How can young people keep their way pure?
By guarding it according to your word.
With my whole heart I seek you;
do not let me stray from your commandments.
I treasure your word in my heart,
so that I may not sin against you.
Blessed are you, O Lord;
teach me your statutes.
With my lips I declare
all the ordinances of your mouth.
I delight in the way of your decrees
as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on your precepts,
and fix my eyes on your ways.
I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word.
This psalm continues to be about loving God’s law. As I wrote yesterday, this doesn’t signify loving the rules for the sake of avoiding punishment or feeling superior to other people who break the rules. Loving God’s law is about living by the poetry that God instilled into the universe.
The new twist the second section puts in front of us is the question: “How can young people keep their way pure?” I’m aware that this question tends to have only one meaning in contemporary evangelical Christian culture: how can young people avoid having premarital sex? I want to push back against that oversimplification because there’s a purity that’s deeper and more important than sexual purity and the hyper-focus on sexual purity can undermine the purity that’s important.
Sexual purity historically has been a means of self-identification for the middle-class that is particularly associated with the 19th century reign of the British queen Victoria. The British aristocracy was defined by the purity of their blood-line, meaning they could prove that their ancestry was nobility. The middle-class were those who had enough wealth to be socially stable but did not have the blood or privileges of nobility. So the middle-class embraced sexual purity, temperance with food and drink, and a hard work ethic to define themselves against the perceived debauchery of the elites and the lechery of the poor. These virtues helped the middle-class to work hard and amass wealth; it also caused them to be less generous with the poor than the aristocrats who justified their unearned privilege through generosity and magnanimity rather than hard work and self-denial.
American self-identity has inherited much from the British Victorian middle-class ethos. To some degree, everyone in America pretends to be middle-class. Every billionaire needs a “rags-to-riches” story to be socially acceptable. Our national middle-class self-identity has a positive and negative side to it. On the positive side, Americans are some of the most ambitious, driven people on the planet. Max Weber coined the phrase “Protestant work ethic” to describe how our self-sacrificial Puritan qualities of temperance, chastity, frugality were a major factor in our emergence as a world power (and to be fair, we’ve had lots of hard-working Catholics, Jews, Muslims, etc, also). But the negative side of our middle-class Puritanism has been the self-righteousness and mean-spiritedness that it has instilled in us against those we perceive to be “elites” (coke-snorting dilettante trust kids who will sleep with anything) and “the poor” (crack-addicted welfare mamas who open their legs to get a government check). In times of slavery and segregation, sexual purity took on a racial character: white girls had to be protected from the sexual prowess of black men. This was one of the major catalysts of Southern lynch mobs.
When sexual purity is the fuel for self-righteousness and parsimony towards others, it doesn’t leave us spiritually pure at all. We become capable of treating others maliciously when we see our personal sacrifice as the currency that buys us the right to judge. This is a major spiritual epidemic in our country right now! We have replaced “Love God and love your neighbor” as the summation of God’s law and Christian identity with “No sex, no drugs, no cussing.” When we do this, we make the Christian life about being a polite, well-behaved middle-class person and turn middle-class identity into our object of worship instead of God. (It is good to avoid extramarital sex and drugs and swear words, but only for the purpose of loving God and your neighbor more purely.)
The purity God desires for us is what John Wesley termed Christian perfection: a state in which our soul is filled with nothing but love for God and love for our neighbors (the love that is called agape in Greek). This agape purity can only be attained if we have stopped trying to prove our worth to God by accepting His son’s sacrifice as full payment for our sins and thus as the reason that we can admit when we’re wrong. Agape impurity is following a bunch of rules for the sake of feeling right, and then being filled with spite towards others who haven’t made the sacrifices that we make. We do not purify ourselves by avoiding sex, drugs, and cussing; God purifies us through our liberation from the need to be right, which makes it possible for us to be emptied of everything except for His love.
When you have tasted this liberation, you won’t want to put anything in your body or do anything with your body that will detract from your being a vessel of God’s love. But this won’t be a sacrifice you make expecting some kind of divine favor in return. It will be an expression of “delight” in God’s law and part of the thoughtful, imaginative way that people live when they “treasure God’s word in their hearts,” when their lives speak God’s poetry. So don’t try to win God’s heart by making sacrifices for Him. Let Jesus win your heart through the sacrifice He made for you. Fall in love with Jesus; let Him love your neighbors through you; that is how all Christians stay young and “keep their way pure.”