Tag Archives: sex

SEX, LOVE, AND THE WAY OF THE WORLD

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.

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Two Orientations: Body, Soul and Sex (#1)

[Programming Note: This post begins a new series on Soul, Body and Sex. But it continues the subject of the previous seven-part series on Faith and the Contemporary Moral Crisis. I recommend reading those essays as a foundation for this series.]

Where are we?

In previous posts I’ve tried to get to the roots of the moral crisis that engulfs contemporary culture. At the origin of this crisis stands the abandonment of the long-accepted notion that human beings acquire experiential knowledge of the good as communities and transmit it through tradition. Simultaneously, modern culture adopted a romantic notion of the good as a feeling of well-being and an individualist view of how we come to know the good.

Given its subjective view of the good, modern culture can no longer make sense of the right as a moral rule that conforms to the moral law. Hence the “right” becomes a private assertion of “what is right for me” or it is identified with legislated human law made through the political process. The simmering crisis becomes open conflict when society’s subjective views of the good and right become concrete disagreement about specific moral behaviors. These disagreements can be settled only by coercion in one of its modern forms: protest and intimidation or legislated human law.

Thoughtful (and faithful) Christians find themselves under fire because they submit themselves to the authority of Jesus Christ and the Scriptures and retain the traditional view of the good and the right. When Christians oppose the dominant culture’s subjective view of the good and the right they appear backward, oppressive, insensitive, cruel and downright hateful. Indeed, they appear as enemies of humanity worthy of marginalization, legal proscription and even persecution.

Two Orientations

We are now at the point in our discussion of the moral crisis where we need to speak about specific behaviors. And I might as well begin with the body and sex. In the contemporary controversy over the use of our bodies we see most vividly the clash of two irreconcilable moral visions. Though the particulars differ, the clash is not new. The New Testament is replete with warnings about this collision of worlds: two opposing kingdoms (Col 1:3), life and death (Col 2:3), visible and the invisible (2Cor 4:18), the way of the Spirit and the way of the flesh (Gal 5:13-26) and many others. One of the clearest contrasts is found in Colossians 3:1-14. Paul contrasts two ways of living as opposition between two orientations: to things above or to earthly things:

“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

The New Testament clearly views the moral life as an aspect of a comprehensive and internally consistent way of life, at once religious, spiritual and moral. Its specific moral rules are not isolated and arbitrary. The moral prohibitions in Colossians 3:5-11, quoted above, are interrelated. All of them are integral to the “earthly nature.” The list in verse 5 centers on misuse of the natural urges of physical body: “sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed.” The list in verse 8 has to do with misuse of our need for acceptance and fellowship from others: “anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language.” And the physical dimension cannot be separated from the social. We use our bodies to communicate with others and our physical urges almost always involve interaction with others.

The Body

The New Testament affirms the created goodness of the body. But the goodness of the body lies in the possibility for the body’s proper use. The body is not absolutely good, so that whatever we do with it is also good. It can be misused and misdirected. Those whose minds, hearts and wills are set “on things above” want to use their bodies for the Lord while those whose minds, hearts and wills are set “on things on the earth” view their bodies as instruments for their own pleasure and power. Those who direct their minds toward Christ desire to learn the purpose for which God created their bodies and the rules for their proper use. To those whose minds are set on earthly things, the Bible’s moral rules for the proper use of the body seem strange and unnatural.

The Bible speaks of human beings as body and soul. We are physical and mental. We possess freedom at some levels of our being, but at other levels the automatic processes of nature operate apart from our choice or awareness. The Bible is not concerned with the philosophical problem of the composition of human beings, with debates about the nature of the soul and the relationship between soul and body. It is concerned with the orientation of the whole human being toward or away from God. But the Bible acknowledges what we all know from experience: there is a hierarchical order in the relationship between body and soul. The mind is the ruling aspect and the body needs to be ruled and guided. Our minds enable us to gain wisdom to discern the good and right. The body apart from the mind possesses no conscious knowledge of the good and right. It works more or less automatically and instinctually.

Now consider the two orientations of Colossians 3:1-14 again in light of our created nature as body and soul. Paul speaks of the two ways of living, two possible orientations to God of our whole persons. As whole persons we are body and soul, and the body must be guided by the soul. (Note: the soul is more than the mind, but it includes the mind.) But the mind must be illuminated by moral and spiritual truth from above in order to guide the body to its proper end, which is to serve God. Paul urges us to set our minds and hearts on “things above”. Unless the mind is set on “things above” it cannot lead the body to do good and right. When the mind forsakes “things above”, the body–through its automatic and instinctual urges–begins to dominate the mind and the mind becomes a mere instrument we use to seek out ways to please the body. It thinks only about “earthly things”. Instead of rising higher to become more and more like God, human beings fall to earth to become merely smart animals. Dangerous ones too!

To be continued…

Future questions: what is the body for? Do I have a right to use my body as I like? Does mutual consent make what I do with another human being good and right?