Source: Finding the Freedom to Live. Reprinted with permission
By Andrew Williams
Today I’d like to offer a reflection on the experience of some people who have struggled with sexual sin and the effects of sexual sin. Hopefully some of these reflections will be useful both for those who suffer the ongoing effects of sexual sin willingly entered into, and also some of the effects of sexual abuse.
But it’s important to say that these reflections are based on certain people’s experiences, and are not an assertion of some universal rule, as people do experience the effects of different passions1 in different ways, and these experiences play out differently in each of our lives.
So, if I have experienced, for example, the passion of anger inside and have expressed it, usually I can feel a healthy kind of shame in having betrayed my vocation of living a Christlike life, I can turn to God in repentance, I will confess, be forgiven, receive forgiveness, and try again.
But sometimes I may feel that if I have experienced some sexual temptation and expressed it, somehow the shame I feel is not healthy; it is toxic — that is, it can overwhelm my ability to deal with it, to find healing. It can overwhelm me as a person, and rather than feel that I have betrayed my vocation to live in a Christlike way and repent, it somehow seems as though my vocation is completely destroyed; as though the possibility of ever being able to turn back to Christ is destroyed. And even if I have not acted out, even just the ongoing desires or fears — just the temptations alone can give me this impression. And even if what happened to me was not my fault, for example if I was a victim of sexual abuse, even then I can feel that same toxic shame that seems to close off the avenue back to God.
Now in any sin, there is an element of union with the demonic. My mind spots the little thought, the temptation, hovering around, and rather than saying “Get thee behind me Satan” (Mt. 16:23), I am entertained or entranced by the thought and I let it land in my mind. By entertaining it there, I give it a home in me, and it follows that it becomes at home in my mind, and also in my body through my actions.
But with many sins, afterwards I am still able to see it as separate from me. As something essentially foreign to my nature as a person created in the image of God. I can disown it, let it go, hope that next time I will learn the strength not to be attracted from the first moment.
However often with sexual sins, that seems not to be as much the case. Sexuality, as I’ve described before, is an icon of union and communion. And on some level we feel this deeply; we experience an inappropriate physical experience of sexuality as a union outside God, or apart from God; a union which is a direct challenge to our union and communion with God. And it is a union which has been enacted not only in my soul but also in my body: as a whole person I have turned away from God or been turned away from God because of this union which is in some way apart from his love.
So in opposition to the true nature of sexuality, it is a lonely experience, this sexual sin, or the effects of inappropriate sexual experience or sexual abuse; this experience of sexuality which is outside the natural God-given expression of sexuality as an icon of union and communion in him… Because this sexual experience unites us with someone or something apart from God, and seems to cut us off from God, then it leaves us to some degree alone. It seems we have no one to turn to. We cannot even turn to God; either our desires or our experience or both seem to have made even this impossible.
So we turn to other ways of coping. We may try to cover up this loss in many ways. We can turn to alcohol, or drugs; we can throw ourselves further into acting out sexually; we can throw ourselves into work or achievement; we can lose ourselves in depression and inertia… in all these things, as we experience being essentially cut off from God, from creation, from others, we seek the solution somehow in ourselves. But the solution, of course, is not there… at least, not so near the surface of ourselves as all that.
In all these ways of coping, we attempt to maintain power and control over our lives in the face of the underlying knowledge that we have lost it.
We need to go deeper inside ourselves, through the nous3 to find the image of God and the essential union with God which gives and sustains our life. The only way out of this destructive pattern of life is to find a way to turn to God; a way to get back on the path of a life of repentance.
I often refer to St Theophan’s spiritual weapons from Unseen Warfare (and I explore these in more detail in the FtFtL “pathways out of addiction”). The first spiritual weapon is “Never rely on yourself in anything” and in attempting to control our own lives and deal with our difficulties and struggles in ourselves, this is precisely what we are doing. Even though some of us may have no confidence in our own abilities, and may even try to give our lives away to others to control, nevertheless, if we look deep inside, we will probably find that even this is an attempt to control our own destiny, to work out our struggles under our own strength, to avoid the essential unknowing of life: to give ourselves over to fear rather than to love.
So “never rely on yourself in anything”. You may notice that this has a certain similarity to the first step of twelve-step programs: “We admitted we were powerless over our addiction — that our lives had become unmanageable”.
So the first step in turning back to God — the first step of healing — is this admission: we are powerless under our own steam. It’s a simple admission of reality: we cannot give ourselves life. We were created by God and our every breath can only be drawn if God provides the life to do it. So this admission of powerlessness is a return to reality. It’s an admission that in my reaction to my sexual desires or my sexual experiences or abuse, I have been keeping something back for myself — perhaps too ashamed to bring it out — but even this is me, trying to maintain power over my own life…
So the first step is to identify with the prodigal son (Lk. 15:11-32), sitting amongst the pigs, seeing that, under his own direction apart from God, this is where his life has led him: wishing to eat the food of the pigs for sustenance because he has nothing else. This is me, looking at the dregs of life, desiring even the most unpleasant things to fill me, because I seem to be so empty that anything that can fill me may seem worth a try.
So I have to admit that I am powerless, that I have been powerless for a long time. Admitting this is the prerequisite for a wholehearted turn to God, the source of life, and the source of recovery from the effects of sexual sin in my life. It is a vitally important step: the deep acceptance of my vulnerability and my need for real communion and active help. Admitting I am out of control. My attempts to direct my life, my attempts to follow my own desires or my own fears, these gave the illusion of control — so this first step is an admission that it was only an illusion.
It is a surrender to Reality. No longer am I trying to fight off reality with my desires or fears. And the ground of all reality is God. My habits of life, my patterns of life… these were a way of avoiding coming before God — coming before ultimate Reality. And in my admission of powerlessness, I admit that I have been refusing to deal with reality; and it’s time to start.
And he who loses his life for Christ’s sake gains it (Mt. 16:25). We have received life as a gift from God, and we must return it to him. It is his and it is also ours — but it is most ours when we return it to Christ to find out who we really are and what this beautiful gift will bring.
Our life is a beautiful gift from God. Sometimes it is hard to see it that way. Sometimes it seems more like a curse. Sometimes we don’t want even to hold on to it, and it seems like giving it away is the best option. But let’s not just throw it away, let’s give it up back to the one who gave it to us. This is the beginning of our participation in the life of Christ: our voluntary ascending to the cross, giving up our own life…
The admission that I cannot rely on myself, the admission of powerlessness; this leads to the surrender of my life to Christ. We can trust Christ: however much others have failed us when we have trusted them, Christ is perfectly trustworthy and will never leave us or abandon us; equally, he will never force us, never make us turn to him: he will love us in perfect freedom and totally respecting of our freedom. So we need to surrender to him: there is no other way.
Even the surrender of the ugly in me is too hard… sometimes it seems easier to surrender the most beautiful (and isn’t all addiction in the end the unwilling but inevitable preference to surrender the most beautiful over the ugliest?) But Christ loves us with an abundant, life-giving love: all that is good that we surrender to him will be returned in more abundance, and all that which is ugly will, in his love, be transformed into beauty.
Our surrender to God, our admission of powerlessness, our admission that we cannot truly rely on ourselves: this is an alignment with reality, an alignment with truth. In puts us in touch with life as it really is: it is a step into humility. This is perhaps an even more important aspect of this step than that it is an admission that we need to seek help from others. When we surrender ourselves, we begin to surrender those parts of ourselves that are the root of our struggles: our habits, our patterns of life, our memories, our relationships… everything.
In taking the step of surrender, of admitting our powerlessness, we acknowledge that our attempts to deal with our difficulties through our previous patterns of life are the attempt to save our own life which causes us to lose it. Christ offers that if we lose our life to him, for his sake; that is the way we will find true life in abundance (Mt. 16:25).
I’d be interested in hearing your response to these reflections. How far does this ring true to your personal experience? How do you experience shame, and how do you see the distinction between a healthy kind of shame and what I referred to as a toxic kind of shame in your own life? What about shame that seems to arise from things that are not actually sinful in any sense in themselves? (For example, some people have experienced shame connected to their biological sex.) What blocks have arisen in your own experience when you try to surrender your life to Christ? You can get in touch using the contact form on the Finding the Freedom to Live website: ftftl.com or leave a comment below.
- In Orthodox ascetic terminology, the "passions" are aroused when the powers of the soul (usually categorized as "intellectual" powers, "irascible" or "fighting" powers, and "concupiscent" or "desiring" powers) become inflamed, damaging our ability to find communion with God and therefore "missing the mark" — becoming the origin of sinful activity.
- The word “nous” (generally pronounced to rhyme with “house” in the UK and to rhyme with “moose” in the US) is a transliteration of the Ancient Greek word νοῦς, a very important word in the literature of the ascetic fathers. (It is not to be confused with the derivative word of the same English spelling meaning “common sense”.)
It has been variously translated into English as “mind” or “intellect”, among other things, and is sometimes described as the “eye of the heart”. The dictionary definition also describes it as “intuitive apprehension”. We prefer to use the original Greek word, feeling that any translation is misleading. The nous is the centre of our soul, or heart — the point at which we can be connected most directly to God.
The adjective formed from the word “nous” is “noetic”. “Noetic” is the English adjective formed from the Greek word νοῦς (nous) — the “eye of the heart” or the “eye of the soul”, sometimes translated as “mind” or “intuitive apprehension”.
About the Author
Andrew's interest in anthropology and the nature of personal relationships led to his work on the pastoral program "Finding the Freedom to Live in the Image of God" (FtFtL) while studying at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Boston, where he graduated as valedictorian in 2010 with an MDiv. Also a graduate of Oxford University, sometime school teacher and musician, sometime resident of Russia, the USA and France, he currently lives with his family back in England.
Visit his website Finding the Freedom to Live and listen to his podcasts on Ancient Faith Radio.