"So dear to heaven is saintly chastity,
That, when a soul is found sincerely so
A thousand liveried angels lackey her."
— John Milton
"Chastity is the most unpopular of the Christian virtues."
— C. S. Lewis
Those two quotations sum up a lot about Christian chastity — it's really important, and we really don't like having to deal with it. By chastity, I mean conforming your body and your sexual self to God's vision of human sexuality as laid out in Scripture and articulated by church tradition — for married people, fidelity, and for unmarried people, abstinence. Why is chastity so unpopular? Simple: It's difficult; and now, even more so than when Lewis wrote, we live in a society that does not give us much support for living chastely. Indeed, American culture seems determined to mock and ridicule chastity as much as possible.
And why is chastity so "dear to heaven," so important to God's vision of discipleship and faithful Christian living? That question requires a somewhat longer answer — indeed, I can only begin to scratch the surface here.
Chastity is important because it involves how we comport our bodies — and through faith, our bodies are no longer our own. In faith, you have become part of Christ's body, and it is Christ through the Church, who must give you permission to join His body to another body.
In the Christian worldview, we have no right to sex. The place where the Church confers that privilege on you is the wedding; weddings are specific acts that grant us permission to have sex with one person.
In other words, chastity is a fact of gospel life. The New Testament makes clear that sex beyond the boundaries of marriage — the boundaries of communally granted sanction of sex — is simply off limits. To have sex outside those bounds is to commit an offense against the body. Abstinence before marriage, and fidelity within marriage — refraining from sex with someone other than your husband or wife — is just one of those basic rules that keeps you inside the Christian community. Any other kind of sex is embodied apostasy.
Practicing premarital chastity is also important because it safeguards and protects marital sex — that is, it protects us, so that if and when we do get married, we are able to experience sex as God intended it to be.
Marital sex is very different from premarital sex. Think about the TV shows or movies you've seen, in which people have premarital sex. How is it portrayed? It is almost always portrayed as being dramatic — because, almost by definition, it is part of a relationship that is itself not wholly stable. Even when you've been dating someone for a year, the lack of permanence that characterizes your relationship seems to add a certain frisson to everything you do with that person, from going on a Saturday hike to smooching on the sofa. Everything in your relationship gets some of its charge from the uncertainty, the unknown.
This may be the single most significant way that married sex — sex as it was created to be — differs from unmarried sex. Married sex does not derive its thrill from the possibility of the unknown. Married sex is a given. It is solemnized and marked in ritual. It is established. It is governed by vows. It becomes a ritual in itself; it becomes a routine. Married sex is exciting, but its excitements are very different, and much more tender, than the instability of the hook-up scene.
The sex of blind dates and fraternity parties, even of relatively long-standing dating relationships has, simply, no normal qualities. It is based on mutual desire, and it dispenses with the ordinary rhythms of marital sex, trading them for a seemingly thrilling, but ultimately false, story. This may be the way that the sin of premarital sex sticks with us most lastingly; it may be the twisted lesson it teaches us most convincingly: That sex derives its thrill from instability and drama. In fact, the opposite is true: The dramas of married sex are smaller and more intimate, and in fact it is the stability of marriage that allows sex to be what it is.
So practicing premarital chastity is important, in part, because having premarital sex — that is, giving ourselves over to sexual sin — teaches us false, destructive lessons about what sex is.
Consider another genre of sexual sin, pornography. (And, since the advent of Internet porn, we have seen more and more that it is not just a "guy's problem." Today, more women than ever are logging on and searching porn sites.) What is wrong with pornography? It's not just that by using porn, you're exploiting another person and turning the human in the centerfold into a mere object. If we use pornography, we also wrench sex out of the relational context in which God intended it to take place. If we use porn, we learn something false: That sex is about immediate gratification. Pornography is destructive because it forms in its clientele expectations that are simply not connected to reality, to real men and women with real bodies (not to mention real souls, hearts, and minds).
It is helpful to remember that chastity is a spiritual discipline — just one of many disciplines that, like prayer and fasting and practicing silence, the church has given us not because they get us into heaven, but because they help us to become new creatures; they help us align our wills with God's will. Chastity is not the mere absence of sex, but an active conforming of one's body to the shape that Scripture requires. With all aspects of ascetic living, one does not avoid or refrain from something for the sake of rejecting it, but for the sake of something else. In this case, one refrains from sex with someone other than one's spouse for the sake of union with Christ's body. That union is the fruit of chastity.
We often talk in the church about the consequences of having premarital sex — and there are, of course, consequences. We talk about the possibility of STDs, or unwanted pregnancy — we talk about cheapening something that God intended us to participate in with only one other person. All those points are true, of course, but the most essential truth of chastity is that in turning away from certain expressions of sexuality and romanticism, we can allow ourselves to focus on God in a particular way that would otherwise not be possible.
So don't dress modestly or refrain from having premarital sex because doing so will help you attract the attentions of an upright, God-fearing Christian partner (though, of course, that might also happen) — dress modestly and refrain from premarital sex because doing so allows you to focus on your truest Lover, the Lord. Practice chastity because, in the words of 6th-century monk John Climacus, "Chastity makes us familiar with God." 1
I have written this article — indeed, I have written a whole book on the topic of chastity and sexuality — because I think chastity is a crucially important piece of Christian faithfulness and Christian discipleship. But it would be, I think, irresponsible to discuss the importance of chastity without making two related points.
First, chastity is not the only, or even the most important, aspect of Christian discipleship. Indeed, even to think about, say, chastity, tithing, and prayer as wholly discreet, distinct activities is to miss the point — for the gospel is not an invitation to compartmentalized living. It is, instead, an engagement in love. The questions we Christians should ask are not, "Do I have the energy to deal with chastity or tithing this week?" but, "What is the whole duty of man? What does it mean to be wholly converted?"
Second, by Jesus' standard, the standard of lusting in our hearts, every one of us has sexual sin to deal with. And though having premarital sex does, as we've discussed above, have consequences, it is not the unforgivable sin. Jesus' blood is more powerful than any sin we can commit, and should we repent and turn around, away from sin and toward God, we will find both forgiveness, and — like the adulterous woman whom Jesus tells to go and sin no more — the grace to live more faithful lives of Christian discipleship.
Talking to our teens about sexuality is one of the most life-affirming tasks parents face in our sex-saturated society. Throughout their formative years, teens need to hear from their parents the truth about sex, rather than just the daily bombardment of media sex scandals.
In Sexuality, Contraception, and the Media, the American Academy of Pediatrics reported that American children devote more than 38 hours per week to various forms of media, such as television, videos, video games, music, and the Internet. By the time the average teen graduates from high school he will have squandered 15,000 hours watching television—that’s twenty percent more time than the 12,000 hours he will have spent in the classroom. Furthermore, the average American adolescent will view nearly 14,000 sexual references per year.
How much time, then, should we devote to countering those unwholesome media messages?
Most of us have seen teens roll their eyes and contort their faces; the reactions that makes parents want to either ground the kid for life or just give up. Some of us already know the dread of struggling to speak the truth about sex to our teens; we’ve seen that vacant, glazed-over look.
Push past it and begin talking.
Talking to your teen about sex can be a daunting task, but research shows they do listen to their parents. In fact, research also shows that parents’ disapproval is the number-one reason teens abstain from sex before marriage. Our teens are listening; we must deliver the right message.
What messages should parents give their teens? Certainly, accurate information about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), unwed pregnancy, boundary setting, sexual intimacy and God’s truth in Scripture are all vital subjects. School health or biology classes may cover some of these subjects, and church youth groups may cover others. But don’t assume that because your teen heard something once she will remember it. All of us have to hear messages over and over again to retain the information. We hear and process things differently at different stages in our lives. Teens are notorious for appearing to paying attention while letting important information flow right out their ears.
The first thing you need to understand is that young people are bombarded with sexual messages daily—much of it inaccurate, deceptive, or plain untrue. Most parents are not sex education experts, though, so it’s difficult to keep up with the latest information about sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy. Nonetheless, we need enough accurate information to correct misconceptions our kids may have.
The following are some important facts for you to remember as you seek to inform your children:
Children and teens need boundaries for their safety. Children should understand the consequences of breaking family rules and boundaries. Consequences should fit the severity of the rule. The following are a few boundaries to discuss with your teen:
Sexual intimacy is difficult to understand before experiencing its power. Some points to consider include the following:
The Bible states repeatedly that sex outside one-man-one-woman marriage is dangerous and unacceptable. But more than that, the Bible describes marital love as an ecstatic, mind-boggling mystery so profound that it is an image of the love that exists among the Trinity.
Teens often hear of the biblical forbiddens, but they rarely hear of the wondrous nature of human love in God’s divine plan. Sex is one of God’s greatest gifts. Enjoyed in its appropriate setting, sex bonds a married couple together emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually. Share with your teen this wondrous vision and work to inspire your teens to reach for nothing less than the promise God has reserved for them.
Genesis 1:27-28 — God created male and female.
Genesis 2:18-25 — 1) God created man and woman. 2) God created marriages as the way for a man and woman to become one emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually.
Matthew 15:19 — 1) Entertaining evil thoughts about things such as murder, adultery, fornication, stealing, bearing false witness and blaspheming is as bad as actually carrying out the sin. 2) Fornication means sexual activity between unmarried partners.
The Song of Solomon intimately portrays the love between a husband and wife. It also pictures Christ’s relationship to the Church: Christ describes Himself as the groom and His Church as the bride. Just as we as Christians are to only worship God, so are husbands and wives to be exclusive in their intimacy.
Talking to our teens about sexuality can be frightening, and at times may seem fruitless. But don’t underestimate your impact: You are the most important influence in your teens’ decision making. Parents must fulfill our mandate to impart our family values to our children. We must begin talking to our children about sexuality—and we must do so clearly and often.
Today's workplace has become the No. 1 spot for married individuals to meet affair partners. More men and women are breaking their marriage vows by engaging in office friendships that slowly become romantic relationships — relationships that would have been socially impossible just 20 years ago. As the boundaries that once separated the sexes crumble, so do the boundaries that protect marriage.
In her book Not 'Just Friends', Dr. Shirley Glass says, "The new infidelity is between people who unwittingly form deep, passionate connections before realizing that they've crossed the line from platonic friendship into romantic love. Eighty-two percent of the 210 unfaithful partners I've treated have had an affair with someone who was, at first, ‘just a friend.'" From 1991 to 2000, Glass discovered in her practice that 50 percent of the unfaithful women and about 62 percent of unfaithful men she treated were involved with someone from work. "Today's workplace has become the new danger zone of romantic attraction and opportunity," Glass writes.
Today's careers offer more opportunity for extramarital affairs. Group interaction in coed workplaces, frequent travel and long hours create more opportunity and temptation than ever. Glass writes, "all of these changes and others allow individuals to mix freely where once they were segregated and restricted." Studies published in the American Sociological Review and the Journal of Marriage and Family show that before 1985, divorce rates were about equal among working and homemaking women; however, "between 1985 and 1992, the annual probability of divorce among employed wives exceeded that for nonemployed wives by 40 percent."
A different work environment has spawned a different kind of affair. Glass says the old idea of workplace romance between a powerful company executive and his single young secretary no longer reflects today's office relationship. The new infidelity occurs between peers who first become emotionally attached, having no thought of physical involvement. Men and women who work closely together under stressful conditions can quickly become attracted to each other. They often share interests and think nothing of spending time over coffee or lunch getting to know one another. Nevertheless, lunch between married friends, no matter what their intentions, can have unanticipated and dangerous consequences.
One researcher calls this new kind of affair the "cup of coffee" syndrome. Men and women begin with safe marriages at home and friendships at work. As they regularly meet for coffee breaks and lunch, these relationships develop into deep friendships. Coworkers come to depend on these coffee rendezvous, and soon they have emotional work friendships and crumbling marriages.
Oddly, men and women in these workplace romances believe it is wrong to have an affair. According to Glass, affair partners are usually happy in their marriages and have no plans to leave their spouses. Because of the gradual slide toward infidelity, partners do not pay attention to their behavior until they have already damaged their marriages, and sex is often the last sign that the marriage partner has been betrayed.
Though today's workplace offers more opportunity for extramarital relationships, it is not opportunity that is causing the workplace to become such a hotspot of infidelity. Healthy marriages must have proper boundaries. "In a committed relationship, a couple constructs a wall that shields them from any outside forces that have the power to split them," Glass writes. Referring to a particular couple, she adds, "The problem wasn't that they were attracted, but that they began to act on their feelings as if they had no other primary commitments."
Good intentions are not enough to protect a marriage from the temptations in today's workplace, to which both men and women fall prey. It is natural to feel an attraction toward someone of the opposite sex, even in happy marriages. But when a man neglects his primary responsibility and allows himself to act on an instinctive attraction — even in his thoughts — he has already violated his marriage vows.
Though many factors can play a role in causing infidelity, it always requires attraction, opportunity, and failure to follow precautions. Glass provides some basic rules to help avoid the new infidelity:
Boundaries should always exist outside the marriage relationship and never inside. One way to make sure that your boundaries are in the right place is to always be accountable to your partner. Use a shared e-mail address and contact each other throughout the day. Be open with your spouse about work friendships, and even invite work friends to your home for dinner. By maintaining openness inside the marriage and boundaries outside, you will help keep your marriage happy and healthy.
Friends can provide great encouragement and accountability in your marriage. All of your friends should be friends of your marriage, too. In an interview, Mary White, wife of The Navigators president, Jerry White, said, "We shouldn't be exclusive in our friendships with our partners. A marriage is strengthened when you have other strong, supportive friendships in your lives." White says she is concerned that too many Christian couples turn exclusively to their marriage for friendship.
No matter what kind of friendships you have, they should always help strengthen your marriage. When couples observe proper boundaries, their marriages are secure, open and comforting. Then, friendships pose no danger. Marriage, like a relationship with God, works best when it enters every corner of life. Secrecy and infidelity are impossible when we are completely transparent within our marriage. This transparency not only protects our marriage from harm on the outside, it keeps our marriage happiest on the inside.
You've heard plenty of stories about how true love waits. Respect yourself … save your virginity for your spouse. These are wonderful stories; kudos to all who live them out. Now, for those of you who feel like it's too late for that story of purity and light, here's another true story, derived from an eyewitness account by a man named John.
There's nothing quite as humiliating as being caught in the act. Just moments ago, this woman had been numbly playing the part that had somehow fallen to her, doing her best to avoid the pain in her heart. Now, more alone than ever before, she was being dragged through the streets to the temple, naked. There were plenty of excuses for her behavior, but none of the details mattered to this gaggle of upright, uptight citizens. They were broadcasting the moral "bottom line" loudly and repeatedly to a man named Jesus and to the crowd which gathered. "This woman was caught in adultery, in the very act."
The indignant pious men squirmed like hungry school-boys in a long line for lunch. "Well?" "What do you say, Teacher?" "Do you keep the Law, or not?"
The Law. The ancient Law stated that every adulteress shall be put to death by stoning, and these men were eager to fulfill it. She braced herself for a new kind of pain. On the very edge of her vision field, she saw a man squatting. ... running his finger through the dirt. Was he writing? Fascinated, her eyes followed him as he stood — until she spotted the crowd and remembered her embarrassment. She buried her face in her arms. I am an adulteress; I deserve this, she chided herself. How just an ending to a life of sin.
Some of you know how this story ends. What does this have to do with modern-day America?
Even after the so-called "liberation" of the sexual revolution, no matter how vehemently our society casts off the old moral laws, the intimacy and sacredness of sex is still somehow impressed upon our hearts. When it's not practiced in the security and fidelity of a lifelong marital commitment, it has painful consequences.
In 1995, the Department of Health and Human Services found that 50 percent of young women and 55 percent of young men (ages 15-19) reported being "sexually active." They have forsaken this sacred thing known as virginity, in hopes that something better can be found in the highly exalted sexual activity.
Does this satisfy? Apparently not. If there is one word that does not characterize our culture, it is "satisfied." Not sex nor any of the other temporal things we have tried — at the insistence of Hollywood or Madison Avenue — can keep us happy for long.
Dozens of organizations exist today to educate young people on how to use birth control to prevent pregnancy and condoms to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases. These methods are not fail-proof, however, and those who are honest with themselves will admit that there is no such thing as a condom for the heart. Once you have had sex, you are never quite the same. You see yourself in a different way. You know from experience (not just in theory) that you are a sexual being. You have new feelings about the person to whom you gave your virginity: you may long for closeness with that person, or you may resent them for having been a part of your regrettable decision. Or both. You may feel guilt, shame, resignation, or a longing for more.
If the god of sex didn't provide what it promised to your virgin ears, you may wish for all the world that you could go back and undo your choice. You may resent the innocence of virgins around you, and find yourself thinking, "What's the use in trying to be pure? I've already blown it."
In some social scenes, there is definite pressure to be sexually active – as though virginity is a burden to shake off. And, just like any other enticing option, once you have said "yes," it's infinitely harder to say "no" after that. Especially when the gossip mill has spun and you acquire a "reputation." Some girls have found that if they can't be "in" with the purity gang, they can at least feel momentarily "accepted" with guys who are ready to take them as they are – for sex.
Despite these mixed emotions, social pressures and temptations, sexual purity is still the best way to go. Have you ever heard someone say they regret having saved sex for marriage? Though it's too late to just speak of virginity — you needn't surrender to promiscuity. For all who didn't save it, it's never too late to become pure in thought.
It wasn't too late for the adulteress …
As she cowered in shame, the man who had been writing in the dirt spoke solemnly to the crowd: "He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first."
The woman felt her muscles become tense again. Who would be the most righteous? Would the first stone hurt the most, or would the throws become harder and harder as these zealots became more and more confident in the act of stoning a woman to death?
A strange silence followed. Suddenly, no one had anything to say.
One old man sighed and walked away. Another followed.
Maybe they went to get rocks.
A few moments later, some younger scribes bolted, running after the older men, whose figures had become small in the distance. Others turned, perplexed and embarrassed. Still, not a word.
Finally, a word was spoken – directly to her. The man they called Teacher said gently: "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"
"No one, sir."
"Neither do I condemn you."
Does he know what I have done?
"… Go now and leave your life of sin."
Apparently, He did know what she had done. It was clear to everyone that she had just been practicing sin, but this Man also knew what deeds she had done in her entire life. He knew all the complexities; He knew the justifications she had in her own mind every time she violated her conscience; He knew the part that others played in allowing her – sometimes even pressuring her – to sin in various ways. In fact, this Man – God – knows everything that every single one of us has done. The worst deeds, with the worst intentions, He is willing and able to forgive.
You can be pure again. You can be forgiven by the One who made you. In this story and in many other places in the Bible, He has declared His desire to "wash" us clean from the dirt into which we have wandered. Our part in this is to repent and accept that forgiveness.
True, you can't get your virginity back – you'll never be the person you once were. You can, however, be stronger and wiser than you were before – and more able to resist what you know is wrong. True repentance means that we do all that is in our power to "go and leave our life of sin." Once you are forgiven, you are not perfect. But you have learned and will continue to learn, and each of us is responsible to live according to what we know.
In fact, from your regrettable experience, you potentially have two gifts:
A re-commitment to purity will have great reward. Like anything worth doing, it will be difficult at times. There are plenty of reasons to abstain until marriage – the myriad diseases that can only be transmitted through sex; the fact that sex outside of marriage (the only truly secure committed relationship) will never satisfy our desire for intimacy; the statistics showing that marriages last longer and grow stronger when they are based on a foundation of self-control and mutual respect. You have likely read about those elsewhere. Now, let it become personal: Consider what kind of a person you want to be. What kind of a lifestyle do you want to live this week and ever after? What kind of a marriage do you hope for? If you listen, your heart will tell you the things you may need to change in order to come closer to those desires. Some women find they want to try a different way of dressing – to show more respect for their own bodies. Men may repeat a phrase to themselves to help them respect the women around them. "Lord, show me how to love this woman, as one made in Your image, loved by You."
If you are still involved with the person to whom you gave your virginity, you have some unique obstacles. It is possible for you both to be pure again, but only if both of you are trying. If only one of you wants to change, it is probably time to take a break from one another.
If having sex together didn't sour your relationship, what's stopping you from getting married? The best way to demonstrate your sincerity in wanting to be pure is to set a date to marry and commit to abstain until then. Far better to marry earlier than you might have planned, than to burn with guilt or lust.
As you continue to build your relationship, watch for the damage that occurs in more subtle ways. When sex happens before commitment, trust is eroded; each person wonders if he or she is the only one, and if it will remain that way. Meanwhile, it seems that no matter what they try, the couple cannot go back to a sex-free love. Times alone together too often lead to the same thing - intercourse - followed by guilt and confusion: "why not have sex anyway? We are committed.
If you are both committed to changing, don't spend your time and energy meditating on what you are not going to do (i.e., have sex again). Rather, replace bad habits with good ones. Pray together. Go out with friends. Do anything but leave yourselves with a void, in which you will inevitably be tempted to go too far. Find creative, expressive, platonic ways to share your love. And get input from someone older and wiser. Lots of married couples would be happy to share their experience and mentor you in your own journey to relational wholeness.
Whatever you do, go! And sin no more. Most of all, don't condemn yourself when Christ has forgiven you, and never let your past sins be an excuse to compromise in the present.
"I don’t know what to do! Mary’s left me. She says our marriage is over."
Rob was desperate. His secret sin of pornography had become public in his home. Mary had discovered the Web sites Rob visited on their computer and she confronted him. He confessed to being involved in "harmless voyeurism." Mary knew it was not harmless. She hardly recognized the godly man she once knew.
The change in Rob began to show itself in bed. At first, he would drop hints about wanting Mary to dress more seductively. Later he become overt in his sexual demands. Before discovering the videos and Web sites, Mary had no explanation for the changes she saw in her husband.
After a heated argument, she left him. She was determined to spare her daughters from the nightmare that pornography creates in the lives of its victims. Rob, a Christian and a leader in our church, ended up in our office.
"I don’t know what to do," he lamented as tears streamed down his cheeks.
Unfortunately, Rob represents a growing number of Christian men who struggle with pornography. The fear of being caught visiting an adult bookstore or an X-rated movie used to keep many men from becoming involved in pornography. With the prevalence and easy access of videos and Web sites, men can now indulge their lusts without ever leaving home.
As a pastor, I believe pornography is rapidly becoming the biggest problem faced by Christian men. Even though God never wastes a hurt, many of our hurts are self-inflicted through impurity and immorality.
Conversations with hundreds of men struggling with this malady have convinced me that our only workable solutions are found in the Bible. Moved by Rob’s dilemma, I began a series on what the Bible teaches about avoiding the pitfalls of pornography and remaining pure.
Rob needs to first go public. Pornography fosters a lifestyle of secrets and deception. If Rob has any hope, it begins with full disclosure. He must see pornography as sin and admit his fascination with it. Minimizing this behavior as anything less than sin is a mistake.
Going public involves confession to God and family members. God will forgive and cleanse (I John 1:9-10). Immediate family will become a source of encouragement and accountability. "Going public" means telling several others who can come alongside and be enlisted in the solution.
Rob also needs to become proactive. Men involved in this sin often describe themselves as victims rather than voluntary participants in sinful behavior. They want to be freed from pornography, but expect God or someone else to do the hard work. They pray and then blame God for not removing the problem.
There is no question that a person who's struggling with pornography needs to pray and enlist God’s power. They also need to be involved in taking the medicine that promotes well-being in the life of the Christian: time in the Word and prayer, fellowship in a local church, and ministry involvement. But there is much more they need to do in being proactive.
They need to run. The apostle Paul implores the believers in Corinth to "flee immorality" and Timothy to flee youthful desires (1 Corinthians 6:18 and 2 Timothy 6:18). This advice runs contrary to the common belief that maturity is associated with being able to resist greater sexual temptation. Paul suggests that mature people know when to run. No person subjected to pornography remains unaffected. Run!
Rob needs to get serious about living the Bible. The apostle Peter asserts that a person who is actively adding goodness (moral excellence), knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love to their life will "never fall" (2 Peter 1:5-11). Rob had quit adding these qualities to his life.
God expects us to be involved in the pursuit of purity. This is Paul’s point in 2 Timothy 2:20-21. We have the choice of being a “vessel” for either noble or ignoble purposes. Impurity is only a permanent state and pattern we choose for it to be so. The process of moving from one state to the other involves obedience to the truth. When we begin obeying the truth we know, we engage the power of the Holy Spirit to give us success.
Over time and with a lot of hard work, prayer and accountability, Rob became pure again. He has discovered that when he pleases God, he is free from immorality. Mary and the girls like the new Rob much better. Rob does, too.