In addition to their professional responsibilities as Dean of Men and Assistant Professor of Family Studies, respectively, at Andrews University, Don and Sue Murray have been involved in team ministry by providing marriage preparation and marriage enrichment for couples for many years. They received the Arthur and Maud Spaulding Distinguished Service in Family Ministries Award by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in 2000.
They have both authored various articles, have each published a book and are Certified Famliy Life Educators with the National Council on Family Relations. Sue is a licensed marriage and family therapist and was an active participant in the World Commision on Human Sexuality organized by the General Conference in 1997. They have two grown children and two grandchildren.
Shabbat Shalom*: What is sexuality? How would you define this term that is so often used in our culture nowadays?
Donald Murray (DM): The word sex is used as a verb, a noun, an adjective; and some have been creative enough to use it as an adverb. Sexuality, on the other hand, is everything that makes us uniquely a woman or a man. Sexuality is a gift from God. It is a way by which God connects us — man, and woman—together. It is a biological, chemical force that God gave us to use to procreate the earth and to find great depth in relationship. Within marriage, the sexual experience of intercourse can be a way of renewing our wedding vows.
Susan Murray (SM): I believe God created us with a deep need for connection with other beings, and it seems to me that our need for connection drives much of our sexual behavior. And yet, what God means for us is to understand how much He wants a connection with us; thus the gift of sexuality was meant, also, to help us understand more of His love for us and need to connect with us.
God’s gift for us within a marriage relationship is that because of our sexuality we can be deeply intimate, deeply personal, and deeply connected.
DM: Sexuality is certainly a type of the kind of relationship God desires to have with us.
SM: Here’s my definition. Sexuality includes what we believe, what we think, what we feel, and what we do. It is who we are. Sexuality has a psychological, biological and spiritual dimension. Our views are affected by our social conditioning; part of our social conditioning comes through the popular culture—the people who are in our social groups, which includes our family, our friends, our school, our church; and obviously through the media that also comes to us through school, church, and home via the general media that includes advertising, films, and video games, for example. Bottom line, sexuality is a very encompassing, complex part of who we are.
Shabbat Shalom: Your definition of sexuality as being composed of different interlinked dimensions is certainly to the point. Do we as believers have a specific outlook on sexuality that would be different? What would be a believer’s understanding on sexuality?
DM: If sexuality were not spiritual, if it did not have the ability to make true connections, sexuality would be shallow and profane. It would be only about satisfying one’s biological needs.
SM: From whatever context you look at it, whether you are a believer or not, sexuality is a gift from God. Some people don’t know that, but they are still given the gift, and they can use the gift. They can be responsible or irresponsible with it. As a believer, I think it is essential for understanding God and ourselves and our connectedness with God and with one another. He created me as a sexual being and has given me ways to live out my sexuality as a single person, female or male, or within a relationship.
Shabbat Shalom: Though sexuality is about relationship, it seems not only to be a topic for couples. What about sexuality and the single person, the individual? SM: We are born sexual, and we have innate sexual desires and behaviors. I think sexuality has to do with every person at all ages and stages. Infants are born male or female. They are born sexual. The goal for a Christian family is to raise this child so that he or she understands and respects the gift of sexuality, uses it with restraint, and perhaps shares the gift in a committed relationship with someone else. However, not everyone needs to be sexually active. In short, sexuality is who we are, what we are, what we do. I believe one can fully appreciate the gift of sexuality without being sexually active.
Shabbat Shalom: Let me come back to the Bible once more. How important is sexuality in Scriptures?
DM: In Genesis 2:24 Adam and Eve were given a gift which can be described as a triangular relationship. The message is clear: man and woman should leave their parents, cling to one another, and then become one flesh. In a way that is the ideal. The psychological term for leaving parents is individuation. When you mature, you separate from your parents and become your own individual. You have a sense of maturity and independence, as well as interdependence, that is appropriate to sustain adult responsibilities. Then it is safe to begin the cleaving process. Cleaving is not an occasion. It’s the work of a lifetime. When leaving and cleaving are accomplished—and remember that perfect model was given before the fall—then the one-flesh relationship can be spiritual in its ultimate dimensions. It can be a true reflection of the kind of relationship God desires to have with us. The text following says “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25). They were unashamed because there was nothing to be ashamed about: no hidden motives, no hidden agendas, no lies that they were attempting to cover up, no illicit relationships. There was no shame. God desires to be in a relationship with us that is based on our decision to be in relationship with Him. For many He desires that relationship to be nurtured in a life-long commitment of cleaving, protected by the covenant of marriage. He desires for that intimacy that comes from a sexual relationship to be a type of intimacy that we have with Him . One of the reasons that the understanding of sexuality is so important for us believers is that it gives us a sense of who God is in a way that nothing else can really give us.
Shabbat Shalom: So the spirituality of sexuality is to reflect the relationship we can have with God, an interpersonal relationship?
SM: He is a relational God and He created us to be in relationship to Him and in relationship to others. Our sexuality is part of that gift.
DM: We all are created to be in relationship with others. By His creative act, He designed us to be in a relationship with Him as well as with others; and we believe that intercourse, protected by marriage, can be the ultimate expression of this love.
Shabbat Shalom: What does it mean, if anything, that God created Adam and Eve, and thus sexuality, before the Sabbath?
DM: Consider the experience of Adam. After he was created God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). So God made him a counterpart. Could we say then, that from the beginning, God intended the Sabbath to be celebrated in relationship with Him and others?
SM: The first time I realized this, I thought “How cool!” It does not mean that sexuality is more important, but it does mean that it was not an afterthought. Adam and Eve’s sexuality, from the very beginning, was a very integral part of who they were as male and female, and within their relationship they embraced the Sabbath.
Shabbat Shalom: Interesting, here is the perfect environment, the perfect world, and it was not good because the relational aspect of human connectedness was missing.
DM: In our home we have a print of a painting by Nathan Greene which is called The Introduction. I just so enjoy that painting! The thought of God being there to introduce Eve to Adam and Adam to Eve is just an electric moment to me.
SM: We don’t have the original painting, a print, by the way. One thing I like about it is that there is this kind of expectant look of joy on their faces; and I always think, God knew what was coming next. He created them to complement one another. That does not mean that they were not whole beings on their own. They were created with all the physiological capacities for sexual functioning, but God’s ultimate plan was that they would come together; and obviously if people did not come together, they would not procreate.
DM: Another aspect that is within the spiritual realm is that Adam and Eve were given dominion over the earth. I think Adam and Eve were also given dominion over their bodies. In other words, they had the right to use their bodies and to make choices that would enhance themselves personally and as a family. As they had the choice, so have we. We can chose an abundant life, or we can choose the way of shame and guilt.
SM: Whew! Those are loaded terms—shame and guilt. Shame is a big issue for many people. It’s important for me to say that God did not create shame. Also, there was nothing shameful about the way He created our bodies.
DM: Therefore, the gift of sexuality because of the issue of dominion and our freedom of choice, also allows for sexual abuse and denial of sexual rights, even rape, to also be present in relationships. Clearly, humankind and sin have distorted the giftedness of sexuality.
SM: Thinking about shame, I am reminded that men’s tendencies are sometimes toward addictive behaviors as related to sex, certainly pornography. That’s not just a man-on-the-streets problem. There is certainly concern and some discussion within the Christian church about men and pornography. For women, it seems to me, the issue is trauma. Men deal with the addictive part, and women deal with the repercussions of sexual trauma, which sometimes stem from the addiction of perhaps a father or an older man. That is one of the ways in which Satan keeps distancing people from one another sexually.
Shabbat Shalom: Do Christians enjoy sex?
SM: Now, that’s a good question! There is the myth that Christian couples, especially Christian women, don’t enjoy sex. I am sure there are many who, sadly, do not. However, many Christian women report being almost a little embarrassed that they are liking it so much because there is somehow this dichotomy that says you shouldn’t. Yet many women report that they do enjoy their sexuality and their sexual relationships with their husbands. The thing that stands in their way of fully enjoying a sexual relationship is the issue of trauma, according to research by Archibald Hart.
Media is one of the ways through which young women are being traumatized. I thought about this when you asked the question about our permissive society and educating children. The thing is that we need to educate parents that girls are more traumatized by seeing sexual acts on television and in videos than seemingly boys are. Parents need to pay attention to this. I think we can really turn things around when Christian parents learn how their own bodies work and teach their children how wonderfully and fearfully the body is made. If we understand how something works, we respect it more. I believe we could do a lot to help our kids in this permissive society by really proactively teaching our children what is appropriate.
DM: Christians should be able to enjoy their sexual relationships free from trauma and addiction. Addiction seems to be rooted in two different sources. One is biochemical. However, there is no biochemical problem with the issue of sexual addiction that I am aware of. So there must be something specific that causes sexual addiction. Sexual addiction is perpetuated by shame. That is why it is so important to rear children in ways that are as free from shame as possible.
Shabbat Shalom: You have mentioned shame in two different contexts. One is addiction, and the other is feeling ashamed of one’s body. It seems that one of the major sources for shame lies in the area of sexuality. Why is that so?
SM: The first thing that comes to my mind is that shame, at one level, serves as a moderator in society. However, I believe that there are better ways of moderating behavior. I see shame as the devil’s counter to God’s love and acceptance.
DM: There is a difference between shame and guilt. Guilt can actually be a gift from God. Guilt says, “Oops, I made a mistake. I messed up. How can I learn from this?” Shame says, “There is something horribly flawed with me. I’m bad.”
SM: Guilt can arise out of an action or the omission of action. Sometimes there is guilt for what we did do, but sometimes there is also guilt for what we did not do. Shame is deeper than that. Parents inadvertently shame their children, sometimes to get them to behave, but also out of expedience and because parents themselves were taught that way. Thus they build shame in children, often without being aware of it. Shame is part of the living in this world. To fully examine shame, we’d need to do another interview!
Shabbat Shalom: Is shame ever a positive factor in our sexual life? Does shame help us order our lives?
SM: In the sense of being comfortable with compliance, yes, I suppose. I wouldn’t term it as positive.
DM: However shame moderates our behavior, it distorts our thinking. One of the texts in Scripture that is personally most encouraging for me is found in Joel 2:26. “And my people shall never be ashamed.” This is an incredible promise. There will be no shame on the new earth. The promise that God’s people will never again be ashamed should motivate us now in how we treat other people and in the way we see ourselves.
SM: Let me go back to Adam and Eve when they were naked and not ashamed before one another. Some have shared with me that they have been married for many years and have never been seen naked by their partner because they are ashamed of what their body looks like in the light. Of course, this is a personal issue. For me, however, living with someone and being sexually intimate, but at the same time being afraid to let the other see my body, is hardly what God wants for me. God’s plan for a couple is that they can be naked and unashamed physically as well as emotionally. To be sure, Genesis 2 does not talk only about the physical characteristics of man and woman. It’s their emotional and spiritual life, too. The ideal is to be totally secure within a relationship with another person—the other knows your spiritual journey, your emotional journey, and also your body. It is then when we can be most intimate, and probably the closest to understanding what God means when He says that He wants to be in an intimate relationship with us.
Shabbat Shalom: Do you think that people who find it difficult to believe in a God who shows love and acceptance toward humans have more difficulty in overcoming shame?
SM: In my experience I find more individuals who have grown up in Christian homes experiencing the results of shame than those who have not grown up in Christian homes. Many of these latter enjoy their sexuality. Some of them are very respectful with their body and with other people. That has always puzzled me: How can you use the gift and not understand the Giver of the gift? It’s similar to the fact that many who have not learned about health still have the gift of health.
Shabbat Shalom: People can enjoy the gift without knowing the Giver?
SM: Sure. And here we are the people who understand where the gift came from, and yet we do not understand why God gave the gift, or we are afraid of the gift, or we use the gift to destroy ourselves and other people. That must be so sad for God!
Shabbat Shalom: Sexuality can then be used in a way directed by God, but it can also be used to destroy people.
SM: Absolutely. It is a gift to everybody who is born. It’s not about if you believe in God or not. In fact, many Adventists, it seems, do not really know how to appreciate and use the gift. That is one of the reasons why the World Commission on Sexuality was organized. Finally, in 1997, for the first time as a world church, Seventh-day Adventist representatives from across the world sat down and focused on what sexuality is and what we believe about it. I believe it was an important step in the right direction!
Shabbat Shalom: How are we as believers called to live out the gift of sexuality? DM: We need to live ethically. In fact, sex without ethics always creates problems and distortion. There is a science to human relationships, including the gift of sexuality— and we need to study that. Another thing we need to do is to ponder the concepts of responsibility and dominion. God has erected boundaries as well as barriers. If it is for our greater happiness, why do we try to knock down those barriers which will lead us to joy and fulfillment? If we believe that God desires far more joy for us than we can even imagine, we will respect His boundaries and know that what Scripture tells us is the best way to live.
SM: I agree. I boil it down to three words: Respect, rejoice and restraint. We respect the gift. We respect the God who gave us the gift. We respect our bodies. We rejoice in the gift. We rejoice in what God gave us. We rejoice in the physical pleasure we feel. We rejoice in the physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual responses in a sexual relationship with someone. We rejoice in the product— the children. And we must practice restraint. When we are given a gift, it’s given freely; but we must use restraint—for our sake. How we use our bodies, how we use our voices, where we allow our minds to go, we are called to restraint. Many conservative believers thought that the highest honor was to live a life of restraint, without understanding the rejoicing and respecting part. I would never put restraint at the top of the list, but within the sense of respect and rejoicing, we must also practice restraint.
Of course, we can’t just do what we want all the time. There are times when believers do need to use restraint in their own sexual relationship, even though the relationship is good and holy. For example, if you are staying home from the Sabbath worship service in order to “have sex,” you need to take another look, and use some restraint. God is not saying “Do it whenever you want” just because you are in a good relationship. When your sexual life as a couple, even if you are married, is interfering with the other responsibilities that are important in your life, then you are misusing the gift. Even with the understanding of the gift, living in the divinely intended confines—being married— and having a good sexual relationship, we are still called for restraint. Another way that we are called for restraint is in understanding that what we might be comfortable with in our sexual behavior, our partner might not. If one person ever comes away feeling less than whole, then the loving thing to do is to step back, and that calls for restraint.
Shabbat Shalom: There is a billboard that reads “Sex can wait.” This, of course, talks about the physical aspect of sex. As positive as such signs are, sexuality is naturally more than its physical aspect alone. What is the danger of viewing sex only on a physical level?
SM: I don’t think we should separate sexuality off as only a theological or spiritual issue either, as so often people have tried to do. There are many areas in which the Bible is silent in regards to human behavior. Yes, Scripture can be a kind of user-manual for sex, but it is not meant to be the DSMIV!
What is amazing to me is that some nonpracticing Christians whom I know, recognize that there is something very special about their sexuality and their sexual relationship tionship with someone else; and they treat it very respectfully. How would a theologian explain that?
DM: It is an issue of spirituality. One can regard something as spiritual without having a full understanding of God.
Shabbat Shalom: Do believers have an advantage, because they have the opportunity to see sexuality in a holistic way?
SM: Yes. If they go to the Scripture and if they can get past or beyond their own misinformation.
DM: There are many who are uncomfortable that the Song of Solomon is part of the biblical canon, because it’s so graphic. Consider this interesting progression: “My beloved is mine, and I am his” (Song of Solomon 2:16); and then, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (6:3); and finally, “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is toward me” (7:10). First, the Shulamite woman, who is darkened by the sun, perceives herself in comparison with all the other lovely women of the court, and she has diminished self-concept. She can’t even imagine why Solomon would love her. Her selfconcept is based on the security of belonging to him. The security of the relationship is what gives her meaning. This is expressed in “My beloved is mine, and I am his” (2:16). In “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (6:3) there is more emphasis on giving than possessing. Finally, she views herself in growing wonder. Here is mutual submission. We find a statement of wonder that she is loved and that she can love back. “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is toward me” (7:10). That is the progression of self- acceptance when a person is in a loving relationship where all the dimensions of that love are utilized.
SM: She must have come to an understanding of God’s love for her and desire for connection as a result of her experience.
DM: I believe that is the reason why Song of Solomon is found in the Scriptures, because it gives us, in human terms, the finest example of the kind of relationship God wants to have with us.
Shabbat Shalom: How should we educate our children on sexuality in our permissive society?
SM: First, we need to know that we give a child sexual messages from the first time we change a diaper. From my standpoint, we give many, many ideas about relationships and our bodies from the moment a baby is born. We also tell them what it is to be a girl or to be a boy. Sometimes that’s damaging and hurtful, and sometimes it’s wonderful. Specifically, to answer your question, permissive society or not, children deserve to know how wonderfully their bodies are made and how they work. And that is the beginning. If we do not understand our own anatomy, how incredibly we are created—our lungs, our heart, our circulatory system, our sexual organs—then we may have difficulties in fully understanding God and His plan for us. I believe that if we each had han an age-appropriate understanding of our bodies and our potential, we would not have so much fear and misuse of sexual behavior in our society, and even in our church. Now, many people have lived a very full life without a full understanding of how their bodies work. On the other hand, I believe God wants children to start understanding what wonderful creatures they are from the moment they are born. That’s one of the ways Christian parents can help their children to be prepared for a very media-driven, media-saturated permissive world. Sadly, many parents don’t know how to do that. That is why I think it is particularly timely that as the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church we have now, painstakingly and over several years, developed a life-span curriculum for informally and formally guiding our educators and church members how to teach the children about God’s gift of sexuality.
Shabbat Shalom: Does this mean that parents should be the first source for knowledge of sexuality and that they should create a family atmosphere in which children feel comfortable to ask questions about sexuality?
SM: Yes! That would be the ideal! However, no matter how positive and flourishing an individual family may be, there comes the time when children innately start feeling uncomfortable talking about some things with their parents. Around the preteen years there is a sense of privacy that develops with most individuals and a sense of embarrassment. That’s the beginning of leaving and eventually the clinging to someone else, so at one level we should celebrate this. There can be times when the best- prepared parents are not able to step in because their kids withdraw from them. That’s why parents need a support system for their children. The church and the school need to be prepared to teach the children as well.
DM: To add to this, I believe that one of the reasons why sometimes there is the exploitation of sexuality is simply the fear of sexuality. When we learn and teach others to replace our fear of sexuality with healthy respect, that sex is one of God’s best gifts and He wants us to enjoy it within the restraints that will bring us the greatest joy, then we will come to a real breakthrough in understanding.
Shabbat Shalom: It is interesting to note that sexuality is associated with almost every emotion and feeling human beings are capable of having.
DM: Yes, and because it is, it may be one of the primary human experiences that really taps into all the emotions. Virtually every Christian psychologist who is an expert on relationships will tell you that humankind is at their best when they are able to express their emotions, when there is no blockage of any emotion because of shame, guilt or whatever. Having a well-loved, sexual relationship with someone whom we are deeply committed to, a spouse, is a way that we can have the freedom to feel and express those emotions in positive and healthy ways.
Shabbat Shalom: Let me ask an interesting question that people every now and then find on their minds: Are we going to have sex in heaven?
SM: I’m wondering if you mean that we will still have our sexuality, or if we will “have sex?” We don’t know . . . but it’s worth finding out. If we trust that God has our best good in mind, that He loves us more than we can imagine, and that there are joys untold, who knows?
DM: If God desires far more happiness for us than we can ever imagine for ourselves, then the joy of heaven will be better than any other joy anybody has ever felt. If it is something other than sexuality that gives mutuality and deepening intimacy, then it will be better than what we experience on this earth anyway.
SM: Well, another aspect we could consider in relation to your question is that of the angels.
DM: Yes, angels seem to be asexual. They do not procreate. Beyond that we do not know.
SM: We don’t know. However, I think God is not going to turn us into angels. If God created humankind in His image and if He loves me the way I am now, I do not think that He is going to do a total overhaul when I get to heaven, neither biologically nor emotionally. Yes, He is probably renewing my mind and my heart; but if He had just wanted more angels up there, He could have just created more angels. As I mentioned, your question could be understood in two different ways: Are we going to have sexual intercourse with another, or are we going to still be sexual beings, meaning separate genders? I do believe the one thing that we are going to take away from this earth is some sense of our relationships. I do not think God, in His love, would take away my most precious relationships.. If He takes us as husband and wife, I cannot see how God would remove my memory of that relationship. I realize, too, that, some people could have two husbands or three husbands or wives in heaven. So, for myself, I’m just going to see what’s up when I get there.
Shabbat Shalom: If we cannot answer the question whether there is going to be sex in heaven, why do people then ask about it?
SM: We want answers to all the tough questions, but there are many things we are not going to know this side of heaven.
DM: For me, it’s a role of faith.
Shabbat Shalom: Certainly, for many people sex is one of the most joyous experiences on earth. Could it be that some fear the loss of such a treasured experience if there will be no sex in heaven?
SM: Yes, I think there are things that are precious to us, and we want to have some assurance that God is still going to let us have those things in Heaven. There are those who do not think that sex is good, who are repulsed by it, and who want to talk us out of it. They may be hoping not to have to deal with it at all in heaven. When people ask such questions, I often wonder what motivates their question. Are they truly seeking knowledge or just wanting to argue their point?
Shabbat Shalom: What would you take along from your personal experience with sexuality—as a female person, as a male person— that helps you understand life, even life with God, in a much better sense?
SM: The very first thing that comes to my mind is that I always knew it was good to be a girl. While it was apparent to me while growing up that my opinion didn’t matter much, it wasn’t because I was a girl, it was because I was a child. For me, the very underpinning of my identity has been that it is good to be female.
DM: How did that concept help you to understand God?
SM: I don’t know how I would have understood Him otherwise.
DM: I grew up with many of the distorted images of sexuality typical among boys and young men. I’m certain that I never really understood that God had invented sex. I guess I wasn’t sure who had. As a result of marrying Sue, and my journey of growth with God, I have come to understand grace. This has freed me from much of my early distorted thinking, and my life as a responsible male has taken on new and far deeper meaning. I now know that life with God is a life of freedom to be all that He created me to be, and that includes a far greater understanding of His gift of sexuality.