Some Christian men and women feel locked into a dating relationship, even when it’s dysfunctional, and especially after they sin sexually. Maybe you know a relationship like this. Maybe you’re in a relationship like this.
Failures to commit are prevalent (and destructive), but I want to speak into excessively committed relationships, unwisely committed relationships — couples that are too fragile and compromised to feel the seriousness of sin and the preciousness of Christ anymore, or to see their relationship with a clear head and balanced heart. Why are unhealthy dating relationships so hard to end, especially after a couple has compromised morally? And how should Christian couples respond if they sin sexually?
“Strive to see any dating relationship through the eyes of eternity with God.”
As a Christian man, one who failed sexually in dating relationships in the past, I am writing mainly to and for men. I have a word for my sisters in Christ at the end, but I want the weight of this charge to fall most heavily on my brothers. God gave you the shoulders for it. I long for us to live, lead, and love, in ways that are worthy of a woman’s trust and worthy of the name of Jesus.
What God Expects of Men
When a Christian couple sins sexually, God holds the man more responsible than the woman. When Adam and Eve committed the very first sin (Eve taking the first bite), “the Lord God called to the man” (Genesis 3:9) — and not first to the woman. As John Piper writes,
God requires more of men in relation to women than he does women in relation to men. God requires that men feel a peculiar responsibility for protecting and caring for women. (“Do Men Owe Women a Special Kind of Care?”)
God calls men and women to pursue holiness, to guard the marriage bed, to do all things for his glory, including dating, marrying, making love, and pursuing sexual purity. He calls both men and women to protect and serve one another in complementary ways, but from the beginning, he lays a heavier burden on men.
Eve ate first from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and she enticed her husband to eat with her — and she received a curse for her sin (Genesis 3:16). But after dealing first with Satan, and then with Eve, God’s words of judgment culminated with Adam (Genesis 3:17–19). The woman would have pain in childbirth; the man would suffer “all the days of your life . . . till you return to the ground” (Genesis 3:17, 19). God expected the man to obey his voice and lovingly lead his wife to do the same — and for the man to own the greater responsibility for their failure.
“Sexual sin is the opposite of God’s will for you. So, if temptation comes, run the other way.”
To his shame, Adam not only did what God had explicitly forbidden, but then blamed Eve (and God!) for his sin: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (Genesis 3:12). Men, if you fail sexually in a relationship, I am pleading with you not to respond like Adam did, but to own your failure, and grieve it, and do whatever necessary to repent, protect your sister in Christ, and prepare yourself to pursue marriage with complete purity (1 Timothy 5:2).
Have Mercy on Me
Any man who wants to think clearly about a relationship after sexual sin needs to think clearly about sexual sin itself.
Sexual sin, like any sin, is first and foremost an offense against God that separates us from him (Psalm 51:4; also Genesis 20:6; 39:9). Some of us keep falling into sexual sin because we’ve only focused on the relational costs of sin — how this harms the relationship (and other relationships in our lives) — and not enough on how we have violated the glory and grace of God. If we have committed sexual sin, however, our first and deepest response should be,
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin! (Psalm 51:1–2)
We must confess and ask forgiveness from one another, but the first and most important work of genuine repentance is done before the sovereign throne of mercy. If you want to be done with sexual sin, begin with meditating on the grave seriousness of what it says to and about God — and then get to the cross, where the only hope we have, Jesus Christ, hung to save us from our sin, even our sexual sin (1 John 4:10; 1:19).
The Seriousness of Sexual Sin
The wages of any sin is death, but the nature and effects of sexual sin are particularly severe.
The apostle Paul writes, “We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day” (1 Corinthians 10:8). In Numbers 25, the shameless sexual sin of one couple (who was righteously speared to death) led to the death of thousands more. Did God overreact? Was the punishment excessive? We may recoil because we’ve so grown too comfortable with sin, and too indifferent before the holiness of God.
Paul says elsewhere, “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. . . . The Lord is an avenger in all these things” (1 Thessalonians 4:3–6). Sexual sin is the opposite of God’s will for you. So, if temptation comes, run the other way. Flee as quickly as possible (1 Corinthians 6:18).
“How your boyfriend responds to sexual sin in your relationship reveals what kind of husband he will be.”
Again, Paul says, “Put to death . . . what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming” (Colossians 3:5–6). The wrath of God is coming against the sexual sin our society excuses and encourages at every turn. Sexual sin should cause an earthquake in our souls, awakening in us a sober fear of judgment — and a more profound cherishing of what the blood of Jesus purchased for us.
The Illusion of Intimacy
Sexual sin should make us stop and ask hard questions about any dating relationship. But it often does exactly the opposite among well-meaning Christians — sealing the commitment, isolating the relationship, and blinding us to glaring concerns. Sexual sin can make us feel more committed — because sex is meant to have that effect — but in the wrong place and with the wrong person (even if we were to eventually marry that person, at which point, and only at that point, they would become the only right person).
God designed sex to avert and reject temptation within a marriage (1 Corinthians 7:5), not to embrace temptation and undermine your future marriage. Sex before marriage numbs us to temptation, hardens us against repentance, and plunders the trust in the relationship, leaving us less ready for marriage and less able to date wisely and with purity. Precisely when we need space to reflect, confess, refocus our hearts, and build healthier boundaries, we often dive further into intimacy, instead, perhaps continuing to sin sexually, and hoping it all works out and we get married.
This kind of intimacy, however, is ultimately an illusion. It may look like genuine intimacy, and even feel like genuine intimacy, but it will expire, and often quickly. Very often, what we need in the wake of sexual sin in dating is the opposite of intimacy: space.
One Proposal: Fasting from Each Other
I want to chart a different path for Christian couples, and encourage them to take a meaningful break from each other before pursuing marriage again. (For this article, let’s set aside engaged couples, because the dynamics, while similar, are more complicated, though the sin is no less grievous.) Someone gave me advice like this, in slightly different circumstances, at an important point in my life, and I have only grown to love and appreciate what he encouraged me to do more since.
To be absolutely, extravagantly clear, this is not a word from God, but a word of Christian advice that I hope will prove to be wise in your life. As someone who previously committed sexual sin in dating relationships and who now has counseled couples through sexual sin, I am offering guidance I wish I would have received (and heeded) sooner:
If you commit sexual sin with your girlfriend, consider taking a meaningful break from the relationship for the sake of your soul and hers, your current relationship, and your future marriage.
Essentially, I am recommending fasting from each other for the sake of honoring God, loving and protecting her, and pursuing greater joy in marriage.
What Does Fasting Do?
What does fasting do for a follower of Jesus? Fasting intentionally forgoes some good for the sake of fixing our hearts on a greater Good. By laying aside food, or sex in marriage, or some daily technology, or any other pleasure, we say to our souls: there is something more satisfying than this, more urgent and vital than this, more central to my life than this. We fast to see that God is supreme, to savor that God is supreme, and to say that God is supreme. What if we were willing to do this, when necessary, even in dating?
The church in Acts fasted over serious decisions (Acts 13:2; 14:23), and who you marry will be one of the most serious and consequential commitments you make in your life. And sexual sin makes that decision all the more difficult and complicated. Why not stop, for a season, to regain your spiritual sanity and seek clarity from God?
What Does ‘Meaningful’ Mean?
When I say to take a meaningful break from the relationship, what do I mean by “meaningful”? Different things for different people and different relationships. Meaningful will require wisdom (including wisdom from outside of your relationship). Some relevant factors to consider, among others, might be: how long you have each been Christians, how old each of you are, how long you have been dating, your individual sexual histories, how often you have failed in this particular relationship, other healthy or unhealthy dynamics in the relationship.
“Sex before marriage numbs us to temptation, hardens us against repentance, and plunders trust in the relationship.”
However many months you choose, “meaningful” should be uncomfortable. If it doesn’t feel long, it’s probably not long enough. Fasting doesn’t work if we never feel hungry. It’s meant to draw out the hunger and let that hunger teach us about God. Fasting in dating should do the same. For it to have its full clarifying and purifying effect, it should be difficult, inconvenient, and painful. To be clear, this kind of fasting is not penance — self-punishment to pay or show remorse for sins. The waiting is meant to lay hold of God all the more, intensify our war against sin, and communicate to each other the preciousness of holiness and trust.
What does “meaningful” mean for you? For specific decisions like these in relationships, my golden rule for dating is this: Lean hard on the people who know you best, love you most, and will tell you when you’re wrong. Prayerfully weigh what kind of break you might need, and then ask a few Christ-loving people who know you well to speak into the timing. Good friends and counselors will know where you are uniquely weak or tempted, often more than you do, and will be able to help you discern what patient, sacrificial, unselfish love might look like in your situation.
What About 1 Corinthians 7?
My counsel is that Christian couples take a real break if they fall into sexual sin. But doesn’t the apostle Paul essentially say the opposite?
To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Corinthians 7:8–9)
That is wise, divinely inspired counsel. Christians who burn with passion — who deeply and persistently long to enjoy sexual intimacy with a spouse — should marry, and not remain single. God has wired sexual longings into most of us to lead us toward the pursuit of marriage. Our question here, however, is whether dating couples who have just committed sexual sin should consider taking a break (and not move more aggressively toward marriage).
“Newfound love can cloud the eyes of our hearts, blinding us to ourselves and to problems in the relationship.”
I do think sexual sin (and temptation to sexual sin) should lead us, through repentance, to pursue marriage (1 Corinthians 7:8–9). I do not think committing sexual sin with someone means we should necessarily marry that particular person (and certainly not quickly or rashly). Sexual sin isn’t God’s sudden confirmation that this is the one. In fact, I think sexual sin should significantly slow or even halt many relationships.
While temptation to sexual sin resisted and rejected by faith should accelerate our momentum to marry a particular man or woman, sexual sin should decelerate the relationship, giving us an opportunity to see more clearly what went wrong and what God really wants for and from us in our pursuit of marriage.
The Wisdom of Fasting from Dating
Before you dismiss the idea of fasting from each other too quickly, consider some of the serious potential benefits of practicing this kind of patience and self-control.
1. Weigh the Seriousness of Sin
A real break will give both of you time and space to weigh the seriousness of sin and its consequences. Newfound love can cloud the eyes of our hearts, making it more difficult to truly discern reality. The infatuation we often feel in dating can blind us to ourselves and to problems in the relationship. Some intentional distance may blow away the fog long enough to see how sexual sin despises God, cheapens grace, and harms everyone involved.
2. Truly and Deeply Repent
A real break allows both of you to truly and more deeply repent. Paul wrote to a group of sinners, some of them sexual sinners (1 Corinthians 6:18), “I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief” (2 Corinthians 7:9). Intimacy in dating inevitably muddles repentance, preventing us from feeling the grief we ought to feel before God and each other. And without godly grief, we cannot truly repent.
Repentance is more than saying, “Sorry.” It’s first a change of mind and heart, and then a Spirit-filled commitment to turn away from sin, and to keep turning away from sin (Acts 26:20). Taking a break from dating may allow you to feel godly grief over your sin more deeply and to strengthen new and durable habits of repentance and purity. When you start to date each other again (if you do), you want to have severed the roots and patterns that led to sin.
3. Discern the Potential of the Relationship
Getting some space will help you discern if this is a relationship to pursue. Is God calling me to covenant exclusively for a lifetime with this person? As I have said before, the great prize in marriage is Christ-centered intimacy; the great prize in dating is Christ-centered clarity. Intimacy is designed for marriage, and marriage is wisest with clarity. The purpose of our dating is determining, as best we can, whether God is calling the two of us to get married — and sexual sin, especially repeated sexual sin, may throw serious doubt on that question.
Before God, and surrounded by Christian friends and counselors, we need to ask ourselves hard questions about our relationship, and a break will give us the space we need to ask and answer well.
A Word for Christian Women
I could say many things to women who have committed sexual sin with their boyfriends, and much of what I’ve said above applies just as much to you, but I wanted to say at least one thing directly to you: How your boyfriend responds to sexual sin in your relationship reveals what kind of husband he will be.
“Christians who long to enjoy sexual intimacy with a spouse should pursue marriage, and not remain single indefinitely.”
If you get married, you will face new temptations, frustrations, and difficult decisions almost every day. Dating is an opportunity to test what kind of man your boyfriend will be when life gets hard in marriage, to test whether he will keep his promises when he’s your man. Will he cave to temptation to satisfy his selfish cravings? Will he stand by you when it would be easier to run away? Will he run with you to Jesus for forgiveness, and plead with him for grace and strength to reject sin and fight for holiness? How he responds is always revealing. God makes every spiritually mature man out of a previously immature one, so be appropriately gracious and patient. But not every selfish, immature man grows up. Don’t expect perfection, but don’t entrust your heart and soul to a fool.
The patience and self-control required for a man to initiate an intentional, loving break from a relationship teaches the opposite of sexual sin. It says, “You can expect me to go to whatever lengths necessary to honor Christ, and you, in marriage.” If you do end up marrying this man, a real break now could build trust that will last for a lifetime on the other side of the altar.
No Sin Need Disqualify You
Any pleasure in sexual sin comes with the far greater heartaches of resilient shame and broken trust. But God. Even if your failure means the end of a relationship you love, it does not have to mean the end of your hope. Too many rush back into sin after sin, refusing the far greater gift of deeper repentance and joy — the godly grief that “produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret.” No matter how far you’ve gone, God will not refuse to have you, if you’re willing to turn from your sin for him.
In God’s strange and wise providence, the valley of this sexual sin may be the decisive spark that ignites that genuine repentance and passion for Christ in each of you. And a thousand years from now, neither of you would ever trade that for a few decades of marital love together. Strive to see any dating relationship through the eyes of eternity with God. Months apart now, as hard as they may feel today, may make all the difference for you forever.