Reader Question: How Do I Defeat Sexual Temptation?

Reader Question of the WeekSexual temptation. We often talk about it in relation to teenagers and young adults who are dating, but they’re not the only ones who face it.

Every Monday I like to post a reader question and take a stab at answering it, and here’s an important one:

My friend at work told me about your website. I’m in desperate need of some help! My husband and I have been separated for over a year now. I don’t want a divorce, but that’s beside the point at the moment. We have been married for 7 years and since we’ve been separated I still crave sex. I want it. I need it. But he doesn’t want to have anything to do with me. He is openly having relationships with other women. So I’m basically on my own. But I struggle with masturbation. It’s becoming very difficult for me. Obviously it would be wrong to engage in that sort of thing with another person, but I can’t help but think about wanting to do that because I’m so desperate. I feel weird talking to my friends about this sort of thing. Can you help me?

I often think that the people who struggle with sexual temptation the most are those who have already been married and know what it’s like to be able to have sex when you want it. When that suddenly comes to a halt–because of separation, divorce, or widowhood–how do you deal with the sexual feelings you have that won’t go away?

When I’m speaking in churches about sex, there’s always at least one woman who comes up and asks me that question. It will go something like: “I was in a bad marriage/bad relationship, and I want to do the next one right. But what do I do now–there’s nothing about how women older than 40 should handle sexual urges.”

I really feel for these women, and so I’ll give just a few thoughts.

Sexual Temptation: It can be worse as an adult after a failed relationship. How do you stay pure then?1. There is No Magic Answer That Ends Sexual Temptation

I really wish there were something easy to tell you, but I can’t. This is a struggle you’re going to deal with, and it likely isn’t going away. I hope I can give you some tips to make it easier to manage, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to end. Sexual temptation is serious; it’s a drive that all of us have, and when you know how great sex can be, and you go for several years or more having sex quite frequently, and all of a sudden you have to quit cold turkey? That’s not easy. And it’s likely even harder than for that 19-year-old who is waiting to get married in the first place.

2. That “Sublimation” Thing Works

Have you ever heard of “sublimation”? Basically it’s a psychological term that means this:

You take the sexual energy that you have, and you “sublimate” it, or push it under the surface but then let it pop up somewhere else. So you take that energy you have for sex, and you divert it into something else.

Some of the best geniuses in history, the most creative people ever, the most active for God–were single who “sublimated” their sexual energy into something else. Michaelangelo painted the Sistine chapel. Single missionaries preached their whole lives. Paul conducted three missionary journeys and founded the church we now share. Sublimation is real.

I know several middle-aged and senior single women who have done so much for God. Many have organized missions trips, or have headed volunteer drives, or have started new ministries altogether. Others have launched businesses. Some have taken up a hobby, like watercolor painting.

When you have something that can consume your creative and mental energy, then the sexual temptation often doesn’t hit as hard.

So pray for passion in your lives. Find something else that you can be passionate about–something that matches your giftings and your heart. When you’re lying in bed, and you’re drifting off to sleep, but your mind is playing over and over some more ideas on how you can expand your business or on how you can grow your ministry, it will be so much easier than if you have nothing else to think about and sexual thoughts enter.

I know I preach often about not being too busy, but there is a time for busy-ness, if it’s simply taking our energy and putting it into something we feel passionately about. It can be one of the best ways to defeat temptation. And the added bonus? The busier you become with a ministry/business, the more likely you’ll run into people who share your values and your dreams–even men.

3. Stay Away from Things That Get Your Mind Going in That Direction

Now take a good hard look at yourself and ask, “what activities tend to make me face more temptation than others?” Is it watching certain types of movies? Reading certain types of books? Being home alone on a Sunday afternoon with nothing to do?

Take a look at your last few weeks and figure out when the temptation has been the worst. What had you just done before that? Can you see a pattern?

If there’s something that sets you off, then as much as possible, stop doing it. If certain media make it hard for you, stop watching that. If being alone is difficult, plan activities or invite people over. Know your own weaknesses.

4. Have a “Go To” Activity When You Face Sexual Temptation

When you do find yourself restless and really fighting sexual temptation, have something that you’ll do. First, of course, pray. And a simple, “God, help me be strong,” is fine. You don’t have to pray something long and elaborate. Just invite God in. That gives Him permission to use His power, but it also reminds you that He is there.

Now have some activity that you’ll do. Maybe it’s doing the dishes, or picking up a rag and starting to dust something. Maybe it’s going and doing 15 minutes on the treadmill or bike. Maybe it’s a C.S. Lewis book beside your bed that you’ll try to read to help your mind go in a different direction when you need to sleep.

Just have a plan–or even several–for what you will do when it hits the hardest.

5. Turn a Bad Day into Good Data

You’re going to mess up. We all do. None of us is perfect. When we do mess up, we often feel so badly. We’re disgusted with ourselves. We cry. We fret. We feel, “I’ll never defeat this.”

But I heard some great advice on a TED Talk recently, and it went like this: “Turn a bad day into good data.”

When you do mess up, remember that this gives you great information on what your triggers are and what your weaknesses are. So you can study that day and ask, “what was different about today than days that I didn’t mess up? Was I more stressed? Was I bored? Was I alone for a longer period of time? Did I watch too many movies?”

If you can figure out what was different, then it gives you strategies so that you can avoid recreating those circumstances later. Look on the times you mess up as research that can help you grow.

6. God Does Want to Help You With This

Remember, you aren’t alone. God does understand, and He does want to help you. When you pray about this, and you’re honest with Him, He will start to give you power to fight back.

Often when we’re feeling sexual temptation, too, it’s tied up in all kinds of other emotions. For widows it’s grief. For this letter writer, it’s rejection and feelings of loneliness. This man that she loved has already moved on with other women. For many of us, it’s also a realization that we’ve made poor choices and we may feel like we’ve now “lost” important years of our lives.

That’s a lot to process.

If you can start working through some of those other emotional and spiritual issues, you may find the sexual temptation lessens a bit. Just as we can “sublimate” sexual energy into creative energy, other things can be “sublimated” into sexual energy. So if you’re lonely, that can manifest itself by sexual temptation, even if the main need is just for human companionship. Working through some of your feelings with a trusted friend, a counselor, or even a Christian self-help book can start you on the road to healing.

But it won’t stop the sexual temptation altogether because sex is a fundamental part of who you are. And balancing fighting sexual temptation with still being a sexual being is tough. You are made to be sexual, whether you’re married or not. It’s just that right now you don’t have an outlet.

God understands. And so I just want to leave you with a few verses that I have found helpful when dealing with temptation. (Two of them are part of my 50 Best Bible Verses to Memorize!). Commit these to memory, and recite when necessary.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

 No temptationhas overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted[b] beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted,he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:15, 16).


  1. Thanks for addressing this question, Sheila. In my opinion, sexual temptation for adults is far more prevalent now than it was in our grandparents’ day. The reality is when women and men work closely together in an office environment there will be temptations of this sort. (Provocative dress on the part of some individuals does not help here. In fact, one might consider inappropriate attire by women as a form of sexual harassment of male employees. As a contract worker, I have worked in many office environments and seen cases of this.) The suggestions you provide are helpful. Perhaps, one of the greatest (read: strongest) defenses against such sexual temptation is to nurture loving sexual intimacy in one’s own marriage. Sexual refusers and gatekeepers are making their spouse more vulnerable in this area.
    Larry B of recently posted…tea bag wisdom and the summer solsticeMy Profile

    • Sheila I like this post. Thank you. Larry while I agree with the suggestion of nuturing intimacy in your marriage (a two way street of course), I entirely disagree with your statement about blaming women to the point of sexual harassment. You can’t be serious. I would encourage you to read an entirely different side of things in this blog: Seriously. Blaming women for this has got to stop.

      • My daughters and I read that satire this weekend! It was hilarious, and really insightful.

      • Erin, what i would do over in my comment above is to clarify more clearly that sexual temptation affects those persons who are married as well as those who are single adults, separated and divorced persons. As to sexual harassment, I am not blaming women when they are sexually harassed (I do not blame victims). A careful reading of my above comment here might help: ” . . . one might consider inappropriate attire by women as a form of sexual harassment of male employees.” Let’s agree to disagree on this one. (And, some husbands are sexual refusers.) Best wishes.
        Larry B of recently posted…Charlotte Perkins Gilman – some challenging thoughtsMy Profile

  2. First, I want to thank you for not endorsing masturbation. We hear too often in secular society that “everyone does it” and it is normal but it is contrary to the will of God and His plan for how he created us.
    On a different note, but mentioned in your post so I want to clarify: Paul did not found the Church. I have never heard a Christian say this and I was quite surprised. So I wanted to make note of it. Of course, he was sent out to evangelize and brought many people to Christ. But he did not found the Church. Jesus built His church on Peter. Matthew 16:18

    • I know what you’re saying, but he did found the church in Ephesus, and Philippi, and Corinth, and Rome, and all those other cities that he visited. That’s what I meant. Not “found the church” as a whole, but certainly found the churches in those cities, along with his missionary partners! That’s just generally the way that we talk about it–in the same way that missionaries today who go to unreached places “found” the church in those places. They walk in where there is no church, and then when they leave there is one, because they founded it. Sorry if there was confusion!

      • Thanks for clearing that up. It was just startling to me when I read that in the original post. Thanks for tackling the issue of temptation. It was a good post overall.

  3. Excellent article! I can vouch for every single point. What you are saying works.

    But I love how you worded a few things, sometimes hearing things said a different way increases understanding. The sublimation thing is perfect. And even more than just diverting energy, it focusses the mind on things that are or significant purpose.

    And I love the “turn a bad day into good data”. In my recovery group I am always telling guys that it’s a shame you had a relapse, but learn from it, what triggered you, when did the relapse actually start (usually it’s actually days or weeks before the actual acting out). If you can learn from it and defend against it next time, you will be much less likely to relapse again.

    Great article. Love what you are doing Sheila. You have taken on a difficult ministry, and you are knocking it out of the park! Keep it up!

  4. Jennifer says:

    This is something I have struggled with for years – though I have done better since making the commitment to be the person God wants me to be.

    But I still struggle and find that the information and support is lacking, particularly for women. I was actually searching about help for this yesterday and was surprised to find that your most recent post (since I follow your blog) was about this topic. I took it as a sign from God. (PS: Just read “Good Girl’s Guide” though I’m seven years married and have already walked through all the tough times you mentioned – gave me much support and things to think about differently – thank you.)

    Even when I was “away” from God, I would still feel awful afterward. I would tell myself all the scientific and “all about me” mumbo jumbo and none of it would make me feel any better – I would only feel worse.

    My biggest struggle is that it seems to come along while I’m doing my daily Bible reading recently. I do not want to stop reading and studying but it is almost laughable sometimes as I’m reading Proverbs. All I do is ask God and keep in communication with him and then when I am done, I try to get up and getting moving doing some chore or task.

    I do also love “Turn a Bad Day into Good Data”. What a wonderful way of thinking about mistakes and slip ups in life (no matter what they pertain to).

    Thank you for writing about this.

  5. Alchemist says:

    hah. Even as a virgin it gets MUCH worse in your late twenties.

    I don’t really know why the advise for young people shouldn’t work for older people.

    Your points are excellent. They seem to work quite well. Here women may have the advantage. It’s actually not that hard to turn it off by thinking of something else. I find thinking of my job (chemistry) or grading or reading complex arguments (looking at you Lewis) all work well.

  6. I am engaged and we promised to wait to have sex. But it happen. So we agree dead again so this is the pattern and now it’s hurting our relationship. It’s hard not wanting to be her. As we’ll she feels the same. How do we over come this

    • Alchemist says:

      There are some other articles on this website on how to stop sleeping with your fiancé and how to start over when you’ve slept with someone before marriage.

      Maybe you should do the “turn a bad day into good data” thing. When does it happen? When your alone in your apartment? late at night? When you’re relaxed? When you’ve been snuggling on the couch? Then put specific measures in place to prevent those situations from happening.

      You should probably both confess to other, more mature Christians and get in accountability relationships with them. Ask them for help. It should be a guy for you and a woman for her. And then pray with them and ask them for help. Also ask God for help.

      You guys may have to take really drastic measures, like never being alone in a private place together. I can’t even imagine how hard it must be to stop once you’ve started. But it can be done. You can start over.

    • anonymous says:

      I think you solve the problem but just getting married already. We, in the US at least, have this problem with waiting forever while we plan some ridiculously over the top wedding to the tune of 30k dollars. Just go get married. It is better to marry than burn in lust. If you want a big party have one for 10 anniversary or something or have a big wedding celebration/reception after you are married or do a big 1 year anniversary or something.

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