A recently released study finding that at least one in four teenage girls nationwide has a sexually transmitted disease (STD) — and the not-so-publicized news that so, too, does one in five adults — is, well, not so shocking for those of us who have lived the experience.

According to the study, which was conducted as part of a government health survey in 2003 - 2004 by Sara Forhan of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 3 million teenage girls have at least one STD. Among African American teens, the percentage is even higher: almost half of the young women have an STD.

I know what they are going through. When I was 21 years old, my doctor sat me down, looked at me with sad eyes, and told me that I had contracted a sexually transmitted disease. I couldn't believe it was true, especially since I'd practiced "safe sex," as taught at school, and engaged in sex only while in a committed relationship.

Yet the diagnosis was inescapable. And so began the first of many days during which I wrestled with how quickly sex could go from "free and casual" to "medical and forever." I entered into a very private, dark period of my life that lasted about eight years. Every time someone would compliment my looks or appearance, I felt as if my life had become something akin to a cardboard cutout. I may have looked good on the outside, but I was almost literally dying on the inside. (The type of STD I have is a leading cause of cancer in women.)

As my required check-ups continued, I noticed that the doctor's initial empathy for my condition turned into a cavalier attitude. During one such visit, I poured out my heart to him and asked him a number of questions (for where else could I go when no one else knew my secret?). He replied with an actual pat on my back and the comment, "These days, everyone has something." Based on the results from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's study, it's no wonder my doctor acted this way.

His words didn't help me escape from the sense that I was secretly crumbling into an internal darkness — a darkness into which it felt no one else could possibly reach.

I was not a Christian or a churchgoer at the time, but I unwittingly became friends with some honest-to-goodness followers of Jesus. After years of crying out for relief and comfort to a God I didn't know well, he sent some suburban disciples to introduce me to him personally. Most of them didn't know my secret or how badly I knew that I needed God, but their genuine concern for me led me on the road to restoration.

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That was seven years ago. Since discovering that God had a "hope and a future" (Jer. 29:11) for me, I have married a forgiving and understanding Christian man and have experienced God's healing.

My experience tells me that Christians can make a great difference in the lives of young women shamed by contraction of an STD. What a great testimony to God's love and forgiveness such caring can be! The media often expect Christians to scoff or respond judgmentally to sexual sin. What if, instead, we were the first people to extend open arms to suffering young women? What if we offered our churches and our homes as places where they could talk about their secret? It seems to me that's how Jesus would respond.

So, practically speaking, what can Christians do?

Pray. There is no better first response to the STD epidemic. We serve a God who is able to calm seas and move mountains; the millions of young women with STDs are not beyond his reach or his compassion.

Open our hearts. Sometimes in the church we begin to assign levels of "badness" to sin. Remember that sexual sin is no worse than any other, and that people suffering from an STD haven't committed a sin worse than the ones you've committed. We all have one thing in common — our sin could only be cleansed by a wonderful Savior. Ask God what he'd like you to do to help these women, and ask him to bring some of the hurting teens (and their parents) into your life to be listened to and loved.

Talk about sex in our churches. If you are a church leader, address the topic. Share the statistics. Offer God's love and grace. Tell local radio stations that you're going to be addressing the topic of STDs and that you're intentionally reaching out in love to those who are secretly suffering. Make it known that you want to walk down this road with them. Keep in mind that there's a high likelihood that members of your congregation have STDs.

Schedule a 'thankfulness revival.' Here's a crazy idea: Ask your pastor to include in the Sunday morning service a time for people in the congregation to share publicly the ugliness from which they've been redeemed. Members will be encouraged, and visitors will feel more at ease knowing that they are among fellow imperfect people. Those with STDs won't feel singled out, and their hearts may be opened to the possibility that God can love and forgive them, too.

Educate teenagers in your youth group. Help them to wrestle with the difference between our culture's bombardment of casual-sex messages (from movies, TV, MySpace, Facebook, and just about everywhere else) and God's plan for purity until marriage. Purity isn't even on many teens' radars. They need to know that what they hear about sex from their schools and the media isn't the full story. On the other side of their favorite movie's "happily ever after" ending, which included sexual promiscuity, there is a high potential for sexual disease.

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Every day across our country, Christians pray for the opportunity to serve those in need. The results of this STD survey show us one possible answer to that prayer. There aren't many outreaches that can touch 20 to 25 percent of the people both inside and outside of our churches' walls. I sense in this survey an incredible opportunity for Jesus-followers to reach our broken world with God's story of redeeming love.

Jen Oxford is a freelance writer in Illinois and the founder of a ministry to people with STDs. To see a video recounting her full story of redemption and healing, visit www.DeepDarkSecret.org.

Related Elsewhere:

The CDC has a press release about the study.

In a Christianity Today article last year, Gina Dalfonzo told the story of how politics got in the way of telling people HPV causes cervical cancer.

A 2007 Christianity Today editorial examined whether HPV vaccines should be mandatory.