Those of us who work with young people know it’s not unusual to hear the following comment: “All I ever hear about sex from parents and teachers is that it’s sinful. Isn’t there something positive that can be said about chastity?”
Latter-day Saints can reply that there most certainly is! The gospel gives us a clear and wholesome perspective on chastity. That is especially obvious when gospel teachings are contrasted with teachings of the secular world.
For instance, the religions of man have taught that the physical body is evil and that the spirit must struggle to overcome it and be liberated from it. But the restored gospel says quite the opposite: the body is a blessing. We came to earth to obtain a body and to make it a part of us as a means for further progress. Without it we cannot receive a fullness of joy (see D&C 93:33–35). Without it we will not be liberated, but will be in bondage (see Joseph F. Smith—Vision 1:50 [D&C 138:50]). The gospel teaches that we are exalted with our bodies, not in spite of them.
Paul seemed to be suggesting the same thing when he said, “He that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body” (1 Cor. 6:18; italics added).
A second false teaching is that the intimate experiences of marriage are a necessary evil. Yet such experiences when enjoyed in accord with God’s commandments and the Spirit can enrich one’s life and enliven the soul. President Kimball has referred to conjugal relationships in marriage as “inherently good” (Ensign, Oct. 1975, p. 4; see also Journal of Discourses, 26:217). “Sex can be a wonderful servant but a terrible master; it can be a creative force more powerful than any other in the fostering of love, companionship, happiness” (Spencer W. Kimball quoting Billy Graham, Ensign, May 1974, p. 8).
A third false teaching is that man is basically evil simply because of his physical nature. The scriptures, however, do not support this. They teach that people become “carnal, sensual, and devilish” only as they begin to follow Satan (see Moses 5:13 and D&C 20:20).
King Benjamin makes this clear. “Man is an enemy to God,” he said, “unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit” (Mosiah 3:19; italics added).
The truth is that chastity is a godly virtue, and “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). Consequently, only those who are spiritual can understand spiritual things. Thus, the world will never fully understand why we live the law of chastity. But Latter-day Saints can understand and appreciate it.
President David O. McKay said that a necessary ingredient of spirituality is “a consciousness of victory over self” (Improvement Era, Dec. 1969, p. 31). Two great blessings that can come from chastity are self-mastery and self-knowledge.
The letter of the law of chastity is to have sexual experiences only with one’s spouse, the man or woman with whom legal marriage covenants have been made. But the spirit of this law encompasses far more. It requires that we keep sacred and appropriate all of our sexual desires—and all related behaviors. To have physical desires is not evil. But to dwell upon them is evil. This is lust—the mental pursuit of anything that would be spiritually damaging.
Lust causes one to draw his attention away from that which is spiritually productive and fulfilling—to focus upon nonfulfilling and spiritually damaging thoughts and actions. It is a mental narcotic that draws us away from our long-range goals. It can lead us to sacrifice all that is valuable for a momentary experience and leave us with nothing but pain and sorrow and confusion.
But what if a person, because of previous conditioning, has immoral desires? The same principle applies: the presence of desire is not an indication of sin. The issue is, what does one do with the desire? Is it used to inflame, or is it recognized and then forthrightly directed to take its place offstage with other feelings and thoughts that one does not wish to dwell upon? President Kimball has informed us that even individuals tempted with homosexual or other abnormal tendencies can, with patience, commitment, and faith, control such desires and permit normal desires to awaken and take precedence over the abnormal.1 As a counselor and a bishop, I have seen this happen in a number of lives.
A conscious effort to develop self-mastery can help us to understand ourselves. As I define my behavior, I see more clearly the kind of person I am right now. The degree to which I keep my chastity covenant also generally reflects how strong or weak I am in other areas of my life, and indicates to me how committed to celestial ideals I really am. On the other hand, instead of confronting and working out confusing feelings such as loneliness or inadequacy, Satan would have a person try to flee from them through immorality. But such escapes are only temporary, and so the person seeks to flee again and again, forever unsuccessfully. As a result, Satan leads one into further confusion through unchastity.
Chastity requires discipline. In developing discipline in my own life I have become aware of my uniqueness. I’ve discovered that I need to avoid certain kinds of movies, certain literature, certain situations, and so on. Although others claim they cause them no problems, they may cause problems for me. When I’ve rationalized that since others can do those things with no apparent harm, I should be able to also, I’ve ended up with more thoughts to control, more mental images to suppress. I wanted to control a fire, and found I was adding more fuel. This more complete appreciation of chastity has required me to understand and work with my own personal spiritual chemistry. I have to decide, with the help of the Spirit, where I must draw the line.
The most valuable kind of self-knowledge is not just stored in our minds, but is felt deep within our souls through confronting the many stimuli that the media and life bombard us with. This self-knowledge requires continued faith and commitment in the face of setbacks, strength that comes from pulling ourselves free from the tentacles of temptation. It feels good to be in control!
In an important sense, then, chastity is the disciplining of our sexual desires and behaviors and the gaining of full understanding and control of self in all areas related to sexuality.
Chastity is also a great force in building the quality of our personal relationships. During the important courtship period, chaste couples spend their time working on understanding and communicating and wisely assessing their thoughts about each other, instead of fleeing reality by indulging in improper intimacies. Chastity frees the couple to work on building a potentially eternal companionship.2 It brings a proper perspective to a very compelling power. The world makes sex all-important; chastity helps us to see it as one of many important facets of marriage.
The world also tells us that our primary concern with desire should be personal gratification. This can lead to a relationship based upon selfishness. The emphasis is on getting, not giving.
But chastity places spiritual needs above gratification; it places the emphasis on giving, not on getting. It requires personal restraint out of love for one’s companion. Alma counseled his son to “bridle all your passions, that ye may be filled with love” (Alma 38:12).
President Kimball has explained that the sexual experience has two purposes: bringing children into the word and expressing “that kind of love between a man and wife that makes for true oneness” (Ensign, May 1974, p. 7). He has also said that “we know of no directive from the Lord that proper sexual experience between husbands and wives need be limited totally to the procreation of children, but we find much evidence from Adam until now that no provision was ever made by the Lord for indiscriminate sex” (Ensign, Oct. 1975, p. 4).
These two purposes give us guidelines about how we can keep these powers sacred and holy and within the bounds the Lord has established. Within marriage an attitude that totally ignores the needs and sensitivities of one’s spouse would violate this sacred purpose. Also, solitary tampering with these powers perverts this sacred design. It can condition one to focus on one’s own needs, inflame lust, and shrink the capacity to overcome.3 It focuses again on getting rather than giving. It should be clear that a couple who are chaste before marriage probably have developed sound attitudes for this relationship after marriage.
The chaste couple is concerned about strengthening each other. Their feelings of responsibility prevent them from doing anything that would weaken or tempt each other. Modesty in speech and dress are as much for the protection of others and one’s partner, as for one’s self.
This concern goes far beyond the physical relationship. When a person is chaste and true in all ways, he becomes part of an ever stronger, ever richer relationship. Chastity not only demonstrates love for one’s companion, but also for one’s children, who can be born under temple covenants and enjoy wholesome examples in an eternal family.
President McKay said that “the pathway to God leads through the heart of man.” Our communion with God is powerfully affected by our relations with others. And, conversely, our relations with others require divine guidance in order to become mature and eternal.
Love is the most divine attribute we can develop. But if we pursue acts of selfishness we make it difficult for the Holy Ghost to attend us. As we deny his influence, our relationship with God deteriorates, and feelings of insecurity, irritation, and self-centeredness arise. Then, because we lack one of the great sustaining, positive forces in our lives—the Spirit of the Lord—we become trapped in our doubts and fears, we make demands for reassurance that our partners are incapable of meeting, and through the whole process we become further insensitive to the needs of those around us, including our partner. Nothing can destroy a relationship faster than this kind of atmosphere.
Chastity, on the other hand, permits the Holy Ghost to influence us, and enhances trust, which is the basis for any enduring relationship. Through our love for others, we can recognize and understand our love for our Heavenly Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. And this is the most important relationship of all (see D&C 132:21).
To fully give ourselves to the Lord, we must first have control of ourselves. Discipleship requires discipline. Before one is ready to live the law of consecration, wherein he gives his all to the Lord, he must live the law of chastity; to live the law of chastity, he must apply the laws of sacrifice and obedience. As one does this, his confidence will “wax strong in the presence of God” (D&C 121:45), and he will “receive the pleasing word of God, and feast upon his love” (Jacob 3:2). The joy, the peace, and the power that this generates are hard to describe. Of this experience President McKay said, “To feel one’s faculties unfolding and truth expanding in the soul is one of life’s sublimest experiences” (Improvement Era, Dec. 1969, p. 31).
We can never fully know and love God unless we live the kind of life he lives. When I was younger, I was sometimes critical of some Church leaders and the decisions they made. Since then I have been a bishop, and now I see things in a very different perspective. I am less tempted to criticize, because I am more aware of the problems and feelings of a bishop. In the same way, as we become godlike, we begin to understand God better. Our relationship with him becomes richer. Mosiah tells us that as we serve the Lord we will come closer to “the thoughts and intents of his heart” (Mosiah 5:13). When we live as he lives, we learn to care as he cares and feel as he feels. Chastity, as much as any other gospel principle, helps us to know him because it promotes essential godly qualities such as understanding, self-mastery, love, and compassion.
When I become tired in my struggles against temptation, I recall that Jesus “was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). He was blessed with a physical body which he learned to master. Like us, he had the capacity for spiritual fatigue (see D&C 19:18). Certainly Satan tried in every way to make him sin. So, no matter how hard it is for me, I know that Jesus climbed a similar path many years ago. Because he understands fully our mortal condition, he is able to help and strengthen us along the way.
We can be eternally grateful that when we confess and forsake our sins he will remember them no more (see D&C 58:42–43). Throughout the eternities they cannot have a hold upon us because of the Savior’s atoning sacrifice. What a joy to know that you and I can become clean—totally clean—from our own sins!
As we see the vital role sexuality plays in our total mortal development, we can gain some understanding of why the Lord, in his love for us, gave us the law of chastity.
“How glorious is he who lives the chaste life. He walks unfearful. … He is honored and respected. … He is loved by the Lord, for he stands without blemish. The exaltations of eternities await his coming.”4