Welcome to the Ask Pastor John podcast. We close out the week with two important questions we commonly receive on the topic of marital intimacy. They are, of course, intended for a mature audience. The first question comes from Kyle in Kansas City. He has this follow-up: “Dear Pastor John, my question is a follow-up to episode #475 — ‘Is Sexual Attraction Essential for Marriage?’ There you said no. So if sexual attraction is not ‘essential’ to marriage, why does it seem so essential to the Song of Solomon? It sure wouldn’t be much of a ‘song’ if you took out everything in it that has to do with physical pleasure, now would it?”
Let’s clarify what I was answering. The question I was answering was not, Is sex essential for marriage? but Is sexual attraction essential for marriage? I answered no for cultural reasons and physical reasons. Culturally and historically, lots of true marriages have been put together by parents without the physical desire being there at the beginning for the couple — arranged marriages. And physically, there are seasons of life, as you grow older, where those pleasures rise and fall, come and go. If you said that sexual attraction were the essence, then aging would be the gradual end of marriage, which it isn’t. Some of the greatest glories, I think, happen in marriage in the absence of sexual desire.
So let’s clarify, then, what I am saying and what I am not saying when I say sexual pleasure is not part of the essence of marriage. What I am saying is that marriage really exists without it. The absence of pleasure in sexual relations does not make a marriage no longer a marriage. The Bible mandate for sexual relations is there in 1 Corinthians 7:3. But even lengthy interruptions do not turn marriage into something other than marriage, as when a husband or wife is in prison for ten or twenty years, or when seafarers went on a two-year whaling expedition. That is what I am saying: Marriage is still marriage when pleasures rise and fall, can be expressed, or cannot be expressed, or when they completely disappear, which happens sometimes for purely physiological reasons. A real marriage — indeed, a happy one — can exist when those pleasures are not part of the joy.
What I am not saying is that the Song of Solomon can be the Song of Solomon without sexual pleasure. The Song of Solomon, he said, wouldn’t be much of a song if you took out everything in it that has to do with sexual pleasure. That is absolutely right. It is an utterly sensual song. It is a lavish, celebration of God’s gift of sexual pleasure in marriage. I am glad it is in the Bible. So what I am not saying is that if something is not essential to marriage, it can’t be hugely important and spectacularly wonderful. If something is not essential to marriage, it may still be hugely important and spectacularly wonderful.
So Kyle is right: if you take away sexual pleasure from the Song of Solomon it is no longer a celebration of sexual pleasure. And I am not in any way commending pleasure-absent sexual relations. I regard such experiences as a very sad reality that some must live with. The loss of sexual pleasure in marriage is not the ideal; it is not the goal.
Pleasures of Knowing Christ Forever
In fact, let’s take it a little further. Since God designed marriage in this one-flesh union to be a parable, a drama of his relationship to the church and the church to him, the absence of deeply loving pleasure, in the act of one-flesh union, is less than the complete drama of the intensity, of the joy, between Christ and his church. I mean, it is amazing to me to think that God knew exactly what he was doing in creating sex as part of marriage and all of its exquisite pleasures, and he had in mind Christ and the church when he did back in the beginning. We know that from Ephesians 5:32.
So even though marriage can exist without this pleasure — yes it can — that is, it is not of the essence; nevertheless, the fullest and most complete portrayal of the ultimate meaning of marriage is not possible without that pleasure. You can have a real marriage that is an imperfect portrayal of Christ and his church, but the Song of Solomon is right to celebrate sexual pleasure in marriage because one of the reasons that sexual pleasure in marriage is so wonderful and so important is that it completes the picture of how intense the pleasures of knowing Christ will be forever.
So conclusion: no, it is not essential, but, yes, it is staggeringly important and wonderful.