Today we continue our series on Sexuality and the Church with a guest post from Tara Owens, CSD, one of the wisest writers I know. Tara is finishing up a book on spirituality and the body to be published by IVP in 2014. If you’d like to be updated when the book comes out, you can sign up here. She’s also a spiritual director with Anam Cara Ministries, senior editor of Conversations Journal, and a lover of Sherlock, great poetry, boxing, red velvet cupcakes and her husband. You can follow her on Twitter here or here, check her out on Facebook here or here, or connect via email here.
How do I involve God in my sexuality?
“Yet an integral spirituality, one that marries heaven and earth, must embrace intellect and the body, tradition and experience, analytical rigor and spiritual courage. Both sides are essential: the abstract (“God”) and the concrete (“your body”). Theories of the body, pathways of the soul—these are wonderful maps and excellent recipes for wisdom. But the map is not the territory, and the recipe is not the meal.”
- Jay Michaelson, God In Your Body, p. xi
I’m going to get this out of the way first, so you can be frustrated at the beginning of this post instead of the end—I’m not going to give you the answer.
I know, I know. It’s aggravating, isn’t it?
As a spiritual director, I journey with people as they journey with God. I call myself a midwife to the soul, someone who comes alongside to help people bring to birth the life God, and that is what I do. I have training and tools that help me discern with others the work of Christ in their lives, supervisors who ensure I am maintaining professional standards, peers who encourage me in my own relationship with God.
And none of that give me a formula for helping people grow in their spiritual lives. None of it allows me to treat a person as a problem or a set of stages to be worked through. The practice of spiritual direction is so hard to define because it starts with relationship, and relationship isn’t about standardization or measurement, checking the boxes and getting it “right” (whatever that means.)
The same is true of our sexuality and our relationship with God.
If we’re looking for the way to get God to bless our sexual lives, the solution to the problem of what it means to be a sexual being, we’re only going to come up with false rules and standards, ways of being that force some people out and others in, models of holiness that may work for one season of life but fall apart in another.
I’m not going to give you the answer to involving God in your sexuality, because there isn’t one standard that will work for all people.
But there is a relationship.
Our sexuality, which from my experience has a much broader expression than who we have sex with, involves all the ways we go about seeking embodied connection with one another. Our sexuality has to do with the physical feelings of attraction and arousal, and how we choose to act on those feelings. It can be expressed in genital intercourse, but it can also be expressed in our friendships, and in the ways that we go about creating communion with the world around us. The eros of our human nature can be expressed as equally in kissing as it can in great art.
Sexuality, then, isn’t a place that’s tangential to our spiritual lives, but integral to them. As sexual beings, our bodies urge us toward connection with one another and, ultimately, with God. Our sexuality is our embodied experience of the longing for union, to know and be known, desire finding voice in skin and lips and movement.
When we lose this fundamental truth about sexuality, we lose the plot. Instead of being the impelling force that shows us how deeply we want others, want God, sexuality gets framed as something dangerous and destructive, a need for pleasure or a desperation for fulfillment. Sexual expression can be about those things, of course, but that’s not what it’s made for, not what it’s telling us that we’re about. When sexuality gets framed as something to repress or feed, something that needs to be reigned in or fanned into flame, we’re seeing it as merely an appetite, a set of biological compulsions, and we’ve lost something fundamentally human about ourselves.
The other mistake that we make, both in society and in the church, surrounding our sexuality is assuming that it is fundamentally a private thing, something that involves us and our bedrooms and no one else. We don’t talk about it, unless we’re talking about the rules surrounding what not to do, because it doesn’t have anything to do with the broader community of God. It’s what goes on between a married couple in covenanted union, and that’s about it.
Sexuality, our experience of the erotic, is actually designed to be the very center of community, not divorced from it. Sexuality is both personal and communal, a stepping into community to enact God’s love in an embodied way. The ways in which we participate in that enactment—the image of union, vulnerability and joy sex can be—are fundamentally tied to the whole community. If we’re using sex to dominate, objectify or get pleasure at the expense of the other, we’re enacting something false not only about community but about God.
Involving God in our sexuality means holding on to what it means to be sexual in the first place, and what that sexuality points us toward. God longs for union with us (recall, for example, Jesus’s impassioned prayer in John 17 for union), and our longings for embodied union reflect His desire for us. In Orthodox tradition, this movement toward union with God is called theosis. We see the ultimate icon of that union in Christ, who gives Himself completely to God with a self-giving love.
So, I haven’t answered the question. Without sitting down across from you, without hearing your story, knowing your struggles, knowing the community in which you live, worship, wonder, wrangle and wait, I can’t answer it for you. But I do know One who can and will walk with you in it.