[Editor’s Note: God made us relational beings, to live interconnected lives. But we don’t always do that well. We want to explore how our faith shapes the way we love the people God gives us. Join us as we consider what Jesus has to say about #relationships.]

Growing up in “Purity Culture”

I was about twelve or thirteen years old, hanging out for a week with my “too-cool” tween friends at a mother-daughter summer camp. Like every other year, we had a Bible study every morning—but this particular year, it was on the importance of sexual purity. 

I remember feeling a little annoyed. I had heard the same things before from youth groups, my mom, and from reading the Bible myself. I understood that God’s design for sex was within marriage, and I had already embraced this truth. 

This study was different. Each girl was given a card that held a pledge to remain sexually abstinent until marriage. We were expected to sign the card and submit it by the end of the week, so we could “graduate” from this sexual purity course. 

Purity was important to me, and waiting until marriage for sex was something I was already committed to. I felt indignant and angry that I should have to sign something to say I would keep this commitment. Wasn’t it enough that God knew my heart, and that I was genuinely dedicated to waiting?

I felt pressured and guilted into signing that card. If I didn’t, other people would assume I wasn’t willing to make such a commitment. The fear of their judgment, and the sense of shame which accompanied it, compelled me to begrudgingly sign and submit the card.

The problem was not the idea of committing to purity, but the reasons why we were committing to it in this way: fear of human judgment. 

What I subconsciously absorbed through this experience, and through years of hearing other Christians teach and talk about sex, was that SEX = BAD. This sweeping definition of sex was never taught in words, but in underlying tone. It was taught in judgmental responses to the sexual behaviour of others, and in remarks of disgust at sexual content in movies. 

Virginity became an ultimate standard for me. I subconsciously believed that because I was a virgin, my value was higher. I was prideful in my virginity, and whenever I learned that friends were no longer virgins, their value would plummet in my eyes. I saw myself as better than them, and my inward judgment would drive a wedge between us. 

I’m not the only one who has experienced this; many teenagers and young adults in the 1990s and early 2000s encountered “Purity Culture,” a movement in North American evangelical Christianity that had the good intention of promoting biblical sexuality, but often did so unhelpfully, through fear and shame.  

Seeing sex in a new way

Influenced and formed by this “Purity Culture,” my view of sex became damaged. It saw someone’s sexual history as an irredeemable source of shame and an acceptable way to judge the value of another. And it was also strangely inconsistent: though sex was bad, there was also this expectation that when I got married, I was supposed to suddenly see sex as okay—even as good.

The fact is, the human brain doesn’t work this way. It takes a long time for us to learn a way of thinking, and a long time for that way of thinking to change.

My first major step towards healing came at a friend’s bachelorette party in my mid-twenties. There were over twenty women in the room, most of them Christian and single like me, with a few married women. Questions about sex inevitably started pouring (once the bravest single woman got the ball rolling). Despite our awkward laughter, I appreciated the freedom to ask questions openly about an often taboo topic.

Specifically, what my friend’s bridesmaid shared was life-changing for me. She had been married for a few years, and she told this story:

“One of my friends and her boyfriend, both strong Christians, were committed to waiting until marriage for sex. When temptation came throughout their relationship and their engagement, they firmly said, No.

On their wedding night, however, and throughout their entire honeymoon, my friend was racked with shame and guilt for engaging in sex. When I heard her story, I decided, That’s not going to be me. 

So as I experienced sexual temptation in the time before my husband and I were married, instead of saying no, I said, Not yet. I became able to see sex as a good gift to look forward to, and once we were married, I was able to enjoy it freely, absent of shame.”

Her story rocked my world. I had never heard this perspective before! I longed to have freedom from the shame that seemed inevitably attached to sex. I too decided, That’s not going to be me. From that point forward, whenever I experienced sexual temptation, I told myself, Not yet. I had just started dating my now-husband, and I often caught myself saying, No. I would smile and gently correct my thoughts; Not yet. 

It took almost two years of changing my thought patterns before I found steady freedom. In Romans 12:1-2, Paul writes, 

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” 

I used to think this passage only applied to struggles with sin. But I’ve come to realize that it’s also true for any change from brokenness to wholeness. These verses helped me recognize my need to continually surrender my sexual brokenness—including my thoughts and attitudes—to God. As I did so, I moved from believing a lie (SEX = BAD) to God’s truth—that sex is a good gift from him, in the context of marriage between one man and one woman (as I understand from 1 Cor 7:1-5, and the book of Song of Solomon). It took time. It took repetition. It took perseverance. It took listening to and believing the Holy Spirit, and praying frequently for his help. It took trusting in God and taking him at his word. Over time, this new mindset came more naturally, until it wasn’t even something I thought about anymore; not yet became my new default response. 

Because I had a deep hope and desire to be married one day, not yet was an appropriate response towards any sexual temptation. (If I had decided that I never wanted to marry, then a response of no to sexual desire would be legitimate, because God calls us to abstain from sex outside of the covenant of marriage.) I knew that, even though my desire was to marry, marriage isn’t guaranteed for anyone. But either way, I knew this was a healthier perspective to cultivate, because it chipped away at my shame-based perspective towards sex. 

Healing from sexual brokenness

Even though I had healed significantly in my response to temptation, there were deeper layers of sexual brokenness still to be dealt with. A little while after I got engaged, it dawned on me: I wouldn’t be a virgin any longer once we were married. This triggered anxiety, even panic, and I was finally confronted with the fact that I was putting my identity and worth in my virginity, rather than in Christ. 

I responded to this struggle in a similar manner; I surrendered it to God daily. I read and re-read Scripture, which reminded me of where my value is truly found. Time after time, as triggers of this brokenness came up, I responded by praying for help and by taking God at his word. With repetition and the Lord’s help, I saw healing blossom in this area as well.  

As for my former judgment of others’ sexual behaviour, I learned to marvel at the just, yet gracious, response of Jesus. With the outcast woman at the well (John 4) and the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), he accepts them as they are, yet calls them to flee from sin as well. He sees them with the same value as every other person he has made. My heart has softened to be one of compassion for my friends who have given up their virginity outside of marriage. I long for them to experience the love and grace of Jesus. It’s a lie that anyone is less valuable as a person because of their sin, sexual or otherwise. I’m now able to see these friends without any diminished worth, but as innately valuable people made in the image of God.

I’m so grateful that God taught me these things when he did. In the months leading up to my wedding, I was able to have a pure, godly anticipation for the gift of sex that was to come. By the time I was married, my view of sex and understanding of my identity had healed deeply. I could see the goodness and beauty of sex as God intended it, and I was able to say yes without the burden of shame. I was able to find my value and identity not in my virginity or non-virginity, but as a child of God. 

I was able to find my value and identity not in my virginity or non-virginity, but as a child of God. 

In my first year of marriage, I found even further healing. I learned that sex is not just a good gift for a husband and wife: when the context and motives are pure, sex honours and glorifies God! I can worship God by giving to my husband selflessly, and by receiving from him joyfully and humbly. The unity and intimacy of marriage and sex are a reflection (even if a dim one) of the oneness and intimacy we, the church, will enjoy with Christ in eternity. 

Today, for the most part, I live freely in this gift. The old lies and shame still whisper at me sometimes, but I can confidently respond with the truth:

  • Sex is a good gift from God
  • In marriage, sex can honour God 
  • My identity and value rest in Christ

It astonishes me how few women (or men) have learned this healthy, biblical view of sex. So many Christians struggle with sexual shame! My hope is for restoration: for healing and freedom to see sex as the beautiful gift God intended.

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