“Know this, my beloved brothers; let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” ~ James 1:19
“So do you two ever talk to each other about sex?”
Dr. Thaw eyed Janis and me seriously, and there was a tinge of exasperation in his voice as he asked the question.
I looked down and picked at a thread coming out of the couch cushion. “You mean, like…a, with words?”
If we weren’t paying him $75 an hour to be our trail guide, I think he might have abandoned us right then and there to the deep, dark woods of our marriage pain.
“I’m afraid until we learn how to mind-meld, that that’s all we got,” he replied.
We had just regaled Dr. Thaw with a story of a typical bedtime ritual which Janis and I had created with each other, where we would communicate – not with words – but with signs and symbols. If I wanted to have sex, I would shave, for Janis hated facial hair, and like the princess in the Princess and the Pea, she could detect stubble that measured in the thousandths of millimeters. Shaving right before bed was a flashing neon sign to my wife. It was my way of saying, “Pretty please.”
She also had ways of communicating her desires without words. I had bought her for Christmas a massive one-volume edition of the complete Lord of the Rings series, which was bigger than a church Bible. We could have used it as a table extender whenever we had company over for dinner. Janis ordinarily laid it across her stomach as she read herself to sleep. But on the nights when I shaved she did something else. Oh so subtly, she’d turn her book 45 degrees off her hip, like the wall of China spread out between us. It was her way of saying, “Not in a thousand years, pal.” Seeing the book, my eyes would darken. Seeing my eyes darken, a sound not unlike a moose’s snort came from her nostrils. I would vent a sigh as I turned on my side away from her. Safe at last from the sex-crazed ringwraith, she’d slide the book back to her stomach and rejoin Frodo and Sam. Never a word was spoken.
It wasn’t something we deliberately chose to do. Whenever we had tried to bring up sex in the past, it invariably collapsed into a shouting match of “You’re always this – !” and “You’re never that – !” and as the shadow of Mordor fell over our marriage, this is where we landed. It took Dr. Thaw to call us out on it.
I had heard dozens of marriage sermons by then, and even preached my share of them, but sometimes it takes a careful observer to point out to us our blind spots, which is why coaching or counseling can be such a valuable asset on our discipleship journey. So over our next few sessions together, Dr. Thaw helped to midwife a conversation on sex between me and Janis. He’d coax us to come out of our caves and attempt to put into words what we were feeling. If one of us responded poorly or put something in an inappropriate manner, he’d throw the penalty flag and offer suggestions on how to frame the thought in a more helpful fashion.
I marvel at the patience he showed with us because we must have been a real piece of work. His goal was to get us to show a little empathy for what the other was thinking and feeling, but that required us first to know what the other was thinking and feeling. But who had time for that when we were so busy mind-reading and rushing to judgment? Boxing up and labeling the other was much more fun.
But oh so slowly, like the turning of a cruise ship, Janis and I began to understand how differently we experienced sexuality. I was such a buffoon in my 20s, to fail to even appreciate the dynamic of a woman’s monthly cycle and how that might impact my wife’s sex drive. That like the moon, her sexual energy waxed and waned, while mine, like the sun, blazed in continuous fire. Behold, I wasn’t sex-crazed after all, she learned. Verily I say unto you, she wasn’t frigid after all, I learned.
I learned along the way that for a man, sex is the reward of loving his woman relationally. (Sure, he’ll cuddle, but he’s hoping it’s part of a journey, and not the destination.) For a woman, the relationship is the reward of loving her man sexually. (Sure, she’ll do the wild thing, but she’s hoping for conversation afterwards.) It’s never quite that primal, but these are fundamental internal drives that once recognized, can deepen love.
Why would God do it this way? It’s biologically brilliant. It keeps the human race from overpopulating like rabbits – which would happen if women’s fertility matched men’s. And it keeps us from dying off – which would happen if men’s fertility matched women’s (because those fertile moments would rarely fall into alignment.) But it’s also spiritually brilliant. Because – as we discussed in the last reading – it compels us to practice self-denial and learn to love the other sacrificially.
My wife, knowing that my sex drive is always “on call”, will learn to give herself to me on occasions when she herself would prefer to binge-watch Netflix. I, knowing that my wife’s sex drive dramatically fluctuates, will learn the discipline of channeling my desires elsewhere –and give her room to breathe. (I cut many a lawn, and lifted many a weight in that spirit.) A husband and wife who learn the art of what Christians call agape love (self-sacrificing love modeled after Christ’s self-sacrifice for us) will in time experience intimacy unknown to others.
As Janis and I started untying our relational knots through conversation, we also learned that sex is both art and science, and how dimwitted we were when it came to exploring this part of our relationship after we were married. Sex wasn’t quite as automatic as what we saw down on the farm. There were books to read and techniques to master, and you can “get better” at it over time.
One of the arguments I’ve heard used for cohabitation is that you have to take marriage out for a test drive before you commit to it, and it’s especially important to discover if you’re “sexually compatible” or not. Which is the biggest load of hooey since the one about chewing gum taking seven years to pass through your digestive system.
Sex is one of the most basic of human functions. The male and female anatomy just has a way of finding each other. And if you marry in God’s way, and bring love and commitment to the bed, you’ll have a lifetime to smooth out the rough edges. If compatibility is what you are concerned about leading up to marriage, far better to explore financial compatibility, or emotional compatibility or spiritual compatibility.
Probably the hardest aspect of talking with each other about our sexuality came when Janis and I had to discuss the elephant in the living room – my falling into the porn swamp. As you might intuit, men and women view this particular failing very differently, in keeping with their unique natures.
Though it will make this particular reading a bit longer, I’d like to wrap up this chapter by speaking for a moment just to the ladies (guys, you can look over their shoulders), and then share a few words just with the guys (ditto, ladies with the shoulder thing.)
A Word To Women
The woman who discovers that her man has looked at pornography feels betrayed in every fiber of her being. And how could it not be? you are thinking. He has allowed himself to feel sexual arousal by looking at another woman’s body! I thought he loved me! What’s wrong with me? Where’s a knife!
To you it is as if he has slept with another woman. End of story. But there are ordinarily very real steps of separation between the sin of pornography and an actual flesh and blood affair. Your husband has still committed a great sin for which he must repent, and for which he must repair the damage. He has been unfaithful to you and his Lord. But the odds are that a leaking pipe has been found, not a broken one.
What your husband needs most from you now is a willingness to see his struggles in a way that transcends the pain you’re feeling. You may not feel that he loves you, but he does. You may feel that he is no longer attracted to you, but he is (probably far more than you realize). You may feel that he is a sleazy old man, but he is not (he is just as much a sinner saved by grace as before, but he’s got himself stuck in a place where you can help get him out.) You may feel as if he is now unsafe around children and not to be trusted around other women, when in all likelihood, that probably couldn’t be any further from the truth.
The best thing for the two of you right now to heal from this revelation is to begin talking openly and honestly before God about the sexual part of your lives together. In faith (even blind faith if that’s what it seems like at the moment), step into this journey, don’t panic, take deep breaths, pray, listen, and love.
What should you talk about?
Talk about your experience of sexual desire.
Men and women are wired by God very differently, and being unaware of these unique qualities sets many a married couple up for a frustrating, often enraging struggle. But those couples who read each other’s respective “Operator’s Manuals” and learn to ‘prefer the other’s needs to his or her own’ are in for a quantum leap of intimacy in marriage.
Talk about your innermost feelings.
Explain to him why this feels to you like betrayal. He needs to hear you. He needs to understand your pain. But then I want you to listen to him as well and encourage him to share with you what’s happening in his heart. There are reasons why we sin beyond the obvious fact that we are sinful. Explore together what may have prepared him for this fall. There may be dynamics of your sexual life, or practices, or histories that could be painful to talk about, but talk about it you must, if you are to heal and grow.
Talk about the addictive nature of pornography.
Now that your husband’s sin has come to light, you may be tempted to just accept his repentance and believe his passionate appeals that from here on out it will all go away and be better. When we get caught, this is usually how we respond – with great urgency to clear ourselves and reform our behavior.
It’s not his sincerity you should doubt, but his willpower. Because humans feel sexual desire routinely (a good and God-given part of us), once we yield to a particular method of satisfying that desire, biological and spiritual pathways are laid down in us which have a way of bringing us back for more. All this to say, your husband’s draw to pornography is not likely to go away overnight (unless you go and fetch that knife after all.)
But he can learn to master it, and in time it can diminish significantly, if not disappear altogether. Especially with you by his side.
This is why an ongoing, loving, holy conversation of what’s going on in your hearts – all the while bathed in shared prayer, Bible reading and Christian fellowship – is the surest way you can safely navigate through this time of confusion and brokenness. Here are some practical ideas to consider:
- Set aside a specific time at least once a week for an hour or more to have these conversations.
- Begin to read some books together relating to healing and strengthening your marriage.
- Your husband needs accountability at this juncture, but it would be preferable that he find it in the company of a few strong Christian men. You need to remain his wife, not his parent. All tech usage within the home and office needs to be evaluated in light of this failing.
- Beware of adopting the posture of moral superiority over your husband. Unless you bring to this conversation a sense of There but for the grace of God go I, these conversations may degenerate into lectures and grilling.
- Your conversations should not be focused just on the struggles of your husband. Both godly masculinity and femininity should be discussed. Your husband needs to know how your engines run. You must open up your deepest thoughts to him as he shares with you.
- These conversations should not be focused entirely on the physicality of sexual desire, but in time should broaden to include a richer sharing of your lives than perhaps you have ever known before. Now is the time to chart a new course for your marriage that includes a deepening communication between you.
Now I’d like to speak for a moment just to the guys (ladies, you can look over their shoulders). These are words I would use with a man who has just confessed his sin to his wife.
A Word To Men
Well, the jig’s up, bud. Your big secret is out. You discovered that you could not keep up this juggling act after all.
And on one level, doesn’t it feel a relief?
There has always been that little voice inside you saying that you ought to tell her. That you were in over your head with this and that it was time to come clean, and make that 911 call. Now at last, it’s happened, and though it’s not a little embarrassing, still maybe this can be a sort of new beginning for you. (At least, that’s what a Voice inside of your head has been saying.)
I’ve been where you’re at my friend. And it hurts having to sit down with the one you love, look her in the eyes, and tell her the truth. But the truth sets us free. That’s what our Lord promised. And truth is one thing that has been in short supply in your heart for a long, long time.
Yet even now, there is another Voice inside of you, a darker Voice, trying to doctor things up. Trying to spin the truth in such a way that maybe you can still weasel out of this and look halfway decent. Trying to convince you to feel another emotion other than sorrow and contrition. Don’t buy what the other Voice is selling.
It’ll tell you to find a way to pin the blame for this on her.
That’s Big Lie #1.
After all, in your bad moments, this is what you’ve tried to tell yourself: that if only she were more responsive to your needs, you wouldn’t have ended up here. Yeah! She set you up for this. It’s her fault! Be angry at her!
Mmm. Now where did we hear this one before? “Lord, the woman you gave me…” It’s natural to want to play the blame-game when we get caught being stupid, rather than admit that it’s really our fault.
Another thing I’ve learned over the years as I’ve walked with Jesus is how much he adores my wife, and any time I’ve tried to come to him with complaints about her, he invariably turns the conversation around to talk about me. Trust me, it’s not a good habit to go around bad-mouthing a princess in front of her Dad.
Not only that, but long before she became my wife, she was first my sister in Christ, and Scripture commands me to live well with her. It’s God’s intent that as a result of spending a lifetime with me, his son, she will look more like Jesus. Somewhere along the road of marriage, it’s easy to forget such things.
None of this is to say that you are the spawn of Satan and your wife gets a get-out-of-jail-free card. In a very true sense, this is a collective problem which you both now must face and work on together. Your road to freedom, healing and oneness will be found by the sharing of what I’ve been calling holy conversations with one another, where you learn to talk openly and honestly about things which are going on inside of you.
Another thing the dark Voice will try to do is sell you on is the notion that this is not a sin.
That’s Big Lie #2.
God will handle you with a great deal of sympathy over this struggle.
But you will never hear God speak to you that it’s not a sin. Or that you don’t have to master this part of your life. The Bible reminds us that God has taken people out for lesser sins than what you have committed. You need to grasp a fresh vision right now of God’s awesome holiness, and his anger at sin. Jesus took the nails that first Good Friday because of your sin. Including this sin.
Another thing the dark Voice will try to tell you is that this problem of yours is just not that big a deal.
That’s Big Lie #3.
It may not be as big a thing as outright adultery (though trust me, your wife is really struggling with this idea right now – when her man attains sexual consummation through looking at pictures and videos of other women, what’s she to conclude?) but you had best get in touch with the immeasurable pain that your wife is feeling right now.
Remember what you used to think about pornography before you crossed that line? It was awful, sinful, dangerous, destructive, defiling, addictive, Satanic, counterfeit… You feared it. You preached against it. You guarded your heart against it. You trembled when you swerved near its flame. And then came the day when you yielded to its siren song, and crossed the line. At first, you were abhorred and enchanted, all at the same time. You couldn’t believe your eyes at what you were seeing. How could people do this? (Yet here you were doing it.)
Remember when you came to your senses early on, the earnestness with which you repented. The tears! The vows you made to God! Never again, Lord! Not I! I won’t deny you!
But it happened again. And now began the horrible cycle as Satan waterboarded your heart, taking you under to the point where you were near death – so it felt – then you came back up gasping for breath, reaching for God’s forgiveness, begging for his help. (Tell your wife, the other Voice said. No, no, no, you said to yourself. She’ll be devastated. You can still get this under wraps.)
But you never did. And in time, the abhorrence you used to feel began to wither away. Enchantment was all that was left, only now it had morphed into a dark, black magic sort of pleasure. Things that used to titillate you now seemed a little duller. You began to dig your spade into that foul earth a little deeper. You began to work it into your rhythm of life. You began to work it into your theology. You began to work it into your marriage and marriage bed.
And now look at you. This demon has got its claws in you. You have literally, physiologically rewired your brain to make room for this behavior, and you cannot just will your way out of it.
“Drink water from your own cistern,” the Bible tells us in a revealing poem in Proverbs 5 which means you are to look to your wife, and her alone, as the one with whom you will quench your sexual thirst. You have strayed from this. And now the cards are all out there on the table for her to see.
If both of you are willing, a door is now open for the two of you to experience a healing and renewing of your marriage, provided that now begins a season (and hopefully a lifetime) of holy conversations with each other. Here are your action steps:
- You need accountability, and it’s not her job to pick up the phone.
- You need to move your computers, install porn filters, have your tech usage monitored, cancel your movie subscriptions – whatever it takes – to establish some sort of boundary around your behavior. (Look back at the reading for Day 27 on self-abasement.) You need to man up, and take the lead in doing this.
- You need to take the lead in making sure that at least once a week you are sitting down with each other to have this dedicated time of talking with each other. And commit to begin reading a book – any book – with your wife that will foster marriage healing. Your pastor will have some appropriate suggestions if you draw a blank.
- Shared prayer, Bible reading and church interaction needs to come front and center in your lives together. It’s not your wife’s job to see that this happens. It’s your job.
Of course, ‘holy conversations’ is more than a prescription for healthy marriages. The openness and sharing we are encouraging here must become a way of life between parents and their children. Never forget Augustine looking back at his wasteland of younger years, and writing, “How I wish that there had been someone at that time to put a measure on my disorder.” That someone for a child is first their parents. However much they push back against you or threaten to report you to Child and Family Services or accuse you of ruining their lives, inside they are begging for you to provide boundaries and to point out for them a path on which to walk.
Holy conversations must also be a part of our civic and work life. What transforms society in the end is not the passing of laws but the changing of hearts, and that happens best at street-level when one follower of Christ speaks up – at the lunch table, at the coffee machine, on the tennis court, at the mailbox. The topic comes up – say, bathrooms and the “rights” of the LGBT community – the banter starts to drift in the cultural direction, heads start to nod, and with your heart pounding like a sledgehammer inside your chest, you summon the courage to say, “I don’t think that way at all. In fact, I’ve got some real concerns about this…”
And it should go without saying that holy conversations absolutely must become part of the DNA of our church communities. Pastors should regularly work purity messages into their sermon schedules, where they lay out for their people a compelling biblical theology of sexuality that stresses the God-given, good, powerful and holy aspects of the amazing gift of male and female. Youth groups should have minimally an annual emphasis on dating, sex and marriage. Counseling services, discipleship tracks and small groups should offer purity support. And at all levels of leadership and ministry, a climate of grace-based transparency must be cultivated where it is safe to share struggles and sins with others, without fear of condemnation or punishment.
What ideas in this reading did you find helpful or challenging?
What makes talking about sex so challenging?
When a husband and wife have “holy conversations” with each other, what types of things ought they be talking about?
Why when we sin is it often our tendency to minimize the sin, or blame others for it? Why can’t we say, “My bad”?
Do you see your home or church or workplace as places where “holy conversations” could take place? Explain.
Prayer and Worship
“Father, I thank you for…”
“Father, please help me with…”
“Father, please be with…”
“In the name of Jesus, who died for my sins, who rose from the dead and who is with me now through the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Today’s Worship Suggestion: “I Will Be Here” (Steven Curtis Chapman)
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