Preparing for singleness when you’d much rather be preparing for marriage
By Ross Clark
When an aeroplane pilot is stricken and a passenger with little or no flying experience has to take the controls and be ‘talked down’ by those in the control tower, the experience is terrifying for all concerned.
‘Talk down’ is symbolic of every situation in which we have no choice but to do what everything in us would rather not do. It is a good picture of what is involved in coming to terms with being single when you would much rather be married. One’s expectations of life and God must be ‘talked down’, if one is to accept the single life.
Go to any Christian bookshop and you will find a mass of books on the big issue, the life-changing decision of getting married, and how you should prepare for it. But books on the single life are much harder to come by.
For many, the process of coming to terms with being single is ferociously difficult, yet there is little help to be found in the Church. Pastors spend much time helping faltering marriages. Helping a faltering single is a lesser priority. Why? Shouldn’t we be thinking of how we prepare some people for the single life, specially when their own natural inclinations lie in other directions?
Not every Christian single makes it—too many of the older singles drop out of our churches, and/or marry unbelievers. We need to ask what the churches can do to help Christian singles, because the problem of unreasonable and unrealised expectations which many singles struggle with has its roots in the churches’ own Teaching.
The Glittering Prize
What messages are we giving our teenagers and singles?
Gather a group of fourteen year-olds from any church scene and make them our reference group. Put them in one place, and the conversation will eventually turn to relationships and romance. Given the age, immaturity, and emotional state of the people concerned, that is hardly surprising. But what’s a youth leader to do?
The Biblical standard—no sex outside of marriage — is absolutely clear, and youth leaders work hard to teach it. Generally, they will say something like, “trust God, and he will have his best for you. Save yourself for marriage, it’s your loss if you don’t. God blesses those who trust him.” Or, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart”.1 Somewhat out of context, Jer 29:11 will get a look-in.
Dating, at any age, is often described as “not really God’s will. Instead, trust him to bring you his choice for you.” Or—and without any Biblical justification—”God already has someone for you, if you just trust in him”. A variant on this is, “Yield your rights and God will have just the right person for you”.
When the issue of sexuality is confronted, dire warnings are given to anyone who would threaten to cross the line, generally raising the obvious threats of STDs and pregnancy. Later on, the concern shifts to Christians who ‘live in sin’, and all sorts of horror stories will be trotted out about what happens to the Christians who do so.
And so a very powerful expectation is created concerning marriage: it is made to appear the ‘glittering prize’, God’s blessing for doing the right thing, particularly in facing off sexual temptation. The teaching that obedience will inevitably be accompanied by the appropriate blessing — generally, a good marriage, family and status amongst the people of God — further cements this judgment. That this becomes part of the “success fantasy” foisted on people (the term is Tony Campolo’s) is not even realised.
The issue of status is an important one. A wedding band may not be a ring of power, à la J.R.R. Tolkien, but it certainly has status or mana, as most churches’ attitudes to most singles will show. Indeed, how often do we see single people in the leadership of our churches? And what sort of message does that transmit?
Worse is the attitude that singles are oddball, fuelled by the unpleasant fact that ‘needy’ people are much more likely to be, and remain, single. Faced with a reputation like that, who wants to be single and lonely for the rest of their days? Especially if at that time, one is facing the usual adolescent uncertainties about life and whether “I’m lovable enough” — the syndrome so neatly illustrated in the film Muriel’s Wedding.
Once teenagers hit their twenties, and some do succeed in finding life-partners, there is a subtle shift in the emphases of the teaching and counselling. Instead of “God will have someone for you”, it becomes, “you may have to wait”. People’s very real concerns that they might be left out totally are ignored, and not always politely.
In time, this ‘comes out in the wash’ for the majority of people. By the time the group of teenagers we started with has hit their thirties, three-quarters will be married; though many will have compromised their faith to do so. Of the remainder, we may reasonably assume that some will want to be single, and others will have accepted being single . . . and still others will be left grieving and wondering where they went so wrong to be left out of ‘God’s best’. It is this latter group which concerns us; many of them are left with an image of God which is mean-spirited and grim, further complicated by self-blame for where they have ended up.
What’s it like to be single in a world full of couples? Deuteronomy 34 paints the picture of Moses looking at the Promised Land from Mt Nebo, a land he could see but which he knew he could never enter. It has a haunting parallel to the situation faced by many Christian singles, made worse because of the expectations given to them through most of their lives to that point.
It’s made worse when churches talk about appreciating the ministry of singles: what they really mean is, “we have lots of petty little jobs which aren’t being done and need doing. You guys have time on your hands, so we’ll get you to do it!”
How can those unrealised expectations be healed and what can the Church do to help?
The Only Way is Down
When confronted with wounded singles, a church’s normal attitude is to ignore the problem. It is easier to criticise singles for the unrealistic expectations or misbeliefs they often have about relationships. But where do these unrealistic expectations come from?
There is a great deal that churches could do to improve matters. In some cases, their approach is so awful that it is hard to see how it could be worse. My heartfelt judgment is that the problems of the singles in our churches will only be helped when the churches deal with the expectations they create. Here’s how.
1. Start telling the truth about the nature of romance
Romance is not about God’s choice “for many, but not for all”. The process by which some Christians get married and others remain single rarely involves supernatural intervention. Rather, people’s attraction in the romance stakes follows a distribution from drop-dead gorgeous, through to drop-dead at the thought of it.
They who have get all the attention they want, and much that they don’t. Those who aren’t perceived to be attractive are left out. Despite bitter protestations to the contrary, Christians are no different in this respect—but no-one will ever admit it!
To compensate, leaders sometimes suggest that their charges work on their Christian life. But being a good Christian does not, in itself, improve your chances. In fact, it just highlights what is already there. The attractive are more attractive still; the naturally less-attractive are levered right out of the running, as if living in the Light shows up the bugs all the more. The stronger the Christian life, the more this effect can be seen at work.
Perhaps this is why dating is so disliked amongst the (married) youth leadership; it creates a culture of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, and it can lead to other discipline problems.
It is with good reason that youth leaders are afraid of ‘losing people’ if they were to admit the reality of who gets the relationships and who doesn’t—that it is about your own natural attraction, not whether God ‘has’ someone for you. Those who are attractive don’t need to stay in Christian circles to get what they want; those who aren’t are left with nothing to stay for.
This isn’t good enough; the truth should set us free, not bind us up. Is it asking too much that we admit the truth of the relational game?
In particular, don’t encourage talk about people getting ‘words from God’ as to who they are going to marry. I accept that some people do get these things; but for every rhema which is genuine, nineteen more are duds. People’s wishful thinking will see to that. Prophecies over people that “they will marry”, or worse, who they will marry, fall into the same category.
And ultimately—finding a mate has little to do with yielded rights. That a right has been yielded does not mean that the matching need or desire will be met, any more than not yielding rights means that the need or desire will not be met. A major flaw in Bill Gothard’s teaching is that it does not recognise this uncomfortable hard edge of the Christian life.
2. Tell the truth about sexuality
Church leaders are well aware of the way in which the Seventh Commandment is often left by their charges like a piece of Swiss cheese. For every couple that gets caught out, the law of averages should tell you that ten more will have ‘got away with it’. That does not make it right, but the truth is that only a few get the thunderbolt from on high which the many who stray from the straight and narrow have been threatened with.
Pastors won’t admit the scale of the problem, for the simple reason that it becomes a licence for yet more licence. One of the real reasons why they work so hard to promise their charges that “there’ll be someone for you” is to maintain control, particularly of sexuality. If people see the many who ‘get away with it’, they are more likely to try it for themselves; we would all much prefer to “laugh with the sinners instead of cry with the saints” (to quote Billy Joel). Yet it is only in admitting to the problem that we can hope to do anything about it in the long-term.
Furthermore, the trouble with the “wait until marriage” message is that you end up with nothing to say to the people for whom there is no marriage to wait for. Every time this issue has come up in, say, Challenge Weekly, the result has been an embarrassed silence or at the most, “Well, you’re still not allowed” (something the singles concerned understand pretty well). This problem is still very much in the too-hard basket.
3. Show that sexuality is not the enemy of spirituality
Growing up, one hears so much talk about “impure sexual thoughts” that people begin to wonder if there were such a thing as a pure sexual thought. More seriously, perhaps, we do not help people understand that their sexuality is there for a reason, and not the enemy, as it is often portrayed, of their spirituality. Lust is a mortal sin, yes, but it is not the only mortal sin.
4. Allow a grief process to be worked through
Many singles, in coming to terms with being single, have to work through a grief process. They should be given much more help to do so than they are. The experience of Jephthah’s daughter2 suggests that such a process is appropriate. Jeremiah probably faced the same thing.3
It is, I imagine, similar to the process which must be worked through with couples who cannot have children. That is even more difficult. We find it difficult to admit to unmet need, and grief. It raises too many questions about God, and about the people whose needs are left unmet.
5. Fine-tune your counselling
Much of our counselling is aimed at people who fit the pattern of the younger irresponsible brother in the parable of the Prodigal. The problem is that this teaching is of little use to those people whose predominant inclination is in being an older brother—the situation many singles are left in (the irresponsible ones having walked out already).
Much wisdom is needed to speak to those people who have ‘kept the law’ and then have little to show for it. Even more wisdom is needed when breaking God’s law (although that is costly) is perceived to be less costly than keeping it. Not many stay the course in those circumstances.
The Only Way is Up
There is also much that singles can do to help themselves—here are some ideas.
1. Why are you here?
Honestly facing up to why singles are single—whether for good reasons or bad reasons—is what makes healing possible. If it is social skills, singles should get themselves into a place where they can come right, even if that means changing churches (or even denominations). If it is self-esteem, then work out what the root cause is, for it is unlikely to be in the single life itself.
Some singles think that they have low self-esteem because they are single; in fact, the converse—that a pre-existing problem of self-esteem is likely to result in a much higher likelihood in being single—is more likely to be true. It would be fair to say that many singles have needs for emotional healing, even if these are not recognised.
2. Admit your needs
The self-sufficient inclinations of New Zealand culture, plus the lack of support our churches give the vulnerable, do not encourage people to admit their need or to seek help. Being told, “Are things as bad as all that?” does not exactly help people to open up. Nor is being fobbed off with, “Don’t worry, God has everything under control”.
Yet to be honest and real is an essential part of Christian discipleship. It is a pity that leaders’ encouragement of honesty comes to a grinding halt when this is the issue. Owning needs does not mean that they will be met, but it does allow others to help.
3. Give honest feedback
Often, leaders do not appreciate what it is like to be thirty-plus and single, especially if they were married at 21. Tell them what it actually feels like, not what it is supposed to feel like. In particular, tell them how it feels to be left out, because that is the emotion you must face. No amount of special pleading from the pastor can change that. In particular, ‘Job’s Comforter’ counsel should be trashed on the spot, not allowed to perpetuate itself. In doing this you are owning your own emotions; that way, they are not being allowed to rule you.
4. The Gift of Friendship
In his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis made much of that form of love called friendship (philia). In particular, he made much of the importance of friendship between men and women where romantic love was not possible. Much, much more could be taught and modelled in this area; and many of the better-adjusted singles would look at these friendships as an emotional lifesaver, because there is something in the way we are emotionally ‘hard-wired’ which needs the support of the opposite sex.
5. “All that glitters is not gold”
The ‘grass is greener on the other side of the fence’ syndrome is pretty common with singles. Being told by marrieds, “The single life is ‘God’s best’ or ‘God’s choice’ for you” is especially grating. Battling a combination of depression, low self-esteem, sexual frustration and people’s wrongful expectations is enough to have anyone asking, “This is a blessing? Get real!”.
When that is aggravated by seeing Christians who broke all the rules allowed into the ‘promised land’, and given the very real blessings denied the singles, it is no surprise that many of them question whether God has any sense of justice left. Yet there is more in his purposes than that; indeed there may be no justice in these situations, but there will be grace.
There are not many books on the market to help singles. One is Beyond Singleness: How to make better relationships, by Helena Wilkinson. It is probably the most useful of the few books around. A general rule is that the American books on the subject should be avoided, as they tend to patronise their subject(s). As well, the dating culture is quite different [from New Zealand].
Another useful book is Reluctantly Single, by Harold Ivan Smith. Its value lies in its teaching on the need to be reconciled to where you are at. It follows the teaching in Colossians of Jesus as the reconciling agent of God. Reconciliation is not cheap—as Bishop Tutu observed, “It cost God the death of his own Son”—but it is surely along these lines that help can be found.
Faced with this or any other unmet need, there is a strong inclination to look to some magical future where everything will be put right, the wounds of the past healed or at least less apparent, and one is appropriately rewarded for whatever cross you have had to bear.
But to think in this way is to neglect that God is ‘Present’ in the present, in ‘real time’. I said earlier that Jer 29:11 (“I know the plans I have for you, plans for good and not for evil”) gets quoted too often to singles, and somewhat against context. But on second thoughts, perhaps it is within context. This chapter in Jeremiah, himself a single, is addressed to the first wave of exiles, as they wondered how they were going to survive as strangers in a strange land.
And exile is not too strong a description for how many singles (and most childless couples) are left feeling in a church environment which is just as inclined as the world to stick people into a mould. In such circumstances, the Lord could indeed be worshipped as someone who “gathered the exiles of Israel”.4
Let’s remember, the point of a talk down is basically to get the plane back to earth so that it can be checked over and with a healthy pilot (or revised set of expectations) allowed to take to the air again….
This article appeared in printed form in the June-July 1998 issue of Reality magazine which is available by subscription from:
Reality Magazine Bible College of New Zealand Private Bag 93-104 Henderson Auckland 1231 New Zealand