Sex, Romance, and the Glory of God: What Every Christian Wife Needs to Know
Desiring God 2004 National Conference
Sex and the Supremacy of Christ
Several years ago at a church leadership conference, I hosted a panel of pastors’ wives at a women’s session. We fielded questions on a wide variety of topics — from childrearing to counseling women in crisis situations.
A woman from the audience asked the question: “What is one thing you have learned that encourages your husband the most?” As the other women on the panel answered, I pondered my response. I know what C.J.’s answer would be, but dare I say that here? Suddenly, it was my turn. “Make love to him,” I blurted out. “That’s what my husband would say if he were here!”
The room erupted in a wave of nervous, knowing laughter.
It’s true! Engaging in this physical expression of marital intimacy and union is one of the most meaningful ways we can encourage our husbands.
Receiving Sex as a Gift
I sometimes wonder: how many of us would have come up with the idea of sex if we were in charge of designing marriage? This is a question posed by Elisabeth Elliot in her book, Let Me Be a Woman:
Who of us, given the chance to arrange the world to our liking, would have had the powers of imagination . . . the courage of the Creator when He conceived the idea of sex? We cannot suppose that He overlooked the potentialities, the pitfalls, the high risks that would accompany it. He saw them all. And He made a woman, suitable, fit in every way, for man. (Elliot, Let Me Be a Woman [Tyndale, 1976], 152-153)
Do you find yourself amazed when you stop to think about this gift of sex that God has created and given us to enjoy in our marriages? Only God himself could have come up with such an idea! And because it is his idea, we glorify God when we cultivate sexual desire for our husbands and welcome their sexual desire for us.
However, if you watch TV, go to the movies, or read magazines today, you can get the impression that the only people having sex (or “good sex”) are the ones who aren’t married. If marital sex is even portrayed in the popular media, it seems bland or routine. Our culture demeans marital sex and instead celebrates immoral sex.
That’s why it is so important that we acquire a biblical perspective of sex. God intends for us to experience tremendous joy and satisfaction in our sexual relationship with our husbands. And what greater proof do we need than the fact that God included the Song of Solomon in Holy Scripture — an entire book of the Bible devoted to love, romance, and sexuality in marriage. (If you have not done so recently, I would encourage you to take an hour to read the Song of Solomon and gain a fresh dose of passion for your marriage.) This little book portrays a physical relationship between husband and wife that is filled with uninhibited passion and exhilarating delight. This is God’s heart and aim for our sexual experience. We are to receive sex as a wonderful gift from him and enjoy it for his glory.
Sex and Sin
Undoubtedly some of you reading this chapter have had past sexual encounters that yielded much pain and confusion. If you have experienced the negative consequences of sexual sin — either as a willing participant or as a victim — be assured that no situation in your life is beyond the reach of God’s grace.
Just ask Glenda Revell. Born out of wedlock to a promiscuous mother who hated her all her life, and sexually abused repeatedly by her stepfather, Glenda knew the meaning of suffering. And yet, despite the anguish of her situation, her testimony is of the redeeming power of Christ. In her book Glenda’s Story: Led by Grace, she explains:
Sexual defilement of a child is a monstrous sin, and the rape of a child’s spirit is on equal footing. The damage from either would appear irreversible. But as Dr. David Jeremiah has said, “Our God has the power to reverse the irreversible.” It is true, for I have tasted of His cure from both, and it fills me with a longing for Him that the happiest of childhoods could not have given. (Revell, Glenda’s Story: Led by Grace [Gateway to Joy, 1997], 41)
The cure that Glenda refers to is the cross of Christ:
He showed me Calvary once more. . . . I saw the horror of my sin, nailing the Son of God to that miserable cross, torturing Him, mocking Him, spitting on Him. Yet He had forgiven me freely. No one had committed such atrocities against me. How could I do anything less than forgive?
Forgiveness came. And with it came healing, complete peace and freedom — absolute freedom — to serve my God and to enjoy His love and peace now and forevermore. (Ibid., 98)
Maybe you can relate to Glenda’s horrendous childhood, or possibly you carry around guilt from your own past sexual sin. Perhaps it is your husband’s past or present sin that looms large in your heart and mind. You may wonder if you will ever be free from the guilt, fear, and despair.
Physical intimacy is one of the best ways that we can encourage our husbands.
But no matter how distorted your view or traumatic your experience, help is available. I want to urge you to pour out your heart to the Lord of love, to draw near to him so that you may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:16). I would also encourage you and your husband to pursue biblical counseling from your pastor and his wife or another mature couple in your church. Because of the transforming power of Jesus Christ, even the most difficult and painful situation can be turned into a story of grace.
Five Principles of “Grade A” Passion
By the grace of God, we can all enjoy the sexual relationship within marriage. So let’s consider what a passionate sexual relationship looks like from the wife’s perspective. Though the Bible does not give explicit instructions regarding marital sex, it does provide us with principles to guide our behavior. We will focus on five biblical principles for cultivating “Grade A” sexual intimacy — how wives can be attractive, available, anticipatory, aggressive, and adventurous.
The husband in Song of Solomon was captivated by his wife’s beauty: “Behold, you are beautiful, my love; behold, you are beautiful” (Song of Songs 1:15). Again in chapter 7 he exclaimed: “How beautiful and pleasant you are, O loved one, with all your delights!” (verse 6). Beauty is just as important in our husbands’ eyes as it was for the husband in Song of Solomon. Therefore, as wives, we should aim to be beautiful in our husbands’ eyes.
Often women who meticulously attended to their physical appearance before marriage neglect it after the wedding ceremony is over. I once overheard a woman negatively comment about another woman’s appearance: “She looks married.” Ouch! That shouldn’t be! We should give the same careful attention to our physical appearance after marriage as we did before.
We need to discover what makes us attractive to our husbands. What clothing, hairstyle, or makeup do they find most appealing? (As always, the standard of “modesty and self-control” set forth in 1 Timothy 2:8-10 applies.) And we should strive to care for our appearance — not only when we go out, but also at home where only our husbands see us. As my childhood pastor used to say, “If the barn needs painting, paint it!” Well, what color should that barn be painted? The answer is, whatever is attractive to our husbands!
Now I must also acknowledge the reality that physical beauty is passing away. After ten, twenty, or fifty years of marriage, we will not look as lovely as we did on our wedding day. And some of you may be in my season of life — where everything about my physical appearance is headed in one direction, and that would not be uphill!
However, we discover some wonderful news in 1 Peter 3:3-5. This passage exhorts us:
Do not let your adorning be external — the braiding of hair, the wearing of gold, or the putting on of clothing — but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their husbands.
We learn from these verses that we can actually adorn ourselves or “make [ourselves] beautiful” (verse 5, NIV) by cultivating a gentle and quiet spirit. Although it doesn’t explain how this happens, and it certainly is not referring to physical beauty, this passage asserts that we will become more attractive as we grow in godly character.
I must interject here that a gentle and quiet spirit is not necessarily referring to a woman with a quiet personality. It’s possible for a woman to have a quiet personality and not have a gentle and quiet spirit. It’s just as possible for a woman with an effervescent personality to have a gentle and quiet spirit. A gentle and quiet spirit is not a personality type. A simple definition for a gentle and quiet spirit is a steadfast peace because of a steadfast trust in God. A woman who possesses this spirit humbly responds to whatever God chooses for her life, regardless of the cost.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is a great example: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38) she said, when the angel informed her she would give birth to the Son of God. Mary humbly accepted God’s will despite what it cost her. She displayed a steadfast peace because of her steadfast trust in God — that’s a gentle and quiet spirit. And the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit will make us attractive to our husbands, even as our physical beauty fades through the years.
Scripture makes it plain that my body belongs to my husband and his body belongs to me. The husband and wife in the Song of Solomon understood this principle: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs 6:3). And in 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 we read:
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. 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.
As husband and wife, we belong entirely and unreservedly to each other — my body is his possession, and his body is mine. We are to give ourselves without qualification and not withhold the pleasure of sex. The only exception to this rule is for the activity of prayer and then only by mutual agreement and for a limited time.
We must heed this admonition and offer no excuses. As I once heard a man say, “I’ve heard many excuses for not having sex — not in the mood, headache, too tired, don’t have time. Prayer and fasting has never been one of them.”
When we choose to obey God and give our bodies to our husbands — even if we don’t feel like it — God will reward us with pleasure. As Elisabeth Elliot encourages us: “The essence of sexual enjoyment for a woman is self-giving. . . . You will find that it is impossible to draw the line between giving pleasure and receiving pleasure. If you put the giving first, the receiving is inevitable” (Elliot, Let Me Be a Woman, 169-170).
It has been said that the sexiest organ of the human body lies between our ears. Our brains have a tremendous effect on our sexual experience. How we think influences our sexual desire.
Most of us will confess that before marriage our sexual desire was strong. It was hard not to anticipate the wedding night and that first opportunity to express our passion.
But what about now? When was the last time we spent all day looking forward to physical relations with our husbands? If it has been awhile, if we no longer anticipate lovemaking as we once did, it may be that we have stopped fantasizing about our husbands. When we neglect to think sexual thoughts, we should not be surprised by our lack of sexual desire.
On the other hand, fantasizing about our husbands throughout the day will heighten our sexual longing. In case you are wondering, it is perfectly holy to think these erotic, sensual thoughts. Let’s take our cue from the wife in Song of Solomon:
My beloved is radiant and ruddy, distinguished among ten thousand. His head is the finest gold; his locks are wavy, black as a raven. His eyes are like doves beside streams of water, bathed in milk, sitting beside a full pool. His cheeks are like beds of spices, mounds of sweet-smelling herbs. His lips are lilies, dripping liquid myrrh. His arms are rods of gold, set with jewels. His body is polished ivory, bedecked with sapphires. His legs are alabaster columns, set on bases of gold. His appearance is like Lebanon, choice as the cedars. His mouth is most sweet, and he is altogether desirable. (Song of Songs 5:10-16)
This wife’s sensual musings culminated in the exclamation: “He is altogether desirable.” Do you see how her passion was ignited by fantasizing about her husband? God has furnished us with imaginations, and we should use them to “daydream” about our husbands.
Another common reason for a lack of sexual desire is fatigue. Although weariness is a reality in many seasons of our lives, it is probably most pronounced when a woman is caring for small children.
“God has furnished us with imaginations, and we should use them to ‘daydream’ about our husbands.”
Recently I had a conversation with a young first-time mother. “Before our baby was born,” she explained, “I had plenty of time to romance my husband, clean my home, and cook delicious meals. But now there are days I’m still in my bathrobe at three o’clock in the afternoon, because I’ve spent all morning caring for our newborn! So how do I keep my husband a priority when my child requires so much time and attention?” she asked.
“Honey,” I replied, “fix your husband a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for dinner and give him great sex after dinner, and he will feel prized by you!”
My response was an attempt to encourage her to curtail her efforts in other areas so she could devote herself to what pleased her husband the most. For many husbands, “great sex” would top their list! They would happily do without gourmet meals and immaculate homes if it meant we saved our energy for sex. So let me encourage you to ask your husband what is most meaningful to him.
If we struggle with fatigue, let’s evaluate our lifestyles. Do we need to scale back on tasks of lesser importance? Do we need to pare down our schedules? Do we need to take a nap during the day? Do we need to take a shower before lovemaking? Do we need to vary the time of day we make love? Granted, this requires some pretty creative planning, but it’s vital that we make these changes if we are to anticipate lovemaking.
By now I hope you realize where all this “anticipation” is headed. Our longings should culminate in what Proverbs 5:19 describes as intoxicating sex! Husbands desire more than merely having their biological needs met by a bored, passive wife. Rather, they delight in our initiation of the lovemaking experience, and they derive great pleasure when we are eager and excited during the act. But don’t just take my word for it. Ask your husband today what would most enhance the sexual experience for him.
When you read the Song of Solomon you can’t help but be captivated by the extravagant language of love exchanged between the husband and wife. It is important to note that their love language is a mutual exchange. It is not one-sided. The wife is as aggressive in her sensual praise of her husband as he is of her. We should be the same way.
Some years ago I came across one woman’s tender challenge to ponder and communicate our affection and desire for our husbands. She writes:
Are you in love with your husband? Not, Do you love him? I know you do. He has been around a long time, and you’re used to him. He is the father of your children. But are you in love with him? How long has it been since your heart really squeezed when you looked at him? . . . Why is it you have forgotten the things that attracted you to him at first? . . . By the grace of God, I want you to start changing your thought pattern. Tomorrow morning, get your eyes off the toaster or the baby bottles long enough to LOOK at him. Don’t you see the way his coat fits his shoulders? Look at his hands. Do you remember when just to look at his strong hands made your heart lift? Well LOOK at him and remember. Then loose your tongue and tell him you love him. (Shirley Rice, quoted in Ed Wheat, Love Life for Every Married Couple [Zondervan, 1980], 87-88)
We also need to be aggressive in our pursuit of our husbands. We discover in the Song of Solomon that the husband and wife equally initiated the lovemaking experience and were equally aggressive during sex. The responsibility to initiate lovemaking doesn’t rest solely with our husbands; as wives, we should initiate as well.
Let me add here that I have occasionally counseled women whose husbands had less desire for sexual relations than they had. This challenging situation can often produce confusion, pain, and even fear. However, it need not hinder you from pursuing a God-glorifying marriage. Again, I would encourage you and your husband to seek godly counsel from your pastor and his wife. And remember to put your trust in God: He is at work in your marriage for your good and his glory (see Romans 8:28).
Finally, we should cultivate surprise and excitement in our physical relationship. We should be adventurous. As Joe Dillow says: “The woman who would never think of serving her husband the same frozen television dinner every evening sometimes serves him the same frozen sexual response every night. Sex, like supper, loses much of its flavor when it becomes predictable” (Dillow, Solomon on Sex [Thomas Nelson, 1977], 146).
Let’s not allow our lovemaking to become predictable. Let’s be ready to make love at different times and be willing to try new places. Let’s keep our husbands in eager suspense by our creativity in the sexual relationship. As we do, we will reap rich rewards in our marriage!
The Arena of Love
Having taught this material on numerous occasions, I am aware that not all wives will be thrilled with this message. Perhaps you are one of them. Maybe you are weighed down by a lack of faith. My sexual desire will never equal my husband’s desire! Maybe you feel immobilized by the amount of deficiency that has been exposed. I will never be able to make all those changes! Or possibly, your past or present sexual sin still appears as an insurmountable obstacle in your view. My situation is beyond all hope!
May I implore you not to despair? These thoughts and feelings are contrary to the truth of God’s Word. Please be persuaded that God is able to renew your sexual desire, empower you to change, and revive you with hope. You can trust the Savior to gradually transform your sexual relationship with your husband. Remember that sex was God’s idea in the first place and he is passionately committed to blessing the marriage bed, for our pleasure and his glory.
In conclusion, I cannot think of more fitting, moving words to leave you with than those of Robert Farrar Capon:
The bed is the heart of the home, the arena of love, the seedbed of life, and the one constant point of meeting. It is the place where, night by night, forgiveness and fair speech return that the sun may not go down on our wrath; where the perfunctory kiss and the entirely ceremonial pat on the backside become unction and grace. It is the oldest, friendliest thing in anybody’s marriage, the first used and the last left, and no one can praise it enough. (Capon, quoted in Debra Evans, The Mystery of Womanhood [Crossway, 1987], 265)