Our Search for Intimacy
This article is an expanded version of one written at the request of the editor of ECable, the newsletter of Evangelicals Concerned in the USA.
A longing for intimate relationship is the heart cry for many people in our modern world, where more and more people live alone. Apart from the need for companionship, we also long for relationship where we feel safe to draw close, to be with someone who understands and loves us and appreciates our love for them. However, many of us learn all too quickly that people can be unsafe-very unsafe sometimes! Some of us may look to find that intimacy of relationship with God alone. The lyrics of many of our modern songs or choruses portray a picture of intimacy with Jesus or safety in the arms of the Father. God seems a safer bet than many people, even our parents. Yet how can we know intimacy with a God we cannot see if we never find true intimacy with another human being? Especially if we have been taught all our lives that God rejects us because of our sexuality! At the same time, how can we ever find true intimacy with another human being if we do not know the God who created us for true intimacy and who cares enough about human relationships that He teaches us important principles about how to make them?
‘To love another person is to see the face of God!’ is the concluding refrain from one of Claude-Michel Schönberg’s famous songs, in the musical rendering of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables. The drama portrayed in that amazing story certainly demonstrates this truth.
This human longing for intimacy has been recognised and recorded from the beginning of time when God expressed his concern for Adam, because it was not good for man to be alone-even in paradise in unbroken relationship with God! Moreover, Adam and Eve were recorded as being naked together and unashamed. This level of vulnerability, if we are honest, is something we all instinctively hunger for. When we are deprived of that intimacy, we may hunger for it so much that the temptation to grab at the feel-good factor of intimacy through intense and brief sexual encounters is very great. Or we may voyeuristically enjoy the fantasy of such intimacy from a ‘safe’ distance by masturbating with pornography. But desperate attempts to seize close-ness and vulnerability have a miserable pay-off, making the emptiness inside our hearts bigger and the longing more intense. Worse still, illicit behaviour can easily become compulsive and addictive. So how can we find fulfilment of our hearts’ desire?
Realising Our Ideals
We do need to realise from the outset that we will never find that fulfilment by seeking it for its own sake; instead fulfilment is the result of looking outside ourselves-believing and trusting in Jesus-the One of whom the old hymn reminds us is ‘God, contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man!’. And Jesus taught His disciples ‘a new commandment’-to love one another.
Now, what I have to say in this article may, inevitably perhaps, sound somewhat idealised. However, because we all have hopes, longings and ideals, we have to start from that point. The business of real life is about working out an expression of those aspirations in practice and one of the serious down-sides of modern society is that we are encouraged to expect instant gratification. This might be OK when making coffee but never works in trying to build relationships that last!
Overcoming Guilt About Sex
First I believe we must try to resolve the underlying guilt about sex that so many of us can feel (often induced by religious convictions) and recognise that God has created us both through and for intimate relationship. Consider for a moment our arrival in this world! We are conceived as a result of the bodily union of our parents, through one of possibly many times of (hopefully) tender and passionate love-making between Mum and Dad! Our arrival into the world, utterly vulnerable and dependent on our parents, was a special kind of fulfilment of their love-making, bringing a new life into being.
We spent the first nine months of life, from the moment of our conception, in the safe, warm and nurturing place of our Mother’s womb. There is no greater portrayal of intimacy than the picture of our being formed inside our Mother’s womb. God created human life to be this way from the beginning and expressed His knowledge of this special time of nurture in Psalm 139:1316-in words of tender affirmation that warm the hearts of us all. No wonder the desire for intimate partnership is one of the most profound longings we ever experience. This is the way God planned it to be.
Our years of growth to adulthood normally take place in a family context which conveys a sense of safety and nurture. Even if our family life falls a long way short of the ideal, we can still distinguish between ‘dysfunctional’ families and ‘normal’ families. The vision for healthy family life is more or less instinctive to all but the most damaged people, who perhaps never knew any kind of family life at all. Another rather poignant song from ‘Les Misérables’, sung by a little girl who has been terribly abused by those who were supposed to be her carers, expresses her dream of a safe place, ‘There is a castle on a cloud ... ‘, a place where there is no more shouting or tears. She could still imagine what love and intimacy could be, in spite of the suffering she endured at the hands of her cruel and exploitative guardians.
Free To Be Our Real Selves
Most of us will seek a life-partner with whom ideally we will make a mutual commitment of love and faithfulness. We become free to be truly ourselves when we are loved unconditionally, in a relationship that is founded on love and protected by a vow, or a promise. Every promise God makes, He fulfils -and we have been made in God’s image! The traditional marriage service provides such a vow, intended to withstand life’s troubles. The making of such a commitment must be preceded by a time of getting to know one another, allowing love to grow and a mutual desire for commitment to develop. Enter into a demonstration of sexual intimacy too quickly-in an act the Bible describes as becoming ‘one-flesh’, designed by God to communicate total commitment-and we sabotage the process of developing the very thing our hearts most long for. Yet reaching a place of mature commitment takes agreement with the ideal, and a lifetime of development.
The language of intimacy in the Bible so often occurs in the context of struggle, where commitment is made that will enable the relationship to survive anything. Just consider the words of Ruth to Naomi, in very uncertain times after they had lost their husbands:
‘Don’t urge me to leave you or turn back from you. Where you go, I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.’
By contrast, have you ever noticed how quickly romantic and passionate love may develop between two people who meet in circumstances that are unlikely to last? A popular Hollywood theme (in my younger days) portrayed a man going off to battle in a time of war, knowing he many never come back; so his girlfriend wants to become pregnant so she has something to remember him by! (Or he wants her to become pregnant so as to leave something of himself that lasts, in case he does not survive.) Another common scenario is one where people meet on a visit to a foreign country: knowing they may be unable to see much of one another again, the known brevity of attachment somehow gives ‘licence’ to move quickly to a place of total vulnerability that you would never allow with someone who lives in the same street.
God Receives Us As We Are
For many folk reading this article who have found it difficult to make lasting relationships, we may need to recognise the fact that we are not ready for relationship if we cannot accept ourselves, or if we do not believe that God loves and accepts us as we are! Blind or leprous beggars, totally rejected by society, came to Jesus and found healing, but could only do so-pushing their way forward through crowds of people who wanted to keep them away-if they dared to believe that Jesus would receive them! We too, must believe Jesus’ promise that our heavenly Father receives all who truly turn to Him. The man who sleeps with another guy during the week and repents on Sunday will never find stability in his relationship with God or anyone else. If we are ever to grow, we must come to a place of true self-acceptance and dare to believe that God takes the desires of our hearts seriously. ‘God gives generously to all without finding fault’ James teaches us. But he goes on to warn that the ‘double-minded man is unstable in all his ways!’ (see James 1:58).
If I come to God feeling a failure, ashamed because of something I have done perhaps, feeling rejected, unlovable, etc., then according to the apostle Paul, this is the reception I can expect to find when I enter the presence of God-love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians. 5:23,24). We must realise that this is the attitude God has towards us; ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ Paul is writing about reveals how we recognise His Spirit. God’s attitude towards us is not one of disdain, because of our sexuality (or anything else about us), not disapproval, irritability, anger; no presenting of ultimatums if we don’t get our act together, or any other negative response. No! God loves us with an everlasting love and longs for us to know the tender compassionate love He has for us, that He delights in us. Knowing that level of acceptance is basic to our being able to truly grow and become all God intended for us. And if we have done wrong then God’s kindness and grace is extended to us-to bring us to repentance1 (Romans 2:4). Though for growth of character to occur, there has to be willingness to change.
In the Christian marriage service, husbands and wives vow to be together ‘for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live’. Sadly, in a society where vows are lightly entered into and easily dissolved, we no longer have the security that the marriage covenant was intended to ensure. In these circumstances, lasting relationship depends upon being ‘successful’ -in being happy together! This ideal is almost impossible to sustain of course, because we are broken people and our emotions are fickle. So relationships built on such a shaky foundation almost inevitably break up.
Where our value (either in our own eyes or in the eyes of our partner) is at issue and the promise of commitment is spurned, the offer not even appreciated, our self-esteem is profoundly undermined. When we have trusted someone implicitly and are then rejected, the hurt we feel is very great indeed. The more our self-esteem receives these kinds of knocks, the more we become insecure, and in turn we become increasingly hungry for the kind of reassurance that can be communicated through sexual behaviour-as if merely ‘going through the motions’ with attractive-looking ‘fair-weather friends’ could ever be an adequate substitute! But love that lasts must be nurtured and assured before we give ourselves to another in bodily union.
‘Do not stir up love ‘till it pleases’, we are cautioned, in the most unashamedly erotic of biblical passages, the Song of Songs (7:4).
Where There Is No Revelation ...
This is a hard message for gay and lesbian people who may have spent the best years of their lives trying to ‘do the right thing’ as other Christians perceive it, who have ‘denied themselves’ the relationships their hearts have longed for. Like a starving man who greedily binges on food when he finds it, so the person who has suffered loneliness and isolation for years may be sorely tempted to throw aside all restraint when recognising that God never actually demanded His gay and lesbian children live celibate lives, governed by religiously imposed moral rules that always forbid but never permit!
This is where the message of that famous verse from Proverbs is so important to grasp hold of: ‘Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law.’ (Proverbs 29:18). The first commandment requires that we have no other god but the Lord. When we turn to the Lord-the true God, not a religious substitute-we find that God warmly acknowledges our commitment to Him and respects our need; He takes our heart-longings seriously. But unless we dare to believe this (the revelation), and then seek Him for the human companionship our heart desires, then we may indeed be tempted to give up hope and cast off restraint, and end up doing things that, in our right minds, we would normally never contemplate.
At the point we are tempted to give up hope, we need to hear the voice of that rare kind of friend who will confirm the leading of the Holy Spirit: ‘You have sought God all these years and resisted temptation. Now that you realise He will not deny you but is willing to fulfil the desires of your heart, seek Him again-for the relationship your heart longs for.’ The revelation that God takes our longings seriously, empowers us to wait patiently rather than grab at what is easily obtainable but ultimately corrosive to our overall sense of well-being.
We should indeed throw aside spurious restraints imposed by well-meaning others, who simply don’t understand God’s acceptance of gay and lesbian people, but throwing away all sensible restraints is to jump out of the proverbial frying pan into the fire!
The Longing of Our Hearts
There may have been times for some of us, when ruminating over our many years of isolation and loneliness, when we remember the experience of a brief and intense, yet special relationship. That one experience may at least have given us the feeling that, for once in our lives, we experienced what it can be like to feel loved and to love. No doubt this can be enormously important in our experience, but it can also be helpful to understand what this is all about, what it is that our hearts are really longing for.
In pastoral practice, having talked with many men who have become addicted to brief sexual adventures, their freedom from addiction has begun when they started to recognise that their great hunger for intimacy is not expressed, nor necessarily even found, through sexual intercourse, but simply in having the freedom to be completely vulnerable (’naked’) and unashamed. Taking time to develop this level of vulnerability without sex is an important precursor to true intimacy. One of the most healing and indeed lasting friendships I ever made, is with a man with whom I could be completely vulnerable. We never became sexual partners because we knew our relationship was not destined to be a life-long partnership. He was much ‘straighter’ than me in any case (and has been happily married for many years now). Nevertheless we’ve known a deep level of commitment as friends for over twenty years, because the foundations were built to last.
Again we can see a biblical model of intimate relationship in David and Jonathan’s covenant friendship, which was exceptional. When you read the language-of passages such as 1 Samuel 18:14 and 1 Samuel 20:41,42 for instance-you see expressions of profound intimacy, that resonate easily with the feelings of gay people, even though no sexual element is mentioned. Many debates have been fuelled over speculation as to whether or not David and Jonathan were gay. Perhaps the bible does not tell us one way or the other -precisely because we don’t need to know. Those of us fortunate enough to have experienced a quality of love-making that created a sense of one-ness so profound that it had a sacramental quality (devoid of cheap voyeuristic curiosity about sex), will know that such a moment is a private matter between man and God. Nobody else needs to know.
Incidentally, I believe there are many ‘straight’ men who long for intimate same-sex friendship but are too afraid to acknowledge this for fear that they might be thought of as gay. Their fear often fuels the hostility against gay people. If, as gay and lesbian people, we are to be acknowledged as having our rightful place in society, maybe one of the greatest reassurances we can give to our heterosexual brothers and sisters is that nakedness-in the sense of being completely open and vulnerable-can be a metaphorical term. It feels safer if we understand that this does not have to be expressed literally!
To be unashamed requires unconditional love-where being ‘successful’ in worldly terms or having a beautiful body is unimportant (beauty is in the eye of the beholder anyway). The essence of our longing is about knowing and accepting another and being known just as we are-’warts and all!’. In such a situation we can be ourselves without fear of rejection.
We cannot build on the rubble of our past experiences which is why it can be a good strategy for us to seek professional counselling or therapy, or at the very least the counsel of a wise friend who loves us and wants to see the very best for us. God’s amazing grace, freely available to all who seek Him, is so important to get hold of because many of us fail in building relationships. Whilst our ideals for committed relationships are important to aspire to, the fact is that our closest relationships have to take the strain of our broken-ness and hurt and that of our partner’s. Knowing God’s grace can be a constant strength to us in sticking with one another through those painful times of growth when we are not at our best!
All too often, we only realise later in life (sometimes from bitter experience) that to expose our nakedness in return for a quick orgasmic fix is a bankrupt proposition. Basically we are just prostituting ourselves! Only our love offered with complete sincerity, requiring sacrifice and dedication, can provide the setting for developing the kind of safe space where we can be truly vulnerable. With very few exceptions, we will not find true intimacy in a brief encounter because there is no depth or substance to the relationship. Repeated attempts to find intimacy this way make it much harder in the long run to find fulfilment of our heart’s desire. Equally, every time we allow ourselves to be totally vulnerable in a relationship that subsequently breaks up we’ll find it harder to persevere the next time and build lasting foundations.
Outlaws from the Church
If this is true for men and women in a society that fully accepts and supports heterosexual relationships-yet where true intimacy is still hard to find-gay and lesbian people have much greater hurdles to overcome. The hostility of society, and especially the Church, that will often refuse to acknowledge that gay and lesbian people truly exist, except as perverse individuals who must be disciplined or outlawed, makes it really hard to come to a place of true self-acceptance, an essential foundation to becoming vulnerable with others.
It is one of life’s extraordinary ironies that the evangelical Church, which stresses the doctrine of salvation by faith so vehemently, nevertheless wants to bind people up into a heterosexual straitjacket when it comes to sexual matters! The only ‘alternative’ offered is to outlaw any form of sexual expression whatsoever, under the apparently altruistic (though unbiblical) goal of celibacy! They cannot seem to realise that if the Gospel of Jesus Christ is true, then the anti-gay attitudes they hold simply cannot be justified!
Moreover, one of the great tragedies that many ‘straight’ Christians fail to recognise, in their desire to be ‘uncompromising’ about moral values, is that if they make a person an outlaw, then once ‘outside the law’, that person (be they gay or straight) ceases to have the necessary social reference points for making relationships. Once the normally accepted social boundaries, that help structure healthy relationships, have disappeared, anything goes! When isolated from Christian fellowship, the gay or lesbian person is likely to find themselves floundering between the devil and the deep blue sea and may make some disastrous choices for themselves.
Healthy boundaries are just as essential for gay as for straight people, but can only be established in a social setting that accepts the validity of gay partnerships unequivocally. This is why groups, such as those which Evangelicals Concerned (in the USA) or Courage (in the UK) provide, can have a valuable role in supporting the development of lasting gay and lesbian relationships. Both EC and Courage aim to provide a setting where truly Christian moral values and acceptance of gay people go hand in hand. Without such support it can be hard to find a gay-affirming social setting espousing healthy values.
Seeking Healthy Partnerships That Will Last
For those who sincerely wish to seek and build lasting partnerships, I recommend they read Dr. Ralph Blair’s booklets on developing intimacy (see details below). There he outlines three vital components for lasting relationships which, summarised in my own words, amount to these:
- Mutual attraction and interest in the other
- Shared values (not merely shared interests)
- A commitment to partnership; ‘I am in this for us not just for me’.
True fulfilment of our bodily desire, for union with another (one of the greatest human expressions of intimacy), is possible only when God-given foundations are in place. The good news is that if only we realise how God sees us, then we can begin to accept ourselves. And when we truly accept ourselves ‘warts and all’, then we can find the grace to accept another, ‘warts and all’. This forms the basis for lasting relationship that opens the way to finding total intimacy with God and a partner, thereby fulfilling the desire of our hearts.
Oscar Wilde once humorously observed that the Bible begins with the story of a man and a woman-and ends with revelations! Humour can often be the means to convey profound truth. That man and woman were able to be totally vulnerable with one another because they lived in a place of safety, love, faithfulness and trust. Now let us look towards the vision portrayed in Revelation 21:37 -of the restoration that our hearts long for:
‘Now the dwelling of God is with men [and] there will be no more death or mourning, crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ (NIV)
© Jeremy Marks 2001
Dr Ralph Blair is a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City USA. He founded the Homosexual Community Counselling Center in New York City in 1972 and subsequently he also founded Evangelicals Concerned, Inc. in 1975
Dr Blair may be contacted at:
311 East 72nd Street, New York, NY10021, USA
Dr Blair’s booklets on developing intimacy, referred to in this article, are:
Getting Close: Steps Towards Intimacy and Getting Closer: Structure for Intimacy
Both are currently available from the Courage office at £2.50 each + £1.00 postage and packing.
Readers may also be interested in another booklet relevant to the subject, by Jeffrey John, on Christian same-sex partnerships: Permanent, Faithful, Stable. This is published by Darton, Longman and Todd for £3.50.