Our Goal is Christ: Humanity, Sexuality, and Desire

Our Goal is Christ: Humanity, Sexuality, and Desire

Revd Joe Haward is a community and business chaplain, the author of four books, and a freelance opinion piece writer. 

Our Goal is Christ: Humanity, Sexuality, and Desire[1]

Revd Joe Haward

Maximus the Confessor describes how the natural will of humanity is always “bent” towards the Good, that ultimately our desire is for God, even if that desire is towards godlessness. He says, 


“No creature has ever ceased using the inherent power that directs it towards its end, nor has it ceased the natural activity that impels it towards its end.”[2]


In other words, God is the ground and end of all desire because God is the Ultimate Good, the end of all things, and so, the beginning.[3] This does not mean that sinful desire is from God, but that sinful desire is misplaced desire, disoriented as we are by sin, trying to stagger towards God without even knowing it, but often getting lost on the way. God is not another object in the world of consumerism or the marketplace of impulse and preference; rather, God is the “good end” which all things seek. It is easy to continue to view God as another “thing among things” or “object among objects,” as Paul Tillich once said, but God quite simply is not like this. You cannot choose or reject God as you would objects within finite reality, for God is not a finite object; God is “all in all,” and so cannot be turned away from. God is the fount, source and goal of all things, “things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.”[4]

Human desire, then, finds itself defined in and through God. Now, misplaced desire will undoubtedly lead us toward that which strips us of our true humanity, robbing us of our ability to be a people of creative acts of love, but that desire ultimately springs from the human longing for God, even when we have no conscious awareness of this. Sexual desire, then, finds its origins in divine desire, the human will seeking God. Sex can be a gift through which, by the Spirit, we are being conformed ever more into the likeness of Christ, which is the ultimate telos of all people. Therefore sex is about God rather “God” being about sex as Freud defined it.[5]


Sex saturates our culture, so much so that we are often oblivious to the impact and degree to which it is used to influence us. Advertisers rely on sex selling, using it to appeal to our desires in the hope that we will not only be drawn to their waters but that we will take a long drink from the fountain of consumerism. We are bombarded regularly by the images of the “perfect” person, glimmering in the sunshine, a life without pain or sorrow, attached to the latest product the company is selling. Time and again the sexual attractiveness of the people within the advert is emphasised, somehow telling us that through this product we could be like them. Mimetic desire[6] is crucial for advertisers; we begin by wanting the product because we want to be the person we see with the product. Sex is a powerful tool to lure us in for advertisers, but more than this, it is a powerful tool for capitalism, which is why pornography is so effective in a capitalist society. 

In the midst of all of this we have to recognize, as Sarah Coakley so beautifully puts it, that sexual desire and the desire for God is a “messy entanglement.” All desire, no matter how godless or wayward, springs forth from a desire for God, a longing for relationship and friendship with the Trinitarian Life. Our desires are always a search, a reaching out to become truly human, to know we are loved and have been discovered by our Creator. All too often this “messy entanglement” has resulted in fear on behalf of the church in regard to sex, a fear that will always lead to hate. As Coakley points out, however, there are those within Christian history who have spoken in daring ways about sexual desire and desire for God, ways that help us understand human desire better: 


“Dionysius with his language of divine desire, Eckhart with his daring sexual metaphors of the birth of Christ in the “virgin” soul, Julian with her “mothering” Christ within the Trinity. All seem to chafe at the edges of acceptable Trinitarian “orthodoxy”; all seek to face or resolve the dilemma of sexual desire and desire for God.”[7]


Unhelpfully, sex within church and culture can be seen as the “end game,” the goal and purpose of our humanity. The challenge Christianity faces today with sex is to not simply make sex the goal of marriage. We need a healthy view of relationships and a healthy view of sex. Most people (not all) desire sexual intimacy, and the prohibition of sex can make it even more desirable; the more something becomes unattainable, the more we desire it. Perhaps this is something of Augustine’s problem with lust, for it seems, at least to Augustine, that lust is something “unnatural,” a result of the fall, rather than something that belonged to the nature of humanity before the fall.[8] Yet misplaced desire is not sex. Certainly we can use our sexuality in highly destructive ways, yet sex itself is not the problem. However, once it becomes the “end game,” the goal for humanity, then it will become the problem as humanity becomes fixated on one another as purely sexual beings. So when advertisers use sex to sell their products, we find things that usually have no sexual significance become highly sexualized. There is a difference between the goal and the aim of something. 

Sex is not simply an act to satisfy sexual hunger; rather, it is given as a gift to share in depth of relationship with another, to express a love shared between two people, an act of self-giving love. It will never fully express the absolute fullness of love, for only the fullness of relationship with God is able to do that, yet it can point in the direction of God. This is a love that goes beyond sexuality and finds us at our divine desire, a desire that has its roots and purpose in God. Such sexuality that echoes the Divine Life, can be seen in the beautiful diversity of our humanness.


Paul makes the outstanding assertion in his letter to the Galatian churches that in Christ all religious-ethnic differentiation has been replaced with humanity now being incorporated into the Person of Jesus, baptised into his death, raised with him in his resurrection. No longer is humanity defined according to “Jew or Greek,” “slave or free,” “male and female,” but all are now a new creation, a new-creational community whose identity is found and determined in and through Christ. 

St. Irenaeus saw creation on a journey, created good with the goal and orientation towards perfection. So even humanity, “male and female,” created “very good” for relationship with one another, were never seen to be the finished article, the goal in and of themselves; Jesus has always been humanity’s goal. 

Sin, violence, and death led us away from this telos, disoriented us, and led us astray. Yet perfection was never found in the “male and female” and the distinctions we have; rather, it is found in Christ, the goal and perfection of humanity. When Jesus is asked about divorce by the Pharisees, he answers them by saying, “Have you not read that the Creator from the beginning ‘made them male and female’? . . . For this cause a man shall leave father and mother and shall be joined fast to his wife , and they shall be two in one flesh.”[9] Remember, this response by Jesus is in relation to a question about divorce in a time when women had no rights nor equality. Jesus is reminding the questioners of responsibility, not what the ideal model of marriage is. He is telling them that marriage is a commitment to care for another in unconditionality as if they were your own flesh. Through his death he will, in his own flesh, reveal what this unconditional love looks like. He is not calling humanity to an Edenic past, but towards a Christological Kingdom.

Jesus, not Adam, is the goal of humanity. Whereas before Christ our relationships were determined by the Law, differentiations determined by social and ethnic distinctions, now, in Christ, our relationships are a sign of redemption, a glimpse of the redemptive power of God, a “new creation” where the old order of things has passed away. What this Christocentric vision of humanity and creation means is that all relationships of non-violent, non-coercive love can be an expression of our ultimate relationship in Christ when one day God will be all in all. In other words, because humanity’s goal is Jesus, as Paul clearly states, and because we are not defined by our “male and female,” any relationship that reflects the unconditional love of God and enables us to glimpse at God’s ultimate reconciliation is to be celebrated. 

Gregory of Nyssa said, “It seems to me that what we hope for is nothing else than the Lord himself.”[10] For Gregory, humanity would not be fully and truly created until “the unification of all mankind, joined in looking toward the same goal of their yearning”[11] with “the genuine life made manifest in us none other than Christ himself.”[12] His sister Macrina held a similar line in which she asserted that the “goal towards which each single economy in the universe is moving” is none other than “the transcendent good of the universe,”[13] namely Christ. In other words, 


The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. Rom 8:21–3 


He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. Col 1:18b–20 


Humanity is waiting, waiting to be made truly human by the True Human, waiting to be fully incorporated into his resurrection life, waiting for all things to be reconciled to himself. Sexual desire is, then, a glimpse at divine desire. For in our sexual desire we are expressing a longing for intimacy with God. Again, such language may seem difficult to grasp, but as discussed earlier, all desire, no matter how disoriented and destructive it is, springs from a desire within humanity for the “transcendent Good of the universe.” We are created to be in relationship with our Creator, so we search and scratch and seek to be incorporated into that Life, often with very little awareness that this is what we desire. In our sexual desire there is a waiting and a longing, and then in our erotic ecstasy, when humanity expresses itself sexually at its best, we discover something of the divine life breaking into the moment. We leave our solitude and our own space and invite another to join us there, sharing in “the loss of boundary of skin . . . to meet in a shared space, a shared breath.”[14]

At the reconciliation of all things, humanity will discover at last what it means to truly love God and love one another. We will be “sharers in the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4) and have an intimacy with God that will go beyond all previous intimate and loving encounters. We will be fully known. Therefore, 


“. . . sexual desire is . . . the “precious clue” woven into our created being reminding us of our rootedness in God, to bring this desire into right “alignment” with God’s purposes, purified from sin and possessiveness . . .”[15]


Sex, sexuality, relationships, and desire can be rightly seen, then, in light of the Trinitarian Life of Self-giving love, unshackled from selfishness and disoriented desire. Our calling is to seek that the Spirit might bring our desire into God’s own desire. God loves his creation, and in God’s yearning for us we encounter our own yearning. Our relational intimacy is a reflection of God’s continued outpouring love of himself to his creation, to humanity. Our yearning springs from the fact that God yearned for us first: We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19) True love, a love that flows from God’s own nature, will be expressed well through sexual desire and practice, and will enable us to discover our humanity, rehumanising us from all the ways sex has been used to dehumanise us. Ultimate “human oneness with the One” will not happen through being bogged “down in human binaries which themselves resist the Spirit,”[16] but rather through the embrace of the Spirit’s leading into self-giving, nonviolent, non-coercive, grace-filled, unlimited, forgiving, loving relationships. These relationships will reflect the diversity of our human connectedness, revealing the beauty found in the scope of our identities and sexuality. 


Jesus Christ is the One we are called to imitate in all things, so we are each invited to share in the Oneness of relationship that the Trinity has given as a gift to all people. Jesus’ prayer, “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one . . . ”[17] is the prayer for humanity, that in our identity we may know oneness with one another, united in love, redeemed in our relationships, reconciled in God.


[1] This essay has been adapted from my chapter, “Sex,” found in Haward, J., The Ghost of Perfection, 96–104.

[2] Maximus the Confessor, Ambiguum 7, 50.

[3] “I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.” Rev 22:13.

[4] Col 1:16b.

[5] Freud believed that all religious belief was an illusion, a desire to deal with guilt that has sprung from sexual repression as a child. Freud believed “that at the bottom of every case of hysteria there are one or more occurrences of premature sexual experience, occurrences which belong to the earliest years of childhood . . . ” Masson, The Assault on Truth, 263.

[6] Mimetic means ‘imitation’. For more on mimetic desire, see Haward, J., The Ghost of Perfection, 43–52.

[7] Coakley, God, Sexuality and the Self, 341. 

[8] “To approve falsehood instead of truth so as to err in spite of himself, and not to be able to refrain from the works of lust because of the pain involved in breaking away from fleshly bonds: these do not belong to the nature of man as he was created before the fall. They are the penalty of man as now condemned by original sin.” Augustine, On Free Will, 202.

[9] Mat 19:4-5.

[10] Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Beatitudes, quoted in Pelikan, Christianity and Classical Culture, 323.

[11] Gregory of Nyssa, Commentary on the Song of Songs, quoted in Pelikan, Christianity and Classical Culture, 312. 14.

[12] Ibid, 321. 

[13] Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection, quoted in Pelikan, Christianity and Classical Culture, 325. 

[14] Irigaray, “Questions to Emmanuel Lévinas: On the Divinity of Love,” 111.

[15] Coakley, God, Sexuality and the Self, 309–10.

[16] Ibid, 331.

[17] John 17:23a.