We close out the week with another question on marital intimacy. This question is even more frank than yesterday’s, so obviously it is intended for mature audiences. Steve, a listener, writes in with a common question we get in the inbox pretty regularly, Pastor John. “Hello, Pastor John! In episode #475, you talked about sexual attraction, and argued that it is not essential for marriage. I am married to a gracious woman who will gladly oblige me if I ask her, but I find that, though I do need sex, I do not desire it when I know she obliges without any sexual desire for me. If I sense she is getting no enjoyment out of the act, it makes it feel utterly disgusting to me. What advice do you have for me?”
My heart aches for Steve when I hear this. I know exactly what he means. And I think it is normal and healthy, maybe with the exception of when he said, “I feel disgusted.” We’ll come back to that. But I do agree: God made sexual relations to be profoundly mutual in marriage, each gives, each receives, each feels the act as the consummation of a wider and deeper spiritual and personal union for which sex is only one of the capstones — but an important one. Each is saying, “To you and you only do I give in this way. From you and from you only do I receive in this way.” There are so many levels at which the mutuality of sexual relations is significant. So, yes, to his dismay and sadness at the lack of mutuality.
Steve’s experience, in one form or another, is quite common. And we need to broaden it out and think about it for a moment. Couples seldom have the same level of interest and passion about sexual relations. And that relates to frequency, location, timing, methods, privacy, kinds of touch. No couple has the same comfort level with all these variables. So it sounds like Steve is dealing with a particularly difficult example of what is virtually common to every couple: how to live sexually when desires in all of these areas are often significantly different — or, at least, in some of them.
So here is the key passage of Scripture where Paul addresses this pretty directly: First Corinthians 7:3–5 says,
The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights[that is, her marriage rights, which means sex], 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. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
Now the most obvious thing in this passage is that Paul commends relatively frequent sexual relations: “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, . . . but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you.”
Outdo One Another
What is less obvious is whose desires should govern how this act of sex happens is perplexing. What happens if you say, “Wife, accede to your husband’s desires.” “Husband, accede to your wife’s desires” — which is, in fact, what he says: “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does.” So he can do as he pleases. “Likewise, the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” So she can do as she pleases. So she gets to call the shots and he gets to call the shots.
Now what do you do if the shots are not the same? I don’t think Paul slipped up here. Paul is not that kind of person, and he is guided by the Holy Spirit. I think he knew exactly what he was doing. He knew that he was dealing with one of the deepest, most complex emotional moments in human life, which means that any simple formula for who gets to do what and when and where and how — a simple formula — will not fit reality.
The reality is that, in a Christian marriage, where the couple are growing in grace, they will figure this out along the lines of Romans 12:10: “Outdo one another in showing honor.” Or you could say grace or mercy or love or kindness or gentleness or whatever. It is the most wonderful kind of competition: “Outdo one another in showing honor.” She will want to honor him by giving him what he desires. And he will want to honor her by giving her what she desires — which may be less of his desire. And they will pray and they will talk and they will struggle and they will grow in much frustration along the way.
For His Joy
So I want to give a word to Steve’s wife and then to him. To his wife: Be sure to never stop growing in emotional maturity that can join people in their joy, doing things you don't care about doing. And you can hear me generalizing here. This isn’t just about sex. This is a general growth issue in the Christian life for all of us. This applies especially to your husband and he should do the same for you. He may want you to go fishing or golfing, and you may want him to go to your kind of movie or a particular concert.
And we all know people who say yes to those invitations, and then in a dozen ways, through their body language and other ways show all during the event: “I don’t want to be here.” “I wish I weren’t fishing with you.” “I wish I weren’t at this stupid movie that you wanted me to go to.” That is a mark of profound immaturity and shallow love. The need is to grow up and learn to be bathed in grace at this moment.
And this especially applies in the marriage bed. Don’t say yes to your husband’s desire tonight by complying, and then in a half-dozen ways, communicating, “I wish I weren’t here.” This may be a revelation to you: You don’t have to have the same kind of pleasure to make him feel loved. If you are not enjoying the actual physical realities of touch and sexual union, take joy in him:
- Take joy in the fact that you can give him pleasure.
- Take joy in the fact that he only wants it from you.
- Take joy in the privilege that he trusts you with his naked, emotional, physical, ridiculous abandon, which he would be embarrassed in any other context to display. And he trusts you with this.
- Take joy in the grace of God that you have, and that you can give yourself to him in these situations.
In other words, a mature, growing, gracious wife who does not find physical pleasure in sexual relations can find lots of pleasures in the event, because of the way God set it up to be. There are ways that a mature wife can delight in that sexual moment.
For Her Joy
And just a closing word to Steve. I would say: Don’t assume the worst about her. Assume that even without sexual desires she has other good desires to please you and that is a kind of love that you can receive and enjoy. Yes, you wish she were more passionate, more there, more engaged. Yes, you do. That is normal. That is good. What husband wouldn’t want that — or wife, if he is not engaged.
But don’t let your disappointment turn into a growing anger or a disgust. Don’t let your disappointment and the shortfall turn in to a disgust that drives you farther apart. Do your best to turn the sexual encounter into something she will enjoy at some level. That may mean it is what you say to her that makes all the difference. She looks forward to those moments just because of your words, if not the event.
And I will pray, I really will. I will pray for you, Steve, and your wife that both of you will learn the secret of outdoing one another in showing honor and in showing pleasure.