Stages of Faith

The idea of Faith Stages fascinates me. I’m bursting to share it with every religious and used-to-be-religious person I know. If you’re wondering why your loved ones feel like they’re outgrowing your church, or if you feel like you’re outgrowing your church and it’s confusing, read on.

First, a little background: Who remembers Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Reasoning? You might have been asked a question in your education days similar to this:

“Your child is dying and there is a medicine that will save her life. But you don’t have the money, and the pharmacist won’t give it to you under any circumstances without full payment. What do you do?

What is your answer? And more importantly, what’s your reasoning for your decision? Kohlberg stated that people’s moral reasoning progressed through stages as summarized below.

  • Pre-Conventional Reasoners avoided pain or focus on rewards. (I don’t want to go to jail for stealing the medicine, and I feel safe when I follow rules.)
  • Conventional Reasoners shift their emphasis to connection with others. (It’s not fair to steal from the pharmacist, society works when we all follow norms.)
  • Post-Conventional Reasoners attempt to take the perspective of all individuals in balance. (The pharmacist isn’t being ethical and life should be prized higher than profits.)


An American theologian named James Fowler took this idea a step further and created the Stages of Faith while M. Scott Peck, an American psychiatrist, simplified the idea into 4 similar stages of spiritual development. This table is the best, more concise way to help you see what Stages of Faith is all about.
Stages of Faith

Why does this fascinate me so? For one, I live in a religion where people are leaving in droves. And to look nationwide, this is not a pattern unique to Mormonism. There are a bunch of church members who don’t get why it’s happening and sometimes explain it as  “sin” or “laziness,” and there are also a bunch of church members who struggle to stay, or choose not to stay. The Stages of Faith theory provides context that might help all church members better understand each other.

Stage 1 and 2 – Not much to say that’s revolutionary. We start as children, believing simply, relying upon the tradition of our parents and society. We’re also sort of self-centered at that age and hopefully some clear rules/expectations keep us in line.

Stage 3 is a safe, solid place of certainty in spiritual perspective, unity in community, and trust in the authority keeping us spiritually safe. The sanctuary-like feel in Stage 3 should be honored and not looked down on by those in different stages. For many people, it is enough and often for a lifetime. Conventional Spirituality is a beautiful tribe to belong to when you fit within its framework.

Yet sometimes, spiritual change comes knocking. 

Personal example – I was knocked flat by the spiritual growth that showed up on my doorstep in my early 30’s. (Right on schedule, according to Fowler and Peck). Prior to that uninvited growth I lived solidly in Stage 3, not recognizing how thoroughly I was inside a belief system, relying upon a church to give me stability, and feeling extremely threatened when those beliefs were called into question (I remember well the uncomfortable feelings of listening to friends or family talk baldly about the church I loved, and how squirmy I was at how heathenish they sounded!)

It was agony for me to lose the sanctuary of Stage 3; all of my life my self concept and self worth had been intertwined with spiritual certainty, literal interpretations and unquestioning obedience to authority. Having a conventional spiritual life was my identity.

A question you may be asking: How did uninvited growth just show up? In my religion, members are genuinely encouraged to find personal answers and not rely upon following blindly. Members are also regularly reminded to keep spiritual searches to approved sources. Supposedly if you stick to this plan, you should be fine. But for me, life experiences at that time made me uncomfortable with some doctrines, which my own scripture research and spiritual pleas left me increasingly unhappy about, and it quickly unraveled from there. (Without any influence of ‘forbidden web pages’ or ‘anti-church literature,’ and zero egregious ‘sins’ on my part, FYI). I felt torn apart inside and wondered if I was indeed being led astray in a way I’d been cautioned against my entire life. I also felt intense guilt that perhaps I hadn’t been righteous or diligent enough.

Yet as my thoughts about truth and worth and faith expanded, I started feeling more deeply and consistently joyful, with a growing spirituality that brought me daily closer to the divinity I’d relied upon all my life. As I let go of literal checklists and embraced symbolic beauty, what started out as terrifying abyss became a major step forward. I saw divinity everywhere when I stepped outside my conventional box. Instead of feeling constant low grade guilt for everything I wasn’t living up to, I started feeling like I was enough and God actually cared about bigger, grander things than I’d believed in my prior box. ‘By their fruits ye shall know them’ is a litmus test that’s never led me astray, and whenever I retreat to my Stage 3 roots and question my own heathenism, I remember the fruits of spiritual growth that have come my way from this marvelous change of perspective and priorities. Outgrowing the comfort of unquestioning religious loyalty and the need for spiritual certainty actually increased my daily spirituality and consistent joy to new levels I didn’t know were possible.

Man on the beach appreciate beautiful sunrise

But I digress. This isn’t meant to be an essay about me. I use my own examples to bring comfort to anyone as lost as I felt when my conventional faith was stripped from me, and to give examples to those still trying to understand why people ‘turn away’ from the religion of their youth.

Disillusionment and apathy appear to be the hallmarks of Stage 4. That stage initially felt the same as intense betrayal to me, because it’s painful to make the switch from literal and certain belief to symbolic faith and uncertainty. You feel lied to, by your own feelings from youth and also by those who taught you. Even if your religious teachers at the time existed in a higher stage of individual or conjunctive faith, teaching to a group is done in a conventional format consisting of literal and certain ‘facts.’ It’s confusing to unravel that, and the feeling of betrayal is why it doesn’t surprise me that Peck says many people in Stage 4 – which is often non religious – stay there permanently. 

What’s also extremely interesting, given the religious community in which many of us live, is Fowler’s comment that moving to Stage 4 looks like regression to people in the conventional faith Stage 3. You see, Stage 2 is self-centered. And Stage 4 and beyond, with its growth toward individual faith over literal authority, looks self centered and even hedonistic to people in the Conventional Stage 3 which relies so heavily on authority and following norms. I think about this every Sunday at church; every time I second guess making a comment because I know how it will sound to those who prize obedience and certainty. I totally get it because for two decades I was that person with conventional faith assuming that the outside-the-box commenters and questioners were lacking in faith and loyalty.

There are limits to logic, Stage 5 recognizes. Aristotle got it right here – “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” Yet making peace with uncertainty and allowing the unknown in, instead of holding fast to literalism, is intensely freeing, almost like you can stop exhausting yourself trying to make a square peg fit into a round hole. Literal answers don’t equal faith; in scripture Alma says faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things. We can, with faith, sit back and say comfortably, “I don’t know, but I trust Divinity.” It is deeply empowering to recognize all the non-categorical, gray area, paradoxical truths and beauties in this vast world. I think it causes us great discontent and actually shows a lack of faith in the Divine to try to fit everything into neat categories. Isn’t that what faith is about? To trust, not knowing the literal answers? To trust by following the greatest commandments of loving God and loving each other, not striving to get all the answers figured out?

I really like Peck’s statement in the table that at the highest stage, one recognizes truth in prior stages. You can both personally grow and rely upon a church for stability. You can see life as a paradoxical mystery and still look to religious symbols and theology. You can prize your individual spirituality and nurture it in the context of a religious community. That’s why I can, from my active religious status, comfortably share an essay like this, because spiritual growth does not have to equal outgrowing religion. And being a faithful religious member does not have to mean dismissing faith outside the conventional norm.

To those who are happily solid in their conventional faith and religion, I beg you to hold open arms in your community for those growing differently in their faith than you. Maybe it will take more faith than ever on your part to open up to gray areas and let them worship equally alongside you, not making them feel compelled to leave if they’re not conventional. Jesus sat in the temple debating for hours with religious scholars and religious debate continues to be a hallmark of Jewish religious tradition. Religion and faith can tolerate differences and we’ll all be better – and have improved faith – for the diverse discussion and faith views. Your loved ones might not take the faith path you’re certain is best, but love them and encourage them to build something meaningful and allow some creative differences in worshipping alongside you. 

To those who are growing into unchartered spiritual territory that may feel foreign to the literal faith of your youth, I encourage you to hang in there and don’t get too hasty either in forcing yourself back to certainty -or- giving up when you feel betrayed by the uncertainty that strips your formerly literal beliefs and identity. Follow good fruits in your own life, and if/when you reach the point that you’ve deconstructed your literal faith, I encourage you to next REconstruct a symbolic faith that’s meaningful to your life. Stage 4 disillusionment is not the happiest place to set up a permanent home. Find something beautiful and meaningful that’s uniquely yours, and keep in mind that faith growth doesn’t have to mean outgrowing your religious community. You could get creative in merging the faith of your youth with a new, personally meaningful take on it.

Above all, as we live the greatest commandments to love God and love each other, hopefully this Stages of Faith theory can give us increased understanding, compassion and support for each other. May we all respect individual faith journeys as we live and worship together in this beautiful existence.

How to Talk to Your Kids about Intimacy

The Chastity Talk You *Wish* You Were Having” caught some notice, and I was asked to be a guest speaker on this Mormon Channel episode. It’s one more great place to hear the non-shaming message of protecting healthy sexuality, especially from a church leader. You already know what I have to say, so listen especially to M. Joseph Brough – his message, representing an official church perspective, is right in line with what I feel passionately about, so I left this interview walking on air.

Click here to find the videocast!

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When Self Confidence is More Important than Obedience

Some of you read my title and think, “Duh, of course self confidence is most important.” Some of you read my title and think it’s a little blasphemous. Hear me out.

Most girls are raised to be nice, obedient, kind, and friendly. They are taught from a young age to take into consideration other people’s feelings and to avoid embarrassing anyone else. “Don’t be selfish.” “We must always consider others, dear.” “Shhh, don’t make a scene.” In addition, most kids are taught the idea that so long as they obey, they will be just fine. This happens inadvertently through quiet modeling and it also happens through purposeful teaching.

(I vividly remember this moment, the first time my daughter did NOT want to “just sit there and be quiet.” Look how mad she was.)


Yet there are people in the world who exploit passivity; and there are predators skilled at preying on obedient natures. Our socially appropriate, obedient children aren’t prepared to cross paths with them.

Once in middle school I sat in a dollar movie and the person behind me had his feet through the crack between the upright back and the swiveling seat-part of my seat. Those feet were resting there lightly touching my behind. I found it annoying, but didn’t want to cause a scene. The feet moved further underneath my rear as the movie progressed. As a 12-year-old girl I thought he was annoying and bothersome, I flounced around a few times hoping he’d get the hint and move those feet. I finally grabbed my jacket and wadded it up and sat it underneath me. Never did I consider turning around and saying “cut it out” or going to an adult for help – that would be “telling.” I just took it, not quite understanding the frotteurism going on. (Frotteurism – rubbing up against strangers in an anonymous way.) As an adult, I am understandably horrified. He was gone before the lights came on, and I remember feeling confused about what had just happened. I don’t think I told anyone; it was creepy and uncomfortable and I moved on.

Grooming is behavior that starts small and increases slowly to inappropriate action. It’s a person bumping into you, touching your arm intimately, or saying something mildly off-color to see how you will react. If they get away with it and you don’t protest, later they will move the touch a little more intimate, stand a little closer, or move the conversation a little more off-track. To catch grooming in its earliest stages is difficult – many of us have wondered if something was accidental or purposeful. All of us have been bumped into awkwardly in a crowd. At what point should you say something? When do you set a boundary? Speaking up risks one of those “embarrassing” and potentially “causing a scene” moments we have largely trained our girls to avoid. Calling someone on their pushing-the-line behavior, and naming it grooming, is risky and the very opposite of politely avoiding awkwardness.

Recognizing grooming from an authority figure is tricky for obedient souls, and what’s even more frightening, any confident charmer can appear an authority to kids we’ve trained really well to listen & obey.

Our quiet, kind, friendly, avoiding-embarrassment kids need to practice, through tangible action. They need to learn to recognize, and then rehearse, be rude, say cleverly snarky things, get ‘awkward,’ and even yell. Remember “Stop Drop & Roll” we repeated once a year in elementary school so it was wired into our brains in case catastrophe hit? Or the biannual fire drills where we physically moved our feet and taught our bodies what to do in a flood of confusion? Our girls, our kids, need physical practice doing unfamiliar and awkward defense. They need ongoing conversation about their right to command their own body, their right to feel safe and comfortable even if it means embarrassing somebody else. And their right to protect themselves even if it means feeling “disobedient” to some so-called authority.

One year in college, a boy I was starry-eyed over asked me on a date – the plan was to make dinner at his parent’s cabin in Park City and watch a movie before returning home. This was BYU, I’d been around this guy on a previous group date, so I left excitedly for the date with no worries in mind. We conversed, we cooked and ate, and we settled down to watch a movie – and he cuddled right up to me.  Remember grooming? His affection started small and progressed – foot on mine, leg touching mine, hand on my leg, holding my hands, arm around me, head on my shoulder, then face in my neck… I was terribly uncomfortable and was as cold and rigid as could be, hoping he would get the point. What is a 20-year-old girl with no cell phone (it was before those days) to do? There was no way to stop this situation without significantly embarrassing myself and him, plus we had an awkward hour-long drive home ahead of us, so I stayed quiet. I endured him all over me. And I spent the next day in my bed, feeling gross, used, powerless, and icky all over. For months I dreaded seeing him on campus and I walked with my head hung low, avoiding his calls and praying we wouldn’t cross paths.

Again, as an adult, I am horrified. In my lucky case, nothing progressed to sexually abusive levels, but as I look back and ponder the situation, I see how my story mimics countless others that end disastrously. And yes, I should not have gone to a house alone with a boy I basically just met, which could have eliminated much of that awkwardness, but the main point of this story remains – I wasn’t prepared to stand up for myself or to make a fuss if needed. I was more concerned about embarrassment and awkwardness.

After publishing my Chastity Lesson, I agreed with the flood of comments about the need for a sexual safety component. I decided to give it a trial run with my church group of 14-15-year-old girls – talk and practice about owning their bodies and preserving the right to stand up for themselves. I taught them about grooming, I told them my personal stories listed above, and we tried to practice.

They couldn’t do it.

Sixty percent of the girls were quiet and awkward and admitted that they’ve never made waves before and it would be really hard, embarrassing, and awkward to start now. They giggled through role plays (understandable) but said, even knowing what I’d just taught them, still they would probably react passively, much like me in those stories, if it were to happen to them. This terrified me. These girls need to say snarky things like ‘I think this arm belongs to you,” have awkward talks, and if needed be rude, yell, or cause a scene. They need to understand that their dignity is worth some embarrassment on anyone/everyone’s parts. They need to have fire drills standing up for themselves – all the while being reassured that they are not “embarrassing.” We need to show them how much we value their voice by cheering their fragile attempts to showcase their own dignity.

The other 40% of my girls said they’re never going to put themselves in a tempting situation so they don’t need to worry about this. [Insert horrified emoji.] Someday, most of these girls will find themselves kissing a boy and really enjoying it, or will find themselves cuddling alone under the stars in a way that starts innocently… and will then be unprepared to say no even when they want to. Their guilt at having crossed the “I’m just never going to put myself in that situation” line a) risks them getting more intimate than they wanted to because they feel like they’ve invited it and can’t stop now, or b) invites the thought that being taken advantage of is their own fault for placing themselves in that situation in the first place.

They need to hear this from birth: You own your body. It was given to you. You’ve been asked to take care of it.  It doesn’t matter where you are, what you’re in the middle of doing, how you’re dressed, or how far you’ve gone already – it is YOURS. Yours alone. Protect it. Put yourself first. You are worth it.

Feeling personal guilt and adopting sole responsibility for abuse isn’t unique to those with religious backgrounds. In my day job as a therapist for teen girls from all walks of life, even my sexually-active-party-life-teenage girls feel like their abuse was deserved because they put themselves in that situation. I die a little inside, remembering a girl who was forcefully raped and she maintained that it was her fault to the last day of our therapy, because even though she was drugged and then abandoned by her friends, she went out when her parents told her not to. This is an example of a girl who has been trained to value obedience over personal worth. She disobeyed, so in her mind she deserved it. On top of her PTSD and lifelong intimate relationship baggage, she carries personal guilt for “causing” her abuse.

Near the end of the experiential lesson with my 14 & 15 year-olds I tried to drive the “You are worth more than your obedience” point home by saying:

“You could be lying naked in a park and still nobody has the right to touch you if you don’t want them to.”

Dead silence. No nods. They thought I was crazy. By this time they understood the point I was trying to make so nobody dared argue out loud, but I could see them thinking it – “If someone lies naked in a park, they deserve what happens to them.”

Don’t go lie naked in a park. Obviously. But please, if you find yourself thinking like those girls, examine under what circumstances you think it IS fair for another person to be taken advantage of.  I hope the answer is never. We need to teach our girls their right to freedom from abuse FIRST, and the outward behaviors like obedience second.

Let me sum it up this way: If we spend our energy on training girls to “be good” about their bodies, obey and cover up as their main defense and safety net against sexual abuse, we are failing them because:

1) Being wise about your environment and your manner of dress is not a guarantee against grooming or violation.

2) We are increasing guilt over things that happen, whether they were invited initially or not. “If only I hadn’t gone on that date…” “If only I had worn a longer skirt…” “If only I hadn’t let him kiss me…”

Yes, our girls should make safe choices and stick to healthy environments… but ultimately, they have a right to say NO and stand up for themselves whatever situation they may be in. They need to know that. They need to practice that. Please helps our girls.

Before I finish, let me point out how most of these same points apply to our boys, especially our young defenseless ones.  Please teach our boys that their bodies are theirs to own and take care of, not to be interfered with by anybody else. Help them practice. Help them stand up against grooming and have their own fire drills for what to say & do, so they’ll be ready when those confusing moments come.

I invite you to have family meetings, family practice. If you’ve got one of those quiet, easily embarrassed children, start one on one – “Hey babe, what would you do if I put my arm around you and you didn’t like it?” Coach them. Give ideas. Teach them it’s okay to be rude and make a fuss when they are protecting themselves, emotionally or physically. Then take your role plays to the next level by trying other family & friends playing mock groomer, overbearing date, touchy coworker, boyfriend pushing too far. It’s going to feel awkward and weird, silly and strange – but do it anyway. These fire drills help us be ready when confusion happens.

And above all else, help your children know that their bodies are awesome. Amazing, strong, beautiful gifts that are theirs to protects no matter the cost.


Why Doubt is Essential to Faith

The acceptance and importance of doubt as a part of faith has been constantly on my mind in the last year. The writings of Paul Tillich recently came to us thanks to my husband’s voracious study of spirituality and Christianity. Tillich was a German American theologian and philosopher living from 1886-1965. His method of describing doubt and faith rang true to me, so I weave his words here with my own understanding of late, in the effort to capture and share a snapshot of my ever evolving spiritual landscape, and in the hopes it might help others.timpTillich describes faith as an “ultimate concern.”

Deuteronomy 6:5 states “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.”

This appears an accurate description of faith as an ultimate concern – something that pervades our entire existence and demands total surrender.

Yet we are finite beings trying to comprehend the infinite. We have limited minds, mortally limited bodies, limited understanding and comprehension abilities. We are much like small children trying to grasp the comprehensiveness of a complex subject. God is infinite, without bounds, without time and place, large and mysterious and great.

It makes sense that there is friction in the space between finite and infinite. That is the space where doubt resides. Friction where a Finite Being tries to understand an Infinite Being. The very presence of that friction, of that doubt, proves how all encompassing my concern is. If I didn’t feel acutely at times how little I really know, how infantile I am in my limited understanding, I wouldn’t have to re-choose the courageous path of faith. Because surely, if I never question and if I feel like I have it all figured out, I’m not actually exercising faith. I am most likely exercising habit, which is not the same as ultimately concerned.

seedsI used to picture knowledge as the end goal, with faith like a baby step along the way, something like “If I only had enough faith, I would know.” In the Book of Mormon, Alma says “Faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things” and again “…after ye have tasted this light is your knowledge perfect? Behold I say unto you, Nay; neither must ye lay aside your faith…” Throughout Alma’s experiment faith is exercised – the words faith, diligence, patience, and long-suffering are repeatedly emphasized. Interesting to note that this famous Mormon treatise on faith doesn’t end with knowledge, but with the good fruit that represents eternal life.

So what do we have faith about? “Confidence or trust in a person or thing,” is the first definition on, and “Belief and trust in and loyalty to God” is the second definition from Merriam Webster.  “If faith is understood as a belief that something is true, doubt is incompatible with the act of faith. If faith is understood as being ultimately concerned, doubt is a necessary element in it” writes Tillich.

Somewhere in my religious history I started to think that “having faith” meant the same thing as “believing to be true.” My sphere has expanded in recent years as I’ve started to think of faith on a larger, more grand scale of seeking out the goodness of Divinity rather than seeking out true/false beliefs. This definition of faith has allowed me to see doubt not as weakness, but as a necessary part of developing courage to choose faith and show my humility before God.

In the the book of Luke in the New Testament, Jesus says “which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?” and “What king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand?” These verses take place as Jesus is highlighting the cost of being his follower, but he does not appear to be shaming those weighing and counting (doubting) before making their faithful decision. Jesus instead appears to be encouraging an educated decision, recognizing that faith is a choice of ultimate concern and should not be made hastily.

It is my hope that we can create a spiritual and religious culture more accepting of doubt. And I mean genuinely accepting of existential doubt as a sign of intelligent friction while building an all-encompassing faith concern, without secretly seeing doubt as weakness or sign of unrighteousness. For without doubt, there is no need for the courageous choice of faith. 


Understanding WHY – the chastity talk you *wish* you were having

*disclaimer: this lesson is geared toward religious youth taught from a conservative framework, people who have likely grown up with the chastity expectations upon which this lesson is based. Thus this post may not be universally applicable to non-religiously conservative audiences. 

*update* This lesson has grown and changed since August 2016, after giving it to young women and then young men, I merged both versions of the lesson and have delivered the combined lesson below to coed groups with fun success.  I wish I’d heard this lesson when *I* was the teenager. Feel free to use it to teach your own.  ~ac

I am one of those crazy people who love to talk about potentially uncomfortable topics with a big group of strangers. The Law of Chastity is definitely one of those. I’m sure in this audience we have a wide variety of perspectives – some of you may be young enough you still think boys or girls are kinda gross, and some of you may have decided boys/girls are the total opposite of gross. Some of you are married old parents who can’t remember when it was actually exciting to kiss someone. Some of you may have had intimate experiences that leave you feeling like it’s too late for the law of chastity to apply to you anymore. To that, I say that balderdash. I work as a therapist with teenagers, and most of them have been sexually active and most of my teens have had mild or severe sexual abuse in their lives, and what we’re going to talk about tonight is the very same sort of discussion I have with them.

The blessings that come from the law of chastity apply to everyone. Listen up and I promise you’ll find something for you.

Why do we tell little kids to stay on the sidewalk?

We drill that into them – over and over and over – to protect them.  They know we want to protect them.  They know it’s good for them.  Clearly, our continued emphasis about staying on the sidewalk lets our children know how very important it is.  They could repeat “Stay on the sidewalk” in their sleep.  BUT, when asked WHY they need to stay on the sidewalk, they might pause a moment longer and say… “So cars won’t hit me.”  Yes.  Why? “Uh… so I won’t get hurt?” Yes. Why? “Uh… so I won’t die?” Yes.  Why? I imagine our young kids would stop being able to explain – and even understanding – somewhere around the hospital or death as the biggest thing they have to be afraid of.  They know the basic idea about why it’s important to stay on the sidewalk… but they lack the big, complete, frightening picture about what all the stitches, broken bones, hidden head injury or cracked skulls, brain damage, blood, or possibly life-altering injuries that could happen if they were to get hit by a car… or a truck… or a cement truck.  They don’t know that cars can come out of nowhere when you’re busy following a butterfly. They don’t grasp that drivers can’t see little people who are smaller than garbage cans and shorter than cars.  SO, we tell them to “just stay on the sidewalk,” hoping our message carries all the fear and risk possible.  We don’t go into all the nitty gritty risks every time we send them out to ride bikes.  We just say, “Stay on the sidewalk!”

The same thing happens with the law of chastity.  We’re told to follow and obey, and promised it will bless us, without going into all of the reasons how and why it’s good for us beyond obedience and expectation.  So we know we’re supposed to follow the law… but why does that law even exist?   

In my day and age, our chastity lesson would probably be a leader up here, listing all the good, obedient, divine reasons that keeping ourselves pure was important.  It would be a little awkward for everybody and we would get the mixed message that physical intimacy was bad, yet good somehow, but overall it’s bad so stay away. I think most chastity lessons today mostly consist of the chastity versions of “Stay on the sidewalk, just trust me, stay on the sidewalk, God will bless you, it’s hard but it makes your life better, stay on the sidewalk.”  Which is true.  But that explanation is not the whole picture.

“Our Heavenly Father has given us the law of chastity for our protection.  Obedience to this law is essential to personal peace and strength of character, and to happiness in the home.  As you keep yourself sexually pure, you will avoid the spiritual and emotional damage that always come from sharing physical intimacies with someone outside of marriage.  You will be sensitive to the Holy Ghost’s guidance, strength, comfort, and protection.” (True to the Faith, (2004), 29, my emphasis.)

Today I want to help you guys understand some of the bigger picture behind WHY it’s so important to “Stay on the sidewalk,” or follow the law of chastity.  Reasons that explain WHY it’s “for your protection” and “essential to personal peace”, and what sort of “emotional damage” you are avoiding by living chastely. Our Heavenly Father loves us and is basically telling us to “stay on the sidewalk” with the law of chastity, because we don’t always grasp all the scary things that can happen and mess up our happiness.

My biggest fear as a teen was having to go talk to a bishop or feeling like I would be damaged if I messed up.  (Which, btw, neither of those things are true.)  I definitely did not understand the things I’d like to talk about with you today.  My hope is that after today, when you hear about the law of chastity, you understand WHY it’s important to you personally.

Before we get into reasons for the law of Chastity, I want to normalize a very important thing: Human Biology.

Testosterone is the hormone that has the biggest influence on sexual desire for both men and women. Testosterone starts showing up in the body during teen years, and guess what – men have much, much more testosterone in their bodies than women, though women have it too and it does influence their thoughts and desires also. But on average, men have sexual thoughts more and sexual desire is a much bigger presence in their daily existence because of their increased testosterone. Not for every guy, and I don’t say that to set out some expectation that this is what it means to “be a man,” but just to normalize what some of you may be experiencing, or soon to experience, and for girls to better understand what’s happening in themselves and their young men friends.

If you believe God created your body, then believe that He created it the way it is – hormones and all! He knows what you’re going through. It’s not a mistake that things are changing for you. It’s not very likely you can start as this innocent baby and 100% turn off the sexual part of yourself for teenage years and then with that “magical event” of your temple wedding, suddenly feel physically confident end emotionally healthy in a sexual relationship. 

baby to superman

In this church so focused on sexual purity, having sexual thoughts and desires does not mean you’re sinning. But most of us adults don’t know how to talk about this potentially awkward topic in a non-shaming way, so I bet you mostly hear confusing messages, or the generic message to “follow the law of chastity” (like ‘stay on the sidewalk,’), or “just don’t think about sex,” “stay away,” without being told enough that your growth and development is a healthy thing – a great thing. It is part of God’s plan for bonding you to a person you love and creating a family.

But, like most other things in your life, you get to learn to control this desire.

I need a volunteer – come up here. “When you were little, did you ever bite anybody? (or hit anybody?) Do you do that anymore? Why not? How did you stop?”

You learned as a kid not to bite or hit when you’re angry. As you’ve grown older, you’ve also learned to do things that require self discipline, even when you didn’t really want to (homework – chores) – you know they’re good for you. It’s the same thing with the law of chastity – Following the standard about sexual intimacy is good for you in the long term, and today I’m going to help you understand more about WHY.

There are three main reasons that I see for why following the law of chastity protects us.

[pass out pineapple & say it’s ok to eat right now]  1

First: Cherish Simple Joys

Elder Eric B. Shumway said “The law of chastity, I testify, is a law of happiness. It is a law that protects the sacred powers of procreation and magnifies the lyrical joys of romantic intimacy in a way that God created, ordained, and blessed.”

I remember the first time I noticed Brad (my now husband, but pretend he’s not yet).  I would sit in my office and watch out the window at 2:45 every afternoon as that gorgeous guy walked across the sidewalk in front of my building.  That’s it. I would just watch, my stomach fluttering and cheeks burning from blushing.  I looked forward to that time every day and I would stop whatever I was doing to enjoy my 60 seconds of excitement.  After a little while watching him from a distance wasn’t quite so exciting, but then actually bumping into him on campus and saying hello created the same amount of excitement and sweetness.

Let me explain a concept that’s important to our understanding for a minute.

[draw a long line or post a visual of a long line]

continuum physical2

This represents the broad spectrum of romantic interactions.  We’re going to start all the way down here with “eye contact.”  It’s so exciting at first.  All the way at the other end of this continuum is “sex.”  I’ll just draw a firework to represent that; minimizing your public discomfort (my daughter doesn’t even like me saying or spelling s-e-x, she says “Can you just say “sleeping together” or “mating” mom?”) 

For now I have one thing to say about the sex end of the spectrum – somebody please read:

“Physical intimacy between husband and wife is beautiful and sacred.  It is ordained of God for the creation of children and for the expression of love within marriage.” (True to the Faith, (2004), 29.).

This far end of the spectrum isn’t bad, it’s not something that’s so evil we’re preaching against it.  Actually, it’s such a *great* thing we want to save and enjoy it at the proper time.  A guy friend of mine jokes that he was always taught “Don’t make out, it’s bad,” and then he started kissing girls and he says “It was definitely NOT BAD – in fact it was pretty awesome.”  It IS awesome – and it’s worth protecting.

Today we are going to symbolically experience a sweetness continuum to help us experience and understand on a deeper level what I’m talking about.

[tack up the next line]

continuum sweet

This is going to represent a sweetness continuum.  You’ve been eating pineapple – that fits about here on the spectrum (25%?ish) Even things like “sugar snap peas” are considered sweet, but you don’t really notice it because your mouths are already used to sugar enough you can’t taste it in peas. So today, we start with pineapple.

[pass out grapes to eat]  2

Grapes are a little sweeter than pineapple.  Once you’ve had sweet grapes, how sweet does the pineapple taste? It’s a little more tart, and maybe not as tasty to you.  Moving on in the spectrum makes the earlier stages not so sweet.  Your taste buds get used to, and desensitized to, the sweetness you have regularly.  It’s okay, it’s just what happens. 

But in our physical continuum, lets look at what happens.  Moving on from exciting new eye contact to talking to that person is moving along the spectrum and also exciting.  I could not even look at Brad back in those days without going speechless and my cheeks flushing hot.  And moving on – I remember the first time Brad even touched me – I stood in my front doorway telling him goodbye after our first date and he suavely swept me up in an unexpected hug and I could have died right on the spot.  Best moment of my life to that point.

[hand out Hershey kisses to eat]  6

BUT – once you start moving on…

…it may not be the same to go back.  How will your grapes, and how will your pineapple taste, after eating this?  (Who will try it and see?)

Is this idea making sense?  Who is brave enough to re-explain for us the point I’m making with these two continuums?

Elder Shumway in that earlier quote, mentioned that living chastely “magnifies the lyrical joys of romantic intimacy.”  That’s fancy speaking; let me define what it means here.  When you draw a line of where physical behavior should not go yet, it helps you thoroughly enjoy the innocent sweetness of those early stages.  Heavenly Father, by giving us the law of chastity, is giving us a time and a place in our lives to enjoy the sweet, simple pleasures in life.  Once you go beyond a safe “affection” zone, biology starts to kick in and you won’t be satisfied – your body wants more and more, and the simple & sweet things aren’t so sweet. 

Now Brad hugs me every day and do you think I feel that same excitement every time?  [No.] But I’m SO GLAD I have the memory of that earlier excitement to remember and swoon about. Small, simple, innocent pleasures help you build your fascination with the person you will spend the rest of your life with.  After you are married and busy with schooling or work, children and running a household, plus after you have moved along on the physical spectrum, it will never be the sweet, tender, enjoyable experience that it is now.  Living chastely is for our happiness because it helps us enjoy everything that romance has to offer, not just the big stuff.

Second:  Building a Solid Foundation

Is choosing who you are going to spend the rest of your life with a gigantic decision? [Yes!] I am terrified for each and every one of you, and I’m that cynical person who gets wedding invitations in the mail and thinks ‘Ohhh, they are so brave! I hope they can make it.’  I know how important creating a great marriage and a great family is to each of you because you talk about it regularly in our lesson discussions.  In other marriage lessons we have realized/decided that a marriage is really more like a best-friendship than a romance. You are building a lifelong friendship with a person you’re also attracted to.

Moving along with our food analogies –

[Display Food Guide Pyramid] food guide pyramic

This represents the broad variety of healthy things that make up a solid diet and foundation.  These lower levels could represent all the mundane, everyday things that help us learn and grow as individuals, and also later as a couple. 

We hang out with guys & girls and date to get to know what qualities we like, and to learn what works well with us – for example whether we work better with someone who is pretty chill and helps us relax vs. someone who is always working and thus motivates us to be better.  We need to figure out what annoys us and what inspires us.  We start laying the foundation for who we think will be a good partner for us in thi4s awesome life we’re going to create.  It takes a lot of interactions in simple (sometimes boring) things like group activities, working side by side, or being around each other’s families, to see what someone’s everyday personality is really like.

[set out vegetables]

Who now, after eating these sweet things we’ve been tasting, would really like to eat some pea pods & asparagus?

Why not?  [they don’t taste as good, they’re boring compared to the good things.]

[set out attractive piece of chocolate cake]


-or- Who now, seeing the most delicious dense, dark chocolate cake I know how to make, will be happy eating vegetables when this cake is always right there, almost available? Which one would you prefer?

But how will your body feel if you ate cake, cookies desserts, and sweets all the time?  You might feel GREAT! for a day… but how long can that last? 

I know – because when I was in college, one week I ate nothing but brownie batter.  No joke.  I had no mom there, nobody making me follow rules, and I was busy studying for finals, so I kept that brownie batter bowl in the fridge and ate it for days.  And I fainted and had a seizure! My body couldn’t run on pure sugar – I tried. food guide pyramic copy

How will a relationship feel if it’s way too physical? How lasting will it be when the physical isn’t exciting anymore? [turn that food guide pyramid upside down] Because yes, even in healthy strong marriages, the physical isn’t always exciting.

“When people care for one another enough to keep the law of chastity, their love, trust, and commitment increase, resulting in greater happiness and unity.”  (True to the Faith, (2004), 29).

This quote highlights that following the law of chastity brings us more joy not just because we are loving God more than our own desires, but because God’s law actually paves the way for a couple to know each other, come to trust each other, grow in respect for each other and become unified on important things like this pyramid example shows us.  That top part – snuggling, kissing, and all things physical are EASY.  Attraction physically is not the same thing as attraction to the lasting parts of somebody’s personality.  If you spend too much time in the “sweets” or “physical” category, [gesture to upside down pyramid] your foundation is poor.

Because I’m going all in on these food analogies, let me share with you a profound part of my kid’s latest favorite, “The Bernstein Bears and Too Much Junk Food.”  Brother & Sister asked their doctor “About sweets and goodies – what harm do they do?”Berenstain Bears

“Most of them,” answered the doctor, “aren’t very nourishing.  Instead of helping build and strengthen our bodies, they just pile up as extra fat!… And even worse – they fill you up, so you’re not hungry for the food your body really needs.”

If Dr. Grizzly were here in this lesson, she would say “Most physical touch isn’t very nourishing. Instead of spending energy on building a lasting foundation for a relationship, physical intimacy fills up your senses, and then you’re not wanting to do the work you really need to build a good relationship.” 

Just like we won’t be as interested in eating healthy things after indulging in sweets, we won’t want to do the mundane work of building a relationship when it’s so much easier to cuddle up and connect physically.

Keeping physical things in their proper place in your co-ed activities and dating helps you keep your focus where it’s healthy – on getting to know the personality and habits of others.  It’s actually pretty easy to spend all your time just hanging out until you can start kissing again without really getting to know someone. 

Third:  Biological Bonding in the Brain

Do you think this chocolate cake is probably delicious? 

How delicious will it be if you steal this piece of cake and sneak away to hide & eat it?

Even if it tastes good in your mouth, (because even stolen cake will be delicious for a moment), how long afterward will you be remembering its deliciousness? Or will the guilt about being secretive, and taking what wasn’t yet yours start to overshadow how great it tasted?

[pass out chocolate cake to eat during last section]

I would like you to enjoy a piece of my best cake while you listen to thibrain2s last little section.

[Show/draw picture of brain with pleasure center highlighted] 

Remember that Heavenly Father gave us the law of chastity for our protection and for our happiness. I want to talk about why that’s true at a biological level.

“Remaining sexually pure helps you to be confident and truly happy and improves your ability to make good decisions now and in the future.” (True to the Faith, Sexual Purity).

Let’s look at the biology behind why being chaste protects you, helps you be confident, and truly happy.  It’s bigger than just obedience.

When you get to this point in the continuum [gesture to further down like touching, kissing] it starts to engage brain chemicals.  It starts up a process we are biologically wired for – in a pure science-y terms, strong physical drives ensure the survival of our species.  We are mammals and we share the same biology that mammals do, ensuring offspring.  These are powerful desires that are great glue for a marriage relationship – truly, we need each other physically.  But opening up that biology gets really messy in other relationships.

There is a bonding chemical called Oxytocin that is released in the brain for attachment & bonding.  The highest dose you’ll ever see is when a mother has a new baby and her body floods with Oxytocin to help her bond with and become physically attached to her new child.  But another major place we see oxytocin is in a sexual encounter.  When a couple is sexual, the brain also releases oxytocin – it bonds couples together and creates a lasting tie.  You can see that at a brain level, we really start to become “One” with our spouse, just like the scriptures say.  I think it’s so awesome to see at a biological level what Heavenly Father has gifted our bodies with.  But you can see why it’s worrisome to start introducing chemical bonding hormones in relationships that aren’t forever.

It’s especially problematic when your heart and body start bonding to someone you might not even know very well on a non-physical level, because you’ve spent your time kissing and cuddling and doing all the “easy” things, skipping right over the important foundations in our pyramid. My advice: don’t do in the dark of Friday night things you wouldn’t be comfortable doing at noon on a Tuesday. THat can be a way to measure how comfortable you are with your foundation with someone.  Things in the dark are EASY.

man woman

Let me tell you another biological tidbit that explains why keeping physical things in check protects you and helps you make “good decisions.”  Women’s bodies are typically more tied to their emotions than men’s bodies, and this is especially true in teenage years.  You can see the heartache and heartbreak that happen if a girl and a guy are being physical for different reasons, and bonding starts to happen for one but maybe not the other .  Can you imagine the heartbreak possible after you’ve been physically vulnerable with someone?  It’s earth shattering enough to get broken up with, or when they don’t text or message back.  The law of chastity saves us so much heartache.  Waiting to be our most vulnerable until we are married spares us much risk of emotional damage, in addition to making sure our foundation is based on the right things.

There’s somewhere else all this brain chemical stuff is really important to understand. Provocative and arousing images appeal to the high level of desire hormones in your body – it’s NORMAL to feel a reaction, a quickening heartbeat, a curiosity about what seems so tantalizing. But when you act on those impulses, you are opening the door to even more impulses coming. It’s like opening a door in a dam to get a little taste of water – not very smart, and quickly becomes a much bigger deal than you anticipated.

dam big

Because this “bonding” stuff in the brain is a BIG DEAL – remember one way to look at it is the glue that helps cement a marriage together, and helps a couple truly NEED each other. Giving in to those impulses in the wrong way actually increases loneliness and dissatisfaction because those bonding chemicals are going toward something hollow – a fake picture, a fake video, a solitary experience. Over time, making a habit of experiencing these bonding chemicals in the wrong place can also mess with the ability to attach to the love of your life. Heavenly Father gave us these bonding powers to help us join together, and his law of chastity is in place to help us protect these awesome superpowers for the right time and person.


So, you’ve got these superpowers that you’re supposed to protect because it will help you be happy, confident, make good decisions, and build a strong relationship later.

“___(same volunteer from earlier)________, if you bit/hit someone today, is it the end of the world?

But should you keep biting somebody when you lose you head and get upset?

What would you do to fix it? [apologize, make a goal not to do it again, plan better for next time]

I think that heavenly Father loves us immensely and cares more about what we’re trying to become, and the goals in our heart and the direction we are heading now, than he cares about our slip-ups. He has this law of chastity in place because he wants us to be happy, not because he wants something to judge us harshly by.

If you feel stuck in a pattern you can’t get out of, or if you’re worried about this subject at all, talk to your parents, to a leader. to the bishop, come find me – we want to help you be healthy and happy. There are lot of adults in your life who love you and understand this bigger picture, and want you to have healthy relationships and a bright future. Let us help you.


You have heard a lot today, and I hope it has made sense.  For those of you have experienced a lot of things on this physical continuum, that doesn’t mean it’s too late for you to enjoy the sweetness all over again and the happiness that comes from obeying this law. You could decide right now that you’d rather have a better chance at a healthy foundation for a long lasting relationship, and that you’d like to protect yourself from extra heartache. For any of you that have had sexual things happen whether beyond your choice and control, I want you to know that you’re not alone. I wish I could give you a hug, and let you talk to the many teenagers, and beautiful people of all ages who wear that badge of ‘survivor’ in their life.

To all of you, there is a bright, beautiful future full of sweetness ahead of you. It doesn’t matter what’s happened to you or what choices you have made, I testify that there is sweetness and brightness ahead if you want it. You can choose right now to let the law of chastity protect your future.

To summarize the reasons WHY the law of chastity is good for you personally, tonight we’ve talked about how 

1) The law of chastity is for our happiness, not because it’s a test of obedience, but because it truly protects our emotions, our bodies, and our future relationships.

2) Keeping physical things contained lets you cherish the small things, and build a relationship foundation on things that really matter and are long-lasting.

3) Biologically, getting involved physically starts to open powerful doors that start bonding, which can get messy and very vulnerable, so that physical bonding is best left to the safety of a forever commitment.

So, I hope you have this new perspective, but what do you DO with it?

Really quick, let me summarize a whole ‘nother lesson topic: You have the agency to make choices for yourself and stick to them even when it’s hard.  If you are committed to a future relationship with a strong foundation, and if you believe that God can keep you happier by staying chaste, then it’s a matter of deciding where your lines are to be drawn and how to keep them there. Just the same way you made a decision and changed behavior not to bite/hit people when you’re angry, you have the ability to make smart decisions about what you want to do with your body in your future.

For example, when I was 28 years old and newly single and dating again, I gave myself a midnight curfew.  I didn’t have a mom around, I had my own condo and no roommates to check up on me, but I knew that for my own safekeeping, nothing good happened after midnight when I was tired and cuddly.  So I stuck to it.  And it blessed me.

Here’s what I want you to do to finish off today – [hand out stationary + envelopes]

1. Write down WHY you want to live the law of chastity.  And I want you to write a reason besides “to be obedient.”  Obedience is a fabulous reason, but there may come a day where it’s not enough motivation for you.  Please think of something personal to you, perhaps that you’ve learned today.

2. Write down WHAT you need to do, or where you need to draw your lines, to have the kind of emotional and physical purity & safety.  Because you need your own black & white rules to adhere to when the normal biological side of you is saying “this is awesome, keep going!” 

I testify that we have a God who loves us, and wants us to be safe and happy, and He gave us this law for our happiness and protection.  I don’t believe physical intimacy is for recreation, I believe that treating it with respect and living the law of chastity will bless our lives and keep us safe and happy.

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