Salad, Sex and Lent: Abstinence for a Purpose

I’m a virgin. You may have heard of us.

My understanding of sex is based on a combination of fifth-grade conversations with my mom, accidentally running into people in the park who thought they were alone, and watching HBO. Not much on the personal experience end.

While I have no problem admitting to my current state of sexlessness, I hate the modern conception of what a “virgin” must look like. I don’t live with my parents; I don’t play World of Warcraft in a basement. I’m not overweight. (I also have a job in the film industry, which I have been told is “sexy.”)

The fact that I’m a virgin comes up, now and then, in unexpected conversations—at work, while on a camping trip, at a party. The reactions vary, but the most common is something along the lines of “Whoa…I respect that, I just didn’t know anyone could do it!”

In Christian contexts, I’m much less of a social unicorn: plenty of the people I know from church are still “doing the abstinence thing,” despite living in a city that thrives on hook-up culture. And the number of people from my alma mater whose engagements pop up on Facebook each week keeps the rest of us hopeful for a sanctioned, sexy future.

But the thing that bothers me about the church approach to chastity is that many youth groups—including my own—have felt that the only way to keep teenagers out of each other’s pants is to present abstinence as a magical money-back guarantee. “Here, put on this purity ring! It will guide your future husband right to you!”

I appreciate the sentiment of things like “true love waits,” but I’d rather be part of an abstinence that doesn’t sit around pining. Sometimes people never get married. Sometimes they do and the “plumbing” doesn’t work.

Most likely there will be someone, sometime, who finds my big blue eyes and charming wit irresistible. But if there isn’t, I will legitimately end up dying a virgin. Which, as we have learned from TV shows, is actually a fate worse than death.

So if the goal of abstinence is “better indulgence later,” then we have a problem. Which leads me to look outside the sex issue for a bit.

I’ve taken part in Lent, or at least the less-liturgical Protestant version, for a couple of years now. Each time it’s helped me to refocus things in my life that were a little out of balance: MySpace (circa 2007), chocolate, etc. This year I decided to give up alcohol—and for the first time, didn’t make it through.

I convinced myself that I could make an exception for a really big party I would be attending for work. Afterwards, I was a little unhappy, but not in a guilty “I just failed God” sense. I was mostly just bummed that I would no longer be able to brag about my perfect Lent record to all of my Christian friends. Plus, now that I had a drink once, should I just scrap the whole thing and get wasted?

And that was when I realized that I might have this “abstaining” thing all wrong.

The purpose of Lent was never to build up to a self-righteous Easter binge.

But in our society, the only thing that gets us to curb our appetites is the pursuit of another appetite. We switch from burgers to salads, for example, so we can lose weight and look good enough to get laid. Not just because it’s good for us. Not if we’re being honest. Restraint for its own sake—without some kind of physical payoff—has been branded lunacy. Because why would you not want to be happy?

Which leaves me sitting here, crying into my kale salad, asking God why he can’t just zap me and take my desire for physical intimacy away.

Fortunately (like every other modern evangelical in a dilemma), I found a C.S. Lewis sound byte to re-orient my brain:

 “If anyone says that sex, in itself, is bad, Christianity contradicts him at once. But…when people say, ‘Sex is nothing to be ashamed of,’ they may mean ‘the state into which the sexual instinct has now got is nothing to be ashamed of’. If they mean that, I think they are wrong. I think it is everything to be ashamed of. There is nothing to be ashamed of in enjoying your food: there would be everything to be ashamed of if half the world made food the main interest of their lives and spent their time looking at pictures of food and dribbling and smacking their lips.” (Mere Christianity)

If you need any further fleshing out of that metaphor, think about that friend that always Instagrams what they’re having for lunch.

I have a God who wants me to meet him outside my desires. To pause from all of the other things that I take in that are not him, and find security outside of them.

Because only then can I realize that my appetites are not what define me…nor should they be.

We are not (just) what we eat.

  • A.R.G.

    Word, Sister.

  • B. McGee

    Great post! Chastity is not just a prudish denial of a good thing. It is in itself a good thing. And it means different things for different people. A chaste married person is faithful to his or her spouse, and a chaste singleton or priest (if you’re a Catholic from the Roman Rite) is celibate. Like your Lewis quote gets at, Christianity offers freedom from slavery to our impulses, and in this case dignifies them through matrimony.

    And like you discuss in your post, this is a profoundly counter-cultural approach to sex. Do you think there’s any way this kind of message could reach people through popular media, or is it up to people to exemplify it joyfully in their day-to-day lives and hope for the best?

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  • Hannah Rose

    Thanks! It’s true…nowadays we assume anyone in ministry has to be married, or else there’s something wrong with them–how could you have a pastor who doesn’t have a wife or kids to make analogies about? Which is ironic considering how long this tradition of set-apart celibacy for God-focused work has been going on.

    I definitely think that popular media could be an outlet for more education/understanding about the topic, and the motivation behind it. We need to stop being embarrassed and quiet about the whole thing, generally. But just as with anything else, the best and most fruitful conversations i have about this come from talks I have in real life. I’ve yet to meet a person whose whole philosophy was changed by the Internet.

  • Tola Ositelu

    Hello Hannah,

    Thank you so much for a witty, incisive very relevant piece. A friend sent this to me. I loved this article especially how you looked at the broader context. Going back to the sexual side…oh how I’ve prayed those ‘God, switch off my libido’ prayers. I know the feeling. But victory comes in overcoming. You’re right, doing the right thing should be its own reward but in an age which despises delayed gratification, I suppose one feels the need to give incentives. I think even the more ascetic amongst us might feel a bit of conviction reading this but it’s necessary.

    The problem is the church can indirectly encourage singletons to desire marriage as an excuse to have sex. Taking Paul’s ‘Better to marry than burn…’ admonition out of context. What a precarious basis on which to build a life long union. The church has let the world’s obsession with romantic relationships and being defined by them seep into its culture to the extent that we don’t realise how much we’ve just co-opted and then ‘spritualised’ it. It’s hard enough to press into God and appreciate Him for all He is but then we have to mentally distance ourselves from all this Disneyfied/Hollywood indoctrination plus the concern of well-meaning saints who cast pitiful sideway glances if you’re a single female over 25…

    I thank God for this journey although it’s not been easy. It’s good to see others coming out of the virginal closet too ;-) As you mentioned, we’re not as endangered as the sitcoms would have us believe.

    Not all of us are ’embarrassed and quiet about the whole thing’…

    A few years ago I did a couple of posts on a similar theme…

    Also, I’d encourage you to check out two very good articles also on the church’s attitude towards singleness and celibacy and how unfortunately, the cart is too often put before the horse…

    PS I loved the CS Lewis quote. He was very ahead of his time!

    Shalom x

  • John Morgan

    That is so true Hannah. Most churches, at least Protestant, actually preachers to be married. The SBC has no unmarried preachers in the southeastern U.S.