Friday, November 13, 2009

Sexual Honor In Marriage

This is sermon #16 from First Corinthians. I would develop some things further today, but the practicality what I said long ago still applies.

1 Corinthians 7:1-7


This sermon is for husbands and wives. I do not often focus a sermon so narrowly, but I do so this time for two reasons. The first is that this passage is about husbands and wives. The second is that husbands and wives today need to hear what God's Word says about a subject that is so relevant, as we saw in the last passage, in an X-rated world.

This passage of Scripture has been abused off and on in the church for 2000 years, so much so that some people think spiritual Christians see the human sexual relationship as some second-class, almost evil, activity –– as if sexual intercourse itself was part of the Fall.

The way the NIV translates the first verse does not help things, either. You see, the punctuation we so take for granted in our written texts was not part of the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. We supply that as part of the translation, and translation relies a great deal on interpretation.

The first phrase of this passage tells us Paul is responding to something the Corinthians had written: Now for the matters you wrote about.... Then comes the next thing, which literally says, It is good for a man not to touch a woman. What it means is, "It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman."

Now one translation question is this (and it comes down to the interpretation of the whole passage): is Paul speaking here, or is he quoting something the Corinthians have said to him in their letter? I think the best translation would be: Now for the matters you wrote about: "It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman."

To put the whole thing in context, there were some Christian wives at Corinth who applied the concept of being "spiritual" in an extreme way –– so extreme that they were not having sexual relations with their husbands. Sex was part of this temporal world, they said, and spiritual people do not need such. The husbands, in turn, were going to the temple prostitutes (the subject of the preceding paragraph).

Understood this way, the whole passage makes more sense. And even more, understood this way, Paul is correcting a view of sexuality that some in the church have tried to hang on him for all these years. It is important that we grasp this. It is good for us that the Corinthians had this problem, for it caused Paul to give us a Christian view of the sexual relationship of Christian husbands and wives. That is very important for us as we live in a culture that makes sexuality such a big thing. What is the Christian response? God's answer to our sexuality is marriage.

First, though, I need to give a few qualifiers. Marriage is not merely a license for sexual pleasure. Neither is the mere fact of a marriage a guarantee of a good sex life. If the act of marriage was an entrance into a magic world where everyone was satisfied and happy, there would be no affairs. We would not hear songs on the radio with words like,

Oh, it's sad to belong to someone else

when the right one comes along.

What should marriage be? What does it imply, sexually speaking? Can long-term marriage work any more? Can a person have a great sex life over the years with the same spouse? Are these questions that Christians should be asking? Does God care about the sex life of a husband and wife?

Let's try to get some perspective. The Bible tells us that God created humans as a special category: So God created Man in his own image (Gen. 1:27). And the same verse says God created us sexually: male and female he created them. That sexuality was given expression before the Fall: God blessed them and said to them, 'Be fruitful and increase in number' (Gen. 1:28). It was after that creation of male and female, and the command to procreate, that God's assessment is given: God saw all that he had made, and it was very good (Gen. 1:31).

Yes, the Fall changed things. Sin coming into our world caused relational breakdown. I do not know all it means, but part of the curse on Eve was: Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you (Gen. 3:16b). I think that is why women have been given the short end of things throughout history; but because it is part of the curse, I think it is something that Jesus has undone through his death, and part of extending his kingdom means husband and wife mutuality.

Now let's get back to Paul and his words to the Corinthians about husbands and wives. In short, he says there is to be full sexuality in marriage. Specifically, he says that three different ways –– each with increasing implication. The first is v2: Each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband. The second is in v3: The husband should give to his wife her due, likewise the wife.... to her husband. The third is in v4: The wife does not have authority over her own body, but her husband does. Likewise, the husband does not have authority over his own body, but his wife does.

The language here is totally sexual. In v2, "have his/her own" is biblical usage for sexual relations (Ex. 2:1; Deut. 28:30; Isa. 13:16). And the words, "each should" means that Paul thinks marriage is the usual thing for people in the Christian community, and not the exception.

Why get married? One reason is for the sexual relationship. In my pre-marital counseling I tell young men and women that if the desire to give physical pleasure to the other is not part of their reason for marriage, they should not get married. Paul says such pleasure is a married person's "duty."

Now this doesn't mean it is something over which you grit your teeth and endure. The old story of a mother telling her daughter on her wedding day to "just bear it" is not a Christian view of sexuality and marriage. It is, instead, an affirmation that marriage means a sexual relationship. Jesus said, For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh (Mk 10:7,8a). And what is the reason? They are male and female. Sexual.

Sex is good. God made it that way. Read the Scriptures. The wisdom writer said in Proverbs, ...rejoice in the wife of your youth...may her breasts satisfy you always... may you ever be captivated by her love (5: 18,19). That sounds like physical pleasure to me. It is sexual excitement continuing throughout the marriage.

And it is not just from the man's point of view. Read the Song of Solomon. The woman in that Bible lesson knew what sexual passion was. I often point out in pre-marital counseling that it is the woman who is endowed with a sexual organ that has no other purpose than physical pleasure.

What Paul says in v4 may cause a bit of consternation in our day of self rights and independence: in marriage, a person does not own his or her own body. Another thing I tell couples in pre-marital counseling is that they are giving their lives away. If you are not ready for that –– if you do not love or trust that other person that much –– you are are not ready for marriage.

There is a reason for that. It is such a level of love and trust that makes sex work over the long-run of a committed marriage. Sex in marriage is a special gift. You are giving to one other special person what you cannot really give to another. Marriage is giving yourself away. Sex is a celebration of giving yourself away to someone you love and trust that much. Sex is a celebration of receiving abandoned pleasure from someone who loves and trusts you that much. When you give your body away like that, there is no shame –– it's like recapturing a bit of Eden. When you can trust to give your body away like that, there is no greater earthly exhilaration.

I hope you are hearing some implications, but just to be sure I will be specific. Sex in marriage is not a matter of demanding what is due you or giving what is expected and required by the very concept of marriage. Sex is not just physical acts of pleasure. A husband will not be satisfied by a wife who is passive and "lets him." A wife will not be satisfied by a husband who thinks good sex is a matter of pressing a few magic buttons at just the right time.

Satisfying sex is knowing a sense of fullness and happiness inside after the physical part is over. A pop song from years back that said something good was, "after the loving, I'm still in love with you." There is a fulfillment that comes when a husband and wife have given and received in ways that trust and self-worth are enhanced.

Have you ever thought that a spouse's opinion can be either the most exhilarating or the most crushing thing in the world? Husbands, we have the power to make our wives feel like the most beautiful woman in the world. Wives, you can make your husbands feel as though he is God's special gift to the world. It is out of that kind of relationship that great sex happens –– not because it is the goal, but because the sexual relationship is best when it is a celebration of life between a husband and wife who are totally given to each other.

How can that happen? I am going to focus my comments even more narrowly. Husbands, if we want our marriages to be so good that we are not enticed by this X-rated world, there are things we can do to help our wives love us like perhaps we never thought possible.

(The same is true for wives, but I would prefer a good wife to tell other wives what to do –– or wives can make their own applications, which is better than making an expectation list for their husbands from what I say.)

Someone has said the best four-letter word for sex is "talk." That is where I would ask husbands to begin. A grunt or two during supper is not enough for a husband to give a wife. Some husbands operate under the assumption once expressed by Archie Bunker to Edith: "I told you once that I loved you, and if I ever change my mind I'll let you know." It is not enough to only "show" your love by all the things you do. Tell her.

Sexuality is one part of a relationship, and relationships need people relating to one another. A wife needs real conversation. She thrives when she sees her husband simply enjoying her presence. A wife needs to hear thankfulness for the small things. How often do husbands take for granted the meals and the laundry which are so faithfully done? Yes, we each have our jobs to do, but no one likes to be treated with presumption –– as if she'll always be there. The way things are today, she might not be if someone else notices and you do not.

Another key to relationships is time. It takes time to talk, and most of us need to plan for quality time. Leftovers is not enough, even if it happens that way (and it probably won't). I have recently been trying to "date" again –– plan a meal out every week or two, drive to her work-place once a week for Libby's lunch break, send love notes and buy special cards to let her know how special she is to love me so much. Libby and I try to have an overnight away every couple of months or so; she can forget other demands more easily if she's away from them.

Relationships mean learning about the other person. People like to feel important, and wives need to feel like the most important person in the world in the eyes of their husbands. Don't buy your wife only what you would like for her to have; find out what she likes and get it for her. Think of her feelings and hopes –– and you can do that only if you have learned who she is on the inside.

Husbands need to learn some things about female physiology. We men have one sexual hormone to drive us on our way; women have several hormones that are on sometimes and off sometimes. If men's hormones worked like women's, we would have a week when our beards would grow like crazy, and then suddenly quit for a few weeks. When a wife says she does not feel good, believe her and know her well enough to know even without asking what you can do for her to make her feel loved.

Don't wait for an anniversary or a birthday. Do something special for your wife, and then tell her, "it's just because you are so wonderful, and I love you." Watch a TV show she likes with her, and then let her tell you what she likes about it.

There is one thing I have found to help me keep this in perspective, and to keep me motivated in my marriage relationship: I think about what my wife has done--she has given her life to me.... she trusts me.... she gives me the gift of herself (the most precious thing she can give), and only asks that I treat such a gift with the reverence it deserves.

Reverence –– it's not only for God –– is also for that special one God brings into your life. And let me just mention one thing that is grossly irreverent: husbands who belittle their wives. You have heard it or seen it. A look that says her idea is absurd, or actually speaking of any weakness she has in front of others. So often it is to make the husband look good (smarter, in better shape or whatever) in contrast to his wife, when in fact a man doing that to his wife causes him to look like a clod.

Do you know what comes out of a relationship where there is caring and reverence? Passionate love. A love that cares.... a love that wants to be reciprocal. It's a love that nothing in an X-rated world can match.

But what about marriages that are not that way? First of all, do all you can to take them in that direction. But this world is not ideal. Not everyone will have this kind of marriage. Does that mean one is then free to look elsewhere for it? If a wife or husband does not give to the other all that the one hopes, is that justification for sexual looseness? You know the answer.

As wonderful as marital sex can be, that is not our ultimate fulfillment. God has given us an incredible gift with marriage and sexual relationships. But it is that –– a gift from God, and the gift cannot be more important than the Giver. When we try to do that, the gift is no longer a gift –– it is something stolen, and that brings fear and guilt and emptiness.

Later in this chapter Paul will give some godly instructions for when it doesn't happen ideally. But for today, the word is for those who are married and wanting to make it work. We need to know God has given us our sexuality to help us celebrate life and love and the gift of one to another. There are things we need to do to keep it real and alive, but the God who has given us such a gift wants to be in our lives helping us love in a way that our marriage will be all that he wants it to be. Husband and wife, are you doing your part? It can happen this very day.

Do you know how? Maybe some of you need to go home and find a private place to apologize. Some of you may need to be vulnerable enough to say that you have hurt for a long time over something that was said or done, but that along with the hurt you also ache for a love and closeness that is not there right now. Others may need to say to their spouse, "I want to love you this way, but I don't know how. Will you help me?" In some situations, neither husband or wife will know how, but you know you want it to be better. Come talk to me or one of the other pastoral staff. If we can't help, we will find someone who can.

I do not need to elaborate on the sad condition of many marriages in our society. God has something better than that for his people who are married. Can you believe it? Can you believe your marriage can be a joyful refuge from all the sexual frustration and immorality in our world? It can be, because God has designed it that way. Ask him to make it gloriously true for you.

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