What’s the point of sex anyway?
Historically in the Church and in our society currently, we often misunderstand the real purpose of sex. There are three basic reasons for God’s gift of sex in marriage.
Reproduction. Genesis 1:27-28 says: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number.'” At that moment, He had created vegetation, animals, and humans — all with their own ways of reproducing. His design for us was a sexual relationship between husband and wife that had the potential to create new life.
When you really think about this process, it’s pretty incredible. Male and female come together, join their complementary bodies, and an egg the size of a grain of sand and a sperm 1/30th that size merge. From there, cells differentiate, a baby grows in the womb, and a full human being emerges months later. Let me tell you, when you look (up) at your man-sized teenage son, it’s particularly astonishing that this whole process started with a fertilized egg the size of the period at the end of this sentence. And all that . . . began with the sexual act.
The first direct mention we have of sex in the Bible shows this purpose of reproduction. And Eve understood how incredible this was: “Adam made love to his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, “With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man” (Genesis 4:1). I can imagine her tone as she said, “I have brought forth a man,” like Holy canoli, how did that happen?!
And over and over, we see similar phrases:
- “Cain made love to his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch” (Genesis 4:17).
- “Adam made love to his wife again, and she gave birth to a son and named him Seth” (Genesis 4:25).
- “There Judah met the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. He married her and made love to her; she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, who was named Er” (Genesis 38:2-3).
- “So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When he made love to her, the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son” (Ruth 4:13).
- “Elkanah made love to his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. So in the course of time Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son” (1 Samuel 1:19-20).
- “Then David comforted his wife Bathsheba, and he went to her and made love to her. She gave birth to a son, and they named him Solomon” (2 Samuel 12:24).
Throughout history, the Church has had this reason down pat. Just like we understand that we need to eat to keep our bodies going, we understand we need to conceive children to keep our families and our communities going. This was the official teaching of the Church for many years — that sex was for procreation.
“The early Church Fathers of the Patristic Age did indeed teach that the marital act was solely for procreation and that spouses should intend children when they engaged in intercourse” (Catholic Online, Sex: Only for Procreation?). St. Augustine famously believed sexual passions to be a consequence of The Fall and thought that, if sin had been avoided, humans would reproduce “by a calm act of the will” (Christianity Today, What Would Augustine Say – On Sex: God’s Blessing or Humanity’s Curse?).
Procreation has been an easy reason for Christians to embrace throughout the centuries. The Bible’s message is that children are a blessing (see Psalm 127:3-5; Proverbs 17:6; Mark 10:13-16). Given the first commands to man to “be fruitful” and the many times God blessed His people with children, it’s not surprising that reproduction has been championed for centuries as a main purpose of sex.
Pleasure. I started to write, “this reason is more recent.” But I don’t think that’s true. It’s both ancient and recent. That is, in Bible times sexual pleasure in marriage appears to have God’s high blessing (see Song of Songs 5:1). In Jewish tradition, pleasure was seen as a woman’s right in the marriage bed. She was not to be deprived of it by her husband (see Exodus 21:10; Deuteronomy 24:5).
Through a culmination of influences (Gnosticism, an attempt to avoid the sexual immorality prominent in secular cultures, the rise of monastic societies in the Church, etc.), the Christian Church came to view sexual pleasure as opposed to spiritual purity. Indeed, the Song of Songs became viewed strictly as an allegory of Christ and His Church, with this view perhaps best espoused by Origen in the 3rd century. He believed that Song of Songs was the “meat” of scripture and could only be fully understood and appreciated by the spiritually mature. He worried about those who, “not knowing how to hear love’s language in purity and with chaste ears, will twist the whole manner of his hearing of it away from the inner spiritual man and on to the outward and carnal; and he will be turned away from the spirit to flesh, and will foster carnal desires in himself, and it will seem to be the Divine Scriptures that are thus urging and egging him on to fleshly lust!” (Origen, The Song of Songs Commentary and Homilies).
But I wouldn’t put much stock in that, since Origen thought the body was so evil that he also slept on the floor, owned no shoes, and reportedly castrated himself based on his interpretation of one line in Matthew 19:12: “There be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.” Not to be too graphic, but a guy who’d cut off his own nuts probably isn’t too bothered by not having sex for pleasure.
This perspective — but not self-mutilation — was the official stance of the Church for many years: that we Christians should be careful not to enjoy sex too much. Otherwise, it smacks of loving the flesh overly much and not being sufficiently spiritual. Of course, this view fascinates me given the physical acts that many such proponents took to display their spirituality. For instance, charity — a definite Christian virtue — involves the physical act of actually helping people with bodily needs, like food, water, clothing, shelter. Are we not to take pleasure in helping people around us? Must it merely be duty and nothing else?
Anyway, the Church has thankfully moved away from that in recent years, with an acknowledgment that we allowed outside philosophies to taint what the Bible really says. Just look at verses like these:
“A loving doe, a graceful deer— may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be intoxicated with her love” (Proverbs 5:19).
“I have come to my garden-my sister, my bride. I gather my myrrh with my spices. I eat my honeycomb with my honey. I drink my wine with my milk. Eat, friends! Drink, be intoxicated with love!” (Song of Songs 5:1).
“How beautiful you are and how pleasing, my love, with your delights! Your stature is like that of the palm, and your breasts like clusters of fruit. I said, ‘I will climb the palm tree; I will take hold of its fruit.’ May your breasts be like clusters of grapes on the vine, the fragrance of your breath like apples, and your mouth like the best wine” (Song of Songs 7:6-9).
If you need more convincing — note our biology, ladies. That handy-dandy clitoris has no role to play in reproduction, solely pleasure. God wanted us to enjoy the sexual act and the intimacy that we feel when we’re physically one-flesh with our beloved covenant mate.
Intimacy. Speaking of intimacy, I tend to think this is the crowning jewel. Because, to be honest, you could reproduce and feel pleasure during sex without marriage. We see it in society all the time. But there’s something special about sex that makes it an act God intended to gift husbands and wives. Yes, of course he wants daddies and mommies to raise kids, but not every sexual act creates a baby. What’s the purpose of those other times?
Ephesians 5:31-32 says: “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.” Well, what’s that’s about? How is becoming united/one-flesh in marriage like our relationship with Christ? I think it’s about the deep, loving intimacy between lover and beloved.
This is not the only time marriage is compared to God’s relationship with His people. For instance:
“For your Maker is your husband– the LORD Almighty is his name — the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth” (Isaiah 54:5).
“I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion” (Hosea 2:19).
God prizes intimacy. Between us and Him. Among His people. And certainly between husband and wife. In fact, He infused the sexual act with ways to make it feel especially intimate, like the vulnerability of nakedness and body chemicals like Oxytocin and Dopamine to make us connected to our lover.
And these effects are not seen in short-term bursts of sexual activity. Rather, the intimate feelings come when we are linked to a partner again and again, in longer-term relationships. As in marriage.
Sex is something to be uniquely shared with your spouse, and thus it creates a deep intimacy when you partake together regularly and lovingly. God intended sex for reproduction and pleasure, but also to nurture intimacy between husband and wife.
Those are the three primary purposes for sex I see in the Bible. What benefits have you seen from having sex in your marriage?