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Volume 13, Issue 1: Poimen

Resolving Sexual Conflict

Joost Nixon

What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? (James 4:1)

Marital squabbling, like all other conflict, springs from ungoverned lusts. Mr. Smith has a fetish for the latest power tools, and so his fiscal goals clash with those of Mrs. Smith, who thinks children ought to wear shoes to school. This kind of pastoral problem is as common as flies at a church picnic, and it is usually as easy to squash.

But if money problems hover about a troubled marriage like flies, then sexual conflicts do so like mosquitoes - almost as common, and potentially a bit nastier. One form of sexual conflict that routinely descends upon couples, especially new ones, is the ol' "Victorian maiden marries XXX film producer" problem. In other words, the husband and wife have vastly different sexual expectations. George wished he had married the sexual equivalent of Xena, Warrior Princess. And Eunice picked up her conjugal paradigm from the frozen foods section of the supermarket. And now here they are in your study, with flushed countenances and averted eyes, waiting for you to fix it.
Ultimately this problem, like almost every other marital problem, can be traced to the husband's failure to lead. Indeed, even if it is the wife who is entertaining unbiblical notions and the husband is the pillar of orthodoxy (not likely), it is the husband who is to exercise a sanctifying influence. As in every area of obedience in the home, he is responsible to lead the family to greater and greater faithfulness.
Worldlings (and many modern evangelicals by implication), believe God has a thing or two to learn about sex. But God is not mocked. Unbiblical notions of sex on both ends of the continuum are patently unsatisfying. Reject God's counsel, and you are doomed to roam a sexual desert.
Given these things, couples have plenty of motivation to take their thoughts captive - informing their minds and consciences of God's standard. But consciences, by design, turn as slowly as an aircraft carrier. As both husband and wife pursue biblical thinking about sex, what should they do until they are of one mind?
The second greatest commandment applies nicely to the marriage bed. Each spouse should be selflessly seeking the satisfaction of their mate. "Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others" (Phil. 2:4). This verse ought to be tattooed prominently on the forehead of all would-be grooms. Generally speaking, men need remedial courses in selflessness - especially regarding conjugal relations. And in our scenario, that means several things. First, it means patience. As he and his beloved grow in their biblical understanding and practice of sex, he must be as patient with her growth as God is with his. This means not trampling over his wife's conscience by asking her to perform sex acts against which her conscience cries out. This principle applies even to lawful sex acts (when the wife's conscience is misinformed), but especially to requests springing from a lewd and unbiblical imagination.
Second, while he is patient with his wife's progress, he should be impatient with his own. He should have a holy zeal to think God's thoughts, and not Hugh Hefner's, about sex. He must be acutely aware of his deficiencies, and thus use great alacrity and diligence to extract the knuckle out of his head. This will require a study of two things: his Bible and his wife. A study of his Bible will inform him that God grants lovers great freedom within certain bounds. As Christians we should enjoy those freedoms while honoring the bounds.
But he must also make a study of his wife. God commands husbands to "live with [their] wives in an understanding way" (1 Peter 3:7), or more literally, to live with their wives, "according to knowledge." In this, many of us have failed. Women are complex creatures, and men are thick of skull - so this is a matter that requires close and sustained study. As we do these things, we will learn to approach our wives with wisdom and selflessness (see 1 Thess. 4:3-5), and lo! discover our wives to be warm and responsive women.
And now we turn to the wife. She too is required to look to her husband's needs, without capitulating to bizarre and unbiblical requests. "Not looking out for [her] own personal interests" means understanding her husband's frame. Generally, his sex drive is higher, and thus it's a good bet that sometimes he'll be interested when she's not. Selflessness for her means enthusiastically meeting his needs even if she is tired. Of course, if he is obeying 1 Peter 3:7, this scenario will occur less frequently.
A wife must look out for her husband's singular interests, not only her own. But his interests can be looked after without violating the conscience. If the conscience is not biblically informed, then she should obey her conscience while working like the dickens to inform it biblically. She should not think she has the leisure to ponder these matters as if she were taking a stroll in the park. She must love God with mind and body, and that means believing God's word and putting it into action without stalling.
In this way, though husband and wife differ greatly in their understanding, they are moving together at a rapid clip. And while they are closing the "sexual expectation" gap, they are exercising patience with one another and preferring the other to themselves.

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