When it comes to sexual activity, what is moral and what is immoral? Where do we draw the boundaries? (We all draw the boundaries somewhere.) And, just as importantly, how do we decide? What are the principles that inform our sexual ethic?

The Cultural Sexual Ethic


While it would be nearly impossible to get everyone to agree on something, I think it’s realistic to speak generally about the sexual ethic of our non-religious culture. As I see it, there are four principles that inform the Cultural Sexual Ethic: Autonomy, Consent, Pleasure, and Justice. I’ll try to describe each of these briefly.

Autonomy is the belief that I have the right to make decisions for myself. My body belongs to me, and nobody can tell me what to do with it. I am, so to speak, my own master, free to do as I see fit.

Consent, when it comes to sexual activity, is the primary (only?) limiter of my autonomy. When others are involved in the sexual act, they must be willing participants. Sexual coercion is immoral because it violates the other’s autonomy. But as long as all parties are willing, anything goes. 


The four principles that guide the Cultural Sexual Ethic are Autonomy, Consent, Pleasure, and Justice.

Pleasure, or enjoyment, is basic to the sex act because that is the primary intended result. All parties are seeking to derive some kind of pleasure from the activity, whether physical, emotional, or both. Sexual preference and taste are important factors in achieving a pleasurable experience.

Justice, in this case, is the pursuit of fairness in sexual activity, particularly for those whose preferences or tastes have been shamed or criminalized in the wider culture.

If I could articulate the Cultural Sexual Ethic, I would say it like this: All humans are in charge of their own bodies and therefore have the legal right to pursue sexual pleasure by whatever means they desire, without shame or discrimination, insofar as all partners are willing participants. I’ve tried to state this as clearly and fairly as I can. My hope is that those who generally take this stance would agree, at least in part, with my statement.

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This morning I had the honor of preaching a sermon on the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, which can be found in Genesis 39. The sermon is part of the Everyday Virtue series at Grace Church, and I was able to draw on some material I had already written here at the blog. (See the posts Biblical Marriage and Gay Marriage for a fuller treatment of those particular subjects.)

The lesson that we learn from Joseph is that purity requires distance. Sexual temptation is not something that you’re able to resist when it’s up close and personal because you are designed to give into sexual desire. That’s the way that God has made you, for the good of humanity. You are supposed to indulge in up close and personal sexual activity. But it’s also supposed to be channeled toward that one person of the opposite sex with whom you have covenanted before God. You are not built to say “No.” That’s why you have to keep your distance from disordered and misdirected sexual desires. Purity says “No” in order to shout “Yes!”

There is also a lot in the message about the Christian Sexual Ethic, which I have defined this way: The Christian Sexual Ethic is for one man and one woman, upon covenanting with one another in the presence of God, to enjoy sexual union together, in the hope of bearing and raising children, and doing so exclusively with one another, and with pure hearts toward all people, for as long as both of them live. The ethic is built upon a foundation of the theology of creation (Gen. 1-2), the theology of the body (1 Cor. 6), and the theology of marriage (Eph. 5). This ethic stands in stark contrast to the sexual ethic of the West, which is built upon the principle of consent.

There’s a lot more in the message, and I hope you find it helpful and edifying!

 

Our four-year-old son Zekey has a fatal neurological disorder called Batten Disease, which has stolen all of his motor skills, including his ability to speak. There is no cure for Batten, so we don’t know how much longer we have with him. Because he can’t talk to us, there is so much that we miss out on. One of the hardest, for me, is that I don’t get to experience his imagination, especially as it comes out through his dreams. What his mind does while he sleeps is a distant mystery to me.

This post is my imaginative attempt to enter into Zekey’s dreams. He is the one telling the dream. He is the I in the story.


I was lying in my bed when I heard Cyrus lugging up a big box from the basement. He was grunting and groaning as he lifted it, step by step, up the stairs. I couldn’t see him around the wall, but I could tell by the noise that he was bringing his box of Legos up the stairs.

The door squeaked open and his head popped around the corner. “Hi Zekey,” said Cyrus. He was really excited. He pushed his heavy box across the carpet right up to my bed. I smiled wide. I was so happy that my big brother was going to play with me!

“Do you want to play with Legos?” Cyrus asked. Playing with Legos with Cyrus sounded like so much fun! I laughed long and loud.

Cyrus grabbed a handful of Legos and climbed into my bed. “What do you think we should make? I think we should make a tower all the way to the roof!” Wow! A tower to the roof. This would be so great!

Cyrus got busy stacking the Legos all around me. He even let me hold some. I tried to help but my hands were too shaky. That made me very sad. I wanted to play!

My big brother saw that I was upset and that my hands were shaking too hard to help. He grabbed my hands, smiled, and said, “It’s okay, buddy. I can build it for both of us.”

The walls were getting really tall. They were almost to the ceiling! Cyrus started building ledges for me to lay on so that I could be close to him while he built. We finally made it all the way up to the ceiling, but I was confused. How were we supposed to make it onto the roof? I looked back down at my bed, and it seemed really far away. I was scared. Cyrus could tell.

“You don’t have to be scared, Zekey. I’ll hold you.” Then Cyrus put one arm around me and started to build a door on the ceiling. When he was finished he opened it up and pulled me out onto the roof. There was a great big Lego chair waiting for us out there!

“I built this while you were sleeping last night,” said Cyrus. “I wanted it to be a surprise.” It was.

It had taken Cyrus all day to build the Lego tower to the roof, and now the sun was starting to go down behind the trees. The wind was warm on our faces. We sat up there for a long time, watching the sun set. Then he gave me a big hug and whispered in my ear, “You’re my brother.”

For those of us who grew up in a LEGO world, this is the LEGO movie we’ve been waiting for. There are already several LEGO movies, of course, many of which my son has found on Netflix. There is a Batman movie, a Clutch Powers movie, an entire Ninjago television series, and many others. This big screen adaptation, however, is not limited to a specific set or brand of LEGO, nor is it animated in the same way. It looks like it’s stop motion, but it’s really CG with stop-motion principles and rules.

The brilliance of The LEGO Movie, though, is in its story. It’s not simply a kids’ movie, though it does urge adults to be more childlike. The movie celebrates the triumph of participatory imagination over controlling enshrinement, of play over mise-en-scene. Lord Business (Will Ferrell) is bent on freezing everything and everyone perfectly in place with his nefarious weapon, the Kragle. Emmet (Chris Pratt), the ill-equipped Special and fulfiller of prophecy, and his rag-tag team of master builders must stop Lord Business using the mysterious Piece of Resistance before he unleashes his weapon on Taco Tuesday.


In wisdom we must become adults, but in imagination we must remain as children.
The jokes are playful but the insight is deep. Lord Business represents the inclination we develop as we grow older – to control, to create merely to look upon rather than to engage in hands-on play. The LEGO world, the world of our imaginations, needs to be set free. In wisdom we must become adults, but in imagination we must remain as children. The childlike imagination demands participation, interaction, and invention. We don’t simply create a world and stand back from it, like the god of deism. Rather, like the God of Christianity (though not to the same extent, of course), we create a world and enter into it. The need to control stifles our imaginations, throwing us to the mercy of the instruction manual. But a child whose imagination has been set free is not bound by such instructions. They are free to create and truly play.

This is what The LEGO Movie is about, and this is why it’s important for us adults to see, especially those of us with sons and daughters who love LEGO as much as we did. This is a hilarious, touching, even incarnational film about what it means to stay young even as we grow older.

The first month of the Year of No has come and gone. It went pretty well for me. The idea of self-denial has been at the front of my mind all month, and I’ve learned a lot about myself in the process. You see just how dependent you are on something when you start to remove it from your life. On the other hand, you also see that you can survive without it, not to mention that life can actually be richer and fuller without it.


The Year of No is a spiritual war against idolatry.
The Year of No is all about overcoming entitlement and resisting indulgence. It is, in theological terms, a spiritual war against idolatry waged in daily skirmishes of temptation and self-denial. But gods are powerful things, and they take root deep within our hearts. I found this to be true when it comes to the idol of food.

My first entitlement, as described in this post, is Eating whatever I want, including eating out and drinking Coke too much. Food-indulgence is a growth area for me, and I didn’t expect to master it in just one month. The next step for me is doing a better job of planning ahead for work days. Getting the kids up and out of the house for school can be a whirlwind, and I get so focused on the immediate task that I don’t stop to think about packing a lunch. Planning is a discipline that I can add into my life that will bear a lot of fruit.

One of my other entitlements is Binging on entertainment, and I discovered The Walking Dead this month, so that one was pretty much a failure! Actually, that’s not entirely true. I was able to read three books in January and post reviews for all of them, as well as write a little bit of my book.

Overall, I’d say my biggest opportunity for growth is the same as it was on January 1. I allow too much room for indulgence and entitlement in my life. Even as I write this my mind is thinking of ways I can justify getting Chipotle for lunch and watching an episode of The Walking Dead before I have to leave for a meeting. It’s your day off, after all. You’ve already had to go to the dentist, and soon you’ll have to go to a meeting! You deserve a treat. This is where and when I have to find the resolve to say, “No!” Life is more than food, and the mind is more than entertainment.


The way forward is marked out in specifics.
Have you ever seen a vague mile marker on the side of the highway? Mile 102ish, or maybe 108. I don’t know, I haven’t been paying attention. No, you haven’t. Mile markers are always specific because vague markers don’t show you the way forward. The way forward for me is marked out in specifics. Planning ahead for meals while at work. Reading the Bible before engaging with social media in the morning. A specific number of pages read per day instead of an entertainment binge. The vision of becoming the man God wants me to be is realized by taking specific steps of self-discipline and self-denial.

It’s that way for all of us. Nobody just falls into Christlike character by accident. It takes hard work, focus, and self-discipline to get there. You have to be specific. If you haven’t named your entitlements yet, do that. Be specific. Be honest. Be ruthless with yourself. And then outline an equally honest and specific way forward. But remember, this is accomplished in steps, not in one giant leap. The art of discipleship is learning to put one foot in front of the other, following Jesus along the way. The Year of No is a journey within the greater journey of your discipleship with Jesus. It’s meant to help you name and overcome your idols through the long, slow act of self-discipline. But for discipline to take, it must be specific.

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