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.

Song of Solomon: Scripture that makes you squirm

I can’t pinpoint any one embarrassing moment in my life, but I can say with all confidence that attending the movies with my parents was a comprehensive experiment in the art of embarrassment.

Whenever a bad word was uttered, my father would groan like a frog.  I always thought it brought more attention than the word deserved, but he considered it a thorough warning.   When we saw Goodfellas, I thought he was going to have a heart attack.

You could only imagine how embarrassing it was when we saw a romance scene.  Oh, how I hated those moments.  Awkward.

I am sure that’s how Jewish boys and girls of old felt when it was Song of Solomon day at the local synagogue.  They probably squirmed in their seats when the rabbi read something like, “With great delight I sat in my beloved’s shadow, and his fruit was sweet…” (2:4).   For its time, it was as graphic as any R-rated film that, according to the Oxford Study Bible, was likened to a “feast for the senses.”

The Song of Solomon is still one of those books preachers rarely preach on, and it is an oddity in scripture since it defies all biblical genre.  It is not prophetic or wisdom literature.  It is not history. There is no mention of God anywhere.  At best it is a duet in which a groom and bride celebrate their love for one another.  A book that was, according to feminist scholars, penned by two lovers in search of divine oneness.

That describes the English version.  The original Hebrew captures all the nuances and word plays that would even make Hugh Hefner blush.  No wonder ancient rabbis considered it “forbidden.”

Yet, it was included in the Bible by the skin (no pun intended) of its teeth, so the Church had to sanitize it somehow.  Medieval scholars found that interpreting the Song as an allegory (a spiritual message) of God’s love for the church was the best option.  It wasn’t about physical romance after all, they argued, and a long, thankful sigh could be heard from parents everywhere.

With that taboo out of the way, the Song became rather valuable during the medieval era.  One scholar, Origen, wrote a ten-volume commentary on it.  French abbot, Bernard of Clairvaux, preached some 86 sermons on the first two chapters alone.  Jewish mystic Rabbi Akiva compared the book to the Holy of Holies and argued that it sufficed as a temporary sacred place for long as the temple remained unavailable.

Whether the book was a literal duet or an allegory of God’s love, there is still a fresh word in this amazingly contemporary book.  It’s dialogue expresses a type of faithfulness and fidelity for which we all long.  In our fly-by-night sex-saturated society, a fresh poem that speaks to God’s eternal love might be the type of gospel-message we need these days.

Come to think of it, there is something in the Song for everyone.  For married couples, its rich vocabulary has the power to ignite the embers of intimacy and fan the flame of passionate romance from an earlier time.

The Song reminds singles of their faithful attention to a God who comes to all of us as Spouse.  It also celebrates the type of purity that St. Paul championed in his letters to the Corinthians.

For people who despair over love lost, the Song resonates with broken hearts and the pursuit for wholeness: “Upon my bed,” the Song’s bride wrote in grief, “I sought him whom my soul loves…and found him not” (3:2).

For all of us, the Song can bring us some good seat-squirming experiences now and then as it reminds us just how intimately God longs to be with each of us.  Allow our love for Him to be the second part of the duet in all our hearts.

Seeking Commitment in a “No Strings Attached” Society

Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman in "No Strings Attached"

In the film, No Strings Attached, friends Emma (Natalie Portman) and Adam (Ashton Kutcher) hook up in what is commonly called a “friends with benefits” relationship (Beware: spoilers ahead!).  Basically, a friend with benefits is one that offers sexual intimacy without any obligations or commitments.

In the film, Emma is the high-powered professional who sets boundaries for the relationship; it doesn’t take long for Adam to push those boundaries to win her sole attention.  Predictably, it gets messy from there.

One would think that such casual relationships only happen in Hollywood.  Sex sells, and partnering Kutcher and Portman is a sure cash cow.  Unfortunately, there are many young adults that engage in these types of relationships every day.

Nearly six out of every ten young adults are sexually active; at least a third have had friends with benefits.  Even Christian teens are susceptible because many young churchgoers do not consider some forms of sexual intimacy sex.  After the Saturday night party is all said and done, they believe that they can still come to church as virgins.

Unfortunately, this fad is not a new concept.  It existed during biblical times within the confines of Roman and Greek (among other pagan) religious systems.  Whenever a man (women were not as “free” as their male counterparts) desired a casual, sexual encounter, they visited the nearest Roman temple.  There, they would find temple prostitutes who ensured a blissful experience good enough for gods and mortals alike.  If you happened to live in Corinth, you had your pick of a thousand prostitutes.

I hate to compare friends with benefits with prostitutes, but the underlying issues are the same.  When a person engages in a casual sexual relationship, he or she is exploiting that friend’s sexuality for one’s own selfish pleasure.  Exploitation is a prostitute’s calling card.

Friends with benefits might “promise” relationships with very little commitment, and no commitment means no emotional roller-coaster ride.  Yet, God has designed us to be people of commitment.  One way or another, we will desire to fulfill our spiritual needs with the stability that only a long-term commitment can provide, so having friends with benefits actually increases the chance of getting on that roller coaster.

The irony of No Strings Attached is that Adam does end up falling in love with Emma.  The more he spends time with her, the more he wants to commit his life to her.  But Emma refuses for most of the movie, and a slapstick tug-of-war follows.  Just goes to show that having friends with benefits is not beneficial at all.  The idea that two people can meet casually without feeling severe emotional side effects is a delusion.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminded his audience that their bodies were not their own.  A Christian’s body is a “temple of the Holy Spirit.” It is a vessel that Christ “bought at a price” when he died on the cross (1 Cor. 6:1-20).

This is not some abstract theological concept; it is a foundational conviction: Our bodies–and sexuality itself–is reserved for the one person whom God intends for us to marry.

My feeling is that the friends with benefits mentality throughout our culture is a root cause for so much emotional turmoil amongst our teens and young adults.  It reminds us that churches have to continue to battle against this rising tide of sexual promiscuity.

To echo one youth leader who spoke at a conference in Atlanta last month, we need to promote abstinence, convince young people that “Modest is hotest,” and encourage them to maintain physical, mental, and emotional purity, which is the best way to safeguard against destructive entanglements.  God’s way provides all the real benefits.