I’ll own it: I’m that worship leader that has made more than a few people uncomfortable with my song choices. In my early years as a pastor I had someone approach me to voice their concerns with the romantic words that my songs sometimes used. In one case, a man took issue with the lyric, “Lord, I want to yearn for you.” This was just a bit too much for their personal taste. Another time I spontaneously hopped into Lifehouse’s, You and Me, and some semi-regulars left our church and never came back. In my mind I was trying to imagine a “first dance” at the coming wedding between Christ and the Church, but this song was perhaps too much for some.
Since then, I’ve seen many embarrassing tweets of people telling the world what their worship leaders have done and I’ve blushed at some of them, recognizing that I could see myself doing some of those things. It was hard not to imagine the people I offended chiming in to tell the world about the weird things I had sung.
Now most certainly I have made some bad calls in worship leading over the years—that’s all a part of learning to lead worship well and flow with the Holy Spirit. When a bold choice works out, people will celebrate it. But when it fails, it will be public enough to bring on scrutiny.
But while it can be awkward to use romantic imagery in worship music, doing so has never struck me as a failure. I mean, sure, if you’re doing it wrong it could become something perverse, but for me, some form of occasional romantic imagery is almost necessary. Maybe it’s because I’m a four on the enneagram (the romantic) or maybe it’s because of the points I’ll continue to make below.
The Romantic Language of the Christian Mystics
Some of my favorite writing comes from Christian Mystics of old. The main reason for this is because their pursuit of God explodes with words that convey intimacy, desire, romance, passion, beauty, and poetry. They are so in love with God that they talk about him in ways that immediately stirs passion in me. In their romantic words, I realize how far away I am from God and I immediately wish I was closer. I want their desire for Christ to be my desire; their intimacy with God to be my intimacy; their experience of the Holy Spirit to be my experience. Yes, what weirds some people out in their writings brings me to my knees in conviction. I want to know God like that.
If you’re unfamiliar with the mystics and their romantically awkward spiritual language, let’s take a look at a famous experience that Teresa of Avila once had to get a feel for it. She reports that an angel met her in a vision of sorts and then the following happened:
In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it and he left me completely afire with a great love for God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by this intense pain that one can never wish to lose it, nor will one’s soul be content with anything less than God. It is not bodily pain, but spiritual, though the body has a share in it—indeed, a great share. So sweet are the colloquies of love which pass between the soul and God that if anyone thinks that I am lying I beseech God, in his goodness, to give him the same experience.Teresa of Avila (The Life of Teresa of Jesus: the Autobiography of Teresa of Avila, pp. 192-193.)
Teresa of Avila is hardly the only person to be hit with the supernatural love of God, but she is a good example of how romantic words (almost overtly sexual words in this case) were needed to try to communicate her experience. But despite her choice of words, I see no perversity in her language, while others might. For me, she is not speaking of sex with Jesus or sex with an angel (she would rebuke us for perverting her words in that sense), rather, she is using language of romance in attempts to describe the greatest pleasure that one can find in this world: A relationship with God.
Looking for God in Sex?
Now I get it, that sounds weird at first. I remember how weirded out I was in college when a professor told me that we’re all really just looking for God in sex. Even I, with my romantic spiritual overtones, had a hard time trying to stomach that expression.
What on earth could nakedness and kissing and orgasm have to do with God? That feels gross, I thought.
But that statement stuck with me as I tried to decipher what it could mean. I even started to agree, though I wasn’t fully sure why yet. And then several years later, and I came across this general statement again. In her excellent book, Redeeming Sex, Debra Hirsch summarizes some thoughts from M. Scott Peck.
The late psychiatrist M. Scott Peck was convinced that buried in our explicit pursuit of sex is an implicit pursuit of God. He noted that sex is likely to be the closest that most people ever come to a genuine spiritual experience. It was this yearning for the spiritual, he contended, that explained why so many chase after sex with a repetitive, desperate kind of abandon. “It is no accident,” he wrote, “that even atheists and agnostics will, at the moment of orgasm, routinely cry out, ‘Oh God!’”Debra Hirsch (Redeeming Sex: Naked Conversations About Sexuality and Spirituality, page 23)
Sex and the Resurrection
I get it, we’re almost on the verge of crass here, but stick with me. What my professor and Hirsch and Peck have to say here is actually quite Biblical. You may recall that time the Sadducees cornered Jesus and told a little story that they had likely used many times before to make the idea of resurrection life sound ridiculous. Their argument was simple: “Imagine that a woman was married and her husband died, so she had to marry her brother, as the law says. Then imagine this happened seven times throughout her life. So when they’re all brought back to life in the resurrection, what then? There will be seven brothers married to one woman?” Jesus’ response was shocking: “In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30).
Let that sink in for a moment. Some religions preach that there will be more sex than ever in the afterlife—sex is, after all, a common way of life for many that’s hard to imagine not existing anymore. But what some religions preach as abundant, Jesus preached as nonexistent, causing even some Christians to probably be bummed about resurrection life if they were to be honest with themselves. One of the greatest pleasures on earth is missing from paradise? What kind of paradise is that then?
And in that question lies the answer. If the new creation paradise of the coming age is absent of sex, then something greater than sex must be coming with it. Furthermore, sex as we know it in this age must be a signpost toward that greater thing. And that greater thing is the full intimacy of union with God to which sex has always been a symbol of, just as my professor had said.
Again, we’re not being perverse here. You need to read with the lens of poetry and symbolism, lest you get thrown off course into a sexual territory we are not traversing into. Once we understand it correctly, we recognize the applications of romance in our spiritual pursuit of God. Furthermore, it becomes less shocking that people like Teresa used romantic language to describe their relationship with God. After all, Teresa took on a life of celibacy and focused her relational efforts on her true spouse: Christ. What she found in the embrace of that deep relationship was that which the signpost of marriage and sex point to in the resurrection age to come—that is, union with God. And as the beauty of her relationship with God shines over the rest of us, those of us who aren’t celibate realize we might have been missing the point of sex all along.
Sex is About More than Orgasm
Most sexually active people have likely realized at some point that it was never really an orgasm they were after in sex. I think this is even true for the majority of men, despite how often they’re demonized for being, “visual creatures with large sex drives.” I think one student spoke pretty well on behalf of a lot of men during a class that Brene Brown was once teaching.
“In 2006 I met with twenty-two community college students, male and female to talk about shame. It was my first coed large group interview. At some point, a young man in his early twenties explained how he had recently divorced his wife after coming back from serving in the military and finding out that she was havind an affair. He said he wasn’t surprised because he never felt “good enough for her”. He explained that he constantly asked her what she needed and wanted, and that every time he got close to meeting her needs, she “moved the goalpost another ten feet.”
A young woman in the class spoke up and said, “Guys are the same way. They’re never satisfied either. We’re never pretty, sexy, or skinny enough.” Within seconds a conversation broke out about body image and sex. The discussion was mostly about how it’s so scary to have sex with someone you care about when you’re worried about how your body looks. The young women who started the conversation said, “It’s not easy to have sex and keep your stomach sucked in. How can we get into it when we’re worried about our back fat?”
The young man who had shared the story of his divorce slammed his hand down on his desk and shouted, “It’s not about the back fat! You’re worried about it. We’re not. We don’t give a shit!” The class fell completely quiet. He took a couple of deep breaths and said, “Stop making up all of this stuff about what we’re thinking! What we’re really thinking is ‘Do you love me? Do you care about me? Do you want me? Am I important to you? Am I good enough?’ That’s what we’re thinking. When it comes to sex, it feels like our life is on the line, and you’re worried about that crap?”
At that point, half of the young men in the room were so emotional that they had their faces in their hands. A few girls were in tears, and I couldn’t breathe. The young woman who had brought up the body image issue said, “I don’t understand. My last boyfriend was always criticizing my body.”
The young vet who had just brought us all to our knees replied, “That’s because he’s an asshole. It’s not because he’s a guy. Some of us are just guys. Give us a break. Please.”
A middle–aged man in the group joined in, staring straight down at his desk. “It’s true. When you want to be with us … in that way … it makes us feel more worthy. We stand a little taller. Believe in ourselves more. I don’t know why, but it’s true. And I’ve been married since I was eighteen. It still feels that way with my wife.”Brené Brown (Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead)
Anyone who has ever had sex that was more about pity and less about the mutual enjoyment and encouragement of one another, has likely realized that it’s not really an orgasm or looks that they’re after. Rather, what they’re really after is something more akin to intimacy: the desire to know and be known; to love and accept; to appreciate and smile upon; to cherish someone as they cherish you. And when we practice sex like this—as it’s designed to operate in fullness—then it’s not shocking that these kinds of themes will also point us toward God. But if orgasm is how we define sex and that’s all we’re really after, then it’s no shock that romantic spiritual language would sound perverse to us; for orgasm alone is a perversity of sex itself.
The Erotic Literature of the Bible
About a year ago I wanted some more assuredness that romantic language was acceptable in the Christian spiritual life, so I read through an entire commentary on the Song of Songs. If you don’t know, this book is hotly debated. Is it erotic literature? Is it allegory about Christ and the church? Is it both?
From a scholarly perspective, it most certainly is erotic literature. I mean, some of the imagery is pretty hard to miss, but if I were to sit you down and explain some of things you didn’t catch—well, we’d all be feeling pretty awkward. So yes, it most certainly is erotic literature. And for that reason, it does feel pretty weird to consider it to be allegory of any kind.
But many people throughout the ages have caught in this book a glimpse of Christ and the Church—especially the Christian mystics. Likewise as Tremper Longman III points out, “Up until the nineteenth century the Song was unquestioningly treated as some type of allegory” (Song of Songs, NICOT, page 35). The Jews also seemed to see it in an allegorical light since, “The Song of Songs was read on the eighth day of Passover, an association that likely arose because the book was read as a historical allegory beginning with the Exodus and ending with the coming of the Messiah” (ibid, page 2).
Given what we’ve talked talked about so far, I think it’s possible for us to catch allegorical glimpses of the coming wedding of Christ and the Church throughout this book. For if sex is pointing us to something better, then the passionate poetry of two lovers giving themselves in full to one another is likely to give way to overlapping statements that we relate to God with. For example:
Set me as a seal upon your heart,Song of Solomon 8:7
as a seal upon your arm,
for love is strong as death,
jealousy is fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
the very flame of the Lord.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
When it comes to the debate for me, I see both erotic literature and allegory at play in the Song. And that’s all the more reason that this is the love poem of love poems—for no other love poem is divinely inspired like this one, and only God could use it in such a way as to serve these overlapping themes.
The Romantic Writings of Paul
Even Paul himself seemed to incorporate a kind of romantic love into his writing. In his book, Eros and the Christ, David E. Fredrickson points out a number of statements made throughout Paul’s letter to the Philippians that have rather romantic overtones. Among such passages includes the popular Philippians 2:5-7.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.Philippians 2:5-7.
Fredrickson proposes, that given Paul’s other romantic expressions throughout this letter, this statement doesn’t mean that Jesus “emptied himself” of power, so much as it’s about Jesus romantically emptying himself in love for us—which is the romantic way the greek word for “emptied himself” has been used in other Greek literature:
“They help us see that Christ’s story is about a lover longing for communion with a beloved. The desire is so strong that enslavement, wasting away, and death in complete solidarity with the beloved are the only possible ending to this passion…. it speaks of Christ’s longing for union with mortals and his desire to share with them all that he is and has and all that they are and have, just as lovers long to do.David E. Fredrickson (Eros and the Christ, pages 77-78).
Furthermore, Fredrickson points out that the Greek gods often abducted those they loved, but Jesus didn’t do that. With this in mind, Paul’s point in saying that “though Jesus was in the form of God,” was to remind his readers of the way in which he won us over. He didn’t just forcefully come and snatch us away against our will like the gods did. Instead, he put on flesh and won us over by emptying himself, melting away on our behalf.
While there are other ways to read this passage, Paul’s language going the route of the Christian mystic here makes some sense to me. After all, Paul felt called to singleness, committing his life to the full force of ministry and evangelism. Are we to believe that he therefore had no sex drive or desire throughout his life? Like most people, I’m sure he did. But just as God rewarded the celibate Christian mystics with a deep relationship, perhaps God did the same for Paul. For while most people today do everything they can to extend their life, Paul was so close to God that he was interested in melting away with him: “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:23).
Again, this is why the pursuit of God might be found at the true heart of romantic longing, and also why counterfeit forms of sex leave us dry, unfulfilled, and confused. We know there’s something there, so we keep on trying to find it, but each experience leaves us more and more tangled in a web of confusion and lies.
We must learn from our celibate friends. After all, God promised them great things:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,Isaiah 56:4-5
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
I will give in my house and within my walls
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.
The Faulty Promises of Purity Culture
While trying to be helpful, the church has actually confused a lot of people on sex over the last few decades. If you grew up in the purity culture like me (which I agree with in principle, but think it missed the mark on a lot of teaching), you were taught that if you saved sex for marriage, you’d basically be rewarded with a never-ending, steamy, hot, righteously-pornographic marriage. It was guaranteed by youth pastors who liked to mention their “smokin’-hot wives” a lot. And countless Christian sex book (primarily written by men) tried to inform spouses on how to make this happen. (Fortunately, some new Christian sex books by women have come to set the record straight.)
How could we see God in the pursuit of sex when the church taught us that it would be so steamy? How could we learn about the intimacy that comes with sex when we were taught by the church that sex was primarily defined as a physical act? And how long did the church think it could get away with the premise that marriage would allow us to have sex whenever we wanted? For some, that lie fell apart within days or hours, leaving them completely flabbergasted. Who would have thought that two different people becoming one flesh would be so difficult with the way the church marketed it?
Back to the Top
All of this being said, why do I sing and preach and write in spiritually romantic ways? It’s not so I can sound perverse. Rather, it’s because at the heart of longing and romance and desire and passion and pursuit and sex, is the designer of all such things upon which they point. A greater reality is coming—one that is superior in every way and has no need for sex. We have all seen things in this life that we’ll never see or need again, because they’re just too inferior to live on in the new creation. Practicing sex in the age to come would be like turning your Lamborghini in for a cart and some oxen—it just won’t be appealing or make any sense.
So let’s begin to practice sex in our marriage in a way that points to the intimacy that is to come. At times, that may take some discernment. You may already know some things you need to stop doing—or possibly even some things you need to start doing. Whatever the case may be, let us give our sex lives (or lack thereof) over to God for guidance and understanding so that they might be all that they are meant to be.
If you’re looking for some good books to read from Christian authors on sex, I recommend the following:
The Great Sex Rescue: The Lies You’ve Been Taught and How to Recover What God Intended by Sheila Wray Gregorie.
Redeeming Sex: Naked Conversations About Sexuality and Spirituality by Debra Hirsch.