Two years ago, Elna Baker wrote an article for Glamour titled, "Yes, I'm a 27-Year-Old Virgin."
A few months ago, Baker wrote another article for Glamour. This one was called, "Guess What? I'm Not a Virgin Anymore!"
Because of her Mormon faith, Baker had planned to save sex for marriage, but it didn't work out that way. Less than a year after she became "a reluctant spokesperson for abstinence," she had sex.
What happened? By Baker's own account, there was a shift in her thinking.
My whole life I had done my best to uphold those rigid tenets—I believed obedience would get me what I thought I wanted: a temple marriage to another Mormon. I came close: I finally met a Mormon guy, and we connected so much I moved to Utah for him. But as soon as I got there and stood face-to-face with the life I'd dreamed of, I was miserable. I had stopped pursuing my career. I had left the city I loved. I felt like my life was about to end rather than begin. I told my boyfriend how I felt, and we broke up. I went back to New York City, wrote the Glamour piece and continued to date—albeit not very successfully.
Let's stop right there. I'm not an expert on Mormon theology, so I can't go too deeply into Baker's religious faith and what it did or didn't teach her. But I do see something in her account that's familiar to this evangelical Christian, an appealing but dangerous belief: Obedience will get you what you want.
Few realize just how dangerous, how wrong, and how widespread that belief is. But we Christian singles have reason to know it. It's been taught to us from the time we're teens or even preteens: "Practice abstinence, and someday the right partner will come along and you'll be so glad you waited!" The obvious implication is that your obedience guarantees the promise of that right partner.
To give just one of hundreds of examples, popular evangelical author Don Miller got himself in hot water recently with a blog post (which has been taken down) offering love advice for women.
Various people had different objections to what Miller wrote, but this part particularly stood out: "Believe it or not, there will come a day when a man will fall madly in love with you and you will have the honor of sitting down with him one special night to explain that, while you weren't perfect, you turned down plenty of guys and cried yourself to sleep hoping somebody would come around and treat you with respect."
First of all, I'm not sure I want a guy who wants to hear all about my history of crying. It sounds a little creepy. But there's something even worse in the passage. It's the promise of that right partner coming along—when, in fact, God has made no such promise. Which means that some of us will remain celibate.
Now, that doesn't sound so good when you're trying to teach about abstinence. Believe me, I know; I've helped teach the subject before. How much success are we going to have if we say, "Kids, abstain from sex, maybe for the rest of your lives"? It sounds so much better to say, "Wait until God sends you your AWESOME partner!" that it's no wonder we succumb to the temptation.
But we shouldn't. Because it's not necessarily true. And as Elna Baker's story shows, the "obedience will get you what you want" philosophy has a dark side. First, it puts the focus on us ("doing this will lead directly to a reward"), not on God ("this is what God wants me to do, so I'll do it"). And second, when obedience doesn't get you what you want—or when, as in Baker's case, getting what you want doesn't turn out well—it can lead to disillusionment and resentment.
Imagine for a moment what an amusing experience it is to listen to the biological clock getting louder as you wonder why all those years of obedience just aren't working. And then there's the equally fun experience of watching the rest of the world go out and be sexually active and end up with the marriage and children that you, the obedient person, still don't have.
Perhaps if we were more focused on God's grace to begin with, instead of falling into a pattern of works-based thinking, envy wouldn't be such a problem. That is, we wouldn't be dealing with this fallacious notion of "Why isn't God giving me what I deserve? I did what he told me to do!"
If too many single Christians are compromising their principles and falling into sexual disobedience—and the evidence shows that this is the case—perhaps it's because so many of us were taught a lie in the first place. It was taught to us with the very best of intentions, and with the highest hopes for us … but it was a lie all the same.
What we—both teens and single adults—need from the church is better theology, a healthy dose of realism, and a little more understanding of where we are in our lives. When you're a chaste single adult, the teachings about how you're a princess and God will bring you a knight (or, alternately, that you're a knight who has to go win yourself a princess) start fading away just as you reach the age where the mainstream culture starts to regard you as a freak.
The 40-Year-Old Virgin wasn't just a movie title, it was a punch line. When that's what we're hearing from the culture about ourselves, we need the church to support us, to remind us that we're valuable to God and to the community, and that if our "knight" or "princess" hasn't shown up, we still have the chance of a good life. That obedience isn't a formula to get us what we want, but a way of living that we follow because God loves us and we love him.
The recently deceased John Stott practiced celibacy all his life. C. S. Lewis was celibate for most of his. Was it a fate worse than death? These men didn't seem to think so. Both of them lived good lives, rich in relationships, in God's service. And as Stott advised his fellow singles, "Pray daily that God will guide you to your life partner or show you if he wants you to remain single. … If God calls you to singleness, don't fight it. Remember the key text: 'Each person has his or her own gift of God's grace' (1 Cor. 7:7)." Words like these, in all their biblical and practical wisdom, offer a great place to start pursuing a workable theology of singleness.
Sometimes obedience doesn't get us what we imagined. But then, "princess theology" notwithstanding, God didn't say that it would. Our hope and consolation are—they have to be—that he is worth it. No other hope or consolation will do.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog. Her first book, 'Bring Her Down': How the American Media Tried to Destroy Sarah Palin is available on Amazon.
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Previous articles on sexuality & gender include:
Q & A: Bristol Palin on Abstinence after Levi | The daughter of the former governor of Alaska on sexuality, body image, and her "come to Jesus" moment. (July 13, 2011)
Sex Economics 101 | Mark Regnerus, the early-marriage sociologist, shares his latest research on young adults' sexual attitudes and behavior. (February 18, 2011)
How to Teach Sex | Seven realities that Christians in every congregation need to know. (February 9, 2011)
Dalfonzo's Her.meneutics contributions have included: "Guarding Your Marriage without Dissing Women," "Bill Maher Slurs Sarah Palin, NOW Responds," "The Social Network's Women Problem," "Facebook Envy on Valentine's Day," "What Are Wedding Vows For, Anyway?" "Why Sex Ruins TV Romances," and "Don't Think Pink."