“How Far is Too Far?” is the Wrong Question


“So…” I twiddled my thumbs on the edge of my latte. “What do we want our standards to be?”

Josh- my boyfriend then, husband now – set down his coffee and leaned on his elbows, earnest gray-green eyes looking into mine. “It’s not a matter of what we want, Phy,” He said, his voice level and serious. “It’s about what will glorify God.”

“That’s true.” I agreed. “But… what does that mean for us, like, practically?”

We weren’t dating long before we knew we wanted to get married, and as that realization dawned on us, the desire for one another grew. As our desires grew, the more difficult our standards seemed.

“I have to leave your apartment earlier, we have to be careful.” Mr. M said in frustration around our three-month anniversary.

I knew it too. There was something wrong. There was a sense that these standards were for our good, yet they seemed like such a burden. Our relationship seemed more focused on NOT going ‘too far’ (whatever that was) than on actually enjoying one another.

I had seen girls go through this and chuck their standards out the window when it got too hard, but I’d done that before and I was determined – never again. It wasn’t worth it, and I wanted something new and beautiful this time around. I didn’t want to give up on our standards, and neither did Josh. And deep down, I knew it wasn’t the standards that caused this struggle – it was something within our hearts.

Now, as a married couple looking back, we clearly see the problem: we were asking the wrong question from hearts focused on the wrong thing.

We were asking: “How far is too far?”

“Are these standards really worthwhile?”

“Where do we have to stop in order to stay pure?”

We tried to use standards to keep us on track, but our hearts weren’t in the right place. No law can restrain a heart dedicated to selfish purposes. But how then do we honor God physically in our relationships?

It begins with the theological principles of law and grace.

Grace Does Not Remove the Law

Standards, physically or non, are a form of law, and law is a measure, not a savior.

Law tells us where we have gone wrong and brings a consciousness of morality. It is because of God’s law that we know murder is wrong, adultery is a sin, and lying is contrary to holiness.  But knowledge of the law is what causes guilt when we transgress. 

The culture of America, and even the churches of America at times, tells us to get rid of guilt by getting rid of the law. By removing the absolute standard of morality they seek to numb a guilty conscience. It sounds like a great idea – if you have the ability to change an absolute standard.

But we don’t have that ability. We can parse the words of God to make them palatable to our desires, but there will come a day we answer for what we’ve done… and the absolute standard will have not changed. For those who like to define their own morality, this will be a frightening moment.

(If you have questions about whether sex outside of marriage is wrong, read: This is Why We Save Sex for Marriage)

Affected by the cultural stance on sex, even Christians say, “Why bother with physical standards? They just bring disappointment when you break them, and God forgives us anyway.” Surrounded on one side by legalism and compromise on the other, Christian guys go through relationships never really knowing what it means to honor and respect a woman, and Christian girls continue giving away their bodies and emotions because it’s ‘normal’ and they’ve never been exposed to love apart from a physical requirement.

This leaves us determining physical dating standards based on popular opinion, personal feeling, or the grace-claim that “all is forgiven” no matter what we do.

Here are two truths:

  • We don’t get to alter, edit or dictate God’s standards, and
  • God’s grace in Jesus does not remove God’s law. It removes our condemnation by the law.

Despite the fact there is no ‘Dating’ addendum in the Bible, God has standards for relationships. He has a goal, which we will talk about in a moment. But it is important to understand that God’s graciousness toward us does not remove His standards for us.

Grace is not absence of law: it is mercy in spite of transgression.

If you have a Bible, flip to Matthew 5, where Jesus is giving the Sermon on the Mount. There seemed to be a rumor in the synagogue knitting circles that Jesus had come to get rid of God’s law. Jesus strongly corrected this thought in Matt. 5:17-19:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

We are all judged by the law of God (read Romans 1-2); God’s unchangeable standard of holiness will be the standard by which we are measured. However, where law brought a consciousness of sin and separation, grace bridged the gap.  The law of God does not disappear under grace. The law is brought to fulfillment by grace.

Through Jesus’ sacrifice, we are made holy – which fulfills the righteous requirement of the law. The law exists, but now we meet its requirement because of Jesus.

Now, as new creations in Him, we must walk a holy walk (Eph. 4:1). But how?

“Thou Shalt Not Kiss”?

What is the law concerning physical behavior before marriage? “Thou shalt not kiss”?

In order to answer this question we have to seek God’s heart for our lives, and Peter explains this to us in his first epistle:

“…just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter. 1:16)

In this verse Peter is referring back to Old Testament law. As previously stated, God’s law is His standard for holiness – and we don’t have the ability nor the right to alter that standard. Have you ever read Leviticus? That book is a beast. Law after law, rule after rule – some of them that make no sense to our 21st century minds. But in the middle of all those requirements God reveals WHY He has commanded Israel to do all these things:

“You are therefore to make a distinction between the clean animal and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean; and you shall not make yourselves detestable by animal or by bird or by anything that creeps on the ground, which I have separated for you as unclean. Thus you are to be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy; and I have set you apart from the peoples to be Mine.” (Lev. 20:25-26)

Israel was to live a distinct life within its culture. They were set apart, or consecrated for the Lord. In order to maintain a relationship with their Holy God, they had to live holy lives. We have this same calling. But some people in Israel – namely, the Pharisees – had become consumed with their possession of the law than their obedience to its spirit.

Picking up in Matthew 5 again, we see Jesus turn his focus to these religious leaders:

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:20)

Picture yourself sitting on the hillside listening to this message. More righteous than the SCRIBES?  The scribes were responsible for recording the law! They knew the law better than anyone. How could a simple layperson be more righteous than the keepers of the law? The answer lies within our hearts.

The scribes had lifted the ‘safeguard laws’ to the same level of importance as God’s commands. They were more concerned with obeying the LAW than obeying God’s call to holiness, and in their quest to be good for the sake pride and approval, they relinquished righteousness.

That’s legalism. When courtship, dating, or marriage becomes our god, we spend more time focusing on HOW we do relationships than cultivating relationships that glorify God Himself. We become little Pharisees.

The issue is not ‘to kiss or not to kiss’, but whether we are allowing God’s Spirit to dictate our decisions. If we allow cultural standards to dictate our personal behavior, we will never do hard things for Jesus.  When Josh and I decided to save our kiss for our wedding day, we were mocked by the world and by Christians – but we knew that choice was the best way for us to honor God. It was difficult – but it was the choice that led us closest to holiness. Whatever you must do to achieve that same call to holiness on your relationship – do it, no matter how hard it is.

Reframe the Question

When we ask, “How far is too far?” we are asking the wrong question.

God’s will and command for us as Christians is not, “Try to live a good life,” or “Try to please Me as best you can,” or “Figure out a standard that works for you,” but – be holy. In word, deed, thought, action we are to emulate our God who enables us to do this by His Spirit (John 14:16, 15:26).

So the question to ask is not, “What can I get away with?” but “How holy can we be?”

How can you, young man, help your girlfriend be all the woman God intended her to be, free of guilt, shame, and regret?

How can you, young woman, help your boyfriend be all the man God intended him to be: a leader, strong and confident?

Reframing this question changes how we think. When you sit down with your boyfriend to discuss your standards for physical behavior, holiness – not guilt or human approval – should be your guide.

When you’re on the couch in your apartment watching a movie, ask: “How can we help each other be holy in this situation?”

When you’re alone in the car, being dropped off at home, ask: “How can I help my girlfriend/boyfriend become more holy in this moment?”

When you’re deciding whether to go home or to stay later, ask: “How can I be a more holy man/woman in this decision?”

When holiness dictates your actions you will always please God. You will live guilt-free. You will have the most awesome, delightful, fulfilling relationship with your boyfriend or fiance knowing that you are headed to a marriage with no regrets. And if, for some reason, you don’t get married to that man, you will remain free of regret because your goal was holiness, not your own pleasure.

Remember how I said, “Our relationship seemed more focused on NOT going ‘too far’ than on actually enjoying one another.“? When Josh and I kept holiness as our priority, our relationship thrived. Holiness gave us the freedom to build a strong, Christ-focused relationship which paved the way to a marriage of unity and peace.

Lysa Terkeurst of Proverbs 31 Ministries just released a new book, The Best Yes, and this quote sums up our point perfectly:

“Only say YES to the decisions that lead you in the direction of becoming more like Christ.”

In conclusion, let’s hop back to 1 Peter chapter one, where we were commanded to “be holy as He is holy”. Practical Peter gives us some guidelines for attaining this holiness God requires:

“Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance.”

When I get to heaven I’m giving Peter a high five for his bullet-point lists (I feel like we’d get along).

With holiness as our goal, we choose to:

  • PLAN for holy actions
  • SUBMIT our impulses to Christ
  • HOPE constantly in grace
  • REJECT our former, evil desires

If you arrange your relationship around holiness, you won’t be asking, “How far is too far?” With holiness as our motivator, we won’t need to ask that question at all.

No matter how difficult it is, no matter HOW MUCH we have to give up, followers of Jesus will live lives transformed by grace. We don’t look for ways to cheat the standards. We take the high, holy, but narrow path winding between legalism and self-determined morality.

Josh wrote the following line in a letter to me while we were dating:

“Walk with me, darling, into the light of His glory, and stand by me as we pursue His ultimate and perfect plan for us.”

This ‘ultimate and perfect plan’ is made clear when we stand in God’s holy hill with ‘clean hands and a pure heart’ (Psalm 24:3-4).  When holiness, and love for Jesus, determines your actions, you will never have to ask, “How far is too far?” again.


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