Dear Dr Tony,
Thank you for your last article “Who Stole My Wedding Gown?” I am currently in my late thirties and still single. But how do I deal with my physical needs? Am I supposed to pretend my sexuality does not exist? I think about it a thousand times a day; how do I get it out of my mind? Sometimes I am so ashamed of my thoughts. How can I have a relationship with God when He makes impossible demands of me? I feel He threatens me with judgement when I fail. I used to be an advocate for waiting for sex until marriage, but as the years have gone by, I no longer feel this way. I think it's all well and good for teens and those in their early twenties to strive for such a goal, but as someone who has entered her late thirties, it seems like an outdated and irrelevant idea. If I do date a man now I cannot promise we will not have sex outside of marriage. I just know that waiting is not something I am personally interested in anymore.
You are certainly not alone in these struggles. There are thousands of people going through the very same thing you are talking about. Leaders are often unable - or perhaps reluctant - to publicly address these issues satisfactorily. The reason for this may be the fear of controversy over questions of sexuality or a lack of understanding of the key challenges you have noted or possibly because sometimes there are no easy answers when it comes to faith and sexuality.
Remember that we were created as sexual beings. Sex was God's idea in the first place and it was a part of His creation He called “good.” So keep one thing in mind as you read this; your sexual desire is a good thing, and a part of God's wonderful plan for humanity. Free yourself from feelings of self-hate, shame and accusation as far as your sexuality is concerned. You are loved by God and you have natural sexual desires which are propelling you in the direction of marriage. We are not dirty and sinful because of our God-given sexual urges. It is how we manage and channel these desires that often poses the problems. The clincher is that God gave us marriage as He intended so we would be free to celebrate our sexuality in total, complete and satisfying freedom.
However, even when you do get married do not think your struggle to remain pure will end with the wedding ceremony. Sexual purity is a battle throughout adulthood. It just takes a different form in marriage. Your married friends may be free to have sex but that does not mean they are not struggling with porn, fantasies, images from their past, extramarital flirtations and affairs. There are often other unspoken and very personal areas of conflict over sex in marriage, where for instance, physical infirmity in a partner, incapacitation or illness prevents sexual intercourse. Single or married, yielding your sexuality to God will always be a battle.
Is it really possible to control our sexual desires as single people? The answer is ‘yes’ and ‘no’. In one sense as long as we live in a broken world we will continue to struggle with many things in life. Controlling sexual desire is one of them. Perhaps that is why we need a Savior. I believe singles (and married people) can understand something deeper about God through their sexuality. I believe the ultimate reason for sexuality may be to reflect the deepest desires that exist between us and God. Our sexual longings and desires somehow point to a deeper intimacy beyond what even the best marriage can provide. This reference is often made at weddings where the bride and groom are compared to Christ and the Church.
If we are created as sexual beings and then asked to wait an excruciatingly long time for sex only in marriage, perhaps this is where we learn to meet our very deepest desires in God alone. I know that's easy to say but incredibly hard to live out. Sometimes it is in those moments of deep longing and frustration that we discover the truth about intimacy with God and discover pathways toward that long journey of knowing Him. Ask God to help you in this battle, which is really what it is. Ask for grace in the areas of self control and discipline. Do not allow your frustrations to turn into bitterness, cutting you off from the God who understands you best and can help you the most.
There are some practical steps we are often encouraged to take. I know it may sound trite and boorish but spending time in scripture is one. God's Word strengthens, sustains and convicts. Unless you are constantly standing on truth it is very easy to fall for other narratives. You also need accountability; find trusted people to be open and honest with about your feelings and failings. When issues are brought to light, they often lose their power to condemn.
It is wise not to feed your fantasies. Evaluate your recreational habits. With the way advertising exploits sex, it would be impossible not to think about sex even just watching TV. So choose your entertainment carefully. Certain songs and books, TV shows, movies and websites only turn up the sexual pressure. Movies are now more graphic than ever. Feeding your thought life with sexual images only makes it harder to remain pure in your actions.
Remember, it's not the sinless person who makes it to the end; rather, it is those who pick themselves up after they stumble. If your struggle seems relentless, remember this; when you commit yourself to sexual integrity, you commit yourself to a direction, not to perfection. You may stumble along the way - that's no justification to do the wrong thing, just a realistic view of life in this fallen world of ours. What determines the success or failure of an imperfect person (and who isn't?) is their willingness to pick themselves up, confess their faults, and then continue in the direction they committed themselves to.
Finally, what's your passion? What's your calling? How clear are your goals? Get a life! The one who doesn't have a life - a passion, a sense of meaning - is the person with an emptiness tailor-made for sexual sin. Life is more than keeping yourself sexually pure. As important as purity is, life is also about knowing who you are and why you exist, where your priorities lie, and where you're headed. Commit yourself to developing your life as a good steward of your gifts and opportunities, and make that the context in which you seek to maintain your sexual purity.
Sexual purity for its own sake is a good thing; sexual purity for the sake of a higher calling is even better. So pursue your goals in life with zeal and with passion. Make the most of your time; encourage new friendships, find new hobbies, join a study group or exercise class, serve in your local assembly. If you answer the call to be 'set apart' it will require you to think a little differently from the way others think. Being a follower of Christ has never been easy. Our call is to surrender some of our desires. It is all part of building faith and character. We should actually view the challenge of managing our sexual desires as an opportunity to develop godly, healthy character and habits that please God. The best news though is that you can win this battle.