Piers Denholm-Young from the Jesus Fellowship, Coventry, speaks about his experience of celibacy:
I was thinking about why I am celibate. It’s good to revisit something like this.
I originally asked God in 1976 if I could be celibate. I was 24 and inspired by the possibility of being like Francis of Assisi and following Jesus the Lamb wherever he went. To me it was the highest way and I didn’t want to opt for anything less. Call it youthful ambition perhaps, but there you are.
I also felt that I could hack it. I had been engaged and we ended it, so I knew something of such an attachment. I definitely was not interested in having children, or devoting a large part of my capacity to raising a family. I wanted to be free to serve God, though what that would entail I had little idea. But my prayer was one of those that shoots through the ceiling and you know it’s got through.
So it was not really a surprise when my prayer was answered. Brethren sensed my calling, and one or two things I read confirmed it to me.
I made no vow then, but just accepted that I was celibate. I felt free of the game of looking at women (sisters) as possible partners, and pressed on with life in community.
I was given the virtue name Single Hearted – more interesting than Denholm-Young, and it was plain sailing for the first 20 years or so. Community was quite segregated and there was limited casual interaction between brothers and sisters. While being rather austere, it made celibacy simpler.
It took me a while to accept wearing a silver ring – what would my parents think? But since 1987 I have worn one and never taken it off.
I did have a couple of short experiences of falling for people that passed off quite quickly, and then in the third decade I had a more serious heart struggle over someone that I found myself alongside, but nothing was said and again I managed to let go and it blew over. The fourth decade – that’s another story for another time.
Back to my reasons for being celibate.
Quite early on I started enjoying spiritual fathering, finding sons, and some daughters, that I could train. That remains a wonderful motive for being celibate. They grow up faster than natural kids, and you get grandchildren pretty soon too. They become your crown and joy, and even the delinquent ones continue to be in your heart.
God keeps showing me that celibacy gives the freedom to love widely, rather than being limited to a wife and children, and then what’s left over for others. That makes marriage sound like a mean affair, and in fact it knocks a lot of selfishness out of people, while celibates like me can be quite selfish in their freedom if they are not careful. But I do enjoy being available to love the poor (especially at the Jesus Centre drop-in), my natural sister, my community house family including children, friends near and far, people I bump into randomly, or meet in evangelism. Plus I can love nature on mountains or in the back garden (I’m well known for liking bugs); it can be a real empathy.
And of course there is more time and freedom to seek and love God. I call it sitting by the sea when I go down the cellar or somewhere quiet and take time with him. I may pray or write verses or just be still (my weakest one). I can check my own heart, meditate, find prophetic insight, pursue a theme, and so on. I have scope to study scripture and read, to fast, to walk in the night. I’m free to waste time too, so it’s a responsibility.
Celibacy is an offering to God. One of the strongest words I ever heard from God was at a big event the church had in the early 90′s. I realised how much it had cost us so far to build, and it brought me to tears in the Spirit as I heard God say ‘I have made you (to be) an offering’. We are corporately a living sacrifice to him, and celibacy is a particular expression of this, an offering of love to him who first loved us and called us to be part of his bride. It is painful at times, but rich.
Celibates love Jesus. Now that does not instantly float my boat; after all he is a man, albeit a majestic man and an incomparable role model. But my images are of a bearded man with long hair (did he?) and a long white robe. I love him for what he did for me, but not for looking like that. However, he made it clear that we can love him in ways other than singing soppy songs with tearful eyes. Sorry – I do get moved by songs once in a while, and of course manly David loved God in song and prayer. His presence brings me to unsentimental tears.
He said ‘If you love me, keep my commandments’, so obedience is loving him. And his new command was to love one another, so I love Jesus by loving my brethren and being there for them. I also love him by doing good to ‘the least of these my brethren’ (Matthew 25.40) and meeting the needs of the poor and rejected. For Peter to love him meant to feed Jesus’ sheep, and as a pastor I must do that too; celibacy helps me have capacity. Plus I guess that to advance the kingdom with gifts and the gospel is to love Jesus. So there are lots of ways that I can work it out.
There is a theme that I return to, which is the quest of the human heart for union. The fall and our physical limitations leave us essentially lonely. We are made in the image of the triune God and so we long for oneness with others while still being ourselves. Even marriage with its intimacy can be an elusive reaching for the union of being that we are made for (I have known a taste of it, sublime but still limited). Celibacy is one path in the quest, loving many, exploring how to love God and to know him more.
We shall only find our full home and consummation of union in glory, but for now our hearts draw us on after Jesus.