As a pastor and author, I have done a number of radio interviews over the years, but one in particular caught me off guard.
I had written a book on the beauty of God — in creation, in Christ, in worship, in everything. After it came out, I did several interviews about the book. One was live on a radio station in Los Angeles. I was ready. I had done these before. I had my notes in front of me. The radio host introduced me and said, “This pastor in Indiana is going to help us all deal with sexual temptation! Friend, what do you have to tell us?”
I stammered. What? I was prepared to talk about the beauty of God, not sexual temptation. I mumbled some answers as best as I could remember from a recent sermon on temptation, and was glad when the interview was over.
As caught off guard as I was in the moment, though, are these two subjects mutually exclusive? Is the beauty of God, which is all around us at all times, really a separate conversation from sexual purity? Or is God’s beauty actually an overlooked weapon in our struggle against temptation? It is — and the weapon is often hiding in plain sight.
What Is God’s Beauty?
We are so accustomed to associating beauty with the physical world that defining the beauty of God can feel impossible.
God’s beauty is the sum of all his perfections. It brings together the balance, symmetry, and infinity of the triune Godhead. As his every attribute is perfect, when taken together as a divine whole, he is resplendent in all his beauty — like a flower is beautiful, but a bouquet is more beautiful as each flower contributes to the total loveliness. God’s character is the effulgent radiance and fullness of divine perfection.
We come closer to the meaning of beauty with the glory of God. God’s glory is first his infinite worth. This worth is appraised by the Father, Son, and Spirit in and with infinite delight in each other. What does self-assessed divine joy look like? The Bible calls the visible expression of infinite worth “glory.” God’s glory is the light of divine delight. It is the brilliant, emanating expression of God’s infinite delight in being God.
“Sex is meant to be deeply theological and doxological. When it is, it’s better.”
God’s beauty is the theological description of this aesthetic reality. It summarizes God as the most worthy and desirable allurement of all. He alone ultimately satisfies the longings of our heart, body, and soul. The weight of his glory and the perfection of his being charm and enchant humans who were made to desire him with such completeness that the Bible calls it worship.
Lust for Ugly
Romans 1 explains that humans were made to worship God in his beauty. Tragically, sin has twisted our hearts and perverted our worship. We are tempted to seek divine satisfaction in non-divine realities — even realities designed by God to remind us of him. Creation’s beauty and aesthetic pleasures are meant to take us upstream to the source, with honor and thanksgiving (Romans 1:21).
Sexual desire fits this worship paradigm. It is a powerful allurement and pleasure — so powerful that it is certainly the most historically deified human experience. However, when separated from its purpose — to lead us to enjoy God more through it — the allurements entice us toward fulfillment outside God’s will: pornography (nakedness without covenant), masturbation (sexual fulfillment without a spouse), fornication (intercourse without covenant), adultery (covenant-breaking sexuality), and many other sexual expressions.
So, is it possible to weaponize God’s beauty in our battle with sexual sin?
Stoke a Revulsion to Ugly
In the above examples, our sinful flesh generates strong desires for illicit sexual fulfillment. In each case, what our flesh craves is not sexually beautiful in God’s eyes. To God, sex outside the marital bed is ugly. In salvation, God regenerates holy desires in us, if only in part. Our new heart has a capacity to desire what pleases God, including God’s created purposes for human sexuality.
One biblical way to fight sexual temptation is to internally stoke a strong revulsion to where this temptation would lead. Proverbs in particular urges us during temptation to see the pain and sorrow that acting on this desire would create.
The lips of a forbidden woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil, but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps follow the path to Sheol. (Proverbs 5:3–5)
He who commits adultery lacks sense; he who does it destroys himself. (Proverbs 6:32)
Almost every pastor knows the weeping sorrow of a spouse who has sexually sinned. The shock and pain on the face of the wife or husband who was sinned against should be captured and put on interstate billboards next to titillating adult-entertainment advertisements.
Pornography Undermines Pleasure
When the consequences of sexual sin bear their bitter fruit, the liaison that created the pain is no longer seen as desirable or beautiful. It is seen for what it is and what it was, despite the moments of pleasure: ethically ugly and consequentially hideous.
Our church’s counseling ministry regularly deals with husbands whose past pornographic lifestyle is psychologically impeding their present ability to sexually perform. In a great irony, pornography often creates erectile dysfunction. The pornographic experience that promises sexual fulfillment hinders the very fulfillment sex intends. Click by click, men are sexually castrating and emasculating themselves.
No matter how beautiful, when seen from the perspective of God’s beauty and beautiful design, these digital Bathshebas are Jezebels. In the end, sexual temptation gives the opposite of what it promises — hunger and longing, not gratification. Rather than immersing ourselves in beauty, we are bonded to the ugly, the degrading, the hollowing and emptying. Training ourselves to perceive the ugly in seductive beauty is a strong help.
Christian Sex Is the Best Sex
In a famous sermon titled “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” Thomas Chalmers captures the essence of this truth:
The best way of casting out an impure affection is to admit a pure one; and by the love of what is good, to expel the love of what is evil.
“Holy desire for God’s pleasure helps extinguish the unholy desire of sexual temptation.”
When God’s Spirit opens our eyes to the glory of God in the face of Jesus, we perceive a deeper and greater beauty. In the terms of Romans 1, we can worship by giving God honor and thanksgiving through holy sexual fulfillment. This doesn’t mean that after marital intimacy we must sing the “Hallelujah” chorus. But we don’t practice atheistic sex either. Sex is meant to be deeply theological and doxological. When it is, it’s better. Christians should have the best sex lives because all pleasures God created are intended to consummate in worship.
When sex consummates in worship, it brings spiritual meaning to the physical experience. It places sex in its proper place in God’s story and universe. As Hebrews exhorts us, “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous” (Hebrews 13:4).
I didn’t get married until I was 44. Celibacy also honors the marriage bed. It protects sex by reserving sex, which reflects a truly high view of sex and of God. As a man who has been there, I can say that sexual purity within God’s will is its own act of worship, and we should celebrate the high calling single Christians have.
Lust Limits Pleasure and Intimacy
When I was a pastoral intern, our senior pastor required me to read a past article in Leadership Journal magazine. It was written anonymously by a pastor and conference speaker whose life was engulfed in sexual lust. Though he vividly describes how the quicksand of sexual lust overwhelmed him, he writes the article after having achieved substantial freedom. What got him out of the quicksand? He read Francois Mauriac’s “What I believe.”
Mauriac argues that the beatitude “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8) highlights the condition for a higher love, a possession superior to all possessions: God himself. The anonymous author writes,
The thought hit me like a bell rung in a dark, silent hall. So far none of the scary negative arguments against lust had succeeded in keeping me from it. But here was a description of what I was missing by continuing to harbor lust. I was limiting my own intimacy with God. The love he offers is so transcendent and possessing that it requires our faculties to be purified and cleansed before we can experience or can possibly contain all of it. Could he, in fact, substitute another thirst and another hunger for the one I had never filled? Would living water somehow quench lust? That was the gamble of faith.
After years of a dulled conscience and a numb spirit to God, the desire to sense God’s pleasure and purity again shook him. It turned him toward something his soul sensed was better.
Too often we try to deal with sexual temptation with mere denial. While there is an element of abstention in the pursuit of holiness, denial of a lesser pleasure for the sake of a greater pleasure is the Christian’s best weapon. When captured by sexual desire outside God’s will, proactively consider how great purity of conscience truly is. Bring to mind the damning consequences of acting on the desire. Overcome impurity with the beauty of God’s purity and his pleasure in ours. Holy desire for God’s pleasure helps extinguish the unholy desire of sexual temptation.
Sex is about worship, and successfully overcoming sexual temptation requires an eye for supreme, divine, sublime beauty.