By Tim Challies
This whole series titled “Run to Win“ had its genesis in a number of real-world conversations. In one, a woman told of her struggles with her husband. She considered herself a caring and attentive wife who over many years had done her best to respond to her husband’s frequent requests for sex. Yet even when she responded positively, she found his desire was rarely quenched, and within hours he would be after her again, grumbling and dissatisfied if she declined. Another young wife learned that her husband was regularly masturbating when she wasn’t around. Do all men do this? Still another found a trail of pornography on her husband‘s laptop. Is this normal? If so, why does it feel so wrong?
It feels so wrong because it is so wrong. It isn’t normal, and it isn’t okay. This series began with men who have a problem with sexual self-control. As I pondered these situations, I asked, What do these men really need? Surely their inability and unwillingness to control their sexuality reveals a much deeper spiritual problem. I pondered and plotted, and soon a series was born, a series meant to examine a powerful biblical metaphor for our lives: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it” (1 Corinthians 9:24). Today I want to challenge you in this way: If you are going to run to win, you need to control your sexuality.
An Age of Incontinence
I suppose we all know what it is to be incontinent. I was once in an airplane with a passenger who struggled in this way, and in a sealed aluminum tube soaring at 30,000 feet, her problem quickly became our problem. When we speak of continence we are usually referring to bodily functions, especially the ability or inability to control urinary and fecal functions. But the word has a wider meaning than that. As you read older Christian authors, you will often encounter the notion of continence applied to sexuality. A man who exercises sexual self-control is a continent man. Conversely, a man who lacks sexual self-control is an incontinent man, no better than the one who cannot or will not control his bowels.
Sexual incontinence dominates the world today. Sexual expression and carnal pleasure are regarded as unassailable rights. Children not even old enough to understand their bodies are encouraged to explore, for masturbation is said to be physically pleasurable and morally commendable. From a young age, children are taught that anything consensual must be ethical and that repressing sexual desire is far more harmful than expressing it. Teens are told that abstinence is old-fashioned and that any sexual expression is fair game as long as they use protection. Sex: Our bodies long for it, society celebrates it, pop culture promotes it, pornography trains us in it.
Sadly, sexual incontinence pervades the church as well. Even many men who profess faith in Jesus Christ are out of control in their sexuality. Perhaps they developed bad habits when they were young and have simply never replaced those habits with better ones. Perhaps they’ve let themselves slip and over time have allowed healthy patterns to be displaced by unhealthy ones. Perhaps they are simply apathetic about the whole thing. Either way, we see the brutal fallout in churches ruined, ministries undermined, families wrecked. Many men have been willing to risk it all for the sake of fleeting sexual pleasure.
No wonder, then, that the Bible calls Christian men to self-control in all of life in general, and in this area in particular. To men struggling with sexual self-control, God’s Word offers stern rebukes and sweet promises of forgiveness and reformed behavior. The very gospel that saves your soul is the gospel that grants the virtue of self-control.
A Man of Self-Control
Self-control is a virtue of uncommon beauty, the promised result of a relationship with God, for “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). Yet it is a rare virtue because so few Christians diligently seek it. In the morass of a sinful mind, self-control can feel like captivity, the denial of what is good and satisfying. In reality, though, self-control is the key to what is good and satisfying, for it steers you away from counterfeits and directs you toward the greatest sources of the highest pleasures.
God is the creator of the gift of sexuality and, as its creator, the one who has defined its purpose and determined its boundaries. The greatest enjoyment of the gift is found within God’s boundaries, not outside of them. Paul speaks to you when he appeals to the Christians in Rome “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). Their presentation of their bodies was their surrender of their very selves. You, too, must voluntarily surrender everything to God, including your sexuality. You must determine to seek his purposes for it and use it only in ways he permits.
God says that sex is given to a husband and wife for pleasure and procreation, a gift through which they enjoy unique intimacy and create new people formed in God’s image. With this in mind, God gives you sexual desires so that you will pursue a wife first, and then so that you will pursue your wife within marriage. And, as you already know, God tends to give men a greater measure of sexual desire, perhaps to encourage the man to take the lead in the loving pursuit of his bride. We are, after all, prone to laziness and shirking our responsibilities. Perhaps God has given us this increased sexual desire to motivate us to do what we would otherwise avoid or procrastinate.
According to the Designer, sex is a good gift that is inextricably tied to the marriage covenant. It is only within marriage that you are called to voluntarily give the rights over your body to your spouse. Paul explains it in this way: “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” (1 Corinthians 7:4). Any and all sexual activity is to be enjoyed consensually between a husband and wife. You have no right to pursue sexual activity on your own. Your sexuality belongs to your wife, and only she can determine when and how it is expressed. This means you have no right to ogle other women, to concoct inappropriate fantasies, to stare at pornographic images, or to sneak off and masturbate. In all ways and at all times you are to show self-control, to withhold sexual expression for any purpose other than making love to your wife.
It is possible that your wife will not desire sex as often as you do. It is probable that there will be extended periods when, for various reasons, she will not able to participate at all or as freely as the two of you might like. In these times you will have the choice to sin or show self-control. Too many men choose sin! Too many sin by badgering their wives, by wallowing in self-pity, or by engaging in secret sexual sin. Some go so far as to force themselves on their wives, to make a horrific mockery of God’s gift by brutally seizing what is meant to be gently won and lovingly received. The antidote to it all is self-control, that precious virtue that keeps the good gift within its proper boundaries.
My friend, if God has granted you a wife, he has also granted you the joy of pursuing her, of enjoying her, and of finding pleasure in her. This is the only context in which he endorses sexual activity of any kind. If God has not granted you a wife, he has called you to refrain from all sexual activity. As a single man, you may not yet experience the pleasure of sex, but you can experience the pleasure of obedience. Even Jesus, the one who shows the way to be most fully human, lived and died a virgin. There is pleasure in sex, but much greater pleasure in obedience.
Do It Now!
All of this calls for action. Here are a few places to begin.
Stop masturbating. Is that too blunt? I don’t think it is. I think men need to hear it. Whether you’re single or married, just stop. Masturbation is self-love. It runs entirely counter to the heart of our Savior, who “came not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45). It is counterfeit and fraudulent sexuality. Because it involves no woman, it is more properly a form of homosexuality than heterosexuality. It’s immature, it’s a misuse of God’s gift, it’s just plain dumb. You ought to be ashamed and embarrassed by it. So cut it out already and show some self-control.
Bounce your heart, not just your eyes. I am sure you are well familiar with the temptation to allow your eyes to linger on the female form. I am equally sure you have been given the common advice to “bounce your eyes.” It is well and good to stop looking at what is not yours to have, but do better than that—bounce your heart. The Bible assures us that evil does not begin with our eyes but with our hearts. The heart, after all, is the seat of our deepest desires and affections. As you address the behavior of your eyes, do not neglect to reform the desires of your heart.
Get accountability. As men we tend to harbor our thoughts, to bury our questions, concerns, and secrets. Yet there is joy and freedom in unburdening ourselves, to externalizing what we prefer to internalize. Find a good friend, perhaps one who is older and wiser than you, and speak openly and freely about your sexual sin and victories. Ask that friend to hold you accountable and to help train you in godliness. “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16).
Give it all. Make the commitment to surrender 100% of your sexuality to God and to direct 100% of your sexual energy to your wife. Pursue her with gentleness and love. When she refuses you, respond with grace. When she accepts you, respond with joy. Enjoy her. Enjoy all of her for as long as you both shall live.
Seek and receive forgiveness. When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth he recounted some of the sexual sin they had once participated in, but reminded them that they had since been recreated: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). If you are in Christ, this is true of you. Your sexual past—whether decades ago or hours ago—has been forgiven by Jesus Christ. Seek his forgiveness, receive it, then live as one from whom the power of sin has been broken. You can be free.
Run to Win
The Bible commands and commends sexual self-control. Yet there is one way in which it promotes and celebrates indulgence. Writing to young men, Solomon warns of the danger of illicit sexuality and wanton women, then says this: “Rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love” (Proverbs 5:19). Go ahead and get intoxicated, he says, but get drunk in the love and passionate pursuit of your wife. What wine does to your body, let your wife do to your affections and desires. Let her captivate you. Let her fascinate you. Let her have that kind of power over you. Be addicted to her. When you are with her, when you are in her arms, let yourself go and enjoy God’s good gift of sexual pleasure. As you run to win, enjoy the wife God gives you, and control your sexuality.
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