[Adapted from this past Sunday’s message at The District Church, “Being Single.”]
Public Service Announcement: Singleness is not a terminal disease.
It can be real hard; it can be real lonely; it has its challenges. And the church has too often elevated marriage and romantic relationships far above where they were meant to be, and this has usually been unintentional but no less damaging. I remember early in seminary when I wrote a paper and in it, I concluded that, for some reason that I couldn’t quite place, there was a sense in which I wouldn’t consider myself a grown-up until I was married and had kids. I’d never been told that, but that was the reality I observed in church culture: when folks who were single would get asked if they’d met anybody yet, and if they said no, you’d get this really thinly-veiled reaction of pity and maybe a “Well, I’ll be praying for you!”
In Jesus’ day and culture, marriage was the norm too. In fact, people in Jesus’ day were getting married at least ten years earlier—the average age for the American woman to marry is around 27 and for American men, it’s almost 29, but in first century Palestine, it was usually just around or just after puberty. Tim Keller writes:
Nearly all ancient religions and cultures made an absolute value of the family and of the bearing of children. There was no honor without family honor, and there was no real lasting significance or legacy without leaving heirs. Without children, you essentially vanished—you had no future. The main hope for the future, then, was to have children. In ancient cultures, long-term single adults were considered to be living a human life that was less than fully realized.
It was in this culture and in this environment that Jesus remained single his entire life. And if Jesus was the most human of us all, the truest human being to ever live, and if he was single, then singleness cannot be looked at as a terminal disease or as some kind of half-life.
But I do wonder what people thought about this man, still unmarried long after he’s supposed to be, hanging out with kids and adulterous women and other folks who were not highly regarded in society—and trying to teach about Scripture and God and how to live. Who is this guy? Who does he think he is? Yet Jesus never addressed this. Could it be that his personal relationship status wasn’t the main thing that defined him?
The Apostle Paul—who was also single—did address it; he had to respond to a church where people were asking about it. In 1 Corinthians 7, he writes about single people and married people and about each person having a “gift”—and this is where we find the root of that phrase, “the gift of singleness.” That’s right: singleness is not a terminal disease; singleness is a gift! Now, if you’re single, you may be rolling your eyes like I’ve done countless times in the past because you’ve heard talks about how singleness is a gift and you’re like, “This is not a gift I want! Can I return this even if I don’t have the receipt?”
But this passage has often been misunderstood, because Paul says that marriage is also a gift; and the fact that something is a gift doesn’t make it any easier to navigate—ask a married person!
The gift is the present.
(See what I did there?) The gift is where you are right now. We always spend our time dwelling in some other state: the perfect relationship, the perfect house, the perfect job; the next promotion, the next raise, the next vacation. And yet a life of contentment is possible: as Paul writes in Philippians 4:11, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have.” The secret? He reveals this two verses later: “I can do all things through God who strengthens me.” Every moment is a gift, every situation can be a gift, God is working all things for the good of those who love him, even those places that are not very comfortable or are downright difficult.
If you’re single right now, you have the gift of singleness—congratulations! Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean you won’t face fear: fear of commitment, fear of being hurt, fear of limiting your options, fear of missing out, fear of making a bad choice, because every human being faces those things.
For most of my life, my greatest fear was that I would be alone, and that drove me to desperately want to be in a relationship. My first relationship didn’t happen until I was 19 and in college, and while in many respects it was a healthy relationship, it wasn’t until afterwards that I realized I’d been looking to women for the soul affirmation that only God can give. Even now, at 30, in a dating relationship, even though my relationship with God is as tight as it’s ever been, and even though God has dealt with a lot of the insecurities and uncertainties that drove me in my teenage years and into my twenties, I still occasionally see that old fear of being alone rear its ugly head and make me want to try to control this relationship, try to make it look the way I want it to.
And in those moments, I’m reminded that Jesus tells his followers that we would never be alone, that “As you do as I command, as you do life with me, as you seek first the kingdom of God, I am with you always through my Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). And I’m reminded that Jesus intended his people to be community for one another. World-renowned and widely-respected pastor and theologian John Stott, who died last year aged 92, was single his whole life, and he said this:
God created us as social beings. Love is the greatest thing in the world. For God is love, and when he made us in his own image, he gave us the capacity to love and to be loved. So we need each other. Yet marriage and family are not the only antidotes to loneliness.
Being single does not need to be the same thing as being lonely. We are the body of Christ together, intended to complement and support and uphold each other. And so in that context, among friends and by the grace of God, I’m reminded that I can let go of my need for control, and I can trust God.
Singleness is not a terminal disease. (Thanks be to God.)