I'm a 22-year-old guy dating a 20-year-old girl I met at my church. We're both Christian and have been together for just over a year.
In my first Christian relationship, when I was about 19, I made sure to set a lot of boundaries: We weren't alone together for the most part, we didn't kiss, and we avoided too much physical contact. Obviously, we had our slip ups, but boundaries were always spoken and prayed about.
When I began this current relationship, my spiritual life was not as strong, so whilst boundaries were discussed, the situation was not as serious as my first relationship. I didn't think it would be much of an issue, but further down the line, this lack of boundaries has become a real issue.
Prior to salvation and during my Christian life, I've had major struggles with pornography. When my girlfriend and I get too close physically, my struggles with porn get worse. Though my girlfriend and I agreed not to sleep in the same bed, we've often napped together, fallen asleep with each other, and been on top of each other when in bed.
I've raised this issue a number of times and have tried to be accountable to Christian brothers, but the boundaries just aren't there. How do I redraw boundaries now that we're more than a year into our relationship? I really need to make changes, but I'm really struggling to do so. I need some advice and really need God's help.
Thanks for your question and for your honesty in putting your struggles out there. Sadly, what you've talked about is not an uncommon situation, so let me offer some thoughts that I pray will be helpful not just to you but to other guys and couples with some of the same struggles.
First, let me offer you a bit of encouragement. You mentioned really needing God's help, and the Bible tells us that His help is always available to us in the fight against sin and that with His help, we can have victory even against the strongest of temptations.
Scripture tells us that "[n]o temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it" (1 Corinthians 10:13). We also know that "we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one [Jesus] who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15).
Having said that, the passages above do not mean that we are to take a passive approach to holiness — to make a little effort but then "let go and let God." As Christians, we are all commanded to fight sin and temptation with the help of the Holy Spirit in us. To be clear, no one is saved by works. But the Bible makes clear that if our salvation is genuine, our lives will be changed and will generally be characterized by conformity to Scripture. The Bible also calls us to high standards of holiness and sexual morality, which clearly exclude both sexual activity outside of marriage that involves another person as well as the lust that always accompanies the use of pornography.
So how, more than a year into your relationship, do you rejoin the fight against sexual sin and draw boundaries that will help you personally, and you and your girlfriend as a couple flee sexual immorality and adhere to a biblical standard of sexual holiness? Let me offer several thoughts here that I hope will be practically helpful.
• Pray. Do not underestimate this powerful means of grace in the fight against temptation and sin. Pray that the Lord would give you strength and resolve to resist temptation, wisdom as to how to do it, and a genuine desire to love your girlfriend as a sister in Christ rather than using her for your selfish desires. Prayer works.
• With the Lord's help, take active responsibility for holiness in your own life and in your relationship. A fair bit of the language and tone of your question is passive, as if the lack of seriousness of the situation, the lack of boundaries, the failed accountability, and the use of pornography are things that "happened to you" rather than decisions you made. This point is obviously less practical than attitude-related, but this change in mindset will help you do the hard work of actually resisting temptation.
• Have a clear, open conversation with your girlfriend. Ask her forgiveness for sinning against her sexually and failing to lead her in holiness in the relationship. Tell her of your renewed desire, out of love for Christ and love for her as a sister, to conduct the relationship in godliness and holiness, and then offer a practical plan for how to do that (more on that below).
• Take hard, practical steps to reduce temptation and to make it much more difficult to sin. When it comes to sexual sin, our failures very often result from a lack of desire to take the steps to avoid those failures. It will be much more difficult for you and your girlfriend to sin sexually if you decide to never be alone together in a private setting or if your dates are exclusively in public.
It will be much more difficult for you to view pornography if you use your computer only in a common room in your house (assuming you have roommates, which you should) or if you install software that will make an accountability partner aware of your failures or if you get rid of the computer altogether. Taking these steps is inconvenient and limiting, so many people decide not to take them. However, true repentance involves taking the practical steps necessary to turn from the sin in question.
• Pursue real, robust accountability. That means finding an accountability partner — ideally a more mature, married brother — who has wisdom in fighting sin and is genuinely in the fight with you, and then being fully transparent with him. So, for example, an accountability partner who thinks it's OK for you and your girlfriend to take naps together in the same bed as long as you don't mess around, is not the guy you want. By the same token, even the best accountability partner can't hold you accountable for what you don't tell him.
I would also seek out a mature married couple who can provide some accountability and mentor both of you in the relationship. Just like taking the other hard steps I wrote about, if we really want to have effective accountability, we can have it.
• Seek counsel about either breaking up or getting married. The longer a dating relationship lasts, the greater temptations of all sorts become. You've dated for more than a year already. If you haven't done so, think through — with your girlfriend and more mature believers you trust — where the relationship is headed (or not headed), and show some leadership there as well. Staying in very tempting circumstances indefinitely is not a recipe for success.
• Finally, remember grace and the Gospel as you make all these efforts. I know I've written some stern things (out of love!) and that the Bible sets the bar pretty high, but if we are in Christ, God does not love us because of any success or lack thereof in fighting sin. He loves us because we are united to His Son, and God delights in Him. Act out of love and rest in His grace to you: "[i]f we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).
I will pray that the Lord will give you and your girlfriend wisdom and strength as you seek to honor Him.
For His glory,
Copyright 2014 Scott Croft. All rights reserved.