“Since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
1 Corinthians 7:2-5
The notion of a sacred marriage calls us to a new standard in every aspect of marriage: kind, generous, and selfless service. We should look for ways to serve our spouse every day. We might miss opportunities because of being too busy or preoccupied with our own problems, but the notion of intentionally and deliberately denying something to our spouse is to Paul completely beneath the character of a true believer.
What Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 7:2-5 is that this is also true in the bedroom, that in fact, it is a very serious sin to sexually deprive or deny your spouse unless it is by mutual agreement for a season of concerted prayer. Fourth century church father John Chrysostom spoke with forcefulness: “If you refuse to serve your husband properly, you offend God [and likewise husbands refusing their wives].”
An eighteenth century Russian Orthodox classical writer (St. Tikhon of Zadonsk) took it further than I would, but he demonstrates the passion of those who have dealt with this issue in previous centuries: “When the husband leaves his wife and the wife sins with another, then the husband is responsible for this sin, as he gave his wife occasion for sin. Likewise when a wife leaves her husband and the husband sins with another, then the wife is guilty of that sin, for the same reason.”
“Leave” could be read as “long term denial.” “Sins with another” could have many additional modern applications.
Because of the reality of evil, because of the constant pull of sexual temptation, because sexual desire is a physical yearning as much as a spiritual one that can’t be simply “turned off” by will power alone, Paul is clear that it is cruel and sinful to deny our spouse what they can lawfully receive nowhere else. When I marry someone, I am agreeing to meet their sexual needs—that’s part of the deal. To then renege on that is to, in John’s (and Paul’s and St. Tikhon’s) words, commit fraud.
Now, of course this isn’t true when, for instance, the wife or husband is seriously ill or the wife is recovering from pregnancy. The same could be true when psychological issues over past abuse start cropping up and need to be dealt with compassionately. But even in these circumstances, when full intercourse isn’t possible, there are things a spouse can do to meet his/her mate’s sexual needs, and a wise, loving, and kind spouse will do so.
Some might say, “Well, my spouse doesn’t deserve sexual favors, the way he/she is treating me.”
That’s a contradictory statement—the mere fact that they are your spouse means they deserve, in some sense, “sexual favors.” Of course, if a woman fears physical abuse, she should never feel a spiritual obligation to become naked and defenseless in the face of a potential assailant. To deny this is to twist Scripture far beyond common sense and even decency. If a man has given himself over to a repugnant sexual sin and the wife has to work through the process of forgiveness before she can be intimate with him, that’s understandable as well (and in such circumstances, a time of therapeutic abstinence for the man can be necessary and helpful for restoration and healing). But many use the above statement for far more “casual” sins—moodiness, selfishness, or simply being lazy in demonstrating love.
The wise couple will address why one spouse no longer desires sex or is withholding it, rather than simply forcing the issue with a blanket statement from Scripture. But they will never let the status quo remain the status quo if the status quo is offensive to God. Continually denying our spouse—God’s son or God’s daughter—is to cultivate a heart that is in rebellion to God’s nature as a giver.
Besides, withholding sex perpetuates the problem, it never solves it. Haven’t you found this to be true? Has withholding sex ever made a marriage better? Chrysostom writes, “Imagine a household in which the wife abstains from marital relations without her husband’s consent. Suppose he commits fornication, or on the other hand remains continent but frets and complains, loses his temper, and constantly fights with his wife.”
John is essentially saying that one of two things will happen: the husband will commit fornication, and the wife will be considered partially responsible for “setting him up.” Or, the husband will manage to resist temptation, but he’ll take out his frustration in other ways—he frets, he complains, he’s negative, he loses his temper, he picks verbal fights, he never affirms his wife, encourages her, or compliments her. This sounds like a horrific marriage but it is not, sadly, an uncommon one, and withholding sex is one of the most fertile seedbeds to create such a despicable relational climate. Whether or not this should be the case, the fact is that it is more difficult for a man to act lovingly toward his wife when he is being denied sexual opportunity.
As an older husband I feel great empathy for younger men, many of whom are passionate about being faithful and walking with integrity, but they are shamed and denied by and sometimes even humiliated by wives who don’t understand what it is like to live with a younger man’s body and a younger man’s brain. Wives, many things change for men as we get older. But if you’re married to a younger man, you probably have to multiply his struggle against this pull by ten times to get up to half of what he feels like he is facing. Must he face this alone? Will you allow the father of your children, the man who has pledged his life to you, to struggle without any demonstrated compassion by a wife who apparently has more important priorities to which she gives her time, attention, and energy?
And men, let me apply this in another sense: meeting our wife’s sexual needs doesn’t just mean being available for sex—it means creating the kind of sexual experience that she desires. You can say, “I’m always ready for sex,” but if the sex act is always all about you, if you aren’t discovering what pleases her, if you don’t know how to fulfill her pleasure to completion, then you are denying your wife in another equally cruel sense. Because she’s not fulfilled in her sexual relationship with you, perhaps she is now more vulnerable to temptation in other ways, should someone else offer a more thoughtful sexual experience.
If God takes this seriously enough to make it so explicit and so clear in Scripture, then we should take this seriously as well. Unless there are substantive reasons being addressed with a counselor or pastor, we simply should not and cannot deny our spouse sexually. To do so is cruel, mean, selfish, and unkind. It sets them up for a serious spiritual fall. It’s an act of fraud, because on the day we got married we committed to meet this need. And it makes us become cold-hearted people who don’t live with God’s warm generous grace.
Even more, however, it causes the couple to miss out on what a positive sexual relationship fosters: the intimate connection that touches our souls, the stolen smiles throughout the day, and the memories of pleasure that naturally bonds husband and wife. Like all of God’s commands, this one is the doorway to true happiness, though at times it may feel more like a burden.