Hope in Singleness
When you think about it, singleness is a funny thing. We are all born single and at least half of us will die single, but often those who are single wonder how they got there. Some who are single feel they’re too young to settle down while others may feel they are too old to be alone. When people get older they start to ask questions like, “What is wrong with me?” and “Why does no one want me…?”
As a 37-year-old single man who had to do some thinking about it recently, I thought I would share some thoughts that others have found helpful, and hopefully it will help me clarify some of my thinking.
A number of years ago I stopped reading singleness books (okay, it’s not like I read loads), but it would seem to me they fall into two broad categories when we think of this issue:
1. Singleness is a burden of which we need to rid ourselves.
These are basically dating manuals or ways to encourage single people not to be too disheartened. I’ve been told, although I am yet to read books for women, that here is where you find the “Jesus is my husband” kind of thinking. We’ll come back to that, but the basic theology seems to be that it is not good to be alone. So if you are single, that is not good—get married.
In the case of women, they begin to think they are just not godly enough to warrant someone wanting to marry them. In the case of men, they are told that they just don’t take the initiative where they should. There may of course be truth in these views, but they can’t always be the case because nowhere in the Bible do we get that singleness is a sin or even the result of sin. In fact, the big problem with these views is that it’s hard to fit Paul’s positive view of singleness (1 Corinthians 7) with the burden mentality.
2. Singleness is the best thing.
Now the idea that singleness is the best thing seems to fit much better with Paul’s thinking, but again there are problems. Although, as we will see, singleness is indeed a good thing and in some sense better than marriage, the “singleness is the best thing” view often presents itself as if we should all be going round thinking, “Thank goodness I am single—who would want to get married?”
This view is problematic because most singles want to get married. So if singleness is the best thing, why do I want something else? Enter the guilt problem again. We should value singleness and disparaging God’s good gifts is indeed serious, but this is not the same thing as saying the desire for marriage is bad. It is one thing to say that singleness is a good thing; it is quite another to say it is the best thing.
The Gift of Singleness
I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. (1 Cor. 7:7)
What does Paul mean by each has his own gift? What is the gift of singleness? It is very common for people to say that the gift of singleness is an ability to remain single, which most people do not have. There are significant problems with this as Christopher Ash points out:
It is a common misunderstanding to think that I know whether I have the gift of singleness by whether or not I feel happy to be single. It is often said that only if I am quite content to be unmarried and really experience no strong sexual urges or other desires for marriage, only then can I say I have this gift. And if I don’t feel content like this, then I should get married if I can.
This idea that the gift equates to the desire is wrong, for two reasons. First, if we apply the same reasoning the other way around, it makes a nonsense of marriage. With this approach, someone discerns whether he has the gift of marriedness by whether or not he is happy and content to be married. So let us suppose someone is married, but is struggling in a difficult marriage and is, frankly, not at all content in his marriedness. Does he conclude that he does not have the gift of marriedness, and go ahead and get a divorce? That would be absurd, quite apart from being forbidden in verses 10 and 11.
The second reason we know this is wrong is this: what happens if someone feels he has the gift of marriage but no suitable opportunity comes along? Is he to conclude that a good and gracious God has given him the ‘gift’ of marriage but then carelessly forgotten to make marriage possible for him? This again would be absurd.
No, I know which ‘gift’ I have by a very simple test: if I am married, I have the gift of marriage; if I am not married, I have the gift of being unmarried. My circumstances are God’s gracious gift to me, and I am to learn to accept them from his hand as such. (Christopher Ash, Married for God: Making Your Marriage the Best It Can Be, [Crossway, Kindle Edition] location 1712-1717.
I think Ash is right. But if it is the state that is the gift from God, then this will immediately change our perspective in the situation. If I am single, I have a good gift from God for which I should be thankful and not resent.
The Good of Singleness
Good gifts from God are good. Perhaps that may not be a surprise, but the point is not only are we to see the gift as good because God says it is good, although that is reason enough, but God is right so we can see the goodness.
Paul unpacks two ways in which we can see the good of singleness:
1. Singleness is good because it makes life less complicated.
Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. (1 Cor. 7:28b)
The word “trouble” in the verse does not necessarily indicate something bad, or sinful, but it may be something that is hard. Marriage is good and the troubles which come with it do not make it bad. But Paul is being realistic about marriage—that marriage brings trouble. I was listening to a pastor friend of mine who was actually discussing this topic with a group at his church that they have started to help people with same-sex attraction. It is not an issue for him—he’s married but represents the staff team there. Most the group were single, and he said that he found that people in the group often idolize marriage. It is good for him to be there to say that actually marriage, like singleness, is hard.
Now you don’t need to be in the situation of experiencing same-sex attraction to recognize the same point. Marriage is complicated—it brings “trouble.” Over the years I have worked with many married colleagues in ministry. I have watched as they had to go off to look after their families, whether it is driving them to school and work or looking after them when they are ill. I have never had the hassle of having to take children to the doctor. Others have, and in that sense their lives are more complicated. Of course, children and family bring great joy, but they also bring great complications. And they don’t always bring great joy.
This is not to say that there aren’t particular struggles that singles have—there are (and they mustn’t be diminished)—but it is to say that they do not have the particular struggles that come along being married and having a family and bring trouble, making life complicated.
This is not rivalry as if Paul is setting marriage (bad) against singleness (good). No—they are both good. But it is realism. Generally speaking, a married person has a more complicated life than a single person.
It’s not that I have all my problems and I get married and they are all gone. No, it is that I have particular problems being single, and when I marry I then essentially swap them for a different set of problems, which are harder in some ways, so according to Paul may be best avoided.
It’s a bit like living in South Africa for me as a subject of her Majesty the Queen—that is, being British. There are certain things that are more complicated here than if I were to live in the UK. For example, I have to apply for a visa every three years and panic that they won’t give it to me. Now I do that because I gain benefits—I get to live and work in South Africa. But that’s the reality. These things don’t mean it is bad to live here, just that it is more complicated.
Now don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying that single lives can’t be complicated—they can be. But they would be more so if they were to marry.
I think it is best to view comparing like for like. It can be quite unhelpful when we start saying that someone has a more complicated life just because they are married compared to a particular single individual. It’s comparing like for like. So think of me, Ben: I am single. Now if I got married, in many ways I would be in the same situation, but I would have a wife so it would be more complicated. I would have most if not all the constraints on my time I now have, and I would have a wife. Which would make life more complicated.
It can be deeply unhelpful when married Christians take advantage of single people with “since they are unmarried they will be able to do this” type of thinking. While this must not happen, single people should take advantage of the position that God has given them.
One of these advantages Paul particularly picks up on is:
2. Singleness is good because it brings freedom.
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. (1 Cor. 7:32-34a)
Paul follows the verse by repeating the same principle about an unmarried woman. Again this division, comparison between “the Lord’s affairs” and the “affairs of this world” is not a division of good and bad interests. Remember that both marriage and singleness are good gifts from God. The key is the division of interests, not that one type of interest is better than the other.
The concern of the husband is quite rightly for his wife and family, and that is his service the Lord. But the point Paul is making is that for the single person there is only one sphere in which they must offer service and that is the church. But the married the person has the church and the family. That is not bad, but that is the reality.
For example, I used to work alongside Edwin, a married man with children, at Christ Church Hillbrow. That was the area of ministry for both of us. Edwin, however, also had his family to minister to while I did not. So Edwin had to be concerned about his church and his family while I could just concentrate on the church. Again, that doesn’t mean that single people have no concerns outside a particular ministry or they should be exploited.
But it is a reality that single people can be more focused on things as they do not have a family to worry about. Neither is better—Paul is just being realistic. This focus brings freedom. A single person has freedom that someone who is married does not necessarily have. This is the goodness in singleness. Single people are able to do things that married people would find very hard to do, whether that is particular service at church or in certain places in ministry.
If I were married eight and a half years ago, then I may not have come to Johannesburg. As it turned out, it was quite easy for me to fly off for two months (which has now turned into over eight years) to see what it was like to serve the Lord in South Africa.
The Freedom of Singleness
The freedom of singleness allows me to do many things that I would not otherwise be able to do. The greater simplicity of the single life leads to increased opportunities.
Many great missionaries of the past were single, and they could only do what they did because they did not have a family. Both the church I grew up in and the church I attended as a student were led by single men. As such they had a great deal of time and energy that helped them to focus solely on the church family. Vaughan Roberts, the minster of the church where I was a student, commented:
I know that I myself would not have had nearly as much time for writing and speaking at missions or conferences if I had been married. I’ve also had more time for friendships, which have been a huge blessing to me and, I trust, to others as well.
The freedom singleness grants can bring great blessings. A single life in a sense is less complicated and this brings the freedom to be of service in areas which you otherwise would not be able to be. Too often we focus on trying to change our single status, but actually Paul says we should focus on the opportunities and the freedom which our singleness brings.
Can you serve in a particular area? If you remain single, in the future you may have more disposable income that you can give to gospel work. We are not to bemoan the gift that we have been given, but we are to see it as a good gift that we can make the most of while it was there.
Sometimes is can seem that these two benefits of being single are a bit like a consolation prize. That is, you don’t get the girl/the boy, but at least life is a bit simpler and you are free to serve. It’s not great, but it is something. You don’t have a wife but at least you are useful. Now I hope you have seen that Paul views it much more positively than that.
But the real surprise is that Paul is not so much denying the hardship but viewing that very hardship as good. In fact, the two goods I have already mentioned I think flow from one fundamental good, which not only do we often miss but need to incorporate rather than denying the hardship of singleness.
The “Good Pain” of Singleness
Singleness is good because it is constant reminder of the real prize (here the work of Barry Danylak is superbly helpful). Paul’s teaching on singleness comes in the context of the entire chapter of 1 Corinthians 7. And although Paul is focusing on marriage and singleness, the heart of his message comes in his statement of a broader principle:
Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. (1 Cor. 7:17)
He gives various examples of how that might work out from circumcision to slavery. These are two key distinctions in the ancient world: one defines you as part of God’s people or not, while the other defines you as slave or free.
Paul’s application to the issue of slavery explain why changing our circumstances should not be our focus.
Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. (1 Cor. 7:20-23)
In verse 22 Paul is making it clear that our relationship to God is not defined by our status as slave or free. While one might be a slave to a human master, in reality they are a free person to God. Similarly, if one is a free person, they are actually a slave to God. We are God’s—bought at a price—and that matters much more than our external circumstances.
In verses 28-31, Paul applies this in a unique way:
Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (1 Cor.28b-31)
See that last phrase:
For the present form of this world is passing away.
The reason our present circumstances don’t matter is because this world is passing away. That is, this life is not all there is because we live for the new creation. This life is not the real prize. Paul particularly says that singleness is good in this sense since singleness points more clearly to this real prize than marriage. Again, this is not a good-versus-bad thing.
Marriage equally points to greater truths about the union of Christ and his church. But singleness better allows you to live in this world as if you don’t belong, which as Christians we do not. Or to put it the other way round, if you marry it will be harder not to hold onto this world.
The Real Prize of Singleness
Let me explain by again using myself an example: If you come to my house, it doesn’t feel like a home. (Curiously when I preached this, at this point every single person over a certain age who had left university nodded!) It does to some extent, but whenever I go to a family home it immediately feels a lot more homey. Families put down roots, have kids in school, get involved in the neighborhood, things like that.
Singles do that as well, but in general the single life feels more transient. As I get older, this is what I find to be one of the most difficult things about being single—an increasing feeling that I don’t quite belong anywhere. That gives me great freedom and opportunity, but it can also be painful.
Paul doesn’t want to diminish that pain or hardship, but he wants us to realize that even that pain is good thing. As single people this helps us to see that we are not yet home. That real prize is not a home in the suburbs with 2.4 children but something far beyond that. And as we live out that life, we can help married people see the same truth. It’s not that we don’t yearn to build a family or home here—we may do and there is nothing wrong with that—but as we yearn we realize a deeper truth than that. The truth is that our home is not here, this world is temporary, and we are actually hoping for a permanent home and for the new creation.
I hate the Jesus-is-my-husband kind of approach to singleness because, first, it is quite awkward for men. Second, Jesus doesn’t marry me or you individually—he marries us, the church, corporately. But the real problem is it gives the impression that marriage and family life are now the aim and where I don’t have that, then Jesus fills in the gap.
But Paul is saying something bigger. The absence of family life currently does more than remind me of what I miss out on that others have. Yet, it also helps me to see more clearly that now is not what I am aiming for—it’s not the real prize.
The trouble of marriage that Paul speaks of is that the complexities of marriage make it too easy to be caught up with the now rather than the future. The transitory nature of singleness reminds us of something bigger the transitory nature of this whole life, that the real prize is yet to come. The single hope is not marriage but the new creation.
The Unique Privilege of Singleness
To simply long for a spouse or a family is to long for too little! The pain of singleness points to the pain of this broken world and makes us long for a new one:
This re-articulation should draw people to the positive vision the Christian Scriptures provide for both marriage and singleness …: Christian marriage is a testimony of the utterly faithful and unchanging love of God for his people in a permanent covenant relationship with him; Christian singleness is a testimony to the complete sufficiency of Christ for the present age and gives visible witness to the hope of our eternal inheritance yet to come. (Barry Danylak, Redeeming Singleness: How the Storyline of Scripture Affirms the Single Life [Good News Publishers], p. 214)
While married people might get tied down, the very looseness the single experiences should point each of us to the looseness with which we should all hold this world.
This is important to singles in finding a valid and important place in the church. Much could be said about the church being the family that the single person does not have, but the lives of single people should direct married people to the real prize. Just as a godly marriage should teach all of us what the relationship between Christ and the church is like, so a godly single life should teach all of us to look to the real prize—the renewed world to come. As singles live loosely to this world, they are able to testify to that world to come. Of course, married people can and should do so as well, but it is easier and the unique privilege of the single person to be able to do this.
Fish Cakes for Dinner
I finally finished this post and felt, I don’t why, the acute pain of being alone. As I stopped for dinner, however, I had fish and reflected on the story of Jonathan Fletcher (the retired single minister of Emmanuel Wimbledon) who used to have fish cakes for Christmas lunch alone. And I reflected while families feasted that perhaps Jonathan’s meal helped him better remember the feast is yet to come.
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