ONE is a Whole Number
The most natural thing in the world is to want to love and be loved; to marry and have a family. It’s part of the Divine Design ordained before time began and instituted at its most perfect level in the Garden of Eden. “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him’” says Genesis 2:18. With my tongue somewhat in cheek I remind people on occasion that God was talking to men here, and not to women: it was never, “It is not good for the woman to be alone …” But seriously, God meant for people to be in families — even singles — men and women. “God sets the lonely in families,” says Psalm 68:6. Given that anyone can be lonely even with a spouse and family, the “lonely” can be applied to all of us whatever our marital status — we all need connection, especially if we are going to fulfill God’s great design for our lives.
A short discussion on marriage is foundational to our understanding of singleness.
Apart from the obvious purposes of companionship and intimacy, marriage was meant:
1. For the Propagation of the race.
“Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth’” says Genesis 9:1. We’ve done really well at this part of the process and would probably do well to slow down, if not actually stop.
2. To illustrate the relationship of Christ and the believer to a lost world.
Everything that God does is missional in nature. Everything He does is meant to show lost people what they can, through faith, have in Him and with Him. I believe that marriage is meant to be an illustration to a lost world demonstrating to that world how much He loves humanity and wants to restore the relationship lost when sin entered.
Paul’s argument about marriage is built around this idea that marriage is an illustration of the believer’s relationship to Christ. A lot of female hackles get raised at these verses, but we need to understand why Paul said them: He wanted Christians to be missional in their marriages — husbands to act like Christ, wives to act as believers in relationship to Christ!
“Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” (Ephesians 5:24)
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25)
“In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself” (Ephesians 5:28)
NEWS FLASH: We are not on the planet for self-gratification! Marriage is missional. That’s what we should be looking for if we are contemplating marriage: how best to use our marriage to reach a lost world. And since an unbelieving spouse is not able to model the relationship of Christ to the believer or the believer to Christ, it is not a good idea to marry a non-Christian. More on that later.
Marriage is God’s plan for the majority: “Marriage is honourable in all.” (Hebrews 13:4)
However, having said that marriage is part of God’s mission to reach a lost world and part of His divine design for the majority, being single is equally part of His plan to reach a lost world.
I believe there are three very important issues at stake when we think about singleness:
1. Being single within His will, is Biblical and therefore a blessed state just as marriage within His will is a blessed state.
2. Being single is not an indication of being second-class.
3. God can be trusted with the “Please check marital status box” of our lives.
WHAT JESUS SAID ABOUT SINGLENESS
Matthew 19:11-12 (NIV)
11 Jesus replied, "Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
Notice the situation. The subject, according to the context, is divorce. Jesus has just affirmed Moses’ practice of allowing divorce under certain circumstances. However He has also said that divorce isn’t His perfect plan because it doesn’t reflect the relationship that should exist between Christ and the believer. So the disciples say: “Well, if we can’t get rid of the bothersome creatures when they nag or burn the toast, what’s the point to getting married?” It would appear from their attitude that divorce had become a common practice.
The Lord takes their remarks, and uses them to launch into the subject of singleness as mission.
1. Some people are born to be single. For some of us, human companionship and intimacy are not essentials of life.
2. Some people are “forced” into it. Back in history, men were castrated so that they could be put in charge of a king’s harem and the king would have to worry about them getting any “ideas.” The trouble was that you couldn’t castrate the emotional needs! Some people know they wouldn’t make good spouses. Because of their own life experiences, backgrounds, up-bringing, physical or emotional reasons, these people would not be able to provide what a life- partner would need in the intimate relationship of marriage.
3. Some people choose not to marry because of mission. These people could, and perhaps want to marry, but know that they can’t be missional in the way in which God wants them to be missional within a marriage relationship. Marriage is meant to be missional but some aspects of mission are better carried out outside of the marriage context.
The key here is the Lord’s statement: “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given … the one who can accept this should accept it”. A.T. Robertson commenting on Matthew 19:11 writes: “…a voluntary renunciation of marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. (Deuteronomy 12) … Jesus recognizes the severity of the demand as going beyond the capacity of all but a select number.” This dovetails with Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 1:7: “But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.” If you can’t control your passions, you should marry. I suspect the Paul made this statement in a slightly “tongue-in-cheek” manner — he was always preaching on the need to be self-controlled and that anything that controls us is our Master, and nothing or no one should by our master except God. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 10:5: “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (emphasis mine)
So the Lord suggests that all three areas: born to be, forced to be, or chosen to be; require acceptance — not simply conformity to the state of singleness because you don’t have a choice, but a commitment to the state as necessary to mission while you are in it.
Our Lord was familiar with the challenges of the single state. Hebrews 4:15 says: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet was without sin.” Whatever we face as singles, He faced as a single, and having faced it, He set an example for us to follow, and showed us that there is no temptation which cannot be overcome.
When we go to Paul’s writings we find other instructions that help us understand the gift of singleness. 1 Corinthians 7 is perhaps the best passage that defines Paul’s advice on the subject.
We have to remember that Paul, and the rest of the believing world, were expecting the return of the Lord at any moment. They were also very conscious that persecution and death awaited them as a very present reality in the Roman world. We might be tempted to dismiss Paul’s teaching because the circumstances we live in are different — or are they? We are still expecting the Lord’s return at any time - or should be. We don’t talk (or sing) about heaven or His imminent return much anymore — an absence which might have something to do, I suspect, with us being overly attached to the world we live in. We know that in many parts of the world believers are being persecuted but most of us don’t live that reality in our own daily lives. However, as we as a nation move farther and farther away from Biblical truth and righteous living, we should expect that God will send us the purifying agent of persecution, even within the comfort zone of North America. Paul’s words shouldn’t be dismissed — we are living the same reality as the believers in the early church.
Because he expected both persecution and the Lord’s imminent return, Paul chose not to marry and encouraged others to follow his lead, not because there was anything wrong with marriage, but because of the circumstances the church was facing: “…it is good for a man not to marry. But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband …” (1 Corinthians 7:1, 2). Later he writes: “I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” (1 Corinthians 7:7-9)
Paul is nothing if not detailed. He continues in 1 Corinthians 7 with counsel which covers just about every possible scenario, including the instruction that those who are married should live as though they weren’t, because “this world in its present form is passing away.” In Paul’s mind, because of the persecution the church could expect, the Lord’s return and all that needed to be done for the kingdom, even those who were married were to live with Mission as their first priority.
He expands on this reasoning by saying: “I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of the world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 7:32-35)
Paul urged that marriage be a living example of Christ’s relationship to the believer. But given the times and circumstances he also urged believers to be, as Jesus stated, eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom.
The question which immediately comes to mind, and which can only be answered individually is: “what difference would this kind of kingdom living make to my current relationships?”
Some words of advice:
1. If you have no need to marry (you are able to turn your passions over to God’s control and not allow them to dominate your live), don’t marry. To marry just because your parents, your peers or your culture demand that you conform to their rules will only make you and any partner miserable. In spite of the fact there are more singles on the planet than ever before, our culture still feels more comfortable with the “husband, wife and two kids” idea. Many still believe that to be “normal”, a person must marry. But though it might be the norm for the majority, marriage is not a sign of normality any more than being single is a sign of abnormality.
2. Never marry a non-Christian. It violates every principle of Scripture and does not do what marriage was intended to do: illustrate the relationship between Christ and a believer before a lost world. The classic scripture (among others) is 2 Corinthians 6:14f: “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? … What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? …” You may have many things in common, but if you don’t have Christ in common with this person you are thinking of marrying, you are outside of the will of God.
3. If you want to marry, and should marry because God hasn’t given you the gift of singleness, but because of the scars of your past you are afraid or repulsed: Get help. Maybe circumstances will end up making you one of those “forced” to be a eunuch, maybe they won’t — you won’t know until the wounds have been healed and forgiveness given and received.
4. If you decide not to marry, do it for the right reasons — because God has given you the gift for the sake of the kingdom.
Biblically, ONE is a WHOLE NUMBER. But how do we live as that WHOLE NUMBER.
1. A HEALTHY IMAGE
People spend fortunes making themselves more attractive. Sometimes they do it in order to feel better about themselves. Oftentimes, they do it to attract and maintain the attention of the opposite sex. Sooner or later, we discover two brutal truths about “sex appeal”: a) no amount of external adjustments are anything more than temporary “fixes”: a pill that deals with the pain for eight hours, but doesn’t cure the problem; and b) appearances deceive. A relationship based on them is eventually doomed to disappointment.
How we feel about ourselves needs to be based on our relationship with God. When we become totally secure in His love, we also come to understand that He is sufficient — that in every respect, we need no one else. This doesn’t mean we don’t have other people in our lives; it means we don’t need others to supply ultimate satisfaction and fulfillment in our lives. When we come to that understanding, we begin to exercise to please Him, we dress to please Him, our lifestyle is based on how we do kingdom business, and not to impress anyone but Him. Begin to develop a relationship with God today which would sustain you tomorrow if you were locked away in solitary confinement. Then, no matter if your personal relationships grow and strengthen, or weaken and die, you will always be secure in yourself because you are secure in Christ.
When we are secure in Him, fulfilled in Him, living to please Him in all we are and do, then we are free from the curse of the “something-must-be-wrong-with-me-because-I’m-still-single” syndrome. We actually become more marriageable to the right kind of people — the ones who see beyond the external and truly value us for “us” — when we have a healthy, godly image of ourselves. If someone doesn’t love us completely and unconditionally just the way we are, “in the raw”, then they don’t love us enough for us to attach ourselves to them for life. That’s the way God’s loves us — just as we are, in the “raw”.
That, of course, does not mean that we don’t work on the “raw”, that we let ourselves go “to seed”, or demonstrate the attitude that “I’m not going to change; people just have to accept me the way I am”. We, as believers, exist and live to please God, and to be credible instruments of mission to a lost world, so nothing less than being the best we can be is demanded of us.
A crucial beginning point to a healthy self-image is spending quality and quantity time with the One aptly described in the old hymn as “Jesus, Lover of my soul.” * There is nothing like spending time with the One you love to give you a glow on your face, joy in your heart and a spring in your step.
2. RESISTING TEMPTATION
In our world temptations abound, fueled by the sometimes dubious advantages which access to information technology bring us. Oftentimes there is little difference between the temptations married people face and those faced by singles. Resisted successfully, facing temptation makes us spiritually stronger — which is the purpose God has in allowing it to touch our lives in the first place.
God tests us to make us stronger. When He allows Satan to conduct the test, we call it temptation. But never forget that God permits all that crosses our path, whatever its source, for our good and His glory. God, in Christ, was tempted in all the areas it is possible for us to be tempted in. He didn’t sin, and we don’t have to either. We are told that “no temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)
But just because He doesn’t send any test our way that we can’t resist because of Him, He doesn’t expect us to go looking for trouble!
Some Guidelines on Resisting Temptation
a. Avoid anything that feeds desires that cannot be fulfilled legitimately. These could include websites, chat rooms, books, movies, associations with people, places, and activities. Some things can’t be avoided — they are simply “there” — which makes the following suggestions that much more important.
b. Fill your mind with God-things: “Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8). Replace every wrong thought with a right one. Don’t wait for the wrong thoughts to happen: Feed on the Word of God, understanding that in our spiritual lives as in our physical lives, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The resistance movement against the occupation of sin begins in the mind. Our minds need to be our first line of defense.
c. Commit yourself to time daily with Him. A relationship thrives on intimacy. Our relationship with Christ is sufficient and because He is our only sufficiency, that relationship should be a priority in our lives. But it won’t thrive unless we spent time with Jesus, Who is the Lover of our souls. In the tug and pull of our daily routine, we need to carry His image in our minds and hearts as much as a man carries the pictures of his wife and kids in his wallet. With His image in view, it will become impossible NOT to remember our Lover during each activity of the day and in the face of every temptation.
d. Find someone to whom you can be accountable. God knows every thought and intent of our hearts. We need to cultivate the habit of talking to Him constantly throughout our day. But that intimate relationship with Him doesn’t preclude finding someone to whom we will be accountable and who is accountable to us. Resisting temptation is easier when it is a shared task. Ecclesiastes tells us: “Two are better than one … if one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls ad has no one to help him up! … Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:9, 10, 12). Obviously picking a person with whom to share our innermost struggles means finding someone who can be trusted. This person, you and God make an invincible team in resisting temptation.
e. Make a conscious decision as to who rules: you or your passions. When it comes right down to it, we all have to decide who rules in our lives: God or the emotional reactions which assault us at the most unexpected moments and through the most unexpected means. We are what we yield ourselves to, writes Peter in 2 Peter 2:19. We can choose to be slaves to Satan, or slaves to God: we all are slaves to someone! The bottom line is that WE choose our masters!
3. DOING THE WORK OF TWO
So Who DOES Fix The Plumbing?
I always wish I had a husband when the taps start to leak or the fridge goes on the fritz. I accept the fact that not all men are handy when it comes to repair work, but I’d sure like it if someone besides me would deal with the repairman! Over the years, I’ve picked up some very important skills: one of which is knowing something about plumbing before the repairman comes. Married or not, learn to do everything you can for yourself. There are too many widows, widowers and single parents who begin this “newly singled” phase of their lives in a state of total helplessness because they never expected to have to cook for themselves, do their own banking or the myriad of other things that used to take two, or at least be shared by two. Even never-marrieds don’t live the irresponsible lives they have been accused of living. Many of us hold down full time jobs, serve our churches and still have to do the laundry, clean house, get gas for the car, and repair the leaky faucets without anyone to share these tasks with.
Accept your limitations. Remember the verse from Psalm 68:6? “God sets the lonely in families.” I’m going to stretch that word “lonely” to mean the person who is facing responsibilities which are beyond their capacities. We all have our limitations and wholeness requires that we not try to be what we are not. Ask for help. That’s what the church family is for. Do you need a mother or father figure for your children? Look for one among the members of your congregation. Do you need someone to take your car into the garage so that you don’t get cheated? Ask someone in your congregation. Build relationships with your neighbours — ask for help, and give help to others as is possible within your means and appropriate to your circumstances. Not only will you be able to add strength to your areas of weakness, but you can build bridges of relationship that might allow you to do mission.
4. BEING PART OF A FAMILY
One of the greatest challenges to many singles is this issue of loneliness. One of the classics on this subject was written by Elizabeth Elliott and appropriately called, Loneliness. I also discovered this great quote in a novel called Calm Before The Storm by Janice Dick. She writes: “To be alone without being lonely, one must be comfortable with oneself.” This takes us back to the importance of a healthy self-image. If you don’t accept yourself, and don’t feel accepted and loved by God, you probably can’t stand your own company. The silence in your life gives you too much opportunity to think about yourself and all you consider to be “wrong” with your life. The silence of home is not a solace but a stigma: a reminder of whatever it is you think you need and don’t have. Such thinking is an offense to the God who gave Himself for you, loves you more than any human possibly could, and can supply every need. The strength of our relationship with God will determine the degree to which we can enjoy those times of solitude.
At the same time, we were made to be in relationship, even though that relationship might not be a marriage one. To promote good relationship was one of the reasons God established the church. Even when we might not have a blood family, or perhaps in spite of having a blood family, we always have a family in Christ no matter where we go on the face of the planet. Make good friends within your church family. Don’t wait for someone else to take the initiative: You do it!
Families aren’t perfect, not even the church kind. It is often hard for singles to be accepted into any other group that isn’t made up of other singles. People who are widowed or divorced often have an even harder time of it. Suddenly they don’t “fit” with the other couples with whom they and their partners once held close friendships. As well, our “institutionalization” of the church; dividing everyone up into neat little packages according to age, sex and status, has become our worst enemy. We have worked very hard to effectively kill community as it is described for us in Acts 2 when everyone was TOGETHER in everything.
Self-image comes into play again here. Married women often see single women as a threat. Perhaps that says something about their marriages and their own self-images. But it also provides a warning to those of us who are single to watch how we relate in groups, especially with the opposite sex. I work in a man’s world. Frankly, I am more comfortable most times relating to men because we do ministry on the same level. I don’t “do” kids and all those things that moms talk about and live for. But the rule has always been that in my relationships with my coworkers, I do not place myself in a compromising position with a coworker or friend. Where possible, my strongest relationship is with the wife even though circumstances might make it easier to build that strongest relationship with the husband. I have to build that wife up in her relationship with her husband, and even facilitate that relationship before she is going to feel comfortable with me around.
Don’t limit yourself to only having relationships with other singles. Be inclusive, not exclusive and build community with a diverse group. Live out Acts 2: all the believers TOGETHER. This demonstrates Christ to a fallen world — salvation may be exclusive, limited to those who accept it, but Christ was inclusive, ministering to all and dying for all.
5. YOUR REASON FOR BEING
All of us are here on this earth to do Mission. Contrary to popular opinion, none of us is here to “eat, drink and be merry”. That’s a happy sideline, if and when it falls to us, but it isn’t our reason for being. We are here to do mission: to live Christ before a dying world so that as many as possible in that world will come as we have come, to faith and new life in Him.
Someone deceived us into thinking that what God wants for us is our happiness. So we look for ways to be “happy” thinking that this is what life is all about. God doesn’t want us to be unhappy (another popular misconception of the Christian life!) but He knows, certainly better than we do, where the purest form of that happiness is to be found: in bringing glory to His Name by completing the mission He designed us to do before time began.
Wholeness in a broken world is found in being all we can be in Christ. Once our relationship with Him is secure, all the rest becomes a oxymoron, a contradiction. All the rest, including our deepest relationships, are enhanced; but at the same time, reduced to their true value. They are important, but not essential; they are sweet, but their absence doesn’t leave us bitter and forlorn; they are meaningful, but we can hold on to them lightly.
6. LIVING INTENTIONALLY
Intend to “succeed” in the single life.
Don’t live “temporarily” while you wait for Prince Charming or Sleeping Beauty to arrive on your doorstep. Buy that furniture, cook decent meals, decorate, do whatever it is that you need to do to take up permanent residence in your own life just as it is at this moment. Start out as you intend to go on. If you don’t plan to leave your underwear all over the bedroom floor in your married life, don’t do it now. If you didn’t do it in your married life, (like leaving your dirty underwear on the floor) don’t start it now that you are single.
Intend to enjoy the single life.
Take that trip. Enjoy that vacation. Invite a friend to travel with you. Whether you go accompanied or go alone, God travels with you. Go out or have yourself a fancy dinner, with candles and crystal, at home just for you — as the commercial says: “You’re worth it.” Treat yourself well. Eat well, keep yourself in shape. You matter because God said so, regardless of what anyone else has told you.
Intend to do mission with your single life.
If you have the gift of being single, even though it may only be temporarily, don’t waste it — use it for kingdom purposes.
It was the custom of one ladies group I know to read letters from the missionaries they supported. One afternoon at their meeting, they read a letter from a young single woman they supported in Bangladesh. She had been seriously considering returning home permanently. Her biological clock was ticking loudly and she felt that if she didn’t return to the states soon, she would never be able to marry in time to have children. She had decided to leave before Christmas but became so seriously ill that she was unable to travel. Shortly after Christmas, feeling better and needing some fresh air, she took a walk around the compound where she lived. As she walked, a man ran past her. He stopped and came back to where she was, then introduced himself. He had just recently come to Bangladesh and was a doctor at the hospital on the compound. One thing led to another and she was writing to say that she was engaged to be married! If she had gone home as she had planned, she might never have met the man God had for her.
I’m not saying that every single’s mission in life means a commitment to ministry overseas. But I am saying that no one needs to be afraid to miss God’s best for them by doing mission wholeheartedly wherever God calls.
The poor lemon has been sadly maligned. Somehow it got equated with with all the disasters of life: “I bought a lemon”, says the owner of a car that spends most of its time in the shop. Many have heard the famous anecdote which counters that phrase: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
I’d like you to think of being single as being much better than even lemonade. When you are tempted to consider singleness when given to you by God, as a “lemon”, one of those gifts you received for Christmas which you’d like to return the day after; think again. When God gives you this “lemon”, don’t think juice; think lemon meringue pie. Now that’s sweet!
God’s gifts are not acid in the belly and bitter on the tongue; His gifts are sweet treasures to be opened and used to complete His mission to rescue a lost world.
* Charles Wesley, 1740. This hymn was written while Wesley was escaping from a group of local ruffians bent on doing him physical harm during a preaching campaign.