[Written originally as part of the curriculum for a class on divorce recovery at Crossings Community Church in Oklahoma City, this is addressed primarily to divorced individuals wrestling with the issue of sexuality. But the ideas also apply to those who have been sexually active without the benefit of marriage, and probably it applies to those who have just thought about sex. So if you find yourself in any of those categories, I hope this essay helps. It is rated “R,” though the culture would likely give it a “G.” But we are dealing with what should be an adult subject. It is a struggle that all of us face and one that we must learn to talk about with the deepest of respect for each other and the deepest reverence for God’s intent.]
“Haven’t you read the Scriptures?” Jesus replied. “They record that from the beginning ‘ God made them male and female.’ And he said, ‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’” (Matthew 19:4-5)
(Click the title for the official Warner Brothers video.)
Never had much faith in love or miracles
Never wanna put my heart on the line
But swimming in your water is something spiritual
I’m born again every time you spend the night
‘Cause your sex takes me to paradise
Yeah, your sex takes me to paradise
And it show, oh, oh, oh, ohs, yeah, yeah, yeah
‘Cause you make me feel like I’ve been locked out of heaven
For too long, for too long
Yeah, you make me feel like I’ve been locked out of heaven
For too long, for too long
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, Ooh!
Oh, yeah, yeah,
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, Ooh!
You bring me to my knees, you make me testify
You can make a sinner change his ways
Open up your gates ‘cause I can’t wait to see the light
And right there is where I wanna stay. (1)
Then sprinkle in a few more Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, Ooh!’s just for good measure.
115 million people watched Bruno Mars perform his hit song at the Super Bowl 48 halftime show in 2014. At the time it was the most watched halftime show in history. (Only Katy Perry in 2015 and Lady Gaga in 2017 have surpassed Mr. Mars.)
We’ve come a long way from marching bands forming an image of the school logo at the fifty yard line. It is almost cliche to talk about football as a religion, but look at the language in Mars’ lyrics: Born again? Paradise? Love? Miracles? Testify? Make a sinner change his ways? See the Light? If you didn’t know better you might think this is a worship song being played at a Hillsong venue or perhaps at an old-time tent revival. Can I get a witness?
But the song isn’t about football. It is about, well, you probably can figure it out.
Whether your “first time” was in the back seat of a car with the windows fogged over or—more appropriately—on your honeymoon, there is at least one thing you know about sex: it feels good. No, it feels very good. Even when it was bad it was good—good enough to try again. And again. And again. And again. Don’t stop!
…Time out! Before this gets completely out of hand. The bottom line is this. We like it. Although every instance did not necessarily transport us to the pinnacle of erotic bliss, we cannot un-ring the bell.
If you’re like the rest of the culture and are over the age of 17 or 18, you’ve “had sex.” (At least that’s true for close to half of you.) Even if you waited for matrimony, if you’ve been married you’ve “had sex,” and the bell continues to ring in your ears. Sadly, that ringing in the ears does not go away just because you have been divorced. The object of our desire may be gone, but the desire remains and acts as a persistent and annoying reminder of our incompleteness. But like it or not we already know that, as a single Christian, sex is out of bounds. We know that is true, but we generally don’t like it. It hurts. Chastity (a word that sounds like it was coined by Queen Victoria) is way too difficult.
These are typical of the questions that come to mind:
Is sex bad?
Why do I feel like a junkie going through withdrawals?
What is sex really for anyway?
Why do I have these desires when a sexual relationship isn’t an option?
This is all well and good, but what I want to know is, what can I do with my girlfriend?
Am I really locked out of heaven?
Does God think sex is bad?
Let’s get the “Is sex bad?” question out of the way immediately. Here are a few verses from the Song of Solomon:
Kiss me and kiss me again,
for your love is sweeter than wine. (1:2)
My lover is mine, and I am his.
He browses among the lillies,
Before the dawn breezes blow
and the night shadows flee. (2:16,17)
You are beautiful, my darling,
beautiful beyond words.
Your eyes are like doves
behind your veil.
Your hair falls in waves,
like a flock of goats winding down the slopes of Gilead.
Your teeth are as white as sheep,
recently shorn and freshly washed.
Your smile is flawless,
each tooth matched with its twin.
Your lips are like scarlet ribbon;
your mouth is inviting.
Your cheeks are like rosy pomegranates
behind your veil.
Your neck is as beautiful as the tower of David,
jeweled with the shields of a thousand heroes.
Your breasts are like two fawns,
twin fawns of a gazelle grazing among the lilies.
Before the dawn breezes blow
and the night shadows flee,
I will hurry to the mountain of myrrh
and to the hill of frankincense.
You are altogether beautiful, my darling,
beautiful in every way. (4: 1-7)
You are my private garden, my treasure, my bride,
a secluded spring, a hidden fountain.
Your thighs shelter a paradise of pomegranates
with rare spices—
henna with nard,
nard and saffron,
fragrant calamus and cinnamon,
with all the trees of frankincense, myrrh, and aloes,
and every other lovely spice.
You are a garden fountain,
a well of fresh water
streaming down from Lebanon’s mountains.
Awake, north wind!
Rise up, south wind!
Blow on my garden
and spread its fragrance all around.
Come into your garden, my love;
taste its finest fruits. (4:12-16)
Somewhere in the middle of reading the Song of Songs (Right after you blurt out something like “I had no idea this was in the Bible!) your heartbeat starts to quicken and you realize that Bruno Mars may not know the half of it. He has a clue; as it turns out, sex itself is a clue, but unless he is singing about his marriage—and he is not married though he is in an unusually long-term relationship by celebrity standards—he is missing the point, regardless of how much fun it is.
Between “Locked out of Heaven” and the “Song of Songs” is a nearly infinite distance, even though at first blush it does not feel like it. Lauren Winner sums up the difference this way, “Indeed, one can say that in Christianity’s vocabulary the only real sex is the sex that happens in a marriage; the faux sex that goes on outside marriage is not really sex at all. The physical coming together that happens between two people who are not married is only a distorted imitation of sex, as Walt Disney’s Wilderness Lodge Resort is only a simulation of real wilderness. The danger is that when we spend too much time in the simulations, we lose the capacity to distinguish between the ersatz and the real.” (2)
Whatever your theological, political, hermeneutical, metaphorical interpretation of the Song of Songs may be, there is no mistaking the fact that this is a story of deeply romantic love and the physical expression of that love. And it is right there in God’s Holy Book. (The good Reverend Shaw Moore
must be devastatingly scandalized.) One cannot read the Song of Songs and come away thinking that God hates sex.
Quite the contrary, He invented it.
So why do I feel like a junkie going through withdrawals?
The short answer is, because you are a junkie going through withdrawals. And believe it or not, that is exactly the way God designed you. Recent neuro-scientific research has given us insight into the chemistry and wiring of the brain and their impact on human sexuality. Sexual activity, real or imagined, lights up several parts of the brain, including an area known as the nucleus accumbens, resulting in increased production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter which activates the brain’s reward centers leading to a euphoric sense of well being. The result is the development of new memory pathways in the hippocampus and the amygdala and a desire to repeat the activity that led to the reward. (3) In a very real sense, the human brain is saying, “you might as well face it, you’re addicted to love.” In fact, according to Dr. Gert Holstege, a neuroscientist at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands has explained that, during an orgasm, the brain looks 95% the same as the brain of a person taking heroin. (4)
Another significant point to make regarding the brain and human sexuality is the fact that certain parts of the brain seem to suspend activity during sex. Apparently, the lateral orbitofrontal cortex, a part of the brain behind the left eye that functions as the seat of reason and behavioral control, goes dormant during arousal. (5) In other words, sex suspends reason, a perfectly acceptable outcome for a married couple committed to each other for life, but for the couple who is still not certain that they have found “the one,” that suspension of reason can be a big problem. A challenged ability to reason, coupled (pun intended) with the ferociously addictive nature of sexual activity can lead to bad choices. Or, as Woody Allen (a man not well-known for his wise choices) put it, paraphrasing Groucho Marx, “Love goes out the door when sex comes innuendo.” When it comes to making the choice of someone to spend the rest of one’s life with, it is clear that sexual activity can short-circuit our ability to make that decision cautiously and prayerfully and wisely.
Additionally, two significant hormones are released as a result of sexual activity, oxytocin and vasopressin. In women, the presence of oxytocin stimulated by breastfeeding assists in developing the bond between baby and child. Sexual stimulation also increases the production of oxytocin in women again resulting in a bonding experience with her mate. While men also experience an increase in the production of oxytocin during stimulation, its role is somewhat different. The bonding chemical released in the male brain during sex is vasopressin. “There is also some indication that vasopressin may be involved in protecting the mate and becoming aggressive toward other males.”(6)
All this talk of euphoria, rewards, suspended reason, bonding and especially addiction through brain chemistry, may sound negative at first. But when you think about it, this really just means that God has designed us in such a way that our sexuality, when exercised according to God’s wise plan can make that euphoria a very, very good thing. Some research has even suggested that sex can increase the production of brain cells. The brain rewards and the hormones of bonding can lead to a healthy attachment to our mate, and even the suspension of reason can lead to intimacy beyond mere intellectual agreement. “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” (Blaise Pascal)
This is, to quote The Fabulous Thunderbirds, “powerful stuff.” Too powerful to be mishandled. As an additional insight, it is speculated that the Hebrew words for “fruitful” and “multiply” as in “be fruitful and multiply” are both rooted in the word “ur,” which aside from being Abraham’s original neighborhood in Chaldea, also means “flame.” This is one of those flames that, as the old story goes, in the fireplace it will keep you warm. But out of the fireplace, it can burn down the whole house.
Promise me, O women of Jerusalem,
not to awaken love until the time is right.
(Song of Solomon 2:7, repeated at 3:5 and again at 8:4)
And if you think that kind of admonition is only for women, consider this from Proverbs 5 (NLT):
Drink water from your own well—
share your love only with your wife.
Why spill the water of your springs in the streets,
having sex with just anyone?
You should reserve it for yourselves.
Never share it with strangers.
Let your wife be a fountain of blessing for you.
Rejoice in the wife of your youth.
She is a loving deer, a graceful doe.
Let her breasts satisfy you always.
May you always be captivated by her love.
Okay, we get it, sex is good. (Duh.) But what in the world is it really for?
While defending the inclusion of the Song of Songs in the canon, one ancient Jewish rabbi put it this way, “For all of eternity in its entirety is not as worthy as the day on which Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Writings are holy, but Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.” (7) We may feel the rabbi’s comment is a little over the top. But maybe not.
We know that Adam and Eve’s sexual relationship had God’s blessing. If fact, he pretty much told them to do it right there in the first chapter of the Bible. “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it.” (Genesis 1:29) Sexuality was part of God’s plan. For one thing, human sexuality was a way for the world to become populated with more humans with whom God could share his love and who could, because they are made in God’s image, love each other. Is God great, or what? He could have simply created more humans out of the mud, but instead, chose to let us in on the fun.
The sexual relationship in marriage is also a real-life metaphor for the self-less giving that characterizes God’s love for us and provides a flesh and blood way for us to emulate him. And finally, it is intended to aid in the creation of a powerful bond between a man and a woman. Recall how Jesus affirmed the godly origin of human sexuality: “Haven’t you read the Scriptures? They record that from the beginning ‘God made them male and female.’And he said, ‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’” (Matthew 19:4-5) He didn’t say that a man leaves his father and mother and just kinda hangs out with his wife for the rest of their lives. He said the two are “joined… united into one.” The King James says, “they twain shall be one flesh.”
We were not created for isolation. We were created for to be in intimate relationship—with God and with others. Isolation is precisely what God was talking about when he declared, “It is not good for man to be alone.”(Genesis 2:18) Usually translated as “man” it may be easier to understand if we look at the more literal meaning of the Hebrew word “ha-adam” — humankind. Out of the oneness of humanity seen in the first Adam, God finished the imprinting of his image on human beings when he “split the Adam,” so to speak, taking Eve out of ha-adam’s side, making them male and female (Genesis 1:27).
From that moment on, as described by psychologist Larry Crabb, they found their genuine identity in the relational truth of their being (Crabb, 2013), first in each individual’s relationship with God, and further, in their love relationship with each other. God, in his eternal desire to share joy with his creatures invented human sexuality. He invented sexual intercourse when he divided humanity (Adam) into two parts, male and female, and provided for the physical, psychological and spiritual connection that can, in the right context (and we do know what that context is), provide a depth of intimacy and joy that strengthens the bond between two people and with God himself.
Adding it up, we have a profound reflection of the Trinity of God himself, in whom, as Francis Schaeffer reminds us, “The Persons of the Trinity communicated with each other and loved each other, before the creation of the world.”(8) Or as Crabb further puts it: “If the eternal is relational because God is a timeless community of three persons in heaven, and if the temporal consists centrally of male and female persons relating on earth in community, then could it be that men and women relating together in this world are intended to provide a glimpse of the relational life of the Trinity?” (9)
But it is all about context. There really is a context for expressing the gift of human sexuality—marriage. One man, one woman, committed to the best of their ability and with God’s help, for life.
You are my private garden, my treasure, my bride,
a secluded spring, a hidden fountain. (Song of Solomon 4:12)
Why do I have these desires when a sexual relationship isn’t an option?
So now we have a picture of at least some of God’s intentions for human sexuality—procreation, pleasure, joy, bonding and a reflection of God himself in the Trinity. That’s pretty cool for Adam and Eve and all the married couples I know, but I’m divorced and that sort of sexual relationship—if I am true to God’s intent for my life—remains somewhere, if it exists at all, over the horizon. It just doesn’t seem fair that I would have the same desires when I’m single.
While those desires are indeed about “sex,” especially for those who have been married, we need to consider that they are about something else, too. Look back at Adam and Eve in the Garden before the Fall, still joyously wearing nothing but their birthday suits. Genesis 2:25 says, “Now the man and his wife were both naked, but they felt no shame.” “Naked,” as we generally understand it, is a curious term to be used at that point in Scripture. Why? Because clothing had not even been invented. In fact, clothing was unnecessary given that God had created human beings and the perfect environment for them to dwell in. It was not until the Fall, when Adam and Eve sinned and had something to hide that clothing showed up, first as they tried the impossible, to cover themselves from God’s eyes, and later as God, replacing their feeble efforts, provides animal skins, a foreshadowing Christ’s sacrifice for our sin. So since they had not yet sinned, their nakedness was not merely the state of being unclothed. It was completely bare, physically, emotionally and spiritually unhidden. They had nothing to hide, which is why they were unashamed. We are only ashamed when we have something to hide or we feel we have some sort of shortcoming. Eve never had to ask Adam if this dress made her butt look big. And Adam never had to make up some lame response to avoid conflict.
This nakedness is prerequisite to intimacy, to knowing and being known by the other. They knew each other fully because there were no barriers. Total openness. Total honesty. The perfect environment for love and genuine intimacy with each other and with, as it says in the Book of Common Prayer, “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden.” And to quote Bob Dylan, they “had no secrets to conceal.” So they lived happily ever after. Forever and ever, amen.
Enter the serpent. Hey, baby, wanna be like God? Just one taste of this apple and you’ll be just like him. See how beautiful it is? Did he really say you shouldn’t eat it? Go ahead, try it. Why should he be the only one to know good and evil? Seriously, just one bite. And give some to that guy with the missing rib who’s standing there not saying anything.
We know how that turned out, don’t we? They tried to play God and wound up losing their relationship with him. Even after the Fall, God did not take away their sexuality; he still wanted grandchildren (so to speak). Sexual desire remained. But the result of the Fall was estrangement with God and with each other. One aspect of that estrangement was an increased difficulty with intimacy, which we have all inherited.
Because of her disobedience, God said to Eve, “you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16, NLT) Controlling and ruling indicate the presence of some serious trust issues. They had both sinned and therefore could not trust each other. They couldn’t really even trust themselves. Yielding to temptation had introduced distrust into their relationship and true intimacy requires trust. Before the Fall they were “naked and not ashamed.” Now they had something to hide. This inclination is the opposite of intimacy, yet the desire for intimacy does not go away. “The need for intimacy, to be known and to know, to be close, affirmed, loved; all are human needs. The need for intimacy requires that we understand who we are and share that with those we long to be known by. As we become more intimate, the other speaks into us things about ourselves that we could not possibly know from the inside. We allow the one we are intimate with to discover us in ways we could not do on our own, and we do so with them. It is a process that develops and deepens over time. We know ourselves more fully because we are known more fully.”(10)
Now that sin has entered the picture, intimacy becomes more difficult. We all have things we think we must hide and for that reason we do not fully know and are not fully known. We may even think that sex is the answer to that problem, but many of us have learned the hard way that the kind of nakedness out of which true intimacy can flourish, is more than skin deep. Dawn Eden, author of The Thrill of the Chaste, describes it this way, “A supreme irony…is that the longer you develop your relationship while keeping your clothes on, the more naked you feel.” (11)
It is no accident that the King James language for “have sexual relations” is “to know.” That does not mean that sex is a shortcut to intimacy, it is the consummation of an already intimate relationship and in the context of a godly marriage it is an enhancement of that intimacy. We still have these desires because, properly understood, they are a signpost, they point to our need for genuine intimacy, first with God and then with others, in Christ. “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” (St. Augustine)
“This is all well and good, but what I want to know is, what can I do with my girlfriend?”(12)
While the famous “True Love Waits” campaign made for a nice slogan, statistically it turned out to be a bit of a failure. “The efficacy of the program has been questioned based on a 2003 study showing that 6 out of 10 college students who had taken the pledge had broken it, and of the 40% who identified themselves as abstaining from intercourse, 55% acknowledged having participated in oral sex.” (13) (For the record, contrary to a popular cultural assertion —at least an assertion made too often I the back seat of a car — oral sex is sex. Appropriate in marriage, but nowhere else.) Slogans and pledges are not always effective. Gritting your teeth and taking cold showers are insufficient.
If absence makes the heart grow fonder in a relationship, abstinence sometimes causes an unhealthy focus on the very thing we are abstaining from. Try this exercise: Repeat this to yourself for the next 10 seconds: “I will not think about blue elephants. I will not think about blue elephants.” Now, what are you thinking about? Blue elephants, of course. We recognize that we are not talking to teenagers who are trying to decide if they should “go all the way.” We are adults and we know what we are missing.
And despite the “high view” of human sexuality presented here, we are not trying to say that if you wait you’ll have better sex when you’re married, that it will automatically become the land of milk and honey. If you wait, the odds of marrying someone with whom you are ultimately compatible are increased, largely because you will be taking the time to become truly intimate, truly naked before taking your clothes off and letting the hormones have their way with your heart. And we can say that with that kind of openness and honesty in—and perhaps more importantly, out of the bedroom—it is more likely that you will be able to develop the kind of intimate sexual relationship God intends. But it will still take work—pleasant and very rewarding work—but work, nonetheless.
But that is later. Maybe. What about today?
Everything is permissible for me, but not everything is helpful. Everything is permissible for me, but I will not allow anything to control me. (1 Corinthians 6:12, ISV) Yikes! Everything is permissible for me? That is what it says. By the grace of God through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, you are forgiven for every sin you have ever committed and every sin you ever will commit. But you were bought with a price, and as Paul goes on to say, “Therefore, honor God with your bodies.” (1 Cor. 6:20)
Great. Now God has become a killjoy again. Wrong. He is giving us guidance that will enhance our joy, not kill it. In a godly marriage, sex is one of the ways you can honor God with your body. Paul was merely making it clear that you have a choice between healthy, God-honoring sexuality and unhealthy, soul and spirit damaging sexuality.
Let’s make the comparison even more clear in this chart: (14)
So as you prayerfully make your choices and draw your boundaries, perhaps that list can help you discern the matter more clearly. Will my actions demonstrate caring or using? Does my activity lead toward intimacy or toward compulsive behavior? And so on. These are not laws. We have been delivered from that through Christ. But they can be help us decide what is helpful, and avoid those things that would negatively control us.
While we are on the subject of “What can I do?,” we may as well bring up one of the blue elephants in the room, the subject of [whispered] masturbation. Okay, admit it, you wanted to ask but were afraid to. An honest reading will not find it directly addressed in scripture. You can find numerous discussions on the Internet—no, not those discussions—by well-meaning and sincere Christians. And you will find as many opinions as people who are willing to give their opinion. Some people endorse the practice for what they consider to be good reasons. Other people condemn the practice for what they consider to be good reasons. But that does not mean that the answer is a toin-coss.
Again, we remember as Paul has told us, “Everything is permissible, but not everything is helpful.” Since it is not our place to impose a new “Law” it is up to you and your conscience, prayerfully guided by the Holy Spirit to make the call. Perhaps the chart that compares healthy sexuality and unhealthy sexuality will be of some value. Should your understanding place the practice squarely within the healthy column, as Paul put it regarding eating certain foods or drinking wine, “Each should be fully convinced in their own mind.” (Romans 14:6) As with any other human activity, our first (and perhaps last) question should be, “Does it glorify the Lord?” As for the related question of pornography, that one is much easier to answer. It is hard to imagine a scenario in which it falls in the “healthy” column. Keep in mind the last phrase of 1Corinthians 6:12, “I will not allow anything to control me,” and then re-read the section on brain chemistry above.
C. S. Lewis, in his book, The Four Loves, describes the difference between positive sexual desire (eros) and negative sexual desire (lust) in this way: “Sexual desire, without Eros, wants it, the thing in itself; Eros wants the Beloved. The thing is a sensory pleasure; that is, an event occurring within one’s own body. We use a most unfortunate idiom when we say, of a lustful man prowling the streets, that he “wants a woman.” Strictly speaking, a woman is just what he does not want. He wants a pleasure for which a woman happens to be the necessary piece of apparatus. … Now Eros makes a man really want, not a woman, but one particular woman. In some mysterious but quite indisputable fashion the lover desires the Beloved herself, not the pleasure she can give.(15)
Lust turns human beings into consumables; once consumed, they are discarded. That may happen immediately following a “one-night stand” or it might occur twenty years into a marriage. One partner may simply wake up one morning and decide that they no longer love the other. Perhaps that is an indication that either it was never about love, or at some point what might have been love had been mis-directed, turned into mere lust and having consumed all they thought was available, is ready to move on. Of course we probably would not describe it that way. Instead we would simply lament, with B.B. King, “the thrill is gone,” a distinct echo of Lewis’ description of sensory pleasure as, “something that occurs within one’s own body.” If what we think of as love is merely a feeling, something that originates within our own body, it will fade and eventually die. Isolation will be the ultimate result, regardless of how many “partners” we may go through.
It is certainly ironic that acting out of lust leads precisely in the opposite direction of what we truly desire. Why does God want to keep us from that which we think we desire? From John Cloud and Henry Townsend, Boundaries in Dating: “…notice the command not to eat from a certain tree (a command that presents the opportunity to celebrate God’s provision by honoring His prohibition [Gen. 2: 16– 17]) is immediately followed by God’s observation that “it is not good that the man should be alone,” and by His declared intent to make further provision for Adam, “I will make him a helper fit for him” (v.18). Notice two things about this strange sequence of warning then blessing. First, God followed His prohibition by increasing His provision. God created Eve so that the man and woman could dance together in the rhythm of His love and so put His relational glory on display. He provided everything we needed to share in the joy of the Trinity’s party.
As Lewis insightfully wrote, “Joy is the serious business of heaven.” We need to be clear: God’s prohibitions exist to safeguard the enjoyment of His provisions. God told Adam what not to do so that he and his soon-to-arrive wife would enjoy all that they could do. (16)
So what can you do with your girlfriend, or boyfriend?
Lauren Winner, out of her own experience with her fiancée Griff, describes, not so much the answer, but a way to help find that answer: Griff’s friend Greg, a campus pastor at the University of Virginia, sized up the situation and gave us this piece of guidance:
“Don’t do anything sexual that you wouldn’t be comfortable doing on the steps of the Rotunda.” (This was not just practical instruction, but also wisdom: sex has a public dimension and a private dimension. Christians gain access to the private side at a wedding. The question for unmarried couples is not How far can we go? but How do we maintain the integrity of our sexual relationship, which at this point is only public?) (17)
Winner goes on:
“The point is not that you should visit Charlottesville, kiss your sweetie on the steps of the Rotunda, and draw your line there. Rather the point is to discern, with your community, what behaviors can protect the body and God’s created sexual intent.” (18)
Promise me, O women of Jerusalem, not to awaken love until the time is right.
Am I really locked out of heaven?
In the Italian movie, “Il Postino,” a simple-minded postman named Mario in a small Italian coastal village is befriended by the exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Mario asks Neruda to teach him how write poetry for the beautiful, but aloof, Beatrice, with whom Mario is smitten. In one of the more memorable scenes from the movie, the two men are sitting on the beach and the poet is helping Mario understand the concept of metaphor. In a moment of epiphany, Mario pronounces, “Maybe everything is a metaphor for something else!”
Millions of lines of poetry and literature have been written with symbolic and metaphorical reference to the romantic, emotional, spiritual and physical love between a man and a woman. From Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ to Robert Burns’, “Your love is like a red, red rose” to the Beatles’ “Happiness is a warm gun,” and Miley Cyrus’, “I came in like a wrecking ball,” poets have searched for the perfect metaphor to describe their love and what that love brings out in them. Sometimes they have succeeded sublimely and sometimes…not so much.
Curiously, it turns out that human sexuality, even the very act of intercourse itself, while it has a practical purpose, is itself a metaphor of the most sublime love of all, the love of Christ for his church, for us. Paul, echoing Genesis and Jesus, takes this a step further and reveals something of ultimate significance about all this: As the Scriptures say, “A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.” This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one. (Ephesians 5:31-32) A great mystery, indeed. So the Song of Songs really is about sex. And it is also about much, much more.
Just in case this talk about Jesus and sex and his bride makes you a little nervous, you are not alone. In an essay entitled, “Is There Sex in Heaven,” Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft, compares the title question to a child asking, “Can you eat candy during sex?” “… a funny question only from the adult’s point of view. Candy is one of children’s greatest pleasures; how can they conceive a pleasure so intense that it renders candy irrelevant?”(19) The sexual relationship between married lovers is, as stated before, a flesh and blood, real-life metaphor, a wonderful experience. But when seen as a foretaste of the depth of what Kreeft calls “the delights of spiritual intercourse with God,” it pales in comparison. It is a gift of God, but it is intended not as an end in itself, its purpose is to point us toward God himself. (20)
But sex is not the only foretaste we have of that divine connection with God. Prayer, reading scripture, service to others, close friendships, meditation and reflection on God’s word or his creation, are all among what is likely an endless list of ways we can see our vital connection with God. For the single person, our goal is not that we should become married in order to have that foretaste of heaven found in the marital bed. That would really be setting our sights too low. (Even in marriage we are called beyond that.) Instead, we ought to use our time of singleness to more fully seek God himself, recognizing that even those things we feel deprived of can be seen as reminders of our incompleteness apart from him, challenging us to do what we can to move closer into intimacy with him, recognizing that intimacy comes only as a gift from him, not from our works.
During this time, it might be of some help to discover a few things about ourselves as individuals and how we have each been uniquely created to experience God in particular ways. Gary Thomas, in his book Sacred Pathways, lists a number of ways that individuals approach God, based in their own God-given personality. Naturalists find their closest experience of God in the outdoors. Traditionalists love and experience God through ritual, liturgy and symbol. Intellectuals approach God through their mind and study. Contemplatives connect with God through meditation and adoration. There are others and he includes a quiz that can help you identify your own style. That kind of book may be of help.
Spiritual Formation programs at your church—the Apprentice Series and community groups, or courses such as DivorceCare, Divorce Recovery, Celebrate Recovery, and others can be an aid to you in growing your understanding and relationship with God. They all exist to help you connect with increasing depth with God and with others. The literature of spiritual discipline has many exercises you can do. Brennan Manning, for example, has an exercise that he suggests you do for thirty days. It is very simple and can be profoundly life changing. Simply close your eyes and pray, “Abba, I belong to you.” at least once a day. (20) As Manning would have put it, God will be ecstatic that you have turned your focus toward him, however briefly.
In many ways human sexuality remains a mystery. But that is not a bad thing. In the right context it provides us with something to explore, a source of seemingly endless joy. Even as a single person, some reflection on the topic gives us insight into ourselves and more importantly into the person of God, the author of endless joy and the person we, in our heart of hearts, most desire to know and be known by. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (1 Corinthians 13, 9-12) And that really will be worth the wait.
A personal addendum:
For some reason I feel like it is a good idea to practice what I preach. Today I am happily engaged to a godly, intelligent, funny, beautiful, woman. We have known each other for 8 years, been close friends for a good part of that, and when we get married this August we will have dated for almost two years. When we started dating, we immediately took the possibility of premarital sex off the table. This is not because we aren’t attracted to each other, we are. A lot. But having done things the wrong way before, we decided to trust God and wait.
What have we learned? Most marriage counselors will tell you that sexual intimacy is only a part of true intimacy. True intimacy includes what happens in the bedroom, but is nurtured and grown outside the bedroom. Celebrate the time before marriage by developing true intimacy. I can honestly say that I have now experienced a level of genuine intimacy with my beloved that I did not really even know existed before. It is not to be confused with the infatuation phase. Infatuation fades. Intimacy of this sort is the real deal. It is a foretaste of the foretaste of heaven. Instead of being locked out of heaven, we are learning how we can become trusted with the keys.