the Human Empathy Project
Here’s a true confession: my faith is pretty pragmatic: I believe in God, the spirit. the stories in the Old and New Testament, Jesus’s resurrection. My faith is a huge social and spiritual support for me. At the same time, I’m also a social scientist, an academic, a researcher; I like things I can study and observe, things that match my understanding of how the physical world including our brains and bodies function. That doesn’t always leave much room for the unexplainable.
Then one day in 2012 the unexplainable happened to me.
I was raised Southern Baptist and taught that same-sex attraction was like an addiction - harmful to someone’s health yet treatable with support. I was taught that prayer, therapy, and support could help a gay person resist the urge to “act on one’s impulses”, by embracing one of three options:
As a counselor, the more I learned, studied, and worked in the field, the more I came to see, with a sickening feeling, these options didn’t lead to health and wellness. Of the few people who give favorable testimony of how one of these “worked” for them, many will change their story as they grow older, and/or exhibit serious mental, physical, psychological, relational, and spiritual impairment as a result of the pressure they’ve had placed on them, or placed on themselves - believing this is what God would want.
“I have absolute faith God can heal, and often does,
Of those who choose one of these and do seem to be thriving, they may be bisexual and genuinely fell in love with someone of the opposite gender, or they may be blessed with a sincere spiritual call to celibacy - a gift to be sure - but one that scripture explains not everyone is given (1 Cor 7; Matt 19).
I’m a believer - I have absolute faith God can heal, and often does, from addiction, illness, brokenness. But sexual orientation change efforts don’t appear to lead to healing and wholeness. There is little evidence of the effectiveness or safety of these approaches, and consistently poor outcomes in the studies with methodological soundness. For a summary of the findings of the American Psychological Association's comprehensive analysis of the research click here.
When treated with affirmation, loving, committed, gay couples and families enjoy health, wellness, psychological adjustment (Patterson, 2000)… all the benefits heterosexual love and couplehood bestow. This finding is confusing for someone raised with the traditional evangelical view of same-sex attraction.
“The empathy struck like a bolt of lightning…
I am deeply committed to prayer and asking God for wisdom, but for years, I didn’t know what to think about the discrepancy between what I was taught in my religious tradition, and what I was seeing in my work and research.
Then something unexpected happened.
The change wasn’t something I anticipated. Because it wasn’t the story of someone in my family - my own child or myself… the empathy--the insight--struck like a bolt of lightning. A startling revelation I couldn’t explain any other way.
There I was, sitting in this large auditorium, in the back, listening to the same story I’d heard a hundred times before. In that moment, on that particular day, I had a profound experience that's difficult to put into words.
I can only compare it to this… in the New Testament, there's a story in Acts where Peter's on a roof and God drops down a sheet with images of things Peter thought were “unclean” and God essentially says, “Look at these things. Now, what God has cleansed, you may no longer consider unholy”. And for me, in that moment, the whole auditorium disappeared, and I felt strangely calm and peaceful.
...“a source of empathy for those who may be searching for it.”
It’s still funny when I repeat the story. It doesn’t need to mean much to anyone else. But I’ve spent much of my life in prayer; I’m pretty sensitive to what my old brain feels like. I recognized God in the experience, and that has changed everything.
That day, I left different than I walked in. I felt compelled to learn everything about this. This included the scriptures in their original language and context, orthodox theology (to which I adhere), the historical culture, the science, the social implications, the spiritual health and wellness of gay Christians, etc.
I was in the process of applying to Ph.D. programs and in this I discovered a calling. My love for Jesus compels me to do whatever I can to be of service and provide helpful research and information to further these conversations and support folks in practicing empathy for one another.
My hope for the Human Empathy Project is that folks of all walks of life would find the research we publish helpful. And that by offering confidential consultations to pastors, families, and congregations, we might be a source of empathy for those who may be searching for it.