Posts Tagged ‘sex’

John Piper: How to handle guilt over sexual sin

March 28, 2017

What follows is the most helpful sermon on sexual sin and guilt I’ve ever heard (or read, in this case). It’s by John Piper. He delivered it years ago at the Passion Conference for Christian college students, held in Atlanta—at which time, being the smug, liberal seminarian that I was, I would have rolled my eyes and thought, “John Piper!” (Yes, I know… I need to work on forgiving myself for those years.) Regardless, I read the sermon now, and his words are the balm of Gilead.

If you have tried to live a Christian life, you know firsthand the power of guilt. I think Piper is right, however, to say that guilt over sexual sin in particular is an especially powerful weapon in Satan’s arsenal. Left untreated (or unhealed), this guilt will prevent us from becoming not only what God wants us to become, but what we—at our idealistic, passionate, Spirit-filled best—dream of becoming. As Piper puts it,

The great tragedy is not mainly masturbation or fornication or acting like a peeping Tom (or curious Cathy) on the internet. The tragedy is that Satan uses the guilt of these failures to strip you of every radical dream you ever had, or might have, and in its place give you a happy, safe, secure, American life of superficial pleasures until you die in your lakeside rocking chair, wrinkled and useless, leaving a big fat inheritance to your middle-aged children to confirm them in their worldliness. That’s the main tragedy.

I have not come to Atlanta to waste your time or mine. I have come with a passion that you not waste your life. My aim is not mainly to cure you of sexual misconduct. I would like that to happen. O, God, let it happen! But mainly I want to take out of the devil’s hand the weapon that exploits the sin of your life to destroy your valiant dreams, and make your whole life a wasted worldly success.

Whatever you think you know about Piper, I suspect you’ll be surprised by the pastoral tone throughout this sermon. First, he’s no culture warrior railing against the handful of sins that culture warriors usually rail against. In fact, given his words above—and elsewhere in the sermon—about American middle-class prosperity, he isn’t holding out hope for our culture—or any culture—with or without its sexual proclivities. No culture on this side of eternity will ever be the kingdom of God.

Second, he’s speaking to a Christian audience who mostly already agree that sexual sin is truly sinful. That’s not the issue: the issue is, many of them don’t know how to handle the potentially self-destructive guilt that comes when they fall victim to it. Read the rest of this entry »

Marriage and monogamy in the Christian Century

August 13, 2011

A while back, I was deeply critical of the New York Times’s feature-length story on Dan Savage and “nonmonogamy” (Apple’s new autocorrect feature insists on trying to correct the word, but this is how the Times spelled it). In Savage’s defense, I conceded that “everything Savage says isn’t terrible.” I’m still unwilling to go much further than that faint praise.

By contrast, this week’s Christian Century article on the same subject (I guess they read my blog?) goes a bit further. I realize now that I overlooked another positive aspect of Savage’s advice on sex and marriage, which this article points out: his emphasis on forgiveness.

To a correspondent whose spouse lapsed in a way that fell far short of adultery, Savage offers this: “A successful marriage is basically an endless cycle of wrongs committed, apologies offered, and forgiveness granted, all leavened by the occasional orgasm.”

In this pithy sentence, one can easily see that a large part of Savage’s appeal is a candor that’s missing from so much public discourse, especially in the church: “The frankness and realism with which he handles such questions provide a sharp contrast to the tepid affirmations and bashful silences that characterize much mainline preaching and thinking on sex.”

“Mainline preaching and thinking” on sex? I wasn’t aware such a thing existed, as cozy as we mainliners tend to be with whatever Glee has to say on the subject. We outsource preaching and thinking on sex. Nevertheless, I preached a two-parter last year on love and marriage in which I talked as candidly as a “family-friendly” sermon allows, and not a single person in the congregation got the vapors. But many people expressed relief that I was talking about it. Unless or until the church talks about it more, is Dan Savage the best we can get?

Fittingly, the Christian Century article ends with this affirmation of actual monogamy, which I couldn’t have said better:

In this sense, monogamy does not consist of refraining from sex outside marriage any more than true worship consists of avoiding idols. Instead, undivided sexual intimacy is a sign or sacrament of a full and altruistic unity that touches every aspect of domestic life. This unity may be adulterated in countless ways short of sexual intercourse, from casual neglect to the dreaded Facebook affair. Most marriages experience such diminishment. Yet most marriages also offer opportunities for sanctification—for a heroic ethic of life together that not only manages the human disaster and perceives its true depths but also calls us to transcend it in the name of hope.

Do we only sin in our hearts?

February 28, 2011

In my sermon on the seventh commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” I focused on “adultery of the heart.” I said that I wanted to focus on this kind of adultery—the kind that Jimmy Carter famously confessed to in a 1976 Playboy interview—because this is the kind of adultery to which most of us fall victim most of the time. And we don’t even have to be married to commit this kind of adultery. In my view, this is in keeping with the spirit of Jesus’ words about the commandment in the Sermon on the Mount.

But do you see a possible danger with focusing on sin in our hearts? It can start to seem as if sin is an intangible thing that only happens in our heart (or mind or soul). And before long, we imagine that what we do with our bodies doesn’t really matter to God.

Many of us Christians have internalized this false kind of “heart/body” dualism. Maybe this explains why we often take such a casual attitude toward sex. For example, we might think, “We can’t sin by merely having sex with someone to whom we’re not married. Whether it’s sin or not depends on the condition of our hearts.”

If so, we are deceiving ourselves. Jesus’ focus in the Sermon on the Mount on the state of our hearts should not be construed to mean that the external action doesn’t matter. Besides, how can we—self-justifying sinners that we are—begin to judge the purity or quality or motives of our hearts in the first place?

We can safely assume that if we’re justifying our actions in these terms, our heart is wrong, too.

Abortion and “winking” at promiscuity

February 26, 2011

For my sermon series on the Ten Commandments, which resumes tomorrow with Number Seven, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” I’ve been reading a provocative book called The Truth About God: The Ten Commandments in Christian Life, by fellow United Methodists Hauerwas and Willimon. They make the following point, which is obviously true but not said often enough—especially to those of us who endorse our Book of Discipline‘s opposition to abortion as a means of birth control:

There is no way to separate our ethics of abortion from the way we live our lives sexually. We cannot give a wink about promiscuity and at the same time vigorously prohibit abortion. If abortion is wrong, and ought to be prohibited among Christians, that presupposes a community whereby we are given the resources not to commit the violence that abortion names.1

Our culture tells us that sex has no consequences; that we should have as much sex with whomever we want, whenever we want; and that if we don’t, something is wrong with us, and we’ll probably die. (Is that really much of an exaggeration?) Too often we Christians endorse this message through our own attitudes and actions. Unintended pregnancy is the most conspicuous reminder that we are lying to ourselves.

If we prohibit abortion as birth control (as I would argue that we should), let’s be clear that we are, in part, asking women to be sacrificial lambs in a sexually confused culture for which we are partially responsible.

1. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, The Truth About God: The Ten Commandments in Christian Life (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 96.

Newsweek’s biblically illiterate article

February 16, 2011

Newsweek's graphic for article on Bible and sex. Not nearly as exciting as you think.

A friend asked me to look at the provocatively titled article, “What the Bible Really Says About Sex,” in the latest issue of Newsweek. The article included an illustration of a Bible with the the letters “XXX” emblazoned below the words “Holy Bible.” Since I’ve read the Bible, I shouldn’t be surprised that nothing in the article was news to me. But I am surprised at how badly written and reported the article is.

It begins: “The poem describes two young lovers aching with desire. The obsessions is mutual, carnal, complete.” The reporter imagines, I suppose, that the average Newsweek reader will be shocked to discover that this erotic love poem, Song of Solomon, is found in the Bible—the Bible! Given the tone of the article, however, the average Newsweek reader may be surprised to learn that modern Bible scholars didn’t recently discover that Song of Solomon was about sex. Read the rest of this entry »