“What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” You’ve heard the slogan, tempting us to believe that there is someplace on earth where we can make mistakes but avoid the consequences. Sin just doesn’t work that way. Whether you drive across the country, fly to Australia, turn off all the lights, or push away the memories, the impact of past sin has a way of finding us. There is no arena of life where this is truer than with sexual sin.
I regularly meet women who are haunted by the shame of their sexual choices even decades later. Logically, they should have “moved on.” Spiritually, they’ve heard that they are forgiven. Yet, they can’t shake the shame.
At Boundless, many of you have written expressing the pain of feeling forever condemned for premarital sex, pornography, masturbation, having an abortion or other sexual sin:
I’m a Christian college student, and I’ve struggled with the use of pornography for much longer than I’d like to admit. I began looking ‘things’ up online because I was curious in my early teens, but couldn’t and wouldn’t verbalize my questions to my parents because of the shame I felt. I was ashamed for not knowing in the first place and for even wanting to know! I know that God is loving and forgiving, but how can I serve Him when I am marked by such a horrible sin struggle? —Amy
I so want to be married and have a husband to love me and have someone that I can love back. This is such a huge desire of my heart, but I struggle with the thoughts of I’m not good enough for that because of the mistakes I’ve made. Deep in my heart I think I’m being punished by God not allowing me to have a husband and being married. —Brittney
These statements represent what many Christians live with: unshakable shame related to sexual choices.
Shackled by Shame
Shame is a concept that we intuitively know exists but have trouble defining. Is it a feeling? A way of thinking? A state of being? We typically feel guilty about what we have done, but we feel shameful about who we are. Amy and Brittney have drawn conclusions about who they are because of what they have done sexually. Think of it this way: We see shame as the punishment we deserve for something we feel guilty about. We determine that because of our sinful choices, we are less than, deserve to have less than, and are beyond redemption. How has this played out in your life? Go ahead; complete the sentence:
Because I ______, I am ______.
Here is what my friend Allison wrote about the shame from her past that plagued her marriage:
My feelings of guilt and negativity were so powerful. They encompassed much of my private thought life, and Satan had me nearly believing that I was one of the few Christian women who hadn’t saved herself for marriage. This belief seemed to take on a life of its own. If I couldn’t give my husband my purity, then everything else I did, no matter how much I loved him, was inadequate. I became so fixated on that lie that I began to wonder whether I could ever be the wife my husband deserved.
Are Sexual Sins Unforgivable?
Most women don’t battle that kind of shame over a lie they told 10 years ago or for gossiping about a friend. So why do sexual choices seem to create such lasting shame?
First Corinthians 6 seems to suggest that sexual sin is in a “different category” than other sin.
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.
“Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:15-20, ESV).
Some of what Paul is teaching in this passage is hard to understand. He is describing a strong connection between our sexuality and our spirituality. The point is that sexual choices have spiritual consequences. Recent science evidence supports the holistic impact of our sexuality. There is no such thing as “no strings attached” when it comes to sex. It bonds people together emotionally and spiritually. The images and memories of past sexual experiences can seem seared into your brain.
Because sexual sins are “different” from other sin, we often jump to the unspoken conclusion that they must be unforgivable. Allison expressed it this way:
For years, Satan convinced me that sexual sin is somehow different from other sins — that choices like mine can’t be redeemed. I struggled to accept that God’s grace extended to my reality. After all, I hadn’t been abused. I hadn’t been forced to compromise my body. I chose it — and I chose it despite all of the good teaching of my parents and faith. I knew better.
While sexual sins are dangerous and bring a host of potential consequences, they are not beyond God’s forgiveness. In fact, the gospels record Jesus often forgiving sexual sins. Many of the women who came to Jesus were in bondage to sexual shame. He not only forgave them, He set them free.
How Do You Find a Forgiven Reality?
Like many other Christians, you may believe that Jesus forgives your sin enough to allow you into heaven, but you must bear the weight of them here on earth. The Father’s love is great enough to save you from hell, but not to save you from shame. So you limp along, concluding that you have to settle for God’s “plan B” for your life. When the guy you like doesn’t call you, you conclude that this is God’s way of giving you what you deserve. Or you relegate yourself to a passionless marriage. After all, why would God want you to experience great sex when you are so tainted?
I’ve got news for you — good news. “It is for freedom that Christ died!” Freedom from shame, freedom from a “plan B” existence, and freedom from your self-condemnation. Like Allison, the truth of God’s promises can set you free from the cloud of shame that has become your reality:
God challenged me to find in Scripture even one example of His limiting the gift of forgiveness. I looked and looked, but never found one. Instead, I re-discovered the blessing of boundless grace. God reminded me that His mercies are new every morning, and that reality forced me to believe that God hasn’t segmented my sins.
The journey to move past my shame has been long: six years into my marriage. I’m still walking the road toward freedom. I have seen the greatest progress during those times when I intentionally focus on who I am as a daughter of the Most High King. In His eyes, I am blameless, free and forgiven. I am beautiful and worthy. His promises and His Word remind me of this truth. They also teach me that God can redeem my broken choices and transform my marriage into one which reflects His love.
God’s gift of forgiveness is free, but will cost you something to grab hold of it. The cleansing blood of Jesus is available, but that doesn’t mean that it automatically covers you. While Jesus paid a great price for your freedom, walking in it requires something from you:
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8-10).
Our sins are forgiven and cleansed when we acknowledge them. While you may walk in a constant stupor of shame, that doesn’t mean that you have spoken to God about them. This is what king David experienced:
For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin” (Psalm 32:3-5).
Feeling guilty or shameful does nothing to bring freedom or to earn God’s favor. God responds to an honest, broken and contrite heart. Have you ever specifically confessed your sin to the Lord, asking for forgiveness? If not, put a stake in the ground right now. Get on you knees before the Lord and pour out your heart with confession. Ask for His forgiveness and thank Him for the precious gift of grace that frees us from hell, but also from shame.
While you cannot find a place on earth to hide from the consequences of sin, there is a reality in which your shame can be erased. Because what happened on the cross didn’t stay on the cross, our Father God has promised, “Your sins will be remembered no more.”
Copyright 2014 Juli Slattery. All rights reserved.