Purity Culture – Lie #4

This is the fourth installment in a series on the “purity culture” that has attempted to protect Christian families and churches. Although claiming a well-intended goal of sheltering children from toxic influences in the broader culture, the purity culture has actually set us up for more generations of relational harm. Last time, we saw how essential it is for parents and churches to provide apprenticeship in chastity – which is only possible if we have the courage to face the shame we ourselves feel around our bodies and our sexuality. That which is not transformed gets transmitted.

When we are willing to face our own sexual woundedness, the boldest of human tasks emerges: to allow desire to be awakened within our hearts. There can be no chastity and no holiness without awakened desire. Desire is the rocket fuel that propels every saint.

Lie #4: Purity means fleeing from my desires

When it comes to unwanted sexual behaviors, the go-to answer for many a Christian has been the Monty Python solution: “Run away! Run away! Run away!”

Certainly, in the moment of temptation, it makes sense to turn promptly away, to get one’s mind and body engaged in something else, to connect with a safe person, and to reassess. But as most of you know, when an individual or a dating couple reach that moment and feel that level of arousal, they find it rather hard to change their mind. Their bodily passions betray them – or do they?

We easily forget that it is God who created our bodies, our sexual arousal, and our capacity for orgasm. These are among God’s greatest gifts to us, ordered to his glory. When Scripture describes us as being created in the very image and likeness of God, it does so at the moment of describing how God created us as sexual beings, male and female (Genesis 1:27). Our capacity for sexual ecstasy – to “stand outside ourselves” in the intensity of a love relationship – is one of the most amazing ways we are capable of imitating the communion of love that is the Trinity.

Our desires do not come from the devil. The devil cannot create! He can only present us with the good and beautiful things God has created and invite us to seek them in a disordered way that ruins us. He is the enemy of human nature. He envies us; he hates us; he seeks to ruin all that is best in us. The devil’s ultimate strategy is not to lure us into sexuality; his strategy is to ruin sexuality!

I love nerdy board games. I know it’s going to be a great game when it has hundreds of wooden pieces and multiple instruction books – both in English and in German. A common mistake of rookie players is to get too caught up in the tactics of the early rounds and lose sight of the end game. Most of the plays you make early on are setting you up for the later rounds of the game when you really hope to flex your muscles.

We can give the devil his due – he is brilliant and cunning strategist. He sneaks in early and often in our life to whisper his lies and bind us up in toxic shame. As our bodies mature (in exactly the way God designed), the devil works his early and mid-game strategy to ensure that we will feel ashamed of our bodies, our sexuality, and our capacity for intense joy and delight. When he’s the most masterful, we don’t even realize he’s been there. We develop our own inner shaming voice – which we even think to be divine. Then we start doing the devil’s work for him – cursing our own bodies, our arousal, and our capacity for honor and delight. As shame increases over the years, unwanted sexual behaviors are anything but secret delights. They leave us feeling more and more hollow and ashamed. They become a renewal of unholy vows – consummating again and again the lie that we are worthless, dirty, or unlovable. The devil’s genius is that he can take something so amazing as sex and sexual arousal and use those “very good” gifts to convince us that we are detestable.

And here we find the real context for Christian asceticism or penance. Yes, Jesus presumes that his followers will engage in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (Matthew 6). He connects fasting to the presence or absence of the bridegroom. The real reason for asceticism is to enlarge our desires and allow ourselves to enter excitedly into the wedding feast, the nuptial union between Christ and his bride, the Church (Matthew 9:15).

Too often, “self-denial” becomes a misguided and harmful attempt to cut off desire. Then our asceticism becomes shame-driven, as we punish ourselves in a sense of unworthiness. We begin depriving ourselves of things that are authentic human needs: rest, play, joy, delight, or deeply meaningful work. By contrast, I think of Francis of Assisi. His heart overflowed with those blessings, without clinging to any of them. His radical poverty and his freely embraced celibacy, far from cutting off desire, opened him to be a man full of delight, in a fruitful way of life that has allured millions over the centuries.

Authentic asceticism is about a deeper claiming of our God-given desire. It leads to more delight, not less! We deny ourselves certain things so that we can get incredibly excited (aroused!) about greater things. Yes, Jesus speaks of “cutting off” or “ripping out” (Matthew 5:29-30). But he also warns us that it does no good to drive one demon out of the house and have seven new ones take its place (Matthew 12:43-45). Self-denial is always for the sake of bigger desire.

We are created for desire, for arousal, and for union – to experience intense delight as we receive and give love. Sexual union between husband and wife is meant to be a ritual act of worship that points as a sign to heaven itself – which is going to be a wedding feast! Godly celibacy is also fueled by eros. It is described by Jesus as a gift “for the sake of the Kingdom” precisely because it, too, is a passionate giving and receiving of love that reminds us of the heavenly wedding feast. That heavenly union is so “real” that all earthly marriages will fade away in its sight (cMatthew 22:29-30).

Yes, discipline and discipleship go together – but not for the sake of punishing or eliminating our God-given desire. The problem is not that we desire too much, but that we desire too little. Actually, desire is always there, sometimes buried deeply or tangled up among so many diversions or distractions – but every ready to be stoked into flame. Our fallen tendency is to resist going into the depths of our desire, which is where we find the virtue of Hope – the virtue of Good Friday and Holy Saturday, awaiting the Resurrection. To desire and not yet possess, to seek the beloved and not yet find him – this can be agony indeed. It is far easier to plunge into austere penances or indulgent pleasures than to abide in a holy longing. Holy longings can really hurt sometimes.

God knows how hard it is to grow in Hope. He does not unduly push or pressure us. Catholic mystics over the centuries have been enamored with the Song of Songs, that book of the Bible consisting of erotic love poetry, in which the beloved desperately seeks her lover in the dark, agonizing until she finds him. The author acknowledges the intensity of this pursuit: “I adjure you, Daughters of Jerusalem, do not awaken or arouse love until it is ready!” (Song of Songs 8:4).

Is your love of Christ ready to be awakened and aroused this Lent?

Purity Culture – Lie #3

Few would deny that we live in an age of unhealthy and dysfunctional sexuality. The “purity culture” we’ve been discussing is an understandable reaction to a real threat. But those engaging in the fight often act as though sexuality is itself the threat. That is quite a contrast from John Paul II’s description of the fruitful one-flesh union of husband and wife as an icon that makes visible the eternal love of the Trinity!

Lie #3: We have to protect our children against sexuality.

Christian families and churches vary in their messaging around sex. Some are prudish and puritanical; others openly proclaim sex as a good and beautiful gift of God. But few have healthy and helpful conversations.

It’s not merely the message that matters; it’s the modeling of the message. A family may have snappy Christmas postcards and impeccable social media posts. They may seem to have it all together. But those who have eyes to see can tell when a married couple is healthy and joyful in their relationship (including their sexuality). You can tell when they are merely pretending, when there is strain, and when there is shame and contempt. Children have fully operational right brains, and as such, they are incredibly intuitive and insightful. If their parents feel shame around their bodies, their desires, their fantasies, or their behaviors, the children will be impacted significantly. Parents who are unhealthy in their own sexuality will invariably transmit their dysfunction to the next generation – especially when they don’t admit it or talk about it.

When the Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses healthy sexuality (n. 2339), it offers the image of apprenticeship in virtue, particularly in the virtue of chastity. Rather than warning against a loss of purity or advocating a posture of protection, the Catechism speaks of gradually growing into the virtue of “chastity” – a virtue that leads to human flourishing in our expression of love and sexuality. Chastity here is not synonymous with celibacy; it applies to everyone. Chastity is a free, joyful, wholehearted, and creative giving and receiving of love – in the way that best suits the place we find ourselves (married, single, celibate, dating, engaged, elderly, prepubescent, adolescent, same-sex attracted, sick, disabled, divorced, widowed, etc.).

Our sexuality is a stunningly beautiful gift from God, one that affects all dimensions of our existence. In his intentional design, he has created us as sexual beings, male and female. He declares us “very good” in his own image and likeness. He invests us with a spark of creativity that none of the other creatures receive. Thus empowered, we are intended to be the stewards of the entire cosmos.

Christian scholars as diverse as C.S. Lewis and Pope Benedict XVI describe this divine spark of creativity as eros – the Greek word for “love” as an intense or erotic desire. Far from seeing eros as a threat, they see it as God’s greatest natural gift to the human race. The creativity of eros shows up in sex, for sure, in the amazing gift of procreation. How many mothers and fathers have held their newborn infant, marveling that this growing child came forth from their very bodies, from their one-flesh union? But eros, when directed in virtue, also fuels every other shining achievement: poetry, music, art, architecture, scientific research, discoveries, and inventions. Celibate individuals tend to be even more passionate and even more fruitful. Consider the public ministry of Jesus, the missionary zeal of Paul, the brilliant philosophy and theology of Thomas Aquinas, or the intense and alluring joy of Francis of Assisi.

Our sexuality is a precious and powerful gift. As such, it requires ongoing maturing through slow and steady growth. This process only happens well through apprenticeship. Think of a lumberjack or a blacksmith teaching his trade to children, or of Mister Miyagi teaching karate to Daniel LaRusso. They train their youth to wield something powerful – harmful if misused. It’s all the more reason to teach patiently, step by step, how those tools and methods work. Growth and mastery happen through thousands of small moments – including setbacks, conflicts, mistakes, and failures. Nor is the maturing involved simply a matter of skill or technique; it is a style of relating and a way of life.

Many of us my age and older received zero instruction from our parents around our sexuality. At best, there was “the talk” – as though one awkward conversation would yield a lifetime of virtue and holiness in one’s sexuality. When it comes to the single most beautiful gift God has given us, we offer the least guidance. Effective apprenticeship means that children trust both the teaching and the example of their parents. It means they readily go to them when they are struggling.

Perhaps the most helpful thought experiment is what happens if a child stumbles across pornography. These days, sadly, it is not a matter of “if” but only of “when.” It will almost certainly happen before the child reaches 18, and quite possibly before he or she reaches 10.

The normal instinct of the young (both mammals and humans) is to run to their parents when they unexpectedly stumble on something big or unknown or powerful. You don’t have to teach them – it happens automatically!

Why is it, then, that so few children go to mom or dad when they stumble upon pornography, or have an unexpected sexual encounter? Something has happened in their experience that warns them that it will not be safe. The more shame that mom or dad feel around their bodies and their sexuality, the less likely the children will be to go to them. It is one thing to call the body a temple of the Holy Spirit; it is another thing to treat it like one!

Early and often, children need help in understanding their bodies and what they are experiencing in their bodies. The more attuned parents are to what is really happening in the hearts and bodies of their children, the more helpful those conversations will be.

In those rare cases that children run to their parents and receive good care, they will not suffer lasting trauma. Good care includes helping them understand how normal and healthy it is to feel aroused and to feel curious, and to offer guidance on why God created us to feel that way. Then any shame involved in the experience melts away.

As well-meaning as it is to “shelter” children, we need to train them instead. Ask yourself this simple question: would you rather that your children get information and answers from you or from google?  There are real threats in the culture (internet pornography, sexual predators, and human trafficking). Truly protecting children means having healthy and helpful conversations early and often, equipping them and training them. It means apprenticeship!

Our children are as God created them to be: sexual beings with developing bodies, natural curiosity, and capacity for arousal.  That means talking with them, gradually over the years, about their bodies, their body parts, and pornography – using the correct words for all of them and an explanation that makes sense to the children at their developmental stage.

I find that parents who have had the courage to engage their own story and heal from their own shame become the most comfortable and confident at mentoring their children in chastity. Obviously the parents themselves are called by Christ to continue maturing. In many cases, there is a need of remedial mentoring. There are stories of harm or neglect from their own past that have not yet received the healing of Jesus. As parents heal from their shame and recover the glory of their own sexuality, their growth in chastity will attract and guide their children. We cannot expect our children to grow in ways that we have not grown ourselves!