Evangelicals appear to be preoccupied with sex. One megachurch pastor and his wife have written a book challenging married couples to a “sexperiment” of making love for seven days straight. Mark Driscoll’s controversial new book on marriage contains a chapter titled “Can We?” in which he and his wife answer questions they are typically asked in counseling situations, questions related to different sex acts.

This post is not meant to be a critique of Driscoll’s book (I haven’t read it and don’t plan to). Nor do I want the comments section to degenerate into a fiery back-and-forth about what activities are appropriate for married couples.

Instead, I want to offer a pastoral look at the underlying issues that prompt these questions and encourage pastors to go for the heart, not merely the surface, when approached with questions of this kind.

1. Recognize the legitimacy of the questions.

First, we should not be surprised that new converts are asking pointed questions about what activities are appropriate for a married couple. We live in a pornified culture. The majority of young men today have drunk from the polluted wells of porn for years. Perhaps previous generations of young couples didn’t find it necessary to seek pastoral counsel regarding sex acts. (Many of these discussions have historically been relegated to the family anyway.) But we must also recognize that previous generations were not drowning in a sea of simulated sex acts in the way ours is.

Therefore, we cannot and should not chastise new converts for asking specific questions regarding sexual activity. Paul did not chastise the Corinthians for asking about meat offered to idols. We should expect that new believers (and old believers, for that matter) who have at some time or another been hooked on pornography will have a view of sexuality formed (or better said, deformed) by what they have witnessed. There are specific, graphic kinds of questions that arise in this cultural context, and a pastor who seeks to be a missionary in a pornified world ought to expect the uncomfortable questions.

2. Go beyond the surface of the questions.

Many pastors recognize the legitimacy of the questions but don’t go any further. They offer a few reflections about mutual consent, relegate the decisions to the couple in the privacy of the marriage bed, and stress the principle that all (or most) acts are permissible.

This approach may be regarded as relevant and in touch, but frankly, I don’t think it is culturally contextual enough. I believe we are better missionaries and pastors when we use the questions as a way of discerning the heart’s motivations. The questions are the entryway into deeper, richer conversation about the beauty of marriage.

Imagine this scenario. A wealthy couple in your congregation comes to you for advice regarding some purchases they’d like to make. “Would it be okay, pastor, for us to buy a bigger TV for our living room? We already tithe and give to missions, but our current TV is a little small.” Most pastors will appeal to the freedom they have in Christ to make the purchase and enjoy the fruits of their labor.

But the conversation continues. Their next question is about purchasing two more TVs the same size. Then the husband asks about getting a fourth car, although there are only three drivers in the family. And the wife says something like, “Well, our neighbors have four.” Next thing you know, they are pelting you with questions about making this purchase or that. And suddenly, you realize that the way you might answer the first question about an individual purchase is not the way you should approach all these questions. The stream of questions reveals a problem with materialism.

Or imagine this scenario: A young man who appears to be in great shape physically asks you about the appropriateness of eating fast food. You explain that in moderation one can enjoy a Big Mac. But he then asks what moderation consists of. Can he eat fast food three or four times a week? If he works out, can he eat all the junk food he wants? And is it wrong to plan each day around one’s meals? Suddenly, you realize that your initial answer to a question about fast food is not the way you should answer all his other questions about food. This guy is obsessed with food, and so now your tactic changes. You begin to ask him questions in order to discern his heart and get to the underlying issues.

The same thing is true of sex. You may answer one question in a particular way, but if a husband or wife is constantly asking, “Can we? Can we?” there are probably bigger issues under the surface. There are presuppositions regarding sex, satisfaction, reproduction, intimacy, neediness, lust, and servanthood that may need to be challenged by the gospel.

3. Challenge our culture’s obsession with sex.

If we only recognize the legitimacy of the questions but never go beyond the surface of those questions, we are missing an opportunity to counter our culture’s obsession with sex. It’s not enough to stress our freedom in Christ and grant carte blanche permission for couples to mutually consent to an assortment of sexual activities. Instead, we ought to use the questions as an opportunity to challenge our culture’s warped view of sex and to offer something of beauty in response.

The reason our world is so enamored with sex (evangelicals included) is not because it is so satisfying but because for many it is so unsatisfying. We know there is something cosmic going on when a husband and wife come together. We know there is supposed to be something sacred about the act of marriage. But so many in our society are missing it. And too many times, evangelicals respond to sexual disillusionment by turning our focus toward the act and not the marriage, and thus we fail to lift up something substantive. We offer a Christianized version of RedBook magazine’s “tips to spice up your love life.”

Perhaps it’s time that we shift focus from “Can we?” and “Can’t we?” to a better question: “Why do you ask?” The conversation following that question will surely be more pastorally fruitful in discerning the heart than if we focus merely on the do’s and don’ts.