Shame, Sex, and Jesus in the Bedroom

I had sex before I got married. A lot.

I remember sitting in church on a Sunday morning, listening to the pastor tell us that the sin that pops into our minds first–were we to commit any sin we’d like free and clear–is the same sin the enemy would use to tempt us every time. My best friend was sitting next to me. We exchanged glances. I knew her sin and she knew mine. “Sex?” she whispered to me? “Yes, sex,” I told her.

That was my biggest temptation and one I battled daily at times.

It was quickly made clear to me, after meeting Christ, that sex and the church don’t trust each other. They aren’t friends. If anything, sex and the church are frenemies, really. Kind to one another when people are looking, but calling the other a liar when backs are turned.

I would hear youth pastors say things like “Set boundaries” and “Find an accountability buddy.” Really? Another teenager who was just as sexually frustrated as me was also supposed to help me douse water on this fire? And boundaries? What boundaries exactly? You mean the ones my boyfriend and I established–things like “lights on, doors open, stay vertical,” only to turn around and immediately break them when our parents weren’t home?

The church began to paint a new picture of sex for me — one that was in direct conflict with the life I had lived.

They told me sex was a non-issue. They told me to just put sex away in a little black box until marriage. Don’t peek. Don’t shake the box. Don’t even think about the box. Just let it collect dust on the shelf until the day you need it. Then, and only then, can you experience its contents.

The church told me that purity could be maintained if I followed the rules. If I set up the right boundaries and “guarded my heart,” I could resist whatever temptation might come my way.

But it was all a lie.

Because, before I knew it, I found myself falling in love with a man, slipping on an engagement ring, and saying, “I do.”

I was married and, just like that, what was once sold to me as my forever-flaw, my achilles heel, my burden to bear…now it was perfectly acceptable and, heck, expected: Sex.

Now, I was allowed to have it, supposed to have it. And not only have it, but enjoy it freely without hinderance or shame, without reservation or ramification. No longer was I expected to abstain, but rather enjoy. Yet, I found myself unable.

Nothing I experienced in my marriage bed was like they had said it would be. Sex in marriage was not some instantaneous, perfectly functioning, hot and steamy, mind-blowing experience. It wasn’t the movies. But it wasn’t the obvious result of marriage like the church would have me believe, either. It was something quite different.

Sex was work.

Good sex was even more work. Pleasurable, delightful, intimate, and freeing sex even more work still.

Once married, I spoke about sex with jaded and jagged words. I hated to call it “love-making” because the inner lies told me it had nothing to do with love. My past sin told me sex was just a physical act to be dabbled in casually and carefree. I could enter into a place of pleasure for brief moments, but only through prayer and petition, when I was able to escape all the lies I had once been told about sex–what it is and what it is not.

My shame and old life wanted to tell me that I was unworthy of a healthy sex life. That, somehow, by not waiting until marriage, I had forfeited the right to enjoy the beauty and splendor of it now.

And for a long time, I believed those lies.

For too long, I allowed my past to rob me of my now and present. I let what once was determined what could be. But thankfully, Jesus does not. In the economy of God, our past does not determine our future–our sins do not define us–nor does our Lord condemn us.

Slowly, as I let the grace of Jesus seep into my broken places, swelling them to the point healing, however slow, I began to see and experience sex for what it really is:

Sex is love. All of it.

All of the love God has for us, bound up in the physical act of a husband and wife coming together.

So, I began inviting God into the bedroom, instead of keeping Him at arm’s length. I began to see sex as worship unto the Lord and, despite how foreign it may feel at times–how awkward or embarrassing–God desires to be a part of it.

If I can give Jesus access to my work, my dreams, my children, my relationships, my tomorrow, then I can certainly give him entrance into my bedroom.

Because what I know now, more than ever before, is that He desires for me to enjoy the gift of sex. He desires for me to meet my husband there, in a place of pure intimacy and pleasure, just as He designed it. Where shame is unwelcome, past sins are forgiven, and love is immeasurable.

What lies has the church told you about sex? What have you had to re-learn about sex?

[photo: oveth, Creative Commons]

  • SctrdNotLst

    Omein, seems the church has a lot to answer for!
    Heres some of my thoughts:

    • Rev Wendy Wolf

      Appreciate the distinctions you make, useful.
      Agreed, after being with my husband for almost 18 years:
      ” Lust for our spouse is a gift!”

  • Rachel ScottyWotsits

    Thank you for such an honest article, Nicole. You’re so right, it’s like we’re just expected to flip a switch on our wedding day and suddenly everything becomes different instantly. Of course it’s a learning process, and of course it takes work. I’m single, and have totally viewed sex within the mindset that you described in the first half of the article – keep it in the box, don’t touch, wait. But I’m sure that if/when I get married one day, it will be a difficult journey to get to where you finished the article, a place where “to meet my husband… in a place of pure intimacy and pleasure, just as He designed it”. What can the church do to help fix the problem? I’m not sure – but I’m certain that more teaching on how to view purity and sex as a single person would help, and follow that with teaching on how to approach sex within marriage.

  • Alece Ronzino

    I so appreciate your vulnerability here, Nicole. I know this could not have been easy to post… Thank you for putting words to the shame so many of us have felt and for helping me see how to invite God into this complicated piece of me…

    • Nicole Cottrell

      Thank you, friend. Honestly, your post last week on abstinence gave me an extra boost of courage as I had to re-write and edit much of this post.

      It wasn’t easy, you’re right, because I’m living it right now, but God has such an amazing ability to make our stories worth telling.

      Love to you.

  • John Hanan

    I’m seriously wondering what church has been teaching that sex inside marriage is automatically, magically fantastic after (supposedly) having abstained, or if maybe that’s just the assumption that some are making. That’s pretty much the opposite of what my church taught. They taught that sex would be awkward and not necessarily great at first, but that with time it could be amazing. The joke was that practice makes perfect, and you’ll really want to practice.

    • Nicole Cottrell

      Count yourself blessed to be in a church where more honest conversations about sex were taking place, including the awkward bits.

      My situation was also not one of a virgin getting married–which I never, not once, heard addressed in church. We cannot be ashamed to have these conversations and I’m thankful to hear of people like you who were allowed to have them.

    • Rev Wendy Wolf

      My husband and I joke during sex about all the ‘out-takes’
      There are a lot of them in general life, as well ; )

  • Matt Appling

    Wow, Nicole.
    I think overall, the church has done about as adequate a job, maybe less so, as our public school sex ed classes. At least in school, we were told, physiologically, what is happening.

    I think you hit the real weakness of the church, and that is the church has fallen into the same trap as our culture – we’ve divorced sex from love, when they should be tied inextricably together. The church shouldn’t have sex education. It should have love education…which includes sex. :)

    • Nicole Cottrell

      Well-said, friend. The lie that we often hear from the world is that sex is love (outside of marriage) and counter to that, the church says sex isn’t love (even though it really is).

      I like the idea of a love education class. Sign me up.

  • Anna Radchenko

    just wondering, what do you think the church could have done differently – if anything? what are we to say to teenagers about sex? is there anything that could have been said or done differently in youth group that would have helped you in this sin rather than made you feel hopelessly lost in it?

    • Nicole Cottrell

      Great questions. For starters, the discussion of purity in church cannot be solely structured around sex, as is often the case. Purity and modesty are outward expressions of internal convictions.

      Purity in all areas can manifest itself as fruit –not the byproduct of just setting up boundaries or saying “no” to sex.

      Also, I never heard the church discuss sex for those who were not virgins. Not once. This is heartbreaking to me. So many young people don’t wait until marriage anymore, but are also unprepared for the consequences of those decisions in marriage. I was.

      I would love to see self-control celebrated in all areas, sex included. Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit and often neglected or ignored by youth.

      Lastly, my hope is that parents take up the mantle and not expect the church to tell the story of sex and love. I’m telling my children something different than was told to me.

      • Anna Radchenko

        yes, I totally get it :) thanks for sharing!

      • Rev Wendy Wolf

        love it, Nicole, thanks!
        Seems to me sexual sins are held in a different category from other, more mundane, sins. Unfortunate.

    • Gary Ware

      Nicole, hope you don’t mind me commenting here.
      “what are we to say to teenagers about sex?”
      As I sat in youth group classes AND adult classes, I wish the teachers would have discussed the topic in a calm, mature manner. Too often, they were nervous, actually perspiring or appearing and speaking as if this was a medical lecture on anatomy. I and my friends often wondered if the presenter ever had sex and if so, it was obvious they did NOT enjoy it.
      I would have appreciated some mature and reasonable suggestions on how to deal with pornography at home and multiple partners coming and going.
      Fortunately, our daughter always felt comfortable to discuss her questions with her mother or myself.

  • William Haskew

    I believe this is truly one of the toughest topics you have hit upon! The answer is in the Bible. Paul speaks of it in his testimonies. Jesus spoke of it.

    Sex, should NOT be done for the mere sake of having sex to appease a lust. It should be done because you love that person. It is hard to understand a persons intimate love relationship apart from sex, now-a-days, especially when you have have it basically thrust upon you in the medias. When I say medias, I am also referring to peer groups, movies, TV shows, celebrities etc. These times are like never before. We must truly be cognisant of the wrongness that is portrayed by this lustful world.

    If a man and a woman go together in sex, they should be bound together in the heart. When a man takes a woman and she him, they become the essence of marriage but not married at the same time. Sex should be done in love and love should be nurtured and understood during sex; by both parties. If a person classifies him/her self as a God fearing, Jesus loving person then they should follow the basic rules (set by Gods word) when being in a relationship. Unless the two who have love for each other are not of like minded in their love for Christ and his will for their lives, then sex should be left to marriage. If two people love God first and value his servitude above all other acts of this world, than sex can be shared outside of marriage. The two people who have been intertwined in Gods love and their own must also than commit themselves to the same standards that would be placed on a marital relationship. When they come together in this way they are in essence married in Gods eyes. They have become one with each other and therefore must also remember their own oneness with The Lord.

    Just my thoughts. Hope it makes sense!!

    • Nicole Cottrell

      Having “shared sex outside of marriage” while not married, I cannot ever condone it. I believe sex outside of marriage to be harmful and damaging. And it is not theology that has brought me to this conclusion, so much as personal experience.

      Oneness in the physical sense, must I believe, be preceded with oneness in the spiritual—not the other way around. And in my eyes, spiritual oneness occurs when we make the vow of marriage before the Lord.

      God designed sex to act as super glue between two individuals–mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I believe God wants us to be superglued to our spouse, not superglued to a peson who may or may not become our spouse.

    • Gary Ware

      Hey, William,
      You answer is correct! And I suspect the young people devoted to God may not have the struggle with their emotions and hormones, that others are. How would you present this truth to those living middle of the road church and those on the fringes? I ask this because getting this concept accepted by the lukewarm to cold has always been a challenge.

  • Rob Reardon

    Thank you for this! I grew up a lot like you…hiding my “secret” sin and trying so hard to keep it from everybody. Now, with a young adult son & two teenage sons I try to help them understand that sex is more than something you’re not allowed to do before marriage. It’s a difficult tightrope, but if we don’t talk about it with them, someone else will & that won’t be pretty!

    • Nicole Cottrell

      Hoping your words of truth regarding sex bring freedom to your sons future marriages!

  • Anne

    I grew up in church & went to Christian school. Sex was never talked about in any useful detail despite having entire youth group services at church & “purity days” at school dedicated to abstinence. We were given mile long lists of rules & opinions – each one completely different depending on the pastor/teacher. Basically, sex is wrong. More than wrong, the most despicable sin. For some even kissing, hugging, or touching qualified as wrong. Then all of a sudden, I was 20 & marrying the love of my life. We were both virgins & he was ecstatic about our first night together. I was terrified. No one told me what to expect & only one person gave him any useful advice. Even today after 11 years of marriage I still have to try to shut out all those things I was told as a teenager about sex because it still affects me. It’s frustrating. I definitely have something very different to teach my children.

    • Alana Mokma

      Anne, I have a story very similar to yours. I’m curious… what would you teach differently to your children from what you learned?

      • Rev Wendy Wolf

        How about:
        sex is a wonderful, delicious gift, like so many other gifts God gives us;
        AND, ‘For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven.’

      • Anne

        I will talk about sex more openly & explain that it isn’t bad. Just something to be saved for marriage. Not shame my kids or others for hitting puberty & having sexual feelings but instead discuss how to deal with them during the “waiting period”. I want them to know about it & be prepared for when they do get married so that sex is welcomed. I only had one discussion about sex with my mom @ age 11. It was technical, awkward, & I have never seen her more uncomfortable. I was far too young to understand any of it except that sex was secretive & gross to discuss. I just knew I was getting a promise ring. I want to have a more real convo with my kids & more than one. I am still thinking a lot of things over (thankfully I have time since I only have 1 kid & he’s 3!) I know much of the really crazy stuff in the church is geared toward girls, so if I ever have one I want her to have a healthy understanding of sex & know that sex is great, wonderful, & ok but not ok to do before marriage. Even if youth pastors or other leaders distort it, hopefully open home discussion with our children will help?

  • Lucie

    Your vulnerability will bless others.

    • Nicole Cottrell

      Thank you Lucie!

  • Gabbi

    Thanks for opening up your heart on what the church has made a sensitive topic. Mart Carter at the Austin Stone speaks about sex and marriage as a way to help us understand our relationship with Christ as His bride. For those of you interested in this great sermon, please listen to it here:

  • Jamie H

    I wrote about Jesus in the bedroom today too. Love for you to take a peek.

    Thanks for sharing your story, Nicole!

    • Rev Wendy Wolf

      Jamie – I LOVE your post, so vulnerable, powerful, healing.
      Great sex IS worship, from my expereince.

  • Josh Mokma

    Hey Nicole-
    Great read. Thank you for sharing! Your story is incredibly relatable with LOTS of others (including my wife and myself). I really have no idea how I know what I know when it comes to sex. Some sex-ed stuff at school, other than that, mostly Hollywood and porn. (BLEH! seems awful!) Do you have any practical advice beyond letting Jesus in? If you were willing, I would love to see a discussion on real things that people have done to make their married sex lives better. Especially from people who were once jaded by the whole “sex and the church” thing or better yet those that are currently going through the transformation of jaded to beautiful.

    • Nicole Cottrell


      Thanks for the comment and great questions. I talk a lot about practical steps you can take in the bedroom on my personal blog, Modern Reject (shameless self-promotion, but also true).

      In terms of practical steps, we pray before sex. This seems obvious maybe, but it wasn’t for me. My husband and I also practice. Ha! Practice sex? Well, yes. We practice the things that make me uncomfortable or feel shameful. We talk about them as openly as we can, so as to remove the stigma or power of them.

      We play worship music sometimes when we are intimate, which may seem weird, but often helps remind me and my spirit that I am entering into a place of worship–and that sex with my husband is pleasing to the Lord.

      I have also done a lot of personal confession before the Lord and trusted fellow saints. For example, confessing out loud “I am not ashamed of sex. I am not dirty or wrong for pleasing my husband. I want to give my body in all ways to my spouse, etc.” This has also included seeking healing in many different forms–be it therapy, counseling, deliverance through prayer, etc.

      I also really love and recommend the book The Invisible Bond by Barbara Wilson. It is applicable to both men and women. I also recommend the ministry/series/counseling provided through Mending the Soul. If you have ever suffered any sexual trauma or participated in sexual activity out-of-line-with the-Word (i.e. pornography) it can be transformative and powerful.

      Oh, and Beth Moore’s bible study series Breaking Free is awesome, as well although not specific to sex, just freedom in general.

      • Josh Mokma

        Hey Nicole-
        Sorry it took so long to reply. I appreciate your insight and sharing/suggesting some of the things you and your husband have done and flushed out a little bit of what it means to “let Jesus in.”

    • Rev Wendy Wolf

      One thing i would say is a focus on giving, serving, kindness, service, generosity of time and energy.
      For me, coming to an encounter with my husband, with an intention to nurture him, allow him to nurture me, and very importantly to play together – Whatever that looks like in the moment – is really a gift for both of us.

    • Katherine

      Thank you for admitting that you learned about sex through porn. Not many want to admit that. The sad part is how destructive that is. I may be wrong in an assumption that if you’ve learned through porn that there may be some struggles with self-pleasure. I assure you that if that is something going on in your marriage it is robbing your marriage. I don’t say this to condemn but to free. This was something that was robbing my marriage and since we both have broken free from it our marriage bed has been so blessed! If I am wrong on my assumption, ignore me, if I am not, please consider what your marriage could gain from stepping away from that sin. may God bless your marriage!

  • Grace at {Gabbing with Grace}

    it sounds so sad to say, but I took most of my cues from media/movies more than from the Church & I’m glad about it. I had a lot less to re-learn than some of my friends, like yourself. Not that the media is a good teacher (ugh) but I didn’t find the transition to married life so jarring after a 4 yr. hiatus because I all ready knew and embraced the fun part. I had to undo the sex-is-always-sexy movie versions but other than that, it wasn’t a rough transition due to the fact that I had long ago stopped trusting the Church to tell me truth about much of anything. It’s pretty sad either way. That said, after nearly 13 years of marriage, we still work to keep the media messages out, the unhelpful Church messages out & like you, inviting the Lord into every aspect. And it has been an amazing blessing. Go God for good sex. =)

    • Nicole Cottrell

      Hooray for you and your husband refusing to let Hollywood or the church tell you what sex is and should be–and for instead, letting the Lord define real sex and good sex!

      Thanks for sharing Grace.

  • Rev Wendy Wolf

    I appreciate your honesty, Nicole
    It helps the Body, to hear the truth of the body.
    I have also found :inviting God into the bedroom” to be healing and inspiring.
    in life, wendy

  • Carla

    EXCELLENT article!

  • Larry Carter

    My wife and I realized that if our kids were going to get the truth about sex, it had better come from us. They weren’t going to get it at school and more than likely they wouldn’t in church. We have been as open as we feel is appropriate. They just see it as normal.

  • Ken Hagerman

    “Slowly, as I let the grace of Jesus seep into my broken places, swelling them to the point healing…”

    That is an awesome sentence and so absolutely descriptive. Regardless of the topic just because His grace is there doesn’t mean we make use of every facet of it right away. I was brought up in the “hide the box” for later ilk. It didn’t serve me to ignore it. It made it that forbidden fruit, a thing some much better because I shouldn’t have it now. It set up a standard that is impossible to reach when the time is appropriate. I know that now but it sure would have helped to know it then. Great post, Nicole.

  • Gary Ware

    The fellowships I have belonged to didn’t teach anything about the event that could be recognized as sex between two humans. I have experienced and observed others struggling with their relationship because of the distorted attitudes and teachings. I have also observed marriages crumble under the strain.

    One pastor bragged, to me, he had never seen his wife naked, in their fifty years of marriage. He counseled his flock that seeing each other naked was sinful, creating lust, and having sex for any purpose other than procreation was a sin. This event was about 40 years ago and not much has changed since.

    My first and second wife came to agreements about our intimacy independent of the ministry. When my first wife passed, we felt we had lived a full enjoyable life and my second wife and I are doing the same.

    Don’t let yourself be trapped by your past, Nicole, or anyone’s distorted views.

    God bless.
    PS: The longer I am a Christian the more AMAZED I am that people come into the physical church, give themselves to God and SURVIVE! The Holy Ghost secures us, keeps us and sustains us. To him be the Glory.

    • Nicole Cottrell

      Thank you for the encouragement. Although, not letting our past influence us is easier said than done. But, as you closed with, the Holy Spirit is the one who sustains us–and I re-learn this truth every single day.

      Thank you for commenting and sharing here.

      • Gary Ware

        Hi, Nicole,
        I will expand on this point with a recent experience. A couple of events from my past have mentally tormented me for over 50 years. Recently, I asked God to remove the memory of those from my mind and spirit, so I could enjoy peace. Several days later, I realized I could not remember something from my past and have been sleeping better and walking again.
        You are correct about “easier said than done” and our Lord let me know he WILL take care of items too hard or impossible for us. Jesus continually astounds me with his desire and works to give us peace with our new lives.
        God bless.

  • April

    Thank you for this refreshingly honest article. I’ve grappled most of my adult life with a warped and confused attitude toward sex and my sexuality thanks to growing up in a strict, legalistic home and church where talking about sex was “taboo.” My parents never even gave me the “talk,” so I was left to find out on my own what sex was, and most of my knowledge came from lust-filled, ungodly guys who used my body and/or sexually harassed me.

    By the grace of God I am still a virgin, but due to all my experiences with men, and my own struggles with lust and other sexual/relational issues, I feel as dirty and damaged as if I’d actually done the deed. I know the Lord can redeem all my brokenness, but I wish so much I’d been given the proper guidance and perspective on sex before being “thrown to the wolves,” as it were, as an incredibly naïve and insecure young woman. Now, even though I long to be married, I feel I am too “damaged,” and the thought of actually having sex scares me. But I appreciate your willingness to share your own story, which has helped alleviate some of my fears about sex, and enlightened me on what it truly looks like within a marriage. If only such honesty about sex were more prevalent within the church. I think it would spare many young women such as myself a lot of heartache.

  • Haley

    Thanks for this post. It’s really encouraging. I can definitely relate to your story. I had a lot of sex before marriage. Then, I became a believer and met my husband shortly after. We didn’t have sex while dating, but always talked about how perfect and special it would be when we did get married. Now, I’ve been married for ALMOST 2 months! Sex is hard and work. I’m definitely feeling like my sex life can’t be redeemed because of my past. I mean, I thought newlywed sex was supposed to be sexy, passionate, and ALL OF THE TIME. Anyway, your post was very real and helpful. I’m definitely going to go to God with this. Thanks!

  • Katherine

    I remember my youth leaders talking about masturbation. They said it was sin, but at least it didn’t hurt anyone else. It was as if it was a tool to help you avoid having sex. Well it didn’t work. I never avoided either one. Our society tells us that self pleasure is healthy and normal and even good sometimes, you know, stress relieve, or whatever. About a year ago I realized that it wasn’t healthy and certainly wasn’t adding to my marriage. Yes, even after marriage this was a part of my life. But I stopped. It was a God things because I didn’t really have to think about it much, I just stopped. And many good things have happened since! I didn’t realize right away that things were changing in my life but now as I look back it is clear to me.
    1. Self pleasure is sin. As much as we like to think it isn’t, it is. I know the bible doesn’t say it clearly. But I think our hearts do. I think we all know it is wrong. I do now because since getting rid of that sin, it has lost it’s power over me. Sin has power. It lets evil in. And evil has power if we let it. Letting go has given God more power in my life, and that has become clear for me.
    2. My husband noticed right away. He didn’t know what had changed but he knew something had.
    3. A couple of months ago I was able to tell him what had changed. This was terrifying. But he understood and committed to making the same change. Since then our marriage bed has been nothing short of pure! The level of intimacy we experience is divine. Actually!! Because the truth of the matter is that sex is a holy and spiritual act. When we indulge in self pleasure we lose what is best about sex. Intimacy with others. And we invite evil in. But when we practice self control and save sex for our partner, when we share this perfectly intimate time with each other, in purity, it is divine!

  • Andy Gill

    Wow – thank you for your authenticity and willingness to share :)

  • Ashley Simone

    Finally! I’m so happy that I found this article and I’m even more happy to read from the hearts of the commenters. So thank you!

    If you could go back Nicole, what advice would you give your unmarried self?
    Im feeling lost. Can I continue to have sex before marriage and still keep a relationship with God?
    I’m finding it difficult to keep Jesus in my heart because of the guilt of sex.