White Knuckling Can Only Get You So Far

A reflection by Lindsey

One of the lines sometimes used by Christians embracing a traditional sexual ethic when counseling people with same-sex attractions is that there is a difference between being attracted to someone and acting on those attractions. This counsel makes a distinction between temptation and sin, observing that absolutely everyone experiences temptation of some kind. Christ Himself experienced temptation. What separates us from Christ is that we frequently respond to temptation poorly. Christ is sinless because He never faltered on the divide between temptation and sin. According to this line of thinking, holiness is within our reach, provided we seek God’s help in making the right decisions when we feel tempted.

I’ve spent at least a decade trying to make sense of this particular message and have concluded that it fails miserably at answering the question, “Well then, how should we live?” When rubber meets the road, people find themselves devoting considerable time to learning how to resist temptations to do things that they know are unhealthy for them. I think this type of “just don’t do it” message is what can cause people to compare homosexuality to alcoholism: “An alcoholic must do everything in his or her power to avoid taking that first drink.” In this mindset, a gay person must do everything in his or her power to avoid sexual sin: holiness for a same-sex orientated person is defined by avoiding lust, pornography, masturbation, and anything else that might fuel the desires for same-sex sexual activity.

I’d like to call bullshit.

The “just don’t have sex or do anything lustful” directive characterizes homosexuality as a propensity towards a particular kind of action: being gay simply means experiencing temptation for particular kinds of sexual activity. People of all orientations who do experience significant sexual temptations can find themselves trying to “fake it until they make it” resorting to white knuckling as the main approach. Often in the lives of gay people seeking spiritual counsel, that approach is not only encouraged, but is couched as the only possible means for living celibacy. I’ve watched so many people paralyzed by white knuckling that I can spot it a mile away. White knuckling offers false hope and denies people a life-giving way of being. It doesn’t matter what a person is trying to resist; white knuckling can only get him or her so far.

This kind of thinking dominated the approach to the ex-gay ministry I was a part of several years ago. I approached the ministry blissfully unaware of a great deal of things that might be considered potential sexual temptations. I noticed that there was something about me where it made sense that I might be a member of the LGBT community, but at that point had no experience with any kind of sexual activity. Truth be told, I came to ex-gay ministry because I was terrified of falling out of grace and finding myself on the “wrong” side of the Church. It’s remarkable that 13 years later, I still have to swallow that fear from time to time. Fearing everyone in the Church and everything vaguely “gay” did a lot to tear at me emotionally, spiritually, and even physically. In the ex-gay world, I was learning that it was only appropriate to fear my sexuality. In other words, I was being inundated with the message that white knuckling was the only Christian response to the experience of same-sex attraction.

To be sure, there might be seasons when white knuckling is the most appropriate strategy to try and stop undesirable behaviors of one kind or another. Not to draw any comparison between homosexuality and addiction (Sarah has written on problems with that comparison), but I have a great deal of compassion when a person is starting the process of ceasing addictive behaviors. Sometimes sitting on one’s hands is the only way to keep oneself safe in an immediate season of crisis. But what can get a person through one minute is not adequate to get one through the rest of one’s life. Thinking that it will can cause a lot of damage. Specifically concerning sexuality, such an approach can hold a person back from ever integrating fully this part of his or her humanity.

White knuckling is exhausting. Living in constant fear can be an incredible energy drain. People devote so much energy to resisting things they should not do that it becomes easy to lose track of what they should do. Furthermore, behaviors themselves become the problem. When someone is white knuckling, he or she only sees particular actions as problematic. In the case of sexuality, people can lose sight of the fact that this part of our being is a gift from God that enables us to connect with others. When in the thick of ex-gay ministry, I found it impossible to connect with other people because I had learned to fear just about every possible interaction.

I had to move away from the idea that my sexuality was something to be feared. I’ve encouraged hundreds of people to reconsider their beliefs that fear is the most appropriate emotional response to their sexualities. Moving beyond white knuckling requires changing one’s perspective. We need to be able to affirm what is good about how we interact with others, perceive beauty, and experience attractions of all kinds. Getting past white knuckling enables many people to move beyond fear and honestly assess how certain behaviors may work in their lives. As I’ve watched people move beyond white knuckling, I’ve seen time and time again how perfect love casts out all fear and creates space for people to be transformed by God’s grace.

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8 thoughts on “White Knuckling Can Only Get You So Far

  1. See, I really don’t get this. I’ve got a solution to the whole problem of white knuckling: just accept that God wants us to be able to have sex, and you don’t have any more problems. In this post, you admitted that you were celibate because of fear but in other places on this blog you say it’s not because of fear. Which one is the truth?

    • Hi Kelly, I think you’ve greatly misrepresented my experience in your comment. I have been on an extensive journey with understanding my sexual orientation and gender identity that has played out in several acts. In Act I, I was afraid of being different than the standard cisgender, heterosexual norms. In Act II, I was terrified of leading my campus ministry into scandal because I might be engaged in an “inappropriate” relationship. It was during Act II of this story that I sought help from ex-gay ministries. Like many plays, Act III was a transitional act where I was prepared to consider a lot of different perspectives. During Act III, I evaluated what I had learned in my time in ex-gay ministry and concluded it was nonsensical for a lot of different reasons. Additionally, during Act III, I was very open to the possibility of a sexually-active lifelong relationships. However, it was also during Act III that I felt like so much of my energy in ex-gay ministries was misplaced because I did feel an authentic call to celibacy (even though I lacked experience in a Christian tradition that was equipped to affirm celibacy for any person).

      Act IV was characterized by developing a theological conscience within a Christian tradition that helped me bring together a lot of disparate questions around my faith journey. It’s worth saying that during Act IV, I was asking questions around a great deal of topics that extended far beyond sexual orientation and gender identity. During Act IV, I made significant strides in appreciating the role of grace in my own life. Within Act IV, I came to a deeper appreciation of what celibacy could look like in my own life. I’d now say that I’m in an Act V where I experience a great deal of joy, celebrating an integrated and grace-filled sexual reality.

      For what it’s worth, most people I’ve counseled in moving through white-knuckling have had attitudes more characterized by Acts I through III. I’ve been an earnest advocate for the importance of integrating one’s sexuality since I first came across the idea; however, I didn’t come across that particular idea until well into Act IV of my own story.

  2. I don’t understand this. I don’t understand it because people shouldn’t ever have to stop themselves from fulfilling their desires. It’s just not natural.

    • Hi Kay, the purpose of this post was to talk about how representing celibacy as merely exercising self-control falls short. Your comment completely overlooks how people may need to work on developing self-control in areas of their lives. To take one trivial example where self-control is important, I find myself playing the “2048” game at great lengths, even after beating it. Sometimes it’s best just to put my phone away.

  3. Great post! And your responses to the comments are part of why I love this blog!!!! As a cis/hetero/married woman I really appreciate a consistent articulation of celibacy that can unify Christians of all identities.

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