How to Maintain Sexual Integrity Before, and After, Marriage

Finally, we’ve reached the last post in a four-part series about premarital sex. While I usually address sex in marriage, I received a question about whether the old rules about waiting until marriage still apply. Short answer: yes. Longer answer:

Part 1: What Does the Bible Say About Premarital Sex?
Part 2: “But What About…?”: Challenges to the Church’s Ban on Premarital Sex
Part 3: Is Abstinence Before Marriage the Right Goal?

Today, let’s look at how someone with God-given sexual interest can hold off until marriage and/or maintain sexual integrity throughout our lives.

Do You Want to Wait?

Nothing I say in this post will help you wait until marriage to have sex if you don’t really want to. The same is true for breaking off an affair, quitting pornography, addressing issues with lust, or changing problematic dynamics around sexual intimacy in your marriage.

You may wish you weren’t in the situation you’re in, yet also find sufficient pleasure in your situation that you secretly want to continue. In psychology (and medical fields), that’s called “secondary gain.” It can help to ask yourself how much you really want to maintain sexual integrity and what secondary gain you’re getting from the sin, struggle, or slip-ups you experience.

Now that doesn’t mean you need willpower of steel. Rather, the question is whether you have enough desire for God to work with. Because God won’t force obedience, but He will be there if you want Him.

Consider the story of a man at the Bethesda pool who’d been disabled for 38 years. Jesus approached him one day and asked, “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6). Oddly, the man doesn’t answer with an emphatic YES. Rather, “Sir…I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” In other words, “I’ve tried.”

If Jesus were a motivational speaker, he’d say, “That’s not good enough. You have to really want it! Only if you crave it with all your heart will you achieve your goals!” Thank goodness Christ wasn’t a motivational speaker but a savior. Instead, He cures the invalid and tells him to get up, pick up his mat, and walk. Jesus takes “I’ve tried” as being enough wanting that He can work with it to bring healing.

Of course, it will be easier to maintain sexual integrity if your whole heart and soul are dedicated to it, but God can also work with little to make it much more. You simply have to want sexual integrity enough to get started on your journey—to pick up your mat and take those first few steps.

TAKEAWAY: Ask how much you really want sexual integrity. What “secondary gain” (side benefit) would you or do you get from choosing a different path? Will you ask God to work with the desire you have and heal you the rest of the way?

Why Do You Want Sex Outside Marriage?

Obvious answers to that question include “because it feels good,” “because my body is screaming at me to have sex,” and “because I love him/her so much,” and those reasons make sense. However, for many people, the struggle to maintain sexual integrity is wedded to other, deeper causes.

Let me illustrate from my own life. Yes, sex felt good, and my first time was with a guy I cared for deeply. But also:

  • I had poor body/self-image, and feeling sexually desired made me feel more attractive.
  • I had a conflict-ridden relationship with my father and sought male affection elsewhere.
  • I grew up in a church with some grace-filled people and some legalists. The legalists’ rules about dating frustrated me enough that I rebelled a little. Over time, a little became a lot.
  • I learned about the hypocrisy of several older members of our church and reasoned that premarital sex was nowhere near as bad as extramarital affairs or sexual predation of minors.

Others’ reasons may be entirely different. I’ve known widowed Christians who don’t want to get married again but miss having sex, younger folks who want to finish their educational program before marrying but want to have sex, and one teenage girl who aimed at getting pregnant so her parents would let her marry her boyfriend and move out of her abusive household.

If you know the why, then you can address the why. Many times, premarital sex seems like the answer to your longing when it isn’t. For instance, having sex to get affection created all kinds of other fallout for me, and that teenage girl got pregnant, left her home, but became a struggling single mom soon after.

Even if your why is a good why, you can look for alternative ways to satisfy your longings and/or manage your desires.

TAKEAWAY: Beyond feelings of pleasure or wanting to be intimate with someone, why does sex outside marriage appeal to you? How could you meet those needs or desires in different ways?

How Can You Stand Firm?

Many times in my premarital promiscuous past, I longed to stop sinning and have sexual integrity. I had an understanding of God’s will and some desire to follow it, but no strategy. I’d get into a dicey situation and find myself saying yes when I’d planned to say no.

Speaking of strategy, John 8:1-11 tells the story of a woman caught in adultery and brought to Jesus for condemnation. Jesus simply tells her to “go and sin no more.” Have you ever thought, as I have, “Easier said than done!” Where was the 10-point plan for avoiding adultery? The affair recovery group? The 40 Days to a Sinless Sex Life self-help book?

Actually, all we need is in Scripture, if we’ll absorb what’s there and pray for guidance. Too often, however, churches have focused on extrabiblical measures as strategies for purity. Perhaps the biggest headscratcher I heard was a church camp that insisted teenage couples hold hands like pancakes instead of waffles. Um, because weaving fingers is too sexually tempting?

What strategies does the Bible suggest for sexual integrity? As covered in Part 3 of this series, the number one thing you can do is pursue an intimate relationship with God. Knowing God and being righteous are intimately intertwined. As Psalm 119:10 says, “I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands.”

After that, consider what you’re doing with your:

EYES. Do you consistently view bared bodies or sex scenes? You may need to change your viewing habits and/or introduce filtering software. That’s the modern-day equivalent of not going down the street of the adulterous woman (Proverbs 7:1-9).

But also, are you looking at the opposite more than body parts or eye candy…as children of God? Jesus’s approach, even to a sinful woman, was to look deeper and see the person behind the appearance (see On “Pigs,” Good Men, and the Difference).

MIND. Here’s a sampling of what Scripture says about our minds:

  • “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads” (Deuteronomy 11:18).
  • “Test me, Lord, and try me, examine my heart and my mind; for I have always been mindful of your unfailing love and have lived in reliance on your faithfulness” (Psalm 26:2-3).
  • “Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).
  • “Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires” (Romans 8:5).
  • “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:2).

When you find yourself thinking about doing something outside sexual integrity, fix God’s Word in your mind, consider God’s unfailing love and faithfulness, remind yourself that you want to love God with all your mind, set your thoughts on what the Spirit desires and things above.

It’s not enough to keep telling yourself not to think about sexual temptation. That works about as well as telling someone to close their eyes and not imagine a large rabbit. What immediately pops into their head? A large rabbit. Instead, replace the thoughts you don’t want with thoughts you do want.

HEART. The heart is implicated nearly every time someone strays from God’s commands. The Bible speaks of hardening one’s heart, losing heart, not taking God’s word to heart, turning away one’s heart, having pride in one’s heart. And Jesus said that “out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matthew 15:19).

Is your heart where it should be in relationship to God? And what is your heart toward others? You may not have a sexual temptation problem as much as a heart problem.

But God can help with that too: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 26:36).

BODY. If you take care of your eyes, mind, and heart, you may not even need this part, because choices about what to do with your body will come more easily. But God made us sexual beings, and our physiology responds to sexual cues. Also, while working on those other pieces, you may need to focus especially on this piece, which is don’t put your body at risk.

As 1 Corinthians 6:18 reminds us, “Flee from sexual immorality.” That’s a move-your-body command.

In my case, my body didn’t need to be sitting in a dark car, in an isolated area, and passionately kissing my date. That was a recipe for disaster. But while that’s a pretty clear nope, the line you need to draw and the line someone else needs to draw may not be the same. Perhaps you need more distance from your date while someone else can cuddle at the movies and have no problem. But be honest with yourself! Don’t do that “in a perfect world, I can resist XYZ.” Fess up to where your boundaries should be and keep them.

TAKEAWAY: Where does your struggle come from: eyes, mind, heart, body, or all of the above? Think through how you can guard each to maintain holiness. Make a plan.

Will You Do What It Takes?

Long before the man at the Bethesda pool, there was another man who desired healing. Naaman, an army commander, had leprosy, and Elisha was called to heal him. Elisha told Naaman to dip seven times in the Jordan River. Naaman was furious, not only because “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy” (2 Kings 5:11), but also because “Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” (v. 12). But then:

Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’?

2 Kings 5:13

So Naaman steps way outside his comfort zone, dips in the Jordan seven times, and “his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy” (v.14).

I think we’re a lot like Naaman when it comes to having sexual integrity. We want to be fully restored and clean, but we balk at doing the uncomfortable things that it will take to get there. Consider some of these choices that could help us reach sexual integrity but would cause discomfort in the moment or for a time:

AVOID. If you’re having sexual thoughts about someone who isn’t your spouse, you likely need to avoid certain situations with them. Marriages have broken up because a spouse had an affair with someone at work, but typically they spent a lot of time with their affair partner before having sex. Why were they alone so often with someone of the opposite sex?

Alternately, why snuggle with your girlfriend or boyfriend on the couch with no one else around? Why have easy access to pornography that you need to shut down? What do you need to actively avoid?

CONFESS. Confessing about your struggle and inviting help can make a big difference, but we worry that we’ll be shamed for being tempted or crossing lines.

In fairness, people have been shamed for that, and then they keep quiet and keep struggling. The better move is to find a different person, someone who will listen and agree to help you stay on the right path. There are trustworthy Christians, but I admit you may have to search a bit to find the right person to confess to. Still, it’s worth it.

SEEK ACCOUNTABILITY. Beyond confession, you may need someone to regularly report to about your difficulties. Yes, this can make you feel supervised, but it’s often just for a time until you develop good habits.

If you don’t want to enter a support group or have an accountability partner, consider seeing a quality Christian counselor who can help and is legally bound to maintain your confidentiality.

GRIEVE. No one wants to go through grief, but this could be the uncomfortable step you need to take. More and more in my life, I see the benefit of grieving what you want but can’t have, or your past that set you on a poor path, or choices you made that hurt God, yourself, and others. Too often, we don’t sit in that sadness long enough and lament where we are.

But only by going through mourning can we reach the other side. “You have turned for me my mourning into dancing” (Psalm 30:11). Go ahead and grieve.

START OVER. Thank goodness for Peter. He’s the believer I most understand, because he had zeal for the cause but kept messing up. But every time he made a mistake, small or huge, he sought out Christ, learned something, and started over. Peter got Jesus’s 70 X 7 forgiveness and became a rock of faithfulness.

Did you blow it? Go to God, ask for forgiveness, listen to Him better, and try again. As I said before, God’s not thinking, “Well, he’s no longer a virgin, so we’re done with Him.” Rather, He can wash you clean every single time. Now don’t go sinning so that grace may abound (Romans 6:1), but don’t waste weeks, months, years beating yourself up when God just wants to set you on the right path and let you get to living with greater integrity.

TAKEAWAY: Resolve to take those actions that feel awkward, difficult, or even silly to others to preserve your sexual integrity. If/when your resolve wavers, pray for strength and wisdom from God and get back on the right path.

Will You Embrace Repentance and Redemption?

Humility is where my own journey of repentance and redemption began. I sought God’s amazing grace when I admitted that He could save a “wretch like me.” Maybe you don’t feel like a wretch, but I don’t know anyone who’s had a 100% perfect track record in the area of sexual integrity. We could all use a little humility to approach God, seek repentance, and accept redemption.

Wherever you are with premarital sex or extramarital sex or pornography or adultery or what-have-you, it’s worth asking:

  1. Do I have any sexual sin or struggles that I need God’s help with?
  2. Will I let Him redeem me and embrace His forgiveness?

If you’ve made wrong choices, you may have consequences to face. But please know that God isn’t holding your sin over you or wanting you to have a difficult sex life in marriage because of sin in your past or struggles in your present.

I’m living proof of God’s goodness in the area of sexual sinfulness. But for His redemption and forgiveness, I don’t know where I’d be. Since I have them, though, I know where I am: in a hot and holy marriage, with a ministry to wives and couples, and, most importantly, made pure in Christ.

Let me close with this: Please share what encouragement or strategies have worked for you or others in maintaining sexual integrity. You may come upon something I didn’t think of that would be golden advice to someone else.

Related posts worth reading:
Sexual Disintegrity – My Journey Toward Sexual Wholeness #1 | The Forgiven Wife
5 Lies That Make Sexual Purity More Difficult – Boundless | Juli Slattery
“Just Get Married”: The Worst Advice for the Sexually Struggling | Phylicia Masonheimer

3 thoughts on “How to Maintain Sexual Integrity Before, and After, Marriage”

  1. Hello! I want to leave a little advice/encouragement for anyone going through the struggle of waiting until marriage:
    I’m 24 and have been dating a wonderful, caring boyfriend for over 2 years now. We’ve gone through huge ups and downs (almost lost him to illness last year, been together through the death of a loved one, lots of transitions, etc), so this has made us feel VERY close to each other. We have a lot of vulnerability and trust between us, which I’m so thankful for and we’ve worked through a lot of trauma, anxiety and the like together with God’s power! To top it off, he’s so attractive physically and we have great chemistry.
    Now, towards the beginning of our relationship, he was still struggling hardcore with a porn addiction, had recently gotten sober of drugs and alcohol (which I had not known about), and so even though I had been clear about my boundaries, he pushed them, and not understanding my body’s response cascading out of control, I would give in. It was a perpetual shame cycle, and I felt fearful about kissing, cuddling, and the like thinking it would get out of control and would be used. I felt so powerless… We took a break in our relationship for other reasons mainly (my boyfriend pursued therapy) and I found a lot of healing.
    When we got back together, we STILL struggled a lot – even more – sexually. Because we had crossed several boundaries before, it was easier to cross more. It made me feel so defeated. I felt humiliated confessing to my good friend that I was still in this spiral – thankfully she is so understanding. It wasn’t until I really humbled myself before God, let him have all of the emotions, desire to get married, control over timing, etc. that we started to find success in maintaining sexual boundaries.
    Today, we’re doing better than ever, but it brings up another challenge because now I see him as total marriage material and it feels so unnatural, and even sad, to go home to different places at night. But, as sad and frustrated as it can make me, it gives me a lot to glorify God for! And I thank Jesus that the love I feel from my boyfriend is just a fraction of the love Jesus has for me! So take these longings and give them back to Jesus. The longing I have to get married is a beautiful picture of the longing that the Bride and creation has for Jesus’ return (“all creation longs and waits”). Lean into it! It’s uncomfortable and you’re going to want to express that love and longing physically before marriage, but it falls so, so short! I learned the hard way. Focus your sexual frustration energy on how you can express love in other ways (sending notes, acts of kindness, edifying words and lots of hugs, etc.). But most of all, focus on getting REAL and vulnerable with God, build up that trust with God (trusting his intentions and will for you are good), and then let him take the reigns in your life. Focus on how you can build emotional intimacy in your relationship – because it will lead to better physical intimacy down the road.
    And yes, follow the advice here that J gives! Especially about getting to the ROOT of these desires for premarital intimacy. But also lean into those longings (instead of stuffing/repressing the feelings), talk out loud to God, cry it out, talk to friends, and focus on Jesus and how every longing of the human heart finds solace in his perfect love which can never disappoint!
    I pray this comforts at least someone out there! It’s really hard to wait – I know – but you aren’t alone!

    1. I also want to add that knowing your pitfalls – being super honest with yourself (just like J mentions in the blog post) is so necessary. I learned that making out will very quickly start the uncontrollable cascade. My body goes into auto-pilot just from making out. We had to give that up for our own good. As well as not traveling together alone (despite our love for backpacking and not having many friends to go with). So we hug a lot, and do simple kisses, which seems so pathetic to my past self, but we’ve actually had the most emotional intimacy and most spiritual BLOOMING once we finally did what we needed to do to move forward out of our boundary-pushing spiral!

    2. Wow, this is fantastic. You are quite wise. Praying for strength, focus, and a good marriage, if God wills that direction for you two. Blessings!

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