Guard Your Heart, Part II: Emotional impurity isn’t real

Let’s jump right in. Here’s my big question about Emotional Purity: What is it?

Purity, in the general sense, is the absence of impurity or contamination. A diamond is pure or it is flawed. A dog is 100% poodle or a mixed breed.

Sexual purity, in the Christian tradition, is the absence of sexual sin. It is based on the premise that sex outside the proper context is an impure act. Whether you agree with that or not, the contrast makes sense. A choice is pure or it is impure, chaste or sinful. Now, there’s a problem when we talk about a person like we talk about a diamond; a person is not an object, pure or impure, and less valuable if the latter. But there is a logical contrast here, between doing something purely and doing something impurely.

Emotional Purity, then, we must presume, is the absence of emotional impurity. But what exactly is an emotionally impure act? What sin are you committing by, say, falling in love with someone you don’t eventually marry? Did I miss an Eleventh Commandment, “Thou shalt not fall in love except after a legal ceremony,” or forget the Beatitude, “Blessed are those who do not befriend anyone of the opposite gender, for they shall remain emotionally virginal”? Don’t think so.

For Emotional Purity to exist:

A) You have to invent a sin.

Since neither casually knowing someone nor friendship nor vulnerability nor having feelings is sinful, we have to fabricate some sort of emotional impurity, which is why some evangelicals trumpet the idea of pre-cheating. As in, when you “give yourself” to someone emotionally, you are being unfaithful to the person you will one day marry.

The proof text sometimes used here is Proverbs 31:12, which says in the NIV, “[A wife] brings [her husband] good, not harm, all the days of her life.” This is also translated as “She honors him all the days of her life.” Okay, nice verse, but what does it have to do with Emotional Purity? How does dating/trusting/even loving someone at some point in a woman’s life dishonor her husband later?

This only works if you define “honoring” her husband “all the days of her life” as meaning he somehow deserves to be the recipient of all her emotions from birth until death. This essentially reduces a woman’s heart to an object pre-owned by her futurehusband before she even meets him. It says to a girl, you are not free to crush or date or love or otherwise feel unless it is in relationship to a man – one man, the man, your futurehusband.

This idea is controlling, and just plain absurd. Marriage is two separate, whole, individual people coming together as one to make a future together. It is not one person cashing in on his claim to another, past, present, and future. Having a childhood crush, an adolescent opposite-sex best pal, or an adult boyfriend is not cheating. It is not being a priori unfaithful.

I call shenanigans. Really harmful, patriarchal shenanigans.

B) You have to believe emotion is finite.heart-tinman

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: “Every time you fall in love, you’ll give away little pieces of your heart.” “Don’t get emotionally involved.” “Keep your emotional virginity safe!” “Guard Your Heart.”

Oh yes, if you’ve spent any time in evangelicalism (or just read my first post in this series), you surely have heard that big, hallowed catchphrase, Guard Your Heart. Crushing on someone? GYH! Spending time with a boy platonically? GYH! Thinking you love the guy you’re dating? GYH! Making eye contact with your pastor? GYH!

Christians quote Guard Your Heart like it’s from everyone’s favorite New Testament book, II Relationships Advice, chapter 8, verse 19. Now, this phrase is from the Bible, specifically Proverbs 4, but, well, I don’t think it means what you think it means. It’s not about relationships. The passage is written by King Solomon, telling his son to heed his advice and pursue wisdom. Verse 23 reads, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” Solid life advice, Sol. (We’ll talk about that more in Part III.)

Yet some people take those three words out of context and wield it like a bludgeon against being in love, “casual dating,” any dating, even cross-gender friendship (the fact that someone could be interested in a person of the same sex doesn’t even come into the discussion). They stretch it out like duct tape between girls and boys, prohibiting them from getting too close.

(It’s pretty laughable that we use verses from Proverbs, an anthology largely written by Solomon, to convince children they should only get to know and love one person, ever. Old Sol, if you’ve forgotten, was the guy with 700 wives and his own personal harems. I don’t think dudebro was Guarding His Heart, much less his loins.)

Combined with the idea of “giving bits of yourself away,” Guarding Your Heart suggests that a woman (or man) is born with a single Love Token, her emotional virginity, which can only be given whole to one person. If you get emotionally involved with guys before marriage, you’re breaking off pieces of that token and scattering them meaninglessly among worthless not-husbands; you can only invest so much in people of the other gender, so make sure you save ALL the feelings, all the trust and support, all the laughter and adventure, for The One. Because otherwise you’ll come to marriage as less than, as used up, as unfaithful, as an emotional whore.

This narrative of a single Love Token is a scare tactic. It’s told to children and teens to convince them not to get their feelings involved because they could lose their emotional virginity, which is totally a thing that exists and can be lost! I do not think parents or leaders intend to scare young people into fear and frigidness, but the language of Emotional Purity is steeped in ultimatums, in if/thens and either/ors, in gender stereotypes, in horror stories of failed relationships and irreparably broken hearts.

This narrative of a single Love Token is also a gross misrepresentation of your capacity to love. No Christian would say to a widow, “Sure sucks you gave so many pieces of yourself to your dead husband, now there’s nothing left for a future relationship,” or to someone who left her abusive spouse, “You invested in a relationship that turned out badly, so you have no heart left” or to a parent who had lost their child, “Too bad you have no more love for your other kids.”

I’m not meaning to be insensitive here, but to point out how offensive and ridiculous this idea of limited emotion is, taken to its logical conclusion. (And we promote this offensive and ridiculous idea to children and teenagers.)

You cannot lose your emotional virginity. Your heart is not a piece of candy slowly licked away every time you get close to someone, even if that someone is of a different gender than you. You can invest in a lot of people, romantically or platonically, and still have a whole heart left.

Part I: I guarded my heart, and I regret it
Part III: Fear vs. discretion

Obviously I am writing this from a woman’s perspective. Even in mixed group settings, I only ever heard Guard Your Heart directed at girls, presumably because we are of course such feely crying rollercoasters. A commenter on Part I said he was trained as The Perfect Gentleman. I would be fascinated to hear from others if and how men were taught Emotional Purity.

On a related note, I would highly recommend reading what Natalie Trust is saying on cross-sex friendships and Katie Botkin on logical love.


  1. I’m standing and cheering like crazy for these bold ideas you’ve presented. All the love for your voice and the challenge here to reexamine the teachings on emotionally purity.

    P.S. Thanks so much for linking up to my blog!

  2. Kate, I’m loving these posts! As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to some similar conclusions, but you are very eloquently explaining what I haven’t quite been able to express. All my life it’s seemed that being interested in a guy or having a crush were things that you didn’t talk about and hid from everyone, especially parents or church leaders! Sure, I’ve had pain and heartbreak that came from relationships with guys, but I absolutely wouldn’t trade it for the things I’ve learned and the ways that I’ve grown. I believe that my ability to love people has GROWN because of those experiences!

    1. Yep, I feel the same way, Carrie. Pain is unpleasant at the time, but it strengthens your relational muscles. Uh oh, I’m metaphoring.

  3. Sweet Kate, what a beautiful blog! I’m a mother of five grown kids, and I have seen the shenanigans in our homeschool groups. This emotional virginity system leads young ladies to be carried away in marriage by a man they barely know and then be subject to HIS patriarchal interpretation, which often lacks the respect Jesus showed women, and is sometimes downright abusive. I’ve seen at least three young women from this system do “everything right,” marry their “great guy” and end up being abused. The perfectionist system fosters it. Thank you for speaking. Many issues like this are “ideas whose time has come.” As for me, I’m writing about the need to love and embrace the LGBTQ community as Jesus does, or end up kicked to the curb as irrelevant and laughable. Thanks again.

  4. Fantastic post. I have a few friends who were raised in patriarchy and are now dissecting these ideas as adults… I’ll point them over here.

  5. Kate, wow, you just made my day!! As you know my book is deliberately titled Sacred Unions, Sacred *Passions.* Even though I’m a married man, I have close friendships with single women and I wrote my book with a vision that there is such a thing as healthy, deep, chaste friendships between men and women–including singles. The sexual politics of modesty which nurtures a culture of fear with guard-your-heart-logic has held many singles captive to something totally foreign–and your post has freedom pouring over every word. So encouraged by this incredible post. Thank you!!!

    1. Thank you, Dan. I appreciate the movement you and others are leading toward a broader view of friendship. Letting go of the Guard Your Heart mythology has been really liberating for me, and I hope more of my generation can experience this freedom.

  6. It struck me while reading this that a lot of our weird guidelines about marriage and relationships are closer to the medieval idea of courtly love (which was, let’s face it, very very weird) than they are to Scripture. No thanks.

    1. Right, as if the only alternative to modern hookup culture is medieval chivalry or ancient Mesopotamian patriarchy.

    2. Elizabeth · · Reply

      Oh, but the medieval link was seen as a positive, not a negative, and often used deliberately! A lot of books had this very theme and a lot of families were trying to reinstate their own codes of honor, without ever really looking at the purpose of chivalry or any of the deeper issues.

  7. […] View original post here: Guard Your Heart, Part II: Emotional impurity isn't real | kate schell […]

  8. I didn’t even know this was a thing. And I thought the whole not having intercourse before marriage = purity discussion was bad enough.

  9. Dan McDonald · · Reply

    Thank-you for your post. There truly are plenty of sins for us to lament and repent of without creating new ones. I suppose for me as a man, my struggles with this sort of teaching had to do with “Whosoever lusts” . . . what does that mean? Does it mean finding someone attractive and then believing you have sinned. One takes so much of that sort of understanding and then simply does what he wants and comes back later maybe or just lives as he sees fit. This is the first time I have ever read your blog, so look forward to what you have to say In your next blog. One thing for sure define purity in a helpful and humane way and I think you will point us to something quite useful. But haphazard definitions that end up denying something truly of the human spirit and as you have shown it will lead only to confusion and suffering. Look forward to your next blog.

  10. Kate, you are a blogging ninja. Preach it.

  11. […] Forum blogosphere), I’ll merely refer you to Kate Schell’s excellent summary in her article, Guard Your Heart, Part II: Emotional purity isn’t real, and leave you with some pertinent quotes from that […]

  12. Great Article~ thanks for sharing~ Have you ever read ? , ‘ How to Stop the Pain’ by James B. Richards~ you might like it. . . :)

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