I once googled the word intimacy and found the images to be 99 percent sexual. In our Western world today, intimacy equals sex. Want to experience intimacy? You need to have sex. The two are nearly always inseparable in our minds.
We illustrate this in our instinctive interpretation of just one Bible verse. It records part of a lament the Old Testament King David composed on hearing of the death of his best friend, King Saul’s son Jonathan. And it contains these moving words:
I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women. (2 Samuel 1:26)
Today it seems impossible for anyone to read this song without thinking that David and Jonathan must have enjoyed a sexual relationship. Didn’t you find yourself quickly sniffing out some-thing homoerotic about them? Off the back of this one verse, some have even claimed biblical approval of gay relationships— all because David says Jonathan’s love for him was better than a woman’s. We just can’t stop ourselves.
But what about the more plausible theory that Jonathan’s simple friendship was more precious to David than his complicated relationships with women? (First Samuel 25:42–44 lists three wives at this stage of David’s life.) Why is it not possible that he enjoyed the non-sexual intimacy of his friendship with Jonathan (also a married man) more than the sexual intimacy of his relationships with Abigail, Ahinoam, and Michal? Why not conclude that he’s not saying Jonathan was better in bed than his wives—but that Jonathan’s friendship was better than anything David did in bed with his wives?
Sadly, we don’t seem to be able to conceive of that possibility today. Such intimacy must mean sex. Our sex lives are meant to be the best things about our lives. But I think that tells us more about our relationships today than David and Jonathan’s back then. We live in a society whose only route to true intimacy has become the joy of sex.
And the consequences for someone like me sound pretty tragic: no intimate relationships because I’m saying no to sex. My life will thus be a lonely one without the sort of relationships that any human being needs to survive, let alone thrive. No wonder so many think the celibate life I’ve chosen just isn’t plausible—that I’ll either wither away slowly or (preferably) give up on it very soon.
Human beings need intimacy. Without it we die inside—even if we might keep going through the motions on the outside. God himself speaks clearly of this need (Genesis 2:18). Church minister Kate Wharton helpfully fleshes this out:
Ever since God declared that it was “not good” for Adam to be alone, human beings have been living alongside one another, sharing life together. I need other people in my life. I need them to offload to after a bad day; I need them to work alongside me in ministry; I need them to share a bottle of wine with me as we put the world to rights; I need them to point out to me the parts of my character that need working on; I need them to celebrate with me when good things happen; I need them to spend my days off and holidays with; I need them to give me a hug and tell me everything’s going to be OK.
I need intimacy in all these ways. So I need to be in an intimate sexual relationship, to have “someone special.” That would seem to be the point that she’s making. But it’s not. She’s a single woman (not same-sex attracted—just for the record) who is talking about the God-given need for us all to live our lives in community. She’s making the much-ignored point that God’s answer to the problem of human loneliness is not just the sexual intimacy of marriage, but everything that first marriage made possible. From it came more people and the possibility of life in community. In denying me a sexual partner, God is not denying me intimate relationships—he provides them in countless other ways.
So, interestingly, I don’t feel it is God who is preventing me from having intimate relationships. Instead, they are often closed off to me by our society and sexualized culture. The world in which we live cannot cope with intimate relationships that aren’t sexual—it makes no sense; it’s just not possible. So I’ve had to pull back from deepening friendships with both men and women out of fear that they are being seen as inappropriate. None of them were—but the supposed impossibility of non-sexual intimacy meant we felt under pressure to close them down. That’s been very hard at times.
But what’s been hardest is how the church often discourages non-sexual intimacy too. Our response to the sexual revolution going on outside our doors has sadly just been to promote sexual intimacy in the context of Christian marriage. And to encourage people to keep it there by promising this will then deliver all the intimacy they’ve ever wanted. Journalist Andrew Sullivan makes this point:
The Christian churches, which once . . . held out the virtue of friendship as equal to the benefit of conjugal love, are our culture’s primary and obsessive propagandists for the marital unit and its capacity to resolve all human ills and satisfy all human needs.
I wish I could say this wasn’t true. But it is! If our churches put as much time and energy into promoting good friendships as they do good marriages, life would be much easier for people like me. And, interestingly, much better for everyone else too. Sullivan goes on to point out a tragic consequence of this Christian idolatry of marriage:
Families and marriages fail too often because they are trying to answer too many human needs. A spouse is required to be a lover, a friend, a mother, a father, a soul mate, a co-worker, and so on. Few people can be all these things for one person. And when demands are set too high, disappointment can only follow. If husbands and wives have deeper and stronger friendships outside the marital unit, the marriage has more space to breathe and fewer burdens to bear.
We need to read the whole of our Bibles again. In them, we will keep finding passages that urge us to promote and protect marriage (in just the book of Proverbs: 5; 7; 21:9), but we will also keep discovering (perhaps for the first time) a surprising number of passages that urge us to promote and protect friendships too (Proverbs 17:17; 18:24; 27:5-6, 9-10). We need to start doing both—not only so that people like me survive and thrive, but so that our marriages and families do too.
And this will only happen if we aim at intimacy in friendships as well as in marriage. Intimate friendships are what make my life possible today. I have a number of relationships with people who know me very well. They know most things about me—the good, the bad and the ugly. And they love and care for me, despite that knowledge, and I return the compliment, despite the similar knowledge I have about them.
Phil and Caroline are two single friends that I drink gin and champagne with—though not at the same time! They laugh with me and at me (an excellent combination) and are two of the people with whom I most like to spend time. I go on vacation with them each year along with a whole group of other friends who have shared our lives with one another for a good decade or more. It’s a beautiful thing.
To take another sample, let me tell you about my friendship with Julian, Mark, Matthew and Neil. We met at a Bible college. We always sat together in the same part of the lecture room. We gradually got to know each other. Off the back of a scary talk about all the ways in which we could shipwreck our lives and ministries, we formed an accountability group with the aim of keeping each other walking Jesus’ narrow way. We knew each other quite superficially before that talk—thirteen years later, we know each other very well.
And that has meant getting to know each other intimately.
Intentionally sharing the details of our lives that we’d rather have kept private but that have really benefited from seeing the light of day in good Christian company. I was first open and honest about my sexuality with this group of friends. They’d built up a good track record of being trustworthy people you could share hard things with—mainly by sharing the hard things they were going through themselves. Intimacy breeds intimacy—just being open and honest with other human beings encourages everyone to keep on sharing and caring. They are, as a result, the people whom God has most used to keep me going as a Christian. I couldn’t be more grateful to him for them.
In a slight aside, it is interesting to note that Christian psychologist William Struthers sees this sort of godly male intimacy as the main answer to the current epidemic of pornography addiction among male church members. His is a persuasive theory:
The myths of masculinity in our culture have isolated men from each other and impaired their ability to honor and bless one another. Too many men have too few intimate friends. Their friendships run only as deep as the things they do together. By finding male friends to go deeper with, the need for intimacy can be met in non-sexual ways with these male friends. When this happens the intensity of the need for intimacy is not funneled through sexual intercourse with a woman; it can be shared across many relationships. Sexual intimacy may be experienced with one woman, but intimacy can be experienced with others as well. Not all intimacy is genital, so do not feel restricted in your relationships with your brothers in Christ.
His point is an interesting one: our sex drives are not just lessened by sexual intimacy; they can be satisfied by non-sexual intimacy, by friendship too.
My personal experience is that the power of sexual temptation lessens the more time I spend among friends with whom I am non-sexually intimate. That might sound weird, but I think it just proves the point that true intimacy is found not just in sex but also in friendships, so I don’t have to live life without that intimacy just because I’m not getting any sex. For me, that has involved intentionally making sure my friendships with members of both sexes are more and more appropriately intimate. For other same-sex attracted people, I know that intimacy in friendships with their own sex can lead to more sexual temptation, but with honesty and accountability in place, there is no need for them to be totally avoided.
So, do you want to do your own part to tackle the plausibility problem? Work on making your friendships more intimate. I’ll hazard a guess that this will be quite a challenge. We are far too used to them remaining very superficial (especially if we’re men). Biblical counselor Paul David Tripp is on the money when he writes:
We live in interwoven networks of terminally casual relationships. We live with the delusion that we know one another, but we really don’t. We call our easygoing, self-protective, and often theologically platitudinous conversations “fellowship,” but they seldom ever reach the threshold of true fellowship. We know cold demographic details about one another (married or single, type of job, number of kids, general location of housing, etc.), but we know little about the struggle of faith that is waged every day behind well-maintained personal boundaries.
One of the things that still shocks me in counseling, even after all these years, is how little I often know about people I have counted as true friends. I can’t tell you how many times, in talking with friends who have come to me for help, that I have been hit with details of difficulty and struggle far beyond anything I would have predicted. Privatism is not just practiced by the lonely unbeliever; it is rampant in the Church as well.
If, instead, we all started living in interwoven networks of increasingly intimate relationships, all of our lives would be much better.
But how can we do that? How can we begin to construct these much-needed networks?
First of all, we need to make time for people. Friendships are built not through snatched conversations before and after church but when we linger in each other’s company. So what activities do we linger over? Well (delete as appropriate): cooking, eating, drinking, washing up, watching TV, taking the kids to the playground, DIY and window-shopping all immediately spring to mind. Start inviting people to do these things with you (you’ll probably be doing most of them anyway)—you’ll soon get to know those people better.
Second, begin to share some intimacies with your friends. Trust them with your worries, doubts, fears and pain; ask them questions about their own. One of my best friendships was founded on just one afternoon’s conversation when he asked me a few good questions. Others have developed slowly over years as we’ve honestly shared the ups and downs of life together.
Third, persevere! I love Anne Lamott’s observation: “Rubble is the ground on which our deepest friendships are built.” I keep getting friendships wrong and am tempted to run away whenever I’ve made a mess of them once again. But my best friendships are the ones that have imploded—but then been slowly rebuilt. Friendships so often really get going after the first argument or misunderstanding and the careful, painful conversations that follow.
Want some more help with your friendships? My friend Vaughan Roberts has recently written a short book on friendship that would be the best place to turn. We’ve recently encouraged our whole church family to read it. In it, he honestly shares his own realization of the superficiality of many of his friendships and what he did to change this—based on what the Bible says about the importance of intimate friendships. Why not read it after this?
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Editor’s note: This article has been taken from Same-Sex Attraction and the Church by Ed Shaw. Copyright (c) 2015 by Ed Shaw. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515.