Consecrated Sexual Attraction

I took a deep breath when Samantha came into my office (identity changed to protect confidentiality).  Twenty years old, brown hair all the way down her back, and every bit of 5 feet 10 inches, she truly had “model good-looks.”  She was wearing a ribbed, white tank top that was nearly see-through.  The shape of her small breasts was evident, and you could trace the outline of her bra right up to the straps around her tanned shoulders.  Her jean cut-offs were so short that when she sat down on my couch, I had to remind myself not to look down incidentally throughout session because of what was plainly visible.  Every time she threw her hair over her shoulder, I caught a wave of honeysuckle and patchouli.

Actually, she was quite intoxicating.

Samantha was court-referred to my counseling practice for a substance use evaluation.  Though the task was straight-forward and able to be accomplished in just a few hours, I know about a hundred counselors and pastors that would never have met with her once they got a look at her.

And at some level, I completely understand.

She was beautiful and exciting, but it wasn’t a holiday to have my senses aroused against my will, and certainly, against my better judgment.  I felt drawn into what feminists call gaze – the notion that Samantha was there for me to watch, and as more object than person.  Even in hindsight I’m unable to describe her fully without employing it – this was truly how I experienced her that day, a fact of which I’m not proud.  I also felt legitimate concern for her welfare as a client and human.  And I felt a strong degree of caution if she was aware of her impact upon me, and perhaps even more if she was not.

For many males in Christian leadership, all of these conflicted responses just aren’t worth the hassle.

But Jesus would never have turned her away.


Recently, Amy Thedinga wrote a brilliant piece on The Seduction Myth, an insightful exposition of what so many women experience in church:

“The pastor who refuses eye contact sends a clear message…‘You are seductive. You are a sexual vortex that I may get sucked in to.’ The slippery slope of my lust is your problem. And my ministry is too valuable to allow the likes of you to trip me up.”

Seductive Vortex

Consequently, women’s attempts to solicit guidance from pastors are far too often met with aloofness, suggestions for an alternate plan like a “female mentor,” or just plain, old rejection. When male leadership in the church is the coveted resource, yet women aren’t allowed to take advantage, they must eventually feel as though they’re playing for the B team.  Not because they lack the talent, but the anatomy.

Of course, this isn’t to say that women are never seductive, or never mean for themselves to be experienced as such.  It became increasingly clear during my time with Samantha that she was flirtatious in a way that would have been hard to pass off as benign.  But, even when a woman is seductive, I can’t figure out why that would dictate that I automatically refuse to meet with her, let alone all women, as if it was inevitable that I end up inappropriately entangled with every woman who seeks my help.  If that’s true, as Thedinga points out, it’s clearly my problem, not theirs.

I suspect this perceived inevitability factor is one reason we cling rigidly to single-sex small groups, single-sex mentoring, single-sex counseling, and single-sex pastoral relationships in Western Christianity at large.  The inevitability factor is tragic really, and men, certainly Christian ones, ought to be insulted by it.  In a culture that promotes rape and sexual violence, we need to distance ourselves from a way of thinking that presupposes men’s inability to respond to our impulses in a holy, creative way.


I often remark to my graduate counseling students how weird Christians can be about sexuality and gender.  I say this playfully, but I believe it to the extent that some of my largest influences in approach come from sources far outside Christianity.

Irvin Yalom is Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University, and the author of more than 13 books, including texts used as the gold standard in graduate counselor education. In 2001, the American Psychiatric Association awarded him the Oskar Pfister Award for important contributions to religion and psychiatry.

I heart Irvin Yalom

I heart Irvin Yalom

I had the distinct privilege of being present during Yalom’s keynote address at the 2012 Conference of the American Counseling Association in San Francisco.  One of the things I like most about him is that he rarely says the right thing.  And in so doing, he frequently just seems so right.  You know, like Jesus.  Anyhow, I suppose Yalom’s chutzpah has naturally developed from counseling people for an astounding 60 years.

In what is arguably his most synthesized work, The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists, he discusses the delicate interplay in counseling relationships between men and women with characteristic ease and obviousness.

Yalom considers a female client who asks, “Am I appealing to men? To you? If you weren’t my therapist would you respond sexually to me?”

Most men in Christian ministry shudder at the thought of being asked these kinds of questions. Like the rest of the world around it, Christian ministry has become about mitigating risk.

These kinds of questions naturally call for vulnerable disclosures on the part of the counselor or minister, and therefore we assume that there is a large risk in answering them honestly.  Again, the inevitability factor, assuming that all women are seductive, and that all discourse with them will seduce, and that all honest responses to that seduction inevitably result in Thedinga’s vortex.

Somehow, Yalom puts all of this nonsense to rest:

If you deem it in the patient’s best interests, why not simply say… ‘If everything were different, we met in another world, I were single, I weren’t your therapist, then yes, I would find you very attractive and sure would make an effort to know you better.’   What’s the risk? In my view such candor simply increases the patient’s trust in you and in the process of therapy.  Of course, this does not preclude other types of inquiry about the question—about, for example, the patient’s motivation or timing (the standard “Why now?” question) or inordinate preoccupation with physicality or seduction, which may be obscuring even more significant questions(bold emphasis mine)

These more significant questions are generally the kind we hope to address in Christian conversation, but they only come at the end of a process involving mutual vulnerability– the kind of mutual vulnerability where we give more of ourselves than is comfortable, not because we’re flirting with the danger of implicitly seductive women, but because women are people, and ministry to them naturally requires giving of ourselves.  You know, like Jesus.

How does Yalom, an atheist existential psychiatrist, get this so right, but men in Christian leadership get it so wrong?


Growing up, my father and I talked a good deal about women, marriage, and sex.  He’s a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy, as likely to talk with you about flowers and fig trees as he is baseball or politics or God.  In describing what it was like to remain faithful to my mother, he talked about it being rich, rewarding, and the right thing to do.  But he never pulled punches.

Dem Neace Boyz

Dem Neace Boyz

 “Just because you put a ring on your finger, it doesn’t mean you stop being attracted to other women.”

He was right.

It’s worth stating that I’m not pathologically attracted to my female clients, and I don’t size-up females that come through the door.

But I am healthily, reasonably, attracted to some of them, in this sense that my dad was talking about.  And I’m not just attracted to women who come to my practice half-naked and bathed in essential oils, but also to anxious college students, overwhelmed moms, depressed housewives, struggling newlyweds, recent divorcees, and so on.

As it was for my father, the challenge is to remain faithful.  In this case, to the ministerial call of Jesus Christ to proclaim Good News to the poor, freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and the year of the Lord’s favor.

But doing this with women can be complex for men – for me – as complex as the confluence of emotions I feel when I’m alone with them in my office.  In many senses, it’s more about me than them.

This complexity is a fact butchered in discussions by many Christians addressing male-female ministerial relationships.  It makes men out to be monsters, women to be seductresses, and, again, the relationships between them to lead inevitably to sex or romance.

Or, perhaps worse yet, the other end of the discussion minimizes the reality of sexual chemistry in intimate settings, making lofty appeals for higher order thinking and interaction, but with no practical suggestion on how it might be accomplished.   This kind of response is often pervasive in more “progressive” Christian discussions – the kind of people who know what gaze means without having to consult Google, and who easily engage in social critique at coffee shops and on blogs.  They have the right idea, but no field experience. It’s more innocence than malice.

So, let me make it simple.  And let me make it practical.  And let me start with me.

Since I’m a heterosexual male, if I’m going to minister to women effectively, including the women to whom I’m sexually attracted, it requires a frank conversation at the outset about what really goes on in my heart and mind.  Here’s how that conversation might start out:

I am attracted to many of my female clients and students.

I have been titillated by stories of sexuality and intrigue in females who seek my help.

I am sometimes most attracted to the women who most need my help.

I feel helplessness when around women who are overtly seductive.

I am nervous about the position of power in which I am placed as a therapist and professor.

There are many more disclosures I could make along these lines, and where one goes with the conversation once these disclosures have been made makes all the difference in the world.  The Western church has almost unilaterally gone to shame, avoidance, and control.  We chastise ourselves for our impulses and we knee-jerk to create external boundaries to limit their impact.

Safeguarding ourselves from the possibility of sexual indiscretion is actually very wise. Yet, when we create structures without doing the difficult work of investigating and understanding the impulses we’re guarding against, we negate Christ’s admonition that adultery begins in the heart – that’s the thing we’re trying to guard against.  In short, we fail to see that the core of the problem is us, not them.  It’s like the alcoholic whose solution is to avoid hanging out at bars, pursuing an external fix for an internal problem.

To boot, structures of shame, avoidance, and control run the risk of creating a prison of their own.  In a ministerial sense, avoiding one-half of your congregation (usually more!) in one-on-one ministry just seems crazy.  On a personal level, men who have tried to live a life according to Every Man’s Battle can attest to the exhausting nature of trying to control themselves by “bouncing eyes” every time they see an attractive woman.  It’s hard to do that and look into a woman’s soul at the same time.

Many men in Christian leadership aren’t responding creatively, vis-à-vis Yalom, because they’re never able to have this kind of frank discussion.  They’re prevented from doing so because it would carve at the joints of their inner worlds which are under tight lock and key.

The Late Fr. Henri Nouwen

The Late Fr. Henri Nouwen

In 1972, Dutch-Catholic Priest, Henri Nouwen, penned these words in his quintessential work, The Wounded Healer:

It is a painful fact indeed to realize how poorly prepared most Christian leaders prove to be when they are invited to be spiritual leaders in the true sense.  Most of them are used to thinking in terms of large-scale organization, getting people together in churches, schools and hospitals, and running the show as a circus director.  They have become unfamiliar with, and even somewhat afraid of, the deep and significant movements of the Spirit.

Some forty years later, not only are many ministers out of touch and unfamiliar with the movements of the Spirit in their inner lives, but our churches have institutionalized the trend – a man who is familiar with his inner life is often no longer a desirable candidate to be a pastor.  How could he be?  A pastor reared in a system of shame and control who has not learned to shut out his inner life is more dangerous than one who has, tortured by shame but unable to ignore it.  His suppression eventually becomes bedlam, and bedlam eventually erupts on the front page of the morning paper.

Back to Nouwen.

But how can we avoid this danger? I think by no other way than to find the courage to enter into the core of our own existence and become familiar with the complexities of our own inner lives. As soon as we feel at home in our own house, discover the dark corners as well as light spots, the closed doors as well as the drafty rooms, our confusion will evaporate, our anxiety will diminish, and we will become capable of creative work.

The goal of such an undertaking is to consecrate our inner lives, not to shame, avoid, or control them.  As Nouwen would later remark, “The great question of ministry and the spiritual life is to learn to live our brokenness under the blessing and not the curse.”    After all, it seems realistic to think that Jesus Christ, being fully consecrated, still had sexual impulses toward the women to whom he ministered. And I’ll bet he didn’t spend all of his time with them eye-bouncing.  Interaction with a savior bereft of eye-contact hardly seems likely to have earned the devotion of prostitutes and adulterers.

When we embark upon the ongoing task of consecrating our inner lives, our ministerial experiences can be likewise consecrated, person by person, experience by experience.


Several years ago, I worked with a woman who I first met back in high school.  I remembered her clearly because I was so attracted to her back then.  I’d always thought she was nice, smart, funny, and very easy on the eyes. I was happy she was coming to see me all these years later, and knew that at least part of my happiness was the personal pleasure of getting to reconnect with someone I once (and still) found attractive.

I could’ve shamed myself for feeling this way as a married, Christian man.  Worse yet, I could’ve refused to see her.

Instead, I allowed my experience to be consecrated.   While completely protecting her confidentiality, I discussed my feelings about seeing her with my wife and asked for her prayers.  I’m fortunate to be married to a woman who recognizes that my willingness to discuss this with her is itself evidence of my trustworthiness.

I discussed things similarly with my counseling mentor, a licensed professional with 30 years experience, and had some straight-talk with him about how I felt.  I didn’t hide anything, and he didn’t shame me.

I prayed.

All of this helped orient me to the task of remaining faithful to the call to minister the Good News.  Be ye attracted, and sin not.

Country Road in Provence by Night by Van Gogh

Country Road in Provence by Night by Van Gogh

As a result, I used my regard for her to move toward her emotionally and spiritually in therapeutically appropriate ways.  To the direct extent that she was attracted to me as well, that reality afforded me an extra measure of influence with her, in the same way we give voice to those we’re otherwise attracted – movie stars, athletes, scholars, etc.  We might not like admitting this, but research has proven it over and over, as has our penchant for listening to celebrities wax eloquent about this thing or that.  As for me, I treasured her deference, and strove to act in a manner worthy of it.

More directly, I was able to call upon my attraction toward her as part of our therapeutic process.  Once, when remarking on her desire to be safe and “unnoticed”, a tendency that had not paid off for her in her marriage, I recollected about when I first “noticed” her in high school, painting a picture of the qualities in her I admired as both a female and a person (imagine that!). In so doing, I hoped to affirm her in the same sense I suspect Jesus Christ affirmed the woman with the issue of blood, the woman who anointed his feet, and countless others we know and don’t know about.  He noticed them, and in a way that no one else could, in that he saw them completely.  So, I let my client know that I noticed her in this same way, in the hopes she might allow herself to be more noticed in her marriage, to the end it might produce a more satisfying and lasting bond.

Seems simple, I suppose.

Later, when she and I talked through all of this, I even brought up why she’d come to see me at all, having been aware of the attraction between us.  What did that mean for her?  Her marriage?  Her relationship to God?  To me?  I believe these are more significant questions like those to which Yalom referred, and the kind Jesus asked so masterfully of men and women throughout the gospels.

But I could never have asked them, she could never have explored them, if:

I’d refused to see her simply because she was a woman.

I’d presupposed she was there to seduce me, and that it was inevitable I’d acquiesce.

I’d had seen her as a mere object of my affection.

I’d been unfamiliar, unwilling, or unable to investigate and understand my inner world.

I’d minimized the complexity in our interactions, or lacked a practical approach to work creatively with them.


In advocating for men in Christian leadership to work with women, none of what I’ve suggested here is meant to imply that men and women ought to be naïve, or ought not to take care to ensure the nature of their relationships is appropriate. Obviously, there are many examples of both men and women who have used their ministerial positions to transgress the boundaries of someone entrusted to their care, and of those who’ve solicited the help of ministers and counselors with ulterior motives.

And it isn’t as though I’m suggesting there are no relevant external measures we ought to take when men and women work together one on one.  My approach included the creation of structures – the insurance policies I took out by discussing my feelings with my wife and my mentor to start.  But it’s important to note that these structures were motivated by love, not fear.  They allowed me to work creatively with my experiences, and to bring them out from the curse and under the blessing, ultimately to a place of consecration.

Writing about this subject is difficult and somewhat frightening.  It’s remarkable to read the diversity of opinions on this subject matter.  

My thoughts on owning and being mindful of my experiences may seem like nonsense to a Christian community so accustomed to a misguided form of “denying the flesh.”  To some of them, this may all seem like an elaborate justification for my personal counseling methods, or playful dancing with the Devil.

I don’t suppose there is any way to avoid this criticism. Even Jesus was accused of being in cahoots with Beelzebub.

The truth is, Jesus was in total alignment with the Father.  He did nothing of his own accord and only what he saw the Father doing. Jesus ministered to women one on one, saw them completely and completely human, without assumption.  He was fully conscious of his own responses, able to consecrate them without shame, avoidance, or control. 

Shouldn’t we do the same?

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This post is part of an ongoing series called, A Therapist Goes to Church.

This post also appeared on Ryan’s blog at The Huffington post in 3 parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

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Author: Ryan Thomas Neace

Ryan Thomas Neace is a counselor, professor, husband, and daddy. Please contact him for counseling via skype or in-person at

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  • “The truth is, Jesus was in total alignment with the Father. He did nothing of his own accord and only what he saw the Father doing. Jesus ministered to women one on one, saw them completely and completely human, without assumption. He was fully conscious of his own responses, able to consecrate them without shame, avoidance, or control. ” Nailed it. Nice work sir.

    • RyanThomasNeace

      Thanks, Amy! Inspired by your writing – this piece and generally. I appreciate your support here!

  • Spencer Wormuth

    So well written and insightful, thank you for sharing this. It was just what I needed to start my day!

    • RyanThomasNeace

      Thanks, Spencer!!! Glad you liked it so much. Hope you and Tiff are well!

  • This was a difficult and challenging piece. As a young guy in ministry who counsels both guys and girls, this sort of thing is the kind of question you don’t get a lot of guidance on, but might be one of the most terrifying to deal with. You just hear so many stories of churches going down in flames and marriages done in because of struggles like this, that it’s hard to do other than the “well, maybe you can talk to so and so” approach. I think there’s clearly some place for sex-specific groups and counseling, but what is wisdom and what is just fear? That’s not a line I’m too clear on.

    Well, all of that to say, thanks for this piece.

    • RyanThomasNeace

      @Derek – thanks for your comment. I think you’re asking the right questions. Trying parse out what is hysteria and what is not is always wise. In a counseling setting, even if the intent of my female clients is inappropriate, there’s still room for genuine ministry by me. I think the reason the church continues to go down in flames is because so many ministers are so unfamiliar with their inner lives. They’ve searched the scriptures in seminary and so forth, but never allowed the scriptures to search them. We all go into ministry with blind spots, but the idea is that we’re actively working to reduce them. I try to convey an attitude that supports an “ongoing” investigation of this nature in myself and my colleagues. I’m not sure I see this kind of thing in church settings. I could be wrong.

      Thanks again!

      • One book that I’ve been reading about when it comes to pastoral honesty is Paul David Tripp’s “Dangerous Calling.” He’s going after the goofiness of pastoral and seminary culture that systemically leaves these issues unaddressed until it blows up in their faces. I would put that on a must-read list for any seminarian, as well as for churches looking to care for and keep their pastors healthy.

        Again, thanks for the post.

  • Great article! A lot has been written on the whole purity thing over the past few months, but most of it written by women. I love to read a man’s perspective on these issues, and I applaud your courage in posting this. It’s clear that the ‘inevitability factor’, as you call it, hurts and degrades both men and women. I think you gave some really good practical suggestions too, which really contributes to the ongoing discussion. Let’s hope we’ll eventually be able to find new and spiritually healthy ways to own our sexuality, instead of all this shaming, avoiding and denying.

    • RyanThomasNeace

      I appreciate the support Hanna! Feel free to link to any other relevant blogs or articles you’ve read!

      • I really liked Emily Maynard’s insights on the difference between sexual attraction and lust, here:

        “Your body recognizing sexual compatibility with another person is not inherently evil. (…) Lust dehumanizes a person in your own heart and mind. It is the ritual taking, obsessing, and using someone else for your own benefit rather than valuing that person as an equal image-bearer of God. Lust is forming people in your own image, for your own purposes, whether for sexual pleasure, emotional security, or moral superiority.”

        Seen in this light, obsessively avoiding people you are or might be sexually attracted to (or trying to regulate their attractiveness to keep you from ‘stumbling’) is a form of lust because it reduces the other person to just the chemical reactions they (might) produce in you, and refuses to see the other as a whole person made in God’s image. I thought this point tied in neatly with your article.

        From a personal perspective, I still remember how hurt and, frankly, dirty I felt when some people in my student society proposed to have separate Bible study groups so the guys wouldn’t be distracted so much by the prettiness of the girls. I’d been discussing my faith with these guys, had been vulnerable in their presence, had learned from them and vice versa… and suddenly it turned out that they’d never seen me as *really* equal to them or considered my presence and insights as invaluable because CLEAVAGE. Or at least that’s what it felt like.

        I didn’t feel dirty because of the possibility that guys in my Bible study group might be staring at my cleavage. Sexual or even just physical appreciation of others is just part of our humanity. But being *reduced* to just my physicality – learning that there were guys who weren’t prepared to learn to see me as a whole person, body *and* soul, guys who’d much rather never talk to me again, never learn from me again, never share their faith experiences with me again, all because of that cleavage – that felt so much more objectifying than catching someone staring.

        • RyanThomasNeace

          Wow, Hanna, great follow-up post. I so appreciate your candidness. I know many women that have felt the same way. I’ve often felt similarly awkward when there is a proposition that men meet together separately for similar reasons. I’m hoping that that your feeling was not based in reality, that there had been guys there who experienced you as a human and a woman, with all of the mutual attraction that goes along with that, and all of the respect.

  • Thomas

    Thanks for sharing. Also thanks for cultivating a godly life worth using as an example (really). Peace, Thomas

    • RyanThomasNeace

      Thank you for the encouragement, Thomas!

  • Assuming your scenario is directed at a person in the “of one wife the husband,” situation, this comment is what holds the argument together: “I’m fortunate to be married to a woman who recognizes that my willingness to discuss this with her is itself evidence of my trustworthiness.”
    Does jealousy ever keep her from trusting you?
    Keeping it above-board, professional, and talked-about is a key, i.e., walking in the light. If one has to hide it from his spouse, he is walking in a dark place where Satan likes us to be.
    OTOH, I lean toward Josiah’s advice (don’t do it), for the young or unmarried. The human heart needs constant counsel (from a spouse or elder) when in these emotion-laden situations.

    • RyanThomasNeace

      @Bill Chapman thank you for your comment! I concur that I am better enabled in ministry because of my wife’s maturity and even-keeled nature. That’s precisely why I mention it. The converse scenario would absolutely make this much more difficult.

      As to whether my wife gets jealous, I’ll invite her to log on and give her own response if she so desires. I suspect she does at times. We talk through things, and she is really good at speaking her mind without making demands on me. I try to be good at being attentive to her needs. There’s no doubt that the balance is difficult. We seem to have negotiated it successfully thus far.

      I don’t have any formulas for young or unmarried folks. I could agree that there are unique considerations for each. For younger ministers, it seems against common sense to have 19-year old men just out of high school (for example) ministering alone to 17-year old young women. That’s not the kind of thing I mean to advocate for at all. For unmarried folks, however, I can’t say I have as many implicit cautions.

      And absolutely, constant counsel is part of the process. Thanks again for commenting!

      • After reading your post, I determined to try not knee-jerk looking down and exiting from situations involving women. The first opportunity came last night at an English Bible study for Chinese students and families. The focus is both English and Bible. Some participants want to improve their English as much as, or more than they want to know the Bible.

        After the study, one of the young wives came up to me and asked me a question. I looked her in the eye and smiled, and tried to understand her question, and answer it. I wasn’t filled with lust and I did see that she felt valued and respected.

        This morning, I received this link from a Facebook friend: (see the August 2 post).

        Thank y’all for confronting my all-or-nothing, knee-jerk reactions towards women, reactions formed partially from bad experiences, and partially from misguided teaching. Time to grow in grace and redemption!

        • RyanThomasNeace

          @BillChapman thanks for sharing this beautiful story! And bravo on your ferocious courage for trying your legs out so quickly! The weary traveler blog is spot on, so thanks for that as well!

  • Thanks for your candid, insightful thoughts. In my field, I sometimes hear the argument that it can be fine for men to counsel or mentor women, or vice versa, but only because there are too few mentors to go around. You’ve put into words a healthier and more useful approach, and one I have long thought but been unable to articulate. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts on this.

    • RyanThomasNeace

      @Evan – glad this piece resonated with you so much. I appreciate you taking the time to read and share your mind. As for articulation, you are certainly welcome. I labored with this piece quite a lot.

  • William Green

    Request for Help Understanding. The paragraph that reads . . .

    “. . . not only are many ministers out of touch and unfamiliar with the movements of the Spirit in their inner lives, but our churches have institutionalized the trend – a man who is familiar with his inner life is often no longer a desirable candidate to be a pastor. How could he be? A pastor reared in a system of shame and control who has not learned to shut out his inner life is more dangerous than one who has, tortured by shame but unable to ignore it. His suppression eventually becomes bedlam, and bedlam eventually erupts on the front page of the morning paper.”

    Are you suggesting Church Pastoral Search committees would be better off hiring the pastor “reared in a system of shame and control who has NOT learned to shut out his inner life” because in the long run he is LESS DANGEROUS and less likely to wind up on the front of the morning pager?

    Thanks in advance.

    • RyanThomasNeace

      @William – Thanks for taking the time to read my piece and to interact with me about it!

      I’m not sure whether you phrased the question the way you wanted to, but as to it (“Are you suggesting Church Pastoral Search committees would be better off hiring the pastor “reared in a system of shame and control who has NOT learned to shut out his inner life” because in the long run he is LESS DANGEROUS and less likely to wind up on the front of the morning pager?”), my answer is “no”, but I was being a bit hyperbolic.

      I was suggesting that a man who has not learned to shut out his inner life, yet is part of a system that demands he do so (avoid, shame, control), is likely to end up a very tormented person. Ted Haggard, David Loveless, Jimmy Swaggart – these are just the names we know, let alone countless pastors in small ministries across the states. They had troubled inner lives, but are encouraged to avoid, shame, control, not discuss, understand, investigate with the kind of frankness I suggest in the blog. The torture of being troubled on the inside, but having no healthy outlet will eventually result in finding an unhealthy outlet.

      Thus, I suggested you are better off, if you intend to continue embracing a system of shame, avoidance, and control, to find a pastor who’s successfully shut off his inner life. At least then he won’t be so tortured, and might not be so driven toward the kind of chaos the men I mentioned above were.

      Of course, again, I’m being a bit tongue in cheek. The most desirable option is to start trying to weed this sort of system out from the root to the fruit. This would mean a) embracing pastors who are in touch with their inner struggles, and b) creating systems around them that encourage them toward consecration (rather than shame, avoidance, and control). Part of the problem is that we’re so out of touch with the fact that our pastors are humans. It’s almost as if once they get in the pulpit they can’t talk with anyone frankly any more about how much *they* struggle. If they do, our church systems practically guarantee they may lose their pastorate. So they hide. It’s crazy.

      Hope this helps clarify!

  • Barry Lillie

    Nice piece. I think one problem may be the notion that one only needs that one pastoral counseling course in seminary to do the job. Likely not. We had an ordained guy doing pastoral care as a main area of responsibility, yet he had never heard of the term “counter-transference”! A real quality guy, or so it seemed, but did not have the depth of training to know his own vulnerabilities, which led to a king-size mess!
    While we are on the subject, perhaps what we want from male pastors is actually a transference desire for the perfect father. We tend to put them all on a pedestal and then when they turn out to be men with clay feet, we condemn them.

    • RyanThomasNeace

      @Barrie – thanks for taking the time to read and respond. I very much concur with your assessment of seminary training. The lick and a prayer route as it applies to so few classroom hours in professional counseling concepts is indeed part of the problem, both in terms of lack of “skill”, and in terms of discovery of one’s self – i.e., many counseling students “wake up” to their own issues in a profound way while studying counseling concepts.

  • Jonathan

    I loved your insight and words of wisdom. It gives me a lot to think over and pray about. I have a calling to work with women who have been trafficked and sold for sex. And allow God use me in the healing process where He leads.. I love what you had to say and was richly blessed. Thank you. Jonathan

    • RyanThomasNeace

      @Jonathan – thanks so much for taking the time to read and interact iwht me. I appreciate your calling to work in the very necessary movement against human trafficking. God bless you in your endeavors – peace of the Lord go with you!

  • Greg Meland

    This was great. You’ve put some fresh words to what I try to teach my seminary students about internal and external boundaries. Lot’s more to say but I’ll stop. Thanks for this work.
    Greg Meland
    Bethel Seminary – St. Paul

    • RyanThomasNeace

      @Greg – thanks so much for taking the time to read! I appreciate the encouragement and recognition. I labored over this quite a lot. Glad you see it as spot on and are teaching something along the same lines!

  • T Dub

    Thanks for your very thoughtful and lengthy post. I appreciate your insightful handling of your own situation and ability to process things this way, but I think it a bit harsh on those many who have chosen “avoidance” as their primary defense. Certainly some, maybe even many, fall into what you describe as being selfishly motivated, and others have just never been given the tools/training to process things the way you have.

    However, I know for myself that it is not primarily selfish preservation of my ministry that I minimize one on one ministry with women. Rather, it is because I am fully aware of my own base instincts and the evil they may cause. Harm to the other person. Harm to wife and kids. Harm to our Lord. Even if no physical impropriety ever takes place between me and a another women, the impropriety has most likely taken place myriad times in my heart.

    Also, just because my own selfishness is a major cause, that does not absolve all women of responsibility in the way they act or dress. To say that it’s “my problem, not theirs” is not quite fair. Some women may be quite innocent, but others not so much.

    My point is that I think it too simplistic to say that pastors should just learn to deal with it instead of hiding behind their protective barriers. Flee youthful lusts, gouge out your eye, older men teach younger men, older women teach younger women, these are all helpful Scriptural bases for maintaining protective barriers. I wish that talking about these problems with my wife and some trusted friends or mentors were enough to stop my evil thoughts, but while helpful, they are not always sufficient.

    I do agree that more pastoral training in this area would certainly help. Realistically, though, most pastors I know are not heavily involved in pastoral counseling, it is only one of the many responsibilities we have.

    In my own ministry, I don’t even do much one on one counseling with men, so to be fair, I don’t think I discriminate too much 🙂 But I don’t see the problem with referring a female to another mature woman, or to invite my wife to be a part of the counseling session. In fact, to insist that women have to have equal access to the pastor just because he’s the leader puts the pastor on a higher pedestal than he deserves. While I like to think of myself as more capable than others in every area of ministry, the fact is that I’m not the most qualified to deal with every situation, and I think it wise to let people know that.

    Anyway, those are just my thoughts. Like I said, I do appreciate your frank handling of a difficult topic.

    • @T Dub, thanks for taking the time to read and comment! You’re right when you say that the piece takes a rather hard-line stance against an “avoidance” approach, and I can appreciate your perspective in that regard. I totally concur that the tool chest given to a pastor, seminary educated or not, differs significantly from that given to professional counselors.

      On the other hand, I’m confused by a lot of the other things you said, and especially some of the non-sequitirs.

      I don’t know where in this piece I’ve said “just learn to deal with it.” In fact, the title of the piece alludes to what I suggest ought happen – consecrate. Make holy. Doing something with them is precisely what I suggest.

      Jesus made clear that adultery committed in the heart is the same as the physical kind. Here, you make a distinction between the two I don’t think he did. Certainly they have different consequences, but my suggestions here aim to help you deal with both kind. Your current approach only helps you deal with one.

      I don’t disagree that sometimes a referral of a woman to a woman is a great idea. I just disagree that a good reason to make that referral is because she’s a woman, and/or one to which you find yourself attracted. Likewise, as I’ve said above, I don’t disagree that there are times when you ought flee. But when the only tool you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. My point is that pastors are doing an awful lot of fleeing. Plus, your not being fit to counsel everyone and your choosing not to see women aren’t one in the same.

      Anyhow, again, I don’t fundamentally disagree with an occasional wise course of action choosing not to see a client who has ulterior motives, or is seriously mentally ill. I also don’t recommend a naive “get over it” attitude. On the contrary, I’m suggesting pastors ought move back into touch with their internal worlds, and do something with them other than create external boundaries.

      Thanks for courteously sharing your thoughts with me and, again, taking the time to read mine!

      • T Dub

        Thanks for the reply. Just to clarify, I wan’t quoting you to say “just deal with it.” Rather, that was perhaps my too casual summary of what I heard you to be saying, that facing temptation while counseling is my (the male pastor’s) problem, not hers (any female seeking counsel), and that therefore avoiding counseling women is a cop out instead getting at the root of the problem.

        My point was not to say that we have no problem. Most men (including laymen I speak with) would admit that we do have a problem, and to the extent that we are actually talking about (via a men’s group or other avenues), I think we are trying to face the issue.

        I agree with your hammer as the only tool illustration, but for the pastors I speak to, I don’t think it’s fair to say that’s our only tool. In fact, I specifically stated that for myself, sharing these issues with my wife and/or other trusted colleagues is not sufficient, in my opinion, to prevent serious missteps. It may be for others.

        Also, I don’t think I distinguished adultery in the heart vs physical. What I said was that I am all too well aware of my own sinfulness, such that even if no physical act takes place, it may have occurred in the heart.

        On the other hand, I just went back and skimmed the top of you article, and to quote:

        “But, even when a woman is seductive, I can’t figure out why that would dictate that I automatically refuse to meet with her, let alone all women, as if it was inevitable that I end up inappropriately entangled with every woman who seeks my help. If that’s true, as Thedinga points out, it’s clearly my problem, not theirs.”

        While it may not be inevitable, from personal experience, it is pretty close to inevitable that I entertain inappropriate thoughts during and after engaging with a seductive woman. To me, that is enough cause to want to avoid such situations as much as possible. That doesn’t mean I ignore women in public settings, but avoiding situations which I’m fairly certain will give rise to sin seems to me to be the prudent thing to do. It’s possible that I have a greater propensity than normal towards such sins (and in fact, frank discussions with trusted friends/colleagues lead me to believe I do), so I’m not claiming this is the best solution for everyone. But I guess it did sort of rub me the wrong way that your general tone was to look down on the “avoidance” approach to the problem.

        So, while I agree that we need to be in better touch with our inner selves, I don’t think it’s mutually exclusive with external boundaries. I try to engage both, and encourage others to do the same.

        Again, I’m a pastor, so I have limited experience to speak from as regards to how pastors in general deal with this issues, but that’s my perspective. I’m sure there are some, perhaps many, who do focus on externals to the neglect of their internals, so as I said, I do appreciate your tackling this issue.

        Hope I don’t sound too defensive of myself and fellow ministers, but do wish your piece sounded less harsh towards those of us who prefer to avoid dangerous situations.

  • Thank you for writing this, and for being willing to do the inner work necessary to face these kinds of things and work through them. I have really just begun my journey on this particular issue, about a year ago. It sure is a mess. The inevitability idea is big. And also, trying to figure out how to have / acknowledge / consecrate a desire that cannot be fulfilled… how to continue to interact / relate / serve / love / bless while experiencing such desire. How to manage the knowledge that the other person might also or does also find me attractive. And of course the entanglement of other kinds of desire complicates things — I have tended to crush on pastors, teachers, fatherly types — and I suspect that my desire to be known, loved, nurtured and adored and held like a beloved child, is almost always entangled with sexual desire. It’s all about closeness, intimacy, being fully known, loved, accepted, welcome, wanted.

  • Miles O’Neal

    VERY well said. Thank you. I realized some time ago that living in fear was stupid and… unChristlike.
    So my prayer is always to see people as God sees them. This requires looking at them. Really looking at them. And when you look into someone’s eyes with God’s love, it is a holy experience, and gets theior attention.
    Being real with them make aa huge difference, tioo.

    Ultimately, what people fear is their own lack of control, because we have been taught that we are weak and evil. But Christ did not die or come to live inside us to keep us weak, or evil, or fearful. He came to set us free, make us strong, fill us with love, restore us to a state like Adam and Eve in the Garden.

    If we really understand who we are, there is so much love and power available that fear has no foothold.

    • Kayla Fisher

      Thank you for posting this, Miles. God has been teaching me the same thing the 2 years. You’ve echoed my new thoughts exsactly.

  • Louise

    Hi Ryan,
    I just wanted to say thank you so much for writing this. As a young lady who has a lot of dear friends, some of whom are guys who have expressed to me that though they are pretty happily married they do feel attracted to other people… it’s really comforting to see that Christian men out there go through the same experiences but have a way to handle them and be like Jesus at the same time. I was slightly freaking out about ever being able to handle marriage because I didn’t know if I could take that kind of pain of worrying about my guy, knowing he’s going to go through that. So reading and thinking through your post really relaxed a certain fear. Thank you! Ultimately of course we have to put our trust in God for all these things.

    I don’t normally comment on random websites that I come across but felt moved to share. Take care!

    • Ryan Thomas Neace

      Thanks for reading, Louise!

  • Ryan, I’m super proud of the way you tackle these issues in a way that leads us to get to the “center” of who we are. Very insightful and challenging post. Well written.

    • Ryan Thomas Neace

      Thanks for reading, Josh!

  • Anon

    Dear Ryan,
    Thanks for your genuine and authentic post. It resonated immediately with me. I am so glad I stumbled upon your site. I have been torturing myself emotionally, and I am hoping to get a clearer answer to my distress. I am a married female who has been seeing a clinical psychologist for about 3 years now. In the past few months I have developed these very fond and loving feelings towards him. I feel such guilt and shame because they are being directed at a man other than my husband. My husband struggles with sharing any loving emotions with me, so I can see why I have responded to my psychologists care and concern. I am terrified I am committing a sin for loving my counselor in this way. Does this constitute an emotional affair? I get so confused about this from a biblical perspective. I know that my counselor cares for me in the therapy relationship- but I have no idea if there is an attraction beyond that. I did share with the counselor my conflicted feeling about what has popped up out of nowhere- but he has not shamed me nor pathologized my feelings. My faith is so important to me. I want to please Him, and I know I am tormenting myself by these feelings which are making me quite humiliated and sad. I feel like I am sinning by feeling this attraction to him. Do you have any words of wisdom on how I can accept these feelings of care and love without making the natural feelings I have towards the counselor- of gratitude and fondness from driving me into this pit of shame? My husband is aware of my dilemma, but he finds it amusing more than concerning. If I am loving the counselor with a Christ-like love, and that is the love I am also receiving is this sinful? I find I care about the counselor more than my husband because my husband is unable to reach out to me emotionally due to him own limitations. I want to be at peace with myself and God- as well as my counselor who is totally professional and would not ever break boundaries with me… which is part of the reason why I have been able to be so vulnerable with him. I feel so condemned because of these unexpected feelings which have emerged in therapy. Any words of wisdom from a biblical perspective would be appreciated. Thanks again for your courageous piece.

    • Ryan Thomas Neace

      Anon, Sorry it has taken me a number of days to get back with you. Your post here is very important, and I appreciate your vulnerability in sharing. I can’t say for certain what constitutes what in other people’s lives without knowing more details. What I can say is that its very normal when in an intimate setting to feel intimate feelings. That is, we may feel love (romantic or plutonic), sexual attraction, sensual pleasure, deep and abiding admiration or respect, etc. Likewise, when things go badly in therapy, some feel rejection, bitterness, anger, etc. But the truth is, most of us feel a confluence of positive and negative emotions in emotional relationships – why would therapy and ministry be any different? But your feelings of conflict here are precisely why I wrote. Most current, evangelical or otherwise American Christian teaching about this area is very misguided, I think, and has left many people lonely and isolated.

      Jesus spent intimate time with women – lots of it. But we give him a pass because He is God. But in so doing, we effectively deny that He was also fully human. FULLY. If that’s true, it seems only normal that we’d have many intimate relationships throughout our life time as well, and especially in Christian living. I believe this to be true even after we’re married, but in our culture, intimacy is always tied so heavily to sexuality that many Christians stay away from it altogether out of fear. This does them a great disservice.

      I’m not sure that without knowing more detail I can offer direct, practical advice for your particular situation. Again, what I can say is that what your experiencing is normal. To the direct extent that you feel any urge to “cross boundaries” out of feelings of sexual attraction or love, these too are necessarily “normal” in the sense that they are commonly experienced. I think the important pieces to focus on are:

      1) Even if I tell you you’re feelings are “normal,” it is my guess you’re still likely to be conflicted about whether this is appropriate. It might do you some good to read a book that is on my to-read list (I have not yet read it, so can’t fully endorse it), but that many who have reached out to me since I wrote this piece suggested. It’s called “Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Engaging the Mystery of Friendship Between Men and Women,” by Dan Brennan. It addresses this sort of thing in a way I think will be helpful to you, and from a Christian perspective, but it is very challenging. Several times you mention the need to view things from a “biblical” perspective, but we can see plainly throughout history that people use the scriptures to say all kinds of things it doesn’t. I hope this book is a good starting place in challenging some of what you’ve learned that may be less “biblical” than first meets the eye.

      2) If there is something that really stood out to me just based on what I’ve read from you, I’d say it is the notion that you are longing to be known more fully emotionally. The feelings that you have toward your therapist are, again, normal (I.e., commonly experienced) given that context, but may point to something larger for you because of your particular situation. I’d bring that up to your therapist. Reconceptualize for him again all of the emotions you’re feeling (please, be honest), and then speculate as to what it might mean bout your need to be more fully known. You may need to sit with that realization for a while. There may be some contemplating, some meditating, some thinking, some praying, some grieving you need to do there. When it’s time, you might want to begin thinking creatively about how to get that need more fully met – even outside the therapy room. I would hope that your husband would be along for that journey, and you may also begin forging new friendships, while maintaining your vows to your husband. It could be that a variety of relationships – men, women, mentors, peers, etc. – might help you feel more fully known.

      Let me know if I can ever help you in any other way.

      • Anon


        Thank you for your thoughtful response. I will definitely read the book you suggested above which will be helpful. I really think that what you mentioned in “longing to be known more fully emotionally” is where the hope,grieving, shame and sadness all merge into one. I spent a considerable amount of my life as the classic parentified child. Also, parent to my siblings growing up- and now my own husband and children.

        Hoping in marriage that I would find some relief for the first time in my life was not to be. I had hoped for emotional mutuality and physical love and sexual freedom without shame (within the sacrament of marriage). Holding on to Christ’s love for me to fill those wounded places had kept me afloat. I had waited for and longed for marriage- to love and be loved. I do not understand the dynamics of what changed, however the day we were married was the day my husband stopped initiating physically and has been unwilling to do so ever since. It was so important that I remain faithful purity wise until marriage despite his repeated attempts to break my boundaries. After marriage, I continue to stand with open arms waiting for his affection, asking him why is it so hard for him to just love me? I try to be a loving a kind person, but for some reason he is unable to accept my love without a need to control this aspect of our relationship.

        Over the past decade of marriage, I had continued to twist myself into various pretzels trying to figure out what had gone wrong- doing everything in my power to make him happy. With each rejection, I have slowly found myself losing more and more of myself and sinking into more depression and anxiety. I think I write to you quite vulnerably as my father is dying of cancer and it is bringing up all sorts of emotions.

        As I have shared with my husband that to be loved by him that showing me by physically by initiating with me received by me as a loving act from him. I think that my longing to understand what went wrong with my husband, and that my therapist has allowed me the realization that my husband’s actions have little to do with me- but more to do with my husband and his limited ability to love me.

        I have a naive way of looking at the world due to my traumatic upbringing. I became so used to sacrificing my “being known” at the expense of nurturing everyone else but myself. It feels new being “known” by my therapist- accepted “as is” and not criticized or shamed for being myself. The main conflict is possibly that I am confusing these normal loving feelings as taboo because I did not or have not received them through my most important people who I had hoped to receive that love– not from a psychologist or a random blogger! Yet, it does not matter what the source because I think that truth and His love has a way of finding me. God has never failed me. So I keep hoping for the best.

        So, as I have sadly realized that my husband is unwilling to love me in a mutual loving way, and my heart has become pain instead of the love I yearn for– I continue to hope that just one tender overture from my husband is all I ask for… which may reveal more about myself and my own lack of self-worth.

        Finding God when I was twelve was what has given me the strength to survive my childhood. I have felt Christ’s unconditional love heal me in a real ways. I have vowed to live my life in a way which would be pleasing to Him through my actions and love for others. Not knowing enough about transference, and God’s views on all of this recent stuff has lead me to much confusion.

        To receive the normal care of a compassionate therapist has overwhelmed me. Which, in itself saddens me. I do love my therapist in a platonic, Christ-like loving way- although it has indeed crossed my mind how a loving mutual relationship might be (with him or another has been a difficult concept for me to go–either in fantasy or verbalizing it honestly to my therapist), I was always lead to believe that even platonic loving feelings towards any man other than my husband was sinful- and this has tormented me as betraying him on some level. The more reading I do, and the more I have become in touch with what true love, acceptance, and Christianity can mean- has brought me some relief, a bit of peace in the past few days. Your response has been very thought provoking and has meant a lot to me.

        I think what is so healing and important about your honest post of writing on sexual consecration and therapy is how fully human we are, how universal this may be, but no one is willing to talk about it like you did with a lot of courage. I have learned that these loving feelings…whether sexual or platonic are being a part of the human race. I am just now learning that I can receive from people however scary that feels right now, reach out, and become more “fully known” without meaning I am selfish and sinful or rejected. That allowing others to know me as well more fully is something I will continue to work on. I’m a work in progress.

        The pain which comes from this all is the love I do have for my husband is never going to be enough to change his desired interest in “knowing me more fully”. I know my therapist will never love me in the way I may, and again it is sad but the reality that I do accept. I do need to pray and begin to allow myself to be “known”, The struggle of my isolation stems from the “unknowing” of my marital situation by others- except my counselor and now this singular blogger named Ryan which I thank God gave me to courage to reach out. In seeing your own transparency I was able to share mine. Thanks for that gift. Thanks Ryan! Lots of prayer and meditation ahead for me. I will share with my therapist what you suggested, all the emotions , all of my feelings which have surfaced within me. I appreciate your feedback and I will let you know if I have any other questions. Blessings!

  • Guest

    Thank you so much for this writing.

    • Ryan Thomas Neace


  • Deborah West

    I have to say, I’m kind of dumb-founded at this. My wife is my standard of beauty. No one compares to her. No one else is even attractive to me. I have and have always had only eyes for my dear wife. Even after 34 years of marriage – no one holds a candle to her. What’s wrong with you married guy that can even look at another woman, let alone be attracted to another woman. And I am little offended at your remark about our Lord Jesus Christ looking sexually at women. Christ was WITHOUT sin. And His own words were to look with lust is SIN. I don’t believe for a minute that Christ Jesus ever looked at another human being with lust.

    • Ryan Thomas Neace

      Deborah’s husband, I presume: Thanks for your comment. Please note that in your own comment here, you have made the taken the very troublesome, yet very common Christian position that to look at someone as sexually attractive is the same as looking at someone with lust. It is not, by a very large margin. As for your comments about your attraction to your wife, I’m very glad you’re so attracted to her. I think that’s great! Best to you.

      • Deborah West

        I apologize for the confusion. I am Dan, Deborah’s husband. I don’t mean to ‘nit-pik’ you here, but. To look at a person of the opposite sex and think they’re good looking is one thing. BUT, to look at them as SEXUALLY attractive (your words) is another thing. That’s putting sex as a priority. And too me, that’s lust. And that’s what we’re warned about. IMHO, it is a heart and mind thing. And God is concerned with the inner man. It doesn’t take a physical action to initiate lust, only a heart action. Only a thought. A sexual thought. I’m not saying that a person can’t look at someone and think ‘hey, they’re good looking’ – but we should be able to that with all persons. Both male and female. For all I know you may a good looking guy. And, hey, good for you. But when you the personhood from a human being, and only see them in the light of what sex they are, you have objectified that person. You have lessen them. For myself, it is not troublesome or wrong to ‘bounce your eyes’. If you tempted to lust in heart – take care, take action not to sin. Remember the next verse – if your eye……pluck it out….. I think that refers to lusting with ones eyes. if your hand……cut it off…… I think that refers to masturbation over images you have seen and lusted for. We need to be very careful, and very fearful in our with Christ.

        As for being attracted to my wife, thank you. I am. She is wonderfully and awesome made by God.

        On a little note, I pray that your wife does not some day pluck your eye out!!! (just kidding). With all due respect, I get what you’re saying. I just don’t think it’s Biblical. I agree to disagree with you, brother.


        • Ryan Thomas Neace

          Dan – I appreciate the clarification! 🙂 By definition, finding someone “good-looking” is to find them sexually attractive. This is not to say you desire to have sex with them, but that the basis of your appraisal of them as being “good-looking” is that they are attractive as a member of the opposite sex (i.e., sexually attractive). Finding a member of the same sex is principally no different in that they are attractive of as a member of the same sex…but there’s no escaping that word, “sex”…as in, sexually attractive.

          Other than that, you seemed to have missed the thrust of this post – objectification of women (men as well, of course) is wrong. You may have been dismayed by my confession that I’m tempted by women at times, and by my confession that I’ve lusted. I’m not sure why that’s terribly shocking, as it is something all of us are capable of. If we weren’t, why would scripture warn us about it?

          Anyhow, back to not objectifying people. That’s precisely what I said. However, I went on to also say that creating external boundaries (cutting off your hand, plucking out your eye) isn’t enough, because Jesus said that adultery begins in the heart. Doing things like “not” masturbating is a great start, but it doesn’t solve the heart problem.

          I guess it seems you’re reiterating things I’ve said in this piece as if they’re not precisely what I said.

          It doesn’t seem we disagree on as much as you think.

          The main thing you’ve said that I disagree with is that our response to things is to be driven by fear, as we know that perfect love drives out fear. The idea is that when we recognize that we’re sexually attracted to someone (we think they’re good looking, to use your terms), we must in the context of ministry find a way to maintain our ministry to that person, rather than casting them aside for fear that something inappropriate might happen.

          In my case, and since you mentioned my wife, I start by discussing the issue with mentors, and by letting my wife know what’s going on so as to leave no room for secrecy and sin.

  • Ryan, thank you so much for honoring women, Christians, Jesus, men, etc with this fabulously thoughtful post. I am teaching on this topic in a few weeks in a class at Biblical Theological Seminary (my alma mater) in Hatfield, PA. This has been on my mind and in my heart. Thanks for taking the time to say these words so well.

    • Ryan Thomas Neace

      Heather…thanks for your thoughtful comment. You’re certainly welcome! I’m glad you found it so helpful. I appreciated the link you posted to it at (Which is a neat blog you’ve got going). Let me know if I can ever be of service!

  • Hayley


    I just discovered this article. I really admire you for being so vulnerable with your feelings and experiences and for sharing how you have been pursuing Christ in them, in thought and action. I particularly love how you have come to understand, and share with readers, how we must act on love, not fear, in order to have consecrated and sanctified desires. You also point out how the most powerful work in a Christian’s life is done by the Holy Spirit, and not by the individual’s controlled efforts to correct or avoid. I totally agree and thank you for bringing light to this, especially as I have been surrounded by shame-based cultures for so long.

    Could you help me think through this question? When Jesus tells the crowd that looking with lust is adultery, he goes on to say that, “if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” I’ve always had a hard time interpreting this passage, understanding what exactly Jesus wants us to do with sexual desire. He seems to be promoting actions of avoidance and control, which is the opposite of your project of, “work[ing] creatively with my experiences, and bring[ing] them out from the curse and under the blessing, ultimately to a place of consecration.”

    What is your response to this passage? and how does it fit with, or perhaps alter, your opinion in your article? Thank you for returning to this topic a year later to talk with me!

    • Ryan Thomas Neace

      Hayley – thanks for taking the time to write, and I appreciate your kind words and how much this piece and my position meant to you!

      It is very interesting that you bring up this passage about lust. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, and I thought it serendipitous that you bring it up again. For now, I’ll just say that while I take Christ’s admonition very seriously, I think it is important to try to understand audience (Jews) and context. This entire passage of scripture is perhaps centered upon these statements a few passages earlier (Matthew 5:17-20): “17 Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

      So, in other words, Jesus was telling them, you’ve got to be better than even the Pharisees, and when he goes on to suggest plucking out one’s eye, he’s saying, “If you really want to fulfill the law as it regards adultery, you’d have to be willing to do something that even the Pharisees would never do.” (There is no record of any saint who ever did this, though Origen did castrate himself – not something I’d recommend.) So, it’s hard for me to somehow understand that Jesus meant us to use avoidance and control as the primary means of dealing with our sexual desires, because the only way we could do that effectively would be to take this kind of extreme measure.

      As I said, the church has tended toward shame, avoidance, and control. While I’m not aware of any scriptural admonition that shaming ourselves is an effective approach in addressing sexual desire, as I tried to make clear in the piece, it isn’t that avoidance and control aren’t at times necessary. In fact, we are admonished in Ecclesiastes, 2 Timothy, 1 Corinthians, and Romans (for example), that we should “flee” from sin. And, in James (for example), that we should “resist the devil.” But when these are our primary (and/or only) tools for addressing sexual desire, we literally ignore everything else scripture has to say on the matter directly and indirectly. We ignore how much the bible has to say about the nature of sexual (and all) sin as originating first as work of our interior lives. The entire point of Christ’s harsh messages for the Pharisees in the Gospels was that for all of their avoiding and controlling, they were still principally unrighteous and missing the forest for the trees. I.e., even their behavior fell short of what would be required, and certainly, their hearts did.

      So, the difficulty here is something most Westerners (and particularly evangelicals) tend to struggle with – I’m aware of no formulaic answer. There is no, “Just do ______, and it will all be okay” line of scripture about this issue or any other. Figuring out what to do with sexual desire is something that must be “worn out” rather than “talked out.” In short, we must fail and grow, fail and grow, fail and grow. To quote Reinhold Neibuhr’s famous “Serenity Prayer,” “Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, Taking, as Jesus did, This sinful world as it is, Not as I would have it, Trusting that You will make all things right.”

      I hope this is helpful to you. I welcome any response or other thoughts/questions you have about this! The peace of the Lord to you.

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  • s.

    one comment – one fact that is overlooked, we are called to walk in Jesus’ footsteps, we are not Jesus – who is holy and has no sin in Him, and cannot sin. We even as redeemed people, are prone to sin and the struggles of it (paul’s words romans 7). Thus, the addressing and confronting of the inner motives and desires is important, but wisely not overestimating our abilities to overcome temptations in thoughts and in actions, and not giving provision to sin, and appearance of evil is more so. Jesus has taught us to be drastic in dealing with sin – if the right eye causes you to sin, take it out, etc.

    while He that is in us is greater than he that is in the world, and that we have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we should learn to not take lightly the power and effects of residual sin in ourselves and others. there is a fierce spiritual battle going on. and there are battles we have needlessly placed ourselves in when clear alternatives are present. women are just as capable – and in fact are called in the Scriptures (Titus 2 for example) – to teach and counsel one another. oversight by male shepherds is good but can be managed thru’ help of competent women helpers. the Lord have mercy on us all. blessings!

    • Ryan Thomas Neace

      S. — seems I missed this when you first posted it a few months ago. I concur that one is wise to consider the ways in which he or she is prone to fall prey to temptation. I think what I’m suggesting simply is that there are multiple, varied, and creative ways to deal with it, other than simply running.

      • Christian Janeway

        Also, does this mean we never handle money, because we might steal it? That we never drive a car, because we might kill someone? That we never have a baby, because we might lose our tempers and shake him? No, it means that we learn what is healthy, right, and true in each situation. The potential for sin, or even just a stupid mistake (“Whoops! No sex jokes in mixed company without my husband near by!”) doesn’t mean we run from any *other* situation. Rather, it means that we take it seriously enough to learn how to manage it.

        • Ryan Thomas Neace


        • Ryan Thomas Neace

          Nice Janeway pic, btw!!!

  • Thank you for this article. As a trainee Christian Music Therapist, it’s so great to have guidance from those who’ve gone before me and have battled with the issues concerning therapy, faith and everything in-between.

    I totally agree than rather than running away from the problems we can face them head on knowing that there isn’t any area of of broken lives that hasn’t been dealt with on the cross and through facing such situation God gives us opportunities to walk in a manor worthy of our calling, being salt and light, especially in the way that we deal with, view and treat women. I particularly loved the references to Yalom. I’ve been reading recently his work and find it so refreshing to acknowledge the wisdom and insights of others in such matters.

    I look forward to reading more of your posts. Thanks again, James.

    • Ryan Thomas Neace

      Thanks for your comment, James! Glad you’re thinking through these things early in your career. Best to you.

  • M.

    Thank you thank you thank you. I am an MSW student, just started my counseling internship at a church, and have been trying to proactively have this discussion with the other counselors without much luck. It’s just plain awkward. The church I am practicing in thankfully believes that women and men are both empowered by the Holy Spirit to minister in this gifting and each are left to set their own boundaries as they are individually led. I was recently married (about a year and a half ago) and am deeply in love with my wonderful husband, but am not naive to the fact that attractions do develop or that I (or he) am above this type of sin. However, drastically cutting off the opposite sex in the professional setting seems to miss the point (unless one has a history of this type of sin), so I greatly appreciate how you address the fact that setting up strict boundaries of never counseling the opposite sex doesn’t really deal with the true heart issue. I am also encouraged by your post to open up this discussion with my husband and a trusted female mentor. Thank you for sharing your opinion in a way that is productive, authentic, honoring to both men, women and Jesus.

    • Ryan Thomas Neace

      Welcome! Thanks for sharing a bit of your story and letting me know how this relates to where you’re at. And so glad you’ve found a place that is trying to lean into a full picture for men and women as empowered workers for the cause of Christ. And so SO glad you’re going to be talking about this with people. That, it would seem, is crucial to experiencing all of this in a way that is consistent with our and our client’s best interests!

  • Jen Smith

    Wow! There’s so much to this blog post that I could respond to with at least a blog post — or five — of my own. I do find that, as a never been married Christian in my early 50s, I’ve had to navigate the boundaries of sexuality thoughtfully, with no assurance of ever being able to share that in marriage. So, I empathize with what you’ve shared here, Ryan, through a different set of circumstances.

    I tend to separate physical from sexual attraction; that is, not every man who I find physically appealing is equally sexually attractive. That’s just me. What I find most challenging is erotic desire. It’s much stronger and more comprehensive than physical or sexual desire. Maybe that’s not something that all people experience. When I have, it has surprised me.

    Anyway, as a single trying to abstain in a world that looks at me as a weirdo, though I don’t advertise this, there are a lot of hurdles. And I don’t always clear them. And sometimes they come out of nowhere, or so it seems. Maybe some of your insights here will help me down the road.

    • Ryan Thomas Neace

      Thanks for your comment and for reading. I appreciate what you’ve had to say here both about being single in your 50’s and about the way you process physical and sexual attractiveness. I’m curious about the distinction you’re drawing between physical, sexual, and erotic desires. Erotic desire seems to have both physical and sexual components, though it is surely more than the sum of its parts, and could potentially contain other things. I’m not sure I understand erotic desire as entirely distinct from the other categories though.

      At any rate, my single friends (and clients) who both identify as Christian (typically evangelicals in this regard) and who also process the call to chastity as a requirement to abstain sexually — all of them wrestle, to one degree or another, with the concept of intimacy. You’re certainly not alone. I usually recommend to them the works of my friend, Dan Brennan, who has written quite a lot about soul friendships.

      Thanks for sharing this post, btw!

  • Jen Smith

    P.S. I shared the link to this post on the Biblical Christian Egalitarian group on Facebook. What you share is getting great feedback. 🙂

  • Kayla Fisher

    Wow! That was a breath of fresh air. Thank you. I’m a 21 year old woman, and I have had very little male influance in my life. My dad died when I was 5, and my brothers werent around a whole lot. When I was a kid there were a few men who consistently did things with me, and I LOVED that. I felt valued, and special. I felt like my dad abandoned me when he died, cuz I was too young to understand what happened to him, I guess. So spending time with those few men was a releif to me, it was something I needed (and still need just as much). But as I got into my teens they quit taking me places and doing things with me. Or they would make sure they always had someone else around when they met with me. To be honest, that made things awkward for me. One guy in particular said he wouldnt let me ride in his car anymore cuz it would look bad to other christians. (He was being driven by fear, and living life that LOOKS good in order to be accepted by men when our focus needs to be on the fact that we are accepted by the father. Its not about outward appearance, and why were others false opinions more important than my heart? Thats whats important to God). Him not letting me in his car anymore made me feel guilty, like I was dangerous or something. Like I had to have an eye kept on me to be trusted around men. Since that was my expirience with men as a young teen its made navigating/forging any relationships with guys more difficult than is necessary. But Jesus hung out with a woman who had been married 7 times! She was living with a guy she wasnt married to, and Jesus hung out with her alone at the well for the whole town to see. I bet they gossiped about him. That must’ve made him look so bad. But he wasnt driven by fear of man or fear of woman or fear of his own (real) desires! He was ruled by Gods love for people and by living in truth; being genuine! If Jesus had a car, I bet he would let me in it. If people talked bad about him, he wouldnt worry about it cuz it wouldnt be true. Or maybe he’d call them out like he called out pharisees (cuz they were as obsessed with looking high and religous as we are today with looking sinless and christian. Dont focus on looking christian, focus on looking like Christ. Thats what the word means anyways 🙂 ). But I bet he would even like to hang out at my house and eat ice cream with me and laugh and talk about the kingdom of heavan without the supervisory presence of his paster. I love that attitude about Him! And I hope it becomes contageous so the men who spend time with Him catch it.

  • Hi Ryan, I know that it has been a long time since you’ve written this piece – but I just found it, after searching about “how do I know if my therapist is attracted to me?”… Thank you so much for this beautiful article. I was enthralled throughout the entire thing!!! I have been hiding my attraction to him, and I believe that he has been hiding his attraction to me. He shares his feelings with me, and things about his life, which he never used to do at the beginning of our sessions. He is a pastor also, and he shared with me that he wept while driving in to work on Good Friday because here they carry the cross as a sign of their christianity. He has just done certain things that have made me wonder – (he told me that I am beautiful) – and he touched my hand at our last session… but he’s done absolutely nothing inappropriate. I have not said anything to him, but I have been obsessed on and off – and am so enthralled by his work with me, I’ve been in therapy for 24 years – and by far he is the best yet. Reading your wonderful article has basically confirmed that I need to address this with him. My insides deserve it. I’ve seen him (and his behavior) rise, fall, grow close, and then pull away — so I think it’s time to give myself the gift of the freedom to be real. I love Erving Yalom, I am a drug and alcohol counselor – now disabled… and Yalom was a big part of my group process, and I admire his work so much. I will certainly see about the book, ‘The Wounded Healer”…. it sounds wonderful. I know I’m wounded, I think many of us are. However, we deserve to be (allowed) to free our truth. Risks such as this are never easy, and he may not concur — but I’m worth speaking my truth – and this is coming from a woman that has never known her worth…