We are awash in sexual false promises.
Our culture tells singles that, if they evaluate their “sexual compatibility” with a partner before tying the knot, they can avoid the possibility of sexual frustration in marriage. But, as I’ve argued before, this approach ignores the fact that changing life circumstances (pregnancy, kids, work stress, aging, etc.) often cause a radical reshaping of a couple’s sexual habits. Expecting sexual compatibility at 25 to magically endure to 45 or 85 is a recipe for disappointment.
Meanwhile, the church has frequently argued that abstaining from sex before marriage is the recipe for a blissful sex life. Indeed, the evangelical purity movement of the 90s and 2000s regularly promised marriage and great sex to those who “wait.”
But this approach also failed to acknowledge the possibility of challenges. Not everybody gets married, even if they desire it. Sex can be awkward and challenging at first, even in the best cases. And, if there’s abuse, sin, or medical issues to be overcome, the challenges of building a sexual relationship can be severe. We could go on. Remaining chaste is therefore no magic bullet that guarantees an instantly fulfilling sex life.
By making false promises of its own, the church has therefore failed to adequately counter the false sexual messages of our secular culture. And it has set millions of believing young people up for relational disappointment. It needs to do better. And that means getting back to the basics: rediscovering the applicability of the gospel of Jesus Christ to human sexuality.
The Gospel and Human Love
Building our understanding of sexuality on the foundation of the gospel will require us to make a few key observations.
First, we should acknowledge that the purity movement’s teachings on sex, which we just described above, effectively amounted to a type of sexual prosperity gospel. Do things God’s way, follow the rules, and he’s guaranteed to bless you with the outcome you desire. This prosperity gospel message is every bit as theologically bankrupt when it’s applied to romance as it is when it’s applied to health and wealth.
The second thing we should recognize is that the true gospel is realistic about sin, shame, hurt, and challenges. After all, the gospel message starts with the acknowledgement that we’re all sinners and that we live in a broken, fallen world. And so the good news is not that we’ll never experience hard things. It’s that through the redemptive, self-sacrificial love of Jesus, displayed for us in his death on the cross, God is forgiving our sins, cleansing our shame, and restoring his creation. In the gospel, redemptive love overcomes the brokenness in our world and in our hearts.
Third, we need to see that the Bible often talks about this gospel message using the language of romance. Indeed, the story of God’s people as his bride is one of the most enduring themes in scripture. And that story follows the redemptive arc of the gospel closely. God’s people start out as orphans and “whores” (Ezekiel 16, Hosea 2, etc.) but are washed by the blood of the lamb and transformed into a spotless bride, clothed in fine linen, bright and pure (Ephesians 5, Revelation 19). In this story, the redemptive love of Jesus again overcomes and restores the victimization and sin of his people.
Finally, I believe that we need to see that the redemptive love of God, displayed in his love for his bride, should set the standard for human relationships. After all, it was Jesus who told his disciples to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 13). As Christians, we should all be striving to show godly, redemptive, gospel love to everyone in our lives. And, given the close association between marriage and the love of God for his people, we should be especially cognizant of demonstrating that kind of love in our marriages.
So what does it look like to take this vision of gospel love and apply it to our sexual relationships?
It means, first and foremost, that we should go in expecting brokenness and challenges, including in the area of sex. Just as the gospel starts with the acknowledgement of sin and the fallenness of our world, so we should go into marriage anticipating hard things. At a minimum, we should anticipate that our partner’s needs, desires, and even physiology are different from our own. We should have our eyes open to the reality that medical issues, or past abuse, hurt, insecurity, or sin could complicate the relationship. And we should expect that the changing seasons of life will create hurdles we’ll have to traverse over the years.
And then we should work to overcome those things through our selfless love for our spouse and build something beautiful anyway! We should learn about our spouse’s desires, how to communicate with them, and how to help them enjoy the sexual union. We should patiently and tenderly walk with them as they work through insecurities or the trauma of past hurt. We should lay down our own desires at times out of love for our spouse. And we should continue practicing all of these things across the years and decades, so that our love transcends the challenges life throws at us.
But we should go even further! The goal is not just that we build a great sex life in spite of the challenges. In many cases, it’s that we participate in redeeming and healing the brokenness in our partner’s life through our love. If our spouse wrestles with guilt over past sexual sin, we should help them know gospel forgiveness by modeling it through our own forgiveness. If our spouse has insecurities, our faithful adoration and appreciation of them despite their perceived “flaws” should help them see their worth in our—and God’s—eyes. And if our spouse struggles to trust because of past abuse, our love for them should always be a safe refuge that helps them overcome their fears.
Reflecting Gospel Love
Ultimately, I believe it is in this way, and this way only, that marriages can truly reflect the love of Christ for us, his bride.
After all, God didn’t just call a people to be his own and find that they were already perfect. And they didn’t immediately enter into marital bliss. God called his bride out of the mud and muck and out of her adulteries. He washed her clean through the self-sacrifice of his only son. He redeemed her through his love. And therein lies the beauty and the glory and the perfection of the gospel.
So expecting that an effortless and perfect sex life awaits those who do things “God’s way” is not just a false promise. And it’s not just a false gospel. It’s a shallow misunderstanding of what biblical marriage is supposed to represent. It is only by acknowledging sin, hurt, and shame, loving one another in spite of it, and participating in one another’s growth and healing that we can truly exemplify God’s love for his people.
This perspective is therefore the biblical alternative to the false sexual promises of both secular culture and purity culture. The church should lay this vision out for its young people, so that they go into marriage with a deeper understanding of what godly love entails. It should regularly call husbands and wives to practice this kind of love in their marriages, both inside and outside the bedroom.
Finally, the church should remind everyone, both married and single, that reflecting the gospel love of God to a hurting world is not just a task for married folks. Whether we’re called to marriage or singleness, we are all called to be Christ’s body. We’re all called to be his hands, his feet, his voice, and his shoulder to cry on for those he has placed in our lives.
Let’s live out that gospel vision by seeking to show redemptive gospel love to everyone around us.
Questions or Comments?
Is this vision of marriage and married sex helpful? Have you experienced a spouse who loved you in this way (or, tragically, failed to)? Got any other thoughts? I’d love to hear from you. Please consider leaving a comment below.
And if you’re interested in this subject, please come back to read my future articles or follow me on Twitter. Over the next weeks, I plan to explore how this idea impacts the possibility of pre-marital sex, abuse in marriage, challenges which can’t be redeemed this side of glory, and other topics. And I’ll continue generally exploring the relationship between the story of God and his people as bride and groom and human sexuality. I’d love for you to join in the conversation!