Saturday, September 13, 2008

An Expansive View of "Chastity"

Each month this year as I have focused on a particular characteristic of godliness listed in the Sermon on the Mount, one thing that has become apparent is that developing a characteristic of godliness as the underlying foundation can eliminate multiple sins. For example, developing humility (becoming poor in spirit) reduces pride, which in turn can lessen or eliminate a natural tendency to take offense, lose one's temper, say or do harmful things to others, etc. This month's resolution was taken from the injunction in Matthew 5:27-28, particularly the statement: "Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart."

I decided to make my resolution for the month "Become More Chaste in Thought and Deed" specifically because I believe the godly characteristic of chastity is the one highlighted in this passage. Rather than being hyper-sensitive to any and all possibilities for sexual stimulation and avoiding all such exposure, I believe the godly way to avoid the type of temptation embodied in "looking upon a woman to lust after her" is found in an expansive definition of "chastity" - one that goes beyond the more limited definition of avoiding sexual activity.

One definition for "chaste" that fits this construct is:

Pure in thought and act; innocent; free from lewdness and obscenity, or indecency in act or speech; modest (as, a chaste mind; chaste eyes).

The interesting association in this definition is the use of the word "modest" - which in context is defined as: "limited or moderate in amount, extent, etc." In other words, taking both of these definitions in the context of the admonition in Matthew, the underlying characteristic that Jesus appears to be addressing is "moderation" - being able to see and appreciate physical beauty without going to any extreme, without including "lewdness, obscenity, indecency, lust, etc." This is a much more comprehensive and fundamentally empowering / liberating view of "chastity" than a simple abstinence from proscribed activities. Also, and this is critical, the definition highlights being "chaste" as something primarily within the individual.

I am reminded of a story I heard once. I don't know if it is historically accurate, but it illustrates this characteristic in a very simple and direct way. According to this story, a woman notorious for traveling in the nude (Lady Godiva, perhaps) was passing a group of religious leaders (the Pope and some Cardinals, perhaps). One of the Cardinals told everyone to cover their eyes and look away, but the Pope did not do so. The woman saw the reaction her passing had created, including the fact that the Pope did not look away - and she asked him why he did not do so. His response was something like:

You are a daughter of God, and he has blessed you with great beauty. I appreciate that gift God has given and praise him for his gracious gift.

I believe it is important to remember that Adam and Eve covered their nakedness only after Satan pointed out that they were naked and that others would see it. I mention this simply to stress that the typical restrictions we employ as a part of this mortal existence are in place NOT because physicality and sexuality are bad things, but because we do not want to place undue temptation and stimulation in the path of others. However, if all were "chaste" in their thoughts and deeds, such restrictions would not be necessary. In other words, we seek "modesty" (moderation) in dress as an attempt to strike a proper balance between the ideal and the practical - between where we wish we were and where we are.

True "chastity," therefore, includes not only conforming to the societal constraints intended to avoid placing temptation in the path of others but also having our hearts changed to not be tempted no matter our surroundings - to not "lust after her" even when "looking upon a woman" cannot be avoided. I don't have a simple solution or suggestion for each person. I know it is neither the extreme conservatism of the Taliban in Afghanistan nor the extreme liberalism of South Beach, Florida - but I know that I must be able to walk in either world and be free of "lust" in order to fulfill the standard Jesus holds up in these verses.

In summary, my being chaste in thought and deed is MY responsibility. I can't blame the environment around me - or those whose appearance "naturally" might tempt me - or claim the devil made me do it. I must change myself ultimately, even as I change my exposure and environment and actions until I reach the point where they no longer matter. I can't dive into tempting situations in order to test my control, but rather I can change my thoughts and actions until I can face such situations without temptation. If I never reach that ultimate objective, I must continue to structure my environment to reduce temptation, but eliminating all possible temptation can never be the default. In the passage being discussed, the woman is NOT at fault for her beauty; the man is at fault for how he reacts to it. At its most fundamental level, "chastity" is NOT imposed externally; it is developed internally.

The Taliban is not correct in its interpretation of chastity; Jesus is.


adamf said...

Nice points Ray. I was thinking about Adam and Eve's nakedness a few years ago, and realized that God sees everything without being corrupted by it. Perhaps part of perfection in this area, as you are saying, is developing the inner self to not lust, and at the same time we shouldn't "seek out" opportunities to practice, lol, as there are plenty regardless.

As for the Pope story, I read a similar account of David O. McKay (I think, maybe Kimball), although I think it was a woman in a short skirt, and one of the brethren was critical of her, and McKay said something like "I see only beauty." Now the difference between that and being lustful, I suppose, is how one acts or thinks after, i.e. entertaining more thoughts etc... what do you think?

Also, I like the idea of modesty = moderation. I had never thought of it that way, but it may help to teach children/teenagers. The problem is, many kids (and often even adults) need exact boundaries (i.e. no sleeveless shirts, no rated R movies) in order to maintain their values. How can you teach a child to be moderate and righteous without them becoming too obsessed with the letter of the law?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your post. You have given a very sensible anwwer to questions I have been strugling with. I ennjoy reading your insights.

Carlos U.

Papa D said...

Thanks, Adam and Carlos. I have been out of commission while we waited for our power to be restored. This response it too short, but I'm trying to catch up with SO much!

m_and_m said...

Ray, interesting thoughts.

I would throw in a couple of extra thoughts for fun.

It seems to me that you are saying that if we were all pure, we would be able to walk around naked. I dunno though. Still mulling over all of that. (I do think that the Adam and Eve story is about much more than physical nakedness, though. And even w/ the physical, I wonder if part of knowing they were naked was part of the process of being able to have children. If they couldn't procreate before the fall, would they have wanted to join sexually w/o being naked?

Secondly, have you looked at the way chastity is used in the BoM? The word only shows up twice, and it's interesting to ponder how it is used. It seems to expand the concept even further, as something that is to be protected in someone else, not just handled w/in one's self. (You can't rob someone of chastity if it's not related in some way to interaction w/ others. Is it possible that we can rob each other of chastity by degrees by how we dress or act?) I think chastity is something more than only w/in one's self, even as I agree that ultimately we are each responsible for ourselves. And yet...scripturally, we see examples of how we are responsible to each other, too (e.g., Paul's counsel about eating meat sacrificed to idols, or scriptures that talk about not provoking others -- obviously, there is more to Christlike living than JUST what we do w/in ourselves. We also are supposed to consider others' thoughts, feelings, and weakness as well.

Papa D said...

m&m, I agree.

There is a line in the post that says it is important not ONLY to follow the reasonable, accepted social norm but ALSO to internalize the concept so we still can be chaste in an unchaste environment - so that we can look without lust, even as we STILL encourage external manifestations of communal modesty.

In my mind, it's a balance, not going to either extreme - since modesty is, at its heart, a form of moderation, as well.