Rethinking sex, celibacy, and abundant life

I’m currently reading The Thrill of the Chaste by Dawn Eden. I read it before when it was first published in 2007, but this is an updated edition in which Eden, who was born Jewish, describes more of her journey to becoming Catholic. I’m naturally a sucker for these stories, so I had to buy it.

I already love it more than the original, and not just for the added spiritual content. In the first edition, Eden writes with the assumption that God will provide her with a husband because she feels “called” to marriage. I was in college and a new Christian when I first read the book, and felt something was wrong with me because I hadn’t yet had a serious relationship. I had emotional and physical “needs” that weren’t being met, so sure, I too believed I was called to marriage. 

Celibacy until then felt like a curse — no, a punishment.

Acknowledging The Idol Of Sex

By senior year of college – still with very little dating experience – I started to rethink this idea of being “called” to marriage. If following Christ is about “picking up your cross,” and being refined through various forms of suffering, then who was I to say that God “owed” me a husband? What if celibacy was my “cross” in this life – the tool by which God sanctifies and reforms me? And who says celibacy has to be considered a “cross” in the first place? Is there not more to life than sex???

I did not remain without dating experience for very long. By the end of 2011, at age 23, I started dating the man I’ve now been married to for almost 8 years. Turns out he was already a friend, hiding in plain sight the whole time I was in college. We were married at ages 26 and 29: not terribly old, but comparatively older than many of our friends from Campus Crusade for Christ who married right out of college. So our struggle with singleness before dating and physical boundaries while dating went on a bit longer than it did for our peers.

I’d heard this from older married friends, but some things you need to experience yourself to fully understand: marriage is not the cure for loneliness. Sex is not the antidote to feelings of emotional or physical insecurity. And that’s not to say anything negative about the quality of my marriage; it’s just a fact that one sinner married to another is not going to fix something that was already an issue before taking vows. It puts an unhealthy burden on another person to “fix” something that can only be healed in Christ.

Rethinking The “Cross” Of Celibacy

The new edition of Eden’s book talks more about celibacy (being that she is still unmarried). This deliberate choice to abstain from sex is quite counter-cultural. It’s no exaggeration to say that the culture makes an idol of sex. We are told, implicitly and explicitly, through the media that sex and sexuality are the core of our identity. To not be completely affirmed or satisfied in these realms is considered cruel and unusual. 

The only “sins” of secular sex are not using protection or getting enthusiastic consent. That last one is especially important, but still a rather low bar as far as what is needed for sex to be considered “good” or “healthy.” 

Celibacy, Eden writes, isn’t a fearful response to sex and sexuality. The Church at large does have an unfortunate history of treating even married sex as something dirty and shameful. The Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible directly contradicts that notion. It is marriage (and by extension, sex) that represents the love of Christ and his bride, the Church.

Celibacy while unmarried is making a statement about the inherent significance and beauty of sex. It does so by keeping sex in its rightful place, between one man and one woman, together in a sacramental covenant. 

Only Christ Offers Abundant Life

If churches knew how to better treat unmarried Christians – with respect and inclusiveness rather than pity – the stigma surrounding celibacy could greatly diminish. What’s more, if the world could see single Christians truly living well – thoroughly enjoying the community of family and friends, travel, good food, great books, and all the wonderful things that life has to offer – then the stereotype of the lonely spinster could disappear. 

Marriage is wonderful, yes; so is sex and so is creating a family. But those things are not the end-all, be-all of abundant life in Christ. 

Photo by Foto Pettine on Unsplash


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