[Editor’s Note: God made us relational beings, to live interconnected lives. But we don’t always do that well. We want to explore how our faith shapes the way we love the people God gives us. Join us as we consider what Jesus has to say about #relationships.]
When I was in high school, I loved reading Christian romance novels. I really wanted to have a romantic relationship of my own, and so I loved reading these stories. “Watching” two people fall in love, reading the details of how they fell in love, made me hopeful and excited that one day that would happen for me.
Yet these books were also causing me harm. It seemed innocent enough, but investing so much of my emotional and mental energy in these stories worked to create unrealistic and unhealthy expectations for how romantic relationships develop. While bringing comfort and an escape from the loneliness of being single, they never truly satisfied my longing for my own in-real-life relationship.
But there’s an even bigger problem.These books also acted as a gateway to more intense, even erotic, romance fiction. Reading these erotic novels then helped develop and feed fantasies and addictive sexual habits.
We talk about how easy it is to access pornography, but we fail to talk about how easy it is to access the written like. Explicit erotic fiction is the easiest type of pornography to access because it’s allowed. You can find it for free from your library. It feels “less bad” as there’s no fear of human trafficking. It’s not real people you’re watching on a screen, but fictitious characters being described.
It may be just words on a page, but it’s the same type of emotional experience as watching porn. Its effect is gripping, addictive, and never fully satisfying. Indulging in this type of material was something I’ve struggled with sporadically over the years.
If we’re not harming anyone else, why does it matter what we consume? It matters for a couple of reasons. Whatever we consume––whether reading romance novels (cheesy or erotic), viewing sexually explicit TV shows, or watching hardcore porn––affects ourselves, other people in our lives, and our relationship with God.
In Philippians 4:8, Paul writes to the church in Philippi, telling them:
“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
Think about. Ponder. Dwell on. Fill your mind with thoughts that are true, noble, right, pure. Whatever we take in mentally and emotionally comes out in our lives and relationships, one way or another. While reading romance books isn’t wrong in itself, these books made it easy for me to obsess about relationships, sex, and marriage. This ended up consuming a lot of my time, what I would dwell on constantly––even when I met new guy friends. The issue wasn’t in necessarily what I was reading, but what was happening in my heart.
Jesus taught in Matthew 5:27-28 that sin is not just limited to our outward actions, but starts with our thoughts and heart:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
This is a strong statement. It’s not just our outward actions that matter to him, but also our thoughts. We need to be watchful of what we are dwelling on mentally, and actively seek to fill our minds with content that helps us grow towards loving God and others more, and being transformed to become more like Jesus Christ. Thus, what we consume matters.
The impact of reading romance novels and being exposed to sexual content formed and shaped me. Were these books leading me to mental, emotional, and spiritual health? Was reading them helping my life become more like Jesus’ or was I falling into sin and unhealthy patterns? For me it was the latter.
In any area of life, we are either moving towards health or unhealth. This idea applies to our sexuality too. Are the choices we’re making bringing us to a healthy place or unhealthy place when it comes to how we view relationships, sex, and marriage? If all I’m doing is reading romance novels that place unrealistic expectations on what relationships look like between men and women, then I’ll have a hard time establishing healthy expectations on my male friends, or recognize when a decent guy worth considering comes into my life––simply because I’m expecting a fictitious Prince Charming.
I love what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:23:
“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive.”
Just because we technically can do something, doesn’t mean we should. Maybe it’s not romance novels for you, but maybe there’s something else that really isn’t beneficial, even though technically it’s not wrong. What steps do we need to be taking now so that we can honour our sexuality and God through our choices?
Some questions I’m considering are:
- How can we continually be growing in a healthy way in all areas of our lives?
- How do we desire something but not dwell on it so much that it becomes an idol?
- What does it look like to wait on God?
To wait on God and believe that his ways are best, even when it feels like we’re missing out, is hard. Especially when not just the world but the church makes relationships out to be the be all, end all. Even if that’s not what’s preached, think about the activities offered at your church. What comes to mind? Children’s midweek program? Youth? In essence: family activities. What does your church offer for singles? Are there Bible studies that aren’t just for young families but who welcome people of all life stages?
When I think about the idea of desiring something but not dwelling on it, a Psalm comes to mind actually. Psalm 27. If you can, take a couple of minutes now to pause and go read it, then come back. I’d love to share a few highlights that stand out to me.
The psalmist starts out describing the Lord as his light, his salvation, and the stronghold of his life, and then, in verse 4, he says:
I have asked one thing from the Lord;
it is what I desire:
to dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
gazing on the beauty of the Lord
and seeking him in his temple.
All he wants to do is dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of his life. Anyone else starting to sweat? Deep down I want this to be me, but in reality, the here-and-now world can be so much more appealing. Most days I’d rather dwell in a home with a husband and children. Especially as friends “move forward” in life but I stay in what is described as the same life stage.
I wish I knew how to change or adapt my desires, but honestly, the thing I’ve been doing recently is simply praying into this. Praying that God would give me a heart that desires him first. Praying that he would really be the relationship I crave the most. That I would have a heart that desires to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life. Slowly, I believe my heart is changing.
Next, the psalmist moves into talking about when, not if, hard days come, in verse 3:
Though an army deploys against me,
my heart will not be afraid;
though a war breaks out against me,
I will still be confident.
The psalmist knows that hard days will come, but he also knows that God will show up for him.
For instance, when the well-meaning lady at church asks how it’s possible you’re still single, God will show up for you. He will remind you that your relationship status isn’t a label that matters in his kingdom.
When you see what feels to be the umpteenth engagement or wedding photo on your social media feed and feel defeated, God will show up for you. He will bring you comfort, reminding you that you are not unloved or forgotten.
What I love most about this psalm, though, is that, while we’ve seen the psalmist’s heart declaring the truth about God, we also see him respond like any human would in verse 9:
Do not hide your face from me;
do not turn your servant away in anger.
You have been my helper;
do not leave me or abandon me,
God of my salvation.
The psalmist knows God is who he says he is, but he also, in a respectful, honouring way, is like, “Hey God, remember me? Please listen to my prayers, turn your face towards me. I know you are supposed to be what satisfies me, but I also have some human desires too. Would you provide for me?” This reminds me that we can show God the respect he deserves while also honestly saying how we’re feeling and what we hope and desire to happen in our lifetime.
Finally, the psalmist ends with a courageous declaration again in verse 14:
Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart be courageous.
Wait for the Lord.
What an ending. After talking about God’s goodness and protection and taking the time to share honestly with God, the psalmist ends with this truth: that he knows he will see the Lord’s goodness here on earth. The nice part for us, though, is that it doesn’t say how, and that’s nice because it gives us the space to openly talk to God about our desires while also creating space to know that he may not answer the way we want or in the timing we want. What we do know though is this: but we will still see his goodness.
Here are some steps that helped me place boundaries on my consumption of romantic and sexual content so that I could pursue a godly expression of sexuality, even in my singleness:
- Spend time in prayer. Repent and confess where you have been struggling to make choices that honour God. Accept the forgiveness and grace God offers you, thanks to Jesus. Pray and ask God that his Spirit would guide you and help you to know what next steps to take, what changes you need to make in your life to avoid temptation. Maybe this means limiting what books you read, TV shows you watch, or what music you listen to. Maybe this means putting a blocker on your computer.
Pray that the Holy Spirit would give you the strength you need as you fight against temptation and pursue purity.
- Talk to someone you trust. I remember that, as I started the process of fighting my addiction to sexual sin and pursuing healing, one of the key steps was talking to a trusted friend.
It was scary. I remember being at the P2C PLUS conference and knowing that God was putting it on my heart to confess to one of my friends about what I was struggling with. We were in our hotel room, and finally I blurted out, A*, I need to tell you something, and I told her. You know what I received instead of the condemnation that I was anticipating—grace and forgiveness, and a safe place for us to confess to each other where we were struggling and how we wanted to pursue purity.
I know these are not easy conversations to initiate, but whether it’s with a trusted family member, a mentor or a friend—being bold and courageous and discussing where you’re struggling can bring accountability and the chance to pursue purity. It allows light into the darkness.
Can I also just say that you may need to ask for help more than once? I’ve found that, over the last few months, I’ve fallen prey to new lies I wasn’t prepared for, in addition to COVID making it easier for old habits to come up and bring comfort. I realized that I was spiraling into addictive habits again, and so I reached out and asked my friend for help once more even though she’s now married and in a different life stage than me. You know, of course, what she said when I asked if she would help hold me accountable and check in with me.
- Resources to look into. For the women reading this, there are a couple of women I would suggest you follow: Phylicia Maisonheimer and Joy Pedrow are both Christian women who have discussed pornography and sexual sin as it pertains to women. Strength To Fight is a great Canadian organization that can help too, with lots of resources available. I would also recommend reading, Pulling Back The Shades, by Dannah Gresh and Dr. Juli Slattery. Although it’s a book talking more about erotica, I found it very insightful and helpful when preparing to write this. It’s a short read and, bonus, I was able to get a copy from the library.
- Know you’re not alone. Often when I’ve talked with my friends about sexual sin, there’s been a sense of “me too.” We just don’t know that because there’s this shame surrounding sexual sin as Christians, dare I say, especially as women. Know though that you’re not alone, that others have walked this road and are figuring out how to honour their sexuality so that it also honours God. We need to be brave though, and have these types of conversations so that we can redeem how we view sex and relationships.
My hope for you as you come to the end of this piece is twofold: I hope as you’ve read this that you’ve been reminded that, while what we struggle with may be different, what we should all be focusing on stays the same.
And now specifically for the woman who struggles with sexual sin: I also want you to know that you are not alone, that it’s not weird to struggle in that way. We are holistic beings, with a sexuality, just like men, and therefore it too can be marred by sin. But, just like with any sin, by any person, we also have hope that God forgives us and can help us as we strive to become more like Jesus.