Vol 3, Num 4 :: 2004.02.13 — 2004.02.26
We’ve been praying for you two a lot. God has placed a deep care and concern for you on our hearts. As I’ve been praying and thinking, there are some things that have occurred to me—not instantly, but through some wrestling, some difficulty of spirit.
I wrote to a friend a while back. A victim of unspeakable evil, she was struggling with issues of love, God’s heart for her, and the place that evil holds in this world including how to reconcile these things, how to say one could be true and the other one at the same time. One of the things that I mentioned to her was that God’s love for us is not tame and thin and transparent. Rather, it is wild and thick and opaque. It is so wild that God sometimes looks like He’s hurting us when He really is in the act of loving us. It is so thick that we can’t instantly see into it clearly, but once we are into it, we are safe, held tight, warm. God’s love has a painful, mysterious side to it. In some ways, this pain and mystery is the central element in God’s love. God’s love is not clear and thin, like water. It is red and thick, like blood. Primal, it is our life-source. That’s what Christ discovered and revealed as he hung suspended on the cross. (Believe it or not, these words were actually comforting to my friend.)
In that light, the dark light of love, I have felt strong feelings regarding your future marriage and current relationship. First, I have felt deep joy for you. Not neat, clean, boxed joy—I’m sure you have felt this, too—but unexplainable joy. It accounts for and encompasses the certain messiness of all intimate relationships. So, it is at once dark and murky, yet life-giving and fulfilling. I have felt joy because I believe you two are suited to each other. God has designed you for each other, for a lifetime of intimacy with Him and with each other. This is clear.
At the same time, I have felt pain and sadness. This is natural, since all love carries pain with it. Love doesn’t eliminate pain, it keeps one strong in the midst of pain. The kind of pain I have felt is much like the pain that a parent has for a child when that child makes a decision that could be harmful. Yet, if the parent loves the child, the parent will help the child make right decisions.
For example, if my son is playing with a knife, the most loving thing I can do is show him that knives are dangerous, that they can wound him, even kill him. Now, my son may want the knife, he may think it is fun to play with the knife, he may think it is pretty. But, of course, the knife is not something he should handle until he gets older. Knives can be good things, but, handled and used too soon in life, they can be tragically fatal. A foundation of understanding must first be laid before handling this powerful tool.
Sex is a bit like that. To be sure, it is good and powerful, but, handled too soon, it can harm us. God designed sex for our good. God is the creator of sex. But a foundation of understanding and discovery must be built before it can be enjoyed to the full. This is why God has asked us (commanded us) to wait to have sex until after this foundation has been laid.
I am certain that you have discovered the truth of this in your own experience. Think of the pain that was caused, the tearing of your heart and your various partners’ hearts in the past, as you’ve separated sexually (did it feel like a knife in your soul?). At the time, sex seemed natural, loving, ecstatic, awesome. But, in retrospect, I’m sure you realize the tragic mistake you’d made. You’ve actually hinted at this in a past conversation we’ve had. Take note of this clue in your spirit, for a great and awesome life-giving truth lies at the base of it. Here’s one of the things you’ve learned (and I’m certain you’ve learned this, because I can see it in you): a solid foundation of trust is never laid by sexual union. Rather, it should be the other way around. Sexual union should be built upon a foundation of trust. One comes first, the other comes later. There is a healthy order to these things. Now, because sexual union is so powerful, it can cloud the intentional formation of that foundation. It can distract you from attending to more serious, deep, soul-and-spirit issues.
I am here assuming that there are issues that need to be dealt with and brought out into the open before committing to marrying someone. These issues are not specifically physical. Rather, they are spiritual and emotional.
Here’s where this principle applies to you: you’ve discovered and explored each other physically, but your emotional and spiritual exploration—may I humbly and lovingly say this?—needs more development. That is not because you are “lagging behind” or because you are “bad people, guilty of an unforgivable sin.” It is because this is the place that all unmarried couples are in. All engaged couples share this feature: the need to explore each other’s spirit and soul. Actually, that’s what engagement is all about: being engaged on a magnificent exploration.
Many people thinking about marriage don’t take seriously enough the challenge to deal with these internal issues in an open, honest, vulnerable fashion. But we can be certain that these issues form the foundations of our personalities, our ways of viewing the world, our ways of viewing ourselves, our ways of viewing each other. All these things impact the health of our marriage, of course, and must be given solitary, undivided attention before marriage—that’s what marriage counseling is all about. Both of you are coming to understand this, since we have already in a short period of time identified personality characteristics, motivations that lie beneath the surface but have now been brought out into the open through discussion and mutual discovery. Both of you have had the joy of getting to know each other better. Of course, I am here referring to the increasing understanding of your spirit and soul, the way you interact, the attitudes you bring to the world, the way God has designed you in the non-physical realm. I have said, but will say it again here, and add one principle to it: this is, of course, the most important task that not only presents itself to you now, but always—even after you are married.
I have learned this in my own marriage. My wife is more than “flesh in a dress.” She is a spiritual, emotional being. I must take great care to understand and nurture that part of her. If I don’t, sex becomes mundane and commonplace, merely physical. If I do cherish and esteem her and continue to discover her true self, she feels loved, honored, respected, special. Believe me, the quality of our sex life hinges on the attention I pay to her inner self.
And the quality of your life together also hinges on this priority. If you love each other, if you want to show each other that you cherish each other, respect each other, esteem each other, honor each other, then you will say to each other: “I care enough about you to pay undivided attention to your spirit and soul. It’s not about your body. I love your body, but I want to discover who you really are. I want to find out about your hidden, inner self. Because of that, I am willing to set aside certain things, so that I can devote all my energy and attention to your heart.” That’s why God pleads with us, with large love, “Please, wait until marriage to explore each other physically.”
You know, even in marriage there are times when it is appropriate and necessary to abstain from sex. This is because sex is so powerful, that it tends to dominate our attention. It thus can divert attention from more important soul-matters. When the woman feels like a physical pleasure machine, she is less than completely satisfied. A colleague of mine told me a funny story that relates to this. He says, “It took six months after we had our first child before we had sex again. My wife Dana was tired after my daughter Jessica was born. The baby drained the life right out of her. After four months without sex, we were laying in bed one night and I snuggled up close to my wife, making advances, wanting to have sex. Dana turned over and said, ‘David, I feel like a milk machine. Leave me alone.’” It wasn’t until two months after that that she felt up to having sex again.
At that time in their marriage, David needed to pay undivided attention to her spirit and soul. Their marriage survived that rough patch because they had experience of doing that before, of abstaining from physical pleasure for the sake of full, undivided attention to the things of the spirit.
There’s a lesson here for us all: If you are not used to paying undivided attention to matters of the spirit and soul before marriage, you will never be prepared to do that during marriage. That is the foundation that must be laid in order to have a more fulfilling, solid marriage. In fact, you can be certain of this, there will come a time when that foundation will be needed, and if you haven’t laid it down first (i.e., before marriage), you will find that whatever you have built up will need to be torn down, for you can’t lay a foundation under a house that’s already been built. Sex is like that; it is a part of the house, but it cannot be the foundation. If it is the foundation or part of the foundation fails, the house will come crumbling down later because sex is radioactive by nature, and it has a very short half-life. Eventually, it will deteriorate and decay, along with our bodies as we grow older. When that happens, whatever other materials we’ve put into the foundation will remain, and usually there isn’t much left, if we’ve used sex as a foundation. Later, when the sex is gone, you will end up feeling empty, lost and alone, since attention must be paid whole-heartedly to the spirit and soul at this stage. Many people who have not built the foundation properly before marriage—that is, who have included sex in the foundation—have discovered this, and have come up against the difficult task of trying to lay a better, more solid foundation later on, once the house of marriage has already been built. Statistics show that the vast majority of them find the task of relaying a solid foundation too daunting: it turns their world upside-down, radical uprooting takes place, they end up in divorce, unable to face the more important soul-and-spirit issues. They’ve had great sex, may even still have great sex, but it doesn’t satisfy their inner hunger.)
Another observation comes out of this example: sex is not always a product of a sure foundation. Sometimes, like in the case of those divorced couples, it is a distraction from laying the foundation. Personally, I think it is always a distraction from laying this foundation before marriage since there is no possible way you could know deep, hidden things about your partner yet. That’s because depth of understanding comes over long periods of time and comes as a result of loving, humble, intentional discovery.
If you don’t know these “deep” things yet, the foundation has not been built. If the foundation has not been built, sex is a distraction, not a product. But depth of understanding is a slippery subject, for it can’t be scientifically quantified. One may feel like depth has been achieved but all one has to rely on is one’s own internal instruments. That is why you must take our word for it: Depth comes with time and intentional, humble, loving discovery. Solid foundations of trust take time and discovery.
Don’t get me wrong: sex feels great right now, doesn’t it? It feels wonderful, exciting, joyful. It even feels right. But, those feelings will deteriorate. There will come a time when it will become less exciting, less fulfilling. That’s because it’s physical in nature. As our bodies change, so will sex. But emotional, spiritual union will last forever and it will always be satisfying, even if you are never able to have sex again. This is how someone with a marriage partner that has suddenly become a paralytic can still find satisfaction and fulfillment in marriage, because it isn’t only about sex, it’s about emotional intimacy.
Personally, I’ve made mistakes in our own marriage this way. There was a season where I failed to show my wife true love. I didn’t take interest in her feelings, I didn’t show support in her struggles, I didn’t uphold her spiritually. Yet, I still wanted sex. It is no surprise to find that feelings of resentment and anger began to well up in her. She didn’t feel loved, cherished, honored, esteemed, respected.
In fact, I know another man who had problems in his marriage because his wife felt resentment, anger, and disillusionment towards him during marriage. The source of this resentment, anger, and disillusionment was in their pre-marital sexual union. They’d had sex before marriage and later she felt cheap, used, humiliated. Not esteemed, not honored, not respected. Later, he couldn’t figure out why his wife was responding to him the way she was. He talked with her more about it, but it took awhile for her to reveal her true feelings. The end of it? They wished they hadn’t had sex before marriage. Now: you’ve already done this. So what now? You can still lay a solid foundation for your marriage. The good thing is: the house hasn’t been built yet, so you don’t have to go tearing it all down. You’re still just getting started. You still have a chance to do things right. You’re still laying the foundation. We may just need to re-do the foundation. Fortunately, we don’t have to re-do the whole house, too. It is not too late. With that in mind, may I humbly suggest: take 90 days to pay undivided attention to matters of the heart. This will be painful, but remember: “Love doesn’t eliminate pain. It keeps one strong in the midst of pain.” So take 90 days to pay undivided attention to matters of the heart.
If your relationship can’t weather the storm now, if it doesn’t survive, it is because the foundation is rotten. Trust me, if this is the case, you don’t want to get married. Later, you will be frustrated, wondering “Why isn’t sex exciting anymore? Why is this happening to us?” Though you are married, you will feel empty, lonely, and disillusioned. It will end in brokenness, unnecessary, damaging pain, tears, bitterness, resentment, anger.
Having said that, I believe with all my heart that you will pass the “test” with dignity, strength and honor. I believe that you have it in you to do this. I believe that you want to do this. You want to explore each other spiritually, emotionally. You want that kind of intimacy that can only come from undivided, intentional, passionate, joyful discovery. I can see it in you. It’s there. I don’t doubt that for one second.
That’s why when (not if but when) your relationship survives this “test,” it will be because you’ve built a solid foundation. If this is the case, life will be beautiful, filled with unfathomable possibilities, joyful, free.
Finally, if your relationship weathers the storm, a word of practical advice (I almost laugh thinking about this!): get married soon. Why? Because you won’t be able to control your physical longings for much longer than 90 days. So: get married soon. Even if it means changing plans. Even if it means upsetting your parents. What does it matter? You’ve still built a good foundation, you’ll still have a good marriage. I repeat: get married soon, whatever it takes. But first take a little time. 90 days is not so bad, is it? Get to know each other. Without the distraction of sex. Honor each other, esteem each other, respect each other, love each other in this. It’ll be the best thing you ever did.