Story of vicar giving talk on sex at school. Couldn't write 'Talk on sex at school' in diary, so wrote 'Talk on sailing at school'. His wife was looking through his diary. Received phone call from head teacher: 'Your husband gave a very good talk.' Wife: 'Yes, I saw that in his diary. I am surprised. He has very little experience. He's only done it twice. The first time he was sick, and the second time his hat blew off'.
Society has a great deal to say on the subject of sex.
Sex is very much in the public sphere. Scenes that I suspect would never have been shown late at night even a few years ago are now shown well before the 9pm watershed. And as for the 9pm watershed, you-tube and I player now make that nonsense.
And I guess that the dominant view of society today is 'the four wedding and a funeral' attitude to sex: if you're married you ought to remain faithful (unless you have what is called an 'open marriage'); but otherwise it does not matter how many sexual partners, of whatever gender, you have (indeed it is a virtue to have had several), and it does not matter what you do – so long as both of you are consenting adults.
Indeed I would go further and say that in modern society to suggest that a particular sexual practice is wrong is in fact perceived to be an infringement of another persons' rights. And Christians have tacitly bought into that by retreating from talking about sex in the public sphere – partly because of the way that someone like Mary Whitehouse was slaughtered by the media.
And the main thing that society teaches about sex today is that you can have sex with whoever you want to, but if you are going to have sex, you need to have safe sex – wear a condom; and if you are going to have children you really should be in some sort of committed relationship.
If society is always talking about sex, in Christian circles we rarely talk about sex.
Within churches, particularly those which uphold the teaching of scripture and of the historic Church, we teach that the place for sexual intimacy is within marriage between man and woman, and we teach celibacy outside of marriage. But beyond that we are silent. We do not often speak – for very good reasons – about sexual desires – both positive and negative, masturbation, sexual practice, pornography, affair-proofing relationships, or dealing with singleness and celibacy.
And I will try not to be embarrassing, but I do wish to lift the curtain of silence just slightly on some of these issues
This is an area which destroys Christian lives.
Sexual sin destroys Christians. The New Testament is full of injunctions to keep ourselves pure, to keep the marriage bed 'undefiled' (Hebrews 13:4), to avoid even the hint of sexual immorality (Ephesians 5:3). There are 20 references to 'sexual immorality' in the New Testament.
It is not the only sin, it is not the biggest sin; but sexual sin destroys ministries and churches in a way that other sin does not; and it destroys partners, children and individuals in a way that other sins do not. It is one of Satan's favourite weapons.
Sexual sin shipwrecks Christian lives. But so does the guilt that comes from sexual sin, and to be totally honest, the false guilt that hangs around sex.
The Church has not been great talking about sex. The fact that monasticism became, after the 4th Century, the ideal form of Christian life (and that most bishops came from the ranks of the monks) meant that the people who were the main teachers of the church had a very low view of sex. It existed, if it really had to, for procreation only. Otherwise it was wrong.
And many Christians have laboured under the burden that sexual desire is not good – and needs to be suppressed – and that we need to restrain ourselves from sexual activity.
We have been made as men and women and we have desires, including sexual desire.
1 Timothy 4:4-5 is key here. "For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by God's word and by prayer." Everything is right in its rightful place.
The desire for sexual intimacy is the desire to be fully part of someone else. It includes the desire to belong to someone else and to possess someone else, especially when that someone else is physically desirable, and is beautiful.
At its best, the desire for sexual intimacy is the desire:
- to be free from ourselves. 'Hell', says Sartre, 'is the other person'. No. 'Hell', to quote Timothy Ware in The Orthodox Way (p35), 'is myself, cut off from others in self-centredness.'
- to be profoundly creative. Sexual intimacy, can be, humanly speaking, the most creative thing we ever do.
- for ecstasy: for the physical ecstasy that comes from the releasing of tension, for both men and women. But for more than that: for ecstasy at it's most profound, spiritual level. And the word 'ecstasy' comes from the Greek 'ek – stasis' (away from – movement), again reminding us that at the heart of ecstasy is a movement out of ourselves. True ecstasy comes when we let go and give.
The problem is that we live in a fallen society.
And the result is that our desires get mixed up and confused.
a) We desire each other and not God
Our first desire is meant to be for God: 'to love him and worship him for ever': to be part of God, to be possessed by him and to possess him; to be profoundly creative in him and to experience true ecstasy.
And yet straight after the fall, our desires are messed up
Genesis 3:16: "To the woman he said, "I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.""
It is not wrong to desire another person; but it is second best to desire for God
b) Our desire for the other is perverted
Romans 1:24-27 applies to every person and is not just about homosexual practice:
"Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error." (Romans 1:24-27, NRSV)
This is not saying that it is wrong for a man to love another man. It clearly is not. Jonathan's love for David and David's love for Jonathan was clearly very deep: (1 Samuel 18:1; 20:17; 2 Samuel 1:27: "I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.")
What it is saying is that love must not give way to the desire to commit 'shameless acts', to the 'degrading of our bodies' or to the abandonment of 'natural intercourse'. Love needs to triumph over, what the Church Father's called, the passions
And the result is that one of the most precious and healing gifts that God has given us can become one of the most self-centred and most destructive things that we ever do. It becomes a playground for the abuse of other people, for domination over other people, for the turning of other people into objects to satisfy myself; and it leads to the awful story of the concubine in Judges 19 – or to just take two stories that have been in the press this week – the taxi driver who has raped literally hundreds of women; or the man in Austria who turned his own daughter into a sex slave.
But just because sexual desire and sexual intimacy is abused, it does not mean that it is wrong. It needs to be received 'with thanksgiving and sanctified by the word of God and prayer'. In other words, it needs to be kept within the boundaries that God has given: marriage between man and woman.
But let us look at some of the other issues that I have mentioned.
Masturbation is probably not ideal. It is a very individual thing and I think it is about the release of sexual tension: it is interesting how people talk about men having some form of cycle. Leviticus 15 talks about emissions of semen, with the result that the person is unclean until the evening when they should take a bath.
But it is not a big thing. Many Christians, especially young Christians, can get very hung up about this. I remember having a series of phone calls from a young man, who I never met, who was really hung up about the fact that he was masturbating regularly. Actually, by taking the pressure off him, by saying that it was not such a big thing, and not to be so hung up about it, really helped him to get the compulsion under control.
Of course there are the problems of the fantasies which come with it, but it can also be a release of the tension when no other 'legitimate' way is there (whether that is because one is single, or married but with little sexual intimacy in marriage)
However, it must not become controlling, and it must not take the place of physical intimacy if you are married.
Luther, I believe, spoke of masturbation as a 'puppy sin'. The only time that it is really condemned in the bible is in Genesis 38:9, where Onan 'spilled his semen on the ground' in order to avoid his responsibilities. Why for that? Because it affects other people.
This is a much bigger issue, particularly today with internet pornography being so accessible – with absolutely no seeming accountability.
There is a real problem with pornography, because the images stick with us, and it effects how we see other people and particularly women
Some guidelines that have helped me:
- If something is giving you a real problem, get rid of it. Your soul and your mind are more important than your laptop or PDA
- Use passwords – Jesus Christ – although there is always a way around this
- Remember that even if you go onto an incognito window, there is someone somewhere who is able to look at a list of all the sites that you have visited.
- Remember that there is someone who is looking at what sites you visit
- Be accountable to othersPray for a Godly sorrow – so that what you see actually makes you feel physically sick and defiled.
Please, if this has become compulsive, if it is in danger of destroying you, do talk talk talk to others.
4. THE AFFAIR
If you are there, stop
If you have not been there, don't go there
If you have been there, you'll know what I'm talking about.
Of course it is exciting. Of course the sex is fantastic. Have you ever heard of an affair where the sex was not exciting?
It can only be for short while: one, two years. After that, it becomes normal.
The affair now was beginning to have some of the longueurs of marriage, but with none of marriage's reassuring safety and comfort. It wasn't only that the excitement had gone. It was difficult now to recall those first heady weeks when their affair had first started, impossible to recapture that mixture of sexual enthralment spiced with danger, the exhillarating self-confidence of knowing that a beautiful and successful woman found him desirable. Did she still? Hadn't it become a matter of habit for them both? Everything, even illicit passion, had its natural end. (PD James, A Certain Justice, p104)
It has nothing to do with love
About Dalgliesh's lovers: 'What, he wondered, had those carefully spaced encounters, both participants groomed for pleasure like a couple of sleek cats, to do with love, with untidy bedrooms, unwashed dishes, babies' nappies, the warm close claustrophobic life of marriage and commitment' (PD James, The Black Tower, p5)
It destroys your partner, your children and yourself
We need right thinking in this: we need to be led by our mind and not by our genitals. I like the story of the man who sees a woman walking down the street. He gapes. His friend says, 'Married with three children'. The man replies, 'I don't believe it. Not with that figure'. 'No', said his friend, 'not her; you'.
We need accountability to each other – and especially to your partner. I've had three occasions when people have come to me and said, 'I'm married – I want to be faithful to my marriage – but I'm in love with someone else'. I said very little, although did suggest that if at all possible they should talk it through with their partner. I don't know whether they did. But I do know that all three marriages survived, and I suspect that part of the reason was that the person was prepared to be honest.
We need the grace of God. Please do not presume that you stand. Gordon MacDonald, a well known Christian leader in the States, who wrote, 'Ordering Your Private World', said that he was asked, 'How would Satan destroy your ministry'. He answered – in all integrity - with the words, 'I don't know. But I know that it would not be through my private life'. Within a year, he was having an affair with his secretary.
Having said all of that, the affair is not the end. It was not the end for David in the OT; it was not end for MacDonald. It might seem to be the end – it might throw you into the pit – that is the judgement of God – but by his grace it does not need to be the end.
I have heard it said that with consenting couples, in the privacy of their own home, whatever they do is OK.
I do not think that is true. As I spoke earlier, our desires are mixed up. Some of our desires are good. Others are destructive.
For example, in my previous church in Holloway we had a shop opposite which sold bondage stuff. It offered to satisfy the desires of those who wished to dominate or to be dominated. But I do not think that that is healthy. The desire to belong to and be part of someone else is good. God made us to be in Christ and to have Christ in us. He made us together to be in Christ. But the desire to dominate and to be dominated is I suspect a consequence of the fall.
What we do in the bedroom needs to build up the other and not destroy; it is about growing the other and not shrinking them: it is about treating the other person as a human being made in the image of God and uniquely precious to him. .
Sexual intimacy is about doing something that builds up both partners as children of God – which is why it has to be between man and woman, and why it really has to be face to face.
6. LOVING OUR WIVES
As a young curate, only just married, we ran in our house one of the Rob Parson's marriage enrichment courses. There were a quite a number of people who came. In it, Rob or Diane talks of the couple who could not make love because whenever he touched her she wanted to turn over and be physically sick. Suddenly one lady in the quite large group who was there with her husband said, 'that is how I feel when he touches me!'
Those of you who are married do not need me to tell you that there will be times when there is no sex in our marriages. That might be for many reasons: the birth of a baby, illness, change of life; it might be because there is something deeper going on; or it might mean that we have to look again at our relationship.
Those are the times when we need to really work out whether we are spending enough time with our wives, giving them quality time, showing respect and gratitude; There are times when we need to ask whether the romance or the vision has gone out of the relationship. If it has, it does not mean that it is time to trade her in for a younger model, but it means that it is time to work hard at your relationship.
And the physical stuff is important: the touching, the hugging – without the idea that there must be sex, however much we might desire that.
And there will be times when there is no sex – but it is not the end of the world, it is quite normal – and as the single person might say, 'Welcome to our world!'
7. BEING SINGLE/MARRIED AND CELIBATE
Sex, and sexual desire, is an amazing gift that God has given. But, despite what the world says, it is not what life is all about.
It is quite possible to satisfy those three deepest desires: for release from self into another, for creativity and for ecstasy, without sexual intimacy.
Jesus managed to do so; Paul managed to do so (he talks in 1 Corinthians 7 of singleness and celibacy as being a gift, indeed a gift that is greater than the gift of marriage, because it means that there is nothing in your way to making the first desire of your life – God); many many women and men of God through the ages have managed to do so. I think more recently of people like Mr Theresa or John Stott.
If we are single or if we are sexually frustrated, we do not need to be stultified human beings – even if society and the church might make us feel like that.
There is, of course, great cost in singleness, but also great opportunity.
Stott writes in his commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4:4, "An additional paragraph is needed for those of us who are single and therefore lack the God-given context for sexual love. What about us? We too must accept this apostolic teaching, however hard it may seem, as God's good purpose for us and for society. We shall not become a bundle of frustrations and inhibitions if we embrace God's standard, but only if we rebel against it. Christ's yoke is easy, provided that we submit to it. It is possible for human sexual energy to be redirected ('sublimated' would be the Freudian word) both into affectionate relationships with friends of both sexes and into the loving service of others. Multitudes of Christian singles, both men and women, can testify to this. Alongside a natural loneliness, accompanied sometimes by acute pain, we can find joyful self-fulfilment in the self-giving service of God and other people" (John Stott, The Message of Thessalonians, p84f)
And I think that the bible hints that there will not be sexual intimacy, at least as we know it, in heaven.
Luke 20:27-40 states that there will be no marriage in the resurrection, and Galatians 3:28 talks of how there is no male or female distinction in Christ (in the same way as there is no slave/free distinction or Jew/Gentile distinction).
This is speculation. But if there is no sexual intimacy in heaven, it is because heaven is a place where our desires are rightly ordered, and where our desires are fully satisfied in the best possible way.
And so the desire for ecstasy in the richest sense of the word, to be creative in partnership with others, and to come out of ourselves and to be part not just of one other but of all others, will be fulfilled in heaven in a way that sexual intimacy can never offer. Because those desires are ultimately fulfilled when we are in God, when we are in Christ and Christ is in us. Those desires will find their richest fulfilment in that place where 'eye has not seen, or ear heard, or the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him'.