Why is chastity important to the Christian life? Lauren Winner talks about the importance of experiencing sex the way it was meant to be — within marriage.
- “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.
It’s Not My Body
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.
The Thrill of the Known
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.
Chastity is a Virtue
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.” John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Colm Luibheid and Norman Russell, trans., (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 176.
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.