My mom was the voice of correction growing up. I knew I’d done something wrong when my first, middle, and last name was shouted from another part of our house.
Fear. Shame. Worry.
All of these things would wash over me when I heard my full name echoing off the walls of our house. Even before I knew what I was going to be in trouble for I began coming up with excuses for my actions.
“No, Mom, those crayon marks were there when you bought the house.”
“It’s only a hole in the wall. Have Dad fix it when he gets home.”
Sometimes I wonder if we unintentionally do this same thing to the youth we’ve been entrusted to lead when it comes to discussions surrounding sex.
We have a responsibility to engage youth and their decisions, but I worry we engage the sin more than we encounter the person. When I ask students what God’s standards for sex include they are quick to respond, but most of their responses lack familiarity with scripture and instead express emotions similar to those that would wash over me when I heard my full name being shouted by my mom. Fear. Shame. Worry.
It is unfair of me to say every church or youth group misses the mark in discussions about sex. I think many are doing their best when it comes to such a challenging topic. However, more and more data is suggesting that the talks and tools we have been giving youth are not impacting their young adult life. Many become frustrated with waiting as they enter their twenties and decide to live their lives in a way that fail to demonstrate God’s grand design as the sex maker.
In 2011, I began an organization called Project Six19 with a mission to create conversations that go beyond the rules and regulations found in most abstinence or purity presentations. In my time observing these types of presentations I realized the focus was more about sin management rather than true heart change. They were focused on the short term solution while forgetting about the long journey of adulthood.
So instead of adopting the typical purity or abstinence model, I decided to center our discussions around a different phrase: sexual integrity. Sexual integrity can only be lived out when we set our eyes on Jesus. Sometimes this can sound so cheesy, so much like a Sunday school answer. However, it is because of Jesus Christ we are made completely whole again so that we might live fully without shame. That is why something like abstinence and purity can miss the mark if it only focuses on virginity rather than the big picture of God’s ultimate design for sex. But sexual integrity (or when purity and abstinence are put in the right context) points back to Christ because it is in Him that the old has gone and the new has come, and we are a new creation able to give ourselves in love as He did. This is where our true identity is found, not in the status of our virginity.
Because our identity in Jesus Christ is most important, our observations of how He encounters the sexual sin of others provides helpful tips for our own sex talks. Here are three observations of how Jesus encountered sexual sin:
See and Hear Students
Jesus engaged people by meeting them where they were and not where He wanted them to be. For instance, in John 8 Jesus encounters the Pharisees and a woman caught in adultery and He does so with a specific posture. He stands to address the Pharisees and humbles himself before the woman by being close to the ground. He got himself lower than her, which was unheard of in this culture.
There have been times that my posture was just the opposite of this. When it comes to living out our Christian call to be holy, the default mode of our heart often includes rules. It’s an easy way to do life. That’s why I am not surprised when I’ve chosen to point out another’s wrong without first listening and taking everything in before responding. Rules are easy to point to and heart change is something entirely different.
Instead of doing what could have been so easy, pointing out the wrong of the woman’s actions, Jesus challenges everyone to a higher understanding. Instead of stones being thrown at the woman, they were dropped. Most importantly, the woman instead walks away with a conviction that would have never occurred if Jesus had simply pointed out her sinful actions.
The woman was seen and heard without ever speaking a word. She was loved and known without so much as a hug. How? Because of the way Jesus engaged her sin. He saw her first as someone made in the image of God before he ever saw the sin of her sexual encounter.
How powerful would this be if we engaged students in a similar manner?
Give Truthful Answers
Have you ever noticed how honest Jesus is in His response to others when the doorway to relationship has been opened? Consider the woman at the well in John 4. This interaction with a Samaritan woman records a conversation that includes brutal honesty.
Somewhere in the midst of this conversation of water and life Jesus is asked for this water He has been describing that is eternal. Her response, “Sir, I have no husband.” That is when Jesus says, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband.” Notice Jesus doesn’t pull punches. Once the doorway has been opened and someone has been seen and heard it provides an invitation to go deeper in the individual’s story. This is an incredible gift!
We are often afraid to engage in some of the talks surrounding sex. Further, we can be afraid to talk about the decisions some of our youth are making in their personal lives, as this requires brutal honesty. However, we need to have those conversations, especially if we’ve been invited into their lives. Even though you might be uncomfortable with some of the questions your youth are asking, you have to be willing to engage. If you don’t have an answer, be honest. My favorite thing to say to a student is, “I don’t know, but let’s find out together!” Our youth are living in a highly sexualized culture and they deserve responsible and well thought out responses.
Communicate God’s Design for Sex
It is not uncommon for me to hear someone say that Jesus never spoke on the topic of sex. This is disappointing because He did, multiple times. Jesus speaks of sexual immorality in Matthew 15, shares the power of sex and how it is more than physical in the Sermon on the Mount, and finally points back to the very design made clear at the beginning of Creation in Matthew 19. These are merely a few examples, but it’s clear Jesus was not quiet on the subject, and we should not be either.
God’s plan is not to be a cosmic killjoy. Rather, His design for sex is an opportunity to live into something far greater than we could hope for or imagine. Please understand this does not mean God will “bless your socks off” if you wait, or that He desires to give you a “smoking hot spouse!” God’s plans are so much richer and they don’t need to include Christian platitudes.
We must be honest about God’s design for sex.
This means not just talking about sex as something physical to avoid but something that can be life giving. Sex in scripture is more about relationship and being known than it is about the physical experience. Yes, it includes boundaries like waiting for marriage, but these are for our protection so we may fully flourish as His creation. But we must do more than just talk about waiting until marriage. We need to recognize we are working with youth who might not marry until their late twenties or early thirties. The words we speak now will have long-term impact. We need to prepare students to navigate a culture that will include questions surrounding singleness, pornography, masturbation, dating, and issues related to LGBTQ. This means creating an identity that goes beyond their sexuality and places Jesus at the center of the discussion.
In a funny twist of fate, it was my mother who had an impact on my choice to start over at 23 and wait to have sex. I had been a sexually active teen and young adult, something my mom and many of my church leaders were not aware of.
Right before I moved away to attend a college in Eastern Washington, my mother asked me if I had ever had sex. I was 21 and this was the first time she and I had come anywhere close to having a sex talk. Instantly my body stiffened and I was prepared to respond much like I did when I was younger and heard her shouting my full name. Only this time my mom was asking me as an adult, as her son, as someone she loved, if I had ever had sex. This was not a “me vs. mom” conversation but rather an “I want to hear what you have to say” discussion.
My response surprised her. Yes, I had been sexually active for quite some time, I told her (to her dismay). Without hesitation she said, “I don’t know if it matters now but there is a part of me that wishes you had waited. I wish I could have communicated that when you were younger.”
Her posture and response was grace-filled and loving while also being true and grounded in scripture. There was nothing to fear. No need for me to worry. And I felt no shame. Yet, I received her value. Later that summer I made the choice to start over.
We have this same opportunity with the students God has entrusted us with each and every day. The question is whether or not we will have the courage to use the model set before us by Jesus.