Imagine this scenario (If your life is at all like mine, this will sound familiar): You’re having coffee with a close Christian friend, catching up on life, and they hesitate for a moment and then tell you they’re sleeping with their significant other. You’re quiet for a few seconds, because you’re trying to understand why they’ve chosen to take this step since they always seemed to have the same standards you did regarding sexual purity. So after a few awkward seconds have passed, you ask them…why? And their answer sounds something like this: “Well, we’d done other stuff, and then once we’d done IT, it was done, so…you know, it’s no big deal. I mean, we love each other. We’re in a committed relationship. I don’t see why it matters.”
Do you know how many times I’ve had the above conversation? So many times I’ve lost count.
“Once you’ve had sex, you’ve crossed a threshold and there’s no going back…so purity isn’t an option anymore.”
Just think about it for a minute. Does this even sound like something that could possibly be within God’s purpose for our lives?
The huge movement toward sexual purity groups and promise rings that swept through the Christian world in the ‘90s had some positive effects. It got people to actually discuss sexuality as something that is a part of all lives, not just the lives of boys and men. The purity groups that were formed in churches created a place where Christians could discuss these issues with other like-minded people. And it encouraged a new kind of commitment to purity which was not in itself a negative thing at all.
The unhealthy side effect of the “True Love Waits” movement and other purity-based groups was that it too strongly emphasized the act of sexual intercourse as the Big Bad Thing to Be Avoided At All Costs…and in too many cases it completely ignored the fact that humans are sexual beings whose experience with issues of purity and impurity goes far, far beyond a bad decision made late one night. I have talked to so many people who felt alienated from their church’s purity group because the active temptation to have sex wasn’t actually something they even struggled with and the group seemed focused only on that. More than one of my friends has told me of sitting through hours of teachings about dating and “keeping yourself for your husband” in the context of a relationship…while she was trying to figure out what to do with her raging addiction to pornography or masturbation, issues which were never mentioned to young girls at all. And the experience was even worse for both girls and guys who had already been sexually active. With the emphasis placed on the act of sexual intercourse, being a sexually active person in a “True Love Waits” group was equivalent to painting Hester Prynn’s huge red A on your chest. And even beyond that, there was no chance that any Christian kid in a purity group was going to confess to struggling with confused or homosexual desires. You might as well just commit social suicide and be done with it.
Let’s just get this straight now: Purity is not a one-time thing. Sexual holiness is not a ring on your finger. It’s not a single event or something you lose permanently with one decision. And sexual impurity is not a threshold which you cross when you have sex with someone. It’s not even a threshold.
If we’re going to dedicate ourselves to living a life of sexual holiness before God, we have first got to learn to be honest about the fact that He has made us sexual beings. And somehow we have to begin to look our own sexuality square in the face and see it for the beautiful and dangerous and wild and wonderful quality of our humanity that it is. Because that’s what it is – it’s an essential part of who we are. And ignoring it does not by any means make it go away – it just makes it the enemy, and that’s not in any way a Godly perspective on sexuality. Christians have for a long time acted as though acknowledging that we are essentially sexual beings is a sin, and this is equally a problem to being promiscuous. We are born with reproductive organs already developing and growing, and the desires and longings which develop as we enter adolescence are a normal part of the development process. Being a sexual human being is not, in itself, a sin. And if we’re ever going to develop a theology of holy sexuality which is fully realized, we cannot keep acting as though sexuality has an off switch. It is an integral part of who we are as human beings. Pretending that sexuality isn’t an issue until marriage or a relationship won’t make our struggles disappear. Instead, we have got to begin examining how our sexuality fits into our lives as individuals in community who have been called to live a holy life.
In this journey toward a holy life, the deception of the gradual is one of our greatest enemies. The life-changing bad decisions we find ourselves eventually making are only a result of frequent, seemingly insignificant, compromises along the way. No one dedicated to living a Godly life wakes up one day and says to themselves, “I’m kind of bored, so…I think I’ll develop a life-altering addiction to pornography today!” But many people will choose to go see a movie with more sexual content than they’re really comfortable with, because the “rest of the movie is good” or read a book that has explicit sexual material in it because “it’s written really well.” How many times have we allowed ourselves to listen to music with incredibly sexually explicit lyrics because we like the artist and we just “enjoy the sound”? I am not by any means arguing that we should never go to any movie, or that we should all burn every secular book we own or delete every music file that isn’t a worship song. What I am saying is that we need to very carefully reflect on what we’re allowing into our minds. The fact that you’re single and trying to follow God’s will right now, or that you’re in a God-honoring relationship where you’ve set boundaries on your physical involvement with each other, does not in any way mean that you can behave as though nothing from “the world” has any impact on you. The fact is that we are designed by God to have sexual responses and thoughts…and that aspect of our design isn’t something that is only switched to the “ON” setting when you have finally said, “I do.”
We may not like to recognize it, but all of those little compromises we make when we watch or read or listen to material that is diametrically opposed to a holy life create a mental atmosphere which encourages our thought patterns to follow paths which are also diametrically opposed to a holy life. None of us is immune to temptation if we constantly make decisions to intentionally expose ourselves to greater quantities of it. God has given us the weapons by which we can fend off the temptations which come our way – but if we ignore the voice of the Holy Spirit’s conviction and consciously choose to walk down a road leading to temptation it’s another matter entirely.
So what is our alternative? Hiding ourselves in bunkers to avoid temptation isn’t a viable solution. Ignoring our sexuality isn’t a solution, because it makes sexuality the enemy…which it is not. I believe that the key to walking out a life which is characterized by sexual holiness is simply to learn to live a life in which God’s joys are our joys, His loves are our loves, and His ultimate glory is our sole focus and purpose.
I can already hear you arguing with me that this isn’t a practical answer to the issues at hand. But I truly believe it’s our only answer, and I am convinced that God has already given us every tool we need to make it a way of life. It is foolish to think that we can somehow maintain holiness in our understanding and practice of sexuality if holiness is not pervading the rest of our lives as well. The root of all of our struggles is our broken humanity, and it is only when we draw close to God and allow Him to heal us fully that we will be able to live a life of holiness. We are never going to be able to live holy on our own – it’s impossible for us to expend enough effort to drag our own brains kicking and screaming to a place of holiness. This is an over-arching principle that isn’t limited to issues of sexuality, but it does apply directly to our approach to sexuality. The only way that we’re ever going to find our thoughts and actions mirroring God’s perspectives on sexuality is to allow Him to be our source and our fulfillment in every area of our lives. God is holy, and He has offered us the chance through Jesus to be holy as well. This isn’t wishful thinking, it’s an absolute Biblical truth. 2 Timothy 1:7-10 states:
For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. 8 So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God.9 He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.
A holy life is not a pipe-dream, it’s our calling. And because we know it’s our calling, we also know that God will equip us to live it out. When we choose to move closer to Him, to spend time drawing near to Him, there is no part of our humanity which is not impacted. We are not compartmentalized. Sexuality is as much who we are as any other facet of the human experience, and it is intrinsically linked to every other aspect. Therefore when God begins to revolutionize us and to transform and renew our minds, that transformative work pervades every single aspect of who we are, including our sexuality. We will not win the battle with sexual temptation across the board only by avoiding things or by ignoring the struggle or even by making ourselves accountable to someone. We will win the battle with sexual temptation and begin to live holy when our entire selves are so filled with the spirit of God and our hearts are so turned toward Jesus that there is no room in us for anything else. The closer we are to Jesus, the further we are from every single other thing which would distract us or tempt us or twist our perspective from the truth.
The key to a life of holiness lies in making the choice to pursue a deeper relationship with God. It is not possible to accidentally live a holy life. And it’s certainly not the norm to live out a holy sexuality. It will, in fact, very possibly make you wildly unpopular with a lot of people if you choose to live a life characterized by true sexual holiness. There is no sector of popular culture in our world today which is comfortable with a Godly approach to sexuality, and nearly every voice we hear encourages exactly the opposite. If we make the choice to press in toward a new understanding of who God is and what His best plan for our lives looks like, we have to be willing to live a lifestyle that is truly revolutionary. If we desire to approach our sexuality from a perspective of honesty and freedom, the best decision we can make is to move deeper into our understanding of the nature of God and the intensity of his desire to be in relationship with us. It is through the constant awareness of the love and the grace of God that we find the fulfilment and healing which makes us whole. The ravenous quality of an unredeemed human sexuality is frightening in its ability to devour up whole lives and families. We are in danger when we ignore the little deceits – the small decisions we’re making which should act as signs to us that our sexuality is something we are holding back from complete surrender to Jesus. The deception of the gradual is that creeping series of choices which move us in tiny, damaging increments further and further from the heart of our Father. Sexual sin is not the problem in itself – it is a symptom of a life which does not have Christ at its core.
My own life has been filled with years of struggle in the area of sexual holiness, and I am the last person to claim that I have reached a point of perfection in my attempts to live a Godly life. But I have experienced first-hand the incredible lightness that comes as a result of God’s deliverance from deep-rooted addictions, and I continue to make progress in developing a deeper relationship with the One who has saved me from my own weakness. I absolutely know beyond any doubt that God is capable of redeeming even the darkest and most depraved sexuality to complete healing. And I am convinced that the complex beauty of a life of holiness is worth the discipline of daily choosing to go deeper in relationship with Him. No matter who you are in public or in private, no matter what your addiction or temptation or your past sin, God is more than able to restore you to a place of complete freedom and holiness. You are never, ever so soiled that Christ cannot redeem you. You are never so dirty that His blood can’t wash you clean. If you will simply make the choice to pursue Him, He will be true to His promises.
“So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sinfor us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:16-21)