by Tim Challies
One of the significant difficulties many husbands and wives encounter is the place of sexual desire and pleasure in marriage. I want to speak to this today by answering a representative question, one of many I’ve received. “You speak of sex like it is a pure and holy thing. Yet when my husband wants to have sex with me, I feel like he is just responding to bodily urges and wants to use me as a way to relieve those urges. It’s all about the release. What is holy about this?”
I want to begin by assuring you that your concern is a common one and that at one time or another most couples struggle with the place of sexual desire and gratification within marriage. We all know that sex is meant to be an expression of mutual love, yet so often a wife finds herself responding to her husband’s physical needs or desires. She can feel like she is little more than an outlet for his urges. Sadly, there are many marriages in which this is exactly the case.
I believe that the heart of the issue here is that very few Christians have developed a Bible-based theology of sex. Fewer still live out that theology of sex. Instead, much of what we believe has been imported from outside the Bible and carries messages antithetical to God’s desire for the sexual relationship.
From an evolutionary perspective sex is little more than a means of spreading genes, of ensuring survival from one generation to the next. From a pornographic perspective, the meaning of sex is physical gratification so that a person’s worth extends no farther than her (or his) ability to satisfy another person’s cravings. From a romantic comedy perspective, sex is a component of an exploratory phase of a relationship and one that precedes expressions of love and loyalty. These are ubiquitous, powerful messages that compete with truth.
A Christian perspective on sex could hardly stand in sharper contrast. There we see that sex belongs to marriage and that marriage has been created by God for a very specific purpose. Before it is anything else, marriage is a picture, a metaphor, of the relationship of Christ and his church. Within that picture, that representation of Christ and his church, we have sex. Sex is a necessary component of marriage so that a couple desiring to live in obedience to the Bible will regularly have sex together (see 1 Corinthians 7:1-5). And here is where we come to your concern.
While it is always difficult to speak in generalities, it is probably fair to say that more often than not, it is the husband’s physical desire that motivates the sexual relationship. And I think the heart of what you are noting is an apparent contrast between a husband’s physical desires and this picture of Christ and the church. It is a contrast between what we believe sex is meant to be and what sex actually is. Aren’t these things at odds with one another?
Physical, Emotional, Spiritual
Here is what I want you to consider: What if the physical, “the release,” as you call it, isn’t the thing? What if it’s not the point of sex? What if the deepest purpose and meaning of sex is not physical but emotional and spiritual? And what if the physical desire is a God-given gift to compel us to take advantage of all the other benefits that sex brings?
This is where a Christian understanding of sex is so much better and greater than the alternatives. It heightens the purpose and importance of sex by celebrating all that sex is and all that it is meant to be, for it is here that the physical, the emotional and the spiritual come together in the most powerful way. Literally: the most powerful way. There is nothing in the human experience that brings these three together in such dramatic fashion and this is exactly why sex is reserved for the marriage bed. God wants marriage to be a unique kind of relationship and nothing marks marriage’s uniqueness more than sex.
Yet so few people think of sex in such terms. Even sex that is holy before God–sex between a husband and wife–can be marked by sin and ignorance. Few husbands have the words to express to their wives that the physical pleasure and relief that may come through sex are bound up in the much better and greater unity they find in making love to their wives. And yet somewhere they know it, they know that the greatest joy in sex is not orgasmic but in the joy of being body-to-body, soul-to-soul, and completely exposed before another person. The intimacy comes by way of vulnerability. There is no other place where a person is so exposed, so bare, so vulnerable. Sex is a declaration: This is who I am. Sex is a question: Do you accept me as I am? Sex is an answer: I accept you as you are. There is no other place where a person can be so loved and accepted.
This is the point of sex! This is its purpose. And the physical desire is a trigger, a reminder, that motivates us to pursue this kind of intimacy that is so integral to marriage. Not only that, but the physical desire allows this all to be a source of great fun and pleasure. It truly is one of God’s gifts to us.
I believe there is a call here for husbands to think about sex from a biblical perspective and to learn to express this to their wives. A husband should be able to explain to himself first, and then his wife, that the joy of sex goes far beyond the physical. It is not less than physical, but it is certainly so much more. And the husband needs to live as if this is true. Satan’s greatest victory in the area of sex is making it all about chasing that physical relief while ignoring the much deeper unity. A man can make hate to his wife instead of making love. He can have sex with his wife in such a way that he pursues nothing more than relief for his urges and when he does this he cheapens sex rather than elevates it. Husband, learn to understand and express to your wife what it really means to make love to her.
And there is a call here for wives not to resent the physical component of sex, but to see it as a God-given gift that motivates a husband and wife to pursue sex’s greatest gifts. She needs to understand that a man who is following the leading of his body toward that physical and emotional and spiritual unity, is a man who is looking to his wife for that thing that she and she alone can provide–this one expression of their deepest unity.
The fact is that as Christians we are good at teaching what sex is not, but not nearly as skilled at teaching what sex actually is and what it is meant to be and to display. The reality is far better, far more satisfying, than so many of us believe.
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