I recently read an article from a prominent blogger on the subject of the new "gospel-centered" emphasis in books. He commented on various books that applied the gospel to every area of life from the ivory towers of theology, to the mom caught up in the chaos of home and family.
One quote at the end of his blog got me thinking: "There is not yet a "Gospel-Centered Sex" book; however, it is probably on the way and may well be very helpful! If a couple consistently applies the implications of the gospel to the marriage bed, they will inevitably have a healthier marriage."1
I was surprised by this and yet wondered how anyone would begin to tackle that subject. For obvious reasons it is not a topic many would tread upon lightly. Many Christians (myself included) have assumed that remedying the "marriage bed" would lead to a healthier marriage.
I hear the veiled frustrations of men. Why doesn't my wife want to have sex more often? Women, in their counsel to one another, unapologetically deem sex as a necessary evil, but their duty nonetheless. Both genders seem to believe the cure for low-sex marriages is for women to get over themselves and give more sex. After all, it is a job only she can fulfill, right? But an unhealthy sex-life is only a barometer of a deeper problem. Sex is not the priority of marriage. It is an expression of the health of it. I think I would reverse the comments above to read like this: If a couple consistently applies the implications of the gospel to the marriage, they will inevitably have a healthier marriage bed.
It has been said that a married man and woman, naked together and unashamed, are as close to a pre-fall relationship as anyone will experience this side of eternity. But how many of us can view it that way? We can scarcely mention Song of Solomon without blushing or cringing. It brings us face to face with our sexual baggage. What do we do with this book? There it is in the middle of the Bible, in all of its "rated R" beauty. We all want what that couple has. We're afraid to cry out: we don't have it!
An Appetite of the Heart
Several months ago, I taught about the sin of idolatry to a group of female addicts at the Nashville Rescue Mission. I touched on all kinds of idols from (obviously) drugs and alcohol to co-dependency, sex, and food. Afterward, the group of ladies from my church had a vigorous discussion about how the gospel could possibly apply to our eating habits. Surely a certain amount of law was necessary to lose weight. Defenses were up. Each woman had a comment about what had worked for her. A couple of the women reluctantly shared their guilt and failure to keep food in its rightful place. Others jumped in to excuse and justify why they were carrying an extra 10 pounds. We could all readily understand the effects of applying the gospel to something OTHER people struggled with but. . .you gotta eat right? Various diet plans were evaluated based on how much law and how much indulgence they allowed. Other suggestions came pouring out about making healthy food taste good and exercise fun. I could hardly believe I had just taught about idols and here we all were defending ours.
We will never be satisfied with more and better food. There are consequences for trying to be so. Most diets don't work because they don't lead their participants to fall OUT of love with their idol of food. They only transfer that love to healthier food, organic food or my favorite: "super-food". They don't break our idolatrous worship of self-indulgence. On the contrary, they actually increase it. I know when I am on a diet, I think about food 24/7. I am always planning to eat. What can I eat? How can I make flax seed taste like white flour? How can I consume the least amount of calories and get the most full? What low calorie dessert can I enjoy two amazing bites of? How can I be satisfied?
Ok, you say, I thought this article was about sex? Well, I am a woman. I gotta get there through food. We don't end up losing weight, and having a proper perspective, and yes, even enjoyment of food, until we stop living for food (or skinny-ness or whatever related idol). We won't be free from our insatiable desire for food until we stop worshipping it and worship Christ instead. The same is true of sex. You cannot have more sex or better sex by seeking more and better sex.
Guilted Into Giving
I recall many bridal shower devotionals where the young blushing bride-to-be was told to never refuse her husband (I probably even conducted a few like this I'm sorry to say). I believed this was good advice because it was always followed by a devastating description of what refusals do to a man's psyche. When I was engaged and given this advice I thought to myself: Are you kidding? Why would I refuse him? I am looking forward to that part of marriage as much as he is. The two of us could hardly keep our hands off of each other as our wedding drew near.
A few weeks after the wedding and honeymoon were over I understood. My husband and I both had full-time jobs and we lived in a tiny apartment by the beach. One evening I came home late from work with a bag full of groceries. I put the groceries away, cooked dinner and then washed the dishes. My husband slinked up behind me as I was drying the last dish and said: You almost ready for bed? The look I gave him made it abundantly clear that I was ready for separate beds.
The next morning I felt guilty, believing my refusal had done irreparable damage to my husband's soul. He felt guilty that he had watched football while I was killing myself to be a "godly wife." We confessed our guilt to each other, but rather than turning to Christ to remove our guilt and shame, each of us determined in our hearts (and to each other) we would do better next time. From that point on, I cooked, he washed dishes, and the negotiating began.
For some couples, this is as deep as their marriage ever goes. It centers around needs and how to motivate the other person to meet those needs. We all feel the guilt of "meeting needs." We understand the tendency to determine in our hearts to "do better". Many people limp through their entire married life feeling guilty for their own contribution to their marriage and disappointed in their partners.
The truth is my refusal did do irreparable damage to my husband's soul. My husband's choice to watch football instead of serving me did irreparable damage to mine. The sin of selfishness crept into our marriage and marred it with the ugly stains of shame and mistrust. Shame led to the determination to do better. Mistrust led to the determination to self-protect and avoid being hurt like that again. We didn't withhold our bodies from each other, but we did withhold pieces of our hearts. When shame and mistrust build-up over time in a marriage, it leads to withholding bodies—a symptom of withholding hearts.
As couples develop patterns of self-protection, intimacy erodes and the relationship is reduced to negotiation: What does he need to "do" to get sex? How can she use sex as her most powerful tool for getting what she needs (wants)? Both feel resentful: He for having to beg for what he feels entitled to, she for having to prostitute herself to earn what she feels entitled to. When kids enter the scene, expectations are exposed, negotiating heightens (and fails), and couples find themselves fighting over seemingly trivial things like who works the hardest and who should do what housework.
The world's remedies to this battle of the sexes are feminism and pornography. Each gender convinces itself that it doesn't need the other. Women stomp off to find their self-worth in a career and perhaps a house full of cats (maybe even a ministry or friendships). Men hole up in dark rooms and believe the lie that their need is merely physical. We can't just tell women to have more sex. We can't tell men they are pathetic for wanting it. God created both sexes to need and want each other—not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well.
After the fall, Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves together to cover their nakedness. Their knee-jerk reaction to the feeling of shame was to hide their sexuality, but why? The same reason couples do this today. They no longer trusted each other. Their shame left them feeling exposed before God and each other. They tried to cover their sin by covering their bodies. This is the bad news. Because of our sin we will do irreparable damage to each other's souls in marriage. With the increase of sin comes the increase in fear to be vulnerable with each other—usually the wife with her body, the husband with his heart. Shame and fear lead to the desire to self-protect.
Christian couples want to be uninhibited with each other but it's not safe. We have perverted what God intended to be pure and we're not quite sure how to go back. Both husbands and wives long to return to the garden of Eden when the two could be naked together and unashamed, but our sin keeps getting in the way, marring our marriage beds with shame and mistrust.
Shame On You? or Grace On You?
Romans chapter seven gives an illustration from marriage. It alludes to two husbands—the law and the gospel. The first husband was demanding. He had an unending list of requirements for his wife, but she could never meet them. Nothing was good enough for him. He was never satisfied. He motivated her with shame and fear. She was ugly and unworthy. He was righteous and angry. He required her to not only fulfill her duties perfectly, but to do them with pure motives. She was required to lay herself naked and open, body and soul to his demands. She did so because she had to, but she resented every minute of it. She couldn't leave him or she would be an adulteress, and wretched in everyone's eyes, rather than just his. Her only hope for release was for one of them to die. And what do you know? It happened. She re-married.
The second husband was kind and self-sacrificing. He had the same list of requirements for his wife but because he knew she could never meet them, he met them for her. She was accepted by him at their betrothal and reminded every day after that she was his. She ran to him for protection from abusive men and he defended her. There was nothing she could do to earn his affection but he gave it freely. He wooed her away from her fears and she trusted him. He gave her clothes to wear that made her beautiful for their wedding day (Revelation 19:7-8) and he desired her. He promised to meet every need she had and to never forsake her. His love for her was not conditioned upon her performance.
This second husband's irresistible love awakened desires in her she didn't even know she was capable of. Even though nothing was required of her, she wanted to do everything for him. She wanted to be even more beautiful for him. She knew she had nothing to offer him, but she dreamed of ways to express her love recklessly and unashamedly—maybe even in ways that other people would deem inappropriate (Luke 7:36-50). She had no fear that he would reject her and no longer feared rejection from others. What did it matter what they thought since her beloved had accepted her? She would do anything to express her love to him without inhibition—including opening herself up body and soul. He would not reject her for this. On the contrary, he was pleased to receive it.
The gospel dives down deeper than duty. It changes desires. It seems Christians are afraid to motivate each other with the gospel. Perhaps we're afraid that if we remind fellow believers that they don't have to do anything to earn God's favor, they won't do anything. Just the opposite is true.
When Christians talk about sex and marriage they usually jump right to the requirements. Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church. Wives submit to your husbands—and on goes the sermon about how this plays out in ACTION. The wall of division between the sexes seems to grow, rather than fall, when these passages are preached. Neither side leaves content that the preacher has explained the duties of their spouse thoroughly enough. We head home with an extra measure of shame for ourselves and guilt for our spouse.
This is the point where the gospel steps in and detonates a nuclear bomb on all of our misconceptions of marriage. The gospel doesn't just apply to marriage. Marriage is the ultimate illustration of what the gospel is. Christ is the second husband! Ephesians 5:31-32 says this: For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh (and by "one flesh" he means the sexual union and all that entails). This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church." Let that profound mystery sink in for a minute. Two people becoming one flesh is an illustration of Christ and His church!
We miss the real pleasure of the marriage bed because we miss the profound mystery of Christ and His bride. He doesn't command us to get over ourselves, take off our clothes and be vulnerable with each other in a merely physical act. He has removed our shame so that we can! When shame is removed, the result is an eagerness for this kind of vulnerability. When selfishness is removed, it becomes safe, and therefore pleasurable for both parties. It is only through His grace, we get glimpses of the Garden of Eden. He has taken our shame on Himself and given us His righteousness as our covering.
Our measly little marriages are only a shadow of the true marriage that is to come. When our marriages here disappoint us, it causes us to yearn for our eternal marriage that will never disappoint. The Lord does not shy away from the subject of sex. In fact it is front and center as an illustration of the intimacy of Himself and His bride. Here's where it gets good.
The beauty in the illustration (from Romans 7) for us as Christian married couples is that both husband and wife have been "wives" to both of these husbands. This thought may not sit well at first with men but women understand it right away. It is life-changing truth. When Paul tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church, they should understand what that means because they are the church. They are the unworthy recipients of the lavish love of this second husband. They have been set free from the demands of the law that they could never meet. Both husbands and wives are led willingly and joyfully when led with grace, rather than law—the husband by Christ, the wife by the husband.
Since both husband and wife have experienced what it is like to be under the authority of the demanding husband, and the gracious one—how much sense does it make for us to treat each other like the first husband, but expect a response like the second husband received? If we shame each other and motivate each other by guilt, we have become like the first husband. The evidence of this will show up in our responses to each other in the bedroom—perhaps going through the motions out of guilt (the epitome of hypocrisy), a lustful grab of self-gratification (the epitome of selfishness), or avoidance altogether.
Am I Safe In Your Arms?
I don't know what goes on in the mind of men (that is an understatement) but I know women. We were created to be responders. We saw the example of the same woman responding to two different husbands in two different ways. When a woman feels protected and cherished by her husband, she trusts him with her heart. If she feels she can open her heart to him and that he will be careful with her feelings, then she can also be vulnerable with her body. On the other hand if, instead of protecting her, he protects himself from her emotions, shames her, is harsh with her, or treats her like a sexual object, she will feel unloved and used. She will want to withdraw from him, or lash out at him. She will get her emotional needs met by a friend. If he won't protect her, she will protect herself by building an emotional wall. He can't have her heart and he definitely can't have her body. Christian women know this is a sinful and non-gracious attitude and so they might give in to the guilt that comes from reading 1 Corinthians 7:5 every now and then. Guilt, however, only "gets her through." It treats the symptoms but not the root of the problem.
So what am I saying? Men need to do better? If they want more sex, here's the formula? I bet a lot of men would like a formula—10 ways to serve your wife that will make her want to give you more sex. I could write that book and I bet it would be a best seller. I could call it The Proverbs 32 Man. But it would not be the gospel, or the solution to an unhealthy sex life. It would be a list of requirements that he could not fulfill or a manipulative formula that feeds selfishness. It would be just as unproductive as commanding a wife to go home, get over herself, and give her husband more sex.
Our problems in marriage don't stem from the quantity of sexual encounters or the quality of sexual encounters. The problem is our sin and our spouse's sin. Not just our sin, but also our desire to cover it up rather than expose it, repent of it and be freed from it.
A Couple at the Cross
Husbands lead whether they realize it or not. Women respond whether they believe it or not. God created us this way. Christian husbands either lead their wives to follow Christ or fall away from Him. If he leads her away from Christ to follow himself and his worldly pursuits, she will struggle to trust him. She will protect herself from him, and there we have the subject of this article. However, as a husband draws near to Christ for wisdom, strength, humility and gentleness, it becomes easy and joyful for his wife to trust him, submit to him, respect him and yes, open herself up to him body and soul. Only the husband can lead them as a couple to the cross to heal the mistrust between them.
Sounds like I'm putting it all on the husband "to fix" but I'm not. I'm putting it all on Christ. This article is about remedying "the marriage bed" and truth be told, a wife cannot lead that effort. She has to get over the guilt of thinking that she can. In fact, if a husband has a lust problem, she might be enabling him if she submits to his increasingly perverted demands in their bedroom. The "marriage bed" can only be remedied by dealing with the shame and mistrust that has built up in the marriage. Only the husband can bring them as a couple before the cross.
We are all the bride of Christ. We are each individually dependent on Christ's leadership, righteousness and His Holy Spirit to transform us. If a husband will not lead, his wife cannot make him do it. She may try to take on that role for a while but there are certain things, as a woman, she just cannot do. What she can do is run to the Savior who promises never to leave her or forsake her. He will be her husband. He will protect her. She can draw near to Christ through faith and be vulnerable with Him. He will meet her emotional needs if she will let Him. She can experience with Christ a closeness that she longs to share with her husband. She cannot make her husband come with her, but she can go there alone and find the grace to withstand what she lacks in her marriage. Women are uniquely designed to yearn for their bridegroom. It is often through the disappointment in her earthly bridegroom that she finds satisfaction in her eternal one.
That famous verse in 1 Corinthians 7:5 says: "do not deprive each other except 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." I think it is interesting that Christians hardly ever look at that exception. What prayers are so important that they constitute a time of abstinence in marriage? The rest of the chapter goes on to describe how marriage complicates people's lives, divides their attention, and even invades happiness (7:40). Sex plus sin complicates relationships. Sinful women use sex to get relationships. Sinful men use relationships to get sex.
In the sexually depraved society of Corinth, it may have been difficult to see even glimpses of the purity and selflessness God originally intended for the marriage bed. Our culture is not too different from theirs. Matthew 24:12 predicts: in the last days "because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold." Basically, in the last days people will use each other, rather than love each other. Maybe it's healthy to take a little time as a couple to pray and realign your perspective on your sex-life. Sex is a powerful force either for good or evil. What does your sex life reveal about your marriage?