Yesterday, I wrote a post about some implications of Advent on sex. And, of course, I stressed the goodness and beauty and transcendance of that act as God intended it.
And it was one of my least read posts in a long time. I’m wondering if people are tired of hearing Christians talk about sex ad nauseam.
It is my humble opinion that the American Church right now is currently obsessed with sex. Well, to be fair, it’s always been obsessed with it; but now, it seems, the obsession is with “taking it back” and yelling and screaming about how Christians are just as sex-crazed, sex-eager, and sexually exciting as the most ardent secular hedonist.
Of course, they all qualify it by saying (as I even said yesterday) that this (oh my god really amazing Christian sex that we value so much) has to be “within the confines of marriage”. And so, this sex-obsession often expresses itself in an equal obsession with marriage. Preparing people for it, encouraging people towards it, beating up guys that aren’t “pursuing” women (or at least “preparing to”), and giving women tips on how to attract a “good, godly husband.”
And yet, yesterday, when I was thinking about the Advent of God into the world in the person of Jesus Christ, and the idea of the Incarnation, I realized something:
What is the story of Advent but the story of a virgin girl who has a virgin birth of a man who will remain a virgin his whole life?
The story of the Incarnation is, relatively speaking, one of the most “sex-less” stories in the Bible.
Sex played no part (almost conspicuously so) in any of the most important events in history–events that are the basis of the most intimate self-definitions of humans. And so, it seems that sex and marriage* play no essential role in the most important parts of who we are or in how we define ourselves. What ultimately defines us are things and events that had nothing to do with marriage or sex.
What I get from this is that sex and marriage are incidental, not essential to the human experience and life to the fullest. It is “extra” and, in a sense, an optional “add on” to humanity. Yes, single people long for it, and yes, it offers very deep intimacy and knowledge of another, but how many times do single people have to hear married people tell them that it comes with its own set of deep losses, pains, and struggles before they will start to simply relax? Sex and marriage are not essential to human life.
Singleness, however, is essential, not incidental. And by “essential” I mean in the philosophical sense of our very essence as humans. Singleness is how we come into the world, it’s the state in which most of our growth takes place, and it’s how we leave the world. It’s much closer to who we are as humans than marriage is.
No matter how much two married people have sex or have decades together, the other person will, to some extent, still be a Mysterious Other to them. This “oneness” we truly long for is not known in this life; it’s merely a shadow. If we put the expectation of “essential-ness” on sex and marriage (which Evangelicals often do), I fear we set people up for more marital failure than joy.
Learning to be a healthy and mature single person is much closer to becoming a healthy and mature human-being in general than endlessly obsessing over becoming a wife or husband (of any degree of health or maturity). When pastors equally obsess over this on behalf of their flock, I’m starting to think it actually stunts the growth and flourishing of the humanity and lives of their people.
Yes, sex and marriage are beautiful (as I said yesterday). It is an essential picture of Christ’s love for His People, lived out among them. I fully believe we all need marriage as an integral part of our lives, even if we’re not the ones in it. We need to see good marriages that are self-sacrificial and honest. We need a diversity of people in a diversity of relationship statuses living life deeply with one another.
But we need to remember that sex is dangerous. Most every of Jesus’ interactions with the idea of sex during his life was in the midst of picking up the pieces of broken sexuality. I can’t think of any time that Jesus acts or speaks about sex, or even marriage, in its goodness. He talks about lusting, divorce, re-marriage, fornication, adultery, but you have to go to other New Testament writers to see Christians extol the beauties and goodness of sex.
Yes, I believe Jesus believed in the goodness and beauty of sex and marriage, and that there was a way to do both those things healthily and lovingly. But this is mostly theory, and I think that even the healthiest married couples experience these “ideals” only in moments or maybe even seasons, and it’s not the default mode of their existence together.
But Jesus came to address reality, not simply theory, and sex in its reality is something full of power–and it’s a power that very often hurts and destroys. It’s not some experience that “singles” should giddily be obsessed with getting. Nor is it an experience pastors should obsess over from the pulpit.
Christians need to re-gain their place and value of celibacy and chastity (here’s a book to help us start). There needs to be a healthy place in Christian communities for those to lament their own lack of that earthly shadow of intimacy, but also be supported and loved, not as second-class members of the community. There should be elders and pastors in Protestant churches that are single and celibate. (As I’ve written before, this can also help the Church’s response to homosexual brothers and sisters.)
We need to be reminded that celibacy is an expression of our sexuality, and not a repression of it. It takes activity, strength, discipline, and effort to act celibately rather than sexually (perhaps even more effort). This needs acknowledgement and celebration.
Advent shows us that when God came to accomplish all that is most essential for joy, life, community, and love, his physical body came into the world, lived, and left it with neither marriage nor sex as an integral part of it. I hope this might offer encouragement and strength to many of us in the Church to do the same.
[image credit: “Le Pardon (Forgiveness)” by Istvan Sandorfi]