What would you do to get closer to God — not to “earn” salvation, but to have a stronger relationship with Him? Would you commit to reading your Bible more? Pray more? Spend more time memorizing Scripture and meditating on it? And what would you give up to be able to do any of those things? Maybe quit watching your favorite TV show for this season? Spend less time on your phone checking social media? How about giving up sex for Lent? And would that help or hurt your relationship with God or with your spouse?
Few things bond a married couple like a healthy sex life. Physical intimacy is sacred and should be reserved for marriage. And while there’s a verse in Scripture that talks about “depriving one another … for a limited time,” most healthy, happy couples wouldn’t even consider giving up sex for Lent — or any other reason. But at a time of year when people are choosing spiritual discipline over physical preferences, it’s worth asking if there is any benefit — spiritual or otherwise — in giving up sex for Lent.
First things first: Sex is a sensitive subject, and the frequency of sex or lack of sex in marriage is a painful, difficult subject for many people. It’s personal, complicated and highly emotional. One spouse may be dealing with baggage from previous relationships. In other cases, the thought of intimacy may cause fear or trigger bad memories for those who have suffered sexual abuse or assault. Others deal with physical conditions that can’t be corrected — but many can, and should, be treated. If you or your spouse fall into any of these categories, this article is not for you and is certainly not intended to add to your hurt.
Does Scripture tell us to give up sex for Lent — or any other reason?
Lent isn’t mentioned in the Bible. While fasting and prayer have long been church practices, the idea of a pre-Easter season of sacrifice and repentance wasn’t instituted until the First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. But what about the verses in the Bible that talk about Old Testament laws or abstaining from married sex?
To start off, let’s talk about the laws in the Old Testament. God put these laws into place to point us to our need for Him and His righteousness. Many of the laws also have a very practical application. For example, Leviticus 15 is a set of laws that deal with bodily emissions and ceremonial uncleanliness. Not only do the laws deal with the manner in which we approach God (He is holy and pure), they also helped Israelites prevent the spread of sickness and infection. But notice that even when God gives instructions for husbands to abstain from sex when their wife is menstruating, the couple is to abstain for a limited time.
The New Testament also gives specific guidelines for marital abstinence. First Corinthians 7:5 says, “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.” It’s interesting to note that the first half of the verse (“do not deprive one another”) is more emphatic than the last half of the verse (“except perhaps”). It’s an indication that abstaining from sex in marriage is the exception, not the rule.
Is it even possible to give up sex during Lent?
Sex is not a physical need. Many people can and do live without it. Think of it this way: New parents can survive six weeks without sex after the birth of a child, so it’s possible to make it through six weeks of Lent. (Plus, some people don’t count Sundays in Lenten fasts!) But an imposed sex fast for health reasons versus the spiritual practice of abstaining to grow closer to God are two very different things.
To help you and your spouse think through the possibility of a Lenten sex fast — or to set sex aside to pray about big decisions and key issues — we invited a group of Focus on the Family counselors to discuss sex and spirituality. Dr. Greg Smalley, Geremy Keeton, Rob Jackson and Yolanda Brown talk about the spiritual and physical issues related to sex and abstinence within a marriage.
Abstinence during physical healing
Doctors advise new parents to abstain from sex for six weeks after the birth of a child. This time period gives the woman’s body time to heal from pain, tears and episiotomies. Focus on the Family counselor Rob Jackson says couples should talk about the challenges that come up during this time period. “Abstinence from vaginal intercourse for physical healing doesn’t necessarily constitute a need to abstain from other sexual expressions. If a husband resents giving up sex for six weeks to meet his wife’s needs following pregnancy and delivery, we need to address that sacrifice and service are part of the marriage covenant. Any sense of entitlement or male privilege should be surrendered to the Holy Spirit.”
But just because you can live without intercourse doesn’t mean that abstaining from married sex is a good idea for your spiritual life or your marriage.
Discover the Strengths and Weaknesses of Your Marriage
Sex is an important part of marriage, and lack of sex often presents big problems. Dr. Greg Smalley, Vice President of Marriage at Focus on the Family, says, “Physical intimacy is an incredibly important component of any marriage. It’s like the glue that uniquely bonds a husband and wife together.”
Dr. Smalley also notes that for many couples, the issue is not about giving up sex, it’s about finding time for it. “Sex is an amazing gift given to a married couple. In today’s world, the problem isn’t that married couples are having too much sex, it’s a lack of sex. Unfortunately, many couples are already practicing ‘abstinence’ in their marriage” — but not with the goals of spiritual growth and prayer.
The lack of married sex has turned into a significant problem. Between 20 to 25% of marriages are considered “sexless.” Couples in a sexless marriage engage in sex 10 times or fewer in a 12-month period. “Married couples are exhausted from working, raising kids, household responsibilities, church activities, hobbies, friendships,” Dr. Smalley says. “Why should we give up something that is hardly happening in the first place? Marital sex doesn’t need another competitor or excuse for abstinence!”
Yolanda Brown, a counselor at Focus on the Family, not only agrees with Smalley’s assessment but also says giving up sex for Lent may put a strain on the marriage. “God designed you to completely enjoy sexuality. He made you for it in the context of a committed, loving, giving relationship.” Brown also said that women in committed, loving relationships also experience a spiritual benefit. “An emotionally healthy woman who feels safe typically would be more willing and open to connect with God, too.” Giving up sex for Lent may, in fact, have the opposite effect of drawing both spouses closer to God. Brown warns that it may even cause problems in communication, connection and communion with God.
Dr. Greg Smalley summed up his and Brown’s thoughts with this statement: “The biggest problem I have with giving up sex for Lent is the typical thinking around why people give something up. Most people give up a luxury, distraction, indulgence or bad habit. I would never want marital sex associated with luxury, distraction, indulgence or a bad habit — it’s a critical part of a healthy marriage.”
Why should you not give up sex — even for a little while?
There are several situations when you should never think of giving up sex for Lent or any other time:
- During a time of grief, loss or high stress.
- When your time together as a couple is frequently limited by travel, military service or other situations.
- If you don’t mutually agree.
- When one of you is not a follower of Christ.
- If your sexual relationship is already fragile.
- If fasting would increase the probability of lust or infidelity. (But the absence of sex is never an excuse for sexual acting out. Each spouse is solely responsible for their choices, their integrity and how they choose to cope with a lack of sex in their marriage.)
- If you’re not already praying and reading the Word together.
- As an abrupt change to an established plan that you and your spouse are following during recovery from sexual addiction or pornography use. (Fasting from intercourse or all sexual activity may be part of recovery, but guidance from a trained counselor is best so the reasons and motivations are healthy and intentional.)
What are some reasons a counselor might suggest a sex fast for you and your spouse?
Focus on the Family counselor Rob Jackson specializes in treating individuals with sexual addictions. Jackson says there are valid reasons for giving up sex outside of a spiritual fast but reminds couples that such instances should only be done under the guidance of a trained professional counselor.
- Detox. Jackson says that couples dealing with detox issues (if one spouse is breaking away from sexual addiction) may find themselves in a situation where “one or more sexual practices within the marriage proves to be unwise, unsafe, excessive, immoral or addictive.”
- Sexual Abuse. A period of abstinence may be needed when a spouse (most often the wife) is struggling with issues related to sexual abuse. “Sexual abstinence can help remove stress from the bedroom in certain situations,” Jackson says.
- Entitlement issues, anger, control or domestic violence. “When those issues are present,” Jackson says, “it would be appropriate to consider a fast from sexuality.
Depending on the issues couples face, Jackson usually prescribes a 90-day period of abstinence. “So many times [couples] think, I’m gonna die. I can’t believe we’re gonna do this. And the first 30 days are really shaky.” But Jackson says couples who abstain from intercourse as part of their recovery often report surprisingly positive benefits. “Once they’re about halfway through the sexual fast, many couples have begun to experience deeper spiritual and psychological intimacy.”
There Is Still Hope for Your Marriage
In 1 Corinthians 7, the apostle Paul says married couples should not withhold sex or abstain unless they agree to do so for a short time to “devote yourselves to prayer.” For instance, if you and your spouse are seeking God’s will on a major decision — or you simply want to grow closer to Him — it may be appropriate to give up sex for a short time, but specific conditions must be met before you consider abstinence.
The Focus on the Family counseling team recommends these conditions:
- You and your spouse must both be Christians. If you and your husband or wife aren’t working toward a common goal of growing closer to God through a sexual fast, you’ll run into all sorts of roadblocks.
- You’re both spiritually healthy. Geremy Keeton advises couples to check their spiritual health before agreeing to a period of abstinence. “Doing this presumes that the couple already prays together, already relates to the Holy Spirit together and talks about that relationship — if those things aren’t there, it wouldn’t be a scriptural fast.”
- You have a healthy emotional relationship with your spouse. If you’re not in a good place in your relationship, abstaining from sex will only make things worse.
- You have a “sex-positive” marriage. Keeton describes a “sex-positive” marriage as one where sexual interaction between spouses “has been mutual, generally satisfying (not perfectly or always satisfying) and a source of mental, emotional, physical and spiritual enhancement to the marriage. Sex (intercourse or other forms of intimate physical interaction) is seen as a contributor to the overall good of the relationship.”
- You both feel led by the Holy Spirit to fast. This is absolutely critical. Brown encourages couples to consider their sex fast in light of God’s words in Hosea 6:6: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Rob Jackson points couples to Malachi 2:15: “Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union?” Jackson also adds this word of advice: “If a couple is just abstaining from sex — even with good intentions — if they’re not embracing the Holy Spirit, it’s going to be a ‘work’ [not an act of faith]. Pray and ask, ‘Is this for us?’ Instead of just deciding on your own to do it. You’re entering a spiritual journey.”
- You have a plan. Jackson asks couples this question: “If you plan to give up sex for spiritual purposes, will you replace that with spiritual disciplines or journaling or praying together?”
Dr. Greg Smalley urges couples to carefully consider whether a sexual fast is even the right thing to do. “The only time I would encourage a married couple to give up sex during Lent — or for any type of spiritual fast — is if the couple already has a healthy sexual relationship. If both people are satisfied with how often they have sex (and there’s no magic formula for how many times per week they should be having sex) and they experience sex in a way that feels good to both spouses, I could understand if that couple would give up sex temporarily as a way to shift their focus from the healthy sex, attention and intimacy that already exists in their marriage to focus that attention and intimacy on God.”
How do we make a plan if we’re going to give up sex for Lent or to “devote ourselves to prayer”?
If all the above criteria fit and you and your spouse want to try giving up sex for Lent or another season, here’s how to start:
- Clearly define why you want to abstain. Do you simply want more time for prayer or reading Scripture? Do you want to focus on your relationship with God and need fewer distractions (even from the good things in your life)? Geremy Keeton offers this advice: “Abstaining should always be for the sake of filling with something that is inspiring and fulfilling.” Rob Jackson agrees. “When you’re abstaining from sexuality, you don’t want to abstain from relationship. This is an ideal time to strengthen your relationship with other non-sexual intimacies like date nights, taking walks and clarifying the vision for your marriage.”
- Agree there will be no tempting or teasing. Be aware of what turns your spouse on. Husbands, it may be that touching your wife’s knee or hair excites her. Wives, maybe letting your hair down drives your husband wild. If you don’t know (or even if you think you do), have a conversation about it before you start the sexual fast. You want to encourage spiritual growth, not to distract or tempt your spouse to break the fast earlier than planned. Rob Jackson puts it this way, “Think through the limits of physical affection. For example, you would want to abstain from any form of physical affection that would trigger sexual arousal if your intention is to abstain. But there are other levels of physical affection that you might continue, and those might become even more important for the purpose of affirmation of each other.”
- Set a clear endpoint. First Corinthians 7:5 is clear that your time without sex should not be indefinite but “for a limited time.”
- Discuss what happens if you wind up having sex anyway. If you give in to passion at some point during the agreed-upon time, will you still try to give up sex for the rest of the time or will you quit trying? How will you feel if you don’t complete the fast? How might that affect your relationship with God? Will one of you blame the other for initiating (or even asking about) an end to the fast? As Geremy Keeton says, “Talk about how you’ll respond if one spouse decides ‘this fast is changing for me’ somewhere along the way.”
- Tell mentors about your plan. “If you feel led by the Spirit to do this, include spiritual mentors so there’s an element of accountability,” Brown says. She also recommends that both the husband and wife have a mentor of their own sex — a male mentor for the husband, a female mentor for the wife. “Have them give you a call or ask how things are going when they see you.” Brown says having a mentor can help, especially if you stumble at some point during your fast.
How can we avoid problems if we give up sex for Lent or for a special time of prayer?
Abstaining from sex — even for the purpose of spiritual growth — has its challenges. But you can avoid some of the pitfalls if you and your spouse think about them ahead of time.
First, the spouse who brings up the fast should be the person who has the higher sex drive — the spouse who usually initiates sex. According to Jackson, “If the one who’s less satisfied says, ‘Let’s take a fast,’ the other may take offense. He or she may think, My spouse doesn’t want to be with me.” Keeton agrees: “You don’t want to spiritualize withholding sex; it truly should be mutual.”
Keeton also recommends talking to your spouse about personal limits. “Will this lead you into guilt, shame and secrecy about masturbation because you don’t want to admit to your spouse that you’re trying to abstain, and this is occurring?”
If you consider giving up sex during Lent or any other time, you should know that drawing close to God means He may prompt you to deal with some unhealthy issues in your marriage. Rob Jackson says, “A couple who has been enjoying their sexuality may find that in the absence of sexuality, it pulls up all kinds of stuff. They may find they’re frustrated with each other on some non-sexual issue.” However, that may not be a bad thing. Giving up sex for a short time might give you an opportunity to address those long-standing issues.
Are there other options?
Giving up sex for a special time of prayer doesn’t necessarily mean giving up intercourse for six weeks. “There are a lot of options with some similar spiritual benefits,” Keeton says. “If you’re committed to a sexual rhythm in your life (such as twice a week), you might leave out one or more occasions for sexual fasting, but not do a longer fast.”
Rob Jackson advises couples to try an experiment before giving up sex for several weeks. “If a couple has never experienced a sexual fast, they might try a short fast and journal that experience to see what it means before launching into longer periods of time.” But Jackson warns couples to carefully guard their marriage while engaging in a sexual fast:
You’re free to do this as a couple if the intention is worship and greater devotion to God, but don’t play with sexual abstinence because it could backfire. If you’re otherwise a healthy couple (there’s no toxicity, no addiction), unless God calls you into fasting from sexuality, be careful! You could be more prone to lust. Insecurities could be increased. For the average couple, since their marital sexuality is righteous, it might be better to fast from the sexually-charged media they watch.