How to keep your marital status in perspective
‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ Jane Austen wrote this famous first line of Pride and Prejudice in an era when it was common to marry into money. Single people today are more likely to be in possession a good amount of debt!
But in our culture people still assume everyone wants a husband or wife, or at least a partner. The majority view is that being in relationship is preferable to being single. People tend to think a single person is getting over a break-up, or is in-between relationships, or is promiscuous and happy to play the field.
As for the idea of someone being single or unmarried as a permanent status, even a desirable status. Well, this will generally be met by suspicion, incredulity or pity. We often refer to people as happily married. But when did you last hear someone described as happily unmarried? Sadly, this is a foreign concept even in the Church. This piles pressure on unmarried believers and particularly those who face same-sex temptations, for whom heterosexual marriage may never be viable.
Singleness is good
This idea of being happily unmarried is not alien to the Apostle Paul. He speaks positively about being unmarried in 1 Corinthians 7. He even expresses a positive bias for singleness: “I wish that all of you were as I am” (v 7), “It is good …to stay unmarried, as I do” (v 8), “I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is” (v 26), “I would like you to be free from concern” (v 32). Paul writes of the Christian widow that “she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord” (v 39). He adds, shockingly, “In my judgement, she is happier if she stays as she is” (v 40). Not just happily unmarried, then, but happily widowed! How strangely counter-intuitive.
So, is Paul saying it’s better to remain unmarried? That the single life, far from being God’s second-best, is God’s choice cut? Well, it’s not quite so straightforward. His argument is more nuanced – and more radical.
Time is short
Paul has an eternal perspective that powerfully transforms his view of life in this world. As he puts it in verse 29, “the time is short.” The time until what? Christ’s return. “For this world in its present form is passing away” (v 31).
This gospel reality that time is short (more literally ‘compressed’ or ‘squashed’) shapes Paul’s thinking. Not just on marriage and singleness but about every aspect of life. So, “From now on”, he writes, “those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them” (v 29-31).
We need this same perspective. God’s big plan is to wrap up this present world and usher in a new heaven and earth, where Christ will be King and reign forever. Everything in this world, including my marital status, is temporary. But the reign of Christ will never end. In a million years, a billion years, a trillion years, Jesus will still be on the throne.
And if I allow this truth to sink in and impact my mind, I will think and feel differently about life now. It will transform everything. My priorities. My passions. My plans. They will all be transformed by this gospel vision of the future. Including my perspective on marital status.
Jesus is Lord
Married or single, our primary and most precious relationship ought to be with the Lord Jesus Christ. His glorious presence will dominate the new heavens and earth (Revelation 21:22-24). But even now, devotion to Christ should be my priority. The Lord Jesus takes centre stage in 1 Corinthians 7. So, Paul writes about “the Lord’s affairs” and how to “please the Lord” (v 32 and 34). He is concerned that believers “be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit” (v 34) and “may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord” (v 35).
Clearly, the unmarried person has a distinct advantage here. Because he or she is free from marital concerns, not torn between pleasing a spouse and pleasing the Lord. Let me, then, dare to re-write the opening line of Pride and Prejudice – but from a 1 Corinthians 7 perspective:
It ought to be a truth universally acknowledged that a single man or woman in possession of the treasure that is Christ, must be in want of nothing else and is wonderfully free to live in unbridled devotion to the Lord. Forever.
This article was originally published in the Autumn 2017 edition of "Ascend", the TFT newsletter.