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September 22, 2009 – On Praying Before Sex

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Apparently a group within the Roman Catholic Church has recently issued a new Prayer Book for Spouses that includes a “Prayer Before Making Love.” The issuance of this prayer has been the target of predictable ridicule, inciting charges ranging from idealism to density and even insanity. Why, it is asked, would a couple in the throes of passion stop to pray? Wouldn’t that kill the mood? Is this an underhanded way of taking the fun out of sex? I think the answer to these questions is contained within a proper biblical understanding of sex, which, once apprehended, shows that this prayer is not really such a bad idea.

The prayer petitions God to “place within us love that truly gives, tenderness that truly unites, self-offering that tells the truth and does not deceive, forgiveness that truly receives, loving physical union that welcomes.” The biblical warrant for these ideas is derived from such passages as Ephesians 5:28: “So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself” and I Corinthians 7:3-4: “The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” It is no bad thing for believing couples to remind themselves that the greatest blessing and (the greatest pleasure) is in giving, not receiving. Indeed, this message is urgently needed in a culture that teaches individuals to value the sex act primarily for the pleasure they can get out of it rather than for the pleasure that they can give to their spouse.

More pointed though, is that section of the prayer which includes these words: “Open our hearts to you, to each other and to the goodness of your will . . . . Clothe us in true dignity and take to yourself our shared aspirations, for your glory, for ever and ever.” Given its context, there are very few modern sentiments that so clearly fulfill the spirit of I Corinthians 10:31: “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Should we assume that Paul couldn’t possibly have been thinking about sex when he wrote this? On the contrary, I’m confident that human sexuality, whether or not it was in the forefront of Paul’s mind when he penned these words was certainly in the mind of Scripture’s divine author. Sexuality is a gift given to us by God and it is entirely appropriate for us to thank him for it and seek to glorify him through it. As British theologian C.S. Lewis so eloquently writes: “There is no point in trying to be more spiritual than God. God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why he uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: he invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.” (Mere Christianity, Book 2, Ch. 5) This principle certainly holds for sex. God invented sex and finds it beautiful when it is enjoyed in its proper place.

Beneath the criticism of this “Prayer Before Making Love” lies the unspoken assumption that sexuality and piety have nothing in common. But this is most certainly not the case. Indeed, the Roman Catholic Church is not far wrong in listing marriage as one of its seven sacraments for the simple reason that marriage (in all of its aspects, including sexual intercourse) leads the believer into a deeper understanding of the character of God. In its proper place (that is, within the bonds of marriage) sex teaches us what it means to give ourselves up entirely to another. The physical pleasure and emotional intimacy of sexual union are the briefest of foretastes of Paradise. Dare we go even further into the physical symbolisms? God is the eternal Masculinity in relation to humanity’s relative femininity. It is he who penetrates his people and places the new life within them. Have we gone too far? Or are we too prudish to accept that God is intimately involved with sex? When will we learn that human sexuality is only a symbol of a more perfect spiritual intercourse just as human marriage is only a symbol of a more perfect heavenly union? If this prayer helps us to remember these things, then it will have certainly accomplished its purpose.

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