First Corinthians 7:8–9 says, “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” The King James version says simply “to burn,” which has led to some misunderstanding. Some have speculated that the word burn refers to burning in hell; however, when we take the passage in context, we see Paul is saying that, even though singleness is his preference, it is not wrong to marry. In fact, for those with strong sexual urges, it is better to marry than to be consumed by unfulfilled desire.
Paul’s statement that it is better to marry than to burn supports the Bible’s strong stand against sexual immorality: if an unmarried couple are burning with passion for each other, they need to marry, not give in to sin. Many try to justify sexual activities before marriage with excuses such as “we’re engaged” or “we love each other.” But the Bible makes no such allowances. In 1 Corinthians 7:1–2, Paul addresses the distinction between the married and the unmarried and states that sexual fulfillment is a primary reason for marriage: “Now for the matters you wrote about: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’ But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband.” Marriage is God’s plan for the fulfilment of sexual desires, and any sexual expression outside of marriage is sin (Hebrews 13:4).
Sexual desires blossom during puberty and increase as the body matures. The sexual desires themselves are not wrong. They are part of developing into a healthy man or woman. What we do about those desires determines whether or not they lead to sin. James 1:13–15 explains the progression from the temptation to the sin: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
With his assertion that it is better to marry than to burn, Paul sounds a warning for those caught in the progression toward sin. Long engagements, young teen dating, and “make out” sessions between dating couples are all ways that temptation can start “burning.” First Thessalonians 4:3–7 also addresses the need to control our passions: “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.”
When we refuse to control our bodies in ways that are holy and honorable, we are in danger of allowing the natural sexual drive to turn into lust—or causing someone else to be filled with lust. This is especially true during late adolescence and the early twenties when hormones are raging and bodies are at their fittest. Sexual desire is at its peak, and the foolish or untaught often dive into sexual sin before they realize the lifelong consequences. God’s design is for those who “burn” with sexual desire to prayerfully seek a marriage partner and keep their desires under control until the wedding night. Those who can maintain moral purity should not feel pressured to marry. Singleness is a perfectly acceptable lifestyle. But, if one is begins to “burn” with passion, it is time to seek God’s guidance in finding a spouse.