It’s not hard to make an argument for chastity. After all, STDs are terrifying and unplanned pregnancies aren’t ideal. And there are the statistics that show increased depression in sexually active teens and increased rates of divorce among those who had multiple sexual partners. But if you’ve ever been in love, you know that scare tactics won’t work. “It won’t happen to us,” you think, and rightly so. You ought to be so deeply in love that you think nothing can go wrong. That’s a good thing—at the beginning. But it means that our explanation of the importance of chastity has to be more than cherry-picked statistics intended to terrify teens into super-gluing their pants on.
I spoke with a young friend recently who is really struggling with chastity. She and her boyfriend are in love and in a committed relationship. They’re both strong Catholics who know that it’s wrong to sleep together outside of marriage, but she wanted a little more of the why. Now bear in mind that these arguments aren’t directed at the unchurched but at those who are really striving to do God’s will. If you’re not coming at them from that perspective, they might not be terribly compelling. But for those of us who are seeking chastity not just to avoid dying of a terrible venereal disease and going to hell but in order to glorify God, I think they might help.1
1. Sex renews the covenant of marriage. Sex isn’t just fun—although I’m told it is that. Sex is the sign of the covenant of marriage. Every covenant2 is renewed by a repeated action, an action that reminds each party of their commitment, an action by which they recommit themselves. In God’s covenant with Adam, it was the Sabbath.3 In the covenant with Moses, it was the Passover meal. In the covenant with Jesus, it’s the Eucharist4 and in the covenant of marriage, it’s consummation.
Renewing your vows is a beautiful gesture, but it’s just that: a gesture. Even when a couple celebrating 60 years together repeats their vows with tears of joy in their eyes, it’s just a symbol; it doesn’t do anything. The way you renew the covenant of marriage is by saying with your bodies what you said with your vows: I give myself completely to you forever.
Sex makes a marriage; sex outside of marriage isn’t just sin, it’s sacrilege. It’s renewing a covenant that doesn’t exist, like receiving the Eucharist if you’re not baptized or wandering in to a Seder meal, grabbing some lamb, and walking on through to flip through the paper in the other room. It’s more than just rude—it’s wrong.
If this incredible act of love was created for marriage (not just restricted to marriage), to create and renew and strengthen marriage, it just doesn’t make sense in any other context.
2. Sex is a sign of God’s love. Sex didn’t have to be awesome. God could very easily have designed human beings without family. Even with marriage and procreation, sex didn’t have to be an ecstatic, all-encompassing gift of self. He designed sex as a shadowy image of his love for us. It’s a foretaste of heaven. And the marriage that it consummates is a sign of God’s covenant with each human soul. The purpose of sex is to show you how deeply God loves you: a love that is indissoluble, for better or for worse. When you give yourself completely to your spouse, you experience a sliver of the complete self-emptying of God for you and (God willing) you begin to give yourself to him in return.
But when we engage in sex outside of marriage, we give ourselves completely to one who has no obligation to us, one who could–theoretically–use us and move on. Our relationship is necessarily tinged with uncertainty and even shame. We are giving ourselves but there’s no guarantee of tomorrow. Even if you’re absolutely certain that you’re going to get married, “Baby, I’ma love you forever” in the heat of the moment is very different from standing up before God, your momma, and everyone and saying “until death do us part.” You may mean forever but you haven’t vowed it and your heart knows that.
What does this tell us about God’s love for us? In this context, our experience of self-giving always has reservations–“for now,” we say, or “but not my fertility.” Our consummate experience of love is absolutely conditional. It has no flavor of eternity or surrender or promised sacrifice. And so we begin to feel that God’s love must also be conditional. He loves us as long as we’re young or beautiful or innocent or loveable. This damages our ability to love each other and our ability to receive God’s love.
Certainly even married sex is never perfect. There are conditions to the love of fallen man, fears and insecurities. But the vows you made are strengthened by God and the ideal is possible because of his grace. It is that ideal that speaks–in the thrill of married love–of the unending love of the great Lover of souls. Don’t cheat yourself of that.
3. You owe it to your children. I knew an agnostic teenage girl once who told me that she wasn’t going to have sex until she was married.5 “I owe it to my children,” she said, “to give them a father.”
This girl knew in her gut that sex isn’t just about pleasure or even just about love. It’s about family. It’s about a love so strong that it brings new life. And that new life deserves the stability of married parents.
But it’s not just that you might get pregnant. After all, you might not. And even if you did, you might end up happily married for many years. This isn’t a consequentialist view of morality6 but one that looks at the inherent purpose of an act, not merely its consequences. Sex is about family. Sex outside of the context of family (even a family of two) is disordered. Remember that sex is one image of the Trinity–two Persons whose love for one another is so strong it becomes a third Person. If it’s outside of marriage and openness to family, it’s closed in on you two and not about a love that spills forth to the world. This act of complete self-gift becomes an act of selfishness. That will begin to take its toll on your love.
4. Chastity prepares you for a healthy, happy marriage. I don’t mean to come out all roses and butterflies about how pleasant and happy marriage is. I know too many married people to think that a healthy marriage is all smiles all the time. Marriage is hard. And so is chastity–before marriage and after marriage. When I’m asking you to be chaste, I understand that it seems a Herculean task, especially when you’re in love. It takes a lot of work, months and even years of self-control and self-sacrifice, of patience and communication, of fortitude and purity and respect, obedience, and selflessness. If you’re going to make it to the altar unsullied, you’ll have to work and work and work at these virtues.
Fortunately, these are exactly the virtues that you need for a strong marriage. That patience and selflessness and self-control is exactly what’s going to hold your marriage together during the tough times. And after a few years of absolute celibacy while dating the love of your life, celibacy on a business trip or with a good friend who suddenly seems like more won’t be quite so tough. Marriage isn’t a magic wand that makes it possible for you to be chaste but if you’ve trained yourself in self-control, fidelity in marriage will be a lot easier.
I often hear people argue that premarital sex is actually a good idea as it’s practice for marriage. You know what’s really practice for marriage? Doing what’s right even when it’s hard. Sacrificing and communicating and learning how to be strong for each other. Chastity is the best practice for marriage. Love your partner enough to wait.
Now, obviously God is merciful and people and relationships can be healed. You’re not SOL because you messed up, even if you messed up repeatedly and unrepentantly. Where sin abounds, grace abounds the more.7 But if you’re at a crossroads and you’re wondering if it’s worth fighting this overwhelming desire, it is. I promise you won’t regret it.
- Note: there’s only so much nuancing that can be done in a blog post. It’s already too long. I love you and I’m not judging you! [↩]
- Remember that religion class vocab word? Irrevocable exchange of persons. [↩]
- So take a real Sabbath this Sunday! It’s God’s gift of love to you. [↩]
- Which, of course, is also the Passover meal. [↩]
- Well, she said “in a permanent relationship” because she didn’t believe in marriage, but it comes to the same thing. [↩]
- The idea that the morality of an act depends entirely on its consequences. [↩]
- Rom 5:20 [↩]