When my older sister happily married at 21, I was going to be just as happy and just as married by the time I was 21. So I thought.
This year I turned 31, and I am very much single. The strangest thing about this isn’t my persisting life stage, but that it took me over a decade for my life stage to actually dawn on me.
There’s a world of difference between not yet married and single.
Shouldn’t the fact that I’m single have been more obvious?
Well up until a few short months ago, I’d spent over a decade considering myself not yet married. But there’s a world of difference between not yet married and single.
Not yet married means lack, yearning, incompleteness, discontentment. I’d had a decade of it, and finally called enough enough. Now I’m single. The great thing about single is that it actually just means single.
New Beginnings, New Furniture
An odd set of circumstances lead me to being single.* Mid last year I was about to move house, but three months would pass before my new tenancy began. I looked around my place and realised that, through the generosity of friends and strangers; the frugality of my student years; and the help of a score of ex-housemates who’d married and moved out, I was now the sole owner of a large collection of horrific-looking furniture.
To store this junk for three months would cost time, effort, and money better wasted elsewhere. The only sensible option was to give it away.
For me, marriage is no longer ultimate. I don’t lack, I’m not incomplete. I’m not merely content being single. I’m satisfied.
As one smiling, thankful Gumtree customer after another collected their free chairs, tables and random dust-collecting oddments, the weight began to lift from my shoulders. I imagined what it would be like to purchase furniture for my new rental that didn’t make me cringe, and that I actually enjoyed using.
Three months later, I did just that—along with new linen, plants, furnishings, and a veggie patch. This is an embarrassingly mundane paragraph for me to write. Except that these changes embodied a defining paradigm shift that brought with it unforeseen contentment. My life was no longer on hold for some future, imagined event. In fact, even the word contentment—implying toleration—fails to capture it. I’m now not merely content being single. I’m satisfied.
If I marry and have children, it will be a blessing from God and a dream fulfilled. I think marriage and family are incredible, and I love and support my many friends who are enjoying that life stage. But for me, marriage is no longer ultimate. I don’t lack, I’m not yearning, incomplete or discontent. I’m not unmarried. I’m single. See the difference?
The Shrine to Romance
You can’t go through an experience like this and not have it affect the way you think about other spheres of life. For me, as a pastor, this has made me question some of Christian culture’s fundamental values.
In the church, have we gone beyond marriage is good to marriage is ultimate?
Rightly, church communities place a high value on marriage, children and family. God does: so should we.
Parallel to this, the world would have us believe that romance is everything—that the companionship, sex and fulfilment found in an intimate relationship is the summit of a lifelong search, the fullest expression of what it means to be human.
Could it be that the Christian culture I grew up in confused those two messages? In the paragraph above, have we simply replaced the word romance with marriage? Have we gone beyond marriage is good to marriage is ultimate? Has family become a synonym for fulfilment?
We Celebrate What We Value
That message may not be preached, but from the vantage point of a single, it seems widely implied. Scripture esteems singleness as perhaps even preferable to marriage in the freedom it affords us to serve the Lord without distraction. But where is singleness celebrated in the church?
Church-wide events are shaped predominantly with the family unit in mind. Unlike engaged couples, singles who decide to remain as they are instead of settling for a poor choice in life partner aren’t applauded. Community matriarchs are more likely to enquire with young people about a rumoured relationship than the joys and struggles of ministry as a single person. Singles aren’t honoured with glorious ceremonies, lavish banquets and generous gift-giving for consecrating themselves to single-minded service to God.
I don’t think singleness needs to be lauded with all the pageantry of marriage. But I am trying to identify a sanctified idolatry, widespread in Christian culture: if you’re married, you’ve made it. If you’re single, don’t worry, you’ll get there eventually.
With this message we do a great injustice to singles. The words second class citizen spring to mind.
Singleness is just as “Christian” as marriage. So how can singles be celebrated in church life?
We do a great injustice to those in our midst struggling with same-sex attraction. If even after much prayer that attraction remains for a lifetime and they choose to walk the narrow way of Jesus, our message to them is that even with such selfless sacrifice, they’ll never make it.
We also do a great injustice to the many young people who, and I’m quoting now, “just had to get married because I couldn’t be alone”. Isn’t God supposed to fulfil of that depth of longing? This injustice is multiplied when the one they married doesn’t walk with Jesus. They have the love they were told was the end-game, but now ministry is a lonely road, or far worse, an abandoned one.
Singleness isn’t better than marriage. But it’s certainly not worse. According to Scripture, singleness is just as “Christian” as marriage. What we celebrate as a community makes it clear what we value as a community. So I’ll just leave this question here: how can singles be celebrated in church life?
Singleness Can’t Be Done Alone
Like marriage, singleness has its pros and cons. I admire my older sister and my brother-in-law who with incredible patience and skill are raising three adorably mischievous boys I get to call my nephews. And I breathe a sigh of relief when we tuck the boys into bed after Monday night dinners and I wonder at how they survive each day.
I’m thankful for uninterrupted sleep, the freedom of a dawn surf whenever my calendar allows, quiet times that are in fact quiet, and the ability to work a 60 hour week at church when I need to, without any of my relationships paying the price. Paul was for real when he wrote about the undivided priorities of the single life.
Singles don’t have families of their own, so they love being made part of one.
But I’m also thankful to people who understand its difficulties—like my older sister and her family (and other friends—you know who you are) who don’t “host” me for “events” but consider me a member of the family, welcome anytime. Singles don’t have families of their own, so they love being made part of one.
I’m thankful to those who understand that I’m a verbal processor and, without a partner to debrief the day with, know to ask, “how was your day?”
I’m thankful for the many people in my church who recognise that though I don’t have a family to go home to, and though my time is therefore flexible, I still need boundaries and time out and opportunities to just be me, not a pastor.
Right Where God Has Me
Last year when I was still unmarried, puzzled, my senior pastor asked me why I’d been taking so few holidays. I was aware that this was the case, but likewise couldn’t work out why. I love time off. And then it occurred to me: married couples have guaranteed company when they holiday, but for me, four weeks of time away alone would only remind me of how desperately lonely and unmarried I was.
Singleness has its challenges, and it takes some creativity—and the considered help of others—to do it well. But it can be done well.
Now I’m single. As I write this, I also happen to be on holidays, on a beach on the NSW coast. I’m away camping with my younger, also single sister. Tomorrow I’m hiking for four days with a mate who’s married but knew I had holidays and invited me along. I’m thankful for people like this too. Singleness has its challenges, and it takes some creativity—and the considered help of others—to do it well. But it can be done well.
Life hasn’t turned out quite the way I expected. I’ll never be married at 21. I won’t be a young dad like I once hoped. I’ve had to grieve over that. I’ve loved and lost, more than once. It hurt, more than I naively imagined it could. I’m single—not for want of trying, but because it seems this is where God wants me, for now at least. Like marriage, it’s not ultimate. But it is good, and I am thankful.