Healthy Sexuality for Today's Generation
Suzy tried for years to stay sexually pure until getting a popular boyfriend. His advances were thrilling, and one night Suzy gave in. They experiment sexually now, but haven't actually "had sex" (meaning vaginal intercourse). Experimenting with heavy make-out sessions & oral sex makes Suzy feel so close to her boyfriend, and helps her feel like he'll stay with her forever.
Chris has never had sex with anyone, but out of boredom he spends most of science class engaging in sexual fantasy about the cheerleader that sits next to him; it clouds his mind until he goes home and releases the sexual tension through masturbation. He sometimes jokes about girls with his friends but the thin film of shame never quite goes away; neither does the nagging reality that these fantasy sessions are the best part of his day.
Becky started wearing baggy boys clothes a year ago, and wishes her name wasn't so...girly. She doesn't want anyone getting too close to her, and she's successful; at the same time she doesn't understand why she still so often feels afraid, anxious, and cripplingly lonely.
Ryan doesn't understand why, ever since he hit puberty in junior high, all his sexual passion and energy has only been directed toward the other boys in class rather than the girls. He wants a girlfriend in some ways, but wonders if everyone else is right about him: maybe he is gay.
Julie was sexually abused by her brother when she was younger. She thinks all that's behind her now. What's frustrating to her, though, is that she can't seem to control her eating habits, and she finds herself only really feeling safe when she hangs around the gay guys in school. They're funny, they listen, and they feel safe; the only problem is she knows at this rate she may never actually find romantic love.
Will's always been a leader in his youth group, and he's never really gotten mixed up in sexual sin. He has a lot of questions, however, and his parents don't seem to have a lot of answers. As college approaches, he wonders if he's strong enough to fight off sexual temptation in a college environment. White-knuckling has helped him stay pure so far, but how long can that last?
Where to Begin
When it comes to sexuality, so much confusion exists in our culture. For most teenagers, the voices of the entertainment industry & friends are loud, mysterious, and enticing, while the voice of Christians seems to be...well...quite silent, if not condemning and restrictive. Parents are often uncomfortable talking about sex, and many times they substitute a few "don'ts" in lieu of an in-depth conversation about the meaning and pleasures of healthy, God-ordained sexuality. Gender, specifically, is a reality that is hardly ever discussed today. Our world celebrates androgyny – the tendency to reject gender identity as "man" and "woman" and celebrate a blurring of the lines. Why should a boy not wear women's skinny jeans? Why can't a boy and a girl be close, intimate friends? Oftentimes Christians take a stand for boundaries such as these without really being able to formulate an answer to why such behaviors are "bad", or what a good alternative would be. The result? A generation like Suzy, Chris, Becky, and Ryan. (Or worse...How many of us have just taken a dive off the deep end to indulge our darkest sexual compulsions?) Unsure of who we are, and caught off guard by the exponential increase in sexual hormones that takes place in the teenage body during puberty, many of us feel trapped in a confusing, exciting, and enticing world without a guide, and as we navigate based on our feelings, a deep shame and despair sets in, along with a crippling sense that God is probably not happy at all with what we've done with our newly-ignited sexuality. If HE's angry, what is there to do?
Let me start out by telling you my story. I grew up in a Christian family, immersed in the Church and all things Jesus. The problem was, from an early age I struggled in some intense sexual confusion that I didn't understand at all, and certainly couldn't talk about. From as early as first grade, I began experiencing homosexual dreams, and not long after that a neighbor friend of mine started encouraging me to participate in sexual play with him.
The problem only grew worse in junior high. As puberty hit, I started feeling sexually drawn to my guy friends. This horrified me, so I kept it a huge secret. However, in the secret world of my thought life I spent a lot of my free time coming up with intense, complex sexual fantasies in my mind, and I would follow these fantasy scenarios through to masturbation several times a day. It left me feeling deeply ashamed, and it left me feeling cripplingly distant from God, but it was also the "best" part of my day! I kept this whole cycle a secret from everybody, especially the homosexuality part of it.
Although I had tons of "Bible knowledge," I unwittingly entered college with no kind of foundation for who I was in Christ or how to walk with Him in the area of sexuality and relationships. This left me vulnerable to a new world, where everyone was partying, having fun, and experimenting sexually. Although I knew I was supposed to think this was all wrong, all my college friends seemed like they were having a great time, and actually seemed quite liberated compared to my double-life. I soon "came out of the closet" and started exploring this new world of sexual liberation for myself.
For the next five years, I ran away from God and took control of my own sexuality. The thought never entered my mind that I was "sexually broken" – that term was offensive to me. The only issue I had was that I seemed to have a hard time committing to a relationship, and the friendships and romantic relationships in my life were chaotic, unhealthy, and unfulfilling – usually feeling more like a burden than a good thing. I began to get called out for being unfaithful, promiscuous and deceptive, and I finally realized – I am a dangerous man. The more I indulge the desires of my heart, the more I actually hurt other people. And the more I focused on trying to satisfy my sexual urges, the more the sexual urges only increased.
This dilemma made me realize I hated the man I had become, and caused me to seek after truth. And just like Jesus always seems to do, He met me there at rock bottom and revealed His love to me. That was five years ago, and since then I've been on a journey of figuring out why God created sex, why my sexual reality disagreed with the truth of the Bible, and what Jesus thought about my messed-up, confused state. As I share the answers He's given me, I pray the Holy Spirit will bring illumination to what truth looks like, and what the heart of God looks like, in your particular situation.
The good news is, the first thing God ever spoke to me is a truth that has been life-defining; and I can guarantee it is true for you as well: He said, "I'm not mad at you." God is NOT shocked by your sexual struggle, nor is He angry about the ways you've messed up.
Take a minute to read John 4:1-42. In this situation, Jesus encounters a woman who has messed up quite a bit sexually. She's given herself sexually to many different men; now she's living with her boyfriend. Jesus's response to her is pretty astounding.First, He tells her that "true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship Him" (verse 23). Did you catch that? Essentially, Jesus is telling her, "GOD HIMSELF desires you and seeks after you! And all He wants is your honesty – He wants you to give yourself to Him and get real with Him – tell Him the truth about everything in your life and heart." He then reveals His identity to her as Messiah. I believe this is the first recorded moment in the book of John where Jesus clearly identifies himself to another human being as the Christ. I can't help but find hope in this. Far from condemning those of us who struggle with sexual sin, Jesus gives even greater revelation of Himself, His identity, and the way he sees us in our humanity. You know what happened to this "sexual sinner"? She became a power-evangelist, who saw many in her city saved because of her bold testimony of Jesus (v. 39-42). Instead of condemnation, Jesus brings destiny.
The second thing Jesus did for me was that He took me through all the pain and mistakes of my life, and showed me His presence in the midst of it all. You see, Jesus wants us to know something: He is present in the midst of our darkest hours and most difficult struggles. Oftentimes we think of our sexual and spiritual reality like this: the less sexual struggle or temptation we have, the higher our ability to encounter God is. When we start struggling, however, it often feels like the presence of God just bought the quickest one-way ticket out of town!
The truth is that we do better in our sexual struggles when we bring our dirty thoughts TO God rather than trying to take care of them ourselves and then show God what a good job we did. What did getting honest with God look like for me? I began to say aloud to God, "Jesus, this specific fantasy (name the specific temptation) is oppressing my mind. I want it really bad. But I want YOU more. Help me Jesus! What should I do with this fantasy/temptation?" Jesus will give specific direction if we will ask Him and listen. Sometimes He'll direct us to tell a friend where we are struggling or failing. Sometimes He'll direct us to worship Him or pray certain things. Sometimes He'll tell us to leave a tempting environment. But He's always present while we're struggling or hurting, and He's ready to help us if we'll just ask. Transparency is what a healthy prayer life looks like, and the best part about it is that it works.
The third, and ultimate, grace that Jesus has given me, and is still giving: He actually healed my sexuality. Jesus showed me the extent to which my sexual struggle was connected with identity conflict. You see, I had compartmentalized my sexuality in an unbiblical way. I thought that my sexual struggle was all about sex, but Jesus showed me that my sexual struggle was connected to every belief I had ever held about God, myself, and others. My relationship with my parents was a huge part of my sexual struggle. My finances were connected with my sexual struggle. A much bigger issue in my life than homosexuality or lust or addiction was the issue of insecurity. The fear that I didn't measure up as a man, the fear that I didn't measure up as a Christian, the fear that I didn't measure up as a human...fear and insecurity dominated my life; and in my brokenness I had sought to gain security by taking the reigns away from God and controlling my own sex life. By making myself sexually desirable to those who had rejected me, I sought to combat insecurity and the fear that I was un-lovable. This reality in my heart was the REAL issue; homosexuality and promiscuity were just the cover-up, the obvious manifestation of a deep need in my heart.
Jesus showed me the truth about sexuality: it involves me giving my total humanity (body, heart, emotions) to another. Therefore, any area of my humanity that wasn't brought to life by the Holy Spirit would, and will, wreak havoc and bring death to me in the area of sexuality. I thought that "healing my sexuality" would mean that I would never be tempted again; Jesus showed me that healing wasn't the absence of struggle, but it was the ability to bring my weak, wounded, tempted heart to the Great Healer and allow Him to administer the loving touch I needed to become alive to His Spirit and to all His creation, male and female. His acceptance of me in my broken state defeated insecurity by showing me the truth: I was not only worthy of love, but I was loved extravagantly by God Himself.
As I opened up my heart to God, He revealed my judgments against myself, men, women, and my parents. He showed me the ways I'd been sinned against. He showed me how to truly forgive. He told me who I am. (In His wisdom, He revealed that my very given name, "Andrew", means "strong, masculine one". He knew the answers to my deepest struggles before I was even born.) He told me what it means to be a REAL man. He showed me how to lay down my fears and step into my identity as a man, without grasping onto another way of receiving worth like seduction or isolation (I had called isolation "independence" in my brokenness). By loving me, He showed me what love looks like, and empowered me to love others in the same way: with humility, mercy, and patience. He re-introduced me to humanity, and gave me His eyes through which to see my friends and family. As He restored my personhood, my sexual desires naturally (more accurately, supernaturally) changed: I began to desire what God wanted for me, rather than the broken, grasping attempts to secure love to which I had resorted earlier in life. He gave me the freedom to choose where my sexual desire was directed, and He replaced humans as my soul's greatest desire. His will became true life to me, and still is to this day.
For many of us, admitting we need healing in our sexuality is no easy task. Our culture is extremely permissive, and Satan can quickly make us think, "Well, I'm not THAT screwed up. Sure, I'm not perfect, but at least I don't do that. Besides, everyone indulges a little bit, right?" Before we talk more about healing sexual brokenness, let's explore what healthy sexuality looks like from God's perspective.
Who thought up sex?
After creating the world, the plants, and the animal kingdom, God decided to crown His creation with His favorite creation: humans. "God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.'" (Genesis 1:26) Only human beings have the capacity to actually reflect what God looks and acts like. Although most of us think of God as male, the Bible actually tells us that "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created him." (Gen 1:27) This verse is foundational because it speaks to our identity as people, and specifically as gendered people, male or female. Men alone cannot reflect the image of God; and neither can women. Men and women relating together reveal the image and the glory of God. We've all had moments where we look at the other gender and said, "They are so weird" or, "Why do they do that?" The reason for this is that there are unique aspects of the character of God that are reflected mainly in men, and other aspects that are reflected primarily in women. Just like God is holy, meaning He's different from us; so our gender identity makes us look at the opposite gender and say, "Wow, they are different."
This difference in our genders is what makes us hunger for the other-ness that we miss in our own gender. You see this physical reality in the certain body parts and attributes that the opposite sex finds most attractive – usually they are the body parts or aspects that are absent in one's own gender. Men are often attracted to breasts because they have none. Women are often attracted to muscular men because they lack the capacity to grow them to such extent. While true physically, this gender reality goes much deeper than physical appearance, into emotional relating patterns and deeply rooted character traits. Compassion and mercy are predominantly feminine characteristics, while courage and discipline are predominantly masculine. All people demonstrate both masculine and feminine characteristics, but men are created to primarily demonstrate masculinity, and women primarily femininity. The differences are not bad; they are actually designed by God.
So what does this have to do with sexuality?
The creation of our sexuality is found in the very beginning of the Bible, when God says, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper corresponding to him...she shall be called woman" (Gen 2:18, 23b). The difference in our gender means that woman is uniquely able to help man out of his loneliness. Knowing this, God fashioned the perfect bride for Adam, brought them together in marriage so that they could bear much fruit (meaning experience a lot of sexual pleasure in the process of pro-creating.) After all, when man and woman come together in marriage and begin a sexual relationship to create new life, they can most powerfully reflect our great, Creator God.
God created us as sexual beings, and he called our sexuality VERY good (Gen 1:31). The Great story of the Bible begins with a wedding joining Adam and Eve, and ends with the wedding uniting Christ and His Bride, the Church. The picture of marriage parallels our experience with Christ: after we realize we are made for Him and can only be truly secure in Him, we make a covenant with Him and bear fruit by partnering with His Holy Spirit in this world. I'm not saying that we have sexual relations with God; in fact sex pales in comparison to the unimaginable pleasure we can experience as we obey Christ and partner with Him to see His kingdom of health, security, salvation, and righteousness bear fruit on the earth. In other words, sex will never bring us ultimate pleasure; but really knowing Jesus can bring us this pleasure (Psalms 16:11).
This may all sound great, but most of us find ourselves falling brutally short of this ideal of holy sexuality. Most of us find ourselves loving other people for the underlying purpose of GETTING love from them, rather than loving others and ourselves out of the overflow of God's love in us. Rather than standing secure in our identities as male and female, many of us are insecure in the way we represent our own gender, and most of us look down on, mock, make fun of, or else idolize the opposite gender. Realizing how far we've wandered away from Eden, how do we ever get back to sexuality as God intended?
For those of us broken and messed up in our gender, identity, or sexuality, Jesus offers some really good news.His death on the cross didn't just pay for the penalty of our sins or save us from Hell, His death and resurrection also made a way for us to be TOTALLY healed in our identity, and completely restored to His vision of truly healthy relationships. If we let Him work in us, the change He brings is quite miraculous. In fact, many ministers (including myself) who have walked with people involved in sexual brokenness would tell you that often, as Jesus restores the hearts of the broken, these very ones become like the Samaritan woman in John 4 – they become powerful evangelists, anointed counselors, and vessels that have a special capacity to receive the Holy Spirit, because they get to experience intimate salvation and restoration in the core areas of their heart. Once Jesus tells someone personally & intimately who he/she is, all things are truly possible (Phil. 4:12-13). How does this happen?
Step One: Get Real
First, we have to let God in. This means that we have to take our walls down and our masks off. We have to stop pretending like there's nothing wrong, and we have to relinquish our desire to control our own sexual struggle. Years ago, Jesus told me exactly why He had never taken my sexual struggles away like I wanted Him to, why I had felt so un-healed for so long. He said, "Andrew, my word says to confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you can be healed (James 5:16). This is my prescription for healing. If you had a severe infection, and your doctor prescribed medicine for you, but you never took the medicine, do you think your body would heal? Of course not, you'd get worse and worse! So, when I tell you that you have to become known by others in your sin and brokenness if you want to be healed, trust me. This is the only way." As I got honest, I realized that my deepest need wasn't for my struggle with sin to be removed; my deepest need was to know that I was loved in the middle of those times when I was a mess. Those who want to keep up a good face to others may succeed in saving their reputation, but I'd rather see my SOUL saved than my reputation. When we get to the point of desperately wanting righteousness in our sexuality, we will swallow the medicine and let others know our area of struggle. Then we will start to see healing.This is an always-true statement: secrecy empowers sin. Secrecy especially empowers sexual sin, so the first step in being set free to follow Christ in our sexuality is to tell someone what's wrong.
This needs to go beyond confession of bad behavior into confession of areas in our hearts or beliefs that block the truth of God. When I started telling Jesus and others things like, "I feel like I've always been girly," "I believe women are super-critical," and "spiritual leaders are insensitive and hurtful," an amazing thing started to happen. Jesus would speak, sometimes directly to me in prayer, and sometimes through other trusted believers. He would show me why I believed the things I believed, why I felt the ways I felt, and what the truth was to replace all those lies.
Many times, this involved forgiving others that had sinned against me. In fact, I find that most people's sexual problems are tied up more with anger and unforgiveness towards those that have sinned AGAINST him or her rather than an inability to deal with one's own sins. In other words, the problem (pornography, homosexuality, self-hatred) is hardly ever REALLY the problem. Most times, identity conflict and sexual brokenness is more about making peace with our earthly Mom and Dad than it is about self-control or setting appropriate boundaries. As we get honest before God and others, we'll see where the problem really is, where lies entered in, and we will begin to experience the freedom that comes when specific truth is spoken into the deepest places of need (John 8:32). Most Christians call this "accountability," but I prefer to think of this process as just being known in truth.
Step Two: Get Protected
The second key to Christ's healing of our sexuality and identity is that we have to let God protect us. One word for this is "boundaries." Now, I bet that when you read that word, there's a place in your heart that screams, "NO!" We often hear "boundaries" and think "restriction". But really, we should hear "boundaries" and think "protection". If I saw a stray dog in my neighborhood, I may go over to pet it. But if it bites me, and I make the painful discovery that the dog was rabid, I would probably never attempt to play with that dog again. That's exactly how sin works. All of us wander into sin at some point or another, but if we keep going back to the same environments that caused us to stumble, we have only ourselves to blame when we stay in bondage.
Practically speaking, I know that there are certain freedoms I have in Christ that I simply cannot enjoy because I know they will cause me to sin. There are many movies that look wonderful to me, but I will not watch those movies because I know the sexual content will cause me trouble. I have found that several places in my city consistently cause me to struggle with sexual temptation, so I decide not to go there alone. For me personally, social networking sites like Facebook could be a really convenient way to connect with friends, but Jesus has shown me that they also bring about temptation in my heart to look at pictures I shouldn't be looking at, or to stay connected to old friends that influence me negatively. Therefore, I choose to say "yes" to the protection that Jesus offers me. This protection is better than exercising all my freedom, only to find myself in the bondage of sin.
If we refuse to have boundaries on our computers and in our friendships (and certainly in our romantic relationships), we will never walk in freedom. Jesus puts it this way in Matthew 16:25: if we try to save our life (keep our freedom & do what we want), we will lose it; but if we will lose our rights and freedom to Christ, we will find true life, and true freedom in Christ.
Step Three: Get Strong
Accountability and boundaries are great, but unless we are engaging in life-giving relationship with Christ, we will never walk in actual healing in our sexuality. Remember, our sexuality is only a shadow – the real thing is knowing Christ. Many people can successfully suppress their sexual urges, but only Jesus can bring us true healing and keep us from becoming like white-washed tombs that look good on the outside but are dead on the inside (Matthew 23:27). As we discipline ourselves to get in His presence every day, He will faithfully, patiently, and powerfully restore our hearts, and teach us how to fight spiritual battles with spiritual weapons (2 Corinthians 10:4).
We all have an enemy, who knows our vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Military generals will tell you that when they plan an attack, they look at enemy territory, and attack the most vulnerable areas first. Satan does the same thing to us. He knows that adolescents (along with all humans) are prone to sexual struggle, insecurity, and self-hatred, and so where do you think he most often attacks? Of course, he attacks our weakest areas. But this doesn't have to be discouraging knowledge.
Every attack of Satan is really just another opportunity to defeat Satan. Jesus has guaranteed us victory (Romans 8:1), and uses these battles to teach us more about His character and His ways. He even uses our failures to teach us how to get better at fighting. All of us are learning about the Kingdom, and even people who have been following Jesus for decades are still learning more about Him and His ways. Give yourself permission to learn, permission to fail, and permission to be weak; and then use your weaknesses to experience the mercy and strength of God. Then we, like Paul, will be able to proclaim, "I will brag all the more about my weaknesses, because when I am weak, then I am strong!" (2 Corinthians 12:10)
Even though we feel weak in our identity, sexuality, and relationships, He sees strength in us. As we continue to allow Him into the darkest, weakest places of our lives, and continue to press into godly friendships, He will prove to us just how much He loves us, and just how well He knows what we need. Looking back on my life, I can honestly say that if I had the option to go back and remove ALL the sexual struggles of my life, all of my insecurity, and all of my wounds like rejection or ridicule, I wouldn't want to. That may sound crazy, but the pain and weakness in my life has been the primary way that I have gotten to know Jesus and His love for me. Knowing Him, and experiencing His love and freedom in my sexuality, makes every struggle worth it. I can assure you, that as you start down this journey of sexual wholeness with Jesus, if you will let Him in and persevere, you will become like the Samaritan woman in John 4. You will see Jesus in ways you never had before, and your experiences with Him will bring you to joyfully proclaim to all those you know, "Come and meet this man who has told me everything I ever did and has loved me through all of it!"