She blurted an answer… and then blushed. What a shame.

We know a couple getting married this weekend. They’ve been chaste but when the bride blurted “I can’t wait to have sex with him!” eyebrows went up. She blushed, but shouldn’t have. She was sharing the graphic gospel. It says the essence of chastity is not tamping down desire but rather turning it all the way up.

Chastity is as popular today as a pork pie in a synagogue. Surveys indicate only 12 percent of Americans abstain from sex before marriage. Christians don’t do much better. Only 20 percent of believers are chaste. Ironically, evangelicals participating in abstinence programs do worse. Only 12 percent remain chaste. This higher failure rate is reminiscent of the downbeat Fido Dog Food sales meeting. The manager tried to rally his people, asking, “Who has the most nutritious dog food?” They replied, “We do!” He asked, “Who has the largest marketing budget?” The salespeople sang out, “We do!” Then the manager lowered his voice. “Why then, out of 27 dog food companies, are we # 26?” Silence. A small voice spoke up. “Because dogs don’t like it.”

It seems the more that evangelicals learn how abstinence is healthy, the less they like it. It’s not ironic however. It’s the natural result of a double-edged sword cutting to smithereens our society’s understanding of sexuality. One edge of the blade is a pornographic culture. The other edge is a “two-chapter” disembodied gospel.

Pornography is in the lust business. It assumes lust is all there is and ever will be – it’s humanity’s essential operating platform. The historic Christian tradition doesn’t deny the reality of lust but defines it as sin. Sin is not all there is or ever has been. It’s a corruption of God’s good creation. Sin is like rust, a composite corruption of iron and oxygen. Lust is a corruption of a good drive called desire.

The other edge of the sword is a modern gospel. A “two-chapter” gospel assumes humanity is essentially sinful. Wrong. We are first image-bearers of God. We screwed up and became sinners. A disembodied gospel assumes we think our way through the world – “think right, act right.” Wrong. As Calvin College professor James K. A. Smith correctly notes, “We feel our way around our world more than we think our way through it.”1 We operate by desire. A “two-chapter” disembodied gospel doesn’t understand the essence of humanity or our essential drive. It yields Christians who have difficulty distinguishing between desire and lust.

These Christians, mainly evangelicals, are taught little about the goodness of desire. Porn pockmarks their lives, so they tend to assume sexual desires are lustful. The antidote is to try turning down the dial of lust – abstaining from pre-marital sex. It doesn’t work. They are actully turning down the dial of desire. This is why, among the major religious groups, evangelicals are the least likely to anticipate that sex will be pleasurable, writes Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin.2

But this doesn’t fully explain why evangelicals in abstinence programs become less chaste. The Apostle Paul knew why. “The law was added so that sin might increase” (Rom. 5:20). While God’s grace surpasses sin, efficacious grace has to get under the skin. A “two-chapter” disembodied gospel has trouble doing this. The “disembodied” part is rooted in the Western Enlightenment. It overlooks the body and focuses on the brain. Hence, most abstinence programs cram kids’ craniums with facts that they hope override their feelings. This approach actually increases the law. The inevitable result is that sin increases – which is why the failure rate for evangelicals in abstinence programs increases from 80 to 88 percent.

The solution is our bodily desires must be turned all the way up. We are fundamentally desiring creatures – not thinking or worldview beings. “The Protestant tradition has taken on board a picture of the human person that owes more to modernity and the Enlightenment,” writes Smith, “than it does to a holistic, biblical vision of human persons.”3 The biblical vision for people assumes desires derive from our design and destiny. We are designed to be the bride of Christ and destined to consummate this union with him. Turning up this flame of holy desire is the only way to burn away the dross of lust, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wisely noted. “The essence of chastity is not the suppression of lust but the total orientation of one’s life toward a goal.”

That goal is graphically depicted in a statue of Teresa of Avila. It shows her moaning in ecstasy – what she experienced in anticipation of “nuptial union” with Christ. Teresa, like our friend the expectant bride, couldn’t wait to consummate her marriage to Christ, her groom. Have you ever seen a believer emote this erotically about eternity with God? Evangelicals duped by a disembodied gospel are unlikely to. They might even find it vulgar. It’s not. It’s virtuous. Jesus wants his bride to desire him a lot.

In his sermon “The Weight of Glory”, C. S. Lewis said we desire too little – not too much. “Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

John Donne didn’t want to fall prey to being too easily pleased. In his poem “Batter My Heart,” he pled to the Father, Son, and Spirit to “enthrall” him. Otherwise, he “never shall be free, nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.” Donne turned the dial of desire all the way up. It’s the best avenue to abstinence and, as it turns out, the best foundation for a healthy marriage. That’s why our blurting bride shouldn’t blush. This couple is more likely to enjoy an enthralling wedding night as well as a flourishing marriage.

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1 James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), p. 57.
2 Margaret Talbot, “Red Sex, Blue Sex: Why do so many evangelical teen-agers become pregnant?” The New Yorker, November 3, 2008, pp. 64-69.
3 Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, p. 31.

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5 Responses to “Graphic Novel (pt. 6)”

  1. Keith Moore says:

    Excellent. It was the Lewis’ “Weight of Glory” essay many years ago that helped me re-orient my understanding of the gospel. Just before the portion you quoted he wrote – “We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses and follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.”

  2. Gerard says:

    Thanks for putting into everyday language how the improper use of the law actually stirs up sinful desires rather than controlling them.

    My questions is how do we turn up the dial of our desires for our Bridegroom without living by our emotions or adopting a lifestyle of living from one emotional experience to another?

    I hope my question makes sense as I have tried to be thoughtful about it.

  3. Byro says:

    I’m sure you know that I’m really appreciative for this, Mike—I try to say from time to time how grateful I am for your clarity and insight. Anybody that critiques the body/soul dualism and cites Jamie Smith about desire is fine by me! And the Biblical faithfulness of the expanded “four chapter” story; again, so helpful.

    But I’ve got a concern: is the way you (and Teresa and Lewis and Donne) orient “desire” only to God not just falling back into some dualistic, if not exactly disembodied, super-spirituality. As if God is the only thing we should desire, and anything less is lower.

    You rightly say that eros and sexual desire are not bad. God made us this way. I like that Lewis has said that God quite likes matter; He made it! So sexuality is good. Having sexual desire (which has limits and norms to guide its proper unfolding and ordering) is as it should be.

    But then you compliment Teresa for turning Jesus into the object of her eros. And that seems to me to end up right back where we started, almost: sexual passion must be something other than what God intended–namely, sexual, aimed at another human!–and be re-directed towards God, becoming “safe” or “redeemed” because we focus that longing really towards God. Well, sexual desire and spiritual desire may be similar, even inter-related somehow (the Bible uses the marriage bed as even more than a metaphor) but I think I want to suggest that stuff we do in God’s creation, as humans–say, eating or kissing, voting or making art– are each different actions than finding oneness with God, union with Christ, or “practicing the presence of God.” We should learn to glorify God in the doing of these things, not just redirect our passions towards some mystical union with God or some dramatic hope for the eschaton. It isn’t that we re-direct our longing for food or dirt or sex to God, but we experience God in and around our human activity as we eat or garden or experience sexual passion. Teresa as a nun couldn’t do that, so she had to forego authentic sexual pleasures and dream about nupitals with Christ. But most ordinary humans are made to have ordinary nupitals with, well, real other humans.

    What I mean to say is that Teresa and Donne and maybe Lewis have it wrong. That “we settle for too little” preaches well, but still sounds like dualism to me. It sounds like it is saying that, okay, we want sex and good drink but we should skip that bodily stuff and really want God instead. I may be misreading him, although I’ve pondered this phrase for years, and it sounds like Lewis is drifting towards gnosticism, there. Good folks in good places (like you, here, and nearly everybody else who writes on these themes) quotes him positively, but I am not sure we should. We should want sex as sex, food as food, art as art, and–yes!–God as God. Saying we should and do want God and deeply, wonderfully experience our union with him, (as a deer pants for the water!) doesn’t solve the problem of whether a married or an unmarried person who longs for sex can find good pleasure in sexual passion, how and when. Teresa having an orgasm thinking about Jesus just doesn’t suggest a robust and faithful view of sexuality rooted in a good view of creation, humans, and embodiment, (although it may be a robust and faithful view of spirituality. I don’t know about that.)

    In other words, it sounds like your saying that real sex isn’t all that important, since we can have real orgasms if we just love Jesus enough. Spiritual longings trump physical ones. You rightly mock the evangelicals duped by a two chapter story but then just tell us to handle our erotic longings by thinking about heaven.

    I assume you want to say that a proper understanding of the goodness of the human body and creation framed by a story that understands the redemption of all creation in Christ, and a proper appreciation for our desires and longings will lead to a healthy, good view of sex. We need to order our desires properly, as the Catholics tend to say. But it just sounds like your mostly saying that enjoyment of our longing for unity with God is what we should really want, and if we want that, we won’t be horny. You say dial up our sexual desires, but then it seems you don’t really mean that since you want us to lose them by being more enthralled by Christ.

    You nicely say we shouldn’t try to “dial down” lust, but “turn the dial up.” But then it seems like you do a bait and switch, suggesting that we turn up desires, but then don’t desire sex, as sex, but God, as God.

    (Please, don’t misunderstand me here: of course we should desire God; a sweet relationship with the Triune God, experiencing the indwelling of Christ, through His Spirit, is at the heart of any redeemed person and the answer to any of our restlessness that tries vainly to find peace in things other than Him. Of course!)

    But saying *that* just doesn’t solve the problem of what our experiences as fully human embodied creatures should be in this world of senses and physical longings. I wonder if we should have the guts to ask if Lewis is wrong. Of course we shouldn’t “settle” for things like sex and food, as if that is all there is, as idols that take the place of gospel contentment. We are not reductionists, so there is more to life than stuff. But we are not spiritual reductionists, either: there is more to life than our feelings towards God. He made us to bear His image and live as humans on His planet. Lewis frames things by playing off sex (what we settle for) and God (what we should really want) and that reminds me that Lewis was very influenced by his early fondness for the Greeks. Plato talked like that, I gather.

    In 2 Timothy it warns that those who declare as bad things which God made good (sex and food)are perhaps demonic. Whoa! I love that Lewis essay, and it is so valuable in many ways, but I shudder to wonder if he is really devilish here, daring to saying something God says was good (desire for sex, in this case!) is merely “fooling around” with “mud pies.” God made this stuff and insisted it was good. Lewis demeans it by passing it off as just playing with mud in a slum, when we really should be thinking about Better Things Like Heaven. Who needs real sex when we can have Orgasms with Jesus?

    I give you an A for effort here, and applaud you for being graphic but I think this is befuddled, ending up with a standard-fare view that God is better than sex, which ends up not honoring the goodness of the real world as God really made it. Things and possibilities and activities that God made shouldn’t be described as “mud pies in a slum.” And learning to handle our desires in holiness by saying we should just desire God all the more fails to help us affirm proper desire in a wonderfully designed world.

    PS: Here is a quick comment on Lewis, which others who know this essay might shed light on. To say that we shouldn’t settle for sex is an apologetic for the non-Christian. That is, we shouldn’t settle for any good thing in place of Christ as the center of our lives. Tim Keller and Richard Foster, among others, have written helpfully about that Augustinian insight about how we make idols, taking good things and making them be our Ultimate thing. Okay, so sex or power or prestige or money, nothing can be elevated to God like status and nothing else can save or satisfy. But to take this insight–don’t accept as God anything but God to be your God–and use it to help us get a handle on proper sexuality or mud-pie-making, it doesn’t offer much. It plays earthly things off against God and that just isn’t helpful.

  4. David Naugle says:

    How about this for putting things in perspective from Reordered Love, pp. 22-23.

    In Christianity, the happy life is a sacramental life in which we see and love God supremely in relationship to all things, and in which we see and love all things properly in relationship to God whom we love the most. In Augustine’s apt phrase, we “learn in the creature to love the Creator; and in the work Him who made it.”

    Thus, if we refer all our human activities and experiences to God in love — work, marriage, sexuality, children, family, friendship, food, rest, recreation, location and place (and anything else you can think of) — then we discover contentment, satisfaction, fulfillment, joy, and happiness in life — all summed up in the word shalom. If God is the proper reference point for all aspects and things in life, then He gives them their true meaning and puts them in the proper order in our lives. This grand union of God, ourselves and the whole cosmos in a sacred synthesis of rightly ordered love constitutes the happy life.

  5. Tory says:

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer wisely noted. “The essence of chastity is not the suppression of lust but the total orientation of one’s life toward a goal.”

    Worldveiw is like a carpenters level used to balance and aline ones desires with Christ.

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