Let the record show that I've been resisting writing about this for a while. I don't want to talk about it — it's deeply personal, and not the kind of thing that comes up unless you are truly close with your family and friends. I wish it wasn't something that required discussion because I wish it was something we were all on the same page about.
I was raised in a Christian home, and like many other conservative evangelical kids I was told that sex was good and God-given within marriage, and not otherwise. I read every book on dating (and not dating), so I could be prepared, and it was assumed that I would marry young, as my parents had, and I was taught that because I had a desire to be married, that it would surely happen!
We were part of an excruciatingly small church. Then we weren't part of a church at all. Then I switched to a church with no one eligible. Then I didn't go anywhere. Then I switched to another church with no one eligible. Then I became Lutheran, and around that time, Pr. Shields broke the news to me about vocation. I say "broke", because it was not particularly encouraging at the time — however idly, I had been nurturing a suspicion that God was holding out on me, somehow.
Oh. OH. Okay. Suddenly there was no one to blame — not me, for somehow being unworthy of marriage, not my parents, for instilling a false hope, not the guys, for not stepping up. (Well, that might still be somewhat fair?) And certainly not the churches, for not having men in them. Not the culture, which seems to despise commitment. Not this geographical state, where there just aren't single guys in the age bracket I'm interested in (which at this point is really 30 to 40 in case anyone's asking <nonchalant whistling>).
So, despite my feverish ramblings about beards on the internet, I'm vocationally single, and celibate, by God's grace alone, through no power of my own. There's a hell of a lot more to the vocation of singleness than just NOT HAVING SEX. You can be physically celibate, yet maintain a hot-house full of lust-orchids (please don't do this kind of gardening). I've been thinking about it in terms of the Garden — that you are constantly walking around the tree, inspecting the fruit, debating whether or not it's worth it. It takes so little to fall. We talk ourselves into deviating from what we know to be true and right with very little trouble.
I don't want to use that terribly cliched line about the fruit not being ripe. It's not at all that I think I'm somehow going to have better sex by waiting until God says "yes". It's that, at this time, God has said and is saying "no" because I am not married. So I also need to say no, repeatedly.
- This is not something you do to receive the reward of super-hot sex once you're married. (That's actually an unspoken selling point in many of the books, in a nudge-nudge, wink-wink kind of a way.) It is implied repeatedly that if you can remain continent till marriage, you WILL be rewarded. That may be true, but that is not why you should be doing this.
- This is a lonely path. It is awkward to talk about, hard to remain accountable about, and your friends are not necessarily going to be able to walk along side you, simply because the older you get, the more of them are going to be married or otherwise paired off.
- In the greater evangelical camp, we have made a spectrum, with one end where sex is idolized and talked about constantly, and the other end, where it isn't spoken of at all. Skewing to either end lends itself to an imbalance in thinking, which leads to some harsh surprises for its constituents who have married. Does this signify a flaw in their marriages? They thought so! I don't think so. But I think pre-marital counseling absolutely MUST cover this — there must be very plain talk about sex. And if your counselor doesn't bring it up, or doesn't want to talk about it when you bring it up, go somewhere else. Don't get married without talking about these things.
- The glorification or idolization of technical (by technical, I mean physical) virginity can really do damage to those who have been abused, or were formerly sexually active and are now seeking to live in celibacy. Be careful.
- The glorification or idolization of marriage and/or childbearing can really do damage to those who are widowed, abandoned, or barren. Be careful.
Mainstream evangelical churches and literature maintain support for singles up until 22 (hold it! hold it! you can do this! you'll find someone in college!), and then you're on your own if you have failed to find a spouse by the time you graduate. The majority of these books, mind you, are written by charming young couples who are newly married, and are generally a bit pleased with themselves for having "made it", a bit smug, ready to talk about how hard it was to be single for 3 years between high school and college, BUT THEN GOD REWARDED THEM WITH A HOT SPOUSE. Aaaaaand you've lost me. At 28, my hearing no longer registers those high-pitched noises. Sorry. I imagine there are faithful singles out there in their 40s who won't be able to hear what I'm writing now — fair enough, I salute you. I think it's a well-documented fact, however, that once you're out of a situation, you forget how it went. People who have been married for any length of time have more than likely forgotten what it was like to single and celibate, and it's easier to look back on and say "that wasn't so bad, now was it?".
These books also imply (falsely) that it's only men who have a sex drive. My comments about this unscientific viewpoint are all so rude, I will not put them here. If you're writing books perpetuating this myth, please stop.
"Your body, your choice" — until people find out the choice you're making is celibacy. They don't like this, it makes them uncomfortable — it's really, "your body, but not that choice." Marriage and childbearing are good vocations if God gives them to you! But they are not greater or more worthy than singleness and celibacy if that is what God has given you. People are REMARKABLY insensitive about this. I'm on a 19th-century literary kick right now. It's been refreshing to remember that we really only abandoned this concept a few years ago, relatively speaking. It came up in Bible study that sending pregnant girls away to visit distant family until the baby arrived was commonplace right up until the middle of the 1900s. Fulfilling your vocation doesn't mean you're going to be delivered from the sinfulness of your nature. If you think otherwise, you are in trouble. The freedom that comes from living within your vocation is never going to be real deliverance. Our identity flows from Christ, not our sexuality, not from anything else. When you get this wrong, things get messy.
So what does this actually look like? What is it like to be this old (I am listening Sense & Sensibility and there is a butt-load of quotes about how ANCIENT women in their late 20s are!) and still single?
I'll tell you. It makes answering the sex questions at the blood drive a breeze. I don't think twice about walking into a bar or a party for fear of running into someone I hooked up with — I just don't want to see people, period. Life is quite complicated enough for me without having to add this, and I'm grateful that's one less thing I have to think about. But that's not a reason to not sleep with people. It cuts down on the number of casual friendships (when you keep your relationships with the opposite sex platonic, guess how many of them stick around?) you have to maintain — but that's not a reason to not sleep with people.
Practically speaking, since I'm not having sex, there is a host of health concerns I don't even have to contemplate at this time. Yet that's also not a reason not to sleep with people. My parents were huge on "avoiding the appearance of evil", and it was oft held up to us as an example that my mother didn't set foot in my father's apartment until after they were married, so that no one could think the unthinkable — yet this is still not a reason to not sleep with people, as anything can be hid for a time. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I have at times ridden in cars or gone into buildings with no third person present, but I doubt that makes me un-marriageable, as it surely would have 150 years ago.)
Since I want children so very much, it is tough to know that with every year that goes by, my chances diminish. God knows how much this grieves me. I have to believe that He knows and that He will provide what I need when I need it. If he has not provided a husband or children, then I must not need them at this time.
There is little incentive to dolling yourself up when you know the goal is to NOT sleep with anyone. And yet, at the same time, I don't think you get to be Frumpy for Jesus™. It's tough to find a look that balances my hopes with my ideals. We are not monks or nuns. I wish we were, sometimes. But women drive me nuts, and I really love men, so that's probably okay. What strikes me as appealing about the lifestyle is 1. a strict religious structure, 2. the company of people who believe the same things you do and are willing to actively support you in it, and 3. industrious work. Now that I've typed that out, I guess I'm trying to build my own one-woman convent.
This is not meant to sound self-pitying, but it is logistically difficult to be single at this stage of life. I bought a house on my own, I started going to a new church on my own, I work a full-time job, and then I come home to that house and the responsibilities of maintaining it fall almost entirely to me. There are huge decisions and problems that keep coming up that I would give anything to have a husband's input on. This is my job, so I do it, but keep in mind again that most of my friends have helped — they have someone else who can take out the garbage, run a load of laundry, cook dinner, do the shopping, turn down that invite, step up to the confrontation. Living by yourself certainly strengthens the backbone, if you're not in the fetal position feeling sorry for yourself, which, don't get me wrong, does happen sometimes. A lot of the time I say to myself "you have to do this, you don't have a choice, it has to get done".
Some days the reality of my life absolutely wrecks me. Other days, I feel calm about it, I say okay, I can do this a while longer. Fortunately, in the long run, how I feel about my situation doesn't really matter much. What matters is that I am living in obedience to God, and that's why I'm doing this. I don't know if it's going to get any easier as I get older (I certainly hope it does) and I do pray God sees fit to lift this particular cross (for it is a cross). We are told to present our bodies as a living sacrifice. Being sacrificed alive HURTS, as Christ well knows. May the Lord have mercy on us all.