In my last post I argued that Christians understand that sex is God’s good gift to us. Yet whenever we receive a gift there is a danger that we become so focused on it that we make it more important than the one who gave it to us.
To put it another way, Sex is not God.
As with each of the posts in this series I recommend reading the archetypal account of God’s intention when creating humanity in Genesis 1:26-28 and 2:4-7, 18-25 together with the use of it by Jesus (for example in Matthew 19:3-6) and St Paul (for example in Ephesians 5:31-33).
Sex is Not God
Everyone worships. We can’t help it – we all have a god, whether we think we do or not. As Dylan famously wrote, ‘you’ve got to serve somebody’ (even if that person is, as Lennon replied, yourself).
One way to discover what god we (usually unconsciously) worship is to look for the person or thing around which we orient our life and which we value more highly than anything else. How do we know what a person’s god is? Look for the thing they bow down before, that they would give up other things for.
In our culture, sex is often presented as the highest good, the defining feature of human existence.
And it is not.
This is foundational to a Christian understanding of sex.
It is not the highest good and goal of human life.
It is not the one need around which everything else revolves.
It is not the key to human happiness or fulfilment.
It is not necessary to experience a great, fulfilled and meaningful life now or in the future.
It is not more important than anything else; it probably does not even make the top 10.
The opposite idea saturates our culture. Our age is obsessed with sex. It is in TV shows, in movies, in songs, on billboards, in magazines.
This isn’t the voice of a prophet of prudery; I’m in the middle of defending a good and beautiful understanding of sex.
Yet if we look at our culture’s products, at magazines, or shows or billboards, or even conversation about rights, this is the idea that underpins everything.
Perhaps you doubt that this is really serious. We might be tempted to dismiss it as a bit of fun. There is some truth to that, of course. But there is a serious view behind the jokes and advertising; we are being taught a message and the message is that sexual self-expression is not only the highest human good but vital for living a healthy life.
If you think I am exaggerating, consider the outrage, the sheer incomprehension or ridicule that is often associated with the idea of abstaining from sex with someone to whom you are attracted. To be sexually attracted to someone and to choose not to act upon that desire because of another higher good – whether faithfulness to a marriage promise (even when we don’t feel like it) or a religious teaching is often met with incomprehension or suspicion.
Those who choose to forgo sex for the sake of being faithful to the teachings of Christ are doing something so counter-cultural, so unusual, that I have seen it bring others to following Jesus. The demonstration that there is something so much better than sex, worth so much more than sleeping with someone even if you are attracted to them, that it prompts people to find out more.
The Emperor Has No Clothes
Our culture is obsessed with the idea of the essentialness of sex. And that obsession is bunk.
To cite a cliché, the Emperor is wearing no clothes.
First, it isn’t true: sex is not essential to a fulfilled life.
Plenty of people have fulfilled lives without regularly having sex. In fact, David Spiegelhalter, a statistician from Oxford University, recently published a guide to what research actually shows about people’s sex lives and demonstrated that as a whole people are having less and less sex.Spiegelhalter wryly comments:
‘At this rate of decline…a simple, but extremely naïve, extrapolation would predict that by 2040 the average person will not be having sex at all.’
A society that defines sex as essential to human experience is in fact having less and less sex.
We know that it isn’t true. Jesus Christ, by a country-mile the most influential person of either gender in history, did not, as far as we know, have an active sex life. It wouldn’t have mattered if he had; as I discussed before, sex is God’s good gift. But as far as we can tell, he did not.
The view of sex as essential to a fulfilled and meaningful human life is nonsense.
Second, treating sex as the ultimate good – as a god – is not only untrue, it is harmful.
False gods always harm those who worship them.
In this case, when we treat sex as the ultimate end of human life we inevitably diminish the lives of those who whether through choice or circumstance are not in sexual relationships. It portrays those who are not sexually active as living lives that are less fulfilled or meaningful or rich because they are not having sex. They are to be born with until they become sexually active and then they can be treated as real people. Again, just to illustrate the point, think how many films or books or programs treat people as needing to lose their virginity to achieve some sort of status as a true adult or to be leading a satisfied life? The implication is that those who are not doing it are somehow less than this.
Indeed, St Paul (who was celibate when writing 1 Corinthians) makes exactly the opposite point – because he doesn’t have to worry about a partner he can achieve a lot more. He has found in Jesus Christ a satisfaction and joy that dwarfs any sexual relationship.
False gods also break their promises.
By enduing sex with a significance that it can never maintain or fulfil we are inevitably going to disappoint those in sexual relationships.
To treat sex as a god puts a pressure on relationships that they cannot bear.
A particular sexual encounter might be good or mildly disappointing – both are common in every relationship. What it won’t do is fulfil your life or give you meaning. If we believe that we will then we are going to end up frustrated and disappointed. This can lead to pain in relationships or even their break-down because we were not prepared for the moment when sex disappointed us; when our god broke his promises.
It’s time we pointed out the blindingly obvious: sex is a good gift but it isn’t God. Not having sex is not the end of human happiness nor is having it the key to joy. That lies in Jesus Christ.
So sex is God’s gift, and it is not God. Next week we’ll see that in a Christian understanding, sex is not shameful.
If you want to read further about the ideas we are discussing in this series I recommend these two books:
- A Better Story by Prof. Glynn Harrison. Professor Harrison is the former Professor of Psychology at Bristol University and has written a fascinating, compassionate and informative account of the changes in how society has viewed sex and sexuality over the last 50 years together with a proposal for how faithfully to live and explain a Christian understanding of sex. It is very easy to read and combines depth with precision and kindness.
- Sex Talks by Matthew Hosier. Matt is the Pastor of a large church in the New Frontiers church network as well as an interesting and helpful sexual ethicist. This book deals with various issues and questions he has dealt with as part of his work with teenagers and young people. It is rigorous, loving, and brutally honest. It deals with real questions that real young people have wanted to discuss and so some of the topics may make readers feel uncomfortable.
D.J. Spiegelhalter, Sex By Numbers: What Statistics Can Tell Us about Sexual Behaviour(London: Profile Books, 2015) p.20. For a further discussion as to why this might be see Glynn Harrison, A Better Story: God, Sex and Human Flourishing (London: IVP, 2017), p.92-95.