted to each other. Therein lies the temptation, but there is no sin until we have acted.

      • Thanks Watanuki. I”m still confused on this point: SSA’s are not morally neutral, but also not sinful? I’m not sure what that means.
        So, are temptations morally neutral? Are you supposed to flee temptations? Believe me when I say I’m not being argumentative, but am really trying to figure out the perspective described here.

      • Haha, my perspective or Tony & Jordan’s? I can’t speak for them, and, to be honest, I’m still figuring it out for myself. SSA’s aren’t a sin. They can be used to tempt us, and so are not wholly morally neutral either. Temptations are from the devil and are used to destroy; so, I have no problem saying that they are evil. However, SSAs can also be used by God to lead us to beautiful friendships or to lead others to Himself. But, they are also not what He intended for us. I guess that means they are, in and of themselves, morally neutral. (They can be used for good or evil.)

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