I can remember exactly where I was sitting, wrestling with guilt and shame and regret over failed relationships and sexual sin, wondering if I would ever overcome my broken history, when a friend recited Micah 7:8–9 from memory:
Rejoice not over me, O my enemy;
when I fall, I shall rise;
when I sit in darkness,
the Lord will be a light to me.
I will bear the indignation of the Lord
because I have sinned against him,
until he pleads my cause
and executes judgment for me.
He will bring me out to the light;
I shall look upon his vindication.
God pleads my cause. The one I betrayed kneeled down to appeal for me. His gavel landed, not on me, but on his Son. Having lived and hidden in darkness, I found a home in the light. The purity I thought I had lost was now suddenly and undeservedly possible.
As we raise up younger men in the church, and encourage them toward becoming men of God, how can we call them into the kind of freedom and purity God gave me in Christ?
Set an Example in Purity
Of course, raising up godly men is about far more than sexual purity. A man of God is more than his self-control in dating relationships. He’s more than his last Internet accountability report — far more. When grace grips a man, it more than curbs his lust for porn; it lights fires for good under every area of his life. And so, young men need strong, dynamic, ambitious pictures of what they might become in Christ.
Fortunately, God gives us plenty of great lessons on manhood in his word. First Timothy 4:12 has become one especially concise and compelling picture for me:
Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.
The apostle Paul gives Timothy, his son in the faith, five cues for spiritual growth and development. The areas are not exclusive to men, but they are each critical for godly men. Each of those five words is a battlefield to be won, and each can become its own stronghold for holiness. Do this man’s conversations consistently say he belongs to God? Does his lifestyle set him apart from the unbelieving? Is he a man of surprising and sacrificial love? Does he fight for faith in the trenches of temptation and doubt? Is he pure?
In previous articles, we looked more closely at the first four — speech, conduct, love, and faith. Here we turn to purity, the area that may receive the most attention in young men’s discipleship (often for good reason), and yet often in ways that miss the heart of Christian purity.
In All Purity
First, what kind of purity did the apostle have in mind? The only other use of this Greek word in the New Testament — agneia — comes just one chapter later in the same letter:
Encourage [an older man] as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity. (1 Timothy 5:1–2)
This suggests the purity Paul had in mind was sexual purity — a broad and consistent holiness that marks all of Timothy’s relationships with his sisters in Christ. Purity is bigger and wider than personal sexual morality, but sex and sexuality (then and certainly now) play a major role in setting followers of Christ apart from the world. Man of God, as you encourage younger women in the church, do so with purity. Don’t talk, behave, or daydream in ways that make them vulnerable to serve your lusts. Put to death sexual immorality within you (Colossians 3:5). Flee from sexual temptation (1 Corinthians 6:18). Treat young women with the respect and concern with which you would treat your own sisters — because they are (Matthew 12:50).
“Be the safest man on earth for a young woman to meet.”
And not just purity, Timothy, but all purity. Don’t treat women just slightly better than men in the world do, but wholly differently. When other men flirt with ambiguous messages and signals, be surprisingly clear and honest. When other men secretly gratify their lusts, make moments alone a training ground for self-control. When other men dishonor themselves and others through sexual sin, be a man who loves to honor and protect women. Don’t look for the lowest bar to crawl over, but be ambitiously pure — love any women God has put in your life with all purity. Be the safest man on earth for a young woman to meet.
‘Husband of One Wife’
Earlier in his letter to the younger Timothy, the apostle gives at least one other glimpse into how godly men relate to sex and sexuality.
When he names qualifications for pastor-elders, the majority of the list simply pictures a normal godly man, whether he ever serves in church office or not. He must be “sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, . . . not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money” (1 Timothy 3:2–3). These qualities mark every mature man who follows Jesus. And according to that same list, such a man is also “the husband of one wife” (1 Timothy 3:2).
Now, Paul did not mean that an elder could not be single. Paul himself was unmarried, after all, and he was not only an elder, but an apostle. No, more fundamentally, this is a way of saying men of God are to be sexually pure. They are men, whether married or not, who refuse to indulge themselves sexually (in thought or action or suggestion) with any woman but their wife. “The husband of one wife” (literally, “one-woman man”) is a concise way of saying, “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous” (Hebrews 13:4).
So, do our thoughts and hands and clicks honor the spiritual wonder and purity of marriage? Or, when asked by God himself to stand guard along the walls around the marriage bed, have we instead gone missing? Worse, have we turned and fired the arrows he gave us against him and the women he has made? Have we indulged lustful thoughts, lengthy glances, wicked searches, sensual touching, sexual impatience, and self-gratification? Have we used God’s gift of sex to assault the hands that gave it?
Purity Tells the Story
Why would men of God be “the husband of one wife”? Because God has made marriage and sex an unusually compelling way of drawing attention to Christ and his love for his bride, the church.
It’s not the only way, by any means. Jesus himself never married. And single believers in Jesus often experience more of Jesus than married believers do (1 Corinthians 7:35). But from the beginning, God has joined one man with one woman, for one lifetime, to tell the world physically and relationally (though certainly imperfectly) about the depth and duration of his love for us (Ephesians 5:31–32). The fire in a new husband’s eyes is a flicker of the roaring flames in heaven. The brilliance of a bride, wrapped and radiant in white, is a glimmer of what it means for the church to be chosen, wooed, won, and made pure.
And so how men (and women!) treat sex and sexuality, whether married or not, sheds light on Christ for all to see, or obscures and slanders him. The world has found countless ways to distort, abuse, and vandalize God’s masterpiece, but the added darkness has served to make true purity a brighter and clearer picture of reality. Few phenomena are more spiritually revealing and provocative today than a man who consistently denies his sinful flesh and makes war against sexual temptation. It will make him an alien in the eyes of the world — and a king in the eyes that matter most.
Purity for Sexual Failures
What if we’ve already failed sexually? What if we’ve already spurned purity and fired our arrows back at God? Have we been dishonorably discharged and forever branded with our worst thoughts and actions? Is sexual purity possible for sexual failures?
It is — and I should know. Pornography and sexual immorality plagued me for years, even after coming to know Jesus. I know what it looks like to fire arrows at God because I was often pointing the bow. Sexual repentance, to my shame, was a decade-long war. I indulged desires outside of marriage that were meant to lead me to a bride. I flirted and dodged and disappeared in dating. I dishonored sisters in Christ, women whom Jesus had bought with his blood and who had entrusted themselves to me, a brother. With my thoughts and hands and clicks, I slandered the Lion of Judah and concealed his wondrous cross. I squandered opportunity after opportunity to be the man I knew God wanted me to be.
But God pled my cause. He brought me out into the light. After I had fired my arrows against him, he intervened and took my thorns, my nails, my wrath. “I received mercy for this reason, that in me, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience” (1 Timothy 1:16). By his grace, he forgave what I had done, and by that same grace, he trained my hands, my thoughts, my words for good. He made a once impure man pure — not perfectly, but genuinely.
“Stories of sexual brokenness have their own way of honoring the worth of Christ and his cross.”
Stories of sexual brokenness have their own way of honoring the worth of Christ and his cross. God wired sexual purity and marital fidelity to sing the truth about Jesus — a soaring and mesmerizing melody — but he sings something just as captivating over harlots, like me, who leave our sexual sin for him.
Pure Men Move Toward Women
One more lesson from Paul’s counsel to Timothy: setting an example in sexual purity does not mean avoiding women in the church. Notice the posture in his charge to the younger man: “Encourage . . . younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Timothy 5:1–2).
He could have said, “Play it safe and just keep your distance,” but instead he says, “Encourage younger women as sisters” — care for them like you would if they grew up next to you. Move toward them, Timothy. Look for ways to give courage — to strengthen their hearts in the Lord and their resolves to love. The picture here is the opposite of the kind of divide that can emerge between men and women in churches and ministries. To be sure, there may be certain women to avoid (Proverbs 5:3–8). Generally speaking, however, men of God do not sidestep their sisters in Christ, but engage and care for them in all purity. In other words, they treat women like Jesus did.
Safest Man for Women
When you stop to look, Jesus spends a surprising amount of time caring specifically and personally for women — in a day when these kinds of interactions were more socially scandalous. Even the disciples marveled at how he would stop and talk to women (John 4:27).
Listen to the warmth and tenderness in Jesus’s voice when a seriously ill woman grabs the edge of his garment: “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace” (Luke 8:48). When he finds the woman at the well, with her deeply broken and painful history, he doesn’t look the other way or scramble to another well, but offers to refresh and restore her soul: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10).
When he saw the woman horribly disabled by a demon, he “called her over and said to her, ‘Woman, you are freed from your disability.’ And he laid his hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and she glorified God” (Luke 13:12–13). He reached out and touched her, in all purity, because that’s what a good brother would have done. When he saw a mother grieving over the death of her son, he drew near to her broken heart. “He had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep’” (Luke 7:13).
And when he rose from the grave, what was the first name on his death-conquering lips? “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary’” (John 20:16). This is the truest, most manly picture of purity the world has ever seen — a man abstaining not from his sisters, but from mistreating them or neglecting their needs. A man who consistently and profoundly encouraged women in all purity.