Advocating for purity can be an expression of grace.
I have spent some time recently reflecting on the liturgical Psalms (Psalm 15 and 24). These Psalms emphasize the importance of the purity of those who would enter into a worship space and worship the Lord. Christians tend to fall somewhere along a continuum between stressing purity so forcefully as to be judgmental and so loosely as to be licentious. Psalms like Psalm 15 and 24 lend biblical warrant for the judgmental end of the spectrum.
The dangers of over-emphasizing purity have been experienced by many. The over-emphasis on sexual purity can cause teens and young adults to hide their sexual experiences and sexuality questions from their parents and others who might be able to help them process. It can lead to riskier behavior. Also many people who grew up in sexually restrictive contexts admit struggling to enjoy sex even within marriage. Having been told it’s bad their whole lives, it’s difficult for some to believe it’s good. Some people have so internalized moral sanctions against laziness that they do not know how to break and rest. Ironically, they regularly violate the command about a Sabbath (the longest of the 10 Commandments) because they believe that to take a day off would be to give in to sloth. Similar kinds of dynamics can emerge around drinking, foods, finances, profanity, and pleasure. An over-emphasis on purity can be damaging.
These negative consequences tend to make us resist discussing the importance of purity. It can also make us fixate on sins we do not struggle with. It’s very easy for me to rail against the evils of gambling and playing the lottery as I do not have any desire to gamble or play the lottery. I find that what most well-intentioned folk do is simply avoid making anyone feel any sort of guilt because they know the negative consequences of guilt. This pattern can be dangerous and even deadly.
There’s a wisdom to scripture and the Church’s commitments to purity. Pleasures really can develop dangerous addictions. We can in fact amuse ourselves to death. At the beginning of Ethics Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a poem that included the line, “None learns the way of freedom save only by way of control.” I’m not sure who said it, but I agree with the sentiment, “I believe in taking a stand against sin. I just believe in taking a stand against my own sin.” So, I’d like to suggest a few things to think about in terms of how to think about purity without suffering the consequences of over-emphasis.
Understand the Difference between Regret and Repentance.
Feeling guilty doesn’t actually change behavior. In fact, feeling guilty can convince people that they really cannot do better. Repentance comes when we claim our power to change.
Look for the ways purity connects to wholeness.
When I asked my mother why we did not drink, she said, “Some people are predisposed to become alcoholic and other people are not, but you won’t know which one you are unless you start drinking. I’d rather not take the risk.” While her sons have learned that we can drink in moderation, the wisdom is still instructive. When we treat things as vile in the eyes of God, our navigation of pleasure becomes overlayered with superstition. When we think about what leads to wholeness we work toward best practices, moderation and health.
Embrace the encouraging force of forgiveness
I have heard countless people criticize the sort of church in which I grew up by saying we believed we could do whatever we wanted, go to church on Sunday, ask for forgiveness and do it all over again. I never had that perception. EVER. But it did take me a long time to realize that God’s forgiveness does not excuse our sin. God wants all to thrive, move forward, demonstrate good stewardship