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How to Suffer Well Through Sickness 
*TW; mention of assault and trauma.   This past spring, I spent 30 nights alone in the hospital without my loving husband by my side. One night, as I laid in my hospital bed, I thought back on the decision I made to marry him. Little did I know how my decision three years ago would impact me today as I walked through this season of physical suffering. Years ago, as I was trying to figure out if I should marry the man I was dating, I asked my counselor how to make this important decision. She responded, “Does he suffer well?” The question caught me off guard. After thinking about it, I replied, “Yes; he’s gone through cancer, found joy in the midst of pain, and continues to follow God.” That day I knew I was going to marry my now-husband, Zack. In our marriage, we have experienced a lot of suffering. When we were first married, I worried about my husband’s cancer returning. Turns out, I’m the one who has struggled with sickness! Over the past three years, my body has experienced vaginismus (a condition involving involuntary muscle spasms in the pelvic floor muscles that can make sexual intercourse painful, difficult, or impossible), miscarrying our eight-week-old baby, frequent sinus headaches, and, most recently, achalasia: A rare disease that causes my esophagus to not function properly. To fix my esophagus, I had a scheduled surgery in May 2020. Nothing went as planned, resulting in an ambulance ride, emergency gallbladder removal, another esophagus surgery, feeding tube placement, countless procedures and scans, and five different hospital stays amounting to over 30 days alone (because of COVID) in the hospital.  I’m still processing through the trauma that resulted from isolation in the hospital and that accompanies health issues. I will never forget laying in the hospital alone as they tried over and over again to insert a catheter as I begged, “Please stop. I have vaginismus and was raped. This isn’t going to work. Please stop.” The doctor eventually gave up, after I was already bleeding and crying in pain. The experience triggered flashbacks from my previous sexual trauma, and re-inflamed my vaginismus. After I finally came home from the hosptial, I knew I needed to process through this latest trauma, and since then, I regularly see a sex therapist. (Sex Therapy: What Is It, and Why Should You Go?) In all of my health struggles, pain was always present. Physical pain, especially sexual pain, impacted intimacy with my husband. During my most recent sickness and resulting hospital stay, not only were we unable to have sexual intercourse for months, I could barely lift my arms up to hug him while sitting on the couch. There were periods of time I was nauseous or throwing up all day long, and the last thing I wanted to do was kiss my husband. Yet, over time, we learned through trial and error ways to be intimate and show love to one another. While I was sick, our love for each other grew stronger each day as my husband took care of me. He cleaned my puke bucket, washed my hair in the shower, and held my hand as I cried.  After my hospital stay, our intimacy looked different than it had previously. In the moment, I was unaware how my physical pain and suffering played a role in God’s big-picture plan. Later, I realized that God was writing another chapter of our love story.  My health struggles had left me asking many theological questions:  Why me, God? What is your plan? How can I suffer well during this season of sickness? How do I remain hopeful? How can my husband and I love one another through the tough circumstances? How can we be intimate while I am hurting physically? Here are 3 ways I learned to suffer well through physical pain and suffering:   1. Avoid isolating from people and God. It’s easy for us to isolate ourselves from God and others and think no one cares or understands our pain. When we struggle, we must purposefully decide not to isolate ourselves. At the end of the day, the enemy wants to isolate us from Jesus and from the body of Christ. We have to fight the temptation to isolate and instead step out into a community. We must find safe people to share our pain with. It’s okay to cry to others and to God. Let’s be honest and open with people (safe people, not all people!) about how we’re really doing. Even when God feels a million miles away, He is there, quietly whispering into our ears for us to let Him in. Pray and ask God to reveal Himself. Believe God is there and that He is enough. Use your suffering as an opportunity to call out to Him continually, perseveringly, and receive His treasured words to you. God can handle our honest thoughts, questions, and doubts. I think it’s crucial when we experience suffering to grieve and to honestly converse with God about our questions and doubts. God knows them already, so there’s no point in trying to hide those thoughts. In the book of Job, we read Job’s conversations with God, his doubts and accusations, and his friends’ vain attempts to help. In the end, we see Job confess that he spoke of things he did not understand (aka God is sovereign and he is not).  Let Him love you, slowly, continually, in every hard breath as you learn to heal. He hears you even when you have no words to say. He’s with you. He knows you. He loves you.   2. Embrace suffering as an opportunity to fellowship with our Savior in His suffering.  Let the pain teach you about Christ’s humanity. It’s an incredibly unique aspect of Christianity that we worship a God who has actually suffered, physically. Christ was tempted to the point of bleeding, He wept over his friend Lazarus’ death, He experienced the Garden of Gethsemane alone, and He died a horrendous death on the cross. God understands and has experienced our pain.   3. Give yourself grace. Give yourself grace. Suffering is never what we desire or want, especially when it’s health-related and it seems our bodies, and sometimes even God, have failed us. Receiving grace requires humility and for us to acknowledge our need. We cannot save ourselves. During your suffering, it may be hard to read your Bible every day. When I was in the hospital, I lacked the strength required to hold up my phone. Instead, I listened to Scripture and played worship music.  Believing that we need to “have it all together” is a big fat lie. The only person who holds all things together is God. None of us have it all together, and that’s okay. Even our broken bodies are a gift of grace, because they still have life. It’s up to us if that life will be filled with hope or bitterness, faith or frustration. And it’s okay if we struggle daily to find hope and peace, because God’s lovingkindness remains steady and His mercies are new every morning. I want to believe that God will use my pain and sickness for His good. I want to believe that He has not forgotten about me. Maybe you aren’t suffering with physical pain, but I bet you’re suffering from something. Maybe you are grieving the loss of a loved one. Maybe you’re struggling with depression. Maybe you feel stuck in addiction and chained to pornography. Maybe you are single and have sexual desires and don’t know what to do with them. We all experience suffering, so give yourself grace in moments of weakness, share your burdens with those around you, and embrace suffering as an opportunity to fellowship with our Savior in His suffering.      You may also find the following resources helpful: Java with Juli #311: Where is God When We Suffer?  Why is Healing So Hard? (blog) Webinar: When You Feel Like Quitting (member exclusive)  AI Online Book Studies      Photo by Emma Simpson on Unsplash
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Are You Entitled to (Good) Sex In Marriage?
A man approached me after hearing me speak on the topic of sexual intimacy and thanked me for talking openly about such a vulnerable subject. Then he began sharing his story with me. He had just divorced his wife of 29 years because of a lack of fulfilling sex in their marriage.  I wish I had heard you speak when we first got married. At this point, it’s just too late for us. Neither of us have been sexually satisfied in our marriage. Although she didn’t want the divorce, I really believe it is a kindness to her. Now we can both pursue someone who will meet our sexual needs. I’ve heard hundreds of stories like this. Christian men and women use Scripture to say that great sex is an essential right in marriage. One spouse forces another to have sex when and how he likes because “it’s my marital right.” A spouse goes through decades of miserable sexual experiences because “it’s my duty.” If sex is broken for too long, they assume their marriage isn’t worth saving.  Unfortunately, a lot of Christian teaching on marriage and sex has reinforced this thinking. All of the focus is on whether or not a couple fulfills a sexual obligation. Does the Bible teach that great sex is a right in marriage? Some point to Corinthians 7:1-5 to suggest that it does. Let’s take a look at what Paul wrote: 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. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. As we walk through this passage, we need to remember two things: 1. This instruction is within the context of an ongoing discussion with the Corinthian church. This is why Paul quotes them. He is responding to something they asked, and we don’t know the full context of this conversation. 2. This instruction is within the context of the entire Bible. When we build a theology of sex (or anything else) on a few isolated verses, we will often end up with a theology not representative of the entire message of the Bible. This is what I fear has happened in the case of these verses.  If you only read I Corinthians 7:1-5 to understand sex in marriage, you would probably conclude:  Sexual desire is a really bad thing. God made marriage to try to tame us sexually. That’s why you have to give each other sex whenever one of you wants it. Otherwise, you (or your spouse) will fall into sexual sin. The only reason why you should deny your spouse sex is if you agree to have a period of prayer—and how long can a person really claim to be praying?  For much of the early years in my marriage, this is what I thought the Bible actually taught about marriage and sex. I heard sermons and marriage seminars essentially reinforcing this message. I was supposed to meet my husband’s sexual needs because if I didn’t, he would be justified in cheating on me. This made me feel like a sex object to my husband. Although I knew Mike loved me, I still sometimes felt like physically I was being used for his pleasure based on a biblical teaching.  Oh, I wish that for those many years I had a more complete understanding of the beauty of God’s gift of sexual intimacy! Here are three things I wish I had learned about God’s design for sex in marriage.    Sex is about mutual love. The spirit of I Corinthians 7 is not to present sex in marriage as an obligation, but a call to take seriously the symbol of two lives united as one. My friend Linda Dillow describes this passage as a picture of a “gift exchange.” Both the husband and the wife share their bodies with the other as a gift of love, symbolizing their lifelong promise. Notice that Paul emphasizes both the wife and the husband’s sexual needs. The call to meet your spouse’s sexual needs does not just refer to the person who has the higher sexual desire. The lower desire spouse (whether it be the man or the woman) also has needs, feelings, and even fears to attend to.  Unfortunately, most couples apply this passage only to the person who wants sex and completely ignores the needs of the person who has to “give it.”  If your sex life revolves around one of you, something is wrong. If your spouse rarely enjoys sex but engages in it just to keep you from temptation or to please you, your sex life is unbalanced. In almost every marriage, one spouse will need to nurture the sexual desire of the other. This may include communication, counseling, patience, and learning to trust through non-sexual touch.  Most men and women who have a low sexual desire in marriage stay stuck in that place because they never take the time to explore and address barriers to intimacy. Mutual love calls us to consider the emotional, relational, and sexual needs of both the husband and the wife, no matter who expresses the desire for more sex. I Corinthians 7 is calling a couple to take seriously the journey of sexual intimacy, understanding that it has the power to unite or divide them.    Sex celebrates sacrificial love.  Let’s say that we have a big anniversary coming up and I tell my husband, “Mike, I want to go to Hawaii for two weeks to celebrate our 25th anniversary.” And what if Mike responds, “That’s a nice thought, but we don’t have the money for that kind of trip. And if we were to plan a trip like that, I’d much rather go to Europe.”  In response to Mike, what if I said, “I don’t care how much it costs. I don’t care if you’d rather go to Europe. I don’t care if we have to get a second mortgage on our home. I want you to take me to Hawaii for two weeks. I deserve this after twenty-five years of marriage!” What’s wrong with this picture? The purpose of an anniversary is to celebrate our love and to remember the vows we made and have kept. But in the planning of the celebration, my demands show a selfish, uncaring heart. If I acted like this, not only would we have a miserable trip, but my husband would likely be dreading the next 25 years of marriage! The Bible clearly teaches that marriage and sex are a reflection of Christ’s love for His church. The act of sex should point to the unconditional love of Christ, not a selfish attitude that requires you meet my needs. Any man or woman who demands sex from a spouse has missed the whole point. Sex is a symbol of love. Demanding the symbol ironically obliterates the love sex was created to celebrate.  The celebration of covenant love means that both the husband and wife take steps to pursue actual oneness and unity. The sexual journey is not just about what’s happening with your body, but the pursuit of intimately knowing each other. Both the spouse that demands and the one who withdraws puts a moratorium on this pursuit of unity. Sacrificial love calls both of them to work toward genuine intimacy, not just a sexual release.    Self control is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is also a gross misinterpretation to think that Paul is blaming a wife for her husband’s sexual sin (or vice versa) or putting pressure on her to meet his needs so he doesn't look at porn. It’s not marital sex that helps us control sexual temptations. As Paul taught in Galatians 5, it is only yielding to the Holy Spirit that can have that effect in our lives. Christian husbands and wives, under the power of the Holy Spirit, steward their sex lives for the greater purpose of covenant love.  Why do we expect Christian singles to have total self-control and denial sexually, and then assume within marriage we have the right to have every desire and fantasy met, even at the expense of the one we are called to love? Whether you are single or married, self control is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. The inability to steward your sexual urges, temptations, and desires is not a marriage problem, but a reflection of your lack of surrender to the Holy Spirit.  God’s best for you is not a pain-free, blissful sex life. Don’t get me wrong: Great sex in marriage is a gift. But the greater gift is the character you must develop to love each other well, in season and out of season. God’s gift of sexual intimacy is extremely complicated and profound. Indeed, He has designed it so that a couple married for fifty years might still be exploring the intricacies of what it means to know each other and become “one flesh.”  Without question, the secular culture around us has cheapened sex to be about a physical experience. Let’s be careful that we don’t allow a simplistic Christian view of sex to do the same. God, in His goodness, has a gift more profound than simply pursuing a great sexual experience with your spouse. He has invited you to journey together toward intimate knowing, exploration, and learning to love each other in the most profound way.      You may also find the following resources helpful: Beyond a Happy Marriage (blog)  Passion Pursuit: What Kind of Love Are You Making?, a 10-week Bible study through the Song of Solomon. Java with Juli #151: The Naked Truth About Sex in Your Marriage (member exclusive)   Photo by freestocks on Unsplash
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“Is Masturbation a Sin?” You May Be Asking the Wrong Question
(Presione aquí para leer en español.)  Whenever I speak to a group of people about sexuality, I try to include time for an anonymous Q&A session. No matter who is listening, young or old, male or female, married or single, I am sure to be asked about masturbation: Is it wrong? What does the Bible say about it? Many Christians have spoken and written on the topic, some of them with sincere disagreement.  If you want to know how I’ve answered this question in the past, you can read it right here. Rather than repeat those thoughts in this blog post, though, I want to suggest a new angle. What if the question itself is shortsighted?  Have you ever noticed that when people asked Jesus a moral question, He often sidestepped it and brought up a different question? It wasn’t because He didn’t know the answer. It was because He knew the heart of the person asking the question and was more concerned with ministering to their heart than responding specifically to their inquiry. Chances are, if you’re here, you’ve read other blogs and opinions on masturbation. You probably even have your own opinion. So, why are you interested in yet another take on this age-old question that frankly isn’t even addressed in the Bible? In other words, what is the question beneath your question? Perhaps you want someone to write a blog that will erase the shame you feel about masturbating. Maybe you hope I will confirm your suspicion that self pleasuring really is a horrible practice. I suspect that no matter what I write about masturbation, you may still feel unsatisfied, searching for yet another opinion on the topic.  That’s why I want to suggest a different question to ask—and, I think, a healthier question. Maybe even a question that Jesus would ask a man or woman seeking His wisdom on this topic. Are you ready?  Why does masturbation matter to you?  I’ve long suspected that masturbation is less a matter of Christian morality than it is a matter of Christian maturity.    When we are immature in our walk with God, we look for rules. Just tell me, how far can I go with my boyfriend? Can my husband and I use sex toys in the bedroom? Is it okay to read romance novels? We may complain about the rules of Christian living, but at the same time grasp for even more of them. In my past 10 years of working with Christians on sexual topics, I see that we have become obsessed with “the rules” about sex. We argue about the ones we view as unloving and debate the moral lines that seem nebulous. Jesus came to give us freedom, not to make us more focused on rules.  Paul wrote in Romans 6 that those who don’t know the Lord are slaves to their own fleshly desires. They don’t have the freedom to choose what is right, so they need rules and a punishment for breaking them. Without Christ, we are guilted and shamed into good behavior. Once the Spirit of God lives within us, we have eyes to see a picture greater than the rules. We live by the “law of love” for God and for other people.   Friend, if you know the Lord, you have infinite freedom in how you steward your sexuality. You can respond to your most carnal desires with abandon, all the while knowing the long-term consequences of those choices—a lack of intimacy between God and people. But you can also choose to see your desires in the light of God’s love for you. You learn the self-control to say “no” to what you want in order to say “yes” to a greater pleasure, not out of fear but out of wisdom. Maturing as a Christian is not just about memorizing and living by rules, but inviting God to heal and transform you. As you grow in your Christian walk, the rules become unnecessary because you have internalized the law of love for God and for others.  Christians have freedom to masturbate, just as we are free to choose a lot of things that may or may not reflect God’s goodness. As our journey with the Lord deepens, we should be moving toward the fullness of His design for sexuality. As long as we stay stuck in asking the question, “Is masturbation wrong?” we will never push toward a grander vision for sexual wholeness that helps us outgrow the question itself.  You were created for intimacy: A deep, abiding connection with God and with other people. Masturbation is a temporary way to experience a faint glimmer of pleasure and comfort, devoid of the true intimacy you long for. Like cotton candy, it tastes sweet for a second and then dissolves into a sugary nothingness. Children are drawn to cotton candy. They don’t have the experience to know that the large, colorful appearance is a mirage of substance. Grown-ups know better. Imagine if there were countless blogs debating the wisdom of eating cotton candy. It’s a non-question if you are older than ten.  Although it may not be inherently wrong, masturbation is intrinsically immature. We all begin as children in our walk with the Lord, including how we understand His design for sexuality, but we don’t want to stay there. As the people of God, let’s look past the question and into the deeper longings of our hearts. Does masturbation serve your loneliness? Your anxiety? Your self-contempt? Masturbation is at best a temporary measure aimed to combat temptation. Or perhaps it is a tool to rediscover safe sexual touch and response after sexual abuse. Even so, what is the source of our sexual longings? And what is a more lasting satisfaction for the fulfillment you are searching for?  If we have churches filled with sexually moral but immature Christians, we will fail to bring the fullness of God’s glory to our relationships. God created you to do more than follow a list of “thou shalt nots.” He gave you longings, including sexual desire, as a signpost that you were not made to live in isolation. You were created to be known, to give life, and to experience true unity with Jesus Christ.  What if all of the effort you put toward stopping yourself from masturbating was directed instead toward outgrowing the desire for it? Let me gently suggest that you stop asking others if masturbation is wrong and you begin asking God Himself, “Lord, please lead me to know the intimacy I was created for.”     You may also find the following resources helpful: What is the Purpose of Your Sexuality, Really? (blog) Can Masturbation Ever Be a Good Thing? (video) Java with Juli #160: Why God Created You to Be Sexual  You Can Be Single & Sexual (blog) How Do I Talk to My Kids About Masturbation? (video) Photo by Ben Blennerhassett on Unsplash