Tuesday, June 22, 2010
A Realistic Approach to Attractions
This is an article by one of my all-time favorite writers on SSA, Alan Medinger.
It took me 22 years, but I was finally able to come up with a definition of homosexuality that I believe is both succinct and irrefutable. Here it is:
Homosexuality is the condition wherein a person's primary or exclusive sexual and/or romantic attractions are to people of the same sex rather than to people of the opposite sex.
Simple definitions are often the most difficult to come up with, and such was the case here. When we think of homosexuality we think of gender identity confusion, emotional dependency, sexual addiction, and on and on. But these things are not homosexuality. They are present in other people and they are not present in all same-sex attracted people. They are problems that are common to many same-sex attracted people, but they are not homosexuality.
Attractions are what homosexuality is all about and they are the problem. So we can say with some accuracy that if you change your attractions, the homosexual problem is gone. Attractions are the fundamental issue.
This is going to be a "fundamental" article, Homosexuality 101 so to speak. We are going to go to the heart of homosexuality by looking at attractions, and in so doing I hope to offer some valuable clues as to how you can deal with attractions in ways that foster the freedom for which you long.
An absolute foundational truth about attractions is that being attracted is not a sin, and we need to recognize this truth constantly. The attraction itself is not a sin even when it is perverted or towards a sinful end. Over the years I have seen so many people struggle with getting this truth to sink into their hearts. One example illustrates this perfectly. One summer evening, Harry left a counseling session to go get a bite to eat before coming to a Regeneration meeting. He was tremendously excited as he left the counselor's office, feeling that in prayer with his counselor, he had come to a great breakthrough. Then right outside the counselor's office he spotted a man jogging—an extremely muscular man with no shirt, just jogging shorts. Feelings of desire came rushing through Harry, and he went from elation to despair. Looking at this man had ruined everything.
When he arrived at the meeting, he shared these events with the support group. We told Harry that his attraction to the man in no way nullified what the Lord had done in the counseling session, that it was not reasonable to expect attractions to disappear instantly, and that since he didn't carry the attractions to lust and fantasy as he normally would have done, he had experienced a victory. Our words helped, but still didn't take away all of his disappointment with himself.
Okay, if attractions are not a sin, why are we so concerned with them? There are three very good reasons to be concerned with attractions. First, attractions can lead to sin. James writes, "But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full grown brings forth death" (James 1:14-15). Many of us know from years of hard experience that our ventures into sin usually started with attractions to some person or some image.
Second, attractions bring forth a painful longing. I am not talking about just sexual desires here, but rather the deeper longings for touch, affirmation, and intimacy that cry to be met. When these longings are rooted in major deprivations from childhood, they can bring significant pain to an individual when he or she comes into the presence of a certain type of person. In addition, the Christian who tries to obey God by not easing the pain through lust or wrongful relationships actually prolongs the pain.
Third, the attractions keep you from living the life you and God want you to live. With homosexuality this is obvious. Being married and having children is part of God's plan for most of us, and most homosexual overcomers want this for themselves. But constantly feeling sexually and/or romantically attracted to people of the same sex blocks this. With each attraction to a same-sex person, you might feel like your life is going nowhere. If your same-sex attractions would diminish, you would be able to move more freely towards developing opposite-sex attractions, and you would be able to get on with life.
By and large we cannot do anything directly to make attractions go away. This is a hard truth that we each need to face. Attractions just are, and our decision to change them, or even our offering them to God, usually has little direct effect. We feel powerless over them, and this can lead to feelings of hopelessness, and even despair. Maybe when we were teenagers we thought we might outgrow our attractions. But we think so no longer. Years have proven how tenacious they are, and as the years pass they seem to become even more a part of us.
Their power and apparent permanency lies in the fact that they have hold of us in the three areas of our being. Our attractions have formed in our bodies, our souls and our spirits.
1. Our bodies: We are creatures of habit. Years and years of stimulus response activity have most likely burned paths into your automatic response system. You see a certain type of person, and certain responses-leading up to sexual desire-start to take place automatically.
2. Our souls (our hearts, emotions, and psychological make-up): Within our souls are great empty spaces longing to be filled. When a certain type of person comes along, a voice inside immediately seems to cry out, "Maybe, finally, this is the person who can fill that awful empty place inside of me."
3. Our spirits: Sin has its hold; not just the sins of lust and sexual immorality, but sins of idolatry (i.e. "She can be everything to me."), covetousness (i.e. "I want to possess that person's manhood."), and rebellion (i.e. "I know what God says, but I must meet this need."). Frequently, demonic forces also play a role in a person who has engaged in sinful sexual relationships.
Okay, attractions are tremendously powerful, they are deeply rooted in us, and we can't do anything about them directly. What then can we do?
The first thing I want to suggest is that we accept them. I don't mean accept them as acceptable; I mean accept them as reality. You can't wish them away. You probably can't even pray them away. Your healing doesn't start when you get rid of your attractions. Rather, being attracted is the starting place for your journey into healing. Don't fret. Don't feel sorry for yourself. Attraction to the wrong things is what temptation is, and temptation is a central factor of the Christian life. "No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man" (1 Cor. 10:13).
So accept the reality of your attractions, and then start on the indirect process that will lead to their change. This can be done by dealing with those same three factors that make attractions so powerful:
1. Break the habit. Your problem is not that you find all men, all women, or certain types of men or women attractive. If they truly reflect the handiwork of the Creator, then it would be silly, even wrong, not to recognize their genuine beauty. The problem is not that you recognize the beauty of the person; the problem is what you want to do with that person-what is triggered in you-when you behold his or her beauty. By years of repeatedly responding to beauty with acting out sexually, you have set up stimulus response patterns in your brain such as: see a muscular man > long for him to protect me > have sex; or meet a confident woman > long for her to nurture me > have sex.
Breaking these links breaks the habit, and this is best done by substitution. Don't deny the beauty of the person, but train yourself to respond with something else. Usually for Christians this will be something God-centered. See an attractive man or woman and start praising God, repeat certain Scripture verses over and over again, or silently pray for that person. Another form of substitution would be to let the attractive person be a cue for you to immediately look around for someone of the opposite sex or simply someone who is not your type, and start searching for the beauty in that person. It is always there to be found.
Doing away with all lust might be too much right now, but breaking the linking habit is possible for most.
2. Identify the real needs behind the attraction and seek to meet them in legitimate ways. How many times I have heard a man, even the most promiscuous man, say, "It wasn’t the sex I was after; it was just someone to hold me." Find out why you have such a craving to be held, or to be affirmed, or to obtain your worth or security from someone else. Seek the healing of the wound, and find ways of meeting the need that are constructive rather than destructive. This is one of the primary purposes of our ministries, so it is too broad a subject to get into in detail here, but let me make one practical suggestion for immediate application. Figure out for yourself how sexual contact with another person will not meet this need, and then develop the habit of reminding yourself of this when you encounter a person who is sexually attractive to you. "I would love to be in that woman's arms. It would feel so good, but I know that she can't possibly fill that hurting place inside of me. Only God can."
3. Seek out the deeper sins and repent of them. I am convinced that the most powerful means we have of bringing about deep change in ourselves is repentance and confession. This is how the old man dies so that the new man can live. Behind almost every unnatural sexual attraction dwells a sin or sins that are not sexual in and of themselves. I have written of this many times. Sins that are common to homosexual strugglers are idolatry (worshipping the creature more than the Creator), envy (wanting to possess that person or a part of him), ungratefulness (not thanking God for what He has given you), not trusting God (believing that you must meet your own needs), and the list could go on and on.
For some, the way to discover the deeper sin may involve Christian counseling. For everyone, it involves living the normal Christian life of prayer, Scripture reading, worship, service and Christian fellowship.
At the beginning of this article, I wrote that if you change your homosexual attractions, the problem will be gone. What I hope you can see now is that the change I am talking about is the change that breaks the link between seeing an attractive person and feeling sexual feelings.
Your goal is not to stop finding other men or other women attractive. That a person is physically attractive may be an objective truth. That a person might make a wonderful friend might also be true. But your goal is to no longer translate your feelings of attraction into sexual or romantic desire.
What I have suggested can help accomplish this. You can consciously seek to break the "linkage habit." Through constantly reminding yourself that sex won't meet your deepest needs, coupled with finding legitimate ways to meet those needs, you can desexualize the needs. Finally, through the normal Christian life, you will clear away the obstacles of sin and brokenness that block your way towards healthy and natural relationships with men and women.
Because I spent more than half of my life feeding same-sex attractions, I may never be able to look at other men the way most men do. I may carry with me a heightened appreciation for manly beauty or strength. But the attraction no longer translates into sexual desire or feelings. This was a major part of my healing. It can be of yours also.