21 Oct 2021
The temptation to single out one type of sin or one category of sinner as uniquely worthy of condemnation is common. It often springs from and feeds the self-righteous hypocrisy of our hearts, which seeks to find a point of comparison by which we can stand over another as morally inferior to us. This temptation is especially strong when the sin to which another person is tempted is one to which we feel no attraction whatsoever or which we find safely unattractive. Because we are confident that we would never do that, we find it easier to treat the person who would as particularly depraved. It is useful to our proud hearts precisely because we are sure that we are not personally susceptible to this depravity.
And yet it would be wrong for us to react to this possibility of self-righteous judgment by taking a ho-hum, cavalier attitude toward sexual sin and temptations. In the Bible, sexual immorality is a big deal. Most who are familiar with Scripture sense this. The subject of sexual immorality comes up often and is treated with heightened seriousness.
So here is our challenge: How do we understand and heed the seriousness of the Bible’s concern over sexual immorality while not giving space to our impulse to look down on others? I suggest three perspectives to help us maintain a proper biblical concern for sexual immorality without being self-righteous:
- Have a biblically high view of sexuality.
In 1 Corinthians 6:12–20, Paul explains to his readers why sexual immorality is so serious: It’s because sex is so precious. Paul opens his discussion by quoting a typical cultural understanding of sex—that it is just an appetite, a biological drive to be fulfilled: “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food” (6:13). Paul contradicts this directly with, “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” His point? This is not a mere issue of appetite, a biological need for the flourishing of the human animal. Human sexuality is not primarily biological; it is theological.
This assertion alone is in radical conflict with almost all that our culture believes and teaches about sexuality. But the further we go into this truth, the more incredible it becomes. For Paul goes on to describe the content of the theology of sex, which is nothing less than union with Christ: “For, as it is written, ‘The two shall become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” (6:16–17). He says the same thing to the Ephesians, “’…and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (5:31–32). We have only begun to plumb the riches of biblical teaching on the ways that sex as God designed it displays to us the wonder of the salvation given to us in union with Christ. His lavish love and delight in his Bride, the intimacy and affirmation of his setting apart his Bride as belonging to him exclusively, the safety of his commitment to never leave or forsake her—these are a few of the enormous gospel realities which true marital sexuality was designed to picture. Sexual immorality, in all its forms, destroys this picture.
David White says it this way:
“Sexual sin damages the self in a way that is unique, unlike any other sins. Why? Paul points to the profound mystery, reminding that sexuality is a reflection of the ultimate union with Jesus. Sexual sin dilutes the greatest wonder in the universe. The glorious hope of the world to come is living in a face-to-face relationship with Jesus—of which marriage and sexuality is the closest terrestrial analogy.”¹
In summary, sexual immorality is so serious because it corrupts and deprives us of something so good.
- Respect the personal and relational power God has given to sexuality.
No one needs to be convinced that sex offers powerful pleasure. The ubiquity and endless variety of options in sexual immorality reflect the pursuit of this pleasure. But lingering beneath our fascination with sexual pleasure, there remains a sense that something more profound is involved, something deeply personal and enduring. The Bible teaches that sex cements the bond of a husband and wife in a lifelong union (Mark 10:8–9). In some mysterious way, this bonding aspect is still present even when we rip sex out from its lifelong, marital context, as Paul explains, “Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For as it is written, ‘The two shall become one flesh’” (1 Corinthians 6:16). We can try to take sex out of the marriage bond, but we can never completely take the marriage bond out of sex. It’s just the way God made it.
As it turns out, there is even a biological component to this bonding. The pleasure of sex corresponds to the powerful release of certain chemicals that have the effect of forming a strong social bond.² On the one hand, this is a wonderful reality that should fill us with gratitude and praise. “Our bodies are the splendid interweaving of the physical and the spiritual. God’s design of our physiology should generate deep awe and worship.”³ But the dark side of this is that all forms of sexual immorality unleash this bonding power in destructive ways. As Paul says, “He who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her.” Or, as William Struthers warns concerning the use of pornography, “Unfortunately, with repeated sexual acting out in the absence of a partner, a man will be bound and attached to the image and not a person.”⁴ Imagine how this damages a future or present marriage. This biological bonding effect is also part of the reason people can speak of sexual addiction. Everything you do sexually contributes to a physiological momentum that builds toward a bondage not easily broken.
Sex is powerful. God made it so. This makes misuse of sex especially dangerous personally and relationally.
- Know that all humanity, yourself included, falls short in God’s design for sexuality.
Notice that my first two points do not apply to just one type of sexual sin. They are based on what sex truly is, the meaning God designed it to communicate, and the relational power God gave it. Every departure from the original design defaces the picture and abuses the power. Isn’t this Jesus’ point when he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart?” (Matthew 5:27–28). Jesus did not say it leads to adultery; it is adultery in the heart. It is an act of the heart that misuses sexual pleasure and violates its gospel-shaped design. Who of us is qualified to throw a first stone (John 8:7)? It is spiritually dangerous to focus moral concern on one kind of sexual sin without recognizing the commonality with our own transgressions.
If we have the Bible’s high view of sex as a picture of the Church’s union with Christ and a respect for the power God has given it, we will not only take sexual sin very seriously, but we will also examine ourselves, confess the many ways we have failed to desire and fulfill God’s perfect design, and cast ourselves again and again at the mercy of the gospel. Yes, sexual immorality is a big deal, so let’s keep pointing each other to our only faithful Bridegroom.
¹ See David White, God, You, & Sex (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2019), 148.
² See William M. Struthers, Wired for Intimacy (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009), 105.
³ God, You, & Sex, 82.
⁴ Wired for Intimacy, 105.
01 Jul 2021
Do the Ten Commandments intimidate you? I grew up hearing about them, and every so often they came up in the church services I attended. What were they anyway: Ten things that get us in trouble? Ten ways to keep people from enjoying life?
As I’ve grown in the Lord and studied the Scriptures, I’ve realized that these commands are God’s way of loving us by putting guardrails around our desires, thoughts, and behaviors. When God commands one thing, he is at the same time protecting us from what disobedience to that command brings.
The First Commandment: Keep God as our hearts’ priority
In my fourteen years of ministry at Harvest USA, I have probably discipled women with the First Commandment more prominently in view than any other. Women whose marriages have been devastated by a spouse’s sexual sin, or those who are battling to overcome pornography, emotionally entangled relationships with other women, sexual fantasies, and promiscuity, have all been helped by honest conversation about the First Commandment. It says, “And God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me’” (Exodus 20:1–3).
In other words, God loves us too much to allow other things to displace him in our desires, priorities, and hopes. When he is in his rightful place as loving Lord, Savior, and healer of our hearts, our relationships with people and our sex lives are protected.
Elevating people over God never ends well
Women and men alike wrestle with turning to created things, including God’s sweet gifts of people and the blessing of sexual joy, over relationship with him. Whether you call it codependency or idolatry of people, the heart’s motivation is the same: You need to make me feel good about myself, and if you don’t, I’m sunk.
Have you ever thought or said something like the following?
- Why hasn’t he texted me today?! Is he spending time with someone else? Why wasn’t I invited? Am I being replaced?
- I love her so much—I need her! If this relationship ends, I don’t want to live anymore; life has no meaning without it.
- You make my day, and you have the power to break my day. My heart, stability, and sense of being valuable and lovable rise and fall with how much attention you give me. You are me, and I am you. Don’t leave me!
- I know I’m a bit over the top in how involved I am in my kids’ lives, but they need me—I’m their mother! If my marriage is suffering, so what? God gave me these children, and they are my reason for being alive. If they don’t need me, I won’t exist anymore.
- I just can’t understand why my marriage isn’t as satisfying as I thought it would be. I mean, isn’t it supposed to be the one relationship in my life that meets all my needs? Isn’t my spouse supposed to complete me?
It’s good to desire satisfying and loving relationships
God is the Creator of relationships, whether in the context of friendships, family, ministry, work, neighborhoods, and, of course, spiritual siblings in the Body of Christ. However, God never intended for us to turn other people into our primary refuge or home. God wants us to depend on him, to live under his authority and care, and to grow in satisfaction with his love for us. When we are secure in Christ, our love for the people in our lives can be healthy, holy, and honoring to God. But when love for Christ and obedience to him become secondary to our relationships or aren’t a part of them at all, friendships, romantic relationships, mentoring relationships, and family relationships can all slide into idolatry.
According to the Bible, whenever something or someone sidelines God from our thoughts, desires, and focus, our lives have gotten off track. The toxic nature of these kinds of relationships can be difficult to diagnose because they can feel so intoxicating! The emotional buzz or euphoria that often accompanies intense conversations, physical affection, or someone’s adoration of us can be addictive. However, a dynamic of “I need your need of me, and you need my need of your neediness” is messy at best and destructive at worst. Instead of helping us to grow and flourish, sinful dynamics in our relationships imprison us.
I’ve had my share of relationships in which my love for and dependency upon God was displaced by my love for a person’s need of me or my role in that person’s life. I know what it’s like to be anxious, fearful, jealous, and insecure when relational terrain suddenly changes, and you’re left feeling ousted, left behind, and brokenhearted. God has me on a trajectory of growing freedom from interpersonal patterns that were mired down for years in toxic, unholy dependency.
No matter where you are, God is compassionately aware of the circumstances you’re in and knows, really knows, what you are feeling. If you are in relational turmoil, are you willing to have the eyes of your heart and mind reoriented toward him? To gaze upon who he is and then begin to diagnose why there is toxicity in one or more of your relationships? To consider who Jesus is and then move toward humbly understanding that people will be in their rightful places in our lives when he is in his rightful place?
We need faith-fueled realism
You may struggle to believe that God can change your codependent patterns, and perhaps you don’t feel desirous of change. Are you, however, willing to ask God to work “in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13)? Your first step in pursuing spiritual growth is to believe God’s Word and to surrender control of your life to him.
Your next step is to have realistic expectations. Most of us want quick, pain-free solutions to our problems, and problematic relationships are no exception! But your desires, interpersonal patterns, and relationships won’t change overnight. Instead, repentance brings about directional change—a slow, steady upward trajectory of growth, transformation, and healthiness.
What might growth look like?
- Honestly examining your relationships and asking others to give you feedback on how they see it.
- Putting space between yourself and a person upon whom you are too dependent, especially if you’ve been involved with each other outside of marriage. If you are married and involved in an affair, this relationship needs to be severed immediately!
- Initiating time with a new friend or an acquaintance, which shows a growth in your willingness to engage with other people relationally.
- Engaging with a community of believers through a Christ-centered, biblically faithful local church. God’s people are your “household of faith” (Galatians 6:10), and local churches provide a unique opportunity to cultivate a variety of types and depths of healthy relationships.
- Reading God’s Word as a way to know him, love him, and cultivate your relationship with him.
- Longing for God more and more, loving him, and seeking him out as your primary relationship.
Jesus frees us from toxic relational dynamics
People problems have been around as long as people have existed outside the Garden of Eden! You’re not alone in this struggle. Many are familiar with the fear, anger, anxiety, discontentment, jealousy, and pain that come when others don’t seem to like, love, or respond to them in the way they desire—in the way they’re convinced they need. Women and men alike have experienced what it’s like to feel trapped, even imprisoned, in a relationship that is obsessive and consuming.
That’s why, of all the prayers and songs David uttered from his heart as a shepherd, king, military commander, sinner, and chosen one of God, the cry that resonates with me the most is, “Bring me out of prison, that I may give thanks to your name! The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me” (Psalm 142:7). God has indeed brought me out of relational prisons and allowed me to have healthy, Christ-honoring relationships in my life. Even though I am surrounded by the righteous, I’ll never outgrow the need for God to be my refuge, first love, and source of security—and neither will you!
This post is based on Ellen’s 31-day devotional book, Toxic Relationships: Taking Refuge in Christ.
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.
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.
When you are with Jesus in glory, you will not look back on any pleasure in this world and think you’ve missed out.
The content of this video is based on David White’s new book, God, You, & Sex: A Profound Mystery, which is available now. When you buy God, You, & Sex from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.
26 Sep 2019
God created sex and wants us to know pleasure in it that leads to thanksgiving and worship of him as the Giver of good gifts. That’s the ultimate goal of sex in marriage.
The content of this video is based on David White’s new book, God, You, & Sex: A Profound Mystery, which is available now. When you buy God, You, & Sex from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.
06 Jul 2017
In the first part of my post, I talked about how sexual pleasure points to something greater than the mere physical experience of it. Many don’t realize that God loves pleasure, and his design for sex and sexuality in our lives is to give us a taste of his love and longing for us. You can read the first post here, and now on to three other aspects of godly sex that helps us better understand God’s purposes.
Godly sex serves
The only sex “how to” passage in the Bible is 1 Corinthians 7:1-5. It states each spouse “owes” the other “conjugal rights” and commands them not to deprive each other. It even says sex is a mandate in marriage; the only reason for not engaging sexually is when both agree specific time is needed to seek God in prayer (perhaps when facing a life or family crisis). This is another problem in many marriages: it’s too easy to let sexual expression fall by the wayside in the busyness of life. Juggling jobs, children, household responsibilities, church activities, and friendships take time. The Bible makes clear that this crucial area of marriage can’t be neglected. Couples must prioritize building mutual intimacy—emotional, spiritual, and physical—for their marriage to flourish. And deepening intimacy is further hindered when couples allow the accumulation of hurts, slights, fights, etc., to build until neither can muster the desire to be vulnerable again.
Against a culture proclaiming sex is about my pleasure, the Bible teaches sex is about giving pleasure to your spouse
Even though sex is “mandated,” there is no room in Christian marriage for sex on demand. Against a culture proclaiming sex is about my pleasure, the Bible teaches sex is about giving pleasure to your spouse. 1 Corinthians 7 mentions that each spouse’s body belongs to the other, but I should not read that passage thinking, “My spouse’s body is mine.” Instead, my body belongs to my wife; I’m called to use it to bless her. God designed sexuality in marriage to teach couples the joy and blessing of serving. God intends husband and wife to approach the marriage bed looking to pleasure his or her spouse—this is the recipe for a great sex life! And it is why a marriage must be marked by good communication. A dynamic sex life doesn’t come easily or naturally; it requires intentionality, effort, direct conversation, and practice! Part of the joy and wonder is discovering how to satisfy someone who’s built radically different than you!
Godly sex takes work
If sex is such an incredible blessing, why do so many Christian couples struggle to have a fulfilling sexual component to their relationship? First, many buy into the world’s lie that “sex = life.” This guarantees you will never be satisfied, and anyone telling you sex is life-giving is lying. There is only one Life Giver. Sex is glorious because it points beyond itself to the Lover of our souls. If we think it’s more than a signpost, we’re setting ourselves up for discontent. Sex will always be more like a piece of chocolate cake—a gift to be received with thanksgiving to God—than something that will change your life. Further, many couples have broken sexual histories or present struggles sullying their experience. Sexual sin mars the blessing God wants us to experience. That’s part of the reason sexual sin is described as a sin against self (1 Corinthians 6:18). So many marriages are impacted by porn use. It violates the call to forsake all others, and its effects are devastating. Porn brings out the base instincts of our fallen nature, focusing on physical appeal and the desire to copulate with abandon, completely ignoring God’s design that sexual desire be focused on serving another in an emotionally and spiritually intimate relationship. Those ensnared by porn live with perpetual discontent. No individual will ever satisfy. Internet porn programs us for constant novelty by providing innumerable sexual “partners,” leaving many people incapable of maintaining real relationships. Years ago secular researchers were stunned to discover the fastest-growing demographic of men dealing with erectile dysfunction were not elderly, but guys in their 20s and 30s, abusers of internet porn since adolescence. There’s even greater social devastation as a generation prefers images over real people. And this isn’t just a “guys’ problem”—women are also drawn to porn. Brokenness abounds in our sexuality, so we need to grasp God’s grace for forgiveness and healing.
Because God made us his image bearers, our sexuality is greater than a physical act. Image-bearing sexuality is about becoming one with another creature, emotionally and spiritually, as well as physically.
Because God made us his image bearers, our sexuality is greater than a physical act. Image-bearing sexuality is about becoming one with another creature, emotionally and spiritually, as well as physically. We were created to be known, and marriage should be the most significant place this happens. In marriage, we are invited back to the experience of “naked and unashamed,” to be known for who we truly are and experience profound love and acceptance. Marriages become broken and distant when it is not safe to be vulnerable. Sex is intended to be a celebration of the emotional and spiritual closeness experienced by husband and wife in all of life. The Hebrew word used most frequently in the OT for sexual intimacy is “to know,” because image-bearing sexuality should be the culmination of a deep knowing and oneness. A great sex life starts in life’s mundane moments: driving in the car, sitting in the living room, during long walks, and doing the dishes.
Practicing godly sex
These two aspects of sexuality—theological implications and practical applications—are crucial in helping couples express godly sexuality. Often couples want to know what behaviors are permitted in the marriage bed. Here’s where couples need to reflect on what they are pursuing and ask: Will my spouse be served, blessed, and encouraged? Or shamed, demeaned, and feel exploited? Is our activity a reflection of Christ’s love for his church? Will my spouse experience love, safety, joy, comfort through this? Will our behavior lead to my spouse’s flourishing, or will it mainly be for the benefit of one, turning the spouse into an object of self-centered pleasure? Honest reflection and discussion about motivation is critical, considering God’s intentions for sex in marriage.
For example, many in our culture were swept up in the 50 Shades phenomena, including Christians. But activities like sexual bondage (BDSM) are completely at odds with everything we’ve been considering. To inject humiliation, pain, shame, fantasy role-play, and violence into what God designed to be the most intimate place of love, mutual trust, respect, and safety is destructive to godly sex. Many behaviors celebrated by our culture are the result of porn’s destructive influence on our imagination, and safety, trust, and respect are violated when a spouse uses power or manipulation to get their way. And some Christian couples justify using porn to try to “spice up” their sex life. The marriage bed is a place where God wants us exclusively devoted to one another, focused on each other, learning of each other, not titillated by others.
Finally, there’s also no room for pouting when your advances are met with tired refusal. Focusing on one another forces us to balance our own longings with the desire to bless our spouse. And the cultural joke about a wife’s headache is increasingly inaccurate. Many wives are desperate for their husband to engage them sexually, but often he neglects her, consumed by his own struggle with pornography and other sexual sin.
Some Christians believe the world’s lie that maximum pleasure is the goal of sex. Scripture warns that in the last days people will be “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:4). God wants us to know him more fully in all of life, to worship him as our Creator and see that the world and life are charged with pleasure and glory as they reflect the wonder of his majesty. Although only partial in this life, he wants our eyes open now to this wonder, even as we long for its fullness. Sex, like all of life, is profoundly theological, while being gloriously earthy and physical. There should be a “Godward” orientation to every aspect of our lives. Through sexuality Christians are invited into deeper relationship with God, knowing our Creator’s delight in our experience of pleasures he designed for his glory and our good.
May we increasingly worship God through our sexuality, knowing that whether we fast or feast, sex is a signpost to the great consummation with Jesus, a herald of the glorious life to come.
You can watch Dave talk some more about this on his video: Just What is Godly Sex? – Part 2. These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
06 Jul 2017
Christians seem to know morality when it comes to pleasure, sex and sexuality, but most are not able to articulate the full picture of what God’s design for sex and sexuality is about. Dave White discusses his two-part blog on the need for Christians to understand the bigger picture that makes God’s boundaries for sex and sexuality understandable and necessary.
Click here to see Dave’s first video on his blog. Click here to read Dave’s second post on how sexual pleasure points to God and his purposes. And click here to read the full version of our latest harvestusa magazine.