Gary has mental and physical health problems that mean he can’t work. He lives by himself in council housing. 1
Farnaz is an asylum seeker from Iran who has been housed with five other asylum seekers from Africa. They don’t have a common language, and she doesn’t know anyone else in the UK.
Beryl is a house-bound widow in her 80s struggling with illness and loneliness.
Ian is divorced and has sole responsibility for bringing up his daughter as well as trying to write a PhD thesis.
There are as many experiences of singleness as there are single people. Some people enjoy being single and find that it gives them many opportunities that they wouldn’t have if they were married. But many people find singleness tough for all sorts of reasons. A number of my single friends are on state benefits, can’t drive, are struggling to make ends meet, don’t have family nearby, or don’t speak much English. Many of them are asking the question ‘Is singleness really a blessing to me?’.
Is there some benefit that every unmarried person can enjoy regardless of individual circumstances?
Much of the material about singleness that I’ve read talks about benefits of singleness that only apply to certain groups of people. Yes, some people might enjoy greater independence, the ability to go on holiday with whoever they want, more time or money and freedom of choice of career, but that’s not the reality for many others. So, is there something that’s universally good about singleness? Is there some benefit that every unmarried person can enjoy regardless of individual circumstances?
Freedom from and freedom for
One of the most helpful passages to consider is 1 Corinthians 7:32–35:
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 this 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.
Paul highlights two important blessings that singleness brings. Firstly, there is freedom from the affairs of the world and pleasing one’s spouse. When marriage is done properly, it requires a huge amount of self-sacrifice and commitment to honouring and serving the other person. Someone who is married rightly has to focus on those relationships, but this can have a detrimental effect on their relationship with God, and with other friends. I have married friends who never get a moment’s peace and are lucky if they manage to grab five minutes to pray in the loo. I have to say that I’m glad that’s not my experience. Problems such as illness and job insecurity are multiplied as there are more people to be affected. Being a long-term carer for someone who is terminally ill is a very hard calling, and yet that is what happens to many married people. A constantly divided attention is the married person’s reality.
The second side of Paul’s teaching here is that the unmarried person has freedom for undivided devotion to the Lord. A single person has the amazing privilege of pursuing greater intimacy with Jesus. This is huge! If the whole point of life is to know and enjoy God forever, then singleness can give us more opportunities to pursue this ultimate meaning. We can be ‘greedy for God’ in a more focussed way than others who have their priorities divided.
A single person has the amazing privilege of pursuing greater intimacy with Jesus.
We see this in Paul’s own ministry. Would the early church even have got off the ground if Paul had had to spend more time tent-making to support a wife and children and if his travelling was restricted? Jesus is the ultimate example of someone who was single-minded about the Lord’s business. The cost of singleness to the original recipients of Paul’s letter was probably higher than it is for us today and it certainly would not have come with modern middle-class blessing, and yet it was worth it for the extraordinary privilege of carrying a life-changing gospel to a hurting world.
There are lesser-known characters who have made their singleness count for the kingdom in remarkable ways. Anna, for example, was married for seven years and widowed until she was 84. She devoted herself to worship, prayer and fasting and had the amazing privilege of being able to welcome the long-awaited Messiah (Luke 2:36-38).
Jeremiah is another example of someone who was devoted to the Lord and faced loneliness with the confidence that he was called and equipped by God (Jeremiah 1:1-9) and supported by other people (Jeremiah 38:7-13).
Marriage won’t automatically make everything better
So, singleness does offer unique blessings to everyone, but it’s still tempting to think that we’d be better off if we were married. Our culture often presents marriage as a panacea—the key to resolving all our difficulties and struggles. We see countless adverts, memes, films and TV shows with happy couples and families, but there aren’t many positive single role models. No wonder we sometimes think that everything would be better if only we were in a relationship.
The reality is that marriage doesn’t mean an end to poverty, loneliness, unfulfillment and illness. As we saw earlier, it often even brings more stresses and pressures, such as having to make income stretch further to provide for children or having to navigate conflict within the home. We don’t often hear from married people about the difficulties they face, but we need to constantly remind ourselves that for many people, a lot of the time marriage is tough. Marriage and singleness are both gifts with their different benefits, but they’re both hard work too.
Singleness is good but isolation isn’t
If singleness is meant to be a blessing, why are many people unhappy being single? Let’s be honest—singleness as it is experienced by many in 21st century Britain isn’t good. That’s because, in our individualistic society, singleness often means aloneness. We are relational beings made by our creator God for intimacy with him and other people (Genesis 2:18). God doesn’t want anyone to be isolated or unloved (John 17:25-26).
Just like marriage, singleness is harder for some people than others. Singleness can also vary in difficulty at different points during our lives. I found periods of singleness really hard in my 20s and early 30s, but now that I’m in my 40s I’ve come to a point where I’m actually glad I’m not married. There are times when we can feel very isolated in our singleness and these are often times when we yearn for a romantic or sexual relationship. But God has provided for our needs for intimacy to be met in lots of ways. Whatever our circumstances, we can be fulfilled as a single, celibate person.
The church is our true family
When we become Christians, we are adopted into a whole new family. We have brothers and sisters, aunties and uncles, mums and dads, sons and daughters, grannies and grandads. As it says in Psalm 68:8, ‘God sets the lonely in families’.
The church family is the place we belong (Romans 12:5), the place where we can be known and loved (John 13:35). It’s the place where we can give and receive love and use our gifts (1 Corinthians 12). In a sense, none of us is ‘single’. None of us is a unit of one. We are all part of a much bigger family. We know that we often fail to live up to this ideal and we let one another down, but the local church has to be the place where the radically counter-cultural gospel is lived out.
The local church has to be the place where the radically counter-cultural gospel is lived out.
So, here’s the challenge to all of us unmarried people— are we going to invest our singleness in a greater devotion to Jesus and his ways? And are we all going to invest in meaningful Christian community where we belong to one another and carry each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2)? For all of us to thrive, we need to commit to biblical teaching, sharing communion, praying and worshipping together, meeting frequently, sharing possessions, generously giving to one another, practising hospitality, eating together and being thankful. (see Acts 2:42-46).
- Names have been changed but the circumstances are real.