“I said I would never do it again.”
“I can’t believe I’m back to the same old sin patterns.”
“Why can’t I stop doing this?”
“I thought I was past this.”
Why do we pursue sexual sin, particularly after we’ve come to loathe the impact it has on us, our spouse, our ministries, and our relationship with the living God? Have you ever said with the Apostle Paul, “Wretched man (or woman) that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24)?
There are many reasons why we pursue broken sexual choices, but I would like to focus on one core motivation: unfulfilled longing for something transcendent. Our hearts are designed to long for something intimate, life-giving, and hope filled. Sexual sin makes many promises, but it can never give us these things. Even godly sex within marriage, as glorious a gift as it may be, fails to be the ultimate fulfillment our hearts deeply—and rightly—long for. Speaking of the folly of idolatry in his commentary on Isaiah, Ray Ortlund says, “It’s absurd to try to derive an ultimate experience from a less-than-ultimate resource. That’s false worship” (293).
This blog follows a previous post entitled, “Single Christian, Are You Enjoying Your Union with Christ?” and takes a deeper look into union with Christ.
Two Distinct Realities: Union and Communion
Before discussing the nuts and bolts of how to enjoy your union with Christ, it’s important to make a distinction between two concepts: union and communion.
Union with Christ is a position Christians enjoy as a result of the work of Christ on their behalf, uniting them completely to himself. It is passively received; it is not something merited, achieved, or fought for. It is an act of sheer grace from God’s benevolent heart down to the Christian. Marcus Peter Johnson describes union this way in his book One with Christ:
To experience fellowship with the Son is to be made alive in Christ, justified in Christ, sanctified in Christ, seated in the heavenly realms in Christ, built up into Christ, and given fullness in Christ. Those joined to Christ are “members of Christ,” “crucified in Christ,” “included in Christ,” “baptized into Christ,” and “the body of Christ.” They eat and drink Christ, they are one with Christ, Christ dwells in them and they dwell in him; they can do nothing apart from him (39).
When reading this definition, you may be tempted to think, “Well, that’s great, but I live in the real world and certainly don’t feel like I’m on cloud nine, united to Jesus all day, every day!” How are we to reconcile the glorious truth of our irrevocable union with Christ with our day-to-day reality, which, if we’re honest, often feels dull, disappointing, or at times even hopeless?
Understanding the dynamics of our communion with the triune Godhead may shed light on the frustration of this dissonance between what we read in Johnson’s definition and what we experience in our daily lives.
Communion with God is the felt experience of the life of God intersecting with our own; it’s the sense that we relationally interact with God himself through the varied means of grace. We share in the life of God and relate to him in the many ways he represents himself as father, king, intercessor, comforter, counselor, refuge, friend, high priest, elder brother, great physician, husband, and sympathizer with our weakness. This isn’t even an exhaustive list of all the ways God describes his communion with his people! Contrary to our union with Christ, our communion does ebb and flow. It is subject to our weakness, efforts, striving, and lack thereof. We may experience profound joy in communion with Christ and we may experience seasons of weariness and discouragement. Even mature believers go through times when they struggle to have rich communion with God.
Our communion with God—or lack of communion—is one key to the “why” behind our sinful behaviors and attitudes. John Flavel says it this way:
The soul is so constituted that it craves fulfillment from things outside itself and will embrace earthly joys for satisfaction when it cannot reach spiritual ones. The believer is in spiritual danger if he allows himself to go any length of time without tasting the love of Christ and savoring the felt comforts of a Savior’s presence. When Christ ceases to fill the heart with satisfaction, our souls go in silent search of other lovers (vol. 2, 438).
Growing in holiness and purity is not merely the “putting off” of unwanted behaviors, though it is not less than that. It is also the “putting on” and pursuit of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Seeking deeper communion with God—the one who loves our souls—is a death blow to the pet sins we nurture because it brings the satisfaction we were longing for when we chose to pursue sin in the first place.
Acknowledging the Mystery
There is a degree of wonder and mystery involved in comprehending our union with Christ. When we pursue Christ, we’re endeavoring to do what only the Holy Spirit can enable us to do. In this life, we enjoy and commune with Christ by faith.
We must observe a posture of humility because, after all, we’re talking about communing with—enjoying, relating to—the living God. This is his world. All things are for him and through him and to him (Rom. 11:36), on his terms. Thankfully, we have a gracious God who wants to disclose himself to us—to be known and worshiped in Spirit and in truth. He is not hiding, so knowing God is not a scavenger hunt. Take heart! God relates to us intimately. He is deeply personal and specific, so there’s not a “one size fits all” method to unlock the secret to true communion.
It’s helpful to acknowledge that pursuing communion with Christ in a faithful way may differ for each Christian based on their season of life. A mother of young children, a man in hospice, a young professional, a pastor, and a teen all may have different habits of communion with God.
A dear brother in his nineties said that singing and playing his piano in worship to Christ has become more primary as Bible reading grew more difficult with age. Similarly, a mom with school-aged kids shared that in her single years she experienced her communion with God as primarily a silent, meditative time alone in the Scriptures. She laughed as she remarked, “I can’t remember the last time there was silence in our home!” As you seek after communion with God, seek first to be faithful in that pursuit. Rather than unlocking the secret to a transcendent experience, communion with God can grow even in the ordinary moments of daily life.
Why do we pursue sin in the first place? Often, it’s because we’re not pursuing our indescribably satisfying Savior. We try to fill our desire for transcendence with cheap trinkets when we have all the depth of the riches of wisdom and knowledge of God in Christ (Rom. 11:33). Indwelling sin can’t hold a candle to communion with God.
In the next installment of this blog series, I’ll discuss ten practical ways you can pursue deeper communion with Christ.
And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Phil. 1:9–11)
Sexual intimacy in marriage is one of God’s gifts. It furthers humanity, cements the marriage covenant between a man and a woman, and fosters love and joy in their union.
Christians confess these things. But do we truly, deep-down, believe sex in marriage is pure? All too often, I don’t. Many factors can taint the purity of marital sex in our minds and hearts. Sexualization seeps into almost every part of western culture, and the world’s view of sex as base and animalistic surely affects us more than we realize. We may feel hesitancy and shame about enjoying marital sex. And if we’ve been abused or struggle with sexual sin, it can be difficult to believe that sex can honor God or be safe.
The world, the flesh, and the devil all conspire to convince us that what God says is good really isn’t good, and our battle-weary hearts struggle to accept the purity of this gift.
And what we believe impacts how we live. It’s harder to engage with your spouse in a loving and vulnerable way through intimacy if sex feels sinful. We may know the truth with our heads, but how do we respond to rogue feelings?
Christ Is Enough
Being a Christian means hiding in the righteousness of Christ, always. If we’re trusting Jesus, every single wrong belief and warped motivation has been crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20) that we may live in him (Rom. 5:18)! Our hope doesn’t rest in our behavior or feelings, but in Christ’s finished work. If God says sex in a loving marriage between a man and a woman is good, and if you’re married, then intimacy with your spouse is good—regardless of your feelings.*
Here are four truths to help us “talk back” to our feelings.
- We’ve been declared righteous according to Christ’s death and resurrection.
Faith in Jesus alone justifies us, not our works (Rom. 3:23–24). Apart from Christ, our hearts are twisted. We may bring sexual sin and its accompanying shame, or the shame of sins committed against us, into the marriage covenant. We’ll be fighting sin and feeling the pain of sins committed against us until heaven. This is why justification is such liberating news—our souls are safe because of Jesus.
God has set his favor upon us. He sparked faith in our warped, corrupted hearts, making them new and empowering us to walk in good works (Eph. 2:4–9). If you’re married, your marriage relationship is one of those good works. Marriage illuminates the all-surpassing gift of Christ, our Bridegroom, to his people. Being justified by faith means we can take our worried eyes off ourselves and fix them on our Savior. We’re united with Christ, reconciled with the Father, and helped by the Spirit. We can walk in good works because of Jesus.
- Christ’s righteousness covers us.
R.C. Sproul illustrates this doctrine of imputation in his children’s book, The Priest with Dirty Clothes. When Jonathan irreparably stains his robe, he goes to the great prince desperate for help to clean his clothes so he can stand before the king. Shockingly, the prince puts Jonathan’s filthy clothes on himself and gives Jonathan his own royal robes. He smiles, saying, “These are the clean clothes I promised you. They are yours forever. They will never wear out. There is not a spot of dirt on them and nothing can make them dirty. They are perfect for you.”
Think about that! Nothing can mar the righteousness that’s ours in Christ—not our sin (past or present), not sin done against us, not our feelings.
What does this have to do with sex? We can wrongly believe purity is rooted in our behavior. If we’ve sinned or been sinned against sexually, that’s it. Game over. We’re “used goods.” But the gospel truth is that our purity is found in Christ—it’s rooted not in us, but in the spotlessly pure robes of Christ’s righteousness covering us.
At the end of Sproul’s story, Jonathan wants to be good enough to wear the prince’s clothes. “But you cannot be good enough, Jonathan,” the prince says. “You must live your whole life trusting in my goodness while you wear my clothes.” We will never be pure apart from Christ. Yet, in Christ, we’re adorned by a purity more shimmeringly beautiful than we can imagine.
- God uses ordinary means to sanctify us.
Day by day, by the power of his Spirit, God is doing extraordinary work in us through ordinary means—reading his Word, prayer, fellowship with believers, partaking of communion, suffering, relationships. For believers who are called to it, marriage—in all its dimensions—is part of that process.
As we learn to submit to another, preferring them before ourselves, seeking their wellbeing, and caring for their emotions, God is sanctifying us. As we embrace the vulnerability of sexual union, committing ourselves to our spouse again, knowing and being known in all our imperfections, God is sanctifying us. God will use even marital sex to work out our sanctification. Christian, you can enjoy sex with your spouse not only as something good in itself, but as part of the Lord’s sanctification in your life.
This is good news, but we still sin against God and each other. Have you ever thought, “I can’t even have sex with my spouse without sinning in my mind!”? The frustrating reality of ongoing sin can tempt us to avoid sex altogether. But that’s not the answer. As Jim Weidenaar said, simply avoiding sex would be like saying, “I can’t pursue relationships with people in church without my pride and anger surfacing, so to avoid more sin I’ll be a loner.”
“Instead,” Jim said, “it’s as we pursue loving relationships that we recognize sin and true growth happens. The path of sanctification, in sex or any area of life, requires us to exercise faith. Though the road is rocky, our Savior will help us grow even as we grieve, confront, repent of, and work through sin day by day.”
- We’re headed to eternal glory.
Neither marriage nor sex within marriage are ultimate or eternal—like all God’s gifts, they’re signposts pointing to the greater realities of Christ and his love for his people. One day we will physically be with Jesus, our heart’s satisfaction, forever (Ps. 16:5–6). We’ll be free from sin and shame, delighting in the consummation of our souls’ deepest longings.
Paradoxically, this frees us to treasure our earthly marriage more than ever and to not take it too seriously. The intimacy of marriage is a lovely gift, but it pales compared to that great day when we see our Lord face to face. Christ himself is our joy! He is our inheritance. He is our tender husband. The marriage union is a temporary gift; spiritual union with Christ is our eternal reality.
How does this head knowledge work its way into our hearts, so our felt experience matches the truth we confess?
We may still feel that sex with our spouse is impure. Feelings are stubborn and must occasionally be given “a stern talking to.” But that doesn’t always change them. In this fallen life we will sometimes be overset by feelings that run roughshod over us, leaving no reprieve, no peace. But amid all the turmoil of all the feelings, we have a sure and steady refuge for our soul in Christ our Savior. We can shelter in him, crying with the psalmist, “God is our refuge and strength; a very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1).
And as the Holy Spirit continues to work in us, our belief in Christ’s sufficiency will grow. The answer, if we’re married, is not to avoid sexual intimacy with our spouse* nor to ignore the feelings. Neither can we examine ourselves thoroughly enough or purge ourselves of sin! No, our hope is found in Jesus.
Who Jesus is and what he has done triumphs over our feelings. Robert Murray McCheyne wrote, “For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ” (293). Let’s look to Christ, our Savior, and hide in his righteousness. We can trust him with every part of our lives.
*This assumes your marriage is not abusive. If you’re facing harm from your spouse, remove yourself to safety and seek guidance from a trusted counselor.
It may be glib, but it rings true: the only thing that never changes is change. I’ve got change happening in almost every area of life right now. You too? Consider this list of what I’m facing and see if it connects with your life.
- Change through death. My dad died several months ago, and family relationships have shifted since then. Not only have I joined the parentless club, but my relationships with my siblings and their families are growing into something different. In the last few years of his life, a lot of our interactions revolved around how Dad was doing. We texted, emailed, and talked about what kind of care he needed, who could do what, and then the dreaded end-of-life decisions. Over the past months, we’ve grown into new ways of connecting that don’t orbit around Dad’s care.
- Change through aging. Umm, I’ll just leave that, at that! But you can guess—bodies age and with that comes a changed appearance, different limitations, new dreams emerging, and a revitalized commitment to make the most of the time given to me in this life.
- Change through new relational landscapes. Our Harvest USA staff family has lost several beloved brothers and sisters to new callings and changed life circumstances; we’ve gained several new coworkers too. There have also been several significant changes in my personal life: my close friend and sister moved overseas with her family, another friend has grown more limited due to chronic illness, and still another moved out of the area.
- Change through spiritual pruning and soul surgery. God has been doing so much in my own heart over the past season. He’s been growing me through challenges, joys, grief, and a long awaited ‘birth’ of a book I’ve wanted to write for years. Writing Jesus and Your Unwanted Journey brought more tears than any other writing project I’ve worked on for Harvest USA. The excruciating stories that women have shared with me have changed and humbled me.
What about you? Do any of those categories hit home, my friend? Perhaps your marriage has suffered the painful blow of abandonment, death, or divorce. Maybe one of your kids just left for college and you aren’t so sure that the emptier nest season is as fabulous as you’ve heard. Or perhaps a friend has moved on, seeking connections elsewhere, and you feel lost and abandoned. You might even be facing the disorienting reality of someone ending their relationship with you because it had become sinful, and your friend/girlfriend/boyfriend/secret lover heard and heeded the loving call of Jesus to return home from the far country.
When the pain of change hits hard, we have a choice in front of us. We can cry out to Jesus for help, comfort, wisdom, and guidance or we can cry out elsewhere for temporary comfort, distraction, rescue, or a sense of stability. Where do you tend to turn?
Everything Will Shift—Except God’s Promises
When you’re hit with pain due to changed circumstances, it’s important to cry out for comfort in the right direction. The enemy of our souls and our weak and easily deceived sin nature crave and seize any opportunity to pursue people, experiences, and feelings that may temporarily numb or relieve our anguish but, in the end, land us in a pit. God alone is the source of unchanging, unfailing love and comfort. He is your steadfast companion when the terrain of your life shifts, whether slightly and subtly or like a wave crashing over you.
Consider these promises from God’s Word:
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1:17)
For I the Lord do not change. (Mal. 3:6)
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Heb. 13:8)
But people? Your best friend? The person you’re dating? Your spouse if you marry? Your health, financial portfolio, church? All will change and shift. Some of these changes will be sweet and feel good, while others may break your heart.
Painful Change Leads You to Your Steadfast Savior
Only through our relationship with Jesus do we have a relationship with someone who will never:
- Stop loving or change his desires for us. Jesus won’t ever say, “I just don’t have the feels for you anymore.”
- Abandon, break up with us, or join a new friend group, leaving us in the dust by saying, “You know…I just need to do me now…sorry.”
- Take back the forgiveness that has covered all our sins—past, present and future!
- Betray us or not come through on the promises he’s made. His words are trustworthy. God will never stop loving us deeply, even as he knows all the worst things about us and has experienced our sin against him every day. He’ll never stop offering to comfort us when our hearts are broken, lonely, or disappointed. He’ll never grow tired or give up on helping us grow and become more like him. He’ll never go back on his promise to give us strength to live for him and not ourselves. He’ll never grow tired of helping us and carrying our burdens.
- Change his plan to bring all his children into heaven at the time of his choosing.
- Die on us. We will never, ever, have to stand looking over a grave and then turn away to live the rest of our life feeling the empty hole of him not being here, of feeling how silent or quiet the world feels without him.
God’s Unchanging Love Brings Healing Change to You
God is not only unchangeable, he’s also full of holy, compassionate love for you, and he alone has the power to heal and change your broken heart. You may feel devastated today, hopeless and drowning in a sea of painful circumstances. Perhaps you’ve made choices you’re ashamed of, or now enslaved to certain behaviors, or completely consumed with a person—you might even say you’re addicted to this person.
Friend, because God is steadfast and unchanging, and you are in process of being made to be like Jesus, you have hope. Behaviors can be changed, relationships can lose their sinful grip on your heart, addictions can subside, and the pull of your desires diminish as you turn toward God with humble dependence. He is faithful and he will never stop loving you or being with you. That will never, ever change.
One of the most crucial questions a husband and wife ask after the discovery of pornography or an affair is, “How can trust be rebuilt?” Put simply, trust is built with consistent, selfless love over time.
However, this simple answer is not always easy to live out. For a spouse who has lived deceitfully for years, living in unwavering truth will be new territory. For a spouse who’s been betrayed and deceived, deciding if their spouse is being consistent in words and actions can be confusing.
The consistency + time formula is a helpful guide for couples who are committed to daily, proactive engagement to rebuild trust. Consistently checking-in, with both truth and tenderness, can help create and cultivate an intimate connection, which is necessary in the trust-building process. Check-ins are a purposeful, set-aside time for a couple to connect on a consistent basis about the things that are important to each person. They offer a husband and wife the opportunity to know and be known. When done well, check-ins can be used to help a couple truly walking in the light foster the spiritual and emotional connection that enables trust to be established once again.
Consistent Steps Taken over Time through Selfless Love
You might ask, “What can I do consistently? And for how long? What if I don’t feel loving?” One husband may decide to bring his wife coffee first thing every morning. Another may consistently answer the phone each time his wife calls. Still another may reliably go to bed at the same time as his wife. Each of these examples may help a wife begin to see her husband growing in dependability. But these consistent actions, while loving and significant, don’t accomplish everything needed to rebuild broken trust—God’s plan for marriage is far greater than a list of tasks for a husband and wife to do predictably.
In addition to a couple demonstrating reliability, God’s design for marriage includes a husband and wife faithfully loving one another with authenticity, intimacy, and integrity. The language God uses to describe the union of Adam and Eve’s marriage conveys unity. “Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).
However, sexual betrayal attacks that union. Every part of a marriage is deeply impacted by betrayal. The deceit that accompanies pornography use and affairs ravages a couple’s ability to be truly connected as God intended. One tool that can be fruitful for a couple working through the effects of betrayal is to engage in regular check-ins with each other to build both reliability and unity in marriage.
What Check-Ins Can Offer
The development or re-establishing of an intimate connection necessary for trust within a marriage. Trust-building will include heart change—allowing a husband who has been hiding to step out into the light. Honesty and transparency can lay the groundwork for a wife who has been devastated to begin to consider moving toward her husband emotionally.
A focused context in which to put learning into practice. For the wife who seeks to have compassion toward her husband but finds it so difficult under the painful weight of betrayal, the short and contained timeframe of the check-in offers an opportunity to be compassionate toward him. For the husband who is seeking to avoid the temptation to be defensive, the check-in provides an opportunity to practice listening without responding defensively.
A demonstration of openness, vulnerability, and growth. During a check-in, a spouse can show an increasing self-awareness along with an increasing Christ-awareness. It also allows each spouse to respond to the other’s vulnerabilities with care, aiming to be safe enough to be “naked and unashamed” (Gen. 2:25).
An expression of commitment to the marriage relationship. We put a child’s soccer game or a work meeting on the calendar because they are important to us. Similarly, having a regular check-in shows a level of seriousness toward repairing and caring for the union between a husband and wife.
Check-ins can be part of plan to develop an intimate, safe connection for both spouses to know and be known in a way that captures the unity of marriage described in Genesis 2.
Many different check-ins have been created to help couples foster a deeper connection with one another. However, sexual betrayal creates a rupture in a relationship that requires cautious care when engaging in connection. The pain of betrayal can leave a wife fearful, trepidatious, or simply not ready for some topics or conversations. Here, a husband would be wise to invite his wife to look at the suggestions available to include in a check-in. Together, they can to create a check-in that is valuable and worthwhile for their marriage.
- Feelings: How are you coming into this check-in? Name three feelings you are feeling or have felt today. Keep a feelings list or feelings wheel handy to reference.
- Encouragement: Offer three things you appreciate or admire about your spouse. CCEF counselor Aaron Sironi says, “Praise and affirmation are essential to the health and vitality of a marriage. Genuine praise and verbalized thankfulness are like marriage fertilizer (think Miracle-Gro®) in the soil of your spouse’s heart. They have the power to help heal an ailing marriage or strengthen an already healthy one.” Building encouragement into a check-in allows one to practice honoring and cherishing his or her spouse.
- Openness: Husband, based on what your wife has asked to know, share any boundary violations honestly and tenderly. Include steps you’re taking to grow in sexual integrity.
- Goals: Share three short-term goals, hopes, or dreams you have for the next month. Then share three long-term goals, hopes, or dreams you have for the next five years. A couple recovering from the devastating effects of betrayal may find they have not dreamed together in a long time, if ever.
- Request change: This is an opportunity to share something you would like to see change. It may be a request for the lights to be turned off when leaving a room or a request for a spouse to change entertainment choices. It may be a request to begin a regular prayer time before bed. With regard to building trust, Brad Hambrick notes, “Trust is the belief that reasonable requests will be honored without the need for relational leverage.” With gentleness and fairness, presenting requests and accommodating requests that are reasonable can help build trust.
- Prayer: To close your check-ins together, pray as a couple.
Some couples do check-ins every day, every other day, or weekly. Husband, be the one to consistently initiate the check-in according to the timeframe agreed upon; this can be a wonderful opportunity to sow seeds of trust. And be honest. Honesty is the cornerstone of trust-building. Brad Hambrick, in his workbook True Betrayal: Recovering from the Betrayal of Your Spouse’s Sexual Sin says, “Honesty is a primary indicator of someone’s level of commitment” (19). Honesty communicates dedicated devotion to your wife.
Healing Is Possible
There can be hope in the aftermath of betrayal. Hambrick casts a vision of a marriage where trust is being rebuilt: “an aspect of the ‘one flesh’ relationship is returning. You are beginning to experience your burden being reduced and your joys multiplied as you share them with your spouse again. The marriage is beginning to feel like a blessing again” (61).
Couples are wise to ask how to build trust after betrayal. Doing check-ins allows them to invite each other and God into vulnerable places, trusting him to repair, rebuild, and reform a broken union into a marriage that glorifies God. A redeemed and renewed marriage is a work that no man or woman can do on their own—it is a work of God in a husband and wife who are faithfully committed to each other in Christ. Check-ins can help a couple grow in their connection with one another and with the Lord.
“I just don’t understand why God won’t allow me to have the two things I desire most: to serve him and to be in a romantic relationship.” The college student’s pained, confused question gave me pause as I grappled with how to respond. Though attending a conservative Christian university, romance, for this young woman, could only be found in the arms of another woman.
How would you have answered her sincere question that arose from her heartache within? I don’t remember what I said, but, years later, I discovered that she had in fact embraced a gay identity. Her faith had faded into the gray background of her life while she fully engaged in what felt like vivid-color freedom, following her desires to her “true” self.
Sexual Attractions and Following Jesus: No Private Real Estate
Recently, I’ve had many conversations about a freeing, gracious aspect of the gospel that isn’t popular these days: the lordship of Christ. Jesus explained that life in him means death to self in exchange for a glorious, new life lived under his loving care and ownership. Luke 9:23–24 says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
To be sure, Christianity isn’t only about denying ourselves! However, what my young friend didn’t want to face is that life in Christ requires humbly surrendering to God as Lord, Creator, and Savior over all areas of our lives. There is no part of our being on which we can plant a flag that says “Mine!”—including our relational desires and sexuality. There is no private real estate for followers of Jesus.
Christians are caving to the worldly pressure to latch onto a false gospel of self-fulfillment, which includes the destructive heresy that sexual and romantic desires do not need the radical redemption of Christ. This is seductive and enticing because it promotes the idea that I can take up my cross and follow Jesus, denying myself here and there, but not in my sexuality and identity. It whispers that I can love and follow him on my own terms, having whatever kinds of romantic and sexual relationships I desire. However, the loving lordship of Jesus confronts us to daily die to self—and comforts us in the pain of daily surrender.
Jesus’ Holy Lordship Confronts Lovingly
There is no private real estate for the child of God. Being born again means being born into his family. We’re given citizenship into his kingdom with its accompanying commandments; we’re bound to a holy, heavenly Bridegroom through an eternal marriage union. In every aspect of belonging to God, devotion is meant to be complete and all-encompassing. The world, our sin nature, and the kingdom of darkness attack any full-orbed devotion with daily onslaughts that are sometimes frontal attacks, sometimes more subtle.
Paul’s awareness of false teachers compelled him to plead with believers, “For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:2–3). The movement among some Christians to affirm LGBTQ+ identities and sex outside of God’s design is, in part, fueled by the idea that Christ’s lordship does not need to change our sexual and romantic desires. He may be holy, but my sexuality doesn’t need his sanctification because it’s mine, and it’s fine just the way it is.
Christ our Lord never backs off from confronting the mindset of private real estate that is natural to all of us—but he is also loving! He doesn’t shame or manipulate us into surrender and trust; he invites, compels, and compassionately calls us first to relationship with himself and then moves on to transform what we most want in this life. Christ, our incarnate Savior, faithfully transforms our priorities, beliefs, and desires while also growing our hearts’ willingness to obey him in all things. Jesus claims lordship over our sexual desires and romantic attractions (or lack thereof) and invites us toward himself with compassion and compelling love, enabling us to surrender to him. Romans 12:1–2 offers us the same challenge and encouragement.
Jesus’ Holy Lordship Comforts Personally
The comfort and companionship of Jesus seemed far away and detached from the street-level longings of my young college friend. She wanted to be with a real, live person. Like many Christians, she struggled to reconcile a holy Lord, who could tell her what to do and not do, with the real comfort of unmet desires for which she longed.
Christ’s comfort increasingly can permeate our hearts when we rest in his care and take on the yoke of obedience, faith, and surrender. His yoke can’t be embraced, nor his comfort received, unless we are willing to turn from running our lives as private real estate owners. We aren’t created to own ourselves and bear the burden of creating a life built independently of God, brick by brick, with our plans, desires, and dreams. That kind of “building”—whether relationships, identity, sexual orientation, or attractions—is built on sand. It will eventually come crashing down to reveal the fractured foundation of selfishness and independence. Jesus offers us a different way.
Jesus is holy and demands our full allegiance while graciously giving us his full protection and provision. No matter what form of suffering, temptation, or failure we have personally experienced, we increasingly experience life rightly ordered when we surrender our desires to him—even desires concerning sexuality and relationships: “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22–23).
This article originally posted for the Biblical Counseling Coalition, for which Ellen serves on the Leadership Council.
 Abraham Kuyper said, “. . . there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: Mine!” Quoted in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. by James D. Bratt.
21 Jul 2022
Name: Bob Heywood
Hometown: I’m from the Roxborough area of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Position: Men’s Ministry Staff
Description of work at Harvest USA: I facilitate biblical support groups for men and engage in initial visit appointments with men who reach out to us for help. These appointments allow me the privilege to speak into the lives of people from all over the country and world! I’ve had occasions to speak in some amazing venues in the past, but those opportunities have diminished in recent years.
How did you get to Harvest USA? I came to Harvest USA around 24 years ago because of my own personal struggle with pornography. After a few years of involvement with the groups, volunteering with facilitating groups, and then losing my job as an offset pressman, my pastor suggested I inquire whether Harvest USA could take me on as an employee. John Freeman graciously accepted me—if I could raise support. In six months, I raised enough support to start working part-time, and I’ve been working part-time ever since. I’ve been working here for 18 years now.
What is your favorite Scripture? Anybody who knows me knows that my favorite book of the Bible is 2 Corinthians. There’s a lot going on in that book, but one highlight for me is chapter five, verse twenty-one: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” A clearer gospel statement can’t be found. I love it.
What is your favorite thing about living in Philadelphia? I used to work in Old City Philadelphia at 2nd and Chestnut. I love that area and always enjoy going there for a visit. I also love the Roxborough area, where I was born and raised—it’s home to me. I’m also an avid Philadelphia sports enthusiast. But I have to admit, that has been a rough experience over the years.
Can you tell us an interesting fact about yourself? I’ve been married to my high school sweetheart for 49 years. I’ve also been going to the same church for 48 years. We’ve changed denominations twice but in the same congregation! I worked for the federal government for 28 years and was in the United States Air Force for four years. I came to Christ when I was in the Air Force in July 1971. My highest degree of education is Roxborough High, class of ‘69.
07 Jul 2022
In part one, I outlined some major reasons why your spouse may be avoiding sexual intimacy in your marriage. You might still feel the reason behind this distance remains a mystery. On one level, it’s important to lovingly seek to understand why your spouse refuses sexual intimacy because their reasons will influence how you respond. But even if your spouse can’t or is unwilling to articulate why, there is still a way forward in your marriage.
(This blog assumes the reason your spouse is sexually unavailable is not due to present sexual sin. The way forward in that situation is vastly different than what I outline below. You can find resources for responding to and battling sexual sin here.)
Pray for Your Marriage
God cares about the sexual health of your marriage—it’s part of his glorious design. But he doesn’t care about sex for its own sake. He cares about sex because it’s an important piece of your entire marriage. While it’s good to pray for the Lord’s blessing on your sexual intimacy with your spouse, it’s even better to pray for his blessing on your marriage holistically. God wants your marriage to display the “manifold wisdom of God. . . to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10). Your marriage is designed to reveal the mystery of the gospel. Whenever you’re praying for your marriage to be strengthened, you’re praying according to God’s will.
A Good Marriage without Sex?
It’s not a foregone conclusion that if a couple is not regularly engaging in sexual activity, their marriage is struggling. If a spouse gets in a car accident and is paralyzed, sex is done. But that couple can still show sacrificial love, affection, affirmation, and unity in many other ways. The same is true for older couples. A couple’s sexual relationship has a life cycle to it, and while that cycle may look different for each couple, statistically the frequency of sex greatly decreases as couples reach their twilight years. This is simple biology, and it says nothing about the health of their marriage. Sex is a very important part of marriage, but the absence of it does not nullify the marriage.
Patiently Seek Conversations
Most couples struggle to talk about their sexual relationship. It feels awkward and intimidating. And if your spouse is avoiding sex altogether, they’ll probably avoid conversations about it as well. It requires great discernment and courage to engage your spouse. Hopefully you know your spouse well enough to understand what makes them feel comfortable and when they’re likely to be willing to have difficult conversations. But if your marriage is only sustained by avoiding conflict, you may need outside help from a marriage counselor to learn how to constructively have harder conversations. Good communication in your marriage is the foundation for building sexual intimacy. You can’t skip this step. There may be a lot of groundwork to be laid before any conversations about sex can happen.
Show Interest in Your Spouse
It’s no coincidence that the Bible uses the word “know” to speak euphemistically about sex. Adam “knew” Eve. This is why our culture’s obsession with one-night stands is completely antithetical to God’s design. Sex with a stranger only leads to loneliness, isolation, and insecurity. If sex is the consummative act of knowing your spouse, the more you know them in all facets of your relationship, the more natural it is for that knowledge to culminate in a celebration of knowing one another sexually.
Seek to know what makes them laugh, and what makes them cry. Show them daily that your own hobbies and interests are always subordinate to their needs. And, whenever possible, help them to connect your interest in them with God’s interest in them. Encourage them to see through you to their Savior. Seek daily to represent Christ in your home.
Weep with Them
If the Lord allows you to know the deeper reasons behind your spouse’s avoidance of sex, you have an opportunity to selflessly minister to your spouse—for their sake. If their reason is physical or personal, show them deep compassion and sorrow over the ways they’ve suffered through this alone. You’ll need wisdom for how and when to present potential solutions such as counseling or medical intervention; don’t rush to “fix them” to remove a barrier to sex. Again, selfless service is the goal—which is also the goal in sex. You must strive to communicate that you care more for their health and healing than you do your sexual fulfillment. Your spouse will be able to tell if your efforts to help them are truly motivated by a concern for them or simply a concern for yourself.
Be Courageous and Patient
If it’s clear there aren’t physical or personal reasons that would make it wrong to pursue your spouse sexually, then I encourage you to take an investment approach to romancing your spouse. This will look different for men and women, so for this situation I’ll use a husband as the example.
Husband, see every act of love as a deposit into your relationship. Pray for wisdom to discern what your wife is comfortable with in different moments. Perhaps a kiss on the cheek or a gentle hug will not be rejected. But you have to be courageous and committed to continual investments. Just like any kind of wise investment plan, you should place greater emphasis on future results, not present rewards. This mindset will guard you against easily giving up when your initial efforts to woo your wife fall flat. It’s also important that you have support from people who can encourage you when you start to get discouraged. In appropriate ways (making sure to avoid embarrassing or shaming your wife) it can be helpful to share with trusted friends how you’re feeling about your relational investments. They can prop you up and pray for you in seasons when you feel like giving up.
Christ Pursues His Bride
While husbands have a unique role in representing Christ in their marriage, both husband and wife need to lean on Christ with their sexual disappointments and show his love to one another.
It’s important to reckon with the reality that you cannot love your spouse well unless you love Christ more. If Christ is not your wellspring of life, you will be seeking that life from your spouse, but they can never provide it. Sex can’t give you what only Christ can. Your romantic pursuit of your spouse will only be sustained and honoring to God if it’s coming from a place of growing contentment in the Lord.
Wrestle with God through the pain of your unmet longings. It’s okay to wrestle. It’s okay to feel pain. You don’t need to pretend it doesn’t affect you. But the aim of that wrestling should be increasing rest in our Lord’s promises, purposes, and power. God wants you to love your spouse from a place of freedom. He doesn’t want you to be in bondage to your desires. But that freedom is costly—it’s not an easy road, but Christ has already blazed the path for you as your forerunner.
As you wrestle with God about feeling rejected, my hope is that you will come to see that Christ knows your experience intimately. The entire story of the Bible is one epoch after another of God’s people rejecting him. Your spouse’s sexual unavailability may not be a rejection of you, but that probably doesn’t remove the sting. And this is where Christ comes as your sympathetic high priest. He wants you to know that you’re sharing in the fellowship of his sufferings, that even this trial is a tool to refine your faith and glorify God.
Even though God’s people have a long history of rejecting their Husband, he doesn’t stop pursuing them. He doesn’t stop loving them. He doesn’t stop wooing them. “Behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her” (Hos. 2:14). God pursues his bride and tenderly draws her in. He’s done that for you and for me. Just as Hosea’s pursuit of Gomer was a picture of God’s pursuit of Israel, your faithful, tender, patient, long-suffering pursuit of your spouse is a picture of the loving pursuit of God for his church. Whether or not sex is the culmination of this pursuit, it’s still a pursuit that honors God, conforms you into the image of Christ, and conveys his love for your spouse.