There’s a magic formula I was taught as a kid that claimed to guarantee lifelong happiness: If you (1) don’t have premarital sex, (2) marry a Christian, and (3) raise your kids in the church, then you will live happily ever after. I believed it for years, struggling to follow the rules because who wants to sign themselves up for a life of unhappiness if being happy is really so simple? Ha! At first, it was easy. I assumed everything would go perfectly according to plan and fighting one’s sexual urges at age ten isn’t too challenging. I reassured my parents I’d find a good Christian man. That was their one requirement: “Find a man who loves you, but loves Jesus above all else.”
By the time I was sixteen, I discovered that my body’s desires were completely out of sync with what my youth group leaders kept hammering into us horny teenagers at every meeting. We read those trendy anti-dating books by Joshua Harris, I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship, required reading for all Christian teens at the time. Even though I joined in the discussions and nodded my head in agreement, physical intimacy with a guy was what I craved more than anything. As is the case for most girls at that age, sexual cravings and fantasies ruled my imagination, making me feel horribly guilty because I believed them to be wrong and sinful.
My suspicions about the magic happiness formula grew and eventually there came a day when I consciously rejected it. It was one of the most liberating days of my life when I realized all of a sudden that there “isn’t some kind of anti-sex Zeus throwing lightning bolts at any sign of lust” (C.M. Desjardins, Geez, Spring 2013). I no longer believed I’d be condemned as a lifelong sinner, left to roast in hell, if I had sex before marriage. In fact, I went so far as to start believing that God likes sex. After all, God made my body, so why wouldn’t God want me to enjoy it, as long as I went about it in an intelligent, respectful way?
Why is mainstream Christianity so terrified of sex? It’s a taboo subject that rarely gets discussed with the genuine acknowledgement of, and respect for, human desires that young people need to hear. I think that the church’s approach to sex actually damages people’s ability to have healthy, fulfilling sex lives. A guilt complex is drilled into young Christians that is so overpowering and suffocating that they usually get married at a very young age because they can’t resist the call of sex any longer… and it’s better to be miserably married and having sex than happily single and having sex, right? I’ve seen my own friends do this, and then they wonder why their marriages start disintegrating down the road. My heart aches for them and I want to say, “It’s because the magic formula just isn’t true!” What matters is what’s in our hearts and in our heads.
(Note: I do have some Christian friends who have followed the formula and are very happy together, so it does work for some people and I respect that greatly.)
I understand that the church upholds its sexual rules as a way to protect young people from the many complications that can grow out of sexual relationships, and that’s valuable. But when the rules stunt a person’s ability to make good choices about a partner because the desire for sex blinds them to everything else, then it’s downright dangerous. My husband and I wouldn’t be together if one of us had wanted to wait for sex till marriage. Sex was (and still is) an important part of our relationship that we both wanted to explore before committing to each other, and I am very glad we did.
I truly believe that teaching young people how to have successful marriages has less to do with drilling the magic formula than it does with (1) teaching the importance of upholding gender equality and mutual respect, (2) ensuring open lines of communication, and (3) urging both genders not to settle for anything less than what they want.
“The church desperately needs to wrestle with its fears about sex while dismantling the structures and lies of corporate and cultural Christianity that feed these fears.” (Amy Frykholm, Geez Spring 2013)
Having premarital sex won’t destroy you, but an unhappy marriage might.