In today’s secular culture, we see sex plastered everywhere – promoted on television, written about in books, lurking in the darkest parts of the internet, and celebrated openly in public. With all this exposure to sex, it’s no wonder that many people find themselves tempted by the passion of lust and all the sins it leads to. As faithful Orthodox Christians, we must do our best to learn the teachings of the Church, especially when it comes to sexuality and abstinence.
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
The Purposes of Sex
It is no secret that God created mankind with sexuality. At one time or another, each one of us has felt a sexual urge of some kind. Even Adam and Eve, our First Parents, felt these things. But what is the purpose of this sexual drive? Why do we have it in the first place?
1. Spiritual Union
Sex results in the spiritual union of husband and wife. The two mystically become one flesh and achieve a level of intimacy and love perhaps only rivaled by that between a mother and her child. This unique “oneness of soul and body” mirrors the relationship between Christ and His Church and brings incredible happiness and growth to the couple that follows Christ.
The second purpose of sex, according to Orthodox teachings, is procreation. This makes sense. After all, what does sex do more often than not? It results in a baby! In a way, it’s incredibly miraculous. The way God unites a man and woman and creates another human being through them. This new life is the penultimate expression of man’s participation in God’s work. Note that while procreation is an integral part of a loving Christian marriage, but not every marriage must result in procreation.
Sexuality is based on divine love
We read in 1 John 4:7-8 that love comes from God, that “God is love”. It follows then, that human sexuality, as part of God’s creation, is based on this divine love. By this we don’t mean some sort of fleeting attraction. The divine love of God is agape love, spiritual love that is unconditional, selfless, genuine, and cheerful, with no expectation of receiving anything in return. This kind of love surpasses all codes of ethics and the scope of human feeling; it is the love we see between the Persons of the Holy Trinity, and the love God has for His creation. Because God is the source of all things, our exercise of this love must be done in accordance to God’s will and commandments.
How do we know God’s will when it comes to human sexuality? We look to the creation of Adam and Eve. God created man with two modes of being: male and female (Genesis 1:27) and created them to be in communion with one another, just as the Persons of the Holy Trinity are in communion. God appropriates male and female as perfect companions for one another in marriage (Genesis 2:24), and as Christians we must exercise our love and sexuality within these parameters. Therefore, things like adultery, homosexuality, transgenderism, bestiality, pornography, and fornication are unacceptable for Orthodox Christians.
Sexuality mirrors the work of God
God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to us, to restore the communion with God that we lost after death entered the world through sin. Christ’s death on the cross was entirely voluntary; He never sinned and thus was never under the same penalty of death as the rest of us. He chose to die for us, because He loved us. Sexual love must mirror the love of God; it should be giving, unique, and selfless, not casual, crude, and self-centered. The only way for sexual union to mirror God’s love, is for it to be blessed and sanctified in marriage.
Expressing sexuality within heterosexual Christian marriage
The Holy Scriptures and the Church Fathers highlight many prohibitions against premarital sexual relations of any kind (Matt. 5:27-28; 15:10-20; Gal. 5:16-25; etc.) In sharing sexual intercourse before marriage, we express a union that doesn’t exist. We become “one flesh” with another person, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, but not with our husband or wife. In the end, we bring that “piece” of the other person into our marriage, whether we are actively conscious of it or not. Sexual intercourse thus is no longer a unique bond shared only between husband and wife; rather it becomes a twisted rendition of the bond God established for us, with other people added in that do not belong there.
For the Orthodox Church, then, heterosexual Christian marriage is the only proper social context for human sexuality. As God says: “marriage is honorable […] and the bed undefiled” (Hebrews 13:4). Marriage introduces man into eternal joy and love. He becomes King of the domestic church beside his wife, and together, they raise future saints. He gives himself to her, and she likewise gives herself to him, over and over again each day. Together, they replicate the relationship between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:25), embodying the selfless love of God. When they become “one flesh,” they act in communion with God and, in a way we cannot understand, participate in a higher reality while still remaining fully human.
Use of contraception / birth control within marriage
Many married Orthodox couples wonder what the Church allows when it comes to the use of contraception or birth control within the context of their marriage. There is a lot of nuance surrounding this topic, mainly because of the plethora of options that exist out there, whether medical or natural.
As a bottom line, the Church condemns any type of contraceptive that is abortifacient. In other words, any type of method that results in the death of the unborn child, post-fertilization. For use of non-abortifacient contraceptives, or for the use of natural methods of birth control like NFP or marital abstinence, you must always obtain a blessing from your spiritual father before taking any sort of action as a married couple. While we would be more than happy to answer your questions here, our best advice is to speak with your local parish priest, since he will know your particular situation best and can offer meaningful spiritual counsel to you and your spouse.
Practicing abstinence outside of marriage
The Eastern Orthodox Church teaches that any sexual activity taking place outside of marriage is sinful (as are certain sexual activities within marriage). Therefore, the Orthodox Church teaches that unmarried individuals should practice abstinence, or celibacy: not having sex with anyone (including yourself). Those of us still not married do this to preserve the sanctity of the marriage bond that God established. There are two goals of celibacy/abstinence:
- To remain free of carnal pleasure
- To orient your life toward God and away from the secular world
Why would anyone choose to live like this? How could depriving yourself of carnal pleasure be more satisfying than just doing what you want? You aren’t hurting anyone, so what difference does it make? Sadly, you are hurting someone. Yourself, and potentially others.
Orthodox theology places incredible importance on the connection between soul and body. The things we do with our bodies affect our minds and hearts, just as the things we think and feel affect our bodies. Our souls are affected more than we realize, and we need to take care of them. When Orthodox Christians practice abstinence, we protect and honor our bodies, which are temples of the Holy Spirit. Not only this, but we also protect our souls from the harm sin can do to us – drawing us away from God. Whether we’re single or married, practicing abstinence helps us build a lifetime of faithfulness that is priceless and more conducive to true inner peace and joy than living in sin. No matter how strong any temptation might be, the power of our free will in synergy with God’s grace is stronger.
We become better spouses this way because we learn what true love is, and how to emulate that love with our future spouse. After all, how can we truly show genuine love for someone else if we engage in behaviors designed to gratify only ourselves? We may think sexual sins have no lasting, hurtful effect on ourselves or the lives of those we’re committing these sins with, but they do.
How to avoid sexual sin
Remaining chaste and pure is difficult. Especially if you have a significant other in the picture. And while this sort of thing is much easier said than done, we can offer you some suggestions. These apply whether you struggle with the temptation or have already committed the sin:
Fasting has a way of purging the body of that which makes it impure. It allows the Christian to gain control of the things that once controlled him or her. In other words, fasting is a tool of spiritual discipline that opens the door to a blossoming relationship with God. You can fast from foods, as well as television, video games, etc. to help you learn self-control. Whatever it is that tempts you to sin, fast from it! For example, if you tend to look at pornography on your cell phone, fast from your phone. Set a screen time limit, or turn your phone off and put it away somewhere after a certain time each day. This limits the amount of time you would otherwise be exposed to the temptation to look at pornography.
Prayer is another tool you should use to fight against the passions. Turn to the Lord in prayer and ask Him to protect you from those temptations. Prayers are incredibly powerful before God; He listens, hears, and responds when His children call upon him.
Keep Reading: How To Maintain A Consistent Prayer Life
Additionally, you should ask others to pray for you. Ask fellow parishioners, your priest, loved ones, friends, and even Saints who struggled with the same sin during their lifetime. Their intercessions carry all the more power within them, because they achieved admirable levels of holiness despite the sins of their pasts. A few wonderful Saints to ask intercession from regarding lust and sexual sin are: St. Mary of Egypt, St. Justina, St. John the Long-Suffering, and Saint Moses the Ethiopian.
If you feel tempted to commit a sexual sin, or you already committed one, seek out your priest and confess your sin to God. Why do this? Because Confession is cathartic and helps our soul heal from the damage done by our sins. We confess in the presence of the priest because he gives us “treatment” to help us heal and avoid sin in the future. He is human, just like you and me. Thus, he can offer sympathy, guidance, and encouragement to us as we strive to live better lives. Together with your priest, you can work out a plan that will help you get better, just as a doctor does when you feel physically unwell.
When it comes to our sexuality, we must adhere to the Divine Law of God and His Church. He established the sacrament of Marriage as the proper context for expressing our sexual love, and He has told us to reserve that love for one person, our husband or wife. When we go against this, we harm ourselves spiritually and emotionally. But there is no sin God will not forgive, so long as we truly seek repentance and desire to live the life He desires for us.
If we do fall into sexual sin, there’s always the option to repent, ask forgiveness, and receive God’s mercy and the joy of one’s conscience being made clean. Do not despair. There is hope in Christ!
Keep Reading: Remarriage After Divorce?