It should surprise no one that sexuality saturates American culture in the twenty-first century. Girls’ dolls are looking more and more like prostitutes. Seductive, lingerie-clad Victoria’s Secret models spice up the commercial breaks during prime-time broadcast television. Talk show radio shovels in the smut. Just the other day I turned on the radio and heard a disc jockey encouraging women to call in and share their “most lesbian experience.” Events like these and countless others reinforce the idea that the greatest challenge to Lutheran ministry today is teaching and leading lives of sexual integrity.
Not Even a Hint
One huge issue of sexual integrity is masturbation. The first part of the battle is establishing the fact that it is indeed sinful. Many find that masturbation carries an inherent sense of guilt. However, one can easily rationalize it given these factors: 1) The Bible neither condemns nor even mentions masturbation. Even Leviticus with all its detailed prohibitions on various aspects of sexuality fails to address the topic. 2) Neither Luther’s Small Catechism nor An Explanation to the Small Catechism brings up the issue. (Contrarily, paragraph 2352 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church strongly forbids masturbation.) 3) Our churches, Bible classes, homes, etc. almost never talk about masturbation. 4) Our culture does not see a problem with it and even jokes about it (e.g. Howard Stern).
The greatest challenge to Lutheran ministry today is teaching and leading lives of sexual integrity.
Nevertheless, these excuses do not let us off the hook. Jesus warns us that whoever looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart (Matthew 5:28). Paul tells us that there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality in our lives (Ephesians 5:3). I imagine few people would say they can masturbate without sexual thoughts. Even if it were possible to masturbate without lust (which I highly doubt), masturbation still contradicts the purposes of sexuality that are clearly laid out in Scripture:intimacy with one’s spouse (Genesis 2:18, 24) and procreation (Genesis 1:28).
Many men and women can attest to the turmoil masturbation has caused them. Guilt is obvious. Helplessness is another. Many want to stop, but find that very difficult to do. Trying to overcome years of this compulsive, habitual action proves to be nearly impossible to some. The taboo nature of masturbation increases one’s shame. People are embarrassed to ask for help. Not only does the feeling of guilt separate one from God, but it also puts up a barrier between one’s self and others. Masturbation is intrinsically a selfish act. People who get their “warm fuzzies” from self-stimulation feel less need for interaction with others. Such an inward disposition may stunt one’s social growth. Suppressed guilt can also manifest itself in emotional or psychological disturbances that can go unexplained for years. (cf. Harris 97–108)
The Ubiquity of Pornography
Another huge sexual pitfall is pornography. At least pornography is a little more clearly seen as sinful. An Explanation to Luther’s Small Catechism does condemn pornographic materials. In comparison to masturbation, it is harder to make the claim that using pornography does not involve lust. Nevertheless, these things alone do not make pornography easier to avoid.
Pornography has been around for a long time. However, my generation is the first generation to come of age in the era of the internet. So what does this mean? First, people are viewing pornography at a much younger age. According to the Internet Filter Review, the average age of a child’s first internet pornographic experience is eleven years old! Second, the quantity of pornography one can view has astronomically increased. Third, pornography use has gotten significantly more difficult for an individual to overcome due to economic, physical, and privacy factors. Unlike many other compulsive behaviors (tobacco, drug, or alcohol abuse; gambling; eating disorders), surfing internet pornography costs no money. Pornography causes no dramatic physical effects. We can see that a man is drunk who has slurred speech and is stumbling along the road. Who can pick out a pornography user at a glance? In addition, the extreme secrecy in which internet pornography can be accessed makes it harder to get caught and easier for the user to deny that he has a problem.
Pornography carries with it the same problems that masturbation does; the two, in fact, often are intimately intertwined. Pornography arouses sexual desire to which masturbation is the release. Masturbation fuels the need of the mind to acquire more “material” for its sexual fantasies, which pornography readily supplies. We have already discussed above the consequences that masturbation easily brings. All of these apply to pornography just as well. However, pornography does additional damage. It objectifies women, men, and even children. People become a collection of body parts. A person “under the influence” of pornography cannot look at the opposite sex (or even their own) in the same way. People become sex objects. The descent is gradual, but it is real. This happens mainly on the subconscious level. People who think they can look at pornography and not objectify other people deceive themselves. It is as ridiculous as thinking that drinking poison will not endanger one’s life. Pornography also robs the marital relationship, whether one is currently married or not. It rewires one’s mind concerning what makes a person physically attractive. Physical aspects become accentuated out of proportion from spiritual, character, or emotional traits. Just like masturbation, pornography burns a hole deep inside one’s soul. One turns ever more inward upon himself at the expense of everyone and everything else.
So what is the Lutheran Church doing to protect its members from the horrific consequences of masturbation and pornography? What is the church currently doing to help heal those people whose lives have been devastated by these sexual sins? Not much. I attended Lutheran grade schools through eighth grade. Not one religion class touched on these topics. I had two years of confirmation and catechesis in seventh and eighth grade. Nothing there either. These issues were never talked about in church or Bible class either. (I was not confronted with a sound Scriptural and logical disapproval of masturbation until I came across an online article by the Christian Research and Apologetics Ministry when I was a senior in high school.) This is a shame. People with masturbation and pornography temptations live not only outside the walls of the church, but on the inside as well. Not only nominal members, but many life-long, active members struggle. Not only do people in secular jobs fall into this trap, but also seminarians and even pastors. In our church, many consciences are burdened with unbearable guilt. Lives are being destroyed. The Enemy is systematically sabotaging us.
Why the silence in our churches? First, I think some leaders in our church are themselves embarrassed about their sexuality. Some are likely struggling with these issues too. Second, many people from older generations are naively unaware of the magnitude these problems hold for my generation. Third, some leaders feel that it is not their job to talk in detail about sexual topics. They fear bringing up a topic that a child is not familiar with.
So, what should the Lutheran Church do about masturbation and pornography? First, let us simply talk about it. This silence is killing us. Almost any talk would be better than no talk. Even if we do not get it quite right, at least we draw attention to the problem and get people to think about it. Second, we need to engage the young people. This needs to be talked about in confirmation classes and youth groups. If the average child is exposed to pornography by eleven years of age, there is no reason we should not be talking about this to children that young. Third, church leaders need to partner with the parents. Parents need help in addressing these topics with their children. Some need the help themselves. There is no reason why we cannot have Bible studies on sexual issues. It should also come up in sermons. Sexual sins should not be condemned more than other sins, but neither should they be left out. No doubt this requires great care and subtlety, but a congregation must hear the message. When was the last time your church prayed for people (anonymously) addicted to pornography? If it never has, why not? They need our prayers! We pray for the sick, dying, and grieving. Why should we not pray for them?
In talking about these issues, two themes need to prevail. First, we must emphasize God’s good creation of sex. God created sex and it is very good! Your sex organs are very good. Your sex drive is very good. The sexual relationship between a husband and wife is very good. With such a sobering topic as sexual sin, we must remain positive. Just as the devil wins when he gets us to sin sexually, he also wins when we despise our God-given nature. The second theme that must predominate is the hope and healing found in Jesus Christ. No sin, not even the most heinous sexual sin is too big for him to forgive. No wound is too deep for him to heal. There is hope! Many people can testify to the amazing curing powers of Jesus in this issue.
With such a sobering topic as sexual sin, we must remain positive. Just as the devil wins when he gets us to sin sexually, he also wins when we despise our God-given nature.
My generation has received heavy blows to our sexuality. But we are fighting back. A grassroots effort is underway; young adults are taking charge. Small-group Bible studies focusing on sexual issues are popping up at Lutheran colleges and seminaries. There is an intense thirst among my contemporaries for hearing the truth, having accountability, and receiving forgiveness and healing in sexual areas. Excellent resources exist (though not Lutheran) to assist my generation’s quest for sexual purity. Two very helpful books are Not Even a Hint by Joshua Harris and Every Man’s Battle by Stephen Arterburn and Fred Stoeker. Change is coming to our church. I am very optimistic about this. There is no doubt in my mind that when my generation takes the leadership reins in the church, sex will be much less the taboo as it was for us growing up. It has been too slow in coming, but it is coming. My generation is determined to reverse the trend of sexual tyranny. Yes, some of us still struggle, are still broken, and are still wounded. But by God’s power we all will be — we are — something more. We are wounded-healers. God uses us to bring his compassion, healing, and encouragement to others with similar struggles. One day every one of us will be completely restored. We long for the resurrection of our bodies, when our sexuality will be entirely ordered. Until then, we press on. . . .
Arterburn, Stephen and Stoeker, Fred. Every Man’s Battle: Winning the War on Sexual Temptation One Victory at a Time. Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 2000.
Catechism of the Catholic Church. London: Burns & Oates, 2002.
Harris, Joshua. Not Even a Hint: Guarding Your Heart Against Lust. Sisters: Multnomah Publishers, Inc., 2003.
“Internet Pornography Statistics.” Ropelato, Jerry. Internet Filter Review. http://internet-filter-review. toptenreviews.com/internet-pornography-statistics.html.
“Is Masturbation Wrong?” Slick, Matt. Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry. http://www.carm.org/masturbation.