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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Oddly Sexual (Worship, Part 2)

Have you ever heard someone say that a song has "Jesus is my girlfriend lyrics"? The first time I heard that said was back in the 1980s, when some Christian pop and rock artists appeared to take the approach of writing songs that were about God (wink, wink!) but that didn't actually mention Him by name, and were written in such a way that they could be misunderstood as being about a romantic relationship. The idea was to still perform music that would appeal to a church crowd, but also to perhaps attract a wider audience. The graph on this page is a commentary on this, ironically saying that almost all Christian music is like that.

I disagree with the graph on two points. First, I disagree that almost all of Christian music is like that; I think there's plenty of Christian music out there that talks about things other than a "Jesus is my girlfriend" relationship with our Savior.

Second, I disagree that there is anything wrong with describing our relationship with God using metaphors that are sexual in nature. I think that's perfectly fine!

Now, don't get me wrong. There's a limit to how far you can go with that, and obviously describing the sex act itself is crossing the line a bit. But God described His relationship to His people that way many times; the story the Bible tells is about God reaching out to mankind, mankind stumbling and ultimately failing God, and God reaching out again and ultimately restoring His relationship to His people, and God often uses male/female metaphors to help us understand it. And God apparently doesn't mind being a bit graphic. In fact, there are a few places where, if I were the editor of the Bible, I would have been like, "Woah, God... you're crossing the line a little bit with that one!"

You can find the beginning of the story in Ezekiel 16. Speaking of when God first chose the nation of Israel to be His people, it says " were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born. And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’" A little bit graphic, isn't it? But it gets more graphic. Don't read these parts of the Bible to your kids!

Continuing: "I made you flourish like a plant of the field. And you grew up and became tall and arrived at full adornment. Your breasts were formed, and your hair had grown; yet you were naked and bare. When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord GOD, and you became mine." This is a reference to betrothal, God becoming "engaged to be married" to His people. But wait... the engagement happened while God was looking at her "naked and bare" and considering the state of her breasts and whether she was at "the age for love"? Scandalous!

God and His bride, the beautiful girl He had rescued as an infant, became married. But things went downhill from there. "But you trusted in your beauty and played the whore because of your renown and lavished your whorings on any passerby; your beauty became his." The beautiful wife decided to become a prostitute. And not a reluctant prostitute, either: " built yourself a vaulted chamber and made yourself a lofty place in every square. At the head of every street you built your lofty place and made your beauty an abomination, offering yourself to any passerby and multiplying your whoring." Later on it says that she actually had sex with some "lovers" whom she "loved", and some she didn't even like but "hated"! Apparently she didn't care if she liked them or not, as long as the action was happening.

I'll leave it to you to read the chapter and see what God says will happen to His wayward bride and her lovers. Warning: Rated PG-13 for violence and sexual themes.

If the PG-13 violence of Ezekiel 16 isn't enough for you, maybe you'll enjoy the even more graphic descriptions of the conduct of God's people in Ezekiel 23 (Warning: Rated R for Graphic Sexuality): "She did not give up her whoring that she had begun in Egypt; for in her youth men had lain with her and handled her virgin bosom and poured out their whoring lust upon her." "She lusted after the Assyrians, governors and commanders, warriors clothed in full armor, horsemen riding on horses, all of them desirable young men. And I saw that she was defiled; they both took the same way." "Yet she increased her whoring, remembering the days of her youth, when she played the whore in the land of Egypt and lusted after her lovers there, whose members were like those of donkeys, and whose issue was like that of horses."

"Members like donkeys"? "Issue like horses"? Are you kidding me?? Maybe I should have rated this chapter NC-17! (Fortunately, this does not qualify as an "oddly sexual" metaphor, as the graph indicates. This metaphor is blatant and graphic!)

The poem in Hosea 2 carries on the theme of Israel being an unfaithful wife who has taken up prostitution, with God saying to the (illegitimate) children of the woman, "Plead with your mother, plead—for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband—that she put away her whoring from her face, and her adultery from between her breasts..." This time, though, there is a gleam of hope at the end: "...behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her... And in that day, declares the LORD, you will call me ‘My Husband’... and I will make you lie down in safety. And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness."

God has always sought to restore the relationship with His wayward Bride. Isaiah 54 is God's longing vision of this restoration:
    “Fear not, for you will not be ashamed;
        be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced;
    for you will forget the shame of your youth,
        and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more.
    For your Maker is your husband,
        the LORD of hosts is his name;
    and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
        the God of the whole earth he is called.
    For the LORD has called you
        like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit,
    like a wife of youth when she is cast off,
        says your God.
    For a brief moment I deserted you,
        but with great compassion I will gather you.
    In overflowing anger for a moment
        I hid my face from you,
    but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,”
        says the LORD, your Redeemer.
Isaiah 54:4-8 ESV
There's more... it's a beautiful chapter. I invite you to click over or open a Bible and read through it; a lovlier and more heartfelt description of a loving husband's forgiveness of his wife's unfaithfulness has not been written. It will bring tears to your eyes.

God has not abandoned this metaphor in the Church Age. Paul said to the church in Corinth, "For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ." (2 Corinthians 11:2 ESV) In Ephesians 5:25-27 he makes it clear that the relationship between a husband and wife is just like the relationship between Christ and the Church, and is almost certainly referring to that chapter in Ezekiel 16 that I mentioned earlier in this post.

So what does this all have to do with worship? Well, you may find that the songs you sing in church services talk a lot about loving God, embracing Him, Him being "beautiful" or "lovely", etc. Since Jesus walked on Earth as a human male, this kind of language might sometimes be easier for a woman to fully buy into than a man; what man walks up to a buddy and says, "Hey man, you look beautiful today!" But it is fully OK to use man and wife imagery as a reference of the relationship between God and mankind, and I think it's OK to use that kind of intimate language to refer to the relationship between each of us and Jesus.

Because even though Jesus is not our girlfriend, as it turns out, we are His!

I've said some pretty controversial things in this blog post, and I've included some passages from the Old Testament prophets that are quite graphic. Do you think that sexual imagery is appropriate in a worship setting? Should it be as overt as the metaphors in these passages, or should it be a little more understated? Do you disagree with my analysis that the people of God are indeed thought of as His "girlfriend" (okay, I'll go with "bride")? Join the discussion in the Comments section below! Also, don't miss Part 1 of this one-week series on Worship!

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