In the first instalment of this series, I looked at the necessity of deconstruction. The rigidity and thoughtlessness of reformist/evangelical doctrine, along with its approach to scripture, leads to an inevitable exodus, as believers look for better answers and a healthier atmosphere, in which the questioner is encouraged rather than silenced.
As a result, many sincere Christians, who love Jesus, end up taking their faith apart and rebuilding it from scratch. Though a valuable experience for some, there are many who are ill-equipped for such a process, through no fault of their own, and end up either resisting growth or throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Deconstruction and reconstruction, then, are necessities for most thinking people, seekers and pilgrims, but such a process comes with its own pitfalls. Deconstruction can lead to dead ends of its own; to frustration, and to loss of spiritual satisfaction. How does this happen, and how can it be avoided? The focus of today’s post will be sexual union.
Years ago, during the most intensive period of personal deconstruction, I joined a popular, international online group who were known for their de/reconstruction of the Christian faith, only to be rather put off by what I encountered there. Instead of seeking to remove religious burdens from the shoulders of the seeker, it diverted them into personal gratification. They were given to permitting and celebrating every type of excess. In particular, people were boasting of their new-found sexual ‘liberty’.
(Disclaimer: Progressive Christianity is not defined by this, especially as it matures as a movement, but it is an obvious and regular temptation, when questioning matters one used to consider set in stone.)
In part, orthodoxy carries some responsibility for this departure, as sexual excess is often a reaction to repression. If sex is discussed in church, it is usually as a temptation, rather than a healthy, joyous part of God’s creation. It is a topic reserved for pre-marital courses, but rarely spoken of as part of what it means to be human. Young people grow up with tremendous guilt about their entirely natural urges, and the unmarried are told to suppress this part of their humanity. The simple fact is, when people feel repressed, they tend to rebel.
I’ve seen many Christian couples marry too young, when they barely know themselves, in a rush to get into bed with each other. This can increase the likelihood of divorce, or at the very least, years of relational difficulties. In my experience, most people don’t settle into a lasting shape until they’ve been through their first major crisis as an adult. Marrying on such unstable, shifting ground is innately risky, as that first personal shake-up changes who we are, and how we deal with life. It may well be that, when the change comes, the two partners adapt in different ways and become less compatible. In and of itself, this could explain high divorce rates in the Church – perhaps we are more invested in perpetuating the institution of marriage than in forging lasting, loving relationships?
Biblical models are of little use without extensive interpretation, as they involve the marriage of teenagers below today’s age of consent, and are shaped by economic or cultural necessity, rather than by the aspiration to marry from love, as we emphasise today. Girls we would consider children were often married to older men, or to other teenagers – not a practice that ought to be encouraged! There was no legal aspect to Biblical marriage, and no wedding vows, as there are today; the act of sexual union was in and of itself the sealing of the commitment.
By failing to grasp that there is a need for more nuanced, relevant teaching on both sex and marriage, due to the huge gap between Biblical cultures (in terms of both Old and New Testament marriage) and the societies we live in today, the church fails its members, and exposes many young people to pain that could be avoided.
Emerging from a repressive society can often lead to excess, while a person goes on a voyage of self-discovery. That said, we are all responsible for the choices we make. Whether we like it or not, sex has consequences, and I’m not referring to pregnancy alone.
In this popular online group I joined, I saw people volunteering for inevitable pain. One man was being roundly praised for wanting to convert his marriage into an ‘open relationship’, while admitting that his wife was far from happy about the idea. A woman boasted of her newfound hobby – stripping at nightclubs – adding the caveat ‘my husband doesn’t like it’, as if that were a source of amusement. Any comments questioning the wisdom of either decision were shouted down by the general chorus.
My objection to the above is nothing to do with prudery. It is because, in both these cases, love had been abandoned. We don’t have to look at scriptural instructions for marriage to understand that this is the case – any teaching on the nature of love does the job.
‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.’
Love does not act cruelly, selfishly or unkindly, and it never fails to protect. 1 Cor 13: 4-7,
‘Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.’
Love would not encourage us to subject our partners to a betrayal of the most precious and personal act of commitment; the giving of oneself. I empathise greatly with the pain of those so treated. In the examples above, where one party has decided to put their gratification above the feelings of the one they claim to love, they precipitate the agony of abandonment, and bewilderment at the severance of bonds of trust. Perhaps the overlooked spouse had ‘saved themselves’ for marriage, as many brought up in Christian families do, and believed they would only share that most precious intimacy with one other person – their life partner. The shock, the loss, the hurt! This cannot be love.
How could it possibly be okay to treat someone with such wilful disregard? To put one’s own desire to explore before a partner’s need for commitment and safety? It is the very opposite of the love Jesus taught us to live by. Matthew 22: 36-40,
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?”
Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
According to Jesus, the second commandment – to love others as we would wish to be loved – is akin to the first, which is to love God with all that we are. This is the very heart of faith; to love, to esteem, to consider the needs of others. If this applies to the way we treat all people, how much more so to our partners? In the process of deconstruction, let us not deconstruct love. It is the pillar we must cling to, in order to avoid harming ourselves and others.
I understand that in the process of questioning one’s beliefs, it can be easy to broaden the deconstructive journey to include anything and everything, but in doing so, we risk losing much that is precious.
I hold myself to account by a simple principle – departing from love is not spiritual growth; it is spiritual decay. Whatever we are questioning, we do well to ask ourselves challenging questions – is what I’m considering an act of love? Am I putting my needs before those of others?
And what of loving ourselves? The implication of the second greatest commandment is that the treasuring of ourselves is a benchmark, against which we measure our love for others. The Church’s teaching on sex and marriage might be inadequate, for the reasons detailed above, but that doesn’t mean it’s got everything wrong. Paul’s writings on sex and marriage might be outdated, but that doesn’t mean the underlying principles are without value. Galatians 5:13,
‘For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.’
We are called to freedom, but not to license. 1 Cor 10:23-24,
‘All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own, but each one the other’s well-being.’
The disciple of Jesus does not seek their own gratification, against the leading of wisdom. They don’t look to fulfil every conceivable desire of the body, regardless of consequences. They ask first of all if something is loving, and secondly if it is helpful, including to themselves. We are called to honour our own bodies, to love and respect ourselves, and to do the same for others.
Sexual freedom does not equal sexual liberty. Sexual freedom is understanding that giving ourselves is important enough and consequential enough to take seriously. Falling into bed with strangers can never, in my view, be a spiritual or loving behaviour, because sex should always be an act of love.
The world is inclined towards loveless sex – the use of another person’s body, while letting them use our own, as a purely physical act; believers understand that our bodies, souls and spirits cannot be separated in this way. We have so much that is precious within us, and that we ought to treasure. 1 Cor 6:12-20,
‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say – but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’– but I will not be mastered by anything. You say, ‘Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.’ The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself?…
Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies.’
I take this seriously. I love, honour and treasure myself, including my body, and love, honour and respect others in the same way. I recognise and treasure that my body is a Temple of the Holy Spirit. When I make love to my darling, I do so knowing that sex is spiritual as well as physical, and that what I offer her is for her alone. In this way, I honour her and I honour God, who made us sexual beings in the first place, and called us to lives of love.
Deconstruction of received ideas is an essential part of spiritual growth; deconstruction of all that is loving is not. If deconstruction leads to selfishness, or to the degradation of either ourselves or others, something has gone horribly wrong.
While undergoing the important journey of questioning and rebuilding faith, let us cling tightly to love. In doing so, we protect ourselves and those we love, and refrain from harm. In doing so, we keep our eyes on Jesus.
I’ll leave you with the most beautiful poem I’ve read on this theme – Some Fill With Each Good Rain, written by Hafiz of Shiraz, a much celebrated, 14th century Sufi mystic, and translated as part of a 1999 collection of Hafiz’ poems called The Gift, by Daniel Ladinsky, which I highly recommend buying.
There are different wells within your heart.
Some fill with each good rain,
Others are far too deep for that.
In one well
You have just a few precious cups of water,
That “love” is literally something of yourself,
It can grow as slow as a diamond
If it is lost.
Should never be offered to the mouth of a
Only to someone
Who has the valor and daring
To cut pieces of their soul off with a knife
Then weave them into a blanket
To protect you.
There are different wells within us.
Some fill with each good rain,
Others are far, far too deep