This post was written by Harvest USA Women’s Ministry intern YaPing Li.
The single life has brought challenges for me—maybe you too. Suffering and being misunderstood can take different forms for those of us who aren’t married, whether we’ve never been married or are single again due to death or divorce. I planned to be single, but long-term singleness is still a learning curve. I’m lucky because I don’t burn with desire, yet neither am I cold to the beauty of marital fellowship. I can’t explain why, but singleness is God’s plan; he has chosen it for me.
Sometimes, suffering comes through lost opportunities. I feel this sting when I think about something on my bucket list (if heaven doesn’t come first): standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon and taking in the spectacular view of God’s designed colors and majesty. I don’t have a lifelong companion to share this joy with—to say, “Do you see it?! Are you thinking what I’m thinking? This is amazing!” I probably won’t have children to share stories like this with, either. At times, this causes my tears to fall.
I know my sorrow will transform into praise. No earthly wonder can compare to Christ’s own face, presence, and loving kindness. Still, life in this world—single or married—has its sorrows. This feeling of loss keeps me asking a question that can only be answered through the Scriptures: Where is my confidence?
God’s Word makes me want to know and pursue God’s goal for my singleness: that I would embrace Jesus and find my confidence in him.
I believe in the all-sufficiency of God’s Word, which enables me to walk through sorrow when it comes, looking to my hope in Jesus. God’s Word makes me want to know and pursue God’s goal for my singleness: that I would embrace Jesus and find my confidence in him.
Jesus really loves us—all of us. God’s ultimate goal for me isn’t that I paint a picture of a single woman living a perfectly holy and happy life, but that I would delight ever more in Christ. While I’m learning daily that his presence is sufficient, my life is not here to prove that living well single is better than a good marriage. Life is not a competition. It’s not about who can glorify and enjoy God most. In Christ, our fruitfulness comes from being faithful to God in the life he gives us, not personal triumph.
In God’s kingdom, the least is most satisfied. How we measure ourselves and others, including the least among us, says a lot about how we live as Christians.
God’s kingdom requires child-like admiration. We’ve all been children. When infants are separated from their parents, they cry, searching for the attentive gaze of their mother or father. They want to see their parents’ faces and be picked up in their loving arms. Their security and joy come from their parents. And when they’re with their parents, they want to stay in their embrace. That’s joy! Like infants desperate for their parents, all believers need the loving presence of God. As infants receive their parents, single men and women receive our Lord Jesus Christ in this world and the world to come. Our heavenly father is never far, and he will embrace us all the way home. Singles are not measured by their unmarried status, their gifts, or their ministry contributions. All are measured by the loving gaze of our Maker, Redeemer, and Advocate.
While I’m learning daily that his presence is sufficient, my life is not here to prove that living well single is better than a good marriage.
I may never travel to the Grand Canyon. But I can still be so overwhelmed by God’s abundant, loving kindness that a thousand Grand Canyons will not compare. And I can still be brought low. Single or married, we will be undone by Jesus Christ and be made into creatures who admire his goodness, kindness, beauty, gentleness, and compassion. All that he is and has will totally undo our worthless pursuits, competition, and ideas of worldly status.
I wonder if the more we embrace Christ, the more fulfilled our lives will be. Hence, the more content we can grow in our sexuality, relationships, and future hopes. “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance, and need” (Phil. 4:12).
I have been brought low. I’ve been unfairly denied jobs. I’ve become more comfortable with the “Joy of Missing Out,” learning that many people, though they have good intentions, are busy and forgetful of a single woman. I’ve had chronic migraine headaches, leading others to think I’m antisocial, and have been unable to think about the future while waiting for two biopsy results. I’ve been misunderstood when requesting a third person in the car if a brother gave me a ride and hurt when people I cared for only wanted me as their counselor, not their friend. When Christmas approaches, I dread being asked about my plans—deciding who needs me most, where I will be blessed, and which family to celebrate with to glorify God. Some of these circumstances feel awful, while some are just inconveniences and opportunities to grow in Christ-like wisdom. In all these lowly circumstances, Christ is sufficient to receive my honest lament.
Encouragement When You’re Brought Low in Your Singleness
Maybe your struggles are more secret and difficult to share. Maybe you’ve thought about seeking help in your suffering or have received counsel that didn’t build you up, leaving you wounded. Maybe your suffering is tangled with big or small enchantments with sin and the flesh. I don’t know all your struggles, but Jesus does. And he publicly proclaims you to be his friend; he calls you his own. Christ’s love defends your honor; who dares to despise you when nothing can separate you from his love (Rom. 8:38–39)?
The time is now. Don’t just gaze at Christ from afar—go to him. Draw close to the God who loves you inside and out. Whether single or married, Christ alone is our confidence. Embracing him is our joy.
23 Mar 2023
Wives, God Sees You
This post was written by Angela Suh, a Women’s Ministry intern at Harvest USA.
As a Harvest USA intern, some of my time has been dedicated to serving sexually betrayed wives through our biblical support group. I quickly learned that sexual betrayal in marriage has complicated, painful consequences and observed the tension these wives experience through feeling hopelessly stuck in their marriages.
A sexually betrayed wife faces her husband’s violation of the marriage covenant. When children are present, she may have to consider boundaries and relational dynamics within the home. She may be burdened with the family’s finances if the sexual betrayal caused his unemployment. Wives are sometimes unseen by their church leadership and left to suffer alone. Regardless of their circumstances, these betrayed wives are “bent over” (Luke 13:10–17), desperate (like Hannah, 1 Sam. 1), and longing to be seen (Gen. 16).
As I grieved with these women, I turned to God’s words to Hagar—a woman shunned, moving toward a dead end, and longing to be seen.
Echoes of the Fall
Hagar was Sarai’s Egyptian servant. Because Sarai was frustrated by her infertility, she commanded her husband, Abram, to “go in to” Hagar so Sarai might obtain children through her. He listened, and when Hagar conceived, she looked at Sarai with contempt. Therefore, Sarai dealt harshly with Hagar and Hagar fled (Gen. 16:1–6).
Sin drives this entire narrative. Sarai sinfully doubted God’s promise to provide a son, leading her to take matters into her own hands. Abram’s sinful desires caused him to listen to his wife’s voice and sleep with Hagar rather than protect Sarai (and Hagar) with God’s promises.
Does this ring a bell? Sarai and Abram’s behavior mirrors the fall in the Garden of Eden. Rather than clinging to God’s commands and promises, Eve doubted his words. She pursued knowledge with her very own hands— “she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate” —like Sarai, who “took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife” (Gen. 3:6 and 16:3, my emphasis). Adam ate the fruit, without any question or objection, and Abram took a second wife.
Although the degree and impact of our sin may differ, it’s humbling to acknowledge that we have more similarities than differences when it comes to sinning against God.
Then the story in Genesis 16 reveals another layer of sin: Hagar responded to the wrong committed against her by being sinfully contemptuous of Sarai and running away (Gen. 16:4).
Sin begets sin and comes from the heart (Luke 6:45). The complex consequences of sexual unfaithfulness are not random or isolated from the person or circumstances. But they are birthed from the desires of the heart (James 1:14). Wives can see their husbands’ sin for what it is even as, by God’s grace, they soberly recognize and confess their own sinfulness. This is not to shift the blame or put responsibility for the husband’s unfaithfulness onto the wife. But we live in a sinful world as sinful individuals. Although the degree and impact of our sin may differ, it’s humbling to acknowledge that we have more similarities than differences when it comes to sinning against God.
The God Who Sees
In Hagar’s flight, she meets the angel of the Lord “by a spring of water in the wilderness.” He asked, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” (Gen. 16:7–8). The angel of the Lord identified Hagar for who she was and met her where she was. Among all the titles and names he could’ve used, the angel identified her as “servant of Sarai.” He looked at her with sober and realistic eyes.
The dualistic inquiry, “Where have you come from and where are you going,” recognizes Hagar’s past and notices her destination. Often, a sexually betrayed wife is so consumed by her husband’s failure and sin that all she wants to do—if not physically, then emotionally and spiritually—is run away.
But God’s Word shows our Father stopping to ask his broken daughters where they’re coming from and where they’re going. God is all-knowing; he doesn’t need this information. It’s like God asking Adam, “Where are you?” after the fall (Gen. 3:9). Of course, God knows—he is the God who sees. If God already knows, why does he ask?
The God Who Saves
God calls out and approaches in judgment. Yet God’s pursuit of Adam and Eve reveals his mercy. In questioning Hagar, God reveals his kindness.
Friends, his inquiry is not to put us to shame but to meet us exactly where we are; he is never too far behind or ahead. Even when Hagar couldn’t see her destination, God carefully and firmly directed her. His ways and thoughts are higher than ours (Isaiah 55:9).
After the angel of the Lord commanded Hagar to return to Sarai and declared God’s promises, she identified God as “a God of seeing.” She said, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me” (Gen. 16:13). While broken and rejected, Hagar was seen and looked after by God, and that was enough for her.
While broken and rejected, Hagar was seen and looked after by God, and that was enough for her.
Hagar’s circumstances were not fixed. She still had to bear Abram’s child and return to her mistress. However, Hagar didn’t find comfort in her circumstances but in the God who cared for her. Out in the desert—lonely, scared, and running away from a terrible situation—the God of the universe pursued Hagar. He knew her, looked after her, and “listened to [her] affliction” (Gen. 16:11).
This is my hope and prayer for wives suffering from sexual betrayal: that they would lay their souls bare before God and be satisfied in him alone. I pray for reconciliation, for husbands to turn from their sins. But above all, I pray for wives to know and believe that God sees and looks after them. He gave his one and only Son, the perfect Husband, to take on his bride’s every sin and redeem all her suffering. He will bring us to our final dwelling place, where he will wipe away every tear. There will be no more death, sorrow, crying, or pain (Rev. 21:4). Until that day: Come, Lord Jesus, come.
02 Mar 2023
Celibacy, Marriage, or Surrender?
If you or anyone close to you has struggled with exclusive same-sex attraction, you know that this is a particularly heavy burden to bear. I’ve heard painful story after story of men and women who wrestled in silence during most of their adolescence with confusion, shame, guilt, and increasing despair over the unrelenting experience of attraction to the same sex. No matter how many prayers they offered up, not only did their same-sex desires not go away, but desires for someone of the opposite sex never came.
More than ever before, we’re wrestling with questions of identity, sexuality, and what repentance and faithful living looks like for our brothers and sisters who struggle with same-sex attraction. Many churches and denominations have completely rejected a biblical sexual ethic and have embraced our God-denying culture’s definitions of love, identity, and sexuality.
But even within conservative biblical understandings of sexuality, there is still confusion and division over how to minister to our brothers and sisters wrestling in these ways.
I want to briefly address two common approaches to discipleship when it comes to the question of marriage, and then offer a third way that I believe is most helpful and most faithful to Scripture.
Most people who see life-long celibacy as the best or only option for Christians wrestling with exclusive same-sex attraction often explicitly or implicitly embrace a theology that sees same-sex desires as a core aspect of identity. Thus, many have no problem identifying as “gay Christians.” They’re not equating a gay identity with same-sex behavior—they still hold to the Bible’s design for sexuality when it comes to what is permissible sexual activity. But they also see exclusive same-sex desires as a largely unchangeable, life-long experience until the resurrection. Thus, the only option for the vast majority of these brothers and sisters is celibacy.
Pros of the Celibacy Solution
It’s commendable to see our brothers and sisters testify to the reality that Christ is all-satisfying. If following Christ means they’ll never experience sexual satisfaction, they willingly take up that cross. This choice of celibacy also points the entire church to what is eternal. Human marriage was designed by God to be a temporary sign that gives way to the reality of the church’s eternal union with our bridegroom, Jesus Christ.
The celibacy solution also recognizes the reality that there are many sin struggles in this life that God may allow to remain a formidable foe until we see Jesus face to face.
Lastly, the celibacy solution reminds us that while marriage is a blessing for many, it’s not a requirement for all. We can’t escape Paul’s provocative words when he states that “he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better” (1 Cor. 7:38).
Cons of the Celibacy Solution
The celibacy solution typically comes from an unbiblical premise, spoken or unspoken, which states: “My exclusive same-sex attraction is immutable, unchangeable, and God almost certainly will do nothing about it.” It would seem that this theology places same-sex desires in a unique category from other sins. When Jesus does a radical work of bringing dead hearts to life, making someone a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), this particular area remains unreachable from God’s grace.
This belief goes hand-in-hand with another unbiblical supposition: same-sex desire, if not consciously acted upon, is morally neutral. As long as you don’t allow the attraction to give birth to lust, there’s no need for change because this is not an area in need of repentance. But the church has historically rejected this premise which only identifies sin in the realm of conscious choice. The Bible makes it clear that the fall has corrupted not only our choices but our desires as well (James 1:14–15, Jer. 17:9).
While it’s important to maintain a distinction between “indwelling sin” and what we could call “willful sin,” both need redemption. When we limit the scope of sin’s reach, we also limit the scope of the gospel’s reach. To dive deeper on the topic of whether same-sex desires can be properly labeled sin, see my previous blog, “Is it Sin or Temptation?”
The call to repent of all sinful desires is non-negotiable. This will seem impossible if desire and identity are inseparably linked.
Some see same-sex attraction as morally neutral because they often see their attractions as integral to their identity. To lose this desire would be to lose a part of themselves that they don’t want to lose. Whether it be their creativity, their cultural tastes, or the way they interact with friends, they see their desires as foundational to their being. But to whatever degree repentance changes our preferences or the ways we interact with others, that can only be a good thing. The call to repent of all sinful desires is non-negotiable. This will seem impossible if desire and identity are inseparably linked.
In response to the celibacy solution, some conservative Christian thought leaders and pastors have advocated that many Christians wrestling with same-sex desires should place a high emphasis on seeking marriage with someone of the opposite sex. While they would not go so far as to say that it’s sinful for every Christian to remain single, they would say that in many (if not most) cases, true repentance of same-sex desires would eventually give way to new desires for biblical marriage.
They would also propose that the ethical opposite of same-sex desire is heterosexual desire within marriage. They would argue that Paul’s description of the call to singleness in 1 Corinthians 7 was not describing someone wrestling with exclusive same-sex desires but instead refers to those Christians who’ve been given the gift of great contentment in singleness. Therefore, it is not tied to a sense of inability to marry according to God’s design.
Pros of the Marriage Solution
The marriage solution fundamentally rejects the idea that exclusive same-sex attraction is tied to identity and therefore immutable. It also sees same-sex attraction as part of indwelling sin and therefore in need of redemption. It’s an aspect of the Christian’s experience that the gospel has the power to change. These pastors want believers who struggle with same-sex attraction to believe God is powerful enough to bring about incredible change even at the level of our desires. The very heart of the gospel is the proclamation that what was impossible with man is made possible with God (Matt. 19:26).
The very heart of the gospel is the proclamation that what was impossible with man is made possible with God (Matt. 19:26).
The marriage solution also rightly pushes back against an unhelpful feedback loop in the celibacy solution in which the belief that heterosexual marriage is impossible prevents the possibility of it. Our beliefs impact our desires, and vice versa. The more we believe a specific narrative, the more our expectations, hopes, and desires will be shaped by that narrative. If the narrative says someone should abandon realistic expectations of developing godly desires for marriage, then hope has no place to root itself. That desire will have no fertile soil to feed upon.
Cons of the Marriage Solution
The biggest problem with the marriage solution is that it turns the good opportunity of marriage into a command that Scripture does not warrant. There is no biblical backing to make a one-to-one correspondence between repentance and romantic desires.
Sexual desire is never commanded for a single Christian. If a Christian is already married, they’re called to cherish, love, and pursue their spouse—including, when appropriate, fanning the flames of desire so their attractions are devoted to their spouse alone. It’s also true that there may be a correlation between repentance of same-sex desires and a desire for marriage. As someone repents, the Lord may open their heart to an opportunity for marriage that he presents. If someone is convinced that their exclusive same-sex attraction is core to their identity, their unwillingness to consider marriage may indicate a lack of repentance. But that is a case-by-case area of wisdom and discernment.
But this gets to the question of the goal of repentance. The ethical opposite of same-sex lust is not heterosexual desire, but love (see The Opposite of Sexual Sin). The ethical opposite of lust is love for God and love for neighbor—in these two the entire law is summed up.
The Westminster Larger Catechism, question 138, asks, “What are the duties required in the seventh commandment?” The answer focuses on chastity as the main way we positively fulfill the seventh commandment. It says that marriage is a duty if someone does not have the “gift of continency”— “the exercise of self-constraint in sexual matters.” Self-constraint implies that there is something in need of restraining! Therefore, continency is not the absence of any sexual desire (whether hetero- or homosexual), but the ability to live a life of faithful obedience to God while lacking the proper context for sexual expression. This reflects Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:9 when he says that those who cannot exercise self-control should marry. We cannot conclude that the Bible requires marriage for someone who is faithfully repenting of sinful sexual desires with increasing self-control.
The marriage solution ties a heavy burden upon the necks of our brothers and sisters. It has too many similarities to the extra-biblical requirements of pharisaical laws. Just as forbidding marriage goes beyond the testimony of Scripture, so does requiring it.
I’ve sought to be accurate and charitable in my assessments of the first two solutions. Both views highlight some important truths and make fair criticisms of the opposite perspective. But their conclusions fall short of God’s wisdom.
Instead, if a brother or sister wrestling with same-sex attraction asks you if they should pursue marriage, see this as an opportunity to encourage them to bring their desires with open hands before the Lord.
For every unmarried Christian, the possibility of marriage must be fully surrendered to God. He claims Lordship over every part of your life.
Sometimes marriage seems to be the direction God is pointing them. They largely experience exclusive same-sex attraction but are open to marriage and desire to raise a family. If God calls them to marriage, there will be struggles (as in every marriage)—but it will also be an ongoing means of their sanctification and blessing. For others, their hesitancy to pursue marriage may be a lack of trust in their heavenly Father, revealing an idolatrous desire for control. The issue is not marriage itself, but what marriage is revealing about their hearts. For still others, they may not desire to pursue marriage because they are living contentedly with self-restraint as a single believer.
For every unmarried Christian, the possibility of marriage must be fully surrendered to God. He claims Lordship over every part of your life. We should hold up everything to God with open hands, including marriage, singleness, our career, where we live, how we spend our time and money, and especially including our desires. If you surrender to our Lord’s perfect will in this area, he will lead you. Perhaps God has a long, thriving season of service in the Kingdom that is only accomplished through singleness. That season of singleness may give way to marriage one day. The key is that your entire life is fully surrendered to him.
This is the standard for all followers of Christ! Jesus demands we give him everything (Luke 14:26). The only proper response to God’s amazing grace in salvation is to “no longer live for [ourselves] but for him who for [our] sake died and was raised” (2 Cor. 5:15). Our plans and our desires no longer have control, but “the love of Christ controls us” (2 Cor. 5:14). Our flesh naturally fights against this type of radical surrender, but the Spirit gently, patiently, sweetly, and convincingly continues to draw us into it.
My former colleague Dave White used to say that legalism and licentiousness are two sides of the same coin. They’re both sinful attempts to avoid a relationship with God. In a similar way, forcing or forbidding marriage cuts off the life of prayer that is required when considering such weighty decisions. For some of my single brothers and sisters struggling with same-sex attraction, God may be calling you to the scary work of praying about marriage. For others, you’ve been praying about this, you have submitted this to the Lord, and he has given you contentment in his call of singleness for your life.
A brief word to my married brothers and sisters who continue to battle against same-sex desires. You’re not alone in the fight to keep your desires singularly focused on your spouse. This is a battle every married person must faithfully fight. Remember, Jesus is Lord of your desires (Phil. 2:13)! Keep offering them to him. You may find it difficult at times to fan the flame of desire for your spouse, but this is an area that you can proactively cultivate by God’s grace. He wants to bless your Spirit-driven efforts at fostering a deeper longing for your spouse, as those efforts are the fruit of a singular and intentional longing for Christ.
Your heavenly Father can be trusted. He will not give you a scorpion when you ask for an egg, or a serpent when you ask for a fish (Luke 12:11–12). He loves you. He purchased you for his prized possession. He wants to lavish you with good things that result in praise and thanksgiving to his name. You can trust him with your desires, your future, and your entire life.
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
What Jesus Does for Betrayed Wives
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
Help! I’m in a Sexless Marriage (Part Two)
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
Help! I’m in a Sexless Marriage (Part One)
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
The Gospel According to Sex: Holiness
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.