Spend any amount of time in the evangelical world or blogosphere and you have probably run across a sex challenge of some kind. I have seen the challenges come in the 7-day, 10-day, and 30-day varieties. Their basic common trend is: have sex ____ number of days in a row to revitalize your marriage. In the last week or so several prominent pastors have published books on sex further adding to the evangelical preoccupation with the topic.
Sex challenges, along with preaching through Song of Solomons, are often propagated as means by which one can grow the church. After all, since the world cares about sex, it needs to know that God and church care about sex. Sex challenges, the paragon of niche marketing, can miss the need to minister to the least among us. I fail to see how the challenges aid the parentless child brought to church by their grandmother, the widow grieving the loss of a spouse, or the aging who just worry if they can faithfully care for their spouse up to end.
Even more, in our zeal for sex challenges, evangelicals miss the one sex challenge that Scripture actually does give us: the challenge to abstain for prayer. Scripture clearly states: “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” (1 Corinthians 7:5)”
When was the last time you heard a pastor challenge a zealous young couple deeply passionate in their intimacy that they might mutually agree to take some time off for a season of prayer together? It makes me wonder: in our zeal to recover Biblical sexuality have we lost the balance of Scripture? What if prayer can do more for your marriage?
The Bible Endorses Regular Healthy Marital Intimacy
Let me assure the reader that I am not some crypto Gnostic covering for some hidden resentment of sex or repressing some hatred of the physical for a unbiblical view of ‘spiritual’. God created bodies and God created sexual union so that in marriage the two should become one flesh. Some churches wrongly avoid teaching God’s view of healthy sex. In Proverbs (e.g. 5:15-19) and in Song of Solomon the Bible lays out prescriptions and descriptions of healthy marital sexuality that entail physical enjoyment, delight and fulfillment.
When Paul wrote the Corinthians, they clearly had a wrong view of sexuality that seemed to assume avoidance of marital intimacy was the best policy (1 Cor. 7:1). Paul’s principle is that in marriage a person’s body does not belong to themselves. Like Proverbs, the way to avoid sexual temptation is healthy activity in marriage (1 Cor. 7:2,5; Prov. 5:15-19). When it comes to sexual intimacy in marriage the husband has the duty to fulfill the needs of his wife. Equally, the wife has a duty to fulfill the sexual intimacy needs of her husband (1 Cor. 7:3). For purposes of sexual intimacy do not consider your body your own but as belonging to your spouse (1 Cor. 7:3-4). Give liberally according to the needs and wants of the other, not your own. Any use of your body to deprive (a standard set by their needs not yours) or withhold from your partner is sin (1 Cor. 7:4-5a). Of course, there are circumstances of health or trauma where abstaining is necessary and in these circumstances the spouse desiring more intimacy must be understanding. Similarly a spouse should not use these verses as an excuse for self-centered unloving demands. In summation of 1 Cor. 7:1-5, a partner should be giving intimacy to their spouse at the frequency their spouse desires because in marriage the body is not one’s own but belongs to their spouse.
What Ever Happened to Abstaining for Prayer?
My larger concern is that sex in a marriage is not a means of grace. It can help a marriage in wondrous ways as a form of Christian obedience to God. It can keep us from temptation. But Biblical sexuality does not confer to us the fruit of the Spirit. Sex does not directly connect us to God--that would be the pagan view.
Communion with God is a higher priority. While the command is not to deprive each other, Paul’s only delineated exception of abstaining for prayer is the greater challenge given today’s evangelical climate. First, stopping for a time of prayer is given as the only reason to abstain from regular intimacy, assuming Paul would have been understanding to medical or physical conditions. Second, this time of abstaining must come by mutual agreement. Both parties without coercion must agree. Consider covenanting together for a period. Third, the time is not to be indefinite. A time is to be specified in advance where after it is over the couple rejoins in regular intimacy. Fourth, like fasting the time of abstaining is for a period to be wholly devoted to prayer. I do not think that Paul is suggesting that intimacy hinders prayer. We do not need to take a view of sexuality that is akin to that of Augustine or other church fathers. Food is good but when we fast we show that we need to depend more on God in focussed extended prayer. The same may be true of marital sexual intimacy.
So here is the Biblical challenge: (1) Do not deprive your spouse. That is to both men and ladies in marriage. More than that (2) consider having a discussion and coming to an agreement to spend more time in prayer together. Ask your spouse: how is your communion with God? Maybe together you should agree to set aside intimacy for several nights (or whatever would be out of the norm for your habits) so that you can devote yourselves to prayer--not more TV or other personal activities. Do not let it be indefinite but come back together to rejoice in what God has given you.
In our sex obsessed culture, without diminishing marital intimacy we need to be reminded that prayer is a higher value. As evangelicals, we need to follow all of Scripture. I am sure there are committed Christians out there who do not have a healthy view of intimacy. But if evangelicalism's forty year obsession with sex is any indicator, there are more evangelicals out there for whom intimacy in marriage has gone beyond the Biblical balance. We need to take a cold shower and ask ourselves: why is it that the one challenge that Scripture gives is noticeably absent from our obsession? While sexuality in marriage is important: how important is prayer to your marriage? More or less important than sex? When was the last time you heard a minister or a blog give a sex challenge: “hey healthy lovers out there, why don’t you try abstaining for prayer?” Well, you just heard a challenge of this different sort.
(Tim is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary and is now the pastor of Pocono Mountain Bible Fellowship Church. He is married and the father of four daughters. You can follow Tim on Twitter: @tim_bertolet)