Chapter 1: Why We Have to Rethink Sexuality
Few things are more terrifying than being completely lost and alone.
When we first moved to Colorado Springs, my husband and I were determined to take advantage of the natural beauty. One evening after work, Mike and I got someone to watch the kids, and we set out to conquer Eagle Peak, a challenging hike on the US Air Force Academy base. It was summer, so we were confident that we could hit the summit and be back in our car by sunset.
Eagle Peak proved more challenging than we anticipated, and we reached the summit with little sunlight left in the day. Mike wanted to enjoy the beautiful view at the top for a few minutes, but I was worried about hiking in the dark, so I got a head start on my descent. Unfortunately, I took the wrong trail.
The evening turned out to be one of the most stressful adventures of my life. Mike headed down the right path, assuming that he would quickly catch up to me. I was left to navigate the mountain by myself in the dark, ill prepared, with no guide and no experience. There were moments of that evening when I wondered whether I would ever see my husband and children again.
By God’s grace, I reached the trailhead a few hours later, where my frantic husband was waiting for me. He had Air Force personnel preparing for a search and rescue mission, ready with a helicopter.
While not as tangible as being lost in the dark, the journey of sexuality can be just as lonely and terrifying.
It can be a journey of shame from sexual choices and struggles.
A journey of confusion: What does God really say about sexuality?
A journey of division as church families are torn apart by disagreements about sexual issues.
A journey of despair as you watch a loved one trapped in addiction.
A journey of conflict as a husband and wife encounter sexual difficulty.
There seems to be no reliable guide or discernible path toward truth in the middle of this darkness. We feel wholly unprepared to navigate the unfamiliar questions and challenges of sexuality in the twenty-first century.
I believe that God is a “search and rescue” God. His truth is a light in the darkness, and He brings along men and women to guide us when we aren’t sure how to find our way home. I pray that this book is one such guide.
Our sexuality is a tremendous gift from God. However, we rarely see it as a gift because it has been so twisted and tainted in our personal experiences and our culture. There is perhaps no aspect of humanity that represents more pain and shame than sexuality.
Once, when I was speaking at a Christian university, a young engaged couple waited to talk privately with me afterward. “Dr. Slattery, how do we invite God to begin restoring us sexually? We are getting married in four months, and we both have a bunch of junk in our past.” It turns out that the young man was a pastor’s kid and the young woman had grown up on the mission field. Both had come from loving, conservative families, and both were raised in a church culture that never talked about sex, outside of traditional purity retreats.
The young man spoke about being involved in pornography, and the young woman shared that she had been sexually abused by a cousin. They didn’t feel safe talking about these experiences with their parents or anyone in their church families. Before they met each other, both had engaged in self-destructive behaviors (cutting and disordered eating) to try to purge the guilt and shame they felt about their sexual brokenness. Now they carried additional shame for having sex with each other before saying “I do.”
Here they stood, their faces so young and innocent, yet their lives and future marriage marred by sexual wounds. They had been raised in the “ideal” Christian culture, with devoted Christian parents. Yes, God can redeem the stories of these young people. His truth can replace lies and bring healing. But how have we as their parents, mentors, and educators failed in helping them navigate such pain and struggle?
I could tell you plenty of stories from people just like these two. Some young, some old. Some male, some female. Some married, some single. People searching for truth about sexuality and wondering whether God can meet them in such a private journey.
For far too long, Christianity has not represented a safe place for pilgrims to find help related to sexuality. Ironically, everyone seems to be talking about sex but rarely within the context of home and church. It’s time to change that, and it starts with you and me.
The idea of engaging in sexual conversations is a bit overwhelming! Sexual topics are controversial, vulnerable, and potentially painful. So, naturally, we don’t want to “go there.” I vividly remember the first time I spoke publicly (and reluctantly) on the topic of sexuality. The year was 2002, and I was speaking at a women’s conference. I can still picture the room and feel the heat on my face as I talked about the importance of sexual intimacy in marriage and about all the ways it can get derailed. The women were absolutely silent. As their eyes bored into me, I began to break out in hives. Even as I spoke, I silently prayed, God, I must have heard You wrong. I will never speak on sex again. Just please get me through the next thirty-five minutes.
As soon as I finished speaking, women began lining up to talk to me. They shared stories of pain, ranging from porn addictions to secret affairs to memories of past sexual abuse. As I talked and prayed with them, my silent prayers changed. God, I’m so sorry. I had no idea that there was this much pain in this room. Thank You for making this a safe place for women to learn and get help. I realized that I had been contributing to the problem. I had bought into the belief that God is squeamish about our sexual questions and problems.
Christians have a long history of avoiding and mishandling topics of sexuality. For generations, we simply didn’t talk about things such as sexual addiction, sexual abuse, sexual dysfunction, or even sexual pleasure in marriage. People were left to navigate this terrain on their own or seek help from modern psychology.
When the church has addressed these questions, it’s too often been with a judgmental, condemning tone. The focus has been on compelling teenagers to stay virgins and exposing the many ways sexuality translates into sin. Because we tend to address sexuality with this problem-solving approach, we divide people into categories of virgins and sinners, sexually whole and sexually broken. If you found yourself in the wrong category, church was the last place you wanted to seek help.
In today’s world, we are unable to ignore the sexual pain and questions around us. And let’s be honest: the culture seems to be a more compelling and consistent guide than the church. Ask Christians their views on issues such as sexual orientation, cohabitation, sexual healing, and masturbation, and you will likely get confused stares or conflicting statements of what the Bible actually says. The world is watching and laughing as Christians who worship the same God and read the same Bible can’t agree on God’s intention for sexuality. We can’t guide others if we ourselves are lost.
Although sexuality presents an enormous challenge to Christians and to the world at large, it is not a problem to be solved but a territory to be reclaimed. The culture has captured the conversation of sexuality with a persuasive narrative, while Christians seem stifled with an outdated list of sexual dos and don’ts. We will never combat the growing confusion and pain of sexuality by swatting at the issues of pornography, premarital sex, same-sex attraction, sex trafficking, sexual harassment in the workplace, and abuse. Each of these problems is a devastating by-product of a larger tragedy: we don’t understand sexuality within the context of the Christian narrative and the call to follow Jesus. As a result, Christian leaders and parents are at a loss as to how to navigate the growing chorus of sexual pain and chaos.
Respected author and Christian leader Philip Yancey stated, “I know of no greater failure among Christians than in presenting a persuasive approach to sexuality.” We worship a God who created sex for a purpose and has communicated His design both in creation and through His Word. The Bible tells us that we have everything we need to live a life of godliness through Christ Jesus. I believe that includes our sexuality. However, God’s truth won’t make a difference in this area of our lives unless we change our approach and begin reclaiming the lost territory of sexuality.
Time to Speak Up
Sociologists Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker commented on the most common parental approach to the topic of sex: “American parents just can’t bring themselves to have an ongoing dialogue about sexuality with their teenage or young-adult children. Parents much prefer a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy: We hope our kids won’t ask us about what we did, so we won’t have to tell them. And in return, we won’t ask them about what they’re doing.”
This strategy isn’t just what’s used in homes; it’s also predominant within the church. Pastors and leaders don’t bring up the topic, hoping that you won’t either. I believe this is beginning to change, but historically Christians have just avoided talking about sex. I’ve been told that “these conversations don’t belong in the church.” If not the church, where do they belong? Sadly, because of this stance, sexual conversations are happening everywhere except the church.
Our silence on sex reinforces the belief that sexuality is dirty and ungodly. People conclude that God has little or nothing to say about our sexuality. Silence teaches us to hold on to our secret struggles and questions, which results in isolation and shame.
I hear from many Christians who long for the church to break this silence. Here’s a portion of an email I recently received:
A dear friend of mine shared with me about your ministry.
I had been praying since 2011.… Asking God some hard questions and believing that He was going to raise a woman to speak out loud about sexuality and marriage bed issues to not only the “church” but to the world! Why was I praying this?
Difficult betrayal and spiritual/sexual abuse had been occurring in my “Christian marriage” and I as a woman had nowhere to turn. There were no blogs or conferences.… I sensed the Christian ministry world was silent on these things. I had gone to my church for counsel and was absolutely devastated by the “guidance” I was given. So I turned to the skies as I was walking out into the church parking lot and asked, “What do You say, Lord”? He brought the chapter Isaiah 61 to my spirit. He would set my “captive” world free!
Freedom is now what I walk in every day because of God’s truths, healing, and His justice! I lean on the Word and His healing nature and character, yet my story of healing was not about my church’s influence in my healing journey. [The church] was silent, shaming and isolating. This prompted me to begin praying. God, who will You raise up? Who will be a mouthpiece to women?… I knew I was not alone. When God had me share my journey, my struggles… Wow, women began to talk.… A lot of them!
Believe me, I understand the appeal of silence on sex. I’m the mom of three sons. Even with my degrees and counseling experience, I have often found it awkward to address sexual topics with my kids. They don’t blush when there is a sexually charged commercial during a football game, but they blush when I bring up sex.
Now I find myself running a ministry, Authentic Intimacy, with the mission of reclaiming God’s design for sexuality. My job is to write, speak, and teach about biblical sexuality. Me, that girl who could barely say the word sex without turning five shades of red. Me, a woman who for many years of my marriage actively avoided sex within the one context God said I should pursue it. Little ol’ peacemaking me, who never wanted to say something that might offend someone else.
This wasn’t a calling I willingly signed up for. But I began to see that in every church on this planet, men and women silently struggle with temptation, shame, trauma, and confusion. They stay silent because we stay silent. Our silence tells them that God must be indifferent or too holy to care about their sexual temptations, their sexual pain, their terrifying memories, and their tormenting shame. If these questions and issues are too troubling for the church to address, many assume they also must be too great for God to handle.
God did not take the higher road, avoiding difficult and controversial topics. In our efforts to reflect Him on earth, neither should we. He was not shy about addressing sexuality. In fact, the Bible is quite a sexual book. It includes
~ an explicit endorsement of sexual pleasure in marriage (Song of Songs)
~ references to prostitution (Genesis 38 and Judges 16), incest (2 Samuel 13), and orgies (Genesis 19)
~ instructions on avoiding sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 6:12–20)
~ parental teaching on how to steward sexuality (Proverbs 5)
~ hope for healing and redemption from sexual brokenness (Psalm 34:18; Luke 7:36–50; John 4:1–42)
~ detailed metaphors of spiritual adultery and prostitution (Ezekiel 16 and the book of Hosea)
God has something to reveal to His church; He has truths in His Word that can bring hope and healing. We must be His ambassadors to take this truth to a hurting world.