On “Sexual Purity” & Discipleship

Sean Mortenson / November 9, 2017
discipleship, purity, sex, sexuality

“Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well. Should your springs be scattered abroad, streams of water in the streets? Let them be for yourself alone, and not for strangers with you. Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth …”

Last Sunday our study in Proverbs brought us to an appeal for a son to embrace the wisdom of sexual fidelity (quoted above). I couldn’t help but think of my years serving in high school and college ministries, sitting in various living rooms and coffee shops making similar appeals to young men. As many undoubtedly know, the subject of “sexual purity” tends to dominate discipleship conversations for that age group.

It is, of course, understandable why that would be the case. The consequences of sexual activity are real and can alter the course of one’s life (and perhaps more importantly, the course of someone else’s life) in significant ways. With hormones raging in an over-sexualized culture and experimentation happening all around them, it is justifiable for anyone who cares for a teenager’s well-being to continually address the subject.

But in thinking back to the ways we approached the topic, I have some regret. I wish I could go back and frame the whole conversation differently for those young men. Here’s why.

For one, I think the subject of “sexual purity” was too central to our understanding of discipleship. Again, it’s not that we addressed the subject too much, it’s that we acted as if we couldn’t conceive of any other sins that might be at work in the hearts of young men. That is both a symptom and a cause of an Evangelical culture that elevates sexual sin above all others. That’s tragically ironic because it is often the unaddressed sin and untreated wounds which aren’t filed under “sexual purity” that drive young men to destructive sexual behavior. It’s the loneliness, the anger, the self-doubt, the competition, and the worldview that allows them to use people. These produce the harmful fruit that youth leaders try so desperately to prevent. We can clip that fruit off and use all the “blockers” we want, but unless the source gets addressed, nothing really changes.

What’s more, in the paradigm many of us were raised in, “accountability” was basically a euphemism for motivating behavior through will-power and shame. The premise was: figure out a way to fix your behavior (or hide it well!) so that you don’t have to face the embarrassment of confession. The problem with that is in the biblical vision of transformation we cannot simply will ourselves to become like Christ. Paradoxically, it is in our recognition that we cannot manage to get our act together that we find ourselves on the right track. Our recognition of need drives us to rest in our Savior and yield to the Helper. And we have not yet learned to do either if shame is our motivator. Because God’s grace covers our shame, and we must allow that to pull us forward.

Of course it should be said that there is an equal, opposite error that recognizes grace but plays it as a license for sin. I have seen this too. Accountability groups become a place where everyone confesses they have “stumbled” again and the group comforts one another with a sense that they’re all failing so it’s cool as long as they keep “struggling” (euphemisms abound) and come back next week for another pat on the back.

Thus, both the grace-less and cheap-grace approaches tend to lead to sin (or image) management schemes. Both fail to drive at the heart of young men with a strong declaration that the grace of God redeems us from empty, destructive ways of living and invites us to be made new. A focus on sin management allows young men to settle into a view that their base urges need not be re-formed, just quarantined to socially acceptable norms. In biblical language, it is a failure to embrace the crucifying of the old self and the putting on of the new. So rather than driving at a complete Spirit-led re-orientation to respect women as image-bearers, young men are allowed to continue viewing them primarily as sexual objects. Instead of whole persons, they are first “temptations”. And from there it is a short step to place the burden on women to navigate a world of hopelessly tempted men appropriately, making sure they don’t cause men to “stumble”. I’ll let women speak to the destructive ways that message has impacted them over the years, reinforcing shame and inequality among other things.

But perhaps the main thing I’ve come to realize is that our conversations about “purity” lacked almost any positive vision for sexuality based on Scripture. Avoidance and management get us only so far and “Stop it!” is not a compelling world view. It’s also, to the surprise of many, not the central message of the Bible. Rather, the biblical call to follow Jesus and be made new is a call to restoration where we experience the fullness of life as it was intended. As the Spirit works in us for restoration, our hearts and minds become more aligned with our Creator’s. And when that happens we begin to see the folly of that which is not from Him. We begin to see our appetite for sin diminish because we’ve tasted and seen that the Lord is good. We become motivated to follow God’s design for sexuality because we come to trust that it’s truly better. And THAT is what I wish our discipleship conversations focused on: finding the beauty of the biblical view of sex, marriage, and relationships in the context of God’s good design and redemptive plan, then driving at what was going on in our hearts.

Certainly the text of Proverbs 5 has a direct warning in it. But it also points to a positive vision. The wife is compared to a well of life-giving water, a fountain to be rejoiced in (consider the importance of a well in the Ancient Middle East). And the negatives of the warning only make sense in relation to that positive vision. The young man is challenged to consider how he would feel if the “springs” of his wife’s love were no longer available to him, but instead “scattered abroad” “in the streets” (read: infidelity). The implication: neither should his affection be “scattered abroad”. The possibility for two partners to “drink” of one another and be satisfied would be lost if not contained in the cistern of covenant relationship. But when they give themselves only to one another, he can delight in her, and she in him.

The positive vision here and elsewhere in Scripture is that there is no earthly pursuit that rivals the beauty of a man and woman delighting in one another for life within the bonds of covenant. It is satisfying beyond every other option, like ever-present water in a desert land. As two people become “one flesh” in marriage they are exposed to one another completely, in every way possible. It is the most vulnerable a person can be. And when we take that tremendous risk, offering ourselves to another person who sees every aspect of who we are, flaws and all … and when they choose to delight in us forever (!), we experience a kind of love that is unparalleled. And that love offers a picture of the Gospel, which is more profound still. There is a seductive lure to dangerous, adrenaline fueled sexual experiences outside of marriage. There is certainly pleasure in them. But the biblical vision calls us to higher and deeper things than basic pleasures. They cannot rival the power of knowing one’s lover is going to be there in the morning, and the next, and the next, choosing you over all others, giving of themselves beyond the bedroom. The depth of intimacy that grows in a healthy, committed marriage is far greater than any thrill of sexual conquest.

If you are married (or have been), perhaps you are thinking that I am not describing the reality of marriage accurately. That’s because I am describing the goal, not the norm. That positive vision does not come automatically when you say your vows. It takes work. Not white knuckle sin management work, but Spirit-led heart work. It takes continuing to learn how to love and continuing to delight in the wife/husband of your youth. It takes pressing through the dry times and remaining faithful. It takes giving and receiving, repenting and forgiving, laughing and crying, striving and resting … together. That is how the fountains become blessed (5:18).

And the truth is, in a fallen world we will never feel like we’ve fully arrived or attained that vision. Some will feel farther away than others. But as we trust and pursue God’s plan, experiencing hints of how it’s supposed to be, future generations will see that it’s worth doing the same. And that fits right into our overall understanding of what it means to be the Church: empowered by the Spirit, we witness to the beauty and truth of the biblical vision by striving to embody it. And when we fail, we are propelled all the more by grace. So rather than will-power and shame, rather than threats and coercion, rather than behavior modification, we can offer our youth a picture of the good news that opens their imaginations. We can offer them a vision for life, beautifully restored. Instead of just giving them something to avoid, we can give them something to pursue.

(Note: I am conscious that the topic of “sexual purity” is so wide reaching that important parts of the conversation are not touched on here. For example, how this positive vision relates to those trying to heal from sexual sin or what it means for those working through questions of sexual orientation and gender identity. Those are necessary conversations that deserve more space than this post allowed.)

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