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The loneliness of the celibate life

Remaining faithful to Christ while experiencing same-sex attraction can produce a profound loneliness resulting from a celibate life. This is a theme that runs throughout Washed and Waiting by Wesley Hill. Since he sees little hope that his attractions will change and views heterosexual marriage as the only biblically faithful marriage, he is destined to a life of singleness. Isn’t this the worst kind of loneliness?

The book’s conclusion makes a very strong case that the celibate person does not need to be hopeless or lonely. But I have heard the hopelessness contained in the above hypothesis before. Isn’t the Christian with same-sex attraction condemned to a life of loneliness in a way the Christian with heterosexual desires is not? Aren’t they trapped with little or no prospect for future intimacy? Won’t they always be frustrated in relationships, especially when they feel that their ‘natural’ sexual attraction is forbidden by faith?

We all can empathize with Hill in his book. All of us, at some point in our lives, have been lonely, even profoundly lonely. Most single men have at least thought or believed, on some level, that the lack of a sexual relationship has been partly to blame for loneliness, especially when sexual desires are strong. ‘If I were only in a position to have an exclusive sexually active relationship, I would be less lonely.’

Many Christians with opposite-sex desires remain celibate until they are thirty, forty, or even until they die. Most of them wanted to get married but for various reasons, never attained it. If they are faithful to Christ, they also have no option for a sexually intimate relationship. Are they condemned to a life of loneliness as well?

Single people are often naïve about how marriage will solve their loneliness issues. Many married couples are tragically lonely even though they are sexually active. All imperfect marriages (read: all marriages) have their lonely moments. One could even argue this loneliness in marriage is the most tragic loneliness of all, because the potential for so much intimacy was promised in the vows of marriage. Loneliness as the consequence of divorce has its own tragic uniqueness, especially when the other party was unfaithful.

So what conclusions can we draw?

  1. Sexual activity, even monogamous sexual activity, cannot bear the weight of ending loneliness. It can encourage an already-intimate married couple, but it can also, at worst, exacerbate loneliness or , at best, temporarily mask it.
  2. The solution for loneliness for all people must take a different direction than sex. Hill suggests that loneliness actually promotes hunger for intimacy with Christ and with members of the church. For the believer, this is the positive side of loneliness. We were made for relationship with Christ foremost, and this relationship puts all other yearnings and relationships in their proper place.
  3. Marriage, at its best, is a powerful subset of Christian community and subordinate to our relationship with Christ. Deep, powerful, intimate community can, by God’s grace, exist outside of marriage and apart from sexualization, because it exists within the community of faith, Christ’s body. Though most of us desire to experience sexual intimacy in our lives, the door from loneliness to fulfilling, intimate relationships is open to the celibate with unfulfilled same-sex or heterosexual attractions.
Updated 5.5.2017

Washed and Waiting is a series of Christian theological and personal reflections written by a doctoral student who struggles with same-sex attraction. Wesley Hill begins his story as a secret, frightened believer with forbidden yearnings in the church. He ends his biography as an open, integrated member of Christian community who has chosen celibacy as a lifestyle of faithfulness for Christ. The book is almost devotional at points, exploring the spiritual nuances of the gospel as they apply to his struggle. Even if he weren’t addressing same-sex yearnings, he provides us with a model of what growing discipleship looks like as we live in a broken world.

This is not a “success” story. There is little movement away from his same-sex attractions during the course of his story, and Hill says he cannot even imagine what the absence of these desires might look like in his life. But we do see personal transformation in how he increasingly understands and welcomes his celibate struggle as an impetus and means to deepen his relationship with Christ. After all, intimacy and union with Christ are the ultimate goals for all believers.

In the introduction, Hill explains his terminology. He calls himself a “gay Christian” and, more frequently, a “homosexual Christian.” Since we hear this term from those who want to legitimize homosexual relations as a “Christian” alternative, it feels uncomfortable—probably both to those who want to legitimize homosexual practice and to those who reject it. At Harvest USA, we feel that using a sexual orientation qualifier for Christians lessens one’s full and primary identity in Christ (see this blog for an excellent discussion on this topic).

But Hill is absolutely on target in reminding us that there is, and always has been, a slice of the Christian church who have struggled, usually silently, with same-sex attraction while remaining faithful to Christ in their lifestyle. Hill provides a number of well-known names as representatives; there are more than we realize. God calls us in the church to understand, empathize, and support them. Like all of us, whatever our sexual attractions, they are broken people, and Christ walks with them in their suffering.

You can’t take this journey of celibacy without accepting that sin causes basic human brokenness. Same-sex attraction is, like all forms of brokenness, a result of the human race’s fall in Adam. And like all effects of the Fall in our lives, we struggle to attain the goal of personal holiness for which Christ calls all of us to strive as we wait for the coming glory when sexuality will no longer be an issue, and intimacy will be complete in Christ. Those who have a small vision of the coming glory—when the coming of Christ will usher in a restored humanity and world—who see sexual intimacy as a right, and who refuse suffering as part of the spiritual journey, will struggle with Hill’s book. But those who long for deep intimacy with Christ, understand the relational power of Christian community, and find Christian waiting profitable in the long run, will find this book encouraging and full of hope.

Updated 5.5.2017

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