This guest blog was written by Tara Hallman, former Harvest USA women’s ministry staff member.
Christmas can be difficult for a betrayed wife. This Christmas may be the first since discovering her husband has been using pornography or had an affair. For others who’ve known about their husband’s struggle for years, the holidays mark another year of suffering without seeing hoped-for changes.
The Christmas season is a time to be around family and friends as we celebrate the birth of Jesus. But when a marriage is broken, the holidays can be excruciating. Wives usually feel disconnected as many relatives and friends have no idea about the secret pain they carry. They put on a smile, trying to be ‘merry and bright,’ while inside, they’re hurting. A husband’s sexual brokenness can make once-safe things, like time with family and friends, feel unsafe.
What can a woman do when fear, loss, shame, and disappointment follow her into the Christmas season? How can she find longed-for hope, peace, and rest?
Mary’s Life, Redirected
This Christmas season, we will again encounter Mary in the nativity story. I hope that a hurting wife can see Mary as an example of a woman of faith who faced unexpected trials in life with strength and dignity. As we focus on the birth of our Savior this year, I want to encourage women who have been betrayed to notice Mary and watch how she responded when her life did not go the way she planned.
In Luke 1, we find Mary headed in one direction. A young Jewish woman, she had faith in Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. She knew the Scriptures, as evidenced by her song, the Magnificat, which contains at least 14 Old Testament references (Luke 1:46–55). Mary was likely just a teenager planning her life, wedding, and future when the angel Gabriel showed up. He told her she was favored, perplexing her. He said she would bear a child to reign over the house of Israel forever. Since she was a virgin, she asked how this would happen. He told her the Holy Spirit would come upon her and she was to name her little boy, the Son of God, Jesus. The angel delivered a message that would take Mary’s life and turn it in a different direction, and she chose to respond in three significant ways.
- Mary chose to believe God.
Her first response was, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Mary took God at his Word, which is no little thing. All through Scripture, from the story of Abraham (see Gen. 15:6) through the New Testament, God calls his people to trust him—to believe his Word and act on it.
Mary’s story fits right in with the many biblical examples of people trusting God with dependent faith. Centuries before, Abraham believed God’s promise that one day the Savior would come through his offspring. Here, young Mary believed God’s Word that she would give birth to the promised One. Now all who believe in Jesus belong to him and are truly Abraham’s seed, heirs of the promise.
To wives who are in pain and betrayal, wondering how to make it through this Christmas season: I want to encourage you to take the first step to trust the Lord. Like Abraham, who trusted when it seemed impossible, and Mary, who trusted when it was not what she would have chosen, believe God. He is bigger than your circumstances. It is no little thing to believe Him. Betrayed wives report feeling unsure of what is real in their life. They say it can feel like walking in quicksand, and it would feel so good to find solid ground. Jesus is that solid ground; those who are in him can stand firm.
Consider this: If we have lost everything dear to us in this life (God forbid it) but maintain our faith in Jesus, then truly—truly—we have lost nothing of eternal significance.
We learn from Mary that the Lord may set us on a path we prefer not to walk. Mary faced shame, being misunderstood, fear, and the unknown. Many wives who come to Harvest USA find themselves in circumstances they did not choose. We cannot change their circumstances, make their husband change, or save their marriage, but we can help them know the Lord truly, love him deeply, and trust him with their lives.
Consider this: If we have lost everything dear to us in this life (God forbid it) but maintain our faith in Jesus, then truly—truly—we have lost nothing of eternal significance.
- Mary chose to seek community.
Mary’s second response to God was to seek community when she went to Elizabeth. Wives will be blessed to move toward safe, wise women who will provide them truth and comfort. Today, we are being taught by everything around us. If you’re a wife facing betrayal, be mindful of who or what is teaching you in this vulnerable time when you’re hurt, angry, and fragile. I love that God put Mary and Elizabeth together at a time when they both faced serious changes in their lives and were potentially misunderstood by those around them.
- Mary chose to worship her Savior.
Remember, Mary didn’t know what Joseph, or her community, would say about this shocking news. But in the uncertainty of her future, she chose to praise God. In the Magnificat, we see the joyful faith of a young woman who has been set on a path that would include joy intermingled with suffering. May we, like Mary, worship our God even during our unfinished story.
The very last place we see Mary in the New Testament is in the Upper Room (Acts 1:14). Not surprisingly, we find her doing these same three things: believing God, seeking godly community, and worshiping her Lord. By this time, she was a believer in Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior. She had seen him live, die, and be resurrected. Her Son lives! May we also fix our eyes on the One whom Mary undoubtedly could not take her eyes off. Jon Bloom writes, “Mary’s greatest blessing was not being the mother of The Child. Her greatest blessing was that her Child would save her from her sins. And this blessing is given to everyone who believes in him.”
May we, like Mary, worship our God even during our unfinished story.
If you are a wife whose marriage has not turned out the way you dreamed it would, and your husband has hurt you deeply, know that your heart and your losses matter. This new path you find yourself on, though you’d never have chosen it, is not plan B in God’s eyes. He can and will do good things in and through you. And the things you’ve lost, precious as they are, pale in comparison to what you have in Christ through faith.
May your response to your unchosen circumstances of your life mirror Mary’s response. May you choose to respond in faith and worship of our Lord Jesus Christ.
If you’re facing the fallout of sexual sin in your marriage or know someone who is, consider downloading Harvest USA’s newest resource. Jesus and Your Unwanted Journey: Wives Finding Comfort After Sexual Betrayal is a 10-session discipleship workbook available at no charge.
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.
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.
14 Jul 2022
Painful information has been revealed, and, most likely, your emotions and thoughts feel like a piece of driftwood on a stormy ocean. You’ve been tossed into a world you didn’t know existed: your husband’s sexual unfaithfulness. Or maybe you knew he had a “little struggle,” but the depth and scope of it have come crashing over you, throwing you against jagged rocks.
Jesus is with you in this unwanted place, and his first words to you are not “get over it,” “forgive and forget,” or “this is your fault.” No! His invitation is to draw near, listen for his love, receive his comfort, and lean on his strength. Take heart, sister. Jesus is near as you grapple with your new reality. Our ever-present God is with you in the pain of the revelations that have created a new terrain of life; he’ll stay with you as you walk forward in this unwanted journey.
Let’s consider a passage that, at first glance, may not seem to connect with you as a wife. The woman who has a transforming encounter with Jesus isn’t suffering because of a broken marriage but rather because of a broken body. She has no power to change her condition or make people really see, know, and love her. But the way Jesus treats this woman gives us great hope in our own brokenness.
Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And behold, there was a woman who had had a disabling spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your disability.” And he laid his hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and she glorified God. But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” As he said these things, all his adversaries were put to shame, and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him. (Luke 13:10–17)
This woman had lived “bent over” for 18 years—basically living at a 90-degree angle—and daily activities were incredibly difficult. Things we might take for granted were a struggle for her: hugging her children (if she had any), walking to the well to get water, reaching up to get a bowl. In addition, she most likely experienced shame and judgment. At the time, it was believed that if you were suffering, you must be a bad person under the punishment of God. She very well may have been the object of sneers and whispered gossip from misinformed and selfish onlookers. Perhaps she was avoided because, after all, what do you say to someone in this kind of situation?!
This woman’s physically bent and disordered body is a picture of how our hearts can become bent and disordered through sin’s impact upon us, through betrayal and trauma. Do you feel “bent” now that your husband’s sinful behaviors are in the light? You may feel weighed down with anxiety or depression, or as if you’re shuffling through life, unable to see what’s next, as this woman would have experienced physically.
A Broken Woman Meets Jesus
Consider how Jesus responds to this hurting, nameless woman.
He is present. He’s more than a teacher or speaker in a synagogue. He has now come to make his home in us, our indwelling Lord who has come near to the brokenhearted. He’s not a God who texts or video chats with us; he is here. He sees us as we really are.
He is a teacher. Jesus was there to teach people that day, and we all need help learning, don’t we? Through Christ and his Word, we have a gentle, wise teacher to show us how to navigate not only sexual sin in marriage but also marriage itself.
He sees her and calls her to come near. Our Savior is relational! He doesn’t merely notice this woman, seeing her from a distance in her bent-over state. She’s most likely at the back of the room. Yet Jesus sees her and goes out of his way (stepping out of normal synagogue protocol) to call her to himself. Jesus puts his radical love and compassion on display as he also allows her weakness to be on display.
He touches and heals. Jesus could have accomplished this same healing privately. He could have noticed the woman and just healed her as she sat back alone. However, he makes this very public as he proclaims freedom over her and then touches her, which would have been another offense to the religious protocol. What would this woman have felt as she heard these words and felt his hands on her back (or maybe her head)? How comforted she must have felt to be noticed, invited, known, touched, and healed by this loving teacher!
He defends and celebrates her. Can you imagine how ashamed she might have felt when the religious leaders pushed back on what Jesus had done for her? Jesus confronts their utter selfishness by exposing that they cared more about their livestock than her. The very ones who should have served, cared, and offered her compassion failed to do so.
Just like this woman, you didn’t choose your situation. Just like this woman, you have a Savior who sees you and invites you to draw near and receive his words of hope, healing, defense, and celebration. He doesn’t take lightly the pain or bentness you carry today because of your broken marriage. Will you draw near to him? Will you courageously journey toward him, regardless of what others may say? If you do, you’ll find all you need in him.
This article is an excerpt from Harvest USA’s soon-to-be-released resource, “Jesus and Your Unwanted Journey: Wives Finding Comfort After Sexual Betrayal.”
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.
30 Jun 2022
I want to speak to a husband or a wife who has remained faithful to their marriage vows but is experiencing the pain and unfulfilled longings of a sexless marriage. Perhaps you’ve tried to talk with someone about this, only to come away feeling misunderstood or even accused of things that may not be true. I hope this post will be a balm to your soul, and an encouragement to seek Christ in this trial.
God Is Glorified in Your Faithfulness
First, I want you to know that God is greatly glorified by your faithfulness to your spouse. Amid loneliness, confusion, unsatisfied desires, and painful feelings of rejection, you have resisted the easy escape of masturbation, pornography, and adultery. What a testimony to the sufficiency of God’s grace (2 Cor. 12:9)! If only we could pull back the curtain to see a glimmer of the eternal weight of glory that this momentary trial is producing. It’s no easy pill to swallow, but we all know the utter gravity of being in the presence of a brother or sister in Christ who has experienced profound suffering without blaming God or giving in to unbelief. Your faith is being tested but, as Peter says, it is more precious than gold and its genuineness results in “praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:7).
God Is Near to the Brokenhearted
Sex was designed by God to be one of the most intimate, affirming, life-giving experiences two humans can know. It’s one of the fundamental glues that holds a marriage together. We all long to be fully known and fully loved. And holy sex is one of the most tangible ways we experience the unconditional love of God for us, through our spouse. For that to be withheld can bring a flood of doubts and concerns. “Is my spouse tired of me?” “Did they find someone else?” “I guess I really am unlovable.” “I can never compete with my spouse’s ideal standard.”
God hears your heart and invites you to draw near to him. He can be trusted with your heart and your longings. Well did Isaiah say of Jesus, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench” (Isa. 42:3; Matt. 12:20).
Questions to Consider
By design, sex is not a solo activity. It requires cooperation, trust, love, respect, and a mutual willingness to enter into a moment of unrivaled vulnerability. Because this act is so sacred, it’s understandable why many feel intimidated by it. I’d like to walk you through a few possible reasons why your spouse may not want to engage with you on this level. This is not meant to point the finger at any one person, but it is important to soberly assess how sexual intimacy is typically hindered in a fallen world.
- Life’s busyness. This is perhaps the most common scenario that leads healthy marriages into a sexual desert. The demands and pressures of work, kids, church, social activities, and school all crowd out time and energy for any kind of marital investment. Life is just about survival. While all marriages will likely go through seasons like this, busyness is typically not the only—or even the main—factor why one spouse may be completely avoiding any opportunity for sexual intimacy.
- Hidden sexual sin. Sadly, there are scenarios where your spouse may be avoiding sex with you because they’re satisfying their sexual desires outside of their covenant vows. Whether it be compulsive use of pornography or a secret affair, some spouses treat sex as an appetite, not an act of selfless love. If they’re getting their appetite satisfied elsewhere, they may feel zero responsibility within their marriage. This may be what you fear is happening in your marriage, and perhaps you have compounding evidence to back that up. You’ll need wisdom to know what confrontation should look like. But please don’t let fear and shame keep you from getting help.
- Physical brokenness. Sex is a powerful bodily experience. In many ways it is a whole-bodied experience. When I consider just how many ways our bodies could break down, I often think it’s a miracle that any of us walk around in a state of good health. Engaging in sex requires a relative degree of health. The fall affects some people’s sexual organs, making sex a painful, fearful experience. Men may struggle with erectile dysfunction and could be too scared to admit it to their wives. Heart conditions, motor diseases, and paralysis may restrict sexual activity. The list of health-related reasons to refrain from sex is probably longer than we even imagine. It’s important to consider this because your spouse’s refusal to have sex may be related to their health and not a rejection of you. It may be just as painful and lonely for them to refrain as it is for you, but perhaps they’re too scared to tell you what’s really going on.
- Relational brokenness. Marriage is a covenant established by God. Covenants are accompanied by signs. In our covenant relationship with Jesus, we are given the signs of baptism and communion. In marriage, a couple is given sex as the sign of their covenant union. Just as the sacraments are meant to remember, celebrate, and strengthen our union with Christ, so too sex in marriage is meant to remember, celebrate, and strengthen the union of husband and wife. Scripture instructs believers not to partake of the Lord’s supper when there is unrepentant sin or unresolved strife with another believer. The covenant sign should be forgone until those issues are resolved. To partake of the sign unworthily is a matter the Lord takes very seriously.So, too, in marriage: we cannot separate the act of sex from the quality of the marriage relationship. Paul Tripp says, “You always drag the character and quality of your marriage relationship into the marriage bed.” This means that if there is relational distance in your marriage, sexual distance may be a result of that. It’s not right to act harshly toward your spouse in the kitchen but then seek to act tenderly toward them in the bedroom. Sex is meant to be a celebration of all the love expressed outside the bedroom. How you love your spouse at the dinner table, in the car, in public, with your children, when you’re tired, when you’re sad, when you’re frustrated—it’s all making deposits into your relationship. If your marital account is running on a deficit of love and not a surplus, it may say a lot about why your spouse is so distant from you sexually.
- Personal brokenness. We all go into marriage carrying many things from our past. Past traumas or regrets may continue to haunt you to this day. God imbued sex with incredible power but, in a fallen world, that power has the ability to create destruction like few other experiences can. Past sexual abuse can make sex feel like the most dangerous experience imaginable. Shame about past sexual experiences could make your spouse feel like sex is only a dirty act. Some people wrestle with crippling anxiety disorders, and sex may be a trigger for those anxieties. For example, there is a condition called homosexual obsessive-compulsive disorder, or HOCD. This person does not struggle with same sex attraction. But they’re so fearful about having a homo-erotic thought that they’ll avoid situations that could trigger them. These types of anxieties are more common than you may realize.
Hope in Christ
Life in a fallen world is not how it was meant to be. But praise be to God that, as Margaret Clarkson wrote, one day he will transmute every earthly sorrow into gold of heavenly gain.
In my next blog, I will look at how you can walk this painful path with your Savior and your spouse. Jesus cares about this aspect of your marriage. He has marked out a way forward for you to honor and love your spouse as you entrust your longings to him.
12 May 2022
As designed by God, both sex and the gospel are bounded by exclusivity. The biblical concept through which we can understand what is meant by this is sanctification, or holiness. We often associate these terms with the process of growing in holiness as we turn from sin and act righteously. This is true.
But, more basically, holiness carries the idea of being set apart. Ultimately, God himself is most holy because he is set apart from us in the perfections of his being and righteousness.
God’s People Are Set Apart
The Bible speaks of God setting apart his people, the church, to belong to him. God does this by making distinctions to separate his people from all other peoples. In explaining the Passover event, through which God separated out his people from Egypt, he said, “But not a dog shall growl against any of the people of Israel, either man or beast, that you may know that the LORD makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel” (Ex. 11:7). King Solomon later says, “For you separated them from among all the peoples of the earth to be your heritage, as you declared through Moses your servant, when you brought our fathers out of Egypt, O Lord God” (1 Kings 8:53).
The rules of Leviticus enforce this call of being set apart to belong in a unique way to God: “I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore separate the clean beast from the unclean, and the unclean bird from the clean. …You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Lev. 20:24–26). “Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the LORD your God. …I am the LORD who sanctifies you” (Lev. 20:7–8). The people’s commitment to holiness was simply a fitting response to God’s gracious separation of Israel from all others as belonging to him—his precious, chosen possession.
This is a gospel pattern. God graciously makes distinctions to put the church into a category different from the rest of humanity. He sets us apart as his bride. We then respond as those who belong to him. It’s a picture of faithful, exclusive devotion.
Marriage as Setting Apart
God’s divine purpose is for marriage and sex to share this pattern of exclusive devotion. In Ephesians 5:25–32, this aspect of making holy or sanctifying is especially emphasized with respect to a husband’s love for his wife. How does he do this? A husband does not remove his wife’s sin. But he does set her apart by distinguishing her from all other women. His sexual union with her is at the core of that distinction. He puts her in a different category than any other person; she alone belongs to him in the union of marriage. So, because sex is designed to uniquely express that union, in all things sexual he gives himself exclusively to her. Fittingly, she responds with the same exclusive commitment to him.
Setting Apart as the Gracious Initiative of Christ
This leads us to ask why Christ takes the initiative to set apart the church for himself? God says that he did not choose Israel because of a quality he saw in them—the size of the nation, their power, or their influence (Deut. 7:7). He chose them simply because he decided to love them.
In Ephesians 5, it’s clear that the church is set apart and presented in splendor and without blemish because Jesus gave himself for her, not the other way around. We have not earned the right to be set apart. God was not attracted to us as better than anyone else in any way. God does not look for the most beautiful people and set them apart to belong to him. No, he places his love on the people of his choosing and makes them beautiful by setting them apart.
Practical Implications for a Set-Apart People
What difference does this make to your daily Christian life?
- You are saved by grace. It was not your goodness that convinced God to save you or that keeps him loving you. He is not waiting for you to mess up one too many times so he can dump you for other, holier people. You are holy because Christ made you holy. What a great comfort!
- How should this affect your relationship to and love for Christ? Your love for Christ is your response to his loving you. You can rest and rejoice with gratitude in the security that comes from knowing that this is all his initiative, not his response to your deserving anything.
- Your fight with sin is empowered by gratitude, not by any need to earn or stay in God’s love. Firm in your gratitude for his setting you apart as his own, you want to grow in acting as one who belongs to him.
What difference does this make to your sexuality?
- God wants this gospel dynamic to shape our sexuality. Therefore, the long-term sexual union of marriage must be founded on a choice to love, not mere attraction that easily fades or wanders. This is not to say we should feel no attraction to our spouses—indeed, the mutual passion and delight of a husband and wife is also designed by God to show us the gospel! But in accordance with the gospel pattern, your spouse should not have to earn your delight. Rather, enjoyment of each other grows as a fruit of mutually setting each other apart in love.
- How does this work? Setting apart your spouse in love means you commit to make distinctions between your wife or husband and all others. This means, at least, that anything and everything pertaining to sex and romance is reserved exclusively for your spouse—every advance, every flirtation, every glance, every imagination, every intention is focused on the one whom you have set apart. In this context, enjoyment and delight grow over time.
- If you are single, use your time as a single to grow in your faith, confidence, and joy in being part of Christ’s set apart Bride. Learn to bask in the benefits of this gospel truth. Then commit to reflect it in your sexuality. If you remain single, you set yourself apart to belong only to Christ. If you will marry, handle your sexuality now as something which you will give exclusively to your future spouse—setting that person apart even today.
The gospel pattern of the exclusive love of God for his chosen people is our hope and our motivation for fighting sin. We’ve been undeservedly set apart to enjoy God forever—he set his love upon us when we were unlovely. May we grow in holiness as Christ’s exclusive love warms our hearts, reminding us of the eternal belonging he won for us within the set-apart people of God.
28 Apr 2022
One of the most tender expressions of humble faith was shared with me by a woman in my wives group years ago. She said,
“I thought marriage would be the place where I would finally come to understand God’s love for me in a deeper way through the example of my husband’s love. Instead, God has chosen to teach me about his love by putting me in a place where I had to study his love so I could show it rather than receive it. I found myself running to the Lord, pouring out my pain to him about my unfaithful spouse and fellowshipping in his suffering. As I meditated on how God understood the pain of an unfaithful spouse (his people) and studied his response to their unfaithfulness, I learned about his longsuffering, pursuing love for me and saw God begin teaching me how to love my spouse with his love.”
Sister, are you hurting, disappointed, alone, and confused because of painful marriage dynamics? You may have realized when you married that, as great of a guy as your husband seemed to be, he couldn’t replace Jesus. You probably knew that your issues would also impact the marriage, but you were (and maybe still are!) eager to journey together with your man towards Christ, holiness, togetherness.
But sexual sin isn’t what you signed up for. This is an unwanted chapter in your story, and you wonder how you got here. Where can you turn?
Turn to Jesus. He’s near, and he cares.
Jesus is your steadfast refuge and tender comforter
“I love you, O LORD, my strength. The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Psalm 18:1–2).
David wrote these words after being chased by enemies and betrayed by people he trusted and loved. (You can read more of that story in 2 Samuel 21–22 if you’re interested). His words guide us when we are in the throes of suffering. When we forget who we are and who God is, it’s easy to drown in our feelings rather than seek refuge in Jesus and tell him “each rising grief, for Thou alone can heal; Thy word can bring a sweet relief for ev’ry pain I feel.”¹ In the mystery of your suffering, you can know one thing for sure: God wants you to draw more closely to himself as your God.
In the last hours before Jesus was arrested, he assured his friends with these words:
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?… I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:1–2).
Jesus is always with you, not merely by your side but within you as your very life (Colossians 1:27 and 3:3). He is the only one who is capable of sharing this kind of intimacy with you. Even on your husband’s best days—walking in obedience to God, faithfully loving you, sharing moments of sweet sexual intimacy with you—he cannot dwell within your heart. Christ alone is there with you in your broken heart and will not leave.
Jesus is your faithful Bridegroom forever
When your husband fails you, it’s an invitation to turn towards the Bridegroom who never will. One woman shared with me,
“After I found evidence of my husband’s affair, I took off my wedding ring and told my husband in anger and pain, ‘You left me, and God is my husband now.’ True, but a bit dramatic. Then, as I was working through a book with a friend for spouses facing sexual betrayal, we read through Hosea, and I realized I had something ‘special’ in common with God: We are both betrayed spouses! Then my mind quickly went to the realization that I have also been unfaithful—not with my husband, but with God.
Throughout our eight-month separation and long, bumpy road toward marriage reconciliation, I found great comfort in picturing Christ as my Bridegroom, who loves me with an everlasting, perfect love. Who comforts me when I’m down, always listens to me, and cares for me deeply. And will never betray me.”
In the Old Testament, we learn of a beautiful theme that runs throughout Scripture: God’s plan for pursuing an eternal marriage relationship with his people. “And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the LORD” (Hosea 2:19–20). These verses show us that God’s desire is to be more than just a refuge, friend, king with servants, and even a father with his children. He pursues, loves, and offers us eternal marriage with himself.
The concept of being married to God may be a new one for you. God’s spousal love is different from human marriage but no less intimate. We have an eternally secure, forever-together relationship bought for us by the blood of Jesus, our Bridegroom.
The love that Jesus offers to his people, his Bride, is so much more than that of the most devoted husband. No, those “best day” experiences you’ve had with your man are only a glimpse of what it’s like to be loved by Jesus. What you and your husband can offer each other is but a dim reflection of the faithful, eternal, intimate love that Jesus shared with his people—with you.
For all the mystery of why you are suffering in marriage, you can know that Jesus is longing to show himself to you in new ways as your true Bridegroom, the One who never misses you, will not seek another bride, and will never, ever deceive or abandon you. You may not feel excited about this eternal truth right now, and that’s okay. Jesus isn’t put off by the honest recognition in your heart that you may desire a husband’s love more than his.
Jesus is your eternal true home
In John 15, Jesus beautifully explains a new type of intimacy between himself and his followers: He is the true Vine, the source of all life, and we are his branches, created and commanded to abide (or make a home) in him and his words. A vital union with Jesus is now possible because his Spirit is sent to live in all believers.
As amazing as it is to consider that God no longer dwells near us but in us, we won’t experience being at home with God perfectly in this life. Our bruised and sinful hearts and the fallen world around us prevent a purely joyful, peaceful, and comfortable experience. However, when we honestly acknowledge this rather than demand a life with no suffering, it can actually draw us closer to Christ and the joy he offers. Consider these words from C. S. Lewis:
“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful, for these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others do the same.”²
Your true country, your home, is Christ. He’s your safe place and gentle Shepherd, who will never tell you to “just get over it” and move on. He won’t run from you or awkwardly back away in silence because he doesn’t know what to say to you. He is yours, his love is yours, his comfort is yours. Regardless of what you feel, think, and believe in this moment, he is drawn to you with deep compassion. Turn to him sister; he is near.
This blog is adapted from a chapter in the soon-to-be-released resource from Harvest USA, Jesus and Your Unwanted Journey: Wives Finding Comfort After Sexual Betrayal. Look for it on our resource page in July 2022.
¹Steele, Anne. “Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul.” https://www.hymnologyarchive.com/dear-refuge-of-my-weary-soul.
²C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1952), 121.
14 Apr 2022
Johnny and Hannah (names changed) had twelve years of marriage behind them when his secrets came out. He’d humbly told Hannah when they were dating that porn had been a struggle since his teens. She took the news in and faithfully tried to learn how to help him, and their relationship moved forward to marriage. What Johnny hadn’t disclosed was that in high school, he’d fathered a baby and had caught an STD from his girlfriend. He brought that STD into his marriage. And there was more. Johnny then committed adultery with two women early in their marriage.
Fast forward twelve years. Johnny and Hannah had two kids and a busy life of parenting, jobs, and financial stress due to the pandemic. Hannah’s mysterious health problems and a trip to the doctor forced Johnny’s hand to come clean about his past, including how it had brought sickness into Hannah’s body.
Yet Hannah’s heart was sick, too. She was devastated to learn that her husband had kept so much history a secret from her. Even worse, it crushed her spirit to come to grips that her husband had endangered not only their marriage but her very life by giving himself sexually to others. To top it all off, he had another child out there somewhere!
An initial, helpful pastoral response is not enough
Hannah insisted that Johnny call their pastor when she learned all this heavy news, and, thankfully, the pastor responded quickly and compassionately. Within two days, the three of them met in his office, and out tumbled a sad, painful story of sin, suffering, and secrets. He wept with them and acknowledged the severity of their situation.
This is good news, right? Wouldn’t we want a pastor, church leader, counselor, or friend to respond this way? Yes! I celebrate when hurting wives share with me that their pastors respond with empathy, loving engagement, and personal availability. There are so many hurting couples in our churches who are alone and silent in their pain, so when I hear of a pastor’s office providing a warm and safe landing place for a couple, I truly am encouraged.
However, it’s what happened next that is sadly common for wives in particular when a husband’s infidelity comes out into the light. Don’t get me wrong: Wives can be sexually unfaithful, too, but, in my fifteen years of ministry at Harvest USA, I’d say the calls from wives who have been hurt compared to husbands responding to their wives’ sexual sin is roughly 90 to 1.
An unfortunate yet typical scenario
Hannah and Johnny left the pastor’s office exhausted, brokenhearted (her), and ashamed and angry (him). But they did have a plan. Johnny would meet with the pastor weekly for the next month for some initial accountability, prayer, and encouragement. The pastor offered to try to find a mature woman in the church to connect with Hannah. Hannah was hopeful about having at least one person to open her heart to, even if she was deeply embarrassed and overcome with sadness. Counseling wasn’t an option, as there just weren’t finances for it, and, anyway, they lived in a community “where everybody knows your name,” so Hannah was terrified of others finding out. She arrived back home, got dinner on the table for her kids, and waited to hear from her pastor.
And she continued to wait. He emailed her three weeks later, apologizing that he hadn’t gotten back to her; he’d been so busy with trying to help Johnny, not to mention sermon prep, urgent church business, and caring for a congregant who was on hospice. He said he’d keep praying and working to find a woman she could meet with. Hannah read the email, wept, and then got up to attend to her kids.
Hannah was very thankful for her pastor’s care for her husband. Johnny had always been the gregarious kind of guy who everybody loved, but he really had no true friends. He’d come home upbeat, hopeful, encouraged from his meetings with the pastor and the spontaneously set-up support group for other guys in the church who were battling porn addiction. And he’d actually resisted the temptation to look at porn for three weeks—a first!
Johnny said, “Hannah, I finally feel like I’m beginning to change! The guys in this group just totally get me, and I’m sharing things with them that I’ve never told anyone. It is amazing… I love this church!”
But what about Hannah? Sure, she’s not the one battling sexual sin, but she has needs, too. She needs to be seen, known, loved, comforted, and journeyed with, too. What about Hannah?
Bring the gospel of love, comfort, and healing to the “other” spouse, too
Friends, Hannah’s situation is actually a good case study to depict the many wives who reach out to Harvest USA for help. As I’ve written before, I recognize that so many church leaders are busy and pulled in many directions. However, something is off when a repentant or unrepentant husband receives 90% of the pastoral energy, care, and attention, while a devastated, often traumatized wife is left on her own to navigate world-rocking circumstances.
Let me offer several ways you can live out the gospel with hurting wives without sacrificing the worthy time and energy that husbands need in their battle against sexual sin. At the risk of repeating myself, let me say again that women, whether single or married, are also in need of gospel care for their sexual sin struggles and infidelities. I am writing primarily out of my experience of walking with wives and coaching pastors regarding how to care for them in these circumstances.
First, learn how sexual betrayal affects a wife. The devastation is usually multilayered, and one of the most important things to understand is that many wives experience PTSD symptoms after the disclosure of their husbands’ secret sexual sin. CCEF helpfully explains, “PTSD identifies painful experiences that don’t seem to fade but intrude into daily life. This kind of trauma often leads to someone feeling numb, depressed, and hopeless, or feel restless, irritable, hyper-vigilant, anxious, and over-reactive. And you can feel all these things at once.”¹
When Hannah showed up at her pastor’s office, she was tearful, then angry, then too paralyzed to speak… all in the course of a two-hour appointment! Traumatic experiences have the power to reshape people as pain washes over every aspect of life.
Next, remember that for every married man who battles sexual sin, there is a wife and perhaps kids who are impacted. It’s beautiful when churches uphold God’s good, biblical design for marriage, discipling their people that husbands and wives are to love each other as unto the Lord, to serve one another selflessly as a way to show devotion to Jesus through faithfulness in all areas.
However, we must also uphold God’s compassion for wives when marriage vows are broken. This is what Paul is speaking about, in part, when he exhorts husbands to “…love his wife as himself” (Ephesians 5:33). When husbands need help loving their wives, the Body of Christ steps in to counsel, correct, and provide compassionate care. The gospel urges us to walk intentionally with husbands who need help repenting and wives who are broken because of their husbands’ sin.
Finally, equip your saints for the work of ministry. Ephesians 4:11 has everything to do with gospel care for hurting wives. A ministry of mercy, counsel, and, yes, exhortation—because all of us respond sinfully to the sin done against us—to wives impacted by sexual betrayal is in view here as Paul explains how churches are meant to function.
Brothers and sisters, God loves his Bride, so I commend you to the worthy, faithful ministry of compassionate care for wives devastated by broken marriage vows. These brides are seen, loved, and defended by our gracious Father, and he has shared this ministry with us, his people.
This blog is inspired by our new Harvest USA resource which will release in July 2022. Jesus and Your Unwanted Journey: Wives Finding Comfort in Christ is a discipleship resource with participant’s and leader’s guides that will be offered as a no-charge digital download from www.harvestusa.org.
¹https://www.ccef.org/ptsd-and-trauma/. Last accessed March 15, 2022.
A recent discussion in my home centered around a television episode in which the “happy ending” consisted of the hero and heroine deciding to move in together but not get married. I suspect most readers of this post do not believe that that is truly a happy ending. But why? Is it just because God says so? Well, that would be enough, but there is more to say about it—God has given us more.
First, we must understand that sex, in its true form, is inseparable from marriage. This is more than just saying that marriage is the only proper context for sexual expression. It means that the very essence of sex, as its Creator designed it, includes it being an expression of the marital union. You can see this if you do a study of the passages in Scripture that use the phrase “the two shall become one flesh.” This phrase refers most literally to sex itself, but it also refers to the whole marriage union, of which sex is the physical expression. C.S. Lewis explained it this way:
The Christian idea of marriage is based on Christ’s words that a man and wife are to be regarded as a single organism—for that is what the words “one flesh” would be in modern English.… The inventor of the human machine was telling us that its two halves, the male and the female, were made to be combined together in pairs, not simply on the sexual level, but totally combined. The monstrosity of sexual intercourse outside marriage is that those who indulge in it are trying to isolate one kind of union (the sexual) from all the other kinds of union which were intended to go along with it and make up the total union. The Christian attitude does not mean that there is anything wrong about sexual pleasure, any more than about the pleasure of eating. It means that you must not isolate that pleasure and try to get it by itself, any more than you ought to try to get the pleasures of taste without swallowing and digesting, by chewing things and spitting them out again.¹
Sex as a physical union has its meaning only in the context of the relational, emotional, legal union that is the whole marriage. So while Paul speaks of sex with a prostitute as “becoming one flesh” (1 Corinthians 6:16), he does so only to point out how horribly such sex fails in its God-intended meaning. That meaning is only properly expressed when sex is an expression of the marriage union. Just like a word out of context can actually carry a different meaning, so, too, sexual activity outside of the context of marriage carries a meaning different than that for which God designed it.
And that God-intended meaning is nothing less than the gospel itself. In both 1 Corinthians 6:12–20 and Ephesians 5:25–32, the union termed as “the two shall become one flesh” is described as pointing to our union with Christ. And because sex is inseparable from marriage, it is not just marriage as a one-flesh union, but also sex as the physical expression of that union that is meant to picture the union of Christ and his Bride, the Church. Sex as an expression of marital union speaks the gospel; sex independent of marriage speaks anti-gospel.
What is one specific way this applies to our “happily” cohabitating television heroes? Let’s consider how the lifelong permanence of the marriage union affects the meaning of sex. Jesus speaks to the permanence of the marriage relationship in Matthew 19:3–6. The Pharisees asked him whether one can divorce his wife for any cause. Jesus answers by going back to the beginning, quoting, “The two shall become one flesh.” His conclusion is that the intent from the beginning was that marriage be permanent. For the time in which marriage exists—this life—it extends from now until the end—“until death do we part.” This covenantal commitment is largely what constitutes “getting married,” and this permanence is part of the implication of becoming one flesh. This has profound implications for how sex is to be expressed and experienced.
In 1 Corinthians 6:12–20, the idea of permanence is a part of how Paul relates sex to the gospel, specifically, how sexual immorality is incongruent with the gospel. Paul begins by quoting the mindset he will refute. It is the mindset that approaches sex and sexuality from a merely biological perspective, as an appetite to be fulfilled: “’Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’—and God will destroy both one and the other” (verse 13). This view sees sexuality as simply identifying the urges of our bodies and acting accordingly. This view also emphasizes the present; the future is irrelevant. In contrast to this, Paul gives a perspective that is not biological but theological: “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (verse 13). He is placing the question of sexual morality into the greater context of the gospel, to which sexuality is merely a pointer. Then Paul says, “Do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” (verse 16–17). He is not just saying something like, “It’s not nice to be joined to both a prostitute and the Lord!” Rather, the idea is that sexual union is supposed to be a signpost to spiritual union with Christ, but if that union is outside of marriage, with a prostitute, it displays a “union” which is a tragic distortion of the union we have with Christ. One way in which it is a distortion is that it is void of any connection to permanence. This is why Paul counters the live-for-the-moment motto, “God will destroy both one and the other,” with, “God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power” (verse 14). Rather than being merely the source of animal impulses and appetites to be followed in the moment, our bodies have eternal significance in our union with Christ; because we are united to a risen Christ, our bodies will also be raised, not destroyed. Paul is saying that our present experience of union with Christ is shaped by the certainty of our future resurrection with him. That makes a tremendous difference to us today. If sex is to point to this vital gospel truth, it too must be grounded in permanence rather than the instability of momentary passions.
One way to get at this is to ask, “How would our understanding and experience of the gospel change if it was not based on an eternal promise—if the benefits of union with Christ were only a present possession, with no guarantee or commitment from Jesus concerning the future?” In other words, what if the relationship of Christ to his Church was merely a cohabitation, not a marriage? For instance, if we did not have God’s promise that he would surely complete what he had begun in us, what would be the effect? We would conclude that we had to perfect ourselves, to prove to him that we were worth his sticking with us—and we would have no confidence in our relationship when we failed in any way. We would be insecure, fearful, needy, and miserable. You see where this is going: This is exactly the way sex, disconnected from the permanence of marriage, affects us and our relationships.
What are some ways in which our culture’s views and experiences of sex are not grounded in permanence? It is all about what we can experience right now. Hook-up culture tries to pretend it is a non-relational transaction. Pornography encourages the fantasy of sexual enjoyment without any relationship to another person at all. How does this negatively impact our experiences of sexuality? What fears, sorrows, or hurts result? If we are honest, sex—and the desire for it—is often dominated by fear, disappointment, and grief. Instead of security, we get insecurity. Instead of the confidence and freedom of knowing we are loved and accepted in spite of our failures or shortcomings or imperfections, we are constantly made aware of our need to impress or please or perform perfectly. We want affection but are terrified of not measuring up to expectations. We have to compete to become desirable or to stay desirable to those whose attention we crave. We are afraid of rejection. We think we have found joy, only to be jilted and thrown out like used trash. We turn to fantasy and porn to escape the huge risk and crushing disappointment of misunderstanding and rejection that come with broken sexuality. Sex without permanence, like a gospel without permanence, provides no safety at all, only a miserable striving after what cannot be grasped.
This is why the TV couple moving in together was not a happy ending. It is just another seductive counterfeit of true sexuality. Without the joy and security of the marital permanence, it utterly fails in its purpose to point to the joy and security of the gospel.
¹Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity, (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), 104–105.