Washed and Waiting
by Craig Hoekema
Even as a child, Wesley Hill remembers being drawn to other males in some vaguely confusing way. By puberty he could no longer avoid the fact that he had "a steady, strong, unremitting, exclusive sexual attraction to persons of the same sex." Try as he did, he could find precious few writers that put into words some of the confusion, sorrow, triumph, grief and joy of the struggle to live faithfully before Christ with homosexual desires. This book is Hill’s labor to provide for others the voice for which he had been looking. The title of the book reflects Hill’s sense of identity as well as his ongoing struggle: Washed (forgiven and spiritually cleansed) and Waiting (groaning and persevering with a thorn in the flesh until the day when “there will be no more homosexuality”).
Hill’s primary audience is those, like himself, who are attracted to the same sex and are seeking to live out the historic Christian sexual ethic (i.e. monogamous male/female marriage or, in Hill’s case, celibacy). Such readers will find Hill to be an honest, gracious, and emphatic travelling companion. However, his book is no less helpful to any of us who care deeply about same-sex attracted friends, family members, church family members and neighbours and who want to walk well beside them. The reader will be stirred to compassion for the plight of many who experience same-sex attraction—the grief, the loneliness, and perhaps most poignantly, the sense that I am inherently and forever displeasing to God.
Hill spent much of his teen years and early twenties keeping his homosexuality a secret, anticipating that he could in some way be healed of his deeply unwanted desires. He details for us those experiences and relationships that he hoped would be the beginning of the end of his same-sex attraction and then the disappointment when that never came to fruition. He tells of what it was like the very first time he entrusted his secret to a professor at Wheaton and then as he cautiously expanded the circle of confidants. “I began to learn to wrestle with my homosexuality in community,” he writes, “over many late-night cups of coffee and in tear-soaked, face-on-the-floor times of prayer with members of my church…No longer was I simply struggling; I was learning to struggle well, with others, in the presence of God.”
Hill structures his book according to three primary struggles in his effort to live faithfully before Christ. The first is the struggle to understand what the gospel requires of Christians with homosexual desires. The second is his intense struggle with loneliness and the fear that there will be no one there for the long haul to walk beside him. And the third struggle is shame—a nagging and unshakable feeling of being “damaged goods” and therefore unavoidably displeasing to God.
Struggle One: What Does the Gospel Require?
Hill opens this discussion by articulating a list of concerns with which, same-sex attracted or not, it’s easy to resonate. The demand that Christians with homosexual desires say no over and over again to some of their strongest, deepest, and most recurrent longings seems not only undesirable but also virtually impossible if not cruel and dehumanizing. Sometimes, says Hill, it seems that same-sex attracted Christians are singled out by the church for especially harsh demands—demands that seem out of character with the Christian message of love, grace and abundant life.
Hill speaks biblically to those very real concerns, not with a detailed dive into the expected passages of scripture, but with the gospel story as a whole. “What keeps me on the path I’ve chosen,” he writes, “is not so much individual proof texts from Scripture or the sheer weight of the church’s traditional teaching…Instead, it is, I think, those texts and traditions and teachings as I see them from within the true story of what God has done in Jesus Christ.” Like the earliest Christians who willingly adopted costly and counter-cultural lives, these otherwise strange and unnatural choices only make sense within the story of God’s work through his Son. Hill walks the reader through some of the most relevant pieces of the gospel story for making sense of such a radical call to discipleship, culminating in the conviction that faithfulness to Christ is not forever self-denial…it’s waiting. The joy of Christ’s return will be more than worth the struggle.
Struggle Two: Loneliness
“I want to be married,” Hill once wrote to a friend. “And the longing isn’t mainly for sex…it is mainly for the day-to-day small kind of intimacy where you wake up next a person you’ve pledged your life to, and then you brush your teeth together, you read a book in the same room without necessarily talking to each other…It is the loss of that kind of intimacy in my life that feels devastating.” And in the absence of this kind of companionship, Hill says he could be surrounded by good friends all day yet still feel desperately, utterly, helplessly lonely.
Hill turns our attention exactly where we’d expect—to the love of God and the fellowship of the church; however, he does so in a way that avoids being trite or unrealistic. Will a deepening relationship with God and with our fellow Christians spell the end of our loneliness? Yes, says Hill, but only in some eventual sense. On this side of the resurrection, the aching and groaning of loneliness will to some degree remain. In fact, he writes, “For us gay Christians¹, committing ourselves to the church…doesn’t always—or even often—remove or lessen the loneliness; it merely changes the battleground. Instead of fighting loneliness alone…we’re on the phone with a fellow Christian…[or] we’re at a church potluck, helping our married friends keep an eye on their kids.”
Nevertheless, Hill offers a hopeful account of the role the church has played in his life—the midnight phone calls, the open doors of fellowship, the safe place to divulge his hardest secrets and receive—not scorn or withdrawal but—listening ears, loving embraces, and strong doses of encouragement. Hill’s reflections inspire concrete thinking about how we can be the communion of saints for the lonely within our congregations. And through it all, Hill reminds us, we’re “waiting”—clinging to the hope that this affliction is yet light and momentary.
Struggle Three: Shame
For those with homosexual desires, being genuinely pleasing to God can feel unattainable. Hill remembers the days when no matter how hard or successfully he battled for purity of mind and body, he still put his head on the pillow at night feeling permanently unacceptable before God—his orientation like a spigot of disappointment and displeasure he could never turn off.
Hill is gracious in recognizing the ways in which this struggle is the experience of every Christian on this side of eternity. We all have to fight against our flesh. This is important for heterosexual Christians to acknowledge, lest we so 'other' the experience of those who are same-sex attracted that we presume our walk with Christ is any less messy or filled with brokenness. Our struggles may all be different, but we stand utterly together in our need for the Spirit's moment-by-moment sanctifying grace.
What Hill learned to develop is a conception of God-glorifying faith, holiness, and righteousness that includes within it a profound element of struggle and stumbling. He has learned to view his sexual attraction not as confirmation of his irrevocable offensiveness before God but as part of his journey toward holiness. “I am learning to look at my daily wrestling with disordered desires and call it ‘trust.’ I am learning to look at my battle to keep from giving in to my temptations and call it ‘sanctification.’ I am learning to see that my flawed, imperfect, yet never-giving-up faithfulness is precisely the spiritual fruit that God will praise me for on the last day.” In short, not only can he be pleasing to God with a same-sex orientation, his very struggle to live faithfully is (as C.S. Lewis would say) ‘a real ingredient in the divine happiness.'
There are more treasures in Hill’s book such as his brief journeys into the lives of Henri Nouwen and Gerard Manley Hopkins—two godly men who also wrestled with a same-sex orientation. In addition, any copy of the book published after 2016 includes Hill’s afterword in which he briefly explores the dignity of celibacy and the church’s need for a deeper theology of friendship (topics Hill expounds in more detail in his book Spiritual Friendship).
For many of us, the human sexuality conversation has been so monopolized by the rigor and even frustration of theological debate that our genuine heart-felt sympathy has taken something of a back-seat. Washed and Waiting is quick and effective medicine. Hill's memoir and reflections help stoke the flames of Christ-like compassion and concern that need to be at the heart of the church’s ministry.
 Some would object to Hill’s use of the phrase “gay Christian.” He explains his choice this way: “Rather than refer to someone as ‘a homosexual,’ I’ve taken care always to make ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ the adjective—never the noun—in a longer phrase, such as ‘gay Christian’ or ‘homosexual person.’ In this way, I hope to send a subtle linguistic signal that being gay isn’t the most important thing about my or any other gay person’s identity. I am a Christian before I am anything else. My homosexuality is a part of my makeup, a facet of my personality. One day, I believe, whether in this life or in the resurrection, it will fade away. But my identity as a Christian—someone incorporated into Christ’s body by his Spirit—will remain.”