Editor's Note: This month at the Patheos Book Club, we're featuring the new book Ashamed No More: A Pastor's Journey Through Sexual Addiction, by T.C. Ryan. We invited Tim Keel, a senior pastor at Jacob's Well, to interview Ryan—pastor to pastor—about his book and the larger issue of sexuality and the Gospel.
We live in a sexually-saturated culture, Tom. What does that say about us as human beings? What are some of the implications of that for people who want to live lives of sexual integrity?
I think the level of sex-saturation we are experiencing in our culture today indicates a couple of things. Certainly it speaks to the power of human sexuality as a dynamic of imagination and appetite. Sex can deliver great emotional and physical feelings and we are master consumers of gratification. But it also speaks to interest and intrigue and connection. At heart we are relational beings. Even when we isolate from others as a primary coping strategy or isolate because we are hurt and dislocated from healthy connection we still live in reaction to those experiences. At heart, we know we want or need to connect with others, and sexuality is integral to connection.
So anyone wanting to live a life of healthy self-integration where their sexuality is concerned will have to cultivate a healthy understanding of how they see themselves as a sexual person, what responsible expression of their sexuality looks like for them, and how to navigate cultural prods that are at least distracting and possibly capable of compelling them to explore thoughts and behaviors which may be counter to their own best self-interests.
It seems so easy to focus on sexual behavior, especially when it goes wrong and gets misused. How do you understand the spiritual aspects of our sexuality? How does our sexuality intersect with our humanity?
Well, I think you're exactly right that it's easy to focus on sexuality in the context of exploitation or brokenness. When we do that we run the risk of altogether missing the main points of healthy human living. At the heart of it, the struggle of compulsive sexual behavior is an intimacy disorder, a disorder of thought. Our sexual behavior is rooted in how we think, what we think, how we see ourselves and how we perceive the world around us.
The nature of being spiritual people is that we're wired to connect: with our Creator, with ourselves, with those around us, with the world in which we live. And in that connecting we normally and naturally attach. Healthy attachments allow us to give and to receive in self-respectful and other-respectful ways. Unhealthy attachments rob us of healthy give-and-take, and we are left with imbalanced exchanges. Unhealthy attachments are what lead to problematic sexual behaviors. So the development or recovery of healthy, appropriate sexual behavior requires a rigorous examination and reset of deeply held core beliefs, perceptions, and assumptions. That is what it means to be a healthy human being and it is intensely spiritual.
What is your vision for sexual wholeness? In what ways does or can our sexual identity reflect the Gospel?
I think a healthy ethic of sexual wholeness is using our sexuality in self-respecting, God-respecting, and others-respecting ways; that is, thinking and behaving sexually in ways that honor and are fully integrated with our best and healthiest core values. And, I believe, healthy core values reflect the truths that it is God who has given us life; life lived with God at the center of it is the best way to live; and God always leads us to loving, honest, and integrated living.
To the degree we guide our sexual thinking and acting to reflect these core values—and let's be clear that no one does this perfectly or evenly, that all of us have struggles of some sort in these areas—but to the degree we make progress in these areas we give credence to the gospel of Jesus who told us we are to be perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect. You can imagine that someone like me involuntarily shudders at those words, but we have to hear them and we have to understand, too, that Jesus is not telling us that perfect performance is the requirement of the gospel; rather he is telling us the design, intent, and effect of the gospel is to spiritually transform its recipients so that they become children who in increasing measure think and feel and act like their Father in Heaven.
An intriguing element of the gospel is that the incarnation means that the Divine Being participates with us in our humanness, and that includes our sexuality. Jesus of Nazareth, the God-man, is the one who has earned the right to say "I know" about all the realities of what it means to be human, including confronting sexual struggle and living in sexual wholeness. So in Christ we have the architect of reclaimed sexual health in humanity and the one with the power to bring that about.