A Letter to Joshua Harris – Let This Shape You, not Shame You


Hey Joshua –

You’ve been on my mind these last few weeks since you publicly ‘came out’ and apologized for the impact of your books. I have admired your willingness to listen to the stories – the profound pain and anger. It is searing and immense and devastating. I feel the radiation of shame you must feel.  I use the word shame and not guilt on purpose, and this is the reason for my letter.

What is the difference between guilt and shame?

Guilt is what we feel when we do something against our own values or ethic – something WE know is wrong – but we do it anyway.  Shame on the other hand is the emotion we feel when we do something out of our innocence and ignorance that either inadvertently hurts or offends someone, and they react – often dramatically! It is the combination of our innocence and the other’s reaction, which creates a deep confusion in us. We had no intention of causing a negative reaction, or pain, and this leads to us feeling badly about us.  We are bad. We should have somehow known better! That is the feeling shame produces.  I am bad. I am not worthy of love and belonging.  We most often think of shaming events occurring in the lives of small children – and the accumulation of these events lead to a low self-worth.

You are on my mind, because I imagine you might be struggling against shame for having written I Kissed Dating Goodbye. How could you feel guilt?  Guilt would assume that at 21, you would have had the wisdom that you now possess.  That of a 40 year old married man with teenagers.  That of someone who has seen what sex is really like in the context of a real marriage and real life. That of someone who has experienced your own frailties, been in need of God’s grace, and by now has seen in your own life and in the lives of others, how vast God’s love and mercy.

But at 21, you were ‘fulfilling the job description’ of a young adult.

Life likely had rose colored glasses and everything was tied in a neat and tidy bow.  You could believe that if you obeyed God all things would fall perfectly into place. That God functioned like you had been told – like a recipe – to be followed exactly, and the cake always came out right. You were probably sure for yourself and for everyone else too.  I do not doubt that from a very good place, you wanted to share that.

But God and life aren’t like that.  God is all loving – all knowing – and all forgiving, that part is true.  But life, well … it’s unpredictable, and messy, and excruciating, and joyful. And we are sometimes a mess with it. God gave us a prefrontal lobe that doesn’t fully develop until we are 25-28 knowing we are going to learn through our mistakes.  He gave us a reframe for mistakes, called “learning”. If we learn along the way, maybe we won’t have to repeat them.  But God was never the one who threatened to leave in our mistakes – it was always us, convinced by shame of our unworthiness, and convinced that God could not possibly still want us. Shame has always been what has pulled us away from God’s love – really, all love – the love of others as well. Shame convinces us we are undeserving of love.

That is what is both right and wrong about you taking heat right now for the purity movement.

The right part is that God will use this to help you evolve and grow if you see this as a shaping process – not a shaming process. I am confident you had a good heart when you wrote those books. What is wrong is this:  The purity movement was already 15 years underway when your first book came out.  Your book should never have been used as ‘the weapon of choice’.  No book written by a 21 year old should have.  It took advantage of your innocence and used your ‘cool factor’ to serve an agenda.  It’s going to be important for you to read books like Sex, Mom and God by Frank Schaeffer to understand the sociopolitical forces at work in America in the late 80’s and 90’s that set the stage for the Purity Movement and what your childhood was marinating in. Like all the other ascetic movements in Christian history, it was politically motivated.  NOT motivated by God or Jesus. You were a pawn in a much larger game of power and control. In fact, if Jesus had been around, he would have been right in the middle of it, opposing everything going on.

You were part of the fallout.

The other thing that is wrong with you taking all the heat right now is there are many, many others who should be standing with you.  For example all the Southern Baptist ministers who, in their fear, started the True Love Waits Campaign in 1992, or Josh McDowell who wrote one of the first Purity Movement books True Love Waits in 1987, or Life Way Ministries who launched the organization with the pledge cards, purity rings and merchandise that is still going today, or James Dobson who started Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, or Randy Wilson who founded the Purity Balls, or any of the other writers and participants who were old enough TO KNOW WHAT THEY WERE DOING. There are many.  You need to be surrounded by all the people who have been a part of this, and maybe most especially, all the politically and economically motivated people who were/are behind the scenes from the early 1980’s forward.

So, I guess I just wanted to say, I admire your willingness to take the heat for the damage the purity movement has had on so many lives.

I also wanted to recognize that you were very young and likely had no idea what you were doing, while others may have had more of an idea of how they were/are using scare tactics to attempt to coerce and control. In a country like ours with no comprehensive sex education, there are a lot of people who can easily be manipulated by fear – the purity movement took advantage of this.  A vulnerability that unfortunately still exists.

I’d love to chat sometime about how listening to the stories you are hearing now, led me to ten years of research and to the book that is coming out next year.

Until then, know you have an ally.


The Antidote to I Kissed Dating Good-bye:  PRE-ORDER YOUR COPY NOW.  Coming April 2017

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