Wineskins Archive

January 28, 2014

Give Up Sex for Lent? (Mar-Apr 2007)

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by John Ogren
March – April, 2007

A few years ago, during Lent, Miramax Films released 40 Days and 40 Nights. The movie’s premise was simple: a young man gives up sex for Lent. The target audience (despite the R rating) was teenagers, and the message was sadly predictable: adult relationships are all about sex, sex is all about power, and we are all powerless in the face of our overriding sexual passions—true intimacy (without sex) is a mirage, and sex is better than intimacy anyway—celibacy is impossible, unnatural, and undesirable.

40 Days and 40 Nights is just one window on our hypersexualized culture, but it is somewhat unique in that it does (however lamely) suggest an alternative to the culture’s idolatrous enslavement to the god of SEX. The main problem with the movie, though there are many others, is that it presents this alternative only for the purpose of dismissing it. What is the Christian response to a culture that produces 40 Days and 40 Nights and puts so much faith in its message? How does the gospel—the cross and resurrection of Jesus—address this mindset, and how can the Church embody a better way? Sex is a gift that reveals a slice of the vast generosity and genius of God, and when we are sexual in the way that God intended, it brings him glory.

As followers of Jesus, learning in the Spirit’s power to live lives shaped by his death and resurrection, our distorted understandings and perverted use of God’s gift of sex must yield to the logic of the cross and empty tomb. The Church’s witness to the world on this issue is often compromised, I would argue, because we are not sexual enough, and we are not Lenten enough.

The world’s big lie is easy sex—sex without commitment, sex without communion, sex without contact! God’s people know, of course, that this is shadow sex—sex without joy, without glory, without legacy. Yet we tend to settle in the shadows all too often, and I can’t help but wonder if what we really need (and what our shadow sex-saturated culture needs) is more of the real thing. I might be wrong, but I just have a hunch that the sexual images that pervade our mass culture would have less power if we were sexually fulfilled, that fewer teenagers would be promiscuous if more of their parents were enjoying sex, that more women would give up romantic fiction (including “Christian” romantic fiction) if their husbands would ravish them with conversation, companionship, and affection. I think that some men would spend less time worshipping the goddesses on their computer screens if they had more faith in Yahweh in their bedrooms.

But if the Church’s witness somehow requires that we be more sexual and have more of the real thing, how are we going to do it? We’ll have to start by staying married. We’ll have to turn off the television. We’ll have to talk to each other, forgive each other, delight in each other, laugh more, cry more, gaze more, touch more, play more, serve more, love more. What many of us often don’t want to face (and here our accommodation to the culture of easy sex shows tellingly) is that good sex, sex that God would be proud of, is hard work. Sex one time, of course, is easy pie. Gerbils have sex. And as we have seen so frequently in this shameless generation, children have sex. But sex for a lifetime; that is a different thing altogether. This is the kind of sex that proves its fullest pleasures and this kind of sex is where Lent can make a difference.

Think of the married people you know and the struggles they are facing—loss of loved ones, loss of employment, loss of health, loss of dreams, failures in business, children with health problems and disabilities, rebellious children, infidelity, infertility, to name just a few—and you can begin to see how sex, real sex between a man and a woman who will love and serve each other no matter what Hell throws at them, sometimes is an act of faith. Sex is a gift, but a gift with a cost—to become better lovers, we have to become more like Jesus.

And this is the purpose of Lent; to help us enter more fully into the suffering and death of Jesus, so that we can more richly appreciate Easter and enjoy his resurrection life. Lent is a reminder that our call to discipleship was a call to take up a cross, that our baptism was a burial into his death, and that our daily life with Christ is a sharing in his suffering and conformity to his dying. In Lent we seek deliberate and concrete ways of remembering this so that we can live it more faithfully. The disciplines of Lent (fasting, prayer, acts of service, sacrificial giving) serve to mortify our flesh, so that our flesh, by the power of the Holy Spirit, can be made to share in the life of Christ and experience the God-given exaltation of his resurrection. Much of this, we know, will only be complete in that final Easter morning of general resurrection and transformation when Christ appears. So the season of Lent signifies and equips us for the Lenten life we lead until that final Day of Redemption.

It should be acknowledged that Lent is offensive to many evangelical Christians, perhaps because it is a remarkable feature of the Catholic tradition that we have, historically speaking, rejected. Furthermore, Lent is trivialized to many by the caricatures of Lenten discipline that abound (maybe you’ve known someone who gave up candy bars for Lent). But hopefully it is clear from what has been said, how richly evangelical an authentic pursuit of Lenten discipline might be. And what some have trivialized might yet be realized, even by Christians with no place for Lent in their tradition or experience of Lent in their own past.

In Churches of Christ, the tradition in which I am happy to live and serve, there is no corporate observance of Lent, but we do practice something of a parallel to Lent in our weekly communion service. As long as I can remember, the Lord’s Supper has been marked as a time for self-examination, following Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29. If we have not always read this passage in its context or appreciated the corporate dimensions of this self-examination, we have still recognized the call to test our lives and behavior in light of what we affirm and proclaim when we eat the bread and drink the cup. Lent can be understood and practiced in a similar way: in parallel with the weekly testing that accompanies the celebration of our fellowship at the Lord’s table, Lent is an annual season of testing and discipline that accompanies the celebration of the Resurrection. Like the self-discerning that Paul required of the Corinthians, Lent should be practiced in the context of relationships and community. We are not solitary individuals attempting to perfect ourselves, but rather we are members of a new humanity being built up to perfection in the Body of Christ.

So should we give up sex for Lent? The question and the discussion to this point are not meant to be exclusive; single people can be addressed by this question, though I want to address it first to married people. We have become accustomed in discussions about married life to thinking of sex and referring to it as a “need.” Accepting a vow of celibacy for the forty days of Lent might confirm this notion for some, but would likely disprove it for many others. Sex is a very strong want, but no different from other so-called needs: financial security, recreational companionship, an attractive spouse, etc. We do not die without them, and more importantly, we can relinquish them for a higher calling. How can we call sex (not to mention the other wants) a “need” and expect our single brothers and sisters to be celibate? Paul is quite clear that in view of one’s devotion to Christ, the celibate life is not merely possible, but preferable. The goal is devotion to Christ and Christlikeness, for those who have sex and those who don’t, and married or single this means we must all die—to sex, to selfishness, to self. Lent is simply a tool to help us face the death we might all prefer to avoid.

Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, is in March, and for most readers this should allow for a few weeks to prayerfully consider whether Lent might be a tool you would choose to use in your walk with the Lord. Lenten discipline can be undertaken alone, but is also greatly enriched by the strength, encouragement, and accountability found in community. Some of the following recommendations will require the participation of other believers. To those for whom Lent is unfamiliar territory it should be said that Lenten discipline is ordinarily not focused primarily on sexual issues but on bringing the whole person into deeper obedience and closer fellowship with Christ. These recommendations, or challenges, are offered in view of the aim of this issue of NEW WINESKINS—to bring our sexuality under the Lordship of Jesus Christ—and with prayers for those who might accept them.

If you are addicted to pornography (or if pornography has any role at all in your life) confess this to some mature believers and with prayer and fasting make Lent the beginning of a new life of holiness, accountability, and freedom. If you are in a sinful or adulterous relationship, break it off. Confess the sin and with the help of wise Christian counsel (and with prayer and fasting) let this Lenten season begin a season of healing and rededicating your life and your marriage to the service and glory of Christ. If you are married and have deprived your spouse of affection or sex, change this, and with prayer and fasting enter into Lent with a commitment to selfless devotion to Christ and to your spouse. If you are single and celibate, but distracted or disillusioned in your Christian walk, lay claim to the fulfillment and wholeness found in the Lord, and with prayer and fasting recommit your life during Lent to pleasing Him and bringing him glory.

This Easter may our witness to the world be that the powers that would enslave us in distorted understandings and misuse of God’s gifts have been overthrown through the death and resurrection of Christ. And may this witness be embodied in the Church as we live our lives free, whole, pure, and fulfilled in Him.

John OgrenJohn Ogren serves the South MacArthur Church of Christ in Irving, Texas as the Communities of Faith Minister, coordinating adult education, small groups, and church planting. Formerly, he served in the same congregation leading worship and ministering to young families. He and his wife Wendy have two boys, Isaiah and Nathaniel.

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