“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” Matthew 13:44
It’s sobering to acknowledge how my regrets have changed. At age 25 or so, if you had asked me to name my biggest regret to that point, and if I were completely honest, the theme of my lament would have centered on whatever failures kept me from the fulfillment of my desire to be married. Not even a decade later, though still unmarried, I find myself ashamed to admit that this regret held such a seat of primacy for me as a younger man.
In the midst of my shortsightedness, I was perpetuating what I now regret far more deeply: the amount of available ministry time I have wasted over the years. Oh sure, I was a small group leader back then, and I played music in worship services. I went on a couple of short-term mission trips. But the Lord was beginning to reveal something to me during that time that seemed quite foreign: I had never truly considered maximizing my singleness for the sake of ministry.
I hope there is something instructive here for both other single brothers and sisters, and for those for whom singleness is a distant sight in the rearview mirror. Each of us truly needs to understand what we have available to us in our local church’s singles. But to fully appreciate this, we must ask what may appear an off-putting question: Do we really believe that the Bible is true? I mean . . . really? If so, the view of singleness in our church culture must change.
Single brothers and sisters, consider the parable of the hidden treasure, quoted above. Do you believe the Bible is true? Has Christ, in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, not reconciled us to the Father, making peace by the blood of his cross (Col. 1:19–20)? Have we not been offered a treasure far greater than the summation of those hoarded by all the earth’s emperors and kings? Are there not those who this day will perish apart from Christ, to suffer endlessly in separation from God?
If we believe these things are true, then there are some incredibly significant ramifications for how we view the time we have as singles.
Many paragraphs on the subject of singleness have predated the following, and many shall come long after these are forgotten. But now, being a man of at least substantial “single experience,” I feel the Lord has helped me articulate some things about Christian singleness that I apparently was too immature to appreciate even five years ago. I’ve even been asked by several friends to put them in writing.
In countless conversations over the years with others of all ages and stages in the church, I have gradually realized that there may be some toxic ingredients present in our view of and our functional behavior concerning singleness in this culture. I use “our” purposefully, in that I have been a contributing participant, and to include both single and married believers as well.
I want to establish a couple of qualifiers, which feels tedious, but necessary. First, our culture is clearly a consumeristic and hyper-sexualized culture. This has terrorized the American church. As a result, for many single adults, spouse checklists are exhaustive and “feelings” have come to rule decision-making. I don’t see that many generations before us could relate well to these cultural norms. Not that long ago, many of us would probably have been happily married to those we’d now “settle for.” It’s worth acknowledging that there’s a major issue there. Secondly, the point of this article is in no way to promote singleness exclusively. The Word of God presents marriage beautifully as a God-designed picture of Christ’s sacrificial love and the Church’s ultimate and willing submission to Him personally, and of His care and provision. Marriage is ministry, marriage is discipleship, and biblical marriage conveys the glory and design of God. Marriage is a God-given gift.
Yet, the church culture with which I am familiar often does promote marriage exclusively, even if unintentionally. While singleness may, at times, be a function of cultural shifts and an extended adolescence among some adults, no single person remains single outside of the sovereignty—and goodness—of God. We are eager to champion marriage as a gift, but is singleness not a gift also? And isn’t it typically true that both gifts exist in one person’s life at different stages?
I want to explore three ways in which we have functionally attempted to take singleness outside of the sovereignty of God—three ways we abuse singleness, devaluing it and setting it apart from its rightful place in Christian ministry.
In the American church, we too often treat singleness as:
1.) A “disease” which needs to be cured, and as soon as possible.
We may never say that word explicitly, but it’s often how we treat singleness if we’re honest. It’s as if we’ll say, “That poor soul isn’t well and we need to do whatever we can to fix it for them so that they can be happy, healthy, and whole.” I’m all for putting a single male and female together who could be a great pair for marriage. But seeing a single person and pitying them as a sad creature on that circumstantial basis alone, wanting to “fix” or “cure” their situation so they can start living for real, is another thing. The Spirit-filled apostle Paul wrote against this in the familiar passage of 1 Corinthians 7. It can truly damage how a single person views their own singleness (see #2) when enough people functionally behave this way without consistently speaking positively about all the many ministry benefits of singleness.
2.) A punishment for some failure.
The first point contributes significantly to the second. When those in your church culture constantly speak and behave as if being single is something which by its nature alone needs “fixing” as soon as possible, you begin to believe it yourself. You believe that something is incorrect about your station in life and, therefore, that it is not a God-ordained gift. From there, it’s an easy leap to believing another lie: “I did something that made God angry, or I’m not pure enough, and so He’s punishing me by not letting me have marriage.” Then, of course, in those moments, all the “perfect marriages” (another lie) surround you at every turn, whether in person or on social media. Perhaps, then, you begin to wallow and become the “sad creature” everyone is trying to fix, rather than the eternity-minded disciple/disciple-maker you, as a single, are especially free to be.
3.) The purgatory to marriage’s “heaven.”
Because we mentally augment what we want but don’t have, when we see ourselves as having something wrong with us, we become comparative almost immediately. We see married people as more confident. We see the happy faces that are put on in public – the radiant wife and handsome husband. We see the holding hands and smiling, and the happy little kid(s). We see the facades that are Instagram and Facebook profiles. Then, combining that comparison with a belief that there’s something “wrong with me” as a single in contrast, it’s tempting then to worship Almighty Marriage. “If only God would let me have that, then I’d ____ (be happy, sin less, be more useful to the church, have direction in my life). But until then, I’m in this holding cell of singleness and the clock is ticking.” Essentially, we begin living for marriage as some folks also live for retirement or money. Once I get there, that’s when everything will finally be okay.
What we should say is that singleness is none of these things. The views listed above are absolutely and diametrically opposed to the view of singleness we have from the Bible. It is possible—and further, obedient—to be content and a faithful contributor in ministry as a single while still desiring marriage. It took me years of unlearning to truly realize this and behave in a way that demonstrated it.
If God has placed the opportunity for marriage before you, then prayerfully, intentionally, and quickly move to receive that gift! However, let us have the eternal perspective to see that singleness, too is useful and good in the allotted time. Too often, I have heard, “I don’t have the gift of singleness.” We don’t mean “gift” when we say it this way; we really mean “burden.” But in fact, everyone has the gift of singleness at some time in their lives, even if most singles ultimately are given the gift of marriage as well. Singleness may be a relatively brief gift, but a gift nonetheless. So, when I’ve spoken with younger men about struggles with singleness, I tell them: “Brother, you may only have six more months of singleness, or a year, or three, or ten. That may be all you get for the rest of your life to be singly focused on ministry in and for the church. How do you want to remember that time?”
The clock is ticking, but not in the selfish ways to which we’ve become slaves.
Let’s get real: our affections in this culture are so consumed with sex and personal intimacy (both good things in the marriage context) that we are not even considering the better, more satisfying relationship and beauty we have available to us in Christ, and toward which the intimacy of marriage is pointing us anyway. We’ve set our gaze away from the true heaven and desired a lesser one. All the while we are missing what is right in front of our face: eternity is coming, and we have a unique opportunity in singleness to be unleashed for Kingdom purposes. So maybe, just maybe, a person is single right now because God is going to uniquely use them in ways a married person couldn’t even dream. I hope to see the church at-large, including singles themselves, viewing singleness as a blessed opportunity, or gift. I’d love for us to see singleness for what it really is: a God-given, calculated, war-time weapon for the benefit of souls and the glory of Christ.