Discover more from Digital Liturgies
Letters to a Deconstructing Christian: You Are Not Your Impulses
Other entries in this series:
I hope my radio silence for the last several months will be forgiven somewhat when I tell you that I have, in fact, managed to read your book. As I expected, it is skillfully written and frequently compelling. You do a fine job telling your story and I have no doubt that many, many readers will see themselves in your tale (the Amazon reviews have already confirmed this).
I found several passages powerful, even convicting. Toward the end of the book, however, I noticed something that I just haven’t been able to stop thinking about. You write with undeniable joy and relief about leaving the Christianity of your youth, but in the (relatively sparse) sections where you detail what you believe today, the note of authenticity that you strike so well and so often in the first parts of the book disappears. In fact, it seems to me that in some passages, you are trying to convince yourself to be happy about all this.
For example, you talk about your new routine of Sunday morning therapy this way:
It was the first week that I sat in Dr. Chandra’s office instead of my normal church pew that I realized that everything I’d been looking for from a pastor was only ever going to come from a therapist. Gone was the agony of wondering how I could ever be emotionally satisfied by a God who threatened me with hell. Gone was the self-loathing of beind reminded, constantly, of every little regret or mistake. Instead, I learned to see myself, not the way a religion wants to see me, but the way I want to see me. In decades of going to church, I believed I needed to hate myself to love God. But I see now that I only succeeded in hating God. I’m learning to love myself again.
Brother, let me tell you: if there’s one thing that our years of friendship has convinced me of beyond any doubt, it’s that you are a much better writer than this! For the most revolutionary transformation in your life to climax with a cliche that would make Hallmark wince is, in the literal sense of the word, incredible. I just don’t believe it. Or, to be more precise, I don’t believe that you believe it.
This section comes after what I consider to be an exceptional piece of narrative writing, where you talk about realizing that you could no longer live with the constant shame of “sex-negativity.” Cringe neologisms aside, your point is clear: you wanted to have sex, early and often, and this desire’s violent collision with your religious upbringing wrecked you psychologically. But there’s something missing in your tale. You mention briefly toward the conclusion that you are now free of a life of shame, but you don’t actually tell the reader how ridding yourself of it made you a better person. You say that you are learning to love yourself again, but you don’t really say you are more lovable.
This seems significant to me. It’s almost as if the crisis in your life that brought you to a loss of faith was the guilt you felt from your sexual habits, and on the other side of that loss, you now no longer feel that guilt. But—and I hope you’ll forgive very direct speaking here—how many girlfriends ago was that loss of guilt? How many pornographic actresses have danced on your screen since you relieved yourself of that tension? How many people feel more genuinely cared for by you? You mention that you are learning to love yourself. Have you learned to love anyone else?
Your story of discovering therapy made a deep impression on me because it seemed its purpose (at least the way you write it) was solely to erase the dissonance between you and your impulses. You seem confident that Christianity’s teachings were the problem because they made you feel guilty for breaking them. But this seems to make a radical assumption: that your sex drive is you, and that satisfying this sex drive at all times is necessary for being a whole person. When you say that you are learning to love yourself, you don’t mean the “you” who attended those accountability meetings, the “you” who prayed for other guys to be helped in their daily battles, or the “you” that called me at 11PM to ask for prayer. You mean the “you” who walked away from all that. But which one is the real you?
I think this is a very important question for you to answer, because the implications for the people who will come into your life are massive. Assume for a moment that you meet the most perfect girl in the world and you marry her. You will find, as I did and every groom does, that marriage is not a hall pass for sex. Even the most mind-blowing honeymoon will, eventually, give way to a life where, in all likelihood, your wife will simply not always match your desires. She may even go through a prolonged season of this. What are you going to do? If you choose to satisfy the urges at all costs, you will very likely cheat on her in some way (with a person or a performer). If you choose to try to control these urges, to manage them in such a way that they don’t dominate your life, you will be admitting something explosive: You will be admitting that there is, in fact, something more important than sex, and by extension, something more important than fulfilling your desires.
From the sound of it, your therapist doesn’t talk like this. Instead, Dr. Chandra seems to primarily want you to admit all the urges you have, identify yourself with those urges, and then choose to be OK with being a person who has, and will seek to satisfy, all these urges. This is what many people refer to as “mental health.” But you’ll notice that this therapy is only remotely plausible if you are the only person in your life who needs/deserves mental health. If you identify yourself synonymously with your desire to have sex with as many people as possible, you will 100% set yourself up to hurt a lot of people. Some will be partners who expected more after the first hookup; others will be those who know and love you and are devastated by your choices. Do those people not deserve to have their desires satisfied? Are they less of a self than you are?
My point is not to attack you. My point is to make you consider an alternative theory. Perhaps you are not your impulses. Perhaps your sexual desires are not integral to your personhood anymore than an eating disorder is integral to someone else’s personhood. Perhaps for your entire your life you have believed that sexual desires defined you, and for the Christian part of your life, your identity was wrapped up in trying, often fruitlessly, to resist them. Now, for the non-Christian part of your life, your desires still define you, but your identity is wrapped up in making peace and room for them. Maybe the problem is that these desires were never your identity at all. Maybe you and I are made of something more, for something more.
If you think this is at all possible, would you do me a favor? Read Psalm 107. Look carefully at how the Bible talks about how God relationship to those who are under his discipline:
Some sat in darkness, in utter darkness,
prisoners suffering in iron chains,
because they rebelled against God’s commands
and despised the plans of the Most High.
So he subjected them to bitter labor;
they stumbled, and there was no one to help.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress.
He brought them out of darkness, the utter darkness,
and broke away their chains.
Was this the God you learned to hate—the God who saves those who cry to him? The God who breaks chains and brings light? The God who answers even those who sit in the prisons he has put them in?
I mention all of this because I truly think there is a part of you that feels the emptiness of where you are right now. You seem to this reader to be on emotional substistence: managing just enough self-care to get through the day. I can remember much better days for you. And I believe those days may not yet be over.
Digital Liturgies is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.