We have taken up a study of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth and have called the series: Solving Problems in the Church. 1 Corinthians is addressed to various problems and questions that had arisen in this new church located in a very pagan and immoral city. In the first six chapters Paul addressed the problem of division in the church. Paul has encouraged the Corinthians to stop acting like the rest of the world and handle their differences with maturity in Christ and concern for the Kingdom of God.
As we turn to chapter 7 Paul writes, “Now for the matters you wrote about.” The Corinthians had apparently written a letter to Paul that contained some questions on matters on which they requested guidance and direction. Even though we may not be able to discern the exact questions that were asked, we can get a pretty good idea of the issue.
The first question the Corinthians asked had to do with marriage and singleness. The question seems to have been: Now that we have become followers of Christ and we know He can return at any time, should we abandon marriage? Paul answered the question in a very straightforward fashion. In fact, it is so straightforward that we are taken a little off guard. Paul’s words about singleness are direct and insightful. His words about intimacy in marriage often make us blush. However, these are important issues. Many marriage problems involve the very things Paul talks about.
THE BLESSING OF BEING SINGLE
Paul begins answering questions by saying, “It is good for a man not to marry.’ A better translation is, “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” The New Living Translation says, “It is good to live a celibate life”. Apparently the church was asking whether or not celibacy was a more spiritual option for believers. Perhaps they were thinking that the second coming of Christ would be during their lifetime so they would be better off not getting married.
In Paul’s answer he is not disparaging marriage. He was not saying, “It is better not to get married because when you get married you’ll wish you had remained single.” That was not at all what Paul is saying. Paul also was not leaving open the option of living a promiscuous single life. The issue was whether or not you should abstain from ANY sexual relationship.
Paul says there is nothing wrong with being single. He even refers to singleness as a gift. HOWEVER, the benefits of being single that Paul recognized were different from the benefits the world trumpets today. Today, people say you should stay single because: you can have more fun; you are more in control of your life; you can be intimate with more people; and you can enjoy your freedom.
Paul took an entirely different view which we see starting in verse 33,
32 I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33 But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— 34 and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. 35 I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.
Paul says the blessing of singleness is that you have a greater freedom to submit to and serve the Lord. A person who is married has family obligations that limit the time and energy he has to serve the Lord. Marriage makes certain demands. The single person doesn’t have these demands on their life so they can serve more fully.
We know of a man who believes he has been given the gift of singleness. Because he is not married he has the time and the finances to spearhead a very successful college ministry. Because he has no family he can have college students over at his house at midnight or visit with students at an all night restaurant, he can be available when there is a need and he can chaperone events and trips. His ministry would be impossible as a married person.
Here’s the message to those who are single either by choice or by circumstance (death, divorce, or you just haven’t found the mate you are looking for): You are not a second-class believer! You have the opportunity to serve God in a first-class way. I encourage you to take advantage of your freedom to do some things that others who are married cannot. Perhaps you can take advantage of the opportunity to go to another country for a short term mission trip or take on a demanding ministry. You can have a more dynamic life of prayer and study the Scriptures with greater diligence. You have time to write that book or take that class. Use your freedom to honor the Lord.
THE BLESSING OF MARRIAGE
Paul’s comments about singleness do not diminish marriage. In fact, Paul confesses that marriage is the right course for most people. Paul writes,
But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.
Paul is not trivializing marriage. Paul recognized that the sex drive is a powerful force. God created men and women to desire each other and that desire is strong. Paul is saying: rather than pervert this desire by immoral behavior, it is better for people to get married. Sexual intimacy was designed to bring a husband and wife together in marriage. Marriage is between one man and one woman. It is not between several partners and it is not between members of the same sex.
The next several verses can cause people to squirm.
3 The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. 5 Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
There is a good chance that men have already adopted these as their favorite verses. Some have decided it is the perfect time to start memorizing Scripture! Men read this passage and hear: “there should be a greater frequency of intimacy in our relationship.” They will double underline the words “do not deprive each other”. Men will have a tendency to use this verse like they do Ephesians 5:22, “Wives, submit to your husbands.” Men who do such things should not be surprised when their wives pull away!
Let’s carefully try to understand what Paul is saying. First, he is saying: sexual intimacy is an important part of marriage. This is the way God designed it to be. When entered into in the right manner, sexual intimacy
- Is a time of closeness that is unlike anything else we experience in relationship with another. Sex is not simply animal instinct; it connects two people in a very unique way. Within the confines of marriage there is a sense of security that comes from being fully vulnerable with another person and being accepted.
- Is a time of superior enjoyment. Sexual intimacy was supposed to be a rapture that you only shared with your spouse.
- Is an avenue to procreation. There are some who see having children as the sole purpose of sexual intimacy. Paul doesn’t seem to imply that two people should maintain a healthy sex life so they can have big families; he seems to indicate that this closeness is good for the relationship. However, sexual intimacy can lead to the wonderful gift of children.
- Is a hedge against marital unfaithfulness. Paul acknowledged that the sex drive is strong and powerful. A satisfying sexual relationship with your spouse is a great way to help you resist sexual temptation.
Second, it seems clear that because of the importance of sexual intimacy, sex should never be used as a weapon. Sometimes we treat our spouse like we do our children: if they misbehave we take away some of their privileges as punishment. I believe Paul is saying we should not withhold intimacy as a way of punishing a mate. Sexual indifference (which will be defined in different ways at different stages of life) is bad for several reasons. First, the lack of intimacy sends the negative message: “I don’t care about you” or “I no longer desire you.” This is a devastating message to a relationship. We are especially sensitive in this are of our lives. Second, sexual indifference creates frustration. This does not solve problems, it simply makes them worse. Third, continued withholding of intimacy makes people much more vulnerable to the temptation of Satan. We are drawn toward those who do seem to desire us. Satan can take the best of desirer and use it to lead us into sin.
Paul says that healthy people should deprive each other only when these three conditions are met,
- It is by mutual consent
- It is for the purpose of spiritual renewal
- It is for a short duration of time
So, why is this area such a source of contention in marriages? I think the answer is found in verses 3-4,
The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife.
Do you know why people often experience sexual dissatisfaction in marriage? I believe it boils down to one word: selfishness. Paul’s focus is outward directed. The husband should be seeking to show love and bring fulfillment to his wife. The wife should be looking to show love and bring fulfillment to her husband. Paul stresses our obligation to our mate! Our focus should not be about what “I need” but about what I can do to meet the needs of my partner. When we are selfish in our sexual demands your partner feels like they are simply being “used” or “tolerated”. In such cases the desire for intimacy diminishes quickly.
Warren Wiersbe has written,
It has been my experience as a pastor that when a husband and wife are yielded to the Lord, and when they seek to please each other in the marriage relationship, the marriage will be so satisfying that neither partner would think of looking elsewhere for fulfillment. “There are no sex problems in marriage,” a Christian counselor once told me, “only personality problems with sex as one of the symptoms.”
If this is an area of difficulty in your life you need to be looking for the deeper issues.
AVOIDING THE PROBLEMS
So what do we do? How do we correct this problem? I have several suggestions,
First, study Scripture. Study the passages about the duties of husbands and wives. Look at what God says to YOU! Our tendency is to look for faults in our spouse. Instead, study what God says to you. Men, instead of focusing on how your wife should be submissive, focus on how you can better love her as Christ loves the church. And wives, look for how you can better encourage and support your husband. Look for ways to build him up rather than tear him down. Determine to be the kind of spouse that God calls you to be (even if your spouse does not seem to reciprocate at first).
Second, commit your marriage to prayer. Instead of merely complaining to the Lord about all the problems that exist in your spouse, try praying for God to make you into a better husband or wife. Ask God to help you to truly listen and understand. Ask God to enable you to meet the needs of your mate.
Third, become educated. The only sex education our society seems to be interested in is geared toward engaging in sexual relationships without the consequences of pregnancy or disease. How foolish. There are ALWAYS consequences to sexual intimacy. There is no such thing as meaningless sex.
How much better to educate people on the difference between men and women? How much better off we would be to talk about the keys to a fulfilling sex life? Men and women need to understand that they want and need different things. Willard F. Harley, Jr. has written a very popular book titled, HIS NEEDS, HER NEEDS. In the book he lists the wants and needs of men and compares it with the needs and wants of women. This is not an inspired list. It does not come from God, but it is helpful. Here are the top five for men and for women.
What men need
- Sexual fulfillment (testosterone drives us to want intimacy and to want our wives to desire us)
- Recreational Companionship (we want someone to hang out with)
- An Attractive Spouse (it not so much that men want a model for a wife; they want someone who wants to look nice for them)
- Domestic Support (they want someone to help take care of them)
- Admiration (they want to know their wives admire and respect them)
What women want is a little different,
- Affection (this is not the same as sex; women want someone to cherish them, appreciate them, and pursue them. They want someone who will continue to date them and “sweep them off their feet”)
- Conversation (they want their husband to talk to interact with them)
- Honesty and Openness (lying husbands end up with cold wives)
- Family Commitment (want a man who will give priority to family)
- Financial Support (financial security is generally more important for a woman than for a man)
These differences are important to realize. Kevin Lehman wrote a helpful book titled, “Sex Begins in the Kitchen”. The whole point of the book was that how a husband treats his wife in the morning in the kitchen will determine how the wife treats the man in the bedroom at night.
Husbands and wives also need to take the time to learn about the anatomical differences between men and women. Men and women respond differently. Gary Smalley says, “Men are like microwaves and women are like crock-pots.” Our sexual interests are piqued differently and our sexual satisfaction comes about differently. We must take the time to learn by reading and talking to our mates (it’s a fun class!). If we will take the time to become educated we will find ourselves married to happier and more satisfied partner.
Let’s face it, there are lots of things we are uncomfortable talking about. We don’t like talking about our incomes, our weight (unless we’re bragging), politics, or our sex lives. Truthfully, we’re not only uncomfortable talking about these things . . . we are uncomfortable listening to these conversations.
I know this has probably been an uncomfortable message (as much for me, as for you). However, this is a real and significant part of life. There is no reason for us to hand this area of intimacy over to the world to be corrupted and debased. It is much better to hear God’s Word on the subject. God invented the sexual attraction that exists between men and women. He is our best source for how to have a great sex life.
To those who are single and to those who are married, God tells us the same thing: honor Him. If you are single (or single again), use your freedom to honor the Lord. Dream big and reach far. Invest your time and money in eternal things.
If you are married, honor the Lord by pursuing the kind of relationship God wants you to have. Talk to each other about these things. If you follow His advice you will have a marriage that is filled with passion, fulfillment and a satisfaction the world cannot duplicate.