In my last post, I talked about what 1 Corinthians 7:4 does not say. I argued that the passage does not, in any way, support sex on demand in marriage. Today, I’d like to consider what it does say. The picture of sex in marriage that these verses present is radically countercultural in our world. In these verses, both the husband and the wife are called to give to the other spouse sexually, with intentional, purposeful deliberateness. The picture is not one of stimulus-response, passion-driven, sex-drive satisfaction.
To use classical categories, sex is described as an expression of agape love, not eros love. Agape is the intentional, deliberate, self-sacrificial love with which God loves us, and with which we are then called to love each other. Eros is the passion of sexual desire. Sex in marriage may obviously entail eros, but it is to be primarily led by agape.
In our culture, eros is revered, even worshiped, as the highest experience, the key to human flourishing, the foundation and requisite of any life-partner relationship, even in marriage. Our culture expects the passion of erotic attraction to be the initiating and sustaining dynamic of any such relationship—so much so that we might say that eros itself is the goal, and relationships only exist or continue inasmuch as they serve eros.
But think of how destructive this eros-led view is to a marriage: A couple plunges into marriage, sure that they have found (or have been found by!) true love. But when the daily, mundane, and unpleasant work of living with another sinful being comes to the fore, the erotic attraction to each other fades or disappears altogether. They’ve lost “that lovin’ feeling.” Sex ends. The relationship requires increasingly harder work, even as their motivation to do that hard work disappears. Of course, this happens because the foundation of the relationship was romantic eros. And the problem is not just the fact that spontaneous romantic erotic arousal fades for the married couple. Equally destructive is the fact that the capacity for arousal does not disappear—it just leaves this relationship. Eros is fickle, elusive, and spontaneous, with a spontaneity that is just as likely to attach itself to someone outside of the marriage. Or, frustrated by its elusiveness, a husband or wife can harness it to their imaginations via pornography or romance novels. Many marriages don’t survive this.
But wait. Perhaps you have heard this often. Christians usually advise that the marriage relationship be based on more than sexual attraction. But 1 Corinthians 7 says something much less common; it extends this principle to sexuality itself. In other words, you may have heard that a marriage relationship should not be led by sexual arousal. In these verses, God tells us that sex should not be led by sexual arousal, at least not primarily! The picture that the apostle Paul paints is not of two people waiting for the rush of romantic attraction to come upon them. Our culture worships moments like this. Such a synchronous alignment of erotic attraction is deemed proof you have found the “real thing.” But, in reality, this is only a firm basis for something as temporary and fleeting as a one-time hookup, nothing more. No, these verses teach us that not only marriage in the broader sense, but also the sexual expression of that marriage, is to be founded in, shaped by, motivated by, and sustained by intentional, deliberate, self-sacrificial agape love.
Perhaps you can imagine some of the implications of this radical perspective on sex and marriage. I will mention a few.
If you are married:
- Your sex life is not captive to the whims of erotic attraction. If husband and wife are motivated to move toward the other sexually on the basis of an intentional commitment to give to the other sacrificially, sex will not be limited to those rare moments when the erotic stars align. Isn’t it obvious that a couple applying Paul’s instruction will have sex more often? The irony is that this will result in much more eros in a marriage, not less; however, it will not be the driving force, but a fruit of agape.
- There is hope for your marriage, despite your personal history of eros. Many married people have lengthy, personal histories of being led by eros. Not only have they learned to be slaves of spontaneous erotic attraction, but that attraction has habitually been attached to something other than their spouse, like other individuals (i.e., old flames) or pornographic images. The memory and power of these habits of eros have no respect for your marriage vows. If you continue to be led by eros, these old habits will constantly intrude and compete quite effectively against your spouse for your loyalty. But if you make even your sexuality subject to your agape love for your spouse, the two of you will build new habits of eros on a foundation that your old memories can’t touch. Having renounced their power to control you, these old, erotic masters will increasingly lose their ability to draw you away from your spouse.
If you are single:
- Your sex life is not captive to the whims of erotic attraction. The world and your own flesh are trying to seduce you into patterns of slavery to erotic attraction that will leave you empty, broken, discarded, and hopeless. Now is the time to learn to receive God’s agape love and give it to others. This love is your eternal inheritance; it, not eros, is the key to human flourishing. Practice treating it as such. And if, in the future, God brings you into marriage, the eros you enjoy will depend upon the agape love in that marriage. Be wary of how pornography, the media, and peers seek to train you otherwise.
Take heart that Christ came to redeem all aspects of sexuality, including your beliefs about sexual attraction and love.
You can also watch the video, “What About the Sexless Marriage?,” which corresponds to this blog.
26 Apr 2016
Twenty-one years into my marriage, my husband announced one day, “I’m leaving you for another woman.” I was devastated. I fell into a deep emotional abyss as my life and my heart broke into a million tiny pieces. My friend, “Lydia,” who had been talking to me for several years about Christ, stepped into my pain with gentleness and love. Into my broken world, she ministered to me, sitting with me for hours as I poured out my pain and my tears. She read to me from the Bible and continued to share Jesus with me.
Several months later I did ask Jesus into my heart and accepted him as my Savior. “Lydia” and I continued to meet almost daily; ours was a completely new level of relationship for me. With her, I felt complete and deeply known for the first time in my life. I needed her desperately and soon began to long for her when she was absent.
Without noticing it, my life began to revolve around our time together. When we were together, she held me as I cried and rubbed my back and dried my tears. Her touch was such a comfort to me, and there was an intense feeling of being connected. It was just a matter of time before we moved into sexual touching and then, a full sexual relationship. Even as a new Christian, I knew that this was not OK with God, and I struggled to understand how what felt so right could be so wrong. After several years, our secret relationship became public and what started out then as a whole new devastation in my life was actually the first step of a new journey into wholeness.
This new struggle lasted for many years. I have moved from identifying myself as a lesbian, to a woman who struggles with same-sex attraction, to a follower of Jesus who has experienced relational brokenness. I have learned, with the help of godly counsel and Bible study, that the intense, all-consuming, emotional connection I craved from another person was not God’s design. What I perceived as intimacy was a dysfunctional enmeshment, an entanglement of two relationally-broken people looking to each other to fill the space that only God can fill.
I had put my relationship with “Lydia” on the throne of my life, occupying the place that belongs only to Jesus. Praise God that he continues to heal me as I seek to worship only him and find the answer to all of my longings in Christ.