Practicing Trust: The self-giving ethos of biblical sexuality
Read a significantly expanded version of this article in the book Venus and Virtue.
Every few months—if not weeks—it happens: another Christian article on sex is published, usually lamenting some trend or event or book that is out of step with the biblical sexual ethic. One example: a cover story in Relevant magazine, "The Secret Sexual Revolution," about a study finding that the majority of "young unmarried Christians have had sex," despite a widespread belief that unmarried sex is wrong. Articles like this are not lacking in sincerity or urgency, even wisdom, but underneath is an all-too-familiar futility. After all, the typical recommendations either boil down to marrying early, trying harder to find someone (be less picky; ask your pastor to arrange singles events), trying harder at contentment (maybe you were meant for celibacy after all), or finding a way to accommodate the trend of delayed marriage ("be more realistic" was a common theme in the Relevant piece).
Hand-wringing isn't the only thing such pieces have in common; they are usually also united in a focus on what that ethic says about the boundaries for sex. Thus, a preoccupation with the single, the gay, and the unfaithful: "the root problem is the willingness to have sex before marriage," says the Relevant author (emphasis his), after noting the out-of-wedlock pregnancies and abortions that stem from unmarried Christians' sex.
What seems of less concern than these boundary transgressions is the reputation and character of the God who apparently forgot that he built his children with libidos that kick in early in life, even as marriages happen later and later and women continue to outstrip men in church attendance, if not conversion. I recently heard a claim that, in the American church anyway, single women outnumber single men by 30 percent. Frankly, I doubt we even have it the worst. I still remember the young Christian woman I met in India years ago, who asked her visiting American sisters to pray that God would provide a husband for her, because it was so difficult to find a Christian husband there. Is God big enough to provide husbands for both of us, the demographics being what they are?
Put more baldly, the implication is that God is supposed to be good (at least in the abstract), but he's neither good enough to provide sexual and relational satisfaction for those who desire it (as most healthy people do) nor big enough to address the demographical challenges facing his children in the 21st century.
Doubts about God's goodness have tested every generation in history, but in this case I submit that the church and Christian culture have contributed to the problem by an overemphasis on the boundaries of the biblical sexual ethic, at the expense of the actual ethos for treating others. Thus, the God who created sex becomes the God who says, "Don't ___."
It's the sort of emphasis that makes typical "church" teachings an easy target for writers like Jennifer Wright Knust, whose recent book Unprotected Texts ruffled many feathers with its claim that the Bible has virtually nothing clear or consistent to say about sex (a position based, in part, on a determined conflation of reportage with endorsement).
Though Knust writes from the perspective of a Baptist minister, in many ways she also speaks for those outside the church who recoil at how the Bible is used to talk about sex and justify certain positions. Little wonder Christians are rarely invited to join the broader discussion about sexual mores in our society, and any involvement in helping to teach and bracket sexuality for our communities' most vulnerable—the young—is so often met with suspicion and outright hostility.
But what if we recovered the more positive aspects of the biblical sexual ethic, paying attention to the God who says, "Do this, not that"? When Jesus told his disciples that they should be known for the quality of their love, he did not give them a pass on how they showed love in sexual relations. If we are called to strive for self-giving, self-denying, other-serving love in general, then this must surely apply as much to sexuality as to hospitality and friendship.
What would recovering this aspect of the biblical sexual ethic look like? It would undoubtedly mean a shift in teaching and writing. But hopefully it would also mean far more than that. Ideas only go so far—and when it comes to sex, they often don't go far at all. That's because, as James K. A. Smith argues in his provocative book Desiring the Kingdom, "worldview"-focused responses to sin are usually doomed from the start because they misapprehend the nature of our humanity. They assume that we are primarily thinking beings whose problems can be corrected either by correcting our thinking or by trying harder to think the right thoughts.
But as Smith vividly conveys, the most powerful forces at work on us—all the more potent for the stealth with which they operate—are anything but ideas. They don't win because they have the most persuasive arguments for our brains. They win because they're embedded in highly embodied practices. As Smith puts it,
"While the mall, Victoria's Secret, and Jerry Bruckheimer are grabbing hold of our gut (kardia) by means of our body and its senses—in stories and images, sights and sound, and commercial versions of 'smells and bells'—the church's response is oddly rationalist. It plunks us down in a 'worship' service, the culmination of which is a forty-five-minute didactic sermon, a sort of holy lecture, trying to convince us of the dangers by implanting doctrines and beliefs in our minds …. While secular liturgies are after our hearts through our bodies, the church thinks it only has to get into our heads. While Victoria's Secret is fanning a flame in our kardia, the church is trucking water to our minds."
This, I would respectfully submit, is why so much of the church's teaching on sexuality has failed to accomplish its aim—greater submission to God in this part of our lives—and why each new hand-wringing piece, even if it runs to the length of a book, does little better. Content-dumps have little effectiveness in a general pedagogical sense, much less when their aim is to constrain some of the most deeply embodied desires in life.
If Smith is right, as I think he is, and it is actually practices, habits, liturgies (in his parlance) that have the most power to shape our daily lives and even beliefs (though their true shape may often be hidden from us until a situation where our actions spell a surprising manifesto), what then are the practices that cultivate and foster in us, the body of God, a more distinctively loving sexuality? What are the practiceswe, the church, might take up—or resume—to encourage greater bodily obedience to God in our sexuality? Here are a few ideas to start with.
Fasting. For those wrestling with sexual self-control and restraint, fasting is a powerful, physical reminder of the importance of sometimes denying even our most basic desires.
Why link the two? For me it began about three years ago, when I joined a growing group of people, connected by an email list, who fast and pray every Monday about marriage and singleness: that God would provide marriage for those who desire it or should be married, and that he would change men and women as we need to be changed vis-a-vis relational brokenness. Since then, I've gotten pretty good at being hungry, but the prayer has been a persistent struggle. Even so, it has been a powerful, palpable way to offer my body to God and remember that it belongs first to him and not to me.
Living in community. During a living-room discussion about sex and the church that one of my pastors hosted last year, longing for connection was a repeated theme. Yet, in my experience, typical adult living arrangements often serve to increase a sense of loneliness. Living alone or with only one housemate does not provide much sense of family, much less the continued character formation afforded by close living relationships. For the past four years, I've shared a house with two to three other women and one man, an arrangement that has given me a sense of brothers and sisters while also continually challenging me to work through the frictions and tensions of close relationships. Overall, it has been an incredibly rich experience to have that ongoing practice, working through differing values around issues like cleanliness and noise, and learning to love others not in what feels most comfortable to me but in what most makes them feel loved.
Cooking for the church. One of the things I miss most about having a family is being able to cook for them the way my mother did for us when we were growing up. Participating in my church's meals service for families with new babies or other needs, as well as in a community group that shares meals together, gives me a chance to cook on that larger scale. I may not have my own biological family to cook for, but in many ways I am getting to cook for my family. And through this practice, food becomes a tangible, embodied reminder that God sets all of us in families. The form of that family may change over time, but his provision for our relational needs does not.
Participating in multigenerational (mixed life-stage) groups. Over the last eight years, I've been part of four or five different community groups, all of which combined singles and young families. In each case, this diversity has been a huge blessing that both reminds me of the challenges of family life and childrearing (undermining any tendency to romanticize that life season!) and gives me a chance to experience family, even if I don't have my own kids. At the same time, this contact has shown me ways that I can use my greater flexibility and free time to sometimes help share the load of my friends with kids—which (see just below) can also be accomplished in a church setting.
Sharing the childcare burden. Another small but very practical way that my church pulls parents and singles alike into the needs and sense of congregation-as-family is by assigning all formal members to serve in the nursery once per quarter, more frequently if the member is also a parent served by the childcare services.
Actively remembering God's faithfulness. This is not something I have yet seen or participated in to the degree I suspect the church should practice, but the Bible—especially the Old Testament—seems to place a real emphasis on storytelling and active remembering of the faithfulness of God. This practice in particular reinforces our trust in God, especially when we're most discouraged and doubtful. I'm not sure I would have made it this far in my often-reluctant chastity (I'm 33) if not for a dramatic experience of God's kind intervention 11 years ago, which gave me a taste of what's possible when I am out of control and he is in control. What he did that day, though it did not turn out how I thought it would, was a powerful repudiation of the ever-seductive, ever-destructive lie that God does not know best, that the path away from his will is somehow better. On that day, years ago, I had a taste of the truth that God knows better, and though I've never quite forgotten it, how I need to be reminded, again and again, to tell and retell that story.
These are just a few suggestions of practical ways our churches might recover more of the self-giving ethos of biblical sexuality. We need a much larger and longer conversation about what we have to offer our communities and each other and how we can grow in trusting God with our bodies—not just in word, but in practice.
Copyright © 2012 by Anna Broadway. This article first appeared in the January/February 2012 issue of Books and Culture.