Cards on the table, here we go: I write this as a 36-year-old virgin. Believe me, I understand that a lot of people in this world think that idea is weird (and they probably think that I’m weird, too). But, you know what, that’s okay. I recently was engaged to be married in a couple of months and I am happy to be able to share that most physically intimate part of myself with just one beautiful lady.
Why write about this? Because under the guise of the Christian faith, the Washington Post published an article recently by Bromleigh McCleneghan entitled: Sex and the single Christian: Why celibacy isn’t the only option. McCleneghan argues that one can be “chaste” without being celibate. In other words, an unmarried person can be a virtuous, Christ-honoring person without abstaining from sex. She writes:
There might be other norms for chastity. Maybe our marital state isn’t the primary norm. I’d argue that we can be chaste—faithful—in unmarried sexual relationships if we exercise restraint: if we refrain from having sex that isn’t mutually pleasurable and affirming, that doesn’t respect the autonomy and sacred worth of ourselves and our partners.
The basis for this (as she presents in the article, at least—it is excerpted from a book that I haven’t read) is short on scripture. She somehow even argues her point from the celibacy of Jesus. But the driving motivation of her reasoning is as follows:
Part of figuring out how to live into the creative life of God is figuring out how to live into being yourself, and choosing the spiritual practices and disciplines that support your own discipleship. One of the most unfair things the Christian tradition has foisted on singles is the expectation that they would remain celibate—that is, refraining from sexual relationships.
Be yourself. Choose your own path of discipleship. Celibacy is unfair.
It might sound good to the modern ears, but it is essentially the same argument that the serpent used on Eve in the garden.
Your eyes will be opened (be yourself). You will be like God (choose your own path). Did God actually say? … You will not surely die (the rule is unfair).
The Bible tells us a much different story than what McCleneghan is attempting to sell. Beginning to end in the pages of scripture, sex is a beautiful gift of God for his creation, to be shared between husband and wife for joy, purity, unity, and offspring. Anything sexual outside the boundary of husband and wife is sin. But I want to counter McCleneghan’s argument less at this point and more at the point of identity.
Be yourself. Choose your own path.
The path to which Jesus calls us is not be yourself but deny yourself (Luke 9:23). McCleneghan speaks in her article about abundant life, and so does Jesus. But abundant life as offered by Jesus isn’t found in self-discovery, but our discovery of him (John 10:10). And Jesus never said that following him would be easy. It would be hard, it would be costly, and it would be cross-bearing.
That is what is ultimately better.
The call of the single (or unmarried) Christian to celibacy isn’t ultimately the denial of pleasure. It is the rejection of a present lesser pleasure for something that is far, far greater. And when I say “lesser pleasure,” let’s not kid ourselves—most of humanity, single or not, post-puberty knows the pleasure of an orgasm. There is a reason why the appeal of sex is so powerful beyond the shared intimacy. Yet it is still a lesser pleasure.
I agree with McCleneghan that it is a difficult task for most to refrain from sharing such pleasure along with the intimacy, acceptance, and romance found in a relationship. There is, if you would, even a sense of suffering in abstinence that lasts for years (let alone months or weeks).
But Paul wrote of even worse sufferings: “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17); and, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:17). And what does our suffering in faith and obedience accomplish?—endurance, character, hope, and basking in the greatness of God’s love (Romans 5:3-5).
The more I have come to know Jesus and his word, the more I have realized that experiences in this life or the lack thereof are not what define us. In the call to self-denial, Jesus is not obliterating our personality and personhood, but enhancing it to what it is meant to be. He is not robbing us of joy, but leading us to eternal joy. (Consider: Ephesians 1, John 17:13, Romans 8, etc. etc. etc.)
To all of his people, Jesus indeed calls us to chastity (or: purity, as the word that I prefer). To his people who are single, this call to chastity and purity includes the call of waiting in celibacy. Maybe that wait will carry us to an eventual marriage and maybe that wait will be with us all the way until we die.
I once had an also-then-single friend say to me during this wait, “If I die before I get to have sex, I’m going to look at Jesus and ask, ‘Why?’” I don’t judge him for that questioning. And it did get me to think about it, being a good decade older than him. Somewhere along the way I decided: If I die a virgin, that’s okay. Whatever pleasure I think I have lost out on in this life will infinitely pale in comparison to what lay ahead in eternity.
That’s ultimately the call of all our self-denial—to look beyond the here and now and to gaze straight into the eternal grace-gift of endless joys handed to us by our loving Father. If we can’t teach this and live this as churches, then we’ve lost our way. So let us be a community of people who help each other pursue holiness and righteousness, who carry one another’s burdens, who give family to the lonely, and who urge self-denial to truly find ourselves in Jesus.