Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. Hebrews 13:4
There are two dangers in sex: on the one hand, fear of the self-surrender or closeness that a physical relationship requires, and fear that sex is dirty and shameful; on the other, unbridled lust and sin. Clearly, the sexual sphere is not incorruptible. Even in marriage its potential blessings become dangers if it is entered in isolation from God, who created it. Instead of passion there is naked lust, instead of tenderness there is aggression and even brutality, and instead of mutual self-giving there is uncontrollable desire.
The church should never be silent about this (1 Cor. 5:1–5). The spirit of impurity is always waiting to tempt us, and it will slip into the sanctuary of marriage whenever we open the door to it. Once impurity has entered a marriage, it becomes more and more difficult to keep focused on God’s love, and easier and easier to bypass one another and succumb to evil temptations.
We must never underestimate the power of the impure spirits that drive people to do evil, even within marriage. Once under their control, sex quickly loses its nobler qualities and deteriorates into something cheap. What was created as a wonderful gift from God becomes a sinister, life-destroying experience. Only repentance can bring about healing and restoration.
Through sexual union, an unparalleled uniting can take place.
We can recognize the true nature of the sexual sphere most clearly when we can see its sacredness as the fulfillment of wedded love sanctioned by God. It is the same with the act of sexual intercourse itself, the moment in which marital love comes to its fullest physical expression. Because intercourse is such a powerfully dramatic experience, it is vital that it be anchored in God. If sex is not recognized as a gift from God and subordinated to him, it can become an idol. Entered with reverence, however, it “awakens that which is most intimate, most sacred, most vulnerable in the human heart.”1
In a true marriage, sex is guided by more than the desires of each partner: it is guided by the love that binds both of them together. When both partners give themselves in complete surrender to the other, a uniting of unparalleled depth takes place. It will not be just “physical love”; it will be the expression and fulfillment of total love, an act of unconditional giving and deep fulfillment.
It is a remarkable and wonderful experience to give oneself physically to another person. Orgasm, the climax or peak of physical uniting, is a powerful and shaking experience and has a forceful effect on the spirit. Here, the experience of the body is so forceful that it is difficult to distinguish it from the experience of the spirit. In rhythmic harmony of heart and body, two human beings reach the highest peak of the joy of love. In total union, both are lifted out of their own personalities and joined in the closest community possible. At the moment of climax a person is, so to speak, swept away – engulfed so completely that the sense of being an independent person is momentarily submerged.
Physical union should always express unity of heart and soul.
We can never have too much reverence for the act of sexual intercourse. Even if we reject prudishness, a feeling of reticence will make us wary of speaking about it to others. Of course, a man and woman united in marriage must be able to talk openly with each other, even about the most intimate things. But they will never do this without the reverence that springs from their love for each other.
It is of prime importance that a couple does not go to bed at night without having turned first to Jesus. It is not necessary to use many words; Jesus always knows what we mean and what we need. We must not only thank him but also seek his guidance – if we do not knock at his door, he cannot guide us. The same, of course, is true at the beginning of the day.
If our marriage is grounded in Jesus and his love and purity, we will find the right relationship to each other on every level. Here we must heed Paul’s warning, “In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold” (Eph. 4:26–27). Prayer is crucial in reconciling the differences that arise in the marriage relationship. To unite physically when there is no unity of heart is hypocrisy. It is a desecration of the bond of love.
Physical uniting should always express the full uniting of spirit and soul; it should never be a means of bodily satisfaction alone. In Jesus, every physical act of love is a mutual giving of self, a sign of resolve to live for one another. It has nothing to do with power or the idea of sex as conquest.
Anyone who uses his spouse merely to satisfy himself insults his own dignity and the dignity of his partner. He is using sex for a selfish purpose. This is why the Bible regards it as sin when a man withdraws from his wife before climax and allows his semen to “fall on the ground” (Gen. 38:9–10). Of course, if this happens against his will, prematurely, or in a dream, then it is not a sin. For the same reason, oral and anal intercourse are also sinful. Because they are driven only by the selfish desire for sexual excitement, these forms of sex are in reality forms of mutual masturbation.
True sexual fulfillment is found in mutual submission.
Sexual desire may be relatively dormant in a newly married couple, especially when neither spouse has engaged in premarital sex or been addicted to masturbation. In fact, a husband may even need to awaken the urge for intercourse in his bride. Because this may take time, he should be very patient and initiate sexual union only when his wife is ready. For a virgin, the first intercourse can be painful and may cause minor bleeding. This is no cause for alarm, yet a husband should be aware of his wife’s discomfort.
A loving husband will have enough care for his wife to consider her state of readiness and not hurry intercourse because of his own impatience. Because he is concerned not merely with his own satisfaction, he will be sensitive to the fact that often more time is needed for a woman to reach climax than for a man, and after intercourse, he will not go happily to sleep while his wife lies awake with feelings of deep disappointment or frustration.
The sexual happiness of a woman is often more dependent than a man’s on the accompanying circumstances of their union; on the closeness she feels between herself and her husband, and in little acts of kindness or affectionate words. It does not consist only in the climax. Simply being together with her beloved may give her the deepest sense of fulfillment.
A couple should learn how to prepare one another for physical union. Loving stimulation is a strong affirmation of mutual unity, and in addition to increasing readiness, it nurtures confidence and envelops a couple in a feeling of security. Both husband and wife must learn what pleases and arouses their partner. Writing about women, for instance, von Gagern says, “There are areas of the body that are especially responsive to fondling – the mouth, the breasts, under the arms, the spine – but a couple’s own unique love for each other will continually guide them anew.”2
As self-discipline, abstinence can deepen a couple’s love.
Physically, intercourse is always possible, but a husband should be ready to abstain for the sake of his wife’s health, especially before and after she gives birth. As a marriage counselor I have always recommended abstinence during menstruation and for at least six weeks before the birth of a child. I also recommend that couples abstain as long as they are able after a birth, so that the mother can recover both physically and emotionally. Because every couple is different, it is hard to suggest a time frame; the important thing is consideration. If a husband is truly considerate of his wife, he will be willing to discipline himself by abstaining as long as possible (1 Thess. 4:3–5). In such times of abstinence, out of love for her husband, the woman must be careful not to arouse him sexually.
Naturally, the love between husband and wife – between two who live together, sleep together, and belong together – will make it much harder for them to abstain than for a single person. All the more, they must be on guard against coming close to one another in a sexual way and then avoiding intercourse.
One unfounded but prevalent idea is that abstinence must be fundamentally negative or frustrating. If born out of love, it can actually create a deeper, more enriching relationship. It can even have a healing affect. John Kippley, the founder of a national ministry to couples, tells how a woman he knows who was abused by her father experienced healing through her husband’s consideration of her needs. “Because of his restraint,” she told John, “I was able to discover for the first time that I was more than my body. I could be loved without having to perform sexually. I had true value as a person, not just as an object of satisfaction.”
As a woman approaches middle-age, it is not unusual for her joy or interest in sexual intercourse to diminish. This can be difficult for her husband, yet he must see that his love for his wife does not decrease. The wife, for her part, should give herself in love to her husband as she is able, even if her joy in doing so is not the same as it was in earlier years (1 Cor. 7:3–4). Otherwise a husband may be tempted to seek other outlets for his sexual impulses. The main thing is that there is always unity of spirit and soul before physical uniting and that, when abstinence is necessary, it does not become an occasion for love to grow cold. Paul writes:
Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control (1 Cor. 7:5).
Abstinence, then, may be best approached with fasting and prayer – as a self-discipline. When willingly accepted in this way, it can unite a couple more deeply than ever.
In the end, everything in a marriage depends on the commitment of both partners to Jesus and on their willingness to follow his leading. Couples should remember that it was God who joined them together, and only he can keep them together, especially in difficult times. Jesus says, “Whoever loses his life will gain it” (Luke 9:24). The same is true in Christian marriage: insofar as both partners are willing to give themselves again and again to each other and to Christ, they will find the true fulfillment of unity and freedom.
1. Jean Vanier, Man and Woman He Made Them (New York: Paulist, 1994), 128.
2. Friedrich von Gagern, Man and Woman: An Introduction to the Mystery of Marriage (Cork, Ireland: Mercier, 1957), 26–27.