Tell me, what is my life without your love.
Tell me, who am I without you by by side. George Harrison
9 For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. Colossians 2:9a
A friend observed that “sexuality” in the 21st century is nearly equivalent to what former generations thought of as the human soul. No wonder so many people see sexuality today as “who I am.” But is it possible in the 21st century to be “celibate and flourishing?” I will address two aspects of this question here, sexuality and community. They are intimately related.
The church today often labors under the false idea communicated by our culture that single people are second-class citizens. There are a number of reasons for this, including many people’s expectations that others will and ought to marry, suspicions that unmarried people might be gay, and false pride that marriage is a superior state. However, I believe the core reason for treating the single state as inferior is a distorted view of sexuality that treats sexual experience as indispensable to a flourishing life.
This distorted view of sexuality is often based in the biblical admonition that “it is better to marry than to burn” (with lust) (I Corinthians 7:9.) Rather than focus on the very specific teaching Paul is adducing about engaged couples and sexual practice at a time of high expectation concerning the Lord’s return, Christians often interpret this admonition as a universal teaching about marriage as a cure for lust. This is a distortion.
A friend engaged in campus ministry tells me one of the main misunderstandings among young Christian men today is the idea that marriage is the answer to their lust problem. Many men, particularly those who consume pornography, believe that marriage will satiate their lust in such ways that their problem with it will either be greatly reduced or will disappear entirely. Only later do they discover that lust actually undermines healthy marital sex and that marital sexual satisfaction means surrendering lust. This is why Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 7:5 that married people may choose to engage in a mutually agreed period of abstinence for spiritual reasons, one designed “so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” This clearly demonstrates that Paul viewed “sex as optional” as vital for all people both married and single.
Why is surrendering lust important in a discussion of celibacy? It is important because the starting point of healthy sexuality, whether married or single, is the acceptance that sexual activity in God’s economy must be entirely optional, or it will be driven by lust. Many men believe the false idea that they must have sex or they will explode either physically or psychologically. This is often seen in statements like “I need to have sex every____ or I will be in trouble.” But sex is neither physically nor psychologically necessary.How many women have believed they needed to “fix” their husbands through sex, sometimes in their minds to prevent him from straying? In marriage, acceptance that sex is optional means sexual expression is never a means to satiate either one’s own or one’s spouse’s uncontrolled passions. Lust by its very nature is grasping, indiscriminate in its fantasies, and idolatrous in its focus. It cannot be tamed and used. Lust can only be surrendered.
Surrendering lust means that we begin to see sexuality as a gift. As we see in God’s original creation, Eve is given by God as a gift, rather than grasped by Adam out of compulsion. “ Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.” (Genesis 2:22) Marital love allows God room to “bring her to the man.” This is the opposite of lust. Thus the biblical model of marital sexuality is the giving of the gift of oneself, allowing God room to bring us to each other in marital sex. Such a marriage can be a safe place where lust, fantasies of other people, and detachment from each other are removed. This can only happen if sex remains entirely optional. However, if we take the position that marriage incorporates lust, we have lost the true purpose of sexuality as gift. We have “defiled the marriage bed.” (Hebrews 13:4.)
The understanding of sexual expression as optional puts all people, both married and single on common ground. One is not superior to the other. Celibacy is the calling of all Christians, not just single people. Both are called to practice it.
Today, we tend to think of celibacy as more or less permanent for many single people, but this is not necessarily so. Neither married nor single celibacy is necessarily permanent. The married person may be called to temporary or extended celibacy due to travel or separation by distance, pregnancy, sickness, mutual abstinence for spiritual growth reasons (I Corinthians 7:5) and ultimately the death of one’s spouse. The single person is called to celibacy until marriage or death. Celibacy may be a calling, (Matthew 19:12), simply a temporary state lived in expectancy of a future marriage, or the way things turn out in a life lived “one step at a time.” But let’s be clear, the principles of “celibate and flourishing” apply to both singles and married people. Both are called to surrender lust, the chief sign of which is that sexual expression has become optional in the soul. Acceptance of optional sex is a vital key to sexual flourishing, whether married or single.
If single people can live with sex as optional, the way we all are called to do so, without projecting their single state out into an unknowable future of despair, then they too can flourish. The fact that so many people find this idea impossibly ridiculous demonstrates how deeply “marriage as a cure for lust” has taken hold as normal, even within the Christian community.
What about community? The same principle of exclusion or the inferior treatment of single people often applies in fellowship both inside and outside the church today. Often church “singles groups” meet together because of exclusionary assumptions about their goals of “finding their soul-mate” or behavior patterns and interests specific to single people. Thus, married people often view young singles as possessing a disease in search of a cure. (i.e. marriage) Married Christians often regard single people’s needs as fundamentally different than their own, even regarding them as somewhat threatening to the married world. What would happen if someone actually was happy and fulfilled being single? Perhaps some married people secretly or not so secretly wish they were single. But rather than see singleness as threatening to marriage, we all ought to feel gratitude in someone finding fulfillment in singleness. Isn’t contentment a mark of maturity?
11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. Phil. 4:11-13
Thankfully, some of this divisive and condescending thinking concerning singleness is being overturned today. Many singles often are gladly included in life groups and other church activities. They enrich life for married people and find that wealth returned to them by married couples. Thanks to the “Friends Generation” many singles gather in groups without the expectation of pairing off or looking for more than friendship, a welcome trend away from the baby boomer’s relative isolation punctuated by dating adventures.
So what does it mean to “thrive” as a Christian single? In regard to sexuality, a great deal of rigorous honesty and spiritual growth must be present. If the single person regards sexual expression as necessary to thrive, contentment may elude them. Self-pity and longing will dominate their souls. They will communicate loss or lack, both to themselves and to those around them. They will invite pity from others for not having found “someone special.” Again, much of this is caused by placing sexual fulfillment on a pedestal. If we have “been brought to fullness in Him,” this means as celibate individuals too. The fact is that marriage is no cure for lust, so regardless of our state we must learn “to be content.”
What we eventually learn is that all people must live with some lack in their lives, including married people. There are times when married people’s sex lives are unfulfilling, disappointing or hurtful. They must cope with lack as well. Their experiences will call them to surrender in the area of sexuality as well, calling them to loosen their grasp on lust. On the other hand, the freedom of the Christian life means that many experiences are open to singles, ones that allow them to thrive. Deeper ministry, mobility, and multi-faceted friendships may be available to them in ways married people might not have the freedom or time to embrace. The single life may allow for the development of specialized gifts, ministries, and creativity to a greater degree. Rather than view singleness as second-class, it is the time we viewed it as simply different, neither better nor worse, another call that may be either temporary or permanent but can be lived out one day at a time in trust toward God, in the presence of Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Living Without Lust