Sexual Sin: “Does God Still Love Me?” or “Is Grace Really Enough?”

I knew a young girl who regularly attended youth events and was actively engaged in the church. Her faith was real and vibrant. As she matured physically, she began to enjoy the added attention of the males around her. As a new relationship with a guy began to flourish, she slowly attended youth functions less regularly, though she continued to attend corporate worship. A while later, she stopped coming to church all together.  

After her boyfriend broke up with her, I learned that she had become sexually active with her ex-boyfriend. With much guilt she asked, “Does God still love me?” She was struggling to believe that God could still love her like she’d felt God did before. Additionally, because she’d had sex outside of marriage, she had lost hope for a good marriage and battles with depression, cutting, and suicidal ideation.

If you have been around youth in the church for any length of time, it’s likely that this story sounds familiar. It’s an all too common byproduct of a Christian culture that makes sexual purity the key indicator of someone’s faith.

The problem is: in the human mind, once something has become impure, it can never really feel clean again. Contamination psychology helps us to understand this. It is the reason why we don’t want to drink treated sewage water. Even if we know it is clean, it still would feel disgusting to drink it.

Back to the example at-hand. Having grown up in a church culture that employed the purity metaphor as the dominant framework for conceptualizing her sexuality, the more she thinks of herself as “impure” due to her sexual experiences, the more her self-disgust increases. As she increasingly perceives herself as a contaminant, she instinctively begins to remove herself from the communities she conceptualizes as “pure” – first the youth group, then corporate worship.

Functionally, the more and more this young lady self-conceptualizes herself as impure, the less and less time she spends with her Christian community.

Once she became sexually active and transgressed her culture’s boundary for purity by “losing her virginity,” she felt as if she had transgressed a boundary that could not be un-crossed. This is a prime example of the feelings of permanence that accompany contamination psychology. She felt as if she had become a ‘type of dirty’ that couldn’t ever be fully washed clean. Even though a part of her rationally knew that God could forgive her and wash her “white as snow,” existentially the dirty feeling haunted her. She still felt like she was worthless, like God or anyone else in the church couldn’t ever really look at her the same way again.

Her self-loathing, cutting, and suicidal ideation can also be understood as stemming from her innate disgust response to her perceived contamination. Self-loathing is the disgust response to contamination turned inward. Cutting is a form of removing yourself from the realm reserved only for the pure in many Christian purity narratives. Suicide is the culmination of self-expulsion, literally a vomiting of yourself from existence.

Her behaviors were an unconscious appropriation of contamination psychology into her self-conceptualization as a moral, social, and religious person.

But what does the gospel of grace have to say to such a young woman? Is it true that although sexual sin can be forgiven, it can’t be fully redeemed or restored in Jesus? Does sexual sin leave a stain on our life so strong that it can’t ever be fully removed?

Of course not.

By grace, through faith, her purity stems from Christ’s righteousness. In Christ, she is no better or worse than any other Christian. More importantly, because God is a redeeming and restoring God, she has as much reason to hope as anyone for a love-filled and meaningful marriage. In fact, as she grows in her understanding of God’s gracious love for her despite her sin, she becomes increasingly prepared for married life as she becomes increasingly dependent on God for her righteousness. Indeed, the gospel is good news for those burdened with guilt and shame.

Having sex does have consequences. Sex can lead to babies. Sex also brings an intensity and intimacy to a relationship that covenant helps to constrain by God’s design. Outside of true covenant commitment between two people, having sex invites added hardship in a relationship without the safety of covenantal love, and added hurt if the relationship ends. But losing God’s gracious love is not one of the consequences for sexual sin. And there is no consequence for sexual sin that God cannot graciously redeem: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Unfortunately, we do not always operate with grace towards others in this way, particularly in regards to sexual sin. It’s worth stopping to ask yourself: has the doctrine of grace infused your thinking about human sexuality, particularly as it relates to your work with youth?

Mark Howard was a youth pastor for five years before joining Elam Ministries, an organization that seeks to strengthen and expand the church in Iran and surrounding areas. Through Elam, he's had the opportunity to work with Iranian youth as well as talk with American churches about God's work in Iran. Mark has his M.A. in Theological Studies from Wheaton College Graduate School and serves on Rooted's steering committee.

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