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?