There's a lot of emphasis on keeping healthy these days. We are encouraged to sleep more, exercise more, and eat lots of lentils, quinoa, and organic spinach rich with omega somethings!
This is all honorable, but what of our relational health? Are we keeping a close watch on the health of our primary relationships, including our marriages? We need to ensure that we are caring for all aspects of our intimate relationships. This includes our physical relations—our sexual intimacy. We need to make regular assessments in this part of marriage to be genuinely healthy.
Sex is God’s doing! At Creation, after creating man and woman, He declared them “very good” (Genesis 1:31). If what He put together was that good, it’s worth more than a casual glance. It would be rather arrogant of anybody, especially pastors, to question God’s conclusions about His creative works! Our sexuality came from His heart and hands, and we would do well to respect and treasure His gift.
Our God-shaped sexuality finds its best expression inside a safe and secure monogamous relationship between husband and wife. That’s Scriptural! It also receives an A grade when it’s a mutual experience— one of shared reciprocity (1 Corinthians 7:5). It really reaches its zenith when it is an expression of love and respect, as Paul outlines in Ephesians 5:33.
Our sexual relationship is a journey—ideally a lifelong one. Sex is an aspect of our humanity that doesn’t rest for prolonged periods of time, and it changes in its expression over the years and through various life experiences. It’s dynamic— never static. This means we need to be sensitive to changes in our bodies, as well as shifts in our desires and needs for intimate love.
One key issue for pastoral couples that can negatively impact their sexual relationship is the expectation that they will always be available to their flock—they are to be “on call” 24/7. When is a pastor not a pastor? Maybe between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m.? Hardly! If there is a death or an emergency of some kind, the pastor will often be the first one to be involved, and deaths and emergencies don’t all happen after 8 in the morning and before 10 at night.
Understandably, a committed pastor will want to invest heavily in the church and be regarded as a caring and compassionate shepherd. He will always consider it vital to “be there” for the members. He will gladly feed his flock with all his time and energy, as Jesus did for the 5,000. But unfortunately, his spouse will be found gathering the leftovers—the “crumbs” of his time and energy.
Spouses of over-invested pastors can readily consider the church as the “concubine” in the pastoral marriage. The pastor is seen to be so warm and caring, compassionate and gentle, a good listener and a wise counselor— to everybody else but his spouse. A work life shared at this level will often lead to a partner feeling angry, and her sense of being abandoned will play havoc on her desire for closeness and intimacy.
Recent research in the social sciences has pointed to the significance of emotional intimacy in marriage. In fact, in his research on marriages over many years, author and psychology professor John Gottman1 found that the greater number of marriages ended not because they were in conflict all the time but because one or both spouses was lonely. Loneliness, Gottman concludes, leads to parallel marriages where there is little connection and closeness.
While the marriage may look to be in reasonable shape—the couple maintains all their usual ways of living and being a couple or family—inside they are lonely and hurting. It may only be a matter of time before the loneliness becomes too much for one or both partners and they drift away. Emotional intimacy speaks to the very heart of a marriage. While a couple may find their physical relationship enjoyable, it is the emotional connection that keeps their marriage alive and vibrant and leads to a long-term relationship. Pastoral couples who wish to build and maintain a vibrant sexual relationship over the lifetime of their marriage will need to learn the language of emotions and how to be emotionally available to each other. They also need to learn to respond sensitively to each other’s emotional expressions and bids for attention and affection.
Dr. Sharon May 2, a prominent Christian counselor, suggests that it’s trust that lies at the heart of any intimate marriage and is in fact the foundation for all other aspects of a healthy marriage. She suggests that intimacy, including sexual intimacy, will thrive only when there is mutual trust in the marriage—trust expressed in honesty, reliability, good judgment, and real heart trust. True intimacy will always be a reluctant partner in a marriage whenever there is a lack of trust.
In the Song of Solomon the king says, “Get up, my dear friend, fair and beautiful lover—come to me! . . . Come, my shy and modest dove—leave your seclusion, come out in the open. Let me see your face, let me hear your voice. For your voice is soothing and your face is ravishing” (Song of Solomon 2:10-14, MSG). Any married pastor will do well to consider his spouse a ravishing lover!
Sure, there will be many times when she will feel anything but ravishing, and the first thing on her mind may not be love, but she is still the ultimate beauty who walked down the aisle to him. He will take seriously Paul’s admonition to love his wife, even in those times when she is being especially unloving (Ephesians 5:25-30).
In marriage, sexuality is a gift. Its expressions come in all sorts of colors, shapes, and wrappings. A wise pastoral couple will unwrap this gift each day with joy and a deep sense of gratitude to God. They will make a commitment to treasure and protect this wonderful gift, remembering that it came from the hand of God.
1 Gottman, John M. and Nan Silver. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999.
2 Hart, Archibald D. and Sharon Hart Morris. Safe Haven Marriage. Nashville, TN: W. Publishing Group, 2003