Sexual Problems in Marriage

A Failure to Have a Godly View of Sex

Many people have the mistaken notion that God does not approve of people finding pleasure in sex.  It is truly bizarre that some Christians have actually taught that, because the Bible requires regular sexual activity between married people.  This is explicit in the Word of God.  Even a cursory look at 1 Corinthians 7:1-5 makes this unmistakably clear.

1 Corinthians 7:1 ‘Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”’

Here Paul is telling us that abstinence from sex is a good thing, but he quickly adds in verse 2:  “But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.”

We notice, then, that marriage and sex are not simply for the purpose of procreation but for the purpose of avoiding sexual immorality: “because of the temptation to sexual immorality.”

He writes further, 1 Corinthians 7:3, “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.”

Regular sexual intercourse is a basic element in marriage.  The moment that a person says, “I do,” he or she forever forfeits the right to say, “No:”  “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does.” (1 Corinthians 7:4.)

Notice how this is true both of the husband and of the wife.  Saint Paul was not a misogynist; on the contrary, he taught that the husband forfeited the rights to his own body, too: “Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” (1 Corinthians 7:4.)

While no one can say for others what constitutes regularity in terms of sexual intercourse, surely it should not be measured by the year or month, but by the week.  1 Corinthians 7:5 is quite clear: “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”

If a person feels called to go off for a period of prayer and fasting in order to seek the Lord, he or she is not permitted to do so without the blessing of the spouse.  Furthermore, even with spousal blessing, this should not be for an extended period of time, “so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”

Some people have received a special spiritual gift of a single life (1 Corinthians 7:7.) — but this is not everyone’s gift, and it has no connection with Church office, whatsoever.  While men have studied clever arguments to enhance the idea of avoidance of marriage, the failure to marry for a person who does not have the gift of a single life is a deadly snare.  Asceticism appears to be a holy thing, but it is of “no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh:”

‘If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations — “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used) — according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.’ (Colossians 2:20-23.)

Sexual Pleasure Designed by God

While sex outside the bounds of marriage is sinful and destructive, sex inside marriage is very holy and good. 

The root of sin is not in the body, but in fallen human nature.  The physical body was created by God to be sexually attractive; he intended for a woman’s body to stimulate her husband.  It is good, holy and pious for him to enjoy looking at his wife’s naked body.  Her breasts should be delightful to him and touching them should give him pleasure.  Husbands are commanded by God to “rejoice in the wife of your youth,” and to “let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love.” (Proverbs 5:18, 19.)

Even a casual study of human anatomy presses a person to conclude that God designed the bodies of men and women not only to complement each other in reproduction, but also to give pleasure, designing corresponding clusters of nerve ganglia in such a way as to maximize the sensual pleasure of intercourse.

Ephesians 5:32 makes it plain that marriage and the marriage act are a picture of Christ and the Church.  This sanctifies the beauty and holiness of sexuality in marriage, including foreplay and intercourse as they are celebrated in the Song of Songs.

1:2, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine.”

2:3-6, “As an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste, he brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love. Sustain me with raisins; refresh me with apples, for I am sick with love. His left hand is under my head, and his right hand embraces me!”

4:2-7, “Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes that have come up from the washing, all of which bear twins, and not one among them has lost its young. Your lips are like a scarlet thread, and your mouth is lovely. Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil. Your neck is like the tower of David, built in rows of stone; on it hang a thousand shields, all of them shields of warriors. Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that graze among the lilies. Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, I will go away to the mountain of myrrh and the hill of frankincense. You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you.”

4:11-5:1, “Your lips drip nectar, my bride; honey and milk are under your tongue; the fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon. A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a spring locked, a fountain sealed. Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates with all choicest fruits, henna with nard, nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes, with all chief spices—a garden fountain, a well of living water, and flowing streams from Lebanon. Awake, O north wind, and come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden, let its spices flow. Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits. I came to my garden, my sister, my bride, I gathered my myrrh with my spice, I ate my honeycomb with my honey, I drank my wine with my milk. Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love!”

The above is subtly erotic but not pornographic.  It is God’s Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat on the delights of human sexuality.  A single life devoted “to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord” is a wonderful thing, (1 Corinthians 7:35.) and the Community of believers must honor single people, granting them full fellowship in the life and ministry of the Church.  Neither the married state nor the single state should ever be lifted up as sole model of holiness nor must either ever be made the standard for holding office in the Church.  Such is contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture and must be repudiated as diabolical.

Self-denial as a Holy Spirit led, voluntary expression of love for God and one’s neighbor is the essence of the Christian life, but forced standards of holiness, not based on Scripture but on the arrogance of self-made religion is wicked.  Sadly, carnal men have often been forward to impose their rules on others, but the biblical self-denial has nothing to do with asceticism:  “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” (1 Timothy 4:4-5.)

Living in a World that Is Not As God Created it

When two people marry, they bring together the sin, complexities and pain and pleasure of their experiences in a fallen world.  For example, if someone was sexually molested, particular in prepuberty, that person will bring a host of sexual difficulties into the marriage.  That all too common experience may produce widely varying problems, including those regarding a person’s sexual response ranging on a spectrum between nymphomania and frigidity.  I am astounded at the number of people I have prayed with who have been raped or molested.  However, no one this side of Eden has complete health, either spiritually, mentally or physically.  In a fallen world most people have feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, and their sense of sexuality is impacted by the fall in no small measure.  That means that people bring their neuroses into their marriages and to the marriage bed. The more sexually experienced people are prior to marriage, the more complex their sexual experience within marriage will tend to be.

Furthermore, as the early experiments of medical doctor, Ivan Pavlov, demonstrate regarding conditioned reflex, higher order animals can learn new responses.  Not only can human beings “acquire a taste” for naturally nasty tasting stuff like whiskey and tobacco, they can be manipulated into desiring all kinds of things outside of the range of merely genetically produced drives.   For example, if a young male comes across a piece of pornography involving the infliction of pain, his natural desire to see a naked female may become conditioned to associate the “normal” pleasure of this sight with either sadism or masochism.  In time, given further stimuli and reinforcement on a fallen human nature, this young person may acquire extremely bizarre and sinful sexual desires.  Over the years, I have met all kinds of folk, from a necrophiliac who worked in the funeral industry to a man who confessed to me that he had raped a child. 

Differences in Men and Women, Just to Name a Few

The most erotic part of a man’s body to a woman is the ear.  I’ve come to that conclusion after over thirty-six years of marriage and listening to hundreds of people with sexual problems.  (In listening to people talk about marriage problems, I never talk to women by themselves, and I would never talk about human physiology or sexual technique with a woman present.  If a woman has problems in that area, my wife talks to her without my being present.)

What I mean by the ear is this:  at the most basic level, women are looking for emotional intimacy and security in a relationship.  When a man is tuned in to his wife’s heart, when he gives her his undivided attention and listens to her, she will positively respond to him in many ways, including sexually.  Many men seem never to understand this.  They imagine that a woman’s sexual response is fundamentally genitally centered, and so they pursue an erotic quest, studying everything from David Reuben to Tantric Hinduism.  They waste gobs of money on stuff that never seems to work, from anatomical enhancers to very bizarre paraphernalia.  I’m not denigrating knowledge of human physiology or sexual technique; I’m just saying that if a woman has a wounded spirit, no sexual contrivance is going to get her truly to open herself to her husband, and the more he focuses on erotica instead of communication and romance, the more tightly her soul is locked up away from him.  And when the soul is locked up, so is the woman’s deepest sexuality. 

In stating this, I am not implying that people should never read a manual about sex, because I believe that most couples would benefit from better knowledge about human physiology and sexual technique.   My concern is that if things are not right in the relationship itself, then merely focusing on sexual matters is not going to produce the desired sexual response. That is because female sexuality is different from male sexuality in many ways, one of which is that sex for a woman is much more a part of the totality of who she is and not as focused on the physical dimension as it is for a man. It certainly is a physical act for both sexes, triggered by hormones and external stimuli, then nurtured by the stimulation of nerve ganglia, particularly in erogenous zones. It can be just as physically intense for both sexes, but it begins and ends differently for a woman than it does for a man.

Someone said that women are like electric stoves and men are like gas stoves. The electric stove manifests what is happening more subtly to start with and reacts more slowly than the gas stove. And when the switch is turned off, the electric stove cools down more slowly. But both stoves cook the food just as thoroughly. Most men can be engrossed in something else, like balancing the check-book or having their devotions, and then, almost instantly, turn their whole attention to matters of reproduction. Lots of things can blunt the edge of that, especially depression, but for the most part that’s how it is for a man. Women are generally different—and that’s the point that I am trying to make with my remark about the ear—their sexual response is part of a bigger picture that includes their understanding of who they are in relation to the world around them, especially to their sense of being cherished. That is why it is so important that men learn to continue the acts of courtship throughout their marriage, because the mystique of romance is much more important to many women than it is to men.

As a general rule in the world God created, reproduction begins with the female who responds to hormonal changes within herself in light of her environment. The male picks up on these clues regarding the female’s receptivity and almost instantly begins reproductive pursuit. In most mammals the olfactory nerve is the primary cranial nerve that triggers the male response, but in human males, it is the optic nerve. It’s why a man can be absorbed in the pathos of Jeremiah’s Lamentations, look up for a moment to reflect and pray, notice his wife walking across the room in her negligee, and drop his Bible.

Furthermore, in a fallen world, males tend to be polygamous, continually taking an instant, generally unconscious, sexual inventory of everyone they meet, while females tend to be monogamous once they have found a secure and satisfying relationship. Of course that’s a glittering generality, and there are plenty of exceptions, but I have found that pattern to be true in males and females, even among homosexuals. In fact, I would characterize homosexuality as an exaggeration of the sexual differences in men and women. Male homosexuals tend to be notoriously polygamous, while lesbians tend to be the opposite. I have yet to minister to a lesbian that did not have a wounded spirit, and behind most lesbian relationships is a pathological bonding of “You and me against the world.” When a homosexual male acts on a younger male, as a general rule, something overtly sexual will manifest itself very quickly. When a lesbian acts on a younger female, nothing overtly sexual will happen for a very long time, and if her partner is under aged, nothing felonious may ever happen. Instead, there will be an unhealthy obsession between them.

We tend to understand others in light of our own experience. When men approach women, thinking that their sexuality is fundamentally alike, they only exacerbate the distance between them. Perhaps that is one reason that Peter urged husbands to live with their wives in a sensitive way (literally, “according to knowledge”), because, unlike men who are rough clay pots, women are exquisite, delicate vases: “Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.” (1 Peter 3:7.)

However, even when everything is going great in the overall marriage relationship, a woman may find herself having difficulty sexually responding to her husband.  There can be lots of factors, but one can be that her hormones may drop while she’s nursing a baby.  Breast-feeding often not only lowers a woman’s likelihood of getting pregnant, it can also lower her psychological and physiological need to do that which produces a baby.  Dirty dishes in the sink, financial problems, anxiety over her children and many other things can lower a woman’s sexual response, too, because a woman’s sexual openness begins with hormonal changes within herself that are deeply related to her environment—her primal sense of security with her mate in successfully raising offspring.  These environmental things rarely affect males the way they do females, and so men often figure it must be rooted in something else, and off they go again down the erotic path, missing the real cause of the problem.

Liberty in Sexual Pleasure Under the Umbrella of Love

Saint Paul describes love as patient and kind.  He tells us that it is not rude and not self-seeking, rather that it always protects and always perseveres. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7.)  This is very important to keep in mind, because the Bible gives us a great deal of latitude in terms of what is permitted between a married couple, and that latitude must be exercised under the umbrella of love as described by Saint Paul.

Scripture condemns all expressions of human sexuality outside of marriage. But within the marriage covenant, there are very few prohibitions.  The Holiness Code of Leviticus forbids sexual contact during menstruation, if either partner has certain diseases and for a season following childbirth. (Leviticus 12-15.)  The menstrual proscription was very serious, its violation being compared to adultery:  “He does not defile his neighbor’s wife or lie with a woman during her period.” (Ezekiel 18:6.)  Those are the prohibitions, and they are quite specific.  Where Scripture is that specific, its silence is deafeningly loud in terms of what is permitted to a married couple.  In the understanding of Joseph C. Dillow in his Solomon on Sex (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1977.), the Song of Songs encourages both manual and oral stimulation between married partners.  While I think that some of Dillow’s exegesis is pretty far-fetched, the Song of Songs is nevertheless a celebration of the romantic and erotic joys experienced between a man and a woman.

Having said all that, I want to revisit my point about love in light of this breadth of permission.  Specifically, most of the time it is what the husband wants his wife to do that is the problem, rather than vice versa.  In other words, to use the five dollar words, the problem is the male wanting and not receiving fellatio rather than the female wanting and not receiving cunnilingus, but I am painting in broad strokes, using glittering generalities, and everyone is unique.  Neither of these acts is forbidden in Scripture, but that does not mean that people should “stand on their rights.”  That certainly is not the way of love.  If either party is really bothered by something, the other person needs to back off and not press it.  Furthermore, keeping in mind my first point, such a pressing actually has a deleterious effect on the other person’s sexual response.  Inherent to human beings being in the image of God is human dignity, and without going too far in lurid details, I will say that any form of sexuality that robs someone of his or her sexual dignity is a violation of the divine image.

Lastly, the more that people focus on their own personal sexual gratification, the less fulfillment they often find in sex.  While technique can certainly matter, our focus should be showing love and affection.  Biblical love does not focus on itself, demand its own way or rob others of their dignity.  After all, our Lord said that it is more blessed to give than to receive. (Acts 20:35.)

Bob Vincent