Welcome back to a new week on the Ask Pastor John podcast with longtime author and pastor John Piper. A listener named Matt writes us, “Pastor John, 1 Corinthians 7:5 says that a husband and wife should ‘not deprive one another [of sexual relations], except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer.’ My question is, how do our sex lives interfere with our prayer lives? And when should there be a time in which a couple takes a break so as to devote themselves to prayer? Is this like the principle of fasting, where the desire for sexual relations is meant to put our focus back on the Lord to remind us that he is our ultimate joy and satisfaction above all else?”
Let’s get the whole verse in front of us. Matt leaves out the last half, which really creates a helpful paradox — at least, I have loved it ever since I first struggled with it.
Here’s the whole verse: “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer.” That’s where he stops. Here’s the rest of it: “But then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (1 Corinthians 7:5).
Now what’s paradoxical about this is that, on the one hand, Paul sees the suspension of sexual relations as a means of intensified devotion to prayer, presumably because the couple wants a breakthrough and some answer to prayer because the devil is doing something they don’t want him to do.
“Abstaining from sex for prayer is a weapon against Satan, and carrying on regular sex is a weapon against Satan.”
They want to resist the devil — resist unrighteousness that he’s promoting. Abstaining from sexual relations for prayer is a way of making war on Satan.
But then, on the other hand, Paul says the married couple should come back together and continue to have sexual relations so that Satan may not tempt you. This means that regular relations in marriage is a weapon against satanic triumphs. So abstaining from sexual relations for prayer is a weapon against Satan, and carrying on regular sexual relations is a weapon against Satan. That’s the paradox.
I think this is really important to see because it means that, in God’s design of the world and of human life, his pattern for ordinary things like sleeping, exercising, eating, and sexual relations in marriage all have their place in maintaining appropriate spiritual equilibrium that keeps us from being knocked off balance by Satan.
For example, a sleepless person is more vulnerable to the satanic attack of depression and impatience. A person who goes for a long time without food may be vulnerable to the temptations of gorging or stealing or irritability.
“When we abstain from sexual pleasures, we show with our bodies how desperate we are for an answer to this prayer.”
In the ordinary course of life, God’s design for the human body has spiritual implications as well as physical ones, which means that the first thing to say about our sex lives is not that it interferes with our prayer lives, but that it may provide protection from satanic attack against our prayer lives.
A satisfied sexual pattern in marriage may free the mind for prayer and triumph over temptations to adultery or other kinds of sexual sin. Of course, I should say in passing (he didn’t ask this) that God has other strategies of purity and glorifying him for people with unsatisfactory sexual lives in marriage.
We got a question, I know in this recent batch, from a man who said, “We haven’t had sex for five years.” God has a special grace for that. Single people who must read this text and say, “That’s not helpful. A regular pattern of sexual relations will protect you from the devil? I’d like that.” But God has other glorious gifts for people who don’t have this particular gift.
Sex and Prayer
What about Matt’s question? His question was “How do our sex lives interfere with our prayer lives?” You can see that’s not the way I would ask the question, but it is an understandable way of putting the question since Paul says, “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer” (1 Corinthians 7:5).
“Every legitimate pleasure we enjoy may be given up for a season to underline our desire for answered prayer.”
I think Matt is on the right track in suggesting that Paul sees this as a kind of fasting, not from food, but from the ordinary pleasures of sex. The point of fasting is to say in a more intensified way with our bodies that we as a couple, a married couple, are deeply earnest in what we are seeking God for in our prayer.
In essence, we’re saying we abstain from sexual pleasures for a season in order to pray and to show with our body’s denial how desperate we are for an answer to this prayer. I think that’s where Matt was going in his suggested solution, and I think he’s right.
There’s another take on it.
The abstinence may be less planned than that and simply a response to some terrible news that we got. For example, you and your spouse may be planning a special evening that might climax in sexual relations. You’re looking forward to it, and you get a phone call about the injury of your child in another state, say, a college student. Or you hear of some deep marital difficulty in some friend. You get a call, a desperate call, and you just don’t have the emotional and physical wherewithal to pursue intimacy that night. You just give yourself to prayer for your child or for your friend.
Either way, planned or unplanned, the point is not that sex is evil or that it is a hindrance to the ordinary life of prayer. The point is that every legitimate pleasure we enjoy may be given up for a season to underline our intensity or desire for answered prayer or to show our emotional empathy for someone who is suffering.