by Bob Wheeler

Van Dyke, Family Portrait, 1621

Van Dyke, Family Portrait, 1621


It goes without saying that today we are obsessed with sex. We flaunt it, we make jokes about it, we advertise with it. Sexual taboos are rapidly falling. But, ironically, how well do we really understand it?

Psychologists will sometimes attempt to treat a condition they call “Sexual Dysfunction,” which they define as a disorder “in which the client finds it difficult to function adequately while having sex” (Durand & Barlow, Abnormal Psychology, 1997, p. 294). But there are a couple of problems with this definition. First of all there is the difficulty of defining what is “normal” in the absence of any clearly defined moral framework. When asked what constitutes normal sexual behavior Durand and Barlow answer, “it depends.” But more to the point, the definition simply addresses the problem of functioning adequately “while having sex.” In other words it simply looks at the sexual activity itself in exclusion from everything else that might be going on in the relationship, or even whether or not a meaningful relationship even exists at all. Sex is simply viewed as a physical activity that requires the proper technique. Sex is more or less viewed as an end in itself, the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake. But this often leads to sex without love.

The Christian approach to the subject is radically different. It says that we are first and foremost human beings, and that we relate to each other on several different levels at the same time. The physical side of our lives cannot be divorced from the intellectual, emotional and spiritual. We also have consciences, and can exercise moral discernment.

So what does the Bible say about sex? To begin with, it says that “Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (Heb. 13:4; NKJV). Here it will be noted that sex within the bond of marriage is fine (contrary to some of the thinking of that day), while sex outside of marriage is not (contrary to much of the thinking of our day). Why?

The answer lies partly in the difference between love and lust. The two are easily confused. On the surface they look alike – we have a desire to be with someone and have an intimate relationship with that person. But beneath the surface the two are vastly different.

Love can mean a lot of different things. The ancient Greeks had a concept of love called eros, which simply meant a desire for something. The Greeks took it for granted that human beings are filled with desires, so for them the question was, what are the worthy objects of desire. On the most basic level eros was the desire for a sexual relationship with another person, often with a person of the same sex. Some Greek philosophers tried to argue, however, that eros was better directed toward something loftier, something like truth or beauty or virtue. But at the bottom of it, as an expression of desire eros was based on self-interest: we love something because it appeals to us in some way.

The Christian concept of love is quite different. In the New Testament Christian love is called agape, and is the willingness to sacrifice self for God and for others. The classic description of it is found in I Cor. 13:4-7: “Love suffers long, and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself; is not puffed up; does not behave rudely; does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” In other words, love puts the well-being of others ahead of ourselves and is prepared to sacrifice self-interest as a result. It “does not seek its own.”

Lust, on the other hand, operates on the complete opposite principle. While it is true that as human beings we are naturally filled with desires of various kinds, this is often a reflection of the fallen, sinful nature that we have inherited from our parents. “. . . we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind . . .” (Eph. 2:3). And those lusts, in turn, lead us to such things as “adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness. . .” (Gal. 5:19).

In other words, the difference comes down to this: Love cares about others and looks out for their well-being. It makes commitments and shoulders responsibility. It is willing to sacrifice self for the sake of others. Lust, on the other hand, seeks physical pleasure as an end in itself, and uses and exploits others for our own advantage.

Husbands are told to “love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her. . .” (Eph. 5:25) The husband is to “so love his own wife as himself” (v. 33), and wives are also told to “love their husbands” (Tit. 2:4).

Thus is sex wrong? No, not at all. But it is the relationship that makes the sex and not the other way around. A husband and wife should admire and appreciate each other, should so desire each other’s company and companionship, that they would naturally want to express their love for each other in physical intimacy. Sex should be a celebration of a warm and loving relationship. The cure for sexual dysfunction is to repair the relationship.

The problem is not that we lack the techniques to heighten sexual pleasure. The problem is that we haven’t learned to love as we should. And when we seek to exploit each other for our own selfish ends we dishonor our Creator and degrade and demean each other. Without love, sex is largely and empty and meaningless exercise.

God intended something better for us.