Purity Culture (Part 3): You Have Heard That It Was Said

For my part, as a church-going Christian who wants to honor God, I’ve heard over and over until it is second nature in my head that the most important thing about sex is that it happens in marriage. Sermon after sermon, book after book. Gentle approach or hellfire and brimstone, this is what we know to be true, right? We always trot out what Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…” Inevitably, we take that to mean that just looking at someone who is not our spouse is as bad as sleeping with that person. The eye that causes you to sin is the one that looks at porn, etc. But… are we getting that right? Is Jesus’s point here to reinforce that sex is only allowed within marriage? I’m not convinced any more that it is.

As I’ve written this blog series, I’ve gotten private messages from a lot of people. Maybe it’s because of my age and who my friends are (maybe it’s not), but most of the people I hear from are married women. Married women who are hurting. Married women who feel gutted and betrayed by sex with their spouses. Several people sent me this article about how sex is often a rough experience for women physically and/or emotionally. Most sent me this article without comment, as if it goes without saying that this is a common experience, that’ I’ll just understand why they’re sending it to me.

Another friend with a teenage daughter wrote to me about learning to help her daughter navigate sex in a healthy way. She said that the most important things she wants her daughter to ask herself about sex are, “Was it satisfying? Did she feel valued? Is this a relationship that brings good to life?” My first reaction was that this is a list that I should use myself. That’s right, as an almost-forty-year-old woman, this is the first time I was really able to bring those questions front and center for myself. And I realized that after a lifetime of sermons and books, after a thirteen-year marriage, I have almost no tools for evaluating whether sex is meeting my emotional needs.

The mom with the teenage daughter is a good and loving parent. I believe in a God who is also a good and loving parent. If she wants those things for her children, shouldn’t God?

It is interesting to me that when Jesus talks about this in the passage above, he does not say, “everyone who looks at a woman who is not his wife with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” I don’t think you could even say that’s implied. What if he’s saying that lust isn’t just about whether or not you’re married to the person? What if he’s saying that that isn’t even the MAIN thing? What if he’s saying that if you look at any woman with the desire to have sex with her without valuing her and wanting to bring her life, you are sinning? This is the Jesus who just equated bullying with murder a few breaths earlier in his speech. This is the Jesus who cares about intent, who cares about the heart. This is the Jesus who stood up for adulterous women in bold, public ways.

In an earlier post, I complained about the Christian literature on sex. One book a friend recommended in response–The Naked Truth About Sexuality by Havilah Cunnington–is better than most I’ve read. I’ll probably say good things about it in other posts. I like Havilah. I enjoyed one of her conferences. My life has been changed by some of the things she’s said and written. But, while this book is better than most, it still misses the mark. One thing that comes up repeatedly in her book is her encounter with evangelical Christians who have an expectation that their spouse is their “sex slave”. She sees the fact that an overemphasis on marriage as the line between acceptable and unacceptable sex can lead to unhealthy assumptions and behavior. But she still beats the drum of sex within marriage over and over and over, at the expense of some of her better points about sex communicating love and meeting emotional needs. She makes some good points, but she doesn’t go quite far enough. Havilah, you mention people making sex slaves out of each other in marriage and then keep emphasizing how important it is to be married when you have sex! We–we Christ-followers–HAVE A PROBLEM.

Are you with me yet on this? No? Let me ask you this, then. If someone has learned to speak in love, to regard other people’s feelings, are they more or less likely to commit murder? Do you want them avoiding murder because they’ve heard over and over just how bad and unhealthy murder is, or because they’ve learned to love well? Do you want someone to get married because they think it’s the only acceptable sexual outlet, or do you want to them to desire marriage because it’s a way to publicly demonstrate the commitment of their heart to valuing and giving life to their spouse? I vote for the latter. And if that’s the case, it’s time to stop pretending that marriage is the most important thing to consider when it comes to sexual morality. Is it unimportant? No. But there are some far more important heart issues we’ve been neglecting, to the detriment of marriage itself.

Sex & Candy (Part 2): The Desire… Monster?

Although eating is a good thing (and obviously necessary), it seems possible that it in some way distracts me from the deep, soul-shaking desires of my heart that I wrote about in my last post in the series. My heart and my body are meant to be unified, in sync, but if my body is satisfied, it can trick my heart into thinking it is, too. I’ve been eating my entire life… How long have those desires been there? How long have I been hiding them from myself with a daily routine of eating—not just to fuel my body, but eating just a little too much each time to help keep the demons at bay? A little thing repeated three times a day for years can be an incredibly powerful force. It’s possible I’ve spent my entire life conditioning my heart to think it’s satisfied when my body eats a quesadilla or a spoonful of peanut butter.

Then I think about how much more satisfying an orgasm is—that will top peanut butter or quesadillas any day of the week. It’s a beautiful thing, but it may also be a thing I’ve conditioned myself since puberty to use for comfort. A security blanket. Something to hide those deeper longings from my conscious mind. If I did use it that way, it would be powerfully effective, wouldn’t it?

I don’t think those deep desires I’ve uncovered by removing distractions are wrong in and of themselves. You may think that goes without saying, but I’m not sure that’s the case. I’ve seen so many articles and books that hint at or say explicitly that all of our heart’s desires are sinful. The heart is “deceitful” and “desperately wicked,” after all (Jeremiah 17:9). If we follow our desires without guidance, sure, they can REALLY take us down the wrong path. But I don’t think the longing of the heart for companionship, the desire to be known and loved and to know and love in return is at all bad. It’s what we’re made for. And because we live in a fallen world, we’re not getting it the way we’re built to. So we long, deeply and desperately. I don’t think those desires themselves are The Flesh that the Bible warns about. I mean, if the Bible talks about fasting as an activity related to longing for the return of Christ (Matthew 9:14-15), longing for companionship in general isn’t likely to be a bad thing. He’s Emmanuel, God With Us, the king of companionship. A big part of that deep longing is a longing for Him—the longing is not going to go away until He comes back. The rest of it is longing for companionship with other people that knowing Him helps enable. I think The Flesh that we’re not supposed to allow to guide us is that conditioning of our heart to be satisfied because our body is. It’s the breaking of that unity between heart and body, the dominance of physical pleasure to mask emotional pain.

There’s a verse that comes up often when people talk about The Flesh, James 1:14-15: “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard that interpreted to say that our desires are bad and should be quashed. It’s so deeply ingrained in the meaning of that verse for me that it’s hard to read it another way. But it doesn’t actually say the desire is bad, just that it’s bad for us to be lured and enticed by it. I think using shame to cover the desire to be known and loved is as bad as (if not worse than) covering it with quesadillas and peanut butter. Cultural shame uses social forces that are meant to unite us—meant to enable us to help each other—and divides us instead. Shame addresses the longing for love underlying our fleshly pursuits and starves it more by isolating the people longing.

Read the verses before and after:

“Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘Im an being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.” (James 1:13) Interesting… when Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness, he was tempted. But this says He can’t be tempted by evil. If fasting uncovered His desires the way it does for me… The last temptation Jesus faced in the desert was to give Jesus the kingdoms of the world if Jesus worshipped him. “For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16). Jesus came for people, and Satan was offering people to Him. He was taking a strike at the unfathomable love Jesus has for us—His longing to be unified with us—trying to lure that desire into impatience, to complete the great work then and there without the years Jesus spent wandering in the dust healing crowds, without the death on the cross. But Jesus did not let his desire conceive… he went through with the painful plan because it was the best way. He acted on His desire in a world-changing way. He died to unify us with Him and with each other.

Next in James comes one of my favorite verses of all time: “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” (James 1:16) Real, deep companionship is a good and perfect gift. Why would the desire for it be bad? Loneliness—our longing to be known and loved—is not something to cover or to be ashamed of. Our need is part of how God made us. “It is not good… to be alone.” We need God, and we need other people. It doesn’t do us any good to cover that need and longing with sex and candy, and it REALLY doesn’t do us any good to cover it with shame.

Oh No, Not Another Galentine’s Day…

I can’t very well write about sex and love for a month and skip Valentine’s Day. I was tempted to write something like “I’ll be frank, it’s been a long time since the holiday has meant anything to me romantically, if it ever did. I’ve spent the last four Valentine’s Day celebrating ‘Galentine’s Day’ with my female friends, and that’s how I’ll happily spend this one—wine in one hand, chocolate in the other.” That is not an untrue statement—it has been so long since I had a romantic Valentine’s Day that I don’t actually remember when the last one was. It is also true that I genuinely enjoy celebrating it with my girlfriends. My average female friend is far better at figuring out the trappings of a romantic evening than 90% of the men I know. If Valentine’s Day is about sentimentality, Galentine’s celebrations will always win hands down. But as I began to write my post that way, I recognized a cynicism there that I don’t want any more. I may not be particularly excited to spend yet another Valentine’s Day without a man, but I don’t want to protect myself from that by letting go of faith in love’s potency and endurance. Yes, I will spend the holiday platonically, but I don’t want it to be an “F—- men” activity that that throws up walls around my heart. I want it to be a way to celebrate love with my friends because I believe the love I share with them isn’t an alternative to the romantic love, but complements and grows it. Because love always compounds, always multiplies. 

I’ve had Wendy Shalit in my head all week. She wrote A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, a book originally published in 1999 that I’ve been revisiting as I write my divorce memoir. Shalit responded to some of the worst horrors of hookup culture by advocating radical modesty in dress and behavior.  To her credit, she was a bellwether of some of the problems that we now identify as “rape culture”. For her part, her horror with hookup culture at its worst led her to transition from her reform Jewish upbringing to Orthodox judaism, at least in part because she valued the protection afforded her by the modesty rules of Orthodox judaism. Rules like wearing long skirts and keeping your collarbone covered. Rules like not having any physical contact with a man who is not your husband—not even a handshake. 

Two things about her have stood out in my memory nearly twenty years since reading her book. First, I remember meeting her at a book signing, a little in awe of a woman who valued herself so highly that she could insist she did not have to shake hands with anyone but other women. She was a powerful presence in any room she entered. The other thing I remember is a passage in her book where she complains about her friends who insist that friendship after a breakup was healthy, that post hook-up and post-break-up checkins are a “thing”. She hated the casualness of it all: “Did I really need this checkup? No thank you. A checkup would not have made me feel any better. It would have just been another opportunity to humiliate myself. I’m grateful to my ex-boyfriend who didn’t check up on me. At least if you feel sadness, disgust, anything on a sliding scale to mutual floating, at least then you know you’re human. All those bad feelings we are too enlightened to feel nowadays—such as resentment, jealous, betrayal—also signify the capacity to lose yourself in the first place, to fall in love with someone other than yourself. They presuppose that there is a soul to protect, that there are hopes to be shattered, a lost love to guard, even if now only mentally and futilely? No hard feelings? I’m advocating a return to precisely that: hard feelings. At least then you know you’re a person, that you have a heart.”

That resonated for me then, and it still does now. Casualness requires either dumbing down desire or separating it from action, and neither are very palatable. For me, the lack of heart was the worst part of hooking up. The splitting off of the heart from an activity where it is meant to be the most engaged eventually made me feel like I couldn’t breathe. If death is separation of the spirit from the body, that’s it’s precursor. Shalit calls herself an “Evangelist for romantic hope and the possibility of innocence.” In the passage that was so memorable to me, that hope and longing shine through with a passion that she rarely rises to again in the rest of her book. She also stands out as a woman who knows and sticks by her own value in the face of bullying and detractors (read the introduction in her book). But to maintain that hope, and to preserve her sense of self-worth, she has to create a space for herself with walls around it so thick that it’s a wonder anyone gets in: “To me the biggest virtue of modesty is the way it enables us to be our best selves in private.” She sees a scary world where she cannot be her best self, so she carves out a safe place in private where she can. It seems like she doesn’t shake hands with men because it helps her feel safe to be human, where the bogeyman of rampant sexuality can’t get in. 

I’ve had a few conversations with friends in the last week about setting good relationship boundaries to avoid sexual pitfalls. A few times, married friends have mentioned avoiding relationships with people you could possibly be attracted to because they’re too dangerous. Don’t spend time one-on-one with people of the gender you’re attracted to because it’s too risky—that kind of thing. And it occurred to me—how often do we guard our hearts from hurt by eliminating relationship? I might be attracted inappropriately to some men, so I avoid all of them. I’ve been hurt in love, so I build a wall around myself narrows the scope of acceptable love dramatically. I’m afraid of being treated casually like an object, so I set myself apart from the world with long-lost rules of modesty. I may keep some good things out, but it’s worth it to keep out the bad. It’s safe.

We put up relationship walls between us and other people to keep the demons of sexual assault and dehumanization out. We put up relationships walls between ourselves and other people to keep the demons of lust in. Having faced all of those demons personally—having stared them in their beady red eyes—I will tell you that it is isolation that is more dangerous than relationship. Of course it’s dangerous to have lunch with a sexy man who’s not my husband if I’m starving for love. Of course it’s dangerous to bare some skin in public if I’m not surrounded by people who care for me. And—dare I say it?—of course a man who feels incredibly isolated and alone is more likely to victimize someone sexually. These situations require MORE LOVE, not less. MORE RELATIONSHIP, not more walls.

So, I will celebrate Galentine’s Day, not because I’m cynical about love but because I believe in it. Because love isn’t something I have to put up walls to protect (or to protect myself from). Because love isn’t a priceless perfume we keep bottled and dole out to each other drop by precious drop. Platonic love isn’t a consolation prize for not having a significant other. Love is a deep pool at my feet, always accessible, always waiting for me to find a jug or a bucket or a pail to scoop some up. This Valentine’s Day, I’m scooping it up with the teacup of platonic friendship. I’ll take big gulps form the jug that is my relationship with God. Next year, maybe I’ll drink love from wine glass of romantic love. Because I’ve realized that love doesn’t fail—the only way for me to not have it is to not pick it up.

Sex & Candy (Part 1): The Desire Monster

Quick note to you, my reader: I originally set out to post about sex every day for a month. Posting every day was too much. I couldn’t keep up, and I have readers telling me they’re not keeping up, either. I’m going to pare back to 1 post per week, maybe more if it works out. The easiest way to follow is to subscribe to my email list. There’s an email signup form at the bottom of this page. I send weekly updates with a summary of the posts for the week.

Last night I binged on amaretto and maraschino cherries before I went to bed. It seems like a good day to write about… The Flesh. [Cue scary music.]

I’m a very sensual person. And (in spite of the title of this post) I don’t just meant that in the sexy way. A well-placed, well-timed beam of sunshine can take my breath away, distract me to the point of losing my train of thought. Food is something I particularly enjoy. I read cookbooks for fun. I recently told a friend to stop talking in the middle of dinner so I could focus on savoring an amazing piece of bread. (Yes, I’m gluten free. Yes, the bread was more than worth the weeks of intestinal discomfort that followed. It was that good. So buttery and light and… mmm….Anyway…)

I’m probably the last person you would expect to fast. I used to think that fasting was something that gave me extra time to focus on God. “I can use the time I’m not eating to pray.” Nope. Not at all. I usually spend most of my extra thought time working hard not to bite people’s heads off because I’m hangry. What’s the point, then? The point is that there’s a core me inside that speaks louder when I take away the usual methods I use to fill my day-to-day needs. There are desires buried so deeply under my normal, daily activities that I can’t even recognize them without drastic measures like not eating.

When I fast, my main emotional response has been… loneliness. Wait, what? Yeah, when I don’t eat I feel lonely. And I’m not talking about a passing, “Gee wouldn’t it be nice to go see a movie with some friends tonight?” loneliness. It is longing for companionship so deep and so visceral that it sometimes scares me with its intensity. It is a need so strong I feel like it threatens to consume me. I actually stopped fasting for awhile because it was too much for me. And that was fasting a day or two at a time. I used to read the story of Jesus fasting for 40 days and be amazed that He could go that long without food. Now I think the real miracle is that He survived that long alone in the wilderness with the uncovered longings of His human heart.

What’s scarier is that most of the time, that desire doesn’t even register in my brain. Something so deep and so strong, and I don’t even know it’s there most of the time. When I fast, I uncover intense desires and longing that have been hanging out just outside of my consciousness, influencing my decisions moment by moment. If not eating it uncovers it, it must be what drives me to do things like binge on amaretto and maraschino cherries, right? If not eating for a day uncovers those desires a little—and if even that is sometimes too much to handle—I really hate to think what it looks like at full strength. What is really under there?? That incredibly potent desire lurking just below surface—is that what the Bible calls The Flesh?

“And those who belong to Jesus Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Galatians 5:24)

“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.” (Romans 8:5)

Is this desire that fasting awakens like the Balrog in Lord of the Rings? Did I “delve… too deep” like the dwarves, awakening something in the darkness? Do I need to Gandalf it away? “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!” Is that what it means to “crucify the flesh with its passions and desires”?

Purity Culture (Part 2): Lie Detector

Lies are more subtle than you think. Or at least more subtle than I suspected for a long time. A college friend wrote the forward for a now infamous book about Christian dating and abstinence, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Sam retracted his forward in this article in 2016. I have a lot of respect and admiration for Sam, and the whole retraction is worth reading (as are the recovery stories on the site). One sentence Sam wrote has really stuck with me: “thought I was anti-legalistic at the time, not realizing that legalism was part of the air I breathed.” There is a subtle, insidious deception in legalism that’s so close to us it’s like it’s in the air we breathe. We’re not originating it, we’re simply copying what we hear. And it’s often not in the content of what we say, but how we say it. Intent matters. Timing matters. Context matters. If Satan could get under Jesus’ skin using scripture, he can do it to us, too. I’m not saying that to scare you. I’m learning from it, and I want to share what I’m learning so we can take back our culture from this m———f———— a—hole.

I’m going to spend the next few posts using the lie detectors I listed in my first Purity Culture post to uncover some lies:

1. Does it cause or encourage fear?

2. Does it cause or encourage guilt or shame? (A corollary: does it make the hearer feel like his value as a person depends on his behavior?)

3. Does it isolate?

4. Does it make the hearer question her sanity?

Let me say up front that I’m not on a witch hunt. There are definitely some people out there lying deliberately, and they deserve to go down in flames. But I think in most cases these are well-intentioned people just echoing their own fears—the lies they’ve been told that they believe about themselves—into a huge megaphone. It’s an easy trap to fall into, one I fall into myself sometimes. I pray over this blog every day that what I write will be True, but sometimes I am just not self-aware enough to catch things. Sometimes my intentions are self-serving. I hope you will take these principles and apply them to me and tell me if you hear me lying. Lies can sometimes come through good people, people who usually speak the truth. My battle here isn’t against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12), it’s against lies and the destroyer who originates them.

There’s also the fact that lies don’t have to originate in what we’re reading. We sometimes tell them to ourselves. We filter what we see and hear through lies that we’ve learned to tell ourselves. When I was going through my divorce, I started to become more aware of my self-talk, and how much of it was lies. Things like, “Friend A and Friend B who are coming to my house for dinner. They are going to have a REALLY bad time if I don’t clean up these dust bunnies.” Or, “I’m so broken I don’t have any control over my sex life.” Or, “God isn’t going to fulfill my desire for a loving spouse because I don’t deserve that.” Worse, “The Bible says my heart is wicked, so my desires have no value. In fact, they are probably wrong. All of them.” I kept track one day, and I was telling myself a lie that checks a box on the lie detector list once every 7 minutes. All day. That’s a lot of shit to unpack.

When we’re breathing legalistic air, we tell ourselves and each other a lot of lies about sex. So, let’s take a look Amazon and I’ll show you the lies I hear. They might originate from the material, they might be in my head. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where they originate, but they’re there, and I’ll bet money that most of you hear them, too.

I started to search Amazon for “Christian sex” and was given a few suggested searches. First was “Christian sex education for 8-12 year olds”. I don’t think I’m the only one who reads that and thinks, “dear God, these kids coming up on puberty and we’d better educate them before they fall into the SEX DEATH TRAP.” (Lie detector #1) Second search suggestion is, “Christian sex books for married couples.” If I didn’t click that, I’d be reminded of my past when I enjoyed sex with someone who wasn’t my spouse. I feel bad for even LOOKING at books about sex since I’m not married. I remember the verse that says “any man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32). Lie detector #2, my friends. I feel alone because, well, sex advice is for married people, and I am not. Lie detector #3. I haven’t even looked at the search results and I’m already feeling so small I’m ready to walk away from the computer. For you–my readers–and for truth, I will keep going.

Search result #1: The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex (And You Thought the Bad Girls Had All the Fun) I like sex without reading a damn book… does that make me bad?

Result #2: Intended for Pleasure: Sex Technique and Sexual Fulfillment in the Christian Marriage Is it just me, or does it seem like a bad sign that we need convincing that it’s intended for pleasure? If I was unhappy with my married sex life, I’d feel a little less-than for not GETTING it.

Result #3: Under the Sheets: The Secrets to Hot Sex in Your Marriage Putting my married person hat on here: what if I’m so relationally shut down that I don’t WANT hot sex in my marriage? Or what if my spouse is asking me to do “hot” things that I’m not comfortable with?

Result #4: Good Christian Sex: Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option-and Other Things the Bible Says About Sex I might actually read this book, but why does EVERY Christian conversation about sex start with talking about chastity or celibacy or abstinence (including my own blog)? Why is our starting point a RULE? Shouldn’t the starting point of this conversation be love and joy? Even if you’re trying to unpack the shame of sex, starting the conversation talking about shame might give it more power than I want it to. Ugh. Now I’m feeling ashamed for writing a blog that tries to uncover sex lies because I might be propagating the sex lies as I’m writing it.

Okay, my brain is already in a knot. But I hope you get the idea. I’ll tackle some gnarlier knots in another post.


Purity Culture (Part 1): Whose Voice?

I haven’t posted anything for a few days because I’ve been having trouble tackling this next topic. I wanted to write this blog series in real time because I’m answering questions for myself as I write. This is as much of an exploration for me as it is for those of you reading it. Thanks to those of you who asked why I hadn’t posted anything. It’s nice to know I was missed. 🙂

Did you know that the word commonly used in the New Testament for obedience or submission is “hupakoe” which literally means “under the voice”? (Strongs 5218 if you feel like looking it up). Parakoe (Strongs 3876), “disobedience”, is “hearing amiss”. Voice and words are critically important in the Bible. They are the vehicle for the power that God used to create the universe. The voice of God created life in the beginning (Genesis 1:3, John 1:1), and I believe creates life every time He speaks. I’ve heard a theory that the creative power of God’s voice is so powerful, creation just keeps expanding into eternity from the moment he speaks it. That’s why the universe is continuing to expand now. Stars are still being formed because of the words he spoke at the beginning of time. It’s a powerful voice, a creative voice. It’s also an intimate voice. It’s the still small voice (I Kings 19:12), the tender voice of the Good Shepherd that we know because of our intimacy with him (John 10:14 and 27), it’s the voice he sings over us with (Zepheniah 3:17).

Satan also has a voice, but his use of it is completely different. His language is lies, he’s the father of lies. (John 8:44) When there is a lie, it originates from him. His lies are divisive, not intimate. He accuses and slanders. (Revelation 12:9-10)

One voice has truth and life, the other lies and destruction. Whose voice are you under? Whose voice do you echo?

I’ve learned a few things about detecting lies from my life experiences. We tend to think of facts as the things that combat lies, but it is pretty rare that you get an opportunity to counteract lies with actual proven facts, particularly in the day-to-day. It’s hard enough for our entire country to figure out which news outlet is telling the truth (if any of them are)—figuring out on your own whether the person you’re talking to is being truthful based on evidence is a pretty daunting task. Even when life blows up, few of us have the extra cash to hire a private investigator. And PIs will tell you that it’s pretty rare they uncover something that the person who hired them didn’t already suspect—there’s something in us that has the ability to detect a lie without a fact-finding mission.

So how do you tell when you’re hearing a lie? I’m still thinking this through, but these are a few of the ways I have learned to detect lies:

1. Does it cause or encourage fear? (“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” I John 1:18. Plus the countless verses where God tells people “do not be afraid.”)

2. Does it cause or encourage guilt or shame? (A corollary: does it make the hearer feel like his value as a person depends on his behavior?) (“There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Romans 8:1. “Those who look to him are radiant, their faces shall never be ashamed.” Psalm 34:5)

3. Does it isolate? (“It is not good that the man should be alone.” Genesis 2:18  “The Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9)

4. Does it make the hearer question her sanity?  I’ve heard from so many people in clearly abusive situations, “Well, I don’t KNOW that X is going on. I can’t prove it.” So they feel like they have to accept the person’s word for it. But more often than not, they have a hunch. And more often than not, the liar is actively working to dismantle that hunch. It’s called gaslighting and it supports lies. Satan gaslights us. He’s done it from the very beginning when he asked Eve, “Did God really say…?” (Genesis 3:1)

Stay tuned. Tomorrow I’m going to put the lie detector to work.

Celibacy (Part 4): When Life Becomes a Romance

“Nothing touches our lives but it is God Himself speaking… Get into the habit of saying, ‘Speak, Lord,’ and life will become a romance.” –Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest

I’d tasted something sweet and I couldn’t get enough. On October 11, 2015, less than two weeks after my divorce was final, I wrote in my journal a list of characteristics I wanted in a spouse. And then I set it aside and wrote this: “A year seems intimidatingly ambitious, so I dedicate the next six months of my life, until my 37th birthday, to listening. To setting aside the noisy things in life—consumption, alcohol, sex, romantic relationships—to hear God.”

That was not an easy decision at the time. I’d seen glimmers, and I wanted more. But I was tossing out all of my security blankets—the things I went to when I felt bad to get a quick and easy sense of safety and contentment. This wasn’t just sexual celibacy, I ran full-tilt into a life as simple and stripped-down as I could make it. If there was anything at all that could get in the way of hearing God speak, I didn’t want any part of it. I cut back my non-work activities to almost 0, I gave away or sold anything I owned that didn’t seem necessary, including (or especially) my TV. You could say I turned my home into a monastery of sorts—I cultivated quiet, peace, and contemplation. The walls were gray and I had very few things hanging on them. The house had even come with a mezuzah (Jewish scripture scroll in a box) nailed by the front door. I carved out a space of solitude and prayer. I quieted my life so I could hear and experience more of Him.

What followed was one of the loveliest periods of my life so far. I found I loved the romance of God so much I kept extending the time beyond the six months, first to a year, then more. My name means “beloved,” and for the first time in my life I began to really know myself that way, deep down. In spite of my bad experience with marriage, I have known love in my life. I have a beautiful, loving family. I have great friendships. But even so, it can be hard to escape the nagging doubt deep in my heart that tells me I may not be enough. When love only comes through other people, doubt can always say, “Well, they don’t really know you.” It’s not humanly possible to tell another person everything about yourself. There’s always one more thing that fear says might turn them away. And besides, even the kindest, most well-intentioned people will hurt you sometimes. Our needs bump up against one another. We can’t all win all of the time.

But with God… Oh, with God…

Over the course of my monastery life, I’ve learned why my thoughts in my head are verbal, why my brain uses words to talk to itself—they’re meant to communicate with someone besides me. The Bible says that the Spirit of God lives IN ME. I’ve come to know prayer as not just tossing my desires into the cosmic ocean, messages in a bottle I hope God receives and answers. Prayer is the most intimate connection possible, the sharing of myself and my experiences with the One who made me. He didn’t just make me so I could enjoy His creation and obediently thank Him for it when I think of it. He made me so He could experience it with me, so He could enjoy me enjoying it.

I’ve spent hours walking up and down the bike trail in the beautiful woods behind my house, talking with God, enjoying Him enjoying me enjoying Him. I remember one time, I had this idea that He wanted me to move back to southern California and I was expressing concern about that. I looked around me at the beauty right behind my house—the trees, the creek— and asked Him how He could possibly ask me to move back to that cement wasteland. His response: “I knew you would live here when I put that creek here.” I still don’t know whether He’ll send me back to California at some point. In some ways, the what and the where matter a great deal less now. He often responds to my questions about specific direction with a show of His deep and abiding love for me, His appreciation of who I am and His desire to cultivate the best parts of me. “You’re worried? You’re so lovely, even when you’re worried. Look, I am doing things to make you happy. And I’ll keep doing them, in all places, everywhere you go.” (“Your life will I give unto you for a prize in all places where you go.” Jeremiah 45:5.) He put a creek in a certain spot hundreds—thousands?—of years ago with me in mind. You can take your dying plants from the florist and stuff them—I’ll take a babbling, clear, cold creek teeming with salmon and haunted by foxes over a dozen roses any time.

A few weeks into my experiment in radical celibacy, I wrote this in my journal:

“I just had the strangest experience. I enjoyed looking into the mirror. That’s rare enough, but I enjoyed it with 0 sense of vanity. I had just finished listening to a song in the bath and as I [got up and] rounded the corner to the sink, the lyric came on: ‘I stare into the face of my savior, King and Creator’ and I saw Him reflected in me. And I enjoyed looking at myself. I didn’t feel like a stranger in my own body. When I think I’m just looking at me, I have to step outside myself and pretend I’m Other to appraise myself. But when I look for traces of Him, I can look for me looking at me AS me. I see myself in my own eyes and God’s eyes, and I see him in me.”

Maybe now you know why I feel like trying to describe the experience of God is like telling you about my friend Bob in Pittsburgh—you just have to meet him and see for yourself. But I hope you’re catching at least a glimpse of what it means to share my experience of my life with God, the way it lets me inhabit my life as someone who is LOVED. Enjoying Him enjoying me enjoying Him enjoying His creation together—it’s a beautiful cycle that just builds in momentum and love the more we pass it back and forth.

And there you have it, my experience of celibacy, of abstaining from a whole bunch of things—including sex—to hear God. I did hear Him, and it was an experience that was so breathtaking in its romance I didn’t want it to end. That, my friends, is better than any sex I’ve ever had.

I wouldn’t push the monastery life on anyone. I don’t think I could. I suppose you can make someone stop and smell the roses, but you certainly can’t make them enjoy it. And if you can’t make them enjoy it, why would you bother?

I do recommend it, though, if you’re inclined. The whole experience—clearing my life of clutter (some bad things and some just distracting) and using that time to get to know God—is something I’m very glad I had before trying to get into a relationship again. I think if I’d done it before I got married, well, I might not have gotten married when I did to the person I did.

I’m not sure I’d recommend the monastery life for very long, though. I guess people have found satisfaction in it as a lifestyle, but I don’t think it’s for me. Even though I kept extending it, it was only six or seven months into it that God started gently reminding me of my desires to share my life with someone. He started giving me dreams (real, night-time dreams). He threw smart, good-looking men in my path when I least expected it. He began waking up desire for interpersonal romance even as I was being romanced by Him. But… well, that is a story for another time.

If you want to read more about experiencing the presence of God in lonely places (and not just deliberately quiet ones), check out this transcript of a communion talk I gave at church.

Celibacy (Part 3): Going to Pittsburgh

God was speaking to me, He was giving me beautiful moments of loving invitation that were far more intimate than anything I’d experienced in my Christian life before. Moments like a hike on the trail, when I told Him how much I loved what he’d done with the trees, and He told me that the best part for Him was watching me enjoy it. Moments like when He turned a pair of boots red just because He knew I would like them.

Even so, I felt to ashamed to meet Him where He was calling me and walk with Him. How could I when I was so overwhelmed by sexual desire that I couldn’t help but fall into it? I felt engulfed by guilt and powerless to do anything about it. I decided to carve out a safe space for myself that seemed realistic. I became pragmatic. If I couldn’t help my physical needs, and I couldn’t engage my tattered heart in a relationship, I’d stick with some kind of friends-with-benefits scenario. At least that way I would avoid the clear dangers of hooking up (disease, pregnancy, the drama of running into people later—Anchorage is a very small town).

I told my plan to a more sexually experienced friend. He basically patted me on the shoulder and told me it wouldn’t work. “Friends with benefits never lasts more than like a month or two. One person always ends up wanting it to be more than friends.” I was optimistic, “No, I think with this guy it will work. We have it figured out.” We chatted a bit more about the practicality of it, and then he looked me in the eye and said, “What about…?” and pointed heavenward. He knew that in spite of all of this, I loved God deeply. We both had an idea that God would be unhappy with what I was doing. I shrugged, but my heart sank.

Later that night, I was reading a book on Redemption and ran across a short blurb where the author mentioned failing over and over and over again on the path to redemption. How is that possible? I though. I’ve heard so many people say that, if you don’t change your behavior, you haven’t really repented. I wondered whether it was possible to feel deep regret and shame and a desire to change but not actually repent. But here was someone saying that sometimes it takes trying again and again, and falling on your face over and over. Was it possible that repentance didn’t necessarily mean immediate success at fixing the problem? I decided that, even though I felt like I was completely incapable of succeeding, even though every time I tried I failed worse than before, I would keep trying. My wall, my will wasn’t effective, but there had to be another way. I decided I would keep failing until I found it.

What if it wasn’t up to me? And what if there was something God cared more about than me trying? I ran across a verse, “In returning and rest you shall be saved.” (Isaiah 30:15) I noted that it didn’t say “in returning and fixing it immediately.” My mind’s eye saw me turning my face to God and then… that was it. Resting. Waiting. Was that all there was to repentance after sin? Was there an alternative to whipping myself into an obedience I didn’t understand?

In one moment of scrambling to find ways to try harder, I had considered getting a tattoo that said “The Lord’s” on the back of my hand where I could see it, as a reminder to myself that I belonged to God and didn’t have to sin. It’s hard to miss a hand tattoo, even when you’re drunk. Before I could get the tattoo, I crashed my bike on some sand and skinned up my knees, my face, and my hand. I have only one scar from that crash. It looks like writing, and it’s exactly where I would have placed the tattoo on my hand. It was as if He was telling me I didn’t have to mark myself as His, He already had. Returning and rest… just look at Him. See Him… If I could have more of that presence—-the beautiful sound of the voice of love—I felt like my life would be very different, and not just morally.

About that time, I joined a reading group that was studying Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. (I really was trying every pious magic trick I could think of.) I knew I was supposed to be generous, to spend time in prayer, to worship God through music, to fast from eating. These “disciplines” had always been on a checklist of things I thought I was supposed to do as a good Christian. I wasn’t great about doing them. Other than music, I wouldn’t have said I enjoyed them. Foster’s take was a little different. He said that these were things you could do to make your heart fertile ground for more of the presence of God, that there was a freedom in them that you couldn’t find elsewhere. That was new. I was surprised to find myself trying out fasting, even more surprised to find myself enjoying it. I love food. Deliberately not eating sounded like unnecessary torture. But I tried one day. And another. Until I was fasting almost every week.

It’s a little hard to describe the joy of feeling God’s presence, or the fact that not eating can be one of the best things I’ve ever done. It’s like having an amazing friend Bob who lives in Pittsburgh. He’s just one of those indescribably lovely people. You tell your friends at home about him, but they’re not convinced. “You’d love Bob! He’s hilarious and just a really caring person. He’s… well, you just have to meet him. Come to Pittsburgh with me next time I visit Bob! I promise it will be worth it. Pittsburgh is kinda weird but he knows the best spots. We’ll have a great time, I promise!” “Um, I’m sure your friend is great, but, um, Pittsburgh? Really, Amy?” “Yeah, it’s different with Bob. I swear!”

I’ve never been able to find good words to describe what happens during fasting that makes God’s presence so much more real and palpable. It just does. And whatever it does, it does in incredibly powerful ways. I knew something had changed when I gave up amazing sex one night because I knew it would interfere with me fasting the next day…

Hey! I finally mentioned sex! (Or avoiding it. Haha.) More of the (non-) sexy good stuff in the next post.

Celibacy (Part 2): Tearing Down the Wall

God had started talking to me a little before this point in our story. When I began to give up on my marriage, He started speaking to me in a way I could hear–a voice in my mind, in my dreams. I’m sure there are a lot of you reading this who are immediately skeptical. I was—that was not the God I had been taught to believe in. How God addressed my theological skepticism is another story for another time. (If hearing God’s voice is something that interests you, subscribe to my email list–there’s a subscription form at the bottom of the page. You’ll get access to an Invitation to Connect that starts a conversation on the topic.) What matters in this context is what He did with the wall protecting my heart and what that meant for my sex life. I was expecting Him to help me build the wall, but He surprised me with something completely different.

In yesterday’s post, I’d mentioned building a fence, a wall to protect my moral purity. That was the approach I’d learned, in part, from years of conversation about abstinence. Without understanding the value of sex (or without wanting to talk about it), the easy conversation to have is that avoiding sex outside of marriage protects your heart. We all have fears and insecurities—an easy way to motivate my behavior is to speak to those and give fear tools like abstinence. I’d built a pretty formidable wall at that point. It was long and thick and high, and not very effective at keeping me from “falling into sin.” What it did do effectively was keep out love. Sexual desire isn’t simple. We like to treat it like it’s this weird, discreet part of us that we should be able to turn off and on at will. But it’s bound up in desires that have nothing to do with sex—with love, with a desire for unity and belonging—good desires.  Fragile desires.

In high school I kept a notebook where I copied quotes I liked. One that always stuck with me was, “Nothing can ensure the continuance of love. It will evaporate like a spirit and so I feel full of fears.” (From Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native) I was afraid of love’s elusiveness, and the tone of abstinence culture reinforced that. Better get him to put a ring on it before you give it up, or else he won’t value what you have to offer. He’ll stop respecting you and you’ll lose him.

So, I built my wall. Some bricks were moral, but some were emotional. The wall had actually been more effective at protecting me emotionally than it had been at keeping me succumbing to sexual temptation. When I started hooking up, the wall was failing because the emotional bricks had begun to crumble. The legitimate needs it had been keeping out for my lifetime (in the bad times in my marriage AND the good. In other relationships…) had become so strong and formidable they overwhelmed it. What I didn’t realize was that the wall I thought was only a moral wall had been protecting emotionally from other people, even from God.

When God began speaking to me, he talked to the wall. He spoke in a way that didn’t raise its alarms, so His voice could sail over it to the starving animal that was cowering behind it. The first time I heard Him, I was beginning to really despair over my marriage. My pastor preached that, if we were having a hard time, we should ask God to show us what good He was trying to do in those circumstances. Feeling like I had nothing to lose, I asked. I was floored when a voice in my head that wasn’t my own responded immediately, “I’ve given you joy and you’ve traded it for ingratitude.”

When I tell people this story, their reaction is always that that sounds a bit harsh. My answer is always, “But, if you’d heard His voice, you’d know it was anything but harsh.” There was so much love in the voice that it almost made the message irrelevant. It was as if someone had turned love into a musical instrument and played the words on it. Looking back, I’ve come to realize that He began speaking to me in stern words because He knew I would recognize it was Him—that was what I knew about Him. It got past the defenses on my wall.

Over time, I would learn to recognize and trust His voice enough that He could start speaking love into it my heart without tripping my defenses. First, I had to be able to be open about my desires. A good friend encouraged me to pick something I longed for and ask Him for it. At that point, I was in the middle of separation from my husband, getting up the nerve to ask for a divorce. I’d started hooking up. I didn’t feel like I deserved the right to speak to Him that way. “God hates divorce,” so how could I come to Him with a request when I was doing something he hates?

It took me months before I tentatively, quietly told Him what was on my heart. I was biking to work, and tearfully sent up a request, “God, you know my desire is for someone to love me.” Adding, quickly, “That can be [my ex] if you change his heart, of course.” The voice of love responded with difficult words I could recognize, “Stop making it so hard.” Again, hard words, but I took away hope and peace in knowing that He was working to meet my desires when I’d lost my own ability to do it myself. He had been doing it even before I’d asked. He was caring for my desires before I could even speak them. When I arrived at work, I pulled out my phone and an app notification on the screen said, “I did not redeem you for isolation. I am making you part of a new family.” I spent the next half hour weeping in the bathroom at work. The message had landed in my heart.

While I had been tearing down the moral bricks in the wall, he was beginning to dismantle the emotional ones.

Huh, another day, another post, and not a word about celibacy. I’ll get there. I promise. Check back tomorrow for more. In the meantime, if you want to read an extraordinary and challenging book about the walls we build that block us from love, check out Hiding from Love by John Townsend (one of the authors of the bestseller Boundaries).

Celibacy (Part 1): Caging a Starving Animal

Well, I told you yesterday that I’d show off my celibacy cheerleading outfit. I promise it’s out of the closet, hanging nicely on a hook waiting for me to put it on. But first, a celibacy horror story.

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve had two very different experiences with celibacy. The first was when my then-husband decided he didn’t want to have sex with me for about four years (with some pretty long dry spells before that). It was awful. By the end of that four years, I felt like a starving animal. I was deprived of love AND sex. I’d felt hopeless to get either of them for so long that, once my ex and I separated, it was like letting the animal out of a cage.

My heart was broken, and the last thing I wanted was a relationship, so I started hooking up. As fun as it was, it felt off. Plus I knew it was against God’s laws. Try as I might, I couldn’t seem to stop myself. I had well-meaning friends and my counselor telling me that all I needed to do was delete guys’ numbers from my phone. Just STOP already. My response was that if I were dieting, putting a lock on the fridge doesn’t keep me from driving to the store to get ice cream. The starving animal in me felt unstoppable. It was embarrassing—I’d managed to survive years of not sex while my ex and I were still together. The relationship hadn’t been great, but my loyalty to him had been motivation enough. Without that motivation, I couldn’t figure out how to put the starving animal back in the cage. Laws just didn’t cut it. I kept building higher fences to contain the animal, and it kept jumping over them with ease.

The most memorable of those times, I was supposed to meet a guy at a concert. I decided to go with church friends instead, patting myself on the back for my discipline. I drank way too much and ended up bringing a much younger guy home. My ex was at our house packing up some of his belongings when we got there, so I distracted him while the guy snuck into the house another way. [Salacious details redacted.] We figured out afterward that we went to the same church. (Don’t bother guessing, HOTC friends. I haven’t seen him there for a long time.)

If you grew up in the church like I did, you’ll understand my “oh how the mighty have fallen” self-abasement over this situation. It’s ALL THE BAD THINGS. I mean, if there was ever a scenario meant to scare youth groups straight, that’s it. The only thing to top it off would be if I’d gotten pregnant and/or been murdered in my bed. If you aren’t a church person, you might be thinking, “Well, it had been a long time. I can’t blame you for wanting to get out and have a good time. And a young, good-looking guy? You go, girl. Sounds fun. Too bad you couldn’t get past the guilt to really enjoy it.” And… I don’t disagree. I know now that I beat myself up way too much. (Don’t worry, I’ll get to how I learned that truth.) I’m not trying to tell a moral turnaround story. What I am trying to demonstrate is that I was deeply unhappy. I felt broken and heartbroken and guilty on top of that, and I felt powerless to do anything about it. Hookups felt like the only thing I could do, and they weren’t helping.

If you grew up in the church like I did, you’ll understand that over of my pain and heartbreak there was a thick layer of fear that I was stepping out of God’s grace by disobeying. His unchanging moral laws are like physics—for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. To expect anything less is to tell yourself a very serious lie and misrepresent Him to the people around you: “If we came to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth” (I John 1:6) I was terrified of the implications for my salvation. Did I even know God?? What did it say about me that knowing God disapproved didn’t prevent me from doing it? I repented, but my background told me that repentance without change isn’t real repentance. Was I just kidding myself? And yet, I knew I was powerless to fix it. I’d reached the end of my resources and I didn’t know what else I could do.

I did the only thing I could think of. I admitted my powerlessness and asked for God’s help. And then I braced myself for the worst. I thought He would find a way to cage the animal effectively, and at best, I’d probably feel dumb and inadequate for not being able to take care of it myself. After all, as a Christian, I have the power of the Holy Spirit in me, right? I’d failed Him. God did begin to step in, but not in the way I expected. Instead of caging the animal, He began to quietly, gently feed it what it actually needed.

(Continued tomorrow…)