Conversatio Divina

Part 6 of 16

Longing Bodies, Aching Souls: Letting God Reclaim Our Sexuality

Tara M. Owens

Later this year, when fall rolls around and the air turns crisp in the mornings, I’ll be heading to a monastery. Starting in September, the Sisters of Benet Hill Monastery, a Benedictine Community in Colorado, welcome a new class of hopefuls into their two-year spiritual formation program. The group of men and women come from every denomination and life stage, and all are training through this program to become spiritual directors. I head into the black pine forest in which the monastery is lovingly nestled to teach two classes: “My Sexual Self” and “Sexuality and Spiritual Direction.”

01.  Introduction

Last year, there was palpable resistance as I walked into the classroom to teach the Year One course. Set in a small room amidst bookshelves overstuffed with hardbacks lazily ordered, the class was meant to be intimate, approachable and warm. The giggles and blushes of a fifth-grade sex ed. class would have been preferable to the stiff silence that met me as I began to talk about the importance of our sexuality, and what it tells us about God. Instead of the openness I had (somewhat naïvely) hoped for, the attitudes of my students were typified in the bemused question that one woman interjected mid-lecture: “How will telling the story of my sexuality help me know God better? I just don’t see it.”

And that’s the thing. For the most part, we just don’t see it. If you’ve come from almost any Protestant spiritual tradition, the connection between our sexuality and God is less than clear. If you’ve come from a conservative tradition, not only is the connection difficult to see; it’s almost antithetical to what you might perceive as a biblical understanding of spirituality. Unfortunately, whether it’s tradition or a simple neglect of the subject, the impulses of our bodies (be they toward food, drink or physical intimacy) rarely make their way into the pulpit on a Sunday morning. Or better said, they’re there, in the body of the pastor or the priest, but he or she does as much as practically possible to make sure they don’t interfere.

Jesus says, “Eat. This is my body, broken for you. Drink. This is my blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins.” Even as Jesus instituted the Last Supper, what liturgically structured churches call the Eucharist, he addressed our deepest needs—food, drink and intimacy: Take My body into your body.

And yet, we still need to be shocked back into the realization that we are bodies that need, and need to touch. We have been created as both sensual (able to touch, feel and sense things physical) and sexual (created gendered and with physical drives for connection and intimacy.) We live such isolated lives that we’re missing those truths.

02.  Practice Gnostics

Compared to common life a century ago, we in the West are a shockingly touch-deprived society. The study of “personal space” (a phrase we now overuse) didn’t develop until the twentieth century, and was based, originally, on observations of the interactions of zoo animals. It wasn’t until Edward T. Hall, an anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher, wrote about “proxemics” or “personal spaces” in 1966 that we even had words to describe what it meant to be uncomfortable in close proximity to someone else.

Nearly fifty years later, technology and transportation improvements mean that we are afforded the luxury of a bubble of space all our own in which we can live, controlling the ways in which we touch or are touched by others. Today, we can go through days, weeks and even months without touching another human being. We correspond electronically, which detaching ourselves from the physicality of communication. We drive rather than walk to the places we need to visit, and with bench seats fading from the auto design landscape, we don’t even slide into our driving companions on a sharp curve any more.

More often than not, we protect ourselves not just from any kind of person-to-person touch, but from any other kind of unbidden touch as well. We are less and less likely simply to deal with the inconveniences of the weather—instead we isolate ourselves from it almost completely. Most office buildings no longer have windows that can open—we can watch the wind blow, but we can’t feel it ruffle our hair. Even our clothing industry reflects this trend toward physical isolation. The more affluent and isolated we become, the less our clothing is designed to stand up to any weather conditions other than those brought about by the vagaries of air conditioning and central heating. You can’t walk through a blustery parking lot, let alone a muddy field, in most of today’s fashions. We are disconnected from earth, wind, rain, and more and more, our own bodies.

Despite the fact that incarnation and embodiment play a central role in our faith, the church as a whole has not been of great help, especially recently. We rarely, if ever, talk about our bodies or about touch. When we do, it is often in the context of purity, safety or abstinence—for ourselves, our children and our teens. Please hear me clearly here. I support safety for our children, believe in abstinence before marriage and understand the risks involved as we pursue purity in an age where impure things are more than readily available. That said, the church as a whole has shaped our relationship to touch and to sexuality in the negative, focusing on how we should control and repress our bodies. We live out our physicality and sexuality under the aegis of what they should not be, instead of what they could be. Functionally, we act as if it would be a lot more convenient if we just skipped the whole body thing all together. We are, quite often, practical Gnostics.Gnosticism is a complicated and varied set of beliefs that suggest there is “secret knowledge” given to only a few, through specific, hidden means. This stands directly in opposition to biblical revelation. Some of the tenets of Gnosticism are that knowledge is the highest good, and that Christ only appeared to have a body. This belief sprang from the idea that all matter is inherently base and evil, and that the spirit, mind and intuitions are, in fact, where all that is pure and good resides. Since Christ was without sin and uncontaminated by evil, Gnostics conclude that Jesus must have only appeared to have a body. Many Christians today treat their bodies as if they are evil, base things, only meant to be endured until the resurrection, without redeemable qualities or faculties. This is, very simply put, practical Gnosticism.

This Gnosticism is ironic, really, given that our whole theology revolves around the fact that Jesus lived and breathed and sweated and walked around and touched people. Most other faith traditions can get away with an aversion to or attempt to escape from the reality of our physical incarnation. Not Christians. The Nicene Creed—whether or not we recite it regularly—states that we believe in Christ’s physical birth, death, and resurrection. None of that happens without a body.

Stepping out from under cultural and historically accepted ways of acting is, however, extremely difficult. Especially if we don’t—as my skeptical students didn’t—have any understanding of why behaving or thinking any differently will help us to live a better life, understand God, be more connected to one another.

To some extent, the church has good reason to speak of our physicality in negative terms. Our sensuality and our sexuality (both our physical desire for sexual union and, as we’ll see later, our impulse for connection) are two desires that, if not integrated into our personhood in a healthy way, lead to the kinds of ravenous behaviors that destroy marriages and disgrace churches.

In that light, the reasons Christians have developed such a reputation for prudish mores and strict standards are both manifold and valid. Illicit affairs, addictions to pornography, inappropriate touching of small children—all have disastrous effects on families, churches, perpetrators, and victims. Disordered sexuality quite often leads to addiction, which can feed into other destructive behaviors and systems.

03.  Reclaiming the Gift

It would be easy enough to stop there. In some ways, it feels safer to create boundaries of protection, to fence our sexuality the way the ancient rabbis fenced the law, creating layer upon layer of codes of behavior so that the central tenets of morality are in no danger of being violated.

And it may, indeed, be safer, but in order to maintain these boundaries we have to keep defining sexuality by what it cannot do, how we cannot express it, instead of defining it in the positive, as something we can move toward in joy.

It is here that I’d like to recognize and acknowledge that many of our readers have had sad—and perhaps deeply traumatizing—experiences of sexual abuse and misuse. As Samuel Hamilton-Poore writes in Supervision of Spiritual Directors: Engaging in Holy Mystery, it may be difficult “for some readers to see or experience sexuality as a gift. The statistics on the number of people who have endured sexual abuse, violation, and discrimination are truly staggering. Unless we find some way to affirm our sexuality as a divine gift, however, we may inadvertently compound the tragedy of sexual abuse and misconduct. Without affirmation, without seeing the gift, we allow our sexuality to be defined and demeaned by its misuse.”Samuel Hamilton-Poore, “The Given and the Gift: Sexuality and God’s Eros in Spiritual Direction and Supervision” by in Supervision of Spiritual Directors: Engaging in Holy Mystery, Mary Rose Bumpus, Ed, and Rebecca Bradburn Langer, ed. (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse, 2005), 88.

The Gospel is an invitation to wholeness and to life. Because of the work of Christ, we are no longer defined by our sins (whatever sins they are); we are defined by Christ. The good news is that not only are we justified, but we are also being transformed ever increasingly into the likeness of God. That transformation, that work of God’s grace in and through us, isn’t limited to our souls or our behavior. It includes our total personhood, which means our bodies and our sexuality as well. And that means that a recovered, redeemed sexuality—a sexuality that we live into and celebrate—is possible. So what does that mean? What might a fully orbed experience of sexuality entail?

04.  Recovering Sexuality

While it seems the most unlikely and scandalous place to start in the recovery of our connection to our bodies, sex and sexuality are one of the best places to start.

We can be practically disconnected, or generally disordered, about the way we eat, how much we drink, or how much sleep we get at night. We’re pretty good at ignoring God’s command to rest on the Sabbath, and for all intents and purposes we’ve completely ignored the fact that gluttony is one of the besetting sins not only of the Western culture but of the Western church. Sex, however, we find extremely difficult to ignore.

I once heard a pastor friend joke that the way to pack the pews on a Sunday morning was to preach a sermon series about sex. Ironically, he was in the middle of preaching just such a series, and lo and behold, church attendance was up. When sales of the Christian classics (Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle or Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ) remain almost flat-lined, books on purity or self-control or how to have great Christian sex are more than hot off the presses. We’re driven to decode where the “lines” are in our dating relationships (not in itself a bad thing) and what the latest wisdom is on how to control our drive to ogle the opposite sex.

All of this talk about sex and purity and self-control titillates us quite thoroughly, and even occasionally convicts us, in a way that provides lasting change, about God’s best designs for our desires. But it essentially misses our point of deprivation, this odd disconnect that we still experience between the life we live in our bodies and the life we live in the Spirit. It misses the point because in all of this talk we keep skirting around a fact that we all know but are too busy covering up to admit: We are sexual beings. Our sexuality is an essential part of being human, a part that has gone sadly neglected by the church and scandalously overexposed by society.

Indeed as Lisa Graham McMinn writes, “Sexuality is intended by God to be neither incidental to nor detrimental to our spirituality, but rather a fully integrated and basic dimension of that spirituality . . . human sexuality . . . is most fundamentally the divine invitation to find our destinies not in loneliness but in deep connection . . . we experience our sexuality as the basic eros of our humanness that urges, invites, and lures us out of our loneliness into intimate communication and communion with God and the world.”Lisa Graham McMinn. Sexuality and Holy Longing: Embracing Intimacy in a Broken World. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 6.

Let me speak to one of the concerns that often arises when I speak or write on the topic of reclaiming our sexuality. It is true: Jesus—our Savior, Redeemer, Friend—never married and never had sex. This is important to remember, because we can go too far (as the Corinthians did) in our “permissions” around our sexual expressions. However, let me restate that what we’re talking about when we talk about sexuality is much more than genital intercourse. That Jesus did not have sex does not mean that he was not sexual.

While sex is one way that we express our sexuality, it is not the only way—and we’ve been tied up in knots about this ever since, well, the time of St. Augustine in the mid-400s. To say that sexuality is only about genital sex (or our thoughts about genital sex) is to strip the millions of single people in the world of their sexuality. A single person has just as many desires and longings and embodied feelings as a married person does—he or she is just as human. Just as Jesus was fully human. Which means that he was also a sexual being.

For some of us, that’s a scandalous and difficult thought—that Jesus had longings and felt desires just as we did, just as we do. Even more scandalous is that Jesus went about his life being a human being fully alive to his sexuality. He didn’t shuck it off as irrelevant. He didn’t live without the touch of others to keep himself more pure and holy. He was fully God and fully human, and he welcomed touches that the world around him thought thoroughly improper. (Think about the woman who wiped his feet with her hair or the way he touched the lepers who came to him.) Jesus connected with those around him because he loved us so much and knew how profoundly we were (and still are) cut off from ourselves, from one another and from our God. He came that we might, through his incredible sacrifice, be reconnected.

We need to realize that in our sexuality and sexual desires something much larger is going on. Sadly, most of us, myself included, aren’t only disconnected from our world and our God—we’re disconnected from ourselves. We’re disconnected from our desires and drives; we’re disconnected from the earthy reality of our physical bodies. We live our lives trying to control or sometimes completely suppress the things that our bodies ask for so insistently—intimacy and connection. Part of the journey of reconnecting means recognizing that sexuality is much more than just sex.

Our sexual longings aren’t about just wanting a physically intimate encounter with another human being. These longings tell us through the medium of our embodiment that we were made for relationship, with others and with God. When we cut ourselves off from relationship or fellowship, it is our bodies and their urges that are most often the most insistent forces in luring us back to community. Our sexuality invites us toward connection, and in its ultimate genital expression, toward covenanted union.

Theosis is the term theologians use to describe the attainment of likeness to or union with God. As sons and daughters of God, we are all called toward that union with God, not based on our own efforts, but on the transforming power of divine grace. Indwelt by the Spirit of God, it is toward this end that our true self longs, and our false self (or our flesh) resists.

Our sexual longings point us toward this union for which we are made.Here I am being very intentional with the words “point us toward.” Our sexuality and our sexual longings are not the same things as our longings for God. However, when we live in an integrated and healthy way, our sexuality is a very strong signifier of our core desires and our longings for connection and for God. Genital sexuality—the vulnerable intimacy between a man and a woman—creates a union in the bodies and souls of the two lovers. If the whole of our selves is involved—meaning our emotions, wills, hearts, and minds as well as our bodies—the connection becomes deep and strong. The more we open ourselves to that vulnerable nakedness (both physical and metaphorical) with someone to whom we have covenanted our lives before God, the more we begin to understand and taste of the true knowing and unity with God to which we are called. It is an imperfect metaphor, but it is one that God uses again and again in Scripture and because of which the bond of marriage is called “an outward and visible sign of an inward and visible grace.”This is the definition of sacrament from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Other definitions include that of the Roman Catholic Church (“a rite in which God is uniquely active”) or St. Augustine’s that sacrament is “a visible sign of an invisible reality.”

For those who are single, both by choice or by circumstance, a positive embrace of sexuality and sexual longings can result not in frustration but in a deep, unitive experience of God. By stepping into our longings and embracing them as messages from God—messages about how we are made for connection with others and with him—we can find an energy that moves us toward creativity and love. As we choose union, which means choosing the Other before ourselves, we are drawn into God’s story of redemption of the world around us, and find our sexuality (meaning our desire for connection with others) expressed not in frustrated desire or physical sex, but in art, service, fellowship, and other graces. This isn’t just a “consolation prize” for singles of Christian service as a substitute for sexual expression. The life lived in the body is not to be ignored, and our need for healthy, caring touch and nurture is of utmost importance. Nonetheless, being aware of the ways our bodies ask us to be connected allows us to see in those desires holiness and wholeness without demonizing them.

But what does all that, practically, mean? The vague ideas of theosis and of embracing our sexuality in a positive mode are well and good, but frustratingly difficult to put into concrete actions and ways of living. In the same way that Jesus doesn’t tell everyone to sell all their goods, give to the poor and follow Him, the redemption of Christ comes in different ways into each person’s journey as a sexual being. God is deeply relational and understands our humanity in ways that are beautiful and affirming.

For one person, reclaiming a positive sexuality—an understanding that we are meant to have longings and let those longings point to God—might look like moving out of habitual shame and discomfort about his body by exploring healthy touch. Instead of living in the shadow of awkwardness and repression that characterized his life, he might be drawn by God to begin noticing the wind or sun on his skin as the touch of God, and allowing the casual touches (a hand on the shoulder, a comforting pat on the back, or even the necessarily physical proximity of people on the subway) to be messages from God of affirmation of the goodness of his body, rather than things to fear because they might cause arousal. With a reclaimed understanding of the healthy messages of his sexuality, even gentle arousal can be noticed with grace and an understanding that his body is sending him messages—not that he’s a pervert or a sexual addict—but that he is made for respectful, grace-filled connection with others and with God.

Laid over this understanding of reclaiming sexuality is an acute awareness that there are many ways that addictions and disorders of sexuality have come about and manifest themselves. Someone suffering from sexual addiction may not be led by God to enter into positive experiences of touch in this manner—it’s neither the right time nor the right mode of healing for that individual. However, while walking in godly counsel, with a community of believers and with grace-filled accountability, healing and redemption of even sexual addiction can occur.

For another person, reclaiming sexuality may be about restoring body awareness. Some of us have become so cut off from ourselves that we don’t even recognize when we are hot or cold. For some, reclaiming our feelings within our bodies and letting the Holy Spirit work through and redeem our physicality allow us to reconnect with the power of sexuality to bring healing and wholeness. This might involve exercises in prayer that promote awareness of how God might be speaking through one’s body. With the help of a spiritual director or others walking alongside, new avenues of discerning God’s communication through our bodies become available. Letting those be good and pure, rather than things to be run from because they might be overwhelming, reclaims sexuality and the ways that our sexuality propels us toward connection.

There’s another truth about our sexuality that is important for us to grasp. Not only does our sexuality ask us to or even insist that we find connection; in the desires themselves is embedded the truth that some disconnection has occurred, a disconnection that should not be. In his book Sex God, Rob Bell writes that “our sexuality is our awareness of how profoundly we’re severed and cut off and disconnected.”Rob Bell. Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 40. In my spiritual direction practice, I’ve seen this truth acted out in both healthy and unhealthy ways, but it is nonetheless at work most of the time. As God continues the work of redemption in our lives, our sexuality (our desires for connection and our awareness of how disconnected we are) alerts us to those areas that God is at work.

Recognizing how profoundly we are cut off from one another is the other side of the coin of recognizing how profoundly we desire connection to one another and God. It may seem an obvious truth, but the fact that we are given such powerful and amazing drives within our physical bodies evidences for us how clear it is that things are not the way they should be. Because of the Fall, we are severed from one another and God. While it may seem painful to be reminded of this each and every day in our bodies, those reminders can become reasons for us to turn to God in awe that He will not leave us thinking that the little connection we can have in this world is meant to be the full image of the Kingdom of God.

Our sexuality illustrates to us—in sweaty palms, in the flush of cheeks, in the warm wash that sometimes comes over us—that there is more to be desired, and that more isn’t just a physical coupling; it’s the ultimate union with God and the communion of the saints that are to come. We need to raise our heads from the dust of the earth in order to see that our sexuality isn’t just about the here and now; it’s about the world that is to come as well. As we know, God frequently speaks in metaphors, and our sexuality is no exception. Perhaps that’s why we find the Song of Solomon in the middle of the canon of Scripture, a book of the Bible that Hebrew scholars often call “the Holy of Holies.”

Frustratingly, there isn’t a set of dos and don’ts that can help us open ourselves to the redemption of our sexuality. God is infinitely relational, and here, in one of the most vulnerable and intensely relational places of our being, He asks us to trust Him. The greatest sexual sins happen when we divorce sexuality from relationship, treating a person as an object to be used or abuse, or when we delude ourselves into believing that our sexuality can be solely about ourselves and our own pleasure or release. Sexuality is always, always relational.

This leaves us at a bit of an impasse. We can choose to embrace the reality that God wants to redeem our sexuality and begin to release it to God to see what He might do. Or we can choose the path that feels safer and more predictable—the path of rules and regulations, the life of the Law. We can choose to relate to ourselves and to our God on the grounds of our sexuality by means of control. We know from Scripture that the law brings death. Sadly, control means that we lose the intimacy of relationship with God as well. God’s invitation to us is not to choose one or the other blindly—He asks us to wrestle with Him to find the place of truth and redemption in our own lives and stories.

05.  Redemption, Not Control

Wrestling is a messy, intimate act. Whether you’ve wrestled at the level of Olympic sport or merely gotten down and dirty on the living room floor with your kid brother, you’ve taken part in something that forced you into knowing another person quite thoroughly. In the tangle of legs, arms, and effort, you touched and were touched. Depending on your level of exertion, you were either covered with sweat (your own and your opponent’s) or giggles. In the awkward dance of dominance, fingers were jammed, egos were bruised and someone ended up on the bottom. Whether your goal was to pin your opponent to the ground or to allow your five-year-old niece the pride of “besting” her aunt, you also discovered the inevitable truth: triumph didn’t mean control.

We really do love control, though, and we ache when it isn’t achieved. In the ring or on the living room floor, some of the shine comes off of our victories when our opponent gets up and moves on. Even medals don’t guarantee that we’ve mastered something—records are broken, our bodies age, and time flows inexorably forward. That which we thought pinned underneath our superior maneuvers squirms away, and we are left empty-handed. When it comes to our sexuality, we would prefer to control it, rather take the shaky and unsure path of moving toward union with God in this area of our lives. Yet, in our darkest areas of shame or confusion, God invites us to wrestle with him for redemption.

Jacob knows something of this wrestling and the desperate desire to own something after victory gets up, dusts itself off, and walks away into the night. Genesis 32 presents us a brief but intimate picture of the patriarch’s struggle with control. Jacob, after besting his crooked father-in-law, is traveling with his family and all his household goods to be reunited with the brother he so famously cheated out of the family inheritance. It’s easy to imagine the apprehension in Jacob’s soul; rightly, his brother could meet him with armed men and revenge in mind. We could guess that Jacob’s feet got heavier and heavier as he approached his brother’s homeland. No wonder he sent his wives, children, and livestock across the river first. Alone as night falls, he decides to linger a little bit longer, rather than cross in the darkness.

There without help or witness, Jacob is met by what Genesis 32:24 states as a man, but because of the context, scholars interpret as an angel of God or God himself. Shrouded in mystery, it’s unclear how this encounter gets started. There’s no indication of a shouting match before the Divine visitor simply jumps Jacob (or perhaps, given his predilection for grabbing what isn’t his, Jacob jumps him.) What we do know is that they wrestle all night. Which, if we think about it, is a long, exhausting time of struggling for victory.

How many times did Jacob find himself near defeat, only to turn the tide of the fight somehow? Did the match break apart occasionally as the opponents regrouped to find their bearings, reassessing what they knew of each other in this dark night? Was Jacob the only one truly exerting himself, or did he find himself so close that he, too, was covered in God’s sweat?

We don’t know. We don’t even know, as morning approaches, the name of this stranger. God came so close that Jacob couldn’t see exactly who or what had gotten hold of him. And yet, in the wrestling, Jacob knew and was known by this Mystery. The reason we don’t get a detailed picture of what happened that night, I would suggest, is that our own wrestling with God is as individual, intimate, and holy as Jacob’s night with the Divine. To have the details revealed to us would be like participating at a peep show. Not only would it not help our understanding of God, but we would end up trying to push ourselves into Jacob’s mold instead of learning how to wrestle in our own ways. This mysterious night was a holy time of testing, of being known, of contending, discovering, revealing. This is true for us in any area that we find ourselves wrestling with God, but it is especially true in the area of our sexuality.

So often, we are known by our wounds. Not only do we allow them to define us; we allow them to control, guide, and mock us. Knowing that we chose unwisely—whether it be sliding into an addiction, giving ourselves over to a besetting temptation, or choosing to look the other way when injury is done to another—we very often let ourselves be trapped into believing that choice, whatever it was, defines who we are to our very core. Instead of letting guilt prick us into confession and reconciliation, we make friends with guilt’s poisonous bedmate, shame, and wear our sins with something akin to false pride.

Jacob knew this way of being quite well. Having cheated his brother out of his inheritance, something his mother seemed set on having him do even as she named him, Jacob chose to live exiled from his family instead of seeking to lay down his sin and be reconciled. Over time, his betrayal became so much a part of his identity that it seemed to come as little surprise to him when others betrayed him—after all, hadn’t he done the same thing?Genesis 26–32. And don’t we, consumed even unconsciously by how we’ve acted or what we’ve done, do exactly the same thing? Especially when it comes to our sexuality.

And yet, on the eve of confronting that which he believed to define him (his brother and his own betrayal), Jacob ends up wrestling with God. And instead of being confronted with his sin and self-definitions, Jacob is confronted instead with his own brokenness and lack of control. He begins, perhaps for the first time, to see himself as he really is: wounded, alone, dependent. As he demands a blessing, we can almost hear the desperation in his voice. Don’t leave me like this. Give me something that I can hold on to. Isn’t that the exact same desperation we feel when it comes to our sexuality?

06.  Facing God

What God does is surprising, counterintuitive, redemptive. Knowing Jacob, not only from a night of wrestling but from the foundations of all time, God sees him completely. Instead of meeting what might seem to be an obvious need—physical healing—God hears what Jacob is crying out for. Even the words Jacob uses hearken to what he most deeply needs: Jacob asks God for a blessing when he took that very blessing from his own brother. And Jacob used the same word—barak—to ask God for a blessing, the very same word that Isaac used to bless Jacob-as-Esau. What Jacob took from Esau by trickery and deceit—he, surrendered at last, asks of God. But God doesn’t give it to him.

God gives Jacob a new name. He redeems all that had defined Jacob by, in essence, reframing it. The blessing that He bestows on Jacob is that Jacob is seen utterly, known completely, broken—mercifully and in the face of all that Jacob believed to be true about himself, God saw and spoke a different truth over him. “Taker” becomes “given by God.” “Over-reacher” becomes “preserved (one might say hemmed in) by God.” “Supplanter” becomes “God protects.”

Jacob went forward from his wrestling changed and blessed, not because he had triumphed, but because he had been known, wounded, and renamed. What came out of his encounter was not control but redemption, a deep transformation of that which was once wayward and warped by the voice and touch of God. Jacob named the place of his transformation “Peniel,” which means “facing God.”

Facing God is the very place of our transformation as well.

In the complex muddle of ways that we’ve handled our sexuality and its demands upon our attention, it is often difficult to see why any other method of dealing with our desires would be better than the one we’ve been using. If you’ve been living well in a context of avoidance and accountability, succeeding in resisting temptation and living within limits, engaging with the story of sexuality sounds rather dangerous. Living in the land of indulgence, whether that means a life of sexual monogamy or diversity, really encountering your sexuality is frightening because it means a possible loss of control. And looking at what it means to be a sexual being could be so foreign to you, if you’ve lived life with the belief that these things shouldn’t be talked about, that it feels like drowning in an ocean of impulses and jargon and mores without any hope of rescue.

07.  Finding Hope

But hold on—there is rescue. In fact, rescue is the point. We’ve talked about theosis and union, and the idea that God invites us to see our sexuality as an invitation toward that union. God’s desire is to bring freedom, healing, and wholeness to every aspect of our lives, including our sexuality. Pursuing that freedom and healing, individually and as a community of faith, is the work of bringing about the Kingdom of God here on Earth. God wants to bring redemption and rescue to these places. While we may not know what that looks like on an individual level, as a community of grace we know that it will look like love incarnate.

So, ask God what it means for Him to redeem your sexuality. Invite Him in to those places that feel wounded and vulnerable, to those places where you feel completely locked down by control or completely out of control. Invite Him into the bedroom with your spouse, into your dating relationship, into your longings as a single person. Invite Him into your creativity, your passion for others, your energy and desire to see change in the world. And invite Him into your body, your longing body, your aching soul. Invite Him to touch you, whatever that means to you, and invite Him to do so alongside a community of faith, grace and love.

On the last page of her look at Sexuality and Holy Longing, Lisa Graham McMinn quotes a beautiful passage by Henri Nouwen that I believe is worth repeating here. Abundance and contentment in our sexuality are available to us. God invites us to more—more connection, more awareness, more love, more union. And Nouwen writes, “The great challenge is living your wounds through instead of thinking them through. It is better not to cry than to worry, better to feel your wounds deeply than to understand them, better to let them enter into your silence than to talk about them. . . . You need to let your wounds go down to your heart. Then you can live through them and discover that they will not destroy you. Your heart is greater than your wounds.”Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love. (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1997), 91, as quoted in McMinn, 182.


Tara M. Owens is the senior editor of Conversations Journal. She received her Master of Theological Studies in Spiritual Formation from Tyndale Seminary. A certified spiritual director with Anam Cara ministries (, she practices in Colorado and around the world through Skype and other technologies. She is profoundly grateful to do ministry and life with her husband and best friend, Bryan. If you’d like to continue the conversation with Tara, she can be reached at or you can follower her on twitter @t_owens.