John Stott on Singleness
AH: What is your view of singleness?
JS: I wonder if you would allow me to postpone my answer to this question. The reason is that I think we need to discuss marriage before we discuss singleness. The refrain in Genesis 1, day by day, was, 'God saw that it was good.' Then suddenly in Genesis 2:18 God said, 'It is not good for the man to be alone. What? Something not good in God's good creation? Yes, it is not good for human beings to be or live on their own. Calvin rightly commented that the application of this verse is wider than marriage; nevertheless, it refers primarily to marriage and so indicates that God's general will for his human creation is marriage. We single people must not resist this truth. Marriage is the norm, singleness the abnorm.
AH: What, then, is the place of singleness?
JS: I'm nearly ready to give you a straight answer to your question! But first I have one more point to make. This is that we must never exalt singleness (as some early church fathers did, notably Tertullian) as if it were a higher and holier vocation than marriage. We must reject the ascetic tradition which disparages sex as legalised lust, and marriage as legalised fornication. No, no. Sex is the good gift of a good Creator, and marriage is his own institution.
AH: And singleness?
JS: If marriage is good, singleness is also good. It's an example of the balance of Scripture that, although Genesis 2:18 indicates that it is good to marry, 1 Corinthians 7:1 (in answer to a question posed by the Corinthians) says that 'it is good for a man not to marry'. So, both the married and single state are 'good'; neither is in itself better or worse than the other.
AH: What are the reasons for people to remain single?
JS: I doubt if we could find a clearer answer to this question than in the recorded teaching of Jesus himself in Matthew 19:11-12. He was talking about 'eunuchs', meaning people who remain single and celibate. He listed three reasons why people do not marry.
First, for some it is 'because they were born that way'. This could include those with a physical defect or with a homosexual orientation. Such are congenitally unlikely to marry.Second, there are those who 'were made that way by men'. This would include victims of the horrible ancient practice of forcible castration. But it would also include all those today who remain single under any compulsion or external circumstance. One thinks of a daughter who feels under obligation to forgo marriage in order to care for her elderly parents.Third, 'others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven'. These people, who are under no pressure from within or without, voluntarily put marriage aside, either temporarily or permanently, in order to undertake some work for the kingdom which demands single-minded devotion.
AH: Do you then regard singleness as a gift from God?
JS: Yes. It's noteworthy that Jesus himself, before listing those three categories of single people, said that not everybody could accept what he was about to say, 'but only those to whom it has been given. If singleness is a gift, however, so is marriage. Indeed, I have myself found help in 1 Corinthians 7:7. For here the apostle writes: 'each man [or woman] has his [or her] own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. 'Gift' translates charisma, which is a gift of God's grace (charis). So, whether we are single or married, we need to receive our situation from God as his own special grace-gift to us.
AH: Do you mean that singleness is a gift in the sense that we are given supernatural power to cope with it?
JS: Not really. The gift of singleness is more a vocation than an empowerment, although to be sure God is faithful in supporting those he calls (1 Thess 5:24). Gift and calling go together. For if he calls us to singleness, the single state becomes a gift that we receive at his hand.
AH: Can you tell me about your own calling to remain single?
JS: Gladly. In spite of rumours to the contrary, I have never taken a solemn vow or heroic decision to remain single! On the contrary, during my twenties and thirties, like most people, I was expecting to marry one day. In fact, during this period, I twice began to develop a relationship with a lady who I thought might be God's choice of life partner for me. But when the time came to decide, I can best explain it by saying that I lacked an assurance from God that he meant me to go forward. So, I drew back. And when that had happened twice, I naturally began to believe that God meant me to remain single. I'm now seventy-six and well and truly 'on the shelf'! Looking back, with the benefits of hindsight, I think I know why. I could never have travelled or written as extensively as I have done with the responsibilities of a wife and family.
AH: It is widely said that, without marriage, sexual self-control is impossible.
JS: I know that this is often said. And I have to agree both that human sexual desires can be very strong, and that they are made stronger still by the pressures of the sex-obsessed culture in which we live in the West. But we Christians must insist that self-control is possible. We have to learn to control our temper, our tongue, our greed, our jealousy, our pride: why should it be thought impossible to control our libido? To say that we cannot is to deny our dignity as human beings and to descend to the level of animals, which are creatures of uncontrolled instinct.
AH: Could you give us some help in developing sexual self-control?
JS: It seems to me that the best advice comes from the lips of Jesus himself in the Sermon on the Mount, where he spoke of plucking out an offending eye and cutting off an offending foot (Matt 5:28-30). That is to say, if temptation comes through our eyes, we should not look; if through our feet (places we visit) we should not go. We need to be ruthless in dealing with the first approaches of sin. The New Testament calls this process 'mortification. Here is the apostle Paul's most outspoken statement of it: 'If you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live' (Rom. 8:13). In other words, what the world calls life (self-indulgence) is in reality death, whereas putting to death whatever is sinful within us (self-denial) is in reality life. It is what Jesus called 'taking up the cross' – it has to be done daily (Luke 9:23).
AH: Another argument I have heard is that sexual self-control is not only impossible but actually dehumanising, since sexual intercourse is supposedly an indispensable aspect of human experience.
JS: Yes, I have heard this argument too. In fact, the Corinthian false teachers seem to have used it in a letter to Paul. One of their slogans was 'food for the stomach and the stomach for food' (1 Cor 6:13). They were probably saying that just as food and the stomach are meant for each other, so are the body and sex. The stomach can't survive without food; just so, the body can't survive without sex. It's a specious argument, but a blatant lie, which we need to have the courage to repudiate. Jesus our Lord (in the nature of the case) never married or experienced sexual intercourse. Yet he was and is the perfect model of humanness. His example teaches us that it is perfectly possible to be single, celibate and human at the same time!
AH: Do you struggle with loneliness?
JS: Yes, certainly. God created us as social beings. Love is the greatest thing in the world. For God is love, and when he made us in his own image, he gave us the capacity to love and to be loved. So, we need one another. Yet marriage and family are not the only antidotes to loneliness.
In addition, single people are wise to develop as many friendships as possible, with people of all ages and both sexes. For example, although I have no children of my own, I have hundreds of adopted nephews and nieces all over the world who call me "Uncle John". I cherish these affectionate relationships; they greatly lessen, even if they do not altogether deaden, occasional pangs of loneliness.
AH: What are the main dangers to which single people are exposed?
JS: Apart from sexual temptation, to which I have already referred, the greatest danger which I think we face is self-centredness. We may live alone and have total freedom to plan our own schedule, with nobody else to modify it or even give us advice. If we are not careful, we may find the whole world revolving around ourselves. So, I have found it helpful to have six or eight friends, who are known as 'AGE' (Accountability Group of Elders), with whom I meet several times a year, and whose advice I seek about my schedule, and especially about which invitations I should accept.
AH: What then are the liberties which singleness brings?
JS: Paul gives a straight answer to this question. Unmarried people, he wrote, are 'concerned about the Lord's affairs', how they can please him, whereas married people are 'concerned about the affairs of this world, how they can please their spouse, and consequently their interests are divided (1 Cor. 7:32-34). Single people experience the great joy of being able to devote themselves, with concentration and without distraction, to the work of the Lord.
AH: Do you have a final word of advice for single people?
JS: Yes! First, don't be in too great a hurry to get married. We human beings do not reach maturity until we are about twenty-five. To marry before this runs the risk of finding yourself at twenty-five married to somebody who was a very different person at the age of twenty. So be patient. Pray daily that God will guide you to your life partner or show you if he wants you to remain single. Second, lead a normal social life. Develop many friendships. Third, if God calls you to singleness, don't fight it. Remember the key text: 'Each person has his or her own gift of God's grace' (cf.1 Cor. 7:7).
This interview was taken from Al Hsu's "The single issue", 1997 (IVP).To find out more about John Stott visit the 100 website: https://johnstott100.org
This article was originally published in the winter 2021 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend. Click the button below to download your copy.
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