Sex in Dangerous Places
A letter of advice about sex and the single Christian guy.
by Michael Spencer
Thanks for your letter. Has it really been years? Perhaps I should just admit that I am a very poor correspondent, and not act like I didn’t know I have neglected our friendship. I hope your letter to me was forgiveness in advance. It really is good to hear from you, and yes, I will be happy to give you some advice on this matter of being a sexually pure single Christian.
When I was your youth minister, all those many years ago, we probably did all the usual evangelical Bible studies and “talks” about sex. It always struck me as strange that every lesson sounded as if the students really wanted advice. I’ve since learned that hardly anyone is looking for advice. Instead, we want to know that we aren’t alone in our humanity, struggles, mistakes and longings. In that regard, I can fully assure you now that you are almost a decade further down the road all men travel, you need not fear being alone. We’ve all made this journey, with a remarkable similarity in our stories.
The questions you have now all share one larger question in common: “How does a Christian man live faithfully and obediently with his sexuality?” Your situation in regard to the woman you have started dating is premised on what you have learned about yourself in other settings, and the questions you are now asking are, in all likelihood, questions you never would have asked when the answers might have been all around you. It’s unfortunate that so much of what the church tries to do to promote discipleship is purely rational, and not existential, realistic and relational. My best teachable moments have been when I awakened in the mud and pig slop, not sitting in a classroom or a sanctuary. My best teachers have been men who failed, not those handing me a worksheet.
Let me start by setting a framework for the entire subject; a framework that is often neglected. We have God entirely to blame for being sexual beings. Not for being sexual sinners, but for being sexual in the first place…it is entirely His fault, and He should be made entirely responsible. (I don’t think He minds at all. It is one of His better inventions.) I think we can quickly shed a lot of our reticence in prayer and accountability if we accept this. We could be amoebas or plants. Nature seems to teach us that God had a number of templates in the toolbox, and He chose to go with this one. Don’t let Him off the hook.
The framework, however, goes beyond just whose initials are on the biology. I think we have to also see that scripture continually says that sexuality isn’t just sexuality. It is an aspect of our humanity that is most similar to the intimacy of love within God the Trinity, the highest levels of love within the creation, (i.e. marriage,) and the love we see and experience in Jesus Christ. What we have in our sexuality is, in some way, a connection to the experience of Divine love itself. I admit that when one thinks of male sexuality in our own culture, this is hardly what immediately comes to mind. One could easily conclude that male sexuality is a universe away from the higher kinds of love.
But this simply isn’t true. Male sexuality is the often choice of scriptural language to describe what is beautiful and wonderful. For example,
John 1:12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
I Peter 1:23 …Since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God;
I John 2:9 No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God.
Ephesians 5:28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.
I don’t want to force these passages into my cause, but I want to say that God Himself uses the language of male sexuality in a way that ought to remind us that while sin has certainly corrupted what God made, our sexuality was designed in such a way that to know it was to, in some way, know God Himself. It is, indeed, the holiness of all sexuality as it resides in every part of us that we must recover in the Christian journey. We are created and remain holy to this extent: we are vessels in which the creator of the universe placed a window into His own nature and passion. Therefore, we must respect male sexuality, and not despise it, but treat it as a holy thing, not a dirty or demonic thing.
Why do we need this framework? Well, if you haven’t noticed, the church has become so strangely feminized and so fearful of sexuality that men are practically told that only a complete denial of their sexuality will do in the Christian life. When Jesus Christ Superstar hinted that Jesus might have been- in any remote way- a man with normal sexual feelings towards women- you could hear the howling well past Jupiter. Of course, the incarnation absolutely means Jesus was fully human and sexual, and he was “tested/tempted” in every way like the rest of us, though without a fallen nature. Sometime, take a moment and consider what that meant. It won’t be making it into this year’s Easter play at church.
In fact, it is rather amazing to me how many people feel that if Jesus had been married with children, he could not have been our savior. This is absurd. Marriage and sexuality are the creation order, and if Jesus had chosen to be a husband and father, it would make absolutely no difference in his incarnation or our salvation in him. Frankly, sometimes I think it would have saved us all a lot of trouble. I’m sure several million Roman Catholics think so.
The view of male sexuality in evangelicalism today can basically be described as the virtue of choosing to act as if you are castrated…at least until you are married, at which point you are free to populate a small village. This sort of caricature isn’t very far from reality. Most evangelical Christians simply can’t stand the thought of an honest discussion of the single male sexual experience. I’ve tried, and the results are predictably disastrous.
For instance, I’ve endlessly heard the sage advice that if a man looks at a woman in any way that might notice her sexuality, he has automatically sinned. That’s ridiculous, and is not what Jesus said. Now let me be clear: A man can most certainly look at a woman and sin, but looking at a woman is not a sin. There are both wrong and right ways to look and think about a female person. Looking at a woman and saying she is attractive- which includes her sexuality- is not a sin, unless I misunderstand everything about creation and must deem all such observations as “lust.” If the burka is the actual Christian preference on proper female attire, I’d like to know, because I am thoroughly convinced that gratefully acknowledging the basic sexuality of every person is part of respecting them as a human being, and acknowledging that sexuality is a component of every woman I interact with is a highly useful piece of information in keeping myself from acting like a fool.
(On the subject of looking at pictures, rather than at persons, I’ll have more to say later. For the moment, just mark that it we are talking about two very different matters, with considerably different considerations. And ladies, provocative unveiling of the body to draw undue attention to sexual aspects of yourself is another issue for another time.)
This is the problem of saying “pure, Christian thoughts must equal non-sexual thoughts.” It is simply wrong. Pure thoughts are God’s thoughts about sex. Right thoughts about sex. Consider Sally, an attractive potential new friend. Sally is God’s creation. Sally is a beautiful person because God makes us capable of beauty in form and presentation. Recognizing such beauty is a way of seeing God’s creative signature and appreciating someone’s uniqueness. Sally is also a sexual person, because God made her so in his own image and to deny that- or to isolate it from the rest of her humanity- is a completely wrong way to think of her, with its own attendant problems. Sally minus her sexuality isn’t Sally.
Remember, we are not even considering whether a man will think about sex. He will, and we all know this. Adam thought of sex when he first saw Eve, and it was entirely right. He thought God-glorifying thoughts with God-glorifying results.
Now back to Sally. At this point of recognizing sexuality and attractiveness, a man has some choices, and of course, we all have a sinful nature to be reckoned into the picture. A man may say, “I want to have sex with Sally.” That we think like this is an all too familiar fact. In my opinion, this is really the universal post-fall starting place, and is not the conclusion of the matter. Now we are deciding what to do with those sexual thoughts; where to take the “train of thought” that has appeared. In other words, sexual thoughts are always going somewhere, and I prefer we talk about the direction/destination of those thoughts rather than lead people to think they can be entirely free of sexual thoughts. Men think sexual thoughts. Accept it. Now where will those thoughts go? The idea that men can be somehow trained to have no sexual thoughts is really saying we ought to teach Christians to become more effective liars.
What about this: “I want to have sex with Sally…..now, and I will pursue that purpose?” This is certainly wrong. “I want to think about having sex with Sally…now, as a fantasy, though I won’t pursue her.” This is also wrong, though admittedly a different kind of matter in its consequences outside of ourselves. What about “I want to establish a relationship with Sally that treats her as a person made in God’s image, and in that relationship, delight in her as God has made her and within God’s commandments, which includes thinking rightly about sex.” This isn’t wrong at all, and it is warped to say that it is. Eventually, one might even say, “I want to think about having sex, within marriage, with Sally, whom I desire to marry.” Not only is this- in the proper context- right, it’s so fundamentally healthy that to think otherwise is to be perverse. If my son told me he tried to not think about sex with his future wife, I would be very concerned.
I think the best Christian women are aware that a man who claims to have no sexual thoughts is either dishonest, pandering or deeply flawed. A man who can say, “Yes, I have sexual thoughts, but I am continually seek to submit them in honor to God, and to treat you with thoughts and actions that are holy and loving,” should have the respect and appreciation of a Christian woman who values honesty and reality.
But the objection arrives: “You are saying that all a man needs to do is fantasize about having married sex with an attractive woman, and it’s OK.” Here is the kind of short-cut that our sinful nature specializes in creating. The problem here is two-fold. One is that such an “on paper” excuse doesn’t pass muster with an omniscient and holy God. It’s simply a disguise for lust- which is always wrong- and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out. Secondly, while I will discuss the subject of male fantasy in a moment, it is enough to say that this is isolating sexuality from humanity and pursuing sex apart from persons in a way that betrays the corruption of our sexual nature. Any Christian who claims this as a guilt-free “escape hatch” has a strange notion of bringing every thought into captivity to Christ, and is simply lying about words like “honor,” “respect” and “holiness.”
So, the default position in evangelicalism is “men shouldn’t think about sex.” My contention is that the Biblical position is “think about sex rightly” and to direct sexual thoughts towards honorable, God-honoring ends.
So, now we have a framework for your questions, and I can get down to specifics. In order to address your concerns directly, I want to draw a map. We must journey through four terrains in our journey. All are dangerous, in their own way. Each one of these terrains demands a serious consideration of our sexuality. These four are: the sex we think about in our minds, the pursuit of women in general, the dangers of a woman who is willing to have sex with us right now, and, of course, sex within marriage itself. These will make more sense as we go along.
First of all, the majority of a man’s sexual existence takes place in his own mind, and no where else. If one is a Christian, there will be a strong and serious concern for the life of the mind, and an understanding that mind and heart are the soil where good and/or bad fruit will grow. I am constantly amazed at how my own sexual struggles and sins are basically outgrowths of an undisciplined approach to my own thoughts as a young man. Things I saw as a very young boy have affected my thoughts my entire life. The mind of a young man is powerful hothouse of sexual imagery and feeling.
We must be honest. Male sexual response is overwhelmingly visually triggered. It is a mistake to think that male sexuality is entirely about what a man sees, but we cannot deny what a large part this plays in our lives. Pornography is a visual appeal to the fallen sexual nature of the mind, a promise that sexual fulfillment will be found in viewing, fantasizing and masturbating. The spiritual warfare that occurs around this fact is crucial to recognize throughout the male journey. Most boys develop an interest in the visual female form in preadolescence, and then later on discover the powerful impression images can leave on the mind. I don’t think we ever change much in this respect.
Visual sex is easy. Cheap. Without relationships. Utterly false in its presentation of everything about sex and the humans who are sexual. Yet, visual imagery is powerfully addictive, and for fallen males, powerfully seductive. The short route to some kind of psuedo-fulfillment through pornography and masturbation can become a lifelong pattern. With the internet, it isn’t even a lot of trouble.
There is no simple solution to this dilemma. The obvious route of self-denial is oft-traveled and frequently failed. Spiritual solutions must be appreciated, particularly accountability, honesty and prayer. But these are hardly foolproof, to say the least. I cannot counsel anything more essential than this: We must add to our thinking every ounce of truth about pornography and other visual appeals to our sexuality as we can. We must understand the falsity of the presentation. The insult to ourselves and women in general. We must understand the betrayal of all that is highest and best in human life. The criminality and vileness that produces it. We must develop a sense of revulsion and waste- particularly waste- for those moments spent in visual fantasy.
And beyond this, we need to grow in that dimension of morality that is captured by the “beauty of holiness.” Pornography is a distortion and degrading of true female sexual beauty with the ugliness of lies. It is not guilt or fear, but love- particularly the love of beauty and the love of God’s beauty in sexuality- that will drain pornography of its appeal. What is presented in pornography is truly, vilely offensive, and it is our sanctified and redeemed aesthetic sensibilities that must finally outweigh our fallen curiosity. In other words, we must not just be offended and revolted; we must be bored.
Second, a man will, at some time in his life, pursue relationships with women in which some sexual expression will be a possible goal of that pursuit. Now, I say this without a lot of Christian adjectives, though quite obviously, this is meant to be a holy, God-honoring pursuit, ending in an honorable and holy union. In actual fact, we all know it is a clumsy business that is not always marriage-destined, encompassing everything from high school first kisses to questions of intimacy the day before the wedding.
God made us to pursue the woman we love, and we practice that pursuit with all the women we date. That ultimate pursuit of our spouse is a winning, a conquest, a journey towards trust and sharing. Because we are fallen creations, often those preliminary pursuits give enormous evidence of our corruption, as we pursue sexual gratification, not friendship or anything noble. This is a game Christian single men are very good at playing.
Here in these relationships, a man is confronted with how his thoughts will influence his behavior. As I said earlier, our sexual thoughts are going in some direction. Our behavior with women will reveal how effectively we are disciplining and channeling our thoughts in the right direction. Of course, it is entirely possible to have a wretched thought life and behave honorably, but for most of us, wrong thoughts will reveal themselves in wrong actions.
This is why it is of real importance that a man seek to understand women as God made them and on their own terms, and not simply rely on his own thoughts and assumptions, especially if those have been shaped by culture, media or pornography. When I meet a Christian young man who has ruined a relationship, acted poorly or gotten himself into trouble by his behavior, there is a very similar pattern of acting on wrong thoughts, and pursuing the physical aspect of a relationship on his own narrowly focused terms. I cannot counsel this strongly enough: treat the women you know and date with Biblical, Christ-like wisdom, honor, kindness, deference and restraint. Do not give yourself permission to cross obvious lines based on your feelings. They are utterly undependable.
On the other hand, I want to tell you that I am amused at the evangelical trend towards no physical interaction whatsoever in dating relationships: no holding hands, no hugs, no kissing, etc. until marriage. I respect anyone’s choices, but I find this whole program absurd and insulting. I’m not about to tell someone these sorts of experiments are wrong, any more than I am going to say they are necessary. I would suggest that such an approach betrays a remarkably fearful attitude towards sexuality and total pessimism towards our own ability to shape behavior. (I tend to think that some of have promoted them have possibly reconsidered their Biblical basis and spiritual value.)
The reason a couple disintegrates a relationship from visiting friends and reading to one another into rolling around naked in bed isn’t because sex is so powerful no one can resist its urges. Don’t believe that for a moment. It’s because the couple made a decision- most likely a fully aware decision- to cross reasonable lines and excuse themselves as “weak” and carried away. They are fools, and we don’t have to live like fools, though all of us will. I’m far less inclined to say anyone is “weak,” and more inclined to say they are “doing exactly what they’ve given themselves permission to do.”
I will tell you honestly that there is nothing you will regret more in your life than those times you have pursued what was wrong or pursued a good person in a caddish, stupid, self-centered way. You will not look on those times fondly, even if, at the time, they brought you great pleasure. The advantage of being a little older is to know the revulsion one feels at the prospect of having to face women I once dated and treated poorly. I look back at my younger self, and while I am forgiving, I’m also embarrassed and horrified. Don’t go there.
The third stop on our map is the most dangerous of all. At some point in your life, you will meet a woman who is, or can be made to be, willing to do whatever you would like sexually. (In the current culture, such women are plentiful, and are more and more brash. Note Sex in the City.) The danger here can’t be exaggerated. Male sexuality is best suited for pursuit, and we really become our best selves when we shape our pursuit over the long term by being denied easy access to easy sexual “rewards.” When the whole project is handed to us free, something is obviously wrong. When the necessity of Godly pursuit is removed, and sex is immediately available, a man can lose his rationality entirely, and become completely animalistic.
I am convinced that the danger of the adulterous woman in Proverbs is precisely at this point. She offers the young man immediate sex without restraint, pursuit or any concern for consequences. Yes, her husband may kill him, but right now the young man has become like a senseless beast. In this state, we can become the slaves of our own sexual desires, and lose contact with the “real world” of consequences. I can say with terrible certainty that this is true, and I have seen men lose lifetimes of relationships, reputation and self-worth, all for the immediacy of sex. In the cold aftermath, things look quite different, and I am not surprised that some Christian men speak as if they were possessed by the devil. In fact, they gave themselves over to that part of themselves that should never have unrestrained access to gratification.
How does a man know he has found such a person? I suppose the bad news is that it is generally easy to discern, and then the matter really becomes if a man has the courage to do what must be done: abandon the relationship immediately. Do not go into some fantasy of rescuing the good and avoiding the bad. End it, turn around and don’t look back. You may look bad. You may be talked about. You may appear to be a jerk. Don’t worry about those things. You are quite possibly saving yourself from personal disaster or unmeasured proportions. A woman who easily gives herself to your immediate sexual desires is not the woman you should be with. If you can’t be trusted to discern this on your own, then have someone in your life who can discern such a situation because they have permission to ask you the tough questions.
On the subject of sex and marriage…..I think we need another letter! Enough today. Ponder what I have said, and consider your own situation in the light of what I have shared.
I am sure you won’t be shocked to know I’ve gotten a lot of questions about sex from guys down through the years. One thing I wanted to say was “please have a sense of humor.” We are so serious about something that we need to stop and laugh at much more often. There is a lot of comedy here, and considering how often we are going to fall short of whatever God had in mind, we will need to season our repentance with as much humility and self-deprecation as possible. Pray. Be accountable. Be serious. Be disciplined, but laugh. Forgive yourself. Every sexual addict I have met gave sex all the devotion of religion. I think that is a terrible idea. Laugh at yourself and your situation, before and after shedding some tears. Seek the clarity that will help you see the boundaries and the journey without sentimentality or distortion.
Men talk a lot about sex, but almost all of it is worthless chatter. I hope this letter is the exception to that pattern. It was wonderful to hear from you, and I hope we can continue the correspondence in the future. Send me your thoughts, questions and reactions. I am eager to hear from you.