I grew up in the 80s and 90s when the war on drugs was in full swing. The federal government poured a lot of money into ad campaigns to combat drug use among young people. The “Just Say No” campaign was pervasive. It was on T-shirts, billboards, school flyers, television, and radio ads. It was everywhere.
At the same time, another “Just Say No” movement gained momentum in evangelicalism. A plethora of books, Bible studies, and other resources reminded teens that “true love waits,” encouraged them to reclaim purity, and promoted courtship over dating.
It’s important to remember the context within which this purity movement grew. Samuel James reminds us how the 90s pushed new boundaries by mass-marketing sexual content through movies and television. The teen pregnancy rate also peaked and remained high for most of the decade, and the advent of the internet made access to pornography easier than ever.
In that cultural moment, the purity movement was an understandable call to turn away from the culture’s sexual immorality. This call was well intended, and it bore some real fruit. But sadly, there wasn’t enough emphasis on what we were to turn toward. For young men, who were characterized as uniquely visual creatures, the message was “Look away!” without the equally important emphasis on what God has called us to see.
For young men, the purity message was “Look away!” without the equally important emphasis on what God has called us to see.
Open Your Eyes
Those who battle sexual sin must create boundaries. We should emulate Job’s vow: “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a young woman” (Job 31:1, NIV). But we shouldn’t approach our battle against lust as if it’s only about learning to look away and just say no. With this approach, women are too often viewed as two-dimensional objects of temptation rather than whole persons.
Instead, we must see that the pursuit of purity means opening our eyes and seeing more of ourselves, more of others, and more of the Savior.
1. We need to see more of ourselves.
Men who struggle with sexual sin can develop a diminished view of self, one that’s entirely bound up with their progress (or lack thereof) in fighting lust. On days when they’re giving in to temptation, they may be blind to other ways God is at work. On days when they’re experiencing victory over lust, they may miss the other areas of their lives that need to change. They lack a wider, holistic lens for growing toward Christlikeness (Rom. 8:29).
2. We need to see more of others.
The “Just Say No” approach of the purity movement has often fostered a truncated view of the sexes. Men are seen as Pavlovian dogs who are stimulated by visual imagery and can’t control their urges. Women are often treated as sexual objects, not as whole persons. It’s easy to see how this can lead to blame-shifting or avoidance in both directions. But God calls us to regard members of the opposite sex as people who bear his image—who should be known, respected, and appreciated—and as people who add value to our lives.
Jesus saw women who were often overlooked, marginalized, scorned, or regarded as “dangerous” (Luke 7:36–50; John 4:7–30; 8:2–11). He saw far more of their character than the men who objectified them. In a safe, nonsexual way, Jesus respected and paid attention to the women around him. He treated them with compassion, respect, and dignity. Our own pursuit of purity must not just be about looking away; it must be about learning to see as Jesus sees.
3. We need to see more of God.
We are changed when we open our eyes to the glory and beauty of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. In 2 Corinthians 3:18, we’re taught that beholding God is the way we’re changed: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”
We are changed when we open our eyes to the glory and beauty of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.
Seeing more of God is the instrument of growing in purity. It’s also the fruit of growing in purity. As Jesus declares in Matthew 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” We behold God to pursue purity, and we pursue purity to behold more of God. More than anything, our eyes must be opened to him.
If we become what we behold, then our pursuit of purity needs more than repeated reminders to look away. We need the Spirit’s help to open our eyes to true glory. We need the eyes of our hearts activated (Eph. 1:18) to behold God in such a way that we become more like him. And as we become more like him, we will always see more, not less.