I’d like to be prayed for. Yesterday was my 23rd birthday, and I have never so much as been on a date. At this point I’m strongly tempted to ask God to just take away my desires. It’s something I almost constantly think about, and because of it, I wonder if I’m ever going to be able to function in a relationship. I keep thinking I’m going to have unrealistic expectations and whatnot.
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One of the things that happens on my blog platform is that marketers use the “question” feature to send me advertisements. My spam filter collects ads and other annoyances before they reach me via email, but a few get through. This “question” was submitted by a marketer who might have previously sent me an advertisement for a rolex, noted that I’m a pastor, saw the kind of issues I deal with on my blog, and decided to send me a request for prayer via the “question” feature in the Word Press platform.
I usually delete the ads that get through, but this one I kept and pondered whether I should answer it. Am I able to answer it? Maybe not adequately. But it expresses a concern that young adult members of a congregation might share with their pastor. The writer is even contemplating an appeal to God to remove desire for a relationship out of fear over whether he or she can function in a relationship because of having unrealistic expectations. I don’t think this 23-year old single person is unique in expressing concerns about being in or seeking a relationship—and becoming obsessed with it. It’s obviously a major issue for young adults who are seeking a life partner. So I decided to give it a go.
I have no idea whether the person asking this question is male or female, straight or gay, or even what country he or she is from. If I were dealing with a 20-something parishioner I would know something about their life situation. I know nothing at all about this person. I can only hope that he/she/they might discover that the “question” submitted has been addressed. My guess is that this desperate person is a straight male who is frustrated about not getting a date with a female. I understand single people in this situation are calling themselves “incels”—“involuntary celibates”. It implies a resignation to their situation in which due to life style or personal presentation they aren’t able to get someone to go on a date with them.
Can I put myself in the situation of a 23-year old who hasn’t done any dating and yet desires a relationship? Well, sort of. When I was 23 back in 1966 I was in a similar situation. I hadn’t done much dating in high school, although I did ask girls to go with me to the junior and senior proms. College wasn’t a situation for dating. It was more just going out with a group or hanging out with friends. There was a girl I was really smitten with but she didn’t seem to want a deeper relationship with me than just being good friends. After college I went to seminary and opportunities for finding a girl to date were limited by availability (a mostly male environment in those days) and time constraints (we really did study, as well as have field work assignments). To make a long story short, I met my future wife when I was 32 and we married the next year. I confess that by the time I was 30 I was beginning to have the same thoughts as the questioner. So my first advice to the 23-year old is: you’ve got a ways to go before you begin to panic.
As to whether you should ask God to take away your desires: I’d say that’s putting God to the test since having a desire to be in a relationship with someone is part of our biological, psychological, and sociological make-up as creatures. Biologically, we have a desire to mate and reproduce ourselves. Psychologically, we have a need for intimacy with someone else. Sociologically, we feel social pressure to have a significant other and regularize our relationship. It has been this way since since “in the beginning.” Already in Genesis 1-2 we have the command to “be fruitful and multiply” (biology); God’s recognition that “it’s not good for the man to be alone” (psychology); and the institution of marriage (sociology).
We are sexual creatures. Sexual desires can be sublimated or suppressed but not eliminated. The intensity of sexual desire varies with age and sex (earlier for men, later for women), opportunity (the sex drive doesn’t sustain its own ardor without the possibility of an interpersonal relationship), health (a serious illness), etc. But the fact is that we have this drive to some degree. And I would think that for a 23-year old, male or female, surrounded by other young males and females in school or a workplace, and presumably healthy, your sex drive should be working in overdrive. I think it is since you report that you think about your desires all the time.
So I suspect your main issue is opportunity. If your job is spamming ads online, you’re spending a lot of time in front of a computer. You can’t be spending your evenings or free time watching Netflix. You need to be out socializing with friends in situations where there’s a chance of meeting someone you might want to have a date with. Dating someone from your workplace presents a whole set of complications and some employers discourage or even prohibit it. Online dating has become popular with young adults, and while it is not in my frame of reference I know several situations where it has led to positive relationships. I might add that I met my future wife in church. Since I was a young pastor that’s perhaps to be expected. But I would point out that there’s a higher percentage of women of all ages in church than in bars, and not as many men. (Hint!) In any event, no matter how you get together, the purpose of dating is to size up someone’s suitability for an intimate relationship or even as a potential spouse— although that should not be made obvious, nor should it be expected. (Yes, I know it’s a complicated dance.)
It has been customary in our society for men to ask women to go on a date. But in this age of equality of the sexes I don’t see any reason why a woman couldn’t ask a man. Some guys are shy about asking and need to be prodded. It’s an age-old story. In fact, in college I had a female friend who regularly asked me to go for a drive with her on spring evenings during my junior year to get away from campus or study. (She had a car, I didn’t.) We often stopped at a favorite diner for comfort food. Not fancy, but these outings were dates.
I should confess that on my 21st birthday, she came to my apartment to pick me up and pushed a little farther than we had gone before—right into my bedroom. But I wasn’t ready for a sexual encounter with her, she realized it, and graciously left. It was an awkward situation for both of us. But we got over it and went for a drive on another night.
You don’t have to feel a need to get intimate with someone on the first date. Best to hold back. Let it come naturally when you really feel some genuine love for the person you are dating and the passion wells up in you. I don’t want to sound like a puritanical old pastor, but young adults today have so much casual sex that I wonder if sex can mean anything significant when they finally develop a relationship with a significant other, hopefully leading to marriage.
You also shouldn’t make a list of what you’re looking for in a dating partner, much less in a future spouse. When you find the right person, it might be someone with qualities you never thought of. But something will click (his or her DNA? humanness? common interests?), and it might turn out to be the right person not because the person meets all the qualifications on your check list but because you are drawn to this person’s qualities.
Since you threatened to ask God to take away your desires, perhaps I should add that celibacy, at least in the Christian tradition, should not be seen just as an alternative to leading a sexually-fulfilling life: it is an intentional calling. Celibacy can be embraced as a living sign of the future kingdom of God in which there is “neither marriage nor giving in marriage.” It might be a practical decision brought about by conditions of devoting oneself to work in places where being married with family would be difficult if not dangerous. It can be a personal lifestyle in which a person devotes him- or herself to looking after the needs of others. In other words, celibacy as an alternative to marriage should be undertaken for positive, not negative, reasons.
While I have taken the view of a heterosexual person looking for a relationship, I am aware that the same concerns apply to gay persons who are concerned to find a soul-mate. Gay men are often very lonely. A gay man might think to himself: “this guy looks interesting. Do I dare ask him out?” Gay men can also be quite particular in their likes and dislikes. While I personally have no experience of same-sex relationships, I don’t see why my above comments on dating don’t apply here also.
Dear writer: Since I know nothing about you, I hope you will find this blog article and that it will be helpful to you. Maybe it will also be helpful to other 20-somethings—straight or gay—other incels who might read it.
For 20- or 30-somethings who have known this person’s desperation and gotten through it, I invite you to write about your own experiences in the comments section below.
Pastor Frank Senn