Abstinence makes the heart grow stronger

January 15, 2013 § 38 Comments

Overdoing asceticism in our culture is about as much of a danger as dying of thirst in the Mississippi or drowning in the Sahara.  It can be done, but it is pretty bloody uncommon: man bites dog and all that.

Every man should prepare himself for extended periods of sexual abstinence, because even if everything goes right, which it usually doesn’t, most men will face periods of time in their lives where the choice is between abstinence and sin.

It follows that every man ought to, from time to time, practice abstinence.  If you have to do something you have never practiced it is possible that you will succeed.  But your chances of success are much greater if you have practiced.

This is obvious, but it sounds scandalous to modern ears.  I think that says something rather revealing about modern ears.

§ 38 Responses to Abstinence makes the heart grow stronger

  • sunshinemary says:

    Are you primarily addressing unmarried men?

    Why would a married man be experiencing extended periods of abstinence, other than the required six week post-partum wait?

  • Zippy says:

    @sunshinemary:
    Why would a married man be experiencing extended periods of abstinence, other than the required six week post-partum wait?

    Illness and death are the big ones, but there are others. Sometimes duty calls: the wife has to go help family out of state for extended periods, or the man is deployed overseas for job or military or what have you.

    We pilots have a saying about accidentally landing the plane without putting the gear down: there are those who have, and those who will.

    This is far more true of abstinence and men than it is of pilots and retractable gear airplanes.

  • Our Heroine says:

    @sunshinemary: my husband and I have been, and will remain, abstinent thoughout my entire pregnancy, per doctor’s orders. It’s a good thing we had practice with that sort of thing, because 9 months+ is a long time!

  • sunshinemary says:

    @ Our Heroine
    OK, that makes sense; if you are Catholic and under doctor’s orders, then it must be that way. Still, why “practice”? It’s not like that will make it any easier for him to deal with.

    By the way, prayers for a safe delivery for you and your precious baby.

  • Mike T says:

    Perhaps as scandalous should be that married men are perhaps the most likely group other than extreme dating market losers and minors to experience extended abstinence.

  • Mike T says:

    @SSM

    Zippy has a point about when it may be necessary to have that experience. The main problem though is that most married men who have to take extended periods of abstinence will do so because of their wife’s sin.

  • DeNihilist says:

    How about as in when the two of you get older, Men’s testostorone starts to drop, women go through menopause (you see it it right there – men -o -pause!), the urge becomes less.

    Or maybe you have moved on from physical desire, and are moving into spiritual desire, which usually means that sex now becomes more about finding the ultimate love, then the ultimate orgasm. I find that as I approach an older age, and see more loving depth within my relaitionship with my wife, I prefer less sex, but a more sharing of the sex.

  • Zippy says:

    @Mike T:
    I am certain that immoral withholding is a significant reason why many married men are stuck with abstinence. That is doubtless part of what generates controversy, and I in no way excuse it.

  • Cane Caldo says:

    The main problem though is that most married men who have to take extended periods of abstinence will do so because of their wife’s sin.

    A man who can control himself does not have to take abstinence from his wife. Rather, he can extend abstinence as a grace to cover the sins, poverty, or weaknesses of the wife. I think that is what ZC is getting at.

    That being said: Wives who can fulfill their conjugal duties, yet deny their husbands, are vile.

  • Zippy says:

    @DeNihilist:
    Unless one marries within two years of the start of puberty, two years or more of abstinence during peak sexual desire is a given. This is as much God’s design for marriage as all the other things people claim to be God’s design for marriage.

    People who lack this preparation because of their own sin are at significant risk, and should self-evaluate and practice asceticism accordingly. People who do have this preparation may choose periodic asceticism also, to maintain fitness; this is certainly as justifiable and prudent as any exercise program or insurance purchase.

    Self-mastery has enormous benefits, among which are that a man with self-mastery in the sexual domain cannot be subject to sexual extortion by a wayward wife.

    It is possible that this is part of why the very concept of it is resisted.

  • Our Heroine says:

    @sunshinemary: I thank you humbly for the prayers!

    I come at this issue from a Catholic perspective, and I’m not nearly so logically gifted as Zippy, but as for “practice,” within marriage, I would describe it as a gift to God done out of love.

    Catholics are encouraged to make occasional sacrifices of things that are good and enjoyable as humble gestures to God that a) these things are gifts from Him, and not ours by rights and b) to show Him that we love Him first (more than chocolate, sex, wine, money, food, etc.).

    He doesn’t need those sacrifices, but it is good for us, mentally and spiritually, to make them, in order to remind us of our dependence on Him, to revive our gratitude for His gifts, to strengthen the virtue of Temperence within us, and to help us grow in love for Him.

    None of this relates to a husband or wife withholding sex out of laziness, indifference or spite. Rather is relates to a mutual decision done for spiritual reasons. I believe even St. Paul describes such periods abstinence as well.

  • Elspeth says:

    Yes, St. Paul does describe periods of abstinence for the purposes of prayer and fasting. Sadly, fasting is almost unheard of in American Protestant circles. I am as guilty as any, though we do try at least a couple of times a year to fast something we value and I fast food (with my husband’s permission) from time to time as well, usually no more than a day or two.

    It also worth noting that Old Testament marriage had built periods of abstinence (often as long as two weeks per month).

    So while it’s not something we do, it’s not unheard of. From what I’ve read from Orthodox Jews and NFP practicing Catholics, it actually enhances the sexual relationship and encourages greater communication between husband and wife.

  • caethan says:

    Still, why “practice”? It’s not like that will make it any easier for him to deal with [it].

    I speak from experience: yes, it will.

  • Cloud says:

    Ahh, sunshinemary. Always popping up to express the dreaded fear that somewhere, somehow, a woman might be denying her husband sex.

  • Mike T says:

    @DeNihilist

    That doesn’t help the situation of the married 20something or 30something man who is at his sexual prime. Even men in their 50s who maintain active exercise and physical work routines will find their testosterone in good shape.

    For those men, Zippy’s recommendation(s) are prudent when their wives won’t take care of their needs. However, let’s call a spade a spade. A wife with a low sex drive who feels it is her right to ignore her husband’s needs is morally equivalent to a husband who keeps her on the edge of poverty because he doesn’t feel she’s worth working to maintain a middle class lifestyle.

    @ Cane Caldo

    A man who can control himself does not have to take abstinence from his wife. Rather, he can extend abstinence as a grace to cover the sins, poverty, or weaknesses of the wife. I think that is what ZC is getting at.

    I understand. I’m not sure how to properly address the wife’s failings here with a church. Most churches today believe grace means little to no responsibility. Thus they see Jesus in Ephesians 5 as the quintessential beta male who lets the church whore itself at the bar every night and then he says “oh honey, it’s ok I forgive you” after the latest round of antibiotics and pregnancy.

  • Zippy says:

    @Mike T:
    For those men, Zippy’s recommendation(s) are prudent when their wives won’t take care of their needs.

    Not just those men. All men will face the choice of abstinence or sin at times, many of them for extended periods. It is prudent to be prepared for the inevitable.

  • You assign some character flaw….”modern ears”….to those who disagree on this, hence dismissing dissent. You ought to know better than that, frankly.

    I could not care less if any man wants to practice this. I do care that those who think it is absurd are not being heard, rather dismissed as hedonistic modern materialistic automatons who give over to urges.

    There are sin temptations that come along that can be extremely compelling and they do not lend themselves to practicing resistance. There are godly spiritual practices that generally steel a man against sin temptation, these are worthy and proven good. I sense some self edification, frankly, in heralding this practice, and my sense of that is as valid if not more than zippy’s sense that “modern ears” are bristling for reasons he implies.

    Elspeth I do not disagree that sexual mutual fasting can be beneficial, how could I, its plainly spelled out. The path zippy started down is very different than anything covered in scripture, even to the point he stated, plainly, the man leading his wife into this fast as something mutually beneficial, his implication was clear (he can correct me if I am wrong), that this is in keeping with the man’s headship to train himself this way and the benefits are such that the fact he may be the one sexually denying were of no clearly expressed concern to zippy.

    Anecdotally, with 4 kids, with an international traveling job for much of my career, and with requisite illnesses of kids and wife, there have been dozens, maybe more, of extended periods of abstinence. So, in addition to those that DO happen (zippy’s own concept), I/we should willfully take more time (more than the sexual fasting scripture refers to) so that when these things happen AGAIN, for other reasons, I/we are better prepared?

    It smells a bit of some form of spiritual arrogance. In some ways, though the word is tired, it smells of protestant legalism.

  • A man who can control himself does not have to take abstinence from his wife. Rather, he can extend abstinence as a grace to cover the sins, poverty, or weaknesses of the wife. I think that is what ZC is getting at.

    I’m curious if this is what zippy is getting at, because I cannot find any evidence that it is.
    I also would be concerned if it was what he was getting at, though less so than I was otherwise. Grace AND forgiveness, not just grace, as her denial is sin and grace under circumstances such as this is enabling.

  • Zippy says:

    @Cloud:
    Ahh, sunshinemary. Always popping up to express the dreaded fear that somewhere, somehow, a woman might be denying her husband sex.

    Maybe that is her calling. Why gripe about it unless it leads to a loss of perspective and specific errors; and in that case why not actually address the errors?

  • Svar says:

    @ Cloud

    “Ahh, sunshinemary. Always popping up to express the dreaded fear that somewhere, somehow, a woman might be denying her husband sex.”

    Hahaha!

    “Maybe that is her calling. Why gripe about it unless it leads to a loss of perspective and specific errors; and in that case why not actually address the errors?”

    You’re expecting too much from the Manosphere, Zippy.

  • Cloud says:

    Yes Zippy, a calling to run a website on which one discusses the merits of sexbots, and gives detailed instructions on how to pleasure a man orally with candy in your mouth (all posted under a large picture of Our Lady, no less), is truly a calling of which the Holy Father himself would be proud.

  • Zippy says:

    @Cloud:
    Good. Sarcasm aside, now you are making a substantive criticism. I note that your substantive criticisms do not bear on whether sunshinemary is substantively right on the subject of wives withholding sex.

  • Zippy says:

    Svar:
    I’ve found that when I have low expectations they are always fulfilled. When I have high expectations they are not always fulfilled, but they sometimes are fulfilled.

  • Zippy says:

    @empathologism:
    he can correct me if I am wrong

    Lets do it differently. Here is what I actually wrote at Dalrock’s:

    Boxer:
    Does the Christian tradition allow the man to deny his wife sex, if they are legally married?

    I can’t give you an authoritative answer, but I can give you my answer.

    Husband and wife should never deny each other without sufficient reason. All that really does is shift the burden to “sufficient reason” though.

    As a practical matter neither husband nor wife qua individual can have sufficient reason on their own. However, the physical and spiritual health of the marriage and the spouses are where legitimate sufficient reason can be found. The man is head of the marriage, and if he decides to introduce ascetic practices into the marriage for the health of the marriage and the spouses, mindful as a good leader should be of the limitations of both spouses and being careful not to lead either into sin, this is within his authority as Head.

    If that isn’t clear perhaps I need to write a post about what headship means and does not mean, whether of husband or of earthly king.

    So, in addition to those that DO happen (zippy’s own concept), I/we should willfully take more time (more than the sexual fasting scripture refers to) so that when these things happen AGAIN, for other reasons, I/we are better prepared?

    If life gives you enough practice, why would you need to add to it? A lumberjack doesn’t need time at the gym the same way an accountant does.

  • Svar says:

    “Yes Zippy, a calling to run a website on which one discusses the merits of sexbots, and gives detailed instructions on how to pleasure a man orally with candy in your mouth (all posted under a large picture of Our Lady, no less)”

    God bless you, Cloud. That is a substantial criticism and I also do wonder about large picture of Holy Mother Mary. Some people are just so humble.

  • Svar says:

    “I’ve found that when I have low expectations they are always fulfilled. When I have high expectations they are not always fulfilled, but they sometimes are fulfilled.”

    Fair enough.

  • Mike T says:

    “Ahh, sunshinemary. Always popping up to express the dreaded fear that somewhere, somehow, a woman might be denying her husband sex.”

    She’s just trying to make up for the white knights who are deathly afraid of the possibility that one of God’s Special Princesses might not be treated like the perfect Daughter of a King(tm) that She is by the lowly son of Adam they married.

  • Brendan says:

    Still, why “practice”? It’s not like that will make it any easier for him to deal with.

    It does help.

    In the Orthodox Church, the “maximal” tradition is for married couples to fast from sex when we fast from certain foods (fats, meats, alcohol, etc.), which is each Wednesday and Friday, and then during the four fasting seasons, the most significant of which is the fast before Easter. The idea isn’t deprivation as a good in itself, but rather to build spiritual discipline, to subject the appetites to the soul, rather than vice versa, and build up strength to resist temptations to sin. It’s not that sex and fasting foods are sinful (even during fasting seasons … there are no “fasting sins” in the Orthodox Church), but rather that periodically exercising the discipline of subjecting one’s “normal” appetites for spiritual reasons helps to strengthen your spiritual discipline to resist temptations in sinful areas otherwise. And it really does work.

  • The Continental Op says:

    I’ve found that when I have low expectations I am always satisfied, and often pleasantly surprised. When I have high expectations I am very rarely satisfied, and often bitterly disappointed.

    Modified to a different, more positive perspective.

  • Zippy says:

    @Continental Op:
    I expect that there is some multivocity going on with the term “expectations”. In this discussion I use it in the sense of acting toward others as though I expect their best, not their worst. Why even bother addressing another human being as if I expect his worst? Seems rather pointless to me.

  • alan says:

    “Overdoing asceticism in our culture is about as much of a danger as dying of thirst in the Mississippi or drowning in the Sahara. It can be done, but it is pretty bloody uncommon: man bites dog and all that.”

    I accept your premise that it’s not commonplace, but a warning is appropriate. Opposite extremes do tend occur in a sort of balance.
    1.) For instance, as a response to gross immorality, we may be unusually tempted to run for cover, and adopt unhealthy and unscriptural measures such as legality (vs. obedience), self-destruction (vs. mortifying the flesh), or strife (vs. patient resistance).
    2.) Also, if our faith is shaken and we stumble, we often fall into a terrible state of soul. It’s not a slight deviation form the path, it’s a wholesale collapse.

    One extreme can easily beget the other. Please, do cultivate a mastery of the flesh, but beware of overzealousness and of course, self-righteousnous. Cling to scriptural teaching in faith, with circumspection and humility.

  • Zippy says:

    alan:
    Your warning is a good one, especially abstracted away from our specific cultural context: it is certainly possible to go off the rails in more than one direction.

    But our context is one in which for a very large number of people, the concept of going without sexual release for two years is inconceivable: a commonplace occurrence which will strike in virtually every man’s life (so long as that man attempts to do what is right), and which marks the multi-year beginning of his existence as a sexual being during which time he is maximally morally immature and at the same time most acutely subject to the extremes of desire – is treated as some wildly out of touch medieval asceticism.

    So I agree with your warning coda. But at the same time it seems hardly even possible, in context, to project this message too loudly.

  • alan says:

    Zippy, I believe that we’re in agreement, generally. Any variance is found in the details, and isn’t a serious point of contention.

    *** Probabiity is different than potential for harm. Being hit by a falling piano is unlikely, but still potentially deadly. A distinction that we both acknowledge. My warning was a reminder that more (or less) isn’t always better. No problem there, I trust.
    *** I hold to the Aposte’s instructions that (marital) abstinence may be either necessary for health issues, or consentual for prayer and fasting. Without an overiding priority, arbitrary temptation is an unecessary risk. Surely, you agree that caution is warranted.

  • Zippy says:

    I think we are on the same page, Alan.

  • sunshinemary says:

    @ Cloud
    I have never said that sexbots have any positive merit. In fact, had you actually read anything other than the title of that post, you would know that the point of the discussion was examining the underlying social and spiritual issues that would contribute to such devices being created (and they are, in fact, being developed regardless of whether you or I approve of that fact).

    Second, I have never recommended that anyone engage in any sexual practice that violates the tenets of their faith.

    Third, I have explained in a post on my blog that the woman in the painting represents the Bride of Christ, that is to say, the Church universal.

    Fourth, when large numbers of men stop mentioning on my blog that their wives are willfully violating the command given in 1 Corinthians 7:5 not to deprive one another sexually, then I will stop exhorting Christian women to have sex with their husbands.

    @ Brendan
    Thank you for the information on Orthodox fasting and abstinence. Voluntarily abstaining from marital relations as an act of worship is, of course, quite a different dynamic than long-term involuntary celibacy at the hands of a rebellious wife.

  • sunshinemary says:

    Cloud wrote: gives detailed instructions on how to pleasure a man orally with candy in your mouth

    Upon further reflection, I realize you are right to critique me here. Candy causes cavities and obesity and I ought not to have suggested ingesting it. Mea culpa.

  • Zippy says:

    @sunshinemary:
    Upon further reflection, I realize you are right to critique me here. Candy causes cavities and obesity and I ought not to have suggested ingesting it. Mea culpa.

    FWIW, I think cloud is right that some of the content on your blog (you are hardly alone here, of course) is wildly inappropriate for public forums ultimately accessible to every eight year old with an iPod Touch. That leaves aside the issue of what kinds of acts are specifically in accordance with natural law. Flippant dismissal doesn’t really address the criticism; but I’ve also made it clear that the explicit details of what sexual acts are immoral and why will not be discussed here. (We have discussed related matters nonexplicitly).

    On the other hand, your recent post on artificial birth control is superb.

    You are of course free to ignore both my approval and disapproval in what you choose to do with your own blog. You don’t answer to me, and the fewer people who answer to me the better as far as I am concerned.

  • […] It is especially odd though coming from Catholics who really ought to grasp the difference between sexual behavior – whether licit or illicit – and continence.  Continence is for everyone, including even married couples. […]

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