Law and Prayer and Sin and Homosexuality [Questions That Haunt]

Law and Prayer and Sin and Homosexuality [Questions That Haunt] September 6, 2013

Questions That Haunt Christianity came back with a vengeance this week. Wow. I’m especially grateful to William Birch, who asked the question, for being so engaged in the comment section — you should go read them all.

William’s question was:

If God hates homosexuality so much, then why won’t He deliver me from it?

Many commenters took exception to the way that William posed the question. They didn’t like the “If…then…” formula, because if you reject the conditional clause at the beginning, then there’s nothing else to talk about. But everyone worked through that, since this is obviously a personal and haunting question for William (and many others).

For beginners, I’m going to agree with premises that William stated in the comment section. Even though I don’t necessarily wholeheartedly affirm these premises, they’re essential to answering the question in the way that William intends it:

  • The words of Leviticus and the words of Paul cannot be pitted against the words/thoughts of God. If it’s in the Bible, we’re going to assume that God intended it to be there.
  • God does actually hate some things.
  • God does actually answer prayers and deliver people from things that vex them.

With those as background, here’s my response:

I’ve learned a great deal from my friend, Rabbi Joseph Edelheit, as I’ve written many times. The Jewish take on the Bible in general and on the Law in particular is, for me, both fascinating and freeing. Most Jews hold the Hebrew Scripture and particularly the Torah is the highest esteem — higher, I’d say, than many of my fellow progressive Protestants. There is nothing that Rabbi Joseph takes more seriously than Torah.

Nevertheless, neither Joseph nor millions of other Jews unswervingly keep all 631 laws of Torah. Joseph doesn’t eat pork, but I’ve supped with Jews who do. Some Jews keep kosher, some Jews keep semi-kosher. Some Jews drive on Sabbath, some only walk 3,000 cubits. Some wear mixed fiber clothing, some do not.

And yet, in spite of these differences, you won’t find Jews telling other Jews, “You’re not a Jew.” Of course, there are exceptions to this. There are ultra-Orthodox, Hasidic Jews, some of whom think that Reform and Conservative and Reconstructionist and even Orthodox Jews are not really Jews. But in general, you wouldn’t find another rabbi telling Joseph that he’s committed “high treason against the Lord” because he wears polyester.

Or because he supports gay rights, which he does.

My point is this: the Law of Torah is to be read with wisdom and applied with discernment. When groups like God Hates Shrimp parody the inconsistency with with Christians apply the levitical laws, they are pointing out the very thing that I’m saying. And this doesn’t just go for levitical laws. It works with the New Testament, too. Imagine their signs instead reading, “God Hates Women’s Heads,” for Paul condemns for homosexual sex and women having uncovered heads in worship. If you don’t make the women in your congregation cover their heads in worship — and I’m guessing that 99% of Christian churches do not — then you are already reading the condemnations of Paul selectively. You are a relativist. You live on the slippery slope.

Secondly, it’s helpful to note that the Jewish conception of sin is quite different than the Christian conception. I’ve been digging into this for my book on the atonement, and here’s what I’ve found: Jews take the original sin of Eve and Adam to be just that, the first sin. Subsequently, they refers to a sin, and to sins, but not to sin as a concept. Sin is not a darkness of the soul, passed from generation to generation through semen, a la Augustine. Sins are inevitable. Interestingly, the Mishnah teaches the God created repentance before creating the world, so God knew that humans would spread their wings and need a mechanism to get back in concord with God. As I’ve written elsewhere, the doctrine of Original Sin is neither biblical nor believed by Jews.

Thirdly, prayer. William wonders why God hasn’t delivered him from his attraction to other men. This is a hugely important question (and one that I hope to tackle in my book after the atonement book). God’s response to prayer — more pointedly, God’s lack of response to prayer — is one of the most troubling aspects of my faith and practice. Like William, I read the Bible as rife with promises by God that God will answer prayer and God will deliver people from things that hurt them. To change something like William’s sexual proclivities would seem like a pretty minor miracle for God — nothing like growing back someone’s leg or stopping the civil war in Syria. Yet God doesn’t.

Last night I spoke on the phone with a friend. This friend wants to die and has been praying to die for some time. He doesn’t understand why God would make him go on living when he hates this life and wants it over. My response to him — and, by extension, to William — was more pastoral than theological. Maybe God is trying to say something to you by allowing you to keep living. Maybe God is trying to say something to you by not taking away your attraction to men.

God does new things. The Spirit moves, and things change.

It used to be that Christians were certain that a person’s skin color was super important to who they married, what role they played in society, and the like. But Christians don’t think that anymore. The Spirit showed us a new thing

It used to be that most Christians thought that your genitalia and chromosomes were super important to the role you could play in church and society. While some Christians still think that, most don’t. The Spirit showed us a new thing.

It used to be that Christians thought if you were sexually attracted to someone of your own gender, you were disordered. While many Christians still think that, more and more do not. The Spirit is showing us a new thing.

William, in order to accept your homosexuality, you don’t have to give up on the Bible. But you might have to read it more like a Jew, and you might have to be open to the fact that right now, God’s Spirit is showing us something we hadn’t seen before.

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