Welcome to our seventh session of Q and LA (questions and Lutheran answers). As you may recall,
"This is just a discussion that we wish we were having over tea and coffee in someone’s living room. There would probably be kids yelling in the background. There would probably be cookies, and spilled tea."
Feel free to join our virtual tea party by chiming in with your own advice, input, or anecdotes (we love anecdotes) in the comments.
What are some practical ways to help dating couples and marriage-minded people in general avoid giving in to sexual temptation? I am talking about serious, responsible adults who understand sin, grace and forgiveness, and are working toward marriage, but plain biology wrapped in the Old Adam is leading them to sin. What role should their friends, parents, and pastor have in helping them not to succumb to temptation? I understand outward actions and practices don't keep our heart "pure," and there is no one-sized fits all answer (like the evangelical "courtship" fad from a few years ago), but there are certainly practical ways we can help our brothers and sisters not to sin. What are they?
Earnest questions such as yours point to the Holy Spirit’s work in your life. Jesus tells us that the Holy Spirit will remind us of all that God says in His Word, which includes the Sixth Commandment to not commit adultery. It is indeed a challenge in our current society, in which people rarely use the word modesty and do whatever feels right at the moment.
Practically speaking, there are a number of things you can do to avoid sexual temptation. First of all, take time to recognize and talk about what puts you in temptation’s way. For example, when my husband and I were early in our dating relationship, I told him that I did not want to engage in prolonged kissing. A kiss was where I was going to draw the boundary line. For his part, he said that he did not want to recline together. Therefore, when we watched a movie at home, we sat upright on the couch. He also said he thought we should make sure to end our evenings together by a certain time (by midnight), so that we weren’t in a situation where our guards were worn down by fatigue. We also decided not spend time hanging out in each other’s bedrooms. I can’t say that I understood his boundary lines at that time, but I respected them, as he respected mine.
These boundaries kept the Old Adam externally in check, and helped us not to be excessively stirred up on the inside. The boundaries are going to look different for different couples, but the important thing is to have them and talk about them! It will feel awkward, but think about all the couples who have been too intimate and yet have never spoken about keeping themselves from such things.
Friends and parents can be a support for you, reminding you of both God’s Law and Gospel and listening to you when you need to talk about the challenges and blessings you are encountering. Depending on where you live, friends and family can sometimes do activities with you, so the two of you are not alone an excessive amount of time. Pastors can give counsel from God’s Word and pronounce absolution, since we never measure up to God’s law, even if we externally keep ourselves from sin.
The Law of God is good and wise, as the Lutheran hymn says. There are certainly blessings that come from avoiding sin. I am greatly encouraged by your post, and pray that many more unmarried people would ask the same questions you are. May God keep you steadfast in the grace of Jesus Christ, knowing His forgiveness!
It's true that outward practices, such as the Joshua Harris-version of courtship, do not keep the heart pure. We humans will sin during even the most carefully orchestrated courtship and our only hope is in the forgiveness of Christ. On the other hand, Scripture also tells us to flee temptation (as an analogy, just because we are going to die someday anyway doesn't mean that we should run across the street in front of speeding cars). I think that Christians are well-served by re-examining our contemporary cultural ideas about how to pursue romantic relationships. Consider the entire script an à la carte menu from which you need not order (if you are a pastor, parent, or friend, you can challenge and encourage others to think this way as well). You need not date for recreation or companionship before you are ready to marry. You need not prolong your engagement. You need not be physically affectionate during engagement-- really, you don't even need to hold hands!
That does not mean that it is necessarily wrong to do these things. I have no desire to create rules for any engaged couple or to forbid them from holding hands. Instead, I suggest that as a mental exercise, instead of deciding "how far is too far," couples might approach the question from the opposite angle and ask themselves "how far is far enough" to accomplish their goal of working toward marriage. In my experience, every act of physical intimacy, such as hand-holding, hugging, kissing, or sitting close together, builds emotional intimacy. Ask yourself, "How much physical intimacy do we need to achieve the emotional intimacy to be prepared for our marriage?"
When my now-husband and I were experiencing our whirlwind long-distance relationship and engagement (the romance part was whirlwind, but we'd known each other for years), we chose to engage in very little "touching." In fact, we were crazy enough to refrain from even holding hands until engagement and from kissing until our wedding. We had no trouble getting used to smooching once we were wed. Different couples will make different choices, but please-- feel free to be as weird as you like, because you are unlikely to look back and regret that you didn't cuddle on the couch in the evenings (or whatever the case may be), especially since you are not guaranteed to marry this person with whom you are considering marriage. Besides, you aren't likely to be tempted to go too far if you never start. This is where it is helpful to know yourself. Are you the sort of person who finds it easier to avoid giving in to temptations (even little ones like spending too much time on facebook) if you give the entire temptation a wide berth (uninstalling facebook on your phone, for instance), or are you the sort of person who responds well to specific boundaries like allowing yourself access to facebook but setting time limits? Knowing yourselves, being honest with each other, and looking out for the other person's weaknesses is good training for marriage.
You seem to be asking more about how to influence the mindset and norms of a peer group (eg, friends, relatives, acquaintances) rather than how to combat temptation yourself, but both might begin with prayer. Commend singles and dating couples to Christ, asking Him to guard their hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. The Lutheran Service Book contains some beautiful and helpful prayers concerning temptation and marriage.
I think young people should also question a few societal norms that prolong dating and postpone marriage, namely (1) that financial and career security are somehow prerequisites for marriage and (2) that adults in their early twenties are too young to marry. It does not seem realistic to ask people to remain sexually inactive until marriage if they don't feel that they can marry for another 5, 6, or 10 years. Society says that people should just have sex or live together until they can afford to get married. Maybe couples who intend to get married should get married earlier and vow to support one another as they get their financial footing and complete their education. It's not the easy way, necessarily, but it may be a good way. (Side note: I also reject the idea that weddings/receptions need to cost $15K. Expectations about dresses, flowers, food, and entertainment cost thousands. A marriage license costs around $150).
As an example, my husband and I married when we were 21 and 24 years old respectively, which is not very young but younger than most people today would dream of marrying. (Side note: Wedding/reception = $3,500.) We've matured together, helped one another through degree matriculation and job interviews, and moved many times together. Instead of living separate lives for a decade and then trying to meld two lives together, we learned to listen, compromise, and aid one another while we stumbled our way through the very things society says you should do alone. Does it make sense to find my way alone through school and career when I could find my way with a smart, fun, hardworking, attractive spouse? No. Society knows it's better to live and strive with another person but rejects godly marriage, so it makes all sorts of other arrangements outside the way God ordained it to be.
For those who are not dating one person seriously enough to commit to marriage, it might be worth encouraging them to go out on dates with a few different people to allow them time to get to know other singles so that one relationship doesn't get too pressurized too quickly. I've seen many people who desperately, though understandably, desire marriage quickly engross themselves in the first relationship that materializes until they find themselves in a "do or die" situation. This pressure cannot be helpful in keeping a realistic or healthy perspective on things.
Finally, read Anna's blog post "A Vocational Approach to Saying 'Yes.'" Americans romanticize the whole issue of falling in love to a point that it's warped and unapproachable. It becomes the hot potato too painful to handle wisely. She says it so well that I won't say anything else but to read it.