Sunday, June 23, 2013

What We Say When We Talk About Chastity

I imagined this post, when I first conceived of it, to be a denunciation of the spiritual dangers lurking in books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye and When God Writes Your Love Story. Then talking with friends convinced me to scale back the tone of the piece, from accusatory prophet to a gentle warning against the spiritual unhealthy aspects of such books. Then time (short in part because I published something about singleness!) forced me to scale back still further: I want to get personal about these books, talk about how such books - written with such good intent! - may in fact push single believers further away from our gracious God.

Let me tell you a story.

Growing up, I was not particularly boy-crazy. I pulled my hair back into an unflattering ponytail until I was well into my teens, didn't wear make-up regularly until I was perhaps sixteen, and didn't discover that flat irons existed until I was in graduate school.

All this probably explains the unusual offer I received, late one night at a sleepover. I was about twelve, flat on my back on a mattress in the living room, sharing secrets with my friends at a sleepover. I don't remember what questions or discussion led up to it, but with perfect clarity I remember the offer: My friend, just a year older than me, offered to teach me how to flirt.

How to flirt? 

That's something I'm supposed to be learning? As in, good Christian girls actually try to flirt around guys?

(Also, this: Why in the world would anyone want to flirt? As I said, I was not boy-crazy.)

I kindly refused the offer, and conversation moved on to other topics. I recall feeling ever-so-slightly better, more spiritual than my friend. She flirted with boys. I did not. Even then, I was learning from the culture around me that extreme caution around young men was the way to follow God, and in my twelve-year-old mind I assumed likewise that to not flirt was to follow God.

I remember another evening, years later on the front porch of the church where youth group was held. Sitting there in the hot summer sun, my friends and I talked about first kisses. Romantic killjoy that I am, I interrupted the conversation with an announcement that I planned on never kissing until I was married, standing at the front of a church in a white dress and all. My friends, unsurprisingly, defended kissing before marriage, kissing before engagement, then went back to the more romantic conversations. I was left feeling ever-so-slightly superior to my friends, better off spiritually because I was reserving my first kiss for the altar. Christians, I knew, were called to purity, and I was better at purity.

At fifteen, of course, I wouldn't have put my thoughts in quite those terms, but that's what they boiled down to: Not flirting, not kissing - these things made me a better Christian, albeit a romantically challenged one.

In retrospect, what I thought made me a better Christian only made me a self-righteous prig, and it is that self-righteousness which is among the chief dangers (though by no means the most well-known) of so many evangelical books designed to teach readers how to stay pure before marriage, books in the vein of I Kissed Dating Goodbye and When God Writes Your Love Story. 

Before I go on, I need to clarify a few things.

First of all, books such as I Kissed Dating Goodbye are not all bad. In fact, I re-read Harris's book recently, and I was impressed by how he urged readers to behave in a way that helps others walk more closely with God. Mutual care and respect for our brothers and sisters in Christ is rare these days, and I appreciated his reminders.

Second, and more importantly, I still believe that within Christian theology, sex is to be reserved for marriage. It is therefore possible to write books urging readers to chastity without also falling into spiritual pitfalls (Lauren Winner's Real Sex is an excellent example of a book that manages this balance.)

Yet such books, written as they are to singles who are to remain chaste, link that chastity to pleasing God in a way that slides towards legalism, away from grace, and so runs the risk of turning those of us who are single and chaste into modern-day Pharisees. They run the risk of undermining all that singleness is meant to be.

In books such as Harris's and Eric and Leslie Ludy's, chastity is to be maintained through rigid personal standards, standards that please God. Harris, for instance, writes that "God is not impressed with my ability to stand up to sin. He's more impressed by the obedience I show when I run from it." (96). His point is clear: The way to impress God - an interesting choice of words, to say the least - is to flee from sin. In light of that fact, Harris urges his readers to accomplish that flight through a system of self-imposed boundaries and standards for maintaining sexual purity: "Set your standards too high," he tells readers. "You will never regret purity." (97).

On the one hand, I appreciate that Harris is reaffirming the importance of chastity. Even we Christians try to wriggle out of God's plan that sex is for marriage only, so the value that Harris places on purity is to be commended. My problem is not so much what Harris says but how he says it, not that he urges chastity (which is good) but that he urges chastity in a way that rings of legalism (which is bad).

Incidentally, although I use Harris's name throughout this essay, this is only because this essay began with a reference to his book; the problem is, unfortunately, not limited to Harris but spread throughout the evangelical church.

The evangelical church, as Harris says, believes that our moral purity impresses God. To say that we may impress God by running from sin (or really, by any behaviour whatsoever) is to step away from the gospel back towards legalism. We may be saved by grace, but we harbour a belief that we earn spiritual brownie points after salvation by our goodness; we think, and are taught to think, that we deserve some kind of gold star for not lying, not cheating, and for those of us who are single, by not having sex.

Within this system, it makes perfect sense for Harris to urge his readers to "set your standards too high". As long as spiritual life is a quest to impress God, then we will naturally be urged to prop up moral purity in whatever way we can, including imposing extra-biblical sanctions such as "No kissing," "No dating," or "No holding hands." Yet while we are told these these sanctions will promote holiness, all they really promote is self-righteousness; they drain us of spiritual energy without leading us closer to Christ.

The danger, for those of us who are long-term singles, is that people like Harris link our spiritual vitality and success as singles, not with the grace of Christ, but with our own success at maintaining not only chastity but also all those extra-biblical sanctions. Yet such sanctions actually threaten our spiritual vitality: Singleness is meant, like marriage, to draw us closer into communion with God, to make us more holy, yet to persist in certain behaviour patterns in an attempt to impress God is to defeat the purpose for which God designed singleness.

Don't get me wrong: Having standards, even ones that are not directly spelled out in the Bible, may well be a good thing. Think of those, for instance, who know that addiction runs in their family, and so they hold themselves to a standard of no alcohol. This is a wise personal standard. In fact, I Corinthians teaches that we ought to respect each other's standards, not urge people to violate their own standards.

Yet while we may feel that certain standards are useful in the cause of holiness, we are never told that the standards in themselves make us holier before God.  As St. Paul reminds the Corinthian church, "Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do" (8:8). To translate this to dating, we are no worse off if we do not kiss our boyfriend, and no better off if we do. Before and after salvation, we are impressive to God only in Christ.

Incidentally, I find it interesting that Harris emphasizes fleeing sin through standards. If this works, so be it; the Bible also instructs us to "flee sexual immorality." Yet in the Bible the point is not so much what we're running from as who we are running to: "Walk in the Spirit," St Paul tell us, "and you will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh." Whereas evangelical culture tells us to start sprinting away from sin, God tells us to start sprinting towards Him. The one race is a long and wearying one with nothing at its end; the other, a gentle walk with God Himself waiting for us at the end. This is the message that we should be giving to those who are single, and hearing if we are single: While we may choose to embrace certain standards, we do not stand or fall based on having those standards; we stand or fall in Christ alone.

And this is both more encouraging and more challenging: challenging, because walking with Christ involves all of life in a way that compartmentalized, narrow standards does not; encouraging, because we are loved and will not ruin ourselves beyond a point that grace can rescue us.

Lauren Winner, writing in Real Sex, points out that an over-emphasis on self-control and rigid sexual standards "perhaps fails to recognize that one resists strong bodily urges like sexual desires not primarily through willpower, but through grace." It is that grace which we as the body of Christ want to taste. Whether we are married or single, whether we are chaste or still working in that direction, our God will walk with us.

This is how the church needs to start talking about chastity: Ultimately, the single years are not meant to be a grit-your-teeth-and-bear-it chastity in an attempt to impress God, nor a series of escalating standards meant to secure His approval. They are indeed meant to make us holy (as marriage is also meant to make married people holy), but this happens not through our efforts but through the transformative grace of Christ. There is nothing to be proud of, nothing to be self-righteous about, nothing to boast about but Christ.

To close, let me return to my story: That self-righteousness of mine is, I think, a fair illustration of the dangers of linking high standards to success as chaste men or women. What success at chastity needs to be linked to is, of course, Christ alone. There's no reason to excuse sex before marriage, but there's also no reason to talk as if anything but Christ our sacrifice keeps us from sin and pleases God. Only in Him are we, married and single people alike, made whole.

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