On Sex, Evangelicals Need to Get Real

On Sex, Evangelicals Need to Get Real July 9, 2024

Getting real on sex
Sometimes a banana is not just a banana. Photo by Mockup Graphics on Unsplash

Even as evangelical thinkers emphasize the importance of our gendered bodies to sexual identity, there is a parallel, persistent, consternating, and somewhat contrary message that sex (as in sexual activity) actually isn’t that important – relatively speaking. on sex

In a June sermon to clergy attending the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches (GSFA) in Cairo, Egypt, Rev. Sam Ferguson, rector of my church, The Falls Church Anglican, discussed the challenges of ministering to the LGBTQ+ community. He presented what I would essentially call the “sex is not that important in the big scheme of things” argument as the Biblical alternative to the “western” preoccupation with sex:

“In the West, with modern medicine, we have really good lives, and what a really good life will do, with a lot of options, is to make heaven really dim. And so, the notion that you would live life with unmet sexual longings is anathema. We should look at the New Testament. It’s par for the course. In fact, things could go from bad to worse if you follow Jesus…if you’re a Christian, relax. You live forever….your unmet sexual longings – Paul would say, they’re not even worth comparing to the glories of heaven.”

In other words: unmet sexual longings are a first-world problem. We aren’t in a war zone; we aren’t suffering from famine; we aren’t even being persecuted for our faith. Jesus and his followers suffered immensely, and we should expect the same. Those of us with unmet sexual longings have “really good lives” otherwise, and we need to get a grip. Suffering is just what happens to Christians, so get in line. Focusing on sex in this life makes light of heaven. We need an attitude adjustment, we need to “relax” because our desires here aren’t “worth comparing to the glories of heaven.”

Of course when we suffer, considering the wider context – whether that’s another part of the world, or different era, or the other side of this life – can be a legitimate exercise that helps us come to terms with our individual, temporal distress. But is it compassionate or even sensible to effectively dismiss unmet sexual longings through this discourse of relativity? The situation of another person can always be worse than ours. I might tell my daughter that when she’s being petty, but I would hopefully never say that if she were experiencing deep pain.

Unmet sexual longings: the Genesis response

A more compelling response to unmet sexual longings can be found in Genesis. God gave Adam a sexual partner because it was “not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). God creates humans male and female, and sex is God’s first command to us (Gen. 1:28). Human existence – by God’s design – depends on sex, and we are literally designed for sex. These facts seem evidence enough of the importance of sex, not only to God’s grand creative design but to our identities as male and female.

On a fundamental level, our bodies tell us both who we are (male or female) and what we are made for. Let’s not bifurcate form and function, giving precedence to the former over the latter. Let’s not diminish sex while upholding our gendered forms as sacrosanct. These efforts may be well-intentioned but are misguided to the extent that they ultimately rely on a false dualism reminiscent of pagan thinking. If you are going to celebrate male and female as categories of being human – please keep it real and celebrate what that means functionally for most of us.

I get the church’s predicament. They want to bring a message of hope to those who struggle with sexual orientation. But the most compelling story is the one that is true. What needs to be diminished is the fallen expression of sexual behavior, not sex itself. Evangelicals are grasping at the wrong counter-argument.

Not everyone is into sex, nor is sex something you should do however and whenever desired. But I am sick of the church’s messaging that sex is not all that important. For most people, at least at some point in their lives, that simply isn’t true. All you have to do to understand the importance of sex is look at your own body: sex is what you’re made for.

Maybe that truth resonates more in western societies where people are less economically, socially, and politically afflicted.

Do you want to be well? on sex

Wherever we are, we should respond compassionately to the suffering within and around us. However our “western” problems compare with those in the rest of the world, they are still real. I wonder if the deep agony of unmet sexual longing is most keenly felt where people are otherwise thriving.

Yes, we have heaven to look forward to. That fact can make suffering more bearable. But our glorious future doesn’t free us to forgo the pursuit of justice in our painful present, however that pain presents itself.

When Jesus asked the sick man, “Do you want to be well?” (John 5:6), he wasn’t talking about later in heaven; he was talking about now. He didn’t say, “Stop being preoccupied with your unmet physical needs, your lack of wellbeing – just relax! You’re going to heaven, where everything will be fixed.” He didn’t say, “Take it easy; at least you’re not in a war zone.” Jesus didn’t relativize his suffering. He brought real healing, not by reminding him of a future heaven but by bringing heaven to his broken body.

While healing miracles are rare, Jesus’ example begs the question: Are we keeping it real? Are we helping people address the pain of their unmet sexual longings? Or are we unintentionally papering over their pain with a cheerful eschatology?

Because God made human beings for sex (just look at your body), for many of us, sex will be an important part of our personal fulfillment and wellbeing. To downplay the importance of sex to human beings, individually and collectively, is ultimately to denigrate the Creator, who inscribed sex into our bodies and made it foundational both to our existence and our thriving (Gen. 1:28). Those who feel in their bodies God’s particular call to “be fruitful and multiply,” but who nevertheless choose celibacy, for whatever reason, may have an extremely difficult road to walk. While we, as Christians, should not expect our personal desires to always be met on this fallen earth, it can be particularly painful when desires that cut to the core of our identity and calling as male and female are crushed. In this context, whatever “wellness” looks like, it should be grounded by the stark reality of our present loss as much as by the reality of our ultimate redemption.

Sex as song

Sex is the song of our bodies. It permeates creation with its joyful, deafening roar, a roar that, through our resurrected sexual bodies, will carry into eternity. To say that it’s nothing compared to heaven is to miss what sex is and the importance God himself gives to it.

In Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament, Richard M. Davidson carefully explores the celebration of sex in the Bible’s central book, the Song of Songs. In a section titled “Return to Eden,” he reflects on the meaning of the Song’s praise of physical love between the man and woman:

In orchestral splendor, sexuality is presented as beautiful, good, and wholesome, to be celebrated and enjoyed without fear or embarrassment. Far from being cheap, ugly, and inferior, the love of the Song is of paramount value (607) [my italics].

In describing the Song of Songs, Davidson goes on to say or quote others:

“…the lovers [in the Song] themselves praise at length the joys of intercourse.” (608)

“the Song of Songs is nothing less than ‘a continuous celebration of passion and its pleasures.’ ” (608)

In its most famous lines (8:6-7), the Song likens the awesome power of sexual love to a phenomenon “as mysterious as a vehement flame that cannot be quenched, even by floods of many waters….” (621). Verse 6 contains what is perhaps the Song’s most startling claim (and the title of Davidson’s book): “its [love’s] flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the LORD!”

Playing with fire

“The stronger the [sexual] urge, the greater the person.”

Do you think this statement reflects an ungodly “western” preoccupation with sex that needs to be shut down? Presumably for some evangelicals, the answer is yes.

But in fact, this saying is an old midrash, or rabbinic commentary, on Gen. 1:28. I came across it in my books on Jewish ethics back in college.

Welcome to reality.

The affluent West is an easy target for criticism; with all that we enjoy here, it may be tempting to criticize a “western” emphasis on unmet sexual longings.

But then Adam also deserves a lecture, as do the lovers in the Song of Songs. And since we’re going there, let’s go ahead and lecture the flame of God, the very personification (per the Song) of sexual fulfillment.

Encouraging righteous behavior is a good thing, but when it comes to sex, religious leaders have a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater and forget the deeper things of God.

The “flame of God” in Song 8:6 is often invoked as a warning to young people: save sex for the security of marriage! You’re playing with fire! Fair enough. But likewise, when we dismiss unmet sexual longings by relativizing them, by criticizing their emphasis as a diminution of heaven – to say we are missing the point is an understatement. We, too, are playing with fire.

Keep it real

By divine design, for many of us, sex is important to personal fulfillment. The world recognizes this fact even if it doesn’t recognize God. Why can’t the church recognize both? Let’s be honest about how much celibacy sucks, as Adam and the lovers in the Song would surely agree. Let’s not diminish the truths our gendered bodies cry out – truths that include the emotional, physical, and spiritual anguish caused by sexual disappointment and dysfunction.

Yeah, maybe that’s a first-world problem, but that’s where many of us are. You deal with the problems you have, not the ones you could have. How we deal with these sexual issues, I don’t know for sure – but I know that dealing with them in a way that’s faithful to God should begin, and end, by being real about how important sex is – not to us, but to him.

 

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