[PREFACE] (feel free to skip)
When I set out to write about how the church has (mis)formed my views on dating and desire, I never anticipated that it would extend into a three part series. I also didn’t anticipate all of the positive feedback I’ve received through comments, facebook messages, and emails. Really, I began writing these posts for myself – because writing is how I work through things spinning around in my head. The first two posts in the series were relatively easy to write, because hindsight is 20/20 and so it wasn’t hard to look back and talk about how the teaching I received was bad theology and to highlight the various ways that bad theology ended up damaging my dating life. It’s a helluva lot harder to try and look forward and come up with more constructive ways to think christianly about desire.
Because to be honest, it feels like uncharted territory.
I’ve done more reading in preparation for writing this blog post than I ever have before. Hell, I’ve done more reading for this post than for some of the papers I’ve written for grad school. For something that plays a huge part in every christian’s life (sexual desire), it’s shocking how few books there are that deal well with this topic. I’ve drawn a lot from Rob Bell’s book, Sex God and from Lauren Winner’s book, Real Sex. I read and flipped through a few other books (some of them more academic, like Stanley Grenz’s book, Sexual Ethics).
Lastly, I’d like to state that I’m writing this post primarily to work through my own thoughts around the topic of damage, desire, and dating. So most (but not all) of what I write will be about how these issues impact straight, single males. I hope they’ll be of use to those outside that demographic, but to address this topic in all its permutations would be far beyond my current time and talent.
In biblical times, there was no such thing as dating. At all. Marriage was primarily a pragmatic affair – something more akin to a sterile business transaction. Marriages were arranged. They were designed to ensure financial stability. And more importantly for the sake of this discussion, these marriages took place at a very young age – usually in the early teenage years.
Because of this, there’s a very good reason why the Bible has a lot more to say about adultery (sex with someone else’s husband/wife) than it does about fornication (the more general category of sex between unmarried persons) – because there weren’t many unmarried persons around to fornicate with, but there were a lot of married people to adulterate with.
So why this history lesson. What does it matter to our discussion of how the church deals with desire today?
Because the biblical texts that the church likes to cite in regards to sex and desire have nothing to do with the dating world we live in. In fact, there are no scriptural references one can appeal to that address the modern practice of dating and courtship. None. It’s a cultural convention that has no parallel in the world of the Bible. That should have radical implications for the way that the church applies biblical teachings in its discussion of desire, but sadly, it seldom does.
Take Matthew 5:27-30 – a verse that constantly got hammered into my head every time the church talked about desire.
(27) “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ (28) But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (29) If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. (30) And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Right off the bat, one has to note the word “adultery” in verse 27 and 28 – sex with a married person that you’re not married to. This is NOT a teaching that applies to single people – at least not directly. Pummeling singles with this verse without qualifications is lazy, irresponsible exegesis.
Take some of the other verses commonly cited when talking about desire (1 Corinthians 6:12-20, Thessalonians 4:3-8, Ephesians 5:3, to name just a few). Read those verses while keeping in mind that they are speaking to an audience that got married in their teens (and almost all of them would be married) and you begin to see that they have nothing to do with the dating/courtship world we live in today. These are verses concerned with protecting the sanctity of marriage – keeping husbands and wives committed to one another in a covenant relationship – NOT with controlling the desires of single people.
Today, we might look at the ancient world and say, that it’s awful that they got married so young – we consider that statutory rape. But really, there’s a kind of genius to it. All those budding desires, all of those bodily changes and the curiosity and exploration that goes along with them? Because they got married young, all of those new feelings could be freely explored within their committed marriage relationship. And that’s the way it was meant to be. That’s the kind of beautiful sexual exploration of desire that the Bible is concerned with honoring and preserving in those verses about fleeing from sexual immorality (by which the authors meant, adultery, not pre-marital sex).
Here’s a brief contrast of their world to ours:
|Married young, early teenage years.||Median marriage in the US, 27.|
|Sexual curiosity, awakening, of puberty happens when married.||Sexual curiosity, awakening, of puberty happens outside of marriage (see above).|
|Marriage arranged.||Marriage self-directed. People date in order to find a marriage partner.|
|Set, recognized, and accepted customs, practices, and behaviors regarding marriage.||Conflicting ideas, narratives, rules regarding dating and marriage|
Those are just a few cursory examples of the contrasts but I think it’s clear that applying biblical teaching about desire from their time to our time can’t (or at least shouldn’t) be a simple, straightforward process.
And I realize that I’m being repetitive here, but I’m doing so because I’m trying to drive home a vitally important point: the verses in the Bible talking about fleeing sexual immorality (and adultery) are primarily talking to married persons because they were written to a world where almost everyone was already married.
But we don’t live in that world anymore.
But if the Bible is written to a world that knows nothing about dating and single adults trying to figure out how to handle their desires, then what do we do?
I think the first thing the church needs to do is to be honest about this disconnect. Every time the church talks to singles about desire and dating, it should say right up front that it’s extrapolating (a more polite way of saying that it’s making it up as it goes along). And the reason why this admission is important is because it leaves room for something that is FAR too lacking in the church’s teaching around desire: grace. Unconditional, radical, all encompassing grace.
This is a grace that needs to go both ways. The church should extend grace to congregants who choose to disagree with its teaching and congregants should extend grace to the church as it tries to accomplish the very difficult task of bridging the ethics of the ancient world with our own – something I’m going to attempt to do in the rest of this post (much grace, much appreciated).
First things first.
When I started reading books about sexuality and desire and ethics in preparation for writing this post, I really wanted to find someone who could make a credible case for biblically sanctioned premarital sex. From a strictly pragmatic point of view, this would be the easiest way to come up with a modern take on the Bible and desire wouldn’t it? I mean it’s so tempting and easy to say that since the Bible has next to nothing to say about premarital sex, that maybe we should just say that it’s not prohibited at all. Since all the warnings against indulging in sexual immorality are only for married couples then maybe singles are free to copulate and explore sexual desire in any and all forms in their search for a compatible marriage partner.
So I confess, that’s what I wanted to find, because, whoo-wee! wouldn’t that preach on a Sunday morning?
But I couldn’t. At least, I couldn’t find anyone who could make a credible case for that stance. People have tried, but not convincingly (at least to my mind).
Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let me bring a word into this conversation that is sorely lacking in the church’s discussion of desire.
Isn’t that a beautiful word?
The fact that I never heard that word in any of the church’s teaching around desire speaks volumes about why things are so awry.
But why is it important to bring pleasure into this discussion? Because I think pleasure can be one way (though certainly not the only way) of bridging the ethics of the ancient world with our own. At the very least, it’s a way of resolving the nasty mind/body dualism (the idea that the desires of the body are bad and need to be rigorously contained/controlled by the mind) that fear-based teaching on desire engenders.
See, pleasure is something we experience in our bodies. It isn’t something we can wear, it’s not something we can eat, it’s not something we can (or have to) learn. We might wear things that please us, we can eat things that please us, and we can learn to experience pleasure more deeply, but it’s not a thing in and of itself. It’s something that wells up within us in response to something that happens outside of us.
You’re driving to work, the sun rises, and in that way that only early sunlight can, the city is illuminated. And pleasure wells up within you.
You go to a concert – the sound washes over you, the air is electric, filled with the endless possibilities of performance. And pleasure wells up within you.
You treat yourself to something delicious (a chocolate cordial, perhaps) – you put it into your mouth, you bite, and fruity, syrupy sweetness coats your tongue. And pleasure wells up within you.
And here’s a really good one.
Your significant other runs her fingers through your hair – slowly, caressing the curve of your ear as she draws her hand towards the back of your head. With the tips of her fingers she teasingly plays with those tiny hairs on the back of your neck. She closes her eyes and pulls your lips toward hers. Soft, warm, wet – flesh presses into flesh.
And deep, luminous, pleasure wells up within you.
God created a sensuous, tactile world. Genesis tells us that God created a world, a good world. And despite the Fall, there is still much goodness in the world. God meant for us to take pleasure in the goodness of this world. In fact, God designed our bodies to enjoy creation – to take pleasure in the exploration and experience of it. Why else would he have created us with such sensory-filled bodies?
And desire? It’s designed to draw us towards pleasure. It’s the precursor to pleasure. God places desire in our bodies to drive us out into the world he created so that we might take pleasure from the experience of it. In contrast, shut down desire and you shut down all that life is meant to be lived for. You corrupt God’s design for the world and there’s a word for that kind of corruption. It’s called sin.
Going back for a second, the genius of the ancient world lies in the fact that they got married just before or just as sexual desire began to bloom in their adolescent bodies, so they were able to explore all of their bodily and sensory changes within the safe confines of a marriage relationship.
But we don’t live in that world anymore. In the US, the average age that people first get married is their mid to late twenties – more than a decade later than our ancient ancestors. Raging hormones, unfamiliar bodily changes and urges – all of those things take place in bodies unfettered by the safe confines of marriage. And the Bible has no direct, relevant guidance for people inhabiting these bodies.
And so we have to (gracefully) extrapolate. We have to guess. Which isn’t to say things are hopeless. Because isn’t that just how life works? We don’t know what to do, we can’t find adequate guidance, and so we take a chance and make our best educated guess. I’d say that all the bad teaching around desire I got growing up was the church’s best guess at the time. Based on the results, I’d say that it probably wasn’t a good guess.
And so I’m gonna step out on a limb and see if I can posit a better guess.
And it’s here that I’m deeply indebted to the work of Amy Frykholm and her book, See Me Naked. She offers four “mechanisms” (not rules) to help guide us in our explorations of pleasure and desire.
I love that she begins with discernment. Because it places the onus of developing a sexual ethic, not in an abstract, external authority, but in that liminal, wondrous space between the individual, the other, and God.
One of the problematic aspects of the church imposing strict rules on dating and desire is that it severs relationships – relationships between people and their own bodies, between people and other bodies, and between people and God who created them uniquely and wonderfully.
In contrast, living with discernment means that a dating couple needs to turn towards one another (instead of a set of rules) and prayerfully discern how they will navigate the commingling of their desires and their exploration of pleasure while honoring one another and God, their creator.
- The cultivation of wonder instead of fear
Again, this is a wonderfully helpful
guidelinemechanism. It works in partnership with the discernment discussed above. It’s a balancing force – because discernment without the exploration that wonder elicits can become clinical and theoretical. Wonder explored without discernment can lead to reckless indulgence.
In writing about the cultivation of wonder, Frykholm offers the following:
In this alternative sexual ethic, we commit to addressing whatever part of us that seeks to be numb and dead instead of an active and living presence in the world. This principle asks us to rigorously address whatever it is that keeps us from living and being fully present to ourselves and to each other.
That’s so revelatory and life-giving and beautiful (and so unlike anything I’ve ever heard in the churches I grew up in) that it brought tears to my eyes as I read it. Because life is meant to be lived – lived in all of its abundance.
By “aliveness,” she means a carefully attuned awareness. It’s a process. It’s learning to be aware of the things that bring us life and the things that suck it away.
- True, deep, real pleasure as an avenue to the Holy
This is such a lovely way to think about pleasure – to see it not as something to be feared or shamed or withheld, but as an avenue to the Holy. And the only way to use pleasure as a means of encountering the Holy is through discernment, wonder, and aliveness (awareness). Because undiscerning, unaware pleasure seeking can all too easily devolve into a selfish cycle of empty self-fulfillment – what Frykholm calls “thin pleasure,” and if we’re not alive to it, we can easily miss it.
In talking about the cultivation of deep pleasure, she shares a story about her friend’s eleven-year-old daughter. Entering puberty, this girl was beginning to sense unfamiliar changes in her body. She told her mother that she was afraid getting older. Her mother comforted her fears, saying,
Your body will know more pleasure than you can even now imagine. You are going through a period where your body is going to learn to feel pleasure, and you will be amazed.
Stunning words of love and wisdom.
What a beautiful thing it is to tell someone to see pleasure as a guide through the murky, uncharted waters of adolescence. This is a mother drawing her daughter towards life, into the life abundant. There is trust and relationship here – the opposite of what rule-making brings.
(And I hope it’s not too late for me to learn that lesson in my own life.)
One last bit.
Earlier, I mentioned grace. The idea of grace saturates the Bible but it seldom gets mentioned in discussions around desire. But that may be where it’s needed most of all.
Because here’s the thing. Nobody handles desire perfectly. Nobody. Especially in today’s confusing, highly sexualized world. And even if a church somehow found a way to teach intelligently, sensitively, theologically about desire, people are going to prayerfully discern different ethical guidelines for their relationships. And even as they create guidelines and boundaries for themselves, they’re gonna screw up.
However they make their way through, they need to know that God is still madly in love with them, that they are no less than they were before whatever “mistake” they might have made, and that they always have a place in the community of faith.
They don’t need shame.
They need grace.
We all do.
These feel like uncharted waters, my friends. And I am a more unfamiliar navigator than most so I would love to hear feedback, questions, push back, concerns.
Feel free to leave comments below or message me on facebook.
Thanks for reading.