In my last post I noted that singleness can be hard. But one of the lovely truths that the Bible consistently celebrates is that what is hard can be used for good. You think of Paul in 2 Corinthians rejoicing in his weaknesses because they make him more useful for the Lord. Or ponder James’ call to consider it pure joy when you face grief in all kinds of trials. Time and again the Bible insists that suffering can be transformed into something beautiful. After all it is at the heart of what we believe- is there a better demonstration of this than Calvary?
The same is true of being single. That which appears not to be good in Genesis 2 is that which is described as a gift in 1 Corinthians 7. And Jesus himself implies the benefit of being single when he talks about those who have renounced marriage for the sake of the Kingdom in Matthew 19. I think this could include those who have refused to marry a non-Christian or those who have stayed single in order to be more effective in serving the Lord.
I’ll spend most of the rest of this post in 1 Corinthians 7. Paul is handling a question from the Corinthians: is it good for somebody not to marry? He responds by affirming the usefulness of marriage because of the prevalence of sexual immorality (one reason why the Catholic practice of insisting on celibacy for their priests is asking for trouble…). However, he says, there are benefits for those who are single. He talks about two different gifts in v.7 and I suspect that he is saying that being married and being single are both gifts from the Lord. Whatever situation we are in is, for the moment, God’s gift to us.
Now many will probably think that singleness is the gift that nobody wants- somewhat like hideous socks given out at Christmas. But it is worth exploring why singleness is a gift according to Paul. The answer comes in two parts.
Firstly, it is worth noticing Paul’s perspective on marriage- “those who marry will face many troubles in this life.” (v.28) Or to take v.33- “A married man is concerned about the affairs of this world- how he can please his wife.” There are huge pressures and responsibilities that come with being married. I have greatly appreciated Tim Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage. It is hugely realistic about the struggles of marriage and Keller explains that part of his reason for writing it was seeing the number of single people in his church who idolized marriage- seeing it as the answer to all their problems. But marriage, as well as being good, is also hard. We don’t live in the Garden of Eden anymore. We live in a world where marriage brings together two people with sinful natures who then will often produce children with sinful natures. That results in difficult decisions, expenditure of emotional energy and often huge levels of tiredness. Paul talks about life in this fallen world in these terms: “We groan.” I once suggested to some married friends that getting married was simply exchanging one form of groaning for another. They didn’t disagree.
Secondly, therefore, the gift of singleness allows a clarity of focus. The energy that would have been devoted to your spouse and family can be used for the Lord. “An unmarried man (or woman) is concerned about the Lord’s affairs- how he can please the Lord.” (v.32) That’s not always easy (the point I made yesterday stands) but nevertheless there is the possibility of living a single life that is beautiful for the Lord. It is wonderful to see lives poured into friendship with Christians and non-Christians, into ministry to children and students, into practical service in the church and into more time for prayer. I’ve just got back from a week speaking in Greece. At one point I was asked by somebody making an interesting assumption: “Don’t your family mind you being here?” Of course if I had a family then I wouldn’t have been there. More significantly I was greatly impressed by this recent interview with Vaughan Roberts. Apart from being very helpful on the subject of homosexuality (and for that matter strength in weakness in ministry) it is useful to consider his perspective on singleness:
“ Those who have not married have embraced the Bible’s very positive teaching about singleness as a gift (see 1 Corinthians 7.32-35), whether chosen or not, which, I imagine, alongside loneliness and sexual frustration, has afforded them wonderful opportunities for the loving service of God and others. I know that I myself would not have had nearly as much time for writing and speaking at missions or conferences if I had been married. I’ve also had more time for friendships, which have been a huge blessing to me and, I trust, to others as well.”
Whilst writing and speaking at conferences won’t be the experience of the majority the opportunity to invest in friendships and serve in the church is certainly something to be grasped.
So how do we live with singleness as a gift? Listen to Paul’s advice. “Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife.” It seems to me that Paul envisages a situation where everybody is serving the Lord. As we do that we may end up falling for somebody and being attracted to them. That’s great- you are free to get married. But don’t make the search for the perfect spouse the goal in life. For a start, the perfect spouse doesn’t exist- at least one currently on earth doesn’t exist. In addition, though, there is a danger that the search distracts us from our true task- to serve the Lord. It’s one reason why I am not a great fan of Christian dating sites (although I don’t think it is particularly sinful to use them!) or married friends acting as matchmakers. It seems better for us to focus on serving the Lord- to be concerned above all else about how to please Him. Incidentally, that’s also the answer to the problem of sexual temptation: I fight it better when my eyes are fixed on Jesus.
To focus on the Lord and not on a search for a spouse is the way for something hard to become something beautiful.