The Challenge of Chastity

The following words from C.S. Lewis are specifically about the Christian virtue of chastity, which is the moral teaching that the joy and responsibility of sex is for marriage only. Lewis acknowledges, that such teaching is contrary to our sexual instincts, and in Mere Christianity, he provides a masterful defense of why chastity, even in light of our strong sexual proclivities, is the only real path for full human flourishing. Beyond the specificity of chastity, however, I believe that Lewis’ words, as he indicates, are true of any virtue a Christian is attempting to develop. And so, I share it with you.

We may, indeed, be sure that perfect chastity–like perfect charity–will not be attained by any merely human efforts. You must ask for God’s help. Even when you have done so, it may seem to¬† you for along time that no help, or less help than you need, is being given. Never mind. After each failure, ask forgiveness, pick yourself up, and try again. Very often what God first helps us toward is not the virtue itself but just this power of always trying again. For however important chastity (or courage, or truthfulness, or any other virtue) may be, this process trains us in habits of the soul which are more important still. It cures our illusions about ourselves and teaches us to depend on God. We learn, on the one hand that we cannot trust ourselves even in our best moments, and on the other, that we need not despair even in our worst, for our failures are forgiven. The only fatal thing is to sit down content with anything less than perfection.

By the way, in case anyone is tempted to think that married couples are released from the struggles of chastity, Christian teaching requires couples to be completely faithful, body and soul, which is to say that even their imaginations are to be pure in their devotion to one another. The point of chastity, and all the virtues for that matter, is that God desires his children to be completely free from the need to find fulfillment in anything or anyone other than himself, so that in such freedom his children may experience the fullness of joy, and become the embodiment of his glory.

8 Responses to “The Challenge of Chastity”

  1. Roger Green  

    Undoubtedly, my greatest challenge.

  2. Anthony Velez  

    On a reflexive level, I concur with you that this is my greatest challenge as well, but as I reflect a little more, I realize that anger and anxiety (oooh alliteration) are deeply ingrained character faults as well, and it seems to me that anger, anxiety, and lust do a pretty bang up job of feeding off of each other. But, even in light of all this, I agree with Lewis, “The only fatal thing is to sit down content with anything less than perfection.” It seems to me that setting our hearts on such a goal creates the circumstance where we have to get out of the boat (of our natural resources) and start walking on the water: an act that surely requires us to rely upon resources beyond ourselves.

  3. Roger Green  

    interesting that, for me, anxiety has been (largely) tamed, and anger, while it flares occasionally, is way less of an isuue than it once was

  4. K.L.B.  

    With God’s help, I keep my pants zipped, and my eyes from wandering. It’s not that I have achieved any level of perfection, bit again, with God’s help, I continue. Because of His help, I am better than I once was, though I am not where I desire to be.

  5. Anthony Velez  

    Kevin – Your remark about keeping your pants zipped reminded me of my undergrad days when I friend of mine was working on a translation of the Didache, in which there was a passage that said, “Don’t get caught with your testes slack”. The big issue in this translation project was whether he should go with a strict transliteration of the text, or whether he should go for a dynamic equivalent (the use of an idiom in our culture that is different than the original text, but evokes a similar idea). He went the dynamic equivalent route, and ended up translating the passage as “Don’t get caught with your pants down.” Just the same, my big question, regarding this matter, was, “What the heck do slack testes signify?” I sense that it has to do with vigilance regarding overly indulging in sensual practices, but still… slack testes?

  6. Simon  

    I have never really seen the chastity thing as clear cut. I know that people say it is, but then people also says that its an abomination for a man to lie with a man as he does with a woman, and that is fine as long as you don’t eat shrimp which is also an abomination.

    While I think it’s wise to not let your balls loose all over town (slack testes) I find the whole ‘sex is strictly for marriage’ thing utterly absurd because we don’t live in a culture where we effectively do marriage deals with our daughters anymore. Think of it, what do we call having sex with a girl under (in the US) 18, and what if she isn’t a willing partner. Surely that describes a great deal of biblical ‘marriages.’

    This is just one area where I think the Bible is out of date. That, and with regards to eating shrimp too!

  7. Anthony Velez  

    Simon – First, you made the concept of “slack testes” a bit more intelligible for me. I mean I knew it had something to do with sexual intemperance, but I couldn’t quite fit the image to the practice, but you saying “your balls loose all over town” actually makes good sense of this idiom. So, for that, I thank you.

    Second, what interpretive principle are you using to help you determine what parts of Scripture should remain, and what parts no longer apply. I have no doubt that even the most ardent conservative Christians must make determinations regarding what should be considered provisional and what should last in Scripture, but such people, whether they recognize it or not, generally have some kind of interpretive framework. For example, one principle is that if there is something in the ministry of Christ that corresponds to something in the Old Testament then the ministry of Christ obviates the Old Testament reality, which is to say that it no longer applies. To provide a specific example, the sacrifice of Jesus renders the sacrifice of bulls and sheep unnecessary.

    I get that on some level you did provide an interpretive framework by referring to sociological practices to make sense of the sexual regulations regarding chastity, but to stop there is reductionistic. You are basically saying that the full significance of such practices are grounded in sociological realities (the system of patronage and marriage contracts, etc). This, however, neglects the theological dimension. What did the Jews of Palestinian culture believe, as funded by their religious traditions, about the sanctity of marriage, and the significance of sexual relationships. To understand this, you would have to go back to their scriptures where you would see a clear picture that marriage was the ideal for sexual relations, and that this was somehow connected to the man and women being made in God’s image, and that the faithfully monogamous relationship between the man and women was to function as a living parable for the relationship between God and Israel, and by extension, humanity. In short, the conviction of Judaism and Christianity is that there is human nature, and that sexual practices outside of marriage undermines full human integrity.

    Honestly, Simon, when I hear responses like yours regarding sexual practices, I feel like the underlying interpretive framework is “that sucks, because damn that would be hard to deny myself the pleasure of sex outside of marriage” Please know, I understand and feel this, but nevertheless, I would not want my inclination, proclivities, or desires, no matter how deep and powerful, to be the touchstone for determining truth, or whether certain spiritual practices are currently applicable. I think that the practice of chastity is timeless, and therefore still applies, because it is grounded on a vision of what it is to be genuinely human, a vision of true human nature, and not on a passing sociological reality, or theological provision.

  8. K.L.B.  

    I too, found Simon’s response on the “slack testes” issue more clarifying – that is, at least it seemed reasonable. On the issue of codifying and regulating human sexual behavior, it kinda’ makes me rephrase the question (which, I believe, would express similar connotations) to be more clarifying – though he more than suggests it in his response. To wit, why not have sex with anyone, anytime anywhere I like, regardless of marital status?

    That, of course, begs the question: (which is) What’s the point of marriage and mutual monogamy? Why not incest, or pederasty, or even bestiality and necrophilia? Why are there even any kind of codified laws, rules or regulations – social, religious, or otherwise – for human sexual behavior? What IS the point?

    The reader should understand that I rephrased question, not that I question the rationale, reasoning or validity of, or for the regulations. “Could it be that questions tell us more than answers ever do?”