Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. 1 Corinthians 6:18.
Sometimes people save sex for marriage because it affirms a commitment to God and consecrates their relationship. Others might see it as guaranteed protection from STD’s and unplanned pregnancy. I knew all the arguments supporting abstinence, and yet I chose to have sex long before I was ready for marriage–giving up the benefits of waiting and accepting the risks.
Chastity was a part of my Christian faith I dismissed as “dated” and counter to my personal growth in the modern world. Throughout my twenties, I considered it a radical religious practice similar to fasting. When I was told chastity is a sure path to love, I didn’t believe it. A sure way of staying single, I thought. I reached my late twenties and found myself in a two-year relationship, despite feeling marginally loved and never more insecure. “He must love me if we’re having sex,” I told myself, initiating it every chance I got. Living the “glamorous” life in Manhattan, I spent my free time shopping and going to parties, trying desperately to fill the emotional void. I wasn’t happy, and I wasn’t being honest with myself, but it was so easy to let sex cover the lie.
Well, forgiveness for our mistakes is also a part of the Christian faith, and second chances are miracles, my mother always said. In my late twenties, searching for love, I decided to try a vow of chastity. I knew it wouldn't be easy. How do people do this? What convinces them? What keeps them strong? I needed examples. I wanted the right words, magic words, to make saying "no" to sex the easy choice.
I started with my church in Manhattan, asking the Bible Study Class I attended if anyone could talk to me about keeping a vow of chastity. All twenty or so Christians there, ranging in age from their twenties to their eighties, looked down at their Bibles in silence. I had thought that our eager group studying God’s word in the varnished reception room of the church would be a goldmine of testimony. After class, the minister pulled me aside. “Try St. Paul’s Church,” he suggested. “They’re more strict.”
I asked my New York City friends if they knew of anyone who had “waited” until marriage. They laughed.
I broadened my search. At the online Christian writers’ forum, American Christian Fiction Writers, I posted a plea: How does one keep a vow of chastity?
Within an hour, I had real life stories of chastity from across the country.
* * *
Betsy from Louisiana wrote about her experience with chastity. On a Saturday afternoon in April of 1996, she and her father Theodore, who goes by the nickname "Buddy," went out for dinner at Ralph & Kacoos, one of the fancier spots in their northern Louisiana town. Betsy had been anticipating this day since she was eight and her older sister Jenny had gone on her “daddy date.” Now Betsy was twelve. Her father, a computer technician for the local newspaper, was nervous. Tonight he would ask his “little” girl for a promise that would affect the rest of her life. Betsy knew from her sister what was coming and felt sophisticated and grown up, even though the situation was somewhat awkward.
“Betsy?” he began, taking a small velvet box out of the breast pocket of his sports jacket. She held her breath. “God wants the very best for you in life, and He wants you to give your very best as well. Most of all, He wants you to be safe, and so do I, which is why I’m asking you to promise me you’ll save yourself for marriage.” From the velvet box, he took a gold ring with two joined hearts. “Mommy and I waited for each other, and it means everything to us. We can only teach you what we know is right and what works.”
Buddy gave his daughter the ring, and Betsy carefully slid it on her left ring finger and promised.
Junior high came, and then high school, and Betsy dated, though no one seriously. The summer after graduation, however, she fell in love with Brandon, and her pledge to her dad, made years before, faced a serious challenge. “I still wore my gold ring with two hearts,” she explained, “but the feelings I had for Brandon were just as real as my promise to my dad. At times, they overruled everything I ever believed in and wanted for my future.” But she and Brandon decided to wait until marriage, if marriage was in their future, and together they stuck with their decision, neither one of them wanting to let the other down.
Brandon proposed to Betsy in 2004 on a Mississippi River steamboat in New Orleans. They were twenty. Married three years now, they feel their relationship is blessed. “Not that we’re more special than anyone else,” said Betsy. “Some people thought we were too young for marriage. But we proved our willpower and sense of morals waiting to have sex. I know we can get through anything together.”
I asked her how she and Brandon resisted the temptation to have sex, and she told me they avoided situations where it would have been easy to give in to their desires.
“When it got really tough, we prayed together,” she said. “Praying put everything into perspective and gave us strength. Also, I knew I wouldn’t be able to look my dad in the eyes on my wedding day lying about the purity of my white dress. Whenever I felt confused by temptation, our date came to my mind perfectly clear. Knowing how much I’m loved by God and my parents made all the difference.”
* * *
Meghan, who asked that I change her name, grew up in a destructive home in the Pacific Northwest. Neighborhood boys raped her repeatedly during the year she was five. Going by the statistics, Meghan should have become obsessed with sex at a young age or sought it to heal a low self-esteem during her teens, but she stayed abstinent until she was married. “It’s pretty amazing I did,” she said.
Meghan’s turning point came in junior high. “My mother was going through her third divorce, and my world crashed. I’ll never forget how alone I felt.” Meghan was thinking about taking her own life. A school counselor saw her through that time, and then a friend invited her to Young Life, a non-profit organization rooted in Christianity that reaches out to middle school and high school students worldwide.
“I started going to the weekly meetings,” she explained, “and at the end of each one, I longed to hear the message about Jesus. Every time I heard His name, my heart pounded.”
At the end of her sophomore year in high school, Meghan went to a weekend Young Life camp. “I remember hearing a passage from the Bible and looking up at the stars, crying. I couldn’t believe there was a Father somewhere who would never leave me.”
I asked her if that was the moment she had made her vow of chastity. “Not specifically, not in those words,” she replied. “But it was then that I desired only God’s will for my life. And I’ve never regretted it.”
* * *
Karri was all about being social as a teenager, where the boys were and the action was. The temptation to have sex was a struggle for her.
“Growing up, my parents had me in church every time the doors opened,” she said. “I was a well-behaved little girl and then I turned fourteen. I knew waiting to have sex until marriage was the right thing to do, but I wanted to have fun.”
One afternoon Karri let a boy from her class give her a ride home from school, come into her house, check out her room . . . and they ended up on her bed. “I stopped him before it got to sex, but after he left, I felt ashamed and embarrassed. And what if he had refused to stop? I was lucky.”
In college, one of Karri’s suitemates was waiting to kiss her boyfriend until they were engaged. She became Karri’s mentor in her struggle to “hold out” for true love. “I wanted to be as pure as my friend was,” Karri said, “but I had already given out many kisses.”
Karri could have gotten down on herself for her past and for not being as disciplined and focused as her suitemate. She could’ve given up on chastity altogether. But one thought kept her on track: God sent his son Jesus to forgive me my shortcomings so that I might forgive myself and try harder to be the person I truly want to be.
Karri met her husband in college and was married two years later. They now have a family of three. “I wish a life of no regrets for my children and am preparing them for the fight while they’re young, introducing them to Jesus, the best friend and mentor they could have.”
* * *
In the end, I talked to my mom about keeping a vow of chastity, and to my surprise, she had a story of her own. She had been a “free spirit” back in the 70’s, and a single mom.
It was springtime, and I drove home to hill country, four hours north of New York City, for a visit. The sun was warm, so my mom and I sat out on the patio, drinking our first iced tea of the season.
“Why are you only telling me your story now?” I asked, a bit resentful. “Why not years ago when I needed to hear it?”
She insisted she had told me, when I was young and never listened to her. As irony would have it, I began to understand the meaning of chastity at the same age my mom was when she finally figured it out.
“It was back when your dad and I divorced,” she began, “and you were only five. My friend Annie asked if I wanted to meet a friend of hers, a grad student at the university named Tim. He was living in a tent at Empire Lake, a remote campground around a lake which was owned by the university at the time. Students often went nude there. Annie said he was working on his math dissertation. Of course I was interested.”
She told me how she and Annie drove out to the lake in my mom's Volkswagen Beetle. “Was he nude?” I asked.
“It’s an image that will be with me forever,” she said. “He had long blond hair that fell in ringlets around his shoulders, a full reddish-blond beard and a beautiful smile . . . and yes, he was thin, quite pale, and naked. I wasn’t shocked. It seemed very natural. The next weekend you stayed with your grandma, and Tim and I went to a folk festival called Fox Hollow. It was our first date.”
My mom, who has an animated personality, was even more spirited than usual as she described the “Fabulous!” time they had together, listening to music and learning about folk instruments. “I still have the pennywhistles!” she said, springing from her seat and running into the house to get them.
She returned with the two old tin whistles, but I was more interested in learning what had happened. “Did you spend the night together on your first date?” I asked.
“The festival had campsites, and we were sharing a tent. I longed to feel loved, and felt very attracted to Tim. I let him know that it would be all right.”
Having always been proud of my mom’s independent ways, I now saw a different picture. She was a single mother, vulnerable, searching for affection and healing.
“That’s when I found out he was a Christian,” she said. “He had made a vow of chastity to God. I was a Christian too, but more in theory than practice. It was a revelation to me that he could love God so much, he couldn’t bear to disappoint Him.”
“How did the night end?” I asked, imagining the awkward conversation.
“We had a wonderful time that night, reading Dracula by flashlight.”
After two years of close friendship with Tim, my mom realized how much she treasured the time they spent together. “I wanted to be married to him forever,” she said, “except I couldn’t understand why he would commit to a woman like me. I hadn’t exactly been what people considered a ‘good’ Christian.”
Tim’s absolute faith in God became my mom’s faith, and they’ve been happily married twenty-five years now. Both became fiddlers, still enjoying the folk music scene, and both are active in their church. Mom believes that God sent him to her, and second-chances are indeed miracles. “Keeping a promise, demonstrating discipline and sacrifice, can serve love at any time of life,” she told me. “The only way to know is to trust God and try.”
Sara Goff lives in New York City and is a writing instructor for students in inner-city public high schools through The National Arts Club, as well for the homeless through the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen Writers Workshop. She has published nonfiction articles in the SoHo Journal, a Manhattan quarterly lifestyle magazine. She's currently working toward publishing her first novel, a New York City love story about moral codes and prejudices.
**Photos: Betsy and her dad, Sara's mother Johanna