A little over a week ago, Ottawa was rocked by the suicide of fifteen-year-old Jamie Hubley, a gifted, outgoing, but also troubled teenager who had battled depression for years.
By all accounts, Jamie was a compassionate, sensitive, caring young man. He had often helped his father (Allan Hubley, who represents Kanata on City Council) in various community service projects. He was also a talented figure skater and theatrical performer. His death was a shock to the entire community.
A few years earlier, when he was in grade seven, Jamie had suffered rejection and taunts for his choice of figure skating over hockey. Whether because he didn’t fit the typical macho image of masculinity, or for other reasons, at some point Jamie had adopted a homosexual identity, and had gone public with this choice. Judging by his blog, both his depression and suicide were influenced by the rejection he suffered at school for being openly gay.
One of the most common responses to Jamie’s death has been an appeal for greater tolerance and acceptance towards those who choose a gay identity and lifestyle. At first glance, this is an understandable response. But as a follower of Jesus, I can only go part way down this road.
Let me be completely clear. The pain that led Jamie Hubley to end his life is something I do not want to trivialize. As a young man I went through an episode of depression, and am familiar with the dark thoughts that can result. Nor do I have any sympathy for bullying or taunting. I was myself a shy, sensitive child, and suffered from bullying for a time as a young schoolboy. It was an experience I would not wish on anybody.
Early in my walk with the Lord, one of the verses of Scripture that leaped off the page at me and became embedded in my consciousness was this nugget: Do not envy the oppressor, and choose none of his ways (Proverbs 3: 31). As a believer in Jesus, I am called to honour all people, who are made in God’s image and of high value to Him. When I think of Jamie Hubley’s decision to take his own life, I feel nothing but sadness for him and his family and loved ones.
And yet. As a believer in Jesus, I do not and cannot believe that the “gospel of tolerance” is an adequate response to the tragedy of Jamie Hubley’s death.
People make many choices and draw many conclusions in response to the pain of life. Not all those choices are in line with what God intends for their lives. I do not believe it was God’s will for Jamie to commit suicide, even though he was fully convinced that it was what he had to do. In the same way, I do not believe it was God’s will for him to adopt a homosexual identity, no matter how profoundly he believed that this was his true identity.
Time for a bit of personal history here. When I was a young United Church minister in the 1980s, I had a number of colleagues who were living a homosexual lifestyle but had not yet gone public with this choice. At the time, the United Church had not yet approved the ordination of openly-gay clergy, though this was under discussion. I used to meet with a support group of six clergy, of whom one (I’ll call him Gord) was gay. We were all in scattered rural parishes, and our meetings involved long drives. On one of these drives I had listened to Gord talk at length about his life and its struggles, including his adoption of a gay identity. There were other gay clergy in our wider regional caucus, and I knew something of their stories as well.
I myself was struggling, not with my sexual identity, but with my spiritual identity. At that time, I moved in very liberal theological circles. I had not yet surrendered my will to God, received the gift of the Holy Spirit, or truly understood the gospel that I was attempting to preach. Even so, I took my Bible seriously, believed that it was authoritative, and found the teaching of Jesus extremely compelling. I was sympathetic to the struggles of my gay friends, but found myself unable to accept all their conclusions. In particular, I found myself unable to accept their reinterpretations of Scripture, nor their conclusion that homosexuality was God’s intent for their lives. Still, I listened respectfully and rarely differed openly with their positions, preferring to express my reservations privately, and only to a few people. Even then, 25 years ago, to openly question the validity of pro-gay ideology in that environment would have been a very difficult and costly choice – a choice that I was not yet prepared to make.
The support group of six clergy with which I met regularly was supposed to be a non-judgmental, accepting environment. There came a point, however, where I experienced the limits of this acceptance. I had been undergoing some profound changes since the pastor of the Anglican church in our town had reached out to me and offered the gift of friendship. He was a highly intelligent, thoughtful, caring and well-spoken man who was a great listener. He was also solidly anchored in Scripture and filled with the Holy Spirit. Under his influence, my struggle to surrender to Jesus was being resolved. One Sunday evening, I responded to an altar call on the last night of a three-day mission in the church he pastored. A few months later, I was filled with the Holy Spirit. I was discovering a new hope and confidence that Jesus really was alive and held the keys to life. But my liberal United Church clergy friends were less than enthusiastic about the changes that they were observing in my life and ministry. I distinctly remember that when they questioned me about these changes, the tone of their questions was quite hostile. Gord, my gay colleague, became extremely angry with me and accused me of judging and rejecting him, although I had said nothing at all to indicate this.
So what’s my point? Simply this. I was not rejecting Gord. All I was doing was attempting to express my newfound conviction that Jesus truly is alive, that He is able to heal and restore the lives of those who turn to Him, and that He is the living Word of God who has legitimate authority to determine how our lives are to be lived. If anything, I cared about Gord more than ever, but my newfound confidence in Jesus was offensive to him because it challenged his belief that his homosexual identity was a gift from God.
Since then, my convictions on this issue have not changed. If anything, they have become clearer, and have been confirmed by experience. Jesus is Lord, and He is able to transform all areas of our life, including our sexual identity. He will do this for anyone who surrenders to Him. Because his transforming work is completely a gift, and because I myself am very much still a work in progress, I am in no position to condemn anyone who is broken, no matter what choices they are making. Still, for those who insist that their current way of life is completely valid and needs no change, Jesus’ message will not seem like good news. He doesn’t offer blanket acceptance of every lifestyle – and as His follower, neither can I. He does offer mercy, compassion and restoration to all who turn to Him in humility – and as His follower, so must I.
That’s why I say that the ideology of tolerance is not good enough. Tolerance may prevent some bullying, but it has no power to set people free. Jamie did need acceptance, but not the kind of acceptance that says everything is OK. Like all people, he needed to surrender his life to the only One who could restore him and set him free. How different his life might have been if he had been introduced to the Jesus that I have come to know.