An “aha!” moment about purity

Could it be that it’s even less about me, and less about my efforts to become pure than I ever imagined?

In the past, I spent so much time hung up about doing, that in my worst moments of extreme distress and failure, I admitted to a few confidantes, “I don’t know how to do Christianity!” Years ago, I announced to my parents, “I’m just not cut out for Christianity.” It took decades for me to grasp my father’s reply, “But that’s the whole point.”

One of my favorite passages is this:

“Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.”‭‭ [1 John‬ ‭3:2-3‬ ‭NASB‬‬]

Silly me — I always interpreted that last verse as saying, “So if you have this hope, you need to purify yourself.” I rejoiced that, on that glorious day, seeing Jesus just as He is would purify me and transform me into His likeness. What a wonderful hope! But I missed the true connection with the next verse. Just as seeing Jesus will transform me, so will fixing my hope in Him. Bottom line: the more I focus on Jesus, the more like Him I become. That’s what that passage really means.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.


Purity: it’s not just for virgins | Preaching to the choir

There are a lot of wrong messages coming out of “purity culture”, and I’ve written quite a bit about my concerns. One of the things that troubles me greatly is that the message of the gospel is too often being perverted by a false teaching of what purity is. The entire concept that we are born pure and can lose our purity should seem like jarringly false doctrine to evangelical Christians who believe in original sin and the power of redemption. It should, but all too often it doesn’t.

Another troubling aspect of “purity culture” is that it’s all about what one shouldn’t do, and doesn’t give a hope-filled message of what one should do. Furthermore, it’s a message that becomes meaningless the instant one marries…or at least the instant the marriage is consummated. The message is also skewed heavily towards young women, especially when the emphasis is on an intact hymen and the vehicle is father-daughter “purity balls”. Purity is seen as less important for young men.

This is not a Christian ethic, no matter what one tries to claim.

There’s an old-fashioned word I don’t hear very much, at least not in Protestant circles, but it’s an important one to use in discussions of sexual purity. That word is chastity. Sometimes chastity is thought to be synonymous with celibacy; however, the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church teaches otherwise:

Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. Sexuality, in which man’s belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman.

either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy.  Man’s dignity therefore requires him to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from within, and not by blind impulses in himself or by mere external constraint. Man gains such dignity when, ridding himself of all slavery to the passions, he presses forward to his goal by freely choosing what is good and, by his diligence and skill, effectively secures for himself the means suited to this end.

This flies in the face of what is taught to too many girls within “purity culture”, where purity is equated with virginity marked by an intact hymen. This emphasis is so out of proportion to reality that I’ve known girls who agonized over whether using a tampon would cause them to “lose their virginity” and thus sacrifice their “purity”. I’ve read of a growing number of young brides who grieve the loss of their virginity on their honeymoons when they “give up their purity” to their husbands. What now? they wonder. The most valuable thing about them is gone forever. The precious gift has been given, sometimes to a husband who acts more entitled than appreciative, and now what do they have left?

Chastity, on the other hand, is a lifestyle. It is not something we are born with and must guard lest we lose it to the wrong person. It is, instead, a virtue we must cultivate with the help of the Holy Spirit, and it is just as important, if not more so, after the wedding night as before. Chastity is the healthy, God-honoring expression of our sexuality in a way appropriate to where we are in life, whether single or married. It is one way in which we present our bodies to Christ as a living sacrifice. It is one of the outworkings of sanctification.

By the grace of God, one can begin living a chaste life at any point. Even the most sordid past sins can be forgiven, and the Holy Spirit can empower the weakest of the weak to walk in repentance, in purity, and in holiness.

That’s the power of the gospel.

“And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”  (Philippians‬ ‭1:9-11‬)

Purity: it’s not what you think, part 2 | Preaching to the choir

Why am I so opposed to equating virginity with purity? It’s not just because I grew up in the era of “technical virgins” who did “everything but”. It’s not because, as some legalists might accuse, I “hate purity”. In fact, it’s because I value purity so much that I don’t want to denigrate it, reduce it to something that it isn’t, or render it meaningless. (Read the rest of my previous post here.)

I’ve written about what purity isn’t, without saying enough about what it is. If we are discussing a Biblical perspective of purity, obviously we need to look at what the Bible has to say on the topic.

From BibleStudyTools.com:

In the New Testament, there is little emphasis on ritual purity. Rather, the focus is on moral purity or purification: chastity ( 2 Cor 11:2 ;  Titus 2:5 ); innocence in one’s attitude toward members of the church ( 2 Cor 7:11 ); and moral purity or uprightness ( Php 4:8 ;  1 Tim 5:22 ;  1 Peter 3:2 … ). Purity is associated with understanding, patience and kindness ( 2 Cor 6:6 ); speech, life, love, and faith ( 1 Tim 4:12 ); and reverence ( 1 Peter 3:2 ).

Purity is far more than virginity, and it’s not just about sex. I’ve noticed that those I know who walk out a lifestyle of radical purity are not trumpeting it forth loudly on the internet, nor do they draw undue attention to themselves in general, nor do they boast of their purity. It just becomes apparent as you get to know them, and it also becomes apparent that their purity is accompanied by other virtues…especially, it seems, humility.

IMG_3343

I have always loved the promise of 1 John 3:2-3 — that seeing our Savior as He really is will transform us radically. We shall be like Him! In the meantime, if that is our hope and our longing, we should be purifying ourselves, following the example of Christ.

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls,” said Jesus in Matthew 11:29. We never find Christ boasting about the sins He didn’t commit. Instead, we find Him serving, being about His Father’s business, loving the unlovely, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, seeking and saving the lost, binding up the brokenhearted, setting the captives free, and sacrificing His very life for us. All along the way, He keeps reminding us that, when He lived among us in bodily form, He was showing us the Father.

We can’t become like Jesus all by ourselves. First, we need Christ to cleanse us from our sins, but then we need the power of the Holy Spirit to undertake the process of sanctification — that old-fashioned theological term that can be defined simply as being used for the purpose God intends. That means an ongoing, radical transformation…or at least it should, if we truly want to follow Jesus. More obedience, less rebellion and wandering. More love, less selfishness. More compassion, less indifference. More of His will, less of mine. More of Him, less of me. Gradually, we should become more and more holy — consecrated and set apart for service to God, more and more conforming to His will.

That’s purity. Anything less, and we’re just kidding ourselves.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve still got a long, long way to go.

The problem with “purity culture” is not purity

She was raised in an ultra-conservative Christian homeschooling family, with loving but legalistic parents. Or maybe they were more protective than legalistic; as an adult, she is still trying to puzzle that out. There is no doubt in her mind that they loved her and meant well.

The circles in which they traveled, especially as she approached her teens, emphasized — among other things — purity. Although her brothers got what came across to her as somewhat of a token, “Oh, by the way, boys and men need to stay pure also”, the real targets of the “purity message” were the girls. Whether or not her parents, pastors, youth leaders, and the authors of the books and articles she read intended to teach her the following, this is what she came to believe:

  • Purity is defined exclusively in sexual terms. Sexual deeds make you impure. Thoughts do too, but to a much lesser extent.
  • The single most important and valuable thing about a girl is her purity. It is the most precious gift she can give her husband, yet it is also owed him to the extent that she is robbing him should she squander her purity on anyone else.
  • Boys and men have many other things that are important and valuable about them, and many other things to offer their future wives. Their purity is of lesser value, does not define their worth, and is not the most important thing about them.
  • The most valuable thing about a girl or woman is her sexuality. It might be the only thing of value about her, unless she marries a man who also appreciates her homemaking skills. However, even the most amazing domestic talents and abilities will never make up for being sexually impure, broken, or lacking.
  • Men are far more valuable than women, because they are not judged and defined solely by their sexuality.
  • While it’s nice if your future husband does not have a sexual past, he does not owe you his purity. You have no right to be judgmental or unforgiving of anything he might have done. His past, if he has repented of it, should no longer matter.
  • A girl is not only responsible for guarding her own purity, but the purity of everyone who encounters her. She needs to scrutinize her actions and appearance at all times in order to make sure she is not causing anyone to stumble.
  • It is impossible for boys and men to maintain purity in their thought lives. In fact, there is no such thing. Males are wired in such a way as to be on the verge of sexually explicit thoughts and desires at all times, and thus the most seemingly innocent thing can set them off. For example, if a boy sees a girl with wet hair, he cannot help imagining her naked in a shower, begging him to have sex with her.
  • Men and boys are incapable of respecting a girl or woman that they want to have sex with. This would seem like a problem in marriage but, while it’s important for an unmarried woman to gain the respect of men, wives supposedly no longer need respect. Only husbands do.
  • Men and boys are incapable of respecting a girl or woman who has lost her purity. It’s kind of debatable whether the sex act in marriage causes a woman to lose her purity or not. After all, the fact that she “gives” her purity (as the greatest gift she could possibly give) to her husband implies that she no longer possesses it. Luckily she only needs love from her husband and not respect. Marriage apparently mysteriously transforms a woman that way.
  • Once a girl or woman loses her purity before marriage, she is ruined forever. She can repent and be forgiven by God, but her purity is gone, never to be regained. She has robbed and cheated her husband out of the only thing of real value about her.

The young woman I am writing about is not the only one to believe these things. Not by a long shot.

I would hope that readers would see this as a problematic message. Whether or not this is the intention of the proponents of “purity culture”, it is what many young women are learning in homes, churches, youth groups, books, articles, blog posts, homeschooling conferences, etc., often with heartbreaking and disastrous consequences. One need not search very hard on the internet to find tragic story after story. Some young women who were harmed by growing up with these pervasive messages are now speaking out quite strongly against not only “purity culture” itself, but the very idea of remaining sexually pure until marriage.

The problems with “purity culture” are legion, but I will address only three of them for now:

1. It sexualizes women and girls — even very young girls — and repeats our media-saturated culture’s false message that women’s value is measured by sexuality and little or nothing else.

I mentioned the creepy sexualization of little girls when I wrote about “Purity Balls” on my old blog. In many ways, “purity culture” robs little girls of their innocence by forcing them to view themselves as sexual beings when they should be running and playing and learning — free of concerns about their future wedding nights. We should be teaching them what it means to be a follower of Jesus now, as wonderful little girls, and how they are of infinitely more value to Him, and more beloved, than they could ever imagine.

We need to tell girls and women that their worth rests in far, far more than their sexuality. The most valuable, precious gift a woman can give her husband is herself, in all her fullness and complexity. Sexuality is a part of that, yes, but I must emphasize again that her worth is in her personhood — who she is in the totality of her being, her talents and abilities, her personality and character, her knowledge and wisdom, her life experiences, her accomplishments, her relationship with God, her morals and values, her thoughts and opinions, her hopes and dreams — all that and more makes her uniquely who she is — and that’s what she brings into marriage.

Her sexuality is not a commodity that she sells in exchange for a wedding ring, or that her father sells on her behalf. Marriage is neither prostitution nor domestic service. Or at least it shouldn’t be. Any teaching or belief that even hints that it might be, or that virginity is owed as part of the transaction, is ungodly. Any boy who does not truly understand what is most precious about any woman — far, far more precious than her virginity — is not ready to be a husband…or at least not a very good one.

2. “Purity culture” has no idea what purity really is. Purity is not some treasure that girls are born with and that they need to guard desperately and fearfully until the day that they give it to their husbands. No one need weep on her wedding night, as one distraught “purity culture” young woman did, over the loss of what once defined and gave her worth.

Purity is not an intact hymen. It is not virginity. It is not a lack of sexual experience. It is not even saving your first kiss for the wedding. Purity is not a “thing” that you can give away or that someone can steal from you.

More times than I care to count, I’ve been told heartbreaking accounts of young girls being sexually abused, molested, and raped, often by people they loved and trusted. Such despicable evil perpetrated against a child damages and wounds his or her soul in a way that is indescribable.

It is all the more devastating if you believe that the most important thing about you, the precious gift you owe your future husband, has been stolen forever, obliterated and destroyed. Your body may heal. The deep wounds no one sees may heal as well. But your purity is gone forever. And, if you are a girl, so is most of your worth.

Of course that is a lie, an evil lie, from the very pit of hell itself. Unfortunately, it is one that many deeply hurting young girls have learned from “purity culture”.

Old Testament Jewish law had a lot of perplexing and burdensome commandments about cleanliness and purity. The good news is that, as followers of Jesus, we are no longer under that system of law. In Mark 7:14-23, Jesus declared all foods clean, teaching that what a person eats does not defile him or her. He was doing more than lifting the dietary law; he was teaching what makes a person defiled or impure:

Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from the outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart…That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.

To be very graphic, when a rapist invades the body of his victim, she may feel defiled, but she is not. He may have robbed her of her innocence, by the horrible evil he has inflicted upon her, but he has not robbed her of purity. He has defiled himself — long before he committed the sin of rape — not her.

The Bible talks about different kinds of purity: of heart, of devotion, of doctrine, and more. No one is born with pure devotion and pure doctrine, and then needs to avoid giving those forms of purity away prematurely to the wrong person. We would laugh if someone taught, “Save your doctrinal purity for your spouse, because it’s the most valuable gift you can give him or her!” No man except a lunatic would say, “Well, she started believing some really messed up stuff there for awhile, some actual heresies, and she lost her doctrinal purity. Thankfully, she repented and has seen the error of her ways but I’m sorry, I want to marry a woman who saved her doctrinal purity for me.”

I’m not making light of the fact that sexual pasts can invade the present. I firmly believe that avoiding sexual sin is a good, righteous, and important thing, but it is something that should be undertaken to obey God, not to avoid “losing the most precious thing one can give to one’s spouse”. Also, if we are going to emphasize purity, we need to emphasize true purity, in all its forms, and not just female virginity. We need to make sure those of us who are teaching purity are pursuing it as well — in our thoughts and our actions.

I would also argue that it is a sign of impurity when a father looks at his sweet, innocent little girl and becomes overly concerned about her hymen, as if it belongs to him until he turns it over — hopefully still intact — to another man. I would argue that it is a sign of impurity when a man buys his little girl a beautiful dress and takes her out to a fancy ball, the fulfillment of her sweet childish princess dreams — and then makes it all about sex. It takes a certain amount of impurity for a man to begin teaching his little girl that a fancy night out with a man always has strings attached, this time that she must promise him, “I pledge to remain sexually pure…until the day I give myself as a wedding gift to my husband…”

The lack of understanding of true purity is because of my next point.

3. “Purity culture” lacks a real understanding of the gospel.

In Isaiah 1:18, God says, “Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be white as snow.” In other words…pure as the driven snow…

In 1 Corinthians 6, we read a list of all the sorts of sinners who will not inherit the kingdom of God, followed by these words:

Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

That’s the part of the gospel that the “purity culture” people seem to be overlooking. When God forgives our sins, He washes them away and we become pure. We negate the work of the Cross, the tremendous sacrifice our Savior paid, when we act as if purity has some source other than Him, and when we act as if the stain of sexual sin is so deep that God’s grace is insufficient to purify it.

Many of us who grew up in the church memorized 1 John 1:9, which says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Unfortunately, proponents of “purity culture” do not really believe that verse. If they did, more husbands would be honest in admitting, “I feel jealous and insecure because my wife had sex with other men in her past, and I’m having a hard time not holding it against her” — instead of maligning both the gospel and the character of their repentant wife by saying, “She was not pure when I married her.” To hear some men talk, one would think their wives had gone straight from working in a brothel to the wedding, without even bothering to take a shower in between. It doesn’t matter how long ago a woman’s sexual past may have been, or how fervently she pursued righteousness in the meantime, or how pure her devotion to Jesus — her husband still sees her as impure. The gospel means so little to him.

The irony is that few of these same men want a truly pure wife. What they want is a “whitewashed sepulchre”, all clean and beautiful on the outside but not so much on the inside. They want a wife who is pure in body but not necessarily in heart, a wife with a virginal body who will somehow automatically know how to fulfill her husband’s porn-driven masturbatory fantasies. Too much purity of conscience, too much innocence, too much devotion to God might get in the way of that.

As for the young woman at the beginning of this post…according to “purity culture”, she lost her purity, first because of what someone did to her against her will and then later by her own choice. After a few years living as a prodigal (I love prodigals!) she returned, not quite to the faith of her youth but to a new, more life-giving, fervent, simple yet profound, intimate faith. She eventually met a man who recognized her purity — along with many of her other wonderful qualities, including her approach to Christianity — and fell in love with her. Last I heard, they are living out their own happily ever after story, as far removed as possible from the false teachings of “purity culture”, and instead pursuing together what 2 Corinthians 11:3 refers to as “simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ”.