A couple weeks ago I wrote a post for Her.meneutics about how to counsel and support the single people in our churches. The post, titled How Not to Help All the Single Ladies, had a tremendous response, and I was truly blessed by the positive feedback it received. I’m so glad my words were an encouragement to so many of you!
In reaction to my post, a number of commenters began an interesting discussion about the “blessing” of singleness, and whether we as a church should encourage singles to focus on the gifts that are unique to the single life, as Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 7. Some believed that singles should maximize their freedom for the gospel, while others felt this counsel could come across as insensitive and hurtful.
I want to follow up with that discussion because it’s an important one. On the one hand, Scripture does speak of the goodness of singleness and Paul desired other Christians to be single like him. That is a teaching we can and should heartily affirm. On the other hand, God calls Adam’s singleness “not good” in Genesis 2, a statement that resonates powerfully with the pain and grief many singles experience. Blithely instructing singles to find contentment in their hardship not only sounds callous in the face of raw, dark grief, but it also seems to be out of step with God’s very own response.
One of the things that makes this conversation complex is the language we use, namely that of “calling.” Single people often wonder whether God has “called” them to be single, and the longer one remains single the easier it is to conclude that one has, in fact, been called to singleness. As a result of this terminology, there is greater pressure to reconcile one’s self to singleness. After all, if God has called you to be single, then you need to obey and find satisfaction in Him.
As you can probably guess, this heaps extra guilt onto an already difficult situation.
In the comments section, I suggested a different perspective that I want to elaborate on here. Specifically, I challenged the language of “calling” as it relates to singleness.
“Calling” is a loaded term that we have to handle carefully, if not guard from incorrect use. When we look to Scripture for examples of calling, it is always clear when a calling is from God, and He calls individuals in a specific direction, for a specific purpose. Even when the call is unwelcome (ie. Jonah), it is undeniable. Calling is not merely circumstantial, nor is it based on a hunch. God speaks.
There have been very few times in my life when I have felt called to something. There have been many times when I obeyed God’s will as delineated in Scripture, or sought God through prayer and wisdom, but calling is something else altogether. In those special instances, the powerful leading of the Holy Spirit aligned with Scripture, godly counsel, and my circumstances to communicate an undeniable message. It is difficult to even describe but all I can say is that I knew it was from God.
This might be a bit surprising, but I did not feel called to marry Ike. I know some people do feel called to marry their spouse, but that was not my own experience. I think that it was in God’s good plan for me to marry Ike, and I think it was the wise and right decision to marry him. But I did not experience a calling consistent with the accounts we see in Scripture. And this is where we wade into some interesting theological territory.
It is important to distinguish between God’s calling, God’s will, and God’s sovereignty. Sovereignty refers to God’s broader reign over the universe. God is not the author of evil, but neither is evil outside of His control. Nothing is beyond the reach of His grasp or outside the domain of His power. “Will” is underneath the category of God’s sovereignty. There are different types of God’s will (such as passive will and active will) and within the category of will there is a hint more nuance of causation: God actively willed that the universe exist, that humans bear His image in the world, and that some humans marry one another. However this “willing” is also distinct from the more specific and specialized nature of calling as far as we see it described in the Bible.
The relationship between all three is a mysterious and delicate one, but they are distinctions we must draw nonetheless. Especially when we talk about the nature of singleness. While all singleness is always under God’s sovereignty and will, only some Christians are explicitly “called” to it.
Indeed, some people are certainly called to be single. The Apostle Paul was one, as are Catholic priests and nuns. However, not all single people are called. Some are single because they have yet to meet a spouse. They will not be single forever, so their singleness is marked by the same yearnings of the church as she awaits her own bridegroom.
Other Christians are single because we live in a broken world. That is to say, some people are single, not because God has anointed them for the specific task of being single in the church, but because of our fallen universe. We live in a world where people divorce, where spouses die, where there are simply more women than men in the church. And because of these circumstances and more, some people are single for the same reason that other painful things happen–our world is a broken one.
In short, God has allowed some people to be single, but that does not mean He has called all of them.
One commenter asked me if I believed that some single people would have been able to marry had sin not entered the world. You know, I cannot answer that question. It is speculation about a world that does not exist. What I do know is this: As I already mentioned, God called Adam’s singleness “not good” and consequently granted him a mate. This verse implies that the pain, longing, and aloneness that many single people feel–especially those who have not discerned a call to singleness but find themselves single anyway–is a sign of living in a broken world. Singles should therefore have the freedom to name that painful dissonance without fear of shame. They should have the same space to grieve as any other person walking a path they never would have chosen.
Of course God can take a difficult path and make it lovely. He can transform anything for better, and Christians should embrace that hope no matter the hardship. But that does not mean singleness is always a gift. It simply means that God is a redeemer who can work good out of any circumstance, and that is a very different message from telling single people to stop complaining and recognize the blessing of their circumstance.
Some singles are called, some are waiting, some are grieving, and others have found contentment amidst it all. Singleness comes in so many forms for so many reasons, so it is important to recognize that complexity if we are to encourage and support such an important part of our community.
That’s my take. What do you think?
That question about whether some single people would have married in an unfallen world is an interesting one, Sharon, in light of Jesus’ statement that “When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage”. (Mark 12:25.) What would have happened with no Fall? I don’t know either, but I do know that marriage is not the greatest thing going since Jesus isn’t even planning on it at the final resurrection.
On the Genesis 2 passage with it no being good for man to be alone, I think this concerns more than just the marriage state. God’s pronouncement was in the context of looking at all he had made. Creating woman, in context, seems to be for all creation and not just so some testosterone laden men can have a little woman around the house. (I wrote about this a little bit here, in case anyone’s interested: http://timfall.wordpress.com/2012/10/24/women-ha-who-needs-em/ )
Tim, I agree that marriage isn’t the “greatest thing going” either. When God created us, our chief end was never to be married but to be worshipers who love and enjoy Him, no matter where life takes us!
Regarding the passage in Genesis 2, I happen to think there are a LOT of ways it can be read. Your perspective is definitely one of them. I didn’t mean to imply that my reading was the one and only–but I certainly think it’s one.
I didn’t think you meant it as an exclusive reading either, Sharon. God’s word is so rich that there are more ways than I’ll ever know for what it all means!
Also 1 Corinthians 7:7 was not a command from God, but Paul’s wish. Genesis 2:19 was the direct word from God.
lovely, lovely post. I’ve been wondering about the “we live in a broken world” as a reason for singleness as well. It’s tough to talk about — even harder to accept such a reality.It honestly makes me scared! But then I remember that our security is in Christ, whatever happens — I will not escape the brokenness of this world if I’m married and I will not escape it if I’m single. But I’ll always have Christ. 🙂
I love the perspective of dissecting the word “called.” I remember, going through infertility, when it was said that God had called me not to have children. I don’t know if infertility was necessarily a “call,” but I learned a lot through that journey and it helped me to grow. I believe that God brings beautiful gifts into our lives even when we don’t feel a specific call to that circumstance.
This was such a blessing to me, thank you!
Thank you for this. This is the commentary on Christian female singleness that ever made sense to me.
I’ve been single all 25 years of my ambitious, crazy life, through 8 states, 11 cities, and graduate school. One after another, my male, college-church friends came to me for “safe” counsel and deep companionship–married other females. Without regard for my feelings as a woman. They felt they couldn’t “Lead” me or waited for God to “tell” them to marry, and He wasn’t “saying” me. I was always told by church leadership that I was strong, needed to pick a mate “stronger” than me, and this is why God never gave me anyone. They said, I needed to be content in Jesus and “accept” my singleness in God. But most people telling me never had to do that themselves; God never “tested” them in the same way. As a result, I always felt inadequate or doubted His goodness. I felt He was withholding a good thing from me due to my lack of feminity–or in spite of my strength, which I wasn’t supposed to have as a woman. Over the years, I’ve had to learn otherwise, but I religiously avoid this topic on blogs or in church, lest I re-experience the pain and bitterness I went through previously. I feel really blessed that you, as a married woman, were able to share this and acknowledge that loneliness, cognitive dissonance, and confusion are not, in themselves, sins.
God has always spoken to me since, saying: He is always my companion, but not acknowledging my feelings won’t make them disappear.
Thank you for this, Sharon. I wish I could send a copy of this to my well-meaning but often insensitive married friends and they would “get” it.
Thank you for your thoughtful, sensitive and creative approach to this very difficult pastoral issue. As a still single 36 year-old woman, it was most welcome, though not unexpected coming from you. (please don’t be intimidated by the length of my post! it’s friendly:)!)
I think the use of the concept of calling in relation to singleness is problematic, and as you say not really supported by Scripture. I think it comes from sincere Christians being very concerned to obey God’s commands, and to follow his will. But it can descend into a slightly childish attitude, whereby we are unable to act without detailed instructions, and especially to take responsibility for our own decisions.
We are very focused on involuntary singleness, however the New Testament does not really deal with it. 1 Corinthians 7 envisages two groups of singles: those who want to get married and those who don’t. It advises the ones who want to get married to do so, and the ones who don’t want to to feel free to remain unmarried. The cultural context was one where singleness was not acceptable, therefore people had to get married, whether they really wanted to or not. In this context, the teachings of Jesus and Paul giving a positive role to singles was ground-breaking and liberating. We take the freedom not to marry for granted, but we owe it to that teaching alone, which has shaped Western civilisation and created a space for individuals to exist without being totally absorbed by the group. This teaching opens up both the possibility of happy singleness and happy marriage, because it gives us the freedom to make good choices. But somehow, in the History of the church, the teaching has been used to pressure certain members of society to remain single, in order to serve the interests of the group. That is where I think Roman Catholic practice is deeply wrong. The imposition of perpetual singleness on priests was initially to prevent them from leaving their property to their descendants. The implication that it is better for ministry to be unmarried (which seems to be the plain reading of 1 Corinthians 7), is not supported by Scripture as a whole: most of the great men and women of God were married. Do we think we are busyer than Moses, or Peter? Even Jesus is not presented as the Great Bachelor, but as the Bridegroom. Elevating singleness over marriage spiritually goes beyond the teachings of Paul, who explicitely says that’s not what he means, perpetuates the legalistic confusion between fruitfulness and productivity, causes false guilt among both married and singles, but is a particularly cruel burden for the singles, who are placed in a situation of justification of their singleness by works and are prevented from expressing their personal desires.
Men and women who deep down want to remain unmarried while serving God are free to do so, and a lifelong vow is unnecessary. In fact, the taking of the vow is proof that the person may very well without it change their mind, and desire to get married.
And to come back full circle, what is wrong with that? With the “calling” debate, we ask God “what do you want for me?” and he answers “What do you want for yourself?” The implication of 1 Corinthians 7, and its sister passage in 1 Timothy 3, is that God wants us to do what we want. Wow, that’s a thought! That is so much love and trust and respect that we can’t handle that. Paul thinks the widows in Corinth would be happier single, and those in Ephesus would be happier married. It really depends on the situation. The only qualification is to marry “in the Lord”.
And this is where we get to the current “involuntary singleness” crisis. Pastors aren’t encouraging single women to get married if they want to, the way that Paul did with widows, because they assume there are no suitable men out there. But there are men. There are fairly equal numbers of men and women in society until they reach their sixties. I once discussed my choice to only marry a Christian man with a non-Christian man who said to me “don’t you think people can change?”. I was so ashamed, because it is one of the central tenets of Christianity that people can change. In fact, that is what we are all called to: repentance. It doesn’t mean a particular man will choose to repent, but it does mean there is no Scriptural basis for viewing the supply of single men “in the Lord” as fixed. God knows the number of the elect. We don’t. And therefore there is no Scriptural basis for not supporting, for not affirming single women’s desire to get married.
I personally think a lot of the pastoral crisis among single women would go away if we were affirmed and supported in our desires. Wanting to get married is normal. That’s all it is. It’s not idolatrous, it’s not spiritually inferior, it’s not a sign of discontentment with God, any more than wanting to go to college, or own a car, or have children. Marriage is a good gift of God’s creation. Some women, deep down, don’t want to get married. (They didn’t enjoy it that much first time round, they have same-sex attraction, there are other things they want to do more.) That’s OK too. But a lot women feel they have to hide their desire to get married from the church, from God even, and worst of all from themselves. My pastoral experience is that the worst problems occur among women who stridently claim they don’t need marriage, when it is obvious they are longing for it. I really think, paradoxically, that the focus of our teaching on singleness should move from “calling”(God’s will) to what each person wants, deep down. Honestly, Paul doesn’t think it’s that hard to get married, but it certainly hasn’t helped me to have it presented as an unattainable goal. Personally, I think that kind of thinking has played a large part in keeping me single: it comes partly from my family history, but the teaching I received on singleness hasn’t helped me move past this.
So I would like to encourage you with your posts questioning the Scriptural basis for this line of thinking, and finding other avenues for approaching singleness and marriage than the concept of “calling”.
God bless you!
I am very interested in this single issue.
I am on the process to a divorce after 4 years of marriage and now 4 years of beeing separated with my ex husband. I feel very happy to be single an dnot to live waiting for Mr Right. I trust God to make things happen for my good, but I will no longer be miserable for beeing single.
I can telle you that I have been thru real loneliness while married. We just need to speak more about the benefits of beeing single instead of focusing too much on single in order to get married.
I also think that if you have been able to live your single perdiod fully inJesus, you will be a very good candidate for a strong marriage. But unfortunately, we are facing these singles who are chasing after Mr or Mrs Right by trying every person they can meet on their way to marriage !
Of course this single issue is very badly addressed in our churches where singleness looks like a curse !
As a mattr of fact, marriage is good because it is an institution from God, but singleness is also a very good opportunity to get to know God better and closer in order to become a perfect mate for somebody.
In the same way that many feel pressure to remain single, some feel pressure to be married. My question is if this advice can apply to those who say God calls (in the sense that he speaks) people to get married. Does God call in that way for people to be married, and what might that sound like?
I’m 38 and I have been single my entire life and find NO contentment in this . What I have hates is being told Jesus is my husband . Um no . I’m not his wife and we are not married ! Jesus isn’t married to all the singles here on earth . Too many christians lean on their own understanding and not only confuse others they hurt others with their misunderstanding . Jesus is my savior but no way is he my husband or boyfriend and yes I’ve been told that too
Just because I’m single doesn’t mean I was called to be single . I was told by a stranger God called me but that’s very faulty as a person can’t tell another person Gods calling without that being an opinion .
I was not called to be single as I think that’s bunk
What if God calls u to a life of singleness are you supposed to enjoy it
Being single for many of us men is no fun at all these days and meeting a good woman is very hard these days for us good men hoping to get married to have a family that we still Don’t have.
Being single is certainly No fun at all for us Single men hoping to meet a good woman to share our life with.
thank you I am a grieving single. im glad u said it wasnt a gift. not unless suffering is a gift. sometimes singleness happens bc of sin. psalm 78.says there wereno wedding songs I believe.that is bc of ppls wickedness. if singleness is a gift again I believe with thaT will come accompanying joy. Paul did not describe his singleness with drudgery. there are times honestly I have a desire for a family and to me to be single is a weighty burden, not a joy. not at all I cry all the time. but I am still single. God hasnt changed that reality and the thought of dying single is one im still trying to wrap my mind around. so thanks for this.
There is a very good reason as to why many of us good men are still single today as i speak since many women nowadays are very high maintenance, independent, selfish, spoiled, and very greedy. And that really makes it very difficult for us finding love these days since many of us men are NOT single by choice.