“Every other sin that a person commits is outside the body, but the impure person sins against the body itself.” More than any other type of sin, St. Paul is suggesting that impurity is a sin against ourselves. A deep healing of such sins cannot be limited to a correction of external behavior, but must include a renewal of a relationship with God and ourselves, and the healing of the shame of original sin through the power of Christ’s death and Resurrection.
Our secular culture is almost cunning in its naiveté, suggesting that sexual expression outside of marriage—fornication, homosexual activity, pornography, masturbation—are neutral forms of bodily pleasure, left to individual choice. Yet this same culture is forced to reckon with the prevalence of addictions in the area of sexuality. The celebration of choice becomes the slavery of addiction, as Jesus himself solemnly warned us, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin.”
No one consciously sets out to become a slave, so we need to compassionately understand how easily deceived we are by the world, the flesh, and the devil. If ever we are in the grips of an addiction, seemingly powerless in the pit of hell, we need encouragement and support, not blame and shame. But as we become free and look back, we need to soberly assess the spiritual gravity of sinning against ourselves.
Sinning against our own bodies is linked to shame, and a sign of our separation from God and our alienation from ourselves. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body provides us with some insight into shame. Christopher West explains the pope’s concept of immanent shame, a shame within oneself, in which “the person now finds it very difficult to embrace his own body, and he fails to perceive how essential his body is in understanding and embracing his own humanity.” God takes the initiative in healing this shame and reconciling us to himself, but then we must accept the gift of his grace in a restored relationship with ourselves.
To understand the source of our sinning against our own bodies, we need to return for a moment to Eden, as we embark on an archaeological dig into the depths of our own psyche, the false self built on the faulty foundation of the shame of original sin. After he had sinned, Adam told God, “I was afraid because I was naked so I hid myself.” He was ashamed. Something similar happens if we sin against our bodies through impurity. We commit shameful acts. Why? We are acting out of the shame of original sin, as though we were unredeemed.
Objectively, Christ has already saved us by his death and Resurrection, healing us of our sin and shame. But we must choose to receive this grace. We need to allow Christ to love us in our shame, liberating us from the effects of original sin. Adam and Eve went into hiding because they were ashamed. Now, under the merciful gaze of Christ we must learn to uncover our shame before him. If we have spent years hiding our shame from Christ, it can be a slow, agonizing and excruciating process of coming before him in our poverty and nakedness. But do we really want to be loved and accepted as we are, or continue to play games, hide behind masks, and live in a false self? The choice is ours to make, with the help of God’s grace. Once we know and experience that we are loved in our nakedness and shame, we will no longer be ashamed. All the dark energy that contributed to acts of impurity will dissipate under the loving gaze of the risen Christ.
He will call us by name to come out of hiding to receive his love. Remember he cast out seven demons from St. Mary Magdalene, and then after he rose from the dead, Christ called her by name to come to him. Rest assured, he will do the same for us, saying to the prisoners, “Come out” and to those who are in darkness, “Show yourselves.” His every gesture is one of inconceivable gentleness, for the Messiah does not quench the smoldering wick or break the bruised reed. If we allow Christ to approach, he will lovingly extend one of his wounded hands to touch the wound of shame in our heart, and we will be healed, miraculously reconciled to ourselves in a conscious, positive relationship with ourselves.
Experiential healing encounters with Christ do occur through personal prayer and meditation, but it is a good reminder that Christ also heals us when we come in contact with his Body and Person in the Sacraments and in our relations with one another in the Church as the Body of Christ.
On the issue of having a better relationship with ourselves, our secular culture abounds with a dizzying array of self-help books. Such books can be useful in coming to know ourselves, but their solutions are limited apart from the work of our redemption by Christ. I am thinking of books such as Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff and Radical Self-Acceptance by Tara Brach. Yes, we need to practice self-acceptance and self-compassion, but we cannot, by our own will-power, take away our sin and shame. Brach rightly diagnoses the problem of shame, calling it the “trance of unworthiness,” but her model of self-acceptance is the wisdom of Buddha, not Christian faith. It is only in relationship with Christ that we discover our true selves and our essential identity and goodness. He then restores us to a proper relationship with ourselves, helping us practice healthy self-acceptance and self-compassion.
We may have to address some misguided assumptions about loving ourselves. For many Catholics of the older generation, the concept that we are meant to have a relationship with ourselves may seem akin to pure selfishness. Are we not supposed to deny ourselves and follow Jesus? This is true, but self-denial does not mean self-punishment; we can deny our selfish nature while at the same time showing ourselves compassion in a positive relationship with ourselves.
Let us look more closely at the Scriptures. When Jesus relates the story of the prodigal son, the young man’s repentance is described simply as “he came to himself.” He first had a relationship with himself, in greater self-awareness, and then decided to return to his father. Likewise, in Psalm 131 we hear “I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.” The psalmist has a relationship with his own soul, which he compares to a little child.
This positive relationship with ourselves is meant to be one of active love. The most obvious example comes from the words of Jesus as he reminds us that a healthy love of self is implied by the second part of the Great Commandment—”You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” St. John writes in his first letter that “we reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts and he knows everything.” By suggesting we can reassure our own hearts, St. John is indicating that we can have a relationship of tender, loving care toward our own “hearts,” with our own selves.
By the grace of Christ, we can repent of sinning against our own bodies, and also thank him for restoring us to a proper relationship with ourselves. With patience, time and prayer, we increasingly come to value ourselves as God the Father loves and cherishes us as adopted sons and daughters. We come full circle: instead of sinning against our own bodies, we become gentle and merciful with ourselves, as St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians “no one hates his own flesh, but tenderly cares for it, as Christ does the Church.”
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Appearance of Jesus Christ to Mary Magdalene” painted by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov in 1835.