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St. Paul at the Nude Beach

by Levi on November 7th, 2016 in Men, Women, Couples, Students

beachBarcelona was my favorite part of our trip to Europe last April. 

I loved walking the streets beneath gothic cathedrals, stepping into Supermerkats on the corners for dollar-tallboys, and black, squid-ink Paella at night. I remember visiting the Sagrada Familia and having no idea who Gaudi was. His work is breathtaking. I’ve never seen anything like it. There is nothing like it. 

That trip was one of the best decisions my wife and I ever made. We almost stayed home, but I’m so glad we went for it. Perhaps I’ll write more about it someday, but honestly, the whole experience still feels like magic to me, and I don’t want to mess with that feeling by trying to articulate it here. 

I do, however, want to try to process a thought that starting forming on the beach during one of those days in Barcelona, next to a couple of women laying out topless on the shore.

I was talking to one of my friends about the experience and he said, “relax, it’s Europe.” For what it’s worth, that was the point. I wasn’t staring at these women foam-mouthed from the water hoping to hide an erection in the waves. It was just a reality, and it occurred to me that the temptation to objectify a human as a thing – which I have not been silent about struggling with in my life – was stripped of its power according to the normalcy of our context. 

No aura of taboo surrounded these women. They were, simply, free to be.

As was I. 

I’ve tried to express the power of that idea since being back in the States, but I’ve found it hard to do. Especially in a theological tradition that defines such circumstances as promiscuous and then attempts to control responses by creating rules for how to engage with it. I get hung up on wondering if it all sounds like a justification for having seen a thing that wasn’t meant for me.

Notice the word thing in place of the word human

I think that’s the crux of the disconnect.

The more I try to wrap my mind around this idea, the more clearly I see how much of my mentality regarding the ways I have viewed and defined people is skewed, especially as it relates to our sexuality. 

All my life, growing up, I’ve listened to Christians condemning the culture, and speaking about how the normalization of pornography and rampant promiscuity are contributing to a degenerative society and the downfall of the family system. Fine – that’s not really what I’m writing about, but I don’t think that Christians are the only ones who feel this way. I think anyone can look and see sex as a product and nudity as a point of sale. But I wonder whether we’ve done ourselves a disservice by responding to the culture’s worship of sex with our own opposing version of the same, reductionistic viewpoint – focusing solely on a woman as regards her sexuality. 

Thus, in our effort to get people to remember that humans are not just sex objects, we have contributed every bit as much to their objectification as anyone, albeit from the negative. 

I came across an article recently while attempting to research some of these thoughts. The author mentioned a parallel idea as it relates to what he called “modesty culture.” The essence of his idea was that waging a war against sex as a god – no matter how well-intended – still emphasized only one aspect of a woman’s complexity and personhood, and still reduces her to an object to be avoided.

Standing in the water and looking back at the women on the shore, I thought of the way sin relates to the law. I thought of the way that St. Paul wrote about how sin had no power without the law, and that covetousness did not come alive inside of him until he learned that he was commanded to refrain from it. The normalcy of my experience that day in Barcelona came and went void of the desire to lust after a thing, and see her as a human

Because she is not just an object that’s there if you want it. That’s another thing that seems so weird to me about placing such regulatory emphasis on “bouncing all our eyes” off and up and away from a “temptation,” as though woman only exists to be seen as an object, or not seen at all. 

And we wonder at being labeled misogynistic. 

This isn’t really an article about purity. Or rights, or whatever. It’s not a how-to. It’s just that I think I learned more about what Paul may have been getting at from those naked women on the beach in Barcelona than I ever have trying to repeatedly beat into my head, “she’s not an object, she’s not object, she’s not an object.”  

I tried to explain all of this to my wife over coffee this morning. I’m still stumbling over my words trying to get it right, but in the name of conversation, I decided to put it out to you today, anyway. I’ve been considering the idea for seven months now, and I think it applies to a whole lot more than just the immediate example of a response to sexuality. I wonder how many of our attempts at control end up fueling what inevitably ends up feeling like a lack of it.

Put differently, no one tells you that the best way to avoid sin is to focus so intently upon it and wrap up your entire identity in being known for struggling with it as a means to freedom from it. That’s counterintuitive. Freedom isn’t a mind focused on its prison. 

Freedom is something so much greater. It’s something we talk about extensively in My Pilgrimage.

The hyper-focus on managing the problem creates the demand as much as the production does. But where there is no rule there is no temptation to break it.

That’s probably the gist of what I’m getting at.



  • hendy moses

    There you go, brother: you just hit the nail on the head!

    Something to think about: being a porn/sex addict is not a (or THE) sin. Sin is simply the state of our soul, until we are redeemed by Christ. The question to ask the sinning saint isn’t “Why are you still sinning,” but, rather, “How are you hurting? Why are you angry? Who do you hate?” A judgment free, truly loving, truly selfless person can ask those questions, and have the privilege of seeing a person open up and share their soul. Much like Les Mis’s Jean Valjean is a thief as a means to survive, so does the addict need to be treaded as a survivor, rather than a sinner—addicts are addicts because they do what they have to in order to survive the shit in our lives that threatens to kill them (me). When Bishop Myriel treat Valjean the survivor—the thief—Valjean with love and mercy, not even allowing him to be identified as a thief even when he is caught redhanded, the result is Valjean’s transformation.

    In the same way, God doesn’t care about our sin. And when someone comes to accuse the sinner, much like Myriel, He can move past it, giving dignity to the broken, and restoring them before they’ve even made a choice to change. He can afford to be unaffected by sin, because He knows there is much more at stake than “the Law”.

    God doesn’t prioritize our obedience as of the utmost importance; He cares first, and foremost, about our redemption. So then it should be with the Church: never judging, always loving, and always ready with the right word (or silence). Why care about sin so much when IT IS FINISHED?

    Anyway man, love your post here. Love your thinking on this. Keep growing.

    In God-fearing honesty,


  • Morrisa Berkley

    Much to think about. What I do know is this: What we focus on we empower. Thank you for your honesty and thoughts.

  • Rupert Bear

    Seems like certain types of attire. esp. swimwear exacerbate the desire to see what’s hidden/half-hidden. And since sitting around in a wet swim cozy is a prime enabler for urinary tract infection I choose to bathe nude and can do so at our local sauna (I’m in Switzerland). Seems like there folk are naked but not ashamed (or shaming).

  • Michael W. Tripp

    Thanks Levi.
    I have studied Romans for the last 32 years.
    I am currently reading Peter Rollins book “The Idolatry of God”
    I think you are/have been on to something.
    I think that in order to address BOTH Christian & non Christiana the law has to be addressed as not something to strive to meet or just say we are under grace, nor that we strive to eradicate or rewrite(as is the current non Christian institutions goal), but that law is necessary to maintain “holy”(or as I might say-set apart-the highest desire of human achievement) because we are in the image of a holy God.
    Yet, the law also states that those who fail to meet its requirements-sin; must die or sacrifice an animal.
    Freedom from law is not obtained by meeting it, nor by doing away with it.
    Freedom is THE LAW FULFILLED.
    How? In Christ alone.
    Telling people to meet the laws demands is vanity.
    Telling people “whatever you chose” is vanity.
    These vanities are slavery to the law.
    To think one must get rid of the law is one who is enslaved to it.
    To think one must persue perfection of the law is also enslaved to it.
    No one; Christian & non are tired of this belief, and intuitively want nothing to do with it.
    Where then is freedom?
    Again, in Christ alone.
    Our various “communications” must be grounded in that truth alone.

  • Jeff Wuenschel Jr

    As respectfully as possible, I would have to say you are 100% wrong on this for the following reasons. The passage you referenced by Paul is Romans chapter 7, specifically verse 7, but the whole chapter deals with the subject and puts it in context. If I understand your thesis correctly, it is that because the knowledge that you are not supposed to be looking exists, it causes you to want to look. Ergo, if the knowledge or commandment is removed, there will be no antagonism to create the desire and hence no sin.

    I think we can categorically state that this reasoning is incorrect from the first half of verse 7, which states that the law is not sin. This is further expanded on in verses 12 thru 14 which state that the law is holy and the commandment is “holy, just, and good.”

    Since it has been established that the law is not the problem, the next question to me is whether or not I am applying the law correctly. What does it have to say about nude beaches. Well, nothing directly. However, Leviticus 18 talks extensively about not “uncovering nakedness”. Deuteronomy 21 states that we are not to desire our “neighbor’s wife”. Proverbs is full of references to being chaste. The scripture is replete on the topic. For references, do an internet search for “proverbs on chastity.” With all this evidence I think it is safe to say that public nakedness would not be acceptable in God’s eyes.

    Yes, our original created form was nakedness, but that was before our fall. As you continue in Romans 7, you can see Paul commenting on the struggle with the flesh. The flesh is a prison. Romans 8:22 says that creation groans to be set free from the bondage of sin. This is why Jesus came. He came to set us free, John 8:36. The problem with being free is that we now have a choice. Before our only nature was to sin. Now that we have been redeemed we can choose to be righteous, but our flesh “wars” against the spirit, Gal. 5:17. If your spirit and flesh are not warring, you should check yourself. Our Christian life is not meant to be comfortable nor easy. It’s not that we seek misery, but the very act of pursuing Christ and living righteously necessarily causes angst with the flesh and the world. They are completely dichotomous natures. Ephesians 4:22 tells us to put off the old man, “which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts.” Being in Europe is not an excuse that is going to cut it before a righteous and holy God on judgement day.

    So what is to be done? First there are the mechanical things. Colossians 3:5 says to mortify your members upon the earth. Putting a guard on your computer, TV, books, bouncing your eyes, watching where you go, etc., etc. This is only representative, not exhaustive. These are the kinds of things you do to avoid things you know that will tempt you. It’s about helping yourself to choose to do right instead of wrong. In the world of safety, it would be considered engineering out the hazards.

    The problem is that there are inherent hazards that can’t be engineered out. What do you do about those? This is the second avenue. I can only put so many guards and patches on my life to keep temptation and sin out. Ultimately, I still have a fallen nature, and I can be sexually immoral all on my own without any help. So what is the answer? It’s pressing into Christ. Allowing the Holy Spirit to change and grow me. This is a slow, time consuming process. Eph. 4:23 talks about being renewed in the spirit of your mind. Romans 12 talks about renewing your mind. Philippians 2: 12-13 talks about working out your salvation and God working in us. It is a life long process of sanctification to become like Christ. It is a process that builds on itself for the Christian to come into maturity. There is no substitute for being in the scripture to become like Christ.

    • Peta Johnson

      I think you are right. But I think that Christians put too much of the blame on men. The women who seek the male gaze are just as at fault. Both are fallen creatures redeemed by Christ. This constant prattle about just wanting an all over tan is a palpable deception. Many, if not most, women will do as much as is socially acceptable to attract the male gaze. It is their nature. The rise of birth control and extended education has all but assured that a majority of women will be somewhat promiscuous. Remember it was a lesbian feminist who funded the development of the birth control pill and had it tested on third world women to expedite its FDA approval, in a way that today would be illegal. But realistically, in a secular society, such a Western Europe has become, it really is a case of “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” The likely effect of hanging out on Spanish beaches is to become indifferent to bare bosoms and to be indifferent to your daughter’s whoring. The answer is – if at all possible – not to live in such societies. I am staunchly opposed to Islamic fundamentalists, but there is no doubt that showing them Hollywood pornography merely increases their hate for us. The real reason that topless bathing has declined in France is fear of Islamists, nude bathing is up, but the French are too PC to admit it.

    • Nate Mattix

      Ahh. I fear you have missed his point, and instead seemed to have jumped on the opportunity to (very kindly) denounce him as a heretic.
      I actually agree with everything you said here^ except the point about him being 100% wrong. Its crazy how much overlap your response has with his article. Maybe, read again?

      He is not offering a position on whether or not nude beaches are part of God’s good plan for humanity. He is saying that obsession with the law leads to objectification of women. The lawless man objectifies women when he views her as a sub-human pleasure object. The Pharisee objectifies women when he views her as a body and a temptation to his purity. Both fail to love.

      I have shared his weird moment when around nude women (who weren’t naked for me, but for some nonsexual reason). Once at a beach like him, another time in a tribal setting. Both times, despite my history with porn addiction and an ongoing battle with my thoughts and eyes, I was very surprised to experience the absence of an arousal state. I realized I could look them in the eyes, or simply not look at them at all. Anything else felt very inconsiderate of me. I mostly just went about my business.

      First, duh, I’m not going to advocate for public nudity. That being said, I also wouldn’t equate being a christian with wearing a top (especially in the tribal context I mentioned).

      Anyway, on to similarities between you and him.

      The old-man state described in by Paul is corrupt, lustful, and deceitful. When this old-man encounters the law, it becomes law-obsessed, and weirdly, sin dominates (Which, I get it, has us screaming “What a wretch I am !!! Who will save me from this corpse-prison?”). You talked about this, as did he.

      He focused more on the old-man’s obsession with law that leads to greater sinfulness (the obsession+sinful nature–>more sin, not the law, as you mentioned). You focused more on the old mans slavery to the flesh and sin.

      So what is the remedy? Being set free by Jesus, Being renewed in the spirit of your mind, putting on the mind of christ, etc. You both actually talked about this. You mentioned it more explicitly, but I think he gave a really neat example of what this might look like, one that I have also experienced.
      You talked about freedom to choose life and light, and freedom to wage war on our flesh. I might add, freedom to triumph in Christ! Thus, healing one aspect of the old-man.

      He talked about freedom from law obsession, that other old-man issue. One sin that follows from law obsession is objectification. Women are either sex-objects for my pleasure (non-law obsessed) or sex-objects for my temptation (law-obsessed). Both miss the human. Freedom in Christ means freedom to see another human being as a human being. What a glorious freedom! One might call this evidence of a mind that is being renewed. You mentioned freedom to bounce your eyes. Yes, we have freedom to do this, and sometimes we need to. I would say (and I think Levi too) that we also have freedom to look at her in the eyes, and recognize a daughter of Eve and (however estranged) daughter of God. This is the mind of Christ, who interacted so kindly with the woman caught in the act of adultery (wonder what was she wearing…) and the mind of God, who made her and knows her deepest complexities, and loved her.

      I am learning that the freedom from the law in the power of the spirit often looks like this: The old “don’ts” are replaced by potent “do’s”
      “Don’t look at her _____” becomes, “Ahh, look at that ocean” or “Look her in the eyes” or, better (mostly if we know each other, and she is wearing clothes) “Ask her how she is doing! Give her a chance to affirm her humanity!”

      “Don’t steal” (I used to shop lift a lot) becomes “give a big tip”. “don’t watch porn, don’t masturbate” becomes ” Create something, call someone you love, play basketball, have a positive god-glorifying experience with a female you care about”

      In short, don’t _____ becomes, “do ________” (do love)

      Anyways, I think your reaction was grounded in the assumption that he was promoting visiting nude beaches or putting oneself in tempting situations. I don’t think he is. I think he is reflecting on the negative impact of obsessing on the law, especially how such an obsession actually furthers the sin of the objectification of women.

      I appreciate you, and your scriptural rich response. I feel more informed for it. I just wish you could have read him more charitably, he is saying some really good things! In that vein, if I had uncharitably interpreted your response, please clear up my muddle.


  • Teresa

    I think this is very well said. When we focus on what the problem is it is still has a grasp on us, but when we focus on the truth, people as individuals it allows for more peace and grace and understanding.

  • Jonathan L

    What a great line “…no one tells you that the best way to avoid sin is to focus so intently upon it and wrap up your entire identity in being known for struggling with it as a means to freedom from it. That’s counterintuitive. Freedom isn’t a mind focused on its prison. The hyper-focus on managing the problem creates the demand as much as the production does. But where there is no rule there is no temptation to break it.”

    When I was a kid I was struggling with impure thoughts. I was more sensually aware than other kids, but I was blessed to be raised in a Christian household and protected from exposure to a lot sexuality. This upbringing probably contributed partially to a kind of paranoid guilt whenever fleeting thoughts entered my head. I remember my Mom trying to teach me that one can’t avoid thinking about something by telling oneself not to think about it. To demonstrate, she told me “Don’t think about a red airplane!” Well, I didn’t hear the “Don’t” part, but still thought my mother’s idea was ingenious. So a few days later I came home from school and said, “Mom, it’s working! Every time I have a bad thought, I think about a red airplane!” Anyway, I had technically missed her point but I really hadn’t–I stilled learned a good principle that’s not always easy to follow: That is, we must “set our minds on things above” and “think about those things” that are excellent and praiseworthy and good (Phillippians 4), that we can “be transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Romans 12:2), that “those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.” These are not my natural instincts, at least not in this body, but I am trying.

    Thankfully God doesn’t give us more temptation than we can bear (1 Cor 10:13). And he doesn’t subject us to many rules, as noted in this article. It’s helpful to remember, as we seek freedom from sin, legalism or guilt, that we not able handle every tempting situation that might be foolish or arrogant or ignorant enough to enter (and I know this article isn’t saying we can).

    I remember going to France as a 13-year old, right after I was baptized into Christ. There were pictures and billboards no 13 year-old needed to see. These were designed to make men and boys lust. I averted my eyes and didn’t give in. Perhaps had I lived around that I would have reached a point where no longer noticed or was tempted by such images (I doubt it, but perhaps), and that would have been unfortunate. Adam and Eve realized they were naked long before they heard any command of “do not lust.” It was probably God’s plan for us all to be happy and naked but I am not sure I can be around it in a fallen world. I appreciate the article’s point that we can objectify women even in the way we fight temptation–as person who tends toward guilt and therefore paranoia to avoid sin or tempation, that resonates. It’s helpful to remember they are people with hearts and souls, they are God’s daughter, somebody’s sister, a man’s wife, a person of intrinsic worth. However, it’s worth mentioning that don’t want to find out if staring at them naked on a beach will help solidify that realization. Again, I don’t think that is what the article is suggesting, and I hope I’m not coming across as legalistic or self righteous. But I know my heart can deceive my mind into doing just about anything if I let it (Jeremiah 17).

    So even as we step back and try not to hyper-focus on our battle to “not sin”, and as we try to remember not to objectify women even as we attempt to consider them purely, and as we try not boil righteousness down to boundaries and rules….Some of us need to grasp that and not let go of personal sobriety and awareness. Some of us might be able to handle swimming at a nude beach; many of us need the humility to admit we can’t. Many of us might benefit from not even finding out! This applies to many situations more and less extreme.

    As a man, I sometimes feel I “should” be strong enough to handle certain situations, or at least in my pride I want to be. I might be embarrassed or feel weak that something tempts me. But it’s okay to be weak. Jesus said that the body is weak. But we often experience greater freedom and victory when we humbly skirt our enemy altogether, rather than taking a battle head-on, especially a battle that we know we ourselves, or others, have lost many times before. In Proverbs the writer talks about the foolish young man ignorantly walking down the road near the prostitute’s house, and then being caught off guard and led like a lamb to the slaughter. He warns his son to stay far away from the wayward wife. Each of us needs to take note of those warnings. We need to pray for sobriety and awareness, to understand situations we can’t, or probably won’t, be able handle righteously. It helps to discuss with brothers wise enough and loving to give honest advice and accountability. We don’t need to be paranoid and cowering in fear, and we need to remember that the object of our temptation is a person to be loved. We also need to be very careful and know those situations (and yes, sometimes people), from whom we should keep a safe distance, and when to literally keep our gaze straight ahead (Proverbs 4:25).

    Do not be overrighteous,
    neither be overwise—
    why destroy yourself?
    Do not be overwicked,
    and do not be a fool—
    why die before your time?
    It is good to grasp the one
    and not let go of the other.
    Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes. (Ecclesiastes 11)

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