3 almost helpful attitudes to singleness
Number one: “If it makes you feel better, marriage is hard too…”
19 JULY 2020 · 11:00 CET
Photo: Paulius Dragunas, Unsplash, CC0
One Saturday a couple of years ago I found myself on the dance floor at a wedding with Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” blaring out of the speakers. My initial response to it was a surge of sass, as is the norm when Queen B drops the beat, but as I glanced around the sense of empowerment quickly fizzled away and my enthusiasm waned: the whole circle I was with consisted of couples- young, young couples, who all - sheepishly, awkwardly- ended up looking my way. Everyone smiled and clapped and we all did 'the dance', but instead of feeling liberated, I felt ashamed.
For me, shame is a large component of my battle with singleness, especially as I get older. When I was in my mid-twenties I wore my singleness with pride. If you dug a little you would have found anxiety and the lurking suspicion that maybe my relationship status would be permanent, but nonetheless I would have been front, centre and singing on the dance floor.
All this to say that my experience of singleness has changed as the years have gone by. Over the past few months, I’ve been coming to terms with the fact that marriage is a very real uncertainty. I realised that I was finding this extraordinarily hard to accept: looking at a future without marriage in it seemed like something I couldn’t cope with, and having spoken openly about it, I know I am not the only one. But that seemed absurd to me, given what the Bible says about who Christians are, what they're made for, who they are known by! I am more than a conqueror, I am part of a royal priesthood, I am an heir... and yet I'm not worthy if I'm not married? Please. Jesus did not come so that I could hitch my entire identity, hope for the future and joy on some mortal man!
Given this, why have I, at times, felt so distressed by the prospect of singleness? I have been trying to unpick what the attitudes are that have made facing the future single feel so shameful and implausible. There's must be something askew somewhere, so what is it?
Some attitudes were easier to unpick than others. For example, those attitudes that helpfully suggested I “try going to the gym,” or casually quipped, “I bet you pray for a husband every day”, were cast aside lightly (or thrown in to the bin with great force). But there were some other attitudes that I think needed to be dealt with with a little more nuance, especially as they are often offered up as comforts to suffering singles. Although it is by no means exhaustive, I hope this post is helpful to married and single folk alike... and I am ready for the push back!
“If it makes you feel better, marriage is hard too…”
What I like about this is that it is true: marriage is hard. Having seen many, many, many friends get married, I can testify with both hands (is that a thing?), that marriage is difficult with a capital D! It exposes sin and selfishness, it’s humiliating, it’s exhausting, it's painful and it’s a fricking miracle! Seriously married people: go book yourself in for some celebratory Valentine's wine. Praise God for his grace when he makes it work! I like the helpful challenge this attitude presents to the idolatry of assuming marriage will be a "happily ever after".
What I like less about this attitude is that, because I’m not a psychopath, the suffering of my married friends does not bring me comfort. I want to take the suffering of my married friends seriously, and I don’t think it would be compassionate or kind or sensible or helpful to say, “well, you should try being single!” Marriage is hard. Singleness is hard. Marriage has the potential to be the solution to some of the problems that there are with singleness. Singleness has the potential to be the solution to some of the problems that there are with marriage. Given this, dismissing one with the other does not help!
“This is God’s best for you.”
What I like about this statement is that it acknowledges the fundamental truth behind every person’s singleness: God is Sovereign. If you are single, the reason you are so is because God is working his purpose out, and for now, part of his purpose is this. This means you can stop worrying about whether you are single because of your appearance, your weight, your personality, your history, your circumstances, your mistakes, your fussiness- because even if those factors are… factors, over all those things, God is Sovereign. All the days ordained for you were written in God’s book before one of them came to be. I also like it because it acknowledges that God is good, it aims to communicate God's care for me, and it begins to testify to the truth that God is at work to bring about ultimate good in all things.
What I don’t like about it is that it’s not a Biblical phrase, and as such is slightly clumsy theology.
I have a basic test for such soundbites that goes: “is it true for every Christian in every place?” For example, I would find it an inexpressibly inadequate thing to say to a Christian in a work camp in North Korea, and an outright offensive thing to say a Christian whose child just died of cancer. I am not denying God's Sovereignty or his goodness. Yes, the Lord reigns. Yes, all suffering has a purpose. Yes, God will redeem. But redemption comes with the acknowledgement that things are broken. Death camps are bad. Cancer is bad. Sin is bad. Loneliness is bad.
God’s best for us was Eden, and God’s best for us will be the new creation. But in the meantime, we suffer, because the world is not as it should be. And part of the wretchedness of the world’s brokenness is that the curse is uneven. Some people have it worse than others: suffering isn’t handed out in even batches- it's irrational and disproportionate and terrible. Evidently I am not saying here that I think singleness is the worst of all sufferings- far from it! I am just making the general point that this "God's best" attitude can be short-hand in a way that I have not found particularly helpful…
The Lord redeems: it is his glory that this is his work. I’ve been reading Ruth recently, which is a powerful story of redemption. Naomi loses her husband and sons, and yet God brings her from a place of loss to a place where she becomes the grandmother of King David. It is a powerful, beautiful and gracious redemption. But Ruth’s baby didn’t “replace” the lost sons: that's not how redemption works. There was redemption, but there was also brokenness, and still grief. In this world, Naomi still had to carry the brokenness of her son’s premature deaths. One day that brokenness would be healed forever, but not in Ruth 4.
Single people suffer in singleness because the world is broken (and because the church doesn’t always function in the way it should- more on this later!) and "God's best" can undermine that.
The glorious news is that God is working powerfully in all things for good, shaping his children in to the likeness of Jesus. And as with Jesus, suffering now means glory later. So if the attitude behind “this is God’s best for you” is actually, “God is achieving for you glory that will far outweigh all the brokenness you suffer now, because he is an incredible redeemer who is delighted by how you’re honouring him by persevering in suffering”, then it’s a glorious attitude. But maybe we need to qualify!
“Maybe God is teaching contentment in Jesus…”
What I like about this statement is that it is acknowledging the reality that God is at work in our character at all times and that he loves for us to find refuge in Him. It points to the glory and sufficiency of Jesus and to the fact that God cares about both our holiness and our happiness.
What I don’t like about it…
Firstly, it is dangerously close to, Peggy (for example, name inspired by photo from Peggy's Cove) saying, “I found someone when I learned to be content.”
As my friend once courageously pointed out at a hen do where she'd heard a few too many 'aw you deserve it' statements: “marriage is not a reward for good behaviour.” The gospel reminds us that none of our blessings are a reward for our goodness. Marriage is a gift! A glorious, generous gift- so it is unhealthy to make it sound like it is something that is earned by contentment, or maybe some other attitude of godliness. This lands you on a trail of misery where you think you will be married once you are more (or less) of XY and Z. But, as with all goodnessess from the Lord, marriage is something that comes from grace- an exceptional gift in a broken world- that demonstrates the power of the cross, not something that comes once you’ve chalked up enough godliness points.
So when we clap engagement announcements in church (for example) it is a celebration of God’s generosity rather than an applauding of someone’s achievements. And boy is God generous!
(As a brief aside/ sass at Peggy... it is wonderful if Peggy learned contentment aged 25. But there are probably many single people who had long periods of contentment when they were 25 too- but when 26, 27, 30, 40 tick over, they had to learn to battle with it again: another round of shame, of changing friendships, of joy in their friends joy. It is different being single when all your closest friends are married to being single when all your closest friends are also single! So though Peggy might feel that the narrative was that her marriage came from her contentment… perhaps her discontentment was satisfied by marriage.)
But more importantly, finding singleness painful is not the same as being discontent. It may be that the very fact of someone's singleness is a sign of their contentment in Jesus. It may be painful, but it is accompanied by perseverance. They could drop the whole shebang and go find any old partner (though the Holy Spirit would be on their case), but they haven’t. They've stuck it out trusting God and said- I’m suffering, but Jesus is worth it.
One more time: finding singleness painful is not the same as being discontent. It's a sign of being human. Humans were made for community. That was God’s plan. The reason singleness can feel hard to bear is not because of an insecure relationship with God, but because it's hard to conceive of what community will look like apart from marriage. In my twenties it was clearer, because we all hung out together, but what about when all of my close friends are paired off in to new units?* Jesus and I both know that I need other humans. That's what the church is for!
[I should say here that I am incredibly thankful to friends I know who have made me feel part of their families and lives, because that is what has made singleness seem like a more plausible option.]
To take it further, I recently realised, with some alarm, that I would be theoretically willing to jet off to Siberia... or Antarctica... or the moon with a man I loved, even if I knew only him, because it seemed that marriage would offer me a more stable covenant community than life in the place I've lived for the past eight years has! Realising that willingness (ahem... desperation?) in myself helped me see there is something skewed about the way church community is functioning (and I don't mean my specific church, just our culture in general!), and the reason singleness feels sad is not necessarily because single people are being ungodly, but because they're being human. Humans are made for human family, made to live life alongside other people, made for interdependence.
So yes, God may be teaching a single person contentment. But that doesn't mean their singleness won't hurt. And yes, there are blessings with singleness. Very, very many. (Including being able to still own the dance floor with Queen B when the occasion arises!). But there is also pain.
As Christians, single, married, divorced, bereaved, we can be perplexed, persecuted, hard-pressed, struck down and always carrying around in us the death of Jesus, and still be content. Being content in Jesus means looking the suffering full in the face and then looking up and saying, “Jesus, I see the cost, but you’re worth it. You're with me, and you're worth it.”
So instead of the attitude, “maybe God is teaching you contentment,” it might be better if... (and I don't think there's an easy fix here, so please excuse the enormous leap...) the church operated more like a family, so that singleness doesn't feel like being shut out, and marriage doesn't feel like being shut in. What we want is for marriages to overflow with love that welcomes in the widows, orphans and singles, and for singles to serve their married friends with the love that trusts Jesus' promise it is better to give than to receive. I have no idea how to change this, but I'd like it to change!
Waiting for Glory!
Jesus came to be a hope to those who had no earthly reason to hope. He came to build a loving community out of sinners and to make himself known by their love for one another. He came to enable us to suffer and rejoice, until all things are made new in the new creation and ultimate community! Yes! And it's my prayer that whatever our relationship status, we'll help make being human better for one another, and in doing so, make the glory of Jesus known.
Those thoughts will do for now. I hate posting about singleness, but people love to read about it. So, here is my gift to you. Yours to me could be some kind of acknowledgement you've read? There's something unnerving about silent readers, especially on this issue.
Philippa Wilson is a teacher from the UK. She writes at her blog A Certain Brightness. This article was re-published with permission.
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