By Mark Azzara
My Dear Friend,
I got an email from my editor last week inviting me to join the conversation generated by Matthew Sewell’s response to Martin Elfert’s column in which he endorses premarital sex. I took a long look at the comments — and there were plenty of them — but decided that what I wanted to say didn’t belong in the comments section because it doesn’t really deal with what those other writers were discussing.
I recently wrote that I don’t want to get drawn into lengthy arguments that lead to quarrels. But I can’t resist this challenge because something is missing from all those comments and it frustrates me. The thing that hasn’t been addressed involves a simple question: If we and God disagree, who is right?
Sewell and Elfert (and those who support their positions) couldn’t be much farther apart, which means they can’t all be right as God defines that word. We all have our human ways of evaluating what’s “right,” but we really don’t have a clue.
God clarifies everything in Isaiah 55:8-9: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, that’s how high my ways are above your ways and my thoughts are above your thoughts.”
The question I just asked, when applied to those comments, as well as both Sewell’s and Elfert’s pieces, leads to another one: Are God’s perceptions of romantic love, sex and marriage so far beyond ours that we cannot comprehend them in the same way he does? If so, then it behooves us to ask God where our thoughts and actions diverge from his and thus must change.
You and I know from experience that human beings aren’t the least bit inclined to ask that kind of extraordinary question. We have no desire whatsoever to confront the possibility that we are wrong about anything, let alone everything. As theologian Richard Whately said centuries ago, “All men wish to have truth on their side; but few to be on the side of truth.”
That’s precisely why the Holy Spirit was sent to us — so that he might inspire us to suspect we’re not perfect and ask him to empower us to know truth.
God must “save” us from our human patterns of thinking and acting, and elevate them so that each of us thinks and acts just as he does. This is how we reveal God to others and thus give glory to him by acknowledging that his ways are right and that ours are wrong.
We generally agree that sex is the most powerful of all voluntary human experiences, topping even the enjoyment of eating or career success. But nobody wants to ask God where our human ideas of love, sex and marriage differ from his because, in part, we’re afraid he will condemn our desire for sex. But there’s nothing wrong with that desire.
God created sex and despite all our other complaints about him, the one thing that all believers probably would agree on is that sex is his best idea. But while sex is good, it’s only one aspect of much larger divine concepts involving the meaning and purpose of love and marriage. That’s also why we won’t ask him to redefine those terms — because we want to separate them rather than seeing them as an integrated whole.
Sex offers enjoyment in the extreme, and God gave it to us as a way to help us visualize the experience of being in his presence — over-the-top enjoyment. But when we insist on the right to think for ourselves about sex (or any other subject), draw our own conclusions and decide what’s right we reject that kind of relationship with him and intentionally separate ourselves from God.
That’s the real issue raised by the recent debate on this website. That’s what Jesus is referring to in Matthew 7:14 when he warns that salvation is for those who enter through the narrow gate and travel the difficult road that leads to spiritual transformation. Most folks just don’t want to do that, and the eternal consequences be damned. Thank God you are not among them.
All God’s blessings – Mark
Mark Azzara spent 45 years in print journalism, most of them with the Waterbury Republican in Connecticut, where he was a features writer with a special focus on religion at the time of his retirement. He also worked for newspapers in New Haven and Danbury, Conn. At the latter paper, while sports editor, he won a national first-place writing award on college baseball. Azzara also has served as the only admissions recruiter for a small Catholic college in Connecticut and wrote a self-published book on spirituality, “And So Are You.” He is active in his church and facilitates two Christian study groups for men. Azzara grew up in southern California, graduating from Cal State Los Angeles. He holds a master’s degree from the University of Connecticut.
Beautiful article, Mark! I appreciate the time and heart you put into this piece — It was just excellent.
So, is that the same God as Islam, Hinduism, Chinese Traditional Religion, Judaism, Sikhism, Bahai, Jainism and Shinto? Or just the Christian god?
I don’t have time to go into a detailed reply, but if you have 45 minutes I’d encourage you to watch this –> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-NMex7qk5GU
I’m a little confused. You cite Isaiah 55:8-9 as evidence that we do not/can not know the mind of God, then hint that the inner witness of the Holy Spirit is cause to doubt our certitude about any matter, yet insist that we *should* (which generally implies that we *can*) allow God to think for us in this (and every) matter, but how? How do we come to know the mind of God? Do we restrict our study to the jumbled and often self-contradictory mess that is *indirect* revelation (i.e., the Scriptures)? Or do we include *direct* revelation i.e., the created world)? And in either case, how do we know that our interpretation of what we find is the “still, small voice” of the Spirit and not the subtle deceptions of our fallen reason?
questions! I drafted an answer to them, but then asked Jesus to show
me where, if at all, it was wrong. And He did! My friend Joe recently
said, “Only God can tell you where you’re wrong and make you feel
good about it.” I want to be like the prodigal son, who was blessed
immensely once he came to his senses. I want to be like the two
shattered men walking to Emmaus after Jesus’ crucifixion whose hearts
were brought back to life by the Lord. That’s why I’m not afraid to
ask Jesus every day to show me where I’m wrong. I want that blessing;
I want that life. He has radically altered many of my deepest beliefs
and understandings. I know it’s God because He speaks with power. His
Truth is not a theological or political abstraction; it fundamentally
and immediately alters the way I look at life and how I treat myself
and others. It’s so radical, so logical, so compassionate and so far
beyond my ordinary ways of thinking that it could only come from Him.
But most of all He speaks Truth out of a love that is vastly more
powerful and fulfilling than my ideas of love. As another friend,
Father Brad, once said, “Truth not spoken in love is not truth.”
Jesus has taught me through Scripture, sermons, friends and even
directly. He doesn’t want to reprogram me into a right-thinking,
right-acting robot. He wants to be in an intimate relationship with
me where He is free to place His Truth within me and write it on my
heart (Jer. 31:33) because that’s where I really “know” Truth and
act on it. This is how I become like Him. I can’t do that on my own.
Only Jesus can. And when He does, I know it. And until He does I am
free to believe whatever I believe without being afraid that I offend
God, because He knows I’m human and will never fully “get it” the
way He does. — Mark Azzara
Doctor my meds are no longer working…
Very good points for people to consider.
When making pertinent thought provoking points you should also provide a hat with a net sticking out of the top of it so more people on this site can catch them.
This article helps me visualize the favs community on a spectrum. (I know, I know — us wacky liberals with our spectrums!) On one end are religious folks who believe that god’s word is essential and see it as incompatible with premarital sex, same-sex relationships, etc. in the middle are those who also see god’s word as essential but understand it differently (whom would Jesus discriminate against? No one). Then there are those, on the other end, who find god’s word important only insofar as it doesn’t trample on what we consider human rights and dignity.
I would venture to adjust that spectrum just a little — with humility on one end and pride on the other — and submit that none of us are at the former end, but some are closer than others. “Believe God’s word is essential but understand it differently” seems to sound a bit like precisely what Mark was saying — there’s no openness in that statement to suggest that you think your “understanding it differently” could be different or even antithetical to the nature of God. I think what you’ll find in us “religious folks” is more often than not a people who are willing to take God’s version of things over our own, even if (and in many cases especially if) that version doesn’t jibe well with what we’d prefer.
Not to put her on the spot, but after being on a FAVS panel this past weekend with Jan Shannon, I think of her as someone who is passionate about God’s love and God’s word. She has come to understand both as capable of embracing same-sex relationships. I have no idea what she thinks about premarital sex, but my point is that people who believe God loves committed relationships between humans, as much if those humans are LGBT as if they’re heterosexual and cisgender — those people believe it sincerely. They are not trying to “pull one over” on God or be arrogant. To term their beliefs arrogant is anyone’s perfect right, of course, but I detect both passion and humility in their presence.
Same-sex relationships and premarital sex aren’t the same thing, but “traditional” views of the Bible seem to come to the conclusion that both are always wrong.
Hi Neal, great points. A couple distinctions I want to bring up: I think it’s a correct inference that God loves committed relationships between humans, but there a lot of different kinds of committed relationships to be had, not all of which ought to include sex (a parent’s committed relationship to their child, a man’s committed relationship to his best friend, a committed relationship between a pastor and their flock, etc.). If we believe that only certain relationships ought to have sex as a part of them, then we need to look for the distinction for what those certain relationships are.
And if we look to God for those distinctions, then we must look at the way in which He has revealed himself to us — namely through His son Jesus, through Sacred Scripture, and through the Church Jesus founded on earth (all of which are historically credible, well-documented truthful accounts of God’s revelation).
I really don’t think that many people in good conscience are just trying to “pull one over” on God or be arrogant — least of all Jan Shannon, who I’ve come to recognize as an extremely compassionate, open, and pastoral person.
What I am saying is that there are indeed answers to these kinds of questions that we may just not be aware of yet, and we have to be open to the possibility of not liking the answers we find and choosing to follow them anyway. The humility comes in recognizing the need to submit even to an answer that we disagree with if it’s coming from a place that is greater than we could ever imagine being — in this instance, namely, from God.
Spot on spectrum!
For me, when I see the miracle of spring and the sap rises and all of creation makes supreme effort to reproduce I compare that with our natural urge to copulate. Yes we as human species with the ability to recognize our Divine possibilities find ourselves somewhere between Heaven and pagan earth. So does it come down to our more animal nature or is it judgments based on learned behavior? Ultimately we all got here due to sex,
It is the driving force of nature and yes we as a people have yet to bridle that beast.
I have a thorough and good education about ethics, and have dealt with questions of morality and sex for years, both as a conscientious parent, an educator, and a family and marriage therapist of thirty some years. I see little connection between sex and morality, except that it is, as pointed out, an activity that involves strong emotions. Being trained in psychophysiology, I know that without the scientific knowledge of the neuroactivity involved, one will be prone to making very unrealistic arguments about sex. It comes down to the effects and influences of our hormones on our judgments about sex and what is good, and real. Let me remind us that sex and our religious views are mediated by many of the same hormones, These are often emotions that are confused one for the other.
Let me also remind us that our knowledge of what God, if there is a God, believes is good or bad has very little to do with what God thinks, if one can even say that God thinks. Whenever I hear the argument the “God thinks” I think that one can only say “I think that God thinks.”
The Prophets knew our limitations. We in the above articles admit it, then we, in our hubris and hypocrisy, ignore that logical limits on our knowledge. We have no way of knowing the mind of God, yet we talk as if we did, and as if that gives us the justification to tell others what is right to do WITHOUT QUALIFICATION. Why do we think God is on our side?
That is only ethical immaturity. We rarely, when in that state, rise above a 6 year child’s level; Concrete Operational with externally imposed rules. We seem to rely on what some vague authority figure tells us is right, god or parent. Then, in our thoughtless ignorance, we dictate (tell others what is right), just as we , sexist to the core, suggest that God is a male, and call the holy ghost “he”, when that personage of the trinity is usually related to the feminine in the original languages of the Bible.
The ignorance and lack of thought and basic considerations this conversation has mucked around in appalls me. Certainly, sex, as most activities, can violate our dignity and our humanity, and therefor can involve us in moral and ethical behaviors. But by far, it has overblown the boundaries of rational discussion, for by far most morality deals with justice and concern for the humanity of the weaker and most vulnerable of us. Really, what is more morally important(to God), where I put my cock or where I put my money when I pay taxes that support the largest military budget and the most immoral killing the world has ever seen?
Why would we respond more to the former issues of sex that to the latter issues of our killing each other? Is it that we have guilty and dirty minds?
I’ve been worried about my first post when I suggested that those who resorted to some law, which they thought was higher, as morally mature. I would include in this group those who resort to appealing to authority. The above reply points out that God’s ideas about morality and sex are higher than ours. Usually so! We should think about it and build, or grow our moral ideas about sex, or anything. That is why I admire Jesus’s appeal to a morality of love over one of following the law. His morality was “more mature ” than a blind following or the law. It was made for man, man was not made for it. This thinking is a common idea of psychology. Piaget (sp.?), a French educator of mid last century, pointed out that we have hierarchical stages of learning: infant, where things happen magically; childhood, based on following authority and a rule or law (called concrete operational); teen, where we believe what the group to which we belong, holds the truth; adulthood, where we have our own ideas but admit that others have theirs; and maturity, where we can begin to see that others might be right too. One stage can’t develop without having gone through the previous stage, and we can get frozen at any stage and cease to grow. Most rarely get much beyond the teen stage. Each stage has early and late manifestations. Kegan in the last two decades applied these stages, adding some manifestations of his own, to the development of consciousness, and others, with him, have been applying them to the development of morals. This development is what I’m referring to when I allude to morality and maturity. The latter stages of moral morality is where the individual may have an opinion, but will readily admit that others with differing opinions may be as right, or more so, than him or her self. They call for discussion of what is right (most practical) in its situation. Such a view is pretty clearly called for by Jesus when he was confronted about healing on the Sabbath and is implied in one of the Creation stories (the one written by the YHWHists) when God decides not to kill Adam for eating the apple and fits the punishment more to the crime by making life hard for him. My apologies if anyone though I was calling them immature. I was only saying that some of the opinions were based on an immaturely developed moral consciousness, given the above taxonomy.