By Casey Tygrett
Some won’t at first be comfortable with the question. But those who want to live more like Jesus will always think about Jesus at the same time they think about sex.
It can be enjoyed on every continent, in every country, in any place and—with a few exceptions—at any time.
It involves all the senses, exploding into brilliant concert together at just the right moment.
Some would say it is a God-given right, and discourage efforts to prevent it or regulate it. Some, of course, take it too far, and this can lead to exploitation. But for the most part it is one of the guaranteed virtues of walking the earth as upright human beings.
Websites are dedicated to it. Television networks put it on display, extol its virtues, and praise its consumption.
By now, many of you, having first read the title, are highly offended and have probably stopped reading. Those of you still reading get to experience the great reveal—my comments thus far are not focused on sex, but food and the act of eating.
The fact that these two human actions can be described with such similar language should tell us something about how powerful they are. It tells us we need to have a frank discussion on both when it comes to discipleship. However, food will have to wait.
Taking on Flesh
It doesn’t take long in our growth and development to realize human sexuality is a powerful thing, especially to followers of Jesus. A great misstep, I believe, is not that the church hasn’t spoken enough about sex, or in a healthy way, but that it hasn’t spoken realistically about it, and especially what sexuality has to do with discipleship.
God made it and it is good, no doubt, but what do those who follow Jesus do with that “good”? What does it look like in a practical way? Is it, “Don’t do that, it’s bad and dirty” or “Wait until you’re married and then it’s perfect”? Are either of those phrases true or helpful?
Here’s a thought: Jesus came in human flesh. The incarnation is one of the most powerful yet disturbing doctrines in Christianity. Powerful because to say our God became flesh puts him, and us, in a unique category. Disturbing because we don’t want to think about God-in-flesh and all the things that came with it.
Did Jesus have bodily functions that worked like mine? Did he feel the things I feel? When he slept wrong, did his neck cramp up all day? Did he ever get the hiccups?
Just walk down that road a bit and you’ll find the next inevitable question—did Jesus experience his sexuality in his physical body the way I do in mine? If so, what does that mean for me as I follow him? What follows are my top two thoughts on this most interesting question.
Jesus’ Priority Level
Scripture talks about Jesus being tempted in all the ways we were (see Hebrews 4:15). In other words, Jesus must, at least, have had a way of approaching his sexuality while in human flesh.
At the church I serve, we believe that discipleship is being with Jesus, learning to be like Jesus in every area of our life, for the sake of the world. Discipleship is learning, praying about, and listening to the life of Jesus in the flesh to find the great epic of God for our time here and now.
If we really believe that, then the sex life of Jesus becomes incredibly important to our own discipleship. What happens if we model our sexuality on Jesus’ example? What happens if we say, “What would Jesus do if he had my sex life?”
When I throw this statement out to a group or a class, the first response is, “Jesus never had sex.” All the historical fiction aside regarding Jesus’ relationship with Mary Magdalene (as in The Da Vinci Code), we see Jesus was in the presence of many women, but never explored the physical side of those relationships. What do we make of that?
For me, this is a statement about priority. I am in contact with men who struggle with addictions to pornography; while this addiction is a tense and difficult knot to unravel, some hold to a philosophy that says, if you aren’t sexually fulfilled then you aren’t truly alive.
Listen to me: some who are reading this are struggling with unhealthy sexual relationships. Some of you are in marriages where the physical distance in the bedroom mirrors the emotional distance in the rest of the house. Some of you are experiencing unhealthy attractions that are driving you mad. If that is you, please put this magazine down and go make an appointment with a counselor, spiritual director, or trusted friend.
However, after all options for help and counsel are done, we come back to what I believe are the most interesting questions a disciple of Jesus can ask: Did Jesus live the greatest life ever? If so, what does that say about the priority of sexual fulfillment in my life?
If Jesus lived the best life ever and it did not include sexual relationships, what do I do with that? In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a happily married guy and I don’t intend to give up a healthy relationship of physical intimacy with my wife. However, it is not the key to my being alive. It is not the thing that makes me human. The thing that makes us truly human is the extent to which we become like Jesus in the everyday events of the human adventure.
Perhaps the best thing you could do today is to lay your sex life before God and ask that most interesting question: where do I need to put my sex life on the list of priorities for my life as a disciple?
Sex and the “One Another”
The other aspect of our sexuality as disciples is the concept of “one another.” Jesus had to command—to invite strongly—his disciples to love one another, to love their neighbors (see Matthew 22:37-40). Why? Because since the gates on Eden have been closed, our primary relationship with other people has been to use them for our benefit. You can see it in little children, and it grows more complex and nuanced as we grow older. We easily can give far more to a relationship for our own good than for the good of the other. It is in human sexuality where this reality is most twisted, dangerous, and dark.
Here is where I begin a frank discussion with premarital couples. Some have heard, “Married sex is so much better than sex outside of marriage.” I even believed that line when I was younger (I grew up in an extremely traditional church). We, as disciples of Jesus, owe it to the world to clarify this statement.
The truth is that neither married nor unmarried sex is perfect or easy, because both involve people Jesus had to command to love one another. It’s always possible two committed, spiritually mature people can make an absolute mess of their life together by not loving one another before making love to one another. Sex is not automatically perfect simply because we have rings and vows. In fact, we need to be honest that the commitment level often provides a higher level of difficulty and pressure than uncommitted sexual activity. In other words, we start thinking, this is supposed to be God’s design. If it isn’t working, obviously I’m the problem. Shame is never God’s design.
I need to offer something else here. I’m often surrounded by guys who talk about their “smoking hot wives.” While I appreciate their intent (and I think it is of supreme importance for married men to celebrate the beauty of our spouses), there is something beneath this that is more about our culture than our love for our wife. “Smoking hot” is a value of our oversexed culture, not an echo of being crafted in the image of God.
I understand that men may mean this to include both physical and spiritual or personal characteristics, however I wonder what impact the use of this concept has on our loving one another for a lifetime? It is possible that something intended to correct unhealthy sexuality among disciples is actually a cloaked celebration of the thing we fear the most: that we are all dust, fading slowly with the aid of gravity, and the “smoking hot” chapter of our life is fading far more quickly than we’re comfortable with. Perhaps the healthiest way we can love our spouses is to drop the “smoking hot” language and settle in to what intimacy looks like without all the physical bias?
My suggestion is that sex for disciples become a celebratory moment. It is a time of joining together, a culmination of everything else that has gone into life at that time. We’ll enter into this moment limping and straining under the pressure of the rest of life, but this is a time we shelter ourselves for a delightful act of worship, a critical moment of “(doing) it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17). For the disciple, with the priorities of Jesus and the command to love one another well, sex then becomes a gift and not an entitlement. It becomes a privilege and not a prerequisite. It becomes a moment of longing, not a moment of duty.
A Training Plan for Good Sex
How do we move to a place of putting sex in its proper priority and loving one another through it? Here are two practices that may help us:
Fasting—While some of my friends would disagree, the act of fasting has a ton of power for people who live in a consumption-heavy world like ours. Consider fasting from technology, where you are bombarded with sexuality, for one day. Just leave it. Or give up one meal a day and teach your body that it is not the general manager of your life.
Commercial breaks—The commercials we see are loaded with things that challenge, warp, and misinform us about sexuality. Choose not to watch them. Get up and walk around. Turn off the TV and do something else for the two or three minutes of advertising, and then come back later.
If the heart of spiritual transformation is becoming more like Christ, this is a place where we’d be better off thinking about and listening to Jesus. I encourage you to chase down this most interesting question today: what would Jesus say to us today about our sex lives?
Casey Tygrett serves as spiritual formation pastor at Parkview Christian Church in Orland Park, Illinois.