It was the kind of e-mail that breaks your heart.
A friend of mine, who lives too far away, contacted me to say he was struggling to understand how the cost of singleness as a Christian could possibly be worth it. As far as he could see, an illicit relationship would be “the only possible way for me to enjoy the relational intimacy I’ve dreamt of my entire life.” He concluded, “I cannot imagine the shell of a life I would live without somebody standing by my side.” In the light of this deficit of intimacy, could singleness ever be worth it?
My friend isn’t alone. In my own church family, one of the biggest causes of people drifting away from Christ has been entering into illicit relationships, especially single Christian women with unbelieving men. For many of them, the assumption was that life as a single just wasn’t viable. They needed intimacy.
It has become an unquestioned assumption today: Singleness (at least godly singleness) and intimacy are alternatives. A choice to be celibate is a choice to be alone. No wonder for so many this seems too much to bear. Can we really expect someone to live without romantic hope? It sounds so unfair.
Marriage and Celibacy
The Bible is clear that we choose between marriage and celibacy. In Matthew 19, Jesus upholds and expounds God’s blueprint for marriage found in Genesis 1 and 2: Marriage is between a man and a woman, and is designed to be for life. The disciples balk a little at this: “If such is the case between a man and his wife, it is better not to marry” (v. 10). But Jesus responds by talking to them about the life of the eunuch. The implication is plain: The only godly alternative to marriage is celibacy.
But the choice between marriage and celibacy is not the choice between intimacy and loneliness, or at least it shouldn’t be. We can manage without sex. We know this—Jesus himself lived as a celibate man. But we are not designed to live without intimacy. Marriage is not the sole answer to the observation “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18).
Our Western culture has so identified sex and intimacy that in popular thinking the two are virtually identical. We cannot conceive of intimacy occurring without it in some way being sexual. So when we hear how previous generations described friendship in such intimate terms, we roll our eyes and say, “Well they were obviously gay.” Any intimacy, we imagine, must ultimately be sexual.
Nature of True Friendship
But the Bible conceives of these things very differently. In Proverbs, friendship is far more than a verb for sharing your contact details on Facebook. A friend is someone who knows your soul. Someone who doesn’t just know lots about you, but knows you. And, Proverbs shows us, we cannot hope to live wisely in God’s world without such soul-to-soul friendships. All of us need them, not just those who are single. I’ve seen more than one marriage run into difficulty because the couple had looked entirely to one another to meet all their friendship and intimacy needs and had not pursued good friendships alongside their marriage. It’s not always easy to foster close friendships when you’re established as a family, but it’s a vital discipline to open up family life to others around you.
When we find we’re able to cultivate these Proverbs-type friendships, we find it’s possible to enjoy a huge amount of intimacy in life. To have people who know you at your sparkling best and utter worst, and to be deeply known and deeply loved—this is deep intimacy any of us can enjoy, and yet many around us never experience (even sadly at times in marriage).
For those of us who remain single, we might not experience the unique depth of intimacy with one person that a married friend might, but we can enjoy a unique breadth of intimacy with a number of close friends that comes from having greater opportunity and capacity than married people typically have to invest in close friendships.
Sex and intimacy are not the same. It’s possible to have a lot of sex and yet find no intimacy. Sex is designed to deepen and express intimacy that already exists; it cannot in itself create it. But it’s also possible to have a huge amount of godly, healthy intimacy without sex.
I think of the friendships that mean the most to me. Some have developed over many years; others have become very deep relatively quickly. Some are married; a couple of them are single. It’s a gift to know there are a number of people out there who know me pretty much through and through and who (nevertheless!) love me very deeply. I also think of the tasters of parenthood Christian ministry has given me. Younger men I’ve been able to encourage and have a role in spiritually forming and who still come to me for fatherly guidance; friends’ children I’ve been able to pray and share life with and become an honorary uncle to.
I may not have the security and constancy of a family unit—what one friend calls life’s “shock absorbers.” But when it comes to intimacy, I’m very rich indeed.