Sex can be a taboo issue even in the best of times. In the worst of times—when someone is dealing with issues of sex addiction, pornography addiction, or adultery—it can become downright shameful. Rev. Michael Cusick, founder of Restoring the Soul, can speak to those issues both as a licensed therapist and as someone who struggled with them himself.

“For many people, there’s a very different inner experience from what they look like on the outside. My own story, I was a sex addict, using alcohol in self-medicating ways, and unfaithful to my wife, but I looked good on the outside,” Cusick says. “Restoration is God first and foremost saying, ‘I’m going to take what happened in Eden, this fracture of fellowship and what feels like a separation from Me, and I’m going to restore our relationship.’ And in our restored relationship as men and women, we can become whole.”

A guiding principle in both Cusick’s practice and his ministry is Thomas Aquinas’ belief that every sinful behavior is rooted in a legitimate God-given appetite. As a result, Cusick is able to keep shame out of the equation, giving men the freedom to open up about the sexual and relationship issues that are causing them stress and pain. Sometimes, he says, it all begins with simple human physiology.

“The body is part of of the soul, and a big part of the body is the nervous system,” he explains. “And when we’re in high-alert ‘fight or flight’ mode, we’re going to have to do something really powerful to calm that, to feel grounded, loved, secure. Whether it’s an image online or secretly hooking up with someone or sexting, that releases profound chemicals like dopamine into our bloodstream that immediately make us feel that sense of ‘I’m a man, I’m adequate, I’ve got what it takes.’ But beneath those issues, there’s also a profound sense of loneliness and disconnection and shame—men feeling like they just can’t pull it off because culture teaches us we have to be something more than we are.”

“God, Sex, and the Soul” . . . that’s a pretty provocative title, would you agree?

Yeah! I’ve written a book, a workbook, and a companion piece to a documentary, all of which is around sexuality for men, addiction, and what we often call “sexual purity.” But if you advertise it or up front as sexual purity, there’s a whole lot of guys who won’t show up or will even be afraid to participate online. And then there’s another group of guys who will roll their eyes and say, “Really?” I just think a lot of guys are tired of the “bounce your eyes, manage your sin” approach. What I offer will give men practical categories for thinking differently about sexuality in relation to God and just what it means to be a person made in His image.

Why do you think people are squeamish about putting the words “God” and “sex” anywhere near one another?

As someone who has done sex therapy with couples for years, probably the first five years of working with couples, I’d feel this nervousness inside. It wasn’t until I was way into dealing with my own issues and got healthier, I realized there’s an inherent vulnerability but also this cultural condition. With guys, one of the ways we try to do our Christianity is make it all something we can control and we put God in a box. Sex is very powerful both as a life-giving force and as something that can cause tremendous pain, so we try to contain it by not talking about it. I think we need to have a much bigger conversation, and one of the things that the church misses out on today is that people’s sexuality is so broken because of things like online temptations, “hookup culture,” and infidelity issues that people are begging and dying for the church to address.

What’s your mission for the Restoring the Soul ministry?

Restoring the Soul started out about 20 years ago as an intensive counseling ministry to pastors and clergy and other caregivers—we help the helpers. And we have a unique approach to working with folks where we’re all trained as clinical therapists but we’re all also ordained ministers and have worked in pastoral care. We call it “Integrated Clinical Soul Care”—we look at all aspects of our life, and instead of just asking “What’s the problem that needs to be fixed,” it’s “What is God up to in your life? How is God using the struggles and the brokenness that are there to draw us closer?” The idea is that brokenness is not a barrier but a bridge to intimacy, with God and others.

What does “restoration” mean to you?

Our ministry is named for Psalms 23:3: “He restores my soul and guides me in the path of righteousness for His name’s sake.” We all know when things are not as they should be, but there’s this gap between what we’re created to be and what our actual experience is. If we look at Genesis 3, there are many things that can be restored, and one is we can be restored to living naked and unashamed: We can see ourselves for who we are, we don’t have to cover ourselves in fig leaves, and therefore we can be loved for who we really are.

The next thing is there’s a restored sense of authority. Most of us don’t realize as men that we’re walking around with the kingdom of God inside of us, that we’re called to have a voice. That leads to a restored knowledge and ability to walk with God in a way that’s really based on freedom and not “have tos” or “shoulds.” That’s what wholeness looks like.

You’ve talked about being able to relate to men who come to you for help because you yourself struggled years ago with issues such as online porn, alcohol addiction, and infidelity. And you’ve been able to take ancient scripture and apply it to very modern problems.

All sexual brokenness involves sin, but it’s really about much deeper issues—none of those three issues are really about sex. Which is surprising for a lot of men to hear: They think, “Well, I’m just too horny” or “I’m just too hypersexual.” On the one hand, they’re all about deep God-given desires that get misdirected. On the other hand, it’s about unhealed pain that gets mishandled—we misdirect our desires and mishandle our pain. Instead of just saying to men, “Hey, you need more accountable and you need to stop doing this,” I ask them, what are you longing for? What’s the legitimate desire God has put in your heart, and why are you mishandling that desire, leading to pain and disappointment?

Another thing I’m really passionate about is that men need to tell the truth about our relationship with God. There are churchgoing men who are saved, who know the Bible, but say, “Why do I feel like I’ve been sold a bill of goods? Why do I feel like I don’t really experience God? I know all these things to be true, but I don’t really experience them.” We don’t know how to close the gap except to try harder, do more, pray more, do more ministry, et cetera, but that can get exhausting, and many men have secretly, internally just given up. It’s not that they renounce their faith, although that happens sometimes—it’s more that we settle. And the great Catholic mystic Thomas Merton said that the greatest temptation in life is to settle for too little.

I think we get to a point in our faith where we just say, “OK, I’m good.” We live with a sense of quiet desperation, resignation, or hopelessness, and we give into “good enough,” which ends up looking like compulsion, addiction, or “Well, I only flirted with that woman one time.” It’s not that God is counting our sins, but we’re settling for muddy water when God says there’s living water.

A lot of men have been conditioned to believe that sexual issues—even more so than drug or alcohol addictions or feelings of inadequacy as fathers or workers—are something to be covered up and ashamed of. How do you convince them there’s another way?

 Every coin has two sides. I tell them my story, which is one of sex addiction and brokenness, but if a man hasn’t had sexual struggles and profound failure, that’s ok. We just have to tell our stories of vulnerability. There’s deep shame that can get embedded in a man, and when a man shares a story like that, it gives other men permission to tell a story like that too.

The other is to look at the story of Jesus. Jesus never shamed anyone. We often see God through the Old Testament, and that can help us understand God, but in the New Testament we see God through the image of Jesus, the visible image of the invisible god. Jesus never shamed sexual sinners, he never shamed people that were needy, he never condemned people for their failures. The people that he was even remotely hard with or rebuked were the religious people who claimed to have their act all together.

A perfect example of that is the story of the woman about to be stoned for adultery.

Yeah, that’s a powerful story. And somewhere was the man she committed adultery with, and it might have been one of those men putting her out there. Part of Jesus’ grace was that he didn’t shame the woman, but he also didn’t say to the men, “Hey, you’re all a bunch of oppressive sexual sinners.” He called out their good nature. He said if you’re without sin, cast the first stone, and they all walked away. It’s not only that he doesn’t shame, but that he calls out the best part of us.