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How Far is Too Far?

How Far is Too Far?

When you're in a dating relationship do you have the attitude "anything goes" or "if it feels good do it"? Is there such a thing as going too far physically with your boyfriend or girlfriend? Can you even go too far with your fiancée?

Some say kissing before engagement is going too far. Others say kissing is fine if there is some kind of emotional commitment. But what about sex? Is having sex before you're married going too far? What about various stages of petting or foreplay? Some Christians say the Bible is clear about all sexually related behavior is wrong outside of marriage. Some believers agree that intercourse before marriage is wrong but everything else--including oral sex-- is okay as long as you don't actually "do the deed." Still other people say, "The Bible is reliable and true on a lot of issues, but on the issue of sex it is outdated. It no longer applies."

Recently I taught a seminar on relationships. One question dominated: "How far can I go physically in a dating relationship without going too far?" With so many phases of a relationship and so many physical areas to consider, it is no wonder this question comes up over and over again among dating singles.

People want to know the limits for a very simple reason. First, we know our bodies are telling us they want sex. God made our bodies to want sex, but our mind knows God also sets parameters for the appropriate time and place for sex. Sexual expression of our love for another person within God's context is an awesome, incredible experience. Each of us is wired by the Creator to crave and respond to a mysterious and exciting mix of emotional and physical intimacy. Furthermore, almost no one seeks out pain and heartache and yet people still manage to get ambushed all the time. Knowing the limits can help us avoid pain. But literally millions of people have witnessed or experienced the emotional and (sometimes) physical damage that sex outside of the realm of marriage creates. What do we need to know in order to avoid the pain? What are the principles and the practicals of enjoying what God has given us without going too far?

Recently I was on vacation at the beach with my wife and we met a young woman who was out on the beach catching some rays right in front of us. Julia, who was twenty-one, started asking me questions about meeting my wife. I told our story and then she asked me an interesting question, "But did you live together first?" I said, "No way. Living together doesn't work, and not only that, but we also didn't have sex until we were married."

Talk about a verbal shocker. This woman was absolutely stunned by this news. She told me that she was contemplating living with her boyfriend. Her response to our story was, "Hey, times have changed. I know what my religion says about sex before marriage but things are different now." Thus, Julia answered the question "How far is too far?" by saying that sex and living together are simply a sign of the times. She recognized that her religious community perceived premarital sex as wrong, but somehow the turning of calendar pages had magically rendered the views of her community obsolete.

You may agree with or be confused by Julia's reasoning. Whichever your take is, I want to assess various questions that are "out there" in popular culture before we get to "the answer." As we move through these factors, we will follow a trail that leads to what I believe is a healthy, intelligent answer that delivers the best goods for each of us.

Set Boundaries

I bring up boundary setting first because it is so crucial for creating and sustaining a healthy, fun and rewarding dating relationship. No matter what answer you ultimately come down to, if you don't set boundaries with your partner, you will blow the relationship to pieces. Whether you are utterly convinced that hand-holding and kissing are for the engagement/marriage stage or whether you think that anything short of intercourse is okay while dating, if you don't set boundaries you will zoom right past your intentions. Good intentions are a great start, but without clear and firm boundaries intentions are made only to be broken. Remember, almost no one seeks pain in life, but intentions without boundaries guarantee failure. The choice is yours: set boundaries or get set for failure.

Whatever your boundaries are in the physical realm, it's something that you must set ahead of time. You cannot decide, "Well, I'm not going to have sex." once you're already caught up in a passionate moment. Before you get into a physical situation with someone you're dating, you have to decide where you draw the line. Why? Because otherwise the Brain Relocation Phenomenon will kick in. What is the Brain Relocation Phenomenon? It's what happens when you're in a romantic situation with someone of the opposite sex. You feel that connection; it's an intimate moment and suddenly you're desiring to make out like crazy. All of a sudden, your brain, which normally resides in your head, slowly starts to dislocate and move down through your neck, and then it starts sliding down through your chest cavity, and pretty soon your brain just gradually drops down below your belly button. Guess what? After the brain waves goodbye to the belt line, you're definitely not thinking rationally anymore (even if you were on the ride down.) You're thinking with your hormones because your brain has been relocated below the waist.

Here's one caution with setting boundaries -- you must be firm about them right off the bat or else they will be very difficult to maintain . I talk to women all the time who say, "Well, the only thing men want out of a relationship is sex. All they want to do is go further and further." Let me say this to the women: Do not give in. It's the same thing I told Julia, the girl on the beach: "You're going to attract people who are like you. If you're someone who has very fuzzy sexual boundaries, if you think that having sex before marriage is okay, or if you think living together is okay, you're going to attract men who are like-minded. If you start dating someone who has lesser boundaries than you do, you're probably going to slide down to his level. So do not compromise your standards, no matter what."

Many women think they have to perform sexually to keep a guy. This is crazy! Why? Because guys are conquest oriented. Once a guy has you and he takes you sexually, he will disrespect you and often he'll move on to find someone else. I've talked to hundreds of women who have experienced this very thing and they feel cheap and used when they get discarded by the guy on his way to the next conquest. Any man who disdains your decisions about your own body and how you protect your heart-- the most intimate issues of your life- is a man unworthy of spending time with you. All a guy like this is showing you is disrespect. Why, why, why would you want to share your soul, your life, with a guy who doesn't respect your most significant, intimate decisions? Ditch him quick and don't even look back in the rearview mirror.

Now the question is, how do you go about setting boundaries? First, you've got to answer the question of how far is too far (which we're getting to!) Second, you need to have an initial heart-to-heart discussion with your potential date, boyfriend or girlfriend, preferably not in a heated moment. You can do this with grace and humor, but the serious message needs to come through loud and clear. You tell your boyfriend or girlfriend in certain terms: "This is my boundary. Now, what is yours?"

As awkward as it may seem, by explicitly talking through the issue you will find that your relationship is already on a healthier, mental and emotional plane. You will begin the relationship with what every relationship needs-- communication. If the potential partner takes a more liberal view, then it's MUCH easier to say goodbye early, before your heart gets really involved. You'll spare yourself a multitude of pain in the form of guilt and shame if you nip the relationship in the bud, instead of waiting until the boundaries have been crashed and you feel plagued by remorse and regret.

And the good news...if the potential partner agrees, then you have an excellent start to the relationship. You have set a firm foundation. Of course, you will regularly need to reaffirm this initial conversation about boundaries- basically pledge allegiance to the boundary over and over- but this will also provide ample opportunities for healthy discussion of your relationship as a whole.

Who You Date

Another reason boundaries can be difficult for some to maintain is that a lot of people are dating people they shouldn't be dating. They're dating people outside of the Christian faith. They're dating people who have very fuzzy sexual boundaries and they end up in a whole heap of trouble, because they're compromising right from the beginning. They are compromising their own standards and God's standards for them. The Bible is clear that we are not to be unequally yoked. (Look up 2 Corinthians 6:14 and see Chapter 3 in The 10 Commandments of Dating)

Sifting Through Different Answers

Holding Hands & Hugging

Susan, a caller to the radio program, weighed in on the issue of how far is too far. Susan looked back on her life and said that now her limit was holding hands and hugging-- anything beyond that was too far for her. Susan spoke poignantly about how she came to her limit only after years of doing much more. With regret and remorse she said, "I'm telling you right now that based on my experience, I should have waited. If I only knew then what I know now. It just didn't feel right. I mean, when you're not married you feel guilty after the fact."

French Kissing

Ted is convinced that French kissing is too far. In Ted's mind, this is just totally sinful. He simply can't justify that kind of passionate activity. Is this a good boundary for him? Absolutely. In Ted's experience, kissing this way had enticed him to lust and Christ was pretty clear about lust being a sin. For him, this is the limit and for Ted to go beyond that would not be "of faith" (to use the Apostle Paul's phrase in Romans 14). I think that his boundary is a fine standard for him but not a final standard for everyone.

Here's the deal: Since the Bible doesn't explicitly deal with the issue of French kissing, it automatically becomes a grey area. Grey areas must be worked out in your relationship with the Lord, and this is done through consulting biblical commands, biblical principles, the wisdom of your Christian community, and prayer. The result of your wrestling with a grey area is a conviction about what you believe the Lord is leading you to do in the specific issue. But remember, a grey area is a grey area, and what the Lord leads you to do may be different from what He leads another to do (see the Romans 14 discussion about food).

Thus, if you believe that French kissing is going too far and it causes you to stumble or to have sexual thoughts that are inappropriate or displeasing, then that's too far for you. I say stick with your convictions... but be careful not to foist positions that are not explicit in Scripture onto other people.

No Such Thing As Too Far

It seems like most people in mainstream society say that it's okay to have sex before you get married. "Man, if it feels good, do it. Express yourself sexually." What's even more alarming is that many Christians adopt this same belief. Some say, "It's okay. We know we're going to get married so we can go ahead and have sex. Besides, we're in love." Or they simply say, "When I have sex with my boyfriend, that makes me feel closer to him. It's a good feeling."

Natalie was one such person. She said, "In my opinion, there isn't such a thing as 'too far'. I definitely feel that if people think they're ready to have sex, they should have sex, provided that they're using a condom." This was the utterly confident, worldly-wise voice of a 16-year-old girl who is sexually active. For Natalie, the risks, physical and otherwise, were no big deal. "I love sex," she enthused. "I think that it's a part of growing up. And in terms of you saying it's too far because God says so, well, everyone is entitled to their own beliefs."

Needless to say, I was saddened by Natalie's comments. Why? Because it will catch up with her. I talk to people every single week on the radio show and probably thousands of singles in my years as a singles pastor. Many, many who've been in Natalie's same shoes, sexually active teens or older, who now say. "If I had it to do over again, I would not have sex before marriage." Why? Because all these folks do is cheapen the sex act, and cheapen their bodies.

Furthermore, they take the risk of getting pregnant, of getting AIDS and other Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs), and devaluing themselves and each other emotionally and psychologically. Eventually, Natalie, like all those others before her, will experience and feel that loss of value. I'm not trying to be a killjoy, but I do believe this: God has created this world and has spoken to us, and when God gives us Scriptural boundaries, He does so because He adores us and wants to protect us from the consequences of poor choices. He's committed to our very best. He's NOT trying to rain on our parade. And the truth is, God's Word applies to our lives just as much today, as it did when our great-grandparents were our age. Scripture is timeless.

The Answer Is...

How far is too far? The answer you've been waiting for…. If you're having sex with someone, that's too far. As I have mentioned, but cannot reiterate enough, the Bible is explicitly clear when it states that sex outside of marriage is wrong. Scripture, our authority in life, doesn't say this once or twice, but many times. God sets that boundary in His Word in black and white. Thus, any time you engage in sexual intercourse with someone who is not your wife or your husband, you are blatantly disobeying one of the commandments of God. You are out of God's will. You are in sin. Bottom line.

In case that reasoning sounds too difficult, let me add this note of grace. God gives us the commandment to save sex for marriage for a reason. There is a why behind it. Every time the Lord gives a command, it's for our protection and our provision. God loves each of us and wants to protect us from harm. He also wants to provide rich blessing for us. God's commandments are not burdens. God is not anti-sex. In fact, God invented sex. God knows more about sex than Howard Stern, Dr. Ruth and Dr. Drew on MTV combined, because He created it. He knows all the instructions about handling it with care. Sex can be compared to a fire. Handle sex incorrectly and just a spark can burn and destroy. Handle it correctly, in the proper context (of marriage), and it will be warm, comforting, and bless you like you can't imagine. God's exciting, gracious plan for human sexuality is to bring us maximum sexual fulfillment.

So if you're having sex with someone you are not married to, cut it out. Stop. Stop having sex. With God's enabling power you can do it. Embarking on a life of purity will change the way you see other people, the way you see God, and the way you see yourself. You will experience maximum wholeness and a healthy sense of self-respect. You will have healthier, more fulfilling dating relationships built on foundations that last. Your perception of your value as a person will greatly increase.

The Other Part of the Answer

But there's more than just sex that needs to be addressed in completing the answer of how far is too far? The Bible actually goes further in this area, because when it talks about the word sex it uses the word porneia, which means sexual immorality. Sexual immorality includes intercourse, but it also includes other things like lust. Practically speaking, anything you do that incites you to lust is out of bounds. Is this a grey area? Yes. It is different for everyone. Some people start lusting by just holding hands and cuddling. Others can cuddle and not be consumed with lust, so that's okay with them. "Too far," in terms of falling into lust, does depend on each person. That's why you have to monitor yourself, but then talk it out with your community of friends who share your same faith and beliefs so you can be accountable to one another.

Some Christians don't like the words "grey" and "principle." Perhaps you are wired for concrete lines, so when you hear principles instead of commands it just frustrates you. You're confused by discovering that the only specific, non-negotiable line that the Bible gives is no intercourse. The next step up is a principle-- don't lust. And the "don't lust principle" activates in different people with different specific acts. Thus, if I'm going to be faithful to Scripture and only speak where Scripture speaks, I can't make up hard lines where Scripture only gives general principles. Some people think kissing is unholy, but their problem is, they can't site a Scripture that supports that. (In fact, Scripture says the opposite in terms of church gatherings-- greet each other WITH a holy kiss!)

God is big on being holy but what that principle of being holy means depends. When God gives commands we can be sure in black and white terms. But when He gives principles, those have to be figured out in our culture. Undoubtedly some people wish God had given us no principles, but rather thousands and thousands of specific commands to address every issue of our lives. Then we could be perfectly clear in all situations. But, God did not see fit to do that…He chose to give a lot of commands but also He chose to give us principles to govern situations beyond the commands. That's where things get hard for us fallen humans with our little minds. However, having said that about grey areas and principles, you're deluding yourself if you do everything in foreplay, including oral sex, and think you can still be within God's biblical boundaries and still be glorifying God. You're kidding yourself, you're playing games and you're making a mockery out of God's glorious gift to husbands and wives.

Consequences For Going Too Far

Natalie argues that people have different beliefs, so ethics are relative to each person. But whether you bow to Allah or Buddha, Christ or Confucius, sooner or later the promiscuous lifestyle will catch up with you. It does every time. What I say to people like Natalie is this, "I hope you can realize that what you're doing is really stupid." I'm not saying that she's stupid, but this lifestyle she's been seduced into is foolish. Why? Because she has cheapened the sex act; she has cheapened her own body. Not to mention that she's taking tremendous risks sexually, physically and emotionally.

Look at it this way, every time you have sex with someone who is not your husband or wife, a part of you breaks off inside of them, and a part of them breaks off inside of you. I'm speaking of our souls, that mystic part of our being. When you live this way, you're scattering yourself emotionally, psychologically, and physically every single time. Because God designed the sexual act to be connected with a life long commitment of marriage, there's always going to be scarring when you step outside the parameters. It happens every single time, whether you believe in God or not. These scars can take a long time to surface and an even longer time to heal.

Furthermore, I think there's a direct correlation between self-esteem and someone's sexual life. I have talked to countless people who were sexually active and suffer from extremely low self-esteem. Again, that's something no one in today's pop culture really addresses. How does it affect your self-image? How does it affect the way you value yourself and evaluate your body? When you're giving yourself away sexually, you're simply giving away your body as a piece of junk. My heart breaks for the Natalie's of this world who are so filled up with false beliefs and false promises, having no idea of the pain that will inevitably catch up with them. Five or ten years down the road, she may well be one of those calling into the show or sharing in a group discussion on this topic, and she'll say. "I used to think it was so free and easy. Nothing was too far. But let me tell you the high price I paid for all that free love."

Amy's story is a nice counterbalance to Natalie's because Amy has been on both sides of the fence, and now years later, looks back on her teenage, sex happy days. "First of all, let me just say that when you go too far, and I hope that teenage girls will read this, you lose a lot. I became pregnant when I was 16 years old. I was in the tenth grade and it was very, very difficult. You don't think about the consequences when you're 16, but you lose freedom and so much more. Now I'm 31 and my son will turn 15 next month, and I'm just kind of sitting back looking at myself...

"I think, Gosh, it's been so hard. My life could have been so different. When you're 16, you see all your friends having sex, so you want to go out there and explore too. But you don't think about what follows. And that's what is so devastating because it affects your whole life. For the rest of your entire life, you live with that choice."

A Place to Start

You may be asking, "So, what happens if I've already messed up? If I've already gone too far? Or what if I'm in a relationship, but am not sure what my personal boundaries are or should be? Am I doomed to repeat my mistakes, or wander around in a frustrating cloud of grey?" The answer is no and I will tell you why. If you've already crossed the line, it's never too late to receive God's grace, be forgiven and cleansed, and start over with new boundaries. And if you're puzzled by where to start figuring out what boundaries to set, I can give you some really good common sense (not actual Scripture, but influenced by Scripture) advice from years as a singles minister and radio host.

Here's the clear line, combining Scripture with common sense: Nothing below the neck. And I'm not talking about hugs, which are naturally below the neck-- you know what I mean. If you can go below the neck with a guy or girl and not be aroused to lust, you will be the first I've heard. Keep your hands and lips north of the neckline and you should stay in bounds.

The Bottom Line

Here's the bottom line on "how far is too far?" While God wired us for sex, giving us a pretty valid reason to explore this question in the first place, let's not forget that we shouldn't be trying to squeeze as much license out of a holy God as we can. If we're obsessed or overly focused on sex, then our eyes are on the limit. A much healthier, more godly approach is to seek to glorify God as much as you can in your dating relationship, to stay away from those neighborhoods, so to speak, where you get into trouble. Rather than risk getting mugged by desire in a bad alley, why not walk in the bright avenues and boulevards of purity? Rather than pushing the envelope of desire, better to plan dates and time with your boyfriend or girlfriend in settings that will help you enjoy your relationship the way God intended and the way that will bring you maximum fulfillment.

Scripture References underlying this booklet (and profitable for your own personal study of this issue):

1 Corinthians. 6: 18
1 Thessalonians 4: 3-4
Romans 13: 13
1 Timothy 4: 8
Galatians 5: 16

(edited by GL 1/12/00)