Some thoughts on chastity

We’ve been talking a lot about welcoming LGBT people who attend Christian gatherings. In the last week alone, we’ve talked about welcome in Christian traditions generallyCatholic and Evangelical traditions, and in specific local church communities. We’ve hit a record for the number of first-time commenters in a week (welcome!) and sheer volume of long comments (we’re working on responding, promise!).

As we’ve been talking about welcoming LGBT people, we’ve noticed an uptick in commenters with concerns about what LGBT Christians are actually doing. Pressing further, we have discovered the principal concerns are about lust and sexual conduct. Some readers have asked us directly to write more about chastity. We don’t want to minimize the importance of sexual morality in the Christian life, but the line of thinking that fixates on sexual behavior distorts chastity by diminishing it to genital obedience. For Christians, living chastely requires that we fix our eyes on Christ, so that we can devote our whole selves to following him. We are called to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our mind, and with all our strength. Therefore, chastity requires thoughtful stewardship of our bodies, our minds, and our hearts.

We’ve noted before that many people think first about chastity by trying to draw lines around what counts as “sex.” Defining chastity with a legalistic “Just say no” approach does not do anyone any favors. Our bodies are so much more than our genitals. Our capacity for human connection extends in myriad forms. A triune God made us for relationships with each other. Scripture bears witness to our need to conduct ourselves chastely not only in family relationships but also in relationships with our neighbors. Cultivating chastity requires that adults help children develop a healthy sense of bodily autonomy, touch-oriented people grow in their understanding of what various forms of physical contact communicate, spouses learn the nuances of mutual submission to one another, and we learn to love our neighbors as ourselves.

One of the hardest tasks for any Christian is to cultivate a chaste mind. Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk prescribed this course of action should we desire to acquire the mind of Christ:

“Let thy mind fast from vain thoughts; let thy memory fast from remembering evil; let thy will fast from evil desire; let thine eyes fast from bad sights: turn away thine eyes that thou mayest not see vanity; let thine ears fast from vile songs and slanderous whispers; let thy tongue fast from slander, condemnation, blasphemy, falsehood, deception, foul language and every idle and rotten word; let thy hands fast from killing and from stealing another’s goods; let thy legs fast from going to evil deeds: Turn away from evil, and do good.”

This exhortation starts with purifying the mind from vain thoughts, but Saint Tikhon provides further wisdom. We can make every effort to keep our mind off of evil. In our prayer life, we constantly bring concerns to God that reflect evil in the world, but we strive to follow the Psalmist’s example and think on how God is at work to restore all things. Thinking about our prayer life reminds us that our tongues make our invisible thoughts visible. We cultivate chastity by speaking kindly, compassionately, honestly, and directly.

As we work on developing chastity in our own lives, it seems to us that chastity’s true home is the heart. We are drawn by our heart to love the world around us. A heart that is full of the love of God strengthens the body in order to extend its hands and its feet in meaningful service. Service is a tricky aspect of chastity. When people serve, it’s easy for them to become disillusioned and jaded, especially if their service is motivated solely from an intellectual sense of obligation. When actions flow from a heart captivated by God’s love, Christ-centered forms of service can be particularly life-giving. It seems to us that chastity, rightly understood, involves cultivating virtues that allow people to reflect the image and likeness of Christ more fully.

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