Sexual Desire and Christian Ethics

The past couple of days have seen some really good conversation here and on Facebook stemming from Monday’s post on the place of friendships in shaping our understanding about the propriety of homosexual relationships.

One point that has bubbled up a few times is worth singling out and examining more closely. We’ve talked about it here before, but it’s worth going over the ground again.

The issue also has to do with experience–not with experience of other people, but our experience of ourselves. People on the traditionalist side of the homosexuality debate have been especially keen to contend that we should not let our desires dictate our mores.

This is a danger that we might easily succumb to in modern culture. We are trained to see our desires as good and in need of healthy fulfillment. This leaves us at odds with Paul’s expectation that the Spirit would enable us to faithfully walk in the way of righteousness rather than being enslaved to the lusts of our flesh.

Sex and Death

I know that this is going to sound like a complete buzz kill, but I think that we need to map all Christian sexual ethics onto the broader cruciform rubric that is supposed to define the Christian life.

That is to say, our sexuality take part in the death that we die in order to find life in Christ.

Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow. Paul urges us to put to death the deeds of the flesh and to live a life in community in which the mind of Christ is realized–that mind that did not consider divine equality something to be clung to but determined to empty itself in taking human likeness and humble itself in becoming obedient to the point of death on the cross.

We can tackle the relationship between sex and death from at least two angles.

First, love is death.

When we see that “God is love,” we learn immediately that we know what love is through God’s giving of God’s son (1 John 4). When Jesus tells us what love looks like he says, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

And when Eph 5 talks about marriage, it tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself for it.

“Love” is an easy card to play, but Christianity gives love a peculiar cast. That cast is determined by the son-giving Father and the self-giving Son.

Love takes on the shape of the cross. This means that it sacrifices itself for the sake of the other. This means that love, true love, is not about seeking the fulfillment of my own desires even, if needs be, at the expense of another, but seeking the life of the other even, if needs be, at the expense of my own.

Second, we are warned throughout scripture that our desires are often poor guides for living the lives that God would have us to live.

This is why God gave the Law. This is why God provided the Spirit to empower us to obey even when we don’t feel like it.

Here we are come face-to-face with one of the most pervasive conflicts between the assumptions of scripture writers and our current culture. We assume that desires are good and healthy indices about what it we need in order to attain to the fulness of ourselves, our humanity.

But scripture, as often as not, assumes that our driving desires and passions are precisely the hindrances that keep us from walking in the way of Jesus and bearing the fruit of the Spirit.

The lusts of the flesh need to be put to death, because they stand opposed to the fruit of the spirit.

Through the body of Christ the world with its passions and desires is crucified to us. This enables us to participate, already, in the new creation Jesus has begun.

In formulating a Christian ethic about any issue, we cannot blow off the narrative of the cross. The way of the cross determines the way of those whose identity is wrapped up with the Crucified.

This goes for sex as well, whatever else we might want to say about it.

Please share the love:

15 thoughts on “Sexual Desire and Christian Ethics

  1. Excellent post. I also appreciated the last one. It lacked that sense of “oversimplification” which so many seem to need in order to feel comfortable with themselves. Regarding this post, I know how the “divine sparks” of sexual desire, when subsumed, (not merely sublimated) can extend extraordinary power to our being. So much can be said about this. However, without one’s own participation in the power of the Christ event, this understanding can only be theoretical.

  2. Very helpful post, Daniel. I think I would add that in coming to faith in Christ, we enter into his death and also his resurrection. So, we come to him just as we are, but he never leaves us that way. We enter into the barrenness of death but also into the transformative life of Jesus’ resurrection. We can say that we are accepted just as we are but we would be mistaken if we thought that acceptance was the end of the story.

    This is great stuff. Thank you!

    1. This seems abstract to me. A consensus has emerged that a lot of our sexuality (orientation) is not amenable to change. The question becomes, given that some aspects of sexuality are fixed, what does redemption mean? In redemption, what are we called to accept and what are we called to seek to change? I think we are called to be more specific in this time lest the message is misunderstood and a source of great pain.

  3. Daniel, I wrote on this question some time back on my blog here

    I want to push back on the idea that our bodies cannot be trusted to provide valuable information in moral decision making. Scripture is full of references to utilizing our senses to draw closer to God. From Psalm 34: “Taste and see that the Lord is good!” Telling Thomas to touch him if he needed that evidence. Leaping in Mary’s womb as a sign of joy and assurance. So many ways what we feel with our bodies grants us access to God and provides information for moral decision making.

    While many men’s experience with sexual desire is of an untrustworthy, overpowering, dangerous sensation, for many women sexual desire is fraught with danger, fear, difficult memories, reluctance, and uncertainty. Whatever popular feminist and academic discourse may be around women’s sexual desire, I have spent a lot of hours with women who don’t want to have sex, but accede to their partner’s desires. For many of them (and for not a few men), sex is already a bit like dying on a cross.

    I know, I know. Experience is a fickle and untrustworthy foundation for ethical/moral decision making. But here is an example of what I mean. In seminary a preceptor once opened a class time with a prayer from Stanley Hauerwas. “Bloody Lord, you are just too real. Blood is sticky, repulsive, frightening. We do not want to be stuck with a sacrificial God who bleeds…We fear that by being Jesus’ people we too might have to bleed…” He presented this prayer as if it was universal and would be well understood by all in the class. But I do not understand it at all. I bleed monthly. I’ve given birth to two children. My hands are in the midst of sticky blood over and again, and I do not find it repulsive or frightening. This was not the prayer for me.

    When it comes to sexual desire and moral/ethical decision making, I believe that for many of us desire is AT LEAST one thing to be considered and that it makes an excellent starting point. The assumption that people only have sex when they feel sexual desire is incorrect. And not just incorrect occasionally so as to make my argument semantic. Whether or not a particular liaison feels good for ourselves AND for our partners is an essential component of this decision making. And while sexual desire cannot be trusted as the only or final arbiter of whether sex is holy/sacred/good/permissible, no moral or ethical decision can be made about sex without taking into consideration the bodily experience of desire or lack thereof.

    1. Katie Mullligan – thank you for this excellent and elegant pushback. I’m so grateful for your affirmation here of the body, and what we want and feel as embodied people.

    2. Thanks so much for this thoughtful comment, Katie. I’m trying to figure out, now, how I agree with it almost entirely while still agreeing almost entirely with many of the things I said originally.

      I thought that your paragraph 3, about sex already being like dying on the cross, was especially close to the heart of what I was getting at. Sex is part of a complex mix of giving and finding life (hopefully).

      1. Only thing is, men have been prescribing women to redemptively suffer through sex for centuries. There is a season for the martyr’s cross, and a season for immersing oneself in delight and ecstasy. Even Jesus knew that.

          1. It seems both posts are saying the Spirit will change the fundamental drive behind desire, in some ways changing desire itself.

            But as a female from a conservative Christian background, I am very interested in Katy Mulligan’s perspective. I have known women in self-denial to the point of sin, in that it separates them from communion with God completely. I love the comment, “Experience is a fickle and untrustworthy foundation for ethical/moral decision making,” but the only reason we make ethical/moral decisions is to have better experiences.

            My friends with similar backgrounds seem to either have lost themselves completely through moralistic sacrificial ideas of relationship, which ended in losing their families and their faith, or immersed themselves in fulfilling their desires with myopic plans and short-term goals. When I give an “amen” to putting desire to death on the cross and living with desire to please Him alone, I’m hoping that means these burning and natural desires change and express themselves in their original and God-ordained form! Instead, it’s often interpreted as hard work, pain, and suffering, moving our focus from pleasing God to the deformed mental and spiritual condition left after the pain.

            This should be the difference between faith in God’s redemption and a religious need to achieve favor with God. The way we preach about pleasing God with desire these days straddles the two too closely, I think.

            Thank you for such mindful posts!

  4. Pingback: The Rabbit Hole
  5. Help me out with this one. First, sexual desire in and of itself is not wrong. If you need scripture to proof text, it seems to affirm it in many places (Song of Solomon?). Sexual desire is a gift of God. I don’t think your post goes so far, but to shun all sexual desire seems to me to be not only unrealistic, but a denial of an essential part of our humanity. Temperance, self control – that is one thing, but not to be confused with sexual desire, which I think is part of our nature as human beings. I think there is some truth that sexual desires are good and in need of healthy fulfillment. (Didn’t Paul presume something like this in calling for marriage for those that could not control their sexual urges in I Cor. 7?)

    For many “evangelical” Christians, gay and lesbian people must completely deny (“crucify”) their sexual desire – no healthy fulfillment exists in this rubric. Of course, to keep with the metaphor, crucifixion for the heterosexual is temperance, self control. (Celebacy for those single.) The distinction is untenable to me.

    1. I don’t think that there is anywhere where we are taught to “shun” all sexual desire, which will after all make itself felt, especially if we are female in the fertile years, with relentless regularity. But acceptance of the fact that at particular times what we want we may not have, for instance more sleep, lots of money, or a spouse, is a pretty central part of discipleship. So I think that Daniel has it basically right. For what we do with ‘our’ body a pivotal doctrine is that Christ owns it [I Cor. 6]. In fact I believe that Christ’s ownership of my body is the real basis for Christian sex-ethics, and once we have grasped that many other questions fall into place. Actually the ownership is Trinitarian (!): my body belongs to the Creator who made it, the Redeemer who bought it, and the Sanctifier who lives in it. The whole NT teaches quite plainly that the answer to the question, “Did the Lord Jesus hang on His cross so that any one of us should live as we please?” is “No”.

      As for married people who sometimes don’t want sexual relations, this is an opportunity for the exercise of patience and mutual consideration until it comes straight. The whole thing works in opposite ways in men and women, not only because men are not on a cycle; and while the unwilling man just can’t, the unwilling woman should normally give herself to her husband as a part of love even when there’s nothing in it for her, (lest worse befall her, Paul seems to say). A mutually acceptable method of contraception must be found in the case of most normally fertile couples. Abstinence must be by mutual agreement. NEVER wanting sexual relations, in married people whose physical heath is good, is a sign of deep neediness and must be addressed with prayer counselling or other strong measures. In all such marital difficulties, choosing to be frustrated oneself should normally be considered a much holier course of action than frustrating one’s spouse, if the spouse’s desires are reasonable.

      Something which we do not always take into account when we read the NT is that most if not all the married people, even the free people, would by no means have chosen their spouses freely, let alone on the basis of romantic ‘love’. The slaves would often have been ‘mated’ like livestock, or not mated at all, or prostituted.

      1. What is the gay Christian to do?

        I am curious about the last paragraph: this foundational understanding has obviously changed (I think for the better). So where does that leave us in reflecting on the NT?

  6. The expression “the gay Christian” itself begs the question. Where is ‘gayness’ located? To suffer from a set of desires and/or temptations not shared by the majority is the lot of those with a taste for tiny children. Adulterous urges on the other hand are much more common. Stage One is to accept that to succumb to one’s desires cannot be consistent with one’s belonging to Christ. The nature of Stage Two will I believe vary with the individual. Somewhere along the line prayer for one’s desires to be changed will come into play. There are passions so strong that only the Holy Spirit is stronger; but stronger He is.

    As for choosing one’s spouse freely, it’s by no mean clear to me that this is the privilege of everyone in the modern world even in the West. Certainly very many people over the centuries have not been so privileged. I am more and more certain that this is one key to the teaching about marriage in Eph. 5, composed AFTER I Cor. 11 and with an implied corrective for any who have got out of the earlier passage a ‘layer of men on top of a layer of women’ theory. So I have written:–

    First, in Eph. 5 Paul is addressing men qua husbands, women qua wives. Second, he is addressing people who in most cases were in arranged marriages. Third, he must have assumed sexual connection with all its possible joys, but he has nothing explicit to say of the nature or quality of anybody’s orgasms or the degree of personal intimacy enjoyed. That the ideal of a romantic and intimate love between husband and wife would eventually come out of his teaching might well have surprised him (but not of course the Holy Spirit). Fourth, he is speaking of an asymmetrical relation between one who gives up his life for another, woos and pursues, enters, awakens and makes fruitful, and one who is at first empty, then turns and responds, receives, is changed and matured, conceives and produces. I do not wish to be crude, but he is saying, as the whole Old Testament is, that the facts of sex are a God-given metaphor for an eternal relation. Fifth, marriage is not Paul’s topic except incidentally: his subject is the archetypal truth, which he applies to actual marriages. He is not getting a picture of the relationship of Christ and the Church out of natural human marriage, whether or not orgasmic or intimate, but trying to get Christian marriages to function as little acted parables of that supreme love-relationship. In it all the getting comes through giving, just as we are happiest in sex when we forget ourselves entirely. In it all of us His people are feminine, and His passion and our response are made visible in fruitfulness. Heterosexual relations are the metaphor, Christ and His bride are the reality to which in Paul’s mind actual marriages are to bear witness. As the black Episcopalian preacher whom I heard in NYC recently put it so vividly, “Jesus wants to open you up and climb right down inside of you.” In practical spiritual terms he is telling me that if I am in a Christian marriage, the wishes of my husband, or the needs of my wife, dictate the shape of my obedience to Christ. This has tremendous healing implications for, among other things, the greedy claims of careers, ecclesiastical or secular, or of children. It was almost certainly incidental to his aim that his prescription works for falling in love in an arranged marriage, and for climbing back into love when we fall out of it, that it is uniquely counter-cultural, contradicting equally male mother-fixation and female smother-love, that obeying it makes men grown up and women fulfilled, and that the happiness produced by it is perhaps “the best bliss that earth imparts”. [Holy Homosex? pp. 13-134]

    We always need to interrogate the Scripture about real questions. Not all of our modern questions are even sensible, let alone admit a practical answer. Cf. the matter of the aetiology of ‘homosexual’ desire as such, which I believe is neither addressed nor answered in Rom 1.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.