Under His Voice: Obedience Beyond the Law

My quest to find the sweet spot in sex is not the only place I’m doing what I’m doing. In fact, it’s informed by other areas of my life where I’ve experienced the lifechanging power of the presence of God. A lot of what I’m doing for myself (and trying to make transparent to you, my dear readers), is trying to tear down things I encounter on this topic that don’t seem like they’re infused with His presence.  I’ve seen how unexpected and radical His impact on my life is in other areas, I want more of Him in all the parts of my life.

Now, if you’ve heard about the presence of God your entire life, I need to ask you to set aside your assumptions about what I mean for a minute. This is not the “I met God and turned my life around and now I’m happy behind my white picket fence” stories we’ve all heard. This is something far more radical.

I was baptized when I was ten, and I’ve gone to church my whole life. But there is something decidedly different about the last few years of my walk with God. I’ve always known how to follow His law, and I thought that was the goal, the end point. I thought that Christ died to enable me to follow the rules because my sinful heart was unable to do it on its own. But as I’ve let go of my ability to follow the rules (legalism) or lack of it (shame) to take ahold of the Person of God, as I’ve run hard after His presence in every aspect of my life, I’ve begun to see my life operate with a beauty, an elegance, an ineffable efficiency that I never would have thought possible.

I’ve realized that laws are just a way to see symptoms that I’m setting something else in a place where God’s presence should be. God doesn’t tell us things like “don’t commit adultery” so that we can just stop. He tells us so we can recognize a lack of Him in that particular area of our lives. It’s not for behavior modification, it’s for return to relationship with Him. If a good friend and I keep arguing over the same thing over and over, the way to fix it isn’t just to stop it already. It’s to find the relational breakdown and repair it, to  find the path to draw closer to each other. Obedience doesn’t satisfy the law, Christ does. (Matthew 5:17-25) And life with Christ is so, so much more… alive than what we get from just following rules.

His sacrifice on the cross doesn’t zap me with power to go and follow His laws. It helps me know where to bring my life to Him to fill it up. And when He’s there, when His reign is present… wow. When God and I have worked together to clear away misconecptions and idols, it’s like those areas of my life operate in a whole different universe. Time works differently. Money works differently. Relationships work differently. The pieces of my life fall into a breathtakingly elegant orbit around Christ at the center. And it is about as far from feeling safe in a cushy, satisfied life as I can handle.

Discipline and law are just a beginning, not an end in and of themselves. Discipline helps me get rid of the junk that’s been in the way of God’s work in my life. It clears the cobwebs from my vision so I can see Him work and join Him in it. And when He does step in, hang onto your hat. There is abundant life like I’ve never seen it before.

A good example of this is financial discipline. There’s a difference between Dave Ramsey and the loaves and fishes or the widow’s oil. Structure and rules will benefit you in the long run. Financially, they’ll get you to a safe place (most of the time). Obedience to rules helps eliminate risk. But there’s a different kind of obedience. 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). Christ fulfilled the law. The law points us TO A PERSON. Deep obedience means being under His voice. To love His laws, yes, but to love Him even more. To the point that I will move past the safety and convention of laws when He asks me to. When people are hungry, to obey immediately when He asks me to give my only food to help feed others.

I did a Dave Ramsey course a few years ago. It helped clear away the clutter in my budget. As I finished the course, I felt called to live on half my income. I’ve spent two years working toward that. I thought that was the goal. Now that I’ve gotten there, He’s moving me toward more. He’s shown me how He provided for me over the years in ways I didn’t realize, years when I was angry at Him for letting me pour my time and resources into things I felt like didn’t give me appropriate return. I’m still benefitting from the abundance I was blind to during those years—they’ve paid for my house, among other things. A few months ago, gratitude for that moved me to tell God I’d give whatever money to whomever I felt called in my heart to give. I gave away several thousand dollars. One gift saved someone’s life (although I didn’t know it at the time). And then I got my tax return back—the largest ever—for more than I’d given away. Yesterday I gave that away, too. I’m anticipating another return on that so I can do it again. I’ll let you now when and how that happens, because I have no idea. I’m eagerly waiting for that surprise.

God wants us to invest as He does—high risk investment in people. Giving to the last. That’s the kind of giving He multiplies. And it’s well outside what conventional financial wisdom would tell us to do. It’s not only about obedience to rules, but intimate obedience, being under His voice not under His thumb. Sure, conventional wisdom and laws play a role. If I were squandering money in ways dishonoring to God, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing. But that’s just the start, it’s not the end point.

What does any of this have to do with sex? I’m glad you asked. Having seen the glory of God working in my life in other areas, I want that in my romantic life. It’s hard to describe what God does, but when I started this blog series, I hadn’t seen Him working in that part of my life the way I have begun to see in other parts. It wasn’t there when I was hooking up, and it also wasn’t there when I embraced legalism. One of the big problems I have with most Christian books on sex is that they emphasize rules for their own sake. On one hand, some explain why God’s design is for sex within marriage and then scare us with all of the ways doing it wrong can hurt us. Not necessarily untrue, but also not helpful. Marginally better (but still not great) are the descriptions of why the rules work, what the benefits are. Again, not untrue, but it’s not what I’m looking for here. I mean, really? Is anyone inspired by Christian literature on sex to run out and give up everything for it (Matthew 13:44)? I’m not.

I want to see the lifegiving, lifechanging power of God in relationship and sex. I don’t want to learn how to save myself from drowning. I don’t want to learn how to tread water. I want to learn to mount up on eagles’ wings, to shoot past the surface into the air. I don’t want to just quench my thirst to avoid dying, I want living water (John 4:10). I don’t just want to survive, I want abundant life (John 10:10). I want the new self (Ephesians 4:20-24). I want to find God where the rules are fulfilled and the abundant life begins. Rules are the first step (if we understand the heart of them), but they’re not the end in and of themselves. Jesus is.

Maybe I’m blind, but this is just not something I see yet in Christian literature in sex, and it’s not something I see often in the relationships around me. So, I’m just going to go after Jesus Himself the only way I know how—keep getting rid of the things that don’t look like Him until I begin to see Him showing up more brightly and clearly. I don’t know what it will look like when He does step in, but, dear reader, I know it will be amazing.

Chips, Queso, & Sex Drive

One reader asked me to write about the male sex drive. Since I’m not male… take this with a very large grain of salt. Perhaps even a block of salt, or an entire salt mine. This is my take based on my non-scientific observations. Because you have to start somewhere… (I’m not even going to try to address gender identity or any of that. I think my brain would explode. Maybe another day.)

I wrote recently about how we often use sex to address loneliness. I honestly think a big part of our sexual culture (from any perspective—oversexed, undersexed, the rules we make, the rules we break) is not about sex, but driven by or shaped to address problems of loneliness and isolation. I think this is a bigger issue for men than for women, for two reasons. The first is that women are taught from an early age to solve problems socially, even problems that aren’t social in nature. Give us an engineering problem, and we’ll address it by building a team and talking about it. Men (for better or worse) are taught to be more independent. I don’t think either is necessarily bad—they both have advantages and disadvantages. However, when it comes to addressing problems related to social isolation, we women seem to be more well-equipped. If nothing else, we seem to be more aware when we’re lonely.

The second factor in difference between male and female sex drives is the fact that boys typically discover sexual self-satisfaction earlier in their lives and more easily. It’s just… out there and easy to find. I don’t have kids, but I’ve heard from many moms of boys how young they are when they figure out self-soothing. Disappointed? Sad? Lonely? Angry? There’s a quick fix that will make you feel great for awhile even if the problem hasn’t gone away. Again, I’m not going to say that’s good or bad. Just different. What it does, though, is open an opportunity for boys to learn to use sex hormones to address problems that could be handled differently. Girls may develop a bigger toolkit for dealing with disappointment because we typically figure out that mechanism for releasing our own pleasure hormones later in life (if ever). We have to solve social-emotional problems creatively.

Here’s another food comparison. (I make so many food-sex comparisons, I’m starting to wonder if my sexual preferences are more kitchen thank kink.) I eat emotionally because it’s worked for me my whole life. Sometime in my formative years, I learned that chips and queso make me feel better, even if they’re not solving my emotional problems. Eating gives me a shortcut to achieving my end goal of feeling better, even if it doesn’t last. It’s not the best, but it’s effective enough that I keep doing it (and I probably will until I find a more powerful alternative). I learned to do that from a very young age—it’s deeply engrained in my habits and very hard to overcome. You may laugh when I say that I NEED chips and queso, but it sure feels that way sometimes.

This is controversial, but based on my own experience I’m going to say that sex isn’t a critical need. We can live without it. People do it all the time. I’ve spent most of my thirties celibate, the majority of that time out of a choice to be faithful rather than a choice to be celibate. That was hard. I remember describing myself as a starving animal at one point. I wouldn’t have chosen the sexless years of my marriage, but I grew through them. I grew even more by keeping a celibate lifestyle by choice later on. Personal growth is not what happens when you are deprived of something you need. If you’re deprived of something you need, you don’t become a more complete person, you eventually go crazy or you die. Was it right for my ex-husband to deprive me of sex for years? No. I wasn’t happy about it, but I was ok.

Celibacy isn’t some magic that you either have or you don’t—it’s an acquired skill. I think sex feels like an urgent biological need because we’re using it to biochemically patch deficiencies in the things we DO need to survive, like love and help and relationship. That’s why, even if we’re getting sex, it can feel like a compulsion. The more sex I have and the less emotional connection, the more I’m going to feel like I need sex, regardless of how much sex I’m actually getting.

So you have a society that’s relationally starved, you have boys growing up with one powerful tool for self-soothing that is well-developed and other tools underdeveloped. Throw in porn, and discovering sex at a time when we’re just learning to function socially as adults, and it’s easy to see how sex can become a panacea for problems it may not actually be the best tool to solve. I’d be sex-crazed too if I thought it was the only way I could fill certain needs. Oh wait, I have been.

I think we (men and women) sometimes use sex as a patch for relational problems. My thought is that there may be reasons men seem to lean more heavily on it. It’s powerfully effective temporarily. So is cocaine, for that matter. But when the hormones wear off, the problem is still there. I don’t think that’s what sex is meant for. (Or, not the ONLY or even primary thing it’s meant for.) Like emotional eating, it’s incredibly painful to remove it unless it’s already been replaced with something else that will fill the same need. Don’t take away my chips and queso if I have no other way to feel better after a crummy day at work. Don’t take away sex if when it’s gone I find myself desperately, irremediably alone.

Polyamory & the Pence Rule

I started out this blog series intending to blog about sex every day for a month. It’s been well over a month, and I haven’t come close to blogging every day. That’s just WAY more writing than I can handle. I’m just going to continue on the topic, posting at random intervals until I get tired of it. How does that sound? 🙂

As I’ve been writing on sex, I’ve gotten a lot of reading suggestions from friends. I’ve been reading as voraciously as it’s possible for a slow reader to do. This suggestion from an old friend (who knows my background very well) was one of the more intriguing ones:

This is going to be an odd suggestion, and you are of course welcome to ignore it, but… The best sex/relationship advise I have heard since the end of my marriage has nearly all come out of the polyamorous/ethical nonmonogamy world. Which, may sound odd, but the thing is, in order to balance multiple relationships, you have to first think far more deeply about relationships than most people ever do to begin with, and then you wind up with far more practical experience than most ever get.

Based on his recommendation, I’ve been reading The Smart Girl’s Guide to Polyamory, Everything You Need to Know About Open Relationships, Non-Monogamy, and Alternative Love by Dedeker WinstonI want to make something really clear from the beginning of this post: polyamory is not something that’s on the table for me. It’s just not. Moral questions aside, I’m just not built that way. I could spill some serious ink on that, but I’ll save it for another time.

So, with that out of the way, can I say that my friend was spot on? Can I call myself a polyamorist who doesn’t believe in having multiple sex partners at the same time? The book wasn’t just packed with really good, practical advice for dealing with people (I learned more from this book about good arguments than I have almost anywhere else), there were a ton of things I agreed with on a more philosophical level. I’ll probably write more posts about this, but the huge point of agreement that leapt out at me was this:

The way our culture treats monogamous relationships saddles them with too much and deprives us of significant benefits from other relationships.

One of the beautiful parts of Smart Girl’s Guide was when Winston wrote about how much love there is to be found everywhere. How polyamorists don’t like to tie themselves to one person because there are so many amazing people in the world, because no one person will meet all of your needs. Smart Girl’s Guide talks about raising children in communities, about open lines of communication between multiple partners, about going to one person to meet some needs and another for others. That reminds me of how I’ve learned to live my life, first out of necessity but now out of appreciation for the richness of my life with so much love from all sides. Spending years in a non-functioning marriage sucked, but one thing it did do for me was force me to look for healthy, supporting relationships outside of that one relationship and to appreciate the power of platonic touch. (I also pursued less healthy alternatives, but we’ll get to that in a minute.)

If you pursue it, there is a wealth of relationship to be had. I won’t pretend I’m great at this, but it is something I value and appreciate and put effort into. I’m not currently in a romantic relationship, but I have friends I can turn to in emergencies. I have a whole flock of people who will give me long hugs or hold my hand when I need it. (One friend has a 20-second minimum for hugs. It’s the best.) There are people who cook for me when I’m sick and check in on me when I’m down. People who have held me so tightly when I cried that I got snot in their hair. (Yeah, that’s happened. Twice. You’ve been warned.)

When I talk to friends all over the country, it is clear that my experience is tragically exceptional. Our culture is suffering from a deep, pervasive poverty of relationships. I’ve stopped counting the number of friends who have told me they are chronically lonely. Stay-at-home moms and retirees who barely have contact with the world outside their homes other than Facebook. People who don’t have friends other than their spouses. Sure, some of that can be personality driven. Some people are super introverted and they are happy that way. That’s fine, and it’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about people who are lonely, isolated, and deeply, deeply unhappy.

What does that have to do with sex? Well, I’m glad you asked. The common thread I see between the polyamory book and evangelical “purity culture” is that both associate that kind of closeness primarily with sexual relationships (inside or outside of marriage). Smart Girl jumps to the conclusion that, since we should be pursuing deeper relationships with more people, we should also be having sex with them. Purity culture guards carefully against all kinds of extramarital relationships because it sees any intimacy as a stepping stone to sex. Think about the Pence/Billy Graham Rule, that implies that men and women shouldn’t be alone together under any circumstances because it’s dangerous to their marriages. I have married friends who don’t text or email friends of the opposite sex without including their spouse in the conversation.

Those are unfortunately not uncommon, but one less common rule I’ve heard of that is worth mentioning because boils my blood is a 3-second limit on hugs. Between anyone.(Old news, I know. But still annoying.) WHAT ON GOD’S GREAT EARTH IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE IF THEY CAN’T HUG ANYONE WITHOUT FEELING FRISKY? I mean, am I crazy to think that most physical touch can and should be platonic? (Seriously, even in a romantic relationship, how much touch time is spent on sex? Shouldn’t there be just as much time holding hands and snuggling on the couch and sleeping in each other’s arms? I’m a big fan of sex, but other physical contact across all kinds of relationships is also great. I want both!!) Okay, I’m done ranting…

So… let’s consider that we evangelicals may be addressing a culture that is relationally malnourished by cutting back its food. If I thought I needed to have sex with people to have those kinds of close relationships, I would. Oh wait, I HAVE. Having started an affair over text message, I will tell you right now that lax rules about texting weren’t the heart of the problem. The heart was loneliness. When well-meaning friends told me, “take these guys numbers off your phone!” that’s pretty much what I told them. If I’m starving, locking the refrigerator isn’t going to help when there’s a store right down the street.

I don’t think rampant infidelity (particularly in the church) is a problem created by easy access. I think it stems, in part, from thinking it is only (or even mainly) romantic relationships that will feed our need, then limiting other relationships to protect The Sacred One. We are afraid because our romantic relationships aren’t what they should be, so we elevate them by digging a deep trench around them, carving away, diminishing, even eliminating other relationships. When we’re trying to keep the bad stuff out, we’re keeping the good out, too. When we put all of our eggs in the one rather unrealistic relationship basket, we’re contributing to a toxically lonely environment for ourselves.

I think healthy friendships make for healthy partners make for healthy partnerships. I think it’s very possible that normalizing platonic friendships between men and women and building more community in general makes cheating less enticing. If I don’t depend on one relationship to meet all my needs, I won’t give up on it so readily. And–dare I say it?–it seems like sex should be better when it’s an expression of joy overflowing from the life I have rather than an act of desperate grasping for the one I don’t…

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.

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…)

Letters from Christ

There is one area of my sex life where I feel like I’ve had real, unqualified joy and personal growth with God, and that is celibacy. I also spent years wanting sex with my spouse and not getting it. I will tell you up front that choosing celibacy from a place filled with love and having celibacy forced on you are not at all the same thing. I hope I would never push someone into celibacy who doesn’t understand the potential for growth and intimacy and beauty that can come with it. That said, I want my first personal story in this blog series to be about the sexual experience I’ve found the most value in so far. So, celibacy it is.

Shocked yet? Angry? Good. I probably would be, too.

But first, a quick word about my approach to this month o’ sex blogging.

I spent the morning yesterday responding to comments and private messages about my last post. I’m grateful to everyone who has shared their stories and their hearts in really vulnerable ways. That kind of connection is Facebook at its best, if you ask me. Several people recommended books, and I spent yesterday afternoon combing through them, hoping I might come across some new insight before I launch myself into what feels like a scary and shocking gap. I was reminded of some good and helpful points, but I didn’t find anything new.

That got me thinking… what is my real beef with how people are approaching this topic publicly (books, blogs, etc)? I think I may be able to articulate it now thanks to your stories and these books you recommended: regardless of the perspective people are coming from about how sex should be done, most of the writing is prescriptive. It’s so much more “you should…” than “I have… and here’s what happened and what I learned from it.” The author of one of the books I read yesterday throws a “quick confession” into the introduction: “Unfortunately, Lauren and I didn’t follow quite a bit of what we’re about to walk through in this book.” Wait… what? I want to hear that story. If you’re going to recommend a course of action you didn’t follow (or even one you did), I want to hear about what you did and what you learned in the moment. If God spoke to you through your circumstances (good or bad, right or wrong), I REALLY want to hear about that. I want to hear it way more than I want to hear your opinion on what I should be doing. I sped through half the book hoping the author would get back to it, and so far he has not. It’s too bad.

As someone who loves Jesus, there are a few core things I believe about God that are relevant here. I’ll explain them briefly. The first is that, while His law is perfect and beautiful and right and unchanging, He cares more about people than He cares about the law. How else could the gospel be true? “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:28. I don’t think it’s that big a stretch to replace “Sabbath” with “Law” in that context. If you’re unfamiliar with that story, it is well worth checking out.) Humanity is the crown of God’s creation (Genesis 1:26), the reflection of Him on earth (2 Corinthians 3:18), His special handiwork (Ephesians 2:10), not the law.

The second is that I believe God’s grace made possible through Jesus’ death means that He can take every moment of our lives and use them for His glory, our joy, and other people’s edification (Romans 5:20). Every. Moment. Not just the peaks but the valleys. If His “grace is sufficient”, if His “power is made perfect” in my weakness (2 Cor. 12:9), why would I hide my weakness? Why would I be hesitant to show where I’m struggling? If God is working in me through my strengths AND weaknesses, why would I only speak to you about His work in you from a place the shows only my strength? I feel like a lot of authors (Christian or otherwise) only write when they can do it from a place of strength, especially when it comes to sex. I’m not going to. Or I’m going to try not to. It’s an easy trap to fall into, so please let me know if you see me doing that.

The third core thing I know about God is that He knows the power of personal testimony. One of my favorite verses is in I John 1:

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.” (I John 1:1-4)

In other words, this is the apostle John, speaking on behalf of himself and the other apostles, saying, “We’re telling you what we know first hand, what we have experienced—the presence of Christ and the amazing, unending life of joy that comes with it. And we’re going to tell you that without holding back about the stupid things we did as we learned. Because it is the presence of Emmanuel—God with us—that gives the stories meaning.” Seriously, writing the gospels must have been a very humbling experience for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They look like bumbling dorks a lot of the time. Jesus looks amazing.

Sure, there’s law in the Bible. There’s prescriptive writing. And it’s important. But there’s also a ton of personal history, stories about people’s encounters with God. Those people don’t usually come out looking super shiny and amazing, but it would be hard to argue with the effect of the presence of God in their lives. I want more of that in writing about sex. Right now, prescriptive writing is way out of proportion with testimony. Yes, tell me law, tell me why it works. But also tell me how God worked through your sex successes and your sex failures. Where is He in your life?

There are, of course, novels. There are memoirs. There are stories out there about people’s love lives and sex—I love reading the Modern Love column in the New York Times. But I want to hear these stories in the context of God’s truth and His work. The Bible says, “You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, 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) I want to BE a letter from Christ, and I want to show you the stories of other people who ARE his letters. I hope that’s what you get from my blog over the next 29 days.

Oops, too much ink spilled writing about God. Still angry about celibacy? Save it for tomorrow. I’ll show up in my celibacy cheerleading outfit.