Confession: I’m vaguely embarrassed at how much time I’ve spent in the past two weeks thinking and writing about a man. I’ve been pretty decent at making daily time for writing these past two weeks. Not all of it is writing for the blog – sometimes it’s an article I’m working on, or a policy piece. But every day, the first thing that pops in my head is, “Do I need to write about him today?” Not want; need. That’s … weird to me.
While part of my sense of urgency is the girlish infatuation at which I have excelled since I was a girl, there’s a deeper level to what’s happening here. After so many relationships where I’ve been hurt – and so many terrible narratives I’ve constructed about what is wrong with me that causes me to keep getting hurt – having romantic feelings for someone isn’t fun anymore. It’s awful. It’s just become something to fear, something where I wait to see what new emotional trauma is on the horizon. I feel hope and joy for like, a day or two; almost everything after that is spirit-crushing doubt and despair.
In no particular order, here are various things I’ve believed about myself and my love life for the better part of a decade (some of them, much longer):
- I am too complicated and emotionally messy for anyone to be able to stand to be with me long-term.
- I threw away my one chance at happiness because I was too picky.
- I don’t understand how human relationships and human emotions work.
- I am old, fat, barren, and ugly.
- I am being punished by God for being sexually immoral in my youth, and I have used up/wasted all of the chances at finding a partner that I will ever be allotted.
- Not having a partner/having started a family means that everything else I do in my life is just marking time and trying to make up for that emptiness.
- I stopped being able to form lasting relationships after I was 10 years old.
- I’m the girl you sleep with, not the girl you marry.
- Desperation wafts off of me like bad body odor.
- I’m boy-crazy and slutty.
Looking at that list hurts. It’s such a terrible set of things to say about myself. And having named all these terrible things that go through my mind on a regular basis, it’s hard not to feed right back into the loop and say, “Of course you’re unlovable. Who could love someone who’s absence of self-worth has become a bottomless pit? You made your bed by being so sucky – now lie in it, alone.”
This past week, some good readings from my Thrive by 45 devotional, along with a great sermon at church today, are helping me to create a new way to walk in the world. I’m being reminded of the depth and fullness of God’s love for me. I’m being reminded of His faithfulness and abundance, which I have experienced in every facet of my life. I’m slowly – ever so slowly – coming to understand that my relationship and sexual past is not irredeemable; Christ’s blood covers everything, and I am a new creation. I don’t have to live in discontent, despair, and shame.
I need to pause here, and tell the story of how this man and I came to be together that night. Because there’s an important thing I need to talk about when it comes to Christian women and sex. You can skip to the end if you like, but you’ll miss the good stuff.
I grew up believing that sex outside of marriage was sinful and wrong, and that I needed to keep myself pure. I discovered sex at 16, and it became a tremendous, overpowering force in my life – one where my body and its needs felt constantly at war with my spirit and its needs. I have a deep capacity for emotional connection and a high sex drive. That was how the Lord “fearfully and wonderfully” made me (Psalm 139:14).
Church culture doesn’t give anyone honest guidance about sex. Abstinence teaching as I’ve seen it provided in the church is a combination of shaming people for having sexual urges and doing everything to hide the fact that sex is amazing. I think it’s possible to practice abstinence for an extended period of time – I’ve done it – and it might even be possible to practice it for life. But if you base that practice on shame and deceit, it will not be successful. Witness the Catholic Church’s sex scandals … and the many, many evangelical Christian teenagers and adults who have sex outside of marriage. Whatever the church thinks it’s doing, it’s not working.
So if you’re a single Christian adult past the age of 25, chances are very high that you’re having sex – but that you also have a ton of screwed up conflicts about it based on shady narratives from church teachings that have far more to do with using the church to dominate other people than with helping them experience freedom in Christ. For me, that has manifested in extended periods of abstinence (and loneliness) broken up by periodic dating relationships (which always included sex) and ill-advised sexual encounters when a relationship wasn’t available as an outlet (which always left me feeling ashamed and used). Throughout all of these periods ran a thread of feeling like I was constantly disobeying God in thought, word or deed – combined with a profound conviction that God didn’t love me and didn’t care about me if He made me such a deeply sexual person and then set the rules of Christian living so that I could never have that part of me satisfied.
There is a terrible spiritual cost to the way that church culture talks about sex. The cost is that I have felt, for years, that God did not truly love me and was using my sex drive to test and punish me. That is wrong. I have spent years in profound despair and crushing depression because I believed that I couldn’t ever bring my sexual and relational needs before God in an honest way and not be “sinful.” I’ve been unable to trust Him with this part of my life because I felt that who I was was always wrong before Him – and because He didn’t make me a different kind of person who didn’t have such strong sexual urges, I could never truly be right with Him.
I received a beautiful spiritual gift during my recent intensive leadership training. The morning after keening for liberation, I was in prayer, and I realized that I’d been spending years trying to pretend to the Lord that I didn’t want things that I really wanted, and that the needs in my body and my soul weren’t real. I realized I’d been trying to front with God – which was so dumb, because we both knew the whole time what I really thought and felt. But I thought being a good Christian woman meant that I had to pretend I didn’t think and feel those things, or that I had to squash them immediately through thought and prayer “discipline.” Those buried needs and the narratives I used to bury them had been tearing up my mind and spirit.
But then God told me to stretch out – and to ask him honestly for what I really wanted. He told me that I could trust Him, so I did. I told Him that I needed to have sex at Weeklong. I told Him about the absence of physical intimacy that I could feel in every fiber of my body. I told Him everything … and He heard me.
He turned my mourning into dancing (Jer. 31:13). He answered my prayer with a sense of freedom and joy that morning – and by opening the way that evening to the physical love I also needed. And as the God who is able to do exceedingly abundantly more than I can ask or imagine (Eph. 3:20), He gave me far more than I expected that night. I was kissed and held and touched in a way that made me feel not just sexually satisfied, but loved. I felt like someone saw me and found me utterly desirable and beautiful. I felt cared for, and precious. The intensity of how that experience touched me still takes my breath away a bit.
I’m not going to make some ruling on how Biblical teachings about sex should be interpreted. This is not a discourse on hermeneutics and exegesis. This also isn’t a fairy tale: despite what I might have liked, this was not the start of a passionate long-distance affair, and I may not ever be in a romantic relationship with the man I met. This is the story of how God is healing my relationship with Him, which has been terribly battered by false narratives about my sexuality – but thankfully never broken, because He is so faithful. This is a story of the true freedom and new life that comes from being able to trust Him completely. I have no idea how it ends – but I’m in the middle of my favorite work, by my favorite Author.
I’m learning to live in hope. I’m discovering that it’s a practice: a practice of tossing out old, bad stories about who I am and who God is and how the world works, and replacing them with good news about God’s promises and his vision for me. It’s a practice of daily re-commitment to trust instead of fear. And it’s a practice of learning to be OK with what I know and what I don’t know. I don’t know if I have a future with this man. I don’t know exactly what all this is supposed to mean for my sex life on an ongoing basis. I hope – but I don’t yet know – that I will find an amazing partner with whom I can start a family.
But I do know how much God loves me, and how patiently He has waited and guided me to this point. I do know that I am walking into a new place where joy is the rule of my life instead of doubt and sadness. And I know, for sure, that what He’s preparing for me next – not just for my public life, or with my family and friends, but when it comes to my love life and my sex life – is more glorious than anything I can yet conceive (1 Cor. 2:9).
“And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
— 1 Cor. 13:13