Paganism and Sexuality: Setting Things Right

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Adam and Eve started a trend. They set a twofold pattern of disobedience: idolatrous submission and exploitive grasping. Instead of ruling over and caring for creation, they submitted to a serpent and grasped for what was not theirs. And so it is for us. We submit to the created order, bowing down to it in idolatrous fashion to meet our needs. Or at times we exploit it, grasping for what God has put out of bounds—again, to find our value and to meet our aching needs. As did the pagans of old, we want to blur the boundaries of life and grasp for what we want instead of receiving from God in his good timing what we need most. We have resorted to manipulating our way through life to find our identity and fulfill our longings instead of submitting to God and trusting in him.

But didn’t God give us the created world, including sex, to meet our needs? Well, yes—within the boundaries that he has set. And there is a God-ordained order to the meeting of needs. Terry Wardle helped to clarify this for me when I heard him say that God is to be the source and the created world the resource. In other words, God is to be the ultimate source for the fulfillment of my longings, and he has blessed me with a marriage, a family, and friendships as resources to help meet those longings. When we begin to lean into the created world as our main source, idolatry and exploitation follow.

Isn’t it obvious how this works out in the expressions of our sexuality? There will always be the temptation to blur the lines or to outright discard the boundaries God has made plain. There’s the idolatrous submission to porn and fantasy to meet our need for significance, love, and purpose. Or the exploitive grasping of sexual abuse and seduction that become our means of escaping a sense of powerlessness. And the fruit of our behavior has been quite bitter, hasn’t it?

Baal and Sexuality

Let’s revisit the gods and goddesses of ancient times to gain a perspective for the present day. An evolution of sorts took place for Baal. His name dots the text of the Old Testament, and initially he was god of the storm. But with time, perhaps due to the sexual ways in which he was worshipped, he began to represent perverse sexual practices. Scripture, in fact, refers to Israel’s unfaithfulness to God as “prostituting” themselves before Baal. And Hosea spells out clearly that such spiritual adultery was rife with sexual forms of worship (Hosea 4:12–14).

With that in mind, I believe the story of Gideon is instructive for us (see The Meaning of Sex: Christian Ethics and the Moral Life by Dennis P. Hollinger, Baker, 2009 pp. 64-65). Yes, you probably think of him as the frightened soldier who twice laid the fleece on the ground, needing a sign from God to bolster his faith. Or you might remember his remarkable transformation as he charged into battle with just a handful of torch-carrying, trumpet-blowing warriors.

But the transformation from wimp to warrior was initiated by a challenge from God: “Pull down the altar of Baal that belongs to your father” (Judg. 6:25). Before the empowerment of the Spirit and the change in character, he was called upon to repent from the pagan practices of his family and culture, practices that included sexual acts far from God’s design.

The starting point is the same for us, isn’t it? To see our way clearly through this time between the gardens requires an adjustment in worldview. The culture around us is blurring sexual boundaries with even some theologians stating that we can basically shelve our Bibles and choose for ourselves where we want to draw the lines.9 But just as Jesus pointed the religious leaders of his day back to Adam and Eve for answers regarding divorce, so also with us today. The ongoing mission of God has been to focus our eyes more fully upon his original design in the garden, seeing that he is holy, we are made in his image, and sex is simply a created thing to be used as he intended. Sex is not the center of the universe and we are not to submit to it in worship or to grasp for it as the source for meeting our unmet longings. For many of us, the way out of the closet of shame is blocked by a stubborn altar to Baal.

Re-hitching the Horse

The town where I live is blessed with a small and fairly conservative Christian college that makes a good effort to be involved with the community. Pastors are allowed library privileges, thankfully, and may borrow as many as six books at a time. And so while doing research on sexual issues, I took advantage of their resources. At times I wondered if the librarians began to worry about this pastor who kept checking out the books on sex! “Uh oh, here he comes again. Put campus security on alert!”

As I culled through the books, I noticed something similar about all of them, whether written from a secular or a Christian perspective. Not just that a zealous librarian had cut out or blackened the pictures and diagrams, but that both perspectives put the cart before the horse.

Here’s what I mean. A theme running through the secular books guided readers toward spicing up their sex lives. How does one get more spark, zing, and zip? Try this technique or experiment with this position. And if those approaches fail to rekindle the fire, then work on the relationship, because if the relationship is healthy, sexual intercourse will be at its best.

The Christian books? Pretty much the same. Certainly they added the God element. Hey, God created us as sexual beings, so this is a good gift from him. Set aside any prudish Puritanical baggage passed down from your parents or imposed by that elderly junior high Sunday school teacher. God wants sex for Christians to be every bit as tantalizing and exciting as it is for those secular folks.

Now there was certainly less talk of techniques and positioning, and I assume there were fewer pictures and diagrams. (Not as many pages were cut out!) Oh, and lest I forget, there was also that final word of advice. Work on the relationship, because even the experts tell us that sex is best when the relationship is in good shape.

Hmm . . . Do you notice what is backward? As we noted in chapter 2, God did not make us sexual beings and give us relationships so that we could be sexually fulfilled. Exactly the opposite! He made us relational beings and gave us sex to meet those deep needs for union with another and knowing another. Though it may not seem like it, the difference is huge! If sexual fulfillment is what we are made for, then that feeds into our bent toward unholy sexuality.

In other words, if sexual fulfillment is a basic right for human beings, then all the more reason to use power to exploit and manipulate. If God created me for the purpose of sexual release, then all the more reason to bow down to this created world to find that need met. However, if I am created for relationships, if that truly is my deepest longing, then sexual activity becomes subservient to those relationships. That, then, is the lens through which we view the multiple choices set before us. Exploiting another person for sexual gratification? Leaning into another person to get an emotional buzz? Using pornography for titillating stimulation? Degrading lovemaking by introducing deviation? These and other issues are all put into perspective.

Perhaps this very moment is the time to get the horse back out in front of the cart. Is God calling you to tear down this altar of Baal? Is it time for you to surrender your sexuality to him? Depending upon your level of brokenness, the road ahead could be very difficult. Oh how closet clutter can cling to us! Fully repenting from the addiction of fantasy and porn or the aversion toward intimacy may take much effort, accountability, and counseling. But in pulling down this altar, the Spirit can begin a work of transformation from wimp to warrior, from slave to free.

Consider the following prayer, and if the Spirit so leads, pray it from the heart:

Gracious Creator God, I acknowledge your good design for my sexuality. Despite what Satan has done to distort and destroy this good gift, I acknowledge that what you have
made is exceedingly good. You have created us as relational beings and have granted us sexuality so that we might more fully know another and be known ourselves; so that we might gain a sense of belonging, acceptance, and love as we bond with another; and so that we might find significance and purpose by participating in your act of creating life. I surrender to your purposes for my sexuality as defined in your Word. I renounce the world’s message that sexual fulfillment is a right. I refuse to meet my emotional needs through ungodly relationships and improper sexual activities. I will look to you as the source for the fulfillment of my desires and to my spouse alone as the resource you have provided. In Jesus’ name, amen.

If you’re interested in learning more about sexual wholeness, I cover this and more in my book, Into the Light: Healing Sexuality in Today’s Church. You can get it here.

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Dr. Mark Ongley has more than twenty-five years of pastoral
ministry experience. He currently serves part-time as
pastor of Ashes to Life in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania—a United
Methodist congregation reaching out to people in recovery. He
has helped many people find healing and greater wholeness in
the area of sexuality. Since 2006, he has been part of a team of
counselors for the “Come Away with Me” retreats sponsored
by HCM International. Through Restored Image Ministries
he offers counseling, seminars, and a monthly blog, which can
be found at restoredimage.org. His wife, Lauri, and their two
daughters bring him joy and remind him not to take himself too
seriously.

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