by Jaime D. Goff, Ph.D.
September - December, 2006
I believe that marital sexuality was created by God not only as a way for us to experience pleasure but also as a way for us to experience profound spiritual and personal growth. Increasingly, the church is awakening to this idea, but it hasn’t always been that way: the church’s history with sexuality has been difficult and marred by misunderstanding, unrealistic sanctions, and avoidance. For example, sexuality was so regulated by the early Catholic Church that there were only eighty-three days out of the year when married couples were permitted to engage in sexual relations (and that was only if they were planning to procreate)!
Although the church has not been involved in regulating sexuality for quite some time, the more recent strategy has been to avoid the topic of sexuality. The covert message within this approach has been that sex is something that is shameful and often sinful. The purpose of this article is to provide an introduction to the idea that marital sexuality can be approached as a spiritual discipline, rather than something that is to be avoided.
Fortunately, the pendulum regarding how the church approaches sexuality has started to swing in the other direction. The media attention surrounding Joe Beam’s sexuality workshops for Christian couples is evidence that Christians are talking about sexuality in healthier ways. There are also Christian books on sexuality that have become valuable resources for Christian couples. Despite their Christian foundation, the focus of many of the available books and workshops has been on sexuality education and sexual techniques. While information on both of these topics is needed, jumping from avoidance of sexuality to providing information about the latest sexual techniques and positions misses an important step.
Focusing solely on techniques, positions, and anatomy has the potential to bring about harm for three primary reasons.
First, learning new sexual techniques may set up unrealistic expectations for the couple. It does not matter how many new things you learn about sexuality. If you do not have an open, trusting, mature relationship with your spouse, those techniques will not have the power to save your relationship. Solving sexual problems by learning new sexual techniques has been the focus of magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Men’s Health for years. If these solutions worked, these magazines would have stopped publishing years ago. But they continue to publish more and more articles telling us how to do “the next best thing” in our sexual relationships to infuse them with excitement and intimacy.
Second, focusing on sexual techniques may be a source of shame or guilt for a couple. Although we have begun to emphasize freedom in our sexual relationships with our spouses, there are still some behaviors with which some people are uncomfortable. This is especially problematic when one spouse wants to engage in a particular sexual behavior while the other does not. The spouse who has become more “enlightened” regarding his/her sexuality may try to push the other spouse into engaging in particular behaviors because a Christian expert said it was all right. The unwilling spouse may then be left feeling anxious about the sexual relationship and guilty about his/her inability to be free and adventurous.
Third, the emphasis on sexual techniques operates under the assumption that sexuality is simply a biological response. Early sex researchers and sex therapists emphasized the body’s physiological responses, but more current writers, such as David Schnarch (author of Passionate Marriage and The Sexual Crucible), are emphasizing the importance of psychology and spirituality in sexual arousal and response. In sex therapy, one of the first things that I ask my clients to do is to make an appointment with their gynecologist or urologist to rule out any physical problems that may be contributing to the sexual dysfunction. The large majority of these clients return to my office stating that their physician told them nothing was physically wrong with them. This piece of anecdotal evidence implies that sexual difficulties most likely reside in the heart, mind, and soul as opposed to the physical body.
Before Christians can experience marital sexuality as God fully intended, a paradigm shift needs to occur. When people find out that I teach sex therapy, they have a myriad of questions to ask me. The questions usually are along the lines of, “What’s the best way to . . . ?” “Am I doing this right?” “Is it okay to . . . ?” Regardless of the specific nature of the question, my answer is the same. “You are asking the wrong questions.” To experience the spiritual aspects of sexuality, and, in turn, to have a more fulfilling marital sexual relationship, the following questions should be asked instead:
- Am I fully present with my spouse in this moment?
- Am I staying with him/her?
- Am I allowing him/her to see all of me?
- Am I fully participating in this communion with my spouse?
- What is God teaching me about himself, myself, and my spouse through this experience?
Asking ourselves these questions will lead us into deeper spiritual communion during sexual interactions.
So what, exactly, is the spiritual discipline of marital sexuality? What does it look like as it is played out in the life of a Christian? The specific nature of these answers will be unique to each person, but the general answer is the same.
The spiritual discipline of marital sexuality is being willing to take the risk of giving yourself fully to your spouse, just as spiritual communion with God in the fullest sense requires taking the risk to give yourself fully to him. Many people have reacted negatively when I have spoken of sexuality in this way. I believe it is because we generally want easy answers, and learning new sexual techniques is much easier than what I have just proposed. Why is that? Marital sexuality, as I have described it, requires much more risk, vulnerability, and intimacy than many people can handle. Our underlying fear of rejection makes us resistant to really seeing and being seen, knowing and being known. For some, this fear manifests itself as refusing to engage in sexual interaction unless the lights are turned off. For others, it means avoiding eye contact with their spouse. And for others, it means imagining they are somewhere else or with someone else in order to tolerate the intense intimacy.
We are essentially given two options when it comes to our marital sexuality. First, we can fully embrace our marital sexual relationship on every level (physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual) and as God intended. If we choose this option, there will be times when this decision will bring great pleasure in addition to intense spiritual communion with one another and with God. As anyone who practices spiritual disciplines knows, you do not always have a transcendent experience. Even if you work hard at finding spiritual connection within your sexual relationship, there will be times when sex is more mundane and routine. This is part of the ebb and flow of marital life. On these occasions, you will have to learn to deal with the disappointment of what could have been. In addition, becoming more intimately connected with our spouses and experiencing great joy in sexuality will make the inevitable physical loss of our spouses even more painful. The spiritual discipline of marital sexuality has the potential to bring both great joy and great pain.
Our other option is to limit sexuality to a physical, fleshly act that has no spiritual, emotional, or psychological significance. We can experience physical pleasure based simply on physical stimulation. There is no requirement of spiritual communion with our spouse or with God during the sexual experience. If we choose this option, we will not have to deal with disappointment when our sexual interactions are not transcendent because they likely never have been and never will be. Our marital sexuality will be lukewarm, lacking both joy and pain. This choice, however, will prevent us from being able to say that we have fully known our spouse or been fully known by them. We will never be able to say that we have experienced the presence of God during this most intimate of moments with our spouse.
To use Christ’s metaphor of the narrow and wide roads in a different context, the road to the first choice is narrow and reaching the destination takes a lifetime of travel through mountains, valleys, and curves. But this is the road marked by profound spiritual growth and triumphs along the way. The road to the second choice is wide and short, and many choose this path of least resistance, but the toll for this road is also high. We may be able to avoid fear, insecurity, and pain, but the price is settling for far less that God hopes for us.
My prayer is that you will choose the narrow road and that God will bless your sexual relationship with your spouse in ways that you have never dared to imagine.
Jaime D. Goff, Ph.D., lives in Abilene, Texas, with her husband, Eric. She is a professor in the Department of Marriage and Family Therapy at Abilene Christian University, where she teaches premarital and marital therapy and sexual therapy. Jaime is also a therapist at the Ministry of Counseling and Enrichment, where she provides marital and family counseling. Jaime’s current academic work is focused on the relationships between spirituality, sexuality, and mental health. She has taught classes on these issues at local congregations as well as at the 2006 Zoe Conference. Her academic work in this area has been presented at state and national conferences of the American Association of Marital and Family Therapy and the Christian Association for Psychological Studies. Email her at: [email@example.com].