What is love? Fifty Shades, BDSM, and the Bible

If you’ve been on the Internet lately, more than likely you’ve seen the torrent of blog posts and magazine articles about Fifty Shades of Grey, the movie coming out in theaters this Valentines Day weekend. You’re probably sick of hearing about it and the book it’s based on and how not only are they straight-up porn, they also glorify abuse of all kinds: physical, sexual, emotional, etc.

You’re sick of hearing about it, so let me begin by saying this post is not really about Fifty Shades. This post is about the definition of love, how much Fifty Shades and the BDSM culture it promotes have twisted the definition, and in contrast how the Bible defines love. 

I’m not writing this to be preachy, to crack the Bible over people’s heads, or to incriminate people who read or watch Fifty Shades. I’m not picking fights. My only hope in writing this is that people will carefully consider a) their own definitions of love and b) whether or not the Bible’s definition is preferable.

What is love? Haddaway sings in his 1993 single. Baby, don’t hurt me / don’t hurt me, no more.

That may be the closest pop culture ever got to a positive definition: it follows logic to say if you love someone, you won’t hurt them. But shouldn’t you also do something for them? And how does this work for the average Joe?

Chick flicks, romantic comedies—they’re chockfull of grand gestures, but what about the person who doesn’t make six figures and live in a three-bedroom apartment across the street from Central Park? What about the man working nights at the plastic bag factory in middle-of-nowhere Indiana who hardly sees his wife because she works days at the local grocery store? How does he demonstrate love with limited funds in his bank account and limited time on his hands?

For some reason, I don’t think you’d suggest he tie his wife to a bedpost and beat her with a cat-o-nine-tails. I don’t think you’d advise him to spend their little time together humiliating and dominating her.

But that’s what Fifty Shades of Gray and BDSM culture suggest.

Without going into fine detail, this is what BDSM is about: bondage, dominance, sadism, and masochism. If you don’t know what the first two mean, use the dictionary and your imagination.

Sadism is defined as the tendency to derive pleasure, especially sexual gratification, from inflicting pain, suffering, or humiliation on others. Short definition: deliberate cruelty.

Masochism is the other side: the tendency to derive pleasure, especially sexual gratification, from one’s own pain or humiliation.

In these interactions, the sadist dominates while the masochist is in bondage. It’s an abusive situation which neither side recognizes as abusive because their sex drives have been perverted, driven off course. What was meant to be a good thing—sex—has been twisted into something harmful. And because our world calls sex love, bondage and dominance are declared legitimate ways of demonstrating love.

What does the Bible have to do with this?

Besides saying that God is love (1 John 4:8) and God demonstrated his love toward us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8), a whole heck of a lot.

In defense of Fifty Shades as both book and movie, people have declared that the Bible is also full of violence—and they’re absolutely right. The Bible tells of more battles and brutality and death than you might expect from the Good Book.

But the Bible isn’t just a collection of stories. In its entirety, the Bible—beginning in Genesis, ending in Revelation—tells the story of God’s love for His creation. In the beginning, at creation, God calls everything He made good and when He creates Eve to accompany Adam, He says it is very good. It’s not until sin enters the world that things get ugly and murder, lust, war, promiscuity run rampant.

Everything recorded after the Fall serves at least one of two purposes: to demonstrate man’s brokenness and sin’s ruin or to detail and record God’s action to bring redemption. Mankind is shown in bondage to sin, and God’s ongoing mission—symbolized through Israel’s exodus from slavery in Egypt—is to free mankind from that bondage and bring humanity back into a right relationship with Him (John 3:16).

Just from the Bible’s overall arc, it’s clear the biblical definition of love is nothing like BDSM culture. It’s even more obvious when you go to passages specifically about love. We’ll start with the most predictable, 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a (ESV):

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

Dwell on that for a bit. Love does not insist on its own way. Seems like domination and sadism are out of the question—entirely antithetical to this definition.

Now let’s back up to the Gospels. In the book of John, in the hours leading up to Jesus’ arrest and execution, it says Jesus loved His disciples to the end (John 13:1). The passages immediately following that verse are almost solid red—the words of Christ. He’s preparing His disciples for what’s about to happen and the verse that really gives it away is John 15:13:

Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

Now, if you take this verse out of context, it can sound a lot like masochism, but if you understand it within the narrative of the biblical story, you realize Jesus is talking about the ultimate commitment to those He loves and, ultimately, His impending death when, as the righteous Son of God, He would take the penalty for the sins of the whole world—including those of His disciples.

Jesus saying this is the same as you telling your best friend you’d take a bullet for them. It doesn’t mean you’re going to be the target when they go to the shooting range—it means if someone were to threaten their life, you would offer to take their place. The ultimate commitment. The ultimate love.

But here we’re back to grand gestures, extreme circumstances. What about everyday life? The average Joe?

Check out Romans 13:10 (KJV):

Love works no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

In this context, the law refers to the Ten Commandments, so if you’re looking for practical ways to love, obey the commandments. Or if you can’t remember the commandments, just love your neighbor. The key is to love them as yourself (Matt. 22:39), what was once known as the Golden Rule.

And another key verse (though the whole book is worthwhile if you want a quick, thought-provoking read), 1 John 4:18a:

There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear: because fear has torment.

BDSM better hit the road, because humiliation—whether or not someone feels sexually gratified by it—is a kind of torment, and torment has no place with love.

This is all very nice. Love is a way of dealing with your neighbors and your friends and God, but what about love between a man and a woman? What about where sex is involved? What does the Bible say about that?

Again, more than you would expect from the Good Book.

I already mentioned how when God made Eve to accompany Adam, He called His creation very good. We all know that didn’t last very long: Eve failed the forbidden fruit test and Adam came a tumbling after.

As soon as sin entered, their relationship not only with God but also with each other was corrupted. When God confronts the man about his sin, Adam—who not long before had called Eve bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh, loving her as himself—blames Eve for his sin and fails to offer himself in her place. Eve was a gift to Adam, but Adam didn’t treasure her as such. You can almost hear him asking God to take another rib, give it another go.

Three chapters into God’s narrative, His greatest creation has the opportunity to demonstrate the image of God that was placed within him, but succumbing to sin, Adam squanders this opportunity and chooses selfishness and self-righteousness instead.

And since then, that’s what we, humanity, have done. In the name of love, we decide to hurt those who truly care for us and chase our own desires, our own dreams, and our own ideas of what will bring us happiness, fulfillment, and pleasure. We put ourselves before everyone else, chasing careers, accomplishments, fairy tale fantasies, and putting others on the altar rather than sacrificing ourselves and our dreams for the good of those around us.

What is love? Baby, don’t hurt me. And don’t get in my way, either. Adam, in the moment of confrontation, could have written that song.

But there’s no way he could have written the Song of Solomon.

One of the most perplexing books of the Bible (especially when read early in the morning for personal devotions), Song of Solomon tells the story of two lovers who demonstrate God’s vision for marriage.

A poetic book, Song of Solomon contains analogies that make little obvious sense to the twenty-first century reader, but even so the meaning is clear: when the bridegroom says, As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters, and refers to his bride as my fair one, my dove, it’s clear he treasures her—he would never think of harming her in any way. The same is understood of the bride, who also speaks of their mutual belonging (I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine). One is not possessed or dominated by the other. They are in a relationship bound by respect, yet another display of love.

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul directs husbands to be the opposite of Adam and align themselves with Christ:

Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church and gave himself for it . . . So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourishes and cherishes it, even as the Lord the church (Eph. 5:25, 28-29).

Tying his wife to a bedpost and scourging her with a whip is not an option for a truly loving husband, and to take joy in being humiliated like that is the same as rejoicing in wrongdoing—something we saw earlier that love does not do.

But the Bible doesn’t just define love differently from BDSM culture. It contains strong words regarding those who would tout BDSM as harmless. Take note:

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth (2 Tim. 3:1-7).

Always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. I don’t know about you, but the thought of being incapable of knowing truth is terrifying. If I can know anything, I want to know truth. I don’t want to quench my thirst for information without learning something meaningful. I don’t want to memorize Scripture passages and have no idea what they mean for my life.

To me, it’s purely logical that BDSM is not love. Coupling sex with abuse—even if both sides have agreed to it—does not make abuse love.

But to many, logic doesn’t cut it. They’re bound to this addiction, these acts of humiliation and being humiliated. They claim this isn’t a cut-and-dry, black-and-white issue—it’s a gray area. Many shades of gray. The Bible—that ancient book doesn’t apply to this. There are nuances and shifting shadows. The world has changed.

They’re right: the world has changed. But I think we’d be in a better place if we at least stuck with Haddaway’s definition:

What is love? Baby, don’t hurt me.

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