“A marriage teaches you a lot about the fruits of the spirit,” an older married friend once told me, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness –” her husband of over forty years interjected, “and long-suffering.” They are right. No other earthly institution more closely parallels our relationship with Christ as the marriage bond. But as far as the fruits of the spirit go, I think self-control is the single’s art form.
Let’s be honest, in theory self-control’s great, but practicing it is a different measure. Certainly it is for me. I live near the beach, so bikinis and bared chests are a uniform here. It’s difficult not to succumb to our sinful passions and desires when their flaunted seductively from street to shop to television. Sex sells. Sex is appealing and it calls to us flirtatiously. Lust is encouraged in this world of promiscuity and easy virtue. ‘Virginity’ is laughable. If you admit to being a virgin in this world, well then it’s obvious that there’s something wrong with you. You probably have a hairy back or a third eye or something horrible. We’re a culture of ‘try before you buy’ and singleness has become a byword for ‘playing the field’. If you’re single, you’re either a career player or you’re a nun and let’s be honest, a nun’s habit can hide a lot of back fat. Singleness is definitely not something you’d choose. We’re all just biding our time until we can change our Facebook relationship to ‘happily taken’ with a big smiley face.
To my readers who are struggling to control their desire to find their partner, I want to give you some liberating information. It’s not sinful to pursue a godly partner and it’s not nobler to stay single. When someone in the church expresses their dissatisfaction with singleness, we usually cite 1 Corinthians 7:8, where Paul says to the “unmarried and the widowed: it is good for them to remain even as I am; but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” We take this to mean exactly what it says – Paul would prefer us to be unmarried because this is nobler. As singles we show better self-control than married people who are obviously burning with untapped passion. But what we’ve failed to acknowledge is the context of this passage. My studies in Greek antiquity have shown me something that adds a lot of weight to this passage. In the First Century AD, Greece was overcome by a terrible famine that affected the Christian population more than their pagan counterparts. This was because Christians were not allowed to participate in the ritual sacrifices which supplied the polis with food during this time. Paul was not saying that it is better to remain single as a general rule, but rather it was better to be single in this time of persecution because it was better to die single than to cost the lives of one’s family too. He says as much in verse 6 – this is “…a concession, not a commandment.”
So where did the notion of single nobility originate? It began with the Reformation thinkers: Luther, Calvin and Wesley. It then became tradition when the Puritans put it into practice. Abstinence in the marriage bedroom was favoured amongst these thinkers who believed the Holy Spirit was forced to leave the room from grief when a married couple engaged in marital intercourse. The Puritans believed that abstinence was key to productivity, and intercourse was only to be suffered as a duty to produce children. It was believed that the action of procreation was created after the Edenic fall. Prior to this, it’s assumed Eve would have just snapped her fingers and produced a child. Genesis 3:16 is cited as evidence for this, but upon inspection it’s clear that the curse on the woman is that her “…pain in child birth will increase.” This suggests that childbirth existed before, but was not painful. Nothing about intercourse and its apparent sinfulness within marriage.
In my humble opinion, there is a greater danger to this line of thinking and it’s more than just affecting the joy of intercourse. It’s completely going against God’s plan for humanity and openly defying the natural order! One of His first commands to us was to “go forth and multiply” (Genesis 9:7). Translated into the vernacular, that is “get out there and make babies!” Now, if you don’t already know how babies are made, I won’t spoil the secret of the stork to you but I will just say maybe you’d like to reconsider reading this blog. But to make it abundantly clear, God’s command to us is to desire the marriage bed ‘duties’ (wink, wink).
If we need any more proof of that we can turn to the words of the wisest man who ever lived. Solomon says numerous times through Proverbs that God is well pleased when a man seeks a respectable wife. Quite apart from the famed description of the ‘Proverbs 31 woman’, Solomon admits that “he who finds a good wife finds a good thing, and obtains favour from the Lord” (Prov. 18:22). He also tells us that “an excellent wife is the crown of her husband…” (Prov. 12:4) and greater than all riches a man could be given, “…a prudent wife is from the Lord” (Prov. 19:14). But the onus of marriage suitability is not on women only. Gentlemen, if you can’t find your Proverbs 31 woman, maybe it’s because you’re not quite one of David’s mighty men. You need to first learn to become desirable before you can desire appropriately.
God understands and in fact delights in human sexuality – when committed in the natural marriage boundaries. The Bible gets sexual. Very sexual. Songs of Solomon for example is saucier than any Jacqui Collins novel. The words penned by the king to his beloved would make the author of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ blush. Of course, there is an overarching metaphor which measures the enormous love of God through Jesus to His bride – the church. But it is primarily a tender picture of a woman delighting in the love of her husband, and feeling no sense of shame in giving herself to him sexually. I mean seriously, it starts with her affirming “let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth – For your love is better than wine…the king has brought me to his chambers…For why should I be as one who veils herself…?…A bundle of myrrh is my beloved to me, that lies all night between my breasts…” (verses 1-13 abridged). And he answers in reply “…Your neck is like the tower of David, built for an armory, on which hang a thousand bucklers, all shields of mighty men. Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, which feed among the lilies. Until day breaks, and the shadows flee away, I will go my way to the mountain of myrrh, and to the hill of frankincense…” (4:4-6). Of course, that’s just about Jesus loving humanity, right? No. It’s a glimpse of the most private, intimate experiences of a married couple, delighting in each other’s bodies and feeling absolutely no shame in that. And neither does God. Racey stuff right?
It really is liberating to know that God not only doesn’t condemn sexuality in its right context, but actually delights in it and encourages it! You see, there’s a pattern throughout the Bible. God delights in children and uses them to fulfill His plan. Jacob, Samuel, Jeremiah, and lest we forget Jesus, were all called to righteousness at a young age. Jesus came as a baby – not a mighty king. A child. Paul thanks Timothy’s mother and grandmother for instructing him in a sincere faith (2 Timothy 1:5). Jesus delighted in the children coming to him (Matthew 19:14, Luke 17:2). God is the God of generations (Deuteronomy 7:9) and to create generations, we must first create children. Studies show, the best way to change society is through education and lasting lessons start in the family. The family is God’s desired institution. He created it. He loves it and He grieves when it is broken. Godly revolutions start in families.
Like Job, we singles need to make a covenant with our eyes, to avoid indulging desires or awakening passions until their appointed time (Job 31:1; Songs of Solomon 8:4). We need to learn to exercise self-control, in the knowledge that God has a plan for our marriage and rushing this will only cause us more heartache. It is painful to be alone when we deeply desire connectedness, but it is much more painful to step outside of God’s plan. But seriously, lose that cliché purity ring. If you have to flaunt your decision to remain pure, there’s a problem. Purity is a lifestyle; it’s more than a commitment you can pop on or off when your fingers get fat in summer. It’s not cute when you say “God likes me so He put a ring on it.” You’re not married to God. You’re single and that’s something to rejoice in. How exciting that God is writing our love stories!
Yours in pursuit of purity and a God-honouring husband,