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When is it ok not to have sex in marriage?

A Biblical understanding of abstinence in marriage 

This past Sunday in my first sermon as lead pastor of CrossPointe downtown I was thrown into the deep-end of preaching the all encompassing topic of sex and sexuality from 1 Corinthians 7.1-16. This passage is jam packed with instructions for godly living in our sexuality while dealing with issues of singleness, marriage, widows, divorce, and remarriage.  I found it to be a wonderful opportunity to share the heart of God to his people the redemption of Jesus Christ for our lives on some very difficult issues.

I always find that there is a whole lot of subject matter to cover over a very limited time when I preach and I am learning how to be ok with that. However, after the sermon a single woman who is in a dating relationship asked me a great question that I believe we can all learn from together. Her question was essentially: When is it good to not have sex in marriage?

The apostle Paul clearly states in the context of a relationship between a husband and wife, sex is a good thing when we see it as an opportunity to serve our spouse. A husband and wife should see that they give themselves whole-heartedly to their spouse in order to serve them and thus build up the marriage.

However, Paul does indicate that there are times where it is ok when a married couple does not have sex. He says in 1 Corinthians 7.5 this exception

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.

“Do not deprive each other”

We see that sex is given as a good gift to be experienced as a means of fulfillment in the marriage relationship. God has given us bodies that are wired for this enjoyment to take place and in a committed relationship each spouse should acknowledge that they should selflessly give to their spouse for their enjoyment. This realizes that sex is not a mere act of the body but one of uniting our souls together that is unlike any other human relationship.  

“Except perhaps by agreement for a limited time”

Paul then explains when it is good to not have sex in marriage and how we are to conduct ourselves. If there is a decision to abstain from sex in marriage it should be agreed upon for by both the husband and the wife. Paul mentions in the verse earlier that the body of each person belongs to the other. This means that there should be a mutual decision made for this to take place.

We also see that it is for a limited time. This means that when the agreement takes place to abstain it is not for an indefinite period of time. In marriage sex is something a couple should look forward to and enjoy. This assumes that it should take place regularly and frequently. This interruption in bedroom routine should be thought through and for the purpose of the marriage growing more deeply in God and one another.

“that you may devote yourselves to prayer”

Why do this? Why would we receive this encouragement from Paul? Paul explains that it opens our life to more of God and his plan. We commit to pray for our spouse, our marriage, and family for God's best in our lives. I believe that as Paul addresses this issue in the church of Corinth that he does so realizing the sexual temptations of the culture can slowly steal away the intimacy of the marriage bed. I believe it can take place in the following ways.

1.    When sex is demanding: We can make certain demands on our spouse or have unreasonable expectations creating conflict and frustration.

2.    When sex is about performing: We are so concerned that we do not measure up so we fail to enjoy sex and we make it all about the performance

3.    When sex is selfish: Sex is meant to be enjoyed by one another, we should think less about what I want and more about what my spouse wants.

4.    When sex becomes duty instead of delight: Sex can become a chore or a check off the to do list and we lose the beauty and spontaneity of what it is meant to be.

5.    When we idolize our spouse: We need to be set free from the lie that my spouse is supposed to meet all my needs. When we bring this lie into the bedroom it has devastating consequences. God desires to free us from this.

“but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”

A focus on Jesus Christ through seeking his help for your life, future, and marriage should produce a spiritual intimacy that develops a deep bond for your marriage. This causes you to come together with a greater heart and passion for your spouse that builds intimacy and trust around a work that God is doing in your lives together.

Paul then gives us this warning that I believe we must acknowledge. If we are not giving ourselves whole-heartedly to our spouse with our bodies then it gives room for temptation.  Our eyes and hearts begin to covet others and we are given to sin in our hearts and then our actions. Paul gives us these instructions for sexual intimacy because we are to protect the heart of our spouse by a full devotion in mind, body and heart.

If we are honest with ourselves the issues above can be a challenge for any marriage. Sin struggles that we face in our sexuality are symptoms of heart issues where we fail to believe in the perfect and completed work of Jesus Christ. While a healthy and fulfilling sex-life is a good thing in marriage it will never bring us the satisfaction that we will only find in our Savior Jesus Christ. Paul tells a husband and wife this not to attain perfection in the sexual experience but for the deep realization that only Jesus fills our deepest longing.