Secular society promotes sin after sin. It always has and always will. One sin in particular, sexual immorality, is harder to face than most. Why? Because it surrounds us. With online pornography, sexual music and dance, and the objectification of women’s bodies through fashion and television, it’s no wonder so many of us wrestle with this sin. In this article, we review the Orthodox Church’s teachings about sex and abstinence. Then, we provide some helpful tips to avoid sexual sins, and what to do if you find yourself committing them.
The Purposes of Sex
It is no secret that God created mankind with sexuality. At one time or another, each one of us has felt a sexual urge of some kind. Even Adam and Eve, our First Parents, felt these things. But what is the purpose of this sexual drive? Why do we have it in the first place?
1. Spiritual Union
Sex results in the spiritual union of husband and wife. The two mystically become one flesh and achieve a level of intimacy and love perhaps only rivaled by that between a mother and her child. This unique “oneness of soul and body” mirrors the relationship between Christ and His Church and brings incredible happiness and growth to the couple that follows Christ.
The second purpose of sex, according to Orthodox teachings, is procreation. This makes sense. After all, what does sex do more often than not? It results in a baby! In a way, it’s incredibly miraculous. The way God unites a man and woman and creates another human being through them. This new life is the penultimate expression of man’s participation in God’s work. Note that while procreation is an integral part of a loving Christian marriage, but not every marriage must result in procreation.
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Following this logic, then, it’s easy to guess how the Orthodox Church feels about members of her flock engaging in sexually immoral acts. In short, the Church teaches that any sexual activity taking place outside of marriage is sinful (as are certain sexual activities within marriage). Therefore, the Orthodox Church teaches that unmarried individuals should practice abstinence, or celibacy: not having sex with anyone (including yourself). There are two goals of celibacy/abstinence:
- To remain free of carnal pleasure
- To orient your life toward God and away from the secular world
What’s the point?
Why would anyone choose to live like this? How could depriving yourself of carnal pleasure be more satisfying than just doing what you want? You aren’t hurting anyone, so what difference does it make? Sadly, you are hurting someone. Yourself, and potentially others. And it makes all the difference in the world!
Orthodox theology places incredible importance on the connection between soul and body. The things we do with our bodies affect our minds and hearts, just as the things we think and feel can affect our bodies. Our souls are affected more than we realize, and we need to take care of them. The Orthodox Church holds the virtue of abstinence in incredibly high esteem. Virtue has power. Power that comes from the joy and peace we feel when we live in a way that aligns with God’s commandments. Abstinence, and the resisting of sexual urges (i.e. watching pornography, having premarital sex), helps us grow spiritually and focus on our relationship with God above all else. We become better spouses this way because we learn what true love is, and how to emulate that love with our future spouse.
After all, how can we truly show genuine love for someone else if we engage in behaviors designed to gratify only ourselves? We may think sexual sins have no lasting, hurtful effect on ourselves or the lives of those we’re committing these sins with, but they do.
How to avoid sexual sin
Remaining chaste and pure is difficult. Especially if you have a significant other in the picture. And while this sort of thing is much easier said than done, we can offer you some suggestions. These apply whether you struggle with the temptation or have already committed the sin:
Fasting has a way of purging the body of that which makes it impure. It allows the Christian to gain control of the things that once controlled him or her. In other words, fasting is a tool of spiritual discipline that opens the door to a blossoming relationship with God. You can fast from foods, as well as television, video games, etc. to help you learn self-control. Whatever it is that tempts you to sin, fast from it! For example, if you tend to look at pornography on your cell phone, fast from your phone. Set a screen time limit, or turn your phone off and put it away somewhere after a certain time each day. This limits the amount of time you would otherwise be exposed to the temptation to look at pornography.
Prayer is another tool you should use to fight against the passions. Turn to the Lord in prayer and ask Him to protect you from those temptations. Prayers are incredibly powerful before God; He listens, hears, and responds when His children call upon him.
Additionally, you should ask others to pray for you. Ask fellow parishioners, your priest, loved ones, friends, and even saints who struggled with the same sin during their lifetime. Their intercessions carry all the more power within them, because they achieved admirable levels of holiness despite the sins of their pasts. A few wonderful saints to ask intercession from regarding lust and sexual sin are: St. Mary of Egypt, St. Justina, St. John the Long-Suffering, and Saint Moses the Ethiopian.
If you feel tempted to commit a sexual sin, or you already committed one, seek out your priest and confess your sin to God. Why do this? Because confession is cathartic and helps our soul heal from the damage done by our sins. We confess in the presence of the priest because he gives us “treatment” to help us heal and avoid sin in the future. He is human, just like you and me. Thus, he can offer sympathy, guidance, and encouragement to us as we strive to live better lives. Together with your priest, you can work out a plan that will help you get better, just as a doctor does when you feel physically unwell.
When Orthodox Christians practice abstinence, we protect and honor our bodies, which are temples of the Holy Spirit. Not only this, but we also protect our souls from the harm sin can do to us – drawing us away from God. Whether we’re single or married, practicing abstinence helps us build a lifetime of faithfulness that is priceless and more conducive to true inner peace and joy than living in sin. No matter how strong any temptation might be, the power of our free will in synergy with God’s grace is even stronger.
If we do fall into sexual sin, there’s always the option to repent, ask forgiveness, and receive God’s mercy and the joy of one’s conscience being made clean. Do not despair. There is hope in Christ.
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