What two funerals taught me about singleness and fruitfulness
Two funerals have made a lasting impression on the way I understand my place in life. The first was my grandmother's. Grandma loved God passionately. She married in her late 20s and had eight children, all of whom also love the Lord and family (I am one of over 50 first cousins).
During the funeral, I was on stage as part of a choral group when the rest of the family entered the sanctuary. It was a breathtaking image of fruitfulness: eight families walking up the aisle, leaning on each other, worshiping together and honoring a woman who taught them to follow God. The idea of a spiritual family legacy was not just an abstract concept that day; it was incarnate before my eyes. And it was one of the most beautiful and powerful things I have ever seen.
In 2010, I attended the funeral of another woman. Once again, the family walked up the aisle, but this time, they carried flags and wore the garb of many nations. Hundreds of people had gathered for the funeral, representing every continent except Antarctica. Of the many accented voices that spoke of this woman as "sister" and "mother" and "grandma," very few were actually physically related to her. But all spoke of her tremendous impact on their lives and of the repercussions that impact was having as they followed in her footsteps. A list of no fewer than 30 ministries that had been launched because of her influence was printed on the program.
Once again, the picture at that funeral was one of fruitfulness. And it challenged the way I was living — and thinking about — my own position in life. You see, this second woman was single most of her life. She began feeding needy people out of her own cupboard when she was in her early 50s, and her impact grew until she had reached thousands of people in dozens of countries all over the world.
While I'm Waiting
I write this as a single woman. I've logged hundreds of hours talking about life and singleness and marriage, and I know that most of us want to be married. We have many routes for getting there — through stay-at-home service, college, career, ministry and more. But what we all have in common is a tendency to see singleness as a way station on the road to real life. We view it as a season to endure, or a season of preparation, or a temporary calling while we're young and wild and don't want to be tied down yet.
This isn't surprising. We live in a culture that elevates couplehood to an incredible status —finding a spouse (or a soul mate) is supposed to give us fulfillment; happiness; purpose; and real, fruitful, adult personhood. In the church, we are often taught to use our single years to prepare for marriage. It makes sense: After all, most of us are headed there.
In all of this, we tend to view singleness as essentially barren. It lacks the things that "really matter," and it is best used in preparation for the next season.
The apostle Paul (himself a single man) wrote the only Bible passage that directly addresses singles and talks about singleness as a life choice. And his attitude is so strikingly different from what many of us espouse that, in most conversations I have ever had about it, we have spent time trying to explain away what he said instead of trying to believe it.
So what did he say?
The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:32–35, ESV).
Conspicuously absent throughout this passage is any suggestion that singleness is a period of preparation or waiting. (I would suggest that preparing for a selfless, responsible, submissive adulthood is the function of our childhood years; once we have grown up, whether married or single, these years are no longer for preparation — but I digress.) Instead, Paul promotes singleness as uniquely "securing undivided devotion to the Lord." He presents it, not as a way station, but as a valid gift and calling in its own right.
This is especially startling in its cultural context. Both Hebrew and Greek culture saw marriage and children as central to adult life, influence and maturity. In Jewish culture, family was also central to the covenant they held with God. So for Paul to suggest that for some men and women singleness was actually better was even more boat-rocking than it is today.
Embracing My Calling
When I went to that funeral, I was on the fence about several life decisions. I was 26, unmarried and still in something of a holding pattern. In my own heart, I was still waiting, still preparing for life to begin. But the funeral made me realize that God has called me to a fruitful life through Christ today.
I am not called to be fruitful by bearing children or serving a husband — I don't have either option right now. I am called to be fruitful in Christ. I am to mature in the faith, grow in the Word and in prayer, bear the fruit of the Spirit, and bring forth fruit for the kingdom by ministering to and discipling others. And I am uniquely positioned to do so.
In her 1976 book Let Me Be a Woman, Elisabeth Elliot (herself single for over 20 of her adult years), wrote,
Single life may be only a stage of a life's journey, but even a stage is a gift. God may replace it with another gift, but the receiver accepts His gifts with thanksgiving. This gift is for this day. The life of faith is lived one day at a time, and it has to be lived—not always looked forward to as though the "real" living were around the next corner. It is today for which we are responsible. God still owns tomorrow.
I found that I could not keep living my life as preparation. I needed to just live it. I am responsible for today. And my responsibility today, as a single person, is to live a life of undivided devotion.
What does that look like? I'm still in the process of answering that question for myself. But centrally, it means that God is first. God, not my career, or my bucket list, or my love life, or my education; God, not my hopes for the future. Last year — when the lessons of that funeral were starting to sink in — I spent the first two or three hours of every day in prayer or Bible reading. I gave far more of my income to the Lord's work than I saved or spent on myself. I started reordering my world because I saw myself in a new way. That reordering continues to this day.
I was no longer a waiting person in preparation for God's calling. I was an undivided person living God's calling today.
In John Piper's excellent message "Single in Christ: A Name Better Than Sons and Daughters," he says,
Take heed here lest you minimize what I am saying and do not hear how radical it really is. I am not sentimentalizing singleness to make the unmarried feel good. I am declaring the temporary and secondary nature of marriage and family over against the eternal and primary nature of the church…
When his own mother and brothers asked to see him, Jesus said, "'Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?' And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers!'" (Matthew 12:48-49). Jesus is turning everything around. Yes, he loved his mother and his brothers. But those are all natural and temporary relationships. He did not come into the world to focus on that. He came into the world to call out a people for his name from all the families into a new family where single people in Christ are full-fledged family members on a par with all others, bearing fruit for God and becoming mothers and fathers of the eternal kind.
"Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!" a woman cried out to Jesus. And he turned and said, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!" (Luke 11:27). The mother of God is the obedient Christian—married or single! Take a deep breath and reorder your world.
In the rest of 1 Corinthians 7, Paul clearly acknowledged that lifelong singleness is not for everyone, and he emphasized our freedom to decide to marry and also the blessedness that comes with marriage. But when we make the choice to marry, we are not exchanging a life of barrenness for one of fruitfulness. Instead, we are exchanging the blessings of undivided devotion for a new kind of fruitfulness which comes through our relationships with spouse and children.
As singles, it's time we saw ourselves with new eyes. We are walking out a calling to undivided devotion to the Lord. No matter what tomorrow may hold, we can — and should — embrace the calling of today.
Copyright 2012 Rachel Starr Thomson. All rights reserved.