So, what’s purity about, anyway?

After my post last week, a friend retweeted it like so:

I liked her question.  I do think it’s important, something we should consider carefully as people of faith.  I don’t think I could fully answer it just yet, but I have an idea where we might start.

First, I don’t think that purity is merely a state of dress/undress, specific expression of sexuality, or internal thought.  It’s not about adhering to a set of rules about where the line of premarital physical expression lies.  It’s not about how much skin is or isn’t showing in public.  It’s not about avoiding anything that might cause arousal.  While those may all be ways that an individual person expresses purity, they aren’t actually purity in and of themselves.

Part of the reason why those rules and behaviors can’t define purity is that for many of them, there are further questions.  For example, is a couple who were intimate before the wedding, but then got married, still “impure” now?  Is a person who was raped “impure”?  Is it “impure” to wear a bathing suit, since more skin is showing than in pants and a shirt?  Do the same rules apply to men and women?  Is a hormone-fueled erection in math class “impure,” or only if it was caused by “lust”?  And how might “lust” be defined, anyway?  Leaving aside the question of whether homosexuality itself is sin, if one thinks it isn’t, then are partners “impure” if they are in a long-term relationship in a state where marriage isn’t legally possible?

Another problem with the set of rules is that they have to be defined very specifically and may vary from person to person.  For example, one woman I know is a very attractive person.  She wears clothes that flatter her and that feel good to her.  Her blouses are often cut lower than something I would wear, but she never looks immodest to me.  I suppose there are very strict people who might not like the way she dresses, but most people would not take issue.  Yet I’ve seen lists of “appropriate” clothing that would exclude most of what she wears, because there is too much bare skin exposed.  On the other hand, I’ve seen people wearing more clothes than she does who definitely have an air of overt sexuality about them.  There is clearly something about the underlying attitude that contributes to immodesty.

I think the clothing issue bothers me more than just about anything else.  I’ve heard guys say that girls and women should show “respect” for men by not dressing in certain ways.  Personally, I believe that if your respect for another human being starts with what you’re wearing, you’re coming at it from an entirely wrong angle.  This is true about purity and modesty in other ways, too.  The rules aren’t the launchpad for the respect.

While I don’t have a concrete, clear definition for either purity or modesty, I do think that the place to begin is long before the rules on how to get it right.  Respect for others doesn’t come from thinking about how we can keep each other “pure.”  It starts with thinking about others as real people, people who have opinions, ideas, feelings, needs, interests, beliefs.  Respect involves treating other people how we want to be treated and placing them above ourselves.

If we see others as being whole, three-dimensional people, it becomes easier to show respect.  It becomes easier to believe that the way to get others to take an interest in us is not through flaunting our bodies or sexuality, but through taking an interest in who they are as people.  It becomes easier to avoid things that objectify people for our own pleasure when we see them as complete beings.  It becomes easier to respect our partners in our intimate relationships by mutual love and care.

It’s not the Purity Manual for Impure Christians, a set of rigid rules and lines we mustn’t cross, that will keep us on the right path.  It’s seeing each and every other person as uniquely made in the image of God and treating them accordingly.  Come to think of it, that system would work pretty well for all sorts of things: Gossip, rudeness, disrespect for authority, lying, bullying, poor management of money, ignoring the poor and needy, and so on.

Huh.  Maybe that’s what Jesus had in mind, after all.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.


5 thoughts on “So, what’s purity about, anyway?

  1. Really love your ideas on this post. So many times purity is strong armed by those that want to control others… what they wear, how they act and such. And the verse you quote at then end begins to loose the real value it is meant to have.



    • Yup. I just watched “Let’s Talk About Sex,” the documentary about how we approach sex education. One of the ministers interviewed said that a lot of churches rely on control over people, and they use shame and fear to do it. He said that sex is one of the easiest tools for creating shame and fear. I think it starts early, with rigid restrictions we (as parents) are supposed to impose on our kids in terms of behavior and dress–and this is especially true for girls and sexual and/or gender minorities.

  2. I’m feeling lazy, so this is easier than commenting:

    I feel that we’ve so narrowly defined purity that we’ve missed the purpose in seeking it. Purity can be all the small details of dress and practice, but it is useless without a heart after God. Selfishness dwindles when we seek His Spirit.

    Not trying to solicit here, so feel free to delete this if you disapprove of my link 🙂

    • Not a problem, I welcome people to share thoughts here–their own and others they’ve found helpful, including linking to stuff.

      I’m not sure if I fully agree (I’d have to take some time with it, there’s a lot to digest), but you’ve got some great stuff in there. Purity certainly is more complex than just sex and sexuality.

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