A few years back, a recently married friend of mine was sharing with me some of the struggles that had come in the early stages of marriage. In regards to the sexual dimension of marriage, my friend shared the following, “I waited for marriage to have sex. Before I met my future spouse and all through our courtship, we were told and believed that sex was to be avoided at all cost. Everyone said that if you wait, sex will be so much better. But I found that during the first six months of sex in marriage, I was plagued with deep guilt. I had spent a long time convincing myself that sex was wrong and I had to disarm my sexuality. And when I was finally free to have sex with my spouse, it was greatly intertwined with a sense that God looked upon us with displeasure and disgust.”
Unfortunately, the church has a long history of unintentionally demonizing good things, sex being one of the foremost. In an effort to counteract the sexual ethos of our times, we often end up applying black and white rules to try to hold at bay the desires of youth. A satirical example of this is Ignatius the Ultimate Youth Pastor’s stark delineation to his students, “Sex is a beautiful gift from God, that is designed to take place within the confines of marriage. So for you guys, sex is wrong. But for me and my smoking hot wife, it is so right” (5:45). Anytime I have taught about sex, the question invariably comes up, “How far is too far?” It is in our nature to want to give cut and dry rules, but what is truly necessary is a much more robust exploration of sexuality in relation to God. Tim Keller notes that for those “not awash in the love and acceptance of God through Jesus Christ,” often aspects of our vibrant faith are reduced to religious morality. Keller expounds,
“In religion the purpose of obeying the law is to assure you that you’re all right with God. As a result, when it comes to the law, what you’re most concerned about is detail. You want to know exactly what you’ve got to do… You won’t gravitate toward seeking out the intent of the law; rather, you’ll tend to write into the law all sorts of details of observance so you can assure yourself that you’re obeying it. But in the life of Christians the law of God – though still binding on them – functions in a completely different way. It shows you the life of love you want to live before God who has done so much for you. God’s law takes you out of yourself… “
It is so easy for our teachings on sexuality to become focused on sin management, rather than digging deeper to explain the God-made desires at the root of the fracture. Sexuality has deep theological roots that must be explored before we can prescribe guidelines for healing. We must set the bone before we put on the cast. Yet, I still often find myself teaching more on the ‘do’s and don’ts’ in the arena of sex in a fallen world rather than focusing on the glory and purpose of God’s intention for the gift of sex. At the core of Christianity is the theological truth that all things are created good, including sex. Therefore, the core of our message must be that sex is good. And because sex is God’s good creation, he knows the most about it because he created it. Therefore, Scripture’s wisdom regarding sex is not an arbitrary rule that God made to test if we ‘really love Him,’ but his wisdom about sex is the way it ‘really is.’ It is only when we explore the goodness and original purposes of sex that students can understand why they have the desires they do.
Dallas Willard makes an acute yet vital distinction that I have found is very helpful when talking to young people about sex,
“…We must be careful to recognize that sexual desire is not wrong as a natural, uncultivated response, any more than anger is, or pain. Moreover, when we only think of sex with someone we see, or simply find him or her attractive, that is not wrong, and certainly is not what Jesus calls ‘adultery in the heart’… Merely to be tempted sexually requires that we think of sex with someone… usually someone we see. But temptation also is not wrong, though it should not be willfully entered. Therefore those translations of Matthew 5:28 that say, “Everyone who looks at a woman and desires her” or “everyone who looks at a woman with desire” are terribly mistaken. They do much harm, especially to young people. The wording (in Matt 5:28) refers to looking at a woman with the purpose of desiring her. That’s it, we desire to desire.”
When teaching students around the fire at one of our guy events, I made this distinction between lusting after a girl and being attracted to a girl. The former is not using the gift as God intended, but rather as a means to self-focused indulgence; but the latter is a natural part of the way God has made us as sexual beings. I could hear as the guys in the group all breathed a sigh of relief to be assured that their sexuality, in and of itself, is not bad. In fact, their sexuality is a good gift created to be enjoyed without shame for the glory of the great Giver.