By Gary Thomas
Whether He's creating the stars or forming the human body, God's design is always beautiful. And His plan for marital intimacy is equally awe-inspiring.
The past decade has led to an explosion of understanding about the chemical interactions of our brains, and we've gained many insights about sex and marriage.
One such discovery is the significance of oxytocin — the bonding chemical that creates feelings of affection and empathy.
Research suggests that a husband's oxytocin level increases following an act of sexual intimacy. A man's brain re-bonds with his spouse, often making him more committed to his family, more satisfied with his wife, more invested in his home.
Utilizing the chemical reactions in our brains, God designed a physical act that renews marital affection, offers tremendous pleasure in a world filled with pain and protects the stability of a marriage. Just from a design aspect, it's amazing to consider this wonderful creation of God that our culture describes with that simple three-letter word — sex.
Though sex can be extremely pleasurable, that's not God's only purpose. Though sex can reduce tension, that's not God's primary design. Though it can satisfy hormonal urges, that's not why God created it. First and foremost (beyond reproduction, of course), I believe God created this physical act to preserve the marriage and renew the bonds of affection between husband and wife.
Studies have shown a clear connection between the frequency of sexual intercourse within a marriage and the overall satisfaction of that marriage. The challenge is that, in the words of Dr. Juli Slattery, sex is more like a LEGO set than a finished toy — you have to build it, rebuild it and put some effort into fully enjoying it.
Sadly, some Christians may be dealing with residual guilt from premarital sexual experiences, and as a result, they have assumed that sex and sin are synonymous. They don't have the freedom to think about sex, read about sex or plan a sexual encounter with their spouse without feeling like they are dishonoring God.
How can you and your spouse use sex to its full God-given potential in your marriage?
1. Keep it exclusive.
If you're frustrated with your sexual relationship, the worst thing you can do is turn to a substitute — such as trashy novels and television programs, or worse yet, pornography or an affair.
Every marriage will endure some dry spells. You can respond by learning to communicate on deeper levels, growing in empathy and seeking to meet each other's needs — or you can pursue a readily available substitute, which will surely pull you and your spouse apart and could possibly destroy your marriage.
Even seemingly "harmless" substitutes such as soap operas can become a destructive habit. What "gets you through the night" will then be used to weather a difficult month, and then endure a challenging year. Pretty soon, you'll realize you've developed an addiction and feel alienated from, and bitter toward, your spouse.
For sex to work the way God intended, we must preserve the exclusive nature of marital sexuality — in thought, word and deed. When sex begins to wane, your sexual drive and frustration is God's physical reminder that you need to pay more attention to your marriage, not less.
2. Share your vulnerability.
If your sexual relationship is disappointing, that doesn't mean you should suffer in silence. Learn to be vulnerable without going on the attack. I've often heard men complain about their wives' lack of sexual interest. My response: Do you have the guts to talk to your wife about your frustration? By "talk," I don't mean cruel, cutting sarcasm, but respectful sharing of your struggles and frustration. As the conversation progresses, consider asking how you may have contributed to your spouse's lack of interest.
3. Use your power carefully.
Let's be honest: The only sex life a person can enjoy, biblically, is the sex life that his or her spouse chooses to give. Anything one spouse denies the other becomes an absolute denial because he or she has no other outlet.
You know what this produces? Power. The stereotype is that husbands want sex more often than their wives do, but I've talked to plenty of wives who feel cheated by their husband's diminished desire. Whether it's the wife or husband who feels denied, one thing is almost always true: Whoever wants sex the least tends to have the most power.
If you're the spouse who holds the power, your character is going to be tested. Will you use that power generously — or manipulatively? Will you demonstrate kindness — or pay back your spouse for perceived slights?
The Gospel of John tells us how Jesus used power. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under His authority, so He got up from His supper, wrapped a towel around His waist and washed His disciples' feet, becoming a servant (John 13:3-5).
When we have power over another and we use it benevolently, we become more Christlike. By design, the sexual relationship within marriage gives us a tremendous opportunity for spiritual growth.
Too often, our sexual relationship is divorced from our faith experience; popular magazines tell us fulfilling sex is all about passion, physical pleasure, performance, desire and technical know-how. While these elements are important, they are also secondary.
God can use the sexual relationship to teach us how to serve our mate, and when we do that, we become like our Savior: "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve" (Mark 10:45).
Ask yourself honestly: If God looked at nothing other than your sexual relationship, would He see you displaying the mature qualities of a believer in Jesus Christ?
4. Make an effort.
When you have kids, a tight budget and a hectic schedule, you may not have the opportunity to create an intensely passionate sexual experience every week or even every month.
You can learn to appreciate the quick moments, the tender moments, the slow and sometimes even tired moments, stolen at the end of the day. But there can also be times when you and your spouse expend additional effort to create special, even memorable, occasions.
Since sex is a gift from God, with so many positive benefits, it is a privilege to put time, thought and effort into making it happen. You may, like so many of us, wish you had a better body to give your spouse; you may lament your lack of skill or the amount of energy you possess at the end of the day. But beyond these concerns, it's much more important to be a generous lover, bringing the kindness of Christ to your spouse in a physical and, yes, pleasurable way. When you do that, your spouse will be blessed beyond measure — and so will you.
Keep in mind that these ideas are for couples with a relatively healthy sex life. If you are dealing with abuse in your marriage or if you have a painful sexual history, consider professional Christian counseling for more help.
A couple can build such a satisfying sexual relationship, getting to know each other so well, growing in such intimacy, that the thought of an affair holds little appeal. In fact, a positive sexual experience can be compared to pulling the weeds of temptation from the ground; they're removed before they have a chance to grow.
We have a lifetime of knowledge about how to please each other, we have common memories, we have a shared faith in God, and sexual intimacy renews our bond.
Marital sex is honoring to God when it's done according to His design, celebrating what God has made and strengthening the family bonds that bring such joy to our Creator.
Satisfying sex isn't just about you and your spouse. It's not just about affair-proofing your marriage. It's about pleasing the ultimate architect, the God who thought it up in the first place. And for a believer, there is no greater joy than that.
Gary Thomas is the author of numerous books, includingPure Pleasure: Why do Christians feel so bad about feeling good?
From the Focus on the Family website at focusonthefamily.com. © 2010 Gary Thomas. Used by permission.