The Pursuit of God

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Applying 1 Corinthians 7: Paul Talks Sex & Marriage

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This is a continuation of Applying 1 Corinthians 6.

As we start this new chapter, Paul starts addressing questions that some of the believers in Corinth had asked him in a letter. Realize that the two Corinthian letters that we have in our Bible are only a small sample of all the letters that were exchanged between Paul and this church.

Now regarding the questions you asked in your letter. Yes, it is good to abstain from sexual relations. But because there is so much sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband.

The husband should fulfill his wife’s sexual needs, and the wife should fulfill her husband’s needs. The wife gives authority over her body to her husband, and the husband gives authority over his body to his wife. (1 Cor. 7:1-4)

Paul is not God, and his statements must not be blindly accepted as the Holy Spirit’s leading in your personal life. Sexual abuse abounds in this world and human beings are selfish little beasts at heart, so you need to be careful with this business about giving your spouse authority over your body. We humans love to label our selfish desires as “needs” when they are not needs at all. So just because your wife wants to have sex right now, it doesn’t mean you should come running like a trained dog. And if your husband wants to get kinky with the whips and chains, you need to tell him to take a hike (see Why BDSM is Bad for Your Soul). We don’t just lay down like doormats. The fact that we are married doesn’t give us license to abuse and degrade each other. God detests coercion in the bedroom. Sex should always be done in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Your wife is not some free striptease show. Your husband is not some machine who you can get an orgasm from whenever you feel like it. When we treat each other like objects, we ignite God’s wrath against us. All humans are the property of God, and He has placed the highest possible value on both the saved and the unsaved by dying for us on a cross. When we disrespect our spouses in the bedroom, we dishonor God.

Do not deprive each other of sexual relations, unless you both agree to refrain from sexual intimacy for a limited time so you can give yourselves more completely to prayer. Afterward, you should come together again so that Satan won’t be able to tempt you because of your lack of self-control. I say this to give you permission to stay away from sexual relations for a time. It is not a command to do so. (1 Cor. 7:5-6)

As a general rule, men need sex more than women do. This isn’t a flaw, it’s the way God made them. There are also exceptions to every rule. In some marriages, the wife is the one who has a more intense desire for sex. The point is this: you’re supposed to be taking care of each other. If you had two kids and one of them needed more food, you’d give it to him. God didn’t mass produce human beings on an assembly line—He made us different on purpose. If you’re the one who doesn’t need or want as much sex, it’s easy for you to blow off your spouse. But when you leave your spouse strung out in the sex department, your selfishness is only going to come back on your own head. The sex drive is one of the strongest drives we have. To tell someone to get over their need for sex is like telling someone to stop breathing—it isn’t humanly possible. You don’t get to decide when your body will be hungry and your spouse doesn’t get to decide when his or her body will want sex. It doesn’t mean we rush to accommodate every little craving, but leaving your spouse strung out until they’re desperate is just mean.

The power of the sex drive must be respected. When it can’t find satisfaction through acceptable channels, it will start looking elsewhere. This world is full of sexual temptations. When you keep your spouse strung out in the bedroom, it’s like you’re shoving them into the arms of someone else.

Now there are situations in which sex is not physically possible. Clearly these situations require different handling. If God does something to your spouse which makes him or her unable to have intercourse, you need to recognize that God is intentionally putting you through a growth trial. Trying to make your spouse feel bad about something they have no control over is only going to get you in trouble with God. In these cases, we need to direct our frustration where it belongs: to God, not our spouse. We then need to ask the Holy Spirit to help us learn what He wants to teach us through this trial.

In this letter, Paul addresses the particular situation of spouses abstaining from sex for the sake of spiritual matters. Let’s be honest: when we don’t want to do something, we’re very good at dressing up our selfishness in holy sounding agendas. “I need to take a month off from sex because I’m trying to pursue God.” And how does taking care of your spouse’s needs get in the way of you pursuing God when He is the One who commands you to take care of him or her? Before we decide to take long breaks from sex, we need to talk to our spouses and make sure they’re feeling equipped to join us on our abstinence page. Then we need to set a clear limit on how long we’re going to go without sex and keep our word about coming back together when we said we would.

Sex is a very loaded topic, and many of us really don’t enjoy the experience because we have some unprocessed baggage from the past. If this is where you’re at today, ask the Holy Spirit to show you what you can do to improve your situation. Honesty in the bedroom can go a long ways towards improving your experience with sex. Your spouse can’t read your mind. We need to help each other by communicating. For help with this, see Marriage Solutions: Overcoming Sexual Trauma as a Team.

But I wish everyone were single, just as I am. Yet each person has a special gift from the Lord, of one kind or another. So I say to those who aren’t married and to widows—it’s better to stay unmarried, just as I am. But if they can’t control themselves, they should go ahead and marry. It’s better to marry than to burn with lust. (1 Cor. 7:7-9)

Most of us are not equipped by God to remain single for life. Most of us have an intense desire to marry and have all the of the benefits that come with that union. There’s nothing extra holy about remaining single. Unfortunately, Paul’s personal opinion on this topic has resulted in miserable torment for many sincere souls who have been led to believe that God thinks single is better. God certainly does not think single is better, and He never said those who serve Him in the Church should abstain from marriage. Catholic priests: realize that Yahweh was all for His Levite priests getting married and having families. It isn’t God who is demanding that you choose between Him and human relationships. This nonsense about mandatory celibacy is something the Church came up with under the guidance of Satan who is trying to set you up to fail. God is the One who invented marriage, sex, and kids and He thinks they’re all great. So if you’ve taken a vow of celibacy and now you feel like you’re drowning in lust, read When to Break Your Vow of Celibacy for help.

But for those who are married, I have a command that comes not from me, but from Yahweh. A wife must not leave her husband. But if she does leave him, let her remain single or else be reconciled to him. And the husband must not leave his wife. (1 Cor. 7:10-11)

God hates divorce. God has always hated divorce. We need to not water down God’s view of sin by acting like divorce is no big deal. At the same time, you need to not fall into the trap of thinking God views you as a list of sins. God hating divorce and God hating you because you got a divorce are two very separate issues.

The number one issue God has with us and divorce is that we’re not sincerely seeking His wisdom when our marriages fall on hard times. First we don’t listen to Him about who we should marry. Then once we’re in a mess, we feel free to just dump our spouse without asking God for His input. Adding sin upon sin doesn’t get us anywhere. If we got married for the wrong reasons, the solution is not to continue to let our flesh lead us, but to start getting serious about our submission to God. God is a great Redeemer, and there’s no situation that He can’t turn around.

Would God ever tell a Christian to get a divorce? Absolutely. But you can’t possibly say that God is authorizing you to get a divorce until you’ve done some serious praying. Let’s remember that God is the One who will be judging us, and our little games don’t work with Him. He knows when we’re really seeking His wisdom and when we’re just throwing up some lame prayer so we can tell ourselves and our friends that we sought God’s will.

What if you’re already divorced? Again, you need to be seeking God’s wisdom. Pleasing God is all that matters, and when He wants you to do something, He will make it clear to you.  Should you move on? Should you try to reconcile? These are things you need to ask God. There is no blanket rule that applies across the board. God hates divorce. Once we get involved in something God has said He hates, things get complicated, and we need Him to guide us through the murky waters step by step. But He will guide us, because God doesn’t just ditch us the minute our marriages go south. No matter where you are currently at, God’s pleasure is well within your grasp. God wants us to be living in alignment with Him, and we can choose to do that from the midst of any situation.

Now, I will speak to the rest of you, though I do not have a direct command from the Lord. If a fellow believer has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to continue living with him, he must not leave her. And if a believing woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to continue living with her, she must not leave him. For the believing wife brings holiness to her marriage, and the believing husband brings holiness to his marriage. Otherwise, your children would not be holy, but now they are holy. (1 Cor. 7:12-14)

This bit about parents making their children holy is complete rubbish. Realize that Paul is lugging around a lot of ridiculous superstitions in his personal theology that can really bog you down if you aren’t on your guard. We are each judged individually by God. No one can make anyone else holy in His sight.

Let’s get real about the benefits of having a Christian in your home. Unless that Christian is serious about his or her relationship with God, they aren’t going to be beaming some holy light the moment they walk through the door. When Christians are living in rebellion, they give Christianity a bad name and actually discourage their kids from wanting to seek God.

As the only Christian spouse in your marriage, it’s not on you to get your spouse saved. Spiritual illumination is the Holy Spirit’s job, and He is going to work with your spouse at His own pace. In our zeal to save our loved ones from Hell, we often forget to respect the Holy Spirit’s Authority and we start trying to ram the Gospel down our spouse’s throat. This doesn’t lead anywhere good. If you’re stressed about your spouse’s current spiritual state, you need to take your struggle to God and practice releasing your spouse into God’s hands. God wants your spouse to have the option of rejecting Him, and as a Christian, you need to respect God’s wishes. You also need to remember that God loves your spouse far more than you do, and there is no way God will let your spouse be lost due to a lack of information or resources. Anyone who sincerely seeks the truth will find it. In the meantime, using your spouse’s current standing with God as an excuse to divorce them doesn’t fly with God. Marriage is a separate issue than spiritual illumination. God hates divorce, so you cannot consider getting a divorce unless you receive clear authorization from the Holy Spirit.

But if the husband or wife who isn’t a believer insists on leaving, let them go. In such cases the believing husband or wife is no longer bound to the other, for God has called you to live in peace. (1 Cor. 7:15)

We need to be careful with this verse. Paul is not God. If your spouse wants a divorce, you need to pray and ask the Holy Spirit for guidance on how you should respond. You don’t just rip one line out of the Bible and say, “Great! Here’s my free pass to dump you.” God isn’t going to be judging you based on how well you conformed to the opinions of human Paul. God is going to judge you based on how you responded to His direct convictions. When God wants you to do something, He’ll make that clear to you. When God tells you to do something that counters what Paul told the Corinthians to do, God is the One you need to be listening to.

Don’t you wives realize that your husbands might be saved because of you? And don’t you husbands realize that your wives might be saved because of you? (1 Cor. 7:16)

While God certainly uses us as His instruments in this world, we need to be guarded against taking glory that belongs to Him. It is the Holy Spirit who illuminates souls with truth. He is the One deserving of praise. While it is a great privilege to be involved in the Holy Spirit’s work, we can’t take credit for the things He accomplishes. To say that someone got saved because of you is more than a little arrogant. People only ever get saved because of God.

Each of you should continue to live in whatever situation Yahweh has placed you, and remain as you were when Yahweh first called you. This is my rule for all the churches. For instance, a man who was circumcised before he became a believer should not try to reverse it. And the man who was uncircumcised when he became a believer should not be circumcised now. For it makes no difference whether or not a man has been circumcised. The important thing is to keep Yahweh’s commandments.

Yes, each of you should remain as you were when Yahweh called you. Are you a slave? Don’t let that worry you—but if you get a chance to be free, take it. And remember, if you were a slave when Yahweh called you, you are now free in Yahweh. And if you were free when Yahweh called you, you are now a slave of Christ. Yahweh paid a high price for you, so don’t be enslaved by the world. Each of you, dear brothers and sisters, should remain as you were when Yahweh first called you. (1 Cor. 7:17-24)

Paul puts out a useful caution here: don’t rush to turn your life upside down the moment you become a Christian. Circumcision was a huge deal under the Old Covenant, but it is no longer required under the New Covenant (see All About Circumcision). In their zeal to honor Yahweh, some Jewish men could be tempted to rush out and undergo some painful surgeries. Paul says this isn’t necessary. As new Christians, we want to be guarded against demons sending us into anxious tizzies. We need to remember that God responds to our hearts. Maybe you have an “I love Satan” tattoo on your arm and now that you’re saved you feel terribly ashamed of it. Why? Is God really doubting your love for Him because of your skin décor? Not hardly. God never misunderstands you and He doesn’t get hung up on meaningless externals. Before you start doing things to your body, pray about it, and be open to God leading you in some unexpected directions.

Maybe when you become a Christian, you’re in a career that isn’t God-honoring. Maybe you’re a bartender. Maybe you’re a boxer. Maybe you’re a lingerie model. Before you freak out and start turning your life upside down, pray about it. Give God time to tell you what He wants you to do. Remember that when God speaks to you, His direction will be clear, doable, and encouraging (see Identifying False Conviction: Three Easy Tests).

We need to leave room for God to surprise us with His direction in our lives. For every general moral guideline that God puts out, there are countless exceptions to that rule. Before you decide that you need to dump all of your unsaved friends or leave your job or change your body, talk to the Holy Spirit. It’s never too soon to practice trusting that God will guide you in life. Remember that pleasing God is a simple matter of soul attitude. As long as you sincerely want God to have His way in your life, He will.

Now regarding your question about the young women who are not yet married. I do not have a command from the Lord for them. But the Lord in His mercy has given me wisdom that can be trusted, and I will share it with you. (1 Cor. 7:25)

This is a strange bit of doubletalk. Is Paul speaking for God or not? First he says he has not received any specific answer from God regarding the Corinthians’ question, then he says he has general wisdom which can be trusted. What does this mean? “I’m going to say something that’s not from God, but you should pretend like it’s from God anyway because God has made me so wise?” Well, Paul might think he’s God’s equal in the wisdom department, but we certainly aren’t going to accept such an arrogant claim as being valid.

Because of the present crisis, I think it is best to remain as you are. If you have a wife, do not seek to end the marriage. If you do not have a wife, do not seek to get married. But if you do get married, it is not a sin. And if a young woman gets married, it is not a sin. However, those who get married at this time will have troubles, and I am trying to spare you those problems. (1 Cor. 7:26-28)

“The present crisis” is a reference to the end times. All of the New Testament boys believed they were living in the last days because Jesus had intentionally deceived them on this point (see How long is a biblical generation?). Trying to spare people troubles, Paul advises those who are single to stay single. Well, we can now see that his advice was misplaced, because he really wasn’t living in the end times at all.

Soon you really will be living in the end times, because those times are going to begin very shortly. Does this mean you shouldn’t get married or have babies? Well, why would you avoid such things? Do we really think we can get out of trials that God wants us to have by avoiding marriage and pregnancy? Getting married and having kids are issues you should be seeking God’s advice on in your own life. Pondering your place in human history is not an acceptable stand in for seeking guidance from the Holy Spirit. Maybe God wants you to be running for your life in a pregnant state. Maybe He wants you to go into the end times with a bunch of kids weighing on you. Is it going to be tougher to go into the end times with a baby in tow? Sure, but maybe that’s the kind of tough God feels you need in order for you to grow as fast as He wants you to. Is it a burden to have a spouse during the end times? Not necessarily. A spouse can be a great blessing. Let’s not start viewing God like some limited Being who can’t figure out how to make His best plan go forward in your life if you make things too complicated by starting a family or getting married. If you feel like God is putting the desire for marriage or kids on your heart, then go with that. And while you’re at it, remember that just because you go into the end times single and childless, it doesn’t mean God intends to keep you that way.

God is going to be doing a lot of family rearrangement during the end times. Some of you who have no kids right now are going to end up getting assigned kids by God during this period (see Preparing for the End Times: Serving without Limits). Many of you will have your loved ones killed off by God only to have Him bring you new people to love later on. We need to go into this period with wide open minds and be ready for God to lead us in some very unexpected directions.

But let me say this, dear brothers and sisters: The time that remains is very short. So from now on, those with wives should not focus only on their marriage. Those who weep or who rejoice or who buy things should not be absorbed by their weeping or their joy or their possessions. Those who use the things of the world should not become attached to them. For this world as we know it will soon pass away.

I want you to be free from the concerns of this life. An unmarried man can spend his time doing the Lord’s work and thinking how to please Him. But a married man has to think about his earthly responsibilities and how to please his wife. His interests are divided. In the same way, a woman who is no longer married or has never been married can be devoted to the Lord and holy in body and in spirit. But a married woman has to think about her earthly responsibilities and how to please her husband. I am saying this for your benefit, not to place restrictions on you. I want you to do whatever will help you serve the Lord best, with as few distractions as possible. (1 Cor. 7:29-35)

Paul means well, but he is thinking way too small. Human relationships are some of God’s favorite tools to use in drawing us closer to Him. You should not accept the idea that you are limited on how far you can go with God just because you’re married. Remember that Paul is speaking as a man who feels he has the gift of singleness, and he’s clearly letting his own calling bias the way he views others.

God loves variety and He intentionally leads us down different paths. There isn’t one right way to do things, there are many right ways. What is right for you is something only God can tell you. If He calls you to be married, then that’s the path that is going to draw you closest to Him. If He calls you to be single, then that’s the path that will be best for you. Don’t let Paul’s lack of confidence in God’s abilities bog you down. We can all get far closer to God in this life than we dare to imagine. Instead of deciding for God what He can’t do, ask Him to have His total way in your life and then get ready for Him to surprise you.

But if a man thinks that he’s treating his fiancée improperly and will inevitably give in to his passion, let him marry her as he wishes. It is not a sin. But if he has decided firmly not to marry and there is no urgency and he can control his passion, he does well not to marry. So the person who marries his fiancée does well, and the person who doesn’t marry does even better. (1 Cor. 7:36-38)

The true gift of singleness frees us up from an intense need for sex, so it’s easy for us to pass on marriage. If this is where you’re at today, you shouldn’t view yourself as flawed. Getting married isn’t a requirement.

If this isn’t where you’re at today, you’re not flawed, either. The true gift of singleness is far less common than we pretend. Many people who choose the path of celibacy do so without God’s empowerment and they end up in a major mess. It isn’t a spiritual flaw to crave sex—it’s normal and natural. God is pro-sex. Intercourse and orgasms were His idea and there’s nothing inappropriate about them when we are doing things God’s way. Because Paul can’t see past his own bias, he keeps saying that it’s better to be single, but he’s wrong. It’s not better, it’s just different. God likes variety. He likes single and He likes married. He made sex a big part of our lives on earth, yet when we get to Heaven there won’t be any sex. Clearly God sees value in both the presence and absence of sex. You need to let God, not Paul, define what God’s best looks like in your life.

A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but only if he loves the Lord. But in my opinion it would be better for her to stay single, and I think I am giving you counsel from God’s Spirit when I say this. (1 Cor. 7:39-40)

Paul keeps harping on the supremacy of being single, but we need to set that aside as his personal bias. This business about a woman only marrying another believer brings up the issue of being equally yoked. This concept reaches far beyond two technical Christians getting together. Christians come in many varieties. There are lukewarm Christians, rebellious Christians, and truly devoted Christians. If you are a serious Christian and you marry a rebellious Christian, you’re asking for trouble. But here again, there are general rules and there are exceptions to the rules. When it comes to deciding who you are personally going to marry, you need to follow God’s leading in your life and realize His wisdom is far more trustworthy than your hormones.

Whenever we are trying to make a decision in life, we need to remember one simple bottom line: pleasing God is all that matters. Seeking His guidance, obeying His convictions, and asking Him to have His total way in your life is how you end up experiencing God’s best plan for you.

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