In this post I want to give a few tips regarding how to talk to Christian teens about sex.
Sex Can Wait?
Just wait. That is a popular go-to argument for abstinence campaigns. Don’t have sex now, just wait until you are married. OK, not bad. But there are two problems. The age of marriage is getting later and later in the United States (due to education, busyness of career development, and an overall lack of enthusiasm for the institution of marriage). So, that makes it a bit harder to sell “just wait.” The next campaign then has to be—just wait longer. What happens when the waiting gives out?
Secondly, perhaps more importantly, not everyone is going to get married. Remember—Jesus never got married (life expectancy in the ancient world was around 40, and he died around 30). The apostle Paul encouraged Christians to be celibate for the sake of focused ministry work. Waiting for marriage cannot be the endgame for all people. It is better to encourage chastity as a spiritual discipline.
Part of the problem with popular perspectives on sex is that it is often portrayed as something dirty and instinctual (versus intellectual or volitional). However, I think we can help teens place sex in its proper context by thinking of it as a sacrament.
Sex as a Sacrament
We need to remind teens that God created sex, and he made it special. Thus, it is like a sacrament. Now, Protestant churches tend to have two official “Sacraments:” Baptism and Communion. But a sacrament can be defined as anything that is “a tangible sign of God’s invisible grace.” A sacrament is something common in life that constantly reminds us of God’s goodness and love. It is a reminder that “every good and perfect gift comes from God” (see James 1:17). Sex is not a part of our life that is unspiritual, or one that we must hide from God. God designed sex to bring glory to his own name, and to promote thanksgiving and joy and fulfillment in God. As one author puts it, “human eros [sexual love] itself is best described, finally and most fittingly, as a part of life that points towards God and in which God is present” (Boulton and Boulton, 30).
All good sacraments are made up of resources available to everyone (like water and bread), and available as opportunities to remind oneself of God. Martin Luther once said, “whenever you wash your face, remember your baptism.” By analogy, you might say, whenever you have sex with your husband or wife, remember to thank God for how that experience is a sign of fulfillment and joy in God.
As Boulton & Boulton put it: “At its best … and only at its best, sex is a taste of heaven on earth. And heaven is not to be trifled with. It needs to be treasured, shielded, nurtured and given room to thrive and grow. For these reasons, it needs ‘strings attached’: strings that protect, limit and properly empower” (p. 30).
Again, we need to take “sex” out of the “dirty and sinful” category and put it in the “holy and awesome” category.
Parents: The Buck Stops With You
Parents need to talk to their teens. R.D. Auten explains that “Most of the attitudes and values that cause sexual problems among young couples can be traced back to attitudes, behaviors and values that are either consciously or unconsciously absorbed from parents” (The Role of the Church in Helping Early Adolescents Deal with Issues of Sex and Sexuality).
So, moms and dads, talk to your children. Talk to them about beauty, identity in God, wholeness. Tell them that you love them. Teach them boundaries and discernment. The more of an open, honest, and deep relationship you can foster (which takes time), the more they will trust you, listen to you, and model your attitude and habits.
Foster within your children (at the earliest age possible) a sense of “dignity.” While they will inevitably associate with a variety of social groups (friends, teams, clubs, relatives), they must be taught to think for themselves, and “own” their decisions. Dignity means we see value in ourselves. We don’t sell our actions out to the highest bidder (“just do it,” “I won’t love you if you don’t…,” “everybody’s doing it,”). We can have a deep sense of self-respect, because God made us and gave us purpose—his purpose.
Finally, because we realize that we are broken and fragile creatures in our sinfulness, be sure to talk to teens who have struggled with past decisions that Jesus is the great Forgiver. Jesus’ job is to untangle what sin has bound. Jesus does not require repayment, just surrender. At the end of the day, the only thing that Jesus doesn’t own until you give it to him is your will. No matter your past, Jesus is the Welcomer. The Lord of Freedom. The Man of Generous Love.
In these posts, I have barely scratched the surface of the subject of sex, God, and Scripture, but I hope you will find it to be a helpful start. Below is my “starter” list of suggested reading.
Boulton, E.M. and M.M. Boulton, “Sacramental Sex: Divine Love and Human Intimacy,” Christian Century March 22, 2011: 28-30.
Hollinger, D.P. The Meaning of Sex: Christian Ethics and the Moral Life (Baker, 2009).
Winner, L.F. Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity (Baker, 2006).
Dr. Nijay K. Gupta
Assistant Professor of Biblical Theology and Exegesis