Church, Sex, and Being Fully Human

It is not often that a song with clear religious themes breaks into the mainstream, but Hozier, a young Irish artist, has just such a hit. The song came on the radio when I was driving to a New Year’s Party last December. “Take me to church…” echoed the chorus. I was a bit surprised to hear these words on a secular pop station, so I listened closer. The religious imagery flowed thick – punctuated with repeated “Amens”, and the song even concluded with the phrase: “good god, let me give you my life”. But it only took a few moments to realize this wasn’t the newest crossover hit. It was a call to worship, but not a call to worship God.

My church offers no absolutes

She tells me ‘worship in the bedroom’

The only heaven I’ll be sent to

Is when I’m alone with you

Hozier readily admits his song is “essentially about sex”. Now, songs about sex are not all that unusual. Worship of sex is a dominant theme in pop music today, but it is somewhat rare to hear it described so forcefully. This isn’t just a predictably sensual pop tune either. There is something poignant, visceral – angry in this mournful song. The artist isn’t just describing his own object of worship; he is also offering a judgment on Christian worship.

Every Sunday’s getting more bleak

A fresh poison each week

‘We were born sick,’

you heard them say it

While his church offers him heaven, Sunday (Christian) worship offers nothing but poison. It is often suggested that Millennials are spiritually disinterested, but Hozier is anything but. He is profoundly interested in religion because he feels the messages about sexuality being offered by the church are dangerous. He experiences deep fulfillment in the very thing the church has told him to avoid.

There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin

In the madness and soil of that sad earthly scene

Only then I am human

Only then I am clean

He describes finding great satisfaction in what the church has called sin. He is experiencing a feast of pleasure while the Church’s teaching about sex has led to “a lot of starving faithful”. Hozier says “An act of sex is one of the most human things. But an organization like the church, say, through its doctrine, would undermine humanity…” He isn’t mincing words here. To deny someone sexual expression is to deny them their humanity. His musical mission is liberation from religiously imposed sexual restraints. While the official video for this song portrays abuse directed at a gay couple, the artist sings of his own, apparently heterosexual, inclinations, and in interviews he is clear that his problem is with the Christian posture toward sexual expression, not just Christianity’s historic denunciation of gay sex.

This song made me angry when I heard it, and it has stuck with me for seven months now. I believe Hozier misrepresents God, sex, and the Church. But we would be unwise to write him off as a sexual libertine Christian hater. His anger is too real, and his perspective too common to ignore. If my ministry among millennials has shown me one thing, it’s that some of our most profound faith conflicts spring from our sexual and relational longings. For many of my peers, sexual self-denial is a burden they are unwilling, or feel unable, to bear. Our desire for relational and sexual intimacy is one of the strongest drives we experience in life, and increasingly, this desire is being leveraged to push us away from our Creator.

This tension of sexual self-denial has existed in Christianity for millennia, but at least two factors have brought it to the forefront today. First, the increasing delay of marriage has made sexual abstinence prior to marriage seem much less realistic. Answers that seemed to make sense in youth group at 18 (Just wait!) suddenly seem less realistic at the age of 28 when marriage is nowhere on the horizon. Secondly, the recent discussion about gay marriage and sexual identity has forced us to recognize that many who choose to practice Christian sexual ethics may never have the opportunity to experience sexual union with another person. This just feels wrong to us.

If there is no God, as this artist seems to assume, his conclusions are absolutely right. If heaven hasn’t spoken we shouldn’t listen and we certainly shouldn’t subject our sexual impulses to any man-made religious system.

So is the Church wrong to ask for abstinence outside of marriage between a man and a woman? Is our personhood dependent on sexual expression? Are those of us who are not having sex suppressing our humanity? Christianity must address these questions. While much more deserves to be said, today I want to briefly offer three challenges to the perspective offered in this song:

Christianity is not anti-sex

There have been individuals in the history of the church who have seen sex as shameful and understood it as useful only for reproduction, but a deeper study of Scripture reveals a more positive depiction of sexuality. Can a faith whose Bible includes the Song of Solomon, really be accused of being anti-eros? Scripture undoubtedly connects sex with reproduction, but pleasure is also frequently described. How is it possible to read passages like Proverbs 5:18-19 and come away with the idea that all sexual expression is shameful?

Let your fountain be blessed,

and rejoice in the wife of your youth,

a lovely deer, a graceful doe.

Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight;

be intoxicated always in her love. (ESV)

The Apostle Paul encourages married couples to regularly have sex with each other, and even demands that a husband should not neglect to fulfill the sexual desires of his wife (1 Cor 7:3-5). Sexual temptation can lead toward sin, but within Christian marriage sex is a beautiful gift intended for preservation, pleasure, and propagation. Certainly our sexual self-understanding has been marred by sin, but God doesn’t think sex is bad.

Christians don’t limit their sexual expression because they doubt it would be satisfying or enjoyable, and they shouldn’t limit their sexual expression because of misplaced shame. Christians limit their sexual expression because they believe the Creator of sexuality should guide their expression of sexuality.

Abstinence is not anti-human

It is no surprise that the Bible offers a different take on the question of sex and its connection with humanity. While Hozier may be young, his ideas have been around for a long time. The Apostle Paul addresses a similar perspective in a letter to the Corinthian Church:

“Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. (1 Cor 6:13 ESV)

The Corinthian people seem to have believed that since having sex was natural, just like eating, they were justified in sexually expressing themselves in whatever manner they desired. But Paul responds by saying that human bodies were made for God and not for sexual sin. Contrary to the Corinthian catchphrase “food is meant for the stomach…”, Paul suggests that humanity is not defined by sexual expression, but by the Lord. Consequently, we learn that those things which draw us away from the Lord do not deepen our humanity, they diminish it.

Hozier has expanded on the message of his song in several interviews, and these flesh out his philosophy. In one such interview he adds:

“The song is about asserting yourself and reclaiming your humanity through an act of love. Turning your back on the theoretical thing, something that’s not tangible, and choosing to worship or love something that is tangible or real – something that can be experienced.” 

While Hozier is clearly portraying this as an institution verses humanity conflict, I couldn’t help but think about it on a personal level. Yes, church leaders teach Scripture and give guidance on these matters, and they should, but ultimately I am the one who decides how I will act. So, are the sexually abstinent somehow less human?

While it may be appealing to associate sexual expression with fighting institutional oppression, is having sex really all that revolutionary? Might those who abstain actually be taking the braver road? It is certainly the road less traveled.

What Hozier describes as “intangible” is not unreal for followers of Christ. Our love for God is a deeper part of our identity than our sexual desire is. This doesn’t mean that our sexual longings are ignored or silently suppressed, but this does mean that they are recognized and redirected toward the proper ends. The Christian’s truest identity, union with Jesus Christ, shapes all their expressions – including their sexual ones. That which has been dismissed as intangible is the most real thing of all.

Those who worship sex will ultimately be disappointed

The worship of sex (and sex-laced worship) is truly an ancient phenomenon. From the Canaanites to the Greeks, humanity has frequently associated sexual activity with worship. Today, along with Hozier, our culture speaks adoringly about sex, making it seem like the best part of our existence. Too frequently, teachers in the church have followed suit, merely resituating this idolatrous distortion within the marriage relationship.

Scripture confronts this pervasive myth of sexual idolatry. Sexual fulfillment is described as a fleeting pleasure. There will come a day for each of us when sex will no longer be attainable. The book of Ecclesiastes speaks of a time when the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails.” (12:5) This poetic description of impending impotence reminds us that sex is a temporary gift and not an eternal experience. Jesus teaches that human marriage does not reach past the grave (Matt 22:30), and it follows that sexual expression between people, as we experience it now, will also not exist in heaven.

Sex isn’t the fullest pleasure or the highest pleasure, it is a passing pleasure that, at most, we will only experience for a few decades. No matter how much we try to reanimate that grasshopper with ED medications, one day failure will be final. Sex is not ultimate, and we should fight any temptation to make it ultimate, because seeing sex this way sets us up for inevitable disappointment.

Sex is a temporary blessing for many people, and that is wonderful, but for Christians, our eternal inheritance will dwarf any pleasure we may obtain from sex in this life. While it may be hard for some to imagine, in heaven we will be so satisfied with the pleasure of being in God’s presence that desiring sex will not cross our minds.

Most songs about sex are not as honest or thought provoking as Hozier’s song is, and it is precisely for this reason I believe it merits a response. It is a powerful, moving song. If it were not for the Gospel, I would heartily agree with what Hozier has to say. If I had not experienced a God who sacrificed his life for me when I was in open rebellion against Him, I would have no reason to disagree. But when informed by the Good News, sexual self-restraint becomes an act of appreciation instead of a stifling suppression. Life is still good and love is deeply realized in abstinence.

There have been many days when my own romantic and sexual longings have felt more real than God has to me. It would be a lie to say otherwise. But feelings often fail to correspond with reality, in this area, and in many others. When faced with sexual longing, the answer isn’t to idolize sex or to manufacture a god who doesn’t care how we express our desire for intimacy. The answer is to meet the God who is and serve him with our whole lives – including our sexuality. The book of Ecclesiastes ends by encouraging the reader to remember the Creator in the days of youth, when passions run high and feel insuppressible. May God give us strength to do this, especially in a time when such a commitment is viewed as unreasonable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *