May 29, 2013

Have mercy on us legalistic thinkers

The abstinence only sex ed conversation has continued with Calah's newest post Dirty Sex. The launching part of her post is a comment from J on her original post, a comment she describes as vitriolic:

 “And yes, both girls and boys who have premarital sex are dirty. They have been soiled and will not be pure for their future spouse, if they are called to marriage. What is wrong with saying this? Why is it wrong to make someone feel dirty or sinful if they have engaged in premarital sex (which is dirty and sinful)? It is shameful and dirty and their experience will be baggage that they bring into a future marriage.”

When I read J's comment this is what I thought:

“And yes, both girls and boys who have premarital sex are dirty. In a sense, if we're using the word "pure" and the opposite of that is "dirty." They have been soiled and will not be pure for their future spouse, if they are called to marriage. I can go with that, based on the previous understanding. What is wrong with saying this? Yes, what is wrong with that? Good, sincere question. Why is it wrong to make someone feel dirty or sinful if they have engaged in premarital sex (which is dirty and sinful)? Well, the intent should not be to make them feel dirty or shamed but we can't hide the truth by way of softening it. If we're talking about how premarital sex is sinful and someone has willingly engaged in it then they may very well feel dirty and shamed when they realize the wrong. So what is the best way to approach this?  It is shameful and dirty and their experience will be baggage that they bring into a future marriage.”  Agreed - it will be baggage to some degree or another.

But that's not what everyone else read/understood/assumed. Responses to this comment were things such as, "you apparently think that God gave His blessing upon you to shame someone that made a mistake," and, "You are showing less mercy in this comment than God himself shows," and "Only God can judge, not you. Only God can bring purity to your life after you have sinned. If God has brought purity to someone's life, how can YOU say that they are still soiled?" In other conversations people referred to this comment and said things like, "Don't even waste your time with her- she's never gonna get it!" and other tut-tutting at how unChrist-like the person is. (I don't say these things to pick on anyone or call anyone to defend their words, just to establish a context and to illustrate my point.)

Now, to establish a foundation, I strongly agree with the commenters who state that we cannot and should not make people feel shamed. But beyond that I didn't feel like there was much helpfulness in what people said to or about her.

This comment, "you apparently think that God gave His blessing upon you to shame someone that made a mistake," - while I agree with the bottom line - seems to be written in a tone of condescension. I would argue that it lacks just as much charity as he is accusing J of lacking.

And it always miffs me when people shout out, "Only God can judge!" It is true in the sense that only God can judge us fit for Heaven or Hell, but we are also called to judge, to assess, to see right from wrong and to call them as they are. Perhaps a better way of expressing that sentiment is "God is the ultimate judge" or "God is the only one who can truly judge the heart and our intentions" because we can judge people (their actions, decisions, opinions), and we all do day in and day out, and that's not a bad thing.

It also bothers me that the commenters are all assuming one thing: that all the people we're talking about have all  repented, gone to confession, and received forgiveness. What if they haven't?  Because when we use expressions like "we are cleansed by the Blood of the Lamb" and "our sins are washed/wiped away by God's mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation" then it's important to remember that  those very words of "clean," "washed," and "wiped away" all have the same opposite: "dirty". Whether we like it or  not, "dirty" is a natural word to use to describe that which has not yet been cleansed.

In the end, though, it comes down to this: I have found it to be incredibly difficult to balance justice and mercy. God has both and He lovingly and perfectly uses them and asks us to do the same. There have been many times in my life when I have found myself in the midst of a very difficult circumstance or interaction and I wonder what God's perfect justice and mercy would look like. Usually I don't know and so I err on the side of justice because my natural disposition is to be legalistic, to lean towards justice and the "right way". I want to know what is expected of me, what I'm to do, and how I'm to do it. I will then get it done. Often times at the end I can look back and see where I lacked love, compassion, charity, and mercy. When I say that I am working out my salvation with fear and trembling, trying to unwork the knots in my life, figuring out how to best live a Christian life I am being honest. I mean it and it is really hard for me!

Sometimes I will ask others, "Why is this wrong? I understand it to be correct so what am I missing?" Sometimes they answer me and sometimes they roll their eyes and consider me a lost cause.

Honestly, I still have legalistic opinions and questions on this whole matter. What about those who haven't sought God's mercy and are still sinning - having not yet been "cleansed" of their sins are they still "dirty"? Can we call them dirty? What do we call them? And what about people living the dangerous lifestyle of multiple sexual partners, quite literally spreading diseases? (Because, to use the OED definition Calah gave for dirty - "foul, unclean, sullied" - well that's pretty much how I think of a an outbreak of syphilis or herpes.) And are we just talking about vaginal sex here? Because what about anal sex? I think poor Rick Santorum would agree that there's at least one part of anal sex that is pretty much only dirty.

I realize that maybe I'm being legalistic, and maybe I'm lacking some point of view or theological knowledge that I should have, and maybe I'm going to offend people because there is a lack of clarity and charity in my thought. But I am asking this not because I'm a great big jerk, but because I know I'm a great big jerk and I'm trying to work on that.

So next time you read one of mine or J's questions (or right now! as you're reading this post!) and we just come off like a couple of Pharisees I hope that you give us the benefit of the doubt, show us some patience, and then give us a solid, clear answer that is delivered with intelligence, clarity, and charity. If I err on the side of justice, please err on the side of mercy and show me how that's done. If you want to tell me, "You are showing less mercy in this comment than God himself shows" please remember that while God has called me  to "be holy as I am holy" I am not there yet and so yes, I will probably, unfortunately, often show less mercy, charity, compassion, understanding, patience than God Himself shows. Please remember I am not trying to be a stubborn, mean-spirited, caustic jerk - I'm trying to get this right and I'm asking you to help.


  1. I agree with you, actually. I don't see a problem with comparing sin to dirt, since as you said, the fact that repentance makes you 'clean' means that there must have been something to clean away! Moreover, it is Biblical imagery to compare sin to "filth".

    I suppose there could be a problem if someone said that ONLY sexual sin is 'dirty', but the comment you quoted didn't seem to be saying that. I do agree with much of what Mrs. Alexander is saying, i. e. that lust is really the least bad of the mortal sins and people should be at least as ashamed of the other ones.

    1. I agree with Calah too! I think she makes some really great arguments and even gives good reason to not use the word 'dirty'.

      I just wanted to point out that if someone doesn't understand and literally asks a question in the combox (even if that question seems to be rhetorical) it is always a good idea to answer the questions. I don't know J and maybe I'm assuming too much of her, but me and my legalistic/simplistic way of thinking would have liked real answers to the two questions J asked.

    2. "Lust is really the least bad of the mortal sins and people should be at least as ashamed of the other ones."

      How true. Yet so many "abstinence" messages essentially encourage using the sin of pride to defeat the sin of lust.

  2. I think the difference between you and J is that you managed to convey grace and hope of becoming clean. J did not -- the message I got was that once you sinned, you were filthy forever.

    Having said that, people did not need to be so graceless toward J.

  3. I think the main problem with comments on controversial posts like Calah's (and twitter? I don't know I'm not on twitter) is that it's hard to be concise and pithy and at the same time compassionate and thorough.

    I think it's fine to err on the side of legalistic in your own life and when offering counsel to friends, but I'm always going to err on the side of charity when it's someone I don't know.

    I try to limit the chances for strangers to think "Well, that wasn't very nice." about me.

  4. The problem with the word "dirty" is that it tends to conjure up feelings of humiliation. More importantly, it is key to recognize our sinfulness, our fallen nature, to get back up and to make the effort to not repeat those sins. I get the message of J, unfortunately, just a poor choice of words. We SHOULD be called to hold each other to a higher standard, call each other out and HELP each other...just not in such a caustic and judgemental manner. We are all human, imperfect and hopefully constantly striving to be a better version of what we were yesterday. It's a lifelong process.

  5. While I'm not really the legalistic type as you say you are, Bonnie, I do have a hard time seeing the other side of this issue as both my husband and I were virgins when we got married. But, in situations like these, where from a justice point of view I know I am right, I always remember a phrase my mom likes to use"There but for the grace of God go I." It's all because of God's grace that things have worked out for me the way they have; it very well might have been different for me. I don't deserve the good things that have happened to me. It's all His grace. My husband or I could have had serious sexual pitfalls in our past, so who are we to judge? We're all sinners, we just all struggle with different sins

  6. A couple of weeks ago, during my confession, the priest interrupted me and told me that my sin was not a sin. And, trust me, it was. I think we have issues with even saying the word sin, because that's harsh, right?? That's too black and white. That's "judgmental." Our culture today is good at turning sin on it's head - what's good is bad and what's bad is good....and dare we feel the least buit guilty, there's always someone there to convince us that we should feel otherwise. If you read Paul's intense words in Romans 7:15-25 ("I do not understand my own actions, for I do not do want, but I do the very thing I hate....) he ends his sorrowful cry with, "Who will deliver me from this body of death?? Thanks be to God through Christ our Lord!" He doesn't use the word dirty, but he refers to his flesh as evil!! We get too hyped up over the language sometimes. is what it is, if it weren't serious, the cross wouldn't have been so hideous. As Christians we have a duty as our brother's keeper to help others face their sins (as we also hope that they will help us face our own), and then show them the beauty and power of God's love and mercy (as you so beautifully point out). If they reject us, if they call us judgmental, then we suffer that in love knowing that at least we'll be able to stand before God one day and answer for our actions.....not the lack of.

  7. To quote Scott Hahn, "It is easy to hate the sins we are not tempted to commit." We are all sinners. Of every sin couldn't we also say (word substitutions in brackets), “And yes, [anyone] who [sins is] dirty. They have been soiled and will not be pure for [any relationship]. What is wrong with saying this? Why is it wrong to make someone feel dirty or sinful if they have [sinned] (which is dirty and sinful)? It is shameful and dirty and their experience will be baggage that they bring into [any relationship].”

    Don't my kids sin when they lash out verbally against each other, or speak disrespectfully to their father and me? Shall I "make [them] feel dirty or sinful" for these actions? Is this the approach that will make them feel closer to God and seek his forgiveness? I don't think so. I think this is the attitude that drives people away from the Church.

    One can make the argument that sexual sin is different...I guess. But isn't that playing God a little, deciding which sins are the worst? Isn't the point to draw the sinner back to God, to help the sinner see God's mercy and readiness to forgive? I cannot see how the language J used will accomplish this.

    And regarding the whole abstinence only approach; this needs to be changed to a chastity approach. Okay, J is technically right in the world view when s/he says that a person who engages in premarital sex can never be "pure" again, but they CAN be chaste again. Sinners need to feel hope. Christalina Evert gives a wonderful testimony about her return to chastity.

    If I had encountered J's attitude/words when I was younger, I never would have returned to the church. In fact, I did feel "dirty" for the longest time, and that DID keep me away, because when you feel dirty and ashamed, you feel worthless and unlovable, even by God and maybe especially by God. "For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little." Luke 7:47

    Words can hurt, but they can also heal. How will we use our words?

    1. Tina, I agree with what you're saying. I'm sorry if my bottom line wasn't clear enough but here it is:

      Some of us don't know we're using our words to hurt because we're just built differently. If you're in a place where you can correct J's legalistic thought process and help her view the situation with more compassion, charity, and mercy then that is what YOU should do. Her questions were an opportunity for Christians with a better understanding of such things to show compassion, charity, and mercy towards her (the same mercy and charity she is - perhaps unknowingly - withholding from others) and to provide some fraternal correction.

      Even if J's mind will never change I promise you there are other people reading who see it from J's perspective because that's their personality/formation/etc. A well-worded, patient, kind explanation of why the thoughts are wrong will do much more good for the Kingdom and her soul than just telling her she's a jerk.

  8. The word "dirty" is the problem here. I think that sinful is enough. We are not sugar-coating anything when we say things are sinful. We are being unkind by calling somebody dirty.

    I was not raised Catholic, and my mother (who is wonderful, but not raised Christian) told me that we needed to save sex until I was really in love. Well, I was "in love" with my boyfriend at 16, and the next few boyfriends too, until I finally met and married my husband. I had never heard the term "mortal sin." I began to seek God a few years into my marriage, and He basically carried me into this strange and wonderful thing called the Catholic Church. I do feel intense remorse for my sins. I occasionally am assaulted with memories of my past, and I suffer from them. But, I was able to confess those sins, receive absolution, and have confessed many more (venial) sins since. Was teenage Holly "dirty?" No, but she was in serious sin. I feel pity for her, and for the many others who are not given the gift of being raised with a true sense of sin. They have no spiritual compass. But, God loves me! God saved me. God has poured intense, unmerited gifts down on me. God chose ME - sexual sins and all- to be a member of His true church. This still amazes me. It is best to never fall into sin, but it also very good to get up and sin no more. :)

    (Also, as an aside, I do consider my soul "dirty" now when I sin, and tell my kids that I am going to "clean my soul" each month when I go to confession. But, to refer to others' sins as dirty is not really kind or helpful, in my humble opinion)

  9. I love calah--but am I the only one that doesn't quite get this post/argument/whatever? I find myself scratching my head over this one. I feel very confused after reading this--sorry calah, but I do.

    Look, here is all I know: Both my husband and I have carried "baggage" into our marriage. It IS baggage. its nothing either one of us is proud of. Its always there. Even after confession and cleaned souls doesn't change the fact that we have carried this baggage. I hate this baggage. I shame myself with this baggage. I am ashamed. No amount of rhetoric will help me ever see this as something more positive than it is. I don't see anything wrong with saying some things are sinful when they ARE or dirty or bad or whatever. Its like saying, its sin but its not dirty sin--hunh??? all sin is dirt to our souls and reminds us what complete specks of dirt we are--without Christ. With Christ we are more than just dirt and ash but otherwise if it weren't for confession and healing, we would be nothing but dirt.

    or did I completely misunderstand this post of hers? Like I said, I feel so confused after reading this. I understand your post

  10. What's interesting is that my legalistic brain and personality responded with, "Well sure. God can judge me just as harshly if I did that because I'd deserve it."

    And I think you're right - the adjective for the person is wrong. Like Calah said in her post - we're not dung heaps. But what about the adjective for the verbs? Holly is probably right and "sinful" is enough.

  11. Here you go. I'm gonna tell you my long story. I'm one of the girls Calah is talking about in her post. I was raped after a party my freshman year where a senior wouldn't take no for an answer. Those senior boys had two different tubs of "drinks" for the party-goers: Beer for them, a tub full of "jungle juice" for the girls (jungle juice is grain alcohol -- moonshine basically -- mixed with kool-aid). Too drunk to consent. That was my first experience of sex, a week after college started.
    I was devestated. Good Catholic girl that I was, I had never really drank. But I wanted to be cool, to go to a party with my roomate at our awesome Catholic university. So I went. I had one drink. A red solo cup filled with the special juice. Too drunk to walk on my own, a "helpful" senior offered to walk me back to my room. How kind. The rest is history. A week later we had the date rape talk from campus life. Oops.

    I know NOW that even though I had sex that night, I did not lose my virginity. But I didn't know that then, as a scared 18 year old who had messages of the backwashed cup, the chewed up piece of gum, etc. from my "good Catholic chastity talks". Virginity was the prize, and in my mind, it was gone forever. SO, I spent the next year or so casually hooking up when the mood struck me. Why not, right? I'd never be a virgin on my wedding night, and after all, isn't that what it's all about??

    No, what happened to me cannot be put on me as "dirty" though I certainly felt that way for a long time afterward, which led me to have sex with other guys. But the "dirty" feeling had nothing to do with my own sinfulness, because no amount of alcohol gives a man the right to force his penis into me. It had to do with the shame of being violated. In fact, I felt less dirty after having consensual sex with a guy than I did after being raped, though to the "legalistic" mind, the opposite should be true.

    All of this is by way of saying...yes, calling someone's actions "dirty" might be accurate, but is it helpful? I'm not attacking you here at all, I'm sincerely asking you to think about it. Is telling me that the fact that I had premaritial sex with five men before I was married to my husband (the last instance being 3 years before I met my husband and 8 years ago now) "dirty" and "shameful" helpful in any way to my repentence or healing? Or even to have said it to me then? It's not like I didn't know that the sin I was committing was wrong. I wasn't strong enough to stop. I went to confession, always committing the same sins. Just like nearly everyone else. Words like dirty and shameful, while they might be technically accurate, aren't really helpful if your goal in saying them is to actually help the person to stop what they're doing.

  12. Comment part 2!

    I'm so far removed from all of that now, and so much healing has taken place in my soul, that I had really forgotten what it was like, what drove me to those men. All of these posts recently have brought it back for me, and also made me realize how I've become more legalistic myself in recent years. It's easy to disdain someone who has committed different sins than you have, because we never understand how easy it is to fall into someone else's sins, only our own. But I have been given a gift. I live my life as a chaste married woman, and I have lived chastely for years. In fact, God healed this so much that I truly experienced my wedding night as a virgin. No memory of ANYTHING stood between us. A blessing. But it doesn't take too much digging in the old noodle to remember exactly how it felt, and how hearing that I was "shameful" and "dirty" would have made me take oh, 3 seconds before responding with, "You want to see shameful and dirty? Let me go find some guy!" Really helpful, right? And, that's where you have to take personalities into account.

    This is way too long, but I just had to share that. I don't think you're a jerk. I think you're a rule-follower. It's your personality. You are like my husband, in that he always follows the rules. My husband was "technically" a virgin on our wedding night, having done everything but years ago. But being a good little rule follower, he stopped just short of breaking the rule. But just because he was a virgin doesn't mean he was living chastely during all those years (though he was when I met him). And, when I stopped having sex and started cultivating chastitiy, it didn't make me any less chaste when I met him because I'd lost my virginity 3 years prior. Chastitiy is a state of the heart and soul.

    I get where you're coming from, I really do. I just had to share my little story as a way of suggesting that perhaps different terms would be better used if the goal is to invite change in those sinful behaviors.

  13. A lot of long answers! I agree with you. i think the main point while teaching this is to highlight God's mercy. Sex outside of marriage is wrong, sex inside of marriage is beautiful beyond expression. Sex outside of marriage can harm your subsequent marriage (whether or not you are marrying your sex partner), but. BUT! You can go to confession, you can pray for God's mercy, and you can work towards your purity and rightly ordering your thoughts to what is beautiful and true. There needs to be this balance when teaching abstinence. You won't be restored to what you were before sex if you go to confession, but your soul will be cleansed and put you on that road to healing. So that there is purity after such a mistake, but it's something that we have to work for and pray for.

  14. And another thing: we all come into marriage with baggage. It's just what kind. Mortal sins are just bigger baggage. :)

  15. I haven't read Calah's post or the comments there, but my first thought is the almost-cliche expression, love the sinner, hate the sin. I agree with everything in the section you quoted except her question "Why is it wrong to make someone feel dirty or sinful if they have engaged in premarital sex (which is dirty and sinful)?" Premarital sex is a mortal sin, and as the opposite of pure, can be called dirty. However, it is not our duty to make the person FEEL dirty themselves. It is our duty to help them realize that they are so much more than their past sins, to lead people to the love and mercy of God. We shouldn't be attempting to make someone feel negative thoughts about themselves when chances are, if they are engaging in premarital sex, they probably already have several negative thoughts about themselves (whether they are conscious of it or will admit it or not).

  16. When judging another person's actions, we need to consider your own intentions. If you are speaking to this person directly and advising them that what they are doing is wrong and harmful to them, then you are doing a good and very charitable thing. If you are gossiping with others about another person who is committing whatever sin, then it is just being judgmental. Our judging of others is supposed to be in order to watch out for each other and help each other overcome sin. Not to make ourselves feel better because our sins aren't as bad as others'. In our culture, premarital sex is considered acceptable and normal. Calling someone they are dirty (especially behind their back) is not going to urge them to repent! Telling them you are concerned about them because they are doing something harmful to their body and soul, has a much better chance of getting their attention in a way that they may want to find out why and what they can do about it.

  17. (I haven't read the other comments)(Also note, this is going to be very frank)

    My frustration with abstinance-only sexual education classes is that they don't teach the important aspects of sexual health (at least mine didn't). We were basically told not to have sex, period. I had already made a pledge to abstain until marriage. The problem occurred when I started dating that I didn't have a clue about certain things (like orgasm, oral sex, transmission of STDs, etc). Naive doesn't even start to cover it. Yes, I believe that abstaining until marriage is a very very good idea for multiple reasons. But I think that our teens need to be making informed decisions about it too. Otherwise, when faced with trying to quell the rampant hormones, they may not understand what is really going on and how to exit the situation or not get into the predicament to begin with.

    I tell the teens I counsel (with parents' permission) that they can ask me about anything and I will try to give them an honest, truthful answer. I always encourage them to wait until marriage, but I want them to be informed about what their body is doing. Parents are often too embarrassed to talk about this stuff. I'm not, and try to provide a safe place to discuss it.

  18. First, metaphors really fail here. Sin is always a failing and a falling short. To conflate that with dirtiness or chewed gum makes it seem like the person himself/ herself has less worth or no worth (as chewed gum has).

    Why are we setting sexual sin in a separate category from all other sin by using these metaphors? We don't think of a lying, wrathfully, prideful person as dirty or used up. Yet, aren't all sins a falling short and a distancing of ourselves from God?

  19. Continuing from above. We are really of many minds about sexuality in our culture and church. The chewed gum metaphor is a diminishing tactic when speaking about sexuality and what part that plays in your life. If a woman's worth is tied to her hymen, thta's not a great view of her worth or of how you integrate your sexuality into your life (since most women don't live their lives as virgins).

    Also, as I heard in a sermon last week, shame is from the devil (since it leads to despair and seeing ourselves only as a collection of our sins). Guilt is from God and it is a realization of what we have done wrong and leads us to try and make amends.

    P.S. Please post about your struggles with NFP, I think honest discussion of the topic is lacking. I saw your comments on another blog whe they were swept under the rug.

  20. Continuing from above.

    My ipad hates good grammar. Sorry.