Monday, October 31, 2011

Does God Care That I’m Still Single?

“You are the God who sees me.”       Genesis 16:13

Have you noticed something peculiar about the singles section of your neighborhood Christian bookstore?  As you consider the books on the shelves, a few of them catch your eye – they promise to address your needs.  You hope they contain encouragement for your walk as a single woman.  But when you turn to the back cover of the first book you find that the author is a man who’s been married for 36 years, and has three sons, two daughters, and eleven grandchildren.  You lay this book down and begin flipping desperately through other books on the shelf.  Yet book after book reveal authors who’ve been happily married for decades, recalling singleness as nothing more than a few breezy years between their college graduation and the purchase of their first new car.  These books often read like this:

I was terrified that I would never get married.  For years, I prayed and prayed to the Lord for a spouse.  Though doubts often entered my heart, and Satan tempted me sore, I never gave up on God.  Then, at long last, the Lord remembered me and brought me the man of my dreams.  And at the ripe-old age of twenty-two, I finally stepped into that wedding dress and I...

Sometimes it seems there is little encouragement and answers for the woman who finds herself still single at the ripe-old age of 27, 32, 38, 41, 45, 53, 56 and beyond.  She may have achieved a satisfying career, built a successful business, devoted years to charity work, or traveled extensively…yet the same recurring questions pop up in her head:

·         Will I ever get married?

·         Why is it so hard to get married these days? 

·         Am I unlovable?  Undesirable?  Is something wrong with me?

·         Is God withholding marriage from me?

·         Should I be more aggressive?  Should I do all I can to get a husband?

·         What’s the point of remaining sexually pure when marriage continues to elude me?

·         Why can’t I just give up on marriage and get on with my life?

·         How will I find joy in life if I never become a wife and mother?

As someone who never envisioned being single past thirty, I am no stranger to the longings and struggles of the unexpectedly single Christian woman.  Don’t get me wrong – I love being a Christian.  I am grateful to be saved, thrilled be an integral part of the Body of Christ, and I truly love the Lord.  It is an honor to serve our God and to be a part of His kingdom.   It doesn’t matter, however, how many times fellow Christians tell me how “special” I am or how much they appreciate my life as a single woman.  I still feel an emptiness, a painful and ever-present loneliness that is difficult to explain.  It’s like watching the lives of others going on inside a big glass building – seeing others marry, settle down, have children, enjoy their families – while I stand alone on the outside of the glass wall, my hands and face pressed against the surface, wondering when it will be my turn.  When will my life begin?

At least I’ve been able to handle the disappointment in recent years better than in the earlier ones.  In my twenties, the constant flurry of weddings and baby showers among others my age left me despondent in my steadfast singleness.  When that season finally ended, I found myself having to navigate nimbly around the excited talk of marriage retreats, baby dedication ceremonies, homeschooling curriculum, and Song of Solomon bible studies.  I now take great pride in my ability to attend a wedding shower without feeling depressed, angry, or jealous.  Instead of sulking in a corner of the room which had become my usual manner, I’ve taken to praying for the couple, thanking God for uniting them in marriage, and being honestly happy for them.  I’ve displayed award-worthy composure even as the bride-to-be is giggling over her lingerie presents and I’m faced with the fact that a woman half my age is about to enjoy pleasures I have yet to know. 

My mother has often told me you shouldn’t toot your own horn, but I must say, at the risk of sounding boastful, I’ve come a long way, baby, in the way I handle my singleness.  Sometimes, though, the desire for marriage blindsides me.  It seems to strike at the oddest moments.  One such time, while in a department store, I was filling out an application for a store credit card and started crying uncontrollably when I saw a section with the words “Spouse’s Name.”  Since it would have taken at least an hour to explain the crying to the confused store clerk, I ran out of the store leaving behind the incomplete application and several staring customers.  I don’t think I ever returned.  Then there was the time I was driving on the freeway after work and I saw a billboard of a cartoon Pepsi can, grinning and holding hands with a smiling cherry.  An advertisement for the new Cherry-flavored Pepsi, the caption on the billboard read, “Cherry and Pepsi – Better Together!”  Upon seeing this, I promptly exited the freeway, pulled over to the side of the road, and burst into tears.  It seemed everyone in the world had someone.  Even Cherry had Pepsi.  I longed for someone to hold my hand and smile lovingly at me.  In all these years why hadn’t that someone come along?  Why had God even bothered to make me a woman?  Why did He create me to yearn for a baby I may never hold or for a husband who may never hold me?  It was as if my entire existence was a joke.  Did God see me?  Did He care that I was still single?

At times, it can seem to singles that everyone in the world has someone.

In my distress, I ran to the church looking for comfort and answers, but as many single women can attest, this can feel like an exercise in futility.  The church seems unable to deal with the recent increase in prolonged singleness among its members.  The singles ministry is stricken with the naïve belief that concerns about lifelong celibacy, childlessness, and growing old alone can all be solved with a night of bowling.  The conciliatory singles sermon is usually preached to the congregation after making singles endure a 6-week series on the joys of sex in marriage.  It’s not that the church doesn’t care about our dilemma.  Church pastors, ministry leaders, evangelical writers, conference speakers, and other church members care very deeply about single women.  Despite all the good intentions, however, the church today has developed a knack for saying just the wrong thing to unmarried women like me.

Married People Say the Darndest Things

I love all my married brothers and sisters in Christ.  They are my fellow workers in the Kingdom of God and I thoroughly enjoy working with them to spread the message of the gospel to the lost, to share the love of Christ with the downtrodden, and to exalt our glorious heavenly Father.  My married brothers and sisters in Christ love me, too – and that’s a very important thing for me to remember, because their attempts to encourage me in my singleness can sometimes make me think otherwise.

Married Christians have two common characteristics.  The first is that they have absolutely no recollection of what it was like to be single.  The second is that they appear to be the hapless victims of a vast evangelical systematic indoctrination.  When I bring up the subject of my singleness, when I talk to them about how lonely I am and how much I want to be a wife and mother, they all, without exception, give me the same responses:

“Marriage won’t solve all your problems.”

“When you stop looking, God will send you someone special.”

“Jesus and Paul were single, too.”

“Singleness may be God’s best plan for your life.”

“Marriage won’t make you happy.”

“But singles have so much more time for church work.”

“God won’t let you get married until you’re totally content in your singleness.”

“Jeremiah was single.  Don’t you want to be like Jeremiah?”

“Jesus is all you need.  Just fall more in love with Jesus.”

It is amazing to me how often I hear these tired clichés from married Christians.  I can be having a normal conversation with my married friends, say discussing the Sunday morning sermon or the current news, and their replies are spontaneously delightful.  But the minute I bring up the subject of singleness, their eyes become unfocused and they mechanically recite the Singles Script – a list of glib one-liners that are neither encouraging nor helpful.  It’s as if they’ve been programmed to give those responses. 

One of the most irksome is, “God is keeping you single to make you a better Christian.”  It’s the belief that God is deliberately withholding marriage from you until you are holier, more spiritual, more thankful, more faithful, more grace-filled, more prayer-filled, more Scripture-filled, more Spirit-filled, kinder, gentler, sweeter, braver, and the opposite of whatever other character flaws you possess.  I first encountered this belief in my late twenties.  After I confided to a married friend my fears of still being single well into my 80s, she said with a self-assured smile,

“God is just working on you.  He’ll give you a husband once He fixes your weak spots.”

“What weak spots?” I asked.

She sighed heavily.  “Well you can be kind of negative….and you complain a lot.  God doesn’t like those qualities.”

A little taken aback by her encouragement, I said, “Well, nobody’s perfect.  You must have been a little worried that you might never get married before meeting Kevin.”

“Yes,” she admitted.  But she was kind enough to point out that she was never quite as bad as I was.  “God still has work to do on you.  You’re just not ready yet.”

Somewhat defensively, I mentioned a few of her unsavory qualities and lovingly shared with her that those faults didn’t stop her from getting married, irritating as they were.  At this, she reminded me of all the flaws I had confided to her over the years and added that I was selfish, childish, petty, unorganized, a spendthrift and I had neglected to give her back a CD she’d lent me three days earlier.  Our conversation became more heated as the minutes passed, ending with her yelling, “And you need to work on that temper of yours, too!”

Who wouldn’t love to believe that God has bestowed marriage and family upon them because they have reached some level of holiness or spiritual perfection?  I admire my married Christian friends and I can see the Spirit of God working in them, but I know that they are, like me, far from perfect.  And besides, if marriage was a direct result of holiness, how in the world did Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and Saddam Hussein ever get married?

The Kind and Clueless Pastor

If you want to know the fine distinctions between justification and sanctification, the pastor can give you all the details.  If you want someone to explain the concept of substitutionary atonement, the pastor is your man.  But when you’re a distraught single woman fearing a life of spinsterhood and childlessness and you go to the pastor for advice, you may be surprised to find your normally capable church leader cowering in his leather chair.  This is an area in which his extensive ministry training and multiple commentaries on the book of Romans don’t do him a bit of good.  He wants to comfort you.  He truly does.  He wants to understand your concerns, he wants to give you hope and support, and he really, really wants you to stop crying.  But often he’s not much help because, as a man, he approaches the matter of marriage and family from a completely different perspective.

Traditionally, the man is the initiator of marriage.  He sees the woman, asks her out, pursues an exclusive relationship with her, and ultimately proposes marriage.  It’s not that the woman has no role in this, but it is a much more indirect and subtle role than the man’s.  Additionally, her role is dependent on his.   In the pursuit of marriage, the man has the job of acting, the woman the job of responding.  The Scriptures reinforce this principle:  The man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife (Genesis 2:24); the man finds a wife and receives favor from the Lord (Proverbs 18:22).  The one who acts has more control than the one who responds.  For instance, if a man asks 39 different women to marry him and all 39 reject him, the 40th one may say, “yes”.  A woman, however, doesn’t have the option of asking even one man to marry her.  This is a reality that the pastor is not familiar with and may not fully understand.  He may think the woman sobbing in his office didn’t really want to get married or possibly didn’t try hard enough.   He has not experienced the frustration of waiting for a proposal that never comes.

The ordeal of going past childbearing years is also an experience foreign to the pastor.  Men don’t bear children and, therefore, don’t feel the overwhelming, unrelenting desire to have children that a woman typically has.  It’s not that a single woman’s unique pain doesn’t matter to pastors, not that they don’t care, they simply can’t relate.  The fear of never getting pregnant may not seem like much of a problem to someone who never has been, and never will become, pregnant. 

It’s not my intention to bash pastors.  They are very concerned about those in their charge and they deserve respect (double honor, as the Bible commands) for the important job they do.  But it’s worth noting how unprepared they can be at addressing the concerns and questions of the unexpectedly single woman. 

God Has the Answers!

Right now, you may be thinking, “Okay, lady.  Being single for decades when I thought I’d be married at 23 is very difficult and frustrating.  And, yes, it’s hard to find any meaningful encouragement or answers to my recurring questions.  I already knew that.  What’s your point?”

My point is that God has the answers.  After badgering my married friends, darkening my pastor’s office door too frequently, wearing out my welcome at the weekly prayer meeting, and weeping every time I heard the song Delta Dawn, I finally went to the only One who could address my concerns – the One True God.  Our Lord is exactly the way Sarah’s servant Hagar described Him.  He is “the God who sees me.”  (Genesis 16:13).  He sees our singleness, He is intimately aware of our concerns and fears, and He deeply cares for us.  He has answered our questions in His revealed will, the Bible, and those answers will give you the hope, peace, and encouragement you have been looking for.  It’s astounding how simple and obvious some of the answers were…it’s as if the Lord had been waiting for me to turn to Him all this time.

I am uniquely qualified to write this blog, though perhaps not for the reasons you suppose.  I’m no famous theologian.  I don’t have impressive credentials.  I have no seminary degree.  I’m not even married yet.  But I’m qualified because I have walked in your shoes, asked the same painful questions you’ve asked, and finally found God’s revealed answers.  The apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”  That is the purpose of this blog.

In future posts, we will discover God’s answers to these difficult questions and concerns:

·       Is singleness truly a gift bestowed by God on some, as many have taught?  Do I have this gift of singleness?  Is that the reason I’m not married?  And how can singleness be a gift if it is the last thing on earth that I want?

·       Has God in His sovereignty willed the recent increase in prolonged singleness among adults?  If He has, why has He done this, and, more important, why has He done this to me?  

·       Is Jesus really all I need, as so many married friends have told me?  Can Jesus fulfill all my desires, even those persistent, burning desires that I have to be a wife and mother?  Are my constant desires for marriage idolatry?  Should I change my perspective on singleness?  Should I pursue other worthy things and not worry about marriage and family?  Is that even possible?

·       Why is it so hard to get married these days?  It seemed so much easier for earlier generations.  Why are so many people like me still single in their 30s, 40s, and beyond?  Is this a normal occurrence?  Is it because God has willed it to happen?  Could there be other reasons?  Specifically, why has it been so hard for me to get married?

·       I desperately want an intimate relationship with a man.  I want sexual fulfillment, affection, physical closeness, and emotional vulnerability…things that God has reserved for marriage.  I need these things so much; the waiting is killing me.  At times, I feel I might go crazy.  If I’m not married, does that mean I must live without these things?  What’s so wrong with me enjoying sex now….especially since I may never marry?  Why does God reserve sex for marriage only? 

It is my hope that you will be strengthened by the knowledge that God understands our sadness, frustrations, and fears.  And He’s not the least bit afraid of these hard questions – questions that singles books, your friends and family, even your pastor won’t touch.

Copyright © 2011