By the time we stand before God and community to make our marriage vows, we already have a number of beliefs about marriage and sex.
We learn much simply by observing those around us. Some of what we learn, though, has been taught explicitly in our churches—and sometimes this teaching is incomplete or, worse, damaging.
The Christian blogosphere is filled with articles that discuss the merits and drawbacks of “purity culture”—yet even mainstream churches filled with people not on the fringes of Christianity can convey teaching that can lead to sexual difficulty in marriages.
I was raised far from anything that could be described as purity culture. At home, I got very little teaching about sex and sexuality other than the biology. I was curious about sex. I tried to reconcile my sense of sexuality with my understanding of God early on. I was the awkward teenager who asked the embarrassing questions because she really wanted to understand.
I remember asking two different youth pastors (both married) this pressing question: “How can you have sex if you know that God is watching?” I really wanted to know. I wanted to know that God valued my sexuality and that it was okay to have sexual feelings.
These youth pastors both had an opportunity to tell me that God celebrates married sex, that married sex parallels the intimacy between Christ and the church, that God designed sex to draw us closer to each other, that the pleasure helps us build intimacy. Instead, the pastors blushed, mumbling something about how during sex you aren’t really thinking much about God.
In retrospect, I feel kind of bad for these guys. I’m pretty sure they weren’t prepared for questions like that—but I carried away the view that God was separate from our sex lives and that it was something to be embarrassed about.
Purity Is Physical?
Sex is a celebration of one flesh in the marriage bed, designed by God to unite us, please us, and reflect the intimacy with Him that awaits us.
Our teaching about sexual purity too often focuses on a physical state. Instead, it should focus on having a heart that knows that marriage is where God wants us to experience sex. Out of fear of getting kids too interested in how great sex is, we simply say “don’t.” Or maybe we’re just too embarrassed to talk about sex, even in general ways. We’re too embarrassed to say, “Sex is great!”
We should be saying, “It’s awesome, and it’s one of the best things about being married.” Yet we don’t—and the teaching is incomplete.
When I was 18 years old, I sat in a high school Sunday school class at my friend’s church. It was shortly after I’d made the mistake of having sex with my first boyfriend. Filled with guilt and shame, I listened to the teacher tell us that our worth lay in our virginity. He said nothing about grace or about Jesus loving us even when we messed up.
I’d had a choice between God and my sexuality, and I’d chosen poorly. I thought I was irreparably damaged.
Thinking I’d tossed away my only source of worth on an experience that wasn’t even enjoyable, I lost sight of God because I was pretty sure I was beyond redemption. And every time thereafter when I faced a decision with another guy, the message “you are already damaged goods” floated through my head. I walked further along a sinful and painful path because I thought I’d severed my relationship with God.
I’d been taught God’s judgment without God’s grace.
Had I not already become sexually active, that Sunday school lesson could have been equally damaging. I could have carried the message that my virginity was the source of my worth right into my marriage bed—where a husband who had been looking forward to the God-ordained joys of married sex would have been trapped by my sense of shame that once my virginity was gone, I was no longer pure.
Bad Teaching→Bad Lessons
Embedded in the teaching about virginity and our incomplete teaching about sex in marriage are lessons about sex and sexuality.
- Boys always want sex and it’s the girl’s responsibility to say no.
- A boy who pushes for sex is being selfish.
- Sex is earthly and of the flesh and is therefore “lesser” than spiritual pursuits.
- Sex is a necessary evil—well, not quite evil, but far from holy.
- Boys cannot control themselves, so it is up to girls to hold the line. We need to avoid sexual situations, if we dress immodestly we are responsible for having provoked a boy’s desire, and it is our job to be the more emotional and spiritual partner in a relationship because boys will be busy being boys.
Carried into marriage, these lessons can translate into beliefs that inhibit married sexual intimacy:
- Sex is something husbands want and wives decide to grant.
- Marriage equals consent, 24/7.
- Virginity is your most precious commodity—and therefore, once you’ve lost your virginity (even to your husband) you are worth less than you were before.
- Sexual feelings are wrong or shameful.
- It is a wife’s responsibility to manage her husband’s sex drive.
- Or, it is a wife’s responsibility to fulfill her husband’s sexual desires regardless of her own desires and needs.
- Sex that isn’t highly emotional is earthly (and of the flesh, and animalistic) and therefore wrong.
- Sex that is not face to face is immoral because it focuses on physical pleasure rather than on face-to-face intimacy.
- Only intercourse counts as sex; forms of sex that involve something other than the genitals of both spouses is wrong or lesser.
These beliefs can lead to problems in sexual intimacy as we try to figure out how to apply them. We may . . .
- Repress our own sexuality.
- View a husband’s desire as ungodly and develop a negative view of a husband who can’t control himself.
- Feel shame about sexual feelings and inhibit ourselves from our full sexuality.
- View sexual activity as dirty.
- Limit sex to activities or positions that seem the most spiritual and least about physical pleasure.
- Participate in sexual activity that we find degrading or painful because we think it’s our duty.
- Say “yes” with our body and rarely with our heart.
- Say “no” unless we are in the mood ourselves—even if that is only once a month and we have a husband who desires sex several times a week.
- Never say “no,” even when we’re sick or exhausted.
- Say “no” more often than not.
- Assume that a husband’s inability to control himself sexually means that he doesn’t have self-discipline in other areas, sometimes leading to micromanaging his life.
- Assume that sex is for our husband and not for our marriage or for ourselves.
- Refuse any sexual activity other than intercourse on the grounds that it is not mutual enough or emotional enough.
With incomplete or bad teaching, we may think we need choose between extremes:
- Being a sexual doormat vs. controlling the marriage bed.
- Having a relationship with God vs. having a sexual relationship with our husband.
- Embracing sexuality vs. embracing spirituality.
- Thinking that each sexual encounter needs to be involve an emotional connection and results from both spouses’ desire vs. understanding that the lifetime of a sexual relationship will vary according to the season of life and the needs and interests of each spouse. (In other words, sex that is mostly for him or mostly for you is okay within the context of a sexual relationship that is for both of you.)
- Enjoying sex vs. tolerating sex.
God’s design for marriage is so much more than this!
It isn’t so easy to recognize when our sexual problems result from incomplete or bad teaching. After all, what we learned when we were young became part of how we think the world just is.
If you are experiencing problems in your sexual relationship with your husband, I encourage you to take some time to really think about your views on sex and sexuality.
Do you have any beliefs about sex that cause difficulty in your marriage bed? Do you have ideas about what is and is not acceptable? Do these ideas conflict with what your husband thinks? Where did your ideas come from?
If you think you’ve experienced some incomplete or bad teaching about sex, there is hope:
- With your husband, study what the Bible actually tells you about sex. Many couples find that Intimacy Ignited (affiliate link) is a good place to learn together about God’s design for sex.
- Work on pushing out the bad teaching and replacing it with God’s truth. (You might find this post helpful.)
- Embrace your sexuality.
We can rise above incomplete or bad teaching to reach out to the sexual joy God has made available in our marriages.
My beloved has gone down to his garden, to the beds of spices, to browse in the gardens and to gather lilies. I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine; he browses among the lilies. Song of Songs 6:2-3