Singleness & Sexuality: Part 2
Having sexual thoughts and feelings is part of the human experience. Some Christian singles want to define spiritual victory with sexuality as a state of: “not having any sexual thoughts or feelings.” However, this is not the goal that God is asking us to aim for and there are no Scriptures to equate being spiritually grounded with this state. Rather, we find in the Word being spiritually grounded means the person is connected to Christ, lives an overcoming life, the spiritual fruit of temperance is present, and sin does not have dominion over him or her (Romans 6:12-14). In this paper we will discuss sexual desire, what lust is and isn’t, and provide a framework for taking a biblically grounded approach to living an overcoming life in this area.
Dealing with sexual desire is often reported as one of the top challenges that single individuals, both male and female, experience in their life. However, for others it is simply one challenge among many or not an issue at all. Regardless of whether sexual desire is a large or small issue for you, we hope that this paper can help you personally, as well as help you understand and assist others in your life.
Applying grace and truth to sexuality
The remainder of this paper (and how you receive it) will depend on your understanding of how the concepts of Grace and Truth apply to sexuality. Some readers may have become careless and self-indulgent with their sexual thoughts or behavior. They may not be adequately disciplining themselves in the battle against sexual stimuli and may tend to rationalize sinful behavior, instead of dealing with it as God would have them do. Other readers are likely to have viewed the topic of sexuality through the lens of condemnation, excessive guilt, and shame. As an example, for these readers, having a slip into masturbation after a six month period of abstaining from this behavior can lead them to depression, hopelessness, and wanting to give up. Our hope is that the following material will speak to individuals who find themselves across this entire spectrum.
Two overarching aspects of God’s nature are His Grace (love) and His Truth (holiness). (See 1 John 4:16 “God is love” and 1 Peter 1:16. “Be ye holy; for I am holy”). God’s Grace is shown by His love, mercy, understanding, and forgiveness. His Truth is shown by His righteousness, perfection, holiness, and commandments. God is not 50% gracious and 50% holy. He is perfectly (100%) gracious and perfectly (100%) holy at the same time. A Biblical concept of God contains both Grace and Truth without violating the other as they cannot be separated.
Christ modeled living in Grace and Truth, which is directly referenced in the following verses in Scripture:
- John 1:14, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.”
- John 1:17, “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.”
- Colossians 1:6, “Which is come unto you, as it is in all the world; and bringeth forth fruit, as it doth also in you, since the day ye heard of it, and knew the grace of God in truth.”
A wonderful example of this principle in Scripture is Christ’s response to the woman caught in adultery in John 8:10-11. “When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.” Note how He dealt with her in grace (“Neither do I condemn thee”) AND truth (“go, and sin no more”). Our goal should be to have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16) and live in a manner that thinks, believes, and lives in Grace AND Truth.
Grace: God’s unmerited love, favor, mercy, and strength AND Truth: God’s holiness, perfection, righteousness, and commandments
As human beings, however, we seem to tend toward one side or the other: either grace OR truth. This may be due to personality, family background, religious training, and other factors. Unfortunately, this takes God’s grand design and distorts it, because:
- Grace without Truth isn’t Grace: It’s license.
- Truth without Grace isn’t Truth: It’s condemnation.
So, if you tend toward license, you need to add Truth. Conversely, if you tend toward condemnation, you need to add Grace. Remember the goal is to live in both Grace and Truth. These concepts can be visually represented on a continuum as noted below. For self-examination, ask the Holy Spirit to help you discern where you fall on this continuum as it relates to your sexuality. This question is good for believers to ask regardless of their gender, marital status, or age.
License—————————-Grace & Truth——————————–Condemnation
“Heart-focused” versus “behavior-focused” approach
Along with thinking and living in Grace and Truth, we want to encourage readers to use a “heart-focused” method of considering the topic of sexuality instead of a “behavior-focused” approach. We have described each below:
Individuals living by this approach:
- Ask themselves, “How would God have me to live; both internally in my thoughts and attitudes as well as externally in my actions and relationships with others?”
- Start by examining their heart where God, His Word, and one’s personal walk with Christ is seated. The theme verse of this approach is Proverbs 4:23, “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.”
- Take God’s Grace and Truth seriously by recognizing the importance of pursuing God while trusting in His mercy.
- Seek to fully live out Grace and Truth in all areas of life and avoid the extremes of either license or condemnation.
Individuals living by this approach:
- Ask themselves, “Where is the line that I’m not supposed to cross?”
- Tend to fall into one of two categories:
- Behavior-focused approach that leads to perfectionism and condemnation:
- Individuals living by this approach start out intending to live a Godly life, but eventually end up living like accountants tallying their failures and setbacks.
- Struggling individuals that use this method tend to gravitate toward perfectionism and feel good about their lives when they are “doing good” but feel despondent and shamed when they have a slip or struggle.
- Behavior-focused approach that leads to license
- Individuals living by this approach start out with intentions of “not crossing the line”, but eventually keep taking liberties by thinking. “How far can I go without getting in trouble?”
- These individuals may use the “letter of the law” to determine if they can do something (“Well at least I didn’t do….”) and often find themselves in trouble after they have gone further than they had imagined they would.
- Behavior-focused approach that leads to perfectionism and condemnation:
A special note on Matthew 5:27-28
- These verses come from Jesus’ teaching during the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). His teachings in this sermon provide the model for what a life transformed and empowered by the Spirit should be. When reading the Sermon on the Mount, we can quickly see that the high calling Christ lays out for us is not possible by human effort alone. His teachings expose the need for us to turn to a Savior for grace to overcome temptation and to find forgiveness.
- In this part of His teaching, Jesus would start with the “letter of the law” the Jews were following (i.e., they were focused on external behavior). He would then extend the standard to deal with the heart. He was making clear He wanted more than behavioral compliance to a law. He wanted to see “heart change” which manifested itself in Godly behavior.
- It is important to note the distinction in this passage between passing thoughts (which we do not have complete control over) and dwelling on and feeding sexual thoughts (which we do have control over). This distinction is critical. To notice an attractive person walking down the street or to have a sexual thought come into one’s mind isn’t what this verse is addressing. Rather the crux of this verse rests on the words “to lust after.” These words indicate the active feeding or pursuit of the sexual thoughts. Sometimes Christians feel guilty over simply having thoughts enter their minds. Remember, Christ was tempted when He was on Earth, and the act of being confronted by these thoughts and images was not sin. A helpful phrase that summarizes the point of this paragraph is, “You can’t keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building a nest in your hair.”i
For many individuals, sexual desire is something that they feel internally, but might have difficulty explaining or defining. Sexual desire occurs as a collection of forces, including (A) biological, (B) emotional, (C) relational, and (D) spiritual factors. It is common for individuals to consider sexual desire through one of these factors in isolation and forget that the others play important roles. An accurate understanding of sexual desire will consider that all four factors provide contributions to sexual desire. Of course, the degree to which each factor is present will change over time and situations.
Below are examples of how each of the four factors contribute to sexual desire.
- Experiencing physical sexual tension, urges, and surges often with a corresponding desire for release
- Experiencing shifts in one’s hormones and endocrine system
- Reacting to environmental stimuli (things you see, view, read, etc.) regardless of whether you intentionally sought it out or not
- Having positive emotions (joy, fulfillment, etc.)
- Experiencing painful emotions and wanting relief (frustration, loneliness, sadness, etc.)
- Experiencing closeness and emotional connection with a person
- Longing for companionship
- Having a desire to be married and to experience sexual relations in marriage
- Your beliefs about sexuality based on your scriptural understanding
In addition, broadly speaking, gender can influence sexual desire in the following ways:
For women, emotional intimacy (i.e., feeling safe, cherished, and connected) is often closely linked to sexual desire. Therefore, women tend to be more emotionally driven and seek a connection when considering sexual intimacy. Of course, this does not mean that women cannot or do not experience sexual desire as physical tension. In fact, some women struggle intensely with physical sexual tension. Unfortunately, due to the misunderstanding that “only men” experience physical sexual tension to this degree, some women feel abnormal or have deep shame for these feelings. Also, some women notice their sexual desire may intensify and decrease over the course of their menstrual cycle, as sexual desire can be correlated to hormonal changes.
For men, visual images and fantasy are often the gateways to sexual arousal. While this doesn’t mean that men don’t want or need emotional connection, it does mean that they can more easily experience sexual tension as physical urges instead of emotional longings. Unfortunately, Satan can “highjack” this aspect of our flesh and promote sinful inputs such as seeking physical release through pornography and fantasy.
Some individuals say they wish there was a “switch they could flip” to shut off their sexual desire. However, God did not design human beings in this manner. Our sexual desire is a definitive part of who we are, and we cannot “turn it off” without losing an essence of who God created us to be. In the Bible, God challenges us instead to be responsible stewards of what we do with this sexual desire. (1 Thessalonians 4:4)
What lust is and isn’t
What lust is
Throughout Scripture, God is clear that lust is a real problem that stands in the way of His best for our lives. The problem of lust is not just a “guy problem” and is relevant to individuals who are single, engaged, married, or single again. Lust is craving or going after anything that is outside God’s best and His will for us.ii Lust can be explained and defined in various ways.
- 1 John 2:16, “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.”
- “Lust is craving sexually what God has forbidden.”iii
- Lust is a desire for pleasure/receiving without consideration or commitment to giving.
- “Lust wants to go outside God’s guidelines to find satisfaction.”iv
- “Lust can never be quenched. As soon as the object of lust is attained, lust wants something more.”v
- It is lust to hold onto sexual thoughts by intentionally dwelling on and intensifying them.
When you are battling with lust, seek God, accountability, and counsel (James 5:16). Remember that forgiveness and hope are available to us when we turn away from our lustful thoughts and actions and turn towards Christ (1 John 1:9).
What lust isn’t
Some individuals automatically interpret sexual thoughts and feelings as being sin, however, that simply isn’t the case. While being careless or feeding sexual thoughts and feelings leads to error, so too does the opposite trap of fearing sexual thoughts and feelings and falling into the error of self-condemnation.
Below are examples of times individuals may notice sexual desire or temptation where it is best to simply move on and neither react with carelessness nor condemnation.
- It’s not lust to experience sexual temptation. Remember Jesus was tempted too!
- It’s not lust to have sexual thoughts pass through your mind.
- It’s not lust to be attracted to someone or notice that he or she is good-looking.
- It’s not lust to anticipate and be excited about having sex within marriage.
- It’s not lust when a man or woman becomes sexually aroused without any conscious decision to do so.
- It’s not lust for men and women to have dreams with sexual content. In men this is sometimes called a “wet dream” or nocturnal emission. We cannot control our dreams while we are having them. We are challenged to control what we put into our minds while we are awake, but this does not mean we will never have dreams with sexual content.
Final thoughts on what is and isn’t lust
In Scripture there are several Greek words used for lust. However, one of the most commonly used words, epithumia [NT: 1939], means “strong desire” of any kind and is used of both good desires and sinful ones. Note that it is not desire that is so much the problem, but rather the fact that our flesh tends to desire that which is ungodly. Having longings is in itself understandable, human, and, in fact, is no surprise to our Creator God and especially Jesus who experienced life in a human body. He is aware of the tensions, needs, and longings we experience and that it takes effort, energy, and determination for us to steer our focus away from sinful pleasures toward Godly outlets. However, when we actively pursue what is outside of God’s design, seek to “drink in” or obtain what God does not sanction, or act on normal sexual desires through sinful means, then lust and sin occur. Our goal then is to live in a way that continually shifts away from the direction of the flesh and toward the way of the Spirit. As it says in Galatians 5:16, “This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.” Gaining victory over lust does not mean we eliminate the natural sexual desire. Remember sexual desire is not the same as lust it’s how you respond to this desire that matters.
Develop a zero-tolerance policy for sinful inputs and accelerants
As mentioned in the preceding sections, every believer, will experience a degree of sexual tension. We believe God’s grace to overcome is the promise that He will empower us to effectively deal with temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13). Believers have been given direction for how to lead an overcoming life, not a promise they will never be tempted. The challenge then becomes discerning what is unavoidable and what is created by an individual’s life style and choices. Scripture is clear that we are to avoid, flee, and stay away from sin and things that promote or provoke sin: (Psalms 101:2-3, Job 31:1, Romans 6:11-16, 2 Timothy 2:22)
In the context of sexuality, “inputs” and “accelerants” are anything that serve to stir, increase, or lead to lust or sin. Simply put, we must cut them off (Matthew 5:29-30). Zero tolerance. Satan’s stealthy lies and a gradual deterioration of our vigilance can lead to allowing things which should not be tolerated. The following list includes examples of “inputs” or “accelerants” that should be cut off.
- Media/technology, in any form, that provides or provokes images or stories that lead to lust.
- Pornography in any form or pictures from any source that stir lust.
- Sexual fantasy and lustful thinking.
- Romance novels and stories with strong sexual content.
- Flirtatiousness and sexually-tinged conversations.
- Locations or people that provoke lust or sexual behavior.
With the ease of accessibility of these items in today’s society, it is especially important to remain diligent. People are able to access “inputs” within the privacy of their homes, creating secrecy and a lack of accountability. It is simply never acceptable to allow sinful “inputs” into our lives. (Matthew 18: 8-9)
The topic of masturbation may be the most challenging sexual issue for many single people. Through the years there have been many myths and stories about masturbation; often passed around by teens trying to understand sexual feelings during puberty. While the Bible is very clear on warning about the sinfulness of lust (and by extension sexual fantasy and pornography), fornication, adultery, etc., there are no Scriptures which specifically mention masturbation. Therefore, biblical principles regarding temptation and sexual purity should be used as guidelines for how to approach this topic in Grace and Truth.
It is sometimes difficult to address the topic of masturbation because its meaning and impact are different across individuals. Let’s start by considering again the following continuum. Please note where you would place yourself along this line as you consider the topic of sexuality.
License—————————-Grace & Truth——————————–Condemnation
Individuals who tend toward License may minimize that they are letting their flesh set the course of their behavior instead of the Spirit. We have seen the damage left behind by the indulging of the flesh, the lack of accountability, and the absence of overcoming in a life not fully committed to sexual purity. Conversely, individuals who tend toward Condemnation may feel like completely giving up and being unforgiveable for slips that occur. We have likewise seen the damage left behind by the shame, excessive guilt, and sense of spiritual failure created by those viewing these occasional slips from this viewpoint. It should also be noted some individuals may find themselves vacillating between periods of License and periods of Condemnation. Approaching the topic of masturbation through the lens of Grace and Truth means knowing that masturbation neither condemns completely nor is to be taken lightly. To be clear, there is a difference between continually experiencing sexual tension and continually submitting to sexual tension. This distinction is important and should be recognized as the believer discerns the line between feeling excessive guilt and unwarranted license toward masturbation.
Other factors that can influence how serious an issue masturbation is for an individual include:
- The age of the individual (pre-adolescent, teen, adult)
- The marital status of the individual
- The presence or absence of inputs/accelerants
- The history of the individual (sexual history, addiction to masturbation, etc.)
- The level of spiritual maturity and accountability of an individual
Below are some indicators to help determine whether a truth or grace approach to masturbation might need to be undertaken:
Indicators that Truth is needed
- Use of inputs and accelerants (pornography, movies, magazines, books, stories)
- Addiction to masturbation/being unable to stop oneself from masturbating
- Experiencing ongoing hiding and shame leading to isolation with God and, possibly, others
- Frequent masturbation – for some individuals masturbation is clearly dominating their lives such that masturbation occurs on a frequent basis.
- Masturbation occurs in binges – for some individuals one masturbation turns into a series of incidents within a period of time or a rapid increase in use of inputs/accelerants
- Using masturbation to numb or cope with emotional issues
Indicators that Grace is needed
- An occasional masturbation that releases sexual tension with zero inputs/accelerants
- When an individual has a tendency toward condemnation that leads him/her to want to give up
Many would argue it is not possible to have masturbation without lust or other inputs. Others believe that occasionally releasing sexual tension through masturbation does not require the accelerants of sinful fantasy or pornography. In general, masturbation provides a temporary outlet for an issue that needs to be redirected. For the majority of individuals it creates a greater desire to fulfill lust, weakens a believer’s sense of self-control, and almost always includes inappropriate fantasy. Our bodies are given to us as a vessel to steward. People make the argument that masturbation is acceptable as it doesn’t directly sin against another. However, as 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 states, our body is not given to us for our own use but for the Lord’s and we are to glorify Him through it. It is essential this truth is kept in mind as this challenging topic is dealt with.
Experiencing sexual desire is part of the human experience. By maintaining a perspective of Grace and Truth, we can gain a clearer understanding of our response to sexual desire. Approaching the topic of sexuality out of a heart-focused approach (as opposed to a behavior-focused approach) will lead to heart-change that then creates behavior change. These concepts provide a backdrop by which to scripturally view this struggle. God wants us to be empowered and to succeed in victorious Christian living. He does not want us to be brought under the power of anything (1 Corinthians. 6:12). Understanding normal sexual desire, focusing on the complete elimination of sinful inputs, and overcoming lust by the grace of God will help each of us to live an overcoming life in Christ.
Questions for further discussion
- Consider how sexual desire is described in this paper. Is it similar to how you have seen it or different? Do you agree that it is possible to experience sexual desire without it automatically being lust? Why or why not?
- How would you define the difference between experiencing sexual tension and submitting to sexual tension?
- When considering your sexual desire and how you deal with it, where do you typically fall on the continuum of License —-Grace & Truth —-Condemnation? Which direction do you typically need to shift?
- How have you been able to turn towards Christ when struggling with sexual tension and urges? If this idea is new to you, what can you do to draw nearer to God when these feelings arise?
- How is the definition of lust in this section similar or different from how you have defined it? What other Scripture verses guide your understanding of and defense against lust?
- Do you have a zero-tolerance policy on input and accelerants? Ask the Holy Spirit to help you do an inventory of your life and see if there is anything that needs to be “cut off.”
- In what ways does your sexual desire seek to be played out in ungodly ways? Some are tempted in more overt ways such as porn while others are tempted in more subtle ways such as developing private emotional relationships. Where are your weak points?
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i Quote attributed to Martin Luther.
ii Joshua Harris, Sex Is Not the Problem, (Lust Is) (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2003), 17-30.
iii Ibid., 20.
iv Ibid., 21.
v Ibid., 41.