I was in junior high, walking toward a group of buddies, when my best friend came out of the circle and stopped me.
"No," he said. "You don't want this."
"What are you talking about?" I asked, hurt that this guy, of all people, would spurn me.
I learned that my friend was keeping me from a book that was making the rounds. It had something to do with sex—complete with pictures—and the dog-eared corners attested to its being quickly stashed under mattresses in numerous adolescent occupied homes.
Most of us are introduced to sex in shameful ways. The viewing of "dirty" books or the experience of sexual abuse at the hands of an older person often usher us prematurely into the world of sexual knowledge. The natural result is that most of us have to overcome deep-seated anxieties about sex. Many Christians don't see sex as a gift for which to be thankful, but as a guilt-ridden burden to be borne. And naturally, anything so intimately connected with guilt is difficult to view as a ladder to the holy.
Yet most married Christians know that sexual intimacy can produce moments of sheer transcendence—brief, sunset-like glimpses of eternity. On the underside of ecstasy we catch the shadow of a profound spiritual truth: Sex turns us toward God.
Christian spirituality serves us in at least three ways regarding sex: It teaches us the goodness of sex while reminding us that there are things more important. It allows us to experience pleasure without making pleasure the idol of our existence. It teaches us that sex can certainly season our lives but also reminds us that sex will never fully nourish our souls.
It might sound shocking, but it's true: God doesn't avert his eyes when a married couple goes to bed. It stands to reason, then, that we shouldn't turn our eyes from God when we share intimate moments with our spouse.
Spiritually meaningful sex
To appreciate how sex points us to God, it may help to understand how the ancient Jews viewed sex. The Holy Letter (written by Nahmanides in the thirteenth century) sees sex as a mystical experience of meeting with God: "Through the act [of intercourse] they become partners with God in the act of creation. This is the mystery of what the sages said, 'When a man unites with his wife in holiness, the Shekinah is between them in the mystery of man and woman.'" The breadth of this statement is sobering when you consider that this shekinah glory is the same presence Moses experienced when God met with him face-to-face (Exodus 24:15-18).
To use our sexuality as a spiritual discipline—to integrate our faith and flesh, so to speak—it's imperative that we understand this: God made flesh, and with it, some amazing sensations. While the male sexual organ has multiple functions, the female clitoris has just one—sexual pleasure. By design, God created a bodily organ that has no other purpose than to provide women with sexual ecstasy. This was God's idea. And God called every bit of his creation "very good" (Genesis 1:31).
Betsy Ricucci has approached this issue from a feminine perspective: "Within the context of covenant love and mutual service, intimacy should be exhilarating (Proverbs 5:19, NASB)…Believe it or not, we glorify God by cultivating a sexual desire for our husbands and by welcoming their sexual desire for us."
Here are six ways we glorify God through pursuing intimacy with our spouse.
1. Replace guilt with gratitude
In his book Music Through the Eyes of Faith, Harold Best tells the true story of a young man who became heavily involved in a satanic cult that developed an elaborate liturgy focusing on the compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach.
The young man later became a Christian and started attending worship services. Everything went well until the church organist belted out a piece composed by Bach. The young believer was overcome by fear and fled the sanctuary.
Best writes that Bach's work "represents some of the noblest music for Christian worship. To this young man, however, it…epitomized all that was evil, horrible, and anti-Christian."
Sex is that way for some Christians. Past associations and guilt feelings have created severe spiritual roadblocks. Christians try hard not to believe that sex is inherently evil, but because of previous negative experiences, for many it certainly feels evil.
Sex cannot pay spiritual dividends if its currency is shrouded in unfounded guilt. Gratitude to God for this amazing experience is essential.
It took me awhile to realize I was inadvertently insulting God by my hesitation to accept the holiness of sex. What kind of God am I imagining if I can allow pain—such as fasting—but not pleasure to reveal God's presence in my life? Instead of being suspicious of pleasure and the physical and spiritual intimacy that comes from being with my wife, I need to adopt an attitude of profound gratefulness and awe.
If guilt rather than gratitude casts a shadow over your experience of sex, practice thanking God for what sex involves. For instance, a woman could pray, quite explicitly—but in all holiness—"God, thank you that it feels enticing when my husband caresses my breasts." Couples can even pray together, thanking God for the pleasure surrounding marital consummation. This simple thanksgiving can sanctify an act that all-too-many Christians divorce from their spiritual life.
2. View your spouse as more than a lover
While physical pleasure is good and acceptable, sex also speaks of spiritual realities far more profound.
When the apostle Paul tells us that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19), the significance of sex takes on an entirely new meaning. What a woman is allowing inside her, what a man is willingly entering—in a Christian marriage, these are sanctified bodies in which God is present through his Holy Spirit.
If Paul tells us that a man is not to join himself to a prostitute because his body is a holy temple—that is, if we are to use such imagery to avoid sinning—can a Christian not use the same imagery to be drawn into God's presence in a unique way as he joins his body with his wife? Isn't he somehow entering God's temple—knocking on the door of shekinah glory? And isn't this a tacit encouragement to perhaps even think about God as your body is joined with your spouse?
The deeply physical and fleshly experience of sex can be enjoyed without guilt, but there is an even deeper spiritual fulfillment when a man and woman engage in sexual relations. Don't reduce sex to either a physical or spiritual experience. It is both—profoundly so.
3. Reconcile the power of sex
Sex is not a physical need in the same way that food is. But it is certainly a physiological drive. It is predictable, and it is physical as well as emotional. Most important, this physical desire—which feels like a need—that a man and woman have for each other is there by God's design. We can use this sense of need as a way to grow as servants of each other.
The truth is, without this physiological drive many couples would slowly drift apart. We are by nature selfish beings who hide from each other. Maintaining a steady pursuit toward and empathy for another human being goes against our sinful, egocentric bent. By creating a physical desire, God invites us to share, connect with, and enter the life and soul of another human being in a profound way.
4. Gaining God's view of beauty
I won't deny that one of the reasons I was first attracted to Lisa was because she looked good.
But the Christian duty of married men is to reverse this propensity and make the "role of the eye in sexuality" less important. Sight will always matter to men—that's how God wired us—but we can become mature in what we long to see.
Appetites can be cultivated. Different cultures enjoy different foods because the inhabitants have eaten such foods all their lives. My kids would wrinkle their noses at rice for breakfast; in China, children would look askew at a bowl of Cheerios.
The same principle holds true for taste in sexual desirability. Different eras appreciate different shapes in women. While today's supermodels lean toward waifishness, an old Sanskrit word (gajagamini) describing the then-ideal of female beauty in ancient India is literally translated "woman who has the gait of an elephant."
A godly marriage shapes our view of beauty to focus on internal qualities. Although beauty is wonderful, it isn't the only—or even the highest—value when we seek Christian marriage.
This isn't to suggest that either men or women should shun the care of their physical bodies. Keeping a good shape is a gift we can give our spouse. But so is the grace of acceptance, recognizing that age and (in the case of women) childbearing eventually reshape every body.
If my acceptance of my wife is based only on her outward appearance rather than on her inner qualities, time will slowly but surely erode my affection.
Married sexuality helps form us spiritually by shaping what we value and hold in high esteem. With God's Spirit within us, we can become enamored with the things that enamor God.
By denying myself errant appetites and by meditating and feeding on the right things—including being "captivated" by my wife's love—I train myself to desire only what is proper. This doesn't mean I can't appreciate another person's beauty. It does mean I can see without wanting to enter into a sexually or emotionally inappropriate relationship.
5. Give what you have
Do you remember the first time you saw your spouse naked? Some good friends of mine tried to "ease into it" on their wedding night. They decided to take a shower together, with the lights out.
Unfortunately, the tub began to overflow. Much to their chagrin, they were forced to turn on the lights and start mopping up in the nude. Their "twilight transition" turned into a spotlight extravaganza!
It's one thing to stand naked and relatively trim in front of your partner in your early twenties. But what about after the wife has given birth to a child (or two or three), and the husband's metabolism has slowed down, depositing "love handles" around his waist?
Continuing to give your body to your spouse even when you believe it constitutes "damage goods" can be tremendously rewarding spiritually. It engenders humility, service, and an other-centered focus, as well as hammering home a powerful spiritual principle: Give what you have.
By no means am I suggesting that it's easy to give, but I am saying it's worthwhile. It's rewarding to say, "I'm willing to give you my best, even if I don't think my best is all that great."
So many people fail to give God or others anything simply because they can't give everything. Learn to take small steps of obedience toward God—offering what you have, with all its blemishes and limitations.
6. Live with passion
Just as love expands us, so passion can as well. A man who's passionate about his wife can be passionate about justice, about God's kingdom, about his children, about the environment. On the flip side, if he's facing serious sexual problems within his marriage, frustration and a certain despondency is liable to settle like a cloud over his work, his faith, and his friendships.
Our passions make us come alive. While we often fear our passions because they can carry us into an affair, a fight, or some other destructive behavior, the solution is not living a less passionate life but finding the right things to be passionate about.
That's what marriage teaches us to do. Some people make the mistake of believing that because they've been burned by their passions and their sexual hunger, the antidote is to completely cut it off. They do to sex what an anorexic does to food: "I don't want to overeat and become fat, so I won't eat at all." This isn't a healthy attitude.
The healthy life is a life of saying yes and no. I travel a lot, so there are many times when my wife and I must fast from sexual expression. Couples with younger kids, particularly babies, soon learn that they can no longer express themselves sexually whenever they get the inclination. At other seasons, our spouse may be ill or worn-out, and it would be unkind to place sexual expectations on her. In such situations, sexual fasting is appropriate and necessary.
But times of "feasting" are also necessary. In fact, every "no" we say to sex should be placed in the context of a corresponding "yes."
Abstinence isn't a dead end; it's a long on-ramp. My denial of sexual expression when I'm apart from my wife is empowered by what the future holds when I get home. I'm not saying no, but rather, wait, channeling desire into the proper place.
I don't want to over-spiritualize this. We don't always have to think "spiritual" thoughts when we're enjoying sex. Passion calls us to enter fully into life. Passion is at the heart of the Sabbath commandment, which has two sides: Work hard, then rest well. Both are necessary for a meaningful life. At times, sex will have distinctly spiritual overtones; at other times, it will be a celebration of physical pleasure. Both are holy within marriage.
It may take some couples many months to be comfortable viewing their sexual intimacy as a form of spiritual expression, faith, and maturity. Unfortunately, while Christians should be leading the way in this regard, adherents of other faiths have preceded us. There are numerous books today that seek to integrate Eastern philosophy and Tantric spirituality with sexuality, but in most cases these books use spirituality to heighten physical sensations. We're suggesting precisely the opposite—that the physical sensations can heighten our spiritual sensitivities.
The Christian worldview doesn't disparage the physical; it embraces it. But in doing so, it reminds us that there are higher values than physical pleasure—that this world is passing away, and true joy and fulfillment can be found only in a relationship with God and in holy fellowship with his children.
To embrace fully marital sexuality and all that God designed it for, couples must bring their Christianity into bed and break down the wall between their physical and spiritual intimacy.
Sex is about physical touch, to be sure, but it's about far more than physical touch. It's about what's going on inside us. Developing a fulfilling sex life means I concern myself more with bringing generosity and service to bed than with bringing a washboard abdomen. It means I see my wife as a holy temple of God, not just as a tantalizing human body. It even means that sex becomes a form of physical prayer—a picture of a heavenly intimacy that rivals the shekinah glory of old.
Our God, who is spirit (John 4:24), can be found behind the very physical panting, sweating, and pleasurable entangling of limbs and body parts. He doesn't turn away.
He wants us to run into sex, but to do so with his presence, priorities, and virtues marking our pursuit. If we experience sex in this way, we'll be transformed in the marriage bed every bit as much as we're transformed on our knees in prayer.
Adapted from Sacred Marriage. © 2000 by Gary Thomas. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.
Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.