Big Idea: Recover the beauty of marriage, singleness, and sacrifice.
On an ordinary morning in January 2007, a young man entered a subway in Washington, DC. He was young, and wore jeans, a T-shirt, and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. He stood at the top of an escalator, pulled out a violin, and threw a few dollars in the case as seed money.
He played for 45 minutes to the rush-hour crowds: over a thousand people while he was there. People hurried past him. One small boy lingered for a few moments before his mother impatiently grabbed his arm and pulled him toward the escalator. The few people who left money did so out of guilt more than appreciation. They were unaware that his name was Joshua Bell, one of the finest classical musicians of his generation. He played some of the most complex and elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made— a Stradivarius worth $ 3.5 million. A few days earlier he’d played at Boston’s Symphony Hall, with people paying upwards of $100 a ticket.
Bell’s performance was an experiment by The Washington Post. The Post asked a profound question: Do we perceive beauty when we find it in unexpected places?
Today we’re continuing our series called God Loves Sex. Don’t worry. We only have two or three weeks left. And I want to ask this question today: Do we perceive the beauty of sex when we find it in unexpected places? I ask this question, because the Bible — and church, for that matter — is probably the last place that we’d expect to find something beautiful about sex. Sure, we’d expect to find it in great literature, or maybe even in our own experience, but church? Really?
Our premise in this series is, counterintuitively, that the best sex is found within a Christian worldview. God isn’t squeamish about sex. He invented it. And the Bible has a lot to say about sex. We need to recapture a biblical worldview on this topic, because we miss out if we don’t. That’s why we’re talking about this topic.
The first week we looked at a passage from a whole book of the Bible that’s devoted to sex. The message was simple: God is pro-sex. He made it to be joyful, more than physical, and powerful.
A couple of weeks ago, we looked at a letter written to a place in the first century that would have been a lot like Liberty Village, and we heard a simple message: To really flourish, shift from the culture’s view of sex to how God designed sex.
Today, we’re going to continue to look at that letter, and actually at questions and answers on marriage, singleness, and sex. Just like the story of Joshua Bell playing his Stradivarius in the subway, we’re going to try to find beauty in unexpected places that we might otherwise miss. In particular, we’re going to look at finding beauty in married sex, and in single celibacy.
I want to look at this passage today and find beauty in these two neglected places. Paul tells us to find beauty as we elevate two things we may otherwise ignore.
Find beauty in a different kind of marriage
You know that our culture has very mixed views about marriage. I find that a lot of people still love a good wedding. But we also think of marriage a little differently than before. People talk about beta marriages and starter marriages. Studies show that many people like the idea of trial marriages with an expiration date and the option to renew. This is partly because we want to avoid the mistakes that previous generations have made — not everyone, but some. We don’t want to hold on to toxic relationships out of a sense of duty or obligation. I get it, but in the process we may have lost something valuable. We may have forgotten the beauty of marriage the way that God intended it to be.
You may think this is old fashioned, but it’s not. The Bible’s view of marriage was countercultural when it was written, just like it is now.
We’re looking at a letter that Paul wrote to the church in Corinth. If you were here a couple of weeks ago, you’ll remember me telling you what Corinth was like. It was a lot like Liberty Village. Sex was on people’s minds. It was pretty much expected that a guy would sleep around before he got married. If he was discreet, he could continue to sleep around after he got married, as long as it was with people of lower classes. There’s not much that goes on today that would have been a big surprise to the people back then, except maybe the Internet.
Some people in Corinth started to develop a negative view of sex. There were really two views of sex that were common: avoid sex because we’re better than that (asceticism), or indulge all you want because life is too short (hedonism). Neither of those are going to lead us to flourish, though.
So in the passage we just read, Paul writes:
Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. (1 Corinthians 7:1-2)
In other words, he quotes their view — it’s good not to have sex — and says, basically, that the sex drive is pretty strong. Since most of us want to have sex, then we need to pursue a healthy sex life. Paul tells us where the best possible sex is found: with each man having his own wife, and with each woman having her own husband.
I know that this is different from our culture’s view that sex is only sex, and that we should be able to sleep with whoever we choose. But Paul is helping us see that sex is meant to thrive as part of a bigger picture. Remember that we said the other week that sex is like tapping into the live electrical wires out there? It’s because sex is so powerful that the Bible says that sex is designed for an absolutely permanent, fully committed relationship. I love how one preacher puts it:
Sex is a way to say to somebody else, “I belong completely and exclusively to you,” and if you use it to say anything else, it’s a lie. It’s a nonverbal piece of communication God designed, and it’s meant to carry a message…God said sex is a way to give yourself totally to somebody else and to say, “I belong completely and totally and exclusively to you.” (Tim Keller)
Don’t forget that Paul was speaking to all kinds of people who’d had all kinds of sexual experiences. Paul wasn’t naïve. He was writing to a city where all kinds of unmarried sex was taking place. Paul wasn’t some prude. But he argues that if you want the best sex, the way that God designed, the way that will light you up like nothing else, then this is the way to do it. It’s not given to make us feel guilty or to make us feel bad. Nothing like that. But Paul says that if you want to have the best sex, sex the way that God designed it to be, that’s where to get it.
But Paul isn’t arguing for marriage that’s boring or routine. Paul goes on and describes a particular type of marriage that we should pursue. In verses 3 to 5, he says that each person in the marriage should give themselves completely to the other person. Marriage should be characterized by mutuality, by putting the other person first. He says that marriage should not be characterized with the attitude, “You owe me,” but “I owe you. I want to give to you.” It’s about serving the other.
C.S. Lewis talked about this in his excellent book The Four Loves. Lust is going after the body. Love is going after the person. Paul says to go after the person. Love them. Serve them.
As one couple noted, it’s the pathway to greater satisfaction. The best way to be happy in your marriage isn’t to try to make yourself happy. It’s to try to make your spouse happy. In their book The Meaning of Marriage, Tim and Kathy Keller say that when they stopped trying to perform, and started simply trying to love and serve each other, things started to move ahead. They found greater wonder, safety, and joy in their relationship.
Essentially, what Paul talked about is something rare, and something that the world desperately needs. David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, wrote a column earlier this year that says there are three lenses through which to view marriage.
The first is psychological: to look at the psychological traits of our partner, and to make sure we pick the right one. This view is found in books on marriage.
The second lens is romantic: to marry someone with whom we’re passionately in love. This view is found in the movies.
Both these views are common, and both of them are important. But Brooks mentions a third lens that we’ve forgotten, and that we desperately need: the moral lens.
In this lens a marriage exists to serve some higher purpose. Brooks points to Tim Keller's book The Meaning of Marriage, in which Keller argues that marriage introduces you to yourself; you realize you're not as noble and easy to live with as you thought when alone. Brooks writes:
In a good marriage you identify your own selfishness and see it as the fundamental problem. You treat it more seriously than your spouse's selfishness. The everyday tasks of marriage are opportunities to cultivate a more selfless love. Everyday there's a chance to inspire and encourage your partner to become his or her best self. In this lens, marriage isn't about two individuals trying to satisfy their own needs; it's a partnership of mutual self-giving for the purpose of moral growth and to make their corner of the world a little better.
That’s what Paul is talking about. We need to recapture that kind of marriage. Sex is designed for that kind of relationship. We need to find beauty and meaning in that kind of marriage.
But there’s a second place to find beauty and meaning, and like the first, it’s also something that we’ll miss if we’re not careful.
Find beauty in a different kind of singleness
I realize that I’ve been talking a lot about marriage. The reality is that within Liberty Village, most people are single. What does the Bible say to singles? It actually says a lot. It says that single isn’t second class. It says that there’s a beauty that exists within the single life.
It’s important to realize that Paul, who wrote this passage, was single. Jesus, too, was single. Jesus shows us the beauty of the single life. He had deep, meaningful intimacy within his friendships. Jesus lived a life of purpose within a deep web of relationships as a single person. Singleness isn’t a second-class state.
Paul makes the case for singleness in this passage:
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)
Later on in this chapter, Paul unpacks why singleness and celibacy is a good, maybe even better, option than marriage. Paul recognizes that it’s not for everyone, but he puts it on the table as a valid option. It uncomplicated your life. It gives you more opportunity to serve. Like marriage, the last reason we should choose singleness is for our own benefit. The greatest happiness is always found in service, not selfishness. I love how John Piper puts it:
God promises those of you who remain single in Christ blessings that are better than the blessings of marriage and children, and he calls you to display, by the Christ-exalting devotion of your singleness, the truths about Christ and his kingdom that shine more clearly through singleness than through marriage and childrearing…
God promises spectacular blessings to those of you who remain single in Christ, and he gives you an extraordinary calling for your life. To be single in Christ is, therefore, not a falling short of God’s best, but a path of Christ-exalting, covenant-keeping obedience that many are called to walk.
We often overlook this. There’s beauty and value in singleness that we’re meant to enjoy. According to Paul, this means a life of celibacy, but the celibacy doesn’t refer to the absence of something. It refers to the fullness of something else. Steve Holmes, a Baptist pastor in Scotland, writes:
Celibacy, if it is to be something good, and not merely the presence of an absence, is similarly a set of practices in and through which we learn to desire differently. Lacking the opportunity to endlessly submit to a spouse, the celibate Christian will intentionally seek ways to open her life out in love – and the church, if it is to be faithful to the gospel of the resurrection – must offer her such ways. Inevitably these will involve practices of community, probably ordered by rule; I strongly suspect that they will need to involve … vowed friendships…
There’s a beauty that’s found in being single to the glory of God that we need to recapture and hold highly.
So let’s recapture the beauty of a certain kind of marriage, and a certain kind of singleness. Just one more thing:
Find beauty in sacrifice
You may notice that Paul’s advice cuts against the grain no matter who you are. As I was preparing this sermon, I came across a good critique of a lot of Christian teaching on sex. It said that the problem with a lot of our teaching on sex is that it assumes that there’s a norm — heterosexual monogamy — that’s accessible and livable by the vast majority of people. In other words, it assumes that monogamous, heterosexual sex comes fairly naturally. It just assumes this.
The problem? What the Bible calls us to doesn’t come naturally. Nobody — married, single, gay, or straight — naturally lives a life of sexual self-denial and sacrificial service. The Bible calls all of us to something that comes naturally to none of us, and it’s something to doesn’t come easily or normally. It calls us to discipline, to deny our natural desires, and to conform our lives to the gospel. It reminds us that satisfaction will never be found in being married or single, but in laying down our lives to love others and to serve Christ. When we lose our lives, Jesus said, we find them.
I’ve argued that we need to recapture the beauty of marriage, and also the beauty of singleness. But most of all I’d argue today that we need to recapture the beauty of living life in such a way that it’s not about us. The greatest model and the greatest power for how to do this is Jesus himself, who joyfully lived his life to serve others. Most powerfully, he gave up his life so that we could be rescued, and so that we could have the power to live and serve him and others.
Do you want to flourish? That’s the path. Get to know the greatest love that’s ever been known. Make that your life’s pursuit, and you’ll learn a way of life that, apart from Jesus, isn’t possible, but with Jesus is not only possible, but waiting for you.