At the appropriate age, parents should teach their children the birds and the bees. Unfortunately, I first heard about sex from a friend, whose parents had given her “the talk.” As a small group of friends crouched together one summer’s day, Anne Rumbolt spelled out the mechanics of the marital act in detail, describing what went where, why it fit, what it did, and how long it stayed. Our breath caught in our throats, tiny beads of sweat formed on our brows, we listened in rapt attention down to her very last words: “My parents aren’t trying to have babies anymore, but they still do it to show their love.
To show their love! I thought, Why would anyone trying to show love do THAT?
A few years later, right on nature’s schedule, my brain began to signal to my ovaries that puberty should commence. They poured forth hormones that accelerated my growth and began the process of turning me into a reproduction-capable woman. Along with that came sex drive and all its attendant pairing impulses.
Suddenly I understood what Anne Rumbolt’s parents meant.
Then came the many years of negotiating my path through life as a sexually-viable, hormone-loaded, unpartnered human being. Many reading this article are in that very situation. Your sex drive says go, but your circumstances, convictions, and conscience say no. How can we stay pure in an impure world, with natures bent toward impurity?
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We can expect a fight with our sexual selves. The human sex drive is a rushing river, threading its way through the various dimensions of our being, picking up pieces of us as it runs: Identity, bonding, procreation, calling, purpose, social status. The sex organs connect to our bodies, so we can’t easily avoid them. The prohibition on illicit sex is against an unlawful use of something lawful, so we can’t severe it from our lives as we would murder or lying. Sex is just so big, bad, and bold that we can count on it challenging us on a regular basis.
God clearly presents human sexuality as having one lawful expression—an opposite-sex, monogamous, life partnership called marriage. God’s ideal is that this one partner is the only partner with whom we share sex. Social science tends to bear out this principle, sometimes in the negative, as it shows the risks and benefits of our sexual choices in physical health, mental health, dating relationship health, and marriage health.
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This effect is the most straightforward and easy to prove. When we think of sex and physical health, our minds jump to sexually-transmitted infections or STIs. One fool-proof way to avoid an STI is . . . wait for it . . . abstinence. Be aware that there are currently more than 35 of these bugs waiting to make your life, genitals, and future partners miserable. The more partners, the greater the chance of infection. The physical health benefits of waiting are unambiguous.
A bit more subtle is the link between premarital sex and mental health. And this question more effectively addresses forms of premarital sex that don’t involve the exchange of body fluids that leads to infection. The research on the mental health benefits of waiting is fairly consistently Bible-affirming here, too. The timing of first sexual intercourse impacts mental health profoundly. It stands to reason that to experience the risk and utter vulnerability of sex in a committed, stable, loving relationship would be much safer emotionally than the alternative. And the research says it’s true. In particular, the earlier a person experiences sex, the more likely a person will be plagued with depression and even suicidality.
Dating Relationship Health
Sex introduced into a dating relationship will complicate matters. Some Christians try to avoid fornication by non-penetrative, non-intercourse sex like heavy petting, oral sex, and dry humping. I’m not saying this to urge anyone to go ahead and have intercourse, but sex is more than a penis entering a vagina or other orifice. It is, at its core, arousal and/or orgasm achieved between two human beings. “O daughters of Jerusalem, I adjure you: Do not arouse or awaken love until the time is right” (Song of Solomon 8:4, Berean Study Bible). The right time is marriage.
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Several factors in marriage create a secure foundation for some of the most vulnerable emotions of the human heart: Marriage is a lifelong commitment; marriage is a public declaration of that commitment; marriage is blessed and supported by God and the community. When we venture into the privileges of marriage without making the sacrifices necessary to secure the foundation of our relationship, we reveal a disposition to take short cuts or to cheat. That disposition to yield to passion over principle will subconsciously make us less secure in the principle-drivenness of ourselves and our partner. If they would cheat with us, wouldn’t they cheat on us? If we would cheat, doesn’t that make us a cheater? And whether we’re cheating God, or the marriage institution itself, or our partner, it’s still cheating. If we smudge the boundaries before marriage, won’t we at least worry that they’ll end up smudged after marriage? In contrast, the principled, boundaries approach creates confidence that principles and boundaries will characterize our marriage.
The timing of first sexual encounter also deeply impacts the married relationship itself. One recent large-scale study, focusing in on women, showed that the chances of divorce after five years of marriage leap from five to 20 percent when the woman has had one sexual partner before marriage, then to 30 percent with two. Although additional premarital partners didn’t follow this trajectory, and although some have made much of this, the fact remains that in this study the odds of divorce were lowest with zero premarital partners.
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A graduate student at Brigham Young (Mormon) University found that “for every additional premarital sexual partner an individual has, not including the marital sexual partner, the likelihood that they will say their current marital sexual relationship is extremely satisfying versus only being moderately satisfying goes down 3.9%.” A 2010 study found global benefits to married relationships when couples waited for marriage to become sexually active:
- Relationship stability was rated 22 percent higher
- Relationship satisfaction was rated 20 percent higher
- Sexual quality of the relationship was rated 15 percent better
- Communication was rated 12 percent better
Sometimes we discover the reasons to wait in the negative, in the form of devastating consequences of violating God’s design. “Can a man walk on hot coals without his feet being scorched?” (Proverbs 6:28). To God, even the darkness is light (Psalm 139:12) because through the dark tracks left by sin we trace the beauty of the original plan.
Nail It Shut
Because of the bewitching nature of sexual sin, it can suck us into a vortex quickly. Some friends and I recently decided to do some body surfing, ignoring the “swim between the flags” sign posted on the beach. We ended up caught in a riptide and nearly drowned. The terrifying ordeal gave us more respect for the “swim between the flags” rule. God’s rather stringent sexuality rules are His attempt to keep us from getting pulled out to sea.
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I’ve said the following to more struggling people than I can count: “Close the door, lock the door, then nail it shut.” Because of its beguiling nature, the barrier between our souls and sexual sin must be absolutely impassible. Jesus said that to lust is to commit adultery. To truly rise above temptation in this arena requires that we wrestle even our stray sexual thoughts to the ground. Fortunately, we needn’t rely on our own strength: “The grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age,” (Titus 2:11-12, NIV).
But notice that the Bible says that Jesus “is able to succor them that are tempted” (Hebrews 2:18). “Succor” means “immediate aid” and implies strength rushing in from outside. It’s not all about resisting, it’s about replacing. “’Something better’ is the watchword of education, the law of all true living.” God does more than take away something bad; He gives something better. And without that something better, we won’t be able to resist something bad. The reason people eat too much sugar is that they don’t eat enough fruit. One must get sweetness from somewhere, and the sweetness of unwarranted sexual pleasure must be out-performed by something even sweeter. Let me share a few sources of sweetness:
We don’t need less love, we need more—but holy, godly, love. True friendship, family bonds, and larger spiritual family can (potentially!) satisfy the heart’s longings such that temptation loses its power. A 2015 study showed that adolescents relapsed from addiction more than twice as often if they felt estranged from others. If you find yourself disconnected, I suggest meeting people at a small group Bible study, or even a support group like Celebrate Recovery.
- Go to a small group Bible study
- Join a ministry team
- Visit neighbors with a gift
- Check out meetups https://www.meetup.com
- Join Celebrate Recovery, a Christian support group
Call an old friend or family member
This study also showed that helping others provided a therapeutic effect greater than the effect of being helped. “Doing good is a work that benefits both giver and receiver. If you forget self in your interest for others, you gain a victory over your infirmities . . . The pleasure of doing good animates the mind and vibrates through the whole body.” A strong social game fortifies us against the false intimacy of ill-timed sex.
Even more importantly, strong relationships equip us with the intimacy skills needed in the most challenging relationship we’ll ever have—marriage. Blessings galore come to us through marriage, but it also stretches our hearts and rebukes our selfishness more than other relationship do. For this we need divine love flowing in, smoothing the edges and supplying our want. Neuroscience reveals that each relational stage of life, from mother/child, to father/child, to sibling, then friendship, then marriage, then parenting, builds our brain and our skillset for the next phase. The best preparation we can make for being good lovers is to be excellent friends. And whether we find a spouse or not, we’ll have a rich social landscape.
Related Article: To Marry or Not to Marry, That is the Question!
Move Your Body
The hormone- and steroid-regulating power of exercise can’t be overestimated. Robert Sapolsky, the author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping traces the process from stress to epinephrine production, to stress hormone production, to health problems. Exercise, he points out, is one of the only stress hormone metabolizers we have. Young people experience a spike in hormones, presenting its own unique stressor as they try to navigate the frothy waters of sexual urges. Here’s how a wise old lady saw it:
“For a healthy young man, stern, severe exercise is strengthening to brain, bone, and muscle. . . Without such exercise the mind cannot be in working order. It cannot put forth the sharp, quick action that will give scope to its powers. It becomes inactive. Such a youth will never, never become what God designed he should be. He has established so many resting places that he becomes like a stagnant pool. The atmosphere surrounding him is charged with moral miasma.”
Another big stress-reducer is nature. To de-stress and rebuild, the Japanese practice shirin-yoku, which literally means “forest bathing.” This practice has been shown to reduce hostility, depression, and acute stress and is particularly important for those living in an urban setting.
God created us for connection to Him, one another, the animal world, and the world of nature. Pet therapy has been found very helpful in the treatment of substance abuse. The stress-lowering, coping-with-life effects of interaction with a furry friend seem obvious to me, as I sit and write with my Chorkie leaning against me, sleeping. And it stands to reason that when we lack the opportunity for body-to-body human touch, the vigorous smooching, playing, and tender cuddling we get from our animal friends can help meet that craving.
Fill Your Forebrain
Marital intimacy is a symbol of Christ’s love for the church (Ephesians 5:25). Could it be that an intimate connection to the God of the universe will yield such rich spiritual benefits that we’ll be succored from the temptation to stray? And in addition, the power of God’s Word to transform the brain and elevate the entire character, helps set us in right relation to all of our emotions, passions, desires, and impulses. “No other book is so potent to elevate the thoughts, to give vigor to the faculties, as the broad, ennobling truths of the Bible. If God’s word were studied as it should be, men would have a breadth of mind, a nobility of character, and a stability of purpose rarely seen in these times.”
Sexual passion is like fire, giving warmth and life when kept within boundaries. But allowed to rage outside of boundaries that same life-giving force burns us to a crisp physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually. I take a risk in stating this as plainly as I have here. Some might mock me as an old prude. Much worse, others might crumble in despair. To those I would say: God is both a Creator and a Redeemer. As Creator, He fashioned us according to a design that cannot be compromised without us being shattered. But as Redeemer, He buys the shattered pieces back and refashions them, by that same creative power, into beautiful works of art.
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To stand firm on any moral or spiritual issue we must grasp a paradox: God both empowers and restores. He gives us strength to walk and yet picks us up when we fall. He says, “My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin,” but then quickly adds, “if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). He said to the woman taken in adultery: “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). I’ll end with the same gorgeous concept from the pen of Ellen White: “To go forward without stumbling, we must have the assurance that a hand all-powerful will hold us up, and an infinite pity be exercised toward us if we fall.” In carefully balancing the complementary principles of empowerment and restoration, we can “go forward without stumbling” and do this sexuality thing right.
 Vasilenko SA, Kugler KC, Rice CE. Timing of First Sexual Intercourse and Young Adult Health Outcomes. J Adolesc Health. 2016;59(3):291–297.
 Nicholas Wolfinger, “Counterintuitive Trends in the Link Between Premarital Sex and Marital Stability.” Institute for Family Studies, June 6, 2016.
 Sherie Adams Christenson, “The Effects of Premarital Promiscuity on Subsequent Marital Sexual Satisfaction.” June, 2004.
 Dean M. Busby, Jason S. Carroll, Brian J. Willoughby. “Compatibility or Restraint? The Effects of Sexual Timing on Marriage Relationships.” Journal of Family Psychology, 2010; 24 (6): 766.
 Education, p. 296.
 Johnson, Byron R., et al. “Alone on the Inside: The Impact of Social Isolation and Helping Others on AOD Use and Criminal Activity.” Youth & Society, vol. 50, no. 4, May 2018, pp. 529–550, doi:10.1177/0044118X15617400.
 Ellen White, Messages to Young People, p. 209.
 Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases and Coping (3rd ed.). New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin.
 Ellen White, Letter 103, 1900.
 Jeremy Dean, “10 Remarkable Ways Nature Can Heal Your Mind.” PsyBlog, Retrieved from https://www.spring.org.uk/2014/07/10-remarkable-ways-nature-can-heal-your-mind.php.
 Martin C. Wesley, Neresa B. Minatrea & Joshua C. Watson (2009) Animal-Assisted Therapy in the Treatment of Substance Dependence, Anthrozoös, 22:2, 137-148.
 Ellen White, Steps to Christ, p. 90.
 Ellen White, Sons and Daughters of God, p. 154.