In the post made on October 16, 2016, I defined “the world” as “sin in its organizing mode.” The world is the way our lives individually, socially, and in culture become organized when sin is given space to work out its chaotic logic. First John 2:15-17 lists “the lust of the flesh” as one of the three organizing principles of “the world.” Today I want to ask how the lust of the flesh orders, that is, disorders, the world. The lust of the flesh refers to any desire to experience pleasure by means of one of the five senses, though usually we narrow it to taste and touch. Specifically, we will deal with the lust for sexual intercourse, which is the first thing that comes to mind when we hear the term “lust.”
Every human society from the most primitive to the most civilized legislates rules for who may have sex with whom and under what conditions. Such acts as incest, child molestation, adultery, and rape may be defined differently than modern western societies define them, but properly defined they are forbidden in all societies. Warrior societies may permit engaging in forced sex with slaves or conquered enemies. In some tribal societies, giving your wife for sex with a male visitor of the same status is understood not as facilitating adultery but as an act of hospitality. Prostitution is permitted or overlooked in many societies, ancient and modern. And in many cultures the rules for men are much looser that those governing daughters and wives.
As we can see, even “the world” regulates sex. Why? Because sex is a powerful and irrational force! And unregulated by reason it can destroy individuals, families, and societies. It often provokes jealously, inflicts emotional wounds, evokes anger, and sometimes ends in violence. But the world is not stupid and suicidal. It insists on some order. It will not allow individuals to pursue their lusts without restraint.
Why then does John criticize the world for ordering itself according to “the lust of the flesh”? Clearly, John is not implying that “the lust of the flesh” is the only ordering principle the world uses. He lists two others, “the lust of the eye and the pride of life.” And we should not take John’s list of three ordering principles as exclusive of others. Everyone wants to live, be safe, and have friends. Nor is John saying that there is no light and nothing good in the world. The flickering light of reason keeps the world from falling into complete moral chaos. But as John looks at the world from the perspective of the bright light of Jesus Christ, he can see that the world orders itself to accommodate “the lust of the flesh” as much as it can without destroying the social fabric.
In other words, the dominant restraining principle that sets limits on the two lusts and pride is social survival, that is, the traditional and legal order that enables a society to function economically, culturally, and militarily. What makes a social order “the world” in John’s sense is that its principles of order have validity only for this life. Everything is organized to provide maximum pleasure, comfort, and safety in this world. A society can exist and thrive economically, culturally, and militarily, even if it allows individuals to engage in prostitution, promiscuous sex, homosexuality, adultery, pornography or any other avenue of sexual pleasure, as long as these activities do not lead to violence or in other obvious ways threaten the integrity of society. This is the bottom line of the world. And it is this order that John rejects.
But John—and the New Testament as a whole—insists that Christians must order their lives by a higher principle. The Christian rules for who can have sex with whom and under what conditions are not designed simply to enable the social and political order to function culturally, economically, and militarily in ways that provide maximum pleasure, comfort, and safety in this world. That higher principle is love of neighbor enlightened by God’s self-giving love as shown in Jesus Christ. When we see how much God loved our neighbors and us, we will love God in return. And we will love our neighbors in the same way God loved us. Who is our neighbor? Every human being we meet! Love gives only what is good for the beloved, and we learn what is good for our neighbors from God.
Sex is powerful, and, if it is not ordered and disciplined by a higher principle, it is destructive, very destructive. Christianity insists that the drive for sex be subordinated to the principle of love of neighbor, as defined by the quality of God’s love. In this light, you can see why Christianity limits sexual union to marriage. Marriage in the Christian sense is a life-long bond, made before God and human witnesses. It surrounds sexual union with promises of exclusive love and loyalty. It welcomes children and provides stability for them. Marriage is not merely contract agreeing to keep each other satisfied sexually. It is a multidimensional partnership for all of life. The marriage promises to protect husband and wife from the pains of jealously and insecurity. Sex becomes more than a means of pleasure or pride or power. In marriage, the power of sex is turned to a constructive use. It becomes a means of reinforcing and deepening the bond of love and of giving us the emotional certainty that we are loved and will never willingly be abandoned. It protects each person from superficial physical attractions to other people.
Perhaps a society that allows prostitution, promiscuous sex, adultery, pornography or other avenues of sexual pleasure can continue to perform its basic functions. Perhaps it can function even if it aborts (kills) millions of unborn children every year. Perhaps it can deal with diseases spread by promiscuous sex. I don’t deny it. But such societies and the individuals within them follow the way of “the world.” “The love of the Father is not in them.” No one who has sex with a prostitute seeks her highest good. You don’t have sex with a prostitute because she needs the money or love. You cannot be seeking to love people as God has loved you if you “hook up” with them for mutual exploitation. Nor do you love yourself as God’s has loved you when you do such things. You have to disengage sex from love to engage in promiscuous relationships. Instead of expressing deep and lasting love, sex becomes an occasion for hurt, jealously, cruelty, emptiness, and insecurity. Society may survive, but many individuals will not.
Christianity is much stricter than the world in its rules for sex. And it is often ridiculed as being sexually repressed or obsessed or both at the same time. The next time you hear this tired refrain, you will know how to respond. Christianity has a “stricter” view of sex because has a higher view of sex, and of human beings and their dignity. The world expects less because it thinks less of us. We are valued only as means to the survival of the society. Beyond that, we can live as self-destructively as we please and pursue our irrational lusts as we wish. The world doesn’t care. But Jesus teaches us that we should not use each other as mere occasions for pleasure or pride or power. We are to love others in the way God loved us. You should not toy with the most tender and vulnerable sphere of another person’s heart with the powerful and dangerous force of sex unless you love them truly and they love you truly and you have made this known in formal, binding promises.