One of the problems in our theology of marriage and celibacy, as well as frankly most other topics, is that we often use the certain words interchangeably that don’t mean exactly the same thing. This of course causes all sorts of confusion and it makes it really hard to have theological conversations of any kind let alone a debate.
Now part of this is due to the English language itself. Now I’m fan of English, but let’s face it, some of our words cause problems. Think of the word love. I love my car, I love my dog, I love Mizzou, I love my wife, I love God. Obviously I love all these things differently and yet I’m given only one word to use.
But a lot of our problem comes from lazy theology and/or lazy language use. For example, while they are to varying degrees related, salvation, justification, and election are not theologically the same word, and yet we often treat them as if they were.
This is also true when it comes our theology in the contexts of marriage, celibacy and sexual sin. So today, I want to break down a couple of these words we use. I’m not expecting everyone to agree with me, but we have to at least try to talk about it because if we don’t have any nuance of language then we can’t really have much of a conversation about any of this.
One place that this is true is the idea of sexual attraction and desire. Now I’ve laid out several times here that attraction and love are not at all the same. Love, biblically speaking is not so much a feeling as an action – a choice to love someone. Otherwise God is commanding feelings, which doesn’t work for several reasons. (Keeping in mind the the English love word problem).
Let me try to differentiate between attraction and desire.
Attraction is not in any way a choice. In other words it is not an in the moment conscious decision. It is a feeling. I see someone and feel attraction. That’s it. That is attraction. An in that moment feeling. Attraction might lead me towards desire, which in turn might lead me to action, but attraction stands alone by itself as a feeling.
I can feel attraction, even sexual attraction, toward almost anyone for any variety of reasons and contexts. All sorts of things impact attraction. What mood I’m in. What the person is wearing. My state of mind, state of sobriety etc. My past sin, wounds, and personal make up all can affect my attraction in varying degrees depending on the context. Bottom line, attraction is a feeling and is pretty dang involuntary.
That said, that means the attraction is not a choice. A married person might feel attraction to someone other than their spouse. They might have a moment where they see someone as attractive. A person might feel attracted to a person of the same sex. None of that is a choice. It is an in that moment feeling.
As such, I don’t see how attraction, as in that moment feeling, can be a sin. Now to be sure, sin in our lives can affect attraction. And in fact we live in a fallen world and we are broken, so none of us have a perfect attraction record so to speak. None of us will be able to say, “I was only attracted one time to my spouse.” It’s just not reasonable.
As I’ve stated many times, what I do with attraction is a choice. We’ll come back to that.
Now sexual desire is different than attraction. I know this is true for a couple of reasons. First, I can have a moment of attraction to someone and not ever actually desire sex with them. Not to mention that attraction can be pretty fleeting. One day you see a person and feel attraction, the next day you don’t. Desire is deeper. But secondly, I can desire sex without even having anyone to desire sex with. I could be sitting at home alone, desiring sexual fulfillment. So while attraction might lead to sexual desire, sexual desire doesn’t require attraction.
Desire of any kind actually speaks to something deeper. Desire is one of the voices of the heart. When I feel a strong desire, I need to ask where is that desire coming from? What is going on in my heart that causes me to have that desire? Sexual desire is no different.
This is why how we view desire is extremely important. It is more than attraction. It more than an in the moment feeling as it points to something beyond that moment.
The next question is this, and this is extremely important to wrestle with, that is: Is sexual desire for someone who I’m not married to a sin? We’ll get to that next time. But for today I want us to consider that attraction and desire are not the same thing.