Reflections on Netflix’s Pray Away
Written By Anthony Sytsma
My name is Anthony Sytsma and I work for Resonate Global Mission in Uganda. Learning a new culture in Uganda has also helped me to reflect upon my own culture. While the two cultures are incredibly different, I've observed the same false prosperity theology manifesting in both. The wreckage of the prosperity gospel in Africa is obvious, but surprisingly there are similar theological ideas that have driven North American Christians to go astray in their views of marriage and sexuality. Thank you for reading and reflecting with me.
When I watched Netflix’s documentary called Pray Away, I went into it with some bias. The film is a critique of the so called “pray the gay away” movement. The film reviews the American Church’s response to Christians who experience same-sex attraction over the last several decades. It examines Exodus International, ex-gay ministries and conversion therapy approaches. I had already read critical reviews which claimed the film is an attack on the Church, and the reviews made sense to me. But when I watched it myself, I was pleasantly surprised. I discovered that the film was not so much an attack on the Church, but rather I saw it as an attack on the false prosperity gospel operative in some churches. While I strongly disagree with the film’s main message, which is basically that sexual desires cannot be changed and therefore should not be denied, I think the film is an important one to engage. In this article, I will explain three reasons why I recommend watching this documentary, articulate a brief response to prosperity gospel teaching, and end with a critique of the false dichotomy the film presents.
Why I Recommend This Film
1. History of Church Ministry - We should all be aware of our collective church history regarding ex-gay ministries, our successes and failures, our joys and our sorrows. And it’s helpful to be aware of how our mainstream culture is interpreting such history. The history shown is at times encouraging, and at times distressing. It should inform our efforts to have healthier ministry to people with same-sex attractions today.
The filmmakers presented the history in a fairly balanced way. While they unfortunately avoided interviewing people who were greatly helped by the ministry of Exodus International, they also did not demonize Christians or the Church. They pointed out what they believe Christians did wrong, but they inferred that ex-gay Christian ministry leaders were nevertheless generally compassionate people. Little was shown of the extremes of reparative therapy sessions. The film actually made such therapies look rather mild compared to many of the disturbing stories that are out there. Christianity was not rejected by all of the film’s protagonists and some were filmed fellowshipping in their churches. There was even discussion about people disassociating the truth about who Jesus is from the hurt that they went through.
2. Stories of our People - We need to hear these stories. The film’s protagonists were our people in our churches. Some of them were held up as heroes by American churches. And yet now many of them are living in homosexual partnerships, many of them have left traditional churches or churches altogether, and many of them feel deep pain over what they went through during Christian therapy. We should listen to these stories, to understand why they left and to repent of what we may have done wrong to cause them to leave. Additionally, as we continue to preach the Gospel and reach out to people with same-sex attractions with the love of Christ, it is important to understand their previous experiences with Christians and the Church so that we can be sensitive, gentle and strategic in our evangelistic approach.
3. The False Prosperity Gospel – As I said earlier, the film focuses its attack on “pray the gay away” teaching, rather than the Church. I view this teaching as a subset of the more general prosperity gospel. My third reason for recommending this film is that it illustrates vividly the damage that the prosperity gospel can do to people and their relationship with God.
The prosperity gospel teaches that if people just have enough faith, pray hard, and live a holy life, God will give them what they want and a happy life free from suffering. This may mean God will take away people’s poverty and provide for their needs, but the teaching is often extended to mean God will provide riches and a luxurious life. “Pray the gay away” teaching follows the same general pattern. The teaching is that if people experience same-sex attraction, then through strong faith, prayer, and living a holy life, God will give them what they want; that is, God will remove their same-sex attraction and replace it with opposite-sex attraction so that they can have a sexually-fulfilling marriage. If they have faith, God will remove their daily struggle with temptations. Of course, this analogy is not perfect. We know that poverty is not a sinful condition whereas same-sex attraction is one element of our sinful nature. But the pattern of thought is very similar.
It is important to carefully nuance why this is false teaching. The problem is not proclaiming that God has the power to make Christians rich, or proclaiming that God has the ability to change a person’s sexuality. God is almighty and he can do anything. In fact, there are many testimonies of people who have become Christians, experienced profound transformation in belief, habits, and character, and then experienced a great reduction in their material poverty. And amazingly, there are testimonies of Christians who formerly experienced same-sex attraction who are now happily married to people of the opposite sex, some who say the old attractions have largely disappeared. We should thank God for the change in both of these types of situations!
The problem with the prosperity gospel is that people are given false hope, a guarantee. People are promised that God will act in the way they want if they have enough faith. There is a big difference between believing that God can do miracles, and believing that God is obligated to give me the miracles I want. We cannot promise Christians who experience same-sex attraction that they will experience such a profound transformation in this life. Just as Scripture clearly shows that many Christians remained materially poor, Scripture also teaches that Christians continue to experience some desire to sin until we are made perfect when Jesus returns.
When we falsely make universal guarantees in these areas, we can totally crush people and cause them to abandon their trust in God. In the case of materially poor people who have been taught this false theology, when they spend days in church praying and fasting, and they remain materially poor, they may live the rest of their lives wracked by terrible guilt because they think they don’t have enough faith, or they may abandon God and the Church completely because they feel like they have been lied to. In the case of Christians who experience same-sex attraction, when God doesn’t do for them what they were told God would do, then they may also live wracked with guilt and self-loathing because they think they don’t have enough faith or think that they are less worthy of God’s love compared to other sinners. And many will end up feeling like the Church or God himself has lied to them and then abandon the Christian faith completely. But perhaps the most common reaction we see is that they change their view of the Bible’s teachings, and turn to progressive churches who will affirm their homosexuality. It seems it is easier to reject the Bible’s teaching on sexuality than to reject the prosperity gospel with its promise of sexual fulfillment, and a life free from suffering and struggle.
And this leads us to the deepest problem of all with the prosperity gospel. With this false gospel, people tend to seek after God for his gifts more than for God himself. It is idolatry. It is a way to try to utilize God to get the things people want, whether that be a life without suffering, riches, or romantic and sexual fulfillment. Instead of living for the glory of God, people use God for their own ends. Of course, all of us struggle to some degree with this type of idolatry.
The film vividly helps us to see the damage the prosperity gospel has caused to so many Christians with same-sex attractions. You see the damage in the stories of guilt, self-loathing, and crushed hopes. You see the damage in the stories of people being pressured to share dishonest testimonies to prop up the prosperity gospel in churches. You see the damage in people moving to churches who will affirm homosexual partnerships and in the people who have rejected Christ and the Church completely.
It is important to point out that there is considerable debate as to whether Exodus International ever actually taught this false prosperity gospel. The film certainly implies that they did. But friends I’ve talked to and articles I’ve read strongly deny that Exodus ever taught anything like this. Therefore, we should be very slow to judge specific ex-gay ministries like Exodus. It could be that they never taught “pray the gay away teaching” or anything like it. Perhaps it is that the prosperity gospel is so embedded in our culture and our churches in general, that “pray the gay away” teaching was a natural assumption made by many of the participants in these ex-gay ministries. Whatever the case, it’s safe to say that prosperity theology is a very popular theology in American culture and most of us find it regularly creeping up in our hearts. We get angry when we don’t receive from God what we prayed for, especially if we think we’ve been good. We tend to feel entitled to happiness and a life free from struggle or suffering.
This is an area where I see the traditional view of sexuality and the revisionist view of sexuality intersecting. Both views have too often been infused with prosperity-gospel teaching. On the traditional side, we have often made an idol out of marriage. We think that faithful American Christians are entitled to have romantic and sexual fulfillment in marriage as a gift from God. We think a person cannot live an abundant life without his or her sexual desires being fulfilled. I believe this is one reason why divorce is so common. We cannot imagine staying together with someone for life who is no longer fulfilling us or making us happy. This idolatry of marriage also leads us to look down on single or celibate people. We can treat them as if they are unable to have a full and meaningful life while single. We may even treat single people as less valuable members of the church or people who are not fully adults. And coming back to our topic, we have too often pressured Christians who experience same-sex attractions into reparative therapies because we have devalued the single life in our marriage idolatry. We have not fully valued single Christians with same-sex attractions in our churches who are living a holy life and resisting temptation. Instead, as the film highlights, we have often felt discomfort around them and cared more about them somehow becoming heterosexual than about their walk with Christ.
On the revisionist side it is almost the same. Revisionist Christians may start to feel that God’s people are entitled to romantic and sexual fulfillment. Some cannot imagine a person living an abundant life without their sexual desires being fulfilled. And they also tend to idolize marriage, not being able to imagine Christians living without marriage. For them, it seems unjust and cruel to encourage a Christian with same-sex attractions to live a single life. So they find ways to reinterpret Scripture to allow for homosexuality instead of dismantling the idolatry of marriage and the prosperity gospel. As Preston Sprinkle, president of the Center for Faith, Sexuality & Gender, has pointed out, even the makers of Pray Away seem to have fallen into this idolatry of marriage. The culmination of the film is a ceremony of a same-sex marriage and it is clear from the testimonies in the film that life without same-sex marriage is seen as incomplete and painful.
Responding to the Prosperity Gospel
How should we respond to this pervasive prosperity gospel we see in ourselves and our churches? Briefly I’ll share three ideas.
First, we need to pay more attention to our great Reformed doctrine of God’s sovereignty and the role of struggle and suffering in the Christian life. God never promised to take away all of our temptations to sin immediately. Jesus came to give us abundant life, but not a carefree life. As Job’s friends had to learn, God does allow suffering in the lives of his people, but even so, he remains good, and his plan for this world and for our lives is good. As Jesus’ disciples had to learn, following Jesus gives us joy and hope, but following him also requires daily sacrifice and self-denial, and willingness to suffer persecution and even death. We need to teach the idea that God uses our weaknesses, struggles and pains for our good, to make us depend on him, grow more holy, and learn patience, hope, love, and self-control. He is powerful enough to even use suffering for good (Rom. 8:28-29).
Second, we need to repent of our idolatry of marriage and teach about marriage differently. As Tim Keller teaches, if we take a good thing, and make it an ultimate thing, something which we feel we can’t live without, then we have made that good thing an idol. Marriage is a wonderful gift from God, but we should be able to find meaning in life outside of marriage alone. Because our primary identity is in Christ—having been purchased and set apart for him—we can have meaningful lives whether or not we are married. We need to affirm the value of singleness. We need to find meaning in broader community and loving relationships. We need to teach about true friendship, and cultivate deep and intimate friendships ourselves. And when we experience brokenness in this area of sexuality and marriage (as everyone will at times), we need to remind each other to look to Christ and give our burdens to him. We lean on him for strength and endurance, and find peace in his love for us. And even when we have pain in this area of relationships, we can thank God for his many gifts to us that we enjoy in other areas of our lives.
Third, we need to teach a full view of Christian sanctification. Sanctification is a long-term process in which we grow more holy and Christlike and the process will not be complete until Jesus returns. We cannot expect to flip a switch and lose all of our desires to sin, whether that is a desire for the same-sex, for pornography, or for self-glorification. We should pray continually until we die for God to change our desires so that we desire what is holy. And we should expect some change as we slowly grow with Christ. But what may be more important is to exercise self-control, one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and look at how the Holy Spirit gives us the power to say “no” to evil desires when they arise in us. Like Paul, we all have thorns that we would rather God just take away, but as we struggle, God does give us strength to have victory over temptation so that we can enjoy freedom in Christ.
Reject the False Dichotomy
While I suggest watching this film, it’s not perfect, and we should be aware of some of its problems. There are reviews online which helpfully criticize several aspects about this film. But I want to end with only one important criticism.
The film presents a false dichotomy, that if you are a person with same-sex attractions, you really have only two life choices. 1. You could try to pursue a change in attractions through prayer and therapy which will end only in misery or deception. 2. You should stop denying your sexual desires and pursue a same-sex partnership. The emotional power and momentum in the film easily can make the viewer convinced that these are the only two choices, but there is a third choice that they never discuss!
The third way is to accept that your sexual desires may not change radically in this life, but to believe that you can still live an abundant life with Christ in obedience to him without giving in to your sexual desires. There are many people living this way, and yet the filmmakers didn’t interview them. For example see the testimonies of Butterfield, Yuan, Cook, Hill-Perry, Allberry, and Bowman, among many others.
Don’t make the leap the film makes. Just because desires to sin do not easily go away, that does not change what God’s Word says about the morality of homosexuality. We can continue to help Christians who experience same-sex attraction find freedom in Christ. We should create a safe atmosphere, where people can tell the truth, whether they still struggle with strong desire, or have experienced a great reduction in same-sex attraction. The Church can be a safe haven for those experiencing same-sex attraction, where they can be encouraged to follow Jesus and enjoy the love and fellowship of God’s people.
Anthony Sytsma was ordained in the CRC in 2011 after completing his MDiv at Calvin Seminary. He currently serves with Resonate Global Mission in Uganda.