At age 15, I had a very specific idea of what my church leaders thought it meant to be pure, yet only a vague understanding of what the Christian life required beyond virginity. Part of this was probably due to my interests at the time, but part of it was a particular focus in my community. This tunnel vision carried with it an unhelpful consequence: Many of my friends and I evaluated commitment to Christ mainly in terms of sexual behavior. As a practical matter, the presence of Christ mainly meant the absence of bad sexual behavior rather than love or the fruit of the Spirit.
This is not to say that one form of obedience should be ignored for another. Sexual immorality is something we must take seriously, the Bible says, and regardless of what our culture says, we should uphold that. And yet a love of God in Christ (and obedience as the manifestation of love) has to be the first foundation of our communities. What good will sexual morality do if we have not love (see 1 Corinthians 13:1–3)?
Now, sexual boundaries are indeed one of the main issues in a teenager’s life, and nothing should stop us from trying to keep kids out of trouble. But even these good goals should not obscure the primacy of love and obedience in our communities. And things certainly seem obscured when a teenager’s main understanding of fidelity to Christ is sexuality. In other words, if we don’t order our topics carefully, the all-encompassing call of Christ can be replaced with a compartment of good behavior.
I doubt many of us would disagree with any of this in the abstract, but nevertheless, it seems to get lost in the average teen experience—or at least I missed it in mine.
In my youth groups, we loaded marriage up with huge expectations. Marriage was often presented as the sole remedy for lust, and therefore, great hopes of sexual satisfaction were attached to it. As I understood it in my teenage years, it was marriage, not a life given to God, that was the remedy for sexual desires I couldn’t fulfill. I merely had to control desire until marriage, then I was home free.
Of course, the Bible does prescribe marriage this way (recall “it is better to marry than to burn with passion” in 1 Corinthians 7:9), but it’s not the only biblical solution.
Another one is self-denial, which is a significant part of discipleship. Living without something we want can be a valuable practice, and begin to transform our desires. The Bible also recommends self-control, a fruit of the Spirit, as something that will naturally flow out of a transformed follower of Christ. Certainly, both self-control and self-denial are biblical visions of how we might avoid sexual sin. And yet in my experience, I heard only about marriage when it came to sex.
But this kind of thinking can create problems for couples down the road.
The first is that marriage doesn’t solve all our lust problems. “True love waits” naturally implies a finish line, either for love, sex, or both. The phrase hints that our wait will, at some point, stop. And yet, as many of us know, the waiting does not stop, and love, to the contrary, is something to be nurtured and grown into rather than acquired in a moment.
Second, if marriage was presented as the main fix for lust, perhaps it was because we often had only a shallow vision of self-denial. Discipleship is not just hanging on until marriage; it is, as we’ve said, a gradual and complete reordering of all our desires, sexual and otherwise, so that we can live more wholly for Christ.
Learning to say no to our desires is a major part of orienting our lives toward God, and it can often be a life-giving discipline. It might not always be practical for hormonal teens, but it’s possible that things could look different if teens seek purity out of a desire to give their lives to Christ, rather than just to “save themselves” for a spouse. The two goals may overlap in quite a few circumstances, but in others, they are undoubtedly different.
Indeed, if we said, “Deny yourself” instead of “True love waits,” and if we practice setting aside desires rather than just hanging on until we can satisfy them, we might be less surprised and better prepared for the actual challenges of marriage. We might be ready for the wide range of sacrifices marriage requires. A better-rehearsed practice of self-denial and self-control would almost certainly train us to bring more grace and selflessness into all that we do, including marriage.
Furthermore, if self-denial were to be emphasized in our adolescent sex seminars, rather than only marriage-as-carrot, singles might also find themselves better prepared for navigating the challenge of purity as a single adult. There would, most likely, be fewer discouraged singles who give in. And there would be fewer singles who succumb to temptation because they think, “What’s the harm? No point in holding out if there isn’t true love waiting for me.” If we frame purity in terms of discipleship and not marriage, singleness would lose some of its dread and instead be valued as a fruitful position for learning Christlikeness. Rather than feeling frustrated in a holding pattern, anyone who is single might more readily see the value and particular grace of his or her situation.
In attempts to rein in teenage sexuality, my communities more or less tended to stretch the truth about married sex. One of the worst of these well-intentioned almost-truths is what I’ll call “reward sex.”
The story went like this: If you behaved well and didn’t have sex before marriage, God would reward you with extra-awesome-and-uncomplicated sex once you made it to the wedding night. In other words, expectations for sex in marriage are spruced up to try to nudge teenage hopes in the right direction.
Without doubt, this was done with the best intentions. But as a theological matter and a matter of reasonable reality, it seems a little unhelpful. The fact is, even if true love waits, it is often disappointed.
I may not earn admiration from anyone, parents in particular, for pointing this out. Some people might even say I’m encouraging the wrong type of behavior. I’m not. The point here is that if a stretched truth is the only thing securing our obedience, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the type of obedience we’ve secured.
By ensuring good behavior from unmarried people with promises of “reward sex,” we have, I think, missed an important piece of what the Christian life is about. We don’t obey because obedience is currency that brings us our desire tenfold down the road. We obey because Jesus told us to.
It’s true that following Christ has its rewards in heaven, and on earth there are great blessings that flow from loving God first. However, those blessings are usually not our wishes granted exponentially, but rather God’s leading us toward what He knows is best. The blessing of obedience is not automatically awesome marital sex but a life lived with God. Purity is undoubtedly a worthy aim, but maybe we don’t need to strain the reality of marriage so much to achieve it.
Excerpted from Altared by Claire and Eli © 2012 Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
Eli earned a law degree from The University of Chicago Law School and now practices law at an international firm. Prior to law school, Eli worked in the music industry on teams working with a variety of recording artists, including Jeremy Camp, Underoath, and Starflyer 59. Claire is an editor and writer. She has worked at Christianity Today, The New York Times, Penguin Classics and Penguin Books. She is a contributor to First Things, Books & Culture and The Gospel Coalition. Find them online at claireandeli.com or twitter.com/#!/Claire_and_Eli.