Friends, We Are Not in a Grief Contest
Not so long ago I attended an online event featuring a prominent leader within the Side B/gay celibate community. At one point, this person said:
I think gay celibacy is more like martyrdom [than straight celibacy] because you have the complication with the created order and that generates a deeper grief… and therefore, God will give a greater reward for trusting him with that. This is a theodicy-based dilemma. Why would God give me the desires against created order and punish me for them and do nothing to change them? I think that is a real theodicy problem for God. That is a good objection from the gay person…
I think ultimately the incarnation of Jesus meets that theodicy problem. Jesus comes and gives us his co-presence as we suffer with these questions in a way which straight people just don’t experience. They could marry anyone they [like]. They also have at least 50% of the population who could be a particular marital partner… There is also biological grief, that being gay you cannot have a child with your partner. It’s not even possible. Being gay, having children is harder.
So there are layers of this [gay] asceticism which is getting more like a martyrdom [than straight celibacy]. To say I’m willing to give up this desire in every instance, to say it’s not the way to go is more of a sacrifice than if you have another option that’s really viable for you, that could happen at any moment.
I think there are ways in which a straight celibate could be similar to a gay celibate, if say you get to the end of your life and you’ve never had the opportunity to marry and God has never granted that to you… that would be more like a gay celibacy. But I still don’t think it is equivalent.1
I wonder what your reaction to these comments is?
Perhaps you feel affirmed by them? Perhaps they reflect your own convictions and experience?
Perhaps you feel confused by them? Perhaps you aren’t quite sure what to make of them?
Perhaps you feel alarmed by them? Perhaps (like me) you are concerned about the claim that disordered desires are given to us by God, rather than a result of humanity’s Fall?
(EDIT: The speaker has contacted me privately saying that they don’t believe disordered desires are from God but are a result of the Fall. I’ve invited them to clarify what seems to be the plain reading of their theodicy-problem as it is described by sending me a few sentences which I’d be happy to insert here. So far they have declined to do so, but if that changes I will be happy to update this section)
I don’t know what your reaction is. But as I listened to them, I became aware of a feeling building up in my chest. It took me some time to identify exactly what that feeling was. It was distress.
These comments distress me. For two reasons.
Grief is not a contest
Firstly, they distress me because of the way they encourage us to compare, contrast and conclude whether Christian A or Christian B has a more legitimate claim to a “deeper grief”. They pit one person’s (or one group’s) suffering against another’s, and then they rank them to work out who has it harder, and so who God is going to compensate more fully. They frame individual sorrow as a “whose burden is heavier” contest.
(EDIT: It’s not my claim that this speaker has themselves said grief is a contest. I am not putting that word in their mouth. Rather, it is my argument that their comparative/evaluative approach—as evidenced in their own words above—easily leads to grief becoming viewed like a contest. That is, it fosters such a perspective.)
Let me speak plainly. This is certainly not the first time I’ve heard someone within the side B movement argue that the singleness of unmarried same-sex attracted Christians is characterised by a greater grief, hardship, commitment and cost than that of the opposite-sex attracted single Christians. It’s becoming a stock standard part of the discourse and helps fuel the increasingly prominent insistence that gay “celibacy” is fundamentally different (i.e., by any other name, superior) to straight “singleness”.
This ought to distress all of us.
Yes, each and every one of us who calls Jesus our Lord and Saviour finds abundant rest for our souls in him. Yes, his yoke is wonderfully easy and his burden is beautifully light. (Mt 11:28-30). But yes, we still grieve while living in this world of tears. Yes, we still suffer as sinful people living amongst other sinful people in a fallen world.
Grief is real, and it is awful. The older I get the more I know the truth of that deep in my being. Single or married. Same or opposite sex attracted. Young or old. Male or female. We all have unique griefs and hardships in this life. We all experience those griefs and hardships in unique ways, and to the very depths of our souls. Much of the time, the others around us are unable to fully understand just how heavy those griefs are. And yet, as a friend recently reminded me:
“We are called to carry each other’s burdens. Not to score them up against one another”.
As a never-married single Christian woman, I want to help carry the burdens of my same-sex attracted single brothers and sisters in Christ. I may not ever be able to fully understand the uniqueness of the load they are bearing. But I do want to be able to share that load. I do want to walk beside them and take on some of its weight. I do want to help make it is easier for them to bear up under.
But what I don’t want to do is to pit their grief against mine. What I refuse to do is to make this into a contest based on some unknown formula of who has it worse, and so whose back God has more.
Friends, we’re walking the path of discipleship together. Our burdens are not all the same shape or size. But where is the benefit, the goodness, the godliness, of evaluating exactly who has the heavier and harder load as if we were in competition with each other? Please, let’s not do that. Let’s instead come alongside one another and say:
“My brother… my sister…. I don’t know everything about the burden you are carrying. But I can see that it looks really heavy.
Will you let me help you carry it as we together we follow the one who provides rest for our souls?”
Giving a Glimpse into Grief
But something else in those comments also distressed me. As I listened this intelligent, kind, personable, unmarried Christian person talk about how I, or any other single opposite-sex attracted brother or sister:
could really just change our circumstances
have at least 50% of the population to choose from and could “marry anyone they like”
don’t experience the Christian struggle with our disordered desires to anywhere near the same degree (and so don’t experience Jesus’ presence in those struggles to the same degree)
don’t similarly spend their life saying no to things in order to follow Jesus
essentially experience a shallower, lesser, or more superficial grief, and so need only to exercise a shallower, lesser or more superficial trust in God as a result…
… all I could think was “If this person—another single Christian seeking to live faithfully—doesn’t get it, then how can we expect the majority of the church to have any real understanding of the burdens so many of us are actually carrying?”.
I found myself genuinely distressed by such a caricatured portrayal of the griefs borne by so many opposite-sex attracted singles today.
And so, here is my attempt to give you, the reader, a window into the actual reality of that experience, a glimpse into those griefs.
Let me be clear, this is not my submission to the grief contest. It is simply me trying to be vulnerable and help others come to a better understanding of the particular griefs experienced by the majority of single Christians in the church today.
Most of these single Christians are never-married opposite-sex attracted women like myself. But walking alongside us are our male never-married brothers, as well as our widowed and divorced siblings. Not all of us carry all of these burdens. Not all of us feel weighed down by them to the same extent as others.
But they are real. They are heavy. And we need you to see them for what they—rather than what you imagine them to be—so that you can come alongside us and say, “That looks heavy. Please, let me help you carry it”.
Far from being in a position to marry anyone we like, very few of us are living life as if we could find a spouse at any moment. Many of us spent our 20s imagining that would be the case, until we realised it wasn’t. Even though we spent all those years standing on the dock, ready, eager and waiting for when it would be our turn, we still somehow “missed the boat”. Many of us feel rather lost and bewildered about just how that happened. We tried to do all the “right” things. We tried to be the “right” person for someone. But we were never picked. Or perhaps even worse, we were picked, and then we were rejected.
Friends, the grief of being the one never chosen is real. For many of us, it becomes internalised into deep insecurities. What is wrong with me? What do I lack? There has to be a reason nobody wanted me to be their person. There must be a reason why that person thought I might be their person, and then changed their minds. There must be an ugliness in me—inside and out. I must be undeserving.
Not having someone say “I’m committing to making you my priority for life,” leaves many of us feeling like we need to take up as little space in this world as possible. It’s easy for us to feel like a burden and an inconvenience. Even as we long for intimacy, we can find it so hard to ask for it because we often feel unworthy of it… or perhaps only worthy of the leftovers that people are willing to spare.
Most single Christians are not living a life of carefree anticipation that our singleness could change at any given moment. Most of us are not surveying the 50% of the population who are the opposite sex, delighting in the abundance of options available to us. Instead, most of us live with the realisation that our longing to be a husband or a wife (or a husband and a wife, again) is becoming ever less likely, day by day.
And so we find ourselves needing to navigate the unmarried life in the face of a lot of uncertainty. Our single brothers and sisters who have either decided (or expect) never to marry experience the real grief of that door being fairly firmly closed. That can be really, really hard. But having the door left open—even just a crack—brings its own unique and complex griefs. Dealing with our disappointment and seeking contentment, while still allowing for the possibility of marriage in the future can also be really, really hard.
It can be agonising to hold an open palm up to God in trust, knowing that he might choose to forever leave that palm empty. It can be so difficult to allow yourself to long and pray for marriage and a family of your own, without becoming controlled by that longing or embittered in your prayers. Seeking contentment in your present situation while allowing for the hope that your situation may change can be spiritually exhausting. All of this means that we have to trust God just as deeply and just as faithfully as the person who has determined they will never marry does, even if in somewhat different ways.
Many of us also have to work out how to live life well, knowing that while the door remains cracked open, we may never walk through it. What decisions should we make now in light of that (increasingly faint) possibility? How deeply do we establish roots with other unmarried friends knowing they might walk through their own door, leaving us behind? How should we wisely and faithfully use our time, energy and finances in planning for the future, when we aren’t sure what that future will be? It can be like walking a tightrope… and most of us walk it alone. There can be very real and deep grief in needing to think through and make all these decisions about our uncertain future, all alone. This again means exercising enormous trust in God, all by the power of the Spirit.
Another grief of the door being left cracked open has to do with children. In their comment above, the speaker spoke about the grief that comes with being gay and knowing you won’t have children of your own. I know that must be so, so painful. And yet, what is also painful is living day by day with the unrealised, but the ever theoretical possibility of children.
Pre-menopausal single Christian women experience the monthly biological reminder that their wombs are preparing to conceive and then nurture a child. Every 28 days or so, we are reminded that another month has passed in which that hasn’t happened. Every 28 days, we are reminded that it’s going to be harder and harder for our bodies to fulfil that purpose in the months that are left. Every 28 days, we are reminded that we are another month closer to the time when our bodies will no longer be able to fulfil that purpose at all. And then, when that time comes we live with years and years of our body actively and painfully reminding us that it’s too late now . That that particular door has closed. For good.
(Edit: A friend of mine has given me permission to share her words about this additional grief: ”The second cycle of grief comes when all your peers are starting to have grandchildren. You’re an outsider watching on as your peers excitedly and joyfully share the common experience of being grandparents. Their family circle once again expands as yours often gets smaller. You rejoice with them, ever aware that will never be you. Not only do you not have the joy of seeing your own children grow, but you do not have the joy of grandchildren in your later years either.”)
I’m sure that single Christian men would also be able to share their own insights into the pain and difficulty that comes with the unmet possibility of having children of their own. Yes, the grief of the same-sex attracted Christian who is fairly certain that they won’t ever have children of their own is real and raw. But so is the grief of unrealised possibility, of knowing something theoretically could be, even as it never actually is. Over and over again, it brings many single Christians to their knees before God. Over and over again, they need to lay the weight of that at his feet as they cling to his goodness in their sadness.
Having the door to marriage left open also means the single opposite-sex attracted Christian is left to consider what it looks like to live faithfully on this side of it, as well as what it would look like to walk through it faithfully.
The quote above speaks about how being same-sex attracted means saying an unequivocal no to something that is longed for, and that this is deeply sacrificial in a way that an opposite-sex attracted Christians can’t appreciate or understand. I’ve written elsewhere on why I’m very uncomfortable with the notion that saying no to something God considers sinful (i.e., sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman) is a “sacrifice”. But regardless of whether we call it “sacrifice” or not, saying “no” for faithfulness’ sake applies just as much to the opposite-sex attracted single Christian as it does to that same-sex attracted speaker. The life of a single Christian such as myself also involves repeatedly saying, “No, that’s not the way to go”.
You see, we also struggle with disordered sexual desires. We also wrestle with sexual temptation, with strong sexual longings, instincts and sin. Just because our sinful desires are directed towards someone of the opposite sex doesn’t diminish their significance or seriousness.2 As those seeking to live with Jesus as our saviour, we too are called to say “no” to indulging or acting on those desires in a world which says there is nothing more important than doing just that. Our struggle with sexual sin is just as real, just as difficult and just as important as that of the speaker of the comment above. Just like that person, we too are disciples who, by the power of God are consistently called to say, "No, that's not the way to go".
But that’s not the only “no”, we are called to give. Every time we meet an unmarried non-Christian who is lovely, kind and potentially interested in us, we are confronted with the same struggle to be faithfully obedient. No matter how wonderful we might find that person, no matter how easily we can envisage the joy of being in a relationship with them, we are called to discern, “No, that’s not the way to go, because I don’t believe it is what God says is good for me or honouring of him” (1 Cor 7:39; 9:5). No matter how much we long for marriage, love and intimacy—no matter how much we long for it with that particular person— we are called to be faithful in this way. This kind of faithfulness is hard, and it can hurt. But what hurts even more, is for our faithfulness to be diminished by other single Christians who insist we have it so much easier than they do simply because future marriage remains a theoretical possibility for us.
Friends, faithfulness in singleness in the moment is faithfulness in the moment. The complexity, difficulty and grief such faithfulness can entail in that moment is not offset, mitigated or diminished in light of some unknown sliding-doors future reality that may or may not come to pass. At the end of my life, I won’t look back and think, "Well, since I didn’t end up getting married after all, that faithfulness I exercised all the way apparently really did count. Of course, if I had gotten married, all that saying no really wouldn’t have been that big a deal”.
There is more I could say, more glimpses into grief which I could give you. But I think this is enough for now, yes?
Again, I have not written this as an informal entry into the “my grief is deeper than yours is” sweepstakes. I just wanted to help others understand that having the possibility of marriage open to you does not render a single Christian’s grief and burdens any lighter, shallower or less significant. It just makes them different. Leaving that door open a crack doesn’t mean we exercise less trust in God. It just means trusting him in other ways. And I’m sure if you are married and reading this, you’d tell me the same thing is true of grief, burdens and trust in God within marriage also.
Dear friends, let’s refrain from rating and ranking the difficulties of our Christian lives against each other. When we do so we only reveal that we’re too focused on our own griefs to see clearly the griefs of others. And if we aren’t able to see clearly the griefs of others, then we won’t be compelled to come alongside them and say:
“My brother… my sister… that looks heavy. Please, will you let me help you carry it?”.
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Not citing my source goes against every academic bone in my body. However, when I have publicly engaged with aspects of the Side B/Gay Celibate conversation in the past, it has been interpreted as a personal attack on the person whose ideas I’m wanting to engage with. Because I really want this post to be about the important issues (which I think this person helpfully and concisely communicates) rather than about the person themselves, I’ve decided not to cite them by name. If you would like to know the source of these comments, please contact me privately.
Side note: It confounds me how, on one hand, many within the Side B movement rightly critique the evangelical church for imagining that same-sex sexual desires are more disordered, sinful or fallen than heterosexual porneia… while, on the other hand, they insist, as per the quote above, that same-sex sexual desires are more disordered, more complicated and more against the created order than heterosexual porneia (and so bring greater grief and so also greater reward).