As our society has made it possible for a human life to begin without sex, it has felt increasingly impossible to enjoy a human life without sex.
The basic premise of Hollywood comedies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and 40 Days and Nights demonstrates this—the first chronicles a man’s increasingly desperate attempts to have sex for the first time; in the second another man struggles to last just 40 days and nights without it. So for many in our world today, to call people to more than 40 days and nights without sex, or to more than 40 years—potentially, in fact, to a whole lifetime without it—sounds totally implausible, even comical.
And yet that’s God’s clear call to every Christian who remains unmarried—including a not-quite-40-year-old virgin like me. The pity I receive (and can feel) as a result is often overwhelming. At times the implication seems to be that I’m not quite human simply because I’ve yet to experience such a basic human right as sexual intercourse.
But as Thomas Schmidt observes, “It is only an aberration of our own sorry generation to equate the absence of sexual gratification with the absence of full personhood, the denial of being, or the deprivation of joy.”
Previous generations had different attitudes toward celibacy. The single-minded bachelors who used to prop up most British institutions, and the devoted spinsters who spent their lives caring for elderly relatives, used to be admired, not pitied. Yet such lives are now mocked and avoided, and talk of celibacy or chastity produces the giggles that talk of sex used to. As Christopher Ash asks, “When did we last see a successful movie which portrayed a contented bachelor or spinster?” I never have.
Talk of celibacy or chastity produces the giggles that talk of sex used to. . . . When did you last see a successful movie which portrayed a contented bachelor or spinster?
And tragically, the church can become just as sex-obsessed as society around it.
As the world has idolized sex in almost any context, the church has often idolized it within marriage. Some believers rush into marriage in their early 20s so that they can have sex. The danger, of course, is discovering that desire is almost all they have in common with the person they’ve now committed to for life. Early marriage has become the panacea for Christians struggling with sexual temptation, leaving far too many shocked to discover that temptation still remains when they return from their honeymoon.
In response, the church needs to ignore the giggles and start rehabilitating the concepts of celibacy (or singleness) and chastity (or sexual self-control). We need to articulate the benefits of a celibate life for some, and to encourage chastity for all.
Or, to put it another way, we need to start reading our Bibles again.
It’s hard to see how Scripture could be any more positive about the celibate life.
It’s hard to see how Scripture could be any more positive about the celibate life. Its central character, Jesus Christ, was single and yet is held up as history’s only perfect human. In Jesus you see life to the full—and his was a human life without sex.
And then, of course, there is the example and teaching of the apostle Paul. Would he have been able to make his missionary journeys if he had a wife to care for? Would he have been such an effective pastor and mentor to young church leaders if he had his own young family? He clearly expresses in 1 Corinthians 7 the unique gospel benefits of his celibate life, and it’s time we start promoting similar thinking in our churches today.
We need to listen to both Jesus and Paul when it comes to the subject of chastity. Jesus’s high standard for sexual self-control could not be clearer in Matthew 5, and Paul encourages it again and again to churches in cities where chastity was as little valued as it is in many cities today. All Christians are required to be sexually self-controlled. The importance of this—both outside and inside marriage—must be stressed in a world in which we’re typically encouraged just to follow our feelings.
Sexuality and Self-Control
We also need to remind ourselves that we can value our sexuality through self-control as much as through intercourse. Love isn’t just communicated by the sex one has had, but also by the sex one hasn’t had. This is true of the wife who says no to a colleague’s sexual advances on a business trip—out of love for her God and her husband. It’s true of the same-sex-attracted woman who stops sleeping with her same-sex partner after becoming a Christian—out of her new love for Jesus. It’s also true of the same-sex-attracted man who remains a virgin until his dying day—also out of love for God.
Love isn’t just communicated by the sex one has had, but also by the sex one hasn’t had.
And the power of our sexual feelings can, amazingly enough, be valued most when they are most painfully experienced. As John Piper reminds us, “The ultimate reason (not the only one) why we are sexual is to make God more deeply knowable. The language and imagery of sexuality are the most graphic and most powerful that the Bible uses to describe the relationship between God and his people—both positively (when we are faithful) and negatively (when we are not).” It is God’s passionate love for his people—so passionate that it’s described in sexual terms—recorded in passages like Ezekiel 16 that most deeply communicates God’s love for me.
Life without sex for a Christian, then, should never involve an unhealthy repression or denial of their sexuality—any attempt to act like it doesn’t exist. Sexuality is a God-given gift to be valued and expressed in the ways he has outlined. That will mean lots of sex for some, and none for others—both different ways of appreciating an incredible part of what it is to be human being, made in God’s image.
Intimacy Without Sex
But doesn’t the absence of sex necessitate a life of lonely celibacy with no partner, and no children, to share yourself with? All human beings long for intimate, self-giving relationships with others, and a sexless life would seem to deny the satisfaction of this basic need.
Such thinking—far too common in churches where the nuclear family can be the only focus of attention—is not scriptural. In our Bibles, friendship is all about self-disclosure and self-sacrifice (see David and Jonathan and the book of Proverbs), and the church family is the New Testament’s central community focus—not a mom, dad, and 2.4 children. Tim Chester is provocative but correct when he writes: “I shocked someone recently by asking them to name one occasion on which Jesus speaks positively about families. Every time Jesus talks about families, he sees them as competing for loyalty to him and his community.” Read the end of Matthew 12 if you don’t believe him.
To deny someone sex is not to condemn him or her to a life empty of intimacy and full of loneliness.
So to deny someone sex is not to condemn him or her to a life empty of intimacy and full of loneliness. Loneliness will never be entirely absent (it isn’t absent in the most successful marriages and nuclear families), but intimacy can be present in close friendships and your church family. Barry Danylak rightly maintains, “Christian singleness is not a denial of the underlying principle of Genesis 2:18, that it is not good to be alone. Neither Jesus nor Paul as single men was devoid of relationships. On the contrary their relationships flourished, in both number and depth, by the freedom and flexibility their singleness afforded them.”
As a single man I might not enjoy sexual intimacy with anyone, but I suspect I often enjoy greater appropriate intimacy with more people than most of my married friends—they sometimes have the greater intimacy deficit. Lauren Winner poignantly records a friend’s comment: “Lying in bed at night next to someone you once promised to love and knowing there is no way to bridge the gulf between you. . . . That is the most crushing loneliness of all.”
I might not be so bad off living life without sex after all.
Editors’ note: This article appeared at LivingOut.org.