Yes, marriage is one way God matures us, and it can be fairly intense. But it is not the only way.
Sanctification refers to the process of becoming spiritually mature or being set apart for holy use. For single adults, sometimes it feels like we're just being set aside.
This is an unintentional byproduct of the typical marriage testimony. When couples speak of their first year of marriage, they often remark that they thought they were mature — until they got married. Then their selfishness was revealed. Yes, that's one way God works, and it can be fairly intense. But it is not the only way. When said to an unmarried adult, we can hear: "Not only are you unwanted for marriage, you are also consigned to a lifetime of immaturity!"
Neither of those thoughts is true, of course. Every believer can (and should!) pursue spiritual maturity. Fortunately, Hebrews 5:13-14 shows us one of the ways this process works: "For everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil" (ESV).
Maturity here is described as a process of training for discernment, which is the ability to distinguish good from evil. This verse says the immature person is "unskilled in the word of righteousness," meaning that the Bible is not the standard for good and evil, but some other measure is — emotions, expectations or cultural standards, for example. The good news is that maturity is not dependent upon marital status. All believers are called to train their powers of discernment through the constant practice of saying, "Is this good or evil in God's eyes?"
For single adults, there are some common areas where it takes vigilance to distinguish good from evil. These hindrances to maturity can fall in three areas: identity, self-centeredness and secrecy.
Discerning True Identity
It can feel shameful at times to be solo. You upset the balance at dinner parties. You present a problem for seating at wedding receptions. You can feel like a walking advertisement for failure or rejection. You can be the object of gossip and speculation, even in your own church.
We live in a period where the church highly esteems the commitments of marriage and family — as it should, for many in our surrounding culture do not. But I think that this regular emphasis on our roles as men and women, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, and so forth can obscure the one aspect of our identity that we have in common: We are adopted children of our heavenly Father and siblings to one another. While many roles end in this life, this one does not. Since our "siblinghood" is not addressed as often as other relationships in the church, it is easy to forget. Because of that, some of the hardest work we will do is to hold fast to the truth of our identity in Christ while sitting in our own churches. But don't become discouraged or bitter if this happens. It's just a training opportunity.
It takes constant practice to take our thoughts captive to the realities of God's Word, instead of thinking we are forgotten or less valuable than others simply because we are unmarried. We are loved by the Supreme King of the Universe. This is the real deal. The love of another human being is wonderful and exhilarating, but it is only a reflection of God's love because we are His image-bearers.
This sibling identity is also critically important when it comes to dating/courting/relating within our churches. This is a separate topic of its own, but here is the takeaway point: The people we date are not consumable goods to be used and tossed away. They are people for whom Christ died so that we could be with Him throughout eternity. This truth should entirely revamp how we view, speak of and interact with all those people we do not marry.
Evil is when the Enemy accuses God of holding out on you because you are still single. Training in truth means you discard that lie and replace it with a promise from Scripture. One of my favorite verses to write in my single friends' birthday cards is Psalm 34 verse 5: "Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed." As we look to the Lord, our misplaced shame about singleness can be replaced with the radiance of His love.
A wise friend of mine once observed that single adults become emotionally stunted when we have not pushed ourselves to love others sacrificially. Loving and serving others is how we grow in Christlikeness. While marriage and family does not guarantee maturity, it certainly creates the opportunity for it. Therefore, single adults who want to pursue maturity should look for opportunities to be self-giving in the face of boundless opportunities to be self-centered.
I am a task-oriented person, so I have put reminders on my calendar every month to think about ways to serve others. It's a sad truth: I have turned my relationships into To Do reminders! But if I don't, my calendar defaults to being all about me. By intentionally thinking about whom to serve, by planning for other people's milestones, and by putting down prayer reminders for the needs of others, I'm taking small steps to battle self-centeredness.
Our prayers are a good barometer of self-centeredness. Do they start with glorifying and thanking God? Are they full of petitions for His people? Have we first woven in thanksgiving for any answered prayers before firing off our petitions?
Self-centeredness is a hard thing to measure by yourself — maybe impossible. The Holy Spirit will prompt us through His Word, but we need to assume we have huge blind spots. Having a prayer and accountability partner, one who has regular access to your life and thoughts, can be immensely helpful for this evaluation. More than one partner is great, too. I say prayer and accountability because grace and truth need to be equally present.
I also recommend periodic prayer retreats to soberly evaluate your calendar and your checkbook. The records of how you spent your time and your treasure often present a sober reflection of your spiritual maturity. Then I recommend sharing that information with your accountability partner(s). Get some feedback from them and ideas about where you could change. This is a great way to cultivate humility when you are not used to answering to others for how you spend your money and your time.
Throughout the New Testament, truth is described as light breaking into the darkness. We should be eager to live in the light. As John 3:20-21 says, "For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God."
Single adults have to choose to live life in the light. This is true of every believer, married or not. But I think it is easier for single adults to live privately and nurture secret sin. Even in shared housing, it's easy to slip away and not be known. But whatever we think we are getting away with, it is already known by God, and He brings it into His light so that we can experience the forgiveness we have already received in Jesus. But Satan wants us to remain in the shadows, feeding our secret sin, so he can use our actions to entrap us and disparage the name of Christ.
Spiritual maturity recognizes the seriousness of hiding things from others — habits, relationships, weaknesses and temptations. But we have these struggles in common. I have communicated with hundreds of single adults since I began writing and speaking about singleness more than 10 years ago, and I can only think of two people who never had a desire to get married. The rest of us wrestle with unfulfilled hopes, sexual temptations, longings for intimacy, and dangerous daydreams. As we bring those things into the light, we will come to learn that the Lord's grace is sufficient to choose what's right, even if it's hard.
Finally, of the many things we need to learn as we mature, arguably the most important is what to prize. Some may not receive marriage and family in this life. Or, in the case of many single adults, it takes longer than expected. But whatever happens, don't think that you have received less than anyone else. The prize is not marriage to another human. The prize is Christ. He has set you apart — for himself.
Copyright 2013 Carolyn McCulley. All rights reserved.