Working through problems of sex and intimacy in a marriage can be difficult for many reasons. For one thing, intimacy often seems to be more of an experience than a choice or behavior. Intimacy is hard to do: it just happens or not. How do you control or change something as unpredictable as intimacy? Intimacy often comes as a surprise. One evening, completely unplanned, you end up sitting on the floor with your spouse looking at old photos, reminiscing, and falling in love all over again. On another evening you hire a babysitter, go out to your favorite restaurant, and sit in awkward silence with no idea what to say.
Sex is especially mysterious. One spouse wants to have sex more often than the other. One spouse is more adventurous than the other. One spouse enjoys prolonged foreplay and the other doesn’t. No one asks for these preferences. Are preferences problems to be solved? Who’s to say one spouse’s preferences are right and the other’s are wrong? What can be done when one spouse’s interest in sex disappears altogether?
Making matters worse, we aren’t accustomed to talking about sex—at least without either smirks and giggles or embarrassment and shame. Sex leaves us laughing or crying but not talking.
Intimacy is made up of at least two critical ingredients: being known and being safe. We experience intimacy when we feel known and understood as well as safe, accepted, or cared for by our spouse. A breakdown of intimacy, therefore, usually means that one or both of us doesn’t feel understood or safe. It makes sense, then, that an evening of looking at old photos can stir up both your shared experiences and the sense of safety that comes with years of marriage. On the other hand, there are no special date night or dinner plans that can overcome the barriers to intimacy created when we haven’t shared enough of our lives recently to feel known and cared for or there are reasons to believe that if we do we won’t be accepted.”
Sex Is about Intimacy
Sex is a subset of intimacy, a particular form of intimacy reserved by God for the most intimate of all human relationships, marriage. Just as Christ is central to our understanding of marriage, so he is central to our understanding of sex.
God is relationship, three persons who are one, and he is the essence and definition of love. You may also remember that in Ephesians 5, Jesus’ relationship with the church is given as our model for understanding marriage. That same model provides a powerful way to understand what sex is really all about.
Sex is a unique expression of marriage.
Biblically, God intended sex between his image bearers to take place within marriage. The “one-flesh” relationship of marriage described in Genesis 2 is both a picture of an inner connection—a spiritual and psychological intimacy—and a physical connection. Adam and Eve were created to become one at every level. Marriage and sex were designed to go together.
Marriage is a unique expression of Christ and the church.
Marriage was created so we could fully image God in the world. To be accurate image bearers, we need to exist in relationships of commitment and love. Jesus is the image of God, and his relationship with us, his church, is a model we’re to follow. Marriage, in particular, mirrors Jesus’ relationship with us in unique ways. It’s a lifelong relationship based on a promise of love and grace that creates oneness.
Sex is a unique expression of Christ and the church.
If marriage is a unique expression of Christ’s love for the church and sex is a unique expression of marital love, then the only logical conclusion is that marital sex is an image of Christ’s love for the church.
God’s Relationship with His People
As radical as this idea may seem, the Bible often describes God’s relationship with his people using the language and imagery of marital intimacy. (See, for example, Jeremiah 2:1–2; Ezekiel 16:8–14; Revelation 19:7–9.)
One of the first things that this understanding confirms is that sex is about intimacy. Sex is an outward, physical, connection that should express and reinforce an inner connection. In other words, there are particular qualities of relationship, qualities that make up Jesus’ relationship with us, that unite our hearts with his. While we aren’t physically or sexually united with him, this sort of intimacy is the foundation of sexual union that we share in marriage. Essentially, the joy of being one at heart, “on the inside,” leads to a joyful physical union, being one in body. Understanding that God intends sex to be an expression of intimacy has several important implications.
We can’t simply think of sex as a function of biology.
We don’t have sex simply because we’re animals, driven by biological urges that we can’t understand. Sex is both a physical experience and an expression of our hearts. In other words, the mysteries of sex are more mysteries of our hearts than mysteries of our bodies.
The quality of our relational intimacy will shape our sexual intimacy.
When we don’t connect well “on the inside,” we aren’t likely to connect well “on the outside.” A lack of intimacy in other areas of marriage will often result in problems of sexual intimacy. As many wives have tried to instruct their husbands, “Sex begins in the kitchen.” In other words, good sex doesn’t just happen in the bedroom; the foundation for good sex is built with loving, caring interactions in every other room of the house. An impatient, angry husband in the family room will often be an impatient, angry lover. A wife who has trouble expressing her wants and desires in the den will often have trouble expressing wants or desires in the bedroom.
Understanding how to improve intimacy in the bedroom means learning intimacy from Christ.
The way Christ builds trust and intimacy with us teaches us how to build trust and intimacy with our spouses. As always, this involves more than simply imitating Jesus. It means worshipping him.
Learning Intimacy from Christ
What words come to mind when you start thinking about Jesus’ relationship with us? When I ask couples that question I regularly hear words like: faithfulness, safety, sacrifice, acceptance, unity, honor, service, and honesty.
Most would agree that these qualities make for a great marriage. We all want to be safe, accepted, and honored, and we want our spouses to love us sacrificially, even when we’re hard to love. But can you see how these same qualities are as important for sexual intimacy as they are for intimacy in general?
Think about the basic mechanics of sex. Husband and wife disrobe, allowing another to see them as few, if any, have ever seen them in their adult lives. There is, literally, nowhere to hide, no way to defend yourself from a critical eye or a violent hand. It would be devastating to be laughed at or criticized. You want to be physically valued, accepted, and embraced. What follows is mutual contact. You touch and allow yourself to be touched on the most sensitive parts of your body. The husband enters his wife, literally touching her on the inside. You give the other the power to bless you with pleasure and warmth—or to harm you in a terrible way. Can you see how safety and acceptance are important?
How about service or sacrifice? Men and women respond to sexual stimulation at different rates; men typically climax more quickly than women. If a man wants to be selfish, he can do so easily, leaving his wife unsatisfied, frustrated, and feeling used. To serve and bless his wife a husband needs to exercise self-control.
How about honesty and communication? Husbands and wives have their own preferences, wanting to be touched in some ways and not others. Without good communication, both verbal and nonverbal, how do you know if you’re giving your spouse pleasure? How does your spouse know how to love you if you don’t communicate it?
Almost every characteristic of heart-level intimacy has a critical counterpart in the area of physical intimacy. The outer is always a fruit of the inner.
Another way to describe marital intimacy is with the word celebration. The love that God has given us in Jesus is something to celebrate. It’s a love so powerful that when we’re in tune with it, it has to find physical expression. In the Bible the return of Jesus is portrayed as a wedding feast. The book of Revelation gives us this image:
Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.) (Revelation 19:6–8)”
As God’s people, we’re like a bride thrilled to be with our groom at last! Words can hardly capture the joy.
Sex is designed to give us a glimpse of that joy, a physical way to experience and reinforce that kind of love. Sex isn’t dirty, though our culture tries to make it that way. Don’t give in to that cheap knock-off. Sin isn’t what makes sex exciting. If you build an intimacy into your marriage that reflects God’s love, then you have every reason to believe that it will show up in the bedroom as a wonderful celebration.
Excerpt adapted from Marriage Matters ©2010 by Winston T. Smith. May not be reproduced without prior written permission.
Marriage Matters: Extraordinary Change Through Ordinary Moments
In Marriage Matters by Winston T. Smith, readers find a hopeful resource on the transcendent purposes of God at work in their marriages. This powerful, transformative book addresses the extraordinary way God works in the seemingly mundane moments in a marriage. By offering practical help and biblical insight, Marriage Matters helps couples consider their own expectations and reactions when things go wrong.