Discovering sexuality and coming of age is never simple, and tends always to be awkward. This awkwardness is intensified when your sexuality is not typical. Christians have a long way to go to help adolescents grapple with sexuality, especially when their sexuality differs from what the Bible says is good. How can we help same-sex attracted people be confident to live as God’s children, and share how they feel and experience the world with other Christians in gospel confidence? We’re exploring this on this episode of the podcast as we hear one man’s story of coming to terms with his same-sex attraction.
Links referred to:
- Our next event: “Is love really all you need?” with Chase Kuhn (Wed 15 March)
- Support the work of the Centre
- Contact the Centre about your ethical questions
Runtime: 30:13 min.
Please note: This transcript has been edited for readability.
Chase Kuhn: Discovering sexuality and coming of age is never simple, and tends always to be awkward. This awkwardness is intensified when your sexuality is not typical. Christians have a long way to go to help adolescents grapple with sexuality, especially when their sexuality differs from what the Bible says is good. How can we help same-sex attracted people be confident to live as God’s children, and share how they feel and experience the world with other Christians in gospel confidence? We’re exploring this on the podcast today as we hear one man’s story of coming to terms with his same-sex attraction.
CK: Hello and welcome to the Centre for Christian Living podcast. My name is Chase Kuhn, and I am coming to you from Moore College in Sydney, Australia. Today on the podcast, I have a guest: Simon Swadling. He’s a college student here, entering his final year, and he also works at an Anglican church in the Inner West as a student minister. Simon, welcome!
Simon Swadling: Thanks! I’m glad to be here.
CK: I’m glad to have you here. I’ve really enjoyed having you around college, lunch, class time and so on. I’ve learned a lot from you and I’ve been really grateful for the fellowship we’ve shared.
Coming to faith and going into ministry
CK: Today we have you on the program to share a bit about your life. I’ve really enjoyed hearing some of your story, and I think many people will as well. Let’s we begin with how you came to faith.
SS: Yeah. I grew up in a Christian household. My grandfather was a minister and my parents are both believers. I have two siblings who are also Christians. So I feel like I never really had a day without knowing Jesus.
I have vivid memories of when I was really young—of having a tangible sense of a relationship with Jesus and being able to speak to him as my friend. That’s something that’s been a part of my life right from the start. I’m really thankful for that: it’s such a blessing to have a Christian heritage—and a ministry heritage too. As I thought about going into ministry myself, it was a great blessing to have someone as a real [Christian] role model while growing up, as well as a model of what it looks like to be faithful to Jesus in ministry.
CK: That’s lovely. When did you get serious about going into ministry?
SS: Only quite recently. It was not something I had planned to be a part of my life. I’d not really thought of it. I’d planned to be something creative—like a designer or something like that. I’d been keen to work in that space for quite a long time. Ministry kind of gradually crept up on me: as I became more and more involved with church, it became more of a question of, “Oh, should I think about ministry more fully?” That put pressure on my conscience to test it out. And here I am!
CK: That’s great. I’m glad you’re here. I’ve witnessed many of the gifts God’s given you, and I’m grateful for them.
CK: Part of your story has been discovering, as many of us do, your sexuality. Tell me about your journey.
SS: I think it was obvious for me from my early teenage years—like, from 13 years old—that I was not in the norm in thinking about sexuality. I was aware that there was something different about me—different from the people around me. I was not attracted to women like everyone else I knew—like all the guys in my year. Instead, I discovered that I was actually same-sex attracted.
That was a period of figuring things out—thinking about what that was, what that meant and what that looked like. I think puberty is confusing for every person going through it. I went through that confusing phase thinking, “What is this? How am I different? What does this look like? What does this mean for me? What does this mean for me as a Christian?” Lots of questions! It was real journey, and I guess it still is, in many ways. But it really started from my early teen years: realising that I was a bit different, having to wrestle with that and figuring out what that looked like.
CK: I can imagine that would have been a bit lonely. As you said, many people find puberty confusing and even lonely, because many of us are awkward about being awakened to our sexuality [Laughter]. How did you navigate that? Did you have people you were able to converse with? Was it a pretty internal process for you? How did you journey through that?
SS: Yeah, it was a very internal process, because I didn’t really understand what was going on myself. It meant it was really hard for me to explain that to other people. I had a vague awareness of the different thoughts that people had about these things. Growing up in a Christian context, I had questions about what that meant for me as a Christian. So I definitely experienced a lot of confusion in that space and, like you say, it was definitely a lonely space.
For a long time, I thought it would just be my own personal struggle that I would keep secret within myself. I wouldn’t share it with anyone. That was for various reasons—some good, some bad. I’ve since progressed from that space. But it was a hard journey—a complicated journey.
It took time to even admit those things to God in my faith. That was a process in itself: admitting it to God made it more real. Part of me convinced myself that maybe I was imagining things and that it wasn’t really real, and the process of figuring out how to talk about these things with God in my prayer life took time. That was complex and complicated enough, let alone starting to think about sharing it with people.
CK: Yeah. Again, I can imagine how difficult that would be.
Struggling with morality
CK: We talk about ethics on the Centre for Christian Living podcast. I imagine much of your struggle was around morality. Here is something you’re feeling that, if you were to act on in biblical faith, would be sinful: how, then, do you navigate that expression of your sexuality in way that honours God and yet is genuine to your faith? I imagine that would have put real tension before you.
As you thought about sharing this and, as you said, sharing this with God, tell me a little bit more about your emotions around that, especially with morality in view. What was it that you felt? Was it shame? Was it guilt? Was it fear?
SS: Yeah, I think it was definitely all those things. Admitting it made it more real, and making it real felt scary. Admitting that to God was scary in the first place, let alone admitting it to others as well. When you have relational skin in the game with people—people you’re close to, people you’ve been close to for a long time—admitting something significant about how you experience the world—something you haven’t shared with other people—can be quite scary, because you don’t know how it’s going to affect your relationship, and you fear that maybe they’ll think you’re not the person they thought you were. All those kinds of things can go through your head and make it hard to think about sharing with others. That was something that really put me off sharing for a long time.
Partially also because I grew up with a Christian background with Christian morals, sharing this with others wasn’t something I was planning on doing. I felt like I didn’t necessarily need to share those things. But I think not sharing and just letting those things sit inside me definitely built a sense of guilt and shame. I didn’t quite understand what it meant for me and how I sit before God—whether it meant that I’m inherently worse than heterosexual people. Those moral questions were really complicated to think through, and I went on a long journey of trying to figure out how to think about those things.
I’m still thinking about them and processing how ethics and morality relates to this issue. It’s really complicated, and I think I’ll probably spend a lot of my life trying to figure out the nuances of that, even if I’ve become more confident in the baseline—confident in the gospel in God’s goodness, and in his ability in Jesus to take any guilt and shame that we might have. Having that foundational confidence has definitely made a big difference in thinking about this space.
CK: So how did you get over that hurdle of fear? You talk about gospel confidence: what brought that confidence to you, and how did that, then, enable you to—or give you a desire to—begin sharing about your life? If I’m understanding correctly, this is fairly recent. How did you become confident and overcome your fear, and why did you begin to start sharing?
SS: I think I always had some sort of innate feeling that God loves me, and that this didn’t mean that God doesn’t love me. I’m really thankful for that: I know that’s not everyone’s experience. I’m really thankful for my family—for the way they brought me up to know God’s love, for teaching me about the gospel, for my grandfather, and so on. So I think I always had a ground level confidence in God’s love. Also, it’s been helpful for my journey to grow up in the faith—learning more about Jesus, learning more about the Bible and understanding his love for us.
That said, sometimes the idea of the love of God can be complicated and difficult for me. Sometimes it can be quite overwhelming to think that he loves me. Sometimes I find it hard to understand that God would love a sinner like me. I can feel that really strongly. But I also think that’s a beautiful space to push into and learn more about how God loves us. Learning from God’s word has really given me confidence in that.
Even having friends and family who love God and who want to point you to God’s love has been important in giving me a sense of confidence. Having people who I knew loved and cared about me made it even more safe to open up about these things, even if that was scary. So having confidence in God’s love, in the love of others and in the love of God through others were all really important in being able to open up in that space.
CK: Isn’t that great! That’s what we want in Christian community—a gospel foundation not just for people who might experience homosexual attraction, but for anybody who has any kind of propensity towards sin. Which, of course, means everyone.
SS: Every person!
CK: All of us have a propensity towards of sin. But God loved us when we were sinners. Christ died for us when we were still sinners (Rom 5:8). He loved us before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4)—before we could even think, before we could even reason, before we ever were. Remember that through and through, because it’s the foundation all of us stand upon. The kind of overwhelming love that you’ve experienced should be the universal Christian experience: all of us stand amazed that God would give his Son for us—that God love us so deeply and wonderfully and eternally. That’s wonderful and I’m thankful that you’ve been able to share with us how that’s particularly reached you in your life.
Sharing with others
CK: How long have you been sharing this part of your life? As you began sharing, how did you go about doing it? Furthermore, why did you feel it was important to begin letting people into that space?
SS: I haven’t been open about this for long: the last six or seven years—something like that. It’s only been with a few close friends: for the first little while, I could count on one hand who I would talk about these things with.
Part of me wanting to do this was recognising and realising that the Christian journey is one that you don’t undertake alone. You need people to support you along the way. So the people I shared with were people who were already supporting, helping and encouraging me on my journey. I thought, “If these people want to support me as a Christian, then I should let them support me as a Christian.” That means being obvious about the things I find hard about life, and thinking about sexuality is one of the top things that I find really complicated and difficult, particularly as a Christian. So it’s been really important for me to trust that people who are there to care for me and point me to Jesus would want to help me in this.
CK: That’s great. I’d love to know a little bit more about the kinds of things that are hard, if you’re willing to share. Most people think sexuality is just a struggle with lust or something like that. Undoubtedly, every Christian is going to struggle with lust in some capacity. But what other kinds of struggles come with the territory that may be beyond just the obvious? If we’re thinking even about, say, accountability, it’s not just the accountability not to act out sexually in certain ways, whether you’re heterosexual or homosexual, but actually, there’s a much fuller picture that comes into view when we think about our sexuality and the way it plays out in our lives.
SS: Yeah, and it is so much more complicated than just who you are attracted to. There are things about your experience in the world that can contribute to that. We talked about the loneliness and sense of isolation that can come with that; sin loves you when you’re isolated. That’s when sin can really get a hold. Isolation can be really unhelpful for any kind of sin to creep into your life. So it’s helpful to have people who can speak into your life specifically—people who can encourage you and who you can be accountable to.
Also, not sharing about these things made me quite scared of vulnerability. So when people shared really vulnerably, I could be quite scared about sharing as well, and implying more than I wanted to, or implying things about my sexuality before I was prepared to do so. That made those beautiful Christian spaces where people are vulnerable with each other spaces that were quite anxiety-inducing for me. I was scared that I would give away something I didn’t want to give away. But that meant that it was actually quite hard to form deep connections with other Christians in spaces where I felt I couldn’t be honest, or I didn’t want to.
It’s hard to walk the Christian life alone, though. That was part of what made me realise I wanted to be more open about this—realising how much we need fellow Christians to support us in our journey. I wanted to be able to walk alongside people, and to have people come alongside me and encourage me.
Thinking about these things has been really helpful in getting over the challenges of vulnerability and the isolation that can easily lead to any kind of sins. Being around people who are open about their sins as well is just really helpful.
CK: What kinds of reception did you receive as you began to share with those close to you? Did you feel you were met with support? What kinds of support were offered?
SS: I’m really blessed that people have been really positive when I’ve shared with them, and they’ve been keen to be helpful and supportive. That has been a great blessing and it’s not something I take for granted. Part of why I was so nervous about sharing with people is because sometimes you never know how people will respond. People have their own histories and backgrounds that impact the way they think. But I’m really thankful that people have been encouraging and supportive of me. They’ve prayed for me when I needed prayer, they’ve met up with me to read the Bible, and they’ve even just been people with whom I can talk through these issues. It’s been really helpful to meet up with and talk to people about my perspective and where I’m coming from, what I’m finding hard, and what I’m wrestling with in thinking about these things.
So I’ve appreciated people giving me the time and space to be a bit of an angsty teenager, even if I’m no longer in my teenage years. It’s been important to me to have people who are willing to listen, people who show that they’re trustworthy, people who are willing to pray for me and point me back to Jesus, and people who make me not feel like a freak for finding it hard to follow Jesus, because it’s hard for everyone in their own unique ways.
I think sharing this has also invited a greater depth of vulnerability in those relationships—not only on my part, but from others as well. Being intentional about who I shared with and sharing with that level of honesty inspires trust, and that’s been a real blessing to me. It’s helped build deeper friendships and relationships that are, hopefully, mutually beneficial, rather than just me looking for help. Instead, we help each other in the different things we find hard about the Christian life.
CK: It’s lovely to hear about the way people have met you where you are and that they, in return, have felt more free to be vulnerable with you as well. We’ve talked about this at the Centre for Christian Living a number of times, and we’ve talked about it in class as well: intimacy equals vulnerability. If you want to be intimate with people, in one sense, the more intimate you become, the more vulnerable you become.
You could think about that negatively: there’s more room to be hurt, because the more you expose yourself, the more people have, in one sense, ammunition to hurt you. They now know your pressure points, where you’re weak, and everything else. But the gospel enables a very unique kind of intimacy in the world, because the threats that can be put against us have been neutralised. The worst somebody can do to us is never really the worst, because the worst has been overcome. So when we think about Jesus overcoming the world—when Jesus overcomes death, disarms the devil and brings about all these things as he conquers our sin—I think that enables the most beautiful opportunity for community, when we stand on the gospel. It sounds to me like you’ve been tasting and seeing that that is actually really good. We can share that in Jesus. That’s beautiful.
SS: Yeah. It is. It’s so beautiful.
CK: As we take a break from our program, I want to invite you to our first live event for 2023. This year, we’re considering the virtuous life, and at our first event on 15 March, I’ll be presenting on the topic “Is love really all you need?” In a world where we’re told that love is love, I’m going to be exploring love amongst other virtues and seeing why it holds a central place in our thinking. You can find out more information and register yourself, your small group or your church at ccl.moore.edu.au.
I’d also like to remind you that all of our events are now by donation only. The entire Centre for Christian Living runs exclusively on donations, which does not pay for my salary, but for the production and promotion of our materials. So please register for the event and donate what you’re able. And if you can’t afford any donation, we’d love to have you anyway.
Finally, we’re hoping to begin a new initiative in our podcast where we hear from and interact with listeners just like you. Many of you have burning ethical questions or scenarios that you’d like advice about. We’d love to hear from you. Please send us your issues and listen out for answers in our upcoming episodes, where we’ll feature a short segment on your ethical challenges. You can send them to us through the contact page on our website.
Now let’s get back to our program.
Opening up about same-sex attraction
CK: What would you say to people who may be thinking about this when they themselves are struggling with same-sex attraction? They’ve realised they’re same-sex attracted. Maybe they’re hesitant about opening up to people. How would you encourage them where they are, as they process this and consider what it would be like to begin speaking to people and sharing their lives a bit more openly and honestly? How would you encourage them from your own experience?
SS: Yeah. There’s a lot in that and a lot to think about. I think there’s a real pressure in society to name and claim exactly who you are and what this part of you is, and to make it a part of your identity. That can make it hard to share with others initially if you’re not sure where it fits with who you are.
You were talking about the beauty of the Christian space: it is a beautiful space where you don’t have to be confident about where these things fit in into who you are, because we all in Christian community have a base level understanding of who we are together in Christ. That also makes it a beautiful space in which you can be honest, vulnerable and unsure about these things. So find people who can help you in this space—people who will listen and encourage you, like I was talking about earlier.
But you shouldn’t feel pressure to be open about these things to everyone all the time. Sometimes I’ve felt that pressure—that somehow it’s wrong for me not to talk about this with everyone and that I should just be open about this from the start. That pressure has been really unhelpful.
Find people you can trust. Be prayerful about that, and be thoughtful about how you share with them. Maybe they’re someone who hasn’t had that much experience in encouraging other Christians in that space or in being thoughtful about what would be helpful for you. So help people along as you share by saying things like, “This would be really helpful for me: I’d really love space to talk about these things” or “I’m not expecting you to have the answers when we talk about those things”. So be thoughtful about how you share and who you share with. But don’t feel pressured to have everything together—certainly not in Christian community, where we know that we don’t have everything together, and that’s why we trust in Jesus.
Be prayerful and thoughtful. It’s risky being vulnerable. But there is also great gain in that.
CK: That’s great.
Figuring out one’s identity
CK: You raise something really important about identity and the world saying, “This is your identity and you ought to live it out as loud and proud as you can.” How have you been able to situate your own sexuality within the broader idea of your identity? And how has thinking about that enabled a kind of freedom for you? Some people may be listening and feeling the same.
SS: Yeah. That’s a really complicated thing and it’s still a live issue for me. Identity is such a hot topic now: there’s books all over the place, and everyone has opinions about how this should look. How this fits into my identity is complicated, and I think it will continue to be complicated as I think about and process these things, and figure out what a godly conception of these things looks like.
It’s always been important to have confidence in who I am in Christ as a base level thing: knowing that I’m a child of God and loved in Christ. That’s important for everyone. But I think it’s particularly important when you feel pressure to build an identity around something else. So having that confidence in and fostering that sense of who you are in Christ and who God has called you to be as his beloved child is just really important.
It’s also really important to recognise the complexity of your experience, how that has shaped you, and how being different and sitting outside the norm can be a significant factor in shaping who you are, how you act and how you respond to things. That’s been a significant part of my journey, not just because of my own internal feelings, but because it affects how I exist in the world. It can be complicated to work out how much you let this become a part of who you are—how much you see it as being significant. I could look at myself and reflect on who I am as a person, and find ways in which this connects to my experience of sexuality internally and living with that in the world. I can see it everywhere in who I am. So think about how to recognise that complexity of that, but also recognise who you are, fundamentally, in Christ. Sit comfortably under that, rather than having those two concepts clash.
But I’m still thinking about all this and hoping to spend this year thinking more about this identity space, because it’s really quite new for me. Figuring out how to think about it as a Christian is really important, not only for people who struggle with same-sex attraction, but also for everyone as we think about who we are as people, who we are as physical beings living in the world, and who we are in Christ.
CK: That’s great. It’s something we have to keep taking in faith too. Remembering that you’re a child of God is easy, but then to actually believe it—believe that God has welcomed me, that God has called me to himself, that God has provided everything I need for life—that’s something we have to keep claiming in faith. We have to keep walking in faith, even as we face all kinds of challenges, struggles and the like throughout life.
How to receive others
CK: We’re going to have another episode where you and I will talk a little bit more about that lived experience in the face of some of the cultural pressures around Pride events and other things. But before we sign off on this episode, I’d love to ask you what’s the most helpful way that somebody can receive someone who’s beginning to share about this? What are some unhelpful ways too? You mentioned listening carefully: what kind of positive listening have you experienced? What does that look like? You don’t need to name or shame anybody who has done something poorly [Laughter]; we all make blunders, don’t we. That’s everybody’s fear when someone shares with them. But what would you encourage people not to do as well?
SS: Yeah. It’s complicated, thinking about how to do this well. As I said earlier, I am really thankful that I have been blessed with people who have done it really well—people who have admitted freely that they don’t have all the answers, but who express that they’re willing to be there for me, encourage me and listen to me.
If someone is sharing these things with you, particularly in their early days when they’re still figuring out what that looks like, that’s a real blessing and you should be grateful that they’re expressing that trust in you. It’s not an easy thing to do, and it says something about how they see you. Take it as a real compliment that someone would trust you with this complicated part of who they are.
Being curious, asking them questions and giving them the space to think about those things is really helpful. Being willing to just listen, as I said, is probably the most helpful thing that people can do, other than praying for you and that sort of thing. Make sure you express that you are happy to listen to them talk, happy to hear their thoughts and happy to work through things with them. Express that you don’t have all the answers: that’s a good thing too. It’s likely that they’re not coming to you because they expect you to have all the answers, but because they want to do life alongside you, to be encouraged and to encourage you.
Also, be willing to be vulnerable about your own struggles and what it looks like for you to be a Christian. What do you find complex about following Jesus faithfully? That’s always really helpful and encouraging. It doesn’t have to be the exact same issue for it to be encouraging to them; it is always encouraging to hear about the ways in which it’s difficult for you to follow Jesus faithfully, because that reminds them that other people also find it hard to be Christian. Sometimes if people are not open about what they find hard and what is challenging about walking faithfully, it can make you feel like you’re the only one who finds it hard. So provide a space to listen, but also be vulnerable and share in return.
CK: That’s great.
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As always, I would like to thank Moore College for its support of the Centre for Christian Living, and to thank to my assistant, Karen Beilharz, for her work in editing and transcribing the episodes. The music for our podcast was generously provided by James West.