The following is an excerpt from Letters to a Young Mormon, a series of letters written by philosophy professor Adam S. Miller that distills the knowledge he wants his own children and young members of the Church to know.
Soon, you’ll be hungry not only to renew life but to make it. A hunger for sex will grow in you that is just as real, just as native, and just as pressing as your need for food and sleep. Remember that your hunger for intimacy, like all hungers, is a gift and not a punishment.
This new hunger is different from the others. You’ll die if you don’t eat and breathe, but you won’t die if you don’t have sex—though, to be honest, you may sometimes feel like you will. This new hunger is different because it is not just a hunger for food or air but for another person, and that person’s needs and feelings and fears are just as real and just as complicated as your own. And there is something else to always bear in mind. The intimacy you crave not only involves your responsibility to care for the needs of another person. It involves your responsibility to care for the fact that this intimacy can make a new person. Sex gives life.
This hunger for intimacy is like an ocean. It will come like a flood, and you will feel lost at sea. When you were a child, you walked on dry ground. In order to become an adult, you’ll have to learn how to swim. You are no more responsible for being at sea than you are for needing to breathe. And, though some may say different, you are not guilty because the ocean is wet. You did not choose this hunger. But, even if you had, the task would be the same: you must choose what to do with it. You must learn how to care for this hunger and be chaste. Caring for this hunger will take practice and patience. Be kind to yourself as you stumble through.
In church, we say: learn to be chaste. This is right, but we have to be clear. Chastity, as a way of practicing care, doesn’t purge or deny this hunger. You are chaste when you are full of life, and you are full of life when you are faithful to the hungers that root it.
To care for this hunger, you must do just as you did with the others. You cannot get rid of your hunger either by pandering to it or by purging it. Both strategies deny your hunger. Church talk about sexual purity is meant to keep you close to life and warn you against trying to end your hunger by carelessly indulging it. But while talk of purity may help constrain your hunger, it can also conspire with the impulse to purge it. And trying to get rid of your hunger by purging it, even for the sake of purity, will just as surely leave you spiritually dead as indulging it. The measure of chastity is life, and life, by divine design, is messy. If used without care, aiming for purity is as likely to hobble your ability to love someone else as to save it. Don’t become a slave to your hunger and don’t try to make a slave of your hunger. Slavery is sin, and sin is death.
The way is clear even if it’s not easy. Commit to respecting the bodies of other people, and commit to caring for your own. When it comes to bodies that are not your own, the line is bright: don’t use pornography and don’t have sex outside of marriage. Inevitably, you’ll be exposed to pornography, but don’t use it. Pornography is a billion-dollar business. It trades your God-given hunger for cash. It doesn’t care for you, and it destroys the lives of the men and women it uses to lure you. Don’t be complicit in this catastrophe. In general, don’t date seriously before you are old enough to be serious. Keep your hands to yourself. Wait to kiss and then kiss like you would like to kiss again tomorrow, not like you want to get all the kissing done, once and for all, today.
Be patient with your affections. I kissed a girl for the first time when I was fourteen. She was sixteen. She had brown eyes and dark hair. I was surprised by her. When we kissed, I crossed a mild but important line—you only get one first kiss—and I didn’t really want to cross it. It was winter, after school, after a basketball game, and we were waiting outside. It was dark and snowing, and we were alone. She asked me to kiss her. I shuffled my feet and made excuses. She asked me again, and I said okay. So she took my hand, leaned in, and kissed me. It was sweet. I’ll never forget it. She will always matter to me. But still I was uneasy. I knew I hadn’t kissed her because I loved her or because I was starved for a physical connection—though I did care about her and I was hungry. The truth is that I was afraid to kiss her, and in the end, I only kissed her because I was afraid. I was afraid not to do what she wanted. I was fourteen, I was awkward, I had bad skin, I didn’t have many close friends, and I needed her to stay close by. Watch for this unsteady mix of hunger and need and fear. Don’t use the forms of love to win acceptance and to paper over your fears. Take courage from love and do what’s best.
With respect to your own body, you must practice. You must be patient with its immaturity because you are still growing. And you must have compassion for its weakness because you are still mortal. Learning to be chaste is like learning to play the piano. There is only one way to learn: you must practice the music without already knowing how to play. Similarly, you must care for your hunger without already knowing its strength, its character, or how to direct it. You have no choice but to learn as you go. Life has never before been lived in your body.
Chastity is not a kind of perfection. You may have arrived in this world innocent, but chastity is something more than innocence. Chastity is not something you are born with and then break or lose, it is something that is made. Chastity is a habit built over time by way of good choices. It is a power that gathers strength from consistently practicing care and discipline. It is something that must, with years of patient and compassionate effort, be cultivated and grown and gathered and sealed.
Caring for your own hunger will teach you how to care for the body of the person you’ll one day love. Watch your hunger closely. See how, like the ocean, it has a rhythm with tides that come in and out and waves that break. See how it gets tangled up with the stories you tell yourself and with the fantasies you entertain. See how it gets knotted together with all kinds of hopes and shames and fears. Notice how, when the tide of your hunger goes out, this doesn’t suddenly mean you’re chaste. And notice how, when the tide comes in, this doesn’t suddenly mean that you aren’t.
Listen, practice prayer, and let your hunger teach you. When you are alone and feel, as you often will, a growing hunger for sex, don’t always run away. Don’t automatically distract yourself from it or automatically lose yourself in it. Rather, try doing the one thing we’re often most afraid to do: pay direct attention to the hunger itself. Just watch. Acknowledge the hunger’s weight, autonomy, and reality. Notice that there is a difference between the images, fears, and fantasies that fuel the hunger and the physical sensations proper to the hunger itself. Then, instead of paying attention to the fantasies that stoke it, pay attention to the physical sensations that compose it. Become friends with them and watch patiently as their grip loosens. Don’t pour fuel on the fire by entertaining your fantasies, but don’t try to put out the fire either. Just watch the flames as they burn, on their own, back down to coals. Practicing chastity means caring for these coals. Practicing chastity means learning how to offer this hunger back to God as a prayer.
You’ll do a better job listening on some days than others. You’ll have ups and downs. The impulse to explore your own body when you are young and alone isn’t evil, but it does need the kind of tempering that only experience, practice, and maturity can engrain. Don’t panic when, as a teenager, you discover that you don’t yet have experience or maturity. Remember that God loves you. He gave you this hunger. He knows what it’s like to be a teenager. He wants to help you, not damn you.
Even when you feel you’ve done wrong, your job is still the same: continue to care by repenting. And, in order to repent, you’ll have to begin where you are. Start by practicing care for your life as it’s actually given rather than fretting guiltily over how you imagine it ought to have been. Shame and fear will not help you here. Satan, not Jesus, is the accuser. When you experience fear or shame or guilt, your job is to practice care for them as well. Don’t hurt yourself with them. Let the fear and guilt come, let them go, and learn what they too have to teach about the root of life.
Ask for help. You’re not alone. You don’t have to manage this by yourself. Talk to your parents. Talk to your leaders. Talk to your bishop. Let them talk to you. It may be hard to believe, but everyone feels what you feel.
If you’re attracted to people of the same sex, know that God loves you. If you identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transsexual, know that God loves you. He sees you. He hears you. He understands you. He knows your heart. He knows that it’s hard. He wants to be part of your life. He wants you to pray. He wants you to read. He wants you to serve. He wants you to be part of the body of Christ, and he needs you to bless that body in return. The body of Christ cannot be made whole without you.
Dear S., I pray for you. None of this is easy. I pray you’ll find someone to whom you can seal yourself and to whom you can promise your hunger. And I pray that, if your circumstances are more complicated, God will show you how best to care for your life in light of them.
Get more inspiring advice and insights from Adam Miller inLetters to a Young Mormon.
This book is composed as a series of letters. The letters are meant for a young Mormon who is familiar with Mormon life but green in his or her faith. The author, philosophy professor Adam S. Miller, imagined himself writing these letters to his own children. In doing so, he struggled to say his own piece about what it means to be—as a Mormon—free, ambitious, repentant, faithful, informed, prayerful, selfless, hungry, chaste, and sealed.
The letters do little to benchmark a Mormon orthodoxy. That work belongs to those called to it. Here, Miller's work is personal. He means only to address the real beauty and real costs of trying to live a Mormon life and hopes to show something of what it means to live in a way that refuses to abandon either life or Mormonism.
This second edition of Letters to a Young Mormonincludes all the content of the original, well-loved book, with added chapters on the Sabbath and stewardship, as well as a new preface by the author, which provides additional framing and context for his writing.