But the Bible conceives of these things very differently. In Proverbs, friendship is far more than a verb for sharing your contact details on Facebook. A friend is someone who knows your soul. Someone who doesn’t just know lots about you, but knows you. And, Proverbs shows us, we cannot hope to live wisely in God’s world without such soul-to-soul friendships. All of us need them, not just those who are single. I’ve seen more than one marriage run into difficulty because the couple had looked entirely to one another to meet all their friendship and intimacy needs and had not pursued good friendships alongside their marriage. It’s not always easy to foster close friendships when you’re established as a family, but it’s a vital discipline to open up family life to others around you.
It was the kind of e-mail that breaks your heart.
A friend of mine, who lives too far away, contacted me to say he was struggling to understand how the cost of singleness as a Christian could possibly be worth it. As far as he could see, an illicit relationship would be “the only possible way for me to enjoy the relational intimacy I’ve dreamt of my entire life.” He concluded, “I cannot imagine the shell of a life I would live without somebody standing by my side.” In the light of this deficit of intimacy, could singleness ever be worth it?
My friend isn’t alone. In my own church family, one of the biggest causes of people drifting away from Christ has been entering into illicit relationships, especially single Christian women with unbelieving men. For many of them, the assumption was that life as a single just wasn’t viable. They needed intimacy.
It has become an unquestioned assumption today: Singleness (at least godly singleness) and intimacy are alternatives. A choice to be celibate is a choice to be alone. No wonder for so many this seems too much to bear. Can we really expect someone to live without romantic hope? It sounds so unfair.
Marriage and Celibacy
The Bible is clear that we choose between marriage and celibacy. In Matthew 19, Jesus upholds and expounds God’s blueprint for marriage found in Genesis 1 and 2: Marriage is between a man and a woman, and is designed to be for life. The disciples balk a little at this: “If such is the case between a man and his wife, it is better not to marry” (v. 10). But Jesus responds by talking to them about the life of the eunuch. The implication is plain: The only godly alternative to marriage is celibacy.
But the choice between marriage and celibacy is not the choice between intimacy and loneliness, or at least it shouldn’t be. We can manage without sex. We know this—Jesus himself lived as a celibate man. But we are not designed to live without intimacy. Marriage is not the sole answer to the observation “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18).
Our Western culture has so identified sex and intimacy that in popular thinking the two are virtually identical. We cannot conceive of intimacy occurring without it in some way being sexual. So when we hear how previous generations described friendship in such intimate terms, we roll our eyes and say, “Well they were obviously gay.” Any intimacy, we imagine, must ultimately be sexual.