As our society has made it possible for a human life to begin without sex, it has felt increasingly impossible to enjoy a human life without sex.
The basic premise of Hollywood comedies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and 40 Days and Nights demonstrates this—the first chronicles a man’s increasingly desperate attempts to have sex for the first time; in the second another man struggles to last just 40 days and nights without it. So for many in our world today, to call people to more than 40 days and nights without sex, or to more than 40 years—potentially, in fact, to a whole lifetime without it—sounds totally implausible, even comical.
Can There Be a Good Life Without Sex?
And yet that’s God’s clear call to every Christian who remains unmarried—including a not-quite-40-year-old virgin like me. The pity I receive (and can feel) as a result is often overwhelming. At times the implication seems to be that I’m not quite human simply because I’ve yet to experience such a basic human right as sexual intercourse.
But as Thomas Schmidt observes, “It is only an aberration of our own sorry generation to equate the absence of sexual gratification with the absence of full personhood, the denial of being or the deprivation of joy.”
Previous generations had different attitudes toward celibacy. The single-minded bachelors who used to prop up most British institutions, and the devoted spinsters who spent their lives caring for elderly relatives, used to be admired, not pitied. Yet such lives are now mocked and avoided, and talk of celibacy or chastity produces the giggles that talk of sex used to. As Christopher Ash asks, “When did we last see a successful movie which portrayed a contented bachelor or spinster?” I never have.
And tragically, the church can become just as sex-obsessed as society around it.
As the world has idolized sex in almost any context, the church has often idolized it within marriage. Some believers rush into marriage in their early 20s so that they can have sex. The danger, of course, is discovering that desire is almost all they have in common with the person they’ve now committed to for life. Early marriage has become the panacea for Christians struggling with sexual temptation, leaving far too many shocked to discover that temptation still remains when they return from their honeymoon.
In response, the church needs to ignore the giggles and start rehabilitating the concepts of celibacy (or singleness) and chastity (or sexual self-control). We need to articulate the benefits of a celibate life for some, and to encourage chastity for all.
Or, to put it another way, we need to start reading our Bibles again.
It’s hard to see how Scripture could be any more positive about the celibate life. Its central character, Jesus Christ, was single and yet is held up as history’s only perfect human. In Jesus you see life to the full—and his was a human life without sex.
And then, of course, there is the example and teaching of the apostle Paul. Would he have been able to make his missionary journeys if he had a wife to care for? Would he have been such an effective pastor and mentor to young church leaders if he had his own young family? He clearly expresses in 1 Corinthians 7 the unique gospel benefits of his celibate life, and it’s time we start promoting similar thinking in our churches today.