Sex! Advertisers sell it, Hollywood exalts it and Billions of dollars are given every year in search of it. But, there is something we crave even more than sex – it’s just that we often don’t realize it.
SEEKING GREATER INTIMACY
Valentine’s day is just around the corner. It is a time when people romanticize and think a great deal about the perfect, mutually-fulfilling relationship. Sadly, that kind of relationship appears increasingly difficult to come by. Life is busier, more distracting and frustratingly complicated. It also doesn’t help that culture persistently inundates us with confusing, and often opposing, ideas of what the ideal relationship is actually like.
While listening to Ravi Zacharias[i] the other day, I was intrigued when he quoted an old marriage vow that has roots in ancient Jewish culture.[ii] A little research revealed that this particular line was first published in the Book of Common Prayer in 1549. No one knows how long it was in use prior to being written down. I also learned that it was more recently used in the television series Downton Abbey. It goes like this:
“With my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow: In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
It’s easy to see why many couples and ministers no longer consider this for use in contemporary weddings. To some, it may appear too intimate for a public ceremony, and the idea of worshiping one’s spouse feels a bit sacrilegious.
So, were our forefathers in the faith off their rockers, or is there a message we should consider?
Sex is highly exalted in our modern culture, yet deep and satisfying intimacy has taken a real hit. Isn’t that the way it always is? God gives us great gifts, and the devil quickly swoops in to taint them and steal the joy. (Remember that thing in the garden.[iii])
Is Sex Sinful?
Some Christians have been corrupted by the enemy’s words to believe that sex is sinful and therefore has no place in spiritual pursuits or conversations. Some feel guilty and shameful about their needs for physical intimacy.
We must remember that the very first command from God was, “Be fruitful and multiply…”[iv] I’m pretty sure He knew what that implied. In explaining the significance of Eve being taken from the rib bone of Adam, the Bible declares,
“For this reason, a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.”[v]
While it is true that the Apostle Paul pitched the idea of celibacy, it was based on a personal preference rather than a Godly mandate. For him, a celibate life provided more time and attention for the things of God. He was also deeply concerned about the dire times in which they lived. Many were dying for their faith. This was even more difficult and painful for those with families.
On the other hand, Paul also understood that most of us have not been given his gift of celibacy. “…God gives to some the gift of marriage, and to others the gift of singleness.”[vi] Because of this, he instructed believers to marry, be devoted to their spouse, and to fulfill one another’s physical needs:
"The husband should fulfill his wife’s sexual needs, and the wife should fulfill her husband’s needs. The wife gives authority over her body to her husband, and the husband gives authority over his body to his wife. Do not deprive each other of sexual relations, unless you both agree to refrain from sexual intimacy for a limited time so you can give yourselves more completely to prayer. Afterward, you should come together again so that Satan won’t be able to tempt you because of your lack of self-control."[vii]
On the other end of the spectrum, some worship sex. Focused on the activity rather than the relationship, many pursue a perfect moment rather than a loving, caring and committed lifetime. The target of our caring affections must always be the person, not simply what we get from them. To objectify anyone for personal pleasure is to build a mental idol to which we trade our energies to serve, and our mutual spiritual fulfillment for temporary gratification. Both parties are inevitably left spiritually and emotionally empty, while never attaining the deeper craving for oneness. Satan’s goal to separate a man from God – and a man from a woman – is thereby achieved.
Considering the historical marriage vows, Sara Wenger Shenk, President of Goshen Theological Seminary explains beautifully why the public proclamation of marital intimacy is profoundly good:
“It boldly declares for all to hear that marriage includes bodily devotion to one’s partner… This public declaration, with its poetic beauty, is held within the deep wisdom of a traditional, communal recognition that keeping faith (fidelity) with one’s partner is profoundly good. That this bodily honoring of one’s partner is declared within public worship of our Creator God makes all the difference in the world… It is in our communal interest, our children’s interest, and our personal individual interest to reclaim the wisdom of the traditional assertion that for all involved, a decision to have sex with a partner should involve a public declaration of devotion to the body of that partner in the context or worship… After 40 years of being held and holding each other through floods of tears and pealing laughter, shattering grief and miraculous healing, humbling failure, and surprising joy, with my body, I worship and give thanks.”[viii]
The act of standing before God and friends and declaring openly and honestly the nature of our exclusive intimate relationship speaks volumes in a world where so many things that God made sacred are too often treated as common. It acknowledges the plan of our Creator and our intention to celebrate and be thankful for our partner in accordance with God’s will and purpose.
WITH MY BODY I THEE WORSHIP
But what about the idea of “worshiping” your spouse with your body? After all, doesn’t the Bible teach us that only God should be worshipped? In a very strict sense, yes. Only God is to be worshipped as God.
The context of the marriage vow is different from the kind of worship that we are to give the Lord God. The word worship comes from old English meaning, “worth-ship.” In other words, it is the act of demonstrating and assigning worth, value and honor to someone.
We do this all the time with people we admire. We clap at their speeches and performances, we purchase their products, and we hug our children. All of these are in a real sense, acts of worship. They are not the same as our spiritual devotion to God, but they do convey how much we consider another person to be worth to us.
God Worships Us?
Although this topic can seem a little sticky, the Prophet Samuel helps clarify:
“Therefore, the Lord God of Israel declares, ‘I did indeed say that your house and the house of your father should walk before Me forever’; but now the Lord declares, ‘Far be it from Me – for those who honor Me I will honor, and those who despise me with be lightly esteemed.”[ix]
The word honor in this scripture is synonymous with the kind of worship we are discussing. It is not only speaking about man’s need to worship God but actually tells us that when we do, He will honor (worship) us. In other words, when we value Him, he shows us our value.
Worship and Honor
A great marriage is all about that kind of worship of one another. Each of us has a deep desire and need to feel we are loved, valued, desired and wanted. When we give our body in worship to our spouse we illustrate how much we value them. While this is certainly true of sex, it may also be expressed by physically checking off items on the “Honey Do” list.
Pastor Nate Sauve, teaches:
“Husbands who desire respect experience a woman’s acceptance of his advances as respect. Her willingness affirms that he is worthy and she wants to express and reward that... When she says yes, she is, in essence, saying you are good, I trust you and want to please you… All of those things [excuses that get in the way] communicate the opposite of respect and certainly don’t give a husband the worth he is due… So the command to both husband and wife, the promise Dani and I both made is that we will worship each other with our bodies. For me that means putting her first, loving, caring, serving, giving, all the time no stopping, no putting myself first. All her all the time.”[x]
One of the great challenges to this kind of mutual honor is offense. When one partner feels their needs or expectations are unmet, they often withdraw and fail to honor and show value to the other. This, in turn, can cause further offense and further withdrawal. Left unchecked, this cycle eventually leads to a bitter loveless marriage or divorce. During these times, Jesus calls us to remember how much he sacrificed for us – when everyone had betrayed Him – and asks us to reach out in sacrificial and selfless love, regardless of who started it.
We sometimes have to take some big difficult steps: Put down the phone; Put down the remote; Put down the laundry; etc. AND put down our PRIDE. We need to let our spouse know how much he/she means to us. At the end of our lives, we probably won’t remember many of the games we played, messages we texted, shows we watched, or laundry we folded, but we will remember the nature and quality of our relationships – especially our ones with God, our spouse, and our family.
Reconnecting Our Deepest Desires
Joan Reid, a marriage and relationship blogger, believes there is great wisdom in these old vows:
"The original intent – physical, emotional and spiritual intimacy – seems lost in family duties and general life busyness… what do all of us want most? We want to be cherished and respected. We long for closeness, nakedness of soul and spirit, emotional security. We want our mate to work hard to make the marriage good… The vow represents the absolute height of love. In a very specific sense, he acknowledges the meaning of the verse in Romans 12: 1 “…present your bodies a living sacrifice…” He affirms, “With all I know of love, with all I know of earthly desire, with all I know of what will please both you, my beloved, and God, I will lay down my body for you. It won’t be passive. It will be active. It will be passionate, as worship implies. It will be sacrificial. It means I forsake all others – for you – for life.”[xi]
NO SUBSTITUTE FOR GOD
The Bible often uses marriage as a metaphor for our relationship with God. At its best, marriage is the closest we will ever come on earth to understanding the grace, favor, love, and acceptance of God. It is the place where we can be closest to the elation of oneness. It is where we are most vulnerable and yet most hopeful. If our spouse doesn’t value us, it is easy to wonder how anyone can – sometimes including God.
Spouses Make Lousy Gods
Because of this powerful intimacy, some attempt to replace God with their mate. This is a futile endeavor for many reasons including:
- Spouses are human and prone to failure and mistakes that God will never make.
- Flesh is temporal. The day will most certainly come when we all go the way of our ancestors which usually leaves one spouse alone. Without God, that experience is untenable.
- Humans can not adequately bear the burdens of other – even a spouse. While we can certainly share them, we must help each other lay them at the feet of The Father. He alone can “supply for all our needs according to His riches in glory.” [xii]
Trading Sex for God?
Prior to becoming a Christian, the great author and philosopher C. S. Lewis considered the idea that some people seek God as a substitute for sex. Following his conversion, subsequent marriage and experience of losing his wife after only a few short years, he poignantly penned these words:
“One thing marriage has done for me. I can never again believe that religion is manufactured out of our unconscious, starved desires and is a substitute for sex. For those few years H and I feasted on love, every mode of it – solemn and merry, romantic and realistic, sometimes as dramatic as a thunderstorm, sometimes as comfortable and unemphatic as putting on your soft slippers. No cranny of heart or body remained unsatisfied. If God were a substitute for love, we ought to have lost all interest in Him… We both knew we wanted something besides one another – quite a different kind of something, a quite different kind of want. You might as well say that when lovers have one another they will never want to read, or eat – or breathe.”[xiii]
Lewis’ grief-stricken words are even more profound when considering his circumstances. The marriage occurred when he was in his late 50’s and his bride suffered from Breast Cancer. Their love and worship of one another was obviously extremely deep and committed. Regardless of their affection, it in no way replaced or diminished their love for Christ.
FINDING JOY AND FULFILLMENT
For most, great marriages are not automatic. A common platitude reminds us that marriage takes a lot of work. While that is true, there is something even more important than work. What we most need, is a dramatic shift in the way we think. Jesus said if we want to save our life, we will lose it, but if we lose our life for Him, we will find it.[xiv]
Though the irony is palatable, the message is clear. To truly experience joy and fulfillment in marriage we have to release our demands, lay down our “needs” and instead focus all our attention on those of our mate. We must do everything in our power to let our spouse know how valuable and honored he/she is to us. In this way, we also honor God, by following His teachings and loving His Son or Daughter the way He wants us to.
"Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends."[xv]
Our spouse should be our greatest friend on earth. Laying our lives down means more than physically dying, it can also mean dying to our own selfish desires. Now if you will please excuse me, I have a lot of work to do.
[iii] Genesis 3
[iv] Genesis 1:28
[v] Genesis 2:24 (NASB)
[vi] 1 Corinthians 7:7 (NLT)
[vii] 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 (NLT)
[ix] 1 Samuel 2:30 (NASB)
[xii] Philippians 4:19
[xiii] C. S. Lewis, “A Grief Observed”
[xiv] Matthew 16:25 and Luke 9:24
[xv] John 15:13