“I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.” ~ 1 Corinthians 7:32-34
The argument is sometimes advanced today that the Christian sexual ethic was fine in its day, back when society was simpler, more rural, where opportunities were limited and lifespans were dramatically shorter. Saving sex for marriage was no big deal because you married young. Having lots of kids was no big deal because you needed many hands to run the farm, not to mention kids were your only form of Social Security (and don’t forget, infant mortality rates were high.) There was no adolescent interlude in which to “find yourself”. You were either a child or an adult, and by twenty you were managing you own household. Marriage for life wasn’t a problem because you’d be lucky to make it to 60, and if your partner was a louse, life was too busy and short to really notice. Besides, love had little to do with being married. Marriage was about staying alive and creating a village where everyone looked out for each other as a buffer for when life decided to turn on you.
But now that we live in a world that is much more cosmopolitan, urban, diverse, technological, full of abundant opportunities, and where lifespans are far longer, it’s no longer sensible to impose such an archaic moral code on everyone. Why would I marry young when college is waiting, career paths are to be explored, and a world of travel is at my fingertips? Who wants kids just yet? I’ve got lots of time to play before I need to worry about settling down. And when I do settle down, I want to give myself the best shot of being happy. Lord knows I watched my parents put each other through hell. Don’t need to go through that again! In the meantime…sex? Meh! No big deal. I can take it or leave it. I’ve got birth control and morning-after pills to cover me if I screw up when I screw around. And if all that’s too much a hassle, I know what’s just a click away. I’m good. Got my bases covered.
In other words, purity – as the Bible defines it – is an impossibility in the modern world. That’s what we’re told. And it’s a message that is sadly being absorbed today by many singles and by many young people who aspire to follow after Christ. If that’s you, I’d like to have a heart-to-heart with you right now because I understand the world you live in and the pressures you’re under.
I’d like to walk you through a few verses from a letter Paul wrote to a young church from Corinth, the Las Vegas of its time. Imagine a society where prostitution was not only legal, but was endorsed by all the religious institutions in town. No need to slink to the sleazy side of town if you were lonely. You went to any of the city’s temples, where up to a thousand prostitutes were on the city’s payroll.
No doubt, some in the church must have thought to themselves, “Purity is an impossibility in this world!”, and so they peppered Paul with a list of questions, including some concerning sex and marriage, to which he responds. His words are powerfully relevant to our age.
He says first, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: It is good for a man not the have sexual relations with a woman.” (1 Corinthians 7:1). Take this one verse all by its lonesome, you might think, “Paul has a very low view of sex and marriage.” But we know that’s not true because of what he says about marriage in other places. Later in Ephesians he will compare the union of husband and wife with the union of Christ and the Church. His view of marriage couldn’t be any higher.
So what is Paul thinking here when he says it’s good for men and women not to have sex? The immediate context surrounding this verse gives us three solid options. He could be saying:
Don’t throw your body around sexually because you’ll save yourself from a lot of harm.
As chapter seven begins, Paul has just finished warning the Corinthians about the dangers of sexual sin in the back half of chapter six. It’s eternally dangerous – the sexually immoral will not inherit the kingdom of God (6:9-10). It’s physically and emotionally dangerous – when you have sex with another person you become “one” with them (6:16-17). So you are exposing yourself to a great deal of risk on one hand (i.e. disease or pregnancy), but heart-ache as well. And finally, it’s spiritually dangerous – because our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit which Christ bought with his own death, and so we are called to honor God with our bodies (6:19-20).
As Paul moves ahead in chapter 7, the context of his thought suggests another possibility. His thought could be:
Stay single, and you’ll keep your heart from breaking by having to see loved ones suffer.
In verse 26 he says, “I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is.” We’re not told what the ‘present distress’ is. It could be persecution that Paul believes is about to break out against the church. Or some other form of serious trouble. But because hardship is looming, this might not be the best time to get married, could be his thought. (It’s a weak argument, I think, but still plausible.)
A few verses later, Paul moves on to make this argument:
People who stay single can get a lot more done for the Lord than those who are married.
In verse 32 he says, “I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.” Which is true. Paul was exhibit A of this. What he accomplished for Jesus in a twenty year span of ministry was astonishing. Three missionary journeys. Churches planted all over the Roman empire. A dozen Bible books written. By comparison, Peter, who was married, wrote two books, planted no churches, and stayed pretty much close to home in Jerusalem. There’s nothing wrong with Peter’s output or life-choices – it’s simply a goes-without-saying observation that having a family diffuses your ability to focus.
Just as Paul has a high view of marriage, he also has a high view of singleness. Single people are often on the receiving end of pressure from others to get married. “What are you going to do about your singleness?” they’ll be asked. Paul would ask a single person: “What are you going to do with your singleness?”
Whichever of the three options is the correct one, we don’t know. But the larger point he is making is this:
There is a lot more to life than sex and marriage. Sex is not the be-all and end-all of life.
You wouldn’t think that way, living back in Corinth. And you wouldn’t think that way, living in America today, where sex is arguably the greatest idol our culture bows before.
But it’s true. And if you’re young, or single, or both, try to remember this. Keep your wits about you when it comes to sex. Don’t let it consume you. Don’t listen to the language of the unbelieving culture when it refers to the sexually immoral as sexually active (so what does that make the virgin – sexually inactive? Who wants to be that?) Pastor Jack Hayford has brilliantly observed that the truly sexually active are followers of Christ striving for purity because all their vision and energy is directed towards the pursuit of noble behavior and whole-hearted love.
But let’s not run the pendulum too far out. Paul is not saying that sex and marriage are unimportant, and in the next verse he concedes the power of our sexuality. “But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” (7:2) A few verses later he adds this parallel idea. “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” (7:8-9).
Paul understands that God created us to be sexual creatures. He created us ‘male and female’. The whole package is his design. Paul knows full-well that when these passions begin to fire up inside of us, it creates longings and desires which can be very challenging to deal with. Paul uses the word “burning” to describe it.
So what are we to do about the temptations that lurk outside of us, and the desires that burn within us? Paul’s answer is short and sweet. Not: get a boyfriend or girlfriend. Not: move in with someone. Not: get yourself a friend with benefits. Not: turn to porn. His answer: Get married. Marriage is the place God ordains for the coming together of a man and woman sexually.
We may want to say to Paul here, “You just don’t understand how different 21st-century life is today. We get married much later. We live much longer. You don’t just ‘get married’. It’s not something you rush into blindly.” But I’m wondering: if Paul makes it sound so simple, maybe we’re erring on the other side. Maybe we’re making it far too complicated.
Commitment Or Compatibility: Which Is More Important?
It’s my observation as one now married more than thirty years that two things are required for a successful marriage: commitment and compatibility. But I fear that out of fear we have given compatibility far more weight than it can carry as a predictor of marital health. And if the other person doesn’t match up to the 247 items on my compatibility checklist, then I’m not walking the aisle.
Now I get it – so many grew up watching mom and dad rip each other apart, and you vowed that wouldn’t happen to you. But you’re letting fear overrule your heart. Yes, compatibility matters. But commitment matters more.
I think back to Janis and I. Were we compatible when we married? Oh, yeah. Of course. She was a Christian and so was I. We were physically attracted to each other. We loved music, she sang and I played guitar. We a…we a…we were both Americans. We a…we a…umm… loved pizza.
Truth be told, on paper, in terms of compatibility, there were really more reasons for us not to get married than to get married. If we had taken one of those compatibility tests, Christian Mingle or eHarmony would have given us our money back. Janis was 27, I was 21 – that didn’t bode well for us. I was from Iowa, she was from New York. Out yonder, in Iowa, it’s a saying, “Can anything good come from New York?” We had loads of money in the bank. Piles of dollar bills. Probably 200 of them. I was two months away from graduating from college and had just been promoted in my job. From a dishwasher to bellboy at a pancake house. We dated for maybe six months before I proposed, and had a six month engagement. This is not the stuff of marriage legends.
Yet here we are 32 years later and counting, more in love than at the beginning, hanging on tight to Jesus and to each other. Don’t misunderstand me – preparation and compatibility are important in laying a good foundation for your marriage. But when all is said and done, marriage is largely an act of faith. You join arms with a person who will change over time, as you face circumstances that will change over time, and neither of you knows all that’s coming.
If the twenty-year-old you could meet the forty-year-old you, you’d probably ask, “What the heck happened to you?” You don’t figure it all out and then get married, because it’s impossible to figure it all out. I’m so glad looking back that I didn’t journey through my twenties alone trying to ‘find myself’ first. It was much sweeter taking that journey with my babe (and I mean babe) in Christ.
I have watched couples who checked all the right boxes, and their marriage still crumbled. Even insuring that the other “is a Christian” is no guarantee of future results, because there are so many different kinds of “Christians”. Just because they sit in a pew doesn’t mean they’re mature, stable, kind, disciplined, etc. I know many non-Christians whom I’d prefer my daughter to marry over many a Christian.
It’s commitment to each other that matters most. A commitment to love, honor and cherish through thick and thin. With a commitment rooted in Jesus, you’ll likely have more than enough to navigate your way through the adventures up ahead. The Bible says, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord” (Proverbs 18:22), not “He who finds a good wife who matches all my criteria for what a wife ought to be…”
You say, “But does God really expect me to go without sex through all of high school?” Yes. And college too, if you go that route. Until you’re married. And guess what? You can do it. The world is lying to you to say you can’t do it. The world says you’re just an animal with sexual urges like every other animal. So whatever animals do, you can do. Sorry. God says you’re more than an animal. You’re created in his image. You’re a spiritual being, so you’re greater than an animal. And you can learn to control and channel your animal urges and desires. I was 21 and I had sex with a woman for the first time on my wedding night. Janis was 27. Same for her. I’m not saying it was easy. Not by a long shot. We came to our wedding day caked with dried sweat, blood and mud, looking like Katniss at the end of “Hunger Games”. But we made it, and you can too with Jesus’ help.
A Word Of Warning For The Porn-Consumer
One final note – a repeating of something I’ve alluded to before – and this is especially important for those of you who rely on pornography and masturbation as your go-to method to keep from ‘burning’: Besides the fact that you’re sinning, and you’re not any better a person than Augustine jerking off in church, you need to know that you’re wrecking the machinery that God has set up for helping you find love. Here’s a formula I want you to know:
God uses the burning to lead to a yearning which leads to
the earning of another’s hand in marriage.
You are supposed to feel the burn. You’re supposed to feel the ache in your heart for another. That longing inside of you is meant to then help you look in a different way at those around you of the opposite sex. And it’s supposed to create a magnetic draw between you. A draw which then affects the way you approach them, and treat them and talk to them. Yearnings are meant to prompt you to pursue the other with care, affection and sacrifice. It’s how love gestates inside of your heart and soul, which then breathes and grows over time until all is completed, consummated and celebrated on a marriage bed that the two of you enter, to seal your love and friendship.
That’s what’s supposed to happen. But you, my friend, are screwing this up in a way you can scarcely see, and it’s leaving you confused and empty. You think you are filled. You think you are fine. But you’ve traded in your God-given birthright for love with the cheapest of substitutes. When I hear a young man say that he isn’t ready for marriage because he’s got to “find himself” I want to throw up. He’s no Kierkegaard. The reason he needs to find himself is that he’s probably lost himself in a behavior that’s become a prison. And until he repents and learns how to feel the burn, there’ll be no moving forward in life or love.
What ideas in this reading did you find helpful or challenging?
Why do you think our culture has made sex the be-all and end-all of life?
When a couple is thinking about marriage, what points of compatibility should they be looking for?
At the end, commitment is more important than compatibility in securing a happy marriage. Do you agree with this thought? Explain your answer.
Prayer and Worship
“Father, I thank you for…”
“Father, please help me with…”
“Father, please be with…”
“In the name of Jesus, who died for my sins, who rose from the dead and who is with me now through the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Today’s Worship Suggestion: “Dancing In The Minefields” – (Andrew Peterson)
This Week’s Memory Verses
“For the grace of God has appeared bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” ~ Titus 2:11-12
“Take every thought captive to obey Christ.” ~ 2 Corinthians 10:5