The Meaning of Sex: Part 3, The Crucible of Love

So, if eros is to be purified into agape, if my sexuality is also a location where I'm learning to be like Christ, how exactly is that accomplished?

The traditional Christian sexual ethic has always tied eros to an unbreakable covenantal commitment, the marital vow and promise. True, there are cases where the marriage can dissolve, but the ideal is that the promise will never be broken. As we've said in making the promise for generations, "Until death do us part."

Now, before going on, I do want to stop here and say this is a hard and wounding subject to many who have experienced divorce or great pain in a marriage. Some of our dearest Christian friends have experienced divorce. And we've had friends who have been in abusive marriages. So I have some faces here in front of me as I write about marital vows. 

Also, the point of this post isn't to shame anyone having sex outside of marriage. I'll get to this point at the end.

But I do want to share about the role of promises in spiritual formation. A promise creates a crucible of love. A promise creates an arena of spiritual formation where eros can be transformed into agape. The marital promise is that place where the selfish and greedy nature of eros experiences mortification to become less focused upon the self and more and more upon the other. For without promises, the tethers of covenantal fidelity and loyalty, the restless, insatiable demands of eros becomes a master and tyrant. Without the promise eros has no aim other than its own gratification. Where eros keeps curving inward upon the self, the promise keeps pulling you out of yourself and toward the beloved. The promise keeps eros directed toward agape. 

Given this, let me share what I think is the biggest problem with progressive Christian voices trying to update Christian sexual ethics: It's totally a young person's game. All the advice about sex that I've ever heard from progressive Christians imagines as its audience a young single person who has to make choices about sex before marriage or pornography consumption. Those are important topics, but is this all progressive Christians have to say about sex? Advice for unmarried young people?

For example, tomorrow Jana and I celebrate 30 years of marriage. We're in our fifties now. And here's something we've learned about eros and agape. Specifically, what does it mean to love one body well over the lifespan? Because our bodies aren't what they used to be. There is age, yes, but also medical issues to face and overcome. We are lovers, but we've also been nurses to each other. And through it all, our promise has kept us, and it's been a struggle as any older couple can tell you, to keep paying loving attention to these two bodies that have changed so much over the years. Over thirty years our eros has been purified, taking on the character of agape. Increasingly, we just want to take care of each other. And that's the meaning of sex that young people struggle to fathom.

And even for our Christian friends who have gotten divorced, their promises kept them trying longer than most. Maybe, in retrospect, too long for some. But even so you can see how the promises created a crucible for love, pushing our friends to determine during long seasons of discernment and martial therapy that they weren't being selfish or flippant in contemplating or finally seeking a divorce. That hard season of discernment was a form of loving each other to and through the divorce. The promise made them go the extra mile to try and make it work, causing them to wring every bit of selfishness out of the eventual decision to get a divorce. In short, that extra mile, as hard as it was, was also a crucible of spiritual formation. The promise makes us try when it would be easier to just walk away. 

To be clear, the stories of marriages and divorces are too complex to attempt a "one size fits all" cookie cutter ethic. I'm assuming readers will attempt to fit their particular experiences of sex, marriage, and divorce into the words of this post and share in the comments how their experience is the exception that proves what I'm saying is problematic or wrong. But my point here is actually quite modest. I'm not laying down any hard rule for sex outside of marriage, or making a comment about the acceptability of divorce.

What I am pointing out is that without covenantal loyalty and fidelity, without promises, eros has no place to be purified across the lifespan. Sex is more than what single twenty-year olds are up to in the bedroom. Sex is a marathon, not a sprint. The Christian sexual ethic is playing the long game with sex, thinking of lovers when they are 21 and when they are 81. For here is the good news about sex: Eros has a goal, a home, a place of rest, a location of joy and fulfillment that twenty-years olds can barely grasp. There is a beauty that is waiting for us. But we only find it in the crucible of love.

However, if you're still unconvinced, or don't think what I'm selling here will have any appeal to young people, one more post tomorrow to close my case.

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