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A Biblical Guide on Sexual Intimacy


Mentor Mama:

Today we are going to be talking about navigating sexual intimacy in marriage. Learning more about this topic is actually an avenue to learn more about God's covenant love. God desires to make us more like Himself, and sex within marriage can be a powerful training ground for godly character. Sadly, many Christian couples struggle immensely in this area of marriage, but that's not God's desire for any Christian couple. Our guest today, Dr. Juli Slattery, author of the book, God, Sex, and Your Marriage will be sharing with us how to apply a biblical framework to the practical challenges in sexual intimacy that some couples may face. But first a word from our sponsor.

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Mentor Mama:

Dr. Juli Slattery is a clinical psychologist, author, and co-founder of Authentic Intimacy, a ministry dedicated to reclaiming God's design for sexuality. In addition to speaking, she hosts the podcast, Java with Juli. In 2020, Juli launched Sexual Discipleship, an online platform to equip Christian leaders for gospel-centered conversations about sexual issues. She is the author of twelve books, including Rethinking Sexuality; Passion Pursuit; and Sex & the Single Girl. She and her husband Mike live in Akron, Ohio, and have three grown sons. Please welcome Juli.

Dr. Juli Slattery:

Thanks so much for having me, Ellen. It's great to be with you.

Mentor Mama:

I'm so thrilled that you're here. In fact, I was talking to my husband about this interview last night, and he's like, you should have made this a live show because it's just such a great topic and I know one that many couples struggle with and that they do want to improve on. So, I'm just excited to talk to you about all this. So you have spent the last decade ministering about the area of Christian sexuality, what problems and pain points are you seeing particularly related to marriage?

Dr. Juli Slattery:

Well, there are many different ones and it won't surprise readers because my guess is that you've experienced some of these, but you have some of the basic things of just trying to figure out mismatched desires. We have this phrase in our culture today that we're just sexually incompatible and a lot of couples, they feel that way. And it seems like sometimes even being male and female sets us up for this incompatibility in how often we want to have sex, and what we enjoy about the sexual relationship, so that's certainly one that a lot can relate to. But then we have problems that we bring into the marriage, whether it be sexual shame from the past, regrets we have, memories of sexual experiences with other people, sexual addictions or habits like using pornography, which certainly affects sex within marriage, and then there are those things that we bring in that have to do with just our brokenness, whether it be physical limitations we have, women that have trouble enjoying sex or even being sexually aroused, and just the scars from the past. So many men and women have experienced abuse, including sexual trauma, and so, that is going to impact your sexual desire and your sexual response. So, you add all that together plus the fact that most married couples don't know how to talk honestly about their sexuality, and for most of us, it feels a little bit like tiptoeing around in a minefield. We're really just not sure when conflict's going to break out about this topic, but there's just an underlying disappointment intention, so that doesn't set up a very pretty picture. But the good news is that God really is in the process of inviting us to redemption and to wholeness regardless of what we're dealing with in our marriage.

Mentor Mama:

Yes, and Juli, I think what was so great about your book is that it's one of the few resources that comprehensively and biblically guide couples on sexual intimacy. So, it really is a great resource if you are one of those people that are struggling in any of the areas that Juli mentioned. Juli, can you explain the analogy of how sex is like a jigsaw puzzle?

Dr. Juli Slattery:

Yes, I'm always looking for these physical ways to try to explain just how complicated sex is, but I do like jigsaw puzzles so I'm a little biased here, but the way I do jigsaw puzzles is, I always will set up the front of the box cover in front of me or if there's a picture of the puzzle, I'll look at that continuously. So, if I'm doing a jigsaw puzzle of 1,000 – 2,000 pieces, the only way that I can possibly make sense of the pieces is to keep referring back to that picture. And so, I can look at each piece and say, okay, I think this belongs somewhere in the lower right-hand corner. That's how I put the picture together, and I think for a lot of us, we do feel like sex is this puzzle with all these pieces that we don't know how to put together, but to make it more complicated, we have no idea what we're supposed to be creating in terms of what picture are we forming here? And so, I use that analogy all throughout the book because it's been really helpful for me to say, if I understand what God created our sex life to look like, now I can wrestle with the various pieces of our sexuality and put them in context of what should we actually be working towards, and I think that's just really helpful to have a frame of reference. You know, when I ask married couples, what do you think the purpose of your sex life is? Or what do you think a great sex life looks like? They struggle to answer that question and if we don't know what the big picture is supposed to look like, then we really feel lost as we're kind of trying to navigate the challenges.

Mentor Mama:

That's a really fascinating analogy and an interesting way to look at it. Well, can you describe for us how the four pillars of God's love for us have the right perspective of sexual intimacy and marriage?

Dr. Juli Slattery:

Sure, so going back to that puzzle analogy, what I've really come to realize deep in my heart through reading Scripture is that the front of the puzzle box is God's covenant love. When we read the Bible, we see in the Old Testament that sexuality is used as a metaphor for God's covenant relationship with the nation of Israel. Then in the New Testament, we see this language of marriage and sexuality and bride and bridegroom being applied to Christ's relationship with the church, which is the New Covenant of God with his people. And so, when we really say, what's the purpose of marriage, what's the purpose of sex? We have to say the purpose is that God has given us a physical way to understand the nature of how he loves his covenant people, which for a lot of people is like a huge paradigm shift, like they hear that and they're like, wow, I've never thought about my sex life as having anything to do with understanding God, but that really is why God created us as sexual people and one of the primary reasons. And so, when I ask the question, okay, well, what does God's covenant love look like? And how does that practically apply in my sex life? I see these elements of God's covenant love, which I call the four pillars of God's covenant love, and the book is really about how the challenges in your sex life can lead you to pursue these four pillars of God's covenant love.

Mentor Mama:

That's amazing. So, you've got these four pillars and you obviously dig way deeper into them in the book, but to backtrack just slightly, talk about why faithfulness is so foundational to sexual intimacy.

Dr. Juli Slattery:

Faithfulness is the first pillar of covenant love. You know, when we talk about how covenant love is different from any other kind of love, it's a quality of faithfulness, and so, I can feel romantic love towards someone. I can feel friendship love towards someone. I can feel the affection towards them, but what makes covenant different is, I promise to love you for the rest of my life, and when we get married, we make this covenant promise that in season and out of season, for better, for worse, sick and poor, you know, all those vows, I don't even remember them right now, but the idea is no matter what happens, we're together, I'm not going anywhere, and what I love about this is we see that same kind of language in the Bible of God saying to his people, I will never leave you or forsake you, I will always be with you, I'm not going anywhere. And so, our whole relationship with God is based on his character and his promise of faithfulness that he's not going to change his mind. His love is unending, it's unfailing, and so, in marriage, we're called to have a similar kind of love where we're going to have difficulties. We're going to have seasons where we don't like each other anymore, we're going to have seasons where we're not attracted to one another, but the call of faithfulness says, I'm not going anywhere, I'm not giving up, we're going to keep working on this, I've committed to loving you. And what I've learned Ellen, is that every other good gift of sexuality is impossible if we don't have a foundation of faithfulness. Otherwise, the pleasure of sex is fleeting, we end up with heartbreak instead of fulfillment and intimacy. And so, it's critical that we understand the importance of developing character faithfulness.

Mentor Mama:

Yes, absolutely. I can see how everything else just becomes, I don't want to say meaningless but just crumbles really, without that. You know, I think there are no coincidences, and it's just funny because I do these Today in the Word, studies from Moody, and I'm always doing a month that's not related at all, so this is from July, but it's so interesting because he talks about how love is not primarily an emotion we feel or a preference for one person or thing over another. Instead, Solomon shows us that love is a verb. It's a way of acting toward another person with whom we have a relationship. And, I think that being the foundation of faithfulness and choosing that is so critical. Well, in the book you claim that most married people are sexually active, but not sexually intimate, help us understand the difference.

Dr. Juli Slattery:

This is really, kind of, playing off of the second pillar of covenant love, which is, sex is meant to be a journey of intimate knowing, and we were not created for sexual expression. We are created for intimacy, and the sexual journey between a husband and wife, in some ways, is so difficult, because it calls us to a deeper intimacy of having to have difficult conversations, for me as a wife, having to understand my husband's sexual journey and his desires and experiences, even when they're so different from mine, it's this call to know each other. And, I do find that a lot of us don't understand sexual intimacy. We just think, okay, now that we're married, we're supposed to be having sex. Sex is all about whatever our bodies are doing, but it's not about the journey of pursuing oneness together, of having difficult conversations, of in some seasons, grieving together, because sex isn't what we thought it would be celebrating together, and I think this is true in our relationship with God, as well as the sexual relationship. Sometimes the valleys are where we forged the deepest intimacy, and almost every Christian I know would say I came to know God more intimately through the greatest struggles. And I think the same can be true of our sexual relationship when the body's not working well, or you can't seem to connect, or trauma from the past is there, or you have to address something like pornography. Instead of saying, well, our sex life is forever broken, what if we looked at those hardships as an opportunity to really know each other at a deeper level and learn to love each other more intimately, couples who will take that perspective will find that in every season, God is offering them the gift of true intimacy.

Mentor Mama:

Yes, and you know, something that comes to my mind related to that is, I think maybe for some people, the natural reaction is when we face difficult situations like that is just to slam the door and say, I'm done, I can't deal with that, as opposed to what you’re suggesting, the opposite, which is exploring and journeying through helping you understand what the other person was feeling and why they did what they did. In your book, you had several bullet points on that and that really helped me understand more about the intimacy part of it, which is so refreshing to hear.

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Mentor Mama:

What practical steps can a couple take towards intimacy and knowing that we have a lot of young listeners here who maybe are in that exciting stage, but we might also have listeners on here who's been married for 20, 30 years, but I'm sure at any age you can take steps toward more intimacy. What would you suggest?

Dr. Juli Slattery:

I think in general, younger listeners are probably more comfortable with talking about sex than the older generation, because they've kind of grown up with it, but I think that's a very important step, learning to talk about your sexual journey. And when I have given couples the homework of going home and answering questions about their sexual journey such as, what most excites you? What are some of your favorite memories that we've had sexually? How do you feel when you initiate sex and I say, no? How would you like me to initiate sex? How would you like me to reply if I'm not ready for sex? Like, these kinds of questions, and couples will come back and they'll say, we couldn't do it. We've been having sex for 10 years or 20 years, but we just couldn't do it, it just was so awkward, we don’t have the language. This is so much more intimate than having sex. Or even an exercise where you undress and you touch each other all over your body sexually without intercourse. Couples don't know how to do that because they've been trained to think the goal of sex is intercourse. Instead of realizing that, no, the goal is actually the journey of safety and trust and knowing each other and experiencing each other. And so, some of those exercises can be really helpful, but I think for most couples, a good place to start is to get a Christian book on sex and read it out loud together to each other. Now, why do I say, read it out loud instead of listening to it on Audible, or just reading it separately and then discussing it? Because the practice of reading out loud and saying words that you're uncomfortable saying really helps bridge that gap of, okay, like now I can start to talk about this. And so, this is something my husband and I have done, particularly early on. We did this and it really gave us both permission to say things, to express things, like even to use the author's words and to say, yeah, that last paragraph, sometimes I've felt that way and it's validating. And again, it gives you permission in the language to start communicating on a more intimate level.

Mentor Mama:

That's such a great suggestion. Well, talk about the role of self-denial in a healthy sex life and why it's critical to understand God's design for sexual intimacy in marriage.

Dr. Juli Slattery:

I think, kind of, the prevailing narrative for Christians around sex has been when you're single, you have to exercise all this self-control, you can't have sex, you have to say no to all your desires, but when you get married like it's fair game, you're going to have so much fun, it's going to be this wonderful utopia. And so, people come into the marriage with, sometimes guilt and shame because of the sexual activity they've had outside of marriage, or they come with all these repressed feelings, I can't wait, you know, to have every fantasy just satisfied and desire satisfied, and then, they're shocked to find that sex actually is hard work within marriage for most couples, and I know there are a lot of people who get married thinking, I'll never struggle with pornography again, because I'll be married and my desires will now have an outlet, and six months into it, they realize they're still struggling with porn, and sex isn't what they thought it would be. It requires a lot more patience and communication. It's not like porn, porn just was all about what I wanted at the moment and they revert back to that and they're frustrated, they don't understand it, and what we need to realize again if we go back to the front of that puzzle box and say, God wants to teach us about his covenant love. We need to realize that the apex of God's covenant love was him giving himself for his bride, Christ laying himself down, dying for us. And our relationship with him has this requirement of, you know, take up your cross every day and follow me, deny yourself, don't live for yourself. So why, if that's the picture we're supposed to be learning about and creating, would sex be all about this selfish, I get what I want, and not, no, sex is a good thing, but it's going to also be a way that teaches me to love in a sacrificial way and great lovers in marriage have both learned that there's a pleasure to be had, but the pleasure comes first and foremost through me learning to put my own desires aside for a minute and just say, hey, how can I please you? How can I understand how you're different? How can I honor you and minister to you and our sexual relationship?

Mentor Mama:

Yes, one thing you said there, just regarding when a husband or wife finds out that their partner is involved in pornography, do you have any tips for them talking that out or working that out?

Dr. Juli Slattery:

Unfortunately, this is so common today. I was talking to a marriage counselor who said, I no longer ask couples, have you been involved with pornography? I ask them, to tell me about their pornography use with the assumption that every couple, at least one of them, has a history of pornography. It's just so, pervasive in our culture and so, I really think that if you are the spouse and your spouse is using pornography, we really have to hold this with two things being true at the same time. First of all, this empathy that our spouse didn't wake up one day and say, I want to be addicted to pornography, or I want to use pornography. It's insidious the way that most people have been introduced to it at a young age, it is highly addictive to the brain, and very sincere Christians have said a thousand times, God, I'm never going to look at it again. I don't want to do this. I know it's destructive, but they can't stop. And so, I think it's critical that, let's say, it's the wife in this case, who found her husband using pornography, that we address this without adding additional shame and we realize that we have our own sin struggles. They may not be sexual, but, who among us doesn't struggle with pride or anxiety or constant insecurity about our bodies, gossip, you know, we all wake up struggling against the flesh and needing God's help. And so, I think, having compassion and empathy is the first part of it. Humility, like Jesus, said, let's take that plank out of your own eye first. And so, we need to have that posture before the Lord, but then that doesn't negate the second piece of this, which is pornography is wrong. It is sinful. It is a violation of the covenant that God calls you to. It’s harmful to your body and to your marriage. And so, at the same time, we want to insist that this is addressed and empathy doesn't mean that you look the other way and you say, well, everybody's doing it, it's not a big deal. No, it is a big deal and it will kill intimacy in your marriage. And so, together as a couple saying, how do we address this? And for most people that have an ongoing struggle with pornography, they're not going to be able to address it alone, and they're going to need to get with a counselor who understands pornography or sexual addiction, and/or get in a support group with people who are also struggling so that they can get some community around them as they address this.

Mentor Mama:

Absolutely. That's a tough, tough issue, I know, for a lot of couples.

Dr. Juli Slattery:

Yes, it is.

Mentor Mama:

Well, why is marital duty a potentially harmful framework from which to think about sex in marriage?

Dr. Juli Slattery:

There's a passage in 1 Corinthians chapter 7 that really gave us this language of sexual duty or obligation, and I think it's a very misunderstood and misapplied passage. Paul is saying in this passage that sex is a very important part of marriage, and it is an important part of marriage, and when we get married, we are giving and receiving of each other, our bodies, and so, we are called to become one, which means that I no longer make sexual decisions on my own. First, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6, as a believer, I honor God with my sexuality. I glorify him, I consider God, but now that I'm married, I also want to honor my husband and bless my husband with my sexuality, and he is called to do the same to me, to be a blessing to me and in my sexuality, and so, we’re working on this together and I think this is really important, where again, that distinction between pursuing sexual activity and sexual intimacy is key. Because if we read that passage and we say, we have a duty to give each other sex, that can be manipulative, it can be demanding, in some cases, it can even be abusive, and all the joy is gone because there's no joy in duty, there's no love in and duty, but what it's really calling us to is, we have an obligation to minister to each other in our sexuality, which is a journey of intimacy, which is understanding each other's needs, being patient with each other and being kind. You know, if we read further in 1 Corinthians, we see that great love passage of love is patient and kind, it doesn't demand its own way. That should be applied to our bedroom as well, and couples that get into this, you have to give me sex, or I'm withholding sex, or it's a duty, I'm doing this out of obligation. It's really motivated by fear and not motivated by love, and the call of covenant is to love each other deeply.

Mentor Mama:

Yes. That's such a great topic in and of itself. I think it’s great advice for the newlywed couple who, maybe, if they know that right from the get-go, that would be so helpful. Well, what is a balanced perspective of passion and pleasure in a Christian marriage?

Dr. Juli Slattery:

We've been talking about these four pillars of covenant love. I've talked about three of them, faithfulness, intimate knowing, and sacrificial giving, and the fourth pillar is passionate celebration. God has designed sex to be pleasurable, to have the capacity for great pleasure and passion. That's why he created the body the way he did, and sex is so powerful because of that, but I think the balanced perspective is realizing that passion and that pleasure will be out of balance if it's not contained within those other three pillars. And so, faithfulness to your spouse, that it's just between you and your spouse, intimate knowing that this is all about a journey of us, it's not about just what I want, and that sacrificial giving again, that my pleasure is not the most important thing. It's important, but blessing my spouse is even more important, and wanting them to experience pleasure. That sets the stage for a couple to say, let's go for this. Like, let's have fun. I think there's another angle of unbalance where Christians feel like sexual pleasure is always wrong, or that it has to be muted, that they can't enjoy it too much, or somehow, they're offending God without realizing that God created sexual pleasure for the purpose of a husband and wife being able to laugh together and enjoy together and climax together and have fun and experience playfulness. That's all part of the gift of sexuality. And, I think it's beautiful that we have this little book, The Song of Solomon in the Bible, which is the only book out of all 66, that is primarily about a human relationship. All other books, have this element of it's about God and his people, and if we look at The Song of Solomon, we can say even metaphorically that again, that sexual relationship is about intimacy metaphorically between God and his people. But it's very specifically about a married couple on their sexual journey, enjoying the sexual relationship they have. Why would God inspire the writers of the Bible to have that in our canon, other than to give us a clear stamp of approval that says, this is good, this is what I created this for, and it's a worthy pursuit for married couples.

Mentor Mama:

Yes, and I love thinking about it in the context of, let's say, me as a wife, I am the only one that can provide that for my husband, there's no one else, it's exclusive, and I think that makes it extra special. Well, you make the statement that God is not only concerned with our sexual morality but also our sexual maturity. Explain what that looks like in marriage.

Dr. Juli Slattery:

So, as we talk about these four pillars, really God's vision for us is that we, as married couples, should be growing in each of these. And, again, if we look at the language that's often used in the church, it's about not sinning. Like, don't look at porn, don't cheat on your spouse, don't have sex outside of marriage. And as we've talked about, that is certainly a part of God's design for sex, but we're not given a vision of what we're meant to be moving toward, that all of life, and all of our discipleship with Christ is about growing in maturity, and there are some beautiful things about young love, about the hormones and the excitement, and the more firm and beautiful bodies than we have when we get a little bit older. But there's also something that's meant to be precious about mature love, where a husband and wife have been through some valleys together, and they have learned to talk at this deep intimate level, and they have learned, both of them, to be unselfish lovers, and they have learned to receive fully the gift of pleasure that God has given them in their sexual relationship. And so, we need to be setting that vision for married couples that you don't want to be, next year, where you are today. You want to be growing in your character and the depth of your intimacy and your love, and that's something that honors God.

Mentor Mama:

Yes, and that's such a positive life-giving activity between you and your spouse that is really something that no one else can give you and that’s something that can improve over time and that you can really, really cherish and cause you to be more in love over time. I love how, Proverbs 5 talks about how Solomon tells his son to cultivate with her to the point that he will always be intoxicated with her love continually, and I know you said that in the book as well, you quoted that same passage, so it's just encouraging for couples who've been together a long time, I just want to encourage them that it's never too late to pick up your book. And, as you said, let's just start reading it together. And in the back of the book, you have really good questions too, so I think that that is something that if you don't know how to have those intimate conversations, this will definitely guide and direct that conversation.

Dr. Juli Slattery:

Well, that's certainly the hope and we've seen small groups of couples go through this book together and also be able to just get encouragement from other people as they're going through it.

Mentor Mama:

Oh, awesome. Juli, how can people find out more information about you and all of your books?

Dr. Juli Slattery:

My ministry is called, Authentic Intimacy, and we have a website, authenticintimacy.com and everything we're doing is at that website. The books are there and we have online book studies running four seasons a year. So, you could get on in a Zoom group to go through a book like this, the podcast events, just whatever content might be helpful. We address every area, really, related to sexuality.

Mentor Mama:

We will also have the link to the book that we talked about here today in our show notes. Well, before we go, I want to ask you some of our favorite questions here. What Bible is your go-to Bible and what translation is it?

Dr. Juli Slattery:

Right now, I've been reading out of an ESV Study Bible. So that is the Bible that I'm using most of the time, but I like using different translations depending on the purpose. So, I might study something in the ESV, but then want to see how the New Living Translation says it because sometimes those words speak more to our current day. A lot of the Bible that I've memorized is in the NIV, so I feel like I use a lot of different translations.

Mentor Mama:

Yeah. I do as well. Do you have any favorite journaling supplies or anything like that that you use to enhance your Bible study experience?

Dr. Juli Slattery:

I'm not a great journaler by nature. I do have a journal that I just kind of keep with me and write things down that I'm learning. But I have a friend who created a series of Bible studies called, Simply Bible, and she has you go through different books of the Bible and really dissect them and journal in the book and just really ask questions about, what does this mean, and look up words, and so, that's been something I love, and just learning from that technique in her books, just slowing down and really digesting the Scripture instead of just reading through, so that's probably my favorite journaling tool right now.

Mentor Mama:

We will definitely put a link to that as well. What's your favorite app or website for Bible study tools?

Dr. Juli Slattery:

Probably, Blue Letter Bible is my favorite app. I also really like the Bible memorization app, because it makes memorizing a little easier for me just to be able to type in the verses as I memorize them.

Mentor Mama:

Oh, awesome. Yes, Bible memorization is a gift when you have that stored up in your memory for whenever you might need it.

Dr. Juli Slattery:

I'm not good at it, but somebody challenged me to start memorizing books of the Bible. And so, I've been starting with Paul's letters and it's been actually really fun and, we talk about really dissecting the Bible, and you don't really dissect it until you have to memorize it and go over it and over it and like, wow, I never noticed this phrase is repeated all the time. What does that mean? So that's been a fun practice I've done in the last year or so.

Mentor Mama:

Wow, I admire that. That's a good goal. Well, Juli, thank you so much for being here today to share with us this important topic for married couples and helping us to see how God's love for us can give us a better perspective of intimacy in marriage.

Dr. Juli Slattery:

Thanks so much for having me, Ellen, it's been a joy.

Mentor Mama:

For our readers, we hope you'll pick up a copy of Juli's book, God, Sex, and Your Marriage. You can find the link throughout this blog. Also, while you're here be sure to share your comments with us on this topic. And lastly, head over to the Coffee and Bible Time website for our prayer journals that will help guide and document your prayer life at coffeeandbibletime.com. We also have two new courses available on how to pray using our prayer journal and prayer binder. Thank you so much for joining us on our blog. We love you all. Have a blessed day.

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