Abstinence as a Rite of Passage

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By Joe LaGuardia

There is something to be said about the importance of rites of passage in a person’s growth and development.   A rite of passage is the act of crossing a threshold–traditionally going from adolescence to adulthood–by way of ritual, self-sacrifice, crisis, or sacrament.

As such, most rites of passage require some sense of suffering and decision.  Baptism, for example, has been a historic rite of passage for Christians.  In getting baptized, we recognize our choice to deny ourselves, pick up our crosses, and follow Jesus.

Every world religion and culture has some sort of rite of passage that thrusts young people into a life of sacrifice and obedience.   Each rite communicates that people are interconnected and that valor is a virtue to be cherished rather than scorned.

Why is it, then, that our modern society tends to downplay rites of passage?  We no longer ask our young people to sacrifice something for a greater cause; we buy or consume whatever we need without suffering through delayed gratification; we rarely say “no” to demands that far outweigh the benefits of the many; and we avoid suffering in everything we do–from marriages to careers.

There was a day when you had to earn a living by hard work, stay in a marriage even it didn’t meet expectations, and remain faithful to one career even if it was boring.  Loyalty is no longer the norm.

When I was a teenager, the biggest rite of passage that tested one’s muster was not body piercings or tattoos.  It wasn’t some solo adventure in the wilderness with a match and canteen of water.  Even baptism was easy and fun–it was more party than imposition.

No, my rite of passage was abstinence.  It was having to wait until marriage before being able to satisfy all of those natural desires that hormones inspire.

There were two or three Christian retreats I went on during high school that promoted abstinence before marriage.

I recall one in particular in which we all pledged to remain virgins until marriage on the first night of the retreat.  Then, on the next night, when the preacher was going on about the Second Coming of Christ, we all regretted taking that pledge.  Hey, if Jesus was going to come back tomorrow, then why wait?

We prayed a very specific prayer after that night: “Lord, we want you to come back, but can you at least wait until after we’re married?”

I won’t lie: Abstinence was rough.  It was the “narrow way” for all of us who followed Jesus in our youth.  We suffered.  We had to “deny ourselves” although our sexually active peers seemed so happy.

Abstinence required leaving the party early, avoiding certain people who didn’t share the same values, and putting up with an overabundant sense of teenage angst.  It also required a circle of friends that kept us accountable.

It was a pledge that we barely kept; but, by God, it was a rite of passage that toughened us up in the long run.  We were better for it.

These days, there are many opponents to abstinence.  Some cite psychological or emotional reasons for why its “unhealthy” to deny the body its natural courses in life.

Some argue that abstinence keeps people from “experimenting” and learning about their bodies.  I guess the notion is that if we “experiment” before marriage, we will avoid marrying someone who is not compatible.

Nonsense.  The safest sex is no sex, and for once I think that we need to keep abstinence as a rite of passage in a world in which rites are scarce.  Scripture tells us, “Discipline yourselves. . .Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance.  Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct” (1 Peter 1:13, 14-16).

God calls all of us to be holy through discipline, righteous living, and self-control.  Let’s not abandon every practice in which we have to sacrifice our desires.

A sense of value and strength comes from obeying God, especially when God is calling us into an adulthood in which Christ–and not our every emotional or physical whim–is Lord.

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