Celibacy (Part 4): When Life Becomes a Romance

“Nothing touches our lives but it is God Himself speaking… Get into the habit of saying, ‘Speak, Lord,’ and life will become a romance.” –Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest

I’d tasted something sweet and I couldn’t get enough. On October 11, 2015, less than two weeks after my divorce was final, I wrote in my journal a list of characteristics I wanted in a spouse. And then I set it aside and wrote this: “A year seems intimidatingly ambitious, so I dedicate the next six months of my life, until my 37th birthday, to listening. To setting aside the noisy things in life—consumption, alcohol, sex, romantic relationships—to hear God.”

That was not an easy decision at the time. I’d seen glimmers, and I wanted more. But I was tossing out all of my security blankets—the things I went to when I felt bad to get a quick and easy sense of safety and contentment. This wasn’t just sexual celibacy, I ran full-tilt into a life as simple and stripped-down as I could make it. If there was anything at all that could get in the way of hearing God speak, I didn’t want any part of it. I cut back my non-work activities to almost 0, I gave away or sold anything I owned that didn’t seem necessary, including (or especially) my TV. You could say I turned my home into a monastery of sorts—I cultivated quiet, peace, and contemplation. The walls were gray and I had very few things hanging on them. The house had even come with a mezuzah (Jewish scripture scroll in a box) nailed by the front door. I carved out a space of solitude and prayer. I quieted my life so I could hear and experience more of Him.

What followed was one of the loveliest periods of my life so far. I found I loved the romance of God so much I kept extending the time beyond the six months, first to a year, then more. My name means “beloved,” and for the first time in my life I began to really know myself that way, deep down. In spite of my bad experience with marriage, I have known love in my life. I have a beautiful, loving family. I have great friendships. But even so, it can be hard to escape the nagging doubt deep in my heart that tells me I may not be enough. When love only comes through other people, doubt can always say, “Well, they don’t really know you.” It’s not humanly possible to tell another person everything about yourself. There’s always one more thing that fear says might turn them away. And besides, even the kindest, most well-intentioned people will hurt you sometimes. Our needs bump up against one another. We can’t all win all of the time.

But with God… Oh, with God…

Over the course of my monastery life, I’ve learned why my thoughts in my head are verbal, why my brain uses words to talk to itself—they’re meant to communicate with someone besides me. The Bible says that the Spirit of God lives IN ME. I’ve come to know prayer as not just tossing my desires into the cosmic ocean, messages in a bottle I hope God receives and answers. Prayer is the most intimate connection possible, the sharing of myself and my experiences with the One who made me. He didn’t just make me so I could enjoy His creation and obediently thank Him for it when I think of it. He made me so He could experience it with me, so He could enjoy me enjoying it.

I’ve spent hours walking up and down the bike trail in the beautiful woods behind my house, talking with God, enjoying Him enjoying me enjoying Him. I remember one time, I had this idea that He wanted me to move back to southern California and I was expressing concern about that. I looked around me at the beauty right behind my house—the trees, the creek— and asked Him how He could possibly ask me to move back to that cement wasteland. His response: “I knew you would live here when I put that creek here.” I still don’t know whether He’ll send me back to California at some point. In some ways, the what and the where matter a great deal less now. He often responds to my questions about specific direction with a show of His deep and abiding love for me, His appreciation of who I am and His desire to cultivate the best parts of me. “You’re worried? You’re so lovely, even when you’re worried. Look, I am doing things to make you happy. And I’ll keep doing them, in all places, everywhere you go.” (“Your life will I give unto you for a prize in all places where you go.” Jeremiah 45:5.) He put a creek in a certain spot hundreds—thousands?—of years ago with me in mind. You can take your dying plants from the florist and stuff them—I’ll take a babbling, clear, cold creek teeming with salmon and haunted by foxes over a dozen roses any time.

A few weeks into my experiment in radical celibacy, I wrote this in my journal:

“I just had the strangest experience. I enjoyed looking into the mirror. That’s rare enough, but I enjoyed it with 0 sense of vanity. I had just finished listening to a song in the bath and as I [got up and] rounded the corner to the sink, the lyric came on: ‘I stare into the face of my savior, King and Creator’ and I saw Him reflected in me. And I enjoyed looking at myself. I didn’t feel like a stranger in my own body. When I think I’m just looking at me, I have to step outside myself and pretend I’m Other to appraise myself. But when I look for traces of Him, I can look for me looking at me AS me. I see myself in my own eyes and God’s eyes, and I see him in me.”

Maybe now you know why I feel like trying to describe the experience of God is like telling you about my friend Bob in Pittsburgh—you just have to meet him and see for yourself. But I hope you’re catching at least a glimpse of what it means to share my experience of my life with God, the way it lets me inhabit my life as someone who is LOVED. Enjoying Him enjoying me enjoying Him enjoying His creation together—it’s a beautiful cycle that just builds in momentum and love the more we pass it back and forth.

And there you have it, my experience of celibacy, of abstaining from a whole bunch of things—including sex—to hear God. I did hear Him, and it was an experience that was so breathtaking in its romance I didn’t want it to end. That, my friends, is better than any sex I’ve ever had.

I wouldn’t push the monastery life on anyone. I don’t think I could. I suppose you can make someone stop and smell the roses, but you certainly can’t make them enjoy it. And if you can’t make them enjoy it, why would you bother?

I do recommend it, though, if you’re inclined. The whole experience—clearing my life of clutter (some bad things and some just distracting) and using that time to get to know God—is something I’m very glad I had before trying to get into a relationship again. I think if I’d done it before I got married, well, I might not have gotten married when I did to the person I did.

I’m not sure I’d recommend the monastery life for very long, though. I guess people have found satisfaction in it as a lifestyle, but I don’t think it’s for me. Even though I kept extending it, it was only six or seven months into it that God started gently reminding me of my desires to share my life with someone. He started giving me dreams (real, night-time dreams). He threw smart, good-looking men in my path when I least expected it. He began waking up desire for interpersonal romance even as I was being romanced by Him. But… well, that is a story for another time.

If you want to read more about experiencing the presence of God in lonely places (and not just deliberately quiet ones), check out this transcript of a communion talk I gave at church.

Celibacy (Part 3): Going to Pittsburgh

God was speaking to me, He was giving me beautiful moments of loving invitation that were far more intimate than anything I’d experienced in my Christian life before. Moments like a hike on the trail, when I told Him how much I loved what he’d done with the trees, and He told me that the best part for Him was watching me enjoy it. Moments like when He turned a pair of boots red just because He knew I would like them.

Even so, I felt to ashamed to meet Him where He was calling me and walk with Him. How could I when I was so overwhelmed by sexual desire that I couldn’t help but fall into it? I felt engulfed by guilt and powerless to do anything about it. I decided to carve out a safe space for myself that seemed realistic. I became pragmatic. If I couldn’t help my physical needs, and I couldn’t engage my tattered heart in a relationship, I’d stick with some kind of friends-with-benefits scenario. At least that way I would avoid the clear dangers of hooking up (disease, pregnancy, the drama of running into people later—Anchorage is a very small town).

I told my plan to a more sexually experienced friend. He basically patted me on the shoulder and told me it wouldn’t work. “Friends with benefits never lasts more than like a month or two. One person always ends up wanting it to be more than friends.” I was optimistic, “No, I think with this guy it will work. We have it figured out.” We chatted a bit more about the practicality of it, and then he looked me in the eye and said, “What about…?” and pointed heavenward. He knew that in spite of all of this, I loved God deeply. We both had an idea that God would be unhappy with what I was doing. I shrugged, but my heart sank.

Later that night, I was reading a book on Redemption and ran across a short blurb where the author mentioned failing over and over and over again on the path to redemption. How is that possible? I though. I’ve heard so many people say that, if you don’t change your behavior, you haven’t really repented. I wondered whether it was possible to feel deep regret and shame and a desire to change but not actually repent. But here was someone saying that sometimes it takes trying again and again, and falling on your face over and over. Was it possible that repentance didn’t necessarily mean immediate success at fixing the problem? I decided that, even though I felt like I was completely incapable of succeeding, even though every time I tried I failed worse than before, I would keep trying. My wall, my will wasn’t effective, but there had to be another way. I decided I would keep failing until I found it.

What if it wasn’t up to me? And what if there was something God cared more about than me trying? I ran across a verse, “In returning and rest you shall be saved.” (Isaiah 30:15) I noted that it didn’t say “in returning and fixing it immediately.” My mind’s eye saw me turning my face to God and then… that was it. Resting. Waiting. Was that all there was to repentance after sin? Was there an alternative to whipping myself into an obedience I didn’t understand?

In one moment of scrambling to find ways to try harder, I had considered getting a tattoo that said “The Lord’s” on the back of my hand where I could see it, as a reminder to myself that I belonged to God and didn’t have to sin. It’s hard to miss a hand tattoo, even when you’re drunk. Before I could get the tattoo, I crashed my bike on some sand and skinned up my knees, my face, and my hand. I have only one scar from that crash. It looks like writing, and it’s exactly where I would have placed the tattoo on my hand. It was as if He was telling me I didn’t have to mark myself as His, He already had. Returning and rest… just look at Him. See Him… If I could have more of that presence—-the beautiful sound of the voice of love—I felt like my life would be very different, and not just morally.

About that time, I joined a reading group that was studying Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. (I really was trying every pious magic trick I could think of.) I knew I was supposed to be generous, to spend time in prayer, to worship God through music, to fast from eating. These “disciplines” had always been on a checklist of things I thought I was supposed to do as a good Christian. I wasn’t great about doing them. Other than music, I wouldn’t have said I enjoyed them. Foster’s take was a little different. He said that these were things you could do to make your heart fertile ground for more of the presence of God, that there was a freedom in them that you couldn’t find elsewhere. That was new. I was surprised to find myself trying out fasting, even more surprised to find myself enjoying it. I love food. Deliberately not eating sounded like unnecessary torture. But I tried one day. And another. Until I was fasting almost every week.

It’s a little hard to describe the joy of feeling God’s presence, or the fact that not eating can be one of the best things I’ve ever done. It’s like having an amazing friend Bob who lives in Pittsburgh. He’s just one of those indescribably lovely people. You tell your friends at home about him, but they’re not convinced. “You’d love Bob! He’s hilarious and just a really caring person. He’s… well, you just have to meet him. Come to Pittsburgh with me next time I visit Bob! I promise it will be worth it. Pittsburgh is kinda weird but he knows the best spots. We’ll have a great time, I promise!” “Um, I’m sure your friend is great, but, um, Pittsburgh? Really, Amy?” “Yeah, it’s different with Bob. I swear!”

I’ve never been able to find good words to describe what happens during fasting that makes God’s presence so much more real and palpable. It just does. And whatever it does, it does in incredibly powerful ways. I knew something had changed when I gave up amazing sex one night because I knew it would interfere with me fasting the next day…

Hey! I finally mentioned sex! (Or avoiding it. Haha.) More of the (non-) sexy good stuff in the next post.

Celibacy (Part 2): Tearing Down the Wall

God had started talking to me a little before this point in our story. When I began to give up on my marriage, He started speaking to me in a way I could hear–a voice in my mind, in my dreams. I’m sure there are a lot of you reading this who are immediately skeptical. I was—that was not the God I had been taught to believe in. How God addressed my theological skepticism is another story for another time. (If hearing God’s voice is something that interests you, subscribe to my email list–there’s a subscription form at the bottom of the page. You’ll get access to an Invitation to Connect that starts a conversation on the topic.) What matters in this context is what He did with the wall protecting my heart and what that meant for my sex life. I was expecting Him to help me build the wall, but He surprised me with something completely different.

In yesterday’s post, I’d mentioned building a fence, a wall to protect my moral purity. That was the approach I’d learned, in part, from years of conversation about abstinence. Without understanding the value of sex (or without wanting to talk about it), the easy conversation to have is that avoiding sex outside of marriage protects your heart. We all have fears and insecurities—an easy way to motivate my behavior is to speak to those and give fear tools like abstinence. I’d built a pretty formidable wall at that point. It was long and thick and high, and not very effective at keeping me from “falling into sin.” What it did do effectively was keep out love. Sexual desire isn’t simple. We like to treat it like it’s this weird, discreet part of us that we should be able to turn off and on at will. But it’s bound up in desires that have nothing to do with sex—with love, with a desire for unity and belonging—good desires.  Fragile desires.

In high school I kept a notebook where I copied quotes I liked. One that always stuck with me was, “Nothing can ensure the continuance of love. It will evaporate like a spirit and so I feel full of fears.” (From Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native) I was afraid of love’s elusiveness, and the tone of abstinence culture reinforced that. Better get him to put a ring on it before you give it up, or else he won’t value what you have to offer. He’ll stop respecting you and you’ll lose him.

So, I built my wall. Some bricks were moral, but some were emotional. The wall had actually been more effective at protecting me emotionally than it had been at keeping me succumbing to sexual temptation. When I started hooking up, the wall was failing because the emotional bricks had begun to crumble. The legitimate needs it had been keeping out for my lifetime (in the bad times in my marriage AND the good. In other relationships…) had become so strong and formidable they overwhelmed it. What I didn’t realize was that the wall I thought was only a moral wall had been protecting emotionally from other people, even from God.

When God began speaking to me, he talked to the wall. He spoke in a way that didn’t raise its alarms, so His voice could sail over it to the starving animal that was cowering behind it. The first time I heard Him, I was beginning to really despair over my marriage. My pastor preached that, if we were having a hard time, we should ask God to show us what good He was trying to do in those circumstances. Feeling like I had nothing to lose, I asked. I was floored when a voice in my head that wasn’t my own responded immediately, “I’ve given you joy and you’ve traded it for ingratitude.”

When I tell people this story, their reaction is always that that sounds a bit harsh. My answer is always, “But, if you’d heard His voice, you’d know it was anything but harsh.” There was so much love in the voice that it almost made the message irrelevant. It was as if someone had turned love into a musical instrument and played the words on it. Looking back, I’ve come to realize that He began speaking to me in stern words because He knew I would recognize it was Him—that was what I knew about Him. It got past the defenses on my wall.

Over time, I would learn to recognize and trust His voice enough that He could start speaking love into it my heart without tripping my defenses. First, I had to be able to be open about my desires. A good friend encouraged me to pick something I longed for and ask Him for it. At that point, I was in the middle of separation from my husband, getting up the nerve to ask for a divorce. I’d started hooking up. I didn’t feel like I deserved the right to speak to Him that way. “God hates divorce,” so how could I come to Him with a request when I was doing something he hates?

It took me months before I tentatively, quietly told Him what was on my heart. I was biking to work, and tearfully sent up a request, “God, you know my desire is for someone to love me.” Adding, quickly, “That can be [my ex] if you change his heart, of course.” The voice of love responded with difficult words I could recognize, “Stop making it so hard.” Again, hard words, but I took away hope and peace in knowing that He was working to meet my desires when I’d lost my own ability to do it myself. He had been doing it even before I’d asked. He was caring for my desires before I could even speak them. When I arrived at work, I pulled out my phone and an app notification on the screen said, “I did not redeem you for isolation. I am making you part of a new family.” I spent the next half hour weeping in the bathroom at work. The message had landed in my heart.

While I had been tearing down the moral bricks in the wall, he was beginning to dismantle the emotional ones.

Huh, another day, another post, and not a word about celibacy. I’ll get there. I promise. Check back tomorrow for more. In the meantime, if you want to read an extraordinary and challenging book about the walls we build that block us from love, check out Hiding from Love by John Townsend (one of the authors of the bestseller Boundaries).

Celibacy (Part 1): Caging a Starving Animal

Well, I told you yesterday that I’d show off my celibacy cheerleading outfit. I promise it’s out of the closet, hanging nicely on a hook waiting for me to put it on. But first, a celibacy horror story.

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve had two very different experiences with celibacy. The first was when my then-husband decided he didn’t want to have sex with me for about four years (with some pretty long dry spells before that). It was awful. By the end of that four years, I felt like a starving animal. I was deprived of love AND sex. I’d felt hopeless to get either of them for so long that, once my ex and I separated, it was like letting the animal out of a cage.

My heart was broken, and the last thing I wanted was a relationship, so I started hooking up. As fun as it was, it felt off. Plus I knew it was against God’s laws. Try as I might, I couldn’t seem to stop myself. I had well-meaning friends and my counselor telling me that all I needed to do was delete guys’ numbers from my phone. Just STOP already. My response was that if I were dieting, putting a lock on the fridge doesn’t keep me from driving to the store to get ice cream. The starving animal in me felt unstoppable. It was embarrassing—I’d managed to survive years of not sex while my ex and I were still together. The relationship hadn’t been great, but my loyalty to him had been motivation enough. Without that motivation, I couldn’t figure out how to put the starving animal back in the cage. Laws just didn’t cut it. I kept building higher fences to contain the animal, and it kept jumping over them with ease.

The most memorable of those times, I was supposed to meet a guy at a concert. I decided to go with church friends instead, patting myself on the back for my discipline. I drank way too much and ended up bringing a much younger guy home. My ex was at our house packing up some of his belongings when we got there, so I distracted him while the guy snuck into the house another way. [Salacious details redacted.] We figured out afterward that we went to the same church. (Don’t bother guessing, HOTC friends. I haven’t seen him there for a long time.)

If you grew up in the church like I did, you’ll understand my “oh how the mighty have fallen” self-abasement over this situation. It’s ALL THE BAD THINGS. I mean, if there was ever a scenario meant to scare youth groups straight, that’s it. The only thing to top it off would be if I’d gotten pregnant and/or been murdered in my bed. If you aren’t a church person, you might be thinking, “Well, it had been a long time. I can’t blame you for wanting to get out and have a good time. And a young, good-looking guy? You go, girl. Sounds fun. Too bad you couldn’t get past the guilt to really enjoy it.” And… I don’t disagree. I know now that I beat myself up way too much. (Don’t worry, I’ll get to how I learned that truth.) I’m not trying to tell a moral turnaround story. What I am trying to demonstrate is that I was deeply unhappy. I felt broken and heartbroken and guilty on top of that, and I felt powerless to do anything about it. Hookups felt like the only thing I could do, and they weren’t helping.

If you grew up in the church like I did, you’ll understand that over of my pain and heartbreak there was a thick layer of fear that I was stepping out of God’s grace by disobeying. His unchanging moral laws are like physics—for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. To expect anything less is to tell yourself a very serious lie and misrepresent Him to the people around you: “If we came to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth” (I John 1:6) I was terrified of the implications for my salvation. Did I even know God?? What did it say about me that knowing God disapproved didn’t prevent me from doing it? I repented, but my background told me that repentance without change isn’t real repentance. Was I just kidding myself? And yet, I knew I was powerless to fix it. I’d reached the end of my resources and I didn’t know what else I could do.

I did the only thing I could think of. I admitted my powerlessness and asked for God’s help. And then I braced myself for the worst. I thought He would find a way to cage the animal effectively, and at best, I’d probably feel dumb and inadequate for not being able to take care of it myself. After all, as a Christian, I have the power of the Holy Spirit in me, right? I’d failed Him. God did begin to step in, but not in the way I expected. Instead of caging the animal, He began to quietly, gently feed it what it actually needed.

(Continued tomorrow…)