Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Why Saying "Just Wait" Isn't Enough for Sexual Purity

Photo Credit: CmdrFire (Creative Commons)
The following is an excerpt from mine and Marko's book, A Parent's Guide to Understanding Sex and Dating: Beyond the Birds and the Bees. You can buy the book from The Youth Cartel, Simply Youth Ministry, or Amazon. If you live in Canada, email me here about buying the book for a discounted rate!


From purity banquets to sex-and-dating teaching series in youth groups, the message of “just wait until marriage” is everywhere in the church world. I remember going through a purity ceremony in my Baptist youth group, where I received my own purity ring to place on my left hand, supposedly until the day I got married. Both the ring and the ceremony were uncomfortable. Something just didn’t fit. I didn’t understand why. Why wait? If two people are truly in love, why delay the expression of that love? Why did this seem to be such a big deal in the Christian subculture? If “just wait” is the message, then what’s the reasoning behind it? (By the way, some research and lots and lots of anecdotal observations seem to reveal that purity pledges don’t actually make a significant difference in sexual behavior. They might postpone intercourse a bit, but there’s some indication that they also might increase other sexual experiences.)

We think our language about “just wait” needs to change. The reality is that most folks sharing the message don’t know why they’re sharing it. It’s just the Christian thing to say, right? But that message simply doesn’t work in the heat of the moment. While the statistics cited earlier reveal that less than half of teenagers are engaged in sexual intercourse, a recent study conducted by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy revealed that 88 percent of unmarried young adults (ages 18-29) are having sex. Of those surveyed who self-identified as “evangelical,” 80 percent said they have had sex. Even if the purity banquets worked at age 16, they simply aren’t very convincing at age 26.

Instead of sharing the negative message of “don’t have sex or else you’re sinning,” the message needs to become “chastity is a discipline of the gospel life.”

Spiritual disciplines are actions that we do in order to orient our heart, soul, mind, and strength in the ways of Jesus and his gospel. This isn’t salvation by works; it’s a disciplined response to align our thoughts, emotions, and actions within the will of God. Chastity is one of these spiritual disciplines. Lauren Winner writes, “It is not the mere absence of sex but an active conforming of one’s body to the arc of the gospel.” Chastity is not only for single people prior to marriage; it encompasses both abstinence before marriage and fidelity within marriage.

Here the discipline of sex is twofold. Fidelity is a discipline; just as most single people want to have sex, period, so married people (even really happily married people) find themselves wanting to have sex with someone other than their spouse. And restraining those impulses is itself a discipline. (Indeed, it is worth pointing out that practicing chastity before you are married trains you well for chastity after you are married; it stands to reason that those who are promiscuous before marriage may be more likely to cheat on their spouses once married.)

Talking about chastity in this way changes it from a frustrating religious rule to a life-giving spiritual practice. It recognizes that this is really difficult, that God is asking us to do something that goes against both our cultural expectations and our inner impulses. Disciplines are not meant to be easy, but they are meant to make us better people and provide us a more full life. Chastity is, in essence, a sexual form of fasting. It is not allowing our impulses and desires—good, God-given ones, like hunger, thirst, and sexual desire—to ultimately define our actions and lifestyle. 

The goal of chastity is to be more like Jesus, to tap into the kingdom life that he has revealed to us. Practicing chastity is essential because it is a reflection of the good news that Jesus is faithful to us.

What do you think? How should we change our "just wait" language for teens and young adults?

1 comment:

  1. You make a ton of great points Joel! In the age where every answer is available at a few button pushes, kids and young adults want to know the "why" behind everything. We need to move beyond "just wait" or "because it's a sin" - these aren't arguments that will hold up for today's youth and unmarried adults. If we want them to be critically minded Christian adults we need to arm them with reasoning and biblical support that goes beyond the standard Genesis verse that is often used to (vaguely in my opinion) support the "just wait" model. You're on the right track Joel, and you've explained the reasons for waiting in this short blog post better than anyone else ever has.