Thursday, October 20, 2011

Thoughts on 1 Corinthians

Involuntary celibacy is on the rise. No one wants to do anything about it except advocate waiting, and waiting is a grossly inadequate policy rule. As I write this post, hundreds – thousands? millions? – of never-married believers are suffering from chronic sexual desire. Like many Keynesian-sympathizers who see deficit spending as the solution to economic woes, Christians – regardless of sex, race, and marital status – recommend patience as the only honorable choice for singles. As a short-run Band-Aid, waiting can work; but it hasn’t proven to be a viable solution in the long-run.

In my opinion, the biblical support for singles waiting is shaky. Yes, there are passages instructing us to be patient and persevere, but persecution and vengeance are generally the concern, not husband (or wife) hunting. We have the example of Hannah in 1 Samuel, but she was praying for a child, not a husband. We have Adam being put to sleep in the Garden of Eden, but his wait had an expressed divine purpose. (And if you ask a young-earth creationist, he’ll insist that Adam was asleep for, at most, a few hours.)

I’m not suggesting that patience isn’t a quality worth pursuing. It’s just being misapplied. Many Christians see waiting as part of a paradigm, sort of a worldview in which one’s marriage prospects are solely divine business while people exercise freewill in hunting for food, a job, a house, and everything else in life. Its advocates, although well-meaning, are generally naïve about temptation too. A single facing temptation to use pornography or sexual experiment is rightly told to flee (1 Corinthians 6:18; 2 Timothy 2:22; cf. Joseph and Potiphar’s wife in Genesis 39). This eliminates the immediate danger, but doesn’t solve the problem of having unmet sexual needs. Rebounds just encourage onlookers to lecture even more about fleeing and waiting.

It’s very suspicious that the Christians advising this are, more often than not, either married (i.e., have a legitimate sexual outlet) or admittedly uninterested in sex (i.e., asexual, voluntarily celibate, or in possession of a naturally low sex drive). And they generally don’t even stop lecturing a moment to put themselves in others’ shoes. Rather than give up belief that fleeing and waiting is the only solution, many even accuse struggling singles of neither trusting God nor attempting to control themselves.

The Apostle Paul was more sympathetic. He outright says that he wishes everyone – married and single – could be celibate, yet he admits that it’s a “gift” that few have (1 Corinthians 7:7; cf. Jesus discussing eunuchs in Matthew 19:12). To those who can’t control their sexual urges, he offers one and only one prescription: marry (1 Corinthians 7:2, 9, & 36). He doesn’t say to wait. In fact, he conveys a sense of urgency, something that Christians have failed to take seriously.

Uncomfortable as it might be to accept, the biblical solution for involuntary celibacy is marital sex. The flee-and-wait approach to life will never satisfy one’s God-given cravings. As Paul suggests, it just makes things worse. I know that from personal experience, as do many others. It’s not surprising that so many Christians succumb to sin when their fellow believers make light of their situation and the cure. Until the Christian community makes a conscious decision to change the way we address singles’ sexual needs, it will continue to lose the battle against pornography and fornication.

24 comments:

  1. After reading this I think of how perhaps our sexual desires are God-given desires...and I don't mean like a desire as one desires food. I mean, it's a divine desire. Like Psalm 34 says, Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart." When we abide in Him, He abides in us, and we bear much fruit and can do nothing apart from Him. Perhaps the desire to be with someone should be seen as the obvious: Your God given purpose to find a spouse!

    But I don't know how to explain this to 15 and 16 year olds. Obviously a time of waiting is needed still. And sadly we live in a society where that is not honored and the media certainly doesn't help.

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  2. Thanks for addressing one of the "unmentionable topics" that so many Christians fear, dread, or are embarrassed to even ask about, let alone discuss Biblically.

    Have more thoughts, but some pressing pastoral needs right now.

    Blessings in Christ,

    Rich

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  3. Yes, cm, we definitely need to find a better way of evaluating and comparing different desires. As for teens though, telling them to wait doesn't seem to help either. I'm beginning to think that kids need to be encouraged in their search for a godly spouse when they start desiring one. The search might take years, even decades, but telling them ignore their feelings because they're "too young" just encourages them to rebel.

    Rich, thanks for stopping by. I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

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  4. Jennifer,

    Your post inspired one of my own. It also just occurred to me that convincing single Christians to remain single only reduces the pool of marriage candidates, furthering the problem.

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  5. Thanks, Steve, you're the second person to tell me that. The more, the merrier...I guess.

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  6. Interesting thoughts. If I ever took to blogging, I think I'd write a post excoriating Christians for telling people what their gifts are.

    For instance, it's been suggested that I have the "gift of singleness", and that darn-near brought me to tears -- as that isn't the life I desire. I am an outgoing INTJ, and we tend to be quite rounded. So even though I own construction businesses, watch football, fix a car, etc., I am also very self-aware, emotionally connectable, and highly skilled at "girl" stuff (i.e. cook, very neat, decor my own home). And being capable in those regards earns me the label, "Gifted at Singleness!" Not cool.

    That all said, I was also told once that I had "the gift of encouragement", and frankly, I wasn't terribly thrilled about that, either. So I'm like a cheerleader?!? I've been told I was gifted in teaching, but that didn't off-put me. Wonder why? My guess would be that attributing a gift to someone that involves their emotions/personality is where we (I!) resist being labeled.

    Yeah, I think one needs to be sensitive in announcing the gifts in others.

    Does this have anything to do with your post? :) Oh yeah, followed you over here from Jay Guin's site. I post as JMF there.

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  7. Thanks for your comments, Jon. Yep, it doesn't help when you appear to be capable of functioning well as a single. Many women run into the same problem when people dismiss their need for a relationship because they have careers and "obviously don't need" husbands.

    Whether cast as "waiting" or accepting the "gift of singleness" (as Steve's response mentioned) or being "content in Christ" (as Jason's response mentioned), it's all baloney designed to sell books and make people feel better about not having real advice to give.

    And yes, your point about assigning others "gifts" in general is well taken. My dad has spent decades wondering why so many tell him he has the "gift of prophecy" but never listen to him!

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  8. Three thoughts:

    1. I do think that if someone IS living a lifestyle of involuntary celibacy, it is worthwhile for said person to discern prayerfully whether they really have "that gift of singleness."

    2. I think it's possible that many of us underestimate our capacity for celibacy. I fully expect that if I find myself called in that direction it will make me unhappy at times; nevertheless I cannot shake the possibility that it is part of my calling.

    3. It may be that for some people there IS a middle ground, that not everything is so providential that God has given each one of us a definite 100% calling to one path or the other. A woman I know of who is in religious life once gave her story, including the time when she felt that God had left the decision up to her, and she had chosen.

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  9. Thanks for your comments, Dan. Here are my thoughts:

    1. The "gift" of celibacy that Paul talks about is clearly something that is voluntary. Jesus Christ talks about people who have all the right biological "plumbing" yet freely choose to abstain from sexual relations. Involuntary celibacy cannot apply by virtue of the fact that it is involuntary! Sure, it's possible for someone who doesn't wish to be celibate to change his or her mind, but the choice must be there.

    2. I'm a 30-year-old virgin. I don't believe that by never marrying, I'm fated to succumb to temptation to fornicate, but that's the risk that Paul clearly wants people like me to avoid.

    3. Individual choice is clearly the most important factor in this. Paul says that some (both married and single) aren't called to celibacy like he was. He says if we wish to marry or can't control our desires, we should marry. My post isn't about people who've made a choice not to engage in sexual relations. It's about forcing celibacy on those of us who have sexual desires.

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  10. Jenny, I admire your honesty and your no-nonsense approach to addressing the three letter word (S-E-X) that many believers have a hard time talking about. :)

    As you talked about patience, I kept thinking of a passage in a book a read years ago called "Face to Face with God" by Bill Johnson.

    Even though he talks about the meaning behind the Hebrew word "patiently," I can't help but think it applies to the Greek here too.

    He says: "Forty-nine times it is defined as 'writhing in pain, as in childbirth' or 'whirling in the air in dance.'.. Passion is the nature of both expressions."

    In other words, like you said, patience isn't sitting around waiting for something to happen. It takes focus and determination-like a woman in intense labor. And it is anything but passive.

    I loved your statement that many Christians tend to put finding a mate in a different category from finding a job, a house or anything else--as if we don't exercise freewill in that category.

    Is your experience as a single woman that other Christians have looked down their nose at you for actively engaging in the process of finding a husband? Maybe next time you can tell them, "Look I'm giving birth here! I'm not going to sit around and do nothing!!"

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  11. Sex has been a tough topic throughout the ages--in no age has it truly been approached in a healthy manner as a cultural norm. None of them. The only way to find a healthy, Godly expression of sexuality is to realize that it is the deepest expression of who we are as souls enfleshed, and that if our souls are in God's image, we have to approach everything about both body and soul as a seeking after God, as a way to reflect His love for us. It's not easy, but nothing about true Christian life is!

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  12. Thanks for your comments and the book recommendation, Angelea. I never thought of an analogy to labor, but that's perfect. It's probably also like farming or gardening. There's a lot of work, but a lot of patience needed while you work.

    Thanks for your comments, kathleenbasi. I think that part of the problem is that, in trying to celebrate sex as an important element of a godly marriage while still shunning mainstream culture, the Christian community has decided to ignore the sexuality of humans in general, and therefore not provided any helpful guidance for singles.

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  13. Hi Jenny, I guess you found my post at the Saturday Evening Blog Post because that's where I found yours.

    This is a subject near and dear to my heart. I didn't become a Christian until I was 24. Before that time, I had sexual relationships, but once I became a Christian, I tried hard to put that away. It was tough. There was a lot of mess for the Lord to clean up in my heart and mind from the way I had been living.

    I think that I just figured,once I knew the Lord, He would set things up with my future husband (voila!), but years went by, almost 10 years of singleness and celibacy. It was hard to leave physical intimacy behind, and I made mistakes along the way, and, at times, I risked developing a hard-heart towards the Lord because of my anger about being alone. But the Lord is gracious and compassionate, and He always brought me back.

    During all this time, I had a lot to learn and a new way of thinking to adapt--I just didn't realize it at the time. I was growing in my relationship with the Lord, and I was beginning to trust Him with my life. I was coming to the end of myself. I came to a place of being able to lay down my claim to ever be married. I had to acknowledge the possibility that perhaps the Lord had other plans for me, and I WANTED His plans, not my own.

    Finally, in a sudden turn of events, at the age of 33, I met and married (within just 5 months of our first date) my husband -- who happened to be a 35 y.o. virgin and a Christian since the age of 16 (and a prize catch, I might add!). That was 12 years and 2 children ago. The BEST 12 years of my life!

    As much as I pitied my situation at the time, I can see how much I grew in it. Single folks might try thinking of their singleness and enforced-celibacy as just another trial in life. We all have them. Singles don't have the corner on the market. And, although there is no guarantee of marriage, well, there's no guarantee of another day either.

    My point is that, I think we (my husband and I) both understand the struggle of waiting, and, frankly, I don't believe that the Bible's instruction is inadequate or that other Christians don't care or try to understand your situation, though they might be preoccupied with their own trials.

    I believe the bigger problem is that the world has changed so drastically. "Free" sex is everywhere and no one seems interested in marrying. It's not a priority anymore, even for Christians. Everyone wants to keep their options open because the world is so available to them now. Who knows what else there might be out there to go and conquer?! I suppose I was no different, so I'm not being critical.

    I used to think that if the Lord would have just TOLD me I was going to have to wait 10 years (and no more) I could have enjoyed those 10 years more than I did. I think He wonders why I didn't enjoy them to the fullest regardless.

    I don't think there's one strategy or one remedy for this issue. I believe the Lord knows each of us as individuals intimately and wants to relate to us as such. Don't look for the solution in the Church. Keep seeking Him.

    Blessings, and I appreciate your courage in writing this post!

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  14. Thanks for your comments, Michelle. Yes, society doesn't prioritize marriage anymore, but nothing will improve if those of us who still want to marry are constantly told to enjoy our singlehood and not to prioritize marriage either.

    I grew up in a subculture that meant I was "ready" for marriage in my mid-teens. You might say I spent my teen years and early 20s well. I learned domestic skills. I got a reasonably good liberal arts education. I earned a college degree. I learned how to support myself in the workforce. I stayed true to my convictions and the wishes of my parents, not partying, dating, or even spending much time with the opposite sex at all.

    All through this time, I honestly thought that God would meraculously give me a husband and family because that's what I'd be taught to believe. As I got older, it became more difficult to deal with sexual temptation, and I started getting more and more depressed and lonely. At about age 26, after about 10 years of singleness and celibacy, I panicked because the reality that life doesn't follow a preplanned script was slowly settling in. The years following were completely wasted as I got more and more depressed. Even worse, I actually fell in love and was rejected, not once but twice, deeping the growing impression that I was undesirable.

    Biologically speaking, singleness up to the late twenties makes no sense. Spiritually, it flies in the face of God's whole purpose for making women, and it forces people to fight an endless battle against their sexual desires, something that Paul tells us to avoid. However, the Christian community has decided to ignore this issue and, in most cases, treat it as a blessing.

    Yes, people are focused on their own problems, but I'm talking about this on a broader scale and primarily to address the failures of people who are called "leaders" and "methods" within the Church, both male and female. These are people who make it their business (for-profit or non-profit) to offer guidence through counciling, blog posts, books, seminars, or what have you. But it's all worthless. The real tragity is not that no one wants to marry Single Person X, but that no one provides any real comfort or support to Single Person X. The whole single ministry industry is a really expensive fraud.

    Like a lot of young women, I spent my teens and early 20s pretending that everything was okay when it wasn't. I spent my late 20s panicking about how to possibly find a husband (as Paul says to do) when the only input I got from others was that I didn't need to do anything or that what was "wrong" with me were things I couldn't change (physical features, race, age, etc.). Now I'm spending my 30s doing something that I hope will be productive: fighting to change the way the Christian community handles singleness.

    I made a lot of stupid mistakes, and I can't turn back the clock. I have no clue what's in store for me or the millions of other single men and women, many who are much, much older than I am. But I can try to make a difference for those younger than me. Maybe not the 20-somethings, but certainly the teens. It breaks my heart to see a teen girl who's unknowingly beginning the first of at least one decade full of disappointments, and I'm seeing this constantly, online and in real life. It has got to stop.

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  15. Umm...Sorry, I meant "mentors" not "methods"!

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  16. Jennifer,

    I'm interested to know if you have any ideas on how the Christian community should handle singleness. I don't have any specific ideas myself, but would be interested in hearing any of yours.

    I was a Christian single back when internet dating was just starting (mid- to late-90's), and that idea was harshly criticized by conservative Christians. I dabbled in it, but kept it a secret for a while out of fear.

    Another horrible impediment for me in finding a wife - worse than leprosy and akin to wearing a scarlet A - was that I was divorced before becoming a Christian. Nevermind that my ex deserted (and divorced) me against my will to pursue an adulterous relationship, I was essentially consigned to the eternal pit of hell by many for the desire to re-marry to a Christian woman after my conversion. I suffered greatly at the hands and tongues of people who "knew God's will," who held to wildly varying and mutually exclusive doctrines of marriage and divorce. Some day if I ever get the time, I'd like to help those singles who experienced divorces prior to their conversions.

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  17. Steve, I can identify with that problem. How can anyone find a spouse if every method for doing so is criticized? I've thought about your question, and I've come up with some ideas that I'll post on sometime this week.

    As for divorce and remarriage, I think that I Cor. 7:15 should enter the discussion. If the unbelieving partner dissolves, then the believing partner is released from obligation. My interpretation might be wrong, but I've never heard a rebuttal that fully dealt with this verse's implications.

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  18. Hi Jenny, I thought I'd stop by after seeing your comment on my blog. Apologies on it taking me so long to respond to it.

    Thank you for writing this thoughtful post on celibacy issues. That’s nothing I’ve had to deal with before. I’ve had to go to 1 Corinthians 7 for divorce issues many times since it’s been a common occurrence in my immediate family and among close friends - it strikes much closer to home for me.

    I like your thoughts and perspectives on waiting with regard to marriage and I think your strong words concerning sexual needs are very incisive. I also like your more positive perspective on 1 Cor. 7 and celibacy/marriage – too many read it negatively with Paul lifting up celibacy and conceding marriage. In fact, a good argument can be made that Paul doesn’t speak specifically about virgins until the switch to παρθένων (parthenon) in verse 25. (The misunderstanding probably coming from the ascetic reading starting in 3rd century and reinforced by the thought that it was adultery for the divorced person to remarry … I hope to post on this soon.)

    I think it’s also important to remember that in Paul’s day marriage depended very little on romantic love or “falling in love”. Not that they weren’t romantic, but it wasn’t necessary to good marriage or even starting a marriage. Within a Christian context, marital love was much more about willing commitment to a person. So, waiting isn’t necessarily a bad thing but we should perhaps be careful about what we’re waiting for.

    God Bless

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  19. Thanks for stopping by, Carl. Yes, asceticism. Try as we might, we can't help but read the Bible through Jerome's eyes. I'll look for your upcoming post about divorce and remarriage.

    As for your point about marriage then versus now, that's probably where my argument has hit a wall when I've discussed involuntary celibacy and sexual desire with others. No one today sees sexual needs as a "good" reason to get married, just like no one today sees economic or procreative needs as a "good" reason to get married. So in their minds, marriage can't possibly be a solution. In that case, of course, the only alternative is to control one's desires and wait.

    While I'm not naive enough to assume that Christians suddenly marrying just for sex won't have problems, I can't help but think that maybe the problem isn't us using sex as a reason for marriage but that we don't know how to appropriately go about it.

    As for my "strong words," it's a sign I'm getting older and less tolerant of people who purposely avoiding talking about certain subjects as a way to avoid doing anything about them.

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  20. Yes, I believe 1 Cor 7:15 applies, but the group I was part of made an end around. They claimed that since I was not a beliver at the time, it didn't apply. Then they took their interpretation of 1 Cor 7:17-20 to make the claim I should stay single. It says in part, "Each man must remain in that condition in which he was called", meaning that if I were single when I was called [to be a Christian] then I should remain single for ever, neglecting the later passage that says it isn't a sin to marry.

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  21. Steve, that interpretation makes sense, but seems odd. So were they consistent by insisting that convert who were single or widowed also remain unmarried for the rest of their lives? Did they insist that converted slaves (in the past or the present) shouldn't seek freedom? Are they against any sort of socio-economic mobility?

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  22. Well, it was further complicated by several other beliefs about marriage. They believed that death of a spouse (or former spouse as the case may be) is the only way anybody can marry again. They viewed human divorce as not recognized by God. So, they viewed my ex as still my wife, and for me to remarry would be to commit adultery. So, I was to remain single the rest of my life, as long as my ex was alive, as the death of my ex would be the only way to marital bliss again. Kinda tempting for some people, don't you think? ;)

    And, yes, slaves were to remain slaves even though converted. And these people were so "spiritual" that socio-economic mobility was viewed loosely as having a worldly desire for money.

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