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?