“…to burn with desire” (your sex is on fire): Christianity and Singleness Part 4

15 February 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

In the last post, we discussed the fact that while marriage is God’s design, the Bible presents the single lifestyle as something that is both accepted and recommended.

But we acknowledged (however briefly) Paul’s concession that “it is better to marry than to burn with desire” (1 Cor 7:9).

The single life is not for everyone. Nor is it always wise.

As we saw, the average age of marriage used to be 22. Now it is nearly 27. Which means there are five years during which a person is expected to maintain sexual purity, a task that statistics have shown to be quite daunting.


Recent data shows that the average evangelical teenager loses their virginity at the age of 15. Those who make an abstinence pledge usually delay the process by an average of 18 months, making something of a mockery of the whole affair: “I pledge that I will not lose my virginity until at least junior prom behind What-a-burger.” What’s particularly unsettling is that Christian teens are statistically less likely to use contraceptives, creating the risk of unwanted pregnancy or even disease. (there’s more data I could share…if you want more I’ll just make you read Mark Regenerus’ book, Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers)

American evangelicalism suffers from a plethora of abstinence campaigns and purity rings, but a dearth of meaningful commitments. And singles may quickly find themselves swallowed by the ever-widening chasm between promise and practice.

Singles face a significant challenge, much more than their parents. Where the difference truly lies is with prevailing attitudes toward sex – even among Christians. Nearly 80% of the previous generation defined premarital sex as “sinful.” Today, 44% of young Christians see premarital sex as morally acceptable (David Kinnaman, Gabe Lyons, unChristian).

Much of the sexualization of the culture has been achieved through technology. Forget porn for just a second; CosmoGirl reports that roughly a third of young adults ages 20-26 have sent “nude or semi-nude” photos of themselves to someone else via the internet or cell phone (just to be clear, I found the CosmoGirl article on my MSN homepage. I don’t read CosmoGirl…not that there’s anything wrong with that…). This statistic is all the more alarming when one considers that these are the very years formerly covered by marriage, and as these years go uncovered so do the bodies of men and women hungry for sexual fulfillment.

In the song “Sex on Fire” by the rock band Kings of Leon, the lead singer declares, “If it’s not forever, it’s just tonight…your sex is on fire / consumed with what’s about to transpire.” Momentary though it may be, sexual desire is indeed a consuming fire in which many singles find themselves, as Paul said, “burning with passion.


Douglas Coupland writes that many young people live in a “cult of aloneness,” accustomed to solitude and isolation.

And nowhere can this be seen more than in the lonely culture that favors interaction while mimizing relationship. Henri Nouwen writes:

“When I came to this country for the first time, I was struck by the open-door life style. In schools, institutes and office buildings everyone worked with open doors….It seemed as if everyone were saying to me, ‘Do not hesitate to walk in and interrupt at any given time,’ and most conversations had the same open quality – giving me the impression that people had no secrets and were ready for any question from their financial status to their sex life.” (Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out)

The glass houses of social networking sites and the blogosphere only widen the already open door, and demonstrate to us the ease with which we can separate physical and emptional connection. Wendell Berry writes:

“We’ve moved from villages where ‘everyone knows your name’ and where nearly everyone is committed to the same moral standards to cities where we’re all virtually anonymous and where anything goes. So sex and community are less connected than ever before.” (Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community)

The sad nature of this open door culture is that it can never speak effectively to Coupland’s “cult of aloneness.” Coupland writes:

“All looks with strangers became the unspoken question, ‘Are you the stranger who will rescue me? Starved for attention, terrified of abandonment, I began to wonder if sex was just an excuse to look deeply into another human being’s eyes.” (Douglas Coupland, Generation X)

So long as emotional intimacy is divorced from the physical, singles will find themselves torn in two directions as they struggle to find connection with others, and many will find it easier to “hook up” rather than engage. Still others will find themselves struggling with the cognitive dissonance and shame of holding a moral view that doesn’t fit the reality they’ve created.


How do we approach this issue? There are two equal and opposite methods, regularly in use today.

The first is to embrace it. Sex is only natural. And whatever’s natural is good. So why can’t we sleep with our significant other before the wedding day?

The other approach is to try and manage it through moralistic regulation and rules. Sex can (and probably will) lead to sin. The best approach is to hush up any discussion of it, except to promote abstinence, typified through the Christian trinkets of purity rings and wristbands.

Now let’s be clear. Most of our arguments about sexual purity fall significantly short – the only true argument I can provide for sexual purity is to appeal to the character of God. I realize that most would sooner base their morality on the Betty Crocker cookbook then they would the Bible, but I nonetheless affirm its ability to guide us in our lives and choices.

To that end, I find it impossible to read Paul and conclude anything other than the fact that premarital sex is off-limits, and that inordinate desires are potentially destructive, a characteristic epitomized by the Greek word epithumia, meaning “inordinate desire” or “lust” (cf. Gal 5:24).

Both approaches are guilty of idolatry, though in different ways.

The hedonist makes an idol of his own pleasure, purchased at the cost of his own soul. An old, old Italian film by Fellini depicts a young man madly in lust with a Hollywood starlet, as well as the pleasures such a jet-set life could surely afford him. The end of the film finds him in a cottage, wherein we are led to believe that he is able to experience the very pleasures he had so desperately sought. From across the lake where the cottage sits, an angelic figure appears, beckoning him away from this cottage and its imprisoning vices. The man can only turn and go back inside, saying “I can’t hear you, and what’s more, I can’t feel anything.” Epithumai has its final outworking as a form of spiritual anesthesia, numbing us to our self-made prisons.

The moralist makes an idol of his own rules. Epithumai must be managed and controlled, therefore all forms of human sexuality are to be shunned and avoided.

Both approaches neglect the beauty of human sexuality, a gift from God (nowhere does the Bible make this more explicit than in the pages of the Song of Solomon, a collection of oriental love poetry that finds its place in the canon as a testimony to the wonder of human sexuality). Hedonism rips away the beauty the way one casually uncorks a precious bottle of wine. Moralism covers the beauty behind a utilitarian veil of rules and order.

Aging singles often feel caught between these approaches, and perhaps this is another reason so many are willing to delay marriage.

As I finish writing, I feel I have done little – if any – real justice to this topic, and my writing requires much clarity. I would respectfully ask that you stick with me – tomorrow we’ll look at how we find the balance between these two worlds.

15 February 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.

Share This

Share This

Share this post with your friends!

%d bloggers like this: