Again, I owe you an apology – I haven’t yet posted on Song of Songs. But that’s because I’ve been working on this. What follows is an adapted and extended version of a sermon I was asked to preach on singleness, a subject that is a personal struggle for me, but all the reading and listening to others’ wisdom and opening up the Bible on it as research for my talk has been a huge encouragement for me personally, and I hope it will be for you, too. So here it is!
The Church of England marriage service begins like this:
“Marriage is a gift of God in creation through which husband and wife may know the grace of God. It is given that as man and woman grow together in love and trust, they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind, as Christ is united with his bride, the Church. The gift of marriage brings husband and wife together in the delight and tenderness of sexual union and joyful commitment to the end of their lives. It is given as the foundation of family life in which children are born and nurtured and in which each member of the family, in good times and in bad, may find strength, companionship and comfort, and grow to maturity in love.”
So often those of us who are single sit through the marriage services of friends and family and are delighted that they are entering in to such a fantastic thing. Yet we can end up thinking “But what about me?” We can just see a list of good things that we don’t, or might never, experience; and as much as we are genuinely overjoyed for the happy couple, the heart aches for what they have. It can be hard to be single in a world that tells you you’re abnormal if you aren’t in a relationship, or in churches that are more focussed on families than the unmarried. But we can’t afford to let that sadness have a death-grip on our lives. And churches can’t afford to neglect a section of society that’s increasing in size. Not while we’re called to live in relationship with God and make disciples of all people.
If we don’t have a proper perspective on singleness it becomes something that’s only ever seen as a waiting-room for marriage, a life-sentence of loneliness, or a dumping-ground for the undesirable. And that simply isn’t true. It’s a huge privilege to be able to share some of what I’ve learned because I have been so encouraged by it in my own struggles with being single. I hope and pray as we look at the Bible and what God says together, we shall all be refreshed by the incredible blessings that we have in Christ, and be spurred on to better love and serve our brothers and sisters in the church.
Before I come to our passage I’d like to give it some context so that we understand the full importance of what it says. In the Old Testament, God focussed His covenant-keeping faithfulness mainly on the people of Israel. Therefore being married and having children was very important for someone’s name and inheritance and for the preservation of God’s covenant people. To start with, God’s promise to Abraham was all about his physical offspring and descendants, and when He reaffirmed the promise to Abraham’s son Isaac in Genesis 26:3 He said “… I will be with you and will bless you. For to you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham.” In the Old Testament Law the system where a man would marry his dead brother’s wife to carry on the name of the brother was God providing for the continuation of the name through physical children. The most famous case of this was when Boaz agreed to marry Ruth to preserve the name of her father-in-law and husband (Ruth 4:10).
As you can see, marriage and having children were key in maintaining God’s covenant people, Israel. So to be single and childless back then was hugely humiliating. Yet this background makes our passage astonishing:
“Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say, ‘The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.’ And let no eunuch complain, ‘I am only a dry tree.’ For this is what the LORD says: ‘To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant – to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever. And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant – these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.’”
This is all possible because of what Isaiah spoke about in chapter 53: the suffering of Christ. Isaiah 53:10 in the ESV says “… it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.” When the Messiah dies as an “offering for sin” and rises again to “prolong his days” He will by that saving act produce many children – so the new people of God formed by the Messiah won’t be formed by physical procreation but by the atoning death of Jesus.
And this is why, straight after talking about how the Messiah will suffer, it says in Isaiah 54:1 “’Sing, O barren women, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labour; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.’ Says the LORD.” It’s also why Isaiah 56:5 in our passage says that unmarried covenant-keeping people will have “a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters” and “an everlasting name that will endure forever.” Can you see what this means? God promises people who keep God’s covenant, who love and worship Him – people who are in Christ – blessings that are better than the blessings of marriage and children. So what are these blessings? And how do they apply to singleness? I’m going to focus on two things that singleness isn’t and one that it is, but if you aren’t single, don’t switch off! These blessings apply to you too.
So, the blessings that we have firstly mean…
Singleness is not missing out – Isaiah 54:1-5
That singleness is not missing out. So often when single people hear about how great it is to be in a relationship, or to have a husband or wife, we can feel like there’s something big that we’re missing. “Oh, but it can be so hard being in a relationship,” our coupled friends say; and we think “yeah, right”. I even get it now; every so often I think “Oh no! I’m almost in my mid-twenties and still single; I’m on the shelf, nobody will ever love me and I’ll die ALONE as a CRAZY CAT LADY and NOBODY WILL NOTICE THAT I’M GONE!”
There’s something really important that we need to get our heads around here. In Matthew 22:30 Jesus said, “At the resurrection [heaven] people will neither marry nor be given in marriage” – this means that marriage is a temporary thing. Let me say it again: marriage is not eternal. I won’t lie, the first time I came across this I refused to believe it – marriage had become such a huge thing for me that I hoped that even if I didn’t get married in this life, I could get married in heaven. After all, I’d have an eternity to find a husband! Surely SOMEONE would want me, right? But when we get to heaven, there won’t be marriage because the thing it points to will be a reality.
Let’s skip back a couple of chapters to Isaiah 54:
“’Sing, O barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labour; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.’… ‘For your Maker is your husband – the LORD Almighty is his name – the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth.’”
(Isaiah 54:1, 4-5)
Marriage points to the complete intimacy and union that we have with God – partially now, but completely in heaven – so when we get to heaven, there will be no more need for the picture of union with Christ because it will be a complete reality. This means that if you aren’t married, you aren’t missing out on the big picture. And if you are married, you get to enjoy a foretaste of what is to come. We shouldn’t idolise marriage and put it above our relationship with God, because that is the prize we’re all headed for.
At this point I can imagine some of you (especially the men) might think “Hang on there! God is my husband? Isn’t that a bit weird?” Keep going with me here. Think about what it is to be a husband – the depth of love for a wife, the depth of concern, the long-term commitment, the longing to protect and provide and pursue – that’s what God feels for His people. For you. And women, think about what you long for from a husband in affirmation, protection, comfort, every part of you being known and loved – that’s what God gives us in our relationship with Him. And this is my greatest comfort when it aches to be unattached; knowing that the God who created the cosmos loves me. Loves me – honours, protects, comforts, and is faithful to me for better, worse, richer, poorer, sickness and health. He loves me. And you.
So if you are single, when you see a couple together and long for that kind of relationship, when you ache for good things like commitment, or children, or just for someone to know your heart and love you as you are, remember this. The most precious, the closest, the most faithful relationship you have is the one you have with God. Cry out to Him, because He cares for you and Jesus knows what it’s like to be single. And pursue that relationship with Him – rejoice in it, spend quality time with God, talk to Him in prayer, and eagerly wait for the day when you will see Him as He truly is, face to face. The same goes for those who aren’t single. Our identity is in Christ, not our relationship status. And we need to be careful about saying things like “I feel sorry for the girls at such-and-such a church, there aren’t enough eligible young men for them”, or “How are they still single?”, or even trying to play matchmaker to our single friends. These things might seem harmless, but they undermine people’s confidence in their identity in Christ and assume that people aren’t fulfilled unless they have an “other half”. God does not promise us an earthly husband or wife; He promises us Himself. So we should be constantly pointing each other to and encouraging each other in such a priceless blessing.
As the 17th Century minister Richard Baxter once said:
“Is it a small thing in your eyes to be loved by God? To be the child, the spouse, the love, the delight, of the king of glory? Christian, believe this and think about it. You will be eternally embraced in the arms of the love which was from everlasting and will extend to everlasting. Of the love which brought the Son of God’s love from heaven to earth, from the earth to the cross, from the cross to the grave, and from the grave to glory. That love which was hungry, weary, tempted, scorned, scourged, buffeted, spit upon, crucified, pierced. That love which fasted, prayed, taught, healed, wept, sweat, bled, and died. That love will eternally embrace you.”
It’s worth mentioning physical intimacy here. It isn’t easy to talk about, but it can be hard to be a Christian single with a sex drive. We know that sex within marriage is a great and beautiful thing, but can’t enjoy it ourselves unless we are married. How do we deal with it? If you remember back to our Autumn series on Song of Songs Henry talked about the greater truth sex points to. Since marriage is a reflection of Christ and the Church, the complete unity and intimacy of sex is the only metaphor strong enough to describe the intimate relationship that Christians have with God. So when you struggle with a desire for sex that you can do nothing about, remember what it points to and thank God that our need for love and intimacy are ultimately fulfilled in our relationship with Him.
Being single isn’t missing out on a thing. One of our great blessings is that we have a relationship with God that answers our need for personal intimacy; a relationship that marriage can at best only ever reflect. The only people missing out here are those who don’t know Jesus.
Singleness does not mean being alone – 1 Peter 4:8-10
Secondly, singleness does not mean being alone. A common pang felt by lots of single people is loneliness. Sometimes it’s not about wanting dates or flowers or a ring; sometimes it’s a case of just wanting another person to do things with. Someone to cook for, to go for walks with, share a relaxing night in with, or just to come home to after work.
Loneliness has been described as “the painful feeling of separation from an unacceptability to others” – but we have been made acceptable by Jesus’ death and resurrection eradicating our sin, and so we aren’t separated from God. Not only is our relationship with God restored; He has given us a family and community where we are accepted in the Church. And we should remember that this family is not only spiritual, but eternal. We’ll all be in heaven together. Doesn’t this make our relationships with other believers important? Next time you’re at church, have a good look around you. These people you see are, first and foremost, your brothers and sisters in Christ. So we should treat each other like the spiritual family that we are.
So what does it look like to be a family? 1 Peter 4:8-10 says:
“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”
It looks like loving deeply, offering hospitality, and serving each other.
How members of the church relate to each other shows the world that our lives are focussed on God, and that our relationships aren’t only defined by family or peer group, but by Christ. So being a family for each other is about worshipping and displaying Jesus to the world as well as being about being there for each other. For the sake of His name, and for the love of each other, we should be interested in each other’s’ lives. We should care about what other people at our churches do, how they really are, and what they think about things. And we should especially care about their relationship with God (because it’s so important!).
As someone who doesn’t have one automatic go-to person about anything, it’s been so helpful for me to have a small group of close friends who know me well and who I have a lot of respect and affection for. And they aren’t all women. We can sometimes be over-cautious about close male-female relationships and it is important to keep our friendships at an appropriate level of closeness. But guys and girls can be friends without wanting to marry each other! Too often our culture tells us that if people are close, they’re sleeping together. But the Bible celebrates close, intimate and committed friendships like that of Naomi and Ruth, and Jonathan and David, which weren’t sexual at all.
We are called to love each other deeply, and we can do this by offering hospitality to each other. It doesn’t have to be limited to formal dinner parties. Sometimes it can be as simple as inviting people over to watch Eurovision together, or as fun as going on a day trip together, or as everyday as walking to lectures together. It’s about taking the opportunity to invite people to share in your life. Over the last few years I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know a couple at my church quite well, and I can’t tell you how much of a privilege it’s been to be invited to share time with them as a family, grabbing a quick dinner between work and Prayer & Praise, or hanging out on a Sunday afternoon, or holding the baby for a few minutes to give them some free hands!
This is a challenge to both single and married people – make the effort to open your home and your lives to others. We should all throw ourselves into this community called Church. Single people, don’t isolate yourselves. Non-single people, remember that it can be hard to be the single person in a room full of couples. Students, think about putting down roots and building relationships where you are now. Everyone, remember that all types of people can feel lonely, and think about who you could have a meaningful friendship with over the next few years. Who has God put into your life that you can encourage?
These kinds of relationships also answer the question of future security. We know that God as a plan for each of our lives, and has promised us a glorious future in heaven, but we can still worry about the practical parts of life between now and then. When you think about it, in a spouse and a family you have an automatic next of kin and someone to look after you when you’re old. Single people don’t naturally have this. If I were to be knocked over by a car, who would I get the paramedics to call? My parents? My housemates? My boss? My vicar? If I’m stuck in hospital for weeks on end, who will visit me? Who will look after me if I can’t look after myself? If I’m sent to be a missionary abroad, who will I go with? I can think about these questions and feel so alone in the world. But this is where my church family comes in, and this is why it’s so important to nurture close friendships with them. Because as a church we’re called to look after each other and to be there for each other.
So we’ve seen that being single does not mean that you’re missing out on a close relationship because that’s exactly what we have with God. And it doesn’t mean that you have to be lonely because you are a part of a close and eternal family that is the Church. These are huge blessings! Now let’s look at one thing that singleness is.
Singleness is a great opportunity – 1 Corinthians 7
We’re called to serve each other, and singleness is a fantastic opportunity to do this.
1 Corinthians 7:6-8 says:
“I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all of you were as I am [meaning single]. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” And if we skip down to verses 32-34 Paul says why: “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.”
Single people have more time and energy to give than married people, because a married person’s spouse and children rightfully get first dibs at their free time. This doesn’t mean that they are less of a Christian or that it’s bad to be married, it just means that we single people have a great opportunity before us.
Did you notice that it talked about singleness (or marriage) as a gift there? The idea of the “gift of singleness” is one that’s been misunderstood as some form of special inner peace over being single where you don’t ever want to get married. That isn’t what Paul’s talking about. The Greek word he uses that’s translated as “gift” here (that’s “charisma” for you Greek geeks) carries the sense of being enabled to do something. The same word is used in 1 Corinthians 12:4-7: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” And it then lists a whole load of different gifts. This means that, as a gift, singleness is an empowerment to serve the Church in a particular way. As 1 Peter 4:10 said earlier, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”
Because God gives to each of us the gifts He wants to give us, people aren’t single because they are too old or ugly or there aren’t enough young men or women to go round. And this doesn’t mean that people are married because they’re in some way better than the single people. People are single or married because that’s where God wants them. That’s the opportunity He’s given them to serve. And God gives us the gifts He gives us “for the common good” – to bless and build each other up. Therefore singleness isn’t a waiting-room until someday my prince comes and I can start living life; singleness is an opportunity to bless my church right here, right now. And that’s what I’ve found over the last couple of years. If I had been married, I wouldn’t have been able to be an intern at my church last year and get into serving in the music team as much as I have been able to. I wouldn’t be able to spend as much time writing this sermon as I have, because I should rightly have spent some of that free time with my hypothetical husband. I couldn’t have people over for dinner as much, or agree to go for a coffee with a friend at 10 minutes’ notice. I’m not saying that they should be doing too much, but that single people can invest much more time, energy and flexibility into relationships and ministries.
So the challenge is to do it! Single people, what can you use your free time for? Could you invite newcomers over for dinner to help them feel more at home? Could you get involved in serving on a Sunday? Could you help out at the church toddler group? Could you celebrate the end of exams with friends and stay in touch over the summer? Are you investing in others’ lives? Could you take on a one-to-one pastoring role? Or visit the elderly, or help lead a housegroup, or start up a new ministry? And to the rest of us there’s a challenge too: How are we empowering single people to glorify God with their free time and energy? Are we encouraging those serving in church? Are we mentoring them so that they are equipped and trained to serve? Are we giving them opportunities or inviting them to get involved? And are we affirming their value as single people in Christ and their value as members of our church family?
Another fact is that single people can display truths about God that married people can’t. Because we are a part of the Church, we show that God’s family grows through people turning to Him in faith and not by Christian couples having children. Because of the close relationship we have with God, and because we wait for when we will see Him in heaven, we show that marriage is a reflection of something eternal and much greater. And if we live lives faithful to our Saviour, we show that He gives us value and our identity. Marriage shows the passion and exclusivity of our relationship with Christ as His bride; singleness shows the inclusivity of the offer of salvation and love and community that God sets before all people.
So we’ve seen that as God’s people we are promised blessings that are far better than marriage and children. We’ve seen that the great relationship that we have with God means that single people aren’t missing out on a personal and close relationship. We’ve seen that the spiritual family that God has given us in the Church means that singleness is not about being alone. And we’ve seen that singleness can be seen as a great opportunity to bless our church and proclaim truths about God in ways that married people can’t.
Singleness is in no way a Plan B or falling short of the best in life. Our challenge here is to live up to our calling as God’s people to love Him, love others, and proclaim the Gospel with our lives.
You can listen to the original sermon here: http://stmaryswollatonpark.co.uk/podcast/?p=episode&name=2013-05-28_singleness.mp3
Here are a couple of questions that I would have liked to answer in my talk, but ran out of time:
Are there good times to be alone? Yes. Some people naturally need time away from others to emotionally recharge, but this doesn’t mean that time alone is only for introverts. There are good things about solitude, because it isn’t about avoiding people or escaping from the world, but a spiritual discipline where you intentionally spend time alone with God. God is always with us, but we need to consciously focus on Him and spend quality time with Him. It’s during these times that we can reflect on things, and often God shows us things about Himself and ourselves that help us in our own growth.
But solitude also makes us appreciate community more. Al Hsu says:
“The antidote to aloneness and alienation is community. While it is good for us to develop solitude, we are not meant to stay alone all the time. We are social beings, designed to live in relationship with others. While some may genuinely prefer to live solitary, isolated lives, most of us yearn to belong to a group and have a place where we are acknowledged and needed… Fellowship with God is the solution for loneliness. Companionship with fellow Christians is the cure for aloneness. Our identity with Christ, though personal and individual, is also corporate and communal. The discipline of solitude should not isolate us – solitude should move us toward community. Solitude actually helps us appreciate people more. Solitude and community are two parallel disciplines, two sides of the same coin, which need to be held in balance.” (The Single Issue p.138)
What if you have a good theology of singleness, you love your close relationship with God and are content to be in whatever situation He puts you in, but still want to be married? How do you deal with what seems like a conflict of desires? Well, it isn’t wrong to pray for a spouse. Tell God what you truly want, and don’t worry about praying the “wrong” prayer, because He knows what’s good for you. And actually, as we pray and really do pour out our hearts to God, we find that He changes our hearts. If, in our aching, we press into Him and say by our actions that we choose to put Him first; in this worship, He changes us to be more like Christ. So talk to God about it, and then trust Him. Trust that God will give you what you need in the situation that He’s put you in. Also, be aware that marriage can become an idol when our vision of God is too small. We obsess about things because God doesn’t have the place that He should have in our hearts. It’s been said that we have a “hole” in our hearts that’s designed for God to fill. And if our vision of Him is too small then He won’t fill it, and that hole will just churn out desires that become controlling obsessions and idols. It seems counter-intuitive, but the way to fight such desires isn’t to try and make yourself not want them but to focus on something else, something much greater. Focus on knowing and loving God, and delighting in Him, and He will change those desires in such a way that they will be satisfied in Him.
And let me say that out of experience, it does hurt sometimes. You can know these good things and love God, and enjoy being able to serve with your free time, but being single still aches. And I know that in heaven all my deepest desires will be satisfied in seeing my Saviour face-to-face, but heaven is a lifetime away. So far, and so long to wait! Sometimes I just have to carry that burden, but I know that Jesus will help me bear it. And I know that between now and Glory there will be joy as well as pain. And I know that heaven will be all the sweeter for having known my God closely now, and having my longing for more completely satisfied when I get there.
You can listen to the original talk here: http://stmaryswollatonpark.co.uk/podcast/?p=episode&name=2013-05-28_singleness.mp3
Here’s a list of the things I listened to and read (you’ll see some shameless pinching of wisdom!):
Paige Benton Brown’s article on singleness: http://www.pcpc.org/ministries/singles/singledout.php – kind of kick started my thinking on singleness and God’s goodness.
The Single Issue by Al Hsu (IVP) – lots of practical application of how to “do” singleness in a Godly way.
John Piper’s talk “Single in Christ: A Name Better Than Sons and Daughters”: http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/sermons/single-in-christ-a-name-better-than-sons-and-daughters – that’s where I got the main theology from.
Piper’s book This Momentary Marriage (Crossway) is free online. Its chapter on singleness is basically the talk above, but it’s also got some stuff in chapter 10 about the relationship between married couples and single people.
Carolyn McCulley’s talk on “Singleness and Sanctification”: http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/conference-messages/singleness – more practical stuff on how to live out singleness.
Short article on longing to be married based on podcasts asking John Piper questions: http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/ask-pastor-john/how-can-i-long-to-be-married-without-obsessing-about-it
Article by Marshall Segal on “Mission for the Not Yet Married”: http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/single-satisfied-and-sent-mission-for-the-not-yet-married
Another Carolyn McCulley talk on “Biblical Femininity for Single Women”: http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/conference-messages/were-not-on-hold-biblical-femininity-for-single-women – she’s got a load of good stuff to say!
Tim Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage (Hodder & Stoughton) has a helpful chapter on singleness as well.
Something really helpful that was published since I wrote this sermon is this article about how it’s not wrong to have a sex drive when you’re single, and also how we can deal with it (for want of a better phrase) in a pure way: http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/the-single-person-s-good-desire-for-sex