In some parts of the church today, certain religious communities vow to radically live the evangelical counsels: poverty, chastity, and obedience. These vows directly counteract powerful impulses that express the brokenness of the human heart. And, though not so radically as some, all of us must follow each of these counsels. We may not be called to live in poverty, but we must live in simplicity. We may not be called to live in obedience to a superior under a kind of monastic rule, but we must live lives of submission to one another. And though we may not be called to chastity as expressed in celibacy, we are all called to live chastely, with Christ as our model.
When one thinks of chastity, especially in relation to a vow of chastity, one thinks of a decision to completely abstain from sex, or celibacy. But this is not what the discipline of chastity is about. Let me briefly differentiate between the two: Celibacy is normally understood as a vow to abstain from sex as it offers up the gift of marriage in exchange for the gift of celibacy. Whereas chastity can be understood as abstaining from illegitimate or disordered sex, it can also be viewed more simply as sexual purity. Therefore, I may be married and chaste, but not married and celibate. (Some view vowed celibacy as disordered. I would strongly discourage such a belief because it runs contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures, as explicitly stated by our Lord and in the epistles of Paul.)
Chastity ought to be practiced by everyone in any state of life. It is an essential discipline in each of our lives. While we are sexual creatures, we were not made for sex alone, if I can paraphrase our Lord. We are made for God. Chastity is keeping sex in its proper place. For the unmarried, that place is the marriage bed. For the married, that place is the marriage bed, with temperance — our bodies are not our own, but our spouse’s. And the conjugal act must be seen in light of the honor we have for our husband or wife. We are meant for God; marriage is not a free-sex enterprise the purpose of which is self-indulgence. Sex in marriage is an expression of love, but also of self-control. And the marriage relationship is a picture, an icon, of the church’s relationship with Christ. Therefore this act of total self-giving must be treated with honor at all times. Chastity in the context of marriage means, among other things, an intimacy ordered by God for our enjoyment. And if ordered by God, then our sexuality can express itself in a disordered fashion. I will talk about some of the different forms of disordered sexuality later in this series.
One might wonder: If chastity is commanded for all people, then how is it a discipline? First, all of the spiritual disciplines are required of us to some degree. And when I say required, I do not mean as a requirement for salvation. (It is not, “Thou shalt fast every Wednesday that thy soul might be saved.”) But the disciplines are nourishment for and fruit of our faith. Some disciplines echo our Lord, saying, “People do not live by bread alone.” And others echo our Lord, saying, “[People live] by every word that comes from the mouth of God” Matthew 4:4 NLT.
Second, we discipline ourselves to live chastely — chastity is not only a duty but also a process, a way of life.
Chastity is expressed in each of our lives, similarly and differently (depending on our situation in life). It must express itself in the lives of those who are single and those who are married. In the following articles in this series, we will further explore this pure offering of chastity — that we might be more like our blessed Lord and that we might honor him always.
Sex is badly abused in our society. And when I think about its abuse, it strikes me that chastity must be a great good for there to be such offenses against it. Chastity is more than keeping oneself pure until marriage (though it is that), as if the need to be chaste ends as one enters married life. Chastity trains each of us in self-control, and self-control allows us to be free — whatever our situation in life. We can govern our bodies and our passions, and have true freedom and peace, or we can allow our passions and impulses to govern us. Jesus loves us and wants us to be free.
How then do we live chastely in our world? Chastity is not easy. We are bombarded on every side with images and messages that contravene it. There are spiritual forces at work. The people behind the images and messages so prevalent in our society, while scandalous, are not intentionally malicious. They are under the impression that chastity is, at best, idealistic and, at worst, a bore.
And sometimes we fail to be chaste. But there is forgiveness and healing for our failures, whatever they might be.
All who follow Christ are called to chastity, regardless of our situation in life. So how can we resist temptation?
First, we must know ourselves. What situations are problematic for us? Do certain movies, music, or books bring temptation? If so, we must cast them off. Does staying up late on the computer or watching TV pull at us to view pornography? Then go to sleep early, man. We must take care of our bodies as well — when we are physically tired, we are often spiritually weaker.
Second, confession and accountability are powerful instruments for chastity. If you can, find someone who recognizes that he or she is a sinner as you are — who is nonjudgmental and wise, who keeps all things in confidence, and who prays for you daily.
“Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love. / Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins” Psalm 51:1 NLT. As humans we live in the tension of being both physical and spiritual beings. This tension is perhaps nowhere more strongly felt than in the context of sexuality. And chastity is the rule that governs this tension in the lives of believers.
Chastity is viewing sex, and acting sexually, in a manner that honors the purpose of sexuality within marriage. Chastity is purity.
Certainly, therefore, to understand what it is to be chaste, one must first understand sex. Or try to. What is sex? Why did God create it? Immediately we think about children and intimacy and pleasure. Are there other reasons? Paul speaks of it, in the context of marriage, as a symbol of something larger. God — creator, poet, artist — is rich in his creation; when he creates, he creates forcefully and purposefully. He is poetic. And marriage, and our sexuality, is a creation and a reflection of this meaning-rich Poet. Our sexuality is a picture of the loving intimacy, the complete sharing, within the life of the Holy Trinity and of our relationship to our God. We totally give, we totally receive; we completely surrender to the joy of the other. Sexuality is ordered to relationship.
Therefore, unchaste sex damages the testimony that our sexual love was created to speak about divine love. Chastity preserves both poem and Poet. Chastity properly recognizes sexual love as a primer for understanding divine love. It directs us toward the Godhead.
So what is chastity’s role in the life of the married and the unmarried? In the life of the married, chastity requires temperance, honor, and submission. It recognizes and honors the other. It does not seek merely to satiate its own desires, but to express the covenantal relationship between a husband and a wife. When we became married, sex was the seal of the covenant. In our marriages, sex continues to act as an affirmation of that covenantal relationship. It is an Amen. It is a pledge of our relationship to one another, and it speaks of divine love as much as — if not more than — it speaks of sexual love.
In the life of the unmarried, chastity requires purity through abstention — sex is for the marriage bed. But purity is not achieved through simple denial and force of will. Chastity is won when we channel our life energies into other passions, into relationships — connecting with others and with God. How is this accomplished?
In his book, Sex God Rob Bell says the following:
“Whatever it is that has its hooks in you, you will never be free from it until you find something you want more. It’s not about getting rid of desire. It’s about giving ourselves to bigger and better and more powerful desires. . . . And you will end up giving the force of your being to something. . . . Life is not about toning down and repressing your God-given life force. It’s about channeling it and focusing it and turning it loose on something beautiful, something pure and true and good, something that connects you with God, with others, with the world.”
From www.NewLivingTranslation.com. Used by Permission