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Marriage & the physical: your responsibility to your spouse


by Tim Gallant

An apologia may almost seem necessary for a single man to address the subjects which these brief reflections concern. It is my comfort, however, to know that the Apostle Paul wrote quite frankly concerning marital matters, particularly in 1 Corinthians 7 and Ephesians 5, and he was a single man himself. It is the duty of every minister, and not only the married ones, to address the issue of the home, and I take it to be my charge to apply God's Word to His people. Moreover, it is to be said in my defense that much of what I say here arises out of my own personal observation of the sins and strengths of God's people, and surely there is at least something of experience in such observation. In any case, the reader will discover that some of what is said here is derived from valid extrapolation of my own experience as a single man.

Introduction

"You're getting fat and letting yourself go, aren't you?"

"It's all right. I'm married."

I suspect that many of my readers will have heard comments of that sort. I certainly have, and I suspect that while they were intended partially in jest, they did reflect something of an underlying attitude.

I believe it is a sinful attitude, and one which is all too rarely addressed. It is my hope here to provide a few thoughts which will, I trust, provoke the consciences of Christians concerning their physical duties toward their spouses in connection with sexuality. Although my primary audience is especially husbands, I think that wives too will find plenty here for application.

That said, despite my own singleness, there is a strong element of self-exhortation in these words. If singles take the time to read this, I think you too may find something helpful, and you too may hear words where the shoe pinches.

Devotion to your woman

The obvious starting point in any discussion of marital duties is the calling to sexual faithfulness. The marriage bed is holy - that means, it is set apart. Sexual activity in Scripture is reserved for one's marriage partner.

This is a commonplace observation, and can scarcely be contradicted. Hebrews 13.4 says, "Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge."

We know that adultery is a great evil. We also know that looking upon a woman who is not your wife in a lustful manner is also a form of adultery (Matthew 5.27-30). It is the duty of every husband and wife to guard their hearts carefully, to commit themselves to devoting their sexual desire to their own spouses, and nowhere else - whether we are speaking of the beautiful woman next door, or of the actress who is attempting to seduce you from the screen. (It is striking to think that if the woman next door was repeatedly and wantonly attempting to seduce you, you would avoid her. Perhaps it ought to occur to us to avoid the actress when she does so, as well. And perhaps it ought to occur to us that when we train ourselves, via the popular media, to have our eyes continually upon the young and the beautiful - not to mention indecently exposed - we may very well be training ourselves to be dissatisfied with our spouses.)

These observations, however, are still introductory, because I wish to look at this issue, not so much from the angle of sexual responsibility to your spouse, but sexual responsibility for your spouse. I believe that often the marriage bed is a miserable one, precisely because such responsibility is never or too carelessly considered.

How Christians tempt their spouses to sin

Too often, our view of marital faithfulness is far too restrictive. We do not frequently consider the issue of faithfulness in connection with our calling to help our partners be faithful.

On a general Christian level, we are taught that we are not to cast a stumbling-block in the way of others (e.g. Matthew 18.6). We are rather to strengthen the feeble hands and to equip the weak for greater faithfulness.

In the area of sexual purity, one of Paul's instructions in this area is simply this: Do not deprive your partner of sexual intimacy. Failure in this area will lead to Satanic temptation regarding your self-control (1 Cor. 7.4-5). When you are married, your body no longer belongs to yourself, but to your spouse. Your sexuality is not intended by God for you to employ as a weapon to gain what you want; affection is "due" your partner (verse 3), who has "authority" over your body (verse 4). (This is consistent with the Old Testament: even in the case of polygamy, the husband was required to continue to give his first wife, not only food, clothing and shelter, but "undiminished" conjugal rights: Exodus 21.10.)

It is clear enough from 1 Corinthians 7 that a spouse who refuses to recognize and honour the sexual rights of his or her partner is placing a stumbling-block before that spouse. This is ungodly and unchristian.

Let us reflect further, however. Perhaps your wife is not a very willing sexual partner. But are you, sir, making it hard for her to be willing? Are you harsh in your speech toward her? Are you forgetful that affection is not limited to a few minutes in a bedroom? Do you touch your wife, with gentleness and warmth, at various points during the day? Or do you freeze her out, and then come into the bedroom, mystified that she has become frigid? Cold begets cold.

But we must yet go further than this. God created us embodied human beings. It is true that no two people are alike: some people are "wired" to be more visual than others, and not all men are attracted to the same type of woman, or vice-versa (which is certainly a great blessing!). Nonetheless, there are general things that can be said.

Very few of us are physically attracted to someone who is two hundred pounds overweight; very few of us are attracted to someone who is completely unkempt and lacking in basic hygiene.

God created beauty. Beautiful men and women are often remarked upon in Scripture (e.g. Gen. 24.16; 29.17; Ex. 2.2, etc.). We should not be embarrassed by that, although to be sure, we shouldn't all expect to be married to the most physically attractive specimen in the universe.

My concern here, however, is not with how your spouse looks. My concern is with how you look for your spouse. God has called your spouse to be faithful to you, and He has likewise called you to be a support to the holiness of your spouse. If your attitude is that you can just "let yourself go," because, after all, you're married, you are sinning against your partner. It is precisely because you are married that you may not "let yourself go."

I am well aware of a biblical sort of objection that may be made. Peter instructs,

Do not let your adornment be [merely] outward - arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel - rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God. (1 Peter 3.3-4)

This passage certainly teaches us that there is a beauty which surpasses the outward appearance. I have no desire to minimize that responsibility. The goal of these reflections is not to encourage Christian men and women to become superficial and think only and always about their physical appearance.

That said, however, one must question whether a true inner beauty would be reflected in a slovenliness that gives little consideration to the natural physical desires of one's spouse. I cannot believe that to be so.

Now, we must all be realistic. Most of us will never look like movie stars, even if such a thing were desirable. Most women cannot retain their girlish figure after even a child or two. Men often lose their hair. My point is not that we ought to buy into the deceitful lies of our culture, which tell us that only youth is beautiful, and that only supermodels are desirable.

But dismissing such cultural lies is not a dismissal of the ideal of beauty; it is a repudiation of lies concerning beauty. A mature aesthetic means that we learn to appreciate mature beauty.

The dismissal of cultural lies can be no excuse for failure to love our spouses. The "Golden Rule" is that we are to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Christian husband, I suspect that if you are truly honest with yourself, you would much prefer that your wife kept herself fit and presentable. And if that is so, perhaps part of your weekly schedule ought to be a little bit of time for exercise and basic grooming.

Let's not settle for some anti-creational, false spirituality. It is a godly thing for you to help your wife desire your body.

Beautifying your spouse

In Ephesians 5.25-27, Paul writes the following:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.

This passage is usually (and rightly) used to show that husbands, as heads of the home, are in large measure responsible for the sanctification of the wife. This, however, is an inference. The metaphor itself rests upon the similarity between the physically-oriented care that a husband has for his wife, and the sanctifying care that Christ has for His Church.

We all know that excess is possible in this area (as is usually the case). I am not claiming that every husband ought to ensure that his wife has an expensive hairdo and manicure every week, and keep her dressed in bank-breakingly expensive clothing. That indeed would amount to a repudiation of the frequent biblical calls to moderation, the repeated Scriptural prohibitions of ostentation. (That is not to say, however, that it is somehow spiritual to ensure your wife is clothed in something approaching sackcloth. There is a kind of "spirituality" that has an ostentation all its own, and it is all the worse for its false show of humility. The woman is the glory of the man [1 Cor. 11.7], and it is no great spiritual feat to rob her of that blessed calling.)

In light of our foregoing discussion of your responsibility to equip your wife to fulfill her biblical calling to love you and you only, however, I do wish to point out something rather mundane concerning eating habits. It is well-known that many people who are overweight are so because they turn to food as a solace. This is a sinful response to misery. It is selfish and self-destructive.

But perhaps husbands need to evaluate their own conduct in connection with such habits. Does your wife turn to solace from chocolate because you do not provide her the affection she requires? Without implying that her sin is excusable, it is perhaps apt to ask, does her sin nonetheless grow out of your own?

Christians all too often pretend that everything really important is "spiritual," and without reflection define "spiritual" as completely outside of the physical realm. This is not the spirituality of Scripture. It is God who created men and women with their delightfully different bodies. It is God who joins together husband and wife, and He doesn't make this union something non-physical and ethereal. He makes two become one flesh. It is not spiritual to ignore such blessed embodiedness once that union has taken place. To the contrary, you are now more than ever committed precisely to that embodiedness as a true expression of your spirituality. With respect to the husband, or the wife, that God has given you - for God's sake, be sexy.


Postscript: frank speech to singles

The foregoing has provided strong hints regarding why I have spoken of these reflections as "self-exhortation," despite my present singleness. Those who are unmarried but are hopeful that in God's time and way, that status will be changed, would do well to reflect on the implications of the above for their present approach to their own bodies and the bodies of others. (I do not at all suggest that consideration for future marriage is the only or even the primary motivation in connection with the following reflections. But I do believe that the issue of concern for your future partner is a relevant and godly factor in what I have to say here.)

First, we live in a fallen world that has very radically warped sexuality. I am becoming more and more convinced that we are not often adequately appreciative of how difficult it is to prepare ourselves for marriages where the bed is undefiled. How we view the opposite sex while we are single will have an undoubted effect upon our marriages, should God so grant them. We are naive if we suppose that allowing ourselves to be bombarded with weekly hours of television's sexual saturation (for example) will have no long term effect upon us. While different people have differing susceptibilities, it nonetheless cannot be denied that in general, constant exposure to media culture shapes how we view the human body. Gentlemen, if we accustom ourselves to looking upon perfectly-scultped females, we are preparing ourselves to be disappointed with the bodies of our future wives - if not when they are 25, then inevitably later.

Second, as I have considered the course of my own life, I have come to realize that how I have treated my body as a single (which indeed has not been all that well) will affect my marriage, should the Lord grant that I be given such an undeserved gift. I have come to realize that my relative indifference toward health and fitness should not be seen as spirituality, but rather as an unspiritual failure in self-discipline that may well have long-term consequences. This recognition has been triggered in part by my own recent dental problems. I went all my adult life without visiting a dentist, and I finally went due to gum pain. Had I been more concerned about others, and in particular, any possible wife the Lord may give me, I would have given more effort to keeping my mouth healthy and attractive. (Thankfully, despite my negligence, my teeth themselves still look to be in relatively good shape - but little thanks are due to me for that.)

Something similar is true with regard to fitness. Habits die hard. If one is undisciplined as a single, those patterns of life are going to be very difficult to alter. (As an aside, it is also important to note that failure of self-discipline in one area usually is related to others. If you are have no discipline with regard to eating and exercise, you likely have relatively little discipline in other respects. Body and soul are a unity.)

I am increasingly recognizing that self-discipline in the area of physical fitness has beneficial effects for a future relationship. Again, I am not advocating the sort of fanaticism that sometimes arises. We all have limited resources, in terms of the bodies God gave us, as well as realistic issues of priority (for most people, twenty hours a week of attention to fitness would be extremely disproportionate - thankfully, of course, a sound fitness regimen needs nothing of the sort). We must be thankful to God for the resources He has given us, and not question Him or become discontented. But we must not allow such thanksgiving and contentment to become an excuse for laziness. There are very rare physiological conditions in which someone is a great deal overweight through no fault of his own, but such conditions are not true for most of us. Most of us become physically unfit simply because we make no consistent effort to be fit. We eat too much and exercise too little. And the question I am posing is: will we be able to change such habits later? Perhaps. But it is unwise to count on it. When we "let ourselves go" as singles, we are training ourselves to "let ourselves go" as husbands and wives. We are training ourselves to fail to love our spouses as we ought.

Singles, I am calling upon you to view your bodies and the bodies of others as a divine gift. I am calling upon you (and including myself in this exhortation) to view physical fitness as a spiritual matter, a matter for repentance where habits have been slothful. Love your God enough to keep the temple in which He dwells fit and healthy. And love your future spouse enough to set patterns for yourself which will help you be a desirable partner for him or her.

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