21 2014
Why It’s So Difficult for the Church to Talk About Sex

I remember clearly my prep school English teacher reading Alexander Pope’s famous lines from his Essay on Man.


Know, then, thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!


My teacher then quoted the middle lines.


“In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast

In doubt his mind or body to prefer;”



He then stated, “That is what Christianity is hung up on…sex.”


I later dismissed his and other people’s analysis of man’s fall as being primarily about sex. As any junior theologian knows, the reasons for and effects of the fall are far more profound and consequential than sex alone.


And yet, as we look out on the landscape today, it seems that sex has indeed become our Achilles heal. It is the place of some of our deepest vulnerability and confusion. As I talk to Christian leaders about sexual addiction ministry in the context of the church, I am hearing one phrase over and over again. It is the phrase, “elephant in the room.” What I am hearing from Christian leaders is that pornography, illicit relationships, hook-ups and other sexually addictive behaviors are increasingly prevalent in their congregations. As I spoke to one rector recently, he communicated a congregation “affluent on the outside, broken on the inside.” Whether the appearance of the elephant is due to internet porn or the web’s greasing of the wheels for sexual hook ups, we are clearly facing a major challenge, one that is both inside and outside the church. Here is some chilling research on the subject.

  • 80% of 500 Christian men surveyed at a men’s retreat admitted they were feeling disconnected from god because lust, porn, or fantasy had gained a foothold in their lives (Pastors.com, reported by Kenny Luck from Saddleback Church)
  • 70% of Christians admitted to struggling with porn in their daily lives (poll taken by XXXChurch, as reported on CNN)
  • 64% of Christian Pastors and leaders confirm that they are struggling with sexual addiction or sexual compulsion including, but not limited to use of pornography, compulsive masturbation, or other secret sexual activity (“Men’s Secret ways” Patric Means Confidential Survey)
  • 51% of pastors say cyber porn is a temptation.  37% say it is a current struggle (Christianity Today, Leadership Survey, 12/2001)


Recognizing that every congregation is different in its culture and openness to dealing with these matters, we might well ask, “Why is it so difficult for the church to talk about sex?” Here are some reasons.


  1. Sex is powerful. Everyone knows this and it makes things difficult. Sex is akin to nuclear energy. Used in the manner for which it was created, for a constructive purpose, and with the right safe-guards, both nuclear power and sex are wonderful things. Years ago, I ran a road race by the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor. Part of the race was promotional: After several years of clean up, the owners wanted to show that the area was perfectly safe. But we all know the downside. Unleashed outside the constraints of clean energy use, nuclear power can wreak untold havoc and destructive power. Much of the West is deeply suspicious today of Iran because it does not believe Iran will use nuclear technology for good. The force is only as good as the people using it. So it is with sex.We see the misuse of sex today in many ways, marital infidelity, the virtual daily reports on child sex abuse and child pornography arrests and the general fueling of lust by visual stimuli. Writer Ron J in his book Lust Virus says that men have been programmed through visual stimuli to be practitioners of “pseudo-sexuality,” a kind of false sexuality that works against the self, intimacy with women, and any experience of sexual freedom. Despite these developments, the church too often does not proactively teach about our sexuality, assumes the safeguards are in place among our congregants, and is shocked to find particular instances of its destructive power. We often have no answer to it except to pick up the pieces. We are missing a very large opportunity.
  2. Sex is mysterious. The Apostle Paul and by extension the Book of Common Prayer (p.423) speak about the “mystery of the union between Christ and His Church.” Of all the images brought to mind, Paul chooses a sexual one to speak of the union between Christ and his people. By Paul’s accounting, both are sacred. The mystery of Christ’s union with us and the mystery of the sexual union between wife and husband are both…you guessed it, mysterious! But biblical mysteries are not conundrums but rather “secrets revealed,” realities that can indeed be spoken about. Most clergy realize that in speaking about sexuality at all, they are treading on holy ground. But too often, rather than entering this difficult territory, we demur, desiring to avoid speaking wrongly or inaccurately. In the presence of the holy, words fail us. Rather than write weak and pedestrian verse, the young lover lets Hallmark do it for him, lest he appear an inarticulate dunce in the presence of his beloved. So because it is hard to talk about it, we don’t.The biblical writers differed. How many Christians would find it embarrassing to listen to the suggestive verses of Song of Songs with its overt description of body parts?Your breasts are like two fawns,
    like twin fawns of a gazelle
    that browse among the lilies. Song of Songs 4:5


    The New Testament writers were not afraid to talk about lust. The Apostle Peter was unabashed when he encouraged his hearers to follow Christ, “ having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. “ 2 Peter 1:4. KJV. If lust is such a powerful force in man’s corruption, should we not be talking about it? Moreover, we are often ill-versed in the spiritual aspects of sexual love, so we simply refuse to engage with sexuality as a necessary biblical subject, let alone a pressing personal issue. Like a new and unfamiliar firework on the 4th of July, we leave it in the box, rather than blow ourselves up.

  3. Lust is even harder to talk about. Why? There are many reasons: Perhaps the greatest is because there is shame attached to our sexuality due to our upbringing, past activities or our current thought life. Lust, when it involves a married person, can be a threat to the marriage relationship.Moreover, clergy are supposed to support marriages rather than undermine them, and it can seem counter-productive to raise an issue that might threaten the very marriages they would like to see healed. Do they ignore the subject hoping things will turn around for their vulnerable members or provoke a crisis by broaching the subject, hoping for a breakthrough? Furthermore, it is difficult for men to share their problem, because it often unearths a hidden conflict. Rather than wake the sleeping lust dog and create problems, we would rather “let him lie.” When indulging lust, men often tell themselves, “I can handle this,” even though by feeding their false selves through internet porn and other addictive behaviors, the lust dog may be growing stronger and roaming farther and wider, accelerating the day of reckoning. Make no mistake. There are reasons to avoid the whole subject.Many who address sexual addiction focus on changing certain behaviors or major in accountability. In our experience, lust is the core issue in sexual addiction, not the behaviors it leads to. As Jesus said in Matthew 5:27-28,


    27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’[a] 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” There are many illicit sexual behaviors that trouble human beings. What they all share is lust. If we can surrender lust, we are on the way to letting go of the behaviors it leads to.


    And yet, lust remains too often today mired in lists uttered by preachers and teachers, rarely singled out as the “elephant in the room” it has actually become. I have been told by more than one gentleman that these are “private matters.” Many of us do not want our private matters known publicly. In any case, there are plenty of ways to deal with this privately.


    But a church member may not approach their pastor until they know the pastor is both sympathetic and knowledgeable about the problem. Many men who attend sexual addiction recovery groups have not yet told their pastor. Is this from fear of rejection? Or do they believe their pastor might not understand or accept their struggle? There is no simple answer here. Lastly, in the minds of many Christian leaders, talking about lust is the “third rail” of ministry, akin to meddling or undermining their own career. Why upset people, expose men and provoke fear in women when this is all so unnecessary? Better to stay away.

  4. We don’t want to separate the generations and sexes. It is difficult to talk about sex because our teaching may be appropriate for some but not for others. Let’s face it, we can make illusions to this on Sunday mornings, but with teens, children, parents and grandparents all in the pews together, (Isn’t this what we are after?) we just can’t get too specific. And even when we separate the men and talk about it, fear arises when their wives ask the inevitable question after they come home, “What did you talk about?” The reply “It’s confidential” simply raises more fear.The above constitutes a grim scenario. But it does not need to be this way. In fact, I believe that those who grasp the nettle and are willing to speak clearly and compassionately about sex and lust will find mostly relief in their hearers. People already know what a problem all this is. Just ask your 18-35 year old children. So why must we talk about sex, at least in some congregational context today?


  1. Because our sexuality is important to God. Our sexuality is part of our souls. It impinges directly on our minds, wills and emotions. He created it and designed its use. It makes sense that a discussion with the original manufacturer with the manual open might help. Too often, we have shied away from speaking of sexuality because we fear it. We would prefer to banish it to the worldly realm. The result is that the world has turned around and defined it for us and our children. God’s design is that we understand his purposes for us, including our sexuality.Yes, sex is not everything. But many want to know today how it becomes optional, instead of the insistent lust-drive many experience. How do we live without engaging lust? We may be forced to go or choose to go for long periods in our lives without sex, due to singleness, separation, pregnancy, disease, an unwilling partner or by voluntary abstinence. How do we live in sexual freedom? These are important questions. In our experience, for the sexually addicted and the single, sex must become optional for sexual sobriety to become present. Sex is not even the most important thing, despite what the sexually addicted might think. But because it is part of who we are as individuals and the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual union with our spouse, and is an expression of that intimacy, it is important to us and therefore to God. Coming to terms with our sexuality is a significant part of our on-going discipleship.
  2. Because for Christians Jesus is the only one who has the answer to lust and sexual addiction. Why? Because fundamentally the lust-drive is a spiritual quest for connection, one that is designed to be fulfilled in him and helped along in community by others committed to sobriety and recovery. The “spiritual experience” essential to the early AA’s was not optional. It was the basis for “letting go” of addictive behavior and giving oneself in service to others.What about those who will not change? We cannot trouble ourselves over those who at least for the moment think there is nothing wrong with internet porn and hook-ups. They may not be open to admitting their problem today. Many will return when they experience the consequences of the path to which they have surrendered. But there is a large group who has a problem and is looking for answers. If you would like a brief treatment of how to speak to this, pick up a copy of my book, Speaking to the Addictive Personality in the Local Congregation: A Guide for Pastors and Preachers. A larger treatment that will inspire anyone is Impossible Joy by Ron J. which deals specifically with sexual sin. This book has given me an appreciation of Jesus’ humanity and what it means for us more than any other book outside Scripture. The truth is that the gospel in all its fullness and Jesus presence in the now of our temptation possess what the thirsty addictive soul is looking for, namely connection, a divine connection with the living God and transparent fellowship with those who struggle. This is why we strongly recommend lust addicts join a 12 Step fellowship of some kind or at least a group of people who struggle as we do.
  3. Because we will be speaking to the yearning of human hearts. For years, I have sat in churches wishing preachers would speak to what is really going on. Many do. But too often, the preacher is attempting to drag the congregation into the first century biblical world, as if by doing so, we will suddenly become enamored of that world and become the people God intended us to be.. What should be happening is what did happen in that first century world, namely that Jesus entered it and transformed it. He met individuals with specific problems. He spoke to them with compassion, touched their infirmities, and then carried their temptations, brokenness and idolatry to the cross and ended the separation from the Father. So today, Jesus wants to enter my world, the internet-driven, lust-filled world, overrun with “connection seekers” looking to fill their emptiness. Either we speak to this world or we become irrelevant. Either there is a gospel for this world or we perish. If we can learn to speak about God’s provision for sexual brokenness in a biblical, respectful, rightly-contexted, helpful and compassionate way, we will begin to see lives changed right before us.
  4. Because in speaking about sex, we will find a new bridge to needy people. The old saw about the church “answering questions no one is asking” can sometimes ring true. Much of the world believes the church has no relevance today. Part of the reason is that the world sees into our souls more than we are willing to acknowledge. What does it see? It sees either “good” people to whom it cannot relate or people pretending to be something they are not. Both of these conclusions result in a lack of identification and “turning off” to the church.


The odd reality is this: we in the church are being forced into speaking about lust and sex. The plague of sexual addiction, among our own people and outsiders, is right in our faces. We cannot turn away or retreat into our holy huddle with a pharisaic sigh of relief that we are not like these lust-driven people out in the world. The truth is that we are one with them in vulnerability, even when lust is not our core issue, and it is that very vulnerability which can build bridges to them.


We have the message if we will but learn to speak it again, the way the church did in the midst of a pagan and idolatrous world, the way Augustine did in his Confessions, the way The Apostle Paul did when he spoke of his thorn in his flesh in 2 Corinthians 12, in our calling to comfort those the way we ourselves have been comforted in 2 Corinthians 1, and in the way Christians in recovery from sexual addiction are doing so today.


For all these reasons and more, we must speak about sex once again. If we believe the gospel, in a Redeemer who experienced every temptation known to man, (Hebrews 4:15), and in His living presence in our midst who is the living water to a thirsty world, we will rediscover in our day how to do as the angel commanded the Apostle Peter in Acts 5:20. “Go, stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life.”


Jay Haug is Executive Director of a newly forming ministry called Living Without Lust which seeks to “Help men who struggle with lust…and the Christian leaders who serve them.”


Jay Haug