- Written by Margaret Bernhart
To wait–the phrase is tantamount to torture for me. Few trials elicit more anguish than longing for something, only to have its fulfillment impeded. Even the Psalmist states that “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” Ever been dehydrated to the point of wanting to pay a ridiculous price for some cool libation? How about needing to be somewhere in a hurry only to find yourself behind a driver who feels it’s their civic duty to meander slower than the speed limit? Have you ever fallen in love and yearned to have your feelings reciprocated? To thirst, yearn, and desire all have the quality of hoping for something just beyond our reach. Often, I’d prefer to be pro-active–trying to avert the uncomfortable tension of an anticipatory situation. So I play “dodge the slowpokes” at the grocery store by detecting the fastest bagger and checkout clerk, only to be derailed by a customer who wants to write a check or has an item with no price.
Now, waiting has similarities to being suspended in motion and that is not always a bad thing. I like to rest and the thought of a lazy afternoon relaxing in a hammock with a cool glass of iced tea and a good book with no interruptions is something akin to heaven. Rest without anticipation leads to relaxation and eventual sleep. But waiting by its very nature requires rest with expectation, alertness and availability. This is where we must embrace the “want” of the desire and the tension of fulfillment’s “not yet.” Now, couple the word “wait” with the phrase “for love” and we have upped the ante. “To wait for love” is a wager that leaves us feeling vulnerable, anxious and exposed. It is similar to an actor who delivers a well rehearsed punch line and pauses for the audience’s reaction–the perspiring palms and breathless seconds seem like hours. The more we hope by opening ourselves to the vulnerability of waiting with anticipation, the riskier life gets.
Waiting for another to move towards us only increases the spacious tension as we are unable to define its consummation. Unlike movies with happy endings, like Ginger Rogers gracefully swirling across the room, and the debonair Fred Astaire stopping in motion, waiting with baited breath, arms open and a body poised to receive his partner again, life is much more open ended and disappointing. To avoid the anxiety and pain, often, we play it safe cocooned in layers of self-protection–distancing ourselves from wanting, hoping and being available for love.
We generally dislike waiting, but we are far more terrified of love offered without apparent reason and no compensation expected. Yet, love is what our hearts long for the most. At first glance it seems unthinkable and ridiculous. However, acts of love can seem more disconcerting than reaffirming when we are caught off guard by an unexpected gift, public recognition or a surprise birthday party. Our terror lies in the sense of being exposed–warts and all, while being embraced at the same time with no reciprocal acts to hide behind. It is not uncommon to hear someone say,”I died a thousand deaths when I was publicly recognized.” We like manageable love which can be poured into a blender, emulsified and digested through a straw. But love by its very nature is mysterious, unsettling and extravagant. God’s love is no less and at times we grow weary and angry when His ways can’t be formularized, His unpredictability tamed and His abundance mercies coerced. Truly, we dislike love’s mystery, because we struggle containing and subduing it. Yet, when we domesticate our hunger for love, there is little delight in the reconstituted version. Compliments manipulated don’t fill the heart, in the same way that surprises hidden and discovered deflate the wonder and celebration. We live to keep our lives not too out of control. How sad that we miss what our heart longs for the most–extravagant and surprising love. Instead we supplement what our hearts long for the most with false loves which will deliver a minimal and dependable amount of pleasure with little exposure or delay.
False loves prevalent in our society today often come in the form of addictions. Though socially acceptable, workaholics, control freaks and people-pleasers suffer similar isolating and detrimental effects as addicts hooked on food, sex, alcohol or drugs. We substitute our hunger for love for more predictable, less risky imitations. Sexual addiction is known as an intimacy disorder and the cause has little to do with sex. It is driven by loneliness and anger that masks the hunger for nurturing and emotional connection. What makes any addiction so compelling is that by its very nature, it is always faithful to provide relief and escape from the harsh realities of life and the unreliability of human relationships.
One form of sexual addiction that is skyrocketing in both men and women is pornography. Found so readily over the Internet these days, it provides a secretive portal into the realm of sexual fantasy. A recent study among conservative, protestant Christian men and women reveal that 41% of men and 16% of women reported (during the past 12 months) watching an x-rated movie, visiting a club with nude or semi nude dancers, purchasing sexually explicit books and magazines, calling sex phone numbers and purchasing erotic devices and sex toys. Another survey among a conservative group of Christian men reported that 62% of the men struggle with pornography.
What makes pornography so insidious is its highly addictive nature. James L. McGaugh at the University of California in Irvine suggests that memories that occur at the time of arousal (including sexual) become “locked into the brain” and are difficult to erase. The degree of reinforcement is heightened when the image is associated with sexual arousal.
Those visual images that become ingrained in the psyche send a dehumanizing message about women as they are seen as objects to be used for men’s sexual pleasure, devoid of soul, thoughts or needs. Further propagated is the idea that it’s normal for men to have multiple sex partners as red-blooded males can’t help it. This has a diminishing effect on relational intimacy as again, men are taught to be self-focused and to take what is theirs, instead of desiring to be with their spouse, waiting for love by opening and revealing themselves, enjoying the pleasure and giving to the other person in a way that cares more for the other than for themselves.
Pornography creates isolation and a false sense of intimacy as images become less riskier to relate to than a real woman. Again, pornography conveys a false message that women are always ready and willing to meet their needs. Finally, porn often links sex and violence with the perverse message that a woman’s “no” means “yes” and that indeed women enjoy being violated. Sexual crimes are on the increase and Dr. Stanley Rachman’s studies have shown that male subjects can be conditioned into sexual deviants by being shown erotic pictures. And probably the saddest statistic is the increase in victimization of children. One in three girls and one in five boys will be sexually molested before the age of eighteen, and 87% of molesters of girls and 77% molesters of boys use hardcore pornography. How can we not be disturbed by these figures?
Our congregations can begin to not only weep over what is so prevalent in our society, but also what is rampant in our own backyard–high percentages of Christians struggling with a secret pornography addiction. Dan Allender summarizes well pornography’s allure as it numbs our hunger for love with a counterfeit which avoids waiting for what our heart desires the most–love that comes to us mysteriously and unpredictably.
Why is that form of lust so difficult to overcome? Because it is the best alternative to satisfying our empty hearts without dependently bowing our knee before God. Changing it not only requires giving up something that has worked, to some degree, to fill our empty hearts, but it also necessitates embracing a God who invites us to experience what we deeply despise–brokenness, poverty, weakness, and dependency. In the face of a walk through the valley of the shadow of death, an addiction to pornography…seems like a lark in the park. Even if the lust is destructive and life-threatening it may be preferable to a God who calls us to love those who harm us and serve those who in fact are below us. True worship is too costly; creature worship is–at first, at least–less demanding…Paul says that deception and enslavement to all kinds of passions begin to melt in the light of the kindness and love of God (Titus 3:3-4). The brutal power of lust will not succumb to any force of the human will unless the heart is captured by the glory and tenderness of the gospel. As the good news of freedom from God’s wrath increases our wonder, laughter, and passion to live, then the dark desire to possess, to consume, and to destroy will have less power in our lives. The joy of being forgiven, not only of behavior but also of the sin deep in our hearts, will increase our desire to love (Lk. 7:47). And an increase in a desire to love will deepen our desire to see beauty enhanced in everyone whom we have the pleasure and privilege to encounter.