Mondays I now reserve for student letters. These two were responses to an article in which I counseled a young man and his girlfriend to remain chaste. Please keep in mind my audience. The article appeared in a Christian magazine, and both readers belonged to my own faith. One should only do sums with people who believe in arithmetic; the same with quotations from Scripture.
Reader One: Thanks.
I must say that I’m extremely grateful for your columns. A couple of things you’ve written really caught my eye and shook me inside. They’ve given me a lot of clarity in thinking about my romantic friendships. I especially appreciate how hard-hitting and to the point you are about issues that so many in my generation are going through with eyes closed. It’s terrifying just how little some of our parents have taught us and how big our spiritual blind spots can be.
Reader Two: No Thanks.
Your article irked me. Instead of making us feel guilty about wanting what’s natural, instead of telling us that we’re too young, instead of making us separate until we’re done with college, how about encouraging us to develop together, even if we are young, with God’s plan for marriage always in mind, always as the goal? Those who want to use sex in an unmarried commitment, like this boy and his girlfriend, shouldn’t be told that their commitment isn’t good enough. I didn’t sleep with my former fiancé. But who knows, maybe that physical connection would have given us the little bit more motivation we needed to carry on together, even though other people and outside circumstances were making it difficult. Anyway, I do not believe that sleeping with him and still breaking up would have had some horrible, incredibly more heart-breaking, godless effect on my life. Young adulthood is confusing enough without guilt trips from other people. God promises us ultimately good lives, and they can’t be anything but good lives, even if we make some imperfect decisions now. Stop telling us we’re completely wrong, when we are so obviously trying to do it God’s way.
Reader One, many thanks for your gracious words of appreciation. They hearten me to answer Reader Two.
Reader Two, where shall I start with you? First of all, I didn’t say anything about being too young or not being finished with college; I wrote about not being married. But never mind that. Let me ask you some questions — nine of them, to be exact. Ready, set, go.
1. What makes you think that casual sex is natural?
2. What makes you think that God’s instructions are goals and not commandments?
3. What makes you think that violating the commandments is a step toward fulfilling them?
4. What makes you think that sex is something to be “used”?
5. What makes you think that having no commitment is a kind of commitment?
6. What makes you think that sex without commitment produces commitment?
7. What makes you think that breaking up with someone with whom you have had casual sex wouldn’t be painful?
8. What makes you think that if you have done something wrong, awareness of guilt is something bad?
9. What makes you think that God promises all of us good lives?
I’m sure these questions have irked you. In the same order, here are the answers. They’ll irk you even more, but I can’t help that.
1. Of course sexual desire is natural, but it doesn’t follow that all ways of satisfying it are natural. Put your touchiness aside and think. Hunger is natural, but eating too much will kill you; thirst is natural, but drinking polluted water will make you sick. The natural way to satisfy our natural desires is in ways that fulfill their inbuilt purposes, and we weren’t designed for hooking up.
2. Even if we didn’t know a thing about how God has made us (though we do), we know what He has told us. He didn’t tell us to keep in mind purity as a goal while in the meantime indulging impurity; He commanded us to be pure. St. Paul tells us that the very impulse to impurity must be “put to death.” I think that’s pretty clear. Don’t you?
3. Besides, it’s not even possible to pursue purity as a goal through acts of impurity. Proposing that is like saying “Let’s work toward courage by being cowardly,” or “With moderation always in mind as a goal, let’s be gluttons.” The way to become virtuous, with the help of His grace, is to practice acts of virtue.
4. Sex is not something to be “used.” When a husband and wife have intercourse, they aren’t “using” something external to themselves, like a hammer or screwdriver (or they shouldn’t be). They are expressing the mutual and total gift of their very selves.
5. “Unmarried commitment” is a contradiction in terms; the correct name of the committed sexual relationship is “marriage.” Without it, what would you be committed to? Committed to sex? You’ve made no promises. To have a commitment that ends when you say it ends is to have no commitment at all.
6. Sex between you and your former fiancé might have produced feelings of commitment, but it wouldn’t have produced the reality. That wouldn’t have been a recipe for closer union, but for self-deception. Men and women who have sex before marriage are significantly more likely to divorce. One sociologist reports that “Cohabiting couples are less satisfied than married spouses with their partnerships, are not as close to their parents, are less committed to each other, and, if they eventually marry, have higher chances of divorce.”
7. The very fact that sex does produce feelings of union makes breakup painful — or were you perhaps thinking of sex among Martians? Serial sex with a long string of partners may eventually make breakups hurt less, but only by dulling the capacity for the bond itself — and then you have another kind of pain to deal with.
8. Once when I was small, I laid my palm on a hot burner. If it hadn’t hurt, so that I jerked away, I would have lost my hand. Thank God for the pain, and thank God that my mother, hearing my shrieks, came running and treated the injury. But we need the moral kind of pain for much the same reason as the physical kind: To alert us to spiritual injury that would otherwise pass unnoticed. By the way, after tending to my hand my mother told me off for playing with a hot stove. Would you have scolded her by saying “Childhood is confusing enough without ‘pain trips’ from other people”? I hope not.
9. I’m sorry, my dear, but God doesn’t promise that we will all have good lives no matter how we behave. What He promises is the help of His grace if we try to be good. The New Testament declares “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him,” but it also states “And this is love, that we follow his commandments.”
Since you dislike guilt trips so much, I’ll leave the last question for you. Here it is: What is so “obviously” godly about your “way”?