Is sex a spiritual thing? longer version

Many of us are inclined to rebel when someone tells us what to do. We do not always take kindly to being told what is right and wrong behaviour. However, ethical living is part of spiritual healing according to the world’s spiritual traditions. That following a set of rules of conduct is conducive to spiritual growth. How does this apply to sexual relationships?


People may not be concerned about the rights and wrongs of sexual behaviour. They ask:

  • “Isn’t sex a basic drive that needs to be satisfied, just like hunger and thirst?”
  • “Isn’t sexual expression one of our inherent freedoms?”
  • “Isn’t sexuality a way of expressing our unique individuality?”

To answer “yes” to these questions may be correct for some but it is to miss a spiritual principle, for it ignores the idea of a growing union of mature love between two people. There are many reasons for coldness developing between a couple but one of the most damaging tends to be the sense of hurt and distrust in one partner caused by the other becoming sexually drawn to another person.

In Britain these days, people tend to speak as if it were tolerable to have more than one sexual partner as long as you do not deceive anyone. Consequently, a few people have a so-called `open’ relationship. More common is an apparent social norm of `serial monogamy’. In line with this view, one should finish a sexual relationship before taking up with someone else. However many people in a relationship seem to be vulnerable to sexual wandering. A casual attitude to sex can lead us to make light of any indiscretions.

A lot of things in life particularly in the mass media seem to have become sexualised these days – from small girls clothes to cars and even chocolate. It has been suggested that a casual attitude to infidelity can develop as one starts to watch extra-marital passions on TV or at the cinema. It also grows if we linger on the pages of a magazine with sexually provocative advertising, if we fixedly gaze at the figure of an attractive man or woman in a way that arouses sexual feelings or if we engage in any sexual fantasy not involving our partner. I would suggest that people more at risk are those without an interest in any productive activity such as study or business. This can result in a wandering desire. With nothing else to absorb our interest, it is perhaps only natural that our thoughts might turn to sex! But:

“I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
(Matt 5:28)

“Right action is to abstain from sexual lust”
(The Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism)

Noticing an attractive person other than one’s lover is naturally likely to happen most of the time. I would argue one can appreciate good physical looks while at the same time respecting the person. However, there are increasing degrees of disloyalty – for example flirting, spending time with this other person, sharing intimate confidences, lingering kissing or embracing as part of social greetings and farewells, not to mention engaging in physical intimacies when alone together.

Mature Love

Young adults tend to fall in love. Sometimes this is falling in love with love – romanticising the other person, as the embodiment of all we consider to be ideal. Sometimes this is called the `halo’ effect when we notice just one aspect of the other person that particularly appeals such as their bravery or kind-heartedness and become enamoured with just that one aspect regardless of their other characteristics. Sometimes our infatuation is really all about physical attraction, or the perceived glamour, power or wealth of the other person.

We might possibly be trying to fill loneliness or an emotional vacuum with a love relationship. Some psychotherapists have written about this kind of immature love. They say this follows the principle “I love because I am loved.” “ I love you because I need you.” On the other hand they say that mature love follows the principle `I am loved because I love,” “I need you because I love you.”

In addition to giving, mature love implies other basic elements such as concern for the life and growth of the other, responding to their needs, respect for their uniqueness, seeing them as they really are and helping them to grow and unfold in their own ways, for their own sake and not for serving oneself. Seeing one’s partner accurately is possible only when one transcends one’s self-concern and needs, seeing  the other person in the other’s own terms. One needs to listen and to enter and become familiar with the private world of the lover, to live in the other’s life and sense his or her meanings and experiences.

I believe the union of mature love preserves our integrity and paradoxically our individuality. When in intimate love two beings become one in heart and mind, Swedenborg calls it a state of `conjugial love’. By this, he partly means a deeper level of love in which the couple have grown closely together in mutual trust and affection.

Sexually Loving Only One Other Person

We can compare an interest in having more than one sexual relationship with having a desire for intimacy with only one lover. We can distinguish between love of the opposite sex and intimate love of one person of the opposite sex – between on the one hand a roving desire with on the other an exclusive commitment. The latter is a chaste kind of attitude. Chastity is a somewhat antiquated term in today’s world. However, it conveys a sense of purity, innocence, and decency with respect to sexual partnership. It also unfortunately has a connotation of not letting oneself have any fun, and of prudishness, but this is not what Swedenborg means by the word. A chaste attitude for him is not to be confused with sexual abstinence. Rather it is primarily concerned with what is going on in a person’s heart and mind – with the purity and cleanness of a person’s feelings and thoughts. A chaste attitude is a deep desire for a one to one relationship solely with one other person.

In other words, sexual desire is not an unchaste thing in itself. However relationships of a sexual nature with someone other than one’s spouse involves a disregard of the trust and intimacy that has been shared in marriage that is extremely hurtful to the innocent partner. The idea of extra-marital relationships is sometimes softened to such terms as: `fooling around’, `sleeping around’, `flings’, `affairs’ and `dalliances’; suggesting that infidelity can be guilt free and harms no one. If people are not looking for a conjugial relationship, then it is possible to understand how they might come to believe in the myth that extra-marital relationships are harmless.

Conjugial love 

The aim within conjugial love is a closer linking of minds and profound linking of lives in intimate friendship and love – the essence of a harmonious long-lasting personal and valued sexual relationship. On the other hand using another person as a sex object demonstrates a complete lack of true caring. It is not showing love to someone as a person, but simply using their body as a source of excitement, physical pleasure and perhaps conquest. Why cause hurt to one’s partner by carrying on with someone else? Loose sexual conduct is likely to tie in with self-justification and a lack of interest in the spiritual healing dynamic of conjugial love.

According to Swedenborg the origin of conjugial love is spiritual. The conjugial state mirrors the state that Swedenborg terms, the `heavenly marriage’ within a person. This is a harmony between feeling and ideas when a desire for what is good matches a wise thought. These do not harmonise for example when we are feeling resentful towards a workmate whilst realising we are being unfair. Another example is blaming a neighbour for a problem in the garden when one knows this to be unjustified. The spiritual state of the heavenly marriage can be present within even a single person who has no close relationships for this is the basis of finding the meaning of life. Such a person would be ready to receive the spirit of conjugial love if a suitable partner becomes available.


Much controversy surrounds the subject of male and female gender roles. I believe neither sex is superior to the other – just different. Modern feminism is less concerned these days about proving women can do what men can do. Instead, it places more emphasis on feminine values and interests. We do well what we are interested in. This might be successfully helping to create a collaborative mood within a professional meeting or calm atmosphere within the home. Women tend to give importance to feelings and relationship whereas men tend to act in terms of rules, and what they judge to be right.

Thus the sexes complement each other according to their tendency to have different interests or as Swedenborg would say what they each love.

An objective stance is thinking about the external aspect of things whereas a subjective one is seeing things from a personal angle. Men have no exclusive hold over objectivity in their thinking but they tend to be more interested in this stance than women. Neither have women any exclusive orientation towards subjectivity but they have a tendency to be drawn to this approach than men.  In common parlance we speak of feminine intuition.


In my view these differences are the basic reason why an erotic interest usually develops between the sexes; why male and female get together. They say opposites attract. When a man and woman are in harmony as to what they think and feel, do and say, then a conjugial partnership can potentially be formed. Each partner can develop to be a different side of the same coin; growing together they may become as one. The husband tends to love having ideas, ideals and projects to accomplish, whilst his wife tends to love nurturing and embodying them in their relationships together and with others.

Each individual sees their happiness in the life of their partnership. When the couple are devoted to each other and growing together spiritually, they increasingly act as together as one unit – they are working in harmony and finding spiritual healing. Seeing their ideas and feelings reflected in each other they are then drawn away from self-orientation. As far as their ideas and feelings are good, they receive heavenly innocence, peace, and tranquillity.

“Conjugial love is directed to and shared with one person of the other sex. Love directed to and shared with several persons is natural love, for man has this in common with animals and birds, which are natural creatures. But conjugial love is spiritual, special and proper to human beings, because human beings were created, and are therefore born, to become spiritual”.

(Swedenborg. Conjugial Love: section 48)

Extracted from the book Heart, Head and Hands by Stephen Russell-Lacy


A Sermon by Rev. Brian W. Keith
Preached in Glenview, Illinois, September 28, 1986

“If you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23,24).

Our life consists of routines – patterns which govern much of our conscious existence. While some are ruts from which we would love to break out, most of our routines were consciously chosen for good reasons. If our wake-up routines are disturbed, we are likely to emerge from the house unshaven, or with unusual clothing combinations. If we had no set pattern for going about our daily chores, either at work or at home, we would accomplish far less. And our interactions with others are governed by the dictates of politeness and common courtesy. These kinds of patterns enable us to expend the minimum amount of energy and focus upon what is important.

Unfortunately, such routines can also be used to avoid facing unpleasant situations. What happens when a friend makes a critical comment that we take personally, or the extra effort we put into a project is ignored? Our tendency may be to ignore the offense. We may be bothered, but we try to forget and get on with our lives.

If it is a minor problem, or something so out of the ordinary that it will not recur, we probably can just forget about it – write it off to someone’s having a bad day, or our being overly sensitive. We know that to raise the issue will only cause pain and not produce any good. This appears to be the reason why the Lord was silent when falsely accused (see Matt. 27:12-14). He knew that nothing He could say would change their minds, and words spoken in frustration and anger would certainly not be of any use to them.

But often when we attempt to just ignore the hurt, we hang onto it. We keep it inside and let it seethe and bubble just beneath the surface. It may be the co-worker who takes the Lord’s name in vain. We may try to ignore it, for fear of appearing too good, or because we do not want to cause trouble. But it keeps bothering us. It grates and increases our overall irritability. Perhaps we cannot identify it as the source, but we may find ourselves with a shorter temper and more prone to feel bad about how the day has gone.

This seems to be the state that the Lord was addressing when He told people to leave their gift before the altar and work things out with their brothers. People of that time could think they were fulfilling all their religious obligations by obeying certain laws and regularly offering sacrifices. The Lord pointed out that just going through the motions when there is an inner turmoil is not acceptable. Gifts to the Lord are not received from someone who is agitated and angry at others. When there is conflict between us and another, the Lord would have us face the situation and deal with it rather than let it be a source of continuing upset. For pretending a problem does not exist rarely makes it go away. In fact, it usually complicates the problem, making it more difficult to resolve later.

When someone has hurt our feelings and we try to hide it, we will more than likely wind up complaining to friends. Their willingness to listen will probably encourage our sense of injustice, and magnify the irritation and anger. Then we will see more and more what is wrong with the person who has offended us, and be looking for ways to even the score.

“But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matt. 5:39). Obviously the Lord does not intend us to invite attack and abuse (see AE 556:8). What He does want is for us to refrain from responding in anger and with revenge. When we are hurting, it seems to be so easy and satisfying to hurt others, but nothing good comes of it. Evil for evil does not lead to good. The Lord would have us leave our gifts before the altar and reconcile things with our brothers.

When we have been hurt and seek reconciliation, the first step is looking at ourselves. The Lord said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:10). There is no blessing in being persecuted as an end in itself, but only if it is for righteousness’ sake. When we are criticized, has there been a good reason for it? Has the complaint against us been valid? In the heat of indignation we tend not to admit any guilt. And if we torment our minds with the cruelty of it, we will find even more reasons to deny any fault on our part. But how often are we entirely innocent, entirely without fault? Like any argument, rarely was it started or continued by just one.

Beyond being hurt by criticism, we have to look at ourselves whenever we feel pain. We can unconsciously place ourselves in positions where we are likely to get hurt. One of the great tragedies of alcoholism is that the spouse or close friends of the alcoholic often aid and abet the disease. Yes, they get hurt by the unkept promises, the lies, the degenerating behavior. But their denial of the problem prevents treatment, the hope of recovery, and they often welcome the pain as a perverse kind of punishment for their own sense of guilt.

Reconciliation begins by looking at ourselves first, for that puts us into the proper frame of mind. We should first remove the plank from our own eyes before we can see to remove the speck from our brother’s (Matt. 7:5). If we approach someone in anger, then he will not be able to hear us – he will be too busy defending himself. Our words will not be of use unless they come from love and are spoken in charity. Reconciliation requires that we shun anger, hatred, and revenge (see Life 73). These must be removed from our minds before there is any feeling of love or concern for others (see AE 746:19).

In a sense, what is required is agreement. “Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him . . . ” (Matt. 5:25). Seeking for what agrees means looking for truth in the criticism. Perhaps what was said or done was, at least in some measure, deserved. If we can remove ourselves from the situation and try to be objective about ourselves, we can often prosper from criticism. One of the uses of the evil spirits in the other world is to draw out what is hellish in others so they might see it and shun it. When they attack someone, their intent is to harm, but it can be turned to good by the Lord.

Along the same lines, Swedenborg was once accosted by some who said there was nothing but evil in him (see AC 10808). Apparently their intent was to drive him away. “But it was given me to reply that I well know that such is the case…… Imagine their surprise when he agreed with them! He could have taken it personally and been offended. Instead he used it as an occasion for instruction. By his agreeing with them, their desire to hurt was deflected, and no harm was done.

Then, after looking at oneself, reconciliation requires confrontation. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother” (Matt. 18:15). Rather than keep it inside, letting anger build, talk to the person. For change cannot come about unless there is knowledge that it is needed.

Certainly if we were doing something that bothered others, we would appreciate knowing it. If a joke went too far, or if we are not allowing others to finish their stories, we need to be made aware of it so that we can stop. So if we are offended, we are to go to that person, privately, and explain. It has to be done with love, not anger. But if the person really is a brother, meaning he has a love of what is good, then the truth will provide him with a grasp of what was wrong and how to change (see AC 9088:2; AE 746:15).

This does not mean that when we first describe the wrong to someone that person will welcome the news. Would we? It is very difficult to hear that we have a problem. At first there often is denial, so the Lord suggests taking others to speak with the person. This could be done in some situations. But the point is that major change does not occur suddenly, so it takes many confirmations for the knowledge to firmly take hold. Married couples can be working on aspects of their relationship for long periods of time before changes occur. It takes repeated experiences of pain and reconciliation for behaviors to permanently change (which is one of the values of thinking of marriage as an eternally evolving relationship).

The goal is, of course, to regain one’s brother – to have peaceful relationships with others. But this goal cannot always be met. Reconciliation will not always produce harmony. This the Lord recognizes, for if someone refuses to listen, He said, “let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17). To be a heathen or tax collector was to be repulsive, to be avoided at all costs.

Where efforts to work out differences fail, and when it is possible to avoid the person, it is a wise course to follow. When the Lord was traveling to Jerusalem, a Samaritan village refused to receive Him. The disciples James and John were angered and wanted fire to rain down upon them. But the Lord rebuked them, and they went to another village (see Luke 9:51-56).

We cannot get along with everyone. In the Lord’s house there are many mansions. Different personalities, attitudes, and values cause spiritual distance to occur. Charity is sometimes exercised by avoiding people with whom full reconciliation is not possible.

This does not mean that we turn away in anger or judgment. The Lord said, “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). Love, bless, do good to, and pray for – quite a challenge! We cannot change others but we can control how we think of them – we can change ourselves. Regardless of the wrong others may do to us, we cannot let them be the cause of the growth of hell within us. When we hate in response, we harm only ourselves. The heavenly state to which the Lord is leading is far removed from such feelings, for the doctrines of the New Church state that angels “are in the continual desire of doing good to others, because this is the delight of their life; and therefore as soon as there is any opportunity, they do good both to foes and to friends . . . ” (AC 8223:2).

To be reconciled with others means to allow the Lord to bring peace into our lives. If we always remember that there is good in others, even if we do not see it, we cannot be harmed by their actions (see AE 644:23). If we strive to feel love for others, wish blessings for them, look for what good we may do, and above all, pray for them, then there is no conflict between us and what is good. For we will not be able to hate or stay angry if we sincerely pray for the good of others.

Then we will be reconciled with the good in our brothers. Then there will be no cause for hard feelings or vengeful actions. Then we can return to the altar. We can raise up our gifts, our hearts and minds, and they will be acceptable to the Lord. Amen.

Lessons: Matthew 5:38-48, Luke 9:51-56, AC 9088:2

Arcana Coelestia 9088:2

[2] The case herein is this. If good or truth is being perverted by means of falsity, then that which has been perverted must be amended by means of truth; within the church by means of truth from the Word, or from doctrine which is from the Word. The reason why this must he so, is that truth teaches what is evil and what is false, and in this way the man sees and acknowledges it; and when he sees and acknowledges, he can then be amended. For the Lord flows into those things in man which the man knows; but not into those things which be does not know; and therefore He does not amend what is evil or what is false until the man has been instructed that it is evil or false. From this it is that those who do the work of repentance must see and acknowledge their evils, and thus live a life of truth (see n. 8388-8392).

The case is the same with purifications from the evils of the love of self and the love of the world. Purifications from these loves cannot possibly he effected except by means of the truths of faith, because these teach that all concupiscences are from these loves. It was for this reason that among the Israelitish and Jewish nation circumcision was performed by means of a knife of stone; for “circumcision” signified purification from these filthy loves; and the knife of stone” by which it was performed signified the truth of faith (n. 2799, 7044). Moreover man is regenerated by means of the truths of faith (n. 8635-8610, 8772). This was signified by the “washings,” whereby in olden time they were cleansed. The same is also signified at this day by the waters of baptism, for “waters” signify the truths of faith by means of which evils are removed (n. 739, 2702, 3058, 3121, 1976, 7307, 8568), and “baptism” signifies regeneration (n. 4255, 5120).