L’Abri Conference Reflections: Christianity’s Liberating Sexual Ethic

L’Abri is French for “the shelter.” The L’Abri ministry was founded by Francis and Edith Schaeffer in 1955 to provide a hospitable environment for any person seeking honest answers to honest questions about God and truth. Following in that tradition, a L’Abri Conference provides an opportunity through lectures, discussions, and personal interaction to deepen understanding of what it means to be fully human in light of the transformative truth of Christianity. Each lecture, workshop, mealtime, and discussion is designed to facilitate an exchange of ideas among conference attendees and speakers.

What follows is the second installment of a series of reflections from my attendance at the 2019 Nashville L’Abri Conference, Being Human in a Fragmenting World. Click here to read the first.

“Bodies with Meaning: Christianity’s Liberating Sexual Ethic” was one of my favorite talks from the conference, even though it left me with a few pressing and frustrating questions. Phillip Johnston’s talk was largely about two massive cultural code shifts in relation to how we think about and steward our sexuality.

Johnston started with a quote from Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book Shameless, which mirrors well the sexual ethic of today.

In summary, our modern-day sexual ethic is: desire + consent = freedom.

For the Christian, this conclusion provokes some questions . . . how, if at all, have sexual ethics changed since biblical times? If different, is the Christian perspective on sexuality restrictive or liberating? How so?

In order to answer these questions, we need to go way, way, way, way back in time.

In the apostle Paul’s culture, the pre-Christian cultural code for sexual ethics viewed bodies as an indicator of status. Johnston described, in graphic terms, a code we would now consider barbaric.

Every person in this ancient culture operated from either a place of honor or shame, what Johnston calls the “honor-shame light switch”. Based on the cultural code of the day, someone’s body was subjected to either honor or shame. If the switch ever flipped to shame, there was no going back, and the impact was devastating.

Predictably, men were allowed more sexual “privileges” than women. In those times, marriage was nearly universal. Girls were often legally married by the age of twelve. The main mark of a woman’s honor was chastity. If a girl was chaste prior to marriage and was able to have children, her body was considered honorable. Some things that could take away her honor forever and leave her open to rampant abuse was if she was raped, subjected to forced or unforced prostitution, or if she was infertile.

Men, on the other hand, had generally more control over their own honor. The main mark of a man’s honor was moderation. He was allowed a “slippery time” in youth to engage in all manner of sexual activity, but when he reached a certain age, he was expected to have self-control. Self-control, however, was defined rather loosely.

When married, culture permitted men to have sex with other women as long as those women were not married. In other words, a man was free to take advantage of a woman’s body even if she was currently considered an honorable woman. This act, of course, would flip the woman’s honor/shame switch to irreversible shame.

It was even considered virtuous to have sex with a prostitute in order to avoid adultery. Men were culturally permitted to engage in sexual activity with young boys and slaves in a similar fashion as unmarried women. Men had total control over the honor/shame switch of virtually everyone else in society.

It is to this horrendous sexual ethic that Paul addresses and introduces a distinctly Christian code. This code stated that sex is only meant for a husband and wife. Any sexual pursuits outside of that relationship were not just shameful, but sin.

Any sexual activity outside of this permissive sexual outlet between husband and wife would be akin to spitting in God’s face.

We can see how the Christian sexual ethic influenced the ancient Roman culture in a good way. Indeed, many women and children ran to the Church’s teaching during this time, as it was the only safe haven from sexual abuse in the Roman empire. The Christian sexual ethic, while “restrictive” to men, undoubtedly resulted in more positive, healthy, godly sex lives, as well as overall relational well-being for everyone.

But what about the modern-day cultural sex code? Johnston pulls from an op-ed piece from the Atlantic to describe the sex practices and thoughts of the age, which has ultimately resulted in a sex recession. People are having less sex, because meaning is being erased from the act due to constant consumption.

We desire sexual intimacy, but we no longer know where the goodness of sexual intimacy is located.

Modern culture declares not that our bodies have status or meaning, but that they have possibility. Our imaginations are only limited by the notions of consent and desire. Where does this boundary-less sexual ethic lead us?

To the fragmentation and callousness of human hearts.

Sex is no longer sacred. It is simply a tool used for pleasure.

We use it so casually that we have lost the concept of its goodness. In my opinion, it is like we have gorged on imitation strawberry syrup for so long that we have lost our taste for real strawberries.

At this point in Johnston’s presentation, a lack of clarity and cohesion discomfited me. As he went on to describe how in the Christian view bodies have meaning because of their eternal destiny and sacramental nature, I found myself both agreeing and lamenting with his lackluster conclusion to receive our bodies as meaningful gifts from God.

In the historical Christian sexual ethic, what kind of gift is a sexually-charged body to a single person? To an LGBTQ+ person? To a paralyzed person?

These questions remained unanswered by the end of the presentation. Dissatisfied, I spoke up, asking what is the good news of a Christian sexual ethic for such people?

He did not give me a direct answer. Though I spoke with him more fully in private after the presentation, I still felt there was a lack in substance of how the Christian sexual ethic was good for me, personally.

I see how the Roman sexual ethic was degrading and repulsive.

I see how modern-day promiscuity rips open hearts and leaves them calloused.

I see how the Christian sexual ethic is endlessly more beautiful and dignifying in comparison.

But…

Let’s tackle just one of the above people groups… one that many of us are a part of: singles.

How is the Christian sexual ethic good for me as a single person? Indeed, what good is sexuality at all, if I never get married? What exactly am I showing the world about the eternal destiny of the body and the sacramental nature of the body in my singleness?

Well, in essence, I’m showing an aspect of what heaven will be like. There will be no marriage in heaven. There will be no married people. There will be no sex. Marriage and sex are merely cheap imitations of the ecstasy and commitment eternally ours in heaven because of Jesus.

The only reason singleness often sucks right now is because of sin. The Church is not living up to its calling. Married people are not living up to their calling. Single people are not living up to their calling. We are all falling short. Sin tarnishes everything, even our glimpses of heaven from our earthly perspective.

So, I will ask my honest and perhaps selfish question of discontent… how is the Christian sexual ethic good news for me in this cultural moment?

Yes, I know sex is not all goodness and beauty all the time, even in marriage. There are obstacles and unique frustrations to sexuality that marriage brings – scenarios I can honestly imagine to be much worse than never having sex. We live in a scarily sinful world.

But . . . I am a sexual being. What good can I do with that fact in my singleness other than weep and pray, taking comfort in the truth that Jesus understands how I am feeling? My natural inclination is to want to commit myself holistically not just to God, but to another human being. Why God made us that way when some of us are not in healthy marital relationships is beyond me. Then again, why did God make food if some people are starving?

Sexuality is not just about sex, but I’m referring to sexual acts here because it is something that Christian singles are indeed missing experientially within our sexuality, if we are following God.

What is good about that?

I don’t think there is anything intrinsically good about being a sexual being with no opportunity to give of oneself holistically, sexually. But, Paul does call singleness a gift. The goodness of the gift of BOTH marriage and singleness lies in what we choose to do with our desires and if we ultimately will surrender to Love, Who is God Himself. This is something none of us want to hear. It doesn’t seem fair, to some of us caught in less-than-ideal situations.

I truly did not want to end with a dissatisfying conclusion, but it seems on some level, I must. Just as there’s mystery in marriage, there is mystery in singleness that is uncomfortable to my very human heart.

It has been helpful to me reading through a book called Surrender to Love, by David Benner (I have only finished the first chapter). I will end with this quote, in hopes it will encourage you as it has me.

“Creation is an outpouring of love – an overflow of love from the heavens to earth. Creation not only declares the inventiveness and resourcefulness of God but reveals the abundance of his love. Creation declares that humans are born of love and for love, created in the image of a God who is love. Love is our source and love is to be our fulfillment.

Made in God’s image, humans are invested with a nonnegotiable dignity. We are compatriots of God, not just creatures of God. Even more astounding, God chooses us to be his friends. That imputed status was never annulled, despite our sinful rebellion and declarations of independence.

Creation was God’s plan for friendship. We were not brought into existence simply so that we could worship God. Nor were we created simply for service. Human beings exist because of God’s desire for companionship. We are the fruit of God’s love reaching out toward creatures who share enough similarity that relationship is possible.

Humans were created for this intimate communion with their head-over-heels-in-love Creator God. When God thinks of us he feels a deep, persistent longing-not simply for our wholeness but, more basically, for our friendship. This possibility lies at the core of our own deepest desires. It also lies at the core of our deepest fulfillment.”

Jesus, the Enlarger of Hearts

It sounded like I was walking on Pringles. The tightly-packed snow, sitting above a layer of freezing rain, crunched with every step. Twenty-four hours was too short a time to spend here; in God-terms, the time was just enough.

I woke up in the fishing-hut-converted-spiritual-retreat-cabin with the sound of silence pressing on my ears. Dozens of acres were all solely mine and God’s to enjoy. A stirring in my soul prompted me that it was time to take a walk. We had already established that the time I spent at this place was for the purpose of finding peace in Christ. I was ready to go and do what He would have me do.

18 “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
    they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
    they shall become like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient,
    you shall eat the good of the land;
20 but if you refuse and rebel,
    you shall be eaten by the sword;
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” 
Isaiah 1:18-20

Today held my decision. I’d had quite enough of refusing and rebelling. I had never imagined it would have taken me this long, but oh – no one had told me how satisfying this food could be. All advised, “it will not last, it will not satisfy,” but au contraire, it filled me to the brim. I could gorge all day on the sweetness of its taste. If it made me feel a little sick, so what? That would go away in time, to be left with hunger again that could be beautifully and slavishly satiated. Some call it the cycle of addiction. I call it the cycle of satisfaction. They are, of course, one and the same.

I had made my home in the dumpster, both queen and slave of my own miserable, beautiful kingdom. My stomach longed to be filled with the richest of foods, but the forbidden fruit was realistically getting further and further away. Where once all I had to do was reach up and twist it off from the branch, I would now have to make a deliberate, anxiety-ridden trek to the tree, all the while fueling my bitterness and rage and sorrow to such a degree that I would eventually crash into apathy – and then, at last, I would take what was rightfully mine. I was almost ready to do it, too. Hardened by war, I had become a soldier ready to die.

But true Love will not allow its child to live forever in the refuse of this world, and it will do anything to prevent us from dying for our own personally-crafted gods.

It was thus I entered my spiritual retreat, returning from my war in the garbage dump as queen, slave, and soldier. It didn’t take long before I realized how very much I’d changed. I had wrestled with God and emerged with a terrible limp. I had fought my battles with this so-called handicap and by the grace of God had emerged alive each time – and the scars became my daring exploits of narrow escapes and crippling losses and victorious turning points where the love of God had been my bullet-proof vest all along, that the wounds I would receive would not be fatal, though many parts of me would die.

Walking along the snow-covered path around a lake, I was prompted to stop at various places to surrender different parts of my life: my work, my friendships, my family, my deepest desires . . . I thought it would have been more difficult, to be honest. But it was then that I realized I had already gone through the worst of it. Indeed, I had already died. God had already knelt down on the battlefield and breathed life into me and said, “Go and sin no more.”

All that was left now was to get up from the dust and start walking.

And so, at times crying and at other times laughing, I talked aloud with God, releasing my firm grip on all the people and things I so cherished, everything in which I’d placed my hopes and dreams of fulfillment thus far.

His Kingdom, my kingdom.

Both had always been there. For so long, I could not escape the first, yet I did not want to leave the second, so I scrambled to live in both. No matter how hard I tried, I had found that God would not bow to me and to my disordered loves. Long had I professed that my one goal was to love God and love people well – and long did I try to convince him of this.

I just want to love, I just want to love, damn it, I thought you were Love – just let me love!

Mercifully, perhaps my greatest revelation was brought to life in Till We Have Faces, a myth re-told by C.S. Lewis. Through this story, I finally was able to admit to myself that my greatest desire to love another person holistically was in fact a selfish desire to have someone who is mine, someone who I can comfort and cherish in boundary-less, obsessive infatuation.  I long to be someone’s savior, and to invite them to be mine. But it is not my place to have anyone. It is not my place to claim anyone as wholly mine, no matter how gentle and comforting and seemingly loving are my intentions. There is only one Savior, and it is not me. If I tried to step into a role I was not created for, it would only bring destruction in the end. Crossing the line and taking the forbidden fruit and living a love I have defined as good would only lure myself and the person I claim to love away from true Love, and that would be the greatest tragedy of all.

And so, my surrendering this weekend was really a plea to turn every part of my life from tragedy to triumph. It is only God who can do such things, and far more abundantly than I could ever imagine. I will still struggle with bitterness, envy, anxiety, and a countless number of other things in this journey as well as others. I am confident of this. But I am also confident that “I will run in the way of your commandments when you enlarge my heart!” (Psalms 119:32).  My dependence on Him has been solidified only through this great and painful and glorious daily journey of Him enlarging my heart.

As Simon Tugwell puts it,

“The gift which God makes of himself in this life is known chiefly in the increase of our desire for him. And that desire, being love, is infinite, and so stretches our mortal life to its limits. And that stretching is our most earnest joy, but it is also our most earnest suffering in this life. So those who hunger and thirst are, even now, truly blessed; but their blessedness is that of those who mourn.”

Jesus, the Enlarger of Hearts, invites us to come along with Him on the journey. I encourage and entreat you to do the same. Dare to delve deep into your minds and hearts. Question everything. Start from scratch. Be honest. Be enraged. Be mournful. Be hopeful. Be humbled. Be in community.

Be whole-hearted, desire-driven truth-seekers.

The journey will stretch you. It will stretch you further than you think you can bear, but remember, the stretching is to make room for the greatest Love of all.

An Advent Wrestling Match

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.'”

C.S. Lewis

I have a hard enough time following God when I agree that His ways are best for me. My pride is at war with humility; my love is at odds with my fear. Though I agree love and humility are good things, I am human and I struggle. But it is an entirely different sort of “hard” when I feel that God is being unfair towards me, when I feel He is withholding or doesn’t truly have my best interests at heart. It is different when I don’t understand in any particular instance why my will and His cannot coincide. The confusion stirs up anger and bitterness. Why do I have such strong desires for more if He is all that I need? I’m discovering that . . .

it is much easier to follow God when we suppress the parts of ourselves that disagree with Him.

But God calls us to the hard task of bringing Him our hurting hearts with real God-given human longings and surrendering our past, present, and future to His goodness. Can I just say that I hate that? Well, I just did.

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was smack dab in the middle of the garden. God certainly didn’t make it easy for Adam and Eve to ignore! He said, “Nope. Your choice to follow me must be deliberate. The tantalizing alternative must be in full view.” You know what? I bet the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil tasted damn good. I bet it was the best-tasting fruit they had ever eaten (a mango, perhaps). And that’s where the feeling of unfairness hits, isn’t it? It seems as if God sets us up for failure.

The truth is, God does withhold good things from us, but only so that we can taste the best things, with full appreciation.

I am very angry at the sentence I just wrote. I don’t want the so-called “best” things. Best by whose standard? I know what I want and I want to be able to want the things that I want! So there!

None of us have always waited for the best. In our own unique, personal ways, we have eaten the fruit that God commanded us not to eat. But God doesn’t give up on us. Though we ruined our ability to fully appreciate His best, He redeemed it, and redeems it again and again, every day, every minute if necessary, imparting to us the righteous sacrifice of His Son.

Maybe God knew that only by tasting the forbidden lesser good and allowing His redemptive purposes to work could we truly appreciate the best good. Maybe He knew that wrestling was the only way to find rest. Maybe He knew that sacrificing Himself would be the only way to give abundant, eternal life.

Man . . . advent sucks.

Advent is humanity forced to stare at the good, and choosing to wait for the best. Advent is humanity biting into mangos, wanting so desperately to taste our will being done on earth (as it may or may not be done in heaven) because we know it will taste so good and right. Advent is humanity naked and ashamed. Advent is Christ, the eternal paradox.

On that note, here is a song I wrote.

“The Ones Who Wrestle”
Lindsey Snyder

You say you are enough

But I want more than you

I’ve wrestled for your blessing and

Been given bitter tears of truth

You show me glimpses of the end

But the road is so daunting and hard

What is the point of this winding path

That I keep stumbling on?

Will I have this limp

the rest of my days?

Why is suffering so long?

If you are the one that satisfies

Than why am I

still empty inside?

The name you gave me from the start:

“Hope” feels a cruel joke on this earth

I do what I don’t want

I want what I can’t have

Have what I need and yet I feel

All the lack

And maybe I’m a spoiled child

But please tell me that my pain is real

Who can save me from me

digging my own grave?

Only the one who suffered the whole world, to heal

Will I have this limp

the rest of my days?

Why is suffering so sure?

If you are the one that satisfies

Than why am I

still empty inside?

What good am I to you

If I cannot love the way you want me to

What good am I to you

If I cannot, I cannot love you?

What good am I to you

If I cannot love the way you want me to

What good am I to you

If I cannot, I cannot love you?

But that’s who you choose

The ones who wrestle you