Some years ago, I heard a pastor teach about the importance of correctly identifying God’s words in the Bible which are distinctly different from other speaker’s words in the Bible. He was teaching out of Job and I recall that he pointed out people’s fondness for saying “the Lord gives and the Lord takes away”. Then he railed at the congregation: “Stop attributing bad things to God!”
Job spoke those words in prayer as an expression of his understanding of the happenings in his life at that point. However, the reader knows that Satan had asked for and received permission to take everything Job had in an attempt to prove to God that Job’s praises would turn to curses when his blessings were removed from him (Job 1).
That was a deep lesson for me. My mind wanders back to it every now and then. Today is one of those times.
I am single and I have never been in a relationship. I mean never. This year I turn thirty-nine. Over the past decade my thoughts on sexual purity have evolved. When I began studying the Bible seven or so years ago, presenting my body as a holy sacrifice was not a difficult concept for me – most especially because I didn’t think I would be single much longer. However, since the years have dragged on through my mid-, and now, late-thirties, I can honestly say that there is little joy to be found in my singleness.
I have seen friends marry, fight, divorce, fight and marry again. I find I am far less interested in attending the second weddings as I was their firsts because, for the most part, these friends view themselves as independent of their marriages. And they aggressively defend their desire to maintain and pursue their individualism at the expense of their union (though they may not see it that way).
As an honorary presence, I have watched children be born and grow up, yet I have never had any real right to guide their lives. I have seen my access to these children decrease as my relationship with their parents changed or deteriorated over the years. That has led to a lot of grieving and more hardening than I’ve ever thought possible for me. Observing families as a guest is no substitute for having one of your own.
I have seen female relatives struggle with aging and ill-health alone. They may have married in their youth and collected a roster of men over time and raised children they thought would be a blessing in their old age, but in the end bitterness is all that remained.
Singleness is a blessing for a time, but not for all time nor for every time. For the past decade I have said, and I maintain, that I am happy I did not marry before the age of thirty. This is not a post about wishing I had married young. Thirty is the age that my life turned completely in the direction of God. I am joyful that He brought me to Himself as an individual, not as part of a couple or a family unit. I am fortunate in being able to walk out my belief and understanding in my own time and space. This has led to the development of a very strong faith and voice. I thank God for His meticulous care of me. The last eight years of my life have been a continual pursuit of truth and life. The most prominent truth I have held onto is: “It is not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18).”
These words are attributed to God during His process of creating humanity. I understand this statement to mean that it is not good for woman to be alone either.
My internal struggle has been to reconcile God’s proclamation in Genesis 2:18 with Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:8-9:
Now for those who are not married and for the widows I say this: It is good for them to stay unmarried as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry. It is better to marry than to burn with sexual desire.
Paul said explicitly, ‘it is good for them to stay unmarried as I am.” I believed that to a certain degree, but I didn’t truly get it until I saw an online conversation thread where a woman cited Paul’s words in verses 28c-29:
But those who marry will have trouble in this life, and I want you to be free from trouble. Brothers and sisters, this is what I mean: We do not have much time left. So starting now, those who have wives should live as if they had no wives.
To the woman’s credit in the conversation I read, she was pointing out that she and her husband had individual callings from the Lord. I appreciate that, but an individual calling does not mean it cannot or should not be a shared pursuit by both husband and wife. It certainly doesn’t mean that one partner should follow their calling to the exclusion of their spouse.
Further down in this passage Paul laments that spouses are distractions from God’s work.
I will argue here that a spouse is intended to be a blessing of completion and unity. Don’t misunderstand me. Yes, we are complete as individuals. Yes, we are complete in our relationship with God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. But, there is also another dimension in which God has allowed for completion – a marital relationship in which He has joined two people. This joining and unity is echoed throughout His Book of Instruction.
What I noticed when reading this passage after reading the conversation thread, is that Paul again explicitly states in verse 25: I have no command from the Lord about this; I give my opinion.
We are not called to be like Paul. We were not given Paul’s breath, spirit or life. Paul’s preferences are not the foundation of our faith. Yet First Corinthians, Chapter 7 is laced with Paul saying “I wish you could be like me… I command… and in my opinion (verses 7, 8, 10, 12, 17, 25, 26, 28, 29, 32, 35, 40).” Paul’s opinion, even though it’s in the Bible, does not equal or trump God’s word. The only thing God said was not good about His creation was that man/woman/humans should be alone. That is significant. For Paul to call singleness good, in his opinion, is in direct opposition to what God called it. For Paul to extort married people to act as if they are single is not the call of service God requires of us. A great part of our service to God is serving the people He has put in our care. We are to be helpers and ministers to our spouse. We are to be teachers and guides to our children. We are to be truthful and honest leaders in our community. More importantly, we are to decrease as individuals so that Jesus can increase in us. Our call is to become more Christ-like, to grow more fully and purely into the original image we were created in. The spouse God has blessed you with is not a distraction; and your work together – in one another, in your family and in your community, through the Holy Spirit – is kingdom preparation and building.
I have seen many debates over the years revolving around people trying to make Paul’s words fit their present day circumstances. Paul provided great teachings, but he is very clear about when the Holy Spirit is urging him to speak and when he is speaking on his own. I think we need to be careful to distinguish between the two voices. When we do that, it’s not so difficult to apply Spirit-led words to our life.
That takes me to the seemingly waning blessing of singleness. The truth: What I have learned in my singleness is to look after myself, to think of myself and focus on myself. No matter how I may try to focus on other people, every day is filled with only my life issues. No one else is a primary focus in my life for any extended period of time and I admit, I am truly sick of myself. I would prefer to think of someone else, look after someone else and focus on another. Not in the way of around the clock caretaker, but as a partner and stakeholder in the life details of another person. Singleness doesn’t provide that opportunity. As a single person, every relationship in your life feels transient (if you’re paying attention to how people come and go, that is). Singleness leads to an independent individuality that takes us away from the deep benefits of unity and community. Single people are not included in social groups the same way that married couples or families are. We are limited to a certain type of social interaction. Usually a very shallow social interaction – comic relief, entertainment, etc. Single people aren’t necessarily trusted for their dependability and commitment. Meaning, on many levels, they will be included with the expectation that they will exercise their freedom to get up and go whenever the mood strikes.
I have exercised that right many times. I have stopped committing myself to friendships that change drastically shortly after vows are spoken. I have stopped inserting myself into family settings that usually see me as a refreshing change to the redundancy of stability. I have been known to leave employment that drains me spiritually and mentally. I am also known for stepping out in faith in legendary ways.
More truth: During my singleness, I have been able to tune my life, my heart and my ears to God’s voice – His whisper, His urging, His guidance – with a sensitivity that I may not have been able to develop had I not been alone for a time. My faith has grown and deepened because I had no one else to depend on or look to other than God. My internal seeking and questioning has become layered because my communication with God is mostly silent – my thoughts, my musings, my writing. My Lord Father has been my one and only constant and our relationship is not part of what I termed a “waning blessing”. My relationship with my Lord Father is an eternal blessing that I would never wish to live without. What is waning, or has waned, is my need for solitude and any belief that singleness is a step above or equal to being joined as one with another.
There is richness in merging your life with another’s. This indefinable wealth is evident in any couple that has acknowledged the goodness of their union. There’s a wisdom, understanding, acceptance, appreciation, patience, in-it-togetherness, that most singles don’t really get. And at any sign of marital trouble, we singles ask questions like: Why are you putting up with that? What’s in it for you? Why won’t you leave? Why not just do what makes you happy? Why aren’t you taking care of yourself? Do you really have to put up with this?
Every single person who has asked any variation of these questions to a married friend or relative has undoubtedly heard in response: He’s my husband. She’s my wife. We have a family. It’s not that simple.
And that’s what we don’t get, because we don’t have it. For us, it usually is that simple, because we have only ourselves to think about. That’s why single people change so much when they get married. We are meant to change. We are meant to grow. We are meant to evolve from singleness to unity. Singleness is not the prize. Oneness in marriage is.