It’s striking that the church in Corinth could muster the courage to ask Paul about sex—something so personal and delicate. It’s something that’s universally difficult to talk about, let alone address in a letter to an apostle. It is even more surprising that they ask about sexless marriages, to which Paul responds, “Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer” (1 Cor 7:5).
Our modern minds might react in any one of three ways to this statement.
- “Don’t most people know that sexual intimacy is good within the context of a loving marriage? Does Paul really need to remind couples to prioritize it?”
- “Oh great. Now I feel like I’m a disappointment to my spouse and to God.”
- “How many times has this verse been misused to condemn and coerce a reluctant spouse into having sex more often?”
Paul, too, would be dismayed to know how some have wielded this verse in selfish ways.
But Paul’s actual words and tone are surprisingly beautiful. Four times in these brief verses (1 Cor 7:1–7), Paul presents a vision of radical mutuality and sexual equality in marriage. His view was both daring and challenging in the first century and remains so today. He portrays sexual intimacy as a precious gift to those who are married—a joint trust of sorts (much like a financial trust). It’s not an entitlement or something to demand, but something to steward and tend together for the benefit of both spouses. Paul’s emphasis is not on what is “owed.” His emphasis is not on the possession of one spouse’s body by the other, but on their mutual authority and mutual submission to each other. He sees sex not as a marital right per se but as a responsibility—something precious to steward and guard as a couple and to carefully invest in over time.
Think of it like a couple’s joint savings account. The money in the account belongs to both spouses. It’s not “her money” or “his money.” It’s “our money” to watch over and grow together over time. Even if one spouse contributes more to the account, it remains “our savings account” and benefits both spouses.
Paul gets this vision of sexual mutuality and equality in marriage from the Song of Songs. The romantic poetry of the Song places the goodness and beauty of sexual intimacy on display like no other book of the Bible. Sexual desire and initiative run strong for both the man and the woman throughout the Song. Each is enthralled by the other.
The Song depicts physical intimacy in two ways. It’s a private garden that provides wholesome fruit and attractive aromas for the couple’s enjoyment. It’s also a spring—a well of flowing water—that provides refreshment and life to their relationship. Imagine the impact of these metaphors in a land like Israel where rainfall is scarce! God created sexual intimacy to be like an oasis in a dry land, providing nourishment and refreshment for a couple’s life together. And it is their job to protect and care for it.
But despite the beauty of the design, cultivating sexual intimacy can be challenging and is too often neglected. Some couples choose sleep over sex. The pace of life and the stress of juggling family and heavy work responsibilities can slowly erode romantic desire. Other couples grow apart, and their sexual interest is choked out through unresolved conflicts or chronic frustration. Still others have diverted their sexual interest into pornography or romantic novels. Fantasy and escape are easier than authentic and hard-won intimacy.
A couple’s sexual relationship is often a bellwether of deeper issues that deserve attention. If your marriage is struggling in this way, what you need to know first and foremost is that it is possible for you to create a healthy, nourishing sexual relationship. Many couples, married for decades, describe their sexual relationship as a mutually enjoyable and regular part of their life together. It’s something they’ve prioritized and worked at over time.
However, to cultivate a growing sexual relationship, you need the ability to talk constructively about sex, which is perhaps the most challenging conversation between spouses. And—you need to talk about the right things. Rather than getting stuck on discrepancies about how often to be sexually intimate, focus instead on what’s more important: your differences in how sexual desire works.
This is a pivotal topic to understand and be able to talk about. These differences are present in most marriages and are not insurmountable. It can be helpful to understand sexual desire as both spontaneous and responsive. There are spouses for whom sexual desire is easily stirred (spontaneous desire), but many others require more deliberate effort and anticipation (responsive desire). Knowing and facing these differences together is a powerful way to enhance intimacy.
This is normal and even healthy. Follow Scripture’s cue and think of it like a garden. Some plants require more water, others less. Some flourish in the shade, others need direct sun. Each spouse is the gardener for the other and should know what is needed and when. The garden will not thrive if the gardeners are not aware and ready to offer the right care. It is essential for each spouse to understand how sexual desire works for the other and to make deliberate efforts to tend their sexual garden with this understanding.
Using a gardening metaphor can help start this challenging conversation. But no metaphor is helpful if the conversation is undergirded by frustration, entitlement, or selfishness. Remember, this is a joint trust—something precious you steward together for mutual nourishment and enjoyment. Approach the conversation prayerfully, along the same lines that James and Paul approach difficult conversations:
“Lord, make me quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. May I speak nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. But in humility may I bring my sexual interests in line with your intentions for sexual intimacy and look not only to my own interests but also to the interests of my spouse. Amen.”