A lovely woman in her mid-fifties, she sat across from me in the coffee shop, her hands resting lightly in her lap. She sat poised as one confident about her life. But her words revealed an inner turmoil.
“I know I don’t have the gift of singleness!” she was saying. “My pastor says if I don’t have the desire to be single, then I don’t have the gift of singleness and will marry someday. But sometimes, I wonder. I’ve always wanted to be a wife and a mother, but here I am, too old to have children, and likely more than half my life is past. Did I miss something somewhere?”
Countless singles find themselves asking the same questions. One divorced man asked it this way: “Singleness is an option highly applauded by the Apostle Paul, but marriage seems to be the mainstream design. What is the real purpose in being single when one really doesn’t want to be single?”
He asks the question a bit differently from the woman in the coffee shop, but it boils down to the same basic questions most Christian singles ask sooner or later: What is the gift of singleness? Does it exist? If it does, how do I know if I have it? And if I don’t, then why am I not married? These are all good questions to come to terms with, and the best place to start is God’s Word. Though throughout the New Testament God upholds marriage as a sacred institution which is permanent until the death of one of the spouses, and as a representation of His relationship to the Church, He also asserts highly the value of singleness. In the following verse, He recognizes both marriage and singleness as gifts:
For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. (I Cor. 7:7)And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery. His disciples say unto him, If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry. But he said unto them, All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it. (Mt. 19:9-12)
It certainly appears from Scripture that singleness and marriage are gifts. The Bible doesn’t indicate, though, that either gift is always permanent. Just because someone is single now, doesn’t mean they always will be. And just because one is married now, doesn’t mean they always will be.
John Stott, writer and theologian, is a man who has never married and is now in his seventies. He says, “The gift of singleness is more a vocation than an empowerment, although to be sure God is faithful in supporting those he calls.”1 This is an important distinction. Singleness and marriage are gifts in that we if we are single, we have the gift of singleness for now. If we are married, we have the gift of marriage for now. They are roles which we fill, not supernatural giftings.
Even though singleness and marriage are referred to as gifts, the Bible doesn’t indicate that they are the same as the spiritual gifts given in I Corinthians 12, which are accompanied by the Holy Spirit’s special empowerment. Though His grace enables us to live righteously as singles, the gift of singleness is not naturally accompanied by the absence of its inherent difficulties. As singles, we can expect to struggle with loneliness at times, with the lack of companionship, and with the very real presence of sexual desire.
Perhaps this is seen more clearly if we look at the gift of marriage. Albert Hsu points out in Singles at the Crossroads that no one refers to the gift of marriage as a special supernatural enabling to handle marriage without any difficulty. If this were the case, there would be no marriage problems among Christians. But if one marries, God does offer His grace to handle the difficulties of marriage.
Many equate the gift of singleness with the “gift of celibacy” — the absence of sexual desire. However, the gift of celibacy or of abstinence is never mentioned in the Bible. Sexuality and its attendant pressures seems to be a part of almost every human being.
Some have quoted I Corinthians 7:9 to claim that God has created some people who cannot control themselves sexually. However, this would be a contradiction of other Scripture which commands all Christians to exercise self-control. This verse is also not in any way a concession to sin sexually if marriage is not presently possible. The utter gift of self-control does not come packaged with singleness, just as perfect love for one’s spouse does not come packaged with marriage. Both self control and love are fruits of the Holy Spirit which are required of all Christians, and do not come naturally for anyone.
One single man expressed the common assumption regarding the gift of singleness this way: “I have always thought that when someone is led by God to endure unwanted singleness for His kingdom, that it would be a matter of that person’s heart being so captivated by the love of God and His call, that the person would endure it, but only for the love of God and the joy before him.” I agree with this, but not that the joy comes naturally. The underlying assumption here is that singleness is a calling of self-denial while marriage is license for self-fulfillment. However, all Christians are called to self-denial and sacrifice for our Lord, whether married or single.
Many singles make this mistake: they don’t feel captivated by God alone, they have a desire to be married, the awareness of their own sexuality is very present, and so they conclude that they don’t have the gift of singleness. Many become bitter after years of resenting that they’ve been left out of the supernatural ability to be joyful in singleness, while at the same time have been denied the pleasures of marriage. This is a result of false teaching which assumes that singleness is a supernatural gift. Freedom comes in realizing that marriage and singleness are roles in which we carry out a higher calling of serving the Lord, and are not particular callings in and of themselves.
God’s Word does give a practical solution for those who feel that they are not “cut out” to be single. I Corinthians 7:9 says (referring to the virgins and widows), “If they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.” But before anyone takes this leap of marriage as a solution to their unhappiness as a single, one must also take into consideration the other biblical instructions for marriage: marry in the Lord, do not be unequally yoked, if you have a former partner still living remain single, and so on. One also needs to consider the commands to husbands and wives when choosing a marriage partner: Is this a man whose spiritual headship and leading you can submit to as your husband? Is this a woman whom you can consistently love for the rest of your life as Christ loves the Church? Another consideration is that it takes two in agreement to marry. Many who find the “right” person sadly discover that the feelings are not mutual.
And so as a result there are many reluctant singles — those who would rather not have the gift of singleness but who have it anyway.
If the “solution” of marriage cannot be applied in one’s current circumstances, then one needs to focus on the Bible’s second solution, which is really not a solution, but rather God’s first and foremost command to all Christians, and that is to love and serve Him unreservedly. For those who are single, the Bible reminds us that there is more guarantee of freedom to fulfill this command, and in this way at least singleness provides an opportunity and a blessing:
But I would have you without carefulness. He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife. There is difference also between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit: but she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please her husband. And this I speak for your own profit; not that I may cast a snare upon you, but for that which is comely, and that ye may attend upon the Lord without distraction. (I Cor. 7:32-35)
God is saying here that the best way to secure our freedom to be completely devoted to Him and His work, is to be single. Marriage also fulfills His purposes and often enhances one’s service to the Lord. But because we cannot control another person, one has no guarantees of what choices a spouse may make which may make service difficult. Thus it is important to choose a spouse carefully. Paul emphasizes that singleness guarantees that one will not be hindered by a spouse. This is seen more clearly in the following translations of verse 35:
Now I say this for your own welfare and profit, not to put (a halter of) restraint upon you, but to promote what is seemly and good order and to secure your undistracted and undivided devotion to the Lord. (Amplified Bible)And this I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is seemly, and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord. (NASV)
I tell you these things to help you; I am not putting difficulties in your path but setting before you an ideal, so that your service of God may be as far as possible free from worldly distractions. (Phillips)
I am saying this because I want to help you. I am not trying to put restrictions on you. Instead, I want you to do what is right and proper, and give yourselves completely to the Lord’s service without any reservation. (TEV)
Paul concludes this recommendation of singleness with a concession that to marry is certainly not sin. But it seems he can’t resist giving one last plug for the benefits of singleness:
But if any man think that he behaveth himself uncomely toward his virgin, if she pass the flower of her age, and need so require, let him do what he will, he sinneth not: let them marry. Nevertheless he that standeth stedfast in his heart, having no necessity, but hath power over his own will, and hath so decreed in his heart that he will keep his virgin, doeth well. So then he that giveth her in marriage doeth well; but he that giveth her not in marriage doeth better. (I Cor. 7:36-38, KJV)
1 Albert Hsu, Singles at the Crossroads (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1997) p. 178.