We received an interesting question in our Mailbag during our honeymoon about sex, marriage, and the Holy Spirit’s ability to dissolve shame. I answered the question privately, but the e-mail has stuck with me these past few weeks, in part because religion, sex, and shame create such a messy tangle of angst for so many Christians, not just gay ones.
The question came from a straight married Christian man who has felt called to investigate the Side A perspective of homosexuality, and to reason it through with the use of the Spirit and scripture. His question was long, so I’m going to paraphrase it: He recalls the guilt he felt for sexual activities before marriage—namely fantasies and masturbation—and how, after marriage, the Spirit lifted all negative feelings around sex. He had expected to work through a period of “reconditioning” to release himself from his feelings of guilt around sex, but instead discovered that he felt immediately free.
“It was a tangible confirmation that the Holy Spirit was real in my life,” he wrote, “convicting me when my sexual experiences were outside of His will and encouraging me when they were expressed within the sanctity of marriage.”
His question for Constantino and me was this: Have we experienced that same freedom, and that same release of shame, after our marriage?
The question is thoughtful because it addresses a crucial point to which no scholar can speak. In fact, no one but a gay married Christian couple can truly address it. Does the Spirit free us from sexual shame once we’ve entered into a covenant of marriage? If so, it would provide compelling personal testimony about God’s blessing over gay marriage.
My answer to him: Yes and no. But I’ll get to that in a minute. The question is problematic in a couple of ways that are critical to first address.
For starters, the comparison between the guilt he describes and the shame many gay people feel is too dissimilar to reasonably compare. For the purposes of this post, I define guilt as a feeling resulting from an action: It’s a sense of having done something wrong and feeling remorse for it. A straight man entering into marriage may have a feeling of guilt for past sexual transgressions. I define shame as an identity-based posture: a sense of not doing something wrong, but rather being something wrong. All of us feel guilt at some point in our lives for our actions; a disproportionate amount of gay people (but many straight people too!) struggle with shame about who they are. It’s a whole different ballgame.
Many LGBT Christians grow up with the message that they are fundamentally broken, that all gay sex is bad, and that same-sex marriage isn't a valid union. The message, repeated over and over, is that they are irrecoverably flawed, perverse people. That's some cruel and damaging stuff. So the feeling goes deeper than regret over, say, looking at porn and masturbating. The shame taps into the very core of our being.
Second, the question suggests that the Holy Spirit wipes away all sexual shame in the midst of the holy covenant of marriage. That may have been the experience for the man who wrote in, but that is not the case for all straight Christian couples; I would be so bold as to assert that it’s the exception to the rule. Shame within sex is an ongoing struggle for many heterosexual people, even after marriage. I hear women talk about it far more often, perhaps because they have better emotional intelligence, but most likely because society has done a better job of shaming them. I like the way writer Lily Dunn expressed it in this article:
“No amount of intellectual knowledge could take those deeply ingrained feelings towards our sexuality and magically change them the moment we slipped on those rings, or later when we slipped off our wedding clothes,” Dunn said. “It isn’t really strange that this transition didn’t happen instantaneously, what was stranger was that we expected it to.”
Her account is not unusual. Rather, it seems typical. Other people write about it here and here and here and here. Shame, I believe, is the work of the Devil. It destroys relationship and it cripples people from the inside out so that they become a shadow of the person God would have them be. But however destructive shame may be, I don’t see evidence of the Holy Spirit wiping away sexual shame the moment a marriage takes place.
But let’s get vulnerable. What about me?
I have a long and intimate relationship with shame, so I’d consider myself a good case study. From Day One, my relationship with Constantino has been a plunge into the deep-end study of shame: what prompts it, where it comes from, what it’s truly about. The more I’ve listened to Spirit and unwound the tapes I’ve had playing in my head for decades, the less power shame has had over me. But that change has happened over years, not over one afternoon after we exchanged vows. When I feel most aligned with Spirit, and most in tune with Constantino, there is no space for shame. I feel free to express myself with him using the full spectrum of matrimonial communication (which is a really fancy way of saying I don’t typically feel shame when we’re intimate). At the same time, the Holy Spirit hasn’t waved a magic wand over me and wiped away all feelings of shame. When I’m in a bad place, or living too much in my head, it’s easy for shame to sneak in and put a wedge in-between us.
I think a better question might be: Now that we’re married, do I feel convicted by the Holy Spirit? The answer to that is easy: no. I try to be honest with Spirit so I can be a more correctable Christian, so I do still question my own motivations: Am I twisting theology for my own selfish purposes? Am I fooling myself, or other people? Am I refusing to see truth that others claim to see? No, no, and no. None of those questions rings true to me. In fact, more and more I feel the Spirit’s peace over us. When I’ve opened my heart and asked God to show me the path He would have for me, it’s Constantino’s face I’ve seen.
For many Christians, that will never be sufficient evidence. I won’t try to convince them. But underneath the shouts of law and dogma, I recognize the Spirit’s soft, subtle voice. If It proclaims goodness, then I will embrace that truth, and live it, and forever let it flow through my being.