Celibacy, Discerning A Higher Love

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I have written about discerning the call to the charism of virginity (celibacy) on my blog before. Here I will try to add some new things to consider. Even though I use the word celibacy, I am addressing those who are virgins, both men and women, exclusively. I’m not talking about a period of time of not having sex or even someone choosing celibacy after having a sexual relationship. It’s just that celibacy is the word you’ll have more luck with when you research this subject. So if you read this post from the perspective of someone who has had a sexual relationship, looking for discernment, whether or not you should get remarried, etc., you will probably be lost. I happen to think it’s way past time for virginity to be given a little exclusivity. The biggest challenge when talking about discernment from a Protestant perspective is that it is a rare calling and so little is known. I usually have no idea how many people read my blog or what anybody thinks about it. I just try to picture an imaginary audience and go from there. So, how does one discern the call to celibate life? We first have to come to grips with the fact that Protestant churches, even the one you may be attending, have gotten it wrong since the Protestant Reformation some 500 years ago. So don’t expect things to change overnight.

One of the things you will definitely need is a rebellious spirit. I’m not talking about taking up arms against a rogue government or drag racing behind the liquor store. I’m talking about saying no to the idol of family worship and all the comforts and conveniences society has bestowed upon them; saying no to sex worship, mother and child worship, and all the materialism and comforts we associate with the American dream. We have to be okay with not having children to pass inheritances to. We don’t have to hate women and children, but we have to be able to prioritize their status when comparing them to eternity. So if the current status quo of “family church” makes you uncomfortable, don’t rule out celibacy just yet. Don’t rule out the chance to help bring the value of married life and celibate life more into balance. After time, you will be the one making families take a second look at their priorities. Yes, it is a rebellious lifestyle.

We also have to be able to say no to ourselves and any plans for nuptial bliss, while saying yes to a closer walk with God and serving as witnesses of the world to come. That means we have to look at our motivations very closely. If you’re in college, are you looking for a spouse? A choice for celibacy should not be made based on the notion that the opposite sex don’t find you attractive, that you can’t get a date, or that men don’t ask you out. It should be based on the realization that there are some things in the world more important than sex. It’s one thing to hear somebody say that. It’s quite another thing to live it out. When I was in college, I jokingly told people that I had so many girlfriends I couldn’t make up my mind about which one to marry. And I think that’s actually a good way to look at the call to celibate life. God has allowed us to have hearts that have enough love for more than one person or one family.

Timing. We are invariably comparing the timing of a wedding to the timing of . . . something that doesn’t even have a name in Protestant circles. The New Testament has only one mention of a wedding in Matthew 22, the marriage at Cana, where Jesus turned the water to wine. Nothing is said about the timing of the wedding or even the ceremony. What we have made of marriage today is exactly that – It’s manmade. All of the hoopla that we associate with weddings, including church ceremonies, bridesmaids, vows, dresses, cakes, marriage licenses, rings, is the product of manmade tradition. None of it is mentioned in the Bible. Does that make marriage or weddings wrong? Here’s how I answer that: Not necessarily. But to the extent marriages are undertaken with no regard for celibacy, with not even a fleeting thought given to a life with Christ, they are worse than the unfaithfulness and divorces to which most of them lead. I know that Catholic tradition is all we have to go on, but I don’t think celibate vows or ceremonies are necessary. So instead of timing a ceremony, I think it’s appropriate that we begin to tell our close friends and family of the decision we have made to remain as we are and devote our lives to other worthwhile (eternal) causes. And I think it would be okay to do that when you know you’ll never love a spouse more than you love the people you are forgoing marriage for. So it’s not about us having more free time to do God’s work. We actually have less time, because there is no free time doing his work.

It helps to understand celibacy’s role in relation to marriage. This is a big one and the one that took the most time for me. Of course, the biggest challenge is that we live in a married world. Celibacy has to be looked at with at least as much honor, value, and respect as marriage and family. If you know of a godly family, you can learn a lot by watching them in public with their kids. Watch their interactions, not only amongst themselves, but also with other people. There is a certain grace and dignity that comes with being comfortable in your own shoes. Watch a husband jump into action to protect his wife or children from harm. It’s like an inborn instinct. He doesn’t have to stop and think about it. He acts. Whether it’s pulling them out of the way of oncoming traffic or shielding their eyes from sexually explicit images, the drive to protect his family comes very natural. The same thing is true of mothers. So it is with a person called to celibate life. We are not saying no to paternal or maternal instincts. Rather, by sacrificing much more than is possible in marriage, we are taking them to a higher level. We ought to care just as much about marginalized people as a father cares about his family. Our hearts should be ready to respond in a heartbeat. If you feel that tug, a tug beyond passive empathy, then celibacy may be right for you. I’m not necessarily talking about being a missionary in a third world country. There are lots of needs all over the U.S.A. Needs that can only be met with the passion of a celibate person. Unfortunately, all that we’re likely to hear about virginity in Protestant churches is from the standpoint of true love waits on a spouse. It’s most likely to come from a very comfortable and frumpy married white preacher dude who depends on the tithes and offerings collected in church to take care of him and his family. So as far as discussing anything besides family life, he has a conflict of interest the moment he opens his mouth. I’ve heard many preachers claim that they can relate to the gift of singleness because “I was once single before I met my wife.” That is simply not true. Waiting on marriage as a single person and waiting on the return of Christ as a person with the gift of celibacy are not even in the same hemisphere. As far as someone in the Protestant church having insight into celibacy, the only exception may be a preacher who lived a chaste life into his 30’s-40’s before he got married. Then he might have a hint. So we have to be willing to educate, tactfully.

We have to understand celibacy in relation to society. One very common notion that is passed around when people talk about celibacy is that it frees us to do “greater service.” Well, okay. But that’s about as informative as saying the sky is blue. If all we understand about celibacy is that is frees up our time to do greater service to help greater numbers of people, we have missed the mark. We have become nothing more than a refried preacher. First, from a spiritual standpoint, we have to accept that celibacy itself is a higher calling than marriage. That doesn’t mean we are better than married people. It means that we have more responsibility, are better qualified to represent the love of God, and have a straighter path to heaven. If we just see celibacy as freeing up time, then it could very well become a means to an end. Our lives would be rated according to how much we did, how much we stayed busy, and how many people we served. We must see the gift of celibacy as something good in itself. Churches have to see it more than extended adolescence and a failure to “man up.” I’ve often wondered what families’ reactions to me would be if I treated them with the same suspiciousness and cynicism I see from them. “Well, congratulations on your 25th wedding anniversary Carl. How many women did you bang last year?” Or “Sorry to hear your wife has been dead 10 years. Have you found a homosexual lover yet?”

In discerning celibacy, we also must have our sexual desires under control and be content with living a life without sex. One word many Catholic authors use is sublimation, which just means that something is raised to a higher standard. For example, the short-term goal of sexual energy can be redirected to taking care of orphaned children in third world countries. The higher good has to be something we are passionate about and not just something to pass the time with until we figure out what we want to do. And we make the final call about what those other worthwhile causes are. There will always be people who will not see our long-term goals and higher values. It helps to have friends on the same journey to discuss these matters with. I think sexual desires tend to sublimate naturally as we get older, to a certain extent. When I’m with people I don’t know, I’m usually conscious about how I’m being perceived. It can be downright dangerous to be a single man in public today. I don’t want to come across as a monk in silent piety and prayer. But I don’t want to come across as a single man looking for a romantic partner either. Striking that balance is an ongoing challenge. Since I’m still the class clown, I’m always looking for ways to make people laugh. What I have found is that it only takes knowing a person is human to do that. I don’t need to know gender, age, marital status, race, or anything else society says is important. I have gotten to know several hermaphroditic/intersex-identified people through the years. It really is remarkable how people can relate to each other when cultural expectations are taken out of the picture. And it is even more remarkable how a small “hello” and recognition of another person’s existence can spark a conversation and a lifetime friendship. So if we are able to put aside our stereotypes and see all people as human beings in need of other people to relate to, God can take those desires and reshape them into passions and endeavors that far surpass romantic love.

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Discerning Celibacy

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Who does God have picked out for you to marry? From what I’ve seen, that is the number one question young adult Christian singles are wrestling with. They are going to seminars, reading books, going to singles groups primarily to find that one person God has waiting for them. They set out to prepare their lives to be proper husbands and wives, to be ready for “the one”. “Oh God, bring him to me now!” But is that the proper question to ask when you finish school and begin your life away from parents? No it’s not. The first question should be: Are you going to serve God through a life of faithful marriage or faithful celibacy? And this can only be answered after you have accepted Christ as your savior. That is a huge idea to ponder because most of the advice being given to singles today – whether from the pulpit or the written word – is not from the Christian perspective. Is celibacy still a viable option in a society that worships sex? Of course it is.

Some people have trouble reconciling the “be fruitful and multiply” command in Genesis 2 with the “it is good for a man not to touch a woman” in 1 Corinthians 7. Christ’s arrival in the New Testament did in fact overturn the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament. The biggest change was the allowance for celibate life without children. The eunuchs, who were once despised and considered unclean, were redeemed with these simple words Gabriel said to Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God (Luke 1:35). Notice that Gabriel used the Old Testament title “the Most High” when referring to God. This is the same omnipotent creator of heaven and earth that we read about in Genesis. This is the same God who created Adam. This is the same God who said “be fruitful and multiply.” In this one verse, Luke 1:35, the greatest artist who ever lived dipped his brush into the paint of eternity and made a slight revision to his masterpiece. Since mankind had populated the earth and the people of Israel had enough soldiers in their army, he painted out “be fruitful and multiply” and replaced it with the option to marry or not to marry. He made sexual relationships optional. He replaced multiplying human children with multiplying spiritual children and making disciples of men. It’s also significant that Gabriel used the phrase “will overshadow you.” Overshadow is used throughout the Bible to represent the glory, presence, and protection of God. When the ark was completed, the glory cloud of the Lord covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle (Ex 40:34-35; Nm 9:18, 22). The word is also used in the stories of the transfiguration of Christ (Matthew 17:5, Mark 9:7, Luke 9:34) when a bright cloud overshadowed Peter, James, and John. The creative forces of God himself overshadowed Mary so that she was able to become pregnant without any sexual relationship.

Those same forces of the Most High are still at work today when people become eunuchs for the kingdom of God. The power of the Most High can still overshadow the need for a male and female to make a baby. Christ conquered not only death with his resurrection, but life itself with his virgin birth. The reality of eunuchs was foretold in Isaiah 56:3-5: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off (Isaiah 56:3-5).”

In order to keep their name from being cut off, Jesus had to give his disciples a few hard lessons in the gospel of Matthew. In fact, the lessons may be more relevant today than they were during the first century.  After Jesus told them “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adulteruy,” the disciples were incredulous.  “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry (Matthew 19:8-10).” The situation they are referring to may be the seemingly impossible level of commitment it takes to make a faithful marriage. They were accustomed to having the option of divorce in case things didn’t work out. They were trying to trip Jesus up and get him to say something that violated Mosaic Law. By “it is better not to marry,” they probably meant “we know there’s nothing better than having sex, so we’ll just do what is assuredly impossible and live our lives without sex.” I can hear snickers in the background. Little did they know that Jesus was going to take it to a deeper level with his answer: “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given.” Matthew 19:11.

My hypothesized version of Jesus’ answer in verse 11 is this: Yes, it is better not to marry in the long run and to accept the identity of a eunuch. It’s a straighter shot to eternity in heaven. But remaining faithfully unmarried is not something that everybody can do. So don’t kid yourselves. Remaining chaste your entire life is a special ability, just like all my father’s gifts. But only certain people are assigned to this one. Their DNA has been structured and their brain chemistry arranged in such a way that it makes something so impossible . . . possible. But they don’t just wake up one morning and exclaim to the world: “Wow, somebody gave me a bright and shiny gift of celibacy!” Some people have the makeup for marriage. Some people have the makeup for celibacy. You know, those sex hormones are very strong. My dad made them. It takes a miracle to overcome them. But sex is a very good thing. It takes a special grace not to give in to lust and other sexual immoralities people will face in their lifetimes. I know all about those desires because I overcame them myself. So yeah, there are people that have chosen to live without marriage and sex.  I know this is an issue of pride among you.  But there are people who have chosen to live like me and there will be until I return again. They look like everybody else. Their anatomy is intact. These men still have testicles and the women still have ovaries and reproductive systems. There are mysteries that you are not meant to understand. Accept them.

It’s interesting that Jesus used “only those” in verse 11, getting them geared up for something positive, and then going on to explain the three types of Eunuchs in Matthew 19:12. So they’re anticipating something extraordinarily wonderful.  But instead they heard this:  “For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” I consider this to be one of the “shocker” verses of the Bible, one that is oft overlooked today. As he had done on several other occasions, like the parable of the three servants, Jesus used three people to tell his story. Fake, setup, left hook. Then knockout! Can you imagine what the disciples were thinking we he mentioned the word eunuch? “Whoa, dude! What’s so wonderful about that? Eunuch? Nobody mentioned anything about surgery!” The first type of eunuch described, those born that way, may have actually been a surprise for them. They didn’t have the medical laboratories and microscopes we take for granted today. They couldn’t do a sperm count and have the results back in 30 minutes. But I’m sure they caught his meaning with “made eunuchs by others.”  Yes, their imaginations may have conjured up a gruesome scene.  Much like the word does today.  After describing those two types of eunuchs, the disciples may have been thinking “what other type of eunuch could there possibly be?”  “Eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” was the knockout punch. They were probably so dizzy they had to sit down. They had to absorb what he just said. Jesus just compared celibacy for the kingdom of God to a man who had castrated himself. Jesus Christ! He was telling them in no uncertain terms that a life without marriage required no sex and that the possibility of having sex outside marriage would be as remote as a eunuch fathering a child, if that was the life they chose. In essence, I think the concept of Christian chastity and self control is introduced in these verses.

I think it’s rather apropos that Christ came to earth as a eunuch, the lowest of the low among men on the totem pole. Jesus always had a heart for those among the low ranks of society such as prostitutes, those with diseases, the poor, etc. Some of the eunuchs who were made so by men were assigned to guard royal treasures. But most were defiled, used as sex slaves, and avoided in pubic like someone with leprosy. Christ even tells us in Matthew 20:16 that that’s the way it will be when he returns: “So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.” When we choose celibacy today, we are standing in solidarity with all the eunuchs who came before us – all the men and women who were born without the ability to have sexual relationships and children, all those who were made that way by men, and all those who have chosen this life for the kingdom of heaven. More importantly, we are standing in solidarity with Christ himself.

We have a lot of Pharisees and misguided disciples giving advice to singles today. Many are led to believe “if marriage is that hard, we’ll just stay single.” The truth is – marriage is that hard and celibacy is that hard. I encourage Christian singles today to think about their options before they rush into the dating scene. Don’t approach the choice with the legal-mindedness of the disciples in Matthew 19, looking for the easiest way out. The celibate life of a eunuch is just as doable today as it was for Christ and Apostle Paul in the first century. If you think “only those” could never mean you, think again. You don’t know unless you consider it, pray about it, and talk to people who have chosen the celibate life. Some are in religious vestments. Some are not. Take time to discern. That’s a wiser route than getting married and then finding out you should have stayed unmarried. This week I will celebrate 54 years of celibacy.

A few questions to ask yourself:
– Can you think about love beyond the sexual?
– Can you define your manhood or womanhood without sex? Without children?
– Can you be a father or mother to children who need one?
– What’s your concept of time? Eternity?
– Can you accept your own mortality?
– Can you envision eternity in heaven beyond the concept of “pearly gates”?
– Can you see just as much beauty in something in nature as you can somebody of the opposite sex?
– Do you see beauty where others do not see it?
– Can you express yourself artistically? Have you found your artistic personality?
– Do you find yourself rebelling against this world and its injustices?
– Do you feel like you do not fit in?
– Do you feel comfortable taking risks that nobody else would take?
– Can you see Jesus’ face in your mind’s eye?
– Can you have a personal conversation with him? A real one on one talk?
– What do you want your legacy to be? Children? Or something else?