Emotions, Evangelicalism, and Human Sexuality

ICYMI, Sarah McDugal, Sheila Wray Gregoire, and Emily Elizabeth Anderson have spent the past week burning down the house of conservative, Evangelical, Christian-easy teachings on marriage and sexuality.

Their goal? To release women from toxic, unbiblical beliefs about

  • obligation sex;
  • the relative sex drive of men vs. women;
  • the so-called hard-wired, natural (a.k.a. God-given) sexual sin nature men supposedly cannot be held accountable for (so, therefore, all women are responsible for keeping all men out of trouble…?);
  • etc.

This has been so great and so needed!

Building on this dialogue, I want to shift gears to address some other toxic, abusive teachings Evangelical women have swallowed for decades:

  • That women are slaves to their hormones, just like men are supposedly slaves to their sex drives
  • That hormone-based moods and emotions are intrinsically part of a woman’s sexual sin nature
  • That menstrual-cycle hormone-driven emotions are bad or fallen or broken
  • That women are simultaneously inescapably burdened by these sin-nature hormones and ALSO duty-bound to rise above them and repent of their emotional byproduct–repent meaning, “get RID of it.”

I remember when I was 9 or 10 and my mother first started talking to me about this special catch-22 all women face. She explained, in general terms, that every month her hormones would drive her to be more angry, cranky, snappish, whatever, and that this meant it was her responsibility to be extra vigilant that her irrational–code for “malfunctioning”–feelings didn’t get the better of her. She made a point of saying that in these moments, she needed to seek God for extra help controlling her emotions. (That part, btw, I still believe is true.)

But I received other lessons in these talks with my mother… among them, that

  • Negative emotions, themselves, are sinful
  • Menstrual hormones make women weak and unreliable in the area of self-control (implying that men, of course, don’t have a self-control problem–certainly never one related to sexuality…)
  • Because God made women this way, we can never really overcome it once and for all
  • The toolkit we have to handle this issue is profoundly limited–mostly just prayerful self-flagellation, and finally
  • All of this should move women to deep shame, mistaken for humility.

Basically, the takeaway was that God designed a special sin-trap to be a default feature of female flesh-vessels, and my lot in life was to writhe in the guilt of the inescapable moral conundrum it created every month. (Side note–this is just one of the reasons patriarchy led me to desperately wish I had been born a boy.)

So this part? This part I do not, in ANY way, any longer believe is true. But I DID believe it for the longest time–and I think many of the rest of you God-fearing evangelical women out there have believed it, too. So here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to burn this teaching down to the roots so that you can finally be free from it as well.

First of all, let’s observe the overlap between the traditional messaging to evangelical women–your sexuality is broken, steeped in evil, and you won’t ever surmount it, by the way God made you like this–and the messaging given to evangelical men–your sexuality is broken, steeped in evil, you won’t ever surmount it, God made you like this?

Hmm. That’s… that’s a lot of overlap. So what is the one difference between the messaging to the sexes?

Women are somehow responsible for BOTH PROBLEMS.

You’d think, at least, that men would have responsibility for their sexual sin struggles and women for theirs–but no, that isn’t what many to most Evangelical gurus have taught us, if not outright in theory, then in practice. Now, Sheila and Sarah have already done a fantastic job unraveling a bunch of popular lies about male sexuality and why women are NOT, in fact, responsible for it, so what I want to add is my own refutation of some of these long-spun lies about female sexuality–and why we are not, in fact, culpable for a whole lot of sin in this arena, either.

Turns out, menstrual hormones are NOT in fact a God-designed sin-trap.

Why? Because the emotions our hormones give rise to ARE NOT EVIL.

I can say this because, yes, God made our emotions–ALL of them. They can’t be evil. God only creates that which is good, beautiful, and pure. Contrary to popular evangelical teaching, “negative” emotions, or even strong emotions, are no more evil than any other kind of emotion, because God designed all emotions to be part of our good, healthy, unbroken physical nature.

Some will argue that emotions such as anger, bitterness, grief, or jealousy are inherently a part of our sin nature, but I do not grant that. This is firstly because we see both the God of the Old Testament and Christ himself experience and express a vast array of purportedly “sinful” emotions in Scripture: anger, misery, disappointment, irritation, jealousy–the list goes on. If these emotions were evil, we would not have such extensive records of God himself expressing them, would we? (If you’re not sure what I’m talking about here, I refer you to basically all the OT prophets and the four Gospel accounts, particularly any bits with the Pharisees and the Garden of Gethsemane.)

Some more textual support for my belief that “negative” emotions are not inherently sinful: we have the handy instructional verse “Be angry and do not sin” (Ps. 4:4, Eph. 4:26); we have Paul referring to his “divine jealousy” (2 Cor. 11:2) in distinct contrast to “jealousy and strife… of the flesh” (1 Cor. 3:3); we have the admonitions that “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting” and “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning” (Eccl. 7:2-4); we have the descriptions of how God himself “besieged and enveloped me with bitterness” (Lam. 3:5) and how “The Spirit lifted me up and took me away, and I went in bitterness in the heat of my spirit, the hand of the Lord being strong upon me” (Ezek. 3:14)–AND SO MUCH MORE.

Seriously, I don’t have time to type up all the verses that clearly describe these emotions as being of God and not evil. If you want more, just do a keyword search at biblegateway.com for each emotion!

Lastly, we know emotions are not evil because, if we believe God created every tiny detail of our bodies–stem to stern–that means he designed emotions, too–because emotions are a biological function. This belief actually goes back to times as ancient as the biblical manuscripts themselves–just check out allllllll the physical responses to emotions described in Psalms and Proverbs! Schee-yow! But you know what? On top of ancient, biblically-rooted, convention, we have modern science to fall back on here. Win-win!

Scientific research has indeed revealed that emotions are physically rooted in the body: emotions stem from chemical, hormonal releases in ALL of us (not just women!), perceived through neurological responses, and experienced throughout our bodies in the nervous system. This is why anxiety and depression manifest in stomach aches and lethargy. This is why fear quickens our heart rate and makes us sweat. This is why attraction or embarrassment makes blood rush into our faces. This is why anger tenses our muscles, and so on.

Now here is where Evangelicalism has tripped us up big time: we often misinterpret Bible passages condemning our “flesh” to mean that our literal bodies are fundamentally evil. However, that can’t be right: our bodies are in fact fundamentally good because Goodness Itself made them in the first place, in its own likeness. Sure, yes, our bodies are also corrupt–prone to death and disease and hard to control–but their baseline functionality, including our emotional capacity, is completely God-given and therefore full of goodness and purpose.

All of this amounts to a radical paradigm shift: if God did indeed hard-wire something into you, it can’t be evil. While the “God made you that way” message should never have been given to men to excuse their porn problems, it should have been given to women to reassure them that their extra hormonally-charged, heightened emotional sensitivity once a month is not wrong or broken, but unique and special. Yes, it can make parts of life harder to cope with, but the emotions themselves aren’t evil–just like a guy feeling physically attracted to a woman isn’t itself evil. For both sexes, what matters is what we do with our impulses. Lust and porn addictions are NOT acceptable; sexual attraction is. Violent outbursts and unkindness aren’t OK when we’re PMSing; feeling touchy, cranky, short-fused and sensitive is.

So if we grant that menstrual hormone-driven emotions are part of the divine design, the same as all human emotions, they can’t be a trap. (This is a good place to remember, too, that God isn’t malicious and cruel, so he’s not in the business of making traps or anything that feels like a trap, period.)

So far so good? On to my next point:

Emotions, including those propelled by the menstrual cycle, are a GOOD thing.

Current brain science shows us that emotions are a neurological capability, the exact same as our capacity for logic and reasoning, survival instinct, and social interaction. At least in the circles where I run, Evangelicals revere logical rationality. It is time we cultivated the same respect for innate human emotionality.

If we grant that emotions aren’t wrong on the whole, and if we are called to worship God with all our hearts in addition to minds, strengths, and souls, then that means emotions–including those spiked by the menstrual cycle!–are something to be cultivated, strengthened, and skillfully developed so that we can use them well for our benefit and God’s glory.

In other words, period mood swings do not mean women are fundamentally weak and unreliable. It means we are super-charged with emotional power–which, yes, as we all know, comes with great responsibility–and is also fundamentally freaking cool. Can we just take a moment to recognize and appreciate that? This is something I personally have spent decades agonizing over, and now I’m agonizing that I spent so much time in agony! I should never have felt so hopeless, shameful, and powerless. I should have been taught how to appreciate this incredible part of my human sexuality, understand it, and harness it for good. My resolution, therefore, is to do exactly that from here on out–and you can, too.

Before I go further here, I need to add a caveat: this whole monologue assumes we’re talking about fully functional, operational hormones, because there ARE cases where our hormones get out of whack and develop an illness just like any other part of our biology can. It IS possible to develop too much estrogen in your system, for example, because we do live in a fallen, broken world, and that means stuff beautifully designed by God still breaks. THAT isn’t healthy.

Let’s say I experience full-out rage as part of my menstrual cycle. That’s not good. That is a medical problem that creates relational problems as well. Both of those things need to be treated, compassionately, and without shame. These kinds of problems are not part of the normal, God-designed dynamic I’m talking about here. So please don’t misunderstand me: if you are struggling with such issues, please seek medical attention and compassionate care, because it does not, and should not, have to be that way for you–not according to how God set female bodies up to work as we know from the study of biology, and not according to the compassionate, caring, tender heart that we can see God has for us in the Bible.

All that to say: normal period hormones, and the mood shifts that accompany them, are NOT inherent faults we can’t overcome. They are challenging, powerful traits that we have the opportunity to nurture and master. We don’t have to stifle or get rid of them. We shouldn’t be ashamed of them. We can be grateful for them, and we can learn how to channel them effectively.

Which leads me to our purportedly limited toolkit for handling menstrual mood swings.

For generations–literally–conservative Christian evangelicals have bought into the idea that emotional development and expression and the study of human psychology are eeEEEvviIIlllLLLll.

As far as I can tell from my armchair, this is because liberal academics had the edge on conservative evangelicals: they did a whole lot of very important, helpful research on these things–but because they did it first, we threw out all their results along with their expertise and said, “We don’t need them or their knowledge, that’s tainted with a secular agenda; Bible verses are enough to understand these things, so we won’t try to do any of our own serious, credible research because that feels too much like being secular and liberal.”

Thankfully, a number of committed Christian leaders have figured out that this was A Bad Idea–people from Pete Scazzero to Kay and Milan Yerkovich to Diane Langberg to Leslie Vernick to Andrew Bauman, etc. etc.–are showing us that scientific inquiry is not evil and psychology, as a field of study, isn’t inherently evil, and emotionality is not evil–and all THAT means that people are starting to realize that prayerful self-flagellation was never even necessary, let alone NOT the only tool in the toolbox (frankly, it never should have been IN the toolbox). Now we’re learning that stopping to feel our emotions is a good thing! That we don’t have to feel shame over any emotion we feel! That spending time digging into our emotions to understand what is driving them is super helpful for directing them well. That talking them over openly with God and trusted friends is SUPER helpful. That simply saying what we are feeling right in the moment is a basic life skill that we’ve been avoiding/stifling for generations and we can stop doing that. That knowing what we feel and why is the first necessary step for actual self-control, and admitting exactly what we feel to others without weaponizing our feelings builds the kind of trust necessary for the closest relationships.

And I’m sure there are lots of other tools out there, too, but these are just some of the ones I’m working on right now as I engage my strong menstrual emotionality and work it for good.

Dispelling the religious lies about our sexuality is going to mean detangling them from the half-truths we’ve tried to get by with for so long. Those lies snuck in because we cut ourselves off from a good half of the source of truth out there. Yes, God gave us the Bible as a primary source of truth. He also gave us us–our bodies. Our minds. The world we live in, physical reality–he created those things just as much as he inspired the creation of the Bible. What should we make of that?

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:18-20).

Creation itself is sufficient witness to know the truth about God. So when we refuse to study creation through scientific research and study… what does that say about us?

Let’s commit to seeking the full truth, the full picture about our emotions and about our biological systems. Let’s seek God in all that he created and inspired.

We’ve already been doing this for centuries in all kinds of areas, especially in medicine. Why, then, did we ever suppose that we expressly shouldn’t do it for this one, particular area of human biology?

We goofed. That’s all I can say.

But now…

Now we have the chance to convert our monthly surplus of emotions into fuel to turn. This. Ship. A. Round.

Let’s do it, ladies.

Will the Horrible Truth About the Man Who Led Me to Christ Wreck My Faith?

It might.

If it does, please don’t give in to shame. Especially shame leveled at you by others. As my husband says, probably quoting another source I’ve forgotten, “If anything can be destroyed by the truth, it should be.” If your faith can no longer function after sustaining a blow to its core by the person who planted it in you, who grounded it in you, then it is a faith that also would not have sustained you til the end of time. Faith rooted in the work of a human either dies prematurely, with the corruption of that human’s works, or with the slow death of that human’s influence over you as you realize the limits of his or her power. Do not accept a burden of guilt for letting go of something that was never actually good in trade for the thing itself.

Instead, recognize that letting go of what betrayed your trust and confidence will free you to cling to what truly deserves it.

If you discover your faith is rooted in a human, vs. the God you thought you adhered to, go ahead: dig up the dying or dead roots of that crushed faith. You can’t can’t cultivate anything living in the soil of your soul until you’ve made room. If you’re afraid of throwing anything good out, don’t be. The God that cracks dormant seeds awake in the dark and turns the globe to quicken the sap of deciduous forests and sends the spring rains to water the earth wants clear ground to work in your heart, so that what he does plant–and will plant there if you only ask, even if it’s a second or third or three-hundredth asking–won’t be choked or plucked out when we mistake the weeds sown by simple birds for the sprigs of his intention.

The horrible truth about the person who led you to Christ might wreck your faith; if it does, that is not a bad thing.

And, it might not. If it doesn’t, it should give you one of the best opportunities you will ever have to clear out the brambles and thorns and tangling vines that you likely would have never noticed threatening the seedlings of truth and justice and mercy and love set out in careful rows.

If the horrible truth about the human you trusted so implicitly doesn’t wreck your faith, it will only ground your faith more firmly as and where and how it ought to be.

Let me tell you a little about how my own faith transformed and endured through such betrayal.

My father abused me from a young age. The abuse began in the form of molestation when I was about 18 months old. I remember multiple incidents very clearly, which is not surprising if you consider the fact that I was quite verbal for my age–I had conversations with my father about this early sexual abuse at the time it was happening–and that I retain multiple other memories from that time period as well. I have spoken to other family members who, it turns out, were aware of the molestation at the time but did not understand what it was. They validated my account thoroughly; one person expressed remorse that they did not know enough at the time to do more than threaten to expose my father to his church leadership.

Shockingly, this threat apparently prevented my father from molesting me further for well over a decade. Other sexual infractions that he committed against me much later on were comparatively slight. The majority of my abuse at the hands of my father was psychological: mental, emotional, and spiritual torment was leveraged against me for decades in order to control my thoughts, behavior, and resources to serve his purposes. Physical and financial abuse was also occasionally employed to these ends.

My father was my jailer, my abuser, and in many ways, at least for a time, my god.

My father was also the first one to tell me the story of the Gospel in a way I could understand, appreciate, and accept, again from a young age.

What do we do when we are assaulted by the truth that the man who led us to Christ may well have never known and accepted Jesus to begin with? Or, worse, if he did–that he never allowed the power and goodness and truth and love of Christ to so work in him to preserve him from committing unspeakable sins against the most vulnerable in his care?

What do we do when a spiritual parent uses what gave us life to bring death to others, or to ourselves?

We cling to the life we were given, if what we were given is indeed life-giving, because it did not come from this man or woman, this mere, distorted, destruction-bound human soul–

It came from the Source of Life Himself.

And if what you were given was never in fact life in the first place, know there is a source that exists that is more than willing to share true, everlasting life with you, that will not betray you, that will not wield good for evil, but that will tear down and burn and blacken into NOTHING all that has ever hurt you. All that has ever wounded you. All that has ever torn your heart out and eaten it in front of you.

God of peace, of justice, of righteousness, of truth, of love gives me life and hope and healing. Not my dirt-born father. My infinite-always-was father.

He got through to me when I was surrounded by deep darkness, where no one else was close enough to reach me, even through the morass of evil embodied by my earthly parent. He reached me, and he did not leave me alone there. He sat with me in all the agony and misery and torture and wickedness inflicted on me until it passed. Until he achieved my restoration out of its clutches and showed me his true, deep, abiding goodness in the land of the living.

He is with me still.

National Drug of Choice

TW: descriptions of substance abuse

Fear is America’s drug of choice, and I’m a user.

This year I’ve come to realize how little fear aligns itself with any one political party. An equal-opportunity motivator, it has served as primary rhetoric on both sides of the aisle for the past four years.

I watch people promote Trump out of fear. I watch people promote Biden out of fear. I do see people supporting those two candidates for reasons other than fear, sure. However, the most vocal supporters I know are bound together by fear. The only thing that distinguishes them lies in the particular things they are afraid of.

Abortion. ICE. Socialism. Nationalism. Human trafficking. Drug trafficking. Economic ruin. Economic oppression. Social rights. Religious rights.

Something about each of these feeds our addiction to fear, regardless of our preferred delivery mechanism (blue or red syringe?).

I have repeatedly heard Christians lament the absence of simple civility, let alone love, in our political discourse and policy debates. I feel the same–but I’ve come to realize that an shortage of love oughtn’t surprise us when so much fear has inundated our faculties. Christians are called to better, but not even a God-fearing addict can live out the Gospel while indulging his habit. Ultimate hope remains even for this fellow–

“For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire….” (1 Cor. 3)

–but he loses much. So have we.

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4)

We cannot experience or share the fulfillment and security found in love so long as we are full of fear. Here we are, a nation subscribed to fear. Not a single Pandora’s box, but an endless monthly subscription. We can’t bear to go without it. No wonder the love designed to define us has grown scarce. Little demand; little supply.

One of the most discouraging parts about all this is that even when we receive our hoped-for outcome, the fear driving our efforts doesn’t go away. If anything, it increases. We now become afraid of losing what we’ve striven so hard to gain. Attaining the supposed solution for our fear does nothing so much as create more of it.

We are becoming best known for our fear-worship, across the board. We never had to settle for that. We still don’t. The alternative is so much better.

“By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world.” (Ibid)

I’d rather be associated with Christ–like Christ–than affiliated with any political party, policy, or person.

“If anyone says, ‘I love God,”’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (Ibid)

Don’t worry: I’m guilty as charged, too. I’ve been so afraid of so many of you.

But I don’t have to be. I have access to love that casts out all fear. Tomorrow, and in the weeks ahead, I pray God refocuses me solidly on that.

“So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” (Ibid)