The other night my sister and I found ourselves talking about singleness because we’re, you know, single. We talked about God’s gift of sexuality, and both agreed that it’s a wonderful thing.
One thing we also both struggled with, however, was how sexuality is sometimes glorified in church – and rightfully so, as it’s a gift from God – but how it could sometimes feel alienating to those who could not or would never enjoy sexual intimacy.
Often, the response to this might be: “Oh, but intimacy with God is still so much better!” But the question I have is: Can intimacy with God really be compared – if not substituted – for sexual intimacy with another human being?
Replies like that to singles frustrate me greatly because anyone who’s ever had an inkling of sexual excitement will know that sexual intimacy and intimacy with God are not the same thing.
So what then does the Bible say about understanding singleness in the context of our faith? What is the place of singles within the church? For this, we turn to Matthew 19:1-12.
“The disciples said to him, ‘If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.’
“Jesus replied, ‘Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others – and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.'” (Matthew 19:10-12)
This passage is often the one I point people to when they lament the dry, unpractical nature of the Bible. For those of you who wonder whether the Bible actually grapples with the realities of daily life, take note of how the disciples respond to Jesus’ teaching on marriage.
The account begins with Jesus answering a question on divorce, and gives the command that “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery”. To which the disciples reply, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”
These were men who probably knew how difficult marriage is, even without adultery. You can make a guess from their reply that they might have been married themselves.
Yet the reply that Jesus gives them is startling. Rather than spelling out the wonders and beauties of marriage (which the rest of the Bible clearly does), Jesus replies with: “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given.”
What Jesus does here is affirm eunuchs, perhaps more clearly understood as those who indeed do not get married.
These are people who can’t, or won’t, participate in the God-given experience of the covenantal relationship of marriage, and by extension, sexual intimacy with a spouse. But more than just refer to it as the possibility of staying celibate, or being single forever, Jesus refers to it as something that is given to you – a gift from God.
Also, take note of the spectrum of people that Jesus refers to when speaking of eunuchs. Three main categories comes up: Those who are eunuchs from birth (biological reasons), those who are made eunuchs by men (castration) and those who are eunuchs by choice for the “sake of the kingdom of God”.
And of eunuchs, Jesus says, “The one who can accept this should accept it.” Whether you are unable to enjoy sexual intimacy due to the evil of this world, or do so voluntarily in service to God, celibacy is commended by Jesus as a legitimate way of living. It is not a secondary, inferior option to marriage.
“Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” (1 Corinthians 7:6-7)
Paul here recognises that both marriage and celibacy are gifts from God. Yet in our romance-saturated, “family-centric” Singapore, marriage often seems like the only possible way to live a full life. For the most of us, marriage will indeed be the path we take.
Yet for the smaller but not insignificant part of the population who will not, this is God’s hope for you. Celibacy is His gift to you. It’s certainly not a replacement for sexual intimacy, nor was it intended to be.
The kind of life you will lead, especially in a culture like Singapore’s, will not be an easy one. You will bear the brunt of Chinese New Year gossip, or of growing anxiety as you see your friends get married and start families – even buying a house will be more challenging for you.
And it’s that despair, that loneliness, that God calls you to look to Him. The apostle Paul is often construed as the celibate monk, despising sexuality of any kind. Yet given his age and social status as an elite Jewish leader, Paul might have been married before he became a Christian, and that his wife might have passed away or left him.
Of course, Paul’s singleness is still something up for debate, and not a historical fact that I would assert bluntly. Yet we see that whatever his marital status was before, the riches he found in Christ so satisfied him that he saw celibacy as a gift from God.
There will come a day when none of us shall be married, for we shall be with God (Matthew 22:29-30). Look to Him – the one who is with you now and will be with forever.
- Why do people choose singleness for the “sake of the kingdom of God”?
- Do you still struggle with the possibility of never marrying in this lifetime?
- How do you reconcile God’s goodness with the absence of a romantic relationship?
- How can the Church support those in extended periods of singleness better?