Let me begin by affirming that purity, as defined in the bible, is real and life-giving and available to us as a gift from Jesus. Abstinence outside of marriage is something the Bible encourages as a way to avoid sin and therefore be closer to God. That being said, the youth group "purity culture" I grew up with in America around the year 2000 was grievously flawed. I think that those of us who grew up with purity rings and chastity pledges, those of us who spent countless nights praying for our future perfect for us husbands, praying we wouldn't die before our wedding nights, were misled. The culture that grew out of books like Joshua Harris's I Kissed Dating Goodbye and groups like True Love Waits, had several problems. It promised something God doesn't promise and it excluded the people who would have their virginity taken from them, as well as the people who might never get married. We were all focused on ourselves and our own ability to avoid temptation. We were obsessed with sex, even the resistance of it. We missed the true nature of purity and our educators missed the mark of the gospel. The goal should never have been, stay pure for marriage. It should have been pursue an intimacy with Christ by seeking out and killing sin in your life.
I'm warning you now that this post is going to stray from the beaten path a bit. I'm not going to talk about the science of sex. Instead I'm going to address how the church has approached sex education in the past and begin a discussion on how we should design it for the future. I have many people who shepherded my teen heart who I love and admire and I do not want to hurt them or blame them. I know many christians who do not practice abstinence outside of marriage and even more friends who are not Christian and have their own beliefs about the morality of sex. I don't want to judge anyone or declare their wrongness. I genuinely want to take a hard look at sex education within the church through the lense of the Bible. I believe we create culture by what we say and what we write, how we vote, spend our money, and mostly by what we teach. Were you taught your body and your sexual desires were evil? Were you taught that as long as you stayed physically pure your perfect spouse would show up? If so, even if you aren't a christian, hopefully you will read on and join me in a dialogue about purity.
Walter A Elwell writes:
"Out of the love that springs from purity has come the integrity that has endured to the end. The exuberance of the charm, like every other spring of life and action, needs regulation, but the charm itself is not to be treated as sin."
In the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, He writes about purity and what it meant to the people and cultures of the bible. It is clear that the unity and preservation of family was held in high regard by the Jews of the Old Testament. Many crimes punishable by death were compared in awfulness to adultery. A woman's greatest virtue was to be pure and domestic. As modern people, we may balk at this statement but that's mostly because our society does not greatly esteem mothers and homemakers. The people of the Old Testament regarded a strong family, devoted to each other and devoted to creating a solid Godly home as the ultimate way to succeed in life. In the quote above, Elwell is discussing Song of Solomon and its beautiful poetry about love and sex. The lovers in that book are discovering each other free from sin. They are enjoying and experiencing the great gift of their sexuality in the BEST way, in their marriage bed. The quote is saying that because they were pure before marriage, they get to delight in the freedom of sex without sin which leads to an enduring integrity within their family.
The next part of the quote relates to sexuality. In summary, he is saying that our human sexual desires are good and beautiful. Like all powerful, big parts of life, sexuality needs regulation but the thing itself is not sin. Neglecting its divine purpose is the sin. I share all of this to give a taste of what purity means in the bible. If we were Jews living in the centuries before Jesus, signing a vow of purity and anxiously awaiting the day our parent's chose a spouse would make perfect sense. But Jesus came. Jesus caused a revolution of theology. He changed the rules, He changed the world and He wants to change us.
Before Jesus, ceremonial cleansing was required by the law to present blood sacrifices to the Lord. It represented a need for a pure heart in order to gain acceptance from God. But even King David knew that a "pure heart" could never be made out of existing human flesh or spirit. When He cries out "Create in me a clean heart, oh God" in Psalm51:10, he uses a hebrew verb that was only used to describe God's creation of the cosmos! He wasn't begging for God to fix his heart, he was asking to be given something new. He was asking for something made out of never before used materials. He was desperate for what we are given through Jesus.
Jesus is the final and ultimate blood sacrifice. God the Father made the sacrifice so that we no longer had to. Jesus has given us that pure heart and acceptance with the father by paying the price and leaving us with the Holy Spirit. He answered David's prayer. We're now capable of having free, innocent, pure access to God because of Jesus. The people of the Old Testament did not have this. Even with all their cleansing and chastity, King David crumbled on his knees with the knowledge that none of it would ever make him truly pure. Our actions would never save us, we needed the miracle of Jesus.
As a teen, I thought if I stayed a virgin until I got married I would be pure. I didn't understand that Jesus dying on the cross, coming back to life, ascending into heaven and leaving the Holy Spirit within me was the only thing that would ever make me pure. This misunderstanding is crucial. The outcome looks the same, not having sex unless you're married is certainly what God wants for us but its the heart that looks different. In Hosea, the author says that God wants loyalty, not sacrifice. If the ultimate sacrifice has already been made, then our offering up our bodies to Christ is an empty action without offering our hearts. How do we offer our hearts? By entering into intimate relationship with God.
Before a relationship can be forged, there must first be a solid understanding of our complete depravity. Even if you never kiss anyone, never masturbate, never watch a dirty movie, never get naked in front of someone of the opposite sex, never engage in a sex act, you are every bit as sinful as porn stars and rapists. I know that's a harsh statement but if what Jesus taught is true in Matthew 5:27, and just having a lustful heart is as bad as committing adultery, then not one of us is pure on our own. If we can't stop sinning, if we are always going to be broken, what's the point of trying? Why deprive ourselves of worldly pleasure? Or if Jesus is always going to forgive us and keep renewing our broken hearts, if our hearts are pure through Him and nothing we do can change it, then why not have sex as often as we like? The answer has to do with intimacy.
No wonderful sexual experience will ever measure up to how it feels to be in the presence of God. No relationship on Earth will ever be as fulfilling, loving and as close as an intimate relationship with Him. If we love Jesus we should want that kind of intimacy more than anything else. Sin separates us from God. It corrodes and destroys those fragile lines of communication between Him and us. It makes us pull away from the greatest love of all. We should constantly be praying for God to reveal sin in our life so that we can kill it and get closer to Him. We should avoid sexual sin with our whole hearts so that our primary love is Jesus. That's what He wants from us. He wants us to be devoted to Him above all other loves. He wants us to be devoted to Him even over the needs and desires of our own bodies.
Sex causes devotion. Song of Solomon does a heart stopping job of describing the incredible gift of sex within marriage. Our bodies were created to love pleasuring another person and love being pleasured by our partner. You should never be ashamed of how your body was created and why it was created. Sex causes a devotion within marriage that is strong enough to withstand all the trouble and turmoil that might hit a family. If you know and love Jesus, if you accept His gift of purity through His Holy Spirit, then the type of love Elwell describes in the quote above can be yours. Even if you messed up. Even if someone else messed you up. Even if you didn't stay chaste before your marriage, that gift of purity and devotion through sex can still be yours through repentance and pursuit of intimacy with Christ because Jesus is the giver, you are not the creator of purity.
As a teen, I should've avoided sexual sin, searched for and scrubbed out lustful thoughts in my mind so that I could be closer to God, not so I would be pure on my inevitable flawless wedding night. I should've given my whole heart to God, not just devoted my body in exchange for the promise of a wonderful spouse. I spent many years congratulating myself on my purity when I should've been crumbled and begging, like King David, for a love that was out of this world, a life content and fulfilled by Jesus. God does not promise us a spouse or a wedding night. He shows us in His word that it is a good gift, a great gift, but it is not why we are here on Earth. When this hit me I felt so betrayed. I was led to believe that if I avoided sex I would get that perfect husband and my love story would be glorious! It turns out my love story is not the main narrative of the bible, of the world, or my life. The main narrative is the Gospel.
I fell in love with a man who had been married to someone else for 5 years. When we met they had been apart for 2 years but the paperwork wasn't finished. It was far from the love story I thought I deserved after "kissing dating goodbye" and wearing my "purity ring", signing my "chastity pledge". But it was a story that reflected the true character of Jesus. Jesus did not come to save the righteous, but the sinners. By the time I met my husband I had kissed several boys, done plenty of things that could be counted as sexual sin. I was a virgin in the strictest sense of the word but I was not pure. What's worse is I had wasted time obsessing over sexual purity and striving to be better for me and for my story when I could have been drawing nearer to Jesus. I didn't deserve anyone so wonderful as Seth Baur. God gave me that glorious wedding night anyway. He gave me sex and devotion and an enduring love for my future family even though I was certainly the worst of sinners. That is who Jesus is.
In some circles they tell the analogy of a wilting flower or a piece of Duct tape. They say that if you have sex with multiple partners, your "flower" loses its petals and then when you go to get married you only have a dead stem to give your spouse. Or they say that the more you stick your piece of tape to various things, the less sticky it becomes and then its worthless, old and dirty by the time you are ready to give it to your beloved. If you've ever been told these awful stories, if you've ever heard that every time you have sex or sin sexually you are less worthy of your future spouse, reject it. It is not true because through repentance and pursuit of a relationship with God, your "flower" is still perfect. If someone coerces you into a sex act without your explicit consent, you are not a useless piece of tape that has lost its worth. You are every bit as welcome into God's family and worthy of a pure heart and a happy sex life as anyone else. If you heard this story and felt like, as long as you kept your tape sticky and your flower pristine, God owed you a pristine spouse in return, I hope you can see that the Bible never makes such claims. The thing the Bible does claim, the gift that is offered to you through Jesus is a full and joyful life just with God. You might be blessed with a family or a career or you might spend most of your nights alone in prison like many of Jesus's followers but you will never truly be alone and you will always have the biggest love that ever was. If you pursue Jesus with all your heart and nurture an intimacy with Him, then purity is a gift and your true love is here right now, you don't have to wait.