[Just a word of caution: this article addresses mature subject matter and focuses on the needs of young people who may not have an active relationship with God guiding their sexual choices and behaviors. Grab a cup of tea, settle in, and take a deep breath.]
“So do you hate me now?”
Her gaze was direct and unflinching. Challenging. Only the swoosh of her hair as she shook it over her left shoulder intimated any discomfort. What had begun earlier in the day as a trickle of confessions had turned into a surge of unguarded admissions. The late-night silence and lights-mostly-out darkness had allowed her to whisper words, rushed and jagged, that had singed their way into my mind. I tried not to imagine this fresh-faced woman-child engaged in the sexual decadence she’d described.
“Do you hate me?” she repeated, mistaking my silence for hesitation. There were no tears in her eyes. They’d long ago hardened into something resolute that squared her shoulders and tilted her chin to a defiant angle. “Just so you know,” she added in a rush of breath, “I’m only telling you to get it off my chest.” She looked away, ostensibly to follow the frantic flight of a beige moth as it threw itself against the dusty light bulb just outside the door’s streaked windowpane. She swung her hair again—over her right shoulder this time.
When she looked back at me, a shimmer of need flickered in her solemn gaze—just long enough for me to see before a curtain of invincibility dropped over it. “Go ahead,” she said, her chin tilting another notch higher. “Tell me I’m disgusting.”
I took a moment to inventory possible responses. This woman—this child—with the sunny-cynical giggle and the fleece-fierce hugs wanted something from me that I couldn’t quite grasp. Absolution? No. Rationalization? Perhaps. Shame? It would have been the most predictable response. Layered with grieved sighs and pitying head-shakes and sad, tentative maybes.
Born into a Christian family and raised with a solid moral foundation, Hayley looked the epitome of the Good Little Girl—that label we impose on impressionable, imperfect young people, often more to congratulate ourselves for our influence than to spare them from the consequences of failure. Eat your broccoli. Tidy up your room. Don’t swear. Don’t steal. Don’t cheat. And for Heaven’s sake—for Heaven’s sake—don’t defile yourself by giving in to sexual temptation.
There’s a hierarchy of failure in the Christian world, you see. An unspoken ranking from excusable to intolerable. Gluttony might sit at the bottom of this sliding scale. At the top—prominently displayed and vigorously condemned—is sexual impurity. Just a rung or two removed from murder and heresy. At least for women.
Perhaps it’s the physical ramification of this sin that lends it a greater tangibility than dishonesty or hypocrisy. A girl who has had sex—a woman, a senior citizen—has lost an element of her physical “integrity.” We like to make that clear, don’t we? If you have sex, young lady, your hymen will be broken and the man you love will know. Embedded in the weighty silence following such declarations are the deal-sealing threats: he will be disgusted by you, he will never love you, he will abandon you. (We never clarify what other conditions and activities might also harm that over-prized membrane.)
Such admonitions are seldom leveled at men. At least not with the same vehemence. But that’s a topic for another day…
Perhaps realizing how ineffective our usual exhortations are for young women to whom faith matters little (“God calls us to purity,” “Save yourself for marriage,” “Don’t do anything you wouldn’t feel comfortable telling a spouse about”) we’ve turned to shame as the ultimate deterrent. And we slap the red-lettered indictment on the choices they make, declaring that we love them but that “others” (whoever they might be) will judge them to be slutty, trashy, easy, dirty, unworthy, disgusting, defiled. The underlying message is that God will too.
Some women decide that they have nothing left to lose. They’ve given it up anyway, so what’s the use of being “good.” Since virginity seems intended only as a means to achieving that status, they figure they might as well throw caution to the wind and enjoy the few perks of having lost it already.
Others take the whip out of Christianity’s self-righteous hand and lash themselves with the insults they “deserve”…even those who have been manipulated or brutalized into sexual activity. The angry welts of shame, guilt and self-disgust stifle a very human romantic hope with moral impossibility. “I am used goods. Soiled goods. The kind of guy I want would never want me.” Self-fulfilling prophecy is a you-know-what.
Spewing guilt and shame at our sexually active youth has done nothing more than push them to extremes—launching full-throttle into nothing-to-lose promiscuity or settling into a paralyzing state of worthlessness and irrecuperable brokenness.
It’s time we changed our discourse.
To a generation for whom God’s word is little more than a restrictive and outdated instruction manual, to a youth for whom his character (though distorted) makes him as appealing as a third-world dictator, our litany of platitudes regarding sexual purity is falling on disinterested ears.
We need to find new words, new evidence, new arguments that are pertinent even without an adherence to religious beliefs—though it might not feel spiritually satisfying to the Bible-minded lecturer.
In a world in which we choose sexual conquests like we select a tennis partner—because sex has become little more than an entertaining form of exercise—we need to talk about the benefits of abstaining…just as we do in the realm of nutrition, smoking, illegal substances and thrill-seeking. And it’s so much more than “STDs and making-babies” warnings!
And then we need to change the goal we hold up like an idol with the power to destroy us. Virginity. Absolute physical virginity or the fires of hell. Those are the options.
Jamie Wright writes: “We’ve made virginity the goal, when it is purity that we should be aiming for.” There’s a huge difference there. One is irreplaceable when lost, the other is pursuable even after failures. “Sexual purity is a life long spiritual practice that doesn’t begin or end with a single sex act.” Purity can be restored. Again and again. After every failure on the road to obedience. God, the Redeemer, is a God of second chances, uncompromising in Truth and exuberant in forgiveness.
Max Lucado wrote: “Our Savior kneels down and gazes upon the darkest acts of our lives. But rather than recoil in horror, he reaches out in kindness and says, ‘I can clean that if you want.’ And from the basin of his grace, he scoops a palm full of mercy and washes our sin.”
So let’s change our discourse. Let’s talk about the huge benefits of honing our inner strength into something that can stand firm against adversity and resist enticement in all of life’s challenges.
Let’s tell these young people who engage in sex like they cave in to sugar cravings that resisting now is an investment that will pay off in the future. Every time they prove that ability to step away from the precipice, tuck that shirt back in, take a cold shower or go for a jog, they’re saying to their future mate: “I’ve developed the kind of character that can resist temptation. So when we’ve been married 20 years and a new, exciting person enters my life…when I’m so attracted I can’t think straight…I know and you know that I’m capable of combating the urge. You’ve seen it—I’ve demonstrated self-control with others and with you. So you know I can do it again—for you.” A promise with evidence to back it up. Powerful stuff.
That’s just one of the arguments we can voice in defense of abstinence and boundaries. And there are so many more…
And Hayley? Hayley scooted back a little on the couch, putting distance between her vulnerability and the chastising she expected. I could see in her pursed lips her disappointment with herself. By talking to me, she’d opened the door to condemnation, pity and maybe an exhortation to “go and sin no more”—as if God meant anything to her.
She’d written Him off along with her virginity in a dirty locker room when she was thirteen years old…because she thought that’s what would nab the football player she liked. Then she’d done it again when she thought it would keep him from leaving her. And with another guy, a few months later, because her broken heart needed the hormonal reprieve. And again…and again… Sometimes with good reason and sometimes just because she could and it felt good. She had nothing left to lose anyway. Right?
I smiled. I tried to put every ounce of love and sincerity forged over a lifetime into that smile. And though my Judeo-Christian core, in spite of me, tried to insert disappointment and pity into the smile, I fought it. She already showed signs of Church-PTSD. Why add my censure to her pain?
Because you see, we’re supposed to represent God to the people he brings into our lives. And if Hayley, with a lifetime of poor sexual choices strapped to her soul, broken by the Church’s judgment and hardened with defiance, had stumbled on shaky legs into Jesus’ presence… If she had found the hair-swooshing courage to look into his face and say, “Do you hate me now?”… If she had tilted her chin and waited for his condemnation, would she have heard him say, brutal as the “for your own good” rants we hear from his people, “You’re impure, broken, disgusting and perverse”?
Never. Not the God I know.
“Let’s talk,” I said to Hayley, grabbing her hand and pulling her closer. She scootched over with a suspicious sideward glance, perhaps bracing for a sermon on abstinence or on repentance or on faith.
We talked about how worthy she is. How beautiful, bright, gifted, compassionate, loyal, inquisitive and loving she is. We revisited her regrets and celebrated her successes. We put her choices into context and into perspective and began to understand them better. We talked about the people who can help her if she’d like that.
And we talked about future relationships and each chance she’ll have to prove her commitment to change. And about failure not being lethal. And about sexual failures not being worse than others. And about God’s unchanging love regardless of missteps and mistakes and degrees of imperfection.
And then the tears came. But she didn’t look away. Her eyes got a bit wider and a four-year-old-on-Christmas-Eve smile softened her features.
“So you don’t think I’m disgusting?” she asked in the febrile voice of a child-woman whose hymen and hope were destroyed on the same night.
I shook my head and tried that loving smile again. “Neither does God.”
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As usual, Michele, you have spoken wisely and clearly on a sticky topic. “Failed” missionaries so often wrestle with the same debilitating question: “Do you hate me God, now that I’ve quit?” I am convinced that God is much more interested in what he is developing in us than he is in what we think we are doing for him.
Michele, this is good stuff.
The following thought is definitely not original to me (I can’t remember where I saw it, but Jamie Wright might have mentioned it), but one way I think our terminology should change is to set aside the terminology of “pure” and “impure,” which I think contributes significantly to the impression of permanent damage.
Consider that there is only one category of sin for which we consistently use purity language, and that is sexual sin. It’s very rare to hear purity language about any other type of behavior.
Consider also the other primary context in which purity language is routinely used: in reference to food and drink. Notice that food or drink that is tainted or impure is a subject of instinctive and almost insuperable revulsion.
Imagine this: I show you a glass of water. I dip a cockroach into the water and offer it to you to drink. Of course, you refuse. I then boil the water, filter it with the best filtering technology, purify it chemically. No matter what I do to it, most likely, you still won’t drink it. Once the water has become impure, it can’t be fixed (at least as far as our gut reaction; we might convince ourselves it’s OK, but we’ll still shudder as we drink it).
Using purity language about sexual sin reinforces the impression of disgust, of something permanent, irreversible, unforgivable.
I think it would be better to use the terminology of brokenness, fallenness, or even just plain sin, rather than purity. If you’re broken, you can be mended. If you’ve fallen, you can be helped up. If you’ve sinned, you can be forgiven and restored. If you’re impure or tainted, then you’re just disgusting.
I disagree [with the comment above]. Purity—and asking God to purify oneself is throughout the scriptures. Purity is a theologically rich word. So is sin, so is fallenness, and so are repentance and forgiveness. And that hypothetical glass of water? I grew up in Brazil. I watched cockroaches crawling out of cupboards. Drains. Anywhere they didn’t belong. But I trusted my water filter—and once a month I cleaned the filter! I think using purity as a goal is good if we define purity. Another word to define is chastity.
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[…] Note: this article is not intended to be a theological exploration of sexuality! I’ve written on that topic HERE and HERE. […]