When it comes to the “sex talk” most people sift into one of two camps. Either it didn’t happen, or it went horribly awry. I was in the first group. Still, home was a working farm. The animals did a fair amount of talking — at least enough to teach me the mechanics. The heart, the beauty and ultimate meaning of sexuality were aspects I encountered much later. I don’t recall any specific instruction from the Christian leaders in my life either, although I had a vague sense of “don’t do it.”
There may be more intentionality in the church now, but research suggests that I am not alone in finding our messages about abstinence and purity fairly unconvincing. In 2009, the National Campaign to End Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that “80 percent of unmarried evangelical young adults (18 to 29) said that they have had sex.” That’s a lot of sexually-active folks trying to fit into a Christian culture that emphasizes purity and holiness.
As it turns out, some people feel that this emphasis on purity pushes them to the margins of the faith, if not casting them out altogether. In their provocatively titled articles, “Virginity Isn’t Our Holy Grail” and “I Am Damaged Goods,” writers Jen Pollack Michel and Sarah Bessey explain how the message of sexual purity has been turned by some Christians from a shield of protection into a sword of shame. The shame some are made to feel because they did not save sex for marriage often starts a process of self-loathing and confusion about their spiritual and sexual identity.
We can all understand how challenging it is to speak about purity in an impure culture that utterly rejects the notion. Yet we cannot ignore the damage that comes with presenting teens what my friend Roberto calls a “binary” view of sexual purity: You either are or are not.
It’s not hard to see how labeling sexually active youth as “zeros” will alienate a lot of them. We can’t expect to awaken the best in young people by reducing them to bits of data worthy only of scorn. The other significant problem with the are/are not approach is that it offers no spiritual path forward for those who are not.
Yet there is a path forward for those who have been sexually active, and it doesn’t restrict them to the margins of Christianity. In fact, it takes us through the very heart of what we believe.
The Old Mistake
It’s no consolation that God’s people have been getting the message of sexual purity wrong for millennia. In his monumental work known as the Theology of the Body, Pope John Paul II explains that the Jews’ religious traditions had developed “a wrong way of understanding moral purity” which was “understood in an exclusively external and ‘material’ way.” Doesn’t this sound a lot like the abstinence talk of our youth — the “don’t do it” path to purity?
Jesus rejected the idea that right behavior is the foundation of holiness. He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28, ESV).
This confounded the Jews and continues to trip up a great number of people to this day. While we focus on “bad” behaviors, Jesus says that our actions aren’t the real trouble. That’s because they are merely reflecting the heart. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person” (Matthew 15:19-20a).
If we apply this to our proverbial abstinence talk, we would address what is going on deep within young people’s hearts. We would be clear about forgiveness and would share the unbelievably freeing message that Jesus is not asking us for behavioral perfection that He already is and we never can be. We see clearly through Jesus’ words and those of the Apostle Paul that while God’s rules for living are good and profitable for us, they can never save us.
We are not better Christians by striving for perfection. Actually, quite the opposite is true. Placing one’s hope in fulfilling the Law is to reject the right relationship with God. Those promoting virginity as Christianity’s main goal (and shaming those who fall short) miss the Gospel entirely.
Some may then be tempted to say, “If Jesus isn’t concerned about behavior as much as our heart, shouldn’t we stop holding out impossible sexual standards that just cause people to stumble?”
It’s true that many of us have struggled with guilt over sexual choices, and this can’t all be blamed on ill-equipped purity apostles. Yet the Bible is clear that expressions of our sexuality matter a great deal. Even if we want to free people from a cycle of shame, the way to do it is not to reject or minimize the mystery and beauty of sexual intimacy lived according to God’s design.
Rather, we must redeem the idea of sexual purity from the many ways its proponents have distorted its meaning. We must understand why purity matters.
Let’s return for a moment to John Paul’s reflections on the Sermon on the Mount. He wrote that “purity is a requirement of love.” Love requires moral purity because all love finds its source in the inner life of the Trinity. God created us to mirror and mimic His love, which is absolutely selfless and pure. He did not create us to be the isolated individuals we all too often feel like. He made us — body, mind and spirit — to be a gift to one another. Our highest calling is to love as God loves, by pouring ourselves out for others.
According to John Paul, this calling to be a gift for others is the mystery hidden within Jesus’ words about adultery and lust in the heart. While many of us can plainly see a judgment against self-righteous people, John Paul also sees within them the path of freedom. As biblical paradoxes go, this is a doozy. Under the failure of our lust is not the defeat we too often choose to see, but a resounding call to the hope that through Christ we can become who we are called to be.
A New Hope
To truly grasp this hope, however, we must do the one thing we’d really rather not: Go into the heart of our shame. This is the biggest concern I have with those who would redefine Christian sexual ethics. Convincing people they have done no wrong separates them from the only true healing they will ever receive — pardon and restoration from Jesus.
In Life of the Beloved, Henri Nouwen writes that “the first step to healing is not a step away from the pain, but a step toward it.” Shame is powerful and fierce. It takes prisoners and forces them to languish for years, even a lifetime. Yet we must enter these areas of deep shame because Jesus waits for us there. Only in the midst of our pain are we able to receive the healing He offers.
To the one caught in adultery, He doesn’t say, “Don’t worry about it.” He says, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11). To the serial sinner, the Samaritan woman at the well, He says, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10).
These stories remind us that our sexual and, indeed, all of our longings are meant to point us back to God, the source and fulfillment of all our desires. The hunger and thirst these women had were only fulfilled when they met Jesus face to face in the very center of their pain. They stood before Him spiritually naked. He took their shame and replaced it with hope.
I admit that I often struggle to plant my life in the power of a forgiveness that continues to give long after the seventy-times-seventh sin. But I am also comforted that I am not alone. Simon Peter objected to getting his feet washed. Yet when told that he would have no part in the life of God without it, he asked Jesus to wash every part of him.
Perhaps this is the simplest and best way to put it: If you struggle with shame, run to Jesus, confess your sins and allow Him to wash you clean. Believe fully in and build your life on this forgiveness.
A Firm Foundation
Accepting the full pardon of God is the key that unlocks the final part of our journey. No matter what our station in life, what we have done or not done, we must all understand that we cannot live a life of purity on our own. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control….”
He’s saying that we will only begin to live in freedom — from shame, from sin, for goodness and beauty — when the Holy Spirit guides and permeates our choices. None of this is our work, and as such, we can’t do it alone. Perhaps this explains why so many abstinence pledges end up gathering dust. When we rely on our own strength we are especially vulnerable to the temptations carefully strewn in our path.
Purity is never something we achieve, but is a virtue God develops within us. It is not a status — an are or are not — but a process and a way of life drawn from a heart in love with God. The only strength we have to live out God’s love on a daily basis is life in the Spirit.
My friends, if you struggle with the weight of your past, a current relationship, or fear for the future, remember this: We are all on a magnificent journey. Virgin or not, none of us stand ahead of any other. The goal is not moral perfection, but loving relationship with Jesus Christ. We are sure to fall, but we can fall forward. Let’s not let past failures define us, but open our hearts’ deepest parts to the Holy Spirit until our lives radiate the hope and joy that comes from becoming the truth of who we are, the beloved daughters and sons of God.
Copyright 2013 Daniel Weiss. All rights reserved.