Dear new believer,
I first asked my wife to marry me at the end of 2002. It was a spectacularly unromantic proposal—which was her request incidentally—but looking back, Emily and I both regret it. If I could do that again, I don't know what I would have done exactly, but it would have been a little more exciting and memorable.
There are a few other things I would have done differently if we could go back in time. I probably would have asked our pastor to preach the gospel as clearly as he possibly could at our wedding. I might have included a couple more traditional songs during the ceremony. And then there's how we handled one particular complication: our living arrangements.
Emily and I had lived together, more or less, since 2000. I say "more or less" because during our second year of college we both had separate dorm rooms, but she spent the majority of her time in mine. In 2001, we got our first apartment together. In late 2004, we bought a house together. And then in 2005 Jesus saved us and made a mess of everything.
When it came to realizing what the Bible says about sexual immorality applied to us, we were a little slow on the uptake. Granted, there were certain things no one had to tell us weren't okay. While neither of us was addicted to pornography, we had some in the house. So we tossed it. (And as a side note, you never realize how much is actually there until you go to get rid of it all.) But when it came to certain parts of our living arrangement, we more or less continued the way we had been to some degree.
And then we got a call at work from Emily's mother, one that I still probably need to go to therapy over. She called to let us know that Emily's sister—who was supposed to come and live with us in the fall to attend university—had become sexually active with her boyfriend.
And so after we were kind of grossed out for a bit—because no one likes to think of their siblings doing things that are only okay for them to do—we realized something: if we're not okay with her doing that, why was it okay for us?
And that's when the elephant juggling a ton of bricks while standing on a piano delicately grazing our respective craniums.
What many Christians, particularly those who grow up in the church, struggle to understand is why this wasn't obvious to us from the beginning? After all it's not as though the Bible were unclear about the topic. But we didn't get it. The concept of the only appropriate outlet for sexuality being heterosexual marriage was foreign to us. It seemed like one of those cultural things that we sometimes make an argument and/or excuse about, like head coverings. We had not yet grasped that Jesus' lordship extended to our bedroom.
What we'd been taught and experienced growing up seemed to make the most sense. My parents were divorced, so marriage and monogamy were foreign concepts to me. Emily's parents lived together before they got married, too. In our public school sex-ed classes, we were never taught about waiting until marriage, just until you were "ready". (Side note: I once asked a teacher how you knew if you were ready? Her answer—"If you don't have to ask that question." Super helpful, I know…)
So later that day, we had a meeting with our then-pastor. We came into his office in a tizzy and said, "Okay, so this happened. And we realize we shouldn't be doing this now, either. What do we do?"
"What do you think you should do?" he asked.
"Well, we have separate bedrooms already in the house… could we live as roommates?"
I know what you're thinking: ohmygoodnessthatistheworstideaevernoooooooo! And I agree: it's a terrible, terrible, terrible idea. However, one of the difficulties our then-pastor had was having a whole bunch of new Christians couples in the church, all in similar situations. We were all living together, sleeping together (but not all together-together), and then suddenly believing together. Now, he could have had a meeting with all of us and said, "Hey dummies, quit doing that." But he didn't. He could have been passive aggressive about it and had a sermon series called seven steps to a godly sex life, with step one being get married. But he didn't do that either. Instead, he decided to do something interesting: he prayed and asked God to intervene. And wouldn't you know it? God did (at least with us).
Us—the ones with a mortgage on a house we'd only just recently purchased (and for which Emily's parents had given us the money for a down payment). The ones who worked for the same company and shared a car (and car payment) to get there. The ones with tons of consumer debt and student debt on top of that. Basically, we were about as entangled as people can get without having children.
This is the reality many people find themselves in today, especially when coming to faith as adults, as I did. Perhaps it's the situation you're in right now. But in case you had any doubt, let me make it clear for you: Where the Bible speaks on sexual purity it does not offer suggestions. It provides commands. And these are commands we are to obey. When Paul wrote that we are to abstain from sexual immorality (1 Thessalonians 4:3), and that there must not be a hint of it among us (Ephesians 5:3), he meant it. When Jesus said that lusting (that is, fantasizing) after someone is to have already committed adultery with him or her in our hearts, he meant it (Matthew 5:28).
I know this now. And I can also readily acknowledge that I was certainly guilty of violating these commands—for even when I was abstaining from sexual immorality in the form of sex before marriage, the hint of it was still there. Though we set up all sorts of rules and never once violated them—as my friends who had to host me when I'd show up with Starbucks in hand at 10 pm can attest—we could not claim that we were completely following the Lord's will. At best, we could say we were living in a concession, akin to the Bible's recording of acts of polygamy among godly kings even as it explicitly condemns such things (Deuteronomy 17:17).
In other words, just because we were doing it, doesn't make it right.
So what should we have done, my friend? We had three options for us that would have seen us remove the hint of immorality from our lives:
We could have gotten married right away. There are some couples who choose to do this, and for many of them it's exactly the right thing to do. But I don't know that it would have been for us. We needed the time leading up to our wedding to get to know one another again as the new creations we were (and are). We needed to talk through and pray about issues that had never really been conversations to that point (like children). And then there would have been the family drama that we'd have had to deal with. And maybe I'm just selfish, but I didn't want to have to hear about how we didn't invite anyone to our wedding during every major family get-together. Our first year as Christians was complicated enough without the prospect of that.
We could have ended our relationship entirely. Though this one wasn't discussed, it was a possibility. And for some people, this is also the right thing to do. It's foolish to assume that just because two people are romantically involved before coming to faith that this relationship should continue. When a foundational shift like becoming a Christian happens, we have to reexamine everything, including our relationships. Some relationships change, others go away, and other become stronger.
One of us could have moved out temporarily. This was an option—and in fact, it's probably the best option for anyone in this situation. But it's also the hardest, and not just because of the financial implications. It is the most counter-cultural, the least convenient, and potentially the one that would be the most overt in saying, "Yes, Jesus is Lord, including over my bedroom."
So what would have happened had it been brought up in my situation? Honestly, I don't know. What I can say is it was never brought up even once. Not even by our pastor. Maybe it's because we were so new and yet were sincerely trying to follow Jesus in the mess we found ourselves in that he didn't want to burden us with more than he felt necessary. Maybe the experience was still new enough in his ministry that he was (like us) flying by the seat of his pants on how to handle it, so he said, "We're going to just make the best of the situation as it stands." Now, what do I think I would have said had he asked? Hopefully, yes. But the truth is, I don't know—and I'll never know. (That's the tough thing about the past, isn't it? You can't go back and change it, so there's no point in playing "what if" games.)
Regardless, I hope you recognize this as I share this very personal stuff, that I'm not telling you what to do if you're in the same situation. I can only tell you the options that I see available to any of us. If you're in a situation like we were, the only real piece of advice I can give is talk to your friends and talk to your pastors. There are no easy answers here, but if you're committed to following Jesus in all areas of life, I hope you'll see that even the difficult choices are there to bring you closer to him.