"For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church." – Ephesians 5:31-32
After God selected the Jews as His chosen people, delivered them from slavery and gave them His law, He asked them to build a sanctuary where He would live (Exodus 25:8). This traveling tabernacle would be a holy place where God's people could find solace, fellowship and forgiveness. It was an object lesson pointing them to God as their true sanctuary.
But long before a physical sanctuary existed, there was another spiritual sanctuary that God instituted. It was between two people – a man and a woman (Genesis 2:22-25). This covenant was sealed by one, life-giving act – the two becoming one flesh.
In this intimate union, one man and one woman enter a covenant relationship where they give their bodies (and hearts) to each other and each other alone. In fact, sexual love in marriage is meant to be a refuge where unity is celebrated and shame scorned – a true sanctuary.
From a Sanctuary to a Battleground
Fast forward to the 20th century. Television and other media advertise the world's false expectations day and night: Extend your pleasure! Enhance your sexuality and/or your body! Perform better, more often and longer. Sometimes, these messages even make their way into the hearts of Christians. Why should the world have it "better" than me?
Unfortunately for many of us, this thinking has twisted one of God's greatest gifts to married couples – sexual intimacy – into a bearer of pain. And since sexuality puts us completely naked and without defense before another human being, heartache in that intimate realm can be intense.
For many years, sexual intimacy was a place where Robin and I wrestled with our deepest insecurities. My long-time battles with pornography translated into pressure, manipulation and insistence on more and better sex. "Mark it on your calendar; I need sex every three days!" I told her in a heated moment. But, if Robin responded only out of duty, I felt emotionally robbed.
Likewise, Robin carried deep sexual insecurity and feelings of shame from when she was abused as a child. When I struggled with impurity, she alternated between using sex in an attempt to keep me pure and pulling back completely. She learned to respond to the physical act of sex, while holding her heart safely at a distance.
But, the truth is that Robin and I weren't seeking to hurt each other at all. The real attack was coming directly from Satan, as he sought to steal the sanctuary of our marital intimacy through:
- Impurity. What she doesn't know about won't hurt her; I need this thrill to endure the ups and downs of life. If he doesn't meet my emotional needs, I'll get them met elsewhere.
- Manipulation. If you don't give what I need, I'll withdraw and show you how much it hurts to be denied.
- Hopelessness. I just need to make do, because he/she will never change. He'll never see beyond my body to my heart. She'll never understand my physical desires.
- Shame. No one else at church struggles the way we do. They would never understand.
Bringing Back the Sanctuary
"I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm." – Psalm 55:8
While Satan sought to discourage our hearts by tempting us to think that these storms were so scary that we could never change, God was holding out a place of shelter. That shelter is simply called "us." We needed to learn to make sexual intimacy less about "me" and more about "we."
As we've committed ourselves to growing in intimacy, sex has become a place of shelter, offering a confidence and security to help overcome a multitude of sins and struggles. To do this, we've needed to learn to replace:
- Shame with a clear conscience (Hebrews 10:22)
- Manipulation with cooperation (Matthew 18:19)
- Pressure with mutual desire (Song of Solomon 2:16)
- Impurity with complete openness (Psalm 56:13)
In fact, many of our battles disappeared when I accepted that satisfaction would only come when I surrendered my desires to God. As a result, sex became about our connection, rather than about my own personal satisfaction. As Robin saw my heart change, she began working on her own intimacy issues, giving me back her heart and her body in ways that move me deeply.
Now we're beginning to understand what it means to have a bedroom that is a true sanctuary. But how do we bring Christ into every realm of our marriage?