Biologically, it is called the sense of touch. For those dating, it can be exhilarating—actual, real-live, skin-to-skin contact with someone of the opposite sex. And while it isn't sexual union, it can definitely be sexy. Just ask any red-blooded male or female who has had a close encounter with Miss Good Looking or Mr. Hunk.
Hand-holding, hugging, kissing or any other similar contact can be oh so delightful.
The time to make decisions about physical contact is before you get in a touchy situation. Making a decision on the fly with no forethought is a recipe for going too far.
But is all this contact good, upright and moral? Is it in our best interest to engage in these practices prior to marriage? How does one decide? For those who have adopted the standards of behavior endorsed by today's entertainment industry, these are stupid questions. In fact, they are non-questions—meaning they just aren't asked. When people believe it is OK to have sex before marriage, a little (or a lot of) touching doesn't really mean anything.
Consider the blockbuster movie Titanic. Two young people fall in love and, before they are married, they decide to have sex. Even though current stats show that the majority of high school students don't have sex, many movies like this present this scene as the norm for young people before they say "I do." The way it unfolds is true to life. It all starts with physical contact—touching, hugging and kissing. And then comes full sexual intercourse. But this isn't what the Bible teaches.
In Genesis 2:24 Genesis 2:24Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall join to his wife: and they shall be one flesh.
American King James Version×, God explains how and when a sexual union between a man and a woman should take place: "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh" (emphasis added throughout).
"One flesh" means to have sexual intercourse (1 Corinthians 6:16 1 Corinthians 6:16What? know you not that he which is joined to an harlot is one body? for two, said he, shall be one flesh.
American King James Version×) and, according to God's instructions, this is to take place after a man and woman have been joined together in marriage. Having sex prior to marriage is immoral and, according to God's Word, we are supposed to "flee sexual immorality" (1 Corinthians 6:18 1 Corinthians 6:18Flee fornication. Every sin that a man does is without the body; but he that commits fornication sins against his own body.
American King James Version×). Flee means to run away from or avoid. So we're supposed to run away from premarital sex and things that could entice us to be immoral.
An important point to note in God's instruction is that abstinence doesn't have to be forever. It just must wait until two people are married. Then, God says, sex is good (Hebrews 13:4 Hebrews 13:4Marriage is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled: but fornicators and adulterers God will judge.
American King James Version×). Because abstinence has been described in such negative terms, some educators are now choosing to use the word postponement to describe the process of delaying sex until marriage.
How to decide
Many of you reading this have already decided that you are going to wait to have sex until you are married. That's great! You've made a good decision. But what about this touchy stuff? Are you going to hug, kiss, hold hands or more? The Bible doesn't specifically address these areas. It does clearly say that we aren't to have sex prior to marriage (1 Corinthians 6:18 1 Corinthians 6:18Flee fornication. Every sin that a man does is without the body; but he that commits fornication sins against his own body.
American King James Version×) or to even lust after another person (Matthew 5:28 Matthew 5:28But I say to you, That whoever looks on a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart.
American King James Version×), and that love is not to be awakened until the appropriate time (Song Of Solomon 2:7 Song Of Solomon 2:7I charge you, O you daughters of Jerusalem, by the roes, and by the hinds of the field, that you stir not up, nor awake my love, till he please.
American King James Version×, New Revised Standard Version). Human history shows that these "touchy" activities often lead to lustful desire and sex. Unfortunately, many young people have engaged in these forms of physical contact and then lost their virginity because their emotions overwhelmed their sense of judgment. They just couldn't stop because it felt so good.
So how can you decide what you will do? Some have asked, "Just how far can a Christian go without sinning?" The time to make decisions about physical contact is before you get in a touchy situation. Making a decision on the fly with no forethought is a recipe for going too far. To help you establish godly standards, consider the following advice given by a panel of young American Christians between the ages of 20 and 30. Some are married and some aren't. While the names are changed to preserve each person's identity, the comments are genuine.
Should you hold hands?
Hand-holding according to 20-year-old Sarah K. is "OK if you plan to marry him or her, when you both feel like the other is the right one for you." Continuing, she said, "I wouldn't hold hands with someone who I felt to be 'just a date' or someone I was mildly interested in, or even just plain had a crush on. I think holding hands is a sign that 'this is the one for me' to all the world, and that is just not something I want to do with just anyone."
Bill, 28 and married to Sue, said that he didn't have a rule about holding hands before he was married but realized that "those first thrilling physical touches when one is young can often open the door to premature intimacy and big life mistakes." Continuing, he remarked, "If I could do it all over again, I would refrain from hand-holding until becoming engaged (and then make sure the engagement was brief enough so as to minimize any potential problems). Individual tolerances to holding hands or other touching may vary, so there's no hard-and-fast rule. But I would have done better erring on the side of strict conservatism in this area."
Kate, 28, who is married to Luke, wrote: "We didn't hold hands till almost a year after we started dating. (We started dating a year or more after we had known each other as friends with the understanding that we were potentially interested in marriage and wanted to spend time together to find out.) Luke asked me if he could hold my hand initially. Looking back, it was a good thing, even though I questioned it at one point because it became a distraction for me for a short time—either wanting him to hold my hand, or having a difficult time reigning in my thoughts when he did. However, he explained to me that he felt like it was important that there be a physical means of communicating with each other and expressing the closeness that we felt. I think that he was right.
"One thing that both of us learned was that before marriage, if you are pursuing marriage with a person, anything has the potential to be physically exciting and distracting. In the midst of the excitement, you have to take your thoughts captive and make decisions about enjoying emotional closeness and small amounts of physical contact based on whether the relationship is deep and solid enough to benefit from these added dimensions, or whether it will only serve to cover up a lack of real communication. For Luke and me, hand-holding was a positive thing that physically manifested some of the feelings and ideas that we had already verbalized."
What about hugs?
Once you become good friends with someone, it seems as though hugs become part of the way many people say good-bye before long intervals apart or hello when they reunite. While the majority of this panel felt these kind of short hugs were appropriate, they did offer a few cautions about regular and lengthy hugging with the opposite sex.
Sarah K. said, "I think the thing is, the longer two people of the opposite sex hug, the more tendency there would be to kiss. So if that sort of thing is affecting your mind, where it's like you've been hugging this person and all of a sudden you just have to kiss them, then uh-oh! You'd better rethink your actions, because the godly way is to go in the direction of 'flee from immorality,' not see how close you can come to it!"
Bill agreed with Sarah K., saying, "Hugs between two people who know they are attracted to one another should be brief ... Hugs involve even more physical contact and can be misused if one is not careful and/or has a weakness in this area."
Cheryl, 23 and married, said her "main concern was finding the person that I could continue a relationship with until the end (marriage). If he didn't meet my qualifications enough to that end, I would remain friends but never make any more physical contact than a hug here or there."
Before Kate and Luke married, they said, "We got into the habit of giving each other a brief hug coming and going sometime during the first year of dating. It was good to acknowledge the way we cared for each other with something warmer than a 'Hi.' "It felt a bit stiff to us both as we grew to care for each other more, but anytime you are holding back feelings for the right time, things can feel awkward. "We liked to sit close to each other, but it was not until a few months before we were engaged that we sat together with his arm around me. At first, we only did this in my [Kate's] parents' home when they were near. A little later we also sat like this when we were alone as well—often in the context of a conversation that was on a deep emotional level, and especially after we were engaged and began talking through more personal things ... We didn't 'bear hug' until a month before we were engaged, and we were careful with that."
Kissing, according to our panel, is definitely more intimate than hand-holding or hugs and should be avoided prior to engagement. After you are engaged, a brief kiss seems appropriate. As Sarah K. put it, "I know it is hard to resist kissing someone, especially if they mean a lot to you, or are very attractive. But you have to remember, if God hasn't picked this person for you, your lips are on another person's mate. If you were married already and someone kissed your wife/husband, you'd be pretty mad! So think 'fourth dimensionally,' as Doc Brown would say, and know that this other person is not your mate."
"One can argue that the former two items (holding hands and hugging) can be shared in a more casual and 'harmless' way," said Bill. "However, mouth-to-mouth kissing is actually one of the beginning stages of sexual intimacy and is an easy way to fast-forward to more explicit sexual contact. Young, single people should avoid mouth-to-mouth kissing at all costs except maybe just prior to marriage (even then they must be careful to avoid lustful behavior)."
Explaining how they first kissed, Kate said, "I had told Luke what a kiss meant to me as we started to grow closer. He honored that understanding and never took advantage of any vulnerable moment. I respected him deeply for that and still do, even as I sometimes wanted him to kiss me. To me, a kiss meant, 'I love you. I want to be your husband.'"
Continuing, she recalled, "I had asked my mother when I was young if it was all right to kiss before you were married. She said that it was as long as you both understood what that kiss meant. As I thought about that, I began to feel that I didn't want the memory of any man's kiss except my husband's, and that for me (very cautious and slow to give myself), a kiss was a seal of love and possession. Hand-holding is like that to an extent—it implies exclusivity and mutual ownership to a degree.
"To me, a kiss on the lips between a man and a woman implies this ownership in a sexual way that is beautiful and powerful. Luke asked if he could kiss me a month before we were engaged. Because I knew his character and because he was aware of what that meant to me, I knew that he wanted to marry me ... We did have to limit our kisses, because it is fun and intoxicating—meant to lead to more. We limited our kisses to coming and going so that they did not take over our time together, or prevent our growth in communication. This was a good decision. It did get harder and harder to finish our good-byes!!"
Physical contact that is more intimate than the above is often described as petting. According to our panel, this category of conduct clearly exceeded the safe boundaries Christians should maintain.
As for petting before marriage, Kate wrote: "With exceptions only of his hands on my hair or face and vice versa, we didn't go here. I think that the temptations would not have been fair to either of us. As well, we had resolved that we did not want to feel guilt for anything that we did with or to each other in this area, so we kept away."
Summarizing her thoughts, Sarah K. said, "The decision to stay totally pure before marriage is ... hard because of all the feelings humans have, but try to look at it in a big sense...
"Do you want to be guilty of defiling someone else's special person? Do you want to feel guilty that you are defiled? Do you want your mate to have been close to sex with lots of others before you? The Golden Rule is 'do unto others as you'd have them do unto you.' So put it into practice, and not only will you be happier for it, but God will bless you!"
Sometimes being godly is the most challenging when you meet the person you plan to marry. According to Cheryl: "When I did find the person that I felt I could marry someday, it was then that I had to be very careful. Small things can turn into big things very quickly. Comfort zones are quickly reached and expanded when you are with someone you love and trust. My best advice is not to date exclusively until you find that person. Group dates with trusted friends can be a very fun way to get to know and spend time with someone you are interested in but with less pressure or temptation."
Continuing, she said: "And when you are on a date with someone alone, it really helps to be careful not to put yourself in a situation where you are alone and unseen for a long period of time. If you [stick to] lighter environments, you don't have to come up with reasons to be uncomfortable if your physical limits don't match up with his."
Offering concluding advice to singles, Bill wrote: "Do not allow yourself to be alone, or at least alone in situations where sexual contact is possible and the privacy necessary to engage in it exists (i.e., parked cars, in a house or secluded room alone, in the woods or a wooded park, etc.). The temptation may just be too great ... Think of physical contact the same way you might think about virginity. Once the line is crossed, there's no going back. You cannot reverse the current 'touch status' you have with someone else (i.e., we've held hands, we've kissed, we've slept together, etc.)."
Kate put it this way: "Know yourselves and set limits wisely with this knowledge. Involve your parents if you can by asking them their opinion and/or letting them know your limits. Follow the limits that your parents set or advise. God gave them to you for a protection and commands you to honor them. If you disagree with their ideas, discuss this with them in a respectful way.
"Don't let physical contact take over or lead in communication—it can feel good and when this happens, you may not know what it meant to either of you in the end ... Use common sense. Don't let feelings control your actions. Acknowledge feelings without serving them, or you will make miserable mistakes. Don't be engaged too long—it gets harder [to refrain from premarital intimacy] after you are more committed—but take enough time to talk about things that were too personal before ... Physical contact is powerful. God made it so. Respectfully use it as a tool in His service."
What to say when you're uncomfortable with someone's advances...
• "I'm not interested in doing that. I don't think that is a good idea."
• "I don't believe in doing this before marriage. Why do you?"
• "Whoa . . . Easy on the touchy-feely."
• "Stop that!"
• "I gotta go. Excuse me." Then leave the room for any reason you can think of.
• Back off (put physical distance between you) and say, "That is too much."
• "I'm flattered that you feel that way, but I think if you and I both take a step back, we will see that this is not a good idea and is against God's law."
• "I'm not ready for that yet, but I may be one day. Let's take it easy on that stuff until then, OK?"