Staying celibate in a sexualised society
When asked to write this article I was forced to the realisation that I am a 30-year-old male choosing celibacy. That is probably relatively unusual, so I must know at least something on the issue. The teacher in me couldn’t resist loosely dividing this into three areas: what does it mean to be celibate, what can help us achieve that goal and why bother?
The meaning of celibacy
I risk losing all credibility here, but I remember a TV interview with Sister Wendy where she was asked about her choice to lead a celibate life; she seemed a bit indignant and explained that it was not just a vow of celibacy that she had taken, but also one of chastity. In other words celibacy shouldn’t just be about a life free of sex, but a life dedicated to total purity. Unfortunately Sister Wendy can’t take all credit for the idea, as it’s also pretty clear in Ephesians 5:3: “Among you there must be not even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.” So if that is our goal, how do we get there?
In some ways I feel celibacy has been a relatively simple path to follow – I am not regularly faced with the need to repel ‘improper advances’ – but this has partly come about as a result of deliberate choices I have made. The first TFT conference that I attended (October 2013) was incredible for the sense of community and of a shared experience, but the teaching also provided some challenging common sense. One of the big reminders for me was that sin is never satisfied, there is always a pull towards more. It is no good thinking that staying clear of sex is the target, particularly if behind that my thought life is a mess. Thoughts lead to actions and a little bit of ‘indulgence’ in sin does not make it easier to resist temptations. I have become much more conscious of resisting and avoiding unhelpful thoughts, materials and entertainment. I’ve installed Covenant Eyes (internet filtering and accountability software) on my phone and computer, I’m careful about what I watch on TV and passengers in my car are often subjected to me switching radio stations and moaning about song lyrics. I’ve not resorted to Radio 4 yet, but it’s an option!
It’s pretty obvious that there are things everywhere that confront us with sexualised imagery, but we also have a part to play in this. Jesus explains in Matthew’s gospel (speaking about clean and unclean food) that we are made unclean by what comes from our hearts (Matthew 15:18-19). That speaks to me of two things. Firstly, I need to take ownership of my thoughts. I have to be honest about the things that I find helpful and unhelpful. It has been a real godsend to have people who hold me accountable and allow me to be open about these things. I’ve found accountability groups and friendships so valuable that I’d say, if you don’t have these things, that should probably change – you’re missing out. Pray that God will provide and start asking people. Secondly, I think it is really important that we feed our hearts with good things. It is great to avoid unhelpful things, but even better to dwell on good things and invite God into the midst of all our struggles. The Bible tells us (hundreds of times I think) to ‘remember’ things that God has done, from the Israelites and Passover to Jesus’ invitation to remember him in the Last Supper. This should remind us why we bother to struggle at all – for love of our Saviour who has done more than we can ever express.
Celibacy - why bother?
Psalm 103 is one of my favourite passages in scripture, and the opening verses remind us to “forget not all his benefits” – that he forgives, heals, redeems us “from the pit” and satisfies our desires with good things. It’s a valuable list of things to fill our hearts and minds with, but there is much more! Paul’s letter to Titus reminds us that “the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men” and it is that grace that teaches us to say “no to ungodliness.” Excitingly that is something we do “while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour Jesus, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” We need to remember what God has already done, but can also look forward to an even greater and eternal future. With that perspective a celibate life is not only possible, but also a very rational and rewarding choice. It’s also worth celebrating that God is for us. When we fall short he is waiting to pick us up and give us a new start.
This article was first published in the Autumn 2016 edition of "Ascend", the TFT newsletter