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Redeeming Love

When it comes to sexual integrity, author Shannon Ethridge admits she learned her lessons the hard way. Now she's helping other women and their daughters avoid her mistakes and find love in all the right places.

"If I had a house fire, this would be one of the first things I'd grab," says Shannon Ethridge, leafing through the scrapbook cradled on her lap. The album's filled with handwritten letters and snapshots from the young women she's taught as a guest lecturer and mentor at Teen Mania Ministries in Lindale, Texas. They're thanking her for the impact her message of purity has had on their lives.

Shannon, an abstinence advocate, counselor, and former youth pastor, first broke the silence on female sexual temptation with her groundbreaking book, Every Woman's Battle, published in 2003. In it she dispelled the notion it was a male-only problem by candidly describing her personal struggles with sexual integrity. She continues to share her story and the lessons she's learned through a series of frank books that explore how to maintain sexual integrity in our sex-saturated culture. They include Every Young Woman's Battle and the newly released Preparing Your Daughter for Every Woman's Battle (all WaterBrook).

Although the pixie-ish 37-year-old became a Christian as a child, she admits, "I was saved, but like so many teens, I fell away from the faith." After years of promiscuity, at age 21 Shannon experienced a life-changing encounter with Christ and became involved in youth ministry. A short while later, she met and married Greg, her husband of 15 years. But to her surprise, even after marriage she still found herself "looking for love in all the wrong places."

''My heart cry is, Lord, there are so many women who need to be delivered from their sexual misdeeds and emotional affairs.''

Her quest for freedom from her desperate search for attention and affection led her into a greater intimacy with God. She founded Women at the Well Ministries (now Shannon Ethridge Ministries) in 1999 to teach women how to discover the joy and healing she found in her passionate pursuit of Christ. Today, the lessons of her past give Shannon the authority not only to tackle the topic of adult sexual temptation, but that of teen sexuality as well. And, as the mom of daughter Erin, 13, and son Matthew, 10, she feels an urgency to equip parents to address this particular arena. "When I was a teen, the pressure to have sex was enormous," she says. "But for our children today, it's overwhelming."

In this exclusive TCW interview, Shannon talks about her past, her healing, and her hope for our daughters—and for us.

You've said you "graduated from the school of hard knocks when it comes to recognizing and overcoming sexual and emotional temptations." How so?

When I was 12, several uncles made inappropriate sexual advances toward me. Then, when I was 14, an 18-year-old boy date-raped me. I never told anyone about the rape because I wasn't supposed to be alone with a boy, and my parents didn't know I had been. I thought they'd blame me for what happened. So when my mom and dad actually let me date a year later, I didn't feel as though I had a reason to withhold sex. I went from one sexual relationship to another.

Your parents had no clue?

I was leading a double life. On the outside, I was the model Christian girl—president of my youth group. I remember giving an interview at a Christian concert about how I was so on fire for the Lord—yet I was having sex with the boy with whom I'd gone to the concert! When my parents finally discovered I was sexually active, it hit them out of the blue. My dad was deeply disappointed in me, and it created a huge rift in an already difficult relationship. My father and I never seemed to connect emotionally back then.

It wasn't until I got to the end of my rope that I realized what I was doing was so wrong. I was living with a much older married man who'd left his wife for me. But when I realized it was a deeply dysfunctional relationship, we finally broke up. It dawned on me, Maybe what I'm looking for can't be found in an earthly relationship. I returned to the church and recommitted my life to Christ. That's where I met my husband, Greg. A year later we married. Unfortunately, I didn't have much time to come to grips with my emotional baggage.

I soon learned that putting on a wedding band didn't change the way I related to men. Affairs don't start when you crawl into bed with someone; they start when you go out of your way to get a man's attention when it's inappropriate to do so. I was still so hungry for male attention that I got caught up in several emotional affairs—with an old boyfriend, my male aerobics instructor, a fellow youth worker, and a few others.

How do you define an emotional affair?

It's that "forbidden fruit" relationship. Maybe he's married and you're not. Or maybe you are and he isn't. Maybe he's much older than you, or he's your boss. You begin to go out of your way to get his attention, or look to him for affirmation. If you don't feel good about yourself, when you find someone who makes you feel good, you latch onto him like a leech. That's what I began doing.

Were there any warning signs?

Sure. I felt Greg wasn't meeting my emotional needs.

It's dangerous when you start thinking, My husband isn't as spiritual as Pastor So-and-So. Or, he isn't as cute or as romantic as my best friend's husband. With each unfair comparison, you take his worth down a notch. Before long, you lose interest in maintaining an intimate connection with your husband.

I'm thankful the Internet wasn't an issue for me. So many godly women tell me their emotional affair started out as an innocent conversation in a chat room, and then they found themselves trying to resist the temptation to fly across the country to meet the guy face to face!

Greg once told me I had a Grand Canyon of emotional needs. Even if every man in Dallas wound up outside my doorstep, he said, it wouldn't have been enough to satisfy my longings for affection.

Did these men know about your feelings?

They probably sensed them. One time my male aerobics instructor told me I didn't come to class dressed ready to sweat; I came dressed ready to make other men sweat. Here I was, a woman in full-time ministry! I needed to hear that; I didn't realize my bid for attention was so blatant.

What was the turning point?

On December 16, 1995, I woke up in the middle of the night during an intense thunderstorm, sensing God was telling me someone was about to die. I rolled over and looked at my husband, then thought of my daughter and newborn son sleeping down the hall. Oh Lord, please don't let it be one of them!

For two months, this fear of a loved one dying hung over me. It was nerve-racking. Finally one night I went to a Bible Study Fellowship meeting and slithered into the pew, tears streaming down my face. The leader had us open our Bibles to John 12:24: "Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds." It was as if a lightning bolt came through the stained-glass window of that church and God said, It's you who has to die.

Did you think God meant physical death?

No, I knew it was spiritual. But I didn't have a clue what he meant, so I stormed off after the meeting, upset with God.

The next day, I had lunch plans with my male aerobics instructor. Talk about a lack of boundaries! I justified it, thinking I'd have a chance to witness to him. Instead, he told me I had a neon sign on my forehead saying I was hungry for attention. Then he said, "Do you want to know how to get that sign off? You have to die to yourself, Shannon Ethridge."

I started trembling, sensing God had sent me an angel in a tank top to get my attention. My instructor told me he was a recovering sex and love addict, and that he saw the same symptoms in me he used to have. He recommended a counselor and told me we could no longer meet. That night I told Greg every word of our conversation, and he confessed this had been something he'd struggled for years to find the right words to express to me. In desperation I cried out to God to show me why I was so needy. That's what catapulted me into seeking a more intimate relationship with God and to begin intensive counseling.

What impact did these things have?

As I sought God as the lover of my soul, he began healing my wounds. I recognized the extent of my sin—how I'd failed to set proper boundaries and guard against extramarital temptations. I worked intensely on forgiving the guy who date-raped me as well as every guy who took advantage of me or who allowed me to take advantage of him. Most of all, I worked on forgiving my dad. I wrote him letters saying, "Dad, I'm 27 years old and I don't know you well at all. I really want to get to know you."

My father invited me to go on a camping trip with him, and on that trip he grabbed me by the hand and we went for a walk. At first it felt so unnatural. Then I realized, This is what I've longed for my whole life —my father's affection and attention. Dad told me his parents had divorced and he'd experienced abuse at the hands of his stepparents. By the time he was a teen, he didn't know where his next meal was coming from. "Shannon," he confessed, "my idea of being a good father was to make sure you had a roof over your head and food to eat. It's not that I didn't love you—it's just that I didn't know how to fulfill your emotional needs."

I felt so convicted. I'd never considered the pain my dad carried around. So for the past decade, God's been restoring my relationship with my father. That's helped tremendously in keeping me emotionally faithful to my husband.

Did your sexual past ever cause a struggle in your marriage?

Yes. At one point early on I confronted Greg about what he didn't do sexually that the men before him had. Greg told me in no uncertain terms, "Shannon, don't ever compare me to a relationship you had no business being in." His words were a compassionate wake-up call: If I'd saved sex for marriage, I wouldn't be having this issue. So I asked the Lord to deliver me from those sexual soul-ties and to keep me from ever again comparing Greg to other men, especially sexually.

Were you sexually active with Greg before marriage?

No, Greg was a virgin when we married. He told me, "Shannon, I've waited 27 years to have sex on my wedding night, and I'm not going to ruin that." I wasn't so concerned about purity, but he was very strong.

How's your relationship with Greg now?

As a result of all we've been through, today we have a much richer relationship than we ever fathomed possible. Greg's truly helped me better understand God's unconditional love.

When Every Woman's Battle first came out, many newspapers adapted its first line as their headline: "She was having extramarital affairs with five men at once." I e-mailed Greg, "Are you sure you're OK with people knowing this about your wife?" His response was, "Shannon, if I believed this battle was unique to you, this would be very hard. But I don't. So if you're brave enough to talk about it, I'm brave enough to stand by your side."

Some might say, I don't have this battle. I don't even want to have sex with my husband, let alone someone else.

Then I'd ask them, "Don't you think that in and of itself is a battle?" The subtitle of Every Woman's Battle is Discovering God's Plan for Sexual and Emotional Fulfillment. I want women to know how to passionately reconnect with their husband. But most importantly, we need to passionately reconnect with Jesus. I pray women—married or single—will capture that vision.

My heart cry is, Lord, there are women all over this planet who need to know you, who need to be delivered from their sexual misdeeds and their emotional affairs. Without an intimate relationship with God, no earthly relationship will truly satisfy us. We need to get our emotional needs met first by God.

How can married and single women guard their hearts from temptation?

Be extremely vigilant. Set strong boundaries. For example, as a married woman, I now remove myself from a situation if I sense I'm getting too emotionally attached to someone other than my husband, or if he's getting too attached to me. I have close female friends who hold me accountable. I keep short accounts with Greg. But I never make the mistake of thinking I'm exempt from temptation, because once something's a weakness, it likely will always be a weakness.

Sexual temptation is the most common tool Satan uses against the body of Christ because sex is something we all naturally crave, whether we're single or married. Statistics show the rates for sexual compromise in Christians are as high as they are for non-Christians. And the infidelity rate for women is as high as it is for men.

What's the biggest struggle teens face today?

The concept that oral sex isn't sex. Girls come to my Teen Mania class thinking they're virgins because they haven't had intercourse. The truth is, they've done everything else but. So I rain on their purity parade by talking about how oral sex and cyber sex are sex.

I tell youth groups, "Your sexuality isn't what you do, it's who you are. God's as interested in your mental, emotional, and spiritual purity as in your physical purity."

Do your children know about your past?

Yes, they pretty much know everything, because I didn't want them learning it through the grapevine. They know their dad saved sex for marriage and was so glad he did. They also know I made many mistakes as a teen I'll always regret, but that God has redeemed those and forgiven me. We've been honest about our experiences.

Our kids need to know we're willing to talk about sexual temptation. When I was 14, no one told me it was normal to start having sexual feelings. I thought something was physically wrong with me! Many teens who e-mail me say they think they're all alone in this struggle. We've got to help our children understand every person battles this at some point in life.

That's why I wrote Preparing Your Daughter for Every Woman's Battle. My book contains the type of conversations I wished my mom had had with me. So does she. Parents have got to make conversations about sexual integrity a priority. That's what we've done with Erin and Matthew.

Do you regret all you've gone through to learn these lessons?

I realize that in so many ways it was my ignorance that caused me to lose my innocence. I look at my daughter and I'm overwhelmed with joy and excitement about her future, because she's never been abused and she has a wonderful relationship with Greg.

I'm thankful for what I've been through, because Romans 5:3-5 says "suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character, and character, hope." It's created such an intense hunger for the Lord in me. And if I have to go through more to see Christ continue to work in and through my life, I'm willing.

For more information about Shannon Ethridge Ministries, go to www.ShannonEthridge.com.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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