A story penned by RNS columnist Jonathan Merritt goes viral. He reveals why he decided to share it now. - Image credit: Audrey Hannah Brooks

A story penned by RNS columnist Jonathan Merritt goes viral. He reveals why he decided to share it now. – Image credit: Audrey Hannah Brooks

“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable.”

These are the words of Madeleine L’Engle, and this week I’ve been reminded of the wisdom they contain.

This weekend, Christianity Today posted an excerpt from my new book, Jesus is Better Than You Imagined, in which I share a story about childhood sexual abuse and my adult struggle to understand my sexuality. Many have asked why I would do such a thing.

This wasn’t a career move or a brazen attempt to sell more books. Being open about these experiences as an evangelical writer leaves me, like so many scarecrows, exposed. I do not plan to become a spokesman for any of the issues addressed in this article. The events shared are a part of my story, but they are not the whole of my calling. Today, I return to my job as a columnist committed to exploring the interface between faith and culture and helping foster difficult conversations that others may be unwilling to have.

I shared my sexuality story chiefly because, as L’Engle says, vulnerability is one of the essential ingredients to being alive. And, I would add, to being human. When we share our stories, we share ourselves. This act creates a portal to community, to be being known, to being loved. When we refuse to share our stories and ourselves, we stiff-arm those around us and keep others from being conduits of grace in our lives.

Owning one’s story can be costly, but it is not nearly as expensive as spending one’s life running from it.

This process of moving toward openness started with my family and friends. As I’ve excavated unshared parts of myself, I’ve begun sharing them with those I care about. This has been a beautiful and painful process. Through lament and grief and honesty, I’ve tugged at the purse strings of relationship, drawing myself closer to those around me. After nearly two years of offering these gifts to my inner circle, I wanted to share many of those with a broader audience.

By sharing my story, I hope to encourage others within the church to share their own. I’ve received hundreds of notes from readers these past few days telling me that through reading my story, they found courage to share their own. They’ve had difficult conversations with friends and parents and spouses and pastors as a result. They tell me that the sun rays of hope and freedom are breaking through the dark clouds they’ve lived under for too long. I wish I could tear open my chest and let each one peer into my heart and see how much their words have encouraged me.

We’ve arrived at a moment where conversations about sexuality have grown unbearably toxic and polarized. Those on the political and theological left are marginalized as heretics, and those who hold to traditional orthodoxy are labeled haters. Well-meaning voices on both sides often make the mistake of divorcing theological reflection from personal narrative. But theology and autobiography belong together.

This is one of the implicit messages of the incarnation, where Word becomes flesh. A walking, talking, laughing, weeping Jesus is the living embodiment of this idea. So too, the Apostle Paul often stitched together his theological proclamations with stories of his own conversion experience and journey with Jesus. The art of personal testimony fueled the first Great Awakening and subsequent revivals, and it can be equally transformative today.

Yet, we also do well to listen to the iconic theologian Karl Barth who offered a resounding “no” to relying solely upon the shaky foundation of human experience. Our stories are not the story. There is a bigger, better, more central story that Christians call “good news,” and this forms the lens through which we understand our own narratives. Personal narrative without divine revelation is nothing more than memoir. As United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon has said, “Thank God we preachers have something to preach other than ourselves.”

The church is at a critical juncture on sensitive matters such as these. Churches need to create safe spaces where their people can be honest about what they feel and what they’ve experienced. All of our stories belong at the table. We need to listen to each other and learn to love each other and then pick up the scriptures and ask, “What does it look like to follow Jesus with our hearts, minds, and bodies?” If I shared my story for any reason, it was this one.

It’s also important to note that I’m unsure whether the early events of my life were determinative or indicative. It’s dangerous to assume that those who are attracted to others of the same gender must have had abuse in their past.

As I said in the article, I don’t understand the connection between the two events: “Did the childhood abuse shape my adolescent and young adult experiences, or were those parts of me already there?” I wrote. “I’m certain I don’t know the answer to this question, and I’m not sure anyone does except God.”

The story I shared was not intended to be a bludgeon in anyone’s debate. To read it that way is to miss its point. Grace is the point. Grace is all. Grace is everything. No matter what one has experienced or feels or believes, grace beckons to a new and better way. But the journey to grace begins with honesty and vulnerability.

And that is why I decided to share my story now, with you, in this way.

Cover image courtesy of Faithwords

Cover image courtesy of Faithwords

 

Order Jesus is Better Than You Imagined now!

39 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing your story. You could have chosen to hide your thoughts and struggles which would only promote more shame around the issue of faith and sexuality. Instead, your story is one of inspiration. Your courage in the face of fear and certain judgment from some Christians will serve to inspire others to begin conversations that are long over due.

    Vulnerability is a scary thing for the person who is doing the stepping out but it can also be scary for those who are faced with such authenticity. Some people may feel threatened by it. Some may respond with less than the grace we are all called to share. May we each respect and honor the gift you have given us with your story.

    Remind yourself as often as needed that there are far more people who support you, love you and choose to come alongside you as you journey.

  2. I agree with what you have expounded on within this article, and I’m proud of you as a person and as a writer. You are to be commended. I, too, was sexually abused, but have made a choice to travel along the path that God has now blessed me with.

    • I have to note that anyone who thinks that a particular sexual orientation is a matter of choice does not understand sexuality or orientation. That or they are hiding in a closet trying to deceive themselves–and others–that they have found joy as a genuine member of the so-called majority.

      • gilhcan–I don’t know who you are, but I have a tendency to agree more with everything you have said than anything else that is being said here. I am a 56 year old CHRISTIAN mother who was raised and RAISED our children in the SBC church where my husband was a Deacon and I worked in the Youth Dept, amongst many other serving positions. If anybody would have told me that our son would grow up to be gay, I would have denied that there is any way possible for this to be true. He had a very active father, who coached his little league teams, and I am not even close to an overbearing mother. (Ohhhhh James Dobson, what you have caused with your teaching–without a Theology degree I must add) Our son was NEVER sexually abused. We grew up as any other so called “normal” evangelical family could grow up. Our entire social lives were around the church and the activities of the church.
        When our son was in High School he began to get very withdrawn and depressed. We just couldn’t seem to get thru to him no matter what we tried. We realized he wasn’t dating and even talked privately with pastors about what we should do—could he be gay??? All of the pastors and church counselors told us this wouldn’t happen if we PRAYED over him at night and REALLY GAVE THIS TO GOD. We believed them hook, line and sinker. We did EVERYTHING we were told to do and worried ourselves SICK in the process. After several years of trying to get through to our precious son (although he remained very loving and respectful of us), he finally at age 25(how sad is that?) was able to tell his, too caught up in RELIGION, parents that he was gay and everything else he done to try his best to destroy this part of himself because he hated being gay. He showed us scars where he had been cutting for years etc. etc. I seriously can’t even go into all of what that young man suffered while trying to protect us from this realization. It BREAKS my heart still to even recall those day’s and I cannot imagine HOW he lived through them while being in Junior High and High School. It takes me to my knees every time I think back on those terribly dark days–I don’t care what people say, until you have somebody you are willing to DIE for whom you watch go through this TERRIFYING process, you can’t say what you would do–Like I said, I would have NEVER dreamed I would be here–
        The most suprising thing about all of this is that God has NEVER left me for one minute of this “coming out” journey. He walks with me every single day telling me that my son is fearfully and wonderfully made and He loves him EXACTLY as he is—The Evengleical community for the most part has been HORRIBLE. We have lost many evangelical friends as they were about our only social contacts through the years. If I hear “love the sinner, hate the sin” one more time I think I may seriously BARF.
        Please noone try to TELL me my truth–I have lived every painful moment of it, and I wouldn’t go back to being that legalistic, close minded unteachable spirit that I was for anything in this world. I am free—my son is free and yes, he is living as an amazingly responsible, hard working, LOVING young man and we are trying our BEST to reteach him who God REALLY is—we did it all so WRONG the first time around and I THANK GOD for second chances. I PRAY that some day our son will turly know That GOD IS LOVE AND WHOSEVER BELIEVETH IN HIM SHAL HAVE ETERNAL LIFE–
        To you sweet Jonathan, I don’t know your real heart or your real feelings, but I do know that there must be so MUCH pressure on you because of the relationships you are trying to maintain with the people you love. I can only say, the truth shall truly set you free whatever that may be. God will put people in your path and all around you who will love you exactly as you are. i am one of them. I will be praying for you Jonathan. This will never be an easy journey, but I can promise you that your Heavely father will never forsake you as long as you seek His face. A Mother’s Heart—Beth

        • Thank-you, Beth! I am so over “hate the sin, love the sinner.” When I hear it I want to assure people that I hate the sin of their arrogance and judgmentalism but love them as sinners…but that would be passive-agressive and wrong of me, huh? :)

        • Beth, thank you for sharing. A mother’s love is fierce, and I am astounded by stories of parents who have turned their backs on their child. As a mother of three, I cannot think of anything that would make me abandon them, especially when they need me the most. Thank you for speaking out against the behavior of many fundamentalist parents. Maybe your post will be read by one of those parents, and they will decide that their child’s welfare, safety, and happiness is what is truly important.

        • William Taylor

          I’m not sure if i understand you. Are you saying that God accepts people who are gay/homosexual/bisexual and that they will be allowed into Heaven?

        • Dear Beth, our loving God is working through you. Your words are God’s words. To suggest that a person who is gay or lesbian is somehow “not what God intended” is to doubt the hand of God. God is the Creator and your son was knit in your womb with love. You are a beautiful individual and a gift to your son. Thank you for your heart-felt post.

        • Patrick Flynn

          Beth thank you for sharing. My story is very similar and reading your response brings to mind the heart moving story “Prayers For Bobby” based on a true story. I am from a strong pentecostal background too and just like your son, always known I was different. I finally came out the toxic closet a few years back. I am now happily married to an amazing man who loves God. We are in a congregation that loves and accepts us and does not judge or question who we are. We have been open and honest with our leaders from the very start as to who we are and why we are the way we are. God is so much bigger than this and His grace is very evident in our lives. Thank you for sharing with us. I highly admire you

        • Dear Beth – and I do mean DEAR, Beth! I was brought to tears as I read your post. You said everything I have wanted to say to so many. My son was much like your son. He went through the self-loathing, depression, fear, and rejections that you spoke of, and like your son, he went through it pretty much alone. We were not particularly religious, but Christian nonetheless. I felt like such a terrible mother when I realized that, even though we were very close, that he did not feel he could come to me with his issues. It breaks my heart to this day. He waited until he was 21 to tell me he was gay. I did not skip a beat and accepted it readily (I had suspected it for a long time, but did not want to believe it). I grieved privately for the loss of the dreams I had for him. But, I cannot tell you how much his revelation to me has caused me to grow spiritually. Like you, I know that God created my son just as he created every other soul and He created him the just the way God wanted him to be. Like he told me, “Mom, why would anyone choose to be gay when they are hated and rejected? That makes no sense. I have known since I was around 4 years old that I was ‘different” from other little boys. I just didn’t know what it was called.” Today, my son is 42 years old and has been in a committed relationship for 6 years. He is happy. The only thing I could now wish is for him to understand and believe, that God loves him. That is the end result of our human interpretation of Christianity. I will pray until my dying day that he will one day realize that he is a child of God and God loves all His children.

  3. Attempts continue to explain gender and sex in religious terms. It seems it would be much better to study those aspects of nature, both birds and bees, in science, sociology, and psychology, and then update our religious views so they synchronize with increased and improved knowledge.

    There is no end to attempts to distort the orientations and practices of sex, to make them conform to ancient writings that emerged from immeasurably lesser understanding than is available today. We must exert ourselves to learn those understandings, and we must be extremely cautious that the old is not permitted to distort that which is new and proven.

    The ancient mythology of religion must be recognized for what it is, a mixed bag of poetry, good and evil, taken for historical or scientific prose. We should strive to grow beyond that, hold to what might still apply and let go of that which does not. We are rowing in rough waters when we ignore the new or when we distort it to force a match with that which is older.

    If a childhood experience may have caused a particular sexual orientation, then we must ask what childhood experiences cause heterosexuality. All children have sexual experiences, not all with other real people. It is extremely dangerous to blame what we do not understand on single instances or on what we we still do not understand. Better to study, perhaps to be analyzed.

    I think it is extremely dangerous to resort to Bible stories to explain everything that takes place in our lives today. We must never allow ourselves to remain illiterate in science, sociology, psychology, or even history, because those are replicated verities beyond the metaphors and similes of mythology. We must be extremely careful in using that which is ancient to interpret the present.

  4. Thank you. I have not read your book, but from what you have written here, I gathered that there was sexual abuse and same sex attraction in your life. I guess I can say the same thing. Not sure I really consider what happened to me as abuse as I was a willing participant and the other person was also a youth, though older. As for the same sex attraction, well that never went away… through years of fighting and struggling and crying out to God to take it away. I agree with you that sharing and being vulnerable is good and healing, and I have done it many times in a ‘one on one’ situation. Usually sharing with a close friend and brother or even my pastor. But sharing this information with my wife was not a good idea and it pretty much destroyed us even though we are still together 25 years later. I did try a ministry and support group to help men like me, but my wife did not support my going and I finally dropped out after 2 years just so she would stop being mad at me. I realize saying all this only sounds like a very messed up couple and yes, I have talked about counseling, but she flatly refuses to ever do that… since the problem is mine. She does not believe in talking out your personal problems with others. I would go alone, but our finances is such that it would not be a good thing right now. I have accepted my situation. I know that this is always something that will be with me. I trust in God’s grace and continue to walk as a Christian even though my wife thinks that I am just in sin and not repenting of a shameful, sinful habit. I am glad to see articles like this where people are speaking out boldly about such issues. It is happening all the time in churches. I have met SO many men in my situation. Most of them could never bring this up at church. I can see why, when people react the way they do… the way my wife did. I usually advise them to not tell their wives if they have not done so. I would go public and share my story, but I do love my wife and it would embarrass her and devastate her. She was upset enough when she learned I went to our pastor. Your book sounds good. I hate to read… but I might want to read yours.

    • It was not abuse if there was consent. The age difference meant nothing. It is sad that we continue to allow a minority sexual orientation to have more misunderstanding and negativity dumped on it because of ancient writings, whether they be considered religious or anything else.

      We know more. That is, we can know more now if we will study with open minds. Guilt about sexual orientation and sexual activity lingers because we allow the wrong thinking of ancient times to cause that guilt.

      If we are raised in that guilt-filled thinking, it will take a lot of study, a lot of learning, and possibly help from others, even those who might provide a mature, true, loving relationship, even a relationship with sex, to grow beyond the guilt with which we are plagued in our immaturity.

      We have to learn what we never knew, and we also frequently have to unlearn what was wrong and debilitating. The truth can never be wrong, not even when others see it that way.

      Jonathan Merritt’s contact with that other person, the choice to meet that person for dinner was part and parcel of, as Wilde proclaimed, “the love that dare not speak its name.” That is seeking beyond societal fear. That does not make the search wrong except for those in society who do not understand sexuality more than their own true orientation. Then they conceitedly and ignorantly dump their negativity on others.

      Another writer once proclaimed something the majority of society seems to be gradually realizing is vitally important, “To thine own self be true.” That requires that we grow beyond the ignorance and meanness of general society, including the ignorance and meanness of those who submit to any particular religious persuasion.

  5. Whitney Clayton

    Your article at CT is a beautiful expression of God’s grace. It truly is in our weaknesses that He is made strong. Thank you for sharing.

    • Merritt has frequently used the term “brokenness” in his writing about his sexuality. He is not broken, those who are ignorant about him and his sexuality are broken. The only “brokenness” is that of a society whose majority so ignorantly trashes the minorities within it. Hurting means one is in pain, it does not mean that person is “broken.”

      People who are poor, people of darker color and different features, people who are mentally or emotionally challenged, even women who have lesser physical strength than men are forced into real “brokenness.” The only reason women are somewhat more tolerated by the muscled male majority is because they are desired for their sexual satisfaction.

      Society is “broken,” not those hurt or put down by any majority in society. Ancient religious writings from ignorant times are “broken,” not sacred. We must learn more of what has been learned since those times and those writings. We must be selective.

      Speak the name of love. Do not hurt. Do not be afraid. Be true to yourself. Be true to others. Be true to love. “If we only have love…”

  6. Man’s ways are of the Lord, so how can we really understand our own ways………….Proverbs 20:24

    That quote is perhaps one of the best illustrations of the “Spirit” working in us.

    So, however we turn out, we’re better of if we can say —

    You may believe there’s nothing wrong with what you are doing or how you feel about yourself, so you can keep it between yourself and God if you want.
    “BLESSED” are those who don’t feel guilty of thinking of themselves in the way they know is best………..Romans 14:22 (paraphrasing mine)

    • Relying on Sacred Scripture as the first and last word about all matters is a grave error. Those ancient writings were by human beings who believed in gods and believed that the gods spoke to them or through them.

      We know more now. It is imperative that we catch up with knowledge and review those biblical mythologies through our much more advanced knowledge, tested and proven true.

      It is very dangerous to interpret that mythology as full and reliable history, as science, as sociology, as psychology, or any other replicated, proven knowledge.

      But in continuing honesty and genuine caring for our fellows, we can still make things good, and that has always been the main proclamation of most religion.

      • Good comment.

        Here’s what Paul wrote that more or less confirms what you said —

        “The Kingdom of God is not in “word” (that means scripture verse), but “power” (that means, at least, the loving and protecting divine presence in all of us, especially those that believe)………….it’s not food and drink but “righteousness” (that means doing good works and deeds) and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit”.

  7. I do not care about your sexuality, when I see a man or woman I do not think of who they will be sleeping with (ok perhaps in my adolescence). It really isn’t my business, it is part of who we are, but I believe it is not the major or defining part of who we are. I care more about the message than the messenger because like all messengers, we are indeed weak and vulnerable when compared to the message. There isn’t one person I know of that can willy nilly cast stones, rather we seek with great effort, as many do, to emulate the one person who can cast stones, but chose not to. As a Mormon in California I have been on receiving end of the “toxicity” you have spoken of, mainly because of my more traditional belief in marriage (versus partnership rights which I wholly endorse, but do not consider traditional marriage). It is an opinion of conscience but one that I would have without rancor towards others, whether they call such things marriage or not. I do know to a small extent how you feel, in California Mormons have at times been forced from employment for their opinion, and not a few have remained silent of their religious affiliation because of the negativity often shown towards that group by those who claim friendship, or peers. To come out and let others in the evangelical community know you are gay is much more difficult process. I can only say speak well of the message, as I continue to read, and at times disagree, but also know that you can still be loved even if the proclivity you have, which is a fraction of who you are, is not embraced.

  8. Lisa L Walker

    Jonathan Merritt, you are a beautiful man. You are also a brave man. Stay true to and connected with your true self. We must all do this hard work. Only there will we find God. He is there, always has been, always will be. Whether we know it or not. You are loved.

  9. Hi Jonathan. My father began molesting me when I was a baby. I am a lesbian, and very happy with my sexuality, though it took decades to get here.

    I too wondered if sexual attraction was due to the abuse. I felt that I had to Know, or somehow it didn’t count. After much time I gave that up. I realized I’d never know, and it was irrelevant anyway. I am a lesbian, I’m glad to be so, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  10. “We stiff-arm those around us and keep others from being conduits of grace in our lives.” This grabbed me, Jonathan, and I am wondering just how often this occurs in my own life. You, blessed one, are incredibly brave in your vulnerability, and I am in awe. As a long-time fan of Madeleine L’Engle, you’ve struck a deep chord within me (and I hope many others) in not only how we learn to understand others’ stories, but in how we might attempt to share our own. Just when I am sure that the bumper sticker “Mean people suck” should be my mantra, you talk about the importance of placing risky truths on the table for others to hear! Thanks for reminding me that the Spirit is alive and working, despite how cruel some can be.

  11. Patrick Flynn

    Really admire this man. Grace is key here. Reading the stories of moms and dealing with their son coming out – my story is very similar. Nobody can ever take your testimony from you weather readers agree or not it is your testimony and between you and God. For those who are struggling with the question of sexual orientation I’d highly recommend “Prayers For Bobby” a heart-warming true life story that will touch your heart and hopefully answer many questions some parents may have out there. #GODLOVESUSALL

  12. Jonathan,

    I can’t thank you enough for your vulnerability. I have faced identical issues in my life and I have found that the more honest and transparent I am, the more whole I feel. The last 25+ years have been a life of honesty and transparency through which I have found tremendous healing. You are a good man!

  13. Hi Jonathan,
    Recently I happened to read your post that you shared about your sexuality and I know God sent me to it. The timing and the way of it, was by Him- I know.
    My 11 year old daughter was exposed to lesbian pornography by a family member. She wasn’t inappropriately touched thankfully but seeing what she did was damaging enough. She started exhibiting anxiety from keeping it in and one night opened up to me, which I’m so thankful she did. She is very confused from being prematurely sexually awakened. Her body naturally responded to being aroused after seeing what she saw and she has shameful, guilty feelings about it. She kept saying that she knows she likes boys and always liked boys but now she’s not sure. She is fighting how she is feeling and trying to get back to how she felt before all of this. It hasn’t been easy watching her struggle like this and she’s come to the point where she said she wants to die. We have her seeing a therapist. She said that she knows what God says in the Bible and that we’re not supposed to be gay and she doesn’t want to be lesbian and if she winds up being a lesbian she would rather die because she doesn’t want to be disappoint God or us. The sorrow that I am feeling with what she is going through right now, to hear her say all this is heartbreaking. We have all assured her that God would love her no matter what and that we love her and would accept her if she winds up being a lesbian. To think that she would think us or God wouldn’t love or accept her, to hear her thought process through all this, to see the pain she’s feeling about it, has not been easy. It has also been enlightening. I didn’t really think about it before, what others have gone through with this. People need to understand. Your sharing was a beautiful thing. Sharing your story, I pray will bring enlightenment to the world.
    She has said that she doesn’t think she will go to heaven if she becomes gay and she said that people would hate her and she feels that the rest of the family and her friends and people in general would secretly and outwardly think she’s disgusting and make fun of her and be mean to her. She cries saying that she doesn’t want to be gay and that if she wasn’t exposed to what she saw, she didn’t think she would be gay. She said she didn’t look at other girls in that way before and now she sees differently. We don’t know what will be in her future and who she will become and what preference. We won’t know if this influence and determine her choice when she makes the choice.
    She is too young for dating of course and the therapist and her dad and I told her that she doesn’t have to agonize over this at this time in her life because she won’t be allowed to date for quite some time.
    We just want her to believe and know that no matter what, that whomever she becomes, she’s loved. It got me to ponder what many gay people have gone through, their thoughts and feelings. To know people have thought about taking their lives and that some have, makes me sad. All anyone wants is to be loved and accepted for who they are. I wish the world and Christians would try and understand and not discriminate how they do. I know what the Bible says, but I believe that we have a very loving and forgiving God. I thank Him, that for every single being on this earth, we are all saved by grace. People can’t pick and choose who is a worse sinner, we’re all sinners. It’s not up to people to be judge of anyone. The one thing we were commanded to do, is to love one another as we love ourselves. To many want to be a judge instead of a lover.
    I don’t know how to get my daughter to get her mind off of it all and be able to get back to the 11 year old girl that she used to be before these concerns and worries that she is struggling with. She is having a hard time surrendering it to God right now. I just want her to have peace in her heart. Peace knowing that she is loved now and in the days ahead whatever they may bring. Is there anything that you can say to help me to help her with what she is going through? If you can’t reply I understand, I thank you for your post.

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