Sexuality and the Single Christian: Godly answers in a confusing world
In another excellent article, “God Gives the Best Sex,” Dan Wilson explains that God’s grace for the unmarried is the key to true joy as well as living out a godly sexuality. Because the idea of sexuality is often equated with sexual activity, those of us who are unmarried often miss the rich blessings God can pour out upon us as sons and daughters and as sexual beings. Godly unmarried sexuality is more than a call to abstain from sexual activity. Christ offers treasures to all who seek to live in a way that is pleasing to God as image bearers who are also sexual beings, including the unmarried.
Let us consider godly unmarried sexuality with three questions: What is it? How do we live it out? Why would we want to live it out?
WHAT is godly unmarried sexuality?
When it comes to discussions of sexuality, singles (from the never-married teen, to the senior-something single-again, and all those in-between) are often counseled in these sorts of ways: “Don’t! Be pure! Wait! Hands off!” “Guard your heart!” “It’s really not that great anyway!” “It’s great, but it’s not for you, unless you’re ‘burning’…then get married!”
To a degree, these words ring true. The unmarried are to strive to be sexually pure and chaste—but then so are married folks. Chastity is sexually lived out in a pure way; it is a commitment to keep sex in its proper place. Author Lauren Winner explains in Real Sex that, “…chastity is the free choice to live one’s sexual life in accord with Christian values—therefore everyone is called to live chastely” (p. 134). For the unmarried person, this means a life of purity through abstinence. For the married person, it means a life of purity through faithfulness. All who live in God’s world belong to him (Psalm 24:1, 2) and are designed and called to live a life of purity.
However, there is a profound reality of what godly unmarried sexuality is not. It is not merely about what we are doing or not doing with our genitals! Sadly, sexuality is often reduced to a definition along these lines, but it is crucial to have a fuller understanding of it while also being honest that we are embodied souls. To be an embodied soul means we are image bearers that live on earth in bodies which are created with the capacity for sexual expression. Sexuality involves our whole being—body and soul—and refers to how we experience and express ourselves as sexual beings.
Godly sexuality is something that is pleasing to God, acknowledging the value of God as the giver of sex, while keeping Christ central. While there is much overlap between married and unmarried sexuality, singles’ sexuality has unique features. Here are five basic principles that govern godly sexuality and which we will apply to the unmarried person:
1. It is Jesus-centric and Jesus exalting. In God’s world, Jesus is central to all aspects of life. Life is about valuing God at all times and in all ways. This means that the way we live out our sexuality as unmarried persons will find power and joy as Jesus is the focus of our deepest desires and affections. This does not mean we deny that we have sexual desires or that we struggle to be chaste; nor does it mean that we are condemned if we fall. The core blessings of the gospel are Jesus himself and the cross. As we run to him and cling to him in a radical way for enabling power to live purely and for forgiveness and cleansing when we fail, we are living as godly, unmarried sexual beings!
2. Godly sexuality loves my neighbor as I put others before myself. The second of Jesus’ two great commands—“Love your neighbor as yourself”—is core to godly sexuality inside and outside of marriage. This leads us to not sin against others through participating in sexual sin. This includes our thought lives, our affections, and seemingly “private” sins such as solo sex and pornography. No sin is truly private; others areas are always impacted. I never have the right to honor, esteem, and love myself more than my neighbor, and this includes the how and why of expressing my sexuality. This other-centeredness in sexuality can only be faithfully lived out though radical, self-sacrificing dependence upon Christ! (2 Corinthians 5:14, 15; Romans 14:7, 8)
3. Godly sexuality is concerned not only with physical relationships, but also mental and emotional attachments. As image bearers we are created for relationship. Holy relationships happen as the vertical (God and us) connects with the horizontal (people loving each other). Our relational connecting and attaching with one another was never designed by God to push him aside, but rather to deepen our love for him as we make much of him together. This means that our relationships are not to be all about striving to make each other feel good, but are to focus on pointing one another to Christ. This “shared love” encourages our hearts and spills out into loving others as well. When a person or relationship becomes the basis of our life, the Creator is pushed aside, and a worship disorder is taking place. This is ungodliness in our express of our sexuality.
4. Godly sexuality involves worship through discipline. In Real Sex, Lauren Winner brings out the rarely discussed concept of chastity as a spiritual discipline meant to align our wills with God’s (p. 124). Here, too, there is an overlap between godly unmarried and married sexuality. Faithfulness to one’s spouse (in thoughts, affections and actions) is not easy! Married or not, walking in holiness requires radical dependence upon Christ. It is a battle! It means a fight against the flesh which Paul explained was always “right there” in him, around him, and beside him (Romans 7:21). As singles seek to express their sexuality without physically engaging in sexual activity, there will be a battle that feels intense on some days, easy on others, perhaps pointless on many. Regardless, in God’s world, godly unmarried sexuality is good!
5. Godly sexuality is not only possible, but good in God’s design. Godly unmarried sexuality is not “Plan B.” It is not an elementary level of sexuality that is graduated from into advanced married sexuality. If that were the case, then Jesus himself was lacking, since he never attained a married level of sexuality. The expression of our sexuality may differ if we become married, but that does not mean that it is somehow “better.” Singles embody their particular gender, and sexuality in godly ways just as married individuals do. Single sexuality is not a deficient sexuality. If God has commanded the unmarried to be sexually abstinent, we can know that without a doubt that this abstinence is good and possible.
HOW is godly unmarried sexuality lived out?
Biblical wisdom is practical, but unfortunately teaching singles regarding sexuality is often given in sterile, bullet-point lists that focus on the externals of what to do and not do. Singles are normally just given boundary lines of what is not permissible or told what types of relationships are not acceptable. Yet there are many unanswered questions because many activities can be shifted into “gray areas” not addressed by this type of behavior-oriented teaching. For example:
- Do we label it dating, courting, or ‘hanging out’?
- What about the types of physical contact that are considered “sex?” Most people know genital sexual intercourse is off-limits for the unmarried, but what about solo sex, mutual stimulation, or oral sex?
- And how does this relate to relationships with our same gender? Is it permissible for two women to snuggle up while sharing a bed, experiencing sexual arousal from the physical affection, but not going any further? And what of two men who have no genital contact, but sexually arouse one another? There is no intercourse going on, but how can we tell if these kinds of things are permissible for the unmarried person?
To address these thoughts, we need to go back to what godly unmarried sexuality is: Godly unmarried sexuality exalts Jesus, puts others before self, is good, and reveals Christ to others.
To discern biblical wisdom regarding any of the above questions, the key issues become: “Is Jesus and worship of him central or is the self-ruling? Is Christ and love for him ruling, or am I more concerned with how far I can go? Is this action or thought leading me to love this person as a daughter or son of God, or is it a means to feel good?”
In Christ’s world, God gives the best sex. Sexual intercourse is meant to be experienced only within the context of a one-man, one-woman married union. Any actions or thoughts that lead toward sexual arousal (which God intended to be fulfilled through sexual intercourse) are not to be participated in outside the context of marriage. Does that mean a hands-off, no-touch guideline unless you are married? For singles it may mean exactly that! Radical devotion to Christ requires radical obedience because we want Christ and not our sexual pleasures to be exalted most of all.
Singles might say, “But we don’t have a ‘legal outlet’ for our sexual desires or for the powers that rage in these human bodies! What are we to do?!” This is an excellent question and needs to be addressed with biblical wisdom that is Christ-centric and shared with a compassionate tone of heart. It is true that those of us who are unmarried embodied souls still have sexual desires.
A gospel-drenched, Christ-centric view of our sexuality, however, gives great enabling hope on this point! We are not held captive to our bodies or to our sexual desires. Godly unmarried chastity, like many spiritual disciplines of abstinence, involves something normal and natural being abstained from. Chastity for the unmarried person is a kind of fast, and it may be a very looong fast. Winner’s thoughts here are encouraging: “…the unmarried Christian who practices chastity refrains from sex to remember that God desires your person, your body, more than any man or woman ever will. With all aspects of ascetic living, one does not avoid or refrain from something for the sake of rejecting it, but for the sake of something else. In this case, one refrains from sex with someone other than one’s spouse for the sake of union with Christ’s body. That union is the fruit of chastity” (Real Sex, p. 129).
What of our emotional desires? Do singles need to also be wise about the emotional intimacy they extend and pursue with others? Yes, but again this is an area where the married also need to practice wisdom and caution in their relationships (including some gender ones!) with those who are not their spouse. What I am not saying is that we shy away from revealing ourselves emotionally to each other. What I am saying is that the way we reveal, express, and share our emotional selves is also to be guarded. Ask if the goal of the particular relationship is oriented toward the self or love of God and others. I have found that a top “Jesus replacement” in my life is emotional comfort and feeling good about myself. This aspect of my own heart’s being prone to wander has led to some very unholy, emotional attachments with women and a few men, too.
It is actually good news that what God commands and says is good is possible through the blessings of the gospel. Godly unmarried sexuality is “Plan A” for those of us who do not have a spouse.
More on the “HOW”: Sober promises and specific wisdom
Galatians 6:7-8 speaks of God’s harvest principle: We inevitably reap what we sow. Despite this, God’s grace and mercy often give us harvests of blessing that we do not deserve. It would be an abuse of his grace, however, to not heed Scripture’s many sober promises. Consider two in light of godly unmarried sexuality:
- To pursue sexual expression outside of God’s design will lead to sorrow! (Psalm 16:4)
- Blessings will be missed and grace will be forfeited when we seek to trust in ourselves and our own strategies for dealing with our sexuality. (Jeremiah 17:5-9, Jonah 2:8)
God’s Word teaches that when we live life outside of his guidelines, including our sexuality, there is a harvest that we reap. Sexual desires, once stoked and given into, will be much easier to be given into again. Our thought lives record experiences, and it is not easy to forget past sins—especially if they were pleasurable. Regaining the mind for Christ is a battle. It is a winnable battle for sure, but the renewing process requires a radical approach. Living a chaste life sexually diminishes the negative harvest of sin. Does this sound like a tactic to “scare you” into unmarried chastity? It is not meant to be, but it is a sober warning! It is what God’s Word teaches us will happen when we put on SELF to the neglect of putting on Christ.
As a former co-worker used to say, Christ our Savior is a specific Savior! He enters into our journey as unmarried sexual beings with very specific help and wisdom. To live a pure life, we need him to be our specific Savior for our specific struggles. Consider what he offers us as we seek to live a godly life sexually. As you read this list and ponder these verses, honestly bring your specific points of temptation or consistent sexual struggle before him.
- Gives you himself (John 14:18).
- Knows and loves you in your temptation (Matthew 26:34, 35).
- Names you: mine, loved, forgiven, one who receives new beginnings from my hand.
- Enables and empowers you with an escape to resist temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13).
- Gives wisdom and discernment (Colossians 2:3).
- Gives you brothers and sisters to help and shepherd you. These brothers and sisters are his kingdom community for you on earth that he gives to teach, counsel, comfort, guide, and love you (Hebrews 3:12, 13; 10:24, 25).
- Gives you a kingdom calling to be lived out this side of heaven that will bear much fruit for his glory. This has everything to do with living in godly unmarried sexuality! We abstain from certain things, but also fully participate in others—like his holy work in this world (Ephesians 2:10; 1 Peter 2:9-10; John 15:5).
Actually, point number one above summarizes the entire list: Jesus gives us himself, and he is the path and provision for us to live godly lives.
How can we respond to Jesus with wisdom? We each need to have a specific battle plan. Again, as you ponder the following list, bring your specific areas of struggle, temptation and/or consistent areas of entangling sexual sin before him.
You need to be:
- Growing in a love for God and others that abounds in knowledge and insight (Philippians 1:9-11).
- Learning how to starve the flesh and feed the Spirit as you seek to understand what a “radical approach” will look like in your circumstances. For example, analyze the kinds of music, movies, and TV shows you engage in, taking note of their influence on you (Galatians 6:7-8).
- Aware of your body, since we are embodied souls. For example: Women, you need to know your hormonal cycle and be aware of what times of the month you may be more prone toward sexual desires being stirred up. Men, you need to know as well how your bodies react to certain visual, tactile, and audio stimuli. Reflect on how God is calling you to love him through the use of your body.
- Willing to NOT PLAY GAMES with sexual temptation and call it “grace.” This is an abuse of grace, and it is not worth it.
- Giving others “meddling rights” into your life. Invite friends to ask you the tough questions (James 5:16; Ephesians 4:15).
- Studying, savoring and praying God’s Word (Ephesians 6:18).
WHY would we want to live it?
Godly unmarried sexuality is lived out as a person seeks to live life fully given over to Jesus and his kingdom purposes, while also living a chaste lifestyle as a female or male image bearer. Through this beautiful calling, the unmarried person reveals Jesus and draws others to Jesus. At the most practical level, the sexuality of an unmarried person should be expressed in such a way that it is a signpost to Jesus. While godly married sexuality is a unique signpost to Jesus and his relationship with the church, the unmarried person also has a unique opportunity to reveal Jesus’ power and purity and to draw others to him.
The unmarried person is called to depend upon Christ, not enjoying the sexual pleasures of marriage, but finding pleasure in abstaining that aligns his or her will with that of God. This 24/7 fast draws attention to the enabling grace of Jesus to live a godly life as a single person. It involves resisting and refusing the loud voices of the flesh and our culture that screams, “Make much of me and run full force toward whatever feels good!” The unmarried person seeks to proclaim Jesus by living a life that is radically other-centered and committed to his kingdom purposes. This kind of obedience can only be faithfully lived out through radical self-sacrificing, dependence upon Christ—as such it is a life lived solely by grace!