Jackie Hill Perry: I Loved My Girlfriend—but God Loved Me More

How an epiphany about the wages of my sin opened the door for his cleansing light.
Jackie Hill Perry: I Loved My Girlfriend—but God Loved Me More
Image: Mary Caroline Russell

God knew he wouldn’t get my attention in a church. Churches didn’t care too well for people like me. Me, being a gay girl. A gay girl who knew better than to let my feet take me where I didn’t feel welcomed. So God came to my house. I was having a very “unspiritual” kind of night. The TV was on. The morning was hours away. My thoughts were boring and typical until they turned on me. As suddenly and randomly as Paul was struck blind on the Damascus Road, I had the unsettling thought that my sin would be “the death of me.”

Prior to that moment, the sin I wore on my sleeve was that of a lesbian: a label I had the courage to give myself at age 17. This label described an affection I noticed before I knew how to spell my name. When it happened on the playground, I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t quite understand why girls made me feel different. I hadn’t seen any Disney movies that gave me the idea to desire sameness nor had I been challenged by some outside source to see Beauty and the Beast and wonder why Belle couldn’t have been with someone as beautiful and biologically similar as herself. Where it came from made no difference to me. I liked girls, and I knew it.

“But I don’t want to be straight,” I said to God, meaning every single word.

Laying Aside My Loves

Because I knew I liked girls, the conviction I experienced in my room was not only unexpected but also unwelcome. I’d heard more times than I cared to count that what seemed to me a natural enough expression of love was, in fact, unnatural and flat-out abominable.

I had grown up in the traditional black church, where sermons were presented in a Mount Sinai kind of way, both loud and heavy. I’d heard the preacher speak for God when he, with fire and frenzy on his tongue, read to us from Romans 1 about God giving his creatures over to the sinful desires of their hearts, which included men and women “exchang[ing] natural sexual relations” for “shameful lusts” toward members of the same sex (v. 26).

In fact, having seen God’s words for myself, I never once had felt the need to question whether what he said was true. So when my thoughts spoke of my sin, which I knew to be a prompting from God and not my subconscious behaving unnaturally, I wasn’t offended by the idea of my identity being a product of sin. What offended me most was that idea that it (my sin, my kind of love) was to be the death of me. Because if that were true, then surely I would be asked to lay it aside for the sake of life.

I loved my girlfriend too much not to be appalled at the prospect of laying aside not only the way I loved but also who I loved. To do what I assumed God would have me do meant leaving the woman whose voice and body and mind had been mine to hold and keep. To those who had heterosexual eyes, our love was a strange thing. To us, it was a normal, “why would I do anything else” kind of thing. I loved her, and she loved me—but God loved me more. So much so that he wouldn’t have me going about the rest of my life convinced that a creature’s love was better than a King’s.

To me, what I knew to be God calling me to himself sounded an awful lot like God calling me to be straight, as if his only intention were to transform me partially. But that was far from the truth. Though God was very concerned with how I lived out my sexuality, he was just as concerned with what I did with my hands and if my fingerprints would be found on anything righteous. He was just as concerned with my mind and how it held hell in it at all times. He cared deeply that I use my mouth in a manner that showed some awareness that he was always listening.

Homosexuality might have been my loudest sin, but it was not my only sin. God was not about setting me free from one form of slavery only to leave me enslaved to other idols. By calling me to himself, he was after my whole heart. His intention was to turn it toward him and transform it as only he could, enabling me to be holy in how I expressed my sexuality and everything else. When God saves, he saves holistically. So my repentance would not be singular. That night, I knew that it wasn’t just my lesbianism that had me at odds with God—it was my entire heart.

Letting the Light in

I sat up in my bed and thought deeply about all that was happening in me. I’d known about God for so long, but now it seemed as if God was inviting me to know him. To love him. To walk with him. To be in relationship with him. That moment—that epiphany that my sin, left untreated, would be “the death of me”—wasn’t a matter of trying to be straight or even trying to escape hell. No, it was about God positioning himself before my eyes, so that I could finally see that he is everything he says he is—and worthy to be trusted.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” (4:6). In October 2008, God let his light shine into the dark corners of my life. And when he did, I saw my sin with full clarity. It was not as glorious as I once thought nor was it as good as it had promised to be. It was everything God said it was: deadly (Rom 6:23).

In the Scriptures, I knew there existed much condemnation for all that I loved and lived (Rom. 1:18–32). But in the same Bible where I found condemnation, I also found the good news that God loved and died for people like me so that I could live forever (John 3:16). I didn’t need to know much more than that. Without a sermon, an altar call, or any emotionally laden music gesturing me to “come to Jesus”—just sitting in my bed, with the TV on and the sun not yet up—I saw Jesus. He was better than everything I’d ever known and more worthy of having everything that I thought was mine to own, including my affections. They were for him to have and to be glorified with.

Shortly after that pivotal night, I was doing the painful work of breaking up with my girlfriend. Her tears were too loud to listen to without regret. She knew how much I loved her, how childish my face got when she was around.

To leave her, us, our love, made no sense apart from the divine doing of God. She was both my woman and my idol. She was the eye Jesus said to gouge out and the right hand he commanded me to cut off (Matt. 5:29–30). Though it was as painful as the extreme act of removing a part of the body, it was better for me to lose her than to lose my soul.

“I just . . . gotta live for God now,” I said with a tear-broken voice. A new identity was to come after I hung up.

I had no idea what would come next or how I’d have the power to resist everything I’d once lived for, but I knew that if Jesus was God and if God was mighty to save, then surely, God would be mighty to keep. And 10 years later, he is still keeping this girl godly.

Jackie Hill Perry is a writer, poet, and hip-hop artist whose latest album, Crescendo, released in May. She is the author of Gay Girl, Good God: The Story of Who I Was, and Who God Has Always Been (B&H Books), from which parts of this article were adapted.

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Jackie Hill Perry: I Loved My Girlfriend—but God Loved Me More