Denver Community Church hosted “learning groups” for several weeks in January and February. They are transitioning to an open and affirming church for LGBTQ+ people this year. Roger and I shared our stories on one of the weeks, along with fellow panel members Jenny Morgan, Paula Williams and Eric Beach. Each of them represented an affirming and inclusive position on Gay, Lesbian and Transgender experiences. It was an evening of rich and respectful dialog for each of us. As someone who experiences same-sex attraction but desires to live out what I believe scripture says about sexual expression, I regularly revisit the question of what it means to live a life of celibacy. Is it really a lonely, deprived death sentence? Or can one truly flourish in such a relational status? I think some redefinition of the word is at hand. I love this quote by Henri Nouwen:
“The best definition of celibacy, I think, is the definition of Thomas Aquinas. Thomas calls celibacy a vacancy for God. To be a celibate means to be empty for God, to be free and open for his presence, to be available for his service…. I think that celibacy can never be considered as a special prerogative of a few members of the people of God. Celibacy, in its deepest sense of creating and protecting emptiness for God, is an essential part of all forms of Christian life: marriage, friendship, single life, and community life…. Every relationship carries within its center a holy vacancy, a space that is for the first Love, God alone.” Henri Nouwen, Clowning in Rome.
But Celibacy? (insert audible groan here)
No sex—for hours, seasons or decades?!? This is a completely foreign concept in our sex-saturated, addicted culture, for sure. Nor is it a very popular concept within Protestant Christian culture either. It truly is the gift no one wants. Yet, since we’re human and not sexual robots, it’s a simple reality sometimes. I believe God has specified definite boundaries around sexual intimacy, and we, as Christians, have to wrestle with this reality.
I remember studying these words for a better understanding:
Chastity–a commitment to having sex in its proper place according to scripture (married or single)
Fidelity–a continuing faithfulness, an obligation, trust or duty
Celibacy–the voluntary (or involuntary) choice not to have sexual relations/intimacy.
The conclusion: Instead of 3 separate things compartmentalized by relational status, Henri Nouwen reminds us that all three of these things can be experienced by single and married folks alike.
Sexual and Celibate??
Singleness is something I know about firsthand and have forever. There is richness in Henri Nouwen’s definition—a space reserved for God, to be free and open for his presence and to be available for his service. My fidelity is first and foremost to the Lord (which has its difficult moments when someone younger and hotter saunters by). And if I’m living chastely as a single person, that means living celibately until such a time as my relationship status changes. Now I think all of us can stomach celibacy for a season, but what happens if my relationship status never changes? What is it that I’m actually foregoing and surrendering to God? What was God’s intent and design for sex in the first place?
The most obvious purpose for sex, of course, is procreation. So there will be no little ones running around my house. That feels like a loss (when I hear my married friends describe the rigors of child-raising, I’m not always sorry). The big thing I’m surrendering is the union with another person and the pleasure of sexual intimacy. God has wired our bodies for pleasure. Science tells us our sexual equipment has more nerve endings than any other parts of our body. The big payoff is orgasm–pretty potent stuff. It’s not just about the physical intimacy in sex. It’s also about the emotional and relational aspects that are equally powerful. To a starving heart, sharing life with someone, feeling valued, affirmed, desired and sharing pleasure with someone can feel off the charts! There’s a loneliness that prevails when one is faced with deep, unmet longings.
What about those who experience same-sex attractions?
For Christians whose values place them in conflict because of same-sex attractions, this issue can be even more painful. If I’m exclusively attracted to my own gender, it seems as though I’m left without any options. Celibacy can feel like an involuntary, forced, dead-end curse. This is understandable and legitimate, as are the accompanying emotions that must be processed. It’s taken me decades to get to a relatively peaceful place about it, but with every milestone birthday, the wrestling and grieving continue. I think validating these emotions is a good place to start the conversation.
It’s not surprising that legitimate sexual fulfillment can be powerful and feel life-giving. But what about my earlier question– can one truly flourish with a single & celibate relationship status? As mentioned above, to a heart that’s starving, sharing life with someone… feeling valued, affirmed, desired, wanted and sharing pleasure with someone can feel off the charts. Yet, these are comprised of emotional and relational needs that are not exclusively genital and encompass a wide variety of relationships and community.
Since my sexuality is more than a genital connection, I can flourish as a sexual man, while remaining single and celibate. I’m grateful to have that community within the Body of Christ. We can all pursue healthier sexuality; we can make better choices, suffer fewer consequences, and define better boundaries. It seems God is calling us to higher levels in this arena. Finding our life in Him through intimacy, purity, fidelity, chastity and peace can take us deeper internally.