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Let’s All be Lazy Now

September 19, 2011

Some time ago I read the transcript from a sermon in which the pastor addressed sexual ethics. He started by addressing the men in the congregation. He explained that he understood that they all had pretty powerful sexual urges and that many of them were probably sexually attracted to the women in the congregation, but then spoke strongly against simply acting on those desires. Instead, he explained, Christians believe that sex is reserved for marriage. These men should, he said, pursue relationships with women in the congregation in order to get married but they shouldn’t jump the gun. Sex needed to wait until marriage and then you could more or less let the tiger off the leash.

Now, the core of this message, that Christians have long insisted that sex is reserved for marriage, is just fine with me. Perhaps one day I’ll explain my own arguments for this stance but that day isn’t today unless you’re extremely good at reading between the lines. However, there’s a lot to object to in the message. First, and rather obviously, the pastor acted as if men have sex drives and women don’t. Second, he bought into a cultural premise that simply isn’t Christian.

The first error is also the first cultural import. American culture seems to have two models of sexuality. In one, men have raging sex drives while women basically don’t care and so men have to convince women to have sex with them. At worst this is a predatory model – men are predators and women are prey – and at best it’s a business model – men trade women something to get sex (which is basically a way of saying that all women are prostitutes). The second model really isn’t much better since it simply takes bad behavior in men and lets women do the same. In fact, this is a fairly consistent theme which I will know that I will hit on again: our culture frequently tends to create equality through mutually assured destruction, not, as the Bible asks of us, disarmament. As I’ve probably just made clear, I don’t think that the second model is a good solution to the first. “Everyone has knives” may be better than “only the criminals have knives” but it’s still a world of suspicion and war. Similarly, “everyone can be sexually predaceous” is equal but awful.

The second error is the much larger cultural import. In our culture we tend to regard sex as an inevitable and powerful drive, akin to hunger or thirst. It’s not something we generally feel we can confront or contain. This is exactly the model adopted here: the men in question were told to contain their sex drives until marriage. There wasn’t any real suggestion that they could reign them in or scale them back.

Let’s use a metaphor here: sex drives are like wild horses. The answer provided in the sermon was to drive the horses into a corral where they could bite, kick, and trample without hurting anyone. When it comes to horses a smarter answer is to tame them. And, of course, that’s just where I’m headed with sex drives. The long history of the church has been to regard all drives as subject to control. Is one’s sex drive like hunger and thirst? Probably not – you die if you don’t eat or drink – but even so there’s a long, long history of fasting from food and drink (and, of course, a very long tradition of celibate Christians.)

The focus of our culture tends to be on outward actions. We tend to regard who we are as something that simply is without any input from us. When we give advice to people it tends to be to act differently, not to be different. And yet Christianity is about both. Right action stems from (and fosters) right character. It’s important not to murder but the best way not to murder is to avoid being murderous.

This sort of cultural import is fairly subtle. I suspect some of you noticed it in the first paragraph but that’s because you’re good readers. A lot of people don’t. However, once I pull the cultural import out and ask the question, “Does Christianity teach that sex drives cannot be contained?” it becomes pretty obvious that there’s something fishy about that.

Of course, if you don’t practice the sort of self-discipline that is aimed at changing or gaining control of your desires then asking you to discipline your outcomes will be pretty hard. Simply put, if you don’t discipline your sexuality (or greed, or hunger, or what have you) so that you are in charge of it rather than it being in charge of you you’ll find it quite hard to even contain your sexuality to any set of parameters that don’t naturally come to you. Given this, it’s not surprising that someone in this position might find the thought of gaining more complete control completely ridiculous. If you have a horse so wild you can barely herd it into a corral how are you ever going to get it to do anything more complicated? You’d start by training the horse not to do any particular task but just to listen to you. You’d tame it. Then, once it was tame, you could train it to do whatever complicated task you wanted.

Obviously, part of this article is a call to think seriously about self-discipline. Damage control is the lazy option. The serious answer is to reform ourselves, through the power of Christ, so that we don’t need damage control standing by. However, there’s at least one other main point here: it’s really easy to pick up ideas from the world around us without even realizing what’s happened. The battle of explicit statements is just the surface. We need to learn not just to think Christian things but to think like Christians, and we need to think that the task of thinking in a Christian manner extends to all corners of our world.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 19, 2011 11:07 am

    The MAD/disarmament metaphor is a great way of phrasing that description of interpersonal politics. Despite the trouble and frustration it can cause, it’s easy to convince ourselves that playing with power and control is a necessary (or even fun) part of life. The analogy of nuclear war makes it harder to maintain that illusion.

    I think this line of thought doesn’t just support laziness, it supports judging others rather than judging their actions. To be fair, it’s not common for people to change, but “damage control morality” provides a mindset that doesn’t allow them even that possibility. (We can, of course, convince ourselves that we can rein in our bad habits, and that makes us exempt.)

  2. Eric permalink
    September 19, 2011 8:35 pm

    That does seem to be a worrisome aspect of that view. In this case I’m mostly concerned with how we view ourselves and how we think we can change but I think it’s also valid to worry about how we extend these ideas to others.

  3. September 19, 2011 9:38 pm

    I think at issue is the focus. Why should you spend your life so focused on taming urges or finding sexual gratification? That would lead to an obsession whether you end up having sex or not. I would think as a Christian, the goal would be to turn sexuality into a spiritual endeavor, and to do so, start by viewing your spouse as a soul and your intimacy as a merging of souls. Anything can feel moderately good (e.g. eating candy, casual sex, etc), but as a Christian, shouldn’t we be looking at the bigger picture? It’s not about getting married just to have sex or to exchange marriage for sex, but to experience sex in the way God intended. You know what I mean? To experience the depth and complexity and intimacy beyond that which we believe ourselves to be capable.

    If we do that, it takes the casual, instant gratification part out of sex and makes it a far more intense experience that becomes a lifelong progression.

  4. Eric permalink
    September 20, 2011 9:26 am

    I think the short answer is that you can’t do anything worthwhile with these drives while they still possess the power to boss you around. The only way out of this is to tame them. If you don’t they’ll always be there telling you what to do in loud voices. If you start to try and tame them you’ll also be very focused on those urges for a while but, eventually, you won’t need to pay attention to them.

    When you fast there’s a period where food is more of an obsession than when you are eating regularly. However, if you grit your teeth and get through that you’re free. I generally find the beginning of the second day of a fast the hardest and then it starts becoming easier. And the first time you fast it’s harder than the second, and so on. Sooner or later fasting isn’t a big deal.

    Once you have the discipline required to stop acting on a given drive you can then rearrange it. Let’s assume that you intend to, as you suggest, make sex a spiritual endeavor. One thing to avoid, then, would be to objectifying your spouse, making them into a tool to satisfy your need. This requires control, though. If you can step back from these desires then you should have the power to say, “This is acceptable, this is not.” If you don’t have that power it will be a lot harder to get anywhere with reconfiguring your approach to sex.

    In fact, across the board discipline is freedom. Without discipline you can only do what you lack the willpower not to do. With discipline you can choose what you think is best and do that. I intend to expand on this at some point.

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