You may or may not be familiar with Elizabeth Smart’s story. She was abducted at 14-years old from her bedroom in the middle of the night. For the next 9 months, she was repeatedly raped and abused.
I remember rejoicing at the news she had been found and reunited with her family, but for many who experience abuse, rescue doesn’t necessarily signify the end of the nightmare. The road of healing and recovery can be long and hard.
Elizabeth has opened up about her traumatic experience, and she has taken issue with the way sexual purity is handled in many morally conservative circles. After she was rescued, she struggled with feelings of worthlessness and shame, part of which she blames on how she was taught by her church to view sex and purity.
She gave an interview in which she describes a purity talk she sat under as a young girl in Sunday School. During this talk, analogies were used to discourage teens from sexual sin. This is one example she shares:
“You’re like this stick of gum, and if you have sex before you’re married, it’s like someone chews up that piece of gum, and then when you’re done, who wants a piece of gum that’s already chewed up? No one.”
When I read this example, it reminded me of listening to similar talks on purity when I was young. I don’t care for these types of analogies. They don’t offer a big enough picture of sex and the goodness of God and they tend to place a much greater burden on women than on men. Much worse, there is an anti-Gospel aspect to these analogies. I believe this is why we are hearing from many women (such as Elizabeth Smart) and men that the way they were taught to view sex and purity by their churches harmed them.
Sexual purity begins in God’s goodness.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth…” Genesis 1:27-28a
The beginning of humanity is found in the goodness of God. Man and woman were created in God’s image without sin. They were created good and they were given the directive to be fruitful and multiply (or to become one flesh in sexual union). The sexual union of a man and woman in marriage is a part of God’s goodness and honors God.
We know the story of humanity doesn’t end there, though. Adam and Eve sinned against God. They disobeyed the one command God gave them and through that disobedience sin and death entered the world and all of creation plunged into fallenness.
God’s Word tells us that when Adam fell, being our first father, we fell with him (Romans 5:12). This means we are born sinners. Our sinful acts flow naturally from our sin nature.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. Psalm 51:5
We are all born chewed up pieces of gum (alluding back to the analogy). None of us are born perfect sticks of gum in shiny paper. None of us have a righteousness of our own (Romans 3:11-12).
This is important because when we talk about sex with young people, we don’t want to create the illusion that if they guard their hearts enough, control their desires enough, and abstain from any sexual contact they can please God on their own. This sets them up for self-righteousness, fear of man, and an entitled attitude toward God. Even worse, it can eventually lead to disillusionment. Trying to appease the Law in their own strength will crush them.
When the reason we give for fleeing sexual sin is the fear of becoming chewed up gum, it creates the misconception we came into this world with some righteousness of our own, and it takes our eyes off of the beauty and supremacy of Jesus and His finished work on our behalf.
Instead, we need to start with the fact that each of us is born chewed up gum and chewed up gum has chewed up desires and does chewed up things. This fallenness affects every part of us, including sex, but Jesus is greater!
There is hope for chewed up gum! There is hope for human beings born sinners with sinful desires, sinful thoughts, doing sinful deeds.
Jesus, being fully God, took on human flesh (John 1:14). He lived the perfect, holy life you and I fail to live, even when we try very hard (Hebrews 4:15). For those who place their faith in Him, their sins are forgiven and they are clothed in Christ’s righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21). They are immediately declared justified, or righteous before God (Romans 5:1).
The moment of justification is also the beginning of sanctification. God is working in His people conforming them to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29). He has made them alive and is making them new (2 Corinthians 5:17). God’s work of sanctification is a process and is as unique and individualized as the people in whom God is doing the work.
Chewed up pieces of gum cannot boast in their own purity, which always falls short. They can boast only in their Savior and His finished work on their behalf (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Even if a man and woman have pursued sexual purity before marriage, there will still be times they struggle with that old, chewed up, fallen nature after they say, “I do.” Sexual purity before marriage doesn’t insulate couples from sin struggles or trials after marriage.
But, those who have learned to trust in the goodness of God and the finished work of Jesus before marriage will have the functional faith to continue therein once married.
Those who have learned to trust in their own goodness and strength will find neither can bear up under the weight of two sinners living under the same roof.
A pursuit of purity doesn’t begin in our own strength or goodness but in Christ’s.
Sexual purity continues in Jesus’ worthiness.
I’ve heard girls say the main reason they seek to remain sexually pure is that it’s the best gift they could give their husbands. I’m not arguing against the benefits of beginning one’s marriage in purity, but I am concerned about making marriage the end goal.
Sexual purity should be part of a greater pursuit of holiness (1 Peter 1:13-16). It should flow from a heart surrendered to Christ. This means sexual purity should be as much a part of the Christian man’s life as it is the Christians woman’s.
Often, this isn’t the expectation because sexual purity has been made a gift a woman gives her husband on their wedding night instead of humble obedience to Christ by Christ-followers.
If marriage is the end goal of sexual purity, then what about those who never marry? Have they preserved this “gift” for naught?
What of those who remain sexually pure before marriage only to have a difficult marriage? I’ve heard both men and women express this disappointment: “I really regret saving myself for that jerk. He/she wasn’t worth it.”
But is Christ worth it?
A pursuit of sexual purity must be anchored in the worthiness of Jesus, not the worthiness of some spouse who may or may not be in our future, or even in the idea of our own worth. Even in sex, a Christian is to love God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love others as himself (Mark 12:30-31).
When we fix our eyes on our true Groom, Jesus, when we gaze on His goodness, His beauty, His love, His faithfulness, and His sacrifice, we will never find a reason to falter, to be discouraged, or to feel jaded. He is worthy!
Sexual purity ends in Jesus’ finished work.
While Jesus was teaching early one morning at the temple, the Scribes and Pharisees brought a woman to Him who had been caught in adultery. They stated that, according to the Law of Moses, she should be stoned.
Jesus replied, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” In that one statement, Jesus reminded a group of self-righteous men they were as chewed up as the woman they brought before Him. There were no stones thrown that day.
Then, Jesus turned to the woman,
“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” John 8:10-11
This is powerful! Jesus was God incarnate; He was perfectly good and without sin. If anyone had the right to condemn her, it was Him. Yet, He didn’t. He had not come to condemn, but to take sinful man’s condemnation on Himself. He had come “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
If sexual purity is about ourselves, we will have a spirit of self-righteousness. If sexual purity is about following Christ, we will have the mind of Christ (and His heart) towards those who struggle or fall into sexual sin. We should speak the truth in regards to sex, but we should do so with Gospel-centered love.
Of course, we must address the consequences of sin. Consequences are a real part of the choices we make, but we need to be careful we don’t make the fear of consequences the main motivation in pursuing purity. Those we’re teaching will be tempted to focus more on doing away with the consequences instead of mortifying the sin. This is what ultimately gave us abortion on demand. There is more to sex than avoiding the consequences of sin; there is the pursuing of the goodness of God’s design.
Teens, young adults, and adults alike need to understand that their efforts for purity, sexual or otherwise, will fall short. This shouldn’t lead to some sort of antinomianism concerning sexual sin or any sin (Jesus told the woman caught in adultery, “Go, and from now on sin no more.”), neither should it lead to despair. On the contrary, it should drive us deeper into the Gospel.
We fight for purity from Christ and for Christ. We fight from His finished work on our behalf and for His glory.
When we sin, even when the sin brings hard, life-changing consequences, there is no part of our story that exists outside of God’s redemption. Even the most painful, consequential parts are swallowed up in Jesus’ death and resurrection. When we repent, place our faith in Him, and surrender all to our Father’s hand, God will work all things for our good and His glory (Romans 8:28).
The pursuit of sexual purity shouldn’t be a pursuit in and of itself as if sex is everything, neither should it be abandoned as if sex is nothing. It should be part of the greater pursuit of Jesus having the first place in our lives and it should be bathed in the hope of the Gospel.
Let’s give those young people entrusted to our care a view of sex that sees Jesus high and lifted up and let’s make our churches a place where the Gospel is readily available for those struggling.