Being Single, Part 4: Sex

[Adapted from this past Sunday’s message at The District Church, “Being Single.”]

Statistically, most single adults have had sex. Some of you are in relationships where you’re having sex now; others of you have had sex before—maybe it was good, maybe it was terrible; and some of you really wish you could have sex. My hope today is that, regardless of what has already happened, we can have a biblical understanding of and approach to sex, because what happens next is also pretty important—actually, more important.

It’s an interesting thing being a single 30-year-old pastor in a church full of young, smart, good-looking people, in a city full of young, smart, good-looking people, in a culture that tells you that you need to be young, smart, and good-looking in order to find someone else who’s young, smart, and good-looking so that you can “find God’s match for you” (anyone seen that tagline recently?) and/or just have a little good old harmless fun between the sheets.

Accepting singleness as a gift—living into who God created you to be—doesn’t mean being free from sexual desires and urges; it doesn’t mean you’ll be miraculously free from hormones and chemical reactions in your brain and your body; it doesn’t mean you’ll be rescued from the cultural bombardment that we’re all faced with: on billboards, in ads, on the internet. I know how difficult it is to be hit by wave after wave of messages that say you need to have sex in order to fully enjoy life; that you’re somehow incomplete if you haven’t had sex; or that it’s just another appetite like being hungry or being thirsty—it’s a physical urge that just needs to be satisfied.

I realize this may be a very sensitive topic for some of you, but the perspective that says, What happens in the bedroom is nobody else’s business! doesn’t really work for a people who say, as Christ-followers, “All to Jesus I surrender; I surrender all.”

So here’s what I think the Bible says about sex—and if you disagree, talk to me, email me, dialog with me; let’s keep encouraging each other to find better and fuller and more holistic ways of following Jesus.

First, if Jesus was single and celibate his entire life, for 15-20 years after his hormones started kicking in, for 10-15 years after he was ‘supposed’ to be married and at least have some sort of outlet for his sexual urges, and if Jesus is the most complete, most fulfilled, most content human being that ever lived, then you are not incomplete if you haven’t had sex and you can live life to the full even without having sex.

And before you say, “Well, he was God,” the author of Hebrews reminds us: “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (4:15).

And before you say, “Well, he didn’t have the internet or magazines on which every single cover has the word ‘Sex’ on it, or he didn’t date anyone so of course he wasn’t tempted to have sex,” you don’t need those things to be tempted. As far as I’m aware, you have a mind, you are a sinner, and there is a devil: ergo, you will be tempted. It is not a sin to be tempted; Jesus was tempted! It is a sin to give in to temptation, to entertain those thoughts and play them out and act upon them. Martin Luther is reported to have said that you cannot stop birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.

Second, sex is not just an appetite like any other. This is clear from the way Scripture talks about it: Paul writes, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). In fact, it is for these very reasons that Paul writes, one verse earlier, “Shun sexual immorality! Every other sin which a person commits is outside the body; but the one who commits sexual immorality sins against his or her own body.”

I think God intended sex to be not only a way to procreate and have babies, but more importantly, as one of the most intimate and vulnerable and enjoyable expressions of commitment and trust and love. In the beginning, it says in Genesis, “The man and the woman were naked and unashamed” (2:25). That doesn’t mean they were brazen about it, as is the common attitude today, which says, It’s just sex! What’s the big deal? Rather, it means that they had no fear in revealing all of who they were to one another. And the physical act of sex is symbolic of this closeness, allowing someone to get about as close as a person can get, “becoming one flesh.”

Scientifically speaking, when two people have sex, not only is the chemical dopamine released, which makes you feel good, but also oxytocin, which is the bonding chemical, increasing commitment. That’s why, relationally and emotionally, if you have sex with someone, you’re more likely (and of course there are exceptions) to feel a connection with that person. Relationships in which sex is a part are going to be a lot harder to end if they need to and they’re going to hurt a lot more when they do, and relationships in which sex is the main thing tend to be self-serving rather than self-giving; and we see in the person of Jesus Christ that love is about putting the other’s needs before our own. “We know love by this, that he [Jesus] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16).

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “Love is an act of the will, where you act lovingly even if you do not always feel loving. We tend to think love is a feeling, but it is not. Love is an action; love is something we do for others” (God Has A Dream, 78).

So sex is not the same as love. Sex is intended to be the most intimate and vulnerable expression of love, meant to be enjoyed in tandem with serving the other person and sacrificing for the other person and putting the other person’s needs before your own. It’s not that sex is bad as a single person and then good for married people. Sex was always intended to be a very good thing; so precious, in fact, that God wanted to protect it within the confines of a covenant relationship, where two people have committed to each other that, no matter what, they will see it through. When things are valuable, we take care of them: most of you treat your iPhones as valuable, even if that shows itself by putting it in a protective case so that it can take some punishment. Similarly with sex, if it is a good thing, if it is one of the best things in life—and I believe that it is—then it should be cared for, it should be protected, it should be enjoyed in the safest environment, that is, a committed covenant relationship.

Jamie the Very Worst Missionary wrote a couple of great blogs on sex (here and here). Here she’s talking about waiting:

… when you wait to have sex, you are creating an important connection between the very powerful urges to do things that feel really good and the ability to control those urges. Otherwise known as self-control. This practice of self-denial and delayed gratification makes you a healthier, more poised, and better moderated person. Ultimately, self-control is a character trait—or *ahem*, fruit of the spirit, for the Christian folk—that will help you be a better long-term partner in your ’til-death-do-we-part relationship.

… we’ve done a really bad job of teaching about sex in the Church. Our approach has been to shame girls for having it, and shame boys for wanting it. And when the smart kids ask, “Why wait?”, we shrug our shoulders like a hillbilly and say, “Because the Bible says.” Then we give the girls a purity ring and we give the boys nothing and we cross our fingers and hope they’ll cross their legs. So dumb.

We’ve made virginity the goal, when it is purity that we should be aiming for; they’re not the same thing. Sexual purity is a lifelong spiritual practice that doesn’t begin or end with a single sex act, just as it doesn’t begin or end on a wedding night. So when we are asked, “Why wait?”, we should have an answer that empowers and prepares people to choose wisely for a lifetime.

So her advice for her kids is to wait and, by waiting, to cultivate self-control and to grow as a healthy, mature human being who’s capable of rising above the animal instincts that tell you that you can’t do anything other than what you feel. She says:

the person you’re with right now … is not the last person you will have those feelings toward, and you need to know what it feels like to not act on those feelings, because a day will come when you will have to exercise self-control for the sake of the relationship you’ve given your life to—and, trust me, you will want to know how to do that. Do not relinquish that power without a fight.

Now, please don’t hear me saying that what married people do in the bedroom doesn’t matter. It’s entirely possible to be selfish with sex as a married person, just as it’s entirely possible to live a life of integrity and wholeness and joy as a single person without sex. And as C.S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity:

There is no getting away from it; the Christian rule is, ‘Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.’

Learning How to Live Well #2: Living

[The following is adapted from yesterday’s message at The District Church, “Learning How to Live Well.” Listen to the podcast here.]

I want to point out three things, regarding Paul’s analogy of the fruit of the Spirit.

1. It’s not something we can acquire by simply trying harder. Throughout Galatians, Paul dismantles the idea that all God wants is for us to try harder, to do more things, to count on our achievements to gain right standing with God. The fruit of the Spirit comes when the Spirit is living in us.

To state the obvious: if you want an apple, you grow it. You plant the seed, you water it, you care for it, you allow for whatever factors you have no control over—weather, for example—and you trust and hope that, in the right time, the tree will spring up, it will blossom, and it will bear the fruit you’re looking for. It takes time and effort, and even then, we have no guarantee of what, where, when, or how something is going to appear.

Have you ever heard someone pray for patience now? It kind of misses the point of what patience is, doesn’t it? I definitely think we should be praying for these things, but don’t expect them to be just placed in your lap—“Here’s the love for your neighbor you requested”! Absolutely, there are times when God pours out a supernatural measure of peace or joy on us, but more often than not, instead of just giving us those things, God gives us opportunities to learn those things—love, joy, gentleness—and he gives us his Holy Spirit to be with us at all times, including those times, and the Spirit brings peace and joy in the midst of those things, so that we can cultivate the life framework to sustain it all, to grow a healthy soul, where we learn how to weave body, mind, and spirit into one cohesive whole.

2. It’s not just about you. Notice that the fruit of the spirit is a lot to do with how you interact with others. You don’t become more loving on your own—it’s about how you put others before yourself. It’s really easy to be peaceful on your own, especially if you understand peace as an absence of conflict but in the Bible, peace is about something bigger, something more holistic—shalom in the OT and eirene in the NT: it’s being in right relationship with God and with others. And as I alluded to earlier, patience is easy until you have to deal with people. We are not called to walk this on our own; we are not called to do lone-wolf Christianity; even Jesus himself didn’t do life on his own, but in community.

So maybe you’ve been trying hard to be a better Christian, to be better at doing what you think God wants you to do—but you’re tired and you’re feeling lonely. Maybe you’ve hesitated to get too involved with a church community because people are messy, relationships are transient, and you wonder if it’s really worth it. But if this is you, call it a hunch, but I think God might want you to find some folks to do life with. And this leads us into the next point.

3. It requires intentionality. This doesn’t negate point one about not trying harder—you can’t just acquire the fruit of the Spirit by trying harder. But part of the process is planting and watering. Just as with every aspect of life with God, there’s the part that God does—which is most of it, actually—and the part that we get to do; in 1 Corinthians, Paul says that we do our part but it’s God who makes things grow. Therefore, Paul writes to the church in Galatia:

Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives. (5:25, MSG)

We can’t just relax and do what comes naturally—our natural inclination as sinful human beings is often to put self first, to avoid effort. Sometimes we have to get out of the way and let the Spirit do his thing—that requires intentionality. Other times we’ll have to choose to love or choose to forgive or choose to speak the truth, and as we continue to do so, we will cultivate habits and practices that change what comes naturally to us from choosing for ourselves to choosing for God and for others.

2007: me, my nephew Matt, and the piano I learned on.

Actually, instead of trying harder, let’s look at it as training. When I was younger, I had piano lessons.

There were days when I’d love playing—mastering a new piece, or learning how to play the Pink Panther theme song—and there were days—most days!—when I felt lazy and unmotivated. I hated practicing for an hour a day, but that’s what my mom made me do; we even had a little booklet where I’d write down the times when I’d practiced, and if I took more than a five minute break, I needed to write that in there too.

After about eight years of lessons, of disciplined practicing, of taking exams—as soon as I was able to—I stopped. I considered myself free.

And I was, finally; only I was free in a new and better way—not just free from having to practice or to have lessons; but I was free to play notes without worrying about them, I was free to improvise because I’d acquired a familiarity with the keys.

Now, I didn’t learn to play the piano by being lazy (even when I felt like it) or watching lots of TV; I learned by practicing, by submitting myself to something that was making me better. And I thank God that my mom knew what was better for me than I did (and thanks to John Ortberg for highlighting that metaphor).

Paul uses the analogy of an athlete in training for the spiritual life in 1 Corinthians. Just as we don’t live healthy lives physically by eating junk food all the time, trashing our bodies with drugs or alcohol, lounging around on the couch all day, and not getting enough sleep; so also we don’t live healthy lives spiritually by treating others unkindly, being stingy with our possessions, refusing to care for those in need, putting our concerns first, or holding on to grudges. And, as we know, the physical and the spiritual aren’t as unrelated as the world likes to make them.

Wendell Berry has this beautiful phrase in one of his poems:

Practice resurrection.

Live your life as if Jesus is alive. Live your life as if Jesus meant everything he said, from “I am with you” to “Love your enemy” to “Do not be anxious about anything but seek first the kingdom of God” to “If you have something against someone, go make peace with them” to “Go and sin no more.” How do we do this, how do we practice resurrection?

It’s pretty straightforward, actually. It’s pretty ordinary. We worship God, and we do this in every moment and every aspect of our lives, we do this in the way that we live our lives:

  • we sprinkle the words we speak with grace;
  • we show patience and persevere when things get tough or when things don’t go the way we think they ought to;
  • we comfort those who mourn and stand with those who are going through tough times;
  • we go to work and treat people with respect;
  • we date and break up or date and get married, all the while treating the other person with honor and dignity as befits them as made in the image of God;
  • we seek justice, we love mercy;
  • we speak up for the oppressed;
  • we care for the poor and those afflicted by war and grief and loss and abuse;
  • we bring the healing of Christ into a broken world and into broken lives;
  • we hurt and cry and we bring it to God;
  • we laugh and celebrate and we bring it to God.

You see, our calling is not just to be saved by grace but to live by grace. It’s not just to be saved by the stirring of the Spirit but to live in step with the Spirit; it’s not just to say that we believe in God but to live as God did in Jesus.

So when we come back to that initial question of how we measure our spiritual growth, the fruit of the Spirit is one tell. It’s one indicator that we are choosing to use our freedom for Christ, that we are choosing to live life as we were intended to live life.

John Ortberg writes:

The main measure of your devotion to God is not your devotional life. It is simply your life. (The Me I Want to Be, 51)

How much sleep you get isn’t just to do with your body; it impacts how able you are to engage mentally, it impacts how patient you are when you’re with people that you might find irritating or frustrating. The kinds of thoughts you entertain don’t just affect your mind; they affect how you see people, how you treat people. And reading the Bible or spending time in prayer isn’t just an exercise in spirituality; for me, it’s about learning the vocabulary of God, so that his words and stories become my first language, and it’s about spending time hanging out with the One who made me, who knows me best, and who loves me as I am; and this comes out in everything I do.

Maybe you have sin in your life that you need to confess, that you need to bring before God. You need to stop hiding, and thinking that as long as nobody else knows about it, you’re okay; or that, actually, it’s not a big deal—you’ll turn things around when you want. But the truth of the matter is, you’re living a lie. If there’s anything we learned this weekend, it’s that life is fragile and evil is real—choices matter. If you’re living for yourself, if you’re enslaved by your appetites and your impulses, I’m telling you, it only leads to destruction—and God is saying to you, “It doesn’t have to be that way. Come back. Start over. Let’s do this together.”

Maybe you feel trapped; you’re stuck in this downward spiral or you’re surrounded by all of this trash, and you want to get out. You want to live life in the Spirit, but you don’t know where to begin or how to start. It’s easy: start by asking. Ask God for his help, ask God for his strength, ask God for his forgiveness and for his cleansing power to make all things new in you, ask God for his Spirit to live in you and form Christ within you. That’s how you start.

Or maybe you just needed to be reminded that what we do matters—that the body and the mind and the spirit are not separate but that we are one person, and that if we follow Christ, he has purchased us by his sacrifice on the cross for his own. Maybe God is pointing out that you’re doing something with or to your body that is impacting the rest of your life; or maybe you’re thinking things or looking at things or listening to things that are warping the way that you treat other people. Jesus rescued us, ransomed us, from the grasp of sin and death, and he offers us all life to the full, if we seek him, if we let his Spirit live in us.

Whatever it is, wherever you’re at, write it down—there’s something powerful about putting it in writing. And then share it with someone you trust, someone who loves you. Talk about life—talk about where you’re at and where you want to be. Pray together—ask God to bring the growth, to bring the change, to bring the life. And ask that person to hold you accountable; or if it’s someone here, keep each other accountable; because remember point 2: we were made to do life in community—that’s part of God’s design.

And by the grace of God, may we all live well.

Learning How to Live Well #1: Growing

[The following is adapted from yesterday’s message at The District Church, “Learning How to Live Well.” Listen to the podcast here.]

The life well lived is not an impossibility.

Jesus says in John 10:10, “I came that they might have life, and life to the full.” The Greek word used for “life” here is zoë, which has a spiritual element to it. It conveys a sense in which you’re not just healthy physically or mentally or emotionally, but at the very core of your being, in your very soul, you’re alive—you’re operating out of the depths of a groundedness, creating a life upon the firm foundation of Jesus Christ that’s going to stand regardless of the circumstances you may find yourself in, and even when your physical, mental or emotional health fluctuate, as they do and as they will.

In Galatians 5:16-26, Paul takes the two understandings of freedom—the world’s, which seeks to gratify what’s sometimes called “the flesh” or “the sinful nature”—that, sadly, is our inclination as fallen, broken, messed-up, sinful human beings; and God’s, which is about “living by the Spirit,” fulfilling our created intentions to be in right relationship with our Creator and with those around us—and Paul helps us here see what those things look like. He says:

Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. (5:16-18)

So he lays them out very starkly, side by side: the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit. But they aren’t just “do’s” and “don’ts.” It’s not just another checklist of things you need to do or not do in order to make it into heaven. I think The Message does a great job of bringing these words to life, though:

It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.

This is the “kind of life [that] develops out of trying to get your own way all the time.” This is what we see all around us—the reality of living by the world’s definition of freedom, which is putting self first:

  • families and relationships break down when people stop feeling it—whatever ‘it’ is;
  • we lose the concept of the common good and we act as if how we live our lives doesn’t impact others or the world around us;
  • constituents and consumers think purely in terms of what’s best for me, and politicians and advertisers help propagate the cycle;
  • companies seek only what’s best for their bottom line when that’s all their shareholders seek, and news channels only what’s best for their ratings;
  • we treat our world, our resources, our money, our time, as ours alone, to do with as we please—and to hell with the consequences.

Welcome to the world of “do what you want” gone mad, full of systems and structures that have been built up and reinforced and buttressed by continued habits of individuals who have put themselves—and let’s be honest here, ourselves, because we’ve all done this—and our interests before everyone and everything else.

And, Paul says, if we make—or continue to make—putting ourselves first into a lifestyle, if we consistently put our wants and needs above others’ wants and needs or reject what God tells us is what we were made for, we close ourselves off from the flow of God, from growing to be more like God, from being who we were created to be. And the consequence is:

those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (5:21)

It’s pretty straightforward, strong language. It’s pretty uncomfortable for us to hear. We don’t like hearing that there are consequences and cut-offs. But, if you think about it, this is merely a logical conclusion: if the kingdom of God is where God reigns and where his character is supreme, and if he is characterized by love, joy, peace, and all of the other things we’re about to talk about, then the person who consistently lives for him- or herself is clearly choosing the opposite. If you draw a shape with three sides, you have not drawn a circle, however many times you try to do it—that is a logical conclusion. And so, N.T. Wright concludes:

a society in which most people behaved in such a way is unlikely to be a happy or thriving place. What is more, when God finally establishes his kingdom, people like that will have no place in it; it would be very surprising if they did. That’s not the sort of place, and state of affairs, that God wishes ultimately to create.

And that’s not who God is. And if the life of faith is about life with God, about becoming more like God, then it makes sense that “those who do these things will not inherit the kingdom of God”—they are choosing to say no to Jesus, to the fulfilled life, to a restored relationship with the God who loves us.

This is the alternative:

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,  gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. (5:22-23)

We could easily devote a blog post (or book) to each of these (and maybe I will, one day), but in the interests of time I’m going to highlight three.

  1. Love—in the Greek, it’s the word agape—is not just having warm fuzzy feelings but seeking the good of the other in tangible action, putting them before yourself. That’s what it looked like when Jesus loved us: he put our needs before his own; and so he calls us to do the same for those around us. “Love your enemy”—seek the good of even those who despise you; that’s tough, especially when you operate in the world of politics, for example, where tempers fray and we say all sorts of awful things, throw all sorts of crazy accusations around, impute the basest of intentions to each other. How will you seek the good of even those who call you ‘enemy’?
  2. Gentleness is not a particularly hip word, is it? Some other translations say, “meekness,” which seems kind of soft! We live in a world that extols boldness and praises those who seize their opportunities, and we think of meek people as those who are submissive or easily imposed on—doormats. But in my dad’s commentary, he writes that neither “gentleness” nor “meekness” fully captures the sense of the Greek word. This term was “typically used to describe a person in whom strength and gentleness go together.” I hope you know people like that: who may be tremendously gifted and talented and capable but who are humble about it and who use their gifts to build others up; or who maybe exhibit a quiet confidence. They don’t need to prove themselves, they don’t need to draw attention to themselves; they just do what they do: they love and serve and give themselves for others.
  3. Self-control is the ability to not be ruled by our appetites and our impulses, to not just do whatever we feel like simply because we feel like it—whether that’s cussing someone out just because you’re angry, or having another drink just because it’s there, buying another gadget just because it’s new, or refusing to forgive someone and move on because the world has told you that you have the right to not forgive. Self-control isn’t just about not doing things; it’s about intentionality, whether it’s something you choose not to do or something you choose to do. It’s bending our wills, our minds, our bodies, our souls to the purpose for which they were created—to love and serve and be in relationship with God.

Paul uses the analogy of fruit very intentionally—just as Jesus did in Matthew 7, when he said, “Every good tree bears good fruit, and every bad tree bears bad fruit; you will know them by their fruits”—because we can’t just make fruit. Fruit doesn’t simply appear, fully formed and ready to go; it grows.

[Part 2 tomorrow.]