In this series I have looked at some common starting points from which we, as moral agents, often begin our process of moral decision making. I argued that although these starting points are common to us all, they are not good starting points. Nor are they, according to moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, rational starting points. In his book, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, MacIntyre suggests that there are, broadly speaking, four irrational starting points to moral deliberation:
Participants in deliberation must make their decisions because of how their practical reasoning went and not from fear or as a result of fraud or because they were bribed or seduced. [emphasis added]
In the previous posts, I looked at the moral and spiritual problems that emerge if we start a moral decision making process from a place of fear, fraud or monetary gain (bribery). As an alternative to these irrational starting points, the biblical “fear of the Lord” is the only proper starting point for any moral course of action. Before looking at the last common starting point, seduction, let me first address “the fear of the Lord.”
The Fear of the Lord
The fear of the Lord according to the Bible is the beginning of wisdom. Wisdom is prudential thinking. It is thinking practically about the best, most ethical courses of action to take in a world complicated by sin, death, demonic powers and evil principalities. Fear of God is not like the fear one has of any of these contingent and finite things. Instead, Fear of God is the result of sinful and finite creatures like us recognizing two absolutes that coexist in God alone: absolute power and absolute holiness.
Anyone who encounters the living God has tasted both His power and His goodness, or holiness, even if only in very small doses. Isaiah and Ezekiel, Peter and John all fell on their faces when confronted with the power and presence of the living God. For God’s power can do all things that power can do and God’s holiness is goodness itself. What mortal creature can stand before this dynamic combination of divine properties?
To experience the fear of the Lord, therefore, is to know that God, in his All-Powerfulness, can make anything that exists non-existent. God can cause anything to happen that is possible: doing and undoing the material and immaterial aspects of His creation according to His will. At the very same time, fear of the Lord is an experience of a Goodness and Purity that makes all other things in the created order appear tainted and corrupt, in particular our own selves. Taken together, the experience of God’s absolute Goodness in absolute unity with His All-Powerfulness give us true knowledge of absolute Justice– which is the moral harmony of the universe.
The book of Job reveals this reality to us with timeless profundity. Job, winning his audience with the LORD after many lame speeches by unhelpful counselors, responds to this direct encounter with God thusly:
I [Job] know that You can do anything
and no plan of Yours can be thwarted.
[You asked] “Who is this
who conceals [My] counsel
Surely I spoke about things I did not
things too wonderful for me to know.
[You said] “Listen now,
and I will speak.
When I question you, you will inform Me.”
I had heard rumors about You,
but now my eyes have seen You.
Therefore I take back [my words]
and repent in dust and ashes.
Job 42:2-6 HCSB
In short, because nothing we experience of God’s creation is as powerful or as good as God, it is only in first considering God’s nature and God’s work, most explicitly in the example of Jesus Christ, that we can begin to make decisions about how to live a genuinely good life. Anything less will result in real, human damage to some degree or another: either to our own person or to those around us– almost always to both. One should say, however, that none of us will show perfect deference to God in each and every moral decision we make. However, God’s abundant grace covers even the feeblest attempt to honor His power and goodness.
Acts of Seduction
The final common, yet false, starting point to our moral decision making is lustful desire, or seduction. True, many moral choices are often made out of a desire to take joy in our created bodies. Sensual desire in itself is not the problem. Good choices can happen especially when we take proper steps to satisfying our sexual longings in the way God intends, namely within heterosexual marriage (a necessary, but not sufficient condition for sexual harmony).
In his commentary on Genesis, Nahum Sarna points out the inherent goodness of God’s design for human sex. Commenting on Genesis 1:27, Sarna says,
No such sexual differentiation is noted in regard to animals [in Genesis]. Human sexuality is of a wholly different order from that of the beasts. The next verse [v. 28] shows it to be a blessed gift from God woven into the whole fabric of life.
However, because of the inherent goodness of sexual design, any abuse of that design is particularly abhorrent:
By the same token, its [human sexuality] abuse is treated in the Bible with particular severity. Its proper regulation is subsumed under the category of the holy, whereas sexual perversion is viewed with abhorrence as an affront against human dignity and as a desecration of the divine image in man.
In short, abuse of God’s design plan for human sexuality is a desecration of the image of God in man. The fallout from this abuse is manifold and grotesque.
The Fallout from Acts of Seduction
Any pursuit of bodily enjoyment that does not first appeal to God, runs the danger of rejecting the body’s proper function and design. Moreover, as body-soul composites, what is done in the temporal body will have lasting consequences in the immortal soul. As such, making moral decisions from seduction has ramifications that reverberate throughout the life of an individual, both in body and soul.
Classically construed the soul is comprised of the will, the emotions and the intellect. If there is damage to the body and the soul, then there will be damage to the will, emotions and even the intellect of a person who has been sexually abused or who has done the abusing. Sexual immorality warps our entire being in ways other sins do not.
In addition, sexual sins have extraordinary social consequences that we are only beginning to map through sociology and psychology. Pornography use is one of those social ills that plagues our culture. In a powerful pastoral work by marriage and family therapist Jay Stringer, Stringer points out how damaging sexual abuse is to fragile human psyches:
If someone sexually used you as a child, likely you continue to feel vulnerable to being used by a person who initially delights in you only to use power and coercion for his or her sexual gain (this in no way justifies the abuse of power or blames the victims for the assault). Or, you develop strategies to sexually use other people in order to ensure that you are never again vulnerable.
This is an insightful claim. However, it is one we seem to already know yet constantly try to suppress. The damage done to human persons through sexual misconduct, especially, but not only, in pre-pubescence, is intimately connected to power and control. As Stringer points out, those who have been abused often either continue to allow themselves to be abused or become abusers themselves. And so the cycle of sin propagates both generationally as well as horizontally.
Another theologian, Carl Trueman, said something similar about the power of human sexuality in a recent interview. Trueman speculates about a time when he was a young boy at school in England playing Rugby. If on the Rugby pitch an opponent came up to him and cold-cocked him in the face, he certainly would have felt pain and perhaps even a bit of shame. But, being hit in the face is a fairly surmountable challenge to one’s own power. The young Rugby player can easily grow up to have a healthy and flourishing life in spite receiving the sucker punch at a young age. However, if the same young boy had been sexually fondled by an older boy or adult sometime after the game, the sexual abuse would have ramifications for the adult Trueman far beyond that of the punch– causing deep psychological and emotional effects that could seriously disturb his future life.
When we process moral decision making out of a need to fulfill sexual desires, we are in grave spiritual danger if we have not first checked those desires against the Word of God. We are a danger to ourselves and all those around us. Men will usually abuse women’s bodies for the sake of power and women will either allow themselves to be used or even become manipulative in their own right, usually by toying with emotionally naive men.
This is not to say that sexual appetites are the only kind of bodily seductions. Food and other substances (drugs, alcohol) can be as destructive to ourselves, our families and our community as the unfettered drive to satisfy sexual longings. Nevertheless, that sexual lust assumes a fundamental role in the striving of human beings is obvious to all, even long before Freud arrived on the scene.
Hence, what Freud would later describe anthropologically about human sexuality, Paul had already explained theologically 1,850 years prior:
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
Seduction in the Bible
Making choices motivated by the desire to satisfy sexual longings has never gone well for God’s people. Stories of men like Judah and King David clearly attest to this fact. For example, the scene of Absalom raping David’s concubines from the very spot where his father fell into lust for Bathsheeba (2 Sam 16:20-22), serves as a stark warning that the sexual sins of the father, like many others, often pass down to the sons (and perhaps even daughters). Sin has a particular property of generational transmission that makes it insidious to the human species. This property is most pernicious in the realm of human sexuality.
Pursuing sensual pleasure leads to decisions that not only harm the body and soul of the decision maker, but also those closest to him or her—their progeny. For the male of the species especially, to start the process of moral reasoning at the point of libidinal urges is a very dangerous proposal. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most common starting points. One could plausibly argue that many who seem to have money as their starting point for making moral decisions, actually have sexual pleasure as their starting point; money being merely the instrument by which they can attain more of the latter.
That said, if the starting point for a moral decision is grounded in the Fear of the Lord, then subsequent desires to fulfill sexual longings could very well lead to one of life’s most profound gestures of moral goodness– the mutual self-giving of sexual pleasure within an exclusive marital relationship. The act of fulfilling sexual desire in the appropriate, God-ordained context of marriage is commended to us by Scripture, both for the sake of the pleasure it brings our bodies (see Song of Songs), and for the Christ-like self-giving that it occasions (Ephesians 5:25-28).
The Right Orientation To Sex
The moment of “transcendence” that comes when two lovers unite in sexual experience is something that God has clearly designed for the sake of His glory and our good. To spend those moments with anyone other than an exclusive confidant, friend and spouse is to do an injustice to that design. This is an injustice that can engender a radical kind of evil to occur. In his book on traditional wisdom, The Road Less Traveled, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck points out how powerful the role of sex is to the human person:
In itself, making love is not an act of love. Nonetheless the experience of sexual intercourse, and particularly of orgasm…is an experience also associated with a greater or lesser degree of collapse of ego boundaries and attendant ecstasy. It is because of this collapse of ego boundaries that we may shout at the moment of climax “I love you” or “Oh, God” to a prostitute for whom moments later, after the ego boundaries have snapped back into place, the may feel no shred of affection, liking, or investment.
The answer to this power of human sexuality is God’s design plan of heterosexual marriage and procreation. John Paul II captured the essence of this plan in his Familiaris Consortio. After clarifying sexuality as the true realization of love in the complete (body and soul) self-giving of one man to one woman to each other for life, he demonstrates how this can only happen in the context of biblical marriage:
The only “place” in which this self-giving in its whole truth is made possible is marriage, the covenant of conjugal love freely and consciously chosen, whereby man and woman accept the intimate community of life and love willed by God Himself which only in this light manifests its true meaning. The institution of marriage is not an undue interference by society or authority, nor the extrinsic imposition of a form. Rather it is an interior requirement of the covenant of conjugal love which is publicly affirmed as unique and exclusive, in order to live in complete fidelity to the plan of God, the Creator. A person’s freedom, far from being restricted by this fidelity, is secured against every form of subjectivism or relativism and is made a sharer in creative Wisdom.
Thus, to make any form of seduction our starting point for moral decisions is to put ourselves in the position of using others for the sake of experiencing something which is profoundly spiritual: the act of sex. It is perhaps the most powerful drive we have in this life outside of the longing of our heart for God Himself. It is also the one that is most abused in the course of human events, and that quickly devolves into the most wicked and vile forms of human behavior: rape, incest, polygamy, abortion and child abuse.
Conclusion: The Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom
Our practical reasoning, or moral decision making process, mirrors the pursuit of wisdom we see in the Bible, especially in the Wisdom books. If we begin our moral decision making anywhere other than with “the Fear of the Lord,” then we are bound to neglect God’s design for us. If we do this we will, to some degree, fall into immoral activity. Beginning our moral decision making from other initial conditions, conditions like fear, fraud, love of money or sexual seduction breaks fellowship with God and ultimately causes great damage to our selves, our relations and our communities. To be prudent and to act wisely, we must be grounded in the Word and the will of God.