Yesterday, I wrote a post on the realities of sexuality in the current age in the West, particularly the United States, proposing a view of sexuality within the Church that is grounded in God’s image, rather than the other views of sex, such as through the lens of purity and the lens of liberation and fulfillment that I did mention, or other lenses I didn’t mention. Part of my concern underlying it, besides what I think to be the more appropriate Biblical narrative pertaining to sexuality, is that both purity lens and the liberation and fulfillment lens have many harmful, albeit unintended, consequences. However, we are familiar with those two ways of seeing sex, so mentioning something like seeing sexuality through the lens of God’s image can seem quite odd, at first. If one can get past the oddness of the idea, however, then comes the problem: what does it actually mean to view sexuality as part of God’s image? What I presented provided a sketch in broad, general outlines, but didn’t really establish much clear in terms of the specific whats and hows. In part, because there isn’t a list of specific do’s and dont’s, and in part because it isn’t something we have been taught in to have an intuitive sense of what it would entail. So I present here my own story as an example of what dealing with sexuality, particularly in the trauma I have experienced, can begin to look like in relation to God’s image.
My story is one where, simply put, that while I know what it is to be loved and cared for in non-sexual/non-romantic relationships, that I don’t know at all what it is like to be loved and cared for while also being desired. For me, the last part of this equation has only lead me to immense pain because I have never had any sustained relationship where desire was met also with care; I have experienced a string of objectifying interactions as a guy. One time in college, my words “no sex” went ignored, and then when I had a huge emotional reaction to the events, I get texted being told that “you wanted that.” leading me to blame myself for everything that happened that night. A little over a year later, I was engaged in the beginnings of a relationship with emotions I did not truly understand, and when I handled it poorly, she implied she would commit suicide and threatened to hurt me. Then a little over a year later after that, I went out on a couple dates with a female who was very manipulative and playing games that I decided to give a cold shoulder to; I was then told my a mutual friend that if I wasn’t careful, that she “might get a gun and shoot me” (although, I am not sure if that was the mutual friend’s overreaction to the situation, or based on something she heard). Then, a couple years later after that, I was left in an incredibly confusing, contradictory, and threatening situation that had me lose my cool towards a female, and as a result, I got simultaneously and contradictorily blamed as a terrible person yet encouraged to pursue a relationship with them, without much opportunity for me to tell my story or to know what the problems were, to the point that I had a mental break down and lost all trust with those I formerly associated with as I felt my only value to many was as a potential partner to this person, despite my other romantic interests, resistance, and protests.
I don’t tell you these stories to evoke a “oh, how terrible!” response, nor to convey that I am just hard on my luck. I tell you this story because to illustrate the absolute emotional complexity that comes from sexuality. As a result of these and other experiences, I live with the existence of two mutually painful thoughts about relationships and sex: 1) if you have a desire for me you might be dangerous and 2) it is unlikely someone will care about me as a person. I can challenge both of these thoughts individually, because I have spent time with women with whom there was an attraction but no attempt to possess, control, or take and there are people in my life that do care about me as a person, in a non-romantic fashion. But being able to resist both thoughts in any attempt to establish a relationship with a female beyond the most platonic is next to impossible: I will vacillate to protectiveness to withdrawal. Then, if I can manage to find a point where I can keep both feelings at bay, I am left absolutely unsure how to proceed with dating and relationships at this point in my life, as I don’t really trust any feeling I have. This can make dating for me really messy and confusing, as I don’t know how to respond and feeling it is premature to share why I feel so confused to someone at such an early stage.
The salve to my problem would be positive experiences can help me to figure things out. However, I am so deeply messed up relationally that there are not many people who would want take that along in their life, nor is it appropriate to expect anyone to want to deal with that. So then, instead of dealing with the inevitable pain that comes with the all too likely quick failure of a relationship, I eventually decide it isn’t worth it. Then I am left either in a pattern of avoidance where I occasionally enter into the imagination of some sort of ideal relationship, which I cut off because there is nothing realistic about my dreaming at this point. Or I feel the temptation to just pursue some sexual fling to at least feel something different, but I firmly reject that as incompatible with following Jesus.
If you were to look at my situation on the surface with a little bit of psychological knowledge, you might label me as having an avoidant attachment style. And you would be correct: the penchant to dream about idealized romance but then to avoid it is a part of it. Except that much of what is known about avoidance attachment styles aren’t true about me. I grew up in a loving household, where I feel comfortable being with my family, despite the tragedies we have faced. I also know that I have the problem and I am simply left with the lack of ways to actually challenge myself. Even in my awareness of possibility of coming into a good relationship, I can never realistically expect an opportunity for things to be different. While it is always possible for the circumstances to align for change to occur, it is also technically possible that someone will give me a million dollars tomorrow to allow me to pursue all my academic dreams, but it isn’t something you should count on happening. Even as I personally wish I could have a family, I firmly expect to be single all of my life as things stand.
So, taking off my self-disclosure hat and putting on my analytic hat, what can one say from this? Firstly, some broader observations before getting into the nature of God’s image and sexuality.
1) Because sexuality is filled with so many emotions, it means that we are highly sensitive to develop certain habits, fears, and desires based upon our sexual and relational experiences. As all of the experiences accumulate, we are more impacted by than we are most experience, such that sexuality and romantic relationships can be incredibly complex and messy. There is no set of psychological theories or insights that will adequately exhaust the different possible permutations of people’s thoughts and feelings about relationships and sex.
2) Given the inadequacy of psychology to address the high sensitivity that our sexual behavior has to our various past experiences, psychological insights are at best tools to help us listen to our experience or other’s experiences, but they are not iron-clad laws that describe individual persons. If you are wanting to appropriately help people, there is absolutely no substitute to listening. If you were to figure I am just feeling lonely try to just set me up with someone with the idea that maybe I could just hit it off with them, that wouldn’t help my situation by itself at all.
3) People can not just will themselves to change their sexual desires and relationship practices to fit into some desired goal or outcome. I can not just change my heart to suddenly be suitable relationship material for most women. People who are attracted to the same sex can not just will themselves to feel attraction to the opposite sex. Change is certainly possible, but it is neither inevitable nor can the nature of the change be reliably controlled by some process (so, conversion therapy is out the door).
But moving towards the relationship of God’s image and human sexuality
1) Since being in the God’s image is not about some ontological state, but about our purpose within God’s creation, while sexual relationships between men and women is a way to realize that purpose, being in God’s image is not about being in a sexual relationship but how we are engaging in the world that God created. Loving creativity in a way that is consistent with the world that God lovingly created is the way we fulfill our purposes in being in God’s image. That purpose can be fulfilled in marriage but it can be fulfilled in singleness. I would hope you wouldn’t tell me who has served as a pastor and who has dedicated time, money, and energy to academic study for the church that I am not serving in God’s image because I am not married; one may justly criticize my pastoring or my academic work but my marital status should be seen as A way of life to realize God’s image not THE way of life.
2) Relating our sexuality to being in God’s image is about the direction we dedicate our life to, including our sexual life. That can be done in marriage through faithfulness to one’s spouse, through bearing children, through working together with one’s spouse to form our world in a way for our children or for others if they have no children, etc. But in a state of singleness, it can be realized through dedicating our creative energies into care for others, life-giving works that can serve to support and sustain, which this very post is an attempt to put my seminal thoughts together such that this may bear fruit with greater thought, reflection, and study in the future, etc. Soren Kierkegaard stands as a shining example of whose works have nourished the church while he struggled in his own romantic life; the sublimation of our sexual energies into other avenues can be manifested in other forms of loving creativity than marriage and family.
3) Since sexuality is focused on being in God’s image but it isn’t necessary to it, churches, seminaries, etc. should spend less time focusing specifically on marriage and family and making those families, but instead focus on instructing people what it means to be in God’s image, both in marriage and familiy and in other non-marital avenues of loving creativity. This would still entail discussing family matters, but it would more explicitly ground the purpose to our larger divinely-given purpose rather than to simply focus on having a “good” marriage and family. If well done, it would endow us as people with a clear sense of purpose and mission that clearly impinges upon our relationships; there wouldn’t simply be a moral imperative to loving faithfulness in families but a sense of mission and purpose. Meanwhile, people who struggle with the possibilities of marriage can learn to explore other avenues with that mission in mind; my otherwise unwilling state of singleness has afforded me the opportunity to study at one of the world’s elite universities in theology so that I can hone my academic skill and rigor with the hopeful purpose of serving others, both in the Church and outside it.
4) However, since we as the Church is formed into the image of God through THE image of God, Jesus Christ, the one necessary criterion of realizing our purpose of being in God’s image in either marriage and in over avenues is through the faithful love that endures sacrificial suffering. While marriage has specific goals, such as sustaining intimacy between partners, making sure the children are loved and well-directed etc., and other avenues have their specific goals, such as the well-disciplined study in academic work that I participate in. However, each of these goals is centered around the ultimatle goal of realizing this faithful, sacrificial love in every avenue we participate within, marriage or otherwise.
5) Because my ultimate purpose is to be part of God’s image, it is not my expectation that I will ever have a family of my own, but that God will enable me to participate in his loving creativity in my own life. The healing that I long to occur may never restore that dream; it may be long broken and lost unless God does something. But I trust I will be prepared and sustained so as to realize that bigger purpose. Even as I experience the suffering, I can have a life where that suffering does not define my life.