Review: "Purposeful Sexuality" By Ed Shaw
“What is the purpose of our sexuality?” That is the question that this short book wrestles with. Ed Shaw takes us deeper than the “human flourishing” arguments that only focus on our happiness in this life – he also helps us to mature beyond the simple youth-group questions (e.g. “Whom can I have sex with?”) to the deeper and ultimately more helpful question of “What is sexuality for?” First, he recognises the value for married people of the three traditional answers (marriage, having children, sharing pleasure), but then he notes how unsatisfying these answers are to those who are single, widowed or divorced, as well as those who are married but either can’t have children or are not sexually active, for whatever reason.
Shaw shares how two sentences from the writing of John Piper helped him to see how sexuality ultimately points us towards the relationship between God and his people. If I am single and celibate, my powerful sexual feelings are not there to torture me, but “they exist to make my life more joyful, as they help me begin to appreciate God’s love for me” (p.22). In case this sounds too abstract, he compares a film trailer (i.e. sex in this life) to the entire film (i.e. our intimate relationship with God in the life to come). He helpfully develops this analogy with the assertion that “No-one who gets to enjoy a really good film in its entirety kicks themselves for having missed seeing the enticing short trailer” (p.37). Quotes like these throughout the book help us grasp these profound truths.
In case the reader worries that the book is going to be too theoretical, Shaw dedicates two chapters to the theme of ‘How does this help us?’ First, he grapples with the question of why God has restricted marriage to two people of opposite sexes. To do this, he turns to Ephesians 5, which compares marriage to the “union in difference that we are all going to enjoy one day” (p.30). There is a brief foray into the incompatibility issues that some gay and lesbian couples find in their sexual relationships, although Shaw is careful only to quote gay and lesbian writers and he is careful not to make sweeping generalisations. These arguments are presented very much as secondary to the biblical arguments.
He is also careful to distinguish between indulging lustful thoughts and appreciating the God-given beauty in another person (of either sex). This helpful distinction frees us to admire beauty in another person as long as it turns our gaze upwards to their Creator, rather than downward into envy or sexual desire.
Shaw quotes some shocking words by secular author Olivia Fane: “I have been abused by the dominant ideology of the day: that sex is important and profound, and you are obliged to join in.” Acknowledging the damage that the idolatry of sex has done to each of us, Shaw then presents God’s wonderful corrective: “Sex is important and profound, but you are not obliged to join in. You don’t ever have to have sex, because the reason why it is so important and profound is what it points us forwards to, not what it is in and of itself” (p.39).
Looking at the very practical matter of sexual temptation, Shaw looks at why sexual temptation for many people is such an ongoing battle, as well as why is it such a divisive matter in our churches. He explains that the profound significance of sex means that it’s an important spiritual battleground, both in our personal lives and within the church.
Chapter 6 (‘What does God do to help us?’) explores the humanity and sexuality of Jesus. Shaw presents author Andy Angel’s retelling of John 4, where Jesus meets the woman at the well with all the sexual overtones that would have been present in that context at the time. I found this interpretation very intriguing, and it opens up this narrative as a helpful case study for modelling sexual purity. For many people, examining Jesus’ behaviour in this story will be much more compelling than citing a more abstract verse (such as Hebrews 4:15: “...we have one who has been tempted in every way”).
Overall, I found ‘Purposeful Sexuality’ to be a pleasing balance of profound truths, memorable quotations and practical thoughts. Shaw challenges the modern view of sex, which claims that it is essential for human flourishing, and shows us that sexuality is rather a signpost to something far greater. He infects us with his enthusiasm for the ultimate intimacy in the life to come, which helps us get the fleeting pleasures of this life into their right perspective.
Purposeful Sexuality by Ed Shaw
(IVP, 2021) 80 pages
£7.99 paperback, £4.79 Ebook
This book review was originally published in the Spring 2021 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend. Click the button below to download your copy.
Download the Spring 2021 edition of Ascend