Many young people enter the dating world completely unprepared for the powerful emotions, desires, and temptations awaiting them. Even Christians firm in their conviction that sexual activity before marriage is off limits can be caught off guard by all the steps in between celibacy and intercourse. Abstinence teaching often fails by not being specific enough about the complexity of sexuality and the hidden dangers of “messing around.”
There is no definitive answer to the question “how far is too far?” If our goal is to go as far as we can in good conscience, we may already be facing moral defeat. Anytime we approach sin with the attitude of “how close can I get before I have to repent?” we are setting ourselves up for failure. For a Christian, the question should be “how can I keep my heart and my thoughts honoring to God in this dating relationship?” And better still is the Christian who wonders, “How can I protect the purity of the person I am dating?” (Philippians 2:3–4).
All sexual expression was designed by God for the marriage relationship. Period. No exceptions (1 Corinthians 7:2). All romantic expressions before marriage are steps leading to a culmination in intercourse. From first glance to final act, sexual tension builds with every step, so the “too far” point is wherever that expression changes from showing affection to desiring sin.
Sin begins in the heart, so, rather than just evaluating outward actions for their appropriateness, we should evaluate our heart motives. Jesus said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person” (Mark 7:20–23).
Sexual purity must begin in the heart. When the desire of the heart is to honor God and our dating partner, then boundaries will be drawn in our attitudes, clothing, activity choices, and the words we speak. For example, sexting has become wildly popular even among teens too young to date. But by exploiting words and images, we violate moral purity without ever physically touching the person. This is sin (Romans 14:13).
We have sinned when we intentionally create lust in another, whether through improper clothing, flirtatious behavior, or physically touching body parts that are not ours to enjoy. An engaged couple who enjoy a long, passionate kiss before parting for the evening may not be sinning if their desires are pure and the kiss is an expression of selfless love. Longing for the wedding night is not sin because the desire is for a God-ordained consummation of committed love. However, make-out sessions as a normal part of a dating relationship create lustful passions that cannot be righteously fulfilled. This is also sin.
Wise singles decide ahead of time what boundaries they need in order to keep themselves pure (Matthew 5:8). Those boundaries may not be the same for all people. For example, some couples choose to save their first kiss for the wedding day, limiting their physical contact before marriage to hand-holding and quick hugs. Others believe long, passionate kisses are appropriate for those approaching marriage because the commitment is already in place. But never is it acceptable to remove clothing, fondle beneath clothing, simulate the sex act (even with clothes on), or speak in dirty or vulgar terms (see Ephesians 4:29). All such behavior is designed to elicit sexual desires you cannot righteously fulfill, which is the same as encouraging someone else to sin (see 1 Corinthians 8:12).
First Thessalonians 4:3–8 is a guide for those who truly want guidance: “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit.”
A sincere Christian who desires to honor God in dating relationships can enter every situation with the conscious awareness that Jesus is present. Whatever we would not do with Jesus watching is best to avoid altogether. The Bible calls that awareness “the fear of the Lord” (Proverbs 16:6; 14:16). We keep away from evil when we develop the fear of the Lord, because we don’t want to sin in His presence. Rather than fear we are “going too far,” we can eliminate the possibilities by inviting Jesus on our dates with us. In doing so, we keep far away from danger points, protecting our purity and that of our date.