Waking Desire (Part 3): Truth & Beauty

(This is part 3 of a story. To read the rest of the series, go to Waking Desire.)

Emmy decided to tell her friend (and herself) the truth. She described the dreams. She spoke up about her real desires, the ones she’d kept hidden so long, even from herself. This was the first time she would speak her desires to a friend, her longing to be married again, to have kids. It was terrifying. And powerful. And (she had to admit) liberating.

The next morning, Emmy helped out with the kids at church. The lesson was on Abraham and Sarah having their only child Isaac when she was 90 and he was 100 years old. (Of course.)

Emmy walked the bike trail together with God after church. It was a bluebird Alaskan day, when the snow is still on the ground but the color of the sun has begun its shift from cold blue to warmer golds and yellows. Snow sifted from the trees, catching the sun in glittering clouds around her. This is beautiful, God. Thank you.

What I enjoy most, my love, is you enjoying it.

Contented silence, then…Okay, God. I get it. What you did for Abraham and Sarah, you can certainly do it for me. I trust you. But, um… kids? I need a man. In reality, that was the form desire usually took for her. This time it was a bit turned around.

God responded, but the things He said to Emmy weren’t always in words. The best I can think to put words on this particular expression is something along the lines of “Hold my beer.”

Emmy rounded a corner of the trail and there, walking confidently toward her, was a man. He was wearing silly crocheted hat made to look like a viking helmet and a smile that openly welcomed the day. They got closer, and Emmy saw sharp, laughing blue eyes and a blonde beard that any Alaskan man would be proud of.

Their paths finally crossed. “I like your hat.”

“Thanks.”

“Where’d you get it?”

“Beardhats.com. It came with an attachable beard… I lost it.” His voice. It was even better than his eyes and hat and beard. He spoke like it was a song.

“You lost it? Where? Is it hiding in your actual beard?”

They both laughed and stared at each other a minute as her dog began to bark her fool head off. Emmy apologized for the noise, the spell broke, and they both moved on.

Emmy’s head buzzed. What was up with that? She hadn’t believed in that kind of thing. Romance was silly (and vulnerable). Attraction that strong in a short conversation was ridiculous. She must have been out in the cold too long.

They were both circling a pond in opposite directions, and she could see him as she continued her walk. He seemed to be seeing her, too, but it was not a small pond and it was hard to tell for sure. They walked a bit until they met again. This time, they stopped and talked over the dog barking. The dog gave up after 20 minutes or so, her vigilance ignored, and they kept talking. For an hour.

“Let’s do this again.”

“Yes, let’s.”

“What’s your number?…” Number given. “Okay, you’re in my phone as Emmy Trail.”

“And you’re Bike Trail Bryson.”

He texted when he got home, “That was a lovely way to spend an afternoon.”

“Yes, it was. :)”

Emmy went to a Super Bowl party later that day, where she learned that another friend her age was expecting her first baby. Seriously, God? You really like to drive a point home sometimes…

Emmy had been learning not to believe in coincidences. This particular confluence of circumstances–God speaking, other people’s stories, a sexy viking on the trail–was impossible to ignore. Was it really possible that, after writing about walking a relationship path with God before you walk it with someone else, she’d met someone on the bike trail where she liked to talk to God? There was a poetry to that too beautiful NOT to be true. Animated and a bit dazed, she told her friends at the party about Bike Trail Bryson. Most of them thought it was a lovely story, but one friend’s response stuck in her head, “That just doesn’t happen. Are you sure he’s single?” She didn’t know, but she felt certain. With all of those signs, how could he not be?

(To be continued…)

Waking Desire (Part 2): A Dream is a Wish

(This is part 2 of a story. To read the rest of the series, go to Waking Desire.)

Emmy had been having dreams. Strange dreams about houses that stretch and grow. When she woke up and asked God what they meant, he pointed her to Isaiah 54:

Enlarge the place of your tent,
    and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
    and strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left,
    and your offspring will possess the nations
    and will people the desolate cities.

Wow. That kind of caught her by surprise. She wasn’t used to applying verses like that to herself. Commands and parables, sure. But prophecies that her study Bible told her relate to Israel…? Seemed like a bit of a stretch.

Once, after she’d had these dreams several times, she was driving past her old house, the one she’d owned with her ex-husband. She parked for a moment across the street. For some reason, she felt like singing a little song. So she did. And then she cried. That house had held a lot of promise for her. She missed it. As she was driving away, God whispered to her to go back to Isaiah 54. And there was verse 1: “Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud.”

Sing and cry… Okay. Okay.

She had to admit that, if the God of the universe can speak planets into existence, He can probably inspire poetry that has figurative and literal truth for Israel and for her… At the very least, there might be some metaphorical meaning in it for her. Friends pointed out that the dreams could indicate an expansion of her gifts. She was spending a lot more time on writing and music, after all… She put that one on a shelf and thought about it for awhile.

After the baby shower, Emmy had dinner with a dear friend. This friend jumped right into it, “Emmy, if you found out your ex was having a kid with a much younger woman, how would that make you feel? I mean, I know you always wanted kids, and now you’re in your late thirties and still single. How would you feel if you found out that after all of those years of putting you off when you wanted kids, he finally came around and decided to have kids with someone else?”

Emmy wasn’t even a bit ruffled. She’d had practice answering this question, out loud many times, even more often in her own head. “after all we went through together, the last person I’d want to have kids with is my ex. If someone else wants to try that grand experiment, she’s welcome to it. Besides, I’ve never been one of those people who just HAS to have kids. I’m okay with it either way.”

What she said felt pious, but she realized as they came out of her mouth this time that they weren’t true–the house dreams were awakening her to something she’d grown so accustomed to ignoring, she couldn’t even see it. It was so simple to use contentment to cover desire, to hang onto the things she had because it’s easier than admitting she wanted something she didn’t have. Desire doesn’t feel pious, it can even appear ungrateful. Besides, once I admit to desire, I admit that I don’t hold control over my own life.

The friend went on to tell about people in her church who had been conceiving unexpectedly. There was a woman who had undergone extensive fertility treatment to conceive her first child. Several miscarriages left her a bit afraid of the whole process. She was considering trying for a second when a mundane health problem took her to the doctor, where she learned she was pregnant again. Three months pregnant, as it turned out–well past the first few months when most miscarriages happen, already safe the worst of her fears before she even know she was pregnant. Story after story unfolded. In fact, they didn’t know it at the time, but this same friend would find out she was expecting a few months after their conversation.

Emmy decided to tell her friend (and herself) the truth. She described the dreams. She gave desire a voice. This was the first time it would speak out loud to a friend. It was terrifying. It was powerful. It was liberating.

(To be continued…)

Waking Desire (Part 1): Cake Day

We Christians love to talk about how God is a God who gives good things, who is a God of order, who comforts us… all of these are true. But sometimes I forget that one thing He is NOT is predictable. He likes to surprise us. And man, oh man, when I really want something, being surprised SUCKS. To be more accurate, when I really want something, waiting sucks. He likes to remind me that I want something, then invites me to sit in anticipation of Him meeting that desire without having any idea how or when He’s going to do it.

Frankly, it mostly pisses me off. Imagine Mom coming home from the grocery store with an amazing cake. Teenage me has sworn off cake because I think it’s bad for me, and Mom is like, “Hey, I brought home your FAVORITE cake. Remember how much you love it?” Then she waves it in front of my face and reminds me of all of the things I love about that cake until I’m ready to eat it right now. “Oh, no, that cake is for later.” What?? When later?? “Oh, just… later.” And I’m stuck looking at and wanting that damn cake every time I walk through the kitchen.

That’s God in my life. A lot. It’s something I’m learning to enjoy about Him (when I can let go of the fear that He’s not going to meet my needs and desires), but I admit I mostly find it annoying. Think I’m wrong? Let me tell you a romantic little story.

Once upon a time there was this woman. We’ll call her Emmy. (I assure you, any resemblance to my name Amy is completely coincidental.) Emmy was learning to enjoy the heck out of a celibate life. She was getting to know God. She was learning to have better, more fulfilling friendships. She was discovering things about herself she didn’t know before. It was a beautiful time–a time she walked closely with God, figuratively and literally. She and God took long walks together on the bike trail behind her house. They had special spots on the trail where He had whispered loving things in her ear. Things like, “I knew you would be here when I put this creek here,” and “I’ve made you part of a new family.”

Emmy was happy and content. She’d seen so many of her needs for love and intimacy being met in unexpectedly platonic ways. She had victory over that irresistible craving for intimacy that had driven her to sex with the nearest attractive guys she could lay her hands on. Maybe sex just wasn’t for her. She could handle it. Mostly. She began to forget that she’d asked God for a husband and a family. After all, she was within spitting distance of forty. She’d never wanted to be one of those woman who freak out because her biological clock is ticking. Contentment was safe. Being content made it easy to forget that her deep desire for specific intimacy might still be there. She only knew two ways to handle desire: 100% containment, or unleashing the beast. Taming it wasn’t her area of expertise.

There were occasional prods, pokes that woke desire, caused it to stick its nose out of its hibernation cave. Uninvited moments that delighted her but also left her feeling a bit like she’d been ambushed. There was the memorable week when she finally connected with a neighbor the day before he was supposed to move out of town. They went for drinks after he’d found her lost dog, and they closed down the bar talking. He extended his stay day by day as they made a tour of Anchorage restaurants and bars, talking late into the night like they’d known each other for years. Then it began to snow. The threat of icy roads on the trip south finally drove him away, leaving her with ghost traces of his kiss and the pressure of his hand on her back. It was just as well. A pasture fenced by time (not heartbreak) was a safe place for desire to come out and play.

There were moments like that, glimmers, really, when circumstances pushed desire out into the light. Emmy didn’t seek them out, but she didn’t fight them. Then came a weekend–she joked to her friends that it was “fertility weekend”. It also happened to be the weekend of the Super Bowl. There came a weekend when desire was pushed out into the open, naked and blinking. It started with a friend’s baby shower on Saturday. This friend was Emmy’s age, and pregnant with her first child. Emmy had avoided baby showers for awhile–the reminder that her ex had never been ready for kids was just too painful. But she was past that now, and she went happily, the token single friend with a gift of wine to save for after the baby was born.

There was, however, something a little different this time. You see, Emmy had been having dreams. Strange dreams about houses that stretch and grow. (To be continued…)

 

 

Letters from Christ (Part 2): A Little Background

I’ve gotten a few messages from friends and family saying they wonder where I’m going with this blog series on sex. (Side note: it is a personal goal to get as many people as possible to feel comfortable enough talking about this topic to comment publicly. Right now, public commenters are the minority by a wide margin.) It occurred to me that I haven’t been all that clear about my perspective on this. The fact is that I don’t know where I’m going with it, either. I do not have an end point or goal in mind. Call it a performance piece. Call it an act of faith. I consider it both.

Let me take a step back and tell you how I see God work. That crazy book called the Bible is hands-down the most masterful knitting together of images and themes across historical occurrences over centuries that ever… oh wait, it’s the only one. There’s nothing like it. When I studied literary theory in school, I heard about (and from) Christians who were skeptical of the discipline because theorists loved to point out how many different authors there were in the Bible. People got all worked up because someone said that maybe Moses hadn’t actually written the books that centuries of tradition attributed to him. For my part, I’m always amazed that, with so many writers, the Bible is so unified. If you don’t believe me, find a Bible with footnotes for the cross-references. Every page has like a half dozen or more. And that’s the basics. Pick up a study Bible or commentary and you’ll begin to see more and more. There aren’t too many authors with that kind of complex cohesiveness (Shakespeare and James Joyce come to mind). But to do that with (at minimum) dozens of authors over centuries, and to have an Author personality that shines through all of the writers’ voices… If you study literature like I do, it really beggars belief. It is truly an amazing book.

But not only did God author the Bible, He’s the master storyteller of my life. I quoted this passage in an earlier post: “And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Corinthians 3:3) There are many, many verses about people being “God’s workmanship” (Ephesians 2:1), about God being our “author and finisher” (Hebrews 12:2). The way He ties images and events together in the Bible? He does that in my life, too.

I believe in that so wholeheartedly that I don’t feel like I need to know my endpoint to start writing about this. My Author knows where it’s going. If I give the process to Him, He’ll carry it to its goal (Philippians 1:6). I believe that God can speak to me and those around me through my circumstances. I believe my testimony of His work of grace in my life is the most powerful thing I can narrate, and I believe He uses my failings as well as my successes. I’m not afraid of me being wrong, because I have seen Him work more powerfully through my weakness than through my strength (2 Corinthians 12:9). So I narrate and leave the conclusion to Him. As Oswald Chambers says in today’s reading, “The well of your incompleteness is deep, but make the effort and look away to Him.” When I make room for Him, He shows up. Every time.

The questions I’m asking in this blog series? They’re questions I’m exploring as I write these posts. I started this blog series because I was dating someone I was really fond of (we’ve since broken up), and struggling to find a path that honored God with my body AND my heart. I had also started writing some parts of my life into my divorce memoir where it was glaringly clear that sometimes the things you do to avoid sexual immorality can be worse. You know, like pushing a boyfriend who wasn’t ready (and, in retrospect, probably wasn’t REALLY interested) into marriage so we’d have an acceptable outlet for sex. I don’t see anything God-honoring about that.

The Bible says that God doesn’t tempt us. But my pastor and another wise friend pointed out that He does TEST us. God does reveal when something in me heart or head is off as an opportunity for me to stretch and grow. Temptation uses my desires to stretch me toward disobedience. Testing uses my desires to stretch me toward obedience. Either way, there is tension there as I’m shaped to a new mold. If I look back on how God has worked in my life, He is usually very slow, careful, and deliberate when it comes to unveiling sin. It is almost never an overnight process, because body, heart, and soul have to step out of it together. When I feel inclined to do something I know is wrong, my first reaction is no longer to panic and try to pull the emergency break. I pull out the desire in front of me, prayerfully examine my heart with God, and try to figure out how I got there to begin with, how to get all the parts of me dancing to a different rhythm.

So, this blog series is me doing that. It’s me taking step after faltering step, nudging my foot forward and around with each one, waiting to put my weight on it until I can feel the rock of Truth under it. And sometimes getting it wrong. It’s my working the Truth into my life as it happens, with God alongside. (Philippians 2:12) Lucky you, dear Reader. You get a front-row seat. Better grab the popcorn.

 

 

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.

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.

 

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…)