What I’m saying in this post regarding sexual desire is pretty simple, but it’s difficult for people to swallow. I’m saying that sexual fulfillment does not come through a sexual relationship but instead through sublimation to Christ. It’s astonishing to me that this needs to be said, but it does. Christians will accept the fulfillment of virtually every single other desire through satisfaction in Christ and Christ alone, but when it comes to sexual desire, they stop short. Suddenly, we’ve got to find satisfaction through something else. Sure, they say, fulfillment comes through Christ. But sexual fulfillment? That comes through a committed, monogamous, heterosexual marriage. If we ever hope to create an effective response to our culture’s rampant sexual indulgement, this absolutely needs to change.
LGBT+ people aren’t the only ones who need convincing about celibacy. And yet the conversational burden largely falls upon gay people in the church. Let’s face it. It’s easier to talk about what “they” need to do instead of what “I” need to do.
So let’s shift the conversation and talk about the collective Christian us. The church.
About 80 percent of evangelicals have premarital sex, and 1 out of every 3 born-again adults get divorced (which is the same statistical rate as unbelievers). Christian men of all stripes view pornography to the same degree as the outside world (in some cases even more), and roughly 60 percent of pastors use or have used pornography. We’ve become so calloused to the repercussions of sexual immorality, that even when a major evangelical leader admits to sexually assaulting a minor, his entire congregation gives him a thunderous round of applause.
The latent hypocrisy behind these statistics destroys the believability of Christianity. It burns a hole through the heart of whatever relationship the church pretends to pursue with the queer community. And it reinforces the idea that celibacy does nothing more than cover up a deep-seated homophobia in the church.
Like a foul-mouthed parent who expects their child to quit cussing, the church overlooks its own promiscuity while condemning its homosexual members for theirs. But it’s time for this to change.
God’s Purpose in Sexual Desire
“For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor; not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God…” – 1 Thess. 4:3-5
There’s an unpopular reality when it comes the traditional sexual ethic. It’s that 99 percent of the time that you want to have sex, you don’t get to have it. Period. Out on a date and feeling horny? Nope. Got a cute girl at the office who’s married to another man? Nope. In love with your wife’s best friend? Nope.
Out of the countless people that you might be sexually attracted to over the span of a lifetime, you only get to have sex with one of them. If that many at all and with very few exceptions. Just one!
When we consider the shockingly extensive limitations upon sex and the overwhelmingly narrow conditions upon which sex is even permissible according to scripture, one thing becomes increasingly clear. God’s design for sexual attraction is not just for sex.
Sexual attraction stands unique among our God-given longings because it’s a good desire that is nevertheless wrong to fulfill for almost every person who attracts us. Almost every single person that you will ever be sexually attracted to over the span of your entire lifetime, you simply can’t have. The answer is, “No.” The traditional sexual ethic demands a life of radical sexual mortification. For everyone.
Ultimately, when people encounter sexual attraction, it reveals the orientation of their soul. It tests their willingness to submit to the God of the universe. When put face-to-face with forbidden desire, the Christian must answer a simple set of questions. Will you take what you want like a beast controlled by its appetite? Or will you turn to the Lord?
Marriage and Sex Don’t Satisfy
“Sheol and Abaddon are never satisfied, and never satisfied are the eyes of man.” – Prov. 27:20
There is something insatiable about sexual desire. People always want more. And herein lies the failure of the church. We’ve taught a generation of believers to satisfy their sexual cravings through marriage. We’ve taught them to fulfill their sexuality by waiting for that singular moment. That special day when they can finally say yes to their passions.
But we should have taught them to do the opposite. To accept the no. To fulfill their sexuality apart from sex.
Because the truth is, there is no satisfaction of the sexual by the sexual. Marriage can’t fulfill our sexual passions anymore than a birthday could satisfy a child’s desire for toys. If it could, we wouldn’t be talking about lust, adultery, no-fault divorce, and porn addiction in the church. Teaching people to fulfill their sexuality through a monogamous, heterosexual marriage is asking them to discover disappointment. There is no happiness later if you aren’t happy now.
Marriage doesn’t cut it. Sex doesn’t cut it. The more sex you have, the more you want it, the more you realize that what you have is not enough.
The Traditional Sexual Ethic
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” – Gal. 5:15
While the sexual revolution taught us that the natural response to sexual desire is yes, the traditional sexual ethic says no. The more you gratify your sexual desire the more you become its slave. And in the current sexual environment of America, where self-control seems to be a more and more precious commodity, it’s hard to argue otherwise.
The ramifications of unbridled sexual gratification are clear for anyone to see. Each new scandal and each new victim of sexual assault underscores a terrible schism in the American conscience. We sense that something is terribly wrong with it all. But we lack the moral framework to articulate why. There’s nothing sacred about sexual activity, or so we learned from the sexual revolution. So why would grabbing someone “by the pussy” feel so categorically awful compared to grabbing someone by, say, the hand?
The truth is, it “feels” more awful because it is more awful. Though we’ve torn down all the old institutions that once prevented our sexual appetites from devouring each other, we can’t get away from it. There’s something precious here that’s worth protecting. Something that the sexual revolution exposed in all its vulnerabilities to a ravenous world.
It’s to this ravenous world that the traditional sexual ethic speaks. At its heart is the unyielding conviction that you can’t have whoever you want. That learning to accept a life with unmet desire is good.
It’s a simple idea. That sublimation is intrinsic to God’s design for sexual passion.
Preaching Sexual Sublimation in the Church
“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” – 1 Peter 2:11
There is no protection of marriage without protection of human sexuality. But when the church elevates marriage as the key to sexual fulfillment, it creates a sanctimonious version of sexual liberation. It affirms the notion that sex is what we need to be sexually fulfilled. But the guidance of scripture and the bleak conditions of our sexually-saturated culture teach us otherwise.
Scripture teaches that we find satisfaction through Christ and Christ alone, and this includes satisfaction of the sexual variety. For example, David says of God in Psalm 145:16, “You open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.” Elsewhere, he says, “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; I will be satisfied with your likeness when I awake” (Ps. 17:15). In the book of Jeremiah, God himself declares, “My people will be satisfied with my goodness” (Jeremiah 31:14). I could keep going, but the list would be endless.
Jesus Christ was himself a sexual being who never had sex. And yet he was perfect. But this version of Jesus is hard to accept if you believe that the fulfillment of human sexuality requires a sexual relationship. Given our current reality, it’s no wonder that people are believing fictionalized accounts of his marriage. A perfect man who never had sex is a contradiction to the modern mind.
Now don’t misunderstand me. As I’ve said before and will say again, marriage is a beautiful relationship. There’s something precious and mysterious about the one-flesh relationship that defies explanation. However, we do marriage no favors by assigning it a role it cannot fulfill. The idea that a sexual relationship will somehow satisfy our sexual nature is nowhere found in scripture. Such thinking is the pure, unadulterated logic of sexual liberation.
Satisfaction Through Christ Alone
“For he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things.” – Ps. 107:9
Understanding God’s design for sexual desire is essential to understanding just how normal the celibate vocation ought to be. Celibacy makes perfect sense in a world where the majority of sexual attractions ought to be sublimated in the first place. Why else would the disciples declare that it was “better not to marry” in Matthew 19:10? They recognized the glaringly obvious implication of the traditional sexual ethic.
Christians may find themselves called to celibacy for numerous reasons, and I’m not primarily talking about sexual minorities. What of the man whose wife becomes tragically disabled, destroying the possibility of sexual intimacy? Or the believer whose spouse is permanently incarcerated? What about the woman who doesn’t know it yet but who will never get married, despite all of her efforts? Or the person who knows they should forego the distractions of marriage to pursue the ministry?
The celibate vocation is a much more common calling upon the lives of believers than many are willing to acknowledge, especially when you consider the teachings of Jesus about divorce. Sexual liberation would call this oppressive. Even Christians think it oppressive, thanks in large part to the church’s “wait-until-marriage” prescription for sexual fulfillment. But there is nothing oppressive about taking the whip of the taskmaster into your hands and emancipating yourself.
Sexual liberation would enslave us to desire. Scripture would have us walk in the freedom of self-control. The church struggles to maintain even the pretense of sexual morality because it fails to preach this message. It fails to teach satisfaction through Christ alone.
Edited 1/31/2018 to take out a reference that may have mistakenly communicated a conflation between sexual assault and pre-marital sex. While both are sinful according to scripture and neither brings sexual satisfaction, pre-marital sex does not even remotely exist in the same category as sexual assault. Both are sinful according to the traditional sexual ethic, but they hardly exist on equal footing. One is a horrific crime and the other is not. And they are certainly not the same in the eyes of God.
Edited 5/25/2018 to clarify that Andy Savage’s entire congregation gave him a round of applause when he confessed to the so-called “sexual incident.” Some members of the congregation gave him a standing ovation.