Ever since the oh-so-wise and ultra-experienced new mom Bristol Palin expressed her opinion about “abstinence” being “unrealistic,” the Christian blog world has been abuzz, with bloggers tsk-tsking, scolding, pontificating, and hand-wringing by turns.
I’ll be the first to admit that the abstinence movement (the stalwart True Love Waits and various smaller efforts) has been a joke and a general failure. A Slate.com article from a while back (one of many on the subject) called such programs a success on a sociological level, in that they motivated participants to delay sexual intercourse by around eighteen months, on average. Wow! Eighteen whole months! What a triumph…
“Joke” might sound like a bit of a strong word. It is. But in the words of Inigo Montoya, “Lemme splain. No, there is too much. Lemme sum up.”
Abstinence is a stupid term. Abstaining is something teetotalers do, something Sylvester Graham touted. However fancy the packaging, the word “abstinence” still feels punitive. It’s the absence of something. And as any dieter will tell you, when you feel deprived, you’re that much more likely to splash out by having an appetizer AND a rich dessert AND a glass of wine.
But a proper view of human sexuality is not supposed to feel like eating celery sticks at the Food and Wine Classic. Sexuality is woven into the created order. It’s got a whole book of the Bible dedicated to it. It’s supposed to be honored and protected. It’s meant to be celebrated by the community of faith. It’s part of our identity as image-bearers of God.
Do you see why it’s completely insufficient to say merely that true love (whatever that means) “waits”?
Waits for what? Waits how? Waits why?
I think we need to completely remove the idea of “abstinence” from our discourse — particularly the discourse we aim at young people — and put in its place the idea of chastity. Chastity is both broader and narrower in its focus than “abstinence.” To abstain is to do without something — in this case, sexual intimacy. To be chaste is to view sexuality and sexual intimacy as something godly, valuable, and noble, to be experienced freely and joyfully in the right context, and to be directed toward that context. It’s not a “don’t.” While abstinence is necessarily temporary, chastity is to be practiced throughout the Christian life.
(As a side note, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard Christians say, “I was sexually pure until I got married.” Hold up! If you’ve only ever been intimate with your spouse, you are STILL sexually pure. I believe this rather amusing and revealing malapropism stems from the idea that sexual purity is for the virgin but not the wife — still perpetuating the old stereotype that sexual intimacy is a malum in se rather than an evil only when misused.)
I signed a True Love Waits pledge as a young teen, and I even wore a promise ring for a while until I misplaced the darn thing (sorry, Dad!). But I did so alongside dozens of friends who went on to forget those foundationless and hastily-written promises, which sounded so meaningful at age fourteen but somehow wore thin over time.
The truth is, we have failed to give young people a compelling reason to direct their sexuality toward marriage. At the same time, we’ve encouraged them to put off marriage, making even compelling reasons ring hollow! We’ve hinted that sex is dirty and sinful. We’ve told them No, No, No, No, and that’s the end of it. We’ve told them they have to conquer the beast of temptation alone. We’ve spoken in hushed and shocked tones of fallen women and p orn addicts and all manner of other sexual sinners, driving the struggling and fainting heart into isolation.
Worst of all, we’ve failed to put before them the blinding glory of Christ and the plan of the Almighty God of the universe for human relationships. We’ve failed to tell them of the provision of Christ for our every need, and for the precious gift of the Holy Spirit who comforts us in our distress and guides us into all truth.
Given all these failures, is abstinence unrealistic for most young people? Of course.
But chastity, grace, and the glory of God? That’s a message well worth our time to tell.