The engagement stories are abounding, couples are pairing off, and you and I are single. Single, the six letter word that for many of us unearths fear, pain and longing that we have spent so long trying to temper. “Ring by spring” is more than a joke: to some it is a desperate goal, a goal I find even myself grasping unrighteously for, viewing singleness as a fallacious life-option – even if for only a season.
Many of us grew up in the church surrounded by conferences and sermons on virginity and “saving ourselves” for the husband or wife we would be with one day. We were told that college is a magical place where we would find that special someone alongside our book-learning. Now that college is here (and for some of us college will be over shortly), we sit and ask ourselves where that person is--did I some how miss him/her? can that other single person over there make a suitable companion? could they, at least, satisfying this longing to be known and cared for? The purity conferences and sex talks offered by our churches and youth groups (if those churches and youth groups even discuss these topics) have left us short-changed.
St. Augustine famously penned, “Lord make chaste, but not yet.” These words ruminate subliminally through dorm halls as eager freshmen find themselves as graduating seniors without attachment. Though we might be willing to make grandiose statements of contentment and open desire for what the Lord has for us, we are running scared. We are scared wondering if there really is that “one person” for us, scared temptation will overcome us, scared of being alone. And this is where the discussion on purity and virginity falls egregiously short. According to a traditional Christian ethic, sex is meant to be within a marital relationship, saved for that special someone. But by stating that sex and purity is only about saving yourself for that “someone” we lump sex and our personal sexuality as something that is biological and incomplete currently. The irony is that we criticize media’s portrayal of sex as shallow and animalistic. But by claiming that my purity is nothing but a gift for a person I have not met yet and may not exist do I somehow water down sex to be nothing but animalistic passion that must be kept under lock and key? These words, this concept, have weighed heavy on my mind: have I somehow cheapened my current state of chastity, my current state of singleness by merely just pining and waiting for the someday instead of embracing my current station in life? Historically we have spoken about virginity in terms of a physical act, and recently we have been bringing in the emotional side of purity, but we still are not addressing the deeper nuances that living the virginal life holds. In Lauren Winner’s book Real Sex, she quotes a religious community in New Zealand on the matter, “Chastity is the free choice to live one’s sexual life in accord with Christian values – therefore, everyone is called to live chastely” (p.134) Chastity moves beyond just abstinence, but requires us to investigate how we are to live within our sexuality regardless of relationship status.
I remember sitting in my kindergarten Sunday school class hearing metaphorical stories of princesses waiting for their princes. I recall modesty lectures, purity discussions, and “waiting until that day” talks. I was no stranger to the concept of “protecting my purity until the day of marriage.” However, all this was contingent upon there being a Mr. Right. All this was assuming that my future has a definitive spousal relationship. Even if a husband is in my future should singleness be just a means to an end? Is chastity a fiery hoop we jump through and prayerfully not get scorched? Why do we teach our children these things, and how do we demean those who are widowed or life-long celibate or those that face perils of illness and handicap? Why do we hype up marriage to our children to the point where singleness is frowned upon, chastity is grimaced at, and well meaning “one days” are furiously spread around to calm anxious nerves.
Let’s be honest, you and I know the passages of scripture. We can quote them from “thou shall not commit adultery” to “even if you think a dirty thought about another person in your heart it is as though you have committed that against them.” But slowly and surely we have decontextualized these passages, severing them from their communal roots within scripture, their roots in the creation story and the churches collective representation of Christ. We no longer find it convincing to hear or say “But God says so, and therefore...” because we long for these passages of scripture to speak to the deepest longings of our souls, to feel that God hears our deep desires for commitment and unity and be able to trust that regardless of what will be one day we are whole and complete as long as we are rooted in Christ. Chastity is not just about saving sex for marriages, it is about placing sex within a context, one that is rooted in the gospel, in ourselves as created beings, in the restoration narrative of scripture and seeing our fullness as something found in Christ from which we share with others, extending beyond a biological act but encompassing our entire sexuality as male and female - both in how we act as single persons or married persons. The discussion of chastity is more than what I do or not do as an individual, but begs me to look and see how this part of my life functions inside the greater community of the body. With that being said, I believe that we have been failed by the church as well as have failed ourselves in not seeking how to live our lives with the fullest contentment within the communal setting. In other words, to live chastely we must come together – elderly, single, married, or widowed - and inspire and challenge one another to live fully and contentedly in our various placements.
When satisfaction in chastity [or maybe just willingness to be chaste] is contingent upon one day being married how much present contentment and joy can we truly experience? Instead of enjoying this season, I find myself anxious for the one day. Instead of viewing chastity as a gift, I view it as squelched desire to which I can honor my future whomever. I have placed my reason for preserving my parochial “greatest treasure” in a person who may or may not exist. Even as I write this I find myself appalled at the fact I am honoring someone that I am uncertain truly exists! Someone who has yet to even earn my respect [let alone I earn his]. What contentment can I ever receive in singleness if I leave myself with such insecurity and unpredictability? If I place my reason for chastity first out of respect for myself as a created being, outflows a respect for myself, and my body. I have respect for a body that is created in the image of Christ; a body that one-day will be resurrected and completely restored. Through this lens I also have a respect for the other bodies and persons I interact with, desiring their body to be holy and a part of the restoration narrative.
Perhaps I must redefine ‘singleness.’ Singleness is a great and prosperous challenge, a time of growth, drought, and beauty to which one can be open and unhindered to the service of others. Singleness, a season to embrace instead of a season to despair. Paul speaks directly to the widow and the single persons proclaiming that this season is good, and with it such persons are able to take part in and be beneficial to the community, even more so than those who are wed (I Cor. 7). We need to reteach ourselves, reteach our churches, and teach our children that singleness is a time to be enjoyed and savored. Though this might not alleviate the desire to be in a close, intimate marriage relationship, it might at the very least encourage a more productive season and a deeper satisfaction and “ok-ness” in where we are. There is great godliness in contentment (1 Tim. 6:6), godliness that views our current provision as enough and rooting unavoidable longing in the trust we have in the faithfulness of God. In all things we are to learn to be content (Philippians 4). If I do not learn to be content now, will I be able to be content later – marriage or not? Will intimacy be satisfying then? Though I am unmarried, and relationally unattached, I will glean the wisdom from those around me. “To be content now, is to be content later,” no matter what the later may be.