By Sheila Pritchard
Singleness as Gift, Call or Necessity
There are many different kinds of single people. Some have never married, others are widowed, separated or divorced. Some have turned down opportunities of marriage, others have never had such opportunities. There are single people who have had, or are currently involved in, sexual relationships outside of marriage, and those who are virgins. There are singles who long above all else for marriage, and those who abhor the very idea. Some singles see their singleness as a special call of God, others as a cruel curse. Singleness is seen by some as a gift while others mutter under their breath: “It’s a gift I don’t want!”
Every unmarried person has a unique history and individual needs. But what all have in common is a sexuality which is integral to their very nature. I am assuming that anyone who is reading this chapter is interested in some Christian perspectives on sexuality and singleness.
Sexuality and the Divine Nature
There is more to sexuality than sexual intercourse. Any single person wanting to come to terms with sexuality must be clear about this at the outset. Sexuality – all that it means to be male or female – is built into every aspect of our being. Thus the single person, no less than the married person, is called to embrace and celebrate God’s gift of sexuality.
Sexuality is not only God’s gift, it is God’s way of demonstrating that femaleness and maleness each express aspects of the divine nature. This is made clear in Genesis 1:27. To live fully one’s womanhood or manhood is to reverence the mystery of being made in God’s image.
What does it mean for a single person to “live fully one’s womanhood or manhood”? Society gives very strong messages that fulness of life is not possible without sexual relationships. And I suspect that many, if not most, single people find this hard to refute. Is there really a valid Biblical case for fulfilment of life and celebration of sexuality for those who are celibate? I believe so. At the risk of stating the obvious – consider Jesus!
Genital, Biological and Affective Sexuality
Let me lay a foundation for this discussion by clarifying some terminology. If sexuality includes all of our maleness or femaleness then genital sexual activity represents only a small part of the whole. This we shall call genital sexuality. When we speak of gender and the biological differences which are inherent in our bodies, genes and chromosomes, we are talking about biological sexuality. Then there are the issues of intimacy: friendship, mutual support, shared ideas and companionship. These are aspects of our affective sexuality; the expression of our male/female personhood at the level of emotion and psyche.
I am not suggesting that these three aspects of sexuality can be rigidly compartmentalised. They all influence one another. Nevertheless, they are not identical. To abstain from genital activity is not to diminish one’s sexuality. In fact Jesus spoke of abstinence as one way of living fully for the kingdom of God. (Matthew 19:12.)
Jesus Models Celibate Sexuality
Jesus models healthy sexuality at all levels. There was no question about his masculinity, or biological sexuality. He was brought up according to the appropriate cultural norms for Jewish males and was obviously a man other men respected.
Jesus’ life is also a rich demonstration of a person at home with his affective sexuality. He openly enjoyed the companionship of both men and women, gave and received touch from both, shared his ideas and his emotions with his close friends and didn’t hesitate to express his need of their support. In other words, Jesus was not afraid of intimacy.
Jesus did not have a sexual partner. In the realm of genital sexuality he models abstinence. One of the key purposes of the incarnation is to show us what fulfilment of humanity means. The fulfilled humanity which Jesus lived out did not include genital sexual activity or marriage.
Pondering the significance of the fulness of life modelled by Jesus ought to help to overcome the culturally reinforced notion of incompleteness that is often felt by single people. But the fact of the matter is that most single people are not only battling cultural messages, but also their own natural physical drives and desires. Our society’s current attitude to such drives and desires is that the only “healthy” thing to do is to find a sexual partner. Christians have not been quick to offer an alternative which really satisfies the underlying longing.
Sexuality and Spirituality
What underlying longing? This is a crucial question. At the heart of our creation as humans is the desire to be fully known and loved. God intended it this way. Our longings for intimacy and communion with one another are a constant reminder of the intimacy and communion inherent in the trinity. At the very heart of human sexuality is a longing for union and communion with someone who, knowing us completely, will love us unconditionally.
The deepest and most profound experience of union and unconditional love is not to be found in genital sexuality. If a single person believes that ultimate satisfaction lies there, such tunnel vision may obscure a deeper level of joyful wholeness. Both Jesus and Paul leave us in no doubt that both marriage and celibacy are lifestyles in which fulfilment can be found. This is precisely because the real source of satisfaction is to be found with the only partner who can ever know us completely and love us unconditionally – God.
A Christian marriage can point to some wonderful things about union with God through the joy of closely shared lives and sacrificial love for one another. A Christian celibate can also point to the reality of union with God through radical trust in his sufficiency and the joyful freedom of total availability. Both lifestyles involve sacrifice. Neither offers unmitigated utopia in this life!
Perhaps now we can understand that sexuality and spirituality are integrally related. The longings for union, communion and creation of life, which characterise sexuality, are also the hallmarks of spiritual desire. For me this is the key to living a celibate life with a real sense of fulfilment and purpose. I can enjoy being known and loved and supported in varying degrees by people whom God gives as friends, but I expect no one to fill the space closest to my heart where only God satisfies. I will never bear physical children but I can be a co-creator with God in bringing life to others in a variety of ways.
YES, BUT…. No matter how willingly the celibate Christian embraces the perspectives outlined above, life as a single person is not free of pain. (Neither, of course, is life as a married person!) Some of the most commonly expressed problems are: loneliness, identity, touch hunger and appropriate release of sexual tension.
There is no getting away from the fact that at times the realisation that there is no one special person for me is intensely painful. Loneliness at that level cannot be assuaged merely by finding some people to socialise with (though taking initiatives to enjoy one’s friends can prevent the loneliness deepening into self-pity.) Perhaps the real issue is not so much assauging the pain as daring to enter it fully. Allowing this particular Gethsemane to lead to closer identification with Jesus leads also to knowing him in a new way as an understanding lover.
For some singles in our couple-oriented society, self-esteem and identity are undermined by lack of a partner. This ought not to be so, but sadly it is. It highlights the fact that we place more store in being chosen by another person than in being chosen by God. To be someone’s sexual partner (whether married to them or not) is seen to give status and identity. To be chosen by God to live some part (or all) of life in partnership with him alone should surely be no less affirming!
Someone has said that our skin is our largest sex organ. This is not meant to be either flippant or distasteful. Touch is an extremely important expression of human caring and connectedness. Bearing in mind that sexuality encompasses far more than just genitality, touch is an essential ingredient in healthy celibate sexuality. Jesus frequently gave and received touch as an expression of love and healing. Yet many single people suffer from a “touch hunger” which is as real as hunger for food. Unless the normal human need for loving touch is met in appropriate ways there is potential for it to become focussed genitally with a power that is difficult to resist.
To stress that sexuality is more than genitality is not in any way to deny that it is also genital. Sexual arousal is a natural (and God-created) response which single people experience too. If the whole range of one’s sexuality is being continually integrated in some of the ways described above, such arousal need not create unmanageable tensions. Nevertheless, to experience a very physical arousal which one chooses not to fulfil in sexual intercourse does involve tension.
Views on the acceptability of masturbation for the Christian vary widely. In the end the answer is probably neither an unqualified yes or no. Like many other things on which Scripture is silent a deeper question determines the answer. In this case the question might be: “What is the best way, in this situation, to both channel and celebrate the energy of my God-given sexuality?”
Self-control is involved in channelling the energy of sexual arousal. But self-control should not be confused with denial or repression. Sexual energy is a welcome sign of health, and choice is possible in using that energy constructively. Like any other surge of energy caused by some stimulus (for example the energy of anger or of delight), a mature adult decides whether to express the energy physically or not, and if so, in what ways.
Integrated Sexuality for the Celibate Christian
I believe that integration of all aspects of one’s sexuality is the key to living in joyful wholeness as a single Christian. Human beings are sexual beings. To deny that fact is to turn from God’s invitation to fulness of life. To accept the invitation involves (among other things) integrating the many facets of sexuality into the complex tapestry of life.
Integration involves acknowledging the particular richness of masculinity/femininity as it expresses God’s nature. It involves celebrating the gifts of friendship, intimacy and relational connectedness even as Jesus did. It involves entering fully into the longings for union, communion and creation, and realising their ultimate fulfilment in oneness with Christ. It involves addressing the tensions and difficulties of singleness wisely and willingly, recognising that, single or married, no human life is stress-free.
Jesus, who esteemed marriage highly as expressing God’s image, was himself God in the form of a celibate human being. What further proof to we need that sexuality and singleness can be integrated in lives lived fully in union with God?
Useful Books for Further Reading
BESLOW, Audrey Sex and the Single Christian Abingdon, 1987
DUIN, Julia Sex and the Single Christian Marshall and Pickering, 1990
FOSTER, Richard Money, Sex and Power Hodder and Stoughton, 1985
GOERGEN, Donald The Sexual Celibate SPCK, 1976
STAFFORD, Tim The Sexual Christian Scripture Press, 1989