A friend of mine has an interesting spoon. (Bear with me.) It’s slightly larger than a teaspoon and has a large hole in the middle, making it incapable of holding—let alone carrying—the sort of substance that typically requires a spoon. My friend keeps it in his sugar bowl, waiting for unsuspecting guests to attempt productive engagement with it. Some will quietly (but unsuccessfully) persevere with it, not wanting to make a fuss and assuming the fault must somehow lie with them. Others will immediately declare the spoon is ridiculous and insist on something better suited to the task at hand.
The spoon, it turns out, is actually an olive spoon. The hole in the middle is to drain the fluid as you lift the olive to your mouth. And so the lesson for us is this: You can’t make sense of the way the spoon is without understanding what it’s for.
The same is true of our sexuality.
Why We’re Sexual Beings
We know we are sexual beings. We know this sexuality is meant to mean something. But unless we know what our sexuality is for, we won’t understand how it’s meant to work. The best we’ll be able to do (like my friend with his spoon) is try to get some passing entertainment from it.
The architecture of the Bible points us to the purpose of why we’re sexual beings. Scripture begins with a marriage (Adam and Eve), and it ends with a marriage (Christ and his church)—and the former is the trailer for the latter. The joining together of the man and woman is a picture of how heaven and earth will one day be joined together through the union of Jesus and his people.
Scripture begins with a marriage (Adam and Eve) and it ends with a marriage (Christ and his church)—and the former is the trailer for the latter.
This connection is reflected throughout the Bible. Song of Songs uses the mutual delight and intimacy of a husband and wife to reflect the delight of Christ in his people. The prophets frequently use marital language to describe God’s relationship with his people; he is the groom, and they are the (frequently wayward) bride. Jesus picks up this language in the Gospels, describing himself as “the bridegroom” (e.g., Mark 2:19–20). Paul teaches the Corinthians that just as a man and his wife become one flesh, those who join themselves to Christ become “one in spirit” with him (1 Cor. 6:16–17). And in Ephesians 5:31 he goes on to say that the mystery behind human marriage is—as we now see it’s always been—Christ’s relationship to the church.
Human marriage, then, reflects the big story of the Bible—the big thing God is doing in the universe: making a people for his Son. And this story provides the key to understanding our sexuality.
What Marriage Is For
It also accounts for why the Bible defines marriage as between one man and one woman, rather than two persons of the same sex. In Matthew 19:4–5, Jesus connects the phenomenon of marriage with the fact of our having been created male and female. Marriage is predicated on gender difference; it’s because we’re male and female that we have this thing called marriage. Jesus then goes on to show that the only godly alternative to marriage is singleness. When the disciples balk at the intended lifelong implications of marriage (v. 10), Jesus points them to the example of the eunuchs—the long-term singles of his day (vv. 11–12). If marriage is too much commitment, there’s the option of celibacy. Jesus gives no third alternative, whether cohabitation or some alternative construal of marriage.
For marriage to be a parable of Christ and the church, it must be between like and unlike, male and female. Change this arrangement, and you end up distorting the spiritual reality to which it points. Alter marriage, and you end up distorting a picture of the gospel itself.
Jesus gives no third alternative, whether cohabitation or some alternative construal of marriage. . . . Alter marriage, and you end up distorting a picture of the gospel itself.
This vision of marriage helps us keep it in healthy perspective. Grasping what it points to means we won’t demean or trivialize it, and it also means we won’t idolize it. Marriage is not ultimate, but it points to the thing that is. Marriage itself is not meant to fulfill us, but to point to the thing that does.
What Singleness Is For
So if this is the ultimate purpose of marriage, where does that leave singleness? Are those of us who are celibate wasting our sexuality by not giving expression to our sexual desires?
It means singleness, like marriage, has a unique way of testifying to the gospel of grace. Jesus said there will be no marriage in the new creation. In that respect we’ll be like the angels, neither marrying nor being given in marriage (Matt. 22:30). We will have the reality; we will no longer need the signpost.
By foregoing marriage now, singleness is a way of both anticipating this reality and testifying to its goodness. It’s a way of saying this future reality is so certain that we can live according to it now. If marriage shows us the shape of the gospel, singleness shows us its sufficiency. It’s a way of declaring to a world obsessed with sexual and romantic intimacy that these things are not ultimate, and that in Christ we possess what is.
If marriage shows us the shape of the gospel, singleness shows us its sufficiency.
This doesn’t mean our sexual feelings are redundant, dangling unfulfilled like the equivalent of an appendix. The consummation our sexual feelings long for can (if we let them) point us to a greater consummation to come. They remind us that what we forego on a temporal plane now, we will enjoy in fullness in the new creation for eternity. Sexual unfulfillment itself becomes a means of deepening our sense of the fuller, deeper satisfaction we await in Jesus. It helps us to hunger more for him. We skip the appetizer, but we await the entrée.
Celibacy isn’t a waste of our sexuality; it’s a wonderful way of fulfilling it. It’s allowing our sexual feelings to point us to the reality of the gospel. We will never ultimately make sense of what our sexuality is unless we know what it is for—to point us to God’s love for us in Christ.