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.