Sex and love. They are supposed to go together, right? To hear some people talk, you might think that sex is the most important part of marriage, and if you listened to others, you’d think it really doesn’t matter at all. How important is a healthy sex life to marriage?
As I’ve learned more about God’s design for sex in marriage, I’ve been struck by a staggering thought: Much of the traditional teaching around sex in marriage has actually sabotaged true love rather than promoted it!
To understand this, let’s talk about two different facets of love that contribute to marriage: eros (sexual love) and agape (unconditional love).
Much traditional Christian teaching on marriage uses the power of eros to justify the absence of agape, particularly within the marriage relationship. Christian teachers and pastors sometimes misinterpret passages like I Corinthians 7:1–5 (the “marital duty” passage) to say that the need for eros justifies all sorts of unloving behavior.
Here are a few practical examples of how I see this playing out in real-life marriages:
– A Christian husband or wife uses the absence of sex (or even the absence of good sex) to justify leaving a marriage. If sex is central to a marriage, then the absence of it means that marriage is no longer worth preserving.
– A Christian husband or wife manipulates or forces a spouse to engage in sexual acts that are hurtful, humiliating, painful, or triggering, justifying this behavior because, “You have to meet my needs.”
– A Christian couple lives decades with their sexual relationship revolving around one person’s sexual need with the subtle threat that if that “need” isn’t met, the person is justified in seeking intimacy (sexual or otherwise) outside of the marriage.
– A Christian couple has regular sex while nurturing their own private fantasies and fears. They share their bodies but nothing else. In essence, they use one another as an “acceptable” sexual outlet while fueling lust and selfishness.
We assume that as long as a couple is married and having sex with each other, their sex life is honoring God’s design. In fact, there is a lot of eros happening in Christian marriages that flies in the face of the more central call to agape.
Nowhere in the Bible is a Christian encouraged to allow his or her natural desires to be greater than love. In fact, the opposite is true. We are called as followers of Jesus to surrender all of our desires on the altar of love and sacrifice. So why do we ignore this principle within the very relationship that was created to most closely model Christ’s love for His people?
We ask single Christians to deny their sexual desires, minimizing the ache of loneliness and longing. Then we act as if marriage is a “get out of self-denial” pass. In fact, marriage presents a different call to self-denial. As a wife, I submit my eros and every other expression of selfishness to the higher goal of agape, loving my husband more than I love myself. He is called to do the same. This is the spirit behind passages like I Corinthians 7:1-5. It is a challenge for us to give generously, not demand selfishly.
Our marriages are not built on sex. In fact, sexual intimacy was created to be a physical celebration of what our marriages are based on—covenant love. God has given us eros (sexual desire and attraction) to be drawn into agape (unconditional love based on covenant). Sexual desire draws us to one another. Once we then enter the covenant, we confront the refining fire of loving each other well in all circumstances, including sexual intimacy. The focus on sex in marriage must be pressing in on the larger question of how does our eros play out in light of our growing agape for one another?
I have a friend who was physically, emotionally, and sexually abused throughout her childhood. Throughout their 15 years of marriage, this husband and wife have experienced long stretches during which sex was not even possible. Any touching resulted in flashbacks and panic attacks. Even now, the prospect of a thriving sex life seems like a distant dream. This Christian husband is not getting his eros needs met in his marriage. Both he and his wife had envisioned sex as a fun and bonding experience in their marriage. He is rightfully disappointed and angry at what has been stolen from them. Yet he has the opportunity to even more fully experience what marriage was created to be. Far more than a husband who experiences sexual satisfaction, this man will learn the depth of a Jesus who gave Himself fully to love His bride.
Sexual intimacy is a goal worthy of pursuing within every marriage. It is sacred and wonderful only because of what it represents—the covenant love of Christ for His Bride.
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