Archive for January 2018

Single and Celibate in Relationships

Single and Celibate: Always the Odd One Out, Part Three

Just as I’ve discovered over the years that being a single, celibate, adult in the church and the world can be incredibly difficult, leading to all sorts of awkward or even degrading perspectives, trying to be a single celibate person in relationship with others can be just as difficult. Therefore, this final entry in my Single and Celibate: Always the Odd One Out series will focus on how intimacy in relationship is just as important to the celibate single as it is to the married person, yet how difficult this can be to put into practice.

Intimacy is something humans need – we were created for it. Not meant to be independent creatures, we thrive in community, with the mutual help and support of others. But more than this we need closeness, understanding, familiarity, and affection. Modern American culture, including the church, often sees marriage as the cure for this need. Genesis 2:18 becomes the prescription for all human intimacy – “it is not good for the man to be alone.” So Eve was created. But more than that, Eve was created with the powerful ability to produce family and community. Adam was not just given one other person who would fulfill all of his needs for intimacy, he was given the very person who would extend their closeness beyond themselves as a couple to others.

Sadly, both the church and the world often pair intimacy down to sex. They are frequently used synonymously, so much so that my high school students would snicker if the term “intimate” appeared in any piece of literature, no matter how benign the context. What a tragic stripping down of such a powerful term. And, by depleting this beautiful idea of its many nuances, we place celibate single adults in a particularly lonely tragic place, one in which we will always lack fulfillment.

I read an article this week based on the underlying premise that intimacy = sex, and since intimacy is required for full human development, anyone who is not having sex is not fully developed psychologically and therefore will have all sorts of issues. It was one of the more disturbing articles I’ve read, and yes, it stemmed from a religious background, making it all the more concerning.

Let me knock this argument down at its base. Intimacy does not equal sex. Sex can and will help many people become more intimate, but it is not the foundation. I’ve counseled enough people who have experienced abusive, harmful, careless, or selfishly motivated sex to know sex can even diminish one’s ability for intimacy if it is abused. Also, if intimacy is mainly or exclusively related to sex, where does the profound closeness experienced by children and parents come from? How about the special bond of twins or close siblings? The profound intimacy experienced by elderly couples whose sexual desires have ebbed? The aunt or uncle’s deep committed love for and bond with their nieces and nephews? Best friendships that last a lifetime, sometimes even outlasting sexual partnerships those friends have had with others?

The best sex should indeed increase intimacy, it should help a couple bond emotionally and physically, increase understanding of one another, develop familiarity with each other in a profound way. However special this bond can be, it is not the only path to intimacy, and, as stated before, it can often be a path away from it if used harmfully.

So if intimacy does not equal sex, then what is it? It is a closeness between individuals, a deep understanding of one another, a familiarity with another based on time and experience, and a true affection for the other. This is intimacy. It is beautiful and multifaceted. It is not limited to one type of experience.

The greatest intimacy in existence is between God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They are bonded for eternity, incredibly different and yet the same, independent yet reliant on each other. This intimacy was extended to us, his children, when God gave up Christ, his son, to die for us and then sent the Holy Spirit to indwell us. There is no greater closeness than that. In fact, marriage, including sex, is merely a metaphor for this relationship between Christ and us, his church, his bride, meant to help us grasp something so profound our finite minds can only understand a piece of it.

Some of the most intimate relationships depicted in the Bible are between fathers or mothers and sons, daughters and mothers-in-law, best friends, teachers and disciples, brothers, sisters, old friends, cousins, and even strangers being brought into Christ’s fold.

So while I do agree that intimacy is necessary for human development and fulfillment, I take great issue with narrowing this down to one’s sexual experiences. Deep lasting relationships in which we know and are known, understand one another, care for each other, and actively practice loving another are possible without even a hint of sex.

This does take a lot of work, however, and a lot of vulnerability. We singles can easily grow into our independence, and after years of disappointment in dating relationships, loneliness, or lost friendships, we can withdraw. We look at our married friends and think how easy it must be for them to have this one person assigned to be their intimate partner – they don’t have to seek closeness outside anymore because they have this person living with them to fulfill that.

Two truths about that – first, many a married individual feels lonely, and struggles with truly being intimate with their partner for many reasons, so our grass-is-greener view is often not true. Married couples who do indeed have a deep level of intimacy have probably worked darn hard at it for a very long time. Second, it may indeed be a bit more difficult for us as singles to develop intimacy because we don’t have one person who has committed to try and work at it for a lifetime. And, our intimacy will most likely come in the form of more than just one person, which is awesome, but also takes quite a bit of work on our parts. Also, lacking the lifelong commitment part up front can make it scary and risky to put so much into our relationships as we try to develop the level of closeness and understanding that can be called intimate. However, in this era of easy divorce, marriage is no longer a guarantee for that anyway.

So how does a single, celibate, Christian adult develop intimate relationships? There’s no perfect recipe for this. Sometimes they just happen over time! Those are the best – friends that have just been around so long, and you’ve experienced so much together, that at some point you realize they know you better than anyone else and will always be part of your life, no matter what happens. Others take more purposeful effort. If you desire friendships that go beyond just having a few things in common and hanging out sometimes, it often takes some work. Texts, phone calls, emails, coffees, dinners, crashing at each other’s places on the weekend, camping trips, etc. Time. Lot of time. And an openness to be who you really are around each other, to talk about real stuff, not just the fun things. And commitment to the friendship, being willing to debate and argue when you disagree but still come back as friends.

I honestly think the most important thing for us in creating intimate friendships as celibate singles is to think how we can love them best. If the entirety of our motivation in friendship is having them pour into us, take care of our need for understanding and affection, then we’ve missed out on being able to be that person for them as well. There are times when we will need more than they will, and vice versa, times when we’ll be a bit weaker, times when they’ll need our support most of all – that’s normal and good. But if your whole friendship is about you taking from them, then you probably won’t experience that intimacy you seek, the intimacy of two people who build each other up, point each other to God, and bring out the best in each other.

This intimacy will not happen in all of our friendships. As humans, our capacity for that level of depth with others is limited. Even Christ had his close circle of most intimate friends within his larger group of friends. Sometimes we already have these beautifully deep relationships in our lives, but don’t recognize them as such because we’ve been trained by society to only see sexual partners as intimate soul mates.

I can’t help but think of Anne and Diana in Anne of Green Gables – bosom friends, soul mates. Or Frog and Toad, some of the dearest of best friends from my childhood imagination. Even in shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the most important relationships were those of the Scooby Gang, the friends and mentor, the romantic ones came and went, but they were the one constant. The Gilmore Girls developed the mother/daughter relationship more than any other in the show. Every buddy movie depicts soul mates in friendships, not romance.

In my life, I was surprised a few years ago when I realized I actually already had several intimate relationships. There was a time when all I could see ahead of me was a lonely single life, moving from apartment to apartment as roommate after roommate got married and rents went up – an endless stream of temporary. So I decided to change that, decided to move to where I could experience permanent a little bit more. And there it was! My mother, my brother, my sister, my niece, my nephew. People who knew me, truly, who understood me. And I was so afraid that by moving I’d lose my bosom friends in LA, the ones who’d been my family for almost a decade. But I didn’t. They’re still there. It takes some work on both ends, but they’re still there. They still know me, still love me. Because of the effort these friends and I put in over the years of getting to really know each other, of opening up in the hard times, of supporting one another, and truly living in loving community with each other, we can go our separate ways and still hold on to that intimacy. Most of them have gotten married, some have kids, and some of us are still rocking the single life. Yet, when I need them they’re just a text away. When they need me, they know I’ll be there.

So, singles, don’t take so much pride in your independence that you don’t ask for help. It’s often in times of shared weakness that intimacy develops. Reach out to your roommates, your community groups, your families, your neighbors, your coworkers. You won’t have deep lasting relationships with every single one of them, but find the ones you connect with most and work to develop that. Spend time, real time with them. Open up and let them open up. Let your actions prove your friendship, not just empty words. Start to see these friendships as permanent, not temporary. It will change how you treat each other when you know you’re in each other’s lives forever. Love them. And let them know how they can love you. It can be hard – I was very much the strong one for most of my life, trying to help everyone else but not letting them help me. But that’s not reality, and without letting your friends into your reality, intimacy can’t grow. Needing people isn’t weak, it’s what we’re created for.

The Bible is full of incredibly powerful, beautiful commands to love one another. Few of these commands are aimed at couples; they’re aimed at the church, at brothers and sisters in Christ. Christ himself gave a new command just before he proved his love for us by dying on our behalf: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34).

Interestingly, the command for husbands to their wives echoes this: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). Thus, marriage is only one example of Christ’s love for the church, only one aspect of true intimacy in relationships. We too, not just husbands, are to love one another just as Christ loved us, just as he gave up everything for us. Take heart, single Christians! Intimacy is possible even when marriage may not come, even without sex. Intimacy is greater than that and is available to all.

Single and Celibate in Modern Western Culture

Single and Celibate: Always the Odd One Out, Part Two

As a single Christian woman, I should be able to look to my church family for friendship, encouragement, and understanding as I strive to obey and worship God in celibacy. Check out part one of this series, Single and Celibate in the Church, to see how that can play out. Here’s a hint: often terribly.

Sometimes I get so frustrated by how I am perceived by the church as a single celibate adult that I glance to the rest of modern western culture, hoping that at least there I might find a bit more understanding and feel like less of a weirdo. After all, I live in Los Angeles County, a place known for embracing many different viewpoints, a place where living a lifestyle outside the “norm” should be more accepted. Even as the much of the younger generation redefines sexuality, emphasizing one’s choice in the matter and viewing it as a broad spectrum, adult celibacy is still viewed negatively.

When I was a high school teacher, I had students who identified as asexual, meaning they experienced a lack of sexual attraction to others, or lacked the desire for sexual activity. Though not the average experience, and certainly not represented often in pop culture, these students could at least feel they were part of the latest opinions on sexuality. However, if you have sexual attraction to others and the desire for sexual activity, but choose not to fulfill this desire because you believe this is what God would have you do, this does not fit modern standards. In fact, instead of people saying “hey, that’s your choice, good for you for following it” I’m more likely to hear words like “prude, repressed, unhealthy, immature, not-fully realized, or just sad,” more likely to be portrayed comically or as a brainwashed simpleton. And, just like in the church, the most frequent response to an adult virgin, or a celibate adult, is pity.

The idea that one can lead a happy, fulfilled life devoid of sex even though they might desire sex seems to be mind-blowing in all circles, secular and religious. Oddly enough, some outside Christian traditions have expressed concern for me, thinking I’m lacking something for not being involved in relationships which include a sex life, just as married Christians have felt sorry for me and others like me because they imagine our lives to be somehow unfulfilled without spouses and kids.

I’ve found a shocking lack of difference in the perspectives of both groups when it comes to celibacy.  Contrary to popular belief, sex is not necessary for the flourishing of each and every human. Rather than looking at celibacy as a viable life choice which may lead to personal growth, increased capacity to care for others, and deep spiritual joy, celibacy is mostly seen as punishment. From outside religious circles, it is often viewed as overly zealous, even cultish or unnatural. It’s even seen as the predecessor to horrible sin – as if every person who is celibate will eventually break due to repressed desire, and then run out and molest someone.

In our pop culture which prioritizes sex and takes it for granted, religious celibates are almost always depicted as hypocrites, either foolishly or violently. Think of how pastors and the clergy are portrayed in movies and television, highlighting those who have not glorified God in their singleness but have harmed others. Yes, there are people who choose celibacy then end up sinning horribly, committing awful crimes, and who need to be prosecuted, but this is not the majority of men and women who choose not to have sex because they are trying to live a godly life. (I take this very seriously, and see it as one of the worst violations. Check out Ann Voskamp’s response to the recent wave of churches covering up sexual assault for more on this.) I watch a ton of British television, and almost every clergyman (other than Father Brown) eventually gives in to his or her sexual urges, usually rather dramatically and often by having an affair with a married parishioner, or is seen as a doddering old fool. When families on TV or in movies include a single adult without an active sex life, they are most likely the senile old maiden aunt or pervy uncle. This just increases the perceived impossibility of living a chaste life well.

For those who don’t know the love of the God, who don’t know his grace and personal care for each of his children, the biblical call to celibacy outside of marriage can be seen as cruel, almost torturous. And, I’ve got to admit, sometimes it can feel that way. It’s not always an easy path. But to be honest, one of the most difficult parts of walking this path is feeling rather alone and unsupported. In both secular and religious sides of life, the voices we hear are more likely to mock, shame, and patronize than encourage, applaud, and respect.

So, whether you’re a Christian or not, the next time you come across someone who chooses not to have sex because they believe this is the life God has chosen for them (permanently or temporarily), don’t jump to stereotypical judgments. Get to know them and then, when you know them well enough, you can ask them about how celibacy affects their lives. You might be surprised by their answers.

Next week, in part three of this series, I’ll look at how important it is for celibate Christians to still have deep lasting relationships with other men and women.

*updated 1/15/18 to add in link to Ann Voskamp’s blog post.

Single and Celibate in the Church

Single and Celibate: Always the Odd One Out Series, Part One

When I first get to know people, they have a hard time figuring me out. Church-going Christians are often stumped by the she’s 39 and single/childless part and those who aren’t religious can’t grasp the celibate thing. In both circles, I am often seen as an anomaly; deviating from the norm, unexpected. In a national church that idolizes marriage and a popular culture which prioritizes sex, people like me just don’t fit. At best, we are seen as men and women to pity, at worst, as flawed or unwhole.

The truth is, however, we are not that much of an anomaly when you look more closely. There are a lot more of us that you think, and, according to the beliefs of the church and pop culture, we should be perfect fits for both realms. This week I’ll look at how single celibate adults are often viewed by the church, and next week I’ll get into how we’re seen in modern western culture. If you’d like to read more about my views on celibacy, check out Committing to Celibacy.

Yes, in America, the decline of marriage and the increase of parents who split while their children are young is a disturbing trend. Many an article, both Christian and not, has been written on the negative effects of this trend economically and psychologically, so I understand why the church has emphasized healthy marriages over the past decade, why Christian marriage and parenthood has become a priority of the church. Unfortunately, this respect for marriage can grow into the worship of it.

You’re a young man in college struggling with lust and becoming addicted to pornography? You should get married, and “not burn” but channel that in a God-glorifying way. You’re a dissatisfied single woman in her late 20’s who struggles with loneliness and depression? Do everything you can to find a good Christian man to marry and fill that void. Marriage becomes the solution in the minds of many to some of the struggles young adults have, yet the Bible and practical experience will prove this wrong. If you think marriage will solve your struggles with lust or pornography, loneliness and depression, you are in for the shock of your life, as is your spouse.

I’m not saying most churches actually preach this from the pulpit or give overt counsel to this effect, though some do, but this perspective has infused the very life of the church so much that this marriage-worship is subtly present in the very makeup of the church, from its social structure to its teaching.

One symptom of idolizing marriage is the subtle yet pervasive belief that God’s one plan for the future of his church, for his love and good news to be offered to the ends of the earth, for his name to be glorified best, is the traditional Christian family unit. Because of this, churches spend a lot of time and money developing their children’s programs, Bible studies for young mothers, Biblical Manhood retreats to encourage men to be godly husbands and fathers, women’s teas to remind the ladies to be god-fearing wives and mothers, cry rooms for infants, Awanas for the kiddos, Sunday schools and youth groups, and at least 95% of the examples used in preaching and teaching target nuclear families.

This is all good, even excellent. Churches do need to help build up godly family units. They need to serve the families in their communities. Parents and children should be taught, loved, discipled, and cared for. God does desire to use Christian families to show his love to the world, to stand out as special and beautiful.

But if this is the main focus of the church, then the 45.2 percent of all U.S. residents age 18 and older who are single will be problematic for the church. For the younger ones, usually 18-35, the solution seems to be singles ministries that have either an overt or covert goal to get most of them married off. Much of the Christian publishing industry targeted to this age group discusses “waiting” and “preparing” for wife or husband-hood. In fact, at even younger ages, we’re often groomed in youth groups and Sunday schools for the day we will one day be a godly spouse.

So what about the rest of us? Those who don’t marry for one reason or another? Those who are just not chosen by anyone as a lifelong partner? Those who fell in love with someone who didn’t love them back? Those who marry, but end up tragically divorced? Those who face the death of their spouse? Those who have same sex attraction, yet are committed to a traditional view of marriage so therefore remain single? Those who have never desired a spouse? Other than being taught we must remain celibate outside of marriage, how is the modern American church growing us?

A few weeks ago I visited a different church, and as soon as they found out I was single they invited me to their singles young adult group. They were very excited, because they were just starting it up after a recent influx of a handful of single young adults. I gently said that, at 39, I just don’t feel comfortable in a young adult group, and would much rather get involved in a normal group, one with married people, kids, old folks and young. I somehow still ended up on the email list for this group, and had to once again politely decline.

The thing is that single adults are a large growing portion of the church, and yet we are often overlooked. Mostly by accident. If we can’t be lumped into the typical 18-30 single young adults Bible study, then we are absorbed into the average church group. I like this, actually – I believe this is how it should be. We should be seen as average church goers! We should be embraced as part of the church family! We should be drawn in to Sunday schools and Bible studies and ministries along with everyone else.

The struggle here is that these church programs have essentially been built for families, and Christians have primarily gotten used to ministering to others in life stages like themselves. So, it will be more natural for a young mom in the church to invite another mother over for a play-date, or for a married man to go out breakfast with other married men to hold each other accountable. Couples tend to hang out with other couples, or not even that, just their family and extended family. They might not even think of inviting a single adult over for dinner or a holiday. Truly becoming friends with someone in a different stage of life is awkward and difficult, so we might not even consider it. We singles are probably just as responsible as married Christians are. It will be more comfortable for single adults to hang out with other single adults, but the problem for us is often that the older we get, the fewer unmarried friends are left. If we don’t engage with married couples and those with children, we just won’t connect to the church at all.

Not just the programs, but the teaching itself is often geared toward those in a nuclear family. This is inevitable, since the vast majority of churches hire married men as their pastors, men who have or will have children. The elder boards tend to consist almost entirely of married fathers. Most adult ministry leaders will be married men with kids. It’s incredibly rare for a single man to be in these positions, and even more so a single woman. Sometimes, a single man in seminary or right out of it is given the position of youth pastor or another under-pastor role, but the expectation of this man and those who disciple him is that he will most likely get married and have kids one day in the next few years. Because of this, most sermon illustrations will be about being parents or spouses. They’ll deal with little leagues and spousal squabbles, weddings and sleepless babies. We are supposed to write what we know, after all, and often the only metaphors which come to mind when writing sermons or Bible studies are the ones we live.

I get it, I write about singleness because it’s my experience. I understand. But what pastors and teachers need to realize is that this can be a bit alienating. If, during a sermon, there are 5 illustrations used to teach a biblical passage, and all 5 of these depend on marriage and parenthood, I will probably zone out a bit, to be honest. I might spend the time delving into the scripture itself, trying to figure out how it relates to me. I may try to re-frame it in a way that touches on my life. But each time this happens, I can’t help but feel a bit left out. And this happens weekly. Monthly. In almost every sermon I hear, every class I sit in, every Bible study I attend. So, how does that help the 45.2% of American adults who are unmarried? I don’t think every sermon needs an illustration directly targeting singles, or each illustration needs to somehow fit us, but I do think it would be nice to just be considered. There are a lot of us sitting in the pews on Sunday who would appreciate being thought of every once in awhile.

I’d also love the church as a whole to start preaching more about singleness than just “waiting to have sex until marriage.” This is simplifying our lives to one issue. If the church is truly teaching us to live our lives according to the Bible, then single adult Christians fulfill 1 Corinthians 7 and Matthew 19, and we walk in Christ’s footsteps as a single man. I’d love to hear teachers and preachers extol the benefits of singleness, the beauty of a celibate commitment to the Lord, the courage of looking directly to the marriage of Christ and his church instead of finding comfort in the metaphor for it. I’d love to see mature single Christian men and women lifted up in leadership positions in the church, given voices, being heard. How awesome would it be to hear a youth leader even offer singleness as a viable God-honoring option for the future. I’d adore if the church could become a place that looks at single celibate adults as whole, not lacking, not creatures of pity but respect and honor.

If 45.2% of adult Americans are single, then why are so many of us made to feel like we’re the weirdos the minute we walk through those church doors? So many of us love our churches; as single adults they are often the greatest example of family we have. For some of us, the are the only family we have. We love our churches, but we often feel like we’re not truly part of them. We’re the weird relative the rest of the family pities and doesn’t quite know what to do with, or the one everyone has a plan for, advice for, but never listens to. We’re seen as not-quite-ready for ministry, not-quite-appropriate for friendship, not-quite-fulfilling God’s plan for the church. The church is a beautiful family, and it needs to stop treating its single adults like parents who are upset that they haven’t been given grandkids yet, and more like nieces and nephews who look up to their cool unmarried aunties and uncles because they know they are loved and served by them.

To be honest, until the church develops a better theology of the value of its single celibate men and women, until it gives them an opportunity to grow and minister, then single men and women will not stick around. Just like a family who doesn’t support and encourage the 39 year old single cousin will lose contact with them, so too will the church lose these valuable members. And just as these single men and women will suffer tremendously as they lack familial support, so too will they suffer apart from the church. We are meant to live life together, young and old, parent and childless, married and single.

Paul’s letter to the Romans gives us a vision of the beauty of the church. Imagine if we all, married and single alike, looked at one another this way. If we realized that we aren’t all meant to live the exact same cookie cutter life, but were created as different members of a whole. Separately, we are so unique, which makes us so much more beautiful and effective when we come together.

Romans 12:1-13

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

I challenge modern American churches to look critically at themselves to see if they are serving the singles in their midst, or alienating them. I implore them to raise up single men and women in leadership positions, to encourage them to take on ministry opportunities, and to teach Christian children that celibate singleness is a beautiful God-honoring way to live life.

I challenge singles not to give up on the church, but work to become productive members of this incredible body of Christ. Speak up. Make appointments to talk to your pastors about this. Bridge those first awkward gaps by inviting yourself into lives of families. Gently exhort the church leadership to grow in this area. But don’t give up. When the church loves as God would have us love, his grace is most evident and our joy most profound.