Over the last few months I’ve been posting a series of reflections on the idea of holiness and how it relates to the big areas of life. My basic idea has been that holiness is a beautiful idea and one whose time has come again. It is about flourishing as human beings, becoming like Jesus and sharing in his nature.
This is the last topic in the series (you can find the others here) – what does holiness have to do with sex?
I’m conscious that I could write tens of blogs and not cover everything. This means that I’m not going to deal in detail with some of the controversial issues that you might want answers to. Please feel free to email me confidentially if you would like to talk or want answers to a particular issue.
There are two Bible readings that are particularly relevant to this blog. I’m not going to extract them here as this is already a long post. If you would like to read them, they are Genesis 2:4-7, 15-25 and 1 Corinthians 7:25-35.
I’m going to examine two aspects of sex that I think our culture gets wrong and begin to give some principles for thinking and acting in a Christian way.
The Idolatry of Sex
First I want to address the idolatry of sex.
We live in a culture that is obsessed with sex. Watching TV or movies or listening to songs one would be forgiven for imagining that having sex is an essential part of personal fulfilment. In some indefinable way, the idea of sex is sold to us, telling us that our purpose is to find a sexual partner and that if we do not then we are doomed to live unfulfilled and sub-optimal lives.
This idea is deeply problematic, even outside a religious context.
First, and foremost, it isn’t true. Expressing ourselves sexually may be enjoyable but it doesn’t satisfy our deepest longings and needs. Put simply it is a good and important part of life but it isn’t that important.
Second, because it isn’t true, it provokes frustration:
- For those who are not in a sexual relationship there are often normal desires but now they can be tinged with the anxiety of missing out on something essential.
- For those who are in a sexual relationship, the emphasis our culture places on sex can cause us a deeper anxiety – it doesn’t complete us or fulfil our lives so perhaps we are not with the right partner or we aren’t doing it right.
When we think about the archetypical story of humanity in Genesis 2, man was created, worked, prospered, and found community, partnership and connection with God and with another person before sex is mentioned in verse 24.
We can go further, singleness, while it can be painful and frustrating, can also be an enormous advantage once we realise that sex is not the most important part of life.
Think for a moment about the ultimate expression of a human life – Jesus. As far as we know he was not married, nor was he sexually active. It wouldn’t matter if he was but as far as we know he wasn’t. And his life touched more lives, was as full of friendship and purpose and joy and hope and suffering, more complete than any other, and accomplishing more than any other.
Sex is not an essential part of being human, nor is it the ultimate end for which we are here.
Flourishing as a person, finding the purpose for which we are living, contentment and enjoyment lies in our relationship with God and with others whether or not we are sexually active.
To believe otherwise is not only mistaken, it is a form of idolatry – locating our self-worth, our identity, our salvation outside of Christ.
The Ideal of Sex
Having said that, sex is an important part of life and the Bible has much to say about how it can be a positive and wonderful part of God’s creation.
Part of God’s Design
Sex is a part of God’s design of the universe. In the Genesis stories God’s first words to people are a blessing and a command – ‘Be fruitful and increase in number’.
Too often Christian tradition has treated sex as something shameful or intrinsically connected with sin. That is fundamentally wrong.
Used correctly, sex is one important and powerful aspect of who we are. As with anything powerful, however, it is important to understand it and how it is designed to be used if we are to use it well.
It’s here that we come back to our reading from Genesis. We can see three aspects of God’s design for sex that are important if we are to want to live holy and flourishing lives.
Sex is a union between two people and it should be faithful. It sticks them together, joins them.
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.
It isn’t simply a recreation or something we can treat lightly. When we are sexually active with someone, in some way we are joined to them physically for a moment but also spiritually and emotionally.
It isn’t any coincidence that in the ancient Hebrew scriptures that we have as the Old Testament, the standard picture that is used for sex is ‘knowing’ someone.
The flip-side of this intimacy is that when you pull apart something stuck firmly to something else you almost always hurt or break one or both.
This means that sex is designed to be exercised in the context of a faithful relationship in which the partners are committed to one another. They are committed to not tearing apart that which has been stuck together.
This is what marriage is – a promise, to God, to another person, to the community around that what we are joining together we won’t pull apart. When that promise is made we can give ourselves completely, be completely vulnerable to another without fear that the glue will need to be ripped apart.
Christian teaching has always been that we should wait for a time when we are willing to make those promises, to commit to one another before being sexually active. This comes from a place of respecting and honouring the power of sex to unite us and its potential for hurting us.
Second, sex is designed to be fruitful.
‘Be fruitful and increase in number’.
God’s design for sex embraces joy and commitment but it is also designed to produce life – to be fruitful.
The availability of effective contraceptives has changed much, in many ways, much for the better. Yet sex removed from the possibility of bearing children does also raise significant problems.
When we separate sex from the possibility of producing children we make it far more selfish – it is all about us and not about something bigger. We also diminish it – it becomes simply another form of recreation rather than the supreme act of creativity and of providing children not only for ourselves but also for society.
None of this means that we should not use contraception responsibly to manage and control when we have children.
Nor does it in anyway diminish or invalidate relationships which struggle to produce children. I have seen first-hand the pain that comes where couples have wanted children and have not been able to.
It does mean, however, that in principle when we counsel couples or get married, we should be open to children and make room for God to give them to us.
Finally, sex is designed to be sacrificial.
In this as with every other area of Christian life we are giving ourselves for the sake of another. It is in doing so that we find our fulfilment and deepest joy.
St Paul says this in 1 Corinthians 7:3-4
The husband should fulfil his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.
Paul is saying that our partner’s joy and flourishing and satisfaction should be our main concern in our sex lives as in every other part of our relationship.
Sex is not designed as an opportunity to gratify ourselves but give ourselves to another and be joined to them.
This is one of the reasons why pornography is such a distortion of sex and, ultimately, our humanity:
- it diminishes the person featured – they become an object to be used;
- it diminishes the user – he or she turns in on themselves and become self-centred; and
- it diminishes sex – it becomes merely another tool, no more special or significant than a video game.
This, then, is the basis of God’s good design for sex. It is:
- fruitful; and
As we come to apply this in our lives we need to remember that we all fall short. Noone is perfect, yet through Christ all our sins, sexual, or otherwise can be forgiven and removed from us.
How can we live in light of this? There is much that we could say but I want to suggest one application for those who are presently married, one for those who are not and one for us all as a community.
For those of us who are presently married, how do we treat our sex life? We should be seeking to love our spouse, seeking for their joy and their fulfilment. This can be a sensitive subject but it is important. Why not talk it through and try to make it a priority? This may well involve apologies for where we have hurt one another or been selfish but it will bring us closer together and improve our marriages.
For those who are not presently married, can we embrace our position, using it to seek God for what he has for us, and developing wider friendships both male and female?
For us all, we should be living as a true community, providing friendship for all, bringing people into our lives. We need to make church a place free of judgment where people can find friendship and peace and hope, making space for others in our lives and families.
You can find a book of 9 reflections covering the material I’ll be sharing in these posts by clicking here. You can also check out our website to hear talks on the same subject.
If you’re interested in reading more, here are some of the resources I have found particularly helpful and which I have used to prepare these articles.
Foster, Richard J., Money, Sex and Power (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2009)
Hays, Richard B., The Moral Vision of the New Testament (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1996)
Hosier, Matthew, Sex Talks (Amazon, 2011)
Piper, John, Living in the Light: Money, Sex and Power (Epsom: Good Book Company, 2016)
Wesley, John, The Complete Sermons (Hargreaves Publishing: Kindle Edition)
 Genesis 1:28.
 Genesis 2:24.
 Genesis 1:28.
 1 Cor. 7:3-4