Patheos invited me to review Ashamed No More by T. C. Ryan who writes about his own life experience battling sexual compulsive behavior from adolescence on while simultaneously serving his church as a senior pastor for 20 years. The first half of the book does a thorough job of describing the “set up” many religious people find themselves in as they strive to live the standards and principles of their faith – specifically by clarifying the relationship between inner shaming and the inescapable scenario of sin and brokenness we all find ourselves in. He speaks of a loving God who understands our weaknesses and loves us regardless. Yet, because there is such a focus on moral behavior within church communities, we can become paralyzed with shame instead of approaching our weaknesses from a more accepting space where God wants to walk with us on the journey of individual progress – instead of standing unattainably in front of us while we attempt to walk towards Him. ”The thing that is really important to know about God is that he’s never ever surprised by our failures, our brokenness. Nor is he put out by it… So shame is toxic to strugglers, is a lie about who we really are and is something Jesus refused to apply to those he came to set free.”
Ryan speaks to the importance of understanding what drives compulsive behavior to begin with. He explains the roles unmet attachment needs, trauma, and neurobiology play in the development of poor coping skills people often adopt as a means of survival and pain avoidance. Often religious communities, instead of taking this empathic stance, perceive and treat known sinners as weak, selfish, and uncommitted to God – further isolating those who are in desperate need of a loving and supportive space to worship within.
Therefore, in the second half of the book, Ryan forces us to consider our own failings in applying the grace of Christianity, both as individuals and as a “church” which further exacerbate the problems we face in relation to unhealthy sexual behavior. One of his strongest statements which saddens him and saddens me to agree with is, “The church is often the least safe place to be a real person.” This is because of the unnecessary vilification some of our sinful behavior engenders. When the emphasis of “good Christian” living is focused so heavily on our behavior instead of our ongoing journey of self progression, it is difficult to reveal our weaknesses. Especially when they are met with disciplinary action, inability to continue serving in certain callings and accountability focused only on decreasing said behavior. He continues, “The biggest threat facing the church in America isn’t the erosion of ‘moral values’ in our culture. It isn’t the rampant drug use or the growing divide between upper and lower classes or encroaching relativism or foreign terrorists. The biggest threat is the hiding and pretending of those who make up the church. We aren’t honest about our failings.”
He challenges “the church” to put sexuality in proper perspective. Instead of elevating sexual sin above all others, again making it difficult for those who struggle to be sexually honest and open, we can adopt healthier attitudes and be willing to offer helpful sexual education. ”Our behaviors do matter, and we can help each other understand why we have some of the impulses we have and what to do with the way we’ve been formed sexually as we’ve grown up. All these are natural and healthy issues that ought to be addressed in the spiritual community. When we do, we send the message to emerging generations that their sexuality is not something to be afraid of or ashamed of but is a powerful and wonderful gift from our Creator.”
There is only one thing I’d like to push back on. Ryan approaches the issue of sexual compulsion primarily from the lens of having some type of traumatic history. In my experience, I have worked with many members in the Mormon church who report being raised in loving families with no traumatic event occurring in the sense of what we may usually consider “trauma” (i.e. abuse, neglect, etc.). In these cases, I often find the “trauma” which has played a significant role to the individual’s inability to comfortably integrate their sexuality is the tremendous shame correlated to teachings of masturbation being sinful behavior. As long as Ryan and other ecclesiastical leaders take the stance that a normative part of human sexual development is wrong in the eyes of God, the negative effects of shame Ryan so eloquently describes in his book, will continue to fester within our communities.
Otherwise, I strongly appreciated Ryan’s willingness to share his personal story, his framing of information regarding sexual compulsion and the shame cycle, his respectful challenge to church organizations and Christian individuals, and his scripturally based perspectives regarding our relationship with a divine being who is willing to engage with us towards transcendence and wholeness.