Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Is Singleness Really a Gift? – Part 1

“I wish all men were as I am.  But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.”       1 Corinthians 7:7

Lifelong singleness and childlessness was never the plan that I had for my life.  It was a fate I feared in my twenties, and even now, years later, I don’t find myself wanting it any more than I did then.  As I look around me, I find that I’m not alone in my disappointment.  Many other Christian women are bemoaning the same dashed hopes of marriage and motherhood.   But if you think prolonged singleness is just a phenomenon in the church, you’re mistaken.

In America today, more women than ever over the age of 30 have never married.  Only 49% of all adult women are currently married, making unmarried women (those never-married, divorced, and widowed) the majority among adult women for the first time in U.S. history.  We don’t need statistics, however, to see that marriage is becoming more and more difficult to attain.  Most of us can just take a look at dear old Mom. 

In my mother’s day, almost all women who wished to marry did marry.  My mother married my dad less than six months after the two were introduced by an older couple at the church they were both attending.  Before Dad came along, Mom turned down three marriage proposals by three other men.  I have lost count how many times friends and acquaintances have told me how much I look and sound like my mom, yet our similarities end abruptly when it comes to our marriage opportunities.  To be sure, in my mom’s day and even before, there was the occasional old maid – the quirky woman getting up in years that lived alone, owned fifteen cats, and frightened the neighborhood children.  Today, however, the once uncommon old maid has become the norm.  Why is it that a mere 40 years ago marriage was a simple, easy, choice-among-many-choices decision for Mom yet for me today it seems as likely as getting struck by lightning?

Old Maid.  Fun as a card game.  Terrifying as a lifestyle. 

A large, ever-growing number of single woman are asking that same question and many evangelical pastors, church leaders, and Christian speakers and writers believe they have the answer.  These evangelicals are not at all concerned that nearly half our country’s population is single and don’t see the necessity of a blog like Single, Unexpectedly.  According to them, singleness, even in the unprecedented levels it has reached today, is simply not a problem.  They are certain it is God’s plan.  They feel that the answer to the concerns of frustrated single women is found in one verse of the Bible, First Corinthians 7:7, which reads:

I wish all men were as I am.  But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.

The popular interpretation of this verse, written by the unmarried apostle Paul to the Corinthian church, is that God assigns marriage and singleness as gifts.  Some people are assigned the gift of marriage by God and some people are assigned the gift of singleness.  It’s that simple.  According to this interpretation, there are millions of single Christian women in their 30s and 40s today because God has assigned them singleness and this singleness is a gift they should accept with gratefulness.  These evangelicals are certain the knowledge that singleness is a gift from God will sufficiently answer all the questions and concerns single women have, dry their tear-filled eyes, and eliminate any lingering desires they may have for marriage and motherhood.  The problem, they believe, is not singleness itself, but the way singleness is perceived.  If singleness were only touted as being a God-approved state, if it were only described by the church in the same positive terms that the apostle Paul used in the seventh chapter of First Corinthians, unmarried Christian women everywhere could joyfully accept their singleness and use it to glorify God.  Many Christian singles books are replete with this idea.  Here are examples from three different book excerpts:

We have each received a variety of gifts. First Corinthians 7:7 says that as a single woman, I have received the charisma of singleness. First Corinthians 12:4-10 lists other gifts that I may also receive. I may yet one day receive the gift of marriage....We are single today because God apportioned us this gift today. 1

If you are single today, the portion assigned to you for today is singleness.  It is God’s gift.  Singleness ought not to be viewed as a problem, nor marriage as a right.  God in His Wisdom and love grants either as a gift. 2

I am not single by accident.  I am not single because the “right man” has never asked me to marry him.  I am not single because I have made up my mind not to marry.  Rather, I am single because God has chosen for me the gift of singleness. 3

The Christian leaders, speakers, and writers who preach the gift-of-singleness doctrine as described in the excerpts above do it with the noblest and best of intentions.  They don’t want single women to be discouraged by a continual inability to marry and have children.  They want to encourage them to use their singleness for the glory of God and for the edification of the church.  These are all commendable, godly objectives.  It is true God gives various gifts to believers for the building up of the church into the likeness of Christ (1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12:4-8, Ephesians 4:7-13).  It is also true that the Bible does not speak of marriage as a right, nor does it declare that marriage is a command.  And as for the belief that First Corinthians 7:7 proclaims singleness and marriage to be gifts meted out by God at His discretion – this certainly sounds biblical, holy, and pious.  And yet…

Having been brought into a relationship with God through the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ, I have a strong desire to glorify God with every part of my life, including my singleness.  Yet, strangely, I have never, ever found the gift-of-singleness doctrine comforting or encouraging.  Quite the contrary: it rendered me heartbroken.  The thought that God had elected me to be single now (and possibly forever) and that presumably no amount of effort on my part or desperate petitions to the Lord could change my status until He decided to grant me the “gift of marriage” was crushing.   Did I just not have the proper perspective on singleness?  I definitely did not have a problem with anyone who chose to be single to give themselves wholly to the work of the Lord.  The apostle Paul was single and, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, hardily endorsed singleness because it afforded him undivided devotion to the Lord.  Many unmarried missionaries, like the humble and gracious Amy Carmichael, used their singleness to minister and evangelize, all in the name of the Lord. 

I must be honest........I really don't want this gift.

But even if Amy Carmichael rose from the grave and gave a speech saying that her life on earth was blissfully happy, completely satisfying, and outrageously fulfilling precisely because she never touched a man, it would have no effect on my desire for marriage.  I want to be a wife and mother.  I do not want to be single for life.  I don’t even want to want to be single for life.  I know that many have chosen singleness to glorify God.  I know that God approves of their choice and blesses their singleness.  I know that many singles have poured their lives out in admirable service and have spread the love and the knowledge of Christ all over the world.  Wonderful.  Bully for them.  But lifelong singleness is simply not for me.  It’s not that I don’t want to serve the Lord, but I do not want to do it as a lifelong celibate.  In fact, I cannot imagine deliberately choosing singleness. 

Is this because I’m too carnal and worldly?  Have I turned marriage into an idol?  Am I rebelling against the sovereign will of God?  Am I defying His plan for my life?  Am I choosing marriage over Jesus? 

Or is there something amiss with this gift-of-singleness teaching?  Does First Corinthians 7:7 truly teach that singleness is a spiritual gift that God assigns to certain individuals?  Has God really chosen singleness for me as a gift?

 Amy Carmichael definitely had "the gift".........but do I?

Look for future posts in this series titled “Do I Have the Gift of Singleness?”   What does God's Word have to say about our singleness today?  The answers may surprise you.

1  Carolyn McCulley, Did I Kiss Marriage Goodbye? (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2004), 29-30.

2  Elisabeth Elliot, Quest for Love (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Fleming H. Revell, 1996), 215.

3  Nancy Leigh DeMoss, Singled Out for Him (Buchanan, Mich.: Life Action Ministries, 1998), 9-10.


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