Be Holy and Sexual
A whole cluster of intimacies contribute to worth-while friendships. We examined some at length in chapter one. But we omitted the one which presents most people with most problems: sexual intimacy. The omission was deliberate on my part, not because it is of no importance, but because it is of vital importance. It is so important that in this chapter we shall talk about things sexual to the exclusion of everything else.
Although whole books have now been devoted to the subject of sex, there remains an urgent need to tidy up the existing chaotic aftermath of the sexual revolution of the '60s. Like shopkeepers clearing up High Street after a weekend of looting, we shall attempt to bring order out of confusion, beauty from what seems like destruction.
In order to effect this sexual clean-up, it is necessary to consider certain questions. The answers affect our attitudes, our behavior and our emotions. The questions span such broad considerations as: What does popular Christian opinion have to say about sex? What is God's verdict? What are we to understand by this over-used word 'sexuality'? How can we adequately accept and appropriately express our sexuality? What is Jesus' example?
Beliefs about sex
Beliefs about sex lie in the church today like layers of assorted biscuits in a tin. Some Christians still hold an ultrapessimistic view. For them, sex is still the great unmentionable. Others have shaken off the taboos of the past and
adopted the sex ethic of the permissive society in which we live. Yet others are beginning to give thanks to God for sex, recognizing that it is one of his gifts. But some still practise a kind of dualism. As one young Christian voiced it recently, 'I can see that sex within marriage is desirable, possibly even beautiful. But as a single person, I've always believed I had to be asexual until I'm married.'
To be human is to be sexual. No-one can be sexless. I propose, therefore, to look at some of the more common myths about sex; to highlight them so that we can place them alongside the truths which we find in the Bible.
A blight on human nature
Some Christians believe that the sexual surges which pulsate through our bodies are marks of man's disobedience, man blemished by the Fall, the fleshly lusts Peter speaks of in 1 Peter 2:11. Such Christians cannot imagine that Adam and Eve might have enjoyed sex-play in the Garden of Eden. They find it difficult to accept that God looked on the naked bodies of the man and woman he had made genitally equipped to enjoy playing with each other, and that he labelled this artistry 'good'. The prevailing mood which surrounds human sexuality for such people is not celebratory, a sign of wholeness or healthy aliveness. No. It is finger-wagging reproachfulness, condemnation; in the eyes of some, even evil.
This negativism which has percolated through the Christian world for centuries fills our minds and affects our attitudes more deeply than we realize. Even though, in our heads, we believe we have smashed the 'sex-is-shameful' belief so that it lies in tiny pieces on the ground, our reactions and attitudes reflect our reluctance to believe that God was the architect of sexual sensations, sexual activity and indeed, the human body with its sexual identity.
God underlined this for me just before I began writing this book. I was in Cyprus, soaking up the sun, praying about this book and writing Scripture Union notes on the subject of the Second Coming of Christ. One evening, while I was in the bath, loud noises startled me. It sounded as though all the residents of the high-rise block flats where we were
staying had congregated in the flat above ours and were hammering on the walls and ceilings of our apartment. When the bath began to move and the walls to tremble, I called out in terror, 'What's happening?' No-one answered, so I leapt out of the bath and ran to the lounge in search of my husband. As I ran my mind flashed to my Scripture Union notes; to my assertion that Jesus had promised to return one day. 'Perhaps he's come?' The initial sense of excitement evaporated as I looked down at my naked body. 'Oh no! He can't choose this minute. I'm naked. And I'm still dripping wet.'
Since that evening, our first experience of an earthquake, I've asked myself many times why I was so reluctant to face my Maker in a state of undress. I know in my head that God created my body, that he would not be embarrassed to see me naked. But do I really acknowledge this fact with my emotions? I have to admit it, but my emotions and my head were out of alignment. Although I had been asking others to accept their bodies and their sexuality as God-given gifts I had not reached that degree of maturity myself. Sex can be embarrassing, a threat, an unbearable tension.
Even in the sex-saturated society in which we live today, for many Christians the very word 'sex' is embarrassing. I think of the young Christian who once came to see me to talk about the sexual struggles which plague her. In the middle of the conversation, she blurted out, 'This conversation will have to stop. It's making me feel physically sick. It's just not wholesome to talk about sex.' It was not that the conversation was in any sense smutty or distasteful. It was just that she could not bear to think of herself as a sexual human being.
For such Christians, the very presence of powerful chemical reactions surging through their body poses a threat. The spontaneous, tantalizing, uninvited biological urges which clamour for attention in all of us at one time or another, crowd out the presence of Christ and cancel out all attempts to pray and worship. As one student expressed it to me: 'You see an attractive girl in church and you're finished. You look away at the stained glass windows or the organist or the
preacher, but your concentration has gone. There's no way you're going to experience the presence of God. You might just as well go home or go for a walk as try to be part of what's going on around you.'
When biological urges compete so successfully with the spiritual disciplines which feed our soul, it is easy to be beguiled into believing that sex is an all-conquering demon; that when it beckons you have no option but to capitulate to its demands.
Sex gives rise to fear, anxiety, guilt
Sex is not only an embarrassing factor in our personality, a tigress which seems to defy all attempts we make to hold the controls of our behaviour, but, for some, it seems to become an unbearable tension, giving rise to fear, anxiety and guilt. Teenage boys, for example, can become very anxious when 'wet dreams' begin, particularly if no-one has explained to them that this is a normal part of the maturing process. Similarly girls can be full of fear when their periods begin. Some even wonder whether they might be seriously ill, or will bleed to death.
Many are plagued with unexpressed guilt about their first physical encounters with the opposite sex:
'I remember my first boyfriend. I was only fourteen. We kissed and fondled each other. I liked it. But I was frightened too. I used to pray every night, "Lord, show me if I'm displeasing you." But there was no-one I could talk to about it so I went on not knowing if I was sinning or not, so always feeling vaguely guilty.
Sex: a force to be reckoned with, repressed or suppressed
Because sex is such a fearsome animal its influence, in the eyes of some, needs to be suppressed or repressed. 'I don't think it should even be talked about. You just don't know what you'll encounter if you once start talking about these things.' Suppression, consciously forcing sexual awakening into a kind of internal Pandora's box and firmly and stubbornly sitting on the lid, is useless. It is not unlike putting a
bomb in the box and sitting on it. And repression, blocking out your sexual desires so effectively that you pretend to be sexless, is worse. It is ineffective, but also harmful because it's unreal. Sex is so powerful that it will find some way of expressing itself, maybe even through perversion. Sex is an essential part of you, vital to your emotional growth. Cut it off, like amputating a limb, and your maturing never comes to full fruition. Your growth is stunted.
The tragedy is that many Christians deny their sexuality because they misunderstand the value of this part of their personality. They mistake normal, powerful, bodily sensations for lust. As we shall go on to observe later, these strong biological undercurrents can sweep us into lustful thought patterns or behaviour, but of themselves they are not lustful, they are an appetite, like hunger. An appetite, of itself, is not immoral but neutral.
Sex is good, a panacea for all woes
Many Christians today, as I have said, now consider this sexual negativism to be outmoded. They have exchanged these views for more fashionable garments. They rejoice in the bodily pleasures which accompany sexual awakening, but they allow this pleasure to become the guiding principle of their lives. Instead of learning that any emotion can be controlled by the will which co-operates with the Holy Spirit of God, they play into the hands of the goddess of lust and abandon themselves to her. Like many of their non-Christian counterparts, they swallow the twentieth-century lies: that sexual experiences alleviate aloneness, that sex is the panacea for all woes. They look to sexual experience for emotional completion and wonder why a series of sexual encounters leaves them feeling, not complete, but drab, jaded, abandoned, soiled.
What is sexuality?
I have written enough to show that the Christian world is still bemused by this force we call sex. We must now move on to enquire what this word really means.
Perhaps the most satisfactory description of sex is this: sex
is a mystery. A mystery is something we are incapable of understanding with our tiny, finite minds. Sex is one of the parts of our being human which we shall never fully fathom. Even so, we need to try to understand it, so we must search for definitions.
Sex, as we have already observed, is a biological awakening; what Lewis Smedes calls 'a glandular urge'.1 As such it is natural, a part of our make-up, designed by God. The ability to be attracted to the opposite sex was implanted in us by God. At least, that is the way I understand Genesis 2:25. The ability to be fascinated by the curves and personality of the opposite sex was also built in by God way back in Genesis 1:27-28. And the ability to feel drawn to a magnet, was dreamed up by God, created by him. Sexual magnetism, was dreamed up by God, created by him. Sexual excitation, like the sex drive, was God's idea. Hormones and erections, tender breasts and ejaculations and the stomach somersaulting with desire, were God's brain-children.
Sex is natural, biological. It is also an appetite: a chemical reaction conveying an urgent message, like hunger. This appetite is at its most intense, particularly for boys, between the ages of sixteen and eighteen. Appetites are strange phenomena. They clamour to be satisfied immediately. But if you fast, you soon discover that appetites need not control you. You can control them. When you abstain from food, at first your tummy protests, you feel hungry, even faint. But as the fast continues you feel less hungry, not more. The same is true if you diet sensibly. You find you want less food, not more.
Exactly the same principle applies with sexual fasting. If you give in to sexual demands, your body, like a tyrant, will demand more and more. The desire becomes insatiable. But if you observe a sexual fast or a strict sexual diet, the appetite shrinks to a manageable size. You gain the mastery.
Sex: a reunion, a wholesome, clean drive
The quest for a fuller definition of sex is fascinating. One of the assurances it brings is that sex is neither dirty nor evil. How can it be? As we have already seen and shall go on to
emphasize, God created it. And Timothy reminds us that nothing created by God could be unwholesome. 'Everything that God has created is good; nothing is to be rejected, but everything is to be received with a prayer of thanks...' (1 Timothy 4:4 GNB). Or as the psalmist expresses it,
You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body, and knit them together in my mother's womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! It is amazing to think about. Your workmanship is marvellous... You were there while I was being formed in utter seclusion! (Psalm 139:13-15 LB).
When we begin to realize this, it is as though the veil is lifted from our eyes and we see human sexuality for what it is: a necessity. Without the sex drive, men and women would not be propelled towards one another in the quest for intimacy we examined in the first chapter of this book. The sexual drive is the motor which moves the machine of our life towards this fascinating other person who is equipped, not just to fulfill our genital needs, but to give us love and be loved by us, to give us trust and be trusted by us, to give us a sense of belonging and, in turn, to find their sense of belonging in us: in our bodies and in emotional oneness.
Sex is the means whereby a mysterious fusion can take place. Sex is not so much a union as a reunion. God took Adam, the one, and made two from the one. But they did not remain separate for long. They came back together again. They were reunited. This reunion at its best spells completeness: physical, emotional and spiritual.
Sex, not just genitality
But sex must never be thought of simply in terms of hormones and orgasms, sex organs and sex urges. Sex encompasses a breadth of meaning which includes this genitality and goes beyond it. We have so far used the term 'sex' to describe sexual intercourse, sexual attraction, genital desire. We must now go on to consider the social dimension of sexuality, the non-genital aspect of sex which lies as much
at the core of our personality as this urgent longing for bodily fusion.
Donald Goergen describes non-genital sex in this way:
The social dimension of our sexuality consists in the tender relationships we experience. It is the affectionate, compassionate, and tender side of sexuality. Affection, compassion, tenderness, warmth are rooted in sexuality and expressive of sexuality, although not specifically genital.... Sexuality includes the whole area of our emotional warmth as human beings.2
Goergen goes further and concludes:
The tender and compassionate person is a person who has reached sexual maturity. As long as we do not feel comfortable with our biology and physiology, we are not going to be able to socialize our sexuality.... If the genital side of sexuality is repressed it is going to lead to an effectively inhibited person.3
In trying to define sexuality, then, if we are to be accurate in our thinking we must hold two concepts in tension: the genital or sensual and the social or affectionate. Whenever we use the overworked word 'sexual' we must learn to distinguish in our minds just what we mean by this term. Often we use the word sexual when we mean genital: sexual intercourse when we mean genital intercourse, sexual intimacy when we mean genital intimacy, sexual desire when we mean the longing for bodily closeness.
God's verdict on sex
With this dual meaning in our minds, we turn to the question of sex from God's perspective. Does God really like sex: the emotional and the genital expression of oneness? In answering that question, few of us would query whether God applauds warmth and tenderness, kindness and patience between persons. We know from 1 Corinthians 13 that this is central to true intimacy. But does God really approve of
genitality? Did he really intend Adam and Eve to enjoy the bodily pleasures sexual excitation brings? Did he really invent orgasms, the genital pleasure which brings contentment and peace to married partners? Or were these pleasures stumbled on by men and women? Are they, perhaps, unknown to God? For adequate answers to these questions, we must search the Scriptures.
God is pro-sex
The more I delve into the Bible, the more convinced I become that God is pro-sex. If you are looking for anti-sex propaganda you will not find it in the pages of the Bible. A quick survey of key passages from the Old and New Testament establishes this fact.
As we observed in chapter one, Genesis 2:18-25 is a good place to start. Here God deliberately and intentionally creates for man a companion with a separate sexual identity, which the man finds attractive and magnetic. Different. God creates their differences, not for separateness, but for oneness. God intended that the two should be reunited so that the needs created by their deep loneliness would be met in one another. This fellowship and unity included all the intimacies we observed in chapter one and also extended to the genital. Genesis 2:25 is an appreciation of the human body: 'The man and the woman were both naked, but they were not embarrassed' (GNB). It was not just that embarrassment had not entered Paradise. It was far more positive than that. They celebrated. They delighted in one another, physically and emotionally and in the presence of God. And God saw that it was good.
I make that claim, not because of chapter and verse from Genesis, but because of the Song of Solomon. If ever extravagant language was used to describe sensuous love-play it is used in this book of the Bible. As in Genesis, the language used is celebratory. God is not down on sex; he created men and women genitally equipped to lead one another into transports of delight. In the context of committed marital love, this is the pleasure he wants them to give to one another.
The New Testament takes up this joyful theme. When Jesus is asked questions concerning marriage and sex, he reminds his hearers of the basic principles outlined in Genesis: sex and marriage are God's gifts, planted in Paradise. 'Haven't you read the scripture... in the beginning the Creator made people male and female? And God said, "... the two will become one" ' (Matthew 19:4 - 6 GNB). In other words, 'Don't you understand that from the beginning God intended that men and women should be attracted to each other; they should satisfy one another?' And Paul, who is often accused of being negative about sex, underlines the God-givenness of marital union. In Ephesians 5 he initiates an amazing analogy. Marital oneness which includes the sexual union is not unlike the relationship which exists between Christ, the bridegroom, and his bride, the church: close, permanent, binding. No-one can find a higher, more wholesome picture of the love of man and woman than that.
It follows, from what we have observed, that God's view of sex is not belittling, degrading or negative, as we shall see again in chapter five. On the contrary, far from seeing sex as a horrid by-product of the fall, the Bible sees it as natural, designed, ordained and blessed by God. These truths explode most of the myths we have pin-pointed already in this chapter. So we must go on to ask why we in the church are still in such a hopeless muddle about sex.
In an earlier book, Two into One (chapter nine), I tried to show how the pessimistic view of sex crept into the church: through the anti-sex stance adopted by the early Fathers. After Ephesians 5 and the superlative image of genital intercourse Paul used, the pendulum swung from positive to negative. By the fourth century the view that genital intercourse is synonymous with original sin was firmly established. Even though this so-called Christian teaching about sex was unbiblical, it formed the basis of the church's propaganda for centuries.
The 'sex is filthy' myth put down long and sturdy roots and pushed up prolific and growing shoots, and although
various attempts were made to axe the tree, they made as much or as little impression as assaulting a giant oak with a rubber axe. Then came the sexual revolution of the 1960s. This exposed the tree for what it was: a sham, a tree sporting the semblance of life and one which was rotten at the core.
Unfortunately, the sexual revolution was no more biblical than the teaching it was trying to undermine. It replaced negativity towards sex with idolization and prohibition with permissiveness and glamourization. It forgot or ignored the fact that, although sex is natural, like every other part of our personality it is also shot through with sin. This huge swing of the pendulum, with its invitation, indeed emphasis, on sexual license or so-called freedom, resulted in untold harm. It is only now, twenty years later, that journalists are recording the degree of the damage. To quote just one:
The letting down of barriers in the 1960s seemed to some of us a glorious revolution. Now, as we see the carnage that has been wrought in the lives of so many adolescent girls, those of us who hailed the loosening up of the sexual rules as a triumph against hypocrisy, have sadly begun to think again.4
Whenever the pendulum of popular opinion swings from left to right and back again, people are inevitably caught in the middle, still working out their own viewpoint. This is the situation which faces us today. And whatever the Bible may say about the context of the full genital expression of sex being marriage, and however persuasive people's warnings about promiscuity and genital license are, the door has been swung open and the wild horse has bolted. As we have seen, sex is not just about attitudes and emotions, sex is energy. Sex can be an obsession. Sex can be compulsive. To add to the problem, man has an urgent need to conform, a fear of being the odd-man-out.
The need to conform
Conformity is the need to be like everyone else, to behave as they behave, to think as they think, to dress as they dress.
Conformity is the fear of being different from the group, the fear that if you reject commonly-held ideas you yourself will be rejected, and the fear of being laughed at. In the West today, particularly among adolescents and young adults, the pressure to conform is enormous. A girl who once confessed her sexual sin to me put the situation succinctly. 'Oh yes! I know what the Bible says about sleeping around, but I just dismissed that as old-fashioned. After all, everybody's doing it. Why should I be different? My friends just wouldn't understand. They'd mock.'
It is this pressure, coupled with the overwhelming powerfulness of the sexual drive, which sometimes pushes Christians into behaving promiscuously and unbiblically. Christians, like others influenced by the media, friends and society, become sexually active, not necessarily because they want genital kicks, but because they do not know how to abstain. This same pressure paralyzes others, like the person I've already mentioned who concluded: in the face of all these pressures, there's only one solution, not to conform but to pretend: to become sexless.
For the committed Christian, neither of these options is ideal or biblical. Instead, we must learn both to accept our sexuality as God-given and to express it appropriately. We shall look at the nuts and bolts of the outworking of this ethic in more detail in chapters five and six. Here, we content ourselves with the example Jesus set before us and aim to pattern our lives on his examples and teaching.
We have seen that the sex drive is as bewildering and exciting as driving a Mercedes on the motorway when you are used to driving a Renault 4. It wants to go places fast, and you want to be taken with it. We have to come to terms with the fact that these desires of themselves are not sinful. But those of us who are honest know how very easily they catapult us into sinful fantasies, sexploitation and downright, common lust. Sex may not be sinful of itself but we know that more than any other human appetite it incites us to sin. So what did Jesus do about his sexuality?
Jesus? Sexual? Yes. As we saw in chapter one, Jesus identified fully with our humanity. He is not the asexual person some people seem to believe him to be. John spells out this fact in the first chapter of his Gospel. 'The Word (Jesus) became flesh.' Flesh! Jesus was not just skin and bones. Surely, if this word 'flesh' means anything it means that Jesus became sexually aware like any other teenage boy; that he knows how it feels to experience the bodily changes of adolescence and almost certainly experienced the emotions felt by every normal man.
If this is so, what can we learn from him?
Of one thing we can be certain: Jesus did not conform to the cultural norm. He was unafraid to swim against the tide. I say this for two reasons. One, because the cultural norm was for men to marry and Jesus remained single. Two, because the cultural norm was for married men to have children by their wives and genital pleasure with a mistress, but Jesus modelled sexual celibacy. Just as Jesus refused to bend under the pressure of the cultural norm, so must we. As Paul puts it, we must not let the world around us squeeze us into its own mould (Roman 12:1 JBP). Rather, we must allow God to re-mould our minds.
Jesus was not a conformist, but neither did he repress or suppress his sexuality. No. He allowed the social side of his sexuality full and free expression. Thus he developed warm and tender relationships with men and women alike. The Gospels lead us to believe that John and Peter, Lazarus, Martha, Mary and others of his friends were really important to him. We know that Jesus expressed his affection through touch and allowed others to touch him. This does not mean that he behaved promiscuously. On the contrary, Jesus was so much master of himself that he could re-channel his emotional drives into the ability to make lasting friendships. In Jesus, we watch amazing miracles unfold before our eyes. In Genesis, God proclaimed that it is not good for man to be alone. God provides man with a source of sexual intimacy in the fullest sense of that word: woman. But Jesus shows that a man can be alone, genitally deprived, yet emotionally fulfilled; that in his state of singleness he can
enjoy maturity and wholeness. In this, as so often, Jesus turns our expectations on their heads. In short, the man Jesus shows us how to be thoroughly whole and thoroughly sexually aware.
What this surely means, then, is that even though we are absorbingly sexual people sexual through and through like Jesus we must learn to feel at home with our bodies, our erotic desires, our pounding hearts. These biological urges can become the spring-board for outgoing, affectionate friendships which do not stoop to treating the bodies of others as toys. We need to achieve a self-awareness, even a body-awareness, which recognizes the changes that are happening inside us, at adolescence and every time we love someone deeply, which refuses to despise these reactions or think of them as enemies, but rather views them as part of God's amazingly fertile creativity. The result is a miraculous unfolding of that mysterious thing we call personhood. In other words, like Jesus, we must learn to integrate the two halves of sexuality, the social and the genital, and flatly refuse the genital permission to rule the roost.
It would be easy to dismiss all this with a shrug of the shoulders and the bleat, 'Well! It's all right for Jesus. He was perfect.' Yes. He was. But he learned the obedience of perfection through the things which he suffered (Hebrews 5:8). Did this suffering include the mental torment of knowing that some women were drawn to him by the magnetism of erotic love? Does it mean that he suffered the anguish of finding some women attractive, while being denied the opportunity to express these strong feelings? The Gospels do not tell us. I personally believe that Jesus' life, sexually speaking, was as much a potential collision course as our own, that he confronted such temptations head-on. But he never sinned. That is amazing.
And yet. On the first Good Friday, soldiers led him to the cross. There, under the blazing heat of the relentless sun, he died a cruel death. Crucifixion. Jesus hung on that cross because you have sinned: because I have sinned. We have failed in many ways. We have failed sexually in thought, word and deed. When Jesus hung there, our sins were trans-
ferred to him. Because he suffered to the bitter end, he dealt the final death-blow to sin's power. However powerful the sex drive within us is, we no longer have to capitulate. Because Jesus died, because Jesus rose again, we do not have to suffer the indignity of a sexuality which is stained. If we are in Christ we have within us another more powerful dynamic: the power which raised Jesus from the dead. If we draw on this power, we can experience the richness of the kind of non-genital relationship we witness at the Garden tomb on Resurrection Day. Mary, sick with grief and sick with love, weeps at the graveside of the One she loves. He comes to her. In one warm, tender, emotionally-charged word, he greets her: 'Mary!' Do they embrace? No. Gently and kindly he refuses her permission to depend on touch. Instead, they enjoy the oneness of an indestructible friendship.
C.S. Lewis captures the nuances and frolic so well:
'Oh, Aslan!' cried both children, staring up at him....
'Aren't you dead then, dear Aslan?' said Lucy.
'Not now,' said Aslan....
'Oh, you're real, you're real! Oh, Aslan!' cried Lucy and both girls flung themselves upon him and covered him with kisses...
'Oh, children,' said the Lion, 'I feel my strength coming back to me. Oh, children, catch me if you can!' He stood for a second, his eyes very bright, his limbs quivering, lashing himself with his tail. Then he made a leap high over their heads and landed on the other side of the Table. Laughing, though she didn't know why, Lucy scrambled over to reach him. Aslan leaped again. A mad chase began. Round and round the hill-top he led them, now hopelessly out of their reach, now letting them almost catch his tail, now diving between them, now tossing them in the air with his huge and beautifully velveted paws, and catching them again, and now stopping unexpectedly so that all three of them rolled over together in a happy laughing heap of fun and arms and legs. It was such a romp as no one ever had except in Narnia; and whether it
was more like playing with a thunderstorm or playing with a kitten Lucy could never make up her mind.5
This refreshingly different description of the kind of relationships Jesus enjoyed (for in Narnia, Aslan the lion represents the Messiah) sums up much of what we have been saying in the last two chapters. Jesus was so wholly human, so comfortably masculine, that relationships with him could be warm and tender, affectionate and fun, serious and relaxing. Real. With Jesus as your friend you felt you mattered. With Jesus as your friend you had someone who understood you. With Jesus as your friend you never knew what would happen next, but you did know that whatever it was it would be good.
This is sexuality at its richest, at its most profound. It leaves me panting for breath, asking the question, 'How can we make relationships like that?' That is the subject of the next chapter. For a closer study of the vexed question: 'Are we allowed any form of genital expression of love before we're married?' we must wait until chapters five and six.
Notes for chapter two
Chapter Three || Table of Contents