About 35% of adult church members in Britain are single, so clearly the subject of singleness is of considerable personal interest to many people in our churches.
Each single person will have a slightly different experience of singleness. There are age differences: being single at 20 is very different from being single at 30, 40 or 70. There are circumstantial differences: some have never married, others are divorcees, widows or widowers. And there are experiential differences: some have chosen to be single and are basically content; others long to be married and feel frustrated. What does the Bible say to all these people?
1: Singleness is a gift from God
So much in our society is structured around couples. It is often just assumed that adults will have a partner and that there is something rather odd about them if they do not for any period of time. Oscar Wilde summed up the view of many: ‘Celibacy is the only known sexual perversion.’
There is nothing new in this negative view of celibacy. In the first century, Rabbi Eleazar said: ‘Any man who has no wife is no proper man.’ The Talmud went even further: ‘The man who is not married at twenty is living in sin.’ Given that background, it is astonishing how positive the New Testament is about singleness. Paul speaks of it as a ‘gift’ (1 Corinthians 7:7), and Jesus says that it is good ‘for those to whom it has been given’ (Matthew 19:11).
A friend of mine once belonged to a church group for young adults, which had the name: ‘Pairs and Spares’! Single people can be made to feel like spare parts in their families, social groups and churches. One man was fed up with being asked ‘Are you still single?’ so he began to respond with, ‘Are you still married?’ We must resist the implication that singleness is second best. The Bible does not say so. Marriage is good, but so is singleness: it has been ‘given’ to some.
Marriage is good, but so is singleness: it has been ‘given’ to some.
But what if I do not think that I have the ‘gift’ of singleness? I do not find it easy being on my own and I long to marry; does that mean that I am experiencing ‘second best’? The answer is ‘No’. When Paul speaks of singleness as a gift, he is not speaking about a particular ability that some people have to be contentedly single. He is speaking rather of the state of being single. For as long as you have it, that is a gift from God, just as marriage will be God’s gift if you ever receive it. We should receive our situation in life, whether it is singleness or marriage, as a gift of God’s grace to us.
2: Singleness has advantages
Paul mentions two advantages of singleness in 1 Corinthians 7:
- Single people are spared the ‘troubles’ of marriage. There are many great blessings in marriage, but there are difficulties too. Understandably, Christian couples do not often talk openly about the hard things they face, which can give those who are single a rose-tinted view of marriage. But there is a downside, even when a couple’s relationship is good. Life is more complicated for those who are married. There is more than one person to consider in decisions about use of time, accommodation, holidays, and even the daily menu. And there is more than one person to worry about. Children bring great pleasure, but plenty of anxiety as well. Marriage does bring ‘many troubles in this life’ and, says Paul, ‘I want to spare you this’ (1 Corinthians 7:28). He mentions these troubles here chiefly because of the bearing they have on the next point.
- Single people are able to devote themselves to God’s work: ‘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 this world – how he can please his wife – and his interests are divided’ (1 Corinthians 7:32-34). A very important part of the Christian responsibility of people who are married is to care for their spouse and children. That should take time – time that cannot therefore be spent in witnessing to people, helping out on a camp, doing the church finances or leading a Bible study. Single people have more time to give to such things. It is no coincidence that many activities in church life depend to a large extent on those who are not married. A few consciously choose to stay single to devote themselves to Christian work. Most single people have not chosen singleness in that way and yet they have just the same advantages as those who have. Instead of focusing on the difficulties of being single, as some do, we should all make the most of the advantages of God’s gift of singleness while we have it.
3: Singleness is hard
When God saw Adam on his own in the Garden of Eden, he said:, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him’ (Genesis 2:18). So Eve was created to meet Adam’s need for companionship, and the two came together in the lifelong, sexual relationship of marriage. Although the New Testament is positive about singleness, there is no doubt that marriage is regarded as the norm. It is God’s loving gift to humanity, and is the chief context in which our desire for intimacy is met. Single people are therefore likely to struggle with loneliness and sexual temptation. Those struggles are certainly not exclusive to the unmarried, but they are very much a part of the single condition. Some will seek to lessen them by getting married. Others will either choose not to marry or will feel unable to because of their circumstances, personality or sexual orientation. They are likely to face a lifelong battle with loneliness and sexual temptation.
We are not designed to be on our own and if we are not to be married we should seek to satisfy our need for intimacy in other relationships.
Those two battles are closely related. The more lonely we are, the more likely we are to struggle with sexual fantasy and fall into sin. We need to be proactive in helping ourselves in these areas. We are not designed to be on our own and if we are not to be married, whether in the short or long term, we should seek to satisfy our need for intimacy in other relationships. That will mean taking the initiative in keeping in close contact with friends and family. And we must be self-disciplined in ‘fleeing from sexual immorality’ (1 Corinthians 6:18). It often helps to have one or two close friends to whom we are accountable in this area.
4: Singleness is not permanent
Many of those who are presently single will subsequently marry. Others will remain single throughout their lives. But no Christian is single for ever. Human marriage is a reflection of the marriage God wants to enjoy with his people for ever. The Bible speaks of Jesus as the bridegroom, who will one day return to take his bride, the Church, to be with him in the perfect new creation. On that day all pain will disappear, including the pain of a difficult marriage or singleness. God will wipe away every tear from our eyes and a great shout will be heard: ‘Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready’ (Revelation 7:17; 19:7). After we had spoken about heaven, an elderly single lady said to me: ‘I can’t wait for my wedding day!’ We should all share the same hope. And we can already experience something of that intimate marriage with Christ here on earth by the work of the Spirit in our lives. Human relationships do matter, but none is nearly as important as our eternal relationship with Christ.
A final word to those who are single:
- Thank God for the gift of singleness. Whatever your experience of singleness, recognise it as a gift from God and make the most of it for as long as you have it.
- Do all you can to be godly. It is very easy for those who are single to lapse into a selfish, self-centred lifestyle and into sexual sin, whether in thought or deed. Be self-disciplined and accountable to others.
- Keep your eyes fixed on heaven. It is our eternal relationship with Christ that ultimately matters.
A final word to those who are married:
- Do not think of singleness as second best. Christian preacher and author John Chapman spoke of friends taking him for long walks telling him he should be married. He commented: ‘It would have been a great help if they had read the Bible wouldn’t it?’
- Remember that your family is the whole church. There should be no lonely people in our church. We need to be opening up our homes to one another and relating to one another not just in the nuclear family, but in the church family.
- Keep your eyes fixed on heaven. Human marriage matters, but it will not last for ever (Mark 12:25). Our relationship with Christ must come first.