“That’s a perspective on sex that I’ve wished to hear my whole life.” The bride-to-be was sitting next to her fiancé across the table from me, and we were having a conversation about sex.
One of the privileges of pastoral ministry is serving couples by preparing them for the covenant of marriage. Unfortunately, one of the trends I’ve noticed in premarital counseling, in conversations with other pastors, and in listening to many other married couples, is that the church has articulated an incomplete theology of human sexuality. In youth group meetings, sermons, retreats, and other settings, youth pastors, pastors, mentors, and other Christian leaders have clearly explained the biblical boundaries of sexuality. That’s important—boundaries create the necessary space in which we may flourish with our sexuality. But boundaries by themselves don’t create the flourishing! While the world often treats sex as a recreational activity or as a vehicle for pleasure and intimacy within committed relationships (married or not), the Christian approach to sexuality affirms a higher meaning in sex.
Let’s look at two ways the Christian gospel transforms sexual intimacy.
The Gospel Enables a Level of Deep Intimacy
God created human beings for relationship. All the way back in the Garden of Eden, God himself noted that “it was not good for man to be alone,” and so he filled that need by creating a companion for Adam. Married or single, we all need relationships in order to thrive. Going to a concert is a more fulfilling experience if you share it with someone. Watching the sun set over the Pacific Ocean is more complete if someone is watching with you. Shedding tears of joy is best done in the company of others. We are designed to share our thoughts, our hobbies, our emotions, our spirituality—every part of our being. The more intimate the things we share, the more selective we are about who we share them with.
Our sexuality—our desires, our nakedness, our ability to enjoy sexual fulfillment—is the most personal part of our being. Even the apostle Paul warns that sexual sins are unique because they violate our very selves (see 1 Cor. 6:18). Of course, the positive dimension is that sex is a God-designed way for us to share the most personal and intimate part of ourselves. Sex allows us to give ourselves entirely—body and soul—to another person. As Tim Keller states, “Sex is God’s way for you to give yourself to someone else so deeply that it results in personal transformation and completion.”
This is why, biblically speaking, marriage is required to enjoy sex properly. Marriage creates the covenantal context in which it is safe to give ourselves sexually to the person whom we trust enough to give our lives to. It’s a remarkable design! Sex is meant to make us vulnerable, to make us naked—physically, but also emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. In other words, sex is not just something we do with our bodies; it’s a level of whole-person relationship that is cultivated, body, mind, spirit, and heart, in the bedroom and outside of the bedroom. As a couple, enjoying sexual intimacy to its fullest is not simply about improving your technique; instead you must learn to open yourself up to another on every level of your person.
Of course, many find this difficult. Sharing ourselves with another person—even the one we’re married to—can be a frightening thing. Will I be rejected? Criticized? Will she view me as weak if I share my hopes and fears? Will I be thought less of if I open up? Indeed, ever since sin entered the world, our shame and insecurity has made nakedness frightening.
The hope of the gospel is that Jesus carried our sin and our imperfections in our place. He became naked—literally—as he hung on the cross clothed in nothing but shame. Our shame. God saw Jesus fully exposed and condemned him in our place. As a result, God looks at us in our entirety and accepts us completely. God knows more about us than we know about ourselves, and he loves us with more commitment than we can fathom. This is the security we need to be naked and known by another. When we believe that we are known and loved by the one who matters most of all, we need not fear rejection by anyone else. In marriage, this security gives us the rock-solid foundation to practice deep vulnerability with our spouse, even as we learn to mirror the love and acceptance that God shows us as the One who knows us completely and loves us unwaveringly.
The Gospel Allows Us to Pursue Pleasure in Its Proper Place
“God is a hedonist at heart,” wrote C. S. Lewis. For many of us, this may be difficult to wrap our minds around. Maybe we’ve always imagined God as a dour being who frowns at the smallest hint of happiness. But nothing could be further from the truth—and sex is proof of that. Sex is meant to feel good. In fact, the Song of Songs is a nine-chapter ode to the beauty of human sexuality. Sex is meant to be sensual, creative, and satisfying. God created your body capable of experiencing remarkable feelings. Those of us who were taught otherwise may be inclined to miss out on embracing the sensual side of us that God created. For some, sex can be laced with unnecessary guilt or shame: Christian couples don’t do that.
Conversely, many people—both inside the church and outside—idolize sex and intimacy. Married couples, increasingly dissatisfied, tell themselves that if they could just spice up their sex life, if they could just improve their technique, their sex life would be perfect and their marriage would be fulfilling. Each month, grocery store magazines promise to reveal the one trick or technique that will finally bring sexual gratification. Some of us buy into the lie that if only our spouse were more encouraging, more romantic, more attuned to our emotional needs, we would finally feel secure and complete. Whether or not we realize it, we are demanding of sexual intimacy what only God can give us. We are, to quote C.S. Lewis again, using sex as a substitute for joy.
Only God can fully and finally meet our true need to be perfectly loved. Only God can give us the kind of joy and delight that we may be seeking in the sexual experience. Ironically, if we want to enjoy sex more, we have to seek less from it. We have to seek our deepest satisfaction and delight in God. When we trust that our need to be perfectly loved, cared for, reassured, and affirmed is met by the One who gave his Son in order to secure our adoption into his family, we are freed to enjoy sex as God intended it: a physically enjoyable, personally bonding experience between two people who mirror their covenant-making and covenant-keeping God.
May we as a Christian community—married or single—embrace and promote God’s design for human sexuality in the context where God has placed us.
- What do you understand the church’s theology of sexuality to be? How has this theology impacted your life?
- Tim Keller says, “Sex is God’s way for you to give yourself to someone else so deeply that it results in personal transformation and completion.” What kind of personal transformation and completion could he be talking about?
- How can we get past the shame and insecurity that we carry in order to believe that we are loved unconditionally?
- How does this Christian view of marriage compare to our culture’s message of sex as recreation?
- Can people ever enjoy deep intimacy if they are not Christians?