SWM 114 – Understanding and Navigating Sexual Obligations in a Christian Marriage

A few weeks ago, we started up a new cohort of our Becoming More Sexually Engaged course for Christian Wives. It created a lot of discussion around rights, duties, obligations and what we owe our spouses when it comes to sex. We start the course by talking about what the Bible says about sex. Of course, this verse comes up:

Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer, and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

1 Corinthians 7:5

And the verse before it:

The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise, the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.

1 Corinthians 7:4

And this, of course, makes many people uncomfortable because this appears to be talking about the removal of autonomy, of taking away your right to say “no,” especially when I challenge the idea of having veto power in the marriage regarding sex.  Then I pile that one with the first challenge of the course – “Stop saying no.”

This led one wife in the course to rightly question – “Sex should be a gift given freely, and if I don’t have veto power, am I really giving freely?”

You can read all that and think, “Well, this is just making women sex slaves in their marriages!” and it’s true; some people have used these verses to support just that idea.  But I think they miss an important piece.

That giving up of control is supposed to be a self-sacrificing gift – it should not forced or coerced.  These verses speak of an ideal where each spouse dies to self and gives up their autonomy together and hands it to each other.

I use the example often that my wife and I used to fight for our own rights in the marriage.  She would fight for the right to sleep, and I would fight for the right to have sex.  This is an argument you can’t win.  This is when couples fall into “compromises,” keeping score and trading favours.  If I win – she loses.  If she wins, I lose.  So, we “compromise” and decide on a number of times where we both lose, but not so bad that either of us is really upset about it.  It’s a terrible way to navigate a marriage.

These days, we try to fight for each other’s needs while being honest about our own.  I’ll often say something like, “You seem really tired.  Why don’t we get to sleep earlier tonight and see how you’re feeling tomorrow?” and she’ll counter with, “But it’s been a while, and I know you must be feeling antsy.” I’ll counter again with, “I’m doing okay. We can get sleep tonight.” or if I’m not handling it as well, maybe suggest a quickie and something more substantial on the weekend.

We talk about where we’re at and what we can offer rather than fight for our wants, expecting the other to fight for theirs.  And so, my wife doesn’t say “no” – we have a conversation and decide together.  Honestly, sometimes I decide for her that we’re going to sleep instead of having sex because I can tell she really wants to offer sex but also that she’s just exhausted.

And I think this is how those verses are supposed to be lived out.  My wife’s body belongs to me – so I take care of it as if it were my own.  When it’s tired, I fight to get it sleep.  My body belongs to my wife, and so she takes care of it as if it were hers – when I’m feeling in need of sex, she tries to meet that need.  And sometimes, we end up in a conflict because we’re desperately trying to meet the needs of the other instead of our own.

And that’s a conflict you can’t lose.  If she wins – then I will get my needs met.  If I win, then she does.  It’s a win-win situation and we both feel loved in the process.

That’s not to say we’re perfect.  I can still get frustrated when it’s been a while – but it’s not directed at my wife, I’m frustrated with the circumstances that led to the delay.  I can’t be mad at her because I’m trying to protect her through those circumstances and meet her needs.  Likewise, she sometimes feels guilty because she feels she’s not meeting my needs during those situations. But since I’m fighting for her to get sleep, I think, I hope, that that guilt is somewhat abated because it’s also my decision that we’re waiting.

But what if it’s less than ideal?  What if your spouse doesn’t fight for your rights?  This verse came to mind:

If your enemies are hungry, give them food to eat. If they are thirsty, give them water to drink. You will heap burning coals of shame on their heads, and the LORD will reward you. – Proverbs 25:21-22

If this is how we are to treat our enemies, then how should we treat our spouses?  No less, I think.  We do what is right because we love them, not because they will necessarily do the same for us.  If they do – well, that makes an amazing marriage, but if they choose not to, then you can still do the right thing because it’s what you vowed to do.

And this I see as a parallel for what Christ did for us.  He gave up His veto power, His everything power for us.  He gave up infinite cosmic power and chose to make himself a useless tiny infant dependent for everything.  Then He grew up and when He was at peak human power, thousands following Him, disciples who would fight at the drop of a hat for Him – He chose to give up His life and let us kill Him instead.  Not because we would do anything for Him.  In fact, the vast majority of the people He died for would never acknowledge that sacrifice.  Most don’t even believe it happened.

He didn’t do it for recognition, or to get His needs met, to save His life, or anything else other than simply because He loved us and it was the right thing to do.

I think 1 Corinthians 7:4 “The wife/husband doesn’t not have authority over her/his body, but the husband/wife does” is modeled by Christ in that he sacrifically set aside his autonomy in order to serve his bride - us.  He could have refused at any point - but he chose not to say “no” and even died to show us he loves us.

And you might say, “well, that’s not fair, He was God”. True, but look at His life.  He lived it as an example for us.  He never used His God-ness.  He asked His Father for power, the same as we can, and it was granted, the same as God can for us.  But Jesus never once took that power upon Himself as God.  That would have been cheating and a useless example for us.

And the most amazing thing about it is true for us as well – at any time, He could have picked it back up.  He never truly gave up His agency, and we don’t either.  The most amazing part of a long, loving marriage is not that they become slaves but rather that every day, they choose to live for the other. Christ, every day, every hour, every moment, chose to leave that power to the side and not use it.  

And you might say, “Well, he was sinless – He didn’t have a sinful nature,” and that’s also true.  However, He was sinless because He chose not to sin.  Adam and Eve didn’t have a sinful nature.  They still sinned.  So did Lucifer and 1/3rd of the angels in heaven.  They still sinned.  These are not excuses.

What Jesus did was perfect without any cause for Him to be perfect other than that, which was what was required to love us.  That is our example.

Now, personally, I’m not as strong as Jesus was.  I can’t imagine the willpower needed to go through what He did.  And I know most of you reading this aren’t either.  I’m not expecting you to be perfect.  No one is.  

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God

Romans 3:23

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

1 John 1:8

And sometimes, we do need to give our spouses opportunities to love because they aren’t perfect either.  We can’t expect them to know what they can do to love us innately.  If you start with the assumption that they love you and want to show you that, then it’s actually loving to sit them down and say, “Hey, I’m not feeling loved – this is how you can love me.”  That way, they know how to show you love instead of guessing and maybe getting it wrong.

And I know there are a lot of “what if” scenarios out there.  You’re welcome to post them in the comments blow, and we can hash them out, but I hope this gives a bit of a framework for how to view “duties,” “obligations,” and “responsibilities” in marriage – not worrying about giving up autonomy and agency, but rather aiming for loving each other perfectly, knowing that we’ll fail, but having a model to follow in Christ.

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