I have so much to tell you!” Kate exclaimed as she breezed into my office and settled into her favorite spot in the corner of my blue loveseat, tucking her hair behind her ears and moving the throw pillow aside the way she does every week.
But the Kate before me today is different—her eyes are bright and her cheeks flushed as the words spill out: “It was like a second honeymoon. It was beautiful. And it was me! I wanted to be with him. Truly wanted it, wanted him.”
Kate has been married 18 years, but today she reminds me of a teenage girl describing her first kiss. With a slight blush in her cheeks and a bashful, averted gaze, she tells me about a romantic weekend away with her husband in which they had sex for the first time in two years.
God created us to be sexual beings. He intentionally made us with physical longings for intimacy and connection with others. Sexual desire is a gift from God, and it is good. But it doesn’t always feel like a good gift.
In reaction to our hypersexual popular culture, viewing sexual desire with suspicion seems to make sense. After all, isn’t it our physical, genital longing for sex that leads to lustful thoughts, pornography, chronic masturbation, inappropriate relationships, and so on?
Roadblocks to Healthy Sexuality
For those who grew up in an evangelical purity culture, sexual desire can feel confusing. Suppressing sexual desire outside of marriage seems necessary in order to be abstinent. Changing long-term patterns of ignoring sexual desire is difficult, and a wedding ceremony does not flip a magical sexual switch.
I have counseled many women who waited for marriage to have sex and then felt frustrated and guilty at their lack of sexual desire or enjoyment in the marriage. They thought waiting for marriage would lead to better sex, but instead felt like they were being punished for doing the right thing.
Personal experiences of sexual brokenness can also create a filter through which we view sexual desire. Far too many of us have experienced sexual abuse or unwanted sexual activity, in which another’s desire for sex and power left deep wounds.
Some of us have been hurt by a boyfriend’s or husband’s battle with lust or sexual addiction, or we may be flooded with shame from our own struggles with lust, pornography, or sexual addiction. We may believe sexual desire is a good gift, but our emotions, memories, and bodies tell a different story.
Worshipping the Gift, Not the Giver
Two years ago Kate discovered her husband had been unfaithful. Kate chose to stay in the marriage, but after years of emotionally manipulative and volatile behavior, this final wound of infidelity closed the vault of Kate’s heart with her husband.
Intellectually, Kate agreed that sexuality was a good gift from God. But in her real life, sexual desire felt like a cruel joke. Her own sex drive felt nonexistent, and her husband’s sexual desires led him to cheat on her. What was good about that?
Sexual desire is a gift from God, but it is not God. C.S. Lewis writes that sexual love (eros), “honoured without reservation and obeyed unconditionally, becomes a demon.” When we worship, honor, and obey sexual desire, we take it out of its rightful place and elevate it to god status. If we treat desire like a god, then we are more likely to feed it at all costs—with pornography, chronic masturbation, inappropriate flirtations, or promiscuity.
God created us in his image for relationship with himself and others. One of the most physical and tangible ways we experience that longing for intimacy is in our sexual desire. When that holy longing for union with another is reduced to a release of sexual tension, a single-minded pursuit of pleasure, or a desire to consume or be consumed by (rather than join with) another, we have likely begun worshiping the gift instead of the giver.
Our sexuality should always make us more human, not less so. As a reflection of God’s character within the Trinity, sexuality is not about getting something for oneself (such as pleasure or orgasm), but about giving one’s whole being to another. Healthy sexual desire, therefore, requires vulnerability.
Allowing ourselves to experience sexual desire can feel scary or dangerous, even in marriage, because it makes us vulnerable. Our desire for another may not be returned; we fear being rejected, embarrassed, or even ridiculed. We may worry our sexual desire gives the other person power over us. Healthy sexuality, however, is not about lording power over one another, but searching for ways to outdo the other in love and vulnerability.
Kate’s fear of being hurt kept her firmly planted behind a brick wall of emotional coldness and distance. Over time, however, Kate couldn’t help but acknowledge her husband was earnestly working at becoming a better husband and father. He met with a counselor and an accountability partner. He began taking responsibility for his words and actions with Kate and their children in a new way. He pursued Kate relationally and physically, but he no longer punished her emotionally when she did not respond.
Eventually, Kate began to cautiously remove bricks from her wall. As she moved toward her husband in small ways, he responded with love and tenderness. Over time Kate’s hardness and fear began to melt, and for the first time in years Kate felt physically attracted to her husband.
Kate’s desire felt like a match had been struck and a small flame was burning deep inside of her. Although Kate’s initial impulse was to blow out the flame so it couldn’t hurt her, she made a choice to let it burn. She took a deep breath and let herself want her husband.
Instead of turning away when he came in from a run with his shirt clinging to his body, she let her eyes linger. When his hand grazed hers as they sat next to each other at church, she felt a surprising rush of endorphins. Kate had cut off all physical intimacy with her husband when she found out about the affair, and for the first time Kate found herself wanting to be close to her husband.
“It wasn’t like remembering why I fell in love with him in the beginning,” Kate told me. “It was falling in love with him as we are now. I truly wanted to be around him, to be touching him, to hold him, to be intimate with him. I initiated being intimate, and it was so good, so tender, so different than anything we’ve ever had before.”
I spend a lot of time talking with people about sexual wounds. Kate and I had spent many hours talking about her own history of sexual abuse and the devastating impact of her husband’s betrayal. But as I sat with Kate that day in her romantic afterglow, my eyes filled with tears of gratitude.
Kate began this journey by allowing herself to be vulnerable with her husband in small ways—sharing a feeling, expressing an opinion, asking for his feedback. But that journey into vulnerability allowed Kate to discover her own sexual desire—a part of herself she had locked away out of fear and shame—and true sexual intimacy with her husband. Kate tasted the Lord’s presence and grace in her own sexual longing and intimacy with her husband and saw that it was good.
Looking for Union
Like Kate, we are made in God’s image. By our very nature, we have been created with physical, sexual longings for union with another. One day, we will experience the ultimate union with Christ in heaven, but on this earth our sexual longings provide a foretaste of that longing and union to come.
Sexual desire is not a shameful feeling to be hidden in the darkness. Physical longing for sexual intimacy is not synonymous with lust; it doesn’t require us to read Fifty Shades of Grey. Sexual desire is a good gift from God—even if it doesn’t always feel good.
And it is for us, as God is for us—whether we are single or married, whether our pasts are marked by wounds, promiscuity, or chastity. Sexual desire is not the same as sexual behavior. Every day, we make ethical and moral choices about how we act upon our feelings. But regardless of what we do or don’t do, the longing for union with another is a reflection of God’s own character.
And while our stories may be drastically different from Kate’s, I hope we can all join her in being able to taste and see that the Lord is good—not just in a general way but in our sexuality in particular. As we observe and experience sexual desire in our own lives, and as we read and dialogue in community with others about sexual longings, I hope that we will see and experience God’s presence and grace. Sexual desire calls us out of ourselves; may we listen to that call and meet God within it.
Kim Gaines Eckert is a psychologist in private practice in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She is the author of Things Your Mother Never Told You: A Woman’s Guide to Sexuality (IVP, 2014) and Stronger Than You Think: Becoming Whole Without Having to Be Perfect (IVP Books, 2007). You can find her at DrKimEckert.com.