I’m stuck. I’m having difficulty finding a home in the church. I’m either being given less than the gospel or more than the gospel. One side denies transformative grace, and the other demands adherence to a severe legalism.
Shortly after I came to faith and was baptized, I was told by a well-known pastor to “fake it ’til you make it.” So, I did. Or at least I tried. For the next decade, I became increasingly anxious, depressed, and obsessed with relief. I fell into a deep depression and anxiety. I couldn’t even leave my home for a few years, and every day was a struggle just to remain alive. I had a wife and three sons to think about.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The faking it was an attempt to deny my story, my struggle, my shame, my sin. My iniquity appeared as gay and transgendered living. That was not well addressed by the church in the mid-1970s, and it was not being dealt with in evangelicalism, except for strange and ill-conceived reparative therapy groups. Faking it seemed like an attractive option—until it didn’t. Blatant celebration or vitriolic picketing seemed to be my only other alternatives. The Left demanded that I embrace this identity, while the legalists demanded I deny my feelings and experience. Demand versus denial. Stuck. What could God possibly want from me? What should I do with my story?
I was five when the inklings were first noticed. I felt like the proverbial “girl in a boy’s body.” I knew I would never measure up to the kind of hyper-masculinity the culture around me portrayed. My father was a big, burly, ex-army man who loved to hunt, fish, and work on his cars. He built the home we moved into as I entered second grade. I, on the other hand, was sensitive, tender, and creative: art over autos. We never meshed and he let me know it.
When I was four or five, I played a game of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” with a young friend and got caught, and I fell deeper into the world of self-contempt. My parents looked down at me and in their scolding told me, “Only dirty old men in prison do that sort of thing.” So at five, I was already a “dirty old man.” It informed my future of predatory acting-out. It reinforced my lack of having anything to offer as a male. It fit me.
After many years looking at other boys as my opposite, I went from “I wish I were like them” to “I wish I were liked by them.” This fell in line with the idea that “the exotic becomes the erotic.” Exposed to pornography early on, I thrilled at the power of lust to help me forget my story—at least for a while. So, when I was very young, I directed my demand for relief more and more toward identifying as gay and transgendered. While I did find the identification uncomfortable, it felt better than the consistent failure of fitting what I envisioned maleness to be. It provided the justification necessary not to move into my world as a strong, secure boy. Safety.
I became the butt of many jokes, teasing, and bullying. This only proved to me that there was something deeply different and disturbing about me, within me. In that context, I was increasingly intrigued by those in the growing gay rights movement. When as a teen I saw stories about Dr. Renée Richards, a well-known transgendered person, I felt jealous. How could I get that surgery as well?
At fourteen, I gathered my courage and told my father I thought I might be gay. He regaled me with stories about how he, in his younger days, would set up men who were attracted to him and then beat them up. He especially enjoyed telling of their humiliation at his hands. He’d laugh heartily as he told tale after tale of his gay bashing. So I told him I must have been mistaken, merely confused—much to his relief. I sunk further.
The depression was always just below the surface. The constant reminder of hopelessness ever present. I even went to a church service, going forward for prayer. For a bit, I thought God might change me. It was the same church I’d attended for some time as a boy. Never gospel, always “power of positive thinking.” It was one last effort to be “straight.” I failed—again—or God failed. He and I were clearly not on the same page. Easy come, easy go. Further down.
I got kicked out of my house. I now had no one. Drugs and alcohol helped during those days to ward off feelings of shame and self-contempt. When I turned eighteen, I left that town for good and joined the navy, spending the next four years in San Diego. There I drenched myself in gay bars, clubs, and relationships with untold numbers of men. I dressed and performed as a woman and lived with another young man for the next several years. I embraced this identity. Freedom!
“But God . . .” (I do love it when Scripture uses that phrase: Rom. 5:8; Eph. 2:4; 1 Cor. 10:13). But God was doing something to me, and no amount of sex, drugs, or alcohol was going to thwart his work, though I did put up a good fight.
I became a cook and then a baker in the navy. While working in the mess hall one day, a young man introduced himself and there in front of everyone began to share the gospel with me—boldly, passionately—and he was attractive. So when he invited me to do a Bible study through the Gospel of John, I eagerly agreed. I told him I’d already been down this religious road. Even so, a couple times a week he’d bring his Bible, and we went through the verses. Of course, I wasn’t telling him about my gender and sexuality—not this time. Slow and steady. Careful, cautious, self-protective. I’d go home, but definitely not mention I’d been to Bible study. I was committed to keeping these two lives separate. “A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways” (James 1:8).
After a few years of diving into the Bible and reading books by Sproul, Pink, and other Reformed men, I decided I really should stop my immoral behavior. I had no idea how to do this, so I listened to the pastor who baptized me. I pretended. And that was at the same time I headed to Asia with the navy.
On arrival at Subic Bay in the Philippines, I met a young woman, Linda, who was a civilian working on base as a school nurse. Then it dawned on me. God was clearly not going to really love or bless me, being as sinful as I was; but if I married a good Christian girl, I’d have him over a barrel and he’d bless her—and I’d get the crumbs. Yes, getting married would “straighten” me out. So I set my sights on Linda, and after leaving the island and moving on to Japan, I proposed. We married in six months. I got out of the service, and she traveled home to the States. We moved to Dallas to attend a Bible college. We wanted to become missionaries.
But God . . .
In my determination to fake it, I had failed to let my new bride know who I was and what I was up to. She didn’t know my story at all. When I failed both “psychology” and “marriage” classes during my last semester at Bible school, she figured something was up.
We got pregnant. After several months, there was suddenly no fetal heartbeat. Carrying the baby another month, waiting for her body to naturally deliver, was excruciating. And I knew it was all my fault. God was still out to get me. This destroyed my “crumbs” theory, and now I was stuck—once again—but this time with a wife who had no clue what she was in for or what she was up against.
Time plodded on, and we found ourselves with child again. I was so miserable. I wasn’t loving her well at all. I was faking and white-knuckling it as best I could. That’s why I thought that this was the right time to tell my wife she’d married a gay man who would rather be a woman. We had no family nearby. We had no real friends. We had no church. We had only each other. So I spilled it. To say she was devastated would be an understatement. Crushed beyond belief.
But God . . .
We now look at that moment as a glorious turning point for us. Recently, we were at the cemetery visiting our stillborn daughter’s grave, and through tears I pointed and exclaimed, “She is when God showed up. She started the journey of redemption for us, pointing us to a good Father who doesn’t give bad gifts to his children. Jesus wrote himself into our pain there.” It would be a while before we could embrace that part of our story. We do now.
I started meeting with a pastor friend of mine to discuss my gender/sexuality issues. I was still addicted to pornography and temptations were killing me. I kept “turning over a new leaf” and doing penance and making promises. I was going to beat this. The pressure to do so was insurmountable. I thought I had a problem. I needed to stop my sexual sin, and then life would work, finally.
So I met with this man, and over time he’d meet another guy struggling. Then I met a guy struggling, and another, and another. As AIDS became more of an issue, the number of men and women seeking to leave homosexuality grew and grew. I decided to begin a ministry to help those who felt stuck too. The faking it expanded. My motto had always been: “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.” If I could succeed in my denial of my temptations by helping others do the same, then I could finally convince God to bless me.
But God . . .
I fell apart. Boundaries disintegrated, ministry failed, people were hurt. And I was once again alone in my self-proclaimed worthlessness. I tried. I failed. I quit.
I weighed four hundred pounds and couldn’t leave my house. I left the ministry. I left the church. I left my God—or at least my version of God.
Linda was a psych nurse and then an oncology nurse. She had attended a conference on grief and came home showing me a list of fifty-four things I had never mourned. This was not going to happen. No use crying over spilled milk; the past is the past. Too much pain to dredge up. It wasn’t worth it. Doesn’t the Bible say to press on to what lies ahead?
But finally, having nothing to lose, I risked it. Grief: the existential reality of loss. As I began to trust God, little by little, to help me see my story honestly, I risked finding the sin, sorrow, and shame in it. “Blessed are those who mourn.” If God really is involved in the ministry of reconciliation, then he is one who redeems stories. So repentance can be risked. And while godly sorrow over sin is necessary for repentance, regret and guilt are not. In fact, self-contempt itself is an offense to be repented. We do not have the luxury of beating ourselves up if Jesus already took the beating for us. The more I grieved, the more I saw Jesus’ fingerprints on every page of my story. Now, I could stop accusingly demanding an answer to “Where were you?” in the abuse, the bullying, the fear, the abandonment. He could clearly be seen drawing me to himself by actually using the sorrow of my sin-filled, shame-soaked story. In that I received the empathy, understanding, and discernment necessary to extend the ministry of reconciliation to others (2 Tim. 2:2). All things really do work for the good (Rom. 8:28). That is what redemption means: God giving value to our stories through his mercy. He frees us from having to “fake it ‘til you make it.” That’s not possible anyway, I’ve gratefully come to realize.
Exposure is grace. When I was caught early in our marriage hiding gay pornography, rather than see it as a blessing toward accepting the gift of repentance, I became enraged. I kicked my foot through a wall, hit the stud, and broke my ankle.
Now I can see the good that comes from seeing that I don’t just have a problem, but that I am the problem. When we see ourselves as having a problem, it allows us to think we can get the tools to manage or fix it. “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Rom. 7:18–19). I needed to lose all hope in being able to fix my “problem,” so that I—as the problem—could turn toward a Savior. Jesus loves a good messy story. Temptation, any temptation, becomes holy ground, a sacred space to worship appropriately and walk accordingly. By faith.
The gospel for me, I now realize, is the gospel for everyone. I didn’t and don’t need special deliverance, multiple steps, awkward procedures, or monotonous rituals. I needed (and need) Jesus. It’s always more of him.
I am now moving from “fix it” to “fixate,” focusing on Jesus, the author (of my story) and perfecter of my faith (in his worth). My same-sex attraction, transgenderism, lying, stealing, drunkenness, drug use, and so on, were never my real, deepest problems. My lack of dependency on my Creator was. My refusal to find my identity and subsequent relational movement in him was the problem. My insistence that I could define, design, and demand life my way, in my timing, was the problem. Therefore, just stopping those activities couldn’t and wouldn’t save me, as they were only manifestations of the deeper problem: me, with my heart bent toward quenching God-given thirst with sewage (Jer. 2:13).
Faith could and would reconcile and redeem me (Rom. 1:17). My same-sex attraction and being transgendered were sin, not just because they were bad in and of themselves; they enabled and encouraged me to refuse to look outside my gods of comfort and control for meaning and purpose. These works of the flesh, these manifestations of faithlessness, disallowed me from seeing the identity of a God-designed, God-defined maleness (Gen. 1:27). Those activities kept me “safe” from the terrifying risk of loving others from my core-gendered identity (which is the summation of the law). My identity is foundationally that which God intended to reflect his glory. It is not something to be either demanded or denied, but something to grow in by faith.
And so I have now found my home, deep in the center of a scandalous story of reconciliation and redemption, as a character in his powerful drama of love. I do not need less than the gospel, being encouraged to be or label myself as gay or transgendered. I do not need more than the gospel with the rules, rituals, or regulations not required of those who are not gay. No, I need the gospel alone—like every other sinner saved by grace.
But God . . . being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved. (Eph. 2:4–5)
Jim Pocta, a licensed professional counselor, has practiced biblical counseling for over thirty years. He is in private practice, specializing in sexual trauma, abuse, and related issues. He is also a ruling elder at New St. Peter’s Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Texas.