(This post is a slightly longer version of the blog I wrote for my church)
A Powerful Picture
If the past is any indicator, this weekend I will see a reoccurring genre of images on my social media feeds. And no, I am not talking about the pictures of flowers, chocolate, and smiling couples at nice restaurants. The exact details differ, but often these pictures depict a wine bottle accompanied by a solitary glass. Some also feature a catchy hash tag like #ValentinesDayDinner . The funny thing is, I don’t always see food in these pictures. An image really can speak volumes.
This day, though joyful for some, is a painful reminder of aloneness for many others. Singles Awareness Day provides a fitting acronym for many who long to spend the evening with someone special, but can’t.
What good can a blog post about singleness do on Valentine’s Day?
When I was asked to write about this for my church’s blog I resisted for two reasons. First, I fear that anything written about singleness to be published at this time has the distinct possibility of doing more harm than good. This can be an emotionally volatile time, and even well intentioned words can cause real pain when read at the wrong time. I also understand that simply being single does not make me an expert on the subject. While many singles have similar stories, it is impossible to describe the “single experience” with uniformity. Men and women experience singleness differently. Being single at twenty one is far different from being single at sixty. Some people choose to be single and others are single against their wishes. All of our divergent experiences of singleness have their own particular challenges, and the last thing any single adult wants to hear is another person claiming to know exactly how they feel.
That said, I have decided to venture into this minefield with the belief that some good can come from an honest discussion about what it means to be single today. I am certainly not a sage with great wisdom to share, but I am a fellow traveler who cares about other people also experiencing singleness. My goal here is to tell you a little bit about my own experience and share a few truths that have encouraged me in this journey.
Where I Stand
I have written on singleness before in a general sense, and I plan to write about it again, but perhaps this situation calls for a more personal reflection. This is the post I almost didn’t write because there is always a danger with this type of vulnerability. You don’t want to be misinterpreted, and you certainly don’t want to come across as desperate. But I share in the hope that something I write will resonate with those who read.
I never expected to be single at twenty eight. While singleness at this age is pretty typical in urban areas, I come from a place, Northern Michigan, where marriage in the early twenties is normal – and I expected to be married for years by this point. Most of my friends back home are married, and three of my younger siblings are also married. My birth family is very important to me, and I care about families a lot. I have long desired to be a husband and father.
Romantic relationships are all around me. Within the past two months there have been nine different engagements among my friends, (including two different girls I once went on dates with) and I am excited for all these couples. I can think of five girls I once pursued romantically who are now engaged or married to someone else.
I often vacillate between really enjoying my life and really wanting to be in a relationship, but the desire for marriage is almost always there for me. It isn’t typically haunting or overwhelming, but it is usually present. And if I wasn’t already thinking about it, there are plenty of reminders.
It’s Not Always Easy
It seems like everyone has something to say about singleness, and many of them seek to remedy the “problem”. Friends offer us well meaning encouragements to “put yourself out there”, even though many of us do all the time. We are even told to not “be so picky” – as if desiring mutual attraction, appropriate social function, and spiritual stability is really asking too much. During the holidays we have to endure interrogation by relatives who are concerned about our relationship status. After all, they all got married before twenty five, so we must be doing something wrong. On top of all that, at this time of year in particular we are bombarded by advertisers seeking to leverage emotional connections to sell their products. (Just a side note with this one: if you honestly think the jewelry store cares about you or the health of your relationship, think again. They will sell jewelry to a man buying for his mistress, and they are just as enthusiastic about your second engagement as they are your first – at least if you buy the ring from them)
Being single can be hard, and sometimes it is even harder in the church. Single adults are accustomed to hearing spiritual, but often trite, exhortations about how God has a plan. We are regularly fed sermons and illustrations that focus on marriage and family life. Those of us who are seeking a spouse often find dating within the church to be confusing. Making the transition from sister or brother in Christ to girlfriend or boyfriend (and sometimes back again) can be difficult.
In addition to these general church/singleness concerns, I deal with other specific challenges related to my vocation. Practically, being single while serving in the ministry limits your employment opportunities. Some churches and ministries are hesitant to hire older, single men. Worries about relating to the married population and suspicions about sexual orientation seem to be the most common concerns. While I tend to think any standard that would bar Jesus and the Apostle Paul from church leadership is wrong, the reality is that a lot of churches just don’t want an unmarried pastor.
And if you think dating within the church is awkward, try being on staff and dating girls at your church. Balancing spiritual care for all and personal affection for one is not the easiest thing to do, and you never want to be guilty of making any woman feel uncomfortable worshiping in your community because you express romantic interest in her.
What I Have Found Helpful:
At this point you know a little bit more about me. Perhaps some of you can also relate to these experiences. Now I would like to offer three principals I have learned to apply in the midst of my single experience.
1. Surround Yourself With Community
We often connect God’s words in Genesis 2:18 “It is not good that the man should be alone” (ESV) with romance. After all, soon after God said this He created Eve. But we must remember that God wasn’t just satisfying Adam’s romantic longings, He was also providing him someone to share life with. Adam’s need for human friendship was even greater than his need for sexual fulfillment. In our western context we tend to see romantic relationships as the primary avenue for deep personal connection, but this modern attitude is far from Christian. The marriage relationship is not the only relationship in which one can experience God’s design for community. God never designed us to live in isolation, and we must be careful to cultivate godly community in whatever stage of life we are in.
I am particularly blessed to be part of a church with a large group of unmarried adults. Many of these people I consider to be good friends, and we do a ton of stuff together. I also have a great Christian roommate, and we regularly have inspiring conversations about God and life. These relationships are some of my greatest blessings, and I don’t take them for granted.
Pursuing this type of community requires intentionality. We may be required to shift our priorities and make sacrifices to develop these relationships. Practically it often starts with small decisions like planning events with your friends – not because you are looking for romance, but because you need other people in your life. It may also mean choosing those you live with carefully, and having a roommate even if you would rather live alone. Living with an older couple or a family could also help build this type of community into your life.
2. Listen To The Right Voices
As we already discussed, there are no shortage of perspectives and opinions on singleness and relationships today. Many of them, dare I say most, are not worth listening to. We must take control over what messages about relationships we absorb. This will likely mean (politely) tuning out the over-curious relatives and learning to ignore the sappy television ads. We may need to stop reading the romance novels and constantly listening to mournful love tunes. We may even need to set aside the Christian dating and marriage books for a while.
So what voices should we listen to then? We can start by listening to those who are doing life right regardless of their relationship status. And we should develop friendships with those who care more about the person we are now than about the person we might someday date. If your friends make you feel like a lesser person for being single you may need to find new friends.
We can also read the words of those who have navigated the waters of singleness commendably. Many church fathers and monastics wrote extensively about their single experience, and their words are a vital part of our Christian heritage. There are also current authors who write powerfully about what it looks like to live a Godly and fulfilling single life. In particular I have found the writers at Spiritual Friendship to be profoundly encouraging in their attitudes about relationships. Though these authors often write from the perspective of those who experience same sex attraction their words about singleness are full of wisdom and encouragement even for those of us who do not share their specific situation.
3. Remember God’s Truth
I grew up in a church full of children, and every night at my home we listened to the Focus on the Family radio broadcast. It may not have been intentional, but the unavoidable impression was given was that good Christians all got married and had kids, preferably at a young age. The idea that living as a single person could be pleasing to God may have been given lip service but this wasn’t encouraged or recommended. In fact single adults were often looked at with sympathy and suspicion.
God, however has a lot to say about singleness and some of it may surprise you if grew up in a church like mine. Jesus and Paul affirm the single life by their words (Matthew 19:12, 1 Corinthians 7) and examples. Scripture also clearly teaches that human marriage is only for this earth. (Mark 12:25) For the Christian, the single state is the eternal state. Even the best, most beautiful, most God honoring marriage will not last into eternity.
It is also worth noting that Christianity stands out among other belief systems in the way it affirms the single life. This is specifically true when you compare Christianity to Judaism, Islam and Mormonism. As Barry Danylak says in his book Redeeming Singleness:
“While Christianity is similar to its Judeo-Christian siblings in its sexual ethics and value for family, it is notably different from its siblings in its affirmation of singleness as a gift and valued lifestyle within the life of the believing community.”p.17
Unfortunately, as we have already discussed, single adults may not feel affirmed in many churches today. Christians are not always good at living out our theology, and this is one of the areas where we have failed. But it is comforting to know that there will always be an important seat for singles at God’s table. Remembering the acceptance Christ showed to single adults should give us patience with those who don’t understand, and stoke in us a passion for making our church a welcoming place for those who are uncoupled.
If you are single, I hope something here has been encouraging to you, and I pray that this weekend will be different (and better) for you than it could have been otherwise. I plan to spend this weekend with friends and also attend a Valentine’s Day party. But I will certainly be glad when it’s over – at least for one reason. On Monday the candy goes on sale.