What Does It Mean To Be “Single?”

By September 13, 20096 Comments

Lonely girl When I was a college minister I had the following interaction with both male and female students on a very frequent basis:

Emily has been dating a guy for a number of years and they’re really serious. She thinks she’s going to marry him and they have their entire future planned out around one another. But one day Emily’s boyfriend breaks up with her. She is absolutely devastated, feels lonely all the time, and can’t stop thinking about him. It’s as if her entire life’s direction and purpose has suddenly deflated, and she can’t seem to pick herself back up.

When I sit down with Emily to discuss the situation, one of the things we talk about is how God might redeem the situation. Although it seems bleak and hopeless now, God can use her hardship to teach her, refine her, and grow her. That said, I encourage her to embrace her singleness. Don’t worry about jumping back into the dating pool just yet. Take some time to remember who you are in Christ alone. After you’ve had a healthy amount of time to do that, pray about when to consider dating again.

Emily whole-heartedly agrees. “Yeah, I definitely need to be single right now!” she proclaims. “I’m really looking forward to having this time to grow in my faith. Just me and Jesus!”

One month later, Emily is dating Caleb, a guy she met shortly after our conversation. Eventually I grab a chance to talk to her: “I thought you were going to be single for awhile?” And she innocently responds, “Yeah, I was.”

It then dawns on me that my idea of being “single for a while” (ie. 6 months to a year–depending on how serious the previous relationship) was completely different from hers. For someone who has been in a long-term relationship–or has been in lots of consecutive short-term relationships–a month or two can feel like an eternity of singleness. Though she’d only been single for a few weeks, she she felt like she’d been single forever.

The reason I open with this story is that it will help me explain the post’s title. While singleness doesn’t sound like a hard to define category (Some of you are probably thinking, “Geez, I know I’m single! You don’t have to rub it in!) stories like Emily’s lead me to believe that there isn’t a widely held agreement on what it really means to be single. While many people admit that God “is leading them through a season of singleness right now” or that God hasn’t revealed their future to them spouse yet, their lifestyles are sometimes inconsistent with this supposed phase of life. I’m not trying to be sadistic here and tell people who are already struggling with being single that you’re not “single enough,” but there’s a degree to which we need to be honest about whether we are honoring God in the seasons He has called us to. Some people do this well–they are single and they use their time excellently. But others (and I did this myself at times) may be single in name but have multiple emotional attachments that prevent them from ever learning or growing from this time in their lives.

God calls everyone to be single at some time in their life, but a lot of people find ways of almost getting around it. Rather than learning what they’re supposed to from it, namely founding their identity on Christ instead of another person, a lot of people are only quasi-single. They’re single in the most minimal way. And this toe-in-the-water singleness all comes about as a result of 2 main factors:

1. The Way We Define Singleness–For most of us, when we look back over our lives thus far and tally up the number of years spent in relationships, we only count the years in which we had an officially labeled “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.” However, that number of “official relationships” can be deceiving. For many of us, we don’t count the number of people who filled a “boyfriend placeholder” position in our lives, or guys with whom there was a physical relationship but no commitment, or guys that we just flirted with incessantly. Many women have a significant list of men with whom there was never a relationship title, but they either felt like they were in a relationship, or acted like it.

That is not being single. With or without a label, if you are emotionally involved with someone in a way that consumes your time and thought life, or if you’re giving away your heart or your body to another person in an intimate way, then you aren’t really single. What’s more, you’re not being single in the way Scripture envisions this time of your life, a time that allows you to “concern yourself with the Lord’s affairs and how you can please him.” (1 Cor. 7:32) Instead of using your singleness to the Lord, you’re actually finding short-cut ways to avoid it.

2. The Length of Your Singleness–As I described in the opening story, it can be hard to stay single after a break-up. For a lot of women at least, we can lose our identities in the man we are with. It’s like we lose our center of gravity, so we start searching for another guy to take that place. But if you’re single long enough, you will begin to remember what your identity is like apart from a guy. You remember who you were created to be and how God alone really is enough to fulfill you and give you joy. This process usually took me, personally, about a year to work through. It wasn’t until a year after a break up that I fully recovered and remembered who I was again in Christ. That said, when we jump right into another relationship, we make it more difficult to engage this process because we haven’t given ourselves the time we need. It’s not impossible, but it’s very hard.

That said, if you’re the kind of person who bounces from relationship to relationship, or if you’ve never been truly single (no hooking up, no pseudo-boyfriends, no excessive and long-term flirting with that guy you like) for 6 months to a year since you were in 8th grade, then you really haven’t been single very long. You haven’t given yourself the time to heal on the Lord’s strength or build your identity on the Lord alone, without the crutch of a relationship. And the way you measure this amount of time is not how long its been since your last boyfriend, but how long its been since your last emotional or physical relationship with someone of the opposite sex.

So while I’m not going to make a bunch of rules about how long you should be single after a relationship or how long people should experience singleness in general–every person is different and every situation is different–I offer these 2 angles on singleness so that we aren’t deceiving ourselves in a way that undermines this God-ordained seasons of our lives. Again, I don’t want to belittle how tough it can be to be single, and some of you are an example to us all about how to embrace your circumstances to the glory of God! But I fear others of you are short-changing yourselves. Singleness is hard, but it’s also a gift that should not be wasted.

Singleness is a really important phase of every person’s life. For me, it was my chance to learn who I was in Christ apart from any other person so that when I finally got married I wasn’t depending on my husband to fill a role that only God could. So while no one knows when they’ll meet the person they are meant to marry, and no one knows how long their season of singleness will last, I encourage you to live out your singleness with honesty before God. If you’re single right now, don’t hook up with a bunch of random dudes. Don’t hook up with your best guy friend either. Don’t flirt with all the cute guys at church to make yourself feel better, and don’t keep that guy hanging around you who likes you, just so that you don’t feel lonely. If you’re going to be single, do singleness well. Do it in a way that is obedient to God in the season He’s called you to.

Yes, I know it’s not always that simple. You don’t know if that guy or girl you like is “the one.” All I’m asking is that you don’t be sketchy about it, and that you be honest with yourself and with God. Is your dating life motivated by fear, or by a security in the God who has great plans for you? Your answer to this question is likely revealed by your lifestyle–are you doing singleness well, enjoying it and using it to honor God, or are you attempting to minimize the “pain” of it as much as possible?


  • ashley marie says:

    Thank you for writing this! This is so encouraging to hear in this season of singleness that I’m in right now. I’ve never had a boyfriend or dated at all & that’s something that has bothered me for years and years. Now that I’m in my 3rd year of college, the Lord has showed me how by focusing on not having a guy in my life that I wasn’t embracing the time of singleness He’s given me. It’s really hard sometimes because sometimes I feel like I’m missing out by not having a boyfriend while all my other friends wither have one or have had one, but this was another encouragement to comtinue to keep God first and to enjoy this time by finding out who I am in Christ. Thank you again and God bless you!

  • ashley marie says:

    meant to say continue* and don’t know where “wither” came from! sorry for all the grammatical errors! lol.

  • Nikki says:

    First off, I just wanted to say I love your blog…it is so insightful and helpful in many issues in my life. Thank you.

    Second, about being single, I am currently in a relationship, but I was single for awhile before that. I have to say that I loved it! There were times when I would struggle and see all these people dating and getting married, but overall I really did not mind it. It was a great time for me to really work on my girl relationships and focus on my relationship with God. This scripture also helped me a lot when I was in those times of really wanting a boyfriend:
    “An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:34-35).
    Though dating is not marriage, you are still having to look out for your boyfriend’s needs. Also, I found, not only in my life but also in other’s lives, when you are focused on God FIRST, he will give you what you want (Psalm 37:4). Thats how it was for me: I was not looking for a boyfriend, but God opened my eyes and my heart to my best friend that I have known for years and we are in an incredible, godly relationship.

  • David says:

    Dear Sharon, I think I would say that I disagree with several of your foundational principles in writing this post. The most concerning statement to me is “But if you’re single long enough, you will begin to remember what your identity is like…you remember who you were created to be and how God alone really is enough to fulfill you and give you joy. This process usually took me, personally, about a year to work through.”

    The vastly more important point than the idea that there is some redeeming value of time in being “single” is the idea that you ought to pursue relationships AND single life in such a way that you do not lose your identity and joy in Christ. This is a huge failure of our contemporary culture that has let movies and R&B dictate its attempts at romance than the Gospel.

    When my last relationship ended one of the pastors at our church sat me down and said “Seriously, before God what has changed between you and ______? Nothing. She was your sister in Christ before you started dating her, you should have treated her like that while you were, and now you still have to respond to her as if she is your sister in Christ.” That was a very sobering thought. We are not allowed to play by new rules somehow whenever we file our paperwork with the powers that declare relationships official. This would go a long way in guarding ourselves from the idolatry leading to the year long healings you described.

    I think that you have some good wisdom to say here particularly about evaluating your life and considering the fact that it may be time to not have an emotional partner, but I also think that you give “singleness” more credit than it is worth and impart to it a healing quality that comes not from the singleness but from a heart dedicated to the Lord.

    Dating is a very poor excuse to lose your mind. I wish that I would have had the wisdom and discipline to avoid it in my life for the better part of high school and early college. If dating is a pursuit of marriage it would be better left to those who are ready to be married. That would so a lot of this need for over-analyzed single time and prepare all of us to be more free partners in our future endeavors.

  • Sharon says:

    David, I think you raise a few important points. The first is that dating is not a time to throw your relationship with God out the window and lose your identity in the other person. You should certainly continue that pursuit regardless of relationship status.

    That does, however, bring me to the second point that your comment raises–the difference between guys and girls. I tried to allude to this difference in my post by saying it was “at least true for girls,” but clearly I didn’t emphasize that point enough, so here goes…

    On the whole, guys and girls handle break-ups very differently. There are certainly exceptions to this rule, especially depending on how the relationship ended, but in general guys tend to move on from relationships easier than girls because their identities aren’t as wrapped up in it as girls often are. And this is usually because of the power of girls’ imaginations. Women get so swept up in romance that they have their entire lives planned out–when they’ll be getting married, who will be in their wedding party, what kind of jobs they’ll have, etc. As a result, when that relationship ends it’s almost like grieving a death. I think that’s why it usually took me a year to recover–I had to go through all the seasons without that person before it became totally normal again without them. That’s not to say that my recovery was as intense 9 months after the break-up as it was one week after it, but it wasn’t until about a year later that I was done grieving and truly content in Christ again.

    So while it’s not right for women to let their imaginations sweep them away and totally stop guarding their hearts in relationships, the temptation is profoundly powerful. Even you admit that you wish you’d exercised more wisdom in your earlier relationships. That’s an easy statement to make when you’re looking back on it, but amidst the high-running emotions of a dating relationship, it’s a lot more difficult to keep a level head.

    That’s why periods of singleness can be such a spiritual refuge or sorts. A single person is better able to be clear-headed and sober-minded than a dating relationship might allow. That’s why so many of our dumbest mistakes involves dating relationships.

    All of that to say, singleness IS a good thing in the same way that marriage is a good thing. We can abuse these good things or we can waste them, but God can also use them for His wonderful purposes. Singleness can be a crucible in which God refines us in different ways than He might in marriage. For women for whom it is a tremendous temptation to lose themselves in a man, singleness allows them the space to grow strong in Christ before facing the temptations that a relationship hold. And while this can certainly be worked out in marriage, I think marriages are often more difficult at first when it’s done this way.

    Like I said, everyone is different and there is no rule, but I personally think singleness is under-rated when it comes to conversations about spiritual growth. Marriage gets all the credit, and unfairly so. Yes I know I’m married now so it’s easy for me to say that, but I am positive that I am a better wife to Ike because I had that time as a single woman to grow in my relationship with God. Given my dating history and knowing my weaknesses, that growth would not have happened had I constantly been in relationships.

  • Meagan says:

    Sharon, thank-you so much for all of your blogs, they have been an awesome source of encouragement to me many times over the past few years. I have recently came out of a 3 year relationship that I chose to end because I felt that it was God’s desire for me. A few days after the “split,”I heard a sermon from the book of Hosea, and one verse stuck out in my mind. It was Hosea 2:6 “And it shall be at that day, saith the LORD, that thou shalt call me Ishi; and shalt call me no more Baali.” The translation for “Ishi” in this verse is “husband.” I think this is a beautiful picture for all believers but is now especially important to me as a single lady. It helped me realize how real God is and that it is his place to fill every part of our life, and that void you feel during singleness isn’t truly a place for a man, but a place to let God fill and take control of. Rereading this blog today truley helped me tie the pieces God has given me together! Thank-you again!

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