Marriage and the Family - 11 - On Being Single

Chapter 11

On Being Single

Society at large still places great stress upon marriage. The “ideal” life is still composed of a family, two children, car, home, and other affordable luxuries. Security and success, accomplishment and acceptance seem inextricably linked in thinking with marriage. Perhaps even more than society, the assemblies place great emphasis upon marriage. The stress in most assemblies is on couples. The worth of a woman is frequently linked with her husband and his role. Many assembly activities are centered around home and family life.

The single life has some very difficult hurdles to overcome. Many begin to look upon themselves as rejected, unwanted, and somehow not up to the level of acceptability which others have experienced. A real loss of sense of worth, of value, and of purpose in life may beset the single person. June can be a very traumatic time emotionally as others your age marry and walk off hand in hand into the future. Conferences can sadly become only repeat exercises in frustration and rejection as hopes for friendship and the future are left unfulfilled.

When we come to the Scriptures, we are faced with a problem. The Lord Jesus spoke of those who were destined to a single life because they were so “born from their mother’s womb;” of others, who were single because they were “made eunuchs by men,” and of others still who were single “for the kingdom of God’s sake” (Matthew 19:12). The difficulty which we face is that although a few Christians may choose not to marry for the kingdom of God’s sake, most of the single Christians, with whom we are all associated, do not fit into any of the above categories. For many, the problem centers around a lack of available partners. Though some young men may not be able to find suitable partners, it is largely our sisters who, because of the relative imbalance between young men and women, fail to find a partner. Single men and single women do, however, have separate distinct situations. If this article gives the bulk of attention to single women, it is because they experience more of the problems and are more prevalent amongst us.       

What help can the Scriptures give us on this? Are we to relegate this all to that area of the silence of Scriptures? I firmly believe that the Word of God has answers and guidance for us all in this difficult and emotionally troubling area. It is imperative, however, that we clear away some well-intentioned but harmful concepts.

How are we to view those who have not married? At times expressions such as “unclaimed gems,” “monuments to the stupidity of the brethren,” and “unfulfilled lives,” are used. These terms are employed in an attempt to convey that the single person is truly worthwhile, although not married. While these terms may be used with good intention, they are harmful, wrong, and above all unscriptural. They serve notice to all that something is amiss; they suggest that being single is abnormal, a disease that only afflicts abnormal people.

Think of the subtle implication in the use of these expressions. Are single people really unclaimed treasures? Why can’t they be viewed as useful treasures to others even in their single state? The God who made them and who controls their lives has brought about this circumstance as it has pleased Him. To say that a single sister is a “monument to the stupidity of the brethren,” is to imply that a gross mistake has been made - that the failure of a brother somewhere, has led to a sister being consigned to a single life. This implies that God’s will has gone awry and all is out of order.

Would you suggest that things are out of God’s control to someone who has lost a loved one? Would you confront any major circumstance in a person’s life in that fashion? Being single may very well be the will of God for some individuals. This does not make the unique problems of singleness any less trying, but it does offer a great comfort to those who are single.

How are we to view the single state? How should a single person view herself and her circumstances?

At times, while being single is a choice, it is spoken of as a sacrifice. What is meant is that out of obedience to the Word of God, single individuals refuse the interest and invitations of those either not saved, or those with whom they feel a relationship would be out of the mind of God. The essence of ALL obedience is sacrifice, the sacrifice of my will to God’s. Yet this sacrifice never entails a true loss. We cannot then look upon this in a totally negative way.

Being unmarried is a circumstance ordered by God in one’s life. It is perhaps one of the most important circumstances which God brings into a person’s life. Most will not view it as ideal, even though Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7, does emphasize some of its advantages. It is granted then that it is a problem for those who would desire to marry but have not the opportunity. The problem of singleness enlarges to embrace the added difficulties of loneliness, frustrated hopes, loss of self-esteem, unfulfilled desires for intimacy, and required independence. Many unmarried individuals could add to the list.

It may sound naively simple to some, but if a Christian faces a problem, the answer is found in the Lord. This is not a sublimation of which the psychologist speaks: the redirecting of intense physical desires into the spiritual realm. This is far more than simply being so occupied with one area of life that the other is forgotten. It is certainly not merely a way of receiving comfort for the self-pity which might engross the unmarried. It is an answer, not a patching up; it is a solution, not an anesthetic.

It is imperative for the unmarried person to come to grips with his circumstances as being the Lord’s will for him at that particular time in his life. If the single person desires marriage, he can certainly look for it in the future. But Paul’s words at which we will look, in 1 Corinthians 7, will have little profit if the all compelling thought is marriage. There is no loss in waiting upon God for a partner. The time is well invested in coming to an understanding of God’s will and in arriving at the values which you would look for in a partner and which you would bring to a marriage. A young sister’s recent comment speaks far more eloquently than my writing; “I shudder to think of the men that attracted me when I was younger.” Rather than spending the time looking for the “right person,” employ the time to become the “right person” who can bring a secure sense of worth into a marriage and can bring a knowledge of God learned in single years.

When Paul took up his pen to write to the Corinthians, he was writing to an assembly whose testimony was set amidst an immoral society. Lust and immorality had reached epidemic proportions and no one was calling for vaccines against them. So depraved was the society that men coined the term “Corinthianize” to express moral decadence. Newly saved saints at Corinth would understandably question the place which marriage and physical intimacy had in the Christian life. This is one of the themes which Paul takes up in chapter 7.

There is much of profit in vs. 1-16; most of this applies to marriage and its several problems. Continuing down the chapter to vs. 17-24, we are confronted with

Principals of Devoted Living

One of the principles which Paul underlines in this paragraph, is the necessity to appreciate the value which God has placed on you. “Ye are bought with a price” (v 23). Every child of God is of value in the estimation of God. We must never confuse our unworthiness with the idea of worthlessness. Whether single or married, every individual and every life is of importance to God. This is one of the points which Paul is stressing in this section. Thoughts of self-pity and personal rejection must be refused and replaced by an appreciation of my worth before the Lord.

In this light, we must honestly face a problem which single individuals face. The manner in which married people view, treat and refer to single people frequently reinforces their sense of low self-esteem. There are no second class saints, only second class thinkers. Every child is of value to God and should be of value to those who wish to think as God does.

Notice also the need to accept whatever circumstances into which God has brought us. Some were questioning their relationships both in marriage and society now that they were converted. Paul emphasizes, “Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called” (v 20). This applies equally to those who find themselves single. There is no need to feel that somehow things are out of God’s control, that you will never really reach God’s goal for your life until you are married. Paul moves to this in the next verse in which he stresses the need to avail yourself of every opportunity where you are to serve God. Notice verse 21, “Art thou called being a servant?  Care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, rather use it.” To paraphrase loosely verses 21 and 22, “Don’t become the slave of circumstances or of other people.”

Many sit along the sidelines waiting for marriage as the ticket into Christian life and service for God. Self-pity, a lack of self-confidence, a misunderstanding about God’s purposes all may combine to paralyze a person. Paul makes it clear that all saints should seek to serve God where they are and in whatever circumstances they are found. Is it too much to apply this to being single? If you are seeking to please and honor God in your life and walking according to His will, you are not now receiving “second best.” Don’t even wait for marriage to get involved in life itself. A full, rich, meaningful life is within your grasp, if you are in the will of God.

Later in the article we will look together at some single individuals in the Scriptures and their activity. The point to be stressed now is that life does not begin with marriage; it begins with conversion. Seek opportunities to serve God. It may come as a surprise to some to realize that being single does have some advantages. I recognize that many who would desire to be married would freely trade these “advantages” for some of the “hardships” of marriage. But God has placed you there now and given you, perhaps only temporarily, these advantages. Few single people realize the demands which married life places on a person’s time. This is even after we extract the romanticized element from marriage. Responsibilities and demands mount with the passing of time and the arrival of children. Single people have far more time to devote to the Lord and to others. The years prior to marriage, even if protracted, are a valuable time for growth and appreciation of the Lord. A woman has few opportunities to learn dependence upon the Lord if she goes immediately from the relationship of a dependent child in the home to a dependent wife in the family.

Finally, Paul makes a plea that every saint should use whatever the circumstances God has brought him into, to abide with God (v 24). Cultivating the fellowship of God is something which is open to every believer in every set of circumstances.

The Priority of Divine Things

The eternal abiding principles of God transcend cultures, time and circumstances. Paul brings to us one of these great truths in a somewhat roundabout fashion in verse 29, “But this I say, brethren, the time is short.” Paul has really put the teachings of the Lord Jesus in Matthew 6:33 in a somewhat updated version, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” Keep in mind the context in which the Lord spoke these words. He was rebuking the anxious, covetous spirit of the day. His words are still applicable today; putting God first and allowing Him to order the remainder of my life will never result in loss.

A word of caution must be introduced here. This does not mean that if I put God first He will give me a partner in life. The Lord Jesus is speaking about the necessities of life; what a man will need to live and serve God. If the Lord feels you need a partner, He will provide that partner in His time. In the meanwhile, put God first. Don’t become so distracted by the search and longing for a partner that your service for God becomes sidetracked.

Some pray for a partner using the words of Matthew 7:7, “Ask and it shall be given unto you,” as a credo. But heaven is not a branch office of Sears. We don’t simply put in our order and demand next day shipment. All is subject to His will.

One of the underlying reasons that Paul subjugates even marriage to the spiritual priority of serving God is that even marriage is only temporary. Our relationship and service with God is eternal. How tragic to put the priority on the temporal and passing things (v 31), only to become unfulfilled in the eternal.

Many Scriptures rush to mind to support the need for all, single and unmarried, to carefully survey their circumstances and to use all for God. Ephesians 5:15 counsels us to redeem the time.

Paul has one more major point to make in this section which does have a bearing upon our discussion.  In verses 32-40, he touches upon

The Pattern of a Directed Life

Paul’s great desire (v 32), was to have everyone serving the Lord without distraction. For him, the single life had this advantage. This may not be the case for all; Paul owns this freely. It was, however, an advantage for him.

Afford me the freedom for a moment to illustrate this principle from the lives of some of the best-known saints in our Bibles. Some may well have been single all their lives; others had important events prior to marriage which are worthwhile noting.

Virtually synonymous with hospitality are the names of Mary and Martha. Their hospitality put Bethany on the map. It became known as the “town of Mary and Martha” (John 12:1). Here then were two sisters who did not sit back and await the future to unfold. They saw a need and addressed themselves to it. Hospitality to the Lord and His followers became their ministry. All that the Lord and His disciples needed was to be found at this home in Bethany. It was not merely a meal which was provided. Martha saw to the natural needs of the body; Lazarus to the emotional needs of social life and fellowship, and Mary to spiritual life. This does not imply anything about the relative spirituality of the three. It only teaches that hospitality with them was inclusive.

Your single state does not prohibit you from entertaining the Lord’s people and making your home a spiritual haven. This may not always be possible. It will depend on living arrangements. If it is possible, however, go in for it. Wisdom and care are needed, but the opportunities are boundless and the rewards are incalculable.

Dorcas graces the pages of our Bibles only briefly in a short account in Acts 9:36-43. What is prominent in her service is that she was occupied for others. So noted was she for her selfless character, that she is the only woman in our Bibles called a disciple. She followed the pattern of the Lord Jesus who poured out His life for others (Philippians 2:3-8). Famous for her good deeds and life for those less fortunate, she became a one-woman welfare and social security office for the widows. Here was a woman who was not distracted by other responsibilities and could give herself wholly to the needs of others.

Phoebe, servant of the church at Cenchrea, has been immortalized upon the pages of Scripture by the deft pen of the Spirit of God. Marked by a genuine interest in the assembly and a generous attitude toward all, she has remained a pattern of how much good a sister can do in her God-given sphere. The words which the Spirit has chosen to use suggest that through personal exercise and expense she had been a help to Paul and to the assembly at Cenchrea. Being single can allow for more financial support to the work of God and the people of God.

Paul and Timothy appear to have used their unmarried and single status as an opportunity to serve the Lord without the distractions of married life. The demands made upon their time by the Spirit of God would have been almost impossible for a family man to fulfill.

These lives should suffice to illustrate that the essence of life, that which really matters, is not dependent upon marital status. Self-esteem, service for God, and communion with God are independent of marriage. It is your attitude, not your marital state which will determine these.

A brief examination of some Old Testament lives also affords some valuable insights into the unique problems and solutions of the single life.

The life of Jeremiah is almost a commentary upon the phrase which Paul employed in 1 Corinthians 7:26, “I suppose that this is good for the present distress.” I can almost hear someone groaning at the mention of Jeremiah. “Singleness and sobs,” the “lonely prophet and the lamenter.” How appropriate! What comfort could a single person derive from his life?

In Jeremiah 16:1-3, he is forbidden by God to marry. Some are quick to add that God only said, “in this place,” meaning Jerusalem. It appears, however, that Jeremiah never married. His ministry and stand for God were characterized by loneliness. In chapter 15:17, he lamented that he sat alone because of the Word of God. In chapter 16, he discovered that he must also live alone because of the same Word. He never knew what it was to come home from a long day at the court and have the sympathy of a wife. He never had the privilege of sharing his burden and grief over spiritual conditions with a helpmeet. Lonely days were followed by lonely nights.

Jeremiah was called to learn God amidst his circumstances (Jeremiah 15:20, 21). He was a forerunner of the one who said, “I have learned in whatsoever state I am to be content;  I am strong for all things in Christ who is constantly pouring strength into me” (Philippians 4:11,13).

Daniel affords us valuable lessons on the single life. Doubtless made eunuchs by men, Daniel and his three friends did not wallow in self-pity and despair. He sought to put God first amid his tragic circumstances and prove God. The major lesson that we should draw from his life, however, is the importance of a network of friends. Single people, if not more so than their married counterparts, need friendships to balance their lives, and friends with whom to share the experiences and traditions which give life stability and security.

Daniel and his friends may well have been cast together by the adverse circumstances (1:6,7) of their mutual capture. They soon found that of the vast number carried captive, they shared convictions about spiritual things (1:11-13). Beware of the close intimate friendships with those who do not share spiritual interest and exercise. There seemed to be a total absence of jealousy among them (1:17). Instead, there was mutual consideration and appreciation (2:49). Daniel had those to whom he could turn for help in a crisis (1:17, 18).

It is of interest that each, however, had to pass through some trials alone. The three Hebrew servants entered the fiery furnace without Daniel (ch. 3). Daniel spent a night amongst lions without them (ch. 6). The lesson here is not so obvious, though nonetheless present. Don’t demand that your friends be identical to you in every way and in every trial. God causes His own to pass through individual circumstances known only to themselves.

These four transplanted Hebrew youths did not sit back and bemoan their circumstances. Doubtless none of them would have chosen the kind of life to which they were called. They did, however, use the circumstances to the best of their ability. Another has characterized them as those who lived by the principle of the Wise Preacher, “Whatsoever thine hand findeth to do, do it with thy might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10).

The relationship of David and Jonathan illustrates other valuable principles of friendship between single persons. David and Jonathan may well have been teenagers when their friendship began. Their mutual love made no demands upon each other, but freely gave. David did not use his friendship to manipulate Jonathan in any way. There was total unconditional acceptance of each other. Their only concern was for each other’s honor (1 Samuel 20:34; 2 Samuel 1:18-27). Encouragement in time of need (23:16-18), appreciation of another’s circumstances (2 Samuel 1:18-27), and confiding and confidence (19:2) marked their friendship.

Unmarried Christians must cultivate friendship, investing far more into a relationship than they perhaps are receiving. They must be willing to compromise their demands and self-centered interests, avoid manipulation and the use of guilt or pity. These friendships are essential for the emotional well-being and spiritual balance of single believers.

It is imperative that the mature saints understand, help and encourage those who are single. This embraces treating them as normal, ordinary Christians, not as objects of pity or suspicion.

Single individuals also may need to alter their view of themselves. As another single Christian woman has written, “Singleness may or may not be a choice; but joy and contentment are choices, not consequences or circumstances.” Remember that your life is of the utmost importance and value to God. You are of value to Him. Consecration and communion, service and success, fulfillment and joy are as available to the single person as to the married.

What has been written is certainly not a total or final answer to the problems and trials which some experience in the single life. It is hoped, however, that it is the beginning of an answer to the problem confronting many believers.