What's more important than a mate?
Big idea: Your relationship status does not define your worth before God.
Intro: Parable of the two sisters
Imagine that there are two sisters, Jenna and Renee, and they’re sitting together at a table with you at a wedding reception for your mutual friend. Jenna is one of those people who is married, and thinks everyone else should be, too, so she’s been trying the whole night to get her sister, Renee, to dance with every single groomsman she can find. You overhear Jenna telling her younger sister things like, “You’ll thank me for this later,” and “If you want to be treated like an adult woman, you need to get married,” and “You don’t want to be an old maid, do you?”
Renee is clearly uncomfortable and hurt by being told that her singleness makes her less of a real woman, but she tries to mask it with disdain for her sister’s efforts. “Just because you want to settle for the suburban dream doesn’t mean that I’m willing to,” Renee jabs at Jenna. She follows up with this one, “Some of us need to do the really important things, like working for a living and helping out at church, not just cooking dinner and shuttling the kids around.”
Jenna is clearly wounded by her sister’s words. “I think being a mother and a wife is the best ministry I can have.” It’s at this point she turns to you for support. “Here I am trying to help my sister see what’s really important, and all she does it put up a front of superiority. Who do you think is doing what God wants, me or my sister?”
Throughout the history of Christianity, we’ve had disagreements about whether marriage makes you more or less spiritual, with many groups and denominations only ordaining people who have (or have not) been married.
But it’s not just a church thing. Many of us have experienced family pressure, directly or subtly, that marriage is what makes us a “real adult,” like being kept at the kids table at holidays until we’re married. Is that true? Is that what God thinks of you, that you need a mate to be validated and complete?
Two weeks ago we talked about the potential for marriage and sexuality, and how marriage can point us in a unique way to Christ. Marital intimacy (when done well) can be an experience of acceptance, grace, love, adventure, passion, belonging, and joy.
- Eph 5:32 says that this physical union, this action of two becoming one, points us to the greater experiences of acceptance, grace, love, adventure, passion, belonging, and joy that are found in Christ.
- You think that sex is adventurous? You think sex is passionate? You think you’ve known acceptance and grace from your spouse? You think you’ve experienced joy in bed? Great! Those experiences ought to point you to the ultimate source of all these, and the one who will one day bring them to their fullest, Jesus Christ.
My prayer for you throughout these past few weeks is that you would see sex as it really is, for all its potential, physical, emotional, and spiritual, not only to bring intimacy between you and your spouse, but also to point you to Christ, because, in addition to being the one who has given you this terrific gift, he is the one in whom the ultimate end of all this joy points to.
So, let me take a break to acknowledge a couple fears I have here:
a. That some of you are saying, “That’s cute. He’s such a newlywed. I remember when I had such an idealistic view of marriage and sex. It’ll wear off when he has kids. When are they having kids, anyway?”
b. My second fear is that others of you are saying, “Typical married person, always talking about how great sex is, then telling us single people not to have any. If it’s so significant for my spiritual life, why am I left out? What’s wrong with me?”
If you resonate with either of those thoughts, stick with me, and let’s deal with them. Look at 1 Cor 7:1, let’s start there.
I. It’s okay to be single (7:1; 7:8-9; 7:25-28; 7:36-38)
Let’s pause right here at v. 1. For Paul’s context, and for our own, sex was physical, social, even religious expectation. It was part of the fabric of the culture. The concept of a 40 year old virgin would be just as bizarre in Corinth as in Long Beach today.
What Paul is saying here in v. 1, he’ll repeat throughout the chapter: Marriage and sex do not make you either more or less spiritual.
A. Wrong idea: Marriage is what makes one complete
When you hear Paul saying that sexuality, in just the last passage, that the very act of sexual intimacy brings two people together into one, and that this union reflects God’s goodness and love for the church, some of us are tempting to slouch deep into our chair, get a big lower lip, and send out an evite for our pity party.
(Sit down in chair, slouch, have blow kazoo ready)
- “I want to experience that kind of adventure, that kind of passion, that kind of grace.”
- “I was frustrated before by just not having the physical experience of sex, but now the more you talk about the intimacy and joy that can come with that, the more bitter I’m becoming. Glad I came to church.”
Paul wants to confront that head on in this passage. If fact, he’ll state four times in this chapter alone that being single in no way makes you less complete as a person or mature in your faith. Let me say that again, because this is something our culture simply does not believe: You are not defined or even hindered by your singleness. If anything, Paul says, your singleness is an opportunity for you to do things that married people cannot do.
- I know I’m spitting into the wind of a thousand movies that we’ve all seen, movies that say that “You complete me,” that redemption comes from the love of a woman, that you are only really beautiful or passionate when the Prince Charming tells you that you are, or that you are only really adventurous or important when you get the girl. I’m saying that people are such small reasons to feel loved, valued, and captivating; the eternal Father in heaven in endlessly interested in you; He wants to know you. He wants you to know him.
Listen to the words of Zeph 3:17, “The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”
- If we’re loved like that, by the infinite God of the universe, how on earth can we say that we’re incomplete, and that we need some finite person to validate what the Father has already declared true?
- By the way, I wish I could say that this is some eccentricity of the larger culture, and that the church is immune from it, but I’m afraid that is not the case. I have sat with guys many times who tell me the same things about their experience being single in the church into their 30’s or 40’s. Suspicious glances, people assuming the worst, people questioning your sexual orientation.
o In fact, many job listings for pastors will explicitly say you must be married to apply. Apparently Jesus and Paul can’t be trusted to be pastors.
B. Wrong idea: Marriage and sexuality are signs of spiritual immaturity
I imagine most of us, whether we’re single, married, whatever, can agree that romantic relationships are held up as idols in our culture. Ironically, even as we do this, we as a culture become increasingly unable to live healthily in relationships, with climbing divorce rates and abundant dysfunctional marriages around us.
- There are many in my generation who have seen our parents inability to live “happily ever after,” and have abandoned the idea of “death til us part.” We’ve taken on the idea of “Live together until we get bored.”
- There’s a temptation within this of despairing, and even disparaging, marriage, or assuming the worst of our brothers and sisters who are married. Paul refuses, despite being single himself, to take this path. Marriage is good. Singleness is good. Neither makes you spiritual superior to those around you.
The Corinthians wrote to Paul to ask a straightforward question, should we get married or not? Paul says that’s not the right question to be asking. You’re free to get married if you like, and you’re free not to. The question is where is your heart in the midst of this decision. He gives three categories for the Corinthians (and us) to think through in this area. Here they are:
Relationship Category #1: How are you doing at living out the life God has you in today? Are you maximizing the opportunities you have to be funnel of God’s grace into the lives of the people around you? Or are you fantasizing about the future (or the past) so much that you are not mindful of where God has you today? (7:10-24; 29-31)
- Paul deals with the obvious v. 10: if you’re married, stay married.
- You should stay in the external situation (marital status, circumcision, slavery) that you were in when God rescued you. (7:17-24)
- Your past gives you unique opportunities to be a monument of God’s grace (7:12-16)
- Focusing on “the future” takes away your attention from where God has you now (7:29-31).
o How much time do I spend fantasizing about status symbols, vocations, relationships, etc. that I do not have instead living as I was called?
Relationship Category #2:
a. For those who are single, is you singleness creating an unnecessary temptation for you?
b. For those of you that are married, how are you doing at helping one another resist sexual immorality? (7:2-9)
Paul gives the great validation verse for getting married young in v. 9: “But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
- But what if you parents, mentors, etc are telling you that you’re not ready to be married? What do you do then?
For those that are married, you have a partner in the fight against sexual immorality, but one that is often tragically underutilized.
- Paul says this in verses 3-5. Figure out the best ways you can to help each other fight off sexual immorality. Have sex often and well, because you owe your spouse your body.
o Now, I know the husbands are saying, “Preach it!”, but I’m not just speaking about frequency. Paul has both genders in mind here, and he uses the parallel of both genders three times in these three verses.
§ Husbands, what are you doing to romance your wife? To woo her? To help her know in the core of her being that she is loved, cherished, and beautiful, so that she will never be tempted to use her sexuality to receive validation or affection from others that should have come from you?
§ Wives, Paul’s words mean more than just putting up with yout husband’s advances. What are you doing to communicate to your husband that he’s someone you respect? That’s he’s passionate, the only man in your life, and that you’re just as infatuated with him today as you were when you started dating?
Relationship Category #3: The great temptation of marriage is to replace the Lord with your spouse (7:33-35)
- Paul tells the single people in Corinth that they are exempt from the temptation to replace the Lord with our spouse in priority structure, and that’s a benefit to staying single.
- This implies that there’s a temptation for those who are married. How are you doing at staying wholly devoted to the Lord when your spouse is right there, expecting time, affection, attention, etc?
- Are you replacing your Lord with you spouse when it comes to getting needs met in your life? We experience grace from our spouse, we bounce ideas off our spouse, we give and receive affection, we laugh, we make plans
"When I have learnt to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now. Insofar as I learn to love my earthly dearest at the expense of God and instead of God, I shall be moving towards the state in which I shall not love my earthly dearest at all. When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased." (Lewis, 1952)
Both marriage and singleness have benefits and drawbacks. Neither is inherently superior to the other. Either of them can point us to God, both marriage (because it shows us our capacity for intimacy) and singleness (because it shows us how we need to depend on the Lord).
Wherever you are in life today, acknowledge those strengths and mourn the weaknesses, but don’t try to go around them. If you’re married, don’t pretend your single by making unilateral decisions or neglecting the needs of your mate, and especially don’t do so in God’s name. You have chosen to marry, and that decision has God-ordained limitations on you.
If you’re single, do not try to grasp for the benefits of marriage that are not yours, whether that be sex, cohabitation, or something else. You have benefits as a single person that the married ones do not. Don’t try to grasp what God has not given you.