12 May 2022
As designed by God, both sex and the gospel are bounded by exclusivity. The biblical concept through which we can understand what is meant by this is sanctification, or holiness. We often associate these terms with the process of growing in holiness as we turn from sin and act righteously. This is true.
But, more basically, holiness carries the idea of being set apart. Ultimately, God himself is most holy because he is set apart from us in the perfections of his being and righteousness.
God’s People Are Set Apart
The Bible speaks of God setting apart his people, the church, to belong to him. God does this by making distinctions to separate his people from all other peoples. In explaining the Passover event, through which God separated out his people from Egypt, he said, “But not a dog shall growl against any of the people of Israel, either man or beast, that you may know that the LORD makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel” (Ex. 11:7). King Solomon later says, “For you separated them from among all the peoples of the earth to be your heritage, as you declared through Moses your servant, when you brought our fathers out of Egypt, O Lord God” (1 Kings 8:53).
The rules of Leviticus enforce this call of being set apart to belong in a unique way to God: “I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore separate the clean beast from the unclean, and the unclean bird from the clean. …You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Lev. 20:24–26). “Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the LORD your God. …I am the LORD who sanctifies you” (Lev. 20:7–8). The people’s commitment to holiness was simply a fitting response to God’s gracious separation of Israel from all others as belonging to him—his precious, chosen possession.
This is a gospel pattern. God graciously makes distinctions to put the church into a category different from the rest of humanity. He sets us apart as his bride. We then respond as those who belong to him. It’s a picture of faithful, exclusive devotion.
Marriage as Setting Apart
God’s divine purpose is for marriage and sex to share this pattern of exclusive devotion. In Ephesians 5:25–32, this aspect of making holy or sanctifying is especially emphasized with respect to a husband’s love for his wife. How does he do this? A husband does not remove his wife’s sin. But he does set her apart by distinguishing her from all other women. His sexual union with her is at the core of that distinction. He puts her in a different category than any other person; she alone belongs to him in the union of marriage. So, because sex is designed to uniquely express that union, in all things sexual he gives himself exclusively to her. Fittingly, she responds with the same exclusive commitment to him.
Setting Apart as the Gracious Initiative of Christ
This leads us to ask why Christ takes the initiative to set apart the church for himself? God says that he did not choose Israel because of a quality he saw in them—the size of the nation, their power, or their influence (Deut. 7:7). He chose them simply because he decided to love them.
In Ephesians 5, it’s clear that the church is set apart and presented in splendor and without blemish because Jesus gave himself for her, not the other way around. We have not earned the right to be set apart. God was not attracted to us as better than anyone else in any way. God does not look for the most beautiful people and set them apart to belong to him. No, he places his love on the people of his choosing and makes them beautiful by setting them apart.
Practical Implications for a Set-Apart People
What difference does this make to your daily Christian life?
- You are saved by grace. It was not your goodness that convinced God to save you or that keeps him loving you. He is not waiting for you to mess up one too many times so he can dump you for other, holier people. You are holy because Christ made you holy. What a great comfort!
- How should this affect your relationship to and love for Christ? Your love for Christ is your response to his loving you. You can rest and rejoice with gratitude in the security that comes from knowing that this is all his initiative, not his response to your deserving anything.
- Your fight with sin is empowered by gratitude, not by any need to earn or stay in God’s love. Firm in your gratitude for his setting you apart as his own, you want to grow in acting as one who belongs to him.
What difference does this make to your sexuality?
- God wants this gospel dynamic to shape our sexuality. Therefore, the long-term sexual union of marriage must be founded on a choice to love, not mere attraction that easily fades or wanders. This is not to say we should feel no attraction to our spouses—indeed, the mutual passion and delight of a husband and wife is also designed by God to show us the gospel! But in accordance with the gospel pattern, your spouse should not have to earn your delight. Rather, enjoyment of each other grows as a fruit of mutually setting each other apart in love.
- How does this work? Setting apart your spouse in love means you commit to make distinctions between your wife or husband and all others. This means, at least, that anything and everything pertaining to sex and romance is reserved exclusively for your spouse—every advance, every flirtation, every glance, every imagination, every intention is focused on the one whom you have set apart. In this context, enjoyment and delight grow over time.
- If you are single, use your time as a single to grow in your faith, confidence, and joy in being part of Christ’s set apart Bride. Learn to bask in the benefits of this gospel truth. Then commit to reflect it in your sexuality. If you remain single, you set yourself apart to belong only to Christ. If you will marry, handle your sexuality now as something which you will give exclusively to your future spouse—setting that person apart even today.
The gospel pattern of the exclusive love of God for his chosen people is our hope and our motivation for fighting sin. We’ve been undeservedly set apart to enjoy God forever—he set his love upon us when we were unlovely. May we grow in holiness as Christ’s exclusive love warms our hearts, reminding us of the eternal belonging he won for us within the set-apart people of God.
28 Apr 2022
One of the most tender expressions of humble faith was shared with me by a woman in my wives group years ago. She said,
“I thought marriage would be the place where I would finally come to understand God’s love for me in a deeper way through the example of my husband’s love. Instead, God has chosen to teach me about his love by putting me in a place where I had to study his love so I could show it rather than receive it. I found myself running to the Lord, pouring out my pain to him about my unfaithful spouse and fellowshipping in his suffering. As I meditated on how God understood the pain of an unfaithful spouse (his people) and studied his response to their unfaithfulness, I learned about his longsuffering, pursuing love for me and saw God begin teaching me how to love my spouse with his love.”
Sister, are you hurting, disappointed, alone, and confused because of painful marriage dynamics? You may have realized when you married that, as great of a guy as your husband seemed to be, he couldn’t replace Jesus. You probably knew that your issues would also impact the marriage, but you were (and maybe still are!) eager to journey together with your man towards Christ, holiness, togetherness.
But sexual sin isn’t what you signed up for. This is an unwanted chapter in your story, and you wonder how you got here. Where can you turn?
Turn to Jesus. He’s near, and he cares.
Jesus is your steadfast refuge and tender comforter
“I love you, O LORD, my strength. The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Psalm 18:1–2).
David wrote these words after being chased by enemies and betrayed by people he trusted and loved. (You can read more of that story in 2 Samuel 21–22 if you’re interested). His words guide us when we are in the throes of suffering. When we forget who we are and who God is, it’s easy to drown in our feelings rather than seek refuge in Jesus and tell him “each rising grief, for Thou alone can heal; Thy word can bring a sweet relief for ev’ry pain I feel.”¹ In the mystery of your suffering, you can know one thing for sure: God wants you to draw more closely to himself as your God.
In the last hours before Jesus was arrested, he assured his friends with these words:
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?… I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:1–2).
Jesus is always with you, not merely by your side but within you as your very life (Colossians 1:27 and 3:3). He is the only one who is capable of sharing this kind of intimacy with you. Even on your husband’s best days—walking in obedience to God, faithfully loving you, sharing moments of sweet sexual intimacy with you—he cannot dwell within your heart. Christ alone is there with you in your broken heart and will not leave.
Jesus is your faithful Bridegroom forever
When your husband fails you, it’s an invitation to turn towards the Bridegroom who never will. One woman shared with me,
“After I found evidence of my husband’s affair, I took off my wedding ring and told my husband in anger and pain, ‘You left me, and God is my husband now.’ True, but a bit dramatic. Then, as I was working through a book with a friend for spouses facing sexual betrayal, we read through Hosea, and I realized I had something ‘special’ in common with God: We are both betrayed spouses! Then my mind quickly went to the realization that I have also been unfaithful—not with my husband, but with God.
Throughout our eight-month separation and long, bumpy road toward marriage reconciliation, I found great comfort in picturing Christ as my Bridegroom, who loves me with an everlasting, perfect love. Who comforts me when I’m down, always listens to me, and cares for me deeply. And will never betray me.”
In the Old Testament, we learn of a beautiful theme that runs throughout Scripture: God’s plan for pursuing an eternal marriage relationship with his people. “And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the LORD” (Hosea 2:19–20). These verses show us that God’s desire is to be more than just a refuge, friend, king with servants, and even a father with his children. He pursues, loves, and offers us eternal marriage with himself.
The concept of being married to God may be a new one for you. God’s spousal love is different from human marriage but no less intimate. We have an eternally secure, forever-together relationship bought for us by the blood of Jesus, our Bridegroom.
The love that Jesus offers to his people, his Bride, is so much more than that of the most devoted husband. No, those “best day” experiences you’ve had with your man are only a glimpse of what it’s like to be loved by Jesus. What you and your husband can offer each other is but a dim reflection of the faithful, eternal, intimate love that Jesus shared with his people—with you.
For all the mystery of why you are suffering in marriage, you can know that Jesus is longing to show himself to you in new ways as your true Bridegroom, the One who never misses you, will not seek another bride, and will never, ever deceive or abandon you. You may not feel excited about this eternal truth right now, and that’s okay. Jesus isn’t put off by the honest recognition in your heart that you may desire a husband’s love more than his.
Jesus is your eternal true home
In John 15, Jesus beautifully explains a new type of intimacy between himself and his followers: He is the true Vine, the source of all life, and we are his branches, created and commanded to abide (or make a home) in him and his words. A vital union with Jesus is now possible because his Spirit is sent to live in all believers.
As amazing as it is to consider that God no longer dwells near us but in us, we won’t experience being at home with God perfectly in this life. Our bruised and sinful hearts and the fallen world around us prevent a purely joyful, peaceful, and comfortable experience. However, when we honestly acknowledge this rather than demand a life with no suffering, it can actually draw us closer to Christ and the joy he offers. Consider these words from C. S. Lewis:
“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful, for these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others do the same.”²
Your true country, your home, is Christ. He’s your safe place and gentle Shepherd, who will never tell you to “just get over it” and move on. He won’t run from you or awkwardly back away in silence because he doesn’t know what to say to you. He is yours, his love is yours, his comfort is yours. Regardless of what you feel, think, and believe in this moment, he is drawn to you with deep compassion. Turn to him sister; he is near.
This blog is adapted from a chapter in the soon-to-be-released resource from Harvest USA, Jesus and Your Unwanted Journey: Wives Finding Comfort After Sexual Betrayal. Look for it on our resource page in July 2022.
¹Steele, Anne. “Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul.” https://www.hymnologyarchive.com/dear-refuge-of-my-weary-soul.
²C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1952), 121.
14 Apr 2022
Johnny and Hannah (names changed) had twelve years of marriage behind them when his secrets came out. He’d humbly told Hannah when they were dating that porn had been a struggle since his teens. She took the news in and faithfully tried to learn how to help him, and their relationship moved forward to marriage. What Johnny hadn’t disclosed was that in high school, he’d fathered a baby and had caught an STD from his girlfriend. He brought that STD into his marriage. And there was more. Johnny then committed adultery with two women early in their marriage.
Fast forward twelve years. Johnny and Hannah had two kids and a busy life of parenting, jobs, and financial stress due to the pandemic. Hannah’s mysterious health problems and a trip to the doctor forced Johnny’s hand to come clean about his past, including how it had brought sickness into Hannah’s body.
Yet Hannah’s heart was sick, too. She was devastated to learn that her husband had kept so much history a secret from her. Even worse, it crushed her spirit to come to grips that her husband had endangered not only their marriage but her very life by giving himself sexually to others. To top it all off, he had another child out there somewhere!
An initial, helpful pastoral response is not enough
Hannah insisted that Johnny call their pastor when she learned all this heavy news, and, thankfully, the pastor responded quickly and compassionately. Within two days, the three of them met in his office, and out tumbled a sad, painful story of sin, suffering, and secrets. He wept with them and acknowledged the severity of their situation.
This is good news, right? Wouldn’t we want a pastor, church leader, counselor, or friend to respond this way? Yes! I celebrate when hurting wives share with me that their pastors respond with empathy, loving engagement, and personal availability. There are so many hurting couples in our churches who are alone and silent in their pain, so when I hear of a pastor’s office providing a warm and safe landing place for a couple, I truly am encouraged.
However, it’s what happened next that is sadly common for wives in particular when a husband’s infidelity comes out into the light. Don’t get me wrong: Wives can be sexually unfaithful, too, but, in my fifteen years of ministry at Harvest USA, I’d say the calls from wives who have been hurt compared to husbands responding to their wives’ sexual sin is roughly 90 to 1.
An unfortunate yet typical scenario
Hannah and Johnny left the pastor’s office exhausted, brokenhearted (her), and ashamed and angry (him). But they did have a plan. Johnny would meet with the pastor weekly for the next month for some initial accountability, prayer, and encouragement. The pastor offered to try to find a mature woman in the church to connect with Hannah. Hannah was hopeful about having at least one person to open her heart to, even if she was deeply embarrassed and overcome with sadness. Counseling wasn’t an option, as there just weren’t finances for it, and, anyway, they lived in a community “where everybody knows your name,” so Hannah was terrified of others finding out. She arrived back home, got dinner on the table for her kids, and waited to hear from her pastor.
And she continued to wait. He emailed her three weeks later, apologizing that he hadn’t gotten back to her; he’d been so busy with trying to help Johnny, not to mention sermon prep, urgent church business, and caring for a congregant who was on hospice. He said he’d keep praying and working to find a woman she could meet with. Hannah read the email, wept, and then got up to attend to her kids.
Hannah was very thankful for her pastor’s care for her husband. Johnny had always been the gregarious kind of guy who everybody loved, but he really had no true friends. He’d come home upbeat, hopeful, encouraged from his meetings with the pastor and the spontaneously set-up support group for other guys in the church who were battling porn addiction. And he’d actually resisted the temptation to look at porn for three weeks—a first!
Johnny said, “Hannah, I finally feel like I’m beginning to change! The guys in this group just totally get me, and I’m sharing things with them that I’ve never told anyone. It is amazing… I love this church!”
But what about Hannah? Sure, she’s not the one battling sexual sin, but she has needs, too. She needs to be seen, known, loved, comforted, and journeyed with, too. What about Hannah?
Bring the gospel of love, comfort, and healing to the “other” spouse, too
Friends, Hannah’s situation is actually a good case study to depict the many wives who reach out to Harvest USA for help. As I’ve written before, I recognize that so many church leaders are busy and pulled in many directions. However, something is off when a repentant or unrepentant husband receives 90% of the pastoral energy, care, and attention, while a devastated, often traumatized wife is left on her own to navigate world-rocking circumstances.
Let me offer several ways you can live out the gospel with hurting wives without sacrificing the worthy time and energy that husbands need in their battle against sexual sin. At the risk of repeating myself, let me say again that women, whether single or married, are also in need of gospel care for their sexual sin struggles and infidelities. I am writing primarily out of my experience of walking with wives and coaching pastors regarding how to care for them in these circumstances.
First, learn how sexual betrayal affects a wife. The devastation is usually multilayered, and one of the most important things to understand is that many wives experience PTSD symptoms after the disclosure of their husbands’ secret sexual sin. CCEF helpfully explains, “PTSD identifies painful experiences that don’t seem to fade but intrude into daily life. This kind of trauma often leads to someone feeling numb, depressed, and hopeless, or feel restless, irritable, hyper-vigilant, anxious, and over-reactive. And you can feel all these things at once.”¹
When Hannah showed up at her pastor’s office, she was tearful, then angry, then too paralyzed to speak… all in the course of a two-hour appointment! Traumatic experiences have the power to reshape people as pain washes over every aspect of life.
Next, remember that for every married man who battles sexual sin, there is a wife and perhaps kids who are impacted. It’s beautiful when churches uphold God’s good, biblical design for marriage, discipling their people that husbands and wives are to love each other as unto the Lord, to serve one another selflessly as a way to show devotion to Jesus through faithfulness in all areas.
However, we must also uphold God’s compassion for wives when marriage vows are broken. This is what Paul is speaking about, in part, when he exhorts husbands to “…love his wife as himself” (Ephesians 5:33). When husbands need help loving their wives, the Body of Christ steps in to counsel, correct, and provide compassionate care. The gospel urges us to walk intentionally with husbands who need help repenting and wives who are broken because of their husbands’ sin.
Finally, equip your saints for the work of ministry. Ephesians 4:11 has everything to do with gospel care for hurting wives. A ministry of mercy, counsel, and, yes, exhortation—because all of us respond sinfully to the sin done against us—to wives impacted by sexual betrayal is in view here as Paul explains how churches are meant to function.
Brothers and sisters, God loves his Bride, so I commend you to the worthy, faithful ministry of compassionate care for wives devastated by broken marriage vows. These brides are seen, loved, and defended by our gracious Father, and he has shared this ministry with us, his people.
This blog is inspired by our new Harvest USA resource which will release in July 2022. Jesus and Your Unwanted Journey: Wives Finding Comfort in Christ is a discipleship resource with participant’s and leader’s guides that will be offered as a no-charge digital download from www.harvestusa.org.
¹https://www.ccef.org/ptsd-and-trauma/. Last accessed March 15, 2022.
A recent discussion in my home centered around a television episode in which the “happy ending” consisted of the hero and heroine deciding to move in together but not get married. I suspect most readers of this post do not believe that that is truly a happy ending. But why? Is it just because God says so? Well, that would be enough, but there is more to say about it—God has given us more.
First, we must understand that sex, in its true form, is inseparable from marriage. This is more than just saying that marriage is the only proper context for sexual expression. It means that the very essence of sex, as its Creator designed it, includes it being an expression of the marital union. You can see this if you do a study of the passages in Scripture that use the phrase “the two shall become one flesh.” This phrase refers most literally to sex itself, but it also refers to the whole marriage union, of which sex is the physical expression. C.S. Lewis explained it this way:
The Christian idea of marriage is based on Christ’s words that a man and wife are to be regarded as a single organism—for that is what the words “one flesh” would be in modern English.… The inventor of the human machine was telling us that its two halves, the male and the female, were made to be combined together in pairs, not simply on the sexual level, but totally combined. The monstrosity of sexual intercourse outside marriage is that those who indulge in it are trying to isolate one kind of union (the sexual) from all the other kinds of union which were intended to go along with it and make up the total union. The Christian attitude does not mean that there is anything wrong about sexual pleasure, any more than about the pleasure of eating. It means that you must not isolate that pleasure and try to get it by itself, any more than you ought to try to get the pleasures of taste without swallowing and digesting, by chewing things and spitting them out again.¹
Sex as a physical union has its meaning only in the context of the relational, emotional, legal union that is the whole marriage. So while Paul speaks of sex with a prostitute as “becoming one flesh” (1 Corinthians 6:16), he does so only to point out how horribly such sex fails in its God-intended meaning. That meaning is only properly expressed when sex is an expression of the marriage union. Just like a word out of context can actually carry a different meaning, so, too, sexual activity outside of the context of marriage carries a meaning different than that for which God designed it.
And that God-intended meaning is nothing less than the gospel itself. In both 1 Corinthians 6:12–20 and Ephesians 5:25–32, the union termed as “the two shall become one flesh” is described as pointing to our union with Christ. And because sex is inseparable from marriage, it is not just marriage as a one-flesh union, but also sex as the physical expression of that union that is meant to picture the union of Christ and his Bride, the Church. Sex as an expression of marital union speaks the gospel; sex independent of marriage speaks anti-gospel.
What is one specific way this applies to our “happily” cohabitating television heroes? Let’s consider how the lifelong permanence of the marriage union affects the meaning of sex. Jesus speaks to the permanence of the marriage relationship in Matthew 19:3–6. The Pharisees asked him whether one can divorce his wife for any cause. Jesus answers by going back to the beginning, quoting, “The two shall become one flesh.” His conclusion is that the intent from the beginning was that marriage be permanent. For the time in which marriage exists—this life—it extends from now until the end—“until death do we part.” This covenantal commitment is largely what constitutes “getting married,” and this permanence is part of the implication of becoming one flesh. This has profound implications for how sex is to be expressed and experienced.
In 1 Corinthians 6:12–20, the idea of permanence is a part of how Paul relates sex to the gospel, specifically, how sexual immorality is incongruent with the gospel. Paul begins by quoting the mindset he will refute. It is the mindset that approaches sex and sexuality from a merely biological perspective, as an appetite to be fulfilled: “’Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’—and God will destroy both one and the other” (verse 13). This view sees sexuality as simply identifying the urges of our bodies and acting accordingly. This view also emphasizes the present; the future is irrelevant. In contrast to this, Paul gives a perspective that is not biological but theological: “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (verse 13). He is placing the question of sexual morality into the greater context of the gospel, to which sexuality is merely a pointer. Then Paul says, “Do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” (verse 16–17). He is not just saying something like, “It’s not nice to be joined to both a prostitute and the Lord!” Rather, the idea is that sexual union is supposed to be a signpost to spiritual union with Christ, but if that union is outside of marriage, with a prostitute, it displays a “union” which is a tragic distortion of the union we have with Christ. One way in which it is a distortion is that it is void of any connection to permanence. This is why Paul counters the live-for-the-moment motto, “God will destroy both one and the other,” with, “God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power” (verse 14). Rather than being merely the source of animal impulses and appetites to be followed in the moment, our bodies have eternal significance in our union with Christ; because we are united to a risen Christ, our bodies will also be raised, not destroyed. Paul is saying that our present experience of union with Christ is shaped by the certainty of our future resurrection with him. That makes a tremendous difference to us today. If sex is to point to this vital gospel truth, it too must be grounded in permanence rather than the instability of momentary passions.
One way to get at this is to ask, “How would our understanding and experience of the gospel change if it was not based on an eternal promise—if the benefits of union with Christ were only a present possession, with no guarantee or commitment from Jesus concerning the future?” In other words, what if the relationship of Christ to his Church was merely a cohabitation, not a marriage? For instance, if we did not have God’s promise that he would surely complete what he had begun in us, what would be the effect? We would conclude that we had to perfect ourselves, to prove to him that we were worth his sticking with us—and we would have no confidence in our relationship when we failed in any way. We would be insecure, fearful, needy, and miserable. You see where this is going: This is exactly the way sex, disconnected from the permanence of marriage, affects us and our relationships.
What are some ways in which our culture’s views and experiences of sex are not grounded in permanence? It is all about what we can experience right now. Hook-up culture tries to pretend it is a non-relational transaction. Pornography encourages the fantasy of sexual enjoyment without any relationship to another person at all. How does this negatively impact our experiences of sexuality? What fears, sorrows, or hurts result? If we are honest, sex—and the desire for it—is often dominated by fear, disappointment, and grief. Instead of security, we get insecurity. Instead of the confidence and freedom of knowing we are loved and accepted in spite of our failures or shortcomings or imperfections, we are constantly made aware of our need to impress or please or perform perfectly. We want affection but are terrified of not measuring up to expectations. We have to compete to become desirable or to stay desirable to those whose attention we crave. We are afraid of rejection. We think we have found joy, only to be jilted and thrown out like used trash. We turn to fantasy and porn to escape the huge risk and crushing disappointment of misunderstanding and rejection that come with broken sexuality. Sex without permanence, like a gospel without permanence, provides no safety at all, only a miserable striving after what cannot be grasped.
This is why the TV couple moving in together was not a happy ending. It is just another seductive counterfeit of true sexuality. Without the joy and security of the marital permanence, it utterly fails in its purpose to point to the joy and security of the gospel.
¹Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity, (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), 104–105.
The following blog is an article from our 2021 Harvest USA Magazine entitled Standing Firm for His Glory. To read more articles from this issue, simply click here or visit www.harvestusa.org/magazines/.
“Godly husband, godly father, godly leader in the Church.” That was how I so wanted to be perceived by others, but it was a lie, and I hated myself because of it. The truth was that, for decades, I had struggled with sexually addictive behaviors: masturbation, pornography, and—eventually—binges of phone sex with other men. This was a secret that I was once convinced I would take to my grave because, if anyone knew the truth of who I was, I was sure I’d be despised, rejected, and abandoned by all, including my wife and children.
The fact that I struggled with sexual brokenness isn’t surprising, especially in light of my story and the fact that I have a sinful nature and live in a fallen world. I grew up in a Christian home with godly parents, but I carried a deep wound. My dad excelled in whatever he did, and others fully expected me to follow in his footsteps, but what he excelled in was not what I wanted to pursue. Indeed, I avoided his world because I feared that I might fail and be rejected by him and others. And so any deep connection with my dad was absent. He didn’t give me the physical touch, the play, the frequent affirmation that I so desperately wanted and needed.
A therapist said to me decades later, “You were a nine- or ten-year-old boy, walking across an emotional desert, desperate for a drink of water, and you found one. It just happened to be from a polluted well.” The polluted well was the attention of an older neighborhood boy who introduced me to sexual activity. This would set in motion a decades-long history of struggle with same-sex attraction and sexual acting out. While I was still attracted to women, there was always the pull of the other that produced overwhelming guilt, toxic shame, and repeated, desperate calls to God to remove this despised thorn.
My early sexualization was punctuated by two other traumatic events during adolescence. When I was 14, my dad invited a 24-year-old man with whom he had a professional relationship to spend the night—to share my room—when this man was in town for a special event. Little did my dad or I know that the conversation this man engaged me in after the lights were out would quickly turn sexual and would lead to sexual activity that left me devastated with guilt and shame. Similarly, a sexual encounter with a predatory college professor at age 18 would also reinforce the extent of the brokenness I felt.
During my time in professional school, I fell in love with a wonderful Christian woman, and we married soon after. Finally, I thought; surely marriage would fix me. Marriage was what I needed in order to quit doing the things that brought so much pain. And it did work, for a while. But, gradually, the same old sexually addictive behaviors crept back into my life. I told myself that I was only trying to reduce the stress resulting from my job.
I thought that once we had children, I would stop. I would have to stop. But the children came, and my sin didn’t stop. Against a backdrop of frequent masturbation and binging on pornography, I kept trying to find a way to stop, believing that God and I could sort this out, that no one else needed to know.
When I was in my mid-30s, my family and I were members of a small, reformed church in the Midwest. I was approached about serving as an elder. I resisted at first, feeling like a hypocrite, but after repeated overtures from the pastor and a godly man on the church’s session, I agreed to have my name placed before the congregation. I told myself that if I were elected to the office of ruling elder, I would have to stop doing what brought so much guilt and shame. I was elected to the office of ruling elder and ordained, but, much to my disappointment, the miraculous healing I was seeking did not materialize. It was not long before I was engaging in the same old addictive patterns, at times contemplating whether suicide wouldn’t be a better alternative.
And so the pattern was set, and the decades passed. Where was God in all of this? Why wouldn’t he remove this thorn? I became more and more convinced that there might not be any hope for me, disregarding all that I had been taught throughout my life about God’s faithfulness. In my early 40s, my wife and I were in a new city as a result of my work, and the evidence of God’s faithfulness to me began to take form, although I would not see that until years later. My wife, while serving on the missions committee of the church in which I was also serving as a ruling elder, came across a request for support from Harvest USA. I can remember her saying while she was reading the literature, “This is the most grace-filled, redemptive approach to helping individuals escape their bondage to sexual sin that I have ever seen.” I was intrigued and began reading it myself. I found a modicum of hope, but I was still too prideful to confess my sin to my pastor or my wife.
I see much more clearly now how God was at work in my heart even in those dark times. I would eventually confess my sexual brokenness and the details of how I acted out sexually to my pastor in a moment of desperation. He met me in my brokenness; he held me, he wept with me, he repeated the truth of the gospel to me, and he encouraged me to tell my wife about my sexual struggle. It was a proper suggestion but one that I had too much fear to pursue at that time, but, in that moment, I was met with the goodness and grace of the gospel by my pastor, and it gave me hope.
I told myself that this is what it would take—confession of sexual sin to my pastor—to break the hold that my sin had on me. Once again, I received short-term relief, but my sinful, addictive patterns soon grabbed hold of me again.
So I continued to struggle until, several years later, God gave me a desire to pursue bi-weekly telephone counseling with David White, who was Harvest USA’s Men’s Ministry Coordinator at the time. David kindly and patiently worked with me to help me see my profound brokenness. He too encouraged me to confess my sin to my wife. When I finally did so in a moment of great guilt and shame following a binge of acting out, we were thrown into a major crisis that led to intense marital counseling and a sexual sobriety contract in which I promised to disclose to my wife within 24 hours any sexual acting out. Finally, I thought to myself, this is what it would take to enable me to stop. But it didn’t. Fourteen months later, I binged again while my wife was out of town and continued my deceit by failing to confess to her as I had promised. I was convinced that if I kept my promise to confess to her, I would lose my marriage and my family.
The truth always comes out, and I am grateful now that that was true in my case. Two months later, my wife confronted me, and I knew that I had to answer her pointed question honestly, confessing to what had happened months earlier. We were immediately thrown into another crisis, but, in retrospect, this moment was God’s gift, for God used my desperation to save myself and my marriage to get me to a twelve-step fellowship meeting with other men, many of whom were Christians, and the missing piece to my decades-long search was found.
After God created Adam, he pronounced, “It is not good that man should be alone.” Yes, God gave Eve to Adam as a helpmeet, but he also designed Adam for deep connection with others. Man was created for real intimacy, something I had never experienced because I was too fearful that I would be completely rejected and abandoned if anyone knew what I had done.
As I began attending twelve-step meetings and experiencing an honesty from others that I had never before experienced, I slowly discovered that God used my deepest fear of others knowing my most shameful secrets to bring true repentance and healing. As I began to let go of my secrets and discover anew God’s goodness, kindness, and unfathomable grace, the transformation of my heart began.
While this transformation would occur slowly over the next few years, I discovered real intimacy, not only with these other men who loved me and encouraged me to walk in obedience, but also real intimacy with my wife and my children. I developed deep friendships with other men that were transformative. I gradually came to realize that this was what God designed me for, that there was no way I could have ever been freed from my addiction to lust without the community of other broken but redeemed brothers in Christ.
My wife and I have done a lot of therapeutic work over the past twelve years. There have been some rough times along the path of healing, but now, more than ever, we both see God’s merciful hand in our lives, confirming again and again the good news of the gospel. For that, we are both grateful. And the pastor to whom I had confessed my sin years earlier has walked with us through many rough times; I am grateful that he is still my pastor today. He loved me, and he showed up as the hands and feet of Christ when I did not think myself worthy of God’s love.
Today, my life is much different than it was for those many decades during which I attempted, in my pride, to live life alone in order to protect my secrets. I have a much more profound intimacy with Jesus, who makes me and all things new. I have the great honor and privilege of sponsoring and mentoring six amazing young men, ranging in age from 27 to 40 who, like me, struggle with sexual brokenness but, by God’s grace, are living in freedom and seeking to walk in obedience before God one day at a time. God gives me a front-row seat to watch the Holy Spirit at work in these men’s hearts and minds.
I will always be grateful for Harvest USA. Its ministry of hope, healing, and forgiveness rooted in the reality of the gospel touched my life during a dark time of my soul and led surely and amazingly to the reality of knowing God and others in a way I never thought was possible. And I am grateful that I have a church today where my pastors know my story and have often sent other men to me—to share my story and to sit with them in their brokenness, offering the hope of the gospel and of deep friendships with other men who struggle as I do. I no longer have to live life as the hypocrite who desperately wanted to be affirmed by others as “godly husband, godly father, godly leader in the Church.” Today, I have a fresh realization of the truth of the gospel and my desperate need for true intimacy with God and with other men.
In this article, we do not disclose our ministry recipient’s real name because he has requested to remain anonymous.
08 Apr 2021
A few years ago, I made my first journey to Niagara Falls. I had seen pictures and videos and heard stories about this iconic landmark, but nothing could prepare me for the awe and wonder of seeing the falls up close. The sound was overwhelming. The mist spilled over into the parking lot. The sheer magnitude of this mammoth waterfall took my breath away.
For the first hour, I couldn’t get enough of viewing the falls from every angle possible, taking in the joy of feeling so small in comparison to something so glorious. But after three, four, then eight hours of being there, the dopamine rush in my brain dissipated. I no longer saw the falls with the same excitement or awe. They were just waterfalls—beautiful, yes, but I was ready to leave. I didn’t care to stay any longer.
The same could be said about sex. Sex is a wonderful gift from God to humanity, and every good feeling that accompanies sex is something God takes delight in, because he created it that way. He created our bodies to experience such soaring pleasure and excitement. He created husband and wife to know a depth of intimacy in sex that has no equal in other human relationships. He created sex to be a physically enthralling and intensely loving experience that makes husband and wife want to be nowhere else in the world except united to one another in those moments.
But then, it’s over. While the joy and intimacy of sex should last well beyond the moment, eventually, it’s time to move on to other good things. Holy, godly, loving sex is a wonderful experience, but it can’t fully satisfy our hearts, because God never designed it that way. God created Niagara Falls and sex, and both point beyond themselves to our Creator, who invites us into pleasures that are forevermore at his right hand.
All good, earthly experiences only satisfy to a certain point. Whether it is your favorite song, your favorite food, your favorite vacation spot, or your favorite person, they all have their limitations. C.S. Lewis put it best in Mere Christianity when he said, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”¹
We’ve come to expect that every good experience has an expiration date. We all know the phrase, “Nothing good lasts forever.” But that’s not true, and it’s not the language of our hearts. Even though we find in this life that nothing fully satisfies, we still keep looking, hoping that eventually we’ll find what our hearts were made for. For all of those in Christ, we have found the One for whom our hearts were made.
God created our hearts to be satisfied fully in him alone. I know that some of you reading this might start to tune out because your experience of God doesn’t compare to the pleasures you find in this world. Your experience of worship, Bible reading, prayer, and fellowship often pales in comparison to food, sex, entertainment, and what the world holds up as “the good life.” If you balk at the idea that God alone can satisfy your heart, consider these two realities.
First, the life we live in the flesh, we live by faith. Faith is the instrument through which we delight in God in this life. Just as taste buds are required to enjoy food, so too faith is required to enjoy God. If you have found our triune God to be boring, unsatisfying, and a weak offering compared to the world’s delights, it is because you are coming to him on the basis of sight, not faith.
But if, by the agency of the Holy Spirit, you walk by faith in the Son of God who loved you and gave himself for you, you will find that our God has no comparison, that he alone has the words of life. Every promise you’ll find in Scripture of life, delight, joy, and pleasure in the Lord are all eschatological realities that Christ himself has already entered into in his resurrection and ascension and freely gives to you through Spirit-wrought union with him. We must lay hold of these realities by faith, as they are not fully consummated realities yet.
Think of it this way. Jesus has already entered into heaven. Right now, he sits at the right hand of Father with every spiritual blessing. He is living in the fullness of resurrection life. If you are united to Christ by faith, Paul is so bold as to tell you that you are presently seated with him in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6). The Father has blessed you with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places through Christ (Ephesians 1:3). You not only died with Christ to sin, but you have also been raised with him as well! This present resurrection is only a spiritual resurrection, which is why we must walk by faith in “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
Second, I want to challenge you to meditate on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 2:9: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
Whatever you imagine heaven to be, it’s far better! Your mind has no capacity to even begin to comprehend what God has in store for you. While that should keep us humble about speculating what heaven will be like, it shouldn’t stop us from getting excited. To whet your appetite, let’s return to Niagara Falls.
Imagine going to Niagara Falls, and, instead of experiencing a slow diminishment of wonder and delight, your awe at the falls is not only sustained but also increases over time. This is what fellowship and communion with God will be like for all of eternity. Or, for you music lovers, just imagine listening to the same song on repeat thousands of times, and, each time you hear it, it’s sweeter than before! Worshipping the Lord for all of eternity will never get old. There will never come a point when we’ve had enough, when we’ll want to move on to something else.
Knowing God for all of eternity will be like climbing a mountain range. Hiking towards the peak, you expect to reach the end of the range, but, as you come to the summit, you look out ahead to see a dozen more peaks in the distance.² Even in eternity, God will still be the infinite Creator, and we will still be finite creatures. We’ll never exhaust the deepest mysteries of our God. There will always be secret things that only belong to the Lord, but what he will reveal to his people will sustain us for all of eternity and will only get sweeter over time!
Sex is a wonderful gift that God wants married couples to delight in, but, as my former colleague David White liked to say, “In eternity, it will be laughable to think about someone bemoaning a lack of sex here on this earth.” Why will it be laughable? Because we will have everything that sex was pointing towards. Both the delight and the unsatisfied longings that accompany sex should point us towards heaven!
I can think of no better way to end this short reflection than the final stanza of “Amazing Grace.”
When we’ve been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Then when we first begun.³
¹ C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), 136–137.
² This analogy of the mountain range did not originate with me, but, at this time, I am unaware of any other original source.
³ John Newton, “Amazing Grace,” in Trinity Hymnal (Rev. ed.), no. 460. It is commonly known that Newton did not write this stanza in the original hymn. All that is known is that this version of the hymn was arranged by Edwin O. Excell in 1900.
21 Jan 2021
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.
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.
You can also watch the video, “What About the Sexless Marriage?,” which corresponds to this blog.
27 Aug 2020
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.
23 Jul 2020
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.