So, for many in our world today, to call people to more than 40 days and nights without sex, to more than 40 years, in fact to potentially a whole lifetime without it, sounds totally implausible, even comical. And the pity I receive, and the pity I often feel, as a result is often overwhelming. But as Thomas Schmidt observes: The single-minded bachelors that used to prop up most British institutions, the devoted spinsters who spent their lives caring for elderly relatives, used to be admired not pitied.
But now such lives are mocked and avoided and talk of celibacy or chastity produces the giggles that talk of sex would have before.
When did you last see a successful movie which portrayed a contented bachelor or spinster? And, tragically the church can become just as sex-obsessed as society around it. As the world has idolised sex in almost any context, the church has idolised it within marriage. So, keen Christians too often rush into marriage in their early 20s so that they can have sex.
The danger of this is they may then discover that desire is almost all they have in common with the person they have now committed themselves to for life. Early marriage has become the panacea for Christians struggling with sexual temptation leaving far too many people shocked to find that temptation is still there when they return from their honeymoon.
As a result 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. Its central character, Jesus Christ, was single and yet is held up as the only perfect human being ever to have lived. 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 any of his missionary journeys if he had a wife to care for?
Would he have been such an effective pastor of churches and mentor to young church leaders if he had his own young family? He clearly expresses the benefits for the gospel of his celibate life in 1 Corinthians 7 and we need to start promoting similar thinking in our churches today. We need to listen to both Jesus and Paul when it comes to the subject of chastity. All Christians are required to be sexually self-controlled, and the need for it both outside and inside marriage needs to be stressed again and again in a world in which we are all too often encouraged just to follow our feelings.
Love is not just communicated by the sex one has had, but by the sex one hasn't had We also need to remind ourselves that our sexualities can be valued by self-control as much as by sexual intercourse. It is true of the newly converted same-sex attracted woman who stops sleeping with her same-sex partner soon after becoming a Christian — out of her new love for Jesus.
It is also true of the same-sex attracted man who remains a virgin until his dying day — out of his love for God too. And the power of our sexual feelings can, amazingly enough, be valued most when they are most painfully experienced. The language and imagery of sexuality are the most graphic and most powerful that the Bible uses to describe the relationship between God and his people — both positively when we are faithful and negatively when we are not.
If I were not a sexual being I would not get them and so him at all. That will mean lots of sex for some, and none for others — but both are different ways of appreciating an incredible part of what it is to be human being, created in the image of God. All human beings long for intimate, self-giving relationships with others, and lives without sex would seem to deny them the satisfaction of this very basic need.
Such thinking far too common in our churches where the nuclear family can be the only focus of attention is not biblical. Tim Chester is provocative but correct when he writes: Every time Jesus talks about families he sees them as competing for loyalty to him and his community. Loneliness will never be entirely absent it is not absent in the most successful marriages and nuclear families but intimacy can be there in close friendships and your church family.
Neither Jesus nor Paul as single men was devoid of relationships. On the contrary their relationships flourished in both number and depth by the freedom and flexibility their singleness afforded them. That is the most crushing loneliness of all.