- Book Reviews
- About me
Welcome to the online home of Tim Challies, blogger, author, and book reviewer.
Sexual Detox IV: Detoxification
October 29, 2009
This is now the fourth entry in a series of articles about sex and, in particular, about sexual detoxification—about replacing lies with truth. First I wrote about Pornifying the Marriage Bed, then about Breaking Free and finally about A Theology of Sex. Today the series continues with Detoxification.
The purpose of this series of articles is to lead young men through a kind of sexual detox. The messages about sex taught in society and especially in pornography have left a whole generation of men with false views of the meaning, purpose and act of sex. In the last article we attempted to piece together a bit of a theology of sex, showing why God gave us sex, why he gave us sexual desire and why he gave sexual desire in unequal measure to men and women. Now that we have seen what sex is, let’s see what sex is not and then begin to show you can love your spouse through the act of sex. Now that we understand the meaning and purpose of sex, we are left asking, how does a husband express his love for his wife in the bedroom? This is where we will get to what I know you probably really want or need to know—what should I do and what should I not do in bed?
First, though, let’s pause briefly to look at the negative side of sex to see what sex is not.
Sex Is Not…
Sex is not ultimate. You might not know this from society and certainly not from pornography, but sex is not the ultimate thing. Sex is a good and great gift of God, but it is not an ultimate thing. Within marriage and without there is a tendency to make sex into more than it is, to allow it to be a kind of idol. Our idols are always good things to which we give too much importance. Sex is just that kind of good thing that can be made into too big a thing. A good gift of God can begin to supersede the God who gave it. Few things in life lend themselves to idolatry with greater frequency, with greater power, than sex.
Sex is not to be trifled with. Sex is too powerful to be trifled with. It is near-impossible for a person to trifle with sex and not get drawn into it in a more complete way. It is just too powerful, too captivating. A boyfriend and girlfriend who begin to have sex will very rarely be able to stop, even if they really do want to. A boy who begins masturbating will rarely be able to just quit. As you probably know, a person who begins looking at pornography will soon want to find more and more of it. Of course this is part of the design of sex—God means for it to be alluring and desirable and almost irresistible. But outside of its proper context it is captivating, leading to imprisonment to sin. So sex must not be trifled with. It must be avoided entirely outside of its proper context and then fully embraced within marriage. There is no room for anything more or anything less.
Sex is not primarily about you. Wives may well testify that they have a better understanding of this concept than do their husbands. Yet even then, sex is not ultimately about your spouse. Sex is about God. While a husband may be motivated by desire to pursue his wife and have sex with her, he should be motivated ultimately by an obedience to God’s command that a husband and wife enjoy sex frequently. While a wife may be motivated by a desire to please her husband or to avoid a fight, her primary or ultimate motivation should be obedience to God. Even if you have no desire to have sex, have sex for your spouse’s sake. Even if neither you nor your spouse have a desire to have sex, have sex for God’s sake out of obedience to him.
The Problem With Focusing on Acts
I’ve been saying that pornography has given you wrong ideas about sex and you’re wondering exactly what that means. So here is the big question: what is normal sex? How do normal people normally express normal sexuality? That is the kind of question you might be tempted to ask, but it is probably the wrong question. Normal is a moving target, one that may move from couple to couple, culture to culture, time to time. The better question is this: what is God’s design for sex? This is the broad question that will lead us to an answer that may even include particular acts and exclude others. Yet I would not wish to get too hung up on particular sex acts as it might serve to distract more than it would help. And I hope that this question can take us back through the past three articles, constructing that theology of sexuality. If you have not yet read those articles, this would be a good time to pause and to do so.
The principle we as humans always want to ask is “how far can we go?” But the better, more biblical question when it comes to sex is “what pleases her?” Of course even this good question must be asked with an awareness that there are things that God expressly forbids and others that he expressly commands. There are firm boundaries. Sex is to be only and ever between a husband and wife. To introduce anyone else into the relationship, whether physically or only graphically as in through shared pornography, is a perversion of the one-to-one nature of sexuality. Sex is to be done in love, not in anger (which means that a man can rape his own wife if he violently forces himself upon her. What a violation of sex this is!) Sex, as with everything else in life, is to be done with self-control, not with a reckless lack of self-control.
Within these God-given boundaries, given for our good, there is tremendous freedom. It is a freedom to explore, to discover, to play, to say “yes” or “no” or “never again.” But it is a freedom that may need to be sanctified, to be made holy, especially for those who have had their understanding of sex shaped by pornography. The things that supposedly arouse porn stars are very likely not the things that will arouse your wife or that will make her feel loved and treasured instead of demeaned in your lovemaking. Why? Because the things you have seen in pornography are things that are created to incite lust in those who are already hardened against what is good and pure. They are acts designed to arouse the hardened heart, not the tender heart (I italicize that because I want you to get it, to think about it.). Do you understand what I am saying here? Most of the stuff you see on the screen when watching pornography is not stuff you should ever try to do or to inflict upon your wife. Magazines and advice web sites (both Christian and non-) are full of questions about what constitutes normal sexual behavior. When I see the questions people are asking, it is not difficult to know which people have been looking at pornography. The questions they ask are essentially “Is it okay if my wife and I play out this pornographic act?”
Sex is tender. Do you see tenderness in pornography or do you see violence? Sex is sweet. Do you see sweetness in the pornography you watch or is it degrading? Sex is selfless and giving. But isn’t pornography all about the getting and about the conquest? Is it not about having my needs met now? Sex has boundaries. But doesn’t pornography suppose that anything I feel or anything I desire is acceptable simply because I desire it? Pornography scoffs at boundaries.
But Can’t I…?
If I were to give you a list of do’s and don’ts, this would be the place to do so. I could draw up a long checklist with checks in some boxes and x’s in others. “Yes you can do that, yes you can do that, no you can’t do that.” In some ways I think it would be helpful but, at the same time, it would undoubtedly reflect my conscience, my strengths, my weaknesses. It would unavoidably be legalistic in some ways and licentious in others. What one couple finds blissfully enjoyable may be repulsive for another. One person’s freedom is another person’s captivity. That is one of the strange realities of the way God has made us—he has made us different and has even given us different consciences. So there is great freedom within marriage to explore, to try new things and to enjoy things that are mutually pleasurable.
Instead of that long but ultimately disappointing and useless checklist, let me offer the following guidelines and leave you to fill it in as you see fit. Here are some useful questions to ask.
What is your heart in this? Any act we take, whether in the bedroom or anywhere else, is motivated by the heart. So there is more value in asking, “what is in my heart that I want to do this?” than “is this particular act wrong?” Jesus taught his disciples that it is what comes from within, not external things, that defile a man (Mark 7). All evil things, whether adultery or covetousness or sexual immorality, come from within. So you need to have a tender heart and be willing to look into your heart to seek out your motives. Do only those things that are motivated by a love for your spouse. Avoid things that are motivated by any kind of sin.
Is this the act of a conquerer or of a servant? You know full well that many of the acts within pornography are acts of conquest, not acts of love and service. You know that in pornography the pleasure of the man is generally far greater and far more genuine than that of the woman. Do not subject your wife to acts that would make her feel like the mere means to an end, that would make her feel like she has been conquered instead of loved and nurtured, like she has been defiled instead of treasured.
Does this bring pleasure to one or to both? One of the purposes of sex is to bring mutual pleasure. At its best, sex allows both spouses to give and receive at the same time and through the same acts. It is unique in that way, and uniquely powerful and fulfilling. There may be times when there is some inequity in the giving and receiving of pleasure, but always each spouse should be seeking greater pleasure for the other, not for him or herself. Do not always pleasure yourself at the expense of your spouse; never commit acts which are pleasurable to one and distasteful to the other.
Does this trouble your conscience or your spouse’s conscience? The conscience is a special gift of God and one that he commands us to heed (Titus 1:15). Where God gives us all the same law through his Word, he gives each of us a conscience that is all our own. We are required to heed this conscience and not to violate it. Do not violate your conscience with regards to certain acts and do not cajole your spouse into violating her’s.
Can you thank God for this? It is difficult to thank God for things that we have done in violation of law or conscience. When considering particular acts, it is worth considering whether you would be able to thank God for them. Do nothing for which you could not thank God.
In many cases these guidelines may be disappointing as they convict you that certain porn-fueled fantasies may have to go unfulfilled. You will find that there are things you have seen on the screen that you’ve been wanting to try out, but that these things would violate some of those guidelines. Some of what is normal in pornography is forbidden by God and is a sin against him and a sin against your spouse. But if you trust God you will know that he will give grace not only to get over it—actually, to get over yourself—but also to find greater pleasure in greater, purer things. Scores of committed couples will tell you that they have found great and growing pleasure in years and decades of what according to pornography would be very boring sex. The years of sex with one another have proven far more interesting, far more alluring, far more satisfying than any pleasure they found in running wild. Do you trust God that this can be the case for you and for your bride?
I will attempt to wrap up this series tomorrow. As I’ve said at the end of each of these articles, you are free to contact me (even anonymously) if there is something you would like to add, a question you think I should address, and so on. Already many people have done so and their questions and concerns have helped shape these articles.