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I read a few “replies” online to some letters some other young people have written to a John Thomas (like Dear Abby–see below).  I’ve mentioned this before, about not really feeling bad about my whole 2006 spring fling.  People have tried to comfort me in ways I know is not fully in line with what God desires such as, oh your boyfriend might now be more open to God since you dated him or, what you did physically with him wasn’t wrong.  I keep reading 2 Corinthians 7:10 (Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death) and Psalm 51:4a (Against you [God], you only, have I sinned).  God has made my heart different in the way it feels and understands.  I used to think I had such a cold heart because other more emotional people would be bawling and I would be dry-eyed.  Also, while other girls seem to have their hearts ripped open by guys, I guess I haven’t opened my heart much to anybody (including myself and thus God) for it to be hurt terribly (story of my life: guys I like going after other girls).  Anyway, it’s very humbling to go the distance to “breaking the heart of my First Love” (Revelation 2:4)–I’m still not there yet.  Food for thought:

My girlfriend and I are both virgins, but in past relationships both of us have been physically intimate in ways which were seriously sinful. We have talked about it and have agreed to hold ourselves to a higher standard of physical purity than we had in the past. So far we have succeeded.  It would seem that things are on the right track. But, sometimes I still feel angry towards her for what she has done with other guys in the past. At the same time, I am unable to let go of the guilt of my own sins in past relationships.  I know that we have both repented and that God has forgiven us, and that we should be able to move past it, but sometimes I really feel unable to forgive her and forgive myself. I know it is wrong of me to feel that way — I should be able to take joy in God’s grace and forgiveness — but I can’t seem to help it.  Perhaps you could write an article about moving beyond sexual (or otherwise physically intimate) sins, for those of us who have repented but find it difficult to move on without thinking about the past. As Paul wrote, love “keeps no record of wrongs,” and I want very much to apply that toward my situation.

Since you say that you know that God has forgiven you both, what you’re really asking is, “When will, or how can, I emotionally feel like I’ve forgiven her and that God has forgiven me?” That’s a very honest and appropriate question about forgiveness. Let me give you a few thoughts to help you navigate these waters.

My hunch is that you’re still viewing the whole picture of your past behavior and your girlfriend’s past behavior from your side of the ledger, rather than from God’s. If I’m right, then your views of your past behavior could be better described as “sadness” or “disappointment,” but not “sinful” or “heartbreaking to God.” As a result, rather than truly repent, you’ve really just “felt bad” or “felt guilty” about it, as in, “I really wish I hadn’t done that,” rather than, “Oh, God, my choices must have broken Your heart! Please forgive me!”

Am I getting warm?

Here’s why I think you might have stopped short of true repentance. True repentance bears fruit, and looks like this: it offers nothing to God but spiritual poverty and a desperate heart desiring to change. It results in humility, gratitude, and a deep compassion for others who have or who are experiencing the same sin and blindness. Given that you conducted yourself in exactly the same way as your girlfriend did previous to meeting one another, your anger toward her isn’t anger, it’s really judgment of her, and is pride at its worst. “You, therefore, have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges,” Paul said in Romans 2:1, “For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.”

Your anger would more appropriately be directed at Satan, who deceived both of you into believing that your behavior would have no negative repercussions. Rather than anger towards your girlfriend, your heart should be broken for her because — just like you — she was blind to the hurt she was exposing herself to. Be thankful that God has graciously opened her eyes (and yours) to the truth that you now are walking in.

Forgiveness is two things (probably more, but we’ll focus on two): It is a decision to act, and it is a miracle. It involves your will; and it asks God for a miracle in your heart. We need a miracle to be able to forgive, because we are not naturally inclined to do it. Our “flesh,” or our old nature (that which is self-led rather than Christ-led), is incapable of forgiving. To forgive requires surrendering yourself entirely to God and His economy. And since forgiveness is something God wants us to experience and walk in, we can confidently ask for His help in truly forgiving.

The prayer, “Lord, help me truly forgive X,” is the kind of prayer God longs to answer. So start praying that (or some variation). Part of His answer might be that God gives you a revelation of your own spiritual poverty, reminding you how miraculous it is that He has forgiven you, resulting in deep gratitude and humility in your heart, rather than judgment of someone else’s behavior.

I suggest you take some of these thoughts back to your prayer closet, and see what happens.

One more thing. The consequences of past sin can sometimes continue even after true repentance and forgiveness, but that doesn’t nullify the forgiveness. You can simultaneously regret your past sins, be thankful for what you learned by them, pray that the lesson would be used to make you more like Christ, and rejoice that God has forgiven you and that He works all things for good for those who love him.

I have an odd situation on my hands and would like some advice on how to proceed from here. My boyfriend and I have taken our physical relationship further than I would have preferred and not having set definite boundaries prior to our time together makes it difficult to draw the line once in the moment. We are both still virgins in a literal sense but have ventured into other areas of physical intimacy that I still believe crosses the line of what is appropriate outside of marriage.  I want to back up and create a new line now that we have gone too far but I don’t know where to start the conversation. I love this man with all of my heart and will be marrying him within the next two years but am afraid that this kind of conversation will create a chasm in our relationship that will be painful and difficult to cross. I want to do what I know will honor God but am still afraid that I will get some resistance from my boyfriend.  How do I start a conversation about limiting our physical actions together? And how do I stand firm on what I believe to be the right choices without making him feel like I am steering our relationship in a direction he might not agree with? I know that in order to make this work he has to be willing to abide by the new boundaries as well. I am just scared of what he will say and would appreciate some guidance on the best course of action from this point forward.

Thanks for writing and being so candid about your situation. Let me share a couple of thoughts that I think will help you.

First, let’s use the proper vocabulary for what’s going on. What I mean by that is, your statements like “further than I would have preferred” and “what is appropriate” soften the seriousness of your behavior. If God has convicted you about what you’re doing, then it’s much more than a personal preference or question of appropriateness. It’s sin. Call it what it is and then you’ll know better how to deal with it and move on. Preferences are merely personal choices that tend to have little moral or ethical weight to them. I prefer a cheeseburger more than I do Brussels sprouts, but I’ll live with whichever one is available when I’m hungry.

Do you see how vocabulary makes a difference? You place yourself, by your own choice, in a sexually revved-up situation, and at some point you prefer not to be there, but you’re there, so you live with it. Now, call it sin and you have a whole different paradigm to consider. If it is sin for me to eat Brussels sprouts (my wife would say I act like it is) then it’s no longer a matter of preference. The sprouts are now absolutely off limits. If someone offers me either a cheeseburger or some Brussels sprouts, the action is clear; the choice was made before the two were ever set before me. One is sin and the other is not.

So here is what I need to ask you: Is it merely your preference to change or have you been convicted by God’s Spirit, knowing that Scripture lays out clear guidelines about sexual intimacy outside marriage? Your answer to that question will make all the difference in your ability to “go back” and draw a new line of behavior. If it is merely personal preference, it will be very difficult to draw new boundaries, because they’re arbitrary. But if what you’re sensing is godly conviction, then there is hope for change, and your reaction should be repentance, not a change of preference.

So let’s call it sin. If that’s the case, then your reaction is clear cut: repentance. Repentance means confessing your sin to God, asking for and receiving His forgiveness, and, empowered by His Spirit, changing your mind and behavior to that which honors God and brings Him glory. Viewing your situation this way gives you the most hope for change that sticks. Calling it what it is also impacts how you address it with your boyfriend. He might try to talk you out of a “preference,” but if he’s a serious Christian he’ll be more likely to understand the weight of your decision if it is borne out of godly conviction.

As for how to address this with your boyfriend, you need to approach him with the same grace God approached you with it, but with a strong resolve about your conviction. More than likely, he’s had some of the same convictions, but just hasn’t acted on them. But remember, you are responsible for your sin, your actions, not his. And that’s just what you need to say — that God has convicted you about your behavior and that it has changed (not in the process of changing, but changed — that’s repentance). He needs to understand that this is not a judgment of how you feel about him, and that, in fact, the intimacy you’ve shared has been enjoyable — you’re human and God made it for enjoyment — but that you are going to wait for the biblical context — marriage.

Here’s the crucial part for you. Your concern and desire to respond to God’s heart on this issue must be your highest goal — higher than your concern about your boyfriend’s reaction and higher than your concern about the future of this relationship. If you’re waiting to see what his reaction is in order to decide whether you stick with this, you could be setting yourself up for failure. Yes, it might be painful and yes, it might be difficult, but that’s OK. It’s right, and that is what matters.

On a practical level, now that you know what your new standards are, don’t do anything that moves you in the direction of lowering those standards. If you don’t want to burn down the house, don’t build a campfire in the living room. If you don’t want to cross the line of physical intimacy, then don’t be alone with each other without any accountability from anyone. That’s just common sense. You can have a private conversation or pray together in view of others, so why do you need to be alone? You need to “go public” with your relationship, literally, so that you have accountability for your time together — no more hanging out in the shadows, OK?

No matter how your boyfriend responds, this is the best thing you can do for your relationship. If he doesn’t honor or respect your heartfelt conviction, that’s a red flag about how he would respond to you similarly in marriage. If he steps up and does the right thing, your relationship will be strengthened, you’ll love him all the more and God will get the glory.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual[a] act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.  [Romans 12:1-3]

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If you couldn’t make it to “A photographer’s view of the homeless,” here are his photographs and below are some of the words on the walls.  He’s also trying to make a film, like this one I guess.

  • The Understanding Poverty Project.  People are living on the streets–oftentimes the sickest among us.  People are languishing in the prisons–oftentimes those with the cruelest pasts.  We are getting used to this.  This is not something any of us want to get used to.  This is not a tolerable situation. For 22 years photographer Ben Tecumseh DeSoto has been documenting homelessness and poverty in Houston. “I have been living on the streets of Houston with my camera,” says DeSoto, “and I want others to see what I’ve seen, and understand what I’ve come to understand.  More and more I see poverty in terms of trauma, and interpret the behaviors of those I meet on the streets as those suffering from PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder].  Shock.  Inability to plan.  Persistent frightening thoughts.  Emotional numbness.” Drawn to document and understand the lives of the “broke and the broken,” DeSoto drew attention to these issues through his work for the Houston Chronicle, where he served as a staff photographer from 1981 to 2006.  Oftentimes DeSoto would find a subject, publish a story in the Chronicle, then continue following his source for months and years.  Judy Pruitt and Ben White are two such subjects; DeSoto has been documenting their lives since 1988, and cultivated a partnership and relationship far deeper than the typical report-subject construct.  In 1992, DeSoto exhibited his work in a one-man FotoFest show at DiverseWorks, “Urban Poverty.”  In 2006, DeSoto left the Chronicle and decided to focus his efforts on his homeless project fulltime, joining forces with writer/journalist Ann Walton Sieber.  He created the Understanding Poverty Project, an ambitious undertaking that includes this exhibition, a future film and book, and a far-reaching collective network. “The Understanding Poverty Project is working as a collaborative in Houston, Texas, to build bridges across the vast gulf between the haves and have-nots.  Our vehicle is communication and understanding, through photographs, words, and film.  Some of us are storytellers, others of us have a story that needs to be told: We are working as a team of journalists, surviving witnesses, direct aid workers, artists, and fellow travelers.  We are in this together.  We are all agents of change” [Understanding Poverty Project vision statement].
  • Join the Understanding Poverty Collective.  What does joining the Collective mean?  You tell us. It means that you will think about these issues of poverty, disparity, despair, and illness. It means that you will notice these things, do what it takes to feel what you need to feel, look for places to take actions that are right for you. It means you will do your best not to let despaire or discouragement stand in the way of acting, whether it is your time to offer help, or your time to need help. It means you won’t let the guilt and frustration about the enormity of the distress keep you from doing the smallest things.  Or dreaming about and undertaking the hugest things. It means you won’t leave it to other people to solve, although you can look to them for help, leadership, support.  It means you won’t let other people leave it to you to solve. You are probably already doing a little.  You may already be doing a lot.  You’ll let this be a part of your life.  You’ll share the road, those who have so little and those who are rich and blessed–and in your mind at least think about ways that you both might someday sit in a room together and have a cup of tea or a glass of beer and relax in a profound way and start to tell each other everything you might ever want to know.  In dreams begin reality….  You’ll be open to being changed.  You’ll be open to becoming an instrument of change. You’ll be part of the solution, and you’ll help us al in your individual way to understand poverty and wealth and thereby come that closer to that dream of fairness, of succor for those suffering, of relief for the aggrieved, of the possibility of joy for everyone.
  • If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers, in any of your towns in your land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks. …For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.’   [Deuteronomy 15:7-8 NASB]
  • Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind. [Hosea 8:7]
  • To love is not to give of your riches but to reveal to others their riches; their gifts; their value; and to trust them and their capacity to grow.  So it is important to approach people in their brokenness and littleness gently, so gently, not forcing yourself on them, but accepting them as they are, with humility and respect.  [Jean Vanier – posted at Healthcare for the Homeless, Houston]
  • Of those that are drawn away, each is drawn elsewhere toward another: once more a man and a woman, in a loneliness they are not liable at that time to notice, are tightened together upon a bed: and another family has begun: Moreover, these flexions are taking place every where, like a simultaneous motion of all the waves of the water of the world: and these are the classic patterns, and this is the weaving, of human living: of those fabric each individual is a part: and of all parts of this fabric let this be borne in mind: Each is intimately connected with the bottom and the extremest reach of time: Each is composed of substances identical with the substance of all that surrounds him, both the common objects of his disregard, and the hot centers of stars: All that each person is, and experiences, and shall never experience, in body and in mind, all these things are differing expressions of himself and of one root, and are identical: and not one of these things nor one of these persons is ever quite to be duplicated, nor replaced, nor has it ever quite had precedent: but each is a new and incommunicably tender life, wounded in every breath, and almost as hardly killed as easily wounded: sustaining, for a while, without defense, the enormous assaults of the universe:  [James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, 1941]
  • He who gives to the poor will never want, But he who shuts his eyes will have many curses.  [Proverbs 28:27 NASB]
  • We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless.  The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty.  We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.  [Mother Teresa]
  • Urban Poverty Causes PTSD:  PTSD Increases Hospitalization Rates in Urban Poor by John Gever, MedPage Today, March 28, 2008.  BOSTON, March 28 — Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is common among poor, urban residents and those who suffer it have more and longer hospital stays, researchers here said.  Of 592 patients at an urban primary care clinic, 22% were found to have PTSD, and they were more than twice as likely to have been hospitalized in the previous year as clinic patients without the disorder, reported Jane Liebschutz, M.D., M.P.H., of Boston University, and colleagues in the April issue of Medical Care.  …Dr. Liebschutz said in an interview that the findings are important because PTSD is “under-recognized and under-treated” in patients whose condition does not stem from military combat or sexual assault. …Better recognition of PTSD in urban populations and its negative consequences could improve their long-term health, since effective treatment for PTSD is available, the researchers said.
  • Eventually I became homeless enough to suit anyone’s definition.  In spite of the challenges that homelessness presented, the chief characteristic of my experience of homelessness was tedium…. One of those days was so much like each of the others that to call any of them typical would be an understatement.  Our immediate needs I met with more or less trouble, but once that was done I could do no more.  Day after day I could aspire, within reson, to nothing more than survival.  Although the plants wandered among the stars and the moon waxed and waned, the identical naked barrenness of existence was exposed to me, day in and day out.  I do not think I could write a narrative that would quite capture the unrelenting ennui of homelessness, but if I were to write it, no one could bear to read it.  Every life has trivial occurrences, pointless episodes, and unresolved mysteries, but a homeless life has these and virtually nothing else.  [Lars Eighner, Travels with Lizbeth, 1993]
  • I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
    …who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall,
    …who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night
    …who wandered around and around at midnight in the railroad yard wondering where to go, and went, leaving no broken hearts,
    ..who lit cigarettes in boxcars boxcars boxcars racketing through snow toward lonesome farms in grandfather night,
    …who lounged hungry and lonesome through Houston seeking jazz or sex or soup,
    …who wept at the romance of the streets with their pushcarts full of onions and bad music,
    …who sat in boxes breathing in the darkness under the bridge, and rose up to build harpsichords in their lofts,
    …with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years.  [Allen Ginsburg, “Howl”]
  • It is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty.  You have thought so much about poverty–it is the thing you have feared all your life, the thing you knew would happen to you sooner or later; and it, is all so utterly and prosaically different.  You thought it would be quite simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first; the shifts that it puts you to, the complicated meanness, the crust wiping.  [George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London, 1933]
  • But that something to eat was a hard proposition.  I was “turned down” at a dozen houses. …At other houses the doors were slammed in my face, cutting short my politely and humbly couched request for something to eat.  …It began to look as if I should be compelled to go to the very poor for my food.  …They never turn away the hungry.  Time and again, all over the United States, have I been refused food by the big house on the ill; and always have I received food from the little shack down by the creek or marsh, with its broken windows stuffed with rags and its tired-faced mother broken with labor.  Oh, you charity-mongers!  Go to the poor and learn, for the poor alone are the charitable.  They neither give nor withhold form their excess.  They have no excess.  They give, and they withhold never, from what they need for themselves, and very often from what they cruelly need for themselves.  A bone to the dog is not charity.  Charity is the bone shared with the dog when you are just as hungry as the dog.  [Jack London, The Road, 1907]
  • When I give food to the poor they call me a saint.  When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.  [Dom Helder Camera, Bishop of São Paulo, Brazil]
  • To be honest, the whole idea of working with the homeless is totally new to me.  I worked in retail in Houston and Dallas.  I sold my business and started working at Harmony House as an RA.  I wanted to get back into the community.  [Preston Witt, Director of Harmony House, interview January 10, 2008]
  • Ah, my own, my darling, it is often that I think of you and feel my heart sink.  How is it that you are so unfortunate, Barbara?  In my eyes you are kind-hearted, beautiful, and clever–why, then, has such an evil fate fallen to your lot?  How comes it that you are left desolate–you, so good a human being!  While to others happiness comes without an invitation at all?  Why should that raven, Fate, croak out upon the fortunes of one person while she is yet in her mother’s womb, while another person it permits to go forth in happiness from the home which has reared her?  “You, you fool Ivanushka,” says Fate, “shall succeed to your grandfather’s money-bags, and eat, drink, and be merry; whereas you shall do no more than lick the dish, since that is all that you are good for.”  [Fyodor Dostoevsky, Poor Folk, 1846]
  • I look at people in general society–they want to create a safe world for themselves, especially when they have children.  But the world has shrunk.  They think if you want to be safe, you have to hang out with people like you.  That is so sad to me.  [Eva Thibaudeau-Graczy, Director of Community Initiatives, Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County, interview January 11, 2008]
  • I just spent 60 days in the jail house for the crime of havin’ no dough.  Now here I am back out the street for the crime of havin’ nowhere to go.  [Robbie Robertson of The Band, “The Shape I’m In”]
  • “He came back different” is the shared refrain of the [returning veterans’] family members, who mention irritability, detachment, volatility, sleeplessness, excessive drinking or drug use, and keeping a gun at hand.  …In earlier eras, various labels attached to the psychological injuries of war: soldier’s heart, shell shock, Vietnam disorder.  Today the focus is on PTSD, but military health care officials are seeing a spectrum of pscyhological issues, with an estimated half of the returning National Guard members, 38 percent of soldiers and 31 percent of marines reporting mental health problems, according to a Pentagon task force.  [Deborah Sontag and Lizette Alvarez, “Across America, Deadly Echoes of Foreign Battles” in the New York Times, January 13, 2008]
  • Antinoos, you did badly to hit the unhappy vagabond; a curse on you, if he turns out to be some god from heaven. For the gods do take on all sorts of transformations, appearing as strangers from elsewhere, and thus they range at large through the cities, watching to see which men keep the laws, and which are violent.  [Homer, “The Odyssey”]

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