March 17, 2023

Lenten Sexuality

“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability... To be alive is to be vulnerable.”

― Madeleine L'Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art 

(from The Way Down is the Way Up - 6 Week Devotional by Justin Whitmel Earley)


As we continue to walk through the Lenten season, I’m challenged to consider the shape of human sexuality (the topic of our church's present Adult Formation class on Sunday mornings) through this part of the Gospel story. An important part of Lent is accepting our vulnerability as humans (“from dust to dust”), seeing our need for life from above, and embracing the way of sacrifice, particularly, through Lent’s cross-centered vision.

The contemporary narrative of sexuality emphasizes personal empowerment, pleasure, and expression, and the Christian narrative of sexuality emphasizes generational creation, covenant fidelity, and self-giving unity, all in harmony with God’s order. While the two narratives have some areas of congruence (e.g. sex, authenticity, and love are all generally good things), the departures are significant. Notably, a story of sexuality that fits the Christian Lenten arc recognizes not just the goodness of all of creation, but reckons with the ever present vulnerability we feel deep in our bones, even vulnerabilities in our experiences of sexuality. Since leaving God’s embrace in Eden, every person is hungry to not only satisfy our longings for belonging and joy, but also eager to cover over our weakness and shame (and all our attempts are mere fig-leaves). While many things were distorted in the Fall, since leaving Eden’s garden, sex – initially created as a humble, yet beautiful, act within a healthy marriage of man and woman – has been pursued as a major tool, or an idol, for self-empowerment and self-fulfillment.

After the fall, God shepherded his wayward children and gave them several laws about sexual practice (i.e. Leviticus 18). These were not arbitrary religious anti-sex laws for all time, but were protections of the natural order that Israel inhabited as members of human families and households in their contexts; they were guardrails to keep Israel from idolizing sexual desire and pursuing godless ecstasy or selfish ambition. Even now within Christianity, we are still prone to following the world’s path, prone to glory in erotic sexual experience; while progressive Christianity may do this more obviously at times, this may even be evidenced in attempts to see sex, rather than marriage, as an icon of God, or in purity culture’s promises for providing the “best sex”.

Yet, while we too often view sexuality obsessively and myopically, it does deserve real attention. Notably, a list of sexual ethics is not sufficient to get the whole picture, despite providing helpful path markers. We must be alert to the larger principles of creation and natural law as we consider our humanity. A holistic consideration of sexuality will direct us back to our very nature and, in Lenten-fashion, to the vulnerabilities of our nature. In God’s very good creation of male and female, we are not independent, but, through mutual support, interdependency is the built-in norm (1 Cor. 11 mentions that while Eve comes from Adam, all men come from women). Marriage is indeed the first covenant relationship designed for the needs, dependencies, and vulnerabilities of familial care (think especially of the vulnerabilities surrounding childbirth and raising infants). Yet our human needs and longings always go beyond anything that this world can provide, let alone what marriages can provide (and lest we overestimate what marriage provides, we are wise to remember that marriages are temporary covenants that will not continue in the future age of the resurrection). This reality directs us to our longing for God, to our need of God's redeeming grace in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.   

Worldly narratives often focus on individual desire. A truer narrative about sexuality (and necessarily marriage), is one that sees a bigger picture - the grand picture of God as the great Creator of a good order for the flourishing of the whole creation. And the Gospel of the Cross tells a radical story. It says that we must follow the way down (sacrifice for others) in order to find the way up (union with the living  God). We must carry our crosses – a vulnerable lifestyle – before finding resurrection. This is our path within Lenten sexuality.

Jesus, Son of Man, give me the courage to admit my weakness before you and others, that I might be made strong in your perfect Grace.