In recent years, I stumbled on to works that addressed being an older single and finding contentment during this season of life. Now and Not Yet and Revelations of a Single Woman let me know I was not alone. Gilliam, the author of Revelations, was especially vulnerable, discussing issues that are typically taboo in Christian circles.
As I've talked with my fellow single Christian friends, I've found our frustrations are the same. No one in the church seems to know what to do with us. We haven't followed the prescription to get married right out of college and we didn't follow the rules to then marry someone from the young adult group at church. Sermons are primarily directed towards families or young married couples. All that aside, the church doesn't address the issue of sexuality when you're not having sex. Given our culture's propensity for all things sex-related, this is a staggering gap. To tell people not to have sex outside of marriage, yet not address how to do that seems to be a recipe for disaster.
That's why I found Singled Out: Why Celibacy Must be Reinvented in Today's Church to be a breath of fresh air.
I first heard about the book last year when a friend forwarded a Christianity Today online article by one of the authors. Her byline mentioned the book, which I promptly looked up. It sounded promising but I didn't like the word "celibacy." I also didn't understand what it meant. A year ago it reminded me of a coworker at The Christian Bookstore. R was in her 30s or 40s, a single mom. I put together different surveys and fun things for our staff and then would create a display with the answers in our break room. One particular month the question was "what is something we don't know about you?" The answers ranged from silly to serious but I always remembered that R had written down that she was celibate. A lifelong celibate, in fact. There's more to the story than I can write about but her answer never sat well with me.
This is why it took another year for me to get a copy of Singled Out. Ironically, it was worth the wait. From the introduction and first chapter alone, I laughed, I cried, and I started recommending it to my other single friends. Finally, I told them, someone gets us!
The authors note that much of the current conversation centers on the ideas that sex is our ultimate goal, therefore virginity is temporary and will someday be relinquished. However, what happens when abstinence is not a short stage? What if we don't all get married? They are trying to shift the discussion from "how do we remain pure until marriage" to "what does it mean to be a single Christian apart from the possibility of marriage."
The first step is properly defining abstinence and celibacy. Abstinence is an external response to an internal process, while celibacy is an internal response. Celibacy is not simply the absence of sex but the reason behind it: personal growth. This could explain why programs that only focus on the withholding of sex are not as successful as we'd like them to be. If my aim is personal growth (mental, emotional, and spiritual) and my relationship with God is the priority, then I will be more likely to adhere to a celibate lifestyle. If my aim is marriage/sex/romantic relationships, then my life is going to center around those pursuits, with God as an afterthought.
The authors examine society and the church's positive and negative responses to celibacy. I enjoyed the pop culture references and reading what various church leaders and Christian living books say about this topic. Much of the overall opinions I've been exposed to for some time but I was quite surprised by the more subtle messages we are presented. For instance, in Chastity & Holiness: Positive Christian Views of Celibacy, the authors examine teaching on premarital sex. Everyone learns that you should not have sex before marriage. No way, no how. Sex becomes the unpardonable sin. They mentioned believing that if they'd had premarital sex, they would "not only get pregnant and contract every venereal disease known to humanity, but we would also become cautionary tales." I have had the same fears but thought that I was just a walking "exception to the rules" kind of girl. Knowing that other women felt the same way was eye-opening and freeing to me. How has good teaching about premarital sex evolved into a Hellfire and Brimstone kind of message? What if these scare tactics don't work? What about addressing the gray area between meeting someone you find attractive and sleeping with them? By only addressing one specific act, the church is ignoring a host of other behaviors that could be less than edifying to God, to yourself, and to your partner.
The history of abstinence programs was quite fascinating. It used to be that society agreed with the church's belief that premarital sex was sinful. This all changed in the 20th century. By the time we made it through the sexual revolution in the 60s, the Protestant church began to actively promote its message of abstinence before marriage. The Catholic church has had to overhaul its image when it comes to celibacy as well, given the sex abuse scandal, questions regarding the needs for priests and nuns to be celibate, their stance on birth control, and so on.
Next, the authors looked at materials on dating. Here we see "a dangerous train of thought that may be found throughout many of these Christian dating guides as well as in the rhetoric of the abstinence campaigns:the idea that singleness is simply a stage to pass through on the way to marriage and that if you just have enough faith or just correct a few problems in your life, the right person will automatically arrive (p. 64)." It's not only dangerous, it's misleading! To say that if you have just enough faith, you will get married or be healed of cancer or your loved one will not die...well, what happens when the opposite happens? Why do we paint ourselves into corners at the risk of losing faith? Our measure of faith cannot stop the inevitable from happening, only God can. His decision to act or not act is His alone. One of my frustrations- with myself, not just others- is that God has not guaranteed I will get married just because I want to. When I try to explore the idea that marriage may not be in the cards for me, friends/family typically shut the conversation down with the usual platitudes. But that's not helpful! The reality is I may not get married. If that happens, I don't want to get sucked into thinking that it's because God has it out for me or that there's something wrong with me. I want to continue living a vibrant life that glorifies God.
The Ashley Stockingdale series is enjoyable Christian chick lit I came across a few years back. In it, Ashley attends a church singles group that she likes to dub "The Reasons." As in, there's a reason they're still single. She's hoping she falls into The Seasons camp. As I would say anyone longing for marriage does! I don't think older Christian singles need to fall into reason vs. season categories. God can and does use us wherever we're at. Everyone, married or single, should be working to become more Christ-like. Even marriage doesn't come with lifelong guarantees, thanks to divorce, infidelity, and death. We could argue that any point in our life could be for a reason or a season. One of the best takeaway quotes from this section is this: "The Lord doesn't require that we attain a particular state before he grants a gift."
Singleness, for those who do not want it, may be an important factor in their sanctification. That certainly seems to be true in my own life. When we can take our pain and longing back to God, we allow God to accomplish what He wants to accomplish and are drawn closer to Him in the process. I have been reminded again and again that He alone satisfies us. Marriage, children, money, vacations, these things will not satisfy. We are left wanting more and more of the grass that is greener. I am under no illusion that marriage is the end all, be all. Marriage is hard work and also used to sanctify. The point being God uses whatever our circumstances to draw us closer to Him.
Given how much I've written already about the first quarter of the book, I'm going to stop here and maybe later I'll write another part. Please feel free to respond to any of the points that the author raise or that I do. I wish this book could be required reading for everyone!