The Strength in Togetherness

togetherness

Last week we looked at the strength in aloneness – that state where we find God so completely our Source that the presence or absence of others does not affect our joy, meaning, and purpose in life.

This week we want to look at the strength in togetherness – that state where we enjoy a personal network of trustworthy people to connect with and share reciprocal counsel and encouragement.

As I have journeyed through life as a single woman, I have learned to be much more dependent on God and far less dependent on people. I have learned genuine contentment in my aloneness in God.

This was not always the case. In my younger years I feared being alone and avoided it at all costs. The idea of being single all my life terrified me because of this deeper fear. But God has graciously taken me on a wonderful journey of finding my core identity as His child, to the point that the presence or absence of others has little effect on my sense of well-being.

On this same wonderful journey my appreciation for the people God has placed in my life has grown and continues to grow. I would never be where I am today without the network of people God has strategically placed in my life. Some are biologically related to me, but some aren’t. This network has become my family.

Family Redefined

“Family isn’t always blood. It’s the people in your life who want you in theirs. The ones who accept you for who you are. The ones who would do anything to see you smile, and who love you no matter what.”  -Unknown

Many have found it’s not necessarily those we are related to by blood who most accept us for who we are and stand loyally by us no matter what. Blood isn’t always thicker than water. What binds people together most securely is the love God puts in our hearts for each other, and the grace He gives us to extend to the other. Securing that bond even more is when we share common goals and passions.

Jesus redefined “family” when He said, “Whoever does the will of My Father in heaven, that person is My brother and sister and mother.” [1] This didn’t exclude His biological family unless they chose not to be part of His redefined family, but expanded it to include those adopted into His Heavenly Father’s family.

As disciples and followers of Jesus, we are also part of this family Jesus referred to, making us brothers and sisters to each other. Whether or not we are part of a loving and supportive biological family, we are part of a much larger global spiritual family. As in our biological families, we may not find all to be “trustworthy people to connect with and share reciprocal counsel and encouragement,” but we do have a much larger pool to select from to be part of our personal network.

Jesus and Paul as Examples

As we’ve already observed, Jesus had “family” beyond his biological family. For most of his ministry years, at least, it seems He spent much of His time with people. His selection of disciples to form His own “network,” as well as an even smaller group within that network to form His “inner circle,” gives us an example of forming similar groups for ourselves. Jesus both ministered to and received ministering from this group, strengthening Him to minister to crowds of needy people.

Barry Danylak points out in his excellent book Redeeming Singleness, that although both Jesus and Paul were free as single men to invest all their time and energy in advancing the kingdom of God, neither lived a life alone.[2] He goes on to say that, “Intimacy has other dimensions, beyond the physical. A bond of spiritual unity as brothers and sisters in Christ can emerge through a oneness of mind in corporate prayer and worship, a shared eternal hope, and a common mission…. The freedom and flexibility of the single life will often open access to levels and opportunities of spiritual intimacy with other believers that those who are married do not have available in the same way and to the same degree.”

Danylak also observes that, “Though Paul did not have his own wife and family, he experienced profound familial intimacy within the spiritual family of God in which he had utterly invested himself.” [3]

I’m grateful for these two biblical examples of singles who exemplify strength both in aloneness and in togetherness with others.

Identifying “Safe” People

The best of relationships are those which are life-giving, not destructive. We’ve likely all experienced the difference. Destructive relationships often leave us gun-shy in developing new relationships in which we reveal our true selves.

In their book titled Safe People, Cloud and Townsend describe the characteristics of “safe” and “unsafe” people with who to share our innermost thoughts and feelings.[4] They point out that Jesus is the ultimate example of a trustworthy person, and use John 1:14 to define the three characteristics in Jesus we should look for in others:

  1. Connection – Jesus “became flesh and dwelt among us,” connecting with us right where we are. Safe people for us are those who are able to connect with us and walk alongside us through the difficulties and joys in both our lives. It’s difficult to share deeply with someone we don’t feel a connection with.
  2. Grace – John said that Jesus was “full of grace and truth.” Grace is showing favor and acceptance to another, rather than shame and condemnation, even when the person’s faults emerge. We want people in our lives who love and accept us even when our ugly side shows its face, which it will sooner or later. It is in this atmosphere of grace that we can grow and genuinely change, rather than pretending to be someone we aren’t in order to gain another’s acceptance.
  3. Truth – Not only was Jesus full of grace, He was also full of truth. Truth indicates honesty and genuineness. When we know a person to be “full of truth,” we know they won’t tell us we are “okay” in our thinking and behavior when we aren’t, because they want the best for us. They know how to be honest with us without condemning or shaming us.

These three characteristics combined describe a person who is safe and trustworthy to be our real selves with. In order to establish genuine relationships for reciprocal counsel and encouragement, we also need to portray these characteristics in our relating to them.

Purpose in “Unsafe” Relationships

From within their personal networks, both Jesus and Paul experienced abandonment and betrayal: Jesus from His disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Paul when standing trial.[5] In both cases, Jesus and Paul defaulted to their dependency on God who never leaves nor abandons us,[6] while at the same time extending grace to those who failed them.

Sometimes God has a purpose in allowing us to experience betrayal and thoughtlessness from others, as both Jesus and Paul experienced from some of their closest relationships. In some of those cases it meant the severance of the relationship when there was no change in behavior or attitude. In other cases, there was repentance and the relationship was restored. People aren’t perfect, and neither can we expect our relationships with them to be perfect. But when we’ve learned our strength in aloneness, their imperfection doesn’t need to leave us devastated. Sometimes it can shake us, but we learn from it and move on, either in reconciliation with them or in relationships with others.

Finding Safe People for Our Network

By now some of you may be despairing, wondering how to find even one other person to include in your own personal network. I totally understand. Trustworthy people who are willing to journey with us in life don’t appear out of thin air. They are worth their weight in gold because they are rare in this transient age where people become scattered and relationships become disposable. How do we find them?

First is to recognize that God, our Provider to supply all our needs,[7] does the best job in selecting people for our personal network, in His time. He wants us to learn to depend on Him first and foremost, so sometimes He delays in providing people for us, or allows rifts in relationships to occur, to encourage us to lean on Him more. All good things, friendships included, are gifts from Him. And so we wait on Him to give us His good things for us, as He chooses.

Second is realizing the truths of Proverbs 18:24 and Luke 6:31: “A man who has friends must himself to be friendly” and “Just as you want others to do for you, do the same for them.”  To establish our personal network, we will want to develop and portray the characteristics to others that we would like to have in those we want close to us. Sometimes we need to take the risk of trying to connect with others, rather than waiting for them to come to us. Asking questions and listening carefully to their answers is the best way to find common interests and values. Often a friendship progresses naturally from there, especially when we find we do connect on various levels and then make the time and effort to spend time with them.

Conclusion

While it’s important that we find strength in aloneness in God, it’s also important that we find strength in togetherness with others. God never meant for us to live in isolation. Many assume that when God told Adam it wasn’t good for him to be alone, He meant it wasn’t good for him to be single. But at the time Adam was the only human on the face of the earth. How lonely that must have felt! God knew that Adam needed human companionship – someone like him, but not exactly like him – to journey with in life. And so do we. Married or single, we all need others – multiple others – to be strengthened through reciprocal counsel and encouragement.

 

[1] Matthew 12:46-50

[2] Danylak, Barry. Redeeming Singleness (Foreword by John Piper): How the Storyline of Scripture Affirms the Single Life. Crossway. Kindle Edition.

[3] Danylak gives many examples of Paul’s relationships: “We are struck by how many different companions, partners, co-laborers, and underlings are mentioned from the period of his Gentile ministry. [E.g., Barnabas (1 Cor. 9: 6), Silas/ Silvanus (1 Thess. 1: 1), Luke (2 Tim. 4: 11), Mark (2 Tim. 4: 11), Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18: 18), Timothy (Acts 19: 22), Titus (2 Cor. 8: 23), Epaphroditus (Phil. 2: 25), Erastus (Acts 19: 22), Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4: 2), Clement (Phil. 4: 3), Urbanus (Rom. 16: 9), Tychicus (Col. 4: 7)]. His use of family language is robust as he addresses those in his church constantly as ‘brothers’ (Rom. 1: 13; 1 Cor. 3: 1; Gal. 4: 12; Phil. 1: 12; 1 Thess. 1: 4), and ‘sisters’ (Philem. 2), ‘children’ (Gal. 4: 19; 1 Cor. 4: 14), ‘legitimate sons’ (1 Tim. 1: 2; Titus 1: 4), and ‘kinsmen’ (Rom. 16: 7). He speaks especially affectionately of Timothy, who ‘as a son with a father . . . has served with me in the gospel’  (Phil. 2: 22). Timothy is instructed to treat old men as fathers, young men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters (1 Tim. 5: 1– 2). There are numerous indications in the New Testament of the deep spiritual intimacy Paul shared with his converts and fellow believers. To the Thessalonians he writes: ‘So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.’ (1 Thess. 2: 8). Similarly, he ‘yearns’ for the Philippians with the ‘affection of Christ’ (Phil. 1: 8); he longs to visit the Romans so to be ‘refreshed’ by their company (Rom. 15: 23, 32); and he weeps and embraces the Ephesian elders (Acts 20: 37) upon his departure from Miletus.”

[4] Cloud, Henry; Cloud, Henry; Townsend, John; Townsend, John. Safe People: How to Find Relationships That Are Good for You and Avoid Those That Aren’t. Zondervan.

[5] 2 Timothy 4:16b-17a

[6] Hebrews 13:5

[7] Philippians 4:19

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The Strength in Aloneness

Aloneness

“A servant of God must stand so much alone that he never knows he is alone.”  –Oswald Chambers

“Everyone deserted me…. But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me.” –Apostle Paul, 2 Timothy 4:16b-17a HCSB

We need people. I’ll get that declaration out of the way at the beginning! God never meant for us to live in isolation. I highly value the network of trustworthy people God has given me to connect with on various levels, and encourage others to find and embrace their own network.

But having a connection to people is secondary, not primary.

If you’re scratching your head at this point, I understand. Most of the messages we get from society and even from church indicate that a meaningful life comes from being connected to other people, especially a spouse and family. The truth in that assumption is that living for something or someone other than ourselves gives us meaning in life. The lie in that assumption is that being attached to another person or persons gives us value.

True Value and Meaning

The full truth is we have value because God created us and loves us, and we find meaning in life when we live out our God-given purpose. People can come and go in our lives, and circumstances can change, but the truth of what gives us value and meaning in life remains constant and can never be taken from us. This is the secret of learning to stand so much alone that we never realize we are alone, as Oswald Chambers said in his devotional, My Utmost for His Highest.[1]  When God is our sole Source for joy, meaning, and purpose, the coming and going of people in our lives, as well as any change in circumstances, does not affect our joy, meaning, and purpose.

A great example of this was Paul and Barnabas after it became apparent they had differing opinions about including John Mark on their missionary trip. While they both felt so strongly that they parted ways, each continued to pursue the calling God had given them personally. If either had believed they needed the other to accomplish their individual callings, the disagreement would have been disastrous. Instead, it freed them both to live their own God-given life purpose: Paul to bring the gospel to the Gentiles, and Barnabas to encourage Christians young in the faith.

The person who has served as the greatest example of this in my own life is my father. He first heard and accepted God’s calling to serve Him when he was in his early 20s – first as a single man in Germany and Nepal, and then as a married man in Belize and numerous locations in the States. After 50 years of marriage to my mother who was his ideal partner and companion in life, he is now single again. But while it is evident he misses my mother tremendously, her death hasn’t affected his joy, meaning, and purpose in life. His God-given purpose to live for Jesus and encourage others to live for Him is as primary in his life now as it was while his wife was living, and as it was before he married her.

The strength of learning to stand so much alone that we never realize we are alone, is that we are freed to live God’s purpose no matter who or what comes and goes in our lives.

The Benefits of Learning Aloneness in God

Aloneness with God is not just for singles. As I pointed out in my father’s life, knowing his purpose aside from his marital status has given him a meaningful and joyful life – before marriage, during marriage, and after marriage. There are significant benefits for everyone in learning aloneness with God:

  • We live joyfully and purposefully no matter what happens, because we know our God-given purpose is not dependent on circumstances or people
  • We become strong and confident – not because of self-reliance or self-sufficiency, but because we rely fully on God alone
  • We live in freedom from fear and anxiety because we know that no matter what, God is with us
  • We have a strong connection with our Heavenly Father because we realize while everything and everyone else may come and go, He alone remains constant

Advantages for Singles

As Paul pointed out in 1 Corinthians 7, singles have more freedom to have an undivided focus in living for the Lord and in learning this aloneness with God:

  • Freedom to follow God’s calling without needing to make it fit in with a spouse’s purpose and calling
  • Freedom to choose if and when to be with others according to God’s purpose for us, rather than to fill a marital obligation
  • Freedom of more time alone with God to strengthen our relationship with Him
  • Freedom to rely on God alone as our Provider, rather than being tempted to rely on a spouse to fill that role

Of course, those who have a life partner in marriage have their own set of advantages, and often the life purposes of a married couple fit hand in glove, adding strength to both.

The bottom line is, no matter our circumstances, learning to stand so much alone with God that we never feel alone is a blessing and gift for every Christian, and one I urge you to grasp firmly and value deeply!

[1] Chambers, Oswald (1927). My Utmost for His Highest, Classic Edition (April 22; Kindle Locations 1848-1849). Discovery House. Kindle Edition.

Would you like to discover your Life Purpose?

Visit our Finding Your Purpose page to learn more!

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Better Than Sons And Daughters


Called to reproduce spiritually

 

I’ll never forget the tears that came to the eyes of a 90-year-old single woman as she mentioned the absence of grandchildren in her life. She had never married but had spent years on the mission field and as a mentor to many all her life, including me. She was highly respected in our church and by all who knew her. She was one of those people whose vitality made you forget her age, and we all marveled at her keen mind and interest in everyone around her. Knowing all this I was surprised by her tears, while also realizing the need at all stages of life to mourn the absence of that which never was.

Childlessness is an ache many singles and couples carry. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day can be especially challenging. While these days honor the men and women who have given of themselves to raise children, they often leave those who are childless wondering if their contribution in life has any similar merit. Sermons, books, and inspirational quotes meant to encourage parents sometimes inadvertently pass judgment on the childless.

A quote I read one Mother’s Day illustrates this well. As I opened the bulletin in church that morning, I was presented with this message in bold type: “The highest calling of womanhood is motherhood.” While intending to affirm and encourage mothers, the message conveyed judgment and condemnation to me that somehow, by no choice of my own, I had missed that highest calling. I’m grateful the Lord immediately whispered to me that the quote was not true, and was a human’s perspective, not His.

What God Says About Our Life’s Purpose

More important than what people think, though, is what God says. As we open the Bible and begin reading in Genesis, we see that God’s command to the first man and woman is to “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it.” [1]  After the world had been destroyed by the flood, God’s command to Noah and his sons was once again, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” [2] Further in Genesis we see that the great promise God gave to Abraham was that “I will make you extremely fruitful and will make nations and kings come from you.” [3] This promise/command was passed down to Isaac, [4] and to Jacob. [5]

The emphasis of the Old Testament was the looking forward to a specific event: the coming of the Messiah. Every man and woman longed to be the parent or ancestor to this Promised One. To be denied a child was to be denied the possibility of this blessing.

As we turn the pages to the New Testament, we read that the Messiah was indeed born, grew to be a man, and through His death and resurrection became the Savior of the world. Before He went back to heaven He gave a new command, one which was to become the new focus and purpose of our lives as Christians:

“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [6]

Throughout the New Testament we no longer see the command to “multiply and replenish the earth,” nor do we see the lament of women who were barren.

Jesus had prepared His disciples for this new emphasis and purpose for our lives when He told them, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters — yes, and even his own life — he cannot be My disciple.” [7] He also drove this point home when his mother and brothers came to see Him and He said, “Who is my mother? and who are my brethren?” He looked around at His disciples and said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven, that person is My brother and sister and mother.” [8]

We see this new focus in Paul’s writings as well:

“I want you to be without concerns. An unmarried man is concerned about the things of the Lord—how he may please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the things of the world—how he may please his wife— and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or a virgin is concerned about the things of the Lord, so that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the things of the world—how she may please her husband. Now I am saying this for your own benefit, not to put a restraint on you, but because of what is proper and so that you may be devoted to the Lord without distraction.” [9]

So as we read through the New Testament we can see that the emphasis has shifted away from that of multiplying biologically as families, and has moved towards the importance of multiplying disciples for the Family of God. 

Biological families are still His design and plan for continuing the human race, and the intact family is the most ideal means of multiplying disciples for God’s Family when parents raise their little ones to serve Him. The purpose of having children should always primarily be to raise them to be disciples of Jesus, not for the fulfillment of human desires.

Our Desire to Have Children

We desire to have children for several reasons.

One is to experience the joys of having our own child. This seems to particularly affect women, perhaps because their bodies regularly remind them of their capacity for bearing a child. However, many men also have an innate desire to pass on their name, and traditionally children have been an indication of a man’s manhood and strength.

Another reason is because parenthood makes us “normal” and enables us to fit in with our peers who get married, have children and, in due time, have grandchildren as well. We seem to have this innate desire to be like everyone else.

A third reason is to pass on our values and beliefs to the next generation, leaving a heritage to our children and grandchildren. We all want our lives to matter, and to leave a contribution that long outlasts us.

Our Desires Fulfill God’s Purpose

As we take a closer look at these basic desires for wanting to be parents — to have the experience of reproducing biologically, to fit in and be normal, and to influence future generations — we should take note that the first two are basically for our own personal fulfillment (while also recognizing them as normal desires and part of how God designed us).

However, the third desire for having children — to influence future generations — is part of God’s New Testament command to “go and make disciples.” It is a desire we can fulfill whether married or single. In fact, as Christians, it is far more than a desire and a goal—it is a command which Jesus gave us.

Fulfilling this Command is Not Optional

Those who have children and raise them to be disciples of Christ are fulfilling this command. It involves much personal sacrifice and giving up of one’s own aspirations to achieve the goal of producing not only biological offspring, but spiritual offspring.

Those who don’t have biological children also have the responsibility of multiplying spiritually, and have the opportunity to do so in perhaps more far-reaching ways than having children, if they use their freedom to do so. Accomplishing this also involves much personal sacrifice and giving up of one’s own aspirations, just as parenthood does. Paul, a single spiritual “parent,” referred to this lifestyle as a sacrificial and yet joyous one: “Even if I am poured out as a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you.” [10]

Every Christian a Parent

Whether married or single, every Christian is called to reproduce and be a spiritual parent to spiritual children. The possibilities of ways to reproduce spiritually are endless, and God has given us the uniqueness of our own personalities and talents to creatively reproduce for the Family of God.

The Lord has often encouraged me with Isaiah 54 which uses the metaphor of a childless woman:

“Rejoice, childless one, who did not give birth; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the forsaken one will be more than the children of the married woman,” says the Lord. “Enlarge the site of your tent, and let your tent curtains be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your ropes, and drive your pegs deep. For you will spread out to the right and to the left, and your descendants will dispossess nations and inhabit the desolate cities. Do not be afraid, for you will not be put to shame; don’t be humiliated, for you will not be disgraced. For you will forget the shame of your youth, and you will no longer remember the disgrace of your widowhood. Indeed, your husband is your Maker —His name is Yahweh of Hosts — and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; He is called the God of all the earth.” [11]

Isaiah also uses the metaphor of a childless man in Isaiah 56:

“The eunuch should not say, “Look, I am a dried-up tree.” For the Lord says this: “For the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, and choose what pleases Me, and hold firmly to My covenant, I will give them, in My house and within My walls, a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters. I will give each of them an everlasting name that will never be cut off..” [12]

The New Testament has several examples of spiritual parents. The Apostle John, a single man and most likely childless, wrote, “I have no greater joy than this: to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” [13] Paul referred to Timothy as “my son”: “You, therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” [14] He also said that he had “fathered” Onesimus: “I, Paul, as an elderly man and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus, appeal to you for my son, Onesimus. I fathered him while I was in chains.” [15] We have no indication that either of these men had biological children, and yet their spiritual children were many. In fact, we today are spiritual descendants of Paul and John!

Parenthood — Our Highest Calling

Parenthood is part of our highest calling if we mean giving birth to spiritual children and nurturing disciples for Christ. Passing on our faith to future generations is God’s command to every Christian, not just to parents.

While it distressed me a bit to see my 90-year-old friend shed tears over the absence of biological grandchildren, it was also a joy to see her smile through those tears as I read Isaiah 54 to her. It was a joy to me to remind her that in the two letters she’d just read to me, both young people had mentioned she was like a grandmother to them. One was a young man from Honduras, the other a young woman from China; both she had mentored spiritually. She had indeed enlarged her tent throughout her life. Her spiritual children and grandchildren were not only many, but spread far and wide across the globe. I left her apartment that day humbled that I’d had a part in helping her see the far-reaching productiveness of her for God’s Kingdom, which was her greatest desire. She has since passed on to her Heavenly home, but she left a legacy that will live on through eternity!

The absence of children and grandchildren may always present a certain amount of emotional difficulty throughout our lives if we are childless. But if we are reproducing spiritually by encouraging others in a relationship with Jesus, we can be sure we will also leave a heritage for coming generations, even for eternity, that is “better than sons and daughters”!

[1] Genesis 1:28

[2] Genesis 9:1

[3] Genesis 17:6

[4] Genesis 28:3

[5] Genesis 35:11

[6] Matthew 28:19-20

[7] Luke 14:26

[8] Matthew 12:48-50

[9] 1 Corinthians 7:29-35

[10] Philippians 2:17

[11] Isaiah 54:1-5

[12] Isaiah 56:3-5

[13] 3 John 1:14

[14] 2 Timothy 2:1

[15] Philemon 1:9-10

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Marriage Good, Singleness Bad?

Completeness in Jesus

“Why is such a nice person like you still single?”

 “Once you learn to be content, God will bring you a spouse.”

“She’s so pretty, I wonder why she’s not dating?”

“There’s no question why he’s not married!”

Have you heard some of these comments before, or perhaps even made them yourself? A subtle but clear message runs through them: marriage is for the worthy and deserving, and those who don’t make the cut will end up single. Behind such thinking is the assumption that marriage is better than singleness.

Much of the inner struggle for singles comes from these and other assumptions about marriage and singleness, which is why it’s important to discover if they are based on truth. If they’re not, perhaps the elevation of marriage and family over singleness is not biblical, and the stigma singles carry is needless. Let’s take a look at what the Bible really does have to say.

Is Marriage Better?

If we dig into the whole of Scripture, we discover that both marriage and singleness are equally good. One is not a blessing, and the other a curse. One is not a reward, and the other a punishment. And one is not more honorable than the other. Both are ordained of God for His purposes, and He chooses who He will for both roles.

The idea that marriage trumps singleness can be gleaned from the Bible, but only by cherry-picking here and there from the whole of Scripture, or by focusing mainly on the Old Testament which does support the belief that marriage is better than singleness. If we don’t step back and see the whole picture, and the transition that takes place from the Old Covenant to the New through Jesus,  we are bound to make wrong conclusions.

At the very beginning of creation God made a man and a woman and told them to “be fruitful and multiply.” God proceeded to build His earthly Kingdom through marriage and procreation. In His covenant with His people, God said He would bless them through prolific offspring, and would bring judgment through barrenness and childlessness. He also made it clear that the greatest of all His promises – a Messiah – would come through the marrying and procreating of couples, and would be a descendant of Adam, Abraham, and David.

God did indeed fulfill His promise of a Messiah and Jesus came, born of a woman, to live, die, and rise to life again. And here is where a radical shift takes place.

Jesus Shakes Things Up

Instead of following in His ancestors’ steps and marrying and having children, Jesus remained single and childless. He also spoke strange things to His followers, like, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, and even his own life—he cannot be My disciple.” [i]

Jesus also redefined familial terms. When someone told Him His mother and brothers wanted to see Him, He asked, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” Gesturing to His disciples, He said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven, that person is My brother and sister and mother.” [ii]

And, just before He went back to heaven, Jesus gave a new mandate as the focus and purpose of our lives as Christians. Instead of “Be fruitful and multiply,” He said, “Go and make disciples of all nations,” [iii] indicating a shift in priority from reproducing physically to reproducing spiritually.

Why Such a Major Shift?

Throughout the Old Testament, God made promises and covenants with His people. Among them were His promises to Adam, Abraham, and David:

To Adam and Eve, God promised a descendent who would defeat the serpent Satan who had deceived them. That descendent was Jesus.

To Abraham, God promised that through his offspring all the world would be blessed, hinting that Gentiles would be included in the promise. That offspring was Jesus.

To David, God promised to raise up offspring after him who would establish an eternal kingdom. That offspring was Jesus.

It wasn’t that Jesus shook things up; to be accurate, He fulfilled them. Through Jesus’ coming to earth and His death and resurrection, God fulfilled His promises to Adam, Abraham, and David, as well as His mandate to marry and procreate, as Jesus ushered in a heavenly kingdom in place of the earthly one. This heavenly kingdom is not dependent on physical procreation, but rather on spiritual procreation.

As we continue to read through the New Testament, however, we see that although Jesus removed the mandate to marry and have children, He did not eradicate them. Marriage and family continue to be ordained and blessed by God, and the New Testament mandate to “go and make disciples” includes parents who teach their children to follow Jesus. We also see in Ephesians 5 that marriage as God designed it is an example to the world of the faithful love Christ has for His bride, the church, in a covenant relationship.

But Jesus also made it clear that marriage and family relationships are temporary – for this world only. He said, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like angels in heaven.” [iv] The fact that Jesus did not need marriage to complete Him, and that in Heaven neither will we, indicate that marriage is not the essential or even ultimate experience God has for us. There is something greater awaiting us.

Those Who Can, Should

As we dig even deeper into New Testament texts, we notice that both Jesus and the Apostle Paul, who also remained single and childless, indicate there is rich benefit and purpose in singleness. Jesus in Matthew 19, and Paul in 1 Corinthains 7, both encourage those who are not married to remain single for the sake of being fully devoted without distraction to God and the work of His Kingdom. Both point to the concerns and troubles inherent in human and family relationships and the divided focus they cause. We tend to dance around the fact that both Jesus and Paul indicate that, for the sake of the Kingdom of God, singleness is better.

But neither Jesus nor Paul make singleness a mandate. They both acknowledge that singleness is not for everyone, only to whom it is given, and that marriage is God’s provision for maintaining sexual purity (among other things). They both also allude that singleness is a spiritual gift, given by God to whom He chooses.

Of course, the follow-up question to such a statement is, how do we know if we’ve been given the gift of singleness?

There is no clear answer to this in Scripture. My personal belief is that if you are single this moment, singleness is God’s gift and plan for you for today. It may be lifelong, but it may not. But for however long He gives you the gift of singleness, He will also give you the gift of grace to live without the physical intimacies and other benefits of marriage. Some teach that along with the gift of singleness God removes all desire for marriage and raising a family, and that if you still desire them, you don’t have the gift of singleness. I don’t see any support for this teaching in Scripture, or evidence of it in any single Christian I know. These desires are inherent in all normal, healthy human beings to some degree or another. But to the single Christian God gives grace to live a fulfilled life for Him even in the presence of those unfulfilled desires.

The Gif t of Singleness

If singleness is a gift, why doesn’t it seem like one? Probably because we haven’t yet learned to recognize the benefit and blessings in singleness, and because the stigma that surrounds singleness casts shadows on the benefits and blessings we do see and experience.

In his excellent book, Redeeming Singleness: How the Storyline of Scripture Affirms the Single Life, Barry Danylak describes the gift of singleness as having three characteristics:

  1. A life of simplicity free from the stresses of spouse and family
  2. A life that finds sufficiency in the blessings of Christ alone apart from the experiences of sexual intimacy, marital companionship, and physical family
  3. A life ready and free for service to the King in whatever way he should call [v]

It is easy to see from this description that the gift of singleness truly is a gift, and not only an asset and blessing to the unmarried follower of Jesus, but ultimately to the church, both locally and globally. A person who does not need the roles of spouse and parent to feel complete, but rather finds that completeness in Christ alone, is free to serve God within and beyond the walls of the local church in ways those tied down with a family can’t. These blessings apply not only to the never-married single, but also to the widowed and divorced, especially those whose children are grown and on their own.

A Witness to the World

Marriage and family are often touted as the means for providing fulfillment and meaning in life, and for meeting one’s needs for significance, love, affection, and admiration, as well as the more practical needs for physical and domestic support. This is all true to the limited extent imperfect humans can provide them.

But the only relationship that can completely satisfy is a relationship with Jesus, and as singles, we play an important role in exemplifying this to the world.

A single who finds his or her completeness in God alone in the absence of all that marriage provides, exemplifies how all-sufficient and all-satisfying is a relationship with Jesus Christ. A single who trusts God to provide all his or her needs also exemplifies that He is trustworthy and a loving and faithful Provider.

Both marriage and singleness exemplify a greater spiritual concept beyond their earthly roles, and both are needed to form a complete testimony of Christ and His relationship with His people. Earthly marriage points us to a time when Jesus will be fully united with His Bride, the church. In that day earthly marriage will no longer be necessary as we, His bride, find our completeness in Him. And it is to that completeness in Christ that singleness points as we live as faithful witnesses to the all-sufficiency of Jesus!

Recommended Reading

A number of years ago I had done a study on the shift between the Old and New Testaments from reproducing physically to reproducing spiritually. The results of that you can read in the article I wrote then, Better Than Sons and Daughters.

Redeeming SinglenessMore recently, a good friend gave me the book Redeeming Singleness: How the Storyline of Scripture Affirms the Single Life by Barry Danylak, which takes this study much further in depth and which I relied on heavily for writing this blog post. If you, too, would like to dig deeper, I highly recommend getting a copy and reading it.

 

[i] Luke 14:26 (HCSB)

[ii] Matthew 12:48-50 (HCSB)

[iii] Matthew 28:19 (HCSB)

[iv] Matthew 22:30 (HCSB)

[v] Danylak, Barry (2010-09-01). Redeeming Singleness (Foreword by John Piper): How the Storyline of Scripture Affirms the Single Life (p. 212). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

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