Spiritual Chastity: a Forgotten Virtue

In I Corinthians 6 Paul is dealing with sexual immorality. In giving pastoral instruction, he says something that is, at first, difficult to understand. He says,

‘Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him’ (vs. 15-17).

Now what is strange about this teaching is that Paul seems to suggest that the spirit of a Christian is wedded to the spirit of Christ. The problem of prostitution is not just that it violates a command of God or that it infringes upon the covenant of a human marriage. The depth of the sin is nothing other than infidelity against Christ himself. In Paul’s thinking, the union of a believer and Jesus is like that of a husband and a wife. There is as much need for purity and commitment in the life of discipleship as there is in the life of marriage.

The implications of this go far beyond the realm of sexual behavior. Underpinning the passage is the idea of chastity. Admittedly, chastity is a word that most of us will struggle to define. For many, it conjures up ideas of abstinence, repression, and strange medieval devices. This is unfortunate. There is nothing embarrassing about chastity. As is true of all virtue, chastity refers to a fundamental strength of human character, not a weakness.

My favourite definition of chastity is the following: disciplining desire for the sake of love. Chastity is the virtue that enables a soul to say ‘no’ to a lesser desire in order to preserve a blameless devotion to a higher object. At a sexual level, this means forgoing a temporary indulgence in order to maintain a committed relationship. At a spiritual level, it means a lot more. Chastity is the resolve to keep a heart pure and on fire for Jesus. It is not just the virtue that protects us from sexual sin. Chastity is the watchman that guards the heart from any passion that would douse or misdirect the love that belongs to the bridegroom himself.

For an exercise to cultivate spiritual chastity, meditate on Paul Gerhardt’s hymn ‘Jesus, Thy Boundless Love to Me’ translated by John Wesley.