If you want a guaranteed nomination for oddball of the year, announce to your friends or co-workers that you think sex is only for marriage. Most view such archaic notions as eccentric and even bizarre. Virgins are made to feel like nerds. If you haven’t “gotten lucky” by 18, it’s probably because you’re a social reject.
That’s not just the world’s view. Tragically, it’s increasingly the view of many who would otherwise consider themselves Christians.
Even so, in spite of social pressure to the contrary, there is still a small number of brave singles who are making the promise to wait. Others are doing what I did as a new Christian. Though they’ve been sexually active in the past, they’re committing now to faithfulness and obedience, regardless of their history, until they make lifelong commitments in marriage.
The reason is not because they’ve got crooked teeth, bad complexions, or don’t bathe. Rather, it’s because they believe God has the best insight on building strong relationships and durable marriages.
This is not conventional wisdom, however. To many, it just makes sense to test the sexual waters before agreeing to settle down with one person. Those who are courting, according to this view, should find out if they’re sexually compatible. Further, it’s more realistic. Peer pressure on singles is intense. “Just say no” may work with drugs, they say, but not with sex.
Is it wise to test-drive a potential mate in bed to see if all the sexual pistons are firing? Is chastity unrealistic given the realities of modern life and the pressures adolescents and adults face?
I think not. This notion reflects mistaken ideas on the nature of human sexuality, creates serious practical problems, and runs afoul of both God’s wisdom and his commands.
Sex: More Than Mechanics
The first problem with “try before you buy” is it reduces sex to physical mechanics. The title of a well-known book, Sex Begins in the Kitchen, makes a great point: A critical part of our sexual fulfillment has nothing to do with what goes on in the bedroom, a truth women understand better than men.
Simply put, the power of sex and the effectiveness of a good sex life are not to be found merely in mechanics, but are primarily—though not entirely—relational. A good relationship can be improved by better mechanics, but good technique can’t build a sound partnership.
Ironically, “good” sex can actually be a danger sign. Some of the most unhealthy relationships are accompanied by tremendous sexual intensity. The cycle of conflict then reconciliation characteristic of unstable unions can really launch the libido. That’s why making up is so sweet.
Later in life, though, this emotional seesaw gets old. The eroticism dissipates, but the fighting and distancing remain. The very pattern that stimulated passion ends up ruining the marriage. Conversely, qualities that make for a healthy marriage—respect, self-control, kindness, charity, sensitivity, patience—do not lend themselves to sexual intensity at the outset. In the long run, however, these virtues stabilize the relationship and contribute to a satisfying sex life.
Is your sweetheart patient, sensitive, self-sacrificial, understanding, kind, concerned about your particular needs? Those qualities make the real difference in the long run, and you can discover them without jumping into the sack together to test the machinery.
Love vs. Pleasure
The “try before you buy” view misrepresents the nature of sexuality a second way: It diminishes lovemaking to physical pleasure. Sex is not just for procreation and recreation. It’s also for identification: the two become one.
One of the most powerful aspects of physical intimacy is the bonding that results from surrender, vulnerability, and physical and emotional transparency. These elements create a deep identification, a collapse of the ego boundaries, creating a profound union.
This is not a skill that’s developed through short-term sexual adventures. It’s a result of oneness built over time in the protective environment of stability and commitment.
Some people do have unhealthy inhibitions, but I’m not convinced that testing the sexual waters is going to surface them. Some “problems” are merely the product of naiveté, inexperience, and simple modesty. They could easily be overcome with kindness, patience, and a little time, but they can be magnified in the performance environment of a sexual test run.
In fact, that’s part of the problem with this view. How comfortable would anyone feel jumping into bed to have their sexual competence tested? Would this environment bring out your best performance?
No, sexuality is developed in its deepest and most satisfying way in an atmosphere of safety and commitment, where neither person is concerned their performance is going to disqualify them.
Further, sexual tastes are malleable. They change with time. After all, what do two young people experimenting with sex know about what they want? That’s the beauty of God’s plan. He puts two people together who are committed for life, who know little about what they like. They begin growing and experimenting, developing their sexual tastes together so that each can become the other’s sexual ideal.
Sex vs. Intimacy
Sex is powerful and can easily get out of control if given the reins. Often, if sex is on the agenda, it quickly goes from being the dessert of the relationship to being the main course, but men and women tend to experience this differently. Men know this viscerally, in their gut, and go for the gold as often as they can. Women experience this pattern over time as a vague but growing sense of being used.
Soon, every date ends up in the sack or rolling around in the back seat. Instead of channeling energy into discovering each other’s unique differences, couples spend it probing each other’s bodies, robbing the relationship of its depth.
When sexual exploration becomes part of the acquaintance process, it quickly becomes the first part rather than the last part, and then, often, the only part rather than one part of many. Often, the result is the illusion of intimacy when there is no true safety, the false impression of closeness between strangers.
If sex is not an option before marriage, then all of a couple’s energies are directed toward developing more soulish or interior dimensions of their relationship, allowing them to build a stable foundation for a healthy future sex life to rest upon.
Passion and Judgment
There’s another problem. Sex distorts judgment. Just as a blazing torch can twist a solid piece of steel, the heat of passion can bend a relationship all out of shape, warping a person’s focus and twisting good judgment.
When a couple thinks of marriage, they need to be able to assess the strength of their love and commitment. Even under the best of circumstances, this can be difficult, but sexual involvement complicates the issue. In Finding the Love of Your Life, psychologist Neil Clark Warren warns:
If we continue telling single persons that sexual intimacy is healthy at whatever stage of their relationship, they will continue getting married for all the wrong reasons. Once they have made this fundamental error, their marriage—and ultimately their family—will evolve into a struggle with no winners.
How do you know, for example, that the closeness and intimacy you feel are a result of strong partner-skills? If your libido jump-starts the relationship, how do you know if the two of you are good in life together or just temporarily good in bed? That question is a lot easier to answer if you’re not sexually involved.
When the foundation for a life commitment is a couple’s shared personal depth, then sexual favors in marriage become the gilded edge. It’s a type of “relationship glue” designed by God to bind the good stuff together when the going gets tough, which inevitably happens even in the best marriages.
The glue works in unhealthy couplings, too. It’s no secret that many lousy relationships survive on sex drive alone long after they should have been abandoned on their own merits.
Sex Has Consequences
Finally, sex can be physically perilous, now more than ever. Sexually active young people face the risk of a parade of sexually transmitted diseases—syphilis, chlamydia, herpes, gonorrhea—that have been increasing at alarming rates annually. Then there’s the human immunodeficiency virus, the deadly HIV, which makes other sexually transmitted diseases look like diaper rash.
There is also another concern. Sex is designed to accomplish something wonderful: produce babies. It is the natural, noble, and precious end God had in mind from the beginning (Gen. 1:27–28). The experience of becoming a parent should be one of the most wonderful events in life. Instead, when pregnancy happens outside the safety and security of marriage, the beautiful phrase “I’m going to have a baby” is often transformed into a lament. Once a proclamation of joy, it now signals tragedy and remorse.
Even those who are deeply committed pro-lifers waver when they’re the ones facing an unplanned pregnancy. Abortion starts looking like a reasonable alternative. Reports show that abortions among Christians are surprisingly common given their professed beliefs.
The woman who secretly disposes of her child in a moment of weakness shoulders the burden of that wrong the rest of her life. Those courageous women who carry their children to term face a host of overwhelming difficulties. Education plans are postponed or abandoned altogether. Career hopes are dashed. The financial burden can be staggering, especially for young adults.
Often, the mother finds herself deserted, facing all these problems alone. She nurses her own heartache in solitude, overcome by the responsibility of caring for another human being with little or no help from others.
Their children are often robbed of a stable home anchored by two parents as God intended. Frequently, there’s no parent in the home hardly at all. Little boys and girls are raised by daycare centers because mom must work to support the family by herself.
Unplanned pregnancies are not always this bleak, but they’re always much more difficult than anyone imagines in advance. Frequently, there’s a heavy strain on the extended family members who have to share parenting chores. There’s little extra money and no extra time. Add to that the difficulty of courting when you’re a single parent, and it’s easy for life to seem hopeless.
In fact, a woman’s life will never be the same, and the clock cannot be turned back. The private act of sensuality that “isn’t hurting anybody” becomes a public concern that robs everyone of God’s best, especially the children. Unfortunately, many become convinced of the wisdom of abstinence long after it’s too late.
The Scriptural Bottom Line
So far, we’ve talked about practical concerns regarding premarital sex. But if you’re a Christian, you know God has a lot to say about sex. The core of any relationship is trust, and the most obvious evidence of trust is obedience. Those who trust God obey him.
Since every act of disobedience is a denial of trust, it whittles away at the heart of our dependence on God. When that happens, we compromise the most vital relationship we have on earth. Sexual immorality rapidly erodes our closeness to God at a time when we need him most.
Both the Old and New Testaments make clear that God intended sex for—and limits it to—male-female relationships within the confines and protection of lifelong commitments. Scripture has no record of affirmative, positive sexual directives outside marriage. It knows many prohibitions.
The idea of unrestrained sexual freedom for consenting adults is foreign to the text. There are six sexual activities prohibited in the Bible: homosexuality, adultery, fornication, rape, incest, and bestiality. Each prohibition involves having sex with someone other than one’s spouse. Inside marriage, sex is undefiled; outside marriage, it’s forbidden. God gives sexual freedom only to husbands and wives—not to friends or co-workers, not to casual dates, not to longtime sweethearts who are in love.
Solomon uses vivid language in his counsel. He tells us not to pour the pure waters of our sexuality into the gutter (Prov. 5:16–20). By contrast, he says, “Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth,” not with the love of a stranger.
The Apostle Paul adds his own thoughts in 1 Thessalonians 4:3–6:
For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you.
Here is the most important problem with the view that you must sexually test one another before you get married. That counsel is a violation of God’s commands. If you are a Christian, that option is not open to you. If you cite the Bible as the rule of conduct for one area of life (love, justice, care for the poor, etc.) then the Bible applies with equal moral force to the other areas, too, and you are obliged to obey. Note carefully Paul’s words:
For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification. So, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives his Holy Spirit to you. (1 Thess. 4:7–8)
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers…nor homosexuals…will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor. 6:9–10)
Sexual chastity is not just the “ideal.” We don’t choose morality on a sliding scale from worse to better. Paul’s point in these passages is that when we depart from the biblical command, we are not simply choosing something short of the best, but something sinful. Sexual purity is God’s command.
However, sexual virtue is so much more than mere obedience—though that would be enough. Sexual purity provides the deepest satisfaction sex can bring, since God’s commands are always consistent with the way he’s designed us to flourish in life.
Sex inside a lifetime commitment between a man and a woman is God’s plan for us. Otherwise, we miss our best opportunity for thriving in the most important human relationship of our lives.
Thankfully, there’s always the promise of a fresh beginning. The new birth changes everything, which is the reason Paul followed his stern exhortation to the Corinthians noted above with these encouraging words:
Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor. 6:11)
Forgiveness, cleansing, and a new lease on life are all available to anyone by God’s grace through his provision in Christ. There is hope for every person who has embraced the cross and seeks the sanctification that only the Holy Spirit can produce.
Rx for Safety
Sex is powerful. It’s so powerful, we must manage it with care. The best protection I know of is being accountable to a third party for your sexual behavior. This may seem like strong medicine, but it’s a compelling incentive to do what’s right.
Here’s the reason we need this. When we exceed our limits, retreat is very difficult because the law of diminishing returns sets in. What thrilled us last week is ho-hum today, so we have to go further next time to get the same sexual wallop. It changes the whole equation, though, when a third person enters the picture.
Here’s how it works. First, enlist the aid of someone who will take this issue seriously—a parent, a conscientious friend, or a pastor. Next, set precise, well-defined limits you both agree on. Finally, schedule regular check-ups and be honest when you’ve crossed your boundaries.
Following the Beat of a Different Drummer
Virginity and sexual chastity are nothing to be ashamed of. They’re not unnatural, and some wonderful benefits accrue for those willing to “just say no” and delay sexual gratification.
The “try before you buy” mentality, on the other hand, shows a profound misunderstanding of the nature of human sexuality. It can be emotionally destructive and have serious physical consequences. Even more important, it’s a violation of God’s wisdom and disobedience to his commands.
“Try before you buy” may feel good, but it’s a dead end in the long haul. Those who live their lives in commitment to Jesus Christ, whatever the contrary pressures, will reap the rewards in the long term.
I once owned a cleverly worded t-shirt that said, “Practice safe sex. Get married and stay faithful.” This simple biblical truth offers more peace of mind than a closet full of condoms and more wisdom than any “safe sex” curriculum.
Neil Clark Warren, Finding the Love of Your Life, (Denver: Focus on the Family Publishers, 1992), 85.
According to a 2015 Lifeway Research study, 26% of all women who have had an abortion were attending a Christian church once or more a week at the time, 70% self-identified as Christian, and 16% considered themselves to be evangelical (http://research.lifeway.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Care-Net-Final-Presentation-Report-Revised.pdf).
Note 2 Corinthians 5:17.