Letter to a Bitter Celibate

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You’ve never been here before. Celibacy. You dabbled with the idea, but it never really stuck. A life without a spouse seemed hollow, frightening, and desolate. Kinda like living in tomb separate from the land of the living. Celibacy felt like death and you desperately wanted to live.

 

But here you are at the end of all your exploring. You’ve arrived at where you started, and as T. S. Eliot wrote, you know the place for the first time. “Not known, because not looked for.” But now your eyes are open. You have bitten into forbidden fruit and now there’s no longer room for you in the garden.

 

You wanted this transition to be easy, effortless. No more panic attacks. No more rejections from the men you wanted to love. No more secrets. You pictured God with a frown when you prayed, mostly wondering if He even listened anymore.

 

Are you happy, God?

 

You’re attending more weddings as the years pass. Tears tend to well up in your eyes, but they aren’t tears of happiness for the bride and groom. The tears are for all your dreams crumbling before your eyes.

 

Church used to feel like a family. Everything felt right, every ritual routine. Hymns, prayers, a sermon, and a potluck lunch every Sunday. But now you’re sneaking in late, sitting in the back. You stare at the back of people’s heads and feel overwhelmed by the gulf between them and you. You’ve become a stranger and the awkwardness hangs thick in the air. You internally argue with the pastor; his every criticism feels aimed at you. You want church to work again, but you don’t know how.

 

You’re fairly convinced God is a tyrant and you’re like his battered wife. You love your husband when he’s gentle, but you never know when he’ll slap you across the face and strangle your neck until there’s no air to breathe. You resent him, but you stay. That’s another thing about abused wives. They can’t seem to visualize any other options. That’s what celibacy feels like. And that’s how twisted your reformed theology has become.

 

“Sometimes it is hard not to say ‘God forgive God,’” C. S. Lewis’ audacious declaration rings true to your tired, bitter heart. Some days you’re almost waiting for an apology from your Heavenly Father. But there’s only silence.

 

You don’t talk to people because they won’t get it. They’ll try to fix you because your pain makes them uncomfortable. They’ll probably tell you to get over it, repent, move on. Words. But words don’t help much. Lewis said it well, “Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.”

 

You’ve done what God and the church required. On one hand, you breathe a little easier without the guilt weighing you down. But that doesn’t make living any easier. You’ve traded anxiety for bitterness. You’ve submitted to what you believe is right, but you fear you’ve sacrificed any hope of a life worth living. But here you are, willingly choosing to embrace the pain like a man needing surgery without any available anesthesia. This will either heal or kill you; you can’t be certain of which yet.

 

You take your Bible off the shelf for the first time in a long time. Only one thing seems to take your mind off the chronic ache of your soul: the pain of others. You see suffering everywhere in scripture, in every character. You see it so strikingly in Christ until it sinks in. God seems so distant, so angry, so disappointed with you. But in Christ you feel his heart. The God of the universe humbled himself and became a suffering servant to reclaim you, to woo you, to make right what life had made so wrong. He knows misunderstanding, rejection, and isolation.

 

He gets you.

 

When you were a senior at Bryan College you wrote a thesis on C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed. You examined Lewis’ grief and anger over losing his wife and compared his agony to the process you perceived gay individuals suffer when they lose their sexual identity to become Christians. True, you were still a bit ex-gay back then and didn’t quite understand the complexity of the issue or the complexity of your own sexuality. But you learned something valuable from Lewis that would matter immensely years later when you cycled between depression, anger, and apathy.

 

This is a process of grief.

 

“I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history, and if I don’t stop writing that history at some quite arbitrary point, there’s no reason why I should ever stop. There is something new to be chronicled every day. Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.”

 

People respond differently to grief; several of your gay friends gave up on celibacy while you were in the process of finding it. It wasn’t a matter of who had the stronger faith or who was the truer Christian. There’s no telling what really made the difference. But you’ve never thought less of your friends. You had your own path to take and your own convictions to uphold. The daily, costly act of obedience required more than you thought you could give, and you came with plenty of hesitation and doubt. You slowly began cleaning up your disheveled theology, gradually embracing celibacy not as an avoidance of Hell but an affirmation of God’s calling for your life. Slowly the bitterness diminished; the melancholia couldn’t last forever. You genuinely laughed again.

 

You are loved well. If you have a little grace and patience, people will begin to come around. They will slowly cease offering unsolicited, unhelpful advice and platitudes. They’ll probably never fully understand, but gradually they will listen. And when they listen well, they provide much better feedback and suggestions.

 

But here at the beginning of this long, winding valley of sorrow, I know no words will help. Words won’t assuage the pain. Yes, time will heal the ache, but it’s the agony of waiting for every second to pass. So I’m going to sit here with you. We don’t have to speak. You can cry or swear, break things or sit still. I won’t walk away or judge.

 

I’m here.

 

~         ~         ~

 

Related Blog Posts:

When I Fear God is Not Good

Giving Thanks for Celibacy?

man praying

Giving Thanks for Celibacy?

I never imagined I would become a celibate. I grew up in the Primitive Baptist faith, and we didn’t talk about singleness that much. We gossiped plenty about relationships though, and most of my acquaintances in our tiny denomination married early. Like other denominations, we esteemed marriage as the place where life naturally transitioned and progressed. Singleness was just a temporary season of life preparing young Christians for the challenges of matrimony. If we ever mentioned celibacy, it was to joke at its strangeness; normal people didn’t remain single.

 

But I’m not a normal guy.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve wanted normalcy. I have moments pumping iron in the gym or worshipping alone in the back row of church wondering how this all happened to me. How does a boy baptized at age six, homeschooled in a good Christian family, become a gay man? It sounds ridiculous.

 

Sometimes life feels like a game of poker, and I was bitter for the hand of cards God gave me.

 

Gratitude doesn’t come easily for me. I’m like one of the rebellious Israelites in the wilderness—complaining and untrusting of God’s goodness and provision. I’ve seen my sexual orientation as a curse, blaming it for all my issues. If I were straight, I would be a strong man—confident, attractive, and eloquent. But I’m not that man; I’m a boy, scared and awkward. “Be thankful in all things?” Seriously?

 

I recently read Ann Voskamp’s book One Thousand Gifts. Voskamp celebrates thanksgiving, or eucharisteo, the Greek word she uses throughout the book. It all starts with a simple Greek study. The Greek word for joy is chara and it’s found right in the middle of eucharisteo; joy literally within thanksgiving.

 

Ann Voskamp One Thousand Gifts

 

So then as long as thanks is possible … I think this through. As long as thanks is possible, then joy is always possible. Joy is always possible. Whenever, meaning—now; wherever, meaning—here. The holy grail of joy is not in some exotic location or some emotional mountain peak experience. The joy wonder could be here! Here, in the messy, piercing ache of now, joy might be—unbelievably—possible! The only place we need see before we die is this place of seeing God, here and now.”1

 

Can I find joy in a sex-saturated culture as a celibate gay man? What about joy in a marriage-worshipping church? Voskamp’s message reveals a liberating truth: Yes. There’s joy to be found here if you’ll only look. Joy is not reserved for the heterosexual, but remains available as long as I choose to give thanks.

 

But an internal change of attitude isn’t enough. I could choose to remain an unknown and invisible seat-filler in church, all the while telling myself I’m thankful and content. But that’s not contentment, it’s complacency. Thanksgiving doesn’t force me to accept things I have the power to change in my life. That’s fear. God compels me to take risks to live anything but a safe life. As I learn to count my blessings I should begin looking outward towards others. Voskamp writes that we “become the blessing,”

 

Eucharisteo is giving thanks for grace. But in the breaking and giving of bread, in the washing of feet, Jesus makes it clear that eucharisteo is, yes, more: it is giving grace away. Eucharisteo is the hand that opens to receive grace, then, with thanks, breaks the bread; that moves out into the larger circle of life and washes the feet of the world with that grace. Without the breaking and giving, without the washing of feet, eucharisteo isn’t complete. The Communion service is only complete in service. Communion, by necessity, always leads us into community.”2

 

A simple Christian sacrament reveals how we live in the church and God’s kingdom. In the Primitive Baptist denomination, we include foot washing in our communion services. It can feel pretty awkward to literally humble yourself before another Christian to wash his or her feet, but there’s something moving about the gesture too. It represents how I want to live out my faith. This posture of grace and humility inspires courage to be a blessing to others. Grace calls me participate in the work of redemption and I cannot remain silent to God’s work and the cries of the oppressed. I can say with Jeremiah,

“There is in my heart as it were a burning fire

shut up in my bones,

and I am weary with holding it in,

and I cannot (Jeremiah 20:9).”

 

Eve Tushnet wrote, “You can’t have a vocation of No.” It’s not enough for the conservative church to tell gay Christians that marriage is defined as one man and one woman. It’s not even enough for the church to exhort its congregants to “be nice to the gays out there in the world.” Many of us queer folks who hold the same traditional convictions on sexuality aren’t going to make your life comfortable by entering heterosexual marriage and pretending we’re just like you. …And many in mixed-orientation marriages are speaking up too. As a demographic of the church, we have unique spiritual and emotional needs. The church shouldn’t cultivate a thriving environment for the majority to the detriment of its outliers. The church has a responsibility to know the heartbeat of the congregation, to know if life-giving blood is circulating to all members of the body. The church needs to creatively find ways to make the church a home for all its members. There’s plenty of work to be done; there’s prejudices, privileges, and sins to be mortified and surrendered to God as a corporate body. Matt Jones wrote, “Unless a community is seriously modeling a commitment to hospitality and grace for all stages of life, its sexual ethic, no matter how ‘orthodox’ it may sound, will never seem viable or good in any meaningful way. This imaginative failure is also a moral failure, with churches leaving their gay members with little to no ability to actually live–or God forbid thrive– within the rich tradition of church teaching.” Thanksgiving partly fills the gap between how things are and what we hope the church will become. Community requires grace, or charis, the root word for eucharisteo. Sexual minorities need to exhibit forgiveness, mercy, and patience with straight Christians. The church as a whole needs to learn the ability to listen with humility and empathy.

 

It’s here, within my experience as a gay man and my convictions as a traditional evangelical Christian, where I find the most difficulty expressing gratitude. This path means no spouse and no awesome, hot sex (not gonna lie, that’s a bummer).  The traditional sexual ethic is costly, an aspect of Christianity we’ve forgotten in Western Civilization. Historically, Christians have suffered great sacrifices for their faith and convictions, some choosing even to die rather than to renounce their relationship with Jesus. And sometimes I can feel bitter. Why do I have play super-Christian, while other evangelicals analyze my faith and determine if I have a right to sit at the table? Why do I have to hurt this deeply and this much? When I apply Voskamp’s model of eucharisteo to my situation as gay and evangelical, I find another perspective.

 

“The act of sacrificing thank offerings to God—even for the bread and cup of cost, for cancer and crucifixion—this prepares the way for God to show us His fullest salvation from bitter, angry, resentful lives and from all sin that estranges us from Him. At the Eucharist, Christ breaks His heart to heal ours—Christ, the complete accomplishment of our salvation. And the miracle of eucharisteo never ends: thanksgiving—giving thanks in everything—is what prepares the way for salvation’s whole restoration. Our salvation in Christ is real, yet the completeness of that salvation is not fully realized in a life until the life realizes the need to give thanks.”3

 

I can’t speak for other Christian sexual minorities, just for myself. Ingratitude closes off my ability to connect to my Heavenly Father. My bitterness closes off possibilities to experience abundant life and the good gifts God gives His children. I have experienced legitimate grief through the process of accepting the traditional sexual ethic. It’s led to the death of hopes and dreams of a husband and family I wanted. It was a grief I couldn’t ignore and couldn’t suppress. While I’m always open to God’s Spirit and where the truth leads, I’m learning to find a place here in the evangelical church. At some point you have to move on, at some point you have to heal. I’m back where I began, but from a completely different perspective.

 

The gospel radically shifts how we approach sexuality, whether we affirm gay relationships or not. God calls us to kill lust and self-centeredness that characterizes sexual desire. God’s message of sexuality is countercultural—it’s not about me, it’s about the love I give to another. Celibacy extends that belief. Rather than an abandonment of love, celibacy is a lifetime, a calling to love. I’m learning to give myself in intimate friendships to diverse people: Christians and nonchristians, the gay relationship affirming and the traditional, non-affirming. I’m a firm believer that God will provide for my emotional needs as long as I have the bravery to reach out.

 

Celibacy feels like an experiment, but one I can’t really fail. My life’s purpose is to know Christ. Regardless of marriage or singleness, no one can exclude me from that pursuit. “What makes the gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out but who it lets in,” Rachel Held Evans proclaimed at this year’s Gay Christian Network Conference. The gospel reaches all kinds of people with all kinds of convictions. Conservatives and liberals, Caucasians and ethnic minorities, Side A and Side B. It even lets in quiet, awkward gay guys like me.

 

If you asked me to choose one book the most radically shifted my perspective this year, I would point you to Ann Voskamp. She challenged me to live fully right where I currently find myself. I’m challenged not to live in complacency, but in thanksgiving and joy for the opportunities and relationships I currently have. I’m not waiting for my life to begin—it’s happening right here, right now.

 

And it’s glorious.

 

/ / /

 

  1. Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010, 33.
  2. Ibid, 192-193.
  3. Ibid, 40.

Featured photo courtesy of Jeremy Binns at CreationSwap.

shoes rainy pavement

When I Suck at Celibacy

I spend a lot of time trying to stress in my writing that sexual orientation is more than sex. I like the word gay because it doesn’t contain the word “sex” to describe itself (like homoSEXual or same-SEX attracted, or even SEXUAL minority). “Gay” does a better job of expressing a vocation apart from sex, at least I think so.

 

I compartmentalize the discussion of sexual orientation so much that I tend to avoid talking about sex itself. I can almost make myself sound asexual or a spectator in the discussion. In actuality, this conversation affects my life just as much as the lives of the Christian LGBTs I write about.

 

So why hide the fact that I’m just as much a sexual being as any other gay man, or for that matter, pretty much any other human being? It’s safe, I guess. I don’t like to admit that I struggle maintaining my purity. I don’t like to admit that I’m occasionally a screw up.

 

Good Christians just don’t talk about that.

 

Secrets fetter us. A gay friend once told me that Satan holds power over the things we keep in the dark. It’s only when we bring our secrets to the light that we find freedom in Christ. …But it’s still frightening. When I admit I struggle with lust, pornography, and hooking up, I’m saying I don’t always do a good job of living out what I believe.

 

I’m saying I’m a hypocrite.

 

And sometimes I’m ashamed to talk about sexuality because it reveals some of my ugly insecurities. I’m not attractive enough. I need a man to affirm that I am handsome and valuable and loveable. Sometimes I wonder if I’m more comfortable with celibacy because I have an excuse to be “just the friend.” I can beat rejection to the punch. And that’s a really lame excuse for such a rigorous and beautiful vocation.

 

Confession is hard. We want people to think we have it all together. We don’t want others to see the dysfunction and the messiness. We want love and respect. Choosing vulnerability can strip us of the friendships we treasure. …But if they’ll stick with you, you will find a way of living that’s abundant, life-sustaining, and healing.

 

~             ~             ~

 

To state the obvious, lust feels great. Our brains reward us with all these lovely feel-good neurotransmitters that keep us coming back again and again. It doesn’t matter that we have our nice, organized biblical sexual ethics. Or that we know nothing good will likely come from another eight minutes of stupidity. Lust is a drug and a darn addictive one at that.

 

Sometimes we don’t want to be accountable because we’re not quite ready to give up the high. We’re hesitant to say no to instant gratification.

 

One of my favorite books on Christian sexuality continues to be Lauren Winner’s Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity. Winner had difficulty embracing the biblical sexual ethic of chastity until marriage after she converted to the Christian faith.

 

There’s this quote I love as Winner describes her progression of thought about scripture and sexuality. She writes about a confessional with an Episcopalian priest:

 

I was there to confess a long litany of sins, not just sexual sins—lies I’d told, ways I’d screwed up friendships, a whole host of mistakes and missteps. Somewhere in the middle of confession I came to the sexual sin, and my confessor said, gently but firmly (which are the two adverbs I believe should apply to Christian rebuke),

 

“Well, Lauren, that’s sin.”¹

 

Sin’s not one of my favorite vocabulary words. It makes me uncomfortable. And that’s the point—it’s a word that reveals I’m not perfect. It reveals my dependency on Christ to make things right. It’s God’s grace working in me to will and do of His good pleasure. I’m not really interested in becoming a Bible Thumper. And maybe that’s my issue with this three letter s-word. I’m accustomed to hearing the harsh judgmentalism from the pulpit. I expect prejudiced, gossipy, and unmerciful remarks from Christians. Sin sounds like a word they would say. It’s Aramaic or Hebrew translation seems foreign on Jesus’s lips.

 

But when I read Winner’s view of confronting sin, I see something a bit different. After all, it was Jesus who said not only to forsake adultery, but also lust. Jesus came to the world to reconcile us to God and emancipate us from the slavery of evil. Sin is a serious problem with the world; it’s a serious problem in my own heart. It’s definitely not a light issue. This freedom that the Messiah purchased for us leads to the restoration of the original creation, and that starts in me as I battle my selfishness with God’s aid. And yes, sometimes we need gentle but firm reminders from good Christian friends when our ways are out of alignment with God’s awesome design for His kingdom.

 

So what is this design that God has crafted for our sexuality? Stephen Long recently published a post that included one of my favorite quotes from James Brownson’s book Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships. It offers amazing insight into this discussion.

 

We cannot say with our bodies what we will not say with the rest of our lives. Bodies are not indifferent, and what we do with our bodies is not indifferent. Sexual union is deeply metaphorical, and when we strip sexual union of the wider metaphorical kinship meaning intended by Genesis 2:24, we cease to live in the ‘real world’ governed by God’s purposes and decrees.²

 

Scripturally, marriage is the only place where God blesses sexual intercourse, though we may differ on how to define marriage. Brownson writes from a perspective that affirms same-sex marriage and critiques gay culture through the lens of scripture. There just isn’t a theological case for promiscuity, and Brownson believes that’s an area that needs to be sanctified through marriage. As gay believers, we can’t just accept everything that gay men do and tack on the label “Christian” to justify our behavior. God’s Word must take preeminence.

 

But if premarital sex is consensual, why does scripture condemn it? Brownson points out that our bodies manifest striking symbolism. Sex is a sacred act—an act of culmination that symbolizes the joining of two separate people as one unit in the work of God’s kingdom.

 

The Apostle Paul writes,

 

“…Do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:16-20 ESV)

 

As a single Christian man, my body belongs to God. The Spirit dwells in my body as an instrument of grace to minister to others; to be Christ in flesh to my brothers and sisters and continue the work of the incarnation. But when I’m hooking up with some random dude, more stuff is going on than just sex itself. Obviously I can’t minister to this guy when I’m sexually objectifying him and using him for my own pleasure (and vice versa). You can’t seriously and explicitly share the good news of the gospel in a promiscuous lifestyle. And you can’t implicitly live out the gospel either, which is more often my style for sharing Christ.

 

Rather than advancing shalom in the world, I’m resisting it, particularly in my own sanctification. Love is giving and transformative. Lust is destructive and selfish. In both marriage and celibacy we learn to kill our selfish desires and put others before ourselves. Promiscuity promotes destructive self-love that characterizes many marriages in our culture, even in our own churches. You must please me, rather than I am called to serve you. Which sounds like a better way to glorify God with our bodies?

 

~             ~             ~

 lost man

photo courtesy of flickr creative commons, user Vincepal

 

So I suck at this celibacy thing. But it remains my personal conviction for how I should navigate this journey of faith and sexuality. I have friends (gay and straight) who feel the biblical prohibitions against premarital sex are antiquated—and I still love and respect them. I have gay friends who are trying to live out Brownson’s vision of chastity until marriage. They seem to do an impressive job without some or all the support that straight Christians have available. Ultimately I’m not the final judge; that’s between the individual and God. I’ve long given up determining my view on Hell. It joined a long list of other theological subjects that if asked I will politely respond “I don’t know.” I know my calling to love God and my neighbor and that’s hard enough.

 

Christians tend to fuss about Hell more than the emphasis of scripture itself. Sure, you can find plenty of passages about it, I won’t deny that, but sometimes we make it sound like the whole point of Christianity is the avoidance of eternal punishment. We make a big deal about when we got “saved.” But saved to what? Surely there’s a bigger story in the Bible than an escape plan from Hell.

 

There’s one book that I think should be mandatory reading for every Christian. You must read N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. It’s one of the best articulations of the kingdom of God. And it’s one of the best motivations to go to battle with lust day in and day out. Our personal salvation and sanctification is a piece of a greater puzzle. By choosing chastity, I’m choosing life and affirming true love. I’m creating shalom. That’s partly how we make God’s will done on Earth as it is in Heaven.

 

~             ~             ~

 

When I screw up, grace and redemption restores me. Gentle but firm people walk alongside me and encourage me to try again. And courage says to speak when I’d rather hide in my shame.

 

 

Come everyone who thirsts

Come to the waters

and he who has no money

Come buy wine and milk

Without money and without price.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread

and your labor for that which does not satisfy?

Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good

and delight yourselves in rich food.

Isaiah 55:1-2

 

Come, love. There is healing here. Your Father is making all things new. You can always begin again.

 

Featured photo by Laura Merchant at Creationswap

 

1. Lauren Winner, Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2005, 13.

2. James V. Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013, 102.