All members of the Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Halls Crossroads where I grew up were warned by most of our pastors along the way not to dance, unless with a marriage partner. They said over and over again that dancing is a sin. Thus, my sister and I were forbidden by our parents from participating in, or even attending, school dances. This was enforced even though several characters dance in various stories in Scripture, and with God’s approval as it were. So, one wonders how dance can be regarded as a sin and pronounced as such by people, particularly preachers, who evidently believe they must augment the teachings of Scripture in this dimension.
My Hebrew Scripture professor back in undergraduate days believed that the reason dancing and smoking and drinking became the big three sins in United States history was because of the place of the saloon in the development of the country–particularly in the westward expansion and gold rush eras. Everything you didn’t want to do if you wanted to be an upstanding person, morally or otherwise, was done in the saloons–drinking, dancing, smoking, hanky-panky, you name it. So when preachers began to preach against such things it was easy to group them all together. That grouping mentality has continued in many places even until today.
The book of Ecclesiastes insists that there are times in life to dance. King David must have loved to dance, and his most memorable dance was the one where he forgot to put on his royal undergarments wearing then ONLY a mini toga and began to dance all over the place, bringing humiliation to all who were connected to him and sober at the time. Regardless of the evidence, however, young people and single adults heard at the Beaver Dam Baptist Church that it was good not to show up on the dance floor. Dancing would lead to lust, and lust would be our undoing.
Even so, I say that lust felt and expressed in the proper contexts is a wonderful thing. Who would want to live in a lustless relationship as long as there was some way to avoid that? Like anything good, however, it can be misused and abused until it becomes something quite impious and destructive.
When I got old enough and brave enough actually to risk asking my father why we had the no-dance rule in our home, long before I had any sort of serious theological study, his first answer was the typical answer he gave to any kind of challenge: Because I said so. That response from him had to be respected, but on occasion one could perhaps ask for a little more information and clarification. And so I tried. I must have been 13 or 14 years old. “Okay, Daddy, but other people are dancing; in fact, every kid we go to church with gets to go school dances. What is the issue?” And he said, “Well, either way you dance-whether fast or slow–it can cause you to get charged up sexually by somebody you find attractive. Since sex is reserved for marriage, you don’t need to see someone you’re attracted to gyrating like Elvis, and you don’t need to be pulling a girl right up next to you in a slow dance so that you all would be touching each other too much.” And so, that rule remained official in our home–not saying my sister and I failed to find ways to sneak out to a sock hop now and then. Despite our disobedience, we managed to avoid being overtaken by lust.
I vividly remember, and I’ve told some of you about this probably a time or to, when Jimmy Carter was running for the presidency, and he gave his infamous interview to Playboy magazine. In that interview he confessed that he had lusted in his heart after a number of women. He could not help that he said, and as long as he didn’t act on it he knew that God forgave him. If you’re wondering why I know about the content of the interview, maybe someday after a glass of wine I can tell you about it.
Carter was referring back to Jesus’ teaching, which was one example in a collection of antitheses Jesus presented to his hearers, probably on more than one occasion. And he was a contrasting how an ancient law had been applied in the culture that produced it with the spirit of that law and how it could be applied in the modern world–the world as Jesus experienced it, I mean. Trying to follow the letter of the law could well cause someone to miss its point altogether. Rather than soft-soaping moral standards, following the spirit, rather than the letter, of the law could be much more demanding a task. The letter alone, literalism, might get someone off the hook, so to speak, rather easily.
Adultery, Jesus preached, was unacceptable. Wouldn’t it have been have been fairly simple for men at least to avoid committing adultery in a polygamous society? He could just take another wife. But Jesus said that if you even look at another person though sexual lenses, with enough thought and planning that you would be willing to become intimate under the right circumstances, you already committed adultery in your heart before anything physical ever happens.
My great mentor Dr. Stagg used to stress that thinking is certainly not the same as taking action–that is, following through. Still, you have already put yourself in a position to act in a way that is morally improper if the circumstances are right. Jesus was constantly dealing with the legalists of his day; in our context, the religious right would be the outspoken legalists. The legalists known to Jesus were all caught up in how to live literally by the laws. Jesus said that there’s a whole lot more to it than literally not committing adultery physically; when you set your mind to do it under the right circumstances, when the the possibilities creep up, you’re already stepping over the line.
I’m not sure that’s what President Carter meant when he gave the interview. I rather think he meant he had had thoughts about the possibility of having sex with attractive women without ever making plans to act on it. He was and remains an amazingly moral person, and he participates in a strong and beautiful marriage.
In our culture, given what we choose to read and watch on TV and at the theater, we may believe it’s virtually impossible not to commit adultery since sexual suggestiveness is in practically everything we choose to entertain us. For that matter, let’s not forget that there are some sexually-charged, juicy-juicy stories in Scripture that could get someone’s mind working in the direction of seeking out some sort of sexual expression. May I remind you, for example, picking on King David again, the ancient Hebrews regarded him as the greatest king of all fully aware of his blatant, lustful, adulteress chase after yet another woman, Bathsheba. He did not need another woman in terms of having his sexual desires satisfied because he already had several. And he could have added concubines to his household by bringing aboard any unmarried women he wanted. So there was way more to his fault than adultery though that was at the core.
My take on the subject is that lust in the right context is a wonderfully exciting thing. Outside a proper context, though, it can lead to using other people as nothing more than sex objects, and I think that is wrong even if the other person is okay with being used.
Once upon a time I was pastor of a church in which a staff member was having an extramarital affair with a church member whose spouse was also a member of the church. And when this situation was brought to my attention by someone who demanded that I do something about it I had a conversation with the staff member involved. I said what I thought was very magnanimous as the pastor of precisely the same king of congregation. I said, “When you get this improper relationship behind you there’s no reason that you would need to lose your job or be criticized or castigated. But even liberal churches have to have principles, and one of those principles is that of a staff member married or not cannot have a relationship with someone in the congregation whose spouse or partner is also in the congregation. Please get this behind you as soon as possible,” The staff member cursed at me and resigned.
Within a few days the congregants, probably as outspoken as Silverside without email at their disposal, began to make their opinions known. Some praised me for my compassionate courage and my standard; others were highly critical of me for trying to apply antiquated standards in a modern, liberal church. One Deacon said to me when she came to my office for a face to face on the subject, “We’re grownups around here; didn’t anybody tell you that before you came?”
I have known more than a few people who married and certainly loved the person but did not find in that person the soulmate connection. Later in life the soulmate was found, leading to a divorce (sometimes after a secretive affair) and the start of a new life with the soulmate, which brought both of them happiness they had not previously known. The notion that karma would come around and bite one or both of these happily-connected people on the buttocks like a poisonous snake didn’t hold water. Karma left them be, and God wasn’t sitting around ready to zap them for violating the standard of monogamy based, by the way, on scriptures written in polygamous societies.
Dr. Judith Orloff is a psychiatrist who has done a lot of thinking about the difference between love and lust, since a fair number of people don’t know the difference. She wrote, “As a psychiatrist, I’ve seen how intense sexual attraction is notorious for obliterating common sense and intuition in the most sensible people. Why? Lust is an altered state of consciousness programmed by [a] primal urge.… Studies suggest that the brain in this phase is much like a brain on drugs. MRI scans illustrate that the same area lights up when an addict gets a fix of cocaine as when a person is experiencing the intense lust of physical attraction. Also in the early stage of a relationship, when the sex hormones are raging, lust is fueled by idealization and projection–you see what you hope someone will be or need them to be rather than seeing the real person, flaws and all.”
Dr. Orloff has devised comparative lists: the signs of lust versus the signs of love.
Here are her signs of lust:
- You’re totally focused on a person’s looks and body.
- You’re interested in having sex, but not in having conversations.
- You’d rather keep the relationship on a fantasy level, not discuss real feelings.
- You want to leave soon after sex rather than cuddling or having breakfast the next morning.
- You are lovers, but not friends.
And here are Dr. Orloff’s signs of love:
- You want to spend quality time together doing things other than having sex.
- You get lost in conversations and forget about the hours passing.
- You want to honestly listen to each other’s feelings, make each other happy.
- He or she motivates you to be a better person.
- You want to get to meet his or her family and friends.
Some years ago in a speech class, a student delivering a speech to inform said that his mother worked as an activities director in a nursing home and that her primary problem or challenge most weeks was dealing with sexual activity between the residents. I was probably shocked enough actually to be jolted physically. I doubted that could possibly be true, and I began to think about the many, many nursing homes I had visited across the years. I must confess that lustful activity is not what I think is going on when I enter a a senior care facility. I have been out of touch with reality, though.
As recently as a few days ago, the Los Angeles Times ran an article with the title, “Seniors Are Putting the S in STD.” Yes, according to this journalist the rise of sexual activity in nursing homes and independent living facilities is accompanied by the rise of sexually transmitted diseases.
The article went on to say that since senior women do not have to worry about menopause, many who are sexually active choose not to worry about protection. Many of them are simply not in the know about risks of being sexually active in modern times. One woman tells the story of her daughter bringing her package one day at the retirement center, and she wondered why the daughter would bring her all those individually wrapped Alka-Seltzers. (In reality they were condoms!)
There are many more senior women than men, and so in a typical facility men have the pic of all the pretty women they want. In the article one gentleman says that he already has 4 girlfriends, each one a sexual companion, and is ready to ask the 5th; he is 78 years old, and he has nothing on a 90-year-old gentleman who says that Viagra responsible for his happiness. This 90-year-old gent says that sex is great and that he never intends to stop enjoying it. He believes anybody should be able to keep at it until she or he is 120 or 130 years of age.
These seniors and Americans of all ages had better watch themselves when it comes to contending with lust. Adultery is a punishable illegal activity in 20 or so US states. Penalties range from $10 in Maryland to 3 years in jail in Wisconsin. And up until about 10 years ago life imprisonment was still on the books as the appropriate punishment for adultery in Michigan.
The fix is not to allow oneself to get into a situation where something that should not happen can happen. And in our society where there are so many ways to juggle schedules and text out the message that there’s suddenly a sliver of time for a quickie, it’s much easier than ever before to let the lust find fruition. Some people obviously are watching their P’s and Q’s, but others are not. Statistics are all over the place on the issue of marital infidelity say that approximately 10 to 15 percent of married women in this country have had the extra marital affairs, while 25 percent of the men. Other sources say 40 percent of all married couples have had infidelity visit their home.
It is inappropriate, but some people who are dissatisfied with themselves and/or their relationship use lustful activity often with others who are supposed to be protecting commitments to try to fill the vacuum. I mention again that there are those who are being unfaithful or helping someone else be unfaithful who simply lack the gifts of being able to be monogamous. They should never have gotten into a relationship that required it. They’re not cut out to be in relationships at all. These people are not those who have the loosest morals by any stretch of the imagination. They’re simply people who find that the kind of intense connection to one person required for longterm monogamy isn’t suitable for them.
The people who have terrific marriages or partnerships may lead the way in trying to match up every single person they know. They are constantly trying to set up blind dates and such. My ex-mother-in-law used to refer to her unmarried friends as “unclaimed blessings.” Most of the people in my life who tried to fix me up with somebody else once my divorce made me single again were not in happy relationships themselves, which always made me wonder exactly why they were spending so much energy on me rather than on trying to fix their own situation. Some of them undoubtedly wanted to be sure I didn’t have to give up appropriately lustful activity, but since I was the pastor they also wanted to be sure that I did so within the confines of marriage. How could I not thank them for their efforts?
Keeping lust in check boils down to a matter of respect—respect for other people and self-respect as well. I believe that wondering eyes are often attached to someone who doesn’t want to put the hard work into maintaining a healthy long-term relationship. Maybe someone is incapable of monogamy or other traits needed to make a relationship endure. It’s a mistake to think that everyone should be or needs to be married or partnered so if she or he fails at it there is no sound reason to place blame. And if we really want to cut back on broken relationships between two people who are capable of maintaining one, then we would have to advise them not to be led astray by extraneous sources such as what we read and watch on television and so forth or what hear about at the hair salon or barber shop.