My purpose with almost everything I write here is to communicate two things: 1) you are not alone and shame is not from Jesus, and 2) it is possible to develop an authentic theology of the body and live as an embodied sexual being and experience both healthy boundaries and real grace.

These two things have never been more true than for this post.

Please be gentle with me and with each other as we discuss this.

To begin, I’d like to tell you a story.

***

I didn’t have much of a sense of shame or self-awareness when I was young. I happily shed my clothes to play in the sprinklers in the front yard, and scandalized the neighbors (I was banned from playing with several neighbor kids because going nekkid in the sprinklers at 5 years old on a hot California afternoon in July was being a “bad influence”). I finger painted in my panties in our backyard at six, proudly drawing a red H on my chest and prancing around with it to show my parents. I skinny dipped in my best friend’s backyard pool with no thought that anyone wouldn’t do such a thing if given the chance.

I chatted up strangers at the grocery store and asked impertinent questions like “when are you going to have a baby? why is your skin brown? how old are you? do you know Jesus? do you like being fat?”

My mom used to say that God had given a child like me to introvert parents “to stretch us out of our comfort zone.”

And one summer evening, when I was 7 or 8, it was one of those evenings where the light fades late in the day and small children are restless in bed because they can still hear friends playing out in the street and the blinds are still glowing with sunset light. And as I was trying so very hard to be obedient and stay in bed and be quiet and fall asleep, I discovered a secret.

A few weeks later, my mom checked in with me and discovered me touching myself and we had a talk about it. “It helps me fall asleep quickly, Mom!” I explained.

“Well, it’s not really a good habit to get into,” she said. “Try to sleep with your hands away from your private parts.”

So I complied. Or tried to.

I was hooked. It felt amazing. But I managed to refrain more often that not, and kept it from becoming a habit.

Until I was 15 and more stressed than I had ever been before, with so much constant chaos at home, little privacy, regular demands on my time to babysit and help the family, lots of pressure to keep up in school (I was falling behind due to the chaos of toddler twin brothers and another infant in the house). And I was increasingly isolated from my peers as more and more of the things they became involved with were Things Our Family Doesn’t Do (movies, NCFCA debate, ballroom dance club, teen “care group” at church, top 40 radio, pop concerts, etc.). On top of all that, I found myself no longer getting along well with my roommate sister, and the constant tension between us over how to decorate our 10′ x 10′ bedroom, when lights-out should be, who could play music when, etc., sucked us both dry emotionally.

And so, to relieve the stress and distract my affection-starved self, I became addicted to sneaking romance novels from the library and reading them behind my school books. But after a while, I became fed up with the clichés and stock characters, and replaced this with a habit of masturbating when I was stressed and overwhelmed.

Dear reader, I didn’t realize that I was doing it to relieve stress, but looking back on how incredibly tense those three years were, I see it all now: that was my primary outlet and it was because I craved  affirmation, connection, unconditional love, and I wasn’t getting it at home and I couldn’t get it elsewhere AND. and. I was 15 and newly horny as hell. I thought instead that I was horribly perverted and a vile, filthy sinner.

I have the pain-laced journal entries from those three years to prove it. Usually confessory, they read something like this (spaced out at about two of these entries per week):

1) Frustration over some conflict with family member (during which description I beat myself up for being bothered by these things at all and ask God to make me more loving, loyal, content, peaceful).

2) Grief and appalled shame that I masturbated AGAIN.

3) Thanking God for being good to me even if I’m such a horrible worm and detestable in his eyes (cue long dramatic description akin to that found in Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”).

What happened, between the mild conversation with my mother (who, to her credit, never ever told me that masturbation was a sin or that my sex drive was wrong or shameful) when I was 8 and this perpetual emotional self-flagellation for my wickedness?

A couple of things happened: first, I got caught up in a church culture where shame and self-loathing were used by authority figures to prey on the insecurities of their congregants for the purposes of social control. Second, I became displaced when we moved from California and lost a lot of my self-confidence when I was introduced to Southern social expectations and felt the pressure to conform to [what seemed to me] bizarre standards of dignity and politeness. Suddenly I was immersed in a culture where sinner, sinner, sinner was emphasized spiritually, and girls were expected to be ethereal, saintly, soft-spoken, and elevated above the physical.

Happy little dirt-and-trees-and-creeks-and-loud-laughter-and-louder-ideas me was totally lost, and I was overeager to perform well and please everyone. But I had this secret.

And so I was caught in an overpowering sense of fear, shame, and guilt. I was the messed up one, the girl who wished she could attend the men’s retreat session on lust and pornography. The girl who was afraid to date someone because what might happen if I “woke love” and my desires increased more than they are now?! I was embarrassed because I liked my body, and all my friends hated theirs and dieted and binged and cut and hid theirs under frumpy clothes. I did, too, for fear of boys looking at me, but secretly I dreamed that someone might notice me beyond my frumpy clothes and see that I could pretty and desirable if I got a chance to try being so. And they all chattered on about what the most romantic proposal might be and who’d end up having the first baby, while I wondered what it might be like to be kissed and wondered if I was the only one among us who felt this way.

The rest of the story goes like an American rags-to-riches story, where I steeled myself with the power of shame and I fought hard and worked harder at school and chores and keeping busy, and I read myself to sleep at night and eventually broke the habit. I was free.

And I swore to myself that I would never tell anyone. Not even my husband. Because it was too dark and shameful and no one could ever know that I was that sort of person. 

***

Here’s the thing, though. That wasn’t a victory.

I killed a habit. But I sold my soul to shame in order to do it.

And the problem wasn’t whether masturbating was right or wrong. The problem was that I was using it to cope with stress. I sought out the cathartic high instead of facing the real issues I was living with — loneliness, anxiety, fear, anger. It could have been any number of things — I could have discovered cutting, I could have developed an unhealthy relationship with food, or become obsessed with working out or studying. But instead I developed an imbalanced, unhealthy relationship to my sexuality.

But like any “addict,” I supplanted one addiction for another to overcome the initial habit: I replaced masturbating with emotional self-flagellation.

And I never addressed the most fundamental missing puzzle piece to this whole thing: I never bothered to pair up a grace-centered understanding of myself as BOTH a child of God and a sexual being.

Stopping the “addiction” didn’t fix what was broken.

***

I’ve been thrilled to see so many wonderful faithful saints raising their voices to challenge the shame-centered Church teachings on virginity. This is a start to healing in the church that has long been needed.

Here’s my bone to pick with the Church on this: we can’t possibly create healthy marriages and a healthy theology of the body (and ourselves as sexual beings) if we assume that men are the only ones with sex drives, the only ones tempted to seek out titillation, the only ones prone to thinking with their genitals.

I’m sorry. That’s bullshit. My vagina likes to try to make my decisions for me, too.

Men are no more rapists in their natural state than I am asexual in my natural state.

These caricatures deny us both our humanity and a chance at a decent conversation about our sexuality and bodies and God’s intent for these beautiful, mysterious, pleasurable, soul-touching things we’re capable of creating when joined together in the fullness of human connection.

Limiting the conversation to “guard your heart” and “porn is wrong” and “don’t have sex, you’ll be damaged goods” is cheating ourselves out of mature discussions about why these things work the way they do, why our bodies are important, why emotions are beautiful and powerful and dangerously good, and traps us in a black-and-white world where we can only think with childish terms of understanding and control the deeper, more mature intuitions of our emotions and bodies with the blunt tool of fear and shame.

Shame as a tool for control creates perversions and nullifies grace. It does things like: twisting developing sexual habits so that some of my peers can only get off when they feel shame or pain; preventing virgin newlyweds from having happy and safe honeymoon sex because they’re unlearning years and years of fear-based self-control; letting married women think that sex should/can only be on their husbands’ terms of use/desire (e.g., she should only be turned on by what turns him on because they’re soul mates/made for each other/designed for each other); keeping married couples from communicating about what they like/don’t like in the bedroom, because of unspoken expectations about How Sex Is Done; etc., etc.

I’ve known people who got married and couldn’t have sex without having panic attacks, throwing up/feeling nauseous, tensing up and being unable to follow through with penetration (both him and her), feeling dirty and ashamed for desiring one’s spouse, for asking for any sexual favor from one’s spouse, and the list goes on. This is directly caused by the Church (okay, fine, the evangelical church) abdicating from a nuanced, mature, intellectual discussion of a Christian understanding of sex and the body jointly. These two things should never be discussed in isolation from each other.

I am not just a soul. I am an embodied being and my body is who I am just as much as my soul is. God made me this way and called it good. And part of this existence is that he made me a woman and he gave me a healthy sex drive and my body is good and I like sex.

And sex is spiritual AND physical, intimate and natural, meaningful and a bodily function. All together. At once.

Masturbation is natural and not necessarily sinful on its own. But objectifying human beings for sexual pleasure is wrong just as it’s wrong to be addicted to anything. Both choices are compromising to the soul.

But the worst is shame. An appropriate grief for sin is right and good. But dwelling on your sin and obsessing to the point of self-loathing? Jesus never taught that.

Perfect love casts out fear. Living life with delight in Jesus and in the grace found in relationship with him sets us free from fear, from shame, from being chained to shame or lust or arrogant self-righteousness.

Instead we receive each day with the promise of wholeness through identifying ourselves with Jesus and living without fear.

Dear friends. You are not alone.

Don’t be afraid.


I didn’t expect to write two angry-at-abusive-mindset posts back to back, but here I am. This needs to be said.

Christians take romantic relationships too seriously.

Not even just courtship-only Christians, or virgins-until-wedding-night Christians. Pretty much any sincere Christian who wants to serve God and honor him with how they handle a romantic relationship is going to be prone to this obsession with doing things right.

Let me back up.

Now, first: I have no regrets with how my life so far has turned out. It’s mine, it’s beautiful, it’s messy, it’s hard, but I have been a survivor and I have grown through hardship and become more me, more whole.

But. I feel that I was told some things which are common assumptions for most Christians, and I now think that these are unnecessary and harmful. So I’m going to name them.

1) Christians are given special knowledge about God’s will for their lives because they can have a relationship with God, so they should to get things right in romantic relationships because otherwise they’ll be a bad witness for the gospel. Subtext: the world is screwy and doesn’t get sex or love right because they don’t know Jesus, but we can because we do know Jesus. Sub-subtext: it’s us vs. The World.

2) Christians don’t need to fool around because they believe sex outside of marriage is wrong, and they should be able to get things right in relationships because they have Jesus, so it should be possible to find your mate quickly/early on without dating around a lot. This will show the world how we get it right and make them curious about Jesus because we’re different, and getting married at 22 instead of 28.

3) If assumptions #1 and #2 are true, a Christian couple can actually manage to be virgins on their wedding night, so all Christians really need to try to live up to this standard. There’s no good reason not to achieve this. If you don’t, your faith is probably weak and you’re a bad witness.

4) We have to submit to our authority structures in the family and in the church to be accountable in our relationships. Unbelievers don’t believe in God so they don’t have any respect for authority or accountability or consequences, so they’re more likely to sin sexually in a romantic relationship or just do what feels good instead of being responsible, committed, or mature. Christians know we are sinful and our hearts may want to be just like the unbelievers, so we need to be transparent to authority and have our fathers, mentors, and pastors help and guide us and let us know where we’re in sin, being lazy, or hurting our significant other in how we act in our relationships.

5) You may not end up with the one you’re with, so don’t do anything that would be committing emotional or physical infidelity. If your desires are uncontrollable, you probably need to marry the person you’re with, because it’s [somehow] less of a serious sin if you end up getting married.

6) Dating early (15-17) is okay as long as you are serious and committed to “honoring God” with your relationship and have older, wiser people involved.

7) Christians can have better marriages than unbelievers even if certain things in a relationship are harmful or immature, because knowing and practicing biblical gender roles and committing to your marriage vows will honor God’s plan for your life and he’ll give you extra grace for keeping your promises when it’s hard.

I saw a lot of people acting on these assumptions inside the Christian bubble, courtship-minded and not, complementarians and egalitarians, homeschoolers and mainstream Christians. The folks at my Christian college seemed to all be in a rush to be paired off at the end of senior year and married by the end of the summer after graduation. The folks in my homeschooling community back home similarly pressured themselves to pair off and get married and have babies — it was as if they felt like real adult life couldn’t commence if they weren’t settled down and married. Most of them would never dream of living on their own (away from their family of origin) unless it was to get married. [That’s an extreme that’s less common, but you get the point — real life starts when you’re married.]

Even my husband and I rushed to get married because we were trying to sate the intense pressure we felt from my dad and others to “get it right” — and for whatever reason it wasn’t seen as a good option to break up or take more time to be sure that we were sure, or that we were mature enough, or had done all the single-life things we wanted to do before getting married. My dad certainly pressured us to find those things out, but it was because marriage was seen as the endgame, not because it would make us better individuals.

I have a few thoughts on how to why these assumptions are harmful and how we can improve the way Christians approach dating/romance, but I’m just getting the conversation going, really.

Dating doesn’t have to be huge, serious, or marriage-focused. Maybe it can just be getting to know people and yourself. Maybe it can just be enjoying a person for who they are, and maybe the romance can just naturally flow from that sweet spot where connection and friendship meet. Maybe taking all those crappy purity metaphors too literally restricts us and makes us more naive and vulnerable to abusive situations than we should be. It undermines healthy emotional development and a right sense of boundaries to commit yourself to this complicated, authority-and-shame driven path where it’s easier to “mess up” than it is to enjoy a person and learn from your relationship with them, and then either move on, or continue to grow in trust and intimacy in a wholesome manner.

And dating relationships should never, ever be focused on proving a point about Christianity “getting it right” or some other bizarre evangelism-by-example tool. That goes against the truth of grace and the power of the incarnation. Relationships are human. We’re going to do some things right and we’re going to hurt each other. Jesus became human, not to show us how to do it right, but to meet us where we’re at and free us from shame.

Let’s talk about this. What do you think? How can Christians avoid making the subject of relationships and romance a legalistic fear fest? How can we practice healthy boundaries and emotional growth in romance? And can we please, please talk about how a right theology of the body would improve everything about Christian dating assumptions?