I saw one of those teachings the other day, yet again. Someone saying “singleness is not something to be endured; it’s something to be celebrated!”
Yes. Yes, yes, yes.
And, at the same time…no.
I understand that such words aren’t exactly intended for me. I’ve got a pretty well-balanced take on my singleness by now. They’re intended for the singles who stuff their Facebook feeds with Relationship Goals memes and think of little else.
But at the same time…those words bring a sigh. It feels like they don’t get it. And while I’m grateful for the perspective, there is an uncertainty I struggle to articulate.
In the last few years, I have spoken with an increasing number of mature, God-seeking singles who have started feeling vaguely embarrassed about their desire for marriage. Reluctant to talk about it, like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. These are true-blue disciples who know the church’s mature teachings on singleness and accept them, but also hear something that might not be intended: the implication that they shouldn’t be struggling with singleness. I hear one unspoken question, in particular, emerging from this group of singles to whom nobody seems to be speaking.
“Why won’t anyone acknowledge that singleness can be hard?”
For many years, I and other singles have been shaped by a line of mature Biblical teaching on singleness. It’s largely risen in fierce response to the other line of teaching, the age-old push by the church to get us married off (and its tendency to leave us feeling diminished or unqualified if we aren’t). I’m grateful for the Biblical take: that singleness is not a disaster but a gift, an opportunity, a holy season to be embraced rather than fought tooth and nail. We are taught that waiting is transformative, that this chance to serve the kingdom unfettered by marriage will never come again, and that waiting will probably get you a better mate anyway.
This is all good. Sacred, even. I am grateful for how this teaching has shaped me. In fact, for some of us, it’s practically all we’ve ever heard.
Perhaps that’s the problem.
An Incomplete Message
In the last couple years, I have come to put my finger on a certain embarrassment (that’s the the best I can describe it) over my hope to marry one day. I’m not alone in that. There’s an elusive worry that seeking to change my status in any way is somehow wrong, that I’m supposed to be content to the point of being utterly immune to longings. As if admitting longing will make God go “Oho, you’re not fully satisfied in me yet, there’s five more years added to your wait!”
I know that’s silly. None of it is of God.
But it took me a while to figure that out, and other singles I know are genuinely resonating with this. It’s a thing. Maybe some singles have a different experience; maybe other singles don’t overthink like I do (no “maybe” about it, actually). But some have truly become uncomfortable with the desires of their heart. It’s creating distance, not closeness, between them and God. If this isn’t of God, where did it come from?
I think it’s just the process of making a doctrine complete and imbalanced. The intensity of the Biblical authors and teachers who are trying to sanctify and promote Godly singleness can get pretty zealous. It often comes either from folks who got hitched at age 21, or from enthusiastic singles who don’t even share our desire. With all due respect to them, I’ve read enough singleness books to know that not everyone is validating our longings. Some are. Some are not.
SINGLENESS CAN BE HARD.
There. I said it. Why are so many reluctant to face the ache with us? Or to acknowledge that there is an ache?
I do know that no counselor worth his salt would deny or dismiss the struggle of his client. The Wonderful Counselor is a step above that. I am not advocating self-pity, but I would beg of the church to carefully modulate their teaching not to invalidate or fear the single’s longings. Singleness can be hard. Going without a desire of the heart always is (Prov. 13:12).
Why It’s Hard
Not everyone is cut out for singleness. This does not discourage God from putting us there, of course; our lives are his to mold, and he does give us more than we can handle, for very specific reasons (2 Cor. 10).
But it’s a tough journey. I know many singles who seem tailor-made for marriage and yet have been denied one. They value family, companionship, stability, continuity. They’re bursting with affection and good communication. They ache for children. They know the Word. Their integrity is immense. Their parents are married. Their siblings are married. They’re not, they want to be, and that is rough.
And when they hear from the church that they shouldn’t be feeling bad, or get hit with that un-Scriptural nonsense that God won’t marry them off until they’re 110% happy with their singleness, they get disheartened. Isolated. It becomes a theological box they don’t know how to escape. It causes God to feel far away. They may still have hope, but they also know there is no Scriptural guarantee their situation will ever change. Another forty years alone is a hard thing to look forward to.
People will take stabs in the dark at explaining God’s delay in our lives, often without even asking him in prayer. For example, there’s the dreaded half-truth of “you’re single because there’s something unfinished in you”. I know Christian singles who are rummaging through their hearts looking for a fatal problem that may not be there. It’s an awful, exhausting cycle. Maybe nothing’s wrong. Maybe it’s just not the right timing. Maybe God’s quite pleased with them. They need to hear that.
It also seems to have escaped some folks that singleness involves rejection. The thirtysomething Christian single has probably been dumped by a few and shot down by more by now. Or they’ve rarely dated at all. Singleness can leave all kinds of questions rolling around in a young Christian’s heart – “Is there something wrong with me?” – that no amount of talking about “God’s purpose” can address. A different tool is needed.
Think of God as an open-heart surgeon. Surgery involves bleeding. The surgeon must reach the heart to save the patient, and to get there, he must pump the patient full of weird drugs, make massive incisions, and crack open the rib cage. It’s ghastly. But far be it from such a professional to send his patient home still gashed and oozing just because the heart is repaired. He heals his patient! He mends, knits, sutures, carefully plans the patient’s recovery.
God is not all plan and no heart. He does difficult things in us without apology, but he never neglects the heart. It was Job’s friends, not God, who leaped into theological lessons in response to someone’s honest tears. God commands us to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). And we can be assured that what we’re commanded to do do, God is doing himself. He mourns with singles, even as he sustains us for that path a while longer. And he heals.
Join him in this operation. Be his tools by loving and supporting. That is what my spiritual family did for me, and I cannot express how much it meant to me. Follow their example. Do not make singles feel even more alone.
Perhaps you think that singleness is a first world problem. My response would be that Genesis 3 promises the first world its problems. While it is wise and mature to recognize that other Christians around the globe are suffering far worse trials and to count our own blessings, it is Scripturally unsound to think that comfortable middle-class Westerners will have nothing to complain about. Nobody gets to escape the Curse. God sees to that. Singleness, I believe, is one of his instruments in doing this.
And if singleness is a trial, it follows that it carries all the deep spiritual benefits of suffering: that it is an opportunity to “become mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:4); to learn to “share in his holiness” and attain “a harvest of righteousness and peace” (Hebrews 12:10, 11); to allow his grace to be sufficient (2 Cor. 12:9); to “rejoice in our sufferings” as they produce perseverance, character, and hope (Romans 5:3-4); and to pass on “the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Cor. 1:4).
Surely you would not deprive us of these glories by telling us we’re not really struggling at all?
And then there is the small fact that marriage is, y’know, a good thing to want. It was God’s idea before either the Old or New Covenant existed, and while singleness has its place in the kingdom of Jesus Christ, so does marriage (as we see at Cana).
And that’s being missed. We have this weird thing going on where some singles’ literature is diminishing marriage in an attempt to make singles happier with where they are (“You shouldn’t feel lonely, you have JESUS!!!”). That’s not working. Not with everyone. It’s just confusing some, because it is Scripturally confusing. And it’s out of whack with what God says about marriage. Yes, it’s hard. Probably harder than we’re anticipating. It won’t “save” us. But no marital counselor would go “marriage ain’t all that”, as one singleness book finally just put it. He wouldn’t get a lot of clients. Instead, he would speak of the joy God intended through it and urge his clients to seek it (through selflessness, of course). That doesn’t change just because it’s a single looking at it.
Godly desires should never be shamed or dismissed. Molded, modified, and made holy, perhaps, but never dismissed. I firmly believe that denying a heart’s desire only locks God out of a part of one’s heart, and he wants every part. That is not to say that he’ll grant every desire, or grant it in our timing. It’s simply about giving everything to God. Ironically, the “you have JESUS!” campaign sometimes pushes us further from God because it can leave us feeling like God isn’t really concerned with our desires. We’re trying to get as close to him as possible. Killing worthy longings and calling it sanctification? That’s the opposite.
No, we must strike a balance. We must teach our singles to say, “marriage is my good desire; God has denied me; blessed be his name.”
What I’m really trying to say, church…
…as a single who has had a long time to reflect on your Scriptural advice and its effect on our hearts, is this: thank you. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. I realize many singles chase any glint of romance as if their life depended on it – because they HAVE made their inner life dependent on it. This is not good. They need to be reined in with a strong dose of “singleness is a gift!” I would even agree that theirs is the larger error, and that a simple bucket of cold water thrown on heart’s desires, as I’m describing in this post, is probably much more fixable.
But when you do the reining in, remember that balance is needed. Teach singles well. Our Scriptural understanding, our fruitfulness in the present, and our intimacy with God are on the line. Remember that there are unique struggles to singleness – equivalent to but different from marriage – and that God is both plan AND heart. The surgeon is also the lover of our soul. Affirm and mourn; then lift our eyes to God.
May God become our hearts’ greatest desire, and may he grant us the rest in his timing.