Surprised by Celibacy: A Lament

First, I need to talk about hurt, and anger.

I believe that, when it comes to the Church and discussions about sexuality, we have two default modes for hurt and anger. The first is to hide them, be ashamed of them. The second is to express them only as a weapon, using them to tear down, destroy, and invalidate.

I don’t want to do either. I don’t want my hurt to be used as a weapon. I don’t want to hide or fight. I don’t want the rest of the church to hide or fight, either. This is why, on this blog, I have pushed my own boundaries of vulnerability and written about my anger, trying to turn it into art. I believe that’s what I need, what my friends need, and what the Church needs.

The problem is that expressing hurt without using it as a weapon is awkward, raw, and uncomfortable for just about everyone in the room. It also takes a lot more strength than I know I have, but it is still the best way forward. That is why I am writing this piece in all its awkwardness, vulnerability and nakedness. I don’t want to take the hurt and attack with it or hide. I want to sing a lament.

Last week, my dear friend Julie Rodgers wrote a piece called Surprised by Celibacy. Before I go on, I need to say that I think Julie is a gem, and I love her a lot. I think she is a beautiful, sensitive, loving and complicated soul, who responds to other people’s hurts and challenges with deep compassion. In no way is this an attack on her or what she is saying. Instead, I want to add my voice to hers, with the hopes of creating a deeper and more beautiful song.

In the piece, she details how celibacy has been a difficult, confusing but positive experience for her; how she wouldn’t trade her life for anything in the world, because gay celibacy is where she is most connected with God.

My heart broke as I read her piece, because I so deeply wanted my story to be like hers. I felt sad and jealous. I had dedicated so much time, prayer, faith and energy to living the life of celibacy. I never wanted it to be easy; I never even believed it would be fulfilling. I wanted it to be a place where I could pursue Christ in a sustainable way, and there were few things I wanted more. I had trusted the life of celibacy to be similar to what Paul described: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” (ESV)

But this leads me to the question I often find myself asking of the church these days: what happens when we are afflicted and crushed? What happens when we are perplexed and driven to despair? persecuted and forsaken? struck down and destroyed? What happens when it doesn’t have a happy ending? What happens when it ends in drug abuse, or addiction, or a suicide, or an STD? What happens when people’s spirits are broken? How is that good? How does that purify and refine and bring glory to God?

I was surprised by celibacy in different ways. I was surprised when the weight of never allowing myself the possibility of having a partner finally crushed me. I was surprised when  I found myself sexually acting out with strangers because I believed it was morally preferable to a loving, committed, monogamous relationship: one was a single moment of sin, the other was a commitment to a lifetime of sin and disordered love. I was surprised when intimate friendships and church communities  could never satiate the ache for a “helper”. I was surprised when those same church communities could not make more bearable the fiery passion within me to be a father, to have a family of my own with a man I loved. I was surprised when they reduced my passions, yearnings, and struggles down to an idyllic, false and idolatrous understanding of romance or an inability to live without sex. I was surprised when they told me that having deeper friendships  would somehow fix, reduce, or replace my burning passion to live within Eros love. I was surprised when I looked at my body and realized it was a criss-crossed tapestry of scars, from a cutting addiction that had thrived in my brutal battle to commit myself to the traditional ethic over the past 5 years. I was surprised when I looked at my discipline of celibacy and realized that instead of pressing me, it had totally crushed me.

And I’ve been surprised when, in the wake of finally walking away as an abused wife walks away from her husband,  I’ve been ridiculed by well-intentioned strangers for believing God’s  grace is not enough. I’ve been ridiculed for not being able to live without sex, and having a skewed understanding of intimacy that cannot be separated from eroticism. I’ve been surprised by how people who most bemoan the glorification of sex reduced all my questions and struggles down to sexual terms, thereby committing the sin they most decry. I’ve been surprised by my own words to other strugglers echoing in my head, now harassing me as I see for the first time how damaging they must have been: “Find a better community, find a stronger church, find a spiritual mentor, develop some spiritual disciplines, find intimate friendships to adopt you as family.” When I should have simply sat in silence and held their hands and admitted that I don’t have the answers.

Julie ends her piece with an invitation to allow God to surprise you within the context of celibacy, and I wish so desperately that I could answer that invitation. I pray that others can, and will genuinely meet Him in their spiritual discipline. But I can’t – it is simply too dangerous. I can’t go back to a commitment of lifelong celibacy – not yet –  not after all the ways I have been pushed beyond my threshold into a life-threatening place. I fear that I might not make it through another attempt, and I’ve finally come to accept that “discipline” for God is not worth my life.

But if there is one thing I’ve learned over the past few months of keeping this blog, it is that I am not alone, and that fact alone should be enough to give the church many sleepless nights. I have learned that the ranks of Side A are full of many people who would rather die than return to Side B, because of similar experiences of anguish. The most common response to this blog has been, “thank you – thank you for giving me the words to tell my own story and to express my own pain.”

I’m here to tell their story.

The most beautiful part about it is that Julie and I both serve the same God. He is the God who surprises people within celibacy, who offers them hope of sustainable vocation. But I have also come to believe that he is the God of those who walk away – often in shame, brokenness, and humiliation – to find a better life. He loves us both, and is drawing us all into his irresistible presence where all things shall be made new. One story does not negate the other, because I now believe Christ – being himself the Ultimate Truth –  is big enough to hold both within his palm.

15 responses to “Surprised by Celibacy: A Lament

  1. I so appreciate your honesty and vulnerability! God is big enough to hold both within His palm as you say, and I pray one day the Church will also. Until then, know that you have so much support and love for you through this blog. You are a wonderful witness of a person seeking God’s will in their life on such a deep level. God bless you..

  2. You are not alone for sure! This post is quite timely, well written and my favorite on this blog so far. Keep thinking. Keep wrestling. And definitely keep writing!!!

    God bless.

  3. when things perplex, i find it best to question the foundational assumptions. those singular statements that must absolutely be True ® for successive ones to be True ®… just a thought from a former self-condemner.

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  5. Thank you for the link to that post. I had read her blog before, but not that post. I found myself “Surprised by Julie”:

    1) Julie said, “So if you feel burdened by the belief that sexuality is reserved for a man and a woman, I believe God grieves that you’re crumbling under the weight of it. ” I cringed when I read that. It really didn’t sound to me like anything I’d read from her before, though of course I might have missed something. What a heavy condemnation she appears to me to be making. Feeling burdened grieves God? Not only should all gay/lesbian people believe that sexuality is reserved for a man and a woman (and what if some honestly doesn’t believe it?), and not only should all gay/lesbian people manage to sustain celibacy, but now she’s saying that anyone who actually feels that a burden is a grief to God? What worse can there be than grieving God and doing it with a “feeling” that one cannot change? This reminds me of a blogger who a few months ago wrote an open letter to gay Boy Scouts (to children!) saying they’re making their parents sad and causing Jesus to weep.

    2) Julie said (in the comments), ” I do have a commitment phobia though and can identify with . . . fears about ‘life-long’ anything!” Oh. Oh. Well. I thought she was succeeding in beling celibate despite a deep desire for a life-long married relationship with another woman. While her journey with celibacy must still have its difficult aspects, perhaps she succeeds at celibacy at least in part because she never deeply wanted a life-long partner commitment in the first place? That suggests to me that with celibacy she’s actually giving up just sex, not marriage with all that means, because even if she were straight she’d have a reluctance to get married, a phobia about such a commitment. Stephen, you said, ” I so deeply wanted my story to be like hers. I felt sad and jealous.” I left her blog wondering if you too had a commitment phobia instead of an intense desire for a life-long marriage and family commitment, that celibacy might possibly have been sustainable for you too?

    I believe this whole discussion will not be complete or successful without a more sophisticated and on-going recognition of characteristics like intensity of sex drive, deep-rooted attitudes toward long-term commitment, and the existence of other sexualities (such as various levels of asexuality that makes celibacy so much easier and bisexuality that accounts for many people who were attracted to someone of the same sex and then to someone of the opposite sex). And I strongly believe that no solution can be reached until we all stop saying “God declares that” and “the Christian viewpoint is” and instead start saying, “My interpretation of that verse is” and “my personal viewpoint is” and “Christians disagree on this so you should investigate the different views and decide for yourself.”

    • MyrtleMartha,

      For what it’s worth, I read Julie’s statement about God’s grief as more of a belief that God grieves that his children are hurting rather than God grieving that his children are not able to “bear up” under such a crushing weight. But I see how one could take her words a different way, and I still get a whiff of cruelty and illogic in the belief that though God may grieve to see us in pain, God’s apparent condemnation of anything but committed celibacy for the gay Christian is the very cause of such pain.

      I’m with you on the need for recognizing and drawing on the sheer variety of human experience in this conversation. I personally find the diversity of sexualities, genders, and perspectives to be a testament to the enormity of God’s creative and beautiful work.

      I felt that while Julie was trying to communicate compassionate understanding and a sense of joyful possiblity to any gay Christians who find themselves contemplating celibacy, there was a real need for a firm statement that, as you say, “Christians disagree on this so you should investigate the different views and decide for yourself.” I think that is the only way we can allow teenagers and others who are just beginning the process of figuring this out the space to find their own way safely in community.

  6. First–let me add my voice of thanks for your post.

    I’m struck by the reality that the more specific an experience an artist is able to convey, the more universal it becomes. My experience being gay and Christian is different from yours in a lot of ways, but when I read your posts I feel we’re a lot alike.

    It’s real AND it’s good art. You rock.

  7. If God has guided, anointed and called someone into a life of celibacy — then yes, they will be surprised by his provision. If God has not so led, then self-imposed celibacy is a vain wandering in the desert, and God has other, better provision in store.

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