Video from Desiring God
Will marriage cure my lust? That’s today’s question from an unmarried listener named Mark. “Dear Pastor John, I’m a 22-year-old burdened with strong sexual desires. Sometimes I submit to the flesh and look at pornography. I hate this and am fighting against this sin with the help of friends.
“In the meantime, I have some friends who seek to care for my soul by quoting the apostle Paul — ‘For it is better to marry than to burn with passion’ (1 Corinthians 7:9) — and they say I should marry soon. But I also have married friends who assure me that marriage will not cure my lust and tell me it would be a battle I would carry into marriage! I’m confused. If marriage cures lust, I should marry soon. If it doesn’t cure lust, then I need to work on personal purity now, without urgency to marry. Which is it?”
All or Nothing?
Mark, my sense is, in listening to your question, that you have a distorted all-or-nothing mindset when you say, “If marriage cures lust, I should marry soon. If it doesn’t cure lust, then I need to work on personal purity now without the urgency to marry.” Now when you say that, it sounds to me like you have, in your mind, the idea that marriage either cures lust or it doesn’t: total cure or total non-cure. That’s what I mean by the all-or-nothing mindset.
“Marriage is a God-designed help in dealing with the overpowering passions of sexual desire.”
But that’s not the picture we see in the Bible. So let’s get the text in front of us so that we can see what the real help is that the Scripture gives precisely at this point. You’re right to focus right here on this issue. “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:8–9).
Mark, you’re right to see marriage as a God-designed help in dealing with the overpowering passions of sexual desire. That’s what it says. But there’s nothing here that I see about a total cure, but rather a definite offer of help.
We see this same thing in 1 Corinthians 7:2–5: “But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights.” That’s a fancy way of saying, “Have sex with her when it’s helpful for her.” “And likewise the wife to her husband.” So, “Have sex with him when it’s helpful for him.”
Paul continues, “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” Each has a claim on the other for sexual relations. “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time” — now here comes this interesting part — “that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
So clearly, Paul is teaching that God has designed sexual relations in marriage as a way to weaken sinful impulses toward adultery. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have said, “Get back together quickly, or Satan’s going to tempt you.”
More Than Pragmatic
Now if we think — and some people do, and I have certainly struggled with this over the years — this sounds like a merely pragmatic, low vision of marriage (“Get married to have sex; that way, you don’t have to commit adultery or fornication”), we are wrong. It’s not. It’s a pragmatic effect of marriage, which is a far greater reality than its merely sexual pragmatic effects.
To see the vision of marriage — the big, glorious, God-centered vision of marriage — we would go to Ephesians 5, for example. But just like it would be wrong to think that sexual pragmatics is the totality of the meaning of marriage, it would also be wrong to think that the magnificent theological vision of marriage in Ephesians 5, with Christ and the church modeling the roles of husband and wife, does not include these nitty-gritty, practical sexual effects of marriage. So it’s both-and, not either-or — marriage has both a magnificent God-centered vision and nitty-gritty, practical, physical effects.
Physical Helps for Spiritual Life
Now, as I was thinking about this, it seemed to me that it might be helpful for Mark to consider that sexual relations in marriage are a physical help in the spiritual battle against lust and adultery the same way that other physical acts help other spiritual battles. Let me illustrate.
“Sexual relations in marriage is a great help in the spiritual battle against lust and adultery, but not an absolute cure.”
For example, the physical act of getting enough sleep helps in our spiritual battle against the sin of impatience. Getting good physical exercise helps in our spiritual battle against melancholy. Taking a walk in the fresh air — Spurgeon said this beautifully — helps in our battle against discouragement. Considering the lilies and the birds of the heavens helps in our battle against anxiety. Jesus said so in Matthew 6.
Physically getting up — using his legs to get up — and leaving his coat behind and running out of the house helped Joseph defeat the sin of adultery with Potiphar’s wife. That’s why Paul says, “Flee from sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18). That is, use your muscles to run. This is a physical fight as well as a spiritual fight. This is why Paul says in Romans 13:14, “Make no provision for the flesh.” There are practical, physical steps we can take that help us in our spiritual battle against sin.
No Absolute Cure
In other words, God has appointed some physical patterns of behavior as a means of helping us fight spiritual battles, like the battle against sin. Just like sleep and diet and taking walks and considering the sunrise and running out of a frat party at a certain point and taking certain apps off your phone are physical helps in spiritual battles — even though none of them is an absolute cure — in the same way, sexual relations in marriage is a great help in the spiritual battle against lust and adultery, but not an absolute cure.
The reason we know this from Scripture is that Jesus gives such strong warnings against committing adultery, like in Luke 18:20. There would be no desire for adultery in marriage if sex in marriage were a cure-all for illicit sexual desire. Jesus wouldn’t have ever had to say, “Don’t commit adultery.”
Yes, the gift of sexual pleasure in marriage is a great help in fighting the spiritual battle against lust, against adultery. But it’s not a cure-all. Rather, all the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23), one of which is self-control, are still needed in marriage as well as outside marriage.
Deepening Spiritual Union
Let me say one other thing that I think is so important lest I create an artificial view of marriage. Marriage and sexual relations, at their best, create a firewall between the couple and adultery and pornography in other ways besides the merely physical. We shouldn’t think of the protection from sexual sin merely in terms of sexual relations as a physical release, kind of like a pressure valve, as if we are saying, “I gotta keep this guy from exploding in all the wrong places, so he’s got to have this pressure valve released.”
“God intends, in the intimacy of physical union in marriage, that something amazing, glorious, beautiful, and spiritual take place.”
That’s a truth, but it’s not the totality of what’s going on when Paul says that sexual relations are a firewall. There’s more to it than that. I think in our culture, which has so prostituted sex into a hook-up, weekend sport, it’s very hard for them to grasp what I’m about to say. God intends, in the intimacy of physical union in marriage, that something amazing, glorious, beautiful, and spiritual take place.
Depths of affection, covenant intensification, and spiritual union — and unfathomable personal bonding — take place. As these grow, these depths of union make pornography and adultery more and more unthinkable. That’s the real glory of sexual relations in marriage. Mark, as you go on fighting for sexual purity in your single life by the power of the Spirit, that’s what you should dream of and pray toward in marriage.