This post was written by Clifton Hanson.

I know of too many instances where girls have been taught, implicitly or explicitly, that the love of God is somehow contingent on their ability to remain “pure.”

So writes Sarah Condon in her recent piece for this site. Well, that gets right the heart of things, doesn’t it? The idea that the love of God — and by extension his favor and forgiveness — are contingent on any of my attributes, inherent or cultivated, is always a seed sown for destruction. And while it’s probably the case that the broader sexual culture is worse for women than it is for men, Christian boys and men have their very own, very “manly,” purity culture. Think of the training montage from Rocky IV if, instead of preparing to take down Ivan Drago and communism, Rocky was just trying really hard not to ogle girls or touch himself. This culture aims to shield men from a host of degrading and sometimes damaging compulsions, but more often than not creates troubles all its own. I should know.

When I was in college, I got involved in a ministry concerned with helping men attain sexual purity. I remember waking up early on a Saturday morning and driving to a big church in an inner-ring Twin Cities suburb for “boot camp” where we learned about the dangers of sexual sin, especially porn and masturbation. (Some of the information was genuinely helpful. We learned about the chemical response patterns that regular use of pornography establishes in the brain — there’s a reason porn is so destructive to relationships.)

We all enlisted and were given the rank of sergeant. With more training we could even become officers. (I eventually achieved “lieutenant” status, not to brag or anything). As the training concluded that morning, we had lunch and talked about how we would bring this ministry back to our school. The following week, we started recruiting, and before long we had 20ish enlisted men under our command, organized into small platoons. Within their platoons they were paired up with “accountability partners” with whom they’d share all their struggles, sins, and victories in the battle for purity (making 3 a.m. phone calls to get talked off the masturbation ledge was exactly as common as you’d imagine).

Our little quasi-paramilitary organization was up and running and ready for battle. We were soldiers training our eyes to keep them from lustful glances and our bodies to resist the temptation to self-gratify. As we progressed, we were called to move beyond avoiding sexually impure acts and work to “take captive every thought and submit it to Christ” — to eliminate impure thoughts. You know, nothing your average 20-year-old guy couldn’t handle.

The ascension in rank, the muscular character of the thing, and the achievement-based ethic were like a drug. The task was impossible, but I loved trying to achieve it. For a while. But like anything that involves such all-consuming zeal, our fire began to fade. Avoiding the more obvious stuff wasn’t the biggest issue, it was all the thoughts about sex! A young man doesn’t realize how often he thinks about it until he tries to force himself to stop. It was almost like my basic wiring was fighting me at every turn. The other guys were having the same trouble. In our platoon meetings we lamented our inability to submit our minds to the program. One by one, soldiers began to fall.

I grew up Lutheran, so sexual purity was not a topic of conversation. It’s not that my parents and grandparents didn’t have expectations of me; it’s that those expectations didn’t involve filtering the impurities out of my soul. They were much simpler: sex is a big deal, so don’t pretend otherwise; if you get a girl pregnant, you will care for the child you’ve created; self-restraint and self-control are necessary in matters of sex; any girl with whom you might become intimate is worthy of a relationship marked by respect, love, honor, and commitment. I got the message that these had something to do with my faith, but I never felt like I had to do them for Jesus. They were for me, for my family, and most of all, for someone I would love.

This men’s ministry offered me a grander vision, promising that if I committed myself fully, I could cultivate in myself things that my inherited ethic never even considered: a pure body, mind, heart, and soul. I heard that promise and leapt. But that inward focus — that self-cultivation — while initially irresistible, was what finally shattered the vision.

Who was all of this for? Who were we serving? Female purity culture’s sins are legion, but at least from what I could hear, the girls were told that their efforts were meant to serve someone: e.g., dress modestly so the boys don’t stumble. Sure, that’s disturbing in its own way, but it does recognize that there’s a neighbor who needs you (for the record, I don’t recommend this approach with your daughters).

For us, women were either theoretical (our future wives) or they were sexual objects — not in the permissive Hollywood marketing sense, but in a purely negative way. Their sexual appeal could derail us if we didn’t keep our eyes and minds disciplined, so we had to watch it around them. Objectifying women was a no-no, but then, what exactly does one call treating women as though dangerous sexual appeal is their primary attribute?

This is, incidentally, one of the reasons that people automatically think of women and girls when they hear the word “purity.” Girls are told to stay pure, dress modestly, put the brakes on sexual activity in their relationships and so forth. These are mostly external matters, having to do with public perception. (You can’t go out dressed like that! What will the neighbors think?!) But when it came to men, the battle was framed almost entirely as an inner one — a private struggle against secret sins. As such it had to remain far removed from the public eye, and especially from women! This in turn created the wall between us and women that treated them primarily as negative sexual objects.

These things became clearer over time, and I began to recognize that our efforts were only for us. We’d been engaged in a cloistered, self-centered piety, which is the worst kind of good work. I wasn’t a very good Lutheran before all this, but I’d absorbed enough to know that holiness was something God accomplished in me, and that good works were for my neighbor.

Mockingbird gets some criticism for not running many pieces on sanctification. I suspect the infrequency is due, in part, to the fact that the word is a shibboleth in Christianity. Sanctification is a good biblical word, but Christians who employ it regularly do so to speak of growing in their obedience to Christ and to the movements of the Spirit. It’s the work that one does to work with Christ in the process of refining oneself (kind of like those people who make art out of moose droppings). It’s getting my actual righteousness to catch up with my declared righteousness, like paying down a debt or faking it until I make it. If I can grow enough in holiness, then I won’t need that horrible word of forgiveness anymore, and Jesus and I can be square. And if I can achieve this in the realm of sex, then I can achieve it in anything. Our little platoons may have pushed all this to its limits, but we were only taking the basic lessons taught to so many Christian men and trying to seriously apply them.

Alas, this approach turns the Christian faith inside out. Holiness morphs from something I receive from the outside into something I produce from within (with some help from God, of course), and good works serve that self-sanctifying effort rather than being directed outward. “What exactly is Jesus Christ’s job in all this? Where did my neighbor go? Oh, I see, this is just all about me, isn’t it?” And that’s what finally killed my efforts at purity. I don’t remember if I bothered to resign my commission, but I was done. Maybe I’m listed as AWOL on some register somewhere. Just as well.

My story ends with a return home. My parents gave me something invaluable to serve me in matters of sex: an ethic based on the responsibilities I had to my neighbor rather than to God. Sure, that necessarily involves self-control, including a resistance to objectifying the fairer sex, but my holiness — my sanctification — that is another matter. The forgiveness and love of God are decidedly not “somehow contingent on [my] ability to remain ‘pure.’” These are contingent only on Jesus Christ, his righteousness in me, and my being found in him. What male purity culture doesn’t seem to get is that I can’t improve on that or white-knuckle my way into a personal holiness that needs less of that grace.

What I can do is try to love and respect my wife and be honorable toward her in my words and actions. I can set a reasonably good example for my son, and hopefully give my daughter a positive start in her dealings with men. I can show honor and respect to the women in my life. I can set appropriate boundaries.

I can attempt to do these things, and believe me, I try; but none of them will sanctify me. No, I can’t purify my body or my soul. Thankfully, there’s another who knows what to do about that.