God Loves Sex, now that is a book title! Sadly that is a concept that is foreign to so many Christians. It is easy to get that idea if you do a selective reading of the Bible. It is easy to find all the “do not’s” and get the idea that God doesn’t really like sex and views it only as a means to a procreative end. This kind of view has led many to take an allegorical approach to The Song of Songs, a book in the Bible which I believe exalts the beauty (and frustration) of a redeemed marital sexuality.
It has been a number of years since Dan Allender and Tremper Longman III have collaborated on a book together. It has been a very beneficial collaboration, in my mind. This particular collaboration is highly dependent on Longman’s commentary on The Song. I recently read that commentary to prepare for a Sunday School series on the Song. I’m grateful that this book was released in time for me to read it as well.
This is not an academic look at The Song. While it is dependent on Longman’s commentary it is not a commentary. Allender’s contribution is seen in the subtitle: An Honest Conversation About Sexual Desire and Holiness. It is written to the heart too, inviting us to ponder our sexuality and its expression in our lives.
This book is similar to their book on the Proverbs, Bold Purpose (which was re-released as Breaking the Idols of Your Heart: How to Navigate the Temptations of Your Life). First, they handle the material in terms of themes instead of in the order presented in The Song. Second, they set the book in the context of a study on The Song. As a result you have characters who are struggling as some of us would. What we find is that each character is uncomfortable with something about sex. All of us struggle, but don’t necessarily have the same sexual struggle. The desire of the authors is to help us see and address our struggles in the light of Scripture. Too many of us keep our sexual struggles not only to ourselves, but locked up tight in our souls where even we don’t examine them.
As a result, some of the material presented, particularly the struggles of the unnamed (at least I can’t remember a name) protagonist. There are moments when this mid-20’s new convert seems really off the wall. Yet as a young man who has suppressed his abuse this makes sense.
This book is not about the facts or mechanics of sex. It is about our hearts in sex. It is about our longings and desires. This makes it more messy and uncomfortable at times. This is not a criticism but a reality you must understand. It means that not everyone will want to read this book. It is for the person willing to examine their own sex lives to understand the desires of their hearts; particularly the ones they don’t want to share with anyone.
The book begins with the reality that God, who created sex, loves sex. He created us male and female with complementary anatomy. He is the one who put all those nerve endings on our bodies that make sex so pleasurable. He is the one who gave us hormones that make us desire sex. He is the one who made us relational beings who long for intimacy, particularly the intimacy of marriage (which He also instituted). When we think of all the “don’t’s” in Scripture they are protective of that marital intimacy as a reflection of our spiritual union with God in Christ.
Sin has disordered us, and therefore our sexuality and sex lives. We have been sinned against and this distorts our sexuality in many ways. When we think of holiness we need to think about the Spirit’s work in applying redemption to our sexuality too. He sheds light and re-orders us.
The first chapter deals with how to interpret The Song and how the Church has struggled with it. It addresses how the allegorical approach robs the text of its meaning and places it in the hands of experts who can decode it for us. They also reject the dramatic interpretation that has captivated many in Evangelical circles that reject the allegorical. They advocate The Song as a collection of poems with an overall plot that speak of love and sex. They address the main characters and its place with the context of Scripture. They take an essentially “already-not yet” approach. With Christ’s work we already experience forgiveness for our sexual sins, and can forgive those who sinned against us. We already have the power of the Spirit to say “no” to ungodly desires. But we are not yet perfect. We will still struggle. In a sense we’ve returned to Eden but in another we haven’t. Our reach exceeds our grasp. Our experience of sex is still not what we want, but is still plagued by relational sins and internal struggles.
The main body of the book focuses on desire, beauty, fantasy, struggles for intimacy and glory. Typically they are introduced as the Man With No Name dreads the study and exposes his fears and longings to us. Then there is the study itself focused on material from The Song, and then how he and perhaps another member process the truth and how it intersects their lives.
Overall the book is very helpful. I recommend most of it. There are two areas of concern or disagreement.
First, their view on masturbation is that it isn’t necessarily sinful. They do consider masturbation rooted in power, using another person or degradation to be wrong. They base our general freedom to partake in solo sex this on the lack of a command prohibiting it (see below). I’m not sure it is that simple. To me the Greek word for sexual immorality (porneia) indicates sexual activity outside of the bounds of marriage. Masturbation would generally be a sexual activity outside of marriage or within marriage but without one’s spouse. The shame most experience with regard to masturbation must be reckoned with. The average person may willingly admit having sex, but very few tell others they had a good session of solo sex. Either it is a legitimate shame because it is sinful or illegitimate shame because its “sinfulness” is a social construct. I have a hard time affirming that Jesus used His holy imagination to masturbate. But I could be wrong. Certainly when stacked up against other forms of sexual sin it would be a pecadillo and not one that should cripple someone spiritually or emotionally. I say this since it involves no other person (usually).
“Nowhere does the Bible condemn the feelings of sexual desire. Indeed, and this will surprise some, nowhere does the Bible condemn or prohibit masturbation, though countless young people have been made to feel tremendous guilt at drawing pleasure and relief in this way.”
The second issue I found disappointing was their view of sexual expression prior to marriage. While they affirm that intercourse is reserved for marriage they tie other expressions to commitment level. In other words they take a narrow view of ‘porneia‘.
“Perhaps the best principle, though it is not a law, is that the level of intimacy should not exceed the level of commitment that a man and a woman have for each other. A couple that is engaged have entered a level of commitment that is far beyond that of a couple in their first month of dating, but still short of the full-blown commitment of marriage. Physical intimacy should not exceed the level of commitment that a couple have for each other.
“Thus, in many ways, the answer to how far is too far is a mater not of law but of wisdom, guided by the principle that the deeper a couple’s commitment to one another, the more physically intimate they will be. … Again, a committed couple needs to know each other and talk to each other about their relationship and what makes them feel safe. … Having a law is so much easier and more clear-cut, but the Bible does not give us a law, short of reserving sexual intercourse for marriage. … An unrealistic law is not a law that is likely to be obeyed.”
They leave it as a grey area up to the couple aside from the clear prohibition against premarital sex. One thing to keep in mind is that premartial sex generally did not warrant the penalties that adultery and various sexual perversions did. In the OT law you either paid the bride price that would be forfeited or marry without possibility of divorce. It was a capital crime only if her sexual activity was not known prior to the marriage and she was presented to him as if she were a virgin.
While premarital sex is a sin, it certainly is not an unpardonable sin. Those who commit it should confess it to Father, ask for forgiveness thru Christ and seek the help of the Spirit to resist future temptation as well as exercising wisdom to avoid needless temptation.
I’m not convinced the Scriptures only consider premarital intercourse sinful but oral sex and petting, aka foreplay as okay. Engagement and marriage are really the only two meaningful commitments.
I agree with them that our society and evangelical culture put people in a crazy Catch-22. The average person spends at least a decade post-puberty before getting married. Those of long years filled with sexual desire that cannot be legitimately satisfied. For instance, I’m currently reading Bill Parcels: A Football Life. His maternal grandparents were married and had 3 kids before she was 19. He and his wife, Judy, were married and one child and one on the way when he graduated from college. In those days he was on a football scholarship AND able to manage a Pizza Hut.
The focus of the book is on cultivating a positive sexuality. It is not focused on avoiding sexual sin. There also is very little about the gospel by which our sexuality is redeemed. The readers should have realistic expectations. Expect to think about your sexual history. Expect to think about your sexual present. Expect to think about your sexual future. Expect to be uncomfortable. That would be a good thing.
[I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher for the purposes of review.]