When we hear the expression "spiritual formation," we immediately think of meditating on Scripture, praying, journaling, and other spiritual practices. If, however, the goal of spiritual formation is that one's "whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Thess. 5:23), then an essential aspect of spiritual formation is to overcome sins of the body. If we consider the seven deadly sins—pride, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, sloth, and covetousness—three are directly connected to our bodies: lust, gluttony, and sloth.
God created human beings as male and female and told them to "be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth" (Gen 1:28). This universal command means that the majority of human beings will be married. Sexual intercourse is to be enjoyed within the bounds of this covenant and is designed for several purposes, including pleasure, procreation, and unity.
Tragically, the fall into sin wreaks havoc with sexuality, but Scripture helps us overcome temptation and failure in this area. For example, Paul denounces sexual immorality (1 Cor. 6:12-20), placing it into a category by itself by explaining that "every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body" (v. 18). This heinous sin wrenches away one's body—which "is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body" (v. 13)—from its rightful membership—with Christ and, if married, with one's spouse—and unites it with the body of someone other than one's spouse. The result is that "the two become one flesh" (v. 16), which is a tragic disorientation of the body. In no uncertain terms, Paul warns against sexual immorality, reminding Christians "that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit" and urging them to "glory God in your body" (v. 20).
The apostle echoes this alert in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8, urging married people to engage in sexual activity in a God-honoring and spouse-respecting manner (vv. 4-5). Tragically, Christian men were committing adultery with the wives of other Christians, so Paul also warns the church "that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter" (v. 6). The close relationships that church members enjoy with one another should never be allowed to cross these lines of morality.
The apostle also issues instructions (1 Cor. 7:1-9) to ascetically minded Christians, telling them they cannot pursue holiness before God by refusing to engage in sexual intercourse if they are married. Paul concedes—not commands (v. 6)—that regular sexual activity may be interrupted for a time if the two mutually agree, if there is a good purpose, and if they reengage after the period is complete. This abstinence, however, does not make them more holy but can instead lead to disastrous results if not treated properly (v. 5).
In this discussion of marriage, Paul also addresses singleness (vv. 7-9). This state, like that of marriage, is a gift of God. Paul's preference is that "the unmarried and the widows … remain single," as he is, for celibacy offers many advantages (1 Cor. 7:25-40), including avoidance of worldly troubles, freedom from anxieties, and undivided devotion to the Lord. The advantages of singleness are many, yet only those to whom this gift is given should remain single. Those with the gift of celibacy are not asexual beings who lack sexual desire, but they are able to control those urges by channeling them in God-honoring ways. Lacking such self-control, people should pursue getting married so they are not overwhelmed by sexual desire and thus fall into immorality.