The Many Shades of Singleness, Part 4: Dating

datesThis is Part 3 of a series of reflections on singleness, sparked by public comments that “intentional singleness without the “gift of celibacy” is “at best, a neglect of a Christian responsibility”.

Such strong comments naturally strike hard. Matters of the heart are delicate. There are enough subclasses of singles, enough sensitivity around the issue, that I find such opinions – in this case, from Dr. Albert Mohler – falling short of the mark even with the right caveats.

For one, many wise, obedient street-level singles would say that their efforts to marry have been divinely thwarted (Part 1 of this series), a God-operation Scripture accommodates but Mohler does not. “You don’t have to tell me that marriage matters,” they’d sigh. “God’s told me no.”

For another, the “gift of celibacy” isn’t easily delineated. Some people have it who don’t yet think they do; some happily married people once swore up and down that they’re 21st-century Pauls. And some singles confuse the gift with irritation over being herded into a congregational marriage machine (Part 2 of this series) instead of being loved for who they are.

But my first thought upon reading Dr. Mohler’s comments? “If you want to know why marriage is fading, sir, you could look within your own circle.”

Now…I do not want to make this another Joshua Harris bashing session.

Please, Jesus, spare me from that. Poor man.

But…while the reasons for singleness’ increase are many – the “me first” or “boy culture” Mohler refers to, the rareification of good prospects – the muckraking of dating in some Christian spheres also bears examination. Many single Christians would love to marry. They simply feel the tools have been taken away from them. And it’s got them frustrated.

I know too many such singles to dismiss this as a factor. There’s enormous hesitation around even everyday interactions, and I’m not talking about the Graham Rule. I have single female friends who get theologically nervous about even walking up and talking to a guy they’ve noticed. I get leaving pursuit to men. I love that. But when they don’t even feel permitted to invite him to church or Bible study, of all things, I grow concerned. It’s possible to for our system to be so legalistic that it no longer serves either God or man. Especially if they’re actually mainly concerned about what people will say.

“How can you learn anything without practicing?” a friend asked one day at Panda Express. He was chasing the first gal God led him to pursue(!) and it was daunting – the flowers, the listening, the art of it all. And this was a righteous, mature guy. It’s a chronic problem today that humbly yet confidently (and righteously) pursuing a woman’s heart is lost knowledge. We want to pursue. Many women want to be pursued. But there’s a vague sense that it’s just…wrong somehow. So we abstain.

The result? We are…single. And wondering…single because that’s God’s perfect will for his 21s-century church (an idea for which I’ve never seen any Biblical support), or single in the same way that submitting no resumes tends to leave you jobless?

The confusion strikes right at the practical. Harris told the story of how his father was instructed by God not to pursue his mother when they met. God knew she was fed up with immature Christian guys and that traditional wooing wouldn’t work. God worked it all out. Somehow. Though the “somehow” was never really explained.

You can imagine how this unique story imprinted upon skittish young hearts and theologies in all the wrong ways.

To be fair, the common anti-dating sentiment in its present form is not necessarily what Harris intended. Messages get distorted. They jump gender and maturity lines. And Harris, to my admiration, has been starkly honest recently in refining his own teachings.

But we’re still left with two decades of echoing opinion that labels pursuit in all forms – from solo coffeeshop chats to dating websites – as “training for divorce”.

In the interim, dating has been replaced with…well, nothing. Sit back, serve somewhere, and hope to get noticed (that’s not why we serve, by the way). In other words, something awfully close to passivity is held up as 1) true surrender, 2) more romantic, and 3) a guarantee that God will preserve your marriage. Because spending time alone at a restaurant with someone just looks too much like the world.

The last thing Christian males need these days is more passivity.

I imagine Mohler would agree. I imagine we’d all agree.

Now, Christianity may not have died out on earth because fewer Christians are dating; indeed, for some people, total inaction has worked just fine (and some Christians just shrug and date anyway). But any leeway given to passivity among us young men is something I’ll never feel good about.

By the way, I’m not saying any of this to give myself permission to date. I don’t like to. Some of us are introverts. And dating is exhausting. The time and money, the repeating of the same information, the minefields of rules and expectations and toxic dates..eh. Maybe there’s a reason we all embraced Harris’ ideas with such relief.

I also acknowledge that this “wait on God” teaching is largely directed at believers who are too eager to marry – dating rabidly, making poor partner choices – in hopes of giving them holier alternatives. I totally sympathize. I also still think it’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater (and y’all know how I feel about that). Or Nyquil, as a better metaphor – going after the symptoms and not the virus. Hearts are what need healing there, not removing social tools that work fine for adults.

In the end, there’s no explicit Scriptural guidance for either side of the debate. There are principles for not doing anything stupidly or selfishly. There are examples of God directly matchmaking. Or giving individual dispensations to avoid certain things, which are absolutely proper if confirmed through prayer and church support (I have friends in that group, too).

But a blanket command is just not there. Which puts the matter squarely in Romans 14 territory – those who date shouldn’t judge those who don’t (or parents who don’t permit it), nor should those who don’t judge those who do.

I believe God does lead some people to date people they won’t marry. That’s my testimony and that of several friends. I believe a properly constructed Christian’s life can include divinely-appointed relationships before marriage. Mine includes two so far. My friends are now happily hitched (or about to be). Our experiences were bummers, but not nasty or depressing. We survived. We learned. And, by God’s grace, we moved on.

 

I’m just some bozo let loose on a keyboard, but if you ask me, Christians should feel free to date. It should be done prudently, prayerfully, with good discernment of the other’s character and the readiness to move on if needed, and probably not every month. But it shouldn’t be condemned. Assuming responsibility for God’s purposes in our lives is not tantamount to “taking things out of God’s hands”. It’s just…life.

 

I’m glad you tuned in today. If you found this post to be of value, please feel free to share it on social media. Thanks a bunch!

 

 

The Many Shades of Singleness, Part 3: Hating Marriage

CALLEN_PHOTOS-21.jpgFor this particular shade of this series (here’s Part 1 and Part 2), I felt it best to turn to someone from the “never marry” side of the singles’ world, someone with a different story and perspective, who could speak credibly to those with a reluctant view of marriage and a, shall we say, greater enthusiasm for singleness.

To that end, I’m excited to introduce my blog’s very first guest poster, Sarah J. Callen. 

When Brandon first asked me to share about singleness, I began racking my brain for the best way to communicate about this topic. Then a simple solution hit me: share your story. I hope my story will leave you encouraged if you’ve been hurt in the past, give you compassion for those in a different stage of life than you, or just give courage to share your own, even if it’s messy.

Growing up, I never wanted to get married. The entire institution of marriage was wholly undesirable and having kids was completely out of the question. I met Christ when I was 16 and dove into church culture, but my hatred of marriage remained. I was certain I was just going to be like Paul and choose singleness so I could serve God, not realizing the depth of hurt I was trying to cover up using this Christian justification.

Some of my friends got married right out of high school and I had plenty of weddings to attend all through my college years and, while I was happy for them, I still didn’t understand their desire to marry. Why on earth would you want to put up with another human being for the rest of your life? Why would you sign up for something that had a high probability of leaving you in worse shape than when you entered it?

You see, at a young age I decided that marriage was a bad thing.

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The Many Shades of Singleness, Part 2: Unaffirmed

person(Part 1 and Part 3 of this series.)

Years ago, my college group attended a weekend retreat (at a hot springs!) without knowing the topic. The speaker hadn’t announced it beforehand. Later, we discovered that that was because the speaker himself didn’t know his subject until he got underway; God only revealed it to him then. That subject was marriage. And it didn’t take long to see why God in his wisdom had waited for the reveal: at the end of the retreat, numerous attendees, as they shook the speaker’s hand in gratitude for solid teachings, admitted that if they’d known the topic beforehand, they wouldn’t have come.

At a different young adults’ group I briefly attended, the pastor offered a choice of topics for the next series: one of Paul’s epistles, or relationships. Paul’s epistle won. By a landslide.

And a friend recently asked, “Can we quit making the first question we ask someone after we haven’t seen them for a long time, ‘Soooo, do you have a guy’?”

Why do so many millennials land anywhere from disinterested to fiercely opposed to marriage?

The answers, I suspect, reach double digits. I myself never numbered among the matrimonially disinterested, but over time, I’ve come to appreciate fellow millennials’ increasing desire for singleness. It stems from not a few understandable stalks. And as I said last week, blunt criticism of singleness, from even respectable evangelical figures, will never be as effective as understanding and encouragement.

One stalk, I think, could be described as a lack of affirmation.

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The Many Shades of Singleness, Part 1

road (2)(Part 2 and Part 3 of this series.)

Recently, I’ve become aware of past controversial comments made by Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, on Christian singleness.

In previous years, Dr. Mohler has directed heavy criticism at kingdom singles. He has labeled as sinful the practice of delaying marriage by those who lack the “gift of celibacy”.

Singleness is not a sin, but deliberate singleness on the part of those who know they have not been given the gift of celibacy is, at best, a neglect of a Christian responsibility. The problem may be simple sloth, personal immaturity, a fear of commitment, or an unbalanced priority given to work and profession. On the part of men, it may also take the shape of a refusal to grow up and take the lead in courtship. There are countless Christian women who are prayerfully waiting for Christian men to grow up and take the lead. What are these guys waiting for? (Link)

Hailing from a Baptist paradigm that appreciates marriage’s Biblical shine (and having actually read the qualifiers in Mohler’s comments), I get what he was aiming for.

Nevertheless, if you ask me (and I know you didn’t), he’s left a lot out. Mohler’s comments are only a sliver of the much bigger message that Christian singles really need to be hearing. And that message is difficult, because not every single is created equal. God in his sovereignty is painting with a great many shades.

We singles are…complicated. A diverse bunch. Far more than is commonly recognized. We land somewhere on a spectrum best described so: I want someone, yet at the same time, I’m not sure I do. But I totally do! Yet…am I sure?

Some are tired of being judged entirely by, and being asked only about, their marital status. They feel unseen for themselves. That matters to millennials.

Others feel they lack the tools or a conducive personality (e.g. introverts) to move towards marriage.

And still others have tried to find a mate, spent countless nights bedside in tears praying for someone, and…nothing. They’ve put real effort into finding someone – and been resisted so serendipitously and relentlessly that they can only conclude God is the one keeping them single. Relationships buckle. Peace evaporates. Parties are called to move away. Or…nobody notices.

One friend, a passionate youth pastor who has served God far harder than some marrieds, lives in a formidably atheist country where kingdom singles are slightly more plentiful than unicorns (to say nothing of quality). Others live in rural areas, where they start wondering whether God has left them to the rules of probability.

This is the reality for singles at the street level. Needless to say, it might be a disservice to fall short of honoring these stories. Lack of pursuit is hardly the sole generator of singleness.

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Making Holiness Thrilling: What the Angels Longed to Look Into

peekOur youth group is currently in the midst of our annual “purity series”.

Our youth group sees fit to devote several weeks every February to the subject of purity with its many angles, and I can’t disagree with their choice. Given the escalating danger that sexual promiscuity poses to our young people in today’s bankrupt society, an emphatic approach seems right.

Last night’s message featured possibly the best possible angle on purity, the best reason to pursue purity.

It came, rather unexpectedly (for me), out of 1 Peter 1 – a passage that gives holiness the backdrop of a cosmic secret, withheld even from the angels.

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Being a Goody Two Shoes in a Wrong-Footed World

shoes“Hey, Brandon,” she said, bouncing up to the counter – not a coworker, but the girlfriend of one, whom I didn’t know from Adam – and said, “Do you know the difference between a cheeseburger and a [sexual reference]?”

I groaned.

No. I do not know the difference between those two things, and I’ve as much desire to find out as to go dumpster-diving in full view of Main Street on rush hour. Which I suppose is not altogether unrelated.

I looked at them with what I hoped was my (increasingly common) world-weary half-grin.

“C’mon. Enough for one night,” I said.

They relented good-naturedly.

I’m trying to be gracious here. I don’t want to be THAT Christian, the one who gets all stunned and debilitated because unbelievers are acting like unbelievers. You have to let this stuff slide off your backs in environments like my second job.

Plus, I actually enjoy this particular coworker. He’s got a lot of character (other than the one-track mind), we work great together, and I do consider him a friend. Burning bridges over this stuff would not do. Not when I’m called to share Christ with the people in my life.

But this stuff does get tiring. Perhaps you relate.

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The Real Triumph for the Christian Single

triumphAs Frodo and Sam clung to the burning flanks of Mount Doom in Return of the King, the One Ring destroyed and their quest complete, Sam thought of Rosie Cotton, a girl back home in the Shire. If there were anyone who caught his eye, Sam lamented as the lava crawled near, “it would’ve been ‘er.”

Yet even as he mourned, there’s no doubt that the two hobbits’ hearts were full and glad. All of Middle Earth was saved! The darkness had been vanquished, the armies of the West delivered, and a new age of peace was dawning thanks to their bravery and sacrifice – even of their lives, they suspected, as the volcano melted down around them amidst the Ring’s death throes.

Of course, we know that Sam got his girl, because a bunch of eagles appeared out of nowhere and pulled the pair off the mountainside before they crisped. (Seriously, where were those eagles and their convenient carrying ability five volumes ago when Frodo first faced thousands of miles to Mordor? Talk about your continent-sized plot holes…)

But I digress.

My point is, it would have been silly to think that Sam underewent those unbelievable travails just for Rosie. He didn’t reach Mount Doom to find Rosie chained there, waiting for rescue. Had Rosie never existed, Sam would have gone. Much, much more was at stake – both outside the two hobbits and within.

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