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Sexual Stewardship for All

What did God make us for as sexual beings? What best paths did God give us to enjoy sexuality to the fullest? How can we resist sexual temptation, generally?

Enjoy this free preview of Equip’s video teaching. To watch the full-length video, get access to Equip’s on-demand Digital Leaders Course, featuring “Sexual Stewardship for All” and much more.

What did God make us for?

What does God want us to do with our sexuality? And what do we want?

Some people think God wants us to have no fun, that He wants us to show our love for Him by learning to be content with loneliness and dissatisfaction and to obsess about avoiding sin. Some of us think that what we want is to have as much sex and romance with the most attractive people we can convince to be with us. Both of those are off. That’s not what God wants, and that’s not what we really want.

We want genuine connection. We want to not be lonely. We want community. We want love that lasts. We want richer, more meaningful, and steady relationships. We want to feel safe, to trust that the people who love us will love us well and keep doing so until we die. We want people to go on this life journey with who truly know us and therefore know how to accompany us well on that journey. And we want to offer the same to others and enjoy the delight that can only be achieved after decades of that knownness. And God wants those same things for us!

Our capacity for connection and need for community isn’t a test, it’s a gift. God made us in His image to enjoy intimacy with Him and each other, and He wants us to enjoy that to the fullest.

Connection in community

God first made the world perfectly and imagined all of us connecting with each other in perfect community. He gave us two best ways, two different but equally good paths for enjoying connection: vocational singleness and Christian marriage.

Unfortunately, humans have consistently chosen to ignore God’s wisdom and trust their own ideas over God’s, leading to brokenness in every part of the world and ourselves. God knows that in a broken world we will be tempted to settle for less than the fullest life, but, thankfully, God looked over our broken world and broken selves, and He shared with us in the teachings of Jesus and others warnings about what will cause us harm. Plus, He gave us wisdom about the best ways we can still enjoy connection in community. He gave us direction for how to enjoy our sexuality to the fullest.

To put it another way, God has invited us to steward our sexualities.

In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul admonishes Corinthian Christians for their sexual immorality and calls them to sexual stewardship:

“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” —vv. 19–20

Our bodies were made by and given to us by God. All of us have sold our bodies to the slavery of sin with our disobedience. Yet Christ in His mercy paid the price for that sin, bought us back, and chose to dwell in us. Our bodies are not our own. They are dwelling places for the Holy Spirit that we’ve been given to steward until we receive our perfected resurrected bodies for the New Jerusalem.

So sexual stewardship refers to our God-given task of managing our capacity for friendship, family, romance, and sex and our need for healthy intimacy. As believers, we all called to steward, to carefully and faithfully manage, multiple aspects of our lives in ways that honor God: our finances, the environment, eating and exercise, sleep, mental health, meeting our intimacy needs in healthy ways, character development, and how we leverage our 9-to-5 jobs for the sake of the kingdom. Faithfully stewarding each of our sexualities is just one of those tasks, but an important one!

Framing this conversation around sexual stewardship is helpful because it zooms out from focusing only on sex and marriage. Too often, a simple “save sex for marriage” mantra suggests that marriage and sex are something that we are owed and can take, that we have a right to seek out sexual pleasure, as long as we follow the rules. Instead, a focus on sexual stewardship more broadly includes vocational singleness and suggests that marriage and sex aren’t forgone conclusions. The phrase “sexual stewardship” properly identifies our sexualities as a gift from God and reminds us that we are meant to fearfully and faithfully steward that gift based on His wisdom, not based on our pleasure.

So let’s start with the basics: God created you for connection in the context of community. How do I know that? Because God is a being who enjoys connection in the context of community, and He created us in His image for those same things.

God is a being in community

God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit make up a community called the Trinity. Then when Jesus died on the cross for our sins and resurrected, He made a way for all of us to join the Trinity in God’s family. You see, God enjoys perfect connection in the Trinity, and while Christians don’t always love God perfectly, He loves us perfectly in the big family of God. Because we’re made in God’s image, designed to imitate God, we’re also made for connection in communities.

We call our need to be in community, our capacity to connect with other humans, “sexuality.”

Often when people talk about sexuality, they use that word narrowly to only refer to romance and sex, but there’s so much more to our sexuality than just romance and sex. Even if God calls you to Christian marriage and to enjoy romance and sex in that context, you’ll spend at least the first couple decades of your life unmarried and you might end up spending the last decade or two of your life unmarried (as a widow or widower). Others of you will never marry.

And even if you do get married, your spouse will just be one of many people you’ll interact with each day. You’ll interact with coworkers, friends, any children you have, and other family members. Do you see what I’m getting at? Regardless of whether you get married, most of your interactions with other people in your life will be non-romantic and non-sexual, yet those interactions will still be meaningful connection points. When God made us to be relational creatures, He intended for most of our connections with each other, most of the times we engage our sexuality, to be non-romantic and non-sexual.

Our sexuality is…

So how can we think more broadly about sexuality and our created need and capacity for connection in the context of community? More generally, our sexuality is our need to know others and be known by others, to give and receive love. But I’m not just talking about romantic love. This also includes brotherly and sisterly love. Friend love. That’s key to understand: we don’t need romance or sex to meet our needs for connection, and the Bible never promises romance or sex to people who follow God.

One way to think about our need for connection is to imagine a set of buckets that need to be filled with water. Each of the buckets represent a kind of connection we need and the water is the connection. Because we each have a physical body and an intellectual mind and an emotional and spiritual soul,

God designed us to need and have connection on a physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual level.

Imagine four buckets, one labeled “emotional,” the second labeled “spiritual,” the third labeled “physical,” and the fourth labeled “intellectual.”

When I say emotional connection, I mean having conversations that help you connect with gladness or fear or anger or sadness inside of you, and where you notice some of those same things in others. When I say spiritual connection, I mean connecting in a way that makes you feel more connected to God, by talking about spiritual things, reading Scripture together, or worshiping together. When I say physical connection, I mean a hug, holding hands, sitting next to each other on the couch, putting your arm around someone’s shoulder, and yes, kissing and cuddling and sex. When I say intellectual connection, I mean exchanging and exploring ideas with another person.

Some would argue that there is a fifth bucket labeled “sexual.” They posit hat we all need sexual connection to be whole, and if we don’t get it, we will feel empty. But I know plenty of people who have never had sex and who are full adults. They share with me that they have vibrant social lives, rich connection, and a satisfying experience of community.

That’s been true in my own life. The healthy emotional, intellectual, physical, and spiritual connection I have experienced in friendships has been much more satisfying than the broken physical connection I have experienced in the past. In contrast, I’ve known lots of single people who haven’t followed God’s wisdom and have had sex outside of marriage. But despite the beautiful photos they post on Instagram, when I talk to them one-on-one, they share with me that they feel empty. They say that it’s fun in the moment, but they’re always living in fear of the person leaving or they’re afraid to let the other person really know them because they might break up tomorrow.

Plus, the Bible doesn’t teach that we need sex or romance to be whole people. Quite the opposite. Jesus didn’t have sex. Jesus is the example of what it means to be fully human, so clearly romance and sex aren’t necessary to be fully human. Paul was committed to celibacy. Many of the early leaders in the Church were celibate. And in Matthew 22:30, Jesus suggests that in heaven, there won’t be any more marriage or sex because the non-romantic, non-sexual ways we’ll connect with God and each other will be a thousand times better than any romance or sex in this life.

Instead, there are four connection buckets. Emotional, intellectual, physical, and spiritual. God provides a good chunk of our spiritual connection. Those who are married will partially fill each of those buckets with the connection they experience in their marriage. But, even if you’re married, God and your spouse alone won’t fill your connection buckets. You will still need emotional connection, intellectual connection, physical connection, and spiritual connection from friendship.

What best paths does God provide?

God has made all of us to find connection in the context of community. What does that look like practically? And how do we do that well?

In short, God has designed two paths for Christians to find connection in the context of community, two vocations, and He wants to give some of us the gift to walk down one of those paths and others the gift to walk down the other path: vocational singleness and Christian marriage. Both of these are particular ways adult Christians can enjoy connection in the context of community

This is the key lever of God-honoring and life-giving sexual stewardship. If you want the most satisfying connection in community for a lifetime, accept the gift that God wants to give you and live fully into God’s design for the vocation He gave you.

The key to sexual stewardship isn’t focusing on what we’re supposed to say “no” to. More often than not, when I meet lonely, disconnected, relationally wounded people it’s because there are ways they could more fully say “yes” to God’s calling for their lives and His design for the vocation He’s given to them.

Why “vocation”?

Why do I say vocation? A Christian vocation is generally a calling with a specific design for a specific purpose with a specific provision. Vocational singleness is a lifetime calling to abstinent singleness for the sake of kingdom work with undivided attention. Christian marriage is a lifetime commitment between one Christian woman and one Christian man with an openness to raising children for the sake of the kingdom.

We’re all first called to a period of temporary singleness during which we discern whether we’re called to vocational singleness or Christian marriage. Vocational singleness is distinct from temporary singleness, and it is best for everyone to settle down into Christian marriage or vocational singleness instead of prolonged temporary singleness. Marriage and vocational singleness are equally good callings, though marriage will be more common. There is no default path–one’s calling should be an open-handed question for every Christian.

These distinctions were mind-blowing for me when I first saw them in Scripture. None of us are on a default path. We’re not supposed to just take what we want, and we shouldn’t continue in the limbo of uncommitted singleness. There are two options. Both equally good and normal, but one is more common. I need to ask God which He wants me to do, and I won’t get the gift from God to do either one well until I step out of temporary singleness and commit.

Temporary singleness

So where do we start? Well, we’re all first called to a temporary period of abstinent singleness in which we enjoy relationship with God and the Body of Christ in non-sexual, non-romantic companionship. We should all learn to do this well. This is a calling to neither vocational singleness nor marriage—defining our default calling in the negative is not sufficient but it is informative—we are not yet called to vocational singleness or to marriage. 

We should not assume that we are called to marriage just because we have sexual desires, want to be a parent, or find abstinent singleness to be too challenging.  We should all submit our sexuality to God, study what the Scriptures have to say about sexual stewardship, and discern with God and spiritual mentors in our lives whether we are called to vocational singleness or Christian marriage.

But why distinguish between temporary singleness and vocational singleness? Well, there’s a big difference between the singleness we’re all born into and experience as children versus committed, lifetime, vocational singleness for the sake of doing kingdom work. There’s a big difference between just waiting for marriage versus accepting a call to permanently give up the possibility of romance, marriage, sex, and children in order to use that availability to do kingdom work that parents can’t.

I know many people in uncommitted singleness find it difficult to commit to a particular spiritual family or kingdom work because they feel like they need to be ready to reorganize their life around a future marriage. They struggle with job dissatisfaction, kingdom work unfulfillment, loneliness, and a sense of waiting for life to start.

Plus, the two passages where Jesus and Paul encourage Christians to consider kingdom singleness aren’t commending temporary singleness—they’re commending committed, lifetime singleness. In order to receive the gift from God to do vocational singleness well, we have to step out of temporary singleness and into committed singleness. If someone is in temporary singleness, without the gift of singleness, and struggling, perhaps part of the difficulty is that they haven’t received the gift yet.

The Church has consistently taught that it is not God’s intention for Christians to continue in temporary singleness for a lifetime. For the vast majority of us, it is better to settle down into vocational singleness or marriage. That being said, there are always exceptions to the rule. God will choose not to give some Christians a call to marriage or vocational singleness. For some, faithfully following God’s guidance will look like continuing to leave open the possibility of both vocational singleness and marriage, perhaps into their 30s, 40s, 50s, or even for their entire life. While less common than either vocational singleness or Christian marriage, faithfully continuing in temporary singleness should be honored and supported in our churches.

Discernment

Okay, so there’s a difference between temporary and vocational singleness, and I’ve got a sense of how to do temporary singleness well. But why should I discern? And how do I discern?

Everyone should discern this question of vocational singleness or Christian marriage. We should all open-handedly offer these possibilities to God and seek His preference.

Why? Because God calls us to either a vocation of marriage or a vocation of singleness, the Bible teaches that our vocation is given or called–not chosen, and God has a preference and wants to communicate that preference to us.

Where does Scripture teach this? In Matthew 19:11, in His response to the disciples’ shock about His high standard for marriage, Jesus says that only those to whom the calling of marriage has been given will accept His teachings about marriage. And then in verse 12, Jesus says that only those to whom the calling of vocational singleness has been given will accept His teachings about vocational singleness. Jesus says that God calls us to either marriage or vocational singleness, and God gives us a gift to thrive in that vocation. Then in 1 Corinthians 7:7, Paul says that he wishes all were like him—that all were called to vocational singleness—but God has given each his own gift. God has called some to vocational singleness. God has called others to marriage. In some ways, our preference does not matter. We can share our preference with God, but ultimately we should learn what God’s preference is and ask Him to conform our desires to His desires.

At this point, you might point out that in Matt 19:12, Jesus speaks of “choosing” to live like a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom? Doesn’t that contradict what I’m saying here? Actually, I agree that one’s relational vocation should be entered into voluntarily. No one should be forced into marriage or forced into vocational singleness. But this doesn’t mean that all that matters is our own preference or desire. This doesn’t mean that we only have to be single or married if we really want to. Christ’s teachings make it clear that God has a call for us and that we should obey that call. God intends for our preference to be conformed to His preference. But no one should be forced into celibacy before their will has aligned with God’s, just as no one should be forced into a marriage without being called to it and recognizing that call. Jesus’s use of the word “chosen” should be a clear admonishment of anyone being forced into a relational vocation if they haven’t discerned that call.

We should also discern God’s calling, ask God to show us why that is best for us, be patient for our heart to grow to desire God’s best for us, and then choose to accept God’s gift. Some might object, “But I want to marry and have kids. That must be God’s desire.” By that logic—that a desire to marry, a desire to be a parent, or a difficulty being single tells us we’re called to marriage—the only people who are called to vocational singleness are asexual people. Clearly that was not Christ’s intention. Most of the celibate Protestants and Catholics I know still experienced a healthy desire for marriage, sex, and children before committing to vocational singleness, so those desires aren’t an indication of God’s preference.

Others might argue, “But singleness is too difficult and isn’t natural!” Well, Christian marriage and vocational singleness are actually equally unnatural. Does the average Christian automatically possess everything they need to thrive in vocational singleness? No. But the same is true of Christian marriage. We don’t inherently have what we need to do marriage well either. In light of the Fall, romance, sex, and polyamory are what come naturally to us. Each of us has the same inherent but incomplete capacity for both vocational singleness and Christian marriage. But to do either well, we must step into that vocation and receive an additional gift to do it well. We should discern and settle down into either marriage or vocational singleness because none of us have what we need inherently to thrive in Christian marriage or vocational singleness.

Still others might say, “Well, doesn’t 1 Corinthians 7:9 say that if you find abstinence difficult, you’re called to marriage?” That’s a common interpretation, but it’s actually more accurate to read this as a specific rebuke of Corinthian Christians who had adopted quasi-gnostic ideas that the real us was our mind and spirit, that our bodies were these gross containers we are stuck in for a lifetime but would be thrown away which meant it didn’t matter if we mistreated our bodies. As a result, some of these Corinthian Christians were claiming to be celibate in spirit but then engaging in unrestrained sexual immorality because the body didn’t matter. Regardless, the general principle holds true: it is unwise to walk the path of a vocation of singleness without the gift to do it well. But the same could be said of marriage: it is unwise to engage in some of the activities of marriage without God’s provision that comes from taking marriage vows and stepping into that vocation fully.

Now, admittedly, the word discernment isn’t used in any of these passages, but all of this leaves an undeniably discernment-shaped hole. It’s the conclusion of the early Church, the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the only two Protestant theologians to offer systematic theologies of celibacy: Max Thurian and Karl Barth. If there’s no default path, if we must step forward out of temporary singleness and commit to something in order to receive the gift, if both vocations are permanent, if God has a preference and is calling us, if we’re not supposed to just take what we want or step forward recklessly how do we learn God’s preference from Him? How do we hear the call? How do we know which path to step toward? How do we make sure we consider this question carefully? Discernment.

What, then, does it look like to ask God this question? to give God a chance? to discern? Here’s five suggestions.

  1. Grow your ”spiritual muscles” for general discernment

Do you know how to bring a question before God, consider Scripture, consider practical aspects of your question, seek advice from spiritual mentors, arrive at a potential conclusion, hold that conclusion before God, seek confirmation through small steps, and move forward with confidence? Before we ask a question as important as marriage or vocational singleness, let’s practice our skills of discernment on less consequential decisions. A good book on this is God’s Voice Within.

  1. Remove any emotional or theological barriers to clear discernment

You need to make sure you have a healthy theological understanding of both vocational singleness and Christian marriage so that you aren’t biased against either. Work through any emotional barriers like a fear of marriage because of a family history of divorce or an idolatry of romance.

  1. Consider what kind of work you might be called to, and see if that points you toward vocational singleness or marriage

If you feel like the primary work you’ve been called to is to raise children for the Church, then you’re probably called to marriage. If you feel called to a mission that might be mutually exclusive with raising children, like a special mission, a difficult ministry, a life of contemplation or study, or monastic life, then you’re probably called to vocational singleness.

  1. Consider your past and current circumstances

Have any experiences from your past pointed you toward one vocation or another? Or perhaps you find yourself single later in life and ask, “Am I still single not by accident, but because God has called me to vocational singleness?” I’m not saying that every adult who is single later in life has been called to vocational singleness, but perhaps if someone is single later in life, that is a sign of God’s intentions.

  1. Seek support from your church in the discernment process.

Invite mentors to lead you in this process. Get feedback from friends and family about your discernment. These people can often provide better advice with an outside perspective.

Vocational singleness

Now let’s talk about celibacy, or as I prefer to call it, vocational singleness.

Vocational singleness is a lifetime calling to singleness for the sake of the kingdom. Let me break down each of those.

Vocational singleness is a lifetime calling.

It’s a calling. We’ve already established that God calls us to either a vocation of marriage or a vocation of singleness. The Bible teaches that our vocation is given or called, not chosen; God has a preference and wants to communicate that preference to us.

But it’s not just a calling, it’s a lifetime calling.

God intended for vocational singleness to be committed and permanent. In Matthew 19:1-12, Jesus speaks of a call beyond temporary singleness and compares vocational singleness to being a eunuch, a state which is permanent. In 1 Corinthians 7:1-40, Paul recognizes and praises committed singleness and teaches that it is better to keep a commitment to vocational singleness. Plus, the early Church unanimously understood Jesus and Paul to be teaching about a permanent commitment to celibate singleness. The disciples of the apostles–and their disciples and their disciples–unanimously understood Jesus and Paul to be commending permanent celibacy. We’re talking about people like St. Clement of Rome (the disciple and successor of Peter the Apostle), St. Ignatius of Antioch (the disciple of John the Apostle), St. Justin the Martyr, St. Athenagoras of Athens, Polycrates of Ephesus, Tertullian, St. Cyprian of Carthage, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and St. Methodius of Olympus. 

Vocational singleness is a lifetime calling to singleness.

 Vocational singleness is a call to give up romance, dating, marriage, and sex, but that doesn’t mean that a person is called to loneliness. It’s still a call to intimacy in the context of committed family. In Matthew 19:1-12, Jesus talks about vocational singleness as a giving up of romance, marriage, sex, and children and then in Luke 18:28-30, Jesus promises a 100-fold of brothers, sisters, and children now in this present time to those who give up the potential for a spouse and children for the sake of the kingdom. In 1 Corinthians 7:1-40, Paul confirms that vocational singleness involves giving up sex, romance, marriage, and children but recognizes that those called to vocational singleness still need committed companionship.

Why does God call people to this lifetime vocation of singleness?

Vocational singleness is a lifetime calling to singleness for the sake of the kingdom.

 Jesus uses the phrase “for the sake of the kingdom” in Matthew 19:1-12 and Luke 18:28-30 to describe vocational singleness. Those called to vocational singleness do that in three ways: 

First, God intended for those in vocational singleness to use their availability, primarily from not raising children, to do kingdom work that those raising children don’t have the time and energy to do. In 1 Corinthians 7:1-40, Paul explains that vocational singleness involves giving up a spouse and children to be more concerned with the work of the Church.

Second, vocational singleness is for the sake of the kingdom because it embodies the gospel in unique ways. Similarly to Christian marriage, vocational singleness is an image of the love of God found in the Trinity and between Christ and the Church that preaches the gospel by pointing us back to the true things that image reflects. Vocational singleness is spiritually procreative, sacrificial, committed, intimate, and hospitable, pointing those who see that image back to the original source: God’s love.

And third, vocational singleness is for the sake of the kingdom because it gives every Christian hope for the New Heavens and New Earth. In Luke 20:34-36, Jesus teaches that all will be celibate in the New Heaven and New Earth, so vocational singleness preaches the gospel in a way that marriage does not by serving as a physical sign and hope for how we will all live there.

Contemporaries of early Christians saw marriage as a necessity to secure physical protection, wealth, and a legacy through descendants. So when Christian celibates fulfilled the promises in Isaiah 56:3-5 and Luke 18:29 by experiencing more family, belonging, and honor than married people, they provided Christians with a preview of and hope for a New Heavens and New Earth where God would keep us safe, provide everything we needed, and would never forget us.

But let me update that for a modern audience. Today, westerners seem interested in romance and marriage because they promise a way to find faithful love and escape loneliness. So modern Christian vocational singleness can uniquely testify to the fullness of God’s love by previewing a time when we don’t have to compete—to be more attractive or intelligent or funny than others—in order to be loved by others and belong in a family.

Christians today should look at those in vocational singleness, see them enjoying intimate community without the need for romance, exclusivity, or competing for each others’ affection, and that preview should give every Christian hope for the fullness of God’s love in the kingdom to come.

In light of this, how can we do vocational singleness well if we’re called to it?

We can voluntarily commit to it in response to God’s calling, fully commit for a lifetime to receive God’s gift and long term focus, leverage singleness for the sake of kingdom work, and find lifelong, lived-in human family.

This also highlights what the solution might be if you’re struggling with vocational singleness: if you’re walking out long term singleness involuntarily or haven’t taken the time to discern God’s calling or haven’t made an intentional, lifelong commitment or aren’t using your vocational singleness to serve the poor and need in some meaningful way or are trying to do vocational singleness alone or with a revolving door of roommates and church family then perhaps you’ll find thriving by leaning into one of those.

Christian marriage

Christian marriage is a lifetime commitment between one man and one woman to raise children.

Christian marriage is Christian.

 It is joined, entered into, and sustained by God. Christian marriage is not just natural marriage as God designed at Creation, rather Christian marriage is natural marriage plus a gospel purpose revealed by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. God does not join, enter into, or sustain a non-Christian marriage in the same way He does a Christian marriage.

Christian marriage is a lifetime commitment.

God expects that our vows to our spouse be permanent. In Matthew 19, Jesus calls God’s people back to lifelong monogamy, declaring that Moses allowed the Jewish people to divorce, giving them over to their broken desires, because their hearts were hardened to God and His created intention. Then Jesus seemingly provides an exception to this high standard of permanence, but other presentations of this episode in other Gospels lack this exception, and Jesus teaches clearly in Matthew 5:32 that if you marry someone who has been divorced, you commit adultery, without any exception. Paul confirms Christ’s teachings in Romans 7:2-3 and 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, 39 that there are no biblical grounds for divorce. Scholars argue that this exception in Matthew 19 is more likely allowing for separation without remarriage or referring to dissolving a false marriage: marriages entered into under false pretenses, a marriage never consummated, or a marriage to a concubine (1 Corinthians 5:1, Acts 15:20, Acts 15:29).

Christian marriage is a lifetime commitment between one man and one woman.

God instituted natural marriage in Genesis 2, clearly defining marriage as between one man and one woman and established sex difference as part of what makes a marriage. In Matthew 19, Jesus reaffirms God’s original intentions for monogamous, lifelong marriage between one man and one woman. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul does the same, stating that each husband should have only one wife, and each wife have only one husband. Then in Ephesians 5, Paul teaches that the sex difference in Christian marriage is meant to reflect the differentness in Christ’s relationship with the Church.

Christian marriage is a lifetime commitment between one man and one woman to raise children.

I want to be clear: raising children is not the only good thing enjoyed in marriage, but it is in particular what sets it apart from vocational singleness. Obviously, just like vocational singleness, it is a call to embody the gospel and enjoy healthy intimacy, but since the beginning of time, marriage was meant to be a space to raise children. In Genesis 1:28, God commands the first marriage to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” This procreation mandate is affirmed in Genesis 9 and Psalm 127. Raising children is a central purpose of Christian marriage, and God’s command for Christian marriages to raise children was never rescinded. (Please note that I’ve been careful to say “raise children,” and not “have children.” As a rule, a Christian marriage is a space to raise children, whether that be one’s own or as foster or adoptive parents. While infrequent, there are always exceptions to the rule.)

In light of this, how can couples thrive in Christian marriage?

Couples can ensure they enter marriage intentionally after a period of discernment, see their marriage as a gift and calling from God to labor for the sake of the kingdom, recognize the gospel nature of their Christian marriage and potential to testify to Christ’s love, take seriously God’s invitation to raise children for the sake of the kingdom, and recognize that divorce in God’s eye is almost never an option (so dig deep).

This also highlights what the solution might be if you’re struggling in your Christian marriage. You may be taking your marriage for granted as something the universe owes you, seeing your marriage as ordinary and for your own happiness, believing that a call to Christian marriage is less sacrificial or less kingdom-focused than celibacy, stewarding the marriage to maximize your comfort instead of your kingdom impact, or resisting the difficult work of maintaining the marriage by allowing yourself to consider divorce.

Why follow God’s wisdom?

Admittedly, these are high standards for sexual stewardship, and this is culturally inconvenient wisdom. God seems to have a lot of rules for how we should seek out intimacy and family. So why follow God’s wisdom about intimacy and family?

If we believe that a god exists, if we believe that god is the God of the Bible, and if we believe that God knows what is best for us—if we really believe all of those things, we would be fools not to follow God’s wisdom. If Lebron James was your basketball coach and you ignored his advice about how to become a better basketball player, you’d be a fool! How much better advice does God have about the ways to enjoy the most goodness and beauty and meaning in this life? Trust Him! We have been designed, by God, for specific purposes. That matters. We shouldn’t be surprised that when we allow ourselves to live in ways we weren’t designed to, we get hurt. We shouldn’t be surprised that when we use romance, marriage, and sex contrary to God’s design, it brings pain to our lives. If God’s wisdom is best for us, following His teachings will save us from the unnecessary pain of figuring out the best paths through trial and error. Plus, God’s wisdom will lead us to the deepest experiences of joy and purpose and true pleasure in this life.

How can we resist temptation?

The bad news is that all of us will experience sexual temptation. But there’s some good news, too: temptation is predictable.

The Enemy is predictable. He uses the same tricks over and over again: he offers us false hope, particularly when we’re burdened by painful emotions like sadness, fear, and anger or we’re lonely or tired. He lies to us. He reminds us how God’s wisdom can be hard work, and he tempts us to ignore God’s wisdom suggesting instead that we take some shortcuts to make ourselves feel better, suggesting that there’s easier ways to deal with the pain, suggesting that we can just fantasize about someone sexually to make us feel better or look at sexual videos or cross sexual boundaries with other people. The Enemy tells us that those things will make us feel better and that they won’t hurt anyone, including ourselves, but that’s a mirage. Instead, we find the opposite is true.

When we give in to sexual temptation, we don’t experience lasting relief or real connection. Instead we experience more pain, more sadness, fear, and anger, more loneliness, more exhaustion. The Enemy’s shortcuts don’t work in the long-term, and they rarely work in the short-term. But we keep on falling for the same lies. Why? Because we keep getting caught in a vulnerable position, because we’re got sadness, fear, anger, loneliness, and exhaustion that we haven’t addressed in health ways so we’re easy targets for the Enemy, and because the Enemy gets us in the habit of going to them, to the point where it feels automatic–it feels like we’re not even choosing anymore. He’s so persistent to tempt us with the same things over and over again; he trains us, like a pet, to quickly go to the destructive bandaids, to the cheap substitutes, and it becomes automatic. 

If that goes on for long enough, ”sexual addiction” may best describe your experience. If that’s the case, the general wisdom I offer here isn’t going to be enough. You’re going to need a certified sex addiction therapist or to join a sex addiction recovery or 12-step group (or both).

What’s the solution? Run to Jesus and to your friends and ask for a hug, a conversation, help. God gave us the Holy Spirit and each other to lean on. You can ask the Holy Spirit to help you resist sexual temptations by connecting with friends, feeling your feelings, and breaking habits of sin.

First, take the power out of the Enemy’s temptations by connecting with friends.

Have you noticed that when we aren’t filling our connection needs buckets in healthy ways that broken parts of our soul and mind tend to reach out for destructive and unsatisfying shortcuts? When you ignore your need for community and connection and try to go at it alone you end up making unwise decisions later. Lust, masturbation, pornography, and crossing boundaries with other people all become more difficult to resist.

This has certainly been true in my life. For a long time, I was tired of needing people in my life. I’d been hurt by people who said I was their friend and said I could depend on them but then abandoned me or later rejected me. So for a season, I didn’t want any close friends. I just wanted to be okay being alone. But during that time, I found temptations to look at pornography and cross physical intimacy boundaries much more difficult to resist. It was almost like my loneliness, the emptiness of my connection needs buckets, was giving those temptations more power. It wasn’t until I started reaching out to friends again and connecting with them in healthy ways, that I found greater strength to resist temptations. If we’re intentional about filling our connection needs buckets in healthy ways with friends, it takes power away from the Enemy’s temptations and makes them easier to resist.

Invest in a couple of close friends. I don’t think there’s anything you really need that you couldn’t get reliably from a couple of good friends. Let your friends get to know the real you, share with them your fears and pains and your hopes and dreams. When you’re feeling sad or angry or afraid, tell them, and ask them to listen and comfort you. When you’re happy about something, tell them so they can celebrate with you! Whatever big ideas you’re wrestling with and whatever challenging problems you have, share those with your friends and invite them to help you make sense of them. Read the Bible and pray and worship Jesus together. Give each other hugs, don’t be afraid to sit close to each other on the couch, lean your head on their shoulder.

Second, take the power out of the Enemy’s temptations by feeling your feelings.

It might seem counterintuitive, but the best way to resist sexual temptation–the best defense against sexual sin–is listening to and caring for our emotions. The key emotions are gladness, sadness, fear, and anger; when you feel one of those three painful emotions, could I encourage you to learn from them instead of ignoring them? When you’re scared, your body is trying to tell you that there’s actually something that involves risk in your life, that you might get hurt, and your body is trying to make sure that you’ve thought wisely about that risk and prepared for the future. When you’re angry, that’s often because there’s something unjust, something unfair in the world around you, and your body wants you to seek justice in some way, or at least recognize for yourself that it isn’t fair. When you’re sad, it’s because you’ve lost something small or big, and your body needs for you to grieve, for you to mourn, for you to spend time giving yourself permission to be sad about the loss.

With each of these, the solution is rarely about doing something quickly to make the emotion go away. It’s about giving yourself time and space to feel your feelings. Connecting with your emotions is the only way for them to get out. But you don’t have to do it alone–and sometimes it’s too scary to do alone. That’s why it’s important to lean on friends, to share with them when you’re feeling sadness, fear, or anger, to ask them to listen and ask questions and give you a hug. If we do that, we have much less of a need for the destructive shortcuts that the Enemy suggests. We’ve taken care of ourselves in healthy ways, so lust and porn and crossing boundaries are less tempting. It’s easier to see how those won’t actually help us, and then to resist them.

And third, take the power out of the Enemy’s temptations by breaking habits of sin.

After you connect with friends in healthy ways and connect with your feelings, you can focus on breaking what feels like automatic patterns of sexual sin. An easy way to break the habit of porn is to ask a friend to help you put software or some kind of block on your devices to keep you from being able to access porn. If you’ve been crossing sexual boundaries with someone, maybe you could ask a trusted friend to help you come up with better boundaries. And a final way you can try to break the habit of any of these sexual sins is by asking someone you trust for help holding you accountable. Sometimes just knowing that someone will ask is enough to give you a little more strength to say “no.”

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