“Just be content. When you are truly content in your singleness, God will send that special person into your life.”
There it was. I smiled politely. “Yeah,” was all I could muster before quickly ending the conversation.
People are well-meaning. I get it. But as a friend adequately put it in a moment of honest frustration at a similar comment, “They say that as if God is waiting for me to say I’m perfectly content and no longer want to be married before he’ll fulfill that ‘non-desire.’ And how about them — were they so perfect and content in their singleness so God rewarded them with a spouse?”
It’s a harsh analysis, but it matches the absurdity of the thought. “Be content in order to get something.” Besides defying the very definition of “contentment,” it makes God out to be someone who wouldn’t see through the bait and switch.
It’s a faulty understanding of contentment and singleness, but it’s also a faulty understanding of marriage.
Estalee Martin writes:
“[All marriage is] an undeserved gift from God. If you’re married, it’s not because you managed to get your life all together beforehand well enough that God decided to bless you with marriage. No. It’s a gift that he decided to give you because he wants to continue his work of conforming you to his image and, for now, he chose marriage as a means to do it. And, if you’re single, it’s not because you haven’t done enough to deserve marriage. No. It’s just that he wants to continue his work of conforming you to his image and, for now, he chose singleness as a means to do it.”
I’m reminded of that helpful definition of grace — unmerited favor. Marriage is a gracious gift from God. By definition, that means it’s undeserved. If we’ve begun to assume that single Christians are still single because of something they have or haven’t done, it’s a sign that we’ve forgotten how undeserving all of us really are of any good thing.
But that’s not to say singleness isn’t itself a good thing. Despite the way the church can often treat singleness, it is not a disease to be cured. Nor is it something to graduate from. Singleness is not the waiting room for adulthood.
Because so much of what we are taught to look forward to about the Christian life is built around the nuclear family, singleness seems only to be understood as a terrible and undesired transitionary state to be left behind as soon as possible. It really isn’t, but many single Christians’ attitudes don’t do anything to dispel these myths.
A more biblical and robust framework for understanding singleness begins, ironically, with marriage. We can readily understand that marriage, as a pictorial story, teaches the church something about God. As Lauren Winner explains in her book Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity, “Marriage is a gift God gives the church; he does not simply give it to the married people of the church, but to the whole church, as marriage is designed not only for the benefit of the married couple. It is also designed to tell a story to the entire church, a story about God’s relationship with and saving work among us.”
But in the life of a Christian, singleness, as much as marriage, also tells a story — a story of beautifully radical dependence on God. As Winner says, “In marriage, it is tempting to look to one’s spouse to meet all one’s needs. But those who live alone, without the companionship and rigor of marriage and sex, are offered an opportunity to realize that it is God who sustains them…. Single Christians remind the rest of us that our truest, realest, most lasting relationship is that of sibling….”
I wish I had learned this sooner. I wish I had known that we singles are a gift to the church and it’s not just because “we have more time on our hands” (as if single Christians don’t have lives of their own). We remind the church that marriage is a temporary state, but a wholeheartedly devoted life to Christ and his Church is not.
As single Christians, we need to be reminded that we are not on hold and we are not incomplete. “Real life” doesn’t begin when you get married, because “real life” from a Christian perspective isn’t about getting married and having kids. When we read Paul saying in 1 Corinthians 7, “Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife,” are we too quick to skip ahead to, “But if you do marry, you have not sinned”? What we should do is take a minute to realize the incredible paradigm shift that has just occurred.
In the time of the Old Testament, there were fewer things more shameful than being unwed or unable to bear children. Then Jesus comes and says that to be his disciple, to experience “real life,” marriage might just be something you’ll have to give up along with a few other things. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).
The only full, complete, and meaningful life anyone can live is one that is wholly devoted to Christ — one that shows a love for Christ that is so radical it makes even biblical love for family look like hatred in comparison. One can certainly live a life like that without being married. In fact, Paul even warns those who are married to be careful not to be distracted “in view of the present distress.”
In their book You and Me Forever: Marriage in Light of Eternity, Francis and Lisa Chan have guided my understanding of what Paul is getting at in 1 Corinthians 7. They write, “His point is that life on earth is short. There is an urgency to the period of time in which we live — after Jesus’ resurrection and before his second coming. We all have callings from God, and those callings are bigger than our marriages. Seeking his kingdom must be our first priority, and if we’re not careful, marriage can get in the way.”
Singleness can get in the way too. While we might not be married, we can just as well be consumed with it or our lack thereof. We can make growing in holiness more about preparing for an earthly spouse rather than for a Heavenly One. We can turn “single” into a noun and use it as our identity rather than someone who was bought with blood.
Staying single forever isn’t the worst thing that could ever happen to you. Whether single or married, “ignoring the one command that the newly resurrected King of the Universe delivered to you could certainly qualify as the stupidest thing you could do in your lifetime,” writes Francis and Lisa Chan.
What kind of Christian community would we be if single Christians were more fixated on that rather than the question of whether God was calling us to lifelong singleness? Lauren Winner points out that “our task is to discern a call to singleness for right now, and that’s not so difficult. If you are single right now, you are called, right now, to be single — called to live single life as robustly, and gospel-conformingly, as you possibly can.”
What if that was the unashamed and unmistakeable message and experience of the church? What if there were just as many sermons preached from the pulpit on the intentional life, married or single, of 1 Corinthians 7 as sermons on Ephesians 5? What if we, as a church, got excited about the spiritual reproduction that singles and marrieds are all invited to participate in together, as much as we do about another engagement or birth announcement?
That would make the experience of being single exciting and worth working towards.