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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Head Beliefs vs. Heart Beliefs

brainheartThere are some life skills I’ve picked up that have pretty much made the adult me.

The ability to apologize. You wouldn’t believe how far that takes you with people.

The ability to laugh at oneself. Which, naturally, makes me a one-man comedy.

The ability to say no to purchases I don’t need. No TV/Netflix, used cars…it adds up over the years.

But probably the most valuable life skill is the ability to articulate the hidden lies I’m believing.

I submit that we have two kinds of beliefs: head beliefs and heart beliefs. Head beliefs are the ones we’re aware of, the ones we’ve explicitly processed and given mental consent to, like the existence of gravity, or the depth of God’s love. It’s easier to articulate those beliefs, though we don’t necessarily act according to them.

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Did You Become a Better Person in 2017?

climbNo, I’m not dead.

*big sigh of relief (or disappointment)*

I just stepped away from the blog for a few weeks over the holiday, and honestly, it was nice to escape the pressure. I’m back now, and looking forward to your readership in 2018.

It’s funny…when people ask me how my 2017 went, I’ve found that my usual reaction is to fall back on the typical “oh man it was horrible, toss that one in the bin and bring in 2018!” that we all cynically throw around for a laugh. Or some version of that.

But then I stopped and realized…my 2017 was actually rather terrific.

…is it okay to say that?

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Renouncing the “Manipulative Mother” God

reachHave you ever been convinced that God is deliberately withholding something from you so that you’ll become more satisfied in him?

We want something. Said something delays and proves elusive. We consider the idea that God is behind the delays and start exploring the reasons why he might say no (a long research, as many of us know).

We discover a number of possibilities, each with a basis in Scripture. We learn that we might simply need to persist in prayer. Elijah did – and on something that he not only already knew was God’s will (making it rain) but held the sole responsibility in Israel for making happen, by God’s own decree.

We consider the possibility that our requests might not be as beneficial for us as we think (or that their timing might not be).

We learn that Satan has a role in our lives, and that God provides tools for resisting his ravages.

We examine our own hearts and lives to make sure our own sin is not setting us back.

But stick to your search for long enough and one theory will start cropping up and standing out more than any other: the idea that God is saying no purely to make you more satisfied in him.

If you’re reading the right pastors and authors, this one will find its way into your vocabulary. “Satisfied in him” is probably John Piper’s favorite three words. It was John Eldredge who introduced me to the idea: that God will allow difficulty or delay into our lives and prayers every once in a while, in order to purge us of our distractions and fruitless pursuits.

At first, it’s interesting from an academic point of view. You nod and acknowledge the fact that God alone is worthy of our praise, worthy of our highest value, worthy (and capable) of being the one vessel of satisfaction from which our hearts can draw.

But as time goes on, the idea gets…irritating.

You might already be irritated just having read it in my post.

At some point down the road, in a moment of deep frustration or heartbreak, you get honest: “God, why do you have to be this way?” It strikes us that God appears to be acting like that manipulative mother you see in bad teen movies, the type who sabotages her daughter’s relationships so that she’ll stay at home. “Why are you jealous of my happiness?” we bitterly pray. Perhaps the thought only flashes through our mind instead, and we guiltily stuff it down, but it still happened. It’s a vulnerable moment, as God seems distant and indifferent to our groaning prayers.

But God is not acting out of fear, loneliness, or pettiness, as the manipulative mother might. Such motives are impossible for him.

Instead, he is acting out of his delight for us.

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
   and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
   and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. – Hebrews 12:6-8

If unanswered prayers are a form of suffering (and they certainly can be, depending on the prayer), then they are also a form of discipline – and a sign of God’s ownership and acceptance of us. I’d rather that than getting everything I want but wondering whether I was really his.

God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing. – C.S. Lewis

That statement is quite alien to our daily thinking. We think we can get it. We really do. Just answer this prayer, give us this thing, and we’ll be good. Many of us don’t know that we can experience peace from God, much less that it’s more real than anything else.

God is not playing spoilsport, holding good things spitefully out of reach until we give him some attention. He is sweeping ugly spikes and pits out of the way until we can receive his greatest gift: himself. The idea that he is the greatest gift requires a total rearrangement of our worldly thinking. But it is a journey worth taking.

A Rebuke Worse than God’s?

wrathWhen I mess up at work, and my boss calls me on the carpet about it, I’ll feel awful for a week and redouble my efforts to improve my work processes.

When my mistakes affect a coworker or increase their burden, I’ll feel even worse and seek to do them favors.

When my pastor point out an error in ministry, or even just provide advice upon my own prompting on how I could refine a certain area, (by the way, people, do not start walking on eggshells around me because of this post – I need and value correction), I’ll be quite humbled for a while.

And when a friend or family member expresses disappoint in me for whatever reason, an entire fortnight goes in the tank.

But when I sin and only God sees?

Well, something’s different. And not in a way that should be.

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When “Not Good” is Very Good

When we were young, our parents said “no” to save us. No, you can’t stay up all night watching scary movies. No, you can’t have that sucker that’s bigger than your head. No, you can’t hang out with that gang of boys reenacting Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles down the street. (Wish I’d listened before I got a nunchuk to the head.)

But there’s also the sense that parents say no simply to teach us that this ain’t Burger King and you don’t always get it your way. We all know what a kid becomes when he’s given whatever he wants: a spoiled brat. As a teacher, it wasn’t hard for me to spot the kids who’d never heard a “no” in their life. It was more often the “denied” students who exhibited respect, work ethic, and people skills in the classroom; it was those who’d been given less that actually had more.

And I like what I’ve become through my singleness.

We singles often think that God calls us to singleness mostly to help us dodge bad matches. That’s part of it. But let’s be honest: God could bring us a compatible person at any time. That he does not, suggests another purpose. (Sound Biblical theology is silent on the question of “one match for everyone”. As Steven Furtick has pointed out, such theology would require one who misses their match either stay single for life or marry the wrong person and thus cause a chain-reaction dislodging of God’s will for the entire human race.)

I want to say loud and clear: I don’t necessarily believe all singles are being kept there by God. Some are single because they choose it, or because they rarely groom themselves. But it’s undeniable that God has called some to this track. And when we see his hand in such a way, we have an opportunity to uncover an uncomfortable, but powerful, truth.

Like a coastal shelf carved by waves, sometimes God says no simply to refine our character.

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Act in Faith, or Stand Still?

turtleYesterday, our youth group discussed faith in action.

The Scripture was from James 2. We discussed how true faith is not created by action, but will create action. If you want a job, you don’t just sit around and pray; you get proactive, take a shower, send out applications and resumes, network. If you want to help the needy, you don’t just sit around and pray; you get creative, volunteer, brainstorm, sacrifice. There’s a part that’s God’s to do, and there’s a part that’s ours; God’s will is a collusion of the two.

I was also careful (after having given a poor impression at first, like I seemingly did above) to tell my teens that prayer in itself is action. We sometimes say of a situation that “All we can do now is pray.” All we can do? That is the greatest possible action! The fact that we resort to prayer after exhausting all our own resources tells us how backwards our view of the world is. Prayer does stuff. If you’re sick, you don’t just lie on the couch and post miserable Facebook memes; you get intercession, call some believers to lay hands on you and pray for your healing, as if you believed James 5:14-15 is actually true(!). Like heat from a flame, real faith will be given away by the action it generates.

But this morning, I got to thinking.

There are times when faith means no action.

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