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Wednesday, October 12, 2005

More Sex & The Image of God

A few weeks ago I concluded that, “If we're looking for better sex, we need to start by renovating our imago-dei.” I'd like to pick up where I left off and flesh out some implications.

The basic premise is simple: I think the driving force behind our sexual impulses is creational rather than biological – we strongly desire sex because we are built with a fundamental thirst for intimate relationships. Humanity is relational because the God himself is fundamentally relational (trinity) and we are created in his image. We are creative for the same reasons; God himself is fundamentally creative.

Of course we need to keep in mind that our resemblance to God is analogous, not identical. This is why our creativity is always derivative (whereas God is free to create ex nihilo). This is why we are designed to find our ultimate satisfaction in something outside ourselves (whereas God finds fulfillment in himself).

That may be a hard sell for sinners bent on serving themselves, but it shouldn't surprise us; after all, God has built reminders of our dependence into the fabric of creation – he commands Adam to do something that is impossible on his own: “Be fruitful and multiply.” And along came Eve...

This is where Scripture gets interesting. God says there is something special about this male-female relationship: it's not simply for companionship or even procreation; it's for something far grander, full of wonder, permanence, mutuality, one-flesh mysteriousness (Gen 2:20-25). It goes far beyond the simple satisfaction of mutual orgasms (although good sex is certainly a part of it).

The Apostle Paul picks up this one-flesh imagery in the NT when he addresses husbands, telling us to love our wives as our own bodies, nourishing, cherishing, purifying and perfecting them. Then he makes a startling connection: the ravishing faithfulness of husband-wife unity is meant to be a profound picture how Christ relates to the church (Eph 5:25-33). Wow.

Does Paul really have sex in view here? I think so (although that's not all he has in view). In his culture (and in ours up until about 30 years ago), sex was always seen as something sacred to the marriage relationship – it was the act that “sealed the deal” on the wedding night. Even today, we still realize that having sex with someone fundamentally changes the nature of our relationship. Paul goes further: not only do we have sexual obligations to one another within marriage (1 Cor 7:3), but sex outside of marriage actually stamps an “au-contraire” on our other one-flesh relationships, both with our spouse and with Christ (1 Cor 6:15-19).

So if bad sex breaks relationships, does good sex somehow make them better?

This question is quite revealing – it suggests that we often view sex as an end in and of itself, or as some kind of super-glue that will magically mend an otherwise broken relationship. In reality, it's the other way around – our sexuality images the health of our one-flesh relationships with Christ and our spouse; it reveals the state of the imago-dei in us.

So will renovating the image of God within actually improve my sex life?

It will, but perhaps not in the way we might expect. We need to keep in mind that relationship runs much deeper than sex. Last night at Barnes & Noble I thumbed through a Christian sex book called Sheet Music. Not bad, but I didn't buy the book. It had a lot to say about technique; but it had very little to offer about how to go deeper, to nurture the relationship which sex is supposed to image. I think that is quite telling.

At the end of the day, I suspect that being renewed in the image of Christ will teach us to be satisfied in our sexual calling. If I am single, that means learning to find joy in the discipline of chastity; if I am married, it entails fidelity, delighting in the wife of my youth, learning to how to wrestle with one another rightly, putting her desires before my own.

That last one is particularly difficult for me. I like sex. Lot's of it. But I am learning that what I desire even more is intimacy; I am discovering that what I really long for is an affectionate mutuality which Scripture says can only be found in marriage and in Christ. And I am learning that even marriage is at best a dim reflection of the real thing, that it takes a ton of work and intentionality to actually try and make the sexual relationship reflect the spiritual one.

It's not a matter of technique – it's a matter of re-orienting the desires of my heart to be a giver rather than a consumer, a servant rather than a king.

And that is a huge challenge, because even mature Christians still struggle with selfish desires. By its very nature sex seems to highlight these tensions – in most cases, the desire for sex begins as an urge or craving for our own gratification; how does that fit with dying to yourself and serving your spouse when you are on fire and she is not?

There is certainly an element of mystery here. At the same time, real one-anothering is possible in sex, and it's tremendously satisfying to find yourselves actually making progress in areas that have been sore spots for years.

Real one-flesh sex is a wondrous thing – physically, emotionally, and relationally. But the intimacy that makes these things possible it is even better. In our own marriage, we are discovering that the more we focus on modeling the imago-dei within us, the better we express our sexuality with one another.

Of course it's sometimes hard to measure our progress when we're still not sure of the ideal we should be aiming for, but maybe that's part of God's intention too – to leave plenty of room for exploring, not to find some new position, but to continually improve the orientation of our hearts, that we might better image Christ even (especially!) in the act of sex.


At 5:10 PM, October 13, 2005, Blogger Mark Traphagen said...

Beautifully said, Christian. Probably not much out there in print about how even our sexuality in marriage is a way in which God is working to conform us to the image of Christ.

I just want to know one thing, is "learning how to wrestle with one another rightly" your personal euphamism for "good sex"? ;-D

At 5:25 PM, October 13, 2005, Blogger Christian said...

Good question Sage - I'm actually not sure how to answer your question.

I wrote it because it felt right - I know that it's true, but I'm not sure I know entirely what I mean by it. I think sex is certainly part of it (so yeah, in that sense it's euphemistic), but I think I'd like to extend the metaphor to all manner of wrestling - everything from fighting to lovemaking.

I think I'm suggesting that we are called to image God in the way we approach both of these relational extremes, along with everything in between.

There. That'll teach you to ask probing questions...

At 5:45 PM, October 13, 2005, Blogger rs said...

One thing about sex within marriage that you do not find in sex outside of marriage is the way in which it is a litmus test for your whole marriage relationship in some ways.

Let me try to explain what I mean. Within the protection of the marriage covenant, sex becomes an expression of your relationship. Sometimes enjoyment comes very easily. Both husband and wife feel like having sex and do and it is great. Other times it isn't so easy and you have to work to serve the other person. Not just work in the sense of trying to help them achieve orgasm, but work just to go through with intercourse.

Outside of marriage, when sex becomes not so easy, people tend to bolt. The truth of the matter is that sex is not the relationship-it is an expression and aspect of the relationship. Relationships are work. Covenant and commitment provide an opportunity for real mutual serving and enjoyment to take place.

Hope that made sense. It's clear in my mind, but hard to articulate!


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