The gifts of God are like prickly pears: if you don’t handle them with care, you’ll get hurt. That’s the way it is with all things sacred. In fact, the Scriptures are constantly filled with warnings about taking the sacred for granted, purposing the divine for common utility. Abuse godly power and you do little more than set yourself up for abuse. The people of Paul’s day knew this better than we do. They set up “taboos” to make sure divine gifts were employed with humility rather than arrogance. Sharing power with the Almighty was an ominous thing. With the greatest good comes the greatest risk. And, of all the gifts God shared with humanity, “creator” was one of the riskiest. The power and the glory of sex are rife with godly potential and devastating effect. God seemed to pour much glory into humans acting like creators. Psychologists know this; they try to help patients with the emotional baggage carried due to bad relationships. Preachers know this; they sound the sirens of moral decay in our society as evidenced by domestic abuse in their congregations. Poets know this; they persist in writing about unrequited love between men and women—a seemingly vain pursuit that nearly always ends badly. Even people who don’t believe in God know this. We all know this. Much seems to be at stake when man and woman copulate. From the time we were old enough to laugh at dirty ditties scribbled on bathroom walls, we’ve known that sex carries a powerful punch. It’s no wonder the west is obsessed with sex; even our best minds can’t sort out what it means. To me, this makes Paul’s warnings even more poignant. “For even though they knew God, they did not give glory to Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (1:21). It’s that one line that keeps turning over in my head as I think about how we abuse the gift of our made-in-the-image-of-God sexuality: “their foolish heart was darkened.”
Without God, sex becomes a cipher—an empty and selfish pursuit. Degrading passions harden depraved minds. Rather than generate life that glorifies God, self-fulfillment inexorably leads to degenerate (as in, “the opposite of generating life”) behavior. When sex is an idol, all we want to do is please ourselves. Indeed, the way Paul sees it, this unquenchable thirst for sexual fulfillment without God is a result of God “handing them over to the desires of their darkened heart.” The imagery is graphic. “Handing them over” was a term often used to describe imprisonment. In fact, Paul talks about sexual vices as if these fleshly impulses were a prison, with God “handing them” over to the jailer. Imprisoned by their own cravings, they are chained to their baser appetites—a foolish, wasteful life. Finding sexual pleasure is their supreme quest. Sex becomes their raison d’etre, their only purpose, the only thing they think about. Sex becomes their god.
Is there any doubt that sex is an American idol? Sexual attraction and sexual fulfillment are the twin themes of our culture, embedded in nearly everything we see and hear. It seems we bow in submission to Aphrodite every time we turn on the television or read an advertisement or listen to music. Shielding our eyes and plugging our ears doesn’t seem to be a reasonable option (the Amish might say different; withdrawing from society has some advantages—but even Amish communities have to deal with fleshly desires). So, what’s a Christian to do? How do we deny ourselves in the land of plenty? It’s no wonder a few years ago, during an open forum on our campus (we were discussing the impact of American culture on Christian spirituality), a student said bluntly: “Pornography is main stream. Saying, ‘I won’t look at it’ is naïve. Today, it’s not a matter of ‘if.’ It’s a matter of ‘how often.’” The silence in the room spoke volumes. None of the three-hundred plus students in attendance felt obliged to offer a rebuttal. Consuming pornography was taken as a fait accompli. Sex is everywhere.
The Corinthians could have said the same thing, “it’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘how often.’” Roman bath houses were filled with murals of hetero- and homo-erotic scenes. One couldn’t take a bath without taking in all the pornographic imagery. Sex trafficking was heavy in this Roman town, too. Depending upon a man’s income or status, sex was readily available—and socially acceptable—via brothels, sex slaves, courtiers at public banquets, or priests and priestess serving in the temples of fertility gods and goddesses. Sex was everywhere. So, what was a Corinthian Christ-follower to do? Paul’s response was simply, “Flee fornication!” Advice that must have sounded a bit naïve to the Corinthians.