Our world today is obsessed with self-concept and “identity.” We have never been more encouraged to form thoughts about ourselves and to shape our lives by those thoughts. But what our culture lacks is an objective truth beyond ourselves by which our self-assessments might be shown to be false and harmful.

The Bible is full of stories of people just like us—people who are blind to who they really are and blind to their own blindness! Since Adam and Eve, we humans have tried to understand ourselves under the guidance of our autonomous hearts. The result is that we alternate between thinking too highly of ourselves and thinking too lowly of ourselves. We are either building ourselves up in pride, arrogance, and entitlement or descending into self-defeating despair and depression. The lies we believe about ourselves have contributed to the power of sin over us.

Consider some of the characters whom we know from Scripture. Let’s try to straightforwardly state the things they believed about themselves.

  • First, Adam and Eve thought, “I am like God.” Then, “I am more able to discern good and evil than God.” And finally, “I am a doomed rebel. My only hope is to flee God.”
  • How about Lamech, Cain’s descendant who thunders menacingly at his wives, “…listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:23–24). How does Lamech define himself? “I am powerful; I am entitled to fear and respect.” Or, could it be, “I am unsafe and vulnerable, and I must protect myself by controlling others with violence and fear?”
  • How about the son in Jesus’ parable who has come to be known as the “prodigal” (Luke 15:11–13)? What does he believe about himself as he asks for “what is coming to me” and then goes off to squander it in “reckless living?” “I am entitled to ease and prosperity. I flourish because I am true to myself.” And, after he came to his senses, returning with his rehearsed speech to his father, perhaps he thought, “I am an unlovable failure.”
  • How about Saul, after having been anointed by Samuel as God’s choice to be king, cowering and hiding among the baggage (1 Samuel 10:20–22)? “I am doomed to failure.” “I must rely on my own resources and strength to succeed.” “I am a fraud; if people ever saw me truly, they would reject me.”

Do you recognize any of those thoughts in yourself? Do you cling to self-thoughts that are both exaggeratedly autonomous, independent, and selfish, as well as fearful, condemning, and self-loathing? Are you the one whom David describes, “Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart; there is no fear of God before his eyes. For he flatters himself in his own eyes that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated” (Psalm 36:1–2)? Or does your heart speak with the voice of Psalm 22:6, “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people?” Those with sexual sin in their past and present know both sides of these thoughts about self, often simultaneously.

What can be done? How does one find freedom from such destructive thoughts?

The answer lies outside of yourself. The supreme lie of our current world may be the ever-present message that you must define yourself, that you find your identity within, whether in your experience or in your heart (defined in the Disney way). That is the oldest lie humans were ever told. But the truth is that you do not have the authority to define yourself. None of us do. So who does?

If we do look outside of ourselves, our first tendency is to look to other people. Their praise or their abuse weighs heavily in our self-identification. Of course, the psalmist thinks he is “a worm and not a man,” for he is “scorned by mankind and despised by the people.” If you have been bullied or abused, you may find it easy to think of yourself as “as a worm and not a man.” Also, many of our relational and sexual choices have the aim of surrounding ourselves with the society of those who (we think) will rescue our broken sense of self or reinforce our chosen identity. But other people do not have authority to define you.

The authority to define you lies outside of yourself, not merely in the sense of being outside of your individuality. It is outside of your nature. Only your Creator defines you. And if you have spent your lifetime defining yourself, the identity your Creator gives you will surprise you. Remember that prodigal son? Even when he returned to his father’s house, he only brought with him his self-plausible ideas about who and what he was. The father completely surprised him with love, life, and glory that he could not have anticipated. It turned out he was not a worm, not a failure, not a slave—neither a slave to his own desires and choices nor a slave to his father’s anger and justice. He was a beloved son. What a surprise.

Will you stop defining yourself and let God begin to surprise you?

Name: Jim Weidenaar

Position: Director of Harvest USA in the Greater Pittsburgh Region

Hometown: I almost don’t have a hometown. I was born in Grand Rapids, MI, but some of my childhood and my first two school years were in Waupun, WI. Most of my growing-up years were in Dearborn, MI. I guess that qualifies as the closest thing to my “hometown.”

Description of HUSA work: My job entails a wide variety of responsibilities. I am responsible for all aspects of Harvest’s ministry in the Pittsburgh area and supervise our small Pittsburgh staff. I oversee all direct ministry activities, and that includes doing some one-on-one targeted discipleship with men, as well as leading men’s groups and a parents’ support group. I create the budget for the Pittsburgh office and maintain a relationship with our praying and giving partners who support our ministry in Pittsburgh. As part of Harvest USA’s teaching team, I write blog posts, articles, and curricula and provide the theological and pastoral review of all other Harvest USA publications. I teach at various public events, preach in local churches, present to Sunday School groups, and speak at seminars and conferences. I also lead the Partner Ministry Program, by which Harvest consults with and trains teams that are setting up ministry to sexual strugglers in their own local churches.

How did you get to Harvest? My personal journey in seeking gospel repentance from pornography began when I was engaged to be married, and it has continued as an important part of my growth in marriage. When my wife and I were in the Philadelphia area for my studies at Westminster, we were members at Tenth Presbyterian Church, where we first encountered Harvest USA via teaching events like Sunday Schools and seminars. Having spent many hours wrestling with, thinking about, and discussing these issues together, we were immediately impressed with how biblical, balanced, and wise the Harvest USA perspectives were. This remained merely appreciation and gratitude until shortly after completion of my degree. Then, after encouragement from a friend to consider a calling to ministry “outside the box,” it suddenly occurred to me that ministry with Harvest USA might perfectly fit my personal and theological story. Discussions and interviews with Harvest staff confirmed this. We moved to Pittsburgh, and I joined the staff in June of 2012.

What is your favorite Scripture? I have always found this to be a difficult question. I guess my “favorite” Scripture changes with my season of life. At this time, I would choose 1 John 3:1–3:

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. (ESV)

I love this passage because it captures so succinctly the character, the hope, and the motivation of our fight against sin. First, the foundation of our fight is in the incredible realization that we are loved by God himself—not just any love, but the love of a father for his children. We are reminded every day when ministering with Harvest USA how strange and alien this truth is to the rest of the world around us. But it does not stop there, for we are given the promise that a glorious and unimaginable transformation awaits us. We may not be able to fully comprehend yet what the “revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19) will be like, but we are told this much: When Jesus returns, we will see him, and seeing him as he is will complete our transformation. I am increasingly understanding that any change we experience in this life follows that same pattern: The more we look at Jesus clearly, the more we become like him. Energized by love for the glory of his purity, we pursue purity. This Scripture is, to me, like a manifesto of personal sanctification and ministry.

What is your favorite thing about living in Philadelphia? Well, I don’t live in Philadelphia anymore, but I did for 10 years before moving to the other side of the state. So I can say in retrospect that the two things I loved about living in Philadelphia were 1) the ever-present echoes of American history and 2) the international and ethnic diversity of the city’s people. However, since I now live in Pittsburgh, it is fitting that I say what I love here. I love Pittsburgh’s small-town feel, which I think is partly from the confining geography and partly the friendly culture.

An interesting fact about myself: I mentioned above that I’m not confident of identifying my “hometown.” The truth is that in the first 26 years of our marriage, my wife and I moved our household 13 times. We lived in three locations near Grand Rapids, MI, two cities in Haiti, a small town in the Dominican Republic, a suburb of Chicago, four different suburbs of Philadelphia, and two suburbs of Pittsburgh. We have been in our current house near Pittsburgh for almost 8 years. That is the longest we have lived in any one place in our married life.

A single young man has struggled for years with an addiction to pornography. He’s had some ups and many downs and is now fairly discouraged. He looks forward to marriage as the key to defeating this sin. He is engaged and is now clinging to the hope that having marital sexuality will free him from pornography.

Another young man has no fiancée on the horizon but is praying for one. He pleads and reasons with God that if only he would give him a wife, he would not feel compelled to fantasize about having one. His prayers come close to saying, “Please, God, give me a wife because, until you do, I can’t help but go to porn again and again.”

Both of these men are putting great hopes on marriage as the special ingredient to cure their porn addiction. And it’s not just men we hear this from. This is a common scenario that we see in our ministry to both single men and women.

At first glance, there is a seemingly commonsense and biblical reason for a young man to think this way. It seems like common sense to say that when he has a licit outlet for his sexual desire, he will be able to turn from his illicit outlet. And biblically, doesn’t Paul say that marriage is a remedy for sexual immorality? However, in my experience I have generally seen that 1) marriage does not resolve a previously established pornography problem, and 2) when an unresolved pornography habit is brought into a marriage, it causes significant damage, up to and including sometimes destroying the marriage. This suggests that we need to be careful and wise in how we encourage the young men above—and other men or women like them—in their desire for marriage.

Let’s hear what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7. The entire chapter is his response to a Corinthian proposition expressing a high value on celibacy. In verse 1, Paul writes, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’” He does not directly contradict this sentiment. In fact, as he extends his response to various demographic groups and situations in the Church, Paul makes apparent that he considers a life of single, contented, worshipful celibacy the preferred option. This is his own state, and he considers it the most blessed (verses 7, 8, 38, and 40), especially during troubled times, when even normal attentions to concerns of this life may be wisely suspended (verses 26–31).

However, there is a catch. The prerequisite for this life is a sufficient level of self-control (verses 5, 9, 36, and 37). The desire for the companionship and intimacy of marriage is natural and good; the decision to forgo it involves an ongoing commitment to self-denial of things pertaining to marriage. Not everyone has this. Some might have self-control in other areas, such as finances, food, or anger, but not in sexuality; as Paul says, “Each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another” (verse 7). If you don’t have this type of self-control, then a life of singleness will only make it more likely that you will fall to sexual immorality.

So what is the bottom line? Are you trying to decide whether to marry or stay single? If you can handle the self-denial required to maintain celibacy, singleness brings huge blessings. But beware: If you don’t have a good level of self-control in this area, celibacy will increase temptation to sexual immorality.

So what does this mean for men or women hooked on pornography? On the one hand, the fact that they are addicted to pornography suggests that they don’t have the self-control to practice celibate singleness, and they should probably seek marriage. However, to simplistically think that marriage will solve their pornography problem is a dangerous mistake. Here are some reasons why.

While trying to remain single when lacking the self-control to be celibate is a pretty sure recipe for immorality, marriage does not make you immune to it.

Remember that adultery, properly speaking, is a sin involving married people. Even in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul’s first mention of the need for self-control is directed to married couples “so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (verse 5). Satan’s goal is always to get you to turn from God’s holy design for sexuality. He doesn’t give up the day you exchange your vows.

Your pornography habit is already a form of sexual immorality and must be dealt with, whether you marry or not.

While marriage provides the opportunity and responsibility to learn and express a godly sexuality, established patterns of sexual sin do not go away without repentance from those particular sins. Do you have a habit of porn use? You will live with that habit until you put it to death. Whether you are married or single, this is done by applying the gospel, living out of your union with Christ, and setting your mind on the things of the Spirit. There is no substitute for this.

Your pornography habit, if not dealt with, will destroy your marriage.

Using pornography is not essentially the same as married sexuality but without the vows. Pornography is a warped, demonic distortion of sexuality. By giving yourself to pornography, you have learned a sexuality which involves no self-sacrifice, no love, no patience—a sexuality in which you exercise total, god-like control over other people solely to maximize your own pleasure; a sexuality in which other people are not whole persons bearing the image of God but objects to be used and discarded; a sexuality that caters to the idols of your heart, thus eroding faith and strengthening your rebellion against the one true God. What happens if you get married without addressing this evil? Your spouse becomes your next porn object. I have talked with too many men who treat their wives as the porn they are allowed to have. What you desire in sex has been warped by porn and needs to be transformed. God designed sexuality to be committed, faithful, sacrificial, and exclusive. The sexuality of pornography is the satanic opposite of that in every way. Marriage will not solve your porn problem; your porn problem will destroy your marriage.

So what advice should be given to those struggling with porn? Should they seek marriage? Yes, you can certainly seek marriage. But godly, married sexuality is very different in character from the pornography-fed version to which you have become accustomed. You will need to embrace the responsibility and joy of the “putting off” and “putting on” of the gospel to your entire approach to sexuality. So don’t expect marriage to cure you of porn. Rather, make yourself ready for marriage by killing your porn habit now. Begin to love your future wife or husband by bringing every gospel weapon to bear on unlearning what porn has taught you about sex. And if God does give you marriage, do not think that this means simply transferring your sexual habits into a “moral” context; it is rather a constant putting off of old ways to be clothed with Christ. Marriage pursued and practiced this way will indeed be a strong help against sexual immorality, as surely as resurrection life defeats sin and death.

Empathetic groans chorused through the group as each person confessed the week’s struggles. “It’s just too difficult,” one complains. “It seems like I get to a point in my lust where I am powerless to resist acting out.” “Yeah,” the man next to him chimes in. “I know exactly how that feels! But the Bible says Jesus does too. He had the same temptations we do!” Everyone knows he is referring to Hebrews 4:15, but a few silently wonder, “Is that what that verse means?”

It is vital that we know Jesus as a sympathetic high priest who “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” This is surely a source of great comfort and encouragement. But there is also confusion over these words. Does it mean that Jesus experienced every temptation that I experience? We must deal carefully here in order to confidently claim the encouragement this verse promises. Here are some thoughts:

1. There are senses in which Jesus’ temptation experiences differed from yours.

Difference in particulars. First, let us nuance our understanding by pointing out that there is some difference between Jesus’ experience of temptation and ours. He did not experience the exact same specific temptations that you have. It’s easy to think of particular temptations he did not experience. Jesus was not tempted to wipe his phone to hide his porn from his employer. Jesus never struggled with a compulsion to open an incognito browser on his phone to look at pornography. The point is that Jesus did not share your exact circumstances and, in that sense, did not experience the exact same temptations that you do. This is obvious. So this verse is saying something other than that. In the same way, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.” He does not mean everyone has shared the exact same temptation events. Have you ever been tempted to melt your jewelry into a golden calf to worship? I didn’t think so.

No, the sympathy that this verse says Jesus has for you does not depend on his sharing your exact circumstances of temptation. You need not imagine him facing your exact temptations—in fact, you ought not do so. This is because of another major difference in his temptations…

Difference in heart inclination. Jesus did not have a sinful nature; we do. We are born with hearts inclined toward sin. And the sinful patterns of thought and feeling generated by our hearts are themselves a major source of temptation for us. Yes, the inclinations and desires of our hearts are both sin and temptation. Do you need a clear example of how something can be both sin and temptation? Consider someone breaking the tenth commandment in his heart, coveting something God has not given. That person is sinning, breaking the tenth commandment. Yet that very sin constitutes the experience of temptation to commit further sin, to steal or commit adultery. Some theologians have found it helpful to describe temptations as being either external to us or internal. The internal temptations are those that are caused by the sinful momentum of our wayward hearts. This momentum meets any temptation coming from outside of us with a willingness by which we both give in to and even pursue sin. Jesus did not have this. His heart was always rightly ordered and steadfast in love of God. He never added his own sinful desires to the temptations that came at him externally, for he had no sinful desires. Remember, he was “yet without sin.”[1]

2. How then do we rightly understand “in every respect tempted as we are?”

In regard to the deepest dynamic. Jesus understands the dynamic of every possible temptation. This is true even though he hasn’t experienced all of the particulars. This is because all sin is an expression of deeper issues of the heart. Every sin, at its deepest level, entails turning from loving, trusting, and worshiping God. This is why Jesus can call loving God the first and greatest commandment. And every sin with reference to other people is a failure to love people as a fitting response to knowing the love of God. Every temptation we experience boils down to these two issues, and every temptation Jesus experienced was the same. He understands the deepest dynamic that characterizes your every temptation.

In regard to the suffering entailed in resisting temptation. But the main point in Jesus’ sympathetic identification with us has reference to the suffering that obedience and resistance to temptation entails. “For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering” (Hebrews 2:10), and, “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18), and, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). Temptation is a “test” of our willingness to pay the cost of suffering for obedience. Jesus fully experienced just how painful and difficult obedience in the face of temptation can be.

In this regard, the fact that Jesus’ heart was not inclined toward sin makes his experience of the cost of obedience more complete than any of ours. When temptation comes, our inclination is to give in quickly rather than to fully accept the cost of obedience. Not so with Jesus. He was willing to follow through against sin to the fullest extent. He knows how difficult your temptation is, how much it hurts to obey. You can be sure of this because it hurt him more than it has ever hurt any of us. This is why the author can apply this to the encouragement of his readers, saying, “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood” (Hebrews 12:4). You have not yet felt the full weight, but Jesus has. Even if you are called to bleed and die in order to resist sin, he has been there and is a sympathetic high priest for you.

Jesus is exactly the savior, and the brother, you need in your fight. He does know how difficult this is—and he is able to save because he never sinned.

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[1] You don’t want Jesus to identify so closely with you that he becomes disqualified to be your savior. See John Piper’s expression of this in this article.

You can also watch the video, “How Does a Sinless Savior Help Us Sympathetically?,” which corresponds to this blog.

The book of Hebrews assures us that Jesus is our sympathetic high priest. But how can those who battle with persistent sin struggles make real spiritual use of these assurances? Learn more in this new video from Jim Weidenaar.

To learn more about this topic, consider purchasing one of our resources, such as Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God About Sex by John Freeman and How to Say No When Your Body Says Yes by Dan Wilson. When you buy these books from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.

You can also read the blog, “Jesus Understands Your Temptations,” which corresponds to this video.

In my last post, I talked about what 1 Corinthians 7:4 does not say. I argued that the passage does not, in any way, support sex on demand in marriage. Today, I’d like to consider what it does say. The picture of sex in marriage that these verses present is radically countercultural in our world. In these verses, both the husband and the wife are called to give to the other spouse sexually, with intentional, purposeful deliberateness. The picture is not one of stimulus-response, passion-driven, sex-drive satisfaction.

To use classical categories, sex is described as an expression of agape love, not eros love. Agape is the intentional, deliberate, self-sacrificial love with which God loves us, and with which we are then called to love each other. Eros is the passion of sexual desire. Sex in marriage may obviously entail eros, but it is to be primarily led by agape.

In our culture, eros is revered, even worshiped, as the highest experience, the key to human flourishing, the foundation and requisite of any life-partner relationship, even in marriage. Our culture expects the passion of erotic attraction to be the initiating and sustaining dynamic of any such relationship—so much so that we might say that eros itself is the goal, and relationships only exist or continue inasmuch as they serve eros.

But think of how destructive this eros-led view is to a marriage: A couple plunges into marriage, sure that they have found (or have been found by!) true love. But when the daily, mundane, and unpleasant work of living with another sinful being comes to the fore, the erotic attraction to each other fades or disappears altogether. They’ve lost “that lovin’ feeling.” Sex ends. The relationship requires increasingly harder work, even as their motivation to do that hard work disappears. Of course, this happens because the foundation of the relationship was romantic eros. And the problem is not just the fact that spontaneous romantic erotic arousal fades for the married couple. Equally destructive is the fact that the capacity for arousal does not disappear—it just leaves this relationship. Eros is fickle, elusive, and spontaneous, with a spontaneity that is just as likely to attach itself to someone outside of the marriage. Or, frustrated by its elusiveness, a husband or wife can harness it to their imaginations via pornography or romance novels. Many marriages don’t survive this.

But wait. Perhaps you have heard this often. Christians usually advise that the marriage relationship be based on more than sexual attraction. But 1 Corinthians 7 says something much less common; it extends this principle to sexuality itself. In other words, you may have heard that a marriage relationship should not be led by sexual arousal. In these verses, God tells us that sex should not be led by sexual arousal, at least not primarily! The picture that the apostle Paul paints is not of two people waiting for the rush of romantic attraction to come upon them. Our culture worships moments like this. Such a synchronous alignment of erotic attraction is deemed proof you have found the “real thing.” But, in reality, this is only a firm basis for something as temporary and fleeting as a one-time hookup, nothing more. No, these verses teach us that not only marriage in the broader sense, but also the sexual expression of that marriage, is to be founded in, shaped by, motivated by, and sustained by intentional, deliberate, self-sacrificial agape love.

Perhaps you can imagine some of the implications of this radical perspective on sex and marriage. I will mention a few.

If you are married:

  • Your sex life is not captive to the whims of erotic attraction. If husband and wife are motivated to move toward the other sexually on the basis of an intentional commitment to give to the other sacrificially, sex will not be limited to those rare moments when the erotic stars align. Isn’t it obvious that a couple applying Paul’s instruction will have sex more often? The irony is that this will result in much more eros in a marriage, not less; however, it will not be the driving force, but a fruit of agape.
  • There is hope for your marriage, despite your personal history of eros. Many married people have lengthy, personal histories of being led by eros. Not only have they learned to be slaves of spontaneous erotic attraction, but that attraction has habitually been attached to something other than their spouse, like other individuals (i.e., old flames) or pornographic images. The memory and power of these habits of eros have no respect for your marriage vows. If you continue to be led by eros, these old habits will constantly intrude and compete quite effectively against your spouse for your loyalty. But if you make even your sexuality subject to your agape love for your spouse, the two of you will build new habits of eros on a foundation that your old memories can’t touch. Having renounced their power to control you, these old, erotic masters will increasingly lose their ability to draw you away from your spouse.

If you are single:

  • Your sex life is not captive to the whims of erotic attraction. The world and your own flesh are trying to seduce you into patterns of slavery to erotic attraction that will leave you empty, broken, discarded, and hopeless. Now is the time to learn to receive God’s agape love and give it to others. This love is your eternal inheritance; it, not eros, is the key to human flourishing. Practice treating it as such. And if, in the future, God brings you into marriage, the eros you enjoy will depend upon the agape love in that marriage. Be wary of how pornography, the media, and peers seek to train you otherwise.

Take heart that Christ came to redeem all aspects of sexuality, including your beliefs about sexual attraction and love.

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You can also watch the video, “What About the Sexless Marriage?,” which corresponds to this blog.

Let’s suppose…the husband is truly repentant and growing, but he also feels like his wife’s coldness to him is making it more difficult. Is 1 Corinthians 7:1–5 relevant for him?

To learn more about this topic, consider purchasing one of our resources, such as What’s Wrong with a Little Porn When You’re Married? by R. Nicholas Black and God, You, and Sex: A Profound Mystery by David White. When you buy these books from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.

You can also read the blog, “The Whims of Erotic Attraction and 1 Corinthians 7,” which corresponds to this video.

Let’s meet this issue head on: Sexual abuse is possible within marriage. Wherever physically or emotionally coercive behavior infects a married couple’s sexual relationship, it is abusive. Any such behavior needs to be confronted with a call to repentance.

Some will contend, “But doesn’t the Bible say that a husband has authority over his wife’s body? Doesn’t that give him the right to sex on demand and in the way he prescribes?” 1 Corinthians 7:4 does say, “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does.” Husbands sometimes invoke this passage to defend themselves or to complain against their wives. Do they have a legitimate point? Most of us instinctively say “no,” but how do we defend that? Here are three ways to explain that this passage does not justify sex on demand, even in marriage.

The issue in this passage is not “sex on demand” but “forced celibacy.”

It is important to note the question that this passage answers. Paul begins, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’” Whether this is a Corinthian statement or his own, Paul begins this discussion by acknowledging that there is some moral value to voluntary celibacy. But Paul then proceeds to argue not only for marriage as a check against immorality but also to warn against “depriving one another” in marriage. Apparently, the matter to which Paul is responding involved valuing celibacy to such an extent that not only were men being encouraged to refrain from marrying, but even those who were married were encouraged to eschew sex altogether. In other words, the presenting issue is husbands thinking swearing off sex with their wives would be a spiritual virtue. They thought they would win religious points by giving up sex in their marriages.

So this is not a question of “sex on demand” but a question of “forced celibacy.” This is about a husband unilaterally deciding that there will be no sex in “his” marriage—and thinking that in doing so he increases his righteousness. Paul corrects this by pointing out that this is a violation of the wife’s rights. Consigning a woman to a sexless marriage was a serious sin, with implications much bigger than deprivation of pleasure; it would condemn her to barrenness (see the story of Onan and Tamar in Genesis 38:6–10 for an example of what God thinks about this). 1 Corinthians 7:11 provides evidence that some likely carried this celibacy virtue to the next logical extent: Divorcing one’s wife would be best—perhaps with the “kind” motive of freeing her to have children with some less righteous bloke. But that is not Paul’s solution. Rather, he explains that sex in marriage is a duty and a right; forced celibacy is wrong.

However, saying, “You should not force celibacy on your spouse,” is not the same as, “You must give sex to your spouse on demand.” Many times, circumstances or differences in mood or desire result in one spouse saying, “Not now, dear.” Such circumstances are not what this passage is talking about; they do not even come close to approaching the forced celibacy suggested here. It is incorrect to use this passage to deny someone the right to say, “No.”

Responding to a one-sided question from the man’s argument, Paul’s answer is pointedly mutual.

I find it ironic that the presenting issue in this passage involves men supposing it virtuous to deprive their wives of sex, while it is more common nowadays to hear men invoking this passage to complain of being deprived by their wives. Yet in either of these scenarios, part of the man’s problem is that he thinks it’s all about him. Paul corrects this by taking a statement speaking one-sidedly from the man’s perspective and answering it in a pointedly mutual way. Unlike other passages in which Paul gives differing instructions, different roles, or different authority to the husband and the wife, here, in the context of sex, he takes pains to emphasize perfect equality and mutuality. Beginning in the second half of verse 2, Paul gives a series of parallel statements, alternating speaking the exact same words to husbands and to wives. In fact, he carefully makes sure that even the order of address does not favor one over the other: In verse 3, the husband is addressed first, and then in verse 4, the wife is addressed first. In verse 5, they are addressed as a couple: “Do not deprive each other….”

This mutuality makes clear that Paul is commanding not an attitude insisting on rights, but rather of giving rights. He is calling on married couples to give of themselves for the good of the other, instead of seeking to get their “needs” met. As Dave White summarizes, “God gave us 1 Corinthians 7:1–5 because spouses need to be taught that selflessness must govern the marriage bed, and serving each other is the path to deep joy and fulfillment.”¹ This mutuality also creates a logical problem for the would-be abusive husband: If he would demand sex from her, claiming his authority over her body, won’t he need to use his own body to do it? But according to the passage, he doesn’t have authority over his own body; rather, she does. The mutuality of the authority makes all coercion and demand logically impossible.

This passage is best understood in the light of other commands of Scripture.

This passage’s call to mutual, selfless service is consistent with the rule of love expressed throughout the Bible, so it is right to group these verses with passages such as Philippians 2:4: “Let each of you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others”—and Ephesians 5:25—“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” A husband who knows and submits to his Bible will never use 1 Corinthians 7 to control or manipulate his wife.

¹God, You, and Sex: A Profound Mystery (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2019) 97.

I used to joke when I was in retail, “This job would be great, if only there were no people!” Well, now we’re all finding out what it’s like to live, work, and minister away from all people. It isn’t so great after all. Here at Harvest USA, we are trying to keep up our direct ministry to individuals as much as possible using technology. But there is no denying that the realities of social distancing are profoundly affecting us and those to whom we are ministering. There are peculiar challenges during this time for those struggling with sexual sins. But there are also unique opportunities. Perhaps this is true for all of us.

Let’s consider the challenge of loneliness. Many people feel lonely whether or not they are physically distanced from others. For a lot of us, the challenge of this time is not so much being away from many people but being forced to relate more intensely to just a few people in our own households! Nevertheless, many are aware of a deep and enduring loneliness, a dull heartache arising from a sense of isolation, of not being affirmed, not being valued, not being desired, or not being known by anyone. Sexual sin offers a temporary taste of being loved, being desired, being valued. It is a powerful counterfeit—but a counterfeit it surely is. Sexual sin satisfies the hunger of loneliness the same way cotton candy satisfies an empty stomach: a blast of pleasure and energy that dissolves quickly and ends in a sugar crash.

This season has the potential to amplify this ache of loneliness. We may have always been lonely, but the constant warnings to stay away from others only causes our minds to dwell on it more. But more than that, the practice of social distancing is frighteningly similar to the process by which we descend into slavery to sin. It is a process of retreating into isolation. In a cruel irony, sin as a counterfeit cure for loneliness is sought at the price of further isolation. We lie. We sneak. We develop a dark double life. Increasingly, all our thoughts and plans are serving our inner world of escape. It is a lonely place. At Harvest USA, we are continually coaxing people out of their isolation into communion with God and God’s people. But now we have to stay away from each other. If feels wrong. It grieves us. And in the grief, the counterfeit looks good again.

But if this season poses a challenge, it also poses an opportunity. Change is always an opportunity. For many, the cycle of temptation and sin becomes habitual and almost ritualized. But now, perhaps, your entire schedule has been upended. This is an opportunity to break from those habitual patterns and establish new ones. Physical social distancing does not have to mean isolation. Now that you must create new daily patterns, let them be patterns of reaching out in mercy and honesty, even if it must be via technology. Let this be a time to establish new patterns of prayer—God is with us. Perhaps that is one reason he is allowing this; perhaps our lives had become too full of routine distractions, superficial relationships, and secret sin. None of these relieved our loneliness, so he is stripping them away. Let us get to know him, because today is the day of opportunity.

This is an opportunity not only to know God, but to know ourselves. Your circumstances have changed—radically—but you have not. This can help you see yourself more clearly. What do I mean by this? We at Harvest USA often stress that our circumstances, while having powerful influence upon us, do not determine what we do. It is our hearts that determine our behavior. By “heart,” we don’t mean our emotions or the mysterious seat of romantic whim so celebrated in our culture. We mean the biblical concept of the heart as our inner person, what we value, desire, and think at our deepest.

This is the place from which Jesus said all evil deeds come, and so God targets the heart in his gospel work in us. This great change in your circumstances and life patterns, this upheaval and removal of your routine distractions, can serve to display areas of your own heart that were previously hidden from you behind the curtain of routine. What you feel as loneliness is connected not only to your circumstances; it arises from deep and powerful desires and thoughts in your heart.

This is a time for you to see those desires more clearly and to strive to let the light of God’s love and the gospel to shine on them. God knows you more than any person—better than you know yourself. This can be a time of significant growth in your fellowship with him, which is the beginning of the end of loneliness. Take the opportunity.

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You can also watch the video, The Crucible Is for Silver, which corresponds to this blog.

It is an incredible gift that the Lord would use difficult circumstances like the coronavirus pandemic to graciously give you significant insight into yourself and to change you into the image of Jesus.

You can also read the blog, Loneliness in a Time of Social Distancing, which corresponds to this video.

For additional reading, you might consider God, You, and Sex: A Profound Mystery by David White or Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God About Sex by John Freeman. When you buy these books from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.


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