“You don’t understand! You don’t know what it’s like!”
I looked across the table and saw the frustration in her eyes. I didn’t want to lose this friendship. I took a deep breath.
“You know, you’re right. I don’t know what it’s like. So tell me. Help me understand.”
And she did. She told me all about how she had never fit in, how vicious pre-teen girls had teased her, calling her a lesbian among other things, how she’d never felt the passion for boys that the other girls did. She explained how coming out a few weeks before had given her an accepting community and reassured her that she wasn’t a freak.
“I’m sorry those girls treated you like that,” I said. “I was bullied in middle school, too. And I’m sorry you have to worry about whether your family and friends will still like you. I still like you, and I want to keep being your friend. I wish I could say I agree with your coming out, but …”
“But you can’t.” She finished the sentence for me.
“But I can’t,” I said, nodding.
We left with our friendship intact, agreeing to disagree. There’s room for improvement in how I handled that conversation, but one thing I think I did right was listening and showing empathy.
My generation has been encouraged to make decisions based on emotion, not on reason. I distinctly remember believing in middle school that “I feel…” meant more or less the same as “I think,” only “I feel” was stronger. Since feelings hold the place of honor, the best way to treat others with kindness is to understand and appreciate their emotions. In other words, empathy is a significant virtue in the minds of my peers. This is why so many millennials support LGBTQ rights. They see people in pain and seek to legitimize them, legally and socially, so that pain will go away.
To communicate with anyone, but especially those whose worldview differs from our own, we must seek to understand where they’re coming from. And if we want them to understand us, we need to show that we care about them. For Christians talking to non-Christians in America, that means listening to where they’re coming from, asking questions and even apologizing for ways Christians have sinned against them.
But empathy doesn’t require us to agree with all their positions. Feelings are real and powerful, but they also can be misleading. It’s always loving to try to understand what someone is feeling, but it’s not always loving to encourage people to act on how they feel. All of us go against our feelings on a regular basis. We get up when we don’t feel like it, we eat healthy foods rather than just junk food, and we try to be kind to people even when we’re angry. Now, these feelings are usually less strong and less permanent than sexual attraction to your own sex or than feeling like your gender is wrong. But the principle is the same: acting on your feelings isn’t always wise or right.
God doesn’t give commands arbitrarily. When He gives a moral law, it’s because the act in question damages us or other people. In the case of homosexuality, it’s a bit of both. Same-sex relationships can’t provide society with the stability of families with two biological parents But even more harm is done to the people involved, who objectify and misuse their bodies, looking for happiness in relationships that can’t ultimately provide it. These are often people who have suffered greatly and are looking to ease the pain but are going about it all wrong.
So please, Christians, let’s treat the LGBTQ people in our lives with respect as image-bearers of God. (Many of us do this already, so let’s continue.) Let’s ask them questions about their lives and really listen to them, genuinely trying to understand how they feel. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt when we’re not sure what their motives are. And let’s call them to a life of faith in and obedience to Christ, the only place where they can find perfect love, hope and healing.