Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God. — 1 John 3:18-21
If you listen to people on the religious right who believe gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people are condemned by God – they have a very specific idea of how we should relate to God: in shame, on our knees, begging for forgiveness.
In fact, as a Southern Baptist child, this is the kind of relationship I was taught to have with God. I was a worthless sinner who deserved nothing but God’s scorn and condemnation (not because I’m a lesbian – but just because I was born!) – but God loved me anyway – even though I was this horrible, ugly, slug. No wonder so many people run screaming from religion when we’re taught that from the cradle. Anyone who believes our relationship with God (whether LGBT or not) is one of God lording Her power over us as we cower like ugly, beaten children who must beg for mercy, really needs to take the time to read this passage from 1 John.
Instead of painting followers of Christ as lowly worms in need of God’s mercy – the author of 1 John encourages us to see ourselves as embodying love in this world. “Let us love,” he writes, “not in word or speech, but truth and action.” Let us not say we love someone, while at the same time condemning something innate about them, the author writes. We cannot say we love someone unless we embody that love for them in truth and action.
As LGBT people we know the feeling of that love in word and speech. Those who condemn us say they love us – just not “that” part of us – our sexuality that they see as “sinful” or “disordered.” That love feels a lot like hate – because they are mere words usually backed up by condemning actions – ejecting us from churches, barring us from pulpits, or seeking to pass laws that discriminate against us or ban us from marriage equality. When someone only says they love us – and their actions prove to be nothing but antagonistic toward us – it is right to question that “love.”
We, as LGBT people, are not let off the hook by this passage either. We cannot simply say that we love those who would seek to oppress us – we must actually embody that love for them – even as they seek to strip us of our rights or bar us from churches. We can truly embody love for those who oppose us by changing our attitude toward them. Instead of seeing them as obstacles to the goals we’re trying to achieve, see them instead as brothers and sisters on the journey with us who we need to get to know better – and who need to get to know us better. If we can seek to understand them, to engage them on a deeper level, and see the world through their eyes, perhaps we can find ways to befriend them. Even if we don’t change their opinion about LGBT people – we at least have embodied Christ’s love to them by seeking to do more than simply argue with them or view them as hurdles that need to be overcome.
This is a tall order, especially when those who oppose us have so thoroughly demonized the LGBT community. That demonization has led many in our community to hate themselves – to abuse themselves and abandon their relationship with God altogether. There are too many LGBT people whose own hearts condemn them – not just the anti-LGBT people around them. This is the sin of homophobia – it creates self-condemnation and self-loathing that ends up in self-hatred. Too many in our community – if they don’t abandon God – buy into the lie that their relationship with God must be one of an abused spouse. They live in fear that if they even think gay, God will punish them – and severely. They do their best to “change” or “suppress” their true nature and dread the flames of hell if they slip up even once. This is not a relationship with God that promotes boldness!
Our first step then is to truly embody love for ourselves – to rid ourselves of the lies that tell us we are “disordered” or “sick” or “sinful.” Instead, we must begin to believe that God has created us not with the stain of “original sin” but with the beauty of “original blessing.” We are not created in a lie – but as the author of John assures us we are from “the truth” and that truth – that God created us as we are and expects us to fully live into our nature as LGBT persons – that we are reassured in those moments when we begin to believe the lies that God condemns us.
It is this faith – this assurance that we are made just as God has intended us to be – that gives us the boldness we need to be in right relationship with God. As William Loader writes, the author of 1 John “clearly envisages a relationship with God where people are not diminished, but encouraged to stand on their own two feet with confidence. It is a relationship which is responsive: I can say what I need. I will be heard.”
Instead of approaching God on our knees, with our heads bowed and hands outstretched, God invites us into a relationship where we can stand with confidence in God’s presence – making our dreams and wishes known, and giving God the chance to fully know us because, indeed, “God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.”
God knows everything about you – your struggles, your shortcomings, your beauty, your excellence. There is no shame in how God has created you. Let no one – especially those who come to you with mere words of love – diminish your relationship with the living, loving, still-speaking God. We can be bold before our Creator, because our hearts do not condemn us.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.