Sex is something of a paradox: the thing we think we most want is also the thing we most frequently regret. In the tWorld, the world of tradition, sex helps men and women to flourish as a part of God’s good and perfect design. But in Genesis 3, the stench of individualism came to cloud the sweet fragrance of God’s creation. “Did God really say…?” the serpent asked the woman. And though while the question at hand was one of forbidden fruit, the broader consequence was to plant doubt in the minds of men and women—as well as the wonder that maybe God was withholding something from them.
This, we’ve said, was the birth of the “iWorld,” the world of the individual. So while sex is joyous when it is seen in light of procreation, marital unity, and physical pleasure, danger erupts when we separate physical pleasure from the broader understanding of human sexuality. In his recent book called Divine Sex, Jonathan Grant sees the consequence of the sexual revolution resulted in separating sex from every anchor of traditional culture:
- The separation of sex from procreation—because birth control enables us to enjoy the benefits of sex without the responsibility of family
- The separation of sex from marriage—because we can now enjoy sex without needing the commitment of marriage
- The separation of sex from partnership—because one-night-stands are a part of the human experience
- The separation of sex from another person—because pornography and masturbation render sexual activity largely private
- The separation of sex from our own bodies—because now even definitions of “male” and “female” (and the way these categories experience sexuality) is up to the individual to determine
In short, we’ve separated the benefits of sex from the responsibilities that come with it—or, more simply, we’ve surrendered the beauty of God’s design on the altar of personal satisfaction.
Christianity has historically called this “lust,” and—similar to Grant’s categories above—it covers not only physical acts but also mental fantasy as well, what Jesus called “adultery in the heart” (Matthew 5:28). Now, if you don’t have a background in church, you may be tempted to say: “So what? We’re only human. Surely we don’t need such prudish commitments to ‘purity’ in modern society.” But if we take a moment to examine this issue, we’ll find that perhaps Biblical values aren’t as far off the mark as we might assume…
WHAT IS LUST?
Some years ago a group of university professors was tasked with writing a series of books on the so-called “seven deadly sins.” Simon Blackburn, professor at Harvard University, received the task of writing about “lust.” Lust, he says, is “the enthusiastic desire, the desire that infuses the body, for sexual activity and its pleasures for their own sake.” This really isn’t so far from what we’ve been saying above: that lust is the elevation of pleasure over other commitments. The problem, however, is that while Blackburn admits that lust can be an unhealthy, ruling force, indulging in lust now and again is simply part of the human experience.
But why? In some ways, this is a strange merger of two competing concepts: on the one hand, we see ourselves as ruled by animal instinct. At the same time, our society remains colored by the perspective of nineteenth-century romanticism, and sees virtue as related to the sincerity of our devotion.
The Bible has a variety of ways of understanding the idea of “lust.” Chief among them might be the Greek term porneia. We usually translate the word as something like “sexual immorality,” but the term really refers to any sexual expression outside God’s design for heterosexual marriage. You might even recognize porneia as forming the ancient root of the word “pornography.” In the Bible, we find the term referring to:
- Adultery (Revelation 9:21; 14:8; 17:2, 4; 18:3; 19:2)
- Homosexuality (Romans 1:26-29)
- Incest (1 Corinthians 5:1)
- Pre-marital sex (1 Corinthians 7:2)
- Bestiality (Leviticus 18:23)
But wait, you might ask—aren’t these merely extreme examples? What’s wrong with sexual desire? The short answer is nothing at all. In his novel The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis suggests that the devil cannot create a single form of pleasure. Instead the devil must tempt us to indulge our desires “in the wrong ways, at the wrong times, or in the wrong degrees.” In other words, sexual desire isn’t the same as porneia or sexual immorality. Sexual immorality comes from being ruled by desire.
For instance, when Paul writes to the Christians in the city of Ephesus, he reminds them that before their lives were overhauled by God they “lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind” (Ephesians 2:3). Here Paul uses a different Greek word: epithimiai, which refers to “desires”—especially of an extreme type. One Christian psychologist sees it this way:
“The tenth commandment [against ‘coveting,’ which is idolatrous, inordinate desire for something] also…makes sin ‘psychodynamic.’ It lays bares the grasping and demanding nature of the human heart…the [New Testament] merges the concept of idolatry and the concept of inordinate, life-ruling desires…for lust, demandingness, craving and yearning are specifically termed ‘idolatry’ (Eph.5:5 and Colossians 3:5).”
In the iWorld, therefore, our gravest mistake is not merely the pursuit of sex—but the substitution of sex for God, as though sex were worthy of our sustained devotion and worship.
SHAME AS THE PRICE OF LUST
But wait, you might object, perhaps this is consistent with Christian teachings on sex, but aren’t these culturally conditioned? After all, if our morals—including sexual morals—are the inventions of culture, are we not free to reinvent them?
This has been our question on a number of subjects. Christianity would insist that truth is not a reflection of society but something revealed by God. Still, such a claim is all well and good, but does it really have value for those who choose not to follow Christianity?
While we can’t immediately answer this question, we’ll find a clue within the framework of contemporary psychology. Sex, as we know, has the power to produce a great deal of shame and guilt. Guilt is usually defined as the attitude that says: “I’ve done a bad thing.” Shame, on the other hand, says: “I am a bad thing.” The difference, says Richard Shweder, has to do with the kinds of standards we violate. For instance, we might feel embarrassed when we violate what he calls the “ethics of community”—like when we put our foot in our mouth when we meet someone at a dinner party. We might feel guilty if we violate the “ethics of autonomy”—such as if we violate the personal rights of someone else by cutting them off in traffic. But Shweder says there’s this whole other category that he can’t help but call the “ethics of divinity.” These issues are deeply connected to cultural ideas about what’s clean/unclean—what is truly sacred. The reason he uses the word “divinity” is because some things are considered morally wrong in nearly every human society. And yes; while the exact nature of their boundaries may differ, nearly every human society draws strict boundaries of clean and unclean with regard to sex.
How can this be? If morality is a human invention, then why would every culture invent such similar standards? Is it possible—just possible—that God’s standards can’t be so easily dismissed as a human creation?
BEARING THE COST OF “ONE FLESH”
Perhaps the most compelling piece of data comes from the fact that as humans—who, again, bear the image of our Creator—can’t fully separate sex from intimacy. It’s simply not in our nature. The desire for more than just a night of pleasure is written on the face of every young woman who wakes the next morning after a one-night-stand only to feel jilted by a single-serving lover who offers her only cab fare. In recent years a group of social researchers interviewed young people on the subject of sex and dating. The results shocked them.
“A significant number of emerging adults…have suffered devastating breakups involving romantic partners with whom they thought they were very seriously involved, probably on the path to marriage. … …The breakups that many emerging adults recounted…often happened in the context of couples living together…in any case, being sexually involved….[D]umped partners told tales of days spent sleeping and crying or lying in bed debilitated with depression, of anguish suffered at being cheated on or otherwise betrayed, of profound struggles with self-doubt, self-criticism, and hopelessness lasting for months, of uncertainty about being able to trust another man or woman whom they might love in the future. Some worked hard in their interviews to keep themselves from weeping. A few broke down in tears while recounting their stories. These accounts suggested the experience of getting a hard divorce without ever even having gotten married. For many, the pain and fear linger even as they try to pick up the pieces and move on.”
Sex is about becoming “one flesh” with someone—physically and spiritually. The data tells us that if we try and separate the two, the consequences are devastating.
My generation—more than the ones that preceded it—carries a heavy burden of what we might call “emotional debt.” It’s what accumulates on our souls from a lifetime of self-indulgence. What we need more than more talk on “purity” or pledges of abstinence—well-intentioned though these may be—is for someone to lift our debts away.
This is why the gospel is so meaningful in a world of sexual promiscuity and broken hearts. In the gospel we find a Savior who takes our burdens—both moral and emotional—on himself (1 Peter 2:24), that we might find hope. Find forgiveness. Be made clean again.
 Jonathan Grant, Divine Sex: A Compelling Vision for Christian Relationships in a Hypersexualized World, pp. 119-22.
 Simon Blackburn, Lust, p. 19.
 C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Letter IX.
 David Powlison, “Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair,” http://www.ccef.org/idols-heart-and-vanity-fair.
 Christian Smith, Souls in Transition, p. 61-2.