When I was eleven, my mom and I went on a mother-daughter retreat called “Passport to Purity.” We ate at a fancy restaurant, hiked in a state park, and talked about sex.
One of my worksheets during that weekend (yes, there were worksheets) pictured a path leading up to the edge of a cliff. Along the path were actions progressing from being alone in a room together to sex. Actually, sex wasn’t even on the path. It lay beyond the cliff’s edge, broken in the churning river below. My job was to take a pencil and draw a line representing my physical boundary – a fence, if you will – to keep me from falling off the cliff.
When I drew that fence, I didn’t really ask why. It didn’t really bear on my life that much, anyway. My biggest relationship worry was whether my crush would make eye contact with me in the hallway.
But when I started dating, this question of setting physical boundaries became a lot more real. I’ve had to wrestle with it a lot since then, and in all honesty, I haven’t always wrestled well. That line I drew when I was eleven? I crossed it, and once I had, I started asking more questions. But instead of asking, why are these lines here? I started asking, well, if not that one, what line should I draw? I started scouring Scripture, buying books, going to conferences, and reading blogs. I wanted someone to tell me exactly what to do; I wanted to know how close to the cliff I could push my fence.
Scripture is clear that sex is meant for marriage (1 Thessalonians 4:1-3).
Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality.
The Greek word translated as “sexual immorality” means sexual activity outside of marriage. The Bible isn’t ambiguous about this one: sex outside of marriage is wrong — but what about everything before it?
It’s easy to look at this gray space and ask “how far is too far?” with the hope of finding a concrete, physical rule. The problem with that question is that it doesn’t matter what the condition of your heart is, so long as you’re not going too far. God didn’t tell us how far is too far, because He is a God of grace. Instead, throughout Scripture, He gave us clear indicators of the way we need to approach sexuality. As in all our actions, our obedience — in this case, setting physical boundaries — flows from the condition of our hearts.
So, where should you set your physical boundaries? Where you are able to control your own body in holiness and honor, refrain from wronging your brother, and obey your calling to holiness (1 Thessalonians 4:4-8).
- Does your physical relationship allow you to control your body in holiness and honor? (1 Thessalonians 4:4-5) “[For this is the will of God…], that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.”
Abstaining from sexual immorality is more than not having sex outside of marriage. It’s controlling your body in holiness and honor, instead of obeying lust. And notice what Paul says: “that each one of you know how to control his own body…” It’s an individual command. Where should you draw your boundaries? Well, what do you need to do (or not do) to exhibit self-control?
It’s important to be honest with yourself. If the answer is that you and your significant other can’t be in a house alone, don’t be in a house alone. Jesus calls us to be willing to hate lust so much that we would rather cut off our hands than indulge it (Matthew 5:27-30).
- Does it keep you from wronging your brother in Christ? (1 Thessalonians 4:6) “[For this is the will of God…], that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.”
We aren’t only commanded to know ourselves; we’re also commanded to know our brothers. We need to care about their hearts and minds, and that includes knowing when we’re leading them astray — a serious sin (Matthew 18:6). Two people in a relationship will doubtless have different levels of self-control. If you can control yourself in holiness or honor, but your fellow believer can’t, don’t wrong him or her. Don’t use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another (Galatians 5:13).
- Are you obeying your call to holiness? (1 Thessalonians 4:7-8) “For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.” If you skipped that verse, go back and read it again. God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. That means he’s called us to refrain from idolatry (Colossians 3:5) — idolatry of control, pleasure, flattery, fill in the blank. If you’re chasing an idol in your physical relationship, you are ignoring this call and choosing impurity.
But impurity is not where the sentence ends. “God has not called us for impurity, BUT in holiness.” He is not only forbidding something, but also pointing us to something better.
When we think about sexuality, it’s easy to think about all of the don’ts. Don’t have sex before marriage. Don’t watch pornography. Don’t lust. And while these are all incredibly important, the Bible’s discourse about sexuality is not solely a list of don’ts. We are not only called to strive against sexual immorality, but for purity (Philippians 4:8, Psalm 24:4). Not only to strive against defilement, but for holiness (1 Peter 4:16). Not only to refrain from sexual immorality, but to act for the Lord (1 Corinthians 6:13). We are called to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (Romans 12:1-2). We are commanded to flee from sexual immorality, not because God is a killjoy, but because God has willed it for our sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3). Physical boundaries point us and others back to the One who made us, designed us for intimacy, and calls us to purity.
As Ana wrote last week, boundaries are there for our good. When you’re physically close with someone, you’ll likely become emotionally close with them as well. In a relationship, that’s not necessarily a bad thing – in fact, it’s part of God’s design! – but it can wreak havoc if the relationship ends. If we don’t set boundaries, we run the risk of awakening love before it’s what God intends for us.
But don’t draw your lines because you believe they’ll earn you God’s favor. Don’t draw your lines because of how others perceive you. Don’t draw your lines because you believe they’ll make you good. Draw your lines because your great God, who lavishes His grace upon you (Ephesians 1:8), leads you through fiery trials unscathed (Isaiah 43:2), knows your temptations intimately (Hebrews 2:17-18), and cleanses you from your sins by His sacrifice (1 John 1:7), has called you to be holy as He is holy. You strive not only against sin, but for Christ.
If you’re struggling in this area — whether you’re not sure what God has called you to in your relationship, or you’ve already crossed so many lines you feel like all hope is lost — I encourage you: Search Scripture. Pray. Read books. Talk to a Christian who’s been in your shoes. Sex and physical boundaries aren’t always easy to talk about, but the best way to kill this sin is to bring it into the light. I’m including a list of Scripture I’ve found helpful in thinking about this topic, but I encourage you to use this as a launching point to dig deeper.
Galatians 5:13: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”
1 Corinthians 6:12-18: “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything. ‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.”
1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
2 Corinthians 8:21: “For we aim at what is honorable not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of man.”
Colossians 3:5, 17: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry…And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
1 Thessalonians 4:3-8: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.”
Hebrews 13:4: “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.”