A theology of sexual intimacy1

“Honor marriage, and guard the sacredness of sexual intimacy between wife and husband” (Heb. 13:4, The Message). Affirm God’s prescriptions and perimeters.

Abraham Swamidass, DMin, is a pastor in the Janesville District of Wisconsin, United States, and family ministries coordinator for the Wisconsin Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

Sex has been given by God as a divinely unique and extraordinary gift for a man and a woman to share together in celebration of their oneness in marriage (Gen. 2:25). Tim Alan Gardner wrote: “Sexual intimacy is a spiritual, even mystical, experience in which two bodies become ‘one.’ Sex, really, is holy, a sacred place shared in the intimacy of marriage. And it’s an act of worship, too—a sacrament of marriage that invites and welcomes the presence of God.”2 Sex is holy because it is in sex, in the unity of both male and female, that the full image of God is represented.3

However, because of sin (Rom. 3:23), sex has been misused and abused (Rom. 1:24, 25). The Bible admonishes us to be sexually pure. Sex must not be stirred up or awakened until the time is right (Song of Sol. 8:4). Premarital and extramarital sex are condemned (1 Cor. 6:13–18; 1 Thess. 4:3). Pornography distorts God’s gift of sex, which should be shared only within the bounds of marriage (1 Cor. 7:2, 3). Scripture also condemns adultery (Lev 18:20), incest (Deut. 18:6–18), and prostitution (Deut. 23:17, 18).

A biblical theology of sexual intimacy must recognize that sexual intimacy has exclusive purposes. First, it establishes the one-flesh union (Gen. 2:24, 25; Matt. 19:4–6). Second, it provides for sexual intimacy within the marriage bond. The word “know” indicates a profound sense of sexual intimacy (Gen. 4:1). Third, sexual intercourse is for the mutual pleasure between husband and wife (Prov. 5:18, 19).

Differentiate sex drive from lust

God made us as sexual creatures and wired us with this incredible thing we call a sex drive. The desire for sex is one of humanity’s basic physical drives.4 “Be fruitful and multiply,” God commanded humankind (Gen. 9:7). Just as He gave us an appetite for food, He gave us an appetite for sex not only for procreation but also for sexual pleasure and intimacy within the context of marriage.

This sex drive is not dirty, it is not unclean, and it is not lust. Joshua Harris, in his book Sex Is Not the Problem (Lust Is), offers these insights on what lust is not:

  • It is not lust to be attracted to someone or notice that he or she is good-looking.
  • It is not lust to have a strong desire to have sex.
  • It is not lust to anticipate and be excited about having sex within marriage.
  • It is not lust when a man or woman becomes turned on without any conscious decision to do so.
  • Its not lust to experience sexual temptation5

God’s standard is high when it comes to lust. “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people” (Eph. 5:3, NIV). Why is God’s standard so high? How can God demand not even a hint of lust when He knows that He made us with strong sex drives?

One of the reasons God calls us to cleanse our lives of lust is because He knows that lust never stays at the level of “just a hint.” Lust craves for more. The result is that lust can never be quenched. As soon as the object of lust is attained, lust wants more.

In Ephesians 4:19, Paul describes this endless cycle of lust. He speaks about those who have turned away from God and says, “Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.”6 That is the payoff of lust, “a continual lust for more.”

This is the problem with pornography. Pornography never satisfies; it always leaves one wanting more because it is a pseudo-relationship and is empty. God designed our needs to be fulfilled through real relationships. One needs to invest his or her energy in God-given relationships, not relationships built on deception and lust.

When it comes to lust and pornography, God says, “not . . . even a hint” because we cannot give in to lust’s demands and hope to satisfy it. It always grows. And as it does, lust will rob us of our ability to enjoy true, healthy intimacy and sexual pleasure.

Understanding the distinctions between the sex drive and lust will enable one to develop a hatred for lust and a grateful appreciation for the gift of sexual desire. John Piper explains, “Lust is a sexual desire minus honor and holiness.”7 When we lust, we take this good thing, sexual desire, and remove from it honor toward fellow humans and reverence for God. Lust is an idolatrous desire that rejects God’s rule and seeks satisfaction apart from Him.8

Develop healthy intimacy

Sex is more than a physical act. Satisfying sex is the reflection of a good relationship. Research indicates that fulfilling sex has at least four separate aspects that work together: verbal, emotional, spiritual, and physical.9 Thus psychologist Gary Oliver can say, in regard to marriage, “All of life is foreplay.”10 And intercourseliter-ally means “to get to know someone intimately.”11 

In our culture, we have reduced sex to refer only to the physical act. Equally, we have nearly forgotten a traditional meaning of the verb to know—which was “to have sexual intercourse.”12 The Bible says, “Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived” (Gen. 4:1). The two words intercourse and knowledge are closely aligned. Healthy intimacy is multidimensional, including:

Verbal intimacy—This involves getting to know our mate through conversation and spending time together. Women often want to connect with their partners through verbal intimacy before they can enjoy the physical act. Gary Chapman points out that when it comes to the nature of the sex drive, the female’s drive or desire is far more tied to her emotions than is the man’s. If a woman feels loved by her husband, she may then desire to be sexually intimate with him.13

Verbal intimacy enhances a husband’s romance with his wife. A survey asked women to fill in the blank: “If he were more romantic, I would be more inclined to . . .” The answers were: “Be excited to be with him.” “Keep myself looking attractive.” “Find out what he wants; try to help him fulfill his needs.” “Stay with him rather than find a new partner.” “Be in a good mood around him.” “Attend to his sexual needs.”14

During verbal intimacy, couples can learn new ways to think and talk about their sexuality. They can read books and articles on healthy sexuality. This is one way to avoid the temptation of pornography.

Emotional intimacy—Sharing deep feelings with each other is emotional intimacy and it is vital to sexual satisfaction. Bryan Craig points out that one of the most critical factors in the communication process is the ability to identify and understand the feelings being expressed. “Feelings are the gateway to a person’s heart and soul.”15 Connecting with a spouse’s feelings constitutes the most powerful part of the intimacy process because it brings with it a sense of closeness and vulnerability.16

This involves conversations that are linked to emotion with the question, “How does that make you feel?” This is especially significant for women. They are often most responsive to sexual intercourse when the entire relationship is open and loving—when they feel that their husband understands and values their feelings.17

Louann Brizendine, a UCLA neuro-psychiatrist, reports that during a male orgasm, the chemical oxytocin is released into the brain. In women, the same chemical, oxytocin, is released in the brain during meaningful conversation. That means it can be as exciting and pleasurable for a wife to connect with her husband emotionally as it is for her to connect with him sexually.18

Spiritual intimacy—Nick Stinnett conducted a highly publicized study at the University of Nebraska. After looking carefully at hundreds of families that considered themselves healthy, his research concluded that healthy families possess six common characteristics. One of those characteristics is “a shared personal faith in God.”19 Surveys taken by sociologist Andrew Greeley indicate that “frequent sex coupled with frequent prayer make for the most satisfying marriages.”20

Spiritual intercourse may be the highest level of intimacy. A husband and wife can know each other as they both turn to God and know Him in a personal, intimate way. Authors Carey and Pam Rosewell Moore point out that “the most important goal of prayer  together is that it keeps our relationship as a couple intimate and close, and it keeps our hearts open before the Lord as a couple. There is a lot of unspoken accountability in our walk with the Lord and with each other.”21

Developing and maintaining healthy, intimacy-oriented sexuality is an effective way to avoid yielding to temptations of pornography or sexual activity outside of the marriage of a wife to her husband. In intimacy-oriented sex, nobody is exploited or gets hurt. The sex is shame-free because it is consistent with one’s overall beliefs, values, and goals of life.

Establish effective boundaries

There are a number of different boundaries we set throughout our lives. They include emotional, social, relational, spiritual, and physical, including sexual, boundaries. Pia Mellody suggests that boundaries serve three primary functions: First, they prevent others from intruding into our personal space or abusing us. Second, they keep us from intruding into the personal space of others and abusing them. Third, they create a framework or structure that provides us with self-identity which defines us as individuals.22

In Matthew 5:27, 28, Jesus said, “You have heard it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” In this teaching, Jesus makes it clear that “our thought life is more important than our actions.”23 Jesus seems to tell us that adultery is more than having an affair with someone other than one’s spouse. It begins in the heart—and God sees the heart and knows our imaginations and intentions (1 Cor. 2:11; Heb. 4:13).

Further, Jesus’ words teach that mental and emotional boundaries are just as important as physical boundaries. The implications of this concept are clear as they relate to pornography, sexually explicit romance novels, and other materials that promote thinking sexually about people other than one’s spouse. Anytime another person is physically or emotionally introduced into sexual intimacy, even in one’s imagination, it compromises the purity of marital intimacy.

A boundary is what distinguishes us as separate from others, and here are a number of different boundaries we may establish:

Safety. Rory Reid and Dan Gray explain that a boundary is like a fence around a home, a boundary protects us from the outside while giving us an area in which we can feel safe. Each individual is his or her own gatekeeper and determines who will be allowed to enter the solemn and sacred aspect of his or her life.24

To avoid the temptation of pornography, an appropriate boundary might include installing filters that block out pornographic websites. Those who successfully overcome sexual lust, including pornography, take pains to create safe environments. Safety is found in establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries.

Abstinence. Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of establishing boundaries is abstinence itself, saying no to sexual temptation. With regard to pornography, Dennis Frederick offers three helpful and practical steps: “When you are on the computer and feel the temptation to look at pornography, get up and leave. Walk away from the temptation. The same applies to television programs, DVDs, or printed material. Say a prayer and rebuke the pornography and temptation in the name of Jesus. Say it aloud. Call a friend or talk with your wife openly. Create a situation so that you are not alone.”25

The question one must ask is this: Is taking care of myself important enough to me that I will do what it takes to make that happen? Robert Bly expressed this concept well when he said, “The making of a man is making your body do what it doesn’t want to do.”26

Transparency. In marriage relationships, boundaries establish limits that provide the maximum environment for healthy intimacy. Reid and Gray point out that transparency represents how well we can see beyond the walls that others establish to protect themselves and how well they can see beyond our walls. The boundaries for a spouse are usually more transparent than for any other person. Transparent people allow others to see their true selves.27

This transparency can enable spouses to know each other more intimately than individuals outside the marriage relationship. A boundary is violated when a person crosses a line that defines our limits. When a spouse indulges in pornography by seeking sexual gratification outside the marriage relationship, a boundary is violated. Trust is broken. Respect is diminished. 28

An example of a boundary regarding computer use might be a rule that requires a spouse to report any accidental exposures to pornography while on the computer. If a spouse has been exposed and informs his partner, this experience can be processed and strategies to avoid additional exposure can be established.29 A good boundary is thus established that eliminates secrets and creates an atmosphere of trust in the home.

Maintain consistent accountability

There are two reasons why an accountability partner is vital:

1. The Bible stresses the importance of accountability. The wise man Solomon wrote: “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be over-powered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Eccl. 4:9–12, NIV).

This is the true essence of what an accountability partner is all about. It is being there for each other to strengthen one another when one is down. It is to pray with and remind each other of the real source of power against temptation and pornography 

2. Medical science research supports it. Richard Swenson points out that confession is therapeutic.30 Researchers have called it the “disclosure effect.” Simply disclosing a problem improves well-being in measurable ways. Thus, confessing faults to one another can be supported biblically and medically.

James declared, “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed” (James 5:16, KJV). Healing can be found in confession of faults to one another. When persons keep their secret lifestyle hidden and known only to themselves, it keeps them in bondage. For men, the only way one can experience the power of God is with other brothers—by confessing, sharing, and opening his wounds. When a person does not have to hide those wounds and sins anymore, those sins lose a lot of their power.31 There is freedom when one makes his struggles known to another.

An accountability partner is someone who can love and care but be brutally honest and tough when needed. David Blythe comments that a man’s accountability partner should meet the following criteria:

  • Be anchored in a healthy and committed relationship with Christ
  • Truly desire to help and be accessible to you when you need him
  • Be able to commit time to pray for you and meet with you on a regular basis
  • Be able to be discreet and confidential about the things that you share with him
  • Be someone you trust and respect
  • Have courage to address the issue head on.32 

Sexual addiction or temptation may be extremely difficult to talk about, but talk we must. Find an accountability partner, someone you can be transparent with, someone who will keep your struggles confidential and hold you accountable.

Affair-proof your marriage

To affair-proof one’s marriage, the following guidelines should be followed and reviewed weekly:

  • Go to bed at the same time with your spouse.
  • When tempted, make a speedy exit; turn your heart toward home. When you see an image or a person who attracts your sexual thoughts, place your spouse in that picture and pursue the feelings and thoughts with your spouse in mind.
  • Call ahead when staying at hotels to make sure they do not subscribe to channels with sexual content, and if they do, request that these channels not be available in your room when you check in.
  • Get filters that block pornography sites.
  • Give all passwords to your spouse.
  • Teach your spouse to check the history of your internet usage on the computer.
  • Subscribe to television programming packages that are completely porn-free.
  • Avoid stores, movies, or sites that carry X-rated movies.
  • If you get cable or satellite, ask your spouse to block all question-able stations using a password of her choice unknown to you.
  • Immediately change the channel anytime you are watching TV and something questionable happens to come on.
  • Join a prayer group (males with males, females with females) for support and encouragement.
  • Memorize a dozen Bible verses on the subject of purity and holiness.

Developing an intimacy-oriented sex, setting boundaries, and taking practical steps to affair-proof marriage can help persons avoid sexual tempta-tion and enjoy God’s gift of marital sex. After all, it was God who invented sex.

1  A version of this article was first published in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of Ministerio, under the title, “A Theology of Sexual Intimacy and Pornography.”

2  Tim Alan Gardner, Sacred Sex: A Spiritual Celebration of Oneness in Marriage (Colorado Springs, CO:WaterBrook Press, 2009), 5.

3  Stephen Sapp, Sexuality, the Bible and Science (Philiadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1977), 7.

4  Steve Gallgaher, At the Altar of Sexual Idolatry (Dry Ridge, KY: Pure Life Ministries, 2000), 168, 169.

5  Joshua Harris, Sex Is Not the Problem (Lust Is): Sexual Purity in a Lust-Saturated World (Colorado Springs,CO: Multnomah Books, 2003), 35. 

6  This verse is quoted from from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide.

7 John Piper, Future Grace (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1995), 336.

8 Ibid.

9  Gary Smalley, Making Love Last Forever (Dallas, TX: Word, 1996), 236.

10 Ibid., 237.

11 Ibid., 238.

12 Ibid., 237. 

13  Gary Chapman, Making Love: The Chapman Guide to Making Sex an Act of Love, (Carol Stream, IL: TyndaleHouse, 2008), 10-12.

14  Lucy Sanna, How to Romance the Woman You Love—The Way She Wants You To! with Kathy Miller(New York: Gramercy Books, 1998), 189.

15  Bryan Craig, Searching for Intimacy in Marriage (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference Ministerial Association of Seventh-day Adventists, 2004), 74.

16 Ibid.

17 Smalley, Making Love Last 240.

18  Louann Brizendine, The Female Brain (New York: Morgan Road Books, 2007), 15.

19  Nick Stinnett and John DeFrain, Secrets of Strong Families (New York: Berkley Books, 1986), quoted in Smalley, 243.

20  Anita Kunz, “Talking to God” (Newsweek, January 6, 1992, CXIX, no. 1). Quoted in Smalley, 243.

21  Pam Rosewell Moore and Carey Moore, If Two Shall Agree: Praying Together as a Couple (Grand Rapids,MI: Chosen Books, 1992), 200.

22  Pia Mellody, Facing Codependence : What It Is, Where It Comes From, How It Sabotages Our Lives (New York: HarperCollins, 1989). Quoted in Rory C. Reid and Dan Gray, Confronting Your Spouses’s Pornography Problem (Sandy, UT: Silverleaf Press, 2006), 38.

23  Ralph H. Earle and Mark R. Laaser, The Pornography Trap: Setting Pastors and Laypersons Free From Sexual Addiction (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill, 2002), 47.

24 Rory C. Reid and Dan Gray, Confronting Your Spouse’s Pornography Problem (Sandy, UT: Silverleaf Press,2006), 38.

25  Dennis Frederick, Conquering Pornography: Overcoming the Addiction, (Enumclaw, WA: PleasantWord, 2007), 227.

26  Robert Bly, Iron John: A Book About Men (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), quoted in P. Carnes, D. L. Delmonico, and E. Griffin, In the Shadows of the Net: Breaking Free of Compulsive Online Sexual Behavior (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2001), 94. 

27 Reid and Gray, 39.

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid.

30  Henry Rogers, The Silent War: Ministering to Those Trapped in the Deception of Pornography (GreenForest, AR: New Leaf Press, 2003), 201.

31  Becky Beane, “The Problem of Pornography,” Jubilee Magazine (Summer, 1998): 23, quoted in Rogers, 199.

32  David Blythe, The Secret in the Pew: Pornography in the Lives of Christian Men (Enumclaw, WA: PleasantWord, 2004), 78.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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Abraham Swamidass, DMin, is a pastor in the Janesville District of Wisconsin, United States, and family ministries coordinator for the Wisconsin Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

March 2019

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