What Is “Sexual Holiness” Anyway?
By Jenell Williams Paris
April 24, 2012
John Wesley described holiness as love of God and neighbor, which is Jesus’description of the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:34-40). But whendistorted, holiness is used as a synonym for morality, when holiness is really about being more and more in love with God and with humanity.
In the area of sexuality, specifically, morality too easily becomes an idol, whether it’s premarital virginity, marital chastity orheterosexuality. People follow hard after it, measure their worth by itand are sometimes devastated when they offend it. Moreover, Christiansteach others to measure their worth by morality rather than by theirbelovedness. When sexual morality is elevated to an idolatrous place, it diminishes people’s sense of being loved and being able to love,instead of being put in its place by love.
So, what does a rich view of sexual holiness entail?
1. Individual and corporate
Christians are called to holiness in all areas of life, both personal andcorporate. Personal sexual holiness includes how a person cares for hisor her sexual feelings, thoughts and actions. My views areconservative—I’m a “sex only within marriage between a man and a woman”kind of Christian—but I am well aware that Christians of good faithdisagree about the meaning of personal sexual holiness. Maligning thosewith whom we disagree, even to the point of questioning the validity oftheir faith or salvation, is counterproductive and damages the witnessof our religion as a whole, which is supposed to be comprised ofbelievers from many times and places united in their devotion to Jesus,not to a set of beliefs about sexuality.
The world in which Christians all agree about sexual issues is an imaginary one. Love of God and neighbor, the heart of holiness, has to bepracticed in the real world in the midst of these disagreements.
2. Christ-centered and Holy Spirit–centered
When the Holy Spirit (or a particular representation of the HolySpirit) is emphasized to the exclusion of Christ, sexual holiness can be misconstrued as whatever seems right or feels right to a person. On the other hand, when Jesus (or a particular representation of Jesus) isemphasized over the Holy Spirit, Christians can coerce themselves andothers into behavioral compliance with Jesus’ moral teachings to theneglect of cultivating personal spirituality and conscience.
Costly discipleship avoids, on the one hand, cheap grace that permits moralexcess and, on the other hand, rigid moralism that occludes mercy andjoy.
3. Development and endThe “end” of a holy life is to be like Christ. When it comes to sexualholiness, however, the end is often misperceived as a life station(heterosexual marriage) instead of a quality of life (Christlikeness).For some, marriage is not a viable or even a desirable state.
The “end” of life is to be holy, but the development of holiness neverends. It’s just as important, therefore, to emphasize Christlikeness inthe development of a spiritual life, not just as the end. It can betempting to judge a person’s present state in terms of an ideal futurestate, which isn’t right; in fact, it’s haughty. Sober judgment allowsroom for each person to develop over time and for others to understandthat person’s current context, history and future hopes.
4. Crisis and process
Salvation is described by some in crisis terms: at a low point in life, a personreceived Christ and received instantaneous transformation. Othersdescribe it as a process, perhaps not remembering a single moment ofreceiving Christ; since birth or early childhood, their life with Godhas been unfolding.
With respect to stewardship of our sexual lives, some elements of sexualitymay change instantaneously through religious experiences, such as prayer or through effort of the will or through life changes such asmarriage. Other times change happens more slowly as part of an embedded process. After sexual trauma, such as assault, for instance, a personmay find healing in his or her emotions, which links to relationships,which links to behaviors, thoughts and feelings. Still other times,sexuality doesn’t change much at all. Holiness develops simultaneouslyas crisis and process.
5. Blessing and suffering
Loving Jesus means receiving many blessings but also sharing inChrist’s sufferings. When sexuality is seen in all its dimensions, itis evident that, regardless of sexual orientation or identity,many people experience both blessing and suffering over time, andperhaps even simultaneously.
A person may have a strong marriage with an enjoyable sexualrelationship but be suffering in their physical sexual health. Anotherperson may have tension or even torment about their sexual behaviors atpresent but may have peace in their memories of the past and in theirhopes for the future. Remembering that Jesus experienced both blessingand suffering can help remind us to expect both in our sexual lives.
6. Separation and incarnation
With respect to the world, holiness requires separation at times and, atother times, meaningful, redemptive engagement. A Christian may seek tobe at the same time separate from the world in some ways and deeplyengaged in other ways. We can work toward holiness by making our culturalengagement thoughtful, aware, intentional and justice-oriented and by moving away from that which is selfish, thoughtless or hurtful to others.
Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which wasknowledge too great for them. We’re like Adam and Eve when we get lifefrom our knowledge of good and evil, setting ourselves as judge ofothers and of ourselves. Maybe human sexuality isn’t created to be aplace of fulfillment or perfection but one of rest and calm. When hopeis placed in God instead of in getting it right, we can be like a quiet child on a mother’s lap. Peace and stillness doesn’t come frombeing perfect but from loving and being loved by God and neighbor.
Taken from The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are by Jenell Williams Paris. Copyright (c) 2011 by Jenell Williams Paris. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, www.ivpress.com.