The Blessed Single Life

Lately, I've been thinking about singleness.  

Don't worry. I have absolutely no desire to return to my pre-married life. I'm happily married to a woman I don't deserve.   

I have, however, been thinking more about God's purposes for singles. This is new, as I've never seriously contemplated the vocation of celibacy. 

Marriage has long consumed my thoughts. Late in elementary school, I knew I wanted to be married. As an adolescent I was often lovesick, looking eagerly for the next girl to impress. By the time I reached High School, I considered myself ready for marriage. I went to college in pursuit of both a bachelor's and a bride. Men who had little interest in marriage or family life bewildered me. I started dating Kashelle at 20, and married her when I was 23. All that to say, I've spent the majority of my life longing for marriage, pursuing marriage, or attending to my own marriage. 

Western culture has supported this fixation at almost every turn. Evangelical subculture perpetually beats the "strong marriages and families" drum (a drum I'm not completely adverse to, just to be clear). And mainstream culture continues to magnify romantic love. Though marital life is often denigrated, marital love is still idealized. 

These factors throw the New Testament's teaching into sharp relief. Yes, there are beautiful portrayals of marriage in Scripture (Ephesians 5 comes to mind). But there's plenty of material that should curb our marital enthusiasm. Jesus - the truest human in history - was single. The most full alive person most lived without a wife or children. Paul thought celibacy was preferable to marriage (1 Cor 7:7). Taken together, their teaching strikes at the root of marital-olatry.  

Jesus gives one extended sermon on marriage, and it's not well-received (Matt 19:3-9). After hearing it, the disciples exclaim, "this marriage thing sounds awfully difficult!" (v. 10). In response, Jesus says, "then perhaps some of you are called to celibacy" (vv. 11-12)! In Paul's fullest exposition on marriage, he says,  

...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. 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. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. (1 Corinthians 7:29-34).  

In this passage, Paul relativizes the importance of marriage. It is a good gift from God (cf. 1 Cor 7:7), but it is not ultimate. D.A. Carson says, 

Paul cannot be dismissing marriage; rather, he means something subtler: marriage is not the summum bonum...Because the new age has dawned and marriage itself does not continue into the resurrection existence of the new heaven and the new earth, then, as important and as wonderful as marriage is, the thoughtful Christian will not invest it with eternal significance

Paul helps us value marriage for what it is; a wonderful blessing that serves a larger (and temporary) purpose in God's economy. He also says that marrieds are called to a distinct form of ministry; they must see to the needs of their spouse, and cannot give undivided attention to Jesus. 

All of this must shape our evaluations of marriage and singlessness. That being said, here are some encouragements to marrieds and singles. 

To marrieds, 

  1.  Remember that marriage is not ultimate. Marriage is a great gift, but it's a terrible god. If we expect our spouses to give us ultimate joy, purpose, or meaning, we will be sorely disappointed. We will crush them under the weight of our infinite expectations, and (ironically) ruin our marriages in so doing. Only Jesus is worthy of worship. If your spouse's behavior makes you extremely anxious, annoyed or frustrated, it may be that you're expecting them to fulfill a role in your life that only God can. Moreover, if your marriage doesn't further the church's mission (i.e. making disciples), your marriage isn't healthy, or successful. 
  2. Remember what family you belong to. The church is our truest family (see Mark 3:31-35). God has adopted us. Therefore we are siblings in Christ. Our natural families last for a moment, but God's family lasts forever. Our marriages function best when they are nurtured by God's family, and when they serve God's family. Thus, if we insulate our natural families from the family of God; if we neglect to welcome God's people into our day-to-day lives; if we refuse to meet their needs; or if we merely leverage "church" for the betterment of our marriages and families, we've forgotten our true identity as God's people. Practically, I think this means we should reach out to our single brothers and sisters, and look for ways to enfold them into our homes and lives. After all, they're family! 

To singles, 

  1. Remember that singleness is a vocation. God calls some to celibacy, and some to marriage. Both are callings (1 Cor 7:7). If you long to be married, that's totally understandable. It's a good longing! But don't allow that longing to deter you from living a full life of discipleship to Jesus in the here and now. You lack nothing. You can please God and experience profound joy precisely as you are. Paul says that singles, are "anxious about the things of the Lord" (vv. 32, 34). Sadly, I've seen many singles who are "anxious about the things of marriage." They presume that life truly begins at marriage, and delay living focused lives of self-denying discipleship. Reject the lie that singleness is merely a time of pre-marital preparation. It's supposed to be a time of great kingdom effectiveness. Commenting on 1 Corinthians 7, Hellerman says, "Paul's concern...was not to ask how singleness fits into God's kingdom plan. Single people are already with the program. They are, "concerned about the things of the Lord" (v. 32). Married people are the ones who need help sorting out their priorities." Furthermore, if you're ambivalent about marriage, seriously consider singleness as a permanent vocation. This is pure speculation, but I think that marital strife among Christians is somewhat attributable to "mistaken vocation"; that is, some Christians have gotten married who should have remained single. (By contrast, I'd venture that very few Christians have stayed single who should have gotten married.) Singleness is a high calling. Two of the most effective Christians I know are single. They would never have been as effective for the kingdom had they gotten married. 
  2. Remember to cultivate deep friendships. I regret my failure to cultivate more meaningful relationships during my short-lived stint as a single person. Often, I treated my friends in a utilitarian, self-serving manner. Our culture is enamored with erotic love. But some of life's most profound expressions of love come through friendship (Proverbs 18:24). If that sounds bizarre to you, you may have a truncated view of friendship, or an overly eroticized view of love (or both). Jesus was the most loving person in history. But he demonstrated the extent of this love not to a wife,[1] but to friends (see John 13-15). Strive to be a great friend. Care for people. Inconvenience yourself to serve them. Seek to find a common vision or passion, and strive towards it. Marriage isn't the only kind of meaningful relationship available to us as human beings.

 

[1] Yes, in one sense, Jesus died for his "bride" (Eph 5). But, "bride" is a corporate metaphor for the church. "We" are the bride of Christ, but "I" am not. All that to say, the fact that Jesus was the greatest lover in history, yet didn't express this love to a wife, seems significant.