We’re grateful for all of our readers. We know that we have many readers who hold various forms of progressive sexual ethics and appreciate that our blog helps them think more about the nature of celibacy. Many believe that people who have the gift of celibacy should be able to choose a celibate vocation independent of considering sexual orientation as a motivating factor. These readers share our frustration with the tendency of some church communities to issue celibacy mandates to LGBT Christians while making no effort to create healthier spiritual environments for vocational discernment. Recently, we’ve received some questions like this one:
I like reading your blog because it’s very clear that you personally feel called to celibacy and find your celibate vocations life-giving. However, what is the best way to support and encourage someone who struggles with imperfect celibacy? I completely understand why some people who don’t have the gift of celibacy nevertheless interpret Scripture or their own personal calling to be to follow that path. But it seems like sometimes some of the most sensitive, caring, and spiritual people still struggle with this. I don’t mean a case where celibacy is imposed by someone else, but when someone truly has a deep spiritual conviction to be celibate and yet struggles and fails at that. Their lives seem dominated by struggle, guilt, shame, and occasionally risky sexual behavior where I struggle to see how celibacy is bearing good fruit in their lives. I want to respect their convictions while, at the same time, helping to paint a positive picture of what life in Christ could look like. I don’t want to elevate my own same-sex marriage as a potential answer for my friends in this position, but…. what can I do?
This is a good question, and it doesn’t have an easy answer. It points to our collective difficulties in understanding celibacy and vocation. Often, there are gaps between our vocational aspirations and our lived experiences in the here and now. Some of the most intense times of spiritual bitterness can happen when people are confronted with how their actual vocations differ from the vocations to which they aspire. It’s not uncommon to experience “imperfect celibacy.” In fact, we would guess that most intentionally celibate people live celibacy imperfectly. Yes, there are some ways to fail within a celibate vocation that cause friends more distress than other kinds of failures. Here are some thoughts based on how we approach these questions with our own friends:
Try to understand the vocation to which your friend aspires. Sometimes it can be helpful to ask what hopes and dreams a person has for living into a celibate vocation. Many of our hopes and dreams have their roots in improving our abilities to practice radical hospitality. We believe that any vocation should help a person grow towards Christ. Especially if a person is in his/her twenties or thirties, looking to the future (without ruminating on it unhealthily) can sometimes be helpful. Often in times of immediate vocational crisis, people can feel as though their current or past conduct has disqualified them from particular ways of life. The grief over this is real. Nonetheless, sometimes people in these situations overstate the repercussions of how they fear their actions have closed doors. We’ve found it beneficial to use reflective listening techniques to try and help friends in vocational crises identify immediately accessible things that can help them live into their aspirational vocations just a little more.
Reflect on, and possibly share, your own experience being transformed by Christ in the midst of vocational struggles. We all have places where there is a gap between our convictions and our abilities to live out those convictions. Thinking more deeply about specific places where God has helped us grow towards our own convictions can be useful. Lindsey has experienced a profound sense of God opening up hospitality as a way of life. Although Lindsey has always wanted to be generous and welcoming, Lindsey has had to work to find ways to practice authentic hospitality as an introvert. Likewise, Sarah has always wanted to be a mother, but typically celibate vocations do not involve having biological children. Sarah has had to (and continues to) discern how strong maternal instincts can fit into a celibate vocation. Throughout our respective processes, we’ve both experienced amazing transformational moments. Cultivating deep empathy for a friend becomes possible when you bring to mind times and places where you need to have deep empathy for your former self.
Appreciate differences between your own spirituality and your friend’s spirituality. Discerning vocation is about finding one’s life in Christ. A variety of spiritual disciplines that aid in vocational discernment exist within different Christian traditions. We find ourselves writing constantly about making the kingdom of God visible because we’ve found that this core idea resonates with readers from diverse Christian traditions. However, we know that vocation is profoundly personal where each individual needs to connect with his or her own Christian tradition at many steps along the way. When we are talking with friends struggling to live their vocations, we do our best to center conversation within their specific Christian traditions rather than exalting our own.
Encourage and respect your friend’s search for compassionate spiritual direction within his or her Christian tradition. At the end of the day, we don’t consider it our job to provide a specific spiritual prescription during times of vocational crisis. We reserve that task for spiritual directors who commit to walking alongside the people to whom they minister. We believe ardently that every person needs a spiritual director. It’s essential for those struggling with vocation to find compassionate spiritual directors who can meet them where they are at right now, appreciate how Christ is calling them to participate fully in the Kingdom of God, and make wise recommendations about how to bridge the gap between a person’s current lived experience of vocation and his or her aspirational vocation. When a friend shares about his or her struggles with imperfect living of vocation, our natural next question is, “Do you have a spiritual director who is helping you with these struggles?” Spiritual directors are awesome because they have studied the wisdom of particular Christian traditions to guide people through life’s difficulties. If our friend says that he or she does have a spiritual director who is offering sound, compassionate, and wise counsel within the context of his or her Christian tradition, we trust that our friend is in good hands and remind our friend that nobody can snap a finger and live vocation perfectly.
We’re never terribly surprised when any person has trouble living out his or her vocation. Living into the fullness of what Christ is calling one towards is hard! As always, we welcome discussion in the comments. Feel free to ask follow-up questions, respond to our suggestions, and make suggestions of your own.
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