The summer after the sixth grade I went to one of those Christian summer camps, one with workshops on various topics throughout the week. On one of the days there was a workshop on relationships, a.k.a. the sex talk day (strange how the two are often seen as the same thing in Christian circles).
The speaker decided to begin the talk with an illustration. He pulled out a rookie Michael Jordan basketball card worth about a $1000 and asked if anyone wanted it. Every hand went up, including mine.
Now, I was not a huge basketball fan or really much into sports cards (I had a few that had been given to me), but there was one athlete I really liked: Michael Jordan. In fact, my favorite basketball card was of another player just because it had half of Michael Jordan in the picture on the front. I had no interest in selling the card; I just really wanted a card of my favorite player. But just my luck, another boy was called up to receive the card.
Just as the boy reached the front, the speaker addressed the audience, “I am going to give this to you, but let me just take a little for myself first.” He took the card and ripped a small piece off from the corner before handing the rest of the card to the boy.
As most know, this completely destroyed the economic value of that $1000 basketball card. The young boy, saddened by the lost of his prize, returned to his seat. The speaker went on to talk about the importance of our virginities. No matter what else he said, the message of his illustration was clear: if you lose your virginity, you are worthless.
This is the message about sexuality that pervades Christian culture. Youth are told that the key to maintaining one’s purity is preserving one’s virginity until marriage. Growing up, we are supposed to pray for our future spouse, that he or she might “keep pure,” for the highest good is that both are virgins on that special wedding night.
Our virginity is a gift that should be presented, unstained, to our husband or wife, because “wouldn’t it be sad if you didn’t have that gift to give?” And this issue is even a bigger deal for women, whose virginity is so strangely tied to self-worth. Indeed, in the not so distant past, a woman’s virginity was considered her virtue.
But there is something seriously wrong with this view of sexuality. First of all, there is a problem with the idea of virginity at all. Virginity, the state of never having had sex, is something that once lost can never, by definition, be restored.
However, Christians hold the belief that Christ redeems all things. Therefore, if something cannot be redeemed, it is not a thing, at least not in a Christian’s understanding. So, virginity has no value since Christ’s complete redemption will not restore it. It has no consequence to the life of a Christian. How could it, it stands in total opposition to a gospel that speaks of forgiveness and new birth?
There are no permanent marks in the Christian faith save the wounds of Our Savior. How could the loss of virginity ever contend with the nail marks in his hands or the spear piecing in his side?
What is more, virginity is a legalistic concept. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard the question, “Am I still a virgin if we only…?” There is constantly a questioning of how far is too far before one’s virginity is lost. And there has to be: anything that so absolutely and incurably separates the innocent from the “slut” has to be legalistic.
But does not God look at the heart, at the intention that causes the action? Virginity pays no heed to intentions, and so it cannot really be a marker of holiness. It can only be a cause of pride for the one who has and shame for the one who does not. This is why virginity is simply not important.
But, one might argue, if we don’t think of virginity as important then we will all engage in promiscuity. There is a flaw in that thinking: virginity is not the opposite of sexual promiscuity, chastity is. Chastity is the virtue of turning one’s sexuality towards love. It is a holistic virtue that actively seeks to bring the full sexual dimension of one’s being into self-giving love. Chastity can, if lost, be fully restored just like honesty, courage, and all other virtues. The loss of chastity leaves no permanent stains.
With chastity we need no longer be concerned with absurd and hurtful questions such as, “Am I still a virgin if I am raped?” Your chastity can never be stolen from you, for it is something you actively do. Your chastity is a declaration of love, not a history of past actions.
God has not given you your sexuality to be a burden that you fearfully hope to guard against any taint until you can get to marriage. Instead, God has given your sexuality to you so that you might more fully give yourself in love.
Understanding chastity, it is clear that it is wrong to use our sexuality for selfishness. That is why sex can only be truly loving within marriage, for only within marriage can one’s sexuality be given totally, freely, fruitfully, and faithfully in sex. In this way chastity, unlike virginity, should be preserved even within marriage. Whether married or unmarried, we are all called to direct our sexualities towards love, but only in marriage can this self-giving truly manifest itself in the act of sex.
It is this understanding of the meaning of our sexualities that not only speaks of love but of grace as well, that helps us move beyond the shame and guilt that is brought by seeing our sexualities through the lens of virginity. Our identity should not be in our sexual histories. We should not strive to be virgins until married, as though we trade one identity for another. Rather, we should find our identity in being lovers loved by God, in which chastity is one part of the love we express for all creation and its Creator.
As I left that auditorium after the talk on “relationships” that day, I looked down one of the aisles. On the floor lay that Michael Jordan rookie card, crumpled and ripped, left for the trash. What value could that boy see in it when society told him it was now worthless? I almost walked over and picked it up – it was still a Michael Jordan card after all – but I noticed other kids standing behind me and got embarrassed. How I wish I had picked up that card that day! I have long since gotten rid of all my other sports cards, but that card would have stayed with me. It would have stood as a testament to the redemptive work of Christ who restores all things.
For it is Christ who makes us completely whole again that we might love fully without shame. This is why virginity is not important, but chastity is: because in Christ the old has gone, the new has come, we are a new creation, created in Christ Jesus to give ourselves in love as he did. That is our identity. That is what really matters.