As Dani Treweek notes in her article, “Life without sex: Is it good?”, our culture’s view of sex as essential for human fulfillment and flourishing is at odds with the Bible’s teaching.1 From the perspective of the New Testament, the celibate life is indeed a good life that foreshadows the perfect life of the world to come, in which people will not marry, but will be “like angels” (Matt 22:30). The one flesh union between a man and a woman is not ultimate, but points beyond itself to the union of Christ and his people (see Eph 5:31-32; Rev 21:1-3). To be sure, sex is a good gift from God, and so life without sex involves sacrifice and self-denial. But sex is not an ultimate good: living without sex is not denying ourselves something essential to thrive as human beings.
In this article, I want to address the different but related question of whether life without sex is realistic. As Dani notes in her article, Christian leaders past and present have answered, “No, it’s not realistic”. In their eyes, to remain unmarried is to expose oneself to irresistible temptation and inevitable sin. Such teaching can strike a chord, because we experience sexual desire and attraction as powerful forces. Is it inevitable, then, that we’ll act on them? Are we really meant to resist desires so strong and apparently natural? Some Christians will be painfully aware that they haven’t resisted. Some may even now be engaged in a relationship or a practice of which God does not approve, and from which they feel powerless to turn. Others are demoralised as they see fellow Christians succumbing to temptation—fellow Christians including friends and admired leaders. If they can’t manage to remain sexually pure, how can we?
The good news is that we are not powerless in the fight against sexual sin: a life without sex is realistic, both for singles and for married people who, for one reason or another, are unable to have sex. In what follows, I hope to show that God has given us everything we need for a life of sexual purity. That doesn’t mean it will be easy. Nor does it mean that we won’t stumble. But it is possible.
1. Jesus shows us that life without sex is realistic
The first reason I’m convinced that it’s possible to live without sex is that Jesus did. It’s true that he died young. But he said no to sexual sin as a teenager and throughout his 20s, when testosterone levels are typically highest for men and sexual desires strongest.
It’s tempting to suppose that such self-control was easy for Jesus. After all, he was God! But he was also fully human. Jesus’s humanity did not in any way diminish his divinity, and likewise, his divinity did not in any way diminish his humanity. When Jesus hung dying on the cross, he experienced real pain and bled real blood, even as he continued to hold together every atom in the universe, putting breath in the lungs of those who stood mocking him, and making planets light years away revolve in their orbits. His divine power did not shield him from the highs and the lows of human experience. He hungered (Matt 21:18). He tired (John 4:6). He grieved (John 11:35). He rejoiced (Luke 10:21). He loved (John 11:5).2
The writer of Hebrews says that Jesus had to become human “in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people” (Heb 2:17). If Jesus wasn’t fully human, there is no salvation for humanity. And as a human, Jesus faced temptation: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Heb 4:15). I take it that “tempted in every way” includes sexual temptation. Jesus’s perfect life, then, shows that it’s possible to say no to sexual sin.
Unfortunately, as Doug Webster has pointed out, many people struggle to relate to Jesus as an example of sexual self-control because of “the sexual preoccupation of our age”, which leads them to interpret that very self-control as asexuality. “It is ironic,” writes Webster, “that by virtue of his singleness and celibacy, Jesus is rarely considered as an example of authentic singleness”.3 But Jesus was a real human who resisted sexual temptation and lived without sex. He shows us that life without sex is realistic.
2. Godliness is a struggle, but possible by the Spirit
But what about the rest of us? Unlike Jesus, “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). So is life without sex realistic for us? Yes it is! For although godliness is a struggle, it is possible by the Spirit.
A cosmic conflict
Paul writes about that struggle in Galatians:
So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. (Gal 5:16-17)
The last phrase of verse 17, “so that you are not to do whatever you want” (NIV) could also be translated “so that you don’t do what you want” (CSB), and opinions differ as to which Paul intended. According to the NIV’s interpretation, we experience a desire to sin, but the Spirit enables us to resist it; according to the CSB, we desire to be holy, but the flesh draws us into sin. Christians know both experiences, as now the Spirit and now the flesh has the upper hand. Whichever is in focus here, Paul’s point is that there is a conflict between the two.
Paul uses the word “flesh” to express the weakness and fallenness of this present world and our natural human condition. “Spirit” refers to the Spirit of God himself, poured out on God’s people as the “firstfruits” or “downpayment” of the perfect world to come (Rom 8:23; 2 Cor 5:5; Eph 1:14).4 The pouring out of the Spirit testifies that the present world is now in its “last days” (see Acts 2:17). But while we wait for the end and for the new creation (see 2 Pet 3:10-13), we live in what theologians sometimes call the “overlap of the ages” or the “now and not yet”. The struggle we experience daily as we endeavour to live for Christ and no longer for ourselves is actually part of a larger, cosmic conflict—a “war of the worlds”, if you like—and we Christians are the front line!
The flesh tries to pull us towards the acts listed in Galatians 5:19-21:
sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.
Those things are everywhere in our world, and they tempt us still. But the Spirit seeks to produce in us the fruit described in verse 22: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”. As a result of this tussle, we sometimes find ourselves following the Spirit and sometimes the flesh, and often we find ourselves torn between the two. But we must resist the flesh and “walk by the Spirit”.
Sadly, some Christians have not been warned to expect a lifelong struggle for godliness. I’m reminded of a recruitment brochure for the British Army I happened upon many years ago. It promised “action, travel, and adventure”, “great training and pay, great prospects, great mates and a great laugh” and asked, “What more do you want to know?” It struck me that one thing you might want to know if you were thinking of joining the army is that it involves fighting. You might want to know that you could be shot at! But the brochure was silent on that point. Similarly, evangelistic preaching sometimes neglects to mention the fight, alongside the many blessings of following Christ. The blessings are numerous and breathtaking, of course. What a joy it is to belong to Christ! What a privilege to walk in relationship with the God who made us—to be called his children, to have our sins forgiven, and to have the sure hope of the perfect new creation, to name just a few. But we need to be prepared to fight.
A precious promise
Notice, however, the promise in Galatians 5:16: “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (emphasis mine). This isn’t a conflict between two equal powers; the Spirit gives us the strength to resist the flesh. Paul goes on to write, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:24). He isn’t saying that the flesh no longer influences us. But it no longer controls us. Through our union with Christ in his death, our relationship with the flesh is decisively broken. As Paul puts it elsewhere, we are no longer slaves to sin—no longer powerless to resist (Rom 6:17-18).
One of Satan’s most pernicious tactics for undermining our godliness is to deceive us into thinking that we are powerless in the fight. The Devil would love us to believe that sexual sin and pornography are inevitable, or that past sexual experiences continue to define us and mould us. I fear that well-meaning pastors are unwittingly playing into his hands when they teach that remaining unmarried inevitably leads to sin.
A central trope in television spy dramas is the attempt by intelligence agencies to recruit “assets” to work against their government. Sometimes they use seduction, sometimes threats. And once they’ve succeeded in inciting a small betrayal, the agency tries to persuade the asset that it’s game over: “Your own side will never take you back now. You belong to us.” Sin, the flesh and the Devil—the powers of this world—play all of the same tricks on us. Sometimes they seduce us, saying we’ll be happier if we sin. Sometimes they threaten us, saying we’ll find life harder if we don’t. Sometimes they tell us that we’ve blown it—that we’re again enslaved to sin and that we might as well give in now, rather than trying in vain to hold out. But Paul says clearly that if we walk by the Spirit, we will not gratify the desires of the flesh. We’ve crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. The Spirit enables us to say “No” to sexual immorality, impurity and selfishness, and “Yes” to kindness, gentleness and self-control.
A strenuous struggle
Note, however, that it’s not automatic. Paul’s precious promise in Galatians 5:16 comes with a condition: in order not to gratify the desires of the flesh, we must “walk by the Spirit”, which I take to mean walking in line with what the Spirit says in Scripture, and in prayerful dependence on the Spirit’s power. Paul expresses the same idea slightly differently in Galatians 5:25: “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit”. The word translated “keep in step” was originally a military word meaning to “line up with” or “fight alongside” someone. But it could also be used metaphorically to mean “be in line with, walk by, agree with, submit to”.5 The latter could be Paul’s meaning here, as in, for example, Acts 21:24. However, given the conflict language earlier in the chapter, I wonder whether a military connotation might be intended. If so, Paul’s meaning is that in the cosmic battle between the flesh and the Spirit, we must fight on the same side as the Spirit.
Perhaps one of the reasons many of us feel defeated in this battle is that we’re not fighting as earnestly and strenuously as we might. Soldiers entering a battlezone don’t just saunter in, unprepared and unaware; they’re equipped and on their guard. Are we? Do we pray constantly for the Spirit to strengthen us? Do we take whatever steps are necessary to avoid sin? Jesus said in Matthew 5:29,
If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.
It’s generally agreed that he was speaking hyperbolically and did not intend his disciples to maim themselves. But his shocking language emphasises the urgency of rooting out of our lives whatever causes us to sin. If, instead, we accommodate sin, it’s no wonder we find ourselves constantly giving in.
On the social media site Reddit, there’s a “subreddit” called “What could go wrong?” where users post videos of things going wrong—often predictably so. It’s the place to go if you want to watch people doing stupid things, or if you’re just curious to know what happens when you mess with a bear, say, or set off fireworks in your car. There are a few posts along the lines of “What could go wrong if I pour petrol onto this fire?” And each time, as the fire suddenly rages out of control, we find ourselves wondering “What were they thinking?!”
Brothers and sisters, if we pour petrol on the flames of our sexual desires, we should not be surprised by the consequences. The petrol in your case might be the bars or the websites you visit. It might be the books you read, or the fantasies you entertain. It might be masturbation, which is typically accompanied by lustful thoughts and can also increase sexual desire and reduce self-control.6 If you’re in a dating relationship, the petrol might be way you behave with your boyfriend or girlfriend, or the times and places you allow yourselves to be alone together. Try bringing two powerful magnets closer and closer together without touching: the closer they get, the more strength you’ll need to keep them apart. Similarly, the closer a couple gets physically and emotionally, the harder it is to maintain appropriate restraint.
In our society, we don’t need to go looking for temptation; it’s everywhere—on billboards, in movies, in the workplace, even at church. Like a sniper’s bullet, the temptation to lust can come out of nowhere when we least expect it. There are things we can do to protect ourselves; ad blockers and accountability software, for example, can stop some bullets even reaching us. But we also need to be prepared for evasive action. I’ve personally found it helpful to cultivate a reflex of turning to the Lord in prayer when I see or even think of someone or something that tempts me to lust—praising him for creating all beauty, thanking him for redeeming me from sin through Christ’s death, and asking him for his strength to resist temptation. It’s hard work to keep our guard up like this. It’s a constant struggle. That’s one reason why the New Testament so often describes the Christian life as a life of endurance (e.g. Rom 2:7; 2 Pet 1:6). But the Spirit enables us to persevere.
Godliness is a struggle, but it’s possible by the Spirit. So keep fighting!
3. Getting married is rarely the solution to sexual temptation
Some readers might be wondering, however, how all this fits with Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 7. Doesn’t Paul say in that passage that people without the gift of singleness should get married to avoid sexual immorality? And doesn’t that imply that if you’re single and don’t have the gift of singleness, you can’t resist sexual temptation? They’re good questions, and in this last section, I will argue that Paul is not saying that getting married is God’s solution to sexual temptation, except in very specific circumstances.
Married people should have sex, because their gift is not singleness (1 Cor 7:1-7)
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul responds to a number of related questions from the Corinthian church about sex and marriage, addressing various issues and groups in turn. Verses 1-7 are addressed to the whole church, but Paul appears to have married people especially in view:
Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. (1 Cor 7:1-2)
One of the reasons Paul is sometimes thought to be expressing a general preference for marriage as the antidote to sexual temptation is the way that verse 2 is sometimes translated. In contrast to the NIV, quoted above, the ESV reads, “But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband”. This sounds like Paul is saying that everyone—“each man” and “each woman”—ought to have a spouse, with the implication that if someone doesn’t currently have a spouse, they should find one, and the sooner the better!
However, there are at least three reasons why this is an unlikely interpretation. The first is simply that the Greek expressions “have one’s own wife” (tēn heautou gynaika echein) and “have one’s own husband” (ton idion andra echein) do not mean to take a wife or husband, but rather to have sexual relations with one’s wife and husband.7 Secondly, the view that Paul’s concern here is sexual relations within existing marriages is confirmed by what follows, where he describes sex as a duty or obligation to one’s spouse:
The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 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. (1 Cor 7:3-4)
It would be a gross distortion of Paul’s meaning to see him as giving either spouse the right to demand sex whenever they want it. Nevertheless, there is a responsibility of mutual self-giving which requires that, where possible, sex is not discontinued indefinitely. Paul continues:
Do not deprive each other except perhaps 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. I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. (1 Cor 7:5-7)
Clearly, then, Paul considers sex between a married couple to be preferable to sexual immorality. In the preceding chapters of 1 Corinthians, we learn that such immorality was present in the Corinthian church: some people were having sex with prostitutes (1 Cor 6:15), and one person was having sex with his father’s wife (1 Cor 5:1). Perhaps the statement in 7:1—“It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman”—reflects the view of some Corinthian Christians that sex was best avoided entirely. But Paul’s advice for those who are married—perhaps especially in a context where sexual immorality is rife—is to keep having sex with their spouse. Paul does not address the situation of couples who, for one reason or another, are unable to have sex. Nor is he, at this point, advising unmarried believers, to whom he turns in verse 8. For these groups, it remains true that if they walk by the Spirit, they will not gratify the desires of the flesh (Gal 5:16). But for those who have a spouse and are able to have sex, doing so is one means of keeping sexual temptation at bay.
The third reason to doubt that Paul is advocating getting married as a general preference is that this would contradict his explicit advice to single people in verses 8-9, discussed below. But before turning to those verses, it is worth noting that Paul’s only use of the word “gift” (charisma) in this chapter comes in verse 7, in the section we have just been examining. This reference to a “gift” has often been taken to refer to a special enabling for the single life. However at this point, Paul is not yet advising single people; his words, “But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that” are part of his argument for why married people shouldn’t stop having sex, except “by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer” (v. 5). Although he wishes that they were all single like him, the fact is that they are not! They have a different gift and should live accordingly, rather than abstaining from sex indefinitely as though they were single.
Contrary to what is often assumed, then, Paul is not talking to single people and saying, “Only some of you have the gift of singleness”; he’s talking to married people and saying, “None of you has the gift of singleness”. This strongly suggests to me that the “gifts” of singleness and marriage are not the abilities to cope well with singleness and marriage, respectively, but rather the states of singleness and marriage to which God in his grace has appointed us. Clearly some of us find singleness easier than others, just as some find marriage easier than others. But that does not mean that those who find their current situation hard have been left without the resources they need for a godly life.
Remaining unmarried is good if you’re not sexually active (1 Cor 7:8-9)
In verse 8, Paul turns his attention to single people: “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do” (1 Cor 7:8). Note that Paul is clear that remaining unmarried is good, not bad. That isn’t to say that it’s easy or pain-free. But it is good. Note too that he is not here speaking only to a subset of unmarried people and widows, namely those with a peculiar ability to live a godly and contented life. True, there’s an exception in verse 9. However, verse 9 is the exception and verse 8 is the general principle. That is, Paul does not say, as some interpreters might perhaps have expected, “To the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to marry. But if they have the rare gift of self-control they may stay unmarried like me.”
Unfortunately the precise meaning of the exception is not as clear as we might like. The NIV translates verse 9 as follows: “But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion”. However, a more literal translation of the Greek would be, “But if they are not controlling themselves (ouk enkrateuontai), they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn (purousthai)”. The difference between “cannot control themselves” and “are not controlling themselves” is subtle but important. The NIV’s interpretation implies that some Christians are not ableto exercise self-control, but that would conflict with Paul’s teaching in Galatians that self-control is part of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23). If we, in fact, do not exercise self-control, it is not because God has failed to grant us the ability, but because we are not walking by the Spirit (see Gal 5:16). In view of this, and of Paul’s actual wording in verse 9, it seems to me more likely that he is addressing the situation of those who are indeed not exercising self-control—that is, who are having sex.8 In such a case, says Paul, they should marry, rather than continuing in sin. Even if, as some interpreters suppose, the group in view are not actually committing sexual immorality, but merely struggling with sexual desire,9 the fact that Paul frames this as an exception to the general principle in verse 8 makes it doubtful that verse 9 describes the inevitable fate of all but a few exceptional unmarried Christians.
Opinions differ as to whether Paul’s language of “burning” is a metaphor for judgement or for overwhelming desire.10 The NIV’s translation “burns with passion” assumes the latter, but if Paul is addressing actual sexual immorality, then perhaps the former is more likely. Paul has already spoken of “fire” and “burning” in connection with the day of judgement (1 Cor 3:13-15), and has said that the sexually immoral are among those excluded from the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-10). Clearly marriage is preferable to that alternative.
Get on with living for God in your current situation (1 Cor 7:17-24)
A further reason for doubting that Paul sees getting married as the primary way for single people to avoid sexual immorality is that such a recommendation would not fit with the key principle underlying his teaching throughout this chapter. This principle can be summarised as “Get on with living for God in your current situation”. It is so important that Paul states it three times in verses 17-24:
Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. (v. 17)
Each person should remain in the situation [literally “calling”] they were in when God called them. (v. 20)
Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them. (v. 24)
In verses 20 and 24, the phrase “the situation they were in when God called them” could also be translated “the calling to which they were called”. On either interpretation, Paul sees each person’s life situation as their divine “calling”, while the NIV understands some but not all references to “calling” here as one’s calling to Christ, as in chapter 1 (1 Cor 1:9, 24).11 Note that the former “calling” encompasses not only one’s work, but one’s whole situation in life: Paul illustrates using the examples of circumcision and uncircumcision (vv. 18-19) and of slavery and freedom (vv. 21-23). Note too that Paul uses the word “calling” to refer to the situation a Christian is currently in, just like the “gift” in verse 8. Paul’s usage thus contrasts with the way the language of “calling” is sometimes used today to refer to a future situation God might want to lead a person into. “No,” says Paul; if you’re a slave then that’s your calling. If you’re an accountant, that’s your calling. If you’re single, that’s your calling, at least for now.
Changing one’s situation if you’re able to is fine. Paul says to slaves in verse 21, “if you can gain your freedom, do so”.12 Likewise, he does not consider it sinful for an unmarried person to marry (vv. 28, 38, 39). But slaves should not let their situation of slavery trouble them (v. 21)!
For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord [or “the one in the Lord called to be a slave”] is the Lord’s freed person; similarly the one who was free when called [or “the one called to be free”] is Christ’s slave (v. 22).
In other words, be content to live for God in the situation you’re in, knowing that your identity and status are found in Christ (v. 22).
It’s worth pausing to reflect on just how radical this passage is. The difference between slavery and freedom was massive, but Paul says it’s not all that significant when viewed in the light of one’s relationship with Christ. The same was true of circumcision and uncircumcision, and the colossal division between Jews and Gentiles they represented. But Paul has not finished talking about marriage at this point; rather, he uses slavery and freedom, circumcision and uncircumcision, to illustrate the same principles that underly his approach to marriage and singleness. The implication is that those who are married need not return to singleness, and those who are single need not seek marriage (except in the situation envisaged in verse 9 where they are not exercising self-control). Rather, both groups should get on with serving God in the situation they are in. And just as the Christian called to slavery in this world is the Lord’s freed person, so Paul might have said that the Christian called to singleness is betrothed to Christ (see 2 Cor 11:2). Whatever the world around us might think, our identity is rooted in him, not in our marital status.
There’s no need to make or break betrothal arrangements (1 Cor 7:25-38)
Paul applies the same principles when he turns to betrothal in 1 Corinthians 7:25-38: those already betrothed should remain in the relationship, while those free of such a commitment should not rush to enter one:
Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife. (vv. 26-27)
Strikingly, Paul seems to view remaining in a state of betrothal as preferable to marrying (vv. 37-38). He stresses that he does not have a command from the Lord (v. 25), and that to marry is not to sin (vv. 28, 36-38). He also envisages circumstances in which marrying one’s betrothed is the better option, although unfortunately the details are obscure (v. 36). But even with these caveats, it is difficult to interpret Paul’s advice here as indicating a preference for marriage for all but a few specially empowered people. Indeed, the very fact that such caveats are necessary rather counts against such an interpretation.
Some scholars consider the “crisis” or “pressure” mentioned in verse 26 to refer to a specific situation affecting the church in Corinth, such as persecution or famine,13 which might seem to limit the applicability of Paul’s teaching today. However in verses 29-31, he explains himself by saying that “the time is short” (literally “shortened”), and that “from now on”, a new attitude is required, “for this world in its present form is passing away.” This suggests that he is not addressing an emergency specific to first-century Corinth so much as the fact that with the coming of Jesus, the world has entered its last days.
What if the gift of singleness is unwanted?
I realise that this teaching might be hard to accept for those who are unhappy in their current situation. Why, one might ask, would the good God “call” some of his people to the hardship of slavery, rather than liberating them? And why would he “gift” lifelong singleness to some who long to be married? I have friends who love being single, who experience singleness as a joy and a delight, and who rarely struggle with loneliness or sexual temptation. But my impression is that they’re the exception. That is one reason why some people doubt that the “gift” of verse 8 refers to a state of singleness or marriage. After all, why would God give his children unwanted gifts? And if sex within marriage helps to guard against sexual immorality (1 Cor 7:2, 5), why would God deny some believers that advantage in the fight?
However, the testimony of Scripture is that God in his goodness often allows his people to experience adverse circumstances, for reasons we may not fathom.14 Following Jesus involves not only joy and blessing, but also hardship and self-denial (see Mark 8:34-35). Sadly, many of us overlook this, because we have been influenced by an affluent society and by a distorted gospel, promising prosperity and pleasure in this life.
Personally I find Paul’s language of “gift” helpful in thinking of my single state, because it reminds me that whether I am presently finding singleness easy or hard—whether I am contented or discontented—it is a gift from my heavenly Father who loves me. That doesn’t take unfulfilled longings away, but it helps me to wrestle with them before God and to redirect them towards a longing for him and for the new creation.15 It seems to me that the opposite view—that one’s situation is not God-given—is theologically and pastorally problematic, for it robs us of the assurance that our loving God cares about our lives and is at work in all things for our good (see Rom 8:28).
Sometimes we don’t immediately appreciate God’s gifts. My brother, who lectures in Scottish literature, once gave me a copy of Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe, which sat unread for ten or fifteen years because I thought it looked dull. When I finally picked it up, I discovered that it was a rollicking page-turner and enjoyed it immensely! Some of us might not see the goodness of God’s gift of singleness in this life, except perhaps with the eyes of faith. But Paul’s encouragement in 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 is to view our circumstances in the light of the gospel and of the status we have in Christ.16 Hard as it can be to live faithfully as a single person, we must guard against the idea that God is wronging us or treating us unfairly. Such thoughts can make us prone to self-pity or indulgence in sin. The fact remains that God “has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph 1:3). And “our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor 4:17).
Among other things, sexual purity can present particular challenges for singles. But to suggest that God has denied some single believers the resources they need to fight sexual sin risks opening the door to bitterness or capitulation to sin. Does living a godly, self-controlled life as a single person require a special gift? Yes, but it’s the same gift that every Christian needs and has been given—namely, redemption through the blood of Christ and the transforming power of his Holy Spirit.
Is life without sex realistic? Yes! Because Jesus shows us that it is and because the Spirit enables us to resist temptation if we walk by the Spirit. It’s not easy, but it is possible.
Except as otherwise noted, Bible quotations are from THE HOLY BIBLE: NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by International Bible Society, www.ibs.org. All rights reserved worldwide.
1 Dani Treweek, “Life without sex: Is it good?”, Centre for Christian Living, 26 October 2020. Accessed online 17 February 2021: http://ccl.moore.edu.au/resources/life-without-sex-is-it-good/
2 See Bruce Milne, Know the Truth: A Handbook of Christian Belief, 3rd ed, Inter-Varsity Press, Nottingham, 2009, pp. 173-76.
3 Douglas D Webster, Soulcraft: How God Shapes Us Through Relationships, InterVarsity, Grand Rapids, 1999, p. 59.
4 On the flesh/Spirit contrast, see Moisés Silva, Interpreting Galatians: Explorations in Exegetical Method, 2nd ed, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, 2001, p. 183.
5 Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, Henry Stuart Jones and Robert McKenzie, A Greek-English Lexicon, 9th ed, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1940, pp. 1647-48.
6 See Patricia Weerakoon, The Best Sex for Life, Anglican Youthworks, Sydney, 2013, pp. 97-101.
7 Gordon D Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev. ed, NICNT, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2014, p. 309.
8 Fee, First Epistle, pp. 320-21.
9 Although Garland agrees with Fee that “the verb ‘to be able’ is not in the Greek text”, he notes that Paul appears not to censure those lacking in self-control, suggesting that they are not “guilty of sexual immorality”, but rather “have erotic desires and are struggling with them. [Paul] offers marriage as the appropriate outlet for irresistible sexual urges rather than prescribing some morbid and futile battle to repress them.” (David E Garland, “1 Corinthians”, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, 2003, p. 273.
10 Fee notes that both meanings “can be supported from Jewish sources” (First Epistle, p. 321).
11 For this second use of “call” language, see also Romans 1:6, 8:28, 9:24; 1 Corinthians 1:9, 24; Ephesians 4:4 and 2 Thessalonians 2:14.
12 Opinions differ as to whether the Greek words translated as “do so” in the NIV (mallon chrēsai) mean “proceed instead” (i.e. in gaining your freedom) or “make use of (your present condition of slavery) all the more”. But the former is easier to fit with the syntax. See Fee, First Epistle, pp. 350-52 and Garland, 1 Corinthians, pp. 307-14.
13 So, for example, Grundmann and Winter, cited in Garland, 1 Corinthians, p. 324.
14 Using a word related to the word gift (charisma) in 1 Corinthians 7:8, Paul tells the Philippian believers that it has been “granted” or “gifted” (charizomai) to them “on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him but also to suffer for him” (Phil 1:29). Paul himself was given (didōmi, a different verb) what he calls “a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me” (2 Cor 12:7), and pleaded three times for its removal. But the Lord responded, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).
15 I have written elsewhere on what it means to be content with our circumstances and how we might cultivate such an attitude: Chris Thomson, “Rethinking Contentment”, Southern Cross, August 2019, pp. 24-25. (Also online at http://moore.edu.au/resources/rethinking-contentment/).
16 See also James 1:9-11.