Recently, a good friend who is a pastor asked me to jot down reflections on my experience of being single so that he could use them to help struggling single women in his church. One of my first thoughts was: why should singleness be an issue, or an aspect of life that I am asked to frame myself in?
I am a child of God, a friend, a teacher, a woman, a daughter, a sister, a mentor, a book-lover, and the list goes on—so many important aspects of my identity that nobody ever asks me to write my thoughts on. But my false and faintly feminist response is missing the point, and it is not even how I feel. The fact that it came into my mind is proof that singleness is a particularly fraught area. If I’m honest with myself, being single is a major shaping influence in my life, and my singleness is something that I more often have to reckon with than my sister-ness. Singleness is not just a state of life one finds oneself in (unlike daughter-ness), and the mixed messages we get from the church and our surrounding cultures about singleness are exactly what make singleness something that Christians need to talk about.
Social and cultural weight
Growing up in a culture that idealizes romantic love, not many of us start our adult lives desiring singleness. No, our desires fly the other way—towards passionate love, towards marriage, towards the serendipity of finally meeting The One. Books, movies, celebrity news, our peers, the unspoken assumptions of those around us, familial expectations, culture, and even our churches, make us feel like we are incomplete, like our lives are lacking some ultimate joy and satisfaction, if we are single. As we grow older, singleness starts to feel more and more like a burden, or a badge that marks us out as the rejects, the ones left on the shelf. We start to wonder what is wrong with us; we have niggling or sometimes screaming worries that we are missing out on something; we struggle to rejoice in our singleness. And we resent the married people who try to encourage us to be contentedly single: what right do they have to lecture us, these privileged ones who have what we want, and what we maybe need? When the blessedly single counsel us to delight in our singleness, we wonder to ourselves if they are ones who chose to become eunuchs for the kingdom of God, while we are ones who have eunuch-hood forced upon us—and we chafe under it. Singleness starts to feel like a disability which all the nubile athletes keep telling us to be content with.
I think that the social and cultural weight that is placed on singleness, the mixed messages and reinforcement of harmful attitudes that we receive, conspire to make singleness one of the most challenging areas of daily life to honour Jesus in. In my own life, I have wrestled with singleness—and my singleness in particular—and God has brought me to a place from which I can say that singleness is indeed a blessing, not a curse. But no blessing east of Eden will ever be experienced wholly as joy, and especially not singleness, which can feel very much like the eminently practical, useful gift that we just didn’t want.
Many things make singleness challenging. I have already alluded to the assumptions and expectations that we grow up absorbing, all of which point to marriage as the ultimate dream. Despite our post-modern culture’s supposed rejection of committed marital relationships, a happily-ever-after marriage still remains the secret or explicit dream of many, even of those of us who deny that it is our dream because we are afraid we will never get it. Marriage, in short, is no longer a social or financial necessity in modern Western society, but it is a powerful and often unquestioned idol. Who in popular culture really questions marriage’s goodness, besides the odd socialist misfit whom we manifestly do not want to be like? Almost everything around us conveys or assumes the “Find your true love and live happily ever after” subtext. When, from every angle, you are beset by the belief that only in finding your one true love can you really be fulfilled and genuinely start living, being contentedly single can be challenging.
And the worst part of this is when the Christian community joins this ‘marriage or bust’ camp, too. I have had married couples from more than one culture try to matchmake me with single men they know. Once, I even had a family from church invite me to dinner with them and seven eligible (read: unmarried, though two were engaged) young American men, and pepper me with questions afterward about which one I liked, whom I found good-looking, whom I would want to marry—this notwithstanding the fact that those same young men were to fly home to the States the very next morning. I appreciate my married friends’ love for me which makes them want to see me share the same state of bliss they enjoy in their marriages (it isn’t the unhappily married who play matchmaker, after all), but at the same time, there is something unhelpful about their eagerness to see me find a partner. Isn’t the underlying message, after all, that I am incomplete without a husband? The last thing I need is to be encouraged to live as if marriage is the only possible happily ever after of my life.
As with most idols, marriage itself is a good gift from God, and it is not inherently sinful to want to get married. But marriage becomes an idol because of the inordinate desire that many singles have to get married and the redemptive expectations that many of us place on marriage. Discontentment with singleness because they want so much to get married is the main struggle for many single people I know. This excessive desire for marriage makes them move marriage from the ‘want’ category to the ‘need’ category, accompanied by self-pity and grumbling (poor unmarried me), doubts of God’s love and goodness (if you really loved me, you would have given me the desire of my heart: a spouse), resentment and envy (why does she get to have the husband and the kids while I get the job and the dog), and other sinful responses. I have friends who have wanted marriage so much that they have settled for relationships with non-Christian men: it’s easy to justify anything when marriage becomes the all-consuming, unmet goal of our lives.
Many singles also subconsciously think marriage alone will bring fulfilment, joy, and satisfaction—that marriage (and/or parenting) will somehow save us from loneliness, aimlessness, or discontent. This view of marriage as redemption—or at least as the best tool God can use to shape, grow and use us (for those inclined to put a spiritual veneer on our idolatry of marriage)—is often encouraged by our Christian community, rather than gently challenged. For example, the pastor of a church I used to attend once preached on 1 Corinthians 7:25-40. Now, if one is ever going to commend and rejoice in singleness as a gift from God, it would surely be when preaching on this passage. But to a congregation full of single people, a fair number of whom were older, divorced, or currently unmarriageable (say, the numerous eleven year olds), this pastor’s application point was: God grows us the most through marriage and marriage is a wonderful thing, so you should all get married. (Fine print: spouse not included with this generous offer.) Such an attitude from the pulpit makes it a challenge for singles like me to remember that singleness is not, in fact, a waiting room where the ‘incomplete’ wait for the total redemption that marriage brings.
Of course, the best response when we see idolatry in our own lives or the lives of others is not to thunder condemnation and judgement. If we singles are guilty of idolizing marriage, it is God’s job to judge us, and our responsibility to search our own hearts, repent, and choose to trust God instead of marriage to fulfil and save us. But there are many things the Christian community can and should be doing to succour single people.
Changing the culture of our churches is a start. If pastors and married people in the church tacitly assume or explicitly state that marriage is what it’s all about, the clear corollary for single people is that we are short-changed, second-rate people. Loneliness can be a big problem for single people. Those who are married can help us by including us in your lives, not just socializing with other married people. Some single women like me, who love children, might struggle with the childlessness that accompanies singleness. Christian families can really help us by welcoming us into your families, letting us play active roles in your kids’ lives, even inviting us on your family holidays. As a single woman living and teaching overseas for the past few years, my singleness has been made much more joyous by the warm welcome of families, particularly an Australian family whose children I came to regard almost as my own. Married couples can also help singles not to idealize marriage by being honest about your struggles even as married people, thus making it more difficult for us to romanticize marriage as a universal panacea. Remind us that there are thorns even in your bed of roses.
And then there’s affirmation. As a single woman, I find that the older I grow, the more prone to moments of ‘identity panic’ I get, the more times I find myself thinking, especially after yet another close friend gets engaged, Why am I still not married? Is there something wrong with me? Am I too demanding, too hardcore, too hard to get along with, not pretty or interesting enough, not good enough? While these questions reflect heart issues that I and other single people need to deal with, one helpful thing friends can do is keep affirming us. Encourage us, compliment us, enjoy spending time with us and make your delight in us clear. Especially, affirm us as single people: remind us of the blessings that we have and are as single people. Don’t give us backhanded affirmation that reinforces idolatry,
e.g. “you’re such a wonderful, beautiful woman of God that I don’t know why no guy has spotted it yet”. The affirmation in such a statement gets lost in the tail end of it, which is likely to make us think: “maybe no guy has fallen madly in love with me because I’m actually not wonderful or beautiful enough”. Encourage us without reference to marriage or to your surprise that such a catch as we are could remain unnoticed.
Pastors affirming singleness as a gift, both from the pulpit and in more pastoral contexts, is also helpful. Even as someone convinced that singleness is a blessing, I feel unvalued, hurt, and like I’m an incomplete Christian when I hear Christian leaders passionately extolling the worth and joys of marriage while giving mere, cold lip service to the blessing singleness can be for the single person, his or her community, and the body of Christ. The Catholic tradition of celibacy has long honoured the worth of single people, and perhaps Protestants have something to learn from them about the role of both single and married people in the body as complementary prefigurings of the ultimate marriage between Jesus and his bride, the church.
Turning the spotlight around
But there is no end to the advice I could give someone else about how to help me honour God more. The harder thing is to turn the spotlight onto myself. As a single woman, I have come to see that the moments when I am discontented with being single arise from habits of my heart that are just plain wrong. I feel incomplete when I forget that God is able to meet all my needs, even if he uses his prerogative not to fulfil all my wants. I worry about whether there’s something wrong with me when I forget that my identity is in Jesus, who has made me exactly the way I am for his purposes. I envy engaged or married people when I stop trusting that God is working all things in my (single) life for good and that he is giving me what is best (for me and for those in whose lives he is using me) in my singleness. I feel lonely when I get so caught up in the here and now of my material existence that I neglect to pursue intimacy with God and friends. I get angry with God for not giving me a husband because I have a fallacious assumption that God owes me a husband just because he gave my neighbour one, as if God is a genie in a bottle who hasn’t delivered on a promise he never actually made. I envision years of increasingly dreary singleness, growing old, wrinkly, and rheumatic while friends have sex and babies and fun, because I do not at heart trust that God loves me and is sovereign enough to provide exactly what I need to glorify Him and to rejoice in every season of life, no matter what. I refuse to accept singleness because I have chosen to dwell on and hanker for what I don’t have (a husband, kids) rather than what I do have as a single person.
Over the years, God has gently revealed some of these habits of my heart to me and kindled in me repentance, renewed satisfaction and deeper faith in him. I have also learned some helpful strategies for coping with the various challenges of singleness. I have learned not to skimp on the time with God that alone teaches me to rest in him when the clamour of the world pulls my heart toward the things I want and don’t have. I have learned the importance of establishing good, strong friendships and spending time with people in whose company I enjoy the companionship and intimacy that I crave. I have stopped watching the romantic comedies and reading the romances I loved as a teenager, because I realized that they often stirred up lust in me for exciting romance while reinforcing unrealistic expectations of both men and relationships. I have striven to be honest with myself, to search my own soul and work out what’s really going on when I struggle with being single—and then to pray and act to address the heart issue manifested in discontented singleness. I have prayed that God will help me to relate to and love guys I meet as brothers in Christ, instead of (mentally and emotionally) pouncing on them as potential husbands. Mindful of Solomon’s injunction not to stir up or awaken love until it pleases (Song of Songs 2:7), I have also tried to flee from reading, listening to, watching, thinking about, or doing anything that would arouse me or others sexually.
A book I read as a teenager inspired me to start praying for my future husband every day. So, every day for five years I prayed—for my future husband’s godliness and purity, that we would be a good match, that God would lead him to me—until one day it occurred to me that I was giving said future husband, if he exists, an inordinate share of my daily prayer time. It seems counter-intuitive that sometimes praying less about something can be more helpful than praying more, but I realized that praying about something actually brings it to mind and stirs up emotions and desires, so if I didn’t want to obsess over ‘finding a husband’, I needed to stop praying so much about it. So I did, and now only very occasionally pray for my future husband, always adding a ‘should he exist’ clause. I’ve even mentally added ‘and if he doesn’t exist, would you please transfer all those years of prayers to my sister’s future husband or someone else, so they won’t be wasted’. I’m sure God has a sense of humour, and I am also sure that he isn’t a forgetful father who needs to be reminded every day that I would like a godly future husband. He’s on it, so I can get on with life. Linked to this, at times when I’ve found being single particularly challenging because of circumstances, hormones, tiredness, cute babies, weddings, or no good reason, I’ve cultivated the fine art of Thought Replacement Therapy, whereby I start thinking about something else (say, praying for a non-Christian friend) every time I find myself thinking about wanting a husband or kids.
I’ve also taken myself off the hook and shrugged off the unbearable burden of guilt and frustration that comes from expecting that contented singleness means having faith enough to rejoice in the prospect of endless eons of singleness. God gives us grace and faith enough for each step—he gives us each day our daily bread, not bread for the rest of our lives. I am not called to envision a lifetime of singleness and force myself to look forward to that, but rather to rejoice in this season of singleness, however long it lasts, and trust God to provide for all my needs. And I have found that keeping busy not with mundane, escapist trivialities but with work and ministry that enable me to invest my life in the lives of others has helped me to stop bemoaning not being married and start revelling in the best things about being single.
The best bits
So what are the best things about being single? Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:34 that “the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit”. One of the best things for me about being single is that it does free up plenty of time and energy to seek first God and his kingdom, without having to worry about pleasing a husband (or, for that matter, children). I have more freedom, time, and energy for a wide range of people than most of the married people I know, simply because they are called by God to put serving and pleasing their spouses near the top of their priority lists, and this is bound to take time and energy (and rightly so). Of course, I could also squander my life and waste the freedom to serve God and others that singleness brings by allowing my thoughts, feelings, desires, and even prayer time, to be consumed by the desire for marriage. We are all naturally inclined to waste time and energy desiring what we don’t have. But why would I choose to do that when the alternative is so much better?
A concrete example: my singleness has given me freedom to live overseas as a missionary teacher in Central Asia for the last two and a half years, freedom to now head to seminary in Boston to be equipped for long-term cross-cultural service, and freedom to go wherever God leads me after my training. It has been easier and cheaper for me to live overseas and to move across continents and oceans than would have been the case had I been married and had a spouse and perhaps children to consider. As a teacher, being single gave me the emotional energy, the heart and mental space, and the time to invest in the lives of my students to an extent that no married teacher with a spouse to go home to can. I could have students over for dinner as often as I wanted, love my students as my own kids, go on camps and retreats, humiliate myself at karaoke outings with students in which we partied till the wee hours of the morning—all manner of things that being a single woman facilitated. I never had to ask a husband’s permission, negotiate how many social events I could go to per week, or feel guilty about neglecting a spouse while I was off gallivanting around in other people’s lives and houses. I am not saying that married people only have time for each other, but surely there is no doubt that being married represents a diversion of energy and time from non-spouse- people. Paul says so. This is a great use of time, of course, but it is just as great to be able to use my freedom as a single person to serve God and others.
My singleness has also been fertile ground for personal and spiritual growth for me. In addition to the deep, varied friendships and the mobility and ministry opportunities that I have enjoyed, I have also found that God has redeemed in my life the difficult aspects of singleness. He has taken the loneliness, doubt, yearnings, sorrow, and frustrations that can accompany adult singleness and worked that pain into good. He has done this through working in me to help me to actively choose my unchosen singleness. In one sense, I have not chosen to be single—if God were to provide a wonderful, Jesus-centred, compatible guy, I wouldn’t turn him down. But in another sense, I have chosen to be single, or rather, to learn to not just accept, but intentionally rejoice in my singleness as a season that God has ordained in my life for his glory and my good.
And this choice—a choice that sometimes has to be a daily, conscious decision to trust and celebrate—has been the starting point of growth. Sometimes contented singleness does feel very much like a test of faith, and I imagine my faith in God—my trust in his goodness, love, and sovereignty—being purified, refined and strengthened in the crucible of singleness. Learning to rejoice in this season of life for however long God ordains it has forced me to run —and sometimes stumble—closer to God, the rock in whom I trust even when the floods of loneliness and longing are rising. In the times when I have struggled to remember that singleness is not a waiting room and single people are not incomplete, other-half-lacking losers, God has burnt into my heart the truth that my identity, value, and belovedness are grounded in Jesus alone—just as they would be even if I were married. And I have learned the truth of God’s promise to never leave nor forsake us.
As I learn to frame my life in terms of singleness, God is teaching me that this frame has a beauty to it that is comparable to the more popular frame of marriage. This beauty might be fragile, but it is rewarding. I am—for now, for however long God ordains—a single Christian woman, and God looks at me and my life, and he says: it is very good. I pray that he will open the eyes of my heart to increasingly see the God-glorifying beauty of my singleness, as I choose to gladly live the life I may not have chosen. For I know, whate’er befall me, Jesus doeth all things well.