Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.
1st Peter 2:11
Abstinence. That’s what we’ll be discussing today. Intrigued? This may seem like an unusual topic to broach in this setting, but for a 31-year-old woman—yet unmarried—abstinence is a very real part of my world. I also find it to be a topic rarely discussed by the church as a whole outside of the occasional youth group message. Perhaps it seems to only apply to certain people. Perhaps we avoid it because it’s polarizing. Or maybe we assume it’s just a given and move on. Maybe it’s awkward. I can attest to its awkwardness firsthand. One of my many jobs throughout the duration of my education actually involved traveling to various public schools around the Metroplex giving the “Abstinence Talk.” I had a PowerPoint and everything. The looks on their faces…
But that was not my first exposure to the word abstain. In high school, I participated in Model United Nations, during which each country could draft resolutions and get other countries to sign their support. Once drafted, we would debate, caucus, redraft, present, and then vote. You could vote for the resolution or against, but there was also a third option: abstain. I remember the sound of voices from around the room answering their role calls: Morocco, Yes; Mozambique, Yes; Namibia, No; Netherlands, Abstain; New Zealand, Abstain; Nicaragua, Yes; Niger, No; Nigeria, No; Norway, Abstain. Abstinence simply means to willfully disengage–to actively not participate.
One can abstain from anything–eating, spending, speaking, watching TV, voting, drinking, listening to music, etc. The purpose of abstention is not solely deprivation or withdrawal. It is that by abstention our senses are heightened to other things of value. Compare it to what happens to the senses of people who have lost their sight. While there are many challenges and difficulties that come from not being able to see, a blind individual’s functioning senses are amplified. They notice sounds and smells they would never have noticed before. There is beauty in that. And while blindness is an abstention placed upon people without their choosing, we can each exercise the ability to abstain from things by choice and feel the effects. Abstinence in romantic relationships, I have found, has led to a heightened awareness of other types of community: rich friendships, being welcomed into families, treasured late nights of feasting and communing, focusing my attention on ministry, freedom of schedule, the ability to apply my emotional energy toward my spiritual family, since I am not creating a physical family, solitude.
Consider, too, the example of fasting. Fasting is meant to serve many purposes, all of which involve heightening our awareness of things otherwise dimmed by consumption. Fasting alerts us to our dependence. Fasting triggers a call to prayer with every hunger pang. Fasting frees up time and finances. In fasting, we become “blind” to food and begin noticing things we would never have noticed before.
Let us not forget that even marriage itself is an act of abstention. I love the language in many vow exchanges of “forsaking all others.” In marriage, the spouses commit to abstain from all others so that their senses might be heightened toward their beloved. It is a choice to turn away from any other person out of a desire to become captivated by that one individual beyond any other. This phenomenon is something the modern movement of “free love” has failed to grasp–instead espousing that we all have enough love to share, so why limit it to one partner? But the purpose of marriage is to by abstention make that person the sole object of our affection and, thus, experience the joy of mutual delight in the other. Free love can never accomplish this, because there is a level of enthrallment that can only be achieved when one’s senses are heightened in the act of abstention.
This is not to say that abstinence is easy. Absence is meant to be a challenge. It is not always preferred or desired, and neither does it come naturally. It is a discipline, and like all disciplines, it requires, well…discipline. It fits within that familiar Christian theme of sacrificing the temporary for the eternal, sacrificing short-term pleasures for long-term joy. The purpose of this essay is to suggest, however, that it is not only sacrifice. It would not be worth the sacrifice if good did not come of it. This is a call to seize and not squander that good. We can, after all, abstain without ever reaping the benefits. Imagine the opportunities I would miss if I spend my singleness pining and lamenting. While there is a time and a place to mourn my disappointment, there are so many joys to be seized! Similarly, to spend one's marriage forsaking all others without also basking in the wonder of one's spouse is to have wasted that sacrifice. Fasting without communing with the Father is merely self-mortification. Let us abstain, brothers and sisters, not out of obligation or duty, but to cultivate our senses, to glimpse beauties we would otherwise never have seen, and to increase our anticipation of the return of the Bridegroom, when all longings will be met in full.