SINGLE YET JOYFUL
Written by Doug Ponder on April 25, 2013
Talking about Singleness and Marriage
When you consider the fact that almost 90% of all Christians will marry at some point in their lives, it’s completely appropriate to talk about how the gospel shapes our views of singleness, dating, and marriage.
As one of the pastors of a somewhat younger congregation (thankfully, this is changing), I’m frequently part of conversations dealing with all three of those issues. Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of really bad counsel on each, and I’ve even been guilty of giving some of that bad counsel myself. But we’ve got to stop doing that. Confusion on these matters is wrecking the lives of many people. Our only hope is to return to the Scriptures for correction and encouragement.
(Note: Our church has already released a free eBook on marriage and the family, so those topics will not be addressed in full detail here. We will only look at them insofar as they relate to singleness.)
Some of what you read below will be direct. I don’t apologize for that. Instead, I pray that you would humbly ask God to help you assess your own life as you read this. May he lead you and guide you into all truth.
Are There Sinful Desires for Marriage?
Are you sinning if you want to be married? Is it wrong to desire marriage?
The answer is, “Maybe.” It depends upon why you want to get married.
Do you think that your worth in God’s kingdom will be diminished if you never marry? Do you think that a marriage partner will bring you more joy than knowing God? Do you think that your life will be hopelessly miserable if you never have sex?
If your answer to any of those is “Yes,” then you’ve got a problem. Actually, you may have several problems.
It may be that you think your value or worth comes from what you do for God, not from what he has done for you in Jesus. This is backwards, and it is contrary to the gospel. The gospel says that God accepts you because of what Jesus has done in your place, not because of what you do for him. That is where your value or worth comes from. You are precious to God because of Jesus. You are loved by God because of Jesus. You are valuable to God because of Jesus. None of that changes if you marry or remain single. So it would be sinful to want to get married in the hopes of improving your worth in the eyes of God.
Or, maybe you are counting on another person (in this case, a spouse) to bring you the kind of happiness that they will never be able to deliver. This is dangerous for two reasons. One, it will crush your future spouse. They will feel forced to make you happy, and your law-based demands will burden them beyond what they can bear. Two, you are looking to a sinful, fallible person to bring you the kind of peace, comfort, and joy that only God can give. That’s stupid. You are setting yourself up for failure. This is part of the reason why so many marriages end in divorce. When both people expect the other to do for them what only God can do, they will eventually give up on their spouse for failing to meet their demands. Then they “trade them in” for another spouse that they, wrongly, think will do a better job.
Or, if you think that your life will be miserable without sex, you are deeply mistaken. Jesus was the most joyful person who ever lived, and he lived a life without sex. Now it’s not “cheating” to look to Jesus as our example. He was as human as you or I, so he didn’t live a life without sexual desires. Plus, the Scriptures say that he was tempted in every way that we are, yet he never sinned (Heb. 4:15). That means that Jesus knows what it’s like to have sexual urges that go unfulfilled. Yet there he was, joyful as ever and happy as a clam. Jesus did not go around saying ,”Woe is me! I have sexual desires that cannot be fulfilled!” Instead, he kept looking to the God who is even greater than any of the gifts he gives us (like sex). The life of Jesus shows us that surpassing joy in God awaits those who go to him. I know this sounds crazy in our sex-crazed society, but perhaps this just shows how sick and twisted and far off the right path we actually are. If we cannot imagine a joyful life without sex, it is we who are crazy, not Jesus. And if you marry for the purpose of sex only, you are pursuing marriage for sinful reasons.
Objection: But Paul Says…
I just said it’s wrong to pursue marriage for the sake of sex only. But Paul the apostle says, “It is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Cor. 7:9). So which statement is right?
It is good, acceptable, and right to marry someone else if you have the urge to get married. Paul was not saying that you should just suppress your sexual urges forever because that is what Jesus did. Rather, he was combating a heresy in that church. Unfortunately, there were some in the church at Corinth who were teaching that spiritual things are good, while physical things (like sex) are evil. Therefore, this church was wrongly telling others that it was wrong to get married because of the “evil” sex that was entailed. Paul’s statements about “burning with passion” must be seen against that backdrop. He was writing to tell others that it is okay to want to get married, that not all desires for marriage are evil.
But Paul would never have agreed that it’s okay to marry just for sex. That’s not what he is saying at all. Paul was the same guy who wrote that everything you do must be done for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17), so he of all people would know that “everything” includes marriage. Furthermore, Paul lays out some of the fullest teaching on marriage in Ephesians 5, none of which mentions sex explicitly. Thus anyone who wants sex more than they want to spend a lifetime serving and caring for their spouse, is deeply in sin and headed for a load of trouble.
Is Singleness Ever Sinful?
Are you sinning if you never marry? Is it wrong to remain single?
Once again, the answer is “Maybe.” It depends upon why you want to remain single.
Are you single because you refuse to take responsibility? Do you like the flirtatious attention you get from multiple people? Are you using your singleness to serve others or to serve yourself? Do you plan to remain single because you believe it more spiritual, or a higher calling from God?
If the answer to any of those is “Yes,” then you have a problem. Actually, you may have several problems. (Noticing a pattern?)
It may be that you choose to remain single simply because you don’t want to take responsibility for anyone, including yourself. If the thought of taking responsibility for another person is a deterrent to marriage for you, you need to ask yourself whether or not this is because of your own cowardice or immaturity. For example, let’s say you live at home in your mom’s basement, and the thought of getting a job in order to provide for yourself (not to mention a family) sounds undesirable. If that were true of you, then your singleness may be the product of your immaturity. When someone else looks at you, they see someone who won’t take care of themselves, let alone another person. Why would they want to date you? I know this sounds harsh, but I can tell you it’s true from firsthand experience. I was the guy who sat at home and played video games for hours and hours without end. I was the guy who refused to take responsibility for myself in basic areas, like personal hygiene (gross, I know). And I was the guy who didn’t have a single date during that same period of my life. That’s no coincidence.
Or, maybe you’re still single because you love the attention you get from multiple people of the opposite sex. You hate the idea of being “tied down” to one person forever, so you are prolonging your singleness as long as possible. If that’s true, you’d be sinning by remaining single for this reason. You shouldn’t be seeking that kind of attention from your brothers and sisters in Christ in the first place. All you are doing is training your heart (and theirs) to be an attention whore for many years to come. It won’t just “stop” once you get married. You’ll continue to feel the drive to receive praise, recognition, and flirtatious gestures from other men or women who aren’t your spouse. Obviously, this is sinful.
Or, it may be that you aren’t single for either of those reasons, but you’re still sinning in your singleness. Here’s what I mean. For 90% of the singles who are reading this, your singleness is just a season of your life. (And if you believe what Jesus teaches about marriage and divorce, then singleness will probably be the shortest season of your life.) So, how should you live during this short season? The answer from Paul’s own life goes something like this: use your singleness to serve others in Jesus’ name in ways that you won’t be able to do once you are married. For example, spend your “free” time loving and serving the people in your church and in your community (since you won’t have as much time to do this after you have a family). Or spend your “free” time volunteering with local service projects or on foreign mission fields where your skills and services might be needed. If you use your singleness to further your own selfishness, however, you will waste the time that God has given you, and you will set yourself up for failure in your future marriage. (Better to start learning how to sacrifice and serve others now, instead of waiting to learn it after you’ve already committed yourself to someone for life.)
Finally, some people say they want to remain single because “it is higher calling than marriage.” This is false. There is only one passage that is seems to support this error (1 Cor. 7), but the trouble is that Paul says a bunch of things in that text that don’t make sense unless we understand the context first. Paul says God told him that “the appointed time is very short” (1 Cor. 7:29). He was talking about a coming day of great distress and anguish. Jesus himself talked about the same time period when he said, “How terrible it will be or women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress upon the land and wrath against this people” (Luke 21:23). Jesus and Paul were both talking about the destruction of the temple and the assault on Jerusalem. When this occurred, Roman soldiers caught and killed thousands and thousands of Jews. Anyone who could not flee—like pregnant mothers and children, for example—were easy targets. The Romans were merciless, killing even small babies with the sword. So when Paul says things like: “I wish that all would remain single, as I am” (1 Cor. 7:8), or “The one who marries does a good thing, but the one who stays single does even better” (1 Cor. 7:38)—these statements should be understood to mean that it was better for that specific time. Obviously, it would be better not to be pregnant or have small children to care for when the Romans come knocking on your door. But since that time is over, Christians are wrong to continue using these verses to say that singleness is better than marriage. If you think that this is the case, you are making the same mistake that we have already mentioned above. You believe that your value or worth before God come from what you do for him, instead of what he has done for you in Jesus.
There are several things that we must not do if we are going move beyond the confusion surrounding singleness and marriage while remaining faithful to the Scriptures:
First, we must not “demote” marriage in our churches out of fear of making our singles feel excluded. The Scriptures repeatedly affirm the beauty and normalcy of marriage. And although marriage will one day be no more, God established it as a necessary part of his plan in the world for the time being (Gen. 1:28). If it weren’t for marriage, there would be no image-bearers. So demoting marriage isn’t a good solution. Instead we should call people who want to marry to pursue marriage with a pure heart, not idolizing the gift of marriage, but pursuing it as God calls them to.
Second, we must continue to remind singles that their value is found in Jesus, not their relationship status. You aren’t worth more or less to God because you have a ring on your finger. At the same time, the call for all people—married and single—is the same. All your time, all your money, all your talents, and all of your life belongs to God. You are his. Live your life accordingly. If you are single, live like a single man or woman who is passionate about Christ and his kingdom, not using your singleness as a cover up for evil, but living as servants of God. Show the world that Jesus is a surpassing treasure by abstaining from sex before marriage. Use your singleness to glorify God.
Third, we must continue to warn against the dangers of individualism in our increasingly individualistic society. If I could go back and re-live the single season of my life, I would do some things very differently. For example, I would get a roommate as quickly as possible. If you’re a guy, live with another guy. If you’re a gal, live with another gal. This not only helps with matters of accountability, it also helps you put your selfishness to death. This is a good practice whether or not you ever marry, since Jesus calls us all to learn how to put others first, put ourselves last, and serve other people. Living alone makes it so much harder to do this because no one is around you to oppose your will. Whatever you want, you get. And even though that isn’t sinful in and of itself, it will train you to have certain expectations of what you are used to or even feel entitled to have. Not only are such expectations impossible to fulfill in marriage, they also make it harder for you to live as part of a local church family (for you will recoil at the idea of having to sacrifice to serve people other than yourself).
Fourth, we must never stop calling singles to greater levels of maturity. As our society sinks to lower and lower expectations for what is acceptable of men and women in their twenties, the church must be the place where young men and women are expected to act like adults. Part of this may mean putting away childish things like video games, comic books, endless TV watching, shopping sprees, and so forth, as we all strive to become the kind of men and women who will be God-honoring husbands and fathers, or wives and mothers. This is a good pursuit even for those who may never marry, since these Christ-like virtues ought to be present in all of God’s children who love the truth.
The Grace of Jesus
In the end, only grace can enable us to live as a single or a married Christian is called to. You will never be single and joyful if you are not confident that God has been gracious toward you in Jesus, and will continue to be gracious toward you through his Spirit. As people of grace, we must be thankful for the grace of God and continue to show that grace to one another. This means praying for each other, helping each other in various ways, and living together as people who have the same hope, the same joy, and the same treasure in Christ—whether single or married. Let us all continue to look to Jesus, who was single yet joyful, for grace to pursue what is truly valuable in this life and the next.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @DougPonder.