What is a biblical view of sex in a Christian marriage? What does the bible say about withholding sex from your spouse? What threatens enjoyable sex? Read this chapter from Your Marriage God’s Way for answers.
Table of Contents
- GOD’S DESIGN FOR SEX IN A CHRISTIAN MARRIAGE
- UNDERSTANDING EROS
- SEEK TO PLEASE THE OTHER FOR ENJOYABLE SEX
- SEX IN A CHRISTIAN MARRIAGE THAT PLEASES GOD
How do we determine the important topics in Scripture? I frequently tell my congregation that God does not use highlighting, italics, boldface, or underlining for emphasis. Instead, He uses repetition when He wants to make sure we don’t miss something.
Sexual intimacy is discussed several times in the Old and New Testaments. One entire book—Song of Solomon—is dedicated largely to the topic. When God’s Word addresses a subject repeatedly because it is important, we must make it important in our lives by learning what Scripture has to say. If we don’t do this, we are more likely for our understanding of that subject to be shaped by the world. When it comes to sexuality, we definitely want to know what the Bible teaches, for secular society has a thoroughly corrupt view of it. So let’s take a closer look at God’s intended design for intimacy in marriage, starting with three key truths.
GOD’S DESIGN FOR SEX IN A CHRISTIAN MARRIAGE
Sex in a Christian Marriage Is Blessed by God
Hebrews 13:4 says, “Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge.” The word “bed” is a euphemism for sexual activity, and within marriage, God calls this activity “undefiled,” which means “pure.” The same New Testament Greek word is used earlier in Hebrews 7:26 to describe Jesus, our High Priest, as “holy, harmless, undefiled.” God wants us to know there is absolutely nothing sinful or compromising about sexual activity between a husband and wife.
When it comes to wrong thoughts about sexuality, we typically think of the devil tempting people to disobey the second half of Hebrews 13:4 and engage in sexual activity outside of marriage. But what about when he tempts people to disobey the first half of the verse? He leads them to believe sexual intimacy is defiled, or impure.
I once counseled a man in his fifties who was addicted to pornography. I mention his age only because pornography is more typically considered a struggle for young, single men. But it can enslave men—and women—of any age, in any season of life. Let me say up front this man’s actions were sinful; there is no minimizing the wickedness of what he was doing. That said, after months of counseling, it became apparent that one reason for his addiction was a wrong view of intimacy. His mother told him at a young age that sex was filthy, and he was never able to rid himself of that belief. He told me, “I look at porn because at least then I’m not involving my wife in a dirty activity.” Though I tried to convince him otherwise, he never seemed to be able to shake himself free of his mother’s incorrect teaching.
In the Song of Solomon, the couple consummate their relationship in chapter 4, and we read of God’s approval in 5:1: “Eat, O friends! Drink, yes, drink deeply, O beloved ones!” This invitation is meant to encourage husbands and wives in their sexual activity. Not only should intimacy in marriage not be thought of as neutral, amoral, or nonspiritual, it should be thought of as good, spiritual, and blessed by God.
Sex in a Christian Marriage Is for Enjoyment as Much as for Procreation
God’s purpose for intimacy goes far beyond simply having children. Yes, God created sex so couples can fulfill His command in Genesis 1:28 to “be fruitful and multiply,” but He also gave intimacy as a gift for marital pleasure. The Song of Solomon is filled with passages that describe the ways a husband and wife can enjoy each other physically. Consider these verses:
- “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—for your love is better than wine” (1:2).
- “A bundle of myrrh is my beloved to me, that lies all night between my breasts” (1:13).
- “Like an apple tree among the trees of the woods, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down in his shade with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste” (2:3).
- “Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, which feed among the lilies” (4:5).
These verses (with perhaps the exception of the last one!) are discreet, but they describe the physical pleasure the husband and wife experience during sexual activity. They truly enjoy discovering each other and opening themselves up to each other. Within the marriage relationship there is a sexual liberty and freedom that God wants couples to experience.
Sex in a Christian Marriage Is Commanded
I have counseled couples who have not been intimate for months, and in a few cases, even years. During the first counseling session with one such couple, I assigned them homework: have sex before our next counseling session one week later. They came back and still hadn’t been intimate. I gave them the same homework, but they still didn’t do it. You would think this wasn’t that difficult of an assignment, but it is for some couples. Was I out of line for encouraging them to have sex? Not according to the apostle Paul. In 1 Corinthians 7:1- 3, he wrote:
It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband.
The phrase “touch a woman” is another euphemism for sex. Paul commands single people to abstain, but then says that it is equally bad for married people to abstain. Just as the devil wants to encourage sex outside of a marriage (fornication and adultery), he equally wants to discourage sex within a marriage. While we generally recognize that intimacy outside of a marriage is wrong, so we should also recognize that withholding intimacy in a marriage is equally wrong. Paul instructs married people to “render” to their spouses the “affection” or intimacy that is “due.” The Greek word translated “due” is opheilo, which means “to owe, be in debt for.” Here are two other places this term is used in the New Testament:
- “That servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed [opheilo] him a hundred denarii; and he…threw him into prison till he should pay the debt [opheilo]” (Matthew 18:28-30).
- “There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed [opheilo] five hundred denarii, and the other fifty” (Luke 7:41).
Spouses owe affection—or intimacy—to each other. Withholding intimacy out of anger or to be vindictive or manipulative is not only unloving and sinful, it is also dangerous, as we’ll see in the upcoming verses.
Your Body Belongs to Your Spouse
The apostle Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 7, “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does” (verse 4). We discussed earlier a husband’s headship in the marriage relationship, so it is significant to see that with regard to intimacy, husbands and wives have equal authority over their spouse’s body. This makes sense because when it comes to marital intimacy, our goal should be to willingly please our husband or wife.1
Should You Ever Abstain?
While a husband and wife should not deprive one another of sexual intimacy, the Old Testament mentioned some circumstances during which couples should abstain from sexual activity. For example, when the Israelites gathered at Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, they were commanded to abstain as part of their preparations to meet God (Exodus 19:10-14). A more ordinary period of abstinence took place after a woman gave birth. She was considered unclean for seven days following the birth of a son, and two weeks following the birth of a daughter (Leviticus 12:1-5). A similar restriction of seven days occurred when a woman was menstruating (Leviticus 15:19-24; 18:19; 20:18). The original purpose of these commands to abstain is found in an understanding of the sacredness of blood in the Old Testament: “The life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul” (Leviticus 17:11). Forbidding contact with a menstruating woman revealed the value placed on blood.
The obvious question for us today is, Should husbands and wives abstain on account of these Old Testament commands? Some couples choose to abstain because they believe these commands still apply. Others believe the ceremonial portions of the law—under which these commands fall—are no more binding than the commands to offer blood sacrifices at the temple. Romans 14:5 provides some latitude for couples as they address these types of questions: “Let each be fully convinced in his own mind.” Couples should agree together regarding the circumstances under which they choose to abstain. Unless both husband and wife agree to abstain, they should not do so. This is supported by the apostle Paul’s words as he continues his instruction in 1 Corinthians 7:5-6:
Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. But I say this as a concession, not as a commandment.
Even when the New Testament discusses abstinence, it is for the purposes of “fasting and prayer,” as opposed to observing Old Testament commands. Paul also makes the point that couples do not have to abstain. Rather, he says they can do so if they choose to for the reasons mentioned. If a husband and wife go their entire marriage without ever abstaining, that is perfectly acceptable. If they do agree to abstain, the words “for a time” and “come together again” indicate the abstinence should be for a determined, limited season. The words “so that Satan does not tempt you” reveal the reason: There is greater potential for succumbing to sexual temptation while abstaining. In 1 Corinthians 7:9, Paul writes, “If they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” First Corinthians 7:5 and 7:9 both teach that when people refrain from physical intimacy, their self-control is tested.
Husbands and wives must recognize that when they deprive their spouse in a sexual sense, they put their partner in a spiritually precarious situation. They risk making their spouse feel, once again, like a single person “[burning] with passion.” A man or woman who looks at pornography or commits adultery cannot blame the sin and lack of self-control on the spouse, but it is important to understand that husbands and wives who withhold affection are making their spouses more vulnerable to temptation. Knowing that fact, as well as the teaching that our body belongs to our spouse, makes us realize how committed we should be to satisfying our husband or wife—not just to obey God’s commands, but to help our spouse avoid temptation.
Recall for a moment what we learned earlier about the fact New Testament Greek has various words for love—phileo, storge, agape, and eros. Eros is the type of love specifically related to sexual intimacy between husband and wife.
One of the important principles we looked at earlier is that love is not so much an emotion as it is actions: “Love suffers long and is kind” (1 Corinthians 13:4). In contrast, eros is more of a feeling than a demonstration of loving action toward someone. It describes the sensation people experience when they are physically attracted to someone. The word eros is the root of the English word erotic.
While the word eros does not appear in Scripture, we can see this kind of love on display. Eros is what Samson felt in Judges 14:2 when he told his parents, “I have seen a woman in Timnah of the daughters of the Philistines; now therefore, get her for me as a wife.” Eros is how King David found himself in the worst trouble of his life when he stepped out on his rooftop and spotted “[Bathsheba] bathing, and the woman was very beautiful to behold” (2 Samuel 11:2). Song of Solomon gives a clear depiction of eros as it describes the strong physical attraction the man and woman feel toward each other.
Eros is self-centered in the sense it relates to the way a person feels and what a person wants. Little to no consideration is given to the object of one’s eros. Unlike agape, eros is conditional and will not move a person to be forgiving or sacrificial, which is why it’s important not to base a marriage on eros, or physical attraction. Many couples find themselves wanting to get married because of strong feelings of eros toward each other, but when the eros wears off, they will find themselves frustrated and uninterested.
That, of course, is the problem with eros: It can wear off. It can change with time, age, or physical appearance. When eros is the main reason for a relationship, couples often find out their union has no foundation at all. If a relationship is based on eros alone, then when eros is gone, the relationship is also gone. For a true and lasting relationship, the thrill and excitement of eros must be supported by a deeper, unchanging love and commitment. Eros must be based on the other types of love we discussed earlier—the sacrificial love of agape and the abiding affection and friendship of phileo.
That doesn’t mean eros is immoral or sinful. In fact, it is an important part of a marriage relationship. It is part of the attraction husbands and wives should feel for each other.
What if we lack eros for our spouse?
Let me give you three recommendations.
- Pray for God to restore, and even increase, your eros. It is a wonderful request, and one that you can be confident God wants to answer.
- Practice agape, because that will cause eros to follow. As we discovered earlier, agape is a choice versus a feeling. Making the choice to exercise agape, which means unconditionally sacrificing and loving your spouse, will grow your eros, because feelings follow actions. Proverbs 16:3 says, “Commit your works to the Lord, and your thoughts will be established.” Do what’s right, and your emotions will follow your behavior.
- Read the Song of Solomon with your spouse, because the example set by the couple can help you both to enjoy the physical aspects of marriage.
God gave us sex as a gift, but as sinful people in a fallen world, we have the potential to ruin anything good God gives us.2
The three of the most common threats to enjoyable sex in a Christian marriage
First, selfish attitudes threaten enjoyable sex
Husbands and wives should be committed to satisfying each other, but a Scripture passage must also be balanced in light of other Scripture passages. If 1 Corinthians 7 were the only passage we were to consider in relation to sexual intimacy, we can easily get the impression it is okay for us to demand that our spouse satisfy our desires regardless of the way he or she feels. But we have looked at other passages—such as Ephesians 5 and 1 Peter 3—that mandate love, gentleness, compassion, and deference in marriage. While it would be unhealthy and even sinful to sexually deprive our spouse for selfish reasons, it can also be equally unhealthy and sinful to be sexually demanding or insensitive toward our spouse.
Although Paul listed fasting and prayer as possible reasons for abstinence, common sense and simple consideration dictate there are other acceptable reasons— including sickness, pregnancy, and grief. When a spouse is suffering or struggling, he or she might find intimacy unattractive. Because sex should be an enjoyable experience for both the husband and the wife, couples should strive to ensure there is a mutual level of comfort and interest regarding intimacy. Love and respect require caring about how the other person feels. Selfish and unkind attitudes threaten the joy and pleasure God desires for couples.
Second, impurity threatens enjoyable sex
Of all the gifts God has given us, sex might be the one that is the most frequently abused and perverted. This fact is even more tragic when we consider that intimacy is most enjoyed when couples have pure hearts and minds. People who reserve all their desires and passions for their spouse will have the healthiest and happiest sex lives, which is why impurity is one of the greatest threats to intimacy.
We should rip our eyes and minds away from anything that provokes feelings of eros for anyone other than our spouse. Primarily, we should do this because God commands it as part of living a holy life: “This is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). Secondarily, we should do this because failing to do so destroys the eros in a marriage. Individuals who give themselves over to pornography or lust find very quickly that they have no eros for their spouses.
Anytime impurity is an issue in a marriage, pornography almost always plays a role. My son Ricky recently shared with me how amazed he was that a bull can be controlled by a ring through its nose. He could not believe that a creature so big and powerful could be led around by something so small and insignificant. This is what pornography does with people: it does not matter how powerful or significant they are, when they introduce pornography into their lives, it enslaves and controls them.
We must also be concerned with what we set our hearts, thoughts, or feelings on. While there is nothing wrong with having friendships between genders, we should be cautious of becoming too close with people of the opposite sex. Even if your feelings for someone are pure and healthy, you cannot control how that person may feel toward you, and you don’t want to become the object of someone else’s misplaced affection.
When it comes to interactions with the opposite sex, it is best to err on the side of caution and avoid becoming “the good listener” or “shoulder to lean on.” This is especially true with married friends who should be looking to their own spouse as a listener or shoulder to lean on. At the time of this writing, I learned of three prominent ministry leaders who experienced moral failure because of relationships with the opposite sex. More than likely, each situation began with casual friendships that escalated after the individuals became too close to each other.
Much of marital faithfulness has to do with contentment. Many in secular society view contentment as they view love—as a feeling or emotion over which they have no control. The Bible, however, presents contentment the same way it presents love—as a decision. In marriage, we choose to be content or discontent with our spouse. This is illustrated in Proverbs 5:18-19:
Let your fountain be blessed,
And rejoice with the wife of your youth.
As a loving deer and a graceful doe,
Let her breasts satisfy you at all times;
And always be enraptured with her love.
Several words in that passage reveal the pleasure God wants us to experience with our spouse: “blessed…satisfy…enraptured.” Several other words and phrases reveal we have the choice to feel these ways toward our spouse: “Rejoice…Let her…satisfy you at all times…always be enraptured with her.” These are commands we can obey or disobey. Husbands and wives can choose to be content with their spouses, and this will go a long way in protecting their marriage and preserving their sexual purity. The couple in Song of Solomon had eyes and feelings only for each other. They were completely content with each other. As a result, their physical intimacy was healthy and joyful.
Third, mismatched desires threaten enjoyable sex
Because no two people are the same, marriages always involve many differences that have the potential to cause disagreements or problems when it comes to matters like finances, parenting, organization, and promptness. Among these differences are mismatched desires for physical intimacy. There will inevitably be times when one spouse desires sex and the other does not.
Let me present a situation that can happen in any marriage. Spouse A desires intimacy while Spouse B does not. While there are no contradictions in Scripture, there can be situations when biblical commands appear to compete. For example:
- Spouse A might quote from 1 Corinthians 7 that spouses should not deprive each other sexually, and may even be insensitive enough to say, “I know you don’t want to do this, but I don’t care. You need to obey God and recognize your body belongs to me!”
- Spouse B might then respond, “Why don’t you flip forward a few chapters and read about love in 1 Corinthians 13? And go to Philippians 2, which says you’re not supposed to look out for your own interests but to esteem others above yourself!”
So, should Spouse A’s desire for physical intimacy be satisfied, or Spouse B’s desire for no physical intimacy? We have seen in Scripture how God established a husband’s headship and a wife’s submission to break a stalemate so the relationship can go forward, but we have also seen that husbands and wives have equal authority over each other’s bodies. As a result, unlike most impasses in marriage, it is not as easy as simply going with the husband’s decision. For lack of a better way to say it, “Who wins?”
Boiling any conflict down to the simple question “Who wins?” is not only selfish, but will always cause problems. When I do marriage counseling, I try to avoid being a referee. That makes a marriage look like a competition, with husbands and wives placing themselves on opposing teams competing against each other. This could not be further from God’s desire when He joins two people together and makes them one flesh.
SEEK TO PLEASE THE OTHER FOR ENJOYABLE SEX
Rather than seeking to win, a better approach for each spouse is to seek to die to self and please the other. If both spouses have this attitude, this is what will happen:
- Spouse A will appreciate the effort Spouse B makes to satisfy Spouse A’s desire for intimacy even when Spouse B does not want to be intimate.
- Spouse B will appreciate when Spouse A puts Spouse B’s feelings ahead of Spouse A’s own desires for intimacy.
This approach allows couples to have a strong relationship and usually allows mismatched desires to resolve themselves. With that said, let me add an important disclaimer. If I had to suggest erring on one side or the other, I would recommend erring on the side of satisfying your spouse. Why? First Corinthians 7 commands husbands and wives to satisfy each other, and there are no competing scriptures telling believers that they do not have to satisfy their spouse. Yes, we have considered biblical instruction about being loving, compassionate, and considerate toward our spouse, but those verses have to do with the bigger picture of how we are to act and are not directly aimed at the subject of marital intimacy. While we have a direct command to please our spouse, any verses we might think give us an out from pleasing our spouse must instead be inferred; they don’t specifically apply to intimacy. A direct command carries more weight than verses that require inferences or indirect application.
Consider the results of both courses of action. The potential consequences of not satisfying your spouse far outweigh the “consequences”—if you want to call it that—of satisfying your spouse. There are not many drawbacks to pleasing your husband or wife, but when a spouse goes without physical intimacy, he or she becomes more vulnerable to temptation (1 Corinthians 7:5).
Let me conclude this section on marital differences with this encouragement: We are prone to think that the best marriages exist between people who are the most identical, whether it’s their views on parenting, finances, sexual intimacy, or other important areas of life. But even the most compatible couple will have a miserable marriage if the spouses are selfish and insensitive. The healthiest relationships exist between people who recognize their differences— no matter how great—and are committed to moving beyond those differences and being giving, selfless, and sacrificial. This applies to every area of marriage, including intimacy. This “put the other person before self” mindset is one of the main ingredients for a joyful, Christ-centered marriage. And what does this have to do with Christ? Only through our relationship with Him can we enjoy this sort of relationship with our spouse.
SEX IN A CHRISTIAN MARRIAGE THAT PLEASES GOD
As I have said multiple times in the previous chapters, God is for our marriages, and that includes our physical intimacy. Just as God wants other areas of our relationships to be strong, healthy, and joyful, He wants the same for sex in a Christian marriage. At the same time, however, we have responsibilities. If we stay within God’s design for intimacy, we can experience God’s best for us. Should we stray outside that design, we bring hurt, division, and pain into the marriage and our personal lives. We must be proactive about anything that would threaten enjoyable sex with our spouse. Selflessness and purity can ensure we have the fullest kind of intimacy with our spouse, while selfishness and impurity destroy one of God’s most beautiful blessings for marriage.