Wednesday, June 13, 2012

True Love Doesn't Wait

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. 


  1. I've wanted to visit 'The Little Portion' for years. It's strange that there aren't more communities like that among Christians

  2. I'm always a little puzzled that 1 Corinthians 7 seldom comes up in church discussions of this issue, as it's the most developed Scriptural treatment of marriage and singleness that I know of. I suppose the 25-YOV's proof texts might be broadly applicable to the issue in principle, but he seems oblivious to the Bible's direct treatment of his question. Perhaps that's because the Apostle Paul's advice doesn't concur with many American Evangelical ideas about marriage. It is pretty obvious to me that Paul personally considered singleness to be a greater spiritual advantage than marriage, and while he acknowledges that different Christians have different vocations, he clearly has a hierarchy in mind that privileges singleness over marriage.

    I have known single people, Protestant and Catholic, who have told me about the remarkable freedom that their singleness brings. Want to stay at work late to finish a long, productive counseling session? Want to accompany your church to minister in a dangerous part of town? Decide to go on an overseas mission trip at the last minute? Those things are a lot easier when you are not also responsible for supporting a family. That, I think, is what the Apostle Paul had in mind. Sex results in encumbrances that limit what we can do for the kingdom of God. The freedom of singleness doesn't make celibacy easy, either physically or emotionally. Single people need the support and encouragement of their friends and churches to remain unencumbered. Churches should be cultivating the loves of their single people, showing them how to use their singleness (and celibacy) to their greatest spiritual advantage.

    All that to say, thank you, Bethany, for being the one to say all this.

    -Steve S.

  3. Bethany, my friend, you have taken on another valuable topic. I'm 55 and here to tell you that the journey as a single, never-married Christian is possible, and has its wonderful moments. God has a place for each of us. A friend in seminary advised us in Sunday School one morning that God has things for us to do as singles that we cannot do as marrieds. We are to be faithful and obey along life's interesting journey. She later married, and I have not, but we both feel very fulfilled in our ministries. Life is full of surprises. Enjoy the journey!

    1. Bethany - Nicely written. My opinion is that we mostly have "comfort" churches today, churches that have taken Apostle Paul's writings - especially 1 Cor - out of their bibles because God's word on this subject makes them feel uncomfortable. Rest assured, there are people alive today who have Paul's gift of celibacy and we are on the front lines of battle everyday trying to educate people. This is especially true in Protestant circles. You might like to read this article I wrote about 10 years ago:

      John 51yo

  4. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that True Love doesn’t wait. True Love can only come from Christ, and can only be exercised in obedience to Christ. And Christ, via Paul, commands True Love to marry. That is, unless it has the gift of celibacy (Hint: If you are writing blog posts about your frustration in not being married, you don’t have the gift of celibacy).

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