Abstinence Almost Killed Me!

original photo credit: Jo Naylor via photopin cc
original photo credit: Jo Naylor via photopin cc

Just about every area of U.S. culture these days seems to be inundated with sexuality. Advertising? Saturated with sexual images. Movies? Full of steamy and explicit passion. Sports? Does the term, “wardrobe malfunction”, bring anything to mind?

I personally believe that greed is the primary factor contributing to our sexual saturation. Astute marketers in pursuit of big profits have successfully managed to manipulate our culture to the point that we cannot seem to escape this overemphasis on sex. Our entire society is paying the price.

It’s not that sex has ever been unimportant. Let’s not forget that God was the original designer of the human body. Long before the days of internet porn, the King of the Universe created us as sexual beings. Sex feels good because God made it that way. That, in itself, should tell us something.

The problem is not that God frowns upon sexual activity in principle, but that our cultural norms have transgressed the healthy boundaries designed by our Creator. A river running within its banks can provide immense pleasure and benefit, but let it overflow those boundaries and destruction of all sorts is certain.

photo credit: seanmcgrath via photopin cc
photo credit: seanmcgrath via photopin cc

The fact that Christians now live in the age of grace does not provide a license for us to live according to our world’s standards. The Bible teaches that we will reap what we sow (Galatians 6:7-9) and nowhere is this truer than in the world of eros. Can such statements be biblically supported without returning to the legalistic requirements of the Mosaic Law? Absolutely!

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” . . . So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place. The Lord God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones,
And flesh of my flesh;
She shall be called Woman,
Because she was taken out of Man.”

For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. Genesis 2:18-25 (NASB)

Thus the marriage covenant was established by God for the benefit of humanity. Unless God clearly communicates a change in His standards, His silence cannot be interpreted as an approval of our cultural standards. Only God has the authority to change a covenant He instituted (Galatians 3:15), and any such changes are clearly established in the Scriptures (e.g. from the Old Covenant to the New). Jesus Himself upheld the standard of marriage (Matthew 19:3-12), as did the Apostle Paul (Titus 1:5-6).

I argue, therefore, that sexual immorality, by New Testament definition, involves sexual activity that occurs outside of the boundaries of a marriage covenant between one man and one woman. The entire Bible has a lot to say about this issue, much of which is unpleasant at best (see http://www.openbible.info/topics/sexual_immorality).

The fact that my wife and I have been married for almost 30 years has nothing to do with my opinion on this matter. Due to our scriptural convictions, I never touched Debi inappropriately during the two years in which we dated prior to our wedding day, although, as a typical red-blooded young male, I felt at times that the abstinence was going to kill me! We understood then, and continue to agree now, that it falls upon humanity to conform itself to God’s design, not vice versa.

photo credit: Joe Hastings via photopin cc
photo credit: Joe Hastings via photopin cc

Sex dominates our culture, I’ll give you that. But sex is also sacred, established by God to celebrate the unity of covenant love in marriage. Those who use an argument of grace in an attempt to nullify God’s design open the floodgates for unclean waters to pollute and destroy the very fabric of society. Or, to use another appropriate metaphor, play with fire and you will get burned. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But the smoldering fires of sin will eventually consume everything they touch. It’s not abstinence that gives sway to death but obedience to sexual passions that lie outside of God’s design.

Have you transgressed the boundaries of God’s design for sexuality? Most of us have at one point or another, and, thankfully, forgiveness is readily available for those who are willing to humble themselves and repent. May our Lord grant us the wisdom and grace to reign over our unhealthy desires–not to indulge them!

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Do This in Remembrance of Me?

original photo credit: steakpinball via photopin cc
original photo credit: steakpinball via photopin cc

It’s easy to get confused when trying to understand how the Mosaic Law relates to the New Covenant of grace. I am intrigued by Romans 4:14-15 (NASB):

For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation.

Our initial reaction upon reading this verse might be to think that it is impossible to sin now that we are free from the requirements of the Mosaic Law. We would do well to consider the context of this passage. Paul was writing to Jews about both Jews and Gentiles, and how they were to respectively gain their right standing before God. His point was that Jews could not be justified by their age-old reliance upon obedience to the Law. This does not mean, however, that the Christian faith is entirely void of all laws.

The kingdom of God is governed by one primary law—the royal law:

 If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. James 2:8 (NASB)

Jesus raised the bar even higher in John 13:34 (NASB):

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.

City of Brotherly Love
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This is where our second Greek word for love, philia, comes into play. And in case you were wondering, this is where the name Philadelphia finds its roots as the city of brotherly love—although I’m not exactly sure how accurate that description is in our day. I’ll be perfectly honest here—the problem isn’t limited to the city of Philadelphia; I think that very, very few professing Christians pay any serious attention to Christ’s command for us to love our brothers and sisters of the faith with the same measure of love modeled by Jesus.

Why do I feel this way? Well, it may have something to do with the fact that heaping judgment and contempt on other Christians is more of a common practice than a rare exception. What we don’t seem to understand is that Jesus is personally affected by our treatment of His covenant children. (see Matthew 25:31-46). Whenever I look down my nose with contempt at one of my Christian brothers, I might as well have Jesus Himself in my sights. What a scary thought!

What happens when we transgress God’s royal law of love? We heap condemnation upon ourselves—especially when we profess our devotion to the New Covenant in Christ.

photo credit: Evan Courtney via photopin cc
photo credit: Evan Courtney via photopin cc

Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world. 1 Corinthians 11:27-32 (NASB)

Does it really matter how we treat the body of Christ–our New Covenant brothers and sisters? Absolutely! Do you truly want to honor God with your life? Let love govern your behavior–all of it.

The topic is worthy of far more time and effort than a single blog post and so I will address it with more detail in my next book. For now, however, these are essential thoughts to ponder. The King of the Universe cares more about our love—or lack thereof—for one another far more than most of us will allow ourselves to believe.

God Values Life!

photo credit: Marxchivist via photopin cc
photo credit: Marxchivist via photopin cc

The story of Noah’s ark has long been a classic Sunday school topic for children’s curriculum. There’s something really cute about the idea of Noah building a big boat and gathering a diverse array of animals on board. What isn’t cute, however, is the idea of a devastating flood killing all human and animal life apart from those on the ark. In fact, many opponents of Christianity (and Judaism) point toward the story of Noah’s ark as an example of what they see as a cruel religion.

Several things stand out to me when I read Genesis 6-9 but I would like to highlight two things in particular. The first point of notice involves the state of the earth before the deluge.

Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. The Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. The Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. . . Now the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence. God looked on the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. Genesis 6:5-8, 11-12 (NASB)

photo credit: expertinfantry via photopin cc
photo credit: expertinfantry via photopin cc

This passage explains, in human terms, how God felt about the human race at that point in time. The intent of every heart was evil and the entire world was filled with violence. When God violently flooded the Earth, He was simply giving the human race the fulfillment of its own actions—violence and destruction.

This destruction is the total opposite of God’s original design in the garden of Eden. Adam & Eve had been naked and unashamed, secure in God’s peace, and without fear of exploitation. When they chose the path of independence from God, however, everything changed—so much so that their firstborn son murdered his brother in a fit of envious rage. The level of violence only grew until God sent 40 days and 40 nights of nonstop rain.

I find it ironic that we want God to relate to us on our terms but we are repulsed when He actually does so. What we fail to see in Noah’s story is the second point I would like to highlight from Genesis 6-9: God values human life far more than most of us realize.

“Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.” Genesis 9:5-6 (NASB)

photo credit: chantel beam photography via photopin cc
photo credit: chantel beam photography via photopin cc

Human life is sacred in the eyes of God and the unjust shedding of blood deserves an appropriate form of judgment. Thus, It is entirely just for God to judge unrighteous acts of violence committed against those who have been created in His own image.

There is yet another important point to this story that we can easily miss: Getting a fresh start is not the formula for a better world. It’s like my high school friend, Chris, who always seemed to get himself in trouble. At least once a week, he was turning over a new leaf. Unfortunately, that leaf never stayed turned in the right direction!

What the human race really needs are the willingness and the ability to relate to God on His terms. Only then, will we be able to experience true peace. Before we go there, however, we need to look at one particular aspect of the Old Covenant that will help us to better understand the severe judgment seen in the Old Testament. Be sure to stay tuned!

The Rest of the Story

Man get's stoned.
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At first glance, it appears rather cruel. God had ordered some poor guy to be stoned to death simply for gathering a few sticks for firewood (Numbers 15:32-36). Could this really be the directive of a loving God? Does the God of the Old Testament have a mean streak? Or is something deeper at stake? Perhaps our understanding of this scenario leaves something to be desired.

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “But as for you, speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘You shall surely observe My sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you. Therefore you are to observe the sabbath, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall surely be put to death. So the sons of Israel shall observe the sabbath, to celebrate the sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant.’ It is a sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labor, and was refreshed.” Exodus 31:12-17 (NASB)

It is obvious from this passage that God had clearly communicated the importance of keeping the Sabbath—along with the consequences of any potential disobedience. In short, the parameters had been well established and, by choosing to ignore God’s command, this unfortunate soul hastened his own death.

But what about us? What are we to do with this “perpetual covenant”? I did a little wood working in my home a couple of Sundays ago. Should I be in fear of being stoned?

The Stone Tablets of the Ten Commandments
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The key to understanding such an extreme punishment for breaking the fourth of the Ten Commandments lies in understanding the nature of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament is full of Biblical types—people, things, or scenarios which foreshadow deeper New Covenant truths.

In this particular case, God was communicating an eternal message that no man or woman can find favor with God by attempting to work for his or her salvation. In other words, none of us can ever be saved by trying to be a good person, and anyone who attempts to meet God’s standards by self-effort will face eternal death (separation from God) as the unquestionable result.

Again, on the surface this may appear to be rather unfair, but if we can grasp the brilliant and loving nature of God’s plan, we soon recognize that no other reasonable way is possible.

Before the Sabbath command was given, ancient Israel had spent centuries in exhausting slavery in Egypt under the Pharaoh’s cruel hand. God then delivered the people by His own mighty hand. This picture represents our own slavery to sin along with the futility of attempting to deliver ourselves by our own good works. It is all very exhausting because we can never be good enough to meet the perfect standards of heaven.

In His mercy, the heavenly Father designed a plan by which the burden of perfection falls upon Christ and not upon us. You see, under the New (and better) Covenant, Jesus Christ has become our Sabbath rest. No need for perfection on our part. No need for constant striving. No need to redeem ourselves when we have failed and done wrong.

Our six days of striving under the unattainable standards of law are ended as we now find ourselves living in the seventh day of rest—finding the full confidence of our acceptance with God, not through our own efforts, but through faith in the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross.

Abiding in God’s rest does not come naturally for us since we can’t help but feel that we need to do something to gain His approval. Some Christian leaders even refuse to communicate these truths out of fear that their people will become lazy and self-absorbed. What they fail to understand is that the true Sabbath rest of the Christian faith will always result in devoted labors of love on the part of God’s people. Ours is not simply to rest from all manner of work, but to rest from an exhausting attempt to gain God’s approval through self-effort.

The Crucifixion
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The more I understand God’s plan for salvation, the more I find myself appreciating the fact that He has left us no wiggle room when it comes to obeying and enjoying His Sabbath rest. When we approach God through faith in the finished work of Jesus, the full favor of heaven smiles upon us–no matter how dark our circumstances may appear.

So there you have it—the rest of the story.

Happy or Unhappy Valley?

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The date was October 29, 2011—once memorable in college football history. Down 7-3 to the Illinois Fighting Illini, the Penn State Nittany Lions drove the ball 86 yards, enabling Joe Paterno (JoePa) to become the winningest football coach in Division I history.

On November 5, Jerry Sandusky was arrested for alleged (at the time) child molestation, some instances of which were reported to have happened on the Penn State campus. Three days later the Penn State board of trustees fired Joe Paterno for not adequately reporting a possible child molestation incident. Controversy immediately ensued with some questioning the wisdom of the university’s decision to oust the larger than life coach.

We now stand at end of July, 2012. Joe Paterno is dead as the result of lung cancer. Jerry Sandusky languishes in prison, having been convicted on 45 of 48 counts of sexual molestation. The damning investigative report by former FBI director Louis Freeh has resulted in the de-erection of Joe Paterno’s statue, as well as massive NCAA sanctions against the Penn State football program. Finally, 111 of Joe Paterno’s football victories have been erased from the record books as though they had never existed.

Photo by audreyjm529 – CC BY 2.0

In addition to being a lifelong resident of western Pennsylvania, what makes these events especially troubling for me (and many others) is all of the good that JoePa accomplished during the course of his life. This wasn’t some self-absorbed football coach determined to win regardless of the cost; Paterno set high academic standards for his players and invested millions of his own money back into the Penn State University system. He was admired by many for his integrity to the point that awards were named after the man. Whether spoken by Penn State students or national sports announcers, everything we ever heard about JoePa was good and virtuous.

It is difficult not to view the negative clamor as nothing more than a mob mentality crusade in the court of public opinion. Equally tempting is the view that the NCAA sanctions are simply a knee jerk reaction, enacted to protect their own image. After all, it wasn’t Penn State that laid out the blueprint that built Division I college football into the materialistic beast it is today. We also know that Jerry Sandusky acted alone when he committed those vile acts.

Having followed the unfolding of this distasteful affair with the interest of a Pennsylvanian, I can understand both opposing perspectives. What Sandusky did was horrible and any attempt at a cover-up should be met with clear and significant consequences. At the same time, I’m not so sure that the evidence clearly implicates Paterno.

Regardless of which perspective is more accurate, Joe Paterno’s fall from glory provides us with an unfortunate, but powerful illustration of the culpability of human sin. When Adam & Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in an attempt to be like God apart from God, they incurred a debt for the human race that could never possibly be repaid—the debt to perfection. God is perfect and all who aspire to His level are eternally damned to a never ending quest for flawlessness in any and every way.

Through that one fateful act, law was written on the human heart. Law in the form of the human conscience. Law in the form of never ending regulations utilized to govern human behavior. Law in the form of the need to always measure up to standards of perfection.

Photo by psutlt – CC BY 2.0

The book of James (2:10-11) tells us that if any one of us has broken one law, he or she has broken the entire law, because the standard of the law is nothing short of perfection. It doesn’t matter how much good I’ve done throughout the course of my life; if I murder a person, I stand condemned as a murderer, guilty of breaking the law of the state.

The irony of the Penn State situation does not go unnoticed. JoePa helped set a standard of integrity for the overall well-being of his players. He and his wife contributed so much to the success of Penn State as an academic institution. How can one act of neglect invalidate so much good? It just doesn’t seem right.

We protest as though such an unbending standard of law is unfair, but remember that law was our choice when the human race chose to go rogue, seeking independence from our Creator. Whether on the football field or in the court of public opinion, law never ceases to demand perfection.

Photo by kamalaboulhosn – CC BY-ND 2.0

Our debt to perfection has been paid because Jesus died a horrible death on a horrible cross as the perfect sacrifice for our sins (Colossians 2:8-14). In fulfilling the requirements of the Old Covenant Law, Jesus ushered in the New Covenant of grace. Whether we as individuals dwell in the Happy Valley of Grace or the Unhappy Valley of Law is now a matter of personal choice.

The Promise of His Presence

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Moses was either amazing or crazy; perhaps a little of both! The often lonely road he walked, the obstinate people he loved, his passion for righteousness—they all point toward one of the truly great figures of history. But there was something else about Moses, something upon which his entire character hinged: Moses walked with God. And not only did he walk with God, Moses refused to move forward without Him.

We’ve all heard of the Ten Commandments and most of us are familiar with the story of the golden calf from Exodus Chapter 32. While Moses was on Mount Sinai, in the very presence of God, receiving the Law, the people were plunging themselves into idolatry

Painting by Nicolas Poussin – Public Domain

by creating a golden god they could see and touch. Both God and Moses were furious, with our Creator declaring that the people were so obstinate He’d prefer to send an angel to lead them rather than go Himself. Moses would have none of that, however, and God eventually agreed (probably with a wink and a nod) to go along.

“And He said, ‘My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.’ Then he said to Him, ‘If Your presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here.’” Exodus 33:14-15 (NASB)

In other words, Moses was saying, “I’m not going anywhere without You!”

When Joshua took the reins of leadership, God powerfully promised him the following:

The Taking of Jericho by James Jacques Joseph Tissot – Public Domain

“Moses My servant is dead; now therefore arise, cross this Jordan, you and all this people, to the land which I am giving to them, to the sons of Israel. 3 Every place on which the sole of your foot treads, I have given it to you, just as I spoke to Moses . . . 5 No man will be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I have been with Moses, I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you. 6 Be strong and courageous, for you shall give this people possession of the land which I swore to their fathers to give them. Joshua 1:2-6 (NASB)

I don’t think that our God makes these types of promises because it’s a nice thing to do. Joshua was facing daunting odds and the heavenly Father lovingly instilled confidence in his trembling heart, setting the tone for the days ahead.

Today The Promise of His Presence remains but in a dimension far greater than under the Old Covenant Law. Hear what Peter spoke to the general populace on the Day of Pentecost as they responded with deep regret over the crucifixion of Christ:

“Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” Acts 2:38-39 (NASB)

Photo Courtesy of La Vista Church of Christ

The promise of God’s indwelling presence in our lives is nothing short of amazing! Under the Law, only the Jewish High Priest could access God’s presence in the temple, and only one time per year on the Day of Atonement. But when Christ died on the cross, the thick veil of the temple was literally torn in two. This meant that the average person now had access to the very presence of God, but still more importantly, that the Holy Spirit, God Himself, now had access to the average person! In short, through the grace of the New (and better) Covenant, the Creator of the universe can now dwell in the hearts of previously fallen humans. Amazing!

When I take the time to think about these things, I realize that nothing else this world can offer compares with The Promise of His Presence. Many in the early church understood this. They rejoiced when persecuted, willingly accepted the confiscation of their property, and even died brutal deaths with rejoicing in their hearts. Without question, they knew the value of the Promise; and although it was by faith, it wasn’t without a tangible relationship.

How much do we value and experience The Promise of His Presence? Methinks some changes are in order!

What Does the Bible Say?

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This blog series and the ensuing conversations have centered around the relationship between Christianity and homosexuality. We’ve had some interesting dialogue about a lot of issues, but this discussion can in no way be complete without taking into account a Biblical perspective. After all, apart from the Bible, Christianity means almost nothing.

I’ve read (and reread) passages of Scripture that deal with homosexuality. I’ve poured over commentaries and studied word meanings from the original languages. I’ve tediously worked my way through uninspiring books on the subject. I’ve visited various websites to gain additional perspective. I’ve listened to people from the gay community share their painful struggles. I’ve even turned my attention to representatives from the LGBT camp who explained what the Bible really says about homosexuality.

Because of the high stakes involved, I can’t just accept verbatim what leaders from either camp proclaim. I want to make absolutely sure that I find God’s heart on this issue.

However, the deeper I dig into the Scriptures (doing my best to allow the text to speak for itself), the more I find myself an advocate of traditional marriage. When I examine the Biblical arguments in opposition, I find generally unsound methods of interpretation.

Without going into a deeper analysis of any specific text, I want to present in a small nutshell the summation of my perspective on this critical issue.

Mankind’s relationship with God is based upon a series of covenants which only God has the authority to institute and change (Galatians 3:15). Historically, every time God made a change in covenant He communicated both the reality and the terms of that change in a very clear manner.

The Law of Moses, for example, was integral to a specific covenant between God and man. The 613 commandments found in the Law of Moses were intended to last only until the establishment of the New Covenant (unless they were somehow reaffirmed). By His lifestyle, sacrificial death, and resurrection power, Jesus fulfilled the Law and established the New Covenant. The old system of rule-based righteousness was no longer necessary. This is all quite clear in the Scriptures.

Photo by balleyne - CC BY-SA 2.0

When God created Adam, He expressed the need for man to have an intimate companion, and so He created Eve. God then established the covenant of marriage between one man and one woman (Genesis 2:24-25).

Regardless of what mankind has done through the ages, God has never changed the terms of the marriage covenant. Instead, the marriage covenant between one man and one woman is affirmed more than once under both the Old and New Covenants (Mark 10:2-9). From a Biblical perspective, sexual immorality constitutes any type of sexual activity outside of the bounds of the marriage covenant between two individuals of the opposite sex.

The Bible stands strongly against all types of sexual immorality (Hebrews 13:4), but primarily because of what it stands for. In addition to being the best design for healthy societies, the marriage covenant stands a metaphor for our union with Christ (Ephesians 5:31-32). In other words, sex is sacred because of the sacred nature of our relationship with God.

In more than one passage the Bible equates sexual immorality with idolatry. Both are violations of fidelity to unchangeable covenants—covenants established by God Himself.

Sexual purity has nothing to do with picking and choosing which of the 613 Old Covenant laws we want to enforce. Instead, the terms of our covenant relationships transcend Old Covenant law. Both idolatry and sexual immorality stand as critical issues in the New Testament as well as the Old (please read Acts 15:1-29).

I realize that this perspective is grossly out of step with our cultural norms, but I contend that our culture is accountable to God—not the other way around. We all have fallen desires, many of which are sexual; and I am so thankful for the resurrection power of the cross to help us overcome!

I once heard of sex being compared to a beautiful, majestic river. As long as that river stays within its banks, it remains an exciting source of joy and life. But if that water overflows its boundaries, the resulting devastation can be foul and deadly! By God’s wise and loving decree, the boundaries of sexual relationships are to fall within the banks of a marriage covenant between one man and one woman. We may not totally understand God’s design, but we put ourselves in grave danger trying to conform it to our desires!