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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”