A Rabbi friend of mine and I were having coffee at Starbucks recently, where he was explaining to me how Orthodox Jewish communities apply Levitical laws today. In the course of our conversation, the Rabbi described an intriguing practice that may enrich a Christian couple’s marriage. Simply put, for two weeks each month, a Jewish couple observes a fast from sexual relations (during and after the time of the wife’s menstrual cycle). But this time is used purposefully, as a time during which the couple devotes their attention to building the non-sexual aspects of their relationship. In fact, in some Jewish communities, the couple will avoid all direct physical contact in order to ensure that all attention is put on building the non-physical intimacy between husband and wife!
In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, Paul may have this practice in mind when he instructs married couples,
“Do not deprive each other except perhaps 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 Cor 7:5-6).
In other words, Paul may be saying that abstaining as a way of observing religious purity laws no longer apply because of Christ, however, couples may yet choose to abstain from sex for a time, not to observe ritual purity laws but rather to focus on praying for and with one another.
For married couples, the biblical ideal is that a married couple enjoys deep and regular physical intimacy in their marriage; far from being sinful, dirty, or wrong, the Bible urges couples to enjoy each other regularly, and even warns against withholding sex from one another. However, Paul does leave room for a sexual fasting, for a time and for a reason.
Fasting is a discipline by which a person gives up something (often food, or perhaps a form of entertainment) in order to heighten attention on God. Fasting is not a means to curry favor with God, putting him in our debt, or trying to earn blessings of God through personal sacrifice. Rather, by denying ourselves something that we often enjoy for a time, we remind ourselves that God is the one who sustains and keeps us.
In 1 Corinthians 7, when Paul allows for a time in which a couple may abstain from sex, he instructs them to focus the time, instead, on prayer. A sexual fast allows a couple to refrain from sexual intimacy so that they might devote themselves to deepening their relationship with one another, and with God.
Would your marriage benefit from a break from sex? There are several situations when a sexual fast may strengthen your relationship.
If your relationship is experiencing a difficult season, and you might need to refocus on each other emotionally, intellectually, or spiritually first. Perhaps you’ve had conflict with your in-laws, your daughter is struggling in school, and your car needs a new transmission; but rather than turning towards each other, you turn on each other. You’ve been bickering more than usual, and your relationship is under some strain. Having sex during this time can be difficult because of the extra stress. In fact, it can even feel disingenuous, as though you are trying to force a closeness in the bedroom that doesn’t exist outside of it.
Why not use this time to focus intentionally on your relationship, addressing some of the conflicts, or issues that have become a wedge between you? This can be a time where you commit to having honest conversations (perhaps with the help of a counselor) and resolving differences. Dedicate this time to listening to one another, and seeking out what you need to do to improve the relationship. Spend time in prayer together, or apart, asking that the Holy Spirit might convict you of sin, or attitudes that you may not be aware of, and ask that God might draw you closer together as a couple.
Maybe the stressor you are facing is external. Perhaps you are grieving a loss in your family, or maybe you are walking through a time in which your plans and dreams have fallen apart, and you are feeling discouraged, or confused about your future. Or maybe you’re trying to discern God’s will for what lies ahead. Setting sex aside for a time can allow you to devote additional time to prayer for God’s comfort, strength, or guidance.
Finally, it may be that your relationship has fallen out of balance. You have sex regularly, but it feels like the connection outside of the bedroom is missing something. Maybe your spouse isn’t as affectionate as you’d like them to be, or maybe your life has gotten so busy that you haven’t had a meaningful conversation in some time. Abstaining from sex intentionally can reset your relationship by encouraging you both to build up the other, non-sexual parts of your relationship.
Paul teaches us that “depriving each other” should be done with care, “for a time, that you might devote yourselves to prayer.” In other words, lacking intentionality when practicing a fast can actually lead to more problems than it solves. Here’s what you should know to fast well:
Fasting is not unilateral: It would be unfair to impose a sexual fast of this kind on your spouse without mutually committing to it. Simply deciding to withhold sex from your spouse because you think a fast is a good idea will come across as an effort to control or manipulate the relationship.
Fasting is for a defined time: Both you and your spouse should have an agreed-upon time frame. Will you be fasting for a week? 10 days? Longer? Have a clear conversation on when you will begin your fast, and when you will conclude.
Discuss your Expectations: What, specifically, are you hoping to focus on and address? What areas do you need to communicate about? What need are you praying for? And, what activity is allowed during this time? Is any affection okay or is it all off the table? What is, and isn’t acceptable as part of your fast?
Journal your thoughts: One way to communicate more openly is–ironically, perhaps–writing your thoughts down in a shared journal. You can write what you are learning in a shared word document, and respond in writing to each other’s thoughts. This slows the process of communicating–both speaking and listening–enabling you to be more vulnerable and to work through more complicated matters.
Celebrate coming back together: My Rabbi friend shared that when Jewish couples complete their regular time of abstinence, the couple comes back together again, and it is expected that the couple will enjoy and celebrate sexual intimacy again. Once your time of fasting is over, make a date night, go out for dinner, do something that you enjoy, and enjoy resuming the intimacy that God has created for you!
It’s true that marriage creates a setting in which we can enjoy the intimacy that is meant to be unique to spouses–yet at times, circumstances and needs may arise that might be helped by taking a break from sexual intimacy, devoting yourselves to prayer, and to strengthening your relationship. Take time to thoughtfully and prayerfully fast, so that your relationship will come back again stronger!
Rev. Deb Koster
Rev. Dr. Steven Koster
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra