What are we talking about when we talk about “sexuality”? How do we define it? Language in this area is problematic for a number of reasons—partly because what I mean by “sexuality”, may not be what youmean by it.
When I talk about sexuality, I am talking about the way people express themselves sexually—the thoughts, feelings and actions that come out of our sexual feelings. God created us as sexual beings. He made us this way.
But as we begin this discussion, I want to start by reminding you that this whole area is quite challenging to talk about. This is not an amazing insight, but I think it’s worth recognising for a moment just how difficult any conversation about sexuality is. This is for two reasons:
a) We all have unique sexualities
Firstly, it’s because we all have unique sexualities. Everyone is a sexual being because we’re a human being. But each of us has a unique sexuality. This means we have all felt different things at different times. We have all expressed ourselves sexually in different ways.
This means that, at one level, there’s some common language we can use. But at another level, when it comes to thinking about this topic, we all bring completely unique experiences to the table. And that separates us, to some extent, and makes sexuality hard to talk about.
Just think for a moment of some of the ways we reflect that difference and uniqueness. In everyday conversation, we might talk of someone of the opposite sex or the same sex, and say, “Well, they’re not my type.” Different people fancy different people; different people are attracted—pulled—towards different people. There is a myriad number of expressions of sexual desire. That’s what makes our sexualities unique.
Furthermore, that’s reflected in a lot of the language around this—the “hats” you can sort people into when it comes to sexuality—gay/straight; homosexual/heterosexual, and so on. But increasingly people are recognising that you can’t sort every human being into one of those two boxes nicely and neatly; things are much more complex. There are many labels people—particularly young people—now use to describe their sexualities. Why is that? It’s because every human being has their own take on sexuality: every human being needs to come up with their own defining term, because my sexual experiences and feelings are very different to your sexual experiences and feelings.
So although we might think, “Oh, we all know what we’re talking about; this is going to be an easy topic, because this is something common to us all”, it actually isn’t in some ways. We all have unique sexualities, and that makes conversations really difficult. Why are there so many arguments on the internet about what word you can use to identify yourself? Why are there so many discussions around the helpfulness—or unhelpfulness—of language like “orientation”? It’s because we all bring unique experiences—unique sexualities—to the conversation.
b) We all have uniquely damaged and damaging sexualities
Our unique sexualities makes it complicated enough; let’s make it even more complicated. I would like to point out that we all have uniquely damaged and damaging sexualities. Some of you reading this have had your sexuality damaged by other people: perhaps you’ve been sexually abused—as a child or while in a relationship with another adult. Perhaps you’ve been damaged by your exposure to and experience of pornography. Perhaps you’ve been damaged by people in consenting adult relationships that have gone wrong. All of us have had our sexuality damaged in some way by other people—by experiences—by growing up as a human being.
But we will also have damaged other people with our sexualities. We will have damaged other people in our use of internet pornography—in us being abusive in past sexual relationships—in us treating the opposite sex (or the same sex) as sexual objects for satisfying our sexual desires. We all have uniquely damaging sexualities.
So this is going to be a really complex, difficult and painful discussion. I’m sure that no one reading this will be able to stand up and say, “I’ve got this all sorted in my life. You just need to look at me and my lifestyle if you want to get this right—at what I’ve said and done, and how I’ve expressed myself sexually.” It would be lovely if there was somebody who could do that. But I’m certainly not doing that, and I’m willing to wager that nobody else is willing to do it either.
In a way, all this should not be a surprise. This understanding of things fits with our doctrine of original sin: our rebellion against the God who made us means that every part of us is both damaged and damaging. It shouldn’t be a shock for Christians to discover this. But it does have bigger implications when we try and make sense of the whole area of sexuality in our culture and our own experiences of sexuality. Here’s a pertinent quote from US theologian Ephraim Radner: “[T]he fact of original sin tells us that we do not really have any clear standpoint of experiential purity from which to figure the topic of sexuality out.”1 In other words, when it comes to sexuality, no one has a perspective from which they can speak with authority and integrity. I certainly cannot.
That means we’ve got a bit of a problem—a problem that our society is having to confront today. Think of the #metoo and Time’s Up movements. Think of the recent crisis that has come about as the sexual abuse of women in a whole host of different contexts has come to light. Think of the sexual abuse of children in a whole host of different contexts that has come to light. Our society has had to get its mind around the fact that many of the people who have been held up as examples for us to follow when it comes to sexual morality have been exposed as hypocrites, predators and worse.
So where do we go? We all have unique sexualities. We all have uniquely damaged and damaging sexualities. None of us can speak with integrity and authority. None of us have the clean record that would interest people enough to find out how they’ve done it. We seem to be in trouble.
This is why we need Jesus’ help with our sexualities. This is why, when it comes to this issue, we should not be turning to ourselves, to others, or to purely human ideas and philosophies. This is why we need to turn back to the God who created us. We need to turn back to him and ask him for help—ask him to help us make sense of our sexualities—ask him for his help to get this right. Isn’t that one of the wonderful things about being a Christian—that we can turn to God for help and hear him speak? In the mess we’ve made, we have someone who can speak with authority and integrity into our broken lives.
2. Key question: What are our sexualities for?
So we are going to turn to God’s word. But as we turn to God’s word, we need to make sure we do so with the right question. Often when it comes to the area of sexuality, we turn to God’s word with wrong and unhelpful questions—youth group questions like, “Who can I have sex with?” and “When can I have sex?”
Those are the questions we’re interested in. But I want to suggest that we all need to be asking a much more profound question: what are our sexualities for? If we want to repair the damage—if we want to change things—if we want to influence the culture—if we want to do better in this area of life, we need to be able to answer that question with biblical confidence, and we need to let the answers to that question inform every part of our sexual lives.
So what are our sexualities for?
a) Marital union
Many of you may already be thinking, “Well, that’s a nice easy question. I know the answer to this.” Some of the obvious answers are the answers we’d immediately turn to: we know our sexualities are there for marital union. According to the Bible, sexual attraction is meant to lead to wedding bells—to marriage between a man and a woman. We see that right back at the beginning of the Bible—in the first reference to sexual feelings and the first mention of somebody’s sexuality being worked out in real life—when we’re introduced to the first man and woman:
Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.
The man said,
“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.”
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.
Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.
Here we have the first man meeting the first woman. As that happens, sexual attraction comes into play. We see that in the man’s response in this first bit of love poetry—the first love song—ever written: Adam seems to be wowed by Eve. He’s sexually attracted to her. What follows? The first marriage and the first sexual union—the two becoming one flesh. For thousands of years, Christians throughout church history have used this passage to help them understand that one of the reasons we have a sexuality and experience sexual feelings is to lead to marriage and sex. That’s not news to us, is it. What are our sexualities for? To lead us to sex within marriage.
b) Having children
The next answer to the question is not a surprise either: in the Christian worldview, marriage and sex often lead to children (though of course children are not possible for everyone). So when we ask the question, “What are our sexualities for?”, “Having children” is another clear and uncontroversial biblical answer. We see this for ourselves in the beginning of the Bible:
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
Humankind is created in God’s image. But there’s this distinction between men and women. If we want to know why there’s that distinction and make sense of it, verse 28 helps us:
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen 1:28)
Linked to men and women is this command to fill the world—to populate it. That’s often what happens: when a man and a woman fall in love, get married and have sex, kids usually follow. All this is in obedience to that command in Genesis 1:28. What are our sexualities for? Having children.
c) Giving pleasure
However, our sexualities are for more than that: they’re for giving pleasure. It’s important to mention this because sometimes Christians have been a little bit embarrassed about the joy of sex. In contrast, God isn’t: the Bible doesn’t seem to be embarrassed about the fact that men and women who are married have sex and can enjoy it. Let me remind you of some of the very sexual language the Bible uses:
I am my beloved’s,
and his desire is for me.
Come, my beloved,
let us go out into the fields
and lodge in the villages;
let us go out early to the vineyards
and see whether the vines have budded,
whether the grape blossoms have opened
and the pomegranates are in bloom.
There I will give you my love.
The mandrakes give forth fragrance,
and beside our doors are all choice fruits,
new as well as old,
which I have laid up for you, O my beloved.
(Song of Songs 7:10-13)
It’s really important for us to realise that this couple are not just going on a nature ramble; they are going to have sex in the countryside. The pomegranates are in bloom, but that’s not mentioned for us to say, “Ooh, isn’t that nice!” The point is aphrodisiacs are available. Note there’s very little embarrassment in this passage about the sexual union and sexual pleasure of a man and a woman—a husband and a wife. You can read Song of Songs at a number of levels, but Song of Songs, at one level, is all about the pleasure that can come from our sexualities. It helps us understand that when Christians have communicated that sexuality is wrong and something to be ashamed of, we have gotten something deeply wrong in our understanding of God’s word.
What are our sexualities for? Marital union. Having children. Giving pleasure.
d) Appreciating God
I want to pause here and reflect for a moment on how often those three things have been the only answers to the question, “What are our sexualities for?” Marital union. Having children. Giving pleasure. Think for a moment about how these answers been heard by single people in our churches—people who have never been married, people who are divorced, people who (like me) experience same-sex attraction. We’ve been told that our sexualities are for marital union, having children and giving pleasure—in other words, three things that we may not (and in some cases cannot) do. We’ve been told that God has given us this gift of sexuality, but at the same time, we’re also told, “Do not ever express it.”
What’s the effect of this? Well, it results in conversations like the one I had with a student at a church I was pastoring 10-15 years ago. It went something like this: the student said to me, “Ed, why can’t God zap us with sexual feelings on our wedding day? On our wedding day, we’re allowed to express ourselves sexually. We’re allowed to have sex on the honeymoon. We’re allowed to use these very powerful feelings. Why on earth has God given us feelings we can’t use until that day—feelings we may not ever get to use, or that God explicitly says we cannot use in a sexual relationship with another person? Why do we have this gift of sexuality if, for some of us, it sounds like ‘Never ever ever unwrap the gift. Keep it in a cupboard locked away. It’s not for you.’?”
I was massively challenged by that conversation, because I was the pastor of this student and I had allowed him to think that our sexualities are only for those three things. I had not passed on the news that our sexualities are for much more than that—news that would have massively helped him—news that would have massively helped me as a Christian who experiences same-sex attraction. In doing some reading around that time, I came to realise that our sexualities are for two other big things—things that I think, perhaps, are actually the major reasons why you and I are sexual beings. We can also answer the question, “What are our sexualities for?” by understanding that, firstly, our sexualities are there to help us appreciate God, and secondly, our sexualities are there to help us trail heaven and get a sense of where we’re heading. You and I have a sexuality in order to help us appreciate God and the full raw passionate power of his love.
Now when I share this, people often worry that I’ve been in the sun a little bit too much. They think that this is a strange new idea. But it’s actually something you see theologians express throughout church history. I first came across it in the writing of John Piper. This one little paragraph changed my life:
… the ultimate reason (not the only one) why we are sexual is to make God more deeply knowable. The language and imagery of sexuality are the most graphic and most powerful that the Bible uses to describe the relationship between God and his people—both positively (when we are faithful) and negatively (when we are not).2
When God most wants us and expresses how much he loves us, what sort of language does he use in the Bible? John Piper points out that it’s sexual language. When God wants us to grasp how much pain us walking out on him has caused him, what sort of language does he use? Sexual language. Consider Ezekiel 16 and discover the full passion of God’s love for you: God expresses his love for his people using shockingly sexual language, and helps us see the offence of our sin by comparing his people to an adulterous wife. Go to Hosea if you need a bit more convincing. Read through the Song of Songs if you need even more convincing.
One of the reasons that we have a sexuality—perhaps one of the greatest reasons why we have a sexuality—is so that we can feel the full passion of God’s love for us, his people. There have been many times in my life when I wished and have almost asked God to take my sexuality away. But if I didn’t have a sexuality—if I didn’t have sexual feelings—if I didn’t know and feel the power of them—one of the chief ways of appreciating God’s love for me and his people would have been taken away. I want a sexuality, thank you very much, because it helps me appreciate the full power of God’s love for me.
e) Trailing heaven
Our sexuality does not just help us to appreciate God; it is also there to help us trail heaven. US Catholic theologian Christopher West, popularising a lot of Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body, writes,
God made us as sexual beings—as men and women with a desire for union—precisely to tell the story of his love for us. In the biblical view, the fulfillment of love between the sexes is a great foreshadowing of something quite literally “out of this world”—the infinite bliss and ecstasy that awaits us in heaven.3
We’ve already seen from Genesis 1-2 that the Bible begins with a wedding—a very uncomplicated wedding with a very simple guest list and no arguments about the seating plan. But it’s also important for us to remember that the Bible also ends with a wedding. The Apostle John writes,
Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out,
For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to clothe herself
with fine linen, bright and pure”—
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.”
The Bible begins with a wedding and ends with a wedding. The first wedding had a very short guest list; the second wedding has a very large one: the bride is all of God’s people from all times and all places who have believed and trusted in him. Seeing the fact that the Bible is bookended by marriages helps us see what sex and marriage between the first wedding and the last wedding are all about: it turns out that the reason we have marriage and sex in creation is to help us to see where the world is going to end. Marriage—and sex within marriage—are just the trailer that God has put in creation to help us to see what life will be like in the new creation.
Just to clarify, when I say “trailer”, I don’t mean something you attach to a car; I mean something you might see at the cinema. Think about those trailers: what is their purpose? It’s to get us to want to go to a film. What do Hollywood directors often put in their trailers to get us to go see their films? Sex. If I can put it like this, why has God put sex in the “trailer” (the current creation) for the world to come? It’s to make us want to be part of the real thing—life in God’s new heaven and new earth—life as God’s people married to God’s Son, forever enjoying a marriage that will go on forever.
A student once said to me, “Oh Ed, I hope Jesus doesn’t return until I’ve gotten married.” Being a wonderfully pastorally astute person, I said, “Are you saying that you don’t want Jesus to return before you’ve had sex?” He said, “How’d you know?” This young man was worried that he will be kicking himself in the new creation about never having had sex in the old creation. I wanted to say to him, “Look, what we will all be enjoying in the new creation in our eternal union with God in Christ will be far better than any kind of sexual experience in the present.” Sex—marriage within sex—is just a trailer for heaven; if you don’t get to experience sex in the here and now, all you have missed is the trailer. I don’t mind missing the trailer if I get to see the real film. I won’t be missing out. I won’t be spending eternity kicking myself because I haven’t had sex, because I will be enjoying the real thing that this creation was meant to point to.
What are our sexualities for? Marital union. Having children. Giving pleasure. We’re used to these answers. We’ve heard them before. But we need to be much better at communicating that our sexualities are also about appreciating God and trailing heaven.
3. How does that help us live with …
How does that help us practically? How does this big picture stuff help you and me on a daily basis? It’s always great to learn theology, but how does that theology help us with our daily struggles and the current controversies that surround the church? Let me explain.
a) Sexual difference: A non-negotiable
Firstly, sexual difference within a Christian worldview of marriage and sex is important and a part of God’s big picture architecture. The answers to the question, “What are our sexualities for?” help us see that sexual difference is a non-negotiable when it comes to marriage and sex. The inability of the Bible to approve of same-sex marriage and sexual unions comes from this big picture stuff: it helps us make sense of why, in a Christian worldview, marriage and sex within marriage has to be between a man and a woman. The point of marriage and sex in the Bible is to point us forward to the union between Christ and his church.
We could go to loads of places in the Bible to see this, but one place where we see this most clearly is a passage from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians where he seems to be getting confused. We love Paul because he is usually so clear: we always know what he’s talking about, and as a result, we turn to him again and again. But in Ephesians 5, Paul seems to be getting a little bit muddled towards the end of some teaching on marriage. He begins by quoting Genesis 2:
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Eph 5:31)
Paul has just quoted a verse that tells us about the beginning of marriage. He’s been talking about marriage over the last few verses. Then all of a sudden, he says he is talking about the relationship between Christ and the church, not the relationship between a man and a woman. To us, he seems to be muddling the two and getting confused. But it turns out that Paul wasn’t getting muddled at all: when it comes to discussions in the Bible about the marriage between a man and a woman, and the marriage between Christ and the church, you’re talking about the same thing. That’s what marriage is—a model of where this world is heading—that is, the union between Christ and the church. Paul is not getting himself into a muddle; he’s actually speaking with absolute clarity and helping us to understand what marriage is for. Marriage is a picture of where this world is heading.
Furthermore, at the heart of that picture is a union of the difference between and a man and a woman—between Christ and the church. These things are non-negotiable. We might like to swap them around and say it’s possible for the union to involve two men or two women. But if we did, what would we be doing? We’d be playing around with the trailer that God has set up right from the beginning of the Bible—a trailer that helps us grasp where everything is heading, and where everything will land. Boy, would I love to change all of this! But if I do, I destroy the architecture of the Bible story—what marriage and sex are there to do. I am not—and you are not—at liberty to do that. CS Lewis is helpful on this subject: he was writing into a slightly different context and issue, but his words are pertinent to what’s happening in our world today:
… the kind of equality which implies that the equals are interchangeable (like counters or identical machines) is, among humans, a legal fiction. It may be a useful fiction, but in church we turn our back on fictions. One of the ends for which sex was created was to symbolise to us the hidden things of God. One of the functions of human marriage is to express the nature of the union between Christ and the Church. We have no authority to take the living and seminal figures which God has painted on the canvas of our nature and shift them about as if they were mere geometrical figures.4
I hope that there would be a reluctance among Christians to fiddle with the Lord’s Supper. I hope that there would be a reluctance among Christians to fiddle with the sacrament of baptism. There should be equal reluctance among Christians to fiddle with the picture that God has given us of where this world is heading—union in difference.
That big picture argument—knowing what my sexuality is for—is the big thing that most convinces me why sexual difference is a non-negotiable. It helps me to live my life. In keeping sex for the marriage of a man and a woman—by not having sex myself, because I’m attracted to people of the same sex—I am showing that my celibacy is worth it, because it really really really matters. Sexual difference is a non-negotiable. Knowing that helps me. It should help you too.
b) Sexual attraction: Good in itself
But of course, it’s not just sexual difference that we struggle with; it’s sexual attraction too—the fact that we find ourselves naturally and instinctively attracted to other people. How does knowing what our sexualities are for help us handle that everyday experience of seeing somebody who we are instinctively and instantly attracted to? Well, it helps us to understand that our sexuality—and sexual attraction—is good in itself.
But why? Why am I attracted to beauty in other people? Why am I drawn to beauty in other people? What am I being drawn to? What are you being drawn to when you see a beautiful human being who takes your breath away? Genesis 1:27 helps us here: when a really good-looking person walks past you in the street, what are you seeing in them that you desire? You’re seeing God imaged in them. They—and you—have been created to image him. We have been created to desire him—to be wowed by him—and the image of God that you see in that person is what you’re attracted to. Therefore there is a way of using that experience of attraction appropriately to enable you to worship him as you should. Praise God for that beautiful person who just walked past me!
Of course, there is the temptation to worship that person idolatrously and to think that they are the answer to all your problems. You may want to consume them and take all this in very dark directions. But in that moment, you have a choice: are you going to worship the Creator who is the source of their beauty, or the creature who is just advertising his beauty? Sexual attraction can be used for good. We’re used to it producing shame and guilt in us, but it can be used for good. Henri Nouwen, a same-sex attracted Catholic priest, wrote this in a letter to a same-sex attracted young man who had described to him his ideal man:
Thank you so much for the expression of your desire and hope.
You know already that the young, attractive, affectionate, caring, intelligent, spiritual and socially conscious gay man has only one name: God!5
The person that young man desired was someone who he thought would complete him. But Nouwen points out that that person wouldn’t. Instead, the person who will complete him is God himself. God is the only person who is all those things that young man wants. When we actually sit down and list what we desire, we see that the only person who will satisfy us is God in Christ. Our sexual attraction and desires can and should be used to draw us to the realisation that we can only and will only be satisfied in a relationship with him. Sexual attraction can be a route away from God. But sexual attraction can also be a route to worship him.
For years I was paralysed every time I noticed beauty in another man. Instead, I now think, “This is a chance for me to praise God for beauty. This is a chance for me to praise God for scattering beauty abroad in creation—in sunsets, in pieces of music, in poetry, in films, in human beings—and to praise him for it.” Sexual attraction can be good in itself.
c) Sexual pleasure: Just a foretaste
How does understanding what our sexualities are for help us cope with sexual pleasure—the experience of it or the lack of it? Well, it helps us see that sexual pleasure is just a foretaste. In Revelation 21:2, John writes, “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” Remember: this is when the true wedding will take place—the true consummation of all things. So if you’re enjoying sex in the here and now, remember that it’s just a foretaste. If you’re not getting any sex in the here and now, don’t worry: you are only missing out on a foretaste, not the real thing.
I don’t know about you, but this really helps me. We’re often told by the world that if you’re not having sex, you’re missing out on what it means to be human. You’re not! You’re only going to miss out on what it means to be human if you’re not there on the last day with Jesus. Sexual pleasure is just a foretaste.
d) Sexual temptation: The toughest battle
Fourthly, doesn’t understanding why marriage, sex and sexuality are so important to the architecture of the whole Bible story help us make sense of why sexual temptation is the toughest battle? If sex and sexuality are this important to our wiring—if marriage and a correct biblical understanding of marriage are so important to explaining the gospel story—of course the devil wants us to muck up this area of our lives.Of course he wants to change the definition of marriage. Of course he wants to make us confused. Of course he wants us to mess things up as much as possible.
So it should not shock us that sexual temptation is the toughest battle so many of us (if not all of us) face. The devil is not an idiot; he knows he can do so much damage here. He’s been doing it for years. But as Beth Felker Jones writes,
The way Christians do—and don’t—have sex is anchored in the deepest truth about reality, and it witnesses to the reality of a God who loves and is faithful to his people. More than that, Christian sexual ethics reflect reality because they make sense of the kind of creatures God made us to be, and so those sexual ethics offer us a way to really flourish as human beings.6
The devil doesn’t want us to flourish as human beings. So what does he do? He tempts us. As a result, we fall for his lies again and again and again.
This is why we need to hear these words from the Apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians—a city very similar to the communities we come from today:
Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Cor 6:18–20)
Of courseour bodies are battlefields. Of course the devil wants to trip us up in these areas again and again. Of course the devil wants to mar our thinking, our hearts, our words and our actions. But we need to resist that. When this feels really really hard—when this feels like a battleground—we also need to take a strange form of encouragement from it, because this shows us that we’re beginning to fight back against the devil and all his schemes.
What are our sexualities for? Marital union. Having children. Giving pleasure. Appreciating God. Trailing heaven. How does this help? It helps remind us of what’s important when it comes to sexual difference, sexual attraction, sexual pleasure and sexual temptation.
e) What does God know?
In spite of all this—and in spite of God being a God who helps us in all these ways—I think there’s something in us that wants to say to God, “What do you know about how hard it is to live with sexual difference? What do you know about how hard it is to live with sexual attraction? What do you know about how hard it is to live without sexual pleasure? Do you know how weary I am with sexual temptation? What do you know?”
It turns out that Jesus does know. He doesn’t just give us information to help us with our sexualities; he comes alongside us and says, “I know what it’s like. I know how you feel. I have been a human being like you. I have been a sexual being, and I know what it’s like to have a sexuality. I have experienced that for myself.” When we read the comforting words in Hebrews 4 about Jesus’ humanity, I think we often fail to see the implications when it comes to the whole area of sexuality. We struggle to think of Jesus as a human being like us. More particularly, we struggle to think of Jesus as a sexual being like us. For what do we read in Hebrews 4:14-16?
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Earlier I brought up the question of who we can turn to, given the mess we’ve made of our sexualities—knowing that we all have uniquely damaged and damaging sexualities. We’re told in this part of Hebrews that we can go to Jesus. And when we go to Jesus, we go to someone who knows what it’s like to be a sexual being—someone who has been tempted as a sexual being.
Jesus suffered sexual temptation. In fact, Jesus suffered more sexual temptation than us, because, of course, he didn’t give into it. That’s how we get out of sexual temptation: we give into it. We make it easy. Jesus resisted. He took the harder way. He never gave in.
This means I cannot say to Jesus, “You do not know what it’s like. You do not understand.” I can’t rage against Jesus and say, “You do not know what it’s like to be a single person. You do not know what it’s like to not have sex. You are asking me to do something that is unreasonable!” I can’t say that to Jesus, who lived a single life—a sexless life. He did that for me. He can look me in the eyes and say, “I do know what it’s like. I’m not asking you to do anything I wasn’t willing to do myself.” We need to get that—particularly when we’re feeling angry about all of this—when we think to ourselves, “What does God know?”
A book that’s really helped me is Intimate Jesus by English scholar Andy Angel. It’s about Jesus’ sexuality. Sometimes Angel overstates things, but his main point is that Jesus knows: Jesus was human—Jesus was a sexual being—and therefore he’s the only one who can look us in the eye and help us. He’s the only one who can truly say, “I understand.” Angel writes,
Right at the start of his Gospel, John describes Jesus as the Word made “flesh”. In its immediate context, that word suggests sexual desire. In the story at the well, Jesus’ best friends clearly think him as capable of sexual desire as the next man. It is quite telling that in this same story, John offers one of his strongest images of Jesus’ human limitations, depicting him as simply too tired to continue into town to get food and instead sitting down by the well. John deliberately brings out Jesus’ experience of sexual desire in the frailty that is common to all of us. Those of us for whom questions about faith, sex and sexuality arise from our experience can heave a sigh of relief: the God whose commands we struggle with, and to whom we pray in and about our difficulties, understands sexual desire from experience. He is not only “gentle and humble in heart” as he disciples us, but he has more than a rough idea of what we are going through.7
Remember that quote from Ephraim Radner that I started with—the one that summarises the mess we’re in? “[T]he fact of original sin tells us that we do not really have any clear standpoint of experiential purity from which to figure the topic of sexuality out.”8 Radner says that we have no one who knows what it’s like to be sexual—what it’s like to be a sexual being. We have no one who can say, “Look at me. Watch me. Do as I do. I’ll show you how to live your life. You can trust me. I speak with integrity. I speak with authority.”
But we do—in Jesus. We do in the Jesus we meet in the New Testament. Therefore, we do have what we need. We do have all the help that we need as we seek to live with God’s gift of sexuality. So let’s turn to him in thankfulness and praise.
1 Ephraim Radner, A Time to Keep: Theology, Mortality and the Shape of a Human Life, Baylor University Press, 2016, p. 44.
2 John Piper, Sex and the Supremacy of Christ, edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor, Crossway, 2005, p. 26.
3 Christopher West, Fill These Hearts: God, Sex and the Universal Longing, Image, 2012, p. 11.
4 CS Lewis, “Priestesses in the Church?” in Essay Collection: Faith, Christianity and the Church, edited by Lesley Walmsley, HarperCollins, 2002, p. 401.
5 Henri JM Nouwen, Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life, Convergent, 2016, p. 336.
6 Beth Felker Jones, Faithful: A Theology of Sex, Zondervan, 2015, p. 17.
7 Andy Angel, Intimate Jesus: The Sexuality of God Incarnate, SPCK, 2017, p. 98.
8 Ephraim Radner, A Time to Keep, p. 44.