John and I stopped at a fast-food restaurant for a quick meal on the way to his farm. My friend had one of the "cleanest" sexual pasts of any man I've ever met; on the day he married, the only woman other than his bride he'd ever kissed was his mom.
The young man taking our order noticed that both of us had on wedding rings.
"You both have wives?" he asked.
"Yes," we replied.
"Tell me, is it true what they say—that your sex life gets better after you're married?"
John choked a bit on this one. "Mine sure did!" he said, without explaining that he'd never even had a sex life apart from marriage.
"It's tough being single," the young man shot back. "I'll tell you this much: I know I'm not getting any tonight."
I know I'm not getting any tonight.
This may be the quintessential statement of our culture on sexuality: Am I "getting any," or not?
Imagine how offensive this must be to our Creator God, who established sexuality as a gift. When a couple conducts their lives according to God's good plan, sex becomes an exclusive gift that the couple will share with no other. God has given married men the opportunity and the ability to make their wives feel things no other man can ever make them feel; wives can touch their husbands in places and in ways that no other person will ever touch.
As a Christian spouse, you are the only person, biblically speaking, your spouse can go to in order to share this pleasurable yet also very holy experience. In other words, you hold a gift that your spouse can't receive from anyone else.
Spiritual sickness seeps into our marriages when we stop viewing sex as a gift we can give to our spouse, and start seeing it as a demand that must be met. By God's design, sex gives us a capacity to give to someone in a startlingly unique and human way. And yet sex remade in our own image is often used to take, to demand, to coerce, to shame, or to harm.
Most sexual problems in marriage aren't due to a lack of knowledge or mechanical skill; on the contrary, I think most of the problems between the covers are due to sinful selfishness. In this sense, virtue is the guardian of fulfilling sexual intimacy.
The problem of power
Since, biblically speaking, the only sex life my wife can enjoy is the sex life I choose to give her, anything I deny her, by definition, becomes an absolute denial, because she has no other outlet.
You know what this reality produces?
The stereotype is that husbands usually want sex more often than do their wives. There are valid physiological reasons for this. But I've talked to plenty of couples where it's actually the other way around, and the wife feels cheated by her husband's diminished desire. Whether it's the wife or husband who feels denied, one thing is almost always true: Whoever wants sex the least tends to have the most power in bed, because he or she possesses the absolute power of denial. And the old adage, "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" is particularly true in the bedroom.
If you're the spouse who holds the power, you're going to be tested spiritually. Will you use that power generously, or to manipulate? Will you use that power to demonstrate kindness, or to pay back your spouse for perceived slights?
The apostle John tells us how Jesus used power. He tells us that while "Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power" (John 13:3), instead of abusing that power, Jesus got up from the meal, wrapped a towel around his waist, and washed his disciples' feet, becoming a servant. Two of those feet, by the way, belonged to Judas—the man who was even then plotting to betray him. Yet Jesus still loved Judas in a very physical way, taking his perhaps smelly and certainly dusty feet into his lap and washing them with his own hands.
The sexual relationship within marriage gives us a tremendous opportunity for spiritual growth, to become generous and kind like Christ even in the face of others' unkindness. When we have power over another and we use that power responsibly, appropriately, and benevolently, whether they deserve it or not, we grow in Christ, we become more like God, and we reflect the fact that we were made to love God by serving others.
Too often, the sexual relationship is divorced from our faith experience; popular magazines tell us a fulfilling sexual relationship is all about passion, physical pleasure, performance, desire, and technical know-how. Although these elements are all important, they are also all secondary. God can use the sexual relationship to teach us how to serve our mates, and when we do that, we become like our Savior: "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve" (Mark 10:45).
Ask yourself honestly, Is sex something I am demanding or offering? Is sex something I use as a tool of manipulation or as an expression of generous love? If God looked at nothing other than my sexuality, would he see me displaying the mature qualities of a growing believer in Jesus Christ, or would I look like some selfish, non-believing pagan?
Becoming a generous lover
The notion of becoming a generous lover not only changes how we address the frequency of sexual relations, it also challenges us to reconsider the thoughtfulness we put behind the quality of our sexual relationship. One wife once told me, "If my husband would just pray with me, he wouldn't be able to handle me in bed. He'd be crying 'Uncle!' long before the night was through!"
Guys, what she's saying is, "Before you touch my body, touch my soul." If sex is about giving, then our attitude toward our wives has to be cultivating a sexual experience that is fulfilling for her. Some husbands tell me, "I'd like to give the gift of sex to my wife, but she won't open the present!"
To them I ask, "Define sex."
They think I've lost my mind, but the point I'm trying to make is that what they think constitutes sex may be different from what their wives think constitutes sex. If I become selfish—crafting a sex life that is all about my fantasies, my desires, my preferences—I'm not giving to my wife, I'm using her.
To be a generous lover requires me to be a thoughtful one. It means I bend my desires around the primary call of meeting my wife's sexual needs.
In her book, Women in Jewish Law, Rachel Biale dispenses some good Christian advice: "The Halakhah [Jewish Law] confines the sexual drive of a man by harnessing it to the sexual rhythms and needs of his wife. Sexual abstention is mandated by the cycle of menstruation. Sexual activity is directed to fulfilling the mitzvah [obligation] of onah: meeting and responding to the sexual needs of the woman. The 'quiet' introverted sexuality of the woman circumscribes the active, extroverted sexuality of the man. It becomes the center and the regulating mechanism of the intimate marital relationship."
My wife's desires, needs, and preferences should become the "center and the regulating mechanism of the intimate marital relationship."
Can I be honest with you? Most couples I talk to have this principle roughly reversed. Because of selfishness, the sexual relationship often becomes all about "feeding the husband's beast." This only coddles selfishness, which ultimately breeds dissatisfaction for both the husband and the wife. Selfishness can't be satisfied; on the contrary it needs to be crucified. The only ultimately fulfilling sexual relationship must therefore be a virtuous one.
It would shock most Christian women to realize how many Christian men struggle with pornography. Part of the spiritual devastation of pornography is that it trains men to be selfish in bed. In God's world, Christian men will find their greatest pleasure in pleasuring their wives; that's the way God made us. When Jesus said, "It is better to give than to receive," although he may not have been specifically talking about sexual relations, it's as true in bed as it is out of it. There's nothing more fulfilling to a healthy Christian man than satisfying his wife. That's why pornography is so destructive to both husband and wife; it distorts expectations and directly assaults pure motivations.
So men, the challenge to become a generous lover means taking the time to find out your wife's needs, desires, and satisfactions. Don't assume you know it all; don't be too proud to listen if she's honest enough to tell how you could please her more. None of us are "born" good lovers; it's a skill we can grow in. You wouldn't take it personally if Tiger Woods gave you a few tips for your putting; don't take it personally if your wife loves you enough to tell you how to please her in bed. You'll find sexual health by spending all the time, energy, and money you used to consume hiding a covert sexual life (fantasies, pornography) to be creative in focusing on, and then meeting, your wife's sexual needs.
What does this mean for you women? Well, let me ask you this: When was the last time you put some serious thought, effort, and planning into a special sexual experience with your husband? If you're the only one he can be sexual with, are you making him glad he chose you, or are you taking that commitment for granted and maybe even using it against him, to make him pay for a perceived slight, rather than using it to bless and serve him?
In fact, would you be bold enough to ask the shocking question, "Am I good in bed?"
Good in bed
"Don't let this lawyerly façade fool you," Sandra Bullock warned Hugh Grant in the movie Two Weeks' Notice. "I'm actually really good in bed."
I was eating an airline dinner, flying somewhere over the Midwest, when I put on the headphones and caught this piece of dialogue. In a Christian worldview, a single person wouldn't know whether he or she was "good" in bed. But since I was stuck in an aluminum tube 30,000 feet above ground, I had plenty of time to think, and the movie's statement challenged me in another context.
When did I last ask myself whether I was good in bed? While it's a grave mistake to reduce sex to mere mechanics, the question can go much deeper: When did I last care about that question? Shame on me if a boyfriend puts more effort into pleasing his girlfriend (whose name he may not even remember in ten years' time) than I spend trying to pleasure my wife—who has committed her life to me and stood by me for more than two decades. If I accept the biblical truth that the only sex life my wife can enjoy is the sex life I choose to give her, then complacency in this area becomes cruel. I'm taking an incredible commitment for granted; I'm acting like her amazing fidelity—that she will keep herself only for me—is a gift of little value.
We have to fight against taking our spouse—and our sexual responsibilities—for granted. On the day we marry, we gain a monopoly of sorts. Our spouse commits to have sexual relations with no one else. Regardless of whether we act thoughtfully, creatively, or selfishly in bed, they receive only what we provide. Without any competition, some of us, quite frankly, simply stop making an effort. It's sheer laziness if I give less attention or care to the mother of my children than some 20-something kid gives to a young woman he met mere weeks ago. Rather than make us careless, this exclusivity should make us grateful and generous, and therefore even more eager to please our mate.
When did you last ask yourself, "Am I endeavoring to please my spouse in bed?" If we're slacking in this area, our spouses may not be able to do much about it—but we can, and should. Do I want to reward my wife's commitment to me, or do I want to make her regret it? Do I want to bless her, or take her for granted? Do I want to be a generous, enthusiastic lover, or a miser reluctantly doling out occasional "favors"?
When the Bible tells us in Hebrews 13:4 to keep the marriage bed "pure," the application goes far beyond avoiding physical acts of immorality to include inner virtue. How pure are our attitudes in bed? How generous and loving are our motivations? Do we bring the Spirit of Christ into our marital bed, or are we allowing selfishness to reign?
You may, like so many of us, wish you had a better body to give your spouse; you may lament your lack of skill, or the amount of energy you possess at the end of the day. But more important than these concerns—and even more of a blessing—is to earnestly become a generous lover, bringing the kindness of Christ to your spouse in a very physical and yes, pleasurable way. When we do that, our spouses will be blessed beyond measure—and so will we.
Gary Thomas, an MP regular contributor, is author of Sacred Influence: How God Uses Wives to Shape the Souls of Their Husbands (Zondervan). He and his wife, Lisa, have been married 23 years.
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.