She blurted an answer… and then blushed. What a shame.
We know a couple getting married this weekend. They’ve been chaste but when the bride blurted “I can’t wait to have sex with him!” eyebrows went up. She blushed, but shouldn’t have. She was sharing the graphic gospel. It says the essence of chastity is not tamping down desire but rather turning it all the way up.
Chastity is as popular today as a pork pie in a synagogue. Surveys indicate only 12 percent of Americans abstain from sex before marriage. Christians don’t do much better. Only 20 percent of believers are chaste. Ironically, evangelicals participating in abstinence programs do worse. Only 12 percent remain chaste. This higher failure rate is reminiscent of the downbeat Fido Dog Food sales meeting. The manager tried to rally his people, asking, “Who has the most nutritious dog food?” They replied, “We do!” He asked, “Who has the largest marketing budget?” The salespeople sang out, “We do!” Then the manager lowered his voice. “Why then, out of 27 dog food companies, are we # 26?” Silence. A small voice spoke up. “Because dogs don’t like it.”
It seems the more that evangelicals learn how abstinence is healthy, the less they like it. It’s not ironic however. It’s the natural result of a double-edged sword cutting to smithereens our society’s understanding of sexuality. One edge of the blade is a pornographic culture. The other edge is a “two-chapter” disembodied gospel.
Pornography is in the lust business. It assumes lust is all there is and ever will be – it’s humanity’s essential operating platform. The historic Christian tradition doesn’t deny the reality of lust but defines it as sin. Sin is not all there is or ever has been. It’s a corruption of God’s good creation. Sin is like rust, a composite corruption of iron and oxygen. Lust is a corruption of a good drive called desire.
The other edge of the sword is a modern gospel. A “two-chapter” gospel assumes humanity is essentially sinful. Wrong. We are first image-bearers of God. We screwed up and became sinners. A disembodied gospel assumes we think our way through the world – “think right, act right.” Wrong. As Calvin College professor James K. A. Smith correctly notes, “We feel our way around our world more than we think our way through it.”1 We operate by desire. A “two-chapter” disembodied gospel doesn’t understand the essence of humanity or our essential drive. It yields Christians who have difficulty distinguishing between desire and lust.
These Christians, mainly evangelicals, are taught little about the goodness of desire. Porn pockmarks their lives, so they tend to assume sexual desires are lustful. The antidote is to try turning down the dial of lust – abstaining from pre-marital sex. It doesn’t work. They are actully turning down the dial of desire. This is why, among the major religious groups, evangelicals are the least likely to anticipate that sex will be pleasurable, writes Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin.2
But this doesn’t fully explain why evangelicals in abstinence programs become less chaste. The Apostle Paul knew why. “The law was added so that sin might increase” (Rom. 5:20). While God’s grace surpasses sin, efficacious grace has to get under the skin. A “two-chapter” disembodied gospel has trouble doing this. The “disembodied” part is rooted in the Western Enlightenment. It overlooks the body and focuses on the brain. Hence, most abstinence programs cram kids’ craniums with facts that they hope override their feelings. This approach actually increases the law. The inevitable result is that sin increases – which is why the failure rate for evangelicals in abstinence programs increases from 80 to 88 percent.
The solution is our bodily desires must be turned all the way up. We are fundamentally desiring creatures – not thinking or worldview beings. “The Protestant tradition has taken on board a picture of the human person that owes more to modernity and the Enlightenment,” writes Smith, “than it does to a holistic, biblical vision of human persons.”3 The biblical vision for people assumes desires derive from our design and destiny. We are designed to be the bride of Christ and destined to consummate this union with him. Turning up this flame of holy desire is the only way to burn away the dross of lust, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wisely noted. “The essence of chastity is not the suppression of lust but the total orientation of one’s life toward a goal.”
That goal is graphically depicted in a statue of Teresa of Avila. It shows her moaning in ecstasy – what she experienced in anticipation of “nuptial union” with Christ. Teresa, like our friend the expectant bride, couldn’t wait to consummate her marriage to Christ, her groom. Have you ever seen a believer emote this erotically about eternity with God? Evangelicals duped by a disembodied gospel are unlikely to. They might even find it vulgar. It’s not. It’s virtuous. Jesus wants his bride to desire him a lot.
In his sermon “The Weight of Glory”, C. S. Lewis said we desire too little – not too much. “Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
John Donne didn’t want to fall prey to being too easily pleased. In his poem “Batter My Heart,” he pled to the Father, Son, and Spirit to “enthrall” him. Otherwise, he “never shall be free, nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.” Donne turned the dial of desire all the way up. It’s the best avenue to abstinence and, as it turns out, the best foundation for a healthy marriage. That’s why our blurting bride shouldn’t blush. This couple is more likely to enjoy an enthralling wedding night as well as a flourishing marriage.
1 James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), p. 57.
2 Margaret Talbot, “Red Sex, Blue Sex: Why do so many evangelical teen-agers become pregnant?” The New Yorker, November 3, 2008, pp. 64-69.
3 Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, p. 31.