Philosopher Alain de Botton provided some marriage advice recently in The New York Times. He claims that for the past two-and-a-half centuries many of us have been deceived by what he calls the Romantic view of marriage. He defines the Romantic view as the belief “that a perfect (human) being exists who can meet all our needs and satisfy every yearning.” When that “perfect (person)” doesn’t meet all of our needs, we think we’ve married the wrong the person.
Alain’s advice is this: rather than demand an unrealistic, idealized, romanticized view of marriage, he suggests a realistic view, encouraging us that “[we approach marriage with the] awareness that every human will frustrate, anger, annoy, madden, and disappoint us—and we will… do the same to them…”
The failure of [a spouse] to save us from our grief and melancholy is not a sign that a union should be dissolved and upgraded. It reveals what we know about the human condition itself. We are flawed and imperfect. Therefore, an imperfect marriage is a normal marriage. 
In his analysis, he identifies what we all really want – someone who will meet our emotional needs and satisfy our soul’s desire for complete acceptance and unconditional love.
But that can only be found in the perfect Bridegroom, Jesus. Although Alain de Botton is an atheist, he accurately recognizes the human condition and provides some great marriage advice!
That is what Paul is providing in 1 Corinthians 7. He is offering some free marriage advice to any who will listen and apply the design of God to their marriage.
While Paul is not married at the time he wrote this letter, it is possible and maybe even likely that he had previously been married. Maybe his spouse left him at his conversion or preceded him in death. We don’t know for sure. But if Paul had previously been a Jewish rabbi, he must have been married for a while, as marriage was required for Jewish rabbis as was participation in the Sanhedrin, a Jewish group in which Paul apparently claims to have been a voting member earlier in his life.
So today you will receive some free marriage advice. If you find yourself wanting or needing more, then let me suggest that you contact Dr. Jeff Stull, who is the lead counselor for Access Grace with an office conveniently here in town.
In chapter 7, Paul is moving from problems taking place in the church to questions he has received from the church. The first question from the Corinthians concerns marriage.
1 Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.”
The phrase “touch a woman” is a literal rendering of the Greek text and is an idiom for “sexual relations.” Apparently, this was being used as a catchphrase by a group of believers in the Corinthian church who were (over) reacting to the sexual promiscuity of the culture and to the corruption that culture had influenced upon members in the church.
Just like a lax view of sexual immorality needed to be addressed in previous chapters, Paul states that the demand for or expectation of celibacy is not the solution either. That is not only an over-reaction but a misunderstanding of why God designed the sexual relationship in marriage in the first place.
A couple of weeks ago we compared the contemporary view of sexual relations to a Rembrandt on which our culture has thrown a bucket of oil. What was intended to be a beautiful thing has been turned into a dirty thing.
This is why many of us have such a hard time talking to our kids about this topic and why we may be uncomfortable that they are in here now. Rather than hiding from the conversation, let’s recapture the beauty of God’s design for sexual enjoyment in the protective context of the marriage commitment.
2 But due to the prevalence of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.
The solution to rampant sexual immorality is not to build a wall between an individual and sexual connection but to build a wall around two people who are to experience and enjoy that connection in the context of marriage.
It is with this protective wall in mind that he goes on in…
3 The husband should fulfill his marital responsibility to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.
The Greek word for “marital responsibility” means “to owe someone something,” like a debt. The idea is that the husband is to give sexual fulfillment to his wife and the wife is to give the same to her husband.
A few things are important to note:
- First, notice the equality of concern.
- Second, note that there is no room to misuse this passage as a pretext for spousal abuse.
- Notice that marital protection comes through sexual satisfaction.
5 Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 I say this as a concession, not as a command.
Paul requires three conditions for for a married couple to abstain from physical intimacy.
- The abstention should be of mutual consent.
- There should be an agreement beforehand on a limited time period at the end of which intimate relations would be resumed.
- The purpose of temporary marital abstinence was to enable them to devote themselves to prayer in a concentrated way.
I don’t know anyone advocating for celibacy in marriage today. But I do know that some of us are experiencing celibacy – but not because we’ve agreed to abstain for a season to have extended devotions.
What prevents us from enjoying sexual intimacy in marriage? At least 8 things contribute to the problem.
- Laziness. Unhelpful night-time routines and bad habits.
- Unresolved bitterness and resentment.
- Physiological and emotional complications due to past abuse, clinical depression, or self-image disorders.
- The lack of desire.
- A lack of knowledge. The best marriage advice I ever received: men are microwaves but women are crock pots.
- Unrealistic expectations. Sometimes you want a steak dinner and get chicken pasta. Enjoy the pasta enough and eventually, you’ll get the steak.
- Pornography. Having your sexual needs met outside of your marriage is a sexual intimacy killer.
- Exhaustion & stress (work, kids, financial, health, etc.).
Why do you think Paul brings up Satan here?
Satan does not want Christians to enjoy sex in marriage. He knows that if we are abstinent long enough, he can temp us with what Paul calls porneia (the Greek word that is translated “sexual immorality.”) He wants to distort and destroy what God had made beautiful and good.
So, let’s fight back by (1) recovering a biblical understanding of sexuality and (2) restoring our enjoyment of marital intimacy!
BUT HOW? Some of us (all?) need real, practical help here. More than I can provide in a sermon. But I’ll suggest 5 principles to get us started.
- Enjoy the living room before the bedroom.
- Pursue emotional connection before physical connection.
- Attitude is more important than technique.
- Seek primarily to give rather than primarily to get (you will end up receiving).
- Make frequency not ecstasy the goal.
By the way, we can learn a lot from the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament. As one author says, if we will read and learn from Solomon’s song, we will “not need to borrow anything from the world.”
Now, Paul takes an unexpected turn.
7 I wish that all people were as I am [unmarried]. But each has his own gift from God; one has this gift [of singleness], another has that.
A few things to note.
- Marriage is a gift to be valued.
- Singleness also is a gift to be valued. We need to state this clearly in the church, where singleness can seem as if it is a second-class state. It is not–not at all!
- Not everyone has the gift of singleness. Some want to be married and are not.
How can you know if you have the gift of singleness? You are totally satisfied in your singleness and do not “burn with lustful desires.”
8 Now to the unmarried [likely “widowers”] and the widows, I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. 9 But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with lustful desires.
Remember, it is likely that while Paul had been married, but now was unmarried, albeit for an undisclosed reason. Maybe he never married. We are just not 100% sure.
Regardless, he views his unmarried state as profitable, especially in his particular life context as a travelling missionary who regularly was imprisoned and/or abused for his preaching of Jesus as the Risen Christ.
Later in the chapter he will explain how singleness provides the advantage of giving missionary types and others a unique opportunity to do for the kingdom what would be very difficult for those who are married.
But the root issue here has to do with whether or not someone could live the unmarried life and remain celibate. If not, they should pursue remarriage.
The theological term for interpreting the Bible is hermeneutics. There are two critical questions that must be asked of any Bible passage in order to understand and apply it with a redemptive focus.
- How does the passage reveal Jesus as justifier and sanctifier?
- How does the passage reveal our need for Jesus as justifier and sanctifier?
Of these two questions, we may not see the first, but we certainly can’t miss the second. If there is any area of our lives where we feel guilt and shame it is in the area of sexuality. For many, the sin is secret, but that doesn’t lessen the weight of guilt we feel.
The only thing that will lessen the weight and free us from the debilitating shame of sexual sin is to see Jesus devote himself to us as his own Bride by giving himself unto death—the pure for the impure; the sinless for the sinful; the faithful for the unfaithful.
Upon a cross, Jesus displays his unbridled love by giving his own body for us on a cross of execution, saving us from condemnation by being condemned in our place.
This is marital devotion. This is selfless, unfailing, transforming love—the kind of love King David spoke of when he wrote in Psalm 63, “You love is better than life… My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you.”
When I am satisfied with Jesus as the lover of my soul, who died for my sexual immorality to make me pure, I will discover a new satisfaction in the marital union with my own spouse.
As I abide in Jesus, he will fill me with a new desire and ability to satisfy her… emotionally, intellectually, and yes, with intimate physical affection.
The key is this: Do you know Jesus as the lover of your soul?
 Alain de Botton, “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person,” The New York Times (5-28-16)
 David Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians: Life in the Local Church, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 114. Some members of the Corinthian church had gone to the opposite extreme of those who had justified prostitution (6:12–20). They claimed that it was good for a man not to marry. The NIV translation obscures the meaning of the statement. The NRSV (“It is well for a man not to touch a woman”) and NASB (“It is good for a man not to touch a woman”) translate more literally (“touch” rather than “marry”) this statement that sexual relations in and of itself are not good… He knew that God himself ordained marriage for the betterment of humanity. Like Jesus before him, Paul saw celibacy as an unusual condition.
 In these chapters Paul is steering between the twin excesses of license and legalism, libertinism and asceticism. Ultra-liberal and ultra-conservative.
 Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 137. This mutual concern out against the backdrop of the highly patriarchal cultures of the Greco-Roman world
 While it is true that the neglect of sexual intimacy may lead to marital unfaithfulness, this is no excuse for marital unfaithfulness.
 David Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians: Life in the Local Church, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 117.
 Apparently, some in the Corinthian church were advocating celibacy within marriage. It is likely that this decision was unilateral, not a mutually agreed-on decision. The result was depriving a spouse of what God designed marriage to provide.
 Richard L. Pratt Jr, I & II Corinthians, vol. 7, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 114., “In allowing couples to abstain from sexual relations for a limited time, Paul made a concession. He by no means intended to command periods of abstinence. His command was that they not deprive each other.”
 Douglas Wilson, Reforming Marriage (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1995), 105.
 Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 133–134. “Unmarried” is a masculine plural, just as “widows” is a feminine plural (v. 8). Given that verses 25–38 will address those who have never married, and given that the more explicit Greek word for “widower” was falling into disuse in the first century, we should probably understand the unmarried here to refer to men whose wives had died.