“Purity Culture” – Lie #2

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.

“Purity Culture” – Lie #1

Ours is not an age of flourishing relationships, joyful marriages, or healthy sexuality. For decades, Christians have been concerned about the toxic environment of the surrounding culture. So we have fought culture wars, trying to get the world to be more like us.

But what about us? What about our own marriages, our own families, and our own churches? Are we really as “pure” as all that?

Many Christian families and churches have created a “purity culture” in the hope of sheltering our children and keeping them pure. It seems like a valiant fight. But has it really been helpful?

All the latest research shows that church-going Christians struggle every bit as much with abuse, neglect, pornography, addictions, codependency, marital infidelity, and domestic violence – just to name a few. Isn’t it strange to “fight” to make the world just like us when our own house lies in ruins?

Jesus has a word for that: “You hypocrites!” In the Sermon on the Mount, he reminds us to remove the wooden beam from our own eye before we attempt removing the splinter from our brother’s eye (Matthew 7:5).

On my sabbatical this past fall, I engaged in multiple trainings, all of which focused on providing care in the area of trauma, unwanted behaviors, and addictions. Each training operated with this bedrock principle: take the beam out of your own eye first! You cannot be of support to your brothers or sisters (or sons or daughters) if you have not first truthfully faced your own story and your own behaviors.

Two generations of hard fighting from the “purity culture” have yielded struggling parents and struggling grandparents. Far from sheltering and preserving our children, the rigidity has actually plunged many Christians (or former Christians) into toxic shame, dysfunctional relationships, and unwanted behaviors.

That is because the purity culture is more rooted in fear than in love. In the fog of fear, our heart is easily hijacked by lies, or by distortions of sound doctrine. In the weeks ahead, I hope to unmask some of those lies and consider what Scripture and Christian Tradition actually teach about human love and sexuality.

Lie #1: Purity as a Prize to be Lost. Far too often, our Christian churches and families have upheld a standard of “purity” as a prize to be lost. In this view, purity is black or white, on or off. Don’t be impure like those people. Be pure like these people. It’s a damaging and deceptive dichotomy, rooted in self-righteousness, presumption, and pride.

In Catholic life, the false dichotomy of “pure” versus “impure” shows up in a distorted understanding of what Church teaching means by “mortal sin” versus “state of grace.”  Many Catholics struggling with unwanted sexual behaviors feel tormented by fear and shame. They view themselves as spending most of their waking and sleeping hours in a state of sin (cut off / lost / cast out / impure). Then they go to Confession and feel great, thinking themselves “pure” again, holy again, worthy again. Notice the presumption and self-righteousness, and the lack of confidence in God’s unchanging covenantal love.

Yes, Catholic teaching and the Bible (1 John 5:17) talk about mortal sin. But the Catechism of the Catholic Church clarifies that a sin is only mortal if there is full knowledge and deliberate consent (n. 1857). Deliberate consent is not so clear when you consider the impact of trauma, addictions, or compulsive behaviors. If someone is experiencing “unwanted” sexual behaviors, repeatedly, there is likely more going on! Rather than a black or white judgment of “pure” versus “impure,” the Catechism urges us to consider the embodied human beings in front of us: “To form an equitable judgment about the subjects’ moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability” (n. 2352).  In other words, labeling another person (or yourself) as “impure” or “in mortal sin” is a rash judgment, and often missing the mark about what is really going on.

More importantly, the teachings of Jesus focus on organic growth into maturity in him. We abide in him as branches on the vine. We grow and bear fruit in him. We are members of his body, truly holy because he is holy in us. It is much more accurate to look at sin as a disease that needs tender and loving care, rather than an ON/OFF switch. Jesus presents himself as the divine physician, here to heal all of us. He repeatedly, sometimes angrily challenges the scribes and Pharisees for seeing themselves as “pure” and others as “impure.” Pride and self-sufficiency are far more damaging than lust! We are all sick sinners in need of the divine physician – each and every day of our lives. We are all beautiful and beloved children of God, each and every day of our lives.

Even if I have just gone to Confession and received absolution, I still have a lifelong journey of conversion ahead of me. God will keep purifying me, like gold in the furnace (which is none other than the fire of his love). Meanwhile, sinner though I am, God will relentlessly pursue me in love, even if I keep going back to the same sins. Purity is not something I gain or lose. Purity is the flowering that slowly emerges as I learn to receive and give love. It is the fruit of maturity in Christ.

Apart from Jesus we can do nothing. God alone is an eternal communion of pure love, and he deeply desires us to share in his eternal love. That sharing is an “already but not yet,” a gradual growth in discipleship, a lifelong journey. We are already members of Christ’s body. He has truly given us a share in his life and his love. We can grow in maturity throughout our life. One day, we will definitively be pure as God is pure – when we see him face to face and become totally like him (1 John 1:1-3).

Yes, purity is a battle to be fought. But the battleground is not primarily in senate chambers or school boards or courtrooms. The battleground is in the desert and on Mount Calvary. The Victor is Jesus Christ, the new Adam. And we already know who wins!

Lifelong growth in purity happens when we learn to have an unshakable confidence in the victory of Jesus. We bring that victory into our own daily battles – not just with sexual seductions, but with all areas of our life. We consecrate all of it to him, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. We welcome his shed blood and the new and eternal covenant that alone can save us. We let ourselves be loved and let him teach us how to love. Perfect love will cast out all fear!

To be Continued…

The Baptism of the Lord

On Sunday we celebrate Jesus’ baptism. In Catholicism, the liturgical season of “Christmas” does not even kick off until Christmas Eve, and then continues long after the world has moved on to marketing promotions for Super Bowl snacks, Valentine gifts, and TurboTax.

I remember Father Jack, throughout my adolescent and teen years, quizzing the congregation, and kindly scolding those who had kicked their Christmas trees to the curb too soon.

It may seem odd for the Christmas Season to include a remembrance of Jesus being baptized at age 30. It is a mystery well worth pondering, and one I have had ample opportunity to ponder.

This particular celebration has held a special place in my heart – in part because it coincides so closely with my own birthday. Whenever my anniversary of birth is a Sunday or a Monday, the Baptism of Jesus falls on the same day.

During my nine years of seminary, my birthday often fell in the midst of an annual retreat, prior to the beginning of spring semester. Many people celebrate their 21st birthday at a bar, but mine was in the middle of my first ever silent retreat. Good little Pharisee that I was, I kept perfect silence the entire time. The next two years, my friends Chad, David, and Peter couldn’t resist teasing me about my monastic virtue – not even breaking silence when they surprised me with a chorus of “Happy Birthday.”

On those retreats, God captivated my heart with this special moment in the human history of Jesus. The event of his Baptism is meant to be experienced by each of us as his disciples. All that is his becomes ours.

“You are my beloved Son. I am well pleased in you!” (Mark 1:11)

On those retreats, these words spoken to Jesus by his Father became words spoken by the Father to me. I desperately needed to hear them. I still need to hear them.

It is one thing to profess with my lips, “God loves me.” It is another to experience it. In terms of teaching, I seriously could not have missed this doctrinal truth that God loves me. During the “warm fuzzy” era of Catholic schools in the 1980s, it seemed to be the only content taught in our religion classes– and still it didn’t sink in! No doubt, it’s why Christmas and my birthday felt so special to me as a child. They were rare moments in which I felt like I really mattered.

To be human is to matter to God. He has sent his own beloved Son to reclaim us through the shedding of his own blood. By sheer gift, he not only reconciles us, but expresses his delight in us. The words spoken to Jesus are words meant for us.

During the baptism, the Holy Spirit also shows up with his anointing. That is what “Christ” or “Messiah” means – the anointed one. This is the moment in which the Father anoints Jesus in his humanity (cf. Acts 10:38).

To be “Christian” means to be anointed with Christ. Jesus is God’s eternal Son and has no need of repentance, no need of healing, no need of deliverance, and no need of power. John the Baptist intuitively understands, and protests Jesus’ request to be baptized. But they proceed, “so that all righteousness can be fulfilled” (Matthew 3:15). God desires his righteousness to become ours – truly our own. He desires us to grow and keep growing into the holiness of Christ, which is nothing other than a communion of love in the life of the Trinity.

In one sense, the baptism of Jesus is a past event, over and done with 2,000 years ago in that tiny and not-so-tidy river that still flows into the Dead Sea. In another sense, this event is ongoing. By God’s design, all human flesh is meant to be inserted into the flesh of Christ. All human flesh is invited to the regenerating waters of baptism. All human flesh is invited to be anointed by the Holy Spirit.

We need that renewal; we need that anointing. In the Scripture readings this Sunday, the prophet Isaiah proclaims the victory that the Messiah is destined to bring – calling prisoners out from the dungeon, opening the eyes of the blind, and helping the lame to walk – all possible because the Spirit of the Lord has anointed him (Isaiah 42:1-7).

Despite my dogged self-protection and self-reliance, God repeatedly pierced my defenses on those retreats, surprising me with the honor and delight of being claimed as his own beloved son. On those retreats, my heart burned with desire in reading the messianic prophecies of Isaiah. During those timeless moments of prayer, I was able to admit humbly how blind and lame and impoverished I was – not in self-shaming, but in a kind truthfulness. That humility made it possible to receive as free gift (like a birthday present!) the renewed cleansing of baptismal faith. I realized even then that God intended those words of Isaiah for me as well. As one sharing in the anointing of Jesus, I too am chosen and called to proclaim Good News in the darkest places of people’s hearts, to call out those held prisoner in the dungeon, to grasp them firmly by the hand, to invite them to be claimed as God’s beloved and to receive the same anointing. I knew then and know now that God has called me to be an instrument of his healing. It turns out that I wasn’t ready just then to leave behind my perfectionistic defenses. So God has gently reminded and re-reminded me  that I have ongoing need of healing and anointing myself if I am to be an instrument of healing for others. I can only give if I keep receiving.

The apostle Paul invites us to participate in the baptismal rebirth and renewal that is freely and gratuitously offered in Jesus, along with the rich outpouring of the Spirit (Titus 3:4-7). Let us come into the waters of baptism with Jesus. Let us cast off the deeds of darkness and commit ourselves to live soberly, justly, and devoutly in this present age as we joyfully await in hope his glorious coming. Let us place our trust fully in his victory, freely given to us. With him and in him, let us become God’s anointed!