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Posts Tagged ‘marriage’

If you haven’t already, read this post first – Divorce and remarriage

1. Why is there no “exception clause” in Mark 10:11, Luke 16:18 and 1 Corinthians 7:10-11? All of these passages give the teaching of Jesus that we are not to break apart a one flesh union that God has joined together. This is also taught in Matthew 5 and 19, but in these passages Jesus gives an exception to this teaching. In Matthew 5:32 he says, “except on the ground of sexual immorality.” In Matthew 19:9 the phrase is similar, “except for sexual immorality.” So why don’t these other verses have the exception clause? Well, it was understood in both a Jewish and a Gentile context that sexual unfaithfulness, at least on the part of the wife, ended a marriage. When the death penalty was applied for adultery this was obvious. But even in Jesus’ day, where the death penalty was apparently not applied, it was assumed that this would end the marriage. And later this was made explicit in Jewish rulings. So these texts don’t have to address what everyone already understood. Working within the common frame of reference, they only address the question – ‘Are there other reasons for divorce and remarriage?’ Read this way all the texts are easily harmonized.

2. Why then does Matthew have the exception clause? It could be just to make things crystal clear. But it may also be because Matthew has already narrated the story of Joseph, who is called “just” or “righteous” even as he sought to divorce Mary for sexual immorality. Now, he did not go through with this after the angel told him what had actually happened – Mary was pregnant with a child from the Holy Spirit. But certainly the exception clause protects Joseph from any charge of unrighteousness. He acted within the bounds of Jesus’ teaching.

3. How does Jesus’ teaching differ from the Old Testament? 1) A husband can only divorce his wife and take another on the grounds of sexual immorality, instead of for any reason/his hardness of heart. And in fact, what Moses allowed, Jesus now defines as adultery, a breaking of the seventh commandment. 2) A husband is now responsible not to commit adultery against his wife. To divorce and remarry invalidly makes him commit adultery against his first wife. This is new. He could commit adultery against another man by taking that man’s wife. But he had the freedom to marry any eligible woman he wanted through divorce and remarriage or polygamy. In other words he could not, before this, commit adultery against his wife. But now he must be sexually exclusive too. 3) This also allows for the wife to divorce on the grounds of sexual unfaithfulness. 4) A husband cannot take a second wife (polygamy). For if remarriage after an invalid divorce breaks the one flesh union with his first wife and is an act of adultery, then polygamy would also be adultery against his first wife. (See also Jesus’ emphasis on “two” becoming one in Matthew 19:5-6.)

4. What if you are married to an unbeliever? Scripture teaches that we are only to marry fellow Christians – 1 Corinthians 7:39; 2 Corinthians 6:14-15. But if you are in a marriage with an unbeliever Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 give guidance. He is talking to those who became a Christian when he preached, but their spouse did not. First of all, he classifies these marriages differently than a marriage between two believers. He uses different terminology. Paul writes “to the married” in v. 10, in reference to Christians who are married to each other. But in the case of mixed marriages he just says, “to the rest” in v. 12. Yes, they are married, he speaks of husbands and wives, but there is a difference in his mind. And more to the point, Paul doesn’t apply Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce to mixed marriages. The latter do not fall under the saying of Jesus, “What God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6). If they did you can be sure that Paul would have used this teaching. Rather he gives his own counsel, “to the rest I say (I, not the Lord).” He teaches that although the believer should not initiate a divorce, a divorce can take place here, even if there is no sexual immorality. If the unbelieving spouse leaves you, he says, “Let it be so. In such a case the brother or sister is not enslaved” – v. 15. Different rules apply because mixed marriages are categorized differently.

5. What should you do if you are in a second marriage and your first marriage was ended for a reason other than sexual immorality? According to Jesus’ teaching, the consummation of the second marriage was an act of adultery against your first spouse. Now some argue that such a relationship amounts to a perpetual state of adultery against your first spouse and that you should divorce your second spouse and return to your first spouse. They argue that when Jesus says, “whoever divorces his wife . . . and marries another commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9) the word “commits adultery” is a present indicative, meaning continuous action. But this is a misunderstanding of Greek grammar. The present indicative in Greek cannot distinguish between continuous action and that which is not. No, the present indicative here has to do with communicating a general truth (gnomic present). Jesus is saying, anytime someone divorces their wife on grounds other than sexual immorality and marries another, they commit adultery. The present tense communicates that adultery happens every time this happens. There is no basis in Greek grammar for saying that the second marriage is continuously adulterous. It isn’t addressed.

The logic that Jesus uses should make clear that it is not a continuous state of adultery. If you divorce your first spouse and marry another, your one flesh union with your first spouse is broken. You don’t continually break your one flesh union with your first spouse, it happened when you joined with the second. So there is an act of adultery, but not continuous adultery. Also, the point of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is to forbid someone from remarrying their first spouse after marrying someone else. And the overall point of Jesus is to restrict divorce, remarriage and breaking apart one flesh unions. But to force a return to the first spouse promotes these very things. Notice as well that when Paul speaks to mixed marriages in 1 Corinthians 7 there is no concern with previous relationships or a continued state of adultery. Rather he counsels the believer to stay in the relationship for “God has called you to peace” – v. 15.

What should you do? Acknowledge the failure of a wrongful divorce and the consequent act of adultery. Then seek God’s blessing on your new marriage and move forward to be faithful to what God’s will is from now on.

6. More generally, what if your past actions with regard to marriage, divorce or remarriage fall outside God’s will? Many of us have made poor choices in regard to righteousness in various ways in the past, sometimes because we did not even know what God commands. But where there is repentance – a desire to confess the wrong and begin to live rightly, God grants mercy, forgiveness, healing and blessing. God will take us where we are and as we begin to align our lives with his word, he will bless us.

7. What about when there is abuse? Although this does not break a one flesh union between believers, the church must be involved to protect and care for the one who is abused. In the case of abusive governments (i.e. persecution) Jesus allows his followers to flee them (Matthew 10:23). Thus a wife can flee from the abusive authority of her husband. This might mean physical separation or even a legal divorce. In this case Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:11 apply. If the wife separates or divorces “she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband.” But if he breaks apart the one flesh union, she is free to remarry.

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Not too long ago we went through some basic teaching on Christian marriage and I want us to build on this from time to time. Today we look more specifically into what Scripture says about divorce and remarriage.

Let me say as I begin that many Christians have experienced the pain of divorce. Indeed I think that all of us have been touched by it directly or indirectly. So it’s difficult to talk about. Sometimes it’s easier to avoid the topic because we don’t want to cause more pain or seem to judge others. Yet I think we would all agree that whatever our past experiences have been, we need to know what Jesus has to say about this so that each of us can come to follow him better and so that we can teach our children what God’s will is for Christian marriage.

Now, it is entirely possible that not everyone will agree with everything I have to say today. (Not that that would be a first!) All I would say is that we need to ground our faith and practice on our best possible understanding of the Scriptures. And so I invite you to weigh what I say today, and I am certainly open to hear your points of view as well.

Our passage today is Matthew 19:3-9. This narrates an encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees, which begins with –

A question about divorce and remarriage

3And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’

By way of background it is certainly true that the Law allowed divorce, as we will see in a moment when we talk about Deuteronomy 24. (See also other places where it is assumed – Leviticus 21:7, 14; Numbers 30:9; Deuteronomy 22:29.) And in Jesus’ day divorce was relatively easy and there was no necessary stigma to it. In fact, the prevailing opinion was that the husband could divorce his wife, really “for any cause,” as it says here in v. 3. (In fact this phrase may be a technical phrase for the Hillelite “any cause” divorce as Instone-Brewer argues.) And yes, as you can tell by the wording in our verses, in a Jewish context it was the husband’s prerogative to divorce or not. This was true with few, if any exceptions – although a woman could seek to force her husband to divorce her through the court system.

One other key point of background. In Jesus’ day if you got divorced it was assumed that you would remarry. Jesus makes this assumption in 5:32. This comes out clearly in our passage when the topic of the “divorce certificate” comes up in v. 7. Ancient Jewish divorce certificates were quite explicit. They said, “Lo, you are free to remarry” (m. Git. 9.3). One of the key functions of the certificate was precisely to allow the woman to remarry, without being charged with adultery. So to divorce your wife was to set her free to marry someone else. This is the context we are working with. So this really is a discussion not just about divorce, but also about remarriage. And we need to understand this background.

Well, the Pharisees must have heard that Jesus held a strict view on divorce (5:31-32). And so they ask him this question to “test” him. As we will see, they want to pit Jesus against Moses on this issue. They want to discredit him. (Also, Jesus has just entered into the region of Herod Antipas [19:1-2] the man who had John the Baptist killed for criticizing his divorce and incestuous remarriage [14:3-12].)

Jesus begins his answer by going back to –

Genesis 1 and 2

He first quotes Genesis 1:27 (LXX) – 4He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning ‘made them male and female . . .’ So there are two of them – a male and a female.

Then he quotes Genesis 2:24 (LXX) as a statement of God.  5and (he) said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?’ So the two become one when they are married. They form a one flesh union. Jesus is asking, ‘haven’t you read this?’

Jesus himself draws out this conclusion in v.6 – ‘so they are no longer two but one flesh.’ A one flesh union is a sexual union, but it is more than just this. It is a mystical, spiritual union. It involves the merging and bonding of two people into one in every way. And this is God’s purpose in marriage, that two become one. (The emphasis on two in this text, following the LXX, not the Hebrew, is a statement against polygamy. It is two who are married, not more than two. It is two who come together – a male and a female. These two make a one flesh union.)

Then Jesus comes to his central teaching – ‘What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.’ In the setting in Genesis 2, it is God who oversees or performs the wedding. God is the officiant. It is he who speaks the words of Genesis 2:24, according to Matthew. And this is really so in any Christian marriage service. And so Jesus’ argument is this – if God has made two into one, no mere human should make the one back into two. The implication is, who are you to go against what God has done?

In the context of a Christian marriage Jesus here clearly commands, don’t separate a one flesh union. This much is plain so far, although Jesus has more to say.   

Having heard this, the Pharisees pounce, quoting –

Deuteronomy 24:1

7They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?’

(Some ancient versions have the translation, as here, that Moses commanded the writing of a certificate. Most translations today have it as one of a series of conditional statements. See the Peshitta, Pseudo-Jonathan Targum of Deuteronomy and Josephus Ant. 4.253. Also see Matthew 5:32)

If you look at Deuteronomy 24:1-4 Moses does allow divorce and thus remarriage on fairly vague grounds, for “some indecency.” This didn’t refer to adultery because adultery was punished by death, which, of course, ended the marriage.

The question the Pharisees bring to Jesus is simple, do you disagree with Moses?? This would discredit Jesus among his Jewish audience.

Jesus gives his answer. 8He said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.’

This was a concession for spouses, especially husbands, who were unwilling to make things work in a marriage. Hardheartedness is Jesus’ interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-4. (This would have been in the same ballpark at least in practice as Hillel’s interpretation – “for any cause.” In other words, Jesus accepts a broad interpretation of the grounds for divorce in Deuteronomy 24 and for the meaning of “some indecency”)

(Nothing should be made of the contrast here between the Pharisees’ statement that Moses “commanded” and Jesus’ statement that Moses allowed. Jesus agrees that Moses commanded that you give the woman a divorce certificate if you divorced (Matthew 5:31; Mark 10:5. Notice that in Mark 10 the terminology is switched). The point is that the command to give a certificate of divorce is in the broader context of an allowance of divorce and remarriage. If you do divorce, give a certificate. Perhaps this isn’t as clear in Matthew’s version and so Jesus ends with, “Moses allowed you to divorce” to make things clear. Perhaps some took the command to give the certificate and to divorce as a command, so this protects from taking the last part of v. 7 as also being commanded.)

But God’s true will is revealed in Genesis, before the concession. This is what God actually wants, a life-long one flesh union. So Jesus is not in contradiction to Moses, he is simply removing a concession that was given for a time.

And then we come to –

Jesus’ answer on divorce and remarriage

 ‘9But I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.’ Jesus teaches here that if a man divorces his wife and remarries, he commits adultery (Mark 10:11; Luke 16:18).If we bring in other examples from Jesus’ teaching this is stated in various ways:

  • If a woman is divorced and remarries she commits adultery (Matthew 5:32).
  • The man who marries her commits adultery (Matthew 5:32; Luke 16:18).
  • If a woman divorces her husband and remarries, she commits adultery (Mark 10:12 which could happen according to Roman law).

Why is there adultery in all these cases? Well, just because a man writes a certificate of divorce doesn’t mean that the couple is divorced in reality. Marriage is based on a one flesh union, not simply a legal contract. And a legal document doesn’t nullify a one flesh union. So if you are still one flesh, the consummation of the second marriage is an act of adultery against the first. This explains all the examples that Jesus gives of divorce and remarriage leading to adultery.

But there is an exception, found in what’s called the exception clause. It is stated here and also in Matthew 5:32. It says, “except for sexual immorality.” The phrase “sexual immorality” is from the Greek word, Porneia. It is a very broad term that can cover any kind of wrong sexual behavior.

There is a logic to all this. Jesus is saying that a one flesh union is created through a sexual act. And it is only a wrongful sexual act that can break it. Not a legal document, but a wrongful sexual act. (Thus also Jesus doesn’t need to deal with the provisions found in Exodus 21:10 for divorce, since not providing food, clothing and oil (or marital rights) does not break a one flesh union. Although certainly these things would need to be dealt with by the Christian community to protect a spouse in this situation. See Ephesians 5:25-30; 1 Corinthians 7:3-5)

So Jesus is entirely consistent in his position. 1) Don’t break a one-flesh union that God has joined together. (Some one flesh unions are not of God, e. g. 1 Corinthians 6:15-18)

2) But if it is already broken through the unfaithfulness of your spouse you may divorce. In this case the divorce doesn’t break (or try to break) a one flesh union, it only recognizes that it has already happened. You don’t have to divorce. There can be repentance, restoration and reconciliation. But it is allowed. It is not an act of unrighteousness. Just as Joseph was a “righteous” man even while he sought to divorce Mary for sexual immorality – until the angel told him that it was not sexual immorality. (They were married even though betrothed. To be with another was considered adultery and divorce was necessary to end the union, Matthew 1:18-20). (Note that God did divorce Israel, the Northern tribes – Hosea 2:2, he did not divorce Judah, even though “she” deserved it.)

3) Since in this last case, it is a legitimate divorce, you may remarry. There is no adultery in this case since the one flesh union has already been severed by your first spouse.

Now, this leaves a lot of questions unanswered, I know. And we could wish that Jesus had said more. For instance, what about if you are married to an unbeliever? Paul gives some different counsel in 1 Corinthians 7. And, what if you have already divorced and remarried wrongly? What should you do? There would have been many people in Jesus’ day in this situation also.

The questions go on and on. I plan to have a handout for you that will address some of these soon. What we need is wisdom. Wisdom to understand Jesus’ teaching and wisdom to know how to sort through what he doesn’t directly address. And we need compassion for those who have suffered the pain of divorce.

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A. Is it lawful to divorce and remarry? 3And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?”

B. From the beginning: 4“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning

C. God’s command – they are one-flesh (Genesis 1 and 2)

– From two to one, the husband holds fast to the wife: made them male and female, 5and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?

– Jesus’ explanation: 6So they are no longer two but one flesh.

D. Jesus’ pronouncement: What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

C1. Moses’ command – the divorce certificate (Deuteronomy 24)

– From one to two, the husband sends away the wife:  7They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?”

– Jesus’ explanation: 8He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives,

B1. From the beginning: but from the beginning it was not so.

A1. It is not lawful to separate a one-flesh union, with one exception: 9But I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

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Series on marriage

We are back into our series on marriage, where we have been asking the question, ‘What is Christian marriage?’

I have shared with you two key components of marriage and will share a third today. The first is that it is a one-flesh union. This has to do with physical sexual union, but also a joining of two people in every way, and the bonding of the two into one. Second, marriage is a companionship of partners. It is sharing life together, loving and caring for each other and working together at common goals. Finally today, it is also a covenanted union.

Let’s begin by recognizing that –

Marriage is a covenant

For our purposes we can define a covenant as a binding commitment, in this case, to your spouse. (The blessings and also penalties for breaking the stipulations of the marriage covenant, especially in the Old Testament, fit this covenant idea as well). It is not a temporary, experimental, or consumerist relationship, where you stay in it until you don’t like it anymore and get out. It involves specific binding commitments and obligations to each other.

That Christian marriage is a covenant comes out in several ways in Scripture: 

1) Marriage is called a covenant. Proverbs 2:17 speaks of an adulterous woman as one “who has left the partner of her youth and ignored the covenant she made before God.” (NIV). Malachi 2:14 speaks of an unfaithful husband in this way, “you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant.”

2) Marriage is paralleled in many places to God’s covenant with his people. (Jeremiah 31:32; 11:10, 15 etc.). That is, God is pictured as married to Israel. And so we see from this the covenantal nature of human marriage. For instance in Ezekiel 16:8 God says to his people, his bride, “I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you . . .”

As this last verse evidences, 3) Marriage involves an exchange of vows. Vows are binding voluntary commitments. And as Numbers 30:2 says, “If a man vows a vow to the Lord . . . he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” (Psalm 50:14) (Also see Jesus on keeping your word in Matthew 5:37)

The most basic vow is to take the other person as your spouse. Here are two examples from ancient Jewish documents: “she is my wife and I her husband from this day forever” (Elephantine); “you will be my wife according to the law of Moses.” Presumably a corresponding vow was said by the wife.

Interestingly, we have an example of this in Scripture between God and Israel. It is a divorce decree, however, which is the opposite of the marriage vow. This is found in Hosea 2:2. If we reverse it, the vow would be – “she is my wife and I am her husband.” (The covenant vow of God to Israel is the same in form – “I will be your God and you will be my people” – Leviticus 26:12; Deuteronomy 29:13)

There were also other vows and commitments made that had to do with marital obligations. Some of these are rooted in Exodus 21:10. The husband is to provide “food, clothing and oil.” And the wife is to use these for the family. (See also 1 Timothy 5:8.) (These came from Mosaic legislation about slaves. If a man takes a slave as his wife and then takes another wife, he cannot reduce the first wive’s food, clothing and oil. In Judaism this came to be applied to all wives).  The last one – “oil” came to have a double meaning. It can mean ointment, but also conjugal rights. Most translations, both ancient and modern say something like “marital rights.” Paul talks about these rights in 1 Corinthians 7:3-5.

This threefold set of obligations is seen in the description of God’s relationship with his bride, Israel:

  • God, the husband of Israel is portrayed as keeping these vows in Ezekiel 16. In vs. 8-9 he gave her conjugal love and also literal oil. In vs. 10-13 he gave her fine clothing, and in v. 13b he gave her excellent food.
  • Judah, his wife, did not keep her vows. In v. 15 she was sexually unfaithful to him. In vs. 16-18 she gave her clothing to idols, and in v. 19 she gave her food to idols. (See also Hosea 2:5; 8-13)

Vows and commitments would also include financial arrangements. The groom gave a financial gift to the bride’s family (the mohar or bride wealth, or less correctly bride price). Deuteronomy 22:28-29; Exodus 22:16-17; Genesis 24:53; Genesis 29:18; Genesis 34:12; 2 Samuel 3:14; Hosea 3:2. At least at one time it was 50 shekels of silver for a virgin. Perhaps it showed that the man is able to provide for the woman. This practice changed later (first century BC). The money was not paid unless the husband divorced the wife. This made marriage cheaper and divorce more expensive for the man.

The bride’s family gave a dowry to the husband, which was in essence her inheritance, and kept for her. This was a larger sum than the bride wealth. Judges 1:14-15; 1 Kings 9:16. If the husband died or wrongfully divorced her, breaking their agreement, she got this back. However, if she broke the agreement he retained it. This also discouraged divorce.

Later, the marriage contract was called the Ketubah. But since much of this had to do with what happens economically in case of the dissolution of the marriage, it became connected to divorce. And since the mohar (the amount to be paid in case of divorce) and the dowry were involved in this, the word Ketubah came to identified with these. (David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, pp. 82-83)

In a New Testament context, where polygamy is disallowed and divorce is severely restricted, marriage vows include a life-long and exclusive commitment to your spouse, and any children that come from your union. As Jesus said in Mark 10:9, “what God has joined together, let not man (or, a mere human) separate.”

The wedding ceremony enacts the marriage covenant

Although in ancient times the marriage covenant could also be written out, usually it was implemented simply by means of the verbal exchange of vows in the ceremony. This is what established the marriage covenant.

Both in ancient times and today this involves a public ceremony with witnesses and a feast. This is important because it shows that when the bride and groom live together:

  • Both have consented to this, there is no force involved.
  • And it protects both from the charge of sexual immorality.

We understand the role of human witnesses, but God is also a witness at the wedding. Malachi 2:14 talks about how some Israelite men had wrongly divorced their wives. It says, “the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth.” God is saying, I was there and heard the commitments that you made and have now broken. This shows us that our vows are made to each other, before others – but also before God.

The covenant nature of Christian marriage

So Christian marriage is not just a sexual union, which you can have with a prostitute, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:16 (see also Exodus 22:16-17 in relation to premarital sex). This will make you one-flesh with that person, but it is not a marriage, and in fact, should be stopped since it is a wrong use of sex.

And Christian marriage is also not just a sexual union plus living together as companions and partners. The Samaritan woman lived with a man who was not her husband, as we read in John 4:16-18. And she knew that this was wrong.

No, Christian marriage is a one-flesh union and it is a companionship of partners, but it is these built on the foundation of a covenant, with specific binding commitments. And it is this covenant that provides the proper context for a one-flesh union, a life-long companionship of partners, and for having and raising children.

By entering into a marriage covenant you take on the full responsibility of a marriage relationship – not some other, lessor kind of relationship. And you make yourself accountable for this before God and all the other witnesses.

The covenantal nature of Christian marriage makes clear that this is the most important human relationship you will ever have. It takes precedence over your relationship with your parents, blood ties, because you leave them to hold fast to your spouse (Genesis 2:24). And it takes precedence over your relationship with your children, also blood ties, because they will one day leave and most likely hold fast to a spouse of their own (Genesis 2:24).

Finally, let’s briefly look at marriage as a covenant in our key text –

Genesis 2:18-25

v. 24 says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”

The man is told to “leave and cleave/hold fast” to his wife. This points to a new, covenanted union.

The word “hold fast” includes in its meaning loyalty and commitment. It is a word that often refers to Israel’s faithfulness to their covenant with God. There is also a covenant here to be committed to.

This also comes out in the phrase, “they shall become one flesh.” As we saw, the idea of “one-flesh” goes beyond the physical to the social; it works to bond two people together.

(I find Walter Brueggemann’s contention that the phrase “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” is a covenant formula unconvincing.  Although covenant is a prominent theme in this passage, this phrase is focused on the complimentarity between the man and the woman.) 

But the covenant nature of what is going on in Genesis 2 is especially evident when we see that it is portraying a wedding ceremony, the means of enacting a marriage covenant.

  • God gives away the bride – v. 22. God is here the wedding attendant or the father of the bride who gives her to the groom.
  • God is the witness to the wedding. God is the only third party in this case. But it is done publicly, before God.
  • God gives a covenant charge to the couple – v. 24. This verse can be read as simply the voice of the narrator. But Jesus takes it as the voice of God (Matthew 19:5). And so God is acting as the officiant of this wedding, charging them to leave and cleave, and become one flesh. (This also fits with the idea that God “joined them together” in Matthew 19:6).
  • It ends with the man and “his wife” – vs. 24-25. The phrase, “his woman/wife” (it can be translated either way) reflects the ancient marriage vow, “she is my woman/wife.” He has taken a marriage vow. (From a woman’s point of view it would say “her man/husband”).

William Higgins

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Series on Marriage

We’re talking about Christian marriage again this morning. There are a lot of different understandings of marriage in the world today, both secular and religious. And so I am sharing with you three key components of what Christian marriage entails to help us get oriented and grounded in what the Scriptures have to say about this.

Last week we looked at the first component – a “one flesh” union. This has to do with sexual union, but also a joining of two people in every way, and the bonding of the two into one. But as we will see today, Christian marriage is not just a sexual union. Our second component is a companionship of partners.

This is talked about in several places in Scripture, for instance Proverbs 2:17 speaks of the husband as “the companion (or partner) of her youth,” talking to a wife. Malachi 2:14 speaks of the wife, saying, “she is your companion (or “partner).” And in Song of Solomon 5:16 the wife says to her husband, “this is my beloved, this is my friend” – different language, but the same idea.

But certainly –

Genesis 2:18-25

– is the key passage that teaches this. So let’s look at this and see what it has to say about partnership and companionship in marriage (Genesis 2 handout).

18Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone . . .’” So there’s a problem. Even though the man is living in paradise, something is wrong. “It is not good” stands out, in contrast to chapter one where everything is declared good.

What’s the problem? The man is alone; all by himself. Even though God is there with him, still something is missing. As we will see, the problem is that there is no woman yet. The creation is not yet complete.

Well, God initiates a solution to the problem. “. . . I will make him a helper corresponding to him.” What is “a helper corresponding to him”? First we have the word “helper” (ezer). This can also be translated as partner or companion. It does not in any way refer to someone who is subordinate, although the English word can give this idea. The Hebrew word is most often used of God helping his people Israel. And God, of course, is superior to Israel.

The second word, “corresponding to him” (kenegdo) conveys the idea of compatibility, similarity and equality. As we will see, in context it means someone who is on a par with the man, who is of the same kind as him, even though different.

19Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 20The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for the man there was not found a helper corresponding to him.”

So the search begins. God makes and brings all the animals to the man for him to name. But there’s more going on. In the process of naming he is examining all these animals to see what to call them. And he himself comes to the conclusion that he is alone, because none of these can be his partner and companion.The animals have partners and companions suitable to them – but he does not. This self-realization was, no doubt, a part of God’s purpose.

21So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman . . .” So we have some divine surgery going on here. God takes a rib from the man, and from this, it says literally, he “built” a woman.

The rib comes from his side and the word “rib” can also mean “side.” The idea seems to be that the woman is to be his partner and his companion, standing by his side. You have no doubt heard some version of this famous saying – “Eve was not taken from the feet of Adam to be his slave, nor from his head to be his ruler, but from his side to be his beloved partner.” (Peter Lombard)

“and (God) brought her to the man. 23Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’” “At last!” “Wow!!!” “Finally!” The man is recognizing that she is different than all the animals, because she is on the same level as him. She is of the same order as him. The phrase, “bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh” indicates that she is just like him in terms of humanity; she is from him and therefore they are the same.

Here is one who is his equal in every way, someone who “corresponds to him,” so that even in their differences they complement each other.

The man also names the woman, but it is a bit different than with the animals. Because in the act of naming her, he acknowledges her equality with him. “Bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh” – you are just like me, fully human.

He also names himself, after seeing her. He calls her “isha” = woman (wife), and for the first time he is called “ish” = man (husband).  (This is the first occurrence of this particular word for man.) He finds out about his own identity in relationship to her. (Sarna). And there is a play on words here between “ish” and “isha.” Even though they are from a different root word, they sound very much alike, pointing to the similarity between the man and the woman. They share a common status as humans.

24Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. 25And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” As we saw last week “one flesh” is not just about a physical relationship, it is the joining together of two people at every level. And as we also saw last week ‘they were both naked and not ashamed’ indicates that they had nothing hidden between them. Both of these point to a relationship of intimacy and companionship.

Let me draw out –

Three key themes for emphasis

1. Humans are made for relationships. Something was not good when the man was alone. And so we learn that being alone; being solitary is not ideal. Now, even though we are talking about marriage here, the lesson is larger and applies to singles, in terms of connections with family, friends and fellow believers. We all need relationships.

It is in relationships, just as with the first man, that we find out who we truly are. When he saw the woman he discovered something about himself. And it is in relationships that we discover things about ourselves – both our weaknesses and also our strengths.

2. The woman is on an equal footing with the man. She is different than the man, and they are to complement each other in their differences. But the emphasis of the passage is clearly on how they are on the same level with each other.

She is the center point of the story (see handout). She is the completion of the creation, as the story is told in Genesis 2. Things aren’t fully good until she is made. She is “a helper” or partner. She “corresponds to him” and is thus similar, compatible and equal. She is made from his rib to stand beside him as his partner. She is bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh, that is, of the same nature. Even the names “man” and “woman” point to similarity. She is a full partner. She brings as much to the relationship as he does.

And all this agrees with Genesis 1 where both male and female are together made in the image of God and both together are to rule and fill the earth.

Now, this is not to say that there aren’t aspects of marital roles in Genesis 2, which we will talk about later. But just to say that these roles need to work toward the partnership that is described here, not unequal relations. Hierarchy and Patriarchy come after the entrance of sin into the world, as we see in Genesis 3:16, when it talks about a husband ruling over his wife. Just as with the permanence of marriage, the ideal to which we are to strive in the kingdom of God is laid out for us in the original creation.

[Note: In 1 Timothy 2:13-14 Paul refers to the broader story of Genesis 2-3 to speak of marital roles. He appeals to the fact that the man was created first and that Eve was deceived and sinned. He is apparently countering teaching that did away with marital roles and so he needs to emphasize these points and not the partnership theme of our specific story. In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul refers to our story in Genesis 2 in reference to marital roles. If in vs. 8-9 he contemplates that the woman is made from and for the man, he balances this in vs. 11-12 by saying, “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.”]

3. Because they are true partners they can share true companionship. To the degree that you lessen the status or dignity of a woman, through a misreading of this passage, to that very degree you lessen the relationship of companionship that is possible. It is precisely because they are on a par with each other; because the woman is the equal of the man, that they can experience true and full companionship with each other.

Finally, let’s end by looking at some –

Aspects of a companionship of partners

It means to be in deep relationship with each other. They were naked and not ashamed. Nothing was hidden. They had intimacy at all levels. They were together and not alone. They communicated and related to each other. And each one knew what it was like to be truly known by someone and accepted and to know someone truly and accept them.

It means to be united in purpose. This has to do with family life and raising children, working to provide for their needs – with both husband and wife laboring at this, subduing and filling the earth. And it has to do with serving God together and working for the kingdom of God.

 It means to have a shared life journey together. To love each other, care for each other, encourage each other, support each other, help each other, forgive each other. It means finding each other’s weaknesses and also discovering each other’s strengths as we travel along. It means weeping with each other, but also rejoicing with one another; sharing our burdens and our joys.

William Higgins

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Series on Marriage

We are beginning a series this morning on Christian marriage, and we start by asking, “What is it?” Today there are many different understandings of marriage – some secular, some from various religious traditions. As Christians we need to understand that Christian marriage is its own unique thing. We should not think that society around us shares our views and values. And given the differences around us we need to remember what we believe and teach by looking to the Scriptures for our grounding and orientation. So I want to share three core components of what makes a Christian marriage, and the first is a “one flesh” union.

We will be working with Genesis 2:18-25 for this series. This rich text is the basis of much of what is taught about marriage in the Bible as a whole.

A. Alone: “18 Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper corresponding to him.’

B. Naming/animals not fit partners: 19 Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 20 The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for the man there was not found a helper corresponding to him.

C. The creation of woman: 21 So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22 And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.

B1. Woman a fit partner/naming: 23 Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’

A1. No longer alone: 24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. 25 And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.”

Our focus for today is the phrase in v. 24 – “they shall become one flesh.” And the question is –

What does “one flesh” mean?

At its most basic it is a sexual union between a man and a woman. The phrase that comes just before “one flesh” in v. 24 is that a man shall “hold fast” to his wife. A part of what this word means here has to do with joining together sexually. And also just after the phrase “one flesh” in v. 25 it says, “the man and his wife were naked and were not ashamed.” So clearly this has to do with sexual activity. To be one flesh is to be joined together sexually.

The result of this is that two people become “one body.” In 1 Corinthians 6:16 Paul says, “do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’” He interprets Genesis 2:24 to mean that he “becomes one body with her.”

And then in Ephesians 5:28-29, in the context of quoting Genesis 2:24 – “the two shall become one flesh,” Paul says, “husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh . . .” Paul here takes “one flesh” to mean that they become one body.That’s why he can say that the wife is the husband’s own flesh or body. And that to love his wife is to love himself  – because they are one body. And notice he is not just talking about during intimate moments – but always.

What does this mean? As Paul indicates in Ephesians 5 it is mysterious (referring, I believe, not only to our connection to Jesus but also human marriage – v. 32). If you’ll pardon the pun we will try to “flesh” some of his out in just a moment. But first, let me say that the background to what “one body” means is almost certainly found in our passage in Genesis 2.

The woman is formed out of the man’s rib. So what was once one in man, one body, is separated and differentiated and then is brought back together again in sexual union. Originally, one flesh became two. And then the two become one again. In this light our sexual desire can be seen as a longing for completion.

Other aspects of a “one flesh” union

1. It is a joining of every part of two people. In Genesis 2 the idea of “one flesh” goes beyond just a physical sexual encounter. As we saw in v. 25, “the man and his wife were both naked and not ashamed.” This pictures an interpersonal relationship, and one where nothing is concealed.

Also, the words “flesh” and “body” can refer to the whole person. So again, to be one flesh or one body is more than a physical oneness. It means that all of us – our very heart and soul are joined together. We are still two people for sure – but we are joined or merged together in every way. It is a union of our whole person with the other. [This points us forward to the second component of Christian marriage – a relationship of companionship and partnership.]

This teaches us that sex (the means to a one flesh union) joins together two people in this way. It involves every part of us, body and soul, and it merges us together in both body and soul.

2. It is a unity of commitment and loyalty. The word “body” can also refer to a larger social unit. Even in English we can talk about “the body politic” or “the congressional body,” speaking of a corporate entity. So when a man and woman join as one body it also points to a new social unit – a marriage; a family. In Genesis we see that a one flesh union creates a new social unit – a new family. That is why there is a leaving of your father and mother, your family of origin, to start this new family.

And the word “hold fast” (v. 24) also has the meaning of loyalty (e.g. Deuteronomy 10:20; 2 Kings 18:6). So you leave behind father and mother and commit to this new bond. And in fact, you are to be more committed to your spouse than your parents. Using the older translation of the word for “hold fast,” “you leave and you cleave.” You leave what was your most important social unit and relationships to cleave to your wife, your new most important social relationship. [This points us forward to the third component of Christian marriage – a covenanted, family unit]

This teaches us that sex (the means to a one flesh union) bonds two people together. As we have seen, the word “hold fast” has both sexual and commitment connotations. So sex is like glue. It doesn’t just join every part of us together, it initiates a deep bonding of body and soul between a man and a woman. And it also helps to sustain this bond in terms of our continued marital life together.

Let me end with some –

Reflections on a “one flesh” union

1. Sex is not just for procreation – Proverbs 5:19; 1 Corinthians 7:3-5. Sex is also for merging two people into one, and for bonding two people together. And this is surely why a healthy sex life is so strongly encouraged for married couples in the Bible. I won’t read the verses, but you can.

2. This is why adultery or divorce is such a devastating experience. It is like ripping apart, in some sense, one whole person into two. To reverse the scriptural phrase, “the one, becomes two.” And by all accounts this involves a great deal of pain.

3. This is why sex outside of marriage is forbidden. This is the inner logic or rationale behind the various prohibitions on sex in the Scriptures.

Sex is very specifically designed for marriage. It is designed to join every part of two people together; and to bond them together in a new social unit.When we practice sex outside of marriage we are subverting its purpose, but we are also damaging ourselves – creating and then tearing apart one-flesh unions.

There is no such thing as sex that doesn’t join and bond two people together. Sex is not just physical – it is mystical; it is spiritual. That’s why there is no such thing as casual or meaningless sex.

4. Children are a sign of a “one flesh” union. If a couple can and does have a child it is not only an obvious sign of their sexual union – the child itself is an embodiment of the parent’s one flesh union. Here is one child, from two people – the two become one flesh. The husband and wife become one in their children.

So this is component #1. Christian marriage is a one flesh union. And I hope that we have learned some things about this today. But, Christian marriage is more than a sexual union. And so next time we will look at the second component of  Christian marriage – a relationship of companionship and partnership.

William Higgins

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Series: How to overcome sin

[Also presented with the title “5. The issue of sexual desire and self-control”]

For the full teaching on the five steps to overcoming sin follow this link.

As we end out time together tonight, I want to give a more detailed illustration of how to overcome our sinful behaviors and habits. We have already looked at the issue of faithfulness when facing death with Peter and Jesus, and very briefly at the issue of unrighteous anger. For tonight I have chosen the issue of sexual desire and self-control.

I posted some teaching on this topic on a blog that I maintain and I’ve been amazed by the number of views it’s gotten. In fact, this is my all-time most viewed topic. This tells me that people are struggling in this area. Christians are struggling with this. Listen to some of the search engine phrases used to find and read what I posted: how Christian women can control sexual urges; should a Christian have sexual desires; coping with sexual urges; how to overcome sexual desires as a Christian; how does a man control his sexual urges; how to deal with a spouse that struggles with sexual lust.

People are struggling. As one indicator, according to one set of statistics, 50% of Christian men and 20% of Christian women are regular viewers of pornography. Christians are struggling with this. And this is why I want to talk about this with you, even if it might make us a bit uncomfortable at times.

Let me say two things up front, 1) sexual desire was created by God and is good. Sex is God’s idea, with all of its joys and pleasures. However, like all the desires of our flesh, it often seeks expression in wrong ways. And so 2) it has to be controlled.

But this notion of self-control isn’t a popular idea in our culture, where sexual gratification has been turned into an ultimate good, without which you are not fully human. The message is “as long as you don’t hurt others – go for it. Satisfy your desires.”

Our culture tells us it’s a fool’s errand to even try to control our sexual desires fully. And even some Christians would say, “It’s impossible to be single and not be sexually active.”

But this is a pagan view of sex. We aren’t simply animals who feel an urge and then have to act! We need to recover a Christian sense of the dignity of our humanity, as those who are made in the image of God. We have sexual desires, and they are good. But we are not to be ruled by them. Rather we are to control them and keep them within the boundaries of God’s will for our lives. As Galatians 5:22-23 says, “the fruit of the Spirit is . . . self-control.” This is a mark of the Christian life.

So let’s apply the five steps to our focus tonight on –

Overcoming wrong sexual desires, thoughts and actions

Step #1. Understanding what God’s will is, acknowledge your weakness to do what God says. Scripture has a lot to say about sex. Here are some verses that speak to God’s will in terms of controlling our sexual desires, thoughts and actions:

  • 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 – “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his (or her) own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.”
  • 1 Timothy 5:2 – “Treat . . . older women like mothers, younger women like sisters, in all purity.” And this would apply to women treating men this way as well – as fathers and brothers in all purity.
  • Matthew 5:28 – “I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Again this would apply to women looking at men in this way.

So, understanding God’s will on the issue of self-control, we need to humble ourselves and be totally honest about where we are not measuring up.

Are you lustfully looking at others? Are you allowing yourself to  engage in mental fantasies? Are you viewing pornography? Are you involved in masturbation? Are you sexting? For those who are single, are you engaged in sexual activity outside of marriage – anything from making out to sexual intercourse? For those who are married, are you involved in adulterous activity – anything from flirting to actual acts of adultery?

I can’t stress this enough. The first step to overcoming is humbly and honestly acknowledging your weaknesses and failures. Pride will keep you in your sin. Pride will kill your life with God. But if we humble ourselves and confess our sins, God can help us.

Step #2. Remain alert in prayer for testing and temptation in this area. Since you know you’re weak, and you know that Satan seeks to test you; to tempt you and pressure you to sin, you need to be alert! The danger of sin and judgment looms here.

So look to God for help. And specifically ask God to keep you from testing and times of temptation. Satan asks God for permission to test us. And so we need to be praying, “lead us not into testing, but deliver us from the evil one,” as Jesus taught us in the Lord’s prayer.

“God I am weak, please don’t let the evil one test me, so that I fail. Protect me the assaults of Satan, and from circumstances that would pressure me to sin – images that come up on my computer – and people who will encourage me or entice me to give in to temptation.”

Be alert and pray. And then, even if God allows you to be tested, because he knows you can handle it and he wants you to grow in character and godliness, you will recognize what is going on and be ready for it.

Step #3 in a time of testing– Keep your mind focused on God’s truth. We all, from time to time, have inappropriate sexual thoughts that come to mind. And these thoughts can fuel our sexual desire. What’s important is that we not entertain them.

If you do have inappropriate sexual thoughts, use the name of Jesus to rebuke wrong thoughts. Satan will often put these in our minds to tempt us, or he will tell us that it’s alright to indulge in our own sexual thoughts with all kinds of rationalizations and justifications to give in. And he often does this through other people, and in general through the influence of “the world.”

So we need to rebuke Satan, so that he has to leave. The name of Jesus is powerful. In Luke 10:17 the disciples said, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” All the powers of evil have to yield to the name of Jesus. When we become aware of inappropriate thoughts say, “Depart from me in the name of Jesus!”

And then, use the word of God to keep your mind focused on God’s truth. This is what Jesus did when he was tested in various ways in the wilderness (Matthew 4:4-10). The Word is powerful and can bring us back to a right mind when we are being tempted and pressured. And it will remind us of God’s truth and will in this area. Use the passages I noted above. Memorize them, say them, even out loud, if you need to.

Step #4. in a time testing – Receive strength from the Spirit to control your sexual desires. Even if we control our thoughts we will still struggle at times with sexual desires. As Jesus said, “the flesh is weak” – Mark 14:38. Our fleshly desires often seek to find expression in unrighteous ways.

But Jesus also said, “the Spirit is willing” – Mark 14:38. The Spirit, who lives within us, can strengthen our desires for righteousness so that they are stronger than the desires of our flesh. As Paul said in Galatians 5:16, “walk by the Spirit (the power or strength of the Spirit) and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.” So when you are struggling with sexual desires, call out to God in prayer for strength from the Spirit to do what is right.

As the Spirit strengthens us, we are then able to deny ourselves, or crucify or kill the inappropriate desires of our flesh – our fantasies or lusts. Paul writes in Romans 8:12-13, “we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh, for if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” By the Spirit (the strength the Spirit gives us) we put to death the deeds of the body (we deny ourselves, we crucify or kill the desires of our flesh), in order to follow God.

There is death and resurrection here – death to inappropriate fleshly sexual desires and the further manifestation of the new life of God within us, in this case, self-control.

Step #5. Endure the test. Keep your mind focused on God’s truth and controlling your thoughts as long as Satan is trying to lead you astray. And keep receiving strength from the Spirit to do God’s will for as long as the wrongful sexual desire persists. Keep doing these things until the immediate test or temptation passes. God doesn’t allow us to be actively tested continually.

As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation (or testing) has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

And then,  if you are putting the five steps into practice and continuing to fail, you will need to –

Deal with some deeper concerns

I will mention just three tonight. Sometimes wrong sexual desires and practices are connected to our inner brokenness. For instance, if you suffer from the mental health condition of mania, it can lead to reckless behavior, including promiscuity. If this is the case, then this inner brokenness needs to be dealt with, if at all possible, for the sake of Christian faithfulness.

More commonly, we need to cut off stumbling blocks. These are things that are not necessarily sinful in themselves, but they lead you to sin. So, access to the internet is fine, but if it leads you to give in to viewing pornography – it is a stumbling block for you. Friends are fine, but if certain ones encourage you to see inappropriate material they are a stumbling block for you. Being with your date is fine, but if spending too much time alone with him/her leads you to act in inappropriate ways, this is a stumbling block for you.

Jesus said, talking about lustful looks, “If your right eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” – Matthew 5:29. We have to cut off what leads us to sin. This can mean making deep changes in our lifestyles and behaviors, for instance how we interact with the internet, what friends we hang out with and how we date.

And then, sometimes we have indulged our wrong desires, thoughts and actions for so long that our sin has become ingrained within us. It is an entrenched habit. And this kind of sin is harder to overcome. If this is true you may well need to ask someone to hold you accountable, to check in on you to see how you are doing regularly. This can be a powerful help to overcoming our sexual sins.

A final word

Find righteous expression for your sexual desire in marriage. This is where our sexual desires can rightly be expressed in sexual actions – as a part of a loving, committed, life-long relationship between a man and a woman.

God gave us our sexual desire, in part, to cause us to seek out a relationship with a spouse. If we are struggling with our desire and are not married, Paul says, (famously) “it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” – 1 Corinthians 7:9.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:3; 5 – “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. . . . Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, 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 work on your marriage, grow in love for your spouse. Create the kind of relationship that is mutually satisfying, where both of you can find fulfillment for your sexual desires.

I pray that God will help us in this area of sexual desire and self-control. Our culture has it wrong and so many people are hurting and wounded because of this. May God help us, his people, to be a light to the world of a different and better way to approach sex, one that is governed by God’s will, the one who thought of sex in the first place.

William Higgins

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