This is the fourth installment in a series on the “purity culture” that has attempted to protect Christian families and churches. Although claiming a well-intended goal of sheltering children from toxic influences in the broader culture, the purity culture has actually set us up for more generations of relational harm. Last time, we saw how essential it is for parents and churches to provide apprenticeship in chastity – which is only possible if we have the courage to face the shame we ourselves feel around our bodies and our sexuality. That which is not transformed gets transmitted.
When we are willing to face our own sexual woundedness, the boldest of human tasks emerges: to allow desire to be awakened within our hearts. There can be no chastity and no holiness without awakened desire. Desire is the rocket fuel that propels every saint.
Lie #4: Purity means fleeing from my desires
When it comes to unwanted sexual behaviors, the go-to answer for many a Christian has been the Monty Python solution: “Run away! Run away! Run away!”
Certainly, in the moment of temptation, it makes sense to turn promptly away, to get one’s mind and body engaged in something else, to connect with a safe person, and to reassess. But as most of you know, when an individual or a dating couple reach that moment and feel that level of arousal, they find it rather hard to change their mind. Their bodily passions betray them – or do they?
We easily forget that it is God who created our bodies, our sexual arousal, and our capacity for orgasm. These are among God’s greatest gifts to us, ordered to his glory. When Scripture describes us as being created in the very image and likeness of God, it does so at the moment of describing how God created us as sexual beings, male and female (Genesis 1:27). Our capacity for sexual ecstasy – to “stand outside ourselves” in the intensity of a love relationship – is one of the most amazing ways we are capable of imitating the communion of love that is the Trinity.
Our desires do not come from the devil. The devil cannot create! He can only present us with the good and beautiful things God has created and invite us to seek them in a disordered way that ruins us. He is the enemy of human nature. He envies us; he hates us; he seeks to ruin all that is best in us. The devil’s ultimate strategy is not to lure us into sexuality; his strategy is to ruin sexuality!
I love nerdy board games. I know it’s going to be a great game when it has hundreds of wooden pieces and multiple instruction books – both in English and in German. A common mistake of rookie players is to get too caught up in the tactics of the early rounds and lose sight of the end game. Most of the plays you make early on are setting you up for the later rounds of the game when you really hope to flex your muscles.
We can give the devil his due – he is brilliant and cunning strategist. He sneaks in early and often in our life to whisper his lies and bind us up in toxic shame. As our bodies mature (in exactly the way God designed), the devil works his early and mid-game strategy to ensure that we will feel ashamed of our bodies, our sexuality, and our capacity for intense joy and delight. When he’s the most masterful, we don’t even realize he’s been there. We develop our own inner shaming voice – which we even think to be divine. Then we start doing the devil’s work for him – cursing our own bodies, our arousal, and our capacity for honor and delight. As shame increases over the years, unwanted sexual behaviors are anything but secret delights. They leave us feeling more and more hollow and ashamed. They become a renewal of unholy vows – consummating again and again the lie that we are worthless, dirty, or unlovable. The devil’s genius is that he can take something so amazing as sex and sexual arousal and use those “very good” gifts to convince us that we are detestable.
And here we find the real context for Christian asceticism or penance. Yes, Jesus presumes that his followers will engage in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (Matthew 6). He connects fasting to the presence or absence of the bridegroom. The real reason for asceticism is to enlarge our desires and allow ourselves to enter excitedly into the wedding feast, the nuptial union between Christ and his bride, the Church (Matthew 9:15).
Too often, “self-denial” becomes a misguided and harmful attempt to cut off desire. Then our asceticism becomes shame-driven, as we punish ourselves in a sense of unworthiness. We begin depriving ourselves of things that are authentic human needs: rest, play, joy, delight, or deeply meaningful work. By contrast, I think of Francis of Assisi. His heart overflowed with those blessings, without clinging to any of them. His radical poverty and his freely embraced celibacy, far from cutting off desire, opened him to be a man full of delight, in a fruitful way of life that has allured millions over the centuries.
Authentic asceticism is about a deeper claiming of our God-given desire. It leads to more delight, not less! We deny ourselves certain things so that we can get incredibly excited (aroused!) about greater things. Yes, Jesus speaks of “cutting off” or “ripping out” (Matthew 5:29-30). But he also warns us that it does no good to drive one demon out of the house and have seven new ones take its place (Matthew 12:43-45). Self-denial is always for the sake of bigger desire.
We are created for desire, for arousal, and for union – to experience intense delight as we receive and give love. Sexual union between husband and wife is meant to be a ritual act of worship that points as a sign to heaven itself – which is going to be a wedding feast! Godly celibacy is also fueled by eros. It is described by Jesus as a gift “for the sake of the Kingdom” precisely because it, too, is a passionate giving and receiving of love that reminds us of the heavenly wedding feast. That heavenly union is so “real” that all earthly marriages will fade away in its sight (cMatthew 22:29-30).
Yes, discipline and discipleship go together – but not for the sake of punishing or eliminating our God-given desire. The problem is not that we desire too much, but that we desire too little. Actually, desire is always there, sometimes buried deeply or tangled up among so many diversions or distractions – but every ready to be stoked into flame. Our fallen tendency is to resist going into the depths of our desire, which is where we find the virtue of Hope – the virtue of Good Friday and Holy Saturday, awaiting the Resurrection. To desire and not yet possess, to seek the beloved and not yet find him – this can be agony indeed. It is far easier to plunge into austere penances or indulgent pleasures than to abide in a holy longing. Holy longings can really hurt sometimes.
God knows how hard it is to grow in Hope. He does not unduly push or pressure us. Catholic mystics over the centuries have been enamored with the Song of Songs, that book of the Bible consisting of erotic love poetry, in which the beloved desperately seeks her lover in the dark, agonizing until she finds him. The author acknowledges the intensity of this pursuit: “I adjure you, Daughters of Jerusalem, do not awaken or arouse love until it is ready!” (Song of Songs 8:4).
Is your love of Christ ready to be awakened and aroused this Lent?