Singleness can feel like the participation trophy in the game of life. The default for the relationally dismayed. The “gift” no one asked for.
That assessment, however, couldn’t be further from reality. And I say that as a still-single man who aspires to marry. All of us experience singleness. And even for those who do marry, more than half will be single again. God cares about our unmarried years. He desires all of us to make the most of them. So what steps can we take to steward these years well?
1. Define Your Gift
The apostle Paul makes an audacious claim. Whereas in Genesis 2 God observes, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18), Paul tells the unmarried and the widows that “it is good for them to remain single, as I am” (1 Corinthians 7:8). Paul, when looking at the new-covenant community, doesn’t see marriage-lessness as a curse, but as a gift. He says, “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” (1 Corinthians 7:7).
I’ve spoken to dear saints who desire marriage and do not have the life they expected. If that describes you, God has not abandoned you. You’re not stuck in a waiting room between celibacy and marriage. God desires his good, perfect, delightful will for you right now. James reminds us, “Every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17) — and Paul could certainly add, “even your singleness.”
2. Discern the Advantages
What about singleness makes it a gift? What does singleness offer that marriage doesn’t? If we cannot name the advantages that come with singleness, then despite our insistence that singleness is a gift, we don’t have much to offer to those who are living a single life.
Paul puts the advantages of singleness under the phrase “undivided devotion”:
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. (1 Corinthians 7:32–35)
When I read those verses and reflect on the advantages of singleness, I see at least three.
In a world full of distraction, singleness enables us to focus on Jesus “without distraction.” This isn’t to say that we cannot honor Christ if we’re married — God desires married couples to love and serve each other for his glory (Ephesians 5:22–33). But singles can devote themselves to him with fewer disruptions from good but competing desires.
As singles, we’re able to be single-minded. We can focus on honoring our Lord without the complexities of a spouse and children. Quiet mornings with Bible reading and prayer. Ministering to others without being interrupted by naps and diaper-changes. Fellowship without a curfew. Decisions about the future oriented toward gospel good without weighing familial costs. Singleness allows for undivided focus.
“Let me check with my spouse” is probably the most frequent response to an invitation extended to a married member at my church. Singles are advantaged in not carrying the weight of accounting for another person. We can say yes more often.
When a church member texts me at 11:30 p.m. asking to meet to read the Bible, I can say yes. When a family at the church needs emergency babysitting, I can say yes. When life presents risky, God-glorifying opportunities, I can say yes. Singles’ capacity allows us to flex for the sake of the kingdom.
Paul states his desire for singles by saying, “I want you to be free from anxieties” (1 Corinthians 7:32). Freedom from the obligations of marriage enables singles to do what married people cannot. Whereas marriage is helped by stable routine and clear obligations, singleness provides mobility.
Valuing singleness doesn’t diminish the value or dignity of marriage. Paul wrote both 1 Corinthians 7 and Ephesians 5. He can exalt the value of marriage and express his preference for singleness. Singleness provides good opportunities that marriage does not.
3. Desire and Be Content
What about singles who deeply desire marriage? How can we endure seasons of discontentment? We need to clarify what we mean when we talk about contentment. Paul writes to the Philippians,
I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. (Philippians 4:10–14)
First, you can be content in singleness while desiring to be married. Paul thanks the Philippians for assisting him while in prison. I don’t think Paul is telling the Philippians that he desires to stay in prison because he is content in all circumstances. Between being hungry or well fed, he prefers being fed (“It was kind of you to share my trouble”).
Desire and contentment are two different realities. You can desire marriage while still being content in seasons of singleness. If you are single and desire to be married, then, don’t feel guilty about that desire. Proverbs 18:22 says, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord.” Enjoy your singleness and look for a spouse!
Second, contentment sees the goodness of God in one’s circumstances, not detached from them. Do not try to find your ultimate satisfaction in the future fulfillment of a spouse. Find your satisfaction in Christ in your season of singleness. Our focus in singleness should not be primarily oriented toward the hope of future marriage. Our faithfulness in singleness is valuable because it honors Christ. As Sam Allberry says, “If marriage shows us the shape of the gospel, singleness shows us its sufficiency” (7 Myths About Singleness, 120).
Third, you can be content in singleness and still struggle with the difficulties that come with singleness. We intuitively understand this about marriage. Difficulties in marriage don’t necessarily mean discontentment in marriage (though it can certainly lead there). Christ can handle our delights and our disappointments. You can be honest about the difficulties of singleness while trusting Christ in “in any and every circumstance” (Philippians 4:12).
4. Devote Yourself to a Church Family
In Mark 10:29–31, Jesus says,
Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.
Jesus promises us a family worth a hundred times more than anything we may leave — now in this time. The family that Jesus promises is his church.
Here’s an excerpt from our church’s covenant:
We . . . promise to watch over one another in brotherly love; to remember one another in prayer; to rejoice at each other’s happiness; to aid one another in sickness and distress; to cultivate Christian sympathy in feeling and Christian courtesy in speech; to restore one another through discipline; to be slow to take offense, but always ready to reconcile immediately in obedience to Jesus, the head of our church.
What does that sound like? It sounds like a marriage vow. Commitment to a church provides an explicit, mutual responsibility in a spiritual, familial relationship. For a Christian, then, a single life need not be a lonely life. The most practical ways you can practice undivided devotion to Christ will come through a love for his church (John 13:34–35).
Single, Not Lonely
Life in the local church enables me to serve in ways I can’t alone. I get to babysit children while their parents go on dates. I get to go out of my way to spend time with a shut-in that lives further away. I get to use my time to serve in ways that would be difficult for other members in the church. There is no selfish singleness in the kingdom of God. While married Christians expend most of their energy for their physical family, I get to expend most of my energy for my spiritual family.
Living with the local church also lets me depend on other Christians in times of need. A warm, homecooked meal is a phone call away. Church members who know me cry with me, challenge me, and encourage me as I pursue Christlikeness. It doesn’t mean they love me perfectly (I don’t love them perfectly either), but in this life, my church has been as precious to me as brothers, sisters, mother, father, or children.
Singleness has its fair share of joys, difficulties, and opportunities. But our faithfulness now displays our hope in future glory, when people will “neither marry nor [be] given in marriage” (Matthew 22:30), because we’ll see our Bridegroom face to face. And when we see him, we’ll know that the investment we made in this season was worth it.