Monthly Archives: July 2013
When star-crossed Juliet was contemplating her difficulty with Romeo’s last name, she famously observed that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In other words, Romeo’s hated name was not central to his nature; which was clearly good. Conversely, when we apply a pleasant-sounding name to something horrible, we do not thereby make it any less horrible.
This past week my wife and I took our son to Tallahassee for his college orientation. As we were driving around campus, we turned a corner and saw perhaps the creepiest billboard we’ve ever seen:
It starts off innocently enough: “Hey students, need a summer job?” Well, what college student couldn’t use a good summer job? This is targeted marketing at its best!
But then the horrible reality of this summer job opportunity is made clear: “Date a Sugar Daddy.” This message is reinforced by the image of a young woman applying a little too much makeup. So rather than encouraging college students to apply for an internship, work at a summer camp, or even flip burgers, this billboard is urging them to make an “arrangement” with a wealthy benefactor. And while this kind of arrangement is described as a “date,” it is all too clear that money can be expected in exchange.
The advertised website (which I’ve concealed because I don’t want to promote it) is even less subtle. The main page shows a woman dressed in lingerie standing provocatively in front of a fully-dressed business man with a wolfish stare. The tag-line beside this image reads “Intimacy with a Twi$t.” I guess that’s supposed to be clever, but a “twist” implies something unexpected, and exchanging intimacy for money is hardly something new. In fact, it’s commonly referred to as “the world’s oldest profession”!
Dating a “Sugar Daddy” is a nice way to sugar coat the exchange of money for sex, but prostitution by any other name still smells anything but sweet. What’s more, the attempt to lure female college students into thinly-veiled sex work reeks on numerous levels. It communicates to young women that their sexuality is a commodity they can use to get ahead in life. It urges them to look for a man who can take care of them—not a husband who will love and sacrifice for them, but a “sugar daddy” whose gifts come at a shameful price. Conversely, it encourages wealthy men to exploit young women who may be struggling to pay for college. Worst of all, it dresses the whole seedy affair up as a “date” with a wealthy man—the kind of fairy tale imagery many young women associate with romance.
As I drove away, it occurred to me that the decision to prostitute oneself in this way is really just the next logical step beyond the way many college students are already handling their sexuality. Rather than seeing it as something to be valued and saved for a future spouse, many girls offer it in exchange for a nice dinner, a few drinks, or a boy’s empty flattery. After giving it away to a few penniless college guys, they may wonder what’s so bad about using it to get something in return. American culture has so commoditized and cheapened sex that prostitution is no longer unthinkable—just as long as we are careful to call it by another name.
Some feminists might argue that it can be “empowering” when a young woman chooses to use her sexuality to benefit herself materially, but that line of thinking has always struck me as playing right into the hands of men who want sex without responsibility and commitment. My perspective on this is reinforced by the image used to sell these “arrangements” on the advertised website: it is the fully-clothed businessman who holds the power, while the woman is partially undressed for his enjoyment. In the end, she is just one more commodity for him to purchase and consume.
A woman’s sexuality is indeed a powerful thing—not when it is carelessly given away, nor when it is cynically bartered for material gain. It is at its most powerful when used according to God’s design: to bind a husband and wife together as “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). That has the power to encourage a man to give his whole life to a woman, as opposed to merely handing her a few Benjamins.
I pray that the girls who see that billboard will learn Juliet’s wisdom in reverse: prostitution cannot be made to smell sweet by any other name.
Have you ever heard the song “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell? It’s a beautiful poem set to music in which she reflects on her initial idealistic view of things like clouds (“ice cream castles in the air”), love (“the dizzy, dancing way you feel”), and life (“dreams and schemes and circus crowds”). She then moves to a somewhat disillusioned view of those things and observes that she has looked at them from “both sides now.” In the end we’re left with a kind of grown-up ambivalence: having experienced both sides of life, we can no longer maintain our youthful optimism, yet somehow it’s “life’s illusions” we continue to hold on to, so that we “really don’t know life at all.”
The other day my wife and I took our oldest son up to Florida State University for his new student orientation. Twenty-six years ago, my parents were taking me to that same university for my own new student orientation.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but while I was going through my orientation, my parents were going through a parallel orientation for family members. Now that I was taking my son to college, it was my turn to go through the family orientation. While my son was choosing from a smorgasbord of interesting classes and being exposed to all the fun experiences he can look forward to, my wife and I were being told when the payment deadlines are and what can happen if our son’s GPA dips too low. The speakers at our orientation occasionally made comments about how little the students typically remember from their orientation and how important it was that we parents remember the information we were receiving.
About halfway through this process, it occurred to me that my wife and I were going through the real orientation! Then, as if I was finally seeing the “man behind the curtain,” I began to realize how much my parents shouldered the “real world” aspects of my education so I could be free to explore “great books” and “big ideas”.
A “liberal” education is called that precisely because you have to be “free” (Latin liber) in order to study things like literature, philosophy, art, science, and culture. People who work hard every day just to put food on the table do not have that kind of freedom, and so a “liberal education” is a luxury they simply can’t afford.
For me, college was a wonderful time when I got to wrestle with important ideas and competing views of how the world works, the nature of God and man, what constitutes a good life, etc. The answers I came to largely determined the course I have taken to this day.
My parents had received a liberal education (at FSU a couple of decades prior to my going there), and they had raised me to be interested in all those lofty subjects. Yet somehow, while they were interested in what I was learning, I could tell they weren’t as passionate about it as I was. They were focused on more “prosaic” things like earning a living. When I myself entered the “real world” and began providing for a wife and a rapidly growing family, I soon found I had little time to contemplate all those lofty ideas I was so focused on in college. I was simply too busy with “prosaic” pursuits like earning a living.
Today I see that the freedom I had to pursue a “liberal” education was largely made possible by the added responsibilities my parents shouldered on my behalf. Sure I contributed to the financing of my education with scholarships and summer jobs, and sure I had to take on increasing amounts of responsibility, but there was always that safety net: that knowledge that Mom and Dad would come to the rescue if I really messed things up. That freedom from worry is what really liberated me to wrestle with all those grand and lofty subjects.
It would seem I am now looking at college “from both sides.” If I were adding another verse to Mitchell’s song, I might say I’ve looked at it “from play and pay!” Yet somehow, like Mitchell, it’s still “college illusions I recall.” I know a large university is a big bureaucracy with many people who are more concerned about defending their little fiefdoms than about guiding young minds. I know the honest exchange of ideas is sometimes tainted by insecure professors and sycophantic students. I know many kids use their newfound freedom to do incredibly foolish things. I know a college degree is not a guaranteed ticket to a great job and an easy life. Don’t tell my kids I said this, but I even know a college education doesn’t necessarily make sense for everyone—especially from a cost-benefit perspective. Still, it’s an opportunity to grow up some without completely having to “sink or swim.” It’s an opportunity to wrestle with big ideas and discover for yourself what’s really important. It’s an opportunity to meet people who share the interests your high school friends never understood, as well as to engage people who think very differently than you do. All those ivy-covered illusions we have about college life still resonate with us because they represent the enduring value of a liberal education.
So while my son still has the freedom to pursue a liberal education, my wife and I will preserve that freedom by shouldering some additional responsibility. And if he starts to think us a little prosaic, I can take comfort in the knowledge that he too will eventually see college “from both sides.”
[This morning, I filled in for my pastor and preached a sermon for the first time.
Here is the manuscript of that sermon.]
Do Your Eyes Light Up?
How many of you have ever had this experience: You’re worn out from a hard day’s work, feeling beaten up, broken down, tired, and discouraged. You get in your car to drive home, maybe facing a long and stressful commute. Then, at some point during the drive, a favorite song comes on the radio. Maybe it’s a song you loved as a teenager, a song you listened to while you and your spouse were dating, a song that made you feel better during a difficult time in your life. Whatever the reason, it’s a song that is special to you.
Without thinking, you begin singing along, tapping the steering wheel, nodding your head to the rhythm of the music. Your eyes light up, and before long, you’re smiling and singing at the top of your lungs. Where you were exhausted when you got in the car, you now have a surprising amount of energy. You may even get so animated you start to worry about what the other drivers will think of you.
Have you ever had an experience like that?
Somehow music—especially our favorite music—has the power to transform our attitudes, our emotions, and our outlook on life. It doesn’t even seem to matter if it’s a song you haven’t heard in years or one you listen to all the time. These days my kids can download just about any song they want to hear and play it over and over again. Yet when that same song comes on the car radio, they get excited and urge me not to change the station. Somehow it’s still exciting to know a song you love is actually being played on the radio. It’s like a confirmation that other people love the song as much as you do.
There’s something paradoxical about the way we share our favorite music with others. On the one hand, we pride ourselves on loving that music even before it becomes popular. For example, my wife and I love the music of Michael Bublé, who sings all the big band standards from the 30s and 40s. He’s now wildly popular, but for some reason, we take pride in the fact that we discovered his music before he really became big. It’s kind of like that old country song that goes, “I was country when country wasn’t cool.” Somehow, we want to make it clear that we love our favorite music not because it’s popular but because we recognize its intrinsic meaning and value.
On the other hand, it’s not like we want to keep our favorite music secret. We want other people to listen to and appreciate the music we cherish. We say, “Come here and listen to this!” and we’re disappointed if they don’t get as excited about it as we do. If they do share our enthusiasm for that music, we suddenly have a connection we didn’t have before.
When Lisa and I first started dating, she learned that I love the music of Peter, Paul, and Mary, so she surprised me with tickets to see them in concert. The fascinating thing about that concert was that it felt more like a family reunion than a concert. There were grandparents there with their children and grandchildren, passing along the music they had treasured in their youth. I was there precisely because my parents had introduced me to that music, and I have since shared it with my own kids.
How many of you have had this experience: you’re singing a favorite song and you find that you’ve forgotten some of the words? How do you feel when that happens? A little embarrassed, right? A little ashamed that you could forget something that’s supposed to be so important to you. Somehow, we instinctively know that if we say we value something, we should know it really well.
Why am I spending so much time talking about how we react to our favorite songs? Because our sermon text today comes from one of my favorite songs in the Bible, and it speaks to how well we value the word of God itself. Turn with me to Psalm 19:7.
In this passage, David sings about his love for God’s Word, and he reflects on the effect it has on us:
The instruction of the Lord is perfect,
renewing one’s life;
the testimony of the Lord is trustworthy,
making the inexperienced wise.
The precepts of the Lord are right,
making the heart glad;
the command of the Lord is radiant,
making the eyes light up.
The fear of the Lord is pure,
the ordinances of the Lord are reliable
and altogether righteous.
They are more desirable than gold—
than an abundance of pure gold;
and sweeter than honey,
which comes from the honeycomb.
In addition, Your servant is warned by them;
there is great reward in keeping them.
Here was a man who cherished the Word of God so much he couldn’t help but sing about it. Just as we want other people to appreciate “our kind of music,” David wanted us all to appreciate the surpassing value of the Scriptures.
First he sings: The instruction of the Lord is perfect, renewing one’s life.
Have you ever felt hurt, discouraged, depressed, or uncertain and found comfort in a piece of music? After breaking up with a girl I had dated for a couple of years in college, I remember listening to a song by Rich Mullins called “Home.” There’s a line in that song that says, “What I’d have settled for, you’ve blown so far away; what you’ve brought me to I thought I could not reach.” It was a reminder to me that while that relationship had ended, it was ultimately because God had something far better in store for me—and indeed He did.
Even more than in a piece of music, we can find comfort and renewal in the Word of God itself. When you fall once more into that same old familiar sin, turn to the Bible and find words of renewal: “Yes! His mercies are new every morning! (Lam. 3:22–23) Yes! He redeems my life from the pit and crowns me with love and compassion. (Psalm 103:4) Yes! Jesus Christ came to save sinners, of whom I am the worst! (1 Tim. 1:15)” When you feel alone and abandoned, turn to the Bible and find words of renewal: “Yes! Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me. (Psalm 27:10). Yes! The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18)”
The instruction of the Lord is able to renew our life precisely because it is “perfect”: perfectly true, perfectly sufficient, perfectly trustworthy.
Next David sings: the testimony of the Lord is trustworthy, making the inexperienced wise.
Now, it’s not unusual for our favorite music to give us advice: some of it good; some of it not so good. James Taylor advises us to “shower the people you love with love.” Always excellent advice. Billy Joel reminds men: “Tell her about it! Tell her everything you feel. Give her every reason to accept that you’re for real.” Certainly an important reminder. The Shoop Shoop Song advises young women “If you wanna know if he loves you so, it’s in his kiss.” Probably not the soundest advice in the world. And then there was Stephen Still’s recommendation that “If you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with.” Again, we probably should disregard that one altogether!
While musicians are not always known for giving the best advice, David reminds us that the “testimony of the Lord is trustworthy.” As such, it has the power to “make the inexperienced wise.” We grown-ups worry about you young people because your lack of experience is obvious to us, while you have a hard time seeing it. When I was 18, I thought I had lived quite long and become quite wise. Now I look back and realize just how much I was flying by the seat of my pants! But I did have one thing going for me: I read the words of the Bible and took them seriously. If this was really the Word of God, a God who had created me for a purpose, who knew me better than I knew myself, who knew what was best for me and what could bring me to ruin, then I could turn to it whenever I wasn’t sure what to do. I could ask questions of it and find trustworthy answers. I could gain wisdom without always having to learn the hard way.
Looking back on my life, I can see how much pain I was spared when I followed “the testimony of the Lord,” and I can see how much difficulty I had when I chose to ignore God’s Word and go my own way. Proverbs 16:25 says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” If you want to live a life of wisdom, don’t follow the way that seems right to you; follow the trustworthy testimony of the Lord.
David then sings: The precepts of the Lord are right, making the heart glad; the command of the Lord is radiant, making the eyes light up.
I’ve already talked about how our favorite music can change our mood and make our eyes light up. How much more ought that to be true of Scripture?
Psalm 1 says, “How happy is the man who does not follow the advice of the wicked or take the path of sinners or join a group of mockers! Instead, his delight is in the Lord’s instruction, and he meditates on it day and night. He is like a tree planted beside streams of water that bears its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.”
Do you want to be happy? “Delight in the Lord’s instruction.” “Meditate on it day and night.” Let your roots go deep into its well-watered soil so you can grow and bear fruit.
Returning to Psalm 19, we read that “the precepts of the Lord are right, making the heart glad.” What God’s Word teaches is true and right and good. How can our hearts not be made glad when they’re saturated with what is true and right and good? A dark and troubled world makes us weary, and we get discouraged when we see the chronic weakness and hypocrisy within the church, but “the precepts of the Lord are right.” They give us truth and hope and the promise that one day God will make everything right and wipe away every tear. That alone has the power to make our hearts truly glad.
In the same way, “the command of the Lord is radiant, making the eyes light up.” The command of the Lord is radiant, full of light. It shines in the darkness of our failures, our faithlessness, our discouragement, and our despair. It lights a fire within us. A fire that makes our eyes light up.
When I was in college, I went on a summer missions trip with kids from colleges all over the country. One of the girls in our group was a relatively new believer named Jessie. She was pretty and bubbly and always seemed to have a smile on her face. One day she showed several of us some pictures of herself at college, and I immediately said, “These were taken before you became a Christian, weren’t they?” Surprised, she said, “Yes! How did you know?” I told her that I could just tell. Her physical appearance was no different in the photos, but there was just something different about her. She didn’t have the same radiance, the same spark, the same light in the eyes she had now. That’s the effect that knowing God has on a person. His Word is radiant, and if we bask in its glow, we’ll shine with a light from within.
Next David sings: The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are reliable and altogether righteous.
The songs we resonate with most deeply are the ones we believe to be speaking right to us, expressing some truth we cannot help but recognize. Roberta Flack sings a song called Killing Me Softly with His Song that expresses the anguish she feels when a musician starts “strummin’ [her] pain with his fingers and singin’ [her] life with his words.” It’s the same discomfort we get when we feel like the preacher is speaking directly to us.
Or consider Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA. One reason that song became so popular was that it expressed what many Americans were feeling in the early 1980s. Americans’ confidence had been shaken by Vietnam, the economic woes of the late 70s, and our apparent impotence to resolve the Iran Hostage Crisis. Then Lee Greenwood comes along singing about how he’s “proud to be an American” where at least he knows he’s free, and everybody says, “Yes! Me too! And they can’t take that away from me, either!”
How much more are “the ordinances of the Lord … reliable and altogether righteous”! The Bible is truth we can rely upon. It is righteous. It’s teachings are good. Every society that has sincerely followed its teachings has prospered, and every society that has wandered from its teachings has grown weaker and more corrupt. Today we live at a time when many people are questioning the righteousness and goodness of what the Bible teaches. They dismiss it as “Bronze Age Morality” that has no place in a modern society, but we know it as the Word of God. Whatever anyone may say, it is “reliable and altogether righteous,” and, to quote Lee Greenwood, “they can’t take that away.”
Finally, David sings: They are more desirable than gold—than an abundance of pure gold; and sweeter than honey, which comes from the honeycomb. In addition, Your servant is warned by them; there is great reward in keeping them.
Think for a moment about the lengths we go in order to listen to the music we love. Those of us who have been around a while have bought radios, turntables, casette decks, Walkmans, CD players, iPods, and the records, tapes, CDs, and music downloads they play. Some of us purchase pricey concert tickets or sport clothing which announces to the world what kind of music we love. As a society, we spend huge sums of money on something as ethereal and intangible as music.
David compares the words of Scripture to gold and honey, two items whose worth is far more tangible. Gold offered purchasing power and honey offered sweet-tasting food. Who wouldn’t desire such things? Yet David argues that God’s word is far more desirable, far more valuable, and far more sweet. It warns us against those things which can harm us and there is indeed “great reward in keeping [its ordinances].”
Do you have a passion for the Word of God? Do you get as excited about reading it as you do about listening to a favorite song? Do you turn to it when your heart needs to be made glad? Do you look to it for wisdom beyond your years of experience? Do you read it over and over the same way you listen to a favorite song? Do you cherish it because it speaks truth which is “reliable and altogether righteous”? Do you feel embarrassed and ashamed when you forget its words? Do you desire it more fervently than the money you earn and the tasty food you eat? Are you eager to share it with others in the hope that they will cherish it the way you do?
I ask these questions not to load us down with guilt, but to help us take a hard look at how much we really value God’s Word. Typically, the application of a message like this would be to read the Bible more, memorize Scripture more, embark on a daily reading plan, or study the Bible in greater depth. If you’re like me, you leave such sermons with good intentions and then fizzle out after a few days.
I want you to apply this message to your life not by trying to do more with the Bible, but by striving to love the Bible more. David cherished God’s Word so much he couldn’t stop singing about it, but all too often we take it for granted, leave it sitting on a shelf all week, and face the world without benefitting from its ability to renew our life, make us wise, make our hearts glad, and make our eyes light up.
Do our eyes light up when we read our Bibles like they light up when we hear our favorite songs? If not, we need to bask in the radiance of God’s Word until we can’t help but reflect its light.
What are we to make of the death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman? Is this one more case of a racist system enabling a white man to get away with murdering a young black man? Is this a simple case of self-defense which is being distorted by those who benefit from stirring up racial animus? What can we learn about racism from this case?
Ultimately, the only complete account of what happened that night comes from George Zimmerman himself. Since murderers are prone to lie in order to protect themselves, it is perfectly understandable that many people find his testimony suspect. However, since the weight of the evidence presented at trial corroborates many of the details of Zimmerman’s story, no one should be surprised that the jury did not believe the prosecution had established Zimmerman’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, while it is certainly possible that Zimmerman pursued Martin until he provoked a confrontation in which he murdered the teen in cold blood, there was no clear evidence that such was actually the case.
What’s more, there is very little evidence that Zimmerman is, in fact, racist toward blacks. In fact, there is a fair amount of evidence to the contrary, such as his black former business partner, the help he offered his black neighbors, and his activism on behalf of a black homeless man who was allegedly beaten by the son of a Sanford police officer.
Those who are convinced Zimmerman was motivated by racism point to his words on the phone with the police dispatcher that night: “F—ing punks! These a—holes always get away!” In their minds, the people Zimmerman was referring to were young black men like Martin. Those who do not see Zimmerman as being motivated by racism would argue that the people he was referring to were simply the criminals (whatever their race) who had perpetrated a string of break-ins and acts of vandalism in Zimmerman’s neighborhood.
It appears to me that those who are convinced Zimmerman targeted an innocent boy simply because he was black must set aside the clearest facts of the case in favor of wild conjecture designed to suit their preconceived notions about how the world works. That is why most of those who cry “racism” in the Zimmerman case tend to talk more about the ongoing reality of racism than about the facts surrounding Martin’s death.
Now, I am perfectly willing to have a discussion about ongoing racism against blacks. As a white man, I am even willing to admit that I may have trouble recognizing such racism when it occurs. I need a reliable guide who can open my eyes to the racism I miss or gloss over. However, I cannot find a reliable guide among those who are currently minimizing Martin’s vices in order to portray him as a saint, who are trivializing the injuries Zimmerman sustained, and who are otherwise ignoring or distorting evidence in this case. They simply don’t strike me as honest.
Nevertheless, I do understand that the fate of Trayvon Martin has struck a chord with many blacks who have felt like they are guilty until proven innocent in the eyes of a society that “favors whiteness.” We will never know for certain whether Zimmerman followed Martin because he was black or because he was, in fact, acting suspiciously, but these people know all too well their own innocence in the face of suspicious glances, hastily-locked car doors, and unwanted scrutiny. They know what it’s like to be viewed with suspicion simply because they are black, and they see that experience reflected in Zimmerman’s suspicion of Martin.
No one likes to feel misjudged, especially when you’re being judged for something you can’t control, such as the color of your skin. It can certainly be galling to feel you must behave a certain way in order to get around people’s prejudices. I think this is what is behind the complaints of some black people that they must dress and act “white” in order to be accepted in white circles, get a good job, or avoid unnecessary hassle by the police. It is unfortunate that such prejudices are still very real. Yet what is the solution? How do we overcome those prejudices? Where should the battle be fought?
Many of the activists who lobby for racial equality (or for that matter, gender equality, gay rights, etc.) believe the fundamental problem is a corrupt “system” which codifies inequality and privileges “whiteness” (or “maleness,” “straightness,” etc.). The problem is not just that individual people are racist or sexist or homophobic, but that the societal deck is stacked against whole groups of people, denying them equal opportunity, consigning them to an endless cycle of poverty, encouraging criminality, and marginalizing them. The next time you hear the talking heads on TV discuss the problems of inequality and prejudice, listen carefully for how quickly they move past criticizing some individual’s particular act of racism to criticizing the “system” and discussing problems of poverty and opportunity. Much of this thinking can be directly traced to the philosophical teachings of Karl Marx, who saw economic inequality as the root of all human evils and who promoted the revolutionary overthrow of the system he regarded as unfair.
The problem with Marxism and the reason the alternative system he proposed has been such an abysmal failure is that it disregards the real cause of all human evils: the sinfulness and corruption of the human heart. As liberationists of various kinds are quick to point out, the Bible has much to say about social injustice and economic inequality. But where exactly does the Bible aim those criticisms? Not at the corruption and injustice of some political or economic system, but at the corruption and injustice of individual people. It is the kings, the judges, the rich, and the strong whom the Bible lambasts for exploiting the poor, the weak, the orphan, and the widow. After all, the “system”—whatever system that is—is run by individuals whose hearts are “deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9, NIV). If there is racism in the “system,” it is because there is still racial prejudice in the hearts of the individuals who make up the system. And that means all the individuals who make up the system: both those in power and those who are disenfranchised.
Are young black men still viewed with suspicion when they walk through a department store? Then we need to address the racial animus in the hearts of the department store personnel. Conversely, if a disproportionate number of shoplifters happen to be young black men, we need to realize that the suspicions of the department store personnel are not merely a matter of racism.
Young black men are not the only ones who get “profiled” in department stores. A few years ago my then preteen daughters and their friends were asked to leave a store because the store owner said, “I don’t trust you!” As good kids who were only looking through greeting cards and giggling too loudly, my girls were incensed at the prejudicial treatment they had received. And while I believed that store owner was totally out of line, I also tried to help my girls understand that he probably has had problems with girls their age in the past. How can he possibly know they are good girls who would never think of shoplifting?
Those who focus on the racism within the “system” are always fighting for political change while bemoaning the ongoing presence of racist attitudes. At the same time, they have to whitewash (forgive the pun) the problematic behavior of certain black individuals who reinforce negative racial stereotypes and make white racists feel their views are justified. Finally, they imply that every white person who abhors racism is really racist without knowing it because they are still part of a fundamentally racist system.
Those who focus on fighting the racism within the human heart are attacking racism at its source. Whatever our race, we all tend to indulge in racial stereotypes and to view the “other” with suspicion. Whatever our opinions of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, we all tend, like them, to prejudge (and misjudge) people by their appearance and the group to which they belong. Whatever our cultural background, we all tend to assume that our culture is just a little bit better than all other cultures. It all boils down to sinful people trying to think better of themselves by thinking worse of others. In the end, racism is merely one symptom of the universal human condition, and it, like all other sins, can only be eradicated through a transformation of the heart.
Are Christians “called” to have “amazing sex”? According to a recent article for Relevant magazine, the answer is a resounding “no.” In that article, Rachel Pietka rightly takes the Christian abstinence movement to task for “exaggerating … the benefits of saving sex for marriage.” She also correctly points out that modern Christians’ preoccupation with having amazing sex within marriage “smacks of an inferiority complex that wants to compete with mainstream culture’s view of sex rather than modeling a rightly ordered sexual ethic to the world.” However, she also uncritically accepts one aspect of “mainstream culture’s view of sex” which I believe to be seriously mistaken: namely, the notion of “sexual incompatibility.” Consequently, while Pietka makes an important point, she appears to end up with a view of sex within marriage which is far too pessimistic.
Pietka begins by citing a few reactions against the Christian abstinence movement’s tendency to over promise the joys of remaining virginal until marriage. Among these, she focuses on an article entitled My Virginity Mistake, written by Jessica Ciencin Henriquez. Henriquez attributes her “quick divorce” to her sexual incompatibility with her husband and blames her teenage abstinence pledge for keeping her from discovering the lack of a sexual spark before she tied the knot. Henriquez’s account of her premarital commitment to purity was undermined by sarcastic references to her relationship with Christ, comments about underage drunkenness, and other indications that her “press[ing] on in stubbornness” was driven more by legalistic righteousness than a sincere desire to please God. In spite of this, Pietka draws the conclusion: “Henriquez’s story is important because it highlights an issue the abstinence movement rarely acknowledges: sexual incompatibility within marriage.”
Pietka never bothers to define “sexual incompatibility within marriage” or to explain its causes and symptoms; she merely asserts that “Couples may find themselves incompatible in the bedroom” and that sexual incompatibility is a “cross” that some Christian married couples will have to bear. The ethical point she wants to make is that “bad sex” (also never defined) is “neither a reason for divorce nor an excuse to stop investing in a marriage.” That is certainly an important point. God never promised that sex between those who were virgins when they married is inherently more ecstatic and satisfying than sex between the promiscuous or even the perverted, yet much Christian teaching about abstinence seems to make that very promise. Marriage is about more than “amazing sex,” and the absence of “amazing sex” is not a reason to “put asunder” what God has joined together (Matthew 19:6).
While Pietka’s point is an important corrective to the excesses of much recent Christian teaching about sex, the idea that a husband and wife may be “sexually incompatible” strikes me as terribly pessimistic and rooted in worldly assumptions about sex. One such assumption is the notion that sexual pleasure is primarily the result of chemical attraction and physical stimulation. The implication of that belief is that great sex depends on finding the right partner and using the right sexual techniques. If a couple does not experience a sexual “spark,” they must try to generate that spark by employing the right technique. If every technique has been tried and ecstasy does not result, then the problem can be written off as a lack of sexual chemistry between the partners. No one is to blame; they just need to find someone who is more compatible. While Pietka would deny that those struggling with “sexual incompatibility within marriage” should look for a more compatible partner, she nevertheless seems to accept these basic assumptions about sex.
I’ve been married long enough to know that sexual intimacy and ecstasy have far more to do with what’s going on in each partner’s head and heart than on which nerve endings happen to get stimulated. The most erotic physical contact can be dulled if one or both of us is tired, sick, stressed out, distracted, frustrated, feeling unattractive, or worried about a child knocking on the bedroom door. Conversely, whenever we are absolutely enamored with each other, even the most incidental touch can feel electric. The aforementioned article by Henriquez on her “virginity mistake” revealed that she was distractedly making grocery lists during sex and that she and her husband no longer kissed with the same intensity once they were married. She likewise admitted that she “was not a willing student” but then complained that “he was no teacher, either.” I read all that not as an indication that this couple was “sexually incompatible,” but that they had unrealistic expectations and did not deal honestly with their deeper issues.
Many Christian advocates of premarital abstinence have oversold virginity as the key to ecstatic marital sex. Remaining a virgin until marriage is not merely a means to an end, a pragmatic delaying of sexual gratification so that sex will ultimately be more satisfying. On the contrary, premarital abstinence is a virtue to which Christians are commanded and called by God. Failure to keep that command does not ruin one’s chances for sexual satisfaction, and success in keeping that command is no guarantee of a great sex life. At most one can say that the virginal bride and groom may have less baggage to deal with in the bedroom than those who have had previous sexual partners. To the extent that such a lack of baggage can facilitate a frame of mind and condition of heart conducive to passion and intimacy, it can be understood to help lead to great sex, but it’s really just one ingredient of a much more complicated recipe.
As Christians, we are not “called” to have amazing sex, and sexual satisfaction is not a promised attribute of the Christian life. Nevertheless, Christians who are having problems in the bedroom need not resign themselves to bearing a cross of “sexual incompatibility.” Rather, they need to realize that their struggles are more likely a matter of head and heart than of chemistry and mechanics. It is then they will be able to turn for help to the God who has the power to change hearts and minds.
Like “amazing grace” and “amazing love,” amazing sex is a gift from God. We can’t demand it as a reward for premarital abstinence, but neither should we be afraid to ask him for it.
“Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” —James 1:16–17, NIV