Category Archives: Ethics

Misdirected and Inordinate: Some Thoughts on Disordered Desires

Desire has always played a central role in human existence, but when our desires become misdirected and inordinate (i.e., disordered), they can easily lead to sinful and destructive actions and attitudes.

Misdirected desires, on the one hand, are perfectly appropriate but directed at inappropriate objects and applied within wrong contexts, as when, for example, someone sexually desires children, animals, or has sexual relations with someone outside of marriage.

Inordinate desires, on the other hand, are desires that are also perfectly proper but improperly fulfilled in terms of quantity.  Examples of these include gluttony and drunkenness, the proper but inordinate desire for food and drink.  These desires can also manifest themselves in what would appear to be too little of something good, as when an anorexic individual fails to eat enough, or a highly driven person fails to sleep enough.

Thus, misdirected desires are disordered directionally and contextually, whereas inordinate desires are disordered in terms of quantity and extent.  Very often, our desires are disordered by being simultaneously misdirected and inordinate.  For example, we can desire not just too much food but also the wrong kinds—such as “junk” food which is high in fat and refined sugar while largely devoid of basic nutritional value.

Ever since sin entered human history, our desires have had the potential to be problematic and disordered. This is at least part of the reason why Buddhism tries to solve the problem of human suffering by advocating the complete elimination of all human desire.  The logic works this way: If we want nothing, we will never suffer the disappointment of not getting it.  Nor will the inordinate desire of greed (for example) cause others to suffer by taking for ourselves more than we should.

In contrast, Christianity does not consider desire to be inherently negative.  In Galatians 5:16-17, for example, “the desires of the flesh” or sinful desires, are set over and against the good and righteous “desires of the Spirit.”  In 1 Corinthians 12:31, Paul commands us to “eagerly desire the greater gifts.”  Even God is depicted with appropriate desires, as in 2 Peter 3:9, which says that He does not desire “that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”

We often try to be holy by denying our desires.  But if we are not careful, this can devolve into becoming more of a Buddhist solution versus a biblical solution to the problem.  To quote C. S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory, “If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.  We are half-hearted creatures fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.  We are far too easily pleased.”

Our desires might not be wrong per se, but perhaps they are not strong enough for the right things because we are either ignorant of or (more likely) in rebellion toward the deeper and more important desires God wants for us.  This obliviousness and insurgency are ubiquitously encouraged and promoted by contemporary thinking about the nature of desires, especially in the western world.  They are there, it is argued, for no other reasons than to be stimulated and fulfilled.  The stronger the desire, the more important it is to encourage and satisfy it.  Since sexual desires are some of the strongest desires known to humankind, the narrative screams and demands that we must follow the (especially sexual) desires of our heart.  Anything else, it is claimed, is psychologically oppressive and a destructive affront to human flourishing.

In contrast, Christians understand that although extremely important and powerful, sin has deeply impacted all of our desires.  Thus, our strongest desires are not necessarily our deepest and most important desires.  No matter how weak or how strong, they are often disordered and therefore potentially dangerous.  They must continually be harnessed and (re)directed toward the right ends and kept within proper limits.  In this way, we can be powerfully passionate, but passionate in the right ways, toward the right things, and to the right extent.

As Asaph so poignantly reminds us in Psalm 73:25-26, “Whom have I in heaven but you?  And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.  My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”


What is the purpose of sex?

What is the purpose of sex?  This may seem like an odd question to ask in our day and age.  Almost everyone has roughly the same answer: the purpose is pleasure.

One of the key distinctives of the so-called “sexual revolution” was that sex was principally, if not exclusively, recreational.  Unless you wanted children, sex was not primarily intended for procreation, but for pleasure.  Even in many Christian circles, this “pursuit of pleasure” motif became very prominent.  When I was preparing for marriage, for example, I was told to read a hugely popular evangelical Christian book about sex entitled, Intended for Pleasure.

At the time, this idea did not seem strange or out of place in my Christian thinking.  After all, God created sex and meant it to be fun and enjoyable, right?  Back then, it would have been nearly impossible to imagine (let alone purchase and read) a Christian book on sex called, Intended for Procreation.

This is unfortunate since Christians have long understood that sex is not designed merely for recreation.  It is also intended for procreation.  These two aspects are not a comprehensive description of its purpose, of course.  Things like emotional and physical well-being, social bonding, and intimate communication are also important features of the experience.  But how you frame these purposes and how you rank each one fundamentally alters your understanding of the sexual act itself.  In this sense, our understanding of sex’s primary purposes makes an enormous difference in how we look at it and one another inside and outside of marriage.

If, for example, the purpose is primarily (or perhaps only) for pleasure and recreation, then it is no surprise that pregnancy becomes an unintended, inconvenient, and therefore decidedly undesirable aspect of the overall experience.  The idea that sexual relations might have more consequential purposes than simply orgasms and other physiological and emotional benefits seems to be nearly forgotten in our contemporary discussions of why sex matters.  If sex is only intended for pleasure, pregnancy becomes not only an unfortunate consequential byproduct, but something to be ardently avoided and ideally eliminated.

Abortion, then, becomes the “final solution” to this inconvenient “problem.”  The purpose of sex is no longer to produce children, but only to experience physical pleasure and emotional satisfaction.  Thus, rather than pregnancy being something to look forward to, share, and celebrate with the mother, father, and community, it becomes an annoying inconvenience, a source of shame, and something to be evaded and ultimately eliminated.  Rather than a desirable sexual goal, it comes to be seen as a punitive and negative consequence.  In the words of Anglican rector Barton J. Gingerich, “In the recreational view, when a woman conceives a child, it often means something has gone wrong.”

In essence, after birth control, abortion becomes the ultimate “failsafe” and guarantor that anyone and everyone can enjoy unregulated sex without fear of any lifelong repercussions.  But to make the barbarous act of killing a helpless and innocent child into something socially, morally, and emotionally acceptable, the personhood of that child has to be obscured, ignored, and ultimately obliterated.  This is done by describing the child in deceptively dehumanizing terms like “a fetus, ” a product of conception,” and “a ball of cells.” To further the duplicity, abortion is now being called “a medical procedure,” “women’s healthcare,” “a constitutional right,” and more recently by abortion activist, Sarah Lopez, “an act of self-love.”

To pursue and promote this kind of ethical obfuscation is, at its root, morally bankrupt and repugnant. Mothers and fathers are being openly lied to and crowd-shamed in an attempt to preserve the insidious myth that sex is simply for fun and self-fulfillment—and nearly nothing more.

Please don’t misunderstand my point.  The purpose of sex is not purely for procreation any more than it is solely for pleasure.  Sex has several important purposes, but when only one of those purposes is elevated above all others, it tends to destroy a holistic and healthy understanding of sex.  We can also openly affirm that God invented sex to be pleasurable.  The clitoris, for example, appears to be created for only one purpose: to provide pleasure for the woman during intercourse.  And when sex occurs within the boundaries of a loving, safe, and secure marital between a man and a woman, it can be a truly magnificent experience for both.  But when ecstasy becomes the primary or even sole focal point, the things that make sexual intercourse enduringly meaningful and significant get distorted, obscured, and sometimes altogether lost. Other important purposes become ostracized and even vilified at the almighty altar of recreational pleasure.

Up until very recently, most societies strongly affirmed that procreation was a vital and desirable aspect of sexual union, making a critical contribution to human flourishing and the common good.  By separating sex from the purpose of procreation and making pregnancy an undesirable and eliminable “byproduct,” many societies now face a precipitous and precarious population decline that has become a significant national crisis.

In response, Christians must reemphasize and celebrate the necessity, beauty, and power of self-denial, personal and social responsibility, as well as the preservation and limitation of sex within the safe and enduring confines of a committed covenantal, loving, and traditional nuclear family—one man and one woman married for life, raising their children together.

In the helpful words of Anglican rector Barton J. Gingerich, “women should deny sex to men who aren’t willing to marry them and raise their kids.  Men ought to oblige and accept the honorable script of marriage before sex. . . .  Interestingly, all of this turns marriage into quite a productive, involved, cooperative enterprise—because it is. . . .  Our forebears . . . believed in the importance of the household.  Households—like sex—should be productive rather than merely recreational.  A man and a woman come together in matrimony to create, build, and manage a most important enterprise, ideally cooperating with their extended family and close neighbors.  This was the norm, and it must become the norm once again if our society is to flourish.”

Does the Bible condone or condemn slavery?

Given the widespread consensus in contemporary thought that slavery is wrong, why does the Bible seem strangely ambivalent concerning this institutional horror?  In fact, one looks in vain in either the Old or New Testaments for an overt call for the abolition of slavery.  Neither does the Bible prophetically thunder against its evils as an institution.  In fact, as shocking as this sounds, slavery was widespread and generally accepted by almost everyone in ancient times as a basic and accepted aspect of society.

Having said that, however, the Bible does address the subject of slavery in certain ways that bear highlighting.  First, compared to the practices and laws of other nations of that time and place, the Old Testament “softens” a lot of the stipulations surrounding its practice.  Masters were not to be harsh toward slaves, provisions were made for their well-being (e.g., Deuteronomy 15-13-14), and they were offered freedom after only seven years of service.  Exodus 21 gives examples of the appropriate ways in which the Israelites were to treat slaves.

Part of the reason for this “softening” of slavery was because the Israelites themselves had been slaves in Egypt.  This harsh bondage was something for which the Egyptians were punished very harshly by God. Thus, the Israelites were to treat their own slaves kindly (e.g., Deuteronomy 24:17-18) and not be guilty of an offense in kind.

Although the Old Testament undercuts the harshness and length of slavery, it was still widespread and accepted in the ancient Near East.  This acceptance of slavery as a normal social institution continued up until the time of the Roman Empire in the first century.  In fact, by the time of the New Testament, it is estimated that as many as one-third of the Roman empire consisted of slaves!

Still, slavery at that time (as well as in the ancient Near East) was not directly parallel or comparable to slavery in the modern era.  First, slavery was not necessarily based on race.  It often resulted from foreign conquest or from being unable to pay a debt.  Second, being able to move up and out of slavery was both possible and sometimes even common.  Third, many “slaves” were actually quite educated and skilled workers, being paid decent wages which were enough for them to buy personal goods and save for the future.

Nevertheless, as a whole, slavery was still a brutal and exploitative institution, and while the Old and New Testaments do not crusade for its abolishment, there is no doubt that the New Testament especially sows the seeds for the condemnation and abolition of slavery after the time of Christ.  See, for example, verses like 1 Corinthians 7:21-23, 12:13, Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11, and 1 Timothy 1:10.  In this regard, the book of Philemon is especially significant.  Here Paul tells Philemon to consider his escaped slave, Onesimus, a “beloved brother” and equal in Christ.  All these passages and more clearly point toward human equality under the gospel of Christ and away from the degradation and oppression of institutional slavery.

Many feel (and I agree) that in the progress of revelation, this was the moral trajectory God was moving toward with its foundation in the fact that all human beings—male and female—are created in His image (Genesis 1:26-27) and therefore worthy of equal respect and opportunities for flourishing.

Ultimately, the Bible neither overtly condemns nor openly condones slavery.  It does, however, strongly mitigate and change the nature of the institution such that its teachings eventually led to an almost universal renunciation and abolition of it in the modern era, something that would have been impossible apart from the biblical view of the equal value and dignity of every human being made in the image of God.