"Washed and Waiting," Chapter 2: Loneliness and Longing

Today we pick up our yearlong series on Sexuality and The Church with a discussion on Chapter 2 of Wesley Hill’s short book, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality. We will wrap up our discussion next week, with Chapter 3 and the book’s conclusion.

Wesley’s book is meant to both complement and contrast Justin Lee’s book, Torn: Rescuing the Gospel From the Gays-vs-Christians Debate, which served as a starting point for our discussion. Both Justin and Wesley are gay, but whereas Justin concluded that a relationship with another man could be blessed by God, Wesley has chosen celibacy. I picked these two books because I think Justin and Wesley represent the very best in civil, gracious, and loving disagreement on this issue…which for them is not a mere issue, but a deeply personal journey with deeply personal implications. I highly recommend reading these books together.

You can check out every post in our series thus far here.

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Henri Nouwen and "The Beautiful Incision"

In the interlude preceding Chapter 2, Wesley highlights the life and writings of Henri Nouwen, who, (I had never realized this before reading Wesley’s book), was a celibate gay Christian.

Wesley writes that he can relate to Nouwen, who “wrestled intensely with loneliness, persistent cravings for affection and attention, immobilizing fears of rejection, and a restless desire to find a home where he could feel safe and cared for.” (87)

Wesley discovered Nouwen during a particularly difficult time in his life. “I felt isolated, tormented, and, worse, numb to whatever love, affection, and support my friends and church family were trying to extend to me. Realizing that Nouwen had struggled with the same longings and fears I was experiencing—and that he had struggled with them all his life—I felt simultaneously that a weight was lifted off my shoulders and that I had a long road still ahead of me with no end in sight” (87).

Nouwen, who later in life confessed that he had known since he was six years old that he was attracted to members of his own sex, would, in lectures and books, “speak of the strength he gained from living in community, then drive to a friend’s house, wake him up at two in the morning, and, sobbing, ask to be held.” (p. 89, quoting Philip Yancey).

Writes Wesley: “I know well these desires and wounds because, like Nouwen, I have lived with them. I am now living with them.” He concludes:

The wound of loneliness is like the Grand Canyon, Nouwen wrote, ‘a deep incision on the surface of our existence which has become an inexhaustible source of beauty and self-understanding.’ With this statement, Nouwen gave voice to the truth of the gospel that, under God’s severe mercy, evil may be turned to good, pain and suffering may be redeemed and transformed, beauty may spring from the ashes. ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose’ (Romans 8:28). Through the incision—though not beautiful in and of itself—we may glimpse the beauty of God…Nearly two thousand years ago, Good Friday gave way to Easter Sunday, and at the end of history, when Jesus appears, death will give way to resurrection on a cosmic scale and the old creation will be freed from its bondage to decay as the new is ushered in. On that day there will be no more loneliness. The wounds will be healed. (p. 92-93)

Chapter 2 – The End of Loneliness

I confess this chapter was difficult to read. Tears gathered in my eyes several times as Wesley, with remarkable candor, describes the loneliness that comes with choosing celibacy. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve read a more incisive and touching explanation for why human beings crave intimacy than this one.

“The homosexual Christian who chooses celibacy continually, to one degree or another, it seems to me, finds himself or herself longing for something relationally that remains tragically, tantalizingly just out of reach,” writes Wesley. He shares an email he wrote to a friend during a time in his life when he was feeling especially lonely:

“The love of God is better than any human love. Yes, that’s true, but that doesn’t change the fact that I feel---in the deepest parts of who I am—that I am wired for human love. I want to be married. And the longing isn’t mainly for sex (since sex with a woman seems impossible at this point); it is mainly for the day-to-day, small kind of intimacy where you wake up next to a person you’ve pledged your life to, and then you brush your teeth together, you read a book int eh same room without necessarily talking to each other, you share each other’s small joys and heartaches…One of my married friends told me she delights to wake up in the night and feel her husband’s foot just a few inches from hers in bed. It is the loss of that small kind of intimacy in my life that feels devastating. And, of course, this ‘small intimacy’ is precious because it represents the ‘bigger intimacy’ of the covenantal union between two lives.” (105)

Wesley says that he, like most people, longs for the experience of mutual desire—the feeling of knowing and loving someone, and being known and loved by that person in return, at an intimate, unconditional level.

He quotes Rowan Williams who has said, “To desire my joy is to desire the joy of the one I desire: my search for enjoyment through the…presence of another is a longing to be enjoyed…[Romantic] partners ‘admire’ in each other ‘the lineaments of gratified desire.’ We are pleased because we are pleasing.”

The question, posed by both Wesely and Rowan Williams is, how can gay and lesbian believers come to know this kind of love, this awakening of joy and delight, which is the experience of mutual desire?

Wesley runs through several options, including same-sex relationships (which he believes are a violation of God’s design), mixed orientation marriages (which he believes may work in some cases, but probably not his own), and celibacy.

Those who find themselves in the position of being single and celibate can find comfort and hope in a relationship with a God who longs for intimacy with his creation, Wesley says.

“I often wonder if coming to understand and believe that God does, indeed desire us,” he writes, “and that we are invited to return his desire might be the ‘remedy’ in some ultimate sense, for the loneliness and craving for love that I and other homosexual Christians experience on a regular basis. Leaving through the Bible, I find dozens of indications that God loves his people in precisely the way that Williams describes, and I ask myself: Could this be the end of my quest?” (p. 107)

Wesley cites passages like Hosea 11:8-9, Ezekiel 16:8, Zephaniah 3:17, , Romans 5:5, Ephesians 1:3-8, and 1 Peter 1:8, and concludes that “in some profound sense, this love of God—expressed in his yearning and blessing and experienced in our hearts—must spell the end of longing and loneliness for the homosexual Christian. If there is a ‘remedy’ for loneliness, surely this must be it. In the solitude of our celibacy, God’s desiring us, God’s wanting us, is enough. The love of God is more valuable than any human relationship…And yet we ache. The desire of God is sufficient to heal the ache, but still we pine, and wonder.” (108)

But Wesley also acknowledges the importance of community. Quoting a professor of his, he observes that “God is the one who created humans to want and need relationships, to crave human companionship, to want to be desired by other humans. God doesn’t want anyone to try to redirect their desire for community to himself…Instead, I think God wants people to experience his love through their experience of human community—specifically through the Church.” (p. 110)

Wesley notes that, historically, most commitments to celibacy are made within the context of a community—typically monastic communities. There is a need, he says, for Christians to come alongside their celibate brothers and sisters and walk with them through this loneliness, as friends and partners. And there is a need, he says, for gay Christians to open themselves up to such relationships, which can be hard when they may tend to distance themselves, in unhealthy ways, from friends of the same sex out of fear of where those friendships might become inappropriate or uncomfortable. (I had never thought about how hard that would be; Wesley does a good job offering insight and encouragement in this regard.)

“Perhaps one of the main challenges of living faithfully before God as a gay Christian is to believe, really believe, that God in Christ can make up for our sacrifice of homosexual partnership not simply with his own desire and yearning for us but with his desire and yearning mediated to us through the human faces and arms of those who are our fellow believers.” (p. 112)

Questions for Discussion

 1. Have you ever experienced, or are experiencing, the kind of loneliness Wesley describes in this chapter? How do you process that loneliness? What helps and what hurts? 

2. This is my biggest question as we consider both Justin and Wesley’s testimonies: Do you think it is possible to fully support both Justin in his pursuit of a partnership/marriage to another man, and Wesley, in his decision based on his convictions to remain celibate? Or does the full support of one somehow diminish the support of the other? (I’d like to pose this question to Justin and Wesley, at some point. Would love to hear their perspectives on it.) 

3. Obviously, hanging over the discussion this week is the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision regarding the constitutionality of Proposition 8.  (Because someone is bound to ask, I’ve made it pretty clear in the past that I support gay marriage as a civil right, and would hold this position regardless of whether I believed such marriages should be blessed by my church.) I guess my question, with that in mind, is this: After reading such an intimate account of the challenges that come with a life of celibacy, is it fair for those of us who are not in the position to make such a decision ourselves to demand that others choose that life?   

I’d love to know your thoughts on all of this. Please stay civil in the comment section. Unkind comments, or comments that distract us from constructive dialog, will be deleted.

Be sure to check out all the posts in our series on Sexuality and The Church.

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