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The false gospel of side-hugs

Let’s be honest. Christian culture can often be an easy target for mockery. Some of the books, seminars, conferences, hashtags, and celebrity personalities, seem to set themselves up for ridicule (especially by those not on the "inside" of Christian culture). My research uncovered a pile of anecdotes resulting from emerging adults’ encounters with purity culture and the canon of resources that are still being produced to this day. With everything from the dangerous to the cheesy, my participants winced while relaying being taught "modesty cheers" like:

"2, 4, 6, 8, - Girls do not initiate!"

But what I also found was that, while it was easy to bemoan everything wrong with how we have discipled young people about intimacy, it is another thing entirely to figure out what is missing and how to recover it. If the point is not to perfect your side-hug form, then what do we need? I have been offering up that the gospel is this missing foundation that needs to be recovered, but what do the gospel and intimacy have to do with each other and how does that indict our attempts at discipling emerging adults about intimacy?

Let's look back so that we can go forward. Remember when we were talking about the gospel, and I mentioned 5 gospel truths?


No worries. Here is a recap:

1. The Triune God is the origin and initiator of the gospel

2. The gospel is primary

3. The gospel is about bonds and separation

4. The gospel is relational

5. The gospel is the already but not yet

We broke these down and got a good picture of the gospel of Christ in all of its timeless, relational, essential, glory. If you consider yourself a Christian (and you are still reading this) you might be thinking, "Sure. The gospel is a pretty big deal. Kinda the fundamental truth of our whole faith. But what does this have to do with intimacy?"

I'm so glad you asked.

As we look for a theology of intimacy, some things began to emerge that felt a little, well, familiar. In fact, these five truths about intimacy surfaced:

1. The Triune God is the origin and initiator of all intimacy

2. Intimacy is primary

3. Intimacy is about bonds and separation

4. Intimacy is relational

5. Intimacy exists in the already but not yet

Before we unpack the incredible significance of this connection between intimacy and the gospel, let's look a little closer at what we mean by these five truths:

The Triune God is the origin and initiator of all intimacy - we cannot define intimacy without the Trinity

If we were to do a word-association exercise where I say "intimacy" and you respond with the first word that pops into your mind, I'm betting your gut response is not going to be "the Trinity!" And if I'm right, you can just keep your real answer to yourself. I don't wanna know.

But the truth is, our first stop on this theology-of-intimacy cruise line is none other than the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If we look for the origins of intimacy, we have to go waaaay back. It is tempting to stop off in the Garden of Eden with the first naked and shameless duo. But even before creation, in the timeless forever before beginnings, intimacy lived in the heart of the three-in-one. How?

To engage the Trinity is to encounter a perfect cohesion of three distinct Persons whose internal nature and external acts are undivided. In his book, The Triune God, Fred Sanders observes: “The internal actions of the Trinity help us conceive of God in himself as the living and active God, not as a God waiting for a created, historical stage on which to be living and active. They enable a confession of dynamism as part of the divine life.”[1] He goes on to explain that the intimacy of the Trinity is not static but dynamic in that it is constantly, and

from before the beginning of time, generating and producing. “Anchoring the livingness and activity of God in eternal generation [of the Son] and eternal spiration [of the Spirit], Trinitarianism has the necessary resources to declare the external works of the Trinity as undivided.”[2] Let's face it, we don't know much about the eternal world that pre-existed time and creation. But even our fundamental knowledge of the Trinity, revealed to us in Scripture and tradition, show us that intimacy existed because of the dynamic, relational, identity of the Trinity.

Sanders notes that one must begin with the self-sufficient intimacy and love of the Trinity that existed before creation to discern the internal life of the Trinity and its overflow into the life of all creation. “Although the doctrine of the Trinity gives rise to an experience of God, it does not derive from an experience of God; Trinity grounds experience rather than vice versa. It has to be carefully taught.”[3] What then is the grounding attribute of the triune God that informs a theology of intimacy? Sanders delves into the “happy land of the Trinity above worlds” in his book The Deep Things of God and calls us to “rejoice in the sheer reality of who God essentially is.”[4] Sanders notes:

To recognize this is to come face-to-face with the final foundation of all God’s ways and works. And when we have carried out the thought experiment of thinking away everything we can (both redemption and creation), leaves nothing but God, we are not left with a formless and solitary divine blur. Instead we confess that God exists essentially and eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Christians have much to say about grace. But the ground of grace is God’s absolute triune self-sufficiency.[5]

This timeless, dynamic, self-sufficiency of love and intimacy is the foundation for discerning how the Trinity impacts our understanding of intimacy in relationships. Instead of beginning with need and lack, the triune God lives in a “happy land” of abundance that defines the generation and spiration that results and engages with creation. So, when we look for the origins of intimacy, we have found them in the Trinity. The implications of this reality are MASSIVE, but ones that we will save for later.

Intimacy is primary - starts at the beginning of life

When do we begin to crave intimacy? What are our first experiences of human connection? Dr. John Bowlby was the first to study Attachment Theory which helps us understand our first and most formative relationships.[6] To date, Attachment Theory is widely studied and helps us navigate the repair and ruptures of human connection. But Attachment theory also affirms that intimate attachments begin from the earliest moments we enter the world and even from inside the womb.[7] This is important to understand for two reasons. First, there is very little that is common to all humans, no matter when they were born, where they were born, their ethnicity, family, culture, geography, or resources. In fact, the mere correlation between both our need for the gospel and our need for intimacy being universal to all humanity is staggering and worthy of our attention. Second, the fact that our need for the gospel and intimacy is not just universal to all humanity, but primary in that it starts at our very beginning, is also significant. Whatever God is doing with intimacy and the gospel, they are by design essential, universal, and fixed in what it means to be human.

Think about this ...

Your desire for companionship, touch, conversation, connection, partnership, intimacy, and shared experiences didn't start with puberty or Disney. You have ALWAYS been built to crave and go after relationships. It began with your parents and continues to evolve throughout your life. This should be our first inkling that when we have that youth group "talk" about intimacy, we are not simply addressing a timely situation, but a timeless one gifted to us by God. And we can't just reduce it to sex-positivity. Saying that God delights in how we were made for sex or whatever, does not really cover what it means for intimacy to start when we start.

Intimacy is about bonds and separation

This one might seem like a no-brainer, right? I mean, isn't this almost the definition of intimacy? While it might seem a bit obvious, it is still important to make this point for a few reasons. First, it is just another way we see how indelibly connected intimacy is to the gospel. I might be belaboring how inseparably ride-or-die these two are, but in a theological world where we continually unmoor these two and treat them separately in sermons, books, and discipleship, it bears repeating: the gospel and intimacy are kind of a big deal.

The next reason this is important is because intimacy is not all that we think it should be. In fact, we are facing a significant modern trend where the places we are supposed to find the deepest connection and intimacy are being intentionally replaced with isolation and detachment. In her book, The End of Sex, Donna Freitas studies college-aged students and their sexual practices. She is an expert on "hook-up culture" and demonstrates how sex has become an act requiring ambivalence and invulnerability. Freitas explains that intimacy is being replaced with a narrative of isolation and detachment.[8]

This does not however, mean that people are disconnected from experiencing change that is forming them through their habits and practices. Chronic engagement in these "casual" practices and narratives are still forming emerging adults whether they know it or not. This pervasive problem is reforming the central identity, relationship, and product of human faith, life, and practice. As James K. A. Smith notes in his book You are What You Love, what we love “orients us toward some ultimate end or telos,”[9] and our loves are shaped by “imitation” and “practice.”[10] The result of isolation where there should be intimacy, as Freitas observes, reveals how both practical intimacy and one’s view of God have often become distorted.

This is reminiscent of Charles Taylor’s observation of the “buffered self” where our present age is marked by people who are “happy living for goals which are purely immanent.”[11] Taylor connects this disenchantment with “a kind of intellectual Pelagianism” where God “still plays a role” at the start of all things but then isolates Himself becoming distant and uninvolved.[12] This stands in direct contrast to Sanders’s observation about the Trinity.

This also helps us understand why so many of our relationships are unhealthy. The essential nature of the gospel and intimacy are up against cultural narratives that make it "easier" to isolate, stifle vulnerability, and cheapen any kind of intimate relationship. The gospel helps us understand this because it tells us that we live in a broken world where we have been separated from God. But we are made for intimacy and the gospel of Christ is redeeming all things so that what has been separated can be restored. Intimacy is at the heart of Christ's redeeming work of the gospel.

Intimacy is relational

Like the points made above, neither the gospel nor intimacy exists in a vacuum. To have a theology of intimacy is to study it in the context of relationship. Therefore, our study must begin with the recognition that intimacy must exist in relationship and that not all relationships are intimate. In fact, there are many kinds of relationships both in human experience and in Scripture, but not all are characterized by intimacy. Remember that favorite barista? Sure, you guys are tight but unless that chai latte comes with a copy of keys to their apartment, this is just another basic, non-intimate relationship.

C.S. Lewis assists with this distinction by describing the unbalanced exchange between a teacher and a pupil, or the like, by comparing what he calls Gift-loves and Need-loves.

God, as Creator of nature, implants in us both Gift-loves and Need-loves. The Gift-loves are natural images of Himself; proximities to Him by resemblance which are not necessarily and in all men proximities of approach. … The Need-loves, so far as I have been able to see, have no resemblance to the Love which God is. They are rather correlatives opposites; not as evil is the opposite of good, of course, but as the form of the blanc-mange is an opposite to the form of the mold.”[13]

Since the intimacy only God can give is distinct from the intimacy humans can have with each other or reciprocate to God, we define intimacy by focusing significantly on the Gift-love that creates the mold for all intimate relationships. The fact that the gospel is relational ties intimacy, once again, to the essential core of our faith. And in case you didn't catch it the first few times: THIS MAKES OUR CURRENT DISCIPLESHIP MODELS LUDICROUS. Why do we talk about relationships as if they are something OTHER THAN the gospel of Christ at work in our lives?

Whew. Deep breath.

More on this later.

Intimacy exists in the already but not yet - we can access the beauty of the kingdom through intimacy but still struggle with sin and imperfection

This ties back to those bonds and separations we were discussing earlier. I cannot stress how important it is that we understand the basics of the gospel of Christ in order to live in healthy relationships. But at the risk of being SUPER redundant, here is another way to understand it:

In his book Kingdom Come, Allen Wakabyashi does a wonderful job describing the "already and not-yet" of the gospel.[14] This is also a kind of "overlap of ages" between the first and second coming of Christ. The reality of this overlap is that:

We live in a period where both the Old Age and the Age to Come are happening at the same time. We experience the tension of this overlap all the time. Sometimes the joy of God's kingdom washes over us with such force that we cannot deny his transcendent presence with us ... Yet at other times we struggle with the realities of sin and evil in a fallen world ... The Old Age continues to plague us while the Age to Come fills our life with experiences of transcendence.[15]

Our intimate relationships are both beautiful and broken. They are fallen and redeemed, sinful and blessed. Why does this matter? Because this is the FATAL FLAW of purity culture & our current canon of content on relationships.

We want so desperately to help people have healthy relationships that we laser focus on behaviors and ideals. Purity culture wanted us to save sex until marriage and so we demonized anything that existed outside of that ideal. The ultimate sin was any kind of sexual (or sometimes even just romantic) intimacy that was outside of marriage (AKA wrong). Virginity became the single rubric and so any loss, any mistake, any ambiguous "wrongdoing" was shamed in hopes that everyone would be well behaved. But when people did make mistakes, what was our bastion of gospel hope? Repent and make sure you don't make that (or any other) mistake again.

This approach is drastically devoid of the whole gospel. It never acknowledges how we are living in the already but not-yet. It does not take into account how this reality shapes our Christian lives both in relationship with ourselves and with others. We have to lean hard into the redemptive work of Christ in order to know what to do with our relational brokenness and shame. ONLY THE GOSPEL has good news for our fallen state that is caught up in transformational, sanctifying love. Our relationships are bound up in how we live out and experience the gospel. Jesus summed up our problem with purity culture by calling out the same issue in the original purity police – the Pharisees. He warned them that cleaning the outside only (AKA just behavior modification) would not make anything pure (Matthew 23:25-6). If we simply try to help people behave better for Jesus, we have distorted the gospel and left all relationships to exist under a false gospel that leads to frustration, isolation, and despair.

This false gospel that has couched our approach to discipleship for intimate relationships is the ultimate sandy foundation for our crumbling house of purity culture and leadership. We can only clean the inside and outside of the cup if we remember that the gospel is what transforms our lives inside and out. It's time we realize that we cannot fully understand the gospel of Christ without intimacy - and that we cannot live as humans created to connect without it being fully shaped by the reality of gospel. In the next blog, we will go deeper into this truth to uncover how this is happening in our current approach to discipleship and what is at stake.

[1] Fred Sanders, The Triune God, eds. Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 132. [2] Ibid. [3] Sanders, The Triune God, 77. [4] Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God (Second Edition): How the Trinity Changes Everything (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 71.

[5] Ibid., 71-2. [6] John Bowlby, A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development (London: Basic Books, 1988). [7] Tommaso Trombetta et al., “Pre-Natal Attachment and Parent-To-Infant Attachment: A Systematic Review,” Frontiers in Psychology 12 (2021),

[8] Donna Freitas, The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture Is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2013), 10.

[9] James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016), 9.

[10] Ibid., 18. [11] James K. A. Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 44. [12] Ibid., 50.

[13] C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (San Francisco, CA: Harper One, 2017), 127-8. [14] Wakabyashi summarizes our current engagement with the Kingdom of God in this way: "So we who live between the two comings of Jesus live in the 'in-between' times, when the kingdom is 'now but not yet.' It's here in some ways, but the kingdom will only fully be here when Jesus returns in glory. The resurrection has begun in the sense that the first one has already happened in the person of Jesus. Yet the rest of the resurrection will happen only at the end when Jesus returns and the trumpet blows. The Holy Spirit has already been given to us, not as a full payment of the kingdom but as a down payment and promise to 'pay off the balance' when the kingdom arrives in its fullness at Jesus' return." Allen M. Wakabayashi, Kingdom Come: How Jesus Wants to Change the World (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Books, 2003), 77. [15] Ibid., 77-8.

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