catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 15 :: 2005.07.29 — 2005.09.08


The purpose of sex

Sexuality: it provokes within us intense longing, absolute disgust, unrelenting attraction, debilitating dread, indescribable joy, utter repulsion. One does not have to be an expert on the subject to appreciate the power of sex. It is difficult to predict how a person will respond to manifestations of his or others' sexuality—except to say that it most likely will not be apathy or indifference. Human sexual expression can bear the glorious fruits of celebration, joy, intimacy, and worship—or it can spawn the rot of shame, fear, and defilement. It can enhance our humanity, but it can also degrade it.

Unfortunately, the double-edged nature of the power of sex receives little consideration in contemporary western culture. Especially expressed in the dominant mediums of pop culture, the prevailing perception regarding the power of sex is that as long as sexual activity occurs between consenting persons who have reached puberty, its ends are entirely positive. Only when sexual activity is a manifestation of violence (rape, child abuse, sexual assault) or is "unprotected" from disease or pregnancy is it considered destructive. Moreover, sexual activity is largely perceived as an exclusively physical endeavor. It is the mechanism by which a person can alleviate his physical?and uncontrollable?urges. Occasionally a talking head will discourage casual sex or suggest that teens wait to have sex until they really fall in love, but even then promiscuity is assumed to be a benign mark of immaturity rather than a vice or a danger.

Not only is most sexual activity (whether covenantal or not) seen as innocuous in our society, but our culture places such confidence in the positive power of sexuality that sex has been infused with redemptive expectations. What John Grabowski labels as the "utopian ideal of sex" has become part of our cultural ethos (1). This view holds orgasm as the pinnacle of human experience and sexual pleasure as the key to health and well-being. Due in part to the influence of various pop stars, medical personnel, political advocates such as Margaret Sanger, and psychologists such as G. Stanley Hall, we have attached religious language and significance to sex—assuming that if we simply lose ourselves in the ecstasy of sex and romantic love, we will experience salvation from the ills that plague us (2). The virtues espoused by a companion ethic of this view are freedom from prudish restraint and commitment to enhanced sexual technique; the vices are shame and ignorance (3). And in a culture which operates according to this understanding, sex, divorced from its spiritual and even relational dimensions, easily becomes a commodity to be bought or sold (4).

If not through the residue of ancient wisdom, then perhaps through our own intuition or experience of disappointment, however, many of us are not so easily fooled by a salvific conception of sex. And thankfully, though the link between chastity and virtue has largely been severed in our culture, we still have the restriction of the "adult" entertainment to the back room of video stores, the grimaces of children at the mention of sex, and the legal restriction of prostitution to remind us that while the consuming fire of sexual energy can bring light and warmth, it can also scorch and burn. When it is misused or disordered, it degrades our humanity and injures not only our bodies but also our souls. And even when it is properly appropriated, it cannot ultimately satisfy the longings of our hearts. Sexuality is a beautiful and mysterious component of created reality. And it is certainly meant to be enjoyed. However, its recreational dimension should not be severed from its covenantal, unitive or procreative dimensions. Moreover, only when it is a tool of worship and not the object or the avoidance of worship can it fulfill its intended purpose.

Historically, the Christian church has certainly not been blind to the destructive potential of sex. In his Epistles, Paul speaks repeatedly about the evil desires of the flesh and the degradation of the body and spirit through illicit sexual activity. A recurring theme in the writings of the early church Fathers was the renunciation of lust and the claims of Christ on the bodies of his followers. But, especially due to the platonic ethos of their day, many of the Fathers bought into a separation of body and soul and therein rejected much of the goodness of sex and sensuality. Disturbed by the overt sensuality of the Song of Songs, St. Origin interpreted the book as strictly allegorical. Not only did he emphasize the superiority of celibacy to marital life, but he also castrated himself in order to conquer his sexual drive. St. Jerome threw himself into thorns so that his desire for women would be overwhelmed by his physical pain, while St. Augustine equated sexuality with his pagan past and found spiritual peace largely to the degree that he was able to renounce his sexuality (5). Moreover, Augustine, like many leaders of the church who came both before and after him, virtually equated sexual desire with lust. Even within marriage, he considered sexual desire to be sinful (6).

Space does not permit an exposition of the trajectory of Christian attitudes towards sex throughout the church?s history. Suffice it to say, however, that in the church?s checkered and sordid history regarding the topic of sexuality, a holistic and biblical approach to sex has largely been absent. Most pervasive have been an Augustinian conception of the desires of the body as evil—as well as Augustine's idea that the intent to produce offspring and the avoidance of unchastity are the only appropriate functions of sex. Despite notable exceptions and however practice might insinuate otherwise, throughout most of church history, sex has been perceived as a private and unmentionable marital good at best or an unqualified evil at worst.

Much of contemporary Christian literature, perhaps out of an effort to correct the overly negative perceptions of sex endemic to church history, and perhaps out of an unconscious accommodation to the utopian ideal of sex in modern culture, has emphasized the recreational function of sex to the neglect of its other dimensions. In most cases, the literature heralds delight and enjoyment in vast and varied expressions of sexuality—as long as they occur within marriage. To that end, technique is their chief concern.

In Intended for Pleasure, a manual on sexual technique within Christian marriage, Dr. Ed and Gaye Wheat stress that the sum of all they teach about sex is fulfillment. "It is God's will and design…that sexual experience for a man and a woman in marriage produces wonderful feelings, for God intended sexual relations for our great pleasure (7)." The Wheats do mention the importance of the self gift of agape as a foundation for marital sex, and they also reference the Ephesians 5 comparison of the marital sex act to the love of Christ for the church. However, the focus of their book is clearly placed on the couple's sexual fulfillment. Similarly, according to Dr. Willard F. Harley in His Needs, Her Needs, sexual fulfillment is the first thing a husband cannot do without (8). In Sheet Music, Dr. Kevin Leman puts the value of marital sexuality this way: "Into this world of obligation and responsibility, God has dropped something absolutely fabulous into our laps. At the end of the day…we can touch each other and kiss each other and pleasure each other in such a way that the world feels like it is light-years away. We're transported to another place and removed to another time, and it's a glorious feeling indeed (9)."

These three books are just samples out of a large collection of Christian handbooks designed to help married couples maximize their sexual fulfillment. Within most of this literature one can find echoes of popular culture?s stress on the therapeutic value of sex. While sexuality is certainly meant to be enjoyed, much of the depth of Christian sexuality is missed when pleasure and fulfillment are the principle focus. Culture's obsession with sexual pleasure baptized with the stamp "For Marriage Only" does not provide an adequate understanding of the mystery and purpose of sex.

The testimony of Scripture unquestionably reveals that structurally, sex is good. It is a beautiful and mysterious aspect of creation. God is playful, and in our play, we bear God's image. By delighting in the beauty and wonder of what God has created, we glorify him. God?s delight in sensuality is so pervasive that references to the wonder and glory of the human body, erotic love, and the conception of children are laced throughout Scripture. Yet, focusing on the recreational function of sex—even within marriage—is incomplete at best and degrading at worst. When sexual activity is treated merely an enjoyable bodily activity, it is mishandled. For sex does not just involve our bodies. It is psychological, relational, and spiritual. Sexuality, says Dr. John Grabowski, "is necessarily a relational and nuptial reality (10)."

Perhaps more than any other phenomenon of creation, humans are tempted to worship the gift of sex itself rather than the giver of sex. It is no wonder that fallen humans attempt to use sex as a way to reconstruct Eden. The Hebrew definition of Eden is "delight," and Genesis describes the first couple enjoying the pleasure of Eden naked and without shame (11). Yet, the sensual pleasure connected in Genesis' depiction of Eden is only part of a broader picture. The sensual pleasure is in service to and a parcel of worship. The garden first and foremost is a symbol of intimacy and delight in God. When sexual expression is a manifestation of worship of God, it is beautiful and good. But when it is a symbol of the worship of self, another human, or pleasure itself, it is a poisonous idol.

A person need not be engaging in fornication or adultery for sex to take on this cheapening, if not destructive dimension. Even within a marriage, sex is cheapened when it is merely an expression of primal urges or the avoidance of pain. Marital sex is also stripped of its beauty when it comes out of a desire to control or manipulate or simply an emphasis on the needs or wants of self. According to Dan Allender and Tremper Longman, "A husband and wife either participate in the mystery of sexual union as a taste of intimacy with God, or they see it as nothing more than a momentary pleasure. And for some people, the pleasure is so webbed with fear, disgust, or anger that it has lost even its sensual delight. Sex draws the heart toward either greater intimacy or a deeper sense of abuse and harm (12)."

Ecstatic release, however (potentially) wonderful and good, is not the primary purpose of sex. Instead, sex is meant to arouse and fulfill a longing for intimacy. Sex, when functioning as it was intended, serves to promote greater union between spouses. It brings glory to God by uniting more deeply what has been joined through the covenant of marriage. This unitive dimension is described in Genesis 2:24 by the ability of sexual intercourse to make one flesh out of what was formerly two. Moreover, throughout Scripture the term know is used to describe sexual union (13). The act of marital sex is the deepest possible form of human intimacy. A person can be known most profoundly though this act.

Marital sex is also symbolic of an unending commitment between two people. The language surrounding the sexual union of the first man and woman in Genesis is one of covenant. The marital sexual act is a covenant-ratifying gesture which betroths two people to one another for as long as they both live. Sexual union indicates the sealing of an oath of fidelity. By taking the other's "bones and flesh" into himself/herself, each partner assumes the other's strengths and weaknesses as his/her own (14). Thus, every time a couple engages in intercourse, they reenact their lifelong commitment to one another.

Along these lines, sexual activity within marriage also functions as an act of service. Each partner serves his/her spouse by seeking to bring joy, comfort, and pleasure to the other. Laying down herself for the benefit of her spouse, a Christian offers her body as a gift through the donation of self. And in so doing, she mimics the self-donation of Christ. Thus, in their sexual union, a couple participates in "the great mystery" of Christ's love for the church described in Ephesians 5:32. "In some real sense," writes Peter Elliott, "Saint Paul sees Marriage as a unity between heaven and earth, at once a Christological and ecclesial mystery (15)."

Marital sexual union serves to deepen and edify the relationship between spouses, but it also points toward a deeper and more ultimate union—eternity in the presence of God. Pleasurable sensory experience, whether it be eating chocolate or smelling spring rain, kindles a longing for more. Eventually, if only for a moment, desire is appeased and we rest. In this sense, intercourse, as the culmination of sexual desire, leads to a moment of peace. According to Allendar and Longman, this brief sense of peace or rest "is but a mere glimpse of what lies ahead. All rest, in other words, rekindles a desire for what cannot be found in any other way or place but heaven (16)." Mysteriously, the desires of our flesh connect to the longings of our spirit. And as the most intimate of human relations, sexual intercourse points toward intimacy and union with God. It thus provides us the opportunity to know and worship God in deeper and richer ways than we might otherwise. In this sense, it is sacramental.

Sexual intercourse, when functioning as it was intended, is fruitful. It facilitates joy, intimacy, and even sanctification. Despite efforts on behalf of many contemporaries to conceal or circumvent this most obvious biological function, sexual intercourse also produces new life. Miraculously, as John Chrysostom, a fourth-century Eastern church father described, in sexual intercourse a man's seed is mingled with a woman's substance and is returned as a child(17). A couple's offspring embody their one-flesh union. For just as the couple becomes one through the intimacy of intercourse, they also become one as the sex cells that each has contributed merge together to form another human being. Though it would certainly strip sex of much of its beauty and power to assert that procreation is the only valid purpose of sex or that every sexual act must result in fertilization for it to be worthwhile, ignoring or downgrading the procreative function of sex is also reductionistic. In our culture, as Dr. Grabowski has observed, we are prone to separate sex from babies and babies from sex (18). Regrettably, the tendency to sever the ties between sex and procreation is nearly as pervasive inside the church as it is outside of it. Most Protestant denominations openly endorse that conception of children is an optional consequence of marital sex. And while the official teaching of the Catholic church prescribes otherwise, the bulk of Catholic parishioners assume this view as well, if not in their thought then often in their practice.

Instead of buying into the culture's perception of fertility as a disease (except when the couple's fulfillment is essentially linked to the conception of a child), the Christian community should be one which welcomes and celebrates new life. Ideally, marital sex should foster a safe and welcoming environment for children. This is not to suggest that family planning should be condemned or even discouraged. Yet, to fully honor their sexuality, couples must acknowledge the procreative possibilities inherent in each sexual act. Moreover, they should seek to create an environment of hospitality in their marriage. Every marriage should foster a hospitality to be enjoyed by the foreigner and the neighbor, but in many cases a full expression of hospitality will extend to new life as well. A Christian couple honors the created norms of their sexuality when they embrace the fruit of their union.

Sex, like all other aspects of created reality, is unable to transport us back to Eden. Yet, when marital sexuality features a dance between its unitive, procreative, and recreational functions, it bears witness to the redemptive forces at work in the world and anticipates the coming of the Kingdom of God. The composite picture of marital sexuality is not encapsulated by any one of these three purposes of sex. Yet each contributes to the mystery and glory imbued by God into our sexuality. Unfortunately, maintaining a balanced and biblical view—let alone praxis—of sex has been a difficult enterprise throughout the history of the church. Often, sex has either been condemned outright or limited to one of its functions. Even if, in this particular historical vantage point, we are freed from the tendency to either idolize sex or condemn it as a dirty and repulsive enterprise, we are still left with the challenge of converting theory into practice. One's theology of sex is not necessarily synonymous with his operative views regarding his sexual activity. In this dimension of our humanity, too, may God grant us the fortitude to embody what we believe.

  1. John S. Grabowski, Christian Marriage and Family, Catholic University: Spring 2004, class lecture, January 15.
  2. Peter Gardella, Innocent Ecstasy: How Christianity Gave America an Ethic of Sexual Pleasure., (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 140-149.
  3. Grabowski, class lecture, January 15.
  4. Grabowski, Sex and Virtue: An Introduction to Sexual Ethics., (Washington DC: The Catholic University of America: 2003), 23.
  5. Dan B. Allender and Tremper Longman, Intimate Allies., (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1995), 228.
  6. See Augustine, The Good of Marriage in Fathers of the Church., vol. 15.
  7. Ed Wheat and Gaye Wheat, Intended for Pleasure: Sex Technique and Sex Fulfillment in Christian Marriage., (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1977), 18.
  8. Willard F. Harley, Jr., His Needs, Her Needs, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1986), 42.
  9. Kevin Leman, Sheet Music: Uncovering the Secrets of Sexual Intimacy in Marriage., (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 2003), 45.
  10. Grabowski, class lecture, January 13.
  11. Ibid., January 27.
  12. Allender and Longman, 212.
  13. Wheat, 17.
  14. Grabowski, class lecture, January 29.
  15. Peter J. Elliott. What God has Joined., (New York: Alba House, 1990), 5.
  16. Allender and Longman, 214.
  17. See John Chrysostom, On Marriage and Family Life.
  18. Grabowski, class lecture, April 20.


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