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Q&A with J: Abstaining from Sex to Pray

Ever since I got this question, I’ve been mulling over my treatment of 1 Corinthians 7:3-5, which I’ve cited a lot on this blog. Here’s the question, and I’ll share the passage soon after:

Have you ever written a blog post on I Corinthians 7:5? In particular about abstaining from sex for the purposes of fasting and praying? … what that would look like (and if you your husband have ever done this) and of course the benefits of doing so….

Couple sitting on a couch, holding hands, and praying together

1 Corinthians 7:3-5 (NIV) says:

The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

You’ll notice in this translation that fasting isn’t included. Among major Bible translations, the only one that includes fasting is the King James Version. Why is that? Have we just chucked out fasting as an unimportant spiritual discipline? Nope.

Between the time that the KJV was published in 1611 and current day, our access to Greek manuscripts of the New Testament has increased. Manuscripts earlier than the one used by the King James Version translators do not have the word fasting. So later translators, wanting to reflect the original text, removed the word.

Thus, what the Apostle Paul likely said is that married couples can abstain from sex for the sake of prayer.

Now a great deal of my focus in using this passage has been on the words Do not deprive each other! Because that’s where a lot of marriages are failing: One spouse withholds sex for any and all kinds of reasons, effectively becoming the gatekeeper or, in some marriages, fortress guard of physical intimacy. Which is clearly not God’s intention in giving us the gift of sex.

So I and other bloggers spend time talking about how we have a command to fulfill our marital duty of having sex with our spouse. Of course it’s far more than a duty; rather it’s a mutual privilege. I could easily point you to a whole bunch of other verses showing that God wants this to be a pleasure for both spouses.

When sex is how God intended it to be, having sex with your spouse doesn’t feel like a duty. Rather, it’s a privilege that promotes intimacy for the whole relationship.

Sex in marriage is a privilege that promotes intimacy for the whole relationship. Click To Tweet

My favorite post, however, about this duty to one another isn’t one I wrote. It’s Sheila Gregoire’s excellent What Does 1 Corinthians 7:5–Do Not Deprive Each Other–Really Mean? She makes it clear that depriving your spouse isn’t about saying no at times, or rather not now, but mutually pursuing healthy sexual intimacy in your marriage as a whole.

That said, in an effort to focus on the part of this passage most directly tied to issues I see in marriage, I really have glossed over the part this questioner asked about, because the whole verse is “Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer.”

Okay, so you can stop having sex for a while to pray.

Two important caveats are these:

1. It has to be mutual.

The verse says by mutual consent. So a spouse who isn’t as into sex can’t say, “Hey, I’ve decided to go without sex this month so I can grow closer to God. See you in thirty days!” You don’t get to use God as an excuse for withholding sex.

But maybe you’d really like to take a break from more physical concerns for the pure motives of devoting yourself to spiritual growth, yet your husband isn’t on board. Shouldn’t you get to do that? Sorry, but the Bible says no. That might make you feel cheated, but God prioritizes how we treat each other — “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21) — and He takes delight in us loving each other. Moreover, there’s nothing in the Bible that says you cannot pursue God and a great sex life at the same time. That’s pretty much my whole mission — to convince you that those two go together just fine.

2. It has to be time-limited.

The verse also says for a time. How long? I don’t know. But in the next sentence, Paul warns against going too long: “Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” You shouldn’t go so long that one or both of you feels like you’re losing your self-control.

Sex gets compared to food so often (because it often works), and I’m going to do it again: It’s fine to be hungry; it’s not good to be so starved that your libido is a ravenous beast that cannot be contained. Hyperbole maybe, but you get the point. And yeah, that happens for some people after a month and others after four days. Respect your spouse’s true makeup on that one; see point above on mutuality.

But those of you with higher drives, you don’t get to claim you’re actually starved when you’re just a bit peckish. Get over it. Got that? Good.

Now have I done it in my marriage? Have Spock and I abstained from sex for prayer? Not in a formal way, though we have certainly postponed lovemaking to finish a Bible study we were doing together or attend a prayer service at church. In such moments, we felt inclined to have sex and mutually chose to wait until we finished our focused time with God.

But yeah, I admit that’s not likely what this scripture is talking about. And now I’m wondering if we should be doing this. It’s in there, right after do not deprive. Prayer is certainly a worthy priority for your marriage.

What would that look like?

First, you have to talk about it. Are you both on board with the idea overall? If so, how long will you go without sex — a few days? a week? When do you each believe you need to come back together so that your prayer time is focused and effective, and not undermined by a pestering hunger for physical intimacy?

Second, what will your prayer time involve? I’d suggest both individual times of prayer and time praying together. And while you’re focused covering all kinds of topics in prayer, how about praying for your sexual intimacy? You might find that by stepping away from the bedroom, you gain some clarity about the sexual challenges you have in your marriage. Do you need to pray for less busyness in your life? physical ailments? unity in pursuing intimacy? Use this time to pray together and share your heart openly with both your Heavenly Father and your spouse.

Third, pursuing other forms of intimacy. Abstaining from sex doesn’t mean abstaining from time together, nonsexual affection, and communication. Indeed, you might focus this time growing your emotional intimacy, intellectual intimacy (as you discuss what you’re learning), and spiritual intimacy.

Fourth, encourage one another. I can see this exercise being more difficult for one spouse than the other. So be there for each other with positive words of encouragement.

Finally, when the agreed-upon time has expired, have sex. But don’t just tell yourselves that’s going to happen. Set aside the time and clear out the obstacles that might interfere. Schedule the babysitter, plan a date night, even take time off work if you need to. Come back together in the marriage bed and celebrate that God, your gracious Heavenly Father, has gifted you with this intimate act in covenant marriage.

I’m motivated to give this a shot. How about you?

And if anyone has formally abstained from sex in marriage for the sake of prayer, tell us about your experience. What did you gain from it?

Research: – Sex and the Spiritual Christian (1 Cor. 7:1-7); – Sex, Prayer, and Holiness (1 Corinthians 7:5-6); Bill Mounce – Prayer and Fasting (1 Cor 7:5); – A Touchy Issue (1 Corinthians 7:1-5); Bible Study Tools – 1 Corinthians 7:5; To Love Honor and Vacuum – What Does 1 Corinthians 7:5–Do Not Deprive Each Other–Really Mean?

7 thoughts on “Q&A with J: Abstaining from Sex to Pray”

  1. Interesting. Good job.
    We’ve abstained for a period of time as we sought to discern Gods will-before buying a house, for instance-seeking a clear mind. We’ve interpreted this passage as a form of purification, to better hear and follow the Holy Spirit.

    Key:its mutually decided upon, its limited in duration, and it’s occasional.

    Bonus:the “coming together again” is pretty much literal in our case!

  2. I think having to specify a time to abstain from sex for the purpose of prayer implies that the couple is having a certain frequency of sex regularly. Like, every few days, at least. If a couple isn’t having sex more than maybe once every week or two, why would they need to drop that to carve out more time for prayer? Probably they’d do better to drop something else first, and put more focus on both prayer and sex.

  3. My wife and I try to do this at least once a year (try!). We take the week leading up to our wedding anniversary and take the time we would have taken to make love and instead pray for our marriage, thanking God for the past year and His blessings, and pray for the coming year, that He would continue to help us grow closer to Him, to each other, and to the goals He has placed on our hearts.

    Some years are easier than others, but you can bet that anniversary date is always great!

  4. I grew up in a tradition of penitential abstinence during Lent, so, with my husband’s consent, we abstain from sex on Friday in Lent and through most of Holy Week. It doesn’t mean so much to him, who grew up in a different tradition, and he makes some jokes, but he’s respectful. During Holy Week, I want my focus to be on my Lord, not my earthly ‘lord and master’. Again, it’s just a personal preference and is with his consent.

  5. We did this once, unintentionally. For two weeks my husband had a burden from God, he spent every spare moment studying the Bible and praying. It was not planned, it was consentual in the fact that I knew he was seeking God, but it was not something that we said “lets do this for ??? weeks”. I also spent time in prayer etc, but didn’t have the burden that he did. At the end of two weeks we had a visit from a friend whom we had not seen for many years, she needed a lot of help, physically and spiritually. It very quickly became clear why he had had the burden.

  6. To take this as a command to _try_ to do this periodically as if that is a “more spiritual” thing to do than have regular relations is not what this passage is talking about. This seems to be more about a couple that needs to re-assess their relationship for a few days, or because some other great difficulty is upon them. Regular, frequent sexual relations is what God commands, because that is the field that He designed intimacy to grow in, not abstinence. This essentially forces couplets work on their relationship and problems constantly, not just when one party is finally fed up.

    And, as stated above, this passage can’t even be applied to a “spiritual” marriage where sex is infrequent or spasmodic. This kind of “spirituality” is what the Word is warning us against.

    In our 42 years we have done this a time or two.

    1. I don’t why you think this passage is about re-assessing a relationship, since that doesn’t seem to be the context.

      Of course I believe that regular sexual intimacy is God’s plan and command; however, there is this passage about abstaining for a mutually consented time of prayer, and we have to admit that it’s there. So maybe there’s something to it now and again. Interesting that you’ve done it a couple of times in your 42 years together (a number which impresses me!). Thanks for your comment!

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