When I was a teenager, a couple of guys from my school started a band called Phlux. The name got your attention instantly, and years later it still flits through my mind. The small-town Maine rockers sought by their band name to capture the instability and chaos of life, themes felt deeply, for example, at the fear-producing American institution known as the “high school dance.” Years later, I still am proud of myself for surviving a handful of those harrowing affairs.
In 2014, we find ourselves in considerable societal flux (with apologies to the band). This is rarely more keenly felt than in the day-to-day experience of 20-somethings and 30-somethings. The life script that drove young adults for decades, even centuries — get an education, get married, have kids, get picket fence — is in upheaval. Couples are marrying later, having fewer children, and constructing fewer picket fences, in short.
In the midst of this turmoil, the church is starting to think afresh about single men and women, asking itself if it has cared well for them over the years. The answer seems rather plain: It hasn’t, as many a single man or woman can attest. Here’s a sampling of unhelpful approaches to singleness that one might commonly hear:
• In some cases, we’ve shamed singles. “Can’t you just find someone you’d like to settle down with? Is it really that hard?”
• In others, we’ve talked down to singles. “I want you to know that I am here to help you through this condition.” We make it sound as if singleness is a disease — when the apostle Paul says it’s the state he prefers. (See 1 Corinthians 7, for example.)
• At other times, we’ve simply ignored singles. Too many sermons and pastoral prayers, for example, treat only the realities of marriage. “We pray for husbands and wives for their flourishing, their protection, their happiness … and, Lord, for everyone else.”
At a time when our culture is harmfully redrawing the boundaries of marriage, the church needs to give more attention not simply to this institution but to singleness. This is especially true as more and more people are entering the church with only a worldly understanding of their single state. Toward that end, here are four thoughts addressed to single men and women that I hope can be a part of rethinking singleness.
First, you should feel complete freedom to wrestle with your singleness.
Singles do not have a monolithic experience. Some are quite content to be single for all their days. I suspect that a larger percentage of single men and women go back-and-forth with their state. Some days they’re excited by the liberties their life affords them; other days they find themselves wanting close companionship.
Whatever one’s precise feelings, I think it important that the church gives singles the freedom to grapple with their state. We haven’t always made this clear; we’ve expected singles to accept their state as if it won’t pose some difficulties (like every major life experience). Evangelicals are going through a fresh and remarkably helpful reevaluation of the practical experience of living as a Christian in a fallen world. We’re having a healthy dialogue, for example, about what it means to feel same-sex attraction but to strive for purity and spiritual health (see Sam Allberry’s Is God Anti-Gay?, for starters). So we need to give single Christians the space to be honest about their singleness.
On this subject, we don’t want to commend either doom-and-gloom sorrow or chipper-to-the-point-of-explosion piety. We do want to say this to singles: It is OK to wrestle. It is OK to have some days when you feel lower than others and must truly cling to Christ by a mustard seed of faith for your joy. It is OK to be charged up to accomplish great ends that only singles can take on one day but also to wonder on other days if you’ve erred in figuring it all out. Life is complex. God’s will takes years, decades, even a lifetime to unfold. Though we sometimes pretend otherwise, this is true for every believer. Acknowledging this will clear us from feeling undue guilt and condemnation. It will free us to gladly admit that, despite the pointed questions sometimes asked of us by concerned church members, we frankly don’t know the master plan of our lives. Only God does.
This truth shouldn’t hamstring single Christians or cause them to embrace weak-hearted faith. As you’ll see below, I want single men and women to find in their God-given state a means to action and a summons to joy. It doesn’t help anyone to embrace a well-meaning spirituality that unwittingly makes “brokenness” and “mystery” paths to discouragement and laziness. But with that said, it’s right for local churches to make clear to singles and to all believers that it’s not bad for them to wrestle with their state. It’s natural and even — to a point — healthy.
Second, if you do feel some desire to be married, pour out your heart to God.
If you want to be married and if this desire persists through time, the absolute best thing you can do is this: Pray to a sovereign and kind God who holds your life in His hand. Without shame or hesitation, ask the Lord to bless you with a spouse. Leave your concerns with Him. Of course, it is wise to balance your prayers of petition for a spouse with prayers of petition for contentment and trust, come what may.
That last phrase is important. Your goal in life cannot be a spouse, whether God brings one or not. It can only be faithfulness to your Savior, come what may. The glorious truth is that we’re free to make requests to a good and generous God without fear or anxiety. But our sufficiency, identity and hope is not a spouse or any other earthly thing. It is Jesus Christ. As believers, all that we need for life and godliness, we have (see the potent testimony of 2 Peter 1:3). This is not a cliché. This is truth, truth we all need.
So, be disciplined and balanced in your prayer life. Pray much more for unreached peoples and growing disciples and unborn babies under threat of death than yourself. But without hesitation, make your requests known to God (Philippians 4:6). There’s no rule here, but my personal practice is to pray first for others and for Gospel work, and then to pray for myself.
Third, experience the electric satisfaction of building a family: a spiritual one.
This is the great privilege of all Christians. Through the Gospel and in service to the Great Commission of Matthew 28:16-20, we can “make disciples” of Jesus Christ, bringing people into the family of God. All who confess Christ are “one body” in Him (Romans 12:4-5). The natural family is given us by God. It owes to intelligent design, and it is good, marvelously good (see Genesis 2:14-25). But we must also remember that the natural family will give way to the ultimate family, the spiritual one, in the life to come.
This is exactly what Jesus said: “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30). Every Christian who serves the local church and seeks in his own way to advance the kingdom of Christ has the awesome privilege of seeing people spiritually adopted into God’s family and experiencing the happiness of it (Romans 8:1-16). Nothing beats that — nothing. Though singleness is not without its challenges, singles are freed as Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 7 to devote themselves to kingdom purposes. Like Jesus and Paul and so many others in church history, as a single person you can devote yourself to the Lord in a very practical way.
You don’t need to be Billy Graham or Joni Eareckson Tada to serve in a meaningful way, though. Find your own niche. You may babysit the children of tired young parents who desperately need a night away. You might tutor children who don’t have a father. You might start a youth baseball league. You might make food for church events. You might serve in the church’s media ministry and improve the congregation’s website. You might preach in the nursing home and visit elderly members during the week when they feel lonely. You might invite your neighbors over to watch a baseball game and tell them about Christ. Or you might go overseas to a closed country, start a business and carry out full-scale missions work. Whatever God gives you to do, there are many, many ways to serve Him and build into His spiritual family as a single man or woman.
Fourth, you should feel complete freedom to enjoy the life God has given you.
Sometimes Christians make life seem as if it’s not really supposed to be fun, lively or enjoyable. We communicate that you’re holier than others if you rarely laugh, avoid aesthetic and beautiful things, and grimly make your way to glory, glowering all the while. But this is both unfortunate and untrue. God hasn’t made life boring or miserable. He’s filled His created realm with gifts and joys. He’s the one who invented happiness. At His right hand and in the indwelling presence of His Spirit, are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11). Christianity is much more about joy than it is duty, much as the two are inextricably bound.
As a single person, don’t get caught up in worldly hedonism. That’s a counterfeit of true joy, which is found in walking with the Lord and soaking up His goodness. God gives us delight that lasts for longer than a pub crawl or a spending spree. This is true whether you’re married or single. We all can approach life from a fundamental perspective of exhilaration, hope and happiness.
So if God blesses you with a single life, then live it to the full. Alongside the joys of church service and spiritual family-building, travel some place new. Plunder an independent bookstore. Eat some delicious food. Dig into your job — in fact, make it more than a job; see it as a vocation, a calling given you by the kindness of the Lord. Watch a movie that awakens your hunger and thirst for beauty and goodness and the divine. Master a new skill or a language or a trade. These and a thousand other pursuits and avocations beckon you and invite you to taste God’s goodness.
Above all, recognize as a single man or woman that life is not given to us like a to-do list. It’s a grand Gospel adventure. It’s all about the Lord and savoring His goodness. It’s calibrated not around safety and anxiety — avoidance and dourness and undimming chipperness — but around hard-won glory. Every Christian has been called to lay down his life for Christ (Matthew 16:24). Every Christian has been called to risk it all for Jesus (Matthew 25:14-30). Whether you go far or stay near, you have these sacred opportunities as a believer. Single or married, you have the chance to be refreshingly honest, to pour out your heart to a kind God, to build a spiritual family, and to live a full-throttle life.
Everything may feel like it’s in flux. In whatever state you find yourself, you can rest confident in a God who creates order from chaos and makes weary travelers into joyful pilgrims. Whether there’s a ring on our hand or not, we are making our way to a celestial city, and there is a slain and risen Savior walking right beside us, and so — whatever our experience tells us — we are never alone.
Copyright 2014 Owen Strachan. All rights reserved.