“For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” – Matthew 19:12
The word eunuch, of course, literally refers to someone who has been castrated, but the symbolic meaning goes beyond that. In his book Theology of the Body for Beginners, Christopher West writes, “In the Christian tradition, a eunuch “for the kingdom of heaven” is someone who freely forgoes sexual relations in anticipation of that state in which men and women ‘neither marry nor are given in marriage.’” In this way, being “a eunuch for the Kingdom,” or practicing celibate singleness, becomes just as much a witness of God’s love to married couples as the married couple is a witness of God’s love to the celibate single.
The two lifestyles are two parts of the same picture. The celibate single reminds the couple that the ultimate source of their love is not each other, but the God who loved us first. The couple reminds the celibate single of the goodness and importance of expressing that love in our relationships—whether romantically, in friendships, in our families, or in our church communities. This is one reason we believe churches should make more room for singles in their congregation—and not just in “singles groups,” where the main goal is for singles to pair up. When married couples and celibate singles begin regularly spending time with one another, both parties have the opportunity to share and live out the sort of witness we’re describing.
Henri Nouwen puts it beautifully in his book Clowning in Rome:
We are children of God first and we all belong to God first. Everyone does. Those who live consecrated celibacy do not attach themselves to one particular person, and by their lives they remind us that our relationship with God, as the children of God, is the beginning, the source, and the goal of all human relationships. By his or her life of non attachment, the celibate lifts up this beautiful truth about our Christian life.
Of course, as eloquent as Nouwen makes it sound, for many of us (especially many hormonal teenagers), the prospect of going the rest of our lives without sexual/romantic satisfaction sounds pretty miserable. This is why some of the most fearfully persuasive research about porn use are the studies connecting it to the inability to be aroused or sexually satisfied by anyone in real life. Many porn users are horrified to realize that, though porn may have started as a placeholder for the real thing, it often ends up corroding users’ ability to experience and enjoy the real thing. Along similar lines, the Catholic News Agency published an article called “The new celibacy? How porn may be destroying the impetus for sex.”
All that to say, most human beings are highly driven to seek the satisfaction of their sexual desires. Most people want to have sex with someone someday. Jesus acknowledges this reality at the end of Matthew 19:12, when he says, “The one who can accept [living like a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom] should accept it,” which implies that he knew most people wouldn’t be able to handle it.
Henri Nouwen was in a unique position to accept this calling, as some of his published letters reveal that he wrestled with same-sex attraction for much of his life. (We talk more about this dynamic in our “Masculinity, Femininity, and LGBTQ+” track.) But even apart from experiences like his, 1 Corinthians 7:7 refers to singleness, broadly, as a “gift.” Of course, few people today think of singleness like that. The Babylon Bee once satirized our culture’s response in an article called “Local Woman Looking to Return Gift of Singleness.” The woman’s fictional prayer to God is, “Lord, I know you meant well with this gift, but this is not really something I’m into… And I know my time as a single woman is to be spent dedicating myself to you, but, well, what I really wanted was a dreamy guy.”
The question is, what does it mean to have the “gift of singleness”? It’s common to assume (with a sense of dread) that if someone has this gift, they’re going to stay single for the rest of their lives. We believe this interpretation reads more into 1 Corinthians 7:7 than is warranted. Unless someone has received a very clear conviction or vision from the Lord that their call to singleness will be for the long haul, we believe that we determine whether we have the gift on a daily basis, rather than a lifelong basis. So the best way to determine whether someone has the gift of singleness is by asking the question, “Am I currently single?” Then, this gift can become an invitation to steward ourselves for that day, instead of an occasion to worry about what may or may not happen in the future.
Still, the witness of the one who voluntarily chooses celibacy provides an important reminder. It reminds us that, “Yes, romance is good, and yes, marriage is good, and yes, sex is good—but none of these things were designed to fulfill us ultimately. That kind of fulfillment can only come from God, whether we’re married, dating, or single.” And though contentment in singleness shouldn’t be regarded as a means to an end, the one who is content as a single person will be much less likely to cling to romance for a sense of purpose, and therefore much better equipped to enjoy the gift of romantic love if the opportunity does arise.
Write down any points you hope to highlight with your son/daughter. Then sometime today, or as soon as you’re able, ask your son/daughter one of these questions:
- How do you think people live fulfilled lives without romantic relationships?
- Why do you think most people get into romantic relationships?
“Father, help me to show my son/daughter that our ultimate fulfillment does not come from starting families or having romantic relationships, but from our relationship with you. Help us not to treat the single life as a substandard life, and not to regard our single friends as having a disease that needs curing. Help us see that love isn’t only expressed romantically, but also expressed in friendly, familial, and spiritual ways with one another. In Jesus’ name, amen.”