Monday, December 12, 2022

Anonymous Asks (227)

“What does it mean that ‘the sexually immoral person sins against his own body’?”

The quotation here comes from a longer discourse by the apostle Paul on the importance of Christian doctrine and practice in the area of sexuality. It includes the memorable line “Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute?” — the obvious answer being “Never!” The relevant portion is as follows: “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.”

So how does that work exactly?

Not Literal or Comparative

It should be obvious that in the case of normal, heterosexual activity, most sexual sins occur literally “outside the body” for men, though not for women, so Paul cannot have intended his comment in a strictly literal sense. If he truly meant it that way, we would have to add drunkenness and gluttony to the list of sins against one’s body, just for starters. They too affect the operation of the “members of Christ”, as William MacDonald has helpfully pointed out.

MacDonald believed Paul’s statement is true in a comparative sense:

“While it is true that gluttony and drunkenness, for example, affect a person’s body, most sins do not. And not even gluttony and drunkenness affect the body as directly, as extensively, or as destructively as immorality.”

But this too is not necessarily the case. Long term drinking, overeating, cigarette smoking or drug abuse may kill you in the end, while an illicit sexual relationship that goes on for years may do no obvious physical damage. There is little or no danger of contracting a sexually transmitted disease when having sex with relatively inexperienced partners. In fact, most STDs these days are both treatable and arguably preferable to heart disease, stroke, liver or kidney disease, cancer, brain damage or Alzheimer’s. So then, at least in the physical sense, these other sins are as direct, extensive and destructive to the human body as sexual immorality. Often they are more so. I do not believe the apostle is speaking comparatively about physical effects.

Since neither a literal nor a comparative interpretation is fully satisfactory, we must look elsewhere for the answer.

Things You Can’t Unsee and Unfeel suggests sexual immorality is different from other kinds of sins that affect the human body in this way: that it unites us sinfully with another person “on a deeply physical and spiritual level”, and therefore we experience the natural consequences of such a sin on a deep level as well. I think this is probably closer to Paul’s intended meaning.

Paul gives the example of a prostitute in the passage, so we know he is thinking of the sort of sexual sin that is largely indiscriminate and oft-repeated. His words apply to all illicit sexual relationships whether or not there is an exchange of currency.

We are often told that it’s never too late to quit smoking. Even long-term lung damage is often reversible, and quitting will always be better for the body than continuing. This is also true of the cognitive damage alcohol abuse causes to the brain. It too may be at least partially reversible. Likewise, physical damage to the body’s other organs from excessive drinking may be somewhat mitigated or reversed. And an obese person who gets on the right diet may look so good a year later as to be unrecognizable.

Sexual immorality is different. It changes the way a person thinks about sex and relationships, and the way he or she enjoys them. Intimacies experienced with other people cannot be unexperienced. Sexually immoral people carry their acquired knowledge, fears, eroded trust, changed preferences and default assumptions about others around with them in perpetuity. In fact, a single traumatic sex-related incident can tip fragile people over the edge and ruin relationships for them forever; I’ve seen it myself.

A Layman’s Opinion Confirmed

I had observed this anecdotally when talking with sexually profligate friends and acquaintances, but I recently watched a short YouTube video in which a secular expert confirmed my layman’s opinion. Against the tide of current thinking, she counsels young women about the dangers of serial sexual relationships of any length. She said research shows that women who try to form long-term relationships when they have more than five sexual relationships under the belts fail at astoundingly high levels. (The same is surely true of men, but that was not her area of study.)

The reason she gave for their failure is that these women have so many points of reference that no new sexual or relationship experience ever satisfies them. Some cherished element from a previous coupling is inevitably missing in all their new ones. Consciously or unconsciously, their ideal relationship and/or sexual experience has become a composite of often-contradictory traits arrived at from encounters with a veritable smorgasbord of men. Their “bar” has been set impossibly high, or at least badly warped. Such a “relationship cocktail” can be found nowhere in the universe; no one person can provide everything they are looking for. Meanwhile, the bad experiences also accumulate. They begin to think of dissatisfaction and relationship failure as inevitable, so they become blasé about sex and bored with relationships, having “seen it all”. Often such women will break up a marriage or attempted relationship and not bother forming another. They have destroyed their own ability to bond with another human being at the most intimate level.

I wonder if the woman of Samaria in John 4 was moving in that direction when she encountered Jesus. She was definitely looking for something in life that she could not find, and that was where the Lord met her. So perhaps there is hope in that. But I think this is probably what Paul is talking about when he speaks of sinning against one’s own body: sexual immorality transforms the self.

Washed, Sanctified, Justified

Now of course that is not to say a sexually immoral person is irredeemable. Paul also wrote to the Corinthians that some of them had been sexually immoral, adulterers, homosexuals and so on. He goes on to add, “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” Amen to that. What he doesn’t confirm is whether such individuals were ever able to enjoy sexual relationships (or to make them enjoyable for their partners) in precisely the same way they might have if they had never engaged in a spate of sinful relationships. Being justified in the eyes of God and holy in practice does not mean he wipes our memories clean and miraculously returns all our default settings, acquired desires, mistrusting hearts and expectations of others to the innocent state they were in before we sinned. Though the Holy Spirit helps the believer to go on to live a fulfilled and victorious Christian life, the reality is that, as in other areas of life, God allows the consequences of our sexual sins to play out over time. He can make living with a long and complicated sexual history more bearable if we allow him, but he will not make it simply vanish.

We should note that Paul made his statement about sinning against your own body to Christians. As others have noted, life in Corinth could be almost unbelievably sexually debased. Virtually any deviant behavior was acceptable there. We have been thinking about the effects a complicated sexual history can have on a new marriage. Imagine how much worse it might be if these “washed, sanctified and justified” believers now went right back to the practices they had engaged in previously. That would be truly devastating to their relationship with the Lord, their relationships with their families, and even the functioning of their own psyches. The cognitive dissonance would be mind-boggling. No effective Christian growth or development could happen in such a situation.

The Wife of Your Youth

The expert in the YouTube video finished by saying that two partners with the lowest levels of previous sexual experience form the best and longest lasting relationships. Oddly, this dovetails precisely with the teaching of scripture, coming from the pen of a man with arguably more sexual experience than just about any man in the history of the planet. Solomon wrote:

“Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love.”

Wise advice.

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