In his memoir “Where the Light Fell,” Phillip Yancey tells a story about a professor he remembers from his bible college days. So concerned was this Bible professor to avoid any hint of sexual temptation that he refused to sit next to his own wife, choosing instead to sit on the opposite side of the same couch. While it’s true that our culture often communicates a distorted view of sex, it’s also sadly true that the church hasn’t always fared much better. The church has unfortunately bought into and communicated a distorted message that can hurt marriages and relationships. Let’s look at how the gospel liberates us from lies that churches tell about sex.
Some time ago, a speaker gave a talk to a room full of high school students. As he spoke, he passed a white rose around the crowded auditorium, for each student to hold, before passing it to the person sitting next to them. Along the way, the rose began to show the wear you would expect after being handled by hundreds of people: petals fell off, and its appearance became less and less appealing. By the time the rose reached the front of the auditorium, the speaker picked it up and explained that sexual sin leaves a person, like that rose, undesirable, unwanted, and unworthy. “Who would want a rose like this?” the speaker asked. Becoming damaged goods was supposed to be a cautionary tale.
Purity culture was a movement within the church in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, that had the noble goal of encouraging obedience to God in the areas of dating and sexuality. Unfortunately, the unintended result was a performance-based mindset. There were rules about how to dress, what modesty looked like, how, when, and who to date, what affection was acceptable, when it was acceptable, and when it was not. Following these rules, it was taught, were the keys to purity.
The problem with performance-based religion is that it puffs us up with pride in ourselves and over others, and it gives us a false sense of assurance: “I am pure because of what I do.” Some of us continue to listen to this lie, which is counter to the gospel of grace. It also distorted God's good view of sex. Purity culture whispered to our hearts: "sex is dirty and wrong; your sexual sins have forever tainted you; your body causes you to sin," and on it goes.
The gospel liberates us from this lie. Who wants the “flower” that was passed around that crowded auditorium? Who wants the person who is guilty of sexual sin? Jesus! The whole point of the gospel is that we cannot create our own purity, but Jesus trades all of our impurity for his perfect purity. If you are weighed down with the guilt and shame of past sexual sins, or guilt, or failure, know and believe that the gospel liberates us: you are pure because Jesus says so! You are free from all guilt and shame that threaten to taint your marriage bed!
Some of us have made a conscious commitment to pursuing God’s will in the area of sexuality. We’ve waited for marriage to become sexually active. We don’t look at porn. We don’t even let our eyes stray to other men or women. And our hearts hear a not-so-subtle voice trying to convince us that our obedience will pay off with a spectacular sex life. We imagine the first time we have sex will bring champagne, fireworks, and orgasms. We expect that our monogamy and our fidelity will be easy and guarantee that our spouse will be sexually available and adventurous. The flipside is that if things are going wrong, it must be because we’ve failed in some way. When we experience challenges, we can be weighed down with guilt. We so want to believe that our obedience guarantees success, but reality is different, and holding on to this belief is a recipe for disappointment, frustration, bitterness, and resentment towards God.
Of course God delights in our obedience, but he desires obedience as an act of worship, not as a means of gaining leverage over him. Many couples honor God’s will concerning sex, and yet they experience challenges in their sexual relationship (and, many couples who disregard God’s will may still enjoy a stellar sex life). If you find yourself in the early months or years of marriage and you are dealing with disappointment or frustration because the sex isn’t working as planned, or if you are wading through some of the challenges of sexual intimacy (in spite of doing everything right) take heart; you aren’t alone!
First off, know that God is in the midst of your difficulties and frustrations. God is present in our hardship, and he walks with us through even our most personal struggles. Furthermore, challenges in the bedroom shouldn’t be automatically assumed to be the result of our failures. You need not assume that sexual difficulties must be because you have some unconfessed failure in your life or relationship. Consult someone you trust, a friend, a counselor, a pastor, or a doctor, who can offer appropriate help. Know that you are not alone. Sex, like many things, takes practice. It will have seasons where it is working as it should, and times where it doesn’t come as naturally.
A myth still hangs around Christian circles that sex is really more of a man’s game. Women are relational, men are sexual. Women shouldn’t expect to orgasm regularly. Men should take the lead initiating sex. Women should simply respond to all of their husband’s sexual desires. A high sex drive in men is seen as a virtue, while a high sex drive in women is unladylike. Sadly, many couples' sex lives play out this way. Sex is primarily about ensuring his enjoyment, while his wife believes that her orgasm isn’t important and so she doesn’t ask for what she desires. Wives don’t initiate sex because that’s “the husband’s job.”
The Bible paints a much different picture. The Song of Songs is a deeply erotic biblical book that is sure to make the prudish blush. What is striking in this book is that it is the woman who takes the lead. From the opening verses, the woman sexually pursues her husband: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,” she cries out (1:1). The next 9 chapters detail the sexual enjoyment that both the woman and her husband enjoy. Clearly, she holds nothing back describing him in explicit detail, delighting in all parts of his body from his head and hair, down to his genitals. Clearly, God created women as much as men, to embrace and enjoy their sexuality.
Arguably, God created women with a capacity for greater sexual fulfillment; the clitoris has no other discernible function except for sexual enjoyment. Women are capable of multiple orgasms. God designed sex to be most satisfying when both husband and wife pursue their sexual fulfillment in giving and receiving to one another. Most husbands find great joy in learning how to sexually please their wives, and so for a woman to ignore her sexual fulfillment because she has the misguided belief that “it’s just for him” means that both of their sexual fulfillment will be limited. But God invites both the husband and the wife to embrace the goodness of their erotic nature and share it together.