Rev. Michael J. Cusick is a licensed therapist and founder of the ministry Restoring the Soul. In his thought-provoking presentation “God, Sex, and the Soul,” he will draw upon his experiences as both a minister, a therapist, and someone who has struggled with addiction and infidelity issues himself to show how men can open up about sex and relationship issues without shame. If nothing else, he says, it’s important to remember that Jesus never shamed anyone, not even adulterers or prostitutes. “That makes our hearts free to say, ‘OK, I don’t want to have an affair, because that would take me out of this connection with real love,’” he says. “It would be like being on life support and taking the plug out of the wall—it’s not a punishment from God, it’s a consequence of being disconnected from Him.”
God, Sex, & the Soul
Welcome and Guest Introduction
Hello and welcome. My name is Paul Amos, and I’m founder of The Redeemed. The Redeemed is an organization that’s meant as a judgment-free zone for men of all backgrounds to come together to be able to discuss both life’s difficulties as well as life’s trials.
On Today’s Pursuing Restoration webinar series we have a very special guest. Please, let me welcome Reverend Michael Cusick. Michael is not only a reverend, but a professor, acclaimed writer, and a personal friend.
Rev. Michael Cusick: My Story
It’s really an honor to be here and to share my story and the things that I’ve gleaned as I’ve been on a really messy journey. I’ve been a believer for almost 40 years in Jesus, and the first half of that road was a life where I lived externally as a guy that seemed to have it all together. I had a lot of hiddenness, addiction, shame and brokenness in my life.
We are going to start with a story where I was 16 years old, roughly 1980. I had just become a Christian through the ministry of Young Life. For a number of years, I claimed that God didn’t exist; or if he did, I didn’t want anything to do with him.
I was an angry teenager. I went to Young Life and I heard this idea of the good news, that God loved me. It was the first time I had to actually heard that in my life. I was introduced to the idea that God wasn’t just a judge who wanted me to avoid sin.
Shortly after that time, I became convicted that the accumulation of porn magazines that were hidden under my mattress, my behaviors (trying to have sex with as many girls as possible or to be sexual with them), and compulsive, habitual, addictive masturbation were sinful.
To give a little background, I grew up in Northeast Ohio, this blue-collar factory community. On day after I became a Christian, I took all of those porn magazines, I went down to the basement and threw the magazines in the incinerator. I watched them turn the flames, I closed the lid and I walked away.
I came back in about an hour and there was a pile of ash. I thought to myself sincerely, ‘God, I want this out of my life, it’s not consistent with who I want to be.’ I felt tremendous shame over it. I said, ‘God, thank you that this is gone and out of my life.’ I sincerely meant that.
The Double Life
It wasn’t more than two weeks later where I found myself again, just absolutely preoccupied with lust, caught up in compulsive, multiple times a day, masturbation, seeking to be sexual with girls, and that problem went on and on and on. But the problem that was greater than my problem was I lived in isolation. I lived in hiddenness, and nobody knew me. I developed this double life.
Occasionally, I’d go to my youth minister or the man that was discipling me, and I’d say I’m kind of sort of struggling with lust a little bit. I wouldn’t go into details, I wouldn’t talk about behaviors, but I would kind of hint at it. What I would hear is, ‘Well, you need to memorize scripture.’
Psalm 119, for example, David says, ‘How can a man keep his way pure? Oh, I’ve hidden your word in my heart.’ So, I would hide God’s word in my heart and memorize scripture. I would pray harder. I would study my Bible more, and the problem only got worse.
Crossing The Line
I went all through high school, and I had this hidden life. I got into college and the problem became worse, it escalated. I started going to strip clubs. Eventually, as a single man, I crossed a line and I started to pay for sex. I started to hire high-end escorts.
Of course, as a person might imagine, pursuing all of this compulsive pseudo-sexual behavior, I wasn’t concerned with, and I wasn’t able to have any kind of a healthy relationship because there was such deep shame inside of me.
It continued escalate until after college, when I began to work in my chosen profession, and one day I opened up the morning newspaper and it said FBI raids, escort service. My heart started to race, my face flushed, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the end’. The FBI had raided the escort service, this prostitution ring. There was a local celebrity and a professional quarterback from the football team where I grew up, so it really became this big deal. I had been paying money to the escort service, and was convinced that it would become public. That this would come out, that my family would disown me, that God would finally just say I’m done with you.
Sharing My Story for the FIRST Time
Within 24 hours, I was in the office of a Christian counselor. I shared my story for the very first time with any human being….and I shared everything. I shared not only about the sexual struggles in my behavior, but things I had never shared with anyone. I was sexually abused around starting at the age of four. That sexual abuse continued with an uncle and then with a sibling, and then with a physician when I was 16 years old.
I was one of these people that a caregiver physician crossed boundaries with me and sexually abused me because I didn’t know what was good, what was bad, and what was healthy and unhealthy. Everything felt sexual.
A Question and a Comment
I tell the therapist, I talked for 50 minutes non-stop. The therapist looked at me, he very conspicuously looked at his watch and said, ‘We’re almost out of time’. I have a question and a comment. And I want to start with the comment. He said, my comment is, ‘Michael, you strike me as a very lonely man.’ I felt like he had punched me in the gut.
Because see, I was a youth minister by then. I was really extroverted, and I was really good at engaging with people. I was the guy that could have and influence people. But deep inside I was lonely, nobody knew me.
So, here’s this counselor with all this information, and he could have said a thousand things like, ‘You’re a sex addict.’… Which was true, ‘Go read this book’, which would have been helpful, but he said, ‘You strike me as a very lonely man.’
It knocked the wind out of me. It was as if he took a highlighter and drew attention to the fact that with all of this relational, extroverted self to win people, and even underneath my sexual behavior that I was still alone.
Then the counselor said, ‘Now the question.’. Are you ever at a loss for words?
I still laugh when I think about that, because what he brilliantly did instead of talking about my abuse or about my sex addiction, he put words to this deep longing inside of me for connection. To be connected to others, to be known, to live as Genesis 2:25 tells us to be naked and unashamed (which is about way more than just clothes).
Just a Poser
He put words to that longing that there’s nowhere in your life where you can be naked and unashamed. You’re just a poser. You’re just a hider. Then to ask if you are ever at a loss for words, which of course is very socially inappropriate if you’re at a bible study or a potluck or something like that, and somebody comes up to you and says, Are you ever lost for words… That’s kind of offensive.
But he said it to me and knock the wind out of me… but I felt really loved. I felt like on the one hand, here are these deep desires for connection and you’re still lonely. And here’s this part of you that’s kind of a schemer. Ecclesiastes Chapter 9, right in the middle of that book, it says that God made man upright, but man has gone in search of many schemes.
He was putting words on that side of ‘Are you ever at a loss for word?’ to the schemes, to the strategies to cope with that pain inside. What he was saying was: ‘Michael, you have the gift of gab. You’re charming. You’re extroverted.’ What we began to unpack for weeks after that is, ‘Michael, you use words to keep people at a distance and to control.’
The Story Continues: Marriage and The Double Life
My story went on into my marriage. We were three years into my marriage in 1994, and I came home or work one day and got caught in a lie…which unraveled a whole bunch of lies.
My wife had to hear me say that I had committed adultery. That I had entered back into my addictive life with prostitutes, strip clubs, trying to pick up women.
I had to share over that next couple of days that I was habitually and compulsively drinking to numb the shame.
I was a Christian counselor full-time and part-time. I had another ministry, and I was working at a Christian university. I literally had to drink on my lunch hour and whenever I was apart from my wife in order to numb that shame. This whole double life came unraveling.
It is now 26 years later, and I am celebrating my 29th anniversary to my wife, Julianne. God worked in a profound way to restore my marriage, very painful, but profound. 26 years later, I’ve experienced a significant, profound, real freedom and sobriety.
Sobriety vs Freedom
I learned that there’s a difference between sobriety and freedom.
- Sobriety: I can stop doing this (whether we’re a food addict, a shopping addict, an anger addict, or a people-pleaser)
- Freedom: I can actually move into the life that I want (Freedom is always about moving towards something and not just away from something)
‘Sex is more than just skin on skin, but it’s as much spiritual mystery as a physical fact.’
I had to learn that issues with pornography and compulsive masturbation, affairs, adultery, strip clubs, prostitutes, cybersex, sexting, whatever the issue is, the issues are not about sex.
- I thought that it was all about sex.
- I thought that my sexual desires were too high.
- I thought that if I could just ratchet down my sexual desires that then the problem would go away.
- I thought that if I just tried harder, read my Bible more, prayed more
- I thought that if I just got more accountability that I’d be able to overcome this
…. and it really wasn’t about sex.
Yes, there’s a physical aspect to it, but God says that sex is a spiritual mystery and that there’s something bigger that we’re seeking and there’s other purposes to sex other than just having an orgasm.
Whoa, Me Too!
So, I wrote a book years later as I continued on this journey of freedom and as I started to tell my story, what I learned is that other men were going… ‘Whoa, me too. Me too!’ They wanted to know ‘How did you get free?’ and ‘How did your marriage heal?’ My book, Surfing for God is about that.
I’m not trying to do a shameless plug for my book, but people say, ‘Why the title Surfing for God?’
One of my favorite quotes is from the late great novelist, writer and British theologian, GK Chesterton. He was reported to have said:
“A man knocking on the door of a brothel is knocking for God.”
That man is going to a prostitute, and today, that might be an online hook-up, he’s actually searching for God. I thought, if that’s true, the person who’s going online looking at porn is surfing for God.
What I mean by that is that we’re seeking not just physical release, but that sense of transcendence, to literally come up and out of our self and to connect with someone and something bigger.
We are seeking:
- a sense of comfort and well-being
- a sense of security
- a sense of feeling like a man
- a sense of deep connectedness and being known
…but without the risk and the vulnerability of what would be involved with God and with a real person (like our wife, fiancé or girlfriend,).
John Eldridge, is best known for the book Wild at Heart, says the reason pornography is the most addictive thing in the universe is that it lets a man feel like a real man without requiring him to be a real man.
He’s saying that our sexual compulsion is actually meeting a legitimate need without requiring us to depend on others and be vulnerable. He’s referring to that spiritual mystery, seeking of that place where we can just be us, be off duty, and not have to perform.
3 Things I Learned
There are three things I really learned:
1. these issues are not about sex, they’re about something else
2. these desires about are about legitimate God-given desires that we don’t know what to do with, and we miss direct them.
The great thinker, Thomas Aquinas, 13th century philosopher, theologian, and saint, said:
“Every sinful behavior is rooted in a legitimate God-given appetite.”
If a person is acting out sexually, if they’re caught up in compulsive sin, if they’re looking at porn rather than just try to push that down, we’re actually invited to say, ‘What’s the legitimate God-given desire beneath the surface?’
I’m actually desiring comfort because my life is really stressful right now, and looking at porn gives me comfort. What’s the legitimate God-given desire? Well, I just seek intimacy so bad, but I’m not very good at it. I’m not in a relationship right now, but relationships are too vulnerable, at least that’s what my story is told me… so I’m going to seek out a false intimacy without that vulnerability.
Another part of this that’s not often talked about, and was a part of my marriage and my pattern, unfortunately, is that pornography and sexual acting out is a way that we can feel powerful and actually make the woman in our life pay.
I was talking with a man once and I brought this idea up and I thought he’d be resistant. But he goes, ‘I think I get what you’re saying. My wife and I will have a fight, or she’ll turn me down for sex and I go look at porn. It’s kind of my way of flipping the bird at her.
Often times we need to look into our hearts and ask:
- Why do we feel so powerless?
- Why do we feel so weak?
- Why do we feel so helpless with our wife or the woman in our life?
Well, here’s why…. because there’s more at stake with our masculine heart and our masculine identity, there’s more at stake with our wives or the women in our life then with anywhere else. Most of us feel pretty competent at our jobs and our work, but we don’t feel very confident in that relationship and there’s a lot at stake. We can turn to these behaviors as a way of saying, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll show you!’
So, the second thing I learned was that it’s actually a legitimate God-given desires that get misdirected.
3. Finally, I learned that it’s about pain inside that is mishandled
Based on my abuse and growing up in an alcoholic family, I was a man who is living with a tremendous amount of pain inside. If you would ask me, ‘Are you hurting?’, I would say ‘No, actually, I’ve got Jesus and I can do all things through Him. He’s my comfort in my rock.’ But there was this pain buried below the surface and chronic anxiety and chronic shame that I really had no idea was there.
I just learned to live with it. I had to identify it. I had to enter into that brokenness. I had to let friends, as well as counselors and some family members into that. To acknowledge that I had weakness.
26 years later, one of the foundational values and core ways that I have chosen to live (and honestly, I’m not very good at this) is that I boast in my weakness. Corinthians 12
I have a couple of graduate degrees and I’m actually pretty good at what I do, but at the end of the day, what I have to offer in ministry and with other men, and even in my counseling, spiritual direction work, what I have to offer is my weakness.
I like to think of that weakness for us as guys, as ‘I’ve got no game.” At any given time, relationally speaking, ‘I’ve got no game.’ When I acknowledge that, that’s when freedom comes.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German martyr, who was part of an attempt to kill Hitler and who was imprisoned, days before his death, (which happened one day before the end of the war and the liberation of the concentration camps) he wrote,
“The pursuit of purity is not about the suppression of lust, but about the reorientation of one’s life to a larger goal.”
In the Christian world, we become accustomed to bad desires, bad things, bad struggles, and we push them down. We flex our spiritual muscles and push those issues down. What I’ve learned is to let those legitimate God-given desires come up and begin to re-orient our lives to a whole new way of living. That’s what the word repentance means. Most people think it means to change our mind, and that’s true… but when we change our mind, there’s the sense of we’re seeing life differently. I believe repentance is doing life differently. From trying to manage sin to becoming a whole person and developing a capacity to love and be free.
It is Possible!
So, that’s my story, and it’s been painful and rocky and bumpy, but it IS possible to live known and to not live hidden. It’s possible to be the real me and discover who I actually am as a beloved son of God and not have to be a poser.
Q & A
1. Within that “poser life”, within the person that’s taking it on the inside, the person who is real on the inside, how do we reconcile those two? What does it take for men dealing with sexual problems any type of addiction problems, for them to come out and be transparently the same on the inside and the outside?
To recognize that we have a problem, but the problem is different than we think.
I would recognize at moments of what’s going on. Think to myself, ‘God, I hate what I’m doing, and I promise I’m not going to do this again.’ Or I’m going to read Psalm 51, which I’ve read 10,000 times. I used to think that Psalm 51 was feeling really bad about myself and showing God how bad I felt about this, and use it to convince Him to give me grace to stop what I was doing.
All that repentance is and recognizing what the issue is, is going… ‘I can’t change this, I’m powerless.’ In the 12 steps of alcohol anonymous or sex anonymous, the very first step is we admit we are powerless over [fill in the blank]…(pornography, sex, alcohol food). We admit that we’re powerless and that our lives have become unmanageable as a result.
There’s such a temptation as Christians say ‘No, I’m not powerless, I’ve got Jesus!’ and ‘I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.’ But how He strengthens us is through admitting our powerlessness and that the problem is deeper than we think and it’s an issue of the heart, not behavior.
- Reach Out
Sexual problems and sexual struggles are really about intimacy and connection, though it’s a false intimacy, we’re wounded in relationship. We struggle with sexual issues in relationships, even if it’s an image. And we heal in relationships.
Re-orient our lives. What does it mean to become the kind of person who doesn’t need this or who doesn’t have this in their life anymore?
The late, great philosopher, Dallas Willard talked about indirection. That we overcome a goal oftentimes in the spiritual life in terms of the interior change, not by directly going after something, but by indirectly going after it. He would say, ‘If I try to obey the commandments, I will fail. But if I try to become the kind of person that obeys the commandments, then I have a chance of actually succeeding.
2. What steps do you give somebody to help them reach out? How do you go from the double life to the transparent life by reaching out?
Vulnerability. We cannot separate our spiritual health and our emotional health, our soul is our body, our mind, our emotions, and will. There is no spiritual health without emotional health and vice versa. So, vulnerability is this sense of, ‘I will put myself in a position with another person where I can be known. The vulnerability is they roll their eyes and crunch up their face and go, ‘Oh, you’re disgusting! I can’t believe that you’re struggling with that.’
Vulnerable is to potentially be wounded, but there’s another part of vulnerability, and that is that you’ll potentially be loved. There is no love apart from vulnerability. And that’s even true with God. God is love. He created us. He loves us at the expense of his own broken heart.
Let’s talk about where we’re weak. Let’s talk about the places where we’d rather not have anybody know us. Let’s talk about the places where we’re powerless, and this gets to the idea of accountability.
Three Kinds of Accountability
Accountability as it’s done is usually more damaging than helpful. I talk about three kinds of accountability:
- a cop: Cop accountability is ‘I’m struggling with sin. I’m going to share with you and if I mess up before the next time we meet you are going to give me a ticket.” The problem with that is that it’s external and it’s shame based. That’s not how God works. God is more concerned with our hearts.
- a coach: Coach accountability sounds like this: ‘Hey brother, I need you to give me some tools, and I need you to pray for me and give me the latest worship song, and I want you to come along and be wind in my sales and help me on this journey.’
The problem is that’s still external, although it’s more relational, it’s not a shame-based, it’s more love-based, but it can’t be sustained because it doesn’t ultimately lead to any lasting change.
- a cardiologist: ultimately what we need in these connections and relationships to learn, to live integrated, where the inside and the outside match and we are known is a person who can be a cardiologist. They’re listening to what’s happening in my heart.
I wrote my book Surfing for God as a way of helping men to be able to understand what those heart issues are and to try to be that cardiologist.
There’s times where we need a cop. There’s times where we need a coach. But Jesus is the great physician and he’s the ultimate cardiologist, but more often than not, I would actually say he works exclusively through grace and mercy coming out through other people.
3. How do you go from sobriety to freedom?
First, let’s define what freedom is. Freedom is not the ability to do whatever you want, it’s the ability to do what you most deeply want.
For a person who’s a Christian, it doesn’t matter if you’re a crack addict or a sex addict or an alcoholic. If you are a Christian, that means that God dwells in you. That you are the temple of the Spirit. That your heart is united with Christ. You’re a new creation, and therefore in the middle of your greatest sin, at that exact moment, the deepest desire is actually to love God and to love others.
Which is why every Christian feels some sense afterwards of, ‘ That’s not who I want to be.’
The idea of freedom is instead of putting all the energy on stopping a behavior, which of course is medically, relationally, marital and behaviorally necessary to move into the life of God, it really comes down to an awakening of the heart. What is it that I most deeply want? Who am I meant to be as a man that’s no longer preoccupied with sex or acting out?
Freedom is really about our identity or deeper sense of self.
4. What responsibilities do we have as men when a friend informs us he’s having an affair? Should we counsel him away from it or just stay out of the situation entirely?
The first thing I would say is, if that man shared that with you, he’s honoring you. He thinks that you’re a safe person. Secondly, he may be sharing to somehow minimize his own guilt, like a safety valve to let some of that pressure off. But I also imagine that he is sharing because he doesn’t want to be doing it.
Unless a man is a hard-hearted narcissist or a sociopath, if he’s a married man and having an affair, of course, there’s a part of him that doesn’t want to be doing this because it doesn’t align with who he really is. I think the best thing that can happen is to tell that person, ‘I’m not going anywhere.’ ‘I don’t judge you.’ and ‘I’ve got my junk too, but brother, I’m going to kindly, lovingly be in your face.’
We all know that in The Ten Commandments, it says, ‘Do not commit adultery’, and sometimes we lose perspective about what those commands actually mean. That commandment means (Michael’s paraphrase): Do not commit adultery is equal to God saying, Do not brush your teeth with an electric toaster.
Now, somebody’s going… ‘You lost me there.’…. Well, if I brush my teeth with an electric toaster, first of all, it could kill me, it could rip my gums out, I could be electrocuted, but most of all, it’s not going to clean my teeth! So, brushing your teeth is meant to keep your teeth clean and healthy,
Committing adultery does great damage to our marriage, to our heart. Tt perpetuates living with fig leaf. It perpetuates hiddenness. It perpetuates the sense that ‘I think my real needs met in a real relationship, I’ve got to be hidden or I’ve got to pretend.’
As those issues are explored and as a safe person can be with them, I think it’s appropriate depending on that relationship to say, ‘Brother, I’m going to be in your face, this isn’t okay.’ If you lose the relationship because of that, it wasn’t a great relationship to start with.
5. The Ten Commandments tell us not to covet our neighbor’s wife. But there’s a difference between thinking a woman is attractive and fixating on her, to the detriment of one’s own relationship. How can men keep the former from becoming the latter?
I think that comes down to paying attention to our desires. If when those desires come up, you go, ‘Oh, that’s bad, that’s wrong, I shouldn’t think about that.’ and you move on, that could be a good way of dealing with it.
Maybe it’s just a random thought that pops in, but if it starts to be pre-occupying, if it starts to be something you return to again and again, we need to be curious and attentive. Ask yourself, ‘ What’s going on? Is it because in the last conversation I had with that neighbor her eyes lit up and she just said, ‘Wow, you’re such a good dad!’ and we haven’t heard that from our spouse for a while?
Suddenly it might not be wanting to have sex, but it’s just the presence of that beauty and that aliveness that’s awakening our heart. So, coveting is almost always about something in the heart being awoken.