Fr. Richard Rene is a priest in the Orthodox Church of America, a professional writer and has published a number of poetry, short stories and novels. He also has a podcast on Ancient Faith Radio and posts regular sermons and reflections on his blog Mysterion.
Those engaged in the sexual culture wars are familiar with this scriptural ‘battleground’ from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans:
“Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” (Rom. 1:24-27)
St. Paul here teaches that in exchanging “the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator,” human beings have become lustful; that is to say, rather than being governed by what God desires, we became governed by the desires of the ‘creature,’ which ultimately expresses itself as self-desire.
Much less discussed are the following verses, in which the Apostle lays out the broader moral repercussions of self-desire: “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct. They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” (Romans 1:28-31)
It is important to read St. Paul’s words in this broader context. The same-sex acting out that he identifies are iconic of a deeper spiritual condition: the “unnatural” relations of women for themselves (other women) and men for themselves (other men) are the ‘image’ that the Apostle uses to lead us to the ‘prototype’ of idolatrous self-desire rather than desire for God. Same-sex activity is not the end point of his argument; rather, it stands in for “all manner of wickedness” whose root is a creature’s worship of itself.
For good or ill, Orthodox Christians are all caught up in our cultural wars over sex, even if only as ‘civilian casualties.’ Those of us who throw ourselves into the fray tend to adopt without question the terms of the conflict; that is, we take for granted that the real issue at stake is preserving the impermissibility of gay sex, to put it bluntly. More broadly, we are preoccupied with the canonicity of sex: in what contexts it is permitted (heterosexual marriage); what forms are permitted (missionary position or not, oral sex or not, and so on); how often it is permitted (not on fast days); or what its purpose should be (procreation only, or not). In short, we often understand the form of sexual activity as the defining characteristic of a healthy Christian (and human) sexuality.
Now, I am not suggesting that the form of our sexual behaviour is unimportant. As any iconographer will tell you, the image of the icon, and how it is composed, is vital. The point is, composition is not all-important. The icon must also lead us to a deeper encounter with God. Similarly, our sexual biology is not a mere instrument of individual fulfillment. Such dualism is anathema to a genuinely Christian appreciation of the body. What I am suggesting, though, is that in our preoccupation with canonical questions about sex, we forget to ask something more essential: to what extent do our sexual behaviours manifest self-desire rather than desire for our Creator? Even if our sexual behaviour is ‘canonically approved,’ so to speak, how can St. Paul’s words to the Romans challenge us to repent of the lusts of our hearts and turn back to a love of the One who made us?
Again, this is a question we too often neglect to ask of ourselves, and our neglect continues to hinder our struggle to understand the place of sexuality in a God-centered human life. While we may win the canonical battle, we end up losing the moral war because we have lost sight of where the ‘front line’ really lies.
For instance, when dealing with unmarried people struggling with lust in its various forms, our concern tends to lie with ensuring that a person’s sexuality is ‘contained’ in a heterosexual, monogamous marriage. Once the single person finds themselves a suitable mate (we believe), their lustful urges can be safely channelled. If they were tempted to lust after sexually explicit images on the internet, they can now ‘safely’ act out with their spouse. Less often do we question whether a single person’s problem with lust might have less to do with the absence of a canonical ‘outlet’ than with a sexual identity fundamentally oriented to self-desire…
Once two single persons are married, we may assume that as long as certain canonical requirements are met, all is well. The requirements may be more or less strictly interpreted (and a lot of variety exists in how we understand what is ‘permissible’ in the heterosexual, married bed), but once the our chosen prescriptions are being observed, how likely are we to ask to what extent sexual activities, even within marriage, are actually a form of self-desire, with the partner being merely a willing instrument?
And what happens when a married person should confess using pornography (as so frequently happens these days)? When they do so, pastors like myself may assume that he just needs to have more sex with his spouse. Could it be, however, that a married man’s use of pornography is not really a sign that he requires more sexual gratification with his canonically sanctioned partner, but rather that marriage and the availability of a sanctioned partner has done little to address the lustful tendencies in his sexuality?
In short, because we have lost sight of the fundamental self-desire that permeates all of our relations, we find ourselves unable to see what it means to live as sexual beings in a right relationship with our Creator. As a result, we allow lust to flourish inside the canonical boundaries of our relationships. Even worse, we find ourselves unable to see clearly enough to guide those who come to us from a society that is nothing if not confused about sex. We miss the opportunity to lead inquirers and newcomers into sexual purity because freedom from lust is not the primary focus of our efforts.
If we are going to recover our understand in this area and strengthen our witness to others, we need to recognize that we too often give lust a tacit free reign in our relationships, and shift our exclusive focus from merely canonical concerns to active repentance from lust and the reorientation of our sexualities to God.
This process must begin with what the Church Fathers would call “the contemplation of Christ,” which is a broad reference to an ongoing immersion and participation in the tradition of the Church: participation in the liturgy and reception of the Eucharist, personal fasting and prayer (including the practice of the Jesus Prayer), as well as regular reading the Scriptures and the spiritual lives and writings of the saints. In so doing, we begin to reverse the process that St. Paul describes in Romans: we exchange the worship of the creature for that of the Creator by turning our minds and hearts back to Him.
Obviously, this process of repentance is the basic vocation of all Orthodox Christians. However, we need to be more intentional about bringing the contemplation of Christ to bear on the question of sexual lust. Whatever our canonical state we must all rededicate ourselves to contemplating Christ by engaging with the tradition of His Church, having a basic question in mind: “To what extent does lust—the desire to worship and serve myself—influence my sexual choices and behaviour?”
Simultaneously, we must realize that the need to act on our sexual desires is optional. Living in a condition of self-worship, our desires dictate the final word; we must act out, since we submit only to ourselves. But as we turn ourselves back to the Creator as the One whom we worship, we must begin to practice offering those desires to Him first, so that His will becomes the primary imperative of our sexual behaviour.
This means that even if we are called to be married, we do not need to have sex with our spouse to be fulfilled. If this were the case, marital sex would also become a harbour for lustful behaviour, because it is self-motivated. Even when sex is canonically ‘permitted,’ as long as we proceed with the attitude that we must act out, we submit ourselves to the ‘lust of our hearts.’ Our challenge, rather, is to recognize God as the final authority by regularly saying ‘no’ to the commands of our desires. This indeed is what St. Paul intends when he says to the Corinthians, “Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control.” (1 Corinthians 7:5)
Such a commitment is a profoundly counter-cultural act, not to mention profoundly contrary to the impulses of our fallen bodies. Nevertheless, we are all challenged to embrace this sexual counter culture. Newcomers to the Church should only take up the challenge once they are received as catechumens. Once baptized, if they remain single, they can continue to grapple with ‘sex as optional’ on a daily basis. Even as married Christians, though, they can show sex to be optional by taking up the Church’s prescribed periods of conjugal fasting, which usually fall in conjunction with dietary fasting days. In the end, however, we can only hope to treat sexual activity as optional according to the grace of God. Like the Incarnation, it is self-willed but His gift, given to us when we open our hearts and minds upward to the One who transcends the limits of human flesh.
Regardless of our canonical status, we are all fallen human beings struggling to one degree or another with ‘misoriented’ sexualities; therefore, all of us need to embark on a process of restoring authenticity to that essential part of our human identity. Only in the contemplation of Christ through engagement with tradition, while striving to accept sex as optional, can we root out the tendency to ‘self-desire’ that is lust and establish a foundation for our sexual lives rooted in faithfulness to God. Only then can He show us how to fully incarnate our own sexual unions as ‘words’ that speak His eternal Word: the transcendent union between the Bridegroom and His Bride, Christ and His Church.