Not What You Ordered?
Have you ever been to a restaurant and not got what you ordered? Perhaps you ordered the chicken but got beef. Or maybe all your friends’ dishes turned up but yours was nowhere to be seen. It used to happen to me all the time. After church on a Sunday my friends and I would often go out and eat together. There was this one pub in particular where my order, and only mine, would constantly go wrong. In hindsight I don’t know why we continued to go there. I almost started to feel like a victim. Why was it only happening to me? Did some unseen entity in the kitchen have it in for me? Did they not want me to have anything I wanted? Singleness can feel a bit like this sometimes. This is not the way a much younger me would have expected my life to go, and what has arrived isn’t always something that I want.
Singleness: The Calling
In those moments where we singles may be struggling, probably the last words we want to hear are “Well, God has just called you to be single”. Sometimes this sentence comes with a “right now” on the end. Something about this isn’t very reassuring. When we think about people who experienced a calling of some kind in the Bible a few images may come to mind. Perhaps you think of Moses at the burning bush being called to bring the Israelites out of Egypt (Exodus 3), or the word of the Lord coming to Jonah and telling him to go to Nineveh (Jonah 1). Both of these men were given clear, undeniable, objective messages from God concerning the path that was before them. I can think of a point in my life where if the Lord had appeared before me and told me I was going to remain single I would have been every bit as reluctant to follow along with my call as Jonah was with his.
This kind of plainly apparent calling isn’t the experience of most. Don’t worry. If you’re single and you’re reading this, you probably haven’t missed a memo! I certainly haven’t had any dramatic experiences where the Lord has appeared to me and told me that singleness is the path I am to follow. Sometimes it is easier to articulate what we are “called” to by knowing what we are not. For myself, I know my options: Biblical marriage to an opposite sex partner or remaining single. I feel that the former option simply doesn’t feel right to me. Sometimes singleness is thought of as a “subjective calling” – one which is open to our own interpretation. I recently read an interview that respected (and single) priest and theologian John Stott gave later on in his life. In it he states that he was involved in two relationships in his younger years that had the potential for marriage but he “lacked an assurance from God” that he should go forward. Our circumstances play a part in our “calling” in a lot of ways. Some people may lack attraction to the opposite sex, some may not have found the right person yet, some may be divorced or widowed and some may for whatever reason struggle with the idea of being that close to someone.
Singleness: The Gifting
People also often talk about having a “gift” of singleness. Often when I ask a person what they think this gift is, they’ll articulate some kind of special ability to cope with the trials of single life. Experientially we know this not to be true. Even the most contented single person would admit that they still struggle with sexual temptation and many of them may still occasionally desire a partner or experience loneliness. Thinking Biblically, this is also dangerous train of thought. Sam Allberry helpfully unpacks this in his book “7 Myths About Singleness”. By thinking of the gift of singleness as being about endurance, he writes that we are seeing singleness as second best. To overcome this, we must review our theology of gifts and look to what Scripture says they are for.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:7, “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” Paul makes it clear that both singleness and marriage are gifts of God. Where gifts are given, however, these aren’t intended solely to serve the purposes of the individual. Rather, they serve the wider church. The Corinthian church was very gifted. Paul says of them in 1 Corinthians 1:7, “…you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This gives us a clue to the intention behind gifts. They are what God gives us to enable the church to carry out its mission as it awaits the return of Christ. We receive further confirmation of this in Ephesians 4:12. Singleness then, is a gift to the wider church. There is a kind of double repentance needed here though. Last year I attended a networking session at a Christian conference for singles in ministry. I was pleased when I arrived that it wasn’t just a ruse for speed dating but was a chance for those in attendance to share some of the struggles they face. By far the most common complaint was a feeling that the flexibility of single life meant married friends assumed their single allies would always be available to babysit or similar at the drop of a hat. It is certainly good for singles to be able to serve their married friends in such a way from time to time, but married couples must not forget that the single life presents its own unique challenges.
Singleness: The Blessing
Having looked outward, our experience of using the gift of singleness for the building up of the kingdom has a secondary effect of bearing inward fruit. Not only does our service to the Lord help us build a stronger and more intimate relationship with Him, but our service alongside others can help us build stronger community. Both of these things can ease the occasional pangs of loneliness that accompany a single life. Let’s not allow singleness to leave us feeling lonely, isolated and bitter. Instead, let’s seize the opportunity it brings us to spend time doing things that bring us joy, including spending time with God and using it in conjunction with our other gifts in loving service for the building up of His kingdom. In doing so, we might find that negative feelings about singleness begin to dampen. Where we serve for the building up of the kingdom, our perspective also shifts from a worldly one to an eternal one. We realise that marital status is only temporary. We are ultimately called to be the bride of Christ. Next time something arrives at your table that you didn’t order, maybe give it a try. You might discover something new and delicious!
This article was originally published in the Autumn 2019 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend.