Called to Singleness

Mar 11, 2011 |J. Budziszewski

You asked "What does it mean to be 'called to singleness' for your life? How do you know if you're called to it?" Theo answers.

Dear Professor Theophilus:

What does it mean to be "called to singleness" for your life? How do you know if you're called to it?

All Christians are called to love God with all of their heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love their neighbors as themselves. However, God calls some Christians to serve him in the married state, others to serve him in the state of sexually abstinent singleness.

For most, singleness is a way station on the way to marriage. Some, however, remain single all their lives, either by choice or by circumstance. Considering that God blesses marriage and that our sexual desires make singleness more difficult, why would anyone choose lifelong singleness? There are lots of bad reasons, and some single people should be married instead — but the best reason for remaining single is that the vocation of singleness offers fewer distractions from serving God. When the Lord says "Get up and go to Nineveh," you don't want to find yourself replying "I'll check with my spouse and my real estate agent and get back with you."

If God wants you to be single, He will also provides the spiritual gifts which make it possible. Notice that I didn't say "which make it easy"! Paul remarks that if you are attempting to remain single but find that you cannot bear the burden, it is not a sin to marry. Better to switch to the other way of life God honors than to be aflame with lust.

Your question "How do you know if you're called to singleness?" is a good one, because it is possible to be mistaken about the call. In general, knowing God's will regarding singleness is like knowing His will with regard to anything: it requires persistent prayer and mature reflection. By the way, not many people who are called to singleness are hit by bolts of lightning. For most, God's will for them becomes clear only gradually.

Because I am not called to singleness myself, I asked for help from two Christians I know who are, a man and a woman. The man is in his mid-twenties and working to save money for the last stage of his graduate studies in philosophy. The woman is a full-time youth minister.

He writes briefly but thoughtfully:

I think it is easier to explain how to know that you DON'T have a vocation to celibacy than to explain how you do; it's easier to expose false reasonings than to put proper ones into words.

One thing people tend to misunderstand is that God always gives the gift of celibacy to make us more available to Him, not to make us more available to ourselves. So a celibate person should expect to have LESS time on his hands than a married one, not more. God is more demanding than a husband or wife!

Another thing that many people fail to realize is that a celibate person remains human, so all of his desires, both good and base, remain intact. Celibates are just as capable of sexual sins as married persons — both sins of the heart and sins in outward deed.

Her meditations are a little longer:

I was pleasantly surprised to find my response about having children printed in your column. Thank you — and you are so very welcome.

Concerning your request for a response about a call to singleness, I am happy to respond from personal experience as well as much reading I have done on this subject. However, I certainly claim to have no solid answers. I only know where God has led me thus far, and the grace he has given me. I'm pretty sure I could start a small library with my thoughts on this subject, so I will try and keep my response as brief as possible.

Apart from a direct word from God, I am not convinced that anyone can know they are called to permanent (lifelong) singleness. Those in the Catholic faith have the clarity of a mandated vow of celibacy to accompany their call to full-time ministry. Protestants do not have such a clear choice. Of all the Protestant singles in full-time ministry who I have read or know about personally, all have a desire and hope for marriage, but for one reason or another it has simply never worked out (yet). But they have also come to the realization that their desire for marriage is one more thing that gets to be laid on the altar of living a surrendered life. They have also discovered exceptional grace to live life with much joy in undivided devotion (1 Corinthians 7:32-35).

Singleness is one of those things (for me anyway) that requires acceptance of the grace God gives you for today and not worry about whether you'll have it for tomorrow, next year or the next decade. Seasons of life change. I believe that one can live in obedience, acceptance and contentment for the present season, trusting God to prepare them for other seasons as they may come. God rarely (if ever?) gives us a spotlight into the future.

However, I understand wanting to know. I questioned God ceaselessly in my late teens and early twenties till I realized the answer he was giving me was "Trust Me and wait." Still, it might be a good exercise to take a look at the motives behind a question like that. What are we really asking? How would our life change depending on the answer? First of all, the fact that this person is even asking this question shows a seriousness about discipleship that is noteworthy. Most young people shudder at even the mention of permanent celibacy and certainly don't get anywhere near asking God about it!

But back to the motives. We would like to imagine that if God said, "Single forever!" we would be able to breath a sigh of relief, write off all the hassle of romantic relationships or even the hope thereof, and go on our merry way of serving Him completely without another backward glance. But if His answer is "Marriage!" what would change? Are you going to abandon your desire and focus to live a life devoted to God to begin seeking high and low for Mr. or Miss Right? Or will you remain committed to God's call on your life, serving Him wholeheartedly until such time as he sees fit to bring your mate into your life?

A more pertinent question for your correspondent may be, "God, am I allowed to date?" If so, then he or she should be asking who, when and how. If not, then pray for the needed grace and a God-centered focus. God truly desires to counsel us in these things. Who better to counsel us in areas of the heart than the Lover of our souls and the Creator of our entire beings, including our hormones? And who better to choose a mate for us than that same loving, heavenly Father?

Thank you for the opportunity to give input on this question. May God continue to give you much grace and wisdom in your interactions with many.

For further reflection about singleness, I recommend that you begin with Scripture. Of course you should get a concordance and read everything in the Bible about marriage and singleness, but two key passages are Matthew 19 (esp. verses 8-12) and 1 Corinthians 7 (esp. verses 7-9 and 24-40). In the Matthew passage, keep in mind that the language about "making oneself a eunuch" is not to be taken literally — it refers to deliberately remaining single. Jesus used shocking language to emphasize that lifelong singleness is not for everyone.

Copyright © 2000 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.

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