Remember the days when Christians used to blush over conversations about sex? Sermons on the Song of Solomon left us avoiding eye contact with our pastors and safe sex talks in public school meant guaranteed giggling after class. I guess we’re all grown up now. The generation of kids who once kissed dating goodbye and held fast to the promise that True Love Waits is no longer hanging its moral hat on the hook of sexual purity.
According to the National Association of Evangelicals, 80 percent of unmarried evangelical Christians between ages 18-29 admit to having had premarital sex, a shocking figure when measured against the number of pledges made in youth ministries and wristbands worn endorsing abstinence around the country throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s. For a generation fed a steady diet of “just wait until you’re married for sex,” why are so many of us losing our virginity before we say “I do”? What is causing the growing chasm between our Christian belief and sexual purity?
I suspect much of our early understanding of sexuality is at fault, being reduced to just saying no instead of developing a holistic view of human sexuality through a person’s entire lifespan, fully integrating it with God’s plan.
When I moved to New York City in the years following college, I was devastated to learn how many of my Christian friends were regularly hooking up at bars and sleeping with boyfriends and girlfriends with no plans for marriage. And more than that, they didn’t seem to feel bad about it. The subcultural sentiment was that abstinence is worth preaching through the college years as parental influence wanes and students bumble through the early years of adulthood. But for twenty and thirtysomething Christians, for mature adults who had yet to find the one and had been battling hormones for a decade-plus, waiting was child’s play. Celibacy amongst my Christian peer group was viewed as cute and commendable, but certainly not crucial.
Despite the disappointment I felt over my friends’ behavior, there wasn’t much room for judgment. At the core they were simply living out the compartmentalization of sexuality that was also present in my heart. From the day I received my True Love Waits Bible in junior high school, I locked up my sexual desire to be opened only in case of marriage. Like Prisca Bird wrote for the Good Women Project, I wore my virginity as a badge of honor, latching onto “the image of myself as the radical abstinence practitioner” and one who would remain chaste to “fight the good fight.” I was unable to view human sexuality as a gift, holy and blessed by God. By failing to embrace my sexual identity in the midst of tempering my desire, I inadvertently called evil what God had deemed good.
You see, promiscuity and abstinence can be two sides of the same coin. Both can hint at an insufficient understanding of God’s intention for sex, his blessing of it in the context of marriage, and his creation of his people as sexual beings. So preaching only abstinence is not the answer.
We need a new conversation around sexuality in the church — one that doesn’t insist on the wait without the while. We need a conversation that acknowledges our sexuality along a continuum and prepares men and women of Christ to engage in their own sexual development, desire, and growth while they move throughout the seasons of life and relationship. It can’t be left at telling 15-year-olds to “just say no.” We need an open discussion around what it looks like to abstain at 33 when marriage is nowhere on the horizon or at 27 when engaged and just days from saying I do.
That’s why it’s helpful to have a new wave of Christians coming forward to reengage the public on the topics of sexuality and faith. This past May, when 29-year-old Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones talked about the difficulty of being a virgin into her late twenties, saying it was the hardest thing she’s ever done in her life — “harder than training for the Olympics” — we could almost hear the shouts of “could the Church get an Amen!” (See the video below.)
Jones’ acknowledgment of the tension of feeling sexual desire while also affirming a commitment to abstinence revealed an important dynamic in the vow of purity: it’s not easy. There will be temptation and desire while waiting. But as believers, we endure the struggle because we know that the testing of our faith always produces perseverance leading to godly character and a hope for the future (James 1:3, Romans 5:4).
On the flipside, there can be joyful anticipation while waiting. One of the best examples in recent years of this is bombshell actress Meagan Good, who has long since been a movie vixen playing sexy roles in Jumping the Broom and most recently Think Like A Man. This spring Good, a Christian,to abstain from sex until she wed her Seventh Day Adventist pastor and film executive husband DeVon Franklin. Despite her commitment, for the past year she has been able to exude sex appeal onscreen. Chastity doesn’t have to mean wearing a habit and ignoring our sexual identity. Though we exercise self-control, as responsible adults we are free to tap into our sexuality, own our appeal, and recognize our desire. Good’s story shows us that true love doesn’t wait; it develops.
Christian adults must carry on the conversation of abstinence to the next phase. It’s not just a youth issue. If we could more openly discuss the tingling we feel, the occasional knockout attraction we have to the opposite sex or the times where our sex drives lull, I believe we might find that we’re able to maintain purity much later into adulthood. Because when we don’t talk about it, we allow the normal ebb and flow of sexual desire to become associated with shame and guilt over what we’re experiencing. And since the desire won’t go away, we’re forced to relieve the shame by separating our morality from our behavior.
We’ve got to get talking and see ourselves afresh as sexual beings, moving gradually and prayerfully through stages of sexual expression until marriage where it’s fulfilled. Because “not yet” is much easier to digest than “no.” Our sexuality, today, is an integral part of who God has created us to be, and like all things must be celebrated while also put in submission to Christ.
For further study and reflection, Chanel suggests these books (and website):
• Sheet Music: Uncovering the Secrets of Sexual Intimacy in Marriage by Dr. Kevin Leman
• Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together by Mark and Grace Driscoll
• A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue by Wendy Shalit
• Good Women Project (this month is dedicated to the topic of sex)
Editor’s Note: Chanel married her soulmate, Lanre Dokun, last month.