Teaching Chastity in an Unchaste World
Chastity. The very word has an old-fashioned sound, and seems quaint and out of date to a generation reared on MTV. "Get real," some might say in response! But what is real? Is it the glamour of movie stars, pop-music stars and sports idols? Is it the television sitcoms, populated with witty people who routinely engage in out-of-wedlock sex, yet whose life circumstances always seem to be portrayed as more humours than tragic?
A number of mainstream magazines have focused on the concerns of many parents about what is happening to young children in our increasingly sexualized culture. In October 2001, Good Housekeeping ran an article titled "Surviving Britney Spears"—with the subtitle: "What to do when your preteen worships this latter-day Lolita." Britney is a risqué role model for young girls, and "has created a persona about as virginal as Madonna's" (p. 103). Parading through videos in cropped-tops and bikinis, she has incredible appeal to girls as young as eight or nine.
Popular culture in the Western world takes sexual activity outside of marriage as a given. Whether it is the steamy love scenes in the movie Titanic or the provocative images on the latest music videos, young teenagers are increasingly immersed in an erotic world. The results are quite evident if you just look around the campuses of most American middle schools. Many young girls, barely into their teens, look and act like prostitutes! While civil libertarians would be outraged at the idea of Bibles being given away to teenagers in such a venue, the fact that condoms and abortions should be made available without parental knowledge or consent seems normal to them!
Teenage promiscuity still causes some concerns in our society, but adult promiscuity, on the other hand, hardly raises an eyebrow anymore. As late as the 1950s and 1960s, it was called "living in sin" and was actually illegal in virtually every state of the Union. Today, according to American Demographics magazine, the most common household composition in the United States (32 percent) consists of an unmarried couple without children (December 2000, p. 59). U.S. News & World Report called unmarried co-habitation a "shadow issue" in the family values debate. "Unlike divorce or unwed childbearing, the trend toward cohabitation has inspired virtually no public comment or criticism" (March 13, 2000, p. 48). In an earlier article on the same subject, USN&WR made the observation that premarital sexual activity was something that even most churches were loathe to talk about anymore. "Condemnation of adult premarital sex has virtually vanished from religious preaching" (May 19, 1997, p. 57).
What are the consequences of these attitudes and behaviors? Jennifer Grossman, an MSNBC-TV contributor, succinctly observed in an interview with U.S. News & World Report that "people are surfeited with sex—and yet we're starved for love" (May 19, 1997, p. 58). All of the hippie-era talk of "free love" has proven to be quite a misnomer. It was not real love, and it has been anything but free! Many social ills have resulted, including growing numbers of illegitimate births, single-parent households, abortions, and sexually transmitted diseases. But that is not all. Both domestic violence and child abuse occur with far greater frequency in households where the partners are not married to one another, but are merely "shacking up."
In a speech given at Hillsdale College on November 15, 2000, a recent university graduate and author made some very telling observations. Wendy Shalit titled her address "Modesty Revisited." In introducing her topic to an audience of college students and faculty members, she observed that "the vocabulary of modesty has largely dropped from our cultural consciousness." She went on to explain that modesty's loss had been social pathology's gain. "Many of the problems we hear about today—sexual harassment, date rape, young women who suffer from eating disorders and report feeling a lack of control over their bodies—are all connected, I believe, to our culture's attack on modesty. Listen, first, to the words we use to describe intimacy: what once was called 'making love,' and then 'having sex,' is now 'hooking up'—like airplanes refueling in flight" (reprinted in Imprimis, March 2001).
The point is that this world does not offer a very healthy set of values and attitudes to your children. Some parents, when looking at the influence of school, media, and peer groups, are ready to give up and conclude that it is a lost cause. Many "baby boomers," looking back on the excesses of their own youth, have lacked both the moral certainty and the courage to give their own children strong values. Without moral certainty, it is impossible to even have firm values to convey. As the twentieth century progressed, the Bible was increasingly ignored and shunted aside as an absolute guide and authority for life. Belief in a sovereign Creator God gave way to belief in evolution. Moral ambiguity replaced moral certainty.
However, even many religious parents have been shocked and disappointed by their children's moral choices. In some cases this has been because they naively assumed that if they tried to live by biblical standards of morality in their own life, their children would just automatically copy. This is not necessarily the case, because there are many other influences at work on your children than just your personal example. What, then, can be done?
Parents cannot be the only influence in their children's lives, but if they have the will to do so, they can certainly be the dominant influence. Those who recognize the value of chastity, and want their children to recognize its value, are involved in a culture war with the world around. How can you effectively combat the influence of contemporary society? How can you ensure that you are the dominant influence in your children's lives?
First, you must seek to make your home a godly oasis in the midst of a corrupt world. One simple starting point is to greatly restrict (or even eliminate) television. Do not allow children to isolate themselves from the family, holed up in their rooms, tuned into their own music and surfing the web on their own computers. When my sons were growing up, for instance, we never had fights about the music they were listening to. The reason was very simple. We had only one source of music in our home—a stereo in the living room, which we listened to together as a family! By choosing the appropriate music, my wife and I helped set the mood and the atmosphere we wanted in our home.
Second, you must set careful limits in the amount of association you allow your children with neighbors and schoolmates. Children must be guided and restricted in their choice of friends and playmates. Do not naively assume that others will not improperly influence your child. Know those with whom your children spend time, and ensure proper supervision of their play and activities.
Finally, spend time with your children. Seek to make family and church the focus of your children's social life. If your children spend most of their time in settings where people with differing values are their primary influence, why would you expect your child to embrace your values? Have family meals around the dining table, take family trips, go camping and hiking. Do things! Worship God together as a family. This not only includes going to church services as a family, it also includes having family prayer and Bible study. It is important to regularly spend time together with your children—talking, listening, visiting and teaching. While you certainly cannot control all of the future choices your children will make, never lose sight of the fact that you can greatly influence those choices if you are willing to make the effort.
We have all heard the adage, "you are what you eat." While this is true nutritionally, it is just as true mentally. Our mental diet has much to do with shaping the kind of person that we become. The Apostle Paul emphasized: "Finally brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things" (Philippians 4:8). We cannot foster attitudes of purity in our children if we allow them to constantly feed their minds on trash. Violent, sexually explicit television shows, movies, and video games make for a destructive mental diet.
From lullabies to stirring martial tunes, music can create or enhance virtually any mood. In addition to the atmosphere created by a song's mood, we must also consider its words and message. Lyrics that are angry, rebellious and vulgar, or that celebrate fornication or adultery, convey an inappropriate message. With music videos, the effect of the message is multiplied, as the impression received through the ears is reinforced by what is received through the eyes.
Purity involves a way of thinking, and is not merely a matter of avoiding certain prurient behavior. Entertainment and the arts should elevate the human spirit by celebrating what is good and noble, and what is pure and lovely. Parents who wish to foster purity in their children will be very careful in the music, movies and books that they allow.
The Apostle Paul explained to the young minister Titus that he should encourage the older women to teach the younger women principles of modesty and chastity. It is important for parents and older friends and family members to help provide guidance for young girls in this area. Skirts that are too short and tight, plunging necklines, high slits and other similar styles are designed to send a sexually seductive message to men. While many young women would deny this is their intention and say that it is just "the style," their parents need to help them grasp that, regardless of their motive for doing so, they are projecting an image that is seductive and sexually arousing to men. No godly young woman would ever want to dress or behave in a way that would make it harder for a young man to keep his thoughts pure. Unless girls are actively taught, they just do not understand the difference between the male and female mind. An inner attitude of purity and modesty should be conveyed through dress and grooming as well as behavior.
In the context of teaching young people to avoid styles that wrongly emphasize sexuality, parents have a duty to explain in a positive way about God's approach to sex. God made us male and female and He said that it was very good! Teaching about sex should be presented by explaining that it is a precious gift that God has given. If it is used properly, it plays a vital part in what was designed by God to be the most wonderfully happy of human relationships, marriage. When sex is misused, it produces hurt and pain that can wreck entire lives. Young people should be taught that much of their future happiness will depend upon learning to cherish purity. Purity is a necessary attitude in every happy, healthy marriage.
Not only must there be proper teaching and explanation, but young people also need to be given proper boundaries that will safeguard purity. For teenagers to be allowed to pair off and date in the modern sense is to encourage intimacy without commitment. The Apostle Paul commanded, "flee youthful lusts" (2 Timothy 2:22). Those who are not married should avoid being alone in intimate situations. Proper boundaries that are set early on, and drilled into young people from the beginning, can help them avoid dangerous situations later on. Young people have lots of hormones and little experience with life. They need guidance and supervision.
Purity can be cultivated and fostered in your family, even though we live in the midst of a corrupt and impure world. Go to God for His help and blessing. Realize that parents can encourage a mental diet of what is wholesome and uplifting. This must be coupled with teaching young people to value and cultivate an image that reflects purity. Taken together with positive teaching and establishing safe and healthy boundaries, parents have at their disposal tactics that make a difficult battle very much winnable.
During childhood and adolescence, we lay the foundation for marriage and family. The values promoted by contemporary society undermine chastity and purity among young people. They do this in everything from clothing styles to entertainment. In addition, contemporary dating practices further advance the immorality agenda. Make no mistake about it: there is nothing more destructive to building a happy, loving marriage than immorality!
It is vital for young people to understand that commitment is intended to precede intimacy. In contemporary western society young people pair off at an early age. They "go steady" even in middle school, much less high school and college. It is taken for granted that teenagers will have their girlfriends or boyfriends. Of course, these so-called steady relationships are anything but steady! Breaking up regularly, these young people quickly begin to cast about for another "steady." They are not really prepared—either emotionally or financially—to marry for years to come. However, contemporary dating practices ensure that—long before the commitment of marriage—opportunities come early for greater and greater intimacy. When children are engaging in "necking" and "petting" as early teens, how long will it be before they have full intercourse?
The intimate behavior of prolonged kissing and caressing is sexually stimulating and was intended by the Creator to be the arousal portion of the sexual act. As such it belongs only in marriage and should not be engaged in by those who are unmarried. With the dating practices that are generally taken for granted in our culture, however, intimate practices are fostered and encouraged. Movies, television, books and magazines all promote this sort of behavior as acceptable and normal.
The Bible clearly teaches that all sexual activity outside of marriage is sin (1 Corinthians 6:9–10)! If virginity is to be maintained until marriage, then chastity and purity must be nurtured and protected. This helps lay a foundation for future faithfulness in marriage. With both younger children and teenagers, parents have responsibility to teach and to guide. They are also responsible for protecting their children from situations that they may not be able to handle. Young people should not simply be left to themselves or allowed to pair off. It is a recipe for disaster.
It is natural that young people want to spend time together—and there is nothing wrong with that. Social activities can be very enjoyable, and are important to young people. Such activities are best, however, when held in the context of entire families getting together. Picnics, outings to the bowling alley or the skating rink, or trips to sports, musical and cultural events need not involve each teenager pairing off with someone of the opposite sex. These should be group activities involving friends of both sexes. After all, youth is a time to develop a wide variety of friendships. Learning to have healthy friendships with members of the opposite sex is very important preparation for future courtship and marriage.
In Western culture, dating has become confused with courtship, and distinctions between the two have been lost. Single dating is really what used to be called courtship, and should be reserved for those who are old enough to pursue marriage seriously. Until that time comes, developing a variety of friends, and participating in group activities, is the best social outlet for young people.
If chastity and purity have great value, then it stands to reason that this value must be explained and taught to our young people. They certainly will not receive this message at school or from the movies, so if they are going to hear it at all, it must be at home and at church. Immorality is not glamorous and romantic; rather, it produces serious and potentially life-wrecking consequences. It not only frequently leads to disease and unwanted pregnancy, but also to hurt, confusion, and guilt. Casual sex cheapens and degrades what the Creator designed to be shared by two married people in a special relationship that they do not have with any other human being. To protect purity, not only must the value of it be understood and appreciated, but also potentially tempting or compromising situations must be avoided. Strong emotions are at work and many young people have kidded themselves that they could "handle" the situation, only to find out to their future regret that they could not. If you plan to avoid engaging in intimate behavior before you are married, then you should start by avoiding being in intimate settings that are located away from the eyes of others (Proverbs 15:3)!
Chastity and purity are guardians of the sanctity of marriage and the family. The family is the basic building block of society. No nation can be stronger than its homes. Chastity and purity are qualities that can only be passed on to the next generation if they are not only deeply valued and cherished, but also actively taught and encouraged. Difficult? You bet! But never lose sight of the fact that it is possible to teach chastity in an unchaste world.