The Bible is God’s inspired, infallible, and inerrant word. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work,” (2 Tim 3:16-17).
One test of whether or not we believe that verse is what we do when we encounter teachings in the Bible that strikes us as odd. Sometimes the Bible seems odd because it deals with things that seem arcane and spiritual—e.g. the dual natures of Christ. But other times the Bible seems odd because of how earthy and practical it is. For instance, we may be surprised to see how much the Bible talks with freedom and frankness about sex. But that may feel strange to you, or out of place, or even inappropriate. But the Bible is full of teaching about God’s plan for sex, the beauty of sex, and the danger of sex. For instance, the father in Proverbs has a frank discussion about the dangers of the “forbidden woman” with his son:
My son, be attentive to my wisdom; incline your ear to my understanding, 2 that you may keep discretion, and your lips may guard knowledge. 3 For the lips of a forbidden woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil, 4 but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. 5 Her feet go down to death; her steps follow the path to Sheol;. (Prov 5:1-5)
A mom was in the checkout aisle when she caught her son looking at the cover of a magazine with a scantily clad woman on it. She pulled him away from it and said: “That’s gross.” But in that moment, the son likely thought: Why does that not feel gross to me? Am I gross? Or, my mom as no idea what she is talking about. And there will slowly open up a gulf between the child and parent where they realize that mom or dad are not reliable sources to go to to explore these powerful urges and longings they have. What the mom should have said was: “That will kill you.” That’s what the father is trying to get at in Proverbs. The forbidden woman has lips of honey, she looks really good, son, but if you follow her you’ll find yourself falling into a pit of worms (see also Prov 5:7-14). But that is also only half of what the father in Proverbs says. Throughout the rest of the chapter he encourages his son to fully enjoy God’s gift of sex in marriage, to drink deeply from the fountain of pleasure that God has given in marriage.
The author of Hebrews tells us: “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous,” (Heb 13:4). Sometimes I fear that we only fixate on the second half of that verse, but fail to see the first half. We are quick to warn about sexual immorality (and we rightly should), but slower to hold marriage and the marriage bed in honor. If the church only has negative things to say about sex and sexual pleasure, then that leaves us and our children to unconsciously assume that sex is something that we need to venture into the world to learn about. If you don’t talk with your kids about sex, they will assume they need to talk with their friends or (more likely) go online, and I promise you they aren’t going to be visiting Focus on the Family’s website. God has made all of us with sexual desires and He has a lot to say about it—yes, He has lots of warnings, but also He has a wonderful design for it. The kid in the grocery aisle may need to hear: “That will kill you,” but they also need to hear, “God has something so much better than that.” That’s what we are going to be looking at today.
Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” 2 But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
6 Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. 7 I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.
8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. 9 But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
- 1 Cor 7:1-9
In the spirit of Thomas Brooks’ classic Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, let’s examine the devices Satan employs to ruin the gifts of sex, marriage, and chastity, and what remedies God gives us.
Device #1: Make Sex Look Sinful
Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” (1 Cor 7:1)
Apparently, there is a faction in the church who are claiming that all sexual activity should be forbidden. Last week we saw how there was a part of the church that were visiting prostitutes, claiming that whatever one did with the body was unimportant. Here, we have the flip opposite—a church can have many different problems at the same time. Maybe some people are seeing the sexual immorality of the rest of the church and are saying: Let’s stay as far away from that as possible. Or, given what Paul addresses in the section immediately after this, it could be that some individuals were either advocating celibacy within marriage, or abandoning your marriage entirely “for the Lord”—particularly if you were married to a non-Christian.
One of the devices that Satan uses to pervert sex is to make it look bad, gross, make it look like an opportunity for sin. A common view in the Medieval church was to teach that if married people had sex just for the joy of sex, not to bear children or avoid temptation, then that was sinful (see 1494 vernacular catechism). Jerome, the church father, created a scale of 1-100 to rate how holy you were: if you were a virgin, it was 100, if you were a widow, it was 60, and if you were married it was 30. So, naturally, this period of church history denigrated marriage. Paul addresses this problem in his letter to Timothy: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons…3 who forbid marriage,” (1 Tim 4:1, 3; cf. Col 2:23).
We tend to assume that Satan only deals in the realm of excess: gluttony, drunkenness, adultery—not discipline, self-denial, or abstinence. But have you ever considered that one device of Satan is to turn you away from pleasure? To take the good things that God has made and make them look indulgent, irresponsible, ungodly. In fact, it may be one of the most dangerous devices Satan has because it makes you think you are holy! At least the drunkard knows he is a wretch who needs help. Where Satan cannot push you into excess, he will try to pull you into asceticism.
What can this look like today in regards to sex? This may look like confusing God’s good teaching about modesty into assuming that our bodies are themselves sinful, or assuming that all of the warnings about sexual sin in the Bible means that sex and sexual pleasure itself are sinful. Or it may look like the shame of past sexual abuse translating over into assuming that sex itself is wrong.
Remedy: Sex in marriage is a way to fight sin. “But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband,” (1 Cor 7:2). Here we see the earthy wisdom of the Bible. One of the reasons we should pursue marriage is because God made us with sexual desires that naturally reach their consummation in marriage.
Now, Paul is responding to a specific circumstance in the Corinthian church, a church where there is lots of sexual immorality—so his response is negative in nature: sex in marriage is a means to guard against temptation to sexual immorality. But sex in marriage isn’t merely the extinguishing of the fires of temptation. It is more than that—it is about the connection and relationship and mutual enjoyment of the two. But, at the same time, we don’t have to be more spiritual than the Bible. One of the means of grace God has provided for us to fight against the temptation of sex outside of marriage is sex inside marriage.
This is the father’s advice to his son in Proverbs. Using water as an image of sexual gratification between a husband and wife, the father summons the son:
Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well. 16 Should your springs be scattered abroad, streams of water in the streets? 17 Let them be for yourself alone, and not for strangers with you. Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, 19 a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love. 20 Why should you be intoxicated, my son, with a forbidden woman and embrace the bosom of an adulteress? (Prov 5:15-20)
How can the young man avoid the intoxication of the adulteress? Be intoxicated with his own wife, drink deeply from the wells of sexual joy of marriage and enjoy his wife’s body. If there is any part of us that feels like it is unspiritual to say that one way a man can avoid temptation is to enjoy the breasts of his wife, but the Bible literally says that, then we need to just submit to the Bible.
If we are tempted to blush at the Bible here, we may be discovering a way we have been discipled by the world into a prudery that the Holy Spirit Himself does not recognize. There are 51 instances of the married couple in the Song of Solomon extolling and praising one another’s bodies—and that isn’t including the metaphors used. You don’t have to turn to the trashy smut of the world to find someone who is praising sexual pleasure. The young boy staring at the magazine is being tempted by curdled perversion of what real sexual joy is—and he needs to be warned! But he also needs to know that God made him, his body, and his desire that Satan may be preying on right now, and he can find better joy in God’s plan for sex.
Martin Luther taught: “God is the God of bodies.” And sex in marriage was one of God’s kindest gifts to bestow on us and so should be received with a spirit of thanksgiving, reverence, and worship—not bashfulness or shame. “Whoever is ashamed of marriage is ashamed of being human.”
Device #2: Make Sex Unenjoyable
5 Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (1 Cor 7:5)
One of the most common devices Satan uses to make sex unenjoyable in marriage is to turn it into a battle over one person insisting on their own preferences. One person wants to have sex, the other person doesn’t; there is hurt, score-keeping, entitlement, resentment, frustration, and in time coldness and distance. Eventually, one spouse feels like they must search elsewhere for the physical and emotional connection that sex in marriage should bring. And Paul again plainly teaches that if you deprive one another for long—even if it is something you both agree on!—Satan will be there, swooping in with temptation. If sex in marriage is bad, maybe sex outside of marriage will be better? If your husband is emotionally distant, what about that old friend of yours who is always willing to listen? If your wife is cold physically, why not turn to the harem of willing women on the internet who require no emotional work before they offer you their bodies?
Remedy: Find satisfaction in submitting to each other. “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does” (1 Cor 7:3-4)
Here, Paul lays down one of the most counter-cultural teachings for his time. No one would have batted an eye at Paul insisting that a husband has authority over his wife or that the husband is entitled to “conjugal rights,” but a woman having authority over her husband’s body? Asserting her own conjugal rights? That would have sounded like bizarre, hippy kind of stuff to Paul’s audience. Paul’s mutuality expressed here is unparalleled in the ancient world.
But what does this actually mean? In a way, this seems to exacerbate the problem of a disparity of sexual desires in marriage, doesn’t it? If the husband wants to have more sex than the wife, or vice versa, but each person doesn’t have authority over their own bodies, what then? Does that mean we just acquiesce to the person who wants more sex? Or does it mean the opposite? Does it mean anything? Let’s pull out a couple of points:
- On the whole, Paul thinks it is wiser for married people to be having more, not less, sex. Again, we don’t have to be more spiritual than the Bible—if you are married you have opened the door to sexual experience, then if you go without sex for long, you are going to be tempted to pursue sexual gratification outside of the bounds of marriage. And if you are tempted to feel like: Shouldn’t my spouse just be able to exercise self-control? The answer is, yes, they should. But the verse also doesn’t say the opposite of what it says. It says spouses should give themselves freely to each other as a means of preventing temptation. So, married couples should be leaning towards “more sex” not less.
- Paul speaks in almost legal terms. The husband and wife have “conjugal rights” and they possess “authority” over one another’s bodies. When Paul says “do not deprive one another” in verse 5, he is literally saying, “do not defraud one another.” It is the same term used at the beginning of chapter 6 to describe the Corinthians wrongly suing each other in court (1 Cor 6:8). If you defraud someone you are taking something away from them that is rightfully theirs. So too, when a husband or wife withhold themselves from each other, they are depriving their spouse what they have promised to give them in their marriage vows. So, Proverbs 3:27 could be appropriately applied here: “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it,” (Prov 3:27). Maybe there are times where it physically is not in your power to give your spouse their conjugal rights (illness, childbirth, etc.)—but when you have the power to give good to those whom it is due, you should give.
- This is why Paul says that abstention from sex should only take place when there is “mutual agreement.” So, if one person is wanting to take a break from sex to pursue a spiritual discipline, but the other disagrees, then they shouldn’t abstain.
And all of that sounds like the least sexy, romantic thing in the world. No has ever heard a lawyer appealing to a client to fulfill their contractual obligations and thought, “That’s so romantic!” Is this just Paul exposing the fact that he is himself unmarried and inexperienced? Or is this a teaching that basically empowers the individual in marriage who has the higher sex drive to get whatever they want? I don’t think so. I think Paul’s teaching on obligations in marriage are describing the barriers around sex in marriage, but the center is the mutuality.
Let’s say that a husband wants to have sex, but his wife doesn’t. He has authority over her body—but not over his. She does. Which means he cannot do anything with his body that she does not consent to. So a husband cannot appeal to this passage as a justification for forcing himself onto his wife against her will. In the Song of Solomon, the wife describes her body as her husband’s garden for him to enjoy, but it is a garden that is locked (4:12) and only opens upon her invitation (4:16). Thus husband and wife each possess the ability to say “No,” to one another.
But here is the sophistication of Paul’s argument: he clearly is teaching that married couples should have sex frequently. He then says that each person is obligated to give one another their “conjugal rights”. But he undermines the easy path that just relies on asserting your own way against the will of your spouse: give me sex now. And everyone knows, that isn’t how sex works. What path does that then leave open to you?
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful,” (1 Cor 13:4-5)
Love does not insist on its own way. It shows patience, kindness, contentment (does not envy), and humility. It doesn’t complain and it does not resent. That’s love. If sex in marriage is intended to be the fullest expression of marital love, then it cannot be built on insisting on your own way. Biblical sex is to sexual immorality what wine is to vinegar. Sexual immorality is the curdling of God’s good sexual design, taking something that was intended to be about another, and turning it into something about myself.
Sex in marriage is looking at the needs of the other person and striving to meet them where they are, choosing to treat them and their desires as more important than your own. So the question we ask isn’t: How do I wish my spouse would treat me? But, How would they want to be treated?
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others,” (Phil 2:3-4).
The best marriage advice I ever received was written in a card on my wedding day: “The honeymoon is only over when your needs become more important than your spouse’s,” and then they cited Phil. 2:3-4. Thinking about this specifically in regards to the bedroom, Dave Harvey writes: “Sex will never be pleasurable or durable when it’s driven by the demands of one instead of the enjoyment of two,” (Dave Harvey, I Still Do, p. 138). This means that in marriage, each spouse should be striving to apply Romans 12:10, “Outdo one another in showing honor.” We are both trying to prioritize the needs of the other above our own.
And friend, the only way you can pursue this kind of selflessness is through Jesus Christ. Right after Philippians 2:3-4, Paul writes:
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,” (Phil 2:5-9)
We already have this mind in Jesus Christ because we have personally experienced His humble-service. Jesus considered our needs more important than His own, even when our needs cost Him dearly. We will only ever be able to serve our spouse selflessly when we realize how Jesus has served us. If you are thinking: I will serve my spouse only if they serve me, then you haven’t yet really seen the totality of what Jesus has done for you. Do you see the resources the gospel of Jesus Christ gives us? We are not banking on self-will alone. We are saying that Jesus’ own life-giving service of us has filled us up so completely that the deepest parts of our soul have already been satisfied, and we now in joyful response to His service desire to follow His model.
Device #3: Make Sex Look Ultimate
6 Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. 7 I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. 8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. 9 But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Cor 7:6-9)
If Paul’s last teaching stood out as counter-cultural, this one follows suit. No one encouraged people to consider a life of singleness back then. Even today, where it is far more socially acceptable to be unmarried, it still can carry some social stigma, especially in the church. Single people can feel like they are second-class citizens in the church or like there is something deficient in them. If marriage is the great design made by God that should be held in honor, what does it mean for those who are not married? Singleness can be fertile soil for Satan to tempt, either leaving you feeling discouraged or just feeling sexually tempted because you don’t have an outlet for your sexual desires. Satan loves to make single people burn with passion, or burn with shame.
Remedy: Embrace your gift. Paul identifies singleness as a gift from God—and, like all gifts that God gives, they are not dependent upon our choosing. You don’t choose to have the gift of teaching or encouragement. God just gives it to you. Nor do you choose to have the gift of singleness. God gives it to you. So, right now, if you are not married, congratulations, you have the gift of singleness! Unbelievably, Paul believes that this is “good.” In a couple of sermons, we will get to the end of chapter seven where Paul will again revisit why he thinks singleness is good.
Now Paul gives this as a “concession” not a command. He is carefully recommending this as an option, but recognizes that not all persons are capable of following his own example of a life of celibacy. So, he very realistically encourages the unmarried and widows to pursue marriage if they cannot exercise self-control. Here Paul clearly teaches that the only outlet for sexual desires is within marriage. Were there any other option for gratifying sexual desires outside of marriage, Paul—the man who wants the Corinthians to consider remaining single!—would have suggested it.
So, if you are single here today and find within yourself strong sexual desires, then do three things: (1) Pray for God to give you self-control while you remain single, and pray for Him to bring you a spouse, (2) rather than inflaming and aggravating sexual desire with sexual immorality, channel the healthy, God-given sexual desires you have into actively pursuing a spouse, and (3) if it God’s will that you wait, remember that sex isn’t ultimate.
If Paul can recommend a life of no sex at all as being “good,” then that must mean that sex is not ultimate. The best sex, the best marriages, will not satisfy your deepest longings. Only Christ will. Consider the fact that Jesus lived the most perfect, satisfied life, yet was never married. Or, more significantly, how He taught us that there will be no marriage in heaven, which will mean no sex in heaven.
And that may strike us as odd, given that sex is likely the highest form of bodily pleasure we know on earth. Does that mean that heaven is going to be a downgrade of pleasure? I have found no better response to that then C.S. Lewis’ remarks in his book Miracles:
“I think our present outlook might be like that of a small boy who, on being told that the sexual act was the highest bodily pleasure should immediately ask whether you ate chocolates at the same time. On receiving the answer ‘No,’ he might regard absence of chocolates as the chief characteristic of sexuality. In vain would you tell him that the reason why lovers in their carnal raptures don’t bother about chocolates is that they have something better to think of. The boy knows chocolate: he does not know the positive thing that excludes it. We are in the same position. We know the sexual life; we do not know, except in glimpses, the other thing which, in Heaven, will leave no room for it.”
If sex is so great here, then what will heaven be?