We were sitting in my dorm when my friend shared the internal struggle she was having about her new Christian boyfriend. “He’s slept with someone before,” she said. “He doesn’t live like that anymore, but I don’t know how I feel about it. And I’m afraid that if my parents find out, they won’t like him.”
An increasing number of Christian young adults are struggling with situations like this one. Sexual sin is affecting more lives today than ever before.
As Christians, most of us have been taught all our lives that sex before marriage is wrong; it might as well be on the list of the “top 5 things not to do.” But the message of “saving sex for marriage,” while entirely biblical, only addresses one piece of the puzzle. Today’s Christian purity talks don’t address the myriad and nuanced sexual struggles and brokenness we face. (Read more about this here.) Nor do they give us direction for how to discuss past sexual struggles with a potential spouse — or how that potential spouse should receive the news.
Perhaps that’s why Christian podcast host Stephanie Wilson had such a heartbreaking breakup with her boyfriend years ago when she told him about her sexual past. His first reaction was to burst into tears in front of her. His idealistic dreams were shot down; he was hurt, and he didn’t know how to react with grace. His reaction scarred her and made her extremely nervous to open up to her next boyfriend down the road.
We all know that premarital sex is rampant today. It’s entirely appropriate to address it as sin and help single adults battle its temptations, but it’s also appropriate to talk about finding grace for these sins and healing in future relationships. In no particular order, let’s address five common assumptions that spring up when someone finds out his or her significant other has a sexual past.
[Editor’s note: While we’re using the masculine pronoun “he” below, both men and women struggle with sexual sin, and thus the assumptions and advice following apply equally to both genders.]
1. “It’s petty and selfish to feel hurt about this.”
Contrary to this assumption, it’s not wrong to be disappointed, sad or hurt after finding out that your significant other has already given his virginity away. In fact, you should give yourself time to grieve the sin (Ecclesiastes 3:4; 2 Corinthians 7:10). Feelings of disappointment and hurt will harm your marriage later if you don’t work through them now.
But be careful with your in-person reaction to your significant other’s confession. He already feels guilty and deeply regrets disappointing you. You’ll show respect for his courage and honesty when you react not with anger, shame or manipulation, but a listening ear and humble spirit.
Your feelings deserve to be recognized, and hopefully he acknowledges how he’s hurt you and sincerely asks for forgiveness. But he can’t help you come through the other side of these feelings and reach a place of genuine forgiveness. That’s something only you can do, with the help of the Holy Spirit, trusted, mature confidants and pastoral counselors.
2. “I don’t know how to move past this.”
Ultimately, you have to decide if your significant other’s past sexual sin is a deal breaker for you. Consider his current lifestyle and behavior — does it show signs of true repentance and change? How much time has passed, allowing him to repent, heal and change?
If you see areas in his life that contradict true repentance and behavioral change, breaking up is the smart move.
But if everything you know about him, including his conduct in your relationship, indicates true repentance and change, the choice is yours — dependent on your personal preferences and beliefs about him. As you decide, seek wisdom from the Lord and others.
If you decide this is not a deal breaker, then you need to take intentional steps to move forward. After you’ve taken the time to sort through your own feelings and fears, have those hard conversations with your significant other. Share your feelings, concerns and questions and fully listen to his answers.
Once you’ve had those conversations, don’t keep bringing them up — choose whether you trust his answers and then move forward (Proverbs 17:9). If lifestyle and behavior change is evident, then trust his answers. If you don’t believe he’s changed or find yourself unable to fully trust him again, you need to re-evaluate the relationship. For any relationship to work, it must be built on trust.
At some point, if you choose to move forward with the relationship, you have to forgive. To move forward, you’ll have to make the choice, regardless of your disappointment, to wholeheartedly believe him and lay down this grievance against him (Colossians 3:13; 1 Corinthians 13:7).
Divert your energies from doubting and hurting to trusting and hoping. In the process, you’ll experience the unparalleled joy and freedom that come with laying down the scorecard and loving unconditionally.
3. “I could marry someone better.”
No matter who says you could do better, this idea is selfish and misleading. We do not “deserve” someone who is sexually pure, regardless of whether we ourselves have waited for marriage. Virginity does not give us a greater right to happiness and love than anyone else.
The gift of purity shouldn’t be treated as a reward or a prize that can be earned. That goes against the very definition of a gift. Just as God’s forgiveness is given freely to a human race that doesn’t deserve it, so the gift of your virginity should be given freely and lovingly to your spouse regardless of whether he can return it.
I’ve heard it said that a person who’s saved herself for marriage has “a full treasure chest of jewels to offer” and is “a whole, unscarred person who can give themselves fully.” As the analogy goes, when she marries a non-virgin, she’s exchanging her many treasures and whole, unbroken heart for a pilfered treasure chest and scarred heart that’s missing bits and pieces.
Yes, those who give themselves sexually before marriage thoughtlessly gave away a precious gift. But here’s my issue with the comparisons above — Jesus made that very trade for us. He traded His absolute righteousness for our absolute sinfulness on the Cross (2 Corinthians 5:21). He brings us a pure heart filled with love and forgiveness, when all we bring Him is a heart that’s prone to wander.
I’m not saying you should stay in your relationship because Jesus didn’t give up on you. As noted earlier, you should contemplate breaking up if you don’t believe your significant other has truly repented, healed and changed. But you shouldn’t abandon the relationship because of the misinformed belief that you deserve better — because Jesus didn’t do that to you, and He had the most cause of anyone.
4. “Now I have to live up to their past experiences.”
One of the most common assumptions caused by a significant other’s past may be the fear that you’ll be compared to his past partner(s) and not measure up or that you’re “less than” because of your inexperience.
But as Paul Maxwell says,
To stake our value in being the best at everything in a future spouse’s life is absurd. If dating is moving towards marriage, and you learn of a sexual history, recognize that you were never pursuing this person so that you could be the best in bed — or the best at anything.
A marriage is about giving, loving and serving — not receiving, proving or earning.
Maxwell adds, “If your partner says, ‘I don’t think about my ex,’ it really could be true. It would be a terrible violence to give someone’s past sins power over them that they didn’t previously have.” When you obsess over your partner’s past, you also give his sins power over you — your love life, your happiness and your satisfaction.
It comes down to what you choose to believe. Only you have the power to release yourself from your jealousy and fear. If you don’t, you will be the one who ends up corrupting the relationship, not your partner. Let yourself off the hook for living up to anyone else. If he marries you, it will be because he loves who you are, not what you can do in bed.
Besides, sex inside of marriage isn’t just about the physical experience; it’s also about drawing closer together emotionally and spiritually, and sealing and strengthening your marriage.
5. “Our marriage and sex life will suffer.”
We often hear Christians talk about how rewarding it is when two people save themselves for marriage. There’s certainly truth to that; a marriage of two virgins has its distinct advantages. But this sentiment has slowly been misinterpreted in a dangerous way. As psychologist Juli Slattery says, today’s purity message contains a “quasi-promise that if you say no to sex now, someday God will bring a wonderful spouse and you will have incredible, guilt-free sex.”
But that’s not the way it works. A healthy marriage and sex life are not simply handed to you on your wedding day. They’re purposefully built one day at a time on the foundation of trust, Christ-like love and forgiveness. As one Christian writer said, “Getting married and living happily ever after is not your ‘reward’ for waiting.” A happy, satisfying future is something you create together.
Has your boyfriend earned your trust with his actions now? Is your relationship Christ-centered now? Are you choosing to cling to your hurt and disappointment or lay them down? A happy life and successful marriage depend more on your choices as a couple now than on his choices in the past.
We have the comfort of knowing that our heavenly Father draws close to all broken hearts (Psalm 34:18), can work everything out for good (Romans 8:28), and redeems our failures (Isaiah 43:18-19). And we know that God can establish and protect our marriages.
We can’t wrap up this conversation without looking at the ultimate standard — God himself. How did He react to people who sinned sexually?
He included Rahab, a known prostitute, in Jesus’ family line (Matthew 1:5). He didn’t abandon David when he committed adultery but continued to use him (2 Samuel 11:1-4). Jesus didn’t avoid the Samaritan woman living with a man to whom she wasn’t married. He gave her the chance to believe in Him and to bring others to Him, too (John 4:7-30,39-42). And Jesus’ words to the woman caught in adultery prove His belief in second chances and her ability to change: “Go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:3-11).
In God’s perspective, people are just as worthwhile and important after they sin sexually as they were before. And they’re still capable of doing right.
Only you can decide if your significant other is far enough removed from his past for the two of you to have a healthy, Christ-focused relationship now. And only you can decide if you’re willing to move past his previous sins.
If you evaluate your relationship in light of the truths we’ve discussed here and believe that it’s not right for the two of you, then leave it.
But don’t leave because of assumptions, self-imposed fears or imaginary pressure from those around you. These aren’t good reasons to give up a relationship that may have been orchestrated by God himself. Remember that He can make everything — even a scarred past that affects your future — beautiful in His timing.