Well over the last few weeks we've been going through Proverbs and learning how to get wisdom. And throughout the book, the author gives us not just the positives of wisdom, but the pitfalls we'll avoid if we're wise. And today we're warned about the pitfall of sexual immorality.
Now the question that might be on the tip of your tongue before we even start is this - why does our sexuality matter so much to God? It seems to come up rather a lot in church (and in the Bible) – why does God care so much? And the surprising answer is this:
1. Romance Reveals God
The relationship between husband and wife is to be a vivid picture of something far greater.
Some people today might think that the God of the Bible is against sex. But the Bible has a very high view of sex. Right from the opening pages of the Bible, God says to his people 'be fruitful and multiply!'. The very first command in the Bible is to have sex! There's a quote for you! But straight away God institutes marriage as the right context for this fruitful sexuality. Lifelong marriage, between one man and one woman.
Why? Well because like shaking someone's hand or giving them a hug expresses friendship. God has designed sex to say 'I love you and I'm committed to you for life'. As one author puts it, 'sex is not just recreational, it's profoundly relational'. And deep down I think we all know that.
And it points to a far greater relationship. Did you notice that in the reading earlier from Ephesians? We read this:
"Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her." (Ephesians 5:25)
And then in Ephesians 5.31 we read:
" 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church."
Marriage is to be a picture of the amazing love between Jesus and his people. It's only an echo of it, like a toy car in comparison to a real car. And it's hard to get our head around – it's a mystery Paul says. But marriage gives us a picture we can grasp and understand, so that we get a glimpse of a far greater love story. There's a deep gospel reason for it. It gives us a glimpse of Christ and his church. A unity across difference. And so it matters deeply to God.
And in a similar way to marriage, we're told that human parenthood gives us a glimpse of God's fatherly love for us. And that's the picture we're given in these first 9 chapters of Proverbs. We're given a picture of a Father guiding his son and lovingly urging him not to be a fool but to follow the way of wisdom.
And in Proverbs chapters 5, 6 and 7 that we're looking at today, the Father tells his son that if you're going to be wise, you need to avoid one of the biggest pitfalls of foolishness – sexual immorality. Because you pay a high price for it.
2. The High Price of Sexual Immorality
Take a look with me at Proverbs 5.1. The Father says this to his son:
"My son, be attentive to my wisdom;
incline your ear to my understanding,
that you may keep discretion,
and your lips may guard knowledge.
For the lips of a forbidden woman drip honey,
and her speech is smoother than oil,
but in the end she is bitter as wormwood,
sharp as a two-edged sword.
Her feet go down to death;" (Proverbs 5.1-5a)
The Father says, 'be attentive, please listen to what I'm saying. Sexual immorality can be so attractive. But don't be a fool - there is a high price to pay. It has terrible consequences.'
We're told that he who does it destroys himself. In fact, later in chapter 5 sexual immorality is pictured as playing with fire. Take a look at Proverbs 5:27:
"Can a man carry fire next to his chest
and his clothes not be burned?
Or can one walk on hot coals
and his feet not be scorched?
So is he who goes in to his neighbour's wife;
none who touches her will go unpunished."
If you play with fire you'll get burned. Both in real life consequences now. But also because God sees our ways.
And at the end of chapter 6 we're told about the practical price. Adultery brings jealousy and hatred and revenge. It brings pain and hurt to those involved. Sadly, I imagine there are people here today who can testify to that.
Apparently, the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge was once at a party where he met a woman who he had been told had been seduced by the writer HG Wells. And being fairly blunt, he asked her how it had happened. She replied that Wells had said to 'shall we go upstairs and do something funny.' And Muggeridge replied, 'was it funny?'. She said 'no sir, it was not funny. That evening has caused me more misery than any other evening of my life.'
Sexual immorality has a high price. But that's not the message we often get from films or TV or the world around us is it? It's just a bit of harmless fun. It's funny.
But God created us, and so the best place to find out about our sexuality is in his word, the Bible – like we might read the manufacturer's instructions for our car. And God is honest with us. And here he says – there's a high price to pay for sexual immorality. The Father appeals to his son – he says, 'don't be a fool. Don't play with fire. You'll get burned'.
In this passage, the temptation of sexual immorality is pictured as a woman. Verse 3 – "the lips of a forbidden woman drip honey".
I guess, on initial reading, we might think – this is so sexist. The Bible pictures sexual temptation here as a woman, why not a man? But remember the picture here is of a Father talking to his son, the message is for all of us (like the whole of God's word) – but that's the picture we're given.
And the choice that the Father presents before his son, in Proverbs, is between this lady, the predator, whose way leads to death, and the lady wisdom, whose way is perfect. Wisdom is a lady. So it's not sexist – and throughout the Bible, there are numerous examples of men who acted like this woman here in the passage.
And in chapter 7 we're given a story which warns us of just how easy it is to fall for this lady representing sexual temptation.
3. The slippery Slope to Sexual Folly
In Proverbs 7.7 the Father tells his son the story of a young man lacking sense. This young man heads out for the evening. He doesn't go out seeking to fall into the trap, but he does think, verse 8, if I pass along that street corner, I'll just get a glimpse of that lady of the night. He's heard about a certain part of the town, or certain sites on the internet. He thinks, I just want to see her. I'm strong enough to handle it. I won't go any further. And so he takes a walk.
But as he walks past in the twilight, the woman comes over and meets him. The way she's dressed doesn't leave much to the imagination. And she grabs the young man and kisses him. And she says this, verse 14 – have a look:
" 'I had to offer sacrifices,
and today I have paid my vows;
so now I have come out to meet you,
to seek you eagerly, and I have found you.
I have spread my couch with coverings,
colored linens from Egyptian linen;
I have perfumed my bed with myrrh,
aloes, and cinnamon.
Come, let us take our fill of love till morning;
let us delight ourselves with love.
For my husband is not at home;
he has gone on a long journey;
he took a bag of money with him;
at full moon he will come home.'
With much seductive speech she persuades him;
with her smooth talk she compels him.
All at once he follows her,
as an ox goes to the slaughter,
or as a stag is caught fast
till an arrow pierces its liver;"
When she talks about offering sacrifices, the commentators seem to agree that she's saying 'I've got luxury food at home from my sacrifices'. Often people took food home from the temple afterwards. And she's saying, come and join me to eat.
She uses all the tactics of sexual temptation. She tells him that there's a great feast, a luxurious setting, an exotic experience waiting for him. And she says…'no one will ever know. Nothing will come of it. My husband is far away.' We're told that the young man is persuaded and he follows her, like a stag caught in a trap.
The young man is called "simple" and "lacking in sense". He doesn't recognise that sexual temptation is a slippery slope. And the Father says to his son, don't be naïve. Don't think you can play with fire. He finishes the story by saying, verse 25, "son, please listen to me. Do not stray into her paths".
And the moral of the story is don't be simple. Don't be naïve. Flee temptation. Don't wait to go down the slippery slope.
4. Flee Temptation!
When you're out in the mountains in winter, and there's a lot of snow, you always get these things called 'cornices' building up over cliffs or steep drops because of the way the snow blows in the wind. And it means that you can't see where the edge is. You never know at what point you're standing on solid ground and at what point you're just standing on a snow overhang above a huge drop. And so you stay far from them! You don't go as close to the edge as you can. It's not worth the risk to your life.
And in Proverbs 5.8, the author of Proverbs tells us how to avoid sexual temptation – and it's a one-line answer. He says "Keep your way far from her, and do not go near the door of her house". Don't take the risk of going anywhere near. The minute there's a seed of temptation that's when you need to run. There's a foolishness and naivety to thinking we can handle it. Don't play with fire. Don't be scorched. Flee!
And let God's wisdom lead you. The start of chapter 7 says:
"keep my commandments and live;
keep my teaching as the apple of your eye;
bind them on your fingers;
write them on the tablet of your heart.
Say to wisdom, 'You are my sister,'
and call insight your intimate friend,
to keep you from the forbidden woman,"
Love God's wisdom. Trust that he knows best. Don't get to the end of your life, and say Proverbs 5.12, "How I hated discipline and my heart despised reproof!" Don't regret it. No, be willing to listen to God on this. And flee temptation!
All of us will be attracted to people we're not married to at one time or another – whether we're married or single. And if we're already married, or if we're single and there's no godly route towards marriage with that person (i.e. they're not a Christian of the opposite sex, or we just know it isn't really the right thing), then we need to decide to stop it at the seed and not even contemplate it.
That means not letting out mind dwell on it. It might mean not replying to that slightly unnecessary email or text, or going for that coffee with them. It might mean avoiding them altogether. Don't even start down that slippery slope. Flee.
In Matthew 5, Jesus ups the bar on adultery and he says:
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
That applies as we're walking down the street. It also applies to the internet.
These days, it's far too easy to click on things we shouldn't be looking at. It's a massive problem in the church, we know that from the general statistics. They also tell us that it's not just a male problem. And we also know that from talking to people in our church family. And I know it because I struggle with it – and I need people to keep me accountable.
And if you're here today, and you're tempted in this area, or even feeling trapped, I want to urge you to tell someone you trust. Ask for help. It's difficult because we're proud. But it naïve and foolish to think we can deal with it on our own. And you'll be so glad that you did tell someone.
Fleeing that temptation means taking radical steps. You can get software called 'Accountable2You' where you can nominate one or two people to see what you're looking at on the internet and keep you accountable.
On the iPhone, probably on Android as well, you can ask a friend to use 'Screentime' to lock down specific apps or your whole phone at certain times of day, and it can only be changed with a password. Say, after 10pm at night. I would say that's a good thing to do even without this temptation, just so you don't faff around late at night and can get to bed on time and spend some time with God in the morning.
And if you're a parent, do these things for your kids now, for their good, to keep them safe. And lastly, there are worse things than not having a smartphone at all. Jesus says, "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away", meaning, take radical action.
If you're married, the other advice here in this passage is to delight in the wife of your youth. Proverbs 5.15 says:
"Drink water from your own cistern,
flowing water from your own well."
"Let your fountain be blessed,
and rejoice in the wife of your youth."
1 Corinthians 7.5 says:
"Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control."
But maybe busyness, kids, tiredness are getting in the way. And maybe you need to have a conversation about it. If it's awkward to bring up, well why not just say 'about that sermon on Sunday…'.
Now you might be sitting there thinking, well that's all well and good. But what if I'm not married? If there's this great love story that marriage points to then am I not wasting my sexuality? And struggling at the same time…
Sam Allberry is a single Christian pastor and author and, in his book, 7 Myths about Singleness he reminds us that earthly marriage will not exist in heaven. There will only be one marriage in heaven, between Christ, and his bride, the church (us!). And just like marriage bears witness to that reality, like a toy car in comparison to a real car, singleness also bears witness. Sam writes:
"…we can live in a way that anticipates what is to come. Singleness now is a way of saying that this future reality is so certain and so good that we can embrace it now. It is a way of declaring to a world obsessed with sexual and romantic intimacy that these things are not ultimate and that in Christ we possess what is.
If marriage shows us the shape of the gospel, singleness shows us its sufficiency."
And as you do that, you might be missing out on the toy car, but you're not missing out on the real thing.
I'm aware there's much more to say, and for some that will be an inadequate answer – so I'd really recommend getting hold of this book for a fuller answer.
But the other thing Sam points us to is that singleness shouldn't mean no intimacy. The Bible encourages us not to just call ourselves church family but to really be family together. We're encouraged us to have deep friendship. Later in Proverbs 27.9 we read this:
"Oil and perfume make the heart glad, and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel."
Proverbs 18.24 says:
"A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother."
And friends, if we're going to help one another with these things, with sexual temptation, with pornography, with the struggles of singleness, with all our battles to become more like Jesus and to be ready for his return, then we need a culture at St Joseph's where we can talk about these things, and where we have deep friendships. We need people we can be real with – people who know our temptations, and know what delights our heart. People who instinctively know how to pray for us.
We all struggle in many different ways, and we need to walk with one another as a church family. That's what we want our midweek groups to look like, and our friendships. Let's put aside our pride and be honest with one another.
I'm aware this is a difficult topic. Some people may be sitting here this morning feeling condemned. Ashamed. Broken. But the gospel says that we are all broken people. Every one of us. And if we're trusting Jesus, then what unites us is the greater love story that marriage (…and singleness) point to.
5. The Love We All Need
That Jesus loved the church so much that he gave himself up for her by dying on the cross. He suffered for the church – for you and for me. He put our needs above his own – so that we could be washed clean, given a clean heart and one day be free from sin and united with him in heaven.
Author Tim Chester writes this.
"Think of your sin. The sins you've committed today. The sin it feels as though you commit every day. Then imagine handing them to Jesus one by one. Open your hands. Release your grip. Say 'Here I give up my sins to him that is able to bear them'. Feel the weight lift from your heart. Jesus has taken your burden and borne it at the cross in your place."