This blog post is the first, of a three part series on sexuality. The second post will involve a discussion and debate, with an atheist friend on this matter. This piece consists of an overview, and general discussion on the gift of sexuality, as well as some concentration on the theme of 'lust' in reply to an agnostic friend's question.
Admittedly, Biblical and patristic writings appear to hold sexuality and sexual pleasure in disfavour, but does this mean that sexuality itself is inherently sinful or evil? Are Christians perhaps obsessed with sexuality? Firstly, the reason for the Church's writings and teachings repeatedly warning us of the temptations and possible corruption associated with sexual behaviour, is that sexuality is of course a great, sometimes extreme, power, inclination and natural tendency, sometimes leading us to sin. However, the Church never condemns sexuality per se, and provides us with a realistic, and optimistic approach to this sacred part of human life. The Church is very aware of the constant struggle, each and every human being has to make in order to control sexual temptations:
'Preserve us from the gloomy slumber of sin and from the dark passions of the night. Calm the impulses of carnal desires, quench the fiery darts of the evil one which are craftily directed against us. Still the rebellions of the flesh, and put far from us all anxiety and worldly care.' (Prayer to our Lord, Compline )
This prayer highlights that our human sexuality can at times be perverse, causing unhealthy, anxious, unclean thoughts and acts which are contrary to God's will. The allusion to sexual lust in this particular prayer is clear, and the importance of preserving chastity (whether in marriage or in a celibate life) is also emphasised. However, it is important to see that this prayer underscores the power of sexual temptation, and does not condemn the gift of sexuality at all. God created mankind with a sexual appetite, and this, like the whole of creation, has a purpose. (Gen 2:24)
As an essential function of human nature, gender permits procreation, which from 'the beginning' ( therefore not merely a consequence of the fall ) is blessed by our Creator, as the means whereby persons bearing His image can participate in His creative activity. (Gen 1:28, 2:23-24) It enables man and woman to fulfil the command to 'multiply and fill the earth', as well as fulfilling each other through their complementary expression of love.
The Gift of Sexuality as a Sacramental Quality
The expression of human sexual love is intended to serve as an image, or icon of the nuptial bond that unites Christ with His Church. It can only do so within the context of Christian marriage, as this is the only context that allows gender and its sexual expression to assume an authentic sacramental quality. Christos Yannaras expresses this beautifully:
'In the mystery of marriage, the Church intervenes to give sexual love its full dimensions, to free the loving power in man from its subjection to natural necessity, and to manifest in the unity of man and wife an image of the Church and the gift of true life.'
Sexuality, or rather sexual relations within Christian marriage, should not be separated or seen as contrary to spiritual life in Christ. Marriage, just like celibacy and monasticism, is a spiritual struggle, grounded in love and repentance. The Church highlights that marriage transforms pride, into tender affection, as well as self-centred lust ( which as we have seen from the example of the Compline prayer, is what we must struggle against ) into self-sacrificing devotion. One of the main aspects of Christian life, is giving to the other, rather than keeping for the self.. and Christ and His Church highlight that this gift of sexuality, should be directed to the other person, in love, rather than a fulfilment of our own carnal desires.
'If God didn't want us to lust, then why does lusting seem so natural and instinctive?' (Question sent from an agnostic friend)
'I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.' (Matt 5:28)
Feelings for the opposite sex are natural. It is when we obsessively dwell on these feelings and thoughts that problems arise, and this is when we fall into lust. What we can, and are able to do, is not necessarily natural or good. We have the ability to harm our fellows... in fact you could say it is natural to show hatred towards others, and cause harm to others since these feelings can also be instinctual - however, we realise that these feelings do not bring about anything positive, but are simply wrong. All feelings, which can test us, should be redirected from the self, to God and the good for our brothers and sisters. Likewise, sexuality must be sanctioned by God and inspired by the Holy Spirit, used for purposes that God intended. Like all feelings, and physical attributes, through its misuse and abuse, sexuality can be perverted and corrupted - becoming an instrument of sin, rather than the means for glorifying God. The teaching of St Paul on sexuality is analogous to his teaching about eating and drinking, as well as all bodily functions. They are given by God for spiritual reasons, to be used for His glory. In themselves, they are holy and pure, but when misused and self-centred, they become the instrument of sin and death. For this reason, when one commits a sexual sin, the bitterness and guilt which follows can be great and painful. St Paul, the apostle, makes it very clear that all sexual perversions have as their direct cause man's rebellion against God - so if one does not at least try to obtain a good relationship with Christ, and fellow human beings, then their actions will reflect this. This is not to say that Christians are not tempted ( in fact many would argue that we are tested to an even greater extent ), but people of prayer and repentance will continuously 'fight the good fight' (1 Tim 6:12), struggling against their passions, redirecting their energies and feelings to the love and glory of God.
Sources: 'The Sacred Gift of Life', by John Breck
oca.org (Orthodox Church of America)