Some church people were reacting to the stain of sexual immorality that saturated the culture by saying, “Ok, that’s it. Sex is bad, so we will abstain from it in marriage.” In other words, in order to avoid the ditch of licentiousness, they ran into the ditch of ascetism, which is severe self-discipline to the point that you deny yourself any self-indulgence. But, dear readers, sex is not bad. People are bad. Sex in marriage is a good and holy creation of God. Sex is not just a good idea in marriage, it is required for a healthy marriage. That’s why Paul responded to them with this: “each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.” In that one sentence, he said no to polygamy, yes to monogamy, yes to healthy sexual relations in the marriage, and no to the Shakers, who must have been distant descendants from some of these ascetics. The Shakers were founded in the 18th century, and were also known as the Shaking Quakers, because of their ecstatic behavior during worship. Very early on, women assumed the leadership roles in the group, and one of the tenets of their faith was that everyone, married or not, must practice celibacy. As a result, they slowly died off because, well, no sex equals no children.
Paul continued his instruction to married couples with this encouragement: “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.” The operative word in that sentence is “give.” The husband should give and the wife should give, even though each has been given authority by God over the other’s body in marriage. The key is giving of yourself, not taking what is yours. If you just focus on the word “rights,” you will get all twisted up and turned inward. You start thinking about your rights and your desires and your needs and your feelings, instead of how to give to your spouse. What makes a marriage work? It is not a demand for rights that brings a blessing, but two people with a heart to give to one another. It is there that God commands His blessing. I can hear someone say, “I just don’t feel like giving myself to my wife, or to my husband!” C.S. Lewis wrote this: “Though natural likings should normally be encouraged, it would be quite wrong to think that the way to become charitable is to sit trying to manufacture affectionate feelings…The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will probably come to love him.” In other words, if God has told you to give to your spouse, don’t wait until you feel like it. Act yourself into a way of feeling.
One thing we know for certain, that it is rare that both in the marriage have the same level of interest and passion about intimacy, or the same comfort level. And we know that the level of interest and passion changes over time for husband and wife, but often at different times. Tony Reinke says, “Both have authority, but what do you do if the desires or how they call the shots are not the same? Any simple formula will not fit reality, and Paul knew he was dealing with complex, emotional moments. In a Christian marriage, where the couple is growing in grace, they will figure this out. (As the Bible says), ‘Outdo one another in showing honor.’”
Finally, I know this is a complex and difficult area for many. What if there is brokenness in the marriage or in the past of one or both partners? In her book, “Rethinking Sexuality,” Juli Slattery writes this: “How to move forward: Tell the truth about your experiences, past and present. All progress begins with telling the truth. Pursue God’s truth. Apply God’s wisdom. Use a biblical counselor if needed. Don’t put it off.”
Mostly, become a giver.
I noticed a few days ago that there was huge hole in my backyard where a tree used to be, a sugar maple that we bought and planted this week. Then on my way to work, I saw the tree in my neighbor’s yard! There it was, and you could see from the fresh dirt that it had just been planted. Or…transplanted. On my way home from work that night, I saw the tree again, on the side of the road, making its way slowly to another neighbor’s yard. It kind of threw a wooden look at me as I slowly drove past, like, “Yeah? Do you have a problem if I want to try a different place?” I just shook my head and drove on, watching this tree struggle to drag itself down the street, leaves falling off, roots dragging behind … it was a pitiful sight.
By now you know I am pulling your collective branches … er … legs, right? Of course the tree didn’t uproot itself and move to another place. Trees have this very consistent habit of staying where they are planted. That’s a constant in the universe: where you plant a tree is where it will grow. In fact, the quickest way to kill a tree, or to at least hinder its growth and fruitfulness, is to transplant it. Trees grow best in their natural habitat.
Christians do, too, and a Christian’s natural habitat is the house of God. That’s where we grow the best, in fact that is where we flourish. Psalm 92:13: “They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God.” Then the Psalmist says, “They still bear fruit in old age.” I like that part.
Sadly, Christians are too often like that rogue tree I was telling you about. They move from place to place, never taking root downward to grow upward, never really getting established anywhere so they can truly be used by God to do what Christians are created by God to do. Read Psalm 92 and see how the believer is compared to two specific kinds of trees, the palm tree and the cedar. Palms flourish and cedars grow.
Palms are extremely durable during storms because of their spongy wood; they will bend during a hurricane and not break. That’s a picture of the followers of Christ. They endure. They are still standing after the storm. Besides endurance, palms also represent refreshment and rest. People love to be near palm trees, don’t they? They travel miles to sit under them, soaking up the warm sun beside the blue ocean. Christians are like palm trees, the Bible says. Refreshing. Drawing others to them. Inviting and gracious. Paul commended a man by the name of Onesiphorus for being a brother who refreshed him, for taking initiative to find ways to serve others.
Cedars grow in four ways, just like Christians. They grow downward, sending roots deep into the soil for nourishment and stability. They grow upward. Cedars in Lebanon can grow to more than 130 feet at elevations of over 6,000 feet, literally piercing the clouds, reaching for heaven. They grow outward, spreading their huge branches more than 30 feet from the trunk, providing shade and shelter. They grow onward, some cedars living hundreds of years.
Here’s what we can take from Psalm 92, then. Settle in a good church and grow there. Send roots deep into Christ and into his Word. Reach for things above, not the temporal stuff of life. Reach others with your life and message. Enjoy the assurance that your life will bear good fruit that remains long after you are gone.
And if you see one of my trees on the road, send it home.