There is no way around it. Dealing with same-sex attraction is messy.
There are many issues that, at least on the surface, do not seem clear. Take this question, for example: Is same-sex attraction (SSA) itself sinful, and if so, how should we deal with it?
Here is my humble attempt at an answer.
Taking Our Cues from the Bible
First, note briefly three biblical observations:
1. The Bible explicitly says that impenitent homosexual acts, not homosexual desires, keep a person from inheriting the kingdom of God. “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9–10).
2. The Bible does not seem to explicitly mention same-sex attraction. It is possible that the “dishonorable passions” in Romans 1:26 could be dealing with SSA, but it’s unclear whether this is a reference to simply experiencing an attraction, or following the attraction into active lusting.
3. Our passions may be disordered by the fall of this creation, and yet be distinct from active sinning. Paul said, “the creation was subjected to futility . . . [and will one day] be set free from its bondage to corruption” (Romans 8:20–21). Even Spirit-filled believers groan under this “futility” and “corruption,” including “dishonorable passions.” “We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23).
Given the above three realities, it seems right to say that while homosexual practice is active sinning, the experience of same-sex attraction need not involve active sinning. John Piper says it like this:
It would be right to say that same-sex desires are sinful in the sense that they are disordered by sin and exist contrary to God’s revealed will. But to be caused by sin and rooted in sin does not make a sinful desire equal to sinning. Sinning is what happens when rebellion against God expresses itself through our disorders (“Let Marriage Be Held In Honor,” emphasis added)
In other words, although SSA is a disordered desire, owing to the fall and thus rooted in sin and broken by sin, nevertheless experiencing SSA is not in itself an act of sinning.
I mean at least two things when I say that experiencing SSA is not in itself an act of sinning.
Orientation in General
First, experiencing a general orientation is not a sin.
In our sin nature, all of us are disordered sexually. My sexuality is disordered in that I experience a homosexual orientation. What I mean is that my sexual desires are exclusively “oriented” toward the same (homo) sex. This is true of me whether or not I am experiencing a specific attraction at any given moment. As I sit here writing, I am not experiencing an attraction to another man, but I am still exclusively attracted to men. So at this moment, though I have a homosexual orientation, I do not believe I am sinning in this regard.
A Specific Attraction
Second, experiencing a specific same-sex attraction is not necessarily a sin.
Let’s say that I experience an attraction to another man. I don’t go looking for it, but it rises up spontaneously within me. At this point, my attraction falls into the category of temptation, and I can do one of two things. I can fight the desire in the same manner that anyone who is tempted with pride, jealousy, or fear would, and kill it before I sin. Or I can follow the desire into lust of the mind and eventually the flesh, which is a volitional sin.
When I look at another male and experience the butterflies of attraction, I must lay the desire for inappropriate activity with him at the feet of Jesus, and turn toward the superior promises of reward found in pursuing righteousness. If I do this, even though I have experienced the disordered groan of a broken creation, I have not sinned.
A Word of Caution
However, a word of caution might be helpful here.
There clearly is a biblical category for being tempted without sinning. Jesus was tempted in every respect, yet remained without sin (Hebrews 4:15), and James 1:14–15 distinguishes between temptation that leads to sin, and sin itself. However, it seems impossible to determine when exactly we have crossed the line from temptation into sin.
For example, how long can I experience the desire before I fight it, and still be blameless? Two seconds? Ten seconds? Half a second? Because Jesus is God, he never crossed the line between temptation and sin — though he knew the agony. But because I am finite and fallen, I cannot definitively discern this line.
Therefore, even though it is possible to be tempted without sinning, it seems wise to agree with David when he says, “Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12). I always want to say to the Lord, “If there was any sin in the way I handled that temptation, I am sorry. Keep me from it in the future.”
Until That Day
In summary, SSA is the result of a broken creation, and in that sense it is “sinful” or “dishonorable” (Romans 1:26). It is an effect of the fall. However, experiencing SSA is not the same as sinning. Rather, same-sex attractions should be treated like any temptation to sin. They should be fought with blood-earnestness in a way that recognizes the deceitfulness of the heart and the finitude of the mind.
When I do this — when I fight temptation, turn to Jesus, trust his promises, and rely on his Spirit — God is pleased. He is not mainly displeased because I need to fight, but pleased because I am fighting.
This is good news for all of us who experience all manner of temptations! May this fact lead us, no matter our particular groaning, to rest in Jesus more deeply, fight temptation more fiercely, and look forward to the day when our fight of faith will result in “praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:7).
More from Desiring God on same-sex attraction:
An Alternative Script for Same-Sex Attraction (Nick Roen)
Same-Sex Attraction and the Inevitability of Change (John Piper)
Homosexuality and the Modern Church (Robert Gagnon)
From Radical Lesbian to Redeemed Christian (Rosaria Champagne Butterfield)