“For me, viewing Cormon’s Caïn was a reminder that the biblical God—the God of the gospel—is a dangerous God. Cain murders Abel, and God calls him to account: ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ (Genesis 4:9). Although he tries to evade God’s all-seeing gaze, to dodge the implicit accusation, God refuses to let Cain relinquish the dignity he has as a human person made in God’s own image. God takes Cain seriously. He treats his actions as full of import by giving them consequences. He doesn’t merely brush aside his sin; he responds by cursing him for his murderous rage but also by graciously providing for his continued survival (4:10-15). In a word, God threatens Cain’s life—at least the life he knows and loves—with judgment and the possibility of merciful transformation.
Both the Old and New Testaments in the Bible are replete with such stories. Genesis tells of Jacob the patriarch wrestling with a man who turns out to be God’s messenger intent on blessing Jacob—by bruising him. ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me,’ Jacob pants, hip out of joint, clinging to the one who represents the dangerous God he fears and longs for (32:22-32). Similarly, one of Peter’s sermons recorded in the book of Acts climaxes with the affirmation that ‘God … sent [his servant Jesus] to you first, to bless you,’ not in the usual way, to be sure—not by indulging people, like a cosmic Santa Claus—but ‘by turning every one of you from your wickedness’ (3:26).
Sometimes when I ponder again what it means for me and others to live faithfully before God as homosexual Christians, I think of Cormon’s painting and these biblical reminders that the God of the gospel is known by his threat to our going on with ‘business as usual.’ Far from being a tolerant grandfather rocking in his chair somewhere far away in the sky, God most often seems dangerous, demanding, and ruthless as he makes clear that he is taking our homoerotic feelings and actions with the utmost seriousness. Like Cain, we sometimes squirm as we relate to God. We experience him both as an unwanted presence reminding us that our thoughts, emotions, and choices have lasting consequences, as well as a radiant light transforming us gradually, painfully, into the creatures he wants us to be.
British theologian John Webster speaks of ‘the church facing the resistance of the gospel,’ meaning that if the gospel brings comfort, it also necessarily brings affliction. The gospel resists the fallen inclinations of Christian believers. When we engage with God in Christ and take seriously the commands for purity that flow from the gospel, we always find our sinful dreams and desires challenged and confronted. When we homosexual Christians bring our sexuality before God, we begin or continue a long, costly process of having it transformed. From God’s perspective, our homoerotic inclinations are like ‘the craving for salt of a person who is dying of thirst’ (to borrow Frederick Buechner’s fine phrase). Yet when God begins to try to change the craving and give us the living water that will ultimately quench our thirst, we scream in pain, protesting that we were made for salt. The change hurts.
‘Are homosexuals to be excluded from the community of faith?’ asked one gay Christian in a letter to a friend. ‘Certainly not,’ he concluded. ‘But anyone who joins such a community should know that it is a piece of transformation, of discipline, of learning, and not merely a place to be comforted and indulged.’ Engaging with God and entering the transformative life of the church does not mean we get a kind of ‘free pass,’ an unconditional love that leaves us where we are. Instead, we get a fiercely demanding love, a divine love that will never let us escape from the purifying, renovating, and ultimately healing grip.
And this means that our pain—the pain of having our deeply ingrained inclinations and desires blocked and confronted by God’s demand for purity in the gospel—far from being a sign of our failure to live the life God wants, may actually be the mark of our faithfulness. We groan in frustration because of our fidelity to the gospel’s call. And though we may miss out in the short run on lives of personal fulfillment and sexual satisfaction, in the long run the cruelest thing that God could do would be to leave us alone with our desires, to spare us the affliction of his refining care.
‘Not only does God in Christ take people as they are: He takes them in order to transform them into what He wants them to be,’ writes historian Andrew Walls. In light of this, is it any surprise that we homosexual Christians must experience such a transformation along with the rest of the community of faith?”
— Wesley Hill, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality