Greek mythology tells of the two sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis. Situated on opposite sides of the Strait of Messina between Sicily and Calabria in Italy, these two ogres were so close to each other that they represented overwhelming catastrophe to sailors seeking to pass.
Scylla had six heads and would eat any who got too close. Charybdis wasn’t much better: Her face was all mouth, swallowing vast amounts of water and spitting it back out, causing devastating, deadly whirlpools.
Invariably, sailors attempting to avoid Charybdis would either pass too close to Scylla or to Charybdis. The phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” represents the situation of being caught between two dangers — “between a rock and a hard place.”
Trying to discuss the blessings of singleness vis-à-vis marriage feels like trying to pass “between Scylla and Charybdis.” Sometimes it seems impossible. Say that marriage is “normative,” and many singles feel wounded at the perception that something might be “wrong” with them. Say that singleness is a blessed state, preferred by Paul for believers (1 Corinthians 7), and one may seem to diminish the value of marriage (while possibly giving some singles unwarranted encouragement to stay in neutral).
The Desire For Marriage Can Be Too Strong
Many singles are repeatedly asked the dreaded question, “So when are you going to get married?” This can be an embarrassing reminder of a lack of relational success. Worse, it can lead some into thinking their Christian life is somehow on hold or that they should immediately marry at any cost.
But that raises the question: Can our desire for marriage be too strong? Many say it cannot; after all, marriage is a good thing (Proverbs 18:22). The logic seems to be that a God-given desire cannot be too great — you can’t want a good thing too much. To that I reply with David Powlison (in his paraphrase of John Calvin): “The evil in our desires often lies not in what we want but in the fact that we want it too much. Natural affections (for any good thing) become inordinate, ruling cravings.”From an interview; also, see Powlison’s book Seeing With New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture.
What if you’re saying, “Yep, that’s me. That describes my desire for marriage — an inordinate, all-consuming craving”? Then repent that a good desire — a natural, God-given desire — is (at least momentarily) getting the upper hand and becoming all-controlling.
But should you stop pursuing marriage? No. Your desire for marriage is in no way a bad thing — God gave it to you. It should lead you to act in appropriate ways to secure a spouse, even as you pray for contentment in Christ and pursue other appropriate goals (like growth in godliness, a college or graduate degree, freedom from debt, and proficiency in your vocational skills or areas of service).There is a biblical tension between contentment and striving. In the very same letter in which the Apostle Paul exhorted Christians to contentment in “any and every circumstance” (Philippians 4:12-13), we’re told that Paul himself was pressing (or striving) “toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 7:21, Paul addresses Christian slaves to “not be concerned” about their status, but to gain their freedom if possible.
The Desire For Marriage Can Be Too Weak
OK, so can a single person have too little desire for marriage? I think so. There are some whose comfort in singleness is grounded in spiritual dullness and a general inertia, the desire for merely preserving the status quo and not being particularly bothered. This can be displayed in extended adolescence, or fear of commitment, permanence and responsibility.
Such folks need a kick in the pants, pure and simple. Their sanctification would best be served by getting married.
But I think it is also possible for otherwise mature, responsible Christians to have too weak a desire for marriage. I think that’s where I was for much of my 20s. For a while I spent up to 15 hours/week in ministry while holding a demanding job. But recurring sexual temptation and a gnawing, deep-seated, visceral awareness that something was missing not the joy of finding this “something” what Adam felt when God brought him Eve? interrupted and detracted from my otherwise positive spiritual devotion.
Since my life was generally fruitful, I was advised to “just serve the Lord, brother” and that “Christ would meet all of my needs.” That fed into my natural inertia and avoidance of major change.
In retrospect, I think my lack of interest in marriage stemmed from an undefined, somewhat unconscious Gnostic idea that wanting sex or intimacy was either bad or (at best) less godly than wanting to serve in the church or give more time to Bible study. Yet sexual temptation and pervasive loneliness were just as “distracting” (1 Corinthians 7:9) as what Paul said the married person experiences (1 Corinthians 7:33), but with moral hazards to boot.
My sanctification and happiness were better served by getting married.
A Gift For Celibacy
With regard to those with little desire for marriage, there is a third possibility: A God-given gift for celibacy, for living (long-term) with undistracted devotion in the service of Christ’s kingdom.
Such folks are rare, and they probably don’t spend much time reading up on dating (let alone practicing it). They are a gift to God’s church to be received with thanksgiving and freed for a life of dedicated service (generally in callings that uniquely capitalize on singleness). As Dr. D.A. Carson writes in his commentary on Matthew 19:11,
Jesus freely concedes that for those to whom it is given ‘it is better not to marry’; and ‘The one who can accept this should accept it.’ But it is important to recognize that neither Jesus nor the apostles see celibacy as an intrinsically holier state than marriage (cf. 1 Tim. 4:1-3; Heb 13:4), nor as a condition for the top levels of ministry (Matt. 8:14; 1 Cor. 9:5), but as a special calling granted for greater usefulness in the kingdom. Those who impose this discipline on themselves must remember Paul’s conclusion: It is better to marry than to burn with passion (1 Cor. 7:9).Carson, D.A. (1984). Matthew. In F. E. Gæbelein (Ed.), The expositor’s Bible commentary with the new international version: Vol. 8. Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Pursuing Marriage Is The Only Way To Get Married
According to the National Marriage Survey, 86 percent of singles want to marry. So it is unhelpful to mentor such Christian singles with platitudes like “God is all you need” or “just focus on Christ” or “the church is your family.”
These truisms, taken alone, are of course indisputable. God is our all-sufficient, all-satisfying Creator who withholds no good thing from those who walk uprightly (Psalm 84:11). The church is indeed the antitype to which biological families merely point (Ephesians 3:14-15, Matthew 12:49-50), hence the Scriptural language of the “household of faith” (e.g. Galatians 6:10).
But the problem with using these phrases in isolation is that we end up overlooking the fact that God uses means to bring about His intended ends. “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord” (Proverbs 18:22) — but he finds her (no fancy Greek here — the he refers to the groom, not to God).
Only with regard to getting married do we sometimes ignore or overlook our responsibility to act. We all know that we don’t get college degrees by “waiting on the Lord.” We generally don’t get jobs that way either: “Unemployed? Just be content, and He’ll provide.” We don’t even get dinner that way. “You want a hamburger? Be careful not to idolize beef.”
Singleness in the Local Church
We’ve been talking about singleness in general. Let’s shift gears for a moment and talk about singleness in the context of local churches.
In my experience, some pastors neglect discussing marriage with their single, never-been-married members. Perhaps it’s because they find it difficult to relate. Getting married in their youth was more assumed and therefore, easier. After all, for boomer-aged and older pastors, the category of “single adult, living away from parents or college” was statistically zero when they met their wives.”Grow up? Not so fast,” by Lev Grossman, Time Magazine, January 24, 2005, pp. 42-54.
In addition, they probably want to avoid appearing to be the “nosey match-making type” or to even remotely suggest that there is something wrong with being single (since the Apostle Paul and Jesus didn’t think so). They might reason, “Well, I don’t know if it’s my place to get too involved in the romantic decisions of singles. These are very personal matters.”
Yes, the church needs to “be family” to single Christian adults. But part of being family to them may mean helping them get married (or become “marriageable” — breaking up with boyfriends or girlfriends that would make poor spouses, getting out of consumer debt, creating space in life to meet and interact with potential spouses, avoiding onerous financial commitments that would make getting engaged more problematic, etc.).
In appropriate doses, singles generally welcome the help of pastors and married friends in the process of getting from singleness to marriage without sexual sin, emotional heartache, and excessive delay. And some who don’t welcome it should (because their lives are characterized by self-centeredness, laziness, and various forms of prolonged adolescence, to which they may be entirely oblivious).
Both these types of singles need help, from their pastors and from the Christian community in general, to see that the desire for marriage is OK. In fact, it’s more than OK — it is the God-given engine to get them to the place where their longing for companionship and intimacy will be joined with an in-your-face, increasing awareness of sin’s depth and God’s grace in forming Christ within them.
How should a pastor or married Christian leader respond to the single Christians in their midst who are uncertain or ambivalent on the question of marriage? The larger question is: Are there legitimate indicators that an individual should pursue marriage? If there are, then it follows that part of the pastoral calling, while seeking to cultivate a church that lovingly receives and welcome singles, is to help singles both determine and then pursue the Lord’s leading.
OK, so how?
A pastor may respond “How can I know God’s will for someone else’s life, especially on something as sensitive and personal as marriage?” I’d reply,
Of course, you cannot know God’s will infallibly.We need to distinguish between God’s revealed will (which we should pursue) and His sovereign will (which will invariably come to pass). God may impart a natural desire to pursue marriage, but sovereignly determine that a Christian’s God-honoring desire for a spouse be frustrated (for a season or for a lifetime) in order to accomplish a greater good (in the same way that all things work together for good for those who love God, Romans 8:28, including those things which, in themselves, are truly bad). That doesn’t mean that this man or woman has the gift of celibacy, in my estimation (though God will certainly sustain them, 1 Corinthians 10:13). We cannot know the sovereign will of God, but we all are called to step out in faith where we think God is leading us, and this includes godly romantic initiation and response. But you can ask probing questions and help Christian singles be discerning. If a young man approached you and said, ‘I’m not sure if I should go to college. Can you help me?’ I imagine you would offer some helpful input, though you could not speak infallibly. You might inquire as to his goals, his high school grades, his ability to pay for college, and so on.
What about the single who longs to be married, but can’t seem to get there — what should a pastor do to help him or her? Encourage them, pray for them, point out other quality singles, help them avoid ungodly matches, and remind them that (a) God will never leave them or forsake them or fail to equip them to face temptations (Hebrews 13:5-6; 1 Corinthians 10:13), and (b) God is inscrutably working all things together for their ultimate good (Romans 8:28).
Holding Truths In Tension
So how do we pass between Scylla and Charybdis in addressing singles on the topic of marriage? We must simultaneously hold several truths in tension: An essential aspect of loving singles is being open to helping them in the process toward marriage, while recognizing:
- our relationship with Christ is more important than our marital state
- some singles are uniquely gifted to remain single for greater kingdom effectiveness
- many singles struggle profoundly with loneliness, lust, fornication and the like, and welcome (or should welcome) loving, gracious and balanced input on the process toward marriage from Christians who care about their souls and their bodies
- for most, marriage will be a means of profound sanctification, and they ought to responsibly (and diligently) move in this direction even as they embrace other adult responsibilities
- just as God ordains the ends, He ordains the means. The means may include overcoming your fear and telling a girl how you feel.Some seminary and ministry types, for example, care more about Greek and Hebrew than girls. Gift of singleness? Maybe. Could also be myopic folly with a hint of Gnosticism — the “spiritual” is all that matters. They may include giving a guy a chance, even though you grew up seeing your parents go through a divorce, and you’ve closed your heart like a shell.
In community with God’s people, singles can discern their calling and (where appropriate) pursue marriage honorably. May God bless and help us all — single or married — as we strive to live for His glory.
Copyright 2009 Alex Chediak. All rights reserved.