Many articles in the past few weeks have critiqued the damaging messages about sex and marriage passed on by conservative churches. They emphasize virginity alone so heavily it  a sixth “Sola” – Sola Virginibus or “by virginity alone.” [The Protestant Reformation rallied around what we call the “five solas:” “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture Alone); “Sola Gratia” (Grace Alone); “Sola Fide” (Faith Alone); “Solus Christus” (Christ Alone); and “Soli Deo Gloria” (To God Alone Be Glory).]

couple wearing sunglasses and hugging

Those of us who reject Sola Virginity are asking the million-dollar question: how do we teach what we believe to be God’s ideal for sex without passing along the shame, false expectations (the comments here include numerous examples of the way unmet expectations can hurt or embitter a person), and empty promises of the so-called “purity culture?”

As I’ve thought and read and talked and listened, I’ve concluded that in all the “Just Say No (to Sex)” and “True Love Waits” messaging about virginity, we’ve skipped over two important foundational steps: 1) define healthy human sexuality, and 2) define intimacy in marriage (spoiler alert: it’s more than sex). They are closely connected, but I’m going to start with the second one.

What is intimacy? This word encompasses far more than being naked and not ashamed or engaging in sexual intercourse. Intimacy connotes knowing someone extensively, trusting someone with all of you, and being vulnerable.

Dictionary.com defines intimacy as:
1. the state of being one or more of the following:
– associated in close personal relations (as in an intimate friend)
– characterized by or involving warm friendship or a personally close or familiar association or feeling
– very private; closely personal
2. a close, familiar, and usually affectionate or loving personal relationship with another person or group.
3. a close association with or detailed knowledge or deep understanding of a place, subject, period of history, etc.

The Bible also describes intimacy in comprehensive terms, but it also draws in some very different connections – spiritual connections. Some of the language around intimacy, marriage, and sex in the Bible is oblique, mysterious, or just plain confusing. For example, passages like the one in Ephesians 5 compare marriage to God’s relationship with the church (or is it that God’s relationship to the church is like marriage?). I think most people agree that when Paul says this (either God and the church or a man and a woman or both) is a mystery, he means there is much that we cannot understand about this dynamic.

I am not going to pretend that I know what is going on here. Far greater minds than mine have spent far more time on the subject. My point is that this is difficult to wrap our minds around. Or at least it’s difficult for me. I don’t know what intimacy in marriage should look like or feel like or be like. It’s almost embarrassing to admit that. My husband is my one and only, and we have been officially together for 15 years (he proposed on Valentine’s Day 15 years ago). But I don’t know if we’ve reached that elusive “oneness” I read about in the Bible. All I have are questions.

  • What is spirituality? I mean, I know it’s part of being human, this consciousness of Something Bigger and this desire to find answers to questions like “Why Am I Here?” and “What’s It All For, Anyway?” But what is this spiritual self?
  • How is my spiritual self different from my mental/intellectual, emotional, and physical self?
  • How is my spirituality connected to those other aspects of myself?
  • What does it mean to have a spiritual connection with someone else?
  • What is the one-flesh union or one-flesh union or “two-become-one” the Bible talks about? Is it this spiritual connection? How is it different from the intimacy we are called to with others in the church?
  • If the one-flesh union of marriage has a sexual component (because sex is one thing that sets the marriage relationship apart from all others), what does that even mean? How does our sexuality connect to our spirituality and how do those aspects of myself connect to those aspects of another?
  • How is it that I remain me and my husband remains him and yet somehow we are supposed to become one? We disagree. We see things differently. We love each other, we forgive each other, we try to understand each other, but for all of that, we remain individuals. We are a team, and we work together. We both love the same God. We are incredibly vulnerable with each other. But is that the intimacy and oneness we’re supposed to have? Because, to be brutally honest, it doesn’t feel like something I would describe as “two become one.”

Zack Hunt wrote recently about another part of the Bible that addresses sex and intimacy: The Song of Songs or Song of Solomon. He says that this book has a deeper meaning that illustrates the spiritual intimacy we are to have with God.

As Denys so wonderfully put it yesterday, “This is where Freud has messed us up. We think the real thing is about sex, but the monks say “No, the real thing is God.”

In other words, Song of Songs isn’t really about sex. And if we think it is, it’s because our modern sexually saturated minds can’t let us see anything else.

The great church father Origen had a way of talking about this. For him, there are two ways to interpret scripture: the literal sense and the spiritual one. New Christians, or as the apostle Paul might call them, children in the faith, read the Bible in the literal sense, what is simply written on the page. They are not quite ready for spiritual meat, so they must settle for spiritual milk.

But God does not intend us to stay as children, reading Scripture merely in the literal sense. God wants His children to grow into mature adults, to eat spiritual meat, to read the Bible in the deeper, spiritual sense God intended. Such is the case with a book like Song of Songs. When we read Song of Songs as nothing more than a handbook on sex, it’s because we are spiritually immature. Spiritually erotic literature is not to be read as sublimating sex. What it’s really about is Christ and the church. [emphasis mine]

He goes on to say, “As the medieval monks so brilliantly observed, this ebb and flow of expectation and fulfillment isn’t just about sex. It’s a description of the entire Biblical narrative.” You should read his entire post.

This expectation and fulfillment pattern sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It is a pattern we experience throughout life. It is a pattern we celebrate through the church calendar. We observe it during Advent – expectation of the coming Messiah which is fulfilled at Christmas. We observe it during Lent and celebrate fulfillment at Easter. Recognizing and experiencing this cycle is one purpose of fasting – to connect in a physical way to the hunger (expectation) we have spiritually.

Things are beginning to fall into place for me. These ideas begin to fill in the answers to some of my questions. And then remember another writer’s insights into spiritual intimacy.

Ann Voskamp, in her book One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are, wrote about intimacy with God with the same language the Bible uses to describe intimacy, words reminiscent of sexual union and the words of Paul to describe the relationship between Christ and the church.

“But the person who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with him,” reads 1 Corinthians 6:17. I run my hand along the beams over my loft bed, wood hewn by a hand several hundred years ago. I can hear Him. He’s calling for a response; He’s calling for oneness. Communion. …

God is relationship and He woos us to relationship and there is nothing with God if there is no relationship. …

This invitation to have communion with Love – is this the edge of the mystery Paul speaks of? “A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one” (Ephesians 5:31-32). The two, Christ and the church, becoming one flesh–the mystery of that romance. Breath falling on face, Spirit touching spirit, the long embrace, the entering in and being within–this is what God seeks? With each of us? …

I would later read the words of John Calvin, Protestant Reformer, and wonder fresh at the meaning of the mystery: “God very commonly takes on the character of a husband to us. Indeed, the union by which he binds us to himself when he receives us into the bosom of the church is like sacred wedlock.” [John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion]

As she goes on to write in that chapter, it’s no wonder we’re terrified and shy away from this  kind of union with God. To be one with the Divine in our very much-still-imperfect humanity is a soul-deep vulnerability like nothing else. And it’s no wonder that, to help us understand and overcome that terror,  God has given us a taste of the beauty and fulfillment and wholeness of such oneness in a human-to-human form: marriage and sexual union. Suddenly, a sexual act is more than two bodies coming together to enjoy an orgasm. It is a dim reflection of something so much bigger and better.

What do you think intimacy and oneness is supposed to be like, either between people or between human and Divine? How does marriage help you understand God, or vice versa?