What follows is a part of my life’s story. Its importance lies in it’s primal aspect and God’s will to redeem it. Although there are other parts of my 43 year (and counting) story, none has yet been so instrumental in showing the significance of the whole or in imparting integrity to the man that I am becoming.
I came into the world to two delighted parents. My mother and father had beautiful daughters and now they welcomed a son. Dad named me Peter after the apostle who reminded him most of himself: bold and first. As a traveling evangelist, my father’s faith in Christ was strong. For weeks at a time, Dad would be far from home preaching the Gospel. While he was away, I was
surrounded by my mother and sisters who did everything but breath for me. My mother patiently taught me the Word of God and my sisters practiced their healing prayers by laying hands on me and commanding that I “rise and walk!”
The first five years of my life followed this simple pattern: Mom packing Dad’s bags, Dad leaving to go do ministry (for what felt like forever to me), Dad coming home to a hero’s welcome with presents for all, and then Dad leaving again. The pattern repeated itself over and over.
My father was a titan—bigger than “bigger than life.” The gravitational pull of his personality on me was like the sun: irresistible. I was both enthralled by and afraid of my father. Very early in my life I reckoned that I was not like him. Dad was strong and away on God’s adventure. I was weak and at home with Mom and the girls. He spoke and people jumped to respond. I couldn’t seem to find my voice. My father was a man of decisive action. I was a timid boy alone with my thoughts.
Somewhere in those first five years I failed to identify myself with my father. Yes, I knew we were both male. But I wasn’t his kind of male—the kind that made things happen. In every way he remained wholly other to me. Although my father was very affectionate and could be tender, it always seemed to me I was on the outside of his life, trying to get in. But with Mom’s life I was always “in.” She was the one I seemed to favor. People even said I looked like her. I was receptive, responsive, compliant and soft; everything Dad was not.
By eight years of age I distinctly remember feelings of anger toward Dad. My mother seemed to do all the giving in my parents’ relationship; she seemed walked-on in so many ways. I judged that my father was a selfish oppressor and the one who always got his way. When I vowed, “I will never be like him,” it seemed to me the easiest promise to keep because fundamentally I felt as though we were two different species. Throughout the remainder of my childhood and into adolescence and early adulthood, I would reaffirm that vow.
As I grew, I became increasingly uncomfortable in my skin. I hated my body for its “baby fat” and I loathed my lack of confidence and shyness. I had a growing discomfort around other boys my age and I wanted what many of them seemed unconsciously to possess, especially the strong and sure ones. And I felt torn. On the one hand I yearned for the advocacy and blessing that these boys had with each other, their coaches and their fathers. On the other hand, I resented my own father, and I didn’t think I had what it took to stand shameless and fearless among men.
Somewhere around 10 I began to retreat into myself—into books, good grades, drawing, and into the kitchen with Mom. I didn’t have to retreat into the company of girls. In so many ways I’d never gotten out of it. Dad’s avid deer hunting, building projects (dwellings, furniture or anything he put his mind to), and impressive displays in the pulpit all seemed to shout: “See
you’re nothing like him.” I remember around this time my father attempting to reach out to me, trying to get me to join him in his endeavors. But by then my heart was out of reach. I judged that he wasn’t safe or trustworthy of my unguarded self.
As my resentment towards Dad increased, a cloud of confusion covered my sexuality. I felt alone and empty as an older boy, lacking any good vision of myself as male. All the while shame was building as I realized I was interested in men’s bodies and not girls or women. My observation of other boys my age told me I was off. The cloud of confusion became a storm when I was introduced to pornography at age 11. Rather than enticing me, the women portrayed made me sick to my stomach and confirmed what I feared: I wasn’t attracted to women like other boys and men. It was the potency of men that called to me.
Boyhood surrendered to adolescence and with it came a deluge of homosexual feelings. All of my deep yearning for masculine strength and attention were eroticized in a moment. I remember the shock and sense of utter powerlessness as I stood before my sexual desires. There was no backing up, no undoing the hunger of my heart for masculine strength. The die was cast. From the onset of puberty until my 28th year, sexual desire and the hunger for masculine strength were so completely twisted together that it was impossible for me to tell one from the other.
I knew God’s Law and its rebuke rang in my ears: “You’re a sinner.” God’s perfect Law condemned me for my secret fantasies and compulsions. I lamented. I had been such a good, obedient, Christian boy. How could I have come to this? Shame grew and self-contempt befriended me. I hated myself for being unacceptable and a slave to perversion.
More powerful still was God’s grace. Jesus, the Savior, had come to me before I knew to call on Him. He was present to me as He always had been: loving me, helping me, speaking words of assurance and forgiveness. Now He bid me come. Until then I’d never considered that Jesus would want, that He could bear, this kind of darkness. My darkness. As a boy I had always worked so hard to please him and offer Him sweetness. But now what I had was rot and I knew it. So I cried out to the Lord in my despair, believing the words of the old hymn: I will arise and go to Jesus. He will embrace me in His arms. And He did. For all my bitterness and self-hatred, I knew Jesus loved me, and I trusted that somehow, someday, He would make me whole.
Wholeness, however, did not teach or study at my junior high school. The epithets I endured there had two opposing effects on me. First, the foul words found my soul’s masculine question and answered it with lies. I didn’t know that where my heart was empty it would sooner house a lie than stand hollow and unnamed. The names kept coming and with them more shame. Second, I kept running back to Jesus. It didn’t take long before I realized that my sanity and survival hung on God’s love for me. Jesus would receive me again and again. I knew He saw straight through my good boy facade and loved me. Jesus would not let me go.
My teen years were marked by contradiction. Because of the presence of Christ and my parents’ expectation that my life would matter, I believed good would come of me. I pressed ahead and made my high school’s JV football team in 9th grade. Whereas I lived on the bench for football, 10th grade saw me on the field for every soccer game. In my senior year I was elected class president without any campaign. I always knew I’d eventually go off to college, and I wanted to get married and have children.
But all of this life and hope was pitted against my secret. I tried to help God through prayer, Bible reading, worship and fasting. None of it took away my same-sex attractions. For the life of me, I couldn’t get the Lord to make me okay with myself. What I would have given for one day of not worrying about my troubled self! Needless to say, I wasn’t a joyful young man. The burden of my wounds and my unforgiveness toward my father mired me in critical introspection, even as I looked hopefully on the future. By the age of 17, I had dated all of one girl. Twice. A couple of weeks before my senior year of high school began, this young woman brought her new college roommate to a church meeting in my family’s home. I was stunned. Amy was the happiest, friendliest person I had ever met. She was pretty too. Over the next four years we became friends, fell in love, stumbled through two engagements and were married in December of 1987.
One of my chief goals was to perform on the honeymoon. This would finally mend my sexual brokenness and I would, however late, enter the circle of men. No young bride was more aptly gifted with patience and humor than mine. Three days into the trip, heaven came down and our marriage was consummated. I half hoped that as we’d stepped onto the matrimonial estate, I could “forget” my homosexual baggage in the former land. But I was wrong.
To my horror I soon discovered that all of my homosexual fantasies and compulsive masturbation had come with me. Somehow the fresh insecurities I felt as a husband and spiritual leader in our home sent me running for cover. My fears of sub-worthiness as a man knew nothing about walking in the light, in the company of helpful brothers. So, I crawled back to the familiar darkness.
It didn’t take long before I began placing Amy in the unenviable position of the all-demanding wife who had to have things her way; It was the same old position I’d put my father in and resented him for. The effect was the same too. My life became a joyless performance of trying to please her. I hadn’t the vaguest notion of how to conflict with my wife. In my family of origin there was no conflict. What Dad said was law. End of game. I knew nothing of the possibility of conflict fanning the flame of creativity. Rather, Amy’s and my every disagreement became a threat to our relationship.
My performance fears and emotional dependency meant almost no fun in bed. The prospect of sexual intimacy with my wife always carried with it a low grade level of dread: Could I perform? Would I perform well enough? Again, I could not get my mind off myself. The result was I avoided sex, was ashamed of myself and made my wife feel less than beautiful. On the occasions that we would come together, two things would usually follow. First, I was always completely amazed at how satisfyingly wonderful it was, and thought: “Why can’t I just get my act together and do this more often?” And second, I would hate myself for dragging in homosexual fantasies to lend me strength.
I sought relief from emotional dependency with Amy in the same way I had in my family of origin: Escape. I would steal away to take care of me. Worn out from playing the slave to Amy’s demands, I judged that I had to get alone to carve out a place for my own ideas and get my own way. So, I guarded not only my homosexual secret from my wife, but also my heart. I judged nearly all my feelings as bad, and fearing disappointment, I would only rarely and reluctantly share my true desires.
Just as the boy had failed to identify himself with the masculine strength of his father, at 27 years I was no better off, and in truth, much worse. I was four years married and growing weary of a failed manhood. Yet I had become too good at hunkering down and bearing up under my load. I’ve come to see the young man that I was as a son bereft of his birthright, cut off from the legacy of his father.
And what was the legacy? To this day, my father, Bruce Alan Mitchell, is the greatest initiator I have ever known. He is the most selfless, confident adventurer I have ever met. He is a faithful and devoted husband, an able provider, and fierce protector of those he loves. In matters of the Spirit and Kingdom of God, my father is a pioneer, an apostolic warrior, and a captain of men. All this I knew at 27, and yet my old untended wounds became welcome ground to unforgiveness and bitterness.
Huge roots of unforgiveness toward my father sank deep into me, strangling my heart and darkening my mind. The enemy’s lies were so insinuated in me that however much I could see my father’s strengths, I did not believe they were for me; for my younger brothers perhaps, but not me. This kind of thinking fueled my resentment towards Dad and others under his influence. Unforgiveness bound me, preventing me from receiving what my heavenly Father had always destined in Christ Jesus to be mine. The legacy of my father was to shape and strengthen my manhood to the glory of God. Bitter, defensive and cut off from the truth, what would ripen my heart to yield forgiveness for Dad?
Marriage. Or maybe I should say the great difficulty Amy and I were having in ours. Our immaturity and emotional dependencies—inside and out of the marriage—drove us into counseling. A wise and provocative therapist at Catholic University held up my “father issue” before me and dared me to do something about it. And I did. I knew for the sake of my marriage and my soul it was time to release Dad from all that I had held against him for all the years.
I prepared a very long list of grievances that I had held against my father and arranged to meet him the next time he was in town on business. I knew that Dad did not need to be present for me to surrender my right to requital and allow Jesus on the cross to bear what was killing me. Yet I knew it would help me if my father would listen and receive my forgiveness. Dad agreed. Our meeting opened a great dam of emotion in me that had been building since I was 7 or 8 years old. As I went through each item that I had held against my father, I said, “Dad, I forgive you for…”, and I let it go into the cross. At the end of my long list, my father took me in his arms, and weeping with me, thanked me for forgiving him. That summer day in 1992 was the beginning of my healing journey.
In the following year and a half I completed theological training, moved to Charleston, South Carolina to assist in a congregation, and was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood. My pride and position pressured me into thinking there really wasn’t room now, if there ever had been, for me to be screwed up. The problem, of course, was that I was screwed up. Yes, I had forgiven my father. But there were a 1000 steps beckoning beyond the first. Nonetheless, my need to appear well (a.k.a. fear and pride) obstructed the way, so I threw myself into the important pastoral
work that I was doing for God.
Again, God pounded my pride on the anvil of marriage. Over the course of it, Amy had often cried out angrily at my sexual neglect and rejection of her. But now her youthful hope was dying. On three occasions my wife calmly revealed her deep pain and rejection at my disinterest and avoidance of sex. Each time she said that she was ready to put finally the hope of any sexual intimacy with me behind her, the pain of wanting and of not being wanted was too great to go on with. She reassured me that she would not leave me and suggested that we live as brother and sister.
These three conversations broke me. I became nauseated at the prospect of destroying my bride’s dream and living in a farce of a marriage. I concluded that if I didn’t love myself enough to get help, I would seek help for the love of Amy. Somewhere much deeper I felt the beginnings of a kind of rage. It was altogether new to me. Before forgiving my father, nearly all my anger was acutely aimed at him. But this anger was duller and more visceral. It was as though I was awakening to something old and chronic. The closest I can come to describing it would be the deep and terrible wrenching one might endure who has at long last stopped denying that he’s been defrauded.
God graciously helped me to begin to come present to this truth: I was created for qualities immeasurably higher and truer than I had known or that I could achieve. I began to see the impotency and futility of all my years spent trying to be good and strong as so much mockery of the Lord’s true work of me. The Holy Spirit urged me to come with my rage and cry out to the Father. I did. And the more I did, the more I became convinced that the Father must come, reveal, and impart His honor and strength in me or repent of His plans for me. Although His Word convinced me He would never repent, I still had no idea how He would change me. What I could not see then was that He had already begun.
In 1994 a fellow priest invited me to begin a program of healing called Living Waters. For 30 weeks I worshiped and learned, received healing prayer, and poured out my soul to fellow confidants. It is not an overstatement to say that the power of Christ present in that group challenged my basic understanding of what “church” is. Never in my life had I been with other believers who stood so shamelessly transparent with their needs and brokenness, and who so whole-heartedly offered themselves to God and one another for transformation. However small at first, Amy perceived a change in me. Wild horses couldn’t have kept her out of Living Waters
for herself the following year.
I began to realize this was a River in which to drink and bathe and live. Psalm 46:4 comes to mind: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells.” I had joined a program to fix a problem. But now I realized the program was God’s way of bringing me into a greater flow of communion with Christ and His people. This was the Body of Christ, His Church as I had never imagined possible but had always been dying for.
As I learned the rhythm of coming into the light and fellowship of my brothers through confession and renunciation of my sin, I received not only forgiveness but one healing after another (1 John 1:7, James 5:16). As brotherhood deepened with these godly men, I became convinced there was no conclusion to this (Ezekiel 47:1-12). What I was experiencing wasn’t so much a series of events to memorialize but new creation in me and others. Why would I ever abandon the Life of the River for the old desert wastes of feigning goodness? Like the woman at the well who wasn’t good at all, I had tasted the Living Water and I need never go thirsting again.
Are you short on goodness in general or in a particular area of your life? Then here’s an invitation to stop the madness of trying to believe that your attempt at goodness is somehow working God’s goodness in you. Admit that it is not. Instead, taste and see that the LORD is good (Psalm 34:4 italics mine). Neither you nor anyone else will be in doubt when the goodness of God soaks you and overflows from your life. Until you have tasted Living Water in the place that you thirst, you remain parched there. If you find yourself dry, then heed this: “‘God opposes the
proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that He may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:5b-7). Cry out, and keep crying out, to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, for mercy. Then keep your eyes open for His followers, His Body. For the Father has willed to transform your life through the Body of His Son. If your reaction to all I’ve said here is, “But I’ve done that!”, then ask the Lord how you can humble yourself more and do it.
For the last 14 years, my wife Amy and I have had the joy of reaching broken men and women with the good news of what the Almighty has done, and is doing, in our lives. Five years ago (16 years into our marriage), He crowned our lives with children. Then three years later He did it again. Two sets of twins! To God’s glory, I am enjoying a solidifying manhood. I am my heavenly Father’s beloved son, and growing into my earthly Dad’s rich legacy. I am walking in ever increasing wholeness as a man, a brother, a husband and a father. I praise the Lord for growing me up, day by day, into the man He has made me to be. In the words of the psalmist, “I love the LORD, for He heard my voice; He heard my pleas for mercy. Because He inclined His ear to me, I will call on Him as long as I live.” And “Oh Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; for His steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalms 116:1; 118:1)
By Peter Mitchell
Originally Published May 2009