Chapter 11: Intimacy in Marriage
Intimacy in Marriage
The Form for the Solemnization of Marriage next discusses the purpose of marriage. Why did God create this institution? The Form mentions two reason, one revolving around the assistance husband and wife give each other as they live the lives God gives them to live, and the other revolving around the children the Lord God may entrust to the couple. These two purposes give material for the next two chapters.
Concerning the first purpose of marriage, the Form says the following:
The Word of God also teaches us about the purpose of marriage:
First, husband and wife shall live together in sincere love and holiness, helping each other faithfully in all things that belong to this life and the life to come.
Much of what the Form says about the first purpose of marriage has been addressed in previous chapters. We’ve spoken already of the specific task of the husband in relation to his wife, and of the wife in relation to her husband. We’ve spoken too of the triangle of marriage and hence about communication between husband and wife and their joint dependence on the Lord God. As we covered those topics, we’ve unpacked much of what is caught in the phrase “helping each other faithfully in all things that belong to this life and the life to come.” We need not repeat that material here.
What does merit saying, though, is that this “helping each other” constitutes the primary purpose of marriage. God had observed in Paradise the man He had made, and concluded that “it is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18) – and hence God created the woman and joined her to the man in marriage. Neither the man nor the woman was created to be an island to oneself; each exists for the other. That means in daily living that a marriage does not attain its purpose if husband and wife live together as two disconnected individuals under one roof. There must be an active “helping each other” – and that in turn requires the communication discussed in chapter 9 and the ongoing prayer and effort discussed in chapter 10.
Though the next chapter will focus specifically on procreation, it should also be said at this point that the presence or absence of children does not determine whether a marriage is complete. The first purpose of marriage as the Form expresses it is that the wife is there for her husband, and the husband is there for his wife on any and every question pertaining to this life and the life to come. With the focus of the married couple on each other (and therefore on the Lord who unites them), a marriage is very complete without children.
Just what, though, does living together look like? How can one “live together” in such a way as to be able to “help each other faithfully in all things that belong to this life and the life to come”?
The Lord God has created the human being as more than body, and more also than mind, and more too than soul. The human being is not a compilation of separate parts either, is not body plus mind plus soul – as if matters of the body do not affect the mind and matters of the mind do not affect the soul, etc. Rather, the Lord God made a human being as a complete person with each part of his being (be it body or soul or spirit or mind) inseparably connected (indeed, interconnected) with all other parts of his being. When Adam first saw the woman God created for him, he was so deeply enthused within himself that he broke out into song: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’ for she was taken out of man” (Genesis 2:23). He extols a unity between the two of them, a unity that reaches deep inside their respective beings, a unity that is not limited to something so external as flesh or body, for he dares to call her ‘woman’ on grounds that “she was taken out of man”. There’s a unity of flesh and a unity of psyche, indeed, a unity of being – and therefore of purpose and of thought and of desire.
The Holy Spirit lays His stamp of approval on Adam’s song-of-unity when He adds in the following verse, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). The ‘one flesh’ the Spirit speaks of refers to the full unity of being between man and wife, so that the two are no longer two separate individuals, but are actually one entity. This unity of being receives expression in sexual intimacy, that act of love where heart touches heart in a manner no words can fully describe.
The reference in the Form to living together is more than cohabitation. For the husband and wife “to help each other faithfully in all things that belong to this life and the life to come,” they need to be one in every sense of the being – and express that unity in the mysterious intimacy of sexual love. This is the material we need to explore in this chapter.
In his letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul foretold that marriage –and hence the sexuality that comes with marriage– would be disdained. He writes as follows,
“The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:1-5).
The phrase “in later times” describes the totality of the New Testament dispensation, from Paul’s times through to today and beyond until Christ returns. Throughout the ages there would, said Paul under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, be those who forbid marriage – and in so doing denigrate the love that receives expression in sexual intimacy.
In fact, in Paul’s own time there were those who bought into the dualism of earlier Greek philosophy. This dualism exalted the human soul as the real You, whereas the human body was but a prison in which You were trapped for the duration of your earthly sojourn. The urges and desires of the human body (including love and sexuality) were earthy and inferior. This division of the human into a superior and an inferior part led on the one hand to the position that all urges of the body were seen as second-rate and so denounced, and on the other hand to the position that urges of the body were irrelevant and so could be satisfied at will. Paul hooks onto the former consequence, and foretells that teachers would arise in the church of Jesus Christ who would “forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods” – both references to the body and its urges.
In answer to these coming teachers, Paul does not at this point discuss how the human being is one complete entity that may not divided into parts, with no part somehow inferior to another; instead, the apostle reaches back to how God created things. Concerning both marriage and food, Paul says that “God created [them] to be received with thanksgiving…. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” The reference is to God’s work in Genesis 1, where the Holy Spirit tells us that God created mankind “male and female” (Genesis 1:27) and declared concerning this part of His handiwork too that “it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). The maleness and femaleness of the human race distinctly includes sexuality. In fact, that God gave the gift of sexual intimacy to mankind (within marriage) is underscored in the words of Genesis 2:24, where the man leaves father and mother, is united to his wife, “and they will become one flesh”. Here is no place for a division of the human being into two parts, with the body somehow inferior to the soul.
Paul’s prophecy came to pass. The body-soul distinction of Greek philosophy influenced the thinking of some notable church fathers. Origen (c. 185-254) considered sexuality and sexual desire so earthy and evil that he castrated himself. Augustine (c. 354-430) had in his youth lived a most promiscuous lifestyle, but when he came to faith and received a position of leadership in the churches he taught that sexuality had a place only for procreation. Jerome (c. 347-420), the man who translated the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate) would throw himself only thorns in order to tear his thoughts away from matters sexual.
Given the influence of such leaders, it is not so surprising to learn that the church in due time exalted celibacy. Those who entered the priesthood were not to marry, and those who entered the monastery too were not to marry. In fact, authorities in the Roman Catholic church in the middle ages forbad sex on Thursdays because on that day Christ was arrested, on Fridays because then He died, on Saturdays in honor of the virgin Mary, on Sundays in honor of departed saints, on this feast day and that feast day also because…, and all of it communicated the message that sexual intimacy was unclean and not really befitting the Christian. In fact, the only purpose for sexual relations was procreation.
A change came about at the time of the Great Reformation in the sixteenth century, with its return to Scripture. Luther, for example, though a monk, broke his celibacy vow and married a woman who had spent years in a nunnery. In his table talk, Luther extolled the pleasures of married life, and echoed language about marriage (including its intimate aspects) as found in Scripture. The Reformers’ refusal to see sexuality as an evil do not, however, prevent the reappearance of the perception that sexual intimacy was somehow unclean. The Victorian ear of English (and American) history made decent conversation about matters of sexuality virtually impossible. Those who fell into the sin of adultery were marked for life. The churches required that their transgression result in public repentance – while sins of blasphemy or deceit did not merit a similar consequence. The signal was clear: sexual feelings and sexual activity were somehow evil.
The sexual revolution beginning in the 1960’s was in some way a reaction to this repressive approach to sexuality. It needs to be granted that there was place for correction. But the correction has gone to the other extreme, so that today there is no place left for the mystic of sexual intimacy. If sending the signal that there was something sinful about sexuality was damaging and unbiblical, the opposite signal (that sexuality is simply a function of nature as normal as sneezing) is equally damaging and unbiblical. In our time that which God has made so wonderful and enriching is made so cheap and common. No couple can “live together in sincere love and holiness” if they do not appreciate what the Lord has actually given in His heavenly gift of sexual intimacy.
I’ve mentioned earlier Adam’s ecstatic song on seeing the bride God gave him (Genesis 2:23). The enthusiasm of that song receives an echo when David writes, “In the heavens [God] has pitched a tent for the sun, which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion” (Psalm 19:4,5). The sun is bright and radiant – and so is the bridegroom coming forth from his chamber. His face is all lit up and beaming as he reflects the pleasure he has experienced with his bride. Similarly, the psalmist speaks elsewhere in glowing terms of how the bride goes to her husband. “The king is enthralled by your beauty…. All glorious is the princess within her chamber; her gown is interwoven with gold…,” and the result will be that “your sons will take the place of your fathers; you will make them princes throughout the land” (Psalm 45:11,14,16). Again, the Scripture wonderfully describes for us Isaac’s response to receiving a wife. Rebekah “became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death” (Genesis 24:67). There was something so rich in marriage that it took away the pain of his loss. These and other passages certainly do not describe marriage and the intimacy that comes with it as evil or unbecoming to the child of God. On the contrary, such passages force us to realize that the Creator has made something amazingly wonderful in the coming together of male and female, husband and wife. In fact, this signal comes out very strongly in the Song of Songs.
As the Song is too long to print here, I would urge the reader to pause at this point and read the Song in its entirety.
Song of Songs
The topic of the Song is obvious. A (young?) man and a (young?) woman are deeply in love, and enthralled by what they see in each other, enthralled too by the feelings the other awakens in them. One wonders whether a book with this content actually belongs in the Bible?! Suffice it to say that already in the days of the Lord Jesus Christ there simply was no dispute about whether it belonged in the sacred library; it did. So when the apostle Paul wrote that “all Scripture is God-breathed” he spoke also of the divine origin of the Song of Songs. And when Paul added that all Scripture “is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16), he described the purpose of the Song of Songs also. God Himself has included in the Bible He gave us one book devoted specifically to the love of man and woman.
Yet in the history of interpretation, there has been a great hesitancy to take this book of the Bible at face value. The book could not, it was said (also by Origen – see above), be simply about the love and the attractions and the tensions between two people, for that’s too earthy for a book as spiritual as the Bible. The Song must instead be an allegory on the relation between Christ and the church. So the references in the book to various parts of the human body were spiritualized, and the Song’s ability to speak to couples about matters of sexual intimacy was silenced. Even today there are commentaries aplenty that promote this ‘spiritualized’ reading of the Song of Songs.
However, with this ‘spiritualized’ reading we are back in the dualism of the Greeks as it arose in Church History. The Song itself gives no indication at all that the Lord would have us understand it in any other way than as it presents itself, namely, a song about romance and love and deep awareness of each other’s bodies. On top of that, all who are honest with their own feelings and struggles, and certainly those who have been in love, recognize the accuracy of what is recorded in this Song. This Song puts into words –be it in the poetry typical of romance– the struggles and feelings of any couple in love; this is real life! And why should real life, described in real language, not have a place in the Word of God? Is Jesus Christ not Lord of every square inch of life – including the bedroom, and the struggles a courting couple face as they walk together through the bush? Or might the psalmist’s inspired words not be true after all, when he declares that “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105) – including the path a young man walks with a maiden?
As it is, the Lord God, in His care for His people, has given us in the Bible one book that very much addresses the very deep emotions love awakens. The human being God created is one complete entity, comprising body and soul and spirit and heart and mind and feelings and so much more. Love reaches into the deepest recesses of one’s personhood, and affects the mind as it searches for ways to verbalize this love; it affects the body as it responds to scintillation and aromas of love; it affects the psyche so that one becomes lovesick; it affects the spirit so that one is restless in bed at night – and all of that is a wonderful display of God’s creative imagination and power. In His wisdom and care for His people He gives His own a book to treasure as we tenderly walk amongst the blossoms and the thistles of the garden of love on this side of Paradise lost. If husband and wife are to “live together in sincere love and holiness”, this is a book they shall need to read again and again, and understand as far as is humanly possible.
The two lovers in this Song of Songs do not hesitate to express their exuberance about the other person. The (young) man in the relationship waxes poetic as only a man in love can do:
“How beautiful you are, my darling! Oh, how beautiful! Your eyes behind your veil are doves. Your hair is like a flock of goats descending from Mount Gilead. Your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn, coming up from the washing. Each has its twin; not one of them is alone. Your lips are like a scarlet ribbon; your mouth is lovely. Your temples behind your veil are like the halves of a pomegranate. Your neck is like the tower of David, built with elegance; on it hang a thousand shields, all of them shields of warriors. Your two breasts are like two fawns, like twin fawns of a gazelle that browse among the lilies” (4:1-5).
Actually, a girl in love can say the same kinds of things:
“My lover is radiant and ruddy, outstanding among ten thousand. His head is purest gold; his hair is wavy and black as a raven. His eyes are like doves by the water streams, washed in milk, mounted like jewels. His cheeks are like beds of spice yielding perfume. His lips are like lilies dripping with myrrh. His arms are rods of gold set with chrysolite. His body is like polished ivory decorated with sapphires. His legs are pillars of marble set on bases of pure gold. His appearance is like Lebanon, choice as its cedars. His mouth is sweetness itself; he is altogether lovely. This is my lover, this my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem” (5:10-16).
It is striking that both parties in this relationship admire each other’s bodies as they do. From the book of nature as they see it daily, they find comparisons fitting to the part of the anatomy that catches their delight. Yet the reason for the admiration is not sexually motivated, for notice that particular parts of the anatomy are not mentioned. It is that which one sees, also through the outline of clothing, that receives the comment. What was there about the eyes, the lips, the neck, the arms that prompted this attention and praise? Are we to understand that these two lovers had perfect bodies, high muscle tone, no fat? There is no such indication in the text. And why are the comparisons as they are?
Both lovers are using the various parts of the visible anatomy to describe the inner person manifested by the outer look. The way one’s hair is cut and combed, the set of one’s lips, the way one holds one’s head, how the arms swing, etc, are all indicative of one’s character, one’s personhood. The apostle Peter tells the wives among his addressees that “your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:3,4). It is this inner beauty that these two lovers see in each other, and they find the expression of this inner beauty through its outward manifestation.
There is no surprise in this. The human being God created is a complete unity, consisting inseparably of heart and soul and spirit and mind and body and so much more. To focus on the body as an object of entertainment or self-satisfaction does distinct injustice to the way the Creator has fashioned the human race, for it tears body from soul (as those who suffer sexual abuse learn so painfully). Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, these two lovers know they cannot divide the object of their love into parts so as to focus on the outward and ignore the inner. They recognize that the personhood of their loved one, the self-in-totality, comes out in what the eye sees. So there is respect for the other’s personhood, and therefore delight in the other’s body as revelation of the jewel the lover sees deep inside.
This is a central lesson caught in this element of the Song. A couple will not long “live together in sincere love and holiness” if their delight in the other is focused on the body-as-body. The beauty of the body lies in the fact that it gives expression to what’s deep inside, that special something that makes the other so adorable. In today’s society, a body-for-satisfaction is easy to get. But to win a heart, and to keep that heart yours-in-love, is an altogether other challenge. It requires focusing on what’s inside the other, his or hers true personhood. Once the heart is found to be beautiful and enchanting, the beauty of the body –eyes, hair, neck, breasts– will be enthralling, even if that body will never make it the centerfold of a questionable magazine. And delighting in the beauty of the heart leads in turn to sexual intimacy being so pleasurable and fulfilling.
The attentive reader will have noticed that I have refrained from commenting on whether or not the couple in the Song of Songs are still courting or are already married. Commentators are divided on this question, with defensible arguments supporting both points of view. For the purposes of this publication, it is sufficient to note that the delight expressed in the Song by the two lovers is not meant to be fleeting, as if the romance of courtship and the delight of newlyweds may legitimately evaporate in the course of time. God’s intent was that the exuberance Adam felt and expressed upon receiving his wife was to last not a month or a year, but forever. The fall into sin, though, warped so very much. Even Adam’s delight in Eve disappeared as he pointed a finger of blame at her. Yet because of the atoning work of Jesus Christ, God in the Holy Spirit has come to make His home in human hearts – and so make it possible again for “husband and wife to live together in sincere love and holiness,” not just for the short term but for as long as God shall give them life. In other words, the exuberance for the other –the whole person, in every facet– can remain. More, it not only can remain, but must remain.
So Solomon, when he warned his sons concerning the adulteress, did more than tell them to stay away from her. He set beside his warning the encouragement to delight in the wife God gave, and to do so not only when one is twenty or thirty, but to keep on doing so even into old age. Says he, “May you rejoice in the wife of your youth. A lovely doe, a graceful deer – may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her love” (Proverbs 5:18,19). The word translated here as ‘captivated’ catches the notion of being ravished, overwhelmed, exhilarated by her love. Through Solomon the Holy Spirit makes clear that this exhilaration was not to thrill the hearts of Solomon’s boys only in the first few months or years of marriage, but to continue “always”.
Similarly, when Solomon discusses in the book of Ecclesiastes how one is to live in a broken world outside of the perfection of Paradise, he not only instructs Israel to leave the repair of Paradise for God to bring about, but adds that in the meantime one is to enjoy the life God gives. He says,
“Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:7-9).
Notice how Solomon enjoins pleasure in marriage, and how one is to do that all the days God gives. That husband and wife “live together in sincere love” is not to be limited to the early part of one’s married life, nor is the love to become shallow or even platonic, but the love is to remain pleasureable, romantic, intimate.
Given how the Lord God in the Old Testament has instructed His people to delight in marriage and enjoy each other intimately, it is really no surprise that our Lord Jesus Christ performed His first miracle at a wedding feast (John 2:1-11). The fall into sin had ruined so much, damaging too God’s wonderful gift of intimate love. But our Lord came to earth to restore what we had broken, and His work of restoration includes also marriage and the intimacy that belongs with two people whom God makes one. So the fruit of the Spirit includes “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22,23), and it is the exercising of precisely these gifts that draws the heart of the other ever closer to your own and your own to hers. And that closeness in turn produces the lyrical language of the Song of Songs not only in those who court, but also in those married for many years.
Is it then insignificant that the Lord Jesus Christ can have the pleasures of the Last Day described in terms of a wedding feast? John hears a mighty voice, “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give Him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and His bride has made herself ready” (Revelation 19:7). And again: “Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” (Revelation 19:9). What’s so exciting about the wedding supper is not just the food and the partying, but the intimate pleasures of love that follows. The radiant bridegroom of Psalm 19 captured something of that, and so did the couple of the Song of Songs. The pleasure of intimacy, that wonderful gift the Lord gives in marriage, catches in a small way the inexpressible delight of life in the New Jerusalem. It’s “perfect blessedness, such as no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived – a blessed in which to praise God forever” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 22.58). In the enchanting union of man and wife in the mystery of sexual intimacy, there is a small reminder of Paradise lost and a small foretaste of Paradise regained.
Parents and children live today in a culture obsessed with sexuality. What God created to be so wonderful, and to be spoken about only with reverence and awe, has been made so common and so shallow – and its mystic is gone and hence its shine also. We’re invariably affected by the times in which we live, and our expectations in marriage influenced too by what we see and hear in the media. We do well to realize that the Lord our God, true as He is to His promises, has given our society over “in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another” (Romans 1:24). Also in matters of intimacy, it is not for the children of God to take lessons from the ways of the world, let alone to follow them. It is for us instead to keep our Bible open, so that, whether married or not, we learn and keep learning what wonders God has given to His people in His gift of sexuality. Let husband and wife read and read again the Song of Songs the Holy Spirit has given to us, and keep learning to speak its language-of-love in relation to each other.
Equally, let parents read the Song of Songs at the kitchen table (and other passages of Scripture that speak of sexuality), for the benefit of growing children. From the world around us our children receive a very warped perception of the sexuality God has endowed them with, and added to that they receive ample warnings against unchastity in their actions. All of it together can give the signal that there is something negative and unclean about sexuality after all. If they enter marriage (or even courtship) with a skewed view of sexuality, they will not be able –unless it is corrected– to enjoy in later life the splendors of this gift as God intended it. It is for parents first of all to instill in the children (young and not so young) that when God made mankind “male and female” (Genesis 1:27), He made something exceptionally wonderful and delightful. More, let parents illustrate to the children in the way they talk to and about each other that they delight in the spouse as much today as they did years ago, and so let their children see before their eyes something of what the Song of Songs wants to communicate.
To help pass on the same message to those around us, we do well also to watch how we speak in our homes and offices and workplaces about sexuality. This gift is so wonderful that there is no place for vulgar language and demeaning expressions. Paul puts it like this, “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving” (Ephesians 5:3,4).
Paul warned Timothy against those who forbid marriage, and in the course of the years so many of such teachers have appeared – as if there is something unholy and unclean with sexual intimacy. On the other hand there are those who make an idol out of sex, as if bodily satisfaction is everything. Paul would have us know that “everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4,5). With those words the apostle brings us back to the triangle of marriage, where the husband and the wife form the two base points and God the apex – and the strength of the bond between the husband and wife is not any horizontal chemistry between them but their respective vertical bonds with God. Understanding sexuality is very much a matter of learning from an open Bible, and practicing sexual intimacy is very much a matter of prayer. May the Lord God graciously grant that husband and wife, in the midst of the pleasures and struggles of marital intimacy, be people of the Bible and people of prayer.