Faithful Love, Revealed and Embodied

Faithful Love, Revealed and Embodied

“The principalities and powers of a fallen world have saturated us with lies about our sexuality. Our desires have been twisted by sin and we are turned inward on ourselves. We have also contributed to the fracturing of the creation by our willful choice to violate the love of God and live on our own terms apart from God. Our brokenness in the areas of sexuality takes many forms, some due to our own choosing and some brought into our lives via a broken world. However, God’s grace is sufficient in our weaknesses, enough to bring conviction, transformation, and sanctification in our lives.”—Church of the Nazarene 2017-2021 Manual, ¶31.

Love and faithfulness, if they are to have any real meaning, cannot exist merely as abstract notions or disconnected, idealized sentiments. They seek to be embodied, given life and expression in a very real world marked by both the beauty and brokenness of very real human beings. Finding their voice in relationship, love and faithfulness speak the language of value, identity, and belonging to the heart of another, wanting above all to know and to be known. Nowhere is this more fully displayed than in the proclamation, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, NRSV). God’s faithful love for us was embodied as God with us.

As we listen and respond to the voice of faithful love revealed to us in Jesus, we come to recognize that this is the true source of our identity.

To be united with Christ is to find our true selves as recipients of the Father’s deep, unconditional love and our intended role as God’s image bearers in the world. From this deep sense of belonging and value, we are called to witness to this faithful love through our life and actions. This call is not separated from the everyday realities of our lives but finds expression in all things, both the public and the personal, the extraordinary and the mundane. Even in the most intimate and personal aspects of our lives, the sense of belonging provides the freedom and desire to reveal God’s faithful love.

As human beings, our desire for sexual intimacy is not to be isolated or separated from the call to bear witness to God’s faithfulness and love but should be understood within that call.

Admittedly, the church has not always done this well. We have, at times, reduced sexual intimacy to something merely tolerated within a strict moral code, often accompanied by a dose of guilt that left many feeling ashamed that their desires even existed. In contrast, and perhaps in response, others have chosen to throw off all restraints as artificial and unnecessary, insisting that desire can and should be fulfilled for desire’s sake alone. Both perspectives err, not by making too much of sexual intimacy, but by diminishing it. One denies the goodness of sex as a part of God’s good creation and something to be celebrated within the covenantal relationship of marriage. The other exchanges intimacy for sexual gratification as a commodity in which others are easily objectified.

Both perspectives—the moralistic impulse to enmesh sexual intimacy in a web of shame and guilt, and the temptation to idolize sex as the one great desire to be pursued and fulfilled at all costs—arise from the same source. That source is our failure to hear the voice of faithful love, embodied and revealed in Jesus, that tells us who we truly are.

When our worship is not centered on Christ, sex inevitably takes a wrong turn in one direction or another.

For those whose sense of worth is formed by sheer obedience to a religious list of dos and don’ts, sexual desire can remain a source of shame and guilt, even when expressed within marriage. Others struggle to find freedom from their pasts, hearing only the voice of accusation that tells them they are forever impure and will always be seen as “damaged.” And, as our culture so clearly testifies, many will turn to sexual gratification itself as their source of identity. Running from one sexual experience to another, they chase after the wind in an attempt to find fulfillment, love, and self-worth. A wrong sense of identity always leaves us enslaved by something.

The Apostle Paul, when speaking of misdirected sexual desire in particular, connects our sexual intimacy to our relationship with Christ. He tells the believers in Corinth that, in sexual union, “two become one flesh” and, therefore, we cannot be joined to a prostitute because “anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” (1 Cor. 6:16-17, NRSV).

Our union with Christ defines us, and what we do with our bodies matters.

When we find ourselves embraced by the loving faithfulness of God, and this becomes the foundation of our worth and significance, we are released from the impulse to define ourselves through sexual fulfillment or anything else. We are set free to embody the faithful love of God in all of our living and being, including our sexual desire.

The husband and wife living in the covenant of marriage can celebrate sexual intimacy as God’s good gift. This gift is free of shame and affirms the goodness of the body, pointing us toward God as the gift-giver. Sexuality then becomes a gift offered to one another, a renewal of the covenant that expresses the faithful love they have received from Christ which now defines them. With their identity firmly grounded in the loving faithfulness of God, sexual involvement outside of their marriage covenant is simply not an option because it contradicts the faithfulness of God. Extramarital sexual relations become more than the violation of a moral code—they become a violation of who we are.

At the same time, the person who remains single and celibate equally testifies to the loving faithfulness of God. We have not always celebrated the path of celibate singleness as a God-honoring way of life, and yet such a life clearly bears witness, in a truly counter-cultural way, to the deep truth of Christ being our greatest desire. For single persons united with Christ and finding their identity in Him above all, the idea of sex outside the covenantal relationship of marriage runs contrary to the faithful, covenantal love they know in Christ. Rather than futilely seeking meaning through expressions of sexual intimacy that do not reflect God’s faithfulness to us, they live into the fulfillment of being in and with Christ who truly knows them. Understanding who they are, with no need to idolize sex, they are free to bear witness to the sufficiency of God’s faithful love.

Married or unmarried, embracing who we are in Christ shapes the life we live in the body. Sexual desire and intimacy cease to be subjects of either shame or selfishness. When submitted to Christ, they are witnesses to His faithfulness. As Beth Felker Jones sums it up, “The path of faithful marriage is a sign of God’s faithfulness. The path of celibate singleness is a sign of God’s faithfulness. When a single person doesn’t have sex, his body is a testament to God’s utter refusal to forsake us. When a married person remains faithful, her body is a testament to the same God.”1 

The Word indeed became flesh, the bodily revelation of our faithful God and the call to come home to our true selves. And the true self, firmly established in Christ alone, is free to live life in the body as a signpost and witness of God’s loving faithfulness to the world.

Doug Van Nest is the dean of the School of Christian Ministry at Mount Vernon Nazarene University.

[1] Beth Felker Jones, Faithful: A Theology of Sex (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2015), 71.

Holiness Today, Nov/Dec 2019