Culture

Hear Tim Keller out as he airs an unpopular, counter-cultural view of sex

by Gabriel Ong // April 6, 2021, 5:51 pm

Tim Keller-1

If you follow Tim Keller on Facebook, you’ll know he is wont to share thought-provoking reflections which often range from cryptic to soul-provoking.

Last week, a recent one-liner by the American pastor about the nature of sex within marriage got more than a few folks embroiled in intense discussion.  

“Anything that violates the will of our Creator for human behavior is by definition dehumanizing,” he wrote.

“It is dehumanizing to hate, to lie, and to have sex outside of a mutually self-giving life-long covenant. (Many don’t believe the Bible gives God’s will — but that’s another subject.)”

… and to have sex outside of a mutually self-giving life-long covenant. 

I think that was the phrase that tripped up people the most. 

The debate in the comments section was so great it warranted a separate nine-point response post, in which Keller laid out more clearly some of his beliefs on sex and what it means in a covenant relationship.

Points 1 to 3 addressed the idea of the self and the purpose of life itself.

Keller started by saying that many of the hostile responses assumed a specific understanding of the self, in which sexual expression is a key part of authenticity.

Because it is “individualistic” and “therapeutic”, among other things, “it is the reason one finds sexual boundaries oppressive”. He also goes on to say: 

  • “This therapeutic view of identity has been imposed on you by your culture. It turns sex into a commodity. It is not good for you or for society. To question it read Rieff, Lasch, and Taylor’s Sources of the Self.”
  • “Christians believe we were purposed to live in certain ways by God, & to violate God’s design is to violate our own natures. Secular culture says we determine our own purposes – but that fails. See MacIntyre’s After Virtue…”

I admired Keller’s boldness in daring to state unpopular truths.

He argued that much of the anger expressed in the comments stemmed from an unhealthy worldview, one that has been imposed on society by culture, which turns sex into a commodity and suggests much of the self and identity is found in sexual expression. 

In contrast to that present culture, Keller’s third point laid out how God has original designs for humanity, only we have strayed from them.

Keller explained that Christians believe we have been purposed to live in certain ways, and that includes not having sex outside of marriage.

What is that good thing? Is it truly good

I grew up learning that sex was only for a husband and wife to enjoy, so I had an easier time accepting that.

But I also spent years far away from God, which is why I can understand the idea of why doing what we want to is so appealing, whether that’s in terms of sex or other things. 

Sex. Feels good, why not? Two consenting adults. It’s their business, what? Doesn’t hurt anybody. I can think of any number of arguments I might have put forth then. But as to whether they were true or good, I might not have cared that much.

Because I wanted my way. That rebellious streak comes out of the sinful nature within all of us, and it takes over the wheel of our lives when we let it drive us, plotting a route of our design. Only we’ve so often crashed, and at times without even realising. 

That’s probably the failure meant by Keller when we determine our own purposes. I’ve certainly been there.

Whenever we hear or learn about something that is hard to swallow in the Bible, it becomes easier to just write it off as “this one cannot, that one cannot”. 

It paints Christianity as a prohibitive faith, and God as someone who withholds and restricts good things from us (as an aside, Eve felt the same way). 

But so much of that is untrue. We need to measure God’s character by who He says He is in the Bible, not by whether we get the things we want to have.

Think about verses like:

“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1:17)

And, perhaps most clearly of all:

“For the LORD God is a sun and shield; The LORD will give grace and glory; No good thing will He withhold From those who walk uprightly.” (Psalm 84:11 NKJV)

When we don’t get what we want, it’s easy to think, “God is withholding this good thing from me.”

But what is that good thing? Is it truly good?

How do we measure the good it would bring? What is the standard used?

Is it good in light of your circumstances, who you are or the struggles you are facing? 

And most importantly, is it good based on what God has said in His Word?

What shifts in “relevance” is actually culture, never God’s word or truth.

As an aside, I was reading a Nicky Gumbel devotional a few weeks back, and he was talking about rules and freedom. 

The story he told was about being called upon to referee a football match that his son was playing in, after their coach didn’t show up to the game.

Gumbel tried his best at refereeing the game, only he didn’t know the rules very well. You would have thought it would be more fun that way since there would be total freedom.

That wasn’t what happened. People were getting hurt and no one was actually enjoying the game because there weren’t any rules to play by. Some fouls were called, others weren’t – nothing was consistent or fair.

Then when the coach finally arrived on the pitch, the real game started with actual rules and they had a great game of football.

In my circles, I’ve found there is so much contention around certain teachings. Thing is, the contention usually doesn’t centre on whether the teaching is true – but if one agrees with it or not.

As sexual norms shift through the years, it rubs up against God’s unchanging truth and standards. What shifts in “relevance” is actually culture, never God’s word or truth.

All that to say: we want what we want, and we even tell the Church to validate that we can have it.

Once a serial dater ashamed of her unwanted pregnancy, she finally found true freedom

The rest of Keller’s points began to centre on the purpose and sanctity of sex. Here is what he believes sex was designed by God to do.

  • “We believe sex was not created just for pleasure but for mutual self-giving toward a deep, permanent union that creates character and new human life. In sex outside of marriage, we maintain our independence and fail to give our whole selves to the other person.”
  • “We believe sex was created for persons to say non-verbally but powerfully to one another: ‘I belong completely and exclusively to you.’ It must not be used to say anything less than that or you are not respecting sex’s power, depth, and force.”

Keller argued that sex is something deeper than just physical pleasure – “mutual self-giving” as he terms it. It is spiritual, symbolic – something that must only be had in its right context. To do so otherwise, would be to devalue it and by extension oneself. 

I’ve looked for a kinder way to say this, but I believe what Keller is talking about is something you have to experience to know.

Can you still experience such profound – even spiritual – intimacy with your spouse after having had sex outside of marriage? I don’t know if I could, personally.

But God gives grace, and I think it remains a possibility albeit unideal. 

Which is why I am so glad I waited for marriage. That’s probably not something I would have celebrated as a younger me, but as a married person now, I can actually understand Keller’s point on how powerful sex can be in the context of a sacred union between a husband and wife.

There are all-encompassing implications and blessings to sex, and we cheapen it and settle for something a lot poorer if we choose otherwise.

Keller’s last points from 6 through 9 covered the exploitation and distortion of sex’s function that happens when we cultivate sex in a manner that goes against God’s design. Basically, what you lose, and the dangers and damage derived.

  • “We believe that, because sex was created as an agent for self-giving, when you have (even consensual) sex outside of marriage, very often one or both gets exploited, the sex drawing you toward deep union as it was made to do.”
  • “If you cultivate sex for self-affirmation instead of self-giving, you diminish sex’s power to function as a commitment apparatus and covenant renewal agent within marriage. You harden or dehumanize yourself.”
  • “Ultimately these beliefs about sex are grounded in the Bible. But after 45 years of pastoral work speaking to countless people and seeing their experiences of sexuality, all these beliefs have been held up by my experience as well.”
  • “If one person does self-giving within a marriage covenant, but the other spouse is exploitative, the damage can be great…”

I won’t go too much into this as Keller lays it out quite clearly, and there are commenters who have expanded on some of these reflections far better than I can. But I will go back to the perception that Christians are outdated, stiff and serious about sex. 

Here I’m taking a leaf out of Keller’s book and venturing to say that we aren’t nearly serious enough. 

How can a Christian navigate our hypersexualised culture?

Sex is a serious matter, designed by God (not society) for profound purposes (new life!) beyond physical pleasure. It is important and therefore should be treated as a matter of gravity. 

The weighty, respectful treatment of such matters does not change over time, unlike social mores or the flavour of the generation. 

And of course there’s an upside! When we cultivate sex in God’s design, there is such… serious joy. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to explain it.

Can you explain something precious that is only just for you and another person? You couldn’t – and probably wouldn’t want to! You’ll want to find out for yourself. 

What I will tell you is this, there is such a profound peace and happiness beating in my heart when I enjoy such a deep level of intimacy with my wife. Layered onto that is joy, from knowing that we waited. 

With each day that passes, I give thanks for this life that God has turned around, and all the blessings He has lavished me with, even while I saw Him as the “this one cannot, that cannot” guy.

Sorry, God. Thank you for keeping me on the straight and narrow! I don’t regret for a day the good choices You helped me to make.

And God, please give us grace to accept hard truths and obey all of your commands – not just the ones we agree with or find palatable.

THINK + TALK

  1. What does sex mean to you?
  2. What is God’s intention for sex? 
  3. Are there some boundaries you can put in place to help you experience true freedom?
About the author

Gabriel Ong

Gabriel isn't a hipster, but he loves his beard and coffee. In his spare time, he'd rather be on a mountain.