Are You Encouraging Guilt?

I would like to begin by saying that my intent is not to start a debate, or blame anybody with what I say here. This is an outlet for me, and I tread here with trepidation. I don’t like talking about this, but I think part of why I don’t like talking about this is exactly what I’m talking about. That being said, I also want to establish quite clearly that my point is not to justify sin in any capacity. I’m addressing things well meaning people have said that have stuck with me through the years.

I don’t think the church in general does a good job addressing sex with its young people. Maybe things have changed since I was a teen, but I look back at the attempts made and find them lacking. It might have been sufficient had I made different life choices, or married 10 years ago, but I didn’t. I have dated non-Christian men. I should not have, but I learned some things from it, mostly which of the messages I got on the subject were helpful and which were not.

Let’s start with some of the things I was told or impressions I received from how the message was delivered, or things I have read/heard from various Christian sources since then, understanding that these may or may not have been the intended result:

  • If you have sex before you get married, you will be damaged goods and will hate yourself on your wedding night.
  • Men are supposed to struggle with sexual temptation. This isn’t an issue for women.
  • Masturbation is homosexual sex.
  • Pornography is cheating on your spouse with multiple people.
  • Sexual sin is the worst kind of sin.
  • There’s a right and wrong way to enjoy sex with your spouse.
  • You should be careful how far you go with someone you’re dating, because it’s hard to back up the train.
  • You should avoid having sex before you’re married, because it’s easier to say no if you don’t know what you’re missing.
  • Talking about sex isn’t appropriate.

Obviously some of these are more helpful than others, and this list isn’t exhaustive, but I’d like to respond to some of these and what I’ve learned over the years. We live in a society saturated by sex, with an expectation that people will be sexually active in their late teens or early 20s. A 40 year old virgin is a laughingstock. We as Christians have different standards, but unless you’re isolated from the world completely, you will still be receiving mixed messages, and you will be exposed to things our grandparents never saw. We have to talk about it. Discretion is critical, certainly, so talk about it! But so is grace, so let’s talk about how we talk about it.

Damaged Goods and the Worst Sins

To me this is like saying, “If you have sex before you get married, you don’t deserve a godly husband or wife, and you will never be good enough.” I think this is problematic for a few reasons. I think this leads young Christians who have made mistakes to fear rejection from other Christians and may result in people dating and marrying unbelievers, because they don’t have to worry about being judged. Using guilt as a motivator may work (I will vouch for that – the idea that I will be riddled with guilt later has been very effective), but only to a point. It may “save” some, but it may also drive others completely away. There’s also the question of how far one has to (or can) go before they become damaged. I strongly suspect that line is in different places for different people.

I think the idea that some sins are worse than others is a dangerous trend among Christians. It’s really easy to point to some sins and say they are worse than others. Usually the sins we point to as worse are the ones that people are more likely to see, or that we haven’t come to accept as so common that surely it can’t be all that bad. Very correctly there are those who point out our own inconsistencies and hypocrisy. We are so vocal about sexual sin in its various forms while we indulge in gluttony and pride like they’re going out of style.

I’m pretty sure if someone suggested to you that since you once told a lie, you are damaged goods and don’t deserve a godly spouse, you’d probably find that preposterous. What message do we really want to send to our young people?

Men, Women, and Compounded Sins

Now I could be wrong, but if my exposure to the world is representative of humanity, both men and women are sexual beings. As such, temptation is going to be real for both men and women. Telling young women, even unintentionally, that men face more temptation than women, is the same as telling them that their temptations are unusual. What does that say to them? They must be worse than other girls. Failure to be fair to women on this point is nothing short of sexism. Sexual temptation is normal for everybody. It may manifest itself differently, but it’s still normal. Let girls know it’s normal, and they will be far more likely to seek help if they think they need it, instead of hiding away, thinking there’s something wrong with them. I do not think we should be airing our dirty laundry, but are we not encouraged to confess our sins to one another? Implications that something is abnormal is going to discourage that confession.

I won’t go into any detail about my thoughts on calling masturbation homosexual sex or pornography as cheating on one’s spouse. I will say that I don’t think either presentation of that is actually helpful. Whether or not it is, there are other ways to address specific areas in which temptation may frequently occur. I think what this does is give sin more credit than it deserves, and giving credence to the worse sins mentality. Let’s just compound sin upon sin and say that when you sin in this way you’re actually sinning in multiple ways. Again, this isn’t helpful, whether or not you think those statements are true.

I’m going to toss the idea that there’s a right and wrong way to enjoy one’s spouse into the not helpful category. Without real experience in this matter, I see this as a Pharisaical idea that is likely to do more harm than good, and may cause strain in marriages, and possibly cheat people out of a fulfilling sex life with their spouse, which may make other sexual temptations more alluring. If it doesn’t involve anything the Bible (not someone else in the church) says is sinful, a couple should be free to decide their own parameters.

Backing Up the Train and Knowing What’s Out There

The more practical approaches to encouraging purity have proven the most helpful to me, and I think this is the direction conversation needs to go. I think every kid in the youth group likely knows the Bible says you should save sex for marriage. Instead of heaping fodder for guilt on them, talk about it from a human perspective. The longer I live the more I see that God’s ways are the best ways. Usually the youth leaders or parents trying to talk to kids about sex have wisdom they may not be imparting effectively, or they may impart it but it gets overwhelmed by the rest of the presentation.

The most helpful thing I was told as a teen is that it’s hard to stop the train and back it up once it’s moving. This is talking about the natural progression physical intimacy takes. The most helpful thing I was told in my 20s is that avoiding sexual relationships is a good thing because once you’ve done it you know what you’re missing. The message is the same, though presentation took two slightly different forms: Set boundaries and stick to them. You don’t have to get the train moving very far or fast to know what this is all about. Let’s take something like holding hands. To me this is quite innocent and the most basic starting point for a slow paced relationship. It has a thrill to it, and it feels good. Once you’ve had that expression of interest (and, dare I say, sexuality) through physical touch, you do it again. It’s not a one time deal. It’s also likely going to lead to desire to express and experience more physical contact. If you’ve never held hands, you may not care about holding hands as much as someone who knows what it’s like. Up the ante to hugging or (*gasp!*) kissing, and you’ve probably decided you like this train an awful lot.

Preach boundaries. Do it. But they aren’t just valuable for saving one’s self for marriage. I mentioned before that I dated non-Christian men. I dated two of them, and the relationships were very different. Had they come in a different order, I may have learned less from them. The first was a relationship where there was a lot of pressure to push and cross the boundaries. If there is one thing I could impart to those who go behind me, it is this: If you have to compromise more and more to keep someone interested in you, you do not have a foundation for a healthy relationship. You may find yourself in a position, like I did, where they leave you and then go date someone else who gives them what you would not. That. Hurts. You will also likely wish you had never pushed any of your boundaries at all, because you realize that it doesn’t take much to create a bond with someone else, and the stronger the bond, the more likely you are to stay in a relationship you know you should not be in, and the more it hurts when it eventually ends. It’s also easier to compromise once you’ve already done it. Don’t get yourself in a position that you have to ask yourself how the heck you got there. God’s grace is abundant, and He got me out of a bad situation. We can rely on God’s grace, but we shouldn’t test it. Don’t test it. Stick to those boundaries.

I had another relationship with a man who did not put pressure on me. It was nice. I was able to get to know him and realize over time that there were aspects of that relationship that would be problematic down the road. When that relationship ended, it was less painful and I had far fewer regrets. Neither relationship encouraged godliness or holiness in my life, so don’t date an unbeliever if you want to foster holiness.

Your Sins Are Forgiven. Go and Sin No More.

If God has forgiven us, why would we refuse to forgive ourselves or others? Messages of guilt lead to doubt that we can or should be forgiven by others, because we find it so hard to forgive ourselves. I think coming face to face with my own temptation over the years has given me a healthier perspective on grace. I know what temptation is, so how can I judge someone else for struggling to resist temptation? It knocked my pride down a bit, too. I am not above it. I’m human, friends. I trust you are, too. I won’t only forgive people for being tempted in exactly the same way I am. Sin is sin. Jesus died once for all, and my sin put Him on the cross just as much as yours did.

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said,“Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
James 2: 10-17

All sins are bad, and faith that doesn’t bear fruit in what we do is dead. Pursue holiness, but don’t vilify certain sins. Teach the truth and let the Spirit convict, and when we do face temptation, remember that His grace is sufficient for us. And when we give in to temptation, remember that His blood is sufficient to cover it. If God has forgiven, preach healing, not guilt. Tell the young people about what happens when we cross those lines, and let them know they’re not the only ones to ever face temptation, even if they are girls.