Sex, Romance, and the Glory of God: What Every Christian Husband Needs to Know
Desiring God 2004 National Conference
Sex and the Supremacy of Christ
This message appears as a chapter in Sex and the Supremacy of Christ and expanded in the book, Sex, Romance, and the Glory of God: What Every Christian Husband Needs to Know.
A smile crossed the king’s face as he dipped his quill into the inkwell one last time. With firm, smooth strokes the final lines flowed freely onto the parchment.
Pushing back from his writing desk, he sighed with satisfaction. The project had gone very well. This was some fine work. Rising from the chair and lifting his hands to heaven, Solomon the son of David offered thanks to the Lord. Here, complete at last, was his greatest song, one of the most important pieces of writing he had ever done. With satisfaction he lowered his eyes to the finished work spread out before him. Today, we call it the Song of Solomon.
It’s about sex.
In his lifetime, Solomon would produce 3,000 proverbs and more than 1,000 songs and hymns. The son of a legendary king, and a great king himself, he would be esteemed in Scripture as the wisest man who had yet lived. And his “Song of Songs” is nothing less than an explicit and unblushing celebration of sex within marriage.
To Solomon, this may have been simply a deeply personal reflection on love. But really it was much more than that. Because one day, as we know, it would be counted among the perfect and infallible words of Scripture, inerrantly inspired by the Holy Spirit, and intended God as a primary source of guidance for mankind until the return of the Son.
That’s right, gentlemen. Solomon’s Song of Songs is an entire book of the Bible devoted to the promotion of sexual intimacy within the covenant of marriage. It’s an eight-chapter feast of unbridled, uninhibited, joyous immersion in verbal and physical expressions of passion between a man and a woman.
Not a couple of verses. Not a chapter or two. God didn’t consider that enough. He decided to give us a whole book!
But can the Song of Solomon really be about sex? Isn’t the Bible about, well, spiritual stuff? It sure is. And as we’ll see, sexual intimacy within marriage has profound spiritual significance.
Real People, Real Bodies
Let’s put ourselves back in King Solomon’s study for a moment. As husbands called to lovingly lead our wives, we need to try to understand this book of the Bible. And when you want to understand what a section of Scripture really means, you have to start with what the original writer actually meant. So let’s briefly consider this book through Solomon’s eyes.
When Solomon was writing his Song, what do you think he had in mind? The question is important because some Christians see Solomon’s Song as a book of symbolism. Men more godly than I, and a lot smarter, have believed that this book of the Bible, if it’s about marriage at all, is only about marriage in a secondary way. They see all its talk of love and longing as primarily symbolic of the relationship between Christ and the church, or Christ and the soul of the individual believer.
Maybe that’s how you see Solomon’s Song. If so, please understand: While I don’t share that view, I’m not attacking or ridiculing you or anyone else. But I am going to try to persuade you otherwise!
Marriage does, of course, point to a greater reality: the unique relationship that will exist forever between Christ and the church. But there are five reasons why I think the primary purpose of the Song of Solomon is exactly what it appears to be: to celebrate and promote intimacy and the gift of sex between a man and woman in the context of marriage.
1. Solomon’s Topic Was Obviously Sex
Just look at all the sensual and erotic language in this book! It certainly looks like it’s about physical and emotional passions between a real man and a real woman. When Solomon was at his desk writing the Song, do you think he had in mind some symbolic, spiritualized relationship between God and his chosen ones? I don’t.
2. The Bible Never Suggests That the Book Isn’t Primarily About Sex
No New Testament writer (or Old Testament writer) suggests that this book ought to be understood primarily as an illustration of spiritual realities. This compels me to read Solomon’s Song according to the plain meaning of the words.
3. God’s Relationship with Man Is Not Sexual
The Song is full of erotic phrases, yet our relationship with God is never portrayed in the Bible as erotic. The church certainly is the Bride of Christ. But although the marriage between Christ and his Bride will be many unimaginably wonderful things, it will not involve sexuality. Will it be extraordinarily and supernaturally intimate? Yes. Infinitely rewarding and fulfilling? Absolutely. But not physically erotic.
When describing our relationship with God, or when communicating our passion for him in prayer or worship, it’s right to use a vocabulary of love. But this language should never include anything erotic. “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).
4. Spiritualizing the Book Doesn’t Work
When many of the passages from Solomon’s Song are viewed as symbolic statements, the results can get very strange.
“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine” (1:2). Now that sounds an awful lot like a particular woman saying she wants to be kissed by a particular man. But some commentators say that this verse is actually about a spiritual yearning for the Word of God.
“My beloved is to me a sachet of myrrh that lies between my breasts” (1:13). There are commentators who somehow find in this passage a reference to Christ appearing between the Old and New Testaments. Guys, I’m no scholar, but I don’t think so!
“Your stature is like a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters” (7:7). Again, one commentator — a godly and sincere person, I have no doubt — suggests that “breasts” here refers to the nurturing effect that sound biblical teaching has upon the church. You know, that idea never occurred to me. When the man says to the woman that her breasts are like fruit on a palm tree, seems to me he’s talking about . . . her breasts!
Spiritualizing the Song of Solomon just doesn’t make sense. What’s worse, it denies to us the powerful impact that God intends for it to have on our marriages.
5. We Need Instruction on Sexuality
If marriage is immensely important to God (and it is), and if sex is a marvelous gift from God to married couples (which it is), it’s entirely appropriate for God to tell us in Scripture how to understand and enjoy it.
Would God leave us, his most beloved creatures, on our own when it comes to something as powerful and universal as sexuality? Would he give us such a gift without also giving guidance? Where is a Christian couple supposed to look for a model of God-glorifying sexuality? If not to Scripture, where? To Hollywood? Pop culture? Pornography?
We must not — cannot — take our sexual cues from the sinful impulses of ourselves or others. And we don’t have to. God has not left us in the dark. Scripture illuminates the path of marital intimacy. The Song of Solomon shines brightly, showing us the way to the best sex we can possibly experience.
So I trust my point is clear. I don’t believe the Song of Solomon is allegory, or typology, or drama, or an elaborate diary entry. I agree with the biblical commentator Lloyd Carr: “The lover and the beloved are just ordinary people” (Carr, The Song of Solomon [InterVarsity Press, 1984], 49).
“The Song of Solomon is about sex.”
Tom Gledhill, in his commentary, puts it this way: “The two lovers are Everyman and Everywoman” (Gledhill, The Message of the Song of Songs [InterVarsity Press, 1994], 23). That’s encouraging. The Song’s about your marriage and mine. These eight chapters of Scripture can speak to us, and in doing so, make a dramatic difference in our lives, for the glory of God.
Communication and Creativity
There is a clear lesson at the heart of Solomon’s Song, a truth that threads through the entire book. I have sought to weave that same thread into this chapter. It is a truth that should be emblazoned on the heart of every husband. If you remember nothing else from these pages, remember this:
In order for romance to deepen, you must touch the heart and mind of your wife before you touch her body.
This, gentlemen, is a truth that can change your marriage. Nothing kindles erotic romance in a marriage like a husband who knows how to touch the heart and mind of his wife before he touches her body.
Too often we reverse the order. We touch her body prematurely and expect that she will respond immediately and passionately. Normally that’s not how it works.
Let’s begin now to examine Solomon’s Song in greater detail, studying specifically how these lovers model the use of communication to first touch one another’s heart and mind. After that, as we seek to apply the lessons of the Song, we will explore how, through study and planning, we can develop the creativity to lead our wives well in this area. Through this combination of communication and creativity we can unlock the passion already present in our wives and cultivate a fresh and growing passion for the rest of our life together.
Communication: The Language of Romance
They call it “intercourse.” But the word doesn’t refer just to sexual union. In fact, the first couple of definitions in my dictionary don’t refer to sex at all. They basically involve human communication and interaction of every kind, especially the exchange of thoughts or feelings. It’s only when you get to about the third definition of the word that any direct reference to sexuality appears.
On this point, the dictionary echoes the authoritative teaching of Scripture. A clear lesson from Solomon’s Song is that speech and sex are intimately connected. Duane Garrett writes of the lovers in the Song:
They relish their pleasure in each other not only with physical action, but with carefully composed words. Love is, above all, a matter of the mind and heart and should be declared.
The lesson for the reader is that he or she needs to speak often and openly of his or her joy in the beloved, the spouse. This is, for many lovers, a far more embarrassing revelation of the self than anything that is done with the body. But it is precisely here that the biblical ideal of love is present — in the uniting of the bodies and hearts of the husband and wife in a bond that is as strong as death. Many homes would be happier if men and women would simply speak of their love for one another a little more often. (Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, The New American Commentary [Broadman & Holman, 1993], 379)
I believe genuine romance, such as we find modeled in the Song, is meant to be a growing reality within every Christian marriage, not a dimming memory. And I am convinced that a key to consistent growth in romance is found in the regular use of “carefully composed words.”
You communicate with words every day, don’t you? For many of us, our days revolve around giving and receiving short bursts of information, whether in person or through some form of technology. Often the success of our careers depends on how good we are at coming up with words that communicate clearly, creatively, and with purpose.
So why do so many of us go home at the end of the work day — home to our wife, the most important person in the world to us — and suddenly stop communicating clearly, creatively, and with purpose? It’s no mystery. We can all be selfish and lazy. So let us heed Duane Garrett’s words: We could have a happier home if we would simply speak of our love for our wives . . . even a little more often.
Husbands, it is our privilege, joy, and God-given responsibility to romance our wives . . . really romance our wives. As we look to the Song for guidance in romance, we are immediately struck by the obvious, central role played by language.
Carefully Composed Words
Let’s look at one of the most remarkable features of the Song of Solomon — how the lovers speak to one another. Solomon’s Song contains the finest examples of carefully composed, romantic words I know of:
(He) How beautiful you are, my darling! Oh, how beautiful! Your eyes are doves. (She) How handsome you are, my lover! Oh, how charming! And our bed is verdant. (1:15-16, NIV) (He) You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride; you have stolen my heart with one glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace. How delightful is your love, my sister, my bride! . . . You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride; you are a spring enclosed, a sealed fountain. Your plants are an orchard of pomegranates with choice fruits. . . . You are a garden fountain, a well of flowing water streaming down from Lebanon. (4:9-10, 12-13, 15, NIV) (She). . . at our door is every delicacy, both new and old, that I have stored up for you, my lover. (7:13, NIV)
This is miles away from simple chit-chat, or practicalities like kids, carpools, and church meetings. This is a category of communication set apart from the stuff of daily life, reserved for a unique and wonderful purpose. It is highly intentional, creative, provocative, erotic language. Its purpose is to arouse romantic passion — to inflame, slowly and intentionally, all the while honoring and delighting one’s spouse.
The whole book resonates with this sort of exotic, extravagant verbal foreplay between the lovers. Long before they begin to enjoy one another’s bodies, they excite one another’s minds with tender, creative speech. They model for us what it means to feel sexual passion and to articulate that passion.
The best sex begins with romance, and the best romance begins with the kind of speech we read in the Song of Solomon. It begins with “carefully composed words.”
In the language of these lovers is a variety of expressions that you just don’t hear too much anymore. Not only is it poetic. It’s a kind of poetry rooted in Hebrew culture one thousand years before Christ. To learn and properly apply the lessons of Solomon’s Song, we need to examine what these odd-sounding phrases really mean. Here’s an ideal example.
Your neck is like an ivory tower. Your eyes are the pools of Heshbon by the gate of Bath Rabbim. Your nose is like the tower of Lebanon looking toward Damascus. (7:4, NIV)
In Solomon’s day these were, without question, tender and heartfelt expressions of deep admiration for a woman’s physical beauty. And that is how they would have been received. A woman hearing those lines would have understood them to mean something like, “Your nose is lovely, a feature perfectly suited to the rest of your face. It adorns your face the way a tower gives breadth and character to the horizon. It transforms and compliments you wonderfully.”
So let’s not make the big mistake of simply parroting such phrases. If you try telling your wife that her nose is kind of like a big stone tower, it probably won’t arouse the specific passions you had in mind.
Here’s another passage. The man speaks to his beloved, saying,
I liken you, my darling, to a mare harnessed to one of the chariots of Pharaoh. (1:9, NIV)
The phrase, “My darling,” establishes a tone of tenderness and admiration right from the start. He then uses an analogy that we can thoroughly misinterpret. In commenting on the use of the word “mare,” one writer suggests the woman must have had very large hips, suitable for childbearing. Another indicates she is no doubt a fast runner! But more accomplished scholarship reveals the beauty and the vibrant sexual overtones of this high compliment.
It seems that in Solomon’s day mares were never used to pull the king’s chariot, but only stallions were so used, and always hitched in pairs. Yet in this picture, a mare has been harnessed to the chariot alongside a stallion. This puts the stallion into a frenzy of galloping desire. So this analogy has nothing to do with comparing her to a horse. Instead, it declares the overwhelming sensual impact she makes upon him. Her very presence drives him wild!
Here is a magnificent passage, packed with carefully composed words carrying a potently erotic intent:
How beautiful you are, my darling! Oh, how beautiful! Your eyes behind your veil are doves. Your hair is like a flock of goats descending from Mount Gilead. Your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn, coming up from the washing. Each has its twin; not one of them is alone. Your lips are like a scarlet ribbon; your mouth is lovely. Your temples behind your veil are like the halves of a pomegranate. Your neck is like the tower of David, built with elegance; on it hang a thousand shields, all of them shields of warriors. Your two breasts are like two fawns, like twin fawns of a gazelle that browse among the lilies. Until the day breaks and the shadows flee, I will go to the mountain of myrrh and to the hill of incense. All beautiful you are, my darling; there is no flaw in you. (4:1-7, NIV)
These verses begin with a declaration of the beauty of his beloved. But generalities are not enough for him, nor should they be for us. In this passage alone he praises seven different parts of her body, using clear and complimentary analogies. This is some serious creativity!
“Your eyes behind your veil are doves” speaks of her gentleness and tenderness. You see, he has studied her eyes. He has thought about what he sees in them. And he has made an effort to express that to her in terms that will bring her joy.
In describing her hair as “a flock of goats descending from Mount Gilead,” he evokes the image of a distant hill, completely covered with black-wooled goats moving toward its base, so the entire hill seems alive. In Solomon’s day, this was a reference to thrilling, state-of-the-art special effects!
Her teeth are white and fresh, like newly shorn and bathed sheep that glisten in the sun. Best of all, “each has its twin” — no missing teeth! Three thousand years ago, that was a big deal.
He goes on to praise in specific, compelling, poetic terms, her lips, mouth, and temples. The word he uses for her mouth suggests that he finds her very speech a thing of beauty. One’s words reveal one’s heart. So here he is seizing an opportunity to honor her for godly character.
Gazing lower, he speaks in tender and radiant language of her neck and breasts, declaring with breathtaking delicacy and understatement his unmistakably erotic intentions. He then ends this love poem where he began, assuring her that, in his eyes, she is “all beautiful . . . no flaw.” Perfection itself.
And note this well, gentlemen. Throughout the passages in which one lover describes the body of the other — for the woman in Solomon’s Song also compliments her man — there are both beauty and brilliance. In these phrases, the most private emotions about the most intimate parts of the lover’s body are expressed appropriately, romantically, erotically, and tastefully. There is no medical language, no crudeness, and no profanity anywhere in the book. Every word is tender and sensual, and carefully composed to produce appropriate and passionate arousal.
In the man’s description of his beloved, notice that we have very few clear statements of fact. We know she had no missing teeth — a real plus — but there’s little else we can really nail down. The overall description we have of this woman is filtered almost exclusively through the man’s impressions of her. He even goes so far as to call her flawless.
Now, is he lying? Is he flattering her? Does he need glasses? Not at all. He is not describing so much what she looks like, but how he feels about her. There is a huge difference.
“You must touch the heart and mind of your wife before you touch her body.”
So many Christian husbands and wives have been deeply influenced by the fashion and advertising industries that we may have a challenge really understanding these descriptions. To a certain extent we have been conformed to this world, and it is compromising our ability to understand truth clearly. When we read these statements, we make the error of applying them culturally, not biblically. But as romance is biblically cultivated, these really can be very apt and accurate descriptions.
When the man says, “All beautiful you are, my darling; there is no flaw in you” (4:7, NIV), and when he calls her “my perfect one” (6:9), what’s going on is very clear. He is lavishing high praises upon his beloved in an effort to communicate her effect on him. These are expressions of his heartfelt evaluation of her. They are not based on cultural criteria. Others may not share his assessment of her beauty. But he doesn’t care. This is how he sees her, and together they rejoice in that assessment.
The same is true of the woman’s view of her man (see 5:10-16). She describes him in a way that few men could ever hope to deserve. Yet these are statements of integrity because they represent her personal assessment of him, an assessment informed by her exclusive, passionate love for him.
What we see in these compliments is simply a purified and well articulated form of something universally common to lovers: They view their beloved as uniquely special. You should be special in her eyes, just as she should be special to you — uniquely set apart, outrageously exceptional, with a value far above that of any other person, a value that others might even see as “inaccurate.”
There is, and should be, a marked difference between an emotional description of one’s beloved and an objective, factual description. A man may say to his wife, “My darling, you are five-feet seven-and-one-half inches tall, of medium build, with a birthmark on your left shoulder blade, and you are mildly allergic to shellfish.” In this, he may be entirely accurate, but he will not be telling her how much she means to him. And he certainly won’t be adding any fuel to the fires of romance.
Learning the Language
Now, a lot of us think we’re doing pretty well if once in a while we say, “That dress looks nice on you, dear,” or “Hey, are those new earrings?” But I trust we’re seeing from Scripture that the standard is far, far higher. By all means, tell her when you think she looks nice, but recognize the world of difference between a simple compliment (however sincere) and phrases describing your appreciation and passion for her.
But I can hear you now: “C.J., if I can’t quote Solomon, how do I generate my own carefully composed words? I’m not a poet. I don’t even like poetry. And I’m definitely not Shakespeare.”
Well, neither am I. Where I grew up, if a guy revealed that he was interested in anything vaguely poetic, he would have been beaten up. Poetry was, by definition, effeminate and revolting. Real guys played sports. We talked about sports. And we read sports. Not poetry, and definitely not Shakespeare.
Just a few years ago, in fact, out of arrogance and deep ignorance, I said in passing from the pulpit, “Shakespeare was a bum.” One horrified literature teacher in our church very kindly offered to help me. A little while later, I spent an evening with a group of friends, including this teacher, watching a video of Henry V. As I watched, I came to understand something: it was really me who was the bum. Here was highly poetic speech, which I had once scorned, but it was incredibly powerful stuff, and not feminine in the least.
Solomon, too, was definitely masculine. Far from scorning carefully composed words, I should accept the lesson of Solomon’s Song and learn how to use them. Poetic language is a gift from God that can help me promote godly romance with my wife!
So let’s try to bring this home a little. How many times in the past week or month have you spoken to your wife in ways that she found to be romantically and perhaps erotically arousing?
Now, what are the things that would hold you back from doing this on a regular basis? What are the issues in your own heart that would prevent you?
Let’s try a few on for size. Maybe one of them will fit you.
“I’m not sure it really matters to her.”
Wrong. Remember: thanks be to God, our wives aren’t wired like men. The spoken word can be as alluring, provocative, and enticing to your wife as any visual stimulation you experience with her.
“I don’t think I can come up with anything creative.”
It might not be the easiest thing you’ve ever done. But if you will humble yourself and seek him for it, God is eager to give you that simple but effective phrase to say to your wife. The first such phrase will begin to break down the barriers of pride and self-absorption that hinder you. The second phrase will be easier. Then you’re on your way.
“It just seems silly.”
But it doesn’t have to. Find what’s genuine and works for you and your wife. Again, don’t let the poetry aspect turn you off. What sort of language appeals to both of you and comes naturally?
After I taught this material in our church, one man showed me a line he had written: “Honey, to me, you are like freshly shucked corn in a trough surrounded by hungry hogs.” Now, this didn’t quite fit my cultural background, but I was immediately able to encourage him. “If your wife is romanced by this, fantastic! If this speaks her language, and encourages her, and helps her understand your passion for her, then Solomon would be very pleased with you.”
The point is, guys, you don’t need to be a Shakespeare or a Solomon. You don’t need to imitate some specific style. But you should definitely follow the example given to us in the Song — by carefully composing words of a romantic and erotically suggestive nature that will express your love for her. As you do this, you and your wife will be drawn into a deeper and more satisfying relationship.
What changes, even something small, can you make this week to begin cultivating and expressing your passion for your wife?
Now, some of you may be more comfortable, creative, and effective when you communicate in written form. By all means, do so! But however you do it, I think you’ll find that after a little practice with carefully composed words, they will begin to come more easily. As you build the habit of delighting your wife with your words, the phrases can become more spontaneous.
Recently, Carolyn and I were in a mall while on vacation. We intentionally separated for a while, and as the time drew near for us to meet up again, I began searching the crowds for her. Finally, I caught sight of her. She approached and I embraced her. I said, “Love, I just want you to know that whenever I’m searching for you in a crowd, you are the only one who appears in color. The rest of the world is black and white to me.”
These spontaneous words didn’t come from any unique gifting in me. I think they were inspired by my study of the Song of Solomon. Words like these are far more effective than, “Hey, uh . . . you look nice.” So believe me, God is eager to help you grow in this area. That’s why there’s hope for every husband. Even those who call Shakespeare a bum.
Creativity: Learning, Leading, and Loving
Communication, as we’ve seen from the Song, is vital to the promotion of romance. We’ve also noted how, in order for your words to ring true — to be true — they can’t be patched together from convenient, onesize-fits-all phrases. All true romance is custom-designed. To produce phrases and actions designed especially for your wife, you must study her and then creatively apply what you have learned.
In this section, we’re going to get very practical about how to touch the heart and mind of our wives by creating and carrying out tailor-made plans for romance. But before we can creatively plan, we must first learn to study our wives.
Now, after that Shakespeare story, it will come as no surprise that when I was growing up, I hated school and studying. Well, I hated most studying. But I loved two local sports teams: the University of Maryland Terps — specifically, the basketball team — and my beloved Washington Redskins. Somehow I acquired an impressive body of knowledge about these teams, even as I continued to get lousy grades in school.
Why was that kind of learning so easy for me, when formal education was so hard? What made the difference?
No secret there. What we love, we want to learn about. And what we love to study, we come to love even more. That’s just the way God has wired us. I loved the Terps and Skins, so learning about them and growing in my zeal for them was a totally natural process.
I still enjoy following those teams, but my strongest passions now lie elsewhere.
The best sex begins with romance, and the best romance begins with "carefully composed words."
My highest and greatest love will always be reserved for God, for when I was his enemy and worthy of his righteous wrath, in his great mercy he sent his only Son to live a perfect life and die a perfect death in my place. But after my love for God, nothing compares to the passion I hold for Carolyn, my wife.
It has been my privilege to be a student of Carolyn since before our engagement. As I have studied her — seeking to learn what pleases, excites, honors, encourages, refreshes, and helps her — my love for her has only increased.
And as I study her, I love to find new ways to please her. So I constantly keep my eyes and ears open for ideas to record. I’ve been known not to hear my name called at a doctor’s office because I was furiously scribbling information from a magazine article.
In my PDA I keep track of good getaway spots, ideas for dates, and many other bits of useful information. I know what to record because I have studied Carolyn — her life, her preferences, and her responsibilities — and have learned what makes her tick, romantically speaking. And I learned a long time ago that, no matter how amazed or impressed I am by an idea or thought, I almost certainly will forget it if I don’t write it down. These notes are my building blocks for creating and cultivating a more romantic marriage.
To learn how to touch your wife’s heart and mind, you must study her. Here are two lists that may be helpful. You can probably add to them.
Do you know how to surprise and delight your wife in specific ways in each of the following areas? Sex
- Clothing sizes, styles, and stores
- Books and magazines
- The arts
- Places to visit
- Intellectual interests
- And, of course, sex
Do you know how your wife is faring in each of these areas?
- Theological knowledge
- Practice of the spiritual disciplines
- Growth in godliness
- Spiritual gifts that can be used to serve others
- Local church involvement (On the vital topic see Stop Dating the Church!)
- Personal retreats
How much of this information do you have readily available to you, preferably in written form? How much do you really know about your wife in each of these areas?
Processing and Planning
Studying our wives and gathering information, of course, is only step one. We must not confuse being informed with being transformed. Transformation doesn’t just happen automatically or effortlessly. It is the fruit of application and action.
This is precisely where most men fail, including me. And it should be no mystery why, gentlemen. We have a tendency to be lazy and selfish. Genuine growth involves grace-motivated work, even extended effort. Our information gathering must be followed by detailed planning and follow-through. Romance is what you know about your wife specifically applied.
Here is a practice I’ve been observing for years and have found immensely helpful. You might want to consider trying it . . . or create your own practice. The important thing is that you have some pattern you observe on a frequent, regular basis. Otherwise, all your efforts to learn about your wife will have little actual effect.
Every week, on Sunday evening or Monday morning, I get away to the local Starbucks. The heart of this time is when I define what is most important for me to accomplish during the next seven days. (I do this with respect to all my roles, but here we’ll just focus on my marriage.)
With respect to Carolyn, I identify no more than three important goals I can accomplish that week, and I plan them into my schedule. These may be a date night, a surprise I can bring her, a scheduled time to discuss an issue I know is important to her, or something else.
Outwardly, it appears there’s nothing special going on. I’m just another bald guy in a coffee shop communing with a piece of technology, a wrinkled sports page by my side. But I assure you, great fruitfulness flows from these times, regularly and faithfully invested. This is how the things that are most important in my life are defined and protected. This is how mere information leads to actual transformation.
This is where hope and desire begin to become reality. Without some practice like this, I simply would not be able to touch my wife’s heart and mind before I touch her body.
Making It All Happen
Time and energy, lovingly invested, will increase romance, which will increase marital intimacy. But what, exactly, should you plan for?
Ultimately, any detailed answer to that question must come from you. But in general terms, there are specific things that for most marriages, most of the time, can bring about genuine romance. Here are seven practical ways that I hope you will find helpful in touching her heart and mind before you touch her body.
1. Date Night
Time away from the routine busyness of life is essential for the cultivation of romance in any marriage. A regular date night provides a couple with a reliable, peaceful oasis in the middle of a busy world.
At this point, three of our four children are married. But I’ve been practicing the priority of a weekly date night since before any of them were born. (That’s right. I said weekly.) If you have small children, I recognize that challenges can exist. Certainly there is the matter of child care, an area in which you should bear the burden of finding a solution if one is not readily available. But also, the maternal instincts of many mothers of small children can kick in hard, leading a mother to think that it’s more important for her to be with her children than to take a regular date night to grow closer to her husband.
If that is your situation, let me encourage you to lead with love. These are critical years for you to invest in your marriage relationship. If you have small children, your wife is even more in need of your care and attention during this season.
If you do not have a consistent date night now, my first recommendation is . . . do it! Do whatever it takes to establish a regular date with your beloved. And let me suggest that you take the plunge. Unless it’s simply impossible, go ahead and make your date night a weekly event, starting right now!
Now guys, date night is not about running errands or visiting the local mega-hardware store together. A date night is intentional. It has a goal and a purpose. The main goal is not so much to relax with each other, as to relate to each other.
Sure, there’s a place for the relaxation-oriented approach to dates once in a while. But don’t let that become your standard fare on these critical evenings. Over a period of months, you ought to be able to look back and see that your date nights have been drawing you together as a couple, not simply giving you an opportunity to get out of your home and relax at the same time.
And date nights don’t have to be expensive. A date can simply be a few hours together — walking in a park, looking into one another’s eyes while sitting in a coffee shop — and talking about anything and everything, from the boringly practical to the strikingly romantic.
One more important point, gentlemen. Our date night is my joy, privilege, and responsibility to plan. When Carolyn and I get in the car I don’t want to have to turn to her and say, “So, uh, where’d you like to eat?” I want to show her that she is important enough to me that I have planned ahead.
2. Phone Calls
I try to speak with Carolyn from the office at least once a day. These don’t have to be long conversations. I’ll pick up the phone in a spare moment and call her just to say, “Hi, love. I just wanted to hear your voice. Is there anything I can do for you?” (Be sure to listen to her answer, guys.) And when our conversation is over, I may wrap it up with something like, “I love you with all my heart and I can’t wait to see you in a few hours. Bye.”
Calls like this can have a transforming effect on Carolyn. They allow me, in a matter of just a few moments, to touch her heart and mind.
3. Notes, Cards, Letters, and Email
The written word can be even more powerful than the phone call. How many times have you driven to the store, looked through perhaps dozens of greeting cards, and ended up with either no card or one that was less than ideal? Wouldn’t that time and energy be better spent in a quiet place crafting your own words? Let’s depend less on greeting cards and more on God’s grace to help us express ourselves romantically.
Romance can be communicated quite effectively through small gifts. They don’t have to be expensive, but they shouldn’t be exclusively practical, either. Giving your wife a dust buster or a waffle iron might serve her or make her life a little easier, but it does not qualify as romancing her.
Too many men try to make up for a lack of daily romance with the occasional extravagant gift, as if to apologize for the past and offer an excuse for the future. I would argue against the large, occasional, and expensive gift in favor of the small, frequent, and thoughtful (although, if possible, both are recommended!).
Buying perfume and clothing for Carolyn has been a joy for me over the years, as well as an adventure. When I present these gifts to her, I am always careful to remind her that she need feel no obligation to keep or wear them, and she knows I mean this (yes, I give her the receipt, too). I am thankful that romancing my wife has little to do with my fashion sense, and everything to do with the effort I make to express my feelings for her.
By the way, don’t rule out flowers. At one point, I thought that for Carolyn flowers had run their course. I don’t understand this at all, but flowers still have an impact on her. A dozen roses, or a large bouquet, are not necessary. A single flower speaks volumes.
If you are gifted musically, what a difference that can make. Play for your wife. Sing her a love song. Write her a love song!
But gentlemen, please exercise sober judgment about where you are gifted and where you aren’t. If, like me, you are not gifted musically, please don’t even try. In fact, if you decide to delight your wife with your nonexistent musical gifts — you didn’t read it here!
I’ll make this point again: time is absolutely necessary to the cultivation of romance and God-glorifying sex. Much time. Unhurried time. Undistracted time. While a date night creates an oasis in the middle of a busy week or month, a getaway creates an oasis in the middle of a year. When was the last time you took your wife away for at least two nights?
When Carolyn and I go away, we usually like to get out and do lots of things. We try new restaurants and search out interesting, off-beat locales to explore. But however much we see, and whatever activities we get involved in, I’m always careful to keep our focus primarily on one another. The heart of each of these events is our time alone together: talking, reading, making love, and taking long walks.
Is there a place your wife has been wanting to visit? What activities do you enjoy together? What’s keeping you from making those plans? What’s keeping you from saving the money for this very worthy investment?
Here’s a question to ponder during your weekly planning. “At this point in our life together, what would my wife define as a welcome surprise?” I ask myself that question all the time. I’ll start writing some ideas, and maybe not come up with very much, but somehow it gets the gears turning. Then the next day in the shower I get an idea, then another one three days later while driving. Or I might overhear a conversation in a store and it triggers a thought.
Every time I get an idea, I write it down. And it all begins with a simple commitment to try to surprise my wife. As a result, Carolyn lives with the constant and delightful tension that I am always planning some sort of surprise for her.
Study your wife.
Surprises make a huge and very romantic statement of your care. You can surprise her with any of the things I’ve mentioned — a phone call, a letter, a song, a gift, a getaway, or a date — or get creative and make up a whole new category!
But here’s a recommendation. Don’t “surprise” her on Valentine’s Day, or her birthday, or an anniversary. Sure, plan something for February 14. But a true surprise is unexpected.
So, in calling my wife each day — in writing her notes or buying her gifts or taking her on dates — I’m not just blindly following some recipe for a happy marriage topped off with good sex. Rather, I’ve studied what the Bible says, especially in Ephesians 5, about what it means to be a husband and a godly leader in the home, and I’ve tried to come up with practical ways to make my marriage actually be what the Bible says it should be. The result is the seven recommendations you have just read. For me, and quite often for others, these things work.
If they work for you, great. But if not — and you certainly don’t have to emulate them — create your own! What matters is that you are learning, leading, and loving your wife with creativity and intentionality. Because if you are not intentional in planning for creative romance, it just won’t happen.
Is It Still Obvious?
Think back with me for a moment. There was a time when it was obvious to everyone that you were uniquely passionate about your wife. You couldn’t stop thinking about her. You constantly talked about her and to her. You were always eager to spend time with her, going out of your way to delight and surprise her, and you regularly spent serious money on her.
Is your passion for your wife still obvious to everyone? Is it obvious to her?
Here’s a way to find out. If you have children living in the home, ask your beloved this one simple question:
Do you feel more like a mother or a wife?
The answer may well speak volumes. In my book (of the same name as this chapter) I’m able to elaborate further on this and the other points made here. But suffice it to say that she certainly can feel more like a wife than a mother (or homemaker, employee, or professional). Whether she does, however, is primarily up to you.
Yes, the Bible calls us to a high, godly standard, guys. But it’s one we definitely can reach by God’s grace. We must touch the hearts and minds of our wives before we touch their bodies. As our words and actions touch their hearts and minds, much will be transformed — our wives will be transformed, our marriages will be transformed, and you will discover a marvelous and growing sexual passion, all for the glory of God.
How will you begin this glorious process? How will you touch your wife’s heart and mind?
The Gift of Marital Intimacy
Here it is, gentlemen. Time to talk about sex. For there comes a point when we have studied and planned . . . when we have spoken our tender and provocative words of love . . . when we’re ready to move beyond verbal foreplay. So let us prepare once again to learn from Scripture — where, beyond such foreplay, the lovers in Solomon’s Song definitely do move.
As this man and woman enter into lovemaking, they do not hold back, nor does Scripture refrain from recording intimate details of their mutually delightful encounter. Far from a mechanical recitation of “who touched who where,” we read of the extravagant indulgence of all five senses. Touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing are put to full use. Solomon’s Song teaches us that lovemaking is intended by God to be an elaborate and pleasurable feast of the senses — a holy immersion in erotic joy.
So let’s be inspired by this powerful piece of poetry — by the romantic, the sensual, the erotic, and the tasteful but specific descriptions of the physical relationship enjoyed by these two lovers. Solomon has given us the divine perspective on the gift of sex. Let’s explore that perspective, that with our wives we might experience its transforming effect.
There are numerous references in Solomon’s song to kissing. At one point the man declares, “How beautiful is your love, my sister, my bride! How much better is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your oils than any spice! Your lips drip nectar, my bride; honey and milk are under your tongue” (4:10-11).
There was clearly some serious kissing going on here. The man delights in the kisses of his beloved — deep, long, passionate kisses. The “honey and milk” mentioned in this verse are symbols of fruitfulness, satisfaction, and pleasure. He’s a skillful kisser, too, so the enjoyment is mutual. His bride says of him, “His mouth is most sweet” (5:16).
These two are obviously very familiar with each other’s lips and mouths. They revel in the touch, tastes, and scents associated with their kissing. Their kissing is erotic, sensual, enjoyed, and apparently prolonged. In many marriages today, however, kissing is often neglected and can all too easily become routine. If your kisses rarely get much more passionate than a handshake, there is huge room for improvement.
So I suggest you take inventory. How often do you kiss? How long do you kiss? How passionate is your kissing? Ask your wife what she thinks of your kissing. What does she like or dislike about it? How does it compare with what is described here? How does it compare with your past kissing? How can you improve?
Don’t assume that kissing is a thrill that belonged mainly to some earlier point in your marriage. Kissing between a husband and wife is a unique expression of their passion for one another, and a unique means of cultivating fresh passion. In light of the divine encouragement found in the Song, let’s purpose to explore this rich gift of kissing.
Touching and Caressing
Sexual touching and caressing of many kinds are found throughout the Song. “Your stature is like a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters. I say I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its fruit. Oh may your breasts be like clusters of the vine” (7:7-8).
Touching and caressing are to be an ongoing part of the marriage relationship. How I touch Carolyn will certainly depend on where we are and what we’re doing. But if she’s near me, I’ll almost certainly be touching her in some way, even if it’s simply holding her hand.
A few years ago, after returning from a busy overseas trip that was full of meetings and responsibilities for both of us, Carolyn and I took an overnight together near our home. As we were checking out of the hotel, the man at the registration desk commented, “I noticed you two yesterday, and I’ve watched you today. You remind me of a couple of high school sweethearts.”
Now it wasn’t as if Carolyn and I had been doing anything inappropriate. We actually get those “sweetheart” comments with some regularity. When we respond that we’ve been married since 1975, it can open the door to a more meaningful conversation. What a great opportunity it gives us to testify to the grace of God in our lives!
Gentlemen, I want to encourage your frequent, imaginative touching of your wives (as appropriate given your level of privacy). Touching your wife in a variety of creative ways is not just a warm-up to your next sexual encounter. When practiced regularly as a genuine expression of affection, love, and passion it contributes to a closeness and intimacy that can help fuel your romance and sex life well into the future.
So talk to your wife about what she thinks makes for appropriate and pleasurable touching, in public and in private. In this process you may need to lead diligently, graciously, and with love. Do whatever is necessary to get beyond any embarrassment arising from pride that might be associated with such a subject. The two of you need to be able to discuss these topics openly and honestly. The better you learn how to touch her heart and mind, the better the two of you will be able to communicate freely and really learn how to love one another more and more.
In chapters 4 and 5 of the Song, Solomon gives us a glimpse of ultimate physical passion as this couple prepares to come together for sexual intercourse. The restraint that has characterized the book to this point no longer applies. The time has come for sexual union.
Their encounter begins with the woman inviting the man to come and enjoy her love. “Awake, O north wind, and come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden, let its spices flow. Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits” (4:16).
In the next verse, the man eagerly responds. Even here, the poetry is discreet and restrained, bursting with passion yet completely devoid of vulgarity. “I came to my garden, my sister, my bride, I gathered my myrrh with my spice, I ate my honeycomb with my honey, I drank my wine with my milk” (5:1).
Myrrh, spice, honeycomb, honey, wine, milk — he likens her sensual delights to the most extraordinary luxuries available in that culture. Nine times he employs the word “my,” as one by one he claims her “choice fruits” as his own possessions. She is his, fully, completely, and without reservation.
Then, at the end of verse 1, we find this ringing affirmation of sexual indulgence within marriage: “Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love!” Here, as elsewhere in the Song, Solomon employs a “chorus,” which stands outside the narrative as a witness and commentator. The chorus encourages the couple to enjoy lovemaking to the fullest, to be intoxicated with one another in their love. With God as Author of Scripture, can there be a clearer expression of the divine approval and encouragement of sexuality within marriage?
Let this chorus remind you that, when you make love to your wife, the two of you are not alone. God is present, and he is pleased when you and your wife find erotic satisfaction in one another. Indeed, he encourages you with the same unqualified approval with which they were encouraged: “Be drunk with love.”
Many passages of Scripture liken the experience of sexual intimacy to intoxication. (No hangover, either!) When was the last time you and your wife drank deeply enough of one another’s sensual joys to come to that place of sweet, godly drunkenness?
Because this is a chapter for men, we need to talk briefly about how selfishness can show up during lovemaking in a way that’s unique to us. Unless you just got married last week, you’re surely aware that effective lovemaking — the kind that really serves your wife — is not instinctive.
I’m talking, obviously, about that extremely common tendency for husbands to find satisfaction in lovemaking sooner than their wives. Does the Bible have anything to say about that? You bet.
If I am living in obedience to 1 Corinthians 7:3-4, I will take my thoughts captive during lovemaking, disciplining my body in order to focus primarily on giving to my wife sexually, rather than only receiving from her. (“The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.”) Indeed, any married person who rightly sees these verses as commands from God will bring to the marriage bed a servant’s mind-set that places primary emphasis on the sexual satisfaction of his or her spouse.
“Effective lovemaking — the kind that really serves your wife — is not instinctive.”
Are you a skillful and unselfish lover? Don’t assume you know what your wife likes, or what arouses her. She is aroused differently than you are. You must discover what arouses her — and what does not — by engaging her in extended conversation.
Making love is not simply a technique. It’s a key part of the marriage relationship. A couple that enjoys great sex, as biblically defined, is a couple that has good, open, honest communication about lots of things, including sex.
You need to lead your wife into conversations where you can ask very intimate, personal questions. Any reluctance we may have in this area, guys, is simply due to our pride, and the solution is simply to humble ourselves — before God and our wives. We need to approach our wives with an attitude of genuine interest, an attitude that says, “I want to be an unselfish lover. How can I serve you through this gift from God?” “What can I do, or what do I do, that arouses you prior to and during the sex act?” “Is there anything I sometimes do that you’d rather I not do?”
As lovers, many of us have plateaued, but none have arrived. We can all improve. To really find out what brings pleasure to your wife, you have to ask her.
Now, just to set the record straight, I’m not promising that this chapter will turn your every sexual encounter with your wife into a sweating, shouting frenzy. I am confident that a consistently God-glorifying approach to marital intimacy can improve any couple’s sex life significantly. But let’s keep in mind that we’re human, with human limitations. Moreover, eventually all of us will find that age is more of an issue than it used to be.
On the subject of sexual expectations, Douglas Wilson has pointed out that while some meals are steaks, and some are macaroni and cheese, both are enjoyable (Wilson, Reforming Marriage [Canon, 1995], 83). That’s wise counsel. So let your expectations be realistic, and enjoy.
Enjoy the humorous moments, too. More than once I’ve found myself in a situation where all I want to do for the next minute or so is stay very, very focused on what my wife and I are doing right now. But then this leg cramp shows up out of nowhere. Now, a cramp has a way of demanding your full and complete attention. So in about five seconds I go from the heights of sexual enjoyment to incapacitating agony. I want to keep my attention on Carolyn, but suddenly all my attention is on my leg. I want to keep my hands on her, but they have to go to my leg, too. What do we do? We laugh like crazy. And hope the kids don’t hear.
So you see, ultimately, sex is not a matter of performance. We’ve talked a lot about getting better at sex, but I’m not suggesting for a moment that your marriage should become a multi-decade quest for the ideal set of orgasms. While I do want to please my wife whenever we make love, sex is not primarily a goal-oriented activity. It’s an event, an experience. It’s about expressing passion to my wife, and receiving her expressions of passion for me. If a couple is living with a biblical understanding of and attitude toward sex, then every experience can be enjoyable and glorifying to God.
The Love Behind the Sex
We close where we began, learning once more from the Song of Solomon. It’s remarkable how Solomon’s language, while obvious in its intent, is never biologically specific in a way that is either vulgar or clinical. As a result, while we can clearly say that the Song features some pretty provocative stuff, and that sexual intercourse is definitely included in the subject matter, we cannot point to a specific phrase and say, “Yes, look, right here, in this verse the language clearly indicates that they are engaged in sexual intercourse.”
But that fact is itself full of meaning. Although sexual intercourse is certainly an ultimate expression of a married couple’s erotic encounter, it is not the outstanding central feature of the Song. The book is not about the act of sexual intercourse. Rather, it is about the remarkable nature of the couple’s overall relationship — in all its romance, yearning, desire, sensuality, passion, and eroticism.
These two desperately desire to be together, but not simply so they can experience sexual gratification. They want to be together because they are in love, and the sex they enjoy with one another is an expression of that love. Their mutual attraction is not primarily hormonal. It is primarily relational.
Five times in Solomon’s Song, the man calls his beloved “my sister, my bride,” or “my sister, my love.” She refers to him as “my beloved” and “my friend.” Their love is comprehensive and complete; they love one another on multiple levels. As a married couple, they have great sex because they love one another so completely, not the other way around. In a strong Christian marriage that glorifies God, a couple’s enjoyment of one another takes place on a long continuum of romantic affection and expression. Toward one end are things like “companionship” and “fellowship.” Toward the other end of the continuum are things like “playful intimacy” and “really serious sex.” But exactly where one category begins and the other ends isn’t always clear. That’s because solid Christian marriages are not primarily about one category or the other.
They’re about the entire continuum: the relationship itself.
This chapter has focused on the romance-and-sex end of the continuum — but without disconnecting it from any other aspect of the marital relationship. That’s what Solomon did in the Song. That’s what you should be doing, too, by God’s grace. Because it’s all about touching her heart and mind before you touch her body.
More Messages from Desiring God 2004 National Conference
Sex and the Supremacy of Christ: Part One (John Piper)
Sex and the Supremacy of Christ: Part Two (John Piper)
The Goodness of Sex and the Glory of God (Ben Patterson)
Making All Things New: Restoring Pure Joy to the Sexually Broken (David Powlison)
Homosexual Marriage as a Challenge to the Church: Biblical and Cultural Reflections (R. Albert Mohler Jr.)
Sex and the Single Man (Mark Dever)
Sex and the Single Woman (Carolyn McCulley)