Every time I recount the story of how I transitioned from a place of unquestioning acceptance of ex-gay ideology into the journey that I find myself on today, it comes out a bit differently as I focus on different aspects of what was, at the time, a far more complex process than a few pages of text could ever fully capture. If there’s one pivotal event that I hope I adequately account for in every retelling, it’s how I came to truly understand, for the first time, that God loves me exactly the way I am, and that I don’t have to change who or what I am to earn his acceptance.

It’s equally important to understand that God brought me to this point before I began questioning everything I’d been taught by the church about my “condition,” and not the other way around. I certainly didn’t interpret God’s unconditional acceptance as a license to do whatever my whims might happen to dicate, and I still don’t.

Words cannot fully convey just how revolutionary it was to come to the realization that not only did I not have to become somebody else in order to appease God, but he didn’t want me to be somebody else. Yet somebody else was precisely what I was trying to become through my efforts to “reclaim my natural heterosexuality.”

For better or for worse, whether because of genetics, hormones, psychological influences or some combination of the three, my homosexuality is a permanent, integral part of who I am, and God made it clear to me that he wasn’t interested in fundamentally altering the personality of somebody he had already fallen in love with, as even a partial shift in orientation would have entailed for me. Maybe it’s different for someone whose attractions were more fluid to begin with, but I wouldn’t know.

Again, the enormity of that revelation can only be appreciated if it’s understood that I was still fully committed at the time to the idea that my only alternative to heterosexual marriage was lifelong celibacy. Sure, the breadth and depth of God’s love was taught in the churches and programs I’d attended over the years, but there were always qualifications and stipulations and all sorts of implied exceptions.

Although it was generally understood that my orientation was not sinful in and of itself, virtually every Christian book, radio program, lecture and sermon I was exposed to over the course of my life made it abundantly clear that homosexuality was a tremendous evil on par with the very worst atrocities recorded in our history books. The very clear implication of all of that was that any good Christian in my position should strive to eradicate even the temptation to commit such a horrendous sin lest God’s wrath immediately descend upon me.

It might seem odd to an outside observer, but it’s internally consistent given that most strains of conservative Christian theology emphasize, to one degree or another, that every last one of us is pond scum, completely incapable of doing anything good on our own and valuable only because God chose to value us despite our inherent worthlessness. In theory, Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf empowers us to love him in return and to do good deeds.

In practice, the lessons drummed into me in church every Sunday led me to a life of fear – fear of what God would do to my worthless self if I didn’t say and do all the right things, fear of what God will do to those I love if I can’t persuade them to adopt my beliefs and standards, and fear of the terrible judgment God will pour out on our nation if his followers can’t bring enough of our neighbors to repentance.

I know I’m not the only one who has lived in that fear. It may not be openly acknowledged, but it’s a silent presence in more than a few churches. It lurks just behind the semi-permanent smile of the person who inserts “Hallelujah” or “praise God” into every other sentence just as surely as it drives the crusader who’s constantly badgering nonbelievers and “heretics” about their eternal destiny. And then there are those who just keep their mouths shut and their heads down and follow along without making too many waves, as I did.

But if “perfect love drives out fear,” as we’re told in 1 John 4:18, then something must be amiss in our churches. If fear is ever our motivation for doing anything, then perhaps it’s time for us to stop and reexamine what we really believe, underneath what we claim to believe.

All of that isn’t to say that I was never motivated by love for God, but even that love was tainted by fear – not the reverential ‘fear’ that the righteous have for God, according to the Bible, but the kind of love mixed with fear that a child might have for an abusive parent.

In truth, God was never an abusive parent. But deep down inside, beneath all of the theology I’d been taught, I didn’t really believe that he loved me. He tolerated me, if only because he couldn’t get around his own promises, but only as long as I stayed off the furniture and didn’t cause any trouble. It took a lot for God to finally break through all of the noise from the condemning voices running through my head, and those old tapes still rear up to haunt me from time to time.

Nothing has ever been as liberating and empowering as understanding – truly understanding – that I am loved, without reservation or qualification of any kind. I’ve heard so many times how freedom is supposed to come from obeying God’s laws. Obedience to God’s voice is certainly an important part of the Christian life, but it’s not the true source of our power.

If rules and regulations could liberate us, then totalitarian governments would be the greatest source of freedom known to mankind. God frees us, not by placing us back under the Law, but by giving us the one thing we desire and need more than any other: unconditional acceptance. Such unqualified love enables us to do the right thing in a way no set of rules could ever accomplish. Not because we’re “supposed to,” or because we fear being slapped down for our missteps, but because we know that we are valuable, and that those around us are valuable, and that nothing in the entire universe can strip any of us of our incalculable value.

For those that choose the ex-gay path in response to a genuine understanding of God’s unconditional love, I wish them the best on their journey. For those that choose it as a result of fear, obligation, misinformation or some combination of the three, I pray that one day they too will come to experience the freedom that no legalistic system can ever deliver.

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