Last week, I began this multi-part series questioning the messages of the “purity culture.” For at least two generations, its representatives have claimed to speak with the authority of Jesus and his Church. But in many cases, they have been fueled more by fear than by love, fighting a protective war against the menacing culture, and shaming those who disagree.
We saw last time how damaging it is to consider purity as a prize to be lost.
Unfortunately, there are other lies and distortions that also need to be named and corrected.
Lie #2: Marriage will rescue me from my struggles.
Many evangelical congregations or stricter Catholic priests and families have upheld “purity” as a falsely exalted virginity. Those who enter marriage with their purity intact are upheld as mighty champions. They made it! On the surface, it seems like a great message. After all, fornication is a sin, because marriage is the God-given context for sexual intercourse. But is it really true that bringing virginity into marriage automatically makes you a champion? And does that make everyone else a loser?
In the very same Christian homes or extended families, children are often abused or neglected (physically, emotionally, sexually, or spiritually). They repeatedly see mom and dad not honoring and delighting in each other. They see aggression and contempt – whether the more active kind (interrupting, shouting, swearing, name calling, pushing, throwing objects, or hitting) or the passive kind (sulking, silent treatments, disengaging, avoiding, undermining, or gossiping). Such children only feel loved when they fit the prefabricated mold their parents impose. When mom or dad treat each other or the children with contempt, the same parents pretend afterward as though nothing happened. They may even talk about how amazing or wonderful family is, stirring up a spirit of dread about “those people” in the world who are threatening family life.
Meanwhile, these same children and adolescents receive little to no real guidance about healthy sexuality. They discover pornography at a tender age and know instinctively that mom and dad would shame them if they knew about it. They commit one “impure” act and secretly fear that they must be one of the losers, not one of the champions. Even worse, they feel intense shame that they are somehow experiencing arousal and pleasure amidst their “impurity.” It feels as though their body is betraying them, as though their body is not gloriously working exactly the way God designed it to. Neither family nor church are truly there to help them make sense of what their body is experiencing, lifting the shame and coaching them toward true maturity.
Unwanted behaviors deepen and intensify, fueled by shame and secrecy. In desperate attempts to salvage their “purity” before marriage, humans begin to draw strange lines in the sand. Over the years, I have spoken to teens and young adults who have done just about every sexual act except for vaginal intercourse – because they didn’t want to lose their virginity before marriage. “At least I’m still a virgin.” “At least I never did ________ like those people” (can you hear the contempt and shame here?).
Within this purity culture of our families and churches, how many millions of Christian young adults have sincerely believed that once they were married all these unwanted behaviors would melt away. SPOILER ALERT: they don’t.
Each of us brings our whole personal history into our present-day relationships. We bring our heartache and heartbreak, our unresolved trauma, our toxic shame, and our self-protection. In a fallen race that still bears the divine image, family is typically both beautiful and broken. Amidst the brokenness, we have all learned ways of surviving. We know how to get through hard stuff without exposing ourselves to even more wounds.
There is a brilliance here – using our God-given creativity to survive and even find some scraps of delight. How sad, though, when most or all of our human creativity is diverted into sheer survival. We are created for abundance, to be fruitful and multiply. We are created to receive and give love, with intense delight and joy.
Over time, our survival skills block our capacity to be vulnerable and to receive in healthy relationships – especially within marriage (or within priesthood, or within any other vocation).
I think C.S. Lewis put it best:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.
Without vulnerability, without a capacity to receive the love of another as free gift, how can sex be healthy? When authentic emotional expression is stifled, or when sexual arousal is instantly associated with shame, how can marriage or family life flourish?
By overemphasizing “purity” before marriage, the purity culture has lost sight of the pinnacle of human love and sexuality: praising God with delight, in our very bodies. That worship is only possible when we receive and give love, freely and wholeheartedly. Healthy and holy marriages are precious indeed! They slowly and steadily emerge as two distinct children of God learn how to keep growing in maturity. Then they can (more and more) share from the fullness of their own heart, rather than use or manipulate, assault or punish, isolate or hide, guard or protect.
Maturing means both husband and wife must keep engaging their own personal story – understanding where they have come from. It means resisting the temptation to glamorize (“I had an amazing childhood!”) or minimize (“Others had it much worse…”). It takes enormous courage to tell the full truth about just how hard it was, just how alone I felt, or just how desperately I still ache to be loved as I am. If parents refuse to see that painful truth in their own story, they will transmit their pain to their children. To the extent that parents still feel contempt for their own bodies and their own sexuality, they beckon their children to carry the same contempt into the next generation.
There are parallel truths for priesthood and celibacy. It is impossible to make a fruitful gift of one’s sexuality without an ongoing willingness to become a whole person capable of receiving love. I will soon be talking with several other priests about our need for affective and relational maturity if we want to live well the gift of celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom. Jesus promises a superabundant fruitfulness with this gift (Matthew 19:12; Mark 10:30).
As a Church, we have so much work to do in naming our own dysfunction – both in our priests and in our marriages. Certainly, there are problems “out there” in the culture. But the transformation always begins within our own minds, our own bodies, and our own souls.