Being a parent can be scary.
How about being a parent in a hyper-sensualized society where a flash of skin and an airbrushed torso can sell everything from shoes to website service, and where the most sacred and intimate aspects of human relationships have become a spectacle for the public eye? That is downright terrifying.
I have often contemplated just how exactly I can impart to my daughter a biblical self-image and to my sons the proper attitude of honor and respect for women. From what I can see, there are two major extremes from which to choose.
Pop culture assumes that sex is an irresistible bodily urge that should be indulged and never denied. While I may wish that my child would choose to remain chaste until marriage, it is little more than a pipe dream – a one-in-a-million shot as probable as winning a Vegas jackpot. Young people have sex. That’s just the way it is. Rather than cling to a false hope, the best that I can do is give them all of the information (and in some cases provide them the tools) to enable them to have “safe sex.” Yes, with all the swirling emotions and hormones, and in the middle of the confusing and overwhelming process of self-definition that is adolescence and young adulthood, the best that I can do for my children is something akin to handing a five-year-old a lighter and a jug of gasoline and saying, “Be safe, the fire extinguisher is over there on the wall.”
The other option is a story that I have seen repeated ad nauseam in the evangelical community. In my fear that my children might make bad decisions, and that I may in some way enable those decisions, when the time comes for them to face the mysteries of their developing sexuality, the best that I can do is to say “don’t do it until your wedding night.” Because, maybe, if they don’t actually know how to have sex, they will wait until marriage… right? If necessary, sometime before their big day, I can give them a brief talk about “marital responsibilities” which is guaranteed to be a million times more awkward than it is informative. Maybe we can both pretend that I am telling them something they haven’t known since they were nine years old, when they decided that if mom and dad wouldn’t tell them, they would find someone who would.
Few serious Christ-followers would find the first option acceptable, and yet time and time again the second option has proven to be tragically flawed. With a little honest reflection, we can all see that today’s evangelical church has a real problem integrating a proper attitude toward sex and self-image with a Christian worldview. We don’t seem to know what to do with our sexuality, and since we can’t ignore it, we just kind of tack it on as an urge that has to be satisfied when absolutely necessary and ignored or disowned the rest of the time. Oh, the church has made some feeble attempts to counter the open sexuality of pop culture with cringe-worthy slogans like “modest is hottest,” and creepy attempts to make marriage seem exciting and hip through books with titles like Red Hot Monogamy.1 The fact remains (from what I have observed) that we send young people out into the world with the option of either denying (or minimizing) their own sexuality, or embracing some version of secular culture’s view. You tell me how effective these methods are proving to be.2
Here is the amazing thing. I have come to believe that the foundation for both errors is a fractured view of how the physical body relates to the spirit.
A secular society that denies the spiritual aspect of human nature and the reality of objective truth, says that sex is all about me, and that I should have a right to enjoy it with whomever I want as long as I obtain consent. No strings necessary, no lasting relationships required. Just fulfill the biological urge, because, in the end it is all about the Darwinian drive to reproduce. This is sex without the spiritual.
Within the church (certainly, within evangelicalism) there has been a strong tendency to separate the physical body from the spiritual person. This remaining legacy of Platonic dualism leads us to downplay the value of the physical body in contrast to our spiritual selves. The body is seen as a hindrance to our obedience to God, and the pursuit of physical desires as a distraction from being the spiritual person that we ought to be. Since it is a biological necessity, sex cannot be ignored, but it must be downplayed and minimized. Otherwise, we risk its interference with our spiritual lives. In fact, sex is only spiritually significant because we choose to make it so by limiting it to the fulfillment of our spouse’s emotional and physical needs. By itself, it’s just a bodily function. At least that is the message that we often send. We have relegated this part of humanity to some rare red-faced embarrassed acknowledgment, but for the most part, we resort to silence. We just avoid the topic, except to condemn those who sin. So, instead of sex without the spiritual, we have sex separated from the spiritual.
Let me illustrate: Think of our culture’s view of human sexuality as akin to being hungry for a burger. I want a burger, and I have a right to have a burger. Obviously, I can’t just take a burger from someone, but I can go to anyone in town that will agree to make me one. As long as they agree, anything goes. I can hop from burger joint to burger joint, or I can choose a favorite one. I can lead the cook at one burger joint on and make him or her believe that I am a repeat customer so that I can get more and better burgers at less cost. I can leave as soon as I get tired of them, or if I find a better deal elsewhere. As long as, at the end of the day, I satisfy my burger craving, that is all that matters. After all, they’re just burgers.
“No, no, no,” the church says. “That’s not the way that it’s supposed to be. You can’t hop from burger joint to burger joint. You are supposed to commit to one for life, and only get your burgers from there.”
“But, what if I get tired of those burgers, or that particular establishment doesn’t give me all that I need? What if they stop making them altogether?” you ask?
“It doesn’t matter. You must make your commitment to your one burger joint – for life. Choose wisely, those are the only burgers you get.”
Good luck getting young people to sign on to that! Of course, we could just say that it doesn’t matter, and that true Christians are all about sacrificing our desires for a greater good. The problem is that we are still left with a worldview that leaves young people in denial of biological reality, and unable to contextualize one of the strongest emotional forces of human nature. The best result even for those that choose marriage is a distorted understanding of what sex is all about.
If we are going to prepare young people to go out into today’s world, it’s not enough to try to dress up married sex and relationships to be as appealing as the unattached promiscuity of our culture. That comparison, if based on a mutually flawed foundation, will always be strongly weighted against the Christian worldview.
We have to be able to provide a comprehensive view of what it means to be human that provides proper context to our whole being, not just the parts that we are willing to acknowledge in church on Sunday morning.
The first step is to discard any view of humanity that sees us as spirits that just happen to possess bodies. Our bodies are not simply hollow shells for our spirits. Our bodies are no less real than our spirits. We are, rather, spirit-infused bodies. The body that I see in the mirror is the real me. (Though not all of me.) What my body does, my spirit does, what my spirit does, my body does.3
It is only in this context, that that Biblical description of sex as two becoming one makes any sense at all.4 Sex is not simply a symbol of my being joined to my wife. It is the one unique action by which we enter into that union. That is why uncommitted sex is so tragic and so wrong. It joins two people spiritually and physically and then discards that committed union like sweaty gym clothes.
The correct view of the mind-body union informs us in many other ways. It is a basis for modest dress and a chaste thought life. A young woman understands that she cannot separate the image that she projects through her body from the real person that she is on the inside, and with that comes the realization that to sell one’s body is to sell one’s soul. A young man learns that he must not separate the body that he sees from the person that he sees, and that to do so is a grave sin against another human’s personhood. It doesn’t matter if she is complicit in that sin or not. It doesn’t matter how much skin she shows or what message she seems to be sending, it is the young man’s responsibility to respect her. He understands that to turn a woman’s body into an object of one’s lust is to degrade her whole person into something much less than human.
But, even more than giving us the “thou shalt not’s” This corrected perspective revolutionizes our ability to embrace the amazing gift of human sexuality. We don’t cover our bodies because they are shameful, dirty, or sinful, but because to bare one’s body is at the same time to bear one’s soul. It makes us vulnerable to everyone in view – complete strangers – and gives them license to use us in whatever depraved and sinful way their hearts imagine. Is it any wonder then, that we would only uncover ourselves for the one person with whom we have a permanent and exclusive commitment of love, trust, and respect? As a married person, I don’t have to worry if I am as “good” as other men, my wife doesn’t need to worry that she has to compete with some air-brushed super model. Neither of us needs to be concerned that if we are not meeting our spouse’s needs, he or she might go somewhere else for a “burger.” The marriage bed isn’t about a contractual obligation to fulfill someone else’s needs.
I can think of no better description of marriage than what was given by God in the Garden of Eden. The two become one flesh. Marriage is the emotional, spiritual, and physical unity between a man and woman that creates and nurtures new life. Picture two saplings that grow close together until they have become parts of the same tree. Putting the other person’s needs first is more natural than meeting one’s own. Harm to one person, is harm to both. In such a case one could no more abandon love and care for his spouse than he can forget to pursue the next gasp of air. In that environment, a married couple is free to pursue the expression of their love without guilt, shame, or embarrassment, and free from the misguided legalism spouted by generations of self-righteous pontificators who have presumed to butt in and try to dictate that which belongs only to the husband and wife united before God.
Marriage is a lifetime of shared experiences, of triumph and tragedy, of walking hand in hand and knowing that in all of the uncertainty, not matter what happens, it happens together with that other person. That is why marriage is “until death do we part.” Not because it seems like a good idea, or a nice, romantic gesture, but because two people joined together in such a way could only ever be separated by death itself.
Now that… that is something to offer.
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In the interest of full disclosure, I have never read the book, my point only extends to the name ↩
97% of Americans are not virgins on their wedding day, and in the church, about 80% fail to wait. http://waitingtillmarriage.org/4-cool-statistics-about-abstinence-in-the-usa/ ↩
There is, in this one point, a whole discussion to be had about passages in Scripture that some believe indicate that the body is inferior to the spirit. Without getting into that here, I would like to point out that passages that talk about the desires of the “flesh” are using that term to discuss the sinful nature which affects both body and spirit. Any other interpretation in untenable when carried to its logical ends. ↩
Genesis 2:24. I Corinthians 6:16 affirms this same point in forbidding sexual immorality. A person who has sex with a prostitute has become one flesh with her ↩