1 Corinthians 7:1-9 (NRSV) – “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is well for a man not to touch a woman.’ But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. This I say by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.”
I want to start with end of the passage above and then work backward. Paul writes that “it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.” This series of posts has discussed passion a lot. In particular, how faith in the transformation of believers through Christ allows us to accept our core passions and trust God to work through them.
In the case of sexual passion, it is important to understand that this kind of passion does not exist in a box. What I mean by this is, the hormones and neurotransmitters involved with it, such as testosterone, acetylcholine, GABA, and dopamine, are intrinsically involved with one’s physical and mental energy, central nervous system function, concentration, mood, and memory. This is a point which, unfortunately, I often perceive is not well appreciated in Christian teaching on abstinence until marriage.
It is not the ultimate goal of such teaching that I object to, but rather, the means of getting there. Particularly, the tendency to portray sexual energy as “rebellious,” “sinful,” “selfish,” or a threat to one’s spiritual purity that has to be fought against. Even though it is taught that people ultimately need to trust in God for power to deal with these passions and resist temptation while single, the appeal to trust in God comes only after painting a very negative, and sometimes harmful, picture of one’s natural state.
The consequence of this teaching is that it twists the natural functions of the brain into unhealthy patterns. If one’s mind is stressing out over the biochemical processes involved in sexual desire (and day-to-day mental function), the activity of these chemicals is suppressed, causing poor psychological health in one’s day-to-day life. And unfortunately, when these people eventually get married, their brains may be twisted out of shape already, and the damage can follow them into marriage.
Once people are married, God wants for them to be understanding and respectful of each other’s needs. Paul writes, “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer.”
I suspect this understanding and respect is harder if a couple enters marriage with their brains distorted by harmful teaching during their single years. If years were spent trying to conquer one’s self, I am concerned this could lead to an attitude in marriage that is excessively focused on one’s self.
The challenge, while single, is to confront the faulty ideas, fears, or personal pursuits that keep someone from being able to find fulfillment of desires. For instance, if what you really want in life is to be in a sexual relationship, but you have personal quests, or carry certain fears, or believe certain things about yourself or others that inhibit you from getting married, you can seek God to reorient your thinking so that you can be open to getting married but make a wise decision.
On the other hand, if marriage is really not an option, you can believe for God to lead you to an activity or a non-sexual relationship that expresses your passions. But you need to have a positive view of the chemistry behind your passions in order to see how God can do a creative work through you.