How Sex Became King

*** This post is taken from a Gospel Coalition article published January 8th of 2020. ***

  January 8, 2020 | Alex Duke

In the beginning there was a garden, and in it were two people, naked and without shame. They lived there, walking with God, talking with God—and it was good. Before long, a serpent with questions of ill-intent slithered onto the scene. Did God really say? he hissed. Self-sure yet curious, the couple’s eyes followed the object of their desire; their confident hands plucked fruit from a tree. In a moment, they tasted the forbidden fruit—and in the next, the world split in two.

What’s Old and What’s New
It would not be an overstatement to assert that any sexual revolution now being waged began as soon as that half-eaten fruit fell to the ground, its seed burrowing into the earth and growing. The story of Christianity details how this growth overtook many of its patriarchs and protagonists. Here’s a flyover:

  • Abraham, the one whom God promised to bless with a nation, didn’t believe God. So in his impatience, he committed adultery and fathered a child with Hagar his handmaid. (Gen. 16)
  • Wandering Israel—Abraham’s promised nation—gave themselves to sexual impropriety, even deviancy, as the prohibitions in Leviticus 18 make clear.
  • David, a man after God’s own heart, saw the beautiful Bathsheba bathing atop a house. She became the object of his desire, and he used his authority to satiate his lust and murder her husband. (2 Sam. 11)
  • Israel in exile fared no better than Israel in the wilderness, as their spiritual idolatry to Baal—their “playing the whore,” as the prophets called it—likened itself to wanton sexual promiscuity. (Hosea; Jer. 3)
  • In the New Testament, Paul tells the Corinthian church that they should be ashamed of themselves because of their response—or lack thereof—to sexual immorality (1 Cor. 5:2). He describes a man who’s had sex with his stepmother, to make the universal point he made in Romans 1: sexual sin has not only become tolerated, but celebrated. To their shame, the Corinthian church is boasting in their “tolerant”—one might call them “progressive”—views on sexual expression.

From Genesis to Revelation, sexual sin rears its head as a consistent expression of human fallenness, of humanity’s tendency to answer the serpent’s Did God really say? with No, I suppose he didn’t. So in broad strokes, the answer to the question atop this page is simply that sex became king when Satan became the prince of the power of the air, the purveyor of the spirit now at work in the sons of disobedience. Even though his is a lame-duck regime, its effects are everywhere, its seed still growing (Eph. 2:1–4).

Because of this, there’s never been a culture made up of people predisposed to obey God, one where it was easy or natural to repent of sins and trust God’s Word about anything, much less our sexual preferences. Any “Golden Age” of Christianity in America is a fiction. Instead, what sits in our rearview is a long line of Gilded Ages. Christianity is not about repristination, but redemption.

And yet, it requires a great deal more scrutiny to understand how sex became king in this particular age with all its accompanying expressions. Sex outside of marriage isn’t new (Abraham), but due to certain technological advances—birth control, condoms, legal and “safe” and cheap abortions—consequence-free sex basically is. The desire to look at naked women and to act on it isn’t new (David), but pocket-sized devices that offer buffets of easy-to-find, all-you-can-ogle naked women are. Celebrated sexual sin isn’t new (Rom. 1; 1 Cor. 5), but homosexual sex that’s incentivized under the auspices of the state and called “marriage” is. Men who predatorily prey on women aren’t new; neither are men who pride themselves on their inability to commit. But thanks to Tinder and all the rest, the market has been flooded with sexual opportunity. The buy-in price has plummeted, and what was once a luxury has become a commodity.

Less than 100 years ago, much of the above paragraph would have seemed overstated and at points downright unintelligible. But now it seems impossible to imagine otherwise. Welcome to the new regime.

March of the Sexual Revolution
Narrowly speaking, any act outside of God’s intention is an act of revolution, a coup d’état against the divine governor of both the universe and our bodies. The issue at hand, though, is how the sexual revolution has marched right through all opposing armies; how behaviors that were once considered revolutionary or at least frowned on have so quickly become etched into habits—sealed by judges, ratified by lawmakers, and celebrated by constituents.

In the past half-century, the sun of providence has set at an alarming pace, such that many Christians feel as though we now live in the dark, our lights irrevocably under a bushel and unable to shine. The seed of sin is spreading, and sometimes it seems unstoppable.

How did sex become this kind of king, with this large a kingdom?

Inventions and Decrees
Before the latter half of the 20th century, an evening of sexual pleasure often carried with it the possibility of a lifetime of child-rearing. Having sex meant possibly getting pregnant, almost definitely staying pregnant, and then raising that child for life.
Two things happened to flip this script.

First, contraception appeared in the form of birth-control pills. Second, abortion was legalized and thus regulated, making the choice safer, cheaper, and easier across the board. Suddenly, sex had fewer consequences, and though it may be crass to speak of sex as a commodity, it’s simply Economics 101 that a product that can be had more cheaply and with less risk will entice more consumers.

Knowledge Economy and Extended Adolescence
We now live in what has been called a global “knowledge economy.” Up until the last 100 years, men held most jobs simply because they were generally stronger and more fit to work in trying conditions, both necessary traits in agricultural and industrial economies where people worked early, hard, and often. Whether a farmer in the Midwest or a factory worker in the Northeast, figuring out one’s “career” involved little more than answering the question: What does my dad do? For many of these men, their life script—or at least the outline—was written before they had anything say.

Nowadays, of course, this isn’t the case. From early on, young people are told to “discover your passion.” College then presents a dizzying array of possible futures, and young people are forced, at the ripe age of 19, to pick their favorite. This is the benefit of living in the knowledge economy, and on the whole it’s truly beneficial. Meanwhile, Western women have jumped at opportunities to participate in the more egalitarian job market this knowledge economy provides—another development Christians should generally celebrate.

For many men, however, this write-your-own-script option has left them paralyzed, which is a nice way of saying it’s made them lazy, extending their adolescence and delaying previous rites of passage like providing for oneself, marriage, and child-rearing. But here’s the problem: these lazy men are also greedy, wanting what their grandfathers enjoyed (sex) without the uncomfortable institution that often came with it (marriage). In short, once marriage becomes merely incidental in relation to sex, it should come as no surprise that both marriage and sex will be cheapened and thus pursued with less vigor and calculation.

Generational Hubris
The internet has changed the world. From dwindling attention spans to the ease with which we can learn almost anything, this strongest turbine of the knowledge economy has changed the world. And it’s still a teenager, having wrought all this change in less than 30 years.

Unfortunately, since so much change happened so quickly, many suffer from a myopic generational hubris that manifests itself in everything from pop-culture preferences to convictions about sex. Sure, I Love Lucy lied to its viewers with the bizarre decision to place Lucy and Ricky in separate twin-sized beds. But the lies about sex on today’s “reality” TV are much more pernicious (see Bachelor, The). Some may say they watch these shows ironically, but the line between irony and party-line propaganda is thinner than we sometimes think and perhaps even imperceptible to those who laugh and jeer when they probably should be wincing.

Though we must never wax nostalgic about any kind of utopian past—the “good ol’ days” when everyone knew what was right—neither must we disdain the wisdom of those who lived faithfully and fruitfully before we were ever born. The author of Proverbs put it this way: “Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching” (Prov. 1:8).

Ubiquity of Porn
Previously, procuring pornography required at least a modicum of social risk—a jaunt to the seedy part of town, or a surreptitious meandering to the back of a store. At a more basic level, pornography actually used to cost money. Those were common-grace inhibitors, which the internet first weakened and the iPhone then obliterated.

The stats about porn usage, even among Christians, are downright disturbing. What’s causing this epidemic is difficult to pin down. Sure, there’s the age-old issue of lust. But there are also culturally specific causes, beginning with the sheer ubiquity of the temptation.

This arithmetic is simple: infinite occasion + unchecked desire = disaster. A struggling teenager with a phone in his pocket is like an alcoholic who lives above a bar. Such an arrangement is stupid, because it necessitates exposure to relentless and unavoidable temptation.

But it would be misguided to mention circumstantial causes while overlooking the attenuating emotional turmoil. For example, what about the shame many men feel in the face of their countless failures? This shame owns them, chews them up, and spits them out, making them feel hopelessly shackled to their desire.

Ultimately, addiction to pornography is churning out millions of men with malformed hearts and brains and eyes, men who think women are vessels to be dominated and discarded, men who view the act of sex itself as conquest, a bout of ownership, a transaction wherein their experience is weighed in comparison to others, like visiting a restaurant, or trying on a new shirt. But there’s a problem: these men actually live in a world that hasn’t met their greedy, unstated demands—a world that hasn’t turned out to be a rapturous unfolding of their self-aggrandizing dreams and desires. These men love “sex” because it’s so easy to get—even if it’s just sex with themselves. And so, though they don’t know it, and though they’d say they’re pursuing something like “love,” these men actually end up hating love (and fellow image-bearers) because, in the end, it’s too difficult and ethereal, demanding of them foreign concepts like self-sacrifice and self-control.

So they click on, silent in their shame. For so many, sex became king because their desires became king a long, long time ago.

Theological and Cultural Considerations
Zooming the camera out a bit, we need to see how the sexual revolution traffics in sub-Christian notions of love, authority, freedom, humanity, and ultimately Christ himself. On reflection, we’ll discover that, as James K. A. Smith once said, the sexual revolution didn’t finally free a “reality” previously denied by tradition. It created a fantasy that runs against the grain of the universe.

           1. Faulty Notion of Love
In the months leading up to the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to legalize same-sex marriage, a Twitter hashtag trended worldwide: #LoveIsLove. This, simply put, is morally and ethically incoherent. What’s more, no one seriously adheres to this self-referential axiom. Here’s proof: if every self-concocted definition of love were in fact love, and thus equal under the law to be sanctioned and perhaps incentivized, then there’s no reason the following things should be illegal: polygamy, incest, bestiality, or statutory rape.

Once we grant “consent”—defined however we want—then any prohibition on the number of people in love, the genetic relationship of those in love, the species of those in love, or the age of those in love, immediately commits the crime of limiting love for arbitrary reasons that are unavoidably fueled by animus, ignorance, or a backward, exclusive traditionalism desperately in need of an update.

You might think I’m over-sexualizing this definition of love. But for those shouting #LoveIsLove, what was the distinguishing factor in the kind of love they wanted legitimized? Sex. Nobody (yet) is arguing for a platonic, sexless, buddy-to-buddy marriage. Instead, those arguing for same-sex marriage are parroting a definition of love whose chief distinctive is sex, collapsing “love” and “sex” into a single fungible entity.

Of equal consequence is the confusion this brings in regard to marriage. As soon as the #LoveIsLove truism was commandeered to legalize the redefinition of marriage, it obscured the very institution of marriage in which many hoped to participate, rendering it little more than an institutionalized endorsement of the relationship between you and the person with whom you intend to have the most sex.

#LoveIsLove means love is reduced to sex, which means marriage is reduced to sex, which means sex has been crowned king of a kingdom it remains far too weak to effectively rule.

             2. Faulty Notion of Authority and Freedom
Because God is Lord over all creation, he has the authority to either sanction or prohibit anything. Case in point, it was immoral to eat meat until Genesis 9, and it only became moral when God decreed it so.

The same is true for sexuality. God in his wisdom and kindness has decreed that the only authorized sexual act is between a husband and a wife. In our age of self-expression and self-authorization, this seems narrow-minded and oppressive. For God to tell us that we’ve no right to do what we really and sincerely want to do, especially if it doesn’t “harm anyone” . . . who does he think he is?

Such distrust of authority is simply a newfangled translation of the ancient serpentine question: Did God really say? When considered soberly, we realize that God doesn’t give prohibitions that lead to death, but prohibitions that lead to life. He does this because he is loving, not authoritarian. One of the most countercultural truths of Christianity is that true freedom is found in glad submission to the decrees of the true king (Rom. 6).

Don’t believe me? Look for happiness at a strip joint; ask the customers if their unfettered pursuit of their own definitions of what’s right and wrong have led to life and joy—and I’m not even talking about eternal life or eternal joy. Ask them, once the buzz passes, if they’ve discovered even ephemeral joy under the hazy blur of neon. Ask if they feel free.

Or ask the husband whose marriage is in shambles because of his addiction to porn. Ask him which path leads to death—the one where he does what he wants, when he wants—or the one where he listens to the wisdom of his Creator? Did his self-expression make him happy? Does he feel freer now, or more enslaved?

Strip clubs and one-bedroom apartments are filled with self-appointed kings. But look closely at them: they have no crown, no throne, and no kingdom. Instead, they’re left with nothing, because that’s where self-rule always ends. Though it promises the world, it can give nothing but castles made of sand. The sovereignty was an illusion; their crown, you might say, was gilded.

              3. Faulty Notion of Humanity
Another countercultural truth of Christianity is the innate fallenness of humanity. Put another way, Christianity can make sense of desires that are simultaneously deeply held and yet sincerely wrong.

Those who have argued for same-sex marriage in particular or the goodness of same-sex attraction in general want to say that if a person is born with homosexual desires, then those desires are necessarily right because they’re “God-given.” The problem with this anthropology is that it ignores Genesis 3. Once Adam and Even sinned, the fundamentals of human nature and desire changed.

I don’t mean to minimize the gravitas of our sexual desires, whether gay or straight. They are strong, forceful, and deeply held. And, contra the muzzled gentility of previous generations, human sexuality is nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s good and right to desire sexual satisfaction, even to pray to that end.

But though sexual desire goes deep, it doesn’t go soul-deep; it hasn’t been given by God to define who we are as human beings, such that any deprivation of sex entails a deprivation of our very humanity, our very livelihoods, our very rights and identities. It’s possible that much of the sexual frustration we feel stems from an exaggeration that says sexual expression is integral to the human psyche, that if my sexual needs aren’t being ratified then I’m somehow less-than-human. Again, when staked to the essence of identity, sex is made king of a kingdom it’s entirely too weak to rule.

This claim lies about sex and, more importantly, it lies about what it means to be a human being made in God’s image. As proof, we need only look to Christ.

                4. Faulty Notion of Christ
Jesus Christ lived and died without ever having sex or acting on sexual desire, though he was tempted in every way, as we are (Heb. 4:15). Neither was he asexual, like a robot from some science-fiction movie. Instead he sympathized with our weaknesses, though without sin, and thus in his joyful obedience served as the perfect example for us.

What’s more, Jesus lived and died as the most human person in the history of the world. As God the Son, he has lived in eternal perfect unity and love with God the Father (John 17). As Jesus of Nazareth, he lived in time and space in perfect obedience to and love for his Creator; because he lived perfectly, he was qualified to appease the righteousness of God and die in our place as an acceptable sacrifice for the sins of all who would repent and trust in him. Paul puts it succinctly in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “He who knew no sin became sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The perfect man died for imperfect men so imperfect men might receive the perfection of God.

So, when we embrace an understanding of sex that says it’s integral to humanity, when we say sexual fulfillment is identity-defining, we not only commit all the errors listed above—we also impugn Jesus as less-than-human and therefore less-than-a-Savior. Sex is not king, and it shouldn’t be. Instead, it’s designed to be shaped around the will of the King who gave us the gift of sex in the first place.

And as Christians, as those who have bowed our knee to the true King, we will by his grace and Spirit obey him, even when it flies in the face of the wisdom of the world or the desires of our hearts. Because he made us and saved us, we trust his wise and loving authority to define his creation any ways he sees fit.

From a Garden to a City
At the end of everything, there will be a city, inhabited by people from every tribe and nation, clothed in the righteousness of the Lamb. Their stomachs will be full from a feast, a wedding supper for the One who crushed the serpent’s head. They will flourish there forever, and there will be no night.

Like Adam and Eve, they will talk and walk with God. They will also—can you believe this?—see his face. And in this moment, do you know what our King will do? He will wipe away every tear we’ve ever cried, even those that clung to our cheeks until the end. And our world, once split in two by sin, will be made whole. 

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