It seems like everyone wants to talk about sex. That is, except for the people who need to talk about it the most. Every married couple goes through seasons of difficulty in their sex life, but they rarely want to talk about it. In our culture that promotes an easy, enjoyable, uncomplicated caricature of sex, struggling sexually can be embarrassing at best and seemingly shameful at worst. Every time I sit with a couple who are experiencing some type of sexual struggles they almost always begin by saying the same thing: “You’re the first person we’ve ever talked to about this.” In fact, they’re oftentimes so embarrassed that they’ve barely talked about it with one another.
Sexual struggles in marriage take different forms. Whether it’s a lack of sexual arousal, being uncomfortable with a spouse’s desires, reoccurring fantasies, differing degrees of sexual desire, or anything else, sexual struggles can be a significant issue in a marriage.
When you think of our hyper-sexualized culture combined with our sexually fallen flesh, it shouldn’t be surprising that Christians and non-Christians alike have struggles in their sexual relationships, even when married. But like every consequence of our fallen hearts in this fallen world, there is hope for forgiveness, healing, redemption, and restoration through the gospel. So where do you begin in addressing sexual issues with a couple?
Understand what Sex Is
First, the couple needs to understand why God created sex. Most couples get married with either a weak or non-existent theology of sex. They assume that sex is the “perk” that they get along with marriage, like a cosmic wedding gift. But God did not create something as powerful as our sexuality to be just an “add on” to the marriage relationship.
God created sex to be a fundamental part of experiencing marriage. There are three God-given purposes for sex—that is, three purposes without which our sexual relationships fail to glorify God the way he designed them to.
Sex is a means of covenantal union
Our sexuality (which involves all the aspects of attraction, desire, and physical activity) was designed by God as a way by which a husband and a wife can be unified. Through sex God unifies a couple in a beautiful and mysterious way that engages, in one act, the physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of our humanity (Gen 2:24, 1 Cor 6:14-20).
Sex is an expression of the marital relationship
Song of Songs demonstrates this truth, illustrating how the sexual relationship provides a vivid expression of the intimacy, vulnerability, mutuality, passion, and ecstasy of marriage in a uniquely powerful way. Sex is not the ultimate expression of the marital relationship, but it is a uniquely powerful one.
Sex is an illustration of some of the relational dynamics between Christ and the Church
If sex is an expression of the marital relationship, and the marital relationship is meant to be a picture of Christ and the Church, then we cannot deny the direct connection between the two. As John Piper wrote,
“God created us in his image, male and female, with personhood and sexual passions, so that when he comes to us in this world there would be these powerful words and images to describe the promises and pleasures of our covenant relationship with him through Christ.”
Remember the power of the gospel
Inevitably our sexual experiences fall short of this lofty ideal. Too often sex becomes a source of conflict and disunity. Too often sex becomes an expression of our own self-serving desires instead of our self-sacrificial love. Too often sex illustrates a broken relationship that obscures the words and images God intends us to embody.
When we are confronted with the fallenness of our sexuality and its consequences in our sexual lives, it can become quickly obvious what we are called to “put off.” But it’s the corresponding call to “put on” selfless sexuality that can seem impossible. Our sexual desires (or lack thereof) are so intimate, so strong, and so seemingly innate that we usually doubt if there is really any hope.
I can think back to countless nights in my own marriage that ended in tears when hopelessness gripped our hearts and we truly believed there was no possibility of change. We were so alone, broken, and discouraged that we couldn’t even imagine a way out. It didn’t matter how many books on the topic we read, they all seemed to add to the condemnation that there was something beautiful about sex, but we weren’t able to access it.
We needed more than tips, or tricks, or tools, or time. We needed to be reminded of the truth of the gospel and of the transforming power of the Spirit that is able to transform every part of us, including our sexuality. Our minds needed to be renewed (Rom 12:2, Eph 4:23) with the truth of who we are in Christ, who he is continually making us into, and what kind of God he is. We needed to be refreshed with appreciation for his love and kindness and intimacy before we could ever seek to express love and kindness and intimacy toward one another sexually.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Being reminded of the gospel is not some one-shot cure to your sexual struggles. Our minds will need to be renewed with the truth of who God is and who he has made us to be for as long as our sexuality is still impacted by the Fall, which will be for the entirety of our lives. But being reminded of the power of the gospel is the foundation to growing in our sexual lives. And it’s the only thing that, in the midst of our deep and pervasive struggles, gives us real and lasting hope.
Pursue Sex as God Designed It
It is only when we have been reminded of the power of the gospel to transform that we can grow in our sexual struggles. As the Spirit empowers us, we begin to experience sex that looks more and more like what God designed it to be: a means of union, an expression of our relationship, and a picture of Christ and the church.
To that end, we can seek to answer the call to love our spouse sexually in ways that bless him or her and express our deep and abiding love. This means taking time to learn your spouse’s desires and to allow your spouse the time and space to explore your desires as well. No one is saying this won’t be awkward at times, but the gospel empowers us to love others in ways that come naturally and in ways that stretch us.
As our sex lives take on an increasingly eternal perspective we realize that frequency of sex in marriage is important not just because “you want it” or “I want it” but because of how God has called us to relate to one another sexually and express our love for one another in this uniquely powerful way.
And as we manifest the fruit of the Spirit in our love for one another we will begin to manifest patience with one another’s lack of sexual arousal, kindness when we have differing desires, mental self-control in regards to our fantasies, and the sprouting of hope and joy where disappointment and hopelessness had once reigned.
I know that if you’re struggling sexually in your marriage right now, you may be coming to the end of this post wanting more. You want to know where to start. You want to get more specific to your situation. You want to ask questions about how the gospel applies and what Spirit-empowered love looks like. But those aren’t the kind of situation-specific questions I can answer in a blog post.
Which is why you so desperately need to walk through your sexual struggles in marriage in the midst of community. God has given us the body of Christ to walk with us through our struggles. He calls those around us to comfort us, give us hope, renew our minds, and help us find the way forward. If you’re not sure how to bring it up, maybe just forward this post to a friend or a pastor and simply say, “This is me…can we talk?”
God has placed you in the body of Christ you’re in to help you navigate these difficult waters. And if you’re struggling sexually in your marriage, you are not alone. The truth is, in one way or another, we all are. We just don’t like talking about it, even though we desperately need to.
This is not the place to get all of your questions answered, but my prayer is that these truths would, if nothing else, give you hope. Hope enough to continue fighting. Hope enough to reach out to someone in your church family for help. Hope enough to be reminded that God’s work in you isn’t done, and that his work in the sexual area of your marriage isn’t done either.
If you would like more information on this topic, join us for our annual conference in October 2017 where Scott Mehl will give a breakout session “Addressing Sexual Struggles in Marriage.”