Parents are big believers in waiting. Do you remember any of these? “Wait for your little brother!” as you ran off with your friends. “Wait a half hour before you get into the pool” just as you finished your lunch. “Wait until your father gets home!” as mom caught you pummeling your sibling for being such a nuisance.
Of course, it’s not really that they saw virtue in waiting itself. It’s just that waiting ensured something more important — loving your little brother, or protecting you from danger, or impressing on you the consequences of your actions.
There’s one other kind of waiting that parents try to teach — the patient waiting involved in delayed gratification. From staying in school because of the better job we’d someday get, to working hard at practice every day, so we’d be ready for the competition that was weeks or months away, to saving the money we earned mowing lawns or babysitting so we could pay for college or buy an engagement ring (I can’t tell you how many lawns are sitting on my wife’s finger right now!), we learn to patiently wait to maximize our gratification in the future. It’s a good lesson, as far as it goes.
But it doesn’t work for everything. Some things are best when done as soon as possible — like eating an ice cream cone on a hot day. And other things can be delayed too long — like the vacation of a lifetime that comes too late in life to be really enjoyed.
And then there’s sex.
At first, the argument to wait makes sense on the grounds of protecting yourself from something you’re not emotionally or physically ready for. Later, it makes sense on the grounds that it will be better if it happens in the context of a committed, adult relationship. But what about now? You’re in your 20s or 30s; your career is taking off, and your body and emotions are about as developed as they’re ever going to be. And though you’re not married, your relationships with the opposite sex are mature and adult-like in every other respect. So why keep waiting? You’re not a kid anymore. And even if sex is marginally better inside of marriage than outside, what if your prospects for marriage aren’t that good? Isn’t sub-optimal sex now better than no sex at all, ever?
That’s where we come to the limits of the “wait, because it’s better in marriage” argument. And it’s one of the reasons why so many of the single men and women I counsel in the local church find themselves in tears on my couch, telling me that after years of waiting, they just couldn’t wait any longer.
The Biblical Command
When we turn to what the Bible has to say about sex outside of marriage, it’s not hard to sum up the message. Don’t do it. From the Ten Commandments in Exodus to the laws of Leviticus 18, to the instructions of Paul in 1 Corinthians 6-7 to the public embarrassment that attached to the Virgin Mary, the Bible is clear that God’s standard is that sex is to be reserved for marriage and marriage alone.
And unlike much that you’ll find on the shelves of your local Christian bookstore, the Bible doesn’t spend much time trying to justify that standard. You won’t find a verse that says “Thou shalt wait, because it’s better in marriage.” There is no chapter in Scripture that touts the protection from physical disease and emotional heartache that comes from monogamy, although both of those things are true.
Instead, the Bible says things like, “You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 18:4). Or, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). The Bible teaches that we should reserve sexual intimacy for marriage for no other reason than that, if we are Christians, we belong to God. Sex outside of marriage is not only a sin against ourselves and our partner, but a fraudulent misrepresentation of God and a cruel distortion of the intimacy He created to be a picture of the eternal intimacy of the Trinity itself.
A Union of Bodies, But So Much More
What is the point of sexual intimacy? Genesis 1 tells us that one of the points is procreation. We’re to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth with the image of God, and it’s through sexual intimacy that we do that.
But right away it’s obvious that there’s more going on than mere reproduction. For one thing, though all living creatures are created to reproduce after their kind, not all do so sexually. And among those that do reproduce sexually, simple observation tells us that humans are unique in their experience of sex. Mating in the animal world is clearly attended with much urgency and instinctual drive, but not much more. Why are we different?
Of course, as far as the world is concerned, only a nerdy biologist, or a prudish Christian would bother to ask such a question. To the world, the point of sex is pleasure, release, orgasm. What other point would anyone need? Sex results in pleasure. I want pleasure, so I have sex. I want more pleasure, I have more sex. I suppose it’s a given that men in our culture tend to buy into this view — even married men; even Christian married men. What seems to be new in the last generation is the increasing extent to which women are viewing sex this way as well.
Ironically, though the first view is historically associated with Christianity, and the second view is associated with the world, both miss the main point of sexual intimacy, because both reduce sex to an instrument, a means to another end. And whenever something is reduced to a tool, a utilitarian process, it ceases to be an object of beauty in and of itself, and is only as good as what it gets you.
Why is our experience of sex so different than the rest of creation? Why did God pronounce it very good? Simply put, because the point of sexual intimacy is neither the children nor the pleasure it produces, but the union of persons that it represents and is itself a part of.
A Unions that Displays … A Marriage
Sexual intimacy is all about union. Physically, of course, that’s obvious. But there’s so much more. In sexual intimacy, we also know a union that is emotional, as our hearts are knit together even as our bodies are. We know a union that is intellectual, as we come to understand and know one another in intimate detail. We know a union that is even spiritual, for as every married couple figures out, the best sex isn’t when I make sure I get what I want, but when I forget about myself, and give myself for the blessing and delight of my spouse. And at that moment, we are very close to the heart of Christ, “who loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).
But there’s more. This union of sexual intimacy, complete in itself, is also a sign and symbol of an even more profound union of lives in the covenant marriage, when a man leaves his father and mother, and is united to his wife, and the two become one flesh. Being “one flesh” with someone can refer in a secondary way to sex, but primarily it’s just a Hebrew way of saying one family, flesh and blood. The union of marriage is not an alliance of families, with each partner representing a previous set of priorities and loyalties. No, and this was and remains quite radical, marriage is a union that dissolves the old bonds, the old loyalties, the old priorities, and creates one new family, with all that entails — one new set of priorities, one new set of fundamental loyalties.
Do you see the picture so far? The beauty of sex is that it is a profound union that stands as a sign and symbol of an even more profound union of lives in the covenant of marriage. This of course is why sex outside of marriage is ultimately unsatisfying and destructive. Without the union of marriage, the union of bodies is a parody and mockery of itself. Bereft of its proper point and context, sexual intimacy outside of marriage does not bring us into the lover’s embrace, but merely exposes us to the stranger’s stare, and reduces us to the means of someone else’s pleasure.
But there’s even more to this union that makes sexual intimacy as God designed it so beautiful. I mentioned that many men tend to view sex as a means to the end of their pleasure. If that is the typical failure of men, then I think many women tend to view intimacy, broadly considered, as an end in itself. But women, that view is just as much idolatry as the man’s worship of pleasure. There is no created thing, including the intimacy of marriage, that exists for its own sake.
The amazing thing that Paul reveals in Ephesians 5 is that the union between a husband and wife is ultimately beautiful because it too stands as a sign, a picture of something else. And that is the union between Christ and the church.
A Union that Displays … the Gospel
The ultimate point of marriage isn’t your emotional satisfaction, but to make visible the Gospel reality of Christ’s love for the church and the church’s love for Christ. The absolutely amazing truth of the Gospel is that we who were separated and alienated from God have been united by faith to the Son He loves in the New Covenant of His grace. The marriage covenant illustrates the New Covenant; the marriage union points to that even more profound union between Christ and the church.
What does this have to do with the beauty of sexual intimacy and the single who is still waiting to experience it? You can think of this like matryoshka, or nested Russian dolls, in which each doll’s shape is determined by the shape of the next doll hidden inside. The intimacy of sexual union, as desirable as that is, is also picture of the marriage union, which in turn is a picture of our union with Christ.
As profoundly intimate the experience of sexual union is, at it’s best, it is just a hint, a small taste of the joy and satisfaction and perfect intimacy we will know with Jesus, when we are united to Him as His bride. That union won’t be sexual, but there is no other union God’s given us that speaks more truly of the intimate love we’ll know in Christ. To rip one of these unions out of its connection with the others is to destroy not only its goodness and meaning, but to distort the pattern that it was designed to display.
A Union that Displays … God
There is one more connection to draw, one more union to think about. For as profound as our union with Christ is, that union is not the ultimate and final union in the universe. Have you ever wondered why we are united to Christ? It’s kind of an odd image, when you think about it. Jesus himself gives us the answer. In John 14-17, Jesus repeatedly told His disciples to abide in Him, to remain in Him, for in that union they had life. And then, in His high priestly prayer in John 17, He says the most remarkable thing:
Father, just as you are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
There is more there than we can possibly unpack, but at least this much is clear. The union we have with Christ in the Gospel, and the transformation that union effects, is meant to be a visible sign, a proof, of the prior eternal union of Christ and the Father in the Trinity. So that when the world looked at those united to Christ, they could not help but see that Christ himself is one with the Father.
What is the point of our union with Christ? It is the glory of God. As Jesus concludes His prayer, “I have made you known to them … that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” In our union with Christ we are mysteriously made signs and symbols of the Son’s union with the Father. What’s more, through that union we participate in and are taken up into the eternal love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father.
Here we have finally come to the mystery of union, the core that defines every other union in the universe, including the union of sex. That’s right, you read that correctly. Sex is a foretaste, a hint of what it will mean for us to participate in the eternal union of love that exists at the very heart of the Trinity. The beauty of intimacy is that it is a taste of the glory of God.
Isn’t God good that He would make something so enjoyable at the same time so noble? Isn’t He good that He would make something so full of pleasure so good and pure? Isn’t He gracious that He would make us in such a way that delighting in our spouse leads us to find our ultimate delight in Him?
What does this mean for you if you’re single? It means that the problem with sex outside of marriage isn’t finally that you’re breaking an arbitrary rule, or that it is emotionally destructive, or that it is more likely to expose you to an STD.
No, the problem is that sex outside of marriage is a fraud and a fake. It pretends to be true intimacy, but is nothing more than exposure. It uses the language of love and commitment, but knows nothing of either. And by suggesting that true pleasure and intimacy can be had without loving, covenantal commitment, it perpetrates a massive assault against the very character and glory of God, whose eternal, intimate, loving relationship within the Trinity is the blueprint and pattern for every intimate pleasure that you or I will ever know.
What if you gave up waiting? Some things can’t be undone in this life. But for those who repent of their sin and trust in the grace of God held out through cross of Jesus Christ, all things may be forgiven.
If you’re still waiting (or waiting again) for marriage to have sex, keep waiting. Because it’s not about waiting. It’s about displaying the glory of God and His Gospel in your life.
Copyright 2006 Michael Lawrence. All rights reserved.