When you think about it singlenesss is a funny thing. We are all born single and at least half of us will die single but often those who are single wonder how they got there. Some who are single feel they’re too young to settle down while others may feel they are too old to be alone. When people get older they start to ask questions like “what is wrong with me? Why does no one want me…?”
As a 32 year old single man, who had to do some thinking about it recently I thought I would share some thought that others found helpful and hopefully it will help me clarify some of my thinking.
A number of years ago I stopped reading singleness book (ok it’s not like I read loads) but it would seem to me they fall into two broad categories which we often do when we think of this issue.
1. Singleness is a burden that we need to rid ourselves off.
These are basically dating manuals or ways to encourage single people not to be too disheartened, I’ve been told although I am yet to read books for women, that here is where you find “Jesus is my husband” kind of thinking. We’ll come back to that, but the basic theology seems to be it is not good to be alone so if you are single, that is not good…get married. In the case of women they begin to think they are just not godly enough to warrant someone wanting to marry them and in the case of men, they are told that they just don’t take the initiative where they should. There may of course be truth in that but it can’t always be the case because nowhere in the Bible do we get that singleness is a sin or even the result of sin. In fact the big problem of this view is it’s hard to fit Paul’s positive view of singleness (1 Corinthians 7) with the burden mentality.
2. Singleness is the best thing.
Now the idea that singleness is the best thing seems to fit much better with Paul’s thinking but again there are problems. Although as we will see singleness is indeed a good thing and in some sense better than marriage, “the singleness is the best thing” often presents it as if we should all be going round thinking “thank goodness I am single who would want to get married”. Now this is problematic because most singles want to get married. So if singleness is the best thing why do I want something else? Enter the guilt problem again. Now as we will see we should indeed value singleness and disparage God’s good gift is indeed serious but this is not the same thing as saying the desire for marriage is bad. As we will see it is one thing to say that singleness is a good thing it is quite another to say it is the best things.
The Gift of Singleness
I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. (1 Cor 7:7)
What does Paul mean by each has his own gift? What is the gift of singleness? It is very common for people to say that the gift of singleness is an ability to remain single, which most people do not have. There are significant problems with this as Christopher Ash points out:
It is a common misunderstanding to think that I know whether I have the gift of singleness by whether or not I feel happy to be single. It is often said that only if I am quite content to be unmarried and really experience no strong sexual urges or other desires for marriage, only then can I say I have this gift. And if I don’t feel content like this, then I should get married if I can.
This idea that the gift equates to the desire is wrong, for two reasons. First, if we apply the same reasoning the other way around, it makes a nonsense of marriage. With this approach, someone discerns whether he has the gift of marriedness by whether or not he is happy and content to be married. So let us suppose someone is married, but is struggling in a difficult marriage and is, frankly, not at all content in his marriedness. Does he conclude that he does not have the gift of marriedness, and go ahead and get a divorce? That would be absurd, quite apart from being forbidden in verses 10 and 11.
The second reason we know this is wrong is this: what happens if someone feels he has the gift of marriage but no suitable opportunity comes along? Is he to conclude that a good and gracious God has given him the ‘gift’ of marriage but then carelessly forgotten to make marriage possible for him? This again would be absurd.
No, I know which ‘gift’ I have by a very simple test: if I am married, I have the gift of marriage; if I am not married, I have the gift of being unmarried. My circumstances are God’s gracious gift to me, and I am to learn to accept them from his hand as such. (Christopher Ash, Married for God)
I think Ash is right. But if it is the state which is the gift from God them this will immediately change our perspective in the situation. If I am single I have a good gift from God which I should be thankful for and not resent.
Why is singleness good?
Good gifts from God are good. Perhaps that may not be a surprise but the point is not only are we to see the gift because God says it is good, although that is reason enough, but God is right so we can see the goodness.
Paul unpacks two ways in which we can see the good of singleness:
1. Singleness is good because it makes life less complicated
…But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.(1 Corinthian 7:28b)
Trouble in the verse is not bad, or sinful, but it may be hard. Marriage is good and the troubles which come with it do not make it bad. But Paul is being realistic about marriage, that marriage brings trouble. I was listening to a pastor friend of mine who was actually discussing a group at his church which they have started to help people with same-sex attraction. It is not an issue for him, he’s married but represents the staff team there. Most the group were single, and he said he found that people in the group often idolize marriage and it is good for him to be there to say that actually the marriage, like singleness, is hard.
Now you don’t need to be in the situation of experiencing same-sex attraction to recognize the same point. Marriage is complicated it brings “trouble”. I work with Edwin who’s married with two children. And Edwin often has to go off to look after his family, whether it is driving them to school and work or looking after them when they are ill. I have never had the hassle of having to take children to the doctor. Edwin has, in that sense his life is more complicated. Of course children and family bring great joy but they also bring great complications. And they don’t always bring great joy.
This is not say that there aren’t particular struggles that singles have, there are (and they mustn’t be diminished), but it is to say that they do not have the particular struggles which come along being married and having a family which brings trouble, that is makes life complicated.
This is not rivalry as if Paul is setting marriage (bad) against singleness (good). No they are both good. But it is realism. Generally speaking a married person has a more complicated life than a single person.
It’s not that I have all my problems and I get married and they are all gone. No it is that I have particular problems being single that when I marry I then essentially swap them for a different set of problems, which is some way are be harder, so according to Paul may be best avoided.
It’s a bit like living in South Africa for me as a subject of her Majesty the Queen, that is being British. There are certain things which are more complicated here than if I were to live in the UK. For example I have to apply for a visa every three years, and panic that they don’t give it to me. Now I do that because I gain benefits, I get to live and work in South Africa, but that’s the reality. These things don’t mean it is bad to live here just that it is more complicated.
Now don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying that single lives can’t be complicated, they can be. But they would be more so if they were to marry.
I think it is best to view comparing like for like. It can be quite unhelpful when we start saying that someone has a more complicated life just because they are married compared to a particular single individual. It’s comparing like for like. So think of me, Ben, I am single. Now if Ben got married, in many ways I would be in the same situation but I would have a wife so it would be more complicated. I would have most if not all the constraints on my time I now have and I would have a wife. Which would make life more complicated.
It can be deeply unhelpful when married Christian take advantage of single people, “since they are unmarried they will be able to do this” type thinking. This must not happen, but single people should take advantage of the position that God has given them.
One of these advantages Paul particularly picks up on:
2. Singleness is good because it brings freedom
 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.
Paul follows the verse by repeating the same principle about an unmarried woman. Again this division, comparison between “the Lord’s affairs” and the “affairs of this world”, is not a division of good and bad interests. Remember both marriage and singleness are good gifts from God. The key is the division of interests not that one type of interest is better than the other. The concern of the husband is quite rightly for his wife and family, and that is his service the Lord. But the point Paul is making is that for the single person there is only one sphere in which they must offer service that is the church. But the married the person has the church and the family. Again that is not bad but that is the reality.
Again think of me and Edwin. We both work at Christ Church Hillbrow. For both of us that is our areas of ministry. However Edwin also has his family to minister to while I do not. So Edwin must be concerned about his church and his family while I can just concentrate on the church. Again that doesn’t mean that single people have no concerns outside a particular ministry or they should be exploited. As in “you must be free because you don’t have a family”, no that would be wrong.
But it is a reality that single people can be more focused on things as they do not have a family to worry about. Neither is better, Paul is just being realistic. This focus brings freedom; a single person has freedom which someone who is married does not necessarily have. This is the goodness in singleness. Single people are able to do things which married people would find very hard to do. Whether that is particular service at church or in certain places in ministry.
If I were married three years ago then I may not have come to Johannesburg. As it were it was quite easy for me to fly off for two months, which has now turned into three years, to see what it was like to serve the Lord in South Africa.
The freedom of singleness allows me to do many things which otherwise I would not be able to do. The greater simplicity of the single life leads to increased opportunities.
Many great missionaries of the past were single and they could only do what they did as they did not have a family. Both the church I grew up in and the Church I went to as a student were led by single men and as such they had a great deal of time and energy they could focus solely on the church family. The minsters of the church I was student at (Vaughan Roberts) commented:
I know that I myself would not have had nearly as much time for writing and speaking at missions or conferences if I had been married. I’ve also had more time for friendships, which have been a huge blessing to me and, I trust, to others as well.
The freedom singleness grants can bring great blessings. A single life in a sense is less complicated and this brings the freedom to be of service in areas which you otherwise would not be able to be. Too often we focus on trying to change our single status, but actually Paul says we should focus on the opportunities and the freedom which our singleness brings.
Can you serve in a particular area? In the future if you remain single you may have more disposable income which you can give to gospel work. We are not to bemoan the gift that we have been given but we are to see it as a good gift that we can make the most of while it was there.
Singleness and the real prize
Sometimes is can seem that these two benefits of being single are a bit like a consolation prize. That is you don’t get the girl/the boy but at least life is a bit more simple and you are free to serve. It’s not great but it is something. You don’t have a wife but at least you are useful. Now I hope you have seen that Paul views it much more positively than that.
But the real surprise is that Paul is not so much denying the hardship but viewing that very hardship as good. In fact the two goods I have already mentioned I think flow from one fundamental good, which not only do we often miss, but incorporate rather than denies the hardship of singleness.
Singleness is good because it is constant reminder of the real prize. Here the work of Barry Danylak is superbly helpful.
This teaching on singleness comes in the context of the broader chapter. And although Paul is focusing on marriage and singleness the heart of his message comes in his statement of a broader principle.
 Nevertheless, each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches.
He gives various examples of how that might work out from circumcision to slavery. These are two key distinctions in the ancient world, one defining you as part of God’s people and one not, while the other defines you as slave or free.
His application to the issue of slavery explain why changing our circumstances should not be our focus.
 Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him. Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so.  For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord’s freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ’s slave.  You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men.
In verse 22 he is making it clear that our relationship to God is not defined by our employment. While one might be a slave to a human master in reality they are a free man to God. Similarly if one is free man they are actually a slave to God. We are God’s, brought at a price and that matters much more than our external circumstances.
In verses 25 onward Paul applies this in a unique way:
But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.  What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none;  those who mourn,as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep;  those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.
See that last phrase:
For this world in its present form is passing away.
The reason our present circumstances don’t matter is because this world is passing away. That is this life is not all there is we live for the new creation. This life is not the real prize. The reason Paul particularly says that singleness is good then, is in this sense that singleness points more clearly to this real prize than marriage. Again this is not a good bad thing, marriage equally points to greater truths, the union of Christ and his church. But singleness better allows you to live in this world as if you don’t belong, which as Christians we do not. Or to put it the other way round if you marry it will be harder not to hold onto this world.
Again let me explain by using myself an example, If you come to my house it doesn’t feel like a home. (Curiously when I preached this at this point every single person over a certain age, who had left university, nodded) It does to some extent but whenever I go to a family home it immediately feels a lot more homely. Families put down roots, kids in school, involved in the neighbourhood things like that.
Singles do that as well but in generally the single life feels more transient. As I get older that is what I find one of the most difficult things about being single an increasing feel that I don’t quite belong anywhere. That gives me great freedom and opportunity but it can also be painful. Paul doesn’t want to diminish that pain or hardship but he wants us to realize that even that pain is good thing, as single people this helps us to see that we are not yet home. That real prize is not a home in the suburbs with 2.4 children but something far beyond that. And as we live that life out we can help married people see the same truth. It’s not that we don’t yearn to build a family or home here, we may do and there is nothing wrong with that, but as we yearn we realize a deeper truth than that, the truth that our home is not here. That this world is temporary and that actually we are hoping a permanent home and for the new creation.
I hate the Jesus is my husband kind of approach to singleness, because it is first quite awkward for men. Secondly Jesus doesn’t marry me or you individually he marries us, the church, corporately. But the real problem is it gives the impression that marriage and family life now is the aim and where I don’t have that then Jesus fills in the gap.
But Paul is saying something bigger. The absence of family now does more than remind me of what I miss out on and others have but it helps me to see more clearly that now is not what I am aiming for, it’s not the real prize.
The trouble of marriage that Paul speaks of is that the complexities of marriage makes it too easy to be caught up with the now rather than the future. The transitory nature of singleness reminds us of something bigger the transitory nature of this whole life. That the real prize is yet to come. The single hope is not marriage but the new creation.
To simply long for a spouse or a family is to long for too little! The pain of singleness points to the pain of this broken world and makes us long for a new one.
This re-articulation should draw people to the positive vision the Christian Scriptures provide for both marriage and singleness …: Christian marriage is a testimony of the utterly faithful and unchanging love of God for his people in a permanent covenant relationship with him; Christian singleness is a testimony to the complete sufficiency of Christ for the present age and gives visible witness to the hope of our eternal inheritance yet to come; …
Danylak, Barry (2010-09-13). Redeeming Singleness: How the Storyline of Scripture Affirms the Single Life (p. 214). Good News Publishers.
While married people might get tied down the very looseness which the single experiences should point us all to the looseness with which we should all hold this world.
This is important to singles finding a valid and important place in the church. Much could be said about the church being the family that the single person does not have, but as for single people their lives should direct married people to the real prize. Just as a godly marriage should teach all of us what the relationship between Christ and the church is like so a godly single life should teach all of us to look to the real prize, the renewed world to come. As singles live lose to this world they are able to testify to that world. Ultimately the freedom and opportunity which singleness bring is the one the freedom to live a life testifying to a world to come. Of course married people can and should do this but it is easier and unique privileged of the single person to be able to do this.
Fish Cakes for Dinner
I finally finished this post as today I felt, I don’t why, the acute pain of being alone. However as I stopped for dinner I had fish and I reflected on (the now confirmed) story of Jonathan Fletcher (the retired single minister of Emmanuel Wimbledon) who used to have fish cakes for Christmas lunch alone. And I reflected while families feasted perhaps Jonathan’s meal helped him better remember the feast is yet to come.