One of the loneliest seasons of my life was when I was a college student living in a little apartment in Philadelphia. In the midst of a near-constant crowd, I was deeply hurting but no one knew or would’ve had the capacity to help. Being surrounded by people all the time while feeling “unknown” made everything worse.

Now, despite the ever-present opportunity to connect through social media, loneliness seems to be a growing epidemic. Loneliness is an excruciating experience because, as image-bearers, we are designed for relationship with one another, reflecting our relational, triune God.

This is underscored in the creation account in Genesis 2. After the repeated refrain throughout Genesis 1, in which we hear that “God saw that it was good,” the Creator now looks at his handiwork and makes a jarring assessment, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (v. 18, emphasis added). God’s solution to Adam’s aloneness was Eve.

This may be encouraging if you’re married, but where does this leave singles? Not to mention those languishing in difficult marriages. Some say there is no lonelier place than a bad marriage!

Although marriage and child-rearing are the Old Testament norm for humanity, a dramatic shift occurs in the New Testament. When Jesus is questioned about the practice of divorce, he brings his listeners back to God’s original intent at creation. But he concludes his teaching about the permanence of marriage with a profound declaration: “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it” (Matthew 19:11–12).

Instead of insisting on the importance of marriage and children to fulfill the creation mandate, Jesus proclaims that some will choose singleness for the sake of God’s kingdom. This is the first time in the Bible that singleness is depicted as a desirable and even exalted state!

Paul takes Jesus’s exhortation further, encouraging believers at Corinth to seriously consider lifelong singleness. What’s the reason? Because spouses are divided in their loyalties, wanting to serve the kingdom but also wanting to bless their spouse (1 Corinthians 7:6–9, 25–40). Do you see what he’s saying? In view of the radical reorienting call to serve in Jesus’s kingdom, Scripture understands that mission is so worthy, it ought to be prioritized over the creational calling to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Paul’s concern is for believers to maintain “undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:35). To this end, he encourages lifelong celibacy, although he freely acknowledges that it is not sinful to marry.

How can Jesus and Paul pull off this switcheroo against the previously prescribed remedy for humanity’s loneliness? What has changed? The Church.

Singleness is a viable, perhaps even preferable, option because now there is a new-creation antidote for humanity’s loneliness. Or to put it another way, we now have access to the true community God intended for his people.

In 1 Corinthians 12:12–31, Paul describes the church as a body with all the parts inextricably linked together. Note the “one-flesh” language of Genesis as Paul explains our interconnectedness as Christians! The social and communal reality of the church’s common life in Christ is the reason Paul encourages singleness for the sake of Christ’s kingdom. God’s people do not have to marry because there should be no lonely Christian in the Body of Christ. The church is called to be salt and light, reflecting genuine community in our increasingly fractured society.

There should be no lonely Christian in the Body of Christ.

And this includes married people. The fact they are “one flesh” should not be understood to mean that any couple is self-sufficient apart from the church. As one flesh, married people are corporately a single body part and still need the rest of Christ’s body. Marriage is an exclusive, covenantal relationship, but it can’t be your only relationship. As it is not good for any individual to be alone, it is also not healthy for any specific relationship to be alone, in isolation from the wider network of relationships God has designed to shape our lives in the body of Christ.

So, what steps need to be taken to enfold singles into their rightful place in the body? Ephesians 4:15–16 tells us that the body only reaches maturity as “each part is working properly.” This means if singles are not fully engaged and exercising their gifts in the church, the maturity of the entire body is significantly hindered.

If singles are not fully engaged and exercising their gifts in the church, the maturity of the entire body is significantly hindered.

Where does your own church need to grow in this area? There are two equally important aspects to consider: first, making sure there are no lonely people in the body. Second, don’t see singles as only lonely, needy people. They are gifted, equipped, and necessary for the health of your church! Married people need singles as much as singles need married people.

If you are lonely, whether single or struggling in a hard marriage, even if the church is loving well, know there are places where only Jesus can meet you. Know that the ultimate Bridegroom does not leave you alone; he gives you his name. He wants to possess you as his very own. That’s why Jesus came—to win his bride. The Spirit within you means Jesus is as close as he could possibly be—far closer than a spouse. He shares every thought and experiences every emotion. This is partly why the Spirit’s intercession for us is referred to as “groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). Especially as a single, it is crucial to embrace the truth of his presence with you and find ways to open yourself to this reality.

Editor’s Note: This blog is adapted from David White’s new book, God, You, & Sex: A Profound Mystery, which is available now. When you buy God, You, & Sex from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry

This article appeared in our 2015 magazine newsletter. It is being posted here for online reading and for those who may perhaps wish to comment on what it says.

She came into our first Sexual Sanity for Women (SSFW) gathering at our church, crushed, broken, and afraid. I welcomed her in, but felt like the smallest wrong word from me could send her quickly away. Her name was Becca (name has been changed), and she sat on the far edge of the couch, close to the door. It was obvious that if everything became too hard for her, she needed a quick escape.

I began the group by sharing my own painful testimony as a way to connect with the other women. I kept glancing over at Becca, continually praying for her, that God would give her courage to simply stay, for she was right where God wanted her to be. And she did. She stayed.

The second meeting was tougher. As the group members arrived, I could sense each woman laboring under the weight of her struggle. I began to feel my insecurity rise. Had I learned enough from my online group at Harvest USA to really think I could do this? Then I looked again, and I didn’t see Becca. I immediately thought her absence was due to something I said last week. I prayed, “Lord, please bring her back.” As I was praying, someone in the group who knew Becca well called her. “I am coming to pick you up. You need to be here as much as I do. You are not alone. We can walk this journey together, okay?” She wouldn’t take no for an answer, and she went and brought Becca in.

As we ended the lesson, everyone filed out the door except for Becca. She sat there, wanting to talk, but not sure where to start. I quietly sat down beside her and reminded her that this was a safe, confidential place where she could experience grace and healing rather than judgment. Her eyes leveled on me as she decided if she could trust me. She took a deep breath, and then it all rushed out—her story of abuse and heartache, of sin and poor decisions, of guilt and shame, loneliness and despair. As her tears flowed, so did the words that she had trapped inside for so long. Words that she had been afraid to share for fear of judgment.

She felt that no one could understand a story like hers, and if her story ever got out, she would be looked down upon, ostracized. But the story had to come out. She was disappearing inside of herself as she fiercely closed off this part of her life. As she spoke I could see her visibly lighten as she threw off the weight of her silence.

As she ended, her eyes searched mine for some sort of response. Through my own tears, I thanked her for being courageous enough to open up. I told her that, yes, her story was one of sin and sorrow, but it was also one of redemption and change, and that God was already touching her heart, helping her to lay down her experiences at the foot of the cross. I also planted the seed that maybe, just maybe, God would bring her to a place where, one day, she could share with other women struggling in the darkness of their hidden shame.

Little did I know that God would open up that opportunity so soon.

A few days later I got a call. A woman in a small group with whom I had been meeting for over a year had something to tell me. The group was stagnant, meeting more out of obligation than out of a desire to grow together. But something unexpected happened that breathed new life into the group. Becca, the quietest one there, told the group, men and women, that she felt she should share something with all of them. She felt moved to open up to them about portions of her past and present struggles in life.

Becca’s courage to speak ignited an atmosphere of trust and safety in the group. It would never be the same. Over time, every person in the group opened up about their own struggles. And just like that, the group was transformed from a purposeless group of individuals to a close-knit body of believers, joined together to glorify God in the midst of their struggles.

Of course, there is still much healing to be accomplished in Becca’s life. But she is an inspiration to us about the power of God to redeem and change broken people, which is all of us, if only we would be courageous enough to be honest with God and others.

This testimony came from one of Ellen Dykas’ participants in our online training for mentor and group leader classes. For information on what these training classes offer, contact Brooke Delaney at brooke@harvestusa.org.

Updated 5.23.2017

I’ve worked closely with Mitchell (name has been changed), a member in one of our men’s Biblical Support Groups. Mitchell struggles with depression, sometimes to the point of entertaining suicidal thoughts. Mitchell feels hopeless: He’s middle-age, single, unemployed, and right now living in his parent’s home. His loneliness feels unbearable. Challenging him to reach out and connect with others, both in the support group and at his church, is, well, a challenge. You see, his same-sex attraction increases his loneliness in the church.

But community is vital; it matters, so I keep gently encouraging him to move out of his loneliness by believing that Jesus is present in his life, and that, being filled with Christ, he can approach people not from a needy emptiness, but from a filled heart that can give to others.

Men like Mitchell need deep, strong friendships, as we all do. But it is more vital for men like him who live with same-sex attraction. Sadly, those with same-sex attraction deeply fear rejection and therefore increase their loneliness in the body of Christ. But it is in Christ’s body, the community of his people, where we are to learn to be fully present with others in our weakness and struggles. “If one member (of Christ’s body) suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:26, ESV).

How far the church still needs to go to be that kind of community!

Recently, he sent me an email that shows how far he has come:

This morning as soon as I began the thought, “What man’s arms are around me? I’m lonely!” I stopped. I acknowledged that no man’s were, and no man’s ever would be. But this time I began to picture in my mind Jesus at the end of my bed with his hand on my back; just being there. I imagined him holding me (you always say, Dave, that we are the bride of Christ). Though I wish I could see, feel, and touch Jesus, I never will in this life, but I acknowledged he was there and hadn’t abandoned me. That in that room, in the early hours of the morning, he was with me saying it was okay.

And I believe it. In this moment I believe it’s okay. The depression, the joblessness, the dependence on another for my survival, it’s all okay. I realize now that, especially in the dark days, I have to reach past my own hopelessness and dig deeper to find and hold on to the hope that is Christ. I am far from having this down yet, but I am closer.

I praise God for his good work in Mitchell’s heart. His story displays the power of God’s work in community, where in our Biblical Support Group Mitchell is slowly learning how to cling to Christ for comfort during loneliness and for courage to reach out to engage with others, where he is beginning to establish relationships with men as a fellow brother in Christ.

I pray that what we have in our support groups would be replicated in our church communities! Maybe Mitchell, in his weakness, will lead his church to become the kind of community Christ desires it to be.

Updated 5.25.2017

Modern psychology tells us—and indeed, our entire culture seeks to convince us—that it’s not good to repress or deny our sexual urges and desires. They’re seen by many as simple biological needs that demand expression; it’s seen as unhealthy not to seek that expression. Now that might be true, were it not for the fact that sex is never really about ‘us.” It’s about the other person.

Ideally, it’s about bringing all of who we are male or female to bless someone else. As archaic as it may seem, the Bible tells us that sex most aptly blesses others and reflects God in the context of marriage between one man and one woman.

Where does this leave the unmarried? Well, it leaves them dependent on God to meet the desires they might otherwise seek to fulfill through sex. This is also the case for married couples who deal with corrupt desires.

This is tough stuff. It runs contrary to the culture. It runs smack up against the messages about sex we get from advertising, TV, and the movies, that our drives and urges must be met at all costs. Resisting where our sexual desires might take us is not for the faint-hearted. It’s hard work. It’s a form of suffering, made more extraordinary because it is entirely voluntary.

But there’s an unseen benefit to resisting instead of repressing. C.S. Lewis, the Oxford University professor who wrote more than 40 books, including The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian, had something of value to say about this. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, 

“People often misunderstand what psychology teaches about ‘repressions.’ It teaches that ‘repressed’ sex is dangerous’…. On the contrary, those who are seriously attempting chastity are more conscious, and soon know a great deal more about their own sexuality than anyone else. They come to know their desires… as a rat-catcher knows rats or a plumber knows about leaky pipes. Virtue—even attempted virtue—brings light; indulgence brings fog.”

Lewis is saying that it’s in the active mode of resisting our desires that we come to know more of what fuels our hearts and emotions—that we come to be more aware of our true selves.

In a world that offers numerous ways to dull our emotions and anesthetize our anxieties, fears, and uncertainties, often through sex, knowing one’s self is an amazing thing. It opens us up to knowing God in the depth of our desires in ways we’ve never imagined.

Of course there’s a hint of the supernatural in all of this. It’s not ordinary to resist the pulls of the heart. It can be done only with the power God gives as we seek to worship him and put him first in our lives, by committing our unmet desires to God for him to satisfy in his own way—in his own time.

This is not repression; it’s honestly admitting our desires, yet yielding them to God.

Jesus demonstrated this by putting aside his own desires, drives, and needs and yielding them to his Father. He did this so we could know his forgiveness and love in spite of the weakness of our own flesh and our history of failures.

This article is a reprint of a column published in the Philadelphia Daily News.

Updated 4.20.2017

Sex, intimacy, and community 

We all yearn to be deeply known, and to be affirmed by the one who deeply knows us. In his book, Washed and Waiting, Wesley Hill explains why intimacy seemed so unattainable for him. As a believer in Jesus with same-sex attraction, celibacy is the choice of faithfulness to God,. Hill found himself holding male relationships at bay for fear that they would be come sexualized, thus already compounding the loneliness he felt.

Does a life without sex mean a life without intimacy? In our culture, we often cheapen sex so that two strangers can casually use each other for their own sexual satisfaction. But we also idolize sex to the point where a deep relationship without sex—heterosexual or homosexual—is considered to limit intimacy. Must intimacy include sex to be complete? If so, intimacy is unattainable for any person committed to celibacy.  Such a person must be destined for loneliness.

Building on some of Hill’s observations, we reject this. First, the Bible describes our relationship with the Father as “one” (John 17), the apex of intimacy. God commends us, “For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends” (2 Corinthians 10:18, ESV); he praises us, “But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God” (Romans 2:29): and he loves us sacrificially, “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:9-10). There is nothing sexual here, and yet we are deeply known, affirmed, and delighted in by our heavenly Father.

Second, some of the most intimate relationships described within the Bible were not sexual relationships. They weren’t marriages, but rather relationships within the community of believers: Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, John and Jesus, etc.

Hill takes us a step further. Under the guidance of a mentor, he realizes that humanity, as beings of flesh and spirit, requires intimacy of the flesh and spirit. Certainly Jesus meets every need. But he does that partly through providing a flesh-and-spirit community of believers– brothers and sisters with whom we can weep and rejoice. We confess sin to them, receive assurance of forgiveness through them, sustain loving mutual correction among them, and are loved for our good. This is incredibly intimate, unlimited, and not sexualized at all. So there is fulfilling intimacy in the gospel, even for the one who chooses a celibate life!

Part 1., Part 3., Part 4.

Updated 5.5.2017

Why didn’t God bring up masturbation in the Bible?

I came to Christ in 1971. I came to Christ as a teen as I was struggling with a constant habit of masturbating. Nobody knew that, because nobody would talk about it in those days, so I kept it to myself.

But as a young Christian I was told there was such a thing as a “concordance,” and you could look up all the words that were in the Bible! I got all excited and when no one was around, I looked under the letter “M.” As I found not a single reference to the act, I thought, “Looks like God’s not going to talk about it, either!”

That experience left a big question mark in my heart. Is masturbation right or wrong? All I knew was that I couldn’t stop. I tell people that before I came to Christ, I thought a man ought to be able to go to bed and go to sleep without having to masturbate first. The first time I acted out after I became a Christian, I thought, “It’s back! It didn’t go away like you were hoping.” That reality was devastating. But God’s silence on the subject made it more of an inward battle than it really had to be. Even if it was only a habit I couldn’t stop doing, I needed to be able with talk to people about it.

Around fifteen years ago, I went to a “Promise Keepers” meeting where the theme was worship. God spoke to my heart that weekend and said, “Bob, you are not worshiping me, and you know it.” Worship had become a mere formality in my life. I had a checklist in my mind and as long as we read the Scriptures, prayed, sang good old hymns, and had a theologically sound sermon, I assumed worship happened. But I was just going through the motions. It was far from what God had in mind about worshipping him.

A few months after the conference, I started dealing seriously with my sexual struggle. It was then that God reminded me about what true worship really was. Worship is about giving all of you, all of your heart, to something. Worship has to do with what you are living for. It was then that I realized that even though I was not truly worshipping God, I was worshipping something. I learned that my continual movement toward masturbation and pornography was an act of idolatry (false worship).

This discovery helped crystallize what repentance should be about. Now I knew what I had to turn from—and where I had to turn to. I had to be honest with what was going on in my heart. When life became confusing or boring or scary or whatever, masturbation and pornography was a place of escape, adventure, pleasure, and, in a word, life for me. I needed it, like an addict needs his addiction. I had to be honest about my fantasies and my preference for these things, rather than waiting on God.

It hit me: I didn’t have to know whether masturbation was right or wrong. All I had to know was that this activity was shutting God out of my thoughts and inviting in a substitute which seemed to calm me down and give me a break in life that I desperately needed.

God didn’t bring up masturbation in the Scriptures, but he did say we were supposed to bring every thought captive to Christ Jesus. And bringing my thoughts captive to the idea that my heart truly is an idol factory helps me be honest with the thoughts that go through my head. There is still a desperation in my heart to try and make things work out my way and I do need to repent from that.

Where are your inner thoughts leading you? Do you find that in times of stress, confusion, boredom, loneliness, or fear that you turn to find relief in pornography, masturbation, or other sexual temptations? If so, see your behavior as flowing from your heart, a heart that is living for and consumed by a need for comfort and relief, and not a life that is growing in dependence upon God and the things in which he delights. Repentance is very practical and relevant when we see it from this angle.

Updated 5.10.2017

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