I didn't know how deep in trouble I was until the words spilled out during a debate at a party. Friends from church were discussing the old evangelical emphasis on "relationship, not religion"—disputing its merit—when I suddenly snarled, "Well, I wouldn't still be practicing chastity if it were only because of [expletive] religion." There was a pause, then after one woman laughed, the conversation moved on, leaving me to ruminate on my forceful reaction.
I've never thought of singleness as especially easy or fun, but now that I'm in my middle 30s, it feels harder. Some days I find myself saying to God, "I want to keep obeying you, I want to make it as long as I can, but I don't know what is in me. I don't know how I would handle certain situations."
Childbearing isn't exactly a race, but sometimes it feels like most of my friends have lapped me multiple times, while I'm still at the start line, trying to overcome a stalled go-cart engine. And that's not all. Even if I weren't having babies, I could still be practicing.
A circumstance like mine is not the sort of thing the abstinence campaigns of yesteryear prepare you for, however well-intentioned they were. As one blogger noted earlier this year, efforts like the "True Love Waits" campaign often hinge on promises that may not be fulfilled and implicitly fault the waiting one when delays happen.
Wait in obedience, and God will bring you a husband.
Wait, and the sex will be better because you obeyed.
Wait, and once you're satisfied with God, he'll provide a spouse.
Whether or not any of these represent official slogans is beside the point; these false promises are the upshot of countless good-hearted assurances offered to single teens and adults by friends and mentors alike. And they all tend to treat the wait as a sort of spiritual penance that one barters to God in exchange for a desired outcome.
In none of those promises does waiting have any value or purpose in its own right. Nor does waiting bear much resemblance to the patience required in other areas of life. When the single season drags on, it's easy to start thinking that you're enduring a unique kind of suffering. Yet, as I've seen friends struggling to wait for a more satisfying job, a child, or a book deal, I've been reminded how many of us have to wait for one thing or another.
But do we say as easily, If you wait obediently, God will bring you a good job, a child, an agent? Or, Wait and the job/child/agent will be better because you waited? Wait, and once you're satisfied with God, he'll provide a good job, a child, an agent? No, no, and no. So what's going on? Why does sexual patience so easily slip into the territory of religion, whereby waiting becomes a means of manipulating and using God to get what we want?
Years back, when working on my memoir (of "reluctant chastity," yes), I spent an evening babysitting the daughter of some friends. After the baby had gone down, I picked up a volume of collected C. S. Lewis writings they had out, which included advice I've never forgotten. The gist was that it's all too easy to slip into preaching the gospel on the grounds that it's good for you rather than simply that it's true—a tendency that must be avoided. I wish I could remember the reasons he gave, but appropriately enough I only remember the truth itself: truth ultimately has to stand on its authority, not its efficacy.
The same holds with God. Although it certainly encourages me in the hard times to believe that God as my creator knows what's best and is therefore a trustworthy master, I ultimately must obey because he is my master, period. Accepting his terms of reconciliation meant I gave up the right to calling my life and body my own; they're his.
If you're squirming at some of my language here, I understand. We view terms like "master" and "obedience" rather dimly these days, imagining that they run counter to the exercise of our freedom, the ability to be spontaneous and authentic, and so on.
Well, I'll tell you what true spontaneity is. The other night I was feeling so confused and troubled I couldn't find the words to process my emotions. But when the line of a Chopin nocturne popped into my head, I recognized the source, went over to the piano in my living room, and flipped through my book of nocturnes until I found the song and started to sight-read through it.
I don't do this often, and to a careful ear it shows. But because I spent most of my second decade obeying the dictates of piano teachers, the metronome, and the long-dead composers who scored the works I practiced, I can still read the notes on a staff after ten years of idle fingers. And because I submitted myself to those masters, I had the freedom to sit down on a whim and spend an hour making deeply cathartic music.
Those masters took me beyond the self I was, enlarging and enriching my identity in the process. But that happened only because I chose to obey them. Had I refused, I would have been choosing to follow my own fickle whim and desire, the master of self, which constrains in its disregard for the long-term.
As the old Bob Dylan song says, "you gotta serve somebody." For a long time I chose to serve self, believing the lie that it was nobody. But after I finally realized it was somebody and a foolish, oppressive master at that, I chose the God of the Bible, as he beckoned through Jesus of Nazareth.
I prayed a prayer for salvation when I was a child—probably several times, in fact. But I think those was fairly religious prayers, for they never caused me to love God. Not until I grasped the beauty of his loving obedience to the cross was I finally ready to love, submit, obey. Whatever else it may be, the waiting of chastity is just one part of faithfulness to that commitment.
Anna Broadway is a writer and web editor living in the San Francisco Bay area. She is the author of Sexless in the City: A Memoir of Reluctant Chastity and a regular contributor to Her.meneutics.