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Known: Relational Intimacy in Marriage

January 31, 2024

Teacher: John McLeod
Topic: Marriage
Scripture: Gen. 4:1; Prov 31:11-12; 1 Pet 3:7


The Directionally-challenged marriage

How would you describe a “great” marriage?

  • Is it one that looks good on Social Media?
  • Is it one that looks good in public?
  • Is it one that seems easy with very little conflict? Where both spouses agree on most things?
  • Is it great just because it makes it till death with no divorce?
  • Is it a great marriage because both spouses share similar interests and goals?
  • Is it measured by the frequency and satisfaction of sex?
  • Is it a relationship marked by understood and shared expectations about family, careers, hobbies, and in-laws?
  • Is it measured by the extent to which each spouse helps the other meet his or her goals?
  • Is it measured by a feeling of fulfillment or a lack of loneliness?

Let’s change the question slightly. How would you describe a “God-honoring” marriage?

  • Is it God-honoring because of the leadership of the husband and the submission of the wife?
  • Is it measured by the rearing of God-fearing children?
  • Is it God-honoring merely by the spouses being sexually faithful to one another?

Though many of these things are good (and necessary) for a “great” or “God-honoring” marriage, there are two crucial elements missing from these descriptions.

The first crucial element missing from these descriptions is one of purpose or direction. The second missing element is an often-overlooked part of the pathway to fulfill that ultimate purpose.

Keep the purposes in view

In order to keep the rest of this teaching in perspective, we must briefly review the purpose of marriage. When we lose this perspective our marriages can really get out of alignment and even become idolatrous.

We have spent a lot of time recently in the first few chapters of Genesis, so we will be brief.

The Creation Mandate

Our marriages are in the service of God’s purposes in the earth. God gave Adam a wife as a helper fit for him for the job that he gave Adam to do.

Here is the Creation Mandate in Genesis 1:26-27

Genesis 1:26–27 (ESV) — Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

In the goodness of God’s perfect creation, the first thing that was NOT good was Adam being alone.

Genesis 2:18 (ESV) — Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”

Notice that God did not say that Adam was lonely. Neither did he indicate that Eve’s primary role was that of companion, but “helper.” A helper for what? This is not a statement of Adam’s incompetence, but of his need for a wife to accomplish what God had called humanity to do.

God’s summary statement comes at the end of the chapter.

Genesis 2:24–25 (ESV) — Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.

The first purpose we must keep in mind is that God determined from the very beginning that Marriage was fundamental to the ordering of society and strategic for the fulfillment of the Creation Mandate. Our marriages are to be in the service of God. This is the main orienting principle that will steer us in the right direction. Our marriages are not primarily about our happiness or personal fulfillment, but are in the service of God. This includes all aspects of our marriage. Our leaving and cleaving is in the service of God. Our “one-fleshness” is in the service of God. Our being fruitful and multiplying is in the service of God. Our creativity and ordering of society is in the service of God.

A Picture

But our marriages are more than a simple means for God to order creation. They are also a picture of something greater—a picture of how God relates to us.

We are familiar with Ephesians 5 where Paul tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the church, and gave himself up for her.

We also have verses like Isaiah 62:5

Isaiah 62:5 (ESV) — … as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.

This pictures a closeness, a joyful exuberance, and a relational intimacy that should be a part of marriage, that pictures how God relates to us.

Marriage shows forth the covenant faithfulness of God—and his relationship to his people—in profound ways.

Isaiah 54:5 (ESV) — For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.

Perhaps it would be helpful to ask ourselves why God would use marriage as a picture of his relationship to his people.

My aims tonight

Who is this teaching for?

  • Certainly for all men who are married.
  • Particularly for those who have perhaps become complacent in growing relationally with their wife. You’ve made it through the first few years (or fifteen or fifty) and you’ve established routines and expectations. The marriage is basically functioning, but your relationship is stagnating. Maybe you’ve said at some point, “I guess this is just how things are going to be.”
  • Young men interested in preparing for marriage who would like to proactively work on skills that will bless your future spouse.

What do you mean by “known” and “relational intimacy?” Is this just going to be a teaching on sex?

  • No this is not just about the sexual relationship in marriage, though I will make some comments about the role of sexual intimacy and relational intimacy. These two things are very connected, but my goal in this teaching is to address the larger topic of the marriage relationship.

My aim tonight is that we will renew our efforts to pursue relational intimacy in our marriages—that we will be purposeful, humble, and open about how we can better portray the love and faithfulness of our Redeemer through our relationship with our wife.

I don’t stand up here as an expert—none of us is an expert at marriage. But I do have some earned experience, and we have learned much from others. Stacey and I are in our 27th year of our covenant together.

I mentioned at the beginning that there are two things we often lose sight of. One is the purpose of marriage. The other is the pursuit of relational intimacy in marriage.

I. The call to relational intimacy

In my own experience, there have been seasons where my marriage felt a bit more like we were roommates or fellow-travelers than husband and wife. I don’t mean that we were avoiding physical intimacy together. I just mean that we could go through long stretches of doing things together (or apart), sharing goals (like raising our kids), but largely missing out on the richness, depth, and beauty of our relationship to one another. I’m sure this can look different within different marriages, but for us, we can go long stretches without conflicts or drama, and therefore, it is easy for us to avoid giving attention to our relationship together.

Tonight, I’d like to point you to several passages to convince you that the pursuit of relational intimacy with your wife is worth the effort and glorifying to God.

Adam knew his wife

Look with me at Genesis 4:1

Genesis 4:1 (ESV) — Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD.”

It is obvious that this verse is indicating that Adam and Eve had sexual relations and that she got pregnant with Cain. However, it’s not obvious why God would say it this way. The Old Testament has various ways of expressing this idea. For example here is 2 Samuel 12:24.

2 Samuel 12:24 (ESV) — Then David comforted his wife, Bathsheba, and went in to her and lay with her, and she bore a son, and he called his name Solomon.

But in Genesis 4, God uses “to know” to indicate the act of sexual intimacy three different times (vv. 1, 17, 25).

The use of the word “knew” for sexual relations conveys the biblical ideal of sexual love. Far from the erotic indulgence practiced by the world, it conveys the idea of a personal, intimate relationship and an awareness of God’s purpose. Notice that the text adds “his wife” to “Eve,” reinforcing God’s design for sex only within marriage.

  • Richard D. Phillips, Genesis, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2023), 293.

The Hebrew word is yada and is used all over the Old Testament. It points to knowledge through experience, not mere intellectual understanding.

My point is not that the only way to know your wife is to know her physically, but there is something about this language that points to the closeness, oneness, and vulnerability of the marriage.

To see this word used in a different context, look at Psalm 139 with me.


Psalm 139:1–2 (ESV) — O LORD, you have searched me and known (yada) me! You know (yada) when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar.

Psalm 139:4 (ESV) — Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know (yada) it altogether.

Psalm 139:23 (ESV) — Search me, O God, and know (yada) my heart! Try me and know (yada) my thoughts!

We will say more about the role of physical intimacy in “knowing” your wife later, but at this point, consider the significance of this deep, personal, knowledge of another.

How well do you know your wife? Is that knowledge growing? Is that knowledge a pursuit or merely accidental? Do you embrace this pursuit as a calling from God? Do you feel a burden to know her more deeply than any other person?

This is not a merely knowing “facts about” a person. I’m still learning facts about my wife’s past. We still have conversations about our childhood, our history, things we did before we knew one another. That’s great, but the kind of knowledge I’m emphasizing here is deeper than knowing about. It is knowing her thoughts, anxieties, joys, insecurities, hopes, disappointments.

This kind of knowledge takes time, care, curiosity, trust.

The heart of her husband trusts in her

Now, let’s turn things around slightly. For this we’ll look at some verses in Proverbs 31.

Proverbs 31:10–12 (ESV) — An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.

Not only does a husband need to be a careful student of his wife, he also needs to be vulnerable and trusting of her. This passage in Proverbs is pointing out characteristics of the wife who fears the Lord, but embedded here is a clue as to how a husband should relate to his wife. The NKJV is what slips off my tongue, “The heart of her husband safely trusts in her.”

This isn’t a time for the man to be lone-ranger tough; it’s not a call for him to carry whatever burdens, trials, or joys by himself and in himself.

I really appreciate how one of my brothers here shared with me yesterday. Regarding relational intimacy, he said that our wives are asking themselves two questions.

  1. Do I know my husband?
  2. Is my husband allowing himself to be known?

Again, I’m not just talking about your personal history. This isn’t just “does my wife know that I played baseball through 6th grade, but that I wasn’t very good?” It’s more in the vein of “does my wife know that I’m actually self-conscious and afraid of failing at sports even today?”

I’m not saying that as men we all of a sudden need to become more emotional or dramatic. I am saying, however, that we do have inner thoughts—fears, failures, hopes, dreams, disappointments, and joys—that we should be sharing with our wives. This is part of us “safely trusting” in her.

There is risk in doing this. One author I read pointedly said, “…being known is terrifying! … There is no such thing as risk-free yada” (Slattery, God, Sex, and your Marriage, pp. 94-95).

Some of you may be saying, “wait a minute, John. I am called to be a strong protector and provider, not show my weaknesses or failures to my wife.” You are called to lead, protect, and provide, but you are also called to let your heart safely trust in her.

Others of you may be wondering what I even mean by these deeper, emotional, personal thoughts. Maybe you’re not particularly alert to your own struggles or joys in the inner man. Maybe you work hard to stay at the surface of who’s playing in the big game this weekend, or the current dangers in the economy, or the disheartening state of politics in our country. Sure, you can share some of your complaints about your job, but maybe you’re not used to wrestling with your own spiritual realities alone, much less with someone else. This is a good opportunity to grow together.

You might also object that your wife is NOT the Proverbs 31 woman. You’re not confident that she will “do you good and not harm, all the days of her life.” You suspect that if you let her in to know your inmost thoughts that you might receive criticism, mocking, or at least a loss of respect.

To grow in relational intimacy will require vulnerability on your part. Allow yourself to be known.

Dwell with your wife in an understanding way

One of the profound commands to husbands if found in 1 Peter 3:7.

1 Peter 3:7 (ESV) — Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.

This is not a call to understand all women, or to assume your wife will respond “like other women.” It requires a special, carefully-researched-and-collected body of knowledge that only you can collect. How would this situation affect your spouse? How might your particular actions affect her? How can you use this specific and entrusted knowledge to honor her and do good to her? Will you use your knowledge to criticize her or care for her?

Will you treat her in a demeaning way because of a particular weakness, or will you remember that she is an heir with you of the grace of life?

It should be obvious to the younger, newer husbands here tonight, but this verse can be a real challenge early in your marriage. For the younger husband, the difficulty may be in the basic task of “understanding’ your wife. For the more seasoned among us, the temptations maybe different—to use the knowledge we do have in twisted ways that erodes trust or dishonors our wives.

The other danger for those of us who have been married for a while is that we often treat our wives as if they do not or cannot change. Stacey and I joke sometimes that we’re not married to the same person that we stood next to in October of 1997 when we gave our vows. And, in some sense, this is true. We have both changed in myriads of ways. We must continually study to know one another and to express our hearts with one another.

It is tempting to grow stagnant in our relationship because we do not allow the other person (or ourselves) to change.

Love and Cherish

We won’t spend much time tonight in Ephesians, but I would challenge you to study it at home with the idea of “knowing” in mind.

Ephesians 5:25 (ESV) — Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,

Ephesians 5:28–29 (ESV) — In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church,

There is a knowledge in this passage of weaknesses and failures that require sanctification and washing. As husbands, we are called to “know” these things and to act redemptively and lovingly toward our wives.

The kind of love expressed in Ephesians 5 goes beyond just doing general good toward another person. Christ truly knows us, and still gave his life for us, and works in us through the Word and Spirit to sanctify us.

I do hope that these passages challenge you to grow in your knowledge of your wife, but also to share more of your inner man with her.

II. The hurdles to relational intimacy

By no means am I suggesting that this path to relational intimacy is easy. On the contrary, it is quite challenging and at times complicated. I wonder if it would have been challenging even without sin in the picture—the simple challenge of two different people trying to truly know one another. But it has certainly been complicated by sin. And, because of sin, it now involves risk and sacrifice.

I’d like to consider a few hurdles to relational intimacy, although “hurdles” may be the wrong idea. Stumbling blocks may fit better. We erected hurdles on the track to make the race harder and more interesting. Stumbling blocks hinder progress.


The first stumbling block is shame. We see this take place immediately after the first sin in the Garden.

Genesis 3:7–8 (ESV) — Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.

The immediate effects of sin for Adam and Eve were that they knew that they were naked and they hid—from one another (with loincloths) and from God (by hiding). It is fascinating to think that the first result of sin entering the world was that marital intimacy and honesty was affected.

In responding to God’s questions, Adam admits that he was afraid (v. 10).

Don’t be surprised when you are tempted to hide your sins and failures from one another and from God. However, hiding is not the path of redemption or of love.

1 John 1:8–9 (ESV) — If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

The kind of yada-knowing that we are talking about includes understanding one another’s sins, failures, and shame. But it also includes the preaching of the gospel to one another.

Lack of vulnerability

If not met with faith, confession, and repentance, our shame can lead us to limit our vulnerability to our spouse.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we confess every sin to every person we know. But, our sins affect our spouse perhaps more than any other person.

Remember the question that our wives might be asking.

  • Do I know my husband?
  • Is my husband allowing himself to be known?


If unchecked, our lack of vulnerability could proceed into more direct dishonesty. This could be outright lying about something, or it could be presenting the picture in a misleading way.

Pornography certainly comes to mind, but by no means do I believe that is the only area of sin or dishonesty that can have significant impacts on our wives.

Beware of the temptation to hide things from your wife that would invite her concern or confrontation.

There may be areas of disagreement between you and your wife, but the solution to that disagreement should not be hiding or dishonesty. For example, if your wife believes smoking a cigar is wrong, and you think it’s fine, marital unity and relational intimacy will not be found by you trying to hide the times you smoke the cigar.

Disinterest and Distance

A different hurdle to relational intimacy is simply not giving time and attention to your marital relationship. It is quite easy to fill the schedule with work, church activities, kid activities, and hobbies in such away that your relational intimacy shrivels.

At times, this is even intentional by one or both of the spouses to mask the relational difficulties. Resist this.

It is possible that over time your interests and those of your spouse will grow farther apart instead of closer together. You used to enjoy the same movies, now you don’t. You used to be active together, but one of you has become less active for whatever reason.

As a leader, you must look for ways to nurture the relationship. It’s easier to allow distance and disinterest to grow. I recently saw an article in the Wall Street Journal about the increase of solo vacations for married folks. The title of the story, “The Trick to a Great Marriage: Vacation Without Your Partner” (WSJ, by Allison Poole on Jan 21, 2024)1. These getaways are geared toward the interest of one spouse, but not the other. Let’s just each do the things we’re interested in.

Perhaps there is time for such a trip. In fact, my wife has informed me that it’s fine for me to take the kids camping without her…

However, as a matter of priority and relational intimacy, we should be looking for ways to share life together, to build into our relationship together, to pursue deeper knowledge of and love for one another.

How do we overcome these hurdles?

With all of these hurdles, you might ask if it’s really possible for marriages to pursue relational intimacy.

I think there are two things we should say here.

Marriage is a covenant relationship

Marriage is not just any ol’ relationship. It is a covenant. There is a reason that we make vows to our spouse. “In sickness and in health…for richer for poorer…until death us do part.”

There are things that we do in our marriages to add to or subtract from the safety our spouse feels in the relationship. But, certainly the fact that it is a covenant relationship means something. We have made promises to one another about how we’ll stick with one another even through difficulty and disappointment.

Yes, there are acts of unfaithfulness that can even break those marriage vows, but that is a conversation for a different day.

For now, realize that your covenant faithfulness to your spouse means that you have a greater obligation to overlook and forgive sins, and also a greater obligation to be totally honest and vulnerable.

We are gospel people.

Not only is this a covenant relationship, but we are also a gospel-loving people. None of our marriages survives and thrives because of our sinlessness, but by God’s grace and forgiveness. There is much grace given to the humble.

1 Corinthians 6:9–11 (ESV) — Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

III. The role of sex in relational intimacy

Ever since we published the title of this men’s teaching, I’ve gotten various questions about what I’m gonna say about sex in marriage. Although my burden for this teaching was primarily about “relational” intimacy and not sexual intimacy, certainly they are connected.

Sex isn’t optional in the marital relationship

First, we must note that marriage is the only appropriate context for sexual intimacy. It belongs exclusively within the covenant relationship. But, we must not think of sex as only allowed within the marital covenant; it is also commanded.

1 Corinthians 7:3–5 (ESV) — The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.’

In God’s wisdom, he prescribed that the physical relationship that most expresses the “naked and not ashamed” and one flesh beauty he intended for mankind to be experienced exclusively in the marriage relationship. It should be regular, and it should be a blessing to both husband and wife.

As a practical but significant matter, Paul did not write these scriptures to give husbands a way to demand or guilt your wife into having sex with you. Yes, avoiding sex for any extended time should be agreed upon by both parties. But, let your goal be to bless your wife, not demand what you want.

Intimacy is not automatic.

We began by looking at Genesis 4:1 where Adam knew Eve, implying not just the making of a baby, but a relational connection.

One of the errors we can make is assuming that sexual activity is automatically relational intimacy (Slattery, p. 92). The physical relationship indeed can be a great help in expressing or leading to relational intimacy, but it is possible to approach sexuality in a merely physical way that does not arise out of or lead to relational intimacy.

Stereotypically, this is the approach often taken by the husband, leaving wives feeling used instead of loved. Women, on the other hand, stereotypically want physical intimacy to arise out of an emotional connection first.

The important thing to remember is that the “knowing” of the physical should be a part of the larger, deeper, “knowing,” loving, and cherishing of the person.

In other words, this error is having too high a view of sex, believing that sexual intimacy is more powerful than it actually is. It cannot substitute for the larger project of knowing and loving.

Sex cannot be used as a shortcut to relational intimacy. It is a significant part, but not a substitute.

Sex isn’t the reward for doing everything else right

A second error is having too low a view. One form of this is to treat sexual intimacy as if it’s only the icing on the cake. This is what happens when everything else goes right. It is treated as a reward for meeting all the other needs.

Couples should not make sex conditional for one another based on the performance of other marital responsibilities. This misses the truth that God has ordained the sexual relationship to be part of the means of drawing the married couple together.

Sex is a way to express delight in the other person.

Proverbs 5:18–19 (ESV) — Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love.

We addressed vulnerability earlier. It’s important to remember that sexual intimacy in marriage requires a significant amount of vulnerability, both in its activity, but also as a matter of conversation. For many married couples, discussing their physical relationship is almost more vulnerable than the act itself.

We encourage couples in premarital counseling to verbalize and discuss this area of their marriage. Couples cannot actually read each other’s minds. Especially if you are years or decades into your marriage and you haven’t discussed this part of your intimacy, you may be surprised how much you could learn from one another and grow in intimacy together.

Conclusion / Application

We began by asking what a “great” or “God-honoring” marriage looks like.

God honoring marriages are marriages in the service of God and his purposes. They are expressed through growing intimacy together, the kind of knowing, loving, serving, sacrificing, and delighting that points to Christ and the church.

What’s next?

I hope I’ve convinced you that it’s worthwhile for you to pursue marriage (if you’re single) and pursue deeper relational intimacy if you’re married. What should you do now? I’d like to say a few words to those whose marriages might be in a very difficult place relationally.

  1. Jesus knows and offers hope. Jesus offers the forgiveness of sins, and he offers to cleanse you of all unrighteousness. This forgiveness applies to sins before, during, or after our marriages.
  2. Your marriage does not have to stay where it is right now. Change is possible through the power of the Holy Spirit.
  3. You don’t have to work through this alone. Some of you might be really helped by a professional counselor or a pastor, but many of you might be helped by simply asking an older, mature believer or couple to walk alongside you for a time to help bring wisdom and perspective.
  4. Don’t let shame keep you from pursuing deeper intimacy with your spouse.
  5. If there has been prolonged or significant deception or betrayal in your marriage, ask for help.

Don’t forget the upcoming book studies, especially the call to sexual purity and faithfulness.

Don’t treat your pursuit of relational intimacy with your wife as a lone-ranger project. We are fellow-travelers in this territory. We can be significantly helped by the insight and encouragement of others.

Small group discussion and prayer

What are some practical ways to steadily and faithfully grow relationally with your wife?

Date night? Yes or no and why?

What activities or conversations most often hinder you and your wife from getting to deeper, heart conversations?

Have you received advice or help from others that has significantly helped the direction of your marriage? What made that most helpful?

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