The key question
In my kitchen I have a variety of implements that can only be used safely if you know what they are designed to do, what they are for. Without that necessary information anyone who uses them is likely to hurt themselves – and anyone else in the vicinity too.
As human beings, all of us have a sexuality that can only be used safely if we know what it is designed to do, what it is there for. Without that necessary information our use of it is likely to hurt ourselves – and anyone else in the vicinity too.
As human beings, all of us have a sexuality that can only be used safely if we know what it is designed to do.
So, what is human sexuality, our capacity for sexual desires and experiences, for? That would seem to be the most basic and helpful question we can be asking as we seek to help ourselves and others. Too often our conversations get lost in the details of biblical interpretation or personal experience because we haven’t yet taken the time to ask this most important of questions. It’s answers to this one question that will most help us make sense of what the Bible teaches and what we as people feel. Crucially they will also help protect us, and others, in an area of human life in which so much damage has been done in the past.
In our contemporary culture
Human sexuality, our capacity for sexual desires and experiences, is celebrated in contemporary western culture. The songs we play, the images that flash across our screens, the love stories we tell, all encourage sexual desire and promote the joy of sex. But what does our society say sexuality is for?
Sex is a recreational activity. Sexual desires and experiences exist to bring you pleasure. Having a certain type of beautiful body, providing the right romantic contexts, improving your sexual technique, will all help you attract (and keep) the best sexual partner(s) and enhance your enjoyment of life. Adverts, films and social media all condition us to think that sexuality is mainly about enjoying ourselves as much as possible – with one or more other people or all alone with a screen. The only restrictions when it comes to our sexual desires and experiences are when clear harm would be done: otherwise you’re encouraged to do whatever with whoever might turn you on.
But sex is not just a recreational activity in contemporary culture: it is an identity marker. Our individualistic society encourages us to let our unique sexual desires and experiences define us and be an essential part of how we present ourselves to those around us. If you desire sex with someone of the same sex you are gay or lesbian. If you enjoy sex with someone of the opposite sex you are straight. If you are attracted to both you are bi. If you don’t want to restrict yourself in any way you are pansexual. 1 The subjects of your affections define you and can, even should, be proudly celebrated (with only a few exceptions to this rule like close family members or children).
In our contemporary culture, sexuality is all about enjoying yourself and defining yourself.
In our contemporary culture, sexuality is all about enjoying yourself and defining yourself. The reality of this is proved by the ever-increasing pressures on teenagers in western societies to conform their young lives to this flawed vision. In many Western countries 18 years old used to be the age of consent for sexual activity with others. Today it is the age by which you need to have enjoyed sex and defined your sexuality if you are to live life to the full. It is not hard to connect rising body image issues, increased anxiety, gender dysphoria and porn addiction to this societal obsession with sexual activity and identity politics (amongst other factors). There are ever-increasing pressures on young and vulnerable people to look a certain way, confidently perform sexually, conform to gender stereotypes, and somehow self-define from a confusing myriad of labels.
But despite a growing dissatisfaction as to where the 1960s sexual revolution has landed us, there is, rightly, no great desire to return to the 1950s and the sexual repression and persecution of sexual minority groups that were so much part of life in the west then. Is there a better way forward? Yes!
In God’s counter-culture
Human sexuality, our capacity for sexual desires and experiences, is celebrated in God’s Word too. In the Bible the first lyrics ever written describe a man’s love for his soon-to-be wife (Genesis 2:23); there’s a whole book that relies on sexual imagery to communicate with humanity (Song of Songs), and the entire plot of Scripture is a love story that ends with a couple living happily ever after (Revelation 21:1-4). All of this would seem to encourage the right expression of sexual desires and promote the joy of sex.
But what does God’s Word say sexuality is for? We find answers that are very similar to our culture, but also different in much better ways:
Enjoying yourself forever
In God’s counter-culture, sex is not a recreational activity driven by our desires. Instead it is a sacred activity that, most fundamentally of all, communicates God’s desire for us. Sexual intercourse within marriage, a man and a woman joining themselves together, a bodily union in sexual difference, has been designed as a symbolic foretaste of something much greater. It trails the joining together of heaven and earth, the spiritual union in their difference, of God’s Son, Jesus, and God’s people, the Church, for all of eternity (Ephesians 5:31-32). Most fundamentally of all, sexuality is not all about human love, but God’s love for us. When God most wants to communicate the sort of relationship he wants with his people, the full passion of his love for us, the most effective language and imagery he uses is that of sexuality and marriage (for instance in Song of Songs, Isaiah 62, Ezekiel 16 and Hosea). As a result, as psychiatrist Glynn Harrison helpfully puts it:
If we want to understand God's love for us, we are invited to look into the most intimate and private corners of our felt sexuality and cross-refer. 2
God’s Word encourages us to consider our sexual desires and experiences and to see what is good in them as just a small taster of something better that he offers us. When we are blown away by our sexual desire for another human being we are to reflect on God’s even greater passion for his people. When we enjoy an orgasm, we are to think how much better our experience of eternal union to God in Christ will be.
In God’s counter-culture, sex is a sacred activity that, most fundamentally of all, communicates God’s desire for us.
Our contemporary culture can often be heard to say that sex is the-be-all-and-end-all of human life. It’s a primary way in which you get to enjoy yourself in the here and now. In God’s counter-culture he says that sexual desires and experiences are just a small foretaste of much greater realities and that if you want to enjoy yourself even more you should most pursue what they point us all to: God’s passionate love for us, his people, and our eternal union to him in Christ. Treating sex as a recreational activity, within boundaries determined by ourselves, undermines this beautiful vision. Treating sex as a sacred activity, with boundaries determined by our Creator God, will only increase our pleasure long-term as we get to enjoy forever what it points us to.
Defining yourself forever
All of this means that Christians are not defined by the subject of their affections but by the fact that God has made us as the subject of his affection. I don’t need to self-define using any of the LGBTQI letters – instead I am most of all defined by God’s love for me in Christ. I’m not having to have to look at my own desires and experiences and somehow build my own sense of worth and identity out of them because I have been given a true worth and identity by God’s declaration of love for me through the cross of Jesus (Galatians 2:20). And all of this is a better foundation to build my life upon because none of it will ever change. I have fallen in and out of love with other people. Other people have fallen in and out of love with me. Cultural identity markers have sometimes felt as if they fitted me well, at other times they have left me feeling like a misfit. But what hasn’t changed, what won’t ever change, is God and his love for me: the fact that he has betrothed himself to his people and that, one day soon, we will be perfectly united to him forever. That certain destiny is an identity marker that will never perish, spoil or fade (unlike our sexual desires and experiences).
Our contemporary culture says that sexuality is one of the great defining things about us. That we need to quickly sort ourselves into sexual pigeonholes of someone else’s making and let our lives be defined by other people’s expectations of how we should behave as a result. In contrast, in God’s counter-culture, our Creator God does the defining for us as he frees us from the mess we have, and will, make of our sexuality and gives us a new identity as those that now belong to him. As New York Times columnist David Brooks writes:
The crucial question is not, Who I am? but, Whose am I? 3
And the answer that Christianity gives is that, for those who trust in Jesus, we now belong forever to the God who has both created and redeemed us: who knows us best and yet loves us most. He, by his Holy Spirit, now lives inside our bodies and is the one best-placed to help us rightly honour him (and others) with our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:18-20).
Back to the question
What is sexuality for? Our culture’s answers – a recreational activity and an identity marker – will only bring us temporary enjoyment and an unstable foundation for life. They make sexuality all about us in ways that are destroying us. Our Creator God’s counter-cultural answers – a sacred activity and permanent identity – promise us everlasting enjoyment and a stable foundation for an eternal life. They make sexuality all about him in ways that bring us life.
Want to make sense of your sexuality? Want to join with us at Living Out in helping people, churches and society talk about faith and sexuality? This is the key question to ask and answer – what is sexuality for? 4
- This is not an exhaustive list of the options. For somewhere that attempts that see, Mere Abrams, '46 Terms That Describe Sexual Attraction, Behavior, and Orientation', Healthline. (Accessed 9 November 2020).
- Glynn Harrison, A Better Story: God, Sex & Human Flourishing (IVP, 2016), p.146.
- David Brooks, The Second Mountain: The Quest for the Moral Life (Allen Lane, 2019), p.310.
- For a more extensive answer to this question see: Ed Shaw, Purposeful Sexuality: A Short Christian Introduction (IVP, 2021).