Is sensuality in Christian marriage a sin?

Jay Dee

Is sensuality in Christian marriage a sin?

Mar 20, 2015

I received two questions on our Have A Question page this week that I’m willing to bet come from the same person.  They also sort of are on the same topic, so I’m going to tackle them at the same time: I once had a

Is sensuality in Christian marriage a sinI received two questions on our Have A Question page this week that I’m willing to bet come from the same person.  They also sort of are on the same topic, so I’m going to tackle them at the same time:

I once had a conversation with my W [wife] that “sensual” and “sensuality” are vices, sins.  I had no argument to counter because countless Bible verses suggest this. That said, is there a place for “sensuality” in Marriage?  Or is that “of the flesh” sex that is NOT to be conducted in a Christian marriage?  I think I know your position, but I’m curious how to reconcile that the Bible appears to teach “sensuality” is sinful.

Lust according to God is a sin. What about “lusting” after your wife? I thought it would be hot my wife to dress seductively and do a little “dance” for me. She refused saying that it just causes me to lust after her and lust is sinful.  Same thing if I had “pornographic” images of my wife, or any other material or behavior that inappropriately fuels sexual desire for my wife. What do you say?

I think we have a few things to tackle on this one to get to the bottom of it:

  1. What does the Bible say about sensuality, is it “of the flesh”
  2. Should sensuality be avoided in a Christian marriage
  3. What does the Bible say about lusting after your spouse

We had better get started.

What does the Bible say about sensuality, is it “of the flesh”?

I thought it might be helpful to define sensuality first.  So here is what Google helpfully defines it as:

Sensuality – the enjoyment, expression, or pursuit of physical, especially sexual, pleasure.

At it’s core, I think that is sensuality.  Webster’s dictionary expands on this:

Sensuality – The quality or state of being sensual; devotedness to the gratification of the bodily appetites; free indulgence in carnal or sensual pleasures; luxuriousness; voluptuousness; lewdness.

At first glance, this may seem completely different.  However, it’s merely expanding on the same theme, and these are multiple interpretations of that theme, based on a spectrum.  The most simple, of course being “The quality or state of being sensual”.  It may help to know that they define being sensual as “relating to, devoted to, or producing physical or sexual pleasure”.  So, even according to Websters, sensuality can simply be experiencing sexual pleasure.  However, at the extreme end of the spectrum, it includes things such as lewdness, which if you follow that down can include licentiousness (sexually immoral behavior).

So, this is a problem, because sensuality can including everything from enjoying sex to engaging in sexually immoral behavior.  So, it’s far better to drop back into the original languages to see what the author’s intent was, and luckily, we can easily do this today with the internet.

For example, let’s look at Ephesians 4:

So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed. – Ephesians 4:17-19

The bolded word that’s translated here as sensuality (in the NIV, ESV and others) is “aselgeia” in Greek and Strong’s Notes translates this Greek word as “licentiousness”.  It shows up 8 more times in the New Testament:

What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person. – Mark 7:22

Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. – Romans 13:13

I am afraid that when I come again my God will humble me before you, and I will be grieved over many who have sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual sin and debauchery in which they have indulged. – 2 Corinthians 12:21

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. – Galatians 5:19-21

For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. – 1 Peter 4:3

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment;  if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others; if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)— if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment. This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority. – 2 Peter 2:4-10

For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of the flesh, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error. – 2 Peter 2:18

For certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord. – Jude 1:4

In short, the Bible has nothing nice to say about “aselgeia”, which we would call licentiousness or sexual immorality.  The problem comes in when translations use a very imprecise word, “sensuality”, in place of something with more precision, like licentiousness.

Not understanding the translation, I could see how one could believe that sensuality could be mistaken for something evil, something to be avoided, something “of the flesh”.  But, I think the search needs to be widened to include items on the other end of the spectrum.

Of course, the easiest passages to reference are in the Song of Solomon.  Right from the start we see:

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—for your love is more delightful than wine. – Song of Solomon 1:2

And you may think “Aww, that’s sweet”, and it is…but you need to understand that the word love is not an affectionate love.  It’s not a brotherly love.  It is an erotic love.  This is a word reserved for lovers, for sexual partners.  And we see it over and over again.  Two verses later we have:

She
Take me away with you—let us hurry!
Let the king bring me into his chambers.
Friends
We rejoice and delight in you;
we will praise your love more than wine.
She
How right they are to adore you! – Song of Solomon 1:4

And again, we see the Bible talking positively about erotic love, about delighting in it, and praising it.  And we can go on, because there are 33 verses with this word in it, and I’d go through every one, but it would be redundant.  I’ve read them all, and they are all positive in their speech.  But, there are two I think really exemplify the idea:

My beloved thrust his hand through the latch-opening;
my heart began to pound for him. – Song of Solomon 5:4

This is an interesting one.  The NIV really doesn’t do it justice.  The original says something closer to “my uterus clamored over him” instead of “my heart began to pound for him”.  Sounds to me like she was pretty strongly sexually attracted to him.  I’d argue that this could fall within the realm of sensuality.

Let us go early to the vineyards
to see if the vines have budded,
if their blossoms have opened,
and if the pomegranates are in bloom—
there I will give you my love. – Song of Solomon 7:12

This verse describes the wife’s idea to slip into the vineyards while everything is in bloom, in order to have sex among.  I’d argue that’s quite the sensual behavior, that apparently God is all for.

But there are verses beyond Song of Solomon.  Check out Proverbs 5:

May your fountain be blessed,
and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth.
A loving doe, a graceful deer—
may her breasts satisfy you always,
may you ever be intoxicated with her love. – Proverbs 5:18-19

This is the only verse in the Bible that tells men they’re allowed to get drunk…not on wine, but apparently with the physical form on their wife.  Our wife’s breasts (which I’d argue are highly sensual), are supposed to satisfy us always.  Actually the Hebrew is pretty funny, I think.  Verse 19 says something like:

Like a doe of love, an ibex of grace, her nipples they shall satiate you in every season because of your love for her you shall err continually. (my translation)

It tells us we’re shouldn’t be able to think straight because of the sight of our wife’s breasts (nipples actually)!  Yeah, sounds about right…

So, to sum up, I think the Bible says two things about sensuality:

Within the context of a marriage, sensuality, as in enjoying sex, is not only permitted, it is encouraged.  Outside of marriage, it counts as sexual immorality.

Should sensuality be avoided in a Christian marriage?

Based on the above statement, that sensuality (enjoying sex) within marriage is encouraged, then of course it shouldn’t be avoided in Christian marriage.  It should be sought after.

The husband should fulfill his wife’s sexual needs, and the wife should fulfill her husband’s needs. – 1 Corinthians 7:3

And I think this goes beyond just orgasm.  I think most higher-drive spouses have needs that include having a spouse that is not only willing, but interested, that they make an effort.  So, then, Colossians 3 says:

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. – Colossians 3:23-24

Whatever you do!  That includes your spouse! (pun intended)  So, I’d argue that if you are not being sensual in your marriage, if you are not trying to be an amazing lover to your spouse, then you are in fact violating God’s commandments regarding sex, and thus are committing sexual immorality.  After all, sexual immorality is going against God’s plan for sex.  You can’t argue that sex outside of marriage is a sin without standing on the same ground and saying that sex inside of marriage, then, should be not only existent, but awesome.  After all, God created Adam and Eve, sexuality and all (in fact, the first commandment was to go have sex), and then said “Behold, it is very good!”

Sadly, I think we lose how “very good” it was in English.  This is a strong statement.  It’s not only good, it’s completely good, it’s wholly good, it’s not only functional, but the best it could be.  It’s perfect.  This was God’s masterpiece, sex and all.  No beds, no covers, no walls.  Unashamed, naked in front of each other, and I doubt they waited until night time.  This was a sensual experience.  And it was very good.

What does the Bible say about lusting after your spouse?

Google defines the word Lust as “very strong sexual desire”.  But, again, we have a problem with translations here.  Because the Bible uses the Greek word “epithumeo” when we see lust.  But, it just means “to set the heart upon”.  It’s morally neutral.  We have cases where it is wrong:

But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. – Matthew 5:28

and times when it is proper:

This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. – 1 Timothy 3:1

So, it is not so black and white as to look up every verse that contains “epithumeo”.  The rule seems simple enough though: desiring something that is good, is good.  Desiring something that is sinful…is sinful.

So, it is wrong to desire your spouse.  No.  How can it be?  The Bible lists a number of reasons to have sex:

  1. Procreation
  2. Comfort
  3. Companionship
  4. Warding off sexual temptation
  5. Pleasure

It seems we have plenty of reasons to desire sex with our spouses, not the least of which is pleasure.  I invite you to check out Song of Solomon again:

I am my beloved’s, and his desire is towards me. – Song of Solomon 7:10

This phrase is actually repeated a few times in the book, and again, it looses something in our English translation.  This isn’t just desire, this is a deep longing, and again, this term “beloved” is not a friendly or even covenant love, it is an erotic love.  It’s very clear that this is talking about sexual desire for one’s spouse.  This is what God puts in his book to teach us what our married sexual lives should look like.

Where does the idea that sex is a necessary evil come from?

This comes from the influence of other religions and mythologies onto Christianity.  It has no basis in the Bible, but rather the Bible is twisted and pulled apart, cherry picking verses to support the idea that the physical is evil and the spiritual is good.

It has gone so far that many believe that in heaven we’ll all be floating around as spirits, but this is absolutely refuted by the Bible.  2 Corinthians 5 spends quite a while talking about how we’ll get new bodies in heaven, physical bodies, that will be immortal.  As well, Jesus has a physical body, and he’s not sinful and two (Elijah and Enoch at least and perhaps Moses as well, it’s unclear) people in the Bible seem to have gone directly to heaven without dying, without losing their bodies.  How is that possible if their body was sinful?

Our bodies are not evil.  Sex is not a sin.  It is a gift, blessed by God and encouraged within marriage. Don’t believe me, read Song of Solomon through. I don’t understand how you could believe anything else after seeing this wonderful message God gave us about sex.

Finally, this week also saw this comment (I believe not so coincidentally) on one of our posts:

I want to believe sex is not “of the flesh”. But when I hinted such that it was to my wife last night, she gave no objections and otherwise consented her agreement. She could point to many many verses in the Bible that appear to support this view. In fact the caste to which I find myself belonging and unable to change (a traditional, conservative, evangelical, reformed, Bible-believing, Christ-exalting faith) including history, traditions, friends, church, pastor, and wife all suggest that sex, while it may be condoned Scripturally, it is still of the flesh and should be: subdued, controlled, limited, restrained, covered, hidden, conservative, etc (my interpretation of their unspoken ideas, because, well you really ought not talk openly about sex) . While I know they would never outright call it sin, they would at the very least call it a necessary albeit culturally corrupted physical act that ought be subjugated to the spiritual. Spirit trumps body. If I dare to suggest we have a sexual problem, it is met with “no, you have a spiritual problem”.

And I wanted to say, you know what, I agree with your wife on this one point:

You do have a spiritual problem in your marriage.  Your wife is rejecting the Bible’s teachings.  Further, I’d argue it’s not possible to become more spiritual while simultaneously rejecting God’s teachings on married sexuality.  So yeah, this is a spiritual problem.  She’s limiting her relationship with God, and with you.  A grievous and lamentable error. She’s been well deceived, as have many.  Pray for her, and others like her, as we continue to do.

Your Turn

What do you think?  What would you say to someone who declared that sex is a necessary evil, or least should be restrained?

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