There are a couple of different ways to take in the daily news. One is to simply be informed. This is what most folks do. You just kind of take it in and let it go. The other option is to treat the news as an opportunity to learn. This takes a lot more intentionality and time, but if we will invest it, the payoffs can be pretty worthwhile in our lives and in the growth of our faith. If you’re interested I can point you to a couple of really good resources for this. In any event, I say all of this because there’s a story that’s been in the news fairly recently that is a perfect example of one worth filtering through this more reflective approach to the news.
Two weeks ago the former governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley, resigned his office in the face of what was becoming a tsunami of political pressure from both sides of the aisle to do so. The pressure was the result of the revelation that he had been involved for some time in an adulterous affair. Now, unfortunately, this isn’t the kind of news about politicians that really shocks us anymore. In fact, the news about the steps Vice President Mike Pence and his wife have taken to affair-proof their marriage (he never has meals one-on-one with another woman and doesn’t go to events with alcohol served without her by his side) generated a fair bit more national news coverage than did the news of Bentley’s affair and resignation.
In Bentley’s particular case, though, what made such a splash was that prior to becoming governor, Bentley was a deacon and Sunday school teacher at the First Baptist Church of Tuscaloosa, and he had spoken often and openly about his faith and how it shaped his approach to politics. It was this rather glaring hypocrisy that attracted so much attention.
In the wake of the initial allegations a few weeks before his resignation—his affair was discovered by his wife of 50 years when he sent inappropriate text messages to the other woman on a phone that was linked to the iPad his wife was using at home (and before you observe how stupid that was of him, note well that sin is stupid to start with and we shouldn’t ever be surprised to find people engaged unrepentantly in sin doing stupid things)—a couple of news services did a survey asking people whether or not they thought 11 different activities always count as cheating. The results are…interesting.
For instance, most folks don’t consider following an ex on social media to be always cheating. I suspect most of you would agree with that in principle and with the acknowledgement that it all depends on your motivations for doing so. When it comes to sending flirtatious text messages to someone other than your partner the country is fairly well split down the middle. For my money, maybe there’s a way you could frame that as not cheating (although I still haven’t thought of one), but you are definitely pointed down that path and so wisdom would suggest rather insistently that you not do it. What really got me, though, were the responses to the question of whether or not having a full-on physical affair on a regular basis with someone other than your partner always constitutes cheating. Now, sure, the vast majority of folks said that, yes, it did, but not all of them. About 25% of the country as a whole said either, “I don’t know,” or, “nope, that’s not always cheating.” Given the breadth of worldviews that make up our nation, I guess I can believe that result. But even among evangelical protestants—that is, us—nearly 1 in 5 said either, “I don’t know,” or, “nope.” Really?!? Folks, if 20% of Christians generally aren’t clear on the fact that being intimately involved with someone other than your spouse on regular basis (much less at all) isn’t always cheating, we’re doing something wrong. I think the real takeaway from this story is this: We have way too many professed followers of Jesus out there who don’t know how to do life when it comes to sex.
This morning we are in the second part of our new teaching series called, How to Do Life. The big idea for this journey is that as followers of Jesus we are called to live a certain kind of lifestyle. But, given our immersion in a culture that calls us to do life in about every way possible except for the way Jesus, sometimes it’s easy for us to get confused and pursue an alternative lifestyle thinking we’re on the right track. It is always helpful to stop for a minute and evaluate where we are and where we should be. Hopefully those are the same, but if not, it allows us to do a bit of course correcting. Over the next few weeks that is exactly what we’re going to be doing in a number of different areas of our lives.
We started out last week by looking at how to do life with respect to our money. With the help of Jesus’ odd little parable about a dishonest manager in Luke 16, we saw that too often we don’t think rightly about our resources. We often think about them after the pattern of the world, make at least half-hearted attempts to use them after the pattern of the kingdom, and feel conflicted no matter what we do. If, like the dishonest manager, we will learn to see our resources as tools to be used to our advantage—understanding that what is most to our advantage is to love people and to use our resources to demonstrate that love in practical, meaningful ways, even if the short-term costs to us are high—we will find ourselves doing life well far more often than we won’t. We need to be sure we are loving people and using money, not the other way around.
Well, this morning we’re going to tackle an area of life that is shoved in our faces at least as often as our money (or lack thereof) is. That’s sex. God created us to be sexual beings. It’s a part of who we are. It’s a powerful part of who we are. It’s a complex part of who we are. It’s a broken part of who we are. And, because the devastation caused by something being broken is directly proportional to its power when it is working, the devastation caused by sexual brokenness is immense. And that brokenness manifests itself everywhere we look. If we are going to get our minds around how to do life well as followers of Jesus, we have to talk about this. It’s not always comfortable, especially if you’ve had driven into your head and heart that this is private stuff to be talked about only behind closed doors with the people you trust most and maybe not even then. But here’s the thing: The world around us is talking about it. A lot. The world that our kids face every day when they go off to school is talking about it and experimenting with it. Their eyes and ears are wide open. If we don’t know how to think well about this fundamental part of our lives, much less practice well, then we won’t be able to be any help to them. We might as well give them a box of dynamite, no instructions, and tell them to figure out what to do with it on their own. They may learn, but the likelihood that somebody is going to get blown up along the way is pretty high.
Fortunately, we don’t have to have this conversation cold. We don’t have to try and figure out what to say about it that is going to be the most honoring of Christ. The Scriptures talk about sex all the time. What’s more, it’s not even all negative as many folks assume it is. There’s a whole book that talks about how great sex is when pursued in the right context. The Scriptures on the whole are clear that sex is an amazing gift from God that is fundamentally and powerfully good…in the right context. But they are equally clear that it can get misused with devastating consequences in more ways than we can imagine. Now, because they talk about it so much, choosing where to turn to get some help in doing life right when it comes to sex can feel a bit like drinking from a firehose. There are a few passages, though, that seem to fairly well capture the full picture of the thing. One of those comes to us on the pen of Paul in his first letter to the believers of ancient Corinth. In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul offers some incredible clarity on how we should think about sex, how we can get it wrong, why we don’t want to get it wrong, and the beauty to be found in getting it right.
Let’s take a look at this together starting in 1 Corinthians 6:12. Paul starts out here quoting from and responding to some local slogans. “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything. ‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’—and God will destroy both one and the other.”
Now, wait just a minute. I thought we were going to talk about sex. What does any of that have to do with sex? A little background here will be helpful. In the ancient world, there were a number of different philosophies of life that competed in the public square for majority acceptance. Because of its location between two major sea ports, Corinth was the kind of place where all of these different ideas could be encountered all in one place. Because of this the Corinthian people fancied themselves as well-versed in a number of cutting-edge philosophies. The church in Corinth included a number of wealthy individuals who fancied themselves well-cultured and even cosmopolitan in their outlook on life. As a result, they readily embraced a number of popular ideas which were serving to undermine the practice of their faith. In particular were a couple of key ideas. The first, which Paul deals with in the verses immediately preceding these, was that morality was determined by legality. In other words, if something was legal—or, better yet, wasn’t illegal—then it was moral. This helps explain v. 12. The second idea was that the body was composed of a number of different appetites. Satisfying these appetites was simply part of living. Well, guess what one of the body’s major appetites was thought to be: Food, but I know what you were thinking. Sex was thought to be another of the body’s many appetites. Paul might just as easily have said, “Sex is meant for the body and the body for sex.” What’s more (and this is what Paul is likely pointing to in the second part of v. 13), in the end, everything is going to be destroyed anyway, so it doesn’t much matter what we do here and now. Eat and drink for tomorrow we die. The church in Corinth might have Christianized this by arguing that in the resurrection, God is going to purify our bodies and make all things new so it doesn’t much matter what we to with and to our bodies here and now. Don’t tell me Corinthians isn’t relevant.
The bigger point here is that these were some of the bad ideas that had the Corinthian church in their grasp. More importantly for us, they are awfully similar to some of the bad ideas that have our culture in their grasp. The result is that we do not think about sex rightly. Bad thinking leads to bad practice. Bad practice piled on top of more bad practice has resulted in a culture that is sexually insane. We hear impassioned arguments in favor of all kinds of behaviors which a great deal of research has shown to be harmful, and yet we keep on pursuing them. Our basic approach to sexuality as a culture is that if it feels good and it isn’t hurting someone else in a way that is immediately obvious to you, it’s okay to go for it. Just like the Corinthians, we think of sex as essentially a bodily appetite and just as different people enjoy different foods and we pass no judgment on them for that, people enjoy different expressions of their sexuality and we should not pass judgment on them for it.
And yet, secular research, the Scriptures, and our consciences make clear this isn’t the right approach. So how should we think about it? If we are going to do life well when it comes to our sexuality—and again, a growing chorus of voices that harmonize in spite of coming from different choirs, argues that this really is important—how should we think about it? Well, let’s start with the rest of what Paul says here. Pick back up with me in the second half of v. 13: “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power.”
Now, Paul starts here in order to correct the error in their thinking that what happens in and to our bodies does not matter. We often fall to the other extreme of worshiping our bodies, but in many ways, we aren’t so different from them when it comes to sex. We run after all kinds of different practices as if they don’t have any impact on us. The so-called “hook up” culture that used to be confined to the college campus and which sees people using sex as a tool to determine compatibility in the way folks used to use having conversations and dating, has spilled over onto the culture at large. Pursuing sex in a lot of different ways and with a lot of different people is not nearly so uncommon as we might like to otherwise imagine. It’s not even limited to what is traditionally defined as “sex.” Parents, let me take the blinders off for a second: This kind of experimentation is particularly popular in high school and even middle school. Your kids are angels, but they’re likely going to school with a whole bunch of kids who aren’t. Again, we’ve got to talk about this—you’ve got to talk about this with them—or we’re not going to be prepared when it slaps us in the face.
Getting back on track, Paul’s point is that what happens in and to our bodies matters. We are not purely physical creatures. We are not merely highly-advanced mammals as goes the standard biology script. We are a combination of material and spiritual. And what happens to our bodies impacts our spirits. This is exactly where Paul goes next at the beginning of v. 15: “Do you not know [which, by the way, meant they didn’t know] that your bodies are members of Christ?” If you are a follower of Jesus, you are a part of Christ’s body. All of you. What’s more, when we say that, we aren’t offering up some creative metaphor for how Jesus works through us. If you have given your life to Christ, you have the Spirit of Christ dwelling in you meaning you are literally the hands and feet, the body of Christ. Where you go, Jesus goes. What you do, Jesus does.
This explains Paul’s next question: “Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know [again, they didn’t] that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” Now, hold on a minute again. This kind of seems to come out of left field. Paul’s just getting into the issue of sexual immorality and he jumps straight to prostitution? What gives? Well, one of the ways all this bad thinking about sex played itself out in Corinth was through a major temple of Aphrodite with its 1,000 sacred prostitutes who were available to give patrons a divine experience with the goddess as often as they liked. Non-Christians justified this as an act of worship, but even the Christians in Corinth would justify it with this argument that what we do in our bodies doesn’t matter. Now, we might hear that and immediately rush to judgment of them…but look around. The sex-trafficking industry is a multi-billion-dollar juggernaut. Even in the United States. And guess what one of the major trafficking superhighways is. I-95. But, even if you haven’t had any direct experience with sex-trafficking, even if you wouldn’t know where to start to seek out such an experience, if you’ve ever dabbled or even just tumbled headlong into pornography you have contributed to it. You have contributed to the exploitation, abuse, and even enslavement of young women and girls and, increasingly, young boys. The anonymity of the internet makes it feel like it isn’t hurting anybody, but that’s how the Corinthians thought. That’s thinking about sex as an appetite to be satisfied instead of a gift from God.
So what’s Paul’s advice? What do we do about this? How do we start thinking rightly about it so that we can do life well? Verse 18: “Flee from sexual immorality.” Think about that. Paul doesn’t say to resist it. He doesn’t say to face it down in order to build your resistance. He doesn’t say to fight it. He doesn’t say to stand athwart its progress in your life and shout as Gandalf did to the Balrog: “You shall not pass!” He says to run. Flee. Retreat. Head for the hills. Get out of Dodge. Don’t look back. This is not a power with which you want to tangle. It will overcome you and leave you lying in a mess trying to figure out what happened. It is far too dangerous for that. The reason for this is that it is not something that affects only our bodies or only our minds or even only our spirits. It affects us at all three levels because we are united wholes, not loosely assembled parts and pieces. And when it comes to not doing life well on the issue of sex, sin here causes breaks in more than one of our parts and pieces. It’s like the Titanic. Its builders thought for sure the ship was unsinkable because it had several different supposedly watertight compartments that could be closed off from one another such that a catastrophic failure in one compartment wouldn’t endanger the rest. They found out the hard way that they were deeply, tragically mistaken. In the same way, “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 [meaning, simply, a place where the Holy Spirit dwells] 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.”
If you are a follower of Jesus, your whole self has been purchased from the prison of sin at the cost of the life of Jesus Christ. You don’t belong to yourself any longer. We are part of Christ’s body and every decision you and I make should reflect that fact…especially the decisions we make when we think nobody is looking. As long as we think about our sexuality in terms of it being simply another appetite the body has that needs to be satisfied on a regular basis, we will behave in a manner that does not leave us ultimately fulfilled. More than even that, though, it’ll leave us hungrier and more broken than when we started. Since we’re talking about sex as an appetite, let’s shift our thinking to food for a minute. Food really is an appetite. We have to have food in order to live. But, if we eat junk all the time, while we may keep ourselves alive, we won’t be doing our bodies any favors. In fact, to just fill our bodies with junk will ultimately hurt us. Doing that for too long does damage to the body that can take years to fix. Make the jump back to the topic at hand now. Treating sex as merely an appetite probably won’t do any immediately noticeable damage the first time we do it just like eating junk food every now and then won’t hurt us. But, unlike eating junk food, which hurts the body without necessarily hurting the mind or the spirit, pursuing sex out of its proper context hurts all over. In fact, the damage done to our minds and our spirits can actually far outstrip the damage done to our bodies.
Physically, there is always the risk of sexually transmitted diseases which are actually a growing, if quiet, epidemic in our country. Recent research has found that over half of all people will have an STD at some point in their lives. Among teenagers, one in four contracts an STD every year. This is big stuff that nobody’s talking about. Do you know a surefire way to prevent that? Keep sexual behavior within its proper context. Don’t treat sex like an appetite. But physical risks are only part of the problem here.
Spiritually, treating sex like an appetite leads us to bearing a weight of guilt for pursuing sexual behavior in ways we know aren’t right. If left unresolved, that guilt can be oppressive over time. Mentally, the damage can be even more subtle, but there’s actually a ton of research showing how serious it is. Every time we engage in sexual behavior of any kind our brains are flooded with dopamine and oxytocin. Dopamine is basically a hormone that tells our brains to do whatever we just did again because it was awesome. But, kind of like our taste buds reward us for eating candy even though it isn’t good for us, dopamine doesn’t discriminate. If we do something pleasurable, the body responds with a dopamine dump. Our brains, then, call us back to whatever gave us that dopamine dump to do it again, and again, and again. You can see how that might be problematic if we get too many dopamine dumps while doing things that aren’t good. Oxytocin is a bonding hormone. When a new mom holds her baby for the first time, her brain is awash in oxytocin. It’s what causes us to sink in relationship hooks that are nearly impossible to remove. When we put sex in its proper context it is what helps a new husband and wife bond with each other; it helps them become one flesh. That’s how God designed it to work. If we treat sex like an appetite, though, and give ourselves oxytocin dumps in situations where we have no intention of building or strengthening a relationship—like, say, eating a bag of potato chips when what we really needed was a meal—our relationship forming muscle gets stretched too far—like an overused rubber band—and properly bonding with another person when the context is right becomes very difficult.
Now, lest this risk becoming simply a big exercise in finger wagging, let’s pull up here at the end and look at the big picture. Our goal here is doing life well. When it comes to sex, we have a powerful opportunity to do life incredibly well. I said it before, but let me say it again here: Our sexuality is a gift from God. He knew what He was doing when He designed it. He designed marriage to be one of the most powerful expressions of our relationship with Him and as a part of that designed sex (and I don’t just mean intercourse) to in many ways mirror the pleasure of that relationship. Sex is the engine He designed for the creation of new life. He could have designed human reproduction to happen in any kind of way and He chose that one. To put it more simply: Sex is good. It is beautiful. It is a gift. Sex is a gift, not an appetite. We need to treat it as such.
How do we do that? The same way we do with any gift: By enjoying it to the fullest within its designed context. And what’s that? Marriage (that is, a covenantal relationship between a man and a woman established by God in creation). Sex was designed for marriage. Period. It wasn’t designed for nearly marriage. It wasn’t designed for almost marriage. It wasn’t designed for playing at marriage. It certainly wasn’t designed for not marriage. It was designed as a gift for marriage. Sex is a gift, not an appetite. Within the context of marriage, as long as it involves only the husband and the wife and both are on board, the sky is pretty much the limit when it comes to pursuing our sexuality. Outside of that, not much is on the table. And if you’re not there and you want a rule of thumb here think about it like this: What would you not be okay with your future spouse reporting that he or she has done with past significant others? Whatever that is, don’t do that. Sex isn’t a free-for-all, satisfy-as-you-will appetite. It’s a gift. If you open it at the wrong time, it won’t be as good, just like getting a peak at Christmas gifts before the day arrives cheapens your enjoyment of Christmas morning. You put on a smile because that’s what you’re supposed to do, but it isn’t as exciting anymore. Sex is a gift. If you use a gift in a manner other than it was designed and intended to be used it will get broken and you won’t be able to enjoy it as fully—or at all—in the ways it was intended to be used anymore. Are you with me? Sex is a gift, not an appetite.
So what do we do? We receive this incredible gift when God gives it recognizing that while it is good, it is not the only gift He gives, it is not the thing that most defines us (nor should it be), nor is it the best gift He gives. That title is held by the eternal life and relationship with Him made possible by Jesus’ death and resurrection. When He does give it, though, again, we receive it gladly and enjoy it to its fullest. We enjoy it like the gift it is. It is not an appetite and if we treat it as such we’ll never be fully satisfied. It is a gift. Enjoy it well.