True Love Waits

True Love Waits An international campaign aimed at teenagers and college students promoting sexual abstinence outside of marriage.

We were a hundred thousand church youth groups meeting in auditoriums or classrooms or empty church gymnasiums, and if we weren’t talking about Jesus, then we were talking about sex.

Not, of course, in any specific way. We did not give voice to unanswered questions, unspoken fears. Instead, we talked around it, giving it wide berth, like you do with something dangerous.

Here is how to not have sex. Commit. Join the movement, sign a pledge card, wear a special purity ring around your finger. Don’t put yourself in Situations. Date in groups. Call it courtship; read that sepia-colored bestseller I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

If you kiss him, make it short, sweet. But better not to kiss at all.

Jesus. Abstinence. Jesus. Purity. Jesus. Wait, wait, wait for your Future Spouse. And if you do this enough, these things become inextricably linked. The cross is surrounded by yellow warning signs; the state of your soul gets all mixed up in the state of your virginity.

What I remember when I think of all this is the palpable sense that we were walking a thread-thin line over a raging sea, and that to fall, to give into the temptation was forgivable, but only barely. God might still love you, but you were still a little ruined. To give away your virginity before marriage was to lose your best, most sacred self, and there was nothing you could do to get it back.

True love waits. Maybe. Maybe not. I am not so much interested in a debate about morality here, but rather in that interesting turn of phrases. You are in one moment saved by grace and in the next saving yourself for marriage.

Note the subtle shift, the heavy responsibility of it, the way we hoist it onto the hormonal, insecure shoulders of the high school senior. We pat him on the back. True love waits, buddy. Good luck.

I am concerned about what happens to a virginity-bound faith, then, when he doesn’t.

And what I most want to say about all of this today, Valentines Day, is that love is hard. Whether you wait or you don’t wait, this business of two becoming one is messy and imperfect, and we are, all of us, a little bit broken coming into it. We come together expecting perfection, and we are surprised to find ourselves bleeding from each other’s jagged edges.

What I want to say is that we wait and we don’t wait, and the love of God is unswayed. It is true and big and wide. It is the hand that reaches into our glass-shattered hearts, bodies, moralities, and, bleeding, lifts us out.

31 thoughts on “True Love Waits

  1. I wonder if there’s any correlation between the TLW campaigns and the statistics about college age kids abandoning the faith. In other words, did TLW at age 13-15 lead to such confusion about sex that they gave up on God entirely after turning 19 and not keeping their promises.

    Making promises to God – about a LOT of things – that we break in later moments of weakness begins a breakdown in the relationship that is only “fixed” by making more promises, which, of course, are rarely kept. Vicious cycle.

    We’re fallen people. Making promises “to God” has some inherent problems, because it’s usually done to try to earn his forgiveness or favor, at a subtle level.

    The whole “you’re less of a man/woman” thing is bothersome, yet I don’t want to promote promiscuity by saying that.

    1. Interesting. I’d sort of forgotten that this trend of “making promises to God,” went way beyond the TLW thing. Hmm. I think there’s probably more to be said about this.

  2. I thought this was an excellent post…I’m a youth pastor, and I have always struggled with the True Love Waits message. I feel we as evangelicals present the entire package of discipleship to students as : No sex, no drugs, no alcohol. But teenagers are human, and therefore inherently sexual. They need way more than a “don’t message.” And we are far too likely to break promises.

    Further, at eighteen, you can smoke. At twenty-one, you can drink. When you get married, you are supposed to have sex. What’s next? Are the responsibilities of discipleship met at this point, and the person whom free until he or she has children?

    Thank you for helping put words to things I have felt. I enjoy your blog a lot! Thanks for your work.

  3. I’ve started and restarted and deleted. I care so much about this subject that I can’t seem to write about it. God heal us. And free us.

  4. You’ve put into words so much of how I feel about this issue—when “the state of your soul gets all mixed up in the state of your virginity.” As a parent of three daughters, I not only worry about what happens to the state of one’s “virginity-bound faith” if they don’t wait, I also worry about the state of one’s guilt-sodden sex life down the road. The eventual health of their sex life in marriage is impacted either way, whether a person doesn’t wait and is dealing with the guilt, or *does* wait and is trying to reverse a long-held belief that sex is bad. I believe many Christian marriages are deeply wounded by these inner struggles.

    In the end, this is all that really matters:

    “What I want to say is that we wait and we don’t wait, and the love of God is unswayed.”

    1. Agreed. One of my friends commented on Facebook that God calls us not “Virgin” but “Beloved.” If our theology of sex revolved around this, I think things might be better all around.

      1. Wow. Indeed. And with all the language of unfaithfulness Jesus uses about His bride, He goes into the relationship with eyes and arms wide open. He knows us and loves us anyway. I can’t get over this.

  5. I am one who stood up and promised to wait, and wore a purity ring, and then did not wait. I went through a period of being very promiscuous. I eventually married someone who it never occurred to to wait, and who also had been quite promiscuous.
    None of the threatened side effects – jealousy, hurt, guilt, shame, confusion, etc. – followed. Maybe my experiences have distorted my viewpoint, but I don’t *want* my kids to wait until marriage for sex. I want them to wait until they love someone and are in a serious relationship, of course. But tying up sexuality with religion isn’t healthy and leads to weird issues after marriage I think – and sometimes even crappy sex (just going by stories I’ve heard/read with that statement).

    1. Sarah, I just realized I never responded to this! So sorry! Thanks so much for your thoughts though and your perspective.

      I definitely have lots of close friends who have had the same experience as you, and I completely understand that. There is still something in me that believes there is something great about waiting, but I also absolutely agree with what you said that there can be some really hard things that happen when it gets “tied up with religion.”

      I sort of think that during the TLW movement, we were fed this party line. If you just wait, everything will be great! You’re marriage will be wonderful! Your first time will be MAGICAL! And the truth is, it’s just not as simple as all that.

      I definitely don’t have the answers, but I do think that a theology that crumbles if I fail in the area of sexual purity is not big enough.

  6. I am disturbed by the way that our Christian culture silently assigns degrees of worth based on one’s lived out standard of purity, and agree that it is ironic considering the Gospel message of grace. We fetishize our young women’s virginity to the extent that they feel ruined when they go just slightly too far, and figure it no longer matters what they do, considering they are already impure, as if they are like a new car that loses a large percentage of its value as soon as its driven off the lot.

    While I’ve found that side of the purity message strange and sad, I can attest that I would have been saved from a world of extreme brokenness and crippling depression had I “saved myself” completely for marriage. Sexual acts create such closeness that those relationships outside of marriage are incredibly destructive when broken. Thankfully God heals us. And thank you Addie for this thought-provoking post.

  7. Addie, you’re insight is astounding. I grew up in the church (and spent two years at a Christian boarding school) where I was barraged with abstinence and the whole True Love Waits message. I never took that message seriously, and I’ve always eschewed the evangelical dictate that sex is between one man and one woman within the bonds of marriage, and everything else is a sin. It’s just false. So, even though I never let this whole guilt trip get to me, I witnessed many close friends who took their faith very seriously suffer serious guilt and personal harm because of this idea. The church, youth leaders, people with religious authority, force this notion on teenagers who are simply trying to discover who they are sexually. And the whole notion of getting kids to sign an abstinence card or make some sort of promise to God is a bizarre overreach of authority, in my opinion. I don’t want to rant, and I realize I’m in the minority here, but I’ve seen way too many Christians live lives of sexual repression and shame because of what they were taught, over and over again, in church. Another problem is that this whole True Love Waits message doesn’t even acknowledge the fact that a good portion of the people who hear it are not heterosexual, and I can’t even imagine what kind of affect it has on them. Anyway, sorry to rant, but your post was really thought provoking and, as always, well said. Cheers!

    1. You can rant here anytime, Isaac. No need to apologize. I can see it from both sides; I understand the Christian call for purity based on biblical interpretation. But I also think that the way they go about it is unrealistic at its best, downright abusive at its worst. It is so shame-based, so inflated. I think that there must be a better way that’s more focused on grace and on the beauty and goodness of sexuality.

  8. I didn’t wait when I was a teenager. I also wasn’t a Christian. There is something safer about waiting until your married, until you realize that marriages can also end. I don’t think premarital sex with the correct motives and in a monogamous relationship is sinful. And why is it that no one ever addresses post-marital sex (when you’re no longer a virgin and have been divorced or widowed). No one ever even addresses sex once you’ve lost your virginity, married or not, unless it’s a guilt trip about how you threw away what
    makes you sacred. All that they seem to care about is young people waiting. I think that the point is being missed completely.

    There’s all this talk about purity but purity is a heart issue. It’s not so much the act of sex as it is the why and what it’s doing to your heart and soul. I also think that promoting waiting is causing young folks to get married hastily to “avoid sin” and a lot of those young folks end up regretting it and getting divorced. I think it’s toxic and promotes psychological and sexual issues. If we are aware of how much value we have and how much we are worth in God’s eyes, we will not be promiscuous or repressed, but healthy and living according to the law of love. That is my opinion and experience, anyway.

  9. Being a Christian is about being Christ like. Teaching our children to not touch sex, till marriage is from the Word of God. Jesus is the living word of God , living in every Christian. If we sin , yes there is forgiviness for our sin. But we strive NOT to sin. We ALL need teachings on how to stay pure. In every area of our lifes. We all make promises to God we don’t, sometimes can’t ,keep. But we still make them. God is not stupid and I can’t believe the number of Christians who treat Him like He is. God knows our hearts, He is our Father and He said be ye Holy for I am Holy. If we fall down He will pick us up.
    BUT just as I teach kids if you touch the fire you get burned. I teach teens you touch sex before marriage you will pay. It can be STD, a Baby, or guilt . But you will pay somehow.
    There is every reason to teach True Love Waits. Touch not, Taste not, Handle not. A man or boy that can’t wait, dosen’t love you. A woman or girl that can’t wait dosen’t deserve you.
    God help us for putting the creature before the creator.
    When we sin ,it is to please ourself and we take no care of the Father.

  10. I agree with Jess. I spent my formative years engrossed in the purity movement, ring and all, bombarded with the same messages mary halley typed. In retrospect, it did serious damage, to me as well as many of my friends. Well-meaning people keep making these arguments, and they’re distorted and misplaced at best. If the point was actually no marriage license, no sex (in any way shape or form), there would be some line in the Bible about ‘You (always male) shall not have sexual relations with anyone except your wife (singular).’ The laws about sexual ethics in the Bible were written when women were property. A woman’s body, including her virginity, belonged to her father until she was sold to a husband (through a bride price). Having sex with someone she wasn’t married to was a matter of property theft. She was giving away something that didn’t belong to her. A man could do whatever he wanted as long as he was willing to pay composition for property damage.
    Trying to apply those same lays in a setting where women are full human beings causes massive problems, emotional, psychological, and otherwise. Considering Jesus was far more concerned with love God and love the people you share the planet with than legalism, I have to come to the conclusion that He’s far more worried with our motives (being respectful/loving, not using people) than if you have a piece of paper. Signing a marriage license doesn’t provide a guarantee that the relationship won’t fall apart, or that one person won’t be widowed. Just like repressing yourself into (nearly) complete sexual ignorance prior to legal marriage won’t insure a swinging-from-the-chandeliers, virtually problem-free sex life. The respect and loving commitment is what’s ethically important. Especially because, for a myriad of reasons, many couples can’t get the marriage license. Pretending otherwise is willful, self-righteous ignorance and I’m sick of people dictating other people’s supposed moral and human worth based on what they choose to do or not do with their bodies. Different decisions are right for different people and situations. One person’s moral convictions don’t apply to everyone in either direction.

    1. I agree completely. Also, considering the fact that polygamy was allowed in the OT and keeping concubines (which the men were not married to) was also never condemned, I have a hard time with anyone drawing their lines about marriage and sex “based on the Bible.” You have to overlook a lot of things in the Bible to keep such an ideology.

  11. God’s word is the same yesterday, today and forever. You can try to shift the word of God to make you happy. But my desire is to please God. The Bible is more then clear on sex. Try to remember the teaching of Jesus , we are no longer our own.

  12. Mary Halley, the Bible doesn’t address premarital sex as a sin at all. There are no OT verses that talk about it, and what Paul calls fornication is actually referencing idoaltry and temple prostitution. “Illegal sex” would be any sex condemned in the OT, and premarital sex isn’t talked about at all in the law books. It is, however, implied in Song of Solomon, and in a good light. I have been married and divorced and I reject the shaming of contemporary evangelical American Christianity. I also came to question many of the “scriptural” teachings, and found they weren’t all that scriptural at all. I do not see a problem with committed, monogamous couples having sex outside of marriage. I would never encourage teenagers to do anything except wait, since they are so young and sex is so serious. However, if I ever have children I will teach them to ask, “is this wise?” Instead of “is this sinful?” when comes to sex. And I will not ever shame them. There are consequences for sex, I agree, but if people are responsible and committed then there won’t be babies (unless planned), or STDs, and if the people in their lives love them, there won’t be guilt either. Some consequences would include deeper intimacy, better bonding, growth of love, trust and respect, less anxiety and depression.

    Also, “touch not, taste not, handle not” was an attitude which Jesus condemned the Pharisees for. You and I will probably never agree on this, and that’s ok, but I would appreciate it if you didn’t assume you are more committed to following Jesus or more informed on Scripture than those of us who differ from you in opinion on these things. And there are a lot of Christians who see things differently than you (or me) We have a very different view of God, but we both believe in Jesus and are doing our best to follow him.

  13. you are right, we will never agree on this. But this much you can know about me. I will never twist the Holy Word of God to suit myself. I don’t teach that sex is sin, but it is wrong to have sex outside of marriage. But I teach the grace of God. If you mess up, Jesus will forgive you as you seek forgiveness.
    I’ve been married 40 years ,to the same man. We love strong ,deep and nothing held back . Sex had always been great, because God is the center of our love. I was raped as a child and hated men. My husband loved me and put up with me and taught me not all men are scum.
    My daughter went to her husband as a virgin, he thanked me. They have been married 16 years. My grandchildren are learning sex is great and wonderful , but wait for the one that can love you, your body and your mind. Love is the key word not lust.

  14. How happy for you and your family that things worked out well. I’m glad for you.

    Please stop insinuating that I am “twisting scripture to suit myself” simply because we do not agree on this. It’s foolish to think that we don’t all come to the bible with a lens, with preconceived notions, with established beliefs, many of which were taught to us in church or Christian circles before we opened the bible, all of which color how we read the bible. We all err, and if I’m wrong God will put me right again, but I am not committed to anyone’s interpretation of Scripture. I look for myself at what it really says, and I don’t see it as a rule book. There is nothing lustful about committed, monogamous couples engaging in sex. It’s essentially the same as married couples, minus the marriage license. My aunt has been with her man for 20 years and they are not married, and their relationship is loving and vibrant. Marriage doesn’t guarantee protection from abuse, or that you will be together forever, or that love will be strong and deep and that vulnerability will be met with acceptance. I still believe in marriage, but I no longer see marriage or sex or divorce in the same light as mainstream evangelical American Christianity. Everything I believe and every decisions I make is framed in the context of what is most loving, and much of what is taught in mainstream Christian society lacks love, or is an anemic idea of love, and is morally myopic. I wish you well.

  15. When you stand before God , try explaining your reasons to Him. If you love a person, what is wrong with a comment to them? God gave marriage, then divorce because of the hardness of the heart. I ask God open your heart and mind to the truth. I have prayed for you

    1. I don’t understand why you keep willfully omitting the fact that I am talking about *committed,* monogamous couples. I’m not afraid to face God. I have come to all of my conclusions prayerfully, and I stand by my beliefs without fear. I have prayed for you as well, that your mind would be open to the truth and that your self-assured, self-righteous attitudes would be torn away from you. Good luck to you on your journey.

  16. We no longer live under the laws of the O.T. Mikhal. Those laws helped fill the land. I’m not trying to change you. You will stand before God and He will judge you not me. But as for me and my house we will serve the Lord.
    People who say that staying pure hurt them, give me a break. You sound like a spoiled child. ( my mommy didn’t give me , so I’m damaged)
    You don’t seam to care for the person you are in a relationship with. Why not get married ?What are you scared of? Believe me I’m not self righteous , I know I fall short. But I know Jesus is my rock and He is my forgiveness. I don’t need luck, I’m blessed and have favor with God . Why ? Because I love Him and His Word.

  17. 1 Corinthians 7:1-16

    Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless , to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband. The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife. Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency. But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment. For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain , let them marry : for it is better to marry than to burn . And unto the married I command , yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: But and if she depart , let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife. But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away . And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy. But if the unbelieving depart , let him depart . A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace. For what knowest thou , O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou , O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife?

  18. What makes a couple married in the eyes of God?

    I have two words for you: context and concordance.

    The word translated fornicator refers to prostitutes and those who have sex with prostitutes (a big problem in the Corinthian church). “Sexual immoral” is also ambiguous, and in the concordance refers to “any illicit sex” (which means it would violate any sexual laws in Leviticus, of which premarital sex is not included). No one in biblical times would understand the term “premarital sex.” You are making an argument from omission. A couple who is having sex only with each other is fulfilling what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 7. The Corinthians were conditioned to live promiscuously by their culture, and Paul was curbing that. A monogamous, committed couple is not promiscuous. I get it, you’re scared because someone is challenging a long-held belief of yours that you are convinced is biblical (even though in Song of Solomon the couple has sex before they are married). I don’t consider scripture the be-all end-all, I think God still reveals himself. I don’t believe in sola scripture. I’m secure in what I believe, and you have not shown me anything new that I have not already looked into, prayed about and considered. You are completely misguided if you think you are free from judgment. The fact that you say “God is going to judge you not me” shows your self-righteousness in bold letters. I trust in Christ. I am not afraid.

  19. Mary, Jess, and Mikhal,

    I’ve been sort of watching this conversation unfold here, and I so get where you are all coming from. But I’m sensing that this conversation is getting frustrating on both sides. It’s so hard to communicate effectively in online forums like this — particularly in a comments sections where intent and tone and nonverbals can be misconstrued. In my experience, it’s rare to “convince” anyone of anything in situations like this.

    While there is a place for conversations and debates about things like this, I work very hard to stay away from these polarizing things here on the blog. Sometimes I think we get so bogged down in these conversations that we forget to talk about other things that matter equally if not more — loneliness, love, grace, peace — how to be a kinder, more gracious Church. This is where I want us to dwell here.

    For me, this post was never really meant to be about whether sex before marriage is “right” or “wrong” but to question the ways we address it — particularly in youth groups. It was about how life is complicated and that we need to be good to each other, because love is just hard sometimes.

    If you’d like to take this “offline” (well, “online” but into email) I think that’s great. But I’m thinking it might be time to live and let live and let God be the one to convict and change us all.

    1. You’re completely right, Addie, and I apologize. I don’t plan to continue the conversation either way, and I’m sorry for contributing to making the comments section of your post into a bit of a circus. Thanks for the reminder on what truly matters 🙂

  20. I completely understand what you are saying about tying Christianity to virginity and the issues that can cause later in life, but I also want to point out that for some those “true love waits” promises can be powerful.

    Jesus asks us to do things that are extremely hard all the time and preserving our purity is just one of those difficult things. I was challenged to “wait” in High School. I began dating my husband when I was only 15 and we dated for 5 years before we got married. Had no one ever challenged us to remain pure, I’m sure we would not have waited (because let’s face it, he was CUTE!). But we were challenged and we did wait.

    Not that it was easy – there were a lot of feelings of guilt when we kissed too long or went further than we should, but I think those were healthy feelings. They set up a roadblock to something that would have caused far more emotional damage. They helped us to re-prioritize and set our focus each time. They let us know that there were people who truly believed we could wait and challenged us to live up to those expectations. And when we got married, it was awkward and uncomfortable and not at all “magical” at first, but we didn’t know any better and we were able to grow together. Today, I know that our marriage is stronger because of it.

    I cherish the freedom of knowing that my husband is the only person who knows me in my most vulnerable state. I also cherish the fact that we are great friends with our ex-boyfriends and girlfriends because we do not have to be ashamed of what happened in those relationships.

    God did not put this “rule” in place to hurt us, but to protect us. Sex outside of marriage will likely lead to jealousy, trust issues, and unnecessary comparisons inside of marriage. Marriage is hard enough on its own, sex outside of marriage will only add to the wedge the world tries to push between husband and wife.

    Though grace needs to become a much more powerful part of the message, I still believe it is a great challenge to hold on to your purity fiercely because it really does make a difference in future relationships. I would just encourage us as a body of believers to not let our past hurts and feelings of inadequacy compromise an important message. Instead, speak truth boldly and extend grace passionately.

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