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Spring 1986 · Vol. 15 No. 1 · pp. 52–58 

Sexual Passages and the Christian Family

Dean Kliewer

Pathways to learning about sexual things, particularly about how to deal with sexual feeling, are not all that well laid out for those of us in the Christian community. Parents often express concerns about the sex education our children receive at school. Sometimes even in Christian schools we hear complaints about the literature to which our children may be exposed.

Sexuality is there to be warmly embraced. It enriches life . . .

We want to see that our children learn about sexual realities in a wholesome way. We would like to protect them as much as possible from what we may perceive as the sordid and depraved sexuality which seems to be constantly represented in our newspapers, the books we read, the magazines on our news stands, and the movies which we see both in local theaters and on our home TV sets. We may feel that negative influences in the sexual arena encroach upon us like a river slowly rising to floodstage.

Most often our concerns are expressed in relation to our children. Although that is a legitimate focus, from time to time we as Christian adults also need to examine our pilgrimage toward sexual maturity. {53}

THE SEXUAL PILGRIMAGE

The process of growing up sexually may be seen as a kind of journey which all of us must take. Each person takes a unique trip. The route markers may be passed at different times in the lifetime of each person. We may take various routes on the way. Like Pilgrim, we may go through a variety of trials and struggles on this continuing safari.

For many of us, we may look back to some trip experiences with embarrassment. At many choice points along the route we may feel frustrated and confused. Sometimes perhaps this is because there seem to be few places in the Christian community where we may stop to ask for directions.

Intentional planning for growth toward sexual maturity may be one of the arenas most neglected in the evangelical church. Many questions come to mind as we consider the sexual growth journey we have taken: How did I make the sexual passages which all of us are required to travel? And along the way, what travel tips came from my parents, from people at church or at school, and from my peers? What guidance might have come but didn’t?

These questions may have a familiar ring, although we may not have asked them in those words. We may not have articulated such thoughts in words at all.

During the past two years I have begun to be open about my own sexual experience pilgrimage. Here I want to consider only three questions pertinent to the sexual growth process. These issues may be seen as pertaining to travel destination, route markers, and tips for travelers.

Where do we want to go?

How can we know how far we have come?

And, what can we do to help other travelers on their trip?

Travel Destination

Many of us seem unaware that we are on a journey toward sexual growth, and we may be even less mindful that there also is a destination. Episodically we may be taken with mirages which, at the time we pursue them, appear to be an end point.

Some of these pseudo destinations include the following: a thorough identification with the appropriate cultural stereotype for young boys and for young girls; the development of early interest in the opposite sex; the onset of puberty at the right {54} time; the initiation of dating activity; the avoidance of sexual interaction before marriage; lifelong commitment through marriage; a satisfactory sexual relationship with one’s spouse; a complete loss of sexual interest in persons other than the spouse; the parenting of children. These may be way-stations on the trip, but I do not see them as destinations.

Like the destination for every other aspect of the Christian pilgrimage, in the sexual arena too the goal is growth into the image of Christ—mature discipleship—the bringing of this part of life under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. But what does that sort of maturity mean? There is the destination question.

What does it mean to bring sexual desire, sexual arousal, sexual satisfaction, sexual experience, sexual joy, sexual frustration, all of this and more under the Lordship of Christ?

For some believers in the past this has meant asceticism, a life of austere self-discipline or even the search for an absence of all desire—sexual desire included. For others this has meant very careful restrictions on what one does, thinks, or feels. It also has meant monastic withdrawal from the world, or even a vow of celibacy—a promise to avoid entirely the marital and sexual relationship which is possible in life. What does it mean for us?

In our Christian families we must begin to talk openly about what we see as our destination in the sexual arena. If this is to happen, we must formulate convictions about the meaning of sexual discipleship for us. I believe that much of our sexual confusion emerges because we have not done this important work.

We need more help here from church leadership. It has been gratifying to see a study document and congregational discernment process projected for 1985-86 among Mennonite and General Conference Mennonite churches (Human Sexuality in the Christian Life).

It is easy to point to break-downs in the sexual/emotional process in Christian families: irresponsible sexual behavior before and after marriage, child molestation, infidelity, miserable marriages, ruptured marriages among Christians in leadership roles. The list goes on and on. And some would be content to define discipleship wholly in terms of the avoidance of these obvious tragedies.

But it is more difficult to formulate a definition of Christian discipleship in the sexual arena. Can we provide a practical description {55} of a believer who is mature, who has grown up in this arena, who is close to her/his destination in sexual/emotional terms?

Route Markers

Jesus identified one evidence of maturity in the attitude he showed toward the flagrant violator of a sexual standard, the woman taken in adultery. He seemed less concerned about the accused than he was about the accusers in this case. And he did not ask her for an admission of guilt or for a promise of abstinence. This marker seems to be, “Judge your own sexual sin, not the sin of others.”

Loving people—genuine caring—seems to be another marker as one looks at the pattern of relationships Jesus maintained. How am I doing on that one?

Then there are many markers which show the level of my willingness to accept my own feelings, positive or negative. Can I deal openly with my disappointment, my grief, my anger, my fear as I interact with those close to me? Or do I need to get into accusations and projections of my feelings onto others who are in contact with me?

Can I form a lasting bond with another person? Does my affection and loyalty to the person with whom I’ve made a commitment rise above the interpersonal struggles which bring tension to any intimate relationship?

If I am married, can I put the sexual needs of my partner above my own sexual needs? Is my goal to make the other happy? Is unselfishness about need-meeting also manifest in my relationships with non-spouse family members and others close to me?

I am sure that I do not have a special “handle” on the many way-stations which provide evidence of sexual growth. But we need operational definitions of the travel markers which tell us where we are on our journey toward maturity in the sexual/emotional/spiritual arena.

Travel Tips

When we undertake a trip to an area of the country we have never explored, it is often useful to talk with someone who has been there recently. Sometimes a great deal of road-work on a certain route may slow down the travel or make it difficult. “Avoid Highway 50 between Hutchinson and McPherson if you {56} can,” may be the instruction.

Routes to avoid, places to visit “by all means,” interesting possibilities to explore on the journey into unfamiliar territory—this is the kind of information travelers always seem ready to receive.

I am not prepared to trot out a list of key avoidances together with suggestions for activity along the way. That task offers sufficient challenge to warrant a monograph or two of its own. Rather than seeking specific tips, the focus will be on several observations about tip-gathering.

How might one expedite the process of assembling information about features of the journey? Where should we look for the tips? How do we find the people most likely to give us accurate information. And how do we talk to those people once we have found them?

Do we look mainly for professional travelers, those who make their living by exploring these territories? Do we wait until we are near the interim destination and then talk to any native we find along the way? Is it best to talk to an informant who has taken the trip very recently?

I am convinced that the best sources of information about sexual/emotional/spiritual growth are those persons close to us in the believers fellowship. One obvious source is my family circle—believers who are my relatives, and who are most heavily invested in my travel experience.

But it is a curious paradox to be aware that although most other believers have traveled rather extensively in what we are here calling the sexual/emotional/spiritual territory, there seems to be a kind of conspiracy of silence about their experience. On the whole we are confronted mainly with jokes, up-tight or angry injunctions often stated indirectly, and a “that’s none of your business” attitude when we seek to talk about the trip.

Or we may hear, “You just take it a day at a time.” Or, “Don’t worry about it, you will know which route to take, and you will avoid the difficulties (I hope).”

In most of our church meetings, it doesn’t seem appropriate to deal with sexual issues, “That’s too embarrassing to talk about right out in the open.” In the family context, many parents feel poorly equipped by their past experience to handle the travel instruction on their own. Everyone seems to be passing the buck. “You deal with it; no, you over there, anyone, just don’t ask me to take care of it.” {57}

Too often we appear to be forced to get our tips from books, from magazines, from a locker-room bravado, or from the Phil Donahue show rather than from our brothers and sisters in the faith. It is time to do something about that.

We need to see our seminary and college leadership prepare to teach in these areas. At the local church level, opportunities for dialogue must be created for those of us who are parents so that in the family context we can do a better job with our children and with each other.

We must find practical strategies which will permit, even promote, the sharing of travel tips among us. We need to find ways of hearing regularly from models of mature and effective Christian discipleship in the sexual/emotional/spiritual realm.

ANNOTATED REFERENCES

Augsburger, David. From Here to Maturity: How You Can be the Person You Always Wanted to Be. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1982.

A brief attempt to examine the emotional growth process with specific failure, to trust, anger, communication, fear, sexuality, forgiveness, failure, and love.

Backus, William. Telling Yourself the Truth. Minneapolis: Bethany, 1980.

Written by a Lutheran pastor and clinical psychologist who early in his career ministered to fellow pastors regarding the management of the seven deadly sins. A fine presentation of cognitive emotional growth strategies, presented from a Christian point of view.

Carnes, Patrick. The Sexual Addiction. Minneapolis: CompCare Publications, 1983.

Directed toward those seeking recovery from compulsive sexual behavior, this source presents the Twelve Steps as developed in Alcoholics Anonymous as a way out.

Human Sexuality in the Christian Life. Special joint publication of the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church, 1985. (No authors or publishing house identified.)

The written product of a conference-wide dialogue on a variety of sexual/emotional/spiritual issues in both of the two participating church groups. Local churches are being asked to discuss these matters as part of a process designed to find consensus.

Martin, Grant. Transformed by Thorns. Wheaton: Victor Books, 1985.

Looks carefully at the weaknesses which plague us, but which can lead us to increasing strength and growth as whole persons. A very useful source for church school training classes, and for anyone seeking growth toward emotional maturity. A companion teaching guide is available as well. {58}

Penner, Clifford & Joyce. Sexual Fulfillment in Marriage: A Multimedia Learning Kit. Omaha: Family Concern, Inc., 1977.

An easily applied seminar teaching guide prepared for training married couples in churches, complete with overhead transparencies and spirit duplication masters.

Penner, Clifford & Joyce. The Gift of Sex: A Christian Guide to Sexual Fulfillment. Waco: Word, Inc., 1981.

Written from a Christian perspective by a psychologist/nurse husband and wife team, this is one of the most complete and best organized considerations of sexual behavior available.

Small, Dwight H. Christian: Celebrate Your Sexuality. Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revell, 1974.

The theology of sexuality as it has developed over the years, and a useful perspective from the author.

Smedes, Louis B. Sex for Christians: The Limits and Liberties of Sexual Living. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976.

Oriented toward Christian laypersons, this is a valuable topical tour of ethics-related issues pertaining to sexual behavior.

Wheat, Ed & Gaye. Intended for Pleasure: Sex Technique and Sexual Fulfillment in Christian Marriage. Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revell, 1977.

A carefully prepared marriage manual presented from Christian and medical perspectives.

White, Mel. The Other Side of Love. Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1978.

Originally published as Lust: The Other Side of Love, the author speaks candidly in personal terms of his struggles with sexual desires. He also considers how biblical characters faced those very real issues.

Dean Kliewer is a psychologist and counselor maintaining a private practice in Reedley, California.

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