Simplistic thinking is always harmful and this is particularly evident when we look at how, so often, we think about our sexuality. Invariably we are either too hard or too easy on ourselves because we don’t allow for paradox, we don’t hold seemingly contradictory positions in a proper tension. Let me illustrate this with two quotes which, on the surface, appear to compete with each other but, upon closer examination, reveal that they are complementary rather than exclusive.

Recently I had a conversation with a friend of mine who, after years of alcoholism and other addictive behaviors, had found some freedom from his compulsions through a 12-step program. Commenting on this, he said: “The key for me was honesty, especially concerning my sexual life. Everything got better once I ‘came clean’ about that, once I had the courage to tell another human being, face to face, everything that’s been a skeleton in my closet. Until I came clean on that, I wasn’t going anywhere because I was still hiding something important and everything else was a bit of a lie. Until you can, face to face, confess your sexual sins you will always have a sickness in your soul!”

On the surface at least, this comment stands in some contrast to another man’s remarks which I heard a short time later. This latter person, also a friend of mine, is, at this time of his life, working through some bitterness towards the institutional church, especially vis-à-vis its views on sex and confession. In his view, the church should not demand or even suggest confession for sexual things because  “sex is the most understandable of all human weaknesses. Next to our instinct for breathing comes our instinct for sex. Given that, the church should recognize that this is the most human of all struggles, the most forgivable of all sins, and the failing for which we should have the least (not the most!) shame. We should also, be the most self forgiving in this area. Sex is so powerful and its failures are so human! Why the demand for confession? Doesn’t this manifest a lack of understanding and compassion? Doesn’t it help foment unhealthy shame, false guilt, and lack of self forgiveness?”

It’s easy, but counterproductive, to see these as competing views. These comments are in a certain opposition to each other, but they are, in the end, not mutually exclusive. Both say something valuable. On the one hand, we do ourselves and others considerable violence when we do not recognize that the struggle with sex is the most human, understandable, and forgivable of all struggles. Failure to be fully integrated in this area should always be met with the greatest understanding and compassion. On the other hand, the area surrounding sex also offers the greatest potential for rationalization and hardening of the heart. Why?

Because we have two great struggles with sex: one for proper integration and containment, the other for honesty. It is hard for us to “come clean”, to be honest about our sexual struggles and failures. From masturbation through adultery, the temptation is perennial: do not admit! Struggle with sex might well be the most human and understandable of all our faults, but, ironically, for most of us, it is the area about which we have the most difficulty in being honest. We can confess that we sin in other areas – greed, gossip, temper, envy, lack of concern for the poor, lack of prayer, dishonesty in certain areas of our lives – but, in formal confession and outside of it, we find it the hardest to admit moral failure in the area of sex. Sex is the most understandable of all human struggles, but is the area within which we find it hardest to “sin bravely”. (Perhaps the fact that all sexual conduct has immense social consequence accounts unconsciously for this reticence.)

Be that as it may! The point is that when we don’t sin bravely, we sin dishonestly. Honest sin is humbling; it grounds us in the fact that we are God’s little ones and stand in need of mercy and redemption. Dishonest sin is inflating and distorting,it hardens the heart and the conscience and makes us believe that we don’t need anyone’s mercy for we are doing no wrong!

The truth that sets us free lies in paradox, in holding in tension seemingly contradictory positions. This is particularly true in our struggles with sex where two seeming opposites, great compassion and searing honesty, are two warm allies which should never be made mutually exclusive.