Starting a new ministry position at a church can be daunting. Preaching on the topic of lust can be awkward. No preacher wants to do both at the same time.
A couple of weeks into my new role, I was asked to preach a sermon as part of a series on the seven deadly sins. As the new guy on the team, I was eager to do my part, but then I found out the deadly sin of lust was the sermon topic for my Sunday.
Lust is a tough topic for preachers, especially for those who grew up in the evangelical purity culture of the 1990s and early 2000s. I was taught to save sex for marriage, avoid pornography, and remember that even a lustful thought was like committing adultery in my heart. If I was able to live up to these standards, I’d eventually find the perfect wife and together we’d have a blissful marriage. But after growing up, getting married, and seeking to live in purity, I found the reality was more difficult than purity culture made it out to be. In fact, I carried deep shame about who I was because of my failure to live a pure life.
I was taught only what I wasn’t supposed to do. I was never equipped with the emotional and spiritual tools I needed to embrace a healthy sexuality. I was ashamed of myself, and I thought God was ashamed of me too. It would be years before I’d let go of that shame and embrace the God of grace and love in Jesus Christ.
In the week leading up to my sermon, I was out in the parish visiting congregants. Without fail, they all mentioned the topic I had to tackle. Along with a hearty chuckle, however, they were sympathetic about the task ahead of me. I appreciated their empathy and often responded with, “At least it’s a universal topic.”
Lust is universal. In the purity culture days, lust was treated as a male-only issue. This is simply not true. Sure, there are young boys who become addicted to pornography, but there are also middle-aged women who fantasize about their colleagues, young adults who use dating apps to hook up for a night, fathers (or mothers) who have affairs, grandfathers who have hidden stacks of Playboys, and teenage girls who get into a cycle of sexting. The “lust list” goes on and on.
I recognize that lust is not something we like to be honest about, especially within the walls of the church. That’s not to say Christians never talk about the issue. In fact, if purity culture is any evidence, Christians sometimes obsess about it. Yet finding a Christian community that is vulnerable and also continually gracious is challenging. In her book Glittering Vices, Calvin University philosopher Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung writes, “Surrender, vulnerability, intimacy, and dependence are the hard road we resist taking at all costs. Insisting on independence and creating a false form of happiness for ourselves signal lust’s prideful roots” (p. 200). Vulnerability is like a common cold: we just want to avoid it, especially when it means being honest about our unwanted sexual behavior.
I wonder if our fear of being vulnerable with others stems from a fear of being vulnerable with God. I remember the day my therapist asked me, “Who is God to you?” As a lifelong church member, I knew theologically that God was love, but deep within me, God was something else. After years of feeling profound shame, my lived theology communicated that God thought little of me and that the thoughts God did have were angry and shaming. The truth is, I was afraid of God. I hadn’t experienced the loving Jesus who meets the woman at the well (John 4) or the Jesus who makes breakfast for a friend who had betrayed him just days before (John 21). I had done what the German theologian Karl Barth had fought so hard to stop among the theological liberals of his day: I was starting with my human experience and plastering it onto God. I felt ashamed and had been shamed by others, so I assumed God must be ashamed of me as well. However, as Barth emphasized in his day, I needed to start letting God define what God feels toward me. The best place for me to discover what God thinks about me, Barth said, is to look at Jesus Christ.
Jesus is never ashamed of sinners. It is the sick who need a doctor, not the healthy. On the cross, Jesus took not only our sin, but also our shame, and he put them to death. In his resurrection, Jesus raised up a humanity worthy of love. No longer do we need to feel shame in God’s presence. He became shame so that we can be fully loved.
Author, pastor, and therapist Jay Stringer developed a survey of more than 100 questions to collect data from people struggling with sexual behavior they wished to stop. More than 3,800 men and women participated in his study. Stringer’s research showed that our sexual struggles are not random. In his book Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing, Stringer says, “There are always reasons (for our behavior). If you want to find freedom, it begins by identifying your specific reasons.” Discovering those reasons will require a willingness to engage the pain of our lives, Stringer says, but the payoff is immense: “One evening of deliberate curiosity (of the reasons) for your sexual fantasies will tame you further into transformation than a thousand nights of prayerful despair.” In order to find the light, we must be willing to enter the darkness.
When we are secure in Jesus’ love, we can begin to hear his invitation to be curious about our lust. We don’t need to cover up our sin because Jesus’ unconditional love is the safest place for us to explore the depths of our pain. As Henri Nouwen writes in Life of the Beloved, “The first step towards healing is not a step away from the pain, but a step towards it” (p. 94). The pain might feel overwhelming, but the God who has experienced the worst of this world is right there with us.
God made us for love, but when we don’t feel worthy of love or are not receiving love, we will go searching for it in the wrong places. As DeYoung says, “Lust looks best when we are most starved for love.” Lust serves us by filling a void that should be filled with love. God has opened a way in Jesus Christ to meet our needs. We can enjoy our sexuality in gratitude as a gift from God. As we know and are known, as we love and are loved, we can ultimately find this need met in the knowledge and love of God and in the body of Jesus Christ.
- What does “purity culture” mean to you? How do you understand the teachings and practices of purity culture?
- What do you know about the sin of lust? What do you think of how churches or Christians have generally handled this topic?
- “Lust looks best when we are most starved for love.” How do we help people experience love so that lust loses its grip on them?
- Why do you think we avoid vulnerability so much, even vulnerability before God? Who is God to you?