The most important thing to remember as we talk about sexual purity is this: God is for you! God wants you to win. People often view God as their adversary when it comes to sex: “He’s against me. He’s hates sex. I’m repulsive to him. He’s ashamed of me for what I’ve done. And to be perfectly honest, I can’t blame him much.” Misconceptions such as this only serve to convince us that our situation is hopeless and drive us farther away from the arms of him whose love and support and affirmation are the only thing that will enable us to win this war with the flesh.
We must embrace the truth that no one wants our sexual satisfaction more than God. I know that sounds bizarre, but it’s true. This being the case, you may rest assured that He has provided everything necessary for your success and for your holiness. This is important to understand because people who struggle with sexual sin feel hopelessly locked in to an unbreakable cycle of failure. Their experience has convinced them there is no reasonable chance for change. Worse still, they are convinced that God is disgustedwith them and that they will never be of any use in the church. Certainly God is grieved by sexual sin, but it is a grief rooted in love. The only reason God is grieved by our failure is because He loves us so much. If He didn't love you, if His heart wasn't for you, why would He care what you do?
How do I know God is on our side when it comes to sex? Paul states it clearly in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8.
“For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification. Consequently, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you.”
The “will of God”. Do you cringe when you hear it? Does it stir up images of an inflexible task-master whose greatest delight is in making sure no one else has any? Try something radical. Replace the English word “will” with “want” and listen to the Father’s heart for your holiness: “I want you to feel the joy and satisfaction that come from experiencing the fullness of sexual delights. I want you to revel in the physical passion I had in mind when I brought Eve to Adam. Don’t squander the opportunity by twisting and perverting what I made for your enjoyment.”
Most of us hear the word “will” and instinctively envision a celestial frown. The phrase “will of God” often conjures up the mental impression of an inflexible and colorless lawgiver whose sole concern is for his own reputation. But when I hear Paul speak of God’s “will” for human sexuality I think of his heart’s desire, his yearning, his fatherly passion for our maximum enjoyment of one of his most precious gifts. I hear God saying, “This is what I long for you to experience as a sexual being. I made you. I put those sexual impulses in your spirit and in your body. I created hormones. Trust me when I say that I know far better than you what will bring the greatest joy and optimum pleasure.” The point is simply that God’s “will” for you and me is always an expression of his love. So what exactly is it that God “wants” of us when it comes to our sexual behavior?
A. The Joy of Abstinence
God’s desire for his people is that they abstain from “sexual immorality". The word Paul uses is porneia, from which comes our English term “pornography.” But don’t think merely in terms of visual images such as Playboy magazine or an NC-17 movie. This word points to any form of illicit sexual behavior, whether fornication, adultery, or homosexuality. But it especially refers sexual relations before or outside of marriage (see 1 Cor. 6:15-20).
Don’t believe the propaganda the world is peddling. This is not God's way of robbing you of fun and pleasure. It is his passionate desire to intensify it. This prohibition exists in order to protect and preserve the beauty and joy of marital sex. Our laws against theft and murder exist because of the high value we place on personal property and human life. So, too, with this prohibition against illicit sex. The purpose is to guard, preserve, and enhance something far more exciting and fun and full of pleasure, namely, marital love.
The biblical exhortations to resist sexual sin are motivated by a recognition of how it deprives us of even greater satisfaction. The principal reason for saying No to physical immorality is that it undermines the ability of our hearts to deeply enjoy the multifaceted joys that God provides for His children. Sexual sin diminishes our capacity to feel God’s delight in who we are. It drains us of His power and hardens us to the loving overtures of His Spirit.
While standing in line at the grocery store I made the mistake of scanning the covers of several rather tawdry tabloids. The headline on one of them virtually shouted at unwary customers: “The Greatest Sex You’ve Ever Had!” No, I resisted the urge to read the article . . . because I’ve read the book! The Bible! God, yes God, has a prescription for great sex for his people.
Paul’s way of expressing this idea sounds a little odd at first. He speaks in 1 Thess. 4:4 about each of us knowing how to “possess” our “own vessel in sanctification and honor.” What in the world does that mean?
The word translated "possess" in the NASB means to control or to gain mastery over” over something. The word rendered “vessel", translated as "body" by the NIV, was probably a euphemism for one's sexual organs. It’s a vivid image: each of us must learn how to control our sex drive; how to channel its release in that way which its creator has fashioned; how to live each day in control of our impulses; how to submit our bodies to God for holiness and purity.
This sexual self-mastery is to be done in “sanctification” and “honor”, again interesting words, but especially the latter. When we behave in sexual purity we not only “honor” God, whose “will” we embrace, but also others. Sexual immorality dishonors the other person by depriving them of the opportunity to enjoy sex as their Creator intended. God knows that really good sex is found only in a monogamous, heterosexual relationship.
This point is made again in v. 6 where Paul exhorts us not to “defraud” our brother (or sister) in “the matter.” When Paul mentions "the matter" he has in mind the issue of sexual purity. His warning here is that Christians must not use their familiarity or friendship with others in the church to gain sexual favors. We must never exploit the trust that exists between fellow-believers for the sake of sexual gratification. But how does sexual immorality or impurity defraud or wrong another Christian? In 1 Cor. 6 Paul says that the one who commits fornication sins against his own body, but here he goes further and says it also transgresses and defrauds his or her fellow Christian. How?
Consider two ways.
· First of all, adultery is an obvious violation of the rights of another. You are stealing what doesn't belong to you.
· Secondly, pre-marital sex defrauds the future marriage partner of the person with whom you are involved. You are robbing that person of the virginity and single-minded intimacy which ought to be brought to a marriage. Thus, sexual impurity is as much a social injustice against others as it is a personal sin against God.
Beyond this, illicit sexual conduct also dishonors oneself. We were meant for better. We besmirch our dignity as image-bearers and rob our bodies of their divinely ordained function when we step outside the bounds of God’s “will” and seek for sexual satisfaction in ways he knows will only bring disaster, disrespect, and often disease.
B. Sex “Appeal”
Why is sexual sin such a powerful temptation? What is it about illicit sex that makes it so appealing? Some might be quick to respond: "That's easy. Sex feels good!" But I am convinced that the energy that fuels sexual impurity is more than biochemical. In addition to physical pleasure, there are at least five components in the energy that leads to sexual immorality:
· The first thing that comes to mind is woundedness which is often fueled by self-pity. We often use our woundedness as a warrant for our sin. It’s so easy for us to say: "If you only knew how badly she/he hurt me, you wouldn't be so quick to judge me for what I've done." In other words, one reason sexual sin is so powerfully appealing is that it feels reasonable.
· At times we can even make it a matter of personal justice: "Anyone who has been victimized as badly as I have deserves a little relief." One man sat in front of me and spewed this excuse: “No one, least of all my wife, understands the kind of pressure I’m under. She has no way of knowing how lonely I feel. I’m tired of being an example for everyone else and getting nothing in return. If I’m going to have the strength to survive I’ve got to get some no-strings-attached affection from someone.”
· Others prefer to draw on their bitterness. We are told to trust a loving God who then fails to protect us from the hard circumstances of life. Suddenly living our lives for the sake of others seems senseless and stupid. "If obeying God were the right thing to do, my life wouldn't be in such a mess. So why not sex?”
· For some it’s simply a matter of selfishness: "I've given so much to so many for so long that the time's come for me to do something for me." Again, that is why sin keeps so strong a hold on us: we feel justified in doing it; we feel we have a right to sin. Still others have given up on purity because of an overwhelming sense of hopelessness: "I've tried everything and nothing works. I've held on for as long as I can. I'm not going to kid myself that anything will change. So why bother?"
· If none of the above provides sufficient grounds for immorality, perhaps good old-fashioned pain will do. We all feel it. We're weary, worn out, beat up, and it hurts. And sexual sin brings so much immediate relief. Part of the pain is the emotional anguish of failed relationships. "I trusted him and he betrayed me.” “I opened my heart to her and she rejected me." Sexual sin is powerfully appealing and attractive because, at least in the short term, it appears to work. The lie of Satan seems to work better, at least in the short term, than the truth of God.
What are all these rationalizations based on? One lie. The most pernicious, heinous, Satanic lie of all. They are based on the lie that God really isn't good after all; that God is neither able nor willing to do for our souls or bodies what they so desperately need done; that therefore God can't be trusted with our fears and doubts and hopes and hurts. Since God doesn't care and can't be trusted, we'll find satisfaction somewhere else. And so often, we do.
C. Sin Hurts
Make no mistake about it. God will not permit his children to sin with impunity. There are consequences for sexual impurity. But please note that God’s discipline does not mean he is disgusted with you. God's recompense is not rejection. It’s hard for people to conceive of a God who avenges but loves. But according to Hebrews 12:5-13 God chastises and disciplines because he loves.
More important still, we should pursue purity because the purpose of our redemption is holiness, not impurity. Impurity runs counter to everything God had in mind when he created us, called us, and redeemed us in Jesus (v. 7). And remember, says Paul, that it isn't just God we reject when we indulge in sexual impurity, it is "the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you” (v. 8).
It’s important you know that the verb translated "gives" in v. 8 is in the present tense, not the past tense which is Paul's normal way of referring to the gift of the Holy Spirit. The point is not so much that God “gave” us his Spirit in the past, when we first came to saving faith (although that is certainly true enough in itself), but that in the present, right now, God is committed to us as seen in the on-going, ever present impartation of His Spirit. In fact, He is perpetually sustaining and supporting us through the Spirit even now in the midst of our struggle over whether or not to obey his will in regard to sexual purity.
Better still is the fact that God doesn’t simply give us his Spirit, he gives the Spirit “into” us. Not just “to” us, but by an act of what can only be called intimate impartation his Spirit resides within to encourage, energize and enable. The Spirit isn't just here, he's inside.
There is tremendous hope in this truth. The God who says "My will is for you not to submit to the temptations of the world or the passions of the flesh" is the God who also says, "I am right now giving you my Holy Spirit to help you say yes to purity! Come to Me,” he beckons. “I won’t put you to shame. I’m not here to ridicule but to restore. I’ll cover you. I’ll cleanse you. I’ll quicken your soul with divine energy to say No to illicit urges. I’ll do it by setting before you the surpassing delights of trusting in my promise of superior pleasures.”
There is hope! There is help! Whatever God requires, God provides. He requires holiness, so He provides the infinite power of the Holy Spirit to assist you and me to do it. Don't despair. Don't give up. Don't resign yourself to live in bondage. Even as you read these words, the power of God is being infused into your heart to break the power of sin.
So often when we tell our children, for example, to do something we believe to be their moral obligation, we expect them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps with little if any assistance from us or anyone else. Who knows why. Perhaps we’re simply too busy to bother. Perhaps some, tragically, just don’t care. Maybe you sincerely believe that helping them would undermine the development of their moral maturity. So, yes, we encourage them, we cajole, we plead. But often in our frustration with their failure we turn to angry threats or shame-based warnings. Not God. With every word of exhortation comes the wind of his Spirit to energize and uphold us, instruct and inspire us. If you find yourself doubting where God stands when it comes to your sexual impulses, if you fear he will abandon you when impulse turns to indulgence, recall this simple truth: He is ever-present in you, through his Spirit, to empower your Yes to sexual purity.