Struggling through Singleness
Struggling through Singleness
by JAYNE V. CLARK
How many times had I struggled with being single? More times than I cared to count. When I was in my thirties, I remember having a particularly hard time with it. I was lonely and wondering what was wrong with me. I wasn’t even dating, let alone married. Why didn’t anyone want me? Why was God doing this to me? It was a never-ending string of questions with no answers. I knew enough from previous experience that if I didn’t talk to somebody soon I would end up in a funk, so I racked my brain trying to think of someone who was further along this road than I was, someone who could give me the benefit of her experience. I finally thought of an older single friend and gave her a call. I told her what was going on and asked if she could tell me anything helpful. “Yes, I can,” she said. “Wait ten years. By then some of your friends will be divorced. You’ll find out that marriage isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and they’ll be available to hang out with you.”
I couldn’t believe it. What kind of advice was that? Well, surprisingly, the Lord used it—not by prompting me to follow the advice, but by motivating me to dig deeper into the Scriptures and wrestle through my struggle with him. Perhaps what I discovered will be helpful to you.
The “Gift” of Singleness
Have you always wanted to be married? As a child, did you dream about what your spouse would be like and how many kids you would have? Or maybe you’re more like me. Your desire for these things came later. Maybe you wanted to be on your own for a while, enjoying the freedom and benefits of adulthood. But now you would prefer a little less freedom and a lot more companionship. You would like to share your life with someone and you long to settle down and have a family.
You’ve expressed your desire for marriage to family and friends, and they have reassured you with a common refrain: “If you want to be married, it’s obvious you don’t have the gift of singleness. You’re meant to be married. The right guy just hasn’t come along yet. But hang in there—he will.” They are confirming what you have suspected: since you want to be married, God hasn’t given you the gift of singleness. If you had the gift, you would not be struggling this way.
That sounds logical, but is it true?
One way to find out is to use the same line of reasoning with different circumstances. Let’s say you are married and you are struggling with it. It’s hard to be joined to another person; you don’t really like making decisions about time and money with someone else. Even though you’ve been married for years, it hasn’t gotten any easier. You long for the freedom you enjoyed as a single person. Would anyone agree with you if you said, “I’m obviously not suited for marriage. I must not have the gift of marriage. I need to get a divorce”? Probably not.
Or let’s say someone tells you that he isn’t attracted to his wife, and doesn’t have much of a sex drive. Would you tell him, “Wow, if that’s true, then it’s clear you were never meant to be married. You should get an annulment”? I doubt it. In neither situation would you want to draw conclusions, take action, or make recommendations based on someone’s desires or struggles instead of the Word of God. That’s true when you’re struggling with marriage, and it’s just as true when you’re struggling with singleness.
It is a mistake to think that if God has given you the gift of singleness, he would either make sure you never desired a spouse or children or sex, or he would suddenly remove those desires from you. If you apply this reasoning to marriage—that God automatically brings people’s desires in line with their marital status—then married couples would never struggle with being faithful. But that’s not the world we live in. We live in a fallen world where we do struggle to bring our desires under the lordship of Jesus Christ.
So what does the Bible have to say about the “gift” of singleness? Albert Hsu points out in his book, Singles at the Crossroads, that the phrase gift of singleness or gift of celibacy never appears in the Bible. The closest it comes is 1 Corinthians 7:7, where Paul says, “But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind, one of another.” In context, the term gift does refer to being married or unmarried, but Hsu explains that confusion arises when 1 Corinthians 7 is combined with 1 Corinthians 12 and misinterpreted, leading to the mistaken idea that there is a spiritual gift of singleness. In the context of chapter 7, the word gift refers to an objective gift, such as the gift of eternal life (Rom 6:23). Just as God gives eternal life so, too, he gives you your marital status.
This stands in contrast to the way the term is used in 1 Corinthians 12 where Paul speaks about spiritual gifts. These gifts are Spirit-empowered for a particular function. One person is given “through the Spirit” the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge “by means of the same Spirit,” to another faith “by the same Spirit,” and so on (1 Cor 12:8–9).
So the Spirit empowers all these spiritual gifts. If you have them, he’s expecting you to do something with them. If you have the gift of prophecy, you prophesy. If you have the gift of apostleship, you exercise authority. If you have the gift of administration, you administrate. Do you see how a “spiritual gift” of singleness doesn’t fit? How do you “single”? As Hsu notes, there is no such thing as “singling” (except in baseball, of course). Singleness is not a Spirit-empowered functional gift like those described in 1 Corinthians 12.
Spiritual gifts are meant to build up the body of Christ. Obviously, singles are to strengthen the church too—but not by virtue of being single. Rather, singles do it by exercising their spiritual gifts, just like everyone else. Your singleness isn’t a spiritual gift then, but it is a gift from God, one he wants you to receive and enjoy with thanksgiving. If you’re single, your singleness is a gift; if you’re married, your marriage is a gift. If your marital status changes, God has given you a different situation within which to follow him. Whether you are single or married, God promises to be with you and give you everything you need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3).
Gaining a better understanding of the “gift” of singleness helped me in my struggle with singleness, and so did getting a different perspective on loneliness.
Marriage Is Not the Answer to Loneliness
It is common for singles to assume that marriage will make them less lonely. Maybe it would, but it is important to realize that singleness is not the cause of loneliness. Does that surprise you? It may seem counterintuitive, because loneliness seems to be a result of not having an intimate partner with whom to share your life. But loneliness is actually caused by something more basic to our existence. It is caused by sin, by mankind’s original sin against God in the garden of Eden (Gen 3), by our estrangement from God and each other. This explains why married people, even happily married people, can still feel lonely.
Adam and Eve initially enjoyed a perfect relationship with God and with each other, but when they succumbed to Satan’s temptation, sin instantly destroyed both. Their perfect union with God and with each other was ruined. Where once there had been openness (they had been naked and unashamed), sin made for hiding (behind fig leaves and trees). Where once there had been completeness, sin made for loss. Where once there had been acceptance, sin made for rejection. Where once there had been praise (“bone of my bone”), sin made for blame (she made me do it). Do you hear it? Hiding. Loss. Rejection. Blame. These are all ingredients of loneliness. Loneliness was born at the fall.
Perhaps you are thinking, “Didn’t God say that it was not good for man to be alone before the fall, before he created Eve?” Yes, he did. But he was stating a fact, not voicing how Adam was feeling. Adam was enjoying perfect communion with God in perfect comfort. Apart from God telling him, he had no way of knowing that anything more was possible. Perhaps something began to stir in Adam as the animals paraded past him and no suitable helper was found, but it was God’s assessment that man should not be alone.
Maybe God’s statement isn’t so surprising. After all, God created man in his image and he is not a God who exists alone. He is one God in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit—three who are alike, yet distinct. God wanted man to enjoy fellowship with him, but he also wanted man to enjoy the kind of fellowship God enjoys with himself—with others who are like us, but who are also separate. It seems that because we are made in God’s image, we are made to be in relationship with him and with other people.
Consider the matter in a slightly different way. If marriage is the solution to loneliness, where does that leave a child who won’t have that option for years? Or a prisoner with no hope of parole? Or an elderly widow? This notion that marriage is the cure for loneliness suggests that one category of people is exempt from loneliness and the rest of us are just stuck with it. But that’s not true. Remember, it was a married couple who first experienced loneliness. And think about this: If marriage were God’s answer to loneliness, why isn’t there any giving or taking in marriage in heaven (Matt 22:29–30)? That’s a trick question because, actually, there is. Only it’s not individuals who are married in heaven, it’s God’s people corporately—us, the church, the bride of Christ—who will finally meet our bridegroom Jesus face to face (Rev 19).
The real solution to loneliness then lies not in marriage or in any human relationship. The solution lies in the redemption of our relationship with God. It lies in our union with Christ. Through Christ we are reunited to God and this, in turn, leads to our union with one another. When God created Eve, yes, he created marriage, but more than that, he created community. Marriage is a form of community, perhaps its most basic and elemental form. Community requires people coming together. In the case of marriage this happens literally. Community usually involves the group expanding. In marriage, this happens by bearing children. But God’s plans are always bigger and better than ours.
When God called Abraham into a relationship with himself (beginning in Gen 12), he told him that the number of his descendants would be like the number of stars in the sky and that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through him. God always had in mind a community made up of people from every tribe and language and people and nation. But the Israelites got so caught up in being the chosen race that they missed the full extent of what God was saying.
Today we are not much different. We’re big on family, but we tend to think of it narrowly, as in our own personal, nuclear families. Yet when Jesus was told that his mother and brothers were waiting to speak to him, he asked, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers? Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt 12:48–50). Jesus is redefining and enlarging our concept of family. It is still based on blood, but it is his shed blood that creates God’s family.
Consider Genesis 2 through the lens of Jesus’ work on the cross and see the implications. Yes, it’s wonderful that a husband and wife become one flesh, but it’s even more wonderful that Christians comprise the body of Christ, so connected with each other that if one part suffers, we all suffer. If one part is honored, we are all honored (1 Cor 12:26). It is incredible for a husband and wife to come together so they can be fruitful and multiply, but it is even more incredible that Christ grows and multiplies his kingdom by using flawed people like us to go and make disciples of all nations. It must have been fantastic for Adam and Eve to be naked and unashamed with each other, but it’s even more fantastic that Jesus has washed away our sin and we now stand clothed in his righteousness. We don’t need to hide behind fig leaves when our sin is exposed. Now we can confess our sins one to another.
This is what Jesus has done for us. He went to the cross, betrayed and deserted by his friends. As he hung there, becoming saturated with our sin, even his Father had to turn away. Has there ever been a lonelier moment? But because of his love for his Father, and their love for us, he hung there until he died. Adam and Eve hid among the trees because of their sin, but Jesus hung naked and exposed on a tree because of ours. Adam and Eve were guilty, yet tried to pass the blame. Jesus was completely innocent, yet took our blame on himself. Jesus was rejected by his Father so that we would be accepted. He lost everything in order that we might be lavished with blessings. Jesus reversed the effects of the fall by paying the penalty for our sin. He removed the barrier to our relationship with God and turned the tide on loneliness.
So it isn’t what remedies our loneliness, but who remedies it, namely, Jesus Christ, the friend of sinners. As singles, we’re not doomed to a life of loneliness. We’re hidden in Christ and united with each other through him.
Yet, as true as this is, many singles still wonder if their flaws are keeping them from being married.
“I’m Not Married, So Something Must Be Wrong with Me”
A common point of struggle for singles is the thought that something must be wrong with me, or I would be married. Well, there is something wrong with you, but it’s not the reason you’re single. What’s wrong is that you’re a sinner who needed to be saved by faith in Jesus Christ. But guess what? That’s true for married people too.
Sometimes though, our family and friends share the idea that something is wrong with us—or at least not as right as it could be. They offer advice on how to fix it, usually because they do care and want to help. Their suggestions tend to cover lots of bases. For instance:
• Change your appearance. Try contacts. Lose or gain weight. Change your hairstyle or color. Dress differently. Have cosmetic surgery. Get your teeth fixed, etc.
• Work on your personality or temperament. Speak up or quiet down. Be nicer. Be more assertive. Be more upbeat or chill out, etc.
• Consider your location. There are more singles in urban areas. There are more single men in rural areas. A good place to meet singles is the frozen food aisle of your grocery store, etc.
• Try new activities. Take a class. Join a gym. Learn to cook. Find a singles group, etc.
Some of this advice might be good, but taking it won’t guarantee a change in your marital status. Take a look around. You will see people on either side of you on the continuum of desirability who prove that no “strategy” guarantees marriage. For example, there are people less attractive than you who are married, and people more attractive than you who are not. There are people with a sour disposition who are married, and those with a winsome manner who are not. And there are recluses who are married, and outgoing “people magnets” who are not.
The same is true with character qualities like kindness and rudeness, stinginess and generosity. So, what does marital status ultimately rest on? God’s sovereignty. Consider these verses:
• The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps. (Prov 16:9)
• The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD. (Prov 16:33)
• Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand. (Prov 19:21)
The Bible teaches that you have free will, but God is in control of everything that happens to you, including whether you are single or married. We make our own choices, but he uses those choices to suit his purposes. Question 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism expresses this reality by saying that everything that happens to us must fit God’s purpose for our salvation—that not even a hair can fall from our heads if it’s not God’s will! If you believe this, what else can you do but believe that your marital status is in his hands? Psalm 139:16 says, “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” If one of those days is meant to be a wedding day, rest assured, it will happen.
We all want enough wisdom and humility to let others speak into our lives, and it’s wonderful to have people who care and want to help. But you might want to ask family and friends to first pray for your heart in ways such as these:
• that you would learn to be content where God has you,
• that you would trust in God’s goodness and his purposes for you,
• that you would be faithful to who he has called you to be today and what he has called you to do, and
• that you would be thankful in all things—including your singleness—but most especially that Jesus has made you right with God.
Understanding these things can bring real peace to your mind and heart. Still, it’s one thing to gain a new perspective, but it can be quite another to deal with all the thoughts and feelings that get stirred up when you’re struggling with being single.
Here are three practical strategies to help you.
Strategy #1: Remember that you have an enemy. As a single person free to love and serve the Lord with less distraction, you’re a prime target. The Devil is going to go after you and he’s going to do it with the same temptation he used with Adam and Eve in the garden. Do you remember how he did it? He told them they could be like God if they ate from the tree, knowing good and evil. He insinuated that God was holding out on them by withholding that knowledge. He impugned God’s character by suggesting that God was less than good. He distracted them from the truth that they were already like God because they had been created in his image!
Don’t you find yourself tempted at times to believe that God is holding out on you because he hasn’t given you a spouse? Even though your head tells you that God is good, aren’t you still tempted to believe that if God really loved you, he’d give you a husband or wife? Don’t you sometimes get distracted from the truth or even discard it, because the fantasy of marriage, and everything that comes with it, is more alluring? What do you do when you run into these temptations? Do you entertain them? Or do you resist the Devil so that he will flee from you (James 4:7)? Obviously, that’s what we’re called to do, but what does that look like? Jesus did it by relying on Scripture (Matt 4:1–11). Since we are one with him, I believe we’re meant to do that too. That leads to strategy #2.
Strategy #2: Rely on Scripture. Let me demonstrate how to do this with a common problem singles face: feeling invisible. Sometimes singles feel this way because everyone around them is dating or getting married. They wonder why no one ever seems to notice or choose them. At other times, it’s because the church seems to revolve around families. Maybe this will sound like a silly example, but it makes the point (and can be painful). One Sunday the pastor asks, “Kids, how many of you have seen The Lion King?” Kids put their hands up. He goes on, “Moms, how many of you have seen The Lion King?” Moms put their hands up. “Dads, how many of you have seen The Lion King?” They put their hands up. Then he starts talking about the movie.
Well, I’ve seen The Lion King. When do I get to put my hand up? It’s as if I’m not even there. I don’t register on the radar. This kind of thing happens all the time in churches and Satan has a field day with it. He whispers to you “See, you don’t really matter. Marriage is where the action is. No one wants you. No one notices you. God has forgotten you.” Left to your own devices, you can get depressed, angry, resentful, bitter, perhaps even suicidal.
But we haven’t been left to our own devices. God has given us his Word to show us, in this case, that we are not invisible to him. For example, take Genesis 16 and see how it applies in this situation. The Lord has promised a son to Abraham and Sarah. After ten years of waiting Sarah decides they should take matters into their own hands. She suggests that Hagar, her maidservant, sleep with Abraham, so they can have a child that way. Abraham agrees to the plan and sleeps with Hagar. Hagar gets pregnant and starts despising Sarah. In response, Sarah mistreats Hagar and Hagar runs away.
Here’s the part of the story that speaks to us. The angel of the Lord goes to Hagar in the desert and speaks with her. Among other things, he tells her about the baby she’s carrying. He says she should call him “Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery.” “Ishmael” literally means “the Lord hears.” In response, Hagar gives God a name. Verses 13 and 14 say, “She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me.’ ”
Think about this. Here’s a woman, a slave woman, a runaway slave woman who has despised Sarah, the promised recipient of God’s blessing. Yet the angel of the Lord not only pursues her and speaks with her, he listens to her and is sympathetic toward her. He sees her. If all that is true for a slave woman who had no standing whatsoever, how much more is it true for us as God’s precious children? We are told to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith (Heb 12:2). When we do that, we discover that we’re looking right into his eyes, because he’s looking straight at us. You are caught in his gaze every minute of every day. To believe anything else is to believe Satan’s lie that God is less than good, that he’s holding out on you, that he’s overlooked or forgotten you. Your name is written on Jesus’ hands (Isa 49:16). You are never invisible. You are never out of his sight. So resist the enemy by relying on the truths of Scripture.
Strategy #3: Turn to the Lord. This final point is eminently important because it concerns the Lord himself. When we spend time thinking about these issues, we run the risk of falling into a trap. We can start thinking, I understand this stuff better now. I’m going to try to live contentedly as a single person. I’m going to read my Bible so I can resist the Devil’s schemes. We could do all that and still miss the Lord himself. If that were to happen, our “progress” would be a complete waste.
Therefore, the Number One, Top-of-the-List course of action you need to take when all those thoughts and feelings about singleness are churning inside you is to turn to the Lord and wrestle it out with him. Sometimes we think we are just supposed to suck it up, put on our nice, happy Christian face, and pretend that everything is great. But if it isn’t, then we shouldn’t pretend that it is. We need to get down and wrestle it through with the Lord.
It certainly won’t be the first time for him. In Genesis 32, Jacob spends an entire night wrestling with a man (who apparently is the pre-incarnate Christ). We read that the man sees he can’t overpower Jacob, so he touches the socket of Jacob’s hip, injuring him. He then says, “Let me go.” But Jacob says, “No, I won’t let you go until you bless me.” In reply, the man asks, “What is your name?” Jacob tells him, but the man gives Jacob a new name. He says, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome” (Gen 32:28). “Israel” means “struggles with God.” Don’t you think it’s significant that God gives a name meaning “struggles with God” not only to Jacob, but to all his descendents? That includes us, since the New Testament refers to the church as the true Israel. So what does that mean for us?
To answer that, think about Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane on the night before his crucifixion (Matt 26:36–44). What was he doing there? Jesus was wrestling with God. He was so troubled and distressed about what he was facing that he said, “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death.” He asked his Father several times if there were any other way, but each time he surrendered himself saying, “I want your will, not mine.” Jesus poured out his heart to the Lord. He entrusted himself to his Father who he knew loved him. He resisted any temptation to question his Father’s goodness. Ultimately, he was saying he preferred his Father’s desires for him over his own desires. And he let himself be overcome by God’s will for him.
He then went to the cross. Even on the cross he continued to struggle, exclaiming “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And again he entrusted himself to his Father: “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”
What does all this mean for us? Because we are in Christ, we benefit from his accomplishments. When we struggle with God, we do not have to rely on our own ability to follow Christ’s example. The same power at work in Christ is at work in us. So as you entrust yourself to him, you will overcome and enjoy blessings beyond imagining.
We have direct access to God because of what Jesus did, so take your fears, your worries, your hopes, your disappointment, your longing, your tears, your questions, your doubts—all of it—to Jesus and wrestle it through with him, trusting that he’s in it with you and that he’s for you. It may help to take a passage such as Psalm 13—“How long, O LORD?… How long will you hide your face from me?”—to express what you’re feeling. David’s circumstances hadn’t changed by the end of that psalm, but he was able to say, “I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me.” How could he say that? Because his heart was directed toward his God, the God who listens, the God who sees. You will overcome as you surrender and are overcome by the One who overcame everything for you. And like Jacob, you may start out wrestling, but in the end you will find yourself clinging to the One who will never let you go.
Seek First God’s Kingdom
What else should you do? Jesus tells us to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you” (Matt 6:33). God wants you to join with him in building his kingdom. He wants you to reach out to a hurting world in his name, loving those he brings across your path, and cooperating with the Holy Spirit as he transforms you into the image of Christ (2 Cor 3:18).
He wants you, as a single person, to use your spiritual gifts well. You can only do this by faith, trusting that Jesus knows exactly what you need and that he is committed to supplying it. If you can best live for his glory with a spouse, he’ll provide one. But if your singleness will make you most useful in his kingdom, you will find him sufficient for that too. God gave his own dear Son for you. Having done that, you can be assured that he will not hold back anything you truly need (Rom. 8:32). So in gratitude to him, use the freedom you enjoy as a single person to love others in his name.
Years have passed since I made that phone call to my single friend. My married friends are still married, and now, there is a gold ring on my finger too, only it’s not a wedding band. It’s one I had described to some friends, who then surprised me by having it made for me. It has a diamond that reminds me of Jesus’ surpassing beauty and two rubies to remind me of the Bible reference inscribed inside—Proverbs 3:13–18. Here is what that passage says:
Blessed is the one who finds wisdom,
the one who gains understanding,
for wisdom is more profitable than silver
and yields better returns than gold.
Wisdom is more precious than rubies,
nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.
Her ways are pleasant ways,
And all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who embrace her;
those who lay hold of her will be blessed.
I still ask a lot of questions; I believe I always will. But that ring serves as a visual reminder of the One who is wisdom himself. He is more precious to me than anyone, and it encourages me to wrestle my questions through with him. It reminds me that even if I’m single, in Christ Jesus I am never alone.
Jayne V. Clark, “Struggling through Singleness,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling 29, no. 1 (2015): 7–18.