Sex and the single Christian

Single Christians are not allowed to have sex.  Not even with themselves.  They can’t even think about it.  Period.

That is the message the church gives us.  If we’re lucky, they’ll explain that sex is a gift for married people only because we believe strongly in marriage.  It doesn’t help those of us singles who live in a sex mad world which continually bombards us with sexually-explicit images and references.

It’s rather like handing round ice creams at a children’s party and then saying to some kid “You can’t have one.  Because.  Don’t ask questions.  Just be obedient.”

We are very seldom instructed how we can live in sexworld without sex.  We’re just told to do it.  Which is as helpful as those signs saying ‘Keep off the grass’.  It only makes you want to stray into forbidden territory.  And even if we don’t literally stray, we often can’t stop thinking about straying.  We’re not given support and encouragement.  We have to struggle on in silence, dealing with our own guilt and condemnation if we don’t get it right, because we know we won’t get a sensitive response if we ask for help.

Syzygy has developed a number of ways over the years to help single Christians in this predicament.  These will be part of our new resource for successful single living which we hope to publish over the winter, but here’s a taster.

One of the key tools is to get sex back into perspective.  We call it the relationship model, but you’ll probably recognise it as a counter from the board game Trivial Pursuit.  We use it to confront society’s lie that humans are sexual beings.  The problem with thinking you’re a sexual being is that if you are not able to legitimately have sex, who are you?  That can lead to significant identity issues for single Christians.

Syzygy believes that we are actually relational beings.  God is relational, expressing this in relationship within the Trinity and with creation.  Genesis 1 and 2 relate how humankind was created in the image of God to relate both to God and to one another.

We have an array of ways in which we can relate to each other.  Sexually is only one of them.  Others ways include socially, spiritually, physically, emotionally and intellectually.  Each of us will use a blend of several of these modes of relating to each other person.  So for example, we might relate to our mates at the rugby club physically and socially but maybe not intellectually.   With our college professor we’re probably being intellectual, with a bit of social.  We probably don’t use all these modes at the same time.  We don’t use some of them at all in some of our relationships.  We may use most of them in our closest friendships.  And although single Christians are encouraged never to use one of them, we still have five other modes to express our relating to other people.

By understanding ourselves in this way, we have removed the frustration that comes with seeing ourselves as sexual beings.  We are in fact relational beings, who have the capacity to relate sexually, but we don’t have to.  Investing in fulfilling relationships which are non-sexual is a way of finding fulfilment and focussing on the positive aspects of being able to relate constructively and accountably to so many other people.

Now, who’s still thinking about sex?

Nelson Mandela

NelsonThe world is celebrating the life and mourning the death of one of the greatest people of the 20th century.  Lawyer, politician and freedom fighter, he became an unwitting poster boy for the anti-apartheid struggle during his 27 years in prison, but only became a truly global icon when the world discovered the extent of his magnanimity once he was released.

Eschewing violence and embracing forgiveness, possibly only his graciousness and leadership prevented South Africa descending into chaos as the apartheid regime was dismantled.  It is impossible to overstate his critical significance at this turning point in his country’s history, and in the many tributes people have been referring to him in the same way as they also talk about Gandhi.

Free Nelson MandelaBorn during the First World War and given the name ‘Nelson’ by a teacher in a time when it was thought normal for government employees to give Africans  new names that meant nothing to them, he embraced black South Africa’s struggle for freedom from white rule, and his activities resulted in his imprisonment.  Much has been made of his subsequent refusal to seek revenge or preach violence, and his determine to forge a new South Africa in which all races could find a place.

Some weeks ago as Syzygy was preparing a lecture which involved some reflections on healthy male sexuality, we conducted some internet research on who young men might choose as role models.  Some of the more disappointing results included wealthy industrialists, actors (more for their characterisations, one suspects, than for their personal qualities) archetypes such as cowboys, bodybuilders or famous lovers, and fictional characters like Indiana Jones and Dr Who.  Few politicians were even mentioned, and yet one name stood out from the crowd of mediocrities – Nelson Mandela.

Mandela rugby shirtMany single Christian men, including mission workers, struggle to know how to embrace their masculinity, since stereotypes like father or husband are not available to them, and many of the other examples cited above might not appeal to them.  Strong male characters are notably absent from many of our churches, and even the popular perception of Jesus as ‘meek and mild’ undermines the masculine strength he exuded which drew men to seek his company.  Perhaps it is the appeal of Mandela that he offers us a rare balance: strong but gentle.

Nobody would doubt his masculinity – he fathered six children – yet he reportedly even as President made his own bed and was courteous to his servants.  Those who met him frequently report that he seemed genuinely interested in him and he remembered details of their family lives at subsequent meetings.  He fought his battles courageously, respected his enemies, held high office with humility, was resilient in adversity and magnanimous in victory.

He was, of course, not a saint, nor a saviour, and certainly not a messiah.  Yet Christian men could do a lot worse than emulating Nelson Mandela.

Working towards a healthy sexuality

SEX is written in large letters throughout western society. In a reaction to the buttoned-up days of yore when the whole issue was swept under the carpet resulting in a lot of repression, the ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s got everything out in the open (often literally!) where it has remained ever since. Many churches today shy away from even discussing these issues, for fear of seeming old-fashioned or intolerant. This by default allows the secular world to set the church’s priorities and values concerning sexuality. So Christians can easily find themselves in situations where they are sexually compromised, due to lack of clear teaching and adequate support.

This is a challenging issue for mission workers, and particularly for single ones, who may have to grapple with issues of loneliness, isolation and lack of emotional intimacy in a world which makes sex sound like it’s the answer to everything. So single mission workers can become vulnerable to inappropriate relationships, use of pornography or fantasy, and confusion about their sexuality. Many of us resent the lack of opportunity to engage in sexual activity and to have children, which leaves us feeling guilty, weak and demoralised.

So how do we, together as a Christian community, work towards a healthy sexuality for all?

First, we need to recognise that although many of us have strong unfulfilled desires to be spouses and parents, our primary identity is not in our family (or lack thereof) but in Christ. While family in its broadest sense is a huge part of our relational existence, our identity as children of God is even more significant. This is what Jesus modelled. He does not appear to have had any problem with his singleness despite the fact that it was even more counter-cultural in his day than it is in ours. If our awareness of our identity in Christ is not giving us a strong sense of self-worth and positive self-esteem despite our circumstances, we need to discuss this with a friend, pastor or counsellor. When Jesus said that he came so that we could have overflowing life (John 10:10) he was not speaking only to those in ideal domestic situations.

Secondly, we need to expose the lie that we are sexual beings. Believing this Darwinist half-truth makes us vulnerable to all sorts of sexual influences and makes us feel somehow incomplete if we are not having a fulfilling sex life. The truth is that God created us to be relational beings, and sex is only one of the capacities we have for relating. If we concentrate too much on this one, it downplays the other valuable ways we have of relating to others. We need to have healthy, open, honest, safe, accountable relationships with others – single and married, same sex and opposite, young and old – if we are to maintain a strong social community which leaves us feeling valued and esteemed. If we can achieve this, sex ceases to be so significant as a short-term bolster for our self-esteem.

Third, we need to be emotionally intelligent. When we become aware of urges which we can’t control, we need to ask ourselves where they are coming from. Some might be purely physical impulses which need to be mastered, but these can be complicated by a raft of self-esteem issues. When we are tired, unwell, lonely or fatigued, we often want a ‘shot in the arm’ to raise our spirits. This can take a variety of forms: alcohol, chocolate, retail therapy, recreational drugs and sexual activity. These are short-term fixes which may leave us feeling better for a bit, but don’t resolve deeper issues which affect our behaviour. We need to be aware of what we are feeling and what positive things we can do about it.

In practical terms, what does this all look like? Here are some suggestions for ways in which we can work towards a healthy sexuality:

  • Maintain a healthy spiritual life. It’s harder to give in to sexual temptation if you’re walking with God.
  • Learn Bible verses which promote self-esteem. Write them on post-it notes and leave them in handy places.
  • Be accountable. Find a friend who you can confess to and pray with.
  • If you feel you need a safety valve like masturbation, ask yourself whether you control it, or it controls you.
  • Install an internet accountability monitor on your computer.
  • Be an active part of community. Even if you’re an introvert, you need friends.
  • Avoid unhelpful locations like red-light districts.
  • Don’t mistake strong, supportive same-sex friendships for romance.
  • Be physically active. A tired body will be more likely to want to sleep than find sexual fulfilment.
  • Find resources. Our friends at Member Care Media have some excellent podcasts about healthy sexuality (www.membercaremedia.com, click on Emotional Health and then Addictions and Dependencies).  Every Single Man’s Battle by Fred Stoeker and Stephen Arterburn is a good book for men to read.

Syzygy is willing to talk confidentially to anyone who needs advice on this, and can recommend a number of experienced counsellors if necessary. For more information email info@syzygy.org.uk