Bearing the Image

We’re all enthralled by nudity but none of us actually wants to be naked.

It was one of the few times when I genuinely came across porn by accident. Well, maybe not porn (depending on your personal definition) but certainly a rated-R image where I didn’t expect one.

I was waiting for a haircut, reading one of the magazines they had out. It was some men’s fashion number; I forget which one. Before this, I’d been unaware of how risqué some of the more mainstream periodicals can get. Plus this was one of those discount salons where families with children made up a large portion of the client base. Great place to stick an advertisement featuring a man and woman fully baring their backsides by a picturesque lake.

There are two reactions that happen inside a Christian man when he sees something like that; which one happens first and more deeply depends on a lot of factors. One is righteous indignation — which I had — at the abuse of what God intended for sacred intimacy. Double that for being placed in close proximity to impressionable kids.

Then there’s the other part. The flesh will respond to what it wants no matter how genuine the spiritual reaction is. To be so bold as to let you into the inner world of a same-sex struggler, one of my first thoughts was, “Why does she have to be in the picture?”

I was immediately stricken by a (second) startling thought. I felt as though, if God had been sitting right there and caught me looking at this picture and simultaneously known my thoughts, He would say, “You know that’s My image you’re scorning, right?”

Yeah, I know. I expected that God would rather slap me on the wrist just for pausing over the image in the first place. But that didn’t seem to be the point He wanted to make out of this run-in with debauchery.

As much as the advertisement was part of the sexually abusive nature of our culture, the image was probably as close to a picture of pre-Fall Eden as a post-Fall photographer could produce. Man and woman, naked, obviously unashamed, basking in the glory of flawless Creation. Regardless of the motivation of the image, it was a shadow of God’s image, and I was wrinkling my nose at it.

It wasn’t just that I found the woman less attractive than the man; her very presence in the picture offended me. One of the things Exodus helped me realize about my same-sex attraction was how not only were my unmet same-sex needs involved, but I had a deep-seated fear and intolerance of women. That’s a long story I won’t get into here, but it culminated in her implied sexual and romantic connection to this male model feeling, to me, like an intrusion. One I had devoted myself to avoiding.

Yet God put her there. In the beginning, everything was good except the fact that man did not yet have her. That irked me.

God’s Image: God’s Ownership

By this time I was more than familiar with the marriage-is-one-man-and-one-woman-only arguments. I knew I was supposed to believe that man and woman each bore God’s image in the very nature of their gender, and in marriage reflected Him in a special way that neither could do alone.

Of course, there’s also a school of philosophy that says if we are made in God’s image, whatever we feel and find pleasure in must be of Him. I didn’t realize how much I believed that, too.

Later that same year, though, my pastor shared with our congregation a new facet of what it means to bear God’s image. He pointed to the confrontation between Jesus and the scheming Pharisees in Matthew 22:19-21, when they attempted to trap Jesus by asking whether God’s people ought to pay taxes.

Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

He challenged us not to think of bearing God’s image as some sort of carte blanche for desire, but gave it a more serious connotation: a mark of ownership — one that will be reclaimed.

When I took my first art and literature classes in college, I was dismayed by some of the directions our professors took us in. Particularly, I disliked the notion (which they seemed to universally put forth) that an artist’s intentions don’t matter. All that matters, they taught us, is how individual observers interpret what the art says. Once a painter signs his piece or an author submits his work, it’s no longer his.

I think that’s what we’ve been doing with God’s art since humanity got itself kicked out of Eden.

We all have our unfair — yet sometimes true — negative stereotypes of the sexes. We also have our fears, doubts and resentments about the calling of our own gender.

Let’s face it: The Garden is not a comfortable place for us anymore. We’re all enthralled by nudity but none of us actually wants to be naked (humbled, transparent, vulnerable). It’s a lot easier to partake of the nakedness of others while sitting safely removed at your personal computer. Or to manipulate your way through relationships. Or to write off the opposite sex altogether.

But difficult as it is, and as alien as it might appear to us as we experience relationship and sexuality in our brokenness, we are being called back to Eden.

The Garden Awaits

What if all the heavy-worded teaching about sexuality wasn’t just so that we would avoid STD’s, reduce unwanted pregnancies and keep from ending up with a heart that’s like the un-sticky strip of tape that’s been used over and over (remember that from Sunday school?). Maybe there is something glorious and transcendent about God-intended sex that isn’t to be found anywhere but back in the Garden.

There’s no way for us to get all the way there, of course, but maybe it’s important to try to get as close as we can. Maybe God still wants some of that for us, not later on in Heaven but now, here, with each other.

It is a big freaking deal that God made us male and female. It is the second truth of our existence, stated just after the fact that we were made in His image (Genesis 1:27). As I already pointed out, in God’s perfect version of earth there was no shame in nakedness. A whole book of the Bible is devoted to the passion between man and woman. The topic seems to interest God quite a bit, if you think about it.

God wants us to fall in love. I’d venture to say He wants us to have great sex. But something He also taught me was that I ought not to think of Him as a means to that end. The reality is that it’s the other way around.

I’m not one of those people that think God doesn’t do anything for our enjoyment. If He were like that, sex would be more like organized religion. But in all the striving and obsessing our world does about sex, what’s missing is what God was telling us about Himself when He created it.

Janelle Hallman, a professional counselor in the Exodus network and author of The Heart of Female Same-Sex Attraction, gave a presentation at an Exodus Freedom Conference that I’ll never forget. It was entitled “Flashes of Glory” and it was all about how the oneness we can experience in marriage — and in the bedroom — offers us a glimpse of God’s great, mysterious three-in-one personality, His selfless giving nature, His undying passion and intimate love.

I wish my youth pastors growing up had talked about sex like that.

Wishin’ and Hopin’

I realize I’m saying all of this as a single guy. Worse, I’m saying it as a single guy who’s been several years down the road of worldly sexual perversity and no experience in the marriage department. So, a lot of this is still faith-based for me.

But not entirely.

Exodus provided me with a lot of useful information about gender, sexuality and identity, but at the end of the day all information does is inform you. And while that’s very well and good, nothing really changes; I remained pretty wounded and insecure.

One time I had a plantar wart on the bottom of my foot. It got so bad I couldn’t walk without limping. A course in podiatry was not what I needed. Information informs, but relief only comes through the healing agent. In the wide world of relational wounds — populated by our misperceptions, masks and misconduct — the only effective balm is relationships.

I participated in social circles all throughout my teens and early 20s, albeit quite cautiously, but when I finally began to let the real me venture beyond the shelter of my Exodus group, I started to see some of the healing I had been hoping for.

It first came in the form of one church’s young adult pastor, his wife and kids. It was the first time I met a man in a pastoral role who didn’t start stammering and sweating when I disclosed my particular brand of temptation. I’ve written before about how he didn’t just meet with me in his office once a week to discuss a chapter from some book; he took me home and let me become part of the family.

From a strategic ministry standpoint, there wasn’t much to it. We traded off giving horsey-rides to toddlers. We ate chicken and rice around a noisy table. We played the funny-face game (the 2-year-old who never talked always won). And sometimes when the kids went down for their nap, we had honest, heart-open conversations.

In the midst of the chaos of a young family, without me knowing, God showed me what my jaded eyes wouldn’t accept straight-on. I got a glimpse of a harmony that was … transcendent. I can’t say exactly when I started to get it, or how the thoughts first articulated themselves to me. I just looked at something that for so long I believed was bad, and my heart said it was good.

If you’ve got a marriage that’s going pretty well — not perfect, but pretty good for down here in the real world — that’s probably your most powerful ministry tool. I don’t want to knock all the training and ministry tools that are out there; the best of them are very helpful. But only you can be a healer.

If you are in any way experiencing joy, fulfillment and the revelation of God’s character in your marriage, young people desperately need to see it. God knows the world tells them the path of righteousness is miserable, pointless and devoid of joy.

And if you’re single, living well and know a thing or two about contentment, the next generation needs your wisdom just as badly. They probably won’t say so, but you’d be surprised how many Christian teens are really afraid they will drop dead of purposelessness if they turn 25 without tying the knot. Not much is certain this side of the headstone, and it’s good to see people walking and thriving with God on different paths we might find ourselves on.

Like I said, much of the God-shaped beauty hidden in the mosaic of man and woman is still a deep, unknown mystery to me. I don’t really know what all is there, but my expectations are high. And as I drink deep, discover, get bruised and humbled and empowered and transformed, I am going to do my best to share my journey with others, because it’s not just about me.

That’s not to say it’s not about me at all; on the contrary, God created me for this mystery. I used to be bitter that God, for whatever reason (I wasn’t aware of then), didn’t want me to be intimate with men the way I desired. As He’s called me to let go of that, He’s initiated me into the great adventure that is being a man; fully bearing and offering the masculine facet of His heart.

And He’s opened my eyes to the glory of woman, a mystery that I can’t (nor can any other man) imitate or replicate. As I get closer to understanding the importance of my gender, the importance of hers is ever more undeniable.

I’m looking forward to traversing this strange new country. It’s about so much more than pleasure or companionship now. It’s a stepping stone to knowing the face of the Almighty.

Copyright 2008 Mike Ensley. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Mike Ensley

Mike Ensley writes from his home in Orlando.