In this modern day and age, when sexual promiscuity – i.e., any sexual relations outside marriage – abounds all around us, why would anyone choose to live in sexual purity? How could refraining from all sexual relations outside of marriage ever be more fulfilling, more satisfying, than having sexual adventures before getting married, and perhaps even after marriage through having affairs?
The Orthodox Church’s answer would begin, we think, with affirming what our Saints through all the centuries have always known from their own life-experience, as shaped by the life of the Church – that virtue, including sexual purity, has power, contributing greatly to the deep inner peace, profound joy, true love, and ineffable satisfaction that come from finding our “true selves” through living in the way our Creator intends for us to live. As St. John Chrysostom writes near the end of the fourth century, in the very large, cosmopolitan city of Antioch in Syria, “though virtue involves work, it fills the conscience with much gladness, and has within it so much pleasure that no speech can describe it” (Homilies on Matthew, LIII.6).
The Orthodox understanding of humanity emphasizes the profound interconnectedness of the body with the soul in each of us, so we recognize that whatever we do with our body affects our mind and heart more than we might imagine or realize at first. This is one key reason our Church recommends all the bodily ascetic practices she does. These various practices help us to master our sexual impulses, which is essential for genuine love of others. We may think that sexual experiences outside of marriage have no lasting, hurtful repercussions in our memories and emotions, and in the lives of those we’re having such relations with, but so often they really do.
Living in sexual purity brings great benefit not only to ourselves, but also to those around us. For when we’re protecting and honoring the purity of our bodies, we’re helping at the same time to protect and honor the purity of the bodies of those we’re interacting with. At the same time, by living in sexual purity, refraining from all forms of sexual promiscuity, we’re avoiding even the possibility of being involved with many deleterious things that so often come with improper sexual activity – things like fornication (which often leads to sexually-transmitted diseases), adultery (which often leads to the break-up of marriages), out-of-wedlock pregnancies (which often leads to abortion), sex addiction, prostitution, pederasty, and pedophilia. And besides the incalculable human suffering that these things cause, they all undermine the general society’s respect for and commitment to strong marriages and stable family life, which have been and always will be the bedrock of every flourishing society in human history.
But again to speak more positively, if we’re striving to live virtuously, we’re walking with self-control, overcoming self-centeredness, building strength of character, and reverencing others as well as ourselves. If we’re single and called to marriage, we’re saving the beautiful gift of our virginity, our bodily purity, for our future spouse, as a kind of “present” waiting for the right time to be opened. And if we’re married, we’re making sure the gift of our sexual desire, which reflects the core of our being, is always only shared and fully expressed with our spouse.
In marriage, the intimate male/female sexual bond, preserved and sanctified in mutual fidelity and trust, and fully good because it is the gift of the Good God Who loves mankind, knits husband and wife ever more closely in a union that is more profound than anything else in the entire realm of human relationships. And we as Orthodox Christians also understand that marriage is meant to last forever. Indeed, since we will be the same persons with the same memories in the next life, all our relationships will continue there, yet in a wondrously transfigured way. (The Orthodox wedding service does not have the words, “Till death do us part.” Rather, the celebrant prays, “Receive their crowns into Thy Kingdom, preserving them spotless, blameless, and without reproach, unto ages of ages.”)
St. Gregory the Theologian, another Church Father in the fourth century, describes some of the glory of marriage in these words:
Marriage is the key of moderation and the harmony of the desires, the seal of a deep friendship, . . . the unique drink from a fountain enclosed, inaccessible to those outside. United in the flesh, one in spirit, they urge each other on by the goad of their mutual love. For marriage does not take us from God, but brings us all the closer to Him; for it is God Himself Who draws us to it (Poem in Praise of Virginity).
Whether we’re single or married, through preserving our sexual purity we are building a lifetime of faithfulness that’s priceless, and more conducive to true inner peace and joy than living in sexual promiscuity, with all the hassles and heartaches which almost inevitably come with it – even if it doesn’t lead to tragedy, and even if its initial thrill might be very appealing, and even if the temptation to it is very strong.
But no matter how strong any sexual temptation might be, the power of our free will in conjunction with God’s grace is even stronger. Under regular circumstances, we are never forced to do what is not right or good or beautiful. We are not victims, helpless to resist whatever comes our way.
If we do fall into sexual sin, there’s always the possibility to repent, ask forgiveness, and receive the healing balm of God’s forgiveness and the joy of one’s conscience being made clean and at peace once again. This gives us a beautiful fresh start in the effort to live again in virtue.
The beauty and power of personal holiness, made possible through sexual purity, are something wondrous to encounter. If we’ve ever been with a holy person, someone radiant with peace, joy, love, and purity, we know what this beauty and power are: we feel it; we sense it; we are encouraged and uplifted by it. The Orthodox Church offers this to the world through a living experience of fellowship with the Saints, through the icons depicting them, and through encounters with people who are truly living this holy Faith. By associating with holy people, we are all the more empowered to live in sexual purity, and to experience the power and beauty that only this way of life can bring.
This essay was sponsored by the Orthodox Theological Society in America’s Project on Faith in Public Life.
David C. Ford is Professor of Church History at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Seminary in South Canaan, PA.
Mary Ford is Associate Professor of New Testament and Hermeneutics at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Seminary in South Canaan, PA.