As a teenager, I never signed a True Love Waits card, never wore a promise ring, and never kissed dating goodbye. My distance from these "purity" movements came in part from indifference: during high school, I was too busy studying to put my virtue in much danger. At the same time, I resented the implications that "true love" was, first of all, expressed primarily through sex, and that I was supposed to wait patiently for marriage to express true love.
Lest any of my readers are worried, I should say that I believe teenagers should remain abstinent. I believe unmarried adults should, too. As usual, the ways of the world (and the behaviors of many Christian adults) stand in pretty stark contrast to my ideals, and I don't pretend to know how to address all the problems of extramarital sex. I do, however, know that for unmarried Christians, there are some trends in religious language and culture that certainly aren't helping.
When I read books, blogs, and articles about unmarried Christians, there is this troubling implication that we are supposed to be waiting faithfully for marriage. Take, for example, a recent article on the website for Relevant magazine. The author of "Tales of 25-Year-Old-Virgin" provides a thoughtful and honest account of the struggles faced by many young adults who feel isolated and impatient as virgins. He opens his article with the question, "Is waiting really worth t?" The world tends to laugh at this question, and the church too-often responds with cringe-worthy exclamations about the joys of married sex. Admirably, the author turns to Scripture for consolation, writing
“Sex should be saved for marriage” isn’t the only thing Scripture tells us. It also says God knows the plans He has for us (Jeremiah 29:11). It says if we wait patiently for Him, He will turn and hear our cry (Psalm 40:1). It says His thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8). And, if all that is true, we should endeavor to run with endurance the race set before us (Hebrews 12:1), hoping for what we don’t see and waiting for it with patience (Romans 8:25). If, after 12 years, God still wants me to save sex for marriage, I have to believe those other verses still hold true as well."
I know I should be glad that this young man finds solace in the Bible, but as I read his article, I find myself shouting, "Those verses have nothing to do with marriage!" Perhaps he does not mean to imply that they do, but I have heard variations on this logic before. "Be patient, keep yourself pure, and God give you the desires of your heart in the person of a beautiful/handsome spouse."
In Christian conversations about abstinence, there is an elephant in the room, and she's not wearing a wedding dress.
The question I want to ask, the question I was once desperate for my mentors and friends to answer, is this: What if God doesn't care whether or not I marry anyone? What if one of the most important ways Christians can bear witness to the Gospel is by showing that marriage is not necessary for a whole, joyful, and complete life?
A few years ago, I attended a concert and prayer workshop led by John Michael Talbot, a Catholic musician, writer, and spiritual leader of a monastic community, The Little Portion. This community is made up of celibate men and women, married couples, and families with children--all committed to a common life of prayer, work, and community. After the workshop, I met some members from The Little Portion at the CD table, and as we spoke about their community and my life, they said, "Have you considered the religious life?" Knowing they meant religious orders, I said, "But I'm not Catholic." "Oh, that's no trouble, you could convert!" they laughed.
The attraction of their joy and love was so strong that for a moment I was tempted to abandon my Baptist upbringing, exchanging a few theological scruples for a life that seemed to embody the Gospel in a way I have rarely seen in the churches of my own heritage.
Rarely have I encountered such a vibrant alternative to the status-quo in Protestant circles, and that should shame us. Shame on churches that teach little girls to save all their love for Mr. If-Ever, or that answer the loneliness of young men with the vague and unbiblical promise that "God has someone special for you." (As my roommate once quipped, if you think God has already planned a spouse for you, you had better hope you're not Hosea.) Shame on single men and women who lack the courage and imagination to make Gospel use of the freedom we have. Shame on me for all the hours I have pined for a husband, not realizing that I was simply repeating Israel's demand in 1 Samuel 8: "appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have."
I am thankful to have spent the last five years in a church that is unusual in this regard, thankful that I can say with honesty and integrity that I treasure my life as an unmarried woman, single but hardly alone. I worry, however, about whether I will find such a wise home after leaving that community. I worry about whether it will be as easy for me to give thanks for singleness when I am no longer in my twenties, no longer surrounded by close friends who remind me that my life is complete through Christ and his Body the Church.
Perpetuating the illusion that marriage will come to everyone is damaging and unloving to unmarried Christians. I don't want to rant about this, but I do want to call all of us in the Church, married and unmarried alike, to think about the ways our lives should transcend the question of whether or not we're allowed to have sex yet. Married and unmarried alike, we need to help one another dream better dreams than the vain imaginings the world offers us.
If I ever do marry, I will enter that covenant with joy and confidence, marveling at the strange and holy mystery of two becoming one. I will change my name, and I suppose I will even let Mr. If-Ever sleep with me. But I'm not going to fret myself waiting for that day. I have good work to do and good friends to tend. Such love simply will not wait.