Next week, I will be leading a marriage retreat focused on sexual intimacy. Does that strike you as odd?
In most churches and even marriage ministries, sex is addressed as a side issue. Marriage books are packed with chapters on communication, in-laws and conflict resolution, with a chapter about sex somewhere near the back. Sexual intimacy is mentioned almost as an afterthought once all of the “more important” marriage topics have been covered.
Having written and taught on marriage, I understand why this is so. After all, marriage is much more than sex. The unintentional message, however, is that a healthy, thriving sex life in your marriage is an optional perk — but certainly not essential. I strongly disagree with that conclusion. In fact, I am convinced that seeking sexual wholeness and true sexual intimacy within marriage is a critical and holy call for every married couple.
I could share with you the research about how healthy sexual intimacy correlates with an overall strong relationship. That, however, is not ultimately why I care about your sex life. Sexual intimacy within marriage is about more than you and your spouse having a good time in bed. It is a central aspect of a holy metaphor.
Why did God create us as sexual people?
Have you ever wondered why God created us as sexual people? Why He intentionally designed sexual intimacy to be so vulnerable, passionate and powerful? These are the questions I’ve asked for the past several years. What I have discovered within the pages of Scripture has radically transformed my approach to all sexual issues, including the importance of sex within marriage.
God intentionally created our sexuality, not only to make babies, but as a profound metaphor of the nature of His covenant love. Throughout the Bible, we consistently see the language of sexuality used to explain God’s covenant with His people. This is particularly clear in the book of Hosea and in Ezekiel 16, where the Israelites are described as a helpless girl rescued and redeemed by God. The unfolding drama of Israel’s unfaithfulness to the covenant is explained in terms of an adulterous wife who cannot control her sexual passions. Many biblical scholars believe that the Song of Solomon is not simply a reflection on the beauty of sexual love within marriage, but itself is a metaphor for the passionate love God has for His people. Paul mentions the mysterious link between marital intimacy (including sex) and Christ’s love for His church in Ephesians 5.
Here’s the takeaway: Our sexuality was created to be, at some level, a physical way for us to understand profound spiritual truths about the nature of God’s love for us. God pursues us with a love that is passionate and sacrificial. He invites us into a covenant relationship that transforms our identity, offers life-giving intimacy and asks for unquestioned fidelity.
When sexual intimacy within marriage becomes an expression of selfishness, manipulation or bitterness, we have tarnished this great metaphor. The many challenges of sexual intimacy present a tangible way for husbands and wives to learn to love as Christ loves us.
What about sexual incompatibility?
When I’m speaking to single Christians, they will sometimes ask, “Isn’t it a good idea to have sex before marriage so you will know if you are sexually compatible?”
With a few decades of marriage and counseling in my rear-view mirror, I have to chuckle at this question. The truth is that we are sexually incompatible with whomever we marry. If we were to marry someone with the exact sexual desires and drive, we could experience physical pleasure without ever pursuing true sexual intimacy. In fact, I believe that sexual incompatibility is a gift and a part of God’s intentional design because it requires that an excellent sex life involve more than the pursuit of selfish pleasure.
A great sex life over many years of marriage requires you to be unselfish toward, sensitive to, forgiving of, merciful to, trusting of and protecting of your spouse. If you’re unwilling to cultivate these Christlike traits, all of the sex advice in the world won’t make a difference. Ultimately, sex will be empty if you never extend yourself beyond your own sensual desires.
God deeply cares about how we love each other. He has given us the gift and challenge of sexual intimacy in marriage as a real-life, inescapable way to experience and strive for the kind of love He has for us. God’s ultimate goal for a marriage is not simply that each couple experience incredible pleasure, but that their pleasure is the outgrowth of the deep love and genuine intimacy developing both within and outside their bedroom — and that it reflects qualities of His character and image.
Juli Slattery is the author of Rethinking Sexuality.
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