As some of you who have been following my blog may know, I am very interested in the topic of marriage/singleness and the church. I believe that oftentimes, churches are so focused on marriage that those who choose singleness may be overlooked or feel unwelcomed. In this blog post, I’d like to share some thoughts about the calling to be celibate. I would first like to start off by saying that I think purity and celibacy are related to each other but are two separate things. Many Christians will choose to be “celibate” before being married by which they mean they will not be engaged in sexual activity. I believe that this is a very respectable choice for them to make, however, I would consider that to be “purity”. To me, purity also refers to your thought pattern and the way you treat others, not simply to physical attraction. For the purposes of this blog the word “celibacy” remains an intentional choice that one has made to be without a partner whether that be for a specific amount of time or for life. Since I don’t know too much about celibacy for a season, this blog will be dealing primarily with the calling of life-time celibacy.
Throughout history, celibacy has had a very important standing within the Christian faith. There are countless stories of both men and women who have served God as missionaries, nuns, monks, and priests and who have had their work greatly increase because they have chosen to remain without a spouse. There are also many good examples of strong Christian couples who have extended God’s Kingdom vision. There is no doubt in my mind that God uses both the single and the married to do His work – the important thing is that the work gets done. I have often heard it said that the Protestants need to normalize celibacy a bit more and the Catholics need to not “force” celibacy on their priests. I would agree with this statement, at least in theory, although I believe there is also great benefit to being a single priest. When I think of myself being a pastor, I think celibacy can add a lot to this role. My first priority can be to God and to the church rather than to my husband and children, and I can constantly be available to the needs of parishioners without worrying about my son being sick or my daughter’s basketball lessons, and forget about my maternity leave. I even heard a priest say once that pre-marital counseling is easier for him than for a married pastor because he can look at marriage objectively rather than based on arguments he has had with his spouse. That said, I have also seen many wonderful examples of how marriage enhances a pastorate including couples who compliment each other’s gifts and spend time fervently in prayer together before the Lord.
All of this simply sets the backdrop for what I wish to say about how to discern celibacy. I personally have been on my own journey, but have not come 100% to a place of deciding this as my chosen path – I believe it is a long process which requires much deliberation and the counsel of close friends and family members. It should certainly not be rash, rushed into, forced upon, or an unattainable ideal. In everything pure logic and the Holy Spirit need to be weighed heavily against an emotional response (such as extreme anger over a recent break-up or an “idealistic” mindset).
I believe there are many different reasons one could choose celibacy and they are likely all as valid as any of the others. Some many choose celibacy for a time – perhaps they need to step away from distractions and get re-focused on Christ. Sometimes someone might decide not to date for 6 months or 1 year following a break-up so that they don’t enter their next relationship “needy” and have some time to heal. This is valid. Others wish to give a year of service and some missionary organizations do not permit dating during that term – although it is difficult if you love someone on your team, I have known people who stuck it out until the end of the year without dating and now are married to someone from the field. Sometimes a call to celibacy is another way of saying that you are willing to put God above a partner and temporarily or permanently try to grow closer spiritually rather than romantically.
I have often heard women (never men) at Tyndale say that they are called to celibacy only to start dating 6 months later and be engaged another 6 months after that. For some, the call to celibacy could have been very real, I have no doubt. Perhaps it was their way of having 6 months without distraction. However, speaking for myself, I think there is a difference between being called to celibacy and telling God that you are willing to be celibate or married depending on His will for your life. Definitely, if you are flexible to God’s will, He’ll make it known. I’ve known people who were sure they were called to celibacy but were open to God’s leading and now they are married and vice versa. However, although there’s nothing wrong with asking for God’s leading, I would not call that being called to celibacy or to marriage.
Perhaps someone is earnestly discerning celibacy – again I would not say that is a calling, but rather an honest evaluation (sort of like discerning for the piresthood – many are called, few are chosen).
Also, sometimes people believe that by resigning to God they will get what they want. Some people say the women who don’t want to get married are the ones who end up having partners. Caution must be taken to see how much of the calling is emotional and how much is spiritual. The Bible says that God will give us the desires of our hearts, but our desires are not always the same as our wants. I don’t believe God calls us to bee miserable so if you would be miserable without a spouse, it might not be your calling. Though God can definitely teach you a lot about patience and His perfect timing if you get married in your 50s rather than in your 20s. It is never my place to say if someone’s calling towards celibacy is legitimate or not, but I maintain that we must use the greatest of caution.
For the past 3 years I have been exploring Christian celibacy, though I have been very seriously exploring it for the past 8 months. Throughout these years, there was a very brief period when I dated, this did not confirm or dis-confirm my calling one way or another. After 3 years I still have not decided, but I continue to take the quest very seriously. The following are some questions and points I would urge you to consider if you are thinking of long-term celibacy. I won’t speak to short term celibacy as I don’t know enough about it:
1) What are the circumstances behind your desire?
– Ask yourself the following questions:
* Have you recently broken up and are going through a phase of “hating” men or women?
* Is there a fear of closeness or intimacy?
* Do you have trouble with emotional attachment?
* If there is fear of physical intimacy is it the result of assault, rape, or abuse done to you? If so, you may wish to speak to a professional counselor if you have not already done so.
* Is there a fear of commitment (perhaps you are overly independent)?
* Have you had bad experiences in many or all of your relationships or grew up in a broken family?
– Before choosing celibacy, it’s important to address these issues. Getting the past out of the way may help clarify or sharpen your desire to be celibate.
2) The Apostle Paul totes celibacy as a high calling. He himself was never married. Yet, he warns that it is “better to marry than to burn with lust.” (1 Corinthians 7:9). Think about your sense of attraction. Ask yourself the following questions:
* Will celibacy create undo pressure or will it enhance your Christian calling?
* Even celibate people are sexual beings, but will you be able to repress your urges or will you be constantly led into temptation?
* Will you “miss out” on romance or will you be okay without it?
– Make no mistake, you do not have to be asexual to be celibate, but I do believe some may have stronger feelings or desires for the sexual than others.
3) Can you serve God better celibate or married?
If you do want to marry think about your future spouse who you have committed to spending the rest of your life with. If you are a Christian, he or she needs to also be a strong Christian willing to raise your children up in the Lord and lead and establish a Godly household. Too often, Christians who marry non-Christians have backslid and stopped attending church. This is not always the case, however, almost all the Christians I know who have non-Christian spouses will admit that it is very difficult and that they don’t always see “eye to eye” with their spouse because of the religious differences. So, do yourself the favour of reducing the added stress. Even if your potential spouse is a strong Christian, does he or she have the same goals and dreams of you do for serving the Lord (for example: is one of you sensing a very strong calling to mission work and the other not?).
4) Who else will be affected by your decision?
Celibacy does not just affect one person, but many. It means your best friends may never stand up at your wedding and your parents may or may not have grandchildren. Before making a vow, I would urge you to talk to them – especially parents about how the decision will affect them. Naturally, you can still decide to be celibate even if others don’t approve if that is your calling, but it might help if it is an on-going conversation rather than simply “sprung on them” one day.
5) What will you lose?
Every discernment session I am part of whenever any aspect of calling is brought into light features this very important question. It’s an important one – will it cause conflict in your family? Will you be miserable without a life partner? You may also find if you choose lifelong celibacy that eventually almost all of your friends will be married with children – will that upset the natural cycle of things for you? All things to consider.
NOTE: If your desire is to have kids but not be married, keep in mind that this is still a very viable option for you through adoption. If you are a woman and desire to go through physical labour, this is also possible. All of this depends, of course, on your religious and ethical convictions. If your conviction is that it is not right to intentionally raise a child without a father there may be other ways that you can become involved with children such as through a Big Sister/Big Brother program or teaching Sunday school.
6) Think about the benefits of celibacy. Do they outweigh the disadvantages and inconveniences and are you willing to pay the cost?
Celibacy provides many opportunities for travel and constantly switching jobs. It also provides less risk to family, and can also bring a new family into your life (such as working at L’Arche). Jean Vanier writes in Community and Growth that some L’Arche assistants choose celibacy because their calling to the organization and ministry outweighs their desire to be married and to truly be committed longterm often requires giving up marriage. Let me pause here and say, there are also examples of married couples at L’Arche and even families, however, the married couple I know admit that it does get harder to take care of your family as a smaller community and the larger community of L’Arche at the same time while giving the same amount to each.
But ask yourself if you will be lonely or depressed. Think about how you feel when you aren’t dating and ask yourself if your temperament would be better suited with or without a mate (this has absolutely nothing to do with extroversion or introversion).
7) Before deciding on long term celibacy, spend time in much prayer and in Spiritual Direction. If you suddenly develop strong feelings for marriage during this time of discernment (even if you do not become attracted to anyone during this phase) it is something to pay close attention to.
8) Listen to what the people who know you best have to say. In my case, many suggested I was called to celibacy even before I officially started researching it. Some say they would have been really upset if someone said that to them, but I wasn’t. Actually, the people I look up to the most are intentionally celibate women who have accomplished so much for God by never being married.
In fact, when people said I was called to celibacy, I regarded this as a compliment. Nevertheless, it is no one’s decision but yours and God’s as to whether you are indeed called.
In a book by Alice R. Cullinan “Sorting it Out – Discerning God’s Call to Ministry”, Cullinan makes an important point that I feel is relevant here. If you’re discerning a calling ask yourself: A) Do I feel the call within myself? B) Is it being affirmed by others around me? C) Is there a need for it?
9) Although your personal experience is very important, try to do your research. Talk to others who have chosen the celibate life, read books by well-known celibates, talk with a Nun, Priest, or Spiritual Director and read the Bible with a new lens. This will help you greatly.
10) Lastly, the call to celibacy need not be a “life sentence” and in fact shouldn’t be seen in that light. Unless you actually are a Nun or Priest, don’t close the door to possibilities, simply remain focused on Christ first. Especially if you are young, you needn’t think too far in advance – God honours the motivation behind the calling rather than the legalism of it.
These are all just my personal thoughts. I continue to learn and grow each day and know that I am fairly young to make such a decision (although age should never hinder a celibate desire). Just keep in mind if you’re young that you may not have found the right person yet and some have desires much earlier or later than others (I only had 1 crush in my life and that was at age 21, I’ve known others who had their first crush in their 30s, and also those who already had crushes at 8 or 9 – everyone’s experience is a bit different, but all are equal valid).
NOTES: * As with any calling, it is important to discern whether you are indeed called to celibacy or simply being called to live a more holy life – one can live a holy life either as a single person or as a married person.
* Sometimes when someone divorces or is widowed they may choose to remain celibate for the rest of their life. There are certainly many examples of people who have served God in this way.
* Some people may say that they never saw themselves being single and yet they are in their 40s without a mate. There could be reasons for this (women get married later because of careers such as in the book “What, No Baby?” by: Leslie Cannold). I do not entirely know why God has not placed a mate into their life, I will not even attempt to answer this question although I think it’s an important one to raise.
* Certain people who are homosexual believe it to be a sin. They may even have tried to “fix” themselves and been unsuccessful. Given that they feel so strongly that it is wrong for them to practice they have chosen celibacy to reduce temptation and sin. This is definitely commendable and shows great integrity. I will not speak further to this topic as homosexuality is not a topic I overtly discuss on this blog.