Responding to Lust, Confronting Shame: A Better Narrative for How The Church Talks About Sex

Sadly, Christian leaders are still falling prey to lust and the Church is drawn into their anguish.

Some, like Tullian Tchividjian—grandson of famed Billy Graham, and pastor at former D. James Kennedy’s Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church—are like rising stars that seem to fall abruptly out of the sky.

Hieronymus_Bosch_-_Triptych_of_Temptation_of_St_Anthony_(detail)_-_WGA2599Others might be featured less prominently in the media, but their anguish is felt deeply in their immediate community, like the suicide of John Gibson, loved pastor and seminary professor, who secretly battled sexual addiction and depression. Dr. Gibson took his life only days after hackers exposed millions of users from the site AshleyMadison.com, among which was his own name.

Anguish and death are the only proper words to use. Death and anguish are the inevitable fallouts of lust—for those struggling with lust, for those directly affected by their behaviours, and for the broader body of Christ. As a pastor, I have seen this anguish in all its forms: broken trust, failed covenants, captives to pornography, as well as unplanned pregnancies and those struggling with past sexual abuse and coercion. As members of one body we grieve and suffer the consequences together.

Old Problem, New Challenges

Many of us are familiar with the words from Psalm 51, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” We may be so familiar with these words that we ignore their greater context—a penitent leader after a tremendous moral fall. David’s broken heart and cry for forgiveness resonates with many in the church dealing with lust. I’ve heard these expressions from young people, married professionals, single adults and even pastors and missionaries.

Lust is certainly not new, but it has found new life in dramatic social shifts, technological advances, and the pride and power of modern leadership. The high incidence of pornography use, sex addiction, adultery, and sexual abuse may be one of the biggest challenges facing the Church today. Yet, we still have a seemingly underdeveloped capacity in responding to it and restoring those who have fallen into sexual sin.

A Better Narrative

Sociologist Rodney Starke, drew the following conclusion about the early church’s beliefs and practices:

“Christianity did not grow because of miracle working in the marketplaces (although there may have been much of that going on), or because Constantine said it should, or even because the martyrs gave it such credibility. It grew because Christians constituted an intense community… [The] Central doctrines of Christianity prompted and sustained attractive, liberating, and effective social relations and organizations.” (The Rise of Christianity, 208, 211, emphasis added)

Is the reverse also true? If our belief and social structures become unattractive, encumbered, and ineffective, will the Church continue to shrink in the face of rising secularism?

I’ve noticed that talking about sex today seems a good bit easier outside the Church than within. Conversations with teens about gender and sexuality are fluid and uninhibited. I cannot help but notice that their conception of sex is more normalized and that the conversation within our four walls is awkward and unperfected. Only in the last several years has the Church started to talk plainly about pornography, for example. Few churches can express a cohesive “theology” of sexuality and intimacy, and most of us are reluctant to confess sexual sin and receive help in the Church.

I once heard a psychiatrist say that the Church communicates about sex with “negative, excluding messages, and with ugly websites and poor arguments.”  Essentially, the Church is struggling to remain credible and cast an inspiring vision around sex.  If we truly want to challenge the narrative of popular culture around sex, we need to imagine a better narrative to sustain our beliefs about sex, sexuality, and intimacy.

Promoting Sex

“If we want to know what’s most sacred in this world, all we need do is look for what is most violently profaned.” (Christopher West, Theology of the Body for Beginners)

We stood in that supermarket a good while looking at cheap toys that I knew would let my son down. Then, I let him experience buying something with his own money that was sure to disappoint. It broke only a few hours later. It is frustrating and depressing to be sold on false advertising, especially when you don’t know any better.

The particular lie in the way sex is sold today is this—sex is primarily about fulfilling my desire. One Catholic theologian put it this way:

All particular temptations are expressions of this one original or ‘primordial’ temptation.  It is the temptation to believe that the fulfillment of the desires of the human heart depends entirely on us.

Pornography, in particular, reduces sex down to arousal and pleasure. Hooking up and casual sex without commitments are now mainstream and lifelong commitments of marriage are in great decline. One of the most amazing gifts the Church has to offer today is this—the good news that our deepest desires and fulfillment will actually come from the selflessness of others and by the grace of God. This includes our sexual desires and longing for intimacy.

Today we’re living with the cultural conclusion that it is easier to drop marriage but keep sex. Sex is used as a shortcut to intimacy and fulfillment of desire without a long-term commitment to another person. It’s a terribly truncated perspective. If the Church is going to succeed in casting a more convincing vision of sex, we will have to move beyond our messaging of just abstaining from sex, to actually promoting sex as a vital part of life and even spirituality.

I’m convinced that sex is a sort of ‘bounded’ good, in the sense that is experienced most fully in the context of marriage. At the same time, marriage is not the only intersection of sex in the Church. Sexual desires, not to mention the way we understand and think about sex, intersect at many other points in peoples’ lives. We actually need a “boundless” theology of sex that engages these intersections positively and pastorally.

It is often said that the best way to manage weeds in the garden is to grow good things where weeds might otherwise grow. The Church’s work is similar. We need to combat an inadequate understanding of sex by filling that space with a fuller, more robust celebration of it. This means intentionally planting conversations about sex where needed—among young adults and married couples, but also among singles, divorced, or widowed.

We all desire sex and intimacy. This is simply the way we are made. It is actually a taste of God himself, a taste of full communion and intimate understanding without selfishness. The world profanes it, and we must win in back in all its fullness.

Confronting Shame

A seasoned pastor recently told me, “I hardly remember the last time I married a couple who was not already living together or sleeping together.” This is the reality of the world today, but it is also an opportunity. Each couple that comes to us to be joined in marriage is an opportunity for pastoral care and guidance. This often includes the task of unpacking and confronting shame that has accumulated around their sexual journey.

Shame is an amazingly powerful thing. It doesn’t deny goodness or righteousness. It actually points to them. But, once we have fallen, we often hear: “You see what you did! This is who you are now.” Thankfully, this is only partially true—Yes, you did fail, yes you are responsible, but poor moral choices can be confessed and forgiven.

Shame can subtly move us from what we’ve done to who we are. By shaping our identity around what we’ve done, it keeps us in an endless loop of dishonour.

Just think about your own temptations and failures. Is it easy to move beyond them? Isn’t it easier to look backward with fear, than to look forward with hope?

I once asked someone how they imagined God felt about them in a particular moment of temptation. They imagined that He was disappointed, maybe even disgusted. It didn’t seem nearly as obvious that God might have felt compassion on them and recognized their deep longing for companionship and intimacy. God grieves sin with us, but He does not grieve our being or our identity. He calls us to place our identity in Him.

I’m told that shame originally meant something about “covering one’s self.” Adam and Eve felt shame, covered themselves, and hid from God. Our sin carries consequences, but nothing is graver than believing the lie that God no longer loves you or desires what’s best for you.

Shame has a grip on the Church that we must loosen.

So how do we move forward in hope? We must confront every instance of shame with confession and repentance (literally to change one’s mind in Greek) in order to experience grace and hope. Without this, the shame piles up and we do not see ourselves as God sees us, or even how the Church should see us—imperfect coworkers in God’s story of redeeming and restoring the world around us.

Cultivating Hope through Repentance

The reality is that many in the Church today are struggling with lust at some level. But, lust is nocturnal—it lives in the dark. By promoting a positive theology of sex, and by confronting shame, we are going into the dark places and shining light. But, the determining factor in how well the Church can deal with lust is its capacity to do confession and repentance well.

Confession and repentance are some of those things that we only do well if we practice. Unfortunately, some of our Christian communities are in need of some exercise and conditioning! David’s confession and repentant heart in Psalm 51 give us a great program to follow. We glean six core principles for confronting lust and processing it well.

  1. We need to assure one another that God’s nature is merciful and that he is willing to forgive when we seek Him in confession. (See verses 1-5)
  2. True confession is painfully honest. It does not seek to hide or minimize our actions. It recognizes truth for truth and exposes deceit and fallacy. (Verses 6-9)
  3. Repentance (change) is an inner work of transformation. Only the Holy Spirit can really change our thoughts and inner self, including freeing us from shame and giving us hope beyond our failures. (Verses 10-12)
  4. By God’s grace we experience freedom from sin, but there are often inevitable consequences that we may have to live with. In some cases there may even be remediation necessary if our sin has truly harmed another. (Verses 13-14)
  5. Helping reestablish those who confess and seek repentance is not an infrequent or undesirable function of the Church, its one of our primary and privileged (Verses 15-17)
  6. We cannot forget that there is a connection between an individual’s character formation and the larger community. This means that by doing confession and repentance well, we are ultimately promoting wider social well being.

Dealing with lust and sexual sin might not seem like the next obvious choice for a sermon series or home group Bible study. Yet, it does present a serious opportunity for the Church. It allows us to mediate on the nature of sex and intimacy. It allows us to assess our capacity to participate with God in restoring others. And, it allows us to pastor others toward healthier patterns of confession and repentance.

It involves grief and anguish at times. But if we do it well, we will challenge the mainstream narrative around sex that falls so short and cast a truly attractive, liberating, and effective vision for others in the name of Christ and His Church.

*This is an article I originally wrote for Promise Keepers Canada, found in the Nov/Dec 2015 issue of SEVEN magazine.  If you are interested in re-publishing this article, please contact me.  Note that republication without permission infringes on my rights as well as the original publisher.  Thanks!

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