As to chastity, this is one of the most challenging concepts to get across in this very permissive age, but Bahá’ís must make the utmost effort to uphold Bahá’í standards, no matter how difficult they may seem at first. Such efforts will be made easier if the youth will understand that the laws and standards of the Faith are meant to free them from untold spiritual and moral difficulties in the same way that a proper appreciation of the laws of nature enables one to live in harmony with the forces of the planet…’ (Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 361)
I believe that Bahá’í laws and ordinances, including chastity, are prescriptions from our Divine Physician for leading healthy spiritual and marital lives. Having said that, sometimes I wonder if anyone has any moral principles around chastity anymore. I think being chaste before marriage and absolutely faithful in marriage have lost their meaning, in the cult of individualism. No one seems to consider it a sin to have sex with people they aren’t married to anymore, and anyone who has the courage to be chaste, is just labelled a misfit, in our society.
One thing I’ve noticed is that Baha’is who are trying to be chaste usually refrain from talking about their struggle, so no one knows there are others who want to know how to put up good boundaries in a relationship in order to remain chaste.
I was in a gathering of assistants to the auxiliary board one time, and we were taking a course on something or other. Somehow the topic of sex was brought up and the whole discussion got sidetracked. Everyone was longing to talk about sex. Every single one of those assistants had a struggle with it at one level or another. It was really good to see that – but we didn’t get to talk about it for very long. And of course, by the time lunch was served, everyone had gone back to “Baha’i-mode” and we couldn’t finish the discussion.
My goal as a teenager was to wait till marriage to have sex, and in the end, I had sex hoping it would lead to marriage, and after a couple of misses, it worked. But the marriage wasn’t based on spiritual foundations and eventually floundered and died. As a Bahá’í, I learned why. Shoghi Effendi, in Lights of Guidance tells us: “Briefly stated the Bahá’í conception of sex is based on the belief that chastity should be strictly practised by both sexes, not only because it is in itself highly commendable ethically, but also due to its being the only way to a happy and successful marital life.”
I tried to teach my son about the importance of waiting till marriage, but he saw hypocrisy when my deeds did not match my words. I think all parents (including me) can take some of the blame for young people today not even having the concept of waiting till marriage – as the Universal House of Justice points out so clearly in its 28 December 2010 letter to the Counsellors:
What needs to be appreciated in this respect is the extent to which young minds are affected by the choices parents make for their own lives, when, no matter how unintentionally, no matter how innocently, such choices condone the passions of the world – its admiration for power, its adoration of status, its love of luxuries, its attachment to frivolous pursuits, its glorification of violence, and its obsession with self-gratification.
In the same letter, the House says:
Exhortations to remain pure and chaste will only succeed to a limited degree in helping them to resist these forces.
While I was struggling with how to encourage my son to make different choices than I made, in a world where no-one is modeling chastity, I was at a conference where Sue Johanson was the guest speaker. She won the distinguished “Order of Canada” for being Canada’s foremost sexual educator and counsellor. For over 35 years, she had a live radio talk show called “Talk Sex with Sue Johanson”, where listeners could call in and ask any question they wanted about sex. She was in her 70’s when I met her and was still on the air. I was both uncomfortable and disturbed by the explicit nature of her discussions, which sounded pornographic to me. I had an opportunity to talk to her at the break. I told her as a Bahá’í, I was trying to teach my son about abstinence, and she was encouraging young people in their desire to experiment. She said something I’ve never forgotten: She said “We have to teach them how their bodies work, so that they understand when they are starting to get into the danger zone. If no one gives them a vocabulary and teaches them what’s going on in their bodies, they won’t be able to say no, but will just get caught up in the moment.” This made a lot of sense to me.
Because of the sexual abuse I experienced as a child, I was left with a belief: “If you touch me, I’ll have to sleep with you.” So (without making excuses) I had two relationships outside of marriage. One gave me an opportunity to claim back my body, and the other taught me that I could have a healthy sexual relationship with another human being.
Now I understand the wisdom behind the law of chastity, I plan to be chaste in the future. In the meantime, I’m not in a relationship, not tempted and very grateful. But even though I intend to be chaste the next time round, part of me is OK with the idea of never having another relationship if it means I have to be tested again. I’m not sure if, in this culture, I’d ever find a man willing to respect my boundaries. Who can I talk to for support in this area?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could share our struggles around sexuality with each other? My hunch is that if we started doing more home visits we would have the 1:1 time to get to know each other, that’s currently missing when the only time we get together is for Bahá’í activities. In the absence of clergy to tell us what to do, I’m gaining a much better appreciation of the importance of home visits to help us get to know each other better and share our burdens. Perhaps then we’ll truly begin to learn how to do as Shoghi Effendi suggests in Living the Life:
“draw on each other’s love for strength and consolation in time of need. The Cause of God is endowed with tremendous powers, and the reason the believers do not gain more from it is because they have not learned to fully draw on these mighty forces of love and strength and harmony generated by the Faith . . .
It’s not easy to find the courage to be chaste. Let’s start a dialogue where people can feel safe to talk about their struggles and support each other. What do you think?
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The world today is submerged, amongst other things, in an over-exaggeration of the importance of physical love, and a dearth of spiritual values. In as far as possible the believers should try to realign this and rise above the level of their fellow-men who are, typical of all decadent periods in history, placing so much over-emphasis on the purely physical side of mating. Outside of their normal, legitimate married life they should seek to establish bonds of comradeship and love which are eternal and founded on the spiritual life of man, not on his physical life. (Shoghi Effendi, Bahá’í Marriage and Family Life, p. 14)
This is one of the hardest quotes for many people inside and outside the Faith to understand, that our spiritual life is more important than sex. I find it hard to rise above the level of those around me, who I fear are judging me for my “holier than thou” attitude. This creates a barrier between me and other people, because I tend to avoid movies, TV shows, books and magazines that promote sex and stay away from those who who indulge in pornography and extra-marital sex. I don’t mean to be judging them. I mean only to use discernment in how to keep my own thoughts and actions pure. This leads to a lot of loneliness’ and isolation. I’m serving in an inactive cluster so find it hard to maintain relationships with like-minded people.
After a life of moving every two years, I’m coming to realize that I don’t have the ability to seek to establish friendships founded on spiritual life and I’m learning that this is a capacity I can develop, and find true love with my “best lover” and myself first, so that I have that love to give out to others.
It’s OK to rise above the level of my neighbors and put my faith in the importance of maintaining spiritual values, and I am grateful!
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We live in a very selfish, materialistic environment and most of us have adopted the habits and beliefs of society around us. This includes leaving a marriage when our needs aren’t met. It’s all about “me”.
One of the great obstacles to progress is the tendency of Bahá’ís to be sucked into the general attitudes and disputes that surround them, to be influenced, for example, as you yourself pointed out, by the prevailing attitude to marriage so that the divorce rate becomes a problem within the Bahá’í community itself which should be an example to the rest of society in such matters. (The Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 516-517)
This is not the Bahá’í standard.
By unconsciously absorbing the extremely lax morals and the flippant attitude towards divorce which seems to be increasingly prevalent in our society, we do not take divorce prevention seriously enough:
There is no doubt about it that the believers in America, probably unconsciously influenced by the extremely lax morals prevalent and the flippant attitude towards divorce which seems to be increasingly prevailing, do not take divorce seriously enough and do not seem to grasp the fact that although Bahá’u’lláh has permitted it, He has only permitted it as a last resort and strongly condemns it. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 392)
Our Teachings on the subject of divorce are clear and in direct contrast to the loose and casual attitude of the ‘permissive society’ around us, and it is vital that the Bahá’í Community practise these Teachings:
The Universal House of Justice has noted with increasing concern that the undisciplined attitude of present-day society towards divorce is reflected in some parts of the Bahá’í World Community. Our Teachings on this subject are clear and in direct contrast to the loose and casual attitude of the ‘permissive society’ and it is vital that the Bahá’í Community practise these Teachings. (Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 390)
Often we leave our marriages when we no longer feel physical attraction or sexual compatibility and harmony but Shoghi Effendi tells us we have to rise above such considerations:
For the Bahá’í Teachings . . . while permitting divorce, consider it a reprehensible act, which should be resorted to only in exceptional circumstances, and when grave issues are involved, transcending such considerations as physical attraction or sexual compatibility and harmony. (Shoghi Effendi, The Compilation of Compilations vol II, p. 446)
The institution of marriage established by Bahá’u’lláh, while giving due importance to the physical aspect of marital union, considers it as subordinate to the moral and spiritual purposes and functions:
The institution of marriage, as established by Bahá’u’lláh, while giving due importance to the physical aspect of marital union, considers it as subordinate to the moral and spiritual purposes and functions with which it has been invested by an all-wise and loving Providence. (Shoghi Effendi, The Compilation of Compilations vol II, p. 446)
Most of us did not receive the love we needed from our parents (who didn’t receive it from their parents, and so on); so we look for others to give it to us. We’ve been taught that there is someone out there who will meet our needs, so when our spouse no longer fulfils our needs, we leave our marriages, so that we can find the right person. This is contrary to the standard of heavenly value and true chastity.
Among the people of the past Dispensation a trifling matter would cause divorce. However, as the light of the Kingdom shone forth souls were quickened by the spirit of Bahá’u’lláh, then they totally eschewed divorce . . . It should not happen that upon the occurrence of a slight friction of displeasure between husband and wife, the husband would think of union with some other woman or, God forbid, the wife also think of another husband. This is contrary to the standard of heavenly value and true chastity. (Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 391)
It isn’t what God wants for us! He wants us to make a decision to stay. To make sure we understand the urgency and importance of staying, He warns us that whoever becomes the cause of divorce will fall into great difficulties, become the victim of formidable calamities and experience deep remorse:
If one of these two become the cause of divorce, that one will unquestionably fall into great difficulties, will become the victim of formidable calamities and experience deep remorse. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Lights of Guidance, p. 391)
He wants our marriages to be based on harmony and love, oneness, relationship and union, not on sex.
In short, the foundation of the Kingdom of God is based upon harmony and love, oneness, relationship and union, not upon differences, especially between husband and wife. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Lights of Guidance, p. 391)
Instead of going straight to divorce when our sex lives are no longer fulfilling, every relationship needs to have a grace period; where couples take some time away from each other. In this dispensation, Baha’u’llah has given us a great tool called the “year of patience”, which, if used properly, can help restore marriages. It’s a wonderful opportunity for taking a “time out” to work on issues that are eroding the marriage and could lead to divorce. It’s a safety valve, which, when used in a timely fashion, could give both parties time away to work on their own issues.
During that time, they live apart:
The parties to a divorce must live apart in separate residences during the year of waiting. (Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 397)
No sex is possible and if they have sex, they must seek God’s forgiveness and pay a fine:
Sexual intercourse between husband and wife is forbidden during their year of patience, and whoso committeth this act must seek God’s forgiveness, and, as a punishment, render to the House of Justice a fine of nineteen mithqals of gold. (Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 110)
At today’s rate (Aug 2013), nineteen mithqals of gold is worth US $3062! That’s a LOT of money for a few minutes of pleasure!
This law is not yet incumbent on the people of the west, but nevertheless, the principle stands!
Also, if a couple has sex with each other during that time, the year of patience is over.
Any cohabitation of the parties stops the running of the year of waiting. (Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 397)
It can start again, of course! If the couple has really decided to give up on the marriage and are ready to divorce, this could delay the granting of the Bahá’í divorce if they have to start over.
The House of Justice has given couples some tools to use during the time apart. Here are some quotes to consider:
Your letter of … to the Universal House of Justice makes clear that you are seeking to re-establish your marriage through study of the Writings and through various modes of consultation and assistance. We are asked to convey its advice on this vital subject of reconciliation of partners in marriage in the context of understanding of yourself and your relationship to others. You are urged to persevere in your studies, in your prayers for resolution of your problems, and in your meditation which may provide guidance and confidence, inasmuch as the understanding of self and of relationships to others are contained in the Writings and in the example of the Master, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.
Neither you nor your husband should hesitate to continue consulting professional marriage counsellors, individually and together if possible, and also to take advantage of the supportive counselling which can come from wise and mature friends. Non-Bahá’í counselling can be useful but it is usually necessary to temper it with Bahá’í insight.
You ask how to deal with anger. The House of Justice suggests that you call to mind the admonitions found in our Writings on the need to overlook the shortcomings of others; to forgive and conceal their misdeeds, not to expose their bad qualities, but to search for and affirm their praiseworthy ones, and to endeavour to be always forbearing, patient, and merciful.
Such passages as the following extracts from letters written on behalf of the beloved Guardian will be helpful: There are qualities in everyone which we can appreciate and admire, and for which we can love them; and perhaps, if you determine to think only of these qualities which your husband possesses, this will help to improve the situation ….
You should turn your thoughts away from the things which upset you, and constantly pray to Bahá’u’lláh to help you. Then you will find how that pure love, enkindled by God, which burns in the soul when we read and study the Teachings, will warm and heal, more than anything else.
Each of us is responsible for one life only, and that is our own. Each of us is immeasurably far from being “perfect as our heavenly father is perfect” and the task of perfecting our own life and character is one that requires all our attention, our will-power and energy. (Universal House of Justice, The Compilation of Compilations vol II, p. 454-455)
From these quotes we learn that the following requirements are our responsibility during the year of patience:
- Prayer and studying and meditating on the Writings
- understand yourself and your relationship to others
- look to the example of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá
- consulting professional marriage counsellors, individually and together
- take advantage of the supportive counselling from wise and mature friends
- temper non-Bahá’í counselling with Bahá’í insight
- deal with anger
- overlook the shortcomings of others
- forgive and conceal their misdeeds
- search for and affirm their praiseworthy deeds instead of exposing their bad qualities
- be forbearing, patient, and merciful
- think only of the qualities we can appreciate and admire
- turn your thoughts away from the things which upset you
- focus all of your will-power and energy on perfecting your own life and character
If we sincerely strive towards each of these things, chances are good that our marriages will be strengthened thereby. If we add sex to the mix, it makes the other things much harder, which no doubt, is why Baha’u’llah has forbidden it.
Recently I was talking to someone who suggested that Baha’u’llah’s marriage law was written for the world the way it was 160 years ago, and wasn’t applicable today. The House of Justice is frequently reminding us of the standard and how it’s meant to free us from untold spiritual and moral difficulties:
As to chastity, this is one of the most challenging concepts to get across in this very permissive age, but Bahá’ís must make the utmost effort to uphold Bahá’í standards, no matter how difficult they may seem at first. Such efforts will be made easier if the youth will understand that the laws and standards of the Faith are meant to free them from untold spiritual and moral difficulties. (Universal House of Justice, A Chaste and Holy Life, #4)
So what are the spiritual difficulties? It retards the advancement of our soul in the next world.
When we realize that Bahá’u’lláh says adultery retards the progress of the soul in the after life — so grievous is it . . . we see how clear are our teachings on these subjects. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 344)
We often think of adultery as something committed inside a marriage, but in the Bahá’í Faith it can mean both:
The Arabic word “zina”, here translated as “adultery”, signifies both fornication and adultery. It applies not only to sexual relations between a married person and someone who is not his or her spouse, but also to extramarital sexual intercourse in general. (Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, note 36, p. 181)
The fact that it can retard the progress of the soul is hard to refute, since Baha’u’llah has more knowledge about this than we’ll ever have. It’s helpful for us to accept His guidance in this area.
In terms of moral difficulties, sex before marriage can lead into abusive situations, believing that violent, jealous, possessive or intrusive behaviors are signs of love or that immoral behaviours are signs of maturity and independent. Once sex is initiated, it can be difficult to break out of a relationship.
There are potent social pressures in Western society for all teenagers to have a boyfriend or girlfriend. Lack of experience, perceived cultural norms, and abusive role-modeling are some of the factors that may mislead teenagers into believing that violent, jealous, possessive, or intrusive behaviors are signs of love or that immoral behaviors are signs of maturity and independence. Like adults, they may be drawn into a relationship and develop strong feelings for someone who is attentive during the early phase of a relationship before there are obvious signs of abuse. Or they may be drawn into dangerous or immoral situations out of pressure to belong. Once emotional bonds are established between two people, it can be as difficult for teens as for adults to break out of a relationship, particularly if the two share the same circle of friends. (National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, Guidelines for Spiritual Assemblies on Domestic Violence, p. 99)
Premarital sex lays the groundwork for comparisons, suspicions, and mistrust. It causes you to wonder:
- Have there been others before me?
- Will there be others in the future too?
- How do I compare with those who came before me?
- How long did the previous liaisons last and what caused them to break up?
Over time, these questions can erode the trust necessary to a healthy marriage.
The Bahá’í standard is very high, especially compared to the world around us, but if we follow it, it will lead to happier, more stable marriages:
The Bahá’í standard is very high, more particularly when compared with the thoroughly rotten morals of the present world. But this standard of ours will produce healthier, happier, nobler people, and induce stabler marriages. (Shoghi Effendi, A Chaste And Holy Life, #9)
Shoghi Effendi tells us the ONLY way to a happy and successful marriage is to strictly practice chastity before marriage:
The Bahá’í Teachings on this matter, which is of such vital concern and about which there is a wide divergency of views, are very clear and emphatic. Briefly stated the Bahá’í conception of sex is based on the belief that chastity should be strictly practised by both sexes, not only because it is in itself highly commendable ethically, but also due to its being the only way to a happy and successful marital life. Sex relationships of any form, outside marriage, are not permissible therefor, and whoso violates this rule will not only be responsible to God, but will incur the necessary punishment from society. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 344-345)
This includes not only intercourse, but even hugging and kissing:
The pilgrim’s note reports the Master as saying: ‘Women and men must not embrace each other when not married, or not about to be married. They must not kiss each other… If they wish to greet each other, or comfort each other, they may take each other by the hand. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 440-441)
One reason for this is that easy familiarity kindles desires which are hard to resist:
For desire is a flame that has reduced to ashes uncounted lifetime harvests of the learned, a devouring fire that even the vast sea of their accumulated knowledge could never quench. How often has it happened that an individual who was graced with every attribute of humanity and wore the jewel of true understanding, nevertheless followed after his passions until his excellent qualities passed beyond moderation and he was forced into excess. His pure intentions changed to evil ones, his attributes were no longer put to uses worthy of them, and the power of his desires turned him aside from righteousness and its rewards into ways that were dangerous and dark. A good character is in the sight of God and His chosen ones and the possessors of insight, the most excellent and praiseworthy of all things, but always on condition that its centre of emanation should be reason and knowledge and its base should be true moderation. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 59–60)
Still not convinced? You’re not alone! Many people dismiss the Bahá’í marriage law as archaic, irrelevant and out of step with today’s realities.
In fact, it’s an area where science and religion agree. Numerous researchers are finding that couples who live together have a higher rate of divorce than couples who don’t cohabit before marrying. And prior to the divorce, these couples have lower rates of marital satisfaction.
Psychology Today reported the findings of Yale University sociologist Neil Bennett that cohabiting women were 80% more likely to separate or divorce than were women who had not lived with their spouses before marriage.
The National Survey of Families and Households indicates that “unions begun by cohabitation are almost twice as likely to dissolve within 10 years compared to all first marriages: 57% to 30%.”
Another five-year study by William Axinn of the University of Chicago of 800 couples reported in the Journal of Demography that those who cohabit are the most accepting of divorce.
In a Canadian study at the University of Western Ontario, sociologists found a direct relationship between cohabitation and divorce when investigating over 8,000 ever-married men and women (Hall and Zhoa 1995:421-427). It was determined that living in a non-marital union “has a direct negative impact on subsequent marital stability,” perhaps because living in such a union “undermines the legitimacy of formal marriage” and so “reduces commitment of marriage.”
A study by the National Council on Family Relations of 309 newlyweds found that those who cohabited first were less happy in marriage. Women complained about the quality of communication after the wedding. A physical relationship is an inadequate foundation upon which to build a lasting lifelong relationship.
A study by researchers Alfred DeMars and Gerald Leslie (1984) found that those who live together prior to marriage scored lower on tests rating satisfaction with their marriages than couples who did not cohabit.
A study by Dr. Joyce Brothers showed that cohabitation has a negative affect on the quality of a subsequent marriage (Scott 1994).
Cohabitors without plans to marry were found to be more inclined to argue, hit, shout and have an unfair division of labor than married couples (Brown and Booth 1997).
A study of 2,746 women in the National Survey of Family Growth performed by Dr. Kahn of the University of Maryland and Dr. London of the National Center for Health Statistics found that nonvirgin brides increase their odds of divorce by about 60%. http://www.leaderu.com/critical/cohabitation-socio.html
Still not convinced? Again, you’re not alone!
Knowledge of the religious standard combined with scientific knowledge is still not enough to convince people to remain chaste:
Exhortations to remain pure and chaste will only succeed to a limited degree in helping them to resist these forces. (Universal House of Justice, 28 December 2010 to the Continental Board of Counsellors)
As a result, those who have sex before marriage may be subject to administrative sanctions:
Living together without being married, on either a trial or immoral basis, is obviously unacceptable in Bahá’í teachings and is, moreover, an offence which, if persisted in, could call for deprivation of voting rights. (Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 378)
Or you will be required to pay a fine:
God hath imposed a fine on every adulterer and adulteress, to be paid to the House of Justice. Although the term translated here as adultery refers, in its broadest sense, to unlawful sexual intercourse between either married or unmarried individuals (see note 36 for a definition of the term), ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has specified that the punishment here prescribed is for sexual intercourse between persons who are unmarried. (See also Q and A 49.) (Baha’u’llah, The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, p. 200)
God hath imposed a fine on every adulterer and adulteress, to be paid to the House of Justice: nine mithqals of gold, to be doubled if they should repeat the offence. Such is the penalty which He Who is the Lord of Names hath assigned them in this world; and in the world to come He hath ordained for them a humiliating torment. (Baha’u’llah, The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, p. 37)
At the current rate, (see http://bahaiglossary.org/pages/mithqal ) 9 Mithqals of gold equals $1694.06. So if you have sex one time with someone you aren’t married to, this is what you would pay! If you have sex a second time, it doubles to $3388.12! If you have it a third time, it doubles again to $6776.24; and a fourth time to $13,552.48! Hopefully that’s so far beyond someone’s ability to pay, that they won’t want to chance having sex before marriage!
The reason for this fine is to expose and shame those who violate the law as a deterrent:
In one of His Tablets, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá refers to some of the spiritual and social implications of the violation of the laws of morality and, concerning the penalty here described, He indicates that the aim of this law is to make clear to all that such an action is shameful in the eyes of God and that, in the event that the offence can be established and the fine imposed, the principal purpose is the exposure of the offenders — that they are shamed and disgraced in the eyes of society. He affirms that such exposure is in itself the greatest punishment. (Baha’u’llah, The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, p. 200)
Although this fine isn’t incumbent on the people of the west yet, it’s still important to understand it will be in the future.
I suspect it’s because sex before marriage is an epidemic and will take some time to change:
When the world becomes more spiritual there will not be such an exaggerated emphasis on sex, as there is today, and consequently it will be easier for young people to be chaste and control their passions. (Shoghi Effendi, The Light of Divine Guidance v II, p. 69)
What other insights can you offer on this topic? Post your comments here: