You Can’t Be a Virgin Alone

I was talking a bit this week with Todd Billings, who is a professor of Reformed theology at Western Seminary in Holland Michigan, and he passed along an essay he wrote when he was single and in his late twenties. The piece is a reflection of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity, and I found it very engaging.

A sample:

Gregory’s vision of virginal life is one of fullness, not absence. “The more we come to know the wealth of virginity the more we have disdain for the other life, having learned from the comparison how many precious things it lacks.” Divided love — non-virginal love — is poor love.

Indeed, while Seinfeld’s Elaine would be horrified at the thought, Gregory calls attention to the “freedom of virginity.” The virginal soul, its attachments rooted in God, has freedom from “greed, anger, hatred, the desire for empty fame and all such things.” Since the virginal soul does not seek after these other loves, it is not a slave to them. It is free to be a bride of Christ.

Further, for Gregory, virginity is not a curse or an accident, but a “gift” with great “grandeur.” It does not result from God’s failing to provide someone to love, but from “grace.” The virgin anticipates the time when there will be “no distance between himself and the presence of God.” To experience a foretaste of eternal life with God is far from an accident.

We have grown accustomed to seeing virginity in terms of lack — an empty bed, a Valentine’s Day spent alone. But Gregory reverses the imagery. Virginity is a special foretaste of the divine presence, an anticipation of the resurrected state where believers are especially suited to experience this presence. Moreover, for Gregory, virginity is an “ally” and a friend. It accompanies us on the Christian path of rejecting the worldly loves that threaten to displace our love for God. For the Christian, virginity is not about loneliness. Indeed, for the Christian, it is impossible to be a virgin alone.

The whole essay is thoughtful and accessible—do read it all—and it’s doubly encouraging to me to think of it originally being published in the ecumenical magazine Regeneration Quarterly, which had a sizable evangelical readership when it was still in print. Sometimes working against their own history and current church cultures, many Reformed and more broadly Reformational evangelicals whom I know want to try to rediscover and honor celibacy in their churches today. May their tribe increase.

33 thoughts on “You Can’t Be a Virgin Alone

  1. Wesley, thanks for sharing this ancient-present understanding of virginity and celibacy. It would seem that all of us who are Jesus followers could become change agents who help our church fellowships truly “rediscover and honor celibacy.” As countercultural change-agents for this precious good gift how do we graciously challenge those who may have made the gift into an “ultimate” thing? Ft

  2. Interesting article I must say. This is my first time looking thru SF. Here is the thing that gets me tho. I would assume most people with SSA what to be healed. And by that I mean they want to experience marriage and what ever else that comes along with that. Now the bible says that if we believe and do not doubt then it will happen just as we asked (forget verse exactly). So if we say well god MIGHT do this then that isn’t faith. If someone has faith that I will pay then back 10 dollars and then say I MIGHT pay him back that isn’t faith right?!

    • You stated “Now the bible says that if we believe and do not doubt then it will happen just as we asked (forget verse exactly). So if we say well god MIGHT do this then that isn’t faith.”

      I wish that were true but it’s not. Simply stated: unwanted things happen. Extremely stated: I’ve never seen or heard of a Christian – or anyone – regenerating a lost limb.

      Would you further explain your views regarding faith given a true situation I present? The situation…

      I received an e-mail from an acquaintance. The e-mail stated that Christian missionary friends of theirs had experienced a violent crime in the country they were assigned. The husband and wife were bound and beaten and their teenage daughter was raped by the attackers. What’s your perspective on faith given this scenario?

      • “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them.

        Also yes a have heard of limbs regrowing. A friend of mine is a pastor in Nigeria saw it with his own eyes. Why ru trying to convince someone to doubt by saying “well it didn’t happen here or here” when you should be saying “yes it will happen”. The bible says unless you believe and not doubt, meaning “yes it will happen” it won’t happen.

    • Taken to its logical conclusion, this belief is insulting and belittling to those multitudes of gay Christians who earnestly but unsuccessfully prayed for years – or decades! – to be straight, along with all those Christians who died from cancer despite prayed fervently for healing, not to mention the Apostle Paul himself, whose “thorn in the flesh” God never saw fit to remove, despite Paul’s repeated requests.

      In other words, your sanctification is based on works, that is, the work of “wanting it hard enough,” which is evidently unattainable for the majority of same-sex attracted Christians. So I’m sorry, but I cannot accept this viewpoint, which is at odds with traditional Christian teaching.

      • Ya sorry you feel that butttt I still feel the same way. God says to 1. Pray (not beg, not plead but pray in confidence) and 2. Believe. It’s in the Bible. I mean healing never happened in the Bible without that person first believing. Remember that guy in the pool who waited in the pool to be healed? Jesus came over and asked if he wanted to be well and he said something like “but the water hadn’t been stirred yet”. Basically saying he can’t be healed yet because *blank*.

        Also I think Paul’s thorn of the flesh was the people persecuting him not a mental or physical thing.

      • @Mark F

        Anecdotes and feelings do not a strong argument make. I will not respond to this sub-topic unless you come back with a compelling and logical argument.

      • Mark, rather than focus on SSA/gay Christians – why not consider the one thing you want from life but, for reasons you don’t yet understand, hasn’t been provided for you. I’m confident there will be something and if you share the details, we can all discuss this difficult topic together as ‘equals’.

      • Mark F: “Ya sorry you feel that butttt I still feel the same way. God says to 1. Pray (not beg, not plead but pray in confidence) and 2. Believe. It’s in the Bible.”

        Let’s test this theory.

        Galations 6:7 “God will not be mocked.”

        I think the reason that God is against homosexuality is because he is a jilted homosexual Himself. Think about it; Licifer was the most beloved of the angels and fell from grace as man was first made or around the time. He made man alone in the garden of Eden and then, when man turns out to be lonely, he makes woman – a being far removed from man in appearance and temperament. This is likely because he didn’t want to create for man a partner that reminded Him of his lost relationship to Lucifer. And let’s not forget that Christ traveled around with a bunch of guys, never got married, and was known as the “fisher of men”. Totally a celibate gay guy. Probably a bottom too (turn the other cheek, mirite?)

        So, as you can see, God has been mocked and nothing stopped me. As such, taking the Bible as one hundred percent literal on all points is a demonstrably invalid perspective as I have proven by typing this and not dying or being prevented. Thank you for playing.

        (Of course, I don’t think being gay is bad, myself, so maybe it doesn’t count as mocking when I do it? In any case, if you were correct, why hasn’t God answered the prayers of the Saints through history to convert the world to Catholicism and save people from sin? Is God weak, inept, or apathetic? In all cases, it sounds like a being unworthy of worship to me)

    • Mark F.

      Increasingly, it seems that the world is undermining the notion that those with SSA can be/should be healed, which in turn is encouraging SSA afflicted-Christians to revel in their brokenness by embracing a ‘gay’ identity within the confines of celibacy.

      I look at this as even more troubling than pagan SSA sufferers ‘marrying’ other SSA sufferers. What once was rightly shunned is now spoken about, celebrated, even desired. Celibacy is not a means for narcissism and self-indulgence, yet that is how many SSA Christians are treating it.

      • Well the suicide rate for celibate homosexuals is out of control. This is a fact. So do u believe that healing is the answer? YES lol, google suicude rates and celibate homosexual and ull see. It’s no secret bro

      • I agree that suicide is a real concern. And we have a duty to lead all SSA individuals towards Christ. Which is why I am concerned about Dr. Hill and his supporters. Because there is little of Christ in revelling in your sinful nature, even within the confines of celibacy.

        Fortunately, millions of individuals have overcome their SSA urges through treatment. We should be focusing on expanding those treatments, first within the Christian community, and then in broader society. Through treatment, SSA individuals can escape the chains of depravity, and even – through blessed choice – enter into marriage.

      • “Celibacy is not a means for narcissism and self-indulgence, yet that is how many SSA Christians are treating it.”

        You treat the cross as a device of narcissism, chum. You elevate suffering and even ask that we long for it. Crosses aren’t chosen, though, they are thrust upon us. Saints don’t choose crosses. Anything less makes the cross a pity party; an excuse to feel sorry for yourself and draw others to respect how strong you are in your faith. How pathetic.

        Ex-gay is just a word for sex addicts who mistook their addiction for a valid orientation and got treatment. Either that or fools and charlatans. But, hey, don’t take my word for it:

        http://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/sexual-orientation.aspx

        You are either a deluded fool or a monster trying to silence and destroy homosexuals. So which is it, I wonder, hmm?~

      • Nathaniel,

        I agree that there is no such thing as ‘ex-gay’. That is because there is no such thing as a ‘gay’ person. There are only people who suffer – whether they acknowledge it as such or not – from disordered attractions to the same sex.

        And I would not cite from anything as biased as the APA, which has been at the forefront of normalizing deviancy.

      • Mark F,

        The suicide rate you’re citing for celibate gay folks probably mostly includes people who are very much “in the closet”, or people who have no moral objection to homosexual activity at all, but just can’t find a partner. If you could find a study that applies specifically to people who (a) accept their orientation, (b) morally oppose acting on it, and (c) talk about it with people in their lives openly, then we could figure out whether it applies to people at Spiritual Friendship.

      • “And I would not cite from anything as biased as the APA, which has been at the forefront of normalizing deviancy.”

        I will take from this anti-science, anti-reality stance that you are deluded then. Well, that certainly beats your being a monster.

        I do appreciate the concern but I am quite happy with who I am, thanks. Prior to figuring out I was romantically drawn to other men I was locked away from much of my emotional capability and empathy. Freeing myself to recognize the real me freed me to also empathize with others more, love them in agape ways more fully, and it also helped curb a lot of my more unwholesome pursuits (prior the this revelation I had pursued relationships with women but could only be attracted to them through fetishes and the like – once I realized that my draw to women would always be based on lust and never mutuality or love, the better I was and the better I tended to treat women). My orientation was and is a Godsend, as it were.

  3. Noah and Mark: I find your remarks somewhat puzzling and frustrating. As I understand it, you say that SSA is an effect of the Fall, and we therefore shouldn’t live with it, but pray for God to remove it and expect him to do so. And it also seems you’re saying if God doesn’t remove it, we should be condemned for lack of faith. So I am curious: are there any other effects of the Fall that we should expect God to remove, and that if he doesn’t remove it from us, we are not showing the proper measure of faith? How about addiction, blindness, deafness, persistent anxiety attacks, depression, schizophrenia, lameness, infertility, tendency to particular types of sin? Which of these should we expect God to remove in every case in this life, and which should we live with? Is there any disorder due to the Fall about whose presence in our lives we cannot be condemned for lack of faith? Will God remove every disorder we experience, if we simply pray with enough fervor?

    • Gabriel,

      “Will God remove every disorder we experience, if we simply pray with enough fervor?”

      Of course not. And to be absolutely clear: I do not believe that people overcome SSA by prayer alone, nor do I believe those who cannot overcome SSA but keep with Christ by remaining celibate in body and spirit are damned.

      However, I do believe that SSA is a disorder that causes great physical, emotional, and spiritual harm to a person, regardless of whether they act on their impulses. There can be no countenancing with one’s disordered nature – the person grappling with SSA must be forever engaged in spiritual combat, as we all are.

      But Dr. Hill and his supporters do not appear to recognize the precipice on which they stand. They do not recognize that there can be no tolerance – either within the Church or in the world – for something as pernicious and depraved as ‘gay’ or ‘transsexual’ identity. Until they recognize this basic truth, they are as lost as any outside of the Church.

      • “there can be no tolerance – either within the Church or in the world – for something as pernicious and depraved as ‘gay’ or ‘transsexual’ identity” … “they are as lost as any outside of the Church.”

        Oh cool, you just played the “gay people are going to hell” card! Probably nobody around here has ever heard that one before. 😉

        In all seriousness, a “gay identity,” if it is one (and I don’t think you’ve made the case that SF writers are trying to encourage gay/bi Christians to construct one at all, much less the sort of cushy, self-indulgent, sin-blind, noli-me-tangere one you seem to be envisioning here), is no more or less pernicious and depraved than a “straight” identity. I don’t think SF writers are trying to construct their identities around being gay/bi any more than, say, a website intended to minister to Christians like me who live with clinical depression would be encouraging me to build some kind of “depressed Christian identity.” There’s a vast difference between acknowledging, and speaking truth to, one’s entire self and constructing an identity around one component of the self; I believe the task of SF authors is the former, not the latter.

      • So are you claiming that Dr. Hill does not belong to Christ? That he is not a Christian, and will be told “Depart from me, I never knew you”?

      • Noah: I appreciate you responding. I’m not sure why you place such significance on this particular disorder, but that’s not the topic of this thread. It is the topic of previous posts on this blog, however, and I’m curious, given that you appear to be a latecomer (though perhaps I’m wrong), have you read the earlier posts on this blog (such as those on the nature of SSA and in what sense some of the authors are willing to use the descriptor “gay Christian”)? It appears to me that you are voicing your disagreement regarding deeper issues in comments on posts (this one and the previous one) that are unrelated to your actual area of disagreement with the authors. This post is about the practice of celibacy, not about the nature of SSA or the use of the descriptor “gay”.

      • Grace,

        The inherent fallacy is that one cannot be ‘gay’ or ‘bi’. The use of those terms – along with the vile ‘LGBT’ – gives voice to a lie about human sexuality. There are no gay people, or straight people, or bisexual people. There are only people who might have certain attractions, many of which ebb and flow over time. ‘Gay’ identity is pernicious because it is framed with a permanency that simply is not accurate. I think it would be more acceptable if we still thought of SSA as akin to alcoholism or drug addiction, i.e. the idea that a person is always an ‘alcoholic’ even if they no longer drink. Alas, the vast majority of SSA individuals – within and without the Church – do not see SSA as the disease that it is.

      • If a person is always an ‘alcoholic’ even if they no longer drink, why can’t they be ‘gay’ if they no longer screw? And what difference does putting ‘ ‘ around words make?

      • “However, I do believe that SSA is a disorder that causes great physical, emotional, and spiritual harm to a person, regardless of whether they act on their impulses. ” It’s not a matter of belief: what is your evidence of such blatant harm, physical, emotional and spiritual? even if they do not act up?

      • Lorenzo,

        The evidence is in that it goes against nature and what Christ intends for us. No one here (I hope) can deny that non-celibate SSA inflict great harm upon themselves – something forgotten in the rampant push to first overturn sodomy laws and now to create fictitious rights to marriage.

        But I think it is inevitable that SSA be a great wounding to the soul of the celibate Christian, and thus have serious emotional and physical consequences. If it is not, I would suggest that the person is at some level embracing their depravity.

      • Noah,

        I think you may be right on a narrow theological point: that accepting THAT one struggles is not the same as accepting the content which one struggles with. If I struggled with desiring sexual violence (as C.S. Lewis did), it would be totally right for me to accept that I struggled with it, but it would be wrong for me to organize my personality around this sin-oriented quirk of mine. Insofar as some folks at SF may be doing that, they’re doing something unhelpful.

        However, you say: “Fortunately, millions of individuals have overcome their SSA urges through treatment. We should be focusing on expanding those treatments, first within the Christian community, and then in broader society. Through treatment, SSA individuals can escape the chains of depravity, and even – through blessed choice – enter into marriage.”

        What do you mean by “overcome”? If you mean “stopped having SSA attractions”, that is blatantly false. Some people describe such healing, but it’s nowhere near “millions.” If you mean “stopped sexual sin in their lives”, then you mean chastity, and that is EXACTLY what SF advocates.

        Also, as a married man, I think it’s strange that you talk as if marriage had to come after SSA was completely gone. I still experience SSA despite my marriage. I hope and pray for continued healing of my sinful nature, and my wife does too. But we wouldn’t wait to get married until my SSA went away, no more than we would wait to get married until she thoroughly dealt with any of her issues. Maturity is needed, yes. But not perfection.

  4. Joe,

    I made it clear. The problem is that more and more people do not see being gay as being akin to being an alcoholic. Even here, I have read accounts of SSA Christians regarding their SSA affliction as a source of strength, or diversity. That is wrong.

    • A few things in response to Noah

      1) Many of the disordered results of the fall do, in fact, become sources of strength. I knew a woman who had polio as a child. She was never able to walk without crutches again. She was one of the strongest believers I have ever met BECAUSE of the adversity, not in spite of it. Polio and its results are certainly disordered. They would never have been here had it not been for the Fall of man. She, too, by the way had to endure people telling her that if only she had enough faith she would be well. In the end, God kept His promise to use ALL things to her good.

      2) It is tempting to say, yes, but physical diseases like Polio do not not have a moral dimension to them while homosexuality does. May I point out that this has not always been the case. The people of Christ’s day did, in fact, place moral censure on many many physical ailments to the point that Christ Himself had to correct His disciples. Further, when we are talking about SSA, we are talking about temptation, not sin itself. It is disordered. Yes. So is heterosexual temptation equally disordered (it is a modern like that one temptation is “more natural” than another). But let us not forget that Christ Himself was “led by the Spirit into he wilderness TO BE TEMPTED.” Temptation does not come from God but that does not mean that God does not willingly allow nor that He does not use it and turn it into a source of strength.

      3) Certain temptations come because of specific talents or abilities a person has that are, in themselves, good. As C. S. Lewis once pointed out, the great sinners are made of the same material as the great saints. The same talents that make a fine pastor, empathy, the ability to express ideas, leadership, etc. can also make a self centered dictator. A good artist also makes a fine forger. I don’t think any of the authors here are arguing that the temptation toward sex with others of the same gender is, in itself good, but, rather, that it is a temptation that tends to come along with a certain set of skill, abilities and personality traits which are very good. These things, while very good, also tend to produce a specific type of temptation. What I see the people here doing is trying to identify those things and how to use them to God’s glory while acknowledging and finding ways to stand against the specific temptation that tends to come along with those unique traits.

      Finally, as to “gay identity,” I generally find that those who complain about “gay identity” are really just trying to do an end run around the Gospel. It is a lot easier to simply say “shame on you for holding on to a gay identity” than it is to do the actual work of getting to know people while pointing to Christ, the cross, the forgiveness of sins and the means of grace, which actually form a new identity. But that is THE failing of the modern church, to turn to commands instead of the cross.

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