How to Talk About Sex Without Sounding like a Prude, Legalist, or a Peddler of Toxic Purity Culture

“You Christians are obsessed with sex.”

Most of us have heard something like this, along with comments about a “toxic purity culture” that pedals in guilt and shame. Many of those critiques are fair. But the reason our student ministry talks about sex is because Paul did so 2000 years ago.

One of the benefits of preaching verse by verse through books of the Bible is that you can’t be accused of being “obsessed with sex.” You are just preaching the text. Scripture sets the agenda, not our hobby horses. Our student ministry is studying Colossians, and this week we are in Colossians 3:1-11.

In Colossians 3:1-4 Paul begins by reminding us of the gospel he’s just spent two chapters expounding. Unlike our world that tells us you must “behave before you belong,” that you must pass the test before you’re allowed in, that you must perform before you’re accepted, the gospel tells us: “You already belong.” You’re not dead, you’re alive. The magnitude of what Jesus has done for us – graciously enthroning us with himself – grants a new motivation to follow him and his direction. “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above” (3:1).

Paul then ties these gospel realities into our attitude towards sex.

Immediately we have two challenges when it comes to scripture like this. First, how do we preach the commands of Scripture without sounding like legalists? And second, how do we talk about sex without falling prey to a “toxic purity culture.”

Second, we need to ask why Paul chooses to talk about sex, lust, and sexual immorality right out of the gate. The most obvious reason is that sexual desire touches on one of the deepest cravings of our souls. We all want to be loved, we want to love others, and we want pleasure. All of that is seemingly available to us in sex. Paul mentions sex explicitly because it’s one of humanity’s deepest desires.

Paul also mentions our speech. Possibly because nothing is sharper or more dangerous than our words. James calls words “wildfires” and “poison.” The book of Proverbs says that the person who has the strength to control their tongue is stronger than generals who take cities. We’ve all heard the lie: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Words are some of the most powerful weapons in the world. I still remember insults thrown at me by kids on the playground. And it’s why one of the first freedoms dictators attack is the press.

Paul chooses sex and speech because they hit the hardest. Following Jesus begins a reorientation of our deepest desires and our most powerful abilities. Besides, if the work of Jesus can’t cover and transform the deepest desires of our hearts and the most dangerous weapon we possess – he’s not worth following.

What exactly is “lust, evil desire, and sexual immorality”? We need clarity before we can offer solutions. I define them this way. Lust is sexual desire for a man or woman, not your spouse. Sexual immorality is sexual action with a man or woman, not your spouse. In Colossians, Paul condemns both actions and thoughts. Whether you are having, watching, or fantasizing sex you are running afoul of God’s design.

But Paul also calls sexual immorality covetousness and idolatry. That’s important. Covetousness is envy. It’s wanting something you don’t have. And idolatry is expecting something created to give you what only God can. The fact that Paul includes idolatry and envy in the definition of sexual immorality means that sex isn’t just about what we do with our bodies; it’s about what our hearts want.

God doesn’t always provide reasons. Sometimes we are just supposed to trust he knows more than us. But Paul gives us two reasons why these sins should bother us:

  1. It’s disguised envy. Lust treats men and women who you don’t have any claim on as objects that exist only for your pleasure. In lust, you see something you want but don’t have, so you take it and use it. It’s envy and theft. More than that, it’s a denial that we are made in God’s image and deserving of better (Col 3:10).
  2. It’s disguised idolatry. It’s expecting the created gift of sex to provide what only the creator can give. When we disobey one of God’s commands regarding sexual thoughts, Paul says we are really saying, “God, you are not enough. Sex is. God, your gifts are not as good as what I can find on iPhone screens and in dark rooms with my boyfriend.”

Paul’s unique insight is that sex isn’t about bodies, it’s about hearts and, fundamentally, our heart’s consistent denial of God’s goodness. So if sex is about our heart’s desires, not just physical urges, then what are we forgetting?

If envy is wanting what you don’t have and then you indulge your appetite, you have forgotten that you are God’s son, that you sit at God’s throne, and that everything God has is yours (Col 3:1-4). Jesus has bought with his life love, power, and plenty for you forever.

If idolatry is expecting sex to give you something only God can, you have forgotten that you are hidden in him and that by his death, all the promises of God for love and pleasure in your life are “Yes!” in Jesus.

SPEAK TO THE NON-BELIEVER (because you will speak to the Christian to)
Here’s what I want every non-believer to know:

God promises to be satisfying, fulfilling, and to tell you who you really are and that you belong. God promises to love you better than any sexual partner – real or digital – ever will. And he will do that for free. You won’t have to “put out” in order to get that love. You don’t’ have to be the “best he’s ever had” in order to keep it. God promises a pleasure so real (on earth as it is in heaven) that it’s worth never having sex again. But God promises that if you do have sex according to his plans – it will be better sex than you can experience anywhere else.

I know you don’t believe those things.

But I do. Billions of Christians for thousands of years have. I’m not inviting you to a religion that wants to prevent you from scoring, to keep you from pleasure. I am offering you Jesus. A person who died and was risen to give you more pleasure and satisfaction in Him than you have ever known. Because unlike all of your other relationships where you had to perform to be loved. God will love you before you ever need prove you are lovable. You will belong, before you ever have to behave.

Seth Stewart is a husband and a dad, and after a decade in student ministry is now working as the Editor-in-Chief at Spoken Gospel. Spoken Gospel creates online resources that point to Jesus from every passage of Scripture. Seth spends his day writing, speaking, and being his family's chef.

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