Dear Abba Response Worksheet
May the Lord God bless you.
I received your letter and wanted to reply as quickly as possible. As a college student, I had many of the same questions. Truly, knowing what direction to take with one’s sexuality is one of the most difficult challenges facing the men and women today. This task is made doubly difficult by the existence of two very conflicting positions in our society. On one hand, our culture promotes an “anything goes” attitude where nothing is improper or harmful. On the other hand when ever we hear a “religious” view of sex and sexuality it comes from a non-Orthodox religious mainstream that promotes shame, guilt, and hypocrisy. Our voice as Orthodox Christians is too easily drowned out by the ever-present media which daily surrounds us with confusing, misleading, and unhealthy messages.
The good news is that God does not want us to feel ashamed of what He created us to be. We have been given our sexuality for a purpose. Many of us will feel the call to express our sexuality by marrying, while others will not and will remain single. For some people making this decision takes time. Be patient. We need to be careful not to squander our sexuality and mistreat our bodies, which have been given us as “temples of the Holy Spirit.”
We all have sexual feelings that come to us. There is no shame in this, in and of itself, since these feelings help us find our future spouses. We also, however, are confronted with temptations and need to resist them out of our love for God, Who knows and only wants what is best for us. These feelings only become sinful when we turn away from God’s will and seek to satisfy our own desires.
One of the greatest temptations facing young people today as well as in the time of the apostle Paul is pre-marital sex, or fornication. We are led to believe that this is a natural part of dating and getting to know someone, and that we have to know someone sexually before we can say we are truly close to them. Nothing could be further from the truth. By rushing into sex, we trample over intimacy and the possibility of making a loving connection with a person. We may think that we are becoming closer to a person, when all we are doing is clouding our relationship. A relationship takes commitment, effort, sacrifice, and understanding. What we think helps a relationship grow is actually stunting growth.
The pleasure of sex and the release of tensions that go with it are a false form of intimacy. We should know well enough that if we drink alcohol or take drugs in order to feel liked or loved by our peers that this is a false foundation for friendship. We should also be able to recognize that sex can be abused like drugs and alcohol as a replacement for real love and real intimacy. Did you know that there are people, many of whom come to the Church for guidance and healing, who are actually addicted to the physical pleasures of sex? They do not think they are addicts, but they have lost control of their lives and seek sex as a substitute for love. Their failure to see the proper place of sex in their lives contributes greatly to damaging their personal relationships and marriages.
Church does not approach sex as a sin. Rather, it is the abuse of sex that
is the sin. When we hear of “works of the flesh,” these include not only fornication
and adultery, but such sins as hatred, jealousy, selfish ambitions, drunkenness,
and sins which are related as much to our hearts as to our bodies. Turning
away from sexual sin means turning away from selfish indulgence and turning
to sobriety, humility, and faith. From the “flesh” we turn to the “spirit”,
whose fruits are love, gentleness, kindness, self-control, joy, and peace
These spiritual fruits appear in marriage. A married couple has made the commitment before God to live for these principles in a way which is serious and sincere, as the two have become one flesh and now live for each other and not for themselves. Thus, in marriage our sexuality can be fully expressed in a sacred manner, without selfishness, envy, and “drunkenness.” If we are not called to marriage, our sexuality can still be fulfilled without falling into sin, by giving it to God as a sweet-smelling sacrifice, especially in a life devoted to prayer. If we truly want to treat our sexuality as something sacred, and not something cheap or worthless, we should see and cherish sex as a gift from God that we should use to glorify Him.
Those who slip and fall before the face of the many temptations are not lost, however. If they turn away from their sin, and turn to God, they will receive not only forgiveness, but true sexual fulfillment. No person has ever been free from temptation, and we need to support each other, not judge each other. It is equally important that we keep ourselves out of the way of possible temptations, guarding our senses and our hearts from seductive thoughts. This is my concern about you and your boyfriend sleeping together on the couch. Instead of asking, “How far can I go without sinning?” ask, “How far should I go? What kind of person am I becoming through the choices I am making?” Temptation, when entertained and consented to, takes what is good and natural, our desire for love, and twists it into a deformity of lust and empty longing.
This brings us to your last question on masturbation. I would suggest to you not to phrase your question as “Is masturbation a sin?” but in terms of “What is sinful about masturbation?” If you follow the analogy of sexual pleasure as a drug, you can see that masturbation is like a “gateway” drug. The great danger in masturbation is that it seems harmless. But what happens when we become accustomed to constant sexual pleasure? We can become used to the sensations until we feel that we need them. They become compulsions and we become addicts. It then becomes easier to say yes to a host of new temptations. We become servants to lust, and our imagination becomes locked in impure thoughts. What happens next? The soul, enslaved to the pursuit of fleeting moments of pleasure, becomes unable to relate to people as anything but potential objects of fantasy. We begin to hurt not only ourselves but also our neighbor as we fail to show them true love. Sexual indulgence spiritually dulls the soul which eventually becomes unable to relate to God and others. We become lost and alone.
It is not overstating the matter to say that masturbation can easily become an addiction. If a young person in puberty feels the longing to explore their body, this is as much a sin as a child who smells fresh baked cookies for the first time, and hungers for them. We do not condemn this in children. But when the child later becomes a glutton, and cannot bear not to eat the cookies, and will go to any length to get into the cookie jar, then you can see the problem.
We must not let the shame of our sins make us despair of God’s love, driving us deeper into our addiction which promises a superficial and temporary relief of our pains. We must give whatever shame and sin we have to God through Confession, so that we might be restored to innocence, on a daily basis. Therefore, going to Confession should not be seen as a punishment, but as an opportunity to grow closer to God and others.
Do everything you can to refrain from pre-marital sex. God loves you and has a plan for you, and if you seek to follow His will, you will be more fulfilled than you can possibly imagine. I think you know that God cares about you and wants to be a part of your life. There is a simple way to let God’s plan for your relationships be revealed. Allow your relationships to develop over time based on lasting, genuine intimacy and not the fleeting pleasures of casual sex. Let your heart be sober, gentle, and humble, so that you never feel the spiritual loss of sin.
Please, continue to seek counsel from the Church. I recommend that you also seek a spiritual father closer to where you live and to whom you may speak with in person. Now that you are away from your home parish it is important that you develop an individual relationship with a pastor of the Church who can help guide you through your transition into an independent young adult.
We need guidance through this stormy life, just as a ship needs a navigator in stormy seas. And most of all, I pray to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ that He will shine the light of His countenance upon you and your friends to guide you in the right path, keeping you safe from every snare of the enemy, and bringing you to the Kingdom of Heaven.