Is the teaching of the Bible on human sexuality even possible to fulfil? Is it simply inhuman to say that the only context for human sexual expression is a lifelong marriage between a man and a woman?
In her new book Confessions of a Latter-Day Virgin, author Nicole Hardy tells the story of her struggle with the life of celibacy demanded of her by the religious community in which she grew up. It was particularly difficult to be told to remain celibate by those who themselves were married: “People stand at the pulpit or they come to my house and tell me not to need what every human needs.” This seemed to make no sense to her. The only way she could find to live was to shut down her feelings altogether, and become numb; to will herself to depression.
‘What every human needs’: is she wrong about that? She’s not just talking about sex as a sensation, but the whole notion of sexual intercourse—that extraordinary shared bodily experience of affection and belonging, where for once we are not simply enclosed as beings but open to another person. It is the nakedness of it—the personal, (almost) spiritual, emotional and physical nakedness—that we seem to be made for. Or at least for the majority of us, there is the deep, deep longing for union with another person which it seems impossible to deny, or to simply divert by suggesting another outlet.
So is Christian teaching on sexual abstinence unreasonable and unachievable? Is it simply nonsensical to tell the young couple in their twenties to wait for marriage to have sex when they can’t keep their hands off each other? Is it unreasonable and unliveable to tell a married man with a sick wife that he needs to be faithful to her, despite his growing awareness of his needs? Is it cruel to tell a single woman in her thirties that waiting for a Christian husband is better than the alternative— even if this means not having a husband at all?
Some of the ways we speak about sexual purity in the Christian community are in fact completely counterproductive. For example: we will say something about our sex-mad society and suggest that people’s sexual longings are a result of social pressure. Now, there’s a half-truth here: the sexualisation of nearly everything makes sex very hard to forget. However, blaming society implies that sexual desire for people in other eras wasn’t a problem, and that if it is a problem for you now then it is because you are a victim of society’s anti-Christian way of thinking.
Or, the way we speak about sex is to say ‘wait till you are married’ as if marriage is inevitable for everyone. The celibate life, then, means ‘just wait until someone comes along’. Abstinence becomes something like holding your breath underwater. But marriage is not everyone’s destiny; and the New Testament doesn’t make marriage normative as we do. Related to this is the absurd promise that people sometimes make that ‘God’s got a special person in store just for you’. Actually, no, you don’t know that he does. That’s not a scriptural promise. In fact, someday your prince may not come.
Or again: we speak about marriage as if it is like some kind of no holds barred festival of sex and sexual intimacy, without sexual frustration or failure, and without the discovery of mismatched desire. This puts an unreasonable level of expectation on marriages and intensifies the feeling that to be single is to be missing out. We rightly want to celebrate sex as God’s good gift, to show that the Christian understanding of human sexuality is not a form of horror at the sexual. But some preachers are beginning to sound more like sex therapists than prophets. Preaching about sex is sexy. It will get you attention, if you are a preacher. But too often, by holding out the promise of marriage as a carnival of raunch it is just doing what porn does: offering a fantasy of sex instead of the real thing.
Or, we become consequentialists when trying to justify the Christian ideal of sexual purity. What I mean is that we try to explain how keeping sex for marriage is right because it is better for you. A favourite, vague statistic that people often raise is something like: ‘Studies say that Christian married couples have more sex’. Or we try to find ways to say that sex outside of marriage is bad for you. The trouble with this line of reasoning is that it stands or falls on whatever studies the scientists are running at the present time. They could very easily argue that sexual abstinence has deleterious physical effects.
Or, we introduce abstinence campaigns. I haven’t seen these so much in evidence amongst Australian Christians, but critics never tire of saying that the success of True Love Waits and other abstinence campaigns is virtually nil when surveys are taken. In fact, there is some evidence that the abstinence vow-takers are more likely to have sex before marriage. This is because, however well intentioned, the abstinence campaign demands that you rely on your own strength to stay sexually pure—either expressly or implicitly. Its strategy is far too optimistic, and as above, makes promises about sexual fulfillment in marriage that are unreasonable.
So is that it then? Is the Christian ideal of preserving sexual intimacy for marriage simply impossible?
Well, yes. Yes it is. Remember—just in case anyone is feeling a bit smug—that when Jesus taught about sexual purity he didn’t stop at what you do with your genitals. He included your inner world:
“But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt 5:28). It is impossible; but, as Jesus also said, ‘with God everything is possible’. He was talking about the rich young ruler, the one who went away from Jesus disappointed because he was called upon to sell all his material possessions. The disciples, staggered at what they had witnessed, exclaimed ‘who then can be saved?’ And the answer is, of course, that as human nature now stands, there is no one at all. It is like that with our sexual natures, too: we know our sexual selves as something deep within us and capable of much blessing to ourselves and our partner. But we also know full well the sexual brokenness within us. We know full well how our worst defects as people come out in our sexual behaviours. We know how little patience we have, and how overwhelming our appetites are.
But the answer is not to just try harder, or take cold showers, or make yourself numb. The first lesson of the New Testament when it comes to discipleship is the lesson of Titus 2:11-14:
“For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.”
It is the grace of God that is the key to sexual purity in and out of marriage, just as it is the key to all discipleship. God’s grace means his undeserved favour to us in Jesus Christ. We have from him forgiveness of sins—including our sexual sin—and healing of our broken selves. We learn from God’s mercy to say “no”, and to truly wait: not for our knight in shining armour or for our princess from the palace, but for the return of Jesus, our blessed hope. We have the promise of God to which our lives are to point.
What does this look like in practice? Firstly, it means we don’t have to deny that as human beings we deeply crave intimacy and union and especially sexual intimacy and union. We are often frustrated in our longings for these and other things with the world as it presently is. The grace of God teaches us that these are real longings.
Secondly, it means our sexual brokenness is not beyond the restorative power of the gospel word; a word of mercy, even to our sexual beings. Our failures are not final.
Thirdly, it tells us the promise of God is not that we will have sexual fulfillment in this life, but that we will know deep union and intimacy of the kind we long for. An unmarried person’s role is not to prepare for marriage, but to prepare for life together with God—which is the same as the call that comes to a married person. Our deepest longings are usually for something that will be fulfilled in the world to come.