Does Sexual Purity Do More Harm Than Good?

If you were a Christian kid in the 90’s and into the early 2000’s, you probably encountered some form of the “Purity Movement.” There were books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Passion and Purity that touted the benefits of courtship over dating. Celebrities like Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, and the Jonas Brothers wore purity rings. The Silver Ring Thing and other organizations held gatherings and were present at music festivals to encourage young people to commit to remaining sexually pure until marriage. It was a major topic in youth groups and Christian youth-based curriculum.

A recent book by Linda Kay Klein has drawn the spotlight back to this era in the evangelical church. Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free details her experiences along with interviews of many others. In a recent NPR interview, Klein tells her story of legalism and shame and the trauma it caused for her and others. She recounts stories of being told she needed to dress differently to prevent the boys from “stumbling” (a biblical term meaning to fall into sin), and that she ought to exhibit less knowledge and enthusiasm for learning so as not to undermine the leadership role of the boys. Along with countless others, she internalized shame and anxiety about her body and her thoughts. She was constantly worried that she would do something that would compromise her purity, a standard that was inconsistently communicated and therefore even more anxiety-provoking. During college and beyond she began to move away from the teachings she received about sexual purity, but struggled for years to have a sexual expression that was not also marked by visceral reactions of shame and anxiety. Through her own story and those she interviewed, she posits that the purity movement left a generation of young women traumatized.

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I am only a few years younger than Klein and remember all too well much of what she described. I also read Joshua Harris’s book in high school and also heard the narrative that sex before marriage will make you damaged goods that no good Christian man will want. I also absorbed a transactional faith that if you are a pure and modest woman, then God will reward you with a husband and a wonderful marriage. Although not as extreme as the teaching Klein received, I too internalized a largely sexist standard that women needed to help guard men from sexual sin (men bearing little to no responsibility for their sexual purity) and that men were to be the leaders in all relationships. I listened to her interview and felt deep sadness and sympathy for the pain she experienced. I know that it is real and valid, and worthy of affirmation and grief. In no way do I wish to diminish the very real hurt she received from destructive teaching. At the same time, I took a different path from Klein which is also worthy of telling.

My story is entirely a testament to the grace of God transcending toxic and unhelpful distortions of what is meant to be good and beautiful truth. Through the work of the Holy Spirit and faithful community around me, here is what I received instead. 

Purity is the wrong word

The very language that is used to describe a call for young people to abstain from sex until marriage sets up a false expectation. In a spiritual sense, to be pure is to be without sin. As Christians we believe that Jesus is the only human who has ever lived a sin-free life. Therefore to talk with young people about a very sensitive and intense topic using language that implies perfection is a sure recipe for guilt and shame. It is impossible to always remain 100% pure because even a stray lustful thought will mean you are no longer pure.

The way the movement was constructed led to an emphasis on personal behavior, which led to legalism, which leads to inevitable failure, which leads to despair and isolation. If our driving motivation is to be perfect for God, we are doomed from the start. Rather, we are made perfect BY God through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In this life we will always struggle with sin and our hope is in the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, not our personal willpower. I had to reorient my perspective away from being focused on my own ability to be perfect, and towards a perfect God who loves me unconditionally and accomplishes what I cannot do for myself.

Celibacy is not a vending machine

I very much wanted to be married and yet was perpetually single. I was always highly involved with my church and in my mid-20s even entered vocational ministry. By all accounts I was doing everything right and was deserving of God blessing me with a great husband. Yet no husband presented himself. Over the course of multiple years I had to wrestle with what my celibacy was for. A particular parable from Luke was deeply convicting:

“Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10 So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” – Luke 17:7-10

On the surface this parable may seem harsh, but it essentially means that we cannot put God in our debt. I will never be able to work hard enough or be good enough for me to become better than God and for God to then owe me something. If that is the case, then everything I have is a gift from God. Nothing is earned by me but is freely bestowed by a generous God. The Lord did not owe me anything for my celibacy, I was only doing my duty.

This was one of the most important lessons for me to learn. I have seen a great deal of pain and despair among men and women who “did everything right” but remained unmarried or had marriages fall apart. This has led to disillusionment and in some cases rejection of their faith. If we have been taught and believed that making all the right choices will earn us the things we want, we will have little to which to cling when life disappoints us. I had to make peace with the idea that marriage is not a biblical guarantee and God does not owe me a life-long happy marriage. God promises me that He will always be with me, and says that is enough. I came to a specific turning point where I believed that God is worthy of my obedience because of who He is, not because of what I want from Him.

God asks hard things for good reasons

Celibacy is hard. I spent much of my 20s feeling lonely and wondering where to find affirmation if not from a boyfriend/husband. I was not single by choice, I was single by default. It can be draining to take care of yourself by yourself, it requires a great deal of emotional energy. I wrestled with discontentment and wanting my life to look different than it did at various points. And yet I would not trade those tumultuous years. The Lord showed me what it meant to depend on Him and to rest in being fully known and fully loved by God.

There were many evenings where I would sit on my patio and have a stream of consciousness prayer conversation with God about my day and about my thoughts and feelings. I would not have done that if a husband was there. God used what could have been a purely lonely time to show me what intimacy with my Creator can be. It was time of learning that God cares about the things that happen in my day that only I care about and is closely involved in my life. God is a comforter who sees my emotions, sees my confusion, and draws near to speak the assurance of truth. Jesus is trustworthy even when nothing else is going to plan. Those years were hard but also a precious gift.

Friendship and marriage are equally important

Not everyone can or should be married and marriage is not the only way to experience love and intimacy. The purity movement focused almost exclusively on marriage as the ultimate prize and gave us no idea for how to cultivate meaningful and lasting friendships. When churches focus the majority of their ministry on marriage and family, many others are alienated, and all of our lives are poorer for it. Intergenerational friendship has been a tremendous joy in my life that has added a great richness. No matter your stage in life, friendship is essential for knowing each other and knowing more of who God is.

Sexuality is highly spiritual

When it comes to teaching young people about biblical sexuality, we’re bad at it. The purity movement largely lost the beauty of why God calls us to sexual fidelity. It is so much bigger than, “sex before marriage is bad so just don’t do it.” God presents a much more lovely picture of what sex is for and why it is important. Frequently in scripture God will equate marriage with His relationship with the community of faith across both the Old and New Testament (Hosea, Eph. 5, Rev. 21 just to name a few). The sexual and emotional intimacy between a husband and wife is one of the clearest pictures of the spiritual intimacy we all share with God. The way we experience our sexuality is designed to be intertwined with the way we understand our connection to God.

In marriage a husband and wife commit their whole selves to one another. They commit to sharing everything about themselves and make a vow to love the other person unconditionally. Tim Keller frames it well in describing sex as an act of “covenant renewal.” The act of sex is giving yourself in the most intimate way to another person. It is meant to occur in a context of deep trust and vulnerability, an expression of not holding anything back from the other. This is the way that God loves us and commits Himself fully to us. To love us unconditionally and to never leave or forsake us. When we trivialize and dull our experience of sex we inadvertently diminish the way we experience God’s love and fidelity to us.

Waiting until marriage is a blessing

It is true that if you have remained celibate through training yourself to see sex as bad, a switch does not automatically flip on your wedding night to make you enjoy sex forever. But because sex is profoundly significant, it is still worth waiting for. Something unique happens when there is only one person that is the source of your sexual pleasure. When we also abstain from pornography and masturbation within marriage we are solely dependent on the other for sexual expression. We cannot find sexual pleasure apart from the person we have pledged ourselves to, and that creates a bond that is lovely and designed to last. Sex is also far more than only pleasure, it is a vulnerable offering of yourself in the assurance of emotional and physical trust and safety. Sharing your whole life with someone is not easy, and our American culture is increasingly skeptical of the benefits of marriage and monogamy. Yet God designed it this way because we need a deep and unique bond to help sustain us through the trials of life. Sex is a very good gift that is a powerful sustainer of love and unity.

This is by no means a comprehensive exposition of everything that the purity movement got right and everything that it missed. There is also much more to say about the ways that God heals our sexuality when it has been abused or misused, and the way we experience the connection of sexuality and spirituality in celibacy. My intention is to share from my journey, which is my own and therefore has limits. I welcome questions and on-going conversation about what has shaped your journey and your hopes for the Church moving forward.

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Finding hope after “13 Reasons Why”

What was your worst day? In what ways do you still think about it? How does it still effect you now? We all carry around our own personal blend of wounds and disappointments. This may be a factor in the show 13 Reasons Why becoming such a phenomenon among young people. A Netflix original, it has only been out for a couple of weeks and already is one of the most viewed series they’ve created.

Based on a book by the same title from author Jay Asher, this novel follows a teenage girl named Hannah Baker. You learn at the beginning that Hannah has committed suicide, for reasons that are unclear to the people around her. Before her death she recorded 13 cassette tapes explaining what led her to the point of taking her own life, each directed at a specific person and documenting the hurtful nature of their actions towards her. Through Hannah’s narration you relive the last year and a half in her life and gradually see the full picture of what contributed to her depression and suicidality. It is a very sobering take on the effects of bullying and trauma, and the ways that we impact one another.

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In general I have quite mixed feelings about the show. I would not characterize it as “enjoyable” to watch. It unflinchingly exposes the ugliness of the thoughtless and dismissive ways we can treat one another, as well as how easily someone can become isolated and fearful. Part of the draw of the show is that, sadly, most of what it portrays about high school relationships is accurate. Young people are deeply resonating with it because it feels very relatable to their own lived experience. The storylines deal with everything from petty teasing, to stalking, to sharing intimate photos without someone’s consent, to harassment, to sexual assault. It is all very painful to watch, and I don’t blanketly recommend it (see bottom for content guide.)

It raises some concerns for me that it might inspire copycat scenarios. On top that, many viewers are trivializing the content with memes or 13 Reasons “Promposals” which seem to miss the important message the show is communicating. Still, the majority of the audience is understanding the severe implications that our behavior towards others can produce. Everyone experiences more than we realize on the surface. We have the opportunity to either build people up or tear them down.

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It was fitting that Ivan and I watched the show during Holy Week, the lead-up to Easter. As I participated in a Good Friday service, 13 Reasons Why was on my mind. Good Friday also invites us to take an unflinching look at the darkness within and around us. It is meant to offer intense reflection on what it is that sent Jesus to the cross. It was our sin, our disobedience, and our failures that warranted a death sentence, a verdict which Jesus took upon Himself in our place. Everything that tempts us to despair was nailed to the cross that day.

He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. – 1 John 2:2

Many of us know this message: Jesus died for our sins to offer us forgiveness and mercy. That is always very good news. What we don’t often think about is that if Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, by implication, He also died for the sins committed against us. Jesus took our place to absorb the punishment that we deserved, and the abuses that we didn’t. His death covers the sins we commit and the sins that others have inflicted upon us. When Jesus says, “This is my body, given for you” He offers to trade places with us in every way that we need. He not only sees our sins and says, “I committed those acts,” He also looks at our wounds and says, “That happened to Me, those sins were directed at Me.” That includes taking on the ways that others have insulted us, betrayed us, ignored us, discriminated against us, abused us.

On the cross Jesus incurs all the damage those experiences create, and offers us His freedom and wholeness instead. In trading places with us He identifies with all our sufferings and allows us to move forward in the security and healing of God’s blessing, “This is my beloved child, in whom I am well-pleased.” (Luke 3:22) When you bring to mind the worst ways that the sins of others have played out in your life, you can imagine them happening to Jesus. That doesn’t mean living in denial of your past, but you get to live now in the fullness of personhood that Christ always experienced. Always knowing that you are fully accepted and fully loved by God and that nothing will ever change that.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. Dying on the cross was a gift, but so is the resurrection. Christ’s resurrection from the dead is the cosmic game-changer. It means that suffering, separation, and death can never define us. They don’t have to be the final word. There is no evil strong enough to keep Jesus or us in the grave. Because Jesus lives, nothing can truly crush us.

Here’s something we don’t always notice, Jesus comes back with His same scarred body (John 20:24-29). He doesn’t come back just in spirit form or with a brand new body that has no prior history. Jesus comes back with the same body that endured extreme brutality but is still whole. The resurrection teaches us that there will come a day when we will inhabit our bodies with complete peace and unity. No longer struggling with mental/emotional anguish, no longer in bondage to loneliness and anxiety, no longer haunted by memories of abuses our bodies endured. We will be united with our bodies and move in God’s world without fear, without shame, and without pain. The promise of identifying with Christ will become a reality in our physical, lived experience.

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That is the good news that I kept wanting to share with Hannah, and that I want to share with you. Life is hard. Other people do terrible things and we do plenty of terrible things back. But that isn’t the end of the story. None of us are defined by our worst day. There is no sin or pain so great that Christ did not claim it as His own. And when the dead in Christ are all raised, you’ll live in your body that weathered the storm and is now fit for eternity.

 

 

Content guide: Be advised that this show depicts multiple scenes of graphic sexual violence. The show creators’ stated goal is to show the horror of assault to help observers understand how traumatizing it is for survivors, but watching it may not be worth it for some. Hannah’s suicide and death is also depicted. In Beyond the Reasons (an extra feature on the Netflix season) the creators explain in helpful ways why they chose to film it this way and they had many mental health care professionals consulting on the project. If you have personal experience with losing someone to suicide, this scene may be deeply painful to experience. Use discretion in your viewing, this show will not be appropriate for all audiences.

Porn vs. The Covenant

Sex is awesome. There, I said it. Sex was created by God as a part of the grand plan of the flourishing of creation. It doesn’t take very long for the topic to be broached in the Bible. God tells his people to get busy early and often, but aside from being fruitful and multiplying, sex has tremendous personal and spiritual significance.

God Loves Sex

It was difficult to choose pictures for this post so I’ll just post books about the topic!

Because of this, God created a covenantal relationship within which sex can be explored, appreciated, and realized in profound spiritual ways. The flip side is that outside of that covenant, sex continues to have that powerful significance. So when I say sex is awesome, I mean it. It is something to be in awe of, to have a reverence for, a respect for.

Paul’s letter in 1 Corinthians is littered with helpful discussion around sexuality aimed to help the people of Corinth see the significance of sex. This is not so much a finger wagging list of do’s and don’ts but rather instructions on how to take full advantage of this beautiful thing God created for us. “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body,” says 1 Corinthians 6:18. We can see that there is something powerful about sex. Later on, Paul even talks about not using sex as a tool of power and manipulation (1 Cor. 7). At its heart, sex isn’t designed as a commodity to be utilized but, as Tim Keller calls it, a ceremony of covenant renewal.

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Not a book just for the ladies!

This involves what we are called to in that pesky verse 21 that prefaces everyone’s favorite submission passages in Ephesians 5, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Both parties in this covenant submitting to each other and in that place powerful, spiritual, and beautiful things happen. The Bible often says that it is through this act of covenant renewal, this act of completely giving ourselves to another person, being completely in the service of another person that we “know” each other more fully and in that we can understand God in a new way. After all, God chooses to serve us similarly as an unconditional, gracious, loving servant.

How, then, does pornography interact with God’s desire for human sexuality? Well if you’re still with me after those first few paragraphs then pornography is an intense distortion of all of that, it is almost the exact opposite of the Biblical picture we get of sex. It takes something that is a gift from God and takes God completely out of the equation. Sex then becomes a commodity and those engaging in it are merely consumers not servants. There is not much mention of masturbation in the Bible outside of one really context-heavy passage starring a guy named Onan (Gen. 38). However, throughout the Bible we have this picture of covenant renewal and submission to another person. This simply cannot happen when you’re riding solo.

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That is what is so dangerous about pornography. This form of sexual interaction is entirely self-focused and this has observable effects on the way men act in relation to women. Recently, on NPR’s Fresh Air, Terry Gross interviewed author Peggy Orenstein whose book Girls & Sex talks about many current trends with female sexuality and sexuality in general but also the effects of pornography on our society. She says that statistically speaking when engaged in or seeking sexual interaction men are prone to be completely focused on themselves and in women the trend is reversed.

Fashion designer Jessica Rey also spoke about the current state of the male brain in her Q talk on the evolution of the swimsuit. Here she cites neurological studies that indicate that when men are in this mindset, when women are objectified and sex is a commodity, they view women as inanimate tools, a means to an end, and nothing more.

When we take sex in our own hands (pun intended), taking God out of the equation, we are prone to distort our view of sex and actually try to take God’s role as provider. Anytime we think we are on the level with God we are vulnerable to the ugly side of arrogance and entitlement. In a world in which we are the providers of our own sexual relationships, we set expectations where we are entitled to sex and when we don’t get what we are entitled to anger, violence, and harm are usually not far behind. Today we have more organizations than ever fighting against sexual violence yet statistics remain virtually the same and in some areas worse.

No More Eli

We see this all around us as these expectations and the commoditizing of sex leads to sex trafficking and high-risk sexual activity. According to Orenstein, the pressures placed on young women today lead to the spread of disease like gonorrhea, unwanted pregnancy, and depression. Pornography creates not just a distorted view of sexuality, but, for the many that interact with sex in this way, it also creates a distorted view of ourselves.

We live in a culture of instant self-gratification with extensive access to pornography and, according to Time magazine, this has negatively altered the way we experience sex. It is supposed to be awesome but, often times, in our hands sex becomes a weapon of mass destruction. God has an opinion on sex, it is found all over scripture, and it is emotional, beautiful, spiritual, fun, exciting, gratifying, and good. It can be very difficult in our lives to trust God to give us these things, but when we rely on God to provide the gift of sex to us we may begin to see it this way too.

Further reading:

The Porn Phenomenon – Barna Group

Fight the New Drug

Washed and Waiting – Wesley Hill