I have known it to be insinuated within the church that to be single is some great detriment to a Christian. You may be shocked at this admission, and wonder what churches would openly teach such a thing. But let’s not be naive about the issue. A church does not have to clearly state this position for you to hear it in their tone – and it is in the tone of many a Christian today.
You may be one of them without knowing it. Should you find yourself forming the opinion that ‘there’s nothing wrong with being single’, perhaps in a similar fashion to how you would say there’s nothing wrong with being ginger or there’s nothing wrong with having a disability, then I shouldn’t even have to point out the glaring patronisation in your thinking.
It risks creating a church culture in which singles are viewed as some kind of unwilling victims, through no fault of their own, and as a result they can end up mistakenly coming to think of themselves as such too. A fringe minority who, one day, may be ‘blessed’ enough to join the happily married elite; blessed enough to be healed of their ailment.
Should they not then wish away their singleness in prayer, they may go in the opposite direction by glorifying it – stubbornly claiming they wish to ‘be single for God’ and in the process fuelling the victimisation rhetoric. I do not want to argue for either stance here. Singleness was never meant to be viewed like this in the first place. It is, in fact, to be viewed as a valuable gift, as classified by and seen through the life of the Apostle Paul, rather than something to be wished away with haste or clung to through gritted teeth.
That’s right; I would even challenge those who say they don’t mind being single for a time – this seems to betray a desire to pursue marriage nonetheless, after a period of patiently waiting. I’d argue that singleness should be valued a lot more than merely something that Christians have to temporarily bear, as if it’s some kind of cross on one’s back. It should, on the other hand, be something that many more Christians crave. A mindset that shouldn’t crumble as soon as someone asks whether you’re happy to ‘grow old lonely’, as is the fear that grips many who suddenly grasp the idea as a vague possibility. But with faith and discernment, one realises how deceiving this disheartening whisper can be for a Christian who is saved by grace.
Consider, for a moment, how much of a spokesperson – or role model, if you rather – for the Gospel that a single Christian can be. We speak of Christ being our one and only saviour; the One who makes our lives worth living once we have come to acknowledge His death for our sins. For someone to live a single life is to show this truth in its fullest extent, relying on Jesus alone for a fulfilling, intimate relationship that even a spouse could not hope to replicate. Whereas a married Christian has to work extra hard to convey a relationship that, let’s remember, must go even further still than any normal secular marriage – or else where is the proof of Christ’s mark on their lives? As Paul warns in 1 Corinthians 7: 32-33, “The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife”.
Some say they feel ‘called’ to singleness or ‘called’ to get married. Some even go so far as to say they feel called to marry a particular person. Really? I see nothing supporting that in scripture*. They may be called to something, such as a certain lifestyle or important task, to which singleness or marriage would be a helpful addition, but for singleness or marriage to be ‘callings’ makes little sense, as they have no real end in themselves. The wisdom Paul shares in the above passage is about helping his listeners make WISE DECISIONS about whether or not to marry, based on their own situations (1 Corinthians 7: 6-7). Nowhere does he say either one is directly ordained by God; as if He determined that you would always remain single, or get married three times over (you may argue that God does actually ordain these things, and I would say you’re probably right, but would also add that whether or not He ultimately does has no effect on our present concerns and speculating only serves to confuse matters).
Paul says that, in his experience, it is good to be single (verse 8). God’s calling didn’t come into it yet; it was a desire to pursue God’s calling that led to the decision. For Paul this distinction must have been obvious, for he would not have emphasised so much that it was simply a matter of choice otherwise – a choice to be made wisely nonetheless.
Likewise, Paul illustrates that to marry is not to step outside God’s calling on your life – there is just a slightly higher chance that you’ll be distracted from it. And I think we can see that a great many people are distracted, once they marry. It is to them we can look for creating this idea that being married is in fact a ‘calling’ in itself. But indeed, it is still better for a person to marry than to go through their entire life struggling without it (verse 9).
So we end up with this situation in the lives of some young Christians, who go through many years waiting for God to ‘call’ them into marriage with a particular person. They wait for some obvious sign, usually based on instinct or feeling, all the while perceiving their struggle to be a test of faith that they must bear in waiting for their reward. I wonder then what they expect to happen once they have found their spouse? That it would be the end of their struggles? No; I think at that point they may find their real struggle only just beginning.
Of course I have been avoiding the great elephant in the room here, making it seem as though this is simply about a pragmatic choice with a bleak outcome either side of it. We all know that the choice to marry, in many cases, is motivated by something larger; the emotion known as love, that can seemingly overpower everything in its wake when it is in full flow. In a way this surely makes it obvious for us who should marry and who should not. It should be as simple as the comparison between those who have fallen in love, and those who have not.
Yet in all of Paul’s writings on marriage, he does not recommend that people marry for love. His approach is as pragmatic as anyone. Outside of our love for each other as brothers and sisters, or our devotion to Christ, he does not mention the notion at all – hinting perhaps that he regards romantic love as of far lesser importance than these other two. His approach deals predominantly with God’s law regarding sexual conduct – which is one that romantic love often finds itself wanting to break, if left unchecked.
It should also be noted that if this ‘love’ by itself provided the recipe for a successful marriage, then there would a lot less divorce in the world. Many divorces are the result (whether directly or indirectly) of marriages that were once motivated by great love, but soon find that love, as with every superficial feeling, expiring. “We’re not in love any more” or “I’ve fallen in love with someone else” have become easy get-out clauses for a marriage built on this foundation.
I don’t mean to say that a marriage built on this foundation is bad – it is far more preferable than the alternative – but to expect the initial ride of euphoric love to last is unrealistic, and to say your covenant depends on it is to devalue the point of the covenant entirely.
Yes, marriage is something I do take very seriously. I feel a need to clarify this now, because those of you who know me personally will have been wondering it. You may have thought me unqualified to even speak on such issues, in my particular stage of life. At times I appear to be arguing vehemently for singleness when I am not, in fact, single. Worse than that: I am not yet married either, but speak as if I have experience of it.
Therefore I’m in the stage of a relationship that is most taboo of all among young adult Christians: the ‘we’ve been together for a while without having sex’ stage that so many think themselves incapable of enduring. Yet this does not, I think, make me unqualified, but rather more qualified to see both sides from their respective angles. I am not some single person with a chip on his shoulder, nor am I the married man pandering to those who lack what he has.
Bearing that in mind, I shall move on to this final group; the Christian who has made the choice that they would like to get married and is now actively pursuing a relationship that will be the prelude to it. And let’s be clear that it is only a prelude. There is no guarantee, however perfect it may look, that it will lead there. So do not, please do not, look for that guarantee before the relationship. It doesn’t exist. Waiting for it will be to shut yourself off from a multitude of potential opportunities.
In my experience I have also encountered those who take the stance that they need to get themselves ‘right’ or ‘sorted out’ before being ‘ready’ for marriage. An honourable notion for sure, but I get the feeling that it kind of misses the core point of a relationship, and marriage should it follow. That core point being the invaluable opportunity for two people to grow and get it right together.
To think of it any other way is like saying marriage is the culmination of all your hard work as a single person, when in fact it should be the opposite way around. A relationship is the start of the hard work, when you and another person can begin maturing together into better versions of yourselves in marriage. In a sense, when two people enter into marriage, they are stripping themselves bare. Whatever progress they may have made before that as individuals, they need to be prepared to let go and start from scratch.
Sound familiar? It should. I don’t think it is any coincidence that this kind of relationship, when approached in the right way, bears a striking resemblance to a Christian’s relationship with Jesus. We are told that to follow Him, our old selves must fall away (Ephesians 4: 21-24). We become a new creation (2 Corinthians 5: 17). Not that we are completely disregarding who we once were; in many ways this new self highlights who we really are. Especially when it comes to the bad parts. Relationships with those closest to us have a way of doing that.
In this we perhaps have the biggest hint of all as to why many people view marriage as somewhat of a higher calling than any normal relationship, and something for which they need to sort out their ‘issues’ beforehand. Those issues have not come from nowhere. They have likely formed as a result of past relationships, through which someone may have experienced this ‘bringing out the bad’ and found that they were not comfortable with it.
Therefore they look for a marital relationship that should not make them feel this way, but rather will give them ultimate contentment and satisfaction. The irony is that it does, though it could be a long hard road to get there. Those past scars can make people fear journeying down that road again. But I think it is the only one there is, this side of well edited Hollywood love stories.
Now, you may argue that the reason to get yourself right before going into marriage is because you want to be able to give yourself fully to the other person. I’d say the way you do that is not by trying to sort out all the bad parts of yourself first, but instead letting them see all of you, and work on it with you.
Also, if you are this person, I’d ask what your approach would be to a potential spouse who had these issues that you saw needed ‘working out’? Would you tell them to go and deal with it before coming back to you for an easier relationship/ marriage? If so then I think, frankly, they deserve a lot better than you.
Thankfully Christ does not show this kind of attitude in loving us. He doesn’t come with conditions that we need to meet beforehand, but you can bet that through the relationship – if you choose to proceed with it – you will mature to the point where you do meet those conditions in the end. It is the journey that makes a Christian, not the other way around.
Modern Western culture would have you believe that relationships are easily obtainable, self-obsessive endeavours that you can enter into and leave at will before choosing a spouse. It is the pattern we are all familiar with, but not one we receive from the Bible. The biblical model set out by Paul emphasises that this cultural pattern is backwards. It is one he too was familiar with among the early Christians, and no doubt a huge factor in why he seemed so painstakingly meticulous, yet not absolute on the issue. I’d like to think my approach is similar.
*Proverbs 19: 14 does say that “a prudent wife is from the Lord”, but that is not the same as being called to a particular person before they become your wife. A ‘prudent wife’ doesn’t just fall from Heaven for any man that waits for her. Make wise decisions and you will naturally be rewarded for it – this is the theme of the whole book of Proverbs. I see no reason to interpret this verse any differently.