Marriage and Sexual Wholeness:
Helping Couples Define Their Sexual Theology
By Cindy Irwin
It would be an understatement to say people are curious about my career. A Christian sex therapist is not a common vocation or ministry. On first meeting me, it is not unusual for people to ask for sexual help. It does not seem to matter if that first meeting is in a restaurant, a mall, or at church. The questions people ask are open and personal: “What is normal?” “What do I do about …?” “My spouse is …, any advice?”
Sexuality is a large part of people’s lives and many Christian couples are struggling:
- Sexual intimacy is lacking — or gone. The National Survey of Christian Female Sexuality reports that almost one third of the married women they surveyed had sex one time a month or less.1
- Researchers estimate that one in four women and one in six men have experienced an episode of sexual abuse as children.2
- Pornography is rampant. Forty-seven percent of Christian families polled by Focus on the Family in 2003 said that porn is a problem in their home.
If you have a church with 100 married couples, you could consider 30 of them statistically “sexless”; 50 of the women and 32 of the men have been sexually abused; and, almost 50 of the couples deal with pornographically fueled struggles.
And everyone, it seems, is either under- or misinformed. Oursex-is-everywhere culture continues to drive this misinformation. Sexual images blast off of billboards, store displays, magazine covers, and articles. Sexual messages bombard us through television, movies, and music. Our sexually saturated culture exposes us to more sex, and more often than ever before. This does not mean, however, we are any more whole or informed. It seems to have only one effect. People, even church people, are much more tolerant of inappropriate sexual messages. No one seems to be any more educated or satisfied. Second, our sex-saturated culture creates a fertile environment for sexual myths and outright lies.
People’s beliefs, attitudes, and experiences feel true to them, even if these beliefs are not biblical. Having a biblical foundation of sexual truth will help guide you as you minister to those who struggle. Sexual struggles amongst your parishioners can run the gamut from not knowing how to have “the talk” with their kids, lack of sexual desire to the extreme states of a sexless marriage, or strong sexual brokenness in pornography.
God’s ideal is for His children to be sexually whole. This process should begin on the day a child is born to wise and empowered parents. These Word-based and Spirit-led parents should be active role models and discerning teachers. And what should they teach? They should teach a complete sexual theology based on God’s delightful design for sexual expression. Having done so, their children should grow into sexually whole adults who marry into a covenant filled with the delights of intimate bliss.
Join me in defining sexuality from this Eden viewpoint. Why Eden? This is where sexual expression originated — in the first, delightsome garden of earth. Starting with God’s ideal helps eliminate confusion when assisting people with sexual issues. This is like studying true currency to spot the counterfeit.
First Things First: Being a Vessel the Master Can Use
“Jesus looked at him and loved him” (Mark 10:21).
Joe’s voice was trembling. It was our second therapy session, and his wife had issued an ultimatum. He was to tell me every detail of his sexual sins or she was leaving him that day. His trembling turned to quaking as he handed me a typewritten page. He was afraid he might forget the details so he wrote them down. Also, he probably did not want to say these things out loud to a stranger.
I read the page slowly, but not because I wanted to bask in the details. I desired to give Joe honor. He was trusting me with his secrets. I was seeing him emotionally naked. I knew his sin.
Folding the paper, I took a long pause and eyed him steadily. I said, “I want you to listen carefully. Joe, I am not ashamed of you.”
His fear appeared to turn to being stunned. I repeated, “Joe, I am not ashamed of you. I hate the devil, but I am not ashamed of you.”
He broke. He cried. He sobbed. I had tears in my eyes as well.
His wife was disgusted with him and he hated himself, but Jesus was looking on him and loved him. I can do no less. I want to follow the Master as I minister.
Sexual sins are most distressing. They are shocking and disgusting. They cause shame and guilt. Their very nature keeps them hidden in the dark where they grow to seemingly monstrous proportions. How could Jesus, as a man on this earth, look at the sinner and love him — be moved with compassion and heal? Because He had no sin in himself. It is easier to love others, in spite of their sin, when you have removed that sin from your own life.
It will be hard to minister sexual wholeness, grace, and healing to your congregation if you are not working toward sexual wholeness in your own life. Be brutally honest and work hard with the Holy Spirit and trusted others to remove sexual issues from your own heart and life. Do not be ashamed or afraid.
Working toward sexual integrity and wholeness will last a lifetime. Be a vessel that is “made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work” (2 Timothy 2:21). And pour out of that vessel the truth of sexual wholeness, spoken with compassion and love.
Imagine a church headed by a sexually strong, integrity-filled pastor whose pews are filled by men and women who delight in being sexually whole. These kind of marriages create an environment where parents are teaching their children a thorough sex education. The outcome excites me. We may be looking at the opportunity to produce the first sexually whole generation in the church since Eden.
Adam and Eve Gardening Co.: We Are Naked, but We Are Not Ashamed
Why do Christians need a sexual theology? Because lies about sex are rampant and subtle. Even leaders in church history have had a different view about sex from what God said in the Bible. These leaders set the foundation for much of our theology, and yet they believed and taught that sexual desire for your spouse was sin, was separate from love, and connived to threaten marriage.3
God said a husband should delight in his wife’s breasts, that a spouse’s lips drip as a honeycomb, and the taste of honey was under her tongue (Song of Songs 4:5,11). Tertullian and Ambrose taught that they preferred the extinction of the human race to sexual intercourse.
God said Adam and Eve were naked and not ashamed. Song of Songs 7:7,8 says a husband likens his wife’s breasts to the clusters of a palm tree and climbs that tree and takes hold of those clusters. Gregory of Nyss taught that God created Adam and Eve without sexual desire. If the Fall had not occurred, the race would have reproduced itself by some harmless mode of vegetation.
God said that we are not to kill sexual desire but rather direct it toward marriage. Jerome often threw himself into thorny brambles to overwhelm himself with pain when he felt sexual desire.
God desires that a wife’s breasts always satisfy and that a husband would be captured by her love. Origen was so convinced of the evils of sexual pleasure he castrated himself, then worked on interpreting the Song of Solomon.
Augustine taught that the sin in the Garden of Eden was sexual intercourse. If Adam and Eve had truly eaten a real apple, they would have covered their mouths, but the sin was sex because they covered their genitals.
God said that a wife should enjoy her husband’s desire because she was a garden of delights. God told lovers to eat and drink deeply of each other (Song of Songs 4:16; 5:1).
The Bible likens much of sexual wholeness to a garden. Remember Adam and Eve were naked in their gardenparadise. And along with the overarching idea of sexuality as a garden, there are also references to what is grown in that garden.
The Bible provides word pictures of a walled garden. In our quest for sexual wholeness and enjoyment of that garden, it helps to understand some of its elements. Inside this garden are fruits, flowers, sights, smells, and delights. It also mentions pests, relational stormy weather, and no-trespassing signs in this Garden of Intimacy.
There is the wilderness outside the garden where the world travels by. Weeds of myth, misunderstanding, and abuse fill the ditches.
A wall surrounds the garden. It is imposing to outsiders; they are harmed if they smash against it. But it protects the life inside its walls.
There is a door in that wall, along with a key to unlock it, and every person has a key in his or her possession.
As a person stands outside the garden, he (or she) holds the key, deciding if he wants to unlock the door. But each person needs to pause. If people are quiet and use their imaginations, their senses peak. The need to ask: Are those roses or honeysuckle I smell? Do I hear the bubbling of a fountain? I feel the cool air coming from the shade under those tall trees. Ah, delightful garden.
I can imagine flower-lined paths and large, shady swaths of green grass. I am not thinking about the compost pile or the pruning shears. No, I imagine a gazebo, a fresh pear, a sparkling stream, wind chimes, beauty, enjoyment ... rest.
As the gardener, however — while you enjoy the view, flowers, and harvest — you are also aware of the labor of gardening. As the Bible likens sexual wholeness to a walled garden, it also gives directions and instructions about the work. Part of God’s instructions tells us how to prepare, plant, grow, and reap sexual intimacy. He also directs what to do about the pests and intruders that want to destroy the harvest of sexuality.
Outside the Garden
Go with me to Commercial Street in Springfield, Missouri. Between the homeless shelter and soup kitchen are empty lots strewn with trash. As we walk, be careful of the broken glass. Don’t be frightened if a homeless or mentally ill person stumbles through and asks for a cigarette or spare change.
Let’s sit and consider how much this place is like the nonbiblical view of sex. No one has taken time, made an effort, or cared to prepare this place for growth. There is no ownership or commitment so there is neglect. Why should someone who does not own this land want to spend the effort pulling weeds, amending soil, planting seeds, and waiting for a harvest? It is not their land. It is simply a convenient shortcut to somewhere else and an easy place to drop their trash. Nothing substantial or fruitful grows here. Without a vested sense of commitment, it never will.
And neither will true sexual wholeness and intimacy grow without a vested, committed covenant. Without ownership and covenant a person’s sexuality is simply a shortcut to somewhere else, while sexual partners leave their trash in his or her life. The broken glass? Simply shards of hearts.
And that mentally ill or homeless man? He is simply a vivid word picture of our culture. Our 21st-century culture believes sexual wrongs are right, sexual behaviors, thoughts, and feelings of most any kind are acceptable. Society does not notice that these aspects of the culture smell. Like the derelicts in our example, they have vacant eyes, rotting teeth, lice, and we can see their dirty, naked flesh through their tattered pants. No, they cannot smell their own stench because they have lived in it so long. But be aware, they are going to put out their dirty hand and ask for something from you, and they are angry and paranoid when you turn them down and walk away.
As we look at this vacant lot of secularly defined sexuality, do not be mistaken. It is not a barren wasteland; no, weeds grow here. Some vacant lots may have a brief flower, but there are weeds, nonetheless, that give no nourishment or supply. These weeds provide a word picture for the myths that surround sexuality.
One of the most insidious, pervasive, spreading Kudzu-vine lies is that sexuality has nothing to do with spirituality — especially Christian spirituality. The non-Christians I meet or counsel are not offended at combining sexuality and spirituality, they have just never thought of the two that way.
But some Christians have told me we should not combine the two. They say:
- Christians should not say the word sex.
- Talking about sexuality in the church is wrong because it only stirs up lust.
- Christians are to tolerate sex because men have urges but truly Christian women do not have sexual feelings.
- True Christians don’t have sex.
While these are some of the more extreme statements, they reflect a sad truth. Many Christians do not know how to reconcile their spiritual and sexual selves. Thus, they do not try to combine the two — they simply consider one as flesh. But we cannot cut ourselves into pieces. There is no wholeness in the slivers of our being that lay on the cutting room floor.
An indescribable, multifaceted God created us in His image. We are flesh, soul, spirit, and sexual. God created us that way. I think it is interesting — a “Selah,” pause and think on that moment — to consider what God did not say. He did not say, “Soul and spirit created He them.” Or, “Flesh and plans created He them.” Or, “Will and worship created He them.” No, God told us of human sexuality: “Male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).
Along with their gender, God also gave Adam and Eve instructions. His first charge to them as a couple was to be fruitful and multiply (verse 28). The idea of being fruitful is to bear, like fruit trees bear fruit. In this case they were to bear children. Unless they were going to follow the proposition of Gregory of Nyss and propagate through a vegetative means, God was directing them to have sex.
The first task God gave them together — the first instructions on ruling their kingdom — was about having sex.
God’s instructions to Adam and Eve sound grand, don’t they? They seem ideally wonderful. Most people who hear about this Garden of Intimacy want it, perhaps even are aching for such a relationship. But real life looks very different.
Most everyone has figured out by now that life is not a movie, especially the sexual part of our lives. Some might think that with the Garden of Intimacy I am just promoting another Hollywood myth where soul mates floating on wings of breathless passion fall into the bed of sexual ecstasy and relational fulfillment.
Well, that is what I am saying. Breathless passion and sexual ecstasy can fill an amazing sexual relationship with your marriage covenant partner. However, there are two differences between my garden and Hollywood’s myth. First, mine is attainable because God gave helpful directions. Second, mine also includes work. The movies, books, and songs do not tell you that this involves effort. Real-life marriages are filled with sexual misunderstandings, conflicts, arguments, and hurts.
Consider sexual theology as a seed catalog for the Garden of Intimacy that shows you the possibilities. This is what I did with Wendy and Eric.
Wendy was struggling with never wanting to have sex. She said she had been a good “True Love Waits” teen. Their first kiss was at their wedding. They have been married 4 years and never consummated their marriage. Truth be told, she hated even the idea of sex.
Eric was angry. He felt he had been promised a great prize if he waited and “kissed dating goodbye.” But the prize was nowhere in sight. I asked them to craft their sexual theology.
In their third therapy session, they were chatting excitedly with me. Imagine, two sexually whole people who have learned about the treasure of the sexual part of their being from a young age. They had guarded themselves from messages about lust, body image, and performance. They had guarded and tended their own garden. They had no broken parts for someone else to fix.
While they may not be perfect, they are in the process of growing whole. They are self-aware, full of esteem, grace, and spiritual growth. They are fully responsible for themselves and are growing and guarding each facet of their lives.
Wendy and Eric decided to be whole together and they made a covenant. And this relational intimacy, between two sexually whole people, results in a grand and glorious expression of that commitment in their sexual relationship. Covenant, wholeness, and love — each with his or her own garden to invite, explore, share, tend, and enjoy.
And oh, the inner sanctum, the holy of holies, so to speak, of sexuality is the treasure shared with only one other person, to the fulfillment of all our self culminates with our spouse in sexual intimacy. Complete and full sexual wholeness. Our bodies doing what our hearts are singing.
By now both Eric and Wendy are tearful. I am especially struck by Eric. I ask him about his tears. There is a long, silent pause. He grits his teeth, his jaw is tight as he tries to regain control. Finally he says, very quietly, “I always thought my sexual desire was something to be ashamed of. I never knew I was a sexual treasure.”
I lower my voice on purpose, so they must listen closely. What I am about to say is important.
“Sexual wholeness is the delightful, bliss-filled peace that comes from being sexually complete. Nothing is missing. Nothing is broken.”
Cindy G. Irwin, MA, MFT, ABCST, is founder and executive director of Life By Design, Springfield, Missouri, a counseling center that specializes in Sexual Wholeness, and Marriage and Family Counseling.
- Archibald D. Hart, Catherine Hart Weber, Debra Taylor, Secrets of Eve: Understanding the Mystery of Female Sexuality (Nashville: Word Publishing, 2004), 164,65.
- “Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study — Data and Statistics Prevalence of Individual Adverse Childhood Experiences.” http://www.cdc.gov/ace/prevalence.htm. Accessed 10/14/2010.
- Eric Fuchs, Sexual Desire and Love: Origins and History of the Christian Ethic of Sexuality and Marriage (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co, 1983), 96,97.