19 Dec 2019
Regardless of our marital status, all of us are sexual beings. The Bible has more to say about single sexuality than “Just say no!” Despite its challenges, the Bible suggests singleness is a “gift” for some (see 1 Corinthians 7:7–9). While many singles struggle without a spouse and long for marriage, others may not resonate with the feelings of loneliness discussed below. Many single Christians live joyful, content, and especially fruitful lives for the kingdom, specifically because of their unmarried state. I know the challenge of being an older single. After twelve years of marriage, I suddenly lost my first wife to complications from breast cancer. I was thirty-nine years old (with twin eight-year-old girls). After her death, I was single for almost three years. Though my personal experience with singleness is limited, I write with a keen awareness of the difficulties singles face. Every person’s story is different, but I hope that what follows is helpful to single readers as they seek to faithfully embrace their sexuality.
The Bible has more to say about single sexuality than “Just say no!”
Single and Waiting (on the Lord)
The creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 suggests that waiting on the Lord was built into the world from the beginning. After Adam’s creation, God declares, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (v. 18), then proceeds to create the animal kingdom ahead of Eve. But we see the eventual blessing as Adam meets Eve and erupts in poetic exultation. However, waiting is more pronounced and painful after Genesis 3. There is a reason why there are multiple complaints of “How long, oh Lord?” in the Psalms. Now life is filled with disappointments and unfulfilled dreams. As Proverbs 13:12 expresses, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” Many of us are living with the deep heartache of hope deferred.
If this is your experience, I want to share a perspective on waiting. It is an active place. I used to think waiting meant trying to be patient, like waiting for the bus with nothing to do. Not so. Waiting on the Lord is active. In fact, it is a place of warfare. Years ago, reading through the Psalms, I was struck by the conclusion of Psalm 27, “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (v. 14). Do you hear what David is saying? Waiting on the Lord is a terrifying place to be.
It is not for the faint of heart, but requires incredible, Spirit-given strength. Courage is not the absence of fear; it is moving forward despite your terror. This is true for any waiting God calls us to, but especially the waiting that stretches on for years and decades. If you are wrestling with your singleness, I encourage you to see this as a battle that takes courage, and a place where God wants to meet you.
In the Old Testament, marriage is assumed to be the normative mode of life, with childbearing as a critical component. This is partly due to the creation mandate “to be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28), as well as the building anticipation that a deliverer would come from Abraham’s seed, a son of David, to free Israel from her oppressors. But the focus on physical generation begins to shift as Isaiah prophesies about this coming deliverer.
Isaiah 53 is one of the most wondrous passages pointing to Jesus’s sacrificial death. Written hundreds of years before his earthly life, it describes his crucifixion and even the manner of his burial. After describing Jesus’s death and the reality that he was “cut off” from his generation and the land of the living (v. 8), the passage turns and makes a shocking pronouncement: “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand” (v. 10). There is an anticipation of life after death—resurrection!—and the production of offspring. Although Jesus lived his perfect human life as a single man and was literally childless, Scripture regards Jesus’s single life as having produced a family in the community of his followers. This was a striking claim in the ancient world, in which married life and the production of physical children was the assumed norm.
Isaiah went on to describe the drastic change that is coming with the advent of the Messiah:
Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say,
“The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and let not the eunuch say,
“Behold, I am a dry tree.”
For thus says the LORD:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” (Isaiah 56:3–5, ESV)
This was an incredible statement! The Old Testament law declared that no one with damaged or removed genitalia could even enter God’s assembly (Deuteronomy 23:1). Such people were second-class citizens, at least as far as worship in the temple was concerned. In this context, Isaiah’s pronouncement was a strong affirmation that God saw those who, through their physical and relational status, were excluded from a central aspect of Israel’s religious life. Isaiah envisioned a new day when, in a transformation of the creation mandate, physical generation is no longer the name of the game. Laying out this history highlights the extraordinary redirection that results from Jesus establishing the kingdom of God. Isaiah thus offers singles something “better than sons and daughters”—an everlasting legacy based solely on the work of God through his people who bring about a spiritual generation that carries into the world to come.
Approaching the New Testament, this change is even more pronounced. When questioned about the practice of divorce, Jesus brought his listeners back to God’s original intent at creation. But he concluded his teaching about the permanence of marriage with a profound declaration: “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it” (Matthew 19:11–12, ESV).
Instead of insisting on the importance of marriage and the production of children to fulfill the creation mandate, Jesus proclaimed some people will choose singleness for the sake of God’s kingdom. This is the first time in the Bible that singleness is depicted as a desirable and even exalted state! As we’ll see below, this is because of the heightened focus on the kingdom that corresponds with the coming of Christ.
Paul took Jesus’s exhortation further, encouraging the believers at Corinth to seriously consider lifelong singleness because spouses created divided loyalties, wanting to serve the kingdom but also wanting to bless their spouses (1 Corinthians 7:6–9, 25–40). The call to serve in Jesus’s kingdom reorients the focus and is prioritized above the creational calling to “be fruitful and multiply”. To this end, he encouraged lifelong celibacy, although he freely acknowledged that it is not sinful to marry. (Also see Paul’s clear refutation in 1 Timothy 4:1-3 of those who forbid marriage.)
I suspect this 1 Corinthians 7 passage is rarely preached in American churches. The suburban church typically portrays marriage and family as the normative ideal. The goal of a singles ministry is to get everyone paired off and participating in the rest of the life of the church: coming to potlucks with casseroles (instead of a bag of Doritos), producing offspring to populate the children’s ministry, and so on. For many churches, children are still their best church-growth strategy. Although churches acknowledge that in Christ things are different than the Old Testament, they still operate as though what matters most is getting married and having children. I preached at a church in Philadelphia and met a single guy in his thirties. As we chatted, he shared about his move to the city. Even though he continued to work in the distant suburbs, he opted for a long commute, changing churches and moving into the city because in that context he is not the bizarre anomaly he’d been in his former, suburban church. There has been little affirmation—at least in many American suburban churches—of the New Testament’s high calling of singleness.
Working through the Pain
I realize for many unmarried Christians this vision may not offer much comfort. I once preached on Malachi 2:10–16. In this section, the ancient tribe of Judah is rebuked for divorcing their wives from among their own people in order to marry foreign women who worship idols. Malachi raged, “Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth” (v. 15, emphasis added). As I discussed this passage, I shared some of this vision of singleness—that singles have opportunities to nurture spiritually-generated “offspring.” Some single folks in the church were encouraged by this, but others felt it wasn’t enough. Many singles—and not only women—want actual physical offspring. They want to be parents and hold their own children. What can we say to such a widespread and understandable human desire? With such unique disappointments in the lives of many single people, along with God’s special design of marriage at the creation, we may be forced to conclude that singleness, with its challenges, is one aspect of the brokenness of the world due to the Fall. If this is an accurate assessment, it means singleness may always come with an ache on some level. For some it is a “gift,” and presumably, they have “self-control” and do not “burn with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:7, 9). But the fact is that many face singleness for a host of reasons while not experiencing a sense of having been designed for it.
If God is truly God, there is no getting around that he is behind everything in existence. His sovereignty is behind your singleness. If you’re not happy about it and you’re not talking to him, you need to start. Because, I guarantee you this—whether you are speaking directly about this issue or not, it affects your relationship with him. Perhaps you are ignoring him in your pain, shutting him out (sadly, this is one of my personal tactics). And, of course, if you’re shutting him out, you’re turning somewhere else to medicate your pain. Maybe you’re losing yourself by searching Christian Mingle, Netflix binging, or trying to assuage your desire with porn or romance novels. Or perhaps it’s alcohol, work, exercise, or food. Or a combination—eating ice cream doused in chocolate liqueur, while doing work on your laptop, sitting in front of Netflix on your smart TV, while occasionally swiping through potential dates on your tablet . . . twenty-first-century idolatry can certainly multitask.
Embracing Promises Amid Pain
While the truth of God’s sovereignty sometimes sounds cold and distant, I urge you to see it in light of his amazingly particular love for you. David, considering God’s close attention to the details of his life, declared, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it” (Psalm 139:6). He went on to describe God’s thoughts toward him as innumerable as the grains of sand. God’s thoughts toward you are vast and particular and fine-tuned to your unique life. We must think of his sovereignty over the details of our lives in the context of this particular love.
Consider the amazing declaration of Isaiah: “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. . . You are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you. . . everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made’” (Isaiah 43:1, 4, 7,). Not only did God create and form you to be a unique image bearer, but he calls you by name as his very own. Because you are incredibly precious and loved, his eyes are on you and he wants to honor you. The ultimate Bridegroom does not leave you alone; he gives you his name. And, finally, did you catch why he created you? For his glory! Alongside these incredible statements, the New Testament teaches that Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14, emphasis added). Do you hear the bridegroom language? He wants to possess you as his very own, and that’s why Jesus came—to win his bride.
If you are single, I long for you to hear these words as deeply true, rather than spiritual platitudes. Jesus wants to meet you in your pain, disappointment, and unsatisfied desires, and give you comfort—this is a profound spiritual reality. Jesus promised, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (John 14:18). He knows our deep need for him, and he longs to be intimately united to us.
Despite its challenges, I want to encourage you that singleness has a place of honor in the kingdom of God.
Despite its challenges, I want to encourage you that singleness has a place of honor in the kingdom of God. According to the Bible, you are in a position to do far more for the kingdom than those who are married. But there is something else incredibly important: your life, lived well, is a revolutionary challenge to the principalities and powers of this dark world as your obedience educates the spiritual forces of the manifold wisdom of God (see Ephesians 3:10; 6:12). Our culture is seduced by sexuality and daily sells us the lie that a life without sex is not worth living. Your commitment to live chastely as a single Christian proclaims to a watching world that there is another King, whose own willingness to embrace suffering disarmed the lies of the enemy (see Colossians 2:15). You testify to the truth that sex is not necessary to have a rich, powerful life. It is an ongoing challenge to grow in learning that God’s “steadfast love is better than life” (Psalm 63:3), but far from something to be pitied, your life is a countercultural battle cry that the world (and the church!) needs to see!
Editor’s Note: This blog is adapted from David White’s new book, God, You, & Sex: A Profound Mystery, which is available now. When you buy God, You, & Sex from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.
09 Oct 2019
One of the loneliest seasons of my life was when I was a college student living in a little apartment in Philadelphia. In the midst of a near-constant crowd, I was deeply hurting but no one knew or would’ve had the capacity to help. Being surrounded by people all the time while feeling “unknown” made everything worse.
Now, despite the ever-present opportunity to connect through social media, loneliness seems to be a growing epidemic. Loneliness is an excruciating experience because, as image-bearers, we are designed for relationship with one another, reflecting our relational, triune God.
This is underscored in the creation account in Genesis 2. After the repeated refrain throughout Genesis 1, in which we hear that “God saw that it was good,” the Creator now looks at his handiwork and makes a jarring assessment, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (v. 18, emphasis added). God’s solution to Adam’s aloneness was Eve.
This may be encouraging if you’re married, but where does this leave singles? Not to mention those languishing in difficult marriages. Some say there is no lonelier place than a bad marriage!
Although marriage and child-rearing are the Old Testament norm for humanity, a dramatic shift occurs in the New Testament. When Jesus is questioned about the practice of divorce, he brings his listeners back to God’s original intent at creation. But he concludes his teaching about the permanence of marriage with a profound declaration: “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it” (Matthew 19:11–12).
Instead of insisting on the importance of marriage and children to fulfill the creation mandate, Jesus proclaims that some will choose singleness for the sake of God’s kingdom. This is the first time in the Bible that singleness is depicted as a desirable and even exalted state!
Paul takes Jesus’s exhortation further, encouraging believers at Corinth to seriously consider lifelong singleness. What’s the reason? Because spouses are divided in their loyalties, wanting to serve the kingdom but also wanting to bless their spouse (1 Corinthians 7:6–9, 25–40). Do you see what he’s saying? In view of the radical reorienting call to serve in Jesus’s kingdom, Scripture understands that mission is so worthy, it ought to be prioritized over the creational calling to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Paul’s concern is for believers to maintain “undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:35). To this end, he encourages lifelong celibacy, although he freely acknowledges that it is not sinful to marry.
How can Jesus and Paul pull off this switcheroo against the previously prescribed remedy for humanity’s loneliness? What has changed? The Church.
Singleness is a viable, perhaps even preferable, option because now there is a new-creation antidote for humanity’s loneliness. Or to put it another way, we now have access to the true community God intended for his people.
In 1 Corinthians 12:12–31, Paul describes the church as a body with all the parts inextricably linked together. Note the “one-flesh” language of Genesis as Paul explains our interconnectedness as Christians! The social and communal reality of the church’s common life in Christ is the reason Paul encourages singleness for the sake of Christ’s kingdom. God’s people do not have to marry because there should be no lonely Christian in the Body of Christ. The church is called to be salt and light, reflecting genuine community in our increasingly fractured society.
There should be no lonely Christian in the Body of Christ.
And this includes married people. The fact they are “one flesh” should not be understood to mean that any couple is self-sufficient apart from the church. As one flesh, married people are corporately a single body part and still need the rest of Christ’s body. Marriage is an exclusive, covenantal relationship, but it can’t be your only relationship. As it is not good for any individual to be alone, it is also not healthy for any specific relationship to be alone, in isolation from the wider network of relationships God has designed to shape our lives in the body of Christ.
So, what steps need to be taken to enfold singles into their rightful place in the body? Ephesians 4:15–16 tells us that the body only reaches maturity as “each part is working properly.” This means if singles are not fully engaged and exercising their gifts in the church, the maturity of the entire body is significantly hindered.
If singles are not fully engaged and exercising their gifts in the church, the maturity of the entire body is significantly hindered.
Where does your own church need to grow in this area? There are two equally important aspects to consider: first, making sure there are no lonely people in the body. Second, don’t see singles as only lonely, needy people. They are gifted, equipped, and necessary for the health of your church! Married people need singles as much as singles need married people.
If you are lonely, whether single or struggling in a hard marriage, even if the church is loving well, know there are places where only Jesus can meet you. Know that the ultimate Bridegroom does not leave you alone; he gives you his name. He wants to possess you as his very own. That’s why Jesus came—to win his bride. The Spirit within you means Jesus is as close as he could possibly be—far closer than a spouse. He shares every thought and experiences every emotion. This is partly why the Spirit’s intercession for us is referred to as “groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). Especially as a single, it is crucial to embrace the truth of his presence with you and find ways to open yourself to this reality.
Editor’s Note: This blog is adapted from David White’s new book, God, You, & Sex: A Profound Mystery, which is available now. When you buy God, You, & Sex from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry
27 Sep 2019
One of the lies that culture tells singles is that a life without sexual expression is a tragedy. Single Christian, your life is not a tragedy without sexual expression. You testify that there is something greater to live for than the fleeting bodily pleasures of life in this world.
The content of this video is based on David White’s new book, God, You, & Sex: A Profound Mystery, which is available now. When you buy God, You, & Sex from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.
26 Sep 2019
We live in a culture of the immediate and find waiting for anything insufferable. The advertising industry exacerbates the situation, ironically stoking perpetual dissatisfaction by promising each new product will really satisfy you. Add to this the cultural obsession with sexual fulfillment, coupled with the prominent lie that a life without sex is meaningless, and there is tremendous pressure to live for sexual satisfaction.
Living with unfulfilled sexual desires is seen as the height of folly. Not just folly; some even argue it’s actually harmful. As a result, many Christians wrestle with the Bible’s sexual mores in the face of discontented sexual experience.
The first thing that needs to be said is living with unsatisfied desires is hard! Christians are mocked because the world is shocked that we don’t “join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign” us (1 Peter 4:4). Because the profound mystery of sexuality points to Christ’s love for us as his bride (Ephesians 5:32), there is an experience of transcendence even in its sinful expression. This means the absence of sexual fulfillment is a real and painful loss.
The absence of sexual fulfillment is a real and painful loss.
I know something of this challenge. After 12 years of marriage, I lost my first wife suddenly after complications from her breast cancer treatment. Diagnosis to death in five weeks. Although we were acclimating to a dire prognosis, her sudden death was like the shock of a car accident. As you can imagine, there was an intense experience followed by an eruption of emotions. When the dust settled, what remained was the challenge of being single again—including living with unsatisfied sexual desires.
The hard truth is Jesus described self-denial as a hallmark of following him (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). There are two aspects of sexual self-denial I want you to consider: 1) unsatisfied desires are a place where God meets his people; 2) unsatisfied desires whet our appetite for the world to come.
Unsatisfied Desires Are a Place Where God Meets His People
Paul describes God as “the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3), but here’s the rub: you only learn this through suffering. Paul discovered this after being “so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” (v. 8). God wants to meet you in your places of pain and unsatisfied desire. “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). When we are pushed beyond our ability to endure, God shows up to strengthen and restore. That’s why Paul later recounts that Jesus wanted him to learn, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9).
Know this: Jesus gets your experience. His grace is sufficient because he suffered through temptation and unsatisfied desires victoriously. Are you drawing near to the Lover of your soul in your pain and disappointment? Does sexual discontent drive you into the arms of Jesus, or other lovers? According to Ephesians 5:32, sex and marriage are signposts pointing to our relationship with Jesus. This means even our unsatisfied longings are an invitation to know his burning desire for us, his deep longing for the coming wedding supper that launches God’s new creation in fullness (see Revelation 19:6-9).
Unsatisfied Desires Whet Our Appetite for the World to Come
Further, unsatisfied desires are such a critical aspect of Christian discipleship because, in some way, God asks all of us, “Will you wait on me? Will you trust me?” We can live with unsatisfied desires now because the Day is coming when we’ll know pleasure forevermore at his right hand. The blessings of this life should lead to the worship of the Giver of all good gifts. In this transitory world, where all joys and pleasures are fleeting, they should lead us to long for the solidity and permanence of the world to come. The kingdom that cannot be shaken. The momentary delights of this life point forward to the eternal world to come.
Unsatisfied desires are such a critical aspect of Christian discipleship because, in some way, God asks all of us, “Will you wait on me? Will you trust me?”
Whatever your sexual experience, all of us need to see Jesus more clearly at the signpost of sex. Are the blessings you experience deepening your love for the Giver of all good gifts? Does your pleasure in marriage lead to praise and worship of God? Can you give thanks in your singleness and allow your longings and sexual desires to direct you to his heart for you? Can you hold fast to his promises to make your life fruitful for his kingdom even in the absence of marriage or biological children? The call of the Christian is to go deeper with him through the pilgrimage of life in preparation for the world—and relationship!—to come. Learning even now the truth we’ll know fully when we see him face to face, that his “steadfast love is better than life” (Psalm 63:3).
Editor’s Note: This blog is adapted from David White’s new book, God, You, & Sex: A Profound Mystery, which is available now. When you buy God, You, & Sex from Harvest USA, 100% of your purchase will benefit our ministry.
02 Aug 2012
You know, there’s a lot at stake as we live this one, short, earthly life. Speaking at 2012 The Gospel Coalition Women’s conference, John Piper shared thoughts from Isaiah 6. John spoke about the power of gazing upon the Lord, to know our glorious Jesus as the one who is exalted and holy, yet who has come near to us so that we can have a taste of his majesty. Too often, we have a view of God which is way, way too small! To miss him is to spend the fleeting life we have been given on what is fleeting and passing away.
Seventy-five years from now, none of us will regret the decisions we made which flowed from love for Jesus. If we have gotten a taste of the majesty of God, then we will delight to give glory to God in who we are and what we do. We will not regret the ‘inconvenient’ and painful obedience that faith demands; the courageous confrontation and turning away from our favorite idols; the letting go of even good gifts that may not be what God has for us; living in singleness, which leaves a dull and painful ache at times; being faithful to our spouse in a tough marriage; or persevering in love toward wayward and rebellious children.
Many women I’ve gotten the privilege to journey with have become tripped up in their calling to be “glory givers” because their view of God was too small. A small view of God makes other people become big—bigger than they should be in our lives. We become hungry for them, and we feast at the banquet table of emotional cravings. That’s certainly been true in my own life. A growing worship and awe of our Lord Jesus leads me away from people idolatry to truly loving others, rather than using, being controlled by, or obsessing over them.
The Holy One upon the throne, so beautifully described in Isaiah 6, isn’t meant to drive you to a fearful retreat from a Holy God! No, this throne is owned by the Grace Giver, who is glorious and who welcomes needy, robbers of glory like you and me! We come to this throne “receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16, ESV). Read Isaiah 6 in the context of the mercy of Jesus Christ for you, and prayerfully examine your life to see how mercy shapes your life for him.
Romans 12:1-2 says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
How is God calling you to be a living sacrifice for his glory? For his purposes? How is he inviting you to love him by letting go of an unholy relationship that is eclipsing the Lord’s presence in your life? How is he inviting you to fix your gaze on him rather than trying to figure out how obedience will “work” in your favor? How is he calling you to courageously confess to a friend regarding your online addictions?