Sex: Having It and Not Having It

Sex is a big deal in our culture. Never before have we been more exposed to sex in advertising, on television and on campus. Sprite says, “Obey Your Thirst,” while Nike tells us to “Just Do It.” So how do we remain faithful to God in a highly sexualized culture?

Sex may loom large all around us, but in reality we have diminished it from God's original intention, making it smaller and less significant. We see the devaluing of sex through changes in our language.

One of the earliest terms about sexual intercourse is "to know" from the Bible. It's a relational, intimate word. Think about what it means to know someone. There’s facial recognition for sure, but people are complex. Someone’s actions may be fairly evident, but what does it take to know that person's feelings and values underlying those actions? Knowing someone deeply requires an intimacy greater than just the act of sexual intercourse.

But we don’t use that term for sex anymore. The sexual revolution of the late 60s and 70s gave us “making love”—a manufacturing term. We focused on perfecting technique and The Joy of Sex was published, full of diagrams of nuanced positions and a subtitle, “A Gourmet Guide to Love Making.”

Today we have moved language again to “have sex” — a consumerist phrase, like “have dinner, or “have a new pair of jeans.” It’s more about me and my needs than it is about you. In some circles it has become crass—“to get some”—but this sounds like consumer take-out.

If sex has become as prevalent as vending machines in the student union, it can make you feel like you’re some kind of freak if you’re not sexually involved. It can feel shameful to be a virgin, even if you are a Christian and believe sex is reserved for marriage. 

The waters are especially painful to navigate if you are Christian and gay or same-sex attracted. What camp do you belong in? Christians often have a hard time accepting folks who have a homosexual orientation. Many in the LGBTQ community might feel skeptical of your allegiance. When the culture is encouraging you to “Express Yourself,” how does one choose to be faithful to God? And what does that look like?

Being straight and married, I may not be the most helpful voice at this point. But let me recommend Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting (Zondervan, 2010). This exceptional book is not just for those who are same-sex attracted. I believe Hill has vitally important things to say to heterosexual Christians about choosing chastity in a hyper-sexualized culture. Wesley Hill is a New Testament scholar and teaches at Trinity School for Ministry near Pittsburgh, PA. He is bright, winsome, engaging and also a celibate gay Christian.

Wes draws on much from his own life as he reflects on how gay Christians can remain faithful to God while struggling with homosexual orientation and also supporting an orthodox, traditional view of marriage (one woman and one man). He speaks of the loneliness in choosing celibacy and the blessing of community. Along with Ron Belgau, Wes started a blog, Spiritual Friendship, which I read frequently. Wes and Ron move beyond the polarizing and politicizing rhetoric of gay marriage rights to say that, for Christians, “marriage is not the only way of life God calls us to.” I wish this blog had been around when I was in my 40s and struggling with singleness and loneliness.

Hill’s story is full of episodes and seasons of pain and loneliness, as well as joy and elation. The former we try to avoid as much as possible. And our avoidance often leads us to do things we regret: a hook up, sleeping with a girlfriend/boyfriend, pornography, sex that wasn’t planned, a chat room. 

Wes helped me as he wrote so poignantly about faithfulness in the face of suffering. A friend said to him:

“Imagine yourself standing in the presence of God, looking down from heaven on the earthly life you’re about to be born into, and God says to you, ‘Wes, I’m going to send you into the world for sixty or seventy or eighty years. It will be hard. In fact, it will be more painful and confusing and distressing than you can now imagine. You will have a thorn in your flesh, a homosexual orientation that is the result of your entering a world that sin and death have broken, and you may wrestle with it all your life. But I will be with you. I will be watching every step you take, guiding you by my Spirit, supplying you with grace sufficient for each day. And at the end of your journey, you will see my face again, and the joy we share then will be born out of the agonies you faithfully endured by the power I gave you.  And no one will take that joy—that solid resurrection joy, which, if you experienced it now, would crush you with its weight—away from you.’” (p. 78)

Can we live this way as Christians? Can we live faithfully and boldly in the world, refusing to bend to the world’s (lack of) standards? Can we check and submit our thirst, rather than obey it? Can we commit to chastity, so that we can be warm and hospitable to everyone?

Can we act, not just believe, as if God is enough?

What do you think?

About the Author
Assistant Regional Director

Carolyn M. Carney is Assistant Regional Director for Spiritual Formation & Prayer in NY/NJ Region. Carolyn has worked with InterVarsity for over 30 years, including two years in South Africa. She serves locally and nationally, influencing the work in Spiritual Formation, Prayer and Discipleship. Nationally, she serves on the Discipleship Steering Committee where she provides leadership for the development of resources in the area of Sexuality and Relational Health. She lives in Jersey City with her husband, David.