Yesterday I came across yet another piece lamenting how screwed up the views of sex among evangelical men and women who believe in sexual abstinence outside of marriage are. I must have read at least a dozen or more such articles on sites such as the Huffington Post in which Christian writers solemnly warn their prudish and repressed co-religionists of the perils of overvaluing virginity, sharing their cautionary tales of the psychological and spiritual damage suffered by themselves or others who did. Apparently such abstinence and the views associated with it leave people with all sorts of hang-ups, give them ridiculous expectations of the orgasmic excesses of the wedding night, and create an idol of virginity. Oh my!
These virgins spend some of what could be the best years of their lives labouring under dark delusions, subject to one of the cruellest of repressions. They face married lives of bitter disappointment and anti-climax (forgive me…), as the high expectations that they had of marital sex do not materialize as expected. It is important that we don’t ridicule such burdened and benighted persons – poor things! Rather our hearts must go out to them in a loving pity as we gently seek to disabuse them of the mistaken notions that hold them hostage, regarding their unfortunate condition of socially maladjusted leperhood with grace and tenderness.
At this point I must reveal that I am one of these sorry creatures (a mailing address for messages of support and consolation is available on request) and doubly a lost soul in this regard, as I don’t truly feel the lack and misfortune of my condition. Nor am I adequately embarrassed about my state or envious of the sexually ‘liberated’. Reading the descriptions of the psychology and beliefs of evangelical virgins, I am perplexed and bemused, not really recognizing myself in any of them.
Chastity – Quiet and Unashamed
I believe that there are probably some good reasons why I don’t hear voices like mine clearly represented in most discussions of such matters. Not sharing wider society’s sex obsession, we are less likely to devote the same time and effort to speaking out on the subject. For my part, my participation in discussions on sexuality and Christian sexual ethics and the like has been driven by my frustration (not that kind, I promise) at one-sided conversations or poorly argued positions and has generally been a reluctant one. In my experience, conventionally and happily married people and single virgins don’t tend either to start or to participate in conversations about sex to anything like the extent of other groups.
While some might think that it is embarrassment that holds evangelical virgins back from declaring themselves, it seems to me that modesty and discretion – two virtues closely related to chastity – are the more likely suspects. Matters of sex and sexuality are private and should be spoken of in an appropriately discreet and reserved manner, not encouraging prurient attention through overexposure. While certain of our affections may be more publicly visible, I think it perfectly appropriate that our sexuality should not be. Part of what it means to be chaste and modest is to refuse to flaunt our own sexuality or that of our neighbour, to resist the urge to make people’s sexuality or sex appeal (distinct from a person’s beauty or handsome appearance) a focus of public attention, conversation, or judgment (see my discussion of modesty here).
The increasing sexualization of public life and media is a decidedly unhealthy development. Unfortunately, the fact that chaste persons are typically quiet and reserved on the subject, while promiscuous persons are frequently ‘loud and proud’, can lead to the impression that ‘everyone is doing it’ and that those who aren’t are repressed, shame and guilt-ridden individuals, who have an embarrassing condition that they feel uncomfortable about discussing publicly.
Movements towards more vocal and public presentations of sexuality among evangelicals – from pastors who share in great detail the sexual histories that shaped their marriage, to the cringe-inducing ‘sex positive’ celebrations of Christians’ sex lives, to the many vocal ‘purity’ movements – strike me as unhealthy accommodations to society’s obsessive publicization of sexuality. I believe that many of the Church’s problems in the area of virginity and chastity arise from attempts to accommodate its message to the sex idolatry of the age, making unrealistic promises about the sexual fulfilment of marriage, of the centrality and necessity of sex (it is easy to forget that the purpose of chastity is to follow Christ, not to ‘wait for marriage’, for instance), and of the degree to which it defines our existence. When the media that your young people are exposed to day in and day out are fixated with sex, how do you get them to wait for marriage? Many evangelicals in such a position fail to tackle the root problem of the idolatry of sex and merely tweak the cultural myth of sex, so that the focus rests on the steamy sex of the wedding bed. This is largely a novel development in evangelicalism, one arising from its embeddedness in a sex-obsessed culture, not from the distinct resources of the Christian message.
While clear teaching on the subject of sex and sexuality is helpful, this teaching should seek to preserve the discretion that is appropriate to Christian sexuality. It is quite possible to have a non-repressed sexuality without feeling that it has to be a matter of public discourse or saturate public consciousness.
So, in short, I am an evangelical virgin, without need for shame in that fact in the appropriate private realms of my sexuality’s expression. However, I have no intention of being either loud or proud about it.
Given how many voices there are out there pronouncing authoritatively on the character of the beliefs and experience of people like me, I thought that it might be worth providing a voice from the inside. The following are some thoughts on my perspective of sex as an evangelical male who wishes to abstain from sexual intercourse outside of marriage, explaining some of the basic rationale of my position.
The Idolatry of Sex
Sex really isn’t the most important thing in life. When we treat it as the primary and overriding dimension of or reality in our lives, it becomes an idol and, like all forms of idolatry, the idolatry of sex tends to dehumanize its devotees, limiting their realization of the richness of humanity and sexuality.
We are all at risk of succumbing to our society’s obsession with sex, becoming either fixated on its continual expression or repression. Perhaps the greatest thing that we need here is perspective – a vision of the world in which sex plays a far less central role. Through Christian formation we learn to displace sex from its idolatrous pedestal and to regard it as something secondary, subject to the rule of Christ. Freedom from the thraldom of sex and liberation in the form of the de-sexualization of much of life is one of the blessings of Christ’s reign. Rather than being an end in itself, a sex delivered from its vaunted ultimacy can be knit into all of the other ends of life, without eclipsing them and becoming a cruel deity to which we sacrifice other goods.
Sex isn’t the central dimension of human identity, and by treating it as such we risk diminishing ourselves. Those who don’t have (and especially persons who don’t desire) sex can be made to feel like non-persons in a society that fetishizes it. However, while the virgin, celibate, or chaste person may typically be regarded in terms of absence and lack, it is surprising how much room one’s identity has to flourish when you don’t have a huge idol squeezing everything else out, when one’s lust for life isn’t entirely invested in a lust for sex. For instance, removing this idol challenges the simplistic equation of sex and intimacy and frees us to recover the rich potential of friendship.
Dethroning the idol also provides you with a form of sex that has to carry considerably less baggage. Sex isn’t the source of personal fulfilment. Sex isn’t the only or perhaps even primary means of personal intimacy. Sexuality is peripheral to one’s core identity. Sexual satisfaction isn’t the goal of your existence. Sex isn’t the way that you must prove your gender. One’s sexual appeal or prowess or lack thereof isn’t the measure of your personal worth. Once one has absorbed these lessons, one is free to be a lot less hung up about sex.
Sex is at its very best when it is integrated in with all of the other good ends in life, when it draws its strength from and injects life into a host of other intimacies. Sex is at its best when it is an expression of lifelong exclusive commitment, an enjoyment of profound companionship, a deeply personalizing and loving gift of pledged bodies out of which act new life can be produced, an act in which the integral unity of body and soul can be experienced, both in our relation to our own bodies and the body of our spouse, an act that is part of an enduring relationship bound up with and witnessed to by a wider community, and an act carried out under the blessing of God given in the covenant of marriage.
Although sex is integral to marriage, by itself the desire for licit sex is a poor reason to marry, as marriage involves so much more than sex: sex is merely one form of its countless intimacies. These many non-sexual intimacies provide much of the basis for true sexual intimacy. Any attempt to tease apart these threads of intimacies to hang the life of marriage purely upon sex will leave one with a strand that is easily snapped.
The idolatry of sex detaches it from the rich fabric of life, treating it as an end in itself, and as something for which we must sacrifice many other good things. Putting sex back in its place, as one important form of intimacy among numerous other forms of intimacy that we take delight in, can deliver it from the sort of unrealistic expectations that create frustration and dissatisfaction and can allow for the sort of distance that provides a fertile context for playfulness and joy.
What is Good Sex?
Good sex isn’t measured in orgasms, but by the degree to which it provides an expansive context for the sharing and communication of various gifts and benefits. It is found in the degree to which it opens up into a shared history, in the degree to which it communicates a trustworthy mutual commitment, in the degree to which it provides a spring of life for the married couple and their children, in the degree to which it gives a context for the exploration of gender and the deep embodiedness of our personhood, in the degree to which it opens up the lives of both parties to grow, and in the degree to which it unites two people as one. Sexuality doesn’t exist purely as an end in itself, but is a means by which we can honour and serve God and others, and show a high regard for our own selves, as ensouled bodies.
Intensity of feeling is not the measure of what is good or meaningful. Some of the most meaningful of the actions that we perform are routine actions, things such as praying before meals, kissing or hugging someone before they leave, eating and drinking in the Lord’s Supper, things that may have become little more than ritual and habit but which have, through their frequent and quiet repetition, left a substantial and settled sediment, unobtrusively giving form to all that we do or think. Likewise, for all of the pleasure and even potential for novelty and creativity that they offer, much of the deep value of sexual relations between a husband and a wife may lie in the fact that they are routine. Sex need not be exciting to be profoundly meaningful.
As our existential nerve endings become deadened, though the constant celebration of the novel and the extreme, we become less sensitive to the depth and richness of life, to the beautiful subtleties of the everyday. Everything needs to be loud and brash, clamouring or abrasive, provocative or explosive. Marriage can be a place where the understatement, tenderness, delicacy, poetry, and gentleness of sex can be recovered, in a society that is often so desensitized to sex that it must be ever more shocking, taboo, explicit, or aggressive for it to be felt anymore.
Chastity By Grace
Virginity isn’t the real point: holiness is. Chastity isn’t a binary state that, once lost, cannot be regained. Chastity is a spiritual discipline, an orientation of our sexual natures to the service of God and each other, a steady kneading of our sexual appetites into our Christian vocation. Chastity is a matter of practicing sex as a matter of personal agency, rather than an animal appetite that drives us that cannot be channelled. Chastity isn’t just a virtue for virgins, unmarried persons, or celibates: every Christian is called to practice chastity, married or unmarried. We all have to bring our sexual behaviour under the rule of Christ.
Sexual self-control is essential for a healthy marriage, just as it is for faithful celibacy. One honours one’s future spouse with one’s body by the way that one controls it now. You also prepare yourself for the discipline of faithfulness and sexual self-control that will empower your marriage. You also honour your own body and honour Christ in submitting your sexuality to him. Ceasing to be an autonomous force and end, one’s sexuality becomes a servant of Christ, a part of the cosmic drama of his setting of the world to rights, thereby finding meaning, purpose, and value greater than its own satisfaction.
The Scriptures give particular value and significance to virginity. However, virginity is less a matter of what you don’t do, and more a matter of what you do. Virginity and chastity are not the bare avoidance of a sin, but positive virtues, not a matter of lack, but a matter of fullness.
While losing one’s virginity outside marriage is not without some serious consequences, a Christian view of sexuality is one of forgiveness and redemption. Losing your virginity does not leave you as a worthless failure in God’s sight: God has a habit of turning whores into spotless brides. Likewise, retaining one’s virginity isn’t the main goal. We are not playing a game of ‘how low can the dimmer switch go without turning the light off?’ but seeking to conform our sexual behaviour to Christ.
Both the guilt, shame, and condemnation-driven fixation on past sexual sins or abuse or the legalistic attempt to preserve one’s virginity on a technicality fall far short of the Christian ideal and lead to bondage. Chastity is about free forgiveness, repentance, and faith, about rescue from past failures, and becoming something greater by God’s gracious transforming work in our lives. It is about being moulded into a liberated form of sexual behaviour and identity consistent with the ends of our existence, and rescued from all forms that fall short or hold us captive.
Sex is Fallen and Tragic
Sex and our sexual appetites and identities are shaped by the Fall, shot through with sin and tragedy. We struggle both to master and to interpret our desires. Sex, designed to unite man and woman, can be a site of their alienation and mutual exploitation. Our false god, Eros, fails us, while placing heavy burdens upon us.
Our failure to acknowledge the tragic and the fallen character of human life and our expectation of a sexual fullness of life without death often directly leads to our disappointment, disillusion, and despair. Sex is not our saviour and all of our sexualities are broken. A realization of this helps us to fix our attention primarily on God’s promise of eschatological healing and perfection of our fractured world.
Being an unmarried virgin is not a brokenness that marriage will save me from, for marriage is no less broken. My personal eschatology will not take the form of ‘he got married and lived happily ever after.’ The god of marriage and family, no less than the idol of sex, is one that will disappoint us. Marriage and family are a fertile source of evil and wickedness, of tragedy and brokenness. Only Christ can save us.
A recognition of sex, marriage, and family as places of tragedy, death, and brokenness open them up as places of fellowship with Christ in his sufferings. Through this fellowship we will find that these – just as celibate singleness – can become the very sites where the new life of resurrection can also be enjoyed.
Chastity and virginity aren’t about ‘waiting for marriage’. They are about the living of life in union with Christ now. They are about pursuing the vocations that God has given us in the present, and supporting our married and unmarried neighbours in the fulfilment of theirs. The fullness that chastity and virginity seek are provided by the presence of Christ, not the achievement of marriage.
Play Not Sport
Sex is play, not sport. While there is nothing wrong with becoming good at something, there is a difference between approaching an activity as a game that can be enjoyed and approaching it as a sport that we really must excel at. People who approach an activity as a sport are often most at risk of losing the innocent ‘love of the game’. The point is not to become incredibly good ‘at sex’, but to rediscover a childlike playfulness with another person, dropping the defences and masks that we establish against the world and each other (one of those defences being the skills that we try to develop to mask our weakness), and entering into an enjoyment of ourselves and each other in the shared practice of God’s good gift, with a fearlessness and lightness of spirit.
The society around us takes sex far too seriously and in the process has lost sight of much of its true enjoyment. Sex has become a thing in itself, detached from those who have it. ‘Sex’ can become like a third party in a relationship. It places demands on us – ‘you must enjoy!’ – and in our focus upon these demands and the pursuit of some erotic ideal, we can lose sight of each other, our increasing goal being the attainment of society’s ideal of ‘great sex’.
With this view of sex, people easily become hung up on becoming sexual athletes, in a manner that cuts them off from others and renders them fearful of others’ judgment, against which they must develop skill as a protection.
The Power of Sex
Sex is about far more than making babies. It is a gift to be enjoyed, a place of play and delight, a sign of the Creator’s own joyfulness in his creation. Sex cannot, however, be separated from procreation, and we should seek to practice it in a context and in a way that affords the same open and gracious welcome, love, hospitality, and joyful excess to those who might be conceived by the act as God has shown to us in giving us a gift in which so much pleasure and joy may be found.
Sex can deeply affect our relationship to others, to ourselves and our bodies, and can bring new life into the world. It can be a place of life’s deepest pleasures, or a source of its bitterest conflicts. It can be a source of new life, but leads others to self-destruction. What it cannot be is ‘safe’. Such a powerful force must be enjoyed for what it is, but in a context where its power is respected and carefully channelled. Marriage is designed for such a respectful enjoyment of the power of sex.
Sex involves a movement outside of ourselves, a movement towards another in their unique subjectivity, into the mysterious realm of the other gender. In sex are dispossessed of control. We put ourselves in another person’s hands. We participate in a form of union that has a created potential to produce new life, engaging with an interpersonal and biological reality that is greater than our individual intentionality.
Sex is a blessed wellspring of life, for the married couple, and for those born of their union. God desires the waters of this spring to remain deep, pure, and satisfying, sources of life and health to all who partake in them.
Becoming One Flesh
The purpose of sex is the forging of interpersonal bonds. For this reason alone, pursuing sex for the end of the maximization of one’s personal and private ‘sex life’ misses the point, as does the individualistic goal of becoming ‘good in bed’. Sex is a place of dying to oneself in order to become brought to new life in union with another. Consequently, sex is a place of weakness and deep vulnerability. This weakness and vulnerability is not pleasant, but is profoundly rewarding in the long term.
One of the great gifts of marriage is a context where sex can be enjoyed as a practice of deep and profound unity. Sex in marriage is not an audition, nor a place where you are typically being marked harshly on your performance. It is a place where the fear of the other who might hurt or reject us is minimized and we can let our guards down. It is a place that is created so that you can be deeply vulnerable to another person, coming to them without needing the emotional prophylactics of the hook-up culture, or the protection of sexual skilfulness, a safe place where you can venture beyond yourself, put your life in another’s hands, with all of your defences lowered.
There is no deep connection without deep vulnerability, and the restriction of sex to marriage is designed in part to form a place where this can occur. Honeymoon sex will likely be a disappointment in terms of physical performance and sensation, but what you give to your partner is not your sexual skill (which will come with time) but your profound vulnerability to them, your courage to be a weak beginner in their presence. What you receive may not be an incredible orgasm but rather the potential of a genuine and profound connection to another person.
So often the belief that sex and intimacy are the same thing has drawn lonely people into the hollow quest of promiscuity. They seek intimacy, but cannot afford or risk vulnerability. Looking for the right things in the wrong places, not only do they fail to appreciate the wealth of intimacy that can be found in friendship and other forms of companionship, but miss the true intimacy that can be found in sex itself, when enjoyed in a context where vulnerability to each other is encouraged and enabled. This alienating fear of vulnerability is one of the great tragedies of our age.
It is not in the supposed mind-blowingness of the sex but in the strength of a connection forged out of deep and exclusive shared vulnerability that the reward of premarital abstinence is found. It is in sex where doubt, fear, guilt, judgment, and the felt need for defences are minimized, and we can truly be completely naked to another human being. Vulnerability and the risk of intense shame are the preconditions of deep and genuine intimacy. Non-marital, pre-marital, and extra-marital sex situate sex in a context apart from a sure commitment, where guards cannot easily be fully dropped, where we cannot relinquish control and skilful mastery, where we dare not be truly naked to each other, and where the rich rewards of mutual vulnerability cannot be known in their fullness.
It would be a genuine blessing to know that you all that you and your spouse have learned practically about sex was something that you learned together, sex being a secret that you share with them alone. Sex is not a thing that you pursue and serve as a thing in itself, but something that exists exclusively between you and your spouse.
A Sexuality of Gift and Gratitude
The conviction at the heart of our culture’s experience and practice of sex is that we are detached individuals with sexual rights. Sex is the prerogative of consenting and autonomous sexual agents, entitled to do whatever they want with their own bodies, provided that the other party is OK with it. Marriage is society’s rubberstamping of the choice of the consenting individuals, a validation to which they have a claim.
The Christian view of sex and marriage arises from a very different understanding of humanity. Within the Christian understanding of humanity, we are not mere autonomous individual agents, but are those who are brought into being through the gracious action of others, and who are co-creators of each other’s being. We are gifted gift-givers, persons whose very being is a divine gift, those who extend the hospitality and generosity of God to others, and who are continually drawn into the goodness that God has shown to our neighbours.
Rather than seeing our sexuality as a matter of our self-fulfilment and self-realization as detached and entitled sexual agents, our sexuality is an aspect of our fulfilment of our being as gifted, giving, and receiving personal expressions of divine generosity. It is on account of this anthropology that sex belongs in and not outside of the marriage bed.
Sex is a mutual exchange of bodies and persons. It forms a genuine ‘one flesh’ union between two persons, a union that can be the loving source of their children’s being, their existence springing from the gift of their parents’ bodies, pledged to each other as they were given into each other’s hands and the service and blessing of God by their community. In such a ‘one flesh’ union, there is no place for autonomous sexual agents: ‘mine’ and ‘yours’ dissolves into ‘ours’.
While the autonomous sexual agent is concerned with ensuring that he is getting what he is entitled to out of the relationship and that he doesn’t forfeit control by putting himself too much in the hands of others, the person in the economy of grace is concerned with being rendered as gift to others, and with receiving them as gift, rather than as right.
Marriage is all about gift. It is about pledging ourselves and our bodies to another person for life, and receiving their freely given pledge in return. It is about giving ourselves as a couple to God and a community in committed service and participation in an intergenerational project. It is about giving up our detached individuality and independence to belong to another. It is about giving up our concerns, our entitlements, our centrality in our own narratives, for the sake of coming generations, and the kingdom of our Saviour. It is about practicing our lives together in a way that grants those who are conceived in our union a place and an identity in the world. It is about being given our spouse as a joyful gift from their family, and graciously being given kinship with them as a beloved son or daughter, brother or sister-in-law. It is about being given a place within a witnessing community that faithfully gives itself to our support. It is about being granted to bear the legacy, example, and love of parents and grandparents to pass on to future generations in our time and being privileged to render to them a heritage and a memorial in return.
Most of all, marriage is about being given a vocation and a blessing from God. It is about being granted to take our place in the great line of the generations, from Adam and Eve, to Abraham and Sarah, to Mary and Joseph, bearing our unique testimony to his goodness and gospel in our time, receiving from those who preceded us what we will one day pass on to others.
Sex is the mutual donation of bodies that fits in the heart of this picture. By never abstracting sex from marriage, we declare the gifts that brought us into, sustain us within, are expressed by us through, and will be passed on by means of our existence. We declare that we are more than detached and autonomous right-bearing individuals: we are dynamic expressions of loving gift in a dance of grace that transcends persons and generations. By entering into this, we gloriously transcend our individuality.
Pre-marital sex is the premature opening of the gift with our name on it. It defrauds both ourselves and others of the chance to enter into the fullness of the gift of marriage. It claims as right what could have been an outflowing of joyous and life-giving generosity. It denies the continual debt of love that we owe to our neighbour and to our Maker, and would treat the hospitality of a community as our entitlement. It deprives us all of the communion of gift that is formed as we realize our being as constantly springing out of the abundant charity of God. It diminishes us from the eucharistic – thanks-giving – beings that God created us to be, as the great Giver and those lesser givers through whom his generosity is known are effaced, and all gifts are rendered as rights.
As an unmarried virgin, I am no less able to realize my sexuality as gift. In my practice of chastity I continually give my sexuality as a gift to God and to my community, from and in whom I have my own being. I can honour others as I steward my body and my personhood as gifts that I receive from them, and to whom I owe a debt of joyful gratitude. In this practice of chastity I can enjoy a union of gift and belonging with others of which those who pursue a right to autonomous sexual enjoyment deprive themselves.
Far from finding Christian views of chastity and virginity repressive and crushing, I have found them to be deeply fulfilling and worthwhile. They give purpose and meaning to my sexuality. They clarify its ends and the best ways to pursue them. They free me from the tyranny of the idol of Sex. They enable me to understand and cope with difficulty and tragedy in sexuality. They expand and deepen my understanding of intimacy.
I believe that an understanding of the purposes of chastity and virginity have much to give married persons too, as the purpose of sexuality in marriage is inseparable from the purpose of sexuality in unmarried states.
I would love to hear the thoughts of my readers on this subject, both married and single. Please leave a comment below!
If people want some more first-person perspectives on what male evangelical virgins are like, I recommend this series as a good one to read.
EDIT (10/8/2012 – 23:30GMT): I have just added the section entitled ‘A Sexuality of Gift and Gratitude’, which wasn’t included in the original post.
UPDATE (30/1/2013): I have posted a follow-up post on the subject of virginity and the gospel here.
Excellent read, Alastair. I feel like there is much hear to be considered by your readers. I know I’ve got a lot more to evaluate in my own mind/life from what you’ve written. I can see how insightful this post can be for married people as well. I hope you get some good discussion.
A very interesting read, Alastair. There’s a lot one could say in response, but I’m going to confine myself at this juncture to the issue of Christians being prepared (or not) to speak up about sex.
I’m an evangelist, and hence tend to find it easy to speak up about things about which I’m passionate. When it comes to sex, I’m happy to admit that I’m not a prude, not Victorian in my attitudes as to what sexual practices are acceptable between man and wife, and I’m not somebody who feels that true Christianity is an exercise in repressing one’s emotions (as you rightly point out). When I read the Song of Solomon, I don’t feel obliged to insist against all the evidence that its “really about the relationship betwen Christ and the church”, seeing primarily a celebration of beauty, love and sexual passion which, on a whole-Scriptural reading, takes place between man and wife.
I too am a virgin, and I’m enthusistic about that. It’s not a mark of shame, it’s a badge of honour. Do I feel I’m missing out on anything? Well, if my commitment to virginity until marriage means I’m missing out on STDs, unwanted pregnancies, and the clear link between cohabitation and/or pre-marital sex and marriage breakdown, then I’m happy to miss out. Maintaining my commitment to sexual purity is an investment I’m happy to make, not a sign that I’m unable to participate in the great sexual party that the world is enjoying. And I’m looking forward to enjoying the benefits of waiting with my wife. (Note to the critics: I don’t live in some sexual cloud-cuckoo land – some of us take the time to read balanced Christian teaching on the subject, and are by no means under some kind of Hollywood illusion).
To which I should add that this great sexual party is a myth: the sexual revolution and concomitant abandonment of Christian morality has brought us 50% divorce and 25% of kids growing up with only one parent in the home. Those arguing for greater sexual liberation forget that when they sow to the wind, they reap a whirlwind: sex has become seen as safe when it is anything but. Science bears this out: it is well documented in secular research (see e.g. the Family Education Trust: http://www.famyouth.org.uk/) that pre-marital sex increases the risk of divorce. Thus Christians arguing for pre-marital sex have neither the Bible nor science on their side. Meanwhile a floodtide of teen pregnancies shows that whatever the libertarians are saying about the beauty of safe sex, there is great ugliness and pain caused by rejecting morality. It is the argument for increased sexual liberty which is based upon a mythical view of sex which doesn’t exist in reality: the reality is that when we form one-flesh unions (“stuck together with God’s glue”, as the U2 song* has it) and then pull them apart again, wounds are caused, wounds which do not easily heal and which go on to create rifts in future relationships. The women I know who are the most worn-out and suspicious about love, men and their future prospects are those who have been promiscuous, not 40-year-old virgins.
I disagree to a great extent about it being a virtue for Christians to remain silent on the subject of sex. The nature of being a prophetic people is that we are bold to speak about God’s will and the behaviour of people. When we withdraw our light from any arena of public debate, it becomes dark by default. If anything, Christians have been too quiet. We should be standing up for both morality and loving, fulfilling sexual relationships in a way that makes the world jealous – not on the basis of sexual prowess but on that of loving, enduring marriage relationships which include a healthy sexual component. Final (statistical) thought: in surveys (quoted in Murrow, “Why Men Hate Going to Church”) it is evangelical Christian women who report the greatest level of sexual satisfaction. Scriptural principle works!
*”Staring at the Sun”
Thanks for the comment, Jeremy!
The more that I have thought through this issue, the more that I have felt the weakness of the legalistic approaches that we can sometimes be tempted to take on this subject. A Christian commitment to chastity brings with it incredible blessings both inside and outside of marriage. This isn’t just a matter of avoiding bad things such as STDs and extra-marital pregnancies: it is about the enjoyment of a rich identity in grace and communion (something that I just commented upon in the lengthy section that I added to the post above).
Thank you, Alastair!
You are indeed right that the legalistic approach by itself is lacking. God says “Thou shalt not…” in order to bring us into the freedom of his blessings. Too much of our Christianity is on legalistic autopilot: while the reasoning “because God said so” works for some, in reality it is the joy that is set before us that is most reflective of God’s heart for people. But how this runs counter to society’s desire for instant gratification…
I am so grateful that living by God’s principles sets me free to enjoy so much of life: singleness is not a burden because there is purpose in this. It is satisfying in itself – and there is also the knowledge that keeping to God’s ways has protected me from having to bear the consequences that many are carrying, whether a broken heart or a broken family. It’s a win-win situation.
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Superlative. Will share broadly. Thank you.
I found the book “The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University” by
Kevin Roose to be quite interesting on how sexualized & sex-obsessed fundamentalism/evangelicalism can be.
I read that book too and was struck by the same thing.
Well done. Especially appropriate in a culture that is increasingly barbarous in its approach to sex and death.
Pope John Pail II Man and Woman He Created Them’ A Theology of The Body. A, Pauline Books and Media, 2006. My be a welcome contribution to this very fine article.
Thanks for the recommendation, Brendan. I invested in a copy of that book just a few weeks ago, but have yet to read it (although I have read sections of it in the past).
I think you’ll find a great deal in common with JPIIs writings on TOB.
This is beautiful.
Thanks, Kamilla. I hope to read it soon.
Fun book, and it matched pretty well my experience at an evangelical college (minus the Jerry Falwell obsession).
I have just added a lengthy section to the piece above, the part entitled ‘A Sexuality of Gift and Gratitude’.
the best essay on the subject since brunner’s ethics.
Hard to believe there are so few comments when practically everyone I know has shared this on Facebook. Just wanted to say excellent job, very well thought out and I love the positivity. “Chastity and virginity aren’t about ‘waiting for marriage’. They are about the living of life in union with Christ now.” Absolutely true and something that will carry a person from their pre-married life clear through their married life. It’s always about Christ. It’s not deprivation, it’s reclamation. Loved your insights.
Thank you, Sarah!
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So refreshing to read honest, open writing on this subject, Alastair. Moving in fairly fundamentalist circles, I haven’t heard any Christians attempting to justify pre-marital sex using the arguments you describe here – sounds like a bit of protesting too much if you ask me! – and yet I am dissatisfied by the tendency among less liberal Christians to just assume that everyone will avoid sex like the plague until marriage while never talking about it, explaining the reasons for it or providing support for anyone attempting to do it (or not do it!).
I’ve spent enough time doing youth work to have wrestled with this issue over and over again with young people who have been bombarded with subtle and not-so-subtle messages telling them that sex is unmissable, unavoidable, possibly even medically necessary, and certainly the marker of a ‘committed’ relationship. Several times I have heard people branded ‘frigid’, ‘desparate’ or ‘closet gay’ because they haven’t been in a relationship for some time! I’m pretty sure all of those labels have been attached to me during my nearly 20 years of celibacy and singleness 🙂
At the same time, those Christians I know who have abstained from sex rarely talk about it or share any of their insights. It’s like those who choose chastity (the original or redeemed sort!) consider it to be an embarassing choice, not only to non-Christians, whom they fear will scoff at them, but also within the Christian community. I wonder if this is perhaps because so many have ‘fallen’ and see no way of public redemption, even if they accept the Father’s forgiveness and restoration. Such a high premium is placed on pre-marital virginity in the circles in which I move that nobody dares to mention it in case they accidentally catch someone out who has not achieved it. To put it bluntly, unmarrieds daren’t have a conversation where we assume that all partakers are virgins because so many are not and we don’t want to expose them! So we don’t mention it at all, missing out on an opportunity for those who live a state of happy chastity only because of God’s grace to give him the glory for his forgiveness and restoration!
Anyway, thank you for not being embarrassed 🙂
The sort of arguments that you encounter really depends upon context. I suspect that there is a sort of development. In contexts where sexual abstinence outside of marriage is the norm, arguments for sex outside of marriage tend to begin by arguing for a stretching of the rule: it may be claimed that pre-marital sex (as distinct from extra-marital, casual, or promiscuous sex) – especially between an engaged couple – is justified, or at least a situation to be treated as permissible, though less than ideal.
Arguments then tend to turn to downplaying the importance of chastity, often by means of slight caricature, primarily in a manner calculated to make those who have engaged in sex outside of marriage feel less guilty. The approach generally taken here is the ‘don’t judge’, ‘we’re all sinners’, ‘all sins are equal before God’ line. While the guilt of persons who have been unchaste in the past is a problem, the Christian approach to dealing with such a problem is confession, free forgiveness, and liberating restoration, not the minimization of sin.
Soon after this point the realistic ethic tends to kick in. While great for those who can manage it, sexual abstinence outside of marriage is an unrealistic ethic. Most people will have had sex outside of marriage. Unless we relax our ethics, such people – the supposed majority of any community – will be guilt-ridden and alienated, and we will have nothing to say to them. As most will have sex outside of marriage, for reasons of sexual health it is important to prepare them for this. Also, as guilt can cause problems, we need to provide such teaching in a morally neutral (for which ‘non-judgmental’ is mistakenly used as a synonym) way, a way that many will take as giving tacit approval.
After the ‘realistic’ ethic has started to challenge an emphasis upon chastity, it will call for greater tolerance. As sexual sin is so hard to resist in today’s climate, it is inappropriate for Christian leaders to speak out clearly on the subject. Chastity must be expressed in a very qualified manner, more as a suggestion than as an integral dimension of the Christian’s vocation, or as a matter upon which Christians differ, rather than something upon which the Scriptures are pretty clear. Alternatively, it will be stressed that sex is purely a matter of the individual’s conscience and that Church teaching and discipline have no business speaking into a situation of consensual partners or private action.
Then we move towards direct challenges upon chastity. Virginity prior to marriage encourages situations of ‘sexual incompatibility’ and mismatched libidos. It gives persons completely unrealistic expectations of the marriage bed. It produces extremely repressed individuals and is a sign of social maladjustment. It is a pathological fixation on controlling something that we cannot truly control and will lead to a stunted sexual identity and sex life not merely before, but also after marriage.
The ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach that you describe is also exceedingly problematic, especially in the context of a culture where we are all being exposed to many loud messages that normalize promiscuity or non-marital sex and which pathologize a commitment to chastity.
Much teaching in the Church on the subject has deep flaws. I think that one of the problems that we face is that we have often treated sexual ethics as a sort of ‘one strike and you are out’ game (the focus on virginity as a binary state is a real issue here), which merely engenders guilt for those who fall to sexual temptation of one kind or another or who have done so in the past, sapping their will to continue. Others have tried to ‘make chastity sexy’, arguing that Christian marital sex is especially steamy, or using sexy celebrities as their exemplars of the virtue.
It is an area where the fragmentation of Christian ethics is especially evident – instead of lives that flow from a deep gospel logic, we have isolated prohibitions and legalistic forms of condemnation. The forbidden object is heavily gilded by society, and often even by Christians themselves, which makes it very hard to resist.
It seems to me that we badly need to re-integrate our ethics at this point, presenting a vision of chastity that is profoundly gospel-shaped and Christ-focused, founded upon forgiveness, restoration, and the sanctifying work of God, and with a rich account of the blessed and desirable character of chastity, rather than on legalism’s fixation with sin and prohibition. We need to en-courage young people that this is a struggle well worth having, with tremendous rewards, a struggle in which they will know Christ’s aid, both directly and through our ministries, and a struggle in which the fallen will be picked up and restored, rather than left behind.
We need a clearer apprehension of the ends that chastity aims at, as often it is only the wider culture that is telling us what is good in the area of sexual relationships. If we accept society’s claim that intensely pleasurable sex really is the highest good, a good for which all sorts of other goods should be sacrificed, the rewards of Christian chastity will disappoint many. No doubt differing libidos will be a struggle for many Christian couples, many Christians who are chaste will never marry and have sexual relations, and even many who do will find their choices of partner decidedly limited on account of their stand in this area. The pursuit of chastity will stand in the way of maximizing sexual pleasure for many of us – we really shouldn’t be embarrassed or unwilling to admit it. However, once we start to appreciate the blessings that can come on account of Christian charity, the genuine and painful sacrifices will be seen in a clearer perspective.
This provides the foundation for a more honest conversation on the subject, one that doesn’t falsely advertise chastity, promising rewards that it probably won’t deliver, but which clearly articulates its true purpose and blessings. Once we have stopped trying to make chastity ‘sexy’, presenting it as being without deep sacrifices and struggles, or as revealing its blessings immediately, we will be able to bring in many more voices to witness to it. Chastity is also a virtue that requires a community in which to flourish, as many of the ends that it aims at are communal ends. We need to make that connection clearer, in part through a greater support and appreciation for those who make considerable individual sacrifices for the sake of others in this area.
“Matters of sex and sexuality are private and should be spoken of in an appropriately discreet and reserved manner, not encouraging prurient attention through overexposure.” The first thing that popped into my head when I read this statement was Christian singer and longtime “purity” advocate Rebecca St. James. (I put purity in quotes because there is so much more to the issue than keeping one’s virginity intact, although to an extent, non-Christians could be justifiably excused from thinking that we believe otherwise.) I have no doubt that her heart was in the right place or that she set a good example, but I suspect the platform overshadowed much else about her and even created a level of expectation in certain more impressionable young adults that may be doomed to disappointment. (Thinking here of teen girls or very young women filling journal after journal with loving letters to their as yet unmet future spouses, by candlelight and while listening to wedding music – and I’m not exaggerating.) As for the “prurient attention” – well, when someone with as lengthy and public a virginity platform as Ms. St. James finally marries…’nuff said. Thank you, Alastair, for your well-considered thoughts.
She married last year, actually. Felt sorry for the bloke. There’s no way a human being can live up to those expectations. I read her book and it was… awkward.
Excellent post, by the way, Alistair. As always, really, but especially excellent this time round. 🙂
I have been amazed by just how much attention is given to figures such as Tim Tebow and Lolo Jones on account of their public statements concerning their virginity too, most of it profoundly unedifying.
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The question of sexual repression was raised in Arni’s post responding to this, and in another post responding to Arni’s. I thought that a few brief remarks on the subject might be helpful here, as it wasn’t a subject that I tackled in any detail in the post itself:
1. One of the points of this post was to challenge the idea that virgins are to be presumed to be sexually repressed. I strongly reject this notion, but I don’t believe that this need entail the complete rejection of the concept of sexual repression, just a clarification of it.
2. Practically every human being, virgins included, experiences some sort of drive towards sex, and we all have to negotiate this in some manner or other. Mere denial, repression, and prohibition will often tend to cause problems. Abstinence as a purely negative denial and absence is seldom healthy for this reason. However, this drive becomes significantly more manageable as we start to realize that it can largely be quite – and often better – satisfied in numerous things apart from sex itself.
3. While I believe that celibacy is a genuine possibility and need involve no dysfunction at all, I do not believe that it is easy, nor do I believe that it is a longer term ideal for most persons (although many will be called to this non-ideal state despite their desires). Longer term sexual abstinence is not normal or ideal. Part of our cultural problem is that children are sexually maturing at younger ages, while marriages tend to come much later in life. The growing period of the interim is not entirely healthy, nor easy to negotiate, especially in a sex-saturated society.
4. This drive towards sex, while obviously involving a biological substrate, is culturally shaped, and involves considerably more than a mere desire for sex. Much as with our hunger for food, we bring to sex an integrated set of hungers – forming a more fundamental hunger for life. Our culture teaches us what to desire from sex.
5. Our society is characterized by the bottlenecking of a host of hungers, focusing them upon the sexual act. Sex, sexuality, sexual relationships, and, more broadly, marriage are the sites where we are supposed to meet our hunger for intimacy, friendship, companionship, belonging, sensation, touch, identity, meaning, purpose, communication and relationship with the other sex, sense of identity in our own sex, personal realization, self-transcendence, and the leaving of a personal legacy. This bottlenecking occurs for many reasons, some of them socio-economic, some ideological, and others depending more upon the contents of specific cultures. The net result of this bottlenecking, however, is to produce an idolization of sex.
6. Denying or repressing the hungers that our cultures teach us to bring to sex would not be at all healthy. However, we can and should challenge their bottlenecking, without denying that sex is a place where these hungers can be met to an important degree. As we dethrone the idol of sex, we can find a far deeper and broader satisfaction for our hunger for life than sex alone could ever have offered us.
7. The bottlenecking of our hunger for life in a hunger for sex has led to dysfunction, as a selfish and promiscuous sexuality becomes detached from the other good ends of life, ends with which the Christian tradition has tended closely to integrate them. People can struggle to form and maintain long term marriages, to negotiate differing libidos, to cope with loss of sexual desire or potency, to develop broader forms of intimacy, etc. In its own way, this is a form of repression, as one of the many channels for our hunger for life is made responsible for bearing so much of it, far beyond its natural capacity, while many of the other channels become blocked up or are allowed to atrophy (long term intimate friendships with a physically affectionate – but not sexual – element being one example). Unsurprisingly, this form of sexuality is found wanting and unsatisfying by many, and often leads to socially and personally harmful results, stunting the personal and moral growth of many of those who pursue it and limiting their capacity to form long term stable and meaningful relationships.
8. I believe that many forms of Christian approaches to virginity actually are sexually repressed, especially among the most vocal ones. Rather than the positive good of chastity that can give purpose, meaning, and channels for the expression of our sexual identities, a mere proscription is given. The bottlenecking of our hunger for life into sex is not adequately challenged, nor alternative means of personal fulfilment offered. The fixation upon sin and prohibition is characteristic of this attitude. Virginity as the negative pole of a binary state is fetishized, rather than focusing on the positive goods that accompany the pursuit of chastity. It does not surprise me in the slightest that this sexual repression often has ugly results in the real world and proves quite unsuccessful as a means of formation in healthy and joyful sexual and personal identity.
The entire Cristian tradition is based on the “spirit” versus “flesh” paradigm.
This entire social and cultural game of antisexual “spirit against flesh” education/culture is so montrous, so opposed to incarnate happiness and human responsibility, that it must be considered the primary social and even philosophical issue of our time – because it has inevitably brought the entire world to the brink of both cultural and ecological destruction – have you really read the “news”?
It is responsible for ALL of our seemingly intractable social and cultural problems including drug addiction, the now-time epidemic of obesity, the destruction of the environment, the world-wide armanents race, and global terrorism – who or what are all the psychotic players really fighting against?
Thanks for the comment, John.
You are making some pretty sweeping statements here, so perhaps you will understand why I want to ask you a few questions.
First of all, what is the ‘”spirit” versus “flesh” paradigm’ in your understanding? What is your basis for saying that the ‘entire Christian tradition’ is based upon it? What are your sources for this universal statement? How would you argue that this is a distinctively Christian belief, distinguishing it from other cultures’ forms of dualism, especially those of cultures whose influence upon Western thought preceded that of Christianity (such as Greek philosophy)?
Can you give us some sources for this rather startling claim of profound theological unity in such a diverse religious tradition? Why do you identify this particular belief as one that lies ‘at the root of the Christian world-view’? Rather than merely asserting its opposition to human happiness and responsibility, could you present a case to support your claim? Again, rather than simply asserting the relation, can you give us some arguments that demonstrate that and how this ‘paradigm’ is responsible for all of the societal evils that you mention?
Finally, what is the alternative perspective that you are proposing? How does it avoid the problems that you impute to the supposedly uniform Christian understanding? Unfortunately, at the moment you are reading like a conspiracy theorist who hasn’t done his homework.
ALL of them? People’s desire for power and money has nothing to do with it? Stalin and Mao were able to do eight digits of murder without believing in spirit at all…
This reference, which is a review of an unspeakably vile snuff/splatter movie, provides an accurate description of the applied politics that inevitably extend from the “spirit” versus “flesh” paradigm at the root of the Christian world-view..
The film was/is of course an in-your-face expression/extension of the deeply misogynist “spirit” versus “flesh” world-view promoted by Opus Dei and other right-wing “traditionalist” outfits which now exercise almost complete control over the various cultural and political agendas of the “catholic” church – even while they prattle on about the “theology” of the body.
Anyone for world-wide “catholic” fascism!
Such intrinsically fascist politics has deep roots in the applied politics of the “catholic” church as practiced in World War II.
Why not Google Ante Pavelic – Ustashi – the vatican and the “catholic” church.
These audio lectures may be relevant to some of your concerns, particularly, regarding dualism. http://www.gci.org/av/tftaudio
Exceptionally helpful Alastair, thank you!
I don’t always agree with you but that’s why I read your blog; because either way I always find your perspective valuable. I did however find this entry very moving. But as someone forging a renewed commitment to Christianity in the last couple of years after a long absence (I am 30, and parted from Christianity with spectacular bitterness at age 18 for various reasons), I would say that what can be disheartening for someone with a similar history to mine is not the value placed on sexual relations but the impression sometimes given that sexual purity once lost is lost forever, and no truly strong relationship can therefore be built. In my 20s I more or less adopted the view of most people around me that sexual experimentation should be a “normal” part of anyone’s life/relationships. I’ve had 3 sexual relationships, fewer than most secular/liberal women my age I’d imagine, but still, far from pure by Christian standards; two of them I found fairly empty, and one agonizingly heartbreaking. My spiritual hunger gave rise to a desire to demand more from my human relationships as well (indeed I think the two are inevitably closely linked); more trust, seriousness, commitment, shared belief, etc.; thus a deeper and stricter sexual ethic. But if no one takes virgins seriously, even less do they take seriously a 30-year-old person, but especially a 30-year-old woman, with a sexual history who wishes now to not have sex, to ask more and to demand a new level of seriousness in both herself and others when contemplating a relationship or commitment. To non-religious people or very liberal Christians, I am simply a joke, and to stricter Christians, I fear, too “broken.” But my history made me who I am and I can’t deny that, regardless of whether it objectively should have happened or not. The pain and knowledge it gave me are part of what taught me what I should be valuing instead- unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make the journey any other way. Anyway I don’t lack hope or think necessarily that the person I can understand or who can understand me isn’t out there. But coupled with a serious view of sexual purity, I would also ask for understanding of people with more difficult or stumbling histories.
Thank you for this comment, Megan, and for sharing your personal experience in such a manner. You raise some extremely important points. A focus on virginity in terms of an all-or-nothing binary state, which once lost can never be regained, rather than upon chastity as an active virtue is profoundly damaging. It loses sight of the fact that a gospel of free forgiveness and restoration must be – not merely part of the picture – but the truth that frames all else.
To what you have said on this front, I would add that it is also damaging to Christians who don’t engage in non-marital sexual intercourse as it can leave them satisfied merely with a frequently legalistic avoidance of particular actions, when something far richer is offered to us in this area as we live by the Spirit and in Christ.
I trust that you will know Christ’s blessing as you continue to follow him and join with you in your hope that he will provide for you someone who will treat you with a love, delight, and honour that reflects the manner in which Christ himself sees you.
Great article Ally. Really appreciated reading it.
How are things? I miss our walks along the canal and chatting. It’s been too long not seeing you and I’m looking forward to the end of October when Alice and I will be back in the UK. Make sure that you are around at that time.
Have a great trip to the USA. How about a Skype chat sometime before you leave?
Thanks, Mark! Thark.
Check your e-mail.
So there are Christians out there! Oh… we are made to think that the West is gone into gooze by virtue of what we see and hear. Thanks, man!
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First of all, just found your blog on a link from a link from Sailer about modern and postmodern modes of discourse. Nice work–certainly belies all the stereotypes I was taught growing up in New York about evangelicals! (A lot of this derives from American regional antagonisms, which you may or may not be aware of on your side of the pond. I understand Northerners and Southerners have a similar dynamic in England, albeit with the directions reversed.)
Anyway, I thought I’d comment because I actually had planned to wait until marriage. Part of this was a fear of STDs (for a long time HIV was a death sentence, and it still means taking lots of toxic drugs) and having to pay child support, but I think a lot of what you say holds some water. But finally in my late twenties, not having a career stable enough to support a marriage at that time, and girls getting upset at me (thinking it meant a lack of interest in them), I gave in and lost my virginity. (I had no religious affiliation, of course.)
It was amusing how anticlimactic it was, really.
My point is that in addition to keeping hornier people in check, a traditional culture gives less horny people social support to wait.
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Very energetic blog, I enjoyed that a lot.
Will there be a part 2?
Thanks, Conrad! I have written one follow-up piece here.
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Alastair, Thanks for sharing. I used to be very up on chastity, purity, holiness and living the life Christ wanted me to live. Then I got a girlfriend. The temptations were very strong and I succumbed to leading her into paths that were not Christ-like, although that was an original reason why she was attracted to me. So we sinned and I had the greater sin because I led a pure woman into areas were both of us should not have went and where she never went before. I’m talking about genital contact, mutual masturbation, oral sex and spilling of my seed. After about five weeks of this we are trying to refocus and regroup and do the right thing. I’ve taken the lead on pushing the matter of chastity again even though she was willing to go were we went before, but not all the way;. She is a virgin. I have corrupted her enough (to my shame) and am now making amends to live Christ-like with her, although the corruption was not my original intent.. I’m fasting three days before we get together, praying, reading up on purity and sharing with her Blessed John Paul II’s teaching from his book Love and Responsibility when he was Karol Wojtiya. We plan on seeking the intercession of Blessed John Paul II tomorrow when we get together for our next date. We plan on kneeling and praying together in the woods as we take our hike on a nature trail. Our plan is to increase our spiritual intimacy by more vocal and shared formal prayer together and resist any deep kisses or starting to pet. This way we won’t be starting anything. She’s very willing to do the right thing, grow in faith and purity and get on the right track again. We’ve already prayed the rosary together three times and have shared our thoughts with God in praise and thanksgiving out loud.. I believe I can control myself with the grace of God. I believe she will follow my lead. The last time we were together we had a pure date. We both need help, though and saintly intercession. Pray for us, please. We’re just two people swimming in the murk of the sexual revolution trying to love God and each other without taking advantage of our freedom and each other. I am a sinner. I need help. I need Jesus to do her right. Good luck staying pure, Alastair. Good luck.
This post is beautiful and awesome-in more meanings than one. One of the great problems have been the popularity in the Catholic Church of the so-called Theology of the Body. What Bl. John Paul II meant is not what has been written and pushed in the past ten years or so. But, you have covered all the points so well, I can add nada…
Thank you, Marie!
Thank you for taking the time to so thoroughly articulate what I believe to be a healthy and biblical understanding of sexuality. In “The Four Loves,” C.S. Lewis notes, in contrast to medieval asceticism as well as what he calls “Neo-Pagans” who view their bodies as glorious things to be worshiped, that St. Francis referred to his body as “brother ass” and that lovers would do well to adopt such a view of themselves and their sexuality.He goes on to say that “The very faces of all the happy lovers we know make it clear. Lovers, unless their love is very short lived, again and again feel an element of comedy, not only of play, but even of buffoonery, in the body’s expression of Eros. And the body would frustrate us if this were not so. It would be too clumsy an instrument to render love’s music unless its very clumsiness could be felt as adding to the total experience.” I think the tendency you mentioned of many Christians to idolize sex just as their unregenerate culture does, the only difference being that, for Christians, sex is idolized within the context of marriage, is an expression of what Lewis called “Neo-paganism.” The drive to become a “sexual athlete” stems from the belief, consciously or not, that the body and, hence, sex is something glorious and therefore to be worshiped. Conversely, I think your claim that marital sex is a playful endeavor between two people who are willing to be beginners in the other’s presence aligns both with Lewis’ and St. Francis’ view of the body. I agree wholeheartedly.
Thank you, Corrie-Beth. Very helpful and insightful comments!
Thank you for this wonderful framework for understanding a Biblical view of sexuality. I was woefully unprepared for dealing with sexuality growing up. The church said, “Don’t do it,” my school said, “Do what feels good, but do it safely,” and my parents said hardly anything at all. I think my compliant nature kept me out of trouble, but if I had not met my husband at 18 and married at 20, I don’t know if it would have carried me though. Even after sex became “permissible”, my husband and I struggled with finding a Godly perspective for its use and purpose. We are still learning after 15 years of marriage. I plan to be much more proactive with my own children, and keeping this post in reserve for use in the future.
Thank you, shevrae. I am pleased that you found the piece helpful.
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I know this probably sounds stupid, but I have to ask it anyway. I was raped before I met my husband. And during our relationship..we sinned and committed fornication. Yes, it was our sin. I saw I was damaged before him so preserving myself didn’t matter. However, this sin is something we struggled with. We couldn’t win until he stood up in church and apologized for not keeping it pure. Sooner than later, we did get married. And I know that Christ forgave us. But our pastor made it clear that I could not wear white in my wedding (notice how he didn’t say anything to my husband) and I had to sacrifice a big fancy wedding for a small one because now we had to marry quickly to stop any temptations. Words like purity, virgin, chaste hurt me because I beat myself up because somehow I don’t feel like I’m good enough like those people who didn’t give up like I did. I had my purity ripped from me. And then I was told I gave my purity away when i thought I lost it. So I ask, was my pastor right to tell me no. That I was not pure, that I did not deserve to wear white because I was defiled with sin? Is that how Christ saw me? I wore blue because to me blue is loyalty, which is what I have for my husband and Jesus. But still it hurts when I hear of couples waiting, the purity balls, and the chaste young women who wear white at their weddings. I don’t understand how my husband and I who admit our sin and give it to the Lord are punished while so called Christians can get away with it since they are hush about it. I ask you, is this the consequence I am to suffer? Am I pure through my sexual status, or is it Christ who has made me pure all along? And if that is the case, then walking down that isle in any color show that Christ has only forgiven me so far. I wonder.
I am very sorry to hear about your experience, NP. You raise some important questions and issues.
I want to make clear that I am not writing as a proponent of ‘purity culture’. I believe that sexual purity is an integral dimension of our Christian calling, but I do not believe that this requires most of the baggage that passes under the name of ‘purity culture’, some of which you have been directly exposed to in harmful ways. I believe that ‘purity culture’ tends to put its emphases in the wrong places and the result is often deeply spiritually damaging. I believe that Christian sexual purity can exist without what is commonly thought of as purity culture.
One of the key points of this post is that sexual holiness does not operate with an on/off switch, all hinging on whether or not we have lost or retained our virginity. While our past sins are not without their consequences, the value of our bodies isn’t something that depends upon our sexual pasts, but upon our resurrection future. I discuss that in more depth in this follow-up post.
I read your follow up post. It helped a lot. I guess what I’m trying to say is that when I was denied the white dress, I felt as if at that moment I became less of a person. That somehow I just wasn’t on the same level as the ones who waited. I prayed about this because I know the only peace I will receive on this subject is from the Lord. And I remember that when I got married, my husband loved me regardless of my sin. Just as the Lord did. I know that we want to encourage others to wait not because if they fall they become lost, but rather the true relationship of marriage is bliss. I guess it is hard to imagine my wedding reflecting the union with Christ and the church since as the bride I had to come down the isle “tainted”. But the truth is that when my husband and I took this sin to the Lord, he cleaned it. I can’t make myself pure. Just because someone waits for marriage doesn’t make them pure. It is a good practice, as it has its rewards. But I know now that no sin is to hard for God. In Christ I am made a new creature and pure with him. Thank you, it has helped a lot.