Sex, Shame, and the Gospel… resources for conversation

Sex, Shame, and the Gospel… resources for conversation October 9, 2012

We Christians, especially in America, are terrible at having healthy conversations about sexuality and sexual ethics.  The landscape of these conversations are ripe with charges, counter-charges, fear, and sweeping judgements, so much so that when I write about sexuality, I need to read all the comments carefully so as to remove the hateful words that inevitably show up, offered in the name of “staying true to the faith” or “holiness” or some other such nonsense, in much the same way that the Pharisees had their rocks in hand, ready to kill, but only after they’d used the woman caught in adultery to catch Jesus in a theological conundrum so that they could condemn him too.  He’d have none of it, though, for either the woman or himself.  That’s because the gospel is, after all, good news – for the woman caught in adultery, and for literally every other person on the planet, if we’ll but let it be what it actually is.

No other arena of Christian ethics kills the hope of the gospel more than the slaughtering we’ve done of sexual ethics.  We invoke church discipline in this arena inconsistently and harshly, in ways that elevate some sins above others.  We act as if Christian sexual ethics are easy and absolute, the same everywhere for all time, when the reality is that our ethic is fluid, as seen in dress codes, french kissing, oral sex, the distinction between longing and lust, and o so much more.  We sometimes act is if heterosexual sin is less offensive to God than homosexual sin.  And worst of all, actions become labels:  She’s not a teenager sold into sexual slavery who performs sex acts as a means of providing food for her family; she’s a prostitute.  He’s not a man who occasionally fantasizes about sexual experiences with other men –  he’s a homosexual.  She’s not a woman who loves her husband fiercely, but in one night of drunken weak will, gave up her fidelity at a high school reunion and woke up with regret.  She’s an adulterer.

These labels we give each other take all the nuances that are our sexuality and turn them into a label we’re then told to wear, as if this action, or that longing is who we are.  This is what flames shame, and hence non-confession, and hence hypocrisy.  This makes honest and nuanced conversation about Christian sexuality difficult, even impossible in some circles.  As a result, the whole topic’s driven underground.  As Jenell Williams Paris writes in her marvelous book, “Reticence to engage the issues in a sustained and civil manner has led – and is still leading – to secrecy, repression, taboo and scandal.”  The fruits of this are seen in the secrecy of Christians struggles with sexual ethics and sin, as so many feel there’s no safe place for conversation.  Those who feel that way aren’t fabricating their fear.  I know it’s real because of the sweeping condemnations invoked in Jesus name from pulpits and print.  When I’ve blogged about homosexuality in the past, I’d estimate that there were about 10% of the comments that I refused to approve, because their words were so harsh and damning, even while they would sometimes say them, according to their own view, “in love”.

So, here are three resources to help you bring the issues into the light.  Read, agree, disagree, discuss charitably.  Above all else though, bring these conversations into the light, so that we can, as people of hope, provide a sense of safety for people to explore the intersections of faith and sexuality.  The result will be, I believe, a coming into the light and safety of grace, which is above all else, a place of health and transformation.

Your Brain on Porn is a ‘secular’ website that catalogs the damning nature of porn by virtue of what it does, physiologically, to the brain.  I’ve pointed several men to this material who’ve thanked me, finding it frankly more helpful than a website quoting Bible verses about sexual purity.  The problem with those Bible verses, often, is that folks stuck in porn already know them, but have become stuck in a dopamine addiction that overrides reason and their commitments to holiness.  Ironically, many people find that when the subject is de-spiritualized a bit that it’s easier to deal with it and break free.  The website includes testimonials from people whose lives were transformed by breaking free.  Every pastor should have this website in their toolkit, but so should every friend, and every person.

The Demise of Guys is a book I reviewed earlier, but offer it here again because just as women do, men face unique issues which have conspired to hinder their full functioning.  Guys have become more passive, less able to pay attention, less inclined to choose reality over fantasy, and more filled with shame, fear, and insecurity.  All of this is the result of the cultural air we breath, including porn, video games, and fantasy leagues.  Until guys name this stuff,  commit to renewing their minds, and choose life giving ways of using their free time, there’ll be little hope.  This book is a wake up call, and can be a first step toward a fuller life for many guys.

Finally, “The End of Sexual Identity” is an important book for anyone looking for an honest conversation about sexuality and Christian ethics.  I sense that the author’s shaped by Bonhoeffer’s “Ethics” book, which means that she resists easy moralizing and judgmentalism, believing that proof texting, and shooting people with Bible verses isn’t what it means to be Christ followers.  For this reason, many conservative won’t like her.  On the other hand, she makes a strong case of exalting celibacy and chastity, which will no doubt alienate some liberals who falsely believe that being sexual active is a necessary ingredient for being fully human.  There are far too few books on this topic that are nuanced, thoughtful, gracious, and well grounded in both scripture and cultural history.  This is one of them, and so even though I doubt anyone will agree with everything she writes, I recommend it without reservation.  After all, what’s needed right now aren’t the same old theological sound bytes, delivered up more loudly, or with special scary effects.

What’s needed is a bringing of sexuality into the light so that we can say to one another, “come – let us reason together”.  This will help us become more like Jesus, both individually, and collectively.

Happy Reading!    Feel free to share other resources that have proven helpful by responding in the comments section.


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  • Kristin Hill

    Richard, great thoughts and thank you for bringing a neurological viewpoint in to this discussion! It is rare to see the church incorporate this very important information when addressing pornography addiction. I’m so glad you’ve been lead to talk about sexuality in your blog and in upcoming sermons! I appreciate the balanced perspective you bring to polarizing topics for the church.

  • Graeme

    Hi Richard,

    Since you have brought up the physiological damage that can be caused to the body’s up regulation and down regulation of dopamine by viewing porn, is it safe to say that this goes beyond the bible? As you already mentioned, you now often point to secular suggestions to help people scientifically understand and “right” their altered brain mechanism. I personally applaud this, as it takes great strength and humility to not just blame such actions on lack of faith or belief in Jesus.

    With this understanding in tact, do you also look at physiological reasons for being heterosexual or homosexual?

    I ask since it was explained to me a number of years ago, as a man who my wife and I believed was gay was about to stand at the alter with a good friend of ours, that we needn’t worry as accepting Jesus can “cure” homosexuality. FYI, this was from a pastor at a local and popular church. It was my understanding after this conversation that accepting Jesus can also “cure” addiction to pornography etc etc etc.

    While I am sure an argument can be made, I left the conversation thinking how damaging this thought process could be for this young couple(They have since divorced.)

    I haven’t had a chance to, but I am going to read the suggested books and look forward to more of your posts.

  • Kevin

    I have just finished Michael John Cusick’s Surfing for God. Probably the best book I’ve read on porn and recovery. It has been life changing for me.

  • Jared

    I recently broke the chains of a near lifelong pornography addiction. Throughout that time I was an active member at my church and in a steady relationship with a wonderful woman. I am not alone in this type of story, and I applaud a more direct approach in addressing this insidious problem. It is challenging, but as long as the issue remains in darkness, it will not get better. My transformation was in the works for quite some time but the Setting Captives Free website was a great resource for me as I worked through the process.

  • Joe

    “holiness” or some other such nonsense??

  • Richard Dahlstrom

    yes… in the “holiness” rather than the holiness sense of the word. Taliban “holiness” is nonsense. Fear based “holiness”, like the Pharisees, is nonsense. Having a “holiness” moral code that serves only to create a sense of self-righteousness is nonsense. I could go on, but you get the point.

  • Richard, what you apparently see as Phariseeical, I see as perfectly in line with biblical truths as feeding the poor and loving your neighbor. I saw the beginning of this post, and was looking forward to a great dialog, but found that there is some honest, valid dialog that you are removing from the discussion before it begins.

  • ” as perfectly in line with biblical truths as feeding the poor and loving your neighbor”
    should be
    ” as much in line with biblical truths as feeding the poor and loving your neighbor”

  • Richard Dahlstrom

    the context of my words matter a great deal James. When someone is sharing deeply from their heart regarding their struggles with some sexual issue, and a commenter responds: “any idiot knows a penis doesn’t fit inside a penis”, I call the response nonsense in the name of holiness. When people advocate invoking church discipline because a sin has been confessed and repented of, I call that nonsense in the name of holiness. I’m all for loving dialogue about ethics, invoking the Bible for dialogue and sharing one’s story as a means of growing in clarity. I’m not for using the Bible the way the Pharisees did, as a weapon to prop up their false understanding of holiness. I hope this helps clarify.

  • It does help, and I agree that much of the reasoning that Christians have used to back up their positions on sexuality is not helpful nor really biblical. That said, in my experience many of those who have sounded like you sound in this piece, and in your comments, end up siding with the crowd that thinks we should pretend certain sins are not sins. And there’s enough in the New Testament that makes it clear to me that God does think sin is a big deal.

  • Married Believer

    Thank you for what you do on this blog. A friend of mine heard you speak at a family camp. Your comments during that message allowed me to re-open dialog with her about my very deep and personal struggles of reconciling faith and sexuality. I became a Christian in my early teens and fell head over heels in love with God and His son Jesus. God is my first love and I want to serve Him with my whole heart. I often wonder if most people who make assumptions and comments about “homosexual sin” have actually ever talked to someone of faith who has/is struggling in this area. Do they know their story? Do they know that the sentiments and emotions and desires for affection are just as real and valid as their own? Do they seriously believe it is a lack of faith or prayer on the part of the “struggler”? No one knows what definitely causes homosexuality. Each person has a differnt story. I have prayed, pleaded with God, got married, had children all in the name of “fixing” me and not walking in sin. Yet, the desires and attractions remain. What a beautiful thing it would be to be able to have an open conversation with more people in my faith community about what I’m going through. It can be an incredibly lonely road filled with fear of opening up and dread for the comments that will follow. Comments based on the assumption that I don’t read my bible or don’t know scripture or don’t want God’s best for my life. Check. Check. Check. My love for God is why I wrestle. It is viatly important to my spiritual, emotional and mental health that I am able to have a dialog about it all. All three have been under a great deal of distress for some time now. My spiritual health is at risk since I have tended to view God based on the harsh comments of others and the resulting internalized self-hatred. Emotionally, I’m on another round of antidepressants trying to keep the crying in check. Mentally, I don’t want to go through my days considering how I might end my life in order to end the internal pain and angst. I’ve had “success” in stuffing it all down and repressing thoughts and feelings, but this has resulted in a life not fully lived. You asked to share other resouces that have helped. My greatest resources have been those precious few believers who have been willing to walk alongside me and dialog and allow me to cry those gut wreching cries when it all seems too much. My prayer is that there will be more believers willing to sit and reason together about this area of life.
    (***assuming you will edit this out….for obvious reasons, I would like to remain anonymous and not have my email address or name associated with my post. I also tried to find an email to contact you directly, but was unsuccessful in doing so. Thank you.)

  • A

    As someone who has struggled with (and overcome) food addiction, and as the wife of someone who has struggled with (and overcome) porn addiction, I can testify that the single most important first step in breaking the cycle of habitual sin is to bring it into the light. Unfortunately, as Richard has suggested, many people are afraid to confess to others because of the fear of shame and condemnation. However, I’d also suggest that this fear can be blown up in the mind of the person trapped in a sin cycle (as it was in mine) – it is one of the tools the enemy uses to keep people in the dark. But Richard is right that there needs to be places in the church where people feel safe to share their struggles – and often the church has been characterized as a condemning and judgmental place rather than a place of love, hope, and safety. Thankfully, I would hasten to add that Bethany has such safe places – there ARE healthy conversations about sexual addictions happening at Bethany. I know my husband and many other men have benefited from “Lust Free Living” that is offered each semester at Bethany. Flipping through the catalog, I see other similar groups available to men struggling with these issues. I am thankful that our church is offering safe and healthy spaces for people to bring their shame into the light and have it taken away and transformed by Jesus with the help of other Christians. There is hope, and it is available in the church, through groups of caring people who walk alongside those who are struggling to overcome habitual sin. Victory is possible, and Jesus longs to give it to us! Good news!

    Other resources I found helpful in my own journey to freedom: Neil T. Anderson’s material, such as “Victory over the Darkness” and “The Bondage Breaker.” Knowing my identity in Christ was a huge step forward in overcoming the cycle of sin.

  • Susan

    Richard, I’m so glad you are writing about this much feared topic. I am attaining a certification in sexual addiction therapy treatment through an organization called IITAP. Their website and other online resources ( and are great FIRST steps to exploring the idea of sexual addiction and compulsion. There are free and confidential inventories folks can fill out online to begin their journey in healing from this area. Help is available for BOTH men and women. People can also google Patrick Carnes (author of Facing the Shadows and founder of IITAP) on YouTube in order to get more insight. There are many, many therapists (both secular and faith based) who are available to begin to walk through the healing journey with anyone in this area. Treatment, for those who have enough readiness to begin to do the work, can produce community, healthy relationships with self and others, and a new, unburdened way of living. Hope this helps!

  • Anon

    I’m glad Susan brought up “men and women.” You think it’s difficult for men to talk about struggles with porn, imagine being a woman. At least for men there is almost a cultural understanding that this is something guys struggle with. Culturally the whole idea of a woman being tempted by or even addicted to porn is seen as magnificently perverse, heinous, and incomprehensible. Where is she going to talk about her struggle? Absolutely nowhere.

  • Justin Pritchard

    After fifteen years of enslavement to pornography, masturbation and lust, God brought me to Setting Captives Free and the Way of Purity Course over a year ago. Yes, they quoted many of the verses that I had heard before, but the problem wasn’t the lessons or the verses, it was me. When I finally chose to surrender, when I finally chose to confess my sins, I began to be healed (James 5:16). I now serve as a mentor to men who struggle with and are overcoming sexual sin by the grace of God. John 4 and John 8 paint a very accurate picture of who Jesus is. He completely acknowledges sexual immorality as sin yet he chooses to approach us much like the woman at the well. He provides a means to turn away from the broken cisterns that we’ve been trying to fill through lust and pornography, and he imparts the power through the Holy Spirit to ‘go and sin no more’. The church needs to be talking and addressing these issues. Freedom is possible and our God is able to redeem our hearts if we are willing to be humble and actually obey what He says. Trust me, I did the contrary for too many years. Praise Him for restoring the years that the locusts have eaten.

  • Justin Pritchard

    Amen bro! I’m glad we could spur one another on in Christ.

  • Ryan Hofer

    There’s a lot of discouraging aspects of a church conversation around sexuality and I’ll try to put a few of them into words. The first is that I’ve not found a careful treatment of the matrix that is sexuality, which involves all our relationships; how our parents interacted with each other, what we see as clean and unclean, and how are bodies are affected by the bodies around us. Richard has touched upon one physiological aspect from a secular website (which claimed an analogous desensitizing for females BTW), and this is a step in a useful direction; it’s not really ironic to me that de-spiritualizing an aspect of life can lead to greater freedom, agency, and experiences of holiness. The most compelling comment above is from Anon, who has a strong point about women and sexuality. Growing up in church, I heard very little from women about sexual desire, and I think it’s time to own up to the assumptions and dynamics that continue causing that today (i.e. gender schematics, lack of women clergy, some of Paul’s writing). When Richard writes that men ought to be less passive, my feelings go out to guys who tend to be more feminine and conciliatory, as well as those women who have the fire inside to brush aside people who stand in their way. Can we balance this conversation out a bit? Can we acknowledge some fluidity and novelty in each person? This would be more in keeping with reason, light, and understanding.