Commanded Sexual Delight

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There's an ongoing debate between two false views. Some Christians think love is a command (after all the two great commandments are to love God and to love others) and therefore doesn't involve feelings. The other view is that love is obviously a feeling and thus isn't really something we can be responsible for. We can't be commanded to love if it's something that happens to us, as feelings do. On the latter view, those who fall in love are just lucky, and there's no room for choosing to love someone. On the former view, as long as you do the right actions you're loving, and it doesn't matter if you feel the right feelings.

I've resisted both views before. See the comments on my Christian Hedonism post from a few years ago and Wink's Love is not a Choice post from a couple months later. (By the way, I'm not saying Wink commits one of the two errors, His denial of love as a choice isn't to remove ourselves from being responsible for our feelings. Rather, the reverse -- he sees love as involving feelings that we're obligated to feel.)

I've been reading a commentary on Proverbs, and I came to Proverbs 5 last week. It struck me as a particularly nice example of what I said in those comment sections. In this passage, it's even stronger in one sense. It isn't just love that's commanded here. It's utter delight and intoxication, the height of positive emotional responses. It's so clearly a feeling that I don't know how anyone could try to claim otherwise. Yet it's also so obviously a command in context that it would take extracting the passage from its literary surroundings and reading the grammar extremely woodenly to deny that..

Drink water from your own cistern,
flowing water from your own well.
Should your springs be scattered abroad,
streams of water in the streets?
Let them be for yourself alone,
and not for strangers with you.
Let your fountain be blessed,
and rejoice in the wife of your youth,
a lovely deer, a graceful doe.
Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight;
be intoxicated always in her love.
Why should you be intoxicated, my son, with a forbidden woman
and embrace the bosom of an adulteress? [Proverbs 5:15-20, ESV]

It is technically true that some of the verbs are not grammatically commands but are actually blessing formulas (often translated in other translations as "may you be..."), but in context the entire section is contrasted with getting tangled up in adultery, which the father commands the son to avoid. Part of the remedy for the son's temptation toward adultery is to take delight in his wife. It has the force of a command even when it technically invokes a divine blessing to provide this for the son. In other words, it's a lot like many passages throughout the Bible that assume full human participation and moral responsibility in living the righteous life despite the need for God to provide grace to enable the righteous to be righteous.

Compatibilism about divine sovereignty and human responsibility explains how the two seemingly opposed theses can both be true and both be affirmed throughout the Bible (often in the same passages). So those who want to reduce everything to one of the two elements (divine sovereignty or human responsibility) need to force these texts into one of the two errors above. But that's not necessary. The command to love God and one's neighbor requires both divine sovereignty in enabling us to feel that love and human responsibility so that we can be accountable for having that emotional response. This passage illustrates that the same is true of sexual enjoyment, and I think in context it must apply to delighting in one's spouse sexually when that spouse is old and gray and not delighting in anyone else in the same sense, even if the feelings and attraction one feels naturally go in the opposite direction.

My wife isn't old and gray yet, but assuming a natural lifespan she will be one day (and she thinks she's earned a few gray hairs already). If I ever get to the point where I'm not intoxicated by her sexually, something is missing in my inner life. I'm morally deficient if I can't focus my sexual delight on my wife to the point of being intoxicated by her. I'm even morally deficient if I focus it on anyone else, even if I also focus it on her. [I'll leave aside cases when there's no sexual drive at all, at least in cases where there's no temptation to adultery on the part of either spouse. My point here is that sexual desire on the part of either spouse requires at least some level of commanded delight in the other spouse to the extent possible. Even a low sex drive is compatible with enjoying sex, even if there's a reduced desire to initiate it. Delight in the other's delight is a kind of delight, and many cases of lowered sexual drive allow more enjoyment than that.]

11 Comments

"The command to love God and one's neighbor requires both divine sovereignty in enabling us to feel that love and human responsibility so that we can be accountable for having that emotional response."

Well said. I think that the command is that we are to become different persons in light of a divine interaction with our human responsibility. Command to many sounds like something must be determined in order to be so, but in this context it is a condition of possible actions in which human love transcends its egocentric boundaries. As Diogenes Allen said repeatedly, "Love is the otherness of things". It is recognizing someone else as an other with an independent existence. Loving that person requires a certain de-centering of the self in order for that to be possible. The command in this sense is that of a transformation that occurs with divine initiative. In a sense the "I, not I, but Christ" for Paul.

When I watch my octogenarian grandparents holding hands and rapping each other on the butt, exchanging sweet glances from across the table after all these years, I know that they somehow get it.

This idea that love is a command and not something you feel is rampant. Doesn't Elizabeth Elliot promote it? I think it is also in one of those Lee Strobel books. Never the less you can find it here and there in Xtn lit.

The usual thing way these things go is to point out the command to love your wife, whether you have feelings or not. Then the next step is to use the barfing child illustration, viz. suppose your child is sick and vomits up dinner, wouldn't you still clean up after him? Of course you would - even though you do not feel like it. Why? Because feelings dont have much to do with love.

I read some Elizabeth Elliot book on marriage and stuff sometime last year ... cant remember which. The funny thing was that for all the verses she quoted, she never once quoted Song of Songs! Not once!

On the one hand Song of Songs says "Do not provoke love until it so desires." intimating some level of control. This verse is worth of much meditation for those in a relationship who ar not married.

On the other hand Song of Songs also states:
"Place me like a seal over your heart,
like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
like a mighty flame."

Boy o Boy ! This speaks volumes on feeling and passion.

God Bless,
- Raj
Deerfield, Il

You can't force feelings of love and the Bible wouldn't tell us to fake them.

Love is not a choice, love arises out of one's perspective on a situation. God has given us a perspective which generates love in the sanctified heart.

When we live in the full perspective God has given us we can love.

Love will be lacking when we don't live in the right perspective at every moment.

That is why Paul writes in the Epistles so frequently reminding Christians of the Gospel, and how they should live in light of it. He's not worried they don't get propositional truth. He's worried they aren't living in that truth.

Perspective isn't just a once and for all knowledge of the Gospel that's turned into a set of propositions and stored in the memory banks.

The Gospel is what we see our lives through in each moment for the rest of our lives.

Holding on to the Gospel perspective is our part of the work of sanctification. It is a conscious task we must strive for in every moment.

Eh, I don't know about that. Does it really count as a "command"? I mean when you tell your friend "Don't worry, enjoy your self!" its not exactly you are telling him to make an action of enjoying. Its more like you are telling him to train his thoughts and actions (such as not thinking about his debt, or talking constantly about it) in such a way that enjoyment will be the result. Like I have said before. I think that love is more of a feeling and an action. There is more to love that merely one single thing.

I think it's got to be more than just letting someone enjoy themselves. Look at the whole chapter. It's a specific command not to engage in adulterous relationships. By contrast, enjoy the wife of your youth and take delight in her!

Training thoughts and actions so that enjoyment will be the result is one way, perhaps the best way, for someone not enjoying something to begin enjoying it. I'm not sure that's a contrast with what I'm saying, though, as long as we make room for God to be behind that process.

One problem with discussions on this matter is that "love," in the Bible, and elsewhere, has a lot of different meanings. (See _The Four Loves_ by C. S. Lewis.)

Actually, I would dispute much of Lewis' treatment of the subject. His most egregious error is his assumption that different words for love refer to completely different things. Recent work on Hellenistic and NT Greek shows that there's a lot of semantic overlap between the different Greek words for love. The word 'agape' is supposedly the highest form of love, and yet it's used of Amnon when he rapes his half-sister Tamar. The word 'phileo' is often used in contexts indistinguishable from those where 'agape' is used.

I would agree that there are clearly different senses of these terms, and that's because there are at least somewhat different but related things that you might call love. But I wouldn't tie those things to any Greek words, as Lewis does, and I wouldn't separate them anywhere near as absolutely as he does.

I highly recommend D.A. Carson's The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God and Love in Hard Places, which sorts through a number of difficult questions about God's love and ours (respectively) in a way that is both careful and thorough.

Jeremy, I may be mistaken, but I don't think Lewis is using the Greek terms in quite that fashion. He seems to be using them as convenient (and somewhat appropriate) labels for the concepts he wants to convey. It is implausible to me that Lewis would be so clumsy as you suggest with his Greek. Incidentally, Lewis' book is the finest I've read on the subject in terms of clarity and down-to-earthiness. Other texts may be more theologially/philosophically precise and comprehensive, but I'm not sure they are as helpful in the long run.

Chris, almost every biblical scholar in Lewis' time held the view that the current generation of scholars has largely rejected. They did treat these different words in the way that I've been complaining about. I haven't read Lewis' book, but everything I've read about it (which is quite a lot) suggests to me that he just accepts the consensus of biblical scholars of his day. That doesn't mean there's no value in his work, but I'd prefer to introduce people to the issues with Carson, who is very careful with his handling of the texts but is also willing to accept the variety of things that might be called love in the Bible.

I would also commend Diogenes Allen's book Love. He does a much better job I think of distinguishing where these Greek senses of love originate and overlap in a biblical sense.

"I think it's got to be more than just letting someone enjoy themselves. Look at the whole chapter. It's a specific command not to engage in adulterous relationships. By contrast, enjoy the wife of your youth and take delight in her!"

Well yeah, it is a command, but my point is that more than a command to feel something, it more like a command to act in such a way that allows you to feel that way. Don't cheat on your wife, but be thankful in her gifts and enjoy her. I think we agree, essentially, but I am placing particular importance on the thing that leads to the enjoyment.

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