Pretty much every Christian marriage and sex book will advocate that sexual intercourse should always be a part of a marriage. There are books and chapters that specifically focus on giving advice on how married couples can continue to spice up their sex lives even in the later years of marriage.
This is probably going to be the first and only source you are going to read that is going to tell you: there is a place for abstinence in marriage. I believe there is a time in marriage when sexual intercourse should be set aside for the glory of God. Brace yourself, because anytime I drop this bomb in my PLUM seminars, the room goes silent coupled with immediate tension in the room because of the fact that the audience has likely never heard a Christian marriage/sex seminar that has ever advocated for this before.
Mandy and I were first introduced to the idea of healthy abstinence in marriage during the pregnancy of our first child, Elijah. Sex was extremely uncomfortable for Mandy while she was pregnant for the first time, yet I still wanted to continue to have sex. As a young, healthy, and sexually energetic 27-year old, I was under the impression that I needed sex in order to have a healthy marriage with my wife.
As I considered the four purposes of sex (pleasure, love, unity, and multiplying), I felt convicted by God that it was more loving as a husband (in the way that Christ loved the Church) for me to alleviate my wife of the pressure that I was putting upon her to sexually satisfy me by prioritizing her needs during pregnancy above my own perceived needs.
It also occurred to me that even if Mandy were to comply in having sex with me even though it would have been uncomfortable for her, that it would not be properly honoring the pleasure purpose of sex. Not only would sex not be mutually physically pleasurable, but it wouldn’t even be mutually emotionally pleasurable because she would have felt obligated and manipulated into having sex with me, because I am communicating the message that I need it in order to be the loving husband that God commands me to be.
It wasn’t just the remainder of the pregnancy that we decided together to abstain from sex, but it was also during the following 2-3 months that it took for her body to heal to the point that she even felt comfortable enough to have sex again.
It was not an easy year for me sexually even though our period of abstinence was a mutual agreement between the two of us. We truly felt convicted that God’s purposes of sex should always be honored, because after all, our bodies are not our own but belong to God. If I have been bought with the blood of Jesus Christ through His atoning sacrifice for my sins, then I know that God can never ask too much of me in the way of serving Him and honoring Him with my body.
Although I was acting upon a biblical conviction, it did not make the practice of it any easier in many ways. I still struggled with feeling sexually and emotionally neglected by Mandy during the first pregnancy, and there were many times when I would guilt-trip her with my words and attitudes towards her.
Even though it was difficult for me during that time, I did feel at peace that it was the right thing to do, because it ultimately resulted in me being a more loving and selfless husband as is described in Ephesians 5. I was able to focus more on the needs of my wife and our first unborn child. I was able to utilize all the other ways that Mandy and I were still able to intimately enjoy each other’s bodies as husband and wife that did not include intercourse. We were able to have a greater appreciation for massages and other forms of intimate touching that God has ordained for only married couples to properly enjoy.
We continued this practice of mutual abstinence during the following 3 pregnancies. While there were no particular restrictions on the frequency of sex between pregnancies, I still wanted to serve my wife during each pregnancy by giving her permission to focus all of her attention on caring for herself and our child she was carrying. With each pregnancy I became more content with abstaining from sex during those periods, knowing that it was first out of my love for God, and secondly my love for my wife. Just like anything else in life, it simply got easier the more opportunities we had to practice it.
After our fourth child, we talked and prayed much about whether or not we wanted to commit (because children are a commitment) ourselves to possibly having more. We continued to abstain even after Mandy’s body had completely healed from that pregnancy while we were still seeking the Lord’s will in our family planning. We came to the conclusion together that we believe we are done conceiving children of our own. Mandy does not feel comfortable putting her body through the marathon of pregnancy again, and we are both eager to get out of the nursing, diapers, baby naptimes, and toddler stages of raising children (Lord willing!).
With this decision, we once again had to seriously consider the four purposes of God’s design for sex. We are convinced that our personal desires should never change what we believe to be true about God. Since God is the One who never changes (immutable), we must be the ones who change and conform to the image of His Son, Jesus Christ (Romans 8, 12:1-2).
With that being said, our conviction of continuing to abstain from sexual intercourse has remained since then purely out of our desire to want to honor God’s design for sex. Once again, we believe there are many other ways for husbands and wives to intimately enjoy each other’s bodies that God has ordained through the uniqueness and exclusivity of the marriage relationship. However, we also acknowledge that sexual intercourse was created to be in itself a unique form of physical pleasure that cannot be duplicated. It is our understanding, through the four purposes of sex, that it is better to forego the unique pleasures of sexual intercourse in order to honor God’s design, rather than to enjoy that pleasure while knowing we would be misusing God’s gift of sex.
We would consider it a misuse of sex whether we decided to use a form of birth control, or if we continue to have “unprotected” sex all the while knowing that we desired to not conceive anymore children. Just to be clear, the only reason we are currently abstaining from sexual intercourse is for the sole purpose of not conceiving any more children, all the while adhering to the four purposes of sex that we see in Scripture. I believe all four purposes (pleasure, love, unity, and multiplying) should all be treated as equally important as one another, for the reason that as soon as people elevate any of the purposes above the other, it opens the door for sex to be used sinfully and selfishly.
There are several questions that people will inevitably ask me when I share with them our decision to remain abstinent:
How is abstinence different than any other form of birth control?
It’s pretty simple really. God designed only one form of sexual act to result in pregnancy; penetrative sexual intercourse. As I mentioned earlier, penetrative sex is designed to be an incredible sensation that cannot be accurately duplicated through any other form of sexual act. I believe that was intentional by God’s design. The reason why abstinence is different than any other form of birth control is because it is the willingness to lay aside the unique pleasure of intercourse in the interest of honoring God’s design, while every other (artificial) form of birth control is an attempt to continue to enjoy the only form of sex that can result in pregnancy all the while trying to deny one of the purposes that God obviously designed it for.
What about 1 Corinthians 7:1-5
Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. 2 But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband. 3 The husband must [a]fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and [b]come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
Here, the Apostle Paul makes it clear that he does not want men and women to struggle sexually. The previous chapter of the letter ends with a special focus in response to the misuse of their bodies through having sex with temple prostitutes and how their bodies ultimately belong to God, and should be treated as such. When Paul addresses that husbands and wives must fulfill their duties to one another, it is obviously referring to the sexual intercourse that should only be enjoyed within the marriage relationship (as opposed to with temple prostitutes). The key verse in this passage that every other Christian marriage/sex author, as well as many pastors, will use to justify that marriages should always be sexually active, is verse 5.
When Paul instructs married couples to “stop depriving one another” of sex, he says it is because of their lack of self-control that they need to come back together again. However, we must also consider that during the times of the Apostle Paul, we don’t see much historical evidence about people worrying about having too many children, whereas it is commonplace today for people to want to decide whether they only want to have one, two, or three children.
The Bible is full of evidence that speaks of the joys of conceiving children and the great blessing and gifts they are from God. I believe there is a conflict that most Christians choose to ignore, and that is the conflict of using artificial forms of birth control while claiming that children are always a blessing. Whether it is for personal, financial, or health reasons, there are several reasons why married couples might be concerned about having more children. If they are still enjoying sexual intercourse while using birth control, I see a contradiction if in fact they believe that children are always a blessing.
Yes, it is possible for people be scared, disappointed, or even regretful when they find out they conceived a child when they did not particularly desire to. And yes, God is able to change hearts, that even though they might have first reacted negatively to a pregnancy, they can experience a change in their hearts that leads them to rejoicing! However, this does not change the fact that couple initially was wanting to enjoy sexual intercourse with the hope that they wouldn’t get pregnant.
I believe that proper theology of who God is should result in practices that do not change with its surrounding culture. Just because the surrounding culture may find the Christian faith and practices strange, inconvenient, outdated, irrelevant, or even foolish; it should not change the desire of the Christian to want to live according to what they know about the God who has bought them with the blood of His Son.
Do you struggle more with sexual temptation than you did before?
This is a very fair question to ask. After all, the justification that most Christian married men use as the reason why they need sex, is for the concern that they will be tempted sexually beyond what they can handle and will commit adultery against their wives (pornography, lust after other women, physically adulterous relationships). One of the primary reasons why I choose to write this now, in my mid-30’s after, is because I still very much have a strong sex drive. I am thankful that my wife and I have had the opportunity to enjoy a lot of sex with each other through the course of conceiving 4 gifts from God, but just because we are currently committing to abstinence in our marriage, it does not mean that my sex drive has gone away.
One of the realities I had to confront about my God-given sex drive, was the fact that my sex drive would be just as strong as the day after sex with my wife, as it would be several weeks after. There is this false notion that men have bought into that sex will somehow appease their sexual appetite. Physiologically, we know this not to be true, by the very fact that after ejaculation, a man’s sperm count will typically make a “complete” recovery after just 24-36 hours. This means that even minutes after ejaculating, a man’s body will already begin reproducing new sperm.
So my answer to this question is, no. I do not struggle anymore sexually than I did when Mandy and I were having sexual intercourse. There are several reasons why this is:
1) Abstinence is something that Mandy and I have agreed to together, for the glory of God
The reality is, most marriages are already practicing abstinence in some form, but it’s probably not because of a mutual agreement between the husband and wife. Typically, these marriages simply have an unhealthy and unbiblical view of sex in marriage which results in one spouse living in some constant state of underlying bitterness because they feel they are being sexually neglected by the other. On the other side, the other spouse will eventually give into the "demand" for sex in hopes that it will appease the bitterness of the other. The sex will likely be done out of a sense of requirement, duty, guilt, and possibly the fear of losing the other to adultery as a possible result of not giving into the sexual demands.
The reason why the topic of sex is such a difficult one to address with other married couples, is because of the insecurity of one couple having a better sex life than another couple. Spouses can often become jealous of the sex lives of other couples, which leads to more bitterness and strife within their own marriage.
The reason why I don’t experience more sexual temptation than I did before, is because God has changed my heart to see more clearly all of His purposes for sex. Since I know that abstinence is a decision that Mandy and I made together, I don’t struggle with the idea that she is somehow sexually neglecting me. Also, I will say again that we still practice many other forms of intimacy with each other’s bodies in ways that only husbands and wives are able to enjoy.
2) My biblical understanding of sex has changed greatly
When I first got married, I had the understanding about sex that it was a necessity for a healthy and godly marriage. As we went through our early struggles surround sex in our marriage, God has slowly and effectively changed my understanding of sex. I now have the understanding about sex that it was first created to be used as an act of worship to God (when used according to His will), and secondly as a gift for men and women to enjoy. I find that most married couples and teachings on marriage have these two principles switched around. It seems that most people understand that sex is a gift from God to enjoy however they please, so long as it is mutual between two people. This attitude does not show a concern for the holiness of God and the fact that our bodies are to be presented as holy and living sacrifices to Him.
3) I no longer gauge the health of our marriage based on our sex life
I realized early on that I was easily blaming Mandy for my struggles with sexual sin. God convicted me strongly on this and confronted me with the fact that my struggle with sexual sin was of my own doing. It was not Mandy’s job to make sure that I didn’t give into sexual temptation. Yes, she is to play a very supportive role as my wife, but in no way is she supposed to take any blame for when I fall into sexual sin. The reason why I don’t struggle sexually more now than before, is because I no longer gauge the health of our marriage based on our sex life. I now base it on how well we are fulfilling the Great Commandment (love God and love your neighbor as yourself) and the instructions on marriage in passages like Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3.
The proper gauge of a healthy marriage should not be based on a satisfactory sex life, rather it should be based on whether or not it is seeking to fulfill the greater picture of marriage, that is Christ and the Church. All this is not to say that I do not experience sexual temptation as a result of any of this. However, when I find myself tempted sexually I am reminded that sex is not the answer, but relying upon the power of Christ and His Spirit that dwells within me is.
I understand that those reading this will most likely think that my wife and I are crazy. You might even be thinking something like, “Well, that sounds great for you guys, but I just don’t think that will work for my marriage”, and that’s okay. However, I do want to challenge every Christian marriage out there about how much of their view of sex in marriage is based on Scripture, and how much is based on their own selfish desires.
I have no doubt that most Christian marriages have prolonged undealt with issues surrounding their sex life. I believe there are many Christian husbands who are struggling with negative feelings towards their wives because their sexual expectations are not being met. There are probably a lot of Christian husbands (and wives) who have secret addictions to pornography and lust, because of feeling sexually neglected in their marriages.
There are many marriages that are greatly suffering, even secretly, all because of their struggles with their sex lives. I would argue that it likely stems from an unbiblical understanding that sex is required for a healthy marriage. The fact is, God can remove sex temporarily or permanently from any marriage through a number of ways: injury, illness, emotional trauma, fatigue, raising children, busyness, age, disability, and more. What I simply pose to marriages is this: it is far better to willingly relinquish the enjoyment of intercourse in marriage for the purpose of honoring God’s design, rather than trying to wrestle God for it. For all I know, Mandy and I may change our minds about our desire for more children; but until then, we want to remain faithful to God by honoring His design and purposes for sex.
But I also want to address even those marriages who seemingly have great sex lives and do not feel any conflict within their marriage surrounding sex. You might even be saying something like, “Well, what we have been doing works for us.” Are you making your decisions based on what you and your spouse agree on more than what you find in Scripture? Is your mutual opinion on a matter reigning over the authority of Scripture? Are you challenging yourself by seeking a better understanding of your decisions according to God’s Word, the Bible?
I can’t say enough how much God has blessed our marriage, and has blessed me by helping me see that I fall far short of being a husband to my wife as Christ is to the Church. In this, He has allowed me to grow in what it means to properly love my wife the way that He commands me to. This is my ultimate desire for Christian marriages: that their love for God will cause them to grow in loving one another as He commands them to.