Dr. Juli Slattery's ministry, Authentic Intimacy, is committed to helping Christian women develop a spiritually and emotionally healthy approach to their sexuality. A TCW featured contributor, Juli is a psychologist, co-founder (with Linda Dillow) of Authentic Intimacy, and co-author of the DVD Bible study series Passion Pursuit: What Kind of Love Are You Making? TCW's Marian V. Liautaud connected with Juli to explore how sexuality is intricately connected with Christian spiritual growth.
Sexuality is very complex, isn't it? It's about so much more than just the act of sex.
There's a difference between sex and sexuality. Our culture has elevated sex way above what it should be, but it has not given enough credence to sexuality. Your sexuality is something that is always there, even if sex isn't involved in it at the time. For example, a single woman is still a sexual being created in the image of God. Her sexuality is not compartmentalized; it's integrated into all the aspects of her being—intellectual, emotional, relational, and sexual. It's a core part of who God created her to be.
Because we tend to only talk about the physical act of sex, we ignore the fact that it's our sexuality that ultimately drives us into relationship with a man, makes us desire marriage, expresses our longing to be known, heard, understood, and protected—our longing to be vulnerable, soul to soul, with another person, and ultimately, our longing to be known by God.
There's a lot in Scripture about the metaphor of sexuality actually being a spiritual thing that teaches us about a longing for God. We're called the bride and Christ is the bridegroom (Revelation 19:7). In the Old Testament, God refers to Israel in a covenant relationship, and when Israel worships other gods, he compares it to prostituting themselves (Leviticus 20:5). He uses sexual terms in some of the prophetic books to describe the unfaithful behavior of Israel (Hosea 2). So when you talk about sex and sexuality, sex is something that's reserved for an act in marriage, or it's something that is acted out, but your sexuality never goes away. It's a key part of who you are as a woman.
This spiritual aspect to sexuality makes sense for married women, but what about for a single woman? Could you talk a bit more about what holy sexuality looks like for her?
Ephesians 5:31–32 tells us that a man and a woman will leave their families and become one flesh. And then Paul says, "This is a profound mystery . . . I am talking about Christ and the church" (NIV). Wait, those two ideas don't connect. He was talking about marriage and sex, and then all of a sudden he says he's actually talking about Christ and the church?
What Paul is alluding to is the fact that the marriage covenant and the one-flesh union is this mysterious way that God is expressing the relationship he has with his people. That can freak people out! But when you look through Scripture, the Old Testament word for sex is yada—and it's the same word that's used throughout the Old Testament to describe God's knowing and his longing of his people. Like in Psalm 139, "You have searched me, LORD, and you yada me. You yada when I sit and when I rise" (NIV).
Now, why would God inspire the writers of the Old Testament to use the same word for sex within marriage as he does in passages like Proverbs 3:6, "In all your ways yada me" (NIV)? Because he intentionally designed sexuality and the expression of sex within marriage to be a metaphor of his love for his people and the degree of intimacy that he's designed us to experience with him.
A married woman experiences that sexual intimacy within marriage and she can say, "Wow! You mean, I can be that close to God? That's just a mystery. How? I want that." And a single woman—much like David expressed in Psalm 63—can say, "I yearn for you. I thirst for you. My body longs for you, like I'm in a desert where there is no water." Or like David expressed in Psalm 84:1–2, in essence saying, "My heart is just crying out for the presence of God, I need to be in his presence." A single person can understand this longing in a profound way. She may feel, as she waits for Christ the bridegroom, he's coming and I can't wait to see him, and I miss him and I long to be known like that.
Whether you're single, married, or widowed—or you're in a marriage where sex is not happening—every experience that you feel has a spiritual parallel that can turn your eyes to God. Understanding this metaphor takes it to a whole new level. That doesn't make it any easier for the single woman, but it does give purpose to the fact that she's still a sexual person even though she's not able to act it out within the context of marriage.
And it reminds us that this longing can point us to God and ultimately to an intimate relationship with him.
Absolutely. Even if you're married, it should be a reminder of that. And let's be honest—a lot of married women long just as much as single women do. They feel scorned or betrayed; they can identify with the example in Hosea of a God being compared to a husband who was betrayed sexually. So the metaphors throughout Scripture ultimately remind us that there's something missing that we should be longing for.
Along with that deep longing, so many women also live with pain, woundedness, or shame about their sexuality. They try to compartmentalize their feelings of shame, hurt, or guilt, and they see themselves as either spiritual beings or sexual beings—as either the good girl or the bad girl. How can we be more integrated about our sexuality and our faith?
When there's been sexual brokenness in a woman's life—and that can be anything from childhood sexual abuse to sleeping with a boyfriend and feeling absolutely guilty and shameful about that—you jump to the conclusion that sex is somehow tainted and wrong and that your sexuality is shameful. You may never say those words, but it's ingrained in you.
Most of us have learned about sex within the context of some shame, even if we grew up in a Christian home. You're told, Don't look at that, don't think about that, don't do that, stay away. The message is that the sexual feeling you're experiencing is wrong. Then when you get married, all of a sudden, people tell you it's right . . . but you still feel wrong. There's this tarnished kind of shame and guilt that goes along with sexuality when you've been traumatized.
Meanwhile, your spirituality and your pursuit of God is all good. And so in our minds and emotions, we can't reconcile pursuing God as a good thing and sexuality that feels dirty and shameful as going together. But in Scripture, it is absolutely woven together! God didn't create sexuality as something that was shameful and that somehow in marriage he dusted it off and redeemed it. It was made perfect and sanctified—it was Satan who twisted it.
When you can begin to understand that Satan is trying to destroy something that God created as beautiful and in your heart you've begun to believe the lie that it's evil or wrong or dirty, redemption means restoring everything back to the way God originally designed it—including sexuality. So the road to sexual healing is actually a road to spiritual healing as well.
What would you counsel women who recognize in their own lives that they either are struggling with hurt and brokenness in their sexuality or are battling a sexual addiction such as addiction to erotica?
Your first response to that is going to be wanting to compartmentalize—to say, This is the sexual me that's just a mess while this is the rest of me that wants to be a good mom, a good wife, and a good God-fearing woman, so I have this little box for my sexuality that I go and visit when I have to. So the first step is taking your sexuality out of that box and recognizing the fact that you cannot separate who you are sexually from who you are as a follower of Christ (and a mom and a wife and a friend and a daughter). It's all integrated.
At first that gets really messy because you feel like you're opening a door and what if you can never shut it? But what happens when you begin to invite who you are as a daughter of God and who you are as a woman, to consider what it means for your sexuality? Healing really starts. That's when we get honest about the fact that we need to tell someone about what we're struggling with. When we admit, I need to talk to someone who can help me. I need to believe that God can heal this part of me that I've blocked off. And we see women who are willing to take those steps—sometimes they have to go a long journey to get there—but they experience incredible fullness at the end of it.