Friday, May 26, 2006

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 15

[We come now to our consideration of The Sixth Commandment, "You shall not commit adultery." Instead of writing something new, I've decided to print a re-run--with minor modifications--of a message I first presented on October 26, 2003. I hope that you find it helpful.]

True story I’ve told before. I heard it from an intensive care unit nurse twenty-four years ago and it’s stuck with me. An elderly retired pastor named Henry was under this nurse’s care. He’d had a long stay in the unit. Henry was one of those brave followers of Christ who endured adversity and dying with cheerfulness and was always grateful for any kindness the hospital staff showed him. His condition had declined sharply and now it was clear that he could die at any time. For several hours, he had been in a somewhat comatose state. Nobody was sure if he could hear them when they spoke to him. But they kept talking to him, trying to tell him how much they loved him.

The hours in an intensive care unit, at the bedside of a loved one can be excruciatingly long, you know. Henry’s wife and children had stepped out for a few moments and the nurse decided to go to Henry’s side. She remembered how much Henry loved to sing. She also knew his favorite song. And so softly, she began to sing to Henry: “Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.”

At that, the nurse was shocked to see Henry open his eyes, lift his head off his pillow, look into her face, and tell her, “And don’t you ever forget it, either!” And with that, Henry fell back onto the bed and died.

As we look at this subject of God and the powerful force of our sexuality, like Henry we need to never forget that the God we know through Jesus Christ loves us.

That’s because there are times when we may chafe under God’s will on this subject.

And there may be other times when we feel burdened by guilt for the things we feel, think, do, or have done with our sexuality.

But God, the God Who first thought up and created sex, does love us. He wants what’s best for us. He wants to forgive us when we go wrong and He wants to help us to enjoy this gift. And don’t you ever forget that!

Once, my wife, some of our friends, and I went to the Tall Stacks Festival on the Ohio River. We spent a long time on the Purple People Bridge, looking at the paddlewheel boats and at the river itself. A river is a terrific thing, another invention of God. A river can provide people with drinking water, with a means of transportation, with recreation.

But, as theologian Richard Foster points out, when a river overflows, trouble happens. Houses and businesses can be damaged or destroyed. Crops can be wiped out. A river doesn’t seem so wonderful when it moves past its banks, its proscribed boundaries.

According to the Bible, which deals with the subject of sex a lot and more frankly than most Christians even know, sex is like a river. When we use our sexuality within the boundaries created for it by God, sex also is a good and beautiful thing. But when misused, sex can hurt and destroy and disrupt people’s lives. That’s why Proverbs 5:15-16 tells husbands:
Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well. Should your springs be scattered abroad, streams of water in the streets?...
We live in a culture in which sex is pouring over its banks constantly. Recently, my wife, daughter, and I started working out at Gold’s Gym. I like it a lot. But one of the things I find a little tiresome is the constant diet of music videos showing on most of the TVs there. I wish I could tell all the producers, directors, artists, and composers who create music videos that there is more to life–and more even to our sexuality–than the middle regions of the human body.

Paraphrasing and updating an observation once made by C.S. Lewis, if an alien from another planet came to earth and spent one hour watching our TV shows, including the commercials, that alien would conclude that something had gone seriously wrong with the human appetite for sex.

It’s this overwrought appetite for things sexual that makes God’s guidance on this subject so important. So what does God tell us are the ways for sex to remain within its boundaries and be the good thing it was meant to be?

First: We need to remember that sex is a good thing, created by God.

If you look at the first of two creation accounts that appear in the Old Testament book of Genesis, you’ll find God creating new things for each of six days. At the end of each of the first five days, God looks at His creation and says, “That’s good.”

But then on the sixth day, God creates human beings in His image. The Bible also makes a point of saying that God created the first humans “male and female.” At the end of that day, God declared that everything was “very good.” God made men and women to complement each other, to have the potential for becoming, both physically and emotionally, “one flesh.” That's a very good thing!

Second: According to the Bible, God didn’t just create sexuality so that we humans could make babies.

While the Bible does make clear that sex is only to happen between a man and a woman committed to one another in lifelong marriage, it isn’t meant to be used just to populate the planet. Some historians tell us that the notion that our sexuality was only to be about making babies first started in the Church with a man named Augustine. Augustine was a wonderful theologian and preacher and Christian example in many ways. But when it comes to sex, he may have felt so guilty about his past sexual philandering--regretful over how sex had once been in control of his life--that he just decided that sex was a bad thing.

One of my favorite Biblical passages on this subject comes from the story of Abraham and Sarah. That couple, you remember, were chosen by God to be the ancestors of the Israelite people. Into the nation of Israel the Savior Jesus was to be born. But there couldn’t be a nation of Israel if Abraham and Sarah didn’t have kids. Sarah had gone through menopause years before. When she hears God promise Abraham that she will still have a baby, she laughs, and asks, “After all these years, my husband and I old, am I going to have pleasure with my husband.”

Intrigued by that passage, I asked a Hebrew scholar about it. He confirmed my suspicions: The pleasure to which Sarah referred wasn’t just the pleasure of having a child. She was also talking about the pleasure of being sexually united with her husband. (I’m not making this stuff up! The Bible is full of not just good counsel about our sexuality, but appreciative celebrations of it.) God made us sexual beings for our enjoyment.

By the way, the pleasure of our sexuality doesn't derive only from having sexual intimacy with a husband or wife. Genesis says that we have been created as sexual beings. There are things that are unique to men and women. Each are different in many ways. From these differences, there comes a certain energy that doesn't exist in relationships with persons of our own gender. With the French I say, "Vive la difference!"

In his book, The Friendship Factor, Alan Loy McGinnis describes a relationship he enjoyed with a female friend of his. McGinnis was in his forties at the time and his friend was in her eighties. They had dinner together periodically. He talked about the fact that while there was no chance that the two of them would be sexually intimate, the presence of sexual energy between them was undeniable.

I remember talking with a young pastor, then in his thirties. He said that he was headed for the Bible study he did with the seventy-something women of his congregation. "They flirt with me, Mark," he told me. "They tease me about being a young man who enjoys an intimate relationship with a beautiful wife. It's all very innocent and chaste. But they flirt with me. And they love it when I flirt back."

Because God has made us male and female, there can be a wonderful and innocent complemantarity that happens between men and women even when there is nothing sexual in their relationship. God just made us that way. It's like the old saying, "God made us Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." To ignore that reality would be naive! As long as people are careful about not allowing things to rush over the river banks, it's okay to appreciate our differences.

Third: God created sexual intimacy as the sign and seal of a married couple’s love for each other. In his book, Struggling with Sex, Arthur Rouner tells the story of a married couple who had come to him for counseling. They reported being intensely frustrated with their sexual relationship. In fact, their sexual relationship had ground to a halt. They were even beginning to wonder if they would remain married.

As Rouner talked with the couple, he learned that before they were married, they both had numerous partners. Sex wasn’t a sign of commitment and love; it had no real significance to them. It was something you might do with a virtual stranger after you watched a movie.

They had drained their sexuality of its meaning before they were married and so once they were married, there was no romance, no commitment, no fun, no passion, no love in their intimacy. Fortunately, over time, Rouner was able to help this couple put their lives–their whole lives--under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. They learned to appreciate that sexual intimacy is only for married couples. And they found the excitement and joy that belongs to married couples who have made their sexual intimacy a sign and a seal of their commitment to one another.

Fourth: No matter what mistakes we have made with our sexuality in the past, God can forgive us.

This, in fact, may be the most important point that I make today.

In his book, The Pursuit of Holiness, author Jerry Bridges tells about something that he has often said when speaking with college audiences. Imagine, he tells them, that we could somehow display all of the thoughts you’ve had for the last twenty-four hours on this big screen up here. As the audience members begin to think about some of the things they’ve thought, they begin to laugh nervously.

Fact is, all of us are sinners. And Jesus says that to even look upon a person lustfully, because sexual sin begins in our minds, is the same as physically misusing sex. When you consider that, you realize it's true. Adultery doesn't begin with a physical act. Rivers overflow their banks gradually. The water rises until at last, it encroaches on the land around it.

Adultery begins with a more-than-admiring glance. An inappropriate comment. A far too intimate secret shared. A lingering touch. Obsessive thoughts. Each of those things may seem harmless enough in themselves. But unless we put our minds and bodies under God's control, taken together, the flood will begin and so will the destruction to marriages, relationships, and our very souls!

Because adultery begins in our minds, Jesus tells us, we’re all guilty. Yet, there is something else we need to realize...the very fact with which I began this message: the God we know through Jesus Christ loves us. No matter what our sins, we can turn to God and receive forgiveness and the ability to say no to future sin and yes to God’s way of living life!

I once saw a commercial on TV. The product being sold was whole-house heating, furnaces. How did they try to sell their furnaces? Sex.

A mantra of the advertising industry is, "Sex sells." If sex can be used to sell something as mundane as furnaces, it must be powerful.

But powerful as it may be, sex is only good when we let God be in charge of our sexuality.

So, four things I hope you’ll remember:
  • Sex is a good thing created by God.
  • God created sex not just so married couples could have children, but so they could bring one another pleasure.
  • God made sex to be a sign and seal of lifelong marital commitment.
  • And, when we violate God’s will–whether in thought, word, or deed–we need to remember that God loves us and through Jesus Christ, He can forgive us and help us to rededicate our whole lives to following Him.

1 comment:

Charlie said...

Sexuality must be the most complex of human interactions. You didn't speak about unmarried sex, not that you had to. But you've said some good things that hint at why it's troublesome.

It isn't just the fact that children need committed parents, which is part of it. With modern birth control, we can pretty much eliminate the "risk" of pregnancy.

But from a purely sexual point of view, sexuality is an act of utter trust, complete giving and honest openness between two people, an emotional investment that is not at all purely an act of pleasure-seeking. Adultery, promiscuity, casual sexual liaisons all force sex to be about pleasure only, and rob it of that emotional investment.

Which horribly distorts it, and at the same time horribly distorts us and our ideas about what sexuality is all about and who we are as human beings. By cutting off the emotional investment, we become shallow, and our sexual encounters are shallow and superficial.

A good subject for additional posts. Good work, Mark.