SEX AND THE CITY OF GOD (PART 2)
Written by Doug Ponder on February 14, 2015
Super Quick Summary
In part 1 of this article (which you really should read first), we saw that our approaches to sex leave us feeling empty or shameful. Yet this is not the way sex is supposed to be. Like everything else God makes, sex is meant to be fulfilling, and his purposes for sex become a reality in Christ and through his Spirit.
God’s purposes for sex are:
- Procreation: God wisely connected the pleasures of sex with the responsibility of raising children, and what he joins together we ought not separate.
- Pleasure: Though he didn’t have to, God made sex pleasurable because he delights to give us good things that we do not deserve.
- Intimacy: In marriage a husband and wife become “one flesh,” and the emotional, spiritual, and physiological aspects of sex serve to reinforce the closeness of their covenantal union.
- Picture: By God’s design the shape our of sexual anatomies mirrors the shape of our souls. Thus sex is an extension of a husband and wife’s complementary roles in marriage, which are picture of the relationship between Jesus and his bride, the church.
Why Talk about Sex?
There are some in the church who think that sex is a topic best left for other people to sort out. “We are called to preach the gospel,” they say. “We are not called to talk about sex!” I think this is foolish for two reasons.
First, Jesus’ is the author and architect of all creation. He owns creation like an inventor owns his invention, and he knows all that has gone wrong with our approaches to sexuality because he knows what it looks like for sex to go right. (You’ve got to have a straight ruler if you want to know if other lines are bent.) Besides, if the church leaves the responsibility of teaching about sex to other people—for example, “family life” classes in public schools—then we shouldn’t be surprised that so many end up with ideas of sex and sexuality that don’t line up with what God has said.
Second, when it comes to sex a lot of people truly are confused and hurting. Because of this, one of my favorite authors compares the situation of our time to the story of the Good Samaritan. A lot of people—including many Christians—are sexually broken and beat up, lying helplessly by the side of the Jericho road. Along comes a minister, but he crosses over to the other side. He would like to help, of course, but he’s late for a Sunday service where he’s going to “just preach the gospel.” That is what happens when we come to think of the gospel as a message only intended to “get us to heaven.” In reality, the good news about Jesus is the kind of message that touches everything—like yeast in a lump of dough—and the whole lump is transformed because of its presence.
In that spirit, we ought to talk about what sex should look like according to God’s design. Since we know that sin brings death, the question that forgiven people ought to ask is, “How are we supposed to be living?”
Sex, Sin, and Selfishness
The easiest way for a husband and wife to ruin their sex life is to give in to sinful, selfish impulses. All sin is selfish, of course, because it involves seeking our own good no matter the cost or the consequences. Selfishness means we care about ourselves more than we care about others, and this is rooted in our pride. In other words, we care about ourselves more than others because we believe that we are more important or more worthy than them.
Not only is selfishness contrary to God’s commands (Phil. 2:3), it’s also contrary to our own good. God has designed the world such that our wellbeing is connected to the wellbeing of others (Jer. 29:7). This may seem paradoxical, but it means that if we truly want to pursue what’s best for us then we must pursue what’s best for others. When they flourish, we flourish.
All this is especially true in marriage. The “one flesh” relationship of a husband and wife means that their sinful selfishness is the greatest threat to their marriage. For this reason I often tell future husbands that God’s call for them to protect their wives means they must protect their wives from themselves. We are our own worst enemies, for unlike Jesus, the only truly selfless servant (Matt. 20:28), we are all selfish.
The opposite of selfishness is sacrificial service; it is putting others first and putting ourselves last. This does not come naturally to us, however. It is only possible through the transforming grace of God as he works in our lives to uproot the weeds of selfishness and plant in their place the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control). God does this when we trust him and ask for his help to obey him.
But what does any of this have to do with sex? In a word, everything. Selfish people make selfish lovers, both in and out the marriage bed. But a marriage between two people who are putting their selfishness to death by the power of God’s spirit will be increasingly satisfying both in and out of the marriage bed.
This contrast between “selfish lovers” and “servant lovers” is highlighted by Mark and Grace Driscoll in their book, Real Marriage: The Truth about Sex, Friendship, and Life Together. They offer the following examples of what it looks like to be a “selfish lover”:
1. Putting too little time and too little effort into cultivating intimacy.
Sex is the fruit of genuine love and intimacy. This means servant lovers care for their spouses throughout the day, not just five minutes before they hop in the sack. They cultivate sacrificial service as a way of life in every area, and this carries over into the marriage bed. By contrast, selfish lovers exert minimal effort, passion, or interest throughout the day, and this too carries over into the marriage bed. Many wives have experienced this in husbands who impatiently do not take their time to help them get ready for sex. By rushing things selfish men often cause their wives physical discomfort and greatly limit the pleasure they can experience. (Note to men: It takes the average woman anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes to move from foreplay to climax. In other words, sex as a servant lover requires time and effort.)
2. Rarely having sex.
Regardless of a selfish lover’s excuses—“I’m too tired. I’m not in the mood. I don’t have time.”—repeatedly ignoring a spouse’s sexual needs will eventually cause them to feel unloved, unwanted, and undesired. This is one reason why God commands husbands and wives to have sex regularly (1 Cor. 7:5). Another reason God commands husbands and wives to come together regularly for sex is to guard against sexual temptation. An infrequent sex life unduly tempts husbands and wives to turn to sinful means of releasing their sexual frustration, like pornography, erotic literature, private masturbation, even adultery. Servant lovers, on the other hand, ask their spouse about their sexual needs, delighting to serve them in a way that no one else can do. Servant lovers are willing to meet their spouse’s sexual needs even when they are not in the mood, knowing that their spouse would do the same for them.
3. Becoming undesirable through neglect.
When a couple is first dating they often go to great lengths to make a good impression the other person. Some of that is sinful (like lying or bragging), but most of it is a genuine act of service to yourself and to others (like bathing or brushing your teeth). But once a couple is married, if they are not careful that level of considerateness for the other person will sharply diminish. Forgoing their spouse’s interests, selfish lovers let themselves go in many ways. But servant lovers seek to maintain their health and appearance out of love for their spouse.
4. Making your spouse “earn” sex.
One of the worst ways to be a selfish lover is by making your spouse earn sex. People often attempt to control and manipulate their spouses with sex. This may sound odd, but it’s actually quite common. It may look like this: “I did not get any help around the house today, so you’re not getting any tonight.” Essentially, this is a form of manipulating someone in order to get what you want. It sets up a selfish if-then, telling your spouse that they will only get what they want (sex) if you get what you want. Though such “transitions” are tragically common, they are more like prostitution than marriage, making your spouse pay for sex through their good behavior.
5. Sleeping in separate beds, or sharing your bed with “others.”
It should go without saying that having separate beds or bedrooms can ruin your sex life, yet this happens a great deal. Whether it’s a wealthy couple’s dream home with “his” and “hers” bedrooms, or a couple who insists, “We sleep better without sharing a bed,” the act of sleeping alone is a rising trend. A far more common error in the bedroom, however, is sharing the bed with children or pets. Nothing says unsexy like an animal even hairier than the husband hanging out in the bed where you are about to make love. And while sometimes children have bad dreams and will want to be close to mom and dad for comfort, this should be the exception and not the norm. This means under usual circumstances, it’s wise for the marriage bed to remain the marriage bed, and not become “the whole family plus pets” bed. So, resist the urge to snuggle with the little ones all night long. They may be cute, but their presence in bed means sex will have to wait another day, and that doesn’t help anybody. In fact, your children actually need for you and your spouse to have a healthy sex life so that your love for one another grows, becoming a source for even greater love for them in return. In short, servant lovers keep the bed free from distractions and obstacles to intimacy.
Frequently Asked Questions
There is a wide range of sexual practices that are legitimate in marriage for spouses who are seeking to selflessly love and serve one another. Instead of making a list of all the practices that acceptable, it’s better to give three biblical questions that can guide you and your spouse when you talk about these things in the future.
1. Is it permissible, or is it prohibited?
The question simply asks whether or not a sexual practice violates any of the scriptural commands from God, which are sometimes called “the law of God.” If any practice violates one of God’s commands, then it prohibited by God; it does not carry his blessing. For example, sex with anyone other than your spouse is a sin against God and a violation of your promises to faithfulness in marriage. Other examples of prohibited sexual practices include: sex before marriage (1 Cor. 6:18), pornography (Matt. 5:28), prostitution (Lev. 19:29), orgies (Gal. 5:19-21), gay sex (Lev. 18:22; 20:13; 1 Cor. 6:9; Rom. 1:26-27), bestiality (Lev. 18:23; Ex. 22:19), etc.
2. Is it helpful, or is it harmful?
There are some things that are permissible—meaning no command in Scripture from God speaks against doing it—but they are still not helpful (cf. 1 Cor. 6:12). If a sexual act includes physical or emotional harm, unusally high health risks, or violations of conscience, then it is not helpful and therefore not good for marriage—even if there is no specific command from God that prohibits it. For example, anal sex is ruled out on these grounds. Anal sex possesses the highest risks of injury and infection of any sexual practice, for it is unhealthy without the use of special products (unlike other forms of sex), and it is always unclean. To give a contrasting example, some sexual practices not mentioned in the Scriptures may be genuinely helpful without being harmful. Oral sex is the classic example of such an act. God does not prohibit it, and willing partners can find oral sex to be very helpful in many cases.
3. Is it enriching, or is it enslaving?
With this question we seek to discern whether or not an act could become obsessive, out of control, or addictive in an enslaving way, or if it helpfully enriching for a couple. For example, there is no explicit command from God that prohibits spouses from wearing lingerie or from using items like blindfolds to enhance arousal during sex. Many couples find similar practices to be enriching, but every couple must take care that sexual practices do not become enslaving fixations. Specifically, a practice is enslaving when a couple begins to find “normal sex” impossibly boring without it, or when a couple begins to seek arousal from the practice itself instead of their spouse. For example, the use of so-called “sex toys” mostly fall into this category. (It should go without saying that all “toys” that mimic the shape and size of human sexual organs are functioning as replacements of the real McCoy. This shows a lack of gratitude to God for the spouse you have been given, and connects your desire with an object instead of your spouse.) Another example of something enslaving is BDSM (bonding, domination, sadism, masochism). These acts typically mix adrenaline with sexual arousal in such a way that one or both spouses develops an abnormal sexual fixation. Moreover, the very nature of BDSM destroys the symbolism and purposes of sex, mixing things like pain and pleasure, confusing gender roles, playing at rape in a world of real rape, and so on.
Throughout both parts of this article we have explored two truths, equally important. The first is that sex according to God’s design is powerful source of joy. Thus sex is to marriage what the blossom is to the flower: healthy flowers bloom, just as healthy marriages built on a solid foundation of genuine love and sacrificial service will bear the “blossom” of sexual intimacy, with all the beauty and power of God’s design. Instead of the emptiness and shame that are found in sinful expressions of sex, sex according to God’s design leaves couples feeling grateful.
The second truth is that the joys of sex are, for those with the eyes to see and the ears to hear, like arrows or signposts that point to an even greater source of joy. Compared to sex, the pleasures at God’s right hand are a cascading torrent of endless delight (Ps. 16:11). And if we cannot imagine such wonders, it is only because we have not yet tasted them. We are like small children who, upon first hearing of sex, ask whether it is acceptable to eat candy while making love. This question is silly from the adult’s point of view. But for the child, candy is the highest delight he can imagine. He knows nothing of a pleasure so intense that candy becomes irrelevant by comparison. But when all God’s children come to experience the delights that “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard,” then we will know that the joys of sex were just a preview of coming attractions. To know God is know the Author of Joy, and he will never disappoint.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.
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