Sorry if you’ve been eagerly anticipating the next instalment of our guide to good sex from a Christian perspective; I’ve been having a bit of a break to recover from illness. Now we’re back and looking at one of the most distinctive elements of a Christian understanding of God’s intention for sex: sex is designed to be sacrificial.
We’re going to look at exactly what this means and why it is such a liberating and challenging idea in a moment. Before I get to that, however, let’s recap on what we’ve argued so far.
The gift of sex is good.
It strengthens and enriches our marriages, renews our species, and provides for our future. It also God’s love for us, enables us to work with him in creation, and demonstrates our destiny with Christ. Each of these goods applies to us all whether we are in sexual relationships or not.
Yet because sex is a gift from God, we should look to God to understand its significance and how it should be used. We do that in two ways:
First, by looking at the physical creation God has made. Men and women are designed to fit together – their physical bodies correspond in a way that makes sex possible and brings with it certain consequences. Yet nature is an uncertain guide because we tend to corrupt it through our selfishness, pride and so on. Our sexual desires are a very bad guide to God’s intention because they so easily become focussed in the wrong place.
Second, and more importantly, we look to Scripture. We examine what God has said about how he made humanity, how sex is good, what its dangers are, how it can be misused and the ultimate end that it points us towards.
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 other texts that expand on it in the teaching of Jesus (Mark 10:2-9) and St Paul (1 Corinthians 7:3-5; Ephesians 5:25-33).
Sex Should Be Sacrificial
The Problem of Selfishness
Human beings are passionate; we desire things. As we discussed in my last post, this is how we are created – it mirrors God’s passion. Yet our desires can easily become distorted and selfish.
This is one of the most basic problems we face.
We take our good desires become focussed on ourselves rather than on the fulfilment of others. We become selfish. As soon as that happens we begin to treat others as a tool to be used for our own gratification rather than as people to be loved and served.
This is how much of our contemporary understanding of sex operates.
Our culture encourages us to focus on fulfilling our own desires, meeting our own needs, rather than viewing sex as an opportunity to serve and love our spouse.
There are countless examples of this. I can give a few illustrations:
- light-hearted comedies about trying to lose your virginity – they genuinely are funny but the premise is that having sex is basically about me;
- complaints or even divorce because my partner is not meeting my sexual needs;
- apps such as Tinder which prioritise and facilitate low-cost sexual encounters, removing sex totally from the idea of relationship; or
- joking in a changing room about whether you would like to have sex with this person or that – the “phwoar” conversation – which reduces another person, bearing God’s image, to an object to be used.
Each of these phenomena embraces a view of sex which is fundamentally focussed on my pleasure.
The Solution of Sacrifice
By contrast, at its heart the Christian way of life is all about serving others. It prioritises the needs and desires of others ahead of our own. This also applies to sex.
In 1 Corinthians 7:3-5, St Paul says:
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. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer.
Because Christians locate sex in the context of a fully committed relationship, and because we know that our significance and meaning, our identity, is not found in having sex, we can give ourselves for the sake of another. In this view sex is selfless, not selfish; it is other-centred, not self-centred.
There is a dignity and joy in this. Paradoxically, if we have the security and the confidence to prioritise our partner ahead of ourselves then we will find ourselves more fulfilled. To use the language of Genesis, if we are united to our partner – giving ourselves to them and for them – then we truly become one flesh. By contrast, when we’re pitting our interests against theirs, when we’re on the look-out for ourselves, we will find that our joy and unity is diminished.
The Love of Jesus
Again, this is a picture of Jesus and the church, of Christ’s love for us. When he came to be united with us he gave himself up for us, he fulfilled what we needed, he made us holy, he cleaned us, he wooed us and drew us, and he unites us with himself.
That is the self-giving love that is shown in Christian sex and it points to the self-giving love of Christ.
This sacrificial love is also pictured in the lives of those who abstain from sex out of love for God, his teaching and his people. When we are willing to forgo the pleasures of sex to follow Christ we demonstrate how much his love and grace are worth. We reflect the heart of a God who was willing to give up everything and come and serve and die at the hands of his creatures. We model the love of a God who sees us not as instruments but as people to be loved and redeemed at any cost.
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.