Who Made ‘Abstinence’ a Four-Letter Word?

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The culture of the world around us laughs at the concept; it is as outdated as poodle skirts and penny loafers — or the idea that someone can be (or even try to be) objective.

And the subculture of Christians who made it a four-letter word is at least partly to blame.

We made sexual abstinence a four-letter word, and that word is “Don’t.”

That’s all the world around us can hear when the word is spoken in the context of sex, because that’s the way we preached it.

A prohibition. A command. A requirement. A demand. An imposed sacrifice.

It wasn’t always that way.

Centuries ago, those who sought the heart of God and the grace of Christ saw abstinence as something completely different; something more; something blessed and blessing to those who committed to it. Church orders practicing vows of celibacy sprang up and called to those who yearned for that more-ness and closer-ness through consecration and dedication, as surely as the desert had called to those who sought it through isolation, meditation and poverty.

Maybe that life doesn’t resonate with us, but that’s no reason to discount it entirely — or reduce it to a four-letter imperative. There was more to the concept than that, and there still is.

When God warned Moses to have Israel’s people consecrate themselves by washing and three days of sexual abstinence, it was coupled with a warning that the mountain of meeting would be off-limits to them. They were called to purity — not just the single people; the married as well — as a recognition of the extraordinary holiness and significance of God’s presence among them. (Exodus 19)

In the forty days and nights which followed, a significant number of the laws God revealed to Moses would have to do with sexual purity, and by the process of elimination (of those one must not have sexual relations with, per Leviticus 20) they all boiled down to this: God’s intention, gift and desire was for a man and woman who loved each other exclusively — bound by a vow of commitment to each other — to seal that vow through sexual union.

No one else.

Nor was this simply a singular incident isolated to the Old Testament.

In a teaching on marriage and divorce, Jesus raises the stakes on the divine intention for marriage — and closes it by (possibly) recognizing those who choose another path as a “eunuch” for the sake of the kingdom. (Matthew 19:12) A eunuch, as one can see from frequent mentions in scripture, is someone not only deprived of sexual function but also taking the role of a servant.

And unquestionably, Paul’s advice to married people is generally to honor each other through sexual relations, and the only exception he makes is a temporary period of abstinence by mutual consent for the purpose of prayer. I tend to take that period of “fasting” as an expression of purity and devotion to God. Whether married or single, either way of life should be considered a “gift from God.” (1 Corinthians 7:1-7)

Abstinence, especially among those who are not married, can provide an unparalleled opportunity to serve God.


Focus. Through the very reason Paul mentions later in the chapter: even without the same “present crisis” or shortness of time taking place today that was current then (7:25-31), the interests of the single can be singly on the Lord; the interests of the married are naturally divided between Lord and spouse (7:32-35).

We tend to see that as quaint but antiquated doctrine, and easily ignored. That was then; this is now; no one today could possibly think that abstinence could provide an unparalleled opportunity to serve God.

But the truth of it remains; the principle is as strong today as it was in the first century.

The culture around us sees it as unrealistic; a violation of personal rights; an expectation of God that is unreasonable and cannot be followed.


None of us has any self-control anymore?

No one is capable of using the power of brain over the power of genitalia?

No one can remain faithful to a spouse if they travel away from the home for a period of a few days?

No one has an unselfish desire to devote themselves wholly to serving the Lord over the transient pleasures of sexual congress?

And we believers, in our subculture, don’t see it all that differently. We won’t say it’s unrealistic (though we might think it); we just say its time has come and gone.

To our great loss.

I’m not calling for a renewal of monastic orders because I don’t believe Jesus was calling for them. I am, however, advocating a renewed way of looking at an opportunity we have neglected and sometimes denigrated — an opportunity for deep, personal spiritual formation through service to God and through a kind of kenosis we don’t like to talk about.

I’m not a martinet, nor a fool.

There are so many today who — by nature, their own choice or the choice of others (to use Jesus’ phrasing) — have had no opportunity to honor a beloved one with a pledge of fidelity sealed with sexual union. Many of them never will. That can be viewed one of two ways: a terrible, tragic oversight by an unfair God or an opportunity to serve in a unique way focused on liberation from the limitations of this life in an eternity graced by the presence of God.

There were people in the first century who served the Lord married; Peter, for one (he had a mother-in-law, remember?) … yet he spent a great deal of his time in Jerusalem, possibly at home with family as it should be, and only getting out for the occasional short mission trip to Antioch.

There were also people in the first century who served the Lord single, and people like Paul had the occasion to get their equivalent of passports stamped all over the Mediterranean while sharing the gospel, baptizing new believers and helping establish local church plants.

You may well think, “Keith, it’s easy for you to say these things — you’re a widower and pushing 60 like a hot rod accelerator.”

Granted. To a degree. I can say these things, but it is not easy.

Hey, I’m old … not dead.

I am almost two years away from having lost my dearest; I have not forgotten. Of course sex with the one you’ve committed to love for the rest of your life is fantastic. It’s incomparable. There is nothing else like it.

Yet as a single person again, I am beginning to see that there is also nothing else like an uncomplicated, undistracted opportunity to serve the Lord you love with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.

I am not there yet.

But I do recognize the potential described in scripture.

And it is so much more than the four-letter word “Don’t.”

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