Sexuality and Gender

Are We Accountable for Unchosen Sinful Desires?

Author Alan Shlemon Published on 04/22/2019

A clarification to my brothers and sisters in Christ who, like me, hold to the biblical teaching that sexual activity is reserved only for a man and woman married to each other.

The discussion about homosexual desire is too often oversimplified and seldom given appropriate nuance. For example, many people in Western culture frame the debate as, “You’re either born gay or it’s your choice.” Such an oversimplification leads to two immediate mistakes.

First, it wrongly assumes that those are the only two possible explanations for same-sex attraction. Since one side states almost axiomatically that no one chooses who they are attracted to, the only remaining option is that some people are born with an “orientation” that results in sexual desire for the same sex.

The second mistake is assuming that if you’re born gay (and, therefore, didn’t choose your “orientation”), you are not accountable for the desires that flow from that orientation. Many Westerners adopt this view and, consequently, believe it’s permissible to satisfy same-sex desires through homosexual relationships.

Now, I’ve argued in the past that I don’t believe homosexual desires are something anyone is born with. There is now even more data that supports that claim. In fact, even notable researchers who identify as gay and lesbian agree. This debate is largely irrelevant now, though. The born-this-way claim served its purpose in convincing culture to ground same-sex marriage to civil rights and recognize same-sex unions as a legitimate legal form of marriage.

Even if homosexual desires were something you’re born with, however, that wouldn’t justify the behavior. Discovering a “gay gene” (or any other pre-birth factor) would tell us nothing about the morality of homosexual sex or same-sex marriage. Simon LeVay, a pioneer in sexual-orientation research who identifies as gay, acknowledges, “Science itself cannot render judgments about human worth or about what constitutes normality or disease. These are value judgments that individuals must make for themselves.” Geneticist Dean Hamer (who also identifies as gay), produced a study that suggested there is a genetic contribution to homosexuality. Even so, he concurs with LeVay’s sentiment. Hamer writes, “Biology is amoral; it offers no help in distinguishing between right and wrong. Only people guided by their values and beliefs can decide what is moral and what is not.” To claim that a scientific discovery about human biology can tell us how we’re supposed to live would be to commit the is-ought fallacy. Just because something is a certain way, it doesn’t follow that it ought to be that way. Science can tell us what is, but it cannot tell us what ought to be.

Again, I’m not claiming homosexual desires arise from a genetic or biological cause, but only that if such a discovery were made, it would tell us nothing about the morality of homosexual fantasy or sex.

Since homosexual men and women are not born that way, some people suggest that choice plays a major factor in their attraction. This, again, wrongly presumes that homosexual desire results from either a congenital condition or choice.

This is an oversimplification many Christians make. We have good reason to think same-sex desires are not directly decided by conscious decisions. Consider the Christian who experiences same-sex desires but loves Jesus, wants to obey Him all his life, rejects satisfying his desires either in thought or deed, and is repentant when and if he succumbs to those temptations. Virtually every believer like this will tell you two things: 1) They didn’t choose to be attracted to a person of the same sex, and 2) if they could choose to be attracted to someone of the opposite sex, they would. Many believers have told me they’ve tried to consciously will away their same-sex attraction but are unable to do so. That’s because homosexual desire is not a choice.

When some Christians hear that, they think, Alan doesn’t think homosexuality is a choice. Therefore, he must not think homosexuals are accountable for their sinful desires. It sounds like he’s buying into the world’s thinking and compromising his biblical convictions. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, if I were compromising on this matter, pro-gay advocates would be jubilant. Trust me; they’re not.

Even though I don’t think same-sex attraction is a choice, I still believe people are accountable for what they do with that attraction. That’s because our sinful desires arise from our sin nature. Same-sex desire is a disordered desire (“degrading passions,” Rom. 1:26 NASB) resulting from man’s fall. It’s no different from any sinful desire that any person experiences. We’re all responsible for what we do with our sinful desires, even if they’re not chosen.

It’s important to note that I don’t mean that no choice is involved at all. Every person has the choice to satisfy homosexual desire in thought or deed. Every person has the choice to either embrace those desires and believe they’re a part of their identity or to mortify them in pursuit of biblical sexuality.

Furthermore, I do believe that our choices can impact our desires. What we think about and what we do can ultimately shape what we crave. For example, if we choose to view porn and choose to fantasize about it, then those conscious decisions will affect our souls, making us desire porn even more. Choice, then, can play a role in how our desires are formed.

Taking time to unpack these ideas and nuance them isn’t easy. That’s why I’ve suggested—as a matter of practical wisdom—to avoid saying to a person who identifies as gay or lesbian, “Homosexuality is a choice.” Such advice is not comprehensive, nuanced theology but rather a practical principle to help believers avoid unnecessary damage to their relationships with friends or family members who identify as gay or lesbian.

Yes, there’s choice in whether one accepts or rejects their homosexual desire as a part of their identity. Yes, there’s choice in whether one satisfies their homosexual desire in thought and deed or decides to pursue biblical sexuality. But if you simply tell a friend or family member with SSA that homosexuality is a choice, it’s likely they’ll be unnecessarily put off. Even if your view is more nuanced, they won’t get it. They’ll think to themselves, You think I chose to be gay? You’re clueless! You have no idea what I’ve experienced and are completely out of touch with who I am. Your cliché will likely hurt your relationship with them rather than build a bridge. They won’t grasp the nuances I’ve described here.

We don’t want to unnecessarily offend the people we’re trying to reach. The gospel can be offensive already, but we don’t want to be offensive with our approach. Understanding the usual interpretation of “choice” in this context can help us be wise in our approach. So, if homosexuals aren’t born that way, and it’s not a choice, then where does that leave those who experience homosexual desires? It leaves them in exactly the same place it leaves every person on the planet. We all experience desires we don’t choose. Everyone is accountable for those desires. The Bible doesn’t say we’re accountable for chosen desires but not accountable for unchosen ones. In fact, it’s specifically those unchosen desires that arise from our sin nature that we are commanded to mortify.

But isn’t it impossible to do what God expects us to do—to deny our innate desires? Yes, it’s impossible. There’s no way a homosexual could—on his or her own strength—live up to God’s standard. Neither could anyone else. Thankfully, God doesn’t expect us to fulfill this insurmountable feat on our own. He’s done three things to make it possible. First, He had His Son—Jesus—live the perfect life on our behalf. Even though it would be impossible for us to resist every sinful temptation, Jesus did it. His impeccable record was transferred to those whom God calls His children. Second, God has offered His Spirit—the Holy Spirit—to anyone who turns their life over to God and asks Him to help them deny their sinful desires. God’s Spirit in us breaks the bondage of sin we’re in and gives us the power to deny our sinful desires.

Even with God’s help, though, we’re bound to falter. That’s why God gives us a third thing: grace. He understands us better than we understand ourselves. He knows we falter. He’s ready to forgive us when we sin then turn to Him.

Yes, we are accountable for unchosen sinful desires, but we are accountable to a powerful, just, and gracious God who will never leave or forsake us.