When singleness is a gift…

Posted by on Feb 12, 2016 in Blog | 7 comments

With Valentine’s day falling on a Sunday this year, many churches will use it as an opportunity to celebrate love, marriage and relationships. And fair enough. But in this post I would like to be a little counter intuitive and invite us to think about the singles in our midst.

For some, Valentines day can feel like anything but a celebration. Not that we should fall into the trap of thinking that every single person would prefer to be in a relationship. Many are happily and intentionally single – and really wouldn’t want it any other way. For others, it is the way things are – not necessarily the desired state, but the one that is – and they face it philosophically. For yet others singleness is a source of great anguish. It might be further complicated by feelings of loss, inadequacy, failure, and shame. While we’d probably quickly respond that these are not justified feelings, it doesn’t change the fact that those who feel them – well, they feel them.

So what can we say about singleness?

First up we should note that the advent of Christianity conferred a validity on singleness that had previously been absent. In Judaism, for example, it was considered an insult to your family and the community to remain single. You had a duty to continue the family name by marrying and having offspring. A rabbinical saying puts it as harshly as this: Seven things are condemned in heaven, and the first of these is a man without a woman. Ouch…

Lest you just want to blame the Jews, in first century Rome Augustus Caesar ordered that widows should be fined if they did not remarry within two years of their widowhood. Their single state was considered a potential threat to the wider society.

Contrast that with the special status the early church gave to widows and Paul’s implication that remarriage is usually not a good idea (see for example 1 Cor 7 – where remarriage while not ruled out, is not encouraged – ‘But she is happier if she remains as she is’ v40). That the founder of Christianity (Jesus) and the leader most responsible for it becoming a global faith (the Apostle Paul) were both single was a challenge to the status quo of their day, where marriage was almost an idol. Indeed, there is an irony that many singles today view the church as a place where they experience the greatest pressure to ‘settle down and marry’, when so many of the early heroes of the faith decided against marriage, so that they could faithfully fulfil their life calling.

Singleness as a temporary state

It is as well to note that we are all single at some stage in our life. We don’t enter the world already married, and for most people it is simply a question of how long the state of singleness remains. It has been lengthening steadily in recent decades and in 2014 the median age at marriage for males in Australia was 31.5 and for females, 29.6. In other words, most people spend around the first 30 year of their life single. Most marriages do not end with the simultaneous death of husband and wife, so even when marriage lasts ‘until death us do part’ there can be a lengthy period of widowhood. Add to that a high divorce rate, the number of people who are separated and the not insignificant number of people who whilst married, are to all intents and purposes alone. The reasons for the latter can be many – dementia might have seen the permanent hospitalisation of one partner, work demands might see partners living in different cities and facing a functional if not legal singleness, while others remain in loveless marriages where it might feel as though they are single, or indeed, feel that singleness would be preferable. Whatever the reason, most people will spend fairly lengthy periods of their life effectively on their own. For others it will be their entire life – though they would probably have spent childhood years within a family context.

A wise life principle is to make the most of every season. They come and go, and if you don’t grasp the benefits that each offers, they might never come around again. Singleness offers some opportunities that marriage does not. Usually you only have to consult with yourself about doing something, so spontaneity is often a more realistic option. The old proverb goes they travel furthest (fastest) that travel alone. It is often true. Singleness allows a sharp focus that might not be possible within a committed relationship, and the single years (or the single life) can be remarkably productive. Single people are also often able to cultivate a wider range of friendships, including friendships with people of the opposite gender (or uncertain gender) – in a way that would produce too many tensions if pursued whilst married.

Whilst many people think that singleness and loneliness are synonyms, there is no reason  for this to be so. Those who are on their own often learn the difference between loneliness and solitude, and are able to make the journey from loneliness to solitude. That journey is one of life’s most constructive, and leaves one with deep inner strength and fortitude. No, it is not limited to those who are single, it is just that the single often discover that path more quickly.

For the majority, singleness is a temporary gift given for a limited season. For others, perhaps after divorce or bereavement, it becomes the gift they will have for the remainder of their life. For some it is a gift throughout their life. Is it too much to hope that whichever of these three it is, when singleness is your stage, it is embraced as gift, not as curse? For that to happen doesn’t only depend upon the single person. Those in their circle, married or not, must be willing to help them embrace this stage, rather than acting as though it is some unacceptable deficit that they must help remedy by endless introductions to unsuitable prospective partners.

Let’s think a little more about singleness as a gift.

You’ve got to love the Apostle Paul’s openness and freshness as a writer. In 1 Corinthians 7:7, reflecting on his own singleness, he writes, ‘I wish that all were as I am’ – but then notes in a resigned tone that ‘one has this gift, another has that.’ The broader context of 1 Cor 7 suggests that when Paul thinks of marriage he seems to think of it as a kind of necessary evil for those who cannot restrain their sexual lust (‘if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion’- v 9). The overall thrust of 1 Cor 7 is worth pondering. Paul wants people to be able to focus on their relationship with God and the service that God calls them to. He sees marriage as a potential distraction from that call. At the same time he is clear that some have one gift (in context, the gift of singleness) and others another.

It is liberating to think of singleness as a gift, and many single people are able to embrace their state as one which God has honoured them with. It is important that we recognise that the Bible sees the single state as one God gifts to some. The language is the language of gift and therefore privilege. It is not of second class status or deficiency or punishment. It is gift, gift, gift… And all God’s gifts are good. We should then be communities that help people celebrate this gift, not places constantly trying to match people up with dubious partners as though anything must be better than being single.

Not that we should be silly or trite about this. Just because something is a gift does not mean it comes without a cost. When something goes wrong at work, or a horrible medical diagnosis is given, or you are deeply uncertain as to the path to take, being alone can be excruciating. Being able to tap into the wisdom and empathy of others can be critical at such times. That’s why it is really important that we rediscover the biblical truth that church is family. No one is actually alone in the family of God. You might not have a husband or wife – but you always have a family. And that family should be one that cares for you and understands you… And understands that if you live alone you might want a few more invites out for coffee to yarn about the highs and lows of life… And actually about those many ordinary days that fall somewhere in between. .

What about being childless?

Of course there are many married couples who are also childless (and that is probably a topic for another post), but there is something about being single that rubs home the ‘so who will remember your name and continue your legacy’ question. Noted Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas has suggested that those who are childless are forced to trust more deeply in the resurrection. They cannot long for immortality though their children. They must trust that God will hold their memory and raise them to life. They are invited to trust God, not their offspring. While this might not be easy to do, it is an invitation to trust more deeply – and to hold on to resurrection hope. It forces us to probe more deeply into what our faith actually proclaims, and helps us to see the significance of the empty tomb a little more clearly.

And is there such a thing as celibate sexuality?

No doubt that sex is one of the idols of our age, so when we talk of singleness, and then link it to the longstanding Christian affirmation that Christians are invited into a faithful sexual relationship within marriage and celibacy outside of it, many link Christian singles to sexual frustration and heartache. It is important not to think that celibacy is about trying to pretend that you live in a neutered state – genderless and sexless. To the contrary, we are always sexual beings. Within marriage, that appropriately expresses itself in an overt sexual relationship (though even in marriage there might be times when that is not possible). In singleness, our sexuality is an invitation to creatively express who we are in different ways. We are still fully male or female, even if we do not have an active sex life. Indeed, our full humanity is never dependant upon being in a genital sexual relationship, for if it were, Jesus was never fully human – yet we consistently proclaim him as the greatest example of what it means to be human.

No, this is not easy reading for those who are single. And it might be that errors are made along the way. As always, church must be extended family, helping to support, and listen and to (usually) withhold judgment. We should do so with integrity, empathy and good humour. And it is as well to remember that genital sexuality is not an eschatological category – in other words – given that Jesus says we should not expect marriage in the afterlife, it is not one of those things that is of supreme importance, even though our God deprived society would like us to believe that it is.

So what do singles want from the church?

Probably much the same as anyone else. Authentic relationships, a freedom to be who they are, being welcomed as fully participating members of the church, sensitivity in areas where they might be vulnerable, an extended family, acceptance of their single state… Oh, and on this Valentine’s Day, a gentle awareness that not everyone’s mailbox is overflowing with anonymous ‘I love you’ cards…

As always, nice chatting…

Incidentally, if you would like to read more about this topic, here are links to two posts I thought were especially good. The first if by Jonathan Storment and the second by Kelley Goewey.

7 Comments

  1. Thank you, Brian. This is a much needed discussion in our churches, and I agree wholeheartedly with the direction of your argument.
    However, I do think your use of dementia as an illustration of functional singleness is unfortunate. Not that it is ineffective as an illustration, but simply because it perpetuates the stigma surrounding dementia. Our language about dementia often characterises it as a living death (for example, see Behuniak, S. (2011). The living dead? The construction of people with Alzheimer’s disease as zombies. Ageing & Society, 31, 70-92.) Or there’s the furore that erupted when Pat Robertson suggested it was OK to divorce a spouse if they had Alzheimer’s Disease. (https://youtu.be/vsaqfP87Z58). I know couples who have walked the difficult path of permanent hospitalisation of one partner with dementia, and maintained their loving, intimate marriage throughout. Unfortunately, the stigma around dementia means many people don’t even consider that possibility.
    I know this is a minor point in the whole article; not even an entire sentence. It’s a great article. This just pushed a button with me since I’m more than a little passionate about the topic!

    • Thanks Kerryn. Point taken. A post on dementia could be helpful. How would you feel about writing it? Happy to put it on the blog if you do… I will be in touch.

      • Sure – it would be great if there was more understanding of people living with dementia.

  2. HI Brian, you are champion at taking care of singles…thanks for all the Christmas dinners I got to share with yourself and the family. I felt part of the family and that is truly what us singles love, not to be treated different. Oh and thanks for all the Christmas presents too!

    • Well you always provided heaps of chocolate Sue, and all of us have wonderful memories of fantastic Christmas days spent together (and not just Christmas day – many others as well). Just wish you lived closer to us now.

  3. I have left it for a while to comment on singleness being a ‘gift’ but still can not come to terms with your ‘theory’. When one loses their partner prematurely and worse still the children lose their father I can not see that as a gift. I accept by the law of averages it will happen to some and those who have married and had children are a long way ahead of those who wanted those things but it didn’t happen. There is a lot of pain involved. Maybe it is just the word ‘gift’ that stirs me up.

    • Thanks Trixie. I can certainly see your point and would hate to think of gift in a trite way, or a way that denies the oceans of pain that accompany some gifts. I would say that the biblical concepts of gift and pain are not divorced. The Bible claims that martyrdom is a gift – hardly an easy one… But beneath calling it a gift lies a conviction that God reigns. Gift and calling are closely linked… So gift in this context does not mean happiness but the life path I am called to live, and the way I am equipped (strengthened) to live out that call.

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