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Teaching teens about sexual purity isn’t good enough. Here’s why.

Last Updated: November 11, 2020

Luke Gilkerson
Luke Gilkerson

Luke Gilkerson has a BA in Philosophy and Religious Studies and an MA in Religion. He is the author of Your Brain on Porn and The Talk: 7 Lessons to Introduce Your Child to Biblical Sexuality. Luke and his wife Trisha blog at IntoxicatedOnLife.com

Is the phrase “sexual purity” overused in the church today? Your answer to this question will depend greatly on the church circles in which you run, but the heart of the question is meant to help us reflect on what the phrase “sexual purity” actually means.

Purity, by its very nature, is the absence of something. It communicates the idea of no mixture, no dirt, no pollutant, no stain, no defect. When we tell our children and teens to aim for sexual purity, we are, in essence, telling them what they need to avoid—sexual and lustful involvement before marriage—not what they should aim for.

Nothing is wrong with the word “purity.” There are multiple words used the New Testament that can be translated “pure” or “clean,” so it ought to be a word in our vocabulary. But it should not be the only word.

Teaching Our Children How Lust Is Displaced

In his book, Father Hunger: Why God Calls Men to Love and Lead Their Families, Douglas Wilson has some penetrating insights into this issue for parents. I quote him in full below:

One of the most vexing questions for fathers bringing up kids in this tawdry world is the matter of entertainment standards and how to protect his family from the rising levels of crassness we see everywhere. But one of the running temptations we encounter in this world is the temptation of coming up with makeshift forms of holiness. We think we know what God wants, and we bustle around to come up with some form of that on our own. But then we discover later, to our dismay, that this is not what He was asking for at all.

Compare these two passages from Ephesians:

Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, do that he may have something to share with anyone in need. (4:28)

But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. (5:3-4)

There is an important word that is found in both of these texts. That is the word rendered as rather or instead (mallon), a word Paul uses in exactly the same way in both texts. In the first instance, his use of it is not really that surprising to us. In the second, there are perhaps quite a few surprises in store. In the first example, Paul says that a thief should stop stealing and that instead of this he should get an honest job, working with his hands. This is because in Paul’s mind there is a basic alternative here—stealing or working. If you work and generate surplus for sharing with those in need, then you have filled up your life with that which will exclude the practice of stealing. We should note in passing that Paul does not tell the thief to get a job so that he can make his own money, and then be in a position to tell hippies to “get a job.” Honest work enables providing for one’s own needs, and for sharing.

But Paul argues in exactly the same way a few verses when he teaches the Ephesians how to get free of crass joking, covetous grasping, the easy naming of fornication and uncleanness, and so forth. The impure life is to be replaced with…now here is where we would say “the pure like as described by Mrs. Grundy,” but Paul says “with thanksgiving.” We contrast impurity with purity, but Paul contrasts impurity with contentment. There is something deep going on here. This is not a trivial point.

Biblical contentment is not stoicism. We are not called to be content in the same way that a block of wood is content—even though we may assume the wood presumably is content. That is not what we are called to. And Paul is not urging us into some kind of “happy, happy, happy all the day” kind of stuff. He is not urging a constant and frothy giddiness. No, he sets the pattern for us, providing us with an example. In one place he describes himself as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10). His joy, his contentment, was not a perverse kind of denial, or a stiff-upper-lip stoicism. And yet it was “always rejoicing.” This kind of contentment, whether well fed or hungry, is a deep satisfaction with the will of God for you (Phil. 4:11-12). This is bedrock stuff—a basalt kind of joy twenty feet down. And it needs to be a foundation, bedrock joy that runs underneath the entire house.

A few verses later Paul tells us that we must, always and for everything, give thanks in the name of Jesus—”giving thanks always and for everything” (Eph. 5:20). This is part of his sustained argument, where he is continuing to show us the contrast, not between dirty and clean, but between dirty and grateful. This is what helps us to name the problem rightly.

For example, if you are fighting a losing battle for godly entertainment standards in your house, the problem is not teen sex comedies; the problem is discontent. The problem is not dirty jokes, but frustration. If an authority figure says, “You should tell clean jokes instead of dirty jokes,” this is setup for the perfect comeback, “But clean jokes are lame.” But Paul doesn’t tell us to fight dirty jokes with clean jokes, lame or not. He says to fight dirty jokes with contentment and gratitude. And for those who see the world biblically, they see that those whose talk is full of corruption are not revealing a worldly wise sophistication, but rather a seething and unhappy discontent.

Just as the thief is trying to get something the easy way instead of God’s way, so also the person with a foul mouth is trying to get satisfaction in his own way. But outside Jesus Christ, there can be no deep satisfaction—and in Christ, everything is pure. So if we are trying to find satisfaction independently of Him, that move will always veer toward the crass, the filthy, the immoral, the disturbing, and the rest of that fetid swamp. But if makes no sense for someone to live in the swamp of discontent with a resolve to “keep it clean.” Keeping it clean is arbitrary, given the quagmire of discontent he live on, and on top of that, keeping it clean there is impossible.

“Keeping a rule,” however technically correct, falls easily into the trap of abstraction and impersonalism. For the father to “make rules” for a discontent household is simply sweeping water uphill. Adjusting the environment is radically insufficient. Tool many fathers deny the need for the gospel in how they try to protect their children from sin. You cannot adjust the environment in such a way to keep sin out. This would include school, church, books, television, diet, and so on. Christian faithfulness does not come from rearranging the furniture.

As a result, we oppose sin with a false standard of holiness, and then are surprised at its impotence. But gratitude, thanksgiving, contentment, and joy are always personal, by definition. Jesus is there, and if you thank Him, then that gratitude fills up all the available space. This it the “gratitude displacement” strategy. Scripture teaches us that gratitude and thanksgiving are central to a right relationship with God, which in turn is central to a right relationship to the world around us. The fundamental problem with the unregenerate heart and mind is that it will not honor God as God, and will not give Him thanks (Rom. 1:21). Contrary to this, we want to make sure we do both. Confronting sin, we should approach it with gratitude displacement.

Father Hunger, p. 172-176

Teaching Children Contentment

Wilson here prescribes the biblical solution to a restless drive toward lust: contentment, gratitude, and joy.

The million-dollar question is this: how do we teach our children this kind of contentment?

1. First and fundamentally, we have to acknowledge to our kids that contentment is only truly found in Christ. Yes, our household media rules are important. Yes, our standards for dating and/or courtship are important as well. But each rule must be met with a heartfelt acknowledgement:

“God’s law tells us not to make opportunities for lust in our life, but when we do this, we will find that our hearts are still restless. This is because God’s law doesn’t just tell us how to live. It reveals something is wrong inside us, that at our core we desire the very things that are bad for us, that we need God to change us on the inside. That’s one way Jesus saves us from our sins: he break’s sin grip on our hearts and gives us new, godly desires.”

2. Second, they need to learn to live with less. Paul writes, “But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (1 Timothy 6:6-8). One of the best ways to train ourselves for contentment is to start giving generously to others so we aren’t so ensnared by the desire for more—a desire that is the very root of lust.

3. Third, we should tell our kids that contentment is learned through God’s training. One often-quoted but perplexing passage is found in Philippians 4:11b-13:

“…I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

Paul says twice that he  “learned” contentment. First he says that he learned the importance of being content—that it is something he should be. Second he says he learned how to be content. He says, “I have learned the secret.” What secret?

The word Paul uses here is a technical word that was used in other religions of his day; it carries the idea of being “initiated” into a special group to learn exclusive mysteries that only an inner circle was allowed to know. However, here Paul implies all Christians can learn the secret of contentment, and he tells them what his initiation process looked like.

Christ had brought him through experiences of hunger and distress, as well as circumstances of plenty and fullness. One moment Paul is surrounded by encouraging friends, has a roof over his head, and is experiencing great success in ministry. Then next moment he is being stoned, shipwrecked, or thrown in prison. Both kinds of experiences—plenty and hunger—were the way Christ initiated Paul in the school of contentment. Ever valley was another opportunity to trust God, and every mountaintop was an opportunity for gratitude.

If our kids are going to learn contentment, it begins by help them see the world through the lens of Christ’s sovereign control and care, by seeing the ups and downs of their life not as a chaotic roller coaster, but as the purposeful training hand of God.

Once they learn this secret, they will find in themselves the divine strength to stand against lust.

  • Comments on: Teaching teens about sexual purity isn’t good enough. Here’s why.
    1. angelica

      I’m 17 and this article really got me to thinking about sexual purity.Thank you for the articles that you post online because it’s much appreciated.

    2. This article cornerstones the very existence of my blogsite http://www.biblicallypure.com. Why we pursue joy, cultivate 10,000 reasons for my heart to praise and fighting all sin with a superior pleasures. Thank you for sharing that reading and encouraging families to go deeper in their walk with God. Praying for you Luke!!

    3. Wow Really?

      I love how people who are into the bible use generic bible passages to cover specific topics. The reality is if you abstain from sex before marriage you are risking being with a person you are sexually incompatible with. This I promise you will destroy a marriage. Also, fools then rush into marriage just to have sex. This article deal with a fantasy world. A world where everyone finds their soul mate. You get married. The sex is great. Life is happily ever after. Life does not work that way I assure you. I also love how in the bible it is always telling the poor to live with less. It is okay. You will be rewarded in heaven. Just suffer here on earth. The bible is the greatest tool used to keep the masses in check. The rich love the bible. It keeps the poor from rising up. Governments actually should love the bible. It keeps everyone in check. Because as I said, suffer here on earth and you will be rewarded in heaven. But what happens if there is no heaven? Just a whole lot of suffering. That is what happens. I swear sometimes I think the bible is the greatest brainwashing tool there ever was constructed. You ever go to a church service? Where someone says “God is good” then everyone replies “all the time”. It is like conditioning. Parroting. People say things without even really thinking of what they say. It is what Pavlov experimented with.

      • You cover a number of things in your comment. I’ll try to reply to them one by one.

        1. Let me know if you think I’ve applied something from the Bible incorrectly. I’d love to make corrections if you find an error. You didn’t site a specific example.

        2. Do you risk being in a sexually incompatible relationship if you don’t have premarital sex? Perhaps. I guess it depends what you mean by “incompatible.” Obviously, since we’re coming at this from a Christian point of view, this isn’t a reason to disobey God in the matter of sex, but it is something for couples to work through in their marriage (and we know many couples who have successfully done so).

        3. Do Christians who have been abstinent rush into marriage to have sex? Yes. This calls for wisdom on everyone’s part, and that is another topic for another article. Thanks for the idea.

        4. I take serious issue with the notion that this article promotes a “happily ever after” married fantasy. If anything, it promotes contentment in life despite one’s circumstances. I’d love to hear more what comments in this article have led you to read it that way.

        5. The Bible does indeed challenge Christians to give sacrificially of their time and treasures, but I fail to see why this is a bad thing. As for saying that Christians will be rewarded in heaven, I also fail to see why this is a bad thing. Actually, the ultimate vision of eternal life is not something other-worldly—just going to heaven when you die—but is tied to the rejuvenation of this world. The ultimate Christian hope is eternal life here on Earth, an Earth that God will renew, an Earth where sin and death are taken away forever. The ultimate hope is a new embodied existence with embodied pleasures, not something merely spiritual. This is the reason why Christians can engage in sacrificial acts of mercy and justice: because they know their work will not be in vain, that they are working to build something that is enduring.

        6. So your theory is that the Bible keeps the poor in check because it gives them a pie-in-the-sky hope that allows them to be content with their poverty, correct? Certainly the Bible has been (improperly) used that way in the past, but the Bible has also (properly) inspired some of the greatest movements toward abolition and sacrifice in the world.

      • Ted B.

        Luke, I read your response to the comment above. I can’t speak to for the person above, but I can answer some of your points.

        1. Often Christians use general passages to cover every issue they are going after. Generic passages are so generic that they cover everything. I have noticed that too.

        2. Of course, you risk being incompatible. Let’s not use the Bill Clinton …. please define the word excuse …. to get around the issue. Being incompatible is exactly that.

        3. Many Christians rush into marriage to have sex. People are made to have sex. Just look at our body chemistry. It is quite evident. The longer you wait the more it will impact you and make you rush.

        4. I think many Christians have it in their head that all will be well if you follow a set of rules. For Christians, it is a matter of do’s and don’ts ……they thing they are “moral” if they follow the rules. I am hear to tell you that following the rules may not be moral at all. For example, right now, there is a man sitting in prison for life, for stealing golf clubs. Yes, that is following the rules, but the punishment is not remotely moral. In fact, the legal system is an excellent tool for teaching the difference between following the rules and being moral. People so quickly forget Christ was convict. He was convicted in a kangaroo court, with corrupt judges, lying witnesses, and brutal guards……. and all those people are alive and well today.

        5. It is a bad thing if there is no heaven. You sacrificed for nothing. You took crap from people for nothing. I am completely convinced the bible is what keeps the poor from rising up against the rich and government. When you have people with so much money just wasting away in banks or a government that spends 3 TRILLION dollars on useless wars or a government that locks up people for profit ……. there is a lot of anger because the rich could use that money to help, those 3 trillion dollars could be given back to the people instead of killing people ….. and we should never lock up people for profit (and don’t say we don’t do this … prisons are listed on the NYSE … anything listed on a stock exchange exists to make profit). The only thing that keeps the poor from violently rising up is the message of not killing and turning the other cheek. But one day, that may not even be enough. I fear that day may be soon. There are too many poor people, the middle class no longer exists…. when that happens the poor rise up.

        6. I think that is exactly what the person is saying and I agree with him or her. I agree. The bible has been a source of sacrifice…. problem is the poor are the only ones doing the sacrificing. The rich certainly arent and those in government arent.

      • Hey there, Ted.

        1. Thanks for being more specific. I appreciate that. As the author of this article, it looks like we agree on this one.

        2. If you define the word “incompatibility” as something that, by its very nature, is insurmountable or unchangeable, then I think we’re using different definitions. No big deal there. What I’m saying is that if a couple chooses to not have pre-marital sex and later finds they have incongruous sexual tastes, this is something they can converge on if they are both willing to learn from one another (much like many of the challenges of marriage).

        3. I think we agree here.

        4. Since you haven’t given me anything specific from this article that has led you to think I’m promoting a “happily ever after” marriage fantasy, I guess I can’t reply to this point.

        I think you are correct that morality is more than rule-following. Christian ethics, as it is defined in the Bible, is more than normative ethics (“follow the rule because God says so”). Christian ethics is also situational (“what is wise and best in this situation?”) and existential (“why am I doing or not doing this action?”). Christian ethics is a far richer subject than some make it out to be. I suppose we agree on this point (at least as far as you’ve communicated).

        5 & 6. I agree removing eternal hope is a bad thing, but both the Bible’s stated intention for giving hope and the actual effect it has in people’s lives is the opposite of what you are saying. Take, for instance, the Christian abolitionists of the 19th century. Rich and poor, they united together to end oppressive laws and norms, not in spite of their hope but because of it. If one looks in the Scripture, one sees a God who chooses the poor and the oppressed, and one hears the constant prophetic call that those who align themselves with such a God will work for the cause of the poor and oppressed themselves.

      • Evan

        There is so much lack of textual criticism in your thought here. You made a claim regarding sexual compatibility and how sexual incompatibility “destroys a marriage.” I don’t think I’ve ever met any person, nor have studies shown, that sexual incompatibility is the sole purpose for a marriage’s demise. Most likely what happens is a lack of communicating about expectations of all areas of marriage, sex included. Couples who wait to have sex until marriage are less likely to have marital “destruction” (to use your word) if they communicate about all areas of marriage, prior to marriage. Marital destruction from “sexual incompatibility” is often more likely the result of something much greater…

        Secondly, you mentioned that “fools then rush into marriage just to have sex.” I think even non-religious married couples who decide to wait would disagree. I think this statement is a reaction used simply to support your frustrations with alleged “brainwashing” and “Pavlovian” psychological tactics…but in reality, it’s just not the reality for most.

        Just because the government, for example, might benefit from a group of people who remain content with what they have may serve the government, does not remove the merit in the principle of contentedness…just like loving your neighbor, even when you don’t want to, is removed from the principle of being a decent human being. Just because the principles in scripture benefit a group of people who tend to disregard those principles, does not mean that the principles themselves are without merit. Your logic is somewhat flawed, and appears to be with some subjective bias.

    4. Alan George

      The facts are actually the opposite of most of the comments made. People who have sex before marriage are more like to divorce than those who don’t. The reasons are not clear yet but may be because they learn delayed gratification. If they learn to control their sexual urges before mrriage then controlling disappointment or disparity within marriage is easier. Those who learn instant gratification are more likely to not be able to cope with any level of dissatisfaction. On the rich and poor it is actually the rich who hate the Bible more. Christianity is less prevalent among the self sufficient rich than the poor. The Bible is a way out of poverty for the poor. And Governments definitely hate the Bible. It is banned in many countries and is even restricte in Government institutions in The USA. Porn certainly relies on and feeds dis-content. It must create an unsatisfied desire to sustain itself. The same is true of all advertising. Toyota will never tell people to keep their pesent car, it gets you from A to B. Pornography agents will never tell people to stay with their current partner because it is better for them and more satisfying in the long run.

      • Ted B.

        Oh please. You missed the entire point of that that person wrote. And where did you come up with “Pornography Agents.”

        Show me the statistics on people who have sex before and after marriage. My guess is that those who wait have nothing to compare their sex life to. So, if it is terrible they won’t even know.

        Look at what you wrote: “If they learn to control their sexual urges before mrriage then controlling disappointment or disparity within marriage is easier.” So, essentially you are saying a person needs to just be content being in a disappointing marriage. That is even more incentive to know everything about your spouse before marrying him or her. A huge part of a marriage is sex. What? You think life is all about going to work and going to church?

        The entire government is based on the bible actually. It is in every courtroom. All the suffering that occurs through the legal system is because of our puritanical society. Often, our punishments are worse than the crimes. No, believe this, the government loves the bible. It keeps the masses from rising up. It makes people accept the terrible conditions in which they live for the promise of some reward in heaven.

        Hate to tell you on your car analogy —- that car is going to tell you when it is ready to get a new one. Not the Toyota company. If you spouse is not a good person, hates sex, etc. That is what will drive divorces. Seen it a million times.

    5. lisa

      Hi Ted,

      On the issue of incompatibility, what alternative do you suggest? personally, i think there’s absolutely nothing wrong with abstaining from sex until you’re married, even if there’s a possibility of “disappointment”(which is sometimes inevitable). But since you say that its better to know everything about your spouse before marriage, would u rather sleep with just about every person you date just so you’re sure that you won’t be disappointed if u happen to get married to that person?
      when you trust God for good things( be it your future spouse,a better job, awesome sex life even) you are placing your belief in him higher than our fear of the unknown,
      in other words,you know that believing is seeing. Not the other way round.
      Well, every decision we take has its risks.


      • Sav

        The comments really went south. This is a monumental shame because the article itself was actually profound.
        I won’t be countering the list of debatable topics from the article… But I’ll say this…

        To those who questioned this article to the degree that they did… Do you know God? Does He speak to you? Do you trust Him with every part of your life? Is He leading you and revealing amazing revelations about yourself and your purpose, things you could never have hoped to discover on your own? Is He directing your path and bringing unspeakable peace and contentment even in the middle of life’s storms? Only God can do these things. The bottom line is… He is experiential, and His truths are experiential… There’s no explaining, debating, or educating if someone’s heart is not open to Him. An actual transformation takes place that can only be fathomed by the one offering their life to God. It’s miraculous. “Taste and see that the Lord is good, blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him.” Psalm 34:8.

        When you’re living in this other worldly way, you see things differently. I surrendered my sexuality to God… I used to put a lot of focus on sex and how it gratified me, my world was spiraling. I learned that not until I was completely gratified by God could sex with my husband be meaningful. God’s a pretty clever guy. He’s the only one that meets all of our needs, and only when He’s meeting our needs can we find contentment where we couldn’t before… in unfulfilling sex, in a state of poverty, etc. He makes all things new. “Do not be conformed by this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…” Romans 12:2.

        No one on earth, no use of our sexuality (before or after marriage), no spouse, no government, no leaders, no career will ever satisfy us. And the Lord would have it no other way, because we were made by Him to worship Him. When we grasp this, when we surrender our lives at His feet, when He walks with us in the ways He asks us to go, He goes before us… things change, our outlook is radically different, He delivers us either from or through our tribulations, sometimes glorious miracles happen, and we are never the same again. He blesses us when we honor Him and put him first… He can make sex that was “bad” miraculously “good”. We can’t comprehend the depth of His love for us. He cares about every aspect of our lives and waits for us to put Him first so He can impact every facet of it and bring His peace.

        Only He brings true peace, freedom and transcending contentment. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will direct your path.”
        Proverbs 3:5-6

    6. Elizabeth

      Thanks for your article Luke. It is very timely for me as I am raising two tween girls as a single parent and am struggling to set limits on media in our home. In addition, the girls’ father has taken the tack you first described of essentially forbidding everything and criticizing the girls’ desires for any programming other than that labeled “Christian”. Things are complicated by the fact that my older daughter has ADHD and is Oppositional thus turning just about every conversation either into a joke or an argument. After reading your suggestions I feel I have been thrown a lifeline. I do need to set better limits and stick to them, but now I feel I have a means of approaching the issue at it’s source, rather than trying to control their environment, which is impossible anyway. It is a heart issue, and while my ODD child is resistant to dictatorship, I pray the Lord will open her heart to Godly leadership. Prayers are appreciated!

    7. Elijah

      Thanks so much for this article.Am supposed to talk to a group of teenagers this Sunday on sexual purity and this will really come in handy.

    8. Julie M

      I was shocked and saddened by the negative comments on this article. The author did a fabulous job graciously answering every criticism, so I wont repeat his answers. However, I will state what I found to be glaringly obvious: 1) The author and those who follow God and His Word in the areas of sex and marriage, do so because God and His glory are what they value. The author’s point was not self focus but God focus. And the author knows this truth (as do I): that following God is best for self. My supreme happiness is found when I worship God as supreme. My pleasure (yes even sexually) is most gratified when I am most satisfied in Him and following His guidelines (The Bible) for my life.
      In sharp contrast, 2) those who commented negatively were self focused and put sex first and self pleasure as the goal. It’s a fleeting high that leaves a soul empty and unsatisfied. True, lasting, contentment and soul satisfying pleasure apart from God doesn’t exist.

      P.S. if your marriage has fallen apart it isnt sex that was the problem. Sexual issues, incompatibility or infidelity are symptoms of deeper, unresolved issues. If you were disappointed or hurt in your marriage, I’m sorry. But following Gods plan for sex and purity wasnt to blame.

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