A number of years ago as I closed a college women’s Bible Study, one of the students said to me, “I’ve never known anyone before who has the gift of celibacy.” I can still see the admiration in her eyes – and can still feel the absolute gut-wrenching punch I felt inside. I drove home in tears with this question: “You didn’t do that to me, did you, God?” I was in my early 30s.
I’ve wrestled with that question for what for some readers is more than their lifetime of years. Earlier editions of Webster’s Dictionary define celibacy simply as the unmarried state, or as a vow made not to marry, particularly for religious reasons. Somewhere along the line it also came to mean abstinence from sexual activity.
I find it interesting that while the Bible never uses the term, celibacy, it is well understood that abstaining from intimate physical relationships is the recommended way of life for those who do not have a spouse.
Many Bible scholars use I Corinthians 7:7 as proof positive that Paul calls this way of life a gift. “I wish that all of you were as I am, but each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” (NIV) He appears to be speaking of the practice of abstinence from physical intimacy in and out of marriage – limited abstinence by agreement of husband and wife if married, total abstinence if not married. For the unmarried person, Paul goes on to say in verses 8-9: “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
So, what happened to the gift? Is it returnable? Is it acceptable in some cases, not in others? Is it one of the more specialized gifts termed as spiritual? Are the effects instant if you accept it? When and where do I get it? What if I am one of the “burning” ones?
Hmmmmmm. I wonder.
Now, my stance on Scripture is constant. I believe II Timothy 3:16-17 implicitly: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. So, that’s how I handle my frustration at times when I wish the Bible went further in some of its explanations – especially for the onesome. Even though verses specifically for the single are few, they say exactly what God intended to say on the subject.
Our lives are rarely without choice in some form. We choose to make God the center of our lives. we choose modes of conduct, such as to steal or not steal, to envy or not to envy; to respect or to disrespect; to be faithful or to cheat. We choose what to eat, wear, say, and do.
My personal opinion is that celibacy is a choice God leaves up to me. Now, sometimes choices are made willingly – or unwillingly. Both depend on what we conclude are the right things to do. Why in the world would I choose celibacy when every part of my being desires that close connection with another person?
- * Well, first and foremost, I believe it is what God requests of me in order to serve Him faithfully.
- * I believe that physical intimacy involves giving of the deepest parts of my being to another.
- * I want the deepest parts of my being to be entrusted to my husband, not just anyone.
- * I want my husband to whom I give the deepest parts of my being to have mutual spiritual values.
- * I want to avoid distraction of physical/emotional complications caused by short-term intimate social relationships.
- * And so, I choose celibacy.
Personally, I believe a celibate life involves both well-considered choice and intentional discipline! Self-discipline is one of the spiritual fruit mentioned by Paul in Galatians 5:22. While this verse does not specifically connect it to intimacy issues, there are a host of scriptures which tell us to avoid unfaithfulness of all sorts, including sexual issues. Where I used to rant and rave at God about the battle of hormones vs. faithfulness to Him, I find that disciplined practice brings a solid consequence of more consistent contentment with where I am now. Let me illustrate.
I am a pianist. I began piano lessons when I was about 4 years old because I would stand at the piano and pick out tunes I heard – mainly hymns. My mother helped me begin to develop the gift of music. Along with that came a bunch of choices. I discovered along the way that my tastes moved toward traditional baroque, classical, and romantic composers: Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Hearing music by composers like these just blessed a depth of my soul unlike much of contemporary music. And then came discipline. I decided to major in piano performance in college. I thought I was pretty good as an incoming freshman piano major. And then, I met my piano professor! He took me way back to some basics I thought I had far surpassed. I had to learn every piece at a snail’s pace. BORING! Then, one day I discovered that when I could play pieces from memory up to tempo, it was almost as if I could read them in my mind. Learning them very slowly to begin with brought freedom from memory lapses, and great confidence and fun in performance. I learned that discipline, while is often not fun, brings great reward! I’m sure great athletes think the same. What we see in public is born out of thousands of hours of private repetition and practice and study. Discipline enhances the gift and the choice.
That is exactly how I feel about the discipline of celibacy after practicing it throughout my life. It helps manage my thoughts and actions. Choice of what I watch on TV and how I exercise my love of reading is managed by the discipline of knowing what causes me to move into areas of intimacy which simply are not available to me at present. You know all those Hallmark movies, especially at Christmas? Girl always gets boy, even in the most impossible of circumstances. Even those I have to watch with discernment, because sometimes they feed a yearning in my heart which is not one God has chosen to fulfill – so far anyway. There’s nothing wrong with the movies. But, discipline has taught me that I need to discern the vulnerability of my heart to choose whatever I read and watch and think about in order to cultivate the quality of my life.
So what do you think? Gift? Choice? Or discipline? For more of my thoughts on this, see the first posts of this blog: “I Corinthians 7 – a new look.”