A. Boyd Miller IV
What does a Christian woman do if she never marries, despite legitimate aspirations for a husband? What if you have prayed and tried to marry, only to find the door providentially closed? How does the Christian bachelor, with his share of rejections, continue to rejoice in the Lord always? What if you once were married, but tragedy brought an unexpected divorce or widowhood? Now you find yourself alone (maybe with children). Does God really expect you to be content?
Some people do choose singleness, but many times singleness chooses you without your permission. Jesus reminds us that while some are eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom, many remain unmarried as a by-product of the fallen human condition (Matt. 19:12). Congenital disorders, unfaithful spouses, same-sex attraction problems, premature death, war, disease, paucity of like-minded believers, and “bad luck” all complicate and exacerbate the matter. Yet through, above, and against all the secondary causes of singleness, the sovereign hand of God’s providence remains for our good and his ultimate glory.
Yet how do redeemed singles, with faith in Christ, remain content under divine sovereignty, especially when the Scriptures rightly celebrate marriage and refer to it as honorable (Heb. 13:4)? God instituted marriage in the garden and declared it good (Gen. 2:18). Isaiah describes marriage as a picture of God’s grace and redemption (Isa. 62:4–5). Proverbs 18:22 declares that “he who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the .” The single woman attends a wedding and hears that marriage is a metaphor of that glorious union between Christ and his people (Eph. 5:31–32), yet then wonders where that picture leaves her. If marriage portrays consummated glory with Christ in heaven, then what does singleness depict? Hell?
The church’s response to such questions could be a series of sermons on contentment at the next singles’ retreat, to which the unmarried rightly drop their heads and think within themselves, “Oh no! Not again!” While contentment is an important Christian fruit, and discontentment is a spiritual malady that affects married and single people alike, the need for contentment is sometimes best addressed consequentially. Rare is the Christian who gains assurance of salvation simply by studying the topic of assurance. Likewise, few singles will find soul-rest merely by burrowing into the subject of contentment. The discontented single may actually become more frustrated. The law’s demand for contentment can produce a rebellious response from us, for discontentment is at work within us (Rom. 7:8, 23). “Wretched (single) that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:24-25).
Therefore, when applying the tenth commandment, the church should direct her unmarried members to Christ, who willingly became single for us, that we (the church) might become married to him. In the fullness of time, the eternal Son of God became a single man, born under the commandment not to covet, and fulfilled that law with a life of sinless contentment. Now those who believe in him have a pardon for their discontentment and the graces necessary to endure suffering for him. When tempted to kick at the goads of providence or murmur against the unmarried condition, the gospel gives us many soothing glances at our beloved Jesus. Our Lord Jesus Christ provides us with delight in his person, work, fellowship, and promises. He assures us that, as the single believer increasingly treasures him, she also finds moments of peace in accordance with the law.
If the Father has not withheld his only Son, will he not also give me all things for this single life and eternity (Rom. 8:32)? Indeed, he does. The Lord graciously gives the single Christian his Spirit to comfort, console, and sanctify (Rom. 8:15–17). The Lord also provides us with his church as our new family in Christ, where we find many mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters in the household of God (Matt. 12:50).
Thus, singles would do well to immerse themselves deeply within the life of the local congregation. Hospitality, visitation, fellowship, prayer meetings, and Lord’s Day worship provide wonderful avenues of blessing to those who find themselves without a spouse. I cannot imagine the single life without the loving fellowship of my local congregation. But, unwisely, some singles abstain from the full fellowship of God’s people and limit their blessings by remaining peripheral in the body-life of the congregation.
Yet even with the help of the church and the regular means of grace, the process of obtaining sanctified contentment in Jesus alone can still be, for the single Christian, a terrible battle of the soul, with setbacks, fits, sighs, tears, discouragements, and even rebellious outbursts—if only privately. Still, by God’s grace and through persevering effort, the child of God can find rest in the will of her heavenly Father. The apostle Paul, who himself was single, provides encouragement for the unmarried by noting that he himself had to learn the secret of contentment (Phil. 4:11). Paul was not born content, nor was his discontentment eradicated at conversion. Contentment is not a lesson easily or superficially mastered; rather, it is comparable to the battle of a strong-willed child weaned late from his mother (Ps. 131:2). Also, Paul did not write about contentment from a Mediterranean spa, but rather from a dark, damp, rat-infested Roman prison, with fresh wounds from corporal punishment.
How then did Paul learn this contentment? Like his Lord, he learned contentment through the things he suffered (Heb. 5:8). The apostle admits to the Corinthians that while under Satanic attack, he prayed three times for deliverance. Yet the Lord denied his requests and told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:8–9). Singleness may be one of those afflictions tailored to you, but his grace is perfected in your weakness. The single Christian who suffers weakness through unrealized marital aspirations and the disappointments of unanswered prayer may yet find grace at work through the unhappiness.
I have a few final admonitions for my fellow singles:
We need perspective as singles. In view of my sins, who am I to complain about my sufferings (Lam. 3:39)? We must take care to have no other gods before us. Marriage is not a god to be served, but a vehicle to glorify him. Singleness strengthens my empathy for others. Knowing loneliness, rejection, and alienation, we serve others who are deeply affected by a broken world. We look upon the homebound, the divorced, and the fatherless with compassion, as those who often view life ourselves from the outside.
Count it a privilege to serve as a single. Singleness can be a great blessing. Biblical and ecclesiastical history is replete with famous and eminently useful singles. Our minds are not divided between pleasing a spouse and pleasing the Lord (1 Cor. 7:32–34). During a season of trial for the church, Paul actually recommended that singles and widows not marry (1 Cor. 7:26–27). We do not know what a day may bring (Prov. 27:1). Distress and persecution by perverse and wicked men may visit the church in our nation and that may make singles an even greater asset to God’s people.
Finally, as a single man or woman, do not say in your heart, “I am a dry tree.” Rather, remember the Lord’s promise that those who love him by keeping his sabbaths and covenant shall receive an eternal inheritance from the Lord that is better than children (Isa. 56:3–5). The present sufferings of singleness are not to be compared with the glory to come (Rom. 8:18). Our inheritance is eternal in the heavens as we travel to a perfect world where there is no marrying or giving in marriage (Matt. 22:30).
The author is the pastor of Covenant OPC in LaGrange, Ga. New Horizons, January 2016.