This is a follow-up to the post titled “How Will I Find Joy If I Never Become a Wife and Mother?” In that post, I pointed out that in the church family there are plenty of opportunities for a single woman to find purpose, meaning, and satisfaction for a lifetime in nurturing, teaching, training, serving, encouraging, admonishing, and using her spiritual gifts to build up the local body of Christ. It was a quick synopsis of how the church functions as a single woman’s spiritual family. I want to go into much more detail in future posts on how a single woman fits into the family of God but first I must address the one issue that makes the thought of lifelong singleness so discouraging: The lack of sex.
For the single Christian woman, no marriage in the future means no sex in the future. None. Nada. Zip. Zero. Ever. It’s a most distressing prospect because sexual desire cannot be satisfied any other way except to………..well………...have sex. You cannot satiate the longing through any other means but the means in question are locked up in the state of marriage. Hence no marriage, no sex.
And yet the desire for sex is relentless, emanating from within and from without. In our sex-obsessed culture it is nearly impossible to avoid thinking about sex. Our media is saturated with it. Sexually-suggestive songs on the radio, scantily-clad people displayed in magazine covers and billboards, sexually-explicit television shows and movies, sexual jokes and innuendos filling the airways of talk radio, and Trojan Man commercials all seem to scream at us, “Are you having sex yet? Why aren’t you having sex? Don’t you want to have sex? When are you going to have sex?”
The combination of this outside stimuli with your own internal desires for sex can make for a difficult life as a Christian single. Sometimes you are driven almost to madness with frustration, dismayed to the point of tears in anguish, and often times angrier than a cat pitched into a bucket of water. But through it all the sexual yearnings keep coming. They never go away. They aren’t the least bit affected by singing praise songs, reading daily devotionals, doing benevolence work, evangelizing, engaging in frenetic tap dancing, or whatever else you can think of to lessen the desires.
And then there are the temptations to sin sexually – the battle for holiness is fierce here. It’s not just singles in dating relationships that have to continually fight sexual urges. Single Christians like me who date as often as Haley’s Comet comes around are tempted to sin even more. The temptation to do things………..…..shameful, sinful things……………..in an attempt to take the edge off is ever-present. And when you give in to those temptations you feel horrible, like a filthy, rotten, weak, putrid, ball of maggots. You feel guilty because you are guilty, often almost too humiliated to approach the throne of God for forgiveness or too embarrassed to go to church and sit next to good church people who would never do such awful things.
You’re forced to ask these questions: If marriage never happens for me, if God never provides a husband and singleness is my lot in life forever, is this the life I have to look forward to? Constantly battling with sexual desires? Being filled with murderous rage when those desires are not fulfilled or feeling like the scum of the Earth when I yield to sexual temptation? What does God expect from me? Why won’t He provide? Is there no hope? Is there no joy or peace to be found in living as a reluctant celibate single?
Most Christians you know (pastors, parishioners, friends, co-workers, you name it) don’t have a satisfying answer for those questions. Oh, they’ll tell you things like, “Put Cyber Nanny on your computer so you won’t look at porn. Have an accountability partner. Remove the pay-per-view option from your cable package so you won’t order porn. Don’t go to R-rated movies. Don’t watch TV,….” and lots of other advice designed to keep you holy until matrimony. But none of these deal with the real, underlying issue, do they? And what if matrimony never comes? What if – GASP! – my sexual longings are never fulfilled? Go ahead; pose those questions to any of your Christian friends and watch their blank, befuddled stares. Or you may have those married friends who say things like, “Sex isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Personally, I don’t enjoy it.” That is so annoying because it doesn’t do a thing to decrease your desire for sex and it makes you feel even worse because the one thing you want so desperately they have and they don’t even appreciate it! ARGH!!!
Look, if you’re like me, single and getting up there in years – you see the handwriting on the wall, you see the crow’s feet forming – you’re thinking, “Marriage just may not happen. Which means sex may never happen. Ever.” How do I face that prospect without crumbling into utter despair?
I posed these questions to the Lord and found the answers in His Word. Although they were not at all the answers I expected, I have found great rest, peace, and even joy in them. If you find yourself in the same predicament as I do – perpetually and unwillingly single while loaded down with sexual desires you can’t satisfy – I pray these answers will give you that same peace and joy.
“It Is Better To Marry Than to Burn With Passion”
When I was a young adult, excitedly anticipating marriage in the future, First Corinthians 7:9 gave me much comfort:
“But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
That scripture seemed to me to be an iron-clad guarantee that God would provide a husband for me. My reasoning went something like this: If the Scriptures said it was better to marry than to burn with passion and I found myself burning with passion, God would provide a husband to keep me from burning with passion, simple as that. I made the same assumption about First Corinthians 7:2 which reads, “But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” This seemed to me to be even more proof that God would provide a spouse for everyone who wanted one to keep them from being tempted sexually.
But as the years lingered on and marriage prospects faded – as I saw marriage and family bypass not only me but scores of Christian women my age and older, when I saw godly women like Nancy Leigh DeMoss and Carolyn McCulley continue to be single despite desiring marriage, and when I realized that some godly women, like Edith Margaret Clarkson, died single despite longing for a husband – those verses began to feel more like a cruel joke than comforting and encouraging. What good was Paul’s advice that it was “better to marry than to burn with passion” when God would not even provide me an opportunity to marry? What did God expect me to do if He did not provide marriage? Burn with passion until I burned up? Did God care about struggling single women like me at all?
The short answer to that question is this: Yes. God does care deeply for single women like you and me. To see that however we have to interpret First Corinthians 7 correctly. In making those assumptions about verses 2 and 9 in First Corinthians 7, I was guilty of a common Bible interpretation error. I was using eisegesis, imposing my own interpretation into the verses or reading into those verses the things I wanted them to say (“God’s gonna give me a husband!”) instead of the correct exegesis, or pulling out of those verses the correct meaning – God’s intended meaning. First Corinthians 7 is a theologically rich chapter with answers to many dilemmas that we face as single Christian woman, including the dilemma of what to do about our unrequited sexual longings, but we must carefully and properly interpret this chapter to find those answers. Correct interpretation includes identifying the original audience to which Paul wrote this letter, knowing the historical context and setting in which this letter was written, following the normal rules of grammar, taking each word, sentence, and paragraph of the passage in context, and making sure the interpretation we draw out of the passage is corroborated by other Bible passages and does not contradict any Bible passages.
With that in mind, let’s dive in!
Paul’s Advice to the Married
“Now concerning the matters about which you wrote….”
Verse 1 of First Corinthians 7 reveals that Paul’s entire discourse in chapter 7 is a response to questions about sex, singleness, and marriage from members of the church in Corinth. The Corinthian church stood in the midst of a sexually corrupt and perverse society. Sexual promiscuity, fornication, adultery, and homosexuality were rampant in the city of Corinth, even more so than in our sex-obsessed culture today. Sex was even a part of pagan religious rituals in Corinth involving temple prostitutes. Sexual relations had been so degraded and defiled in Corinth that many members of the church there (especially those who had been saved from sexually immoral pasts) wanted to rid themselves of anything and everything sexual. They began to elevate the state of celibate singleness – seeing it as spiritually superior to marriage – and they were doing this to the point that many of them were divorcing their spouses in order to become more spiritual and those who were not already married were denouncing marriage as carnal and wicked.
In response to this, though Paul agreed with them that “it is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (1 Corinthians 7:1), in other words that celibate singleness was a fine, God-approved, holy state, he was adamant that marriage was also holy and, in an immoral environment like Corinth, possibly preferable. Taking verse 2 in context then, we see that Paul is not making a blanket statement that everyone who wants a spouse will get one (as I mistakenly thought) but that because of the sexual immorality that was pervasive in Corinth, Paul was commanding those currently married to stay married to their spouses. He was correcting the false belief that many in the Corinthian church had that separating from a spouse would make them holier. This was a false assumption even if the spouse was an unbeliever (verses 10-16). Paul also revealed in later verses that sex in marriage was not only holy and approved by God, but it was an obligation that the husband and wife owed to each other (verses 3-5). The husband’s body belonged to the wife and the wife’s body belonged to the husband for mutual fulfillment.
In First Corinthians 7, Paul tells the Corinthian church that in the kingdom of God both marriage and singleness were holy. Furthermore, neither state was holier than the other so changing your marital status did not increase your godliness. In verses 17-24, Paul states that each person should “lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him” and “in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.” By stating this, Paul was not saying it was wrong for a single Christian to later marry if they chose to but that it was not at all necessary to change one’s marital status from single to married or from married to single to be right with God. Either state was acceptable and honorable to God.
Paul’s Advice to the Divorced, the Widowed, and “the Virgins”
Now I know you’re thinking, “Who cares about the married people?! They’re already having sex and living it up, remember? What about us singles? You said Paul had advice for us sexless, frustrated singles. What is God’s encouragement to us?”
God, through the Apostle Paul, has a lot to say to us singles in First Corinthians 7 but in the past I have mistakenly thought that all of it pertained to us who have never married. A careful look at First Corinthians 7 reveals that Paul is addressing three distinct types of singles and offers advice useful to each separate group of singles. These are the three different categories of singles addressed in the chapter: Singles who are divorced (those who were married but whose marriages have legally ended – in some Bible translations these are labeled as the “unmarried”), singles who are widowed (those who were married but whose spouses have died), and singles who are betrothed or virgins (those who have never been married). Paul has different advice to each type of single and it’s to the divorced and the widowed that he states “it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
What is it about being divorced or widowed that would elicit such advice from Paul? It’s pretty simple when you think about it. The divorced and widowed had at one time enjoyed the pleasures of sex with their spouses. Though the persecution and various distresses happening to the church at the time of Paul’s writing made singleness a more advantageous state, God understood that those who had been married before would have a very difficult time assuming a celibate lifestyle, especially in a sexually-immoral society like Corinth. This is the same reason Paul advised Timothy not to put widows under the age of 60 on the list to be supported by the church (1 Timothy 5:9-15). Supported widows were required to be celibate and God understood that younger widows would be hard-pressed to keep such a vow. It was better for them to remarry.
To those who had never married, however, the ones referred as the betrothed or virgins, the ones like me, Paul advised remaining single – and remaining celibate and sexless as a consequence – “to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:35). Now I’m not suggesting that those of us who are single must remain single even if the opportunity to marry comes along (nor is Paul; see 1 Corinthians 7:28, 35), but notice that Paul makes some critical presumptions about the never-married singles. He doesn’t anticipate that they will be burning with passion as the divorced and widowed singles would likely be. On the contrary, he expects them to be “anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord” and concerned about “being holy in body and spirit” (1 Corinthians 7: 32, 34). Since the never-married Christian had such characteristics, Paul was confident celibate singleness would not be an issue for them and he hardily recommended it.
Radical Statement #1: Sex Is Not For You, Singleton
I must admit to you that when I read Paul’s depiction of never-married singles in 1 Corinthians 7:32-35 I was a tad annoyed with him. “Where did Paul get off thinking that us never-married singles didn’t burn with passion?!” I thought, “I’ve got sexual passions up the ying yang!”
..........and waits..........and waits..........and waits........
But……..…should I? It was a question I had never before posed to myself. After all, never-married singles are not described in 1 Corinthians 7 as seething balls of pent-up sexual frustration. Reading 1 Corinthians 7:32-35 exposed a huge gap between how God expected a never-married Christian single like me to think and how I was actually thinking. The singles described in that passage were consumed with God and focused on finding ways to please and glorify Him. Why was I not consumed with such thoughts? Could it be the real problem was not my want of a husband but my own sinful thoughts about sex?
Now don’t misunderstand me – sex and the desire for sex is not inherently sinful, but our desires (God-given as they are) can be horribly corrupted by the sinful world in which we live. Strange as it sounds in our pleasure-focused culture, it is true: As singles, we do not need sex.
I can hear the vehement protests out there: “Oh no, girlfriend! You do not understand! I NEEEEEED it SOOOOOOO badly!” Believe me, I know what you mean and I totally understand. You and I want sex A LOT. But singles really don’t need sex. Or, to explain it another way, God did not create sex for us. More specifically, God did not create sex for the individual. He never intended for sex to be something we as individual humans felt entitled to and pursued for our own personal pleasure. God created sex for marriage. It is intended to make marriage holy, godly, fulfilling, satisfying, exciting, exhilarating, titillating, and a host of other sexy-sounding adjectives. It is not, nor has it ever been, for singles. These statements may seem insultingly obvious to you, but this is not the world’s attitude about sex. The society we live in sees sex as an individual right, a key to personal happiness, a goal in and of itself, separate and apart from any concerns about God or His agenda. This is not the correct, godly attitude about sex, however. God gave us sexual desire not for our own enjoyment but for the mutual enjoyment of our spouse in marriage. If we do not have a spouse, whether by choice or by circumstance, we do not need sex, just as a childless couple does not need teething rings. There is no godly need for it. We can live completely joyful, meaningful, purposeful lives without sex. Furthermore, if we do not have a spouse, God expects our sexual desires to be completely under control. Consider the following scriptures:
“For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God;” - 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5
“For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures,” – Titus 3:3
“‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me’ but I will not be dominated by anything.” – 1 Corinthians 6:12
“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” – 1 Peter 2:11
What these Scriptures reveal is that there is a wrong, unbiblical, ungodly way to think about sexual desire. God gave us women the strong desire to know a man intimately but those desires should never consume us to the point that we cannot find joy in this life as a celibate single. Those desires should never cause us to sin against God by envying others who are married, being angry with God for not providing a spouse, or engaging in sexually immoral activity up to and including sexual intercourse outside of marriage. Consider this passage in James 4:1-3,
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”
Radical Statement #2: The World Has Corrupted Our Desires
An unsaved, married co-worker once told me that he regularly frequented topless strip clubs and bars. I said, “You’re being unfaithful to your wife!” He replied, “No, I’m not. It doesn’t matter where I get my appetite, just as long as I eat my meals at home.”
Besides being a crude statement (my apologies) this is a sinful, worldly, satanic attitude about sex. Our sexual appetites, created by God, belong to our spouse and no one else. If we have no spouse, then our appetites belong to God, under His control to satisfy when and if He sees fit. We are to be “a garden locked….a spring locked, a fountain sealed” (Song of Solomon 4:12). Where are we getting our appetites, single Christian women? If it is from lusting after men we see around town or on TV, if it’s from suggestive songs on the radio or racy romance novels, then we can’t blame God for being sexually frustrated. Our desires are being corrupted to the point of being uncontrolled passions, resistant to God’s commands – and we are suffering the consequences of our own sin.
Now before you start thinking our God has a thing against passionate sexual desires, read the entire Song of Solomon. This book in the Bible is a celebration of sexy, steamy, gratifying marital love. God is all for passionate sexual enjoyment in marriage – it is why He created sex. But notice in the Song of Solomon, you don’t read the bridegroom saying things like, “Wow! I really love sex! This is some mind-blowing sex we’re having!” Their desires are directly connected to their passionate feelings for each other. Verses like “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!” (1:1), “Behold, you are beautiful; your eyes are doves.” (1:15), “My beloved is mine and I am his;” (2:16), and “You have captivated my heart, my sister, my bride;” (4:9) all reveal that the desires of Solomon and his Shulamite bride were toward each other, not just for the pleasures of sex. In Proverbs 5:19, the married man is told to rejoice in his wife (not rejoice in sex) to “let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love.”
It is not just Christian singles who are sometimes led astray by the world’s darkened understanding of sexual desire. Married Christians can be guilty of the same sinful thoughts about sex. This is why so many Christian married women are horrified to find that their Christian husbands are secretly addicted to pornography even after they are married and engaging in sex. It is because their husband's sexual desire has nothing to do with them. He has been trained by the world to think of it as his own personal pursuit of pleasure. If you are allowing the world to influence your sexual appetites, those appetites will not be satisfied even by a godly marriage. In every area, and especially regarding sex, God commands all of us, married and single, to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). The key to dealing with sexual frustration as single Christians is to allow the Holy Spirit to renew our minds about sex, letting go of our worldly notions and adopting God’s perspective on sex.
True Satisfaction Is Found In Christ Alone
In the song Enough by Chris Tomlin, I have often pondered over the words of the chorus,
All of You is more than enough for all of me
For every thirst and every need
You satisfy me with Your love
And all I have in You is more than enough
For every thirst and every need
You satisfy me with Your love
And all I have in You is more than enough
I used to think, when this song was led in church, is that really true? Is Christ really enough for me? Can I really be satisfied in Him alone? Can He really satisfy every thirst and need? What about my desires for sex? Can those be satisfied in Christ?
They can, but not in a creepy “Jesus is your husband” kind of way. I don’t agree with that type of thinking about the Savior. But in my struggles with singleness and unfulfilled sexual desires, I have found this to be true: the more I look at sexual desire from God’s perspective and not my own, the more I marvel at His glorious creation of marriage and the beautiful jewel of sexuality that He placed in the center of it, the more I want to do my part to uphold it, to point to marriage as an earthly picture of Christ and the church. I do my part as a single Christian by abstaining from sex, by putting my desires and appetites under the authority of the Lord, by drawing on the Holy Spirit’s provision of self control (Galatians 5:22-23). We singles are just as responsible as the married Christians to show the world the true purpose of sex and the One True God who created sex. Sex is a holy, sanctified act lovingly created by God and He has the absolute right to decide what role I will play in glorifying Him as a sexual being – either by abstaining from it all my life as a single woman or by sharing the delights of sexual fulfillment with the spouse God provides. I am completely under the control of God’s sovereign mercy and happy to be!
Will facing a possible lifetime with no sexual fulfillment cause me to go crazy? Will it send me into a pit of inconsolable sadness? Will it imprison me behind bars of anxiousness, depression, anger, and frustration? Will it render my life utterly useless? Will it cause me to sin against God?
I will let the Word of God answer those questions:
“…I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” – Philippians 4:11-13
Copyright © 2013
Copyright © 2013