Throughout most of my adolescence, I partitioned my sexuality into two separate worlds. One filled me with anticipation of the freedom that came from expressing my sexual desires. This message came from outside church. The other message, the one coming from the church, told me what not to do, forbade me to speak of my sexuality as something that played a role in my faith. In fact, sex in this sphere was often taught, indirectly, as the most awful, filthy thing on earth, and you should save it for someone you love.
Sex and faith have had a contentious relationship for as long as I can remember. I became a Christian as a teenager, but I was also fascinated by the topic of sex. Like most other high school boys, I ruminated on sex 24/7. Throughout my high school and college years, I had few conversations with my peers that didn’t in some way touch on this topic. We talked about it, joked about it and dreamed about our next conquest. Sex was a game we participated in outside of church.
Unfortunately, we don’t speak honestly about sex in our churches. And, when it was discussed in my church, it sounded confusing and unrealistic. I heard phrases like guard your heart, deny your sexual desire and hand it over to God, don’t have sex, it’s a sin until you get married and my personal favorite: Sex before marriage will be disappointing because you’re not honoring God. Almost all the discussion was negative. It also gave no real reason why I should wait. It seemed like my faith was unable to address in a realistic, comprehensible manner this real and growing desire to engage in sexual activity. I felt lost and compartmentalized.
Collision Versus Reconciliation
I lost my virginity at the end of my junior year in high school. (Even here, the language—losing—is negative). I remember an internal struggle taking place. On one hand, I knew that having sex outside of marriage was unacceptable in Christian circles, so I felt guilty, even ashamed. On the other hand, I felt great excitement. I felt like I had grown up and become a man because of this one act. Obviously, these two feelings could not coexist.
Perhaps unconsciously, I began to separate faith from sex. There was my sexual self outside of church with little trace of faith. Then there was my spiritual self inside the church with little trace of my sexuality. I lived in two worlds. One taught me about my sexual self, the other about my spiritual self. One taught me the art of saying yes, the other the importance of saying no. Learning to reconcile these two worlds has been a long and painful journey.
I was sexually active outside youth group while becoming a leader in my church. But it wasn’t like I didn’t want to be confronted. I did. In fact, I yearned for it. But that day never came. I knew that, as a Christian, my relationships were supposed to look different from the others I saw around me. I was supposed to be held to a higher standard than the one I was living. But that was never articulated in a way that caused me to change my behavior. All I received were messages of don’t! and no, when everything else in me pointed toward yes!
I often came across popular Christian authors or speakers and hoped they would share that one message that would change everything—the one that would finally click and help me understand exactly why my actions needed to change. But that never happened. Honest conversations that discussed my sexual desires and spoke truthfully about Scripture seemed impossible. Unfortunately, the focus was on the reward of waiting. Apparently, if I waited, I would be rewarded with incredible, out-of-this-world sex. And premarital sex wouldn’t be rewarding.
I kept asking myself how these dots connected. These speakers and authors often claimed that God would bless me sexually if I waited. On one hand, this was painful to hear. I wasn’t a virgin, so what did that waiting message mean for me? That I was trash? What would this speaker be able to guarantee for my future experiences? On the other hand, I already knew that sex could be rewarding. Even if I felt guilty, sex itself still felt good.
And then, of course, there’s the persistent discussion about sex being so physical. But I knew from my own experience that sex was something more than that. It touched something deep within my soul. Even the consequences that most impacted me were emotional and spiritual. Those consequences separated me from God and others, and I knew it, even if I couldn’t articulate it. My main reason for engaging in sexual activity back then was not for the rush of an orgasm. It was not purely physical.
I sought to fill a void in my life. I wanted to be known. I wanted to be found. Sex, for me, was about being connected. It was the loss of that connection that often brought the most painful consequences. When the act was over, I was still left with a void. I never contracted a disease or got anyone pregnant. But spiritually, sex took me further from God. This very desire to connect— the one that drove me to become sexual—also drove me to become a follower of Christ. Connection was at the center of both worlds, but those two worlds never connected to each other.
I tried for years to separate faith and sex, but the more I tried, the more I began to realize that they are deeply intertwined. Throughout my early and late adolescence, I compartmentalized life. I sacrificed my entire personhood because I was living in two separate worlds. I knew my actions were sinful. I knew I had made mistakes. But knowing this and speaking this out loud are entirely different. By not speaking of my sin, I allowed it to live in the darkness of my soul. However, when I finally did confess my sin, I could no longer hide from it.
Spoken words caused my sexuality and my spirituality to collide. And when that collision occurred, it was both messy and beautiful. It’s not an easy process to bring together two separate lives and make them one person. It doesn’t happen overnight. Reconciling past mistakes with a new future takes time and vulnerability. Once I began speaking about my sexual past, my desire to connect, how much I enjoyed this gift and my desire to follow Christ and be in relationship with him, I realized that the two parts were never supposed to have been separate. Both sought to be found. Isn’t that what we mean when we say we are made in the image of God? We want to be found in the one relationship we were created to be in, with our Creator.
I’m honored to have walked with so many people, male and female, who helped me reconcile my spiritual and sexual selves; people willing to forgive my past sin, engage in difficult questions and, most importantly, explore Scripture and what it had to say about our sexuality and our faith in Christ. We set aside clichéd sayings and simple answers with the hope of finding healing, direction and the marvelous truth that everything flows from finding hope and connection in Christ—even sex.
God never frames sexuality around sin. He starts with its beauty; he starts with the intent to join two humans together. When we start with the sin of sex, we start with the pain, hurt, guilt, shame many have attached to it. Condemnation soon follows, and we lose connection with God’s grace.
I’ve learned that sex is vital in my marriage, but it’s not the only vital element. I am married to a beautiful wife, and sex adds a dimension to my marriage that brings my wife and me into a beautiful sense of oneness. But it’s not the only thing that holds our marriage together. Together, we live a whole life, not just a sexual life. Earlier in my journey, I would have lived a fragmented life with my wife, with sex at the center and Christ outside that deep place. I’ve learned that this fragmentation isn’t what Christ ultimately has for us.
On a theoretical level, sex and religion are inseparable. Sex is a gift from God, designed to be experienced and enjoyed in the sanctity of marriage. In an effort to communicate God’s best, we’ve instead succeeded in communicating a list of restrictions. As I’ve explored Scripture, I’ve discovered sexual freedom in God’s plan, wrapped in the boundary of marriage, and it’s beautiful; wonderful; emotionally messy; confusing; complicated; amazing. Our sexuality has a past and a future. It is sacred and holy. But, whether we choose to be aware, it is does not (and cannot) stand alone or apart from spiritual identity.