The Unpopular Virtue We Need to Make a Comeback
In the book Mere Christianity, an adaptation of radio talks given by C. S. Lewis between 1942 and 1944, Lewis writes that “chastity is the most unpopular of the Christian virtues.” It’s striking to read his description of society’s views on sex at the time: “Poster after poster, film after film, novel after novel, associate the idea of sexual indulgence with the ideas of health, normality, youth, frankness, and good humour.”
Considering all that’s happened since then—the Pill, the sexual revolution, legalized abortion, comprehensive sex ed—it’s not difficult to understand why chastity has taken a leap from being merely unpopular to being derided, when it’s not simply ignored.
The title of an article in Relevant magazine, a Christian bi-monthly, sums it up pretty succinctly: “(Almost) Everyone’s Doing It.” According to a study conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 88 percent of unmarried young adults (ages 18–29) have had sex. Within that group, 80 percent of those who identify themselves as Evangelical Christians say that they, too, have engaged in sex. That number is notable considering that, in a recent Gallup poll, 76 percent of Evangelicals reported believing that sex outside marriage is morally wrong.
Despite the alarming statistics, especially among Christians, there’s evidence that faith does matter when it comes to the issue of chastity. According to a study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most frequent reason teenagers give for abstaining from sex is that it violates their religious or moral principles. So how is the abstinence message getting through to some, and why is it not getting through to so many others?
Parents: The Key Element
Dr. Jenell Williams Paris is the author of The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are. She told Relevant that Christians need more than rules to live chastely. What’s often missing, Paris believes, is a compelling story and an understanding of the “whys” behind the rules. To explain what she means, she uses the example of parents teaching their little girl to look both ways before crossing a street:
A young child may follow this rule solely because of the power of her parents’ authority, which is appropriate. As she grows, the child [continues to look both ways,] but for a deeper reason that she owns for herself. She sees the broader context of traffic, understands the benefits and dangers, and makes choices accordingly. Rules are external and authority-bound: Maturity requires knowledge of why to do the right thing, not just what the right thing is.
Chris Jessee is the Youth and Family Pastor at First Baptist Church in Waynesville, Ohio. Last year, he organized an event in conjunction with True Love Waits, an organization that promotes abstinence till marriage, and several area churches. Unlike other such events he’s been involved with, he included parents in this one. “Every year we did True Love Waits without the parents, we were missing out on a critical aspect of it,” he explained in an interview. “I believe parents are the key element when it comes to discussions of purity with teens.”
In his view, the church’s role should be to encourage and train parents to address abstinence issues with their children. Echoing Dr. Paris’s approach, Jessee believes a critical aspect of that training is providing both parents and their teens with the “whys” they need to defend their faith and its practices. Merely laying out the rules isn’t enough.
Statistics back up Jessee’s views on the crucial role of parents. A study conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, titled “With One Voice 2010,” asked teens aged 12 to 19 who is most influential when it comes to decisions about sex. Almost half, 46 percent, said their parents were most influential, with friends coming in second at 20 percent.
Encouraging Role Models
Considering that almost everyone is indeed “doing it,” and that peers and the culture also influence teens, a few role models who aren’t “doing it” can’t hurt, either. Perhaps one of the most high-profile public personalities willing to profess his belief in abstinence before marriage is professional football player Tim Tebow. While still a college player, Tebow was asked at a media event if he was saving himself for marriage. Smilingly, he answered yes, joking that the reporters seemed more embarrassed by the line of questioning than he did.
In his new book, Through My Eyes, Tebow writes that he was happy that the subject was raised.
I realized that young women and men heard my answer and would continue to hear it going forward. As a result, there was the chance that they might find encouragement in my words and lifestyle to do the same and to wait until they were married to engage in sexual activity.
And Tebow is not alone. At the height of their popularity, the Jonas Brothers were as famous for the purity rings they sported—signaling their intention to remain abstinent until marriage—as they were for their music. Bristol Palin, daughter of former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, is now a spokeswoman for the cause of abstinence. As a very public single mother, she brings a different perspective to the issue. Actress Hilary Duff and American Idol winner and country music star Carrie Underwood, both popular with young fans, spoke publicly about remaining chaste until marriage. Both have since tied the knot.
Risks & Regrets
Still others, with less fanfare as non-celebrities, have come forward to talk about the risks of non-marital sex, which go beyond sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. Kristen Walker wrote a blog for the LiveAction website about her decision to become abstinent. “I was never what you’d call promiscuous,” she wrote,
but nor was I what you’d call sexually moral. Because of my willingness to give of myself completely to men who weren’t willing to give me the same, I lived a life of heartbreak and confusion. Finally, about four years ago, I noticed that every time I gave my heart away, I wasn’t getting it all back. Every go-round, there seemed to be less and less of my heart to give. I was becoming less open, more guarded, even bitter. I could feel a wall growing around my heart, and it was thick and it was high. I knew that one day, God willing, I was going to have a husband. Did I want him to end up with the leftovers, the dregs? Did I want him to have to mount a high wall to get to my heart?
Walker is now 32 years old, in what she describes as a loving, but abstinent, relationship, and happy about her decision. “I have felt my heart heal, and I know that the next time I give myself to someone, it will be on my wedding night, to someone I trust, who has given himself to me in turn.”
The Relevant article includes an interview with Maria (not her real name), whose story is probably all too common. Based on her Christian faith, Maria had decided to save sex until marriage. But she changed her mind when she fell in love. “I was so enamored with my first boyfriend. He was the first guy I really fell in love with, and suddenly all the barriers came down and I was way too vulnerable.” Having waited till the age of 20, Maria says she had held out longer than most of the girls she knew. Even when the relationship became on-again/off-again, she and her boyfriend continued to have sex. “I was so hooked on him that it took me too long to finally break up with him. The straw that broke the camel’s back was that I came down with HPV, highlighting the fact that even though I was only with him, he [had been with] other people.”
Regret among teens about having had sex is widespread. The Journal of Adolescent Health recently published findings of a study intended to analyze the reasons why teenagers first have sex, and whether they regret it later. One in five teens surveyed who reported having had sex expressed regret, even when they were “in love” with their partner. The “With One Voice 2010” survey found even higher numbers. Among respondents aged 12 to 19 years old, a majority of both girls (65%) and boys (57%) said they wish they had waited before having sex.
A Sacred Thing
So what are the compelling stories and the “whys” that parents and churches can use to make abstinence compelling? Chris Jessee believes that it’s got to be about more than just sex. “Abstinence is about purity in every aspect of life, not just sex. Being obedient to what God has called you to, being pure and holy and set apart. That purity and that holiness should be in every aspect of life, including the sexual part.”
Author Peter Kreeft, in his book Because God Is Real, also links sex with sacredness:
Sex is sacred because sex is not just made by humans but sex makes humans, makes more of those sacred things that we call human beings. . . . There is only one reason why being unfaithful and giving your body sexually to many people is so wrong: because being sexually faithful and giving your whole body to one person is so right.
Lauren Winner is an author, a professor of Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School, and an ordained minister. In her most recent book, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, she tells how she experienced doubt and found God elusive after facing personal crises. In her earlier days as a recent Christian convert, she authored another book, Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity. Here Winner writes about becoming a Christian as an adult and being dimly aware that pre-marital sex was frowned on, but not feeling the need to change her already established ways. Making her first formal confession was a turning point for her. Coming to the subject of sex in her litany of transgressions, Winner writes that her confessor told her, “gently but firmly . . . ‘Well, Lauren, that’s sin.’ And in that sacramental moment, kneeling with another Christian whose sole task was to convey Christ’s grace and absolution to me, something sunk in.”
A Spiritual Discipline
Winner believes the church is failing its members when it comes to the subject of chastity. “We say we care tremendously about premarital chastity,” she writes, “but somehow the tools we give people to live premarital chastity are not working as well as we might hope.” First, she believes, the message needs to change from “no sex before marriage” to a “vigorously positive” message about sex within marriage. “Without a robust account of the Christian vision of sex within marriage, the Christian insistence that unmarried folks refrain from sex just doesn’t make any sense,” she writes.
Second, she believes that spiritual disciplines—including chastity—need to be revived. At the urging of her pastor, in addition to praying and studying the Bible, Winner began to fast regularly. That, she writes, taught her that she is “not utterly subject to my bodily desires. . . . [It] is the practice that most obviously helps us learn to discipline our physical selves.” The church needs to help
Christians understand chastity the same way, as a spiritual discipline.
Chastity is something you do, it is something you practice. It is not only a state—the state of being chaste—but a disciplined, active undertaking that we do as part of the Body. It is not the mere absence of sex but an active conforming of one’s body to the arc of the gospel.
In this age of individualism, steeped in a culture that says sex is nothing more than a physical act, it’s not enough to tell young Christians to “just say no.” They need to know the “whys,” and to understand that both abstinence before marriage and sex within marriage are positive things. They need to hear, in a compelling, coherent way, that sex is sacred, that they are to be holy and set apart, and that self-discipline, like chastity, is a virtue. •
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