What the Church Needs to Know about Singleness
Written by Brittany Clark
Time has a natural way of affecting our perspective. As I reflect back five years ago on my 29-year-old self, I recall being eager to enter my thirties. I exhibited confidence that my thirties would be better than my twenties. I hadn’t been particularly disappointed in my twenties, but as I looked ahead to what I perceived my thirties would hold, I anticipated improvement. I foresaw myself meeting my would-be husband, and subsequently getting married and starting a family. I imagined that in finding relational stability through marriage I’d also find stability in my work life and gain greater financial security. Now in my mid-thirties, my perspective has changed. While I will emphatically confirm that my thirties have been an improvement over my twenties, the improvement has not come as expected. I am not married, nor am I in a relationship that would lead to marriage. I do not have any more financial security than I did as I exited my twenties. And from an outsider’s viewpoint, my career would likely appear to be less stable. Now, many of you are likely scratching your heads asking yourself, how can she view that as an improvement? Again, time has a natural way of affecting our perspective. And I would argue that it does so to the extent that it allows space for God to refine our mindsets. And that is precisely what I have experienced, especially over these past five years.
I simply have grown to better understand that both marriage and singleness are gifts, and it is only the gift-giver who decides which gift is given.
I didn’t recognize it at the time, but I believed that living out the good news of the gospel necessitated being married and having children/starting a family. Looking back, I can see that because this belief was so rooted within me, I was trying to force marriage to fit into my life. I was taking it into my own hands to make it happen. And while that could have resulted in walking down the aisle, for me, it didn’t. And I am so grateful for that! Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-marriage. I simply have grown to better understand that both marriage and singleness are gifts, and it is only the gift-giver who decides which gift is given. If I, as the recipient, take rather than receive, I’d be contradicting the fact that it is a gift. So now, I leave marriage and singleness in the hands of God, trusting that He is the Giver of good gifts and that whatever gift I receive from Him is what is best for me. So when I say that I am grateful, it is because it means that despite my efforts, I haven’t taken what wasn’t mine to take.
I wasn’t asking for God to refine my mindset in this way, but He is gracious in knowing what I need. However, it did take engagement on my part. As I began recognizing idols in my life (including marriage), I was grieved, and I tearfully repented. As I let go of the marriage idol, Scripture started to come alive for me. I grew in my understanding of the good news of the kingdom of God and subsequently the biblical picture of marriage and singleness. Scripture both begins and ends with a marriage and it is a theme woven throughout the entirety of the story revealing how the first (human marriage) is to point to the last (marriage of the Lamb). As I learned the details of ancient Israelite marriage traditions and how those correlate with the relationship between Christ and the church, I began to see more clearly God’s purposes for marriage. It is all about the marriage between Christ and the Church! While human marriages will come to an end once what they are pointing to comes to full fruition, the marriage between Christ and the church is eternal. I came to understand that marriages in this life are imperfect previews of what is to come. Consequently, the life to come and what is eternal began to take precedence for me.
Now you are likely familiar with the gospel picture of marriage, but at this point, you may be wondering where singleness comes into view. As I grew in my understanding of the beauty in God’s purpose of marriage, I grew to appreciate the beauty & significance of my singleness. The two actually go hand-in-hand for a complete understanding of the gospel. I firmly believe that as the view of this complete picture increasingly comes into our sights, the more we’ll equally value both marriage and singleness. When Jesus shared the last supper with His disciples, He offered them the cup of betrothal (a form of engagement) and it was up to them to accept or deny as Jesus promised to prepare a place for them (distinct marriage language). He’s offered us the same, and as we say yes to Him we are joined by His Holy Spirit with fellow believers as a betrothed bride awaiting our wedding day. So while marriage helps us remember what it is that we look forward to, singleness helps us remember that we are still waiting for our Groom. Marriage indicates the future of the bride while singleness indicates the present state of the bride. She is betrothed and awaiting consummation. But when it comes to singleness and the gospel, there is more. While it does help us understand the present state of the bride, it also gives us a picture of our eternal realities as individuals. In the new creation, none of us will be married to each other. So how can we understand singleness now in light of our future eternal reality? There is only one bride, and as the Church, we are called into oneness with each other. So while no individual will be married in the new creation, we will be perfectly united with each other. If we allow it, singleness can be a reminder to invest in our future reality now as we seek the unity of the body through an array of relationships.
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By learning that I have a gospel picture to offer through my singleness, the good news became more real to me. And that is the starting point for why my thirties have been an improvement over my twenties. I stand more firmly on the foundation of the gospel now than I ever did in my twenties. While I haven’t gotten married, I have found a church community that I have chosen to covenant myself to. While I haven’t started a family by having children, I have committed to intentionally building a family around me through deepening relationships within the church, including investing in the lives of those in generations younger than me. And by seeking to invest in what is eternal, I’ve found greater clarity in my purposes within the Kingdom of God. God has called me into His work and my trust in His providence is greater now than it has ever been previously. That is the greatest financial security that I can find.
As I look forward to my forties, I continue to be confident that what lies ahead will be an improvement. My confidence, however, is not grounded in any life circumstance but in recognizing that knowing Jesus only gets better with time. I have not written off marriage, but I have committed to not pursue a ring on my finger. Instead, I am pursuing God’s kingdom and making it known in this world, however that may look. I recognize that both marriage and singleness are ministries and avenues to “here on earth as it is in heaven.” While I am not pursuing marriage, I am pursuing building a family. I am content in my being single, but I am not content in being alone. I need people to do life with–those who on an ongoing basis know what is going on in my inner world while inviting me into their inner world. I have found that if the depth of my relational engagement is merely trying to find time to catch up that is when I ultimately feel alone. So in my desire to build a family around me, I seek to have a set of relationships in which there is no need to “catch up.” I have the gift of singleness. I know this simply by the fact that I am single. So it is with marriage; you have the gift if you are married. The gift of singleness is not a spiritual empowerment to live life alone as some have surmised. It is certainly not without its difficulties, but then again neither is marriage. With the majority of the church married and established within a nuclear family, it can be easy to slip between the cracks. It is not always clear who is committed to you even as you commit yourself to them. We will surely all experience the emotional discomfort of loneliness in this life whether single or married. Beyond that, those who are single often face the difficulty of being alone in the practicalities of life:making financial decisions, establishing travel plans, and monitoring when the vehicle needs maintenance (to name a few). The world constantly tells me that in my singleness I am alone, but the Church should be the one place that I am reminded that I am not alone.
I can only imagine the Church benefiting from letting go of the idea of marriage as the default. As we move away from using language that assumes marriage (whether for ourselves or others), there will be more room for individuals to discern to which ministry the Lord is calling them to make known the kingdom of God. As I look forward, I have faith that the Church will resist the temptation to idolize marriage and give priority to the marriage between Christ and the Church. As the Church continues to deepen her understanding of God’s design for marriage and singleness, both the married and the single will flourish. This will benefit the Church as a whole, including those who experience same-sex attraction. These benefits will stand in contrast to the world as they offer marriage and romance as the highest aim.