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 as soon as possible (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 put my finger on a certain embarrassment (that’s 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 I’m supposed to be content to the point of being utterly immune to longing. 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’s a thing with some of us nonetheless.
Sometimes messages get distorted. It’s like attending a church that’s vigorously grounded in obedience and running the race (which I do) and waking up one day to realize that this very proper emphasis has morphed into a sense of “God’s never pleased with me”. Which isn’t what God intended, nor probably the pastor. This means that there’s balance to be found
SINGLENESS CAN BE HARD.
There. I said it.
No counselor worth his salt would deny or dismiss the struggle of his client. The Wonderful Counselor, methinks, is a step above that. 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. God may put us there anyway, 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 hard.
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 happy with singleness, they feel 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 have spent years rummaging through their hearts 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 barely 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.
God is not all plan and no heart. He does difficult things in us, 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.
Allow yourself to see singleness as a legitimate trial. There are those who would call it a first world problem. My response would be that Genesis 3 promises the first world its problems. While it is wise to recognize that others around the globe are suffering far worse trials, it is Scripturally unsound to think that comfortable middle-class Westerners will never struggle. Nobody gets to escape the Curse. There will be trials for people of all walks of life, and singleness is one of them.
There’s very little risk in granting singles their struggle. It need not bring on a deluge of self-pity or prompt them to start throwing themselves into all kinds of bad relationships. That, I think, is one reason the struggle is often dismissed.
In fact, there is great potential in granting singleness as a real trial. If it is a trial, 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. Marriage retains immense value in the kingdom; it was intended to reflect the Trinity itself. No, 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 fight for it.
Godly desires should never be shamed or dismissed. Molded, modified, and made holy, perhaps, but never dismissed. Dismissing 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. The “you have JESUS!” campaign can push us further from God by implying that God isn’t concerned with our desires.
No, we must strike a balance. 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. This is not good. 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.