“‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.” – Ephesians 5:31-32
Here’s a thought experiment you might consider running with your teens: “Imagine you’re engaged to someone you love. They’re everything you’ve ever wanted in a man (or woman), and you know you want to spend the rest of your life with them. One night, as you’re spending time together, the topic of his/her sexual history comes up. Imagine you’re in that situation. Now ask yourself: what would hurt to hear that they had already done with someone else?”
If your teens answer sincerely, we’d encourage you to share Luke 6:31 with them, where Jesus says, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Then translate the verse for them this way: whatever would hurt us to hear, Jesus says to set others up so they don’t have to hurt because of something we participated in. This means in romantic relationships we ask ourselves the question, “How can I treat this person so that even if we’re separated by choice, geography, or anything else, they would still be better off because I had been a part of their life?”
Not only is this a great way to live into the Golden Rule, but setting boundaries and upholding them is also a way to lift up each other’s dignity. It’s a way of saying, “We are more than just our physical urges.” Whereas some worldviews claim that we’re only animals (and therefore that we can/should indulge in sexual activity like animals would), to set boundaries and then uphold them is to say, “We are more than just animals. We are image-bearers of God, and we have great dignity, even nobility because of that.”
Yet even still, as we’ve said, the question is not, “How far is too far?” but rather “How did the inventor of sexuality intend his invention to be used, and how can I align myself with that?” and then, “How can I help others do the same?”
It may be easy for some teens to justify sexual activity earlier in relationships if they “feel certain” that they’re going to marry the person eventually. Gary Thomas speaks to that in his book The Sacred Search:
The same sin that moves your girlfriend to get too physical before marriage is the sin that will kill or perhaps maim sexual intimacy after marriage. Sin, by definition, is overturning God’s created order. In God’s created order, there should be no sex outside of marriage, and lots of fulfilling, generous sex during marriage. Why do you think a person will disobey God in the first instance, but obey Him in the second?
If sex was designed to be a signpost to the church’s relationship with God, and the Enemy’s desire is to turn the signpost of sex in a direction other than God, his concern wouldn’t be just to see more sex happening everywhere, but rather to see more sex happening outside of marriage and less sex happening inside of marriage. His goal would be to mix the message as often as possible, so outside marriage we’d see physical commitment without whole-life commitment, and inside marriage we’d see marital commitment without the joy of its physical expression. In both instances, the intended sign of rapturous, all-consuming, covenantal devotion is short circuiting in one place or another, so the whole sign isn’t lit up.
On the flipside, teenagers also need to understand that:
- marriage is not a cure-all for lust, and in fact it may stir up more intensely what hasn’t previously been dealt with
- marriage is absolutely not a cure-all for problems in a dating relationship
- single people are not stuck on the outside of the thing that brings everyone inside non-stop bliss and euphoria (i.e. marriage is hard—teens need realistic portraits of what it takes to sustain marriage that offer more than just “happily ever after” codas), and
- sexual chemistry or compatibility is something learnable, not something to marry for. Our culture tells us that the best sex happens when we’re young and hot, and seems to know nothing about how years of relational trust can compound the enjoyment of sex in a marriage.
For teens who have already become sexually active, we should do whatever we can to destroy any binary conception of purity/impurity. Those who are taught that purity is all-or-nothing, and who then sin sexually, may feel stuck in continual estrangement from God. What God asks is repentance, not penance; we don’t have to punish ourselves in order to get back into his good graces, we only have to receive those graces. In fact, an affirmation of God’s unwavering love to someone who has sinned sexually might be the very thing that leads them to pursue a lifelong devotion to Jesus.
Jesus showed people grace; he also showed people truth. If one of the teens you care for trusts you with the information that they have already been sexually active, but it was in a relationship that’s already over, it’s healthy to counsel them to spend some time being single, reevaluating and reintegrating the sexual side of themselves with the emotional, mental, and spiritual sides of themselves. As Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend wrote in their book Boundaries in Dating, “The issue is not how to fit our spiritual life into our dating life; rather, it is how to fit our dating life into our spiritual life.”
If one of the teens in your care is still in a relationship that has been sexual, Gary Thomas’ counsel (again from The Sacred Search) is for them to “decide from this point on that you’re going to do it God’s way. You’re going to stop what you’ve been doing and see if the relationship grows or suffers accordingly.”
Good things flourish with boundaries. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “The more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.” If the relationship dies without the sexual component, there wasn’t much there to begin with.
Having said all that, as good and important as these boundaries are, what’s even more important is our son or daughter’s relationship with Jesus. William Countryman says it well:
The entire conversation about ethics, sexual or other, needs to be placed in the context of spirituality. The New Testament discourse about the Fruits of the Spirit (e.g. Galatians 5:22-23; James 3:13-18) suggests that we are not simply concerned about conformity, but about how the living out of sexual ethics serves to encourage growth and a maturing spirituality. The rules are a means to an end, not ultimate truths in their own right. An overemphasis on the rules, as opposed to life in the Spirit, leads to a dry rigidity that is the very opposite of the good news of the Gospel.
With that in mind, we encourage you to share your stories about romance, marriage, and sexuality. Give honest portraits of what it takes to navigate the nuances and complications that arise when two human beings become intimate with one another. Be bold in conversation, knowing that you’re on God’s turf. And do all this with a view toward your son or daughter’s maturing spirituality, in the light of the fact that sex and relationships only exist because God created them—the same God who died and rose again to restore a relationship with us.
Congratulations on making it to the end of first one! Here are some questions to help spark conversation with your teens about these topics:
- What do you think it takes to maintain a healthy romantic relationship with someone?
- Do you think boundaries make relationships stronger or weaker?
- Why do you think people get married?
“Father, thank you for allowing me to care for these members of the next generation. Help me to be wise and persuasive in my speech—to ask questions that uncover their hearts, and to customize my own answers to bring grace and truth, as needed. Help me in my conversation to inspire them to pursue honorable boundaries in their sexuality. Help me to guide them toward marriage (or celibacy) for the right reasons, not for the idolatry of romance or the fear of sex. Lead us by your selfless love, Lord Jesus. In Jesus’ name, amen.”