Today isn’t one reader’s specific question, but rather a topic that comes up from time to time among people who comment here or email me. Below is a fictional, composite version of the query:
Sex has always been in an issue in my marriage, with my spouse rarely if ever wanting to make love in our 25 years of marriage. For the last eight, I’ve been in a sexless marriage, and when I try to talk to him/her about it, s/he just says that s/he doesn’t need it. I’ve done my part around the house, taken care of the kids, regularly compliment him/her, and try to woo my spouse as much as possible, but apparently my needs mean nothing compared to his/hers. We tried counseling, but he/she quit going after two sessions.
I’ve prayed and prayed and prayed about this for years, but nothing has changed. So that’s it. I’m done with church and with God. And if things done change in the next few months, I’m done with my marriage too. I wish I’d left sooner. I’ve wasted all these years with a woman and a God — if He even exists — who don’t give a flip about me.
Where’s the question in there?
- Is there a god?
- If there is a god, why doesn’t He intervene?
- How can I believe in a god who’d let me suffer so much in my marriage?
I’ve long believed the theological question Why do bad things happen to good people? is usually Why do bad things happen to me? Or a close loved one. Because our life experiences impact how we view the existence and goodness of God.
A sex-conflicted marriage, especially a sexless marriage, is such an emotionally painful experience that it feels cruel to be made to endure it. Especially when you’ve done everything you can think of to be loving, to be faithful, to cry out to God for deliverance. When nothing changes — or gets worse — your core belief in God can be shaken. Your faith falters.
Let me first assure you that I’ve been there. I was raised in the church, a preacher’s daughter, but I faced a faith crisis in my early 20s. Did God exist, or was religion simply wishful thinking? After much study and reflection, I decided that yeah, there was something.
But I didn’t immediately rush back to Christianity. Instead, I studied different versions of god professed across history and cultures. It was a slow walk back to God and then to Christ. So I recognize what it feels like to doubt, to question, to even shove off what you previously thought was true and suspect it’s not truth after all. Questioning your faith doesn’t make you a bad person. It puts you in the company of many Christians across ages who long for “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1).
But let me address the questions you have with real answers.
Yes, God is there.
It’s hard to feel like God is there with you in your pain. Although He’s omnipresent, He’s also invisible to us. You can’t slide over on the couch and say, “Have a seat, God. Let’s talk face-to-face about my problems.” While some Christians say they always feel God’s presence, many of us don’t. Plenty of us reach out to God and end up identifying with these poignant lyrics from BarlowGirl in “Never Alone”:
But you didn’t show, no no no
I needed you today
So where did you go?
Said you’d be there
And though I haven’t seen you
Are you still there?
I cried out with no reply
And I can’t feel you by my side…
When you’re still in the pit, when your pain is deep, when you can’t feel Him there…how do you believe that He is?
The truth is, I can see God’s presence in my life more clearly when I look back on things than when I’m in the moment. But more importantly, a lot of whether I felt God there depended on how much I truly invited Him in. Did I want God to just come fix things? Or did I want God to use that experience to draw me closer into a relationship with Him?
Isaiah 43:2 is the verse I lean on, over and over in my life:
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
The Bible tells us repeatedly in one way or another that this life will suck. Not every moment or every day, of course, but there’s a substantial amount of suckage involved in taking the journey through human existence. God doesn’t promise to take away those times when we have to “pass through the waters” and “walk through the fire.” But our Lord says, “I will be with you,” and He will get us through those tough times if we recognize Him, invite Him in, and lean on Him.
That’s why the chorus of “Never Alone” ends with:
So I’ll hold tight to what I know
You’re here, and I’m never alone.
But free will means others can hurt you.
You know how much you want your spouse to express their love through sexual intimacy? God recognizes the same thing: Love and goodness shouldn’t be coerced. In the Genesis 2 account of Adam and Eve, God’s first words to Adam are, “You are free…” God then describes that Adam can eat from any tree in the garden he wants, but it would be super-bad idea to eat the fruit of one particular tree.
Of course, we all know how the story turns out. Adam and Eve sin — and we all would have done the same if we’d been in the Garden of Eden ourselves. Likewise, we mess up a lot in our own lives, free to make choices that hurt us and others around us. You have that right from God … and so does your spouse.
That’s why I’ve said about a hundred times on my blog that the only one you can change in your marriage is you. Don’t get me wrong: You have influence. You can clam up or communicate. You can enable or set boundaries. You can seethe in anger or reach out in kindness. But you can’t make your spouse want to have sex with you. And if you think God enforced it, you’re asking Him to take away your spouse’s free will. Which, it seems biblically clear to me, He won’t do.
And you might not be as good a spouse as you think.
Judging your own performance as a spouse, you might come out looking like a Grand Champion. You certainly feel like you’ve done everything a loving mate would do, and yet it’s made no difference whatsoever.
But what if you’re doing the wrong things? For instance, you might not be speaking your spouse’s love language. Perhaps you’re performing many acts of service, when your spouse wishes you’d put down the tools or the fry-pan and spend time with them.
You could be misconstruing the underlying problem that keeps your mate from jumping into bed with you. Maybe you’re trying to make the case for why sex is important in marriage, but your spouse has real physiological obstacles or sexual baggage that make her view sex as untenable.
Or you might just be in a pain in the patootie about the whole issue: You think you’re being reasonable and persuasive, but you come across as nagging and demanding. Your unpleasantness in this specific area might make it not so much fun to live with you in general. Which means you lose your overall appeal, further making your case for “let’s have sex” a tough sell.
Look, I’ve been there, done that. So I know that it’s possible to believe you’re doing great when it doesn’t feel that way to your spouse. That’s why it’s important to ask your spouse how they think and feel, and then shut up and listen. We reveal ourselves to others when we feel safe and heard. So be a safe person for your spouse to communicate with, and recognize that it takes time to reach that point.
It comes down to this: “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:12). You want to see God working? Let Him work through You to change how fully you love your spouse.
Finally, the blessing isn’t always obvious.
It seems fair for God to reward us in the area where we’ve been faithful. When we pray for our marriage, behave as a faithful spouse, and pursue righteous sexual intimacy within that covenant relationship, shouldn’t God show up? Where we are most hurting? Where we most welcome God’s divine intervention?
Galatians 6:7-10 says:
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
We will reap what we sow, but not always in the same season or the same field. Plus, our motives and perseverance matter.
Even if we are entirely faithful toward our spouse regarding sexuality, it’s possible we don’t reach the sexual intimacy that God ideally wants us to have. It’s not because He doesn’t care. He does, but see the free will point above.
But here’s the thing: As much as it stinks to wait and wait and wait, and to suffer through a sexless marriage, I don’t believe sex is better than Heaven.
No one gets to Heaven having endured that kind of hardship while still being Christ-like to their spouse and says, “Man, if only I could go back and have an orgasm!”
It was pointed out to me in the comments that the refused spouse isn’t struggling with lack of orgasm but the emotional pain of rejection. Yes, that was an extremely poor word choice on my part — which doesn’t even reflect what I believe. As I’ve said many times, if it was just about the physical release, your spouse could get that without you. But sex has deeper meaning, and those in sexless marriages experience it as a rejection of their desirability, their identity, and their love. Ask a number of refused spouses how they feel, and you’ll hear the word lonely a lot. That is the heartbreak of a sexless marriage.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t do everything within your influence to address the sexlessness in your marriage. I say quite the opposite all over my blog. However, taking an eternal perspective, just because you can’t see the reward right now in the area where you most want it at this moment doesn’t mean God doesn’t have a very worthwhile reward for you.
Hebrews 11:6 puts it this way: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”
Sexual intimacy is important to your marriage. But not as important as your faith in God and our Savior Jesus Christ. I pray the Spirit will reveal to you how God is there in the midst of your pain, how you can continue to be faithful, and how you will be rewarded in due season … if you do not give up.
Can I plead with you to just sit down honestly with God and ask for His strength to keep your faith going? To speak to mature Christians who can answer your questions? To pursue fresh ideas and ways of dealing with the sexlessness in your marriage?
After a few complaints in the comments section, I want to clarify that I am NOT saying you shouldn’t use your influence to pursue sexual intimacy in your marriage, because you should. In other posts, I’ve spoken clearly about talking to your spouse, my belief that ongoing sexual refusal in marriage is a sin), and how just saying to pray for your marriage isn’t enough. I’ve addressed the issue of sexless in marriage, tried to explain how hurtful it is to the refused spouse, and explained that sex is 100% part of the marriage covenant. But none of that goes against my assertion in this post that God is not to blame for the emotional pain you’re going through, and in such troubled times, we should draw closer to Him, not further away. Please, if you are in a sexless marriage, keep pursuing righteous intimacy, but also pursue righteousness simply in your relationship with God. – added 10/13/17
I can’t say I know what’s it’s like to be you, but I know it’s tough. Please know that my prayers also go up that you will hold onto God and not lose your faith.