“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything. You say, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.” The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. (1 Cor 6:12-13)
Mainstream American culture shows an increasingly permissive attitude towards non-marital sex. Outside of a few ethnic subgroups (communities which have morals that are resistant to these changes) the percentages show a rapid and significant shift away from traditional Christian norms regarding sex over the last 40 years. In the early 70s, for example, 29% of Americans believed premarital sex was “not wrong at all,” but 62% of Millenials in 2010 have that opinion. To the degree that Christian values of modesty and abstinence arise, they are characterized as examples of “puritan prudery” aimed at spreading “misinformation” and shaming teenagers into “thinking sex is dirty and will ruin their lives forever” (Pulley, Salon 2015).
Is that really why Christians believe sex is reserved for marriage? To shame and misinform? Do we actually think sex is dirty?
There is no aspect of Christianity more at odds with our culture than its view on sexuality. Restricting sex to marriage seems archaic and counter-intuitive. How can you gauge sexual compatibility without engaging in sex? Why would a legal ceremony change the moral nature of a sexual act? The sexual morals of previous generations seem stuffy and impractical. Many people have concluded that Christianity is inherently oppressive, or calculated to limit our pursuit of happiness. The God of Christianity seems to be a cosmic killjoy, old-fashioned, and anti-fun.
C.S. Lewis has it right in Mere Christianity, though. We have lost a sense that limiting our consumption of sex has inherent benefits for our lives, and that there is something peculiar and disturbing about the current trends.
You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act—that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food? And would not anyone who had grown up in a different world think there was something equally queer about the state of the sex instinct among us?
—C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 96.
Something is broken in this country. Men and women view themselves as both commodities and consumers, trying to fill an emptiness inside themselves as they spend their lives on a system that devalues them. We have exchanged character, self-respect, and self-control for superficial and shallow lives. We use and discard other people, and find ourselves used and discarded by others. As we sink to new lows of perversity, enact increasingly strict laws to offset what has been (until this decade) a frightening growth in sexual violence, manage a global epidemic of addiction to internet porn, and watch the degradation of women (and a loss of self-esteem) rise to all-time levels, we won't accept that our refusal to set limits has a connection to the life we're left with.
We've lost the ability to see what is happening to us; that our values have led us to an existence where we have to overindulge to find any sense of meaning or happiness. But the version of happiness that it brings leaves us worse off than when we began. We watch celebrities who have the means to pursue this vision of life crash and burn. The unrestrained life we are looking for is a dead end. The refusal to set limits is self-destructive. Like Paul writes in 1 Cor. 6, “I have the right to do anything,” but that doesn't mean it's good for our lives. Our sexual overindulgence is not good for us, individually or as a people. All of this has been tried before, historically. Cultures which refused to set limits have all imploded.
Jesus didn't come to repress or shame. He came to offer life. “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). What the world offers, with its unrestrained sex, is not life. It is something offered instead of the life that Jesus is talking about. It is a substitute, a way to compensate for the absence of such a life. A way to dull the pain, to distract us from our emptiness and lack of self-worth. What Jesus was offering was the thing we were built to have. The thing we were made for. The thing that provides meaning and fulfillment. We don't give something up when we accept what he offers. We gain something that meets our deepest needs.
Paul writes 1 Corinthians to Christians who live in a culture that was not very different from ours, with regard to its view on sexuality. It was a culture on the decline. And while the growth of Christianity delayed its fall, it couldn't stop it. But within that culture, men and women who put their trust in Jesus Christ found the life that he promised. We were built for holiness. The one who made us created us for it—to contain his life. That's what Paul is saying. We were made to have sex, and to enjoy it greatly, but within the context of a loving, life-long commitment. If we use it the way it was intended to be used, we have the life we were intended to have, and become the people we were meant to be. That leads to self-worth, as well as valuing others. We have peace and joy, fulfillment and purpose. This is why we believe sex is reserved for marriage. It leads to that life, and everything that goes with it. If we try to use sex some other way, we don't have that life. We have instead what we see in American culture today.
Jesus' offer of life is as relevant today as it was then. People of all times were built by the same Creator, and meant to experience fulfillment on the same terms. Christianity is not about rules intended to limit your fun, but a guideline to have the life you were meant to have. That's the life you want, believe me. I've tried it the other way, and there is nothing there. Reject the lies that this world tells you, that keep you on a path to even deeper emptiness, and grab hold of the life that is truly life.