Susan Payne left the homosexual lifestyle behind. Valerie Cash embraced it. Depressed about their sexual feelings, both women sought help from Christians. But the Christians Payne encountered gave her hope. Some Christians Cash encountered cruelly taunted her about her feelings. Others encouraged her to live as a lesbian, telling her that love demands viewing any lifestyle as equally valid.

Homosexuality is an issue fraught with controversy. Throughout both the secular and faith communities, those who believe homosexuality is morally wrong often avoid or mistreat people living homosexual lifestyles. Those who believe people can be born homosexual or that the lifestyle is a valid choice are speaking with increasingly louder political voices to gain acceptance for homosexuality in society.

How should Christians respond? We shouldn’t be afraid to reach across the gap of fear, mistrust and shame that separates us from people living as gays and lesbians, said people who have left the homosexual lifestyle. But when we do so, they said, we should be courageous in speaking the truth and pointing homosexual people to the Source of truth – Jesus – who can bring the healing and transformation they need.

Biblical passages such as 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Romans 1:26-27 and Leviticus 20:13 explicitly mention homosexuality as both harmful and sinful. The Bible is clear about God’s view of homosexuality – it’s not the way He intended humans to relate to one another.

Love outside the boundaries God has set is not truly love at all, said Bob Ragan, who struggled with homosexuality for 11 years before leaving the lifestyle and now directs Regeneration, a ministry with offices in Baltimore, Maryland and Fairfax, Virginia that helps people heal from homosexuality. “God loves us, so He wants us to grow, to become all He intended us to be so we can have the best.”

When Ragan was engaged in homosexual relationships, he said, “My sexuality became my identity. It was like I had homosexuality on as glasses and everything was filtered through that. Feelings became my truth.”

But eventually, said Ragan, he realized that, “My relationship with God is the foundation of my identity. I’m a person made in the image of God. I was struggling with brokenness in my life, just like we all do in some way, but I didn’t need to build my identity on that. It was possible for me to change, because God can redeem our brokenness, whatever it is.”

Hurting People

God’s heart breaks for hurting people caught in the suffocating grip of homosexuality, Ragan said. Homosexuality can have many causes – from emotional neglect or abuse during a person’s formative years to a genetic makeup that makes a person susceptible to it, just as certain people are susceptible to alcoholism, he said. “Studies have proven again and again that there is no such thing as a ‘gay gene,’ but that there may be certain temperaments of people that may make them more susceptible to same sex attractions, some genetic influences that leave people more vulnerable, like with many diseases in our fallen world. That, combined with environmental influences, can cause conditions like homosexuality or alcoholism.”

Payne said feeling rejected by her father growing up triggered her same sex attractions later. “I remember deciding that I didn’t want to spend time around men because I was upset with my dad.”

Ray Enriquez (his name has been changed at his request), who participated in clandestine homosexual affairs while married with children and regularly attending church, said a lack of affirmation from his father and a disturbing adolescent experience led to his urge to develop homosexual relationships. “I had a detached, uninvolved father,” he said. “He wasn’t physically abusive or anything like that, but I just didn’t get what I needed from him emotionally. Plus, in early adolescence, I was sexually seduced by an older teen. I wanted that attention from another guy, but more in a friendship way. I was confused, though, because he wanted it in a sexual way, and when I was with him, it felt good; it was exciting.”

Cash attributes her many years of emotional insecurity to a difficult upbringing, but doesn’t see a connection between that and her homosexual feelings. After a traumatic divorce that hurt her emotionally, however, she and her teenage son moved to a new town and Cash traded heterosexuality for homosexuality.

Showing Love

Sometimes, Christians focus on the sin of homosexual behavior without expressing love to those who are struggling with it.

The last thing hurting people need to hear is a put-down, Enriquez said. “Derogatory terms like faggot or queer just drive people further into their homosexual behavior,” he said, “because they take on those labels as their identities. Just looking at people in the light of compassion, as Jesus does, rather than criticism or name-calling, will help a lot.”

Payne said people of the same sex shouldn’t be afraid to establish friendships with someone struggling with homosexuality. “Just offering a struggler a healthy same sex friendship and speaking the truth in love will help tremendously,” she said.

Within Cash’s ardent defense of her choice to live as a lesbian is the voice of a hurting person stung by the taunting she’s sometimes encountered. “I’m making my choice, and I know that God loves me no matter what anyone else says. I choose to be happy, to live in the way that’s right for me. No one on this earth is able to judge how I choose to give and receive love. When God judges me, I know I’ll have to be accountable to Him, but I also know I’ll have memories of love to take with me.”

Rev. Jerrold Foltz, pastor of Cash’s church (Wellspring United Church of Christ in Centreville, Virginia), said his congregation is “greatly concerned about verbal abuse and violence against gays and lesbians in our society.”

Foltz believes the answer lies in “affirming” people who choose the homosexual lifestyle. “How people behave is not something we try to dictate,” said Foltz, who is heterosexual himself. “That’s something people follow their own consciences on. We just try to welcome people as children of God.”

Foltz acknowledged that certain biblical passages on homosexuality can be troubling, but said members of his congregation can choose what passage they would prefer to focus on rather than following the Bible as a whole. “We rely on the Bible for guidance in many aspects of our daily lives, and I don’t mind challenging people to think about and respond to passages from the Bible if they want to. But it’s in the American spirit of freedom that we try to encourage people to follow whatever spiritual path they choose, however they choose. Whenever we come up against a troublesome Bible passage, we think about what Jesus might say about it. Jesus said a lot about loving people, so we always go with a focus on that – the bigger picture.”

Presenting the Truth

But showing compassion doesn’t mean diluting the truth, said Enriquez. In fact, he said, the most loving thing a Christian can do for someone who is struggling is to present the truth to him or her.

Enriquez was grateful that his family and friends confronted him with the truth after his secret homosexual behavior was discovered. “I was caught in compulsive, addictive behavior, and I had become a world-class, expert liar in my marriage. But finally, what I was doing got exposed, and even though I was humiliated and degraded, I realized that I could turn to God for healing. I found out that the hope is real, and the healing is real. You don’t have to be gay. God will definitely work with you if you decide you want to change.”

After 10 years of frequently gay bars, Payne decided on a whim to attend a lunchtime Bible study at the Department of Defense (where she was then working), simply because she was curious. She didn’t intend to attend more than once, she said, but was encouraged by what she found there. “That was the first time I’d ever encountered people with hope. It made me want to stay and learn more.”

Eventually, Payne said, she experienced the transformation Jesus offers to all who seek Him. “I began to realize that, in the [homosexual] lifestyle, I was settling for less – that God really has made men for women and women for men because that’s how He’s designed the abundant life He wants for us,” said Payne, who is now happily married and a mother, as well.  “God did give us commandments and boundaries so that we wouldn’t get hurt or hurt others. God has really helped me face my issues rather than just numbing myself to them like before. My sexual desire toward the same sex is gone. Now when I want to be with women, it’s to be with them socially, in a healthy way. What rich and abundant life God has for us if we just take Him at His word.”