Chastity: The Impossible Dream?

21 Aug

Since we are surrounded by a sexually charged culture, pursuing purity can be a real challenge. For many, the pursuit has been abandoned, either because of repeated failure or because the pleasure of sexual immorality holds more promise to them than the blessing of walking in obedience to God. When I think about these things, I am always helped by C.S. Lewis’ chapter on Sexual Morality from Mere Christianity. Lewis helps me because of his powerful insights but also because of his use of humor. He knows how to bring out illustrations which show us the foolishness of the pursuit of lust.

Here are a few snippets from the chapter. I hope you’ll read the whole chapter (and book) sometime.

“Chastity is the most unpopular of Christian virtues. There is no getting away from it; the Christian rule is, ‘Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.’ Now this is so difficult and so contrary to our instincts, that obviously either Christianity is wrong or our sexual instinct, as it is now, has gone wrong. One or the other. Of course, being a Christian, I think it is the instinct which has gone wrong.”

“But I have other reasons for thinking so. Now if we eat whenever we feel inclined and just as much as we want, it is quite true that most of us will eat too much: but not terrifically too much. One man may eat enough for two, but he does not eat enough for ten. The appetite goes a little beyond its biological purpose, but not enormously. But if a healthy young man indulged his sexual appetite whenever he felt inclined, and if each act produced a baby, then in ten years he might easily populate a small village. This appetite is in ludicrous and preposterous excess of its function.”

“Or take it another way. You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act — that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food? And would not anyone who had grown up in a different world think there was something equally queer about the state of the sex instinct among us?”

“Starving men may think much about food, but so do gluttons; the gorged, as well as the famished, like titillations.”

“We have been fed all day long on good solid lies about sex. We have been told, till one is sick of hearing it, that sexual desire is in the same state as any of our other natural desires and that if only we abandon the silly old Victorian idea of hushing it up, everything in the garden will be lovely. It is not true. The moment you look at the facts, and away from the propaganda, you see that it is not.”

“They tell you sex has become a mess because it was hushed up. But for the last twenty years it has not been. It has been chattered about all day long. Yet it is still in a mess. If hushing up had been the cause of the trouble, ventilation would have set it right.”

“Modern people are always saying, ‘Sex is nothing to be ashamed of.’ They may mean two things. They may mean, ‘There is nothing to be ashamed of in the fact that the human race reproduces itself in a certain way, nor in the fact that it gives pleasure.’ If they mean that, they are right. Christianity says the same.”

“But, of course, when people say, ‘Sex is nothing to be ashamed of,’ they may mean ‘the state into which the sexual instinct has not 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.”

“Many people are deterred from seriously attempting Christian chastity because they think (before trying) that it is impossible. But when a thing has to be attempted, one must never think about possibility or impossibility. Faced with an optional question in an examination paper, one considers whether one can do it or not: faced with a compulsory question, one must do the best one can. You may get some marks for a very imperfect answer: you will certainly get none for leaving the question alone. Not only in examinations but in war, in mountain climbing, in learning to skate, or swim, or ride a bicycle, even in fastening a stiff collar with cold fingers, people quite often do what seemed impossible before they did it. It is wonderful what you can do when you have to.”

“We may, indeed, be sure that perfect chastity — like perfect charity — will not be attained by any merely human efforts. You must ask for God’s help. Even when you have done so, it may seem to you for a long time that no help, or less help than you need, if given. Never mind. After each failure, ask forgiveness, pick yourself up, and try again. Very often what God first helps us towards is not the virtue itself but just this power of always trying again. For however important chastity may be, this process trains us in habits of the soul which are more important still. It cures our illusions about ourselves and teaches us to depend on God.” We learn, on the one hand, that we can not trust ourselves even in our best moments, and, on the other, that we need not despair even in our worst, for our failures are forgiven.”

Quotes from C.S. Lewis’ 1952 book, Mere Christianity, selections from pp. 95-102

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